Holidays on horseback
When I was twelve, my friend Elizabeth and I went on a riding holiday. The brochure from the centre singled out for my experience of a lifetime promised a ranch holiday offering Western, English and Injun (!) riding deep in the New Forest, on well-schooled horses and ponies under the personal supervision of the proprietor. Said proprietor boasted an impressive list of Western-riding qualifications and was depicted on the inside of the brochure astride her own competition-winning steed, wearing a smile like a split melon, hands-on and raring to go! It wasn’t cheap. Most centres were charging on average £16 a week and this one was twenty quid. On this excursion the boat was well and truly pushed out.
I don’t think I slept soundly in the three months between booking and departure. Excited is a pathetically inadequate description of how I felt. I was going to ride every day, twice a day, for a whole week, instead of two-to-three times a month. Walls were bounced off. Paint me orange call me a Spacehopper!
The horses were all out. There was a dusty corral, two stables and cats. There were a lot of cats. More cats than you could shake a stick at – not that I’m suggesting that is suitable behaviour around felines. The beaming proprietor of brochure fame made an appearance on average twice a day – going and coming – and to say we held her undivided attention for longer than thirty seconds for the entire week would be pushing it. In charge were two enthusiastic girls whose combined ages may just about have totalled thirty or so, give or take six months.
Supervision was, to put it mildly, lax. Dinner of jam sandwiches with additional roughage provided by copious cat hairs could be supplemented by purchasing from the centre’s ‘tuck shop’ (a small cupboard filled with chocolate bars sold at inflated prices). But I was twelve and tomorrow, as Scarlett taught me, is another day, so when we went to catch the ponies the next morning my holiday started in earnest. I rode Western, I rode English, I rode bareback for four hours and was amazed when my legs didn’t fall off. I rode in the sun, I rode in the rain, I did the ranch’s dirty work and picked up horse poo out of the corral with my bare hands. We had a midnight feast, which fell well short of expectations – Mallory Towers it was not. The nightly appearance of bread and preserved strawberries was interrupted only by the barbeque. One free afternoon we hitch-hiked into a nearby town and back again. Nobody cared or even noticed. It was, by today’s standards (and yesterday’s come to that) shocking neglect of other people’s offspring entrusted to the centre’s charge. Duty of care? Pah!
I loved it.
I’ve been lucky enough to go on riding holidays as a grown-up. Spain is wonderful, mainly because the horses are so fabulous. They are impressive to look at and even better to ride. The Feria del Caballo, held every May in Jerez, is a celebration of horses and sherry, a feast for all the senses, beautiful horses in competition and being ridden throughout the day combined with eating, drinking, chilling out. But amongst the thrills is disquiet; I saw no water offered the horses ridden up and down the aisles of restaurants and bars (but that does not mean they weren’t, just that I didn’t see it). The days were hot, the horses ridden and driven all day and, sometimes, throughout the evening, too, and the girls in their colourful flamenco dresses, lifted up behind the saddles, doubled the work of the mounts. This is Spain, a macho land, where horses are servants not pets, where their obedience is a given. No rider holds his breath when a paper bag flies up in the dust, no rider asks the flamenco dancers to keep it down with the castanets in case their horse freaks. It poses questions, and the answers are not always straightforward when sentiment is put aside. The horses are modes of transport – and no-one wants their transport to argue the toss or put them under other, bigger, motorised transport as they trot home along the duel carriageway.
Well, I wouldn’t.
I returned to Spain but to a different centre. To describe it as whacky would be generous. Bonkers fellow guests who rode only to gallop, shades of New Forest faux ranches in the organisation, startling rides along nudist beaches off the Cape of Trafalgar but memorable for all that. Memorable because of all that.
But my best holiday was in the Okavango Delta. I know, I know, lucky, lucky me, the holiday of a lifetime! The day the light aircraft flew from the airport to the middle of nowhere the river snaked in behind us, filling up the river bed, pockets of air bubbling up from the ground and popping on the surface, playing a tune like rainfall. Where the river goes, the game follows – giraffe, wildebeest, zebra, wart hogs, elephants, hyena and company. The horses spent their nights a secure building away from anything that could mistake them for part of the food chain, and were watched over by a rifle-tooting guard as they grazed in the daytime.
My first night’s sleep in my tent was interrupted by what sounded like a herd of elephants trashing the place. Turned out it was a herd of elephants trashing the place. My bachelor baboon neighbour pooed on my tent all night, and the potty under my (proper) bed was there so I shouldn’t have to risk the ten or so yards to my private loo after dark. You don’t want to meet a leopard, I was told. Like I needed telling.
The horses were polite, keen and a joy to ride. The countryside was like the best of England with added palm trees, only hotter and with more exciting wildlife. We splashed our way through the rivers, skirted around elephants and gazed upon giraffe. Our guides packed rifles on their saddles and novice riders were discouraged – you had to be able to stay on if your horse bolted you away from predators. The G&Ts flowed, the company was good, the food excellent. It was like being on an Agatha Christie film set, a throwback of colonial life long gone.
But the best bit was fly camp. We rode to tree houses in the wilderness, the horses were tethered in a line and guests took it in turn to sit up all night with the guards. Lions had appeared in camp before – one minute blackness, the next a lion filling the space, looking at you with those blood-freezing amber eyes. Bets were laid around the camp fire – a fag for walking to the far tree and back, the ultimate game of dare encouraging you to give up at last. No one was allowed to go anywhere unescorted and we slept in our tree houses under unfamiliar and glittering stars.
As always with riding holidays the horses make the most memories. Tubby grey Baby in the New Forest; fast, furious and bewitching Bruja in Spain, stolen from outside a Spanish bar months after I had dismounted her for the last time to shed tears in her ebony mane. Tri-coloured Verano, bewildered by the treats I offered, suspicious of humans, unused to British ways and reluctant to engage. Dark and gentlemanly Selous in Africa, gentle, polite, indulging his rider as she took photographs from the saddle, willing to go first or last. At my departure the horses met their new riders, unaware of how they had touched my life and remain in my heart, part of my holiday memories and as painful to leave as any holiday lover. They were my lure to these holidays, and they made it difficult for me to leave. Would their next rider love them, ride them, care for them, remember them as I do? Would they love their new rider as they couldn’t help but love me in the short space of time we’d had? I knew it to be impossible.
On holiday I may have been, but not from my delusions.
Illustrations: all taken from Riding, 1936, and nothing to do with any holiday Janet has actually been on.