Wisconsin’s trail riders are drawn to the soft sounds of the forest, where the creak of saddle leather and the comforting clomp of horses’ hooves play along to the melody of robin warbles and the wind whipping through the branches. The vantage point from atop a horse offers a unique way to survey Wisconsin’s rural wonders year round. Happily, there are few better places to trail ride than in Wisconsin, where more than 800 miles of trails wind through our state parks, forests and recreation areas. Private stables offer thousands more acres of trails, forest and farm lands for exploring on horseback.
Luckily for the tenderfoots among us, you don’t have to be a John Wayne-caliber Westerner to ride a Wisconsin trail. Stables offer experiences geared toward the novice, with safe, relaxing rides in a group setting. Guided rides generally last between a half hour and an hour, but riders can opt for longer. Amateurs beware: There is a thing called a “saddle sore,” so ease into this sport. Fees for this family-friendly activity vary, but a half-hour stable ride generally starts at around $27. Beaver Springs offers an “elite ride” with the option to canter (faster than a trot, slower than a gallop) for $35.
There are few restrictions – children under 5 typically aren’t allowed to ride – but there are no height or weight requirements or limits. Small horses can give shorter riders a less-dizzying view from their lower saddle heights, and sturdy draft horses stand ready to provide even the biggest customer a great ride.
“We don’t want to say ‘No’ to anyone, so we have draft horses. They’re gentle giants and very well behaved,” says Michael Johnson, park manager at Beaver Springs in the Wisconsin Dells. Before heading out on the trail, however, novice riders will have to demonstrate their skills. Guides ask riders about their riding experience, watch them ride around a paddock and then assign horses that match their expertise and temperament.
Around horses, keep in mind that as prey animals, they react to almost anything sudden or strange. “Riders should refrain from making sudden loud movements, yelling, running or approaching them too quickly. Restraint is always the best policy,” says Rae Miller, spokeswoman for the Southern Kettle Moraine Horse Trail Association (SKMHTA). “But many horses that have a lot of trail experience can remain calm in all but the most challenging circumstances.”
Beginners who want to take it up a notch – and break out of the single-file nose-to-tail rides – should find ways to spend time around horses. “Spend some ground time with a horse, and learn how they move,” says Sandy Gilbert, equine expert and founder of Refuge Farms horse sanctuary in Spring Valley. Get a part-time job mucking stalls at a stable or volunteer with a horse-rescue group in your area (to find one, contact your local humane society or visit horseworlddata.com/rescue.html).
The appeal of trail riding comes partly from nature, partly from connecting with a soft-eyed horse, trail experts say. “It’s the chance to get back to nature in a classic Old West style,” Johnson says.
Lisa Doerr, treasurer of the Equestrian Friends of Governor Knowles State Forest, says, “People love trail riding because you get to see things you can never see from a car but still cover much more territory than you can hiking.”
And, contrary to what you might assume, much of the surrounding wildlife is more intrigued than scared of the horses and their particular brand of commotion. Riders might catch a peek of everything from songbirds to wolves. “You can see fox, wild turkey, deer, a great horned owl,” says Amy Olson, owner of Rising Star Stables in Manitowoc. “Every time I go out I see something new. I talk about the whole nature experience with the riders on the trail.”
But even in the remote areas of our state, the chances of running into a large animal are small. Horses can smell other large creatures long before you see them, and if you happen to run into one on the trail, you haven’t been listening to your horse, says Gilbert. “If your horse starts dancing, trying to turn around or ‘acting up,’ it is trying to tell you something.”
If you do meet a predator on the trail, follow this advice: “Try to stay calm; don’t make any sudden moves, just stand there,” says Miller of the SKMHTA. Most times the other animal will run off; humans and horses don’t smell very good to wildlife. Go back the way you came as quietly as possible and notify others of the sighting. “But if you show fear or make a lot of noise your horse may panic and a large animal may become aggressive,” Miller says.
Horses also pick up on fear in their riders. “When our emotions change, our scents change and horses smell the chemical imbalance,” Gilbert says. “Your adrenaline is going and your breath smells different. The horse thinks: ‘If this prey animal is afraid, I better be afraid, too.’ Breathe deeply from your stomach, let your shoulders sag, lower your energy level, keep your hands at your side. The horse will relax, too.”
Once horse and rider are familiar with each other, a horse is a natural traveling companion. “They give you such a sense of calm. You can have a stressful day and they relieve that stress: their breathing, the creak of the saddle,” says Annette Husske, a member of the SKMHTA.
