If you were a horse-crazy kid growing up in the ’80s, you read all “The Black Stallion” books and knew whenever the film was on HBO — entire sleepovers were organized around this movie.
If your family didn’t have cable, one of your friends did, and you’d all arrange a living room campout in which the night’s highlight was that part when Alec (Kelly Reno) befriends The Black on the deserted island and they gallop across The beach, ocean waves spraying in the sunset — a masterpiece of synergy, freedom, connection — pure magic.
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I was that kid, sans cable TV, who always wanted to ride a horse just like that. If you can relate, I want you to know you can indeed ride on the beach on Amelia Island in Florida. And if you really want to tap into the roughing it ethos of the film, you can even camp almost-on-the-beach at Fort Clinch State Park.
First, you’ve got to reserve your campsite as soon as possible. Six miles of biking and hiking trails wind through Fort Clinch’s 1,400 acres of dunes, coastal marshes, and live oak forests. It’s a natural gem, and RV spots book up as much as 11 months in advance. Plus, though the park is sizable, it offers only70 campsites with just 12 for tent campers.
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For locals on a one-tank trip adventure, the best months for riding on the beach are November, December, January, and February. The rest of the year is booked solid with visitors from all over the United States and because the weather is mild and bugs are at a minimum, November and late February are optimum times to combine tent camping and horseback riding.
Robin and Richard Allen own and operate Amelia Island Horseback Riding. Robin, who managed the business for the previous owner, was over the moon when her employer wanted to sell it exclusively to them in 2021. They knew the horses, all the vehicles, and how to properly navigate the tangle of paperwork necessary to ensure the animals safety and legality for the beach.
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Allen and her staff lead one hour beach rides everyday from sunrise until 10 am and resume again in the late afternoon until sunset. They don’t do rides during the hottest parts of the day to keep the horses happy and healthy. In the winter, her team leads a couple more rides each day because the weather is more amenable.
“We like to keep groups small and personable so people can ride side-by-side and talk,” said Allen. “We can take out a ride as big as seven, but four or five riders really is ideal.”
At 8 am, Peters Point Beach is nearly empty. The sun is warm and glowing above the Atlantic Ocean, not a cloud in the sky. My horse is attentive, almost giddy breathing in the pre-spring salt air. Robin explains that before the pandemic, we could run the horses on the beach, that for over 20 years the highlight for many was running on the beach.
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But the local chamber of commerce passed a set of emergency COVID regulations mandating no running until after the pandemic, whenever that might be, and that each horse must wear a poop bag.
“We had to re-train our horses to accept that bag under their tail,” recalled Allen. “That’s been tough. For every 10 horses we bring on, only three make the cut as a beach horse, mostly because of that bag. But please understand, we never left feces on the beach. When a horses needs to go, we pause and pick it up.”
So, no epic moments of me and my horse flying over early morning sand — instead we splash at the ocean’s edge, the horses getting squirrely because they would really like to run. And there’s magic in that, feeling the power, and intention of a 1,200-pound animal at the shimmering brink of the Atlantic, no humans near.
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After the horse ride, I drive back to Fort Clinch State Park and get ready to head into town. I rented a bicycle from Riptide Watersports to get around without having to deal with traffic and parking. Riding it fast on the streets of Amelia Island will have to suffice in lieu of galloping on the beach.
The bike does not disappoint.
A leisurely 45 minute ride gets me to the Amelia Island Marina, where I hang out with pelicans and chat with fisherman before grabbing some coffee at Amelia Island Coffee and heading to the bookstore, The Book Loft. For dinner, I treat myself to a nice cheeseboard at Lagniappe, a restaurant overwhelmingly recommended by the locals.
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It’s dark when I set out for my campsite, headlamp affixed to the bike’s handlebars. I remember from a wilderness skills class that you don’t need a light if you’re on a trail. Your eyes will adjust, and the path will reveal itself. Once inside the fort, I turn off the lamp and let the contour of the road materialize.
For three-and-a-half miles back to my tent, I pedal, uncovering the magic of my own power propelling me forward, arms outstretched, balanced and smiling.