Riding Holidays: The complete guide to horse riding holidays

Are you naturally bow-legged? Have you always wanted to be a cowboy, or girl? Is your idea of the perfect holiday galloping through Ghana, rodeoing in Rajasthan or saddling up in Spain? If you're horse-crazy, you'll know a riding holiday no longer means a wet weekend in Wales. If you grew up with Thelwell but want more sophisticated horse-play, Lucy Gillmore gives you some ideas
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WHAT'S WRONG WITH PONY TREKKING IN WALES?

Absolutely nothing, if you like that sort of thing - trotting through pine forests and along wooded river valleys with your trusty steed. If you want a permanent base for your holiday, there are numerous approved riding centres in Wales, including the L&A Holiday Riding Centre (01639 885509) in Port Talbot, where you stay in log cabins beside a tumbling brook in the middle of a conservation area and take day treks from there. A riding weekend here costs from pounds 70. Grange Pony Trekking (01873 890215) in the Brecon Beacons National Park offers rides through the breathtaking Black Mountain scenery for pounds 122.50 per person for a weekend's riding, including accommodation.

But if you'd rather ride from place to place, staying in country inns or working hill farms along the way, specialist companies such as Activity Wales (01437 766888) can arrange to send your luggage on ahead each day.

AND IN SCOTLAND...

You've got Britain's Longest Trail Ride. Not suitable for beginners, this ride takes you 200 miles across country from the Grampians to the west coast, across moors, rivers and peat bogs and over steep mountain passes. Starting from a small farm in Glas, beside the river Deveron, you follow ancient cattle drovers' tracks, as curlew and grouse fly overhead, before climbing the steep paths once trodden by whisky smugglers and their ponies. Ten-day rides run from May to October and cost from pounds 1150 per person, including all accommodation and food. Call Highland Horseback (01466 700304) for details.

WHAT ABOUT FURTHER AFIELD?

As far as riding goes, the world is your stallion. You can book riding holidays almost anywhere in the world, from Patagonia to Pakistan and from Austria to Australia. For the ultimate in wild destinations, however, the wide open steppes, larch forests and alpine meadows of Mongolia beckon - a land of bears and wolves, the Asiatic ibex and the rare snow leopard. You can ride with Mongolian horsemen across rough terrain on the hardy and half-wild horses, sharing airac - a local tipple made from fermented mares' milk - in the evenings as you huddle around camp fires beside ger, the round, felt tents of the nomads. Trips are generally two to three weeks long and take place between June and August. Prices start at pounds 1,400 per person, including accommodation and food but excluding flights, through Ride World Wide (0171-735 1144).

THAT SOUNDS A BIT CHILLY

Maybe the jungles of Belize would be more your scene? Equitour's Mayan Jungle Ride takes you through dense tropical vegetation splashed with the colours of parrots, butterflies, toucans, hummingbirds and orchids. Riding past waterfalls and huge mango, avocado and citrus trees, you can explore spectacular caves and view a sunken valley from as yet unexcavated Mayan ruins. The six-day ride is suitable for beginners and available all year round for from pounds 595 per person, excluding flights. Call 01865 511642 for details.

WHEN IS A GOOD TIME TO GO ELSEWHERE?

It's always going to be the right time to ride somewhere. In some places - such as Zimbabwe, Tanzania and Ecuador - you can ride just about all year, whereas in others there are peak times to aim for. In Argentina and Chile, for example, September to March is the best time to go; in Pakistan you get similarly decent conditions between April and November; in Kenya you should book a ride between January and March or between June and October to avoid the rains. In the US and Canada, May to September is the optimum time for riding in Wyoming, Montana and British Columbia but, come the autumn, you should head for Arizona. If this all sounds a bit confusing, the specialist operators will be able to advise you.

HOW FIT DO I NEED TO BE?

Unless you want to walk around bowlegged for the entire week, it is a good idea to put in some riding practice before you go. The suppler you are, the less likely you'll be to seize up, so make sure you limber up properly, too. Different types of riding holidays are geared to varying abilities - from beginner, through intermediate to advanced - and when you arrive you will also be matched to a horse that suits you. Another thing to bear in mind is that with a trail ride you'll have to be able to keep up, whereas with a ranch or centre-based holiday you can always take a day off if you're feeling stiff. Contact the British Horse Society (01926 707794) for information on how to find an approved riding school near you.

WHAT ABOUT SADDLE SORES AND RIDING TOGS?

Don't wear jeans! Some people choose to wear padded Lycra shorts under their trousers, but they can get a bit hot and sticky during the summer months. A good, old-fashioned pair of jodhpurs or a pair of leggings is your best bet. Generally speaking, what you'll need to take with you will depend on where you're going and when. As a rule the two essentials are a decent hard hat (you can even get Stetson-style covers for the real cowboy look - call Raddery Equine for mail order riding gear, on 01381 620615) and a decent pair of (broken-in) boots. A light waterproof is also advisable. Call Dark Horse (01837 861675) for specialist made-to- measure riding macs. When all is said and done, comfort is the key requirement; you'll be in the saddle for anything from four to seven hours every day. If you also plan to cut a dash, try Amazona (01798 869038) for a range of stylish riding skirts, trousers, shirts and accessories.

