Reins supreme: Horse-riding holidays in Austria

At Austria's 1,000-year-old Castle Mühldorf, even beginners can get to grips with the old-fashioned charms of a horse and carriage. Kitty Melrose clambers aboard

It's all eyes on the horses' ears the moment I take over the reins. I've been taught that when they are up, everything is OK, but flat to the neck and you're in trouble. I try to select first gear with the command "Trot!" Nothing. "Ttttt-rot!" again, but this time in more clipped tones. It nudges the pair on, and I gently tug the reins left and right. That's it. Now I'm driving. Then - 100 yards ahead, a crossroads to navigate: driving a horse and carriage is more difficult than I'd imagined.

Horse-riding holidays have come a long way since the invention of pony trekking. When I ring The Riding Company, I'm offered a mind-boggling selection. The company's main focus is Austria, where you can learn to play polo with an Argentine trainer, thunder across the Alps or check into a five-star organic spa hotel while learning the finer points of horsemanship. Whatever next?

"We've recently added a horse-and-carriage driving course, for non-riders," says the lady on the end of the phone. "You're taught how to drive while staying at a 1,000-year-old Austrian castle." It's owned and run by two brothers, she tells me, who've won international competitions and possess a museum-quality collection of historic carriages. Carriages, castles and all that history. How romantic, I think.

And so, upon arrival at Linz airport, I'm met by car and driven for half an hour into the open countryside. We're a long way from the chocolate-box chalet image of Tyrolean Austria here. After crossing the great Danube, my driver nods towards a set of emerging fairy-tale spires and turrets. Then as we get closer, I pass fields where beautiful horses are grazing, and the equestrian centre, where the course I've chosen will take place.

Over the next four days and eight lessons, I will learn how to clean, dress and harness the horses, fit carriages, the correct use of reins, controlling and steering in two and four wheel carriages, and how to drive out. But first - what a find! This former medieval castle is the real thing. The first mention in the history books was 1347. Now, exquisitely restored into a four-star hotel with 35 stylish rooms, it looks like the perfect lair for James Bond or a passing prince. And with every castle, of course, comes a good story.

Mühldorf Castle is owned by Johannes Würmer, 37, and his brother Robert, 43. It was originally bought in 1979 by their parents, who were wheat and maize farmers living two miles down the road. The boys were just children when they all moved in.

What a great place to grow up. "Ha," Johannes laughs while giving me the grand tour. "It was all walls and cabbage. There was no heating, so it was freezing. It was not romantic for a 10-year-old, although I looked for hidden treasure untiringly."

The Würmers first set about turning it into "a hotel for horses". The stables and surrounding fields housed over 70, which cemented the boys' love for the animals. "Every day we'd come home from school and go riding. To me, they are the noblest of creatures." But instead of taking the riding further, Johannes went to work for Design Hotels and Robert trained to be a vet and blacksmith.

It was Johannes's idea to turn the castle into a hotel and restaurant (it opened in 1999) and he now runs it, with Robert taking care of the stables. Guests are offered everything from rides along the banks of the Danube with huge picnic baskets, to dressage and jumping and even horse-and-sled rides in winter.

Not a natural among horses, I am a little nervous about my first lesson. As it turns out, I needn't have worried. Robert proves to be a patient instructor. When I meet the two hefty warm-bloods I'll be working with, Maxi and Geena, he says: "If you've no riding experience, it's easy to be intimidated - so you need to a form a relationship with them."

This involves brushing and cleaning them, and preparing the hooves, plus understanding how to behave around them. I learn to pat their necks when they've done a good job, not stroke their noses; always tell them when you're moving from their left to right side; and watch those ears.

Then Robert demonstrates how to harness and dress the horses, and fit them to the carriage. It's an hour's job and over the days he'll test me on this buckle (left or right side?) and that knot (tie it).

Morning lessons are followed by dips in the castle's natural pool or a wind-down in the spa. After lunch, we go for a drive into the (thankfully) flat countryside, where I get to take the reins.

There is something amazing about the feeling of driving these strong animals, learning to control their power with your own hands and voice. Trotting down lanes, lakes and farmsteads spread on either side, Robert makes it look so easy, slipping effortlessly from a walk into a trot, suavely making 360-degree circles, all the while remaining steady and straight-backed. Later on, over dinner in the gothic-style restaurant, I reflect that to him it's like driving a very precious Rolls Royce.

Back in the stable yard, and Konrad Schamberger, a master in driving, is drafted in for more theory - where to put the reins and how to hold them. Clattering out, I'm still pretty wobbly, and clearly so, it seems, because we suddenly stop for a shot of schnapps. Downing it, I wince inwardly, but feel calmer. "I can feel it," says Robert, smiling, as he passes me the reins. "They can sense when you're not in control - tell them what to do," he advises. Spirits lifted, I manage to handle a few corners more efficiently, and take us through the deep-green wild woods decked with honeysuckle and fluttering butterflies.

The next day, when a swarm of cyclists hurtle past us, I calm Maxi and Geena down with the command of "Brrrrrrrrrr", in soft tones. They're listening to me; I'm actually getting more comfortable, and find the clopping of the horses, fresh breeze and warmth of the sun peaceful.

There are other bonuses to staying at Mühldorf Castle: I borrow one of the hotel's bikes and explore the surrounding cycle tracks and untouristy villages. A lot of people come to play golf; the castle puts on "heli-golfing", flying to a different golf course in Austria each day.

Lunches are outside on the terrace, and dinners (asparagus and garlic cream soup, baby-beef and braised vegetables, white chocolate mousse) are candle-lit and superb in front of a blazing log fire.

By the time my last lesson arrives, I'm sorry not to be staying here longer. Robert, as helpful as ever, soon has me in charge and handling a number of tricky manoeuvres I never thought I'd master three days before. "See, it's not so difficult to drive a pair of horses, you just have to feel it," he says, as a wide-eyed passer-by shouts, "Wow, is it fun?" Yes, it most certainly is.

Traveller's Guide

The writer travelled with The Riding Company (01534 857 109; www.theridingcompany.com) which specialises in riding holidays in the Austrian Alps. Four-night horse-and-carriage driving courses cost £636 per person, or £997 for seven nights, based on two sharing a double room. This includes half-board accommodation at Castle Mühldorf, afternoon tea, use of the spa and pool, tuition, riding and airport transfers, but not flights.

Getting There

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; www.ryanair.com) flies from Stansted to Linz, 17 miles from the castle. To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Linz, in economy class, is calculated by Climate Care at around £2. The money is used to fund sustainable energy and reforestation projects.

Staying There

Castle Mühldorf, Feldkirchen an der Donau, Austria (00 43 7233 7241; www.schlossmuehldorf.at)

Further Information

Austrian National Tourist Office (0845 101 1818; www.austria.info)

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