Sonoma outfitter brings vineyard horseback riding to the masses

A vineyard looks different from atop a horse.

For starters, in a saddle you’re looking down on the grapes; a novel change from the perspective you get on foot. Second, you can get a sense of scale: Instead of focusing on the long row of vines right in front of you, the high view lets you gaze out over an entire block.

Finally, of course, is the fact that a horse has a mind of its own - despite your most stern commands, the beast might break into a canter or trot, decide it needs to sample the vines, or water the roots with a bio break.

These are lessons you learn quickly on a tour with nascent Sonoma outfitter Sonoma Valley Trail Rides.

Currently, the women-owned company offers three full-service, hour-long rides in three different picturesque locales, including two in Sonoma County. Michelle Rogers, proprietor and head wrangler, said the idea is to bring interested parties out and into nature.

“So much of the land we have in Sonoma County is beautiful countryside,” said the long-time Sonoma County resident. “With these tours I’m just trying to make it more accessible.”

Believe it or not, there aren’t many Wine Country horseback riding companies that are open to the public. On the Santa Rosa side of the Mayacamas, there are three - Triple Creek Horse Outfit in Glen Ellen; Horse N Around Trail Rides in Bodega Bay; and The Ranch at Lake Sonoma. On the Napa side, there is Napa Valley Trail Rides.

This is one of the reasons why Rogers founded Sonoma County Trail Rides - to give Wine Country explorers a new option.

Rogers, 52, said she got the idea from working around horses in Wine Country, Montana, and Australia for years. Her professional career with horses includes traveling the country managing various professional horse barns, competing in show rings, as well as training and breeding horses. Rogers specialized her education in animal welfare when she worked as the Sergeant for Animal Services at a Marin County shelter as an animal cruelty investigator for 13 years.

Rogers started Sonoma Valley Trail Rides earlier this year.

Her mother, a retired Sonoma County Superior Court judge, helped get the company going as a silent partner and is still involved today.

One of the emphases for Rogers in putting together her business plan was the idea of enabling guests to ride through vineyards and mix two of her favorite things: horses and wine. Another differentiator: Giving guests the option of adding wine tasting or a picnic lunch (or both) to their rides, making the Wine Country experience complete.

The base per-person price ranges from $110 to $135, and additional experiences start at $20.

All told, Rogers owns 13 horses, which means she can offer everything from day tours to outings for small conference groups, including accommodating children ages 12 and older.

As of press time, Rogers offered three different tours: A relatively flat out-and-back at Bartholomew Park Winery, a hilly loop at a winery named Alta Vista off Ramal Road, and a shorter loop inside the di Rosa Center for Contemporary Art.

Of the three, Bartholomew is the only venue where guests can ride, taste and eat at the same spot.

Rides begin after Rogers and one of her wranglers outfit guests with sunscreen and riding boots, help guests up onto each horse, and offer a brief safety demonstration. The general pace is slow to moderate; horses naturally trot a bit as they head uphill and this is about as fast and adrenaline-pumping as it gets.

During a recent tour of the Alta Vista property, riders marveled as the undulating vineyard spread out before them. Rogers describes the backdrop as being “like waves on an ocean, only covered with vines.”

This idyllic setting is not without obstacles. At one point the group had to stop to let two vineyard workers with hedging machines pass - Rogers wasn’t sure how the horses would react and wanted them to stay calm.

“My favorite thing about this ranch is that it’s a working ranch and you quite literally never know what you’re going to come upon and find,” she said as two jackrabbits scurried by under hoof.

In all, the Alta Vista loop totaled about three miles, and included sweeping views of the Carneros region, the northern part of San Pablo Bay, Donum Estate next door, and more. The ride featured general horseback coaching as well - Rogers reminded guests to lean forward while going uphill and backward while going downhill. She also explained a little about grape-growing and about the role that creekside vegetation played in enabling the 2017 wildfires to spread.

The Alta Vista experience certainly resonated with guests on a recent weekday ride.

One, Napa resident Teri Marshall, was oohing, aahing and marveling at the views the entire ride. Sherryann Banks, one of two sisters visiting to celebrate their birthdays, said the location was “phenomenal,” and added that she appreciated the attention and effort Rogers put into pairing the right horses with the right people.

“Sometimes between the different personalities of people and horses, it’s hard to make a match,” said Banks, who is from Loomis. “She did a great job. You can tell she’s an expert, and that’s always a good thing.”

Banks’ sister, Cindy Abdala from Reno, agreed but lamented that she and her sister couldn’t break away from the rest of the group to go faster.

“I wish she had a way for more experienced riders to run,” Abdala said. “In the end we did fine.”

Still, Abdala’s frustration was a minority report; the overarching vibe from the trip was positive. No matter how “advanced” you might be it’s hard not to be positive when you’re looking down on a vineyard from a comfortable saddle on the back of a beautiful horse.

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Matt Villano is a freelance writer in Healdsburg,

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