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A horse riding holiday in Morocco offers a different way to see the country

Guide Yousseff on Assaka, an Arab-Berber blend.

A horse riding holiday in Morocco gives a unique view of the country

Nicola Edmonds heads to Morocco to take horse riding lessons at Les 2 Gazelle ranch and discovers  incredible scenery.

The horses at Les 2 Gazelle ranch in the south of Morocco do not, I discover, take part in formal lessons. That is, they do not deign to. These desert-bred Arabs and Berbers are the aristocrats of the equine world. Their wishes are indulged. To jog gently around a fenced arena with a learner rider in the saddle would be well beneath their dignified hooves.

So my plans to treat myself to a week of orderly riding lessons in an exotic locale fall over at the first hurdle. I’ll be learning to ride this terrain by the seat of my pants – instruction by osmosis – while taking in the ragged beauty of the ranch’s surrounds.

The French-owned ranch does, however, meet all other requirements. Situated between the Anti-Atlas Mountains and the Atlantic coast, just a day’s drive from Western Sahara, the ranch is a stylish oasis with a stable of beautiful horses – also, curiously, a beauty salon offering manicures, waxing and Ayurvedic massage. 

Tafoukt is my first Berber ride. The breed profile is variously described as being thick of body, thin of legs and possessed of a fiery disposition. Small and plain, Tafoukt is also fast, sure-footed and driven by an all-conquering motivation to be at the front of the pack. 

Together with Florence and Alexandre, two high-flyers from the Parisian legal world, and Laura, a teacher from Munich, we spend the first half of the week exploring the desert plateau with our guide, Yousseff.

The lithe 26-year-old makes riding look as easy as breathing. Yousseff taught himself as a teenager, leaving school young to work at the hard-scrabble racetracks of Casablanca. He tells us he’s happy to have left that world behind, that the Arab racehorses are bred to be crazy.

Each day, beyond the manicured luxury and private beach of the Club Evasion resort next door, we cross a red-sand terrain upholstered with jagged rocks and thorny mounds of cactus. There’s no trail to be seen as we trot (or bounce, in my case) across flat land devoid of fences or walls. Yousseff and the horses somehow possess an internal GPS that protects them from the many sharp edges.

Les 2 Gazelles ranch is separated by a stretch of thorny, red-sand terrain from the sprawling, beachside Club Evasion and the Atlantic Ocean.

More intriguing are the villages we visit, most of which seem all but deserted. “Where have all the people gone?” I ask Yousseff, as the sound of clopping hooves echoes around red clay walls in the small settlement of Tamellalt. The men are mostly away in the cities, working to support their families, he tells me. But otherwise everyone’s here, he says with a shrug, as though I must be blind.  

If I listen more carefully, I can hear faint sounds of life beyond the darkness of the small, deep-set windows around us. Doors creak as I spot a glimpse of brightly coloured fabric and the shadowed faces of the women who peek at us from the cool gloom of their homes.  

We wend through flame-coloured alleyways and guess at the goings-on behind numerous turquoise doors, as a commanding voice, vaguely tuneful, eddies across the rooftops issuing the evening call to prayer. 

After the horses have been showered and fed, chef Mohamed Ali plies us with luscious Moroccan cuisine. In the evenings, we’re served soups blended from potatoes, beans, cream and cheese before we delve into fragrant tagines. Specialties include spiced meatballs with sweet prunes and baked eggs, chicken morsels stained yellow by turmeric and preserved lemons, and succulent chunks of fish, grilled to smoky perfection.

Chef Mohamed Ali demonstrates the “Bedouin pour”.

One afternoon, dressed in traditional Bedouin robes, our chef gives us a potted guide to a good cup of tea in the Sahara. He explains that it’s all about the “mousse” or head of tiny bubbles at the surface of the tea, which acts as a protective layer against a mouthful of sand. The knack is to master the height and angle of your pour. A Bedouin gentleman then sips his tea, we’re told, using his teeth as a second line of defence. 

Unusually for autumnal October, the days become increasingly hot and dry. One night, I’m woken by the loud and persistent roar of huge waves breaking along the coast. The storm is a precursor to the chergui, a furnace-hot wind that sweeps in bearing a torrent of fine red dust from the Sahara.  

To escape the savage heat, which climbs to 40°C, guide Said leads us on more leisurely forays along the coast. There, I opt for a change of pace and demeanour. I ride a gorgeous, tall Arab-Berber called Tahour, which – given half a chance – is most pleased to trundle at the rear of our cavalcades.  

The 8km beach is breathtaking. Beside a shell-strewn shore and steep, powder-soft dunes, there’s the cold, blue, unswerving stretch of the Atlantic Ocean. The dunes and shoreline are protected within a local wildlife reserve. Around us, great shoals of sea birds shimmer and ripple in formation as they surf the sea breezes. 

My back aches relentlessly and patches of my backside are by now rubbed raw. I’ve learned many lessons with my new desert friends, most without human intervention. Florence offers to loan me her brand-new back brace and reminds me that, in this place, the happiness more than makes up for the pain.  

For horseriding adventures worldwide, visit farandride.com

This was published in the February 2018 issue of North & South.