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HomeArts & CultureUltratravel Top 10: Holidays on horseback

Ultratravel Top 10: Holidays on horseback

Adriaane Pielou

Holidaying on horseback is guaranteed to lift the spirits. The exhilaration you feel after spending time in the fresh air afforded by the countryside is enhanced by the fact that you can choose from a range of trips. Despite being a sporty kind of activity, a riding holiday can involve weeks crossing mountains and camping out each night. However, you can also choose undemanding meanders through gentle landscapes and return to five-star comfort at the end of the day.

A riding holiday also imposes few requirements regarding fitness, skill and prior experience. Being matched with a horse whose temperament is suitable for your riding ability is key to enjoying this kind of holiday. Horses come in different shapes, sizes, speeds and temperaments, and it is the hallmark of a good equestrian centre that human will be matched with horse. While it is thrilling to fly along on a horse, hair flying in the wind, it can be terrifying if this happens during your first time on horseback. It’s important to book with a specialist riding company that would have checked the health and care of the horses you’ll ride, and where properly trained staff ensure you ride safely, wearing a hard hat, protective trousers and boots with a heel, which ensure your feet won’t slip out of the stirrups.

Where to go depends on what level of rider you are – novice, expert or somewhere in between – and whether you want to ride out in a different direction each day and return to the same place at night, or you prefer to join a trail ride where you stay somewhere different every evening. Either way, you’ll get a sense of atavistic satisfaction whether you’re gazing over the hedgerows of rural Ireland, an empty beach in Spain or across the bare and windswept steppes of Mongolia. And sitting on the sturdy back of a horse who can instinctively pick its way across the terrain – whether a hillside in Montana, desert in Rajasthan or floodplain in Botswana – provides a powerful reminder of how lucky we are to share this planet with other creatures.

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Across Central Asia

Riding across the steppes of Central Asia on one of the region’s famously tough, skittish little horses is strictly for highly experienced riders, since you are often hundreds of kilometres from any kind of habitation. However, it gives you a peerless chance to interact with nomads of the region, and in particular the falconers, whose combination of traditional local dress and haughty charges is irresistibly photogenic. Like skiing holidays, the best riding holidays tend to be organised by people who adore the sport themselves. This includes Jonny Bealby, a rock singer in the 1980s who spent the 1990s as a travel writer. His book, Silk Dreams, Troubled Road: Through Central Asia on Horseback, chronicles his riding adventures, and he founded Wild Frontiers Travel in 2002. For a maximum of 10 people, Bealby’s 15-day trip through Kyrgyzstan, riding through the Mountains of Heaven, lets riders experience one of the least-seen areas of pristine wilderness left on the planet. The trip starts and ends in the capital city of Bishkek, with accommodation in hotels for three nights, another two in a traditional local homestay, two in a circular yurt tent, and six spent camping in remote Tash Rabat, just as Silk Road traders did over the centuries.

The next ride starts on August 12, 2017, and costs from Dh12,388. For more details, visit wildfrontierstravel.com

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Family riding in Italy

For a family riding holiday where there’s likely to be a mix of abilities and ages – and possibly inclination – you need to stay in a single centre dedicated to riding, but with other attractions. Deep in the Tuscan countryside in Italy, Il Paretaio has built a solid reputation providing just that sort of mix. The owners claim to have trained more than 12,000 riders since setting up Il Paretaio in 1987. Here you can learn to freeride in the surrounding hills or sign up for dressage lessons, which many experienced riders take to gain better control of their horses and their own balancing skills. Classes typically last 50 minutes, and cost Dh180 for a private class and from Dh78 for children between the ages of 4 and 13. Lessons are offered at three levels: beginner, intermediate and advanced. The heart of the Il Paretaio operation, and where guests are accommodated in the evenings, will delight anyone who loves traditional Tuscan style: a turreted, stone-built 18th-century farmhouse flanked by stables and paddocks housing 30 horses, two large fields and a ring, and surrounded by olive groves, hills and forest where the wildlife includes falcons, porcupines and wild boar. An outdoor pool keeps children entertained when they’re not on horseback – and non-riders can join a cookery class.

