Moon, Rango, Chief, Tonto, Bandit, and Luna – While they sound like the names of the latest singing group, these are actually the names of some of the horses who reside at Bear Creek Stables in Canton, Ohio. Growing up in a family that rode and owned horses all her life, it was only natural that Gina Elliott would eventually become a stable owner herself. Her parents having owned a rodeo and Bear Creek Ranch KOA Campground for several years, Elliott rode horses with her father as a baby and was riding alone at the age of 3. Part of the campground property eventually became a stable and Elliott spent as much time as she could at the barn soaking up information and skills. At 8 years old she groomed and saddled horses, cleaned stalls, and rode every chance she got.
In high school, Elliott took an interest in training horses. She spent hours watching videos and attending clinics, and would work with her family’s horses to apply what she learned, although her father was always close by to give her pointers. Elliott says, “It was probably one of the most influential parts of my childhood. I was amazed to see how much you could teach such a large animal and how much they could learn.” After graduating from high school, Elliott started a rental stable of her own with 12 horses. She eventually accumulated 41 horses and operated the riding stable full time, along with breeding, training, buying and selling horses. Elliott takes her own children, ages 3 and 1, riding as much as she can. Daughter, Reese, already has her own miniature pony which she brushes and walks, although mom is never far away during those times.
Bear Creek Stables is a separate entity located on the campground property and it is not a requirement to be camping in order to enjoy a trail ride. While the barn is leased, all the horses belong to Elliott. Another barn at her personal residence is used to quarantine new horses, and to care for injured horses or those requiring special treatment. She currently owns a total of 25 horses and ponies.
As far as the ages of the horses, Elliott explains, “They are mostly between the ages of 6 and 16. Those are good working ages where they tend to be settled and in a good mindset but still able to handle the workload.” As they get older, the horses are rotated out while they still have many good years of riding left in them. After the rental barn routine, they’re seasoned trail horses that everybody wants and they enjoy the consistency of an individual or family. “Trail rides can be confusing for horses with multiple riders and different cues, pulls and kicks,” says Elliott. She continues, “Some horses take right to it and are comfortable doing it for years, while others work one season and are finished.” Elliott lets the horses decide when they are done.
Originally Elliott bred horses and trained them for trail rides but as the business has grown, she has less time to train and mostly acquires horses that are ready to ride. Each horse is ridden for a couple months to make sure they are capable before being introduced to customers. Horses are generally herd animals and like to stay together. Learning by repetition and consistency, once they are shown what to do, and do it over and over again, they find comfort in the routine. On the trail rides, the horses are comfortable just following the horse in front of them.
Caring for horses involves a lot more work than you would think. At Bear Creek Stables the horses are turned out into the pasture every night, giving them time to run free, eat grass and relax. They come into the barn in the morning to work. Horses are fed grain twice a day in the summer along with as much hay and water as they want throughout the day. They are brushed down every morning before being saddled. Horses take riders for one-hour trail rides as many as 3 or 4 times on busy days. At the end of the day, the horses are hosed down and sometimes bathed to get all the mud and sweat off. In the evening the horses follow a half-mile trail past the campground out into the pasture where they spend the night. Campers enjoy watching this event since it is about as close to seeing horses in the wild as you can get.
Bear Creek Stables is open from April 1 to November 1 each year, although those dates can vary depending on the weather. Riders are required to be 8 years old, and groups can be as small as 2 people up to a maximum of 14. All riders under the age of 18 are required to wear a helmet, which is provided. After determining if customers are beginners or experienced, horses are matched up to riders, taking into consideration each horse’s experience and personality. Yes, even horses have their own personality. Some are considered “princesses” and prefer to walk around any mud on the trail, rather than through it. Others like to stop for a little snack of leaves from the trees and bushes. Elliott remembers a customer requesting “the biggest, baddest horse of them all.” Asking if he was an experienced rider, he replied, “No, I’ve actually never ridden but I’ve seen a lot of westerns.”
After mounting up (there are step stools available if needed), riders are given instructions about how to guide your horse left and right, make them walk and make them stop. Riders are advised that on the trail they will be referred to by their horse’s name, so they will need to remember it. Each group is led by a stable employee on a guide horse while another employee follows at the back of the line. Although a lot of groups are made up of families, Elliott has had friends, couples, school and church groups, scouts, work parties, birthday parties, bachelorette parties and even a couple of proposals on horseback!
There are two main trails used by Bear Creek Stables. One is almost all woods, is very scenic and can be more advanced because there are hills, mud and logs to step over. Since there are a lot of trees, that trail is cooler on hot summer days. Another trail goes through the campground and into a portion of the woods on the other side. Dryer and flatter, that trail is nice if it is a wet summer. The campground itself owns extensive land but it also borders up against the Muskingum Watershed Conservancy District property which has over 100 miles of trails for public use.
There are three sessions of Horse Camp at Bear Creek Stables during the summer. These are week-long camps and participants must be at least 8 years old. Beginner to intermediate level, camp teaches the basic care, handling, tacking, and riding skills. Each child is assigned a horse at the beginning of the week and they are responsible for taking care of that horse as if it were their own. They have to feed and clean it, and learn to saddle and bridle it; they learn basic riding skills at a walk and trot, and ride anywhere from 1 to 3 hours a day. Elliott says, “It is a very informative camp and it’s amazing to see how much they can learn in a week.”
For more information about Bear Creek Stables or Bear Creek Ranch KOA Campground, visit their website at www.bearcreek.us. Reservations are required for trail rides and can be made by calling 330-484-3901.
Bear Creek Stables