Avoiding A Bad Riding Experience When Traveling

The Anchor D ranch facility in Alberta, Canada, with picketed horses.
The Anchor D ranch facility in Alberta, Canada, with picketed horses. | Source

Riding On Vacation?

Many people like to ride horses while on vacation. Some go even further and book a specialist riding vacation or riding tour.

Getting in saddle time while in another place, or even another country, sounds like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, most people who do it have at least one horror story about getting to the establishment and finding things not to their liking.

Examples might include underweight, sick, or lame horses. Or bits you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy. Unsafe practices might also occur...such as allowing a teenager to ride a horse that has a medical problem without proper supervision or even telling the rider the problem is there (Yes, this happened to me).

How, then, do you find a good stable, bearing in mind you can't go and look at the place? Here are a few tips and thoughts on the matter.

The Website

The first place most people start looking is the internet. However, the worst establishment can have a fantastic web site. Photos can be doctored or altered to make things look better than they are. Or, they may be taken at the start of the season, before the establishment wears out that year's batch of horses.

If you do look at the photos, it is generally best to ignore whether people are wearing helmets. Although I believe that helmets should be worn every ride, in many parts of Canada and the United States there is still a strong cultural imperative against helmet use. Most dude ranches do not require or provide helmets. In most of Europe helmets are legally mandated, and thus people wearing them only means that the establishment doesn't want to be fined - or even shut down. So, the culture and laws of the area, country and region affect helmet use far more than individual establishment policies.

Do look at the condition of the horses - note that horses that are trained and conditioned for long distance riding will be leaner than most riding horses you see, but they should not have visible ribs, nor should they have the greyhound look of a racehorse. They should look lean, but solid. Pay attention to the condition of any dogs or cats seen in the pictures too.

Do look at whether the customers in the picture are appropriately mounted. People should not be riding horses that are too big or too small. (Do bear in mind that if you are looking in parts of Northern Europe you will see adults mounted on very small horses or ponies. This is particularly true in Iceland. These ponies and small horses are very tough animals quite capable of carrying more weight than the average American horse.)

Look at the overall professionalism of the site - is it cleanly designed, are there a lot of typos? Does it have sparkly glitter all over it? (This is often a bad sign with business sites of any kind).

Customer Reviews

Search for the stable you're interested in on the internet. Look for customer reviews or for blogs and photo blogs from somebody who rode there recently.

Again, look at any photos...horses should be neither excessively skinny nor fat, for example. Read the reviews. People are often willing to say both good and bad things. Do they have anything to say about the suitability of the ride for beginners? What complaints and negative comments are made?

Although it can sometimes be hard to find reviews, barns that are either particularly good or utterly terrible will tend to attract higher numbers of them.

Grand Canyon saddle mules take a break at Indian Garden.
Grand Canyon saddle mules take a break at Indian Garden. | Source

Call Them

This is probably a strange piece of advice for most but call - not email - the stable you intend to ride at before booking.

Don't be afraid to grill them. Ask them how many horses they have. Ask them where they buy most of their horses. (Some of the best dude ranches still breed their own mounts). Ask what happens to their retired horses - one of the most common shady practices is to buy a bunch of horses at auction in the spring, work them until they're pretty much done, then send them back to the auction in the fall.

You can learn a lot from the attitude of whoever is on the phone. Generally, it will be a receptionist or barn manager - but few people work with horses even indirectly without learning to appreciate them.

Find Out Their Safety Rules

Do they provide helmets? (If not I recommend getting your own - a basic schooling helmet costs about $40 and I've even seen them in Wal-Mart. Do NOT wear a bicycle helmet for riding - or vice versa. They are rated to provide specific protection for the specific sport).

What do they say about shoes? A reputable barn will require closed-toed shoes with a bit of a heel. Riding in sneakers is generally a bad idea, especially English.

Reputable barns will also not allow people to wear shorts or the like (unless it's a beach ride and you plan on swimming with the horses). They will provide information about the climate and weather and advice on how to dress. If they recommend gloves, then do not wear normal woolen gloves - either buy proper riding gloves or wear cycling gloves, which are cheaper and work well. Normal gloves, especially natural wool, will slip on the reins.

While you are at it, make sure there are no customs regulations about bringing riding gear into the country. (I recommend disinfecting all used riding gear that cannot be laundered both before and after your trip - especially your boots). Also make sure that their insurance considers helmets from your home country adequate - the safety standards can be slightly different. If unsure, use one of their provided helmets rather than your own.

A good barn cares about two things ahead of their bottom line: The welfare of the horses and the safety of the customers.

Have you ever had a bad experience when horse riding while on vacation?

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