Saddle up with Richard Dunwoody

Grand National jockey turned avid globetrotter, Richard Dunwoody did not want to take life easy when injury forced him to retire. He now leads wilderness riding tours and crosses icy continents for charity. Interview by Minty Clinch

Three times champion National Hunt jockey, Richard Dunwoody, 42, won two Grand Nationals and struck up a memorable partnership in the early 1990s with the snow white Desert Orchid, the nation's favourite steeplechaser. An injury forced him into early retirement in 1999, but he now leads wilderness riding tours and also crosses icy continents for his favourite charities.

"If anyone had suggested during my racing years that I'd have a second career leading adventurous riders into the wilder parts of the planet, I'd have said they were crazy. I didn't even have a passport until I was 21 and then only because I joined a crew of reprobates for a jockeys' trip to the United States, Australia and New Zealand in 1985. My fellow travellers were Peter Scudamore, Hywel Davies, Steve Smith Eccles and Graham Bradley so I was very much the rookie - and the team reserve.

"Luckily for me, the Americans looked after us so well that Graham put on too much weight so I rode instead, and played a part in our victory in Australia.

"Although my mum sometimes goes abroad with my sister Gail and her kids, my parents didn't travel much when I was a child. In my early years, Dad ran a racing yard in County Down. Then he moved to England to manage a stud near Tetbury, but we returned to Northern Ireland most summers. We stayed in a caravan near Millisle so we could catch up with the family, but my mind was on other things, particularly after we moved on to Newmarket.

"As a 12-year-old, my dream was to win a Derby so all I wanted to do was to ride. As I grew bigger, I had to switch my ideas from flat racing to jumping, changing my ambition to riding in the Grand National.

"Holidays? Who needed them? Certainly not me, yet nowadays I spend a third of my life as a tour leader. On the days I go to the airport, I wake up with a feeling of keen expectation and excited at the prospect of meeting my next group. When a bunch of people gets together for two or three weeks, dynamics are important. Part of my job is making sure everyone has a great time, so I need to encourage harmony among people with no shared interest beyond horses.

"I wasn't ready to retire when doctors told me I could lose the use of my right arm if I injured my neck again. I covered continents trying to find one who'd give me a better prognosis, but eventually, in December 1999, I accepted the inevitable, and 'retired'.

"In need of escape, I devised a personal baptism of fire: four months in places I'd never have dreamed of visiting alone before. I started conservatively in the English-speaking world, doing serious damage to my liver in Sydney on St Patrick's Day and testing my terror of heights to the limits on the Gold Coast. Would a couple of weeks of bungy jumping and sky diving cure me? No way, but there's no doubt that free falling out of a plane is one of the most exciting things I've ever done.

"So far, so good, but I arrived in South America with serious doubts as to my ability to get around with no Spanish beyond, 'una cerveza, por favor'. Travelling from Rio to Cuzco for a trek to Macchu Picchu might take a bit more. In the event, I was surprised by how easy it was to find the right bus or train, and my confidence grew rapidly. Lima was enveloped in sea mist and undergoing a turbulent regime change, but the rest was brilliant. I made lots of new friends, though my own adventures seemed a bit tame by comparison with the Northern Irish dentists who'd been robbed at knife point on Copacabana beach in Rio.

"I appreciate a relaxing beach holiday, but skiing offers a magic combination of exercise and fun. My catalyst was a two-week ban from riding over the National Hunt Festival at Cheltenham in 1994. No way was I going to hang around at Cheltenham watching the lads fighting it out for the year's top prizes so I hooked up with a mate, Mark Low, and went to Val d'Isere.

"Let a couple of jump jockeys loose on the slopes and they're going to crash and burn, a bit of a risk for me because I had a good ride in the Grand National three weeks later. With help from a French instructor, who probably feared he'd fallen among maniacs, we soon progressed to red runs, but at one point I thought I'd broken my shoulder racing Mark down the slopes. Luckily it was only my ego that was bruised. I won my second National on Miinnehoma at Aintree and narrowly beat Adrian to the title a few months later.

"Seasonally, skiing doesn't combine too well with steeplechasing, but I was an instant addict, hopping on a plane to the Alps whenever frost or snow brought racing to a standstill. If you start when the lifts open and stop when they close, there's no danger of losing fitness on a ski trip, but there's always a possibility of wrecking that plus side by partying all night. Possibility? Make that inevitability.

"Did all this qualify me to be a tour guide? Maybe not, but when I met Martin Thompson and Nick Van Gruisen, the founders of Ultimate Travel Company, I asked them if they'd like some help on any of their riding holidays. They sent me to the Pardubice Steeplechase in the Czech Republic, a hair-raising contest I'd once finished third in, so I was almost on home turf. I stayed with the group in a castle near the racecourse and I felt I could get used to this kind of thing!

