Experience the Niagara Escarpment on Horseback
The moment I get on a horse, time stands still. The rest of the world fades away, and worries are a distant horizon. This isn’t only because it’s an experience like no other, but because it requires concentration and focus. You’re on the back of a majestic animal with a mind of its own – one you must control, respect and work with in harmony and balance.
Of course solo riding, whether Western or English style, is a little different than organized trail riding. On a trail ride the control is less in your hands than that of the lead rider. It takes a special horse to be a trail horse, willing to let a variety of people with a variety of skill levels climb aboard then trust the horses know where they are going. Rarely do you have to guide a trail horse, though sometimes urge one to quit eating leaves and grasses. But the experience is still rewarding, especially through the scenic paths along the ridge of the Niagara Escarpment. As Winston Churchill once said, “No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.”
Horseback riding isn’t just the sport of kings anymore. Hobby barns dot rural landscapes outside of city boundaries and a surprising number of people have added a horse or two to their list of pets. You can still take lessons, part-board or lease a pony without committing to full ownership. Or ride casually at one of two well-established trail riding facilities in Niagara.
Riding is the new golf. Once the domain of only those who can afford it, it’s now more accessible to the average person, thanks not to public courses, but private riding stables.
The 40-plus herd at HorsePlay Niagara range in size, colour, age but not so much disposition – trail riding horses must be friendly and relaxed. At HorsePlay they are also named with intention: Oliver the Belgian is the largest and slowest; Elmo runs a close second. There’s Grover, Kermit, and Oreo, a black and white Paint. “All our horses have kid-friendly names,” says Toni Berecz, stable manager. If they arrive (usually from auction) with names like Thunder, Rocket or Bullet, the stable changes it to avoid making cautious riders nervous.
These horse are home here, spending years here grazing in large paddocks. “We do adopt some to local farms,” Berecz says, “but we keep in touch with them.”
For 15 years HorsePlay, owned by Kathy Buttigieg, has been taking couples, kids and groups of up to 22 people through forests, past ponds and old quarries in the Wainfleet Conservation Area – and along a small Lake Erie beach if you opt for the two hour or Sunset Ride. Several days a week you can participate in a one- or two-hour excursion starting at $40 per person and see part of the Trans Canada Trail from the back of an equine vantage point. All rides use Western gear, helmets are recommended and the stable’s insurance allows them to take kids ages six and up along for the ride.
Kids are the focus here and summers see the addition of week-long riding camps for children 6 to 13 years old that include crafts, archery and agility training with the owner’s Border Collies. The camp weeks – and certain booked rides – culminate with a cowboy cookout that includes hotdogs and marshmallows cooked over an open fire.
Add some bunnies and baby goats and school groups are part of the business model – surprisingly so is the Dominican Republic. Horseplay recently opened a similar operation in Punta Cana where the owners spend the cold months of the year, while staff members lead rides over snow covered gravel trails here.
Niagara Riding Stables
Less playground and more old school family farm, Niagara Riding Stables is the region’s second trail riding option catering primarily to adults, couples, and visitors to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Niagara Riding Stables is a rustic property and regional landmark for 50 years, now run by Dinah McGibbon who took over the business from her father 11 years ago.
The fifteen horses here are family. McGibbon’s own, Cobra, is a black Arabian cross and property mascot. “When I first saw him he was my sister’s horse,” she says. “I was upset because I’d grown up with Black Beauty and always wanted one like this.” Now Cobra is hers and riding the 50 acres of trails surrounding the property only with her. Other horses, like Earl, the older Belgian Quarter Horse cross, are good with kids but at this stable little ones must be 12 years or older.
Sitting in the heart of Niagara wine country, Niagara Riding Stables is an attractive option for out-of-towners. The 45- to 50-minute walking only (no trotting) adventure takes couples and small groups up and down sloping escarpment trails along the unspoiled private property surrounding the farm. The barn is open all year, but obviously most active in the summer months when they book riders in advance for 11 am, 1pm, 3pm and 5pm daily rides starting at $50 per person.
“I have tourists who book from all over the world long before they arrive. Many times they actually have experience and just want to come riding to experience the different scenery,” says McGibbon. “A large number of our riders come from the Toronto area. Many of them are beginners, possibly because they grew up in a big city where they were just not exposed to horseback riding.”
And if you love the company of horses, even occasionally, that’s a huge advantage of the Niagara Region. City folk can get out of town within minutes, enjoy the countryside and experience a rural landscape still large enough to accommodate steady slow moving hooves.
“Today, kids spend more time indoors on computers,” McGibbon adds. “I get parents who are in their 40’s and 50’s who used to ride when they were kids and now bring their kids riding. I’ve heard so many stories of adults telling me they used to save their allowance until they had enough to go riding and then would ride their bicycles to get here.”
As Winston Churchill once said, “There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” And that’s not something a video game can recreate.