Article from Getaway magazine, February, 2005
TOP 10 HORSE TREKS OF THE WORLD
Top 10 horse treks in the world Passionate horse rider and inveterate traveller Julie Miller mounts up for 10 outrides of epic beauty on five continents.
1. THE CAMARGUE, FRANCE
In terms of organisation, infrastructure and quality, France is considered one of the premier riding destinations in the world. There are well-organised tours available in every region exploring small villages and walled towns, riding through vineyards, forests and the hunting grounds of magnificent chateaux. The countryside is peaceful and unspoiled, the pace decadently relaxed, and the French wines and regional specialties tempt riders to linger.
A couple of tours stand out for their exquisite scenery and riding potential. In the Loire Valley in Central France you can live the life of a pre-Revolutionary aristocrat, riding from castle to castle and being pampered on a grand scale in historic private chateaux. If the modern French notion of liberty and equality is more your speed, the freedom of an unguided tour in the foothills of the Pyrenees may be of greater appeal to you. This requires a spirit of independence as you set out on your own, guidebook and map in hand, with your horse as your loyal companion. The French call this randonnée liberté, a free-range style of touring they have perfected on their well-marked network of bridle paths and trails.
Further south, the warm, golden sun of the Spanish borderlands beckons as does the classic scenery and sensual delights of Provence, a region that has inspired artists and writers for generations. Most evocative of all is the Camargue, where a horseback tour is your passport beyond the tourist façade into the world of the ‘cowboys’ who live in this wonderland.
Black bulls and white horses
La Camargue is the wide, marshy delta of the Rhône River; a spongy, fragile fretwork of sea and silt carried from the Swiss Alps. Large portions of this wetland, which covers 130 square kilo-metres, is designated as a reserve; a habitat rich in animal and bird life, including marsh and sea birds, waterfowl, birds of prey and flamingos.
The human history of this sparsely populated environment is one of an incessant struggle against nature, attempts to contain the salty waters and transform the inhospitable terrain into productive farmland. The land has been cultivated since the Middle Ages, drained, fertilised and protected by low dykes. Over the years, the region has successfully produced rice, grain and even grapes; but by far the biggest in-dustry is the production of salt, with salt pans and pyramids adding a strange, somewhat extraterrestrial appearance to the coastal landscape.
This is also cattle territory, the domain of black bulls – the most iconic symbol of the Camargue tradition. These enormous animals with their lyre-shaped horns and fierce demeanour are raised both for meat and the bullring, where they are revered with a passion. These semi-wild beasts roam free in herds, grazing on stretches of land made hard by salt and the sun.
Living alongside the black bulls are the famous white Camargue horses, a distinctive breed officially recognised only in 1978. They have inhabited these swamplands since time immemorial. Some say the bulls and horses migrated together from Asia; others say it’s one of Europe’s original breeds, a descendant of the horse depicted in prehistoric cave paintings at Lascaux in Southern France.
Whatever its origins, the Camargue horse has adapted perfectly to its harsh environment, feeding off salty grasses, water reeds and goosefoot, a tough plant that most other grazing animals cannot digest. Never stabled, it lives permanently outdoors in roaming herds, enduring the incredible heat of summer and the bone-chilling winds that whip off the Alps in winter.
Born dark brown or black, the Camargue horse becomes white with maturity, its light hue a defence against the sun’s burning rays and a natural mosquito repellent. These small, sturdy, heavily muscled animals have incredible stamina, yet in the arena, they are nimble and agile with a sharp turn of foot and great acceleration.
It’s the opportunity to ride these amazing, hard-working cow ponies under traditional conditions that makes the treks organised by Anna Widstrand from World Horse Riding so appealing. The horses she uses are ridden in the traditional Camargue manner – Western style, with long stirrups and reins held in one hand. The saddles are of the local design, deep-seated and comfortable with caged stirrups to prevent the foot from slipping through.
Anna leads rides on two cattle ranches and into the pine forests and beaches of La Petite Camargue, as well as l’Étang du Fangassier, a lagoon where flamingos nest.
Setting off from comfortable hotel accommodation close to Les Saintes Maries de la Mer, the first destination is the cattle ranch of Mas des Barnacles where riders may join the local cowboys performing their daily cattle duties, including cutting and calf branding. Later the focus shifts to Mas de la Belugue, a ranch belonging to one of the Camargue’s oldest cattle families. Here, you can ride among herds of bulls, participate in amusing horseback games, and visit herds of Camargue mares and colts grazing in the marshlands. These treks also feature great beach riding with 20 kilometres of dunes, sand and hard-packed clay flats for the horses to have free rein.
