Horse riding is a sport enjoyed by people of all ages and from all walks of life. It has health benefits through exercise and spending time out of doors, and contributes to mental well being by the contact with horses and the relaxation benefits.
Riding on bridleways, tracks and open spaces is an ideal way to see the countryside and the natural environment. Wild animals and birds are less wary of a horse and rider than of a walker and the relatively slow space and height from the ground reveals more than a cyclist will notice.
A number of trekking centres offer riding for complete beginners where you can enjoy the countryside at a gentle stroll from the back of a quiet horse for a couple of hours or several days. But if you have the urge to ride more regularly and be more "at one" with a horse then it is always best to start at a riding school. There are a number listed in the area, small ones with a few horses to big establishments with many horses and more variety, but the size is not necessarily an indicator of standard. Visit a couple and see how they feel to you; are they friendly?, do they appear competent?, do the horses seem happy? Do the lessons look interesting? Many riding schools offer "hacking" out once you have reached a certain level of competence and depending on the quietness of their horses. The British Horse Society website is an excellent source of information and there is a step by step guide about where to learn, your first lesson, basic equipment and FAQs. You will need an approved standard hard riding hat, which many riding schools and trekking centres will keep a supply to borrow until you may wish to buy your own, and boots that cover the ankle and have a low heel.
Riding in the Countryside
For riders who have use of a horse, whether their own or borrowed, riding in the countryside can be a daunting prospect as not everyone is confident finding their way around or dealing with their horse in fraught situations.
Apart from the requisite hard hat and boots, anyone hacking out should ALWAYS carry a mobile phone and if possible tell someone where they are going. The phone should have the recognised emergency code ICE (in case of emergency) which should be the phone number of the person to contact first if there is an accident. Apart from this, riders should wear a Hi-Viz tabard which will help drivers to see them a few seconds quicker on the roads, low flying aircraft to spot riders quicker and take avoiding action if possible, and for rescuers if the riders should part with their horse and be hurt in remote countryside (including air rescue). It is also a good idea to put a dog tag on your horse’s saddle or bridle with your name and phone number and where the horse lives. Please also remember to always thank vehicle drivers and cyclists who slow down for you – it is appreciated by them and encourages their consideration for other riders. Good manners have to start somewhere and in these days of everyone trying to share busy roads it might just make a difference. Watch out for people on foot as well, many people are frightened of horses and find horse riders intimidating so politeness and courtesy and not racing past them promotes good relations. Most dog walkers will hold their dogs as you pass so always thank them.
If you are new to hacking try to go out with someone experienced who knows the area and can show you the best places and where to avoid. It is also worth looking at the local Ordnance Survey Explorer map which shows a good amount of detail and even writing directions on paper to take with you. Some areas will have "Toll rides", which is where local landowners have agreed to let riders use set aside or other routes on their land usually in return for an annual fee. Be aware that these are not usually free, nor part of the public right of way network, and any irresponsible or unauthorised use could result in their closure, to the detriment of other riders. Always leave gates as you find them and if there are animals in the fields go through as quietly as possible, particularly with sheep. You may be mobbed by curious cattle but they will not usually do more than gather round and will move as you move.
Once you have explored your local area the next step is to explore somewhere else! Again, Explorer maps will help you find bridleways and lanes in other areas and other riders are also good sources for ideas. It is often possible to park a lorry or trailer in a layby or picnic area, on a large grass verge or even a pub (with permission of the landlord!). It is essential to check potential parking areas first before setting off with your horse and DON’T block gateways or any other access points or you may return to your vehicle to find it towed away or pushed aside. Please clear up after your horse before leaving parking areas.
There is also great fun to be had doing "fun rides" – these are organised circular rides, often with optional jumps, of around 12 miles and are usually fund raising events. These have specific parking areas and are often open for several hours to allow a staggered start and finish. Good sources of information for these events and others are Funrides UK , The Riding Diary and The Trails Trust.
Rides in the area
This website contains some horse rides, more of which will be added in the future, to encourage exploration of the countryside on horseback. However, it has to be said that owing to the disjointed network of bridleways all rides will have an element of roadwork. This is pointed out in each ride with particular emphasis where the road is more hazardous, giving the potential user the option of following the ride or not. Map references are also given so that rides can be adapted by the individual using an Ordnance Survey map. Suggestions for horse box parking are also included but the potential user would be advised to check out beforehand to ensure that the spot is still available and the start points of advertised rides do not necessarily indicate suitable parking.
Holidays on horseback
The ultimate fun is to take your horse on holiday or, if you do not have a horse, many trekking centres offer holidays where you are paired with one horse for the length of your stay. Trekking holidays can take the form of large or small groups and fast or slow rides, all day or just a few hours a day in the saddle. Horse owners have a wider choice: Bed and Breakfast for horses where you arrange everything yourself and either stay in the same place and ride out and back each day, or move on to different locations; booking a holiday with a company that pre-organises routes of 2 or 3 days or more, with accommodation and luggage transport; or follow one of the many long distance trails that welcomes horses, (eg, the Ridgeway, the Sabrina Way, the South Downs Way, the Jack Mitton Way, the Claude Duval way, the Three Rivers ride) and travel light!. Details of these are often available in leaflet form or online and usually include details of horse friendly Bed and Breakfast establishments. A useful website is Rides UK. The BHS also publish a book called B&B for horses.
A final note of caution
Be safe when you are riding - the British Horse Society website has very useful information about riding safely. And, when you're planning a ride, read any instructions carefully before you set out, so you have a better idea of what to expect - it's recommended that you take a good map with you.
This article was contributed by Ann Fay and Lindsay Saunders. Ann is a member of the JLAF and the South Gloucestershire & Bristol Access Officer (a voluntary post) for the British Horse Society. Lindsay Saunders is a Public Rights of Way Officer at South Gloucestershire Council. Both have horses and have taken them on holiday several times.