In my previous two blog posts, we looked at how to choose a horse-riding holiday, specifically focusing on time, money and the all-important dream. Other important pre-trip considerations are your level of riding and experience. In this blog, I will recount the actions I took in preparation for my Iceland and Egypt horse riding holidays that feature in the Horse Riding Tourist – Near and Far*. These were my first steps into the world of horse riding holidays, which came with the inevitable mistakes and lessons to be learnt.
In June 2011, I returned to weekly horse riding lessons following a break of not riding for 15 years. The good news was, I wasn’t scared of horses and had the confidence to get back in the saddle. The bad news was I had pretty much forgotten any skill I previously had and was again a novice with a bad seat and no finesse. Thankfully, I had found John, a patient instructor with many years of experience who given the time can bring on those of us determined to develop some class to our riding. So that was my valuable and essential lessons sorted, but how do I go from 30 minutes of school work each week to riding out in open countryside.
I am fortunate to live in Cornwall, the most south-westerly county in England. Surrounded by hundreds of miles of coastline, Cornwall is a rural community with a network of country lanes and off-road tracks, moorland, estates and woodlands. Scattered across Cornwall are a number of horse riding centres that offer trail riding from two hours to day rides. Looking back, I can now see I was overconfident in my ability to ride out in the open countryside for someone who had recently rediscovered horse riding and my, at the time level of riding skill. I had chosen a couple of two-hour hacks in different terrain and locations. At four-weeks to go until my first ever horse riding holiday in Iceland, I took a Friday off work and drove down to Trenance Stables on the outskirts of Newquay. I had chosen Trenance Stables based on an experience a couple of years ago when I had taken my non-riding niece on a walk-only hour hack there. So, with happy memories of an enjoyable horse ride, I was already familiar with the location and what to expect.
After I’d passed on my level of riding experience and what type of horse I ride every week, I was given a gorgeous cob called Pie to ride. He was an absolute dream in walk, trot and canter. The two-hour hack, on a clement sunshine filled September morning flew by as we rode out down the beachy Gannel Estuary and completed a circuit on the nearby headland using off-road tracks and country lanes. With plenty of opportunities to trot and canter on a well-behaved responsive cob, my confidence in my ability to ride in open countryside soared. Yet, there is a big difference between riding out on country lanes and confined estuaries in comparison to vast open spaces; a difference that before my next orientation ride, I didn’t quite appreciate.
In my opinion, Bodmin Moor at the centre of Cornwall was the perfect location for a pre-Iceland ride. This is something like how the conversation went when I called Hallagenna Riding School to book a 2-hour hack out on the moor:
Hallagenna yard manager: ‘So how much riding experience do you have?’
Confident me: ‘I rode a lot as a child and then had a 15-year break. I’ve been having a private 30-minute lesson each week for just over a year.’
Yard Manager: ‘Do you have experience riding out in open countryside?’
Me: ‘Oh yes, lots. I have ridden on beaches, through woodland and grassland.’
Yard Manager: ‘Our moorland rides are for experienced riders as there are wild roaming horses.’
Me: ‘That’s no problem, I will be fine.’
At this point, there is doubt in the Yard Manager’s voice and a repeat of the potential hazards that can be encountered and the fact there will be a gallop. All of this warning was lost on my over-inflated confidence. I mean, how hard can a moorland ride be?
With just under two weeks to go until I departed for Iceland, I arrived on an overcast but settled morning at Hallagenna Riding Stables on the northwest edge of Bodmin Moor. There were four of us going out onto the moor: The Yard Manager, me and a young couple who were on holiday in the area. They had already been for a couple of hacks and had passed the test to go out onto the moor. After being sent back to my car with my schooling whip (none of the horses required a stick), I was allocated a piebald ex-moorland pony. He was a bit small for me, (I like to ride a horse that fits my height) and had short pony strides, which I found uncomfortable to ride. Though first impressions weren’t ideal, I was reassured by the Yard Manager that he was an excellent mount for the purpose of this ride.
To start the young couple were full of beans and like me excited about the ride. Everything went really well for two-thirds of the outing. That is until there was a protest by the young woman’s small horse about going across a low stone bridge possibly due to the distraction of the large herd of wild horses that had appeared behind us on the brow of a hill. When the herd passed close by the small horse that the young woman was riding and the pony I was riding had a gig about. Though the horses were swiftly brought back under control by the aids applied in response to the Yard Manager’s strong-voiced instructions the experience unnerved the young women and her nerves were infectious. When the wild horses had gone and we were heading back to the stables there was a piece of flattish ground where the horses could have their heads. Needless to say, this didn’t end well for the now not so confident me. The mixture of not having the securest seat, limited time riding and a bouncing horse (though the last point is probably more due to the two former points), I ended up on the ground. The Yard Manager was concerned when she rode back to find me. Luckily, my tumble over my horse’s head was because he had already slowed down to a trot and then decided to put his head down to eat. Even luckier for me is I landed on soft moss. So, no harm was done except to my confidence and pride.
Now I can see I was a bit naïve but my insistence meant I got my own way and was rewarded with an ungracious exit over my horse’s head. Happily, my next trek in open countryside was on the adorable Gstar in Iceland, who was the perfect mount to restore my dented pride.
Although, over five years on from these intrepid first steps and a number of horse riding holidays under my belt, I still have to rein in the expectations of my riding experience. This is for the reason that when I recount where I’ve been, my hosts/guides can easily get the impression I’m an advanced rider. Ultimately, I’m there to relax and enjoy my horse riding holidays and this objective requires a sensible, polite and experienced steed that knows its job with minimal interference from its rider. It also requires a considerable play down of my horse riding experience to ensure that I put myself on the right holidays to meet my expectations.
As you will see on the destination pages of this website, three of my first four riding tours (in Iceland, Egypt and Mallorca) were arranged through Unicorn Trails. At the time, I had a thumbed Unicorn Trails brochure, which had a section at the front that explained the level of riding ability needed for each trip. This was represented by symbols and a key to what level is expected to safely enjoy the horse riding holiday. I’ve interpreted this as level 1 for a novice and level 3 for a semi-professional or professional rider. With this in mind, I have and will always choose the holidays that have the level 2 symbol - intermediate. For me, intermediate says, you need a good seat and control of your horse, but you won’t be asked to do anything outside of your ability.
I cannot emphasise enough how important it is to answer the questions about your level of riding and fitness honestly (I will write about fitness levels in my next blog) as it will be asked by your horse riding holiday host or guide so they can select a suitable equine partner for your vacation. They should also pace the ride to suit the least experienced rider. Remember you are there to enjoy yourself and be free in your riding. Unless you relish the idea of fighting all the way along with a feisty steed and wouldn’t be happy with anything else (though unlikely because most horses used for horse riding holidays have to have a calm and sensible temperament), be humble and play down your level of horse riding experience. Ultimately, I want an experienced horse who knows its job. You may want a safe and steady ‘schoolmaster’ if you are a novice. Or, for those of you with your own horses, you may want a spirited ride.
My next blog post will remain on the horse riding holiday preparation theme and the all-important rider fitness. To be notified of future blog posts and publications, you can follow me on facebook and twitter.