Fort McCoy horse rescue continues to trailblaze amid debt

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It began with a few stray horses. If Tina Nichols saw a horse in need, she’d take them in. It didn’t matter if the horse was starving or blind – only if they needed care. 

When she got up to six horses, Nichols had to find a way to generate enough funds for feed along with extra hands to help keep the horses fit. To do this, she offered trail rides to the local kids in her neighborhood. Seventeen years later, she made it into a business. 

Nichols, the owner of Makin’ Tracks Trail Rides in Fort McCoy, Florida, has kept up with the demands of her business for years. It is a self-funded equine rescue, meaning the business is funded by any operations done on the property. On the business’ website, it says, “Our mission is to support rescues through guided trail rides” which allows their horses “to help support themselves.” 

The 46-year-old now has 15 horses in her care. But this past Thanksgiving, the truck used to transport her horses for trail rides broke down.

“Our truck is like our life’s blood,” she said. “Without it, it’s hard to do anything.”

The truck needs a new engine, but Nichols said it will be cheaper to just replace the truck.

Before the truck broke down, customers would meet at the farm and follow the horse-filled trailer up to the Cross Florida Greenway Trails. Without the truck, the only rides Nichols can offer are through her neighborhood down the dirt roads. 

“Some customers are still willing to ride out at a discounted rate,” she said. “But most customers are rescheduling or waiting until we’re able to get over to the trails.”

Nichols said the decrease in customer base has diminished the business’ income to around one-sixteenth of her average profits. Before expenses last year, Nichols said Makin’ Tracks Trail Rides made about $60,000. However, on average, she said it costs about $40,000 to $45,000 per year to feed the horses, which leaves about $19,000 left after expenses. 

When the truck first broke down in November, Nichols rented a truck to keep up with the trail rides. However, the $750 weekly expense quickly added up on top of the normal $600 to $800 spent per week for the horses. 

To try and raise some extra funds, Nichols created a GoFundMe page Jan. 14. The $475 raised as of Feb. 18 have covered the cost of two bales of hay, she said. Nichols said each bale she gets weighs about 1,000 pounds and lasts between five to seven days. 

“I never wanted to be one of those places begging for donations all the time; I guess I was raised prouder than that,” she said. “The few times that I do start asking is because I’ve exhausted everything, and I don’t have another choice.”

Lexi (left) and Lilly (right) eating a bale of hay. (Kaitlyn Wadulack/WUFT News).

Luckily, with March on the horizon, one of Makin’ Tracks Trail Rides unique rides could soon begin depending on the status of purchasing a new truck. On March 13, the business is scheduled to open up its river rides. Nichols said these river rides allow customers to swim with the horses. 

“That’s the one thing that sets us apart,” she said. “There’s not really anybody else in the area that does this.”

The river rides allow Nichols to connect with other local business owners in the area. Captain Erika Ritter, the 64-year-old owner of A Cruising Down The River, said she has helped on some of Makin’ Tracks Trail Rides tours. 

“They would go out to the edge of the river and have weddings or special occasion events,” Ritter said. “Not everybody wanted to ride a horse, so I would meet them with my boat and the rest of the group.”

The two have helped one another with business. When Ritter’s on her boat, she tells her customers about Makin’ Tracks Trail Rides, and Nichols likewise refers customers to Ritter to learn more about the history of the Ocklawaha River. 

Ritter said Nichols’ business has brought a kind of recognition to the area that put Fort McCoy on the map. 

“They’ve just brought an additional interest into our community,” she said.

Not only is Makin’ Tracks self-funded, but it’s a family business. Right now, the business is run by Nichols and her 17-year-old daughter Sadie Rhoads. Rhoads takes customers on trail rides while Nichols handles more of the business side of scheduling rides and responding to customers. 

Rhoads said she was practically born into the business. She began riding on the trails at 12 and started taking people out on her own when she was 15 with her permit. Besides needing a 21-year-old to drive to the trails, Rhoads said she would handle the rides on her own. 

“I would do what I had to do,” Rhoads said. “My mom said that when I was younger that my number one phrase was, ‘I got this.’”

It wasn’t always like that, though. Nichols used to lead customers on trail rides, but 11 years ago, she suffered from a horseback riding accident. The accident broke Nichols’ back and left her wheelchair-bound.

“I think the first time that we really asked for donations was when I first broke my back,” Nichols said. 

Before she was in a wheelchair, Nichols said she would build barns and mow people’s fields to bring in extra money. She said because she is more limited in what she can do now, it’s harder for her when the business goes into financial distress. 

The business means more than just horseback riding. For Nichols, she said Makin’ Tracks Trail Rides allowed her to be home with both her son, Cody Rhoads, 22, and Sadie. 

“It’s had a great impact on our family,” Nichols said. “And my kids are very capable people. It’s made them strong.”

Makin’ Tracks Trail Rides give horses second chances through rehabilitation. Dolly, the horse Nichols was riding when she broke her back, still lives on the property. 

“You have to figure out what [a horse] needs and provide all the care that it needs,” she said. “Whether it’s emotional support, physical support or just getting them healthier.”

About Kaitlyn Wadulack

Kaitlyn is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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