If you are traveling to the rural parts of the UK, especially in north Wales and northern England, one of the activities on the radar is “pony trekking.”
In Britain, a “pony trek” is a horseback ride that is undertaken primarily for sight-seeing purposes, at a slow pace. It does not necessarily mean you will be riding a pony (although most of the provided mounts are ponies or cobs – short, stocky horses that can carry larger animals). “Horse riding” or “trail riding” means a faster-paced ride for the fun of riding. Generally, you have to be willing to demonstrate basic riding skills to be allowed to go on a trail ride (unlike in the U.S., where the same term covers both). Pony trekking, however, is open to all, even if you have never sat on a horse before. A “pub trek” is a ride that visits local bars–it is not illegal to ride a horse under the influence in the UK, although drinking in moderation is best.
Most pony treks are one hour, a half day, or a full day. Although multi-day riding holidays are available, most are angled towards people who know how to ride. Here are a few tips:
If you are not a rider, then even a one pony trekking ride can leave you saddle sore – that is to say, sore in the various muscles you use only when riding. The worst-hit areas are generally the inner thighs and the lower abs (below the belt). If you are planning a half day or full day ride (and certainly if you are booking a riding vacation), then you may want to work on your fitness some first. These exercises will prevent some of the soreness new riders or those who ride infrequently may experience.
What to Wear
Specialist riding gear is not necessary except for helmets. The center will provide helmets since it is illegal to ride on public trails or roads without a helmet in the UK.
In addition to that, you should wear:
- Long pants– Riding in shorts is inadvisable. The best thing that’s likely to already be in your wardrobe is straight leg, “boyfriend” cut or boot cut jeans. Well fitting sweat pants can also work. Avoid skinny jeans, as they may interfere with your ability to get on and off the horse. Yoga pants are often too loose and may get caught on something.
- Closed-toed shoes or boots with a bit of a heel– Boots are better than shoes. Avoid athletic shoes, which are particularly prone to get caught in the stirrups if something goes wrong. Hiking boots are also a bad idea because of the broader soles. Also avoid fashion cowboy boots with a very smooth sole, as you will have no grip.
- A plain, long-sleeved top–Short sleeves might be tempting, but long sleeves will protect you from sun, wind, and accidents.
- Gloves– Gloves protect your hands from blisters. Cycling gloves are great. Do not ride in plain wool gloves, as the reins will slip right through your hands, especially if they are wet from rain or horse sweat. Trust me.
- Wicking cotton socks
- Sports bra–For ladies, or a bra that is particularly comfortable and reduces “jiggle.”
- Sunglasses–Sunglasses are a good idea, especially if you don’t wear prescription glasses. Some people also prefer to ride with a strap to hold their glasses in place.
Choosing a Place to Go
Keep in mind the following when choosing a place to go pony trekking:
- You get what you pay for. Typical rates (in 2018) work out to around $30-40 an hour. Anything much less than that should be a red flag.
- Look for a center that is approved by the ABRS (Association of British Riding Schools) or BHS (British Horse Society). These mean that the center and guides have to meet fairly stringent standards of competence and safety.
- Check reviews on TripAdvisor and similar to see what other customers are saying.
Some great places to try include Snowdonia Riding Stables in North Wales, Loch Lomond Pony Trekking in Scotland, and Masham Riding & Trekking Centre in Yorkshire. The last mentioned has been around for over twenty-five years to my knowledge (the website claims thirty) and uses almost entirely purebred Highland Ponies, a gorgeous rare breed.
- Horseback riding is considered a high-risk activity. As previously mentioned, helmets are required in the UK and are provided. Many centers will also not allow you to ride in unsuitable footwear. However, despite that, accidents on the trail are rare, especially if you take the following precautions:
- Pay attention to the guide. If English is not your first language or if you have issues which might cause you to have difficulty hearing and understanding, talk to them in advance about the issue.
- Avoid over consumption of alcohol, including on those “pub treks.” If you are too impaired to drive, you are too impaired to ride.
- If you have young children, don’t let them wander into stalls or barns.
Stay one length from the horse in front. For those who don’t ride, you should be able to see the hocks, that is the middle joint of the leg, of the horse in front between your horse’s ears.
- If wearing a jacket, keep it zipped up. Floppy jackets can startle horses.
Don’t approach a horse from behind or walk behind a horse. Yes, even if you see the guides and grooms doing it. They know how but you may not.
- Make sure that you are covered by travel insurance if something does go wrong.
Pony trekking is a great way to see the British countryside. The small horses often used may come from breeds that are rare in Britain and all but unheard of outside (Highland Ponies, Dales Cobs, etc). You can reach areas that would otherwise need a difficult hike to access. It’s worth trying to make time during your British vacation for an hour on horseback.