Riding across the snow-covered golf course streaked with cross-country ski tracks astride Static, a Belgian mare apparently crossed with a comfortable couch, is one of the most relaxing things a person can do outside in negative 12 degree Celsius weather. The sun is warming or at least creating the illusion of warmth as the winter trail ride experience at Huntsville, Ontario’s Deerhurst Resort inches along, the crunch of packed snow under horse hooves the only sound.
I ride easily without stirrups … and rarely with reins. Static knows this trail, loves the horse in front of her, and does these circular routes several times a week. Winter trail rides are scheduled three times a day before noon, but this is only the first time they’ve been out this week. Bundling up for a trail ride this time of year isn’t as popular as outdoor sleigh rides – so most of the herd, like the stalky Tex trailing ahead of me, pull carriages and sleighs most of the winter and only occasionally schlep people saddled up.
Tex is an unusual Belgian and Quarter Horse cross rescued almost 20 years ago from a shady stable in Alberta producing mare hormones for pharmaceutical companies. Usually fouls like Tex are discarded after birth, but fortunately he was rescued by an organization opposed to such practices and now he lives comfortably at the stables at the Deerhurst Resort. The herd of about 15 horses are owned and loved like family by the company who leases the land and is contracted to provide this added-cost outdoor activity to guests staying at the resort. Other resort winter fun (included in the activity fee) include a heated indoor pool and hot tub, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and pond skating.
My mare for the moment, Static, walks calmly through the flat snowy trails, throws her head occasionally, and basks in the attention of people after the ride standing still to be petted and stroked before untacked. “I know I’m not suppose to have favourites,” our guide Stephanie tells us after the ride, “but Static is it.” Stephanie works year round full-time at the stable, leading trail rides, looking after animals and taking care of the growing petting zoo on the property that as of early 2015 included donkeys, miniature ponies rescued from auction, bunnies, ducks, roosters, goats, and one cow, most raised together from babies. By the spring, they hope to expand the zoo into an ‘animal experience’ for kids and add a zebra to the mix.
You can dog sled here too. All the dogs wait in a front paddock tied next to plastic barrel shelters waiting for their turn to run first timers along the trails the horses have packed down earlier in the day. But at $80 a ride I stick to my favourite mode of leisure transportation, which was slow, comfortable and an easy initiation for anyone new to riding – easily eliminating anyone’s equestrian fear.
My one complaint: it was too short. (Ok, that’s always my complaint, but this time it’s merited). At barely one half hour after mounting and for $124 (including tax) for two, it’s the most I’ve paid per minute to ride, beating even my pricey Bermuda beach experience. According to the guide, fall is the best time to experience a longer ride (for $10 per person more) through the hilly Muskoka landscape adjacent to the resort property – that’s the vista-view experience I remember when visiting here about eight years ago.
Deerhurst Resort, however, is a good value in the winter especially mid-week if you can swing the vacation days, and it’s pet-friendly to boot. Our dogs loved the hiking trails (check out the full story at www.dogtrotting.net); they ran along with us as we attempted to cross-country ski and even chased pucks on the ice during an early morning skate when no one else was around. The horses, however, the dogs stayed away from, sleeping instead on the comfy white duvets in our four-star resort hotel room while we took a sauntering ride in the crisp Northern air.
(Check out my winter ride last year at Fox Liar Stables here)