Natives of Vermont's Northeast Kingdom proudly call it "God's Country." Horse lovers heartily agree, especially when the stunning fall colors illuminate the trails, making every ride seem like a journey toward heaven. And why not? There aren't many places where a firm rule of etiquette as well as local law states that no matter where you go, horses have the right of way. Whether you're trail riding across a neighbor's back forty, up one of the hundreds of miles of wooded trails, or just making your way down a country road, everything except an occasional wild moose yields for the trail horse and his rider.
It's exactly that lure, the unparalleled fall foliage-bright and brilliant colors dancing across mountaintops and valleys, bubbling fresh water streams, crisp temperatures, breathtaking views, and the unquestionable right of the horse and rider-that attracted our group north again. It was our second pilgrimage.
This time, we chose the first week of October to ensure warm weather while still catching the fall foliage. Last year, we went in the second week of October. The turning leaves were maybe a little more dramatic, but temperatures were cooler. Locals say anytime from late September through October is the right time. We agree, but if you're going to go trail riding, check the local area seasonal patterns to make the most of it.
In our group were 13 riders from the northern Kentucky area, and my wife and me from Texas. Nancy and I flew into Boston, two couples flew into Burlington, Vermont, and the rest of us trucked horses and gear about 1,000 miles. Our final destination was Peacham, a small, quaint village just off Interstate 91.
Our hosts, Mike and Kathy Hartong, our good friends in the horse business, own a farm around Peacham. Their Cedar Grove Farm is nestled in a Norman Rockwell-like setting just a gallop south of the village. There, they have 10 Rocky Mountain Horses and about 30 head of unique beef cattle called Diamond Jubilee, which they developed themselves.
To find the farm, all we had to do was look for the many "leaf peekers" (the fall tourists) who snap photos outside the farm's gates. After buying the dilapidated farm a few years ago, the Hartongs rebuilt it into one of the most heralded and photographed in the area.
Our other host was Nan Woods, owner of Heavensent Farm, located within trotting distance north of Peacham. By choice, Nan's place is isolated from the leaf peekers. But if you're an invited guest, there's no place on earth like Nan's.
After a day's rest, our group of 19 riders left Cedar Grove Farm to trek the hills south of Peacham. Our route began on the main road to the downtown. Motor vehicles pulled over to let us pass. Tourists snapped pictures. We turned at the general store and headed up a dirt road.
It's been said the best of Vermont isn't touched by pavement. We instantly agreed. The roads-lined with maple trees turning all the colors of a child's coloring book-meandered through some of the most spectacular scenery we could imagine.
Just west of the store, we passed through a cemetery set on a hillside overlooking one of the area's picture-book valleys, with red barns, white farmhouses, and church steeples rising into the blue sky.
The first day, we mostly stuck to the dirt roads while our horses adjusted to their new environment. Mountain streams full of trout flowed briskly alongside and across the roads. Houses were set within a few feet of the road. Farm animals-from sheep and cattle to llamas-would turn their heads as our horses gaited by. Now and then, the trees reached over the roads and touched each other, forming an umbrella and creating light shows as the sun peeked through, bouncing off the colored leaves. No wonder the locals said this was God's Country.
About 90 minutes into our ride, our host treated us to a gourmet lunch, which Kathy had driven to a predetermined spot on the trail. Seldom are trail riders treated to shrimp appetizers, hot broiled chicken, fresh vegetables, and dessert. Kathy surprised us with Rocky Mountain Horse cookies, complete with icing in chocolate and flaxen-common breed colors. Drinks included fresh, hot apple cider. ("Fresh" means no more than 24 hours old in Peacham.)
Having refreshed our horses and ourselves, we mounted again to work our way back to Cedar Grove Farm. Nancy and I looked for the perfect spot to capture the essence of the trail ride-but every spot on the trail seemed perfect! We finally settled on a turn in the road where riders would slow their gaited horses, angling them so the camera lens could catch riders, mounts, and the scenery. The result exceeded our best expectations.
The rest of the time, we rode out from Nan's farm. One couple on the ride-Landy and Jimmy Williams of Stanton, Kentucky (retired lawyer and real estate professionals, respectively), prefer fast-paced trail rides. Landy's mount was a 3-year-old mare, My Hearts Desire; Jimmy was on a seasoned gelding out of a champion stallion named Buddy Roe. While respecting the protocol of trail rider, seldom were they anywhere except at the front of the pack.
