Sarah grew up loving horses and dreamed of adventures in the wild, her imagination fed by family camping trips all over Britain. Growing up in the city it was never possible to own a horse, but her daydreams became reality in the summer of 2009 when she found her dream trip horse riding in Romania.
Author: Sarah Josie Ward
I met Julie at Cluj Napoca airport, waiting to be picked up and driven four hours into the mountains. Turns out, she was the only other person to book on the trip. She was a mum of two, with a big smile and seemed jolly and quite shy. I was glad she was an english speaker, or we would have been in for a long week!
I saw a woman holding up a sign with our names on it, which made me feel quite posh. Minutes after heading out of the city, we traveled back in time. Roads turned to dust, locals were travelling by horse and cart. In the distance I could see a big Shire horse being used to plough the fields. Storks nested in plain sight, there were horses, cows and donkeys tethered by the road and sellers with carts filled with massive melons.
The houses were different to any I had seen before, there was something oriental about the roofs. Even the hay stacks were different, they looked more like little huts. There were plentiful pretty churches in pristine condition and a couple of turreted palaces, fairytale-like with their colouring.
It didn’t take long until we were climbing up and around, the truck ride getting bumpier, and the woodland getting denser. This terrain was going to make for a beautiful adventure!
Finding The Right Trek
It took me a long time to find a riding trek that didn’t involve expensive B&Bs every night of the trip. While horse riding in Romania I wanted to feel like we were the only ones on the planet for a short time. Which would mean tents, saddle bags and fires every night. When I found this trip, I called to check if it was all it said on the website. I prayed there wouldn’t be someone slowing us down.
Growing up in Liverpool, we were lucky to have a nice place to ride in the city, Croxteth Country Park. I started having lessons as soon as age allowed it. In the summer of 2009 I was back at home, on a break from my second year of dance training. Though I hadn’t ridden in a couple of years, the daydreams never stopped.
I’d never been to Romania and really wanted a solo trip, so I used money my mum had left me and booked it. I think she would have strongly approved, one of my first words was “horsey” after all.
Turns out I chose well… it turned out to be one of the best trips of my life so far.
We arrived at Lunca Bradului, the beautiful wooden lodge where we’d spend the first night. We were introduced to Sorin, our translator for the trip, Marius, the lead horseman and Sonye, the jeep driver. Wait, driver? Yeah you know, the one who drives to our camp with all the supplies for humans and horses. Wait a minute. Let’s rewind.
As far as I knew, we needed to pack as light as possible as we’d be carrying everything in saddle bags. The fact that we would be based at the lodge where the owners live didn’t cross my mind. So neither did it occur to me we could leave what we didn’t need at the lodge, whilst we were off riding for the week.
In total I was going to be away for three weeks, mostly horse riding in Romania. A few days after in Romania and some days in London, spent in Sussex with family including a trip to Glyndebourne Opera House. I did not pack for any of this. So I wandered London in my baggy dance trousers and purple raincoat, carrying my purse in a plastic bag.
… I had no choice but to embrace the scruffiness.
Warm Up Day
As soon as we arrived at the lodge, they took us to see the horses and we were introduced to the trusty steeds Marius had chosen for us. My horse was a beautiful bright chestnut color, with floppy ears. Shorter than I thought they would have chosen for my lanky limbs. Her lovely name, Alazana. Her gentle temperament and those floppy ears bouncing around quickly won me over as the four of us set off up the mountain for a test ride.
They ride English style, so there was nothing new about tacking up. After all this time getting back in the saddle felt easy, and made me happier than it ever had before. It really is like riding a bike. Only the bike is a living breathing mass of muscle with a strong personality. And this time it was for an adventure we were going on together.
My insides smiled broadly and I didn’t stop smiling all day. Finally my daydream was happening. And I didn’t even have to wear my helmet, something I had insisted on. They happily agreed but said to carry the helmet in my saddle bags. It took no time at all before the terrain was like something out of Lord of The Rings. Vast mountains covered with forests, wide open expanses, roaring rivers, no fences in sight.
We paused at a hide. Sorin told us people come here to watch the bears. There’s three thousand of them in Romania. I noticed some horse hair on the floor. And a full tail. It turns out when a horse dies, they are brought here to feed the bears and people sit in the hide to witness the feast. It gave me a bit of the collywobbles to be sitting on my horse in the middle of a graveyard. We didn’t linger.
A big group of Romanian twenty-somethings turned up at the lodge that night. Turns out they needed a horse and cart to carry their gear. One of them spoke enough English to chat. So we sat around the fire outside the lodge, sharing a bottle of homemade brandy, tasting freshly hand churned cheese. Very fresh. I had seen the cheese maker in the stables with his hand in a bucket, churning, just minutes before.
Two of the guys played the guitar and sang away merrily for hours. They were really good and apparently, the songs were very funny. My Romanian didn’t stretch past numbers and simple questions but their laughter was infectious.
We set out early next morning like a cavalry. At least twenty two of us, along with two carts. Even here where horses are so common, everyone stared as we passed through tiny villages. Probably because we decided to gallop past the houses, my first stampede. The noise of it was glorious. At that point I was at the front with Marius, Sorin and Julie.
We set off, hearing the others behind us quickly catching up, thundering down the dirt road, kicking up clouds of dust. Within a minute we were in and out of the village. We carried on into the forest before Marius signalled to slow down as we reached the river. Later on that day, I asked Sorin why people stared, when horses were so common here. “To own a saddle is to be very rich, so they either ride bareback or not at all” he said.
We crossed the river to get further into the forest. I don’t know how the carts managed to stay intact rolling over those boulders. Coming to the top of the mountain, the trees cleared to show a long expanse. Perfect for the oncoming race. With such a long trail of horses you don’t realize the folks at the front have set off. Until you hear the racing hooves and those right in front of you dart ahead.
Is This A Movie?!
While horse riding in Romania I felt like I was in a movie. People and horses, friends and strangers, trying to overtake each other, shouting like cowboys and Indians. Me and Alazana didn’t win, but it was a gallant effort.
Pit stops were in idyllic places every day. This day, the sun was hot, the view was sprawling. Sorin’s horse lay down to get a few winks and two eagles soared overhead. I watched them in awe, wishing I had binoculars. I thought “No way they’re getting my sandwich”.
While horse riding in Romania we averaged six hours a day in the saddle. I was surprised I didn’t get any muscle soreness after not riding for a few years. The dance training must have prepared me well, phewf. I know Julie was feeling it but she never complained. The first thing we did after dismounting and untacking was lead the horses to the water trough.
The second was to have a glass of wine and on a couple of occasions we were handed it whilst still in the saddle! I wish everyday could end this way. That first night in the tent, I was slightly weather beaten. After getting over the embarrassment when I realized I said “Good morning” to the whole group, I retired to my tent. I fell asleep to the sound of thousands of grasshoppers and slept soundly.
Glorious Day For A Race
I woke to chitter chatter, everybody was up before me. After a quick breakfast of bread with pâté and jam, we saddled up and left one group behind. We had been riding for only a minute when we came across a couple of massive bear prints. I’m quite glad I didn’t wake to the sound of a bear sniffing around my tent.
It was another hot, glorious day and Alazana was raring to go. She desperately wanted to be the leader of the pack. Tricky, when riding single file along a narrow path on the edge of an old volcanic crater. It was along this path we came across more footprints, this time of wolves. Eventually coming to another river, we plodded through the water for a long time before heading up into the woods and ended up on a dirt road.
Marius set off, the rest of us at his heels and a couple of cars passed us as we galloped along. The horses loved to race and Alazana reluctantly stayed behind Marius. We came to a stop where the road split. The family who were riding with us said they had friends in the area, though where, I have no idea. It didn’t look like there was a house for miles around. With only the four of us left, we turned and took the mountain road.
The Salt Mine
I can’t remember how many thousands of feet up we were but the air was much thinner and we could see for miles around. The views horse riding in Romania brought to us were amazing. I assumed we were at the top, before Marius pointed to a sheer slope ahead grinning widely. Sorin turned in his saddle and said “Race to the top?”. Julie wavered and I understood why.
It looked very steep and very slippy. But we trusted Marius and we trusted the horses. So we all lifted out of the saddles, leaned as far forward as possible and went for it. You forget sometimes, just how strong horses are, until you do something like that. They definitely worked for their supper that day.
That night and every night, I helped Marius with the horses and lit the oil lanterns. They were uneasy when tied up without any light, knowing predators were never very far away.
Into The Wild
I closed my eyes, tilted my face to the sun and slid my feet out of the stirrups, letting my legs hang heavy. The only sounds were those of hooves on soft ground, rustling leaves, the saddle leather creaking and the horses breathing heavily when we trekked uphill. It felt like we were the only people alive, stopping when we wanted to admire the view or jumping off to eat some wild bilberries.
By the third day we were so far away from civilization that we got a bit of a shock when we saw a lone hiker heading towards us. You’re supposed to only hike in groups of three or more due to the bears, I hope he knew what he was doing. We had been riding for a few hours, gotten to the top of another very very big hill, and jumped off to munch on the bilberries. We smiled, said hello and he carried on.
Little did we know we had purple stains all around our mouths. We laughed when we mounted up, carried on chatting, and started pointing to each other, “You’ve got a little something just there…”
Never Trust The Weather
Sun, rain, sun, rain, river, and more rain. While horse riding in Romania you need to be prepared for it all. By lunchtime the next day I was quite cold and didn’t have any extra layers. We rode through the fog and rain until we came to a steep downward slope that had turned into a mud trench. We dismounted and walked it, sliding in every which way. Going from sitting to schlepping it down a steep slippery slope within five seconds was a bit of a shock to my cold wet legs.
The day had started in sunshine and I asked the others if they wanted to play the mirror game that we’d played at the lake the evening before. But this time, on the horses. You simply had to copy the person in front, losing the game if you couldn’t do it.
