Before we had planes, trains, and automobiles, we got around on horses. They were the engine of our exploration — whether we were popping over to the next village to see what spices might have turned up via the Silk Route or crossing a continent with a caravan of anxious and hopeful pals to settle the Badlands.
But since the age of the engine, human interactions with horses have been less about necessity and more about recreation. I didn't grow up riding horses regularly, which may be why the few times I've done it have been unforgettable. And why I'm so drawn to these hotel around the world where the equestrian activities will transform a great stay into an incredible one.
Wolgan Valley, New South Wales, Australia
Giddy-Up: I spent an unforgettable 24 hours (way! too! brief!) at this stunning, 7,000 acre resort a few hours and a beautiful drive from Sydney west of the Blue Mountains. The property was a cattle ranch in its past life and is now devoted to conservation. I went on a terrific and informative nocturnal safari and learned about only-Down-Under animals like wallaroos and wombats, but the singular memory of the trip was the morning I spent horseback riding though the pristine and remote terrain. All levels are welcome to ride, on jaunts from 15 minutes to a half day.
Giddy-Up: The palace hotel in Marrakech is gorgeous, every detail a treat for the senses. The vast grounds — the spa, the gardens, the never-ending pool — include a stud farm open to visitors where champion purebreeds known as Selman Arabians live in stables designed by Jacques Garcia. (I once attended a spectacular lunch in these stables: That's how impressive they are.)
Horse Play: Hotel guests can watch artists from the School of Equestrian Arts of Marrakech in action — dressage, acrobatics, liberty experience, and equestrian shows — or participate themselves through dressage workshops and pony circus experiences for children. If you want to venture beyond the grounds, the hotel can arrange a "hippomobile" transfer from the airport by carriage or, in what sounds truly spectacular, an escape into Berber lands.
Giddy-Up: Fathom contributing editor Kate Donnelly recently visited and channeled her inner Marlboro Girl on nearly 7,000 acres of trails in the magic, rarefied Montana air. (The hotel even outfitted her with a cowboy hat, chaps, and boots.) This is American horse country at its best, and the hotel embraces the theme, with horse portraits in the rooms and bar stools that are actually mounts — saddles, stirrups, and all.
Horse Play: The herd of 75 (primarily Quarter Horses) are available for easy creekside trails for beginners and mountainous rides for the more advanced. The full ranch experience would include a roping lesson, learning to lasso a dummy steer pulled by a four-wheeler. Yee-haw.
Giddy-Up: The same family has called São Lourenço home for eight generations, from its origins as a small Alentejo farming village to the luxury farm retreat hotel it is today. The 7.8 million square meters include olive groves, vineyards, Neolithic ruins, and a working farm with some 220 cows and eight Lusitanos, the oldest saddle horses in the world.
Horse Play: Imagine galloping the estate, through fields and woods, exploring Neolithic and Roman ruins. Now imagine riding to the hilltop castle of Monsaraz for sunset views over the big lake and riding back under a full moon.
Giddy-Up: Let the Iberian equine competition continue at another agricultural hotel across the peninsula! (The Spanish and Portuguese vie for whose Lusitanos are the most authentic.) La Donaria is an working eco farm in Andalucia that produces olive oil, wine, and more. There are only nine guest rooms and 70 horses.
Horse Play: The equestrian program includes dressage and riding lessons, taught by an international team. The farm practices natural horsemanship, which respects the animals' natural instincts, and incorporates special yoga postures to deepen the bond between horse and rider.
Giddy-Up: If ever there was a town synonymous with horses, it would be Ascot. The epic race may only happen once per year, but the horses at the Equestrian Center at Coworth Park are available to guests and locals of all ages and abilities year-round.
Horse Play: If a simple saunter around the 240-acre estate and riding, dressage, and jumping lessons aren't enough of a thrill, you can learn to play polo from the pros at the Guards Polo Academy. Coworth Park is the only hotel in the UK with its own polo fields.
Sacred Valley, Peru
Giddy-Up: While the hotel doesn’t have stables on site, we love the thought of exploring the Sacred Valley on horseback. In fact, we love everything about Sol y Luna, the first luxury hotel in the Sacred Valley — the beautiful casitas, the gastronomy program (it’s a Relais & Chateaux), the breathtaking setting. But most of all we love the Sol y Luna foundation the owners established 20 years ago to support 200 local schoolchildren and people with disabilities. (How committed are they? They opened the hotel to support their charitable work.)
Horse Play: Visitors can do half- and full-day riding treks on Peruvian Paso horses, through villages and valleys and gorges, past archaeological sites, suspension bridges, and salt flats. The views are stunning.