Andrea Abbot discovers that little beats riding a well-schooled horse through the mistbelts of KwaZulu-Natal.
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A change of heart
Until recently, wild horses couldn’t have dragged me to mount a horse. Majestic though they are, horses scare me stiff. Their size, and hooves that can kick you into next week, are some of the reasons I steer clear of them.
However, equestrian friends of mine insist that riding’s an exhilarating experience. “You’ve no idea what you’re missing!” And so, FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) trumping FOFO (Fear Of Falling Off), I race off to the KZN Midlands to conquer my equinophobia at four trail-riding establishments.
Midlands Meander Horse Trails operates from a tranquil farm in Lidgetton. Belinda and Adam Campbell offer several trails, starting with pony rides for small children and progressing to cross-country outrides to Caversham for experienced riders.
My level is Introduction to Riding (a rung up from pony rides) and Belinda gives me the lowdown on fundamentals such as where to stand (at the horse’s shoulder), safety protocol, and equestrian etiquette, like mounting on the ‘near’ (left) side.
That established, we head out on a trail though scenic countryside, Belinda in front holding a lead-rein attached to my ride Savannah, who was rescued from the abattoir. I couldn’t have anticipated a more pleasing, confidence-boosting introduction to riding.
We chat all the way, with Belinda – a Springbok polocrosse player and chair of the Lion’s River Polocrosse Club – sharing some interesting facts about riding. Did you know an hour-long ride burns as many calories (in the human) as does a 30-minute jog? Now there’s a compelling reason to ride.
I learn too that most of Belinda’s herd are, like Savannah, rescues she’s rehabilitated using a natural, horse-whisperer approach. Certainly she has a close rapport with horses, which isn’t surprising when you consider she’s been around them for as long as she can remember. “I rode with my mother when I was a baby, and got my first pony when I was four.”
Back at the farm, I replace all those lost calories with one of the scrumptious waffles Adam conjures up in the Waffle Inn, a rustic café that looks onto paddocks, where horses graze and geese mingle with Angora goats, whose mohair wool is spun and sold on site. An added attraction at this pleasingly eclectic venue is the Last Chance Book Lounge, a treasury of second-hand books over which I’d have lingered if I’d had the chance. But I have to gallop off to another appointment, with another horse.
From beginner to winner
Buffelsbosch Equestrian is on a magnificent property three kilometres down the Lidgetton Valley Road. Ryan and Jess James dreamed of raising their family in the countryside and giving them the chance to ride, just like they’d enjoyed as youngsters.
Buffelsbosch was originally a dairy farm owned by Jess’s uncle, who sold the property to her father in 2015. “We told Jess’ dad about our dream,” Ryan says. “Three months later, Buffelsbosch Equestrian was born.” The plan was to run a livery yard and offer outrides but, Ryan explains, “Little did we know there was a massive demand for an equestrian facility that offers everything from events to outrides.”
Buffelsbosch is an impressive place, with superior stables, a clubhouse, arenas, and expansive paddocks. “We built everything from scratch as there was nothing for horses,” says Ryan.
Aside from the equestrian facilities, on offer are two beginner’s trails lasting an hour and two hours respectively and, for experienced riders, there’s a three-hour ride or a half-day adventure. The horses, for the most part, are adoptees from the Coastal Horse Care Unit. After receiving plenty of TLC they’re sound, happy animals.
At the start of a trail, Ryan gives a safety briefing and refers to the potential dangers of riding. But in the same breath, he adds, “Main thing is to not be scared. Ride confidently and you’ll have a great time.” And I do.
Ryan and guide/instructor Carol van der Merwe take me through a mistbelt forest and vast, flower-studded grasslands. It’s big-sky country with unimpeded views. Seeing it on horseback is to gain a different perspective and there are good chances of spotting wildlife. We see a jackal (the first one Ryan has seen on a trail), reedbuck and birds galore. It’s an experience to cherish.
