Sometimes the most powerful rides are of only a single horsepower.
Bobby's Ranch in Westford is one of the last remaining places in the area where people can rent a horse by the hour and get a guided tour along gentle trails through shady forests and greener pastures.
The 50-acre spread, which tickles Acton along one edge and Littleton on the other, abuts another 2,000-acre expanse of town conservation land that is virtually untouched by progress. The raw landscape features panoramic vistas of rock walls and rolling hills, while music is provided by the muffled clops of shod feet, joined by a sublime chorus of lazy streams.
And for a song ($35 to $40), the experience is available to anyone ages 7 and older.
About 10,000 people each year saddle up at Bobby's, which is open year-round and nearly every day. The friendly and experienced staff care for riders with the same attention given to the 47 horses they groom and stable.
Nestled away at 6 Durkee Lane, behind Nagog Park, Bobby's has been treating the community to horseback rides for 46 years. Theresa Osgood is the director of daily operations for the ranch and granddaughter of patriarch Bobby Haigh.
"July Fourth is our unofficial anniversary," she said.
But the ranch doesn't measure time in terms of years. Here, it is measured in generations.
The ranch, which also boards several privately owned horses, is home to myriad four-legged mammals, including goats, cats, mules, dogs and donkeys. Although it is open during every season -- each one providing its own visual splendor -- the ranch personnel's foremost concern is for the animals. Horseback riding is curtailed or suspended during extreme weather conditions, such as oppressive heat or subzero temperatures.
Riders must sign a waiver and agree to terms outlined in a short liability contract. Then, after a brief tutelage and some safety information, riders are ready to tackle the tack. They get acquainted with their mount: "So-and-so, meet Peterbilt, a 7-year-old Walker Percheron horse from Tennessee." Each visitor is helped onto the mount by the attentive staff, using an elevated platform along which the horses stride.
Not unlike a city bus tour or an escorted walk through a museum, the guided trek is both an earful and an eyeful of information. One guide said, "Horses mostly sleep standing up because they are naturally preyed-upon animals. They only sleep laying down for about 10 minutes per week," only slightly more than the average newspaper reporter.
The horses are well-trained and calm, assuaging the anxiety of even the most nervous rider. Following the guide, the parade marches slowly into the Nagog woods, where native flora and fauna resume their duties without influence from the familiar trespassers.
The horses enjoy their work as much as those atop them. The scurry of furry rodents and the whistles of native birds accent the rhythm of clopping hooves, several performances a week. The posse heads out, children topped with a safety helmet and adults capped with a smile. Each outing is escorted by one of the ranch's ambassadors, dogs Jenga and Fletcher. The canine mascots are but two of the 61 quadrupeds that call the ranch home. That's a total of 244 legs, excluding humans.
The caravan meanders along the well-worn trails that wrap around Kennedy Pond. The slight inclines are almost unnoticed, and the declines are small adventures unto themselves.
"When going downhill," the guide cautions, "lean backward a little and put your weight in the stirrups."
The horses know their way through the rocky sleeves and tunnels of trees that define the course.
One personal tip is to relax. The more tension your body has, the worse your own saddle will feel afterward.
The saddles the ranch uses are primarily Western-style, which are different from the show-horse English saddles that are used in competitions. The gear has a horn to help stabilize the rider and adjust himself in the seat.
The gait is slow, which is good because it enhances the UX (that's user experience to you city folk) by allowing for the absorbtion of scenery while minimizing the trepidation one might feel on a galloping horse, especially novices. But for daring individuals or more seasoned riders, a faster pace is offered along certain stretches of the route, something that Darlene Callery of Nashua, N.H., who has been riding since childhood, especially liked.
Ken Mierz of Westord took the ride along with sons Connor, 12, and Cameron, 7. Parents feel safe that the horses that are available to the public are aged and docile, some as old as 25. And temperament is one of the things Osgood and her family look for when purchasing horses. They procure the animals mostly from Crowley's Sales Barn in Agawam, which is one of the other rare locations where trail riding is still a doable family activity.
Fifteen of Bobby's 47 resident equines are available for the public to ride, with a few more veteran horses on the bench if needed in a pinch. The weight limit for horseback is 250 pounds. Phew, just made it.
The terrain is mostly dirt and meadow. The path is marked by rocky outcrops and small puddles that the horses tiptoe through. The distance they maintain from each other depends on both the rider and the horse. Riders are instructed on how to steer the animal left to right and how to regulate its speed.
"But the horses have individual personalities, too," said the friendly guide. "Depending on how familiar they are with each other determines how close they will get to one another. Most of these horses have known each other for many years, so they have no problem putting their face in the other one's tail."
Bobby's Ranch and similar places offer an escape from the digital world and its live streams in favor of the natural world and its trickling streams. It is a walk through the woods without getting your feet wet or your hands dirty. It is a trip to the past without leaving the present. It puts the "live" in livery and the "west" in Westford.
Put on your ranch dressing and head for Bobby's.
Scott Shurtleff's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.