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Lajoie Stables Guides Horseback Riders Through the Green Mountains

Words and photos courtesy of Seven Days

Lajoie Stables Guides Horseback Riders Through the Green Mountains
By Ken Picard

Few recreational activities are more pandemic-proof than riding a horse through an open meadow overlooking the western slopes of the Green Mountains. Social distancing is a breeze because the horses don't let riders get too close to one another. At Lajoie Stables in Jeffersonville, nearly anyone — young or old, novice or expert — can enjoy a gentle trail ride any time of the year. Or, when Mother Nature delivers snowfall, you can snuggle beneath a warm blanket for a wintry horse-drawn sleigh ride.

Visitors to Lajoie Stables park at the front gate and climb a short hill to the weathered gray barn, where the front porch is decorated with horse tack and antique snowshoes. Guests are greeted by a pair of donkeys — they keep foxes, raccoons and coyotes at bay — and a canine crew of three dachshunds, a greyhound and a Korean Jindo. Once the pups have sized up new arrivals, it's Amanda Lajoie-Schwartz's turn.

Lajoie-Schwartz and her sister, Krystina Hedger, own and operate Lajoie Stables. Their father started the business in Georgia, Vt., in 1988 before buying the current property, a former Christmas tree farm, 20 years ago. All of the lumber used to build the barn and other outbuildings was cut on the property.

Horseback riding in a Vermont Fall

Fall horseback rides with Lajoie Stables, photo courtesy of Brian Dewyea

The sisters have settled into a comfortable division of labor: Hedger runs the tractor, wields the chain saw and drives the sleigh teams; Lajoie-Schwartz meets and greets their guests and determines which of their 50 horses is best suited to each rider.

Contrary to what one might assume, the pairing of equine and human has little to do with the rider's height or weight, Lajoie-Schwartz explained. Obviously, she won't put someone who's six foot five on a pony and let their feet drag on the ground. But mostly she "reads the vibe" of her guests and matches their personality with a particular horse. If she's got someone who's vivacious and full of energy, for example, she'll pair that rider with a more low-key animal.

On a recent ride with my family, I was assigned to Pete, a sizable draft horse that Lajoie-Schwartz rescued from a Danville man who found him "too crazy" to ride. (He wasn't too crazy for me.) Meanwhile, my wife, who's far smaller than I am, was paired with Alex, an even larger, Friesian-Percheron cross. Standing at more than 18 hands — or more than six feet tall at his withers — Alex is a gentle giant.

Our kids' horses were much smaller. My daughter's horse, Cooper, had an aversion to walking through mud puddles, but other than that peculiar quirk, all of our horses proved to be docile, good-natured and sure-footed.

Before we set off, Lajoie-Schwartz sat us at a picnic table outside to sign the requisite waivers and then sized each of us with a mandatory helmet — these are disinfected between riders. Due to COVID-19, Lajoie Stables takes each group separately on the guided trip through 100 acres of pine forests and mountain fields, where it's not uncommon to spot deer, wild turkeys and other wildlife. The gentle, ambling ride offers breathtaking views of nearby Mount Mansfield and Smugglers' Notch.

With the arrival of colder weather, one would think the horses might be less inclined to hit the trails. Quite the opposite, Lajoie-Schwartz said. Her horses actually prefer riding in the cold — and their passengers stay toasty because the horses' bodies radiate warmth like heating pads.

Pre-pandemic, most of Lajoie Stables' customers were from out of state.

"We had a family from Saudi Arabia who were just scared to death of our dogs," she recalled. "By the end, they were hugging and kissing on them." In fact, she later got a call from the family saying that they had decided to get one of their own. "I love being able to offer an experience to people that maybe they hadn't expected," Lajoie-Schwartz said.

When the coronavirus first hit Vermont, the sisters stopped offering trail rides for a few weeks, and Lajoie-Schwartz feared that the stables might not survive the economic downturn. After all, 50 horses eat a lot of hay.

"This isn't a business that makes money," she explained. "This is a lifestyle — to be able to interact with people, to put smiles on their faces and to be able to give these horses a good life."

However, one unexpected upside of COVID-19, Lajoie-Schwartz noted, has been getting to meet Vermonters who'd never previously considered visiting the stables. Since then, she's enjoyed seeing families, tourists and locals alike, bond with her animals and connect with one another — without the use of electronic devices.

Lajoie Stables' trail rides are reasonably priced — $50 per person for the hourlong trip. Visitors are advised to dress for the weather and wear sturdy, comfortable shoes. No previous riding experience is necessary, as the guides help each person on and off the saddle.

Finally, be sure to tip your guides well, as most of these young women are volunteers who help out around the stables simply for the joy of being able to ride each day for free.

Horseback riding in Vermont

Summer horseback rides with Lajoie Stables, photo courtesy of Ken Picard

About the series

This series, a partnership between Vermont Department of Tourism and Marketing and Seven Days, will run seasonally, presenting curated excursions in every corner of Vermont. The idea is to highlight the state's restaurants, retailers, attractions and outdoor adventures so Vermonters and visitors alike can plan safe, local trips and discover new corners of the state. Happy traveling, and stay safe.

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