Three Creeks by Horseback

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Published on: Aug. 2, 1998

Last revision: Nov. 1, 2010

During an early summer excursion into Three Creeks Conservation Area south of Columbia, I see an abundance of wildflowers, dragonflies and turtles. People, on foot and on bikes, pass on the trail. The trek is wonderful from any perspective, but I see the area differently than most visitors.

My view of the scenery is punctuated by two ears which document every change in the natural setting. My horse's ears twitch to faraway sounds, at uneasy footing, as the light shifts when we enter the woods, when dodging branches and when fording streams.

Many pairs of ears have guided my rides here during the past 15 years, but today's barometers are spotted and belong to a 13-year-old appaloosa named Chocolate Chip. I have never been in this area without being astride a horse, and I can't imagine experiencing it any other way.

I first shared the trip with a young walking horse named Wildfire on a 1983 guided tour by Bill Brynjulfson, who for 30 years had owned the 650 acres of Three Creeks, named for the Bonne Femme, Turkey and Gans creeks that form a maze of deep bluff-lined valleys through this wildly beautiful land. The land recently had been purchased by the Conservation Department and, as we rode through lush pastures and along trails carved from years of similar rides, Brynjulfson and I talked about the area and its history.

Immediately after the Civil War, the area became a settlement for about a dozen families-freed slaves-who formed a close farming community. During the 1930s, residents abandoned the small farms as they left to look for work in cities. As we crossed the hills, Brynjulfson pointed out remnants of the settlement: abandoned wells, an undercarriage of a buggy and a metal bed frame. Our ride that day was filled with stories.

My favorite had to do with Brynjulfson's herd of white walking horses that became stranded during an uncharacteristically bad Missouri blizzard. As soon as the weather cleared, he set out to look for them. He told me he eventually found the horses banded together in a large cave. Everything was white, he said, except for the darkness of the cave silhouetting the white horses.

At later times, I have come upon this cave filled with campers or hikers, but I can only see it filled with white horses.

I'm also not sure of the exact location of "Baptizing Rock," though whenever I see a spot where the creek has undercut the bluff leaving a pool of water beneath the overhang, I think of Brynjulfson's description of the annual baptism ceremony that took place there. A choir would line the ledges, he said, as the minister would plunge the celebrants under the water. A string of mules would be tied nearby in the woods.

Brynjulfson died two weeks after our one ride together, but that day left me with a unique appreciation of the Three Creeks Conservation Area and of trail riding. I've returned to the area many times, and my rides always bring to mind the hooves that trod the trails before me and reinforce the value of viewing Missouri from horseback.

Today's trail-riding rhythm is a simple four-beat rap on the rock trails, as Chip moves into a working walk. Four beats-times two. Our other companions are a little black thoroughbred, who seems to skim the top of the rocks on the straight-aways, and his rider, Colby. We're in no particular hurry, and we let the terrain dictate our pace. Three Creek's 10-mile trail is considered an easy-even short-ride by more serious trail riding standards, but it is a perfect afternoon ride for those of us with not as much time as enthusiasm.

The trails follow a ridge that offers beautiful vistas. In the summer, each shade of foliage adds its own layer of texture, and I feel engulfed by its sheer greenness. The only sounds are birds, insects and horses. The trail ahead seems ribboned with sunlight draping though the canopy, and we try to follow the light, trotting in serpentine.

Two beats echo now as the sunlit trails lead along the creeks and up the banks. Big meadows beg for gallops, or at least a canter. Though Chip prefers to lead the charge, he offers little competition to his challenger, who was, after all, bred to run. A change in the rhythm, three beats, faster now, produces heavy breaths from the horses and exhilarated "whoops" from their riders.

As we trot slower along the meadow's tree line, my friend stops suddenly, eye to eye with a little bird nest, squirming pinkies inside. We stop, staring in the nest while the horses catch their breath.

"A cardinal's nest," she speculates, "at horse's eye view." We move on as the trail turns down to follow the creek.

