Horse enthusiasts enjoy Whistlin’ Bit Saddle Club’s annual trail ride

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Tina Nieland, the secretary/treasurer of the Whistlin’ Bit Saddle Club, said the rides are meant to “promote horsemanship, trail riding and serve as a yearly social event to bring people together. It gets you out in the beautiful countryside.” (Submitted photos)

The Whistlin’ Bit Saddle Club recently held its 73rd annual trail ride, bringing horse lovers and riders from all over Iowa and as far away as Ohio to the Elkader Horse Arena, where the ride starts and ends. This year’s ride, hosted by Dean and Missy Leonard, also utilized portions of the Pony Hollow Trail on a beautiful trek across northeast Iowa.

By Willis Patenaude, Times-Register

 

The Whistlin’ Bit Saddle Club recently held its 73rd annual trail ride, bringing horse lovers and riders from all over Iowa and as far away as Ohio to the Elkader Horse Arena, where the ride starts and ends. This year’s ride, hosted by Dean and Missy Leonard, also utilized portions of the Pony Hollow Trail on a beautiful trek across northeast Iowa. 

 

The history of the ride dates back to 1948, when the saddle club was founded as a way for horse enthusiasts to come together, ride together and share a communal bond of shared interests and stories. 

 

Tina Nieland, the secretary/treasurer of the Whistlin’ Bit Saddle Club, said the rides are meant to “promote horsemanship, trail riding and serve as a yearly social event to bring people together. It gets you out in the beautiful countryside.” 

 

The three- to four-hour ride is made possible by a group of volunteers who took time to clear the trail of debris and make it accessible and safe, especially after recent flooding, which make the process more difficult and time consuming. It eventually led to the trail needing to be rerouted. 

 

These volunteers—the silent helpers—often go unnoticed in the staging of events such as this, but they are vital to its success. Even so, they don’t do it for the attention; they do it because they love horse riding and the camaraderie it brings. The ride often concludes with food and a gathering at the horse arena, which is open to anyone who wants to use it.

 

This year’s ride attracted round 90 riders, with some as young as nine years old. That’s a good turnout during a pandemic year, but the number is fewer than during the saddle club’s heyday, when between 800 to 1,200 people would venture to this tiny corner of  Iowa for a weekend of riding and social gatherings. 

 

Nieland suggested the decline in participation is the simple fact that there are so many other things to do. That and the ability of horse owners to haul their own horse where they want, removing some of the burden of previous decades. But that also removes the social aspect of trail riding, turning it into  more of a solitudinal experience. 

 

Saddle Club President Joan Koehn touched on this mobility factor as a reason for the decline. 

 

But for Nieland, the affection for horses and the bonds it builds within families, such as her own with three daughters and a grandchild who all ride, make the community interaction aspect worthwhile. 

 

Koehn also commented on this aspect, noting that she “loves to see young kids and their smiles on the rides having fun.” 

 

As for the ride and the Club, they are always seeking new members. That membership includes access to the horse arena any time. The club is also involved in supporting Clayton County 4-H and local events, and promotes outdoor activities that draw tourism to the area. 

 

The trail rides themselves cost nothing beyond what Nieland described as “sweat equity” on the part of the organizers and volunteers and hosts who provide post-ride refreshments. But they are faced with the realities of economics, something Nieland and Koehn commented on. 

 

“We’re just trying to stay solvent so our children can be in it. We’re working on more activities and getting more members, working with other saddle clubs and preparing for the big 75th anniversary ride,” Nieland said. 

 

“We’re just trying to keep it going on for a few more years, so hopefully our grandkids can enjoy it,” Koehn added. 

 

One of the reasons for this dedication, at least for Koehn, is because of family and the experience of riding itself. 

 

There are also tangible benefits, according to Nieland, such as exercise, being in nature, exploring, making friends and doing something you enjoy doing. 

 

In the end, it all comes back to a love for horses, the outdoors and the people you meet along the trail. 

 

“I love to ride and you can see things from a horse that you can’t see from anywhere else…[and] it’s great to see the young ones because, hopefully, they’re making memories and will come back when they get to be our age,” Koehn said.

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