If you like riding, there is a good chance that you have dreamed about riding on a beach —and if you want to experience beach riding at its best, you really need to head to Northumberland. This stretch of coastline delivers on so many levels: miles and miles of wild, sandy beaches, castles, grey seals, plenty of birds and, crucially, very few people beyond the odd solitary dog walker.
“It is a very special place and I feel very privileged to be able to ride here”
Dickie Jeffreys, who runs Kimmerston Riding Centre, with his wife Jane, is to North Northumberland what Crocodile Dundee was to the Australian Outback.
He has been taking riders to Holy Island (also known as Lindisfarne), a tidal island just south of Berwick-on-Tweed, for 30 years and there is very little that he doesn’t know about it.
“It is a very special place,” he says, “and I feel very privileged to be able to ride here.”
Like all true enthusiasts, Jeffreys never tires of sharing the experience with others — and there is so much to share. Bird lovers can look forward to watch the gannets, terns, oyster catchers and dunlins that congregate on the shoreline. You can spot seals all year round either out to sea or on the rocks at the far end of the island — and twice Jeffreys has been joined by a school of dolphins.
“We were galloping along the shoreline and fifty yards out to sea there were twenty or so powering along beside us,” he recalls.
“The second time I saw them was on the exact same day twelve years later.”
However, riding on Lindisfarne is not for beginners: the Jeffreys asks that you can canter confidently because the ride involves plenty of cantering (sometimes faster) in seriously wide open spaces. You can ride out into the water, too, and if you fancy going one step further, Jeffreys will take you and your horse out for a bracing bare-back swim.
The riding school has a huge array of horses to suit all ages, sizes and levels of experience and they are experts at matching horse to rider. So ditch your fluoro tabard, grab your cossie and you are good to go.
For more details, contact the Kimmerston Riding Centre on 01668 216283 or visit www.kimmerston.com.
Picture this: a hot summer’s day, a cold glass of ginger beer and a plate of home-cooked-ham sandwiches, with your horse cropping the grass only yards away. An idyllic scene. There’s no better way to work up an appetite than by riding to lunch, but not every establishment is geared to sheltering a large hairy beast in place of a car. Fortunately, there are still several horse-friendly pubs around the country with the necessary hitching rails, water buckets and patch of grass away from traffic, and you might even get some carrots if you’re lucky.
A favourite with agricultural students and polo players, The Bell at Sapperton, Gloucestershire, has ‘horse parking’, traditional food (with homemade bread) and freshly ground coffee, all set in glorious Cotswold countryside between Cirencester and Tetbury in Gloucestershire. But then, this is a particularly horsey area: the Old Royal Ship, in Luckington, Wiltshire, is a favourite with Beaufort followers seeking a pint on a sunny day and the New Inn at Waterly Bottom, in North Nibley, Gloucestershire, has a shaded tethering bar and an outdoor tap all ready to receive tired steeds.
In the heart of the Gower Peninsula, in Wales, the hitching post at the King Arthur Hotelin Higher Green, Reynoldston,is frequently decorated with lead ropes. There’s a hose for filling buckets or washing off sand from the four-mile-long Rhossili Beach a few miles away—plus a cosy pub with a good selection of grill and sandwich favourites. In Pembrokeshire, the airy heights of the Preseli Mountains can be reached from the Tafarn Sinc in Rosebush, the highest pub in the county, which serves freshly prepared local produce.
As befits a pub set in prime Exmoor hunting country, the Crown Hotel at Exford has a stable yard and hitching posts galore, plus an award-winning restaurant. The surrounding moors are sufficient temptation to tear yourself away from lunch, too, but overnight stays can be arranged if you can’t.
The South East of England
Muddy boots are almost de rigueur at the Stag Inn at Balls Cross, Petworth in West Sussex, where members of the local hunt, equine and human, are frequent visitors — log fires, award-winning ales and traditional British dishes are a strong draw. If you eat too much at the Fighting Cocks at Godshill in the New Forest, Hampshire, where the menu includes New Forest venison, rabbit and pheasant, there’s a mounting block to help you up, as well as a hitching rail and tap.
The Midlands and the North
A shaded area with tying-up rings marked ‘Horses’, plus a mounting block, stand ready at the Curzon Arms, in Woodhouse Eaves, Leicestershire — as does the traditional bar serving real ales, the beer garden and the terrace where you can enjoy some excellent pub classics. Over in Yorkshire, the newly refurbished Malt Shovel in Harden welcomes people arriving on all modes of transport, with a hitching rail and water trough for the equine variety. They have well-made British dishes, great ales and even a history room that gives you the lowdown on the Malt and the surrounding area.
