Florida Trails Offer Horseback Riders a Different Way to Experience Nature
by TERESA SCHIFFER
photos provided by FLORIDA DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE AND CONSUMER SERVICES
While Florida may be renowned for its big-name tourist attractions and resorts, there is still quite a bit of natural beauty to draw attention. We have some truly breathtaking forest areas, and one of the best ways to take in the wonderful scenery is by horseback. Many of our state forests and natural areas have horse trails that allow you to enjoy the splendor of nature while riding your horse. It is definitely an experience worth having!
If you are truly dedicated to exploring Florida’s natural wonders by horseback, there is an excellent reward program to keep you motivated – the Florida Trailtrotter Program. This program allows you to keep track of your equine expeditions and submit documentation in order to receive collectible patches.
The program works like this: You ride a total of eight trails in a minimum of four state forests, selecting from a list of approved sites. At each trailhead, you obtain one pre-paid postal survey card. After you complete your ride, fill out the card and mail it in. The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, through the Forest Management Bureau, will send you a sticker for each trail. Affix the sticker on your Trailtrotter’s Log, and keep collecting until you’ve reached eight trails. Once you’ve ridden eight trails, send in your Trailtrotter’s Log to receive a nice patch to attach to a shirt, vest, or jacket. You’ll also receive a certificate commemorating your achievement signed by Agriculture Commissioner Nicole “Nikki” Fried.
After you’ve completed eight trails, keep going! There is more to this program than one patch and one certificate. If you ride eight more trails, for a total of 16, you will achieve the Trailsaddler level. When you mail in your Trailtrotter’s Log, you’ll receive another patch and certificate. Do eight more trails, for a total of 24, to attain the rank of Trailwrangler. Send in your Log and you’ll receive the third and final patch, with a certificate. Once you’ve attained all three patches, you will find that they fit together to form one interlocking pattern. And therein lies the challenge – complete all three levels to earn the completed design!
Recreation Specialist Martha “Marti” Miller gave us some more details on the Trailtrotter Program. First of all, all riders must have proof of a negative Coggins test. Riders under the age of 16 riding on public lands are required to wear a helmet. Miller describes some of the attractions of Florida’s horse riding trails: “We have two great camping spots in equestrian areas,” she says. “Two large ones. That would be Blackwater River State Forest in North Florida, and Withlacoochee State Forest in Central Florida.”
North Florida is a little bit cooler, so there is some difference in the native vegetation and wildlife from the rest of Florida. It is predominantly longleaf pine. Central Florida, at Withlacoochee, has a more of a variety of flora. There are longleaf pines, but there are also a lot more slash pine and oak hammocks in that area. Both parks have more than 10 miles of beautiful trails plus nice camping areas with stalls. So you can get a campsite and rent a stall for your horse to thoroughly immerse yourself in nature.
Lake Talquin State Park
Of course, there are many wonderful trails that don’t have camping available, too. Lake Talquin State Park in North Florida near Tallahassee is a particularly scenic area. Wooded bluffs and a pristine lake make it a very enjoyable landscape. There are 10 miles of trails in two different loops within that park. It is located at the very base of the Appalachian Mountains, so there is just a tiny bit of elevation to the area.
“It’s not huge,” Miller describes. “For somebody from up north, they would call it ‘small hills,’ but here in Florida we call it ‘great elevation.’ ”
Lake Talquin State Park features unique ravines, and a lot of trail riding right next to the lake. It is quite pretty.
Goethe State Forest
Goethe State Forest is another outstanding forest to check out. There is not a state forest camping area there, but there is a private equestrian barn with camping and horse stalls right outside of Goethe. Goethe State Forest is primarily located in southeastern Levy County, near the Gulf of Mexico. The area is dominated by longleaf pine flatwoods and swamps, though there are also some mesic flatwoods, dome swamp, sandhill, and basin swamp habitats.
Even in parks that do not specifically lay out horse trails, you still may be able to ride. If there is a multi-use trail, you can check to verify that horse riding is allowed on it. This also applies to most service roads in state forests. The important thing is to pay attention. Many of our state forests are also wildlife management areas. Hunting is allowed in some areas, so you may want to check on that as well, so you can plan your preferred level of exposure to such things.
If you’re interested in checking out some of Florida’s delightful horse trails, Miller encourages you to find online groups that frequently ride the trails you’re planning to visit. Facebook groups can be a valuable resource for tips regarding the trails.
However you wind up on the trails, though, you’re sure to have a memorable experience.