"My first Ultimate horseback trip took me to Ecuador in 2003. The highlight was watching England's victory in the rugby world cup in a Scottish bar in Quito, but I had enjoyed it so much that I wanted to expand my horizons. Accordingly, I targeted Jonny Bealby, a dedicated globetrotter who runs a very personal off-the-beaten track company called Wild Frontiers, at the Adventure Travel Show in January 2004. He suggested I joined him on his riding recce to Kyrgyzstan and take it on from there, which I did.

"I had also decided to combine guiding with a growing passion for cold, desolate places. On my return from South America, I'd met David Hempleman-Adams, compulsive polar explorer turned global balloonist, and he suggested an eight-day expedition across Baffin Island as my introduction to cross country skiing. 'Don't worry, you'll pick it up along the way,' said my guide, David's business partner, Neill Williams. I did, though it was tough hauling 50kg (110lb) sledges across the ice. We were lucky because the temperature was a relatively mild -20C and the only signs of polar bears were their prints.

"On my return, I signed up for the inaugural 550km (341-mile) Polar Race to the Magnetic North Pole with ex-Commando Tony Martin. There were three other teams, including some former Royal Marines who led from the start and beat us into second by a day. The deal was that Tony had the gun and I had the camera, and it wasn't long before we were in a good position to use both.

"When a young male polar bear approached, Tony shot at it to discourage it, but it kept coming straight at us. What to do next? We were still wondering when the bear moved off at a tangent along the marines' tracks, rolled over and fell asleep. Obviously he didn't plan to make a lunch of us but as we had to pass right by him, I woke him by yelling and banging my ski poles together. Fortunately my strategy worked and he moved off our route to resume his nap.

We wouldn't have had the same result with the aggressive mother with cubs we spotted the next day, but luckily she was half a mile away so we just gave her a wide berth.

The race took about three weeks: roughly 11 days skiing for up to 19 hours a day and 10 days at checkpoints. At the start, at Resolute Bay in Canada, we learnt that we didn't have enough calories in our rations so we bought lots of butter and cheese in the only shop. It was lucky we did because they were the only things that made our carbo-loaded pasta and beans edible. Even so, it was no picnic, especially as I dislocated my shoulder twice. I'd initially done so when I was bucked off a friend's dressage horse so my shoulder was always going to be vulnerable. Tony put it back in quite easily the first time, but on the second occasion several attempts left me incapacitated on the ice.

"Now I've had it fixed, I've signed up for the South Pole this year, which involves 1,100km (683 miles) across broken ice and crevasses in the footsteps of Scott to raise money for the International Spinal Research Trust and Sparks. This takes place during the southern summer, so it fits in with my tour-leading, which is now increased to nearly 100 days a year. In the short term, I'm also about to spend a bit of time in Italy. Beautiful food, beautiful women, and a beautiful language. What more could a man want? I guess there comes a time when, 'una birra, per favore', is no longer enough!"

International Spinal Research Trust 01483 898786;

Sparks 020-7799 2111;;

Wild Frontiers (020-7736 3968,, 12-21 May Ride Cappadocia (Turkey); 30 June-15 July Shandur Polo Festival Tour (Pakistan); 22 July-4 August; Dunwoody Rides Again (Kyrgyzstan); 27 October-4 November, Kasbah Trail Horse Trek (Morocco).

The Ultimate Travel Company (020-7386 4646, theultimatetravelcompany. 20-29 August, Iceland: Riding in the Land of Fire and Ice; 12-17 September European three-day event championships (Italy); 12-15 October Pardubice Steeplechase; February 2008 Riding in Kenya; August 2008 Olympic Equestrian Events, Hong Kong.

My top ski resort

Chamonix does the job for me, partly because I have a friend with a chalet in Les Houches, which makes me a bit of a regular, and partly because there are so many different areas to ski. I love the white-knuckle challenge of the Grands Montets and the gentle sweep of the Vallée Blanche, with its dramatic backdrop of jagged peaks. The après-ski is pretty good too. We always start in Chambre Neuf, opposite the railway station, and take it from there.

My favourite trip

My first Wild Frontiers trip to Kyrgyzstan with Jonny Bealby in 2004 was the best I've ever done. We rode for 300km, crossing snowy mountain passes and high plains. Each night we camped on isolated river banks and enjoyed delicious meals washed down by copious amounts of vodka. Our journey was vividly chronicled by Julian Barnard, a cavalry officer turned journalist who managed to complete a gruelling programme despite breaking his foot on day one.

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