Horse Riding

Every month activity expert Judy Armstrong will introduce a new pastime to help you make the most of France’s great outdoors. Judy, who has bases in England and the French Alps, is constantly on the move. Her adventures for FRANCE Magazine include ice diving in Tignes, ski Joering in Les Arcs and cycling the length of the River Loire.

Horse ridingThe lake shimmers, sun smacks the grass, butterflies flutter. I sigh with happiness and lean back, using Italy as a support, like a sofa. She’s lying down too; her eyes are closed and she snuffles slightly. My little grey horse is relaxed and content, just like me.I say my’ horse. She isn’t really. Italy is my friend for a week, carrying me through the Pyr�n�es, letting me explore this glorious mountain country from the comfort of a saddle. After a week I’ll return home and someone else will fall in love with her, but for now, she’s mine.Italy has pert little ears with dark rims, as if someone has used eye-liner on them. She has a pretty face, delicate legs and is as hard as nails. For a week we have trotted through woodland, galloped fast up hills, wandered through meadows and tiptoed over rocks. We have developed a relationship: I bring her bread as a special treat (OK, so it’s a bribe, but let me kid myself), and she allows me to catch, brush and saddle her. I whisper sweet nothings to her and she swishes her tail or tosses her head in acknowledgment.  Bonding aside, the special thing about Italy – or Panache, or Eclipse, or whichever horse I am lucky enough to be teamed with – is that she allows me to cover terrain that I would never otherwise see. Sometimes we move slowly, at a human’s walking pace. Sometimes we gallop, swallowing the miles at an exhilarating rate. Always we ride quietly, watching, feeling, smelling the landscape, becoming part of it in a way a car driver never can.This is trail riding. It’s not about lessons in an indoor school, or jumping or dressage or trotting in circles. It’s about riding from A to B, staying in a different place – g�te, auberge, hotel – each night, meeting different people, eating, drinking and chatting with hosts, guides and fellow guests. Trail riding in France is special. Besides well trained horses and top-quality equipment, riders can expect the best of regional French food and wine, varied terrain, snapshots of history. On a recent ride in the Lot, we joked that everything was medieval – except it wasn’t a joke. Abbeys, ch�teaux, villages, watermills – we were literally riding through time.  On some rides, on mellow terrain, confident beginners can tackle trail riding. Levels of equitation in France are extremely high and many guides are also qualified instructors. Mostly, though, it’s riders with some experience who fall in love with France-on-horseback. Trail riding guides have an uncanny knack of matching guests with the perfect horse, so the more you ride, the more you want to ride. And if that isn’t an incentive to book a few lessons, I don’t know what is.THE TECHNIQUETrail riding is not about looking smart. It’s about being relaxed in the saddle and in tune with your horse, so you can enjoy both the riding and the scenery. Being able to walk, trot and canter along lanes and tracks is a minimal requirement (I recently did a trail ride with someone who had only ridden in an indoor school, and he found the outside world to be a rather different environment!). On most rides, you’ll be in the saddle for two or three hours at a time; morning routes tend to be longer, with a shorter leg after a restful lunch.It’s common, in France, for trail riders to feed, groom and saddle their own horses. The guide will run through the process on the first day, but the routine soon feels natural, even for beginners. It’s practical, but it’s also part of the bonding process.

THE GEARA hard hat is recommended (and often obligatory) for trail riding. It’s not just about falling off: think about the combination of an unfamiliar horse, low branches and high speed, and you’ll pack that helmet immediately. Modern vented hats are lightweight,  cool and comfortable; check out options from Champion, John Whitaker or Pikeur (very expensive, very ventilated!) Forget long boots: use short riding boots that are also comfortable for walking. I use Mountain Horse boots with a reinforced toe; Ariat is another popular brand.Half-chaps, which cover the lower leg, are essential. Check they’re not too tight at the top; legs swell in the heat, especially after a few hours in the saddle. Some people ride in full chaps but these are hot, heavy and less user-friendly in warm conditions.Lightweight riding gloves are a good idea, providing grip on the reins and protecting against sunshine.Jodhpurs or dedicated riding trousers ensure all-day comfort. Close fitting and stretchy, with reinforcements up the inside leg, they also fit neatly under half-chaps.Padded shorts or cycling shorts are the key to happiness. They provide an extra layer of comfort between you and the saddle. I promise, after five hours on the move, you’ll be the envy of your fellow riders.Where to goThe Lot  in southern France is a paradise for trail riding. Rolling hills, gentle woodland, lakes and streams offer ideal country for travelling by horse. The best trail riding outfit is run by Hans and Hermina at Du Passe Temps – to read more about them, their superb horses and terrain, check out the feature on page 57 of this issue. Proficient riders can also journey from here into the Dordogne, on a six-day ride through the P�rigord Noir, the most famous pre-historic region in France. Highlights include Ch�teau Beynac and Castelnaud. More info from In The Saddle, tel: (UK) 01299 272 997 or visit www.inthesaddle.com for more information.n The Pyr�n�es are home to a unique form of trail riding. A transhumance takes place every year when a herd of horses (numbers vary between 60 and 80) move from Porta in the mountains to the plains near Toulouse for winter, and back in spring. Fifteen riders accompany this torrent of horses, keeping them together and encouraging them forward. After a week of moving as a team, the riders become part of the herd. Conventional trail rides, or randonn�es, run from Porta during the summer, with Pierre and Carol as hosts. Pierre is an advocate of  pieds nuds’ or barefoot horses (details at www.equi-libre.fr). For details of joining the Transhumance, contact Have Horse Will Travel, tel: (UK) 01303 862996 or visit www.hhwtravel.comn Vienne, a nudge west of central France, is a rarely publicised region of l’Hexagone. Its wooded paths and wildflowers, rural g�tes and remote villages are best discovered on horseback, with the River Vienne as a fitting focus. Multi-day trail rides for competent riders are offered by Patrick and Anne, immersing guests in rural France. Tel: (UK) 01299 272 997 or visit www.inthesaddle.com.n Combining vineyards and horses, Bordeaux is the ultimate destination for wine-loving equestrians. Using French saddle horses, Sabine and Thomas escort riders through some of the country’s most famous terroirs. Wine tastings include M�doc, St-�milion, Graves and the famed whites of Sauternes. Putting the glass aside, other gems on this ride are the Citadelle of Blaye, the feudal castle Rauzan and the Bastide of Cadillac. Tel: (Fr) 4 37 02 20 00 or visit www.rideinfrance.com for more information.