The sound of the waves crashing against the rocks competed with the pounding of our horse's hooves on the wet sand as Ricochet Ridge Ranch owner Lari Shea cantered along beside me on her Arabian gelding, Rascal.
The golden sunset lit the ocean aglow, while the full moon rose above the bluffs. My Tennessee Walking Horse cross, Poncho, stretched his long legs and floated me along the retreating tide of Ten Mile Beach in Mendocino County's MacKerricher State Park.
It was the end of a full-day ride at Ricochet Ridge Ranch, in Fort Bragg, California, and what a perfect one it was.
Only two days before, I'd driven from the Oakland airport on the dark, twisted Highway 128 through the vineyards of Anderson Valley. Enormous redwood trees appeared to be growing out of the sides of the road.
Less than an hour later, a clearing offered a vista of the quiet Pacific Ocean. A young buck, silhouetted by the near-full moon, glanced my way as though in welcome.
I meandered through the historical town of Mendocino in search of the Hill House Inn, where I'd be staying. What a joy to find a lit fireplace and an enormous bed awaiting me.
It was just after midnight.
The next morning, over breakfast, Lari explained the itinerary for the next two days. The gray-haired 66-year-old sporting red cowboy boots and black jodhpurs appeared to be in great physical shape. Her smile lit up the room, and her vibrant energy radiated around her.
After breakfast, I followed Lari on the 10-mile drive to the ranch through the quaint town of Fort Bragg.
We arrived at the ranch, strategically situated next to the main road and just across the street from the coastal park. There, I met fellow riders Fernando and his wife, Susan, returning guests from Miami.
Joining us would be Stephanie, a ranch guide, for her last ride before heading back to her hometown of Bottrop, Germany.
An orientation held in the 24-four-stall barn's arena was followed by a video focusing not only on riding safety, but also on the health and well-being of the horse.
A Special Spot
First, we'd ride on Lari's other property, Simcha, which mean "a joyous or blessed occasion" in Hebrew. Simcha's 315 acres, combined with the surrounding private property, make up more than 25,000 acres of trails.
We mounted up and started our ascent. The trail was a little slippery from the previous day's rain, but my horse, Rioja, a 10-year-old Arabian Horse gelding, felt pretty sure on his feet.
Arabians and other endurance-savvy breeds such as Russian Orlov and Akhal-Teke crosses make up about half of the Ricochet Ridge Ranch herd, as endurance riding is Lari's favorite pastime.
Winner of the Tevis Cup in 1989, Lari is not only a successful endurance competitor, but also a wealth of information on keeping horses fit and healthy. The other half is everything from Quarter Horses to Clydesdales to accommodate a gamut of clients, who also have their choice of tack.
A little canter to get to the top of the hill rewarded us with a spectacular view of the beach below, followed by a descent into the cool, musty forest valley.
Enormous redwood trees, some more than 1,500 years old, towered above us, shadowing the midday sun. Rioja leapt over a creek, thrusting me out of the saddle. We cantered our way back up the steep ridge. The fit horses were unaffected by the climb.
After winding along the trail, we came to Lari and Harvey's new house perched on the top of the ridge. We lunched, sharing a bottle of wine and taking in the vista. Lari showed me the beach where we'd ride that afternoon.
A Beach Gallop
We trailered back to the ranch, but were soon back in the saddle, riding through a small wooded area that headed to the beach trail.
With not a person in sight we had the entire beach to ourselves. Rioja's quickening pace told me that we were in for a gallop down the beach shortly.
"Is everyone ready?" shouted Lari.
The next thing I knew, Rioja, ears forward, was galloping along the sand. The salty air touched my tongue and I could see the huge smiles on Fernando and Susan's faces as our mounts carried us through the waves.
Wow, I thought. This is fun!
It had been years since I'd felt the exuberance of riding on the beach. There's just something magical about being on a horse cantering along the sand, as the waves roll in at their feet.
The trail back to the ranch passed a few park campgrounds. I asked Lari if they allow horses in the campsites. "No," she replied. "But some of my clients camp here and keep their horses at Ricochet Ridge Ranch. Then they join our guided rides throughout the week."
Into the Forest
The next morning, we trailered to one of the private properties Lari has permission to ride on ? a beautiful 3,000 acres with the Ten Mile River and Seaside Creek meandering through it.
Lari mounted up on her Arabian gelding, Rascal, with no bridle, just a neck loop.
After a short jaunt through the lush green valley, we headed into the forest and began our uphill canter. It was the longest uphill canter I'd ever done, but Rioja was unaffected.
The wide, twisted trail, carpeted with rust-colored redwood needles, was bordered by Douglas firs, redwoods, and huge clumps of swaying pampas grass backlit by the morning light.
The sun's light found small cracks between the trees, illuminating the green moss hanging from them.
At the top, the horses drank from a small puddle, while we gazed at the ocean far below through a small opening in the trees. I could see why Lari calls this the Spectacular Trail.
We finished the ride back to the trailers through an old orchard, where we let the horses graze.
Back to the Beach
Lari had errands to run, so I joined another ranch guide, James, and a Canadian couple on a short ride on the beach. I chose to ride Poncho, the gentle giant Harvey had ridden that morning.
Off we went! The waves, twice the size than they'd been the previous day, rolled in strong. Poncho, keen to get his legs wet, walked right in up to his hocks. The waves' retreat made me feel as though I was in motion when in fact I was stationary.
We then headed to the packed sand and asked our horses to canter. Poncho was amazing; his huge stride just floated me along the wet sand.
After a late lunch, I met Lari for a sunset ride, where she hoped we could see our full mirror image in the wet sand during low tide. Once again, I chose Poncho. She was aboard Rascal.
The sun had already started its descent when the beach came into view. We trotted to the packed wet sand, then allowed the horses to stretch out, cantering in unison side by side.
The sun turned the sky golden, and a full moon rose above the bluffs ? a spectacular moment in time, enjoying a ride in all of nature's glory. I couldn't think of a better way to end my adventure.
Here's a photo gallery of my trip to Ricochet Ridge Ranch; for my complete report, see The Trail Rider,
For more information on Ricochet Ridge Ranch, call (888) 873-5777 or (707) 964-7669; or visit horse-vacation.com.
As the owner of Clix Photography (clix-photo.com), Shawn Hamilton travels worldwide to cover equestrian events and riding destinations. She lives with her husband, four children, and a five horses on a farm in Ontario, Canada.