When you’ve ridden more horses in one day than you’ve ridden in your entire life, you’re bound to wake up saddle sore (to put it mildly) the next morning. I was only too happy to experience my next equestrian destination on Shanks’ pony.
A family affair
In 2001, Katina and Bruce Saville opened Karkloof Horse Adventures on their 165-hectare farm in the Karkloof Valley. “We were the first to offer trails in the Midlands,” says Katina, who started riding when she was eight and continues to ride competitively, along with daughter Echo-Rain who, Bruce says, “cantered before she could walk.”
The family has 14 much-loved horses, most of them Boerperde. “They’re a versatile breed with a sound temperament,” Katina says. There are trails to suit all levels, ranging from rides of up to two hours on the farm to a three-hour picnic adventure to the Karkloof Falls. “We’re the only operators with a permit to ride through the SAPPI plantations to the falls,” says Katina.
A favourite trail for advanced riders is the game ride on a neighbouring farm. Katina also gives lessons and runs a regular Saturday morning pony club for children. Arriving on a Saturday morning, I encounter a group of confident children preparing for their ride. It’s uplifting to see them pursuing a healthy outdoor activity. “Happy healthy horses and happy kids, is our mantra,” Katina says.
The children start out, Katina and I and sundry dogs accompanying them on foot across unspoilt grasslands where the rest of the herd grazes. They gallop over to join the party. I’m wary of those hooves, but not in a panic. We come to a tepee on a hill overlooking Albert Falls Dam. It’s one of several tepees dotted about the farm.
Bruce handcrafts them “as a sideline”. They’re a big attraction for children participating in pony camps during school holidays. “The most famous one so far was a Survivor Camp modelled on the TV series,” Bruce says. Challenges included obstacle courses, treasure hunts, and an eating trial. By all accounts, the kids had a blast.
Last stop is CowPaddy Horse Trails on Springreen Farm along the D735 in Curry’s Post. There, I find Evonne Ghemo working with a spirited Boerperd in a lunging ring.
I watch, enthralled, as she succeeds in calming him. “We fetched him yesterday,” she explains. “He’s been a pet and rarely ridden. He needs to learn some manners.”
If anyone can teach him it’s Evonne, whose equestrian pedigree is impressive. Her riding career began when she was seven and culminated in her becoming one of the country’s top professional show jumpers.
She has also trained difficult horses, backed horses, bred horses, operated a livery yard, been a production rider, worked in the film industry supplying riders and horses for documentaries, and is a qualified FEI (International Federation for Equestrian Sports instructor). So I’m in good hands.
I’m given a good horse, Denzil. After serving in the police force most of his life, he’s literally bomb-proof. We trek out into the blue yonder, soon encountering a herd of Ngunis. Horses and cows rub noses and we continue through this most picturesque of regions.
En route, Evonne talks of the trails through the Berg and Lesotho, and on the Wild Coast, where she and partner Hayden Glenny are setting up. “We want to give accomplished riders the opportunity to experience wild riding on well-schooled, enthusiastic horses.” The first such adventure is scheduled for this year starting from Bushman’s Nek in the Berg. “We’re currently plotting the route and arranging accommodation.”
To keep body and soul and horses going, Evonne and Hayden grow and sell strawberry plants. It’s an offshoot of an enterprise growing wheatgrass and micro-veggies that Evonne ran in Gauteng, before decamping to the KZN Midlands for a lifestyle change. “It’s mind-blowing to be here in this beautiful part of the country,” she says. “We started the trails to share this beauty with others.”
To which I can confidently add that exploring the Midlands on horseback is not to be missed.
Midlands Meander Horse Trails
Belinda 082 401 4361
Ryan 083 434 2421
Karkloof Horse Adventures
Katina 083 480 2051
Evonne 083 250 4536
Words Andrea Abbott
Pictures Andrea Abbott and Brendan Leigh Photography