OLDSMAR — City Council members gathered next to an SUV at the end of Race Track Road under a blazing sun, sweat pouring down their faces.
They were preparing for a safari into Mobbly Bayou Wilderness Preserve. The object of the hunt: information.
Their mission on this field trip Wednesday was to determine if the Hire A Pony Riding Academy should be permitted to have an equestrian trail in the protected area.
The council has been wrestling with that question for more than a month. While the firsthand look at the property sparked plenty of discussion, it doesn't appear that horseback riding is any closer to being approved.
As the group, which also included Leisure Services director Lynn Rives, City Manager Bruce Haddock and City Clerk Lisa Lene, prepared for the expedition, teens on chestnut horses rode past watching as the officials slipped off their business shoes and pulled on tall rubber boots to protect against mud and rattlesnakes.
After liberally smearing mosquito repellent on necks and arms, the group hiked down a dirt road, took a right through an open gate and immediately sank into deep, slimy muck.
Tiny fiddler crabs skittered across the nearly mile-long trail carved out of the vegetation about five years ago when Hire A Pony owner Armando Gort first entered an agreement with the city to have a trail on the preserve.
But he never bought the necessary liability insurance and moved his rental horse operation to Pasco County.
When he was forced out of that location, he came back to around Oldsmar but the contract had expired and nature had mostly reclaimed the trail.
Gort has told the Times he now has the insurance.
On the old path, smelly brown water stood stagnant in deep tire tracks left by trucks used to maintain the land owned and managed by Oldsmar and Pinellas County.
As he made his way through the tall grass, on the side of the ruts, council member Doug Bevis voiced his worries about liability issues.
"My concern is that (Hire A Pony) is in Hillsborough County,'' he said. "If somebody goes out there and gets hurt, they sue me and everyone else in Pinellas County.''
He also commented that the trail was close to the shoreline and there is no way to ensure the animals will not trample on the wetlands.
"A horse doesn't read a map,'' Bevis said, adding that, in his experience, equestrians are not always able to control their mounts.
Mayor Jim Ronecker said "you can see the bay right past the mangroves.''
"We can't obviously police them, nor do we want to,'' he told the Times on Thursday.
Then the talk turned to the safety of the ponies, whether they could break a leg in the mud.
"It's not quicksand over here,'' said council member Suzanne Vale, a supporter of riding in the preserve, shot back. The preserve "is not for four wheelers or monster trucks. Horseback riding is the perfect thing for this area.''
As the group slogged along, the trail opened up into a large clearing created recently when county employees removed invasive Brazilian pepper trees.
"There are no boundaries,'' said Bevis, looking out over the expanse, adding that the riders would be able to trot wherever they wished.
After the hike was over, Vice Mayor Jerry Beverland said his opinion is just as strong as it was — that he would not support horseback riding in the preserve.
"They take the horses and go off the trail and into the wetlands,'' he said.
As he talked, he nearly walked over a pile of horse manure on the dirt road leading to the preserve. The road was clearly marked with two no trespassing signs.
To him, it was evidence Hire A Pony doesn't follow rules.
The Parks and Recreation Advisory Board will deliver its recommendation Aug. 10, and the City Council is expected to take up the issue on Aug. 18.
Ronecker said he is leaning against voting in favor of Hire A Pony because he believes the animals will leave deep grooves in the soil, especially during the rainy season when the ground is mushy.
And then there's the mess.
"There's a lot of manure on Race Track Road,'' he said. "They're not cleaning up.''
Eileen Schulte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4153.