Aquitaine Adventures, France, 2012.
Sarah Ritchie, Far and Ride.
From 7th – 14th October 2012, Sarah from Far and Ride escorted a group of clients on the ‘Atlantic Coast Experience’ at our Aquitaine Adventures destination in France. This is a programme for experienced riders and combines trails in the pine forests with excellent beach riding. In the warmer summer months it also includes the chance to swim with your horse in the sea, a special experience for everyone.
Below is Sarah’s report on her French adventure:
“I met two Far and Ride clients, Sue and Jules, at Luton Airport before our departure on an empty one and a half hour flight to Bordeaux. We met another client Katie at arrivals before heading to meet out driver who would take us to the riding centre where we would meet Michel, the owner of the stables and the organiser of rides at this destination. After a quick introduction he drove us to our accommodation, Hotel Mermoz, which is a mere five minute drive from the stables (an easy walk in fact) and situated in the coastal town of Mimizan-Plage. After check-in we spent our free afternoon eating lunch in a restaurant overlooking the beach before exploring the town. Mimizan is a quaint little seaside town full of restaurants and shops with miles and miles of almost deserted beach, though it’s busier during peak season when tourists come to experience the silver coast and the good weather. Before dinner we greeted Adrian, another Far and Ride client (who had travelled from Biarritz airport), and were taken to a local restaurant called Chez Jean Paul for dinner along with other guests. We enjoyed a delicious first dinner of salad, bread and cold meats to start, beef kebabs and ‘pomme frites’ for main course and then a selection of desserts. Drinks are not included with the dinners but they do not cost much here.
The following morning we headed for the hotel breakfast which consisted of tea or coffee and juice, yoghurt, bread, croissants with jam and Nutella. We were not due to ride until the afternoon so in the morning we took the short walk to the yard for a look around. The equestrian centre is set in a vast pine forest surrounded by wooded paths and we could see the horses out in the paddocks in a herd, happily munching on hay. The horses are fit and appear lean compared to many UK riding school horses but they were always well fed and ready for the work. The yard is very neat and tidy with personal touches such as the horses’ names above the stables. When it was time to get riding, the horses all promptly brought themselves into the yard from the paddock and into the stables (although some wandered into the wrong ones!). We all sat down a whilst Michel went through assigning horses to each rider based on their size, ability and preferences. He made sure to tell each rider something about their horse, their character and anything he felt the rider needed to know. My horse for the week, Helios, was a beautiful Anglo-Arab with a kind, honest face and sweet nature. Michel explained in great detail to the whole group how he liked his horses to be cared for and demonstrated how he would like them tacked up so as to prevent sores and girth galls. Each saddle has a head collar and lead rope attached and a clip to attach the reins to for when you need to leave your horse standing. Each rider also has saddlebags with one side used for horse items such as grooming equipment and the other side for riders’ personal belongings (such as suncream). Once we had tacked up, Michel checked over each horse before we mounted and directed us into the arena. We rode in the school so that Michel could assess abilities and help us improve our 3-point position for cantering and galloping – we rode around the arena together so that nobody was singled out or felt embarrassed. Once Michel was satisfied that we ready, it was time to depart.
During the ride Michel directed us on different paths so that the horses were not just following one another in a line. He was always checking each rider was OK and comfortable. After a couple of hours of walking, trotting and cantering to get to know our horses, we stopped for drinks and snacks which had been set up earlier in the forest. We got back on after the break and the ride eventually ended on the vast and deserted beach. Each rider seemed well matched to their horses but Michel decided to make a couple of changes the next day as he had more of an idea of which horses would best suit which riders. Michel has over fifty horses to choose from so they are not used back to back for trails and he also has flexibility when it comes to changing horse and rider combinations. When the horses are not being used they are kept out in local fields within a 5km radius of the stables and are moved around according to where there is good grazing. Once back at the yard Michel explained he also had a particular way he liked his horses untacked and cared for once you had dismounted. After the horses were tended to they were let back out into the paddock for the night. Dinner tonight was at the same restaurant and consisted of salad, meats, cheese, bread, cannelloni and again, a selection of desserts.
Tuesday was our first full day ride which began on the beach. We headed to Étang d’Aureilhan, a large lake protected by the state and lying north of Mimizan. This ride was originally due to be later in the week but Michel had adjusted the itinerary slightly as we were due some bad weather… great forward planning! The ride was varied, starting on the beach before continuing on to seemingly endless pine forests and then the lake. This was the perfect setting for lunch and the horses had plenty of space to graze and hay was also brought along for them. The horses were untacked and let loose each lunchtime to eat, drink and have a roll and there was always natural water available to them. Lunch was already set up for us when we arrived, courtesy of Michel’s partner Anette, and it consisted of salads, meats, cheese, bread, crisps and in true French style, plenty of wine. It was a very hot day so there was also the opportunity to swim in the lake.
