The sky is just starting to lighten as I drive slowly in search of Häståkeriet Stables in Gärdet, part of the massive Royal City Park in Stockholm.
Amidst the all-night revellers wandering like ghosts through the mist rising off the grass, I spot a woman in tall boots carrying a riding helmet and follow her to the barn.
As soon as I step out of the car, I smell the sweet scent of horses and hay and when I enter the barn and adjust to the bright lights, I see a bustle of activity.
A young woman named Emma comes quickly over and asks, "You are Virginia?" and shakes my hand. She tells me to pick a horse, any horse, to groom and tack up.
Several women are already in stalls, brushing horses. I go to a large brown horse named Guz. As I'm cleaning his feet, Emma looks in and asks, "How did you find out about us? We don't advertise. It is usually just locals who join in the morning."
I tell her it took several searches on Google to find Häståkeriet stables and I soon find out I am, indeed, the only non-Swede here for the dawn ride, the other seven women live in Stockholm.
The stable occupies storied ground: barns belonging to King Carl XIV Johan once stood here. Johan was born in France, had a distinguished military career during the French Revolution, and became King of Sweden and Norway in 1818.
The Royal Family still uses horses and carriages for state visits, receiving new ambassadors and the opening of the Parliamentary Session. Now located in the city centre, the Royal Stables' roots go back to Gustav Vasa, King in the 1500s, and are considered a significant part of Sweden's cultural heritage of classic riding.
- Photo by Virgina Aulin
I find Guz's saddle and bridle in the immaculate tack room and a helmet for myself before Emma calls us together in the middle of the barn. "I'm going to tell you a bit about each horse and then you can choose who you would like to ride," she says. We are all experienced riders, as that was the criterion for joining the dawn ride. But the barn offers day-time outings in the park for riders of all abilities.
Emma introduces two caramel-coated Fjord ponies, with thick multicoloured manes and black dorsal stripes; slender Andalusians from Spain who are a little high-strung; a big pitch-black Friesian with a handsome forelock who needs a strong feel; and a sturdy paint.
I chose to ride Pajkos, a speckled-grey gelding from Hungary, because Emma says that on a recent ride something spooked one of the horses and all of the other horses took off as well. Except for Pajkos, who calmly carried on. The downside is that he's a bit testy when being mounted. So, after we all walk our horses to the outdoor arena, Emma holds him while I swing up into the saddle, careful not to nudge his sides with my heels.
We walk and trot around the arena, getting to know our mounts and Emma gives us the rules of the ride: no iPhones (someone once fell off their horse while taking photos); stay close together; and obey all traffic signals—because our early-morning ride will take us deep into the heart of the city.
- Photo by Virgina Aulin
By the time we head out, fog is still rising off the wet fields but a blue sky is becoming visible. It's not yet 6 a.m. on a September Sunday, the perfect time to venture onto Stockholm streets on horseback.
We head west along leafy boulevards into Östermalm, a posh residential neighbourhood and Emma calls out, "Trrrrot" and we urge our horses forward.
At red lights, people in cars look at us curiously and carefully pass us when the light turns green. "Stay together!" Emma barks. Being on one of the slower horses, I am indeed getting a bit behind. I cluck at Pajkos to pick up the pace and Astrid, on the Fjord pony beside me, does the same.
When we catch up, Emma tells us we can canter if we need to and at points I do, enjoying the clip-clippity-clip of hooves ringing on cobblestones.
We ramble over a bridge into Gamla Stan, the Old Town, where buildings date back to the 13th Century and through narrow, medieval alleys to Stortorget, the Grand Square. It's my favourite part of the city, pulsating with history and intricate architecture of various eras.
The sun is stronger now, showing off the tall, skinny yellow and mint and crimson-coloured houses to great advantage and making the Stock Exchange Building, now home to the Nobel Library and Museum, glow pink.
- Photo by Virgina Aulin
We circle around the 700-year old Stockholm Cathedral, which is an impressive example of Swedish Brick architecture, and come to a stop beside the massive Kungliga Slottet. This is the Swedish royal family's official residence (though, in reality, they spend most of their time at Drottningholm Palace, 10 kilometres west), and has 1,430 rooms. It's is one of Stockholm's most popular tourist attractions, but it is so early that we have the street to ourselves.
Emma takes photos of us in front of the canal, with City Hall's 106-metre-high tower (accessible via 365 steps) visible in the background.
Then, reluctantly, it's time to turn for home. The streets are busier now so we ride single-file and when we come upon three police on horseback, we exchange a wave. (And, I confess, I sneak a photo.)
I feel like I am channelling Winston Churchill as we trot over sun-dappled sidewalks, slightly revising one of his famous quotations: When you are on a great horse, you have the best seat in town.
As if reading my mind, Astrid tells me she lessons regularly at the stables, but today was her first dawn ride. "I've lived in Stockholm for years. But I loved it the best today as seen from the back of a horse."
I've only spent a few days here, but I wholeheartedly agree.