I’ve been lucky enough to ride horse on three different Hawaiian Islands, as well as in the Dominican Republic. I’ve also rode mules to the bottom of the Grand Canyon, across the Colorado River and back up again.
Although these guided trail rides are often in some fantastic country, they leave you feeling slightly guilty. Not only the cost, but also the fact that you have horses at home that need to be ridden. However, chances are you might not ever get to that part of the world again, especially to ride horses. Sometimes you have to just go for it.
But I do have a few hints if you are ever lucky enough to experience one of these rides.
#1) Go with a spirit of adventure. When you arrive at your destination, it might not always look like the glossy photo on the brochure. Be ready for anything.
#2) If you are in resort country (think tropics) no need to pack your usual riding boots in your suitcase. Usually (but see # 4) the horses on these rides are plumb gentle and know the trails, so just throw in a lightweight pair of jeans and some old tennis shoes. Often there is a bit of a hike involved.
#3) Eat a good meal before you go. Although some outfits offer more expensive dinner rides (and I’m sure they serve you lots of food on those) many are an easy 45 minute ride one way to a stopping point, a ten minute walk to a waterfall (where you can go swimming – if you’re up for riding back in a wet suit), and lunch - which might consist of just cheese, a few grapes, a couple of cookies and a bottle of water.
#4) There is usually a little box to check on the sign-in form where you state your riding level, i.e. Beginner (I know nothing about horses and in fact they terrify me), Intermediate (I’ve ridden enough to think I know what I’m doing) or Advanced (I’ve been riding since before you were born, raise and train horses for a living, nothing scares me, what have you got?) Always, Always, ALWAYS swallow your pride and mark BEGINNER. This way you will be assigned the most honest, dead broke, trustworthy horse in the whole string. Do not, absolutely DO NOT mark Advanced rider. If you do, heaven help you and I take no responsibility for what happens. Because sure enough, they’ll give you one of their – well, here’s what happened to me:
Quite a few years ago my mother and I decided to ride horses on the North side of the Big Island of Hawaii. The brochure pictured a hidden canyon with waterfalls flowing down the surrounding cliffs. It sounded like a grand adventure. Our pickup point was at a gift shop in a tiny, remote town. Then the 8-10 riders in our group climbed into a jeep where we navigated a pot-holed one-lane road that twisted and turned downhill into the jungle. After several miles of this, the jeep turned abruptly into a cleared area with a tiny shack, a corral made of two strands of sagging barb wire, and a few posts to which an assortment of horses stood saddled. Where was the ranch? The buildings? The bathroom? We gulped.
But the horses were fat and shiny and their feet in good condition. A wiry young guide in shorts and a t-shirt came out to size us up and estimate our abilities. No boxes to check or forms to fill out on this ride. Several people stated how well they did (or did not) ride and were matched with mounts. When the young man came to me, I started to mumble “yes, I can ride a little . . .”
“Oh, she’s an expert rider,” my mother gushed, as mothers tend to do. “She’s won ribbons and trophies and trained lots . . .”
I tried to catch my mom’s eye to shush her. Please, Mom, I’m thinking. No, please don’t. You’re going to jinx it.
But the damage was done. “Expert, huh?” said the young guide. He found a very gentle horse for my mother. And he brought over Amigo for me.
I sized my horse up. A big, muscular, bright sorrel quarter horse with a kind eye, he was obviously from registered stock and far nicer than any of the other horses in the string. How did I get so lucky?
I mounted up and as soon as the procession started, I knew why I had been assigned to Amigo. Before we even left the staging area, Amigo pulled his one and only trick – backing up as fast as he could go. I walloped him hard on the rear end, growled at him, and figured that once we started down the trail, that would be the end of it.
The ride took us back out onto the main road. Down, down we went, with high cliffs on one side, and a broad green valley appearing on the other. Avoiding the deep chuck-holes and the occasional jeep crossing our path, all the horses seemed gentle and willing. Amigo walked out well, except that about every few hundred feet or so, he’d have another “backing” attack.
