Kitty Up

When Rick Wessel is out gallivanting on his horse in local parks, he's happy to accommodate strangers who want to take pictures. But he's not the one shutterbugs shoot; it's his horse-riding pal, Hollywood Jake.

Jake, a fluffy, 18-pound, red Maine Coon cat, accompanies Wessel on trail rides and on extended camping trips with the South Florida Trail Riders, a nonprofit group of horse lovers who organize group rides in Florida and out of state. Wherever he rides, Jake takes it easy. He sometimes stretches out on a towel across the rump of Wessel's palomino quarter horse, Georgia. Or he hangs behind Wessel in a backpack-type pouch -- head out and paws dangling over the side.

This may sound like cat abuse, but Jake loves riding, the Wessels assure. "It gives him a vantage point to see and do things," says Leigh Wessel, Rick's wife.

The Wessels breed Maine Coon cats, but Jake is the only one that rides. The couple realized his interest in equestrian activity last year while on a camping trip in Tennessee. Rick put Jake up on his horse, and the cat didn't jump off. In fact, he stayed on while Wessel walked with the horse, then mounted up and rode off.

For safety's sake, Jake wears a harness with a leash connected to Wessel. When Jake's riding on a pad behind the saddle, Wessel goes at a jogging pace. When Jake's inside the pouch, Wessel goes a little faster but still avoids a full gallop.

Jake is also something of a showman -- er, showcat. He rode with Wessel during a Christmas parade in Davie (both horse and cat wore Santa hats) and at the Davie Covered Arena prior to a rodeo. After the ride Jake drew the admiration of cowboys. He lost his footing momentarily when the horse was spooked. But the cat steadied himself and sat up proudly. The cowboys said, "All right!"

The Wessels don't know if Hollywood Jake will go pro as an entertainer. But Leigh Wessel would like to see him ride Georgia on the The Late Show With David Letterman's "Stupid Pet Tricks" segment. For now the cat's scheduled to ride with Rick at an upcoming horse show in Ocala, and he'll be out at Markham Park with the trail riders in September.

"The more people around, the better he performs," Leigh Wessel says. "This is something a cat has to want to do. Cats you never make do anything."

-- Patti Roth

The South Florida Trail Riders' next Broward County event is a camp-out and ride scheduled for September 5-7 at Markham Park, 16001 W. State Rd. 84, Sunrise. Cost is $18 per campsite. Call 954-434-0727. For more information about the Trail Riders, write to P.O. Box 290601, Davie,

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Patti Roth