Valerie Pierson has been around horses her whole life.
The 54-year-old grew up in Ontario and was a trail guide in the Canadian Rocky Mountains in Banff, Alberta, before moving to the U.S. and becoming the director of the Latta Equestrian Center in Huntersville.
"Once I stepped foot in this place, I couldn't leave it," she said. "I volunteered almost every weekend for six years - cleaning stables, doing trail rides - and I've always dreamed of running it. When the former owner asked me to buy him out, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven."
Pierson has been the director of the center for the last four years. Aside from hosting horse shows and other fundraising events, the facility also serves as a spot where people of all abilities can learn about horses at their own pace.
The center offers a variety of activities for people 2 and older, including private lessons, pony rides and therapeutic horseback riding for people with disabilities, but a customer favorite is the sunset trail ride and "cowboy" dinner.
The guided horseback rides, for ages 18 and older, take place twice a month, March-September. They are led by barn manager Janice Turner of Charlotte. Generally, guests arrive about 6 p.m., sign liability waivers, then walk to the barn to meet their horse.
After some quick instructions - more time is given to those with less experience - the group heads out for a two-hour ride on the trails of Latta Plantation Nature Preserve.
"We cover most of the park's trails on our rides," said Pierson.
People are encouraged to where closed-toe shoes or boots and dress for the weather. The journey isn't too strenuous, but it will help you work up an appetite.
The "cowboy" dinner following the ride includes barbecue chicken, rib-eye steak, corn-on-the-cob, barbecue baked beans, baked potatoes, rolls and cheesecake. Water and soda also are available. Meals also can be catered to vegetarians, who can have their food cooked on a separate grill.
"People come to the grill with a plate in each hand," said the center's general manager and chef, Jeff Taylor. "If you go home hungry, it's your own fault."
Brian Lucas, 28, took his wife, Emily, on the July 10 sunset ride as a gift for their six-year wedding anniversary, which the Charlotte couple celebrated June 23.
It was Lucas' first time on a horse, and he admitted it was a little spooky at first.
"But I'd do it again tomorrow if I could," said Lucas. "I kind of felt unprepared, but from the second we started going, the horse was very calm and responsive. It was very simple. And riding up the trail with the sunset was great."
Jarred Carter, 27, and Beth Carter, 26, of Charlotte also took the sunset ride on July 10 with Beth's sister, Becca Carson, 20, who was visiting from Georgia.
The trio had more than 30 years of riding experience between them, and Jarred Carter said he was impressed with how the staff took the time to match people with horses according to their skill level.
"Regardless if you can ride or not, it's a great experience," said Carter. "You may be a little sore the next day, but they really take care of you, so there's nothing to worry about."
For Pierson, it's all about the passion.
"If you don't have passion for horses, it'd be way too much work," she said. "During my very first staff meeting, I told them that my No. 1 goal is to make sure everybody that steps foot in this place enjoys themselves, and that's what we try to do."