When it comes to riding safaris in Africa, the expression “horses for courses” is particularly apt. For a start, the horses being ridden by guests will be specialists in their discipline; whether it is the Kalahari salt pans, the deserts of Namibia, the open plains of Kenya or the waters of the Okavango Delta; they all require horses with specialist experience in that type of terrain.
Different operators favour different types of horse. In the Okavango, one of the stables favours the Boerperd, a stocky small horse breed with a calm temperament that originated in South Africa. Less prone to accidents or sensitive to cuts and scratches, they are resilient in an environment where puncture wounds are a habitual issue and vets are many miles away.
Others prefer cross-breeds with Shire, Appaloosa, Clydesdale traits bred into thoroughbred and native stock. The common factor with all these, however, is not their conformation or looks but their suitability for the job. Schooling is, of course, important because visiting riders require a responsive animal. But training a safari horse requires more: they must be habituated to game, willing to gallop if required or stand still and graze while their riders watch and take photographs.
Sourcing the right horses and then training them is one aspect of the process for riding safari operators, but the second is matching each horse with a suitable rider (or vice versa depending on your perspective).
Matching horse and rider
Everyone has their own system for matching up the abilities of riders and horses on a safari. Ahead of the guests’ arrival, they will have completed forms indicating their size, weight and level of ability. But many operators will have to read between the lines because one person’s definition of experience may not be the same as another’s.
In some cases, it will transpire that the individual has very little actual experience of riding across rough country. Those who ride regularly in a school will have a high level of technical ability but may lack the ‘stickability’ of those who hunt or enjoy endurance riding. In very rare cases, it may become apparent that someone has exaggerated their ability and a riding test will reveal that they simply cannot ride safely in open terrain. Then there is a problem.
Ultimately, safety is paramount and an experienced riding safari consultant will advise the safari best suited to your ability. Ant’s Nest in South Africa, for example, is perfect for complete beginners and at Royal Tree Lodge in Botswana, there is an enclosed park of over a thousand acres which provides a safe predator-free environment for the less experienced. Whereas galloping across the Masai Mara with Offbeat Safaris is not for the faint-hearted.
At the other end of the scale, others may be unnecessarily modest or cautious when completing a form but would ultimately become bored riding a very quiet horse. These people are likely to be spotted at the very beginning and changed onto something more suitable. Subtle signs need to be read by the guide to ensure that the best matches are made. One experienced safari operator looks at the size of women’s hands as an unspoken indicator of their experience, working on the theory that their hands are larger than average from years of being around horses!
In the end it is not, of course, an exact science, but an expert will be able to help you to find the best operators and terrain to meet your expectations together with guidance on relaying an accurate picture of your ability.