How to Book a Vacation Ride Tour That's Kind to Horses

When you can finally get away from the bustle of daily life, nothing appeals like “getting back to nature.” Such a getaway might very well inspire you to take a trail ride on horseback through challenging terrains to get glimpses of magnificent scenery at home or abroad.

In the right conditions, equestrian tourism can be a positive experience for human and horse alike. Many animals, however, suffer from the tourism industry, working beyond their capacity, wounded, lame, dehydrated, and even physically abused. Before you book, take this quiz to see how welfare-friendly your next equestrian tourism adventure might be.

The Welfare Assessment Checklist

Don’t just pay and go. Do some quick homework on your tourist operator to make sure you’re supporting good animal welfare through your choice of service provider. Give one point for each box you check in this prebooking checklist. The higher your score, the more welfare-friendly the company is likely to be.

Their horses appear alert, healthy, and sound.

It might be an obvious point to consider, but it’s surprising how often it’s overlooked. “Many tourists just aren’t aware of welfare problems or don’t recognize them,” said Gwen Tolud, director of Brooke (Netherlands) Animal Hospital, a European charity promoting worldwide animal welfare.

Some tourists might assume professionals wouldn’t work unhealthy or lame horses. But expert evaluations in the equestrian industry reveal that some operators use horses, donkeys, and mules as long as they can walk, regardless of their state of health, she said. Tourists can make ethical choices by inspecting the horses on-site before booking—a task made simpler with The Brooke’s illustrated “Happy Horse Holiday Code.”

“Start with the hooves and work your way up,” recommends Amy McLean, PhD, equine lecturer at the University of California, Davis. “Compare hoof care to your own nails; are they spilt or long or cracked? What about the hair coat: Is it shiny, or is it rough? Are the shoulders and hips round and muscled, or are they bony? Are there any open wounds?”

Importantly, she added, people shouldn’t get distracted by “bling and decorations” such as ribbons and beads owners and operators might use to catch tourists’ eyes.

If you can, look at the horses at the end of the day and, ideally, several days in a row. A little tired is okay, but do they look alert or depressed? And how do their owners handle the occasional health problem?

“When I was in Jordan I saw a (tourism) horse colic,” said veteran equestrian tourist Giulia Pastorella, an Italian now based in Brussels, Belgium. “But those guys did everything they could to tend to the horse and sort the problem, so it was clear they cared. What’s more, day after day the horses showed no signs of suffering and, on the contrary, were very spirited.”

How to Book a Vacation Ride Tour That's Kind to Horses

They give their horses ample water, shade, and rest.

Horses, donkeys, and mules require regular rest, shade from the sun, and plenty of water, say our sources. Horses drink an average of 11 gallons (40 liters) of water every day, and their needs go up with increasing work, temperature, and sweat produced. They lose fluids through sweat three times faster than humans do.

The National Park Service (NPS) mules at the Grand Canyon in Arizona receive four mandatory water breaks—three at running creeks and one at a garden—during their 10-mile, one-day treks, said Lily Daniels​, visitor use assistant at NPS.

Horses in southern France’s Camargue Region natural reserve (PNRC) take breaks in the shade with their saddle girths loosened (rather than taken off and on all day, which could cause chaffing) and receive freely available water, said Laure Bou, manager of rural development at the PNRC.

Conversely, many horses working the Egyptian Great Pyramids in Giza go without water or shade all day, transporting tourists nonstop from 7 a.m. to sunset in “scorching sun” reaching temperatures well over 100°F, said Emad Naoum, DGM, Head of Medical and Animal Welfare Affairs at The Brooke Hospital for Animals, Egypt.

“Ask companies how many breaks their animals get a day, and how often they get to drink water, and if they’re offered shade,” McLean said.

Horses don’t just need breaks during the day, though. Tourist horses need full days off each week and even “extended vacations” every now and then, said Donna Hunt, business manager at Silver Falls Ranch, in Kilauea, Hawaii. “One of the reasons our horses are happy is we put them at pasture for weeks at a time, completely removed from the working horses,” she said. “We know the temperament of each horse very well, and we can tell when they’re ready for a little R&R.”

They invest in good veterinary care, equipment, and insect repellent.

Income from horseback riding tours shouldn’t just go into the pockets of the owners, our experts say. Part of that money needs to go into the horses’ veterinary care for maintenance and occasional health issues.

In the Grand Canyon, NPS mules receive yearly veterinary checks and twice-yearly vaccinations, as well as daily all-over inspections, said Daniels. “Our packers … will take mules with any cuts, sores, or signs of illness to the veterinarian for care and clearance before using them,” she said, adding that the NPS contracts with a Flagstaff-based veterinary service.

