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Alaska great to experience on horseback

Posted: Friday, September 13, 2002

BUTTE, Alaska -- After 20 minutes of plodding along in the saddle in a string of horses, we reached the top of the 881-foot Butte, 30 miles northeast of Anchorage. The view sprawled across the sky from Cook Inlet to Knik Glacier. Dead center, Pioneer Peak was draped in a layer of thin low-hanging clouds.

''This is the best ever,'' declared Deb Anderson. There was an echo from her 15-year-old daughter, Tina, of Maple Grove, Minn., a veteran of many trail rides.

''It's a vacation thing,'' Deb said.

No matter where the Anderson family travels, an effort is made to find some kind of trail ride.

''We've done a lot. This is the best because the trails aren't so full of horses and the trail's not beaten down,'' Deb said. She was sitting atop Campbell, a Haflinger. Haflingers are a small, sturdy horses well suited to cold climates. They were originally bred in Austria.

Riding with the Andersons on this day was Toni Ellis, a veterinarian from Fairhope, Ala. She said she was looking for something ''like a hike'' while in Alaska, ''but I didn't want to have to walk.''

She ended up astride a Morgan named Buster on the trail up the Butte.

Within a drive of an hour or less from downtown Anchorage, there are now at least a half-dozen businesses offering trail rides. Some even offer overnight horse-packing trips.

Not all are easy to find. Most rely on word-of-mouth advertising. Some even have questionable reputations among local horsemen and women.

But ask around, and for $20 and up, you can disappear for an hour or two -- or even two days -- into Chugach State Park, the Talkeetna Mountains or the Chugach National Forest. In the Butte area, a trail cuts through property owned by the outfitters' family.

Travel by horse has many of the attractions of hiking; you make relatively little noise and may see wildlife. You can see even better from atop a horse.

As our string of horses made its way up the narrow trail on the Butte, a fox darted in front of Kim Williams, who was leading the way on Katie.

Williams, 24, said she has been running Kim's Scenic Horseback Rides at the Butte reindeer farm for eight years. Her most popular ride is the hour-long journey up the Butte and back.

She'll take more experienced riders down on to the sandy shores of the Knik River and up to the Knik Glacier, ''but that's only for more experienced riders because the horses get a little excited,'' she said.

And some horses just have minds of their own.

Shortly after this ride began, a Morgan named Rosie at the back of the line jumped off the trail and only stubbornly rejoined the line. No ever figured out what that was all about.

First-time riders sometimes find sitting in the saddle a little wearying. Williams said the majority of clients seem to prefer only an hour ride ''so they can walk the next day.''

Ron Mistler of Snowy Mountain Ranch near Palmer said he sees the same in riders there. Neither outfitter offers scheduled rides. Instead, they take reservations and try to customize trips for riders based on experience levels.

Ours was a ride for people with some knowledge of horses.

After switchbacking through alders and birch on the side of the Butte, we reached a high plateau. We were still not at the top, but the view was expansive.

While adjustments were being made to saddles and stirrups, the horses nudged Kim's jacket as she passed. They all knew they usually got treats at this point in the ride. These are well-tended horses.

When choosing an outfitter, the first thing to look for is the condition of the horses, said Sandy Shacklett, publisher and editor of the Alaska Horse Journal.

''They should be neat and clean, well fed and in good shape,'' she said. ''If you see mud caked up to the knees, that is a good sign they are not being well cared for. In the business of trail rides, if the horses' ribs are sticking out, they are not well fed.''

Shacklett said the condition of the tack -- bridals, saddles, saddle pads and the like -- might also indicate of what kind of care is put into the horses and the outfitting business.

''If you see pieces of leather straps broken and frayed, that would be a bad sign,'' she said. ''However, you could see tack that is 50 years old and if it is well cared for, that's fine.''

Shacklett stressed that once riders pick an outfitter, they should be honest about their abilities.

''Be sure to let them know you are a beginner,'' she said. ''You are really going to have to take (the outfitter's) word for it when they match you up (with a horse). But if you walk up to a horse and it runs away, you will know the horse is not people oriented.''

Shacklett said to wear jeans for the ride, because with most trail rides you are at risk of brushing up against tree branches and shrubs. Also, wear boots with heels. Heels prevents your foot slipping through the stirrup. And, with boots, should your foot get stepped on by a horse, you have some protection.

Mistler said most trail horses know what they are supposed to do, so the horse should fall in line, even under an inexperienced rider.

''They are trained for what we do,'' he said. ''However, they are not afraid to canter; they are not afraid to go. But if a kid is not steering, they know what to do.''

''I put in the mildest bit, then I explain to people that that is a piece of steel in the horse's mouth,'' Mistler said.

Mistler said he takes care not to mix inexperienced riders with experienced.

''The biggest problem we have (with the horses) is eating on the trail,'' he said. ''The horses think the whole world is their private salad bar, and with the kids not strong enough to pull up their heads, they know they can get away with it.''

While there are a lot of variables at work in the outfitting business -- inexperienced riders, persnickety horses, unpredictable trail conditions -- Mistler said he has had few accidents.

''In almost 20 years, and I've had thousands of riders, in that entire time I have had only three broken bones,'' he said.

Our hour ride went fast. It seemed were back in the barn in no time.

Too bad. The horses settled into the trail routine and the riders were at ease on our mounts after an hour.



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