And no matter what was behind him, he’d have a “reverse” attack more quickly than any horse I’ve ever rode, backing up into other horses, people, creeks, cliffs. Some of the riders in the group shrieked in horror at his antics, but I’d wallop Amigo again, turn him this way and that, untrack him and urge him forward, and eventually he’d start out in the right direction again, with me grumbling under my breath.
We waded through numerous streams, past loose horses turned out to eat the lush grass that grew everywhere, and farmers tending taro fields by hand. We picked fresh ripe mangos growing wild in the jungle from our saddles. And sure enough, Amigo acted up, every single time, just when I thought he was done with his shenanigans.
Obviously this was a good horse that had grown sour, and had pulled this kind of nonsense with beginning trail riders over and over and over again. Probably most reputable companies would not have kept a horse such as Amigo in their string. And probably I could have asked for another horse, but by then we were at the bottom of the canyon. Besides, I didn’t want that darned old coyote of a horse to think he was going to get away with it.
All of the other horses on the ride did fine, and we all made it back in one piece. And even though I’d spent the entire ride retraining this spoiled horse, I knew he would try that behavior with absolutely every new rider on his back. But even with Amigo’s misdeeds, it was worth every penny to be able to ride through that hidden valley, surrounded by cascading waterfalls. It was truly a spectacular and magical place.
So don’t hesitate to take one of these guided rides when you are vacationing. But just remember. No matter how good of a rider you are - never, NEVER state that you are an EXPERT rider. You might get a horse like Amigo.
I am lucky enough to have gotten a free vacation (I gotta pay for my plane ticket) to ireland for a horseback vacation, so long as I become their personal vacation journalist. Fine by me!
Sydney, that is awesome! How do I join!? Ireland is apparently THE nicest place on earth to ride!
For string horses, I've had my bads with them. I had taken that horse for 2 rides prior, but this time, they put his mortal enemy in the string. He lunged at him, kicked at him, bit at him... anyways... no need to go on! The trail ride went well, until one of the lesser experienced rider dropped their hat. I, being so goo dnatured, went back for the hat, but when we turned to head back, my horse saw that his friends were way close to the barn. He started acting up, I was trying to hold him back, but he blew out in a bucking bronc fit and I fell off... ("Take THAT experienced rider pride!") Broke 3 ribs, hurt my back and shoulder. Got back on the stupid horse and rode to the barn, trotting on the way. I only felt the pain about 1 hour later... and it was excrutiating!
Just goes to show that some days are off with horses too! OR the horses just weren't broke enough to work that way. Never returned!
Linda--that cracked me up. I totally second your advice--say you're a beginner. I used to work for a pack station and I know the drill. Long after I left their employ, I came back with friends for a pack trip. I had to ride out early, due to a committment, and would be riding out alone. The pack station owner, who knew me and knew I could ride, gave me a horse named Kip. We got along fine, but on my solo ride out (about 8 hours), I noticed Kip seemed a little looky--he even tried to run off with me a few times. Lo and behold, when I came upon one of the packers, leading a dude string down the trail, the guy, who didn't know me, looked aghast. "What are you doing on Kip?" he said. Turned out Kip was just four years old, barely green broke, and only the experienced packers rode him. This guy could not believe they'd turned me loose on Kip to ride through the mountains alone. I got back quite safely, but after that, when we took pack trips up there, I always said I wanted a gentle horse (!)
Sydney - Good for you! Some close friends took a multi-day ride cross country in Ireland, and the pictures were fabulous. Maybe I'll get them to do a guest post on here with pictures. I believe the horses were great on that trip.
OneDandyHorse - Ouch, ouch, ouch. I am wincing reading your post. What a horrible experience.
Laura - yeah, you never know what manner of horse you might be given, and the worst part is the kids that often work these rides might have a sick sense of humor. Glad you made it across the mountains in one piece.
In the few cases where someone else tattled on my riding abilities, I've managed to convince the station manager that I want to look at the scenery, not "work a horse."
Good advice! It's true, sometimes you just want to enjoy the scenery and not be stuck retraining a sour horse.
I will remember that when/if I go on a riding vacation. My dream is to ride a Lusitano or Andalusian on the beach in Portugal or Spain and/or take a dressage lesson.
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