But dogs are easily bored and ten minutes later there were none to be seen. They'd disappeared through a gap in a fence and shot off in search of something new - probably a rumour that a giant rabbit had landed in a spaceship two miles away. Dogs are very gullible.
Which left Rhiannon free to concentrate on the gelding, a demonic eye scanning behind at every opportunity.
The road bent and curved its way between thickening woodland, predominantly oak with stands of chestnut and acacia; slender spires of juniper dotted the roadside, the whole knitted together with thorn and briar and huge hanging vines. Dark, abandoned and impenetrable. Except to the deer and wild boar and the occasional hardy chasseur and his dog.
It's still strange to see so much wild woodland. Even the National Forests in Britain are largely managed, their paths maintained, the undergrowth cut back, the trees thinned. It's a business. But here, so much is just left. An abundance of land and a declining rural population have turned vast tracts of woodland back to nature. With no one to maintain the tracks, the old chemins have quickly disappeared under advancing woodland. As have the old stone buildings, giving an eerie feel to the place - dark, dense and dotted with overgrown ruins.
Which turned the conversation, quite naturally, towards dark and dense topics. Witchcraft for one. According to Chantal it was endemic in the Pyrenees. And worse in the Ariege.
Veronique listened in mounting awe as Chantal detailed the pagan proclivity of the French départements. Haute-Pyrenees - witches, Les Landes - witches, Gers - witches. According to Chantal, any département with a tree in it was susceptible. It was the curse of the campagne.
Chantal had a very vivid imagination.
A grassy track loomed up on the left. A firebreak between the old abandoned woodland and a newer stand of conifers. If anything, the tract of conifers was even more forbidding. A densely planted sea of straight poles gradually merging into a vast blackness twenty or thirty yards in. But the firebreak was inviting, a line of light between two dark places.
The three riders followed the firebreak on its angular path around the plantation and off into a network of smaller rougher tracks. Thick woods stretched deep and dark on all sides and an eerie quiet descended. Gone were the distant hum of tractors and civilisation. And even the sky disappeared under the spreading canopy.
Rhiannon stopped dead, ears pricked and wild-eyed. Her usual reaction when confronted with anything remotely out of the ordinary - like a leaf out of place or a strangely shaped twig.
"What is zer matter?" asked Chantal, moving up alongside.
"She thinks she can see a monster in the bushes," joked Shelagh.
It was only a casual remark. But unfortunately Chantal knew enough English to know what a monster was and enough imagination to give it flesh.
"Monstre!" she cried.
"Qu'est-ce se passe?" asked a nervous Veronique from further back.
"Monstre!" repeated Chantal, now wide-eyed and certain of imminent attack from at least one bogeyman.
Veronique did not need telling twice. It may not have been the Ariege but it wasn't the centre of Paris either. There were trees everywhere, and how many did a bogeyman need?
She spurred her gelding on, who responded by shooting off in the only direction it knew - straight ahead - nervously pushing itself between Shelagh and Chantal and barging both horses aside.
Which gave Rhiannon the chance she'd been waiting for - a clear expanse of passing gelding flesh. She lunged, teeth bared, missed the gelding, grabbed Veronique and nipped her leg. Veronique screamed and galloped off through the trees convinced that at least half her leg was now residing in the jaws of said bogeyman.
Chantal wasn't far behind. She hadn't seen Rhiannon's lunge, she'd been too busy keeping control of her own horse when the gelding burst past. But she'd heard the scream. And that was more than enough.
Needless to say Rhiannon pushed all thoughts of strangely shaped twigs into the rear stable of her mind and set off in hot pursuit of the gelding.
It was a very dense wood.
With very narrow, twisty ill-maintained tracks.
And three desperate horses, two terrified riders, one deeply embarrassed rider...
And four dogs who, drawn by the screams and furious galloping, had decided to forgo the rabbits from Mars and rejoin the party.
Shelagh's screams of "Pas monstre!" didn't help either. Terrified ears quickly discarded the pas part and homed in on monstre. And if ever there's a greater spur for leaving a dark wood in a hurry than being pursued by repeated screams of "Monstre! Monstre!" I have yet to hear of it.
(next instalment: The Chase, the Limpet and the French Highway Code)