"I hope the horses are wild," said my eight-year-old son. "How are you going to stop it if it starts running away?" asked his friend, "Just say 'whoa!'"
So went the conversation as we grabbed sweaters and sandwiches on a recent Sunday morning on our way to a mountain trail ride in Jefferson, Maryland.
On the half-hour car trip past fields of goldenrod and red-berried dogwood to the edge of the Middletown Valley past Frederick, the boys bemoaned the fact that a trail guide would be leading them. "We don't need one, Mom," I was implored.
But they looked forward to sharing a horse, since a call the night before had told us that one of the horses had thrown a shoe, which wouldn't be repaired in time for our ride. So it was to be two small boys on one saddle. And a mother who had never come near a horse in her life.
Four stately, beautifully groomed horses and their owners, Donna and Will Burtt, met us at the foot of MarLu Ridge, a mildly sloping, deeply forested piece of the Catoctin Mountain range. "Those dark horses look wild," one boy said, but up both boys went onto Smokey, half Appaloosa, half quarterhorse, and as gentle as could be. Mrs. Burtt, a pretty women wearing wellworn riding boots who would be our trail guide, said, "Why, Smokey's so quiet, he's almost falling asleep waiting for us to go."
Pointing to my horse, a beautiful dark Arabian named Half-Pint, Mrs. Burtt said, "He's been taught English." Puzzling over this, I was about to ask the extent of his vocabulary, when she explained that she meant English riding, which is different from Western style. Her husband kindly showed me an English saddle, which didn't have a horn on the front to hold onto, and explained that riding English is "like riding with nothing, the saddle's so small I call it a postage stamp." He assured me that I would be riding Western style, however, since Half-pint also understood neck-reining.
I didn't, but up I went, courage screwed to the sticking point, but already confident of the gentle nature of all the horses and of our guide's ability to handle horses and riders.
With my husband up on a big quarterhorse named Cinnamon, off we went, the boys giggling and squealing. "Don't tickly me!" "I'm not!" I heard as we cut through a short stretch of woods to a beautiful vista of the nearby valley framed by Sugarloaf Mountain.
Mrs. Burtt, who had raised, broken and trained the horses with the help of her four children, had discreetly taken Smokey's reins and was leading the boys alongside her own frisky horse, Cricket.
We had arranged for a two-hour ride with a lunch break, although Mrs. Burtt also leads three-and four-hour rides rides over the mountain to the other side for a view of harpers Ferry and the Potomac River.
The horses were so well-trained that they led us along the mountain trails, rather than the reverse. "Let them know who's boss," our guide had advised, but the point became academic when my steed resolutely refused to ford a stream, preferring instead his own detour through the trees, coming out onto the trail farther ahead.
We rode in file through the peaceful forest, enjoying the dappled sunlight that made the dew sparkle on the autumn leaves. All around us were masses of mountain laurel, sassfras, trailing arbutus; huge oaks and hickories arched overhead, a thick green moss carpet spread beneath them. The rich, dank forest smell of growth and decay enveloped us. We kept our eyes open for deer, but it was too early in the day to see them.
Although I heard an occasional outburst of Star Wars talk, the boys settled down into an unusually quiet mood, perhaps a contentment induced by the rythmic bouncing of the ride, steady and reassuring in this quiet woods.
An occasional question surfaced - "How can you tell how old a horse is? . . . What do they eat?" - each pleasantly answered by Mrs. Burtt.
At one point our pleasant, clip-clopping rhythm was punctuated by "It would really be neat if this horse could fly."
We stopped to inspect an old sawmill, and later dismounted by a lone log cabin half-way up the mountain. Fishing peanut butter sandwiches and apples out of our saddlebags, we refreshed ourselves with lunch. We had been riding well over an hour.
Back in the saddle again, we began our 40-minute descent to the foot of the mountain. "Let's take the long cut back," one boy said. "Let's come back when it's snowing," said the other.
At trail's end ("Ooh, I can hardly walk!"), the boys gathered up what at first looked like small horseshoes lying on the ground. We learned that they were horse toenails, regularly clipped from hooves. As unesthetic as this seemed to my husband and myself, both boys scooped up their souvenirs with plans to bring them to school for show and tell.
"Some people like to gallop and jump logs, other just want to walk as we did today, and I like to oblige them both," Mrs. Burtt told us. "But it's hard to keep horses able to do both," she added. She regularly walks and canters her horses to maintain their versatility.
Mrs. Burtt lead rides all year round, even in snow, since snowmobiles pack down the trails almost as soon as snow piles up. But in late fall and spring, the trails are at their most beautiful.
We drove home weary and somewhat saddlesore, but planning a repeat ride in early spring, perhaps in late afternoon next time, to catch sight of the deer.