Justine's Adventures in Wales
After returning home from her riding holiday, our lovely guest Justine Fourny sent us this wonderful blog to share her experience. We hope you enjoy reading it, just as much as we did!
Gone to Wales to find myself, a 'Border to Coast' diary...
“Have you been on a riding holiday before?” I’m staring at my computer screen, the question staring back at me. In all fairness, I’ve never been on a riding holiday before. I’ve plenty of horse-riding experience under my belt. I started riding when I was five, I was competing all through high-school in eventing, and I’ve even groomed for a professional rider for a few months, back when I lived in Australia. But all of this was a long time ago. These days, I’m lucky enough if I can get the odd lesson at the local riding school, where all I’m able to do is trot and canter in circles, safe in the midst of a tiny schooling arena.
I’m about to sign up for the “Border to Coast” package, which is a six-day expedition on horseback in Wales. And let’s be honest, I’m very nervous. I don’t know if I’m fit enough to survive the trip; I have doubts as to whether I’m a good enough rider to handle an unfamiliar horse in the great outdoors. However, I’m always up for a challenge, and having just handed in my resignation and left an office job, six days in the wilderness sounds exactly like what I need to get a fresh start.
The day before the trip begins, I get behind the wheel and drive the six and a half hours that separate Glasgow from Kington, at the border between England and Wales, where I will spend the night. The excitement of what’s coming next, along with the noise coming from the downstairs pub, prevents me from getting a good night’s sleep, but in the morning I feel energised and ready to get going.
I get a rush of adrenaline on passing the “Welcome to Wales” roadsign, just before the turnoff leading to Freerein. The venue is perched on a hill, surrounded by a few paddocks and overlooking a massive caravan park. Upon arrival, I’m welcomed by Merryn, our guide for the week - a twenty-five-year-old smiley girl whose skin is tanned from the sunshine of the land down-under.
One by one, the other team members fill in the front yard, where our first task is to pack up our things into the expedition saddle-bags. Everything that we’ll use on the holiday has to be taken with us, and there’s a limit of 6-8 kilos. Sacrifices have to be made: goodbye, the spare pair of socks, and the second set of comfy pajamas. While I’m folding up my clothes, I get a look at my companions from the corner of my eye - and I remind myself to never trust a first impression, and to never judge a book by its cover.
There’s six of us taking part in the journey, plus our guide. I’m the only French, but our group is definitely a good mixture of nationalities and generations – however, no boys! Most of them have traveled by bus or train from London and its suburbs. They sound impressed at the fact that I’ve driven all over the country – and even more impressed that this is my first trip with Freerein, because they’re all returning customers. One of them even goes on this trip every single year…
Once we’re all finished with packing up, it’s time to be matched up with our horses. I’ve been allocated Melon, a short, stocky mare with lustrous hair and steady feet. Our first encounter is not love at first sight: she tries to kick me when I grab her hind leg, and then attempts to bite me when I pull the girth tight… I can feel the blood rushing to my head, my heart beating fast in my chest. I’m going to be stuck with this horse for six days – not getting along is clearly not an option!
The getting-ready stage seems to take ages, and then all of a sudden, we’re on, and we’re off. The other staff wave us goodbye and good luck, and here we are, going out through the gates. The first section of the day is a bridle path going through the woods. Shortly after that, we’ll get our first canter up a hill, covered in purple heather and yellow gorse. The icing on the cake is coming across a herd of wild ponies, complete with young foals.
As the day goes on, I’m getting more and more comfortable in the saddle. Melon feels safe, sure-footed, and is definitely not lacking in the speed department, which is perfect for me – I’m used to nervous, spooky and fast horses. During the walk sections, I get the opportunity to chat with the other girls, and get to know everyone a bit better. They’re all laid-back, adventurous, and enthusiast about horses, without being the sort of “crazy horse girls” that I’ve unfortunately encountered in the past.
Our first night is spent in a cute and quirky B&B, a short taxi ride away from the field where we leave the horses. I’m pleasantly surprised by the standard of the room, exceeding by far my expectations. Dinner is served in a room tastefully decorated with bookshelves and artwork. We’re served a three-course meal, clearly cooked with a lot of care and attention. This time of the night is a great opportunity to strengthen our bonds within the group, and discuss the rest of the trip.
Merryn lays on the table a few maps, along with written instructions, and explains the basic rules of navigation. Around 10pm, everyone is ready to hit the hay (sorry, I just had to place this one here…). This night, no struggle to fall asleep – I sleep like a log! Upon waking up, I’m surprised to feel my body sore in places I didn’t even know had muscles in them. It’s going to be a painful week…
Landscapes vary every day; from open fields, to tiny country villages filled by medieval stone buildings, to deep forests, green valleys and buoyant rivers. By day four, I’m not sore anymore. I feel glued to the saddle, as if Melon and I are just one body moving in unison. We’ve become best mates, and I can anticipate her every move. I know when she’s going to trot up to catch up with the others; I know when we’re about to hit a canter section because her ears will pivot to face what’s ahead, her feet stomping the ground like a child having a tantrum.
the truth: on horseback, miles away from “reality”, everything
actually feels more real, more tangible.”
I’m usually left with the front spot for canters, because Melon is the fastest horse. On her back, I feel the wind battling my face, tears streaking my cheeks, my brain high on speed. It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed riding just for the sake of it, not in a competition setting. And it feels good. It’s almost like being a kid again, making the most of every moment. Far away from computers, phones and social media, I can appreciate the beauty of nature, and reconnect with my deeper sense of self.
After an entire day of rain – and a very soggy picnic – the sunshine is back on the fourth day. It’s high time we got to “The Arch”, a monument erected to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of George III. A few gallops in green fields, until we get to our final destination for the day, Devil’s Bridge – a touristy little town set on a river bank, with waterfalls galore and even a good old steam train. Given that we’re in early, we have enough time for a stroll to take in all the sights before dinner and down-time.
The day before last, we finally get a glimpse of the sea, far away behind the hills. The horses put away for the night, myself and three other girls gather the courage to go for a swim in the cold sea at Aberystwyth, where our hotel overlooks the beach. We’re just in time to watch the sunset, a perfect watercolour painting of pinks and oranges in the clouds over the horizon. This is our last evening, so it’s a good excuse to all let loose with a cheeky pint, fish and chips and sticky toffee pudding combo.
Around the table, we pass out anecdotes of our favourite moments of the week, and what we will miss the most – the horses, and the food! It’s strange to think that only a few days before, I’d never even met these people, and yet we’ve now got shared history. That one time one clumsy mare tripped over herself in the river and splashed the whole crew; that other time when we learnt about the weird story of a circus elephant who died in a local town during the nineteenth century, and so many more.
you’re ready for a challenge, passionate about horses and the
outdoors, don’t mind getting wet and dirty, and are keen to meet a
bunch of inspiring people, then it’s the right trip for you too.”
The last day, the seven couples of rider and horse finally get to the beach in Borth – a long strand of golden sand, lining a picture-perfect blue sea with tiny ripple-like waves. I’m myself pretty anxious, wondering if Melon is suddenly going to get wild and zoom out like a Mustang; but she stays true to herself, and I’m able to take in the beautiful scenery and enjoy the long gallops while feeling secure.
After a short photo-shoot session, and an ice-cream break, it’s time to untack the horses and load them onto the truck. I tell myself I’m not going to cry, but it’s quite difficult to hold back the tears. It’s a two-hour smooth journey in the taxi back to the headquarters in Clyro, during which we pass some towns we stayed in during the week. I’m tired and fancy a nap, but I’m too fascinated by what’s outside the window to even shut my eyes.
Luckily enough, the horse truck arrives just in time for us to give them a goodbye hug and give them their feed, before everyone goes their separate ways. And just like that, the adventure is over.
Would I recommend it? Without a shadow of a doubt. Do you need to be fit to take part? I’d say so. But mostly, I’d say if you’re ready for a challenge, passionate about horses and the outdoors, don’t mind getting wet and dirty, and are keen to meet a bunch of inspiring people, then it’s the right trip for you too.
If you want to find out more information about our riding holidays in Wales, including the "Border to Coast", click here. You may also contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a call on +44 (0)1905 388 977