Long-suffering horse husband Garry Ashton-Coulton pens a warning to any gentlemen considering giving into wanderlust by booking a riding holiday
I must say I have enjoyed some wonderful holidays in the saddle, but I have also had a few that were memorable in quite different ways.
Well gentlemen, allow me to explain. If you hop from five-star hotel to five-star hotel along with your valet and your Louis Vuitton portmanteau, all will be well with the world. If however you hop from derelict eastern European hovel to derelict eastern European hovel with a mustachioed continental gentleman possessed of the laissez-faire attitude that only mustachioed continental gentlemen seem to posses, things may well be best described as… interesting.
My advice, as in all things, is read the small print.
In the aforementioned case we were met at the airport by a dark haired unspeaking man in a dark unspeakably rusted van. The sun was shining and we were bowling along with the excitement of the holiday. Believe me or not, but as the local mountains came into view, the sky darkened, lightning flashed across the horizon and the thunder was deafening. I half expected our driver to look over his shoulder and say ‘The master is expecting you’.
The riding centre was ancient and best described as homely. Fortunately there were no angry villagers with flaming torches, or darkly handsome men with long cloaks and hypnotic eyes, only the continental gentleman, who I now recollect was the very image of the Lorax. His mission seemed to be to keep most of the group high on unspeakably cheap booze, and to amuse himself by leading me (tall) and himself (short), through densely wooded low branched forests.
Our first night’s accommodation was startling in its simplicity to say the least. It was nothing like the Ritz… indeed it wasn’t even like your typical Travelodge. It was in fact more or less like a set from the Walking Dead (and that is what I looked like the following morning). The sleeping arrangements were cosy and, some would say, overly communal. A thick layer of straw was spread over the floor and an old tarpaulin spread over that. As I hunkered down in my Millets sleeping bag, I tried desperately not to make contact with the rather attractive, yet overly eager ladies on either side. I kept my machete under my pillow in case of attack by anything undesirable during the night hours.
The following morning breakfast was cooked on an electric ring rigged up using bare wires hanging from the light fiting — my inner health and safety officer was not impressed. Even less impressive was the toilet. I think the phrase is ‘long drop’. Picture if you will your shiny morning cheeks perched atop a cold, rough-hewn wooden plank with a hole in the middle through which the wind rushes from the precipitous abyss, while you endeavour to vanquish your fears and go about your daily business.
Our mounts, although fit and healthy, were best described as rangy, bordering on lean, however they did their job like good sorts. The countryside was truly beautiful. It felt like travelling back in time to the days of medieval England. At one point I was berated by a gnarled old haradon for standing in front of her door as a herd of cattle were driven through the middle of a village. Not wishing to be set upon with her substantial walking stick, I jumped out of the way. At this point, she opened her front door and ushered inside an enormous cow! I would love to have seen the litter tray for that particular pet.
Our second day’s route was arranged to take us through a number of villages and finish at what we were assured was a luxury prepared camp in the mountains. About two villages in we were ambushed by a local and forced to drink his home-brewed hooch. No-one protested too much, especially not our guide. However, unbeknown to us, the fallout from our stopover meant we had missed the window of escape to the next village as the road had been closed by the military road due to an outbreak of Bird Flu, I kid you not. This meant we had to take the long way round to get to the campsite. This was the mountain route in ever increasing darkness. I quite enjoyed riding a horse through a mountain pass, listening to howl of the wolves (at least I hoped they were wolves!) and the whimpering of less hardy riders, the glow of whose signal-free mobile phones left an impotent trail of lights in the utter darkness.
We arrived at camp some five hours adrift of schedule, after riding for what seemed the length of a low-rent middle eastern endurance race. After visions of luxury ‘glamping’, we were greeted by a row of budget tents, some wooden school benches and an enormous bonfire. Faced once more with communal sleeping arrangements, I chose to sleep cowboy style under the stars by the fire. I reasoned that while the rest of the party were torn limb from limb by Canis Lupus, I could make a quick getaway with at least my dignity intact.