Earth is large, so why would I go to Scotland to ride horses three summers in a row? I blame Wilder Ways. It’s the only outfit in the UK that carts its horses to different boondocks, from April to October every year, offering weeklong (or shorter) vacations.
As a Scotophile who loves horses and often travels alone, I have not been able to resist exploring unfamiliar parts of the country on horseback with familiar people — namely, Wilder Ways proprietors Cara Dayton-Gelati (the cheeky Scot) and Nikki Dayton-Gelati (the kindhearted Limey). Two summers ago I took an all-inclusive, weeklong Wilder Ways trip to Islay, in the Hebrides; last summer, I went to Knoydart, in the Highlands. This past summer it was the Mull of Kintyre — the knob at the end of the Kintyre Peninsula — 72 miles southwest of Glasgow by air, twice as far by road.
It’s an area of mists, glens, heather, and deer, all of which Paul McCartney got soppy about in Wings’ biggest UK hit, “The Mull of Kintyre,” from 1977. (McCartney has owned a farm and recording studio on the Mull since the 1960s.)
It was easy to understand McCartney’s soppiness as we rode out on a different route each day for about five hours, traversing lovely, wide-open farmland, hilly moors covered in bracken and wildflowers, grassy seaside clifftops, thick woods, long beaches empty of people. One day we visited a Neolithic standing stone; another, the lush hills of the 4,000-acre Largiebaan nature preserve.
Many of the routes we took followed unpaved tracks; sometimes we rode through entirely unmarked areas, and even bogs — where carefully following the horse in front of you was critical; otherwise, sinking into muck was a possibility. Even without the standing stone and the occasional bog, there’s something primordial in being on a horse so far from the madness of modern life.
In early 2019, the Mull of Kintyre’s Glen Kerran Farm became Wilder Ways’ permanent home, after the venture spent about five years headquartered on the Scottish mainland.
A week at Glen Kerran differs from tracking Wilder Ways down in the Highlands or the Hebrides. The farm was recently refurbished and includes housing for employees, outbuildings for supplies and equipment, and big fields for the horses. The sweep of Glen Kerran encourages you to stretch out and relax, whether that entails visiting the horses in a nearby pasture or chatting with other riders in the sitting room at the end of the day.
(Another plus: Evening meals are phenomenal. To cook, Nikki and Cara hired Jacqui Willis, who’s worked in kitchens the world over. Jacqui runs the nearby Brecklate B&B with her husband, Matt, and she puts together gourmet-level meals that look like works of art.)
This group of horse-people was EU-heavy, from France, Germany, and Scotland. (Weeklong holidays are limited to six riders.) Glen Kerran is a few miles from the village of Southend and about seven and a half miles from Campbeltown, Kintyre’s largest town. Only one rider had a car, meaning we all spent a lot of time together, whether on horseback, hanging out in the sitting room, or going to Campbeltown on our day off (where I ate a traditional Scottish soup called cullen skink just because I could).
Happily, the group was smart and interesting, with accents that led to linguistical misunderstandings and many jokes, as well as to thoughtful cross-cultural conversations, particularly in the evenings. (Breakfast was a little more rushed, given that we were expected to have our horses tacked up and ready to go by 10 a.m.)
As for steed, I wound up paired with an unhurried piebald cob called Puzzle, after spending the first morning on Denver, a handsome Irish Sport horse whose canter did not suit me. For the rest of the week I often had to chivvy Puzzle or I’d have lost sight of everyone else. Sometimes, though, he revealed his competitive bent: On long, exhilarating group gallops — up a hillside and along desolate beaches, for instance — Puzzle hustled, particularly when other horses approached from behind, which seemed to convince him he was in a race.
Wilder Ways weeklong stays are for intermediate to advanced riders and require a certain degree of leg/lung/butt fitness. Riding helped me survive as a teenager, but I have not ridden regularly in years. To prepare, I jogged a few miles a few days a week. Still, by the last day, on long trots, I had to lift my butt out of the saddle and into the “jumping position” to prevent excessive soreness of the derriere.
Scotland is wet, but no rain fell during my previous rides. On the Mull of Kintyre, we did get tolerably soggy a couple of times. Midweek, we got soaked by design, and it was the best day ever.
Swimming is not a priority sport off the east coast of the Mull of Kintyre, where the North Channel connects the North Atlantic Ocean and the Irish Sea. Nonetheless, on its longer rides, Wilder Ways includes a swim with the horses; on a designated day, everyone wears swimming “costumes” (Brit-speak) under their riding gear. I’d taken part on my earlier trips, but this time, although the sun was out, the wind was discouragingly cold as we stopped for lunch next to the North Channel.
On a bluff overlooking the beach at Brunerican Bay, the lot of us hemmed and hawed. At first only Georgina, from Germany, was raring for a swim. Then, one by one, riders surrendered to the prospect of exposing their pale, goose-bumped flesh to the wind and water. I was the last to give in.
Afterward I was never so grateful for peer pressure. We had a blast riding the horses bareback into the water and circling back to the beach, again and again. On a swimming horse, you feel its muscles work, its legs spinning in a gait impossible on land. I don’t remember feeling cold, not even after we left the beach, soaked and laughing.
Amy Finch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.