After a very leisurely lunch we set off along the shores of the lake and there were opportunities for long gallops (we set off one by one). Michel sent me first on a couple of these gallops which soon proved to be a mistake with me leading the group either in the wrong direction or too far… not that there were many complaints about my extended gallops! However my directional skills could certainly use some work. There were a few optional logs we could jump but riders who preferred not to could easily avoid them by steering around them or slowing to a walk, in which case the horses would simply step over them. We rode to the Landes Manor house where Michel would normally keep the horses overnight but as the group was so large we left them in a nearby field and were driven to the house itself. The manor is impressive with lovely big rooms and a nice atmosphere. We were shown to our rooms and told dinner would be served at 9pm in the two dining areas. Dinner this evening was a rice dish with mushrooms and pork.
After breakfast the next morning we were driven back to the field where our horses were happily grazing. Today was Michel’s 56th birthday, he tried (but failed) to keep this information quiet! At our lunch stop, in a nice quiet village where the horses grazed by the river, there were balloons and a large cake waiting for him. His son also joined us for lunch and he was given a silly birthday hat to wear. Lunch was chicken and a potato salad with the usual feast of fresh bread and cheeses. In the afternoon we made our way back to the manor house for our second night. The horses were kept elsewhere tonight, in the spot which is used for camping during warmer weather. Michel and Anette joined us for dinner this evening where we were served a delicious meal of duck with garlic potatoes and we all enjoyed a glass of champagne to celebrate Michel’s birthday. The following morning we were caught out in a few short rain showers but this did not dampen our spirits. We rode quietly through the woods and past a bird sanctuary on the way to our lunch spot. There was a nice long straight track where we were given the opportunity to gallop two by two which was great fun. One of the riders managed to lose a body brush out of their saddle bag whilst galloping so Michel turned back to go and find it, making the mistake of leaving his mount, Jasmin, unattached to anything. He thought she would stand and wait whilst he picked the brush up, she had other ideas and came back to join the group minus Michel! Luckily it wasn’t a long walk and we were soon back en route.
During the morning ride we stopped in a quaint village and visited the old church with a roof made of an old Viking boat. The horses were so well behaved, they just stood outside and waited for us… I couldn’t imagine that our horses at home would do the same! Lunch today was outside of a restaurant which was due to open the next day, again by the river so the horses could graze and drink freely. Today they actually decided to walk straight through the rope Michel had set up and come and join us for lunch! The afternoon ride was through the original pine forest from many years ago. Storms have destroyed much of the original forest and more trees have been planted over the years. In the evening we headed back to Hotel Mermoz in Mimizan for the night.
On Friday morning the ride was a combination of forests and beach before our lunch stop in a peaceful wooded area. In the afternoon I asked Michel if I could have a ride on his horse, Jasmin. He said this was no problem and explained to me that she was used to the French way of riding, meaning he rode her using his body weight as opposed to legs and reins. This became apparent very quickly as I had little control over her! It’s difficult to break habits of twenty years. She was really good fun but I think she knew what Michel was thinking even when it was not him riding her and I’m sure the pair of them enjoyed a laugh at my expense as she galloped away, but it was all in good humour! It goes to show what a fantastic relationship Michel has with his horses, he and Jasmin are the perfect partners and he barely has to move a muscle whilst riding for her to know exactly what he is asking. Funnily enough, I decided to switch back to Helios for the evening fun of gallops along the beach at sun set, a perfect Friday night.
Saturday was dedicated to beach galloping and photography with the aid of the professional photographer Franck Molina. All clients have the option of purchasing his photographs at the end of the week – Franck pops up along the trail at various points. Our client Sue learnt that her mount, Zimbo, would rear on command which made for some superb pictures with the waves as the backdrop. We also played a couple of games on the beach involving racing and bending. It was the perfect way to end a really fun week of riding and I don’t think any of us were prepared to part with our horses when it came to lunchtime. Michel arranged for us to have lunch in a local restaurant (optional) with the afternoon at our leisure. I asked to visit the apartments overlooking the beach which clients can rent when taking a beginner or flexible riding programme. The apartments are perfect for families who wish to be close to the beach and would like to opt for self-catering. There are a wide range of options available at this destination, from tuition to short or long trails. Michel is a knowledgable, entertaining and caring host who easily adapts to the needs of each client. The accommodation is not fancy but perfectly nice, the food is delicious and plentiful and the riding is varied and fun. I would visit again without a doubt!”
Read more about the ride here: Aquitaine Adventures, France.
(Photos by Franck Molina Photography)