‘This is how riding holidays should be’: Across Dartmoor by horse, with Mary King

Those people who say 'never meet your heroes' have clearly never run into Mary King, says Octavia Pollock, as she heads off on a horseback trail with the equestrian and Olympian.

To ride at liberty across an open landscape on a fit, willing horse is the dream of anyone who read pony books as a child and covered their walls with pictures of top riders. To ride across Dartmoor with one of those top riders is an unimagined delight, especially when they are as friendly as Mary King. I had a poster of her riding King William in the first of her two Badminton wins on my wall growing up, yet, within moments of meeting her, I felt as if I had known her personally for years, such is her warmth.

The dream came true thanks to Liberty Trails, a guided riding-holiday company founded by Elaine Prior in 2012. Liberty is, indeed, the watchword, with no set routes and no restrictions on where to roam — except for the need to avoid bogs (if you see white cotton flowers waving invitingly, turn around and go the other way). We were riding in high summer, so there was little danger, but whole teams of horses have been lost in those infamous moorland quagmires.

Fortunately for me, my horse Black, an aptly named Thoroughbred, took great exception to getting his feet wet. This made for an exciting start when we had to cross a stream too big to jump and he decided to leap in almost on top of another horse, but this is one of the joys of these holidays. Riders must be capable of coping with uneven terrain, unheralded gallops and horses with minds of their own: this is no plodding pony trek. Elaine, herself a beautiful rider, talks to prospective guests about their experience and, if she feels they are not yet capable, she will gently suggest more hours in the saddle and a return another year.

After eggs Benedict, we drove to the north-west side of the moor to meet our horses, all of which are biddable, sure-footed and used to the moor: most of them hunt there in winter, when the going is far more treacherous. Elaine is assiduous in matching people with their mounts and everyone was happy, able to change position in the group, talk to people and canter politely in a line when the path dictated it. Only one horse developed a penchant for taking off in the wrong direction on gallops, but when she was given to Mary, she realised she had an equestrian legend on her back and behaved impeccably thereafter.

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On the first day, we roamed grassy tracks and stony paths, climbing to summits and descending precipitous slopes with aplomb. The rocky tors, granite outcrops formed over millennia into fantastical pinnacles, yield spectacular views of open country, patchwork farmland and even the north Cornish coast 40 miles away. The second day, closer to the heart of the moor, was wilder, with more bogs and stony uplands, as well as an otherworldly tor with thin layers of rock forming an owl hole. Never did we see more than the odd walker, Dartmoor being vast enough to swallow the most madding of crowds. Our guide knows this landscape as well as any, having roamed its byways since childhood, so guests can relax in her hoofmarks.

The only fixed point of the day is lunch, and it is worth stopping for. Elaine’s partner Bob transforms his trusty Land Rover into the epitome of high-end African safari, complete with canvas canopy; wild ponies and skylarks replacing zebras and lions. He and his team laid out crab cakes, smoked salmon, Scotch and devilled eggs, potato scones and creamy lemon puddings, not to mention refreshing elderflower pressé, all supplied by Julie Credicott of Blue Skies Catering, who is, like Elaine, Dartmoor born and bred. Bob’s venerable labrador Boris oversees proceedings with gentle dignity and, at the end of the ride, the Land Rover becomes Bob’s Bar as Port and sloe gin make an appearance.

The company offers various different holidays and accommodation ranges from houses with private chefs to B&Bs and hotels; guests can ride from place to place or return to the same base each night. We stayed at Bovey Castle on the edge of the moor, a sprawling, dog-friendly hotel with a top-class golf course and lovely views. Sadly, there was no time for a post-ride massage in the spa, but the huge en-suite bathrooms, cocktails on the terrace and local lobster — not to mention the sublime breakfasts — easily made up for that.

Sharing a table with Mary and listening to her stories of the Olympics, of the horsebox-loads she and fellow eventers took to Romania during the 1990s orphanage scandal, of being greeted by excited fans on hacks at home and training young horses made this ride extra memorable, but any of the trips with Liberty Trails will give you memories and friends for life. This is how riding holidays should be.

The 2023 Mary King MBE Dartmoor Ride, June 12–15, costs £2,300 per person based on two sharing, or £2,500 for single occupancy. Visit www.libertytrails.co.uk