Well, not my own horse. My parents weren't crazy.
As a child, I was in love with animals, but I was a little flighty. My parents weren’t ready to take on full-time horse care.
So they did the next best thing. They got me a horseback ride. Not just a ride in circles on a hitched-up pony. A real, mountainside, hours-long horseback ride.
The ride was about two hours, up into the foothills of the Superstition Mountains, and it was led by a guide from Don Donnelly Stables, based in Gold Canyon. It was one of the best birthday presents ever.
Two decades later, I'll admit there was a little nostalgia at play when I first booked the ride for my son and me. A blurry snapshot of me riding over a mountain rise on my horse still occupies a treasured spot in my childhood scrapbook.
Still, at almost 10, my son -- captivated by animals, fascinated by horses, adventurous, and a
David spent the rest of that evening looking up instructional videos online. (In case you’re wondering, "How to ride a horse" returns about 26,600 results on YouTube.) He was definitely excited.
Obviously, we didn't have to rely on the Internet. The folks at Don Donnelly's D-Spur Ranch & Riding Stables are experts at helping riders learn the ropes (or reins), and feel at ease with their horses.
Don Donnelly himself, sort of an Arizona John Wayne, was passionate about preserving the desert wilderness, was a natural storyteller and teacher, and had a soft spot for children; so it's only natural that his wife, Shelly, and his stable continue his legacy as ambassadors to the cowboy way of life. It's impossible not to "cowboy up" at Don Donnelly Stables, or at least to want to.
We arrived fifteen minutes before our ride was set to start, signed waivers, and were fitted for helmets. (Helmets are not mandatory, though you do have to sign off that you don’t want to wear one if you choose to decline. We both wore them.)
Our guide, Rusty Bates, gave a brief overview of riding etiquette and demonstrated how to control our neck-reined horses, which are used to following the trail and are trained to respond to very slight pressure from the reins.
The first big hurdle - literally - was mounting our horses. I know David had worried about this, but mounting blocks made it relatively easy. We all swung onto our horses, David onto a Tennessee Walker named Bart and me onto a bay-colored horse named Skip.
From there, Rusty led our little train out of the corral and into the foothills of the Superstitions.
Rusty was a wonderful guide. He talked with my son and me, as well as the other family, throughout the ride, and put us all at ease. Every once in a while, he'd holler back to David, whose horse liked to trot ahead at a faster pace than anyone else, until David reined the eager horse in. By the time we were getting to higher ground, David was controlling Bart with relative ease. These horses know the drill.
We soon began to know our horses’ personalities and feel comfortable with their rocking, sometimes jerky gait, as they stepped surefooted over the rocky terrain. My horse, Skip, was careful going downhill, carefully picking his way over rocks and down the thin strips of trail. On the other hand, he liked to get up a head of steam on the uphills. David’s horse (to my dismay) liked to run both uphill and downhill. We both learned to rein in our horses.
After about an hour, we stopped for a break at a lookout point, ---- and led our horses back down the narrow, meandering trail out of the Superstition Wilderness.
By now, we were comfortable. That’s the beauty of a longer ride. The trip back was as much a sightseeing tour as a trail ride, with Rusty pointing out desert plants (somewhat unnecessary, as our horses liked to run our legs into cactus and our heads into trees) and animals (common sights include javelina, deer, and coyote; we saw rabbits and a few phainopeplas, silky flycatcher birds that resemble black cardinals).
As we rode back to the stables, Rusty carried on easy conversation and stories, right up to the moment we rode back to our mounting blocks. David’s horse decided to get a five-minute drink, with David still mounted, before heading over to be dismounted. David certainly didn’t mind. By this point, he was trying to milk every last second of horseback time he could from the experience. I can’t say I blame him.
If you’re looking for a break from the usual; if you’re looking to splurge on a treat for your kids; if you want desert scenery or if, like me, you’re still secretly that 11-year-old girl who’s in love with horses -- you’ll have a blast at Don Donnelly Stables.
Rides range from Leadline/Greenhorn (1-hour, for beginners) to all-day or overnight trips. Call ahead to reserve a ride at (602) 810-7029. Print the waiver ahead of time at www.dondonnelly.com.