Out for a ride

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Over the river and through the woods, it's cantering they go.

For some students at Christendom College, that's the literal truth this fall as they embrace the school's newest extracurricular activity: horseback riding. Helmets on heads and reins in hands, students trot across streams and up steep trails in the Shenandoah Valley as part of an equestrian program offered through a new partnership between the college and nearby Royal Horseshoe Farm.

"Christendom hasn't lost its Catholic identity," said Charles Asper, who, along with his wife, Rose, owns the Front Royal-based farm. "The people there are full of Catholic Faith, and we see lots of good kids coming out from that process."

As a way of supporting the college, the Aspers are offering students discounted instruction in horseback riding through either a casual (twice a month), weekly or focused (twice a week) program. About seven students, both beginners and more advanced riders, enrolled this semester.

"The goal is to mix up both lessons and some trail rides, depending on what the situation is, and try to enhance the riding capabilities," Asper said.

Under the supervision of a certified instructor, students are instructed on proper horse-riding posture and technique during lessons. Once every few weeks they head out into the 140 acres of farmland - literally winding through woods and cantering through meadows - for a longer ride. The activity, even if only for an hour, provides students with a healthy way to forget the everyday pressures of college life.

It's a chance to "clear your head and realize that there's a bigger picture, there's a world outside of school still going on, and it's not the end of the world if you're just having a bad day," said Katie Gutschke, a sophomore who rides every Friday with three other friends.

"It's nice to get off campus," said Krystle Schuetz, a senior who has been riding horses since she was 13. "When you ride it's so relaxing. It's a nice break from studies and to just feel like a little girl again."

Tina Anderson, Royal Horseshoe Farm's horse manager, recently instructed Schuetz and fellow senior Mary Kate Hunt as they rode farm horses Ben and Raz around a practice arena during their weekly lesson. A spongy surface of crushed up tires eased the continuous impact of the horses' hooves on the earth.

"There's just something about riding," Anderson said. "If you're tired, it perks you up. If you're sick, it makes you feel better."

Hunt had never ridden a horse until the program was offered via Christendom. She embraced the opportunity to learn an activity - and explore a part of the countryside - she knew nothing about. Riding horses, Hunt added, provided an opportunity to connect with God in a natural setting.

"You feel a lot closer to God and nature," Schuetz agreed. "There's something very simple about horse riding. It brings you back to basics with an animal."

"Part of what makes Christendom Christendom is our location in the Shenandoah Valley," said Tom McFadden, director of admissions. "It's such a beautiful area."

Having ridden on a weekly basis since September, Gutschke got to watch the fall colors emerge in the Shenandoah Valley firsthand - especially during a recent ride.

"Last Friday we were up in the mountains. It was sunny; I was even riding bareback," she said. "It was beautiful being out in nature, being with horses (and) seeing God's glory manifested in the changing colors of the trees."

Students will continue riding through the end of November, and a spring program will begin in February. Trail rides, for students or anyone else, are available year-round.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2009