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In the saddle: in the Frieberg mountains.

I have enjoyed horse riding ever since I first sat astride a pony at the age of four. So imagine my delight when I was given the opportunity to get in the saddle in the home of Swiss horse riding. The Freiberg mountains region in Canton Jura is not only the birthplace of Swiss breed Freiberger, it is also "full of open spaces, and ideal for big gallops," smiles Chantal Oppliger of horse breeders' society Federation jurassienne d'elevage chevalin (FJEC). I'm not sure about the galloping (with my boyfriend, a novice rider, in tow), but rolling, forested pastures dotted with hamlets and laced with 250 kilometres of signposted bridle paths certainly sounds appealing.

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And so it is that I find myself, snowflakes balancing on my eyelashes, astride 16.3 hands chestnut gelding Image in the countryside close to Saignelegier. The region's main town, it is home to the Marche-Concours horse market in the warmer climes of August. On the day I visit, the scenery beyond Image's alert ears is bleak and characteristic of early February. Above the horizon, fat whiskers of grey cloud are billowing against a steely sky. The world of sweeping barn rooftops, cosy forest paths and spacious farmland is just visible beneath a voluptuous duvet of snow.

Riding network

The snow crunches softly beneath Image's hooves--no clipclop on this surface--as he navigates into the frozen forest. The towering spruce trees, decorated in white crystals, are tightly packed. I have to duck to avoid low-hanging branches, occasionally getting a dusting of frost down the back of my neck. Some 7,000 riders per year use this 300-kilometre network of bridle paths, which are installed with 200 automatic gates by the Reitweg-Netz der Freiberge (AREF), who have made equestrian tourism here possible. However, today, our party could be the only people around. No murmur other than the gentle nickering of the horses rides on the air.

We move forward into trot, and I get a taster of Image's frisky nature as he tries to escape the reins. Now an impressive beast out for a stroll, he has competed at many show jumping competitions in the past, as owner of stables Manege Franches-Montagnes, Viviane Auberson, tells me. My boyfriend's steed for the day, Carpe Diem, is steadier. "It is important to match a horse with a rider's ability," explains Auberson, adding that all 45 horses at her stables have been chosen for their reliable natures. She advises that any rider, when trekking on an unfamiliar horse, must banish fear so that they can enjoy the ride.

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Swiss breed

Both Image and Carpe Diem are Demi-sang, or half-blood, a breed frequently used for competition disciplines such as dressage and show jumping. However, most of the handsome horses clustered in fields throughout the area are likely to be Freibergers. Bred for over 500 years and Switzerland's only indigenous horse, they were historically used in the army and for farming.

Nowadays, they serve a different purpose. "The Freibergers are excellent family horses," says Oppliger, "because they can be used in almost any discipline, from carriage driving to riding. They are also excellent horses for beginners."

Ecurie Double C, a riding stable in nearby La Chaux-des-Breuleux, offers rides on Freibergers they have bred themselves. "They are strong horses and have a gentle character," says proprietor Christophe Chapatte, "which makes them ideal for trekking. We are proud to offer customers rides on horses we have raised."

He recommends riding in the region from May to October, when livestock wander the pastures and graze alongside horses. Auberson loves riding in the autumn, amongst golden leaves. I try to picture those scenes--so different from the winter wonderland we are making our way through today.

Sense of freedom

If riding is not something you do regularly, you certainly start to feel it after an hour in the saddle. As our ride continues past huge whitewashed houses-cum-barns, that are designed to shelter family and livestock, I am grateful for my jodhpurs, soft against the saddle. Failing the correct leg wear, trousers without seams are advisable, as are shoes or boots with a small heel and a smooth sole.

While we are riding for two hours today, Auberson reveals that she also runs day treks for groups involving lunch in a traditional inn. "Regional meals include ham r0sti and fondue," she adds. That does sound appealing, I think. It is so cold today, my fingertips are numb inside my gloves.

Later, as it begins to snow heavily, two roe deer dance across the path in front of us. On horseback, you enter the wilderness silently and unnoticed. If there ever were a reason that the Freiberg mountains are so popular with horse riders, I am sure it must be the sense of freedom the place gives you you and your horse, and nothing ahead but blissful countryside.

Make it happen

I went a two-hour trek at The Manege Franches-Montagnes, just outside Saignelegnes. (Look for the roundabout with horse scuiptures). Equestrian activities in the Freiberg Mountains include pony Trekking, riding holidays, Western riding, horse-drawn Carriage and wagon tours. And sleigh rides Experienced riders can also Rent horses and explore the AREF-maintained and Signposted bridle paths.

Useful links

Manege Franches Montagnes: www.vivianeauberson.ch Ecurie Double C: www.ecuriedouble.ch A list of all stables in the Area: www.juratourisme.ch AREF: www.aref.ch FJFC www.cheval-jura.ch
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Title Annotation:Travel: off the beaten track
Author:Mawson, Emily
Publication:Swiss News
Date:Mar 1, 2013
Words:901
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