There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.” So said Winston Churchill, and who could disagree? Like many last summer, I was captivated by the skill and grace of Britain’s Olympic riders and their noble mounts, not least our gold-medal winning dressage team. But after two decades out of the saddle, I’m not aiming for ballet moves: simply staying
on board will suffice.
I’ve come to picturesque Valley Farm in Suffolk to pick up the reins again. Its 80 acres of fields and woodlands are perfect for exploring on horseback, although in the bleak middle of winter, the indoor school
is a welcome sight.
As the Olympics proved, riding is one of those rare sports in which age is no barrier: the oldest equestrian at London 2012 was 71. At Valley Farm, riders range from tots to pensioners. “We have had people in their 80s riding,” says Valley Farm’s Stacy Last. “We tend to steer them towards carriage driving, but we wouldn’t want to turn them away.”
Back in the saddle
Driving is just one of the options on offer at Valley Farm: as well as instruction in the basics, there’s the chance to learn western and sidesaddle riding, as well as vaulting (gymnastics on horseback)
and equisize (aerobics with
a horsey twist).
I’ve opted for a somewhat less ambitious You Ride, We Guide class. Designed for those with some previous experience, it’s a chance to re-learn the ropes at a relaxed pace, under the eye of instructor Kim. Having been kitted out with a hard hat, I’m introduced to pretty palomino Rockie, who at 14.3 hands high is reassuringly small (one hand is four inches). There is something about the outside of a horse that also gets slightly more intimidating the older you get (or so I discover). Fortunately, Rockie is as laid back as they come.
After a couple of circuits of the school, I aim for some serpentine loops and circles. Kim reminds me not to bring my legs back as I push Rockie forwards, and to look up and in the direction I want to turn, so that the shift in my body weight helps communicate where I want to go to Rockie. “Think of creating a tunnel between your hands and legs,” Kim advises, as Rockie opts
for a shortcut. “That way there’s nowhere else for
the horse to go.”
Meanwhile, my companions progress to trotting and cantering. “It’s nice to lose yourself – you don’t think about anything else for the hour that you’re riding,” my fellow returning
rider, Marguerite, enthuses.
It’s true: there’s something uniquely therapeutic about working quietly together with
a horse. Plus, as a way of tackling the post-Christmas pounds, it’s infinitely more appealing than the gym.
At home on the range
With some time to spare at the end of the session, I’m introduced to Etoile, a grey Camargue/Welsh cross, for a taste of western horsemanship. “I call it armchair riding,” says Kim, a reference to the depth and comfort of the impressive, tooled-leather western saddle, designed for long days on the range. The western rider guides his or her horse more with their legs than the reins, which are held in one hand (leaving the other free for lassoing, of course). And at the trot, the rider sits, rather than rising up and down. Thanks to the depth of the saddle, this feels surprisingly secure, as I find when Etoile
and I step up the pace.
After a single lesson, I’m
far from ready to ride into the sunset – but who knows?
HOW TO GET THERE
From Ipswich (14.4 miles),
take the A12 towards Wickham Market, then B1438 and B1078. The nearest bus station is in Wickham Market (10 minutes’ walk).
FIND OUT MORE
Kim’s You Ride We Guide adult riding course (six weekly one-hour sessions, starting January) cost £120, or a one hour group riding lesson is £32. A Western lesson is £37.
Suffolk IP13 9BP
A magnificent 12th-century, Grade I-listed fortress.
Adults £6.50, children £3.90, family £16.90.