Black Stallion Dreams

Me riding a black horse named Grant
My happy place.

When I was 10 years old my grandmother gave me a copy of The Black Stallion by Walter Farley and two things happened;

  1. I fell in love with reading.
  2. I became a typical horse obsessed girl.

I think my grandmother was a little surprised when I came to her the next day, asking for the sequel. There were a lot of books in the series–what kind of financial commitment had she gotten herself into?

I read all the books in the series and after that, I would go to the library card catalogue (kids, ask your parents) and look up horse fiction I could find. I couldn’t get enough.

Sadly, my reality as a city kid with parents who did alright, but were by no means rich, didn’t support my dream of becoming a jockey.[1]

I did manage to have a few experiences with horses as an adult. My friend Denise owns a horse that she keeps in Vancouver. She gave me weekly riding lessons on Ryo over the winter many years ago and took me on a few trail rides. In late 2007 she took me out to try three team penning, which was definitely the most equestrian excitement I’ve ever had. Fortunately Ryo knew what he was doing, cause I sure didn’t. But I managed not to fall off.

Settling into the hotel on our first night in Santa Fe, talk turned to what we should see and do during our stay. Jess asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to do. I checked Trip Advisor for some ideas and saw that there were a few companies offering horse back riding tours so I floated the idea.

Chuck said if were going to do that, the company with the best reputation was just outside the little town of Cerillos, about forty minutes south of town. After some research, we figured out that it was Broken Saddle Riding Company. I looked them up on Trip Advisor and they had 158 five star reviews our of 162 total. The reviews weren’t just good, they were glowing.

The weather was supposed to be decent the next day before storms moved in so we decided to call in the morning and see if we could get reservations. While my inner 10 year old squeed uncontrollably, my adult voice reminded me that they might be sold out.

First thing in the morning, I called and they had space at 1:00 and 3:00pm. I booked the 1pm slot for the two of us. We had a buffet breakfast in the hotel restaurant and then spoke to a friendly manager at the front desk about possibly changing rooms because ours smelled like smoke, even though you’re not supposed to smoke in the rooms. He showed us another room, but it was too close to the elevator so we decided to just have them use an ozone machine to try to clear the air while we were gone.

We set out south on highway 599, the ‘relief highway’ that goes around instead of through Santa Fe. I sat in the passenger seat, quietly enjoying the scenery. After a few minutes, Jess said, “are you sleeping?”

“Why, because I’m not on my phone?” I said. She couldn’t believe I was just chilling out doing ‘nothing,’ as she’s always complaining about how much time I spend plugged in. I do try to cut back on vacations but she was understandably shocked and we had a good laugh about it.

The drive down was gorgeous. The New Mexico scenery was starting to look beautiful to me. As a native north westerner, I’m just so used to ‘scenery’ meaning greenery and water, that it took some adjusting to appreciate the dry, but still beautiful landscape of the high desert.

Broken Saddle Riding Tours sign
Broken Saddle is the best riding tour company in New Mexico,

We found Broken Saddle without any trouble. As I got out of the car, I was walloped by the smell of horse pee, but it faded into the background after a few minutes.

Broken Saddle is on the edge of Cerillos, nestled below a vast array of hills and trails. The property has several horse corrals and one main office / tack room. Every available space in covered with signs that really highlight the irreverent personality of the place.

We were greeted by Harold, the owner, who was busy getting our horses ready. We were the only customers there and there was a black horse and a bay one, surely destined to be our mounts. I just barely managed to keep inner–10-year-old from running over and flinging her arms around the black horse.

One of the employees took over preparations and Harold took us into the office to sign waivers and get helmets. He had a friendly, yet no-nonsense air about him that hinted he didn’t take much flack from horses or people. “Can I have the black one?” I couldn’t help asking him.

“We’ll see,” he replied.

When you call to make your reservation, you have to give your weight and experience level. I rated Jess beginner and myself advanced beginner. When I went into the office to pay, I saw a framed photo of actress Alex Kingston who I recognized from years of watching ER. I asked him about it.

“Oh she came through and I asked her what she did for a living, just like I asked you. She said she was an actress and it was just on the tip of my tongue to say, ‘oh you mean you’re a waitress?’ But the moment passed. I think she would have taken it OK and had a laugh. Instead I asked her if I’d know her from anything and she asked how old I was, then told me about ER. Then I remembered her. I got in big trouble with my daughter later cause I guess she’s in some Doctor Who show but I never heard of it.”

With the necessities out of the way, we headed out to the loading area to meet our horses. First we went to the bay horse. “This is Lilly,” Harold told us. “Jess since you’re the beginner beginner, we’ll put you on her.”

While he was checking Lilly’s equipment one last time, I mentioned my girlhood obsession with the Black Stallion and what Harold said next, could not have been scripted:

“Walter Farley was my uncle’s brother,” he told us.

This day was just getting better and better. He gave us some inside scoop about Walter’s life–that he got locked into a bad deal with the publisher on those books and while he made an OK living, he lost a lot of money. He made most of his money by optioning the movie rights, then died of cancer just two years later.

“And he had horse teeth,” he said, by way of finishing. “They looked just like this.” He pulled open Lilly’s mouth to demonstrate. “At weddings and funerals we used to always try to get him to smile for pictures.”

For the next few minutes, he gave us a primer on how to ride. The most interesting thing that I hadn’t heard before was to think of your stirrups as the ground, moved up to horse level. Just like keeping your feet on the ground and your weight over them keeps you from falling down when you get out of bed, your weight in the stirrups (heels down, toes out) is what engages your thighs and keeps you in the saddle.

He also talked about how to hold the reins and the importance of NOT grabbing onto the saddle pommel to try and stay on the horse. The pommel is for tying up the horse, or, if you need both hands while you’re stopped, you tighten up one side of the rein and wrap it around. “It’s ok to rest your hand on it while you ride, but we’ll know if you’re using it to hold on,” he warned.

With the main points covered (our guide would tell us more on the way), he lead Lilly over to the step stool for Jess to mount.

Then it was my turn. We went over to Grant and he started to turn him and head to the step stool. “Can I mount without the stool?” I asked.

“Sure.” He stopped Grant in an open area. After a brief worry that the stirrup was too high to reach, I got my foot in and swung over like I did it every week. We stuffed our few things, including phones, into the small saddle bags and waited for our guide.

Carla came over riding a beautiful black and white horse named Jill (there was also a Jack around somewhere). She introduced herself and let us know generally how the ride would go and that we would be stopping for her to check our equipment and make sure we were doing well. Then we headed out.

We walked at a beginner friendly pace to head across the road and up into the hills. Carla gave us some tips and told us about herself. She’s been a riding instructor for 35 years so I felt like we were in good hands.

Once we got past the road and started going uphill, the scene got more interesting. The landscape was a sea of cotton wood trees with the occasional pop of color from a lucky aspen that had found a good water source.

Carla peppered the journey with tales of the mining history of the area and we walked past a few old mines with gates around them or bridges going over. The bridge was pretty narrow and Carla said it was supposed to be crossable by horse or mule, but they forgot to make it wide enough for a rider’s legs! Looking at the bridge, I would not have thought putting a horse’s weight on it was a smart idea.

Cerillos, the tiny, 9 block town nearest the trails we were on, used to be a booming mining town, with a population of around 3000 people and 27 saloons. It’s good to have priorities, I guess. Carla told us stories of the miners having to watch their claims, trying to play it cool when they struck, so no one would come and raid their claim or steal their hard-earned gold.

We reached our first lookout point and Carla dismounted to check out equipment and take photos for us. The view was spectacular and we sat and enjoyed it for a few minutes.

Jess and I on our horse in the Cerillos hills
Fantastic ride, great views, perfect weather. It doesn’t get any better.
The view from the hills above Cerillos, NM
View from the lookout.

We headed down again and Carla reminded us to lean back enough to keep our bodies perpendicular to the ground. “Like The Man from Snowy River,” I mentioned.

“Yes, exactly. But I’ll tell you something about that movie that will ruin for you, unless you don’t want me to.”

Of course my curiosity got the better of me so I told her to go ahead. I’ll hide the spoiler (it really is), below in case you don’t want to know. Select the text to see it if you really want to know. You’ve been warned!

“They planted the trees sideways and he was running on flat ground,” Carla said.

“What?! NO!” I felt so betrayed, but honestly I’d probably still enjoy the climactic scene anyway. I may have to watch it again to find out.

We continued on, and learned we had missed tarantula mating season, when they come out to find mates and can be seen daily. I think from the back of a horse is probably the only way I would want to see a spider that big. There were snakes out there too but In her time working with Broken Saddle, Carla had only ever seen a few.

As we walked along, I was working to get to know Grant. Like most touring trail horses, he was trained to follow and stay with his buddies. He seemed to think that if I would just let him be in charge, things would go much smoother, but he was inconsistent. Sometimes he would hang back more than I wanted, and I would urge him up closer so I could hear what Carla was saying. Other times he would lolligag behind and then spontaneously hurry to catch up.

They warned us before we started not to let the horses eat on the trail. Of course they are trained not to do it, but like any child with a new baby sitter, they will test a new rider and, Harold warned, “they’ll know right away if you have weak hands.”

After we had been going for a while, I couldn’t help but ask if we would have a chance to change up the pace. This really depended on Jess, since this was only her second time on a horse, but she was game. So when the trail evened out and we were feeling comfortable, Carla explained the different gaits.

We were riding Tennessee Walkers, and they have a special gait called a rack, which means that where other horses trot moving opposite front and back legs in tandem, Tennessee Walkers trot by moving both right legs at the same time, and then both left legs. It’s reported to be a smoother experience than a regular trot.

Carla sped up, and I watched Jess’s horse Lilly as her stride shifted. But darned if I could figure out the magic spell to get Grant to rack properly. He seemed to have two speeds, walk and canter. Honestly, I find cantering to be much more comfortable, but on principle, I did want to experience this famous gait. Grant would only rack for a few strides before speeding up or slowing down. I liked to think he was just staying in character as an untamed black stallion and I appreciated the challenge.

The terrain didn’t really lend itself to any extended running, so we still mostly moved at a walk, practicing the rack and the faster extended rack in short bursts. Then we came to a wide smooth stretch going uphill and got official permission to canter up. Horses like running uphill and we made a nice go of it.

It was awesome. Grant and I were finally on the same page! I felt like I might just begin to start figuring him out just as the ride ended.

At one point we stopped for a rest and a to grab a drink. Carla started off again while I was still putting my water bottle back in my saddle bag. Grant didn’t want to be left behind and I called out to Carla to hang on a moment. She and Jess had maybe gone six feet ahead at that point, and now I saw what Carla meant when she warned us earlier that the horses could become more difficult when separated.

Grant and I had a little battle about whether he was going to stand still until I was ready to go. When I felt I’d made my point, I let him go ahead. Carla complimented me and said that not many people actually bother to try to control their horses on these tours.

We carried on, enjoying a few more scenic views. As we came to the top of another hill, Carla’s horse shied and slid several steps to her left. Carla was completely unfazed and the cause of all the fuss turned out to be a man on a mule. He pulled off the trail some to let us pass. Carla reminded us that horses are prey animals and so they startle easily. Nothing I didn’t already know. One of my nicknames for Jess is ‘skittish filly’ because sometimes I startle her just by sneezing suddenly or dropping something on the floor. The horse also weren’t sure what to make of some white powder markings that had been left by some surveyors. It was funny to watch them carefully step around unfamiliar things as if avoiding cracks in the sidewalk out of superstition.

Since it was just the two of us and we were having such a good time, Carla asked if we wanted to see an extra viewpoint. Of course we said yes. But eventually we had to turn our tracks toward home. Our bums were starting to show signs of the soreness we were sure to suffer over the next few days.

We had an uneventful walk back to the ranch. Getting my legs back on firm ground was jarring and there was that familiar post-ride feeling that my legs might never fully return to their normal distance apart.

We took our time getting our ground legs back under us, and enjoyed reading all the fun, cheeky signs around the office building. After unsaddling the horses, Carla brought out carrots for us to give them before leading into their corrals for a good brushing and a well earned roll.

Broken Saddle lived up to it’s stellar reviews and gave us a fantastic start to our visit.

After leaving the ranch, we drove through the ‘town’ of Cerillos. A few folks sitting outside the saloon, gazed with open curiosity as we drove through. I’m sure they don’t get many visitors during the off season.

The far end of town boasted a petting zoo, and a bottle shop, both of which were closed. We got out to look at the animals and get another view of the Cerillos hills. Then we drove through the rest of the town, looking for a special door that Jess has taken a photo of years ago, and used as the center piece of her college essay. We found the door, but it had a big red ‘KEEP OUT’ sign on it that somewhat marred the charm and craftiness of the carvings.

To finish off the day, we drove a few more miles south to the artist town of Madrid. Larger than Cerillos, it had one main road with a ton of galleries. We parked in the middle of town next to a costume shop and a bunch of carnival cutouts, and of course took the required silly photos of ourselves. Jess’s grumpy jail face is pretty adorable.

Jess in the Madrid 'jail' photo cut out
Someone’s landed in the pokey.

We’re not super into galleries, so we didn’t go into many places. We did stop in at the Java Junction coffee shop. A sign on the napkin holder on the counter proudly proclaimed: BAD COFFEE SUCKS so we bought drinks, hoping for a less terrible coffee experience than the hotel and it was pretty good.

It was getting on towards dinner time, so we looked in on one of the restaurants, but didn’t see anything to get excited about so we passed and kept walking. As we crossed a bridge over yet another arroyo, a large excited puppy came running towards us from up the road. He ran across the street to us for a quick sniff and a pet and then ran off again. A minute later a man came driving slowly down the street with his window down.

“Is that your dog?” I asked.

“Yeah, it’s my daughter’s dog. He gets out every day.” He tried calling the dog over and opening a car door, but another man walked out of a nearby building and the dog ran off to investigate. I walked closer, calling the dog’s name. I guess I was still new and shiny enough to be interesting because he came running over and I grabbed his collar and waited for the man to come get him.

Excitement over, we headed back towards the car. As we passed the restaurant again, we saw a cell phone laying in the gravel parking lot. I picked it up. We didn’t see anyone around who looked like they were looking for anything. Luckily the phone was a Verizon phone so it actually had a signal. I found the listing labeled ‘Mom’ and called it. A woman picked up and I explained that we had found her daughter’s cell phone and that we would leave it with the restaurant staff.

Having done our share of good deeds, we decided to call it a day. We took our time meandering back to the car enjoying the vibrant color and quirkiness that seems to present all over New Mexico.

Colorful green house in Madrid, NM
The brilliant colors of New Mexico.

Back at the hotel, we availed ourselves of the hot tub to try mitigate the inevitable effects of the horse back riding.

It didn’t work, but the suffering was totally worth it.

You can see all the photos from the day below.


  1. I would have to lose at least 45 pounds to become a jockey.  ↩

1 Comment


  1. I loved this whole post!! When I was a teenager I used to lead trail rides, and I loved having riders like you—eager to learn, ready to listen, and so attentive to their horses! Thanks for sharing this with me.

    xo
    Kiersi

    Reply

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