Rising atop a horse for the first time in her life, stay-at-home mother Beth Yowell already left her comfort zone. She’s trying to find her bearings now as her horse, Toby, slurps from a water trough.
“It’s kind of scary because you’re so high up,” said Yowell, of Bettendorf, who takes care of her two children during the week, and makes time to get outside with her girlfriends on the weekends. “I’m excited though. I like adventures.”
As do her fellow members of the Quad-Cities Women’s Outdoor Club. Almost 20 women ventured last weekend to Sunny Trails, a 160-acre farm near Sherrard in rural Rock Island County, for three separate guided horseback rides.
Tracy Wyant, the “fair-weather rider” who runs the show at Sunny Trails, steered newbie and experienced riders alike through the property’s five miles of groomed equestrian trails. They trotted in and out of timber, across shallow creeks and around cattle pastures and cornstalks.
“We get people horseback riding who normally wouldn’t have that opportunity,” said Wyant, who also lives on her family’s farm located off 176th Avenue, about 1.5 miles east of Sherrard High School. “It’s been a passion of mine since I was a little kid.”
‘Worries go away’ at Sunny Trails
After retiring from 30-plus years of work at the Rock Island Arsenal, Wyant launched the business, which offers hour-long rides for $25 until the weather turns, in 2013.
She decided to pull the trigger in honor of her late daughter, Sara, who passed away 13 years ago this autumn at the age of 16.
Sara died of head injuries at University Hospitals in Iowa City four days after a collision with an empty school bus on the roadway near their driveway.
“When she (Sara) became a horse nut like me, we built the house and moved out there,” said Wyant, whose grandfather took over the land in the mid-1950s. “We were going to do this together and she would’ve loved it.”
For decades, Wyant’s father and grandparents operated a dairy farm there until they sold the herd in the mid-1980s to the federal government in an effort to reduce the nation’s milk surplus.
These days, the family sells beef cattle and maintains a variety of crops, including corn, soybean, hay and winter wheat.
“It takes everybody to keep it running out here,” said Casey, Wyant’s son, who teaches full-time at Jefferson Elementary School in Davenport. “We’re rearranging the property to make sure everyone sticks around.”
As the guests explored the property with his mother and the family’s lead guide dog, Wally, Casey chauffeured me and Quad-City Times photographer Jeff Cook ahead of the group in a Kubota four-wheeler.
A smiling Lily Cederstrom, Wyant’s 13-year-old niece and farmhand, joined us in the back of the utility vehicle. She served as one of our tour guides, pointing out various landmarks along the way, including the high school's wind turbine in the distance.
While she feeds the farm’s 15 horses and often cleans up after them, she prefers riding.
“It’s relaxing,” she said. “All your worries go away.”
'Adventures you wouldn't normally go do'
Since 2007, when the Quad-Cities Women's Outdoor Club’s founders hosted their first gathering — a hike at Black Hawk State Historic Site in Rock Island — the nonprofit organization has grown to almost 300 members. They range in age from 18 to upper 70s.
From alpaca shearing in Geneseo and Vespa scootering in Galena, to indoor skydiving in Naperville and kayaking on the Chicago River, the club promotes exploration of the Quad-City area and beyond.
While many of the activities are free, an annual membership costs $25. Some events, including the ride at Sunny Trails, pose additional expenses, such as equipment rentals and instructional fees.
Misti Ferguson, one of the club’s event coordinators who organized the horseback ride, said she didn’t know the farm existed before a friend pointed it out to her.
“It’s nice when it doesn’t take a full day to go do something,” said Ferguson, who saddled a horse for the first time in 20 years and plans to return. “It’s something new we hadn’t done in a while, and we couldn’t have asked for a better ride.”
Following her first voyage on a horse, Yowell agreed, saying the club takes her on “adventures you wouldn’t normally go do by yourself.” She also credited her husband for watching the kiddos during her excursions away from home.
The group planned to visit Sunny Trails in late October, but heavy rains muddied the trails, postponing the ride to the first weekend in November.
The get-together marked Sarah Thomas' first experience with the club. The widow, who lives in Mercer County and works as a dental hygienist in Bettendorf, used to take horseback riding lessons, and was impressed with the safety instruction Wyant provided before they set out.
"This was a lot of fun," she said. "Even old women like me want to do this stuff."