From the Equine Journal - October 2009
This is an unedited version of the EJ article which was edited due to space allowed
In July, I was fortunate to join a large group from my barn on a camping trip to Acadia National Park in Maine. For those unfamiliar with the park, there are forty-five miles of rustic carriage roads.The system of roads were constructed between 1913 and 1940 and gifted by John D. Rockefeller Jr. and family to allow carriages and trail riders an opportunity to experience motor-free access to this amazing park. The meticulously maintained roads are approximately 16 feet wide with many sweeping vistas and beautiful landscapes to enjoy with your horse.
A trip to Acadia to ride on the carriage roads with Phoebe had been a goal of mine I made over the winter. It would be the first "off the farm" adventure for me and my seven year old PB Cleveland Bay, Phoebe. Over the five years that I have owned Phoebe we have taken her training slow and steady. We have been working for the last two years in the dressage discipline with a lot of arena work. Both of us were ready to get out and explore away from the barn. With an extremely wet spring and summer our preparation for Acadia was limited to one trail ride. Even close to home, I wasn't sure what to expect venturing off the dirt road we normally walk on. Woods and thin wet trails are not something Phoebe has ever had to take me through. Well, she was a champ and put all my anxieties to rest about being able to tackle the trip to Acadia.
The weekend finally arrived after much anticipation, the menus were set and all the gear was packed. Only having been on a trailer 3 times, Phoebe walked right on with no hesitation. We had a 3 hour drive then unloaded the horses at their weekend homes at Wildwood Stables. Phoebe settled right in to her large, open stall with a long drink and her nose buried in a flake of hay; no calling or dancing around in the stall as I expected. We set up camp and we were off for an evening ride. Eight of us headed out for about an hour. Phoebe was puffed up in her shoulders and looky, but over all willing and interested in walking with the group. As the minutes passed she started to push through the lead horses and decided she would lead us the rest of the way. On the final stretch of the ride we crossed one of Acadia's beautiful stone faced bridges. She danced two steps as she saw a car on the road below go underneath us, but she was smart about it and kept with the herd and got us home.
Friday morning, after a delicious breakfast, I joined part of our group headed out to the ocean view road. The ride would be just over three and a half hours, the longest I had been on Phoebe for one ride. We left the barn and walked to the trail head where we encountered our first carriage team park tour coming down the hill. Phoebe and I were in the back of the group and watched each horse react to the spectacle and clatter of the carriage. Our fearless leader went right by, but the rest of us had mini melt downs. Best to get off and head to the bottom of the hill to let the carriage go back to their barns we had just passed. A lot of excitement and a little sweating up and I was almost ready to call it quits and go on a later ride when Phoebe had a chance to calm down. Thankfully, the owner of the barn that brought us on the trip told us me to deal with it and hang in for the ride. After some hesitation on my part, we walked to the top of the hill with the other horses and hopped on from a rock on the side of the trail. Phoebe was a gem from that point forward, funny how the fear usually comes from the rider. Her pattern for the first half hour was insisting to lead, then seeing something interesting, stopping to look for a few seconds, figure it out and then boldly move on and lead the pack again. Walk, walk, plant feet, look, take it all in, walk, walk, plant feet etc. I had to laugh, though I'm sure it got a bit annoying for the others that had to avoid us each time she stopped short. I decided after our excitement earlier, I wanted her to set her pace for a while; I wasn't going to push her because I felt she was willing to push herself. It was the right decision, after a bit we were on a loose rein and enjoying all the scenery around us. It was mostly running water, either streams or water dripping off the tall rock faces we passed that made her stop and listen with her big ears. As we went, she steadily settled and I could feel her pride in the hard work she was putting into our ride. At the end we were both ready for lunch and a rest. Early evening, we found the energy to tack up and go for a quick half hour ride. We were both tired and I didn't want to push it knowing we still had another big day ahead of us. After a delicious dinner, we all gathered at the campfire to make smores and tell of our adventures from the day.
Saturday morning came early with five a.m. calls from the horses at the barn to come feed them. That done, we had breakfast and headed out for a big climb up Day Mountain. Six of us went out, four decided to do the base loop and two of us went to the top for a morning view of Bar Harbor. At the split of the trail, we all expected the horses would have something to say about leaving each other. Phoebe took the right hand turn with her new buddy Cooler and didn't look back for the others. She was becoming quite comfortable now with the roads, always curious and always brave. After a 1 ½ mile climb we got the pay off of the gorgeous view. It was nice to have only two of us on this trail; we were able to go at our own pace and had plenty of quiet "taking it all in" moments as we rode.
Later in the day we planned our last ride of the weekend along Jordan Stream. We headed out with four of us and again our pack became two as we got to the stream. This was probably the most rewarding ride of the trip. After stopping to talk with a group of mountain bikers who asked to pat the horses, we got to the stream. On this trip running water has been Phoebe's most obvious anxiety, if you want to call it that. Well this trail has 2 wooded bridges about 6 feet wide that cross a fast moving stream. As we approached, the horses were sensing the small rapids bubbling. Cooler stopped before the first bridge and needed a little encouragement, but went over it calmly. Next was Phoebe. Before the bridge, she planted her feet and got quite puffy and snorted a few times. I stayed relaxed with my eyes looking forward over the bridge and let her take her time. Puff, snort, small dance, she curled her neck, dropped her poll and the next thing you know she was clopping over the bridge in a low collected piaffe with a huge sigh on the other side. We couldn't help but crack up laughing. We approached the next bridge and Phoebe didn't stop, she went right over again with her little piaffe steps, and proud as could be when we were on the other side. I don't know why that moment hit me the way it did, but I still get butterflies of excitement when I reflect on that memory. We headed back to the stable with a few relaxed canters along the way. Another amazing dinner with great company at the campfire!
Sunday morning we packed up in the only rain of the weekend and began the trip home. Phoebe was less interested in getting on the trailer this time, she was tired and I like to think she didn't want to leave after all the fun we had together. Overall, this was probably the best horse experience of my life and I hope to do it every summer. Phoebe and I had a blast and it was just what we needed to break the monotony of the arena work. This was the best thing to happen for our partnership. Her work ethic has always been strong, but since the trip she has a new forward energy and uses herself in a way that I have not experienced in our training together. The saddle time alone in Acadia made me a stronger and more confident rider and I think it helped her tone up allowing her to balance and use herself more correctly. Both our bond and mutual respect for each other has grown immensely. Cleveland Bays are an amazing breed. They are kind, curious, honest and smart. They will test you as a rider, but if you give to them they will give back twice as much. You can see and feel their emotion and personality. I am so thankful that I got to experience all those Cleveland Bay attributes with my mare on an incredible weekend in Acadia.