- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 25, 2004

Many people will enjoy the fall colors on foot in the next few weeks, but why not let a horse do the walking?The Rock Creek Park Horse Center offers trail and pony rides five days a week. Everything that the center has to offer is popular, so be prepared to make a reservation several weeks in advance.

“Why is it so popular? I think it’s a combination of many things — exercise, being in nature and the closeness to an animal, and I think it’s something you wouldn’t expect to be able to do in the middle of the city,” says Rachel Hackett, an assistant program manager at the Rock Creek Park Horse Center.

The center boards 58 horses and has up to a five-year wait list for prospective boarders. Its classes often require a one-year wait or are closed due to too much interest, and its summer camps sell out in a day or two.

The trail rides, for which adult horses are used, and pony rides don’t require any prior knowledge of riding. Up to four riders — at least 12 years of age — head out with an instructor on the one-hour trail rides. The only instruction given is: pull on the right rein to go right, pull on the left rein to go left, pull both to stop, kick to go forward and keep 5 feet between horses to avoid crowding the animals.

Instructor Beth Barnes says these creatures are, for the most part, very calm. They are often middle-aged, of a very peaceful temperament and many of them are used for therapeutic riding, another of the center’s offerings.

What follows the sparse instructions is a gorgeous ride down some pretty steep paths, flat fields and narrow trails along streams. The horses know the route and only deviate occasionally to munch on a leaf or two. The rider is left to ponder, “Why have I never done this before?”

The pony rides require even less of the rider who can be as young as 2 years old (riders have to be at least 30 inches tall; there is no lower age limit). The ride is 20 minutes long, and the child and horse are accompanied at all times by an instructor, who is walking next to them and leading the horse.

Young children, however, usually are very excited about the idea of a pony ride, but once it becomes reality, they can get very nervous, some even cry, Ms. Hackett says. To ease these children into actually riding the pony, she recommends that families spend some time patting and feeding the horses first.

“Get to know them a little bit. That usually helps,” she says.

For those who still fret, Rock Creek Park has several other offerings. Aside from hiking trails and picnic areas, there are attractions such as Pierce Mill, a historic gristmill, and the Nature Center, which features exhibits on the park’s wildlife and several hands-on activities.

For some children, however, the ponies constitute a love at first sight.

“We even have children who start crying when they have to get down from the horse,” Ms. Hackett says.

For those who want to take riding a step further, there are a variety of classes, both private and group. But the wait list is long, up to a year. The beginning class is closed until the wait list gets shorter. Among styles taught are Western and English.

Other programs offered include summer camps, barn tours, therapeutic riding and volunteer opportunities.

“If you really want to be around these horses, volunteering is a great way to do it,” Ms. Barnes says.

The center is open year-round, but the trail and pony rides are canceled when the ground freezes. Ms. Hackett says that between now and then should be some of the prettiest months of the year, with the leaves turning golden and the temperatures dropping.

“The vegetation is still thick, but you have that cool breeze in the air, and it’s just beautiful,” she says.

WHEN YOU GO

Location: 5100 Glover Road, NW, Washington.

Directions: Take I-495 to Exit 33. Merge onto Connecticut Avenue toward Chevy Chase. Turn left onto Military Road. Turn right onto Glover Road.

Hours:Trail rides are available at 3 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, noon Saturday and 1:30 p.m. Sunday. Pony rides are available on weekends by appointment. Both pony and trail rides often are sold out several weeks in advance in the spring, summer and early fall. Personnel recommend that guests make appointments at least two weeks in advance. Office hours are from noon to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.

Parking: The Rock Creek Park Horse Center has a parking lot that guests are welcome to use.

Metro:The closest Metro stop is Friendship Heights, located about two miles from the Rock Creek Park Horse Center.

Admission:Trail rides are $30 for an hour and pony rides are $20 for 15 minutes. Lessons range from $40 to $80 an hour.

Information: Phone 202/362-0117 or click on www.rockcreekhorsecenter.com.

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