Zen & the Art of Horseback Safaris

Grace, beauty, spirit, freedom…

Walking into the horse stables at ol Donyo Lodge is like entering a Buddhist monastery. But instead of a remote mountain top in Tibet, we’re in an acacia forest at the foothills of the Chyulu Hills in Kenya.

In the shadow of Mount Kilimanjaro, the horses stand still and peaceful. Their long manes wrap around their necks like saffron robes over the shoulders of monks. Meeting them, eye to eye, foot to hoof, there’s an instant change we feel.

Horses are sensitive creatures. They pick up on our feelings and they react to them. Communing with these animals, grooming them, riding them and talking to them have even become forms of therapy, because horses act as an emotional mirror to us. We can’t hide from a horse. They reflect our hearts back to us, reveal our thoughts and feelings that may be deep-rooted or close to the surface, even when we’re not conscious or certain of them. Simply put, we see ourselves more clearly through the eyes of a horse.

Riders often talk about being able to connect better with their horse than most people. Because horses sense things. They have a natural wisdom and intuition about them.

Being able to “influence their movements, you have to overcome your nerves and be physically assertive,” The Guardian reported in an article entitled, Beyond mindfulness: how horse riding and eating greens can help depression. “Communing with most animals brings psychological benefits, but there’s a theory that the bigger the animal, the bigger the boost. Equine assisted therapy sessions don’t usually involve riding, but that can be beneficial – and fun – too.”

Replacing the grumble of a car engine with the sound of hooves…

On horseback at ol Donyo Lodge, with the Great Plains Ride Kenya programme, we feel a calm and confidence in connecting with these animals. The success of the ride depends on the success of the bond between steed and rider. We have to work together. That’s horse-riding rule number one, and its greatest lesson.

As we break into a soft trot along ancient elephant paths in this private Kenyan wilderness, the wild animals in the reserve creep closer, more familiar and comfortable with the horses’ presence than a vehicle’s or a human on foot. The great Tusker elephants, Maasai giraffe, eland, impala, fringe-eared oryx, warthog, herds of zebra, wildebeest and Thompson’s gazelle, and a Maasai herder with his cattle all cross our path.

Eyes switching between the horizon and the ground not too far in front of us, our minds are focused, present. They are clear and still. Monk-like. There is no space in the saddle for sadness, anxiety, fear or anger. Emotions have to be reeled in like a spirited horse.

Not restricted by roads, we forge our own paths – through a forest and across open grass plains. We explore the volcanic Chyulu Hills behind the stables and climb nearly a thousand feet, coming out in a Wild Olive Tree grove, across a herd of hartebeest.

Our thighs and calves feel strong around the horse’s powerful body, muscles tensed and then relaxed as we slow down for a reprieve and breakfast under the shade of a Red Hot Poker Tree.

We take our seats out of the morning sun, at a table laid out in the middle of the wilderness. We seem to have lost our words. We hear every bird call ringing across the wild, their songs filling the pause in our conversation. We see the tiniest twitchings of insects crawling on the tree trunk next to us.

There is a space that’s been created inside us and nature and her tranquility have slipped in. We’ve crossed over. Our senses are sharp. Samurai sharp. Maasai herder sharp.

The Zen-like trance of horse-riding in the wild has taken over.

Things to Know About Horseback Safaris at ol Donyo Lodge

  • With low tourist densities you are more likely to come across the paw print of a lion than the footprint of a human!
  • Rides can be enjoyed by riders of all levels, from novice to advanced.
  • We have a herd of 20 horses from 15.1hh to 17hh (horse height in hands).

The horses are soft, responsive and sensible. Not only are they ridden in the bush but they also live among the wildlife during the day – free and unfenced. This makes for horses that are completely at home in their environment and that are an absolute joy to ride.

  • Please note that for safety reasons we have an age limit of 12. All children between 12 and 15 must be accompanied by a riding parent or guardian.
  • For Intermediate riders and above we offer 2 to 4 hour rides exploring the concession, with medium to fast paced canters. The team at the stables will judge your proficiency just to be sure!
  • Amateur riders can enjoy a gentle 60/90 minute ride exploring the open plains.

Our breeds include the South African Boerperd, which is one of the few recognised native breeds in Africa well known for their superb temperament, endurance and versatility. We also have Thoroughbreds, Friesians, Percheron crosses, Shire crosses and a small Somali pony called Orion, who has been at the stables for over 20 years.

  • Our horses are ridden in English bridles and bits. We offer a choice of English, Western or Trail saddles
  • A selection of riding hats, riding boots, breeches and half chaps are available for guests for no additional charge.

Discover more about horseback safaris at ol Donyo Lodge, Kenya, here >