Nestled in the hills of Dorset is something unexpected – a way of embracing the great British outdoors from a distinctly American perspective. From atop an American quarter horse, and from the window of a ranch cabin, you can have an experience reminiscent of the pioneers who travelled west in search of space and freedom.
A misspent youth of watching American TV and films left me with a deeply rooted love of the country’s culture and landscapes, especially its tenacious, pioneering spirit.
During my teenage years I took time out of watching TV to go horse riding, and many Westerns and an American Studies degree later, when I heard about Loose Reins – a holiday experience that combines two of my favourite things – I couldn’t believe that it was not something from Dallas, but just down the road in Dorset.
Trail riding on these sturdy horses – bred to withstand the open plains of Montana or the mountains of Wyoming – is a wonderful way to enjoy the rolling hills and ancient forests of this Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
You may not spot any buffalo on this particular prairie, but wildlife is less wary of humans on horseback than on foot, allowing you to tread closer to nature. Deer spring through the fields nearby as we amble along, and a rabbit scampers up the bank. Being on horseback makes you feel more immersed in the countryside somehow.
The Western style of trail riding is slower than the British way, and the horses require less instruction – once you tell them what to do, they are trained to keep doing it until you tell them to do something else – leaving you to relax and admire the view.
The cushioned saddles have high backs and long stirrups, making for a comfortable journey (so that cowboys could withstand hours or days of riding) although you might be a bit achey the next day if you’re not a regular rider. It’s easier to learn, and if you’re new to riding or not very confident, you can have lessons with a qualified Loose Reins instructor before heading off on guided trail rides that can last for a few hours or a whole day, including a stop for lunch.
My carefully allocated horse, a palomino named Yogi, takes the steep path in his stride – it’s a bit strange to get to the top of a big hill and not feel out of breath, when you’re not used to it. But the view feels no less deserved, and from this higher vantage point atop a horse, you can see over hedges and survey the landscape, which stretches for miles around once you climb out of the valley. Autumn is a particularly lovely time of year to go riding, with the satisfying crunch of four heavy hooves on the leaves below.
We never go any faster than walking pace and the horses know the ropes, so there isn’t a great deal to do, other than sit back and enjoy the ride, give your horse an occasional pat and try to stop him from nibbling on the bracken when he thinks you’re not paying attention. On horseback, you can cover more ground, travel further and explore more of the countryside during one ride than you might on foot.
Even visitors to Loose Reins who don’t ride are usually eager to give it a go before they leave, but if riding really isn’t your cup of cowboy coffee, there are plenty of other things to do. You can hike in the hills, read on the veranda, soak up the surroundings, or cycle along the old Dorset railway line.
The pursuit of happiness
Owner and life-time equine enthusiast Michelle remembers how as a younger rider she would get bored of walking while out on a ride, always eager to gallop across fields or jump fences. But, she says, “Western-style trail riding gave me a new appreciation for taking things slowly and enjoying my surroundings more,” something she wants to share with visitors.
After a busy career running a successful farming business, Michelle and her husband Marc wanted to try something different, that would allow them to take advantage of their location in this beautiful part of the world, and enable others to do the same. They say it seemed like a natural decision to create something that drew on the American west.
As Marc explains, “We felt, in a way, that we were settling this unspoiled land, so it seemed somehow appropriate. And we liked the idea of creating an experience that could transport you somewhere else.”
A new frontier in glamping
At the end of a long ride, you can retreat to one of three cabins, which successfully combine ‘rustic homestead’ with ‘boutique hotel’, and look out on wooded hills and the paddocks where the horses are turned out.
If you enjoy the idea of off-season camping more than the actual experience of cold tents and toilets a five-minute walk away, this is the answer. The word ‘glamping’ doesn’t really do it justice.
The hand-built cabins, made to Marc’s own design, were based on the simple shepherd huts used by frontiersmen. Local artisan craftsmen moulded, carved and sanded them out of cedar sourced within a few miles.
And little touches bring a bit of the west to the south-west, without feeling too themed – faux fur blankets, Native American patterns and a rifle above the bed (presumably not loaded, but I didn’t check). If you want to break the silence and bring the kids, then the seating area transforms into bunk beds.
You see very little of civilization and the trails start right outside the ranch, which is on the edge of a thousand acres of forestry. There are none of the hardships faced by homesteaders trying to carve out a life on the range. You don’t even need to go out for supplies as there is a small shop-come-wagon on site, selling essentials like milk, eggs and marshmallows – each cabin has its own fire pit.
After a few days, it’s easy to forget that the outside world exists. It offers a slower way of life and a level of escapism that make it impossible not to feel relaxed. As someone who has stayed in cabins from New Hampshire to Texas, I found this little home on the range really captured something of the authentic pioneer spirit of the American west. And it’s a lot closer.
Rachael Stiles is an editor and freelance writer living in Bristol – that wasn’t what she meant by moving ‘out west’, but it will do.
£75 per person for a two hour trail ride
£165 per person for The Pioneer Trail which includes a day’s riding, lunch and refreshments
£745 for 7 nights off-season
£250 for a two-night stay (£275 at the weekend)
http://www.loosereins.co.uk/ for more info
5 other horse riding experiences around the UK
Take in the rugged splendor of the Brecon Beacons on an overnight trek, with inn accommodation pre-booked and your luggage transported for you. Head out alone, on a guided trail or have a ‘learn to ride’ holiday. Minimum two nights.
Why just ride when you can sleep in the stables as well? From these converted self-catering apartments, you can step outside and straight onto a horse to enjoy panoramic views from the highest village in England.
Enjoy the wooded countryside of the New Forest with a trail ride, Western adventure day complete with an American BBQ or a weekend. Cowboy days for kids are also available.
Experience the history and romance of England by riding across the Cotswolds from one private stately home to another, Jane Austen style. Oh, and you get to stay in the homes as well. Trips range from 3-5 days.
Ride along unspoiled golden beaches and through moorland heather on a Coast to Coast trek along the north Highland coast, with a bed in a cosy B&B waiting for you at the end of each day in the saddle. Shorter rides and treks also available.
Photography by Hannah Tribe