Not far from city gridlock, local ranches offer woods, lakes and trails where riders on horseback can enjoy horsepower.
By AMY ELLIS
Published August 26, 2004
[Times photos: Carrie Pratt]
Channing Ligas, 14, kisses her 6-year-old Morgan, HVK Diamond Bold, before a training session at Davis Stables.
Michelle Murphy, 16, practices with AFF Forgot My Sock, an 8-year-old Morgan, at Davis Stables in Tarpon Springs.
Just beyond the suburbs and shopping malls off the Veterans Expressway in Tampa lies a horse lover's paradise - wooded trails, spring-fed creeks and a shimmering lake where hawks and eagles soar and the occasional bobcat or raccoon ambles past.
This idyllic spot is home to Granny, Ho Ho, Sundance and Hoss, a young stallion named Sea Biscuit born March 20 and an albino named Frosty.
In all, about 40 horses - Arabian, Appaloosa, quarter horse, paint and Belgian draft (a distant relative to the Clydesdale) - make their home at In the Breeze Ranch, along with a pig named Babe, a mule named Junior and a half-dozen Australian shepherds.
The ranch is one of a handful of places in Tampa Bay where riders of all ages and experience levels can abandon the SUV, saddle up and ride through wooded trails and open pastures.
In Pasco, J.B. Starkey's Flatwoods Adventures offers similar excursions on a 2,900-acre working cattle ranch.
In Tarpon Springs, Davis Stables trains more serious riders in grooming, tacking and showmanship. Many more stables around the Tampa Bay area offer lessons, but most don't rent horses for casual rides.
Janice Hickey, camp coordinator at In the Breeze, said the ranch offers families an outdoor experience like no other. "This is just one of those magical places," she said. "You have to see it to believe it."
Before heading to the "Horse Depot," new riders are encouraged to watch a short video on the basic rules of the trail. Children must wear helmets; no alcoholic beverages are allowed and, most important, no screaming, yelling or loud, sharp noises that might spook the animals.
On the way to the stables, the ranch offers a spectacle of farm life: chickens and pigs run free, herding dogs with nothing to herd lounge in the sun and assorted cows and goats stand about, chewing grass, only mildly interested in the riders filing past.
Each of the horses at In the Breeze was born and raised on the ranch, run by Linda Fowler and her brother, David Owens. Familiar with every twist and turn of the trail, the animals hardly need any coaxing to follow it, though they may stop to chew on some tall grass or hesitate at a downed tree limb or muddy spot.
The trail crosses Rocky Creek, which can get so high that riders must lift their feet to avoid getting wet, and passes a small lake the guides affectionately call "Breezy Lake." The horses are trained to follow one another, as well as respond to voice commands from the guides; some will even bow or give kisses in return for treats.
Heidi and Ho Ho, both Belgians weighing more than 2,000 pounds, are large but gentle, requested by regulars because their wide girth makes for a softer, more comfortable ride.
Tatiana and Murphy are a mother and daughter that prefer to ride together. Granny, Chocolate and Ally comprise the so-called "bridge club," whining and carrying on in their stalls whenever they are separated. Velvet is the elegant black mare with a long, flowing mane.
Visitors to the ranch range from school kids to seniors. A couple in their 70s recently came to learn to ride because they wanted to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary by riding horses on the beach in Costa Rica.
In addition to guided trail rides, In the Breeze offers moonlight and sunset rides, hayrides, pony rides, a children's camp and "lil' dude" parties for birthdays and other special events.
Every weekend in October the ranch holds haunted hayrides and horse rides during its Haunted Horse-A-Ween. In December, there is a Lighted Cowboy Christmas.
At Starkey's Flatwoods Adventures in Pasco, riders get an inside peek at a working cattle ranch that borders the southern prong of the Anclote River.
Originally more than 16,000 acres, the Starkey family land is now a 12,000-acre wilderness park, with nearly 3,000 acres remaining as a working cattle ranch. Horse trails meander through hundreds of acres of cypress swamp, sand pine and flatwoods that have been untouched since logging roads were cleared in the late 1800s.
The two-hour ride is narrated, with stories about the history of the land, the "Cracker" cowboys and the native species of plants and animals found on the ranch. White-tailed deer, fox squirrels and gopher tortoises are common sightings. Several flocks of Osceola turkeys make their home at the ranch, as well as herons, egrets, osprey and sand hill crane.
The ranch offers specialty tours that feature birding, native plants, wildlife photography and landscape painting. Ranch staffers will also customize tours for children based on a particular area of study or Scouting requirement.
Moonlight weekends begin in October and include horse rides, hayrides, a barbecue and bonfire. A Starkey specialty is the two-hour rambling ecotour on a converted school bus "range buggy" that focuses on the ecology and history of area.
Beyond a one-time trail ride experience, some riders want to learn the proper form and balance, said Rick Davis of Davis Stables in Tarpon Springs. Davis provides instruction in three kinds of riding - western, hunt seat and saddle seat. His four-day summer camp teaches kids to groom and care for horses, as well as understand the different breeds, equipment used and parts of a horse.
"We're geared toward the person who is serious about riding and riding well," he said. "A lot of our students are people who did the trail ride and wanted more."
In the Breeze Horseback Riding Ranch & Children's Camp
Trail rides, pony rides, hayrides, boarding and lessons
Trail ride: $25 for the first hour; $20 each additional hour