Ride to the heart of the Black Mountains

In the high country there can sometimes be flurries of snow in summer, but it is heaven on a horse. Rupert Isaacson goes west to Wales

The Black Mountains rise abruptly from the lush woods and fields of central Wales, a long spine of steep-sided heather moorland criss-crossed by ancient drovers' tracks. The high country, which can see snow flurries even in summer, is very exposed and windy, but heaven to ride. The drovers' tracks follow the contours of the hills, allowing you long, long canters ending in steep scrambles and sudden descents where the horses have to sit back on their haunches and slither, you doing your best to stay out of their way. It's rough, exciting riding - a bit like going hunting but without jumping or spilling any blood.

Ellesmere, based at Llangorse, near Brecon, Powys, puts together very small groups of experienced riders to ride through the Black Mountains for between two and five days on good Welsh cobs. You don't have to be an expert rider, but you should be able to canter over rough ground and be up to spending about six hours a day in the saddle. Myfynwy, who leads the rides, is as Welsh as they come and knows a good deal about the local folklore, as well as the ways through the mountains. One of her routes takes you past a ruined house set in a secluded valley at the edge of the forest. In the 19th century Lord Powys installed his mistress here and built a special turf road over the hills wide enough to accommodate his carriage. The mistress stayed in the house into her old age and after her death it was never passed on to anyone else, but allowed to fall into ruin - Lord Powys apparently being unable to tolerate the idea of anyone else living where he had loved.

Having arrived in Llangorse the night before, you are introduced to your mount and encouraged to feed, groom and tack the horse up by way of getting to know one another. Then you set off from the stables in the village and climb along increasingly narrow lanes that peter out on the open moor. From here the climbing gets much steeper, with ground so extreme in parts that the horses literally have to pull themselves up by their front legs. However, these locally bred cobs are made for the job. As long as you stay forward in your strirrups and don't tip back on their quarters, they'll get you up safely. Once on the high tops, Myfynwy puts on the pace and you canter for miles at a time, in and out of belts of forestry, occasionally followed by groups of wild ponies. Buzzards and the occasional red kite wheel overhead and the views open up on either side, patchwork fields and hedgerows a thousand feet below stretching off into the haze. All you can hear is wind and the deep thumping of hooves on the old turf.

My favourite route takes one via the 12th-century abbey of Llanthony, where you can spend the night in a hotel set within the abbey ruins. On both days you stop at pubs serving good real ale, the horses tied up outside. Again, at the end of the ride, you are expected to untack the horse, groom him, feed him and put on the rugs that have been sent on in advance by car along with your luggage. Next morning you go out to the field and catch your mount, repeating the grooming and feeding chores before heading off for home.

If you have been taking riding lessons and want to apply your hard-won skills on the open moor, Ellesmere's rides are perfect, because with groups so small the guide, can give tuition as you go. Myfynwy lacks the bossy horsiness that often detracts from one's enjoyment of riding, and there are no barked orders or braying exhortations to ride better, only help and guidance if you want it. For those who really are experienced, the ride will not prove a disappointment: the pace and the routes taken can be made as challenging as you like. Myfynwy has a couple of quiet horses for relative beginners, but the others are fit and forward-going, despite being well-schooled. After two days over the Black Mountains on Myfynwy's cobs you will have learned something about how to ride cross-country on horseback.

FACT FILE

Season

All year.

Accommodation

In comfortable B&Bs, local hotels and farmhouse inns. Ellesmere can arrange accommodation the night before the ride in a B&B in Llangorse. This first night is not included in the general price.

Food

Farm cooking. Vegetarian by arrangement.

Children

Over 16s only.

Insurance

Personal accident policy required.

Safety

Mountain Rescue on call.

Cost

pounds 180 for two days, all inclusive. Longer rides can be arranged and cost roughly pounds 80 per person per day.

Booking

Deposit of pounds 75 required. Balance payable (cheque or cash only) eight weeks in advance. Contact Ellesmere Trail Riding, Llangorse, Brecon, Powys. Tel: 01874-658252 / 658429.

Getting there

Llangorse is 10 miles east of Brecon via the A40 and B4560. The village is not accessible by public transport.

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