Myra Addington let her 2 1/2-year-old gelding learn from the leaders. Her husband, Bruce, was busy teaching his 3-year-old gelding, Kid Rock, how to occupy different positions among riders. The Addingtons own and operate Fair Winds Farm near Lexington, Kentucky. Their daughter, Julie, was usually well behind the group, teaching her inexperienced 2-year-old, Special K, the intricacies of trail riding. The Addingtons' trainer, Chris Tipton, could be seen on and off trail, exposing his young filly to all types of situations. Fair Winds Farm has about 65 Rockies and Kentucky Mountain/Pleasure horses. They bred and raised the four horses they took to Vermont.
H.T. and Wilda Derickson, co-owners of Van Bert Farms (also in Stanton), were probably the most experienced riders in our group. Wilda was a social butterfly, making her way up and down the trail line to converse with all the riders aboard her 5-year-old championship show mare, Meet Virginia.
Robert and Lyngle Lawson, owners of Stone Ridge Farms near Paris, Kentucky, could almost always be found in middle of the pack. Robert was on a 2-year-old gelding he'd selected from the 50 horses on their farm. His goal, besides having a good time, was to essentially break in the young horse for future trail rides. Lyngle's 6-year-old mare added immensely to her vacation from school teaching.
Beth Flege, the only single among us (except for a young student rider attached to Cedar Grove Farm), made the most of every trail ride. She rode a different horse each time out, practicing her riding skills. Her favorite mount turned out to be Chief Wahoo, a 6-year-old gelding from Van Bert Farms.
If there had been a vote, veterinarian Dan Moore and his wife, Cheryl, would've gotten the "most congenial" award. They were content to ride anywhere in the pack, offer advice on the condition and health of others' horses, take photos with fellow riders' cameras, and help whenever asked. Dan rode his all-time favorite 6-year-old mare, Cocoa Caliente; Cheryl rode Baby Doll, also a 6-year-old mare.
Nancy and I were on our favorite trail riding horses: Duke, a 6-year-old gelding, and Sundance, a 7-year-old mare. Duke is more horse than a novice like me should ride, but has proven many times how smart and savvy a well-trained Rocky can be. All a rider has to do is give him his head and trust him. Sundance is everyone's dream trail horse, beautiful, competent, surefooted, and "dead broke."
Mike Hartong used a couple of his horses. One was on his 5-year-old gelding, Major Impact. The other was a 2-year-old, CGF High's Choco Dancer, typical of Cedar Grove's horses-bred, born, and raised by loving hands of Mike and Kathy. Kathy skipped the trail rides, saying she was happy keeping everyone fed and handling logistics from her little red pickup truck.
Nan Woods usually rode her 15-year-old Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse/Mountain Pleasure registered stallion, Mountain Bourbon. A gigantic, muscular stallion, he easily led all the young Rockies through the trails all day long.
A highlight of our trip turned out to be a hayride. Every year, Nan harnesses four of her awesome gray Percherons to a beautifully crafted flatbed wagon. Driven by her farm manager, Darrell Kittredge, the wagon is filled with guests, eats, and drinks. Then the wagon gently slips through the late afternoon onto a county road that deposits us on the banks of a soothing fresh body of water. There, we stop to refresh our drinks and take in the beauty of the surroundings. Off the wagon, guests gather at the water's edge, take in the cool breeze flowing off the lake, and gaze at the colors of the trees dancing across the water's surface.
There are times in everyone's life where situations occur that create memories of a lifetime. For this group of horse lovers, this trip to Vermont was such a time. The fun, fellowship, and synergy of the group pulled everyone close.
So, whether you ride a Rocky Mountain Gaited Horse, Kentucky Mountain Saddle Horse, or some other breed, come from Kentucky, Texas, Ohio, or other parts, don't hesitate to ride the trails of Vermont's version of "God's Country" especially in the fall when the leaves are at the peak of their beauty.
Both Cedar Grove Farm and Heavensent Farm are private. If you're interested in purchasing a Rocky Mountain Horse, contact Cedar Grove Farm, (802) 592-3560; www.rockymountainhorsevermont.com.