Marius went first. He did a headstand on the saddle, let his legs fall to the ground and sprang back up onto the saddle, seemingly without even bending his knees. Oh. I should have known. He had casually back-flipped into the lake after all. He was also a jockey sized man riding the biggest horse so all the more impressive.
I tried the headstand and quickly failed, so went for the very rare and exotic ‘standing on the saddle’ move. I only managed to stand up halfway. 2-0 to Marius. We stopped under the only tree in the field for lunch, fending off the rain, and the horses who were trying to eat our sandwiches.
We passed the border between Transylvania and Moldova and saw the trenches of World War II. Germans on this side and Russians on the other in Moldova. I wondered if they ever got the chance to appreciate the beauty of this place. Julie lent me her cardigan to warm up and we began another descent. It was a long way down and my twisted knee from trying to copy Marius, twinged quite a bit. Oh dear, no wonder people say dancing and horse riding don’t mix.
Camping With Critters
Getting to camp I quickly realised why I had been so cold. My waterproof trousers were not in fact waterproof. The guys laughed at my sodden jodhpurs, or ‘pantaloonies’ as they pronounced it. Remembering how that morning I had been mocking Marius for wearing his trousers like Simon Cowel. There he stood, perfectly dry.
We whiled away the evenings stirring the stew in a cauldron over the fire (always served with a side of raw red pepper), reciting a bit of Macbeth as we did so. Juggling oranges, throwing knives to try and pierce the oranges as the other was juggling. Having the odd three legged race, playing badminton (on one or two occasions Sorin stood in as a net), drinking wine, playing tug of war, and watching out for attempted horse escapes.
All the while listening out for the howls of a wolf pack, and laughing at each other when foreign words sounded silly or meant something rude in your mother tongue. Poor Sorin must have been exhausted having to translate everything, and Julie having to play games with me.
I don’t think they were used to someone having energy to burn after a day’s ride. They were surprised I asked to bring a bat and ball the night before we left, but I was a fit twenty year old and couldn’t sit around a fire all evening. I wonder how much energy I would have now at thirty?! Especially after horse riding in Romania!
Beware The Bears
Finding private spots to wash in the (scream inducingly cold) river wasn’t difficult but I was cautious not to stray too far. Not with bears roaming these lands. On the first day I asked if we were likely to see a bear. “You don’t want to see a bear” Sorin said. “Not when we’re on the horses. Bears can catch a horse”. I didn’t know they could run that fast.
We were told that if a bear did come to where we were camped and decided to run at you, to get onto a slope (we were always a few steps away from a steep incline) and run horizontally. Apparently the bear would have to zigzag. Even if that’s true, I didn’t fancy my odds. I carried a large, very sharp knife I had bought in Cluj Napoca, and made sure to take it with me when wandering the woods and rivers alone.
I discovered the sharpness of the blade when it sliced through an orange so fast it went straight through the palm of my hand. Rooky mistake. Marius sprayed the cut with something he put on the horses when they got nasty bites. The horse flies there were the biggest I had ever seen.
I hesitated a second too long in killing one that landed on my leg and it bit through my jodhpurs, drawing an impressive amount of blood for a fly. By the end of the week I had splatters of blood all over my clothes. I don’t think this will be acceptable at Glyndebourne Opera House.
Arriving back at the lodge and having to say goodbye to Marius and the horses was a sad day. I knew I’d probably never see them again. They gave me their names and addresses, and I promised to send them photos of the trip. I really hope they received them. They were the most beautiful photos of horse riding in Romania.
The last leg was with Sorin and Julie. He took us to the beautiful city of Sibiu, where our first meal was soup inside a loaf of bread. Tasty, but I missed the cauldron stew. When we arrived, there was a festival in full swing in the town square with traditional dress, music and dancing on stage.
A television crew decided to interview me and we all ended up in giggles, trying to understand each other. I have a feeling none of it was aired. Just outside the city was the Lipizzaner stud farm, where we got to cuddle lots of beautiful new foals and take a picture with a horse called Marius (had to be done). Unfortunately, we were unsuccessful in smuggling one away.
I often think of those lovely people I spent my holiday with, wondering where they are now. Julie and I lived out a childhood dream as two strangers and became fast friends. A long while afterwards I received a purple beanie hat in the post.
She had remembered my favorite color. I know if we ever saw each other again, it would be a very joyful day. I miss the slower pace of life, horse riding in Romania. Living with wildlife, lunchtime siestas by a stream with the sound of horses munching on grass and listening to the beautiful Romanian language around the campfire. I hope to return one day, perhaps with a horse of my own.
Preparations have begun for riding solo around Britain in spring 2021, wild camping and taking detours to avoid roads as much as possible. If you know of a horse that would be suited to this journey and is available for loan, please get in touch with Sarah.
If you want to learn more about Sarah or help her prepare for her next adventure you can check out her website. She also has interests in film and audio work.
Itching to have a enjoy horse riding in Romania yourself? Check out our Horse Riding In Every Country Catalog, where you can find a list of stables to book your next equestrian adventure! Enjoyed reading about riding in bear country? Read more on riding with bears.