FORGET everything you think you know about riding horses when you turn up at Paddock Paradise, a family-run establishment a few miles from Ronda off the Gaucin road.
I confidently assure husband and wife team Fernando and Delphine that I am an experienced horsewoman, albeit a bit rusty having ridden infrequently in the last decade or so. But I am raring to get back in the saddle.
“That may well be true,” Delphine tells me. “But we do things a bit differently here. So bear with us and we’ll talk you through it.”
The horses here live free, much as they would in the wild, within the 50 hectares of virgin woodland belonging to the estate.
They form natural allegiances and live in a herd, with one horse acting as supreme leader and the rest competing for their place within a pecking order broadly following a pyramidal structure much like the employees in a listed company.
All horses are unshod and are ridden with bitless bridles. Riders do not carry crops or whips and certainly do not sport spurs attached to the heels of their boots.
Some of the horses bear the scars from previous lives where more traditional horsemanship techniques were used. Some have been rescued from abusive or neglectful owners and it has taken months to restore their trust in humans.
“We practice natural horsemanship here which means showing your dominance without shouting or violence but simply through understanding how horses communicate,” explains Delphine.
Before I get within a whiff of a horse I am told how to introduce myself to my mount and show him I’m the leader. I approach Cariñoso, a beautiful bay Andalucian, and present the back of my hand for him to sniff.
“He knows your smell now and will remember you forever,” states Fernando. “Treat him right and he’ll be a faithful friend.”
When his ears relax I move beside my steed but each time he nudges his nose against my arm or shoulder I gently but firmly push him out of my personal space. “This is how horses act in the wild, the leader will go into anyone’s space but won’t allow anyone in unless they are invited.”
And so, having made friends (and established my leadership) I mount for a quick lesson in the ring before starting the hack. With no bit in the horse’s mouth to slow them or control direction, it’s all about communication.
“Horses have an amazing range of vision so if you stretch your arm out in the direction you want to go it almost acts like an indicator and they turn without you having to ask again”.
Likewise, no kick is needed, just a couple of clicks with the tongue. And to slow, an exhalation of air should do the trick.
The basics of natural horsemanship learnt, we stroll out through the forest beneath the shady boughs of ancient Spanish oaks and cork trees.
Paddocks Paradise, a venture started by brothers Fernando and Juan six years ago, offers short hacks for beginners where riders won’t go faster than a walk. But the horses are calm, relaxed and obviously happy. And it is confidence building as well as a wonderful way to spend a few hours taking in the scenery of the dehesa.
If you’re lucky you may even come across wild deer or Andalucian blonde pigs, a rare breed that roam across the finca.
More experienced riders can arrange longer hacks, riding through the Tajo valley to gaze up at the town of Ronda straddling an ancient gorge with its impressive Roman bridge. It’s also possible to arrange three-day trips, riding up into the Serrania de Ronda or Grazalema mountains beyond.
But today we settle for a quiet walk in the woods.
Back at the ranch I reluctantly dismount and untack Cariñoso who has turned out to as much of a darling as his name suggests.
Now completely free to re-join the herd he instead follows me around, two steps behind and gently nuzzles my elbow as I walk to the gate to return to the car.
“I’ll come back soon,” I tell him softly. And he responds with a gentle whicker as if to say he’ll remember me when I do.
For more information and to book a ride visit: https://www.paddockparadiseronda.com/
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