Connecticut may lack the open plains of middle America and the big sky country of the American West. Nor does the state have the equestrian pedigree of Kentucky, or the rodeos of Oklahoma and Texas.
But Connecticut has an ongoing love of horses, and a robust equestrian industry that includes training, boarding, and breeding facilities. Fairfield County alone has four riding and trail associations, numerous horse shows and world class polo matches at the Greenwich Polo Club.
Hundreds of miles of bridle trails are no doubt trod upon by a good number of the approximately 47,000 horses in the state – this number according to a survey conducted by the University of Connecticut.
Connecticut has its share of competitive equestrians and professional horsemen and women but not everyone who mounts a horse aspires to be as accomplished as the late Bill Steinkraus of Westport and Darien – the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in any equestrian discipline, or Peter Leone of Lionshare Farm in Greenwich – winner of a silver medal in team show jumping at the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta.
Plenty of people simply want to enjoy the pleasure of horseback riding. “It is not easy to find a good, wholesome activity that you can do with your child (or) teen that they will actually like doing. This is it,” according to the website for Spirit of the Horse, a farm in Morris that offers pasture rides. The number of farms that offers public trail riding has dwindled in recent years but there are a few places left in Connecticut for trail riding even for those people who have never saddled up.
“We get people who have never seen a horse before,” said Heather Johnson, a trainer and co-owner of Lee’s Riding Stable/Windfield Morgan Farm in Litchfield, along with her mother Lee Lyons who opened the stable in 1972. “June 2nd this year will be 47 years,” Johnson said.
Generally, no experience is necessary to go for a leisurely trail ride. The horses at such facilities are experienced and gentle. Most riding stables provide helmets and a brief lesson.
“We give a little instruction before they go out, how to steer and stop; and they go out with guides. It’s a nice, easy-going, relaxing walking ride,” Johnson said.
Monique Saunderson, owner of Gold Rush Farms in Easton, said her 120-plus-acre farm attracts experienced riders, novices, and those who rode years ago and return to it for the nostalgic experience, sometimes as a birthday gift for themselves or other special occasions. There are people who have made it a “family affair,” scheduling a group ride on Mothers’ Day.
“They love to be outside. They love the connection with the animal,” Saunderson said, adding that some people tell her ‘I forgot how much I loved this.’
“It’s a bond you have with the horses that makes it so special,” said Johnson, who has witnessed special moments during her one-hour trail rides through Topsmead State Forest in Litchfield. Some guys have proposed marriage to their girlfriend out on the trail, she said.
Saunderson said that her farm is the only trail riding facility in the state with its own private wooded trail system exclusively for the use of the farm’s customers and those who board their horses there. “Our trail system is on the property. You never leave the property. You’re not going to be encountering other people walking or with dogs or on bikes,” she said.
She recommends riders wear long pants and sensible shoes, preferably boots with a small heel, for the 45-minute or 90-minute trail rides. Gold Rush Farms also offers lessons, pony rides, boarding, summer camp, and more. It is open Wednesday through Monday (closed Tuesdays and major holidays) from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with trail riding appointments between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. The trail rides are by appointment only for riders are 8 years old and up.
Call Gold Rush Farms at 203-268-9994 between 8:30 and 9:30 a.m. on the day you want to schedule a ride because they are sometimes completely booked for the day by 10 a.m. Year round depending on the weather and the safety of the trails. (http://goldrushfarmsct.com/trail-rides1.html).
At Lee’s Riding Stable, riders ages 7 years old and up are welcome on trail rides, which includes well-mannered trail horses and experienced trail guides. The one-hour rides take place seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. For the younger horse lovers, there are pony rides available in the indoor and outdoor rings. In addition, Lee’s offers private, semi-private and group lessons with experienced instructors in English, western and jumping for riders of all ages and abilities. (860-567-0785 or http://www.windfieldmorganfarm.com/lees.html).
Pasture rides and riding lessons at Spirit of the Horse are available from May 1 through Sept. 30, Fridays through Mondays, from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. An appointment is required. The website invites riders to “bring a treat for your horse – carrots apples sugar cubes or peppermints.” (860-361-6417 or www.spiritofthehorsestables.com).
Blue Spruce Farm in Monroe offers scenic wooded trail rides. (203-268-6774 or https://bluesprucehorseriding.com/trail-rides-1).
While only some farms and stables offer trail rides, there are many facilities that provide riding lessons for children and adults of all abilities including the following:
Mead Farm, Stamford (203-322-4984 or www.meadfarm.com)
Herbst Arabians, Wallingford (860-575-8699 or www.herbstarabians.com)
Blackhorse Equestrian Center, Bethany (203-393-2586 or www.blackhorsecenter.com)
Carriage Stone Farm, Northford (203-484-1174 or carriagestonefarm.com)
Meg Barone is a freelance writer for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group.