Krista Wilson, left, of Dunedin and Kristina Hack of Clearwater enjoy the new Lake Chautauqua Equestrian and Nature Preserve in Clearwater on a recent Sunday.
CLEARWATER – Krista Wilson of Dunedin takes her horse out for riding adventures every weekend in the summer and about every other weekend during the school year. However, living in the most built-out county in Florida can make it challenging to find places for equestrians to ride their horses. That’s why Wilson is thrilled about the new 27-acre equestrian park just south of Lake Chautauqua Park in Clearwater.
“I was blown away,” said Wilson, a science teacher at Osceola Middle School. “It was so beautiful, and it’s so thoughtfully laid out. Definitely someone who is an equestrian was involved in the planning of the trails. The footing is really good on the trails. When you ride horses, you want to look at the footing to make sure it’s not too soft and not too hard.”
Now renamed Lake Chautauqua Equestrian and Nature Preserve, this land has never been developed, so the city knew it was a gem that it had to preserve. Pinellas County Schools previously owned the land and had plans to build a school there when the county was growing. However, after there was no longer a need for more schools, the city bought the land in 2009 through the State of Florida Department of Environmental Protection Florida Communities Trust Grant.
“We really wanted to acquire that parcel because we wanted to increase the number of environmental type park activities, and we wanted to preserve Clearwater’s natural ecosystems,” said Felicia Leonard, Clearwater Parks and Recreation official. “That park is situated on a piece of undeveloped property, so to have a parcel that size, 27 acres, already adjacent to Lake Chautauqua Park gives us a very large ecological and wildlife corridor together.”
There is 1.6 miles of multiuse trails throughout the park that equestrians share with walkers and others. There also are shaded picnic areas and water troughs for the horses.
There used to be stables next to this parcel, so people were already riding their horses through this land, Leonard said. Although the stables are now closed, the city liked this idea for usage and expanded the trails where people had already been forging their own paths.
The trails were made with horses in mind, she said, so the mix of the trail is different than in other Clearwater parks, these ones with more sand in it and compacted to be easier on the horses’ hooves. This attention to detail made a positive impression on Wilson when she and her friend, Kristina Hack of Clearwater, rode their horses in the park for the first time a few weekends ago.
“You want to make sure the footing is not wet, and the beds where you ride were raised, so it’s going to drain nicely,” Wilson said. “There was a lot of shade, which is nice in the summer. It can be hard to find a shady trail to ride. You want to keep the horses as cool as possible when it’s hot out, so to have a shaded trail is wonderful. There is also a wash rack area that, as a science teacher, I really appreciated because it conserves water.”
The water troughs are designed so that a horse can push its nose in and it fills up with water and stops. The horse can drink as much water as it would like, but water won’t be wasted because it won’t be continually running.
Wilson also appreciates the wide bridges on the trails because that is good training for horses. Sometimes horses can get nervous about bridges, but these are wide enough to put them more at ease and therefore teach them that they do not have to fear such structures, she said.
Not only does the park provide more passive park activities for the community, Leonard said, it also helps preserve nature.
“It increases access to nature and environmental park land,” Leonard said. “And open space. It includes upland scrub, pine, hardwoods, and an inland pond. The dominant tree species include long leaf pine, laurel oak, and live oak, and the saw palmettos are the dominant understory species. So when you’re in that park, you really get a feel for Old Florida that’s unlike other places.”
Both the equestrian park and the original Lake Chautauqua Park also are adjacent to Camp Soule, which is a Boy Scout camping facility that provides a wilderness camping experience to more than 5,000 Boy Scouts each year, Leonard said. It has been in operation for 70 years and provides an even larger span of undeveloped land.
“This is important in a county that’s 98.1 percent built out,” Leonard said. “For environmental and ecological reasons. It’s also important to offer this type of recreation in a city that’s primarily built out because many of our residents don’t get many changes to experience being in nature, and of course it’s important for us to provide a diverse collection of recreation opportunities to our residents.”
Wilson said there are a limited number of places to ride horses in the county, and even fewer that do not require memberships. One of the other few free options, Wilson said, is Helen Howarth Park and Equestrian Trail in Pinellas Park, but she gets nervous being so close to a busy highway. Therefore she really appreciates how secluded Lake Chautauqua Park is.
“It’s nice, but it’s close to a busy intersection, and no matter how well-trained your horse is, you can come off,” Wilson said. “Things happen and you can come off, and your horse could take off running. I don’t want my horse to take off running and run out into traffic. I don’t want anyone to be hurt by my horse, and of course I don’t want him hurt. So this (new park) is kind of tucked back and is just a good buffer. It’s not by a busy highway, so I feel very safe.”
Wilson plans on using Lake Chautauqua equestrian and Nature Preserve about once a week. Previously, when she takes her horse off the property, she might go to the fairgrounds or travel to Ocala or Brooksville to go riding. She is glad that now she has another local option that can save on gas and also could offer an option even during the school year for a quick ride.
The park is located at 2312 Landmark Drive, south of Enterprise Road and is open every day from dawn to dusk. The project was funded through the $200,000 Recreational Trails Program grant and additional funding from the Penny for Pinellas sales tax fund. The city requires that horses have a negative Coggins test, which means the horse has been tested for equine infectious anemia or “swamp fever.”