My first visit to Fort Valley Ranch in Fort Valley, Virginia, was with three “Parelli” friends. We’d met at various Parelli Natural Horsemanship clinics (www.parelli.com) in Maryland and Florida.
Those were good learning experiences, but we wanted a “just for fun” weekend with no instructors and no schedule.
We were a mixed bunch, to be sure. I had my chestnut Selle Francais mare, Heather Bold; Jim Pantaleo brought his sweet-hearted Missouri Fox Trotter, Lula Mae.
Barbara Broxterman had her Quarter Horse, Brody; and Kelly Meister was working with Milton, a young Thoroughbred gelding.
Fort Valley Ranch is popular with riders in Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, where overnight-riding opportunities are often hard to find.
Located in the Shenandoah Valley, in the shadow of Massanutten Mountain, it’s the only stable with direct access to the George Washington National Forest with its dozens of trails, so it’s a magnet for horse campers.
Owner Bill Schumacher is a rider himself. When he decided on a career change, he and his wife, Laura, bought the ranch and upgraded it into a well-run, well-equipped vacation spot for horses and riders.
Most guests have to spend part of the trip getting there on interstates, but you begin to decompress as soon as you get onto the country lanes, some of which run alongside beautiful creeks.
When you pull into the grounds, the hassles of the drive and the outside world completely disappear.
Hosts Bill and Laura are on hand to help with whatever guests or horses need. Everything is in good repair, and Bill is always tinkering on something he wants to improve.
At least once a month, Bill and Laura try to plan something special, such as oyster roasts, pig roasts, and moonlight rides.
For the horses, there are several spacious paddocks with nice grazing. Most people choose corrals. The 12-by-16-foot pipe corrals are grouped in clusters of four. This gives horses enough room to stretch out, lie down, and roll. They are big enough that equine friends can board together.
The corrals that aren’t under good shade are protected by clever canvas canopies that Bill designed. Water pumps with hoses are conveniently located, so you don’t have to tote water very far.
If you’re traveling without a horse, you can take one of the ranch’s guided rides, which run from 30 minutes to all day.
Bill has a herd of about 30 well-cared-for horses for riders of all levels. His wranglers are all professionals who work with him all year. You can also join the guided rides on your horse.
For riders, there are several bunkhouses that sleep between two and eight. The only things you have to provide are bedding and food. Fort Valley Ranch bunkhouses have complete kitchens, full bathrooms with showers, a living room, and a porch. The larger cabins have several bedrooms.
You can ride all day, then have a hot shower and watch night fall over the valley, while you sit on the porch and eat dinner.
For campers, there are 45 sites, about half of which have hookups. Plus, there are tent sites. The camp store stocks some snacks, sodas, and ice cream. For anything more, you’ll need to drive into town, which is about 20 minutes away over the twisting mountain roads.
There are fire rings and picnic tables throughout the grounds, which encourage guests to socialize. It’s not unusual for dinnertime to turn into a camp-wide potluck with riders sharing stories about that day’s adventure.
A Dark Arrival
It was full dark when I finished the four-hour drive from Maryland’s Eastern Shore. I’d managed to miss the turn to the road to the ranch and got lost on the unlit back roads.
Trailering was still new to me, and I had to turn around in the dark, then avoid a deer who wanted to play tag with my truck. I was shaking by the time I pulled up to our cabin.
Everyone else was already there and greeted me with relief. They helped me unload Heather. I’d opted to rent a paddock, since she’s normally outside 24/7 and hates being in a stall.
The very spacious paddock with good grass was just outside the cabin. She explored the grazing opportunities, while we filled buckets with grain and water, and put hay down.
Despite our plans to get to bed early, it was nearly midnight before we caught up with each other’s news and started yawning. We girls took over the larger room with several bunks, while Jim went to the separate bedroom bachelor pad.
As soon as we settled into bed, we heard a loud roaring sound outside.
“Is that Heather?” Barbara asked.
I’d never heard anything like that; it sounded almost mechanical. When I went outside, I found Heather hugging the paddock fence, staring into the forest and snorting.
The people in the recreational vehicle on the other side of the paddock came out to see if Heather was okay. I knew she wouldn’t be worried about deer, because they graze in her home field with her. But what else could it be?
“Bear, I’ll bet,” someone said. We could hear dogs barking at the farmstead down the road, so something significant was out there.
I stayed with Heather until she went back to grazing.
The next morning, when we went to the office to collect trail maps, Bill confirmed that bear frequent the mountains, although he’d rarely seen one while riding and had never known one to come into the campground.
He doubted we’d have any encounters on the trail. Still, we started to wonder if this might be a more interesting trip than we’d expected.
A Mixed Group
In our group, neither Jim and Lula Mae nor Heather and I had much trail-riding experience. Both of us live near the Chesapeake Bay, where a sand dune qualifies as a hill, so the mountains were completely new to our horses.
Kelly is a professional trainer in Northern Virginia. She was working with the young, inexperienced Milton to see if he was a good prospect for combined training, a sport in which horse and rider compete in dressage, cross-country, and show jumping.
