My legs were quivering like tapioca pudding: I’m not going to lie to you. Nervous, yes. But also a reaction to pinning my knees into Winnie’s belly to avoid getting dumped into Bradenton Beach’s Palma Sola Bay.
A.J., one of our personal guides, had demonstrated how to rise first to our knees on the more-or-less bareback horse (pad, yes; saddle, no), then how to place our feet so we weren’t inflicting pain to the horses’ kidneys. Then we rose to an upright and locked position as our horse took us surfing in the calm bay waters.
In Your Bucket List Because…
- It makes you feel like a circus bareback rider.
- It requires little skill, but some horse experience helps.
- Good for anyone with a sense of adventure and a yen for trying something different.
“Remember, the first step is the hardest,” A.J. told each of the four of us as we one at a time stood up and rode our shoulder-deep horses for as long as we could before we fell off to the side or decided to sit back down.
Horse-surfing is the latest adventure sport on the causeway from Bradenton to Anna Maria Island, one of a string of Florida islands that stretches from Sarasota to the south. Home to resorty Bradenton Beach, the island is known for its wide sands, fishing, water sports, and low-key profile.
The Invention of Horse-Surfing
Tim Mattox, a former polo player in the Bradenton area, invented the sport when he was looking for some way to stretch his dry season trail-riding business into the wet summer months.
He and his team started by leading one-hour sessions a couple of times a day at low tide. (This is still offered: Anyone age 3 or older can participate; weight restrictions do apply.) Beach Horses’ beach-riding became so popular, Mattox offered it practically year-round.
“I was taking photos of some of my customers one day and said, ‘I’m bored. Why don’t you stand up or something?’” Mattox explained how the segue from beach riding to horse-surfing came about.
“The next thing I know, there are people coming from Europe to try this new hot American tourist activity.
“It was always a goof, but we have had competitions and want to have a totally non-serious World Championships some day,” he says. “All in good fun.”
Girls on Bareback
When I heard about horse-surfing, I immediately emailed my intrepid girl travel buds, whom I’ve been known to refer to as my “guinea pigs.”
Before you knew it we had a rental home on a canal in Anna Maria on Anna Maria Island, and a Saturday 8 a.m. reservation to surf a horse. The Facebook posts and comments flew the few days prior to our October adventure. A few choice comments:
“Next up: Horse-surfing in Bradenton Beach! You girls ready?” I wrote.
“As ready as I’ll ever be!” commented MaryBeth.
And from some non-participants: “Is this really something you do – or is it just the name of a new drink – horse surfing on the beach???????” and “I think it is something you do after you had a drink?!”
Friends on Facebook and in person were concerned about our health –- mental and otherwise. Frankly, so were we.
As it turns out, the adventure is fairly safe, you just have to make sure you fall to the side of the horse, not on it.
It all begins with an extremely tame one-mile, 20-minute walk on the beach, each of the four horses (the maximum group size) led by a young guide. The horses wear no saddles, but you’re not entirely bareback-riding; strapped-on padding makes it more comfortable than I expected. The guides – gregarious, personable, and tolerant (of us) — then led the horses into the water, which happened to be a bit chilly that morning. The horses, like us, seemed less than thrilled at first. When they were up to their necks, we surfed, which was the highlight of the hour-long adventure.
Standing up proved to be a little tricky, especially for the balance-challenged. That’s about all it had in common with true surfing –- balance. The horses of course were more stable, and waves did not figure in the equation.
We were giddy -– it does make you goofy! — singing circus tunes: doot doo dootle dootle doot doot doot doo. And busily avoiding the doo doo.
The day was sun-warmed gorgeous, and egrets shared our bay waters, which we quickly became acclimated to. After that, one-by-one we got a tail pull as our horses ran through the water with us behind. We then swam them and ended the whole experience with a race to shore, our knees tucked in to prevent drag. Another highlight.
Our excited chatter continued all the way back to our rental home, for the duration of our Anna Marie Island getaway, and then again on Facebook once I posted the pictures.
“HORSE-SURFING!!!,” I shared. “Feeling a little bow-legged, but no broken bones! Crazy fun!”
- Horse-surfing adds a fun dimension to a beach vacation in the Bradenton Beach area, one of the Gulf Coast’s lesser known and more affordable beach destinations. Besides great sugar-sand beaches, the area offers fun shopping and restaurants that specialize in seafood. You can find museums and theater in nearby Bradenton and Sarasota.
- Horse-surfing happens year-round, except when the temperature of the water drops below 65 degrees – most typically during cold spells from December to February. Make your reservations to horse-surf well in advance.
- For distinctive home rentals in Anna Maria, one of three towns, along with Holmes Beach and Bradenton Beach, on the island, contact, Pineapplefish Villas collection, 941-778-7200
- Beach Horses, 941-907-7272
- Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, 941-729-9177