Looking for a horseback adventure where everything goes smoothly? Well, we can't guarantee everything, but we can assure you an exceptionally smooth-gaited mount. From Vermont to California, these destinations provide gaited-horse trail riding at its best.
Blue Sky Riding Experience
Overview: At Blue Sky Riding Experience, the drama of Northern California's Pacific Coast stretches out before you as you explore redwood-covered hills and wildflower meadows on horseback. Your guide picks up speed, and your Tennessee Walking Horse mount rolls into a smooth, ground-eating running walk.
Just the drive to get here along the scenic coastal highway is awe-inspiring, whether you drive south from San Francisco or north from Monterey. On Highway 1, the town of Pescadero offers handcrafted gifts, farm-fresh goat cheese, and hearty local eateries. Enjoy a spa visit, massage or yoga class; hike, bike, kayak; check out the local winery or the Pigeon Point Light House; or stroll the boardwalk in Santa Cruz.
The trails: From open farmland, to vast grasslands to wooded hills, Blue Sky's 400 acres of private land give you a wide-open invitation to explore. Nearby, Big Basin Redwood State Park (California's oldest, established in 1902) offers more than 19,000 acres of trails, including an ancient redwood forest (with trees as old as 1,500 years), conifer, chaparral, and river frontage. The striking 70-foot Berry Creek Falls is a short side loop. Another ride begins at the trail junction to Butano State Park. Creeks and wildlife - herons, hawks, deer, coyote and bobcat - abound. Blue Sky's five-day riding vacation includes a different trail ride every day, including a beach ride.
The horses: Blue Sky proudly boasts, "This is the only herd of all-pleasure, gaited Tennessee Walkers on the coast available for trail riding." Horses receive excellent care and are regarded as family members. Tennessee Walkers are beloved for their gentle natures and willing attitudes, but it's their gliding running walk and lulling rocking-chair canter that hook you. "We believe riding one of these gaited horse will spoil you for the rest of your life," says the facility's website.
Your host: Sam Haggag, whose profound riding experience along the California coast sparked the idea for Blue Sky Riding Experiences. The goal is to provide just such an experience by recreating the unforgettable combination of the beautiful views and sweet, smooth-riding Tennessee Walking horses.
Accommodations: Stay at the Costanoa Coastal Lodge and Camp (650/879-1100; www.costanoa.com), a coastal lodge and wildlife reserve on 30,000 acres, or at the stylish, five-room Pescadero Creek Inn (888/307-1898; www.pescaderocreekinn.com) on the San Mateo coast.
Season: May through November.
Rides: Regularly scheduled rides from 1½ hours to four hours; half-day and all-day rides upon request. Picnic lunch provided.
Skill levels: From novice to experienced.
Rider limitations: Number of riders per ride is limited. Riding helmets required. Minimum riding age is 8 years, if able to demonstrate riding ability. Minimum height requirement is 54 inches; maximum weight 250 pounds. All riders receive mandatory pre-ride instruction.
Contact: Blue Sky Riding Experience, 2001 Rossi Rd., Pescadero, CA 94040; mailing address, 111 Laurel Way, Mountain View, CA 94040; (650) 996-1913; (650) 996-1007; www.bluesky-riding.com.
Bucks & Spurs Guest Ranch
Overview: Nestled in the Ozark Hills, the Bucks & Spurs Guest Ranch is a working cattle ranch that welcomes visitors for a taste of the way the West was run. Enjoy ranch-style rides and activities, or melt into the thousands of acres of the Mark Twain National Forest adjacent to the ranch for a great escape. Just south of Ava (home of the Missouri Fox Trotting Horse Breeders Association), the ranch is in the heart of the Ozarks and the soul of Fox Trotter country.
Out of the saddle, you can enjoy hunting, canoeing, swimming, fishing, exploring, hiking the bluffs, and searching for arrowheads. A Civil War fort burned to the ground in 1863 by Confederate soldiers haunts back to our country's once-divided past.
The trails: The ranch offers 1,000 acres of pristine Missouri countryside, with open fields, woods, trails, and creeks beckoning you to explore. Daily ranch activities are a part of your stay, giving you a sense of purpose above and beyond simply trail riding.
The horses: The Missouri Fox Trotting Horse was developed in this region specifically for the very chores these ranch horses carry out on a daily basis, covering ground efficiently and working cattle. The breed is named for its broken fox trot, which is much smoother to ride than the two-beat hard trot. One front foot touches down just an instant before the other, so there's always a foot or two on the ground, preventing the jolt of trotting. These horses are also very "cowy" with a lot of natural talent and desire. But what endears them to all is their calm, willing attitude and gentle, friendly nature. Horses are available for purchase.
Your hosts: Husband-and-wife team Cecil and Sonny Huff. Cecil is a horse trainer who's developed his own style of natural horsemanship. Sonny is the chief cook and welcome wagon. The couple enjoys their guests and one another, and that welcoming spirit makes a visit to Bucks & Spurs a memorable experience.
