In a rare moment of peace, my sister Tamsin and I sat side-by-side on our horses at the top of North Hessary Tor. It was early morning. The curling Dartmoor mist had receded to the valleys and the rolling hills beckoned with tufty grasses and mysterious megalithic monuments. Everything was still. One of the horses harrumphed and a ground nesting bird chirped as it took sudden flight.
Tamsin is autistic so travelling hasn’t always been easy; she doesn’t cope very well with change and gets anxious in unfamiliar places. I wasn’t sure if I could pull off a holiday on our own. Those with close relatives on the spectrum will know the stomach-churning struggle: tantrums under restaurant tables, arguments over wearing suitable clothes, refusing to get off the floor of a plane aisle – refusing to get on the plane at all (New Zealand, 2011).
And if it’s not the constant stares and the terrible arguments we’ve had with strangers who don’t understand that Tamsin doesn’t have an “indoor voice” (especially because they see she’s a 24-year-old adult), it’s the feeling of constantly needing to apologise. Next usually comes the gut-wrenching guilt after an unfair snap at her to – for goodness sake – shut up and get on with it.
As frustrating as it’s been, the laughs outweigh the tears. At times she’s had my 21-year-old brother and me in such uncontrollable states of laughter that my parents have publicly told us off for behaving badly (most recently in Puglia, 2018. I was 28.)
In fact, Puglia is very close to our hearts. My parents tackled the holiday conundrum by buying a small trullo (native conical-shaped property) there in 2003, and it has become our second home. Tamsin knows exactly what to expect when we stay and, as a result, she’s become a lot better at travelling overall.
So I decided it was time to take her on our first girls’ weekend away, just the two of us. But it had to be the right kind of trip: anything to do with animals was top of my list. Tamsin and I learned to ride together when we were younger. The calming effect that horses have on people with autism is well documented, and Tamsin, with years of experience and a diploma in horse care, is better than I, so she already had the upper hand which was really important. So I booked us in for a night and a ride at Bovey Castle, a baronial granite country house hotel in Dartmoor, which has teamed up with Liberty Trails, an adventure riding company.
I was nervous. Being in charge of an autistic relative for the first time is daunting. While parents are often acknowledged as the main caregivers bearing the weight of a child who has autism (of any age), sibling carers are overlooked. How do you suddenly match up to the responsibility? What if something goes wrong? Or she can’t cope? Or I can’t cope? This is where preparation was key, and where it was crucial that we did something we both felt comfortable with.
Tamsin’s face lit up as we approached the hotel, its lichen-flecked granite façade striking against the Devonshire hills. After a brief adjustment period in the room, we sat on the terrace of Smith’s Brasserie to watch the sun go down and met Elaine and Bob Prior, who run Liberty Trails.
I had been confident that Tamsin and I would be excellent candidates, but it quickly became clear that we weren’t as experienced as their usual clientele. My heart sank as I saw the shifting body language, the pause as I waved Tamsin’s qualification certificates at them and said that she “could even do dressage”. I had chosen not to disclose her autism during pre-trip consultations on the phone, feeling that it was a discussion about ability, experience and confidence in relation to safety, and not about disability; she’s not physically disabled and she can manage a horse. Elaine said she needed to make some phone calls, but she was fiercely upbeat.
Lo, the next morning we arrived at the old prison farm (next to HM Prison Dartmoor) in Princetown to find Elaine and fellow guide Rachel Brockington next to a beautiful brown-and-white show cob horse. “I had Graffiti shipped in at 9pm last night,” she said brightly as she patted the horse’s neck with a big smile. “She has a lovely temperament, I think Tamsin will really like her”.
I looked at mine, a silky chocolate-brown Irish Draught pure breed called Blackie, and immediately yearned to canter across an open moor.
A short but steep climb through foliage and fields brought us to North Hessary Tor, landmarked for its towering (643ft) mast. I could just about spot the fringes of the land as it shanked the sea at Plymouth, and to the left of us a cluster of wild Dartmoor Hill Ponies were gathered around a standing stone as if they were attending a political meeting.
Elaine and Rachel told us all about the moor’s double climate, wildlife and history of the land. Their knowledge of the moor is exceptional and Elaine, who spent her childhood going off for hours on her horse, knows every inch of the landscape. I could see why the trails were so popular, especially when have your own horse and you want a guide for a few days.
Unfortunately our experience was marred by the fact that we were guided on foot with a rope and only able to trot a couple of times (also while being guided on foot by a rope). For Tamsin, who is able to canter (albeit in fields), I could sense the disappointment; I felt it myself.
A short walk on past Foggintor quarry, and we approached Merrivale, which is a particularly interesting complex of menhirs (tall, upright standing stones), stone rows and stone circles – remains of a prehistoric settlement. I could hear Tamsin chattering away ahead. Despite the tethering, she was in her element.
I did a double take as I saw a table in the distance fully dressed with throws, cafetieres and croissants: breakfast. Bob was setting it all up. And – to Tamsin’s utter delight – we were soon surrounded by a dozen or so wild ponies. “Thank you,” she beamed, feeding one an apple. “This is an absolute dream of mine, to eat breakfast with wild ponies”.
The next day, my parents called me to say that Tamsin hadn’t stopped talking about our trip. Good timing, careful planning and a bit of good luck had clearly paid off. “Where next?” they asked.
Words by Charlotte Johnstone
Telegraph Travel Journalist