Last week I lived a dream: an unlikely chain of lucky coincidences and chance encounters led to a short-notice invitation to go horse-riding through the mountains that surround Madrid. As such, instead of scribbling notes about modal verbs on a blackboard last Wednesday morning, I found myself blinking into bright sunshine in the front seat of a horsebox.
I had left the city that day on an early morning train heaving with suited commuters that had gradually emptied as we drew away from Madrid. Picked up from the station at Los Molinos, a small village on the edge of Madrid, the horsebox had soon left the town and was lurching around the sharp serpentines of a narrow road that wound through the valley. Feeling distinctly unprepared – notably lacking riding clothes and equestrian vocabulary – I couldn’t quite suppress my flutter of nerves. Unfortunately, the pleasant chit chat about traversing steep inclines and galloping across rocky terrain through thick pine forests did little to calm my stomach.
I was to be riding an eight-year-old Portuguese mare. A slender and slight build, when standing in the back of the lorry she looked fairly shrunken and skinny compared to the well-rounded specimens I’m used to back in England. However, she proved to be deceptively elegant and energetic, with a delicately arched neck and quick, spritely steps. She responded to the slightest shift of my weight and, spirited and fresh, was all-too-ready to kick out at the Great Dane that bounded along beside us. In fact, to start with I felt like I was sitting on a narrow torpedo liable to explode at any moment.
However, my unease was soon swallowed, replaced by amazement at the spectacular scenery and excitement to be seeing it from horseback. Santi, the owner of the three horses on the trail, diverged off the main mountain tracks almost as soon as we left the road and, with inexplicable orientation, led us through forests that were once the hunting grounds of Spanish kings. We passed under the weathered stones of Roman aqueducts and alongside the ruins of old hunting houses, through the dappled sunlight filtered by the pine trees and across grassy clearings with views across the mountain crests, past rocks engraved with the symbol of the crown and beside enormous boulders that were half-swallowed by the undergrowth, smooth and round like giant pebbles and covered in thick, squashy moss.
We hadn’t been going more than 15 minutes when Santi glanced over his shoulder to announce “un galopito”. Worried I wouldn’t be able to hold the bundle of energy beneath me, my stomach squirmed apprehensively. However, the hair-brained, out-of-control gallop I feared didn’t materialise. Instead, I found myself enjoying the comfortable bounce of an in-hand, collected canter. It was effortless to control and maintain and so, whenever the terrain permitted, we relaxed into this fluent gait. Striking into an easy rhythm we slalomed easily through the pines, each rider choosing their own route and cris-crossing each others tracks. Whenever the trees thinned slightly and a clear track appeared, the horses would lengthen their stride and stretch out to a ground-covering gallop, coming back to a bouncy canter at the squeeze of the rein when the path petered out.
As we rode, Santi explained to me the geography and history of the area, pointing out different plants and trails. Undeniably a man of the mountains, there were few questions he couldn’t answer. At times he would grab dead or low-hanging branches to clear the path, easily snapping them from the trunk of the tree and showering his unconcerned grey mare with dry twigs and leaves. At others, he would call me up beside him, whispering that he had heard the step of a wild boar or deer. Veering abruptly off our route he would gallop off in the direction of the animal’s calls; more than once we glimpsed the white tail of deer bouncing away into the undergrowth. At one point, we even cantered upon a cluster of loose horses roaming free through the forests (apparently common property of the village). A large grey with a thick neck and long flowing mane scatted sideways on hearing us, watching us intently with flared nostrils as we passed. Reflecting on what I would usually be doing at that time on a Wednesday morning, it was hard to believe I wasn’t dreaming. I felt like I had been plunged into the middle of a fairytale, as if I had been suddenly immersed in Narnia or Lord of the Rings.
Throughout the trail the horses proved to be incredibly hardy, despite their delicate appearances. They waded through deep rivers, crossed the slippery stones of shallow streams, cantered over tangled knots of tree roots and leapt ill-distinguished ditches without once stumbling. We tackled the steep inclines of the mountain side, their necks becoming a slather of foamy white froth on the ascent, and dropped down sharply sloping hills where, reins at buckle length, they expertly turned their quarters side-on and slid down in perpendicular zigzags. After near-on four hours, when we were walking homewards, none of them showed any signs of tiring. I, in comparison, returned to the lorry stiff and weary, my unaccustomed bones creaking as I slid from my horse to the ground.
Luckily, a restaurant serving generous portions of Tortilla de Patatas was less than 50 meters away. With the horses loaded onto the lorry and left with windows open and a mouthful of hay, we went for lunch, my tired body falling into an involuntary but content slumber almost as soon as we sat down. I had imagined that my regular mountain hikes on weekends would have prepared me for a trip around the same terrain on horseback. The next morning however, it was a struggle just to roll out of bed, and I passed a sensitive day during which even sitting down was uncomfortable. It certainly confirmed that horse-riding works muscles you didn’t know you had. However, the fact that my aches and pains were the result of an incredible morning’s ride, I didn’t mind that they continued grumbling for near on a week. In fact, I would happily sign up for another week of painful twinges if it meant I could do it all again.