When I was eight years old, my parents gave me 10 riding lessons for Christmas. It was something of a compromise; I had actually asked for a horse of my own, but my parents, who weren't looking to add a 1500-pound pet to our family, and who assumed the horse-crazy phase would pass quickly, countered with riding lessons instead. Those 10 lessons quickly morphed into more riding lessons, and a year later, a horse of my own. Although he wasn't particularly talented or enthusiastic about it, I taught Risco to jump so we could compete in the local hunter-jumper 4H
shows, and loved him to death for the next 20 years, even as I went off to college, spent a summer working as a wrangler on a ranch in Montana, and then worked as a professional polo groom and sometimes exercise rider for racehorses in England, New Zealand, and Australia. (It sounds much more glamorous than it actually was; while I did meet Prince Harry a few times, I also worked my tail off seven days a week and mucked out thousands of stalls.) So while the horse-crazy phase didn't pass quickly, it was certainly eventful, and my ticket to living internationally for several years.
However, having worked professionally with horses, I knew that once Risco finally died of old age I was done taking care of my own horses. It had been at least five years since I had been in a saddle when two things happened: My husband casually mentioned that he'd never really ridden a horse, and I learned about Lajoie Stables in nearby Jeffersonville. Tucked into the foothills of the Green
Mountains, Lajoie Stables is a family- owned and operated riding stable on 300 acres that offers trail rides, sleigh rides, and horse-themed special events year-round. A second-generation business now headed by Krystina Hedger and her sister, Amanda Lajoie-Schwartz, the stable is open seven days a week, and is one of the many adventures available through Spruce
Peak Outfitters. A trail ride sounded great to me, and after a little convincing, my husband was on board too.
The October morning Spruce Peak Outfitters had booked for us was a crisp, sunshine-filled day. I'd hemmed and hawed over what to wear, having an entire box filled with relics from my former horse-girl life, but finally decided I'd leave the well-worn chaps and boots at home, knowing that we were in for a fairly casual ride.
My instincts were good; the vibe when we arrived was both picturesque and laid-back, with a picnic table, seating area and firepit located just outside the tidy barn filled with fit and well-groomed horses. Brooke, our guide for the day, welcomed us, then led us around to the back of the stable, where our horses were tacked up and ready to go—and even sported some fresh sparkles, mane-and-tail dye, and other bedazzling for a special event they were booked for the next day.
However, nothing prepared me for the sheer size of my kind-eyed horse (called Alex, which cracked me up), who was a Friesian-Percheron cross and stood 19.2 hands tall at the withers, or the top of his shoulder. In equestrian-speak, a hand equals four inches—which meant that climbing aboard this gentle giant was like taking a seat on the top of a 6'4" person's head. I've ridden some tall horses before—the most memorable being a rather naughty 18.2-hand draft cross brought over from New Zealand who would simply jump the pasture fence when she wanted to get out—but Alex topped them all. Chris was paired with King, a large gray draft cross sporting a cheery purple tail for the upcoming event.
After Brooke ran us through some basics (don't hold the reins too tight; let your horse follow the horse in front of him; don't pass the ride leader), we set off on a meandering route that led us out through the woods (the property used to be a Christmas tree farm) into a meadow with gorgeous views of Mount Mansfield and Smuggler's Notch. We kept an eye out for wildlife, as foxes, deer, and turkeys frequently appear during rides, but I also enjoyed simply rocking along to the steady four-beat of Alex's walk.
If you're a seasoned rider, there's little to do but enjoy yourself and the scenery. If you're a first-timer like Chris, you'll be paired with a horse suited to your ability, thanks to a large stable of horses to match guests with, and 35 years of business
On a beautiful day like the one we had, up to 100 people might enjoy a similarly scenic tour, Hedger says, and while there were other groups mounting up at the same time we were, it didn't feel overcrowded or like a pony ride at a birthday party. But if you really want the place to yourselves, your best bet is a wintertime trail ride, or a private sleigh ride across Lajoie's 300-acre property.
As for me, I was delighted to be riding through the reds, oranges, and yellows of a beautiful October day with the sun on my face. I had no desire to get anywhere fast, and it was fun simply watching my husband enjoy a completely new-to-him experience. Best of all, I knew that, unlike my years working in the horse world, I could hand the reins back to Brooke and give Alex a final pat—no untacking, brushing, feeding, or mucking-out required.