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Earning your spurs


Earning your spurs

A Deming ranch offers introductory horseback riding

By Steve Guntli

The Pacific Northwest is rich in horseback riding trails. Dozens of them, from gentle lowlands to treacherous mountain paths, can be found all around the Mt. Baker area,
giving equestrians tons of opportunities for a memorable excursion into the wilderness. Of course, this comes with the notable caveat that you have to own a horse.

That doesn’t mean wannabe horsemen should hang up their spurs in defeat. The options for beginners may be few, but they do exist.

On July 30, Sheli Siguaw stood in the center of an indoor arena, calmly calling out encouragement to her young students over the din of hoofs, whinnies and preteen giggles. Siguaw manages Van Zandt Equine, a small ranch off Highway 9 just outside of Deming. She has been teaching riding lessons for 13 years, but has been working with horses since she was 5 years old.

Siguaw was in the middle of leading a day camp for her Level 2 students – girls who have some basic understanding of horseback riding. Her top-level students are expected to break their own horses and train them themselves.

“I have the best job in the world,” Siguaw says with a smile. “I get to work with horses and kids all day. Sometimes I’m worn out by the end of the day, but it keeps me young.”

Van Zandt Equine is the only place in the Mt. Baker area that provides guided trail rides to absolute beginners. Siguaw primarily works with young children, but takes about three or four groups of adults and children trail riding each month, with destinations designed to accommodate all skill levels.

“We had a girl once who’d never been on a horse – had never even petted a dog,” she said.

Even in the confines of an arena, the raw power of these animals is remarkable. As they move around the enclosed space, you can see the muscles straining beneath their smooth coats, hear them snorting and huffing impatiently to go faster, literally chomping at the bit. That this is a riding lesson for elementary school-aged girls doesn’t matter; these horses were born for speed.

It’s easy to be intimidated, but Siguaw gives beginners the basics and gets them out on an easy trail on day one. A beginner’s lesson can be done in a few hours. For starters, Siguaw recommends always wearing long pants (feeling ‘saddle-sore’ is not just an empty expression). Van Zandt can provide riding boots and helmets for those
who don’t have their own.

Siguaw said the most important thing for amateurs is matching the rider to the right horse. “Horses’ personalities vary greatly,” she said. “You’ve just got to find that nice, mellow horse that doesn’t mind the general public giving them mixed directions.”

Siguaw will then take amateurs into the arena for basic lessons on how to control the animals before loading the horses into trailers and taking them out to their chosen destination. The most popular spot for beginners s Heady Road, a small road about 15 miles north of Deming that features varied terrain and beautiful scenery.

Van Zandt keeps about a dozen horses available, each of which have a minuimum five to 10 years’ experience as riding animals. Guided trail rides typically take around 1–4 hours – “not enough to kill yourself, but enough so you’ll be feeling it by the end of the day,” Siguaw said.

Trail riding can be hazardous, especially for beginners. Low-hanging branches can snatch inattentive riders off their saddles. After river crossings, horses will occasionally attempt to dry themselves on patches of sand with the rider still on its back, which is why Siguaw teaches her students how to quickly dismount a moving horse. Bears or mountain lions are something else to consider although Siguaw has never had a problem.

“I’d say we typically have far fewer hazards and falls on trail rides than we do in lessons,” she said, a fact illustrated later that day in the arena, when a galloping horse came within inches of colliding with a teenage instructor standing on the ground. Shawn Ellars, mother to two of Siguaw’s students, has seen students knocked silly after falls in the arena. “Sheli handles things extremely well,” she said. “She knew just what to do and got her student right back up on that horse.”

The Van Zandt horses are mellow enough to defuse most potential disasters. Siguaw recalled a near-incident when a rider grabbed a long, billowy plastic raincoat from his saddlebag mid-ride and started flapping it loudly without warning. “Luckily he was on my horse that I carry flags on all the time, so she just keeps walking along, but I’m having a heart attack,” she said. “But it was fine. The biggest hazard is just supervising people close enough so they’re not being silly.”

Bill McKenna owns the Winter Creek Bed and Breakfast in Glacier, and provides lodgings for both people and horses. While his insurance liability prevents him from charging his guests for guided trail rides, he has been known to ride out with them if they request it, and he relies on Van Zandt to ensure that the riders who come through are up to the task.

“Sheli’s great,” McKenna said. “She works with a lot of horses. She trained my horses; she trained me.”

The mild weather allows Siguaw to host trail rides year round, though the business slows down in the winter to one ride every month, or sometimes every other month. Van Zandt Equine charges $35 per person per hour for guided trail rides. Aspiring equestrians can visit Van Zandt’s website, vzeequine.wix.com, for more information. X