Perhaps it wasn’t the greatest ride in the history of mankind, the United States, or even eastern Texas County, but it wasn’t bad and it was one of the best times I’ve ever spent of the back of a horse.

A couple of Saturdays ago, my wife and I attended another of Mike Daniels’ horsemanship clinics at Golden Hills Trail Rides and Resort at Raymondville. As is usually the case, after the clinic’s instruction segment concluded and participants had finished sitting around eating a nice lunch, everyone saddled up for a trail ride along one of the umpteen different possible routes at the 5000-acre venue.

Making things kind of interesting was the fact that our “trail guide” hadn’t shown up. But no worries – Mike and I figured we could do our own guiding and obtained a trail map in order to do just that.

Our chosen route began at the fenced arena not far from the main entrance where events like clinics usually take place. Our destination was the “ride-in cave” at Big Creek, several miles away.

Doug Davison

By the time we got back to where we had started, eight riders of varying age, experience, size and shape mounted on eight horses of varying age, experience, size and shape had completed a trek that lasted well over four hours and covered a good dozen miles.

Along the way, our equine hosts took us through virtually every kind of Ozarks landscape. We traveled between fences lining rural ranches, and along gravel roads leading to and from those ranches. We went up and down narrow sections of trail that twisted between tall trees in heavily forested areas and then emptied into wide-open fields and meadows.

If it’s a look common to the Ozarks, you name it, we saw it.

I was on the back of Big Sur, our 23-year old Arabian gelding that plenty of gas left in his tank.

While spending most of his life in Colorado, Sur received multiple types of training, some of which must include being a trail guide’s horse. That became apparent shortly after we left the arena, because he went to the front of our little group on his own volition and proceeded to confidently lead the way through miles and miles of real estate he had never before seen, all the while keeping a consistently rhythmic pace which his followers comfortably maintained.

Making Sur’s actions all the more fascinating was the fact that this was his first long trip wearing boots on his front hoofs. Mike and I considered letting him go barefoot, because his feet have been being prepared for some time now for life without metal shoes. But we decided to use some of Mike’s boots on him, mainly because of the certainty of encountering some pretty rocky territory.

While he may well have done fine shoeless (as did Mike’s quarterhorse, Buddy), Sur seemed to take to his borrowed boots without issue. He did stumble a tiny bit once or twice, and tripped big-time once, but all in all it was a successful maiden voyage. Just for the record, when Sur tripped, he almost did a face-plant on flat ground in a meadow, of all things; but I managed to stay on board and he recovered and kept right on moving, almost acting like, “I’m good – meant to do that.”

About midway along the going-out portion of the ride, we passed through a narrow section of trail that wound through some deep forest with plenty of ground cover. The woman I was riding near and I saw some baby birds running around in a bushy area alongside the trail (based on the way they moved and looked, probably quail), and then suddenly – at almost the same time – watched three adolescent armadillos scamper away, obviously frightened by the group of gigantic monsters tromping through their neck of the woods.

Pretty funny, and definitely cute.

The final stretch took us down a large hill into Paradise Valley, a majestic, aptly named piece of grass-covered real estate surrounded by forested high ground through which the waters of Big Creek calmly pass. Prior to embarking, we had purposed to water the horses when we reached the creek, and when we spied a spot allowing perfect access between some trees, we directed them toward it so they could all get a well-deserved drink.

Upon laying eyes on the two-to-three foot deep water, the horses collectively perked up and splashed their way in up to their bellies. Sur seemingly took the opportunity to relive a bit of his childhood, as he playfully pawed at the water with his booted front feet and swooshed his entire head in it between refreshing gulps.

After we took a little jaunt upstream to view the awesome ride-in cave (a landmark whose name ain’t just whistling Dixy; there’s enough room in the big cliff-side opening to fit a bunch of horseback riders), we started heading back. Having been first to arrive at the cave, Sur was last to leave and matter-of-factly fell in behind the other horses as we reversed our course.

He and I maintained our position toward the back of the pack for a couple of miles, while my wife and Mike’s mare Holly (yep, Buddy and Holly) somewhat surprisingly settled in up front. But then a rider began having issues with his horse on a relatively steep uphill segment, as it apparently took a dislike to an adjacent animal and wanted to kick it. When everyone subsequently slowed or stopped, Sur seized the opportunity and went NASCAR on the group, deftly cruising up the side of the trail until he had no horse in front of him.

I smiled, shook my head, and just let him go because I could tell what he was up to. I said out loud, “nice move big man.”

From there on, I put ol’ Sur on cruise control and just enjoyed the view as he navigated his way back to the arena. Not once did I have to give him a command to turn at trail intersection; he knew exactly which way to go and went that way entirely on his own.

