For the English Equestrian Tourist
If you are planning a trip to the USA to do some riding, then there are a few things you might want to know about in advance, so that you can properly prepare for your trip. First here are some useful links:
America is a relatively cheap tourist destination, where they all speak English (after a fashion), and has a tradition of horse riding that we have all seen a thousand times over at the movies and on TV. That's enough.
One additional minor attraction can be the quality (and quantity) of food on some of these holidays - with all the riding, you can work off most of it.
Where to go?
The places that I have heard recommended the most are: Kedron Valley Stables, in Vermont; Bitterroot Ranch, Wyoming; and Ricochet Ridge Ranch, California. I'll have more to say about them in a minute. But most riding locations in the USA are ranches, which they call "dude ranches". There are two types of dude ranch: a guest ranch, which is really a farm-like resort hotel that incidentally has horses; and a working ranch, which is often spartan, but always keeps cattle. For a serious riding holiday, a working ranch is ideal; but guest ranches can work out very well for family holidays or the less determined rider. I've got another list somewhere of good working ranches, but I have tested few of these so far.
Americans get shorter holidays than us, so a lot of places are best sampled as short breaks for two or three days, rather than a full week or longer.
I have included reviews of a few ranches, based on recommendations I have received, and my personal experiences.
The commonest style of riding across most of the USA is Western; in the East, you'll find at least as much "English", and there are various compromise styles that you'll stumble across - but the majority of riders believe that Western is more suitable for beginners and other people that they don't know can ride, because it is safer. That might not be entirely true, but it's polite to not disagree with your hosts.
Western riding is cowboy style, just like in the movies. To the American mind, it's macho; you risk dying of cancer from all the Marlboro's, you castrate calves with your teeth, and might even participate in "bull poker" (it's a new rodeo game - don't ask!). So it's OK for men to ride, so long as you stick with Western. The level of control and skill required is easily comparable with dressage or eventing, but just like at home, you don't usually see anything very fancy most of the time. But that doesn't mean to say that it doesn't exist.
You use a large, heavy saddle, with a very prominent horn at the pommel, long stirrups, and usually two girths (cinches). The stirrups are hard to adjust, so get it right before you start out; you should aim to be able to slide your palm between your seat and the saddle when standing in the stirrups, but without raising your heels. The reins are often split (so you have to hold two of them), and you hold them in one hand - it doesn't really matter which one. The normal bits are harsh, to English minds; either a curb or hackamore. This doesn't really matter, as you do not normally attempt to take up a contact. The rear cinch is never fully tightened. If it is, it is more properly called a "bucking strap".
Take up the reins loosely; a good idea is to aim for six inches of slack - check by running the reins out for about six inches until you don't quite take up a contact. Whatever you do, do not attempt to take up a contact with them; that is a signal to back up, or make a sliding halt, which might be inconvenient for you. You steer by neck reining - hold the reins in one hand over the horn, and move your hand a couple of hands widths to the left to turn left. If you move your hand up the neck towards the horse's ears, the turn will be sharper. Most English riders, the first time they get on a Western horse, end up running backwards rapidly.
Sometimes a horse may be a little slow to go forward at first; in this case it seems to help to start them off with a turn, then move forward.
The approved way of dismounting is to keep your foot in the left stirrup and swing your right leg over and step down. It sounds reasonable, but it's a lot harder to do in practice than it sounds, at least until you are used to it. I still have to think twice after a long day.
Paces are called walk, jog (or trot) and lope (canter). Most places advise you to keep your hands clear of the horn, as grabbing hold of it can shift your centre of balance upwards, making an accident more likely. Some places like you to rise to the trot (called posting), others don't. If you feel insecure at lope, it's acceptable to grab the cantle with your free hand to pull your seat down into the saddle.
In America, you find horses: American horses. No ponies, no thoroughbreds (or very few), no Irish Draught, etc. American horses are usually in the 15' to 16' (plus a bit) size range, and are often coloured, which they have a bewildering range of names for. If you don't know different, any horse you see is a Quarter Horse. The one stand-out exception to this rule is the Arab. If you are very fortunate, you might just come across some "gaited" horses - Tennessee Walking Horses, Missouri Fox Trotters, or such like. Riding one of these is a real treat and a special experience.
A Quarter Horse will be reasonably gentle, perhaps a little bit dumb seeming, and reasonably docile. You will see small children riding them, and vastly overweight men of 6' 6" and above.
Ideally, you might be expected to wear full a Western outfit: jeans, Western shirt, hat and cowboy boots. But legal and insurance requirements, not to mention practical considerations like packing, may make this impossible.
