Dunns are living out a dream

Published 12:00 am Monday, May 26, 2003

Richard and Pam Dunn are living out a dream.

What began as riding horses for a hobby has become an enterprise and, perhaps more importantly, has allowed them to be surrounded by friends.

The Dunns opened the Heart of Dixie Trail Ride in February and, entering their first summer season, they seem thrilled with the ride so far.

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"We just had 30 or 40 people out here for Memorial Day weekend," Richard said. "They come from all over the place ride horses and camp."

The visitors to Heart of Dixie on the Needmore Road are in for a treat. Even those who have never seen a horse before can enjoy the spectacular scenery, the ponds and camping, but those who bring their own horses can enjoy the main attraction: exploring several different trails that crisscross the 1,500 acres.

"We don't provide horses, but people bring their own and they seem to like the trails that we have set up," said Richard, who raises cattle when he's not running the campgrounds.

Like many of the visitors who come to get a taste of rural Alabama, Pam describes the outdoor work as "a welcome change of pace" from her job with the state.

Campers John and Sherri Spears are visiting from Samson and say that the Dunn's hospitality is first-rate and their brand new facilities are outstanding.

Among the features: an office offering camping supplies like cold drinks, ice and bug repellent and a beautiful bath house nicer than the facilities in some homes. "Roughing it" is more tolerable when hooked up to RV electricity and water and the horses are lodged in a horse "hotel" a few yards away.

Their opinions are not just those of old friends of the Dunns, which the Spears admit they are, but also of weathered veterans of the horse trail circuit.

Advertised in magazines like Trail Rider Magazine, the group of horse trails throughout the southeast attract a following. And having seen some of the best trails in the nation, from Blackwater National Forest in Florida to Land Between The Lakes in Kentucky, the Spears, flanked by pups Dixie and Honey, say the Dunns' trail ride is a great attraction.

It was while traveling those trails around the southeastern United States that Richard Dunn got the idea for opening his own series of trails in Pike County.

"The land had just been in my family forever and we had always grown up around horses," said the Needmore native.

Love of horses certainly does run in the family. Daughter Brooke, 27, was a national finalist in the high school rodeo nationals in Wyoming several years ago. Roxanne, another daughter, rides for leisure and son Whit, 24, also had some rodeo experience. Even the Dunns' two grandchildren, Marlee Reed, 7, and Christopher, 4, enjoy being around horses.

"Marlee rides a mule sometimes and Christopher has a spotted horse that he likes to ride. They also both share a miniature horse too," Richard said. "I think it's good for them to be around them and get the experience of having some responsibility for feeding, watering and grooming them - and also enjoying them."

He also cites the experience of being outdoors as an important element growing up.

The rodeo experiences of the Dunns' children can soon be experienced by visitors to the land.

"We've got a steer roping arena and I'm going to buy some steers pretty soon for people to rope when they come out," Richard said.

In the long-term, Dunn said he would like to see the business grow and expand. As more and more people come to enjoy the outdoors, camp out and ride through the various trails, including one that features an ancient Indian mound, he hopes to bring in more and more family members.

"We want it to grow and become a big family-business," he said, adding that it already is a family business, of course.

But in the short-term, as the trails enter their first full season of summer and potential horse-riding visitors to Pike County, the Dunns are currently looking forward to a Father's Day moonlight riding package.

June 14 will see the trails offer riding at night and camping by day - a combination of fishing, cooking, riding and old-fashioned neighborly talking - with a bit of NASCAR thrown in for those who can't bear to be away from the television during the big race.

The Father's Day event is just the first of many and the Dunns expect the crowds to keep growing. The Alabama Horse Council estimates that one in four households have a link of some kind to the horse industry and they say the economic impact of the horse industry on the Alabama economy may be nearly $5 billion.

"Trail riding is the largest horse-related activity in the country now. It's bigger than rodeo," Pam said. "At some of these campsites nationwide, you have to make your reservations far in advance."

Richard said some campers have already booked reservations to cruise rural Pike County at the Heart of Dixie Trail Ride for July 4 and even as far ahead as October.

Those looking to join the ride can contact the Dunns at 670-0005.