In The Saddle: 'I was expected to subdue a pure-bred'

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The Independent Travel

The trainer was not impressed. A small linguistic misunderstanding had led him to believe that my horsemanship was more advanced than the scarcely-above-beginner level I'd attained from a few holiday hacks.

As we drove into Cortijo El Esparragal, a top-notch hotel and riding centre 20km north-west of Seville, I caught sight of two beautiful horses cantering around the saddling enclosure. Nearby were half a dozen stable staff, waiting for us to do our stuff. All too soon, the awful moment came.

My partner is an enthusiastic rider who's been known to control a galloping horse and even clear small fences. In line with the machismo culture of Spanish equestrianism, she was directed to mount the smaller and more lady-like of the pair. Horse and woman instantly bonded.

I, on the other hand, was expected to demonstrate my manhood by subduing a pure-bred Spanish horse with an attitude problem. The instant I settled nervously into the saddle, the horse sensed my mixture of incompetence and fear. It broke free of its handler, charged around the ring, and only just stopped short of leaping over the fence and carrying me off into the wide blue yonder. Somehow I managed to hang on, but the more I pulled desperately on the reins, the less inclined he was to stop.

My blushes - and possibly my neck - were eventually spared by the know-how of the trainer, who brought things to a halt with nothing more than a sharp bark and a wave of the arms. When we eventually set off around the country estate, he roped my horse to his. Neither animal even broke into a trot. No, he was not impressed at all.

Cortijo El Esparragal is one of numerous farms converted to meet the rising demand for riding horses. Expert training is offered to all but beginners (I now read in the small print). Two hours for two people costs €96 (£67).

It will be a while before I feel I am ready for the cowboy life, but when that day arrives I know where I shall go: Cortijo el Sotillo, just outside the pleasant resort of San Jose on the Almerian coast. Clint Eastwood stayed here when the arid landscape attracted Spaghetti Western film-makers in the 1960s.

The four-star complex has a well-maintained stable of Spanish horses and is situated in parkland near the lovely hills and empty beaches of the Almerian hinterland. It has been beautifully modernised in terracotta, wood and marble. A two-and-a-half hour trek costs €45 (£31.50) per person.

The breeding and training of horses in Andalucia is considered to be one of the higher arts. The spiritual home of equestrianism is in Jerez, where choice examples of the pure-bred greys are brought to a pitch of elegance - and obedience - at the School of Equestrian Art. The highlight is the "ballet" performed publicly at noon on Tuesdays and Thursdays - and also on Fridays in August - in the magnificent indoor arena. To stirring music, the horses are put through a complex routine of sashaying dance steps and prodigious leaps, with the riders rarely having to use their sticks. The utter subservience of the horses may not be to everyone's taste, but it's undeniably enthralling. Admission to the 90-minute performance is €15 (£10.50).

Back in the great outdoors, Andalucia's wild Atlantic coast - the Costa de la Luz between Cadiz and Tarifa - could have been purpose-built for trekking, with an abundance of white beaches and a network of forest trails. For some, the mix of scenery, climate, comfortable accommodation and five days on horseback is a good approximation to perfection. Los Alamos Equestrian Holidays, based at Barbate, provides the whole package, excluding air fares but including three meals a day, for £725 per person. Riders are assigned horses according to their standard, from a stable of pure-bred Andalucian, Spanish-Arab crosses, and a couple of redoubtable Welsh cobs, ideal for conveying what the company euphemistically describes as "heavier loads".

FROM THE HORSE'S MOUTH

Cortijo El Esparragal (Carretera de Merida Km 795; 00 34 955 782 702; www.elesparragal.com).

Cortijo El Sotillo (San Jose, Nijar, Almeria; 00 34 950 611 100; www.cortijoelsotillo.com).

School of Equestrian Art (Avenida Duque de Abrantes, Jerez; 00 34 956 318 008; www.realescuela.org).

Los Alamos Equestrian Holidays, Barbate (00 34 956 437 416; www.losalamosriding.co.uk).

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