Trek: seven days. Riding ability: moderate to experienced. Season: April, June and September. Horses: Camargue. Tack: Local Western style. Contact: World Horse Riding, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, http://www.worldhorseriding.com.
2. FORESTS & BEACHES OF ANDALUCIA, SPAIN
Andalucia offers a rich cultural and historical environment for riding, not to mention its esteemed horses. The Los Alamos horse trek offers fast-paced riding through forest trails, past coastal reserves, along windswept sandy beaches and up into rolling hills along ancient drovers’ roads and cattle tracks.
Trek: eight days. Riding ability: intermediate. Season: year round. Horses: Andalucian, Andalucian cross, Welsh Cob. Tack: English. Contact: Los Alamos Equestrian Holi-days, http://www.losalamosriding.co.uk.
3. SLIGO, IRELAND
There is probably nowhere else in the world that caters so readily to the international horse-riding populace. There are many opportunities for trail riding, cross-country jumping and dressage, all combined into affordable and enticing holiday packages including accommodation, horse hire and tuition. The seven-day Sligo trail explores the coastline, hills, lakes and villages of Sligo and Leitrim counties.
Trek: eight days. Riding ability: strong intermediate, independent riding skills necessary. Season: April to November. Horses: Irish Hunter, Connemara. Tack: English. Contact: Equitrek, http://www.equitrek.com.au.
4. PALACES AND FORTS OF RAJASTHAN, INDIA
Although India is a country better known for its holy cows than its divine horses, it offers the joy of riding gallant and spirited horses while experiencing the genuine warmth of the Indian people and experiencing a complex and fascinating culture.
Trek: three to 12 days. Riding ability: experienced. Season: October to February. Horses: Marwari. Tack: English and Indian military. Contact: Royal Equestrian and Polo Centre, http://www.dundlod.com.
5. HURUNUI BACKCOUNTRY, NEW ZEALAND
Trek through remote landscapes on public trails inaccessible to vehicles, sleeping rough and travelling light.
Trek: to 10 days. Riding ability: some experience preferable. Season: October to April. Horses: Station hack, Connemara. Tack: Local Western and English. Contact: Ridenz, http://www.ridenz.com.
6. SNOWY MOUNTAINS, AUSTRALIA
Delight in endless panoramas of wild-flower-studded grasslands, dramatic rocky outcrops, crystal-clear streams and groves of stark snow gums while the rest of the continent swelters in the summer haze.
Trek: three to six days. Riding ability: novice to advanced. Season: October to April. Horses: Australia stock horse, Thoroughbred, mixed breed, Brumbies. Tack: Australian stock saddles and English. Contact: Reynella Kosciuszko Rides, http://www.reynellarides.com.au or The Willows,http://www.dinnerplaintrailrides.com.
7. BITTERROOT ROUNDUP, UNITED STATES
Inside every horse-loving person there lurks the heart of a cowboy, the desire to gallop off on a trusty steed in wide open spaces, unfettered by fences, roads and artificial barriers. This romantic ideal is at the core of ‘dude ranch’ culture.
Trek: eight days. Riding ability: Novice to advanced. Season: June to October. Horses: Arab, local ranch-bred. Tack: Western. Contact: Bitterroot Ranch, http://www.bitterroot.com.
8. PATAGONIA, CHILE
The relentless icy wind may peel your contact lenses off your eyes, but even without them you’ll get the feeling of being at the end of the world in Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia.
Trek: 10 days. Riding ability: capable of galloping. Season: December to March. Horses: Criollo. Tack: Chilean. Contact: Equitrek,http://www.equitrek.com.au.
9. OKAVANGO DELTA, BOTSWANA
Horse safaris have a distinct advantage over those conducted on foot – you’re on a mobile viewing platform.
Trek: six to 11 days. Riding ability: intermediate to advanced. Season: March to November. Horses: Anglo-Arab, Thoroughbred. Tack: English. Contact: Okavango Horse Safaris, http://www.okavangohorse.com.
10. NOMADS OF KHENTII, MONGOLIA
Immerse yourself in a nomadic way of life that has remained little-changed since the conquests of Genghis Khan.
Trek: 14 days. Riding ability: all levels. Season: May to September. Horses: Mongolian. Tack: Mongolian and Russian cavalry. Contact: Karakorum Expeditions Mongolia, http://www.gomongolia.com.