A horseback riding vacation can be a trip of a lifetime and at Equitours we are in the business of making sure that your trip is a dream. Keep in mind that no ride, no horse and no person can be perfect every time but our trips are as close as they get. After over forty years of leading and judging equestrian vacations we have developed some ideas which can help you choose the vacation which is the most appropriate for you. Here are the main criteria we use in choosing the best rides. Asking these same questions will help you choose the right tour operator and riding vacation.
Skill Level -
It is most important to be sure you will be happy with the pace of the ride. Is it fast enough to be challenging and interesting for you? Have you the necessary experience, training and fitness to do it safely and enjoyably? It is difficult to tell from a description what a ride is really like. We use a grading of beginner to advanced for rating the skill levels required for each trip. Riding skill is not the only factor because for some rides considerable physical endurance is needed and for others one may have to get off and lead the horse up or down hills in difficult terrain. Intermediate riders must be careful not to try a ride the first time which is too difficult as they may become anxious or hold up the rest of the group. More advanced riders should be sure that the ride will be paced fast enough for their taste. It is of vital importance that great care be taken by the organizer of the trip to be sure that all participants have the required riding skills to handle the ride.
Ride Leaders -
The leader of the ride can make or break it. He or she needs to be an excellent rider, to know the horses well, to do the best possible job in matching horse and rider, to be attentive to the group, to be familiar with the route, to be well informed about the local culture, flora and fauna, and to impart that knowledge. The leader needs to have the courage to take people off the ride if their skill is not up to the required standard or the tour can be less fun for everyone. The leader is your main contact with the local people, especially in a country where you do not speak the language fluently.
Horses and Tack -
The horses must be in good condition and obedient. They must be capable of handling the itinerary planned. There should be mounts for backup available in case a horse goes lame or is inappropriate for a rider. They need to have comfortable gaits and be reasonably free of bad habits. They should be accustomed to the normal hazards of the route so that they do not shy suddenly. Bridles and bits should be appropriate for the horses, and the saddles should fit the horses properly and be comfortable for riders. Bear in mind that most countries in the world use saddles similar to what we call English. Some Western riders may have trouble adjusting to these, but there are rides in Europe using Western saddles. Australian saddles are usually easier for Western riders to adapt to and so are the McClelland type saddles used in much of Latin America. Of course the tack needs to be well maintained no matter what kind is used.
Weather is certainly a factor important to most riders. There are no absolute guarantees about weather, but your chances of finding the conditions you want are far better in some places than in others. If you don’t like the rain and mud, your chances of avoiding it will be better in southern France or Greece than in Ireland and still better in southern Morocco. The time of year is important too, for instance one wants to avoid Iceland in January and Mexico in August.
The terrain can certainly affect the pace of the ride and the enjoyment of the riders. Are the trails too rocky most of the time to allow a good gallop now and then? Is a considerable part of the ride along paved roads? How attractive is the landscape? How steep are the hills? Must large towns be traversed?
Most of us want to experience to the fullest the cultural aspects of the places where they are traveling. Does the ride give one a chance to come in close contact with the country? Are there opportunities to visit spots of cultural interest like castles, kasbahs, medieval villages or temples? Will there be local music and dancing? What are the chances for mingling with the natives? What is there of particular interest on the route?
Cuisine and Drink -
Are you prepared to test exotic dishes? Do you care about local wines or other drinks and if so, what is available. If you have dietary restrictions, will they be accommodated? Vegetarians will have a hard time in Mongolia, but will be right at home in India. How good is the food and how safe is it for non-native stomachs?
Lodging can vary from a rough camp on a pack trip in the Rockies to a Hemingway style camp in Kenya. It can be in palaces, chateaux, small village inns or upscale hotels. Do you want the exotic charm of a palace or is it more important to be sure there are en-suite facilities and plenty of hot water? How much do you care?
Safety is of vital importance, but keep in mind that nothing you do is completely safe. Nevertheless risks can be greatly reduced. For starters, we strongly recommend that you wear a hard hat at all times when riding. Finding a ride which goes at a pace suitable to your skill level and being mounted on a horse which is appropriate for your ability are key factors. How careful is the ride leader about this and how much effort do they put into finding out about the ability of the riders beforehand? What can be done in case there is an accident? Does the ride leader have a cell phone or a radio? How long will it take to get medical help? Does the ride leader have medical training? Are the horses well trained and mature? Are riders informed about their idiosyncrasies? Does the ride leader make clear what procedures should be followed and does he see that the guests observe the rules? A ride in Kenya where the lions may give chase or a wart hog bursting from his lair can cause a horse to spook is going to carry a higher risk factor than a gentle trail ride in Belize. The choice is yours, but you need to be informed.
Getting the Right Information -
Now that you have read something of the considerations involved, how do you find the information you need? Booking with an outfit you found on the Internet or through an ad can be risky. Each is trying to convince you it has the right ride for you and tends to reveal only the positive aspects. Most websites or books listing rides are simply taking money from the outfitters in exchange for a mention. They usually do the write-ups themselves. It is a good idea to book through a reputable tour company with ride consultants familiar with the rides they handle. A good consultant can offer various options and help you find the tour which suits you best. They can tell you the pluses and minuses of each choice and advise you as to which rides are most appropriate for your skill level. References should be available upon request. A good tour company will depend mainly on its repeat business and will inform you as completely as possible so there are no unpleasant surprises.