Stowe 2014 Retreat - Photos and Stories

My horse Cherie breathed heavily. We trotted at a quick pace through wooded trails near Stowe VT. The heavy breath was not due to the quick pace, but the mouthful of green leaves and fresh grass Cherie managed to pluck on her way. However, the most peculiar part of this trail trot was that I was not riding atop Cherie. We were running side by side. Guided by simple commands, Cherie responded effortlessly and tuned in to my pace, despite being edged forward from the back by another trail runner with a faster horse ... 

Stowe, a quaint charming Vermont town, swarms with activity on weekends. For outdoors-minded visitors, there are just too many things to do for a single weekend: hiking, biking, horseback riding, rock-climbing, swimming, kayaking, and even stand-up paddle-boarding.

Stowe Mountain Ranch is five miles from town up the road into the mountains. One can step out the front door and hike up Mount Mansfield in under two hours, the highest peak in VT.

We arrived to the Ranch on Thursday afternoon and were greeted by Gerry, the owner, aka the Stowe cowboy. Gerry is a complex character, a former marine and a cavalry officer, turned yogi, with a strong connection and love for the horses. As soon as we were able to put our bags down, he launched into the description of 'Yoga with Horses' with photos and demonstrations, his specialty and a very recent claim to fame made possible by an article in the Yoga Journal.

As more participants arrived, we gathered in a circle in the yoga studio, with plates of appetizers and glasses of fresh lemonade. Our personal chef, Tess, who was invited by Gerry, served creative and delicious meals all weekend, seamlessly adjusting to any taste and dietary preference.

We shared our backgrounds and experiences with yoga, horses, and running, and found crossovers and parallels. Only four participants, including myself as the retreat leader, were actually interested in running. Three of us signed up for the famous Stowe 8-miler on Sunday and were excited to run the beautiful course.

Everyone had some experience with yoga. Two yoga teachers from the Boston area brought their own energy and wisdom into the mix, three New Yorkers practiced hot power yoga regularly, one circus performer took yoga to a whole new level, and others dabbled in yoga on a weekly basis. 

As far as horseback riding, our group had a wide range of interests and experience. One New Yorker had a true fascination for horses, rode regularly, and even brought his own riding boots and helmet. A couple of other participants were just happy to watch from a safe distance.

Gerry's horses, in particular Black Jack and Cherie, were our companions for the next few days. These two horses have seen it all in terms of what people do. Gerry had images of well-known yogis doing advanced postures like a standing split on Cherie. These two were the most mild-mannered and affectionate horses I have seen myself.  

We decided that we would acknowledge everyone's comfort level before attempting anything uncomfortable or dangerous. 

Our next morning started with a long easy run into town along the bike path, surprisingly flat for a mountain town. The paved path snakes along a stream with beautiful and idyllic views of flower fields, mini waterfalls, horse stables, and hay stacks.

After the run, the yoga class focused on joint stability, and breakfast, some of us decided to do a hike to Sterling Pond, a moderately difficult climb yet a short distance. Others opted for a kayaking venture nearby.

Sterling Pond is on top of a mountain, fed by underground springs, provides a perfect rest stop. A triathlete in our hiking crew took the opportunity to swim around the pond faster than most people walk it. Others happily munched on their lunch instead.   

In the afternoon, some participants drove into town to stop by a local cafe and some classically Vermont shops of everything locally made and grown. Others went to a swimming hole a quarter mile away to cool off from the humidity of the day. 

On Saturday morning we took the horses out at 7am. Gerry gave basic precautions and explained commands and body language. We hit the trails soon after. We started at an easy walk, leading each Black Jack and Cherie by the lead rope. If you felt comfortable with your horse, you were encouraged to try running with a simple command "Trot!" The horses would take off, and the runners had to slow them down with a "Whoa!"

Black Jack was eager to run, too bored with the trot and ready for the gallop. Cherie preferred to feast on the nearby vegetation and stayed in the front to slow Black Jack down. The trails were narrow, rocky at times, just wide enough for one horse and one runner. 

We stopped in the woods for a few minutes. Gerry talked about Yoga with horses and asked if I could climb up on Cherie. As he promised encouragingly "It's more fun than you think, and it's easier than you think!" 

I put my hands together in Namaste, and did a spinal twist. Cherie stood still as strong and steady as a horse. 

We made our way back, at a quick trot, runners and horses panting, just in time for breakfast. 

In the afternoon, Annie, the third of Gerry's horses, joined up for a bareback ride through the trails to a waterfall a mile and a half away. We traded places leading and riding.  

The mountain spring was cold. After the ride and the hike, it felt refreshing to jump in.

We even discovered a rocky ledge behind the curtain of the falling water. One could stand between the rock and the water completely invisible from the outside.

In the late afternoon, we headed to the 28th Annual Hot Air Balloon Festival just down the road at the Stoweflake Resort. At least 25 balloons mushroomed in the humid air above a giant field. Hundreds of people gathered with lawn chairs and blankets to watch the event, with food, drinks, and a live music band.  

Sore from running and hiking all day, most of us left the festival early. We soaked in the hot tub on the outside patio after another delicious dinner by Tess.

The morning of the last day (Sunday) was very exciting for three of us. The rest of the group had a late lazy morning and waited for us to come back from the famous Stowe 8-miler Race in its 33rd year running. 

We got to the Race early, to warm up and find a good place at the start. 8 miles through rolling hills in high humidity is not a joke. All three of us went out conservatively in the beginning, pushing the pace harder toward the end. Incidentally, each one of us finished 7th in our respective age groups. Not bad in a competitive crowd of seven hundred runners.  

I knew just what we should do right after the race. We headed straight to the cooling mountain spring, sat in the shallow water with our legs stretched out, resting our backs against sun-warmed boulders. Total bliss!

We got back in time for brunch, and a closing circle. A few rounds of sun salutations and group sharing concluded our time together. As we exchanged emails and hugs, we said goodbye to our wonderful horses and our hosts, Gerry, Tess, and the rest of the helping crew at the Ranch.