Jumping on a motorbike is not the only way to see the Cambodian countryside close to the capital, as editor Marissa Carruthers discovers there is an alternative that takes true grit. Photography by Lucas Veuve.
A couple of young Cambodians relaxing in the shade of a tree let out a snigger before shouting a barrage of “hellos” to the barangs passing by. Living in Arey Ksat, which sits a short ferry ride from Phnom Penh, it’s not the sight of Westerners that’s taking them by surprise – it’s watching Westerners, or anyone for that matter, riding a horse that has them enthralled.
“Ask a Cambodian if they’ve rode a buffalo and most will answer yes,” says instructor Guillaume Larivain as he leads our group of five riders along a dusty track that winds through fields full of tufts of lemongrass. “Ask them if they’ve ridden a horse and they will laugh at you.” However, this hurdle has not stood in the Frenchman’s mission to boost horse-riding’s popularity across the Kingdom since moving here six years ago.
Born into a long line of horse breeders, the 40-year-old has spent his life working with some of the finest thoroughbreds across Europe and Asia, breaking in horses and training riders to perfect their game. After moving to Cambodia, he landed a job forming and training the country’s national horse-riding team, spending a year as its coach. The team has since competed in the Southeast Asian Games twice in dressage and show jumping, with six riders being sent to the 2013 games and four this year, although no medals have been won to date.
Now Larivain is sharing his passion with others after launching Arey Ksat Equestrian Trails, which allows riders to explore the Cambodian countryside on horseback. “My passion has always been horses,” he says, adding he sat on a horse before he was able to walk. “I wanted to share that in Cambodia while showing off the peaceful, majestic countryside here.”
Based out of his family home, which sits close to Arey Ksat ferry terminal opposite the Naga World crossing, riders, from beginners to experienced, can explore the Cambodian countryside on horseback. Larivain scoured the country to find the 13 Cambodian horses that make up his school. Sprightly Vietnamese stallion, Vigo, makes the 14th but is usually only mounted by experienced Larivain.
The majority were young working horses that pulled carts and carriages 14 horses, meaning he had to spend months breaking them in so they are fit to be ridden. “Cambodian horses are actually very easy to train,” says Larivain. “I didn’t have any of the problems I usually have. It was all relatively simple.”
After recruiting a team of trained staff, including two of the country’s finest riders who, between them, scooped four wins in the last Cambodian championships, Arey Ksat Equestrian Trails was ready to start operations, opening in April. “There is no better feeling than being on a horse,” says Larivain before asking the group if they would like to step up the pace to a trot. “They are incredible creatures; so powerful.”
With treks ranging from one hour to five hours, Larivain and his team are on hand to guide riders through the countryside. And the treks offer a great insight into authentic Cambodian countryside living, with the horses meandering through the untouched countryside along winding tracks that cut through open fields, grassy woodland, peaceful villages, pagodas, banana plantations and paddies.
A full day or eight-hour hack takes more experienced riders north along the Mekong River, with views taking in the Phnom Penh skyline. The session runs from sunrise to sunset, and gives guests the chance to gallop through the countryside, swim with their horse in the river, and enjoy the laid back pace of rural life.
And between now and September, Arey Ksat Equestrian Trails is hosting daily summer camps where children aged between six and 18 can learn how to take care of horses, feed them, engage in riding lessons and trail rides and take part in pony games, from 6am to 5pm.
“My aim is to make horse-riding accessible to everyone,” says Larivain, adding he would eventually like to extend his offering to Sihanoukville and Siem Reap. But for now, he is happy tending to his horses at his home, and showcasing the area he calls home on the back of his horse.
Treks start from $25. For information, visit areyksatequestriantrail.sitew.org