On Horseback in Northern California
Story by Kate Van Pelt DeLoach
It wasn’t until after I planned our honeymoon, and my fiancé, Paul, paid for it that I informed him he wouldn’t be riding the gaited Tennessee Walking horses he was used to on our seven-day horseback riding trip on the Mendocino Coast. No fourth, smooth, running-walk gait for which the Tennessee Walkers were bred and known. Nope, just walk, trot and canter. Though not Tennessee Walkers, the horses sounded lovely and exotic: Akhal Tekes, Russian Orlovs, Arabians, Appys … but nowhere did I read “gaited,” the cue word for that fourth gait.
“You might want to learn how to post,” I said to the man who had entrusted me with planning our post-nuptial vacation. (Posting is when you extend your legs to rise and fall in the saddle with the horse’s stride.) Paul wasn’t amused. And he certainly had no intention of learning to post, I could tell from the real-men-don’t-post glare he gave me. For the next several weeks I could overhear him muttering to his roughest-riding Walker, “I’ll be dying to be on you out in California.” And, “I’ll be missing even you soon, Ol’ Boy.”
I don’t claim to be an expert rider—far from it—and Paul has a lot more experience on a horse than I do. But I had recently taken just enough English riding lessons to know 1.) the value of chaps and half-chaps (to prevent leg chafing) and 2.) the value of posting and riding two-point (to put your tush in the air when any other place is painful). I did manage to convince Paul to take his leather chaps. Perhaps he would survive the adventure after all.
The flight into San Francisco was uneventful—just what I want a flight to be—and we stayed the night at a hotel. We got up early to drive north on Route 1, up the California Coast to Fort Bragg. I have been in California Wine Country before, and the ocean waves breaking on the rocky coast is as beautiful as I remember it. We arrive in Cleone, a small coastal town and check in at the Cleone Gardens Inn just in time for a meeting arranged by the host of the trip, Lari Shea, an award-winning endurance rider. Lari is petite and pretty, with a well toned and tan body that speaks to the experience she has as an endurance rider.
The group, at this point, is small: Celeste, a real estate banker from L.A., and her 10-year-old daughter, Brittany; Judy, a high school Spanish and French teacher also from the L.A. area; and Betsy, a computer programmer/project manager from Palo Alto; and, of course, Paul and Kate from South Georgia. Another five riders are expected to join us later in the day—the Gonski family from Alaska. For the 11 of us, there are four guides: Lari, Cynthia, Carolyn and Kyra.
Having advance information on the group members’ experience level, height and weight, Lari has pre-assigned our equine companions. I have been matched with Citron, a pretty palomino Akhal Teke/Arabian mare, and Paul has been assigned to Dakota, a large, muscular, Quarter horse gelding.
It is common among the “horse people” we know—including Paul—to prefer geldings (castrated males) over mares, but I have always considered this a little unfair. Geldings are supposed to be calmer, more predictable, than their moody female counterparts. And while I rode a perfectly behaved mare at Kitty Turner’s South Winds Farm in Americus, Ga., where I took lessons, Goldie is a school horse after all; it’s her job to be well behaved. So I am happy to be on Citron, to judge for myself.
The California beaches’ sand is coarse and granular—far more akin to the Atlantic Ocean beaches I grew up on than to the Panhandle’s fine, packed, powdery sand that I have grown accustomed to. As the horses walk along the beach, their hooves sink into the sand up to their fetlocks, and it is easy to see how they have built such well-defined haunches and shoulders. Citron is model-gorgeous, with a little bit of celebrity attitude, too—a nip here, a pinned-back-ears glare there, even an ill-placed kick towards Dakota—but as long as her transgressions stay aimed at our four-legged companions, I can deal. And then we turn around for home—a place all horses are eager to go.
I had the good fortune (in retrospect) of being on a runaway horse a couple of years ago. Without digressing into that nightmare, suffice it to say that I learned, after the fact, how to handle a runaway horse—turn him, or in this case her, into a circle. Citron’s plan was thwarted. But I think I’m beginning to agree with the folks back home.
The first two nights, we will stay at the Cleone Gardens Inn, a comfortable place with private jasmine-engulfed room entrances and a fabulous multi-tiered deck on the back. The owners serve us hearty breakfasts both mornings on the deck. And the Northern California weather is as perfect as I remember it.