I WANT TO LEARN SOME NEW TRICKS

If you want to sharpen your riding skills as well as let your hair down, Equitour (01865 511642) offers a week's training in California, led by Donna Snyder Smith, the coach of two world gold medallists in endurance riding. The week includes lectures, body work, arena lessons and trail instruction, as well as an afternoon's sightseeing in San Francisco, and costs pounds 1,165 per person including entrance to an endurance riding competition. In Portugal the Escola de Equitacao de Alcainca, a stud farm and training- centre that has sired numerous magnificent Lusitanos, and whose trainers are some of the finest dressage riders in the world, offers a week-long dressage programme. You also get to go hacking through the surrounding fields, forests and vineyards. (Price from pounds 610 per person, excluding flights, also through Equitour.)

WHAT ABOUT SOMETHING A BIT DIFFERENT?

How about training to be a wilderness guide in Canada? Chilcotin Holidays in British Columbia (off the fantastically named Gun Creek Road) has a wilderness guide training programme for one or two weeks, running from May to October. It can be geared to all levels and you learn western mountain riding, how to strap everything but the kitchen sink on to a pack horse, camp preparation, even how to shoe a horse. The first half of the course takes place at the ranch and then it's up into the mountains to apply your new skills (pounds 620 for a week including full board and all riding activities, through In the Saddle 01256 851665)

I WANT TO GALLOP THROUGH THE SURF...

Ride on, dreamer. The Atlantic coast of Spain, the beaches of California - or how about the idyllic Caribbean? You can indulge your romantic fantasies just about anywhere. Fantasia del Caballo organises riding holidays on Andaluca's Costa de la Luz, passing through the surrounding national park, 5,000 hectares of Mediterranean pine forest and, more importantly, miles and miles of sandy beach. Staying in the small fishing port of Barbate, you can relax in local Spanish bars or take a day trip to Jerez de la Frontera to see a display of high-school dressage performed by the Royal Andalucan Riding School. Holidays cost from pounds 545, excluding flights. For UK Bookings call Lesley Bullock (07775 517138).

For surf(rid)ing the US, intermediate riders can't beat California's Redwood Coast Ride. Up in wine country (another good reason to go), long rides through ancient redwood forests are combined with gallops along ocean bluffs beside the Pacific, and the aptly named 10-mile beach ride. On the last day, there's an hour-long canter through the surf with cormorants and ospreys overhead and seals and whales cavorting offshore (seven days, from pounds 1,140 per person, excluding flights, through Equitour, 01865 511642).

Then there's the Caribbean dream. The St Lucia Mountain and Beach Ride takes you high into the mountains to sugarcane, mango and banana plantations, across a savannah land-

scape, and down to gallop along deserted beaches where you swim with your horse in clear turquoise waters (from pounds 755 per person through Equitour).

WHAT ABOUT THE LUURVE TRAIL?

Willie Daly is a third-generation matchmaker in County Clare who sees it as his duty to bring love, happiness and riding to sad singles everywhere. The "Love Trail" is a six-day ride through the hauntingly beautiful, lunar landscape of the Burren on the west coast of Ireland. Staying in a restored 16th-century house, each day you head out to either a picnic at Lickeen Lake, followed by traditional music at Willie's pub, the 18th-century Matchmaker's Shack; a ride along the sands of Lahinch beach, stopping for the obligatory pint of Guinness in Ennistymon; the cliffs of Moher and the magical Ballycotton bogs; or down a rocky road to Gussie Connors' famous music pub in Doolin to listen to local reels, including the well- known honeymoon tune "Mary Cut Your Toenails or You'll Tear the Sheets".

A week of riding, with full-board accommodation, costs pounds 380 per person (call 00 353 65 70 71385 or visit www. williedaly.com). If you book quickly, you'll be just in time for the annual matchmaking festival (1 September to mid-October).

DRUNK IN CHARGE OF A HORSE...

If you don't give a XXXX about matchmaking in Ireland and "Brace yerself Sheila" is all the romantic encouragement you need, then head down under instead, for a pub crawl on horseback. The ride takes you through the rugged Australian outback and many of the pubs are the original stage stops, so you even get a bit of cultural history thrown in. As you swig back another beer with the local shearers, graziers and prospectors you can relax in the knowledge that, as you're staying the night, you won't face a drink riding charge. The pub crawl ride lasts seven days, is graded as intermediate and costs pounds 595 per person through Equitour (01865 511642).

I'M LOOKING FOR A COWBOY...

