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Horseback Riding in Horseback riding in Cocora Valley Colombia

Horseback riding in Cocora Valley, Colombia

Like most little girls, I fell in love with horses when I was a child. Whether it was because they came the closest to a real live unicorn, or because they were just beautiful in their own right, I read about them, wrote about them, dreamed of a horse riding adventure and eventually learned to ride. Well, sorta kinda.

I’m no horsewoman, I freely admit, despite having been on horses (and thrown off them) more times than most people. But my lack of proficiency in the saddle hasn’t stopped me from horse trekking whenever the opportunity presents itself when I’m travelling. And exploring a country from the back of a horse can result in unique experiences in some cases, and some wonderful memories in all cases. Here are 9 standouts for me:

 

1.  Riding Arabians in Egypt

Riding an Arabian in Giza

Who wouldn’t dream of getting on the back of a white Arabian horse and galloping into the desert with Egypt’s iconic pyramids as a backdrop? It sounds romantic, so of course, when I was there many years ago, I planned to include it on my must-do list. Unfortunately, as anyone who has been to Egypt will tell you, the pyramids are not in the middle of the Sahara as you might imagine, but instead are practically in Giza’s back yard. So a horse riding adventure behind these monuments sounds more exotic and remote than it actually is once you are there.

Not taking away from the horses, which were beautiful, and the photo op, which is pretty impressive, I still wanted a little more from my experience than just the token tourist ride. I asked around and a few days later, booked a longer ride from a stable where we were able to ride out to some less famous pyramids (Egypt has about 80) that were much more isolated; in fact, we felt like we were the only ones who had been there in days – or more likely, weeks. The bonus? After arriving at the archaeological site, we got permission from the onsite caretaker to walk around the grounds, and later, even had the chance to share an impromptu hookah with him.

Jane hookah-ing with the locals

Obviously he didn’t see many tourists during his day, and that fact alone made the experience one for the books. Having gotten there on horseback made it even better.

 

2. Feeling Like a Kananaskis Cowgirl in Alberta

Calamity Jane

Canada has our fair share of cowboys, and if playing the cowgirl even for a weekend is your ultimate fantasy, what better place to do it than in the high foothills of Alberta?

My BFF Nicole and I felt the same way, so years ago we decided to do the whole City Slicker thing for ourselves. We booked a two-day overnight horse riding adventure up into the high country, organized by Rafter 6 Ranch where we were staying. It was a long ride, 7 to 8 hours each day, and even the owner of the ranch wondered whether these city girls were up to it, but the reward was worth the sore legs and butts. After overnighting in a mountain meadow where we ate by a campfire and woke with the birds the next morning, the final climb brought us up to a plateau with a panoramic view to die for: to the west, the still-snowy Rockies stretched out beside us, and to the east we had an uninterrupted view across the flats to where we could just make out Calgary’s skyline.

The vista looking west into the Rockies – still with snow, even in July

It literally was all downhill from there, but after two days of getting in touch with our inner country gals, Nicole and I felt like we had earned the right to wear our cowgirl hats when we went to Calgary’s Stampede the following week. Ya-hooooo!

Stagecoach gals

3. A Horse Riding Adventure Into Sacred Navajo Lands in Arizona

Walls get higher in Canyon de Chelly as we ride in

The first time I visited Arizona with another horse-loving friend, we both agreed that we wanted to go horseback riding, and made plans to do it in Canyon De Chelly, a National Monument within the boundaries of the Navajo Nation in the northeast of the State. Boasting some of the oldest and most revered Anasazi ruins in the Southwest, Canyon De Chelly has been home to the Navajo and their ancestors for 5,000 years, with small groups still living in the canyon lands today. With its spectacular beauty and spiritual importance to the Navajo, we wanted to take the time to explore the canyon up close and intimately, not from the back of a jeep with a dozen other passengers. In fact, when we told our guide that we didn’t want the typical 1-hour ‘nose-to-tail ride’, but wanted to spend the whole day horse trekking, he got genuinely excited about taking us in deeper to see Antelope House ruins, a part of the canyon where he had grown up alongside these sacred places.

