Winter Notes: Riding into a Christmas card scene on a horse-drawn winter tour

By MEGHAN McCARTHY McPHAUL December 15. 2017 12:09AM
The ski slopes of Cranmore Mountain Resort comprise part of the scenic backdrop as Willy, a black Percheron, pulls the Victorian-style carriage at Farm by the River in North Conway. After this week's snowstorms, the carriage wheels have been replaced by winter skis. (Meghan McCarthy McPhaul)

NORTH CONWAY -- It was just starting to snow as we returned to the barn after a trail ride through field and forest in a scene that could have inspired the lyrics of that old holiday favorite, “Jingle Bells.”

While I was on horseback rather than seated in a one-horse open sleigh, my mount’s name was Dash, so in a way I really was “dashing” through the snow. At any rate, he was a beauty, and so was the ride.

An hour or so earlier, I’d been greeted at the Farm by the River Bed & Breakfast with Stables by Rick Davis, who with his wife, Charlene Browne, owns the 70-acre North Conway property that includes an 18th-century farmhouse-turned-inn, a centuries-old sugar maple orchard, and hayfields bordering the Saco River.

Rick’s the seventh generation of his family to live and work here, a direct descendent of the settler who received the original land grant from King George III way back in 1771. He is a wealth of local knowledge and seems always ready with a story about the property and horses — there are 17 of them here — or advice on the best place in town to get lunch.

Just before I headed out for my trail ride, a very happy 3-year-old went on her first pony ride, her legs barely long enough to reach the stirrups. A large, painted-red wagon and matching sleigh, both able to carry 14 passengers, were parked nearby, along with an actual one-horse open sleigh and a Victorian-style carriage. The carriage sported wheels, but those would soon be switched out for winter skis, the better for gliding o’er the fields.

A farrier was working away in the barn, fitting the horses with their winter shoes — akin to studded snow tires on a car. Apparently he’s a regular. “With this many horses, somebody always needs new shoes,” Rick reported between answering the phone, taking photos for visitors as they posed with the horses, and leading me to the barn, where I met Crystal Lawton and Annemarie Green, who serve as trail riding guides or sleigh drivers, depending on the need.

Just arriving at the Farm by the River inspires a sort of winter wonderland-ish happiness. The field by the white-clapboard farmhouse and red barn held an array of horses — quarter horses, Morgans, Belgians, and other breeds. The most striking against the white snow were Luke and Jett, two enormous Percherons with gleaming black coats, who make up the team that pulls the large sleigh and wagon. Another black Percheron, Willy, powers the one-horse sleighs.

(For a full listing of sleigh, wagon, and trail rides, visit www.farmbytheriver.com.)

Dash was an easy mount and made me feel right home as we wandered downhill toward the Saco, winding through the sugar maple orchard and along the edges of the hay fields. Tracks of wild animals crisscrossed the snowy field, and the river was perfectly still, reflecting the image of the winter-bare trees along its banks.

On the far side, the slopes of Cranmore Mountain Resort were visible, and I could just glimpse the backs of some of the buildings in downtown North Conway, whose bustle seemed a world away from the peaceful landscape we traversed. As we turned back toward the farm, the impressive crags of Cathedral Ledge served as a scenic backdrop. I couldn’t have asked for a more picturesque or peaceful setting for my first horseback ride in years, and I dismounted reluctantly, giving Dash one last pat on his winter-fuzzy neck.

There was no rest for Crystal and Annemarie, though, as they set to readying Willy for the first of three afternoon carriage rides. As they hoisted the big harness onto the gentle giant of a horse, a few snowflakes, the beginning of a storm that would drop about a foot of snow onto the landscape, sifted through the air.

Whether by horseback or carriage, the plod of huge hooves and soft fall of snowflakes was making spirits bright, indeed.

Several other New Hampshire outfits offer sleigh and wagon rides through the winter. Check out the www.visitnh.com site for a listing. Other winter horseback riding options include High Meadow Farms (www.highmeadowsfarms.com) and Riding in the Clouds (www.ridingintheclouds.com), both in Moultonborough, Lucky 7 Stables in Londonderry (www.lucky7stables.com), and Rocky River Ranch in Campton (www.rockyridgeranchnh.com).

Winter Notes is published on Fridays during ski season. Contact Meghan McCarthy McPhaul at meghan@meghanmcphaul.com.


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