Seven days after completing the first official Dartmoor Derby, I’m still feeling the effects. The ache in my legs from spending umpteen hours in the saddle has now eased, and my creaking back has fallen silent. But one of my symptoms hasn’t gone away – a feeling of elation at having spent such a wonderful weekend in the wild.
I appreciate that the idea of an endurance horse ride is not everyone’s cup of tea, but bear with me – you could be signing up for something similar by the end of it. The Dartmoor Derby is the brainchild of Elaine and Bob Prior, who run Liberty Trails, a riding holiday business. Elaine has boundless energy: imagine a glamorous blonde Tiger in jodhpurs. She was born and bred in this gloriously wild park of Devon and is incredibly proud of the are and the farmers who live here. She wanted to combine her passions – horse riding and the countryside – to create an event that would be an unforgettable experience for the participants, while benefiting the Dartmoor community.
The word’s toughest horse race was the inspiration. The Mongol Derby is a 10,000km route through the mountains and plains of Mongolia on semi-wild horses. Seeking a UK ride that was just as exciting – but less perilous – Elaine and journalist friend Lucy Higginson (former editor of Horse and House magazine) began to plan a route across the moors. And so the Dartmoor Derby was born.
Sara Saddles Up
It is late September and I am standing in the reception area of the cosy Arundell Arms Hotel in Lifton, sipping the last of my coffee and meeting my fellow riders. The 45 riders are split into groups of six or seven, each with their own guides to lead them around the moors. The plan is to ride for three days, covering around 50 miles in total. Each group can ride at its own pace. The riders eat meals provided by a Tavistock restaurant and sleep either in a hotel or a luxury Mongolian yurt at night. Some riders brought their own steeds and the rest, including me, have borrowed local horses who are accustomed to the ever changing terrain of these moors. These hardy mounts can jump at full pelt over ditches one minute and skillfully pick their way through rocks the next. They are kind, but keen, so you must be a confident rider to partner up with them – after all, even the sweetest horse is still a tonne of animal with a mind of its own, but I’d argue that’s half the fun.
A ride for all seasons
My new best friend is Matt, a 16-hand dark bay thoroughbred. He’s gorgeous though fond of running off, which makes socialising with the other riders tricky. I’ll be chatting at a relaxed walk when we round a corner and Matt decides he wants to get to the top of the hill first, cutting me off mid-sentence as we gallop away (“Ohh – look at the beautiful viiiiieeeeww….”).
Dartmoor locals say you can get all four seasons in one day up on the moor, and occasionally it feels as though I can see all four converging us at once.Ahead, brooding winter clouds clock the approaching South Hessary Tor in shadow. To my right is a suggestion of pale summer blue. To my left, watery autumn sunshine breaks through a cloud-peppered horizon. And behind me, a cool clear spring sky brings out the green hues of the bracken.
We encounter ramblers and mountain bikers, but perched up in my saddle I find it easier to appreciate the wild expanses of space. Four legs are clearly better than two, and these horses cover miles with ease. Living and working in bustling London, I find the scale of Dartmoor makes me feel like a tiny dot on the landscape – and helps me forget the little nuggets of stress that usually litter my days. Here I just have to breathe the fresh air, take in the views and concentrate as Matt negotiates a steep drop or patch of rocks. Lunch is surreal – our group approaches the top of White Tor at a canter, with rumbling bellies, and come across a scene that looks like a tornado has picked up a birthday tea party and plonked it down, tables and all, at the summit.
We munch scotch eggs, smoked salmon and potato salad – and when the wind picks up, I manage the most middle-class sentence I’ve ever uttered: “My couscous has blown away!” After lunch, guides Tom and Lucinda lead us over the ancient pathway over Cocks Hill. And so we reach our home for the night: spacious yurts set up at Dunnabridge farm, next to a beautiful brook. The atmosphere in the tented dining room is jolly. The riders are folks from all walks of life, thrown together by their love of horses. Jane, a businesswomen from Sussex, chats to Wolfgang, the Australian GP; soldiers from the household Cavalry laugh with Jason, a Tasmanian Baker.
Sunday arrives and my back is slightly creaky, but this time I’m riding Barry, who looks after me. The weather is kind and we’re bathed in sunshine as we gallop through Sheepstor and rolling, heather-clad hills where Steven Spielberg’s epic film War Horse was filmed. Highland cattle, wild ponies and sheep pause from grazing to watch us pass. In the late afternoon, we dismount for carrot cake and hot tea, a veritable feast for our hungry troops. Then we ride on to the beautiful Bovey Castle hotel, our final destination. Before dinner I sink my weary bones into a deep, hot bath and realise I can’t stop smiling at how wonderful the last couple of days have been.