Whether at the beach or in the mountains, horseback riding is always my favorite vacation activity. It's a fun outdoor adventure that allows you to see the sights from a different perspective, and since it's something I only do on vacation it just feels special. For whatever reason I've never taken advantage of the horseback riding opportunities here at home, and I now know I've been missing out.
My excursion to Blanche Manor in Copperhill, about an hour and a half drive from Chattanooga, felt like a mini-vacation. It's not a short drive, but it's a beautiful one that reminds you why tourists are drawn to the area.
You take Highway 64, a winding road that runs along the Ocoee River into the Blue Ridge Mountains. On a weekend in late August the river was jam-packed with rafting groups, and the road was filled with Subarus loaded down with kayaks and bikes. It was hot out, and I watched with envy as a group on the river toppled out of their raft and into the swift water that sparkled in the mid-morning sun. But I pressed on into the mountains toward Blanche Manor, where I'd scheduled a ride at half past noon.
Pulling into the farm, there is a field with a handful of horses that look healthy and happy grazing under trees in a shady portion of the pasture. We parked near the barn at the end of the gravel drive next to a smaller field, where a handful of ponies gathered to greet us along with a few bleating goats.
Pro tip: Try to arrive a little early if you want to spend time with the animals. The farm also has alpacas, and it was fun to watch a mama horse interact with her foal that was just a few weeks old.
At the barn, our guide, Alexis, moved a plump barn cat to make room for the waivers we were required to fill out before the ride. The form asks for your age, height, weight and level of experience to help your guide match you up with the right horse.
What to bring
You may want to bring your own water to drink before or after the ride, as there's none available at the barn. You'll want to leave it in your car as you ride, along with your sunglasses, which tend to slide down when you're bouncing around on a horse, particularly if it's hot and you're sweating. It's annoying to constantly be pushing them up while holding the reins (trust me). A hat should provide your eyes enough protection from the sun, and you'll be under a canopy of trees for most of the ride. As for other attire, long pants and shoes with closed toes and heels are essential (sneakers are fine).
Guided rides are offered by appointment throughout the day on Blanche Manor's private trails set on 350 acres. We did the shortest ride, which takes a little under an hour and a half. It went by super quickly, though I felt like we had a full experience, including wooded trails, open fields, an overlook with a view of three states, and the opportunity to wade through a creek for our horses to get a drink of water.
Still, I'd recommend choosing the longer, two-hour ride — unless you're short on time or anyone in your group is uncomfortable on a horse — mainly because I wanted to keep going at the end of the ride.
Our guide, Alexis, was fun and talkative, and she'd grown up on a horse farm so I trusted that she knew what she was doing, plus she's patient and helpful. I'm not sure about the two-hour ride, but the shorter ride is easy enough that even the youngest or most timid riders should feel comfortable, but still challenging enough to keep things interesting for more advanced riders.
At $35 per rider, it's actually a really affordable way for a family, couple or group of friends to spend a few hours together doing something adventurous outside.
Know before you go: Riders must be at least 6 years old to go on the trails, but pony rides in the barn area are available for those who are too young to go.
Rides are offered year-round, and after perusing the photo gallery on Blache Manor's website, horseback riding in the snow is now on my must-do list.
Another great thing about a guided experience is that after more than an hour of focusing their undivided attention on you, your guide should know you well enough to be able to provide some pretty solid recommendations of other stuff to do in the area.
Alexis suggested we eat at a restaurant in McCaysville called Burra Burra on the River. It was unexpectedly closed due to a staff shortage, so we walked across the bridge to Copperhill to the Rum Cake Lady, a Cuban restaurant with some of the best sandwiches you'll ever eat. There are also a handful of Mexican restaurants and several breweries in the tiny twin mountain towns, as well as an unexpected record store.
Ready to saddle up?
* Make an appointment in advance by calling 706-455-7433
* Arrive on time
* Riders must weigh less than 220 pounds
* Riders younger than 18 must wear a helmet (provided)
* You can't ride if you're pregnant or if you've been drinking
* Tip your guide 10-20% (or more) of the full cost of the ride