Freedom at last: why your first post-lockdown trip should be on horseback

Sophie Butler
·14-min read
horses on beach - Getty
horses on beach - Getty

‘No hour of life is wasted that is spent in the saddle,” reflected Winston Churchill in his autobiography. Granted, this has ended up as one of his lesser-known quotes, but he was surely right. When it comes to a sense of liberation and adventure, nothing beats the thrill of a good canter through a glorious landscape. As the first signs of spring start to show and the vaccination programme gathers pace, now is surely the time to start dreaming of saddling up and heading to the hills, especially as so many have been deprived of the thrill of being on horseback for so long. It’s the perfect antidote to weeks of wintry lockdown. But, where to go?

There is no straightforward answer. There are riding holidays catering for all ages and abilities in destinations all around the world. Much depends on your appetite for risk and excitement, how keen you are to learn and, of course, your budget. I spoke to several readers, keen riders all, for some insights into how they have spent previous equestrian holidays. Dave and Joanna Brown opted for a family stay at a ranch in Wyoming.

Their three daughters, then aged 11, 14 and 16, were all competent riders and had been brought up on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie books, so they were hoping for a taste of life in the American West. They chose a ranch that promised plenty of fast rides on lively horses. “It surpassed expectations and was a perfect family holiday for us,” says Joanna. “The horses were excellent and we made friends with other families we met on the ranch. As well as long days of exciting trail riding, we rode out on an adventurous overnight camping trip, took part in a cow-cutting competition and on the last day we took the horses to a deep creek and rode bareback as they swam. It was magical”.

colorado  - Getty
colorado - Getty

Honoria Bulwer-Long, 16, also has good memories of her family ranch holiday in Colorado and loved the landscapes and wildlife that she saw from her horse. “The mountain and forest scenery was beautiful,” she says. “I saw coyotes in the woods and eagles flying overhead.” The cultural differences made an impression on her, too. “I loved wearing the stetsons and talking to the cowboys at the ranch,” she told me. “I learnt a lot about their style of riding, including how to mount and dismount, and I found the western saddle really comfy.”

Tina Guillory, now in her 70s, approaches things from a different perspective. She began booking riding holidays 10 years ago. “It was a question of now or never,” she says, “and I enjoyed it so much that I’ve been on riding trips once or twice a year ever since. I’ve been all over Europe, and usually on my own, which works really well because I meet friendly, like-minded people who come from all over the world.”

Tina joins escorted small-group rides, hacking from guesthouse to guesthouse using bridleways, forest trails, mountain paths and ancient drover tracks. “You get a completely different experience by travelling on horseback,” she explains. “It’s quiet, away from traffic, with plenty of time to enjoy the spring flowers or autumn leaf colours and a chance to meet local people. Ambling through the countryside on horseback is an adventure, but it’s a safe adventure.” Her daughter, Sienna Cilenti, who accompanied her on a couple of her holidays, agrees. “As a child, I learnt to ride with my mum – and it was so nice to be doing it again with her, later on in life.

“There’s plenty of time to chat, with the added pleasure of being outdoors in the countryside. It’s also a way of being completely in the moment, with no phones or other distractions. You have no idea where you will be in 20 minutes and you’re in the hands of an experienced guide, so you can completely concentrate on your horse, your companion and your own thoughts”. More than a relaxing escape and an enjoyable way to spend time with friends or family, riding holidays can be a way of reaching places that are completely inaccessible by car or on foot.

kenya - Getty
kenya - Getty

Rachel and Hugo Upton took their family on a Maasai Mara riding safari in Kenya and found it an exhilarating experience. “We rode across vast plains that were off-limits to Land Rovers and where all we could see were our fellow riders and the wild animals,” says Rachel. “No words can describe how thrilling it felt to be galloping alongside herds of zebra or giraffe, or to be up close to elephants and lions.

“I had no worries about my 22-year-old daughter Bubby, who is an expert horsewoman and can cope with anything. And even though my other daughter hadn’t ridden for years, they matched the horses to our ability and we never felt unsafe or in danger.”