It is always a good idea to take your own hat: if you have the chance, a lightweight hat with ventilation like the (American) Troxel is ideal; try to avoid hunt caps, as they look far more out of place than a jockey skull. Cowboy hats are reasonably hard, so aren't as bad a choice if you are in the West - plus they can be worn off the horse without you looking quite as stupid as you might in a baseball cap. You should attach a "stampede string" to your hat - I use a leather boot lace, passed through holes punched in the inside rim of the hat (the leather/plastic interior hat band). This is so that it doesn't blow off and annoy the horses. A cheap Western hat is about $30 - $60.
The preferred jeans are Wranglers, which can be hard to find outside of a Western outfitters. The reason is that the thick seam on the legs goes down the outside, rather than the inside as on almost every other make of jeans. They also have higher pockets, and various other minor details that are suited to life in the saddle. The "Pro Rodeo" versions are the best - about $30; buy them slightly long, so that they don't ride up too much when mounted. Because you won't be wearing high boots or chaps, and will be riding long hours, it is a very good idea to do something to protect your legs. Wear tights (yes, men too - there are areas of San Francisco where no one will look twice if you buy large women's sizes). Another option is to use one of those elastic tubular bandages intended to support your knee or ankle joint; this is better in warmer climates. I take one of these cut to fit over my calves, and wear it if I am suffering from rubbing. If you are riding in an English style, then you should take jodhpurs or riding breeches.
Cowboy boots are good, if you have them; but hard to pack, and hard to walk in. Ropers are a style of cowboy boot with short legs and low heels, which are better for this sort of purpose. Otherwise, good jodhpur boots or other specialised riding boots (like the lace up Ariats) are easier to pack, and can be walked in. I take Ariats or good jodhpur boots (RM Williams) if I will be riding English, or some ancient cowboy boots (the long style, not ropers) if Western. If you buy a pair of cowboy boots out there, remember that the system for fitting them is completely different from English construction shoes, and you need to try on every pair, as the important measurements for fit aren't the same ones that determine shoe size (American shoe sizes are English size plus one). You are quite likely to develop blisters while wearing them in.
I always take gloves with me. American leather work gloves are often suitable for Western riding, and are cheap ($10 - $30). It is a good idea to wear shirts with long sleeves and collars - this will protect you from sunburn. If it is going to be very hot, I wear a light T shirt under a looseish shirt, and tie a bandana around my neck. This soaks up the sweat before it evaporates, and rations it out through the outer layers to keep you cool. Take a lightweight waterproof (the < £50 Helly Hansen ones are good). You might want a belt pouch of some description to carry items with you; these can often be stowed in a saddle bag.
Pests and Medicines
Mosquitos, midges and gnats are probably expected by most - take a DEET based insect repellent, and use it. Rather less expected are the many and various wasp equivalents, from yellow jackets and hornets through the "darning needle". Watch out for them, and remember that they can sting horses as well as people.
Other insect pests include the scorpion, tarantulas and black widow spiders, in desert areas like Arizona. If you are in their habitat, always check anywhere you might sit down (including chairs and toilets!) very carefully. Check under your bed linen before getting in, and tip out hats and boots before putting them on. Don't put your hand in places that you haven't visually checked first - that means reaching up to ledges or door lintels, or picking up a stick or log from the ground without turning it over first.
Much the same applies to snakes, like rattlesnakes. Remember, most are probably more scared of you than you are of them - but there's always one that doesn't know that. I won't cover bears, mountain lion or other large predators.
America doesn't have stinging nettles, but what they do have is much worse: poison ivy (east coast) and poison oak (west and centre). Poison oak is a small, scrubby bush; with vaguely shaped leaves and a grey to reddy brown bark. That's right, it's hard to identify. Contact with it will result in a painful itch, that will last several days. Touching the affected area will only spread the damage.
I pack a small compass, whistle, small torch and pen knife into my pack. As well as some blister gel (Compeed), aspirin/paracetamol/ibuprofen, aloe vera for sunburn, and high SPF sun lotion, plus some fabric sticking plasters, and an elasticated knee bandage. And sting relief - but there is a bewildering variety of remedies for the little buggers mentioned above.
Legal and Insurance
Most stables will have waiver forms for you to sign - do so, quietly. This is a requirement for them to have insurance, which they can't operate without (in most cases). Some may insist that you wear a hat - which is good, and will supply one of theirs, often a stinky cycle hat, if you didn't remember to bring one. Apart from that, you are on your own.
Take travel insurance. This includes decent medical cover, which will include horse riding accidents, but probably exclude skiing. If you have to go to hospital, you will need the details of your insurance, plus a credit card - so carry them with you at all times. A year's cover can be as little as £30 - £50, which is only a little more than one week's cover.
You should have a photo-id on you at all times; the police expect it, especially if you are driving, in which case you must carry your drivers license. A passport is OK for photo-id, but a new style driving license is even better.
American laws regarding trespass may come as a surprise: the owner is well within his rights to shoot you - and all land has an owner. There are no public rights of way, bridlepaths or footpaths; anything that seems to be one is a permissive track.
