By Fran Emmons, Staff Writer
On a brisk Sunday morning at the end of October, 51 horses and riders gathered at Never Say Never Farm in Garland for a trail ride. The riders' ages spanned six decades and included men, women and children. Some rode Western, some rode English, and some rode in costume, as the next day was Halloween. Everyone had fun.
Horses are a large part of life in the central Maine area. This particular ride, a Poker Run that had two loops, one eight miles and the other 10, and earned two lucky participants a $225 pot that they split, was sponsored by TROT, Trail Riders of Today - a nationally organized group with local chapters, that promotes trail riding, but drew participants from throughout the region whether they were members of the TROT chapter or not.
The region is peppered with opportunities to ride. Commonly, a rider is identified with the barn at which he or she keeps a horse or regularly rides, such as Never Say Never Farm, as well as Infinity Farms in Dover-Foxcroft and East Ridge Stables in Charleston. Some people are lucky enough to have the land to keep their horses at home. And many, whether they own a horse, ride a lot, or are just interested in horses, belong to North Country Riding Club (NCRC) in Dexter.
Generally, riders are thought to go English or Western, although many have at one time or another ridden bareback.
A barn may or may not have a particular specialty. Infinity Farms is noted for instruction in dressage, a highly defined course of equine exercises that requires extensive training on the parts of both horse and rider. Riders often "event," or school their mounts over a course of obstacles of varying heights.
East Ridge Stables also features English instruction, but also caters to Western riding, featuring skills developed by cowboys working cattle on the range, such as roping, cutting, and barrel racing.
Many people prefer to simply head out on the trail with a horse. The Poker Run at Never Say Never Farm was a bring-your-own-horse opportunity, but some barns such as Northern Riding Adventures in Dover-Foxcroft will provide the complete experience, taking horse and rider one extended trips into remote locations. Competitive and endurance trail riding also have followings, with the condition of the horse, monitored by -vet checks, the sole measure of performance over rides from 25 to 100 miles.
Horses are large animals with big hearts that foster powerful relationships with their owners and ' riders, which makes riding a unique sport. That relationship has been long celebrated in film and literature and for more than two decades, turned to therapeutic use with mentally and physically challenged children. Several facilities in central Maine offer therapeutic programs, including East Ridge Stables and Northern Riding Adventures with Judy Cross.
Lessons are available year-round, and during the summer riding camps abound. At Infinity Farm, camps are offered throughout the year during school vacation periods.
"Lots of people are coming back to the sport," Judy Craig, an original member of NCRC, says Craig, a Web consultant, maintains a number of sites for municipal, business and tourism interests, and finds people are moving into the area because of the riding support systems that exist here.
"We get lots of calls from people to find out about stables, lessons, and other opportunities. The number of barns and programs are bringing folks here," Craig says, adding that driving horses is rising in popularity along with riding.
Although it is perceived to be primarily Western in nature, the riding club is actually a mixture of all interests, Craig says. it puts on a number of shows at a town-owned ring in Dexter that feature both Western and English classes.
The club is also a good citizen, working to promote Wild West Days, a three-day summer festival in Dexter, with some members riding at large as part of the atmosphere and others, such as Patti Dowse from Cambridge with Itty Bits, coming to offer carriage rides.
The group raises funds for an annual scholarship in honor of Irene Cochrane, an NCRC founder and Dexter native, with awards given to those continuing on to post-secondary education in the equine or animal husbandry field.
The club sponsored a trail trial - a clinic where horse and rider are introduced to obstacles they might come across out on the trail - and hopes to offer an inoculation clinic next spring.
Membership fluctuates, but averages near 50, Craig says, and represents men, women and children from ages four to 60-plus, although teen-age girls do predominate.
"There are business owners, people who are self-employed, and some people who don't even own a horse but come and help because they love to be around horses:' she continues, noting "there is a big resurgence of adults- who are getting back into riding."
Last year's NCRC's horse show on the Sunday of Wild West Weekend attracted more than 600 people, between riders and spectators. The Dexter Sports Boosters turn out to sell food - from breakfast sandwiches to hamburgers and hot dogs and the classes spanned both Western and English disciplines, with competitors ranging from youngsters in lead-line classes to seniors.
Putting on any show is cosily, both in terms of actual dollars and volunteer time. Ribbons and trophies are - pricey and insurance can run $500 or more. A given show needs a minimum of 10 volunteers for gate-keeping and other chores, while judges are paid. Entry fees to the classes, even in a large, well-attended event, don't cover a show's cost, Craig says.
Therefore, clubs and barns fund raise at other events or sponsor their own. In conjunction with Snow Roller Days in Monson last winter, NCRC sponsored rides on a sled drawn by a pair of Belgians. And the Poker Run in Garland, that was a fun ride that raised funds for the Garland Horse Show Riders Club, helping to make another season of horse-related activities possible.
A century ago, horses were an essential tool in agriculture and travel. Today, they are an essential part of recreational life for an increasing population. For more information about riding and horse-related activities in the region,, go to North Country Riding Club's Web site at www.dexterridingclub.com.
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