This could not have happened in the kingdom of Health and Safety. Nor would it have happened if the extent of the challenge had been fully explained.
It was late September in the Lecrin Valley, near Granada. I had signed up to go for a horse ride – by 'ride', of course I meant ‘sit', for I had never had riding lessons despite having been conveyed by pony from A to B with minimum disruption on holiday trundles. Picture a beach, with a bored quadroped being led by a string. That is the level of my horsemanship.
My details had been handed in to the riding school: 1. no, not experienced 2. have only gone at walking pace - trotted (accidentally) once. Meeting my steed, I was pleased that it had neither satanic stare, nor dimensions of a battle-Percheron, astride which a body would rip in half. In reality, this was a tiddler, and I was truly thankful. It bode well for the one-hour session.
Again I emphasised to the owner: no he galopeado. No soy experta. By which I hoped to imply that I had never galloped and was not an expert.
We set off in a small band - our leader Rodrigo, inveterate Canadian outdoorswoman Jean, and Englishman Robert who had trekked the length and breadth of South America on horseback.
‘Have you taken your painkillers?’ asked Jean.
‘Yes. This is going to hurt like hell. I’ve already taken two Ibuprofen. At the very least, make sure you take some tonight and tomorrow. You’ll really be aching after this two-hour ride.’
And so we set off, through the village streets, towards the side of the valley, and before long, were winding up a steep twisting path. The horses' hooves slid in the narrow path's dust, inches from the sheer drop beside us. My palms went clammy. Vertigo came in hot waves.
'Don’t worry,’ said Jean, ‘your horse knows what it’s doing.’
Small consolation. At each hairpin bend, there was no telling whether my animal might be seized with a lemming wish, or simply miscalculate and stumble, or whether I, in averting my gaze from the chasm, might lean the wrong way as my pony hopped up, yes, hopped up over rocks.
This was not the time to adhere to the Spanish style of riding, in which you hold the reins in one hand only. Yet, during the midst of the perspiration and dread came a moment of utter clarity. Here, between heaven and the boulders far below, it was no good panicking, or wishing I hadn’t come. There was no way out, but forward. I had no choice but stay on that horse’s back and have faith in its ability to get on with the business of climbing.
As we reached the top I breathed a sigh of relief to see the path opening out on to a flat plain overlooking the town of Albuñuelas. Things would get easier. My beast, on the other hand, was of a different mindset. Seeing the others racing ahead, and paying no attention to my hauling back on the reins, it sprang to action - first breaking into a trot then, Dios mio, a brisk gallop.
I bounced up in the air and slapped down as if on a bucking bronco. If there was a preferred method of timing my landing on the horse's spine, which minimised the chances of falling off, I had little opportunity to finesse it.
Jean and Robert rode hard to catch Rodrigo. 'She’s never galloped before,' they said. He glanced back at the spectacle of me see-sawing on the horse’s back. 'Sure she has. She’s fine,' he replied.
Hang on, I told myself through clenched teeth. Trust. Trust the horse. And gradually, over the length of the route, I began to learn to do just that. To tune into to its rhythm. To be firm, but not to fight. I also constantly checked in with my own muscles – tensing this one, flexing that one, slightly twisting my body one way then the other to take tension off my back. By the time we had ridden across the entire ridge, through olive groves, down through the village of Saleres and along the riverbed, I was non-plussed when, without warning, my horse staggered on a rock.
After a total of two and a half hours I finally dismounted, cocky to be still in one piece. Oddly, though I took no painkillers at all, nor the next day, there was not one twinge in my body.
Would I do this again? I’m not sure. For a novice it was risky.
But it left me with an exhilaration - and a keener sense about surrender and letting go, about trying to get into harmony with an animal, with a moment, with an experience. Magical.