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; 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; 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; 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;

Further Information

Austrian National Tourist Office (0845 101 1818;

Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
Life and Style

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

Stephanie first after her public appearance as a woman at Rad Fest 2014

Arts and Entertainment
James Blunt's debut album Back to Bedlam shot him to fame in 2004

Singer says the track was 'force-fed down people's throats'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio talks during the press conference for the film

Film follows park rangers in the Congo

ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    SCRUM Master

    £30 - 50k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a SCRUM Master to joi...

    Franchise Support Assistant

    £13,520: Recruitment Genius: As this role can be customer facing at times, the...

    Financial Controller

    £50000 - £60000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: A successful entertainment, even...

    Direct Marketing Executive - Offline - SW London

    £25000 - £30000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A fantastic opportunity h...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album