Antelope House, ancient Anasazi ruins in the canyon

“This is no trail ride” he advised us shortly after we entered the canyon’s mouth, and before we knew it, the walls had risen dramatically around us and we were galloping full-out alongside sandstone walls and overhangs. For the next 3 hours, we rode and stopped along the way as our guide pointed out petroglyphs and rock paintings hundreds of years old, until we eventually arrived at the ruins of Antelope House. Thankfully there were no jeeps anywhere to be seen, and we could contemplate this mysterious and ancient site without feeling like we were disturbing the peace of it. Most importantly, having spent 3 hours on horseback to get there, we could respect its remote location that much more – a perspective that a quick and dusty jeep ride just couldn’t offer.

4. Embracing “Pura Vida” in Costa Rica

Henk bending down to stay in the shot

For the nature and adventure lover, Costa Rica offers it all, whether it is hiking the lava flows adjacent to volcanoes, zip-lining through the cloud forest or exploring the jungle by flashlight on a night safari. Being up for it all and more, Henk and I decided to throw in an afternoon of horseback riding, too, while we were staying near the Arenal Volcano.

As it turned out, this ride came with a wonderful surprise: after riding for an hour or so and starting to feel the heat, we stopped at what looked like a hiking trail into a deep gorge. The set of stairs was considerable, but they led to the base of the beautiful 230-foot-high La Fortuna waterfall spilling into a green pool where you could go for a swim!  Sure, we could have taken a drive to get to the same place, and climbed down the same stairs as the other people swimming at the bottom of the falls, but there was something much more adventurous about first climbing onto a horse to get there. (Henk’s wet shorts on the ride back made for a different kind of horse riding ‘adventure’ but I’ll let him tell that story some other time.)

La Fortuna waterfall

5.  Riding into Cocora Valley in Colombia

Cocora Valley Colombia

Cocora Valley sits in a cloud forest in the Andes

Colombia has some of the most beautiful and diverse scenery you’ll find in one country, and one of the most interesting places to go horseback riding here is in Cocora Valley. Located in a cloud forest in the central Cordillera of the Andean mountains, this valley is part of a larger national park alive with all kinds of protected flora and fauna, but the valley is known for one thing in particular: the tallest wax palms in the world. These towering trees can reach up to 200 feet tall (!) and with the mist enveloping them in the early morning, the place looks like something out of the movie Avatar.

What better place to saddle up and explore more? So while some of our group decided to go for a hike (also very popular in the valley), a small group of us mounted up and headed our for a short horse trek into the green hills.

Rural Colombia is definitely horse country, and ranching is a way of life for many, so it’s no surprise that this country knows its way around horses. And while our mounts may not have been the elegant Paso Fino horses that you can find elsewhere in the country, they weren’t shy when it came to navigating the terrain, wet or dry. And in a place like Cocora Valley, surefooted is more valued than fancy footwork.

Crossing waterfall in Cocora valley Colombia

6. Experiencing the Smoothest Ride on a Paso Fino Horse in Peru

Inexperienced riders (especially men!) know that trotting can be very uncomfortable, especially if you aren’t familiar with the technique of ‘posting’ that offsets the bouncy ride. But none of that matters if you get to ride a Paso Fino horse, and South America is a great place to do just that.

Jane on Paso Fino Sacred Valley Peru
Jane on a traditional Peruvian saddle wearing a Kuda straw hat

Paso Fino horses are known for their smooth, natural 4-beat gait, a characteristic that is actually passed down genetically in the breed. The breed started as a blend of different horses (the Barb, Spanish Jennet and Andalusians) but actually emerged as the Paso Fino in two places in the Americas: Puerto Rico and Colombia; from here they were introduced elsewhere in Central and South America, and eventually North America.

The name ‘Paso Fino’ actually means ‘Fine Step’ and these horses were prized for their comfortable ride and endurance. But it wasn’t until I actually rode one of these horses Peru’s Sacred Valley that I understood just how amazing this gait is.

