Trail Riding in the Ozark Mountains

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Brushy Creek Lodge and Resort is located near Black, Missouri. For equine enthusiasts, this is an Ozark gem. In fact, Horse
TrailDirectory.com gave Brushy Creek high praise: The resort was ranked number four out of 900 horse campgrounds rated. Every single review was a five-star rating! We decided to pack up and head to Black, Missouri, and become one of the "Show Me" horsemen.

Brushy Creek Highlights

Brushy Creek Lodge and Resort is owned by George and JoAnn Becker. This tidy, picturesque lodge is located in the eastern Ozark Mountains, in the heart of the Mark Twain National Forest. This resort achieves excellence in all things near and dear to horse owners’ hearts.

First, you may bring your own horse or go on guided trail rides on Brushy Creek horses. Horse accommodations are plentiful; 90 stalls with shavings are provided at no extra charge.

After horses are taken care of, food is next on the agenda. The Trail’s End Restaurant is designed to please the most discerning palate. If you prefer to eat on the trail, breakfast and dinner rides can be arranged.

The scenic equestrian campground has 34 campsites with electrical and water hookups, as well as numerous primitive sites. For those wishing to rent accommodations, there are four rustic, well-furnished cabins tucked away in the trees.

Behind the well-appointed, spacious lodge, a hot tub awaits for the saddle-sore or those wishing to end the day in a relaxing manner.

We had a memorable time there. Since the evening was warm, we didn’t sit by a fire but instead gazed at the creek, enjoying the sights and sounds of the Missouri countryside. Frogs sang loudly, clearly, and sometimes in harmony. Fireflies danced and twinkled in the velvet darkness.

This simple evening show was one of sheer beauty; we loved it!

One evening, we presented a slideshow of a pack trip we’d done in Washington’s Pasayten Wilderness. (See "Peak Experience," Postcard From … Washington, July/August ’08.) The horse-loving guests enjoyed it, and we were tickled to learn that many of them subscribed to The Trail Rider.

Riding Ozark Country

Equestrians are the foundation and core of Brushy Creek Lodge and Resort. More than 125 miles of trails marked with color-coded signs await horsemen of varying skill levels. Trail guides are also available with map locations marked with GPS coordinates.

Unfortunately, we’d arrived shortly after a horrific windstorm had blocked many of the trails. Still, we were able to get out, do some fun riding, and visit with guests who enthusiastically shared information about their favorite rides.

For us, riding in Ozark country was a lot different than riding out West. Tree-shaded trails hugged the rolling hills and roller-coasted up and down. Because of this, a horse may easily climb a total of more elevation than on one of our western mountain rides.

Wildlife put on its own display: deer, turkeys, rabbits, squirrels, and a large variety of birds. There were lots of river crossings.

We especially enjoyed the quiet sense of solitude, of being alone in nature. Because there are so many miles of trails, there can be many riders, yet a person could easily ride all day and not see another horseman.

When asked about favorite rides, some folks declared that the all-day ride, with views of Taum Saulk Mountain, the highest point in Missouri, was a tough one to beat.

Our camp neighbors, Elden and Brenda Nikkel from Iowa, love coming to Brushy Creek because of the excellent trail riding and trail conditions. Both spoke highly of the Ozark Trail. This trail lies directly behind Brushy Creek and is well-marked. It begins near St. Louis and, when totally completed, will end in Arkansas.

Tim Brock and his wife, Amy, managers of Brushy Creek, enjoy riding to the four-mile-long Big Lake. We got the impression that all the trails were "good riding," but that some had special offerings, depending on the time of year.

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Another favorite ride was the 6½-hour round trip journey to Sutton Bluff. You can ride out on the bluff and see the valley below. Then ride around to the bottom where a river skirts along a rock wall. A visual feast!

George and JoAnn Becker told us the best time to ride is in the spring and fall. In the spring, dogwood trees are blooming. In fact, more than 100 species of wildflowers line the trails and fill the air with their delicate perfume.

For folks who enjoy organized rides, there are two annual spring rides. One is offered in April; the other, the first week of June.

Fall riding is "breathtaking" says JoAnn. The trees seem to pulse with fall colors while bunched against a sapphire sky. One specialty organized fall ride is held during the first week of October; it’s been an annual event for the last 15 years. It’s a big extravaganza with music and lots of good food.

You can choose fast, slow, or medium speed rides. JoAnn described the 150 participants as making up their "extended horse family."

Brushy Creek also offers guided rides, wagon rides, and even overnight pack trips into the Mark Twain National Forest.

A Helping Hand

George and JoAnn Becker are among some of the kindest, most loving people we’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. One example of their caring nature is Valley Springs Youth Ranch, which they established near Brushy Creek. It was always their dream to help homeless boys and boys who were having trouble getting their lives on track.

The purpose of their youth ranch is to make a difference in the lives of young males who need an intensive "no-nonsense" treatment program along with large doses of caring. The "large doses of caring" were evident as we toured the youth ranch with JoAnn. Her friendly greetings to various boys by name were returned with big grins, often with a "Hey, Mom."

