The Great Escape: The Benefits of a Vacation on Horseback

Here is one thing to think about when planning a vacation: horseback riding vacation takes you where no car, train, or cell phone tower can travel. 

"You're out in the middle of the wilderness; you're on a horse. There is a lot of tranquility. You're getting that authentic feeling of what people would have been like when they were first coming to the country. It is hard to recreate that," says Sundance Topham, spokesperson for British Columbia Guest Ranchers Association. Beyond the unspoiled, picturesque wilderness, there is an added element according to Bayard Fox, the founder of Equitours, a horseback riding company with trips on six continents. "One of the biggest things is that you are interacting with an animal," Fox says. "You are in harmony with another living creature, and you have a situation where you have to build trust - no other vacation requires that kind of relationship."

To start building that relationship, and likely one of the greatest vacations you've ever had, consider the following:


Horseback riding vacations are not limited to just the U.S. - and they are not limited to the traditional "Western" theme that you normally associate with them. Yes, there are plenty of dude ranches out West, but they are also in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and Mexico, and there are unique riding possibilities around the world. "People are surprised that they can ride from castle to castle in Europe, stay in them and live as the ancients did, or go from winery to winery in California, or gallop with zebra and giraffe in Kenya, or ride from palace to palace in India," says Fox. These worldly trips are perfect for people who want the horseback riding vacation without the ranch and cattle.


For many, vacation-time options are limited and usual are taken in the summer months to coordinate with their children's school break. Ranches at higher elevations are better for summertime trips. They open later in spring and close earlier in fall than more southern, lower elevation destinations, which are better suited for spring, fall, or even winter. Charlie Henry, the executive director of Colorado Dude & Guest Ranch Association, suggests going to a Colorado dude ranch from June to August, but says that in the off-season, ranches offer more adult-oriented weeks with themes from gourmet food to writing or photography clinics. Another alternative is to take a winter trip, complete with snowmobile tours, cross-country skiing, and cozying up to a fire in the lodge.


Is this a family vacation? Are the grandparents invited? Or is it a romantic vacation for two? Either way, who is coming can weigh heavily on what type of experience will be right for you. Most ranches take children, but some have age limits. In Colorado, children start riding at age six, according to Henry, but children's programs start around three. For children under three, Henry says you may pay extra; it's more of a babysitting situation. "If you're a family and all your kids are below three, I'd honestly try and talk you out of doing it," says Henry. The riding abilities of your party members are also a determining factor. "If you are looking for a more rugged experience and you've never ridden a horse before, you've got to be practical," says Topham. "If you've never done it before, try and plan for something that will be comfortable and enjoyable."

Check out what riding levels are needed for the trip. Most ranches can handle a gamut of experience levels, so more advanced riders will not be bored and people with no background can also stay, learn, and participate. Equitours does not have an age cut-off, but rather bases everything on skill. "You can have a 10-year-old with excellent skills and an in-shape 70-year-old all on the same trip," says Fox. But that's not to say that children who are not as skilled can't be together with the family. For example, the company's trip in Kenya requires more experience because of the dangerous animals; but even then, children can come along with more-skilled parents in Land Rovers. 


Ranches have a range of participation and lodging choices. You can visit a more rigorous, hands-on working dude ranch, or pamper yourself at a resort dude ranch with on-site facilities including spa, fitness center, and swimming pool. Also, consider how to spend time with your horse. Some ranches will assign you a horse to take out for a ride at your leisure, while others have scheduled outings with guides. And check out the other activities, as well. "So many things involved with these ranches go beyond horseback riding," says Topham. Hiking, biking, white-water rafting, fishing, and panning for gold are just a snippet of the assortment ranches offer.


Horseback riding vacations are not the cheapest trips out there. So, consider budget when planning your vacation. Research a variety of ranches/vacations, comparing costs with included amenities, lodging, cuisine, etc. Maybe you don't need the spa and first-class lodging, and you would rather sleep under the stars and eat fireside. Some companies like Equitours have consultants that know the excursions intimately and can suggest the best trip for you and your budget.

Taking a horseback riding vacation sweeps you off your workday feet and up into the saddle. It can help renew bonds with your spouse, children, friends, or just yourself. "People adopt our ranches," says Henry. "They begin to feel like 'this is my ranch.' They know the staff; they get to know their horse; they get to know each other again." Horseback riding vacations are a great way to experience old traditions and wonderful introductions to new cultures, says Fox, "Plus, you already share a common love of horses with the people on the trip and the people you meet along the way."

Horseback riding journeys have the same effect on novice and experts alike. "You come back recharged," says Henry. Discover how many hours there are in a day when you aren't sitting in rush hour, stuck in a four-hour meeting or watching mindless television; instead, try traveling by horse, sitting for hours by a crackling fire, and taking in scenery only a few will have the chance to encounter.