“I guess we don’t get helmets,” said Kelly, the most experienced (only) horse rider in our group. “Oh, well. Welcome to Italy,” she shrugged.
“Would we normally have helmets?” I asked as my horse took a step, lurching my body forward at the same time. My anxiety level rose instantly as I pretended to be chilled-out and adventurous. ‘Don’t be that girl,’ I told myself. ‘Don’t be that girl…but don’t throw your back out either.’
“Y’all are gonna be fine!” our guide David was saying. “You just hold your reins in one hand. Keep ’em loose and when you want the horse to stop, pull ’em straight back. Pull ’em left to go left and right to go right. You need to steer the horses or they’ll take advantage of you. And one more thing – these horses are lazy. You’ll have to make them speed up.”
“And how do we do that?” I asked.
“Kick her,” David said definitively. “Kick her and if she still won’t move, whip her on the shoulders. Hard.”
Oh-kay then. Kick-whipping it is.
Earlier in the day, two nice girls at my hostel in Naples convinced me to go horseback riding up Mount Vesuvius. It sounded scary, but brilliant. At 11am sharp, the three of us piled into a car with Michael, also from the hostel, and a driver who hurled us at breakneck speed through Naples and up to a small town at the base of the volcano. Here, we met David and the horses who would be our escorts through Vesuvius National Park.
Admittedly, I hadn’t been on a horse since I was three, an experience that ended in tears, my mom shouting, “Take her off, she doesn’t like it!” and for some reason, horse poo smeared all over one of my legs. This time, I was determined not to repeat any of these outcomes.
Shortly after David’s tutorial, we were clip-clopping through the cobblestone streets near the stables and heading towards the looming mountain of Vesuvius.
A couple minutes in, David has us all kick our horses into a trot. I thought my brain was going to shake out of my skull as my body helplessly bounced in the saddle with the impact of several spin classes. There was a fair bit of swearing in our group. Only Kelly was calmly moving in and out of the saddle as her horse trotted. Apparently, this is what you’re supposed to do. “Match the horse’s rhythm,” David called back through the ranks.
David was a hoot. Born and raised in Naples, he had a unique combination of Italian bravado and Rocky Mountain swagger that he gained on the cowboy circuit in Wyoming. “I learned to speak English in Wyoming,” he said when I commented on his completely non-Italian accent. David liked challenging all of us, especially when it became clear that the new riders had no real control over their horses. He’d shout things like, “Michael, is that as fast as she can go? You need to kick her a little!” Five minutes later, it was, “Oh, Miiiichaeeeel,” as his horse decided to simply stop walking in the middle of the trail. My horse had quickly taken to eating all the long grasses hanging onto the trail. “I think she’s hungry,” I said, to which David responded, “She’s not hungry, just lazy. Kick her!”
Note to readers: kicking horses while you’re riding doesn’t mean you’re abusing them. It’s how you let them know what to do. You need to be firm and consistent though, and most of us couldn’t get the technique quite right.
Turns out, horse riding is painful. In my opinion, way more painful than riding a camel. It also takes a bit of stamina and maneuvering. I still don’t believe celebrities who claim to stay in shape by riding horses, but it actually is quite challenging. Perhaps more so when you’re traversing a trail like this:
Once we left the open trails, we snaked our way through the woods, every step uphill.
Finally, we reached open space again. Behind us loomed Vesuvius’s snow-capped crater.
In front of us? This gorgeous panorama of Naples.
David took amazing photos of each of us.
And then, we took a super selfie.
A few more minutes and it was time to saddle up again. The ride back down Vesuvius was (or at least felt) treacherous. Our horses worked around the same windy overgrown trail, except it was downhill. Then, once we were in an open space, we all galloped with our horses. This was terrifying but really exhilarating. A fitting end to our Vesuvius on horseback adventure.
The Vesuvius on Horseback tour is available through Hostel of the Sun in Naples. It costs 50 euros pp. That includes transport to the site and drop-off either back at the hostel or at the train station closest to Herculaneum, a Pompeii-like excavated town that is really worth seeing.