Posted on Thursday, May 10th, 2018
A Successful First Riding Vacation in Italy
Last week I returned from my first riding holiday. We selected the “Tuscan Villages and Vintages” in Italy. The fact that I am 62 years of age may not be exceptional for going on a riding holiday. However, what may be unusual is that I didn’t start riding until I was 57 years old.
This story actually began about 30 years ago. While on a ski holiday near Aspen, we saw advertisements for riding holidays in the rocky mountains. I had visions or trail riding, venturing into country assessable only on horseback, essentially sightseeing. I filed this in my memory for future reference.
The years went by. Work became busier, we raised our children. A few years ago I casually mentioned the riding holiday to my wife, Deborah. She told me that if I was serious about doing this, then I needed to learn how to ride, and ride well. She explained that a riding holiday involved more than just walking along trails, would include trot and canter, and several hours a day in the saddle.
Learning to ride was not the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. I could have taken it up at any time. My wife is a very accomplished equestrian, with 55 years of experience in both English and Western riding. She and I and horses have been together for 36 years. I had often helped her at shows over the years, and was quite comfortable around horses. Deborah current competes in A Hunter in Ontario, Canada. She suggested that I take a few lessons on her recently retired hunter named Harmony. Following an injury, Harmony’s jumping career was over but she was still sound and very well-schooled.
So I approached Missy Todd, owner of Waymark farms near Ayr, Ontario about the possibility of a few lessons on Harmony so Deb and I could go on a riding holiday. Deb had boarded her horses there for many years. Missy was delighted and so the following summer the lessons began.
Six weeks later I was hooked! I had thought that riding would be more difficult than it actually was. There were some painful moments though when I came off the horse three times in two weeks and wasn’t sure that I wanted to continue. Nevertheless, I continued and made gradual progress. What I discovered most of all was the relationship with the horse, and how unique it was. I finally began to understand everything that my wife had talked about all those years.
As Deborah approached her 60th birthday we decided to take the riding holiday we had talked about. Our good friends, Mickey and Kathy were able to come with us. They were both experienced riders. We selected Italy as our destination. The thought of Tuscany in the spring was very appealing after a long, cold Canadian winter.
We flew overnight to Rome and headed up to Tuscany the following afternoon. Our host met us at the train station and took us to the riding center where we were to spend the next week. At the farmhouse we met the second part of the husband/wife team of hosts, who was to do most of the guiding for the tours. A couple from the UK, Phil and Jean, joined us later that evening. The 4 Canadians and 2 Brits quickly gelled as we talked about our backgrounds and riding experiences, and looked forward to the first ride the following day.
After a hearty breakfast we tacked up and set out on the trail. I had hoped to trot and canter in the sand ring before heading out as I had limited experience on horses other than my own. This was not to be however. After a couple of minutes at a walk we went straight to trot followed by canter. I had never cantered at such speeds before. Most of my riding had been gentle schooling canters in an arena, and the first canter at the blistering speed of 20 km per hour was a little unnerving as I desperately tried to remember everything that my coach had told me over the past five years. Sit up and back, heels down and feet forward! I stayed on. By day three I was enjoying the fast canters, on day four I galloped for the first time.
Most of the week I rode a delightful 14 year old gelding named Ambrogio. We bonded very quickly. I soon discovered his quirks and he discovered mine. He was very nimble up and down the slopes. I found his trot was a little rough but his canter was very smooth. I was told that everyone who rides him loves him, and I was no exception.
Some of the rides were morning and afternoon, some were half day and we did three full day rides. The terrain was quite varied. We rode along logging roads, through vineyards and olive groves. A lot of the terrain was quite steep and rough, stony and muddy in others. We crossed several streams. We rode to villages, castles and wineries. We had several wine tastings and visited several wine cellars. Wine with lunch and dinner. Two hour sumptuous picnic lunches overlooking some of the most magnificent scenery I have ever seen. With wine and rich Italian expresso. Medieval castles, Tuscan farmhouses, forest, vineyards and olive groves. The horses would shy when we flushed pheasant and deer. And did I mention the wine?
We had two afternoons when we did not ride and our hosts took us to visit the towns of Montepulciano and Siena. These are well preserved medieval towns with lots to see and explore. There is also excellent shopping. In addition to the usual typical tourist items, there are several stores selling unique artwork and handmade goods from the region. And plenty of wine and gelato!
Some stats for the week: Total distance on horseback was 105 km. Time in the saddle was about 30 hours. Maximum speed – 24 km per hr. Bottles of wine consumed …. we lost count.
Our hosts were gracious and attentive and took wonderful care of us. Our meals were long and delicious, it is Tuscany after all. We had pasta twice daily, lunch and dinner along with salads, meats and vegetables. Fennel is a vegetable not generally eaten in North America but common in Tuscany. One night we sampled wild boar, a Tuscan specialty.
The weather that week was nearly perfect, with nights 10-15 degrees, and days 20-25. It was sunny every day. The pool was still cool at the end of April, but this was not an issue for Canadians familiar with cold lake water.
The farmhouse where we stayed is quite large and has been divided into several units, each with a private bathroom. There is a large common and dining area, with a kitchen. There is no television. Internet access is available.
The horses are well cared for and clearly loved. Stalls were immaculately cleaned. Both outfitters grew up riding and they are clearly passionate about it. Riders and horses were well matched. As the least experienced rider, I was given a very reliable horse with whom I felt quite safe, but was also very responsive..
Since this was my first riding holiday it will always be special and I would highly recommend it to others. However, it would not be a ride for beginners. After 5 years of riding 4-5 days per week, I had still not done much in the way of trail riding and I found the full days long.
You need to be in good physical shape for this ride, especially if you are older. I need to emphasise the importance of this. I was grateful for the many hours I spent in the gym working out. As much of the terrain is rough and hilly I found that half an hour of stretching exercise before the ride probably helped in reducing the aches and pain associated with long days in the saddle.
I would recommend this ride for advanced intermediate and advanced riders. You also need to love great scenery, great food and great wine. Get in shape. Learn to speak a little Italian. And we are already thinking about our next riding holiday!