Even if you don't fancy yourselves equestrians and can't remember the last time you were on a horse, winter can be a wonderful time for family horsing-around.
Climbing onto a saddle might not seem like an obvious way to beat the winter blahs. But there's nothing quite like getting on horseback and taking in your surroundings from the strong back of a majestic beast. Whether you do it at a bold gallop or a tentative trot makes no difference. If you do it as a family, you'll come home invigorated from a memorable experience.
Look into your local stables. A search through your Yellow Pages or an Internet directory like Superpages will help you find stables in your area (search under "stables," "equestrian," "riding," or "horseback"). Resorts, riding academies, ranches, equestrian centers, and stables are all possibilities for riding lessons or guided rides. Most stables offer lessons at all skill levels. Guided rides are another option; they sometimes come with lunch along the trail. A ride with a guide will usually ensure that your family travels scenic trails; you'll have a chance to explore woods and meadows and appreciate mountain and lakeside vistas. If your area doesn't boast much in the way of scenery, your local landscape -- even if it's flat and dusty like most cowboy trails -- takes on a mystique when you're looking at it from the back of a horse. It's that much more magical after a snowfall or under soft flurries. Be sure to dress for the weather, and take along some Thermoses of coffee, hot chocolate, or spiced cider to take off the chill when you get back to the car. Make a day of it and go out to dinner after your ride. The conversation will commit to your family's memory bank a wealth of wonderful shared horseback experiences.
The pleasure of being pulled. Maybe your equestrian pleasure runs more to being pulled along in style than to being atop your own steed. If that's the case, let your fingers and search engines do the research again, but this time hunt for sleigh, carriage, and wagon rides. Many of the same places that offer horseback riding might offer horse-drawn rides. During the holiday season, shopping districts and festivals often feature horse-drawn carriage rides in the fashion of Dickensian London. Your kids will never forget huddling under blankets on opposite benches of a carriage pulled by Belgian draft horses, trotting around town under twinkling lights. If you live in a ski area, sleigh rides might be on the activity list at a nearby resort. Some are gourmet affairs that make a memorable meal of the experience; others whoosh you to restaurants accessible only by ski or sleigh. If the horses are wearing sleigh bells, you've definitely got the makings of a very special family outing.
Watching horses can be as much fun as riding them. Horse shows of any kind are colorful events. Get tickets for the whole family and go together for a truly memorable treat.
Rodeos and hoedowns. If the rodeo is in town, get on your cowboy hats and boots and plan to be in the stands. At Little Britches Rodeo Association events, you can see 8- to 18-year-olds going through rodeo paces -- roping, bronc riding (saddle and bareback), barrel-racing, etc. Senior citizens rodeo, high-school kids rodeo, college kids rodeo. And, of course, there are the professionals. Search the Internet for competitions and exhibitions in your area; you can also check local entertainment guides.
Equestrian demonstrations. Equestrian events feature the seven disciplines recognized by the International Equestrian Federation: show jumping, dressage, eventing, driving, endurance, vaulting and reining. If gymnastics on horseback sounds exciting, imagine taking the whole family to see a vaulting exhibition or competition. On the USA Equestrian site -- www.equestrian.org -- you can search a database for competitions in your area.
You can also learn all about the gymnastics of equestrian vaulting, and find events close to you, by clicking around the links page on the American Vaulting Association site.
A day at the races. It doesn't have to be the Kentucky Derby to make a day at the track first-rate fun. For good old horseracing and steeplechase events, the nearest horse track will always deliver. Call or search online for a schedule of events.
4-H. Nearer to urban areas than you might guess, there are 4-H kids working with horses and competing at fairs. Some 6.8 million kids across the country have pledged their Heads to clearer thinking, their Hearts to greater loyalty, their Hands to larger service, and their Health to better living. They have events all the time, many times showcasing talents they've cultivated with the animals they raise and care for. Even though one of the four Hs isn't for "horse," lots of 4-H kids are passionate horse devotees. To find out how to contact local 4-H groups to ask about horse-related programs in your area, search on the Four-H-Web, the site of the 4-H organization.
Horses as works of art. The world-famous all-white Lipizzaners, the renowned dancing stallions from Austria, can be seen on tour. You can learn all about them on the White Stallion Productions Web site and check to see when their eye-popping show is coming to your area. If that's not any time soon, consider the show Cheval, an exploration of the relationship between humans and horses created by the genius behind Cirque du Soleil, Giles Ste-Croix. The traveling show -- which is on a three-year, 19-city tour -- showcases 17 different breeds of horses and a cast of 27 in a true celebration of our fascination with these beautiful animals.
Or there may well be other horse shows coming to your area that will interest you. Log on to your favorite search engine and put in keywords like "horse show" or "horse exhibition"; narrow your search with the name of the nearest large city.
To get into the equine spirit, learn all about horses at the Web site of the International Museum of the Horse. You can visit the actual museum in Kentucky, or spend equally enthralling hours learning all things equestrian online.
There's a good reason why horses are used in therapies to reach children with mental and mobility challenges. The spirit of the horse communicates on a profound level with the human spirit. The movement of the beautiful beast engages our muscles, coordination, and minds in a unique way that is both healing and exhilarating. Get some of this kind of horseplay into your family time this season, and experience true equine magic.
Dana Joseph is a freelance travel writer based in Dallas, Texas.