Steel horseshoes struck 500-year-old cobblestones, echoing off brick walls of the homes and shops lining Callejón del Aguacate. Astride Frina, I tried out just-learned Spanish commands for horse riding and hoped she understood. I greeted children darting past on their way to school and the man peddling home-made hooch from his bicycle basket. Our short parade of three horses—Gaucho leading with Brian in the saddle, followed by Frina and I and the dependable mount of our Cuban caballero Henri—wove through the morning’s bustle. We worked our way toward the northern edge of Trinidad, one of Cuba’s best preserved Spanish colonial cities.
Our destination was the Valle de los Ingenios (Valley of Sugar Mills). Riches flowed into Trinidad for centuries from the valley, making her colonizers fabulously wealthy and their city one of the most beautiful in the world.
Horse riding and travel might seem an unlikely combination at first canter, especially if (like me) your horse whispering has mostly been, “What the hell do I know about horses?” But, after saddling up in places as diverse as Ireland and Cuba, I’ve realized how much I enjoy it. These days, I add horse riding to my travel activities whenever possible. Even if you haven’t been on a horse since you were ten years old, here are five great reasons to get back in the saddle.
5 Reasons to Go Horse Riding When You Travel
1. Authentic people
If you’ve ever spent time in the company of a local horsewoman or man, you know what “authentic” means. The horse riding guide you meet has a life completely different from yours and is, therefore, fascinating. Ask questions. Listen to the answers.
In Trinidad de Cuba, we went riding with Cuban vaquero, Henri. With his snap-button shirt, wide-brimmed hat, boots and laconic manner, Henri is a classic cowboy. He’d fit right in where I live, in Texas. I learned about his family and his interest in music as we rode side by side.
The horse riding local is an expert. First off, they love horses, and have an easy way with them. They also understand that you probably are not a horse riding expert, and you have a shared goal: for you to have a great time.
My guide in Kenmare, County Kerry was Xenia O’Sullivan. She and her husband, Michael, own Dromquinna Stables, a few kilometers west of town alongside Kenmare Bay. Originally from Munich, Xenia came to Ireland at age 18. She worked at stables during the summer and then after college, moved to Kenmare area where she met Michael. They have two kids and Dromquinna Stables is a family affair started by Michael’s mother, Patricia. It was Michael who teased me when I used the term “horseback riding”: “What other part of the horse would you ride?” Note to Americans: don’t call it “horseback riding” unless you’re prepared for a good ribbing.
2. Local horses are good company
The horses I rode had extensive knowledge of the paths and seemed to know a lot about people, too. Every horse I’ve been on when traveling has been smarter about me than I am about horse riding.
In Ireland, my mount was a mare named Mariah, an Irish Cob. Cobs are bred to be workhorses, with extra hair around their legs to help protect them during jobs like pulling logs out of forests. These sturdy horses are the Irish version of Clydesdales.
Mariah was named for Mariah Carey but I chose to look past that and simply admire her. She was smart and responded well to the commands Xenia asked me to use: “Go on then” to walk, “whoa” to stop. The reins are held a bit differently than Western-style. To steer, you pull the side in the direction you want the horse to go while easing out the other side. “Like a bicycle,” Michael O’Sullivan said. Mariah tested me at first: snorting a bit, tossing her head as we walked. Xenia calmly explained how to handle Mariah and gave me tips: lean forward in the saddle going uphill and lean back going downhill to make the horse’s work easier. A nimble horse on all sorts of surfaces, Mariah chose the best path through mud, water and over stones.
It’s cool to have this living, breathing, snorting animal beneath your butt, connecting you in a physical way to this place you’ve traveled to. In Cuba, Henri showed us how to move our bodies, using our legs to stay secure, as Frina and Gaucho moved from walking to a trot then cantering on a stretch of dirt road between fields.
3. Horses can take you where your feet (or a vehicle) can’t
Horse riding is an interesting, environmentally friendly way to visit countryside you probably won’t see otherwise on your trip.
