A couple of years ago I won a stay at Shangrila Guest Ranch through a fundraising event for Horsepower. I headed up to southern Virginia for an overnight stay and fell in love with the place and its good-hearted owners, Gary and Julie Holmes. Since then I’ve made many trips back to help with trail rides, brainstorm business ideas, and babysit Gary and Julie’s kids, Dillon and Melody. That’s what happens when you go to Shangrila: you start out a guest and pretty soon you feel like family.
I visited Shangrila this past weekend, intending to stay for one night. One night stretched into two: how could I give up an invitation to two full days on the trail, Julie’s birthday dinner, a nighttime Gator ride though the woods, a starry-night campfire, and fun with the world’s cutest kids?
Adam and Kat, a young couple from Toronto, were weekend guests. She’d ridden once before in Mexico, where the folks running the operation enjoyed putting gringos on speedy horses and butt-slapping them (the horses, not the tourists) to run wildly for an hour. “I didn’t think I was going to live through it,” Kat recalled. Gary put her on Pretty Boy, a good-natured walking horse with a permanently nervous look thanks to white sclera around his irises (an Appaloosa trait that must have crept into his gene pool). Kat looked a bit white-eyed too, but she endured the trail with good grace and a diminishing stream of tiny screams and “omigods!” Adam, a veterinarian assistant who likes working with big animals, was a natural. After four hours on the trail, he was ready to keep going.
Gary has hundreds of acres and more than twenty horses—mostly Tennessee Walkers—who get to roam in big pastures. With all the horses (not to mention mules and donkeys), I always have a lot of choices for riding. On my first day I rode Bandit, a spotted walking horse whose former owner must have ridden him at top speed. After a couple of years in Gary’s hands, he’s learned to slow down and enjoy the trail, but he’s still a Ferrari underneath, with a supersensitive mouth and sides.
On my second day, I stepped out of the guesthouse and heard Fancy, a Tennessee Walker-quarter horse cross, nicker at me. “Take me with you!” she seemed to be saying. She’s a bit high-octane for the novice rider, so she hasn’t been worked much. Fancy got her day on the trail—she managed to squeeze in some head tossing and one half-cranky, half-spirited buck, but all in all she was a gem. I still haven’t fully mastered the Tennessee Walker flat walk and running walk, but I’m getting a little better with each try.
The trip took me from stressed-out about freelance writing deadlines and the prospect of grad school starting up soon to totally mellow. It was a good reminder that stepping out of your usual environment—even if it’s just for a day or two—is good for mind, body, and soul. I urge anybody who’s reading this blog to come up with a creative short getaway and do it before summer ends. Your inner horse will thank you. Oh, and if you know something about horses and feel like changing your life completely, talk to Gary, who’s looking for a manager. Bed, board, and your choice of horse included.