WHAT: Horseback riding at the JBiT Ranch, near Berryville, Va., four miles from the West Virginia border.
BEST FOR: People who like to ride, or think they might, with one caveat: Heed instruction during the mandatory 30-minute lesson and obey the guides on the trail.
THE PEEPING: "These horses are on the kiss and kick system," Barbara Johnson says as she scratches the neck of Patty Ann, a golden brown Tennessee Walking Horse upon whose back I sit in a ring behind the stable. "When you want 'em to go, give a little kick and make a kissing sound, and if they don't move, kick 'em a little harder."
Gazing out over the rolling acreage of JBiT Ranch in Berryville, my feet in stirrups and my hands on the reins, I regret my equestrian inexperience. Were I a steeplechase superstar, I think, this moment would start with a trot, then a run, then a single bound over the corral rail and a gallop across the hills, into the Blue Ridge beyond.
I return to reality and Barbara's voice: "So, go ahead and take a couple laps, okay?" Barbara and her husband, Todd, insist that customers spend 30 minutes in the ring before starting guided trail rides to check each rider's professed experience and ensure compatibility with the animals (not that anyone would lie about their experience, but--).
My fiancee, Anne, and I send one obstinate prospect back to the barn, but we end up with quite an agreeable pair, Patty Ann and Royal Scandal. Patty Ann responds sharply to the kiss and kick, starting into a light running-walk around the ring, obeying my directions, and I'm thinking, "Hey, this isn't so hard," until Barbara says, "These guys are about the easiest horses there are to ride. They're extraordinarily people-friendly."
"You guys ready to run a little, or do you want to get more comfortable?" asks Jill, our twenty-something guide, about five minutes into the ride. "Run," we answer in unison. "Run."
I remind myself to stay loose. Horseback riding, it turns out, mimics the rest of life: Fight the flow and your fun quotient drops precipitously.
And amid the bucolic rises of the JBiT Ranch, a relaxed approach accentuates the panoramic mountain views, the flutter of wind-ruffled sycamore leaves, and the sweet apples that dangle irresistibly as we clop through the orderly symmetry of an apple orchard.
We cover diverse scenery during our 90-minute ride, despite JBiT's somewhat limited trail system (we retraced our hooves more than once). The property's setting--50 acres of tree-lined paths, open fields and forest, with access to adjoining orchards--amply compensates for a lack of trail variety.
Besides, seated on a horse on a crisp fall day, with a steady breeze carrying harvest smells under a dark blue sky and leafwork hanging like millions of impressionist brush strokes, I don't need more than a few free acres to feel a zillion miles from home.
DETAILS: JBiT Ranch (540-955-4099, http://thejbitranch.hypermart.net) is about 70 miles west of D.C. Take the Beltway to the Dulles toll road (Route 267 west) to Route 7 West to U.S. 340 north. After 1.2 miles, go left on Route 611. The ranch is 1.5 miles up on the right. Riding is $30 per person per hour (helmets are provided; reservations, jeans and sturdy shoes are required). Closed Mondays. You can picnic or barbecue at no extra cost.
LODGING: The Johnsons offer on-site B&B-style lodging for $80 per room,including breakfast. Also recommended are the Lost Dog B&B (211 South Church St., Berryville, 540-955-1181, http://thelostdog.com; rooms from $55); Rock & Rills Farm B&B (2458 Castleman Rd., Berryville, 800-296-1246, www.blueridgebb.com/rock-and-rills/ $65 to $100); and the Battletown Inn (102 W. Main St., Berryville, 800-282-4106; $50 to $120).
OTHER OPTIONS: Keezlenutten Farms (3224 Caverns Dr., Keezletown, Va., 540-269-2227, www.keezlenuttenfarm.com/) offers guided rides up Massanutten Mountain for $25 per rider per hour (reservations required); Georges Mill Farm & Stables (11873 Georges Mill Rd., Lovettsville, Va., 540-822-4110, www.georgesmill.com/mill_ent_horses.htm) will take groups of up to four people, for $60 per person (rides last about two hours; reservations required).