Horses in My Dreams

I am a photographer who loves exploring the many different landscapes of the Finger Lakes. My weekends are filled with hikes through gorges, forests, wetlands, wildlife sanctuaries, old farmlands and lakeshores. I’ll even admit to the occasional Sunday drive trying to get myself lost just for the sake of a pretty view. With all its rolling hills and distant scenery, the Finger Lakes region is truly made for wandering. Why not wander by horseback?

After some online searching, I came in contact with Erika Eckstrom of Painted Bar Stables in Burdett. Located just minutes away from the Finger Lakes National Forest, Painted Bar Stables offers trail riding and lessons for all levels. Erika scheduled a ride for me from early afternoon until sunset, followed by a catered dinner. I couldn’t wait!

Pretty horses
To me, Painted Bar Stables is an inspiration. In 2008, Erika followed her dream and became its owner. She stepped up to the challenge in uncertain economic times, knowing how significant the stables would be for the region, and considering all of the possibilities it could offer. She has been revitalizing the farm by tackling one project at a time.

Located on the Seneca Lake Wine Trail about 12 miles from Ithaca, the stables are very accessible. The operation is on 22 acres featuring plenty of rolling pastures. There are nice views from the farm itself, with open land and big skies. The national forest, with miles and miles of trails, is just a short ride away, and an indoor riding arena provides a place to ride no matter what our weather decides to do.

The stable focuses on pleasure riding and an American Paint Horse breeding program. Horses have been carefully selected for all different levels of riders, and Erika’s knowledge of horsemanship can help build confidence and control.

The stable’s breeding program produces versatile, colorful horses, thanks to a uniquely colored 2002 homozygous Creme perlino tobiano paint stallion at stud. (In layman’s terms, all of this stallion’s offspring will be uniquely colored.)

Rescued horses
Painted Bar is also home to several horses in need. Erika explained that it’s actually connected to the economy. “Never before have there been so many horses on the market – people cannot afford to feed them properly,” she said. “A lot of horses are for sale because their owners lost their jobs. Not only are there a lot of racehorses on the market, but also a lot of horses taken from homes because of abuse or neglect. Within the animal rescue world, there is an increase in reported cases of grossly underfed horses. Others horses were lucky to have been sold before they got to that situation. Their previous owners knew that was their destiny if they weren’t sold.

“I’ve taken in more than five horses this winter alone because of circumstances like that,” she added.

In the past, experienced equestrians have provided a home and retraining for ex-race horses; Erika is one of these people. Thanks to them, ex-racehorses can enjoy a lifetime career of showing or pleasure riding. If horses could have a dream job, I would imagine that wandering the trails of the Finger Lakes countryside and park systems would be it.

The horse I rode that day, an 11-year-old appaloosa named Elmer Fudd, had originally come to the stables neglected and underfed. Today, Elmer is everything you could want in a trail horse. Nothing bothered him as we rode across bridges, through streams and mud puddles, and all over different terrain.

Happy trails
When I arrived at Painted Bar Stables, I was introduced to the riders that would be joining me that day, and to the horses we’d be riding. Then, Erika trailered the horses up to the park so we could take advantage of the National Forest’s Backbone Horse Campground. This camp is intended for people who would like to bring their horses with them for the day or for overnight camping. Eleven camping sites are available, and they are large enough to include parked trailers and tie posts for horses. A corral is located at one end of the camp, and there are plenty of picnic tables and several areas for cooking out.

The entrance to the Backbone Trail begins at this horse camp. This 5.5-mile one-way trail offers a variety of landscapes characteristic of the Finger Lakes National Forest, including forests, shrub lands, meadows, wetlands, open fields, pastureland and old roads and homesteads. The route offers many breathtaking views of the open countryside. From the open pastures in the higher elevations, riders can truly appreciate the topography that makes up the region. They’ll see layers upon layers of gently rolling hills with deep carvings that create the lakes.

To see this all on a horse is a very special experience. The rider becomes more of a part of the landscape itself. As someone who usually chooses to explore by hiking on foot, I really appreciated the ability to cover more terrain in one day. Plus, I enjoyed the subtle elements that make up the landscape, like the gentle breeze and singing birds.

The trails that we rode that day, mainly the Backbone Trail, were easy enough for a novice or beginner rider, yet they did not lack excitement. We crossed through streams, over logs, up and down hills and over bridges. The many large open fields allowed experienced riders to canter their horses; for me, it was delightful to watch horse and rider run free, both of them truly enjoying the experience.

Riding off into the sunset
After more than eight miles of trail riding, we returned to the Backbone Horse Camp. We used the convenient hitching posts to un-tack and clean up the horses. Then came the icing on the cake.

Directly across the street is the Red House Country Inn. Waiting for us there was a delicious meal prepared by Chef Beanie Koegler, C.E.C. We enjoyed Navajo posole, cornbread, salads, cowboy beans and barbecued hot dogs and brats – perfect after an authentic day on the trails. Dessert was a layered chocolate cake with a hint of espresso.

We dined in the warm glow of the setting sun on the inn’s large veranda. It is richly decorated with colorful potted flowers and well visited hummingbird feeders. The meal was relaxing and revitalizing. Riders were able to sit down together to talk and reflect upon the ride. It was the perfect end to a beautiful day.

Whether you have enjoyed this region for years or you are a brand new visitor, I sincerely recommend you make an appointment with Erika at Painted Bar Stables. Not only has Erika made a wonderful place to be for her horses, but she has also created a resource for those who want to enjoy the region. There may not be a better way to see the countryside than to see it by horseback.

To learn more about Painted Bar Stables and the Red House Country Inn, visit www.paintedbarstables.com and www.redhousecountryinn.com.

Visit www.LifeintheFingerLakes.com to view a sampling of some other places in the region where you can ride horses.
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by Mindy Arledge
Mindy Arledge is a photographer living in the Ithaca area. Her inspiration is drawn from the landscape and surroundings – whether it be in a wild setting, a lovingly built garden, or a piece of earth between the sidewalk and street. Visit her online at mindybarledge.blogspot.com.