Article and photos by Alison Umberger
Each year, APHA hosts a flagship trail ride at Fort Robinson State Park in Crawford, Nebraska. It’s more than a trail ride, though—it’s a weeklong celebration of Paints and the family created by a shared love of an incredible breed.
This year, National Director Alison Umberger of Broad Run, Virginia, saddled up with her sister, Jessi, and hit the trails September 12–17 as part of the 21st annual ride. A first-time attendee, Alison documented her experiences to share with the APHA family; here’s her story:
When my sister, Jessi, and I decided earlier this year to attend the APHA Fort Rob Trail Ride, we didn’t have any idea the incredible experience that we were in for.
We arrived at Fort Robinson Monday afternoon, checked into our room in the lodge, which served as the enlisted men’s quarters in the early 1900s, and headed to the barns. This was our first time to attend the event, but plenty of riders have made the ride an annual tradition, and I appreciated the welcoming sense of community as veteran riders introduced themselves and answered our questions about the week to come.
A welcome dinner, held in the Buffalo Soldiers barracks, gave riders the opportunity to learn a little more about the historic fort before meeting the staff and receiving safety instructions to prepare to ride out in the morning. Clinician Steve Sward of North Platte, Nebraska, was available for those wishing to brush up on their trail-riding skills.
The excitement was palpable as 85 riders gathered to head out on our first ride Tuesday morning. The air was crisp with temperatures in the 40s and the horses were fresh after being trailered and standing in the stalls. My sister and I rented horses—veterans of the Fort Rob trails—while others brought trusty Paints to navigate the varied terrain. Once we set off, it wasn’t long before everyone settled into a rhythm. As we rode, old friends caught up and new friends were made. After hearing a handful of people say that this was their ninth or 10th year on the ride, I knew that this was more than just a trail ride.
We were warned that the meals were stick-to-your-ribs type fare, but we weren’t prepared for the homemade biscuits for breakfast and the delicious variations of meat and potatoes that were served for dinner.
Wednesday morning started out gray, but by the time we stopped for lunch on the trail, the clouds disappeared and the sun revealed beautiful colors from the blue sky to the greens and yellows across the prairie. The ride began across flat, wide-open plains, but once we turned toward Smiley Canyon some intense climbs brought us to breathtaking views of the valley below. Though I was born and raised in Nebraska, I was not prepared for the diverse terrain around Fort Robinson; the Pine Ridge region in the far northwest corner of the state is certainly unlike any other part of Nebraska that I’ve seen.
“Skinny,” a Fort Robinson staff member, set up a modern-day chuck wagon in the bed of a truck. Skinny’s a bit of a legend around these parts, and the returning riders warned against asking for half a bowl of soup—some say he once pulled out a knife and cut the soup bowl in half for an unsuspecting rider.
Going into the week, Jessi didn’t expect to ride all four days, but after the second ride she was eager for more and didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to take in the breathtaking scenery around the fort.
Becky, the Fort Robinson history guru, offered a highly informative and well-attended tour of the grounds in the afternoon with special access to some of the equine-related buildings; when you’re somewhere with such history, it’s best to take advantage of it!
On Thursday, we ventured off the Fort to ride into the Ash Creek area for another gorgeous ride through Ponderosa pines. From flat plains to rolling hills to winding paths along narrow ridges, Fort Rob’s trails offered unique rides each day—who knew such diversity could be found in Nebraska! We returned to the Fort mid-afternoon to give our saddle-weary seats a little down-time before we boarded the hayracks that would take us to the steak fry, followed by live music into the evening.
We rode out early on Friday morning to have breakfast on the buttes. From atop the iconic flat rocks, the views in every direction were spectacular. After enjoying freshly made flapjacks, riders were faced with a choice: ride back down to the fort on the easy trail we rode up, or go down the other side of the butte on the Mule Trail or the Lover’s Leap Trail. Lover’s Leap Trail is a little infamous—it’s a steep and narrow trail not for the faint of heart—but Jessi and I decided that we hadn’t come this far to take the easy way out.
As we were waiting to make the final ascent before coming down Lover’s Leap, a beautiful golden eagle perched on top of the highest point—what a surprise to top an amazing trip! Once we were safely back down the other side, we were rewarded with the opportunity to help drive one of the fort’s long horn cattle herds to the local rodeo grounds for inspection. From there, riders again had several choices: continue to drive the cattle to their winter pasture, head back to the fort or hitch your horse inside the rodeo corrals and head into town.
The week’s activities concluded with a banquet on Friday night, and lively competition in the silent auction kept us on our toes.
Riders said their goodbyes over breakfast on Saturday morning with many already eager to return next fall. The week at Fort Robinson was the perfect combination of horse people, history and beautiful landscape. I can’t believe it took me this long to join in on the fun—don’t pass up this unique opportunity provided by APHA.
[Reprinting all or part of this news release is permitted, so long as credit is given to the Paint Horse Journal and a link provided back to apha.com.]
The American Paint Horse Association is the world’s second-largest international equine breed association, registering more than a million horses in 59 nations and territories since it was founded. APHA creates and maintains programs that increase the value of American Paint Horses and enriches members’ experiences with their horses.