State Park Saddle Barn

by Paul Pakyz
photos by Paul Pakyz

Few places are more varied and beautiful as Brown County. Visitors flock here in the summertime to enjoy the recreation, shopping, and entertainment at a laidback pace. But they see the “new” Brown County as they cruise the countryside or walk along the streets of Nashville. The early settlers experienced Brown County from a different perspective—on horseback—before the roads were paved and straightened. You, too, can view the “old” Brown County from a horse trail in the Brown County State Park.

The saddle barn stands exactly as it did when the famed Brown County photographer Frank Hohenberger snapped his shutter on it around 1934. The only difference is that the skinny trees in Frank’s photo are now giants who respectfully guard the premises with their welcome shade.

Dick Wetzel runs the Saddle Barn with several friends and co-workers.

I first spoke with Gale David, a friend of Dick’s since they were nine years old. His family owned the “Dusty Farm” adjacent to the stables, where the golf course resides now. He described the days when four hundred people would gather in the valley for rodeos, with cars everywhere—and up to 1000 people a day looking to ride the beautiful trails through the park. Some of his family’s land is part of the park today. Gale gave me a tour of the barn, which is stately and clean and full of fresh hay.

The Saddle Barn

Dick had been busy tending to the trail ride for State Senator Thomas Weatherwax and his family. Groups were signing up for trail rides and the horse drawn surrey. I watched Dick survey the crowd and the horses, keeping an eye out for the little ones. “You know, we have a working group of around 300 horses that we constantly sort through.” he said. “We’re always looking for the most even-tempered and cooperative ones that children can be around.” He pointed out each horse along the rail and told me each one’s personality and preferences. “That one’s a leader,” or “That one almost speaks English.”

Dick oversees saddle barns at the Brown County and Versailles State Parks and the horses for eight youth camps around the state.

Dick first worked at this barn in 1961. Then, after a career as an auctioneer, he’s back to his real love—horses. “I’ve been fooling with horses all my life,” he said. “It’s what I know. And I love being able to enhance this facility and keep it and the trails true to their purpose.”

Dick and another longtime friend, Mike Lacy, work together, intuitively guiding the hands as they help customers out into the woods.

Mike lends his help at the saddle barn from Friday to Sunday. He has worked at the Rushville horse sale barn since 1949. At the sale barn it is common to hear an auctioneer say “This horse has been ridden through Brown County State Park,” as a seal of approval on the horses experience and temperament. Mike is a very tall man, and though quick with a smile and a wink, the horses take him very seriously.

When the senator and his family returned from their ride, I asked him about the experience. “We loved it!” he said. “Last fall we came to view the foliage, and decided we would come again in the summer. It was truly beautiful.”

As I watched he and his family depart, I couldn’t think of a better way to describe my visit to the Brown County saddle barn. Both caretakers and the horses give you a taste of Brown County you cannot find anywhere else. Frank Hohenberger was moved to aim his camera at the barn 70 years ago. Fortunately, you can still experience what he did and have your own photos to tell the story.

Trail Rides—(ages 8 and up)

$10 for the 40 minute 2.2 mile ride; $15 for the 1 hour 3.3 mile ride.

Surrey Rides—(available on weekends and for weddings)

A twenty minute ride through the woods. $6 for adults; $2 ages 7 and under.

Evening Hay Rides—(Friday and Saturday nights)

Originating at the camp store. Large groups welcome. $3 per person; ages 3 and under are free.

Pony Rides—(for the little ones)

Adults lead the pony around the corral. $2 a trip.