Seated high on the back of a horse, you see things differently. Out on the trail, that is.
Hidden from the view of walkers and bikers, hayfields and wandering woodland paths are visible to equestrians. Wildflowers are easy to pick out when you're looking down on the brush and forest floor. And the view across a stream into the hills takes on a new clarity.
There's just nothing like meandering through nature mounted on a noble steed. Your whole point of view changes on a horse; you see things you just don't notice on foot.
While bikers and hikers often frighten wildlife, horses usually don't, so you're much more likely than someone moving on foot or wheels to catch a glimpse of a woodpecker or family of deer.
If you're lucky enough to live near a park or woodland and keep horses on your property, a trail ride on horseback is easy to manage. If you're not that fortunate, a trail ride is still easy to come by. The Baltimore-Washington area has a number of stables that offer guided trail rides to the public. And you don't have to be an Olympic-quality equestrian to enjoy them - the rides are geared toward every skill level, including that of people who have never met a horse up close.
"More than 80 percent of our riders are beginners," says J.R. Raulerson, the owner of Inwood Stables in Catonsville. "The horses are very well-trained; when I touch them they put their heads down, and you don't have to fight with them.
"We start in the arena with a big mounting block. We start with some basic instructions - steering, stopping, how to sit properly. We use very docile horses."
Raulerson grew up on a ranch in Florida and has been around horses all his life. He makes a living as a professional bull rider on the rodeo circuit, so you can trust that he really knows how to ride.
He has a rule at Inwood Stables that if more than four people go out on a ride, two guides accompany them. That's to make sure that riders of all skill levels are comfortable and have a good time.
If you're worried you might get lost even with a guide, don't be. Most trail horses are very adept at finding their way.
"We have many beginners, lots of folks who have never seen a horse before. We have very quiet horses, lots of whom know the trails better than we do," says Laura Sanderson, a trail guide at Fair Hill Stables in Fair Hill.
"We don't require that people have any horse knowledge, but we do suggest insect repellent and sunscreen."
One of the biggest questions newcomers have is what to wear to ride. All of the stables provide approved riding helmets for your use, and most require them for the ride. It's a very good idea to wear one, even if it's not required, to protect yourself from a head injury. Horses are, after all, very large animals, and you can never predict what they'll do with 100 percent accuracy.
"No matter how well-trained, well-broke and well-mannered, horses are still living, breathing animals. And they're not poodles - you can't treat them like pet dogs," says Raulerson.
In addition to a helmet, ideally you'll want to wear comfortable long pants and closed shoes with a hard sole and a heel. Jeans are fine, but make sure the inside seam isn't too tight against your leg or it may rub. You can wear shorts, but the saddle leather could cause a bit of discomfort.
Tank tops or T-shirts work, but make sure whatever you wear doesn't flap around, or it might catch on a branch or your saddle horn.
Sneakers aren't the best choice for your feet - you'll want that heel to keep your foot from slipping through the stirrup - but they might do if that's all you have. Some stables won't allow any footwear without a hard sole, however, so ask when you call ahead. Just make sure you don't come wearing flip-flops or sandals. Shoes that can fall off are a hazard.
Also, sunscreen and bug repellent can go a long way toward making your ride more enjoyable.
Beyond that, there are some other basic safety issues.
Some people ask if they can ride with their children on the same horse - they can't. As Sanderson explains, "You can't put a young child on the saddle with you - it's not safe and not legal for us."
In fact, although very young children are often enchanted with horses, it's not always a good idea to bring them on the ride. Children often lack the attention span and physical balance and coordination to sit a horse on their own for an hour-long trail ride.
Many stables require that riders be at least 8 years old, so inquire before you go. (There may be pony rides available for the younger set.)
Judi Reinke, owner of Misty Manor in Marriottsville, adds another safety precaution. "We advise people not to wear anything dangling on the trails; it could catch on a branch, and you could get hurt or lose it."