In old movie westerns, horses get spooked by growling bears, crackling thunder, even Comanche war whoops. But on a recent overnight riding trip in West Virginia, my horse came unhinged at something far less exotic: a shaggy goat.
Two friends and I were halfway through our first day's trail ride in the Appalachian Mountains when our guide, Holly Pridemore, turned around in her saddle and grimaced. "This place ahead, the horses don't like it," she yelled, as we clopped toward a seedy trailer. In the yard: a TV, some scraggly mums and a black and white goat. It spotted us and bleated. The horses pulled back their ears. Suddenly, my mare Blaze snorted and bolted. My heart raced as I yanked back the reins, halting the horse before she charged up the hill.
Nostalgic for our somewhat horsy childhoods in Texas and Oklahoma, my friends Monica, Elizabeth and I signed up for a day-and-a-half ride and overnight camp-out in rural Fayette County, W.Va. The region draws rafters to the white water of the New and Gauley rivers, but it also boasts mountains and wooded trails for fulfilling cowgirl fantasies. And since the down-home Horseshoe Creek Riding Stable offered overnight trips with a campfire-cooking and tent-pitching guide, we could concentrate on the rugged scenery and polishing our rusty equestrian skills.
We had all done some previous time in the saddle: I'd taken lessons, Monica used to help her father herd cattle, Elizabeth had hit the trails in Montana and New Zealand. But Horseshoe Creek co-owner Crystal Critchley said even relative greenhorns sign up for the camping treks. "They may not be experienced, but they've been on a horse before," she said. She and her husband, Gary, opened the stable nine years ago. They keep 50 horses of various breeds, breaking their own animals to ensure calm, obedient trail mounts.
We arrived at Horseshoe Creek on a sunny Saturday morning after spending the night in nearby Summersville. Hopping out of the car, I was overwhelmed by the earthy smell of, well, horse. A weathered wooden barn held our weekend companions: three quarter-horse mares named Blaze, Gypsy and Princess. Our guide, bubbly, blond Pridemore, a nursing student and equestrian, bounded out of the barn. "Cool. Y'all are gonna be with me, Cody and his ladies," she drawled. She led the good-looking, chocolate-brown gelding she'd be riding.
She dumped our sleeping bags and duffels onto an ATV four-wheeler, which another staffer would later drive up to our camp atop a nearby mountain. After Pridemore helped us climb onto our horses, we headed in the direction of the New River Gorge. I straddled Blaze, a feisty reddish mare, feeling a little nervous. Was she an easygoing beast of burden, or was she planning a National Velvet-like insurgence? But as the animals walked in a nose-to-tail line through clumps of jade-green mountain laurel and towering maples, I relaxed. The back of a horse always seems like an ideal place to enjoy nature, since you are elevated and moving slowly. And though our trusty steeds didn't like goats, we did spot a less-threatening box turtle, a screeching red hawk and some white-tailed deer. Our trail took us along both public and private lands, and would end at a mountaintop pasture owned by the stables. We sauntered along secluded paths and road shoulders as Pridemore chatted. "Horses are like dogs," she said. "They all have different personalities." Which explained why Monica kept playing catch-up on the always-snacking Gypsy, and Elizabeth struggled to keep Princess from tailgating. On inclines, our guide reminded us to lean forward in the saddle and give the animals lots of rein, but she didn't harangue us with a lot of Horseback 101.
After an hour, we spotted a highway through the trees. Blue school buses full of rafters rolled past, a reminder that the New River was running. "Wait till we get to the overlook and you'll see the gorge," said Pridemore. We kept riding, passing through a neighborhood of barking dogs and Victorian houses before reaching a densely wooded path. After winding up a hill, we dismounted and Pridemore tied up the horses.
The river rumbled far below as we scrambled down a steep incline. Sitting on craggy rocks, we could see the New River Gorge Bridge. We lunched on ham and cheese sandwiches and apples while gazing at the 3,030-foot-long, 876-foot-high engineering marvel -- until recently the world's longest steel-arch bridge -- which soared over the dramatic chasm. We treated the horses to apple cores before remounting and backtracking toward the campsite, a mountain meadow about a 30-minute ride from the stables. Pridemore had us try to catch leaves as they fell from the trees. "You guys are quiet," she called as we reined the animals up a sharp, rutted path to the camp. "That happens when people's behinds hurt."
After six hours in the saddle, the mountaintop -- covered with yellow wildflowers, tents and a campfire -- looked as welcoming as a four-star hotel. We snapped photos of our cool cowgirl selves before stiffly climbing off the horses.
Another staffer, "Crazy Dave" Edwards, was already there, fixing a feast of potatoes and corn roasted in the coals, plus big steaks and an apple pie heated on the grill. As he worked, Edwards, a baseball cap-wearing country boy, told us how to make squirrel gravy and dig for ramps, a famed (and stinky) wild onion in these parts. Pridemore unsaddled the horses, then fed them bowls of sweet-smelling grain.
The mountains we'd been riding in looked spooky from our perch -- hazy blue and napped with mist. Purple clouds soon rolled in and soaked the camp, but we quickly assembled a rickety canopy over the table. Sipping a decent merlot from the nearby Kirkwood Winery, we ate with slightly better manners than the horses. Pridemore and Edwards regaled us with tales of their spouses, deer-hunting and cold winters. Their lives seemed at once challenging and uncluttered, and hanging out with them made West Virginia seem like a friendly escape, not a backwoods stereotype.
After the rain stopped, the houses and trailers in the valley resurfaced in the mist below. The guides left us, letting the horses run free for the night, since the camp was on fenced-in private land. Monica, Elizabeth and I sat around the campfire singing old Girl Scout songs. We weren't scared by ourselves -- although we did ban ghost stories -- because Pridemore had left a two-way radio in case of emergency and we had a cell phone. Weird-looking, creepy bugs showed up, though, attracted by our Coleman lanterns. It grew dark and late, so we extinguished the lights and drowsily made our way to the three tents.
The next morning, I woke to the whistles of warblers. My thighs and backside hurt, so I took Critchley's earlier advice and went for a walk to loosen up. At 8:30, our guide zipped up on a four-wheeler, bringing hot water for coffee and a breakfast of eggs, sausage gravy and biscuits. We packed our gear while she rounded up and saddled the horses.
Riding down the mountain in the dappled sunshine, I smelled of horse and my hair reeked of campfire. Blaze kicked at Princess when she came too close, and Monica's horse kept munching clover. But I felt like a gal from a Hank Williams song, glamorous and tough.
After a short ride through the trees and a gallop through a meadow, the three of us creakily climbed off our mounts. Before heading back to D.C., we stopped at the nearby hippiefied rafting town of Fayetteville. There, on the tiny main drag, we poked into a funky art gallery. Its black-and-white photos, collages and pottery seemed chic enough for the city. But this was still the country. In one corner sat a life-size, surprisingly realistic bust of a horse head. I glanced around, then furtively patted the sculpture's nose.