If going on holiday is the third most traumatic thing you can do after getting divorced and moving house, adding a horse to the equation may sound like madness. That frenzied hunt for camera chargers, the desperate cramming of implausible amounts of luggage into the car, the realisation that the planned time of departure passed 90mins ago — let’s face it, holidays are stressful enough. Yet for seven years I’ve been hitching up my trailer and taking my mare along with the rest of the family on our annual visits to Dartmoor or the Quantocks, and without doubt it’s doubled the enjoyment. Riders cannot visit the countryside without mentally sketching out their route across it on horseback, and as we all know, it’s the perfect pace and height from which to explore new places.
There are some downsides, admittedly. Even with regular rest and leg-stretch stops, there’s a limit to how far you want to drive your horse in one day. And if you take a lorry, you need to consider what wheels the family will use when you’ve arrived at your destination. Those of you who feed and muck out daily may prefer a lie in on holiday, and to leave the horses to someone else for a change. And fair enough. But for me, who has always had to keep my horse at livery, it’s a novelty… And though I get up early to ride so I don’t eat into “family time”, an hour and a half of solitude in the saddle sets me up perfectly for a bucket-and-spade day with young children. I suspect I’d go mad without it.
As a working rider with rarely more than an hour to spend on my horse three times a week, it’s a joy to take her up fabulous hills, through gorse and heather in full bloom, on the beach, cantering among wild ponies, and to let her live out on Devon grass within sight of my cottage kitchen window. Even then, my rides are usually limited partly by time, and by limited knowledge of the region. Dartmoor bogs, after all, are very real, and have a confusing way of appearing at the top of hills instead of the bottom, for reasons I’ve never understood.
Enter Elaine Prior of Liberty Trails, who runs bespoke guided adventure rides on Dartmoor, either bringing your own horse on a local one sourced by her. She’s also the lady who fostered my Dartmoor addiction by introducing me to the idea of a “fully serviced” bring-your-horse holiday. Elaine’s expert knowledge of the moors allows you to get far, far off road, where only buzzards, ponies and cattle explore, safe in the knowledge that there’s a farrier or trailer on call if you have a problem. She also takes care of the practicalities of holidaying with your horse. While we may put up with a lumpy bed if needs be, a stable that has nails sticking out of it, or a field with poor fencing or inadequate shade could ruin the experience. There’s nothing to beat word of mouth recommendations when planning a holiday with the horse, or having a trusted local agent involved like Elaine, who lives nearby, knows everybody and will re-inspect any field or box she’s organising for you before you arrive.
I remember eventing legend Lucinda Green advocating years ago the importance of letting a horse experience different terrain: letting let them work out where to put their feet is so good for their mind and agility. Without question, the horse should benefit from a trip away besides rider. Lucy Hadden-Wight, who lives near Ascot and has taken her eventer Gio to ride on Dartmoor, Exmoor and the Quantocks, agrees:
“The first time I took Gio to Exmoor he was quite young and not particularly keen on leading the way. I was struggling to make the time on a cross country course as he was hesitant. At the beginning of the week he was scared of everything, sheep, ditches, heather, rocks and so on. “By the end of the week he was completely in charge, leading the way all the time, and the very next BE competition I did was the first time I got round within the optimum time.” As a fellow working rider who keeps her horse at livery, Lucy also relished being able to have her horse “just outside” for a change. “Having that easy access and being able to spend more time looking after him myself is super.”
For those striving for the ultimate riding adventure, Liberty Trails launched a brand new venture last September, a once-a-year Dartmoor Derby. Inspired partly by the notoriously tough Mongol Derby, and the enduring appeal of luxury African riding safaris, the Dartmoor Derby is a two-and-a-half day riding challenge on your own horse, or on one supplied through the organisers. Riders set off in guided teams, with a ground crew on hand throughout, who also hold and graze your horses while you enjoy a gourmet lunch en-route each day. Riders tackle some 50 miles in total, but uniquely they may stay in a purpose built luxury camp of Mongolian style yurts, set in the heart of the moor, with a sensational diningyurt and field kitchen alongside. Your horses are accommodated in a specially built horse station alongside, with immaculately fences individual turnout paddocks, overnight security, and stabling nearby if preferred.
HR professional Helen Marriot, from Middlesex, was one who signed up to bring her thoroughbred mare Candy to the Derby last year. “It was fantastic to be able to experience the Dartmoor Derby with my own horse,” she agrees. “It really gave us an a new challenge to prepare for, especially around fitness. But what made the event so special was that we truly came back with a stronger bond and trust in each other.” She has already signed up to return in 2017.
“Taking your own horse on holiday is akin to going on holiday with one of your best friends”
A widely recognised issue is the number of horses in Britain who don’t really get enough work, and in some cases, don’t get enough time out of their stable either. Mindful that a horse in the wild typically covers about 13 miles a day, I prepared my mare Rosie for 50 miles on Dartmoor in last year’s Derby with the help of some veterinary advice prepared by the Derby’s consultant vets, and was blown away by her energy, stamina and ability to pick up and pick up again over the moors. Rosie loved it, and though she’s not without a few arthritic grumbles at the age of 15, she’s never felt better than riding in company on springy peaty going. “Taking your own horse on holiday is akin to going on holiday with one of your best friends,” agrees Carolyn Trousdale, another Dartmoor Derby rider last year. “That might sound a tad slushy for a Northern girl but it is so true!” Carolyn took her 19-year-old mare Nessie, and like Helen, enjoyed the extra dimension that preparing for the ride gave to their regular schooling: “We did longer hacks, interval training, work on the gallops and hill work at home as well as a bit of low level dressage at local competitions. “The ride added a depth to our partnership,” she continues. Though a little taken aback by the terrain on the very highest parts of the moor, “my old girl coped admirably with it and the equine physio, who checked her out on our return, couldn’t believe how spritely she was for the trip”.