For a time after my early retirement I spent most of my week ends with a trail riding centre in South Wales who specialised in long distance riding. I did not have the qualifications other than to be a helping hand on the rides. We received visitors from all over the World ie the US, Japan, Australia and Europe especially Germany. Usually only experienced teenage or adult riders were accepted as clients, except where the ability of a youngster was exceptional. The first problem was always to match rider and their declared ability with one of the 50 or so horses kept at the centre. A form would be filled out but rarely did it paint a true picture of the rider’s ability. To a certain extent we would judge the visitors by their appearance, their words, their demeanour and finally how they collected, cleaned and tacked up the horse. The first day’s riding would show us most of what we needed to know. There was only limited leeway for us to vary the trail routes but the horses would always be from the same herd and it would be the horse which made the final judgement as to the rider’s competence. The most difficult combination for us to cope with was a mother who when younger used to ride a lot at weekends and who was now accompanying her daughter for a quiet riding holiday. The teenager might listen to advice, Mother believed she knew how to ride and was fit enough to do so.
On the first day out we had to make the rider shorten the stirrups by a notch or two. Then we had to show them how to ride on loose reins rather than in close contact. The horse needed its head to balance itself. Finally they had to come to terms with the fact that the horse would at the outset invariably follow the instructions of the dominant horse in the group and the voice of the trail rider leader rather than the newly arrived townie. The horse would make up its own mind as to the rider’s capability. These horses were used to climbing up and down hillside paths, they were tough and very fit. During a season they might be ridden by twenty or more different riders. On the whole, in time they would respond to a rider with good hands and a good seat but not so if they were asked to point their noses to the ground and certainly not if they lost full control of their head and neck. A couple of the horses presented a real challenge to even a competent rider but we were very careful as to who was allowed to ride them. It was in nobody’s interest for he centre to record too many falls.
Over the first few hours of riding the instruction was to keep in file. Even if the trail permitted riding abreast then were one horse to break into a canter, then the other customer ridden horses would all take off in pursuit. That first canter had to be taken in a controlled environment so that the rider gained the confidence that he/she could pull up. If there was panic in the rider then the horse would know and probably we’d have to change the horse for the following day‘s riding. There were numerous hazards along the trails. The first stream had to be waded. The rider had to lift off the saddle to free up the horse’s back for the first hill climb to be trotted and then the rider had to sit in on a loose rein and walk the pedals of the stirrup irons as the horse slithered down the other side. There were a few country roads to be negotiated and a couple of fast highways to be crossed. The horses had to be confident to go forwards whilst the trucks came at them. Elsewhere the horse had to stand at right angles to the road with its nose hovering over the edge of pavement. If one horse broke ranks the risk was that others would also and there were only inches to play with on those narrow highways. We’d trot the horses down any gentle hard surfaced slope. The rider’ would be shown how to stand in the stirrups holding a handful of mane whilst the horse went up and down underneath the rider’s butt.
This obstacle course took us by a round about route to a pub where the riders were encouraged to drink a little alcohol - in moderation. A little dutch courage works wonders. Going home was to be a different and maybe riotous affair. Any weak riders would be split off and they would go back the short and easy way. The remainder would climb up and over the ridges. We’d check the horses and the tack and mount up. There would be a short ride along the highway to the bridle path and then it would mostly be uphill interspersed with some long plateaux. The horse’s knew the routes and one slight squeeze meant they would be off from walk to gallop. It was along a rocky narrow path which climbed steadily. At the top it descended just as steeply down into the valley. Mounted on a sparky horse, standing on a narrow trail, flanked by steep gulleys, in a howling gale is an exhilarating experience. At all times the rider should keep position amidst the line of horses over the stoney ground. The lead rider set the pace for the line to follow.
At the top of the hills, it was hoped the horses would stop at the brow although from time to time they didn’t and down the hill the group would all go. The horses knew when they were heading for home
And the race was on to get to the feed It always took half the time that it had take to reach the lunch spot to get home, yet the distance was virtually the same.
The group would arrive back at the yard red faced with aching backs and covered with mud,. Hopefully most of them would be energised by the anticipation of the following day when the experience would all be repeated but for longer. The canters would merge into gallops. The hills would get steeper, A spirit of competition would seep into both horse and rider. Everyone would curse the rain but gloried in the sunshine. The visitors would universally admire the views of the otherwise hidden landscapes.
We regularly lost a rider or two. Some had genuine bruising and very occasionally a broken bone or two Other guests just weren’t up to it. This country style riding was a completely new experience for them so we had to make special arrangements for them and stay on the trails down in the valley bottoms.
What became very apparent to me during this period was just how few riders were experienced enough to go on a challenging trail riding holiday. Few visitors were capable on their own to ride a horse away from the yard, even if they knew the way. It is known that riding centre horses can be reluctant to leave their mates but an experienced rider can use techniques to break them away. The first requirement is to ride the horse as the horse expects to be ridden Mounting up and trying to put the horse ‘on the bit’ just won’t work. The horses will have developed a muscle structure fit for purpose and no visiting rider could enforce on that horse a different posture. It was for the rider to adapt to the horse and not the other way around. Riders who can ride only one horse in one style, at one centre, are not really competent riders in an outdoor environment. In the old days, the path of horse and rider training invariably led to the hunt and to ride with hounds which undoubtedly calls for horsemanship.
As an older rider I fear we are nowadays concentrating too much on competition in the arenas. We seem to be losing contact with riding a horse as a means of enjoyment - which is a great shame. Horses as yet still have the right to ride on public highways and it is certainly feasible that one day this unconditional right will be withdrawn. After all horses and traffic do not really mix. Perhaps the necessary legislation is held off until enough flat, sandy, quiet, fenced and safe arenas are built. Undoubtedly a universally adopted system of riding has its advantage especially for bringing newcomers into the sport but each horse is different and each needs to be ridden in sympathy with its needs and in accordance with the terrain. One system of riding doesn’t fit all. The rider must develop a range of reflexes to match a broad spectrum of horses.
Back at the time I was rediscovering the joys of riding, I rode from numerous centres in Britain and Spain maybe twenty five horses a year for several years. I’d turn up, the proprietors would look at my grey hair and my waistline and I’d get a horse led up to me. I’d ask a few questions but then it was incumbent upon me to mount up and ride whichever steed stood in front of me. Some of the horses were meek and dull, others were fit and fiery beasts. I’d be judged by whether I could control the animal in a group, how the horse behaved towards me and whether the pair of us returned back to the yard without incident.
I would not have had it any other way.