Being born in the year of the snake when I absolutely hate snakes was a cruelly ironic twist of fate. Last year, my year, was a confusing mix of incredibly beautiful experiences yet also frustrating and stressful moments. I’m hoping that this new year – the Year of the Horse will be more stable (pun definitely intended)!
Dubai, United Arab Emirates
2 hour desert ride
300 AED (about £50)
Experienced riders only (for this ride)
One of the best riding experiences of my life was in Dubai on a desert hack with the Dubai Polo and Equestrian Club. The ranch is designed like a Andalucian Hacienda, the yellow walls are topped with reddish brown terracotta tiles and the building wraps around a courtyard at the back. Large pools of turquoise water, complete with fountains, accompany the palm trees and add to the feeling of opulence. I grew up in Spain, so, despite the obvious newness of the building, I immediately felt at home.
The ride was advertised as only suitable for experienced riders and that is definitely true. Once we exited the compound, skirted around some wire fencing and crossed a road, it was two hours of non stop cantering.
The horses were all very alert and responded well to my directions (as opposed to just following behind the lead horse). I was riding a bay thoroughbred cross and the instructor was on a buckskin Arabian cross – both very beautiful horses. They use English saddles and helmets are obligatory and provided.
The wind forms beautiful dunes out of the sand so the ride is a constant undulation, up and down. The horses run fast, as if caught and carried by the wind and the sand sprays up behind their flying hooves.
It is said that Allah made the Arabian horse from the south wind, saying, ‘I create thee, Oh Arabian… I give thee flight without wings.‘
If you’re in Dubai and you want a short little cheap ride head to Dubai Historic Village, where you can ride for just AED10 (£1.60). I don’t know whether it was just because the horse’s owner couldn’t speak English, but there didn’t seem to be a time limit on my ride!
1 hour beach & jungle tailored ride
RM240 (about £44)
Island Horses is a riding stables but also a breeding centre for Malaysian Arabian horses. The family that run the stables (led by Hamzah) take part in endurance competitions around the world, and the quality of their horses is evident.
I contacted Island Horses in advance with a very specific request. As I have been riding for 21 years I didn’t want the usual slow walk on a lovely but bored horse that you normally get at holiday riding centres. I asked them if they could give me a purebred horse and requested to ride bareback and without the madatory helmet. They were very accommodating and asked to meet me before to ascertain my ability. I had to sign a disclaimer for insurance purposes, which I was more than happy to do.
Laila, a thoroughbred was a delight to ride, she responded to the slightest touch, and had a very comfortable gait (which is helpful when riding bareback). The ride itself was so beautiful – first we trekked through the rainforest and then finally we reached the beach. I was a bit worried at first because the sky had become stormy and it was very windy – not what you’d hope for on a tropical beach ride!
However it made the experience all the more exciting. The air felt almost electric and the horses came to life. We cantered up and down the long beaches, taking breaks occasionally to ride deeper into the water. It was wonderful being able to feel the warm sea water on my legs. The man who rode with me (just the two of us – so felt very personalised) was incredibly friendly. He took a lot of photos and even offered to take a video of me which is such a wonderful memento of the occasion.
For an experienced rider, this was one of the best rides of my life. However given how attentive Hamzah is, I can easily imagine that the rides for beginners are also very special. The Criollo horses they have for their less experienced riders were beautiful and very well trained. I think it is worth going to visit even if you don’t want to ride because they have some stunning Arabian horses.
The Vistas Reales Stables near Colmenar Viejo in Madrid has been my home from home for the past 9 years. It is honestly one of the best stables I have been to in the world, with great teaching, inspiring riders and some of the best horses I’ve ever had the priviledge to ride.
It is run by Julian Cancela and his two sons Javier and Daniel. Julian is the ultimate horse whisperer, he has travelled all around the world riding horses and has brought back not just foreign saddles but an incredible amount of knowledge. He welcomes new visitors astride a giant white Lippizaner horse called Atila, who bows as Julian tips his ever present cowboy hat.
The stables is situated in the mountains, overlooking the Santillana Lake, and the views definitely match the name – Vistas Reales means regal views in Spanish! The stables is surrounded by wild land which is the perfect place to escape to if you fancy leaving the arena – in spring the long grass blossoms into a host of wild flowers! Regular group excursions are organised through the fields. These range from an hour to a whole day, and can include lunch.
There are a range of horses at the ranch, from shetland ponies to mustangs, lippizaners, a couple of thoroughbred types and arabs; however the majority of the horses are PRE horses – Pura Raza Española. Until you have ridden a Spanish horse, I don’t think you can say you have experienced the beauty of riding. These gods amongst men are perfectly curved and made of muscle – they go from zero to one hundred in a second and you can hear their engines purr. They weren’t however designed for racing, more for dancing, and you can do beautiful things while in the saddle.
Horses aren’t just a job here, but a way of life and are incorporated into all aspects of the Cancela family life. One of the big events at the stables is the Cabalgata de Reyes (Cavalcade of Magi) – a traditional festival in Spain which involves the three kings in their coaches parading through the town. The riders at Vistas Reales can choose to take part, and dressed in Roman costume astride their favourite horses, they join in the parade!
Javier juggles his time teaching students and training horses with time spent working in films as a stunt rider!
If you live in Madrid, or even if you’re visiting and would like a ride on your holiday, I strongly recommend this place! There’s a bus that goes to Colmenar Viejo from Madrid city centre and if you contact the stables in advance I’m sure they’d be happy to send someone to pick you up.
Circolo Ippico Binza Campus
+39 339 335 9353
The Circolo Ippico Binza Campus organises a range of treks at reasonable prices (the treks range from 2 hours to a full day out) and the instructors also speak English. You ride up away from the main town of Bosa, up into the hills and the vineyards and there is an incredible view of the town and the sea below!
Boots and chaps can be borrowed from the school as well as riding hats. The horses tend to be warmbloods, well mannered and reasonably alert! Most of them will be ridden by beginners as well as advanced riders so bear that in mind!
Angkor Wat, Cambodia
30 min ride
Just a little ride – definitely nothing spectacular in terms of the riding itself, however I feel it qualifies for this list just because of the location. It’s a rare experience to be able to canter around a ruined temple! I wrote a more detailed blog post about the experience titled ‘Angkor Wat from the Saddle‘.
Again, don’t expect the men to speak much English! I somehow managed to convey that I didn’t want him to lead me round on a rope and took off alone (for all I know though, he may have thought I was trying to steal his horse though). I was wearing flip flops at the time so had to ride barefoot.
During my travels I have stumbled across horses unexpectedly, I have researched for months in advance to find the best place to ride. Other times I have just asked hostel/hotel owners who owns horses in the area!
There are many different ways to find a good stables while on holiday but I hope my suggestions above will make things a little easier for you! Next on my wishlist is to visit the Tierra Chamahua ranch in Mexico – from the photos it could just be the most beautiful place on Earth!
Happy Year of the Horse! Happy riding!