I recognize a flat creek crossing and know we are nearing the end of our ride. As we wind around to approach the spot, we see that a fallen tree has made it difficult to pass. We stop and contemplate our options. We agree that we don't want to turn back, but when I look to the left, the mere shift in my weight tells my horse that I'm thinking about jumping down into the creek to circumvent the tree. His reluctance tells me he doesn't think it is a good idea.

I relent to his decision. It appears our only choice is to climb up the bank and around the obstruction. The brush and low hanging trees won't let us pass in the usual horse-and-rider partnership, so we dismount and walk the horses through rocks, which at this point appear as boulders, around the fallen tree.

Chip and I lead the way. He scopes out where best to place his feet-between which rocks, at what angles. It is hard for me to take my two feet through the obstacles, so I know my partner, with four, is testing his skill. I jump over a pile of rocks, grasping the reins, but trying my best to stay out of Chip's 1,000-pound way. With one final jump, he is over the tree and around brush and squarely on the trail, saddle askew but unaffected and ready to proceed.

Our companions follow, charting a calculated and careful course through the brush and over the rocks. They make it, but the rocks have ripped away a shoe from the little black thoroughbred and left three of his four legs with cuts and scrapes. My friend, not wanting to risk further injury, chooses not to mount and instead walks her horse back to the trailer.

We muse about the incident: Form follows function, and some horses, like some people, are better suited for some things. We also talk about the intensity of the ride-the sights, the sounds, the feel and the unequaled pleasure of partnership between rider and mount. We agree that we will be back for another ride. After all, after you have experienced Three Creeks from horseback, how could you do it any other way? triangle

Who rides?

The typical equestrian trail rider in Missouri is over 40 years old and rides to be with horses and to relax, according to a survey conducted in 1995 by the Missouri Equine Council in cooperation with the Conservation Department. Data shows that of the 1,351 trail riders sampled, 86.5 percent said they ride horses and/or mules for pleasure, and 53.6 percent said they view government regulations as the biggest threat to the future of trail riding.

Almost 96 percent owned horses, with an average period of ownership of 20 years. Seventy-five percent of the respondents reported household incomes of more than $30,000 and spent an average of $4,900 annually on their horses and horse related activities.

"This survey showed what we have long suspected," says Gail Gartside, former Missouri Equine Council president and trails coordinator. "Equestrian trail riders have a long-term emotional and financial commitment to their activities and are a highly responsible group."

The survey also showed:

68.8 percent of the respondents live in rural areas and 20.3 percent in small-to-medium towns.

Of all Missourians who responded, 80 percent own land in the state and, among these, 57 percent trail ride on that land.

98 percent of the respondents indicated that they rode with family and friends in informal groups, and most said they rode at least weekly.

Respondents indicated that they participated in an average of four commercial trail rides annually.

85 percent of those surveyed said they maintained their animals on their own property; 5.7 percent board animals at commercial stables.

MEC estimates that about 2 to 5 percent of equestrians trail riding in Missouri from May through October 1995 were surveyed.

Designated horseback riding trails on MDC lands:

Trail miles total 296.7. Some of these areas may have additional miles of field or gravel road open to horseback riding. Other areas not listed here may allow horseback riding on field or gravel roads (i.e. Caney Mountain CA, Flag Spring CA). Contact the nearest district office to inquire about permits and additional riding opportunities.

Groups with more than 10 horses must obtain a special use permit. Additional regulations apply on the following areas:

Bushwhacker Lake CA - Trail is open from May 15 through Sept. 30; other dates may be possible with a special use permit.

Daniel Boone CA - Trail is open seasonally from the end of the spring firearms turkey season to the beginning of the fall firearms turkey season.

Little Indian Creek CA - Trail is open from Jan. 1 through Sept. 30, except during firearms turkey season.

Long Ridge CA - Trail is closed from Oct. 15 through Dec. 31, and during the spring turkey season.

Reed (James A.) Memorial WA - Horseback riding requires a daily permit; group trail rides require a special use permit.

Riverbreaks CA - Groups with more than 10 horses using designated trails on the east tract must obtain a special use permit; a special use permit is required on the west tract.

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