From the Caribbean to South Africa to Western Europe to China, it’s easy for avid equestrians to add some horseback riding into almost any trip – you can even ride horses in New York’s Central Park. But why not experience something more than a simple follow-the-leader trail ride?
Experience unique gaits, watch exciting festivals, marvel at the power and beauty of the equine acrobat and explore ancient landscapes best viewed from the back of a horse. Each of these trips offer something more for horse lovers who want a memorable experience with a new four-legged friend. Of course, if your traveling companions aren’t such horse-fanatics, there’s still plenty of reason for them to visit these particular places too.
Riding with the Gauchos in the Pampas of Argentina
Argentina’s Pampas region is an area of fertile plains that covers the majority of the country. It’s here that cattle produce the country’s famously tender beef. Gauchos, the South American version of cowboys, herd these cows and are known for their masterful horsemanship.
If you can’t make it deep into the heartland of the Pampas, you can still ride with the gauchos. Many estancias, or ranches, are located on the fringes of the Pampas, less than an hour drive from Buenos Aires. While some are touristy affairs that host elaborate performances of trick riding and offer little more than a slow-paced trail ride, there are plenty that are working cattle farms. These estancias also welcome visitors for a day of galloping along the expansive grasslands in a fleece-covered gaucho saddle on a perfectly trained horse.
Companions who don’t ride will still be lured by the extravagant meals prepared post-ride by the gauchos. A never-ending parade of tender grilled meats is served back at the ranch along with local beer and wine.
Watching the World’s Youngest Jockeys Race at Naadam in Mongolia
Horses have been an integral part of daily life in Mongolia since the time of Genghis Khan. The Mongolian horses are loved by the people who use them for work and as a main source of transportation – with few main roads and few public buses outside of the main city, horseback riding is a great way to get around. The horses also contribute to the Mongolian diet. Mare’s milk is used to make butter and cream, and fermented into a popular traditional drink called airag.
The best time to see the Mongolian horses in action is during the annual summer festival of Naadam, which features wrestling, archery and long-distance horse racing. Hundreds of horses compete in the races, which can be anywhere from 15-30 kilometers in length. While jockeys in the Western world may be so short and thin they almost look like children, the jockeys in Mongolia really are kids.
The child jockeys, who ride bareback, can be as young as five years old. After watching the rest of the festival events, see how your horsemanship skills stack up against these little riders with a trek across the grassy steppes of Mongolia or around the sandy expanse of the Gobi Dessert.
Making Friends with a Five-Gaited Horse in Iceland
Icelandic horses have an almost Teddy-Bear-esque quality about them. Short, stocky, and sporting a thick fluffy coat for the majority of the year, they are often referred to as ponies (a term the Icelandic people find quite offensive).
The horses are extremely friendly, known for being exceptionally docile and inquisitive and seem to be everywhere in Iceland. You can’t drive more than 30 minutes outside of the main city of Reykjavik without seeing a herd of them gathered in a field, their shaggy manes blowing in the wind. Stop and approach the fence and within minutes you’ll have made several new friends who are clamoring for attention. It’s easy to see why the horses are so beloved by Icelanders – so much, in fact, that there are several stables located in the city of Reykjavik itself and it’s not unusual to see horses being ridden on the outskirts of town.
But the breed has one more unique trait. Unlike the majority of horses (which walk, trot, canter and gallop) the Icelandic horse has a fifth gait called a tölt. Fast and incredibly smooth, the tölt is unlike any other pace. Multiple riding stables near Reykjavik offer excursions of an hour up to a few days. Tölt around the beautiful countryside on your furry new friend and take in the sights of the country’s natural wonders like lava fields, thundering waterfalls, and spurting geysers.
Roping and Riding in America’s Wild West
The western states of the U.S. are cowboy country – where the cowboys of the old west drove cattle over sprawling ranches and the art of rodeo was perfected. States like Texas, Nevada, Arizona and Wyoming still play host to several major rodeos each year. Watch as modern-day cowboys rope calves, barrel race, and hold on to bucking broncos for dear life.
