‘Rule number one. You are on a horse, not a Chopper, so do not lean back hoping for a wheelie. You will look stupid’
Written by John Bishop
First published on Fri 27 Jan 2012 23.02 GMT
There are few things from childhood that define your social class more than your relationship with horses. If you grew up on a council estate, as I did, a horse was something each member of the family put money on once a year when the Grand National came around, so you could enjoy the joy of bonding as a family by shouting at the television in support of your particular nag and threatening to turn the losers into glue.
Melanie, my wife, had a different upbringing. The only daughter of a working-class boy from Preston who became a successful businessman, much of her childhood was spent owning and riding horses. She’d be in one part of the annual country show jumping a prized pony while I was in another riding a secondhand Chopper and trying to be Evel Knievel.
Then we both entered adulthood and life took over. Marriage, children, mortgages, holidays, careers and the school run all replaced the joy of riding, something that sent the wind through your hair and filled your chest with joy. So a trip to southern Spain to go horse riding together was a chance for us to feel that again.
Ex-pats Ali and Sarah Vesey run the Caballo Blanco Trekking Centre, just outside the Andalucian town of Lanjaron, and it was Ali who picked us up from the airport and drove us to our lodgings, La Casa del Viento. Although we arrived late, Ann, the owner, was waiting for us. The altitude meant the air was cooler, but the log burner was lit, there was wine and cheese on the table and a pan of homemade soup on the stove. As the fire began to warm us, it was as if we’d been transported into our very own hobbit house.
After a fantastic night’s sleep, a good breakfast and strong Spanish coffee, we were collected by Ali and set off up to the ranch in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. At the stables we met Sarah, who set up the centre more than 16 years ago. I had not been sure what to wear on my legs. The advice had been to wear something without seams, and the only things I knew of without seams were tights, but Melanie assured me this was not what was meant, so I wore tracksuit bottoms. Sarah also said I needed “chaps”, which scared me, because I had visions of the big leather ones worn by the cowboy in Village People, but thankfully these just cover your calves and shins. If you go riding, wear them – they are lifesavers. Melanie had brought her jodhpurs, even though she no longer has a horse, but that’s our business.
Once suitably attired, it was time to meet our horses. Most are Andalucians, and Sarah had already selected ours based on our relative experience. I was given a striking white horse called Cielo, while Melanie got the more feisty Mimi.
Starting 100m up at the ranch, Sarah led us north, climbing above the town of Orgiva along a logging trail towards Puente Palo, then steeply up an ancient mule path known as El Prado de Las Liebres (the meadow of the hares). The views were spectacular and the area alive with wildlife, from mountain goats and vultures to wild boars.
As we climbed 1,800m, it was clear to me that Cielo was looking at Mimi’s load and feeling slightly aggrieved at having to lug 14 stones of bouncy Englishman on his back rather than the graceful, light weight of someone who was immediately in with the rhythm of the horse. But by the time we paused for lunch, we’d grown accustomed to each other.
By this point, you see, I’d learned the three basic rules for the novice:
Rule number one You are on a horse, not a Chopper, so do not lean back when going uphill, hoping for a wheelie – you will look stupid.
Rule number two If you do not get your backside out of the saddle when the horse runs, it will hurt everywhere and you will look stupid.
Rule number three If you stand up out of the saddle to try to make the horse run and he doesn’t want to run and so stands still, your legs will hurt and you will look stupid.
But being a novice rider is like being a novice golfer. On the links, it is that one shot out of 100 that you remember, and on a horse it is that moment, however fleeting, when you and the horse suddenly connect.
After lunch, we followed the Lanjaron river gorge to see the snow on the range. As we turned back, Cielo began to trot and I realised I was no longer bouncing but moving in rhythm with him. I was back to being five, when Dad took the stabilisers off my bicycle and, after running with me for a while, let me go. I could hear his voice growing distant, but didn’t want to look back in case I wobbled and fell. The excitement, the wind in my face, Dad calling to me not to stop… Then the park of my childhood was replaced by the Sierra Nevada, the sun reflecting off the Mediterranean, the mountains of the African continent shimmering on the distant horizon, and it was Sarah telling Cielo to stop. We were in harmony, but only because he knew he was on his way down and felt like a bit of a trot first.
After the descent back to the ranch and a rather emotional goodbye to the horses that had carried us for hours, it was time to thank Sarah and return to La Casa del Viento. That night we ate with Ann and some other guests in front of a raging fire – the food and the company were excellent. When we had to leave the following morning, it was with a real hint of sadness. By the time we landed back at Manchester, my legs had begun to stiffen and feel sore. Riding for the first time is like falling in love for the first time: when it’s happening, it’s the best thing in the world; the day after it’s over, you hurt like hell. But you count the days till it happens again.
• John Bishop went with GoLearnTo.com on a three-day horse-riding break in Lanjaron, from £317pp (flights not included, transfers, etc extra). GoLearnTo is offering Guardian readers 20% off deposits for bookings made on any horse riding holiday worldwide before the end of February 2012. To qualify, quote the promo code GHR when making your booking.