Going on a horseback riding holiday is very different than going on a regular vacation. There is quite a bit to plan, prepare and pack and if you are an inexperienced rider or this is your first time heading out on a multi-day horse riding adventure, it can be a little intimidating.
Last year I went on a 2-day horse riding trip in France with a group of friends. We ranged from complete beginner that had never been on a horse to confident riders with many years of horse riding experience. After the trip I asked one of the less experienced ladies, Megan, to share how she prepared for the ride, what she bought in terms of gear (and if it was worth the investment), what her experience was like and what advice she would give to someone going on their first horse riding holiday. This is what she told me.
Choose the Right Ride for Your Experience Level
Although one week on horseback riding through the Mongolian mountain ranges sounds incredible, it is not a suitable choice for a beginner rider. There are many things to consider when choosing a horse riding vacation such as level of experience, budget, trail duration, lodging, fitness level, terrain…the list goes on. We have written all about what to consider and how to make your decision in our article about Choosing a Horse Riding Holiday.
Take Riding Lessons Before You Go
‘I took horseback riding lessons with a friend to “refresh” our skills. It was incredibly useful, as they taught us how to tack up the horse as well as helping us practice mounting, trot, canter, etc. For those who aren’t confident of their skills in the saddle, beyond the riding skills, it helps you remember or realize that you actually CAN stay in the saddle.
It turned out that I was actually able to hang pretty well during a canter, and I actually should have been more concerned coming in last in line due to my inability to prod a recalcitrant pony that didn’t feel like running.’
My friends took a series of five riding lessons at a local riding school in the months leading up to the trip. It allowed them to brush up on what they already knew as well as learning new skills necessary to ride. Often, we tend to focus so much on the skills in the saddle that we forget all the routine tasks before and after the ride, such as grooming, tacking up and handling horses. If you need a quick refresh in any of these areas, you may find some of the articles below useful.
- How to Groom a Horse is a step-by-step guide to the entire grooming process.
- 8 Tips for How to Behave Around Horses will give you some pointers for how to conduct yourself in a stable or barn and what to do and what to avoid when dealing directly with horses to keep yourself and others safe.
- Approaching a Horse Correctly gives you a rundown of what to consider and how to behave when approaching a horse in the field or the paddock.
- 5 Tips to Prepare for Your First Horse Riding Lesson does just what it says on the tin. This is a list of what we think are the five best ways that you can prepare for your first (or first in a while) riding lesson, including what gear you should consider investing in.
Invest in the Right Gear
I didn’t have any equipment, so I scouted a couple of major sporting goods stores and finally bought some basic equipment including riding pants, beginner riding boots, and gloves).
It wasn’t more than 90 EUR (100 USD), but looking back, the gloves were essential, and I liked the pants, but I would recommend wearing hiking boots or study shoes and rather get a pair of those leg chaps that wrap around each calf. The cheap boots were uncomfortable, and I had not had a chance to break them in enough, so I got a huge blister during the trip. The horse riding center gave us helmets, and I wore a standard waterproof shell jacket over two other layers, which made it easy to be comfortable in changing conditions.
The market is full of equestrian gear and it can be difficult as a beginner to know what you really need and where you can save your money. We completely agree with Megan’s advice. The only caveat being that you should make sure the shoes you use (especially if you opt for hiking boots) have a 1-inch (2.5 cm) heel and are not too wide for the stirrup.
If you are wondering whether the shoes you have are suitable for riding, our article Do You Need Riding Boots to Ride a Horse? What Shoes You CAN Wear will help you figure this out.
Get Physically Prepared by Exercising
If you have a chance, a good physical fitness regimen prior to the trip would make it more enjoyable. Particularly a regime that includes a lot of stretching. My thighs were incredibly sore and stiff after being in the saddle for a long time. I also struggled with pressure on the insides of my knees, so ask for a “skinny” horse with less girth if your knees are a concern!
There is no way around it – being in the saddle for several hours a day will take a toll on your body, especially the legs! If you are able to get into a fitness routine in the weeks and months leading up to your trip, you will definitely have a better and less painful experience.
While it is almost unavoidable to walk a little funny and feel some stiffness on a horse riding holiday, there is a big difference between ‘my butt hurts a bit today’ and ‘I need to forklift my legs over the edge of the bed to get up’.
We’d love for you to try our How to Get in Shape for Horse Riding Program before your trip so you can enjoy the ride instead of wondering when the torture will be over!
Packing the Right Things
Packing right is a challenge and it takes a bit of experience both from riding in general and going on riding holidays specifically to know what must-haves and nice-to-haves are.
For tips on what to put in your suitcase and what to leave out, check out our What to Pack for a Horse Riding Holiday, which has a printable packing list that lays out what to pack in your suitcase versus carry-on (if you are flying).
