7 great places to go horse riding in Devon

PUBLISHED: 12:22 30 September 2020 | UPDATED: 13:23 30 September 2020

Jensen at the Exmoor Pony Centre. Photo: Kate Lord Brown

Jensen at the Exmoor Pony Centre. Photo: Kate Lord Brown

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Our writer shares some of the top places in the county where you can get back in the saddle or learn to ride

Riding at sunset, a herd of deer on Exmoor. Photo: Kate Lord BrownRiding at sunset, a herd of deer on Exmoor. Photo: Kate Lord Brown

Aside from an ill-advised attempt to do a ‘round the world’ on an Arabian pony in the desert a few years back, (don’t ask - it wasn’t pretty), I haven’t ridden since I was a child growing up in Devon.

I first rode a tiny Shetland with a felt saddle when I was two, and from that moment on horses have had my heart. Coming home to Exmoor has been the perfect chance to start riding again.

Autumn always makes me think of galloping through gold leaves on Devon bridleways, low sun washing our path, and the long shadows of windblown trees on the moors.

As a child, the end of a day hacking across Exmoor always meant the welcome treat of an ice cream at the Tantivy in Dulverton before riding home to Bampton. I loved it all - the sound of metal shoe on stone, cloud breath hanging on the air like smoke, the smell of warm horse and fresh earth.

Kate riding on Exmoor this year. Photo: Kate Lord Brown/Pine LodgeKate riding on Exmoor this year. Photo: Kate Lord Brown/Pine Lodge

The old tack shop in Tiverton is long gone now but I can still remember the scent of leather, saddle soap and the excitement of going in to buy jodhpurs or a new riding hat at Christmas.

I dreamt of having my own horse but luckily a kind childhood friend had a pony that needed exercising. Pepper was a solid old gelding, with a broad rear end like a Thelwell pony. He would inhale every time the saddle went on, and it wasn’t until I had slid off a couple of times I realised you had to give him a dig in the ribs to tighten up the girth.

He had a phobia about plastic bags in hedgerows that sent me hurtling to the ground many times, and even in a large puddle, let alone a river, he wanted to sit down. But I lavished affection on him, spent hours attempting to tame his wiry mane and tail into elegant plaits like the illustrations in the horse magazines.

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I loved exploring Devon on a muddy pony by day and reading every horse book I could get my hands on by night. From Black Beauty and The Silver Brumby to National Velvet and My Friend Flicka, my imagination and love of nature grew because of them.

Autumn always meant the Bampton Horse Fair when Exmoor ponies were rounded up and sold at the street market on the last Thursday of October. Along with the thrill of the funfair with the scent of candyfloss and roasting chestnuts on the crisp air, the highlight of the day was watching the ponies race down the main street in Bampton.

The colts jostled in the pen before us, their unshod hooves making no noise on the tarmac. Bampton’s Charter Fair has been a fixture since 1258, and it became renowned for its pony sales in the 20th century with as many as 2,000 ponies filling the streets. The last Exmoor ponies sale was in 1985 but in recent years a small horse fair returned, and the Fair continued to thrive - it will be back next year.

Exmoor ponies are known for their stamina. In 1816 Dr Collyns, the surgeon who lived in our house, attended patients, hunted, rode 26 miles home, dined and then rode another 26 miles to Exeter to take his fiancée to a ball.

Now, I find that more leisurely riding is the perfect escape from home and work. “A man on a horse is spiritually, as well as physically, bigger than a man on foot,” as John Steinbeck said.

I must admit the first time climbing into the saddle of a 16.2 cob - not quite the easy vault up I remember from my teens - it felt alarmingly high up. But after a few minutes any nerves fell away and I remembered how much I loved riding. Clopping along the lanes and bridleways the views are breathtaking. I love seeing herds of deer undisturbed by our quiet passing, and exploring the silent beautiful forests, or wading through the moorland rivers.

When riding you feel part of the landscape, rather than an observer. Devon never looks more beautiful than on horseback and it really is true that the best view in the world is between the ears of a horse.

Bampton Fair returns in 2021 - find out more at here about the plans for next year

HOW TO SADDLE UP

A wise man once said there’s something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.

For now I’ll content myself with visiting our adopted pony, gentle giant Jensen, at the Exmoor Pony Centre, but perhaps there’s still time for my childhood dream of owning a horse to come true now we’re home in Devon.

If you’d like to explore the area on horseback, these are a few of the most popular stables:

Budleigh Salterton Riding School - 01395 442035

Calvert Trust (disabled access) Barnstaple - 01598 763221

Fitzworthy Equestrian Centre, Ivybridge (Dartmoor) PL21 9PH

Newton Ferrers Equus, Plymouth - 01752 872807

Pine Lodge (Exmoor) - 01398 323559

Sheldon Riding Centre, Blackborough - 01823 681118

Woolacombe Riding Stables (scenic coastal rides) - 01271 870260

A SPECIAL BREED

The Exmoor Pony is considered the oldest native British pony. They are brilliantly adapted to life on the moor, with ‘toad eyes’ that protect them from the rain and a thermal waterproof double coat - always useful in Devon.

The ponies are identified by their characteristic pale muzzle. The Exmoor Pony Society was founded in 1921, and works to protect the endangered breed. The Moorland Mousie Trust takes surplus foals from the yearly sales and finds them foster or permanent homes.

You can visit the Exmoor Pony Centre to learn more about these sociable, intelligent ponies, book a ride or adopt a pony to support their work.

Easter-Oct and during school holidays by appointment.

Read more here about visiting the Exmoor Pony Centre

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