NEW YORK (CNNfn) - Looking for a way to escape the tour bus vacation rut and have a blast at the same time? Maybe you should get a horse.
To some urban types, horseback riding may sound like something strictly for country club upper crusts or that bunch of middle-aged men-to-boys who used to run around the Ponderosa.
But you may be tired of the monument du jour sort of trip. Maybe you're looking for some adventure and climbing up on a horse could be just the change you crave.
Well, cowhand, you're in luck.
Hundreds of companies offer horseback riding-related activities, including many outfits that lead riding vacations in some of the most exotic locations on the globe.
From Austria to Australia, from Egypt to Ecuador, you can find a tour that organizers say will get closer to the land you're visiting than any bus ride or rental car ever could.
If you've never gotten over your cowboy fantasies, you can sign up for a cattle drive or a roundup and feel tall in the saddle as you do what a man's gotta do (women too).
Naturally, these kinds of vacations are not for everybody. Depending upon the location and the terrain, a riding trip can be quite demanding. Experts say it wouldn't hurt to brush up on your riding at a local stable if it's been awhile, and some tour operators run their own riding clinics for intensive training.
Now, enough of this lollygagging, partner; it's time to mount up and hit the trail.
Let it ride
Ryan Schmidt, owner of Hidden Trails, a tour company in Vancouver, Canada, says he's has seen interest in horseback riding explode in the last few years. And he thinks he knows why.
"Once you're on a horse," he said, "you're part of the landscape. You get to see things in detail. It's different than staying in the car and snapping pictures."
Bayard Fox, owner and founder of Equitour in Dubois, Wyo., said riding really gets you into the backcountry, but allows you to cover more ground than walking, which can be rather, ah, pedestrian.
"It's a wonderful introduction to the people," he said. "Everybody loves a rider. You not only form a bond with people in your group, but also with the local people you meet."
In addition, the groups are small, often limited to 10 or 12 riders, so you won't be lost in the herd.
"You're not likely to smell diesel fumes," said Lari Shea, president of Ricochet Ridge Ranch in Fort Bragg, Calif. "Any outfitter that produces a ride prides himself on taking you to pristine areas. It's a wonderful way to meet other adventure-minded people."
Many countries have a long history with horses, so you will be welcomed and, in cases where you may have to move quickly—like, say, when an elephant gets a little close in Kenya—having a fast horse sure beats running.
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So where are you hankering to go? Many tour companies conduct rides all over the world so you've pretty much got your choice. Travelers can time their trips with the changing of the seasons, heading to warmer climates when the cold weather hits their hometown.
Hidden Trails, for example, offers a nine-day "Ride of the Pharaohs" tour that starts with the pyramids and runs through deserts and oases. You'll spend four nights in a hotel and four more in tents. A scheduled Dec. 30 ride costs $2,115, airfare not included.
If you feel more like heading south of the border, Equitour has its "La Sierra Cavalcade" in Mexico, scheduled for dates in October, November, December, and into early 2001. Not counting airfare, the eight-day trip costs about $1,500, with most meals included.
The tour companies also offer specials on various rides, so keep an eye on their Web sites for a good deal.
Shea, at Ricochet Ridge Ranch, leads tours around Northern California's Mendocino coast and then goes overseas when the rainy season begins.
In January, she will lead a ride in India for the Nagaur Fair, where thousands of horses and camels will be traded and raced. While the event is well known locally, few tourists visit the fair. The ride runs from Jan. 20 to Feb. 3 and costs $3,075, airfare not included.
Tour organizers stress the importance of physical conditioning for their rides. You will be spending several hours a day in the saddle for a week or more, so be honest with yourself when deciding if you can handle the trip.
The tour companies rate their trips according to a rider's ability and suggest you come down on the side of caution when judging your skills. That way if you're wrong, it'll be in the right direction.
"If a ride is too fast-paced for someone," Fox said, "it becomes too dangerous for them and it slows down everybody else."
Shea said she has worked with people of all shapes and sizes — including a 97-year-old woman -- as long as they're basically in good shape.
"Like with anything else, with riding there are some tricks to the trade," she said. "I think it pays to get it right and learn it right."
Maybe you want to stick close to the ranch and do the whole "City Slickers" routine. In that movie, Billy Crystal gains insight into the meaning of his life while joining in a cattle drive out west.
The film inspired many people to sign up for the real thing and, in fact, Hidden Trails named a cattle driver after the movie. There's a round-up scheduled for next month at the N-Bar Ranch in New Mexico, costing $950 for seven days, airfare not included.
If you sign on for one of these trips, you probably won't run into the movie's Jack Palance, but you may learn something about yourself and your riding skills. And you'll have stories to go with those saddle sores.
-- Click here to send e-mail to Rob Lenihan