In the east, there’s room for plenty of (well-behaved) horses at the Stag in West Acre, Norfolk, which has great food, real ale on tap and an abundance of bridleways nearby.
Wherever you go, don’t forget a head collar, and make sure you leave no evidence of your horse’s presence behind, to ensure a warm welcome the next time you settle down to enjoy a perfect day out with the horses.
Main image: The King Arthur Hotel by Grafic House, courtesy of the King Arthur Hotel
The wind is against us. We are walking among the holm oaks, rockrose shrubs and strawberry trees of the Giara di Gesturi, a massive plateau in southern Sardinia, Italy, in search of feral horses, but the pesky Sirocco blowing in from North Africa carries our smell, a disturbing oddity among the scents of myrtle and wild herbs.
Our guide, Roberto Sanna, who runs Jara, a company offering guided tours of the plateau, counsels silence to avoid frightening the herds. Barely exchanging whispers, we tread softly among wild pear trees, across grass carpeted with pink cyclamens and white camomile flowers, heading towards a pond where the horses often congregate to drink and eat the water crowfoot that floats on the surface.
The plateau is home to about 650 semi-wild horses — whose proper name is Cavallini della Giara — which are among the few feral herds remaining in Europe. Although they are officially classed as horses in Sardinia, they are smaller than most ponies at 11 to 13 hands, and their diminutive size is one of the reasons the breed virtually disappeared from most of the island.
“The Giara are either of Arab or Asian origin, and we think they were brought to Sardinia by the Phoenicians or the Carthaginians several hundreds of years before Christ was born,” explains Sanna. “Because they are too small for adults to ride, and too temperamental for children, they aren’t of much use — so we think that, across the centuries, they were crossbred with other horses.”
“The horses’ coats are a silky, dark expanse against the clear blue of the sky”
This didn’t happen in the Giara di Gesturi, though. Here, hidden among the woods that cover the steep plateau, the Giara horses remained undisturbed for centuries. It helped that local farmers — some of whom used to spend much of the year in these woods, tending to goats and sheep, making cheese and living rough in stone huts roofed with rockrose and strawberry-tree leaves — eventually found a use for the minuscule breed. Every year, they would gather the herds, take some animals down to the village to thresh the crops, then bring them back up on the plateau.
“It’s what saved the horses,” believes Sanna. The practice stopped in the 1950s and for a time, the future of the breed looked grim but, by the 1970s, the locals had increasingly become aware of the Giara’s unique history and importance. The plateau was designated as a nature reserve and the horses were safe.
As we turn a corner, the dull blue waters of the pond come into view. The soil here is basalt, as impermeable as it is puckered, and the pond, or pauli, in Sardinian, is really a vast but shallow bowl filled with rainwater. A group of holm oaks block the view of the nearest shore, and the far shore is empty.
We brace for disappointment — until we move past the trees and spot them. A stallion and a mare are grazing on the shore no more than 20-30 yards from us, while a second mare and a very young foal are frolicking in the water.
With their long, flowing manes blowing in the warm wind, they are surprisingly beautiful, despite having big bodies over short, lean legs. Their eyes are liquid brown pools in a large, powerful head, their necks are strong and their coats are a silky, dark expanse against the clear blue of the sky.
The foal, with its sparse fuzz and short tail, is almost comically cute. It is a rare sight and Sanna himself is enthralled, despite being familiar with the horses. The Giara herds fend almost entirely for themselves — volunteers only step in when there is a severe drought or food shortage — and foals are often kept well hidden until they are a little bigger.
“These horses live like they would have done thousands of years ago,” Sanna explains. “They graze, drink from the springs and forage for crowfoot. We don’t even need to dispose of their carcasses when they die — the woods have many predators, including hawks, that do the job,” he continues, showing us a bone that has been picked clean.
“The foal, with its sparse fuzz and short tail, is almost comically cute”
Surprisingly, though, predators are hardly the horses’s biggest problem. Instead, their most insidious rivals are a herd of cows that has gone feral. We spot them as they arrive at the far end of the pond, a stain of placid, stolid red against the horizon.
