Horseback riding is a wonderful way to experience our Saranac Lake wilderness. We see Adirondack forest from a new perspective, get the benefit of a guided tour, and experience nature with a large animal companion.
Emerald Springs Ranch, in nearby Lake Clear, has extensive trails and friendly horses. They are all Registered Quarter Horses, born and raised on the ranch. During the rider preparation period, the instructor tells us (if we wish) to give the person next to us a hug. "That," she says, "is how we've raised our horses, and how we want you to treat them."
This rider prep is essential to make sure everyone knows what to do and what to expect. Many times this will be a new adventure for the potential rider, and I'm in that category. This would be (counting the pony at the fair when I was seven) my fourth time on a horse. It's only the second time I've actually ridden one, in the sense of being left alone to communicate my wishes to an enormous someone I've just met.
Learning to Ride
When I volunteer my amateur status as part of our rider prep, Joyce deValinger, proprietor and trail guide, says, "I think you'll get Goldie." Matching horse to rider is one of the ways she makes sure everyone has a good time. Goldie, I am happy to hear, is known for her sweet-natured obedience.
My companion asserts more, and more recent, experience, and is assigned Serena, who (despite her name) is a tad more spirited. One of the others in the group has no experience, and will be riding Friendly.
Mr. DeValinger helps with the actual mounting up process, like which side of the stirrup to step into and where to settle myself on the saddle. I know it seems like such items should be obvious, but this kind of sitting is nothing like a chair. Where and how I sit will determine what I'm telling this "chair."
getting the hang of it
I mentally remind myself it's "Heels down, thumbs up." Keeping my heels down puts my foot in the proper stirrup position, and keeping my thumbs up helps me hold the reins the right way. This makes sending my messages to Goldie easy and understandable.
These horses have been bitless bridle-trained; there is no bit in their mouths. It's the most humane way of guiding the horse, who has been trained to respond to signals from the rider. A gentle squeeze of my knees (another reason to sit in the right place) and Goldie knows to move forward. Gentle pressure on the reins by pulling them towards me will get her to stop. We don't even have to say "whoa!" even though part of me wants to.
Once we are all saddled and helmeted, we do a circle path very slowly. This lets us all practice the new horse language we've been briefed on, and lets the saddles get checked at the end of the circuit. Horses have been known to hold their breath when they first get saddled, so the saddle gets looser after some riding. Some of the saddles now need to be cinched up, as Goldie's does.
I take it as a reminder that she knows a lot more about riding than I do.
trails first used by native americans
Now we can safely begin our wilderness ride through one of the many trails winding through the ranch. Joyce has chosen an intermediate trail for our bunch, while the newbies take a beginner trail. The scenery is lovely in any case, but our trail has more terrain changes and rougher ground.
My first task turns out to be letting Goldie know that I was not a pushover. She stopped to eat some grass by the side of the trail, and I pulled on the reins just enough to bring her head up and then squeezed my knees on her shoulders. I swear she gave me a backwards eye-roll, but the next try was tentative, and that was all the tries there were. I was aware that it takes a lot of grass eating to keep hundreds of lively pounds of herbivore running around, but Joyce had already assured us they ate all the time, (goodies too!) and they just wanted to see if we could be conned.
I was getting a new look at horse intelligence... or at least, horse con-artistry.
a wonderful way to wilderness
The woods were quiet, but far from silent. Birds were lively and vocal, the horses occasionally huffed and snorted, and the breeze through the pine needles had that special whispery sound I love. Joyce said the trails we were riding on had started as Native American paths, and she pointed out caches they had used to store things along the way.
Joyce had a lot of forest lore and fun horse stories, but she also gave us space to enjoy the ride. This gave me time to work on my horse communication. My second challenge turned out to be keeping Goldie from walking along with her head on the haunches of Joyce's horse. Knowing horses are pack animals, I asked if these horses were close friends, and Joyce laughed and agreed that they were.
However, we were not hanging out in the pasture together thinking about our next treat. We'd already been advised that we should loosen the reins when the terrain got challenging. This was especially important in boggy places which would tend to cause our horses anxiety and make them want to get back on firm ground as soon as possible. I had become more adept at letting Goldie pick her own path and resuming a tighter rein when we got back on it. So now I would bring her to a halt every time she got too close to her horse friend, and in a short while I could almost feel Goldie's shrug as she went back to her work.
many ways to enjoy the trail
As I became more adept at working with Goldie as a team, it became evident that this was a wonderful way to explore the wilderness. There was the historical angle, since this would have been the transport of choice in the early years of the Adirondacks, and some of these trails were used by the very first settlers, the Abenaki Tribe of the Six Nations. There was the ground covering angle, too, because instead of picking my way around boggy patches or having to watch my footing in tricky parts, I just let Goldie handle the trail while I was free to observe all the beautiful scenery.
But most of all, it was exploring nature with someone who was closer to it than I was. Despite the leather trappings of civilization Goldie wore, even with the domesticity that allowed her to see me as a somewhat inept traveling companion, she was a wild creature. Her hearing and sense of smell was much better than mine, and those dark brown eyes on the sides of her head take in far more of a panorama than my "stereo" vision. By watching her ears and the tilt of her head, I was quickly more a part of the forest, and more alert to what was there.
I was sorry when the ride ended. I was eager to try it again sometime.
Emerald Springs Ranch can take on groups who include even the smallest members, because they also raise and train miniature horses. These adorable little guys must be seen, and petted, to be believed!