Clattering hooves, swishing tails, and high-pitched whinnies have enlivened the soundtrack to the story of Texas since Spanish explorers first brought horses here in the 1500s. Pickup trucks and tractors now handle much of the work once performed by these animals, but plenty of Texans still rely on them for companionship, recreation, and maybe a little labor. Of the roughly 7.2 million horses in the United States, about 767,000 live in Texas—more than in any other state. (Equestrian-themed dating sites such as Date Horse Lovers and EquestrianSingles also seem to thrive here, but that’s a different story.)

Not everyone with a horse owns acres of hills or prairie on which to ride, especially as ranchlands are subdivided and rural areas become more developed. Many riders therefore head to public lands. Twenty state parks provide equestrian access, as do Big Bend National Park, a few parks in the Lower Colorado River Authority system, and some county parks. Big Bend Ranch State Park, Hill Country State Natural Area, and Palo Duro Canyon State Park also offer horse rentals.

Greg Dial, a horse trainer, riding instructor, and equestrian judge who lives near Blanco, says that public spaces offer not just more room, but also an opportunity to condition animals on different types of terrain. “The number one thing is getting varied topography,” he says, whether on the soft soils around Angelina National Forest, in East Texas, or at the beaches along the Gulf of Mexico. Dial frequently rides at Georgetown’s Garey Park as well as at Parrie Haynes Ranch Equestrian Center, a state-owned property near Killeen, but he likes to mix it up with excursions to the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grassland, near Decatur, and San Angelo State Park, in West Texas. “You get up to LBJ National Grassland and see lots of trees and water and plenty of deer. In San Angelo you’re going to see horned toads and roadrunners, and it’s more weathered and sunburnt and desiccated at certain times of the year, with its own stark beauty,” he says.

Exposing horses to different types of workouts is also important to Elaine Swiss, who regularly competes in endurance riding events around the country. The sixty-year-old retired tech executive lives with her seven horses (and her husband) in Round Mountain, an hour’s drive west of Austin. Although she owns nearly five hundred acres of ranchland and has access to a thousand acres more nearby, she often explores other terrains. 

This spring, I met up with Swiss for a brisk trot through Pedernales Falls State Park, in Johnson City. She arrived with two members of her stable in a trailer. After making sure the trails were dry enough (they are sometimes closed because of mud), showing proof of a negative test for equine infectious anemia in both animals (as required at all public parks), and paying the $6-per-person entrance fee (horses get in free), she rolled the rig into the otherwise vacant equestrian parking area, best known for views of the Pedernales River as it spills over massive slabs of limestone on its way to Lake Travis. I was about to spend the afternoon getting in touch with my inner cowgirl.

The State Steed

The official horse of Texas is the American quarter horse, which is thought to have arrived here in the 1820s and is so-named because it excels at quarter-mile sprint races.

Swiss would be riding Mario, an Arabian–quarter horse mix with a chestnut coat and a white blaze, and I’d be aboard Summer, a sweet bay with ears that never stopped flicking. After we brushed and saddled up the horses, we led them to a nearby water trough that we used as a step stool to mount up. 

More than ten miles of single-track equestrian trails snake through the higher ground at Pedernales Falls, zigzagging across rock gardens and winding through fields of waving grass. For the next few hours, we clomped past prickly pears and scrubby bushes and down a rocky slope to a creek that feeds into the river. We trotted along a straight fence line, then zoomed through S-shaped turns tucked into the woods. At one point, we startled a white-tailed deer; later, we followed an armadillo that trundled down the path for a few hundred yards before it ducked into the underbrush. 

Pedernales Falls opened to equestrians in the early nineties, thanks to efforts by its then-superintendent, Bill McDaniel. Despite pushback from some who worried that horses would disrupt nesting birds or bring in unwanted plant species through their hay or droppings, crews cleared a parking area and put back into service a water trough left over from the land’s ranching days. “I saw no reason why the park should be closed to equestrians or mountain bikers, which it was,” McDaniel tells me. He believed horses and riders deserved access as much as hikers and other park users, and he realized they could provide an additional income stream for the property.

Part of the first equestrian trail paralleled the park’s western boundary and circled a duck pond far from the popular destination’s busy riverside section. Initially, the horse path was closed to bicyclists and hikers, and only a few riders a month came to use it, McDaniel recalls. Equestrian use picked up slowly but not enough to justify excluding mountain bikers and hikers. The trail eventually was opened to all categories. “In the end, it has worked out well,” he says.  

horseback riding backcountry

Elaine Swiss at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Photograph by Matt Conant

horseback riding backcountry

Trail signs at Pedernales Falls State Park.

Photograph by Matt Conant

On our ride, Swiss and I spent two hours exploring about six miles of the well-marked trails, moving quickly along fence lines and slowing as we climbed to a high point where cedar-dotted hills rolled into the distance. On this weekday afternoon, we never encountered another rider—or hiker or biker—on the trail. As we rode, Swiss explained what she looks for in a park. Hill Country State Natural Area, near Bandera, for example, lures endurance riders like her because it combines miles of steep, rocky, narrow trails with wide-open meadows. Users get to sample it all, and because there’s so much room to roam, Swiss can condition her gray mare, Roulette, for competitive trail races. Equestrians can even stay overnight at one of the park’s horse-friendly campsites with individual livestock pens. 

Other favorites include Parrie Haynes, with fifty miles of trails that crisscross hills, cedar groves, and creeks, as well as Davy Crockett and Sam Houston national forests, both in piney East Texas, where soft soils provide comfortable footing. Swiss avoids busier places that are popular with mountain bikers such as Pace Bend Park, located along the shoreline of Lake Travis in Central Texas. The sudden appearance of a fast-moving bike can spook a horse, which might then toss its rider. “The issue is, you can’t see them, and they can’t see you” until the last minute, she says.

Swiss thrills at the change of scenery when she travels with her horses. “I [live] in the Hill Country, and riding the Piney Woods of East Texas is a whole different world,” she says. “When I go north to the LBJ Grasslands, again, that’s a different world,” she adds. “It’s just great to see different parts of the country in our own state.”

Visiting these parks also gives riders a taste of what some of the Lone Star State’s original equestrians experienced. “The beauty of Caprock Canyons by horseback—there’s nothing to compare to that,” Swiss says. “It’s like Texas in the 1800s. You can envision so clearly the Native Americans watching wagon trains going up and through those canyons. It still looks just like that.” 

For Dial, the horseman from Blanco, riding provides a view that most people are moving too quickly to absorb these days. “You can see more from the back of a horse than you can see from inside a car or the seat of a four-wheeler,” he says. “The tempo is a good deal slower, so you have more opportunity to look and be in greater communion with nature. I can ride horses in places and never spook the wildlife. That’s not really going to happen if I’m on a four-wheeler or a mountain bike or even on foot.”

As I dismounted Summer and brushed the sweat from her back, I considered what Swiss had said about the past. Nearly five hundred years after horses were first reported in Texas, my four-hoofed mode of transportation seemed just the right way to see a new sliver of the state.

Pam LeBlanc is an Austin-based travel and adventure writer.

This article originally appeared in the July 2021 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “A Trot in the Park.” Subscribe today.