x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

California at a canter

Feature Susan Hack brushes up her riding skills astride a specially bred endurance steed while exploring the rugged beauty of Mendocino.

The Pacific coastline of Mendocino County in northern California provides a beautiful backdrop for horse riding tours organised by the Ricochet Ridge Ranch.
The Pacific coastline of Mendocino County in northern California provides a beautiful backdrop for horse riding tours organised by the Ricochet Ridge Ranch.

I fly to San Francisco and drive to Fort Bragg for a blind date with my northern Californian travelling companion. A spunky 14-year-old with golden blonde hair, my new friend is named Citron. She's an endurance race horse, a palomino mare, half-Arabian and half-Akhal Teke, an obscure but smooth-gaited breed from Turkmenistan. The Arab world has been breeding endurance horses for centuries; in the United States, however, the equine ultra-marathon was introduced in 1955 by Wendell Robie, a Californian businessman who wondered whether horses no longer used for transportation could match the feats of their Old West counterparts. He founded a 100 miles-in-one-day race, now the annual Tevis Cup, on a mountainous 19th-century Pony Express trail between Lake Tahoe and California's former capital, Auburn. Today endurance races consisting of 25- to 100-mile courses over natural landscape take place in Europe, the Middle East and Australia. Not surprisingly, the sport favours pureblood Arabians, desert horses bred for stamina.

A casual rider since childhood, I've signed up for a September week of endurance training in Mendocino County, whose terrain includes redwood forests, cattle flats and miles of undeveloped beach. My host is Lari Shea, who won the 1989 Tevis Cup on a pureblood Arabian stallion and has since competed with various crosses, including the offspring of Arabians and Russian Orlovs, a trotting breed introduced to the United States during the Cold War.

At Shea's Ricochet Ridge Ranch, instead of fat trail mounts, guests condition equine athletes. A petite ringer for Sandra Dee who wears flamboyant red and black western shirts, cowboy boots and black riding tights to work, the 60-something Shea can leap on and off a horse like a circus acrobat and has muscles in her fingers from decades of hauling hay bales. A vacation is a vacation, however, and Shea doesn't require guests to groom or tack, nor to dismount and jog for miles alongside their horses, a race tactic to conserve the animal's energy.

In the barn on the first day I join a dozen clients from England, Australia and across the US, all itching to gallop down a wild Pacific beach. But first Shea and her guides want to see whether we live up to our pre-trip descriptions of how well we ride; they need to find out who is timid, who listens to instructions, who is a speed-demon, who might let a horse run full out and strain its tendons.

The first order of business is signing a release form. The second is relearning how to mount and dismount. "I don't care how well you think you ride," Shea tells us, throwing a length of rein over her saddle and pointing her left toe down as she throws her right leg over, so as not to poke her horse Rascal in the side. She insists we mount from a block, or from logs out on trails, and land lightly in the saddle to avoid jerking or pounding the horse's back. It's a lesson in empathy more than basic equitation.

With her shimmery golden coat and a mane Hollywood hairstylists would envy, Citron is a bit of a diva, laying her ears back and kicking when other mares get too close. We start getting to know each other in MacKerricher State Park, along a four-mile beach whose bluffs are covered with pink aloes. Ravens feast on tide-exposed mussels, a grey harbour seal rolls in the roaring white surf, and the horses are eager to run. But today is all about walking and keeping human and animal impulses in check.

The next day Shea and her guides load the horses in trailers and we are all trucked to Jackson State Forest to practise steep up-and-down segments on old logging trails. Where the gravelly path flattens, Shea leads balance exercises. We stand in our stirrups, twisting to touch different parts of the horses or our own feet, gradually increasing pace to an endurance speed trot, faster than many horses can canter. Citron's smooth, surefooted trot is easy to post, and while she likes to be towards the front of the pack, she seems to know this isn't an actual race and doesn't try to muscle her way forward. We dismount at the top of a razor-backed ridge, where Shea instructs us to take our mount's pulse, count its respirations and listen for gut sounds - all indicators of fitness and part of vet checks they must pass during a course. We rest the horses in a clearing originally created by the Pomo and other American Indian tribes who lived in the coastal redwood forests and burned patches to create meadows where they could ambush deer. Allowed to eat and drink in their bits and bridles for energy and hydration, Shea's horses immediately put their heads down to graze and gather shoulder to shoulder to drink from a stream.

Ricochet Ridge Ranch doesn't offer accommodation; at the end of the day, the horses are trucked back to the barn and we are car-pooled to a hotel in Mendocino. This picturesque grid of Victorian redwood houses and water towers on a promontory above the crashing Pacific was settled in the 1850s by gold rush fortune seekers from New England. Walking along the sea cliffs before dinner, I come across huge iron rings from the days when schooners anchored offshore, waiting for river dams storing the year's redwood harvest to be dynamited. Named for the colour of their heartwood, redwoods grew to heights of more than 100 metres along creek beds conveniently close to the coast. "Red gold", in the form of logs and board lumber, created more wealth than shiny metal ever did.

Remote in spirit as well as geography from southern California's subdivisions, Mendocino was made famous again by entrepreneurial hippies who moved north from San Francisco and settled on cheap, logged-out land after the Vietnam War. Shea, originally from Michigan, came to live in this wildly scenic area after studying anthropology at Berkeley, settling with her two kids on 25 acres without running water. Members of her back-to-the-land generation now hold public office and own art galleries, vineyards and eco-friendly clothing stores. Residents share Mendocino, sometimes uneasily, with weekend-home owners from Silicon valley, tourists and the current generation of castaways from civilisation: young hitchhikers with dreadlocks, backpacks and dogs.

The next morning, at where the Ten Mile River flows into the Pacific, we walk the horses up a gorse-covered bluff and across a highway overpass to a 2,000-acre ranch whose owner allows Shea riding privileges in his world of fat black cattle grazing golden grass amid fingers of fog reaching up from the sea. The breeze carries the fragrance of wild fennel to a pasture containing a cemetery, the only remains of a small logging town which burned to the ground as a result of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

A huge redwood, taller and thicker than anything around it, has managed to survive the axe on a hill above the meadow. "It could be over 1,500 years old," Shea says, gesturing from horseback at its moss-covered girth. "Trees will never get that old again unless we raise our kids right." In a botanical massacre that took place at the same time as the slaughter of the buffalo herds, logging begun in the 19th century reduced California's original two million acres of old growth redwood forest by 96 per cent. Redwoods can live more than 2,000 years, but today just 137 trees more than 100 metres tall are known. State park officials keep many of their locations secret so no one is tempted to cut them down or climb them.

At the Howard Creek Ranch, where we stay the second half of the week, I meet Shea's friend, carpenter Charles "Sunny" Grigg, who has lived here since the 1970s when the 60-acre property was a hippie commune; since then he and his wife Sally have restored the original 1871 farmhouse and carriage barn as a bed and breakfast. From his haven of hot tubs and prize-winning gardens bordered by ocean and second-growth redwood forest, the bearded Grigg, 63, is writing a book on spirituality.

"I've learned to live my life free of fear - fear of success, fear of failure, fear of what other people think," he tells me from his favourite rocking chair on the porch of the main house. "I want to create a place where other people can learn that, too." He is continually altering the lodgings, which feel dreamlike, part American frontier homestead, part Hansel and Gretel, part Esselen. A swinging wood and metal bridge over a small creek is lit at night with fairy lights, and in the sitting room of the low-ceilinged main house, where we take meals and I leave my boots and half chaps to dry by the fireplace, there's a collage of Americana including a stuffed moose head, antique dolls and Victorian settees. "It will never be finished," Grigg says of the ranch. "It's like a river, meandering."

I've never been one for California New Age mumbo-jumbo, but over our communal breakfast of strawberry banana pancakes Shea tells an extraordinary tale. At night during a remote forest camping trip while training for the Tevis Cup, a cougar spooked the horses. Shea helped round up the others, but her own horse, Gabe, remained missing. "I went hiking in the forest many times, calling his name, and I offered rewards, but weeks later there was no sign of him," she recalls. She became so desperate that she hired three psychics, who all relayed the same message: "Gabe is alive. He says he's in a place with water but no food. He wants you to come get him." Eventually hikers heard Gabe whinnying from the ledge where he had fallen and been stranded, surviving by licking condensed fog. "That horse and I communicated so well that I could ride him without a bridle," Shea says wonderingly. "Both he and I never lost hope."

It's our last day, and everyone has been looking forward to the final ride on the long beach at the mouth of Ten Mile River, including the horses who know the way back to the barn. Citron alarms me, frothing at the mouth, stomping, tossing her head as I shorten the reins. "Keep her back," Shea warns, her eyes scanning the waves sucking at the horses' feet, watching for patches of quicksand where they might sink and strain a leg. "Don't let Citron pass me."

The sand turns hard and we leap away, trading turns at the front with Shea. "Flight instinct is why we can ride them, you know," she calls over the roaring surf. "Tap your heels and a horse says 'OK, I'm out of here'." Riding is all about channelling that energy, and I've been learning relaxation is the best form of control. Citron and I find our rhythm. She makes some executive decisions, picking her way between the other horses to avoid getting sand kicked in her face, and jumping rather than striding over bleached fish skeletons, driftwood and kelp.

After just a week, Citron and I are communicating pretty well. When I ask her for speed, she gives. When I ask her to slow, she listens. We head home, ecstatic. travel@thenational.ae