Trailblazers Help Make Riding Fun

by Ron McNicoll
Independent Newspaper, March/2004

Fund-raising, meetings and club projects are a lot of work for members of the Tri-Valley Trail Blazers. The works pays off in the fun of being able to have their own horse-riding club.

The club was started at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in the 1960s, but eventually separated from it. About 60 people, nearly all of them residing in the Tri-Valley, are members. “I love the freedom, the partnership with the horse, and the friendship around riding,” said Jean Schreiber, who has been a member since 1981. Without a club, it would be tough for an individual or small group of friends to organize regular monthly rides. The club gives structure to enable those activities, said Schreiber. The club also provides safety, in two ways. Members can ride in the safety of a group. Also, people new to horses can receive instruction in how to handle their horses. Although getting thrown is inevitable, there are ways to keep it at a minimum. Forming a “partnership” with the horse is the best way, said club member Roger Brown. He prefers using a more modern technique called natural horsemanship.

“Natural horsemanship is a different way of dealing with a horse. You get the horse to pay attention to what you are doing, before you get on. You spend lots of time teaching the horse to hook up with you. You let the horse know you, so you can control the horse,” said Brown. Using a round pen about 50 feet in diameter, Brown has the horse circle one way, then another. The horse lowers his head, stops, then comes in toward Brown to get closer. He uses a desensitizing technique by gently moving a cloth-covered stick around on the horse's body, sort of like petting the animal. “Horses like to be comfortable. If they are more comfortable, they will listen to what I'm doing,” said Brown. But the communication isn't verbal. “It's all in how you use your body language. You direct energy toward his hindquarters, and have him bring his front end around.”

Brown started riding in the Sierra where he worked summers with pack horses for campers. He and his wife, Nancy, enjoy the overnight camping rides in the club. Sometimes they go with the club to Jack Brooks camp on the coast near Aptos. Other times its an overnight from Sunol Regional Wilderness to Lake Del Valle, where East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) has finished the first phase of a horse camp. Dick Quigley, who has been in the club 11 years, is the group's political activist. Quigley, who will be joining the Zone 7 Water Agency board this summer, served as the liaison to EBRPD in developing the Del Valle facility. The first phase at Del Valle has picnic tables, a barbecue, a social circle fire pit and outhouses. In the second phase, the outhouses will give way to toilets. There will be showers and running water. The club paid $1000 for trees and stakes to help landscape the Del Valle camp. There is $1500 more to help with the second phase. The club holds such events as poker runs to raise the funds. In a poker run, a rider reaches into a bag and collects a random playing card at each of five stops. The rider with the best hand at the end wins a prize. Contestants can also buy more cards to try to improve their hands, which adds more to the club donation. The sociability of the club is one of its biggest draws. “It has been a nice place to meet people,” said Brown.

“The club has a nice Christmas party, and one in summer, too. We often have that one out here,” said Brown, referring to his rural Tesla Road residence. Sandy Kinsella, who lives in Hayward, said the club has helped her to continue riding. She had a horse when she was growing up. However, family duties kept her away from riding for many years.

Now that her son has grown up, she has the time and finances to get back to riding. “Horses are a wonderful experience for people. It takes a lot of work to ride well, and make the horse work better. Anyone can jump on a horse, and go down the trail. But you have to put work into it to make a horse go smoothly,” said Kinsella.

But no matter how good a rider is, no matter how closely she works with a horse, sooner or later she will fall off or be thrown, said Kinsella. “I've had several broken bones. I've broken my ankle in two places. Coming off is something you take in stride. It depends on your skills and your horse,” she said. “No matter how good the horse is, it can get scared. It doesn't take much to spook a horse. The riders' head is vulnerable. If I hadn't had a helmet on, I would have had a concussion when I went backward off my horse, when the saddle slipped and I hit my head (on the ground),” said Kinsella. Despite an occasional fall, riding is overwhelmingly a positive experience.

Schreiber summed it up when she said, “It's a treasure to be around horse people. There's a lot to learn and teach in the club. It's a big part of my life.”