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Posted on July 4, 2019
In The Saddle’s Lucy Downes joined an exploratory ride to North Macedonia back in June 2019:
Joining a group of keen and adventurous guests, the Miyak Tribe Trail would be my first exploratory ride for In The Saddle and the first time I’d actually heard of the country – North Macedonia. A land locked, southeast European country which is bordered by Bulgaria, Serbia, Kosovo, Albania and Greece.
Nearly all of the group and I flew directly from Luton Airport to Skopje, a journey which takes just over three hours. On landing, we were met by our driver who was wearing a Sherpa Horse Riding T-Shirt – nice and easy to find after our early start from the UK – and we were taken straight into Skopje for a short city tour with our guide Elaine. The beautiful blue skies dictated a shorter tour as we all opted to get out of the heat and head for drinks and lunch at a lovely little restaurant just outside the centre.
Over a selection of tasty meats, cheeses, bread and salad, and of course a glass of Macedonian wine, we all introduced ourselves. Everyone was excited for the week ahead in this country that we collectively knew little about.
Leaving the city, we headed west to Galichnik – a pretty little village up in the mountains and where we would spend our first night. The views through the potted red flowers from the balcony courtyard gave us our first insight of the scenery we would be riding through – it was a promising start.
That evening, our guides for the week joined us while we tucked into more delicious food and wine. Vasko would be our lead with Mihail (Micky) at the back. Both having grown up locally to the ranch, they knew the mountains well and would often refer to them as ‘their’ mountains; their back-garden which they’d ridden around since childhood. Vasko explained how he would regularly help his father check on the remote sheep farms on horseback during the school holidays as a child.
After dinner, we were introduced to the rest of the team who would be looking after us, including Dario – our very own mountain leader! Dario is trained in first aid and mountain rescue, but also helped with logistics during the camping nights and has the most beautiful voice when playing his guitar around the campfire. In the winter months, when snow is covering the mountains making it impossible to ride, most of the Sherpa Horse Riding team teach skiing in the area or at larger resorts. Their attentiveness to the safety of each guest was second to none.
The following morning, we visited a small village museum giving us an insight into the Miyak Tribe and culture. It was exciting to think we would be riding the same routes and ancient roads as the shepherds had done all those years ago. We then continued the short journey to the ranch and where the horses were based.
After a quick introduction to our mounts for the week – mine being a strapping bay gelding named ‘Thunder’, strong, forward going and who would soon prove his speed – we tried our hand at milking some of the ranches goats while the horses were prepared. Vasko demonstrated the traditional preparation of cheese, which later in the week we would have as part of our lunch.
Once leaving the ranch on horseback, we rode for between 6 and 9 hours everyday. Although the tack is Western, with long shank bits and comfortable leather saddles with high horns, the horses are actually ridden in a Macedonia style – a cross between English and Western. We all rode with long stirrups and a loose rein, but you still had to use your hands to control the pace. These Balkan mountain horses, some being Arab crosses, have a very forward, fast and comfortable walk which is the pace we stayed in the majority of the trail due to the terrain. However, there are plenty of opportunities to canter when in a valley or riding along a forest track – some being rather pacy!
Each riding day, we settled into a similar routine – waking at around 07:30 for a cooked breakfast at the hotel or over the fire while camping, before meeting the horses – already groomed and tacked up for the day’s adventure. We would set off, having replenished our camel packs from a mountain spring, usually uphill reaching a viewing point where Vasko would point out the route of which we’d come from and where we would be going. The riding each morning was varied, from high mountain peaks, rolling green hills and stunning wild flower meadows – I have never seen so many butterflies as they rose from the flowers, surrounding us as we rode through.
Admiring the scenery, a welcoming sight would appear in the distance – LUNCH! Vladimir, along with Dario, had a wonderful knack of choosing the best places for us to stop for lunch and snack breaks – either within the flowers at the bottom of a valley, on a ridge looking across the mountains, sheltered in a pine forest when the sun was strong, or even in the shelter of a friendly sheep farmers home when a mountain storm rolled in. Every day something different; we were treated to hot soup, cheese pies, chocolate biscuits, fresh fruit and salads (lots of local cucumber and tomatoes the size of your hand), bread and plenty of tea and coffee.
During the long summer daylight hours, the times for lunch stops and breaks are very relaxed and the group can dictate the length as they wish. As the days get shorter in the later months of the season, timings become more precise to avoid riding into camp or the hotel in the dark.
Once feeling refreshed and having had a stretch, we would continue our ride. One of my favourite days was when we were camping in the high mountains – we rode over a peak to see all of the tents ready and waiting, a dining tent with a hot stove, a kitchen tent ready with cold beers and even toilet tents with the best views of the sunset. In the evenings of the two nights we camped, we sat around the fire reminiscing while watching the horses snacking on hay around us, not another soul in sight – bliss.
On the last day of riding, we set our alarms for 03:00 and mounted the horses in the dark to climb the highest peak in the area to watch the sunrise. The team couldn’t have planned it better – as the last person reached the top of the peak and dismounted, we waited just three minutes before the sun started to rise. It was a magical start to the day. We spent around 45 minutes watching the horizon with the horses, before walking back down to camp for a cooked breakfast.
Having ridden between 27-44 km each day, knowing this holiday was coming to an end was starting to hit home. Through the beauty of this country, the hospitality of its people and the challenges this trail had presented to us, we had all bonded from a group of random people looking for an adventure, to a group of friends having accomplished an incredible 202 km journey through the mountains. As we descended from the mountain in the last 30 minutes and the ranch came back into view, we heard music drift up and I must admit, there wasn’t a dry eye among us. We’d done it!
After a long farewell to our trusty Mountain horses, we stepped back with a beer in hand and watched as the herd of 30 were led to their pasture on the side of the mountain. Enjoying the music and our last dinner with the guides, the vehicles to take us back to Skopje for our last night arrived too quickly.
My pictures really don’t do the scenery of North Macedonia any justice. It is a country you have to experience for yourself. For more information, please email me at email@example.com or call +44 1299 272 997.