“In summer, when it gets hot and dry, cows and horses compete for grazing and water,” Sanna explains. “The cows are incredibly powerful and when they plant themselves by a spring, no other animal can get close to it.”
Both the far-away cows and, unexpectedly, the much closer horses ignore us, at first. The stallion grazes, and rolls contentedly on the grass, the foal prances around among the grown-ups, and the mares are busy looking for crowfoot in the water. “They can’t have enough of them,” says Sanna, who believes that the plants may act as natural wormers.
When we step a little closer to take some pictures, however, the stallion becomes wary. Gently but surely, he encourages his little family further down the pond. The mares follow him quickly but the foal is inquisitive, as children are wont to be, and is having none of it. It takes a few tentative steps away from pond, towards us.
The stallion springs into action and, with a decisive, none-too-gentle kick, puts his wayward offspring in its place — quite literally. It’s time for us to beat a retreat before the stallion decides we deserve a good kicking, too.
To ensure the horses’ survival, the local authorities keep an eye on them and, as well as intervening in case of emergency, they have placed some horses with local studs outside the nature reserve to preserve the breed in case of epidemic or natural disaster.
To boost the horses’ perceived value and protect their future, the authorities have also begun breeding some mares to Arab stallions, creating a new breed, the Giarab, which brings together the speed and elegance of the Arabs with the strength, hardiness and agility of the Giara.
A few days after our horse-spotting trip, we meet a magnificent Giarab at a local livery yard. With its gloriously golden mane, graceful legs and powerful jump, it is a stunning creature, far more attractive than the gawky little Giara horses could ever hope to be — but, for all his beauty, he can’t compete with their wild charm.
I’m galloping flat out. I can’t remember the last time I did this. I don’t own a horse at the moment, and despite the fact that I occasionally help exercise racehorses at a friend’s yard, I haven’t ridden “work” (ie, flat out) for years.
I’m in Wiltshire, at the gorgeous Lucknam Park, on a big bay Thoroughbred called Charlie and he’s got the bit between his teeth. The 500 acres of parkland that surround Lucknam is old turf and many years ago home to a racehorse trainer, so the stretch that Charlie and I are, erm, stretched out on, is an old gallops so I can trust it not to have holes. Or moles.
I arrived the previous afternoon and had walked up the wide, tree-lined drive looking at the horses and ponies of various shapes and sizes in fields on my left, while simultaneously admiring (and going over) the solid timber cross-country fences in the parkland to my right. Lucknam has 35 different horses and ponies, most of which are on working livery but some owned by the hotel, all of which for the guests to ride — and although it might be pricey, there’s no kicking ponies round the sandschool here.
“We get everyone out, it’s far nicer — we ride and lead, children much prefer to be out on a ride and not in the school,” says Nicky, who is accompanying me on my ride around the estate this morning. “We do a brilliant pub ride – it’s about four hours – which is great for families, and we encourage anyone to come along.”
Lucknam Park is a gorgeous five-star hotel just outside Bath. The night I stayed there, David Hasselhoff had turned up in his red Ferrari: it’s that kind of place. It has a Michelin-starred restaurant, cookery school, fabulous spa and swimming pool — but it also has an equestrian centre that packs a punch.
The cross-country course I’d mentally jumped in my mind while strolling with my Ridgeback was built by the Willis Brothers — of Badminton fame — and there’s a full size all-weather arena. And its not all pub rides and beginner lessons — the centre runs clinics throughout the year with Stephen Hadley and Richard Waygood.
Before my spin around the park, I’d had a gridwork lesson with one of the resident instructors, Ella, and Charlie — who’s turned his hoof to dressage in his past — stepped right up to the mark and had me sweating within 10 minutes. It was fantastic to have a proper ride — I’ve only previously ridden in this kind of scenario (ie, paying and not riding a friend’s horse) in Richmond Park and found the poor horse, and the bureaucratic walking and trotting, interminably dull. It needed to be safe. At Lucknam in the Cotswolds, they know if you can ride — and you get the ride you want.
Afterwards, I eased my soon-to-be aching muscles in the outdoor hot pool, cursing the fact I’d spent too much time on a horse (can you?) and not enough time checking out the spa — I had to leave all too soon to continue my journey to Dartmoor.