Good care also means equid-appropriate equipment, such as horse-friendly enclosures using well-maintained wooden or electric fencing, our sources say. Paddocks should be free of sharp surfaces, especially barbed wire. And saddles, bridles, bits, and harnesses should fit each individual horse comfortably. Look for equipment red flags such as the metal chain nosebands used on some horses at the pyramids, Naoum said.

Flies and mosquitoes can be particularly troublesome for tourist horses working in hot, crowded areas, often near water sources, such as the Camargue. “Horses should have relief from insects,” Bou said. That relief could be effective insect repellent or having access to spaces or areas where there are fewer insects.

They have a professional website and use words like “family,” “care,” and “rest” in their descriptions.

Tour operators serious about animal welfare often make that aspect clear on the pages of a professional-looking website, said Jennifer Davis, frequent equestrian tourist from Nolensville, Tennessee. “Whether it’s just for a short ride or a multiday excursion, my first step is to look at their website,” she said. “I also look for pictures of the horses to see if they look healthy and well-fed. I also like to read the history of a company—is it family-owned? How long have they been operating?”

Even if you’ve already arrived at your vacation area and see the tour operators firsthand, it’s worth checking their sites. “I’m wary of places where you see people just standing around (usually at a beach) with a few horses offering rides,” Davis said. “It’s obvious the horses don’t live at that location, and you never know what conditions they are subjected to when the tourists aren’t watching.”

For Hunt, it’s important that people see that the horses aren’t tools but are loved as individuals. “Our horses are not just the backbone of our business; they’re also valued members of our family,” she said. “There’s a reason our company motto is ‘Happy Horses, Tropical Trails.’”

They impose weight limits and have “sturdier” animals for carrying heavier tourists.

Tourists and their supplies come in all sizes, and welfare-friendly operators think of the effect on their animals’ welfare. Even if you’re not bringing extra weight with you, it’s important to note whether the company asks about your body size and imposes weight limits on packed materials. It reflects a general concern for animal welfare, our sources say.

Some of the Grand Canyon mule tourism companies, such as Grand Canyon South Rim, have both weight and height limits for the mules and will refuse clients that exceed them, said McLean.

The NPS mules “pack in no more than 20% of their body weight, which, combined with their gear, is approximately 180-190 pounds,” Daniels explained. Scientific studies suggest that horses start to struggle with carrying weights exceeding about 20-29% of their own weight.

Companies such as Hunt’s Silver Creek Falls import larger draft-cross horses for heavier tourists. And occasionally, tourist operators offer a different species if rider weights exceed the capacities of their equine stock.

“We refused a family of three—weighing 250 pounds or more each—who wanted to ride our Arabians on a visit of the pyramids,” said Dr. Marion Bertrand, a French veterinarian who volunteers in an equestrian tourist center in Jordan. “We were finally able to compromise by putting them on camels.”

They have good living conditions for the horses and share photos of off-duty and retired horses on social media.

Seeing the horses when they’re not working can tell you a lot about what happens when they are and how they’re living, our sources say. Do they have room to move around freely? Do they have access to hay (or grass), water, and shelter? Are they easily visible to tourists?

Companies that hide their off-duty horses might not want visitors to see poor living conditions, our sources said. They might also want to keep wounds and body condition a secret, because tack and blankets can mask painful sores, as well as bony ribs.

“We see many cases of saddle wounds, often severe, as well as nose bridge wounds (from previously mentioned metal chain nosebands) that you only see when the tack comes off,” said Naoum.

“Good tourist companies will tell you how they care for the animals and will let you see where they live and how they’re cared for,” McLean said, citing the Palmetto Carriage Company in Charleston, South Carolina, as a “great” example of transparency in their equine management.

Ethical companies usually also show off-duty horses in their living environments in photos on their websites and social media.

“Our barns are open and in full view of our customers, so our guests can readily see the horses’ living conditions,” Hunt said.

Their online reviews talk about happy horses, recently.

Internet-based reviews can be useful, provided you look for specific comments about the animals, said McLean.

Reviews might mention views, price, availability, or other factors but not the horses when attributing stars, explained Hunt, whose business has a 5-star rating on TripAdvisor. “Many of our reviewers mention the excellent care of our horses as the reason they highly recommend our business,” she said.

Still, excellent reviews have little value if they’re several years old, said Laurie Richard, manager at Randocheval equestrian tourism agency near Lyon, France. “There could be a change in leadership in the company, for better or for worse, so you really have to look at recent trends,” she said.

Their animals’ work conditions are reasonable for their species (and breed).

