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PineyPower.com welcomes Pinelands-related stories from its readers. All appropriate stories will be published, along with photos. Full credit to the author will be given. "Tales from the Trail" is the first of the series.

Tales from the Trail

By Ellen Wilson

Icelandic Horses and their owner/riders, collectively known as the "Norse Horse Force" enjoy a day trail riding in the Pine Barrens


Trail riding is wonderful in Autumn when fall color is at its peak in the Pine Barrens!The changing colors of the leaves, the crisp chill in the air, the squawking flocks of migrating geese- there is no mistaking the arrival of fall! In the Pine Barrens, as at most of the national and larger state parks, the coming of the fall season heralds the best time of year for trail riding. Now that the summer flies have died down, you'll soon be seeing the horse trailers lining up again around places like Carranza and Atco, flocking back to the pines to enjoy the best of leisurely equestrian sport past-times. According to agricultural statistics, in 2007 there were 42,000 horses in the state of NJ, and 70% were non-race related. It is said that NJ has more horses per capita then any other state in the country, and although the exact number of trail horses is unknown, one can't miss the many stables and boarding facilities lining the border along Wharton State Forest.

If you are a frequent visitor to the southern section of Wharton, you may have come across a particularly enthusiastic and dedicated group of trail riders on the backs of small, shaggy looking horses- the Icelandics! The Icelandic horse is the world's oldest domesticated purebred horse. These sturdy horses (although small by US preferences, they are *not* ponies!) are the ultimate trail horse, with engaging personalities and a willing attitude.

Isolated for over 1,000 years in Iceland without natural predators, "Iceys" are collectively less spooky and more curious then other breeds. Icelandís rough terrain scattered with volcanic rock also ensured they evolved to be very sure-footed. Many Icelandics are naturally gaited, and can have as many as 4 or 5 separate gaits which include the walk, trot, tolt, pace, and canter. Enthusiasts treasure them for the smooth 4-beat gait, which is the tolt and can reach up to 20mph. Some Iceys also have an additional turbo gear for short bursts of speed, which is aptly called the flying pace. This 2-beat gait has a moment of suspension when all of the horses feet are in midair and it can reach speeds up to 30mph. In itís native Iceland the fastest of these horses are used for racing. It really does seem like you're flying! I personally know of 14 Icelandics in the area and a small group of us whom I affectionately call the Norse Horse Force ride year-round at Wharton in all weather conditions. Since July '08 my mare Freydis and I have logged between 800-900 piney miles! Iceys are horses that love the trail! Some have been known to get upset if not picked by their owner for a ride. I'm not sure who enjoys the rides more, the horses or their people!

Icelandic horses are quite sure-footed, so the sugar sand hills are no problem for them!As most long time trail riders can tell you, these horses are not as much pets as they are partners and working animals with 'jobs'. A good trail horse loves its job, which is to take its rider safely through a variety of circumstances in the open world. People tend to assume that just any horse can go on a trail, but not every horse is suitable, depending on the breed, the particular temperament, or the experience level of the horse. The cream of the crop have to be both physically and mentally sound, then educated and trained to ensure the most enjoyable experience possible. Even with an experienced horse, before hitting the trail it is always wise to make an additional investment in safety equipment such as a helmet and safety stirrups, and to make sure that tack is fit and secure prior to riding into the open.

Rides in the Pine Barrens can cover diverse terrain from paved roads and rural housing areas, hard packed soil, deep Ďsugarí sand, blueberry bogs, thick underbrush, and crossing bridges and streams. Some trails are designated for equestrian use, such as the Friendship Trail at Carranza, which is about 14 miles in length. Other popular trails are nothing more then old dirt roads, often all that remain of home sites or settlements from over the last 200 years of Pine Barrens history. Some of my favorite trails parallel old train tracks, as the ground there has been flattened and smoothed. Trails that see heavy dirt bike use are often eroded into what the Norse Horse Force calls the whoopee-doís! These are fun to tolt over but riders must be careful as the erosion exposes tree roots which could catch on a hoof causing the horse to stumble.

