Age is Nothing but a Number

Posted on May 30, 2013

Recently, 74 year old Stephen Theunissen returned from his sixth riding holiday with In The Saddle since his retirement in 2004 and we couldn’t wait to catch up with such an inspirational gentleman for our latest blog…

Stephen rode from the age of 6 or 7 years old up to his mid teens, when, in his own words, he got ‘distracted by motorized devices,’ as many young men do! However this foray into equestrianism had obviously already taken hold and in 1972, when he was in his early 30’s, he was motivated to take the hobby back up when his girlfriend at the time was a keen rider. “I didn’t actually marry her,” Stephen admits, “and my wife now really doesn’t like horses! However I was hooked and continued riding from then on.”

“At the time I was living near Windsor and used to ride at stables situated on the edge of the Great Park. I remember when I rode on Sundays we would often see Her Majesty driving her old 3 litre Rover to take what we assumed was a swift one with her mother after church!”

“I continued to ride casually and my eldest daughter took to horses,” Stephen tells us. “We had moved to Suffolk by this time and when she reached her early teens she persuaded me to buy my first horse. As I was over 50 years old at this time this action caused my father to call my older brother and ask him if I had lost my marbles!”

“By the time my daughter was 16 she had put on a growth spurt and was increasingly keen on Pony Club activities and competitions, so we bought a 16.2hh Irish Draught X who was a splendid jumper and cross country horse, but a little slow so he was never going to compete seriously at senior level. When my daughter was at boarding school and then university I used to exercise him and even went out with the East Anglia Bloodhounds when I could! In 2004, when I got round to retiring, it was looking after the old boy that kept me fit and healthy!”

Elephant at Limpopo open country
It was also at the point of retiring that Stephen indulged in a lifelong ambition to go on a horseback safari. “Initially I had a goal to go on at least one safari ride,” he admits. “So I went to Macatoo in the Okavango Delta and enjoyed myself greatly. I liked it so much in fact that I booked to go to the Tuli Block the next year to a destination that was then run by the couple who now own Limpopo Valley Safaris, Louise and Cor. “

Limpopo elephant waterhole from tree hide
“Here was real elephant country and that gave some very exciting riding,” explains Stephen. “Around the camp was 6000 volt electric fencing that the elderly matriarch elephants would push young males through to get the oranges on occasions! I remember there was a water pump system that supplied a pool just outside the camp which the elephants used to come and drink from during the day. Usually, by the time we returned home from our evening ride, they would be long gone but on one occasion I remember them being there into dusk. After waiting for some time we had to run into the camp via the back entrance to be welcomed by our Gin and Tonics at the stables! It was a little hairy but exciting nonetheless.”

Limpopo view from the shower room
“The other thing that stands out from my trip to the Tuli Block was seeing lions from horseback,” Stephen divulges. “We were told that as long as we were 60 metres away from them we were quite safe, and luckily there was dried up river between us and them which would have taken some effort to venture across. We stood for some time and then quietly made our way to a a line of bushes and then had one of the longest canters I have ever had! It was on that trip that I got to canter with giraffe – who have the most amazing movement – and saw the Great Grey Green Greasy Limpopo River, which was actually dried up at the time – but made for very nice riding!”

Rascal at Limpopo
“The next trip I planned to do was Jordan but unforeseen circumstances meant that had to be cancelled so I went on the Dolphin Trail in Portugal instead,” explains Stephen. “It was very different riding amongst the Cork Oaks and along beaches on Lusitano horses, but interesting and fun in its way. Then I went to Okapuka in Namibia where we rode Arab horses. A very nice lady who bred them ran it and she had this amazing rough and ready turnout paddock that was 1300 hectares in size! When the foals were weaned they were left to run free for a 2/3years. The fences were high enough to stop the horses getting out, but low enough that giraffe , ostriches and antelopes could get in. This meant that the young horses became entirely habituated to the animals and by the time they had a saddle on their back they were at ease with the wildlife.”

Ant's Nest the hunt - riding holiday
“After that I asked the team at In The Saddle what I should do for my next riding holiday.  It was recommended to me that I go to Ant’s Nest for the annual round up and census,” Stephen says. “It was a great suggestion! The first day we searched for buffalo that were due to be sold to a private game reserve. Off we rode in a group of about 22 of us staff and guests on horseback and guided by a helicopter to help us find them. We located the buffalo in a thicket and the vet went in to dart them with a rifle and sure enough four darted buffalo came out, two of them towards me. My horse at the time decided to back his silly self into a thorn bush instead of walking quietly away, which to my dismay was all captured on a video! Once caught the sedated buffalo were loaded onto a flat bed trailer and we watched from a safe distance hoping the vet had got his calculations right and they weren’t going to wake up!”

