Best Of Travel

Stephen Bailey
Explore the world on horseback
Explore the world on horseback
Stephen Bailey

I am not very good at riding a horse. I just love the adventure of it.

But there are many places around the world where it’s possible to have a riding experience, even if you have no training and no inherent horse riding skills.

And firstly, I want to say that, yes, I cannot ride a horse.

Guides laugh at me when they see me riding a horse. Because I learned to ride a horse in Mongolia, where they ride their horses cowboy style. They sit up and with one hand they’re swinging a rope. And the horses — they’re big ponies — are built for stamina — they can run long, but they don’t run very fast.

So you have to keep an upright posture to balance on a cantering horse, and this makes it look like I’m going to fall off — but it’s just how I learned to ride a horse in Mongolia.

Mongolia is a great destination for riding because it’s just open steppes.

It’s perfect if you don’t know how to ride a horse, because the horses don’t go very fast, but they are continually moving, cantering all day long.

So it’s a lot of fun.

You get that feeling of speed, but also you can go a long way. You can travel by horse, spend the night in a gher, travel again by horse, keep going.

I did it for five days. And after five days, my body was aching — but I learned how to ride a horse.

That experience was completely different to riding horses with the gaucho in in Argentina.

Gauchos ride beautiful, big horses, and they ride cowboy style — but a different cowboy style. And those horses run at serious speed. I was found out to be a pretty incompetent horse rider — I was just grabbing on, hoping I wouldn’t fall off.

But it was great fun and exhilaration.

It was part of an experience that gives you an insight into gaucho life. You ride the horses around the farm, check out the cattle and then have a huge barbecue, with lots of food and wine.

It’s a whole-day experience, which you can do outside Buenos Aires, outside Mendoza, further south in Argentina, and also in Chile.

Now moving to Africa, did you know you can go on a horseback safari, cantering along with the zebra herds?

Your horse walks past incredible animals — giraffe, kudu, springbok, wildebeest, buffalo.

You can do horseback safaris in many private concessions and private reserves across Africa. Usually you can do them in destinations where there are not many lions, because horses are food for the predators, so you will generally do horseback safaris in landscapes where the big and dangerous predators are not found in abundance.

It’s a great experience.

Because safari is not always about seeing the big five. It’s not always about going looking for lions and leopards or cheetahs.

Safari is also about connecting with all the other animals.

And a great way to do that is on horseback, because then you’re part of nature. Horses move silently, unlike a vehicle, so the other animals look upon you and your horse as just another couple of animals.

This allows you to get a bit closer to them.

If you do want to do it in a land with dangerous animals as well, and you are an experienced horseback rider, you can ride a horse in the Serengeti in Tanzania, with the great wildebeest migration.

This takes place in an area called Grumeti, in the west of the Serengeti. You can also do it around the Okavango Delta in Botswana.

You can go on multi-day horse rides through lion territory, but for these I’d emphatically recommend that you be proficient at horse riding. Because if your horse gets startled by an elephant, it’s going to be dangerous if you don’t know how to handle it.

So these are not destinations for beginners.

A horse riding safari is obviously a completely different experience to horse riding through the vineyards of Tuscany or of France.

These are places where your horse goes slowly, so you don’t need previous riding experience. You are just taking it easy, enjoying the landscapes — and then going for a glass of wine.

My favourite horse riding experience, which is also one of my favourite travel experiences ever, was to ride for 11 days across Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan is in Central Asia, bordering China and Kazakhstan. It’s a country of beautiful mountains, where the people live on horseback.

Through most of the country, people travel and get around not by car, but on horses.

I was very fortunate to do an 11-day horse ride, connecting semi-nomadic families and organized by a company that does something called community-based tourism.

So the horses I rented were from a community, and a little bit of the money I was spending went to the people who were arranging the horses.

Then each night I stayed, I would stay with a family — and it was all arranged in advance. The families with whom people like me stayed were always rotated, so each visitor coming through on one of those horse treks was spreading money to different families.

After five days, I felt like quitting.

I was just sore. I could not walk. Five days on horseback are just pure pain.

But what was amazing is that after seven days, my body had got used to it, and I felt like I could ride horses forever.

After 11 days, I wanted to go keep going.

It was a beautiful experience — just being out in the wilderness, riding, with no vehicles, no roads. Connecting different parts of nature, finding a connection with the horse I was on and with the Kyrgyz people.

And there are so many other places to go horse riding around the world.

Because as I said before, what is great about horse riding is that you don’t need to be an experienced rider to have most of these experiences.

And they can be so different.

It can be a quiet ride for two hours on a leisurely Friday afternoon — or it can be a 10-day experience that is the vacation in itself.

By Stephen Bailey. Edited by Beatrice Becker.

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