I used to love riding at my riding school. I had a favourite pony who I felt super-safe on but, soon after my ninth birthday, my family moved to Italy and everything changed. I still rode regularly but I wasn’t improving and, as all my friends at home got better and more confident in the saddle, I just seemed to be getting worse. Losing confidence and no longer looking forward to my riding lessons, I was on the verge of giving it all up when my mum suggested we go on a horseback safari.
I was nervous about the whole thing. Riding a strange pony in the middle of the African savannah wasn’t my idea of staying safe at all. Mum tried to reassure me by saying that Horizon, the place we were going, had an excellent reputation and that we’d all be perfectly safe. I didn’t share her optimism – did she not know how big and open these places were, let alone that there were lions?!
When we arrived in Africa, I was teamed up with a pony called Tom Thumb, an eight-year-old, 13.2hh, dun Boerperd (a native South African breed). He looked too fast and flighty for me, but our guide promised he was my perfect match.
On our first ride, I struggled to keep Tom under control when we were trotting and cantering in line. I was so nervous, which made me hang onto his mouth, and I had a hard time keeping him a good distance from the horse in front – funny idea of a perfect match, I thought.
However, he soon taught me one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt so far – that sometimes you have to let go. Our guide suggested I gave Tom his head a little more. He told me to trust Tom, although to begin with I didn’t believe him. But when I held on tightly to the reins and kept pulling, trying to control his speed, Tom would just pull back and he was definitely stronger than me! So, I tried giving him the reins, millimetre by millimetre. Then, when I wanted to slow down, I took and released the reins and Tom listened. Very soon I had it figured out – why hadn’t I learnt this before?!
Starting to enjoy myself
By day two, I was more relaxed and we rode out further into the reserve. It was then that I got to experience the most amazing feeling in the world – sitting on a pony in the middle of the African plain with a whole herd of zebra surrounding me, and riding along sandy tracks with a giraffe browsing on one side and warthogs running along the other.
I loved watching the world from horseback, and was soon so entranced that I forgot all about being nervous and started to enjoy the canters. We saw so many more amazing animals, including impala, kudu and hippos, but the most incredible thing was how close I could get to them. They were used to the horses because the herd lives alongside them on the reserve, coming in only for rides or to be fed. By then I’d forgotten about all about my lion worries.
My finest moment
The coolest thing of all was taking the horses swimming. It’s an incredible feeling when your horse no longer has his feet on the ground. I’d never have believed I’d dare to ride a horse bareback or into water before I went on this holiday and definitely not both at the same time!
Going on safari in Africa improved my riding and confidence loads. The long canters down the sandy tracks allowed me to get into a comfortable rhythm, so I could concentrate on correcting my position. Cantering to the back of the ride at home is now a complete doddle.
The whole experience improved my balance, confidence and helped me realise I could ride, after all. Concentrating so hard on the wildlife made me forget about riding and everything came naturally. I’d recommend an African safari to absolutely anyone, it’s now my favourite place in the world!