We love to travel and find horseback riding to be one of the most amazing ways to discover a new destination. It gets you out of the city, away from the crowds and onto the road less traveled. It can bring you incredible nature experiences and breathtaking vistas – all the while (hopefully) in sync with a fantastic animal bringing you around in this new exotic place.
So, we agree – horseback riding vacations are great, but one of the things we find frustrating is how difficult it is to find good, unbiased sources of information about them. There are plenty of articles out there listing the best destinations and advice, but they are almost exclusively written by tour companies and equestrian centers with an agenda to sell. Consequently, they will write about destinations they offer trips to and give advice that encourages the reader to book with them. So, in this article, based on our own experiences and research, we will give you sales-pitch-free advice on how to pick the right horse-riding holiday for you and which aspects you should consider in your decision-making process.
Budget and Level of Experience
Before looking at any offers or destinations there are two things you need to have clarity on. First, what is your budget? This will influence where you can go and the level of overall comfort and service you can expect on your trip. Second, you need to be honest with yourself about your riding capabilities.
Going on a ride for experienced equestrians when you have only been in the saddle a few times will not only put you in unnecessary danger and be uncomfortable for your horse but potentially also tarnish the experience of other experienced riders on the trip. Conversely, if you are an experienced rider, but don’t have the confidence to label yourself as such, you may find yourself on a ride where you don’t get to have the full potential of the experience. These are such important things to clarify upfront and will be the foundation for your research, so please don’t skip this step!
Let’s not beat around the bush – horse riding holidays are costly and will make a good dent in most people’s vacation budget. We have seen packages ranging from 1 000 – 20 000 USD depending on where, how long and how fancy the ride is, and this is usually excluding flights and ground transportation. Suffice to say, a horse riding holiday is rarely a budget vacation, so if you’re strapped for cash, you may want to wait and save up for that particular experience that you have dreamed of for so long instead of going for the ‘cheapest’ option you can find and risk disappointment. Keep in mind that most quoted prices will exclude flights, drinks outside of meals, extra activities and tips for the guide(s), so factor that in when you look at pricing as well. Finally, make sure you set aside a portion of your budget for preparative costs such as for travel vaccinations and insurance, buying personal gear for the ride and a small buffer for any unforeseen expenses.
After deciding on your budget it is time to get real honest about your riding capabilities. Are you comfortable in all four gaits? Do you know how to groom, tack and provide basic care for a horse? If your answer to these questions is no, then you should probably stay away from rides for experienced riders and opt for a beginner or intermediate ride. Here you will be getting more support and guidance from the guide, the trail and terrain will be appropriate for your skill level and the speed and gaits used will be adapted as well.
Choosing the right ride adapted to your experience can truly make or break your experience. It will also impact on the experience of your horse as well as other riders in your group. We once went on a 3-day ride for experienced riders and had one person in the group prevent us from cantering on the beach because she didn’t feel comfortable going that fast. And this was one of the MAIN reasons why we booked that specific trip! On the flip side, if you WANT to gallop on the beach and you know you are comfortable enough to do that, you don’t want to book a ride for beginners as that gait will probably not even be on the menu.
If you are in doubt – call or email the company or center you are considering booking with and ask them for advice. This will give you a good idea of whether their ride is suitable for your skill-level and as an added bonus you will get a sense of their level of customer service. In most cases, tour companies care about creating the best possible experience for their customers and will be honest about the skills needed, but others may be more interested in cramming as many people into a group as possible to make maximize their profits (yes, unfortunately, those companies exist too!).
If your dream ride requires a higher experience level than you currently possess, consider building up those skills before you go. Talk to your local equestrian center about your plans and ask if they can give you training both in and outside the arena to get you comfortable before your vacation. Although this will add on some costs, it will also lay the foundation for an incredible horse riding holiday experience.
Other Factors to Consider when Choosing a Horse Riding Holiday Destination
Ok, so now that you have clarity on your skill-level and budget the fun part begins – destination research! We get completely lost in this – there are so many amazing options to choose from and it just makes you wish that every day was a vacation day (and that your bank account was bottomless)! Let’s get into the various factors to ponder when deciding where this trip is going to take you.
Duration and Activity Level
Not all rides are created equal. If you have never been on a multi-day trail ride before, we wouldn’t recommend diving head-first into a week-long outing. Riding days on end is physically tiring, makes your butt hurt like nobody’s business and can sometimes make you question why on earth you decided this was a good idea to begin with. Relax, it is also amazing. All we are saying is pace yourself. Adapt the length of the trip to your experience and general fitness level. You can always enjoy the destination as a regular off-horse traveler before or after your ride as well! Our personal favorite combo is trail ride first, spa hotel after..
