JANESVILLE — Before last week, I hadn't ridden a horse in earnest since I was 11 years old.
Back then, I'd put on boots and jeans and saddle up old Patch, my Shetland pony, and we'd ride for hours along the fringes of my folks' northern Illinois farm. We'd swish through tall grass, scout fencerows for pheasants and dawdle in the stream that wound through the back yard.
That was years ago. I'm no longer a cowboy. I'm now a guy in his 30s who types for a living. Truth is, I can't remember exactly how to hold a horse's reins, and I couldn't tell a trot from a canter.
So how did I find myself on horseback at Gibbs Lake County Park in rural Janesville, neck deep in of one of Rock County's scattered public equine trails?
Well, I was told by riders, by trail maintenance volunteers and by county parks officials that the county's parks, though limited in size, foster a number of horseback riding trails that serve a growing number of riders.
The idea was to learn about the trails from the horse's mouth, so to speak.
As usually is the case when I get a bright idea for a story, I got in over my head, fast. I agreed to do a ride with bunch of competitive endurance trail riders—a few of them from Australia. All I could do was try to keep up.
"Hey, dude. The trail's this way," said Steve Clibborn, one of the Aussies, from atop his mustang.
Clibborn, who's from Jiggi, New South Wales, was in Rock County visiting family before heading to the Tevis Cup. It's a major-circuit, 100-mile endurance trail ride competition held in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of California, near Lake Tahoe.
Did I mention that this guy was riding an actual mustang? And that when he said, "trail," his accent made it sound more like "trial?"
Which to me was a little how the ride felt.
It was muggy, and the trail was muddy from rains overnight. And there I was, pretending like I knew how to steer a horse sideways down a slippery, wooded hillside while clutching a reporter's notebook and a felt-tip pen.
A wet pine bow slapped me in the face and almost knocked off my sweaty Cleveland Indians cap. My borrowed horse, a 17-year-old red and white Paso Fino named Caz, grunted.
As the trail opened into an expanse of prairie, Milton native Tracy Porter, Caz's owner, rode up along side on the back of another mustang.
Porter and her husband, T.J. Clibborn (Steve the Aussie's cousin) were guiding me along the trails, along with Porter's mother, Shirley May of Milton. All are competitive endurance trail riders.
"How do you like it so far?" Porter asked.
Despite my struggles to settle in on Caz, I was enjoying the scenery at Gibbs Lake. Views from the park's six miles of multi-use trails vary from pine and walnut tree-filled woods to rolling prairie and even some glimpses of Gibbs Lake.
As I rode through the one of the prairie areas, it became clear just how much farther I could see on horseback than if I'd have been on foot. I could pick out distant whorls in the grass where fawns had bedded down, and I spied a goldfinch hunched on wildflowers lilting below the tall grass.
Many state parks in the region have much more extensive equine trails, and some, including Kettle Moraine State Park, parts of which are in Walworth County, even have heated facilities developed to cater to horse riders.
You don't get those amenities in Rock County's parks, although a group of volunteers works hard to improve and maintain the trails.
Joleen Stinson, Rock County parks community coordinator, estimates the county has about 23 miles of horse trails at five parks.
The Rock County Multi-Use Trail Group, a volunteer organization of about 15 or 20 local horse riders, does much of the work keeping horse trails clear and maintained in those parks.
"Our mission is to keep the trails easy to maintain and easy to ride," said the group's secretary, Diane Papcke.
The group holds routine workdays on the trails, during which they repair trail erosion and clear fallen limbs and brush. It's also spearheaded development of equestrian parking areas at Gibbs Lake and Magnolia Bluff.
Unlike state trails, Rock County's trails are free to ride. Some of the parks have donation boxes, and the proceeds go to ongoing projects such as a plan by the trail group to build a picnic shelter in the horse parking lot at Gibbs Lake.
The economy of horseback riding at Rock County's parks might be why there's a growing ridership on the trails. In the summer, you can't drive by the county's parks without seeing at least one horse trailer in the parking lot, Stinson said.
"Mainly, it's a switch from people who used to show horses a lot, because that's gotten kind of expensive," Papcke said.
Stinson said the county is in the midst of developing new plans for its parks. Some plans include continued improvements to multi-use trails and even possible land acquisitions to add trails.
My ride at Gibbs Lake ended short, after I'd ridden only about half of the trail's length. I left my gracious guides to feed and unsaddle the horses because, well, I couldn't remember how to do any of that.
Steve, the Australian mustang guy, gave me a parting bit of advice about trail riding and life.
"To complete the trail is to win. That's the experience," he said.
Which is Australian for "Nice try, news reporter."
As soon as I got into my messy Honda Accord, the musky smell of horse sweat rolled off my hands and my jeans, quickly filling the vehicle. I was a tad saddle sore, and what I wanted most was a shower and a change of clothes.
As I say, I'm no longer a cowboy.