St. Lucie County in Florida has a long history with horses. Fort Pierce, the county seat, is still the final stop of the Florida Cracker Trail--a 120-mile route that was traditionally used to move cattle horses across the Sunshine State.
Every year in the first full week of February, dozens of riders set out on horseback from Bradenton, riding east 15-20 miles a day, until they reach the seaside town of Fort Pierce to commemorate Cracker Cowboys and preserve Florida's horse and cattle heritage.
But you don’t have to wait until the end of the Cracker Trail Ride to see horses in Fort Pierce. Every Saturday and Sunday, just a few miles south of the city limits, you can find as many as a dozen horses strolling down a secluded section of the county’s 21 miles of sandy beaches.
For the past 18 years, Alan and Colleen Hayes, owners of Tours on Horseback, have been partnering with the county to offer this unique equestrian experience.
The couple’s maiden ride was in the early 1990s with the five-member board of county commissioners and several key county staff members, “and they all loved it.”
“Rarely will you find an area that allows horses on the beach,” explains Colleen, who grew up riding horses on the three-mile stretch of beach known as Fredrick Douglass Memorial Park.
“We are very fortunate that St. Lucie County has kept this area as a pristine beach and not allowed overdevelopment.”
For decades the county has allowed equestrian enthusiasts to bring their horses to the beach park to ride. Hayes grew up riding her horse along the water’s edge and decided it would make the perfect tourist attraction.
“We have people that will drive four hours to come here and ride for an hour on the beach,” says Colleen.
“We also have people that will call and ask if we have any reservations open for their vacation 10 to 12 months out and say ‘If you’re not available, I’m going to change my vacation.’”
Katelyn Wilson of West Palm Beach spent a Saturday morning riding one of the Hayes’ horses down the beach. The 12-year-old and her mother, along with her mother’s four friends, are all avid riders, but they made the hour-long drive to experience something different.
“It’s a lot different being able to ride on the beach,” says Wilson. “That’s why we came up here.”
The Hayeses own more than a dozen quarter horses and trailer them from their ranch in the western part of the county to the beach. They typically ride with a group of six to 10 riders with two guides. Groups get a quick lesson on steering their steeds, and then they set off for the three-mile ride.
One of the biggest benefits to providing these unique tours, says Colleen, is meeting new people and seeing their expressions in experiencing the unique opportunity to ride an 800-pound animal down the beach as the saltwater breezes blow through their hair.
The couple has hosted birthday parties, family reunions, and even romantic engagement trips, where men have dismounted their mare and on bended knee proposed. Visitors of various ages and riding expertise have come from throughout the United States and abroad to ride horses on the beach.
“We meet a lot of European travelers. It’s very popular with people from Germany,” adds Colleen.
What It Takes
A number of details go into making sure a local government and a private tour operator have a successful partnership. In addition to providing riders with the right equipment, the company must also make sure it has the proper amount of liability insurance.
The most important aspect about providing horseback riding, whether it’s on the beach or at a nature preserve, is making sure riders have the right amenities, such as adequate parking for horse trailers and vehicles, potable water, hitching posts, and restrooms.
County Tourism Coordinator Charlotte Lombard, who oversees the program on the county’s end, adds that the location needs to be large and isolated enough where beachgoers and horseback riders can co-exist.
“It is also a bonus if the beach has more than one access path so you can designate one of them for horses. This way, beachgoers don’t have to share a path with the horses because not everybody is a horse person,” explains Lombard.
One major concern county officials have in allowing horses on the beach is making sure the native habitat and wildlife are protected. St. Lucie County is one of the most popular nesting grounds for threatened and endangered sea turtles along Florida’s east coast.
To ensure the program is structured to prevent any disturbance, county officials work closely with the state and federal environmental agencies when establishing policies and procedures.
Additionally, informative signage that includes the program’s rules and regulations are posted at all access points and in the staging area.
Horseback riding on the beach isn’t limited to reserving a $40 ride with the Hayeses. Anyone owning a horse can purchase a permit through the county tourism office and gallop their steed down the coastline.
The county currently has 35 individual active permits, with a majority of these from people outside of the county. Lombard is working to launch an advertising/marketing campaign geared toward equestrian communities to increase the number of permit holders throughout the state.
“We hope to partner with hotels and boarding houses to create a package for visitors with their horses,” adds Lombard.
The cost of an annual permit for riding on the beach is $50 for county residents and $200 for non-county residents, which allows for four riders per month (one Saturday, one Sunday, and two weekdays). Permit holders are required to call 48 hours in advance to reserve a riding time so the county can better manage how many horses are on the beach at one time.
An added benefit of having permitted horseback riders on the beach, explains Lombard, is they can “serve as watch dogs.”
“Riding a horse on the beach is a very unique and special experience for horse owners. It is also usually a 'once-in-a-lifetime' and memorable experience for many visitors to the area,” says Lombard.
“Any major environmental infractions or breaking of the rules and regulations could potentially threaten or worse, eliminate the program. Therefore, reporting any abuse or misconduct by permit holders or non-permit holders is encouraged.”
Scared Of The Waves
Yet, just because one can lead a horse to the ocean, it doesn’t mean the horse will walk into the water.
“One of the biggest things we find is that most horses don’t like the water, or they are scared of the waves,” says Colleen. “We spend quite a bit of time getting our horses used to the ocean.”
St. Lucie County is conveniently located on Florida’s east coast between West Palm Beach and Orlando. Equestrian enthusiasts find a variety of horseback riding experiences there, from rustic routes similar to the “Old Florida Cracker Trail” to trails along sandy, coastal ridges with saltwater breezes.
In the past year, the county’s Environmental Resources Department has taken steps to improve the trails and add equestrian amenities to several of its nature preserves. In addition to expanding parking areas to accommodate trailers and making trails wider, the staff has added water and wash stations and paddocks to make several preserves more equine-friendly.
Erick Gill is the public information officer for St. Lucie County, Fla. While he wholeheartedly enjoys riding horseback on the beach, he prefers to be at the beach with his dive gear and a lobster tickle stick.
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To find out more about St. Lucie County’s horseback riding on the beach program, contact the tourism office at (772) 462-1539. To make a reservation, visit www.beachtoursonhorseback.com , or call (772) 468-0101.