Flying across the pond to take part in a brand new long-distance riding pilot event takes a bit of what we Brits call ‘gumption.’ But three American riders did exactly that last month (25-28 Sept) to help launch the Dartmoor Derby in Devon, England.
Inspired by the widespread interest in the daring Mongol Derby and the enduring success of African riding safaris, the Dartmoor Derby is not a race itself but a multi-day challenge ride. It’s a chance to explore fully some of Britain’s best-loved countryside in luxury, in small groups of not more than six, led by guides who know the country intimately, for anywhere between three and six days.
Overnight stops are taken either in top Dartmoor hotels or luxury, purpose-built moorland camps and horse stations, each one built to a different theme, with guests able to choose their ideal blend of accommodation.
Dartmoor’s beauty defies description, as Steven Spielberg found when he came to film "War Horse" there. And though there is plentiful hunting here in the winter, exploring it on horseback for any length of time requires good support.
“Having ridden many miles across Dartmoor accompanying guests from around the world, it struck me that several places would lend themselves brilliantly to hosting a luxury camp,” says Dartmoor Derby founder Elaine Prior, who also has an established luxury riding holiday firm on the moor, Liberty Trails.
“With undulating vistas, total peace, and miles of moorland inaccessible except on foot or horseback, it has much in common with Africa. Yet few people have the opportunity to explore it comprehensively on horseback because of the logistical support required to do so.”
Elaine’s idea for a Dartmoor Derby quickly garnered huge support as a feasibility study was conducted, plus the backing of some prominent British riders, including Devon lady and multiple Olympian Mary King MBE.
Thus it was that 25 or so select riders met in Devon for a pilot event, to tackle some 45 miles on horseback across two days, with two nights in top local hotels bookending a night in a swanky temporary camp and horse station just above the West Dart River.
To some astonishment, the pilot riders’ courage was rewarded with unending sunshine. But perhaps inevitably, not everyone escaped the moor’s legendary bogs. The victim was American visitor Steve Rojek, who at the age of 70 is still a phenomenal long-distance rider, having completed more than a hundred 100-mile long rides.
“It only lasted a few minutes and probably added to the excitement,” said his guide, leading British endurance rider and Devon lady Jo Chisholm, who nevertheless plans to make additional recces of the route before next year’s event to avoid a repeat!
Other teams were guided by the huntsmen, field masters or masters of local hunts — no one would know the moors better —and the pilot riders included a number of regular hunt followers whose joints are well conditioned for twentysomething miles at a decent pace.
Alongside a small number of clients ranging from the American endurance riding enthusiasts (from Vermont and Florida), to non-horse owning London workers who found the event through marketing partner, The Riding Club London, were journalists and a high-profile British celebrity or two.
The first full Dartmoor Derby will take place in the last weekend of September next year, with places for up to 100 riders. Quality hunting horses can be supplied through the organisers, and riders may customise the trip to their tastes.
So what did our American visitors make of it?
“I’ve done a lot of endurance rides in the States and things become familiar in the end. Here, everything from the accents to the tack and the type of horse is so different,” said a beaming Lisanne Dorion from Florida. “I’ve taken in the gorse, granite and iron age stone circles, the different cattle, wild ponies, sheep and deer you have and even learnt about ‘green-eyed bogs.’”
For our part, we relished trading horsey stories with our new friends from the States, and will forever relish their description of the Belted Galloway cattle, with a broad white stripe around their bellies, that are one of Dartmoor’s prized cattle breeds. “Oh! You mean the Orio cows!”
Visit www.dartmoorderby.com for details, prices and contacts. Follow us @DartmoorDerby.