Swimming with dolphins might be the norm, but Nigel Tisdall bucks the trend to frolic with horses in the surf.
The earliest horses were four-toed browsers who lived in swampy forests, so it’s perhaps no surprise that many of their modern descendants love to go swimming. Whether they enjoy having an ecstatic human hanging onto their tail for dear life as they bravely push through the waves is another matter, but that seems to be the plan when I enlist for a two-hour Turf and Surf ride at the elegant Half Moon resort on Jamaica’s north coast.
A 10-minute drive from the airport, this cosseting seaside estate in Montego Bay started life 65 years ago when 17 American, British and Bermudian families banded together to create a permanent winter escape for family and friends. Some of them loved to ride and play polo, so Half Moon was endowed with a capacious equestrian centre that still squats stubbornly in the centre of what has since grown into a sporty, 400-acre playground spread along a two-mile beach.
‘We’ve got 25 horses, seven birds, five dogs, three ponies, two donkeys and a goat called Jean,’ explains Trina DeLisser, its Jamaican director. Most have had a traumatic past due to injury, straying or abandonment and their characterful names reflect the charisma of their tropical homeland. Rock It, Cutta, Lickle Bit, What Lef and Dready, the handsome chestnut gelding who will take me into the waves.
As we set off in a group of six, taking a short ride to the palm-lined beach, it’s clear that many guests come to Half Moon precisely for this experience. ‘At most places, you just walk in the sea,’ drawls an effervescent lady who describes herself as a ‘peach’ from Georgia, ‘but here, the horses really swim – and they go a loooong way out.’
‘Then, when Dready starts swimming, slide down his back and grab the tail’
So how does this work? ‘You hang on to the mane,’ explains my cheery groom, Javon, ‘then, when Dready starts swimming, slide down his back and grab the tail.’
After swapping our helmets and trousers for swimsuits and an unfetching yellow lifebelt, we boldly ride bareback into the sea with Javon at the lead. ‘Don’t worry about being kicked,’ he calls over to me, ‘but some horses like to do a big poo as they hit the water.’
It’s a glorious sunny morning and, as other guests laze on their loungers, I get a sinking feeling as Dready casts off from the beach and starts doing horsey-paddle in the warm, turquoise ocean. It’s exhilarating to place my trust in him and a lot of fun to surf the waves as my steed tows me along.
As our group relaxes, there’s time to form a circle and play around in and under the water with the horses, then we head back to shore feeling super-charged by our unique and surprisingly moving adventure.
How do you follow that? With jerk chicken and a rum punch, of course – although the most interesting cuisine at Half Moon is at Ital Café, which recently opened as part of a £56 million resort upgrade. Here, Rastafarian chef Neil Sinclair creates extraordinary dishes that resemble burgers, sushi and pizza, but are, in fact, delicious organic raw food.
It’s set inside the palatial Fern Tree Spa, which has a yoga pavilion and thriving herb garden, apart from the cannabis plant, which seems to get frequently ‘raided’ by guests.
There’s no shortage of things to do in this family-loving resort with 11 tennis courts, an Olympic-size pool and championship golf course, and Half Moon is so large you need a bike or golf cart to get around. Inevitably, I find myself pedalling off to see what’s happening at the stables, where, as well as the swim, you can have lessons in jumping, dressage and polo.
‘Have you tried Empowerment?’ Trina suggests. This turns out to be an enlightening one-to-one session in which riders learn how to gain a horse’s attention, respect and, eventually, trust. It begins with some role play, then I’m handed a training whip and led into an arena to meet Maxi, a six-year-old mare who seems distinctly averse to my presence.
I’m not allowed to talk or wear a hat or sunglasses and, as Trina shouts instructions such as ‘be more demanding’ and ‘get serious’, Maxi seems to relish giving me the runaround.
It’s not long before I feel hot and flustered, but when I later hear of Maxi’s history of abuse and the loss of a foal, I understand her wariness. Just when I feel I’m getting nowhere, Trina introduces a few tricks, such as getting me to stand by the gate and proffer a clump of grass. It’s sufficient to make Maxi approach and, when I stroke her neck, we come to an accord like lovers at the end of some silly squabble.
If you fancy a beach holiday with some stimulating equine experiences, simply try hanging out with the adorable rescued horses of Half Moon.
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