It all started a few years ago, when Theresa Sanders’ non-horsey sister told her she had read a travel magazine article about the Dartmoor Derby in England — four days of challenging rides on horseback through the picturesque countryside of Dartmoor National Park.
Theresa, a cardiology nurse and research supervisor at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, rode and showed her two warmblood hunters with trainer Janet Salem of Patchwork Farm in addition to foxhunting. The thought of the ride piqued Theresa’s interest, and she decided to make the trip to England. Theresa registered for the September 2016 Dartmoor Derby and began focusing on fitness and stamina for the demanding ride. “I wanted to be prepped and well-conditioned to get the most out of the ride,” Theresa said.
One week before boarding a plane to southwest England, she was injured while foxhunting. “My horse bucked me off, and even though I landed on my feet, when I put my left foot in the stirrup to get back on, there was pain during and after my ride,” she said. “I was in total denial, but X-rays later revealed a broken ankle.” Determined to live the dream she’d waited and prepared for during the past year, Theresa exercised under supervision in her casted leg, jokingly bound herself in bubble-wrap for a photograph, and put her name on the registration list for the 2017 Dartmoor Derby.
England at Last
Accommodations during the Derby are comfortable and unique. “Some chose to stay in the luxury yurts and others chose to stay in the castle,” Theresa explained. “Being a bit of a princess, I chose to stay in the castle. Bovey Castle was absolute luxury. The grounds are gorgeous and include a highly rated golf course to keep the non-riders busy. There are also miles of beautiful walking paths around the property, which I took advantage of on the day following the Derby.”
The Derby comprises four days, and each day is a ride through a different quadrant of the magical countryside. The first day, Thursday, is an optional warm-up ride. “When I arrived for my warm-up ride, I walked through the barn admiring all the Derby horses,” Theresa said. “I stopped in my tracks when I saw Blackie. He looked just like my horse Banderas. Though he was not the horse I had been assigned to, the organizers let me switch as clearly I had fallen in love. There was something comforting about being on a horse that reminded me so much of my sweet boy back home. Like any new experience, having the familiar allows you to jump in with less trepidation. I felt very comfortable on Blackie and every bit of his 18 hands. He’s a gorgeous black draft cross with a star and a snip. We had a fabulous warm-up ride that day so I chose to stick with him for the entire Derby rather than switching to the other assigned horse.”
The next day is typically a 12-mile ride, and Saturday and Sunday are the big days — each about 27 miles with a lunch break in the middle. “The next day I discovered that Blackie was actually the field master’s horse for a local hunt, which explained why he preferred to be in the lead,” Theresa shared. “However, just as it is with foxhunting, it’s so not cool to pass the official field lead! I had to change my usual riding style so he and I could come to an agreement that he couldn’t be in the lead this time. I had to use my seat a lot more than I do at home with my show hunters. I used a deeper seat with him, which required a lot more core, but it worked beautifully. It was definitely more physical, but I was equipped due to my training. The modification in my riding style for the Dartmoor expanded my riding skills in a way that I could never do in the show ring.”
Lunch is not just any lunch, but a beautifully prepared and presented feast, produced by a field kitchen. “As you can imagine, spending the day in the saddle brings on a huge appetite — think of all the calories we were burning!” Theresa said. “After spending each morning out riding, we would make our way back to the lunch point, which was different each day. One day it overlooked a lovely field complete with very interested Dartmoor ponies. The next day, lunch was served on the edge of a forest that just had to be enchanted. The menu consisted of gourmet-quality, fresh, hot, local specialties. Dinner was served back at home base and started off with cocktails by the campfire. We then moved into the dining yurt, where we were served a multi-course dinner complete with wine and fabulous desserts.”
A Magical Experience
The Dartmoor Derby takes riders through parts of Dartmoor that aren’t visible from the roads or thoroughfares. “My favorite thing about the Derby was the opportunity to see such a breathtakingly beautiful, otherwise inaccessible, historic part of the world — in the saddle,” Theresa said. “It was a combination of my love of horses and history all in one. Its wild mysterious country was enveloped in a mist one moment and brilliant sunshine the next. The stories about ghosts and legends from the far-distant past made this place even more magical. Dartmoor allowed me to take a virtual step back in time.”
Over miles of a variety of terrain and conditions, the horses know how to maneuver through the difficult spots, go through rivers and conquer the not-uncommon bog. “There had been a lot of rain, so we needed to be aware and recognize the bogs by the long grasses,” Theresa said. “My horse stepped in one, but he got out of it pretty quickly. They do what’s called ‘the bog hop’ — arching their backs and literally hopping out of the bog.”
Dartmoor, as Theresa fondly recalls, is breathtaking. Besides absorbing the spectacular scenery and galloping miles of endless green turf, she said, “I saw a variety of animals I had never seen before, such as Highland cattle, Belted Galloway cattle and the adorable Dartmoor ponies. Our horses were always curious about the ponies when we saw them — and the ponies were curious about our horses, so we always stopped and let them visit for a bit.” Known for its prehistoric geological details, the landscape of Dartmoor is plush with examples of ancient history, with menhirs (standing stones), stone circles and magnificent stone rows. “There was a Pagan ritual site, land that has been amongst the same scenery for centuries. I could see layers of history.
“Taking this trip gave me incredibly valuable knowledge and perspective on our sport, which is actually based on foxhunting,” Theresa continued. “Being out on Dartmoor showed me firsthand what it means to get back to our roots. Riding out there put me in a position to recognize how important it is to have a balanced horse that responds to your aids. While I’m not an eventer, I greatly admire the skill and talent that it takes to do the sport well. This gave me a chance to experience something out of my training and riding routine.”
To a typical American rider, the Dartmoor Derby is an adventure that is somewhat surreal — and life-changing. “I went beyond my comfort zone, and because I did, developed a greater trust in a horse, and I’m more relaxed with challenging riding situations — I became a more confident rider,” Theresa happily reported to sum up her riding adventure. “The trip was epic! The story-swapping and laughs over the day’s adventures with fellow equestrians from all parts of the world made for great entertainment each evening. I will always remember those wonderful people and the amazing experience we shared — the organizers included! They’re some of the most exceptional people I’ve ever had the pleasure of getting to know. We all shared the pride in knowing we participated in something great. Being well-fed while riding in the country of our sport’s origin — if this wasn’t heaven for a true equestrian, I don’t know what is.”
Pictures: Theresa Sanders