Horsing Around in the City

Both newbies and veterans can conquer trail riding at River Valley Ranch

River Valley Ranch
Photo Courtesy of River Valley Ranch’s Facebook page

I was that “obsessed horse girl” in elementary school. I started taking lessons when I was six, I brought my well-worn Western saddle to school to show my classmates, and I even spent a full year writing both my name and my horse’s name on all my math assignments. As the daughter of a large-animal veterinarian, I spent my life surrounded by horses and eventually made a name for myself in the northern Wisconsin Western show circuit. But when I moved to Minneapolis, I figured my days in the saddle were behind me.

I hadn’t ridden in close to three years—a concept that once seemed foreign to me—until recently. My boyfriend Ryan, a suburban-raised theater kid, had set foot in a barn only a handful of times but claimed he wanted to try riding with me. Part of me wondered if it was a way to quell my never-ending horse stories, but I wasn’t about to turn down a trail ride. I decided to bring him to River Valley Horse Ranch in Carver—a no-frills trail-riding operation that catered to new and experienced riders alike.

The ranch offers trail rides all week and suggests guests call ahead to make reservations. Ryan and I chose early afternoon on a beautiful Sunday—an unsurprisingly busy time. We drove up to the ranch and were immediately surrounded by trees, hills, and valleys. Though we were less than 45 minutes from the Twin Cities, it felt like a different world.

The $30 per-person charge covered an hour-long trail ride on horses that fit our ability level, which the staff briefly asked us about when we arrived. I answered that I was a good rider, wondering briefly if I should have lied so I didn’t get a hard-to-handle horse. But the minute I swung my feet into my horse, Pebbles’, stirrups, 12 years of lessons came back to me.

Ryan and the brand-new riders in our group, on the other hand, looked visibly more uncomfortable. More than half of the people in our group of about 10 to 15 had never been on a horse and were understandably nervous. It didn’t help that the staff offered minimal instruction on how to steer or stop the horses. Ryan had already quizzed me for an hour on how to ride, but I ended up teaching the woman behind me on the trail basic safety and horsemanship maneuvers.

After about five minutes on the trail, our guide rearranged our line of horses so we were riding near our friends. Ryan rode in front of me so he could ask me questions, and I could then reassure him that he was starting to look like a natural. Most people in the group soon settled in and realized they likely wouldn’t fall off their horses at a slow walk (though, there were shrieks when horses in the back spontaneously trotted to catch up to the others, but our guide’s calm demeanor relaxed the bunch).

We walked in a single-file, nose-to-tail line on a narrow path through the woods. It was no problem for an experienced rider like myself. I’d been on dozens of trail rides in my life and spent most of the trip wishing I could gallop to gawk at more of the scenery around the trail. The new riders’ confidence grew and eventually they felt comfortable enough to look around at the rivers and valleys, finally believing the horses would stay safely under them for the ride’s duration. “Can you tell it’s my first time?” the woman behind me asked, giggling. I couldn’t: she looked calm and sat tall in the saddle.

It seemed like only moments later that we arrived back at the barn. The graceful dismount was the new riders’ last challenge. While I swung my feet out of the stirrups and lightly landed next to my horse’s shoulder, others struggled to climb down and felt their thigh muscles turn to jelly. Most new riders don’t realize it, but riding works leg muscles that even most athletes don’t work much. We handed our horses off to the staff and hobbled with bowed legs to the edge of the arena, parting ways and returning to city life once again.

This would be a great ride in the fall after a frost killed some of the mosquitos and flies that annoyed the horses (and riders). I’d bring bug spray or sunscreen, since I stubbornly refused both, and I’d suggest bringing helmets for kids or nervous newbies. Ryan said he was glad he went with someone who knew horses well, but wished the staff had offered a bit more explanation on safety and basic maneuvers for those unfamiliar with horses. But for those who like to learn by jumping in, you’ll appreciate the trusting staff and horses.

I would have liked to go faster once or twice, but the horses’ peaceful walk gave me time to settle down and enjoy the ride. It was also a great way to see a new side of Minnesota—and for Ryan and I to see new sides of each other. The urge to ride is still alive in me, and I’m happy to know that I don’t need to go too far from the city to get back in the saddle.

River Valley Ranch
16480 Jonathan Carver Pkwy, Carver