Peggy Pitt lacked a home and employment when she moved to Oregon in 1967. But she couldn't wait to saddle up.
"We didn't have a job, a place to live, but I went out and bought two horses," says Pitt, 71.
She kept the steeds on a friend's 10 acres in Eugene until she and her husband, Bob, bought their own 25-acre farm in Vernonia. There, Pitt rode backwoods trails when she wasn't working as a secretary at the local high school.
"I love the solitude and the quietness," she says. "I feel better. I feel healthier."
Thirteen years ago, she and her husband moved their household and horses to property near Medford's Griffin Creek Road. Pitt promptly joined local equestrian clubs to learn Jackson County's trail system and never missed a group ride for eight years.
"That's how I met all the horse people, and that's how I learned all my trails."
Pitt's family is one of more than 100 in Jackson County who belong to trail-riding groups that also hold camp-outs, maintain trail systems, volunteer at equestrian events and serve on the sheriff's posse.
"Having horses is definitely a lifestyle that keeps you busy," says Dianne Berto, a posse member who owns nine horses and boards six others on her Sams Valley property.
Berto, 50, also is a member of Jackson County Horseman's Association, formed in 1963. The smaller Rogue Valley Equestrian Trails Association organized in 1994, initially under the name Bear Creek Greenway Equestrian Association. Both clubs focus on experiencing Southern Oregon's great outdoors by horseback. The latter also is an advocacy group for equestrian access to open spaces.
"We're into making sure that we maintain our trails," says Tal Thoms, RVETA's secretary.
Horse enthusiasts have hundreds of miles of public trails to travel in Jackson County alone, including a system at the popular Willow Prairie Horse Camp on federal forestland off Highway 140. It's a favorite route for Berto and other JCHA members who meet for twice-monthly trail rides.
"You need a good horse to do trail riding because it's scarier than anything else because there could be a bear behind the next tree," says Mary Schwartz, 55, of Sams Valley.
The only animals in sight are the group's five horses: Casper, Schwartz's medicine-hat paint; Bandit, Berto's paint; Socks, Sherri Nystrom's quarter horse; Fire, Linda Stockdill's Arab gelding; and ride leader Karen Matheny's palomino quarter horse, Lucky.
Misty morning air makes the horses frisky and eager to hit the trail. Yet walking is the pace, with each horse happy to follow the leader.
"There's definitely the herd mentality," Berto says. "If one horse spooks, then sometimes it'll set the other ones off."
"Mine always ends up in the back," complains Stockdill, adding that Fire was skittish when she got him about six or seven years ago. She's been a JCHA member for 13 years since moving from Pittsburgh to property near Jacksonville.
"I don't like to ride alone, and you shouldn't ride alone," says Stockdill, 61.
The riders set out, anticipating a 10-mile traverse that should take about four hours over forest floors spongy with fir needles, rock-strewn inclines, muddy lowlands and even a shallow stream.
"We're exhausted when we're done," Stockdill says. "My God, they could walk forever."
The JCHA group represents decades of experience in horsemanship, but Willow Prairie also appeals to equestrian newcomers like 40-year-old Mike Chastain and 36-year-old Rhonda Miller. The Medford couple has been riding trails for about two years after purchasing their first horse a little over four years ago.
"I thought she was nuts," Chastain says of Miller's desire to purchase Rosie, a paint mare with sorrel markings like brush strokes and light-blue eyes. "After we had her, I started getting into horses."
Their herd grew to four steeds, including Rosie's sister, Lexi, a red dun paint with a tiger stripe running down her back. The horses live on Chastain's father's property in Sams Valley when they're not out for a weekend excursion. Willow Prairie is the ideal getaway, within an hour's drive of Medford yet an easy ride from the Sky Lakes Wilderness.
"This is our mental therapy up here," says Chastain.
The couple plan on riding to the base of Mount McLoughlin, a five-hour round-trip that forced the horses in late May to wade chest-deep through stubborn snow drifts. Other trail hazards include grouse bursting from the brush or open-range cattle outfitted with clanking bells, all of which can rattle an unsteady horse.
"You have to have a pretty solid horse when you're trail riding ... just because there are so many distractions," Chastain says.
Descended from the continent's first horses ridden by Spanish explorers and then American Indians, paints are popular trail mounts. Rosie embodies the breed's best qualities, Chastain says.
"She is the ultimate trail horse," he says. "She watches her feet; she's not clumsy; she's looking side to side the whole time."
For safety, more trail riders have started wearing helmets within the past five years, says JCHA secretary Debbie Davenport, adding that her club requires children 12 and younger to wear helmets on club rides and encourages adults to follow suit.
"Even the best trail horse can spook," Davenport says.
Run-ins with cyclists, runners and other trail users have resulted in the occasional injury and tension felt strongly in some areas, particularly the Bear Creek Greenway, riders say. A JCHA member was injured during a spring ride on the Greenway near Central Point when a jogger didn't give enough berth to a group of horses already jumpy from freeway noise, Davenport says. Although that trail is the county's most congested, riders should expect the unexpected even in the most remote locations, she adds.
"You're going to encounter hikers; you're going to encounter llamas," Davenport says. "We all need to share the trails, and there's no reason we can't."
Stockdill agrees, adding that more hikers and other trail users should become involved in local equestrian groups.
"We could show them some awesome trails that they wouldn't be familiar with."