You can spot the horses from far away, little dots out in the water of Tampa Bay. Drive south on Interstate 275 toward Sarasota on a weekday morning or a pleasant Saturday and they’re probably there, splashing around in a single file line off the North Skyway Bridge Park.
Up close, it’s easy to see why this is one of the most popular attractions on the local Trip Advisor page. Perched on their saddles, tourists ooh and ahh at the view of the Sunshine Skyway Bridge looming along the horizon. If they’re lucky, they might spot a sting ray gliding below or a dolphin’s fin slice through the waves.
The main event comes when it’s time for the horses to swim. The riders kick their heels against their mares and click their tongues. Submerged up to their necks, the horses paddle through the waters. They whinny and snort, furiously bobbing their heads and kicking their hooves.
But back at the shoreline, the water lapping against the sand is dotted with greenish brown lumps the size of softballs.
Anywhere there are horses, there will be equine feces. Even swimming horses have to go sometimes.
Environmental organizations say it’s a problem. For one thing, it’s a health risk to have horse poop floating in the same water where families play, kayak and fish.
“The waste does contain bacteria, so we would not want to propose that people swim in an area where horses are urinating and horse waste is in the water," said Kelli Hammer Levy, an environmental management director of Pinellas County’s Natural Resources Division.
It’s just not humans who could be in danger. Tampa Bay is Florida’s largest estuary, and as one of the state’s 41 aquatic preserves, it requires extra attention and protection.
Horse manure is filled with nitrogen and phosphorous, Levy said. This makes it a great fertilizer for gardens, but those nutrients can also drive algae bloom, which can produce toxins that harm marine life and humans.
“We need to do everything we can to limit those types of nutrients in the water where we can," she said. “We’re required by law to eliminate human sources of nutrients from water ways.”
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Two companies offer horseback riding in the waters of Tampa Bay. Myakka City-based C Ponies started tours there in 2015, and Cypress Breeze Farm followed shortly. Both groups charge $150 for an hourlong tour. A Times reporter and photographer paid to take a C Ponies tour for an unrelated assignment before learning about the ongoing debate.
There’s no law or ordinance that prevents companies from taking horses into the bay. But there also isn’t anything in place to give them permission to be there. They can’t get proper permits because permits for this kind of activity don’t exist.
Each company has armed its employees with pool skimmers to scoop up buckets of dung. But that’s just the droppings that come out by the beach. Most of the poo expelled out in open water just floats away.
Pony droppings aren’t the only problem. Levy says the tours are also destroying seagrass, which are important for filtering water in an estuary’s ecosystem.
“It’s bad enough you can see it on the aerial — it’s basically just areas where they ride back and forth that have stripped the sea grass out," Levy said. "You can see it on Google Earth.”
The Agency on Bay Management spent nearly three decades restoring seagrass to the way they were in the 1950s, said Wren Krahl, deputy executive director of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.
“This is so not about beautiful animals like horses," Krahl said. "It’s about tearing up the seagrass beds. And we’ve worked so hard — especially in aquatic preserves we need to maintain that seagrass health to be able to have any kind of recreation.”
More studies would be needed to prove whether the horses caused the paths in the seagrass. C Ponies owner Carmen Hanson says her animals only walk along old boat scars already in the bay.
"The boats are there,” Hanson said. “The runoff is there. There’s so many other things that they need to be more worried about than horses.”
Cypress Breeze Farm owner Monika Bruehsel asked: What about the the animals that are defecating in the area’s dog beaches? Or sewage spills?
“How can they shut us down but not the kite boarders?” Bruehsel said. “They got long fins that go through the sea grass — are they going to ban them as well?”
Some of this came up recently in a meeting held by the Agency on Bay Management. The committee, made up of fishermen, elected officials and scientists, was formed nearly 30 years ago to restore the bay.
The group has been talking about this issue since it was brought it up a few months ago. They plan to write a letter to the state Department of Environmental Protection supporting recommendations from Pinellas County to curb horseback riding in aquatic preserves.
In the coming months, ABM could also explore a broader solution — no swimming horses in Tampa Bay, period.
It’s not just the two businesses by the Skyway. Horseback riding has been occurring more frequently in other bodies of water. Council members are worried that it will spread.
“Frankly, I’ve not seen them wear Pampers or Depends, so we can only assume they’re defecating in the water,” said ABM member Mark Sramek, a fishery management specialist at the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Bruehsel and Hanson weren’t at the meeting to defend themselves. The meeting was public, but neither was aware of it until a Times reporter told them about it days after.
“They’re basically trying to make decisions without trying to inform us," Bruehsel said. “...We would have absolutely been there. It’s our livelihood.”
“We advertise our meetings according to state sunshine laws…I don’t think the issue has been a surprise to them,” said Wren Krahl, deputy executive director of the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council.
It’s still too early to say what will happen, but a subcommittee is already planning another meeting, likely with the horseback riding companies involved.
In addition, at Tuesday’s meeting of the Pinellas Board of County Commissioners, Commissioner Janet Long said the county should step in to ban the practice.
“What I’m asking is that we adopt an ordinance that prohibits it in our waterways,” Long said.
Hanson said her business could still survive if her horses could no longer ride in Tampa Bay, though it would take a big hit. C Ponies also does tours in Bradenton’s Palma Sola Bay. But without the St. Petersburg outpost, she would be unable to support her 10 employees. She’s also worried about how she would maintain her 23 horses, rescue animals she saved from over-breeding situations, neglect and disease.
“It’s very frustrating being a business owner living in limbo," Hanson said. “This is something that should have came up when we first started this...and not wait for us to build a business and now say no."
Times Staff Writer Kirby Wilson contributed to this report.