Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Horse riding

Another She Who Dares adventure

SWD Factor - *** depending on your relationship with the equine

I was never a ‘pony club’ girl, although I read books about horses, and imagined the romance of galloping on Black Beauty across moors and beaches. Our family didn’t have the resources for regular lessons, so my only riding experience was an occasional treat on holiday in North Wales in the rain, always in the rain. I would be left at a pony trekking centre, swaying uncertainly atop a large pony following another horse’s behind down a rough Welsh track, in the rain, always in the rain. There was a time when I was allowed to take a horse back to the paddock alone, bareback in Barmouth, and understood what all the fuss was about. In recent years there had been a single lesson at a local stable with my other half. He joked they wouldn’t have a horse big enough for him, but his face soon fell when the instructor called: “Bring out Satan”, and a huge black shire emerged from the shadows. Many She Who Dares members originate from counties where there are fields are choc full of stables and stud farms. Even in local urban areas there are horses loose in the green spaces, right across from the shopping centres of Harlow.

As my first weekend away with SWD approached, I was thrilled to see horse riding on the agenda, perhaps I could relive those brief childhood experiences, without the rain. It was not to be. When the day came the sky turned leaden grey and we bumped down a muddy track towards an isolated farm on Dartmoor, rain pelting at the windows of the minibus. A hopeful muttering broke out as we approached, the stable doors were shuttered and the house closed. We’d passed a welcoming pub along the way and would rather have been parked in front of it’s roaring fire listening to Kate Bush wailing “heathcliff’ on the juke box, than re-enacting Wuthering Heights on the rain soaked moor. Our hopes of a quiet pint were dashed as the stable door flung open and a red-cheeked lady in impossibly tight jodhpurs bounded towards us. She had more enthusiasm than the poor four legged creatures dragged out behind her, and the two legged types emerging from the mini bus. We scurried over to the tack room and fished about for riding boots, balancing on each other as we found the right size and carefully tucking our trousers in to keep our feet dry. That was our first mistake.

Sliding and squelching across the courtyard, we were sized up to the right horse, all of us wobbling up the little step provided, no one leapt eagerly from ground to mount. Frances was wary of horses and tried not to look her steed in the eye, but entered into a one-way negotiation with the animal, explaining her limits and setting out how she would like it to behave, before settling in the saddle. We watched, crippled with laughter, as the horse shook the rain from its mane and trotted off in the wrong direction, Frances clinging on, pleading with words, knees and feet.

I looked at my horse and it stared back mournfully, I wished I’d saved it a sugar lump or a mint, a pat on the neck hardly seemed sufficient for what I was about to put it through. As I climbed aboard gingerly, reigns looped through fingers a la John Wayne, jolly horse lady came tearing across the yard, shouting I was doing it wrong unless I wanted to lose a finger, she re-adjusted my clenched fists and dangling feet and turned my horse to head off up the trail, plodding on a well-worn route. The ground was fetlock deep in mud and rocks, and I prayed my steed had sure feet. I tried to assist the poor beast by leaning forward uphill and backwards downhill, but I don’t think it made much difference. The horse turned his head away from the horizontal rain, his neck at right angles to his body, trudging ever forwards. I tried to keep my head down too, unable to admire the scenery, as the rain streamed from my riding helmet down my face and into my eyes.

As we reached the ridge a group peeled off for trotting, the rest of us broke into a canter, my horse was slow to start but not slow to stop, the thought of getting back to a warm dry stable encouraged his speed. As we made it back and removed our riding boots we realized the folly of tucking our trousers in. Each boot contained pints of rainwater, tipping them up sent water sloshing around our feet. We led the horses towards the stables, patting and thank ing them for their perseverance, and staggered off to the damp minibus. Just as we were pulling away, another group turned up, I saw my horse glance over to the warm dry stable he was denied. I’ve never seen an animal look so unchuffed.

Where to try riding:

Most activity centres provide pony trekking. For Dartmoor try:

YHA Okehampton

Klondyke Road
EX20 1EW

0845 371 9651 okehampton@yha.org.uk

There are hundreds of riding schools dotted across the country. The following National organizations could help you find a suitable one:

The British Horse Society website has a search facility:


The National Riding Festival:


In Hertfordshire, these come recommended:

Hallingbury Hall Equestrian Centre


Bishops Stortford

CM22 7RP

01279 730348

Maple Pollard, Little Hallingbury, near Bishops Stortford

CM22 7PX


And if you ever find yourself at the Grand Canyon, try trekking with the Diamond Bar ranch along the canyon floor, no rain, extreme heat and possibly rattlesnakes: