As a keen rider, Anna is always look for the opportunity for a horseback experience in another country. Her latest magical moment was horse riding on Madeira, where she spent a very special two hours in the company of Verdi (named after the composer!) following the levadas through the island’s enchanting Laurisilva Forest.
When you think of Madeira, you don’t immediately think of horses and indeed the logistics of keeping a horse on the island needs some careful planning and management. All hay and feed has to be imported for a start, and the mountainous terrain needs a bit of modification to accommodate our four-legged friends. But in my experience, where there is a love of horses, there is always a way!
Situated in the mountains and on the edge of a national park, the location of the Quinta do Riacho stables, owned and operated by Paula and Paulo Nunes is superb. The national park offers great trail rides for all abilities, and each one has its own unique experiences. For instance, if the ground is dry, Paula will take experienced riders up the steep slopes to an altitude of 1200m, where they are rewarded with stupendous views over the south east side of the island and of the highest peak on Madeira, Pico Ruivo.
Beginners and inexperienced riders will be enchanted riding through Madeira’s Laurisilva Forest and along the island’s famous levadas, and these trails have stunning views over the south-east and north-east parts of the island. My steed was Verdi, a classic Portuguese horse originally from the Azores. With just a total of four of us in the group, this trail ride was very personal, and Paula led the way on a stunning grey stallion called Tornado. As there had been some rain a few days before, the steeper trails were still a bit slippery and would’ve been dangerous for the horses – although I’m an experienced rider, we took some of the lower trails along the levada and through the forests.
Some experiences stay with you forever, indelibly imprinted on your soul, and horse riding on Madeira will be one of them. With his gentle, but cheeky character, Verdi is a horse you fall in love with, and he was an absolute delight to ride. The fresh mountain air was delicately scented by the forest’s endemic species and the exhilarating gallops along the wide pathways brought on a giddy rush of adrenaline. Along the trail, the woody foliage intermittently parts to reveal breath-taking views; even Verdi appeared to stand and stare in wonderment at the verdant landscape, and the desert-like Ponta de Sao Lourenco Peninsula in the far distance. (Although annoyingly he wouldn’t put his ears forward for the photo!).
Then there was a hidden trail, through pine trees with slender, long leaves that softly brushed your face. On this particularly clear day, our elevated position meant we caught a glimpse of the magnificent mountains beyond – this is what horse riding on Madeira is all about. Paula is incredibly knowledgeable about her island and throughout the ride, she points out numerous plants and explains how the islanders live in harmony with nature.
Paula and Paulo’s relationship with their horses is remarkable. They are champions of natural riding techniques; they use bitless bridles and the horses don’t have shoes, so hoof boots are used when the ground is hard. These animals are well and truly loved. Verdi, and one of the other horses Vivaldi (who came out in our group) are rescue animals. Paula and Paulo have nurtured them back from skin and bone to be the healthy, happy horses they are today; these animals have regained their trust of humans, and take care of their riders. Every herd has its pecking order though, and the horses at Quinta do Riacho are no different. “Tornado is very protective over his mares, and Verdi does have to be in front of Vivaldi on trail rides!” Paula laughingly explained. Handily, there is a little café just up the road from the stables, perfect for a refreshing cuppa and I rewarded myself with rather nice Portuguese cake.
And how do you end a day’s horse riding on Madeira ? I recommend treating muscles which haven’t been used to riding for a while to a relaxing soak in a spa bath, followed by a massage at the Quintinha São João hotel in Funchal!