How curious to think that last time I wrote I was concerned about drought and excessively warm weather! As soon as we decided to go riding, the rain came in with a vengeance.
We ride with a group called Cavogaro, which stands for Cavaliers de la Voie Gallo Romaine, a name inspired by the fact that an ancient road used to run along the crest of the hills from Alésia, where Caesar defeated Vercingetorix, to Sombernon. Bits of the old road have been identified, as has at least one Roman villa beside it, but for the most part the trails we actually ride criss-cross back and forth across it, weaving up and down the steep slopes. We progress in single file at walk or trot alongside cultivated fields, and when we get into the more restricted woodland paths, we canter enthusiastically, as many as eight of us thundering along, and occasionally shrieking with glee or distress (when a branch gets you in the face for instance).
Lucy rides the most spirited horses Delphine can set her up with; every now and then, when something goes wrong at the back of the line, Lucy is left in command of the front. She’s acknowledged as one of the really seasoned riders, and as someone who knows the trails well. I, on the other hand, just ride Aramis, my fat, beloved, probably-partly-Welsh pony. He’s ancient (over twenty) and greedy as a pig, but I like him and he likes me and we do very well together. And he loves to go for a sprightly canter, and he’s short enough that I get fewer branches in the face than most people.
Seeing the countryside from horseback is an entirely different experience from seeing it from a car window (of course!) or even on foot. You sit a bit higher, you move rather faster, you take different short-cuts. And indeed, you realize how many of these ancient tracks were designed for exactly this, not for tractors or four-wheel drive vehicles or any of the other silly things that now occasionally venture onto them. There are steep ascents and descents that would be impossible on anything motorized, and difficult on foot, but that are just right for a surefooted pony. And you get to thinking (or at least I do) about just how many people have ridden these paths before: ladies on palfreys, the occasional knight headed down to the chateau at Thenissey on a destrier. Given the power of the Abbey at Flavigny, to which most of the area owed duty, plenty of priests on mules or donkeys, going to visit outlying farms, and maybe the occasional naughty and self-indulgent monk like Chaucer’s, on a horse far too good for a man who has taken a vow of poverty. Heavy farm horses, like the one in the Friar’s Tale, who gets the cart he pulls stuck in a muddy patch… and there were plenty of muddy patches the other day, when we started out in a fine drizzle that turned into steady rain after the first twenty minutes and persisted for the rest of the two hours that we rode, so that we couldn’t even risk a canter because the ground was so slippery. When we finally dismounted, I had a dry patch on the top of my head (rather like a monk’s tonsure) where my helmet had protected me, and on my butt, and the rest of me was soaking wet and chilled to the bone. I also had a whole new appreciation for men-at-arms riding out on their lord’s service, or farmers coming home from far away markets, or pilgrims heading to Compostela, none of whom had the option of giving up after a couple of hours and climbing into a dry car and turning the heater on full.