RIDGE MANOR — Ten years ago, Kathy Thompson and her husband, Truman Prevatt, moved to rural Hernando County with their recreational horses and enjoyed 6 to 8 miles of riding along "dirt roads right out of our house," she said.
But things have changed, Thompson said.
"There are a lot more houses, a lot more dogs," she said, "so it's not as easy, not as safe as it used to be."
Yet, the couple, ages 61 and 62, respectively, live near the Withlacoochee State Forest, one of the public places where horse riders are increasingly finding, as a last resort, space to pursue their leisure sport. Thompson and Prevatt, from Indiana, frequently take advantage of the opportunity.
The forest's Croom Tract offers about 50 miles of horse trails, but those trails are mostly identified only by blue plastic ribbons tied around trees. The Florida Forever Back Country Horsemen, an organization representing about 400 horse owners with Prevatt as its president, wants to change that.
The organization is launching a project to place more-visible signs along the trails.
"The association started working with the Withlacoochee State Forest on trying to upgrade the horse riding system," Prevatt said. "When people go ride, they want to ride loops and they want to make sure they don't get lost. Signage is to identify loops ... (and to make sure riders can) find their way back to their (horse) trailers."
To raise $1,500 for trail signs, the horsemen will stage what they've labeled a Trail Pace Benefit Ride on Saturday, beginning at 8:30 a.m. and continuing for two hours or more for various divisions: medium pace, cavalry, endurance, cart and carriage ponies, and cart and carriage horses. Trails measure 8 to 10 miles in length along various routes designated for each pursuit.
The cost to take part is $25 per adult and $15 for juniors age 16 and under, and includes a trail snack, a clinic on horse care and opportunities to win prizes.
Staging for the event will be at the Smith Prairie Trailhead in the Withlacoochee State Forest, east of Brooksville.
Space is limited to 50 participants and can be reserved by calling (352) 796-9272 or at the organization's Web site: ffbch.org.
Prevatt said the forest is becoming more of a destination for recreational trail riders.
"As we've developed, a lot of private property is no longer available. Dairy farms and cattle ranches are disappearing," he said. "The state has bought a lot of public land. If you're basically going to recreate with your horse, it's going to be on public land."
The local horsemen's organization, affiliated with a group launched out West in 1972 to preserve horse and rider access to public lands, is focused on volunteerism to help maintain equine-friendly trails in wilderness areas, Prevatt said. Its role is particularly needed in the time of government budget cuts, he noted.
Why own a horse if you don't have riding access close by your stable door?
"There are lots of reasons for owning a horse," Thompson said. "They are good companions, not just pasture ornaments. I know lots of people who don't ride anymore. They're friendly animals. They are intelligent."
Thompson and Prevatt own eight horses — Arabians and Tennessee walkers.
Beth Gray can be contacted at [email protected]