Dartmoor horse riding holidays: You don’t have to cross the Atlantic to have a go at being a cowgirl
Weak sunlight glints on the horizon. In the distance, a man on horseback crests a hill, his steed heading towards us at full gallop, silhouetted against the azure-blue sky. From his outline I can just about make out a cowboy hat and spurs. One hand is raised slightly, signalling to us, while the other clutches slack reins, giving the charging horse microscopic signals as it snorts and slows to a canter.
I could easily be in the Wild West, but I’m actually on Dartmoor. This expansive area of moorland in south Devon, which covers 954sq km and is protected by National Park status, has long captured the imagination. Its boggy landscape was the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s book The Hound of the Baskervilles. More recently, it appeared on screen in Stephen Spielberg’s adaptation of Warhorse. The myth, though, has always been of a land shrouded in fog and mystery; impenetrable and sometimes spooky terrain that stretches out over an unfathomable distance.
Luxury horse riding holiday company Liberty Trails, however, has set out to prove there’s more to the moors. It invites experienced riders to take on Dartmoor’s challenging terrain on spirited horses that know the land like the back of their hooves. Led by guides (all born and bred in Dartmoor), groups of riders join founder Elaine Prior on tailored treks across the moorland.
This year, Liberty Trails will run the first ever Dartmoor Derby in September. Loosely based on African riding safaris (Elaine used to live in South Africa) and the infamous Mongol Derby, it will see skilled riders take to the moors, covering 50 miles over two consecutive days, spending the night in a specially constructed luxury camp.
Keen to have a go, I’ve decided to take part in Liberty Trails’ pilot event. It’s an early start on Saturday morning; the other riders and I are up and out by 9am, and, on Elaine’s advice, fuel up with a large breakfast. It’s important to Liberty Trails that riders are well-matched with their mounts. This isn’t pony-trekking for the uninitiated, it’s a physical challenge to be undertaken only by those happy to spend seven hours a day in the saddle.
The horses are all what Elaine describes as “forward going” – equine speak for “slightly frisky”. They’re not docile creatures trained to follow each other around a riding school; these guys will keep you on your toes. I’m introduced to Pebbles, who I’m told has a tendency to be a bit stroppy. Guests are also asked to bring along their own kit, including proper boots, a helmet, jodhpurs, and plenty of layers. “There’s no such thing as bad weather,” says Elaine. “Just inappropriate clothing”.
Horses assigned, we set off across Dartmoor, led by Devon farmer Phillip Heard – that galloping silhouette in spurs and a cowboy hat. Guests cluster in the middle while Elaine brings up the rear.
Half an hour into the trek, I’m finding Pebbles a bit of a handful. I’m a practised rider but the terrain we’re covering is unlike anything I’ve experienced. Elaine notices my nerves and immediately leaps off her own horse – the more reliable Ranger – and suggests we swap. I’m in very safe hands.
The landscape is undeniably beautiful. With every passing minute it changes, and we move unhindered from bog, to brook, to endless sweeping moor. The horses need little encouragement and it’s easier to give them their heads and let them feel the way. There’s no obvious route, we just follow Phil, who I’m convinced has a GPS stitched into his Stetson.
After three hours in the saddle, we break for lunch. Phil secures the horses while packed lunches of sandwiches, cakes and tea are handed out. Apples and carrots are, of course, provided for the horses.
Soon, it’s time to get back in the saddle. We ride for another three or four hours, the time slipping by almost unnoticed. After a while, though, my thighs begin to ache. I’m not used to riding for this long and am decidedly stiff by the time I heave myself off Ranger at the end of the day.
As well as the Dartmoor Derby and specially tailored riding experiences, Liberty Trails also facilitates cattle drives for anyone who wants to live out their childhood cowboy fantasies. There are two a year, one in the spring when the cows are taken up on to the moor, and one in the autumn, when they are brought back down to the paddocks. So, the following morning, we set off in search of cattle.
To get into character, we ride in Western saddles with large pommels and hefty stirrups. The cattle drive days are dictated mainly by where the cows are grazing. They’re slower paced (we go at the cattle’s speed), and involve a lot of huffing and puffing to get the idling beasts moving. We’re treated more like extra hands on the trail than paying guests. By the end of the day, I feel like I’ve actually been quite useful.
Fog descends as I head to Exeter station that evening, cloaking the moors in mystery once again. I feel lucky to have explored them. Stetsons, saddles, and the sound of hooves on boggy ground are my memories from the weekend. Oh, and the fact that I walked like a cowboy for a week afterwards.