Sunday, August 16, 2015

Exploring Sky Meadows

I've ridden at Sky Meadows State Park in Delaplane, Virginia a couple of times:  once last year with a small group who didn't know the trails and once with a friend a few weeks ago.  The first time, one of the ladies in the group didn't feel comfortable taking her horse up the mountain trail, so the second time, I went with a lady whose horse I knew could do a mountain trail so I could check it out.  (And yes, it's possible that I told her that there was nothing very steep or rocky or challenging just so that she would come with me, because I now have to lie to people to get them to come riding with me...)

My first impression of the park was that it wasn't going to make the cut for trails that I regularly use for conditioning work.  Getting in a lot of miles would be hard without endlessly circling the park and while the trails were marked really well, it seemed like there were about 8,000 of them, all with distances between .43 and 2.2 miles, and it was impossible to know which ones allowed horses without consulting a map, because the markers didn't say.  But because I hadn't been able to check out the mountain trail the first time, I kept the park in the back of my mind in case I had the time and inclination to go back.

Well, fast-forward about a year, and I was experiencing a bit of "meh" about the three or four places that I typically ride at.  And Sky Meadows popped back into my head.  I had a friend whose horse I knew could handle anything even if his rider was not as excited about more challenging terrain, and I knew she was looking to go for a fun ride.  So, ahem, I told her how beautiful Sky Meadows is (that is not a lie - it is gorgeous!), that the trails are in great shape (also true), and that there shouldn't be any terrain that was too difficult (I actually had no idea because I'd never been on the section of trail that I wanted to explore, but it was a mountain trail and listed as a difficult trail on the map).

And so it was that a few weeks ago, I finally got a chance to ride the Lost Mountain trail at Sky Meadows.  It was great!  A little rocky, but with at least a few switchbacks to ease the climb.  Steep enough to really work the horses, but not so long (only a couple of miles) that a reasonably fit horse couldn't handle it.  And SHADY, which is critical during July and August in Virginia to avoid passing out from heat exhaustion.  My friend thought the trail was a little too much for her liking but because the rest of the ride was so beautiful and the trails were in such great shape, she forgave me for my subterfuge:)

However, there was still one more thing I wanted to do at the park.  And that was to explore new horse trails that had been made recently.  Another friend told me they were really nice, but I wasn't sure how to get to them and it looked like crossing a major highway was involved, so I decided not to push it with my friend who had so gamely done the mountain trail with me.

Then, a little over a week ago, I found out that a trail riding club I belong to, USTR, would be doing an organized ride at Sky Meadows.  And part of the ride would be to check out the new horse trails on the other side of the highway.  I was in.

So yesterday, I got up early so I could meet the USTR members at the park at 9:30.  There would be two groups of riders:  one group that would only walk the trails and not do the Lost Mountain trail and another that would walk and trot and do the mountain trail.  After both groups were back at the parking lot, any riders that wanted to would group together, cross the highway, and check out the trails on the other side.

View from the parking lot at Sky Meadows
Nimo and I were in the second group so we could get at least a little conditioning work in, but I knew we wouldn't be going at a ride pace because most of the riders were just regular trail riders and had no desire to see the world while zooming as fast as their horse's legs could carry them.  I was really impressed with Nimo while we were waiting to go.  We were supposed to ride out at 10 and I was all tacked up and ready to go at 9:45.  (I can't believe how much faster I've gotten at getting my horse ready - I used to have to budget over a half hour!)  Nimo happily continued to stuff his face with hay for the next 15 minutes, oblivious to any energy from the 15-20 other horses that were on the ride.  After we mounted, some of the group was still not ready and there was a gentleman who wanted to take some pictures for the website/FB, etc., so there was some standing around while everybody got organized.  Normally, Nimo gets impatient once I get on, but on this ride, he was happy to eat grass while we waited.  Eventually, we got everyone together, pictures taken, and headed out on the trail.

We ended up doing the first probably 3 miles at a sort of walk.  The group leader was riding a 50-mile endurance horse that she was training to ramp up to 100s, so he was a bit full of himself and not happy to be held back to a walk.  Nimo also wanted to go faster, but he wasn't obnoxious about it.  Because the lead horses walked faster than he did, he would trot short segments of the trail periodically to catch up.  I basically let him regulate his own pace, walking when he was close to the group and trotting when he thought he was falling behind.

When we got to the mountain trail, the uphill climb took a toll on a few of the horses in the group (there were 7 of us, I think), and they fell behind sometimes, so the rest of us would wait every so often.  And Nimo did well with that too.  But there were a few sections of trail that the lead horses trotted (and possibly cantered) and so Nimo trotted too.  I could tell there were a couple of times that he thought about cantering to catch up and that was when I had a disconcerting thought.  This was our first organized ride since The Incident In Which My Horse Bucked Me Off While Cantering.  I vaguely wondered how I would fare if I got bucked off on the side of a mountain with lots of trees and rocks, and I figured it probably wouldn't work out as well as it had last time.  However, unlike the ride when Nimo bucked, there were no signs that could later be interpreted as a significant message.  We'd been trotting over logs without incident and there had been no warning crow-hops.  So, I took a deep breath and decided not to worry about it.

