Every now and then I think about jacking in the day job and heading off to live the life of an itinerant wanderer on horseback; spending my days criss-crossing the wild parts of country. It’s not the most practical dream at the moment, but luckily I was able try out being a vagabond on a smaller scale with Freerein, who have been offering both guided and self-guided rides through their patch of Wales since 1989.
Today Freerein’s network of trails covers over 700 miles; from wild moorlands to green sheltered valleys and high ridges to ancient oak forests. Together with our guide and seven other companions, I ventured out on the guided Silver John Trail: a three-day circular loop taking in all of these and more in the beautiful Radnor Hills.
If you’re wondering who Silver John was – legend has it that he was John Lloyd, a kind local sheep farmer with a talent for bone-setting. He always refused money for his services, so instead was given gifts of silver such as buttons, buckles and a much prized walking stick. Unfortunately his sparkly attire seems to have attracted the wrong kind of attention: one night he was seen leaving the Michaelmas fair in Builth Wells, but when his horse and cart arrived a home there was no sign of Silver John.
A few months later Mary, the daughter of the landlord at the Fforest Inn, was skating on Llyn Hilyn lake when she fell and discovered the frozen face of Silver John staring up at her through the ice. When his body was finally recovered it had been stripped of all the silver treasures – confirming that he had likely been murdered by a local gang.
Fortunately we didn’t encounter any ruffians, but with around 17 – 20 miles to cover each day this trail is still not for the faint of heart. By the end of day one I was pretty reconciled to not being able to sit down for a week – but our guide assured me that by day three I’d be fine, which turned out to be the case. Presumably my backside had just gone numb by that point.
Still, what’s hard on the behind turned out to be a balm for the soul. Travelling by horse takes you back to a slower pace of life, and it’s all too easy to slip into the routine of the trail: a hearty breakfast at the inn, before heading to the field to catch in your horse and have inquisitive noses raiding your pockets for polos. Then it’s time to dole out pony nuts, brush down, tack up, and head for the hills, with hours to drink in the views and enjoy long canters through the heather before you reach your destination. With the ponies all settled in for the night, it’s off to the inn for a good meal and an evening of reminiscing about the day’s adventures with your fellow travellers.
All in all if you’re after a bit of peace and escapism – this is the place to come. Radnorshire (to give it its historic name) is one of the most sparsely populated areas in the UK, and we only saw a handful of people out on the trails compared to vast numbers of sheep, wild ponies, and Red Kites wheeling overhead. The horses are also some of the best you can find: sturdy and sure-footed over the rough terrain, but fit and forward going when it’s time for a faster pace. They might make you walk up a big hill to catch them in the morning (thanks Molly), but by the end of the trip you’ll be wishing you could take them home with you.
As for me – I’m already planning to go back next year.
Which is the Freerein trail for you?
Freerein offer four separate guided routes, ranging from a two-day excursion to the epic six-day Trans Cambrian trail, traversing Wales from (almost) border to coast. For new or nervous riders there’s also the option of a three-day ‘Learn to Ride’ trail, where you can brush up on the basics while still enjoying the experience of being out on the hills.
For groups who prefer to travel under their own steam, Freerein also offers self-guided trails ranging from 2 – 7 days. These give you the flexibility to manage your own days – taking a longer route to see more of the countryside, or a shorter one to extend your lunchbreak or cool off with a paddle in a stream.
The real magic of Freerein is that everything is sorted out for you. As well as the loan of a forward-going and friendly mount, your accommodation is booked, luggage transferred, and you’re provided with detailed route maps and all the support you need for the duration of your trip – so all you have to do is turn up and ride.
The views are pretty spectacular too…