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Happy Trails 

Getting back in the saddle

Wednesday, Oct 10 2007

It was high noon and the horses were saddled up and ready to go. The sun was blistering overhead. My horse was named Hidalgo, after the one Viggo Mortensen rode in the movie based on the tall tale of a real-life 19th-century mustang rider who claimed to have competed in the Ocean of Fire, a mythical 3,000-mile race across the Arabian Desert. My Hidalgo, like the movie horse, was brown and white and on the small side, but he sure didn’t seem like he’d be winning any races, real or imaginary. He was slow, and kind of dragged his feet as he walked. And he was loath to trot, though I couldn’t blame him — it was god-awful hot. He liked me to hold his reins loose, which he let me know by shaking his mane as a reminder. When it came to the other horses, Hidalgo was real ornery, often biting at them during crucial turns in the trail ride.

The hour-long ride into Griffith Park was starting to resemble the marathon Ocean of Fire race. Thanks to Hidalgo I was at the rear of the pack, following Umberto the guide and a bunch of kids. I felt like Adam Sandler going back to elementary school in Billy Madison as I followed 11-year-old McKayla, and Albert, 8, and Lauren, 9, who were the children of Julie Schad, owner of Griffith Park Horse Rentals at the L.A. Equestrian Center.

Schad has a stable of 40 horses, all retired from some other line of work, and rents them by the hour on guided tours of some of the 55 miles of trailsthrough Griffith Park. You can usually show up without reservations and hop on a horse, as long as you’re over 6 years old and have 25 bucks. No previous riding experience necessary.

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I arrived at the stables by myself just as the kiddie group was already rarin’ to go. Being paired up with Hidalgo, I realized later, was largely my own doing. Even though I have some experience riding, it had been a while since I had been in a saddle, so I asked for a beginner’s horse — and I waived wearing a helmet, a privilege given only to adults. Those with more experience can get advanced-level horses, unlike Hidalgo, who moved as if he were on a track, knowing every turn in the trail as if he’d done it a hundred times, which he probably has.

Albert was confident in the saddle — it was as if he were born on a horse. Unfortunately, we lost Lauren early on because of a belly ache. McKayla, who was already going around for a second time that day, led the way. Along the approach to Griffith Park, we met up with Manuel, a.k.a. Zorro, who rides horses for owners who are too busy or physically unable to ride them themselves. He handled the horse he was on, and the beautiful white mare he led, with ease. With his cowboy boots, his Latin good looks and large-brimmed black hat, he did look like a young Zorro.

We rode with him under the 134 freeway, and over a horse bridge that spanned the pathetic L.A. River, only inches deep but moving debris just the same, directly below us. It was the only scary part of the ride — the bridge shook as we trotted over it. A sign warned: “Danger! Cross at your own risk.”

We finally arrived at the dusty trails of Griffith Park, and found some relief in the shade of the overhanging trees. We stopped and looked out over the Valley. We were so high up, it looked like we’d ridden into the clouds. Unfortunately, the respite was brief. It was time to head back to the stables, sooner than I had expected. Because the rental barn is far from the park, much of the hour-long ride is spent just getting there and back. If you are experienced, take the two- or, even better, three-hour ride, to get in more of the park.

If you have at least four friends who want to ride, you can do a three-hour tour to the Hollywood sign (call in advance). And then there’s the daily trip at sunset. Every night at 5:15 p.m., a guide leads a group of adults for an hour-and-a-half ride through the park to a point with a sweeping view of the Valley. Then the group rides to a local Mexican restaurant, where you stop to eat and drink for an hour before the half-hour ride back. A friend of mine went on one of these rides and highly recommended it. One bit of warning, though: Don’t drink too much. One girl had too many margaritas and couldn’t stay on her horse.

Despite the pace, I had a great time. Albert gave us updates when any of our horses pooed. And McKayla shared her extensive knowledge about horses; she’s read a lot of books on them because they’re her favorite animal. For a moment, we all talked about Lauren, who one day wants to be a guide. Zorro says every now and then they get someone who freaks out and wants to head back — usually it’s adults who get spooked.

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