By Jeff Nations
Susan St. Amand treasures her horseback trips along the back trails of the George Washington National Forest, or traveling the meandering paths of Andy Guest State Park, even the flat meadow terrain and hardwoods mixed terrain of Blandy Experimental Farm.
St. Amand has ridden those trails and so many others countless times over the years as a longtime member of the Shenandoah Trail Riders and Horseman's Association (STRHA), a group of about 60 members and families of horseback riders from across the Shenandoah Valley area. And while St. Amand confirms that the stillness of the ride and the quiet companionship between rider and horse is a unifying sensation among the group, that doesn't mean there isn't room for new members to join.
The STRHA, which sponsors group rides during much of the year, is actively seeking new membership. The 29-year-old non-profit organization seeks to promote the pastime of horseback riding and advocate the continued access of public lands for riders.
"We're really trying to get the younger generation interested and involved," said St. Amand, who serves on the STRHA board of directors. "The majority of our members are baby boomers and we're not getting any younger."
St. Amand realizes that the expense of owning and caring for a horse is simply not for everyone, but the STRHA has been active in providing opportunities for those unable to do so. Specifically, the STRHA has worked to give access to children through hand-on interaction with horses. The hope, St. Amand said, is to reverse an apparent trend of less interest and opportunities for younger riders to participate.
In St. Amand's case, she's had numerous middle school students visit her farm to learn about horse care and management as well as trail riding, and has worked to secure donations of new riding helmets, riding boots and britches for 4-H youth members in need.
That's not an uncommon occurrence among STRHA members. The group is also a longtime supporter of 4-H programming in Shenandoah County, especially the 4-H horse show held annually during the Shenandoah County Fair in the summer. The STRHA also offers scholarships to 4-H members to attend that organization's Horse Camp in Front Royal.
Additionally, several STRHA members have leased out some retired trail riding horses to area youth summer camps. The group sponsors an annual St. Jude's Benefit trail ride to benefit St. Jude's Children's Hospital and also supports Linville's Camp Still Meadows, a therapeutic camp for children and adults who have physical or mental challenges.
For those who do have an interest in joining the STRHA, the Shenandoah Valley offers excellent riding opportunities across the region with ample and varied trails for riders.
"Since there is such a big horse community in Virginia overall -- it's a big industry in Virginia -- over the past 10 years or so the Virginia state parks have been very accommodating to expand trails to horseback riders," St. Amand said. "We're lucky here. It's not like that everywhere."
Any time public-land use is involved, there is a potential for competing interests to clash. Hikers, mountain bikers, and all-terrain vehicle riders also have a stake using some of the same trails that horseback riders do. St. Amand said the STRHA has been proactive in partnering with other organizations in promoting and maintaining the public trail system and parking areas used by equine riders and other trail users in the Shenandoah Valley.
The STRHA sponsors overnight horse camping events in Virginia and out of state. Most of the group's organized day rides take place in George Washington National Forest.
Perhaps the biggest event on the calendar for the STRHA takes place on May 3, when the group will host the Crystal Crown Judged Trail Ride, one of a series with each of the five equine member groups in northern Virginia hosting and sponsoring an event. Youth under 18 can participate in the STRHA's Crystal Crown event for free. This year's judged trail ride will be held just outside Maurertown.
"It's a trail ride consisting of 10 different obstacles," St. Amand said. "Riders have to negotiate these obstacles and are scored from 1 to 10, with 10 being the most points possible. Some are natural obstacles, and some are obstacles like opening a mailbox without spooking the horse. It's a test of both rider and horse."
Annual dues for the STRHA is $10 for an individual and $15 for family membership.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org>