The Beckers are ardent supporters of backcountry horsemen groups and promote equestrian trails on public lands. Last June, Brushy Creek and the Show-Me Missouri Back Country Horsemen invited federal and state land management agencies to participate in a two-hour trail ride to foster a positive working relationship between land managers and horsemen.

Riders often come to Brushy Creek with riding dreams that are marred by an inability to handle their horses. "What do you want to learn while you are here?" is the question most frequently asked by the Beckers. The rider is then directed toward help, which may consist of an informal few minutes or a more structured clinic format.

The Beckers have designed common-sense clinics to enhance the well-being of both horse and rider. These clinics are offered throughout the year, but arrangements can be made for one-on-one or small-group help. Clinic topics include horsemanship, gaiting, and confidence/spook-proofing.

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Focus on Fox Trotters

The Beckers also own Valley Springs Foxtrotters, which is located a short walking distance from the lodge. Here, naturally gaited Missouri Fox Trotters are bred, raised, and trained. For the Beckers, a good ride on a good horse is what it’s all about.

In addition to experiencing Brushy Creek Lodge, we’d driven to Missouri to purchase two 3-year-old Fox Trotter geldings from Valley Springs. The Beckers had selected two Fox Trotters that they felt would best match our needs. We were excited about purchasing new horses and returning with them to our home in the West.

Kent’s new horse is a 3-year-old named Ike’s Cowboy Décor. He calls the gelding Cowboy. Charlene’s new horse, also 3 years old, is named Highroller’s Black Ice V.S. She calls him Nate, after Joe Pickett’s sidekick, Nate Romanoski, in C.J. Box’s "Joe Pickett" novels.

Valley Springs Foxtrotters is an international provider of some of the finest Fox Trotters available on the market today. These horses are carefully bred for three important traits: natural gait; calm disposition; and good conformation.

The Beckers stressed the fact that although 90 percent of their horses are sold to trail riders, their horses are versatile, surefooted, and able to excel in a wide variety of equine activities.

In its current breeding program, Valley Springs has five stallions and 120-plus horses. With more than 20 years of breeding experience, the Beckers know how to match stallion to mare to achieve desirable traits.

A Patient Trainer

Johnny Miller has been a full-time trainer at Valley Springs for the past 15 years. He’s not only excellent with animals, but his gentle, quiet ways are soothing and helpful to people also. This modest man is an impressive trainer. Patience and consistency are two of his key guidelines.

According to Johnny, the most common mistakes riders make involve spoiling their horses with hand-given treats and allowing them to eat on the trail. Another problem involves equipment. Riders may have the wrong equipment, have the right equipment placed incorrectly on their horse, or are missing essential equipment.

One of Johnny’s goals is to teach horses good, safe trail behavior. To achieve this goal, Johnny rides 50 to 55 miles per day, five days a week. As he says, "You can’t make a trail horse inside a barn — the real world is out there."

Johnny’s faithful dog accompanies him on most rides. The horses know this dog, who provides leadership and comfort for Johnny’s young charges.

Johnny tries to match rider to horse in terms of temperament and riding ability. He takes into account a person’s personality, riding style, and riding needs.

We got to experience the characteristic calmness of Valley Springs’ horses while riding our new 3-year-olds on a trail ride with Johnny, who was mounted on a 2-year-old. Dense brush formed a green wall on both sides of the trail.

Suddenly, almost within arms’ reach, a deer popped up out of the brush. We were startled! Because we were on young, new horses, we braced ourselves for a big bolt, a sideways leap — something! Instead, the horses turned their heads, checked out the deer, and kept heading down the trail.

The Beckers love dogs and have lots of them. We rode by many barking dogs, noisy vehicles, tractors, riding lawn mowers, and other horse groups. Our horses didn’t miss a beat. We were amazed and impressed.

Happy Trails

After almost a week of enjoying Brushy Creek Lodge and Resort, it was time to "make like horse droppings and hit the trail." We can honestly say that HorseTrailDirectory.com was right on target. This is a superb place to take family and friends for a relaxing equestrian vacation.

As for Valley Springs Foxtrotters? Well, Buddy and Scout, our seasoned trail mounts, are going to be sharing hay with their new brothers.

For more information on Brushy Creek Lodge and Resort, and Valleys Springs Foxtrotters, call (573) 269-4600 or (573) 269-4743; or visit www.brushycreeklodge.com. For more on Mark Twain National Forest, call (573) 364-4621, or visit www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/marktwain/. For maps and brochures, visit www.fs.fed.us/r9/forests/marktwain/maps/.

Kent and Charlene Krone combine their interest in photojournalism with a passion for horses. They’ve sold photographs to magazines, books, calendars, postcards, and video producers for more than 20 years. (For a sampling, visit www.superstock.com, and type PG_1314 in the search box.) They enjoy sharing their horseback adventures in the United States and Western Canada. Reach them at kckrone@suddenlink.net.