Seven nights with half-board and 10 riding lessons costs from Dh4,295; ilparetaio.it

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On horseback through the Okavango Delta

For experienced riders who revel in empty spaces and few other people, a safari through the Okavango Delta in Botswana is one of the ultimate holidays on horseback. Set up in 1986, Okavango Horse Safaris remains a small, expensive operation with just two rustic camps. Once you’ve left the airport at Maun and embarked on the transfer to the first camp, Kujwane, by car (Dh460 per person), or helicopter (Dh1,285), you’re unlikely to see another soul except the camp staff and guides. Kujwane has canvas tents with simple bathrooms set on wood decking overlooking a small pool and the grassy area where the outfit’s herd of 60 horses graze. A day’s ride away, the Moklowane camp is even simpler, with tents on platforms. Depending on the season, you’re either galloping across grassy plains, thundering past giraffes, elephants, buffaloes and rhinos, or splashing through lilies in the water meadows. These are formed when the delta floods each April, attracting immense bird life.

Camp accommodation costs Dh2,205 per person, per night; okavangohorse.com

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Riding in Ireland

If you’re keen to get your children riding, but don’t want to slide your own foot into a stirrup, the 800-year-old, award-winning Ashford Castle in Mayo, in the west of Ireland, should suit you well. A turreted 13th-century castle surrounded by 350 acres of exotic gardens, woodland and hilly countryside running down to the 68-acre Corrib lake, it has been brought back to life by the Tollman family. The hoteliers bought it in a dilapidated state in 2013 and have since reopened it as a lavishly comfortable country hotel, with 83 rooms including a lakeside cottage. The castle’s equestrian centre is equipped with everything from hats and boots as well as well-mannered mounts. It takes children from 4, teaching not just the rudiments of riding, but all the basics of feeding and grooming a pony, and tacking up for a ride. Besides riding, there’s also archery, falconry, fly-fishing, zip-lining, tennis and a nine-hole golf course, plus 60 bikes to borrow. As well as being home to salmon and brown trout, the lake is also dotted with little islands, which make taking out a rowing or power boat great fun. There’s also a five-room spa, billiards room, three restaurants, an in-house cinema and good Wi-Fi.

Double rooms cost from Dh2,735 per night. For more details, visit ashfordcastle.com

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Play polo in Argentina

Reading the blogs of riding companies can fire you up to take on all sorts of challenges. The blog run by Unicorn, for instance, set up by a member of the by-invitation-only Long Riders’ Guild, brims with inspiring stories. In the cold light of day, however, it might seem a little optimistic to sign up for Mongol Derby, the 1,000-kilometre pelt across Mongolia’s steppes, which is known as the toughest horse race in the world, or to cross the Andes on horseback. But there are plenty of more realistic goals. In Argentina, for instance, you can learn to play polo. Tuition every afternoon over a week at the comfortable, award-winning Estancia Los Potreros should leave you armed with the rudiments and having a jolly time in the process. “It’s a starter course: cheerful and fun, no pressure or embarrassment,” says the estancia’s owner, Kevin Begg, reassuringly. You’ll have a choice of 30 criollo or Peruvian Paso riding horses from the farmstead’s herd of 510, well-mannered and in excellent condition. In the mornings, you can ride or help the gauchos round up cattle.

From Dh12,295; unicorntrails.com

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Heavy horses in the Lake District

Whereas the average riding horse weighs about 550 kilograms, the heaviest-ever recorded was a Shire named Sampson, who weighed in at a humongous 1,524kg. Along with Clydesdale horses, Shires are one of the “heavy-horse” breeds traditionally used in England for farm work, and which in the First World War dragged guns to the trenches in France. They are also thrilling to ride, and galloping across the rolling hills, farmland and beaches of England’s spectacular Lake District National Park on one of these huge horses – 2.5 metres high – provides a novel way of exploring one of the most beautiful parts of Europe. This isn’t novelty riding, however. Although their patient natures and accommodating broad backs might make these massive creatures seem suitable only for cautious riders, they’re actually surprisingly fast and sure-footed. Cumbrian Heavy Horses, the only outfit in the world providing riding holidays using these mythical-seeming creatures, consequently stipulates that riders must be fit and experienced. Accommodation is in farmhouses on the week-long tours, but you can sample just a short ride before committing to that, and arrangeing your own stay – perhaps in a five-star hotel such as Gilpin Lodge.

