Sunday, June 23, 2002

Back in the saddle again

        Sixteen years ago, I vowed never to go horseback riding again. Never mind that I was merely a fourth grader when I made the decision, fresh from Girl Scout horse camp and slightly shaken by a simple incident involving an ill-tempered horse and a troublemaking mosquito.

        I suspect the horse, which was very old and mean and did not appreciate our troop's hour-long discussion of Cabbage Patch dolls, bucked feverishly to A) show the mosquito who was boss and B) finally get some peace and quiet.

        In any case, I hadn't planned on riding again — until this week. That's when I discovered The Dude Ranch at Ripple Creek Farm, an 85-acre haven in Morrow that's home to 62 horses, a variety of farm animals, two pot bellied pigs and a real, live llama. Not only could I go on a 1 1/2-hour trail ride, I could even take part in an authentic cattle drive.

    Slip on your cowboy boots, zip up your blue jeans, tip your hat and mount your horse. All you need is a quick “Giddyup!” and you're the next John Wayne, suavely galloping off into the sunset.

    Or so you might think.

    True Cincinnati horseback adventures begin with safety precautions, skills lessons and technique tips. Local stable owners urge guests to approach summer trail riding with enthusiasm, an open mind and — most of all — common sense.

    Lorionna Brehm, equestrian director at YMCA's Camp Kern in Oregonia, instructs trail riders, private students and more than 200 summer campers each year. She said the Western atmosphere seems to unleash many riders' cowboy spirits.

    “We see something different every day, but most commonly we see people trying to be Clint Eastwood. They say “Yee-haw!” and think they can take off running across the field,” she said.

    East Fork Stables owner George Wisbey said safety is crucial for successful trips and classes. Wisbey teaches a defensive style of riding with an emphasis on accident prevention at his Batavia-based stables.

    “We have people who come out here and think horses are trained to take them for a ride. What really happens is that I have to train them to ride the horses,” he said.

    The recommended attire for trail riding is long pants, sturdy shoes, a long sleeved shirt and a helmet. The clothing can prevent insect bites and protect against saddle chafing, while the headgear can thwart accidents, shield the sun and discourage ticks.

    Doug Adams, owner of the Trails of Fiddlers Green in Cincinnati, has been giving trail rides for more than a decade. He's still surprised by the apparel some guests choose.

    “I've seen people wear everything from swimming wear to sandals to short-shorts,” Adams said. “But they pay for it in the long run. They have blisters by the time they're done.”

        It sounded like such a great summer adventure, I volunteered to get back in the saddle again. I also volunteered my older sister, Amy, a middle school teacher who actually rustled up a red cowboy hat for the occasion. General manager Scott Clark told us the ranch's horses are trained to walk single-file along the trails. When accidents — which are rare — occur, they usually result from riders breaking the rules. Scott said horseback riding can be relaxing, fun and therapeutic, but the animals are not mechanized rides; therefore, it's impossible to predict whether they'll be startled by loud noises or bugs (or fourth graders).

        But here is the most exciting part about horseback riding: THE HORSES DO ALL THE WORK. The horse's job is to trudge through the dirt and mud and climb steep hills while carrying live cargo. This gives riders lots of free time, most of which is spent panicking and overreacting.

        While there are no age limits for horseback riding at the Dude Ranch (kids under 6 are encouraged to ride ponies instead), weight is another story. Guests over 225 pounds are restricted from riding for their own safety, and that of the horses. This policy varies from stable to stable.

        We were introduced to our wrangler, Ricky Bowen, and the rest of our trail riding group: Enquirer photographer Michael Snyder and vacationers Dave Koontz, 39, and Elizabeth Koontz, 8, from Maineville.

        We waited nervously on individual loading docks while Ricky brought out our horses. Amy and I envisioned the prize steeds that would come our way, with grandiose names like Black Beauty, Silver, Secretariat, or The General.

        Amy, the first in line, craned her neck and waited anxiously until Ricky produced a delightful brown pony.

        “Wow,” she said admiringly. “What's his name?”

        “This here's Stumpy,” he said.

        It didn't take long to see that Stumpy had the demeanor of a kitten and the ambition of a noodle. He immediately buried his face into the tail of Ricky's quarterhorse, Bullet, (we learned that it was a way to keep flies off Stumpy's face) and didn't look up 'til the trip was over.

        My horse was next. Ricky guided Spirit, a white speckled Arabian, to my dock. Spirit and I struck a deal: I promised not to yell shrill things into his ears and he agreed not to abandon, toss, trample or eat me. Meanwhile, Michael made friends with his quarter Apaloosa, Rebel; Elizabeth was introduced to quarterhorse Waldo, and Dave met standard bred Archie.

        Ricky showed us how to guide the horses (pull the reins in the direction you want to go), and how to stop (pull the reins directly back). We tentatively ambled up a hill, down a ravine and across a path without a hitch. Just as our anxiety began to fade, we came face to face with 19 Texas longhorn steers. Big cows, boasting horns the size of baseball bats. The tough kind, with missing teeth and "Mom' tattooed on their forelegs.

        It was time for the authentic cattle drive. There was no turning back.

        Ricky instructed us to remain calm and break from our single file line. We formed a horseshoe shape at the base of the herd and waited to see which direction the group would move. It was like the movie City Slickers, except for one thing: The cows were thoroughly bored. I distinctly saw one yawn.

        Ricky encouraged us to whoop and holler to get the cows moving. Being city folk through and through, we asked him what we should actually yell.

Enquirer reporter Shannon Russell, on white horse, takes part in a cattle drive at The Dude Ranch in Morrow. Also pictured is Dave Koontz, left, Elizabeth Koontz, rear, and Amy Russell, right.
(Michael Snyder photo)
| ZOOM |
        “Up-cow usually works,” he said, so we tried it.

        No response.

        Believing perchance that the cows hadn't heard our relentless bellows, we tried a round of “Yee-haws!” instead.

        Still nothing.

        Just as we were about to take the cows' pulses, two Longhorns took two steps. Hurrah! We considered the cattle “driven” and pressed onward.

        Amy, who had forged a friendship with the loyal Stumpy, was sad to see him go when we returned to the stable.

        “I was nervous about horseback riding at first, but it was reassuring that Stumpy was so smart. I didn't have to worry about him getting out of line,” she said.

        Elizabeth insisted the ride was better than any pony ring she'd ever ridden, and Dave said it was a fun alternative to amusement parks.

        “We came out here because we wanted to do something different, and something outdoors. It's very scenic out here,” Dave said. “You don't see these kinds of hills and trees in subdivisions.”

        I politely thanked Spirit for: A) not puncturing my spleen and B) restoring my confidence in horses. Before we left, Amy and I made plans to try out other Cincinnati stables — before another 16 years go by.

       E-mail Shannon at

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