ParkWatchReport Founder takes on The Backbone Trail on Horseback…

With a team of five women, including ParkWatchReport founder Janet Peterson, rode the 67-mile Backbone National Recreation Trail in Southern California. The group, calling themselves “The Backbone Trail Cowgirls” for the occasion, was organized by 81 year-old Ruth Gerson, who first rode the trail almost exactly 25 years ago. She rode her 19 yr old Mustang, Crystal. The other participants were Jeanne Wallace, with her 21 yr old Quarter horse, Dill;  Tracey Potter with her 9 yr old Red Roan, Scooter; and Kimberly Gustafson with her 12 yr old Spotted Draft Quarter Cross, Chief.

There was some great coverage by local media, including NPR station KCLU, The Santa Monica Observer, The Topanga Messenger, The Ventura County Star, and The Thousand Oaks Acorn.

Here’s Janet’s story of the trip:

I can willingly admit THIS WAS TOUGH!  So tough that I pondered quitting several times but I could not stand the humiliation of being unable to do what another women, age 81, could do so… I sucked up the pain and kept going.

 The trail was like none I had ever seen before.  We were riding on rolling rocks at times,  laying on our horse’s neck frequently to get under tree limbs,  climbing a series of rock stairs that had a rise of 18-24” each, and sweating buckets  (us and our horses).  The upside to this experience was the feeling of personal accomplishment, comradery, trust in our horses and breathtaking views. 

Ruth prearranged multiple water stops  on most days.  At each stop  there was a 5 gal bucket of fresh cool water for each horse and iced-down water bottles for us.  After the drinks were distributed I put my shirt in the ice water and then put it back on.  Soak my 2 bandanas the same way.  It provided relief for a while but I still got a nasty sunburn on my shoulders, my lower lip is cracked and swollen but the rest of my body held up pretty well.

Our start was covered by the local radio stations who interviewed Ruth extensively, focused on her age (81), her 8 hip operations and that she did this same ride 25 years ago.  None of the other 4 riders, including me, would have had the opportunity to do this ride (and no one else is likely to)  if Ruth hadn’t decided she wanted to do it again.  You should Google “Ruth Gerson, Backbone Trail Ride”!  Her next project is a horse camp at Ronald Reagan’s ranch here in the Santa Monica Mountains where her plan will accommodate 100 horses.  She is a long term planner and like a lot of her previous accomplishments, the horse camp has been making its way through the red tape since 1976. 

The volunteer support was unbelievable.  In addition to the water stops, dinner was brought in from local restaurants on days 1, 2 and 5.  On day 3 Ruth set up a banquet for us and all the volunteers at her son’s restaurant (An interesting place: Calamigos Resort & Spa, was started as a youth camp by Ruth’s husband in the 1940’s).   On day 4 a local business woman opened her ranch up to us and served Shepards Pie, which she is famous for making. 

Along the way, a neighbor who lived near our camp site brought us fresh peaches from her tree,  the local vet brought ice cream on night 2 and electrolytes (for the horses) on night 5.   When we arrived at the finish line at Will Rogers State Park, there were flowers for Ruth and interviews with Channel 5 News KTLA.  We were invited on to the polo field where the ride was explained to spectators and we got a lot of applause.  

Sunny was a champ!  We had limited conditioning time and his breed is not related to mountain goats.  The fact that he went through day 4, had climbed a total of (approx.) 3,000 treacherous  feet under difficult circumstances  and fully recovered every night is an awesome accomplishment.  I pulled him for day 5 because I could see 2 saddle sores beginning to develop.  He had lost weight ( all the  horses had) and that had changed the fit of my saddle considerably.  I thought it was better to pull him than risk making adjustments that may or may not have worked.  Jeanne Wallace, one of the riders (age 74ish) had told me early on that if Sunny had problems her spare horse was in condition and I could ride him.  “Dill” stepped in and did an awesome job on the absolute worse days of our ride.   On day 5 I kept thinking how glad I was that Sunny was safely back at Ruth’s ranch and not risking life and limb on this section of the trail. At the end of day 5 I discover that our route for day 5 is not recommended for horses and I can see why.  At one point the plan was to trailer around this spot.  I have no idea  when that part of the plan got changed.  Kimberly took photos and video of the entire ride including day 5.  She is making a CD for each of us and I will have that to share. 

A few photos and the stats for each day are posted at (Santa Monica Mountains Trail Council) with more to come.

This has been “Janet’s Big Adventure” and I am glad that it’s done, grateful for the opportunity and thankful that every person and every horse is now home safe and sound.


Of course we’ve added the Backbone Trail to our website and app, so you can explore it yourself!

Posted in In the News

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