South Padre Island: Surviving Paradise on Horseback

In a timeless world there are no interruptions: no cellphones ringing, no business appointments, no social gatherings, no thought of profits or losses or checks or balances; no mowing the grass or watching the opera. Imagine a place where there is only the steady wind on your face, the gentle sounds of the surf crashing on the soft sand beach and the even gentler, almost eerie whispers of drifting dunes on an almost alien landscape; a place where time ceases to exist in a perfect world of sun and surf while the horse between your legs speeds and slows its gentle gait to the perfect rhythm of your beating heart and the constant splashing of the waves.

South Padre Island Equestrian Center

South Padre Island Equestrian Center

It may sound like a scenario found only in your dreams. But such a world does exist and is easily accessible without ever leaving the USA. Regardless where you are, an airline ticket and an airport shuttle ride can land you on the timeless shores of South Padre Island, a 35-mile stretch of nearly forgotten sandy barrier island two miles off the South Texas coast where time seems ever out of place and where dreams can indeed come true.

South Padre Island
For the horse lover, a little more effort will land you at the gate of the Island Equestrian Center and preparing to saddle up one of the quarter horses that are ready at the calling to carry you into a near-perfect world of timelessness and unbridled beauty on the unspoiled landscape of this little-known Gulf paradise. And in this way, perhaps one of the last great solitude getaways for the horse adventurer. You can escape the bindings of time and shirk the raiment of a modern world to discover a paradise reserved for only those that venture into this hidden dream world on the wild, pristine coast of the last beach frontier in America.
Along this lonely stretch of beach Conquistadors have camped, explorers have walked, fierce tribesmen have lived and pirates have hidden their treasures in the sand. For hundreds of years it has looked the same as it does today – no buildings, no power lines, no beach shacks or restaurants or bars or billboard signs. The year could 2014 or 1492 – it is nearly impossible to know. Except for a rare glance of a tanker or freighter on the distant gulf horizon, or the even rarer passing of an aircraft overhead. Time stops on this island paradise, and as you settle into the saddle of your loyal and confident steed, there is nothing more pressing than the sea mist in your face, the salt taste on your lips, and the mesmerizing sounds of nothing but nature that, like a good lullaby, weaves your thoughts in and out of reality as the rarity of the moment carries you far away to the limits of your imagination.
You may be among the fortunate who have taken a ride down the beach and know the elusive appeal of communing with the sea, a good horse, and the ever-changing whims of Nature. But chances are good you have never experienced it on the edge of the world. South Padre Island, not long ago referred to as the ‘Edge of the World’ because it was difficult to easily access and was isolated from modern convenience, remains a treasure gem destination for travelers seeking to get away from it all. Although recent years have seen the development of a resort community – the Town of South Padre Island – it spans a mere five miles on the southern tip of the barrier island. For nearly 30 miles north of the last standing development there is nothing but huge, drifting sand dunes, unspoiled and undeveloped beaches, and a fortune of adventure, lost gold, buried treasure and the Island Equestrian Center.
Doyle Wells and family have operated the center since breaking ground for the first stable in 1989. The center maintains a stock of about three dozen healthy quarter horses, all hand-picked by the former breeder. Even the horses here seem to realize they are living a dream. They are well-groomed, healthy and content animals, and always ready to meet the call of the wild, sandy trail.
“There’s not anything else in the world I would choose to do than provide the rare opportunity for a person to get on a horse and ride down this lonely stretch,” says Wells in his South Texas drawl. Wells is a native of the lower Texas coast, a former rancher, quarter horse breeder and expert horseman, and you know it the moment you shake his strong hand as he greets you with honest enthusiasm. Professional and educated, Wells himself is liked a figure lost in time, the same today and tomorrow as he might have been two centuries ago.
“This is not for everybody,” he utters under his breath, breaking into a Texas-sized smile as his eyes hint of a secret he knows too well. “But if you want to experience an out-of-world adventure on top of a good horse with the wind and the surf and nothing more than the thoughts in your head, then this is the place to do it.”
The Equestrian Center is more than a tourist attraction however. Wells and family have long operated a special program providing outdoor and riding experiences to children and adults with special needs. Children from across Texas flood the center by the bus load to experience something they might otherwise never get the opportunity to enjoy.
“When they get up on that horse and ride across this magical landscape, something happens – and you can see it on their faces,” says Wells.
And once you mount your own horse for a first ride down the beach you’ll understand there is indeed a magic at work on this stretch of sand and crashing surf. Perhaps it is the combination of the pristine beach environment and the timeless sound of the sea. Perhaps it has something to do with the confident and content animal beneath you. But whatever the lure of the adventures, it permeates the spirit and carries you to a world where there is no past or future, but only the present filled with the big, blue Texas sky, the smell of the sea, and the sun beating down on your back. The sandy beach is your highway, the shifting dunes your constant companion. It’s as if the world ends and starts at this precise point, a place where time both begins and ends, and where you can actually hear your own thoughts without modern annoyances.
Depending on your riding skills there are many different programs available at the Center. The most popular and common is an escorted horseback tour into the unspoiled beach world. Beginners and riders with little experience can choose to be guided by a well-qualified horseman like Hank Martin, a local and former Army ranger with college degrees in political science and history. But Hank says working as lead guide and headman for the Center is a rewarding career. He’s been doing it now for 14 years.
“This is living the dream; no pretensions, sharing this magic with those that have come to discover it,” says Hank. “Most of them don’t even realize this is their quest, the reason they have come to the Island.”
But the Center, and the timeless, unchanging landscape of the Island, cannot altogether escape progress. They say the world is getting smaller, and even on South Padre Island, the multitudes are discovering its secret and beginning to express grand interest on what for long has been a well-kept secret. There are new condominiums and housing complexes. The rich and the retired have discovered the Island paradise, and so have vacationers who enjoy the ever increasing modern conveniences of the Town of SPI and its many attractions offered by hotels and resorts, restaurants and bars, and watersport activities including an award-winning waterpark. Towering condo projects and expensive tropical homes are inching northward of the community, so much so that the Equestrian Center will soon move further north up the beach to escape it.