While it may look like a lot of show, these are all necessary talents for driving cattle on a working ranch. Even events like barrel racing – which involves a horse and rider running a set pattern around barrels as quickly as possible – showcase abilities put to use in the real world. Horses must be agile, quick, and able to stop and turn on a dime to round up stray livestock.
For a closer look at the skill involved in a rodeo, book a stay at a “dude ranch.” Many are still working cattle ranches where you can not only practice your hand at rodeo events, but even sign on for a ride on a cattle drive. Rides can range from a few days to a week or more. You’ll log several hours a day in the saddle, see some gorgeous country, and live like a cowboy – cooking by campfire and falling asleep under the stars each night.
Watching a Medieval Bareback Race in Italy
The Tuscan town of Siena has been holding its Palio since medieval times. Twice a year, ten horses with bareback riders race around the town square. The adrenaline charged event only lasts for about two minutes, with festivals and parades held beforehand. The rules of the Palio differ greatly from traditional horse racing and dirty tactics are encouraged. To win, the horse must be the first one to cross the finish line with its decorative headpiece intact. The course features tight turns and steep inclines, and falls are not uncommon – nor are winning horses that no longer have their jockeys.
It’s a wild and crazy event that ends in a flash but determines bragging rights for the year. The winner is awarded the palio, a silk banner with custom art, and is celebrated as the best for several months. The second place horse and rider are considered the losers and the jockey who has gone the longest without a win is given the ego-crushing nickname of “nonna”, or grandmother.
Honoring Legends (and Legends in the Making) in America’s Kentucky Horse Country
Horse racing in the U.S. didn’t start in Kentucky, but it is the state that is most famous for it, thanks it part to its role as host of the “most exciting two minutes in sports,” the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. Run for over a hundred years, the race is the first “jewel” in the three races collectively known as the Triple Crown. The race is held the first Saturday in May and is preceded by a week of non-stop partying and mint-julep drinking. Getting tickets for a seat in the grandstand, where the moneyed, big-hat wearing elite sit, is notoriously difficult. A better bet is to get tickets for the infield for a closer look at the action on the track, and the debauchery of the drunken masses.
The state is also home to the Kentucky Horse Park. Like Disneyland for the horsy set, the park is dedicated to all things equine. A twice daily “Parade of Breeds” showcases 24 unique breeds that are living on the farm – from Andaulsians and Appaloosas to Paso Finos and Percherons, all the way through the alphabet to Welsh Cobbs. Horse-drawn trolleys transport guests around the park and trail and pony rides are available. The park also hosts events like polo matches and equestrian competitions, including the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. Here you can come face-to-face with retired living legends in the horse world or pay your respects to famous equine athletes like Man O’ War.
Watching Lipizzaners “Dance” in Austria
At the Spanish Riding School in Vienna, Austria, the Lipizzaner horses learn their famous moves. The horses are trained in classical dressage that goes far beyond the basics of the intricate movements that were first designed to increase agility and responsiveness in battle. The Lipizzaners practically dance as they pirouette and passage, or trot in place. From there they move on to the “airs above the ground”, a series of acrobatic leaps that defy gravity.
From its formation in the 16th century, the Spanish Riding School only allowed guests of the Royal Court to view its training sessions and performances. Now the doors are open to the public who can purchase tickets to attend performances by stallions who’ve mastered the maneuvers, or watch training sessions as younger horses learn the complicated steps. Either way, watching the Lipizzaners execute these complex moves is akin to watching a ballet – full of artistry, athleticism, and raw power.
Indulging Your Lawrence of Arabia Fantasies in Jordan
Jordan’s Wadi Rum desert valley is the largest valley in the country. Unique stone formations and prehistoric rock paintings dot the barren landscape that is home to both the Bedouin people and an increasing number of eco-tourism companies offering camping, hiking and rock climbing excursions. The valley was the setting for the film Lawrence of Arabia, and is not too far from the important archeological site of Petra.
Several outfitters offer multi-day excursions in the area. Follow Bedouin trails across the Wadi Rum each day and sleep in a traditional tent at night. Ride strong, beautiful Arabian horses, known for their responsiveness and their endurance in the desert, through the valley to the ancient rock-hewn walls of Petra. It’s a chance to feel like a nomad for a while, surrounded by a landscape older than time, riding one of the oldest breeds in the world.