TRAVEL: Riding into other people’s sunsets
There comes a time, as winter makes its slow way into spring, when riding-out at home under leaden skies loses some of its charm. Why not saddle-up under the sun?
To travel by horseback—not to compete, or hunt, or race, or play polo, but to travel for the sake of travelling—is an unforgettable experience. Those who try it once are hooked—the only question is then: Where next? Here are some of the possibilities.
To start in Africa, the vast, grassy plains below Mount Meru and Kilimanjaro—transitional zone between the Masai Mara and the Serengeti—are at their most hospitable in April and May, neither too hot nor too cold. Big game abounds—you and your horse might find yourselves cantering away from a flapping-eared bull elephant disturbed in its browsing, or watching a pride of lions run off, tails held high like scared kittens. The year-round riding trail covers 200 miles over eight days, with nights spent in a luxurious tented camp.
Across the border in Kenya, a 10- to 14-day trail runs from the Loita Hills down to the celebrated Masai Mara, scene of the great wildebeest migration. More than two million wildebeest move from the south to the north, following the grazing which springs up after the passing of fickle East African rains. Lions and other predators move with them. By timing the trip for when the migration crosses the Mara River (August-September) you will witness one of the most exciting dramas in the world as stampeding herds throw themselves into the waters, to drown or survive as chance dictates. Rides go from December to March and June to October. Horses are polo-schooled, so they neck-rein and gallop quickly off the mark.
Those who are looking farther ahead and want a break in the sunshine next winter can head for Morocco’s southern Atlas Mountains and follow the Draa Valley to the northern edge of the Sahara. On this trip travellers stay in small village hotels, most of which have pools—cool relief after the dusty day in the saddle—then it is off to explore the bazaars and kasbahs. The horses are Barbs and Arabs. Trips run for seven nights from November to February.
April is the time to visit Seville, in Andalucia, when the town comes alive for the annual Feria or horse-fair, which lasts several weeks. There are bullfights, and parades in which gorgeously attired beaux and their flamenco-dressed girls show-off on highly-schooled Andalucian horses. At a ranch outside Seville, in the village of Epona, you can go trail riding into cork oak forests, the marshes of Donana National Park, mountains alive with wild flowers, and ranches where the fighting bulls are raised. You can also opt to take dressage lessons, or see displays of classical equitation at nearby studs.
Horses of a different stamp are available in Italy. Montieri’s Refugio Pragetiano, nestled into the southern Tuscan Hills, offers trail rides on locally-bred Maremma horses—honest, athletic animals which can gallop the valleys and climb the hills all day. The week-long trails take you back to the mediaeval past: hilltop villages which cluster behind defensive walls, ancient abbeys and lonely castles.
The tracks wind through a countryside of cattle pastures, oak forests, olive groves and vineyards, the scent of cyclamen and jasmine floating on the breeze. One trail leads from the hills to the sea at Follonica, before swinging back into the hills and taking you home via a different route. The other Marremma trail brings a meeting with the Butteri—local cowboys who, like the Camarguais of France or the Andalucian cowboys of southern Spain, have their own distinct culture.
Our spring and early summer seasons are Argentina’s gentle autumn and early winter, offering sunny days and cool nights ablaze with stars. Join the gauchos for an autumn cattle drive on an estancia on the pampas grasslands. At this time of year they move out to the wilder parts of these marshy ranches and round up cattle, fat from the summer grazing, for market. You can stay in the comfortable estancias themselves, or join the gauchos under canvas to hear their stories over the fire. The solid, small Criollo horses are beautifully schooled and responsive.
Those who cannot get away until high summer can go ranching in the high Rockies of Alberta, Canada. The M&M Ranch, in the vast Kananashis Wilderness Reserve, offers ten-day pack-trips (you ride, and the gear is carried on packhorses) up into the high meadows. This is big game country. Expect to see coyote and moose, elk, mule deer, bighorn sheep and, perhaps, mountain goats. There are black and grizzly bears and cougar (mountain lion), and the wolves howl at night. If you go there in July, add a few days for the Calgary Stampede—the biggest rodeo in the world. The chuck wagon race is as exciting as the Grand National or the Pardubice, but oh so different.
Those who would rather play the outlaw can sign up for one of Wyoming’s Renegade Rides, in the Big Horn Basin—true badland scenery. One of these fast-paced rides—the Hole-in-the-Wall—follows the route taken by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Plan on holding tight to your wide-brimmed hat, because your guide, Belinda, goes at the same pace as the outlaws must have done when they rode the same trail with the law in hot pursuit. These rides go from June to the end of July.
Britain offers many excellent rides. For starters, try the epic Highland Horseback coast-to-coast rides across Scotland, taking in the wilderness of the Forest of Kintail and riding with your spare horses running loose around you. The more serious-minded can brush up on their jumping in Northern Ireland. The Highland Horseback trail is not easy, with river crossings, wild weather, and long hours in the saddle over 10 days (a shorter, four-day, trip is also available). But you stay each night in comfortable hotels, your luggage arriving by bus for you each day.
Eric Pele’s Brookvale Farm riding centre in County Down, Ireland, can turn most of us into better riders. The idea is to join a group of up to six others for a mixture of dressage, show-jumping and cross-country lessons, and to have individual tuition as well. Eric was formerly a trainer at the French National Stud and is a successful show-jumper, so his pupils are in good hands. They can ride both schoolmasters and young event horses, staying in the nearby Dufferin Arms pub on the shores of Strangford Lough. It is not all work: lessons are interspersed with relaxing hacks through the local countryside and gallops on the beach.
For the three African trips: Ride World Wide (01837) 82544, fax 82179; www.ride-world-wide.co.uk. Andalucia: ring Epona’s London office (020) 8904 3964, or email: email@example.com. Italy, USA and Ireland: In the Saddle, (01285) 851 665; www.inthesaddle.com. Argentina: Destination South America, (01285) 885833, fax 885888; www. destinationsouthamerica.co.uk. The Rockies: Campfire Adventures (01747) 855558. Scotland: Highland Horseback (01466) 700304.