Image: Explora en Patagonia
Owned by a serious equestrian and infused with gaucho influences, Explora en Patagonia in Torres del Paine National Park, Chile, offers guests enough riding options to fill an entire horse-centric week.
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updated 5/30/2007 11:17:41 AM ET 2007-05-30T15:17:41

“Horses and dogs have been man’s most intimate and faithful companions since the dawn of history,” writes Prince Philip in the forward to “The Noble Horse,” “but the horse has certainly been the most useful.”

The Duke of Edinburgh has a point. For all of Rover’s stick-retrieving acumen, when’s the last time he let you strap a saddle to his back and ride him from chateau to chateau? (Or estancia to estancia? Or feather-bedded tent to feather-bedded tent?) Such is the service offered by countless horses around the world, many of whom work for operators that sweeten the deal with every conceivable luxury. And a few inconceivable ones, too: souvenir steed, anyone?

“A lot of people have no idea how big horseback riding is getting,” says Karen Lancaster, president of Cross Country International and purveyor of some of the swankiest riding holidays in existence. “There are 20 million riders in the U.S.,” she says, citing a recently commissioned MRI study. “And 12 million say they ride once a week, meaning they take the sport pretty seriously.”

Hence the distinct (and ever-growing) popularity of equestrian vacations-cum-clinics. The next one from Cross Country International is nothing short of a blowout: Taking place at Scotland’s Gleneagles (“the Palace in the Glen” that’s hosted everything from a G8 summit to the Ryder Cup), this five-day session in the middle of November stars Captain Mark Phillips.

Perhaps best known as the first husband of Princess Anne, he’s also a gold medal-winning Olympian who now coaches the U.S. equestrian team. “Riding with him is like golfing with Tiger Woods,” explains Lancaster.

Aside from the obvious (the gargantuan, phenomenally well-appointed Equestrian School — with miles of surrounding trails), the Gleneagles greatest hits include a falconry program, a formidable spa, copious amounts of golf and oh, a dedicated train station.

For equestrians (both current and aspiring) who want a more itinerant escape, the luxury-travel world is equally obliging. Why not a palace-to-palace twirl through Rajasthan, say?

Ghanerao Safari Tours, founded by the scion of a local lordly clan (the Thakurs, who descend from the Royal Family of Jodhpur), offers just that. Well, not just that. In addition to the (literally) palatial digs — with all the implied staff and solicitude — there are nature sanctuaries, historic forts and endless communities to explore. And doing so from the back of a horse, versus the back seat of an Ambassador, is a revelation for first-timers (and a beloved high for veterans).

When the American transcontinental highway system was built, everyone from John Steinbeck to Charles Kuralt noted that it allowed us to travel from one end of the country to the other without seeing anything or meeting anybody. “An equestrian tour achieves the opposite effect,” says Mark Gochman, president of Equestrian Adventurer Media (an enterprise that includes an online newsletter, a TV show in development and the MySpace of the equestrian world: Yourbarn.com).

Image: The Gleneagles
The Gleneagles in Perthshire, Scotland, is meticulously equipped for every conceivable discipline of horsemanship, and offers the riding world's equivalent of an Ivy League education.
“On horseback, you see everything and everyone as you go, and everyone’s smiling at you!” (Think about it: even the sight of a cop on horseback induces a reflexive smile.) “Basically,” contends Gochman, “this is four-legged therapy.”

And while you can find it almost anywhere on the face of the planet, certain regions are hot spots by virtue of trend and/or tradition. One example of the former: South America, with estancia travel, is“absolutely on fire,” says Gochman.

Fitting squarely into the latter category is, well, the entire British Empire, but Ireland in particular. “Even people from England go to Ireland for riding holidays because Ireland has better natural terrain for jumping,” says Nancy Donelon, a former competitive jumper who now customizes equestrian tours for Equinox Travel.

Castle Leslie, which hosted the nuptials of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills (other locally-consecrated unions have fared much better), is one of the most requested components of her itineraries. Another request that’s not infrequent: “Guests ask to purchase the horse they rode during their time at Castle Leslie’s equestrian center,” says Donelon. “And management has the process down to a science.”

A $25,000 science, minimum. Transatlantic ticket, including in-flight grooming service? $10,000. Starter horse? $15,000. The ability to say, “Check out this souvenir”? Priceless.

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