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Ponies and putters

In the Minnesota River Valley, a state park makes golfing and horseback riding easy to afford.

Fort Ridgely golf course.

© Beth Gauper

The scenic, heavily wooded golf course is walking-only.

Of all the fun things a person can do, riding a horse is not one of the cheapest. Unless you’re part of the country-club set, it’s an expensive hobby — kind of like golf.

But there’s one place where you can go on a trail ride and golf and stay overnight — for less than $100 per person.

My friend Debra knew about a Minnesota River Valley stables that offers scenic three-hour trail rides for $60. I knew about a guesthouse right on the golf course in Fort Ridgely State Park where five of us could sleep on the floor for $15 apiece.

Live like a king, sleep like a peasant — that’s our motto.

We headed west from the Twin Cities on a Saturday morning and spent our first day being tourists in New Ulm.

We stopped at Domeier’s German store for European candies, had a picnic on the trails in Flandrau State Park, toured Schell Brewery, visited the Hermann monument and ended up downtown just in time for the 5 p.m. performance of the Glockenspiel.

Schell’s established a reputation for hospitality early, and when the Dakota burned New Ulm during the U.S.-Dakota Conflict of 1862, the brewery was untouched. This year, the fifth generation is celebrating its 150th anniversary.

The starving Dakota’s decision to plunder New Ulm on the second day of the war probably saved Fort Ridgely, 20 miles upstream.

The fort, which Chief Big Eagle called “the door to the valley as far as St. Paul,'' didn’t have a stockade or even a well, but it held off the Dakota with artillery.

Today, Fort Ridgely is a state park as well as a historical site where children run atop the ruins of the former barracks.

Built on the lush terraces of the Minnesota River Valley, the state park features a par-35 nine-hole golf course built in 1927 and restored in 2007. On the weekends, golfers pay just $18 to play all day, or $13 for nine holes.

Our home for the night, the golf chalet, had a spectacular view of the first hole, along which the forest-lined fairway sinks into a deep bowl before rising to the green.

Our front yard was two practice greens, so Lauren and I borrowed putters and tried to sink a few. John and Georgia set off to hike the first hole.

Horseback in Fort Ridgely.

© Beth Gauper

Riders head through a field in Fort Ridgely State Park.

“I’d come back just to walk this golf course, it was so pretty,’’ Georgia said when they got back.

Golfers still use the chalet’s lower-level bathrooms, which include showers. The top level was just for us and had a kitchen, fireplace, tables and enough floor space for 14 people, though we guessed that eight would be more comfortable.

In the morning, we drove five miles up the hill to the Fort Ridgely Equestrian Center, near the town of Fairfax.

Former teacher Sarah Maass runs the stables, and she and her daughter, Denia Gasner, picked out horses for us. Georgia got the half-Belgian Sherman — "he's a tank, an aircraft carrier,'' Denia said — and I got Mickey, who was touching noses with Max until Denia put a stop to it.

'They don't know each other,'' she explained. "They might decide who's boss then then and there.''

For me, seeing the horses' personalities in play is the best part of a trail ride. Sarah brought up the back with Magnolia, a red roan mare who doesn't like anyone to be behind her. She knows and likes Mick, so I rode in front of Sarah.

When Debra rode at the stables earlier in the summer, she had Nautilus, and hoped to ride him again, but he'd been sold to a young woman: "Naughty had ADHD,'' Denia said. "Now he's with a girl who does lots of different things with him to keep him busy.''

Stable owners have to know everything about their horses. My Mick had a touch of ADHD, too, and Sarah instructed me to keep him tightly focused on the trail ahead.

"They're like children,'' she said. "You know, give 'em an inch . . . ''

The stables adjoin the state park, where the Maass family uses 12 miles of wooded horse trails for its rides. But besides the creeks and wildlife that always pose challenges for riders and their horses, there are people and vehicles in state parks.

I was the least experienced rider in our group, so Sarah gave me a running stream of instruction on how to hold the reins and communicate with my horse, often in subtle ways.

"They can feel a fly on 'em,'' she said. "Horses can tell when you're tense. Keep an easy seat; we call it 'Jell-O butt.' ''

The golf chalet at Fort Ridgely.

© Beth Gauper

Two practice greens form the front yard of Fort Ridgely's golf chalet guesthouse.

Mick had another peccadillo — instead of accelerating from walk to trot, he'd go straight to canter. It was fun but a little scary, and after a while, Denia switched me to Sherman the tank, who had a trot as smooth as molasses.

The three hours flew by as we climbed into and out of ravines, along creeks and through corn fields. 

Along the way, we learned more about the horse business and endurance riding; Sarah and her husband, John, sponsor Fort Ridgely's autumn Ride for the Ridge long-distance endurance ride through the Minnesota River Valley.

It's cheap to buy a horse now, Sarah said, because financially pressed people no longer can care for them. Horses are great, and when we got back, we were so reluctant to leave we helped brush ours down.

But for city folks like me, it's a big treat to let someone else handle the details, so we can enjoy the ride.

For more good places to go on a trail ride, see Autumn on horseback.

For more budget trips, see Cheap fall getaways.

A trail ride in Fort Ridgely State Park.

© Beth Gauper

Riders cut between corn fields around Fort Ridgely State Park.

Trip Tips: Horseback riding from Fort Ridgely

Getting there: Fort Ridgely State Park is two hours west of the Twin Cities.

Trail rides: Fort Ridgely Equestrian Center offers trail rides, $30 for one hour, $50 for two hours and $65 for three hours, with a $5 discount if you wear a helmet. 

Fort Ridgely chalet: The chalet on the golf course rents for $75 a night and sleeps 14 on the floor, though eight would be more comfortable. There's a full kitchen, and bathrooms with shower on the lower level.  

Fort Ridgely farmhouse: The state park also rents a farmhouse that sleeps six, $55. It's air-conditioned but not heated, and it has only a small refrigerator. Showers are at the nearby Equestrian Campground.

Golfing: Fees for the par-35, walking-only nine-hole course are $9 on weekdays ($14 to golf all day) and $13 on weekends ($18). Clubs and carts can be rented.

Bicycling: The paved, 7.3-mile FairRidge Trail along Minnesota 4 connects the park to Fairfax (and the Equestrian Center).

Fort Ridgely Historic Site: The restored commissary is an interpretive center. Admission is $3, $2 for children 6-17.

Historical information: For more about the U.S. Dakota Conflict of 1862, see River with a past.

  Last updated on August 22, 2018