Trail riding at Deepwood Farm in Bethel. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)Reporter Mark LaFlamme mounts Gabe the horse under the supervision of Deepwood Farm counselor Samantha Lyster and owner Wyatt Ward. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)Reporter Mark LaFlamme mounts Gabe the horse under the supervision of Deepwood Farm counselor Samantha Lyster. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)The Outlaw Mark LaFlamme gets ready to ride Gabe the horse under the supervision of Toby Leighton at Deepwood Farm. “If you look at that helmet in just the right way, it could totally be a cowboy hat,” said LaFlamme. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)Deepwood Farm in Bethel. The farm has been offering rides for 30 years. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)Trail riding at Deepwood Farm in Bethel. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)Trail riding at Deepwood Farm in Bethel. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)Reporter Mark LaFlamme “gets acquainted” with Gabe the horse at Deepwood Farm in Bethel. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)
Trail riding at Deepwood Farm in Bethel. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)
‘Deadwood’-primed writer finds Deepwood Farm horseback ride may spur the healing.
“All you need for happiness is a good gun, a good horse and a good wife.” —Daniel Boone
“Riding is the art of keeping the horse between you and the ground.” — Unknown
“No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle.” — Winston Churchill
“Riding a horse can be pretty tough on your legs and elsewheres.” — John Wayne
First, know this. For 30 years, the good folks of Deepwood Farm have been offering safe and fun horse rides to people of all ages. They commonly take as many as a dozen at a time and often the riders are kids just slightly older than toddlers.
Young people, old people, it’s never a problem. The staff is skilled at the Bethel farm and the horses are patient.
Then, I come strutting onto the farm, stinking of the city and thinking I can ride a horse because I’ve seen “High Plains Drifter” a time or two.
Every time I get a chance to ride a horse, I tend to forget my troubled history with the animals, which dates back to junior high when my girlfriend let me ride her horse Daisy around the farm.
It didn’t go well. The horse wouldn’t listen to my squeaky-voiced commands and in fact seemed perturbed by my very presence on the farm.
At the end of the day, after many awkward trots among the peas and turnips, my girlfriend’s Pa put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Boy, I don’t know what it is, but that horse just doesn’t care for you at all.”
A few years ago, during a trip to Prince Edward Island, my wife and I came across a riding farm out in the Canadian woods. After listening to a few of my wisecracks, the surly man who ran the place looked me over, smiled a wicked smile and said: “Bub, have I got a horse for you.”
The rest of THAT afternoon was spent more or less looking at the ends of other horses while the animal beneath me did exactly what he felt like doing.
He wandered into the woods to eat leaves and stare at squirrels. He came to sudden stops and then would take off running without warning. At one point, he completely turned around and started trotting back in the opposite direction. No matter what I did with those reins and no matter what commands I squeaked at him, the horse just went off and did his own thing while I bounced around in the saddle like Roy Rogers’ loser brother.
I tell you, I have a way with horses.
And so at Deepwood Farms, the moment that DiAnne Ward announced that she had picked out a special horse just for me to ride, I knew there was going to be some kind of showdown.
Although it turned out to be a minor showdown, and I’ll tell you why in a minute.
I’VE GOT SPURS THAT BOTH JINGLE AND JANGLE
So ever since I watched the complete “Deadwood” series on Amazon Prime, I’ve been hankering to go for a horseback ride and maybe clean up a saloon town or two.
It’s not so easy, as it turns out. It seems like back in the day, you’d find a horse-riding farm on every other backcountry road, but these days? Not so much.
I’m told there are a couple reasons for that. One, it’s not so easy to make a living with horses nowadays and so fewer people are doing it. Two, those who ARE doing it may not be willing to invite random strangers to the farm and have to deal with special insurances and all that noise.
So I shopped around and shopped around some more. Some of the riding farms I found online were no longer in business. Some had horses but did not offer them for riding. Others had riding, but they were crazily expensive.
Then I found Deepwood Farm, a place that’s been in the horse business for more than 30 years and which came highly recommended from a few people who know a thing or two about saddling up.
Deepwood (which sounds pleasingly similar to “Deadwood”) is way out on the backroads of western Maine between Stoneham and Bethel off Route 35. They own 14 horses, but take care of a few extras, bringing the farm total to 19.
Ward and her husband, Wyatt, run the farm with the help of a small crew. The farm is the home to the The Gould Academy Equestrian Team and each spring and fall, offers high school students the opportunity to improve their riding skills while learning about grooming, tacking, stable safety and care for their horses.
Deepwood also runs a three-day horse camp for kids, and in the wintertime it offers sleigh rides through the woods of Bethel.
These are people who love horses, and the one and only piece of advice I’ll offer you here is this: If you’re interested in learning or re-learning to ride, do it with somebody who absolutely loves horses. At Deepwood, the relationship between man and beast feels like a partnership, and as it turns out, that’s pretty important if you want to enjoy the experience.
