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Hit the hay!

Horses trotting near a barn . . . bonfire blazing . . . children jumping onto a hay-filled wagon . . . an American Airlines jet ripping across the sky.

The ranch may be right under an approach pattern to Tampa International Airport, but it's a place where folks needing to escape the city can jump on a hay wagon and ride off into the sunset _ literally.

Adventure Hayrides/Tampa Bay Horses is a 20-acre pocket of peace right in the middle of urban Town 'N Country. "You're in the city and you turn on our lane and bang, here you are out in the country," said owner Mike Howenstine.

Howenstine started his hayride business a year and a half ago as a charity event in conjunction with radio station Q105. Over a 10-day period, almost 3,000 people rode Howenstine's wagon, which was billed as the Haunted Hayride. Costumed volunteers hid in the woods to scare the riders.

These days, Howenstine averages three evening hayrides a week. "I got the idea because this is kind of a country atmosphere and I wanted to preserve some of old Florida," he said. "I wanted a place where kids could come out and have a good time."

Along with families, plenty of adult groups book hayrides. Everyone from mortgage brokers to cardiologists have ridden through the sandy fields and palmetto thickets on Howenstine's ranch.

Horsepower, not horses

Earlier this week 10 members of Tampa Brownie Troop 763 chose the hayride experience for their end-of-the-year awards ceremony. Moms, dads, brothers and sisters came along, too.

"I thought this would be more enjoyable for the girls instead of your typical formal, everybody-dress-up sit-down dinner like we had last year," said troop leader Vicky Mowrey. "I thought the kids would enjoy being outside and I always associate Girl Scouts with being outdoors."

The group drove out to the south pasture of the ranch and unloaded their coolers and charcoal near a small pile of wood Howenstine had laid out for the bonfire. Dinner was eaten while sitting on logs in front of the flames.

After the last hot dog had been downed, the Brownie awards passed out and the sun was settling into its golden time, a Jeep Renegade rolled onto the bonfire grounds pulling a 20-foot-long wooden wagon lined with fresh hay.

No, a horse does not pull the hay wagon.

"We use a Jeep because of the rugged terrain we go over _ you have to," Howenstine said. "Of course, a long time ago when they didn't have anything else they pulled it by horse, but we've got a little different thing here. This is kind of an exciting hayride."

Howenstine helped the giggling Brownies onto the wagon bed. Parents hopped up too. "No legs hanging over," a cautious Dad yelled.

Once all 34 passengers were aboard, Howenstine warned them to call out "Branch alert!" when they saw low-hanging foliage ahead. He also asked the girls to stay seated at all times and _ for the parents _ "No smoking because of the hay."

As the Jeep took off, the children lined up against the front rail of the wagon and started singing "She'll be coming 'round the mountain when she comes." And then several verses of Old McDonald's Farm and B-I-N-G-O.

Memories to treasure

The Adventure Hayride didn't take its passengers into the woods immediately. At first the hay wagon bumped around an open field, Howenstine taking one sharp turn after the other in a version of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride at Disney World, as the children screamed in delight.

"When are we going through the woods? Come on!" shouted 8-year-old Lindsey Brock

Finally, as the sun was setting, the Jeep pulled into the woods. For most of its 6-mile journey, the hayride follows Sweet Water Canal. Howenstine said on rare occasions passengers can catch a glimpse of a deer, great horned owl or rabbit.

The passengers had to duck repeatedly as branches whipped across the left side of the wagon, then the right side, then the left.

At one point, Howenstine stopped the wagon and jumped out next to a large cactus plant.

"What kind of cactus is this?" he asked the passengers. "If you're ever out in the wild and you have nothing to eat you can survive and eat the prickly pear. It's very much like a raspberry."

"In the old times the Indians used it for dye and war paint. Do we have anyone who wants to get decorated like an Indian tonight?"

Howenstine applied a slash of red to as many faces as he could before the berry ran out of juice.

Farther down the trail, Howenstine pretended he was about to hit a tree and then that he was lost. The Brownies shouted directions and the Jeep took off again. On the way back to the pasture, they passed two fisherman using long cane poles. The Brownies waved and Howenstine asked if they'd caught anything.

At 8:45 p.m. the hayride ended where it had started.

"I liked going through the woods," said 11-year-old Ryan Swilley. "I liked the whole thing."

For parents Dixie and Mickey Lovett, the hayride was a trip back in time. "It was like being a kid again," Mickey Lovett said.

"I liked watching the kids and remembering what it was like when I was going on hayrides," Dixie Lovett said.

Vicki Brock, mother of one of the Brownies, is a veteran of two other hayrides. "I thought it was great," she said. "The best part was the fact that he wasn't afraid to go fast. He wanted the kids to have fun, more like a roller coaster."

After the hayride, the night still wasn't over for Brownie Troop 763.

After jumping off the wagon, the girls climbed onto horses their parents had rented from Hownestine's barn for a quick ride around the pasture.

One last taste of the country before heading back to town.

IF YOU GO

Facilities: The grounds of Tampa Bay Horses are available for events from company picnics to birthday parties. Bring your own food and drink if you plan to picnic or cook out. A grill is available. Alcohol is permitted.

Hayride details: The Adventure Hayride wagon holds as many as 35 people. Individual reservations are available, but there's a $50 minimum charge, so it's best to organize a group of at least 10 people. The hay wagon is wheelchair accessible. Smoking is not permitted. Hayrides normally depart at dusk, but reservations can be made for other times. The trip lasts approximately 40 minutes. A hayride guitarist is available for $25.

Other activities: Horse rentals are $15 an hour. Admission to the petting zoo is $2 per child.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily, by reservation.

_ PAMELA DAVIS-DIAZ

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