How to find horse friendly trail riding holidays abroad

Over time, I have received this question quite often. How can I determine if a trail riding place treats their horses right? To answer this question, I’ll go over a few things in this blog post. First, how can I check to see if a horse is truly healthy? Second, is it possible to determine this on the internet? And lastly, I’ll be going over what you can do if you are disappointed by the overall welfare when arriving at your destination, and some cultural differences to take into account. 

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Checking to see if a horse is truly healthy

It can actually be quite tricky to see whether or not a horse is happy and healthy. It’s often assumed that fat horses are healthy and happy, and that skinny or lean horses are unhealthy. There are lots of places that keep their horses fat and in beautiful stables, however these horses are incredibly unhappy. Their space is restricted, they get limited to no interaction with other horses and they simply don’t get to ‘be a horse’. These places would also never end up on the Book Your Trip section of the blog, as an unhappy horse is just as bad, or possibly even worse than a slightly unhealthy or a skinny horse. Don’t get me wrong, ideally a horse would be at a healthy weight, have all the space in the world, get every vaccination needed, always have perfect hooves and never get bitten by a horsefly. As we all know, that’s impossible. Weight is pretty much the last thing to look at when determining horse welfare at a specific trail riding stable. I’ll go over a few things you can check when you are determining horse welfare.

Shiny Arabian mare in the Netherlands horse riding in the field
A shiny horse is a happy and healthy horse!

Shiny coats

This is so incredibly important, and it always goes together with a bright look in the horses’ eyes. It’s always the first thing I look at or notice, as a shiny horse is a happy horse. A dull coat indicates illness or a lack of food or nutrients. This also means that a lean horse with a shiny coat does get all the food and nutrients they need!

Hoof care

Are the hooves well taken care of and in good shape? If they are, that means that the owners and grooms are putting in the time and effort to make sure the horses are happy and healthy. 

Mountain pony in the Drakensberg of South Africa
This is a mountain pony called Pigeon, my sheep, and me!
Fun fact: Pigeon's feet have actually never been done, but because of the environment and the rocks in the area, they are in perfect condition.
Despite Pigeon being skinnier than the average European horse, he is very healthy, with great hooves and an extremely shiny coat!

Saddles and happy horse backs

Ask if you can help with tacking up or off, or at least ask to watch. If they get defensive, or they say no, leave the place and report it if possible. This may seem excessive, but ten out of ten times the horses have wounds and sores on their backs, and there are no exceptions. Of course make sure that your question doesn’t get lost in translation to avoid unfortunate situations. If they allow you to help with the tacking up, have a quick look at the horses’ backs if they have any sores. However, I haven’t ever been in a situation where the people allow you to help with the horses, and also have wounds. It can of course happen that a horse that isn’t being ridden has a wound somewhere, but as long as the wound is taken care of and the horse isn’t being used, I don’t worry about it. It can happen to the best of us, sometimes there is a fold in a blanket that we didn’t know about, or maybe the horses were playing a bit too rough in their free time. 

Space and turnout 

Where do the horses live? On a mountain in a big herd? In stables or tiny paddocks without their friends? Make sure to check that the horses you are riding get to be social with each other in their free time, and that they have space to move around. 

Mountain horses at Khotso in the Drakensberg of South Africa
Look at all those mountain ponies! They roam free over hundreds of hectares.

Behaviour while riding

Are the horses responsive? What are their ears doing while you’re riding? It’s important that the horses you are riding move their ears around every once in a while. If they are unresponsive, not looking at anything, or don’t react when another horse passes them, you can be quite certain that they are overworked on trails. Happy horses should be excited to go for a trot or canter, not be dead to the leg and have soft mouths.

How does your guide ride?

A very important part of checking horse welfare is to make sure the guide has a friendly riding style, as they have likely trained or at least ridden all the horses. If they are rough on the horse, and don’t show care or affection towards the animal they're riding, you can only imagine how they ride in private. If your guide has a friendly riding style, with soft hands and a horse-friendly seat, you can also usually feel that in your own horse as they will be responsive and have soft mouths. 

Horseback riding guide on holiday in Tuscany, Italy
Our guide Jenny in Italy!
Jenny is a great rider with a soft hand, and lots of feel for horses, which you could clearly see.

Weight

Like I mentioned before, this is the last thing to look at, and in reality most horses in Europe and the US are morbidly obese. This makes horses abroad automatically look skinny, even when they are at a healthy weight. My horse in the Netherlands is also way too heavy, despite her being on a permanent diet. An overweight horse is certainly unhappier than a slightly underweight horse, and even though we would like all horses to be the same perfect weight, we sometimes need to settle for a happy and slightly skinny horse. When a trail horse gets overweight or fat, their confirmation changes and locals tend to think they can carry more weight, destroying the backs of the horses. Also, fat horses have increased stress on their heart, lungs, joints, feet, and quickly develop arthritis. They become less efficient at cooling their own bodies down, and in hot countries overweight horses can easily get overheated and die. There is a reason that horses are bred to be leaner and skinnier in hot countries such as Egypt and Morocco. If the horses have shiny coats, bright eyes, healthy hooves and fitting tack, they are well taken care of, even if they are a bit skinnier than your horse at home. Of course, if a horse is extremely skinny and they don’t have muscle mass, they are not fit for riding. However, if this is the case, their coats will also be dull and there will be other signs of bad health such as hooves that have crumbled off. 

Egyptian horse in the desert of Luxor
Fayrouz in the desert of Luxor, a good example of a happy and healthy horse.
She is skinnier than my horse at home, but has lots of healthy muscles, good hooves and a shiny coat! She was also super responsive and excited to ride, and even responded to her own poop by having a good look at it!

Determining horse welfare through websites and social media

Ask for videos of the horses in their field or paddock, so you can see them without their tack and you can also check that they have enough space. These videos are of course extremely easy to make and therefore there is no excuse for not sending it to you. Try not to mention why you want the video, but just ask to see the horses free in their field. You can also check their instagram, other socials and website to look for these videos, and videos of the rides and the guide. It can be hard to determine horse welfare through pictures, and it’s still not easy to determine through videos, but it will help you get a general idea of their coats, hooves, tack, fields, guide and their weight. It will be difficult to check how they are to ride, but have a look at their ears, do they move in the videos? Or are they constantly just hanging to the side? 

Horse riding holiday in Fethiye, Turkey
A happy and forward horse. From the photo you can see that Inci is looking around, but also relaxed, and has a shiny coat!

What to do when horse welfare is not what it should be

Leave. Simple as that, just don't go on the ride. Occasionally they will try to guilt you into going on the ride by telling you they need the money to take care of the horses. This, however, is absolutely not the case. Anyone that genuinely loves their horses will always put them first, even if it is a business, and there is no excuse for putting tourists on unhappy or unhealthy horses. You can also search for local animal welfare organisations and report the stables to them.

Cultural differences in horse keeping

A common mistake we all make is to compare every horse to the standard we set for our own horse(s) or the horses we ride in our home country. Like I mentioned before, horses in hot countries will usually be leaner, so don’t be surprised that the horses you ride in the desert of Egypt are skinnier than your own. The great thing is that in less developed countries, horses usually get a lot of space to be free and hang out with their friends. 

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