Horses have the strength to carry riders and pull carriages. And donkeys and pack mules have the strength to transport goods on their backs across difficult terrains. What’s critical to remember, our sources say, is respecting limits.

Swiss researchers carried out a study recently following three pack mules ranging in age from 12 to 24 as they transported equipment through the Swiss Alps over five days. They carried packs weighing about 80 kilograms (175 pounds) each to altitudes of more than 2,000 meters (6,500 feet). The scientists found that the animals handled the workload well under the circumstances—which included scheduled rests and limited daily distances. However, five days was enough.

“They’re tough, but they do have their limits,” said Sina Huwiler, BSc, who’s working under the supervision of professor Conny Herholz, PD, DrMedVet, FTA, Dipl. ECEIM, ATA, at the Bern University of Applied Sciences School of Agricultural, Forest, and Food Sciences (HAFL), in Switzerland. “It was clear they needed a day off.”

The mules of the Grand Canyon will soon benefit from a similar study, said Dubin. “We have an upcoming work-rest ratio study with the veterinarian to review the health of our mules,” she said. “The study will include taking respiratory and heart rates during one of the packing trips to assess their needs and whether more breaks are potentially needed during the route.”

While studies are generally lacking about how much horses, donkeys, and mules can handle (the last pack mule study before the Swiss Alps study dates back to 1940), common sense can help judge how they’re faring. For example, it’s not unusual for tourists in Egypt to see horses falling as they tow carriages full of people up a steep, slippery causeway from the Sphynx Gate to the Great Pyramid, said Naoum. Repetition makes the issue worse, as a single horse can make up to 20 trips a day, he said.

Generally, heavier draft breeds manage heavy loads better—but these “cold-bloods” don’t tolerate desert heat as well as lighter breeds. “Not one single horse breed is strong enough to work in conditions the pyramid horses are forced to work in,” Tolud said.

They show kindness to their horses when they think no one is looking.

Seeing what goes on between horses and their owners or handlers when they’re away from tourist areas can give a good glimpse into how they’re treated generally, our sources said. This doesn’t mean spying, of course. But you can be observant. If you’re in the area, pay attention to faces and even equipment that might help you recognize those companies if you happen to cross paths with them later.

“When I was in Morocco last year, there were some pretty young boys in Tangier offering rides on the beach,” said Davis. “But as I sat in a cafe having lunch, I could see the younger boys being very rough with some of the horses. So that type of thing is not something I’d want to support.”

Their excursion includes an on-site visit and introduction to horse behavior and horse care.

If all you do is show up and jump on the horse, the horse is being objectified, said Bou. “Tourists need to be welcomed into the equestrian tourism world globally, having them ‘meet’ and discover the horses, seeing them as individuals, and understanding their historical and cultural role in that particular region,” she said.

Davis agreed. “I’ve been riding at two different places in Hawaii (on Oahu) also, and both of those places, they walked us through the barn and talked about the horses and things related to them before we saddled up,” she said. “So I think that’s also a good indicator.”

They like it when tourists take and share photos of their horses.

Reputable companies should be prepared to stand the test of public criticism, our sources said. Photos easily appear on social media and can spread positive or negative images of tour operators, with significant consequences on their businesses. If they know welfare is suboptimal, they’re not likely to want proof of it documented and shared. Companies that don’t allow visitors to take photos of the horses or don’t allow cameras during the ride are raising red flags.

By contrast, when companies welcome client photos, it’s a good sign. “Guests often post pictures of our horses and ranch to social media and review sites, which we encourage, as we welcome public accountability,” said Hunt.

They’re validated by a professional equestrian or tourism organization that prioritizes welfare.

Certain equestrian tourism agencies and tourist boards verify animal welfare at equestrian tourism companies they partner with. If a company is listed with such an agency or board, it’s worth calling that organization to see what kinds of checks they run to accept the company on their list.

In the French Camargue, the park’s tourism board uses a special tourism label (#ValeurParc) to show that the company has met a set of requirements, which include animal welfare, said Bou. The #ValeurParc checklist addresses issues concerning the animals’ ages, quality and fit of their tack, kinds of fences they have, number and accessibility of water stations, surface area of resting spaces, and more. “The animal welfare criteria are precise and can be clearly verified,” she said.

Pastorella said she relies on an equestrian tourism agency that’s consistently booked her, year after year, with companies that ensure good equine welfare. “It started with my aunt, who was a nature writer and a keen animal rights activist,” she said. Her aunt and then Pastorella herself appreciated that the agency, Equus Journeys based in Shropshire, U.K. (also known as Cheval d’Aventure based in Lyon, France) was doing the investigative work for them.