A Guide for Ethical (and Safe) Horseback Riding on Your Next Trip 2022

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Have you been interested in horseback riding, but want to be sure that you’re doing so in a way that is both ethical and safe? If so, this post is for you! I’ll outline why it matters to carefully consider whether to hire a particular horse or ride at a particular stable. This advice applies to all equine activities, but the two most common I see when traveling are carriage rides in large cities and trail rides through wooded areas. 

I started riding when I was 8 years old, and have been around horses for a large part of my life. I wanted to write this post because I’ve often had friends express concern for horses we see out and about while traveling. I’ve used those opportunities to educate friends about normal horse things (horses don’t need to be laying down to be relaxed) and signs of potential mistreatment (scars and sores from their tack or training whips). 

Ethical and safe animals encounters during your travels

When traveling, you’ll may be offered chances to interact with animals in exchange for money, both domesticated and wild. If you’re choosing to do this, be sure that your first consideration is the animals’ welfare. There is no ethical way to hold baby tigers or ride elephants when you’re traveling; those acts are damaging for the animals and linked to mistreatment in all cases. 

Riding horses when traveling is a bit different. As an experienced horse person, I think that you can ethically ride when you travel, but you have to be careful, observant, and thoughtful when doing so. On a trip to Colombia years ago, I was visiting Tayrona National Park with a friend and couldn’t help but notice the huge number of horses available to tourists. The issue, however, was that these horses were covered in scars and sores. I’m talking big, painful-looking sores on their backs near their saddles. 

After a horse passed my friend and me, I mentioned how rough the horses looked and she surprised me when she asked what I meant. I explained to her that there’s no reason for horses to have fresh, visible sores–and she expressed her surprise; no one had ever explained this to her. I decided to write this post so that anyone who isn’t a horse person–and doesn’t know what to look for–can have some guidelines to help them decide if the animal is being treated well. 

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I spotted this horse on a hike in Valle Cocora, near Salento in Colombia. This horse seemed perfectly happy and healthy, unlike the horses in Tayrona National Park on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

Ethical Travel: Why it matters where you spend money

Someone once explained capitalism to me like this: you get a vote at the ballot box and another vote every time you spend a dollar. Meaning, every dollar that you spend is a powerful endorsement for the things that you choose to buy–a vote that says “this is what people in this place want.” Therefore, when you’re traveling, it matters where you spend your money–tourist markets inform local economies.

If, for instance, several people visiting a beach buy ice cream, over time more and more ice cream vendors will pop up offering different options for potential customers. This can be great: past travelers’ behaviours can help ensure there is water for sale at the end of a popular hike or a restaurant across the street from your hostel for you to grab some late night bites. You could also credit these forces with the increased vegetarian and vegan options at restaurants around the world. If people want to buy it, chances are it’ll eventually be for sale. 

The things that you choose to support when you travel are also tacit endorsements of behavior. If you buy veal when you go out for dinner, there’s a strong economic incentive for producers to continue selling veal. Veal used to be very common in the US, with the average person consuming about 8.6 pounds per year. Following a public awareness campaign in the 1980s, demand for the product dropped precipitously, and by 2008 consumption was down to 0.3 pounds per person per year. You can read more about veal here

What to look for

I’ll do my best to explain in detail what you can look for before deciding whether or not to support a particular equine business/participate in an activity. I’ll say this a few times in the post, but I can’t emphasize enough – if something just feels “off” don’t do it!

Full disclosure: I often decide not to hire a horse when I travel. 

The view while riding a calm, happy horse on a dirt road.

Green Flags (look for these)

  • Every rider in the group is wearing a helmet
  • Horses maintain a walk at all times when on paved surfaces 
  • Horses seem comfortable, well fed, and have no visible scratches, scars, or sores. If you see the horse walking, they are not favoring any particular leg.
  • Horse’s hooves look like they are clean, healthy, and free of chips/cracks
    • If walking on hard surfaces, check to see that the horse has shoes on all four hooves (occasionally there is a good reason a horse isn’t shod, but generally they should have shoes if walking long distances on concrete/asphalt) 
  • If applicable, horse looks big enough to pull the carriage 
  • Horse is calm, dry (not sweating), carries head in a natural looking position
  • Handler is calm, gentle, and relaxed. Horse is comfortable with its handler and does not jerk away from them or attempt to back away when approached. Handler is not struggling to control the horse.  
  • Weather is reasonably temperate (you can comfortably walk around with a jacket if cold or in a t-shirt if hot)
  • There is no salt/ice on the roads or path that the horse will be using
  • Horse has ample access to water while standing/waiting
  • Tack looks clean, well maintained, and in good condition 

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Yellow Flags (use discretion)

  • Weather is very cold. Horses have coats and can handle colder temperatures, but I wouldn’t personally hire a horse at/below 20 degrees Fahrenheit.  
  • If riding a horse, every rider should be wearing a helmet 
  • Horses are trotting (jogging) or cantering on natural, sturdy surfaces (such as a smooth trail through the woods) with riders. Be sure that your level of comfort and equine experience can support this activity for you and the others in your group. 
  • Horse whinnies or yells to other horses. This is somewhat normal horse behavior, but if it calls out repeatedly (more than 2-3 times), it might be too worked up/excited for a beginner or novice rider to safely handle. 

