It did not take me long to discover that sitting in a saddle was not the place for multi-tasking. The whack of a branch against your head has a way of cutting short trailside note-taking and conversation.
I was riding Charcoal, a 12-year-old Appaloosa, up a slight rise in the forest of Piscataway Riding Stables and Horse Farm in Clinton. It was my third time on a horse, and things were going smoothly so far. My group of four had followed guide Nick Edelen, who has led tours here for 22 years, out of a paddock into a wooded run that grew curiouser and curiouser the deeper we traveled. Sandy descents gave way to a rocky streambed to snaking inclines in terrain that seemed far removed from the placid flatland bordering the farm's 250 acres.
Just a few miles outside the Beltway, we were stimulated by the trail's unexpected changes. Timothy Maher of Baltimore, the last rider in a single file that included the two daughters of one of his closest friends, had envisioned tame circlings inside a paddock. But we were on to something else.
"Not the normal farm routine, is it?" he asked as our horses swayed uphill, their shoes grinding against pebbles and dirt clumps. "I was expecting riding around a farm. This is nice."
Andreinda and Erika Ayala-Caslow of Arlington, riding ahead of us, had vetoed Maher's suggestion of a trip to Kings Dominion in favor of this place. ("They jumped at it," Maher said.) It looked as if they had little regret about their choice as they reached for overhanging leaves while balancing in stirrups tightened high under their saddles.
"When I got off the horse," Andreinda said later, "I felt shorter."
I had turned slightly to chat with Maher, 39, who is writing his first book about philosophy, as we cantered uphill above a winding streambed. Charcoal, picking his way over fallen logs and rocks and leaves, reacted patiently to my amateur rein-handling. Since 60 to 70 people a week visit the farm for guided tours, he has had a lot of practice with the inexperienced. He seemed to take no notice when a branch flipped the hat off my head and I lurched to grab it and struggled to keep upright in the saddle. A well-trained ride such as Charcoal provides a wide margin of error, and I was grateful to have it.
Edelen, holding 7-year-old Erika's horse by a rope, led us along the forest path away from the curving stream, past beds of ferns and stands of thin trees. A slight breeze moved branches high above us. We saw moss swaths and giant mushrooms that seemed filled with the growing potion Alice downed just before meeting the caterpillar smoking a hookah in Wonderland.
As we emptied into a wildflower meadow we got another surprise: The horses broke into a trot. We sped along without a care, with butterflies and birds darting nearby. It is a sensation 6-year-old Jody Frye, who had arrived at the farm dressed in a fringed vest, cowboy hat and boots for his pony ride, knew well: "It was like the wild west. Like free in the open. . . . I feel like I was catching antelope."
Erika, at home in the saddle in her second-ever ride, held a yellow-petaled bouquet aloft under pale afternoon light as we cut across the field. She still clutched the flowers' roots as we returned at the end of an hour-long, four-mile trip. She took her time departing the paddock.
Her sister Andreinda, 11, also was intrigued by the winding path and hoof clatter. Riding lessons seemed to be on her horizon. Maher was taking care of the girls until their parents returned from a European vacation. They surely would hear all about this trip.
"When we went through the huge field with flowers all around it, it felt good," Andreinda said. "I was hoping it would never end."
Questions? Comments? Do you know of a special place in the outdoors? We'd like to hear about it. Get in touch with John Mullen by writing him at: The Outsider c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071. Or e-mail him at email@example.com.
HOW TO GET THERE: Take Route 5 or Route 4 north to Route 223/Woodyard Road and bear left. Piscataway Riding Stables and Horse Farm is 3 1/2 miles past the intersection of Routes 5 and 223, just after the airport, at 10775 Piscataway Rd. in Clinton.
* Hours for horse tours are noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends. There are no tours on Thursdays.
* Cost is $20 per hour. No experience is necessary. The farm also offers pony rides and pony parties and hayrides.
* Call 301-297-9808 for more information.
CAPTION: Diana Clemmons strokes "Hank" at Piscataway Riding Stables and Horse Farm in Clinton, where you can take a stimulating horse ride along a scenic trail.