Horseback Riding in Martin County, Fla.
By: Michelle Bearden
Martin County is a horse lover’s paradise, full of winding, state-protected nature trails in Southeast Florida’s authentic cowboy country.
But don’t just take our word for it; talk to Kathy McLaughlin, owner of Palm City’s Greenridge Stables. This is her territory -- where she grew up, raised 10 kids with her husband and now runs a successful equine business. She offers a range of services, including horse boarding, riding instruction, fox hunting and scenic trail rides.
“One of the state’s best-kept secrets,” she said of the plethora of local equestrian trail getaways. “Maybe they’re all not perfectly groomed. But I can guarantee you they are peaceful and take you through a part of Florida most people never experience. It’s a shame they aren’t used enough.”
McLaughlin is trying to change that.
If you’re hankering for a guided horse ride – either Western or English saddle -- in Martin County, Greenridge Stables is the go-to place to saddle up. McLaughlin or one of her five guides is available seven days a week for riding adventures at any one of five state or county parks. One ride, in nearby Hawk’s Hammock, is just a stone’s throw from the stables; others require McLaughlin to transport the steeds via trailer and meet clients at the site.
The cost is the same for off-site adventures -- $100 – whether it’s one person or a party of 10. (The nearby park, which doesn’t require transportation, is $25 an hour.) If there’s a group, she sets the ride’s pace for the least-experienced rider. If all the riders are competent and confident, expect to walk, trot and canter through some of the state’s most glorious back country, which can be reached only by foot or by horse.
She’s not into setting time limits.
“If it’s a beautiful day, and it usually is, we go however long we feel like it,” she said. “Time on a horse is time well spent. I want people to come away with a great memory and happy memories.”
She’s often asked if there’s an age limit when it comes to riding. Absolutely not, McLaughlin said.
“I ride with ladies well into their 70s, even 80s,” she said. “This is one sport that you can just keep improving on as you get older. As long as you’re physically able, you can enjoy a ride on a horse.”
We joined a guided tour of the Allapattah Flats in the northwestern tip of the county. This state Wildlife Management Area anchors nearly 21,000 acres of marshes and slash pine flatwoods, giving refuge in a protected habitat to rare birds and animals, white-tailed deer, wild turkeys and hogs.
Allapattah comes from the Seminole Indian word for alligator, and yes, McLaughlin has seen plenty in the trail’s bordering marshes and controlled waterways. But they pay little attention to the horses and riders, other than opening their sleepy eyes to observe the intruders as they pass by.
“We call this the Costa Rica adventure,” said Tammy Lenit, who boards Beamer, her Tennessee Walker, at Greenridge Stables, and frequently joins McLaughlin’s nature excursions. Indeed, once riders enter the shady woods, they’ll ride along an oak-canopied trail bordered by rows of pecan trees, low-lying coffee plants and massive ferns.
“This is old-time Florida at its best,” Lenit said. “It’s so far removed from beaches and theme parks, yet this is what the state once looked like.”
Another plus: It’s always 10 degrees cooler in the Flats and there’s an inexplicable absence of bugs --usually a nuisance for summertime riders, but not here. And for moonlight rides, there’s no better place for stargazing. In this wilderness area, technology seems like light years away.
McLaughlin may be the only trail boss in Florida who encourages her customers to do some reading before they join one of her rides. She highly recommends “A Land Remembered” by the late Patrick Smith, a best-selling novel set in pioneer Florida that covers over a century of state history from 1858 to 1968.
“It should be required of anyone who wants to understand where we came from,” she said. “We still have the cattle ranches right here in Martin County, we still have some of that unspoiled land the settlers discovered when they arrived. And the best way to see it is the way they did – on the back of a horse.”
There’s still a little bit of that pioneer in McLaughlin. She doesn’t cotton to social media; she doesn’t even have a computer. To book a ride, call for a reservation. She may not answer up right away, but she always gets back to you.
These days, she said she’s living the dream. A former insurance agent, she quit that profession to be an at-home mom for several years. She opened the stables to help support her own horse habit, and business just keeps growing.
“It’s hard to explain the horse bug. It’s something in your blood, something you’re born with,” she said. “This isn’t a job to me. It’s a passion. I couldn’t imagine a better life.”
When you go…
5992 SW Markel St., Palm City, Fla., 34990
(772) 288-7234 at (772) 288-7234. Be patient if you have to leave a message; McLaughlin is mucking stalls or out on a horse.
Photos by Peter W. Cross for VISIT FLORIDA