April 2016 - Cowgirl Dreaming

Surf and turf riding holiday on California’s North Coast.

by Linda Ballou

“Shorten your rein, grab mane, prepare to canter,” came from plucky Lari Shea, owner of Ricochet Ridge Ranch. Mounted on a Black Beauty double named Rascal, this petite lady has led countless horse treks through the primordial redwood forests of Northern California.

I tried not to think too much about the turkey vultures wheeling overhead, or the growing chasm between me and a soft landing and focused on the footing of the trail as the white-fringed Pacific fell away. The brisk canter took us through a frilly fern forest, splashing through a gurgling creek to a grand vista that is best reached on horseback.

My mission is to enjoy as many beautiful places as I can before they are no more. Horseback riding allows me to get into the scenery, away from police sirens and cell phones, and to get in tune with the rhythms of nature.

So, when I found one of the last best riding opportunities in California on the internet and saw that Lari offers everything from slow ambles though gorgeous scenery for the novice, to week-long “real deal” rides on fit endurance horses for experienced riders, I was eager to get on board.

Lari has been winning endurance races since 1966. These are grueling 50 to 100-mile scrambles through rough terrain that must be completed in a 12- or 24-hour time frame, respectively. She runs her ranch with 55 horses and a dozen guides with the same strict precision she applies to her racing.  She offers week-long rides through the redwoods, custom rides tailored to suit your schedule and riding abilities, as well as a string of combination rides with the cooperation of local innkeepers. I chose the combo that seemed perfect for the mature rider; a relaxing three-night stay at a B&B contrasted by two days of fast, challenging riding.

After a leisurely rise and a hearty country breakfast, I began my full day ride through a shady draw beneath towering redwoods. Our energetic horses charged up a steep slope thick with devils club then sashayed into a dell where a creek whispered to us from a moss-laden ravine. This is the home of a 1500-year old giant that towers over the forest gilded with columns of light. This granddaddy of all the trees on the mountain was here when Columbus landed in the Americas and with luck will be spared the logger’s axe and continue to live for another 1000 years.

Another climb brought us back into the sun and a view of the blue Pacific wearing a lacy white skirt. We trammeled through knee-high velvet grass meadows spiked with white daisies and red columbine. The crystalline air and endless blue sky livened horse and rider alike. Our group of seven, a mother and daughter team, two guides in training, Lari, her husband Harvey and I, moved briskly through tree tunnels shrouded in wild cucumber vines. Mats of sorrel, trillium and miner’s lettuce thrive on the cool forest floor beneath the canopy of Bishop pine, Douglas fir, spruce, and coastal redwood. A majestic stag standing in a shaft of sunlight upon a ledge above us was completely unmoved by our caravan. This ride is on private land where he remains Lord of the Forest.

“It’s so great to ride the trails in an english saddle,” chirped the young blond studying to be a doctor at USC. “Hardly any of the outfitters offer that anymore,” she said, flushed with excitement.

Rugged Beauty & Sturdy Steeds

I opted for an endurance saddle that provides a more stable seat with english stirrups that allow the rider to comfortably post to the trot. Western saddles are also available. All the gear was in excellent condition. All of the horses on our ride were Arabs except my mount, Dakota, a 6 year old Quarter Horse.

Lari specializes in an Arab-Russian Orlov trotter cross that she breeds for her endurance rides. This mixture produces horses with a ground-eating stride, sure-footedness and a relaxed disposition. All of our mounts were well-groomed and their hooves recently trimmed and shod.

“These horses really are incredibly fit,” came from the girl’s mother, a veterinarian from Davis, as we trotted up to a ridge trail no more than 30-feet wide with vistas on either side. To the right, velvet green forested slopes. To the left, the shimmering blue sea with a 10-mile strand of sand that would be our destination in the morning.

“This trail was used as a trade route for the Pomo Indians. The indigenous people weren’t stupid. They didn’t live in the rain, wind and fog that goes with living on the coast. They traveled to the other side of this mountain,” Lari explained, as she snipped overgrown limbs shrouding the less-traveled track.

An estimated 250,000 Native Americans lived in the region at the height of the culture. They engaged in extensive trade with neighboring tribes, and carried as much as a hundred pounds of goods strapped to their foreheads over this ridge that is part of the California Cultural Trail.

After a thrilling two-mile canter up a narrow winding path that wraps the mountain, we gave the horses a breather. While the horses regained a proper pulse and respiratory rate, Lari gave pointers on how to check their vital signs. Her extensive knowledge of horse anatomy and a genuine regard for her animals makes her a superior rider. She wins her races with a tortoise and hare philosophy that requires paying strict attention to the needs of her mount.

She is fond of saying that she wins by going slower than her competition, leaving them behind at the vet check stations as their horses struggle to recover from over-exertion.

Over a picnic lunch, we talked about why the North Coast has escaped over-development. Convenient to nowhere, it is best reached by Highway 128 off of the 101 about 140 miles north of San Francisco. This lovely byway purls through oak woodlands and Anderson Valley wine country then dips down into a cool cruise through a large stand of redwood to connect with curvaceous Highway One. A staunch environmental stand on the part of locals and a vigilant Coastal Commission prevents developers from corrupting this shoreline with strip malls and condos. Huge swathes of land are preserved, and the rest is owned by large timber interests.

The last day of my ride began with a brisk canter on the hard packed sand of Ten Mile Beach.  Dakota’s ears perked and her pace livened at the sound of the waves rolling in seven lacy tiers. The untamed surf on the North Coast of California breaks hard on jagged volcanic fingers eroding sea stacks and cliffs, but here vast dunes have formed that harbor endangered species including plover nesting sites safely tucked behind mountains of sand that protect them from ceaseless wind.

We flew into the wind and a world shrouded in mist. As we cantered smartly on, I settled into a comfortable western rocking chair lope. As the minutes flew by years dropped from this rider. I was the cowgirl I’d imagined I could be. I was an endurance rider on a horse with the stuff to win races against the best of them. A joyous swelling filled me as I realized that this feeling was a gift to me from Lari Shea, founder of Ricochet Ridge Ranch.

(Author’s Note: As of January 1, 2016 Lari Shea turned management over the Ricochet Ridge Ranch over to Jake Langevin and family. “As the new owners of Ricochet Ridge Ranch we plan to continue to offer all of the same amazing riding opportunities that have been available in the past,” Jake told us. “We hope to live up to the legacy and the legend that is Lari Shea and Ricochet Ridge. Find out  more at www.horse-vacation.com and come ride with us!”)

Adventure-travel writer, Linda Ballou, shares Great Outdoor days in L.A, as well as a host of travel articles on her site, and her novel The Cowgirl Jumped Over The Moon is available at at www.LindaBallouAuthor.com.