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Red Flags (if even one of these is true, it’s a deal breaker for me)

  • You are not provided with a helmet.
  • Horse is routinely asked to trot or canter/gallop on hard surfaces. This is dangerous for horses and can lead to severe injuries over time. 
  • Horse is asked to trot or canter/gallop on very soft surfaces, like a beach with deep sand (think: could I easily jog on this surface? If the answer is no, the sand is too deep). This is dangerous for horses and can lead to severe injuries over time. 
  • Horse is visibly anxious, throws head repeatedly, seems afraid or tries to back away from handler when approached. 
  • Horse is asked to stand in the (hot) sun without regular access to water. Note: check the area closely, sometimes the water is located in a bucket or automated waterer nearby and is regularly offered to horses. Ask if unsure. 
  • Animal is visibly underweight
  • Horse has scars, sores, whip marks, or broken skin anywhere on their body. 
  • Animal is bleeding from a cut or sore (think: is this injury too severe for a human band-aid? Meaning: a drop or two of blood? Probably fine. A big sore? Probably not fine.)
  • Horse is asked to trot, canter, or gallop in deep sand. The softer the sand, the more dangerous this is for the horse. 
  • Horse is shaking or appears weak
  • Horse is coughing excessively and/or repeatedly
  • Horse kicks at their stomach
  • Horse tries to lay down 
  • Horse looks excessively young or old. This requires some knowledge of horses, so if you’re not sure how to distinguish a horse’s age you can disregard this one. 
  • Horse has a vertical split in one or more of its hooves that looks deeper than superficial
  • Horse should never be tied by its reins to a post. Check that the horse is not attached to the pole/railing by the metal bit in its mouth. 
  • Horse is favoring (limping) on one of its legs or hooves. 
  • One or more of the horse’s legs is swollen 

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Normal horse things

Having spent some time around non-horse people, I’ve gotten a sense of the things that may seem strange but actually aren’t any cause for alarm. 

  • There is no need for horses to have access to food all day while they stand, but they should have regular access to water. 
  • There is no need for horses to be untacked/unsaddled while they rest, but the girth (the part going around their bellies) should be loosened somewhat for their comfort. 
  • Horses snort and blow their noses regularly–this is not a cause for alarm unless they seem to be in respiratory distress. 
  • Horses can sleep standing up, so a horse that looks like it dozed off is probably just taking a little nap. 
  • Every once in a while, a horse might trip or lose its footing (just like a person might). This is not necessarily a cause for concern unless it seems to be a pattern. 
  • You should never feed a horse without its owner’s permission. 
  • If you plan to ride a horse while traveling, I suggest that you double check your travel insurance to be sure this activity is covered. 
  • If something gives you an “off” vibe or a bad feeling, skip the horse-related activity.

Safety notes

There’s no sugar coating it, equine activities involve inherent safety risks. Horses are large animals with their own opinions, triggers, and thoughts, and even experienced riders are at risk of potentially deadly accidents. There are simple precautions you can take to minimize these risks: wear a helmet, wear appropriate shoes, and choose a reputable riding establishment.

Author and sister riding horses in Portugal. Riders are following safety practices and wearing helmets.
Riding horses with my younger sister near Aljezur in Portugal. The name of the stable we used was Horses in the Sun, and I’d recommend it if you visit the Algarve region!


I’ve mentioned this twice in other sections, but please wear a helmet if you are going to ride a horse (no matter how “bulletproof” the horse is said to be). Head injuries are the most common cause of equestrian-related injuries and deaths, and it’s simply not worth the risk.

Your helmet should fit snugly around your head (but not so tight that it would give you a headache), and the chin strap should be tightened so that it touches your skin (but does not interfere with your breathing or ability to move your head). A good test for helmet fit is to wiggle the visor with the chinstrap unfastened–you should be able to see the rider’s eyebrows move somewhat along with the visor. Here is a video that shows proper helmet fit, for the visual learners.

Appropriate shoes

Whenever possible, try to use smooth-soled boots when riding horses, as this minimizes the risk that your foot will become stuck in the stirrup. If you must ride in tennis shoes, take care not to slide your foot too far into the stirrup. Your guide should be able to help you if you have questions about this, but as a general rule of thumb you never want to force your foot into a stirrup. 

Reputable riding establishments

A reputable riding establishment is one that should easily clear all of the “green flags” that I listed above. They will have healthy, happy horses that are managed by experienced and caring staff. These establishments take the necessary precautions to ensure that both humans and animals are as safe as possible at all times. In addition to checking reviews, also ask yourself: does anything feel “off” here? With horseback riding and many other high risk activities while traveling: when in doubt, go without. 

Final thoughts

Horseback riding can be a fun activity on your next trip, especially if the horses you choose to hire are well cared for and happy. Take the time to familiarize yourself with this list of “green flags” and “red flags” before your next trip so you’ll know what to look for before you go.

Do you have any questions about this list? Did I forget to include any information? Please let me know in the comments! And, if you’ve never been abroad and would like some help planning your first trip, check out this guide.