BRADENTON -- Horse surfing on the Palma Sola Causeway has become so popular that the tourism development council recently discussed an idea to market the unique activity to tourists.
Great World Adventures claims horse surfing -- standing up on a horse’s back as it walks through the water -- was invented “right here in Bradenton.”
BeachHorses.com touts horseback riding on the beach, swimming with horses, horse skiing and horse surfing to locals and visitors alike.
And it all got to be too much for city councilman Gene Gallo, who had been getting complaints about the by-product of that business left on the shores and in the waters: yes, he’s talking about horse poop.
Gallo has said all year that horses on the causeway are a public health issue and wants them banned. He pushed the issue again at Wednesday’s night’s council meeting.
Claude D. Tankersley, the city’s public works director, said at the meeting that horses do contribute to the amount of fecal coliform in the Palma Sola Bay, which has been closed to swimmers three times in the past year because of high bacteria levels.
Tankersley said the measurements don’t indicate the precise contributor of the bacteria -- human, horse or canine. Still, he added, the state has recommended keeping horses out of natural waterways because of the damage their hoofs do to the shore and because their feces and urine can contribute to algae growth.
Tankersley’s report coupled with the state’s recommendation helped convince most of the city council to go along with him in asking the city attorney to write an ordinance banning horses on the causeway.
Beyond the environmental impacts, Vice Mayor Patrick Roff called it a public safety issue saying that the animals are brought to a busy roadway where there is a lot of activity and a constant potential for accidents. He also said he didn’t like the idea of having 1,000-pound animals next to children swimming and playing.
“I would hate to see a child get injured because of horse surfing,” he said.
But one ruddy-complexioned council member got even redder in the face about the idea.
“You’re all dead wrong,” Councilman Bemis Smith practically shouted before describing the council as a bunch of old nit-picking men and women.
“I don’t have the ability to tell people what they should and shouldn’t do,” he said, “We should go about letting people live their lives and make their own decisions.”
Councilwoman Marianne Barneby noted that the county does not allow horses on its public beaches.
Still in the end, Smith would not be swayed.
“This small government conservative votes no,” he said as the mayor polled the council on the issue. He lost 4-1.
The city attorney will draft an ordinance in the coming weeks and the issue will be heard at a public hearing before a final decision is made on whether to ban horses.
Timothy A. Mattox, CEO and managing member of Great World Adventures, which brings horses to the causeway, said he will “take a big interest” in what comes next. He said if the council decides to ban horses on the causeway, it would “literally put us out of business.”
“This is a very successful business,” Mattox said. “We feel we contribute a lot to the community and to the local economy. We generate tourism. We have turned Palma Sola Bay, which is not the best beach in Florida, into an international tourist attraction.”
Mattox, who takes an average of about 50 people a week out to the causeway for horseback rising and surfing, said the Palma Sola Causeway is really the only place in southwest Florida where it’s legal to have horses on the beach and in the water.
“We’re unique in what we do in the water,” Mattox said. “We’ve gotten a lot of publicity for the tourist industry in Bradenton.” He said his business has been written about in Canada, Germany, England and across the country.
On Friday he will have a journalist from Canada, her partner and three children out at the causeway to experience the beach horses. He said he is booked solid from Friday until July 3.
He said his company cleans up after its horses, as well as the horses of others who come out to the beach.
He said the company is part of the Keep Manatee Beautiful campaign and has adopted the causeway, cleaning up the trash and the horse poop. He said he also “fully supported an ordinance making it illegal not to pick up horse poop.
“We’re in the business of making people happy,” Mattox said.
“A dirty beach that has dog poop or plastic bag or paper cups from fast food restaurants is the biggest problem for us. We always leave the beach clean.”
Smith said that there’s simply “no clear and compelling reason” to ban horses from the causeway. He predicted that just like other bans the city has implemented on the causeway, this public hearing “will stir the pot.”
n In other action, the council unanimously approved the redevelopment plans for Rossi Park and the expansion for the Riverwalk and Waterfront Park.