Saturday, December 5, 2015

Facility Review: Alanthus Gate Equestrian Center

A couple of days ago, I got a text from a friend who wanted to know if I was interested in trying out a new facility for cross-country jumping.  As it turned out, I hadn't made any specific plans with anyone for the weekend for riding and I had been trying to figure out what I wanted to do.  And I really wanted to try more cross-country jumping.

We made plans to meet a couple of other ladies at the facility at 1 pm today.  The weather was a sunny, windless 55 degrees for the day, and it was perfect for a lovely ride. 

The facility we were riding at is called Alanthus Gate Equestrian Center and based on the directions, it looked like it was about a half hour from the barn, which was so nice.  I'm always looking for places to ride that don't require a huge time commitment, so I was excited to see this facility.

My first impressions were not that great, though.  We spent the last mile or so driving on a horrifying gravel road and aside from one sign at the turn, we had no idea exactly where the facility was.  It was easier to go forward than to turn around on the steep, winding road that was littered with potholes, washed-out gravel, or too-large gravel, and I just prayed that we would either get to the facility or to a real road soon.

After maybe 10 nerve-wracking minutes of creeping along, we did arrive at the facility.  And we discovered that the horse trailer parking situation is not that great.  I needed to turn and pull up a hill, then back down the hill while straightening the trailer, before sharply turning again to pull off the driveway onto grass next to a stone fence.  The fence had several large holes next to it, so I needed to be careful about where I drove, and I made plans to put the truck in 4-wheel drive to get back onto the driveway when we were leaving.  The people we were meeting were right behind us and they ended up doing the same maneuver I did but because there wasn't enough room behind me to park off of the driveway, they ended up just parking behind some cars and leaving them enough room to get out.

Checking in was also a bit of a challenge.  My friend tracked down the owner, so we could sign waivers and pay the $30/rider fee.  I will say the owner was very friendly and once we were saddled, she got on a 4-wheeler and led us to a small cross-country course, provided a map of the trails, and explained a bit more about how to access the trails.

The cross-country course was something of a disappointment.  There were a few small logs, a bizarre and brightly colored jump made of tires, a coop, and a chair jump.  After looking at the website a bit more, I think the course is actually intended for a hunter derby rather than for a true cross-country event.

But we made the best of it and jumped the logs.  In fact, there were two fairly close together and I got Nimo trotting over both of them as a set, which was kind of cool.  Also, unlike Kelly's Ford, this course was on very hilly terrain, which did add a bit of a challenge.  There was also a coop that was just a smidgen too big for us to go over, but that didn't stop me from asking Nimo to give it a try.  And this is what he did - he walked as close up to the base as he could, hoisted one leg over it, stopped to take a bite of grass, and then slowly lifted his other three legs over the coop individually.  We did that twice (including the bite of grass bit) and I called it a day for the jumps.  I do think we'll be able to do the coop eventually, but Nimo is going to need some time to think about it first:)

We decided to explore the trails next.  The facility boasts 3,000 acres, so we figured we ought to be able to get a decent trail ride in.  The trails aren't really marked, but it was clear where they were.  They are a mix of gently rolling hills, steeper hills, and flat land next to a river.  There seems to be a main trail that goes around the perimeter of the trail area and then several off-shoots or connector trails in the middle.  We mostly made it around OK, with a couple of bobbles near the end of our ride as we tried to think logically about how we would get back.  (Employing logic on Virginia trails is an exercise in stupidity.  You really need to learn to feel your way through them.)  After going the wrong direction for a short distance, we got it right and made it back to the parking area without incident.

Typical section of trail

View of the terrain
The trails were maintained pretty well, although we just walked them because they were quite wet.  Aside from a couple of fields, the trails were in the woods and I can see that they would be quite lovely in warmer months with drier weather.  And they would make a nice place to do endurance conditioning because of the hills.  We probably did about 5 miles of trails, and I think with some creativity, you could probably eek out 8 miles or so.

All in all, we had a really nice time today.  It was a beautiful day, no one fell off their horse (ahem), we were only briefly lost, and all the horses did great on the trail.  Nimo impressed me quite a bit because he led the vast majority of our ride.  He led at a much faster walk than usual (maybe 3.5 - 4 mph instead of his usual 3 mph pace) and he was reasonably confident through the several creek crossings that we did.  He even picked his way through a short section of trail that was on a fairly steep, muddy hill that was stacked with tree debris like dead branches and small logs.  He was clearly ready to start trotting with a nanosecond's notice, but he never pulled or complained about the walking pace.  And while he did lead most of the ride, he also calmly walked in the middle and at the end of the group.

In terms of the facility, I would say the cons are the crazy gravel road to get there with no encouraging signs to reassure you that you're going in the right direction, the less-than ideal parking, and the cost.  $30 is a lot to pay for trail riding, even on nice trails.  I can get an annual pass for all the Wildlife Management Areas in the state for $23 and I pay $8-10 per ride at the state parks.

That said, the place is close, the trails are lovely and worthy of even endurance horse conditioning (I'm told they are used by one of the local hunts), and the owner seemed very nice.  My understanding is that the facility is fairly new, only started this past spring, so it is entirely possible that there are still improvements planned and that the pricing structure may change.  I probably won't ride at the facility often, but I think I'll plan on maybe a couple of times a year for a change of pace from my usual places.

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