It is almost impossible to get to any riding destination without having a car hired for the duration of your stay - so factor the cost in. Travel insurance may cover LDW (and possibly other optional coverage); which is handy, as that can double the cost of hiring. The only place I have visited where car hire wasn't necessary was Kedron Valley.
Holiday prices are usually exclusive of air travel. You are very likely to also have to include the cost of a "transfer" from the nearest airport to the ranch, which your hosts can usually arrange, at extra cost.
One important American custom to get used to is tipping. It is totally misunderstood by the English. You must always tip, normally at least 10%, unless you have clearly and explicitly been told that you don't need to tip - and even then you often are expected to. I find that a direct question, like "I'm English - are we supposed to tip? And how much is a suitable amount?" works well, and isn't embarrassing. There are a few exceptions to the amount: bellboys and doormen in hotels, for instance, typically get $1 per bag (or more), and the minimum tip in a restaurant is usually 15% - twice the tax is the rule of thumb that Americans use. If you are deeply offended by the service, then it is OK to reduce the tip by a couple of percent. But unless you are leaving the area quickly and immediately, and know that you will never ever return, don't skip the tip. By the way, you must tip in bars as well. In many cases, restaurant and bar staff may be working for tips only. So yes, for most holiday packages you will be expected to tip an extra 10% on top of the price agreed. Don't argue: tipping is the American Way. Along with queueing, but I haven't mentioned that.
When in America, you can eat well for next to nothing (by British standards). You can also eat very badly. The first rule is: you don't need to eat in MacDonalds/Burger King/Taco Bell, except as a study in cultural anthropology; limit yourself to a maximum of once per trip, and then get over it. There are many diners all over the USA that serve a traditional American fried breakfast all day; family run ones are invariably better than chains (like Denny's - although IHOP isn't too bad). Apart from breakfast, try American sandwiches, burgers, and special dishes like meatloaf or chicken fried steak. Steaks are normally excellent, and can, in specialist places (like Texas or Arizona), be really wonderful.
American portions are large. Don't be afraid to break British indoctrination, and leave some on your plate; you'll be offered to have it wrapped so that you can take it home; don't be embarrassed by this, and you are supposed to always say yes. In many restaurants, the main course will include a starter, salad, vegetables and dessert - be warned. A salad may seem light, but is likely to be enough for a serious trencherman. My normal practice is to eat breakfast when I know that I'll probably skip lunch, otherwise eat a bagel bought from a supermarket. Lunch might be a sandwich, or half a sandwich and soup; and I'll try to eat dinner early. This plan is intended to minimise problems with jet lag, but the fact that, outside of a few big cities, Americans eat very early (6pm can be the peak time in some restaurants) and this is certainly an influence.
My jet lag routine is: set my watch to the time in my destination in the departure lounge. No alcohol on flights, and try to sleep as much as possible on the plane - reading a book can help. Drink as much water on the plane as possible; take on a 1 or 2 litre bottle in your hand luggage, and drink all of it. Put on a blanket, and pull it up over your head to sleep. If you have an eye mask handed out, use that; ear plugs or noise cancelling headphones help a lot. When I'm there, I stay awake as late as possible (up to about midnight) on the first night, and I try to rise between 6 and 8am the next day. I also try to eat meals (small, if necessary) at the same time as I would on UK time, and try to avoid eating big meals when I would be asleep on UK time. Stay out of doors as much as possible during daylight so that your body can see the sun.
On the way back, it might help to buy some melatonin capsules (in drug stores at most airports) and take one either on the plane, or at bed time back home. These can't legally be sold in the UK.
I've mentioned this above in several places, so I thought it would be a good idea to bring them all together. I use an Eagle Creek "fanny pack" (padded field pack), which goes around my waist when riding. It's a medium size one, so that it is big enough to carry the necessities, but I trust not big enough to cause me serious damage if I fall; it doesn't have loops for water bottles for that reason.
If you are riding Western, there will be enough ties and saddle bags that you should be able to fit lunch and water into the bags; the same goes for a waterproof, if you need one.
The pouch contains:
- pen knife (a small Swiss Army one, but a Leatherman Micra or Wave would probably be better)
- Mini Maglite (smallest model)
- mini compass
Another pocket contains:
- credit card
- $100 bill
- travel/medical insurance card
The main pouch contains:
- fabric elastoplast
- sting relief (in the USA you can get anti-histamine based creams over the counter)
- insect repellent (DEET)
- knee bandage
- high SPF sun cream
- sun block (chap stick type)
I think that I really ought to make provision for a decent hoof pick, or some similar tool. If I knew the right things, more insect bite cures would probably go in as well.
Another accessory for the pack is a GPS; one with US maps is very handy. The same applies to a mobile phone, which can get coverage in some surprising areas (provided that it supports a US network).