The cobblestoned street in Trinidad ended abruptly at the crest of a steep hill. Suddenly we were in the Cuba of decades past: dirt roads, sugar cane, communal farms surrounding tiny casitas. We passed the ruins of a Spanish colonial-era finca casa, still standing but empty of life aside from birds and an occasional dog seeking shaded refuge.
The Valle de los Ingenios is a UNESCO World Heritage site and the cradle of sugar production in Cuba. Former sugar cane fields are being planted with fruit trees, Henri explained: avocado, mango, pineapple and papaya. He plucked a guava for us from a tree as we passed by, cutting it in half to snack on. At lunchtime, we stopped at a tiny ranch to rest the horses while we ate a delicious lunch of criollo-style organic beef, Moros y Cristianos (black beans and rice), roast pumpkin. Two young ranch hands hand-cranked a press to make fresh sugarcane juice with a splash of lime.
Alongside Xenia in Ireland, I rode for three hours through the County Kerry landscape, starting out along lanes bordering fields dotted with sheep then up into woodlands and hills. Sturdy on her feet, Mariah carried me to the highest point in the area, where we stopped to give the horses a break. The day was perfect for horse riding: cool in the shade, warmed by the sun and clear for miles. Emma, a local rider, pointed out across the finger of Kenmare Bay at her home village on Caha mountain on the Beara Peninsula. We wound our way down to the seaside for a ride through the water.
4. Height advantage
Nothing beats getting a bit of altitude for adding to your overall outlook of a place. Horse riding gives you a perspective three or four feet higher than eye level. Walking the lanes of Trinidad de Cuba astride Frina, I peered into casas and shops. I spoke to a granny resting in the shade of a balcony roof, “¿Hola, como esta Usted?” In return, she gave me a big smile and, “¡Bien! ¿Y Usted?”
Sitting in the saddle high above a person on foot, I could understand the American cowboy mythos. I felt larger than life.
5. Change of pace and change in focus
Finally, whether you’re in Ireland or Cuba or someplace completely different, when you are horse riding you’re focused on the ride. You aren’t thinking about fitting every local museum into the itinerary or figuring out the local bus schedule. You probably won’t care if your carryon will fit in the overhead compartment. As a result, for a few hours your pace is gentler, your focus is on the here and now.
Add horse riding to your travel itinerary, take body and mind out into nature for a day; have some fun while lowering your anxiety to kid-sized levels.
Late that afternoon in Cuba we rode back up the hill to Trinidad, once again hearing the ring of horseshoes on cobblestones. Returning to their stable and excited about dinner, both Frina and Gaucho picked up their pace. Henri, Brian and I turned the final corner onto Calle Pereira three abreast, shoulder to shoulder, like gunslingers riding into town.
A word about riding gear
The folks at Dromquinna Stables loaned me snappy black riding boots and a riding helmut. In Cuba, I wore my Teva hiking sandals and a sun hat. Henri was kind enough not to scoff at my sandals, but I saw him give them the once-over and nod, deciding (I guess) that they were sturdy enough to stay on my feet. Trousers make obvious sense to me over wearing shorts. Also, bring a bottle of water along and a protein bar or other snack if your ride doesn’t include a lunch stop.
The best way to add horse riding to your travel activities is to check with your local host or tourist office where you’re staying. Often they know the guides personally and can give you a recommendation specific to your needs.
As travel to Cuba expands for Americans, don’t miss an opportunity to visit Trinidad, on Cuba’s south coast. Find your way to Martha’s casa particular on calle Simon Bolivar and let her be your host. As you step out Martha’s door into the sunshine of a Trinidad de Cuba morning, I hope you meet Henri, the gentleman vaquero. Henri may arrive early, waiting patiently while you finish a delicious breakfast of papaya, coconut cake and the ever-present, always wonderful café Cubano.
Also, on your next visit to Country Kerry, drop in at Dromquinna Stables near Kenmare for a day of horse riding where you’ll be in the expert, caring hands of Xenia and Michael. Say hello to Mariah and, “Go on then.”
Dromquinna Stables Kenmare, Ireland: http://www.dromquinna-stables.com