I was not one of those prepubescent princesses who dreamed of owning a pony. Of grooming it tenderly, of plaiting ribbons into its mane, of whispering girlish secrets into its fluttering ear, of getting my precocious little mitts on the gymkhana trophy. It was with mirth, anticipation and no meagre amount of bewilderment, then, that at the grand old age of 25 I found myself on my way to an equine establishment bearing the name Burley Villa in the New Forest to spend a day grooming, whispering to, getting ignored by, and ultimately succumbing to the indefatigable will of a horse called Buster.
It was one of those ingenious Red Letter Days: a Western Adventure, to be enjoyed in the company of the maternal figure. The Wild West, the American Frontier, has found an incarnation of itself in the form of a jolly decent attempt at a mock-up tucked away in a verdant corner of Hampshire for the past 16 years. The stable itself has existed for 42, but the Western riding style being easier to grasp for total beginners – due for the most part to a more generous saddle – and the lure of “experience”-present-related-business and the abundance of bored yet affluent senior citizens, the proprietors took it upon themselves to diversify. Hats off to ‘em, they’ve done a marvellous job of recreating an authentic experience, right down to the “RANCH” hut and the tasselled leather paraphernalia. And so we found ourselves, the mother and I, face-to-face with a row of mottled, spotted, lively specimens with (Yee-Haw!) names such as Hawk, Coyote, Big Blue, and – mine – Buster.
Buster was the Big Daddy. The oldest of the pack at 27, a veteran of the Western world, he’d seen it all before and was quick to suss me out for what I was; a mere second-timer, a bit nervous, and a lot of a wimp. It didn’t take him long to figure out that he could ignore my foot pressure, earnest vocal commands and rein-tweaking, and basically crack on with doing whatever he pleased. This consisted mostly of checking out the lady-horses, sticking his face in the mud, and farting. I liked him immediately.
After a hearty breakfast of bacon and egg rolls, an hour or so of grooming and horse-riding 101, and a flabbergastingly large lunch complete with historically accurate baked beans, jacket potatoes and corn on the cob, we made for the New Forest. It’s a good spot for such a day out – the veritable Wild West of England, with around 150 square miles of staggeringly beautiful scrub-land, hills, tussocks, streams and untamed wildlife in general stretching unspoilt into the horizon and beyond. The air was thick and soupy with gorse pollen and incessantly buzzing flies. Buster lost no time in directing my face into every holly branch within 20 metres of the designated path. I was sure he did it on purpose. The girls leading the expedition agreed.
During the rare moments in which I wasn’t plucking holly leaves from my face and massaging the wounds, I found time to oggle at the vista. It is truly spectacular. Any terminal Londonite who swears blindly that the countryside is a thing of the past and what with technology and Augmented Reality and whatnot who needs to waste time on long treks and the tang of manure ought to get off their high horse and get on one of these horses and enjoy the bloody view. There are foxgloves sprouting from every crevice, wild ponies frolicking on every hillside, and a fluffy little life-form termed “bog cotton” paving the boggy mires with ethereal splendour. The clacking of many hooves traversing the gravelly path is mesmerising; a dry, muffled, crunchy noise, like the sound that echoes inside your head when you munch on a barenaked Ryvita biscuit.
The essence of John Wayne hits hard throughout the day and it’s impossible not to slip into a broad Wyoming drawl when uttering the (for the most part, ineffectual) instructions such as “woah, boy!” and “giddy up”. The latter wasn’t really presented as part of the command set, but when your horse has taken a diversion down a ditch towards a particularly tasty-looking bunch of ferns, the tendency is to clutch at straws.
As the trip came to a close – having caused, to immense enjoyment on our part, a great irritation to the local motorists of Lyndhurst, Beaulieu, Gritnam and other towns with equally charming monikers – we dismounted our trusty steeds. My pal Buster and I hadn’t always seen eye to eye, but I admired him for his obstinacy and I hope that the vigorous rub down with a wet brush was received as some token of gratitude for the hours we’d spent together.
And so we took leave of our hairy friends and made for our own personal ranches, complete with a pungent odour of Eau de Farmyarde and a determined case of Hat Hair. And as for my undercarriage – well, let’s just say it wouldn’t be an understatement to claim that Buster lives up to his namesake.
The crew at Burley Villa offer all sorts of days out for kids and big kids alike; details can be found here. Do yourself a favour, and do it. Do it to reconnect with Nature, the Universe and Everything, do it to fulfil a childhood dream of snuggling a horse’s mane, do to pretend you’re a cowboy with blistering levels of testosterone. But whatever you do it for, try to source a pair of padded pants before you set off.