Three years ago, Gary Fresch had never ridden a horse. The owner of The Autobutler Inc., a home car-detailing service that he has operated on the Key for the past 27 years, kept it standard with horse-powered vehicles, instead.
But Saturday, Feb. 18, the Longboat resident will embark on his third, weeklong, cross-state ride with the Florida Cracker Trail Association. The 110-mile trip from Bradenton to Fort Pierce is completed by as many as 250 riders in six days, but this year he is only planning to ride 75 miles.
The Florida Cracker Trail ride celebrates and preserves the pioneer ways of Old Florida. Riders travel through private cattle ranches and Florida State Parks and have done it this way for the past 24 years. This ride marks its 25th anniversary.
Riders learn to experience “real Florida,” as Fresch puts it.
“Everyone thinks of Florida as beaches and palm trees, but what we see are cattle ranches … creeks, brush, ranch land (and) trees,” Fresch says.
The riders might not be roughing it with their catered meals, but they still hear coyotes at night when settling down in their tents. And catered meals can’t discount these serious cowboys and cowgirls; most own their own stables and cowboy hats, and spurs are part of their daily wear.
“They look like they ought to be wrestling cattle,” Fresch says.
Fresch doesn’t own his own horse. He rides Duke, a stubborn quarter-horse who, on his first Cracker ride, decided he didn’t want to go after riding only two miles and had to be driven to the night camp.
“He’s the kind of horse that says, ‘Why do I have to do this?’” Fresch says.
But Fresch trained Duke through perseverance and patience.
In the off-season, Fresch found himself with a few days a week with time that needed to be filled. He looked into volunteering and found Sixteen Hands Horse Sanctuary and thought it would be a good place to help out. It’s a nonprofit sanctuary in Myakka City, where 25 orphaned, abused, abandoned and neglected horses reside.
Duke came from a back-yard breeding program.
“He was a skinny bag of bones (when we found him),” says Robin Cain, founder of Sixteen Hands Horse Sanctuary. “I had to purchase him to get him away (from the owners).”
Fresch started doing everything from building fences, mucking and grooming to feeding and scooping poop.
“He’s one of the most dedicated volunteers I have ever had,” Cain says.
Once volunteers prove they are going to stick around, they earn the training and riding rights. After a dedicated six months of volunteering for three-and-a-half days a week, for up to 10 hours a day, he earned it.
Cain thought the Cracker trail ride seemed like a great opportunity for both his horse and him. They’ve taken the ride together every year since.
Fresch doesn’t just work the stables and train the horses. He started what he calls “Horse Cents” at his company. It’s a voluntary donation of 50 cents per car wash.
“My clients have been extremely receptive to this and in supporting the sanctuary,” he says. He’s raised about $3,600 in three years.
This year, the Cracker ride is a ride-a-thon fundraiser for Sixteen Hands Sanctuary, which needs $50,000 annually to operate the 23-acre facility. They are asking for pledges per mile.
If you want to help, call Cain 228-5441 or visit www.sixteenhandshorsesanctuary.org.
BY THE NUMBERS
6 – Days the Cracker ride takes
20 – miles averaged per day
8 – maximum hours spent in a saddle
110 – miles traveled by a horse across Florida
25 – years the ride has taken place
5 – counties the riders go through
27 – years Gary Fresch has owned and operated The Autobutler on Longboat Key