If travel and horses are two of your favourite things, look no further. Sarah Tucker hops into the saddle to find the best equestrian holidays for you
For those who prefer animals to humans, a riding holiday could be the one to choose. With a plethora of available options, it is one of the growth sectors of the travel industry, ideal for people of all ages and sizes, able-bodied and disabled alike.
So what’s the big attraction? Well, for a start – misanthropes take note – you don’t need to talk to anyone other than your horse. Oh, and the people who own the stables – and they usually prefer animals to humans too.
I discovered this when I took a trip to Canada and stayed at Homeplace Ranch (homeplaceranch.com), half an hour’s drive from Calgary International Airport. It’s run by Mac Makenny, a larger-than-life John Wayne character who treats everyone with warmth, courtesy and respect, whether they know what they’re doing or not. Provided, that is, they treat the horses well.
“I like all the nationalities who visit us,” says Mac. “The French treat the horses well, considering they actually eat horse, while the English talk to them more than to each other. The only guest I have ever had to ask off a horse was a German, who insisted on using whip and spur. We don’t like that here. He walked the rest of the way home.”
In Canada, the riding style is more relaxed. The general idea is that horse and human act out of mutual respect, whereas Europeans tend to start from the premise that the human is firmly in control.
“That is an illusion,” insists Mac. “The only reason that we stay on board is that the horses tolerate our presence, or because they want company.”
Most of the Homeplace horses are ex-polo ponies and thus very well-trained and well-kept. Each morning you muck out before going on trails through the Rockies, stopping off for tea, cake and cookies, and then make up your campfire for the evening. It’s real home cooking: Blazing Saddles with fewer beans. Families, couples and singletons, young and old: this ranch comes highly recommended for all. Especially as Mac is a horse whisperer, patiently training the animals by means of gentle speech. A useful skill for your saddlebag if you intend to speak exclusively to your horse.
Closer to home, we’re spoilt for riding holiday choice. Check out equestrian-escapes.com for holidays on Dartmoor, in Cornwall, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District, plus weekend tasters around Windsor and Ascot and continental breaks in Portugal, Spain, Italy and France. They also do the big country, if you’re up for it: Peru, for example, or riding safaris to view elephant and lion. And take a look at their holidays specifically designed for children, based in the Lake District, Cirencester in the Cotswolds and Ireland.
For the chance to ride Shires and Clydesdales, cumbrianheavyhorses.com is the go-to firm. Unicorn Trails (unicorntrails.com) and Freerein Riding Holidays (free-rein.co.uk) both pride themselves on the training given, as well as the actual tours, while the rapidly widening options for disabled riders include Dunton Stables in Warwickshire (duntonstables.co.uk), who use Shetland ponies and cobs.
Fancy cattle ranching in Montana? Or riding up a volcano in the Azores? Contact inthesaddle.com, which offers riding on every continent: ideal for the battle-hardened rider who doesn’t mind a bit of hard work. Richmond Park it is not. Beware saddle sores though, as even the most experienced can fall prey.
Ranches, in fact, are at the forefront of the growth in riding holidays, with stag, hen and even divorce parties choosing them as good places to chill, according to research by Visit USA. Groups of women with disposable income and an inclination towards My Little Pony are heading west in search of equine fun.
Choose your ranch carefully though. For a start, make sure you are actually able to ride there (at some guest and resort ranches you can’t). Also, do you want a working ranch, where you muck in and it’s all authentic, or a dude ranch designed for tourists?
At Homeplace visitors are placed on a wooden horse when they arrive, enabling Mac to see how they would approach, mount and sit on the real thing. Most ranches have variations of this test to give you a fair appraisal of what you can do.
Mac also likes to put guests on a horse which will challenge and improve them. I would always forget to grip the stirrups, distracted as I was by the scenery, so he put me on a horse without them. I ended up holding onto the saddle for dear life, suspended underneath the horse. Thank goodness it didn’t kick.
Finally, do you really want to rough it? Ranches range from those with basic cabins and b & b to the Relais & Chateaux fine dining variety, such as The Ranch at Rock Creek in Montana. Me, I’ll take authentic. For happiness, says Mac, you need “someone to love, something to look forward to and something to do”. On a riding holiday you may well find them all. Especially if you’re into cowboys…
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