Written By Audrianna Wilde, Photos by Carrie Legg
If you follow the meandering Big Spruce-Little Bear Creek Road long enough, you will find yourself transported back in time to a pioneer’s palace: Ben’s Happy Trails Riding Stable and Campground.
A mock, old western saloon watches over the barns, stables and cabins that dot the property before disappearing into the neighboring woodland of Shawnee State Forest. The air is marked by the smell of manure, sweet hay and the loud bray of Spirit, a buckskin-colored stallion, fastened to a nearby post alongside a fleet of Morgan horses. An impressive bunch of livestock and a pair of shimmering peacocks delight guests of all ages while they wait for their horses to be cleaned and saddled.
While the intrigue and thrill of clambering up a thousand-pound hooved creature’s back and trekking through nature draw visitors from all around the world to this hideaway, it is the serene sense of familiarity that entrenches the riding stable and campground that keep people coming back for more.
The Happy Trails’ story and the people who continue to live it are committed to a labor of love that is felt deeply by those who know this timeless equine escape.
“Old” Ben Thompson
After purchasing the 100-acre plot of land in 1986, owner “Old” Ben Thompson got to work crafting his cowboy’s corner. Thompson worked tirelessly to clean up the area, which was coated in dense undergrowth and decrepit structures.
At the time, Thompson was living in Dayton and working for General Motors. With the help of some neighborhood boys, Thompson would commute to Otway on weekends to clear the debris and put together what is now Happy Trails.
“All my buddies said, ‘You’ll starve to death.’” Thompson says. “I said, ‘It’d be my own fault.”
The plan was not always to have a riding stable. When Thompson started construction, he first repurposed an abandoned corn crib into his first cabin, where he would stay while he built the rest of the cabins that reside there today.
The 80-year-old has never been far from a four-hooved friend for too long, however, and soon after establishing his homey getaway, Thompson was on the hunt for 35 horses and saddles.
He intended to share his fondness for the animal with others. “I loved every horse I ever met,” Thompson says.
His love for horses has also proven to help him find love. He and his wife, Karen, who have been married for 20 years, started their love story at Happy Trails. The two hit it off when Karen and a friend of Thompson’s stayed in a cabin. With the help of a big pan of biscuits made from his mother’s family-famous recipe, the rest was history. They were wed five years later on May 3.
Today, Thompson provides guests with a one-of-a-kind experience, sending them off with a guide to trot along 60 miles of zig-zagging trails atop one of his gentle steeds. He prides himself in helping visitors face their fears of riding and treasures the opportunity to meet so many people through his passion.
Thompson dons a battered, brown cowboy hat and his sapphire eyes glow with a lifetime of stories. He takes pride in raising his horses from the moment they are born at his farm, treating them with the utmost kindness and care.
“It’s just my life; I’ve enjoyed every bit of it,” Thompson says.
As the daughter of a horseman, Autumn Brickey has never known a life away from horses. She has been riding since she was seven when her father took her to Happy Trails, located a short 15-minute drive from where she grew up. Nakia, one of Ben’s Morgan horses, was one of the first horses Autumn ever rode.
Since then, Happy Trails has served as a grounding place for Brickey. She recalls, on her 10th birthday, Thompson named a horse that was born on that day after her. “I was a kid, I was ecstatic,” Brickey says.
She now works there as a tour guide and stable hand, moving mostly in silence yet fully communicating with the horses that fill the wooden stables, peering out through wooden bars with their captivating eyes; the largest eyes of any land mammal.
“She doesn’t talk a lot,” Jim Morgan, a friend of Autumn’s says. When she does, he adds, her knowledge of horses and understanding of the care they require is astounding. In the three years that Morgan has known her, he says he has never doubted Brickey’s expertise. In her interactions with the horses, Brickey has an aura of poise and patience about her, speaking to them softly and showing them gentle affection.
“Autumn is really, really good with horses,” Jim says.
Often, people experiencing addiction or those with disabilities will visit Happy Trails, finding solace in the presence of a horse. Thompson says that some will visit simply to brush and care for a horse, as a form of therapeutic relief.
Brickey has conducted horse therapy with disabled people at times, volunteering at other stables that offer it.
In years prior, Brickey attended Liberty University where she studied psychology and early childhood development. After a couple of years, however, Morgan says she lost interest in school.
Being a college graduate himself, Morgan hopes that one day she will continue in her education. He speculates that her work in horse therapy might just be the perfect combination of her passion for psychology and horses that gets her inspired.
“She, just like most people, needs a spark,” Morgan says with fondness as he watches Autumn move through the stable with quiet confidence. “That could be the spark to get her moving.”
Weathered, sturdy hands grapple at the leather straps of a saddle, fitting them through the large steel buckles that secure the seat atop the back of Willow, a Morgan horse coated in white and brown patches of fur. Jim Morgan moves with surety as he ties her reins and places the metal bit gently inside her mouth.
Morgan worked as an engineer for the Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, or the “A-Plant,” until he retired at 55 and he started to work in consulting. He could always be found outside, as he was an avid hiker and golfer. He had not ridden a horse in nearly ten years before coming to Happy Trails.
“I had no intention of getting into horses,” Morgan says.
The day he retired, he rode out on his motorcycle to Happy Trails. It was only a couple of months later that Morgan bought a horse of his own, Spirit, from Thompson.
“That day that we trained this horse, and the relationship that you could have with a horse, It hooked me beyond belief,” Morgan says.
Happy Trails has served as Morgan’s place of refuge for the last 18 years. He boards his horses at the stables, occasionally helping out with tours and other tasks and always holding his love for horses close to him.
When he is not leading groups through the woods, Morgan goes on solo rides with Spirit. “When you’re out here riding your horse, you enjoy the moment,” Morgan says.
Morgan says that the connection he has with his horse, and the sense of understanding that transcends their difference in species, is a feeling unlike any other, one that he would not give up for anything. He feels at ease on the back of a steed.
“One time, Ben and I were talking and I said, ‘You know, I think I’d have liked to have been a cowboy,’” Morgan says. “And he said, ‘I’d liked to have been a mountain man.’”
When riders return from a day of horseback adventures, the cozy home away from home that Happy Trails offers awaits them, where they can gather around a campfire and soak in the sounds of nature and a dazzling view of the stars.