Pale rider Jason Heppenstall does his best Clint Eastwood impression and convinces his family that he is not in fact a cowboy
MY ten-year old nephew thinks I am a cowboy. I’m not sure where he got this impression from but the one thing he wanted to do more than anything else on his recent visit to Andalucía was ride some trail with me in the mountains.
I am not, in fact, a cowboy – although the person whose wall I recently helped to build might beg to differ.
My only equine contact to date has been a short riding trip when I was about my nephew’s age. More recently, I occasionally watch the saccharine My Little Pony TV programme with my daughter, but that’s about it.
Clearly I needed to find someone who could help me out of my tight spot.
And so it was Sarah of Caballo Blanco who rode to my rescue. I was put in touch with her by a friend who assured me she would easily be able to cope with our lack of riding skills. She invited us to her horse riding centre in the hills above Lanjarón for a morning’s ride. My daughter got wind of this excursion and insisted on attending, as did my sister, Joanne, whose only past experience of horse riding involved her steed indulging in a spot of impromptu break dancing – something she was lucky to come out of unscathed.
A misty morning, fog ladled into the valleys, as my ageing 4×4 chugged up the hills with its cargo of queasy riders. On the way up we spotted a flock of vultures circling and wheeling. But any thoughts of bad omens were dispelled when we reached the riding centre and met Sarah.
Sarah, vivacious and jocular, was getting the horses ready for our trek and assessing our head sizes for helmets. Twelve years experience of organising such outings meant that she could take one look at us and find a suitable horse for each. She is, she admits “addicted to collecting horses” and has 15 of them at her ranch. They range from small Shetland-like ponies to large bays, and she has trained all of them herself. Some arrived maltreated and bad-tempered and yet she has managed to bestow calmness upon them and ensure they live the rest of their lives in peace.
Without further ado we mount and set off in single file at a steady pace. I’ve been given a rather large brown horse called Bruno who, I’m warned, is fond of snacking en route and scratching his bum on brambles. Adam, my nephew, is mounted on a brown mare of gentle character while my four-year-old daughter is sitting atop a small horse that is led by one of the stable hands. And there is a full complement of stable hands to assist – most of them Danish and German girls with a love for horses that has brought them all this way on a kind of working holiday.
There are, I am told, four horse gaits: walk, trot, canter and gallop. Due to our inexperience we barely broke out of a walk, although my sister did attempt a bit of trotting. But it’s not about how fast you go, it’s mostly about the scenery and method by which you’re seeing it. The end-of-summer rains had broken a couple of weeks before and the parched earth had sprung back to life in a profusion of scented bushes (lavender, rosemary). Our small convoy walked on well-trodden paths and we learned how to direct the horse using the reins and spur them on when they slowed.
At one point we head off the track to go uphill, which requires that we hold onto the mane and lean forwards as far as we can. It’s a strange feeling to be sitting atop a living animal as it labours up a hill, and elicits a small feeling of guilt, although Sarah quickly assures me the animals love these outings and are a lot cannier than I might give them credit for.
We split into two groups and I and my daughter head back to the ranch for a cup of tea – “An hour is enough for a four year old novice.” In fact, an hour is the thinnest end of the wedge and some trips Sarah heads take up to four days and include overnight stays in villages of la Alpujarra. She also tells me about a scheme of hers whereby local children are brought up to the riding centre from Órgiva and Lanjarón and taught all aspects of horse riding on a regular basis. “They love it, “she says. “And it is a skill they will retain for life.” Jasmine looks at me pleadingly.
Too soon we find ourselves in the car heading home. All notions of me being a cowboy have now, thankfully, been dispelled and the kids are elated. Joanne is pleased her horse kept on its feet and Adam is already planning vast transcontinental trips on horseback. Ride ‘em cowboy!
Jason went horse riding with Caballo Blanco www.caballoblancotrekking.com. A two-hour trek costs 30 euros and novice rides for children cost 20 euros.