When your children are little, a trip to the nearest nature preserve is a day-long family enterprise of digging in the mud, skipping stones and watching bugs together. But as kids get older, it can get difficult to persuade them to put down their iPhones and experience the outdoors with you.
Enter the horse: 1,200 pounds of raw muscle at your command, plus a new vantage point from which to experience the sights and sounds of nature. What tween or teen could resist the challenge?
Just a short drive past the city limits you'll find stables that offer guided trail rides to riders 10 and up. You and your children will need an Illinois trail license ($3, available at most stables), and you'll also need to sign a release form. Rates generally run between $25 and $35 per hour, with some stables offering special group rates, multiple-ride packages or cash discounts.
Before you go, dress for a comfortable ride in full-length jeans and boots with a 1-inch heel. The stable should provide an SEI-certified helmet for each rider. To check the fit, fasten the chin strap and then try tipping the helmet up and down on your head. It shouldn't come up above your hairline or down over your eyes. If it does, select a smaller helmet, tighten the chin strap, or both.
A guide or assistant will help you onto your horse, usually from a mounting block. Some will ask if you've ridden before, but on a busy day, it may be up to you to ask for pointers if you need them.
If you have younger children
Sarah's Pony Rides in Willow Springs offers family trail rides, allowing parents to ride horses while their pint-sized cowpokes mount onto hand-led ponies.
If you've never ridden before
Don't know a stirrup from a snaffle bit? The knowledgeable staff members at Fitzjoy Farm Riding Academy are patient with beginners (and so are the horses).
If you love to ride
Danada Equestrian Center in Wheaton offers a package of six trail rides ($150 for in-county residents, $240 if you're out-of-county), which you can use anytime within a year from purchase.
If you like local history
A ride at the venerable Forest View Farms in Tinley Park will take you within a horseshoe's throw of the Illinois & Michigan Canal National Heritage Corridor.
If you want to get away from it all
Chain O' Lakes State Park Riding Stable in Spring Grove is worth the drive for nature enthusiasts, who will enjoy spotting birds and wildflowers as they amble along the bridle paths.