Coyotes howl in the distance as Jeff Moore and his daughter, Jill, eat cowboy grub by the campfire in California’s eastern Sierras. Nearby, horses nicker and munch hay. The Moores’ annual father-daughter horseback adventure — a four-day camping trip driving more than 100 horses 100 miles across the valley — lets them get away from daily routines and enjoy the freedom of wide-open spaces.
“I love horses and being outside with my dad,” says Jill, 18. “It’s fun getting dirty and riding fast to round up riderless horses that try to break away.”
The horse drives give the Moores, who live in Coto de Caza, Calif., a chance to bond. “There are no cell phones, laptops or TVs on this trip,” says Jeff, 52, a managing director for a commercial-real-estate brokerage firm. “I’m in beautiful country, riding a horse next to my daughter, having genuine conversations because we’re not distracted or busy.”
The two have saddled up every summer for the past 10 years, through 100-degree heat, rain, lightning, hail and even snow. “I used to think Jill would outgrow these horse trips,” says Jeff, “but she’s always excited to go and even invites other friends and families.” Wranglers from the Bishop, Calif.–based outfitter Frontier Pack Train match riders with a horse suited to their ability, so all ages can enjoy riding together.
Although Jill is heading off to college this fall, she intends to return next summer for the horse drive. “It’s a family tradition,” she says, “and it keeps us close.”
Horse of a Different Color
Equestrian treks — a.k.a. equi-adventures — are attracting both seasoned riders and first-timers. Less touristy than other getaways, horseback adventures take you through quiet countryside and challenging wilderness trails that are often inaccessible by vehicle or by foot, and they let you explore breathtaking landscapes in a unique, intimate way.
“Horseback riding can be such a rush — or really peaceful,” says Darley Newman, the host and producer of Equitrekking, a PBS travel series that takes viewers on horseback adventures around the world. “You get the physical challenge of riding different kinds of horses in the style of the place you’re visiting.”
You can gallop in Guatemala, canter in Canada, amble in Alaska or trot in Turkey. And you can choose rustic camping or opt for luxurious accommodations at a lodge or at inns along the trail. Either way, you’ll get plenty of fresh air and exercise — horseback riding works the inner thighs, hamstrings, calves and core abdominal muscles. (For equi-adventure planning tips, see “The Right Ride,” below.)
Never been on a horse? Not a problem. On some trips, wranglers coach beginners so they can improve while they ride on their vacation. If you’re a novice — or ride infrequently — start small before committing to a full-scale horseback excursion. “Incorporate one short ride into your vacation and see how it goes,” Newman suggests. “If you’re in Hawaii, spend one morning exploring part of the island on horseback. In wine country, take a bike tour one day, then ride a horse through a vineyard the next.”
Equi-adventures let you slow down and relive an era when horses were our primary mode of transportation. That historical appeal drew Trudy Campbell, an office administrator in Mississauga, Ontario, to sign up for a six-day trip through Wyoming’s Grand Tetons in a covered wagon train, organized by Hidden Trails, an outfitter in Vancouver, B.C.
“I hadn’t been on a horse in years, so I was wary, but I was so intrigued by stories of the Old West that I thought I’d try this trip,” says Campbell, 59. “The first day, the wranglers gave us basic riding instruction, then we got on our horses and away we went! The first thing we did was cross a flooded stream where the water was fast; I learned to trust my horse very quickly.”
Campbell’s vacation suited her skills. For half the day she rode a horse; in the afternoons, she traveled by covered wagon, which was also her night’s lodging. (The seats folded into bunks.) “Every morning I got up, stepped out of the wagon and — wow! — there were those incredible mountains.”
Riding in the wagons let Campbell rest enough that she eventually was able to spend one full day in the saddle, a feat that left her spirits buoyed and her legs a bit rubbery. “I had to learn to walk again when I got off the horse,” she jokes.
Besides spotting bear, elk and beaver, and reveling in the scenery, Campbell relived a cushier version of pioneer life — complete with cowboy songs and poetry. “The food was awesome, so other than sore butt muscles, there was no suffering on this trip.”
The Neighs Have It
There’s no more empowering adventure than one with a horse, says Bayard Fox, owner of Equitours, based in Dubois, Wyo. “Horses are dynamic; it’s exhilarating working in partnership with these animals,” he says. “They’re completely with you — even if you’re riding in Africa when the lions are giving chase or when a zebra challenges you to a race. And you can feel the horse’s excitement and pleasure when you’re taking an exhilarating gallop on a beach.”
Many animal lovers sign on to an equitrek to spend time exploring the horse-human relationship. Outfitters usually pair each rider with a single horse for the entire trip, so you can request the type of personality that makes you comfortable: spirited or steady. On some riding trips, Fox says, you feed, saddle and groom your horse, too.