“We truly like people,” says DiAnne, “and we absolutely love our horses.”
The Wards don’t just throw a visitor on the back of any old animal. The horses at Deepwood have to earn their way to riding trails. They have other jobs in the meantime, and it’s only after the horse exhibits the right amount of patience that they are allowed to take on riders.
“You shouldn’t do this with just any horse,” says Samantha Lyster, a 20-year-old head counselor at the farm. “But with the right horse, anyone can learn to ride.”
That’s important because as it turns out, almost all of those who come to Deepwood looking to ride have never done it before.
“I’d say 95 percent are doing it for the first time,” says Lyster, who served as my Sherpa for the ride.
The Wards and their crew often take entire families out on rides, and that includes kids who have only recently learned the art of walking. Some are naturals, some are skittish from the get-go.
“We keep it slow,” says DiAnne. “We always go at the speed of the least experienced rider. Some people are nervous at first, but they always come back smiling and most of them come back again and again.”
So, what’s to be nervous about? Well, for starters, a horse is a lot of animal. A saddle horse typically weighs at least a half-ton and they’re built high off the ground – you really don’t get a sense of how high until you’re sitting atop one and looking down at the tops of human heads.
Horses also have complex personalities, and those unknown qualities can be worrisome for the riding noob as he sits within the narrow grip of the saddle.
“A lot of them worry about not knowing how to keep their balance on the horse,” says Toby Leighton, the Wards’ 17-year-old grandson and an experienced rider. “They worry about the horse just running away, too, but that doesn’t happen.”
If you want to ride a horse, you’re in good hands at Deepwood. The people are great, the horses are patient and the trail views are amazing. I had an awesome time riding there alongside my wife and niece. But before we got to that point, I had to go through the customary adjustment period as my inner brat got acquainted with the inner brat of a 1,200-pound saddle horse named Gabe.
WHERE ARE THE BRAKES ON THIS THING?
Before I had even stepped foot in the barn, DiAnne announced that she wanted me to ride Gabe, the pride of the Deepwood fleet.
“He’s big for a saddle horse,” she said. “He’s big and gentle and sweet.”
DiAnne bought Gabe years ago from someone in St. Agatha who had placed an ad on Craigslist.
So, with my wife and niece already mounted on their smaller horses, D.J. and Saul, DiAnne walked Gabe out of the barn and into the yard.
A tall drink of water, is Gabe. To me it felt like I could probably climb to the roof of the barn and mount him that way, but they insisted that I use a step ladder instead.
Up in Gabe’s saddle, my feet tucked into the stirrups, I gazed down upon my wee riding companions below. I was so high up on such a proud and sturdy horse, I felt less like the pale rider and more like emperor of some ancient Arabian country.
Gabe was a tank. A big horse for a man with big riding dreams. This was going to be great! Why, already I could imagine my horse and I traveling the world and seeing a great many . . .
And then Gabe, for whatever reason, got into a nudge fight with one of the smaller horses. There was snorting and huffing and off Gabe went, bounding and bucking across the yard. His front hooves came up and down, while high in the saddle I yanked the reins and hollered “Whoa! Whoa there!” in my most commanding voice, because that’s how John Wayne would do it, right?
It was a weird moment and a bit of a blur. One second I was sitting cooly atop a placid horse and the next, I was at the rodeo.
Yet incredibly, all it took to get the horse under control were those hard yanks on the reins and those loud commands to whoa, boy! For the love of God, whoa!
Gabe responded to the commands and became still. Like that, the tantrum was over.
“You did a really good job,” Lyster told me after. “Your butt never left the saddle.”
We got off to a rough start, Gabe and I, but for the next hour or so, we were great friends. We galloped along wide dirt lanes and down muddy narrow trails like old pals on a weekend jaunt through the countryside. We stomped across fields with glorious mountain views and we strutted up dusty roads like Wyatt Earp and Dick Nayson come to keep the peace in a dusty saloon town.
It’s funny: Prior to that trip to Deepwood, I pondered that riding a horse through the woods should be at least vaguely similar to riding a dirt bike, albeit one that poops a lot along the way . . .
But a horse is not a mindless machine, in spite of the way they’re often portrayed in the movies. While riding, you get a sense of intelligence beneath you. Of a soul. On one hand, you have to overcome the quirks and moods of that particular horse, occasionally nudging it along with a tug on the reins or a foot to the ribs.
On the other hand, that intelligence proves mighty useful when trying to navigate through a mud hole or rough spot on the trail. A motorcycle is only as good as its rider. A horse will find its way through even if the man in its saddle is utterly clueless about how to proceed.
“Horses,” says DiAnne, “like the path of least resistance.”
I believe she was addressing a horse’s natural tendency to get along with people, but I feel it pertains to the mud hole, as well.
THE HORSE YOU RODE IN ON
I have absolutely no idea if I’m a good rider or a terrible one. Gabe did pretty much all the work, and for those few moments of uncertainty, I had Samantha Lyster riding next to me and teaching me how to drive.
