“The Wide World Is All About You: You Can Fence Yourselves In, But You Cannot For Ever Fence It Out” – J.R.R Tolkien
Many people spend their whole lives living, playing, and working in their home state. Some might leave to explore a neighboring state or even, perhaps, a state on the opposite side of the country, but few venture further afield across the border. Even fewer venture across oceans to explore a whole different continent.
As a South African immigrant, it could be said that I am less rooted in American soil than my neighbors (who have farmed and lived here for generations). Be that as it may, I have always loved to travel, and am fully convinced that everyone can benefit from seeing the world from a different cultural perspective.
One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to seek opportunities to ride and interact with the horse community in which I find myself. There are two ways to do this. The first, easiest, and my least favorite, is to find an operation that offers guided trail rides. Usually this involves riding with a large group of inexperienced tourists in single file up to a view point, at a walk or - if the operation is not too worried about liability (usually in third world countries) - a trot, before returning to the barn. In my opinion, while this option does give you the opportunity to enjoy some lovely scenery from horseback, it will not offer you an authentic taste of the local horse scene.
A variation on this theme is to plan your vacation out of season. For example, we booked a ride on Virginia Beach in the winter. Since everyone in our party was obviously experienced (we were the only customers), and we had the beach to ourselves, the wranglers allowed us to pretty much do whatever we wanted. I have found this to generally be the case when booking out of season.
The second option, which may take a little more effort to organize, is to find a local stable where you can offer your services schooling or exercising their horses. This works better in small barns where they could use the unpaid help and might be more open to giving you a try. But, be warned, most establishments will want to see you ride first before letting you loose on their horses. I have, for example, had the privilege of exercising Haflinger ponies in the mountains of Austria and taking groups on beach rides along the African coast.
The Austria rides were peaceful, and I loved exploring the spectacular countryside in solitude on these amazing little pones, but my stint guiding beach rides took the prize for being the most hair raising.
As mentioned, liability is not usually as much of a concern in other countries as it is in the US, and most clients, when booking a beach ride, have the expectation that they will be allowed to fulfill their romantic dream of galloping along the water’s edge. In our operation, we would separate the group into two, leaving the less experienced clients to wait (and serve as our brakes), while we trotted up the beach for some distance. We would then turn and allow the “more experienced” riders to gallop back to the group. I use inverted commas here because I quickly discovered that most tourists will amplify their riding experience. I cannot tell you the number of times someone told me they were an experienced rider, and it quickly became obvious that they didn’t know one end of a horse from the other.
Almost every gallop would end in the same way – out of control horses haring off in every direction and at least one idiot eating dirt, or in this case sand. By some miracle we never actually had any serious casualties, but I admit to spending the whole time praying fervently that everyone would survive the experience. Fortunately, horses are herd animals and the whole chaotic mess would always come to an abrupt halt when the runaways reached their herd mates.
Aside from riding adventures, it is fun to expose yourself to riding communities abroad. On one trip, I was invited to join a family on a days outing at a local point to point over Easter break. In England, Point to Point races are held all over the countryside at small rural racetracks. At Easter families park their range rovers in a field adjacent to the course so they can drop the tailgate, spread out their picnic baskets, and watch the races from the comfort of their lawn chairs. While on the same trip, I was privileged to watch race horses train at Warren Hill, the famous gallops in Newmarket, and attend the Grand National - which is jump racing on a slightly grander scale!
Also, while in England (but on a separate visit), my family and I attended the Royal Windsor Horse Show. We stayed at a local farm Bed and Breakfast and had a fantastic time interacting with the farmer and his family. The Royal Windsor is great fun to attend. It is a true equine spectacular which includes demonstrations from mounted cavalry and pony club games alongside the more usual dressage, jumping, and driving events. I have found that most communities have some sort of equine activity like those mentioned on offer, and if you check ahead of time you can plan your trip to coincide with the date of these events.
Each of these endeavors made my trips at home and abroad into truly memorable experiences. So, if you are a horse enthusiast like I am, I hope you are inspired, and plan to include at least one horse related activity in your next holiday itinerary. As for me, I am off to Ireland in the spring where I already have a visit planned to the Irish National Stud and the Punchestown Festival!