Which was a good thing, because shortly after that decision, Nimo absolutely decided to start cantering up a steeper section of trail.  And he did just fine.  No crow-hops, no bucks, not even a misstep.  And then he realized how stupid it is to canter up hills because it wears him out, so he went back to trotting:)

After doing the mountain and ridge trails without incident, we stopped briefly to see if anyone in the group wanted to head back to the trailers.  The main group would be heading to the meadow trails and some horses were tired from the climb.  A few riders did decide to head back, leaving 5 of us.  And then the real fun started.

The rest of the trails were gently-rolling hills and so we trotted them.  All of them.  Without stopping except for a quick break at a creek to see if any of the horses wanted a drink.  It was awesome!  And what was even more awesome was to have a horse who was happy to trot at a pace set by the group leader.  There were a few times when Nimo asked if he could pass the lead horse, but his rider had said he could be pretty competitive, and I didn't want to create a problem, so I kept Nimo just behind the lead or even a horse or two back, which he did very willingly.  I think we probably trotted about 3 miles, which is actually pretty impressive for an organized ride.  We ended up doing about 6 miles in an hour and 20 minutes, which is not blistering by any means, but was a much better pace than I expected.

We only walked the last maybe 5 minutes to the trailers, but I didn't worry about it because I knew we'd be back on the trail again soon, so I walked Nimo another couple of minutes and then tied him to the trailer, gave him a small mash to eat, loosened his girth and sponged him off while we waited for the other group to come in.

Within 10 or 15 minutes, we were underway, and I had a chance to ride with an endurance rider who had been in the walk-only group because she was on her non-endurance horse.  She'd had some issues with her endurance horse, and it was interesting to hear her talk about how they'd come up and some of the problems she'd had to deal with.

Crossing the highway ended up being not that big of a deal.  The park had placed mounting blocks on both sides of the highway for anyone who wanted to dismount to cross, but all of us stayed on our horses.  Traffic can be quite heavy on this highway and it includes semi-trucks and apparently really loud, obnoxious motorcyclists.  (Luckily, the motorcycles didn't come through until AFTER we'd gotten across the road or we might have had some problems.  Sometimes I secretly wish that I could train my horse to attack motorcyclists who misbehave...)  We managed to convince the traffic to stop for us so we could cross and everyone made it OK.

Then we did another 3-3.5 miles of really nice trails.  They were all pretty easy, with a couple of gentle hills.  The one issue was that the trails were conducive to trotting or even cantering, but there were quite a few hikers out, making it more difficult to maintain a constant speed if you wanted to do anything besides walk.  And if you didn't know your way, you would absolutely end up on trails not designated for horses because despite the frequency of trail markings and signs, there is no indication about which trails are for horses and which are only for hikers.  It's exasperating because the fee to ride is $8 plus $2 for each additional horse, so it isn't an inexpensive place to ride where the park could be forgiven for skimping on things like trail markings.  We had a person in our group who was familiar with the trails, but honestly there is no way I could reproduce our ride without sitting down with a map.  (Which I later did...details to follow.)

As we neared the end of our ride, the two riders in front asked if the rest of us could hold our horses for a minute.  We didn't realize what was going on, but I guess they wanted to canter up a hill and figured the rest of the group wouldn't want to.  Well, I absolutely wanted to, and so did the guy next to me, so after the first riders made it to the top, we looked at each other and by virtually silent agreement decided to follow suit.  I hollered to the riders behind us that we were going to go and we took off.  At first Nimo just tried to trot his little heart out, but I asked him to canter.  After thinking about it for a second, he apparently decided it was safe because the other horses were OK, so he cantered the rest of the way up the hill.  No bucking, no crow-hopping, just a nice slow canter.  Yay!

We walked the last mile back to the trailers, crossed the highway without a problem, and I got Nimo sponged off and eating mash while I had a snack with the other riders and we chatted about horse stuff for maybe a half-hour.  Then it was time to head home.

When I got home, I decided to decipher the map to the park so I could plan my rides there in the future.  I think we rode 9-10 miles and that is a perfectly respectable distance for conditioning rides, especially ones that include some climbing.  So I definitely want to work Sky Meadows into my regular riding schedule.

For anyone in the area who might be interested, here is the section of the Sky Meadows park with horse trails.  The horse trails are highlighted in yellow, and actually make a lot more sense now than they did when I was riding on them.  Apparently, all of the connected trails on the east side of the park are OK for horses, which I did not know, so I feel less irritated about the lack of markings indicated on the signs.  And even on the west side, the horse trails are grouped together, so I feel a lot better about being able to make sure I don't get off track.

I'm so glad I went on the USTR ride, not only because I now feel comfortable riding at Sky Meadows but because the other members are such fun people to ride with.  It was a nice way to get through yet another hot conditioning ride as I imagine that fall is coming soon, and with it, cooler weather.


  1. Sounds like a lovely ride with some lovely folks! It's really cool that you have riding organizations like that by you- I still live quite a ways from most of the NJTRA people and don't have a trailer/rig yet to boot. Puts a huge damper lol

    1. Yeah, my whole world opened up when I got a trailer. Even though I could use a friend's, it wasn't the same as having my own. And having a group to go with for the first time I ride somewhere has been invaluable for finding good conditioning spots AND for meeting people who can help me out/answer questions.