The Pine Barrens in winter is a quiet solitude of white. There's nothing quite like riding on freshly fallen snow!Riding year 'round, we ride in the dead of winter and especially in snow. Being an arctic ice age breed, the Iceys grow a very thick, warm, fuzzy coat similar to wool, making them hardier in cold temperatures then their riders, who creatively garb up in compilations of ski pants, balacalavas and battery-heated boots. Last January, three of us rode out in 9 degree weather just to see the ice in the river and get a look at the beaver dam near Quaker Bridge Trail; it was a blast!

In the winter months the sand often freezes into ruts solidifying the tracks of the last traveler in warmer weather so we do take precautions and put special winter shoes on the horses so they don't slip on ice or snow. In the hot, sticky summer months we prepare by bringing along extra fly spray and drinking water for the horses, and we'll stop half way through on a long ride to let the horses wade in the Mullica River and cool off. This also gives the riders the opportunity to shoot the breeze from the back of their horse. Most of the Iceys enjoy the water and if left to their own devices a few of them would like to take a bigger swim! Everyoneís favorite season to ride though is the fall. By this time the flies have died down, the colors of the forest are ablaze, and there is a crispness in the air but heavy jackets and long johns arenít yet needed. Riding in the autumn months always reminds me of good things like apple cider, ginger snaps, and pumpkin pie! This year, since Halloween falls on a Saturday, the Icey group is also planning to do a costume ride followed by a party at a nearby stable. The big question is - what should my mare and I be? Iím thinking - Vikings!

Guest Author Ellen Wilson, with Goshen Pond in the background.Trail riding is an excellent way to enjoy nature and explore the unique eco-system of the Pine Barrens, as horses can go where motorized vehicles cannot. On our rides we've encountered a variety of wildlife including a bald eagle, a great blue heron, wild turkeys, a pair of mute swans, a giant snapping turtle (who was not pleased to see us), and does with their fawns; as well as seen many unusual plants. I often ride with my camera handy and have been fortunate enough to capture some wildlife on film. My mare Freydis is quite the photographer's horse, stopping as soon as she hears the saddle bag open and the camera come out!

Most of the trails at Wharton are multi-use so besides critters, trail riders also routinely encounter the 2-leggers and their vehicles. Coming face-to-face with ATVers, jeep clubs, and motor bikes is not uncommon many miles out into the Pine Barrens. Most of the bikers do realize that a sudden or noisy engine encounter could frighten a horse, putting its rider in danger, and as a safety measure they will pull to the side of the trail, stop quietly, and allow the horses to pass. Not quite so thoughtful are some hikers or picnickers with loose, barking or aggressive dogs. While a dog yapping or chasing a horse may frighten it, there is also a strong possibility that the horse may kick out in self-defense of what is perceived as a meat eating predator. It only takes one well-placed hoof to stop a dog in it's tracks permanently, so dog owners should do the right thing for all animals and restrain loose dogs until the riders have passed. Trail etiquette works both ways though, and riders must remember that if their horse hears the call of nature, to step off the trail!

Freydis, Ellen's Icelandic HorseOf all the situations I have encountered on the trail, the most disheartening is coming upon illegal dumping, which is a huge problem on the outskirts of the Pine Barrens. Nothing is a worse hazard to hooves or tires then suddenly finding yourself on a sandy trail full of jagged sharp glass from broken beer bottles and smashed window panes. A horse can be severely or permanently crippled by sharp metal or glass cutting into the soft undersole of the hoof. This trash is also a hazard for hikers. These acts of irresponsible environmental vandalism seem to increase in the fall, and although committed by only a few, illegal dumping in the state forest affects everyone who uses the land.

Trail riding overall is an exciting and exhilarating hobby, made all the better by the willingness and hardiness of the wonderful Icelandic horse breed. Iíve enjoyed every mile my mare and I have covered, and Iím looking forward to the change in seasons. Every ride is a different experience and a time to get out and enjoy nature. Weíre very fortunate in NJ to have Wharton State Forest, and I encourage those with trail horses to get out and explore all that the barrens have to offer. If you are out among the pines and come across the happy riders on their small, shaggy horses, do stop and say hi!

See you on the trail!

Ellen Wilson and Freydis

For more information about Icelandic Horses:

United States Icelandic Horse Congress: http://www.icelandics.org/

Frida Icelandic Riding Club http://firc.us/

Tolt News: http://toltnews.com/

Thanks to Ellen for an interesting story and photographs about trail riding in the Pine Barrens, as well as for sharing her knowledge on the amazing Icelandic Horse!




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