I am more fortunate than one should ever be. Most weekends, I tag along on a trail ride at the Oglebay Stables.
The Bridle Trail at Oglebay is a special place. It starts at the end of the stable’s parking lot and winds in the woods and comes back on itself. The trail guide has a choice of staying straight or turning right at the only crossing of the trail. Turn right, and the hills are less steep downhill, but about three-quarters of the way, there is a long and steady uphill. Go straight, and there is a long downhill about one-quarter of the way on the ride. Either way, there is only a short stretch where you can see Route 88 and the Mansion, while most of the ride you are enveloped by nature.
The trail is beautiful in all seasons. A spring ride includes the sounds of birds scattering around looking for twigs with which to build a nest. Trees sprout green, and the smell of new growth abounds. Summer rides are often hot and damp. The trail offers a cool shady reprise from the heat of the day. Bugs plague the rider and horse alike. Fly spray keeps them off the horse, but I am not sure I remembered to apply it to myself. Riding in the fall means the crunch of leaves under hoof. The colors distract one’s attention, and a critter scampers fast across the trail. Deer hide in the thicket, alert, and then run off. There are deer tracks in the mud. Sometimes, we are fortunate to be able to ride in the early winter. The trail can get frozen and slippery, and once this happens, the trail is closed. We might ride as late as mid-December with a dusting of snow on the path if the weather cooperates. There is no sound on these days. As the horses’ hooves hit the ground, there is no sound. The cold air turns the horse’s breaths into clouds.
I do not ride alone. I like the company of others on the trail. We talk about what has happened today. Lodge guests ask about the park or things to do in the area. There are periods of silence when the steady rhythmic plodding of hooves sets a beat.
The trail horses are a special lot. Some have other jobs, while others only do this trail work. Some are involved in lessons, camp or the Bethany College program. To be a trail horse is a special talent. Horses are always aware of their surroundings. This keeps them safe in the wild and serves them well while in the pasture. Some, due to life circumstance or breed, become so over alert that riding on a trail is counterproductive. There are horses that thrive in the awareness required of the trail.
As the ride begins, the trail guide leads us to the trailhead. Once down the hill, the horses quickly fall into their steady pace. We turn right and head deeper into the woods. This part of the trail has merged with the hiking trail so occasionally we encounter hikers. Some might be walking with dogs along this part of the path. Generally, the horses don’t pay any attention to the dogs or other animals they encounter on the path. Sometimes we yell out to the deer to prompt them to move off the trail. Most hikers stop, step off the trail, and wait for us to pass.
I take out my phone to snap a photo. My photos through horse ears are relaxing to look at later. I worry that I will drop my phone, though I never have.
The trail passes over a stream, and a culvert is buried deep under the ground we walk on. The horses listen to the water. In the spring, the water runs fast and loud. In the summer, it is hardly there at all. This is the halfway mark of the ride.
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Then it is on to the areas where the wet springs make the ground soft and mushy much of the year. The horses have their preferred path through or around the muddy areas. As we approach the uphill, one or more of the horses will stop for a bathroom break. We comment that horses can walk and poop at the same time, but they choose not to. Most of the time, someone laughs at this comment, particularly if there is a child on the ride. We are on to the long uphill. You can feel and hear the horses putting forth more effort on this part of the trail. They gear up. They keep pace with one another. They try to catch up. Some of the horses walk fast at the beginning of the hill only to tire and slow down toward the end. Others are slow and steady climbers. Mimi, my ride for the day, is slow and steady. She knows that no matter what, she will catch up, or they will wait for her at the top.
We come to a gate that separates the trail from the main road. There is a tree here with unusual leaves. It catches the dew and rain, and when this occurs, the leaves sparkle in the sunlight. You can’t see the cars, but you can hear them. On to the slight uphill with the buried bricks; I wonder how these bricks got here, to begin with. But here they are, half in the ground and half out. The water has worn a slight rut across the trail. The horses don’t mind, and we zigzag our way through this area. We ride along Route 88 for a short distance. One can see the Oglebay Mansion across the road. We pass the woodpecker tree. The tree looks like Swiss cheese, with numerous holes the size of my fist. Another woodpecker-attacked tree that I look out for has finally succumbed to the holes over the past winter. It has fallen and is now decaying in the forest.
We are back to the intersection. The horses know that we are almost home. Sometimes at this point of the trail, you can hear other horses at the barn. The horses’ pace steps up. The trail guide prompts the group that we are almost done. Sometimes guests’ friends or family are waiting for them at the top of the hill. The ponies look up and nicker in the field, and I call out to them. There are questions about the ride.
I have spent an hour in the saddle. One hour that will impact the remainder of my day. The responsibilities of the day enter my mind. A checklist of things to do is on my phone. I know I must stop at the grocery store on the way home — I need things for dinner. My car needs gas. I need to call my mom. But instead, I will linger here a little longer. I will help untack. I will hose legs off. I will pause and reflect on just how fortunate I am to have spent this one hour on a trail at Oglebay and will wonder when I will be able to do it again.
• Melanee Sinclair is a professor at Bethany College. She is founder of Team Moochie, an organization dedicated to providing education, financial support and guidance to individuals and groups providing services to working equines. She is the human responsible for Gordy and FKA who live at the Oglebay Stables.