Dinner both nights is arranged at restaurants in Fort Bragg. This first night the group is mostly finished when the Gonski family arrives. We order more wine and hang around to get to know the five who round out the group. There’s Dustin Hoffman-look-alike Jim, his wife, Pat, and their children, Brandon, 17, Meghan, 14, and Katie, 12. The Gonski’s are outdoor, adventure-loving folks—they own a whitewater kayaking company in Alaska to prove it—but have had very little horseback riding experience. They are on this trip for Meghan, compliments of Make a Wish Foundation. Meghan, who is battling cystic fibrosis, has loved horses all her life. And although her extensive knowledge of the equine world is primarily through books, Meghan’s wish is “to canter a horse on the beach.”
Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic disease, Pat explains to me, that results in the faulty transport of salt in organs such as the lungs and the pancreas, which leads to a thick mucus that hinders the function of these organs. Currently Meghan is on a waiting list for a lung donor, but her parents are actively pursuing finding two living donors (they have one). As we all have five lobes in our lungs, and can function normally with four, the procedure is to remove one lobe from two donors and replace Meghan’s lungs with them. Potential donors for Meghan must have O-type blood and be non-smokers, says Pat.
Meghan is small for her age and frail-looking, which is typical of those persons with CF, but quite pretty. She has large blue eyes rimmed with dark brown lashes the color of her long thick hair. She began losing her hearing in the second grade and is now deaf—a common ramification of the medication that CF children must undergo. Her family signs to her as we talk around the dinner table, keeping her informed of the discussion.
While I felt a little odd when planning my honeymoon—that it would be with a group of strangers—I now feel quite blessed to be able to spend it as witness to this special child’s experience of a lifetime. It seems odd, too, that such misfortune can spawn joy. I sink into bed this first night feeling very special myself, just for being here.
Today we ride in Mackerricher National Park. After breakfast, we each pack our own picnic lunch from a spread of cold-cuts and trail mix provided at the Ranch, and we pile in cars and trailer the horses the 20-plus miles to the Park. I don’t know if it’s a comment on my handling of Citron yesterday, but today I have a new mount: Indiana Jones, called Indy, a gray Arabian gelding. I must admit, I am happy about the switch.
I am learning what an endurance horse is all about. Our horses scramble up impossibly steep and rocky trails (too steep to hike on foot) and, even more astonishingly, they maneuver back down them. They trot and canter as much, if not more, than they walk. The horses never miss-step or falter or spook. Indy is Harrison Ford, and more. He wants to go and to go fast. For long stretches of fast, uphill canters, he leads the pack, just behind Lari on Avantii, a chestnut Arabian gelding. At the end of exhilarating miles-long canters, Indy is barely breathing hard. What an incredible horse. Right now it seems like a perfectly fine trade off: our Walking horses’ gait for these Arabians’ speed and stamina.
Lari explains that Arabians make such good endurance horses because they often have an amazing cardiovascular system, capable of delivering a larger volume of blood with each stroke of the heart than some other breeds, so they work with a lower heart rate and recover to normal parameters faster. With a proliferation of little peripheral blood vessels under relatively thin skin, they are able to radiate heat out of their bodies to help cool down. And their relatively small size makes for a greater proportion of surface area in relation to body mass, so they can sweat and cool down faster than, say, a quarter horse. Which is why, as I am leading the pack on Indy, Paul is bringing up the rear on Dakota. Dakota is tremendously muscular, but doesn’t have the respiratory and cardiovascular capacity to keep up with the Arabians. And it is just as well Paul’s back there where I can’t hear him cussing me and Lari and trotting and posting—all in a very high-pitched voice.
On this third day, we ride in the morning on the bluffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. The views are spectacular, and we take a lot of scenic photographs. The afternoon is free to explore downtown Mendocino. During lunch, Lari tells us some of the history of Mendocino as a logging and fishing community and shares photos of the early methods for maneuvering the huge redwoods from the forest onto the ships for transport. After checking in at the old Mendocino Hotel, Paul and I tour the small town’s retail shops and galleries. The group is served an excellent dinner in a private room at the hotel restaurant and is entertained by a dulcimer player and balladeer.
This is the day Meghan has been waiting for. We will all canter Ten Mile Beach in the morning on our way to Westport, Calif., where we will spend the next three nights at the DeHaven Valley Farm Bed and Breakfast and ride the surrounding hillsides during the days.
Lari often splits the group into three or even four smaller groups based on the capacity of the horses and the will of the riders (thus, the need for extra trail guides). Paul and I usually are not in the same group, but today we are. Cantering in the ocean’s surf is a beautiful experience, and once again I am amazed at how strong these horses are that they can maintain a fast canter—a gallop if they’re allowed—all the while their legs are plunging into the sand a foot or more with each stride in some places.
At the end of Ten Mile Beach, we get onto the highway (Route 1) long enough to cross a bridge (which in itself is a sight to see—more than a dozen horses trotting across a two-mile bridge shared with vehicular traffic), and we eat lunch on the other side on “Simcha,” property owned by Lari and her husband, Harvey, who has joined our ride this day. On Simcha, Lari hosts 50-mile endurance rides and ride-and-tie races (where partners take turns riding a single horse, the non-rider running on foot). Sitting on a clearing intended for their future home, drinking wine from Harvey’s saddlebags, the group watches a thick fog roll in from the ocean and engulf the hills. Simcha, meaning “joyous occasion,” is aptly named. Today is a joyous occasion—Meghan cantered on the beach!
I am getting used to this lifestyle: big breakfast, leisurely pace, perfect weather. We have two guest riders with us for the morning, Deborah and Frank, and we get onto the trail in mostly our standard order—Deborah’s horse, Rascal, is behind Avantii, then Indy, all the others, and then Dakota at the rear. We are meandering toward the hills when the call comes out from the front, “Hornet hole! Turn back!”
By the time we realize the hornets are swarming us, several of us have gone past it; the ones who have not yet reached it turn back. The horses who have been stung are bucking and rearing; Deborah jumps off and Rascal runs up the trail riderless. Betsy is attempting to dismount when her horse sends her airborne with a buck. Her helmet cracks, but her head is saved. Most of the horses have been stung and some of the riders. We move on up the trail and meet up with the others who had turned back and taken another route. I am happy to learn that Paul and Dakota are OK. And I have not been stung either, although I can tell Indy took a fair number of hits by the way he is twitching his skin. But true to his moniker, he takes it like a hero!
Throughout the day, Lari teaches us about the endurance horse, how to read the horse’s pulse, heart rate and general condition, as if we’re at a “vet check” on a 50- or 100-mile endurance race. We ride on Simcha and the ranches surrounding it. We ride through the headwaters of the Noyo River in Jackson State Forest and through the deeper Ten Mile River in the privately owned forests behind Simcha, lunch on the river bank, and then split up into groups based on the horses’ fitness ability. Indy and I go with Lari’s group, along with Deborah on Rascal, Betsy on NightCap, Judy on Nature’s L’Chaim and Frank on Mustard. We ride an exhilarating gallop up one long trail (at more than 30 miles an hour) and pick our way back down the mountain along a ledge trail. It is on this narrow trail that we encounter the hornets again.
Indy is behind Avantii and Rascal behind us, and we manage to pass the hornets before they stir. However, they are in full force on Betsy, again, and this time Frank. Everyone is quick to dismount, as there isn’t enough room on the narrow trail to negotiate a bucking horse. We quickly walk/slide on foot down the mountain with nervous, twitching, bee-stung horses in tow. Frank releases a hornet from his helmet when we reach the bottom. And I slip a carrot to Indy, the perfect gentleman through both incidents.
Tonight is the night Lari has been telling us to prepare for—the night we are to entertain her with a talent show. Celeste, Betsy and I put on a skit acting out some of the fantastic stories Lari has shared with us on the trail of her life and travels; Judy and Jim sing a rendition of L’Chaim, for which her horse had been named; Brittany and Katie perform the one-body-with-someone-else’s-arms routine to hilarious perfection; Pat reads us a poem she authored; Paul and Brandon assist Jim in a sing-a-long; Paul tells a joke; and then Meghan silences the group with a display of her sketches. Most of her pencil sketches are of horses, as if she has been around them all her life.
The last day of riding is a reverse of two days ago. We split into smaller groups for the beach ride. This time Meghan is in the first (fast) group with Indy and Avantii—cantering skillfully and joyously through the surf. The trip has been wearing on her fragile body, but you wouldn’t know it. She rides Faraj, a gray Arabian gelding, as if she’s been riding all her life—her petite frame and delicate beauty framed by the ocean’s overpowering wave-surges and surf.
Back at the stables we leave our horses, pick up our cars and head back to the DeHaven Valley Farm for our last evening and breakfast together before departing tomorrow. Mike and Bill exhibit their culinary prowess again with an astounding dinner culminating in some nameless chocolate creation that leaves us all wanting more. A trio plays guitars and sings for us on the B&B’s side deck.
After the bountiful breakfast at DeHaven Valley Farm, we say our goodbyes to the strangers-turned-friends we shared our honeymoon with, and make our way back through Wine Country to the San Francisco airport and to our normal lives. And I think of Meghan, who will never have that normal life, and who made our honeymoon more special than she could ever know—she who may never know her own.
Thank you, Meghan.
For more information on horseback riding vacations on the coast and in the redwoods of California,
check out the Hidden Trails website at: