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By Brian “Fox” Ellis
“Girls who grow up with horses tend to be well-grounded and self-confident women,” is an opinion my wife, a family therapist, holds dear. Personally, I like horse back riding as a way to get out into the wilderness with a slightly elevated point of view.
Whether your goal is fresh air and sunshine or a more rooted sense of self, a family trail ride is a delightful way to pass the day galloping through the forested hills and grass covered valleys of Central Illinois.
Saddle Up
There are several stables in Central Illinois who offer guided trail rides. Rockin’ P in Pekin or Condit’s Ranch in Putnam, up north of Henry, are two of our favorites. Well worth the drive, both Starved Rock Stables near Utica and Giant City Stables adjacent to the state park south of Carbondale offer longer trips into their namesake state park properties.
Most stables require that your children are at least eight years old. It also helps if they have some horse back riding experience before you set out on a trail. It is important that you wear long pants and sturdy shoes; flip-flops and sandals are not allowed. Bring along a water bottle and maybe a snack in your pocket if you will be on the trail for a longer ride. Bug spray and sun screen are always good ideas. Most stables require and provide helmets.
We like to begin early, not only to avoid the heat of the summer day, but the closer to dawn you start the more likely you are to see wildlife.
We once heard a meadow lark sing a glorious trill from the top of a gnarled tree. His warbling voice, his ecstatic song, was brighter than the sun. The stars faded in comparison, the sun rose with his beckoning, the prairie blazed with his melody and our hearts caught fire with his love for this life, this day, this infinite moment of glorious song.
My daughter Lily remembers riding a horse named Brandy, who was once a circus horse. She said, “Brandy had a beautiful cantor and she listened really well, except one time she bucked. It scared me, but it was also kind of fun!”
Laurel, her sister, said, “I remember the first horse I ever rode, Yogi, a brown pony with long bangs. He was very calm and patient. He would always trot instead of walk. I really love to trot. We also saw a herd of deer along the way.” Laurel added, “The palomino mom was riding kept trying to pass Yogi and Yogi did not like it. She kicked a little and startled mommy’s horse.”
My wife always asks for a gentle horse and usually gets one who does not mind her well. It is always trying to stray off the trail or stop and graze when it should be walking. It will gallop when all the other horses are walking or simply stop and block traffic if given the chance!
For birthdays and other special events horse back riding is a frequent request. Whenever our family goes on vacation we often look for a chance to get out on a trail for a day. It's an unforgettable experience for the entire family.
The Ride of a Lifetime
One of our most memorable horse back riding adventures took place along the beaches and in the rainforest of Costa Rica. We were staying at a resort along the Pacific Coast. As part of our daily fee we could choose one adventure from a menu that ranged from deep sea fishing to mountain climbing, island hopping to a lazy river float. We choose a day long horse back journey up the coast and into the Corcovado National Park, one of the largest national forest in Central America.
Our day began with a boat ride upriver to the stables where the horses were waiting. Once astride our stead, for the first hour, we splashed along the surf line where the jungle meets the sea. Then we turned and headed into the rainforest on a trail barely wide enough for a small horse drawn cart. There were howler monkeys cavorting in the tree tops and toucans screeching from the high limbs.
Eventually the trail looked more like a road and we came into a rural village with a small grocer, a school/church, and several houses. We followed the winding road for another hour before we came to a butterfly ranch.
While our horses rested we ate lunch and explored the butterfly farm on foot.
With nearly an acre under thin net-like screens, there were more butterflies than one could count. Zebra stripped fritillaries and big blue morphos sipped nectar from the carefully cultivated flowers. Our guide explained that collecting endangered species for commercial sale was highly forbidden and strictly enforced. Local butterfly farmers were actually required to set free a percentage of their stock to help repopulate the wild. The pupae or cocoons we saw would be shipped to zoos and botanical gardens in the United States. What was once a problem, the sale of butterflies, is now being managed as both an economic and ecological advantage for Costa Rica.
With the horses rested and our senses and stomachs full, we set out on a short-cut back to the resort to complete the loop.
Your Adventure Awaits
Though you won’t see any howler monkeys in Central Illinois, the views from the bluffs along the Illinois River do rival the rainforests of Costa Rica. A day on a horse with your family is a magical way to be transported out of the daily grind and into the wild side of life!
Some of my favorite places to ride:
Condit's Ranch,
Rural Route 1 Box 13
Putnam, IL 61560
(815) 437-2226
Rockin P Public Ranch,
Pekin Park District
217 Mc Naughton Road
Pekin, IL 61554
(309) 382-1268
Giant City State Park
Makanda, Illinois

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