The thought's been ringing through my head ever since I rode Mama four years ago. Born Wiggles Cat's Meow and owned by my niece Jenna, then age 11, Mama was a quiet, retired Quarter Horse brood mare.
Yes, that sunny afternoon on the Northern California coast, as I tossed a saddle on Mama, she tried to take off my arm. Undaunted, I swung my leg over her broad back as she turned and tried to kick me. Still unscathed with spirits high like Mama's, off we went with Jenna, her mom Rosalie and cousin Tanna through the redwood forest for a fun afternoon.
Today, on this misty morning, I drive through Vernon, through ridges and valleys as verdant as the California canyon. I'm going riding at Borderland Farm! I pull up to the big old house on the edge of Jersey and New York that overlooks horse-filled pastures, and is home to Virginia Martin, proprietor.
Gorgeous horses fill the stalls and I say howdy to the big bay, Sullivan, who turns to look at me.
Ms. Martin tells me that everything is a lesson, and that trail rides are guided by Borderland instructors who teach from the classic French style of "riding with lightness." The rider's leg should be like "a breath of wind on the side of the horse" she says. "Riding is like dancing with a horse; it's a partnership. The harder you kick him, the heavier the horse becomes."
I try to remember her wisdom and hop on Spuds, a draft cross already saddled and waiting for me. Dotty Murphy, barn manager, mounts Boots, her spotted American Sport horse--a thoroughbred/appaloosa cross.
Down through the barnyard we go, everyone eager today. We cut across the pasture, then through the gate into the Field Barn Orchard, a remnant from when Borderland was a fruit and dairy farm. The trails are pretty footpaths through tall trees and blooming shrubs, lush ferns and wildflowers. In many places, plants grow right over the trails. Others are more used and some have jumps for the more experienced rider. Soon we come to a big puddle and I feel resistance in Spuds--shades of Mama. But he's only kidding and with a little nudge, he wades through.
We cross over the railroad tracks and turn into Witch's Woods with lots of saplings, birdsong and regeneration.
Soon we are in the Enchanted Forest, full of sugar maple saplings and old gnarled trees that once gave sap for maple syrup. Stone walls separate the woods from fields of wildflowers glimpsed through the trees. It looks different here--very few rocks. Were the rocks gathered to make the wall? When the sun streams down through the sugar maples, the woods are outstanding, and in the summer it's 10° cooler here than in the fields.
The Upper Cantering Field stretches across the domed top of the ridge and is edged with more stone wall; its surrounding tree line descends on all sides. The hills in Vernon are shrouded in mist. It's heaven up here.
We enter the Botanical Trail with lots of spice bush scenting the ride as Spuds takes a nip. There are lots of rocks and mosses, ferns and lichen. Down we sashay and Spuds is just so comfortable, I sashay with him. Alongside the woods is a farm with highlander cows and beautiful pasture on a sloping hillside and sweeping willows with a pond. And I can look at these things because Spuds is so good. We saunter down a slim trail through another sunny field--hay field as all the fields here are--along a rocky stream.
Back at the ranch, Ms. Martin says that riding a horse is the most difficult movement activity known to man. She says "Think about it. These horses weigh between 900 to 1450 pounds and they have brains." She spurts out the questions I've been asking myself all along: Why will a horse listen to me? She says that horses think in the moment--food, going out, and their work. Borderland's horses are out in a pasture all night, and in the morning they're brought in to the barn and then they think about work. "When they hear the chain on the gate, they start hooting and hollering. That's natural. We keep them in a natural fashion because we have the land. That's why they're so quiet."
It's another day's jaunt to Silver Bit and Spur Farm in Whitehouse Station. Danny and Gene Eggemann own this family business where today, Kerry and Tom from Warren County show up to ride. It's been years since either one has ridden, so Ms. Eggemann heads to the paddock to pick two gentle horses, Bitsy and Copper, and walks them through the barn. She ties them to the grain feeder and brushes and saddles them.
Ms. Eggemann instructs them quickly. "Now listen up. See how you're stiff? Don't do that. Keep the ball of your foot there, heels down, little bit of pressure. If you go stiff, you're gonna bounce. Keep your feet under your shoulders. No matter what you're doing, you should always be like that." She shows them how to give the reins a little bit of slack, how to turn, neck rein and slow down. "He's Grandpa. After he stops, let him have a slack rein. That's his reward."
She points them down the long lane and watches them go. She calls after them "Relax. Have a good time. You look cock-eyed. Stop the horse." She quickly adjusts a stirrup. They ride off into the sunshine.
If anyone has trouble getting started, Ms. Eggemann takes them into a ring to get them comfortable and shows them how to handle the horse. Her horses are gentle. She says she likes the older horse who's been there, done that. "They're Grandpa horses. Your Mom can ride my horses. The most important part of this place is knowing you'll be safe."
Silver Bit and Spur rents "grandpa" ponies by the half hour that are ideal for grandparents to put the kids on while the parents go riding.
If you love horses and don't ride, you don't have far to go to observe the best. The Sussex County Horse Show/New Jersey State Fair is one of the best horse shows on the East Coast, and is one of the major horse shows in the country, according to Sue Gerber, President of the Sussex County Horse Show. Affiliated with The Sussex County Farm and Horse Show, its two divisions run back to back.
The American Quarter Horse Show, with reining, barrel racing, pole bending, Palaminos, Paints, Appaloosas and more, runs the first three days of the fai. Later, the English division offers lots of horsey excitement: miniature horses at halter and driving, Tennessee Walkers, drafts in team weight pulling, regal Friesian carriage horses with flowing manes and tails and "feathers" on their feet, side saddle competition, Shetland ponies and hunter classes.
The show (American Horse Show Association A-rated show) has prizes totaling $150,000, culminating with a Grand Prix prize of $50,000 to the fastest jumper.
During the year, there are eight benefit horse shows to improve the facility, and C-rated American Horse Show Association shows. C-rated shows attract trainers with students, riders new to the show world, and those just wanting to hone skills.
The United States Equestrian Team (USET) in Gladstone selects both human and equine athletes to participate in international events while representing the United States. Candidates must qualify at nationwide USET-hosted competitions or in overseas events. They are selected by a committee for each discipline, then trained, equipped and financed by the USET. There are currently six disciplines: Western reining, driving, endurance, show jumping, dressage, and eventing.