Reading & Riding: How The Black Stallion is Teaching Ocala Youth 

Ayla Spry with Ax Rabdan El Shamal, an Arabian Stallion at the Black Stallion Challenge Cup, held Jan. 30 at the World Equestrian Center to promote and celebrate the Black Stallion Reading Project Initiative

By April Bilodeau 
Photos © Andrew Ryback Photography

Many people have that one book, event, or memory from their childhood that ends up sending them down the path they chose to take in life. The Ocala Horse Alliance is hoping local students will look back on reading The Black Stallion as that moment for them. 

The Black Stallion Reading Project, an initiative of The Ocala Horse Alliance, has been quietly building since before the pandemic, and in January, they made a splash with a major event in Ocala. On January 30, more than 600 spectators gathered at The World Equestrian Center in Ocala to witness The Black Stallion Challenge Cup, an evening to bring the Marion County community together and celebrate the impact of the equine industry in the area. 

The challenge stems from The Black Stallion Reading Project, a five-year partnership program of the Ocala Horse Alliance and the Marion County Public School system. Each year, approximately 3,500 fourth grade students read The Black Stallion across all 31 elementary schools in the county. Each school has a ‘farm partner’ in the area to assist in sponsoring the books. 

“First and foremost, it’s a reading program,” Ellie Trueman, President of the Ocala Horse Alliance, tells The Plaid Horse. 

But the secondary goal of the program is to open kids’ eyes to all of the career opportunities in the equine industry, right in their backyards. 

The competition was made up of a mix of non-equestrians and casual riders, ranging from the Superintendent of the school system to the Sheriff. Each individual was assigned to an established trainer and from there, they learned to ride. 

Connecting Kids with Horses 

The evening started with Billy Woods, Marion County Sheriff, and Pat Parelli, Founder of Parelli Natural Horsemanship and Trainer for the project, who spoke to the audience about the importance of connecting kids with horses. Following this, each competitor took to a round of “musical poles,” an exercise where riders rode at the walk and had to properly pace themselves over pole placement. 

The winner of the competition was Nancy Thrower, Vice Chair of the Marion County School Board, aboard Karolina Wignall’s Money Penny, a liver chestnut mare with a past career in cutting and polo. 

“She’s just a pro,” Thrower says of her partner for the competition, who says that if it wasn’t for horses, she wouldn’t have the career that she has now. 

Thrower previously taught lessons and enjoyed connecting with people through horses, which inspired her to go to Lake Erie College. After moving to Ocala in 1991, she began working for Don Stewart, owner of Don Stewart Show Stables. 

“My years working for Don were some of the best of my life,” says Thrower. “You never know where life is going to take you, but animals and children have been the common denominator for me.”

During the competition, riders, trainers and more were encouraged to meet with students and families who came to watch the event to educate them on their careers. 

“We want these kids to be thinking that even though they’re only ten years old now, where do they want to be?” says Trueman. “They can be a farrier, a braider, a vet, a barn manager and they don’t have to leave this area.”

In fact, over 650 farms populate Marion County so the opportunities are everywhere. 

Horse Capital of the World 

“The horse industry is a multi-billion dollar industry in Ocala,” says Mayor Kent Guinn, the Mayor of Ocala, who also competed in the competition. “It’s brought a lot of people to the area.”

“I tell people I’m the Mayor of the Horse Capital of the World—Ocala, Florida,” says Guinn with a laugh. “The people are quality people, we love the equine industry.”

Guinn trained with Grand Prix rider Aaron Vale for the competition, riding a 19-year-old horse named Tony. 

“I practiced better than I performed,” says Guinn, who finished in the middle of the pack. 

Despite the migration of so many horse enthusiasts to the area, the amount of locals involved in the industry remains relatively low. 

“I continue to be amazed at how many people in Marion County haven’t experienced the magic of horses,” says Thrower. “There are so many life lessons to be learned from horses. I encourage everyone to even just go watch. It’s free!”

The Future of The Project—and The Industry

The Black Stallion Reading Project is continuing to work to bring more awareness to the opportunities the equine industry has for the children of the community. 

Currently, they are working on developing a Horse Education Day, where all of the fourth graders of Marion County will take a trip to the World Equestrian Center to learn even more about careers in the equine industry. 

The program is currently fundraising for the event, with a goal of $18,000. 

“The horse is a universal icon,” says Trueman, who explains that the program uses the horse as a motivating tool to encourage education and development of the students. 

“These are our children, this is our community, and this is the future of the horse industry in Marion County,” says Trueman. 

For more information on how you can be a part of the project and make a difference in the lives of students in the Ocala area, contact the Ocala Horse Alliance at

The Black Stallion Challenge Cup Coaches

  • • Grand Prix rider Aaron Vale
  • • Arabian trainer John Rannenberg
  • • Hunter/jumper trainer Don Stewart
  • • Hall of Fame jockey Jacinto Vasquez
  • • Gold Medal Paralympian Lauren Barwick
  • • Natural Horseman icon Pat Parelli
  • • Silver Olympic Medalist eventer Karen O’Connor
  • • Barrier-breaking jockey Abby Fuller
  • • Celebrity Judge: actor, director, and author Lisa Niemi Swayze

*This story was originally published in the March 2023 issue of The Plaid Horse. Click here to read it now and subscribe for issues delivered straight to your door!