From Dh345 for 90 minutes. For more details, visit cumbrianheavyhorses.com

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Paws Up in Montana

In a magnificent setting of mountains, woods and meadows, this former Black Angus cattle ranch opened as a family-orientated resort in 2005. Guests can ride for an hour a day or all day, go fly-fishing, hiking, biking, or just stay put in the state-of-the-art spa. Accommodation at The Resort by Paws Up is scattered across the property: there are 28 timber-built houses with one to four bedrooms – each with a private hot tub. Also open from May to October, are six tented camp areas, each with five large tents, plus the services of a private butler. Several of the camps are located on the clifftops above the Blackfoot River, which was used as a location for the 1992 Brad Pitt film A River Runs Through It, directed by Robert Redford. Yes, this is glamping at its glammest, a set-up that channels Ralph Lauren so acutely – think clawfoot copper baths, patchwork quilts and wood-burning stoves — that Ralph Lauren himself has used it as a setting for catalogue shoots. If you go in the winter, besides snowmobiling and cross-country skiing, you can also try skijoring, when the skier is pulled along by a horse (possibly, one feels, rolling its eyes). At competitive level, skijoring involves leaping over gates and walls, but, rest assured, it is done at a somewhat gentler level here.

From US$1,029 (Dh3,780) per person, per night. For more details, visit pawsup.com

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Wales in style

The rolling hills and valleys of rural Wales provide one of the world’s most extensive network of mapped trails. In some areas you can ride all day and not see another soul. If you’d rather ride with a few others, however, then the niche company Stately Rides should appeal. Launched by Charlotte Sainsbury-Plaice and Zara Colchester to make the most of Britain’s countryside as well as its historic homes and farmhouses, the company offers meticulously planned rides of four to six hours a day, using bridle paths and private roads. The night’s accommodation – sometimes homes not usually open to the public – includes tea and candlelit dinner, often with the owners of the property. On a three-day riding holiday starting in Hay-on-Wye, for instance, the first night’s stay is in the 18th-century Upper Noyadd Welsh farmhouse. After riding across The Begwns, hills managed by the National Trust, picnicking en route, you arrive – cue scones, jam and a silver teapot – at Llangoed Hall hotel, which looks out over the Brecon Beacons. The last day takes you riding through Erwood, “the land time forgot”, which inspired CS Lewis’s Narnia.

From Dh2,758 Dh per person per night. For more details, visit statelyrides.co.uk

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The trail from Jordan to Petra

Petra is, of course, one of the great sights of the Middle East, but on this trip, you see it at the start rather than the end of the itinerary, leaving Amman at 7.30am by minibus on day one to arrive at about 10am. But if anything could emphasise the drama of seeing the ancient Nabataean city carved out of the rock face, it’s knowing that once you’ve explored the city, you have ahead of you six heady days of riding through the desert. And six splendid nights, too. The owner of Equus Journeys, Christophe Leservoisier, who set up the company in 2014 as the sister company to France’s leading Cheval d’Aventure, says he aims for every day to end “around a campfire under a sea of stars, enjoying conversations with new friends whilst the horses sigh contentedly in the darkness”. Equus’s week-long riding trips from Amman operate throughout the year, going ahead as long as there are a minimum of two riders, although more usually taking 10. Non-riders can come, too, travelling in the backup four-wheel drive. Accommodation is in the four-star Hotel Petra Palace and then under the stars in Bedouin desert camps.

Seven nights from Dh6,297. For more details, visit equus-journeys.com

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Across Rajasthan to the Pushkar horse fair

The Pushkar horse fair in October and November is so photogenic, it can fill a memory card in hours. As you arrive on horseback at the culmination of a ride across the state, you can feel your mount flicker with interest as the scent of a zillion other horses begins to fill the air. On this nine-night holiday, six days are fully devoted to riding, in the course of which you’ll see life in Rajasthan from top to bottom. Stays are in palace hotels by night, and by day you cross a mix of terrain, from rocky gorges and shady acacia forest to jungly scrub and the parched Aravali Hills. Riding one of the region’s small, wiry Marwari horses – known for their endearing curled-in ears – means there is a weight limit of 89kg. However, as long as you fit that criteria, all you need is to be a fairly experienced rider who will welcome spending four to six hours on horseback a day, in considerable heat. The horses come from the stables at Dundlod Castle, home to Kanwar Raghuvendra Singh, a descendant of Kesari Singh who built the castle in the 1750s, and whose Marwari stud farm is the largest in India.

Nine nights cost from Dh9,680. For more details, visit inthesaddle.com

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