Cheating on My Horse


A riding adventure turns into a full-fledged affair.

Getting ready to ride the horses through Shenandoah Valley.
The author (left, on Corey) gets ready to ride with Staci and Titan.

Riding through a lush meadow in Virginia’s glorious horse trails of Shenandoah Valley, butterflies swarm. Orange monarchs and black-tipped blues flicker and flutter and sweep around the stalks of powdery goldenrod that stand as tall as the eyelashes on my horse. I’m riding a 16.2 Percheron-cross named Corey, but he’s not mine. He belongs to my friend Staci. My horse, Taff, is 70 miles away at the farm where he boards on the other side of the Potomac River in suburban Maryland.

With Staci on her horse Titan (her other, even larger Percheron-cross hunt horse), we ride through an endless field littered with an outcropping of ancient rocks. In the hollow below, cows stand in the shade, happily knee-deep in a mud puddle. More butterflies rest on soft white beds of Queen Anne’s Lace flowers that blanket the rolling meadow.

A Hint of Nostalgia on Horseback

It almost feels like old times. Staci and I rode together as kids. She was the fearless rider who I followed around on one of her horses when we were in middle and high school. In those days, we almost always rode bareback in halters and wore bathing suits, our feet bare. Staci always led as we tore around the fields, jumping anything in our path, falling off a lot and exploring patches of bursting, overripe mulberry bushes that stained our bare legs purple.

Over the years, Staci and I lost touch, but later reconnected through Facebook. She lives in D.C. (like I do), but keeps her four horses 90 minutes away on the other side of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My horse, in contrast, boards at a farm about 15 miles outside of D.C. It’s a beautiful, grassy farm nestled into wooded parkland at the edge of suburban sprawl. It’s easy to get to, but we often share the nearby trails with jogging strollers, mountain bikes and dog-walkers. Neighbors with minivans full of eager children often pull into the farm to see the horses. There are good trails in the area, but the best of them require trailering.

Trying Something New

Driving 90 minutes one way to go riding seemed impractical to me, until I came home from a trip last fall. I traveled 3,000 miles to ride through the chilled and wild Alaskan backcountry. I came home inspired to ride more adventurously.

A few months later, I drove out to ride with Staci for the first time through the Shenandoah Valley. “Just show up with a saddle and smile,” she had texted me. So I did. I figured on the drive home, I’d know whether or not I’d be willing to make the drive again.

I was. In the months since, I’ve raced back over that mountain to ride on Saturday mornings more times than I can count. I’ve even spent the night out there to get in an early ride. It’s confirmed: I’m cheating on my horse.

The landscape of Shenandoah Valley between a horse's ears while riding.
The view of Shenandoah Valley between Corey’s ears. 

Out there, Staci and I have cantered up hills strewn with wildflowers, paused to watch a nest of baby bald eagles through our horses’ ears, trotted the leafy banks of the Shenandoah River through beds of Virginia bluebells and watched a young red-shouldered hawk fledge.

We’ve guided our horses around a huge snapping turtle on a narrow wooded path, splashed through deep rocky creeks, startled wild turkeys out of the tall grass, jumped over stone walls, and clip-clopped down picturesque country roads undisturbed.

After riding, we’ve enjoyed juicy tomato sandwiches in beautiful barns with her fox-hunting friends. Being a part of this delicious countryside on horseback feels special and—with that mountain firmly in place—a true escape from my hectic family and work life.

Real Life

But my horse lives back there on the other side of the mountain. I still ride him during the week, and only his fitness seems to have suffered. Perhaps he nickers a bit more urgently when I show up at the gate with treats.

Driving the 90 minutes to Staci’s barn early on a recent Saturday, the sunrise through fast-moving dark clouds cast stunning shadows on the misty green D.C. side of Paris Mountain. I think of Taff grazing in his ample pasture with the herd he’s lived in for the past 11 years. He’s probably not wondering where I am. But I do wish he were with me on these adventures trotting through the Shenandoah Valley. I contemplate moving him to this equestrian wonderland where I wouldn’t see him as much.

But no matter what, I realize that I have Taff to thank for the gift of this escape. He and the other horses in my life (no matter whether I actually own them or not) have allowed me to go on these idyllic adventures. He and his patience have reminded me of the importance of riding in my life, and to enjoy the trail riding adventures—and the friendships that revolve around horses—when and where they come along.

Even if they’re on someone else’s horse.

This article originally appeared in the February 2018 issue of Horse Illustrated magazine. Click here to subscribe!


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