Saddle up for Club Med with a difference

Rosie Millard learnt more than a new vocabulary when she trotted deep into the French countryside
It would have helped if my French had been a bit better. And not in A-level terms, either. Being able to compose a 500-word essay on the delights of the Maisons de la Culture or the intricacies of the Nouvelle Vague wasn't going to help. What I needed was a GCSE in French equestrianism. The only hope was guesswork: "trot enleve" (the second T is silent, as in de trop), and "trot assis" - simple enough. But how about "se redresser"? or "fixer le bas de jambe"? (press with your calves, if you're interested). It was a phrase which, for seven days on the trot (ha ha), was to became my personal mantra.

Riding isn't what first comes to mind when considering a Club Med holiday. A hedonistic mix of sun, water sports and French food, say its fans; an upmarket Butlins, say the cynics. But Club Med, invented by a chap called Gerard Blitz in 1950 as the first "all-inclusive" holiday, aims to cover all sports, not just the sun, sea and surf triumvirate. So for me, a person for whom successful wind-surfing is probably somewhat of an oxymoron, what better idea than to brush up on my riding lessons, while having a holiday in France at the same time?

Not that I was ever much good at riding; I grew up in the middle of London, and my childhood was singularly undistinguished by gymkhanas, rosettes, Pony Club and the like. But since then I had done a bit, and thought this to be the perfect way to improve. "She's going to learn show-jumping," my husband said, shrugging his shoulders incredulously, to astonished friends. "I'm going along with her. I'll spend seven days there playing tennis and just not think about what happened to poor Christopher Reeve."

Club Med's Centre d'Equitation is at Pompadour, a tiny village near Limoges. There's golf, a swimming pool and indoor tennis courts, but the real point of the place is the riding. There are two yards - one full of horses, one full of ponies - two indoor rings, and five outdoor arenas. Apart from children's lessons, there are essentially two classes: advanced and intermediate. You probably could get along as an absolute beginner, but it's advisable to be able to ride a bit - to have a basic idea how to walk, trot and canter.

I signed up for the intermediate class and discovered that I could learn a whole range of equitational skills, including jumping, dressage, "trick riding" and, if I really felt like playing Prince Philip for a week, carriage-driving.

On day one, I appeared in the yard sporting my new jodhpurs and a back protector, which the chap at Lillywhites had said was mandatory for jumping. You don't have to wear one (in fact, no one else did), but it was great for making me feel confident. Club Med insists that hats and proper boots are worn, and will hire them out if necessary.

My instructor was a Breton beefcake named Jauffrey. "Ah!" say I, "Geoffrey? Un Anglais?" Jauffrey, who spoke no English at all, looked at me oddly and waved a gloved hand in the direction of the stables, where the rest the class were tacking up ready for the first lesson. Every day, we had an hour of dressage in the morning, and an hour of jumping in the afternoon - and it was enough.

Boy, was Jauffrey strict. If you fell off, if the horse refused, reared, bucked, kicked or bit another horse, (all of which happened at times to various members of the class), or if high-speed military planes came scudding overhead causing near pandemonium (ditto), that was your problem. Rather than its own Club Med staff, Pompadour employs professional riding teachers who have nothing to do with the things Club Med staff get up to (humorously- aimed custard pies, that sort of thing), but were focused instead on shaping up a load of hapless-looking holiday-makers into people who could sit decently on a nag.

Nothing deviated Jauffrey from his purpose. Make a mistake, and he'd make you do it again. With utter French disdain. "Galop!" he yelled at me on day two, at which point the key was not to forget that galop is the French for "canter", and start bombing round the ring (which is what I did). The horses were pretty disdainful, as well. You had to ride a different one each day, but all had the same attitude. Fail to fixer the jambe in precisely the right way for the demi-volte (semicircle), and the horse wasn't going to help you achieve it. But for me, only too familiar with riding schools where horses play follow-my-leader most of the time, it was a welcome change.

Once I had mastered the translation of Jauffrey's five or six key phrases on the hoof, my riding took off. I went over trotting poles, did complicated figures of eight, changed legs all the time (don't ask me how; I have no idea), cantered from a standing start and became essentially far more confident in one concentrated week than in a year of occasional Sunday jaunts. My riding technique was videoed by the fearsome Jauffrey and discussed in seminars next morning.

My husband, mollified by hours spent perfecting his serve, sauntered up to the school and looked pretty impressed by my achievements. After hosing my horse down at the end of each lesson we would wander back to the hotel for hot baths, excellent food and Club Med "spectacles" (basically quiz shows, interspersed with people turning up as fried eggs or impersonating Madonna, while doing astonishingly bad French slapstick and dreadful dance routines, which we found hilarious).

I had never really jumped properly before, but by the end of the week we were all clearing a proper course involving 3ft 6in spreads, and most of us were feeling pretty good about it. Apart from Erica from Switzerland, that is, who had the misfortune to fall off on a regular basis; and Christine, a tearful Parisian teenager, who had the misfortune to fall for Jauffrey.

Club Med's Pompadour village is 450km from Paris. Nearest stations: Uzerche, Brive and Limoges. Rosie Millard paid pounds 469 for a week's full- board Club Med holiday in June, and an extra pounds 125 for the six-day riding course. Club Med: 0171-225 1066.

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