PINELLAS PARK — Their trailers were packed, their exit all but finalized, and now Mollie and Kellie Sipos stood next to the picnic tables they’d set up near their barn. They had prepared this news over and over.
“The majority of you already know going into this, seeing the decluttering,” said Mollie, 20. She looked out at the dozen people who board their horses at Saddle Up Riding Club — four acres of mulch, grass, sand and dirt paths at the end of a narrow gravel road.
“And all of us have been aware that there’s a ‘For Sale’ sign, and it’s been there a while.”
In the 18 years of running the camp, Kellie, Mollie and Jeff Sipos — mother, daughter and father — have learned how to wrestle pigs and corral horses who wander off the property. They’ve built equestrian centers from scratch, moved seven times, recovered from eviction and kept their youth programs running on a patch of grassland. But for the past month they faced a problem that they couldn’t find an answer to.
The 6-acre property they rent from went up for sale at $1.7 million in mid-July, a once-unheard-of price in Pinellas Park that would now test Tampa Bay’s skyrocketing housing market. A certified letter came with the Aug. 31 move-out date. They met with a Realtor and mapped out their options. They could sell their house in Redington Shores, dig through their assets, drain their retirement savings and take out a loan. All of that would get them about $1.3 million.
Kellie, 58, looked for other properties in Pinellas County, but prices had climbed to rates that were unrecognizable from past years. She met with the property owner’s attorney, who wouldn’t budge on the asking price, she said. Some of the boarders became suspicious of the “For Sale” sign out front, but several thought they could come up with a solution. This was the Sipos family after all, whose homeschool curriculum for their children included running the farm.
But here they were on this balmy Saturday morning in August. Three weeks to vacate and nowhere to go.
“So that’s where we’re at here,” Mollie said, in the same steady voice that could tell a camper to go “soft with your hands” or talk with a parent about boarding costs.
“So the program, Saddle Up Riding Club, is going to be done,” she continued. “But my hope — I’m going to still be in the area, I would still love to be in the same barns as all of you, train your kids, do that.”
A few parents scribbled on notepads. Two young campers sat in the front and said they had already started calling other equestrian centers. Mollie’s father, Jeff, walked a few feet away in jorts and a stained white “TarHeel Roofing” shirt, preparing to sell a trailer he had listed on Facebook Marketplace.
He had three weeks to clear that and the rest of the rural acreage — the barn he built from scratch; the quarter-mile trail he had carved in the woods; the gravestone where he’d buried their dog “DeDe” (short for Devil Dog); and the electrical wiring he’d installed three weeks before.
But what bothered the family more than losing the land was the ripple effect that the move would create. A hundred kids used their farm. Thirty were part of their equine therapy program for disabled children. Campers hurried here after school, came on the weekends, ditched their phones and grew up next to the used vinyl fencing and the old wooden barn. While other places charged upwards of $600 per month to board horses, the Sipos cut deals for $100 per month or less if boarders allowed them to use their horses for equine therapy. They built it for kids, the disabled, those who may not have a spot in the equestrian community or the chance to grow close with a horse. They traveled to the Special Olympics and interstate competitions and considered the longtime staff and campers part of their extended family.
“Okay, I have a question,” said a parent.
“Yeah,” Mollie said. “Absolutely.”
“Are you planning on continuing lessons with the girls?”
“I want to be able to stay,” said Mollie.
“I can’t speak for years and years and years to come,” she continued. “With this closing down I will be reaching out to different people in the show world. But I plan on keeping myself in this area for at least a year to two years.”
The Sipos’ came here in 2013 after they were evicted from the property next door over a dispute about payments and house conditions. The current property owner let them stay for free and then let them settle here for $1,000 per month out of goodwill. A left turn off of U.S.-19 and a mile and a half down the quiet streets of Pinellas Park, they had morphed this from a flat landscape into a maze of plywood, buckets, stables and sand, with an old vending machine at the front and a small wooden play structure toward the back.
“I am so sorry,” the property owner wrote on a sticky note attached to the certified letter with the move-out date. “This was not my idea.”
But there were silver linings, they supposed.
Jeff, 60, will have to find a new hobby. Build something else. Stick to one full-time job.
Mollie wants to ride horses competitively. She has a good shot at going pro. She plans to continue lessons as the boarders move to other farms, promising to meet them where they are and drive them to competitions. But eventually, she plans to move away.
Kellie has already shifted her time between the farm and the hospital. Her 85-year-old mother is moving into assisted living, and she’s organizing drug awareness vigils - one on Aug. 31, the day they’ll leave Saddle Up - in memory of her daughter, Emilie, who died of an overdose.
But it hurts. They still don’t want to leave.
It’s akin to that quote from The Office, Mollie said - the one about how you don’t know you’re in the good old days until they’re over - when you’re ready to move on but don’t want to say goodbye.
And she knows, for others, it’s a support system that fills a gap.
Cindy Carmody stood next to Kellie at the meeting, but left early after hearing the news. A former construction worker, Cindy had just built her own fencing with her two children, where they board their horse for free so Saddle Up can use her for equine therapy. She first took her daughter when she was 3, and her husband soon volunteered at Saddle Up for his community service hours to get off probation.
She left the picnic tables and walked back to her car.
Now her daughter, nearing 13, skips Fridays at school to work here as long as she maintains her grades. They spent the summer not in front of a screen but planning the fencing for their horse.
“This place is my life even though I’m not a horse person,” she said in the parking lot. “Do you know what it is for a mother and two children to build a barn together over the summer as a project?”
Pat Fegley learned the news hours later. Her grandson is 11, entering middle school, and Saddle Up has become his source of confidence. He started years ago when he refused to get on a horse, learned how to sit still on one and eventually went to the Special Olympics with the goal of winning a medal. He won two golds, and wore them for his yearbook picture, along with his Saddle Up shirt and a cowboy hat.
“This was his thing,” said Fegley. “His absolute thing.”
Back at the picnic tables, the boarders filtered out and a few sat in a circle of lawn chairs next to the wood play structure. They talked about developers, programs, what was next and what they would leave behind. Three of the Sipos’s dogs roamed around the picnic tables and their pig slept in the back. A man would soon arrive in a pickup truck, ready to buy the trailer.
“Man, things are flying off the shelves these days,” said John King, who owns a horse at Saddle Up and whose daughter is in the equine therapy program. He shook his head at the $1.7 million ask. “I can’t imagine who would pay.”
“I can’t either,” said Kellie. “Unless it’s a developer.”
They joked, lightheartedly, about what could happen. Kids picked through a box of old items Kellie brought from her mother’s house. Mollie watched them pick the items up. John asked Kellie how she would continue. Would Saddle Up revive somewhere else?
“I need to retire,” Kellie said. “This is my chance — my husband and I — to finally enjoy some life. That’s what’s killing me, and I’m sorry. I need, at some point, to stop. My mom right now is my top concern.”
She prepared to tell the next group — parents of kids in the equine therapy program, a more difficult conversation. She would soon go over the timeline and an apology. She would say that she was tired, and that she was sorry that there wasn’t another solution. In the coming week they would make social media posts proclaiming “come on out!” and that they’re “...still seeing how we can save the therapy program.” They would put together a slideshow for a send-off ceremony on Aug. 28.
But before that, they would go about their day. Another Saturday full of lessons that would now be one of their last.