Coming face to face with a lion isn’t everyone’s idea of an ideal riding holiday, so we have included plenty of less adventurous options in our selection of the 20 best riding holidays for 2021. From a trekking holiday in Portugal to hacking in Rajasthan, and from an eco riding school in Spain to a gaucho ranch in Argentina, there is something to suit all abilities – and budgets. And if you would rather be around horses than sitting astride them, we have also included five ways to enjoy all things equine at a safe distance (left). So it’s time to saddle up and ride off into the sunset for a true taste of post-lockdown freedom.

Harness your horsemanship

Oxfordshire

Otherwise known as horse whispering, equine psychology through hands-on techniques can be confidence-building for horse-lovers and horses alike. Kelly Marks offers five-day courses at Hartsop Farm near Witney. It includes long reining and a riding assessment.

The Five Day Foundation Course costs from £595 (course only) from May to September; Intelligent Horsemanship (01488 71300; intelligenthorsemanship.co.uk). Four nights at The Bird in Hand near Witney cost from £380 (01993 868321; birdinhandinn.co.uk).

Hack through hyde park

London

hyde park - Getty
hyde park - Getty

Central London might not sound like the most obvious place for a riding break, but 350-acre Hyde Park has been a popular destination for horse-lovers since the 18th century. It has two riding arenas and designated trails along its northern and southern edges, including the Serpentine Lake and iconic Rotten Row.

Book a “stay and ride” package at five-star Mandarin Oriental Hotel which offers rooms overlooking the park. Rooms from £520 per night. Stay and ride experience from £145 (00800 2828 3838; mandarinoriental.com).

Go bareback

Italy

Borgo Pignano, an 18th-century Tuscan villa set in 750 acres, offers riding lessons, countryside hacks, bareback rides and days out with picnics using produce from the estate.

Three nights at Borgo Pignano costs from £650 including breakfast and a waterfall ride with picnic (01244 757555; elegantresorts.co.uk).

Take tuition

Portugal

Sturdy and agile, the Lusitano is a Portuguese horse suitable for riders of all abilities. Equestrian Escapes offers flexible breaks near Lisbon with personalised programmes for all ages, ranging from beginners’ lessons to cross country and dressage. Day treks through olive groves and corn fields are also on offer.

The Ride in the Sun costs from £895 for five nights half-board, excluding flights (01829 781123; equestrian-escapes.com).

Host a house party

Dartmoor

dartmoor - Getty
dartmoor - Getty

The UK’s national parks offer some of the best riding in the world, and none more so than dramatic Dartmoor. Liberty Trails’s horse and house party is for competent riders seeking a fast pace. Guests may bring their own mounts.

From £995 for three nights with most meals. Departs April 23, June 25, Oct 22 2021 (07974 227549; libertytrails.co.uk).

Embark on an adventure

Northern Macedonia

Following spectacular mountain ranges, the 124-mile Miyak Tribe Trail winds through this landlocked Balkan nation sandwiched between Bulgaria, Albania, Serbia, Kosovo and Greece. Expect long hours of challenging riding requiring physical fitness and plenty of horse know-how. The basic accommodation, ranging from guesthouses to bunk-style rooms and campsites, isn’t for the faint-hearted either.

In The Saddle (01299 272997; inthesaddle.com) offers its North Macedonia – Miyak Tribe Trail from £1,137 including all meals. Excludes flights. Depart May to October.

Follow rocky trails

Turkey

 cappadocia rock formations - Ride World Wide
cappadocia rock formations - Ride World Wide

World Heritage-listed landscape of canyons, gorges and eroded rock formations, combined with a wide choice of small, family-run hotels and guesthouses, makes the region ideal for guided “inn-to-inn” trails. Ride Worldwide offers an itinerary designed for confident riders, on agile Arab horses that relish the rocky, narrow mountain tracks and faster-paced canters in open valleys.