Sitting in the saddle at a trot is like being quickly but gently rocked side to side, without any of the up and down disruption that is typical of other horses’ trotting gaits. Add in the amazing scenery of Peru’s Sacred Valley, and you really can’t have a more amazing trail ride!

TIP: Horseback adventures are available through Sol Y Luna, a stunning Relais & Chateaux property in Peru’s Sacred Valley.

7. Exploring the Tombstone Mountains in the Yukon, Canada

A visit to Canada’s North is a little like taking a step back in time, and in the Yukon in particular, this is part of its charm. (Take Dawson City, for example, with its Old West architecture and the pioneering spirit of its residents.)

So what better way to explore some of the Yukon’s ruggedly beautiful landscapes, like Tombstone Park, than on the back of a horse, just like in the ‘olden days’.

Described as the ‘Patagonia of the North’, the mountains of Tombstone are best viewed either by back-country hiking into the Park, or on horseback (and I’m much better at riding than I am at orienteering!)  And with an outfitter like Tombstone Outfitters, this is not your typical nose-to-tail trail ride.

That being said, there’s no particular experience required to saddle up, and the spectacular views of the landscapes here will be well worth any saddle sores at the end of the ride!

Henk on horseback in Tombstone
Cowboy Henk looks right at home on horseback in Tombstone Park

8. Taking a Horseback Wine Tour in Virginia

What could be better than combining two of your favourite things: a horseback ride and a wine tasting? If that sounds appealing, then you’ll want to head to Virginia’s Horse Country, just outside the town of Charlottesville.

Jane and Ashton with horses at Love sign
Horseback wine tour with Indian Summer Guide Service at Keswick Vineyard, Virginia

Virginia is actually one of the top wine-producing regions in the US, so wine tastings here certainly aren’t new. But one local entrepreneur has brought an entirely new experience to visiting wineries here: Indian Summer Guide Service offers horseback vineyard tours where visitors get to learn about viniculture while riding through a local vineyard.

It truly is the best of both worlds, and will make for a memorable visit that goes beyond just sampling a flight of wines. (And not to worry: you’ll be doing the ride first, and the wine tasting second!)

9. Encountering Wild Horses on an Artillery Field in Italy

One of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve ever had on horseback came while I was living in Italy and a group of friends decided to take part in a 2-day overnight ride. One of our friends, Davide, was training to be a guide, and part of the requirements meant leading a group on a long ride.

It was approaching dusk on the first day, when we came out of the trees into a clearing that had once been used for artillery practice, but was now a grass-covered field. Horses and riders were itching to run, and with the last bit of sun illuminating the grass, we all broke into a gallop.

Our hoofbeats immediately alerted another resident on the far side of the clearing, and Davide, who was in the lead soon found himself facing a wild stallion who had come over to challenge him. Davide called for us to rein in the horses, and keep them calm as the stallion reared up, making a show of protecting what we could now see was a herd of mares behind him. The stallion continued to posture as we gave him and his harem a wide berth and exited the clearing where we picked up our trail again.

La Rocca riders

As amazing as the rest of our ride was, including climbing through valleys to spend the night in a centuries-old castle perched on a rocky hilltop, the highlight of the experience for me will always be a twilight encounter with a herd of wild horses on an abandoned Italian artillery field.

Saddle Up and Giddyup on a Horse Riding Adventure!

Whether you decide to go for a one-hour guided tour around a scenic valley in Colombia, or a longer ride that takes you to epic views of the Rocky Mountains, a horse riding adventure is just that: an adventure. No matter where you may choose to ride (and there are opportunities everywhere in the world) this is the kind of experience that will make any trip more exciting and give you access to places that no bus tour could ever go.

TOP TIP: Plan for a soft landing at the end of your horse riding adventure (preferably with a chilled glass of your favourite adult beverage and a soft duvet to follow). That’s the grownup way to do horseback travel right!

PINTEREST_9 Horseback adventures

Jane with Hat Tanzania

Jane Canapini is a member of the Travel Media Association of Canada and the North American Travel Journalists Association. She established GrownupTravels.com in 2014 to share information and tips based on personal experience so her readers could get the most out of their travels.

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