Megan added her insider tip that you can add to the bottom of your packing list.
On the ride, it’s useful to have a camel pack for water. Riding made me sweat and I got thirsty very quickly. As a beginner it isn’t all that easy to grab a water bottle out of a backpack or saddlebag while on the horse keeping tabs on reins and trying to make the horse stand still, so having that easily accessible was brilliant!
Megan used this hydration pack, which is small and lightweight with adjustable shoulder and body straps that prevent it from bouncing around too much during trot and canter. It carries 2 liters of water and has a few extra small pockets where you can keep essentials like phone, SPF, tissues, lip balm, etc. When browsing the Amazon reviews, one woman did mention that she was unable to close the breast strap over her chest, so this pack may be better suited to the ladies with smaller chests.
Asking for the Right Horse for You
Taller horses, while seemingly scary, are actually easier to ride because the gait is more ‘streamlined’, so you aren’t jolted about as much. A longer stride means the ride feels more like a Ferrari than a Kia!
Now, how’s that for a metaphor?! And she has a good point!
Often, beginners who don’t feel very confident will ask for a small and calm horse. 9 times out of 10 this means they will end up on a tired, old school horse or pony that goes and stops on autopilot and is less than responsive to the aids and cues you have learned to use in your riding lessons.
For some, this might be a perfect fit and you are happy to be ‘transported’ from a to b without much say over how or when you get there. But for others (like Megan), who may want more of a say and more control, it can be better to opt for an intermediate level horse.
Don’t get me wrong, you should not lie about your riding abilities (which can be dangerous both for you and the others in your group if you cannot control your horse), but taking the time to speak to your guide about your experience and what you hope to get out of the ride will help him or her to allocate a suitable horse for you.
Guidelines for the Trail
Part of the preparation for a horse riding holiday is also knowing how to behave on the trail before you even get in the saddle.
Always respect the Directions from Your Guide
If you remember only one of these guidelines, please remember this one. I have seen several riders become over-confident and disregard the instructions given, ultimately putting themselves and/or others in danger. The guide knows both the horses and their temperament as well as the area you are riding through. If he gives you a specific instruction, it’s for a reason.
If your group is large and you are riding in a beeline, make sure to pass messages back so everyone is informed.
Keep Ample Space Between You and Other Horses
Horses are unpredictable animals and sometimes they decide to pick a fight with their trail buddies. Perhaps they generally don’t get along with a particular horse, maybe they don’t like to be bypassed in the line or they are just having a bad day. In any case, since you do not really know the horse you are riding, be extra vigilant and keep your distance.
The Entire Group Should Remain in the Same Gait at all Times
If the guide says it’s time to trot, then trot. If he says slow down to walk, slow down to walk. Pretty basic, right? Well sometimes it might be tempting to ask your horse for a trot to catch up to the group (if you ended up on Mr. lazybones, for instance), but that could trigger the horse in front of you to trot and the horse in front of him, and so on and so forth, creating an unwanted and potentially dangerous domino-effect.
Until you are familiar with the ‘herd chemistry’, adjust your pace or gait to the rest of the group.
Never Lose Sight of Anyone in the Group
Horses are herd animals and don’t like to be separated from their friends, especially if one horse gets cut off from the group. This is particularly important whenever crossing a road with traffic. Should one horse get ‘left behind’ while the others have crossed the road, it may become so eager to rejoin his friends that he runs into the road without any regard for bypassing cars.
Stand Up in the Saddle in Steep Inclines
This is more etiquette for trail riding in my humble opinion, but something it is easy to forget (or not be aware of) as a novice. Whenever your horse is carrying you up a steep hill (even a small one), lean a bit forward, lift your butt out of the saddle, grip around the horse with your thighs and place the majority of your weight in the stirrups. If you need to, you can hold on to the pommel of the saddle for balance.
Remain Calm if Your Horse Spooks
If your horse spooks or gets nervous, try to sit deep in the saddle, remain as calm as possible and keep contact in the reins (without pulling too much) until the horse quiets down. It can be scary to handle a horse that is afraid, but if you get stressed, it will make the situation worse.
Last summer I had to ride past a large, noisy waterfall that my horse had never seen before. He got very tense and first refused to go down the path. I remained as calm as I could, gently stopped him and let a few of the horses walk first before trying again. It took about five minutes, but in the end, he accepted to go without me forcing or pushing him. He didn’t relax until the waterfall was far behind us, but because I didn’t panic (or any of the other horses around), he took these cues from his environment. So sometimes, you can also capitalize on the herd animal effect by letting other horses who aren’t afraid of the object or obstacle, walk ahead of you.
Hopefully, you now have all the tools and ideas you need to start getting ready for your holiday. We hope you have an amazing time and that it is just the first of many!