The Cappadocia Adventure costs from £1,195, including all meals. Excludes flights. Departs April to October (01837 82544; rideworldwide.com).

Go the distance in the Outback

Australia

New South Wales, with its north-coast hinterland of eucalyptus forests, creeks, rainforest and farmland and vast Pacific beaches, provides plenty of scope for adventurous riders. Far and Ride offers a six-night stay at a 60-acre farm in the Lorne Valley region, which can be built into a longer Australian itinerary. Endurance-trained horses are used for these long, snaking Outback trails. Spot wallabies, kangaroos and rich birdlife along the way.

The Kerewong Country and Coast ride costs from £1,400 for six nights with most meals. Excludes flights (01462 701110; farandride.com).

Visit a Dude ranch

Arizona

This south-western state offers year-round riding through desert plains amid the Hualapai, Mohave and Buck mountains. Stagecoach Trails Ranch has 10 guest rooms and a couple of family units just a two-hour drive from Las Vegas. It promises varied riding programmes catering for all abilities, and has facilities for disabled riders. There are also a swimming pool, hiking trails, shooting range and mountain biking to enjoy, and overnight camping expeditions are available during week-long stays.

A stay at Stagecoach Trails Ranch with American Round Up (01798 865946; americanroundup.com) costs from £1,509 including all meals. Flights are not included.

Ride from chateau to chateau

France

Cheverny Chateau - iStock
Cheverny Chateau - iStock

Trail riding combines with cultural sightseeing in the Loire Valley, where Equus Journeys offers an itinerary that loops around the grand chateaux of Chambord, Chenonceau and Cheverny, aimed at intermediate to experienced riders aged from 12 years in accompanied groups of up to eight. The price includes stays at mid-range hotels and a support vehicle to transfer luggage. Accompanying non-riders can follow the route by bike.

Castles of the Loire Valley costs from £1,565 including all meals. Excludes flights. Departs March to October (01905 388977; equus-journeys.com).

Gallop to the Irish Sea

Wales

Following age-old droving routes and hidden trails across the Black Mountains, the Elan Valley and the Plynlimon massif, this journey takes in some of the country’s finest landscapes, using fit Welsh cobs ideal for the varied terrain of open moorland and forest. You’ll stay in B&Bs along the route, and the ride culminates in a final gallop to the Irish Sea across the sandy shores of Aberystwyth.

The Trans-Wales Trail costs from £1,580 for six nights including all meals and luggage transfer. Departs May to October (01874 711500; transwales.com).

Round ’Em up, cowboy

Canada

A stay at a working cattle ranch is a perfect way to get an authentic insight into cowboy life. Frontier Canada offers stays at La Reata, a ranch by the shores of Lake Diefenbaker in the Saskatchewan river valley. Staying in rustic wooden cabins, guests are paired with their own horse for the week and can help with cattle branding (in early June) or prairie drives (from late September to early October). There is also the chance to rope cattle.

Be a Cowboy for a Week costs from £1,995 with all meals. Departing in September. Frontier Canada (020 8776 8709; frontier-canada.co.uk).

Holidays with horses (but no need to ride)
Holidays with horses (but no need to ride)

Embark on a cultural safari

India

Blackbuck and Indian gazelle are among the animals you will see on your journey through Rajasthan, but a safari here is as much about the sights, lake palace hotels and local life as the wildlife. A tailor-made journey with Greaves Travel departs from Khandi Wilderness Camp outside Jodhpur, with overnight stops at the Sardar Samand Palace and the heritage hotels of Rohet Garh and Rawla Narlai. Sights include the 15th-century Ranakpur Jain temples and Kumbhalgarh fort.

Riding Rajasthan from £2,600 for nine nights with all meals. Excludes flights (020 7487 9111; greavesindia.co.uk).

Go gaucho

Argentina

argentina - Journey Latin America
argentina - Journey Latin America

Estancia Los Potreros is an Anglo-Argentine working cattle ranch near Córdoba, in the foothills of the Sierras Chicas, which breeds Peruvian Paso horses. Guests can ride these smooth-gaited, gentle animals in gaucho style through a network of remote riding trails across the surrounding sierra and meadowland, help round up stray cattle, and participate in polo classes.

