Swimming with Horses in Tampa Bay
By: Michelle Bearden
It’s a sight you don’t expect to see off the causeway in St. Petersburg leading to the Sunshine Skyway Bridge.
Far from the shoreline, in the shimmering waters of Tampa Bay, you can see a half-dozen people – on the backs of swimming horses. Boaters, paddle boarders, kayakers, swimmers, yes. But horseback riders?
“When I first learned about it, I knew I had to do it,” said Anna Scott of Miami. On a recent trip to St. Petersburg, she and several family members booked the one-hour excursion with Cypress Breeze Farm in Pinellas Park that takes riders along the North Skyway Park beach and into Tampa Bay to a sandbar and the Gulf of Mexico waters.
It did not disappoint.
“I can check this off the bucket list. Another fantasy fulfilled,” Scott said. “And it was even better than I had dreamed about. There’s something almost magical about being so close to nature on one of these beautiful creatures.”
She liked it so much that she’s already planning a second trip back for another swim.
“It’s easy to get addicted to this,” Scott said.
Only three area outlets are approved to offer this equine adventure in the Gulf, making it even that more special for visitors and residents alike.
Monika Bruehsel, co-owner of Cypress Breeze Farm, isn’t surprised horse swimming has become such a big draw at her stables. The farm already had a brisk business with scenic trail rides in Pinellas Park Equestrian Center and romantic carriage rides in downtown St. Petersburg; she added this option after getting city approval.
“For beginners, it’s actually the perfect way to get comfortable on a horse,” she said. “You’ve got a lot more control in the water than on the ground. It really is a relaxing introduction.”
She speaks from experience. When it comes to bonafide cowgirls, Monika Bruehsel fits the bill.
She grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where she got plenty of opportunities to indulge her love of horses. That included a few stints working as a wrangler for Western dude ranches.
But she also loves the water. In 2007, Bruehsel headed to Florida to study biology at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. She first aspired to be a veterinarian or open a pet store, but when she got a job at the carriage company, it eventually evolved into her current role with the operation.
Now she’s living her dream, meshing her lifelong love of riding and training horses with her affection for the Gulf of Mexico.
“I feel really lucky, to be able to enjoy this on a regular basis,” she said.
But it takes a lot of training and commitment to transform a ground horse into one that can safely swim in Tampa Bay with a rider. For starters, Bruehsel’s stable is home to horses surrendered by their owners or facing possible death after getting auctioned off.
She targets draft horses – a working group that includes Belgians, Clydesdales, Percherons and Shires. These large, sturdy breeds are best for carriage driving and for swimming.
“They float easier and they don’t sink in the mud,” Bruehsel said. “Plus, they generally are good-natured.”
Because these are rescued or abandoned horses, Bruehsel puts in considerable hours of training to ensure they are both rider-ready and seaworthy. While horses can adapt to swimming, the sport doesn’t always come naturally. They have to be exposed to elements like waves, the distant roar of a boat engine, the occasional kite boarder or even flying fish that leap out of the water.
On the plus side, she said swimming is great low-impact exercise for the steeds. It helps with rehabbing tired or sore joints, while the saltwater helps heal wounds. To keep the water out of their noses, they make a sound that Bruehsel calls “a Jurassic Park snort.”
So there’s the inevitable question: What about sharks?
“It’s not a subject I like to bring up. It’s not something to worry about, so why get the riders nervous?” she said with a laugh. Marine life reacts to the vibrations when the horses walk on the sea bottom, generally sending them scattering. Occasionally riders will pass a school of stingrays or dolphins, which causes more thrills than fears.
Another question: What to wear? In the warmer months, bathing suits or shorts and tank tops are the common attire. Since Bruehsel operates year round, depending on weather and water conditions, she suggests using common sense.
Riders must be at least age 12, know how to swim and be reasonably fit. Bruehsel prefers to keep groups at six guests or less, so it’s best to book in advance. Once a reservation is secured, she arranges a time to meet off the causeway. She transports the horses, which are equipped with Western-style synthetic saddles that are both durable and waterproof.
Abby Burton, of Cleveland, decided to surprise her boyfriend, Antonio Harper, with the horse-swimming experience on a recent visit to Florida. She told him they were going to the beach to snorkel.
When they arrived, he saw the horses standing outside the Cypress Breeze Farm trailer. He didn’t see any snorkeling equipment.
“I kept thinking, ‘No way.’ I had never been on a horse, much less swam with one,” said Harper, a Cleveland State University film student. And as much as Burton loved horses, it had always been from afar. She had never ridden before, either.
But any trepidation they had was quickly erased. With Bruehsel as their guide and their steeds calm and steady, they felt comfortable from the start.
“It was even better than I thought it would be,” Burton said. “I thought I’d feel very insecure once we left the sandbar. But there’s something about being on such a big horse that makes you feel safe."
Best of all were the incomparable views of the surrounding shoreline and landmark structures in the distance, accompanied by the sounds of seabirds, the lapping water, schools of fish darting by and the occasional horse snort.
Harper said this gift is one he won’t ever forget.
“It will be hard to describe it once we get back home,” he said. “Definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Rates run $150 for a horse swim and $50 per person (ages 6 and up) for a trail ride. Carriage rides start at $80 with groups up to six.
For more information on how to book a horse swim or a trail ride, call (727) 365-2194 or (727) 460-0891. Or go online to book a reservation at CypressBreezeFarm.com.
Other venues for horse swimming and beach riding
If you’re in Manatee County on the south side of the bridge, go to Beachhorses.com or call (941) 907-7272, or contact C Ponies at cponies10@gmail or call (941) 773-5196. Both are based in Bradenton.
Photos by Julie Fletcher for VISIT FLORIDA