I’d thoroughly recommend anyone with friends who want to learn to ride to head to Lucknam for the weekend, they’ll get the proper experience. Meanwhile, I’m checking out the dates of this year’s clinics as I want to do more than jump around the cross-country course in my mind. The hotel, however, was so good, that as I left I reserved a room for my parents to stay two weeks’ later — surely you can’t get a better recommendation than that?
Lucknam Park Hotel & Spa, near Bath (01225 742777) offers Classic Rooms from ￡260 per night based on two adults sharing on a room only basis, inclusive of full use of the spa facilities. A one-hour instructional hack is £116 per person.
In the shadow of the Absaroka Mountains, in north-west Wyoming, flanking an aspen-fringed creek, lies a collection of wooden cabins and an earthern-floored corral. Over a bridge, along the stream or up the switchbacks from the corral, tracks lead into the high desert. High above lie the fringes of the vast Shoshone National Forest, where several hundred Black Angus cattle spend the summer alongside grizzly bears and wolves.
Butch Cassidy country
The infamous Butch Cassidy knew this land, and kept a hideout deep in a wooded ravine nearby, ready for him to escape the wrath of Montana sheriffs after another robbery. He looked out across sagebrush and grassland that is now open to riders from around the world, drawn to this lonely, beautiful stretch of countryside.
This unassuming yet comfortable place is the Bitterroot Ranch, the domain of the Fox family, headed by the venerable patriarch Bayard, whose stories of derring-do in the mountains, not to mention on his country’s service around the world, never fail to entertain. His intrepid wife Mel, son Richard and daughter-in-law Hadley complete the quartet that leads guests on adventures to find errant cattle, mountain-lion tracks or Butch Cassidy’s cabin.
Bitterroot is the cream of the ranch holidays crop. No ride is the same twice, with myriad routes to choose from: up to Lion’s Head rock for a picnic, through steep ravines, to the bentonite mounds for a gallop (ancient volcanic ash, a perfect surface to go up a gear but treacherously slippery when wet), and past lush creeks of aspen and willow, always with spectacular views of the snow-capped Wind River Mountains in the distance.
My cabin was a cosy affair, named Cottonwood after the trees just outside. Toasty warm, with its thick wooden walls, it was snug even when a thunderstorm raged with such force that it sounded as if giants were having a fist fight just outside, sheet lightning illuminating the valley and rain pounding on the roof. In the heat of summer, I read the whole of Game of Thrones sitting on the deck outside with a cool drink after riding, before meandering over to the main lodge for drinks and feasts of ranch-fed beef.
But the horses are the thing at the Bitterroot. On a flat plateau above the ranch, nearly 200 horses graze together amid sparkling irrigation streams, charging down to the corral below for their daily work. Gentle giant Nevada, the white Percheron; flighty, beautiful bay Arab Narok; Richard’s giant ‘purple monster’ Gannet; gentle palomino Aztec, known as the School Bus; ancient paint Injun and his skinny grey Arab girlfriend Baskatrina; spotty trio Lakota, Millie and Marcus; nervous dun Hondo, frequently led astray by his friend Ranger; dozens of glossy chestnut Arabs, whose floating stride is a delight when cantering along the sagebrush paths; and a coterie of cheeky Welsh Mountain ponies.
There are two rides a day, with a picnic ride on Saturdays, and such is the choice of horses that each guest can be matched to one that suits their desire, whether it be for speed or steadiness.
Mel and Hadley are elegant riders whose insightful advice is always welcome, whether you’re using English tack on the cross-country course or competing in team-sorting, a classic cowboy game where teams of four move cattle from one end of an arena to another, one by one and in a particular order. Riotous fun, for competitors and spectators, the latter often including Arab yearlings bred on the ranch, who would poke long, soft, inquisitive noses over the fence in rapt attention.
Real cowboy experience
It doesn’t matter how much riding you’ve done before, the landscape will stir the spirit of adventure in everyone, and for those longing for a true cowboy experience, the spring and fall round-ups offer long days in the saddle and the heartening satisfaction of doing a proper Western job.
If you want to develop your equestrian techniques, clinics are held throughout the summer, and courses in natural horsemanship offer the chance to connect with your horse on a near-mystical level.
The town of Dubois, 45 minutes away down a 17-mile dirt track, has rodeos on Friday nights and square dancing on Tuesdays, there’s excellent fly-fishing and even yoga retreats for people seeking inner and outer peace, but for me, the chief delight was sitting on the plateau above the ranch at dusk, watching the horses graze and the sun set above a landscape barely touched by the hand of Man.