Riding Horses in Harbor Springs

English instructor James McCullough, at North Central Michigan College, in Petoskey, asked his students to write essays about Northern Michigan life. Then he asked MyNorth to share six of the essays on the World Wide Web. We said yes. We are posting one each weekday until the set is complete. Enjoy the first piece, by Emily Saddison, below.


At ten o’clock on a hot, sunny Sunday morning in July, it is peacefully quiet in Harbor Springs. At the Equestrian Center in Boyne Highlands, my co-worker, Noel, and I are sitting outside drinking black coffee, eating chocolate muffins, and watching the horses eat their breakfast. On Sundays, the slowest trail-riding day, guests leave early to beat summer traffic on their way home. Occasionally, we get a straggler, but for the most part, we have the day to ourselves. The best way to enjoy it is to go on an actual horseback ride.

Noel hops down from her perch on the mounting block to throw away our wrappers while I open up the gate to the horses’ tie-up station. Following Noel to the shed where the tack is held, my body squeezes between her and the saddle racks; we can barely fit the two of us in here. Each saddle has its own rack to sit on and at the end of the racks, horseshoes hold the halters and lead-ropes that just barely skim the floor. Above the saddles are ten horse head figures, each painted and labeled with the horses’ colors and names. Immediately, I grab Nyra’s halter and Noel walks with me to the pasture with Jackie’s halter hanging from her shoulder. Dry grass crunches beneath our cowboy boots as warm wind whistles around us, making us wish that we weren’t wearing jeans and flannel shirts. The smell of horses and hay brings a smile to our faces, especially when my best girl, Nyra, is waiting for me on the other side of the fence. Her ears perk toward me and her shrill whinny pierces my ears, but that makes me more excited for our ride. Jackie, however, needs more convincing as she chows down on fresh hay across the paddock. After Nyra and I wait for Noel, a couple of the other horses come to the gate to get a treat; I always keep them in my pocket. Mack and Ommy, our leased horses for the summer, lip the delicious snacks from my fingers. While smelling exactly like a fresh-cut apple, they look nothing like their scent. Shaped like a crescent, the goodies are hard and crunchy, yet they are small enough to be eaten in one bite.

Suddenly, I see Dakota, our oldest horse, slowly trotting across the pasture to nuzzle noses with Nyra. I stroke his jet black neck, feeling the heat from him baking in the sun. He sniffs my pockets, knowing there is a treat in there for him as well. Dakota is the most patient horse, except for when there is food around. After his first, he nudges me lightly with his nose. Of course, I slip him another apple crisp without the other horses knowing.

As soon as Noel approaches behind the three crowding horses, I pet their soft noses before shooing them away to open the gate. The clip clop of Nyra and Jackie’s hooves echo just barely as we walk toward the tie-up area. The temperature rises quickly; Noel and I shed our flannels, exposing tan freckled skin and tattoos. After tying the horses up and giving them a quick brushing and cleaning out their hooves, we slip the bridles into their mouths, using our thumbs to guide the metal piece in smoothly. Then we put their ears through the head piece and secure the throat latch.

Once the bridles are on and the reins are over their necks, we quickly hop on our horses’ bare backs. I can feel the heat from Nyra rising up into my legs and my jeans are immediately covered in brown horse hair. Her strong body shakes with excitement and just before we leave the other horses behind, Nyra turns her head to look at me. The white blaze running down her face makes her big brown eyes glimmer with mischief, but her features show affection before she turns away to start walking the trail in the woods.

The trail behind the tie-up station leads to a small pony trail. Veering left, Highland Pike road waits for us to cross. Traffic does not stop for us, so we wait, impatient for our turn. Cars and trucks race past us, going faster than the 55 speed limit. Most of the time, the drivers are too busy staring at us instead of paying attention to the actual road in front of them. When it is finally clear, the horses cross the road at a fast walk, knowing that the straight stretch into the woods is our first chance to let them loose.

As soon as their hooves reach the tree line, I loosen my reins and Nyra immediately gallops in front of Jackie and Noel. Their hooves sound like thunder as the earth shakes all around us. The trees fly past with such speed, my eyes fill up with tears. Although Nyra’s small size makes her look incompetent, no other horse is able to keep up with her surprising speed. She has nitrous oxide in her veins; I ask for more speed by squeezing her sides lightly with my heels and her engine roars to life as her legs switch to her highest gear. Without looking back, I know that Jackie and Noel are lost in the dust we leave behind.

The straight stretch begins to end, leaving us with corners to dip and turn through. It took Nyra and me a while to learn each other’s movement and thoughts when galloping through the trees. Now though, we understand one another, turning and twisting like a dance. I can feel her steps beneath me and the bark from the tree as it brushes slightly against my shoulder when we cut a corner a little too closely. Noel laughs behind me as she and Jackie try to keep up with us. Once we clear the winding trail, Nyra slows to a walk. Her eyes are wide, ears perked straight forward and nostrils flared as she catches her breath. Not realizing until then, I am breathing hard as well; I tend to hold my breath when racing through the trees.

Jackie appears beside Nyra, breathing harder than any of us. Noel grins as she smooth’s down her wild red hair. I know mine is crazy as well when random red strands stick out every which way. Knowing we are going to run again, I don’t bother fixing it. Our laughter brings everything to life; the chickadees sing their usual “cheeseburger” song, wind rustles the trees and cools our flaming hot cheeks, and squirrels run up and down the maple trees, chattering away.

At last, we reach Catob Road, which we have to cross to ride the trails on the other side. The road is empty of cars so we make our way across and up the small bank. Before we reach the trees, we are surrounded by pickers and thorns with plump raspberries and blackberries attached. This side of the road is my favorite not only because of the delicious snacks, but because the woods completely transforms. Everything right down to the dirt seems completely different. The trees let in more sun, logs lie over the trail for a makeshift jump course, and it makes me feel like I am in an Enchanted Forest; it is pure magnificence.

As soon as we walk through the tree branches that block the hidden trail, Nyra changes her gait into an easy canter. She knows the man-made jumps are up ahead. First, there is a single log followed by two more close together. Nyra’s muscles tense as she readies herself. My legs squeeze her sides to remove the weight from her back. I lean forward toward her neck, gathering more rein into my hands. When the log approaches, her front legs leave the ground with her hind legs following suit. The air leaves my lungs, my body fills with adrenaline as the danger of this act whispers in my mind. One wrong move from either of us could make this beautiful moment a horrible tragedy. My only taste of freedom lasts two simple seconds and it is the best feeling I have ever experienced. When her hooves meet the ground again, the next two jumps go by quickly, yet the excitement continuously flows through me.

Slowing down to a walk, I cannot contain my excited outburst. Nyra’s body quivers with excitement. When I reach down to pet her sleek neck, relaxation overwhelms me. We come to a complete stop; Noel and Jackie halt next to us. Noel says, “That was awesome!” I laugh. Awesome doesn’t even come close.

Jackie and Noel take the lead, giving Nyra and me a moment to ourselves. Galloping through the trees and jumping over logs makes me feel like I am on top of the world. Feeling my aura, Noel looks back to wink at me before Jackie takes off at a steady canter. We wait a moment to look around us. A single bird flies above us down the trail, as if asking for a competition. I grin and hold on tight as Nyra gallops to win the race.

More North Central Michigan Essays

Making Northern Michigan Syrup

Campfire Nights in Petoskey

Memories of a Northern Michigan Farm

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