Ride the high country: Olympic champion Amy Williams swaps her skeleton sled for a horse on a trip to the beautiful Pyrenees
People seem to think that when athletes go on holiday all they want after a hard season of training and competition is sun, sea and relaxation. But when I take a break I prefer to stay active. I’ve always loved horses and riding – it’s been a passion of mine since I was a girl – so when the chance came to go on a riding holiday, I grabbed it.
I used to look after a lot of horses and if I’d had the money I probably wouldn’t have got into winter sport, I would have got into professional riding.
Riding high: A rider at full gallop on the trail through the Pyrenees
The idea of riding through the Pyrenees for a week sounded like a dream come true. I’d always secretly wanted to be a cowgirl after all. Along with my friend, Team GB pentathlete Mhairi Spence, I set off to the Costa Brava where our adventure began.
We met our group of eight people who we would spend the week riding with from village to village across a distance of some 125 miles from the coast to the mountains. We each had our own horse to ride and care for throughout the week.
The organisers, a company called In The Saddle, had asked us to submit details of our levels of riding experience when we booked so they could make sure we were put with a group of a similar ability. Mhairi and I ended up in the advanced group, but there are beginner and intermediate levels too.
Firm friends: Amy Williams with her horse,Torito
My mount was a beautiful white horse called Torito – and I soon became very attached. It was a good job we were all fanatics as we had to groom our horses all week – and that meant a lot of early starts.
Most mornings we were up by 5am or 6am, grooming and tacking the horses ready to begin the day’s riding. The guides would get up a little earlier to feed them while we were having our breakfast.
We did get a couple of lie-ins, where we would sleep till around 9am, but each day we had a lot of ground to cover so there wasn’t time to sleep too late.
Each night, after our day’s ride, we’d stay at a different guest house, so we were encouraged not to bring too much luggage as you have to pack up again every night.
Of course we all had too much anyway to take on horseback, so in the morning a guide would collect all the luggage that we didn’t need that day and drive it to the village we were heading to.
We’d ride for four to eight hours a day, taking breaks for picnics of bread, ham, cheese and olives. The picnic is prepared in the morning and shared around to carry in the saddle bags.
There’s not much room for fussy eaters as there are no shops around while you’re riding – but you can hardly go wrong with bread and cheese.
We’d share a bit of wine at lunch time and then came the real treat of the day – the siesta. Resting under trees and snoozing while our horses grazed in the fields wasn’t decadent luxury, but it was definitely very relaxing!
When you book a break like this you can’t choose your travelling companions but as things turned out, we had a great gang of riders. Our group included a German couple, and people from Switzerland, Holland and Scotland.
Most of them had done one of these trips before, and owned their own horses – but that’s not a requirement – In The Saddle caters for everyone.
Cool waters: Crossing a river in the foothills of the Pyrenees
Spending 12 hours a day together gives you plenty of opportunity to get to know each other. We’d all chat during the ride and continue our conversations over dinner once the riding was over for the day. Often we would stay up having drinks and talking into the night.
We formed a real bond. However, it wasn’t all chatter – there was plenty of quiet time when we just took in the breathtaking views of the Pyrenees.
You don’t go on a holiday like this expecting five-star luxury: the guest houses we stayed in were small and rustic, clean and comfortable – but that’s part of the charm of the trip. It’s very much a return to a more old-fashioned way of life.
Picture perfect: A 12th Century bridge in Besalu
The rooms were shared, though single travellers can pay extra to have a room to themselves.
Travellers can also explore the villages and historic towns on the route, such as ancient Besalu, by themselves in the evening if they prefer, but we mostly stuck together as a group.
Some days involved longer rides than others and, especially at the beginning of the trip, I felt stiff and achey as I hadn’t been riding for a while.
But I soon got used to it again. Actually, I found being on a horse all day to be an amazing way of exercising.
If you have a love of horses a whole day’s riding won’t seem like a chore.
The pace was varied: we galloped and did some slower-paced rides, and it was so nice to be out in the countryside, up in the mountains. We saw some amazing sights.
At one point we were riding along a ridge and we could see France on one side of us and Spain on the other.
Another day we came close to a herd of wild horses who looked other-worldly compared to our more domesticated mounts.
My only criticism of the trip was that we had to ride single file for the whole trip. It would have been great to have ridden side-by-side at times so we could chat and share the scenery together. But by the end of the trip we were all very comfortable as a group, and sad that it was over.
A riding trip is a very different choice, and not one most people would immediately think of for a week’s holiday, but there are so many reasons why a horse-riding break is so enjoyable.
History trail: Amy and Torito on one of the ancient routes once used by herdsmen
These days everyone is tied to their phones and laptops and to do something which takes you away from that is such a rare thing.
On our trip there was no mobilephone signal so my phone was switched off most of the time
And a break like this brings you back to the simple way of life that is hard to find anywhere in the modern world. Just riding our horses, eating very simply and relaxing in the sunshine was so peaceful.
I rekindled my love of horses and now I’m passionate again about something that I had loved so much as a child.
Another bonus of this trip was that I knew I wouldn’t end up spending too much extra money – food and drinks were included in the main price of the trip. The only spending money I needed was for the odd extra beer at the end of the day.
I had such a special trip that I’m already planning my next horse- riding holiday. I’ve stayed in touch with the rest of the group to see if we could all go together again.
Next time I want to go to Montana in the United States – a great destination for a would-be cowgirl like me.
In the Saddle (inthesaddle.com, 01299 272 997) offers a seven-night Herdsman Trail riding holiday in the Pyrenees. It costs from £1,022pp and includes riding, full-board accommodation, wine with meals and transfers from either Barcelona or Girona. Flights to Barcelona or Girona are available from many UK airports and can be booked through In the Saddle.