Your Fitness Level
Trail riding looks deceptively easy seen from a distance, but in fact, although very enjoyable, it is hard work! Your body is constantly working and sitting in the saddle for 6-7 hours each day is challenging even for a seasoned rider. Your fitness level will have a significant impact on how long you will be able to ride each day and should be a factor when you decide on the duration and intensity of your trip. Just like with your skill-level, this is another one of those times where you need to be honest with yourself. However, similarly to skill-level, this is something you can work on and improve before your holiday and it doesn’t have to cost you a thing (except for the extra calories!). Why not use this horse riding holiday as the perfect motivation to get in shape?
The quality and uniqueness of accommodation will be one of the main price-influencing factors of a horse riding holiday package. A ride among 5-star wine estates in Bordeaux France is obviously going to cost you more than a cross-island ride in Corsica camping in tents each night. Think about what your preference is here, but also consider that 1; your body will be sore and achy, and 2; you will probably fall asleep as soon as your head hits the pillow every night after a long and physically active day.
This one is down to personal preference. Are you a sun-worshipper who feels alive when rivers of sweat run down you back or do you just love breathing in that crisp and cool mountain air? Think about your happy place and you probably have your answer. Check!
What terrain you opt for should be determined first by your skill-level and secondly by personal preference. Mountainous or uneven landscapes are usually going to be more challenging than flat and soft surfaces and the terrain will also impact the speed of the ride. For instance, we went on a 7-day ride across Corsica a few years back and although it was a relatively slow ride in terms of gaits, it was very challenging due to the mountainous landscape and all the steep climbs and descents. Definitely not for beginners or non-confident riders!
Culture and Cuisine
Are you a culture snob or a gastronomically inclined equestrian? Often, longer rides will have a few opportunities for visiting and experiencing museums and local attractions as well as sampling the local cuisine and specialties. If you have a cultural or foodie bucket list item from a particular country or region, why not see if it can be combined with your horse riding holiday?
English or Western are the two common options, and they are both great! It really comes down to personal preference, but the style is usually very location dependent. The Western saddle provides more stability and support for the novice rider, whereas a die-hard English style rider may struggle to convert to Western tack. We have tried both (although we are English-style riders) and both definitely have their merits.
If you have a particular breed in mind, then that may narrow down your search significantly. Some types of horses such as for instance the Icelandic horse are native to a particular region. But although most breeds can be found in other places than their native regions, you’re not necessarily guaranteed to be assigned that particular breed unless you opt for a center specializing in them. Keep in mind that all horse breeds have different capabilities and temperaments. If you are a beginner, you probably shouldn’t start with a desert ride on an Arabian horse even though they are very pretty!
Equipment and other requirements
Does the ride require you to invest in any particular gear? Perhaps you will be sleeping in tents in altitude and need a warm sleeping bag and warm clothing? Maybe the destination you travel to required you to get a vaccination booster or take antimalarial drugs. These kinds of expenses are often things we don’t consider when making a holiday budget, so make sure to think about this before booking.
Company and guide
Just as not all rides are created equal, neither are tour operators. Read reviews, ask for references and get in touch with the company before booking. Hearing from past clients is so much more valuable than any information you can get from the operator and will help you understand what you can expect from the ride (and what you can’t). If possible, find out who will be leading the particular ride you are interested in and connect directly with that person if you have any questions. This may not always be possible and probably shouldn’t be a decisive factor, but some smaller operators may be willing to link you directly to the guide. If you are just heading off for a few days, personally connecting with the guide isn’t necessarily a big deal, but if it’s someone you will be spending 1-2 weeks with and who will be in charge of your safety and comfort during that time, I’d personally make an effort to connect ahead of time.
Also make sure to read the fine print of the terms and conditions for the ride, in particular with regards to cancellations, reimbursements, etc. to look for any red flags. It isn’t the most fun part of vacation research but can save you a lot of headaches down the road.
The group size of a ride will usually be reflected in its price point. Larger groups make for more logistics, more waiting around and let’s face it – the more people (and horses), the higher the risk of an incident happening. We have been on rides of various group sizes and find that 5-7 is usually a good number. It allows for enough people for it to be a social and fun experience during meals and activities off the horses, but is small enough for the ride to run relatively smoothly and avoids the line of horses getting too long when riding along the road, crossing rivers etc.
Horse riding is not without risk and going on a multi-day trail ride, perhaps in a remote location, means it’s important to think about what safety precautions are put in place and run through a few possible scenarios ahead of time to be best prepared. A good tour company will have clear procedures in place and can answer questions such as ‘what happens if someone falls off the horse?’ What if someone falls ill or has a medical emergency? How far is the closest hospital from the trail? Does the guide have any medical training? Does she carry a satellite phone and a first aid kit?
Hopefully, this article will help guide your decision about where to go and what type of ride to choose. We’d love to hear about your experience and if there are any other factors you considered before choosing your horse riding holiday destination, let us know.