ALL through history, Dartmoor has been used as a place to test people. Just surviving here was a huge test to early settlers of course, but since then whether it’s Napoleonic prisoners of war building leats, or the British Army testing the mettle of recruits on exercise, Dartmoor has a way of showing people they can do more than they think.
Amazingly, it’s fully six months since our first full Dartmoor Derby tested our inaugural riders, my organising team and I. It’s fabulous that several who rode last year have rebooked to do so again this September, some even asking for exactly the same horse.
Our entries to date are evenly split between riders wanting to hire a local mount, and others who relish the chance to tackle 50-miles of Dartmoor on their own much-loved horse. Very pleasingly, several well-prepared older horses — in their late teens, and one of 21 — came through the ride brilliantly, lapping up the pleasure of a group ride on peaty going.
Our riders last year all found something that challenged them, but many also reported how their bond with their horse was strengthened by having completed an adventure like this together: tackling four hour-plus rides in remote countryside is not something many of us can do very often.
Need a solution? Ask a soldier
People love adventure but with it can come challenges often outside your control: when the rain comes in, or a blister pops, or something you were sure would work, doesn’t. And when it comes to problem solving, you can’t do better than the British Armed Forces. The Dartmoor Derby (like many things in this region) has numerous military links and when we had to make a Plan B in the midst of a night time deluge last year it was wonderful to have a Captain of the Household Cavalry, a Marine Colonel and an Ex RAF intelligence officer on our team to help solve the challenge.
Our aim is to deliver a luxury adventure, with excellent creature comforts, while making people aware that true adventure experiences can still bite you on the bottom which we, as organisers help you through by offering safety and strong support systems. Our watchwords are adapt, improvise and overcome.
Finessing our format
As organisers, we learnt a lot, and this year’s Dartmoor Derby is being improved in format as a result. This year, for example, each day’s riding will move out of one central camp because in practice, we find people like to “nest” in their yurts, and packing potentially damp and dirty riding kit up to move from one venue to the next isn’t always easy. Happily our camp is situated in a spot that gives us access to four extremely different areas of country when riding out in different directions.
We’ve also learnt practical things to share with our riders, such as to think hard about how you bit your horse, because a horse that’s forward going in company for four hours plus in a bridle may develop sore lip creases that you never see at home. It’s all experience that we can collect, digest and share.
We were thrilled to read Sara Cox’s wonderful piece in BBC Countryfile Magazine; as anyone who has followed some of her sporting exploits will know, Sara definitely has an adventurous spirit and she perfectly captured what the event is all about..
One thing that was universally praised in our first Derby was our catering – —it consistently scored 100% marks in feedback — and one of the joys of a long day in the saddle is refueling afterwards! We used a local catering firm who have lots of experience of catering for mountain skiers and they got the menu and style just right for our riders and have been booked again this year.
With a weak pound, it’s wonderful to find riders from different continents signing up for the Dartmoor Derby. We know there is nowhere on the planet quite like these moors. We could not be more proud of them, nor of the event we host on them. And the countdown has definitely started to this year’s ride.
A New Taster Ride
We also know that for some riders, signing up to 50 or so miles of Dartmoor is quite a plunge, especially for those who haven’t ridden in this region before and are not familiar with the terrain. So this year we’ve added a Dartmoor Derby Taster Ride to our agenda (from 3 to 7 July) which enables budding adventurers to cut their teeth on daily rides of somewhere between 12 and 18 miles. Staying in a fabulous Georgian farmstead on West Dartmoor, with your horse (or one of ours) just outside, it’s already proving a popular idea.