Carriage Trails and Mountain Views

“When you come to Blowing Rock I advise you to say: ‘A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse,’ for you will need it unless your legs will carry you over the 30 miles of road on the Cone Estate.”

~ Greensboro Daily News, 1930

During his latter years, Greensboro textile magnate Moses Cone assembled a 3,500-acre country estate near Blowing Rock, North Carolina. Now part of the National Park Service, Moses Cone Memorial Park sits on the Blue Ridge Parkway. It has two lakes, two mountains, endless carriage trails, and a 13,000-square-foot mansion featuring crafts by regional artists. The park is free and open to hikers, carriages, and horseback riders.

One of many breathtaking views in Cone Park

One of many breathtaking views in Cone Park

Thanks to my riding buddy Tim, I got to experience this magical place on horseback. Tim hauled Mystic; his horse, Laea; and me in his powerhouse white truck and trailer. The drive took about 2.5 hours from Flintrock Farm and brought us through Boone, home of Appalachian State (recipient of Moses Cone’s largesse), and Blowing Rock. As we traveled, the landscape transformed from flat expanse to rolling hills to deep green, cloud-shrouded mountains.

“I’ve got butterflies in my stomach,” Tim confessed as we unloaded the horses in the ample parking lot designed specifically for horse-pulling rigs.

I fully sympathized. I’ve ridden Laea a few times, and she’s a sensitive, high-strung, energetic handful. She spooks with the speed of a sidewinder and the agility of a gazelle. This outing marked her first extended trek on unfamiliar trails, where we were likely to encounter hikers, runners, and other horses.

To Tim’s surprise and delight, Laea settled right in, leading all the way. She spooked slightly at a few logs and rocky outcroppings, but was clearly engaged and interested. Mystic ambled behind, slowed down by the ouchy gravel on the carriage paths.

We started by riding up Rich Mountain, a five-mile trek that took us to a gentle pinnacle with a stone-walled picnic area and panoramic view of the Blue Ridge Mountains.

Good food and views

Good food and good views

A young hiker took our picture, memorializing the moment. As we held up our phones to capture the view, I wondered, “Would Thoreau have used a cell phone?” The hiker smiled and shook his head. “Absolutely not.” With that, he took his walking stick and set off down the mountain.

On top of Rich Mountain

On top of Rich Mountain

On our way down, we stepped over dozens of cow pads and passed an empty pasture. “I wonder where the cows are?” I mused. As we wound through the woods, we heard moaning, mooing sounds. The sounds got closer. Laea and Mystic’s ears swiveled and pricked upright. A few hundred feet ahead, a tan cow and a black cow stood in the carriage path. The tan cow retreated to a hillside as we got closer, but its friend was too curious to move. Laea, bless her heart, stood her ground, and we eventually shooshed the cow out of the way.

Our next stop was Trout Lake, where Mystic and Laea splashed like toddlers.

Tim and Laea at Trout Lake

Tim and Laea at Trout Lake

From there we rode to the manor house, the grand Colonial Revival that Moses and Bertha Cone built as their country retreat.

Flat Top Manor

Flat Top Manor

After Moses’ death at 51, Bertha summered at the estate for her remaining 39 years. She was said to be a firm but kind lady who was particularly proud of her black surrey with brass fittings. She was apparently a perfectionist, especially when it came to the condition of the carriage trails. One former tenant farmer reported that she rode in her surrey with a book in her lap. If a rock or stick jarred her even slightly, she would record its exact location and have estate workers smooth the spot.

Drat!

Drat!

Last, we rode to the Cones’ gravesite about a mile from the manor house. The path was less rocky, so we managed a sustained trot. I looked at Tim, posting comfortably on a relaxed-looking Laea, and felt I’d never seen a happier man. The Cone cemetery was surprisingly scant: one big monument for Moses and Bertha, and two small gravestones for her sisters. The couple had no children—perhaps a disappointment to them, but certainly a benefit to the communities and causes to which they willed their estate.

Cone gravesite

Cone gravesite

Our horses were clearly tired as we headed back to the trailer lot, where they grazed in tall grass before stepping easily into the trailer. All in all, we’d covered almost 15 miles and spent five hours in the saddle. It would be hard to imagine a better day.

But Tim was already imagining a better one—when we’d come back again, this time with protective boots on our horses’ feet, to enjoy the rustic pleasures of a beautifully preserved bygone era.

 

Showing Off

After competing in two horse shows—one in 1966, the other in 1971, I swore I would never do it again.

I was not what you’d call a star.

My first show took place in Vermont, and I didn’t earn a ribbon. The only thing I remember is ignoring my mother when she told me it was time go home. I defiantly trotted my borrowed pony around the show grounds, until he rebelled and dumped me. I ended up with a bloody nose and my mother’s admonition: “That’s what you get for not listening to me.”

Vermont horse show, 1966; I'm riding the rotund bay pony on the right

Vermont horse show, 1966; I’m riding the rotund bay pony on the right

My second show, a 4-H competition in Crawfordsville, Indiana, carried more glory. I won a golden trophy and a showy purple ribbon in the English pleasure class. It might have been impressive if there had been any other horses in the ring. Everybody in Crawfordsville rode western, so I had no competition—just my riding teacher hissing from the sidelines, “Wrong diagonal!” I never could figure that stuff out.

4-H champion, 1971

4-H champion, 1971

Performing makes me anxious, maybe because I’m an introverted perfectionist. The thought of competing in a horse show brings up all the anxiety I buried back in the day when I did figure skating competitions, piano recitals, swim meets, speech team contests, and theater roles. I quit my performance career for good when I forgot my lines during a college Shakespeare production.

My brief performing career included magician's assistant to "Chinese Louie," 1974

My brief performing career included magician’s assistant to “Chinese Louie,” 1975

Only my good riding buddy, Tim, could convince me to return to the spotlight. He told me about the Jack Benny class at HorseFriends of North Carolina’s Open Benefit Show on June 7, then added, “You and I are riding in it.”

A Jack Benny class, for those too young to get the reference, is for older riders. I’m not sure how the late actor and comedian became associated with an equine event, but I like to think he’s laughing about it.

A relaxed class for us middle-aged folks sounded like fun, especially now that I’m older and know that people have better things to do than brood on my performance. It’s nice to get over myself, a little.

The HorseFriends show is a sweet, good-natured production that raises funds for their therapeutic riding program. It’s low-key as horse shows go, with the egg-in-spoon contest and apple-bobbing-and-carrying-in-mouth being two highlights.

Balancing eggs and bobbing for apples (not throwing up) at the HorseFriends show, June 2014

Balancing eggs and bobbing for apples (not throwing up) at the HorseFriends show, June 2014

Yet some of the riders looked pretty serious. The fanciest ones wore English riding jackets and tall black boots. They sat straight in the saddle, their horses equally formal and focused.

This is getting serious

This is getting serious

Mystic and I were relaxed by comparison. I gave him the obligatory bath, then hung around with Tim and his mare, Laea, while we waited for the Jack Benny class. I took Mystic to the lower arena and practiced walk-trot transitions. He was responsive yet easygoing. This would be a piece of cake.

“You two will take the blue ribbon,” Tim said generously.

I tied the cardboard square with my number—232—around my back and put on my helmet, but we still had a long wait. The show was unfolding very slowly, and the day was getting hot and long.

As I waited, a little seed of anxiety made itself known in my stomach.

Huh? This is just a lark, nothing to get nervous about. Silly.

Finally the announcer called the Jack Benny contestants to the ring. There were four of us, including a woman wearing shorts without a number on her back.

That nervous thing in my stomach? It was getting bigger by the moment. Maybe it was the radioactive waste of my childhood performance anxiety. Maybe it was a hard-wired compulsion to be top primate in the group.

Whatever it was, Mystic felt it. As I’ve learned through studying natural horsemanship with James and Kate Cooler, horses are exquisitely fine-tuned. They feel what you feel, and they reflect your issues, for better or for worse.

I don’t remember the class very well—I do know my nose didn’t bleed—mainly I recall Mystic’s head jerking up every time we transitioned from walk to trot. I remember him starting to canter when he should have been trotting.

Giving Jack Benny our best effort: Mystic & me,  Tim & Laea

Giving Jack Benny our best effort: Mystic & me, Laea & Tim

I remember having a little bit of fun, but not much.

When it was over, we lined up in the center of the ring. The judge walked up to the woman in shorts and said, “We have to disqualify you because you’re not wearing proper attire and you don’t have a number. I hope you understand.” The woman laughed. “This is the first time I’ve been on this horse. It’s my daughter’s—I just decided to jump on it.”

Clearly she didn’t have performance anxiety.

Mystic and I ended up with a lovely, marigold-yellow third-place ribbon. I imagine it would have been fourth place if that numberless lady had been wearing breeches. Tim and Laea swept the competition, earning a royal blue ribbon. I wish I’d relaxed more and watched them do their thing instead of fussing about getting things “right.” I bet they were a wonderful sight.

Blue ribbon girl!

Blue ribbon girl!

Tim’s already talking about doing it again next year—he thinks we should do a pairs class. Based on my imperfect, anxious showing this year, I should say no.

But, you know, it could be fun.

Mystic and Maddie

Maddie is four years old, loves horses, and likes to keep moving. And when I say moving, I mean barreling forward with arms ready to embrace the next experience.

She’s a pip—defined by Merriam-Webster’s as one extraordinary of its kind.

Maddie the pip

Maddie the pip

Maddie has another definition, one that characterizes her spunk, social bluntness, and sensory-seeking nature as high-functioning Asperger’s syndrome. The DSM-V has reclassified this as autism spectrum disorder, but the symptoms remain the same.

I’m lucky to know Maddie as well as her mother, Shāna Cole, who co-owns Tree of Life Counseling and supervises my work there as a licensed professional counselor associate. Shāna has been my mentor since graduate school days, and she is one amazing therapist and can-do gal. The pip doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Shāna, who knows about my EAGALA training and interest in equine-assisted therapy, suggested I pair Maddie with my horse, Mystic. I didn’t hesitate. I had read and wept over the true-life book Horse Boy (also a documentary), in which horses help heal a profoundly autistic boy. I’d visited Eye of A Horse  in Florida and watched horses work their magic with a group of teens on the autism spectrum.

On a joyously green Saturday in April, Maddie came out to Flintrock Farm for her first therapeutic session. She hurtled out of the car, eager to see Mystic and get the ball rolling. She didn’t hesitate to pat him, stroke his tail, touch his hooves, and sidle closer than most adults would dare. When I gave her a grooming brush, she tackled Mystic’s tail with singular focus. I sprayed conditioner, she brushed. Spray, brush. We worked together, forging a triadic connection: human-horse-human.

“I’ve never seen Maddie immersed for so long,” Shana marveled. “She’s drawn to strong textures—that’s her sensory need—so I bet his bristly tail feels good to her.”

I saddled Mystic, then asked Maddie to help me walk him out of the barn. We shared the lead rope; every time she hurried forward, I reminded her to stay even with Mystic’s shoulder. This provided a lesson in spatial and relational sensitivity, not to mention horse safety.

Maddie and Mystic

Maddie and Mystic

Maddie, who lives in the moment while heartily priming for the next one, was ready to ride Mystic pronto.  Most people show hesitation when they get on a 1,000-pound animal, but she did not. “Let’s go!” she ordered as soon as I hoisted her into the saddle.

I walked Mystic in slow, careful circles, letting Maddie adjust to Mystic’s swaying movement. Because she had no fear, she moved easily with him. As she grew more balanced in her seat, I brought him to a gentle trot. She bobbed in the saddle, delighted. “Go fast again!”

Most novices stiffen when a horse moves faster, but Maddie had the opposite reaction: she bobbled and jounced and giggled. “Again! More!”

By the end of a sustained trotting session, Maddie’s energy had shifted. She was calm, grounded, and centered. Shana explained that bouncing, hanging upside down, and spinning are calming activities for Maddie. These movements stimulate the proprioceptive and vestibular systems, helping children on the autism spectrum locate their bodies in space and develop balance and coordination.

Whatever the scientific explanation, the proof was in the pudding: Maddie was mellow. She lolled against a hay bale, eating pretzel sticks, looking entirely sated.

“Thank you,” Shana said. “This is amazing. When can we do it again?”

We’ve since had two more equine sessions, with continuing focus on spatial awareness (“Keep step with Mystic—don’t run ahead!”), cueing into others’ emotions (“Ears back means he’s not happy”), and body movement (“Feel how your body is swaying side to side?”).

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Each session starts with Maddie running toward me, arms outstretched, shouting, “I missed you, Mary! I love you! I missed Mystic! I love Mystic!” followed by a feet-off-the-ground, arms-wrapped-and-locked hug that goes straight to the heart and lodges there permanently.

“You’re the best, Mary. You’re so nice. I love you.” Maddie smiles, pure delight, all id.

“I love you too. You’re a pip.”

We pick up our grooming brushes and turn our attention to Mystic, who stands quietly in the barn aisle, waiting to teach us both.