NEW PORT RICHEY — Tucked away on 17 lushly wooded acres along a narrow passage of the Pithlachascotee River sits a farm so enchanting it might double as the setting for a children's book.
Imagine a swimming hole so deep and clear it looks like you could stand on the dock and touch a toe to the sandy bottom. Walk a little closer to the barn and you'll see a sweet, energetic pig named Tinkerbell and her friend, Ragtime, a copper-colored Shetland pony so adept at kicking a soccer ball he might have once performed in a circus.
There's a tin-roofed little girl's playhouse on stilts overlooking a creek where wild lilies bloom and a bridge built from old truck beds that allows the adventuresome to cross the river on foot.
But everyone will tell you that the spirit of Rockin' Horse Farm is all about the horses: Tennessee Walkers and Paints and Welsh ponies and quarter horses, a herd of gentle creatures seasoned for long trail rides through the Florida woods that buffer the property.
You can ride here for nearly an hour without seeing the same thing twice and without ever being bored by the palmettos and cypress, oaks, magnolia and palm trees. When the weather's good, it's possible to cross the river on horseback, a pleasure so unique and simple that if you've ever experienced it you've probably never forgotten how it feels.
Owner Amy Baird, 41, knows she's discovered a gem.
Pasco County might be subdivision mecca, but it still harbors places like Rockin' Horse Farm.
You just have to look hard to find them, she says.
"We have uplands, wetlands and lots of shade, too," Baird says of the property bordered by a backdrop of semitropical wilderness as far as the eye can see. "It's really a unique piece of land with lots of trees. Not just a bare patch of property with paddocks."
Baird, who grew up in Rockaway, N.J., knew this is what she always wanted.
"As a kid, I was always an animal person who loved stray cats, dogs, rabbits — but we didn't have much space," she recalls. "And horseback riding lessons were out of the question."
Baird spent her childhood visiting relatives in the Tampa Bay area. She grew to love Florida so much that she enrolled at St. Petersburg College and eventually ended up working at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where she learned about dolphins, whales and manatees.
"I was the one who taught Sunset Sam to paint," she recalls with a laugh.
Baird is taken with the mysteries of animal behavior. She is intrigued by dolphin pods and horse herds and how creatures socialize. She considers herself an entrepreneur and somewhat of a nonconformist. She's taught yoga, renovated houses and become a passionate advocate of homeschooling.
Not surprisingly, she homeschools her daughters, Megan Brusselback, 12, and Alyssa Brusselback, 14, both pretty, soft-spoken girls who have the same love for animals their mother does.
"Life lessons are what I believe in, building upon whatever experience happens that day," Baird says.
She met her husband, Matt Brusselback, who for years has owned Custom Four Wheel Drive in New Port Richey, while she was still a college student. Over the years, they fixed up and sold houses and raised their three children, the oldest of whom, Adam, is now 18.
A few years ago, the family was living in a stilt house in Palm Harbor not far from the Gulf of Mexico when Amy felt that familiar nudge. She still dreamed of owning a piece of property big enough for horses and a menagerie of animals.
In 2004, the couple bought 7 acres along Plathe Road and a 3,000-square-foot house that needed so much work Baird jokes that her husband didn't want to move in at first. In 2006, they bought the second parcel, a 10-acre swath that allowed them to fulfill their dream of having a family-friendly farm and riding stable.
Baird designed the barn and outbuildings (including a unique chicken coop and pig pen) and Brusselback built them. The 10-stall barn, a Florida-style building designed to catch cross breezes, features covered stalls connected to individual adjoining paddocks where horses can hang out as a group whenever they feel like it.
"We wanted to allow horses to be horses," Baird says. "I wasn't going to build box stalls like a jail. We wanted them to socialize and bond."
The couple put up a black split-rail fence, cleared acres of sand trails and designed riding rings and paddocks. With the development of the farm came an animal-friendly philosophy: feed is hand-mixed for better nutrition; horses essentially go barefoot (without horseshoes) "because of the soft sandy ground," Baird says, and to stimulate better circulation in their legs.
Over time, the family slowly began acquiring an array of gentle horses and ponies, including Ragtime, the Shetland pony that can give kisses, kick a soccer ball and stand on his hind legs.
"We really do think he might have come from a circus somewhere," Baird said as she fed him a handful of sunflower seeds and gave him a kiss on his velvet-soft nose.
Rockin' Horse Farm officially opened its riding stable in January 2007. Megan thought of the name after she found an old wooden rocking horse in a shed on the property.
"We took the 'g' off 'rocking' because we thought it was more hip," she says with a laugh.
On the farm's Web site, rockinhorsefarm.org, the family describes the farm as a "casual barn that caters to the little girl or boy who always wanted a horse."
They offer riding lessons, boarding, birthday parties, a summer camp and a Friday night "parents' night out" Pony Club for children.
Adults ride here, too, by the way; they come for relaxing and scenic after-work trail rides or to lease or board their own horses.
The farm doesn't advertise; it relies on word-of-mouth endorsements, fliers posted at schools and a Web site designed by Baird and son Adam, who is a computer whiz.
"It's like a big family — even if you love horses and don't want to ride, you can just hang out," says Sarah Sanders, 18, a trainer and instructor at Rockin' Horse. "I loved this place from the moment I first saw it. It's really gorgeous the way the river runs along the trails."
Late on a weekday morning, Baird and her two daughters walked the trails and crossed the river on the truck bed bridge; for a while, they lingered by the spring-fed swimming hole. The water was so clean that despite a 15-foot drop to the bottom, the water looked as shallow as a bathtub.
A couple of fish darted just below the surface; a rooster crowed in the distance; and a lovely Paint quarter horse named Tara watched everything from a nearby paddock.
"It's so peaceful and pretty here — it makes me happy," Baird says. "It's the best of Florida in a package — the only thing missing is the beach."
Elizabeth Bettendorf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.