It’s a good idea to practice your riding skills before joining a trek — especially one rated as intermediate or advanced, which often requires riders to be on the horse for at least six hours a day, every day. (Horse ranches often offer this kind of training.) “If you’re in shape, you shouldn’t be the least bit sore after covering 10 to 20 miles a day in the saddle,” says Fox.
The Reins in Spain
For her 70th birthday, Sally Schoettgen of Columbia, Calif., invited three girlfriends on an eight-day Equitours trip in southern Spain, where they rode purebred Andalusian horses from inn to inn. “Don’t let my age scare you!” Schoettgen quipped on the company’s questionnaire, which assesses riders’ skill and endurance. At home, she rides in the mountains three times a week, so she was in great condition for a cultural horse trek through villages in the Spanish Sierra Nevadas.
Astride a white Andalusian named Adra, Schoettgen followed ancient bridle paths through fig and almond farms and explored spectacular gorges. “We trotted and cantered a lot,” she recalls, “but it was thrilling when Adra and I could really run fast through the beautiful meadows.”
At day’s end, she and her friends arrived at a small village inn (their luggage came by van). “Our Spanish hosts treated us like family and prepared lovely dinners featuring the region’s best foods and wines,” she recalls.
“Having a hotel room waiting is a touch of luxury at the end of the trail,” Schoettgen says of the tour’s inn-to-inn format. “We could clean up, relax and get a good night’s sleep, which made it possible for us to ride six days in a row.”
During the week, the group covered a lot of territory and visited villages whose cobblestone streets were so steep and narrow that the riders had to lead their horses. “It was the perfect physical adventure,” Schoettgen recalls. “Instead of being just a spectator, I was an actual participant.”
The Right Ride
Longing to slide into the stirrups on an equi-adventure? Answer these questions to help you pick the horse trip of your dreams.
- What type of rider are you? Most outfitters distinguish between beginner, intermediate and advanced trips so that you’ll be riding with peers of similar abilities. Family trips welcome all abilities. To brush up your skills, try guest ranches, whose instructors help you practice on the trail.
- Do you want to gallop around the globe? Choose from Highland ponies in Scotland, Arabians in Morocco or Tennessee Walking Horses in the Appalachians. Consider all types of terrain — mountains, savannahs, beaches — and don’t limit yourself to summer. Think snow riding or driving a horse-drawn sleigh.
- What do you want to do when you’re not in the saddle? Some people want to ride all day. Others prefer blending horse adventures with fishing, cooking classes, wine tasting, cultural sight-seeing, hiking or kayaking.
- Where will you rest your head? Sleep under the stars like a cowboy, travel from inn to inn on horseback, or pick a home base such as a ranch house or wilderness lodge and make day trips from there.
- What’s your budget? Prices for equi-adventures range from less than $100 to thousands, depending on where you go, length of stay and accommodations (the cheapest options are half-day rides during a vacation). Keep in mind that most packages do not include airfare to your destination, or additional expenses such as on-your-own meals, gratuities or optional activities.
For a list of equitrekking outfitters and to learn about trekking with other animals, see the Web Extras, below.
The Beauty of the Beast
Horses aren’t the only animals that can take you trekking. Here are a few others worth checking out.
- Camels: No trip to the Sahara Desert is complete without a bouncy camel trek — the traditional mode of transport for Berber nomads. Ride for a day or take a two-week journey across the sands of Morocco.www.cameltrekking.com
- Cows: Who can resist saddling up a Holstein in eastern Switzerland? The Bolderhof organic farm lets guests groom the cows and then take a three-hour ride across fields and meadows near the Biber and Rhine Rivers.www.myswitzerland.com/en/offer-Accommodations_Others-FarmOffers-319358.html
- Dogs: Man’s best friend is eager to tow you through the snow on a dogsled. Learn to mush the team yourself on a snow-camping or winter lodge adventure — or go with a driver for a wintry day trip. www.dogsledding.com
- Llamas: These sure-footed natives of the Andes Mountains will carry your gear and provisions through the roughest of terrain, leaving you unencumbered as you hike. Llama pack trips are popular in the western United States. www.llamaadventures.com (New Mexico)
Saddle up for a horseback-riding adventure! Here are just a few outfitters to consider to lead the way.
- CowboyLife.com: Provides a directory of Western-style rides and guest ranches in the United States and Canada. www.cowboylife.com
- Equitours: Offers horseback riding vacations on six continents, including inn-to-inn, wilderness and ranch trips. 800-545-0019; www.equitors.com.
- Equitrekking: Darley Newman, host of the PBS travel series Equitrekking, researches horseback adventures and blogs about them at www.equitrekking.com.
- Frontier Pack Train: Hosts backcountry camping trips in California’s Sierra Nevadas. 888-437-6853; www.frontierpacktrain.com
- Gordon’s Guide: Lists equine holidays in North and South America and Europe.www.horsebackadventures.com
- Hidden Trails: Organizes equestrian vacations around the world, including inn-to-inn rides, pack trips, and ride-and-fish opportunities. 888-987-2457; www.hiddentrails.com