Saturday, 11 November 2017

Ranch des Baous, 06140 France

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of riding at the Ranch des Baous near Tourettes-sur-Loup in the south of France. I had such a good time that I felt I should review it!

For a start, booking some riding as a tourist in France is rarely easy. Many places do not respond to emails, phone messages or carrier pigeon and over the years I’ve tried several places who have all retained a stony silence. The Ranch des Baous was different however - I quickly received a friendly and encouraging response from the owner, Anne Condesse (who runs the stables with her partner Michel Condesse).
Finding appropriate stables for me abroad is more challenging than for most people as I am a disabled rider and although I have a lot of competitive experience at home in the UK it isn’t always easy finding somewhere that will take me on as a risk and improve my riding at the same time! Fortunately, Anne reassured me that they would be able to help.


The stables are located in the foothills of the Alps and, for a tourist from the East Anglian fens, the drive up there is pretty steep! The venue was easy to find with google maps (not all of them are) and there unobtrusive yet visible signs pointing the way. The road is wiggly and narrow so take it steady!
On arrival it was clear that there was a relaxed and friendly vibe. The horses seemed healthy and content even in the summer heat and there were various other creatures running around including two large, fluffy rabbits! I was met by my instructor, Jacques, and Anne appeared soon after brandishing a bottle of fly repellent to spray on the horse. I’d been asked to arrive a bit early before my lesson so that there’d be time to meet the horse, groom her and tack her up. Very few places offer this and even fewer request it, but I love being able to do these little jobs and I think it’s important that riding schools teach people these vital elements of the sport. Another tick for Ranch des Baous!
Anne + horse!
 In my lesson I rode a horse called Saga. Jacques told me that, like many of the other horses at the stables, she was a Mérens horse (a Pyrenean breed). They breed these horses at the Ranch and one of their homebred foals, Corto, is now used in rides. Saga was a perfect match for me and it was clear that Anne and Jacques had thought carefully about which horse would suit me. My legs are very weak so I need a horse who is forward off the leg and doesn’t need to be nagged, but at the same time my balance and arm strength are also impaired so the horse needs to be reasonably calm and responsive downwards as well as upwards. Basically, I need the perfect horse!

Jacques taught me to ride in a very different style to that which we use at home. In the UK I’m always taught to keep my hands low - perhaps because I ride one-handed, and it’s a good way of controlling that arm, but I think most people are taught to keep their hands low here. Jacques encouraged me to ride with my hands higher and higher and although it felt very strange to me I can’t deny that it had a lovely effect on Saga! We spent quite a while working on getting a good, rounded outline on the flat in walk, trot and canter. Saga was clearly very well-trained, responsive and eager to please.
Little collage of me with Saga
After a while we also had a go popping some little jumps, which was good fun for me. Saga was forward but sensible over the jumps and seemed to be having fun too! Having ascertained that I had the right basic idea, Jacques helped to me to be improve my contact over the jump. I was letting my contact become too light which meant that I wasn’t fully in control on landing or over the jump. Subtle movements are not my strong point and I didn’t know how much to ‘give’ with the hands, but when Jacques suggested I keep my hand where it was but just open the fingers it made a lot more sense. It’s something I’m definitely still working on!

Throughout my lesson, Jacques checked that I was OK and not struggling too much with pain or control. He also had full awareness of Saga’s needs: it was a hot day and he made sure she had plenty of time to rest in the shade while we talked. We spoke in a mixture of French and English but there was probably more English than French going on as my French equestrian terminology is limited!
Found these guys on the Ranch website and they were too cute not to include!
I had such a good time that I was eager to return. Fortunately my mum, who was the only one of us insured to drive in France, was also really impressed by everything she’d seen and she was happy to take me again. It takes a lot for my mum to feel that I am safe and that people are looking after me appropriately when I ride - I have had many serious injuries over the years in addition to a genetic disability so I do need somewhere with sensible horses and, even more importantly, thoughtful and supporting instructors.
Before my hack with Source
My second ride took place a week later, and it was a hack out with two other customers - both of whom were English, which made conversation easy, especially when we discovered that one had been to my school! This time I rode Source, who was just as friendly as Saga. We were out on the hack for about two hours as we climbed a mountain to admire the view down to the Mediterranean. Much of the hack was spent in walk because the terrain and the cloudless August sky would have made anything else impractical, but we did also have some trots and canters which were good fun. We stopped often to allow the horses to drink and to take in the scenery. Jacques also pointed out various traces of local history, geology and wildlife as we went along. It was relaxed, interesting and good pure fun!

At the end of both my lesson and the hack I was able to untack the horses, brush them down and turn them out with their friends. It was lovely on the hack to see their different characters: mine had a habit of scratching her tummy on the undergrowth whilst another lady’s was a really greedy character and an opportunistic eater! After the horses were settled we flopped for a bit in what I suppose is a clubhouse, where there was ambrosia in the form of lovely, chilled water and squash to drink - a nice touch!

Costs:
1 hour private lesson €50 (approx. £44) 
2 hour hack with two other riders + instructor  €55 (approx. £48)
Pony pit stop!
How I would rate… (out of 5)
  • Horse health/wellbeing - 5
    • all the horses looked very well and it was clear that Anne and Jacques were always thinking about their comfort. Riders were encouraged to help in caring for the horse before and after the ride.
  • Friendliness of staff - 5
    • they were just lovely!
  • Accessibility - 4
    • fairly easy drive to get there; not very easy for a wheelchair to get around the site but I don’t think you’d expect it to be - I used crutches. The site isn’t huge which makes it easier to handle if you can’t walk far.
  • Ease of booking - 5
    • I contacted Anne via email (initially through the website) and she responded promptly with all the relevant information. Email is my preferred booking method (yes, it's slower than the phone, but I struggle to hear properly with a phone and you have to be sure someone will be free to pick up!). The website also supplies landline and mobile numbers so you could use them if you prefer that to email.
  • Value for money - 5
    • riding isn’t cheap anywhere, and at this venue I had fantastic guidance and learned a lot - and had a lot of fun! You might be able to find some places a bit cheaper but I don’t think they’d be anything like the same quality.
  • Suitability for tourists - 5
    • Anne and Jacques speak excellent English so if you’re an English speaker that’s a plus. They also speak Spanish. They are friendly and welcoming to anybody.
  • Suitability for beginners and more advanced riders - 5
    • large variety of horses on offer (size and temperament), good facilities including 2 sand arenas, show jumps, and excellent tuition tailored to meet your precise needs. The hack out that I did would probably have been a bit tricky for complete beginners but there are plenty of other possible routes.
  • Range of activities - 5
    • Dressage, jumping and pleasure riding available to tourists. Many more activities (including competitions) running throughout the year for regular visitors.
  • Anything else?
    • Anne and Jacques took photos in both my rides and emailed them to me afterwards, which made a lovely memento. I will definitely return. 
Corto at 4 months playing with Caramel the Shetland!
Thank you to the team at the Ranch des Baous for being so welcoming and for teaching me so much in a short space of time! I can’t wait to come back.

Find out more:
Ranch des Baous website (in French)
Information on the Mérens breed in French (breed website) and in English
Tourrettes-sur-Loup tourist information (in English)

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