Taking in the Dales – on the Hoof. (Published in Dalesman. October 1999)

The cry of the curlew is one of the evocative sounds I take with me as a reminder of a unique riding experience in the Yorkshire Dales. In fact the curlew is so typical of this region that it has been chosen as a new logo to promote the Nidderdale Way. The sight of the mist rolling dramatically over the hills to obscure the views is another memory to sustain me on returning to the bustle of modern day living and working.


Yorkshire Dales Trekking Centre, Malham

In the last century, and into the beginning of this, particularly in certain areas, the upper classes were the ones using horses to get around and the other classes therefore thought of all horse riders as ‘toffs’. This was certainly not the case in the Dales where the Dales ponies were used in the area as pack-ponies, transporting lead from the mines and farmers used them for transport and for farm working generally.

When I was a child I enjoyed walking in the Lake District with my parents but now I am older and not so energetic, riding is my favourite way of exploring and enjoying the beauty and tranquillity of the countryside. This is not to say that horse riding is the easy option. If you are unfit or not used to riding for several hours in the saddle it can leave you walking like John Wayne for a while! Although at a walk, riding is not a lot faster than hiking, for me nothing beats the excitement of a good fast canter, with the wind rushing by.

Therefore I was delighted to discover the Yorkshire Dales Trekking Centre at Malham which runs two and five day trail rides in the glorious Yorkshire Dales The centre is run by Zana Jackson and her mother Angela, assisted by her family and uses native Dales ponies. Zana breeds these versatile ponies and is keen to promote them, particularly as they are designated a ‘Rare Breed’. They are sure-footed and gentle, yet capable of carrying an adult over rough moorland. The ride I experienced took a day to travel from Malham to Litton and the next day we looped back to return to Malham.


Yorkshire Dales Trekking Centre, Malham

To appreciate a trail ride fully you need to be reasonably competent on a horse as you will spend 5-7 hours in the saddle and cover 15-20 miles per day. Complete beginners would find this rather taxing, but for the more experienced, a trail ride means going from place to place and in contrast to a short ride you feel you have achieved something – a journey has been undertaken - you have been a traveller with an equine companion rather than a tourist.

If you are able to saddle and bridle your horse and groom it, this all helps with the smooth running of the holiday. Also it is a way to get to know your horse and develop a relationship with it. However once you are in the saddle it is very relaxing, as the horse, within reason, will pick a safe route, avoiding bogs, stones and holes whilst you enjoy the scenery and gaze over the dry stone walls. Also horses still retain all their instincts from generations of living in the wild before domestication and they are keen observers of movement (looking for lions and tigers that might pounce and eat them!) Therefore they notice wildlife even at a great distance and by their body language and pricked ears show you exactly where something is.

This limestone area around Malham is famous for its dramtaic scenery and again I was reminded of my childhood when in Geography class we studied limestone pavemenst, grikes, clints and disappearing rivers. It makes very good riding country as there is a good network of bridleways, green lanes and ancient packhorse routes.

We set off along the flanks of Langcliffe Scar toward Victoria Cave and soon were glad of our waterproofs as low cloud robbed us of the views. We should have been able to see all Three Peaks, but it was not to be. We passed numerous hikers braving the weather and had an exhilarating gallop made even more exiting by the poor visibility.

After lunch at Stainforth we set off again after the ponies had a well-earned rest and grazing in a nearby field, up the hill towards Fountains Fell. As the weather improved we were able to appreciate the unique landscape and look over towards the Settle-Carlisle railway, another ancient form of transport in the area. We then skirted to the east of Pen-y-ghent and onto a beautiful bridle road across Darnbrook Fell. The descent into Littondale enabled us to enjoy the scenery and our night’s lodging was in the peaceful village of Litton. After attending to our mounts (always a priority on riding holidays) we had afternoon tea followed by dinner at the pub.

In the morning we saddled up our mounts and set off along Littondale towards Arncliffe. We climbed up to Old Cote Moor Top and then had a steep descent towards Kettlewell following the Yorkshire Dales Cycle Way to Kilnsey where we ate a lunch. Here we provided amusement for the motorcyclists who congregate in the area and obviously believe horses to be inferior, but we knew differently and admired our mounts in the field as we enjoyed lunch in the pub garden. We then left Kilnsey and rode up towards Kilnsey Moor. It was amusing to watch people’s reactions as we rode along, their faces often showing amazement at our line of black ponies looking like a cloning experiment passing by!

We were now on the homeward run and the ponies, ears pricked knew it, as the pace got keener. We had to negotiate some very difficult parts where the off-road vehicles have unfortunately made deep ruts in the land making it slippery and muddy for ponies, cyclists and walkers. Eventually this was over and we enjoyed some good canters with the most perfect views of the limestone scenery at the top. We skirted Malham Tarn and had a last gallop where rivalries between ponies and their riders were allowed full rein.

Arriving back at Holme Farm we unsaddled and washed down the ponies and on the way home I was able to reflect on 2 days of good company, pretty good weather and the privilege of having such a beautiful area to explore on horseback.

If you feel like a change from ‘Shanks’ Pony’ give it a go – there is even a product called “Comfyrumps” to ease the saddle sores. The centre also provides shorter rides around Malham for the less experienced rider, but beware – you might get hooked!

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