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Cantering Through the County

Owning a horse isn’t always a prerequisite for riding one.

Deep within Great Falls — at the end of a series of narrow, winding roads, under a canopy of trees — a group of eight area residents keep busy brushing and saddling horses outside Brundage Barm, home base for Dean Brundage’s Equestrian Enterprises. Today is riding day. For many of these people, it's a weekly escape from the vagaries of life and occupation: two hours of horseback riding through some of Fairfax County’s most beautiful parks and trails.

For Alix Johnson, a psychologist from Washington, D.C., riding on Fridays in Great Falls is a necessity – so much that in her practice, she’ll “always tell people not to schedule on Fridays.” She’s been a weekly rider out here for 15 years.

“He’s got riders who have been riding here for 20 some odd years,” said Shelley Williams, a volunteer from Herndon. “It’s just amazing. That’s why people call this their home.”

WITH THE GROUP of riders mounted and ready to go, Brundage made a quick examination before sending them on their way. Owning this business is something he’s been doing since 1985, but his history with horseback riding stretches back much further than that.

Growing up in Arlington, the World War II veteran said he had a small horse and rode it everywhere. In his neighborhood alone, Brundage remembers there being seven or eight ponies for children to ride along the river – a vehicle for many adventures.

“I sometimes rode from my house in Arlington to Great Falls,” said Brundage. “We camped out over night, swam in the Potomac and fished. I can’t imagine any 12-year-old boy now being able to do that. You could ride all the way out to Chain Bridge and if you were daring enough, you could ride up Pimmit Run to McLean.”

When Brundage and his family moved onto the five-acre plot of land in Great Falls 50 years ago, he claims “it was natural that when I moved out here, I’d get more horses.” A historian and former director of the University of Virginia’s Northern Virginia branch, Brundage opened up the backyard business after he retired.

“I thought I’d do commercially what I’ve been doing for nothing for all these years,” he said. “I was only going to do it a couple of years. Every year I say to myself, ‘You’re an old geezer – you need to retire and take your ease.’ Every year I say it’s my last and every year I still do it.”

While Brundage's continues on, many other facilities throughout the past decade have closed, leaving Brundage’s business an endangered breed. According to Mary Flowers, of the Clifton Horse Society, the number of businesses offering pay-and-ride services have declined mainly because of development.

“There never used to be too many, but now there aren’t big enough places to support that,” she said.

Johnson has noticed similar trends.

“The trails have changed because of development,” she said. “It’s the same thing that happened in Potomac.”

Paul Smith, co-owner of Serene Acres located in the Bluemont area of western Loudoun County, has also noticed a sharp decrease in facilities offering trail rides. In a county known for it’s horses, Loudoun’s official tourism web site, www.visitloudoun.org, lists Serene Acres as the only company in the entire county that offers horseback trail riding.

“We’re seeing closures of some horse farms because of development and also because of the increase in gas prices,” he said.

AS BRUNDAGE has seen over the years, the expenses of owning and operating a stable that offers trail riding quickly add up.

“Our horses go through shoes a lot,” he said. “I would never have believed I’d spend $14,000 a year on shoes – but I do. That’s one reason I never make a penny.”

According to Brundage, many of the facilities that no longer offer trail rides — whether because of expense of lost access to trails — have been transformed into teaching facilities, which can be accomplished with relatively little land.

But Brundage isn’t too concerned with other businesses; his business keeps him busy enough, especially when securing the land through which his groups travel.

“Maintaining good relations with land owners is key,” he said. “That’s a job that is never-ending.”

At the cost of $60, the two-hour trail rides from Equestrian Enterprises take customers to a number of locations throughout the region, including Great Falls Park, Lake Fairfax Park, Ramsey Meadows, Riverbend Park and along the W&OD trail. In past occasions groups have also ridden to the Reston Town Center’s Hyatt for lunch and drinks, and on a number occasions, tailgated out to Gettysburg for a ride through history – narrated by Brundage, the resident historian.

“That’s quite a memorable experience – when we get to that broad mile-long field where General Pickett led his charge,” he said. “It awes you; it’s almost a holy experience. It’s hallowed ground.”

With trail rides on most mornings during the week and a full schedule on the weekends, the only requirements for riders are some experience with walking, trotting and cantering on a horse and that riders must be over the age of 18. According to Brundage, this is largely a safety issue.

“Mixing children with adults if those adults are good riders – it doesn’t work,” he said.

At Serene Acres, children age eight or older can participate in the hour-long trail rides through the Bluemont area. Here, the cost is $65 per hour.

“They vary from a low beginner walk to trails with more experienced riders with cantering and jumping,” said Smith, whose company has roughly 30 horses. “We run the program six days a week – the most popular day is Saturday.”

WITH THE SUMMER weather, both Equestrian Enterprises and Serene Acres are expecting a spike in activity. For Brundage, this is the season of specialty rides, like the picnic ride coming up on the Fourth of July.

“On the Fourth of July, we always have a picnic ride,” said Brundage. “I like to recognize historic events so people know why they have holidays.”

But while riders may learn a thing or two from Brundage, for him, the real lesson comes from the horse.

“Horses have lived on this earth a lot longer than we have,” he said. “Their approach is to run away when they’re scared. If we humans did that, we would have less war and live in relative peace.”