Many equestrians dream of riding off into the sunset, but Pat Bailey of Newport Beach has actually done it.
Her international trips on horseback have taken her to exotic locations--from the jungles and deserts of Africa through the wine regions of France. Later this month she is organizing a how-to evening for other equestrians who dream of a break from the well-beaten trails of Orange County.
Bailey's first overseas riding adventure, several years ago, was a spur-of-the-moment decision. "I wanted to do a solid week of riding, but I also wanted to get away and take a vacation," she recalled. "I called my travel agent on Tuesday and left on Friday."
By the weekend, Bailey found herself on a spirited gallop through the French countryside, with a group of other equestrians.
"It was wild," she said. "The French are crazy on horseback. They see a cluster of trees and yell, 'petite gallop!' The next thing you know, you're flying through the brush and bramble. My hard hat (riding helmet) is all scraped from low-hanging tree branches."
Bailey, an accomplished equestrian who likes to ride hard and fast, was not intimidated. Even more challenging, she says, was her two-week African trip, which had riders in the saddle from sunup to sundown over rugged terrain.
"Ours was the first group to have everyone complete the African ride," she said. "We slept in tents, moved our camp every day and ate food from an open fire. It was not an easy ride."
Because the African trip had become notorious for scaring riders back home--a woman on a previous excursion was accosted (but unharmed) by a crocodile, and a man was stared down by a deadly poisonous snake--Bailey's group voted on who would be least likely to complete the ride. Bailey won (or lost, depending on how you look at it).
"They thought that because I was the only one dressed in formal riding attire that I was some kind of sissy," she said. They were wrong.
She toughed it out--and is eager to try an even greater challenge: a riding trip through China.
Bailey's excursions were arranged by Fits Equestrian, a Solvang company that specializes in riding vacations around the world. The China trip through the Tien Shan mountains is only for "the very adventuresome rider," said Peggy Hallauer, who owns the equestrian travel agency with her husband, Wolfgang.
"China is a very rugged trip," she said. "Last year our trip was the first time in 25 years that any foreigner had entered this part of China."
Hallauer and her husband specialize in matching riders with appropriate trips. Because the couple have taken all the riding tours themselves, they know which