Summer Guide: Horseback riding—Saddle up!

Here’s one woman’s view from her first time on a horse

Carli rides her gentle horse, Tammy, up a Sierra trail. Anna and her horse follow closely behind.

Carli rides her gentle horse, Tammy, up a Sierra trail. Anna and her horse follow closely behind.

Photo by David Robert

Nevada is horse country. From the horses that roam Nevada wild to the quarter horses we cheer on at the Reno Rodeo, horses are an important part of the state’s reputation, landscape and economy.

But living in Nevada does not a cowgirl make. Until last week, I had never set foot, butt or even hand on a horse. That’s right; I’d never even petted one of the graceful beasts. OK, I think I remember once riding a pony at the fair, but I’m sure that doesn’t count.

This wasn’t out of fear or even disinterest—I’ve always been intrigued by the animals—but lack of opportunity. I suppose I can blame suburban California, where I spent the first 18 years of my life, or maybe my parents, who failed to know any horse-owners when I was growing up.

Still, I have lived in Nevada for the last six years, never managing to find my way onto a horse.

Until now.

I went riding on a recent Thursday, accompanied by former News & Review intern Anna Solano and photographer David Robert. I had made a reservation at Zephyr Cove Resort Stables in, you guessed it, Zephyr Cove, earlier that week. There was a slight mix-up; I had originally booked a 1 1/2-hour ride, but I ended up having to arrange a one-hour ride at the last minute.

This turned out to be a good thing; after an hour of riding, my behind was really sore. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We pulled into the stables at 1 p.m., just barely in time for our ride. There was a corral and a couple small buildings tucked among the trees. One of these buildings was the office, a comfy little cabin where Anna and I each paid $25 for the one-hour ride. The gentleman in the office instructed us to go to the corral gate and wait. We did so, talking briefly with a couple that was also scheduled for a ride.

I was suddenly startled from my conversation by the sounds of, “You, in the red!”

Damn! I was up first. All my cool—which I had managed to maintain quite nicely until that moment—evaporated. It was time to climb on the horse.

As I watched my guide—a stern-looking, gray-haired gentleman with a barely detectable twinkle in his eye—tighten the saddle, I felt led to admit my naiveté.

“Um, this is my first time on a horse,” I explained to my guide, who was, I might add, a pretty accurate picture of the quintessential cowboy.

“Hmmph,” he replied.

Hmmph?! I’d expected words of comfort, a “you’ll do fine,” or a “that’s OK, everybody has to start somewhere.” All I got was a “hmmph.”

I began to feel sort of silly, but I took a deep breath, put my foot in the stirrup, and pulled myself onto the horse. My guide handed me the reins. “Pull right for right, left for left, and pull back to stop.”

“Uh, OK,” I said as I breathed in the manure smell and swatted the flies that swarmed around me.

To my immense delight, however, I soon found out that no steering was necessary. My dark-colored horse, Tammy, knew exactly what to do: follow the horse in front of her. Our guide went first; the couple we waited with at the gate followed; I came next; and Anna brought up the rear.

Tammy moved along the trail expertly, walking when the horses in front of us walked and stopping when the horses stopped. The presence of an awkward, clueless rider on her back didn’t seem to bother Tammy at all.

The uphill ride was a bit bumpy, but not so uncomfortable that it distracted me from the beautiful mountain scenery. Our guide, whose name I later learned is Wayne, was very quiet, and his silence allowed us plenty of time to take in the trees and flowers (and plenty of time for me to secretly wonder just how sure-footed Tammy would be on the narrow, rocky trail). We even got to see a coyote scampering through the woods.

The ride climaxed with a breathtaking view of Lake Tahoe, which seemed to be far, far below us. Wayne stopped and let us gawk for several minutes at the distant lake.

Then came the downhill portion of the ride. The uphill portion had been, if not perfectly smooth, relatively jolt-free. Downhill was a different story.

My horse walked faster than before, apparently anxious to return to the comforts of her stable. I bounced along, trying to find a comfortable sitting position for my already sore butt. Actually, it would have been nice enough just to stay centered on the saddle. Maybe I didn’t hang on tightly enough, or maybe the saddle was slanted—or it maybe Tammy’s right legs are just too short—but I found myself tilting to the right the whole way down.

I was rather glad to reach the end of the trail. I dismounted successfully and asked our ride partners, honeymooning newlyweds Tracey and Mike Charles of Phoenix, what they thought of the ride.

“This was great in that you got to do a lot of climbing,” Mike said. “The scenery is a lot better [than in Phoenix]!”

“I liked it because the guide was very quiet and let us do our own thing,” Tracey added.

I then went into the office to talk to Dwight McGill, who, along with his wife, Louise, has owned Zephyr Cove Resort Stables for 15 years.

McGill said that he has 55 horses for riding, and the horses are, on average, between 12 and 15 years old. He acquires the horses when they are already advanced in years, and most are already trained for trail riding.

I asked McGill what distinguishes his facility from the other five stables in the area, but he simply replied, “If people like riding, any stable they go to, they’ll have a good time.”

I have heard others, however, contradict McGill’s modest statement. According to a couple local horse experts, the horses at Zephyr Cove are treated with more care than those at many other riding establishments in the area, so if you want to support a stable that takes special care of its animals, Zephyr Cove is a good bet. Other stables, however, allow more freedom, such as riding the horses at a faster pace and riding without a guide.

For me, though, this guided, walking stuff is just my speed. And because I’d been a bit tense on my first ride, I decided I wanted to give it a second try.

The following Sunday, I took my dad to Zephyr Cove for another one-hour ride. Interestingly, this second ride had a totally different flavor than the first. For one thing, I wasn’t nervous, since I knew what to expect. Also, the ride took place late in the afternoon, when the air was cooler and the sunlight angled in through the trees, giving the ride a more peaceful feel.

Best of all, this was a private ride, with just me, my dad and our guide, Malia. The three of us started talking right away, and we gabbed the whole way through. Malia, who is young and slim, with long, black hair, was friendly and funny. She talked about the difference between the various breeds, explained how stables are run, and told us riding anecdotes, such as the time tennis player Pete Sampras went riding at Zephyr Cove and dropped his wallet along the way. One of the guides found the wallet, which contained $1,000 cash, and returned it to Sampras, but never received a tip for her good deed.

I was so interested by our conversation that, before I knew it, we had reached the spot that overlooks Lake Tahoe. As we began our descent, I told Malia about my previous butt and balance problems.

“Just lean back,” Malia said. “Lean forward when going uphill, and lean backward when going downhill.”

So simple—and it worked like a charm. Malia also said that my previous horse’s saddle might have been loose, or that my present horse might have a smoother gait. Or maybe I was just getting used to it all. At any rate, I felt much more comfortable this time around, much more at ease on my horse.

The verdict? I dig riding, at least in this controlled, aesthetically pleasing environment—so much so, in fact, that if I had the time and money, I would seriously consider taking formal riding lessons.

For the meantime, I’ll be taking at least a couple more guided tours before the summer ends. This is, after all, a state where horses abound, and I have 24 horseless years to make up for.