Discover Florida Horse Country, Trails & Equestrian Centers
By Julie Landry Laviolette
When you dream of Florida, first thoughts often go to lovely beaches and swaying palm trees. But the Sunshine State has lots more to see -- and much of it can be explored by horseback.
From the gentle slopes of secluded forests to swampy wetlands to picturesque river banks teeming with wildlife there are horse trails to help you explore. Truth is, Florida horse country has equestrian activities in every corner.
If you love horses but being a spectator is more your thing, stop by a thoroughbred training farm international polo match or a championship rodeo. If you’d like someone else to take the reins, explore historic Florida through a horse-drawn carriage ride. And if you want a taste of quintessential Florida with an equine flair, saddle up and enjoy one of the lovely beaches with swaying palms trees by horseback. Now that’s something you can’t do every day.
Search for Florida horseback riding sites in natural areas on The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s site or check out this trail riding directory put together by the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
Here are some highlights of experiencing Florida horse country:
NORTHWEST FLORIDA'S HORSES
If the pageantry and grace of old-world style eventing (one of the fastest-growing equestrian pursuits in the U.S.) tickles your fancy, check out the Red Hills International Horse Trials. Held every March on the gentle slopes of Tallahassee’s Elinor Klapp-Phipps Park, the Trials attract about 20,000 spectators and some of the world’s most accomplished riders and horses in Florida. Bring your blankets and chairs and settle in to view a day of increasingly difficult challenges, including cross-country and stadium jumping and dressage, a series of precise movements executed by horse and rider.
For some down-home fun, the Escambia County Equestrian Center in the Pensacola Bay area has a lineup of family-friendly events nearly every weekend. The 151-acre site has a covered arena for horse shows and English and Western-riding style events, but this center is no one-trick pony. There are also dog shows, rodeos, music festivals, and cross-country races to add to the fun. Most horse shows are free to see and dog shows are typically just a few bucks per person.
Get back to nature and meander unpaved rustic horseback riding trails through cypress swamps pine flatwoods and hardwood hammocks in Levy County’s state and national wildlife areas. Enjoy a tranquil oasis of nature preserves natural springs and bountiful wildlife habitats. Explore Inglis Island Trails (advance notice required), Devil’s Hammock Wildlife Management Area and the Nature Coast State Trail, which retraces the historic route of the Atlantic Coastline Railroad and is a National Recreation Trail. Goethe State Forest has three trailheads and is known for its rare bird and animal species. See horse-friendly sites in Dixie, Gilchrist and Levy counties at Florida’s Pure Water Wilderness.
Harken to the days of Florida’s pioneers and explore an 1870s log cabin and old settlers’ cemetery at family-owned McCulley Farms. Wander along 20 miles of secluded trails and enjoy horse camping in a rustic fully-equipped cabin. Every March and October, the Withlacoochee Trail Ride offers a weekend of group camping and rides along crystal clear natural springs, cavernous sinkholes, pristine river banks, and 5,000 acres of state and private canopied lanes.
NORTHEAST FLORIDA'S HORSES
Clip-clop back in time in a relaxing horse-drawn carriage tour of the nation’s oldest city from Country Carriages. Hear stories about the new world’s 1565 Spanish settlement as you meander through narrow red brick-lined streets past historic sites. Take a romantic carriage ride for two or gather family and friends for a group ride for up to 12. If you want to take the reins yourself, Country Carriages also offers a one-hour guided horseback ride along the shore of St. Augustine’s Vilano Beach.
It’s a bucket list item for some – riding horseback down the beach enjoying a gentle tropical breeze amid crashing waves. Guided tours on Amelia Island’s white sand beaches offered by Kelly Seahorse Ranch, Happy Trails Walking Horses, and Amelia Horseback Riding can accommodate riders of all skill levels, and some accept children as young as six. There are many opportunitities for horseback riding in Amelia Island. If you have a taste for something more historic, enjoy a leisurely horse-drawn carriage ride in the Victorian seaport of downtown Fernandina Beach, home to pirates and scallywags in the 1800s. Learn more at Amelia Island Carriages or the Old Towne Carriage Company.
CENTRAL FLORIDA'S HORSES
Known as the "Horse Capital of the World," Ocala/Marion County is rich with international horse shows, championship racehorses, and public riding trails. Home to more than 600 thoroughbred breeding farms covering 70,000 acres, Ocala prides itself on its equine pedigree and its status as the heart of Florida horse country. Enjoy the thrill of world-class competition (45 national champions, six Kentucky Derby winners and 20 Breeders’ Cup champions have come out of Ocala) or hit the trails on horseback in the Ocala National Forest, along the Florida Greenway or in the 500-acre Florida Horse Park. Or ,experience the charm of classic Florida countryside with a Horse Country Carriage Co. ride through carefully-tended horse farms and pastures.
Explore the swampy side of Florida along 12 miles of equestrian trails in Little Manatee River State Park, where you can see anglers along the 40 miles of river bank before it empties into Tampa Bay. (The river has been designated an Outstanding Florida Water and is part of the interestingly-named Cockroach Bay Aquatic Preserve.) Stay overnight in one of four equestrian campsites (which feature two stalls each) and stop by Camp Bayou, a 160-acre nature preserve and educational center in the heart of the park.
Adventurous? Throw on your swimsuit and try standing barefoot atop a slippery, wiggly horse as it wanders into the waters of Palma Sola Bay. Called HorseSurfing, it’s offered by Great World Adventures and is available for kids (ages three and older) and adults under 150 pounds. If that’s too much excitement, try a horseback ride on the beach. You can stay in the sand or wade in the bay with these Florida horses for a “swim” while your landlubber friends catch some rays and watch from the public beach.
Giddyup over to Westgate River Ranch, a genuine dude ranch in the heart of Florida’s cattle country. Set on 1,700 lush acres, the ranch is surrounded by some 400,000 acres of protected wetlands. Saddle up for a guided trail ride through unspoiled wilderness or, if you’re experienced, go it alone on an extended ride. For $5 plus tax little cowpokes can get a pony ride in the ranch’s petting zoo. The ranch offers cowboy-themed and luxury accommodations from glamping (glamorous camping) to cabins and RV sites. While you’re there, check out the longest-running Saturday night championship rodeo in the U.S.
St. Lucie County
Scenic eco-tours of the beach by horseback are held weekends year-round at Frederick Douglass Memorial Park on South Hutchinson Island in Fort Pierce by Tours on Horseback of Fort Pierce. The hour-long guided tours meander along the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, where riders can sometimes spot dolphins, manatees, sea turtles, and abundant birdlife. Riders of all experience levels are welcome and a short lesson is provided to all. If you’re not into the beach, wooded trail rides also are offered at Paleo Hammock Preserve.
SOUTH FLORIDA'S HORSES
Palm Beach County
For a glimpse of high fashion, clinking champagne glasses, and a rousing match of high-goal polo, head to the International Polo Club Palm Beach, home to the largest field in the U.S. and some of the most prestigious polo tournaments in the world. The season, which begins in January and extends through spring, brings in enthusiasts who love to see and be seen as much as they adore the sport. Do it high-style with champagne brunch in the pavilion starting at $100, grab a seat in the grandstands, or come comfy and hang out with the field-side tailgaters with tickets starting at $10. Wellington’s international equestrian community also features 57 miles of horse trails.
Fort Lauderdale/Miami area
Who knew glitzy South Florida had a streak of the old west? Truth is, in these parts there are plenty of horse farms with riding lessons trail rides and summer riding camps for kids. Take a break from the South Beach scene and saddle up at American Horse Trails, Bar-B-Ranch or White Star Farms for a tranquil trail ride with a tropical flair. If you’re a cowboy or cowgirl at heart, check out the Davie Pro Rodeo in the quaint western-themed town of Davie.