Blazing the Trail
The hills of northeast Pike County roll along the banks of the Conecuh River and are miles away from the hustle and bustle of everyday living. That serenity helped turn Richard and Pam Dunn's farm into a trail-riding paradise for horse lovers from across the United States.
The Dunns began Heart of Dixie Trail Ride, LLC in February 2003. Horses were nothing new to the place -- Richard, 52, has had them his entire life, using them on the farm for work and pleasure.
Typically, the farm depended on cattle, hay, timber and row crops that included corn and peanuts.
"I've always had horses and started trail riding several years ago," Richard said. "We went to places like the Black Water National Forest in Florida and other horse camp grounds in Tennessee and the Florida panhandle. It made me start thinking about how much we needed someplace like that in south Alabama."
Richard began talking about the idea with Pam and their three grown children, Brooke, Whit and Roxanne, all of whom help in various ways on the farm.
"I thought it might just work, and I'm willing to try most anything," Pam said. "We really wanted to make whatever we did family oriented, and we wanted it to be something our entire family could be a part of."
So with the idea of the new venture tucked under his cowboy hat, Richard saddled up and began riding organized trails in other areas of the Southeast. This time, his focus was on more than relaxing and having a good time -- he was on a mission to harvest the best ideas from other successful trails.
Having a good land base was a definite plus for the Dunns, who have 800 acres of land in the Needmore community northeast of Troy. They lease an additional 700 acres that, along with what they own, provide plenty of trails for novice to experienced riders.
"But we wanted more than just a place for people to come and ride and have a good time," Pam said. "We wanted the Heart of Dixie Trail Ride to be a destination for people to come and stay for a day or several days if they want. That was probably the hardest part -- getting all the camp sites ready."
In just four years, the Dunns have transformed one large barn and built a new one with 55 stalls. They have another 25 outdoor stalls, 16 paddocks and plenty of places for picket lines (lines used to tie horses for extended periods of time).
Heart of Dixie has a big fishpond stocked with largemouth bass and bream as well as picnic tables, a swimming pool, a golf driving range, a lighted arena, a bathhouse and an enclosed pavilion for parties, reunions and other special occasions. There are several one-room cabins and 75 camper hookups, 25 of which are fully equipped with water, electricity and sewage. Most even have cable TV access.
"Our camper sites are big enough you can pull through a large horse trailer with living quarters or a large camper," Pam said. "We sometimes have people who just come here to camp -- they don't even have horses with them. And we have some people who bring horses who never even get them out of the stall while they're here. They just come here to socialize."
The great thing about Heart of Dixie is that if you love the outdoors, it has something for everyone. The typical camper is a 40-plus female, Richard said. About half of those women come with other women; the other half bring their husbands and count on the other amenities offered at Heart of Dixie to keep their spouses busy while they're out on the trails.
"We have some families where the mom and a child ride, but the daddy and another child don't," Richard said. "The non-riders might spend the day fishing or hitting some golf balls, or they may just spend all day lounging around the pool. At the end of the day, they all get together around a campfire or cookout. Everything we do here is aimed at families having fun together."
Fees start at $6 a day per person to enter the park. Fees for camping and overnight facilities range from $10 to $50 a night.
Don't own a horse? Don't worry. The Dunns have that covered, too. They have horses available to rent by the hour, and that includes a knowledgeable guide.
Heart of Dixie is just 7.5 miles off U.S. Highway 231, so it's also becoming a popular "horse hotel" for rodeo and horse show participants that might be traveling across country and need a place to rest their horses overnight or a few days. The Dunns have a small park store with ice, drinks and limited grocery supplies plus horse feed and tack.
Unlike many public trails, riders at the Heart of Dixie don't have to compete with hunters or motorized vehicles. Both are prohibited there.
"That's probably one of the best things about our place," Richard said. "There is absolutely no hunting, so when people come here -- especially during deer hunting season -- they know they'll be safe."
Pam said it's not unusual for several women riders to come and camp at Heart of Dixie. She said safety is the main reason.
"Our house is located right across the road, and there is someone here all the time," she said. "It's not like a park where the ranger goes home at the end of the day and you're on your own. They feel safe because they are safe here."
Richard added, "We don't tolerate any unruly behavior. If it happens, you'll be asked to leave. But we really don't have any trouble because most people appreciate what we have to offer here -- they're looking for a place to get away from the rat race and relax with their horses."
And more and more people are finding out about Heart of Dixie and what makes it special. "Best of America by Horseback," a weekly program featured on RFD-TV chose Heart of Dixie as the host site for its only ride in Alabama this year. The ride, set for April 7, is expected to attract hundreds of riders from throughout the country. Gov. Bob Riley and other dignitaries have been asked to participate in the ride. All participants must pre-register by going to the show's website at BestofAmericabyHorseback.com. It costs $50 for the ride and an additional $20 for a campfire dinner that night.
Some of the state's best cooks also will be headed to Heart of Dixie that weekend to compete in the "Best Apple Pie in America" contest that's being hosted by the show. The contest rules are on the show's website.
"We're very honored to have been chosen by the show, and we hope we have a good turnout," Pam said. "This program will give us national exposure to riders from all over the country."
Since Heart of Dixie Trail Ride, LLC opened, it has attracted riders from 17 states and hosted some of the most prestigious trail rides in the South, including rides sponsored by the National Trail Ride Association, America's Trail Ride Association and competitive trail riding organizations.
It would be logical for the Dunns to view other operations like their farm as competition, but the contrary is true. Richard said he'd like to see other trail riding facilities open in south Alabama.
"North Alabama has a few places that are really nice, but as far as I know, there's nothing else in our area of the state like what we do," he said. "If there were other places around, then we might get more riders from out of state who want to visit several places in the area. We could have horse trails like the Robert Trent Jones golf trails."
For more information about Heart of Dixie Trail Ride, LLC, visit its website at www.HeartofDixieTrailRide.com.