Horseback Holiday: Exploring the Welsh Countryside Can Be a Mane Event
Sunday, July 19, 2009
The Welsh don't play polo.
It's not because they regard it as a snobbish sport for the English upper class (though they do) or because they don't like horses (they like them very much). No, the problem with playing polo in Wales is that if you whack the ball once, it rolls straight down a mountain and into a hedgerow, never to be seen again. Except maybe by a sheep.
The Welshman who explained this equestrian conundrum to me was Paul Turner, arguably one of the most accomplished "trekking" horsemen in his country. We were riding along a ridge halfway down a steep green hill, our horses easily negotiating a narrow sheep path that's "been there forever," Turner said. Several hundred feet below, we could see our final destination, Cwmfforest Farm, home to Trans Wales Trails, a business the Turner family has run since 1970.
"Okay. Ready to canter?" Turner asked me.
"Are you nuts? We're on the side of a mountain."
"Yes, but the trail is flat," he called back.
I pressed my feet down into the stirrups, tightened my reins and laced a bit of my horse's mane through my fingers, and away we went. For only about the 17th time in the past two days, I had to tell myself that this was real. I was riding a horse through the Black Mountains of Wales and loving every minute of it.
Here's the first thing you need to know about riding holidays in Wales: They are not, like polo, just for the rich and famous. Once you are in the United Kingdom, staying at a horse farm is an affordable way to get out and see the countryside. For a weekend of riding, including all meals and accommodations, Cwmfforest charges 220 pounds, roughly $360 at the current exchange rate. Compare that with one of the stables in the Shenandoah Valley, which charges $150 just for an afternoon's ride. To be fair, American liability insurance contributes to the difference, but riding in the United Kingdom remains a travel bargain.
I got lucky. I was going to be in Cardiff for a week-long professional development course, so I arranged to stay a few extra days at my own expense. Then I started surfing the Net. Googling "Riding Holidays Wales" revealed page after page of horse lovers' porn. There were easily 50 farms to choose from. I needed professional help.
Thankfully, Robert Lewis Jones at Visit Wales, the national tourism board, stepped in with some advice. Since I wouldn't have a car -- limited budget, too chicken to drive on the other side of the road -- he suggested Cwmfforest. The farm is near Brecon Beacons National Park but is accessible via public transportation (a three-hour train ride from London) and a short taxi ride from nearby Abergavenny. (Here I should point out that it is pointless to try pronouncing Welsh proper names. "Cwm" is pronounced "coom"; Abergavenny I never did master.)
The farm needed a little information in advance: my height, weight and riding ability. Not details one frequently shares via e-mail with a total stranger. I divulged only this: I am tall, thin and have long legs. Please don't put me on a pony (a horse smaller than 14.2 hands, or 58 inches at the shoulder). Later I learned that the farm does have a weight limit of 13 stone, or 180 pounds.
I needn't have feared. That first morning at the farm, I saw how much care Turner takes when matching up riders with mounts. Six of us, ranging in age from 8 to 40-something, assembled in the paddock like a cavalry troop. Turner first assigned horses to my fellow riders, an extended family from Cambridge. Libby on Tristan, Connie on Hank, etc. He saved me for last. "Nothing too fast," I said. "And preferably at least 15 hands."