Down East 2013 ©
By Meadow Rue Merrill
Photographed by Sara Gray
On a golden fall day, trace the Kennebec River down Route 209 in Phippsburg, past tidal marshes and front yard fishing boats, boarded up rental cabins and garage bait shops, and you will arrive at Popham Beach — Maine’s most popular shoreline state park.
In the off-season, the entrance booth is empty. A sign invites visitors to drop their park fee in the “iron ranger,” a metal bucket with a narrow slot. Straight ahead is the nearly empty parking lot and beyond that a pine and rose-fringed path leading to the sand.
Gone are the lifeguard towers and bright umbrellas, the overloaded coolers and crowds, but if you visit the beach from now until early spring, you are likely to spot visitors you won’t find any other time of year. The first sign may be trailers parked at the edge of the asphalt. Or, if you look closely, curved prints in the sand.
Stay awhile, and you could cross the guests themselves — four hooves flying down the hard-packed shore. That’s because, with three miles of smooth sand, craggy islands, and cresting waves, Popham is also one of Maine’s most popular beaches for riding horses.
“It is hard to find a place where you can ride for miles and not run into cars or dogs or people who don’t want you on their property,” says Kathryn Pears, of Phippsburg, who often rides on the beach when it is open to animals, from October 1 through March 31. “At low tide, you can walk or gallop in and out of the water. It is a huge treat. Most people who have horses will tell you that being able to ride on a beach is very special.”
Frequently at Pears’ side is Sherrye Johnson Trafton, a trainer and judge who runs one of the closest stables to the beach and regularly guides small group rides. She and her farrier husband, John, own the Sable Oak Equestrian Center in Brunswick, just seventeen miles up the rocky peninsula.
“We all love to go [to Popham],” says Trafton, a highly decorated horsewoman whose services are so in demand she once taught Mel Gibson to ride. The Hollywood actor, who had once had a horse bolt while he was on it, was in Maine to film The Man Without a Face and he wanted a horse guaranteed to stop.
So Trafton trailered a stunning black Tennessee walking horse, Go Boys Thunder, and spent three weeks with Gibson on the movie set in Deer Isle.
“You’re sure he’ll stop?” the actor questioned Trafton before mounting the horse.
“He’ll stop,” Trafton said. “Just say, ‘Whoa.’ ”
Without waiting for further instructions, Gibson took off at a full gallop before yelling, “Whoa!” (Just like Trafton promised, the horse stopped, and Gibson went flying over its head.)
Most of the trainer’s clients are more cautious, like seventy-four-year-old Janie Espes, of Brunswick, who has been riding with Trafton for a couple of years.
“If you wanted to, you could really go full out,” she says after riding her American quarter horse, Joey, with Trafton on the beach. “It is also really comforting to know, ‘Oh, yeah, Sherrye is here.’ If you run into a snag, she’s right there to help calm you and calm your horse down.”
“On a nice winter day, you just bundle up and off you go,” says Pears, who rides on the beach whenever the weather permits. On a beautiful day, Pears says, she often sees multiple horse trailers winding down Route 209.
Although other Maine beaches allow horses, this is one of the longest — and arguably most majestic. The beach stretches from the high granite walls of Fort Popham, at the mouth of the Kennebec River, past windswept sea grass and half-buried driftwood to the narrow Morse River. Along the way, Trafton often stops at a secluded sandbar to fill her pockets with sand dollars. She also enjoys seeing the startled seals pop out of the water to glimpse at the horses. “They see four legs and know it’s not human,” says Trafton, “but they can’t quite figure it out.”
When transporting horses, Trafton is limited to guiding four riders. The park also sets its own limitations — such as riding only in the off-season and only below the high-water mark at low tide — but the beach offers opportunities not often found in the woods.
“Any time you can ride in a wide open area on a horse, it is a freedom, like being a bird and soaring,” says Trafton, a strong, lean woman who has ridden on Popham for more than a decade since returning to Maine after training horses at an Indiana ranch.
Exactly how many horses use the beach, no one knows.
“We don’t count horses as visitors,” explains Jeanne Curran of the Maine Department of Conservation. “But ‘equitrekking,’ where people deliberately pack up their animals and go riding, is becoming a very popular sport.”
One good reason to hire a guide is that the coast can be surprisingly confusing. “Once you get down on the beach, pay attention to where you entered,” Pears warns. “Its miles of shoreline can be a little disorienting.”
Some horses also balk at the sand. “The first time a horse goes down there, they may act up,” she says. “But once they realize the sand won’t boggle them, they love having an area to cantor or gallop just as much as they want. It is as much an outing for the horses as it is for the rider.”
Meadow Rue Merrill is a frequent contributor to Down East who writes for children and adults from her home in midcoast Maine. Her daughter regularly rides a hobby horse and is nickering for lessons.
If You Go
Sable Oak Equestrian Stable
38 Ridge Road, Brunswick.
207-443-4006. sableoak.com 
$30 for a half-hour lesson;
$50 for a one-hour lesson.
Trail rides at Sable Oak, $50 per person per hour (with a discount for multiple riders).
Trail rides at Popham, from $150 per person for two hours.
Other guided rides available by appointment. Plan at least two weeks for advanced registration. For a list of state parks that welcome horses, go to maine.gov/doc/parks