Whether you have lots of experience or you’ve never sat in a saddle before, Atlantic Canada has just the right horseback-riding holiday for you.
Picture yourself riding on horseback through the woods. A light breeze stirs in the green canopy far overhead as a group of men and women on horses wends its way through a stand of evergreen and hardwood trees. The summer sun casts dappled shadows on the loamy forest floor, and the silence is broken only intermittently by the raucous call of a crow, a warning chirp of a squirrel, muffled hoof beats, the jingle of bit rings and an occasional snort from one of the horses.
Breaking out of woods at the top of a hill, you gaze down to view sunlit-crested ocean waves dancing against the seashore. Breathing in deeply the tangy salt air, you shoot a happy grin at the ride leader, who is lounging on her buckskin quarter horse beside you. She gathers up her reins and leads the group down the trail to the beach; you follow her on your snowflake Appaloosa mare. The whole group is going to experience some serious horse wave hopping! It’s a good day for a ride.
Atlantic Canadian equestrians will tell you that there are good rides and there are better rides, but in these parts there are never any bad rides. Not every ride is perfect, of course, but no matter what kind of a mood you were in when you left the barn, you’re bound to feel even better when you get back.
You don’t have to be a horse owner to enjoy the stunning Atlantic Canadian scenery that can be viewed from horseback because there are many places in the region that offer horseback-riding vacations. There are several reasons to explain the allure of such a holiday. Perhaps those who go on them are seeking the exhilaration and joy of young Alec Ramsey as he rode his powerful horse, without saddle or bridle, through the surf on a deserted tropical island in The Black Stallion. Or maybe they crave the excitement of the chase, such as that experienced by Jim Craig and his wily mountain horse, Buck, when they burst through a group of horsemen, leapt over the edge of a steep hill and charged in a headlong rush down the slope after a herd of escaping Brumbies in The Man from Snowy River.
Perhaps it’s the romantic notion of sitting around an evening campfire after a day of riding herd on a passel of ornery critters, as cowboys have done in thousands of western movies. Whatever the reason, there is ample opportunity to live out your dream vacation in Atlantic Canada.
In December of 2004, Peggy MacKinnon of Stratford, P.E.I., went on a week-long horseback-riding vacation with her friend and riding buddy, Audrey Oakley, in Tennessee. Although both are accomplished riders and have owned horses for years, this vacation was a dream come true. “For me, it was seeing countryside I’d never seen before and riding over terrain different from what we’re used to,” says MacKinnon, a recently retired schoolteacher. “We rode for a couple of hours each morning and afternoon and took part in a roundup too.”
Riding vacations can run from basic to luxury. Some stables offer “day camps,” where you stay offsite and spend each day at the stables taking part in a week of activities on the horses there. Other groups offer accommodations in addition to basic riding services. Some teach how to drive a horse in harness rather than ride it. Then there are those that get into the more cerebral aspects of riding, in addition to the physical side, with courses on centered riding, therapeutic touch and the Pat Parelli method of horsemanship.
“The people who attend my riding retreats come for many reasons,” says Olga Comeau of Mandala Riding & Awareness Center (902-665-2101) in Hampton, N.S. Comeau is a Level 4 centered riding clinician who has done an extensive apprenticeship with internationally acclaimed Sally Swift, the developer of Centered Riding in Vermont. With more than 35 years of experience in working with people and horses, she also is a Tellington Touch practitioner and a certified facilitator for Equine Assisted Psychotherapy.
“Some riders come to discover or renew their connection with the Earth and with nature through developing a relationship with horses and exploring the land,” says Comeau. “Others come to improve their riding skills in a joyful non-threatening atmosphere. They find that the emphasis on balance, breathing, centering and intent makes profound changes in their personal lives as well.”
The riders attending Comeau’s programs are roughly a 50/50 split of experienced ones and novices, although it depends on which program they attend. “Some people come because they have always wanted to learn to ride and be with horses and never had that opportunity, or they want to overcome their fear of horses,” she says. “And of course, they come for fun!”
Marnie Mitchell runs Hoofbeat Hill Stables in Middle Musquodoboit on Nova Scotia’s Eastern Shore (902-384-2266). “Those who come here are true enthusiasts,” she says. “They really want to improve their skills while having a stress-free break from everyday life.”
A qualified instructor who owns the operation, Mitchell teaches riding to ages 12 to adult and offers integrated programs such as therapeutic touch or horse-intuitive training as well as tai chi, reiki, belly dancing, homeopathy and herbology. In addition, she offers art and drawing as a means of studying equine conformation and anatomy.
Novice riders, take note
Don’t let the fact that you’ve never ridden before stop you from enjoying what could be one of the best vacations you’ll ever have. Many horseback-vacation spots give rudimentary lessons in riding, horse safety and management; even beginners will gain confidence and skill by the end of the week.
So how long does it take to learn to ride? Like any other sport, it depends on several factors, such as how athletic you are and how dedicated you are to hard work. If you only have a monthly one-hour lesson, it’s going to take you quite a bit longer to learn than if you take a one-hour lesson every week for three months. Then there’s the age factor. Like in most athletics, people who begin riding lessons as young children tend to develop their skills faster than someone who starts as an adult. That said, don’t let your age prevent you from taking riding lessons because they’re something people of any age can enjoy.
Another variable factor is cost, which can range from $260 for a two-day non-residential holiday (meaning you don’t stay at the riding facility) to a week-long riding trip for two that includes accommodations, which can cost as much as $4,200 (plus tax). Whatever your budget, there’s something out there for you.
Philip Elderkin of Alexandra, P.E.I., is a Level 1 coach with Equine Canada (the national sport-governing body for riding) as well as a Level 1 recreational trail-riding coach and a general-performance equine judge. At his Country Lane stables (902-569-3139), beginners of all ages take lessons. “By the 10th lesson, a person should be showing me that they are in control of the horse,” he says, “They should be able to ride at all three gaits with confidence, be able to sit at a lope, stop and turn.” As opposed to trail rides—where you get little or no instruction and where each horse follows the horse in front of it, mostly at a walk—riding lessons teach you how to control the horse when it’s walking, trotting and cantering.
While some horseback-vacation operations require their riders to have a certain amount of experience, most of them will take riders of any level. “I do take riders of all levels, including absolute beginners,” says Mitchell at Hoofbeat Hill Stables, “but I find that most people who come have some experience and just want to deepen their connection with horses as well as do some riding.”
Mitchell, who offers instructional riding holidays, also accepts all levels for her summertime children’s camps and finds that she has more beginners in those classes than in the adult getaways. She says that riding can be a lifelong pursuit. “Riders can take it to whatever level they like,” she says, “from a beginner to the international standard of a dressage rider.”
Once you’ve chosen your horse-riding holiday spot, you’ll need to find out what equipment you’ll need to take along. Since most outfits provide the horses and all of their accompanying tack—such as saddles, bridles, halters and the like—at no extra cost, vacationers only have to pony up their own gear. Most places require that you wear a proper riding helmet and hard-soled heeled boots (no sneakers, please). Some recommend that you wear riding breeches, but you can get away with blue jeans. When you book your holiday, ask what you should pack.
True riders know that they’ll never stop learning and that they can always improve—but when you’re on a horse-riding vacation, perhaps the most important thing to remember is to have fun.