CHITTENDEN, Vt. - When most people think of a stay at a New England inn, they picture leisurely afternoons lounging in a porch rocker or evenings curled up in a four-poster bed.
The most demanding activity of the day for these folks might be deciding whether to go with the eggs or pancakes at breakfast.
But for an increasing number of people, a stay at an inn or bed-and-breakfast may offer an opportunity they relish even more than relaxing: horseback riding.
"Our equestrian program continues to grow every year. Our guests return because of the quality of the riding experience for all levels, the professional staff and, of course, the breathtaking views," said Steve Bryant, owner of the Mountain Top Inn & Resort in Chittenden. The equestrian program at the former turnip farm, which dates from the 1870s, offers guests all the luxuries of modern lodging along with 40 horses at their service.
There are about 20 million horse riders in the United States, according to Karen Lancaster, president of
Mountain Top Inn's combination of bed and bridle was irresistible to a rider like me, so when I arrived in the early afternoon last fall, I jumped right into my riding pants, half chaps, and boots and walked up the hill to the stable. The riding guide, Mike Berry, was there to greet me, along with four other riders.
Our group all wanted to ride - not just walk the inn's 30 acres of trails in nose-to-tail formation. The horses were strong and sure-footed, easily climbing the steep trails. We stopped on top of a hill and looked out over the 350 acres surrounding the inn. From there, the Vermont landscape looked like a new box of warm-colored crayons.
On the way down, there were many opportunities to canter. The horse's hooves resounded through the forest. For a rider, the joy of a canter through the woods is hard to beat. And being able to hand your mount over to your guide at the end of the day and walk away from the cleanup chores is a close second.
After retreating to my beautiful suite at the inn and relaxing in a big tub with soothing water jets, I went down to the lounge and met Kendrah and Alan Nealon of Boston, who were celebrating Kendrah's 30th birthday with one of the bartender's martini creations.
"We came up here for the fly-fishing and particularly the riding," said Alan. "We rode once last year in Costa Rica. So this was our second time."
And you trotted and cantered - were you scared, I asked them.
"In the beginning I was, but the guide was so great. We loved it," Alan said.
The next morning, as I walked down the hill to Lake Chittenden to go kayaking, I heard the pounding of hooves and stepped to the side of the road.
Two riders cantered past me and galloped to the front of the inn. The smiles on their faces and the power of the horses drew me back to the stables.
That afternoon, I took a jumping lesson with guide Rebecca Heaton. She put me on a horse named Indie, and we rode the cross-country jumping field in front of the inn. Indie was calm and precise, taking every jump without hesitation. It made me feel as if I almost knew what I was doing. Heaton gave great pointers that improved my jumping skills, and that alone was worth the price of the stay.
On the way back home to Maine, I stopped in North Conway, N.H., to visit The Farm by the River. Rick Davis and Charlene Brown operate the bed-and-breakfast and offer horseback riding year-round. They also offer sleigh rides in the winter, and fancy carriage rides and wagon rides the rest of the year.
The farm has been in the same family for more than 200 years. An ancestor of Davis was awarded the land grant for the property in 1771 by King George III. The current owners are carrying on many traditions that have been handed down over seven generations, including the focus on horseback riding.
"Our horseback rides are up 20 percent over last year," said Davis. "The biggest change over the years is that our guests are now riding more. Families are coming and spending a week and riding twice a day, every day."
Among the guests on the day that I visited were Ryan and Sam Bass of Boulder, Colo., who were on their honeymoon. They had never ridden, and Ryan was terrified. But with the help of guide Nancy Bean, there was a smile on her face by the end of an hourlong trail walk.
A week later, I was riding in the woods behind the equestrian park in Hollis, Maine. Two women riding on the trail behind me were talking about Vermont and horses. I turned and asked where they had been.
"The Mountain Top Inn in Chittenden. There were six of us there for a week," they replied.
Since they obviously had their own horses, I asked why they had gone on a riding vacation.
"There is nothing like showing up at the stable and having your horse all saddled up and ready, riding around, and then handing the horse back. No worries," said Sue Schaller of Buxton, Maine.
I couldn't have said it better myself.
Nina Fuller, a freelance writer and photographer in Hollis, Maine, can be reached at ninafuller.net.