Well grab your spurs and high-tail it to the good ole US of A. In the American Midwest, choose between a working ranch or a luxury guest ranch (think log cabins and jacuzzis). The White Stallion Ranch in Arizona, Spanish in style and set in 3,000 acres, is surrounded by the desert mountain scenery used as the backdrop for The High Chaparral. De luxe cabins have high, beamed ceilings and antique Mexican furniture, private whirlpool tubs and air-conditioning. Not exactly roughing it, but it's great for children, with a heated pool, weekly rodeos, team penning and hay rides. And, after a hard day out on the range, you can swagger into the Happy Hour Saloon for a spot of line dancing and cowboy singers. A week's stay, including seven nights' full-board accommodation, costs from pounds 499 per person through Ranch Rider (01509 891305, or e-mail info@RanchRider.com).

WHAT ABOUT TRAIL RIDES?

If you happen to fancy the real McCoy, then you've got to get out of the ranch and hitch on to a trail ride. Outlaw Trails (01892 619000) organises historical riding trips in Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Oklahoma (from $1,500 - about pounds 960 - for five days and four nights).

You stay on remote working ranches that have played a part in American Wild West history, or camp under the stars, waking to the smell of fresh coffee and sizzling bacon. The "Robbers Roost" in Utah, for example, has been a cattle ranch since 1909. It is 60 miles from the nearest town - and from running water - and it still has no telephone.

FORGET COWBOYS, LET'S TALK POLO DARRLING...

No, not Prince Charles or dashing Argentinian players, but the original chukka. Apparently, polo originated in the mountain villages of Pakistan and, riding along ancient caravan trails, you get to watch polo played on high mountain passes against a backdrop of glaciers and valleys, grassy prairies and wild flowers. Seventeen-day trips with Ride World Wide (0171- 735 1144) are available from April to November; the cost is from pounds 1,650 per person.

AND FOR THE `OUT OF AFRICA' FANTASY...

... combine a safari with a riding holiday. An African horseback safari enables you to get close to the animals without disturbing them. You can ride with the migration in Kenya, gallop across wide open plains with zebras and giraffe, combine a canoeing and riding safari in Zimbabwe or explore the flooded Okavango delta in Botswana. For more details call Tim Best Travel on 0171-591 0300, or Ride World Wide on 0171-735 1144.

WHAT ABOUT SOMETHING MORE LUXURIOUS?

You could stay in the restored 17th-century Hacienda Cusin in the Ecuadorian sierra, a Latin riot of white walls, hollyhocks and terracotta tiles. Twelve-day riding tours of the southern and northern sierra with Last Frontiers (01296 658650) take you riding through scented eucalyptus groves close to the crater lake of San Pablo and to the foothills of the snow- capped Cayambe volcano; the cost is from pounds 1,562 per person). Or closer to home, explore the countryside of Provence, riding from auberge to auberge past vineyards and olive groves, lavender fields and ancient hill- top villages, with Inntravel's (01653 629003) "The Heart of Provence" tour. Seven nights with half board costs from pounds 983, including scheduled flights.

BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID

WATCH THE film, then ride the trail. Immortalised by Robert Redford and Paul Newman, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were two of America's most notorious outlaws, fleeing the US for South America at the turn of the century. You can retrace some of their steps.

The "Butch and Sundance Trail" (from $2,300, about pounds 1,474) re-creates a cattle drive over the Andes from Argentina to Chile through the Valdivian rainforest, passing gauchos with their herds. After your passport has been stamped at a remote border control you take a trip on an old steam train, the Patagonia Express.

They were respectable cattle ranchers for five years; if you want to find out more about this part of their escapade, the "Nahuel Huapi" ride (from $200 per day, about pounds 128), based on a private estancia in the Nahuel Huapi National Park, features a circuit around their old haunts.

However, the duo were soon robbing a mine company in Bolivia. The "San Vicente Trail - the Last Ride" (from $200 a day) shadows their escape route through craggy valleys and high mountain passes to San Vicente, where they were cornered and killed in a shoot-out in 1908. To book, call Outlaw Trails (01892 619000).

EQUESTRIAN SAFETY

AS RECENT events have sadly shown, riding can be risky. Discuss safety when booking a holiday. Always wear a UK standard riding-hat. Outside Great Britain it is not standard practice, so take your own even if you have been told you can borrow one. If you really hate the look of a hat, buy a soft cover (eg in a Stetson style); Raddery Equine (01381 620615) and other companies sell them.

Raddery Equine also has a flex ride stirrup with a toe cage to prevent your foot from slipping through and, in the event of a fall, being dragged along the ground. A decent pair of boots with a heel will also help. Make sure, yourself, that the tack is in good condition; do not rely on the centre's discretion.

In the UK, the British Horse Society (BHS) has a system of approving riding schools and trekking centres and instructors. It has just introduced a new qualification geared to the equestrian tourist trade. Check that the centre is BHS-approved (Where to Ride, pounds 5.95, is available from 01926 707762 or www.bhs.org.uk

Finally, take out adequate insurance. Most companies will insist that you are covered for personal accident and liability. Specific equestrian insurance companies include South Essex Insurance Brokers (0800 289982).

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