Horse Sense: What a man in Northern Michigan and His Horses Can Teach Us

Driving down Old White Road in Lake Ann and hour southwest of Traverse City, the dust rises up around the car tires as the faded crimson barns, wearied by father time, create monolithic shadows across the ground. At one of these barns myself and my riding companion hope to find Outrider Horseback Riding.

Upon entering the property the antique barn is accompanied by a white farm house and more than several inquisitive pairs of eyes. The horses of every shape, size and color are not shy when we meander around the property, joined by several chickens, sheep and the occasional broken drown tractor. The smell of hay and horses encircles us, it’s a smell I would assume hasn’t changed in the past 100 years, unlike the world encompassing it.

Just like his home and his horses, the proprietor Doug Walters could step from the pages of well-known westerns.

A subdued character Mr. Walters greets us with a handshake and a slight lift of his stetson. The hat, worn comfortably on his head seems like an extension of his persona rather than a separate article. The cowboy boots on his feet show signs they were once a deep mahogany but have been worn to a dusty brown from miles on foot and horseback. A low ponytail of tawny brown and grey hair rests down his back and a mustache adorns his upper lip. The leather holders and belt around his waist Walters fashioned himself as working with his hands is instinctual to the laid back stable owner.

We quickly fill out the required forms “because lawyers,” says Walters. Next we meet two beautiful and healthy looking animals. Dennis Walters, Walter’s brother lends us a hand, so we may (somewhat) gracefully climb into the saddle. Heading away from the stable into the sun the horses start off at an easy walking pace. Outrider is not your typical trail ride nor Walters your typical guide. The pace quickly becomes “learn as you go,” with various terrain, some steep, some bumpy and all stunning.

During various points of the ride, I am pulled away from the stunning scenery, to listen to Walters and his many colorful anecdotes.

Walters, who at several points during the afternoon I expect to start speaking of his time spent with Doc Holliday or Sitting Bull, has guided thousands of rides, interacted with people from around the globe and trained over 1460 horses.

If you ask Walters, there is a reason people are drawn to the idea that is the wild west. “People are searching for a sense of simplicity that comes from being in nature and carrying on in a simple manner,” he says. Walter's parents gifted him this knowledge. Both were in the horse business.

Walters’ father and mother settled in the Benzie County town decades ago. Lake Ann is located 12 miles west of Traverse City, Michigan and was first settled in 1860. Described as a “heavily timbered wilderness,” by the Lake Ann Property Owners Association. In 1892 a railroad was constructed and an influx of new inhabitants arrived in town.

Before a massive fire scorched Lake Ann in 1897, it was competing with Traverse City as the main metropolis of the area, says the Property Owners Association.

Roving through the wooded trails on horseback, I can understand why many chose to stop and establish themselves in Lake Ann. Drifting into a state of meditation, my body warmed by the sun, the breeze touching my skin and the extreme calm of the animal carrying me, I’m startled when Walter’s takes off and suddenly my horse, Harley, follows suit. The sheer bliss and exhilaration riding fast paced on horseback can only be experienced and not expressed. Decelerating from our breakneck speed we arrive back at Outrider with the soreness and awareness of being on horseback for several hours.

Climbing down from the saddles, less exuberant than when we started the day, Walters with several more decades of experience under his belt, has a final excursion in store.

He walks us over to his stables through a maze of turns, dimly lit by the occasional single uncovered lightbulb. The maze opens to several stalls, almost all are empty except for a beautiful chestnut colored mare named Sugar and her young fowl Dancer, standing close by. Seeing new life is a magical experience but in this setting with the mother carefully watching her fowl, her fowl nuzzling our hands and Walters grinning widely, it’s truly remarkable. Asking Walters if he has plans for retirement or another life for himself he easily shakes his head, No. “The creator must think I have some more horses to train, because the devil has had more than enough chances to take me.”

Even if for an hour Walters offers an escape from the mundane. An escape from the fast-paced, consumer obsessive carousel we all seem to be riding. Walters offers a simple, sometimes uncomfortable but authentic reality. He will happily hand out advice along the way, like how to avoid drunk driving, “take a horse.” Tell how he and his horses greet all walks of life on the trail, and give you his open and honest opinion about what he thinks of the times we live in and the difference between “people and human beings.”

Despite his wardrobe, his lexicon and his demeanor, don’t call him a cowboy. Doug Walters is a horseman. How different life would be if we all took a lesson from him.