Preparing for a Horseback Safari Aftar a Break from Riding

October 2, 2017

Travel tips for prepping for a horseback safari in Africa after not riding horses for 20 years. The best things to do before your riding holiday.

It all started with an Instagram post. I was scrolling through my explorer feed on a cold November day, when suddenly an image of a horse and a zebra appeared. What? Safari on horseback? How is that a thing and how come I´d never heard of it before! I hadn’t been in the saddle for 20 years but I was blown away by the thought of riding a horse through the African bush.

I immediately started browsing through websites to figure out how I could make this happen. My questions, as I’m sure yours are, many: Was I fit enough to go on a horseback riding safari? Was I brave enough? Wasn’t it dangerous? Could I afford it? What about diseases?

riding Africa horseback safari

The author, riding in South Africa.

After a lot of research I found a safari in a private reserve without dangerous game such as elephant or lions. It was also in a malaria free region to keep it extra risk free. The place catered for all riding levels so I felt fairly confident that I would manage.

So how to prepare for a horse riding safari if you haven’t been on a horse for years? Well, you can do what I did the first time around, which is nothing! I think I avoided thinking about it leading up to my trip to make sure I didn’t get cold feet and cancel the whole thing. So the day I got on the horse it was almost as if it came as a surprise that I would actually be back in the saddle, for real!

Although it all went well, zero preparation is not something I necessarily recommend as I did end up straining myself quite a bit. Many hours in the saddle does take some getting used to after all.

horse safari zebras africa

Chongwe checking out the striped horses. Zebras are among my favorite animals so this was a dream come true for me! 

So for my next safari (let me warn you, it’s addictive), which this time will be taking me into the wilderness of Botswana, I do plan on being a bit more prepared! Here are some of my top tips on how to get ready for a riding safari if you haven’t been on a horse for quite a while:

• Be honest to yourself about what you want to get out of your trip. And what’s most important to you. Scenery, wildlife, luxury, adventure..? There are safaris that cater for most preferences so it is up to you to choose the one that fits you best.

• Ride, ride, ride! Needless to say one of the best ways of getting ready is to ride as much as possible. There is no other sport where you will use the exact same muscles so try to get as many hours in the saddle as you can. Take extra lessons, go on trail rides back home, everything and anything that will get you back into it.

• Workout! Anything that will help your overall fitness is good as tempo in the bush can sometimes be quite high to cover more ground. I personally enjoy spinning but whatever floats your boat that ups your fitness helps.

• Work on your posture and your seat. When spending long hours in the saddle, any unconscious overload on a muscle might lead to pain after a while. I had an overly arched back which during a one hour riding lesson didn’t bother me, but I did feel it during the safari. Yoga channels for equestrians on Youtube combined with seat lessons on horseback are helping me prepare for next year.

• Consider the advantages of a lodge based safari versus a trail ride. A lodge based ride will usually be more flexible in the amount of hours you have to stay in the saddle. On a trail ride you will need to cover a certain distance each day, so if you do choose this, consider asking if they have vehicles that can take you if you need a break from the saddle.

• Get a seat saver. After the first two days of safari my seat bones were really struggling as well as my inner thighs. I bought a seat saver at the lodge that literally saved my bum for the remaining days! It will be the first thing I pack next time!

• Make sure you adjust your saddle properly. I got in trouble with shin splints in one of my legs and my front calf swell up with a nasty redness beneath the skin. The stable manager told me it was quite common in people riding with one stirrup shorter than the other. The “shorter” leg will then take more weight in the two point seat with risk of injury. I did lengthen that stirrup just one hole and it made a huge difference.

• Direct your brain. If you have been on a break from horse riding, it is natural to feel insecure or even scared in the beginning. When you are afraid, your fight – flight – freeze response actually overrides your rational thinking which is not very helpful. Since the brain cannot tell the difference between a real situation and something you envision vividly, it’s important to be mindful of your thoughts when you think about your trip. Worrying will only consume energy so steer your thoughts into a positive direction. Look at images from similar rides and envision yourself the way you would like to feel once there.

If you are reading this post, I already know that whatever safari you choose, you will love it! It is such a magical experience to see all the beautiful wildlife from the back of a horse! You will love the hours in the saddle bonding with your four-legged companion. The chats with fellow riders over drinks at sundown and the knowledge passed on by the friendly guides.

I hope these few tips have given you the courage to book your dream safari and that we meet out there on the trails one day! Happy riding!

About the author: Cynthia Janssens is back on horseback after 20 year break. Follow her journey to becoming a fit and confident enough rider to do a horse safari with the Big 5 on Instagram

Topics: Africa horse safari, Horse Holidays Africa, Horse Safari, Horseback Safari, Safari Travel Tips, South Africa, South Africa horseback, South Africa Safaris