As we continued on, the sun was lower in the sky and made for some really neat effects in some of the pine groves, as dust rising from the pounding of horse hoofs combined with shadows and random beams of light to create a surreal setting worthy of a scene in a Steven Spielberg movie.

Whether they “do the horse thing” or not, there are a whole lot of folks here in Horse Country USA who can relate to the sheer beauty of the natural elements and creatures we encountered on that ride through some of Texas County’s special back country. When it comes to combining riding and great sight-seeing, this area’s pretty hard to beat.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email:


Sean might be one of the hairiest horses in the Ozarks. That's part of his winter coat on the ground below him, which he shed (with a little help) a couple of weeks ago.

For the better part of the past year, I was feeling like I was in need of a new horse.

Things had not been working out the way I thought they should with the one I had been riding most, our 20-plus-year-old Arabian gelding, Big Sur. The problem had nothing to do with ol’ Sur’s age; he has more gas left in the tank than a lot of far younger horses.

No, I think it was more because of a simple mismatch. You see, Sur was taught just about everything a horse can learn during his many years in Colorado, including western, English, and even dressage. He’s been a show horse, a teaching horse, and a trail horse, and even spent some time as a short-order cook at a coffee shop in Steamboat Springs (not really, of course, but he probably would have if he had thumbs).

On the other hand, there’s a large gap between my horsemanship ability and that of an expert. Not that that’s necessarily the crux of the problem; during his lengthy career, Sur has had many riders of all levels of experience climb onto his back, so I’m not sure he has any unfulfilled expectations of me. And for that matter, there were times when we really clicked and it seemed as if we’d been together since way back in his early days in Colorado.

For the most part, though, we just hadn’t been meshing well on all occasions. I guess the fact is, Sur’s a bit “spirited” (as “horse people” like to say about an animal with some attitude), and maybe in his advanced age he does have some expectations and wishes to only cater to riders who won’t inadvertently give mixed signals or commands.

Doug Davison

Doug Davison

Whatever the case, I had come to a point where I felt a change was in order.

But before I started any sort of focused search for a fresh mount, I got the notion to throw a saddle on the other Arabian gelding that eats grass in our pasture: a 15-year-old model named Sean.

That turned out to be a very interesting decision.

Now, while there is still that gap between expert horsemanship and where I’m at, it’s worth pointing out that during approximately the same period of time I had been pondering a quest for a new horse, I had also been making some progress as a horseman. I’ve been gleaning information from a variety of sources, including my friend Mike Daniels (one of Texas County’s resident horsemanship trainers, who has a lot of “horse sense”), and instruction videos done by trainers with varying styles.

My wife and I also watched the movie “Buck,” an incredibly well done documentary about Buck Brannaman, an extraordinary trainer who lives in Wyoming and is by my estimation one of the horse world’s most insightful, colorful, and gifted individuals. I’d go so far as to say that he’s so gifted, his gift oozes from the screen and anyone watching can’t help but learn at least something simply by osmosis. But really, to anybody with even a drop of appreciation for horses, this biographical flick is an absolute must-see.

Anyway, it’s possible that my progress had something to do with what happened when I climbed aboard Sean. It’s possible that Daniels’ constant reminders of “good seat,” “good hands,” “timing,” and “consistency” made a positive difference in my technique, and it’s possible that Brannaman’s straight forward, no nonsense, “I train people, not horses” approach somehow registered in my brain in a meaningful way.

I had ridden Sean several times before, but always found him to kind of antsy and nervous, and a little too quick. But perhaps this time I was indeed better equipped, because the experience was entirely different.

Of course, before I hopped on, I did some purposeful groundwork with him. As Daniels and Brannaman teach, a horse must show willingness and respect prior to being mounted, and a rider must know that the 850-pound animal whose back they’re about to sit on is ready. That’s best done with both the horse’s and rider’s feet still touching Terra firma.

But when I did get on him, it seemed like Sean was controlled and under control from the get-go. He moved willingly, and did what I asked. More importantly, he didn’t do a bunch of stuff I didn’t ask, and seemed tuned into what his master of the moment wished.

Since that occasion about a month or so ago, I’ve worked with Sean several more times and there’s been nothing but a good connection between us. It’s quite amazing to me, really. My wife and I love this handsome animal, but I never really expected him to be a favorite ride, because ever since we acquired him several years ago, we’ve both had our difficulties getting him to cooperate.

There’s always been hope, particularly because we had actually witnessed him looking darn good with other people riding him. But despite our best intentions and efforts, we never got the same kind of results.

Until now.

So I apparently have my new horse. And he’s been right there all this time.

I guess I just needed more training.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald.  Email: