Hunting Easter eggs on horseback

RADFORD — As Easter approaches, many organizations are making preparations for the arrival of hundreds of sweets-seeking children, stuffing chocolate and confectionary snacks into plastic paisley eggs and hiding them, often in plain sight, in fields and around buildings for them to delightfully discover during the New River Valley’s various Easter Egg hunts.

A group of young trail riders pass by a hidden Easter egg marker during Winterfrost Farms’ Easter Trail Ride on Saturday in Radford. Winterfrost Farms, a horse rescue organization, holds trail rides on a daily basis and often hosts specialty rides that coincide with holidays. Photo by Erich Robinson.

One organization, however, put an equestrian spin on the traditionally leporid-centric holiday.

At Winterfrost Farm’s Skyline Stables, mere minutes from downtown Radford, area children, youths and adults of all ages, mounted any number of Winterfrost’s rescued and trained trail horses and trotted in groups around the farm’s over 400 acres, tracking down a series of painted cardboard eggs that had been skillfully strewn in strategic locations around the property.

Instead of picking the eggs up, as is tradition, egg hunters kept a count of the colorful cardboard cutouts and were rewarded at the end of their trail ride. For children up age 7, an easy, guided ride around one of the farm’s pens was the order of the day. But for older children, teenagers and adults, an hour-long ride along one of several trails took egg hunters and parents alike all over in search of their prizes.

Each group of riders had signed up in advance, and each time slot had been filled. At around midday, nearly 20 riders had embarked on the hour-long Easter hunt, and three more full groups had been scheduled.

“So far we’ve had around 18 kids and their parents, and we have three more big groups set up to go later,” volunteer Andrew Burdette said. “It’s definitely one of the more successful events we’ve had in our short time here, and it’s a sure sign interest is growing, which is awesome.”

Farm owner and horse trainer Reagan Miles, who has created a vibrant, safe haven for horse rescues to call home at her facility, said while some were neglected, emaciated and in poor condition upon arrival, the majority of the animals at the farm were voluntary surrenders from owners who simply could not afford to properly care for them any longer.

“All the horses here are rescues. Taking care of them can get expensive, with feeding, shelter and vet bills, and in this economy large animals like these are often among the first to suffer,” Miles said. “We take them in, train and rehabilitate them and assimilate them into our trail-riding program. They love to get out and ride, and most of them are comfortable around riders of all experience levels.”

A line of mounted Easter egg hunters ride by a red egg trail marker during a Winterfrost Farms Easter Trail Ride on Saturday in Radford. Photo by Erich Robinson.

For Miles herself, taking in neglected horses and giving them a second chance at life has been a lifelong dream, a dream she is living every day.

“I grew up with horses, I’ve always been around them. My parents rescued two of them when I was young, and I just fell in love with the rescue concept. It’s definitely a path I’ve wanted to follow,” she said.

Although the farm itself has been in operation around three years, its Skyline Stables facility, one of its three horse-housing locations as well as the newest and largest, has been open since August 2012 and is where the majority of the farm’s trail rides and programs take place.

With the stables up and running just outside the city, Miles said she has gotten a lot of recent and positive community feedback.

“We’ve gotten a lot of encouraging comments from the community — that’s one of the reasons we wanted this location in the first place, to be more visible and accessible,” she said. “We did trail rides for a while at Sinkland Farms in Riner when we first started out, and it was such a hit. It gave us some confidence to keep it up and get our own trail ride facility going.

“Today’s trail rides are for the kids in the community — it’s a way to get young kids out on the trail and help them get involved with our programs. A lot, if not everything, we do here is done through volunteers. It’s really a fun, family-oriented outdoor activity, and we hone some of them will come back and help us out.”

Winterfrost Farm is a nonprofit horse rescue organization, with its 501(3)c status pending.

“We’re still working on getting full nonprofit status,” Miles said. “We’re not far off, though, and we still operate under nonprofit parameters. All the money we take in from our events and trail rides go directly into funding the care and feeding of our horses, and help us take in more animals when needed.”

Burdette, while helping the News Journal locate a suitable site for photographing trail riders, said that ever since the Skyline Stables facility had been open, community interest and patronage has steeply improved.

“Since we’ve moved into this place we’ve been extremely successful. We do trail rides all year long now,” he said. “People know where we are, and a lot of the college kids come up.”

Burdette shared one particularly compelling story about a former racehorse, named Trix, who was going to be put down due to a superficial facial laceration injury, likely sustained by getting tangled in barbed wire.

The dark brown, middle-aged horse’s mane was burred and tangled when he came in, and it had to be cut off. When it grew back, Burdette said, it grew straight up.

“He had a Mohawk for a mane for a long time. It was pretty cool,” he said.

He was in pretty bad condition at first. We never thought he’d be able to ride again, much less race. But we took him in, worked with him, got his weight back up,” he said. “Now he’s running at top speed, and loves to ride the trails. He’s been with us two years now.”

By Aaron Atkins