South Padre Island jet ski
But like a world in contrast, so far the modern and the timeless have managed to leave a clear and well-defined boundary between them. If you’re looking for a comfortable resort getaway replete with four-star restaurants and live music entertainment, then the Town SPI is your perfect destination. But if you’re hoping to discover paradise among the ancient dunes and soft sand beaches of an unspoiled land and seascape, by crossing an invisible line on the north end of town you will enter the twilight zone where there are no road signs ahead – literally – and only adventure awaits.
If you’re planning a South Padre Island getaway it’s always a good idea to call the Equestrian Center to reserve your horses and to discuss your skill level of the adventure you are hoping to experience. After qualifying your ability and advising you of options, your horseback adventure can be booked and will be waiting upon your arrival. Chances are good you may opt to ride more than once during your visit, so you might consider booking a guided trip to take advantage of the narrative provided by your experienced guide and to discuss a second and more intimate adventure ride customized to your needs and requirements.
Remember, while it’s hard to get lost on a barrier island, the elements can be harsh and the weather quick to change. And there are natural dangers, especially in the dunes, including rattlesnakes and coyotes.
There is a slight chance you may encounter another adventurer, however, often armed with a metal detector and in search of lost treasure of pirate’s gold, for Padre Island was the site of a number of famous Spanish shipwrecks. Three Spanish vessels, assailed by a sudden storm, sank off the coast of the Island or ran aground in the bay behind the Island. One of the ships was found and millions in coins and artifacts were recovered. The other two ships remain hidden by time and the natural elements of sand and sea.

South Padre Island Equestrian Center

South Padre Island Equestrian Center

Also said to be hidden on the island and the surrounding Laguna Madre area are pirate treasures. The privateer Jean Lafitte used the area to hide from French and American fleets, and famous pirates with names like Hawkins, Drake, and Grammont, sailed these waters and left their mark on the Texas coast. Also of historical significance is the role the Island and surrounding Rio Grande Valley played in the American Civil War. At nearby and historic Fort Brown in Brownsville, a long list of famous U.S. generals served during the Mexican-American and Civil Wars including Stonewall Jackson, Zachary Taylor, Ulysses Grant, Robert E. Lee, Winfield Scott, Jefferson Davis and Braxton Bragg. The last battle of the Civil War, in fact, was fought at nearby Palmito Ranch near Port Isabel.
Nor far away are the famous ranches of South Texas, the King Ranch, Kenedy Ranch and Yturria Ranch. The three combined still occupy more territory than many U.S. states. Out here, it’s a big country – and a big adventure waiting to be discovered.
And like the cavaliers and soldiers, the explorers, the pirates and the history-makers, this little piece of beach paradise, one of the few remaining in the USA, can be harnessed and experienced. Like those that came before, you can capture a piece of paradise and live the timeless and magic coastline of South Texas. And by visiting the South Padre Equestrian Center and saddling up for the adventure, you can take a piece of it home with you, if only in your memories.
With a resident population of about 3,000 full-time and twice that many part-time residents, the Island can, with visitors, easily swell to over 100,000 during peak spring break and holiday weekends. In contrast, the island can remain a sleepy, unpopulated barrier Island community much of the year. A number of major hotels and resorts service the community and surrounding bay area. The South Padre Island Golf Course, on the opposite side of the bay from the Island, provides 27 holes of championship golf. The nearby Rio Grande Valley communities of Brownsville, Harlingen and McAllen offer additional modern services and conveniences and additional attractions, like the world-class Gladys Porter Zoo, the World Birding Center and a host of historical museums.

South Padre Island golf
Matamoros, Reynosa and Nuevo Progreso, Mexico, are nearby border town destinations and provide great shopping and dining opportunities. The international crossing at Brownsville is only 25 miles from the Island.
South Padre Island is serviced by three major airports, the Brownsville-South Padre Island International Airport (25 miles), Valley Regional International in Harlingen (35 miles) and the International Airport in McAllen (75 miles). Shuttle, taxi and limousine services are offered from the Brownsville and Harlingen airports.
The community is located on the southern tip of Texas and serviced U.S. Highway 77 (Corpus Christi to Brownsville) and by U.S. Highway 281 (McAllen to San Antonio). Texas Highway 100 intersects U.S. 77 and runs directly (25 miles) to Port Isabel which is connected to the Island by a two mile causeway bridging it to the mainland. Car rentals are available at all major locations.
You can contact the South Padre Island Equestrian Center at 956-761-4677, or visit their website at

Logan Hawkes is a dual resident of South Padre Island and Santa Fe, New Mexico, and a Hearst Writer’s Award winner, Logan Hawkes is a freelance travel writer, radio host of Travel Quest, and managing editor of Lost Planet Media, an online and print magazine publishing company.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.