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Happy Trails 

Trail riding on horseback

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As my daughter Emma approached her 10th birthday, she had just one gift request: a horse. Horse love must be a developmental stage coded deeply in the DNA of little girls. I remember wanting one myself at about that age. Genetics notwithstanding, I'm pretty sure our Burlington neighbors wouldn't tolerate a horse in the backyard. Happily, Emma settled for the next best thing: a birthday trail ride.

On a sunny spring day, we scooped up three of Emma's friends and drove to Lajoie Stables in Jeffersonville. Nestled in the Green Mountain foothills, with spectacular views of Smugglers' Notch and Mount Mansfield, Lajoie Stables operates year-round and caters to first-time riders. This was good, since none of us had much equine experience.

In the barn, the girls were giddy with excitement, hopping around and giggling as they donned helmets and admired Emma's pink cowgirl boots. Our friendly trail guide, Krystina, helped each girl swing into her saddle and gave a quick lesson: Hold the reins loosely with one hand, pull left or right to direct the horse, pull firmly to stop, use your heels to get started.

Could it be that easy? Suddenly the barn became quiet and still. Perched atop these big, warm beasts, the girls were wide-eyed and speechless.

The stable owns 73 horses, but all of us believed we'd magically been assigned the perfect steed. I quickly fell in love with Leo, an enormous bay draft horse with a soft coat and gentle eyes. Maybe I'm not so different from my 10-year-old self after all.

As inexperienced riders, we stuck to the easiest of the stable's 10 trails. Our hourlong ride meandered through a forest of spruce and pine, over Black Creek, and across a series of open fields. Downhill slopes and stream crossings added occasional excitement. Krystina rode with us, leading the way and offering gentle suggestions when we needed to re-direct our horses. We laughed at the quirky signs posted throughout the woods: "So life has hills — get over it." And "Whinnying is everything. Any day on a horse is a good day."

Back in the barn, the girls kissed their horses' noses and compared notes. They were tired but happy. Sitting on a moving horse — toes in the stirrups, heels down — turns out to be a pretty good workout.

It was the perfect length for an outing. "Enough time to enjoy yourself, but your legs weren't aching too much," Emma declared. The other girls agreed. Grace paused for a moment and then confessed, "Emma, I don't want to copy or anything, but I want to do this for my birthday!"

A good day, indeed.

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