I never fully realised the meaning of “sure-footed” until I’d ridden out with Alan Baxter at Spanish Rural Bliss. It was one of those comforting labels you like to be told before you meet a new horse, without ever having to put it to the test. But in many years of riding, in some wild places, I’ve never had such cause to appreciate this quality as I had with Farola, my mount for four days of adventurous riding in the Castril Valley.
Farola is an eleven-year-old Andalucian grey mare, with those very sure feet attached to elegant legs, which is what you’d expect from a former dancing horse. I watched with amazement at how she’d pick her spot, with just enough space to squeeze her way past giant boulders and the all the debris of dried-up river gullies, or gently edge her way down fairly precipitous valley slopes. I quickly built up a total confidence in her judgement about what can be achieved in this beautiful terrain between a horse and rider who trust each other.
Alan’s horses all seem to revel in the challenging kind of riding which he specialises in. After navigating our own way through some of the more rocky landscape of the valley we came to a fast-flowing river, and as the bank side vegetation got more dense, there could only be one way forward. After a few cursory paddles and sniffs and backward looks for reassurance we were in. We kept up a steady walk along the rocky riverbed, the water up to the horses’ bellies and seeping in through our boots. Suddenly, the formidable frame of Alan in front of me seemed to drop another half-metre or so, I let out a yelp of delight and shock as we were swimming. Farola, and Alan’s big young mare Portia, took the sudden drop in their stride and calmly carried on.
As the river bottomed out again, it was time for a rest for all of us. As we emptied our boots and dried out in the sun, Farola and Portia drank and rolled in the shallows. I like to think they enjoyed the experience as much as we did.
Alan was the perfect companion for such a challenging riding trip. A lifelong horseman, he’s combined the best of the British and Spanish equine cultures.
His riding horses have all been bought locally, but two important members of the family, trotting energetically around the paddock, are the Shetlands he brought with him from home in England, Amos and Gracie. A rare site in Spain, they’re very popular at local carnivals and have done their fare share of helping to integrate Alan and his wife Clare into the community. Their paddock has a fabulous view of the valley, with all its rich variation of desert, and forest, olive groves and almond orchards. Behind are the plains, wide open for full-blooded gallops. It’s great countryside, and seeing it on horseback adds a special dimension. I saw it first in the heat of midsummer, but I look forward to a another date with Farola, and the joys of some winter trails.