Four-year-old Loren Lea loves his new horse swing so much that his mom sometimes has to go outside at dusk, pry him off and carry him to bed. His brother Michael, 8, plays "bumper horses" with Loren for hours.
"I love it," Michael said. "It's better than my Nintendo game."
That's quite an endorsement for an activity that is not only fun but also environmentally sound.
The horse swings come from old auto tires and the imagination of Logan Elliott, Loren and Michael's grandfather.
Elliott, a retired roofer who has been active in crafts for 30 years, visited his family recently and said he was going to "make some horse swings out of old tires for my grandbabies."
"I couldn't imagine what he was talking about," said Mona Lea, the boys' mother.
She soon found out and became involved in what has become a business for the environmentally conscious family.
Some years ago, Elliott said, he was experimenting with old tires and came up with a method of turning them into swings for kids.
"I sold a few at a rodeo in Missouri, but hadn't made any since," he said. "When I heard the kids were having a tough time making ends meet down here, I decided to help out."
Elliott said he decided to start his daughter and her husband out with some of his successful crafting ideas.
"I brought all the equipment for them to start making place mats and key rings, which are personalized with a person's name and meaning of the name put into the form of a poem," he said.
Elliott said his philosophy is: "If you give
a man a fish to eat, he will be hungry tomorrow, so it's better to teach him how to fish."
After the family saw Elliott's horse swing and how the boys loved it, they began to wonder about all the old tires people are dumping across the county. Most of the tires wind up damaging the environment and acting as an incubator for mosquito breeding.
"For me, it's an environmental project, which is good for the state and also helps the kids make money," Elliott said.
These days the backyard of the Lea homestead, which has been named the Rocking H Horse Ranch, is filled with old tires in various stages of becoming toys.
"Right now, we only use polyester tires because the radials contain steel and could scratch the kids," said Michael Lea, the boys' father.
Each tire is marked with a chalk pattern by Lea, who is a carpenter by trade, and then cut with a special saw. "People will often look at the swings and say "Grandpa can make one of those for you,' but it's not that easy," Mrs. Lea said.
The pattern is a special design for which a patent already has been applied. A special saw blade must be used, or else it will break. After the tire is cut, it is tossed into a small swimming pool containing a detergent and bleach solution, and soaked overnight.
The next day, the tire is sprayed with a special cleaner and hosed down. Mrs. Lea and Mrs. Elliott then add the finishing touches such as eyes made from tire patches. Some of the swings are fitted with blankets and bandanas, and each is an individual.
Each sells for $20.
"They need a lot of love and petting, and eat very little," Elliott said, and laughed. "Even though they are practically indestructible, they can't be thrown away because each one is registered with it's own name and must be passed on to another child."
The Leas will be displaying and selling their "thoroughtread" horses and chair swings for adults for the next several weeks at the Homosassa Springs Flea Market just behind Howard's Flea Market two miles south of Homosassa Springs on U.S. 19.
The family hopes to make the project even more environmentally conscious in the future.
"We plan to start a trade-in program where people can take the old tires off their cars, bring them to us, and get a discount for their swings," Lea said.
The goal is to make children happy and rid Florida of the tire problem, Elliott said.
"If everybody had a horse swing for each child, there would be no problem with tires," he said.