The secret to happiness is freedom, and for equestrians, this is the view found between a horses ears. The Sybarite sat down with Liberty Trails Consultant, Lucy Higginson to talk hunters, yurts and the UK’s answer to equestrian adventure, The Dartmoor Derby.
Accompanied by the sound of hoof-beats and the distant whinny from a herd of wild ponies, nothing says adventure like the rolling countryside of Dartmoor, the setting for Liberty Trails annual derby. Founder Elaine Prior has curated a luxury experience with horse riding at its core. Inspired by the world’s longest and toughest endurance race, the Mongol Derby, this experience offers a more leisurely pace and the enduring appeal of chic African riding safaris. Despite being set within the wilds of the English countryside, the Dartmoor Derby is guaranteed to have you coming back for more.
Dartmoor connotes the wilds of English literature, full of mists and untold stories, ghosts and traces of the past. The landscape is littered with remnants of bronze age villages, mysterious standing stones and, of course, spectacular views in almost 1,000 square kilometres of national park. “Stay off the moors”, were the warnings of Arthur Conan Doyle’s novel The Hound of the Baskervilles, but the Derby welcomes riders from all over the world, all keen to discover the beauty of the English countryside that sent even Spielberg weak at the knees.
Designed as a unique weekend riding challenge set within the changeable landscapes of Dartmoor, guests need to be experienced, fit, competent riders and confident at every pace. Whilst this is not a race and jumping the natural obstacles found on the moors is optional, the event is a challenge geared to bold, confident riders with a sense of adventure. “This isn’t your average riding holiday, you have to have a level of fitness for at least 4-hours in the saddle per day, so we are looking for capable riders, as well as horses”, says Lucy. The horses are mainly over 16hh and are high quality, sure-footed with a turn of speed. One of the wonders of riding as a sport is that it doesn’t discriminate, “This year we had 22 guests, including two fantastic ladies from the U.S who were in their seventies”, explains Lucy.
Over the weekend, guests stay in a specially constructed and immensely comfortable camp, fully equipped with running water and Mongolian themed yurts. The horses are then stabled in an adjacent horse station specially prepared for the Derby. Liberty Trails also commandeer two fantastic cattle barns nearby the camp, which they make lovely deep stables, ensuring your four-legged companions are tucked-up and well-rested, while you enjoy G&Ts around the camp fire. The weekend is a celebration of all things local, from your personal accommodation in Devonshire yurts, each decked out in luxurious camping comforts, to the catering you enjoy each day, cooked with ingredients sourced from local West Country producers. Even the horse you are partnered with (unless you bring your own mount) has come from the Gloucestershire area or a local stable yard.
With the co-operation and support of numerous local agencies including the Dartmoor National Park and the Duchess of Cornwall, Elaine has developed a truly unique guided riding event, incorporating her personal knowledge and love of the moors which she too, has hunted for many years. “It takes a lot of work to get everything on site and then cleared away as if you were never there”. Maintaining the protected area of the national park which the purpose-built camp resides is essential to the sustainability of the event. This September saw Liberty Trails poised for it’s 3rd annual derby, when the team were faced with potential cancellation in the wake of Storm Ali making it near impossible to anchor the yurts. “Luckily with a lot of perseverance and teamwork we managed to set up in time for guests arrival” explains Lucy.
Safety and route planning is a top priority when dealing with up to 40 riders, so the hard work begins weeks before the event. “A thorough recce of the trails is carried out by the guides, ensuring riders don’t find themselves in any surprise bogs at the top of hills”. The ground support and coordination of up to 40 riders and their horses presents quite the challenge for Elaine and her team.“Keeping the humans fed and watered is one thing, but much like an event such as Badminton Horse Trials, you need a team to tend to the horses morning and night, ensuring they are washed off, rugged and fed after long day of adventure”. The on-hand staff include farriers, drivers, caterers, vets and many more, who ensure the smooth running of the entire weekend.
Lucy enjoyed the Dartmoor Derby weekend for a second year running, once again enjoying the challenges of the environment and long hours in the saddle, returning to the home comforts of her yurt, gourmet catering and running hot water is camping luxury at its finest. The Sybarite has a number of keen riders within her ranks and they are all in agreement that this sounds like the only way to experience the captivating landscapes of Dartmoor – Sign us up for 2019!
“Truly the best riding experience ever! Amazing people, staff and of course horses. It taught me so much about my riding. Liberty Trails have created something magical which I’ll never forget” – Emma Cofie, Dartmoor Derby 2018.
“Riding the Dartmoor Derby has been a dream three years in the making for me. Some dreams are worth the wait. I finally rode the Dartmoor Derby from Sept 21-23rd and it lived up to all the hype and expectations that I had for it” – Stacey Stearns, Dartmoor Derby 2018.
“The Dartmoor Derby is truly an amazing experience for all types of rider. The horses are the best, the guides a re enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable, and the food and scenery is spectacular” – Alby Bailey, Harpers Bazaar, 2015.
All Image Credits Liberty Trails/ Paul Quagliana