By Julie Horner
The spirited clip-clop of hooves on pavement and the creak and jingle of leather harnesses accompany the sweet aromas of alfalfa, horse sweat, fresh green manure, and moist earth on a mild Santa Cruz Mountains winter morning. Trotting in tandem, the pair of tow-headed horses toss their tresses in unison as homes and fields drift by. “Easy, girls, easy,” the reinsman urges the team softly.
Across the bridge over Zayante Creek we go. Motorists slow in surprise, and everyone smiles and waves. From the high driver’s seat, Susie is the slightly larger horse on the right, Sissy is on the left. Muscular hindquarters ripple rhythmically as the girls settle into their gait.
The horses are sisters, raised and trained together, and make up “Team Haflinger” at Mane Encounter, a fully outfitted horse-drawn wagon ride experience located on East Zayante Road in Felton at the junction of Quail Hollow Road. Owner and trainer Alisa Merline said, “The Haflinger breed originates from the Tyrolean Mountains in Austria, and they are suited for small farms with hills.” Zayante Hollow Ranch, owned by Karen Ruehl and her husband Bill, is home base for Mane Encounter, and the sun-filled acreage of Santa Cruz Sandhills soils slopes gently upwards into a forest of shady oaks. Perfect stomping ground for these compact, sturdy horses.
Along with Susie and Sissy, Merline also maintains a team of Belgian Draft horses, Millie and Margaret, half-sisters known as “Team Belgian,” who are somewhat larger and a few years older than Susie and Sissy but equally as handsome and gentle. Both the Haflingers and the Belgians are bred for heavy farm labor. “We’re together every single day,” Merline said of her work with the two teams. Sissy weighs in with a soft snort, her velvety muzzle searching for treats in nearby pockets. Milly and Margaret appear content munching breakfast from their bucket. A variety of other horses frolic in the distance feeling their oats in the late morning air.
Horses run in the blood. In the early 1900s, Merline’s great grandfather drove a team of Percherons that delivered ice and vegetables to the town of South St. Louis. With decades of experience as a vet tech to the stars in Los Angeles and a seasoned host of hay rides at Wilder Ranch State Park, Merline purchased her Haflinger and Belgian teams at auction two years ago and says these horses have changed her life forever.
She and partner Craig Winter share the heavy lifting. Together they help Susie and Sissy harness up in preparation for the day’s journey. With a firm stance, a leather line in each hand, Merline drops behind the horses and ground-drives them to the wagon where she and Winter talk the horses gently into their places between the wagon shafts and buckle them in. Meticulous safety checks ensure that the sisters are balanced, comfortable, and confident.
Driving a team of horses and wagon requires nuance, strength, and passion. Merline said there is nothing more exciting than having a two thousand pound animal do what you ask just because they want to. “It is an indescribable feeling.” There is an incredible sense of freedom and responsibility working with the horses. “We train them every day,” Merline said. “They’re super good with strangers and really good with kids.” She is getting Susie and Sissy used to saddles to eventually offer horseback rides. The girls are learning at their own pace and for now, the pleasure is in the pulling.
Mane Encounter at Zayante Hollow Ranch is proudly women-owned and operated and shares paddock space with Tails of Redwood Trails, beginner horse lessons with Krissie Nielsen. “There’s a lot for kids to do outside,” Merline said, and Mane Encounter can accept family units and small “pods” of friends in the wagons with facial covering and social distancing. And you’ll most certainly receive a down-home welcome from Laverne and Shirley, Zayante Hollow’s gregarious chicken ambassadors.
8240 East Zayante Rd, Felton, 831-713-2908 maneencounter.com
Featured photo Mane Encounter: Craig Winter and Alisa Merline with Team Haflinger’s Susie and Sissy. Photo by Julie Horner
Julie Horner is the Editor for the San Lorenzo Valley Post. She is also co-founder and co-publisher of the publication. Julie lives and works in Boulder Creek and is an active participant in the county’s vibrant music scene. She loves the outdoors and is the go-to expert on Santa Cruz Mountains hiking trails.