It all started innocently enough around a campfire as these bush experiences often do. The heat from the logs must have lulled me into a torpor so that when I was asked: “Do you want to try a horseback safari in the morning”? what was meant to come out of my mouth was an emphatic “NO”, but what I actually said was “Why not”. I am still not sure if it was me who answered, or just someone who sounded like me. Being a non-drinker, I cannot even blame alcohol.
Let me nail my colours to the mast or in this case the stable door…I AM AFRAID OF HORSES. There, I have written it publically. And before horse owners start defending their animals, let me explain. Back in 1994, I lost a friend in a horse-riding accident, where she fell off her horse, broke her neck and was declared brain dead shortly after reaching the hospital. It was in that same year that actor Christoper Reeve had a similar accident, but one that saw him in a wheelchair for several years. It was not like I have never tried to ride before. However, the rides that I have been on, where the horses had been advertised as calm and well-schooled, had turned out to be anything but.
However, having agreed in front of witnesses, I felt that I could not back out. Thus, it was with some trepidation that I went to bed, knowing that the possibility of my horse history repeating itself the next morning was high.
The morning dawned bright and clear, and like many highveld winter mornings, not a cloud in the sky. Deep down I suppose that I was hoping for a thunderstorm or at the very least some sort of inclement weather that would either cancel or postpone the inevitable.
Even this Lilac-breasted Roller seemed to be mocking me as it fluffed up its feathers in the chilly morning sunlight. Prospective riders are collected from the main lodge building and driven to the stables so that they arrive relaxed and ready for the experience that lies ahead.
It is not only the guests that get to enjoy the horses, as they have also been used to help children with certain disabilities as well as having school groups from the community attend to learn about horses and not to be fearful of them. Being horses that spend all their time in the bush or on gravel roads, they have no need to be shoed as the ground acts as a natural file to keep the hooves trim and in a healthy condition. Each of the horses has an individual and unique personality, like Cody who has taught himself to open the lock on his stable door.
Mara Ihlenfeldt, Mabula Ecoadventure trails manager is passionate about her horses and the enjoyment that they bring to young and old alike. (except me at this particular stage in the experience) Going out on a horseback safari is a totally different experience I was informed and I would be able to get much closer to wildlife as they can only smell the horses that pose no threat to them. And secondly, much like when visitors are in a vehicle, I would be viewed as part of the horse and therefore also not a threat. The interaction between horse, rider and the wildlife would be like no other and these interactive sightings would allow the species being viewed to continue their daily routine, without being affected by the sound of an engine or the crunch of the tires on the terrain. So, now I knew what to expect, my horse knew what was required of it and I was hoping that the wildlife would cooperate.
After what I had been told about the horses, I should have felt secure in the knowledge that the horses are so well-schooled that they will protect their rider even in a buffalo charge. I have to say that I was sceptical…until we came across this small herd of buffalo and my horse did not even flinch as they slowly walked past, more intent on getting to a water source rather than expending energy chasing us.
“Being able to leave the road and head off into the bush to look for animals was an experience that I will never forget. The horse was not even startled by the aardvark that we found snuffling around for food.” Guest CF
The silence as horse and rider pass giraffe, zebra and even cheetah allows the riders to truly enjoy their time in the saddle. I have to say that by midway through the ride I was beginning to relax and enjoy the experience rather than sitting tensely in the saddle and worrying about what might happen.
“The giraffes were so inquisitive that not only did they stop to watch us, they even followed us for a short while. A memory that will last for a lifetime” Guest HK
This trio of Oryx( Gemsbok) stood and watched us as we rode by. It seems that at least one of the parents of the animal on the left had to be a Harley Davidson, as the horns look like handlebars on that iconic brand. Ordinarily skittish, they continued with their daily activity as we walked slowly past.
“Even though it was my first experience on horseback, I was totally relaxed and as a result, I was able to enjoy the experience without being nervous.”
To put potential riders at ease, the 16 horses (some of which have been on the property for 13 years) are very well schooled and seeing that many guests cannot ride (or this is their first time on a horse) the training of the animals can take up to a year. The safety and enjoyment of the experience for each guest are paramount, Mara will take time to match horses with potential riders. Keeping the experience an enjoyable one for all concerned, the horses are schooled to neither canter nor gallop and they do not bolt back to the stables when returning from a ride. The calm and relaxed nature of the herd at Mabula is aided by the fact that only geldings are utilized. And for those who believe that they are riding across the plains of the USA, you would be mistaken as the saddles being used are from the Australian outback.
FYI: The horses, like field guides, work in shifts. 6 weeks on and 2 weeks off. Three rides per day can accommodate 8 people per outing and last about 2 hours, 30 minutes of that time being dedicated to a comprehensive safety briefing. One of the most asked questions currently is “Has there been any discernable change in the attitude of the horses since lockdown, as a result of not being ridden regularly”? And the answer is a simple “No”. The horses go about their same daily routine whether there are guests or not.
The beady eye of the Yellow-billed Hornbill watched me as I returned, elated and exhilarated by my experience. Would I do it again? HELL YEA. With thanks to Mara and her guides.
I wanted to regale the other guests with the story of my ride, but seeing that there was no one around when I returned, I consoled myself with a plate of sandwiches and decided to save the story for this blog posting.
So, when you book your next trip to Mabula Game Lodge, make certain that you sign up for a ride to make your trip even more memorable.
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