Nose to nose, my horse Merlin galloped beside my wife's horse Betsy. "Are you racing me?" Karen shouted above the thunder of hooves. "No!" I lied and closed my legs tighter around Merlin. Our friends Elizabeth, Ben and Jan lagged behind with our trekking guide Myfanwy, pronounced Ma-fawn-we. At the bottom of the path we trotted across a stream and onto the forestry service road that led back to the barn.
Mid-Wales is a patchwork of open fields and dense pine forest. You either have an open sweeping view, or you're shrouded in the pines. The forestry service roads are hard-packed dirt and fine gravel that make ideal, wide bridal trails. Our first ride lasted just over two hours and was a warm-up for the next few days.
Karen and I took our fifth trekking trip to Wales in April 2004. Our friends Jan, Ben and Elizabeth joined us for the week-long riding vacation in the town of Llanwrtyd Wells.
Llanwrtyd Wells is the smallest town in Great Britain and is visited by riders, mountain bikers, hikers and bird-watching enthusiasts each year. It's also home to the International Man Versus Horse competition. Up to 300 individual runners and several dozen three-person relay teams compete in a 22-mile race against horseback riders. So far, a horse has always won. (article continues below)
Although there are several inns and B&Bs in town, we chose to rent a house next to the barn. In rural towns, houses have names, not numbers. Our charming, four-bedroom stone house was named Maes Y Gwaleod.
Our second day (Monday) we took a four-hour ride to Blue Bell Farm, a beautiful stone farm house several miles outside of town. I again rode Merlin the spunky Palomino. Karen rode no-brakes Bess. Ben sat tall on the 17-hand Mr. Pickwick. Jan, Ben's wife, always seemed to be taking up the rear on the dependable gray Gypsy. And Elizabeth, as Myfanwy put it, "fit quite nicely" on the fidgety 6-year-old bay Breeze. After four and a half hours in the saddle, we cleaned up and drove to the town of Brecon to sightsee, shop and have dinner.
The third day of riding is always the worst on the body. On Tuesday our friends complained a bit about their sore bottoms. Myfanwy devised a plan to take a two-hour ride in the morning that returned to the barn. Anyone who wanted to continue riding could then go out for a longer ride.
It was a wonderful ride down past a historic stone church and several graveyards. We hacked up a steep rocky hill, galloped through the forest and finished the ride trotting through a meadow with four water-filled ditches to jump. Afterwards, Karen and I went out alone for the afternoon ride. I reviewed the landmarks and turns with Myfanwy, and we set off. Karen, however, kept questioning me about my sense of direction -- she of little faith! With only the two of us out in the Welsh countryside, it was one of the best rides of my life.
Wednesday greeted us once more with fair skies. We actually managed several long controlled canters with the group. We ate in the pub Bassets that night and spent some time talking with the former school headmaster, Brin, over a pint. He told us some of the history of the town and suggested several castles and abbeys to see.
Thursday was our pre-planned day to rest our bottoms before the all-day ride on Friday. Upon Brin's recommendations we visited Carreg Cennen Castle and Talley Abbey. Carreg Cennen sits atop a 300-foot high limestone cliff and is the only truly Welsh castle. It was ordered destroyed in 1462 after the War of the Roses, but workers never completed the demolition. The castle is a spectacular site with impressive views of the surrounding countryside. Talley Abbey also stands in ruins -- its austere stone, arched walls next to an ancient cemetery create an eerie sensation.
A light drizzle showered us Friday morning as we set out. We rode through town and up into open pastures with views of the Brecon Beacons, a national park and a long series of bald mountain ridges. We followed a long path down into a secluded valley and then galloped back up. It took us a half an hour to make the journey down but only two minutes to return.
At the furthest point away the rain began to come down in buckets. We walked and trotted the rest of the way home along trails with muddy puddles the size of small lakes. We finished the week off with dinner at the Drover's Rest, a four-star gourmet restaurant that seems out of place in such a small town. Afterwards, we drank wine and talked most of the night by the wood-burning stove in Maes Y Gwaleod, our home away from home. Now it is home for our friends as well.