PALMA SOLA BAY — Tim Mattox stands on the beach of Palma Sola Bay, taking in the sight of horses circling in the water.
Their riders can’t seem to stop smiling, and as the moments pass, the horses come to a halt. Nine-year-old Carly Fisher takes the moment to grab the lead rope in her right hand and the hand of the horse’s handler in the other. Then, she cautiously rises to her feet to stand atop her steed.
Mattox grins as he watches the scene unfold, and Carly topples into the water, laughing as she goes.
“That’s my favorite part,” he says. “You gotta get wet.”
Mattox, a Lakewood Ranch Golf and Country Club resident, is the mastermind behind Beachhorses.com, a company that provides horseback riding along the beach as well as opportunities to swim with the horses.
But perhaps the activity that is gaining the most traction is Carly’s favorite — horse surfing.
Carly, who was celebrating her ninth birthday with her parents, said the experience was the perfect gift.
“(The horse) was soft and wiggly,” she said after riding to the shore and drying herself off with a towel. “It was really fun.”
If her enthusiasm for the sport is any indication — and Mattox thinks it is — horse surfing could become a much larger phenomenon.
A new beginning
Before moving to Florida from Washington, D.C., Mattox ran a business association and helped his wife, Yasmin, with their business doing clinical research for pharmaceutical companies. The couple loved to play polo, and in 1998, they began looking at lots in the Polo Club in Lakewood Ranch with visions of starting a family friendly polo school.
But those plans were put on a temporary hold after Tim Mattox suffered a neck injury while playing polo that same year.
The Polo Club properties they’d been looking at sold, and couple instead moved into a home in the Country Club in 1999.
“A year after we moved, my neck began to feel better,” Mattox says.
So, the couple purchased polo ponies and a 21-acre farm on Verna Road and opened their polo school, Great World Polo. After several years, the couple closed the school with the intent of reopening a facility in South Carolina. But a school there never opened.
With a barn full of horses, Tim Mattox began exploring his options and organized an informal trail ride with friends and family. A relative later suggested launching the idea into a business, and Mattox contacted the Ritz-Carlton and other venues, which all loved the idea, Mattox says.
“That’s what got me into trail riding in the first place,” he says.
Because business was growing, Mattox didn’t want to send his horses to Virginia as he normally did each summer because of the cooler climate. And after careful deliberation, he decided to try something new.
“I hated to lose the momentum I (was seeing with) my business,” he said. “We decided to experiment with taking the horses in the water. We’d done it recreationally for years. We weren’t sure we could do it commercially.”
With support from the city of Bradenton, Mattox moved forward with the idea and began to see business take off.
“People were really enjoying being in the water more than they were on the beach,” Mattox says.
Catching the wave
One day as his customers were riding in the water, Mattox could see the rider’s excitement dwindling. On a whim, he called out, challenging the riders to stand up on their horses’ backs.
The task seemed simple, but when done atop a slippery, wiggling horse, it proved not only to be a challenge but also fun.
Mattox is half-joking when he says horse surfing is a sport, but he admits he does think it could become one or could at least be turned into a local competition to generate publicity.
Many visitors to the Sarasota-Manatee area already have heard about horse surfing through the company’s Web site, www.beachhorses.com. Locals have seen the horses out in the water or heard about it by word of mouth.
“Horse surfing is by far the one activity that has the most potential to bring people from all over the world to do it,” he says. “That makes Bradenton a totally unique place — at least for the moment.”
Individuals interested in services offered by Beachhorses.com can visit the company’s Web site, www.beachhorses.com. Tickets for hour-long sessions generally include 20 minutes of beach ride time and 40 minutes in the water, although services can be customized to each individual.
Contact Pam McTeer at [email protected].
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