The catch
“During my trip to Ant’s Nest we went out on giraffe and antelope capturing expeditions in vehicles and spent four days counting animals. The evening rides were very civilised , at the end of the ride we would reach a clearing where there were chairs and cold ( alcoholic) drinks laid out. We then untacked the horses who were allowed to wander back to the stables by themselves! We eventually followed by Land Cruiser.”

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“I also distinctly remember the Ant’s Nest bred rhinos, which were located near to the house so they could keep an eye on them due to the threat of poachers.” Stephen goes on to say, “I remember a pair rhino walking towards a group of us on one occasion and an elderly black Labrador barked ,sat down and sent the rhinos on their way! They obviously knew who was boss! I would recommend anyone who loves animals to join this trip to Ant’s Nest – it was spectacular!”

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“I have just returned from the Green Island Trail on the Azores,” Stephen tells us. “I had an excellent time and enjoyed some fast riding and beautiful country the only problem was fighting the temptation to over-indulge in the excellent food! I was in great company, with four English ladies and two Germans, I being the solitary male! I have always found that the people on these trips have other interests and experiences as well so always enjoy myself socially. On every holiday I have been on the people have been interesting – one of the German women on this trip was on her 20th riding holiday!”

Vivaldi looking for his evening carrot in the dining room at Azores
“So now at the age of 74, the question is where next?” Stephen asks. “My only regret is not taking up riding holidays earlier in my life, but now I have the perfect occupation for a healthy pensioner to take part in – I can’t think of a better way to spend my time!”

6 responses to “Age is Nothing but a Number”

  1. Tracey Campbell says:

    Stephen, what an absolute inspiration you are. I’ve been on quite a few riding holidays with ITS, including a few that you have done, Macatoo, Okapuka, The Dolphin Trails and I was lucky enough to visit Jordan. Everytime I take one of these amazing holidays I always say to myself, this will be the last one – it never is because there are so many wonderful places to visit and like you say always some great guests to share the adventure with and ITS keep adding more destinations. So thank you for sharing your story and I am sure you will take many more holidays, after all the Queen is still riding at 87.

    Best wishes

  2. Georgina Erskine says:

    Wow, as a mere 62 I am pleased that I have many more riding holidays in store! Crossed the Andes from Argentina to Chile which was very exciting and beautiful. So many places to visit. I aim to wear out not rust out so plenty of places to think about for next year. Maybe we will be on one together who knows?

    Best wishes,

  3. Jean Sinclair says:

    I spent the most exciting and fun filled week of my life at Ants Nest for the game census, aged 60. It is a unique opportunity not to be missed if you love horses and wildlife!

  4. Susan Mandell says:

    Dear Stephen,
    It was a joy to read about your adventures, and I am considering joining one of the very rides you mentioned. I started riding at 50 and I am turning 71 in November ..I have a wonderful hunter jumper that I ride 5 days a week , jumping , and trail riding….I would like your recommendation for my next trip..Macatos, Limpopo Namibia or Ants nest!
    I live in New York City, and I have travelled with in the saddle to Portugal ,with a group of English friends. They are heading to turkey this Fall, but I am really interested in traveling to South Africa, and have read about your adventures…
    So please let me know any suggestions you might have as to which would be the best choice!

    Best Regards,

    • GGJourneys says:

      Hi Susan
      We would be pleased to advise you on a holiday for 2014. Ants Nest in South Africa is a wonderful first time safari – there is a wide variety of animals and being centre based you can do as much or as little riding as you want as well as combine riding with game drives to get really close.

      To see “Big Game”, then I would probably suggest Motswiri in the Okavango Delta where you can combine riding with game drives and walks.

      kind regards

  5. glenn hellman says:

    I was 71 when I went to Perol Chico Peru, Which is very suitable for the older experienced rider as long as you are not an adrenalin junky. I was booked on the Across Argentina ride from Huechchue but had to cancel because my wife had just been diagnosed with cancer. However I did get there in 2011 for the Across the Andes ride. Sadly this ride is no longer run but it had one or two high adrenalin routes. And I saw a puma! Keep riding there’s a lot holidays out there even if you end by going carriage driving. Sadly I don’t think I shall be doing any more as my wife needs my care and I’m hoping that when she dies I will be very old and needing a care myself.

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