A riding holiday in Argentina with Journey Latin America (020 3131 8374; journeylatinamerica.co.uk) costs from £3,399 for eight nights (four nights in Buenos Aires, four nights horse riding at Los Potreros) on a full-board basis.

Face your fears

Spain

The nine-room Finca La Donaira, high on the Serranía de Ronda in Andalucia, is an organic farm, eco-hotel, wellness retreat and equestrian centre with pool and spa. Its stud farm is home to around 70 Lusitanos. Riding takes place in an outdoor arena and on trails through 1,700 acres. Tuition, available for all abilities, includes dressage, horsemanship training and exercises in overcoming fear of horses.

A stay at Finca La Donaira with Scott Dunn (020 3553 1327; scottdunn.com) costs from £3,500 with all meals, one riding lesson and one hack.

Get sand under hoof

Iceland

snaefellsjokull peninsula - Getty
snaefellsjokull peninsula - Getty

Snaefellsjokull National Park, with its glacier-capped volcanoes, vast lava fields and long sandy beaches, is the focus of Unicorn Trails’s escorted summer ride on Icelandic horses. Experience their unique and comfortable gait, the tolt, and ride alongside herds of free-roaming horses. Basic knowledge of horsemanship is required as the trip includes up to six hours of riding a day.

Unicorn Trails (01767 600606; unicorntrails.com) offers its Iceland – Deluxe Beach Ride from £3,609 with all meals. Excludes flights. Aug 11-18 2021.

Ride through the Delta

Botswana

Stamina is required for horseback safaris through the Okavango Delta, a vast region of water meadows, forests and flood plains. Aardvark Safaris offers a range of camp-based itineraries, from three to 10 days in length, riding thoroughbred and Anglo Arab horses in groups of up to eight riders. Daily drives can last up to six hours as you spot elephants, big cats, buffalo, wildebeest and zebra.

Okavango Horse Safari costs from £4,820 including all meals. February to November. Aardvark Safaris (01980 849160; aardvarksafaris.com).

Navigate the pampas

Chile

Chile offers superb riding through Torres del Paine National Park, its pampas grasslands edged by the granite peaks of the Paine mountain range. Original Travel can organise a tailor-made trip with a stay in the restored guesthouses of Cerro Guido Estancia, a working farm on 247,000 acres that offers organic dining and a gaucho lifestyle.

Daily excursions on horseback visit viewpoints and wildlife trails. Gauchos in Chile costs from £4,990 per person for nine nights (020 7978 7333; originaltravel.co.uk).

Go all in

USA

America’s all-inclusive resort ranches offer a vast range of activities. North America Travel Service features The Ranch at Rock Creek, near the mining town of Philipsburg in Montana, which offers trail rides, arena lessons, barn Olympics and roping lessons alongside a host of other activities such as archery, mountain biking, fly fishing and four-wheel-drive excursions – all included in the price.

A Granite Lodge room at The Ranch at Rock Creek costs from £7,231 including all meals (0333 323 9099; northamericatravelservice.com).

Play Polo

Spain

Sotogrande - Getty
Sotogrande - Getty

The Polo Valley Guesthouse is next to a working polo farm in the hills above Sotogrande in Andalucia, overlooking orange groves and river valleys. Powder Byrne offers exclusive use of this fully staffed property to groups of up to eight, with rates which include two-hour polo lessons or countryside hacks on five mornings. No previous riding experience is necessary and extra riding or polo sessions can be arranged. Throughout August, guests can take part in local polo matches.

Polo Valley Guesthouse costs from £18,495 full-board for eight people. Excludes flights. Departs July and August (020 8246 5300; powderbyrne.com).

Prices are per person, based on two people sharing for seven nights, including flights and riding, unless stated otherwise.

Holidays overseas and travel within the UK are currently subject to restrictions.