Barbara works with horses and riders using guided equine coaching in southern Pennsylvania. She and Brody had been partners for only two months. The mare had a reputation of being difficult in unfamiliar situations.
Barbara spent some time early in the morning walking Brody around the grounds and letting her get used to all sorts of new sights and sounds, such as bicycles, strange people, new horses, and breakfast smells.
One of the nicest things about Fort Valley Ranch is that it offers trails for riders of all skill levels, from basic beginners just learning trail riding skills to highly experienced riders looking for technical challenges.
The ranch even welcomes drivers. Many of the roads in the valley are ideal for teams for people wanting to bring their own carriages and horses.
Note that the trails are rocky, so horseshoes or hoof boots are a good idea.
Knowing our limitations, we agreed to stay with the simple trails and not push each other or our horses into situations we couldn’t handle safely.
Bill suggested a trail that wound up the mountain. He warned us that it was a bit steep in spots, but said if we went slowly and let the horses pick their footing, we’d be fine. The view from the top of the trail was worth the climb, he promised.
So up we went. And up. And up.
The trail through the hardwoods and pine was beautiful, with sunlight dappling the leaves. When we stopped, the only sounds were the breathing of our horses and the rustling of something in the leaves. We told each other that it was probably a squirrel or groundhog, not a bear.
After about an hour, we realized that the trail was getting very steep and narrow, and we hadn’t seen any trail markers for a while. Barbara rode Brody ahead. She came back to report that the trail got even tighter and didn’t seem to be anywhere near the summit.
We decided to turn around. The horses were doing a fantastic job in a strange setting and seemed to be enjoying the adventure. We didn’t want to overload them.
Besides, it was lunchtime.
Back at the ranch, we turned out the horses in Heather’s paddock, while we attacked the sandwich and snack supplies and tried to figure out where we’d been.
We checked with Bill, but he wasn’t sure, either. There are a lot of unmarked, rarely used trails in the mountains, he explained.
Change of Focus
We opted to stay on easier trails that afternoon. From the map, they seemed well-marked and some of them also led to overlooks. We set off, certain we knew where we were headed this time.
The four of us may be able to get our horses to do Parelli’s 7 Games blindfolded and backwards, but we can’t read maps. We spent the afternoon wandering through the forest, finding the marked trails, and just as quickly losing them.
Other riders cheerfully pointed us in the right direction, and we’d no sooner lose sight of them than we’d lose the trail again.
After a while, frustration turned into amusement. We’d wanted a weekend of just having fun with our horses, so we decided not to worry about “accomplishing” the goal of finding the overlooks.
The valley trails were wide and gentle with plenty of grass for the horses to nibble every time we stopped to figure out where we were.
The stretches along the lane that meanders through the valley had wide verges so we could get well away from the occasional car or pickup that passed us. The drivers were all courteous, slowing down and giving a friendly wave.
It was exactly the stress-free vacation we wanted.
On the way back to the campground, we had to cross a wooden bridge. None of the horses was particularly happy about it. Brody took it reluctantly, while Heather crossed it on tip-toes.
This was the sort of thing we wanted to encounter on the trip — a chance to use what we’d tried in the Parelli clinics on our own in the real world.
We took turns leading our horses across the bridge on foot, riding them in a line, individually, side-by-side, even in a sidepass. By the time we were done, the horses were probably wondering why we were so obsessed with the thing.
That evening, while Brody and Milton settled into their corrals, Heather and Lula Mae had a sleepover. The two mares had become best friends and didn’t want to be apart.
I was just as happy for Heather to have company, in case the bear returned. But it was a quiet night.
Our Last Day
The next morning, we wanted to take a short ride before hitting the road. Jim and I both faced drives of more than four hours. We wanted Heather and Lula Mae to have a bit of a stretch before that long immobility.
Barbara was delighted with Brody and wanted to reinforce what they’d accomplished the day before. Milton was a little tender-footed, so Kelly opted to stay behind.
We rode along the grassy verge of the road through the valley for about an hour before returning, crossing the bridge without so much as a twitched ear from the horses.
When we returned from the ride, Heather and Lula Mae were very unhappy to leave each other. They called to each other from their trailers, trading email addresses and promising to “friend” each other on Facebook.
We humans were also unhappy to leave. It was fun to get together as friends, and the confidence we’d learned over the weekend was invaluable.
Out of the Saddle
If you’re looking for a vacation in the Blue Ridge Mountains that includes more than riding, Fort Valley Ranch is a good base of operations. Your horses will be comfortable and safe at the ranch while you explore.
The ranch is close to the famous Luray Caverns, which hold amazing nature-made underground sculptures; the Luray Zoo, which is a sanctuary for retired and unwanted animals; and all sorts of outdoor activities, from zip-lining to rafting in the Shenandoah River.
The town of Luray is a good place for an afternoon’s browse and has some nice restaurants.
Civil War sites, such as New Market and Lexington, are close by. The visitor center is in the old railroad station in town. Stop by for all sorts of suggestions and information.