Accommodations: The ranch specializes in families and family-sized groups; parties of 12 and under are preferred. Accommodations are clean, spacious cabins with great views all around and "just enough comforts to allow you to enjoy roughing it." There's also a main lodge with four bedrooms and two baths. Sonny's home cooking provides your meals.
Rides: Vacation packages from two to five days, with custom packages happily accommodated. No Sunday-morning rides.
Skill levels: All.
Rider limitations: None specified.
Contact: Bucks & Spurs Guest Ranch, HC 71, Box 163, Ava, MO 65608; (417) 683-2381; www.bucksandspurs.com.
Overview: It's hard to beat the Missouri Ozarks for a beautiful trail-riding setting. At Meramec Farm, endless tracks of verdant land unfold before you and winding rivers bid you to follow their course. An easy-gaited, level-headed trail companion can take you miles before you realize your adventure has begun. East Central Missouri is the heart of the Ozarks, and its heart beats with breathtaking scenery and mile upon mile of unbroken vistas, cattle herds, and wildlife. Meramec Farm is a working cattle ranch surrounded by wild country.
The trails: When you come to Meramec, you come to ride, from the "No Frills 100 Mile Ride" to three- and five-day packages. Following the Meramec River winds you through cattle herds and open, rolling hills, woods, and grassland.
The horses: Meramec Farm offers Missouri Fox Trotters, Tennessee Walkers, and Peruvian Horses. Fox Trotters, bred and born in the region, may at first seem like the obvious choice, and to be sure, you can't go wrong with their laid-back natures and athletic abilities. Kind and willing Tennessee Walkers have the heart to go all day and cover miles in luxurious comfort. Finally, the Peruvian Horse, the mount of choice for centuries of Peruvian "Dons" and plantation owners, provides hours of enthusiastic, incredibly smooth-gaited riding. Horses are offered for sale, and Meramec Farm also welcomes riders who bring along their own horses.
Your host: Carol Springer. Meramec Farm has been welcoming guests since 1982, but it's been a working farm since 1811. During this time, the farm has remained in the same family. Today, the sixth and seventh generations of that family continue the family farm tradition.
Accommodations: Enjoy rustic privacy in individual cedar or log cabins with kitchens and living areas, and terrific views of the farm from every window.
Rides: Ride for an hour or for a week.
Skill levels: All.
Rider limitations: Most any age; the farm prefers riders less than 230 pounds.
Contact: Meramec Farm, 208 Thickety Ford Rd., Bourbon, MO 65441; (573) 732-4765; www.meramecfarm.com/ridingtours.htm.
Richardson's Curly Horse Guest Ranch
Overview: Enjoy South Central Iowa's views and serenity, as your ground-covering, easy-gaited North American Curly Horse glides out from Richardson's Curly Horse Guest Ranch. As you cross a secluded valley, ford a creek, and head into the wooded hills, keep watch for wild turkey, deer, fox, beaver, and coyote. The surrounding area boasts unique attractions, including John Wayne's birthplace, the real-life Bridges of Madison County, and the Lakeside Casino.
The trails: Stevens State Forest has three levels of riding trails: beginning; intermediate; and advanced. Or, stay on the ranch, and enjoy a Midwest working-guest-ranch holiday.
The horses: The history of curly-coated horses is enticing and mysterious. Native legends tell of "large, curly, red, dogs," "buffalo horses," and "mystery" or "mystical" horses. Today, North American Curly Horses are best known for their easy, laid-back temperaments, versatility, curly winter coats, and baby-soft manes and tails that shed in summer. Winter-coat patterns range from a crushed-velvet look to wavy to extremely tight ringlets. Curlies are believed to be hypoallergenic. Curly coats have cropped up in many documented breeds, including Missouri Fox Trotters. Many of the ranch horses are gaited and cross-registered with Fox Trotter registries.
Your hosts: Jackie and Ron Richardson, who use natural-horsemanship methods to train their Curly Horses. People who hadn't previously been able to ride because of allergies make up a good percentage of their horse-buying customers, and it hit them that they needed a place for their buyers to stay while they learned how to handle their horses. The idea of a guest ranch was born. Though still a work in progress, they're expanding on a regular basis.
"We wake to the sound of birds, and go to sleep listening to the frogs croak and the owls hoot," says the ranch website. "We plan on having a fire pit so visitors can sit by it at night and listen to nature and enjoy the peace."
Accommodations: Nicely appointed, individual, rustic cabins offer privacy and comfort. For those traveling with their own horses, boarding is available, as is a "Cowboy Bunk & Biscuit" (bed-and-breakfast) service.
Season: End of May through September.
Skill levels: All.
Rider limitations: None.
Contact: Richardson's Curly Horse Guest Ranch, 1259 310th Ave., Woodburn, IA 50275; (641) 342 -6180; www.curly-horse-ranch.com.
Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm
Overview: The Mad River Valley and the Green Mountains of Vermont set the scene for enchanting riding tours offered by Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm. The powerful, small, almost whimsical Icelandic Horses challenge the scenery with their smooth gaits and friendly personalities. Imagine flying through the snow on a turbo-charged, compact mount.
The trails: From the back roads of the Mad River Valley, your guide will lead you through meadows, over streams, and into the lush woods of the Green Mountains. The scenery is spectacular any time of year. Trails are groomed and well-maintained. Take a day ride, or settle in for a multi-day trek across the Vermont countryside, staying at specially selected inns, complete with gourmet dining and a generous helping of Vermont hospitality.
"Our tours feature plenty of opportunity to enjoy foliage and activities like studying birds and wildlife - even fishing if you are so inclined," says the farm's website. "To loosen up and avoid getting sore we do some hiking while leading our horses. We can explore a tempting swimming hole, stop and pick a mouthful of berries, or just relax while enjoying the scenery."
The horses: Icelandic Horses are among the oldest, purest breeds of horses on the planet. Their 1,000-plus year history of isolation near the Arctic Circle has honed their senses and bodies. They're hardy, calm, and willing, and possess surprising strength and stamina. Size averages 13 to 14 hands, yet they carry adults with ease. Ride at a walk, trot, or tölt (mechanically the same as the rack, a four-beat lateral gait), or step it up to a brisk canter or an eye-watering flying pace.
Your hosts: Karen Winhold and her mother, June. They're especially proud of their horses, and are always happy to educate folks as to the unique attributes and remarkable history of this rare breed. As a breeding farm, as well, they offer a limited number of horses for sale each year. Visitors and questions about the horses are always welcome.
Accommodations: The Mad River Inn is a Victorian-style country house built around 1860. Lush gardens, a gazebo, and flowers overflowing the back porch complement the lavish period style within. Finish off a perfect day of picturesque riding with fine dining, a soak in a hot tub, and a good night's sleep in an old-fashioned feather bed.
Seasons: All. Inn Treks from May 1 to November 1. Special fall foliage tours from mid-September through mid-October.
Rides: From one- to three-hour day rides to six-day treks
Skill levels: All. Riding experience required on treks.
Rider limitations: Riders must weigh 225 pounds or less. Children over 10 years old with riding experience are welcome if accompanied by a parent or legal guardian.
Contact: Vermont Icelandic Horse Farm, 3061 North Fayston Rd., Waitsfield, VT 05673; (802) 496-7141; www.icelandic horses.com.
Wind in Your Hair Riding
Overview: At Wind in Your Hair Riding near Park City, Utah, riding is just what it sounds like, a fast-paced, exhilarating experience. As your incredibly smooth Paso Fino spirits you through the rare mountain air, you realize that this is what trail riding is all about. Park City offers trendy shops and upscale eateries; mountain-peak views are visible just beyond the city skyline.
The trails: You'll proceed down beautiful mountain trails, through stands of juniper, cottonwood, and aspen, and over the occasional downed log. Wildlife, from cottontails to moose, may surprise you. Terrain is varied, ranging from open fields and meadows, where you can have lovely canters and gallops, to narrower trails with stunning overlooks.
The horses: All the horses are Paso Finos raised and trained by the owner. They're sweet-natured with smooth, powerful gaits, surefooted, possess great stamina and are cherished for their brio, that willing spirit that's the hallmark of Spanish-bred horses. Size averages from 14.2 to 15 hands. View individual horses on the website.
Paso gaits range from the paso corto (a very smooth, four-beat, lateral gait) to the paso largo (the same gait, but faster, and with greater extension and forward motion; speeds average 12 to 15 miles per hour). You'll really cover ground and feel the wind in your hair on these horses!
Your host: Sueanne Clark, a lifelong horsewoman originally from Australia who's worked with many breeds, including polo ponies in Hawaii. She discovered the Paso Fino in 1983 and has been hooked ever since. Her zeal for teaching riding shows in her desire to share the sheer thrill of the horseback experience.
Accommodations: None onsite, but with Park City only about 20 minutes away, first-class accommodations and fine dining are readily available.
Seasons: All. Bundle up for winter rides.
Rides: 2½ hours to six hours in summer; 2½ hours to four hours in winter.
Skill level: For experienced riders only, defined as "one who is very comfortable at the canter." Call Clark to discuss your riding skills. Private horsemanship lessons are offered for beginners, in lieu of trail rides.
Rider limitations: Your guide can take up to four riders, two of whom must be at the advanced or expert riding level.
Contact: Wind in Your Hair Riding, 2565 South Highway 32, Wanship, UT 84017; mailing address, 29831 Old Lincoln Highway, Wanship, UT 84017; (435) 336-4795; (435) 901-4644; www.windin yourhair.com.