There I was, sitting atop my trusty stallion, high above a carpet of ponderosa pine trees, in one of the very few reopened sections of the Tonto National Forest, taking in an eyeball-popping view of the Mogollon Rim that likely hasn't changed in 200 years.
The denizens of Arizona's Old, Old West no doubt parked their horses on this same mountainside trail and ogled this same spectacular vista, I thought.
This is not to say the experience made me feel remotely like, oh, legendary Rim country pioneer/scout/ adventurer Al Sieber, however.
For one thing, my horse's name was Edgar. No pioneer/scout/adventurer in American history ever had a horse named Edgar. Sieber's steed, I'll bet, was named Lightning. Or Thunderbolt. Or Quicksilver.
The only person you'd ever catch riding a horse named Edgar is ... well, a balding, lumpy, pasty-white, overweight, modern-day newspaper reporter sent out to write a first-person piece on local horse-rental-and-riding opportunities.
And that's just as well. If Brianne Descheemaker of Kohl's Stables had said, "I'd like to introduce you to Thunderbolt, your horse for this afternoon's ride," I probably would have thunderbolted in the direction of home. By automobile.
No. Slow, old Edgar and I were for better or worse the perfect match of man and mount.
And Descheemaker was the perfect trail guide the kind who is pleasant and charming and funny and informative no matter how many idiotic questions you ask about the surrounding flora and fauna during the course of your ride.
Along the way, on the spectacularly beautiful trails that wind up and down the mountains behind Kohl's Ranch Lodge, one thing became abundantly clear:
You haven't experienced the real Rim country until you've viewed it from the top of a horse, in a setting so serene that even though you're maybe five city blocks, tops, from Highway 260 all you can hear is the wind whooshing through the trees and your mount's steady clip-clops along "The Big Dusty."
Home on the range
Whether you're a tenderfoot or experienced horseman, there are a variety of local options to choose from, with two area stables offering trail rides that last anywhere from an hour to a full day to overnighters.
While both special-permit facilities had been closed down by the U.S. Forest Service along with the rest of the Tonto National Forest, they have just been allowed to reopen along with the rest of the forest.
KOHL'S STABLES, located behind Kohl's Ranch Lodge about 15 miles east of Payson on Highway 260, offers one-, two- or three-hour rides and, when forest conditions permit, half-day excursions, too. One or more of the stable's 24 horses (including one yearling, one stallion and a mule) depart every hour on the hour from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The charge is $25 per person over 6 years old; pony rides are available for younger children. For more information, call 478-0030.
THE OK CORRAL STABLES in Pine, 14 miles north of Payson on Highway 87. Here, your horseback riding guides are Ron and Jayne Feldman, who have been guiding and packing horseback trips for 30 years. Rides last from an hour to all day to overnight, and can include a trailside breakfast or steak dinner. For more information, call 476-4303.
If it's the flavor of the wilderness you're after, think about a half-day or full-day trail ride. But before you make your final decision, consider how long you can ride without getting too saddle sore. Although the aches and pains from a longer ride will ease up and vanish in a day or so, and you'll get plenty of great memories in exchange for your efforts.
Whether your hero is Buffalo Bill Cody, Wyatt Earp, Annie Oakley, Al Sieber or balding, lumpy, pasty-white, overweight, modern-day newspaper reporters (please keep your vote to yourself), seeing your hometown countryside by horse even a rented one is guaranteed to give you a new spin on the Rim.
Horseback Riding: Tips for Beginners
Always mount on the left side of the horse.
Hold your reins in your hands. Don't jerk on the reins; this will hurt the horse's mouth.
Pull your reins in the direction that you want to go, such as left to go left and right to go right.
Keep only the ball of your foot in the stirrup. Balance your body with pressure in your feet, keeping your heels down and toes up.
Hold on to your saddle horn for balance.
Wear long pants and shoes with a slight heel. Sneakers are OK, but sandals aren't very good for riding.
Don't walk in back of a horse. They can't see you and could kick.
Video cameras should not be carried while riding your horse; use them before you hit the trail.