Visit Gayaza and check horse riding off your bucket list
Whether it’s a Western or an adventure film from medieval Europe, there’s a certain feeling that grips you after seeing someone riding on a horse’s back. Everyone might fantasize about it differently but what’s for certain is – we all want to experience that some day.
For a Ugandan, this seems like a far-fetched dream, except it’s not. You could ride a horse every weekend (45 minutes away from Kampala) if you wanted. Matter of fact, you could sign up your kid for horse riding lessons like they will be examined on it.
It all comes down to what value you attach to it. As two biracial kids (about age 15) circled the field on horse backs under the supervision of a Kenyan instructor at Flametree Stables in Kijabijo near Gayaza, these are the thoughts I pondered upon.
It’s Independence Day, on a Saturday afternoon and the sky is finally clear after a heavy downpour. Going by the pace of their routines, I can tell these two teens are not first timers like myself. They are steadfast. Despite the speed at which the horses are charging, they exude a sense of effortless control over the animals.
Our group, about 15 of us, on a trip organized by Makutano Safaris converses random topics over lunch but this light moment is interrupted by rain.
In a shed where we’re sheltering, we keep observing a rider who is braving the downpour in a nearby enclosed yard.
As the rain subsides, our group is divided in two and we’ll take turns riding.
Earlier on arrival at the farm, we had taken a stroll in the vast compound where pairs of horses are feeding on the grass. For a first timer, it’s a beautiful scene.
There are odd moments. Like when a colleague wants to get intimate with one of the horses but he’s very nervous and doesn’t know how the animal will react.
My turn to ride finally comes. My excitement suddenly gets dampened by sheer nervousness, when the syce (instructor) finally tells me to get onto the horse. Monty is his (horse) name. He’s brown. Due to my height, the syce has to adjust the stirrup straps. I learn that my back plus my feet must be in a certain posture if I’m to ride steadily.
The initial moments of the ride feel odd because this is the first time I’m riding an animal. If any first timer tells you they didn’t contemplate a scenario where the horse suddenly sprints off or throws them off, they are lying.
“Monty is 13. He’s the fastest horse here,” my syce tells me while we’re strolling in the woods.
Red flag! This information is not entirely comforting.
How you utilize the 30-minute walk is entirely upon you. Mine was about getting to know the syce, the horse and the basics of how to control the horse.
I learn for example that the reins (long, narrow straps attached to the noseband, which are held in a rider’s hands) are the most crucial items in commanding the horse. What I do with them determines whether Monty moves ahead, whether he stops, or whether he makes a turn. I also learn that when you hold them farther apart and loose, then kick the horse’s belly with both my feet, Monty will move much faster.
Moments later, these newly acquired techniques help me overtake a colleague who is riding right in front of me. My kicks are measured. I don’t want to die in this movie.
The track is slippery due to the rain earlier. The coward in me is awake and picturing all sorts of things that could go wrong. But Monty has been down this road and he has it all figured out.
It was a beautiful ride. Could it have been longer? Hell yeah. It’s something I want to do again. This time not going into as an amateur worried about the uncertainty. It kills the vibe.
Want to go to Flametree Stables?
“People take horse riding lessons here, which usually take one hour. Fifty minutes with an instructor, 10 minutes to cool down your horse,” says Steven Ajega who has been at Flametree Stables for 9 years in charge of horse health.
The farm charges Ushs 120,000 per person during weekends and holidays while lessons during the week days cost Ushs 110,000.
A pony ride takes half an hour of riding a horse through a dirty track in the woods. This costs an individual Ushs 45,000 (week days) and Ushs 50,000 (weekends and public holidays). An introductory ride lasts 30 minutes (15 minute-walk & 15 minutes with an instructor). This package allows you feel the speed of the horse. An extended introductory ride lasts 20 minutes and 20 minutes with the instructor, making it 40 minutes in total.
Phone photography is allowed but professional photographers will be charged Ushs 400,000 to Ushs 600,000.
Ajega says visitors are allowed to carry food and drinks plus a small music system since the place has no restaurant or where drinks can be bought. However, plans to build a restaurant facility are in the offing. There will also be a bar and kitchen.
Part of the vast field on the 17-acre property, has camper tents which cost Ushs 100,000 each a night with beddings, a fire pitch and facilities for a warm shower.
In total, there are 40 horses and ponies on the farm which has been operating for 13 years so far. The difference between a horse and a pony is the size and height. Horses are about four feet ten inches tall while a pony is less.
When planning a trip to the farm, the trick is ensuring you are many. It’s a game of numbers. That’s what will get you a discount. Not just many as guests but the majority should be in for the horse riding.
In explaining this, Ajega says this is because horse riding is the only offering from which the farm earns, since the visitors have the liberty to carry food and everything else.
How long does it take to master the craft of horse riding? Serious (committed) people can take 3 to 4 months to learn the basics about health, management and riding.
“Horse riding is an exhilarating experience. It factors in things like power and control. Things that we apply daily in our lives. But for a horse, it’s a different kind of animal, not the way you would deal with a cow or a dog. You’re sitting on a horse and giving it direction,” says Ian Katusiime, a travel enthusiast.
“So you have to establish a bond with it, study its psychology. Horses are very intelligent animals”.
Katusiime says he has always watched horses in movies and felt it was a cool thing to try out. Going by his experience, he terms it as “something fun” and recommends horse riding to anyone.
“My horse was called Bombax. He was young and stubborn. And I handled him. At the end of the day, we had some rapport. I really liked him. He’s my kind of guy”.
In Flametree Stables, Katusiime found serenity and that get-away feel that every traveler seeks. To him, the hospitality, the cool breeze as you ride in the woods is “the right package”
“It’s an expansive area. There’s enough land. The track we used for horse riding is such a dope track. It’s one of the reasons I would visit Flametree Stables again”
Would he go horse riding again? Yes.
Joan Atimango says for someone who hasn’t done this before, the nerves will creep in.
“I would describe my horse-riding experience as fun, calm and scary. I say scary because hmm… it’s scary. I mean, ofcourse you get there (venue) you are excited about getting on the horse, but when you’re called to sit on it, you’re like ‘How am I going to do it?’”
“But it’s worth it. It’s a peaceful and calm experience, I loved it.”
In spite of the fact that she had earlier been getting cozy with the horses, the moment to get on the horse got to her.
“I kept imagining the horse throwing me down and getting wild, it getting hungry… I mean.. I was like ‘Has it eaten? What if it gets hungry as we’re riding and then it throws me off?’ I had a lot of things running in my mind. It wasn’t smooth. It gave me lots of anxiety.”
Atimango was given the biggest horse. This is because she had the most weight in her shift.
“It was called Yale. I will never forget it. Yale the big black horse. It was so calm and peaceful. Such a nice horse. I wish I could take it.”
Her biggest highlight was the encouragement she got from her instructor, while getting onto the horse.
“I also enjoyed the company of the people I was with”.
“I would recommend the place to anyone. The workers are very friendly, so nice. They keep time. The place looks nice. The environment. The trees. Even as you ride the horse you feel peace.”
She would go horse riding again.