Safari on Horseback: Know Before You Go

Aardvark Safaris, Kenya
What’s involved in preparing for a horseback riding safari in Africa?

A horseback riding safari in Africa has been on my bucket list for a very long time. When I learned that I needed a hip replacement, I thought my days of advanced horseback riding vacations were over. After speaking with John Spence, president of Aardvark Safaris, I’m encouraged to give safari on horseback a go.

I’d love to gather a group of like-minded equestrians to join me on this adventure. With that in mind, I’ve asked John to answer some specific questions in preparing for a horseback riding safari in Africa.

Aardvark Safaris, Botswana, Africa

1. You’ve answered many questions about horseback riding safaris on your FAQ’s page. Of particular note is the comment to be honest about your riding ability. I’m comfortable around horses, having owned them in my youth, but my current riding is very infrequent – about once or twice a month for a couple of hours. How do you recommend a rider prepare for safari on horseback?

I always encourage guests to ride as much as they can before they travel to Africa for their riding safari, and perhaps have a few extra lessons. The fitter you are, the more you will enjoy your riding safari.

2. How many hours per day are anticipated in the saddle?

It varies depending on what trip you’re doing but you can usually expect to spend anywhere between three to seven hours in the saddle. Typically, you’ll ride twice a day—once in the morning and once in the afternoon with a midday break. Some itineraries cover a long distance and you’ll move camp every other night (our Kenya rides are a great example). Others ride out from the same camp each day. With four hours in the morning and three in the afternoon, you’ll have ample chance to sit and watch the wildlife before returning for dinner.

Aardvark Safaris, Okavango Delta, Botswana

3. Please share a bit of your own riding safari experience with us.

Let’s just say I know enough to know that I’m not the best rider. I grew up on a farm and my Mom got me riding ponies, but I was nowhere near as good as my sisters. That said, even with the most basic skills I’ve been lucky enough to enjoy incredible riding experiences in South Africa, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Malawi and Kenya. Fortunately, Aardvark Safaris has several very experienced riding safari experts on hand to help everyone from advanced to novice riders plan an amazing trip.

4. What type of saddle do they use in Africa? What is a McClellan saddle and Australian stock saddle?

English tack is most commonly used on rides in Africa, but some operators do offer McClellan saddles if you prefer. I believe the latter was designed for the military by George B. McClellan, an officer in the U.S. army. It became the army’s saddle of choice for many years. Its lightweight enough to be easy on the horse but sufficiently sturdy to be comfortable over longer distances. The Australian stock saddle is based on the English saddle but it has a deeper seat, higher cantle, and knee pads at the front to create a secure seat for riders covering rough terrain for long periods.

5. Are we responsible for grooming and saddling our horses each day?

You certainly can if you want to but you don’t have to for the most part. Many riders enjoy it so it’s often encouraged. If that doesn’t appeal, you can relax and enjoy a hearty breakfast then find your horse groomed, fed and waiting for the off.

Aardvark Safaris, Okavango Delta, Botswana, Africa

6. You mention being able to gallop out of trouble. While there is no “typical day on safari in Africa” what sort of encounters might we expect to see on safari? Will we be riding near elephants or giraffe?

It’s important to know that there’s a riding safari to suit all abilities. Some are better suited to experienced, fit riders while others are better for inexperienced or ‘rusty’ riders. I always run through a questionnaire with my clients to help them establish how competent a rider they are. Questions include, ‘Are you confident at gallop?’, ‘Do you have experience riding on rough terrain?’, and ‘What type of riding do you do?’ We go to lengths to get the right match because, though rare, there may be occasions when you need to respond quickly and you need to be able to stay on and keep up.

If you’re doing a week long riding safari in Botswana, let’s say, the point is to have fun! Generally, you’ll get close to giraffes, zebras, elephants. It’s all part of the thrill and adventure of a riding safari. Horses tend to steer clear of danger—they’re trustworthy but very alert, which is exactly what you want.

7. I’m sure I speak for my fellow riders when I say that I don’t want to come across a hungry lion on safari. Tell us about the animals that are happy to co-exist with horses and some of the animals that we might have issues with on the trail.

We’ve worked with the outfitters we use for over 20 years. In that time, I’m delighted to say that we’ve never had any clients or horses eaten by lions. Of course, riding anywhere—in the States or Africa—has its risks like falling and breaking a leg. The good news is that lions tend to avoid horses with riders. Regardless, guides will always err on the side of caution. In the unlikely event of trouble, your lead guide will put themselves between you and the animal while another guide leads you to safety. Guides are sometimes armed but it’s very rare they use them.

Ol Donyo, Kenya, Africa

8. A safari on horseback is a significant financial investment. My goal is to gather a small group of dedicated equestrians to join me on this riding adventure of a lifetime. Assuming it takes a year to pony up enough riders for this horseback riding vacation, what steps do we need to follow to make this dream a reality?

A week-long riding safari can be no more expensive than an equivalent skiing holiday, and the price will include flights , transfers, accommodation, activities and some drinks. Before you commit to a group riding safari you all need to decide what type of trip is best suited to you. One week can cost anything between $5k to $10k so budget is a factor. If you’re planning a trip, my advice is to find a ride then promote the trip to your friends. Groups tend to be anything between four or five people up to 12. The group leader is often entitled to a discount.

9. When is the 25% confirmation deposit due? Do we purchase travel insurance through Aardvark Safaris? Airfare is purchased from our gateway city through Aardvark Safaris flight partner?

Comprehensive travel insurance is necessary when going to Africa—many camps and lodges require it. We always recommend you choose a policy that has 100% cancellation coverage and a $500,000 benefit per person for medical evacuation or repatriation. The latter is essential. God forbid you should have a serious illness or accident and need medically supervised evacuation or repatriation but the cost of this can be prohibitive. Aardvark can help you with travel insurance, which is additional to, not part of, the safari price.

Flight-wise, you can make your own arrangements for international air travel or we will happily recommend a flight consultant or the best routes. Confirmation payment of 25% is requirement from you/your party at the time of booking your safari, and the remainder is due ten weeks before you travel.

Aardvark Safaris, Macatoo Camp - Okavango Delta, Botswana

10. What questions would you like to address that I haven’t answered.

● What about non-riders?

Many rides we sell work well for non-riders, others less so. Some rides are suitable for beginners and novices, but if people in your party don’t want to ride at all then we can help you choose a destination where there will be plenty of other things going on: game drives, walking and fishing to name a few.

● Is there a minimum or maximum age limit for a riding safari?

Generally speaking, there are no official minimum or maximum ages, but different operators have different rules. We’ve had a lot of mothers and sons/daughters go on riding safaris together. Faster rides generally specify a minimum age of 12. At the other end of the scale, older riders are welcomed as long as they can gallop out of trouble should it be needed.

● What equipment should you take?

We suggest you take your own lightweight riding helmet and other riding gear; jodhpurs, boots, chaps, etc. It’s also a good idea to take small binoculars that will fit into a saddlebag, and a point and shoot camera.

If You Go:
Aardvark Safaris (858) 523-9000
Are you interested in joining me on safari on horseback? Please leave your name and e-mail address in the comments below as to how I may contact you for further discussion. Serious inquires only.
All photos courtesy Aardvark Safaris