“For me there’s an inner peace from being one with the horse. They’re so powerful. They have an effect on people,” says Cheryl Riley, who co-owns the Spider Lake Ranch Riding Stable in Hayward with her husband Mike.
Sometimes riders can get unexpected behind-the-scenes looks at familiar sights. “You can get a different sense of the Dells from the trail, including the roller coasters at Mt. Olympus Park,” says Johnson.
The trail-riding experience itself, of course, varies with the territory: hills, fields, pine needle-covered woods. Governor Knowles State Forest has one of the best terrain mixes, says Doerr. “The ecosystem is located in the tension zone between the state’s prairie and boreal forests. The scrub, almost bonsai, oak forests are especially rare. There are rides though pine plantations, a variety of hardwoods and along river wetlands. All of this habitat supports a variety of plant and animals.”
In the Kettle Moraine State Forest’s Southern Unit, 54 miles of horse trails let riders enjoy “unique kettles, old oak, and bubbling springs. I’ve talked to people who come from as far away as Wyoming to ride here,” says Don Dane, Department of Natural Resources trails coordinator for the Southern Unit.
State parks also offer a range of amenities for both riders and horses. “We have a new picnic area with a water oasis for horses where people can hitch their horses and picnic,” Dane says. The state park system also has more than 175 sites just for riders who want to camp with their horses to recapture the feel of pioneer days.
Horse riding is restricted in some areas, so before to check access before you head out. Not all trails and state parks allow horses and in some cases, bikers and hikers are not allowed to share trails with horses. Check the DNR riders’ website for details. Horses can be ridden through towns and along public roads, but they must be accustomed to motorized traffic. Towns are free to prohibit horse traffic, but some state park trails such as those in the Kettle Moraine Southern Unit actually lead into towns (in this case, Palmyra and Eagle).
Some equestrian clubs offer competitive riding challenges for experienced riders, including mounted orienteering competitions, obstacle courses and treasure hunts. “The group thing is another way to enjoy the outdoors and acquire a skill,” says Miller of the SKMHTA.
And don’t be put off by the cost of equipment – no chaps or fancy riding boots required. A pair of boots (or shoe with a sturdy heel to keep your feet from slipping through the stirrups), gloves and jeans are all you need for Western trail riding, Miller says. Some stables offer helmets, so if you want to wear one, check on availability beforehand. Most riders use Western equipment – the classic cowboy outfit with saddle horn and large stirrups. A few ride with English equipment – small saddles with thin stirrups usually seen in dressage and jumping competitions. This is simply a matter of personal preference.
If you’re going with a guide
- Be truthful about your skill level when talking to the guides on stable rides so they can match you with the perfect horse for your abilities.
- “Listen to the directions of your trail guides. They know the trail and the horses,” says Michael Johnson, park manager of Beaver Springs at the Wisconsin Dells.
- Keep your feet in the stirrups for balance and safety.
- Don’t try to ride side-by-side with another horse. One may startle the other.
- Don’t run horses down hills. That imperils both horse and rider.
- Don’t smoke or bring alcoholic beverages.
- Check with stables for themed rides; some offer moonlight rides.
If you’re going solo
- To enjoy the state parks, all riders over age 16 are required to get a state trail pass (and vehicle admission sticker if driving in): $4 per person per day or $20 for the year. Passes are sold at main park offices and at some on-trail self-registration stations.
- Horses have the right of way over motorized vehicles and pedestrians says Don Dane, a DNR official.
- In winter, be aware that some public trails are shared with snowmobilers and skiers. Call state parks for trail updates and conditions.
- Dress for the weather. In hunting season, wear orange, Dane suggests.
- Watch the weather. “If it’s icy or slippery, don’t go out,” Johnson says.
- Watch the water. Horses sometimes balk at the combination of shining, moving water. You may have to get down and walk across the obstacle and get back on so the horse doesn’t buck. “If you remain calm, they’ll see there’s nothing to be afraid of,” Gilbert says.
- Hilly and stony trails are the most challenging for horse and rider.
- On the trail, don’t worry about cleaning up after your horse. “If staying at a campground, you must clean up manure at your campsite. Manure cleanup is not required on trails,” Miller says. Manure is, after all, a natural product.
- Nearly any kind of weather is good for horseback riding, Miller says, but it’s best to steer clear of lightening, mud, ice and severe weather.
Jackie Loohauis-Bennett is a senior journalist at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. The winner of state and national writing awards, her work has appeared in such publications as the Orlando Sentinel and the Chicago Tribune. She’s also an avid horse-lover who has chronicled horse-rescue efforts in Wisconsin.
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