Lazing saddles

Like many American girls, I went through a horse phase. I fantasized about owning a thoroughbred, braiding ribbons into its hair and racing it to victory. Unfortunately, horse adoption didn’t fit into my mother’s plans for our family—which included such extravagances as food, clothing and shelter. I was forced to channel my equestrian desires into parading My Little Ponies around the living room. Recently, I decided to remedy this childhood oversight with a horseback trail ride at Gibson Ranch, the 345-acre park incongruously located alongside the strip malls of Watt Avenue.

Blame it on My Little Ponies, but I was surprised by the size of the ranch’s horses. They towered over me—all velvety nostrils and moist eyes. I wondered how I’d ever manage to haul myself on top of one.

Then my guide, a bubbly young lady named Sarah, pointed out the mounting box next to the horse corral. I climbed the steps to the top of the wooden platform. Sarah selected a brown mare and parallel-parked her next to me. With my newfound height, I easily slipped a foot into the stirrup and found myself in the saddle.

From this lofty vantage point, Sarah introduced me to Jazz, the former harness racer and mother of four who would carry me on a four-mile loop trail for the next hour. I patted her mane and she exhaled sharply through her nose. Sarah showed me how to hold the reigns and gently pull them left or right to turn. I tested these steering skills by leading Jazz to a nearby shade tree. So far, so good.

Sarah instructed our group to follow her single file as she rode down the trail on a proud Arabian named Rab. I guided Jazz into line and she stopped abruptly. I tapped her sides with my heels to urge her forward. She ignored me. When I tapped her again, Jazz turned and walked quickly back to the corral, as if she’d suddenly remembered she’d left the stove on. When she reached the fence, she turned her back (and mine) on the group.

Sarah began shouting instructions from atop Rab. Another groom emerged from the barn to help. “Grab the left reign and pull!” they called. “Make her turn!” “Don’t let her ignore you!”

Let her?” I wanted to say, but I was too busy psychically pleading with Jazz to be a team player while pulling the reigns as hard as I dared. Jazz stayed put. Though she exerted quite a bit of resistance, her calm eyes revealed none of it.

Sarah kept calling, “Jazz! Come on, mama!” The other groom vigorously pantomimed reign-handling motions. I pulled left with all my might, while making a mental note to cross wrangler off my list of career options.

Eventually, Jazz did a slow 180 and ambled back in line. She gave another powerful snort and we moved forward. I feared more sudden stops, but after we traveled a good mile without incident, we both relaxed.

We followed Dry Creek, where burgeoning blackberry bushes lined both banks. Jazz’s slow gait made a gentle rocking motion that lulled me into summertime peace. When the trail and the creek parted ways, we headed across fields of golden grass punctuated by bouncing jackrabbits. The path wound close to cattail-filled marshes, which Sarah told us were wildlife preserves for snapping turtles “as big as the head of a shovel.” I leaned over Jazz, hoping to spy one of the feisty reptiles, but no luck.

The turtles probably were hiding from the blazing sun, which I longed to do by the last mile. As our group rode, dusty and parched, over the North Sacramento plains, I silently contemplated the meaning of the term “saddle sore.” When I saw the ranch store at the end of our route, I nearly wept at the thought of cold beverages. Jazz seemed as eager for the shade of the corral as when she’d first led us back there. With a shaky dismount, I said goodbye to My Big Pony and the next phase of my horse phase.