“You want to keep your elbows in front of your belly,” she told me, after observing that I was inadvertently sending Gabe confusing commands. “That way the reins stay a little slack and he just marches down the road.”
Lyster is such a natural, I got the feeling she could have ridden both of our horses at once if the need arose. She was 3 years old when her parents took her on one of those pony rides you see at the carnivals.
A couple years later, when the girl’s enthusiasm for the ride still hadn’t abated, her parents arranged for her to ride a world-renowned horse so stately that it was the model for the Breyer collectible series.
“The horse was so tall,” Lyster recalls, “I had to duck going into the barn.”
Lyster rode that famous horse and at 5 years old, she was hooked, to the chagrin of her parents.
“They thought I’d ride once and get over it,” she says. “They thought it was just a phase.”
Lyster has been working with horses ever since and plans to do so forever. She’s been with Deepwood four years, but after this summer, she’s heading to Florida to work at a stable.
Me, I’m stuck in downtown Lewiston for the foreseeable future, so chances are slim I’ll ever have a horse I can just jump on and ride any time I want to. It’s unfortunate because, as the Sun Journal beat reporter, how cool would it be to show up at a crime scene that way?
The next time I have a hankering to ride, I’ll head back out to Deepwood and see if ol’ Gabe is ready to roll again. By then, both he and I will have forgotten the fact that I have a weird way with horses and that every ride has to include shenanigans.
Gabe will have forgotten, anyway.
“Horses,” says DiAnne Ward, “don’t hold grudges.”
I’m banking on that.
Reporter Mark LaFlamme mounts Gabe the horse under the supervision of Deepwood Farm counselor Samantha Lyster and owner Wyatt Ward. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)
Deepwood Farm in Bethel. The farm has been offering rides for 30 years. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)
Reporter Mark LaFlamme “gets acquainted” with Gabe the horse at Deepwood Farm in Bethel. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)
Trail riding at Deepwood Farm in Bethel. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)
The Outlaw Mark LaFlamme gets ready to ride Gabe the horse under the supervision of Toby Leighton at Deepwood Farm. “If you look at that helmet in just the right way, it could totally be a cowboy hat,” said LaFlamme. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)
Trail riding at Deepwood Farm in Bethel. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)
Reporter Mark LaFlamme mounts Gabe the horse under the supervision of Deepwood Farm counselor Samantha Lyster. (Lauryn Griffey Parks photo)
Movies and shows about horses
“Secretariat”: A trainer transforms a precocious, longshot horse into a Triple Crown Winner. Spoiler: The horse wins a crap-ton of races. Recommended by Deepwood Farm rider Samantha Lyster.
“Unbranded”: Four young cowboys hatch a plan to adopt, train and ride a string of wild mustangs 3,000 miles from Mexico to Canada through the wildest terrain of the American West. Oh, we’ve all done that.
“The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit”: The favorite of Deepwood Farm rider Samantha Lyster. A man uses his daughter’s love of horses as a clever marketing tool.
“Godless”: A God-awful Amazon Prime series, but with some fantastic horse scenes. Stop looking for a coherent plot and just enjoy the horse action.
“The Black Stallion”: A horse survives a sinking ship and a spell on a deserted island to become the fastest horse in the world. Or something. I’ve never seen it.
“Deadwood”: The HBO series that inspired me to trade in my truck and replace it with a horse. It didn’t happen, but the series is still awesome in the way it portrays horses as a way of life. There may be swearing in this series. I mean, a LOT of swearing.
“Black Beauty”: A beautiful black horse overcomes a drinking problem and goes on to lead a remarkable life. That’s not really what it’s about, but wouldn’t you totally watch that?
— Mark LaFlamme, Staff Writer
“Gabe was a tank. A big horse for a man with big riding dreams. This was going to be great! Why, already I could imagine my horse and I traveling the world and seeing a great many. . . But then . . .”
* When a foal is born, it stands almost immediately and can run. Doesn’t that make human babies seem totally lame?
* Horses can’t throw up. That’s gotta be useful at frat parties.
* Horses generally have four gaits: walk, trot, canter and gallop. There are “gaited breeds” that have additional special gaits. The showoffs.
* A 1,200-pound horse will eat around 20 pounds of hay a day.
* Horses are prey animals. They run to survive, and only fight if they have to.
* Research has shown that horses’ favorite flavors are fenugreek, banana and cherry, in that order. Seriously. Somebody got paid to research that.
* A horse’s brain is about the size of a walnut. That makes them slightly more intelligent than the average (political party you hate here).
* Horses live to about 25 years old, although the oldest known horse lived to the age of 62. That’s where the term “old hoss” comes from. Probably.
More dead quiet than “Deadwood”
If you want to see lassoing, dramatic horse racing and brawling in a haze of gun smoke, go watch “Deadwood.” If you want to watch a languid horse-riding video with a questionable music theme from Mark LaFlamme’s recent adventure, click here.