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When only a horse will do

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Nag A Bon Acres owner Mark Merrill is shown in his stable with one of his horses named Duncan. Now in its 30th year, his farm is home to 30 horses, most of which are rescue animals under his care. Nag A Bon Acres owner Mark Merrill is shown in his stable with one of his horses named Duncan. Now in its 30th year, his farm is home to 30 horses, most of which are rescue animals under his care. (edge photo by Mike Fern)

STETSON – As they approached a small bridge overlooking a stream on Saturday, Mark Merrill turned in his saddle to the group of horseback riders meandering along the wooded trail and gave a simple instruction.

“Keep the horse on the mat,” he said loudly, referring to a small black mat that covered one side of the wooden span. “Don’t let it go to the side.”

Despite the rising temperature in what would be one of the hottest days of July, it was still surprisingly cool in the back woods of Stetson – a testament to the ubiquitous contrast of much of Maine’s countryside on any given day. Trailing about a mile off Village Road, riders were navigating a mix of snowmobile thoroughfares and tight, thin paths where only a horse could go.

It showed the allure of what Maine’s backwoods are all about.

For Merrill, owner of Nag A Bon Acres, a sprawling 27-acre horse farm in Stetson, it’s one of many typical mornings where he’ll guide riders across vast stretches of back country. In all, he has access to nearly 1,000 acres of Maine’s woodlands and more depending on where they want to ride.

“Typical rides are about an hour and a half, about three and a half miles,” he said. “We have places where we can trot but we only do what the least-experienced person wants. If they don’t want to trot, we take it easy.”

While most groups are small, Merrill said Nag A Bon can accommodate up to 12 riders at time – any group with more than eight requires two accompanying guides. Mostly, his customers are locals who have been going there for years or tourists who want to see what Maine is truly about. Sometimes, people just want to check out the animals.

“I have people call and they just want to see the horses. I tell them if no one is here to just remember that anything that has wire on it, consider it as live – it will set you on your back,” he said, referring to the electric fencing. “We also tell them they can feed [the horses] apples, carrots, pea pods and beans but no sweets – anything that comes out of a garden.”

Merrill said his trail riding services span early spring until late November just before deer hunting season opens. Yet the best time for riding is the cooler months of May or June, and September of course brings with it the beauty of fall foliage. Regardless, riders are sure to see a variety of wildlife in the woods including deer and owls no matter when they ride.

“We had one horse get hit twice by deer,” he recalled, adding he told the rider at the time to just hang on when he saw the doe and fawn jump. The deer ran into the horse’s hindquarter, and what happened next isn’t all too uncommon.

“The horse turned around and they touched noses,” he said of the two animals’ interaction. “I said to the rider, ‘Look at what you see when you don’t have a camera.’”

Yet such encounters with wildlife – and even horses – can be unpredictable, and riders must sign waivers understanding those inherent risks since equine professionals in Maine have limited liability under Maine statutes. Still, Merrill tries to ensure his guides know the skill level of riders who come to his farm, and the guides explain basic techniques since he’s trained his horses a certain way. Whether it’s how to handle the horse at the farm or out on the trail, it’s important for riders to understand how to control an animal up to 10 times their weight.

“I explain to them how to steer and stop,” he said, adding that while horses don’t know the difference from one rider to the next, they do know consistency and have been taught a certain set of aids and cues. “You’re going to have to do what I do, the way I teach it. You’re a different person and it won’t know what you want unless you tell it.”

With prices starting at $25 an hour for local trail riding to $150 per person for all-day trips, he tries to accommodate all kinds of riders. Longer rides include overnight trips to Mt. Katahdin where they have arrangements for riders to stay in bunkhouses, and trips in Acadia National Park that can go up the mountains and last about five to seven hours.

“Lots of times if you go camping down there, I’ll pick you up along the way,” he said of those who want to ride the trails in Acadia. He generally limits those groups to four since he can only trailer five horses – including his own – to the park at one time. “That saves you from traveling.”

With a complement of six or seven seasonal employees, Merrill said much of his summer is spent guiding, boarding and training horses, giving lessons and harvesting hay fields. Over the 30 years he’s been in business, Merrill has had a variety of breeds on his farm including American Paints, Palominos and Appaloosas. Much of his current string of 30 horses are mixed breeds, and most have come to his farm as rescues.

The latter is something Merrill feels a lot of people don’t know much about, especially when large animals like horses or livestock need rescue. In fact, the Maine Department of Agriculture announced just last week that authorities raided R-N-D Kennels in Solon where nearly 100 animals in need of “urgent care,” including two horses, were seized. The state partners with sheltering farms like Nag A Bon to house larger animals that are seized for a variety of reasons, and Merrill has seen his fair share of horses brought to him over the years by either individuals or state authorities that were in tough shape due to injury or neglect. While a few were so bad off that they couldn’t be saved, he said most have thrived under his care including one that was shot in the eye and another, Mister B, that was badly injured by a car.

“[The vet] gave him a year to live,” he said, adding horses hurt in such tragic circumstances will often succumb to their immediate injuries or the severe arthritis that develops afterward. “He had the hide taken off from his rump down because he went through the windshield and was thrashing to get out. He tore himself up pretty good.”

After getting its initial emergency care, Merrill knew the horse had to keep moving to have a chance to survive. He ended up putting Mister B out in the pasture with the rest of his string to do what horses do – just keep moving around. And it worked.

“The other horses made him walk. He snapped and cracked – oh, you could hear it – but he finally came out of it,” Merrill said. “I had him for 11 years – one of my best trail horses ever.”

His oldest rescue, Cocoa, is over 30 years old.

Trail horses come in all different breeds and Merrill, who said he prefers to do horse training in the spring or fall, said some are better to train than others – it mostly depends on their temperament and training. Of his 30 horses, about 15 are his and the rest are boarded there for training or simply due to their owners lacking space. His boarding prices vary with the reason they are there, and how long some horses stay depends upon the horse itself.

“If it’s a two-year-old, you’re going to expect to be [at the farm] for two or three or four months. I had a woman in Lincoln who brought hers down because she couldn’t do much with him, and I had him there for 30 days.”

Merrill said the horse responded well to repetitive training and trail riding, and the owner was finally able to ride it at least once a week. Still, he said such situations involve not only training the horses but also teaching the owners themselves. When it comes to certain horses, Merrill said there are some he simply won’t train.

“I won’t touch an Arabian,” he said, adding that Arabians are the most problematic since they tend to be flighty and are hard to catch if they get loose or throw their riders. In contrast, he does like thoroughbreds, but they tend to be too tall for trails or for inexperienced riders to get up on them. Still, he feels his clientele ends up having a great experience no matter what breed of horse they end up riding and that has led to repeat customers who come back to his farm every summer.

He recalled an unmarried couple from New York who came to ride for the first time where the man was afraid of the horses. After sending the girlfriend out with another guide, he worked with man individually and was able to later rejoin the other group. By the time they were done the ride, Merrill said the man had much more confidence and the couple has been coming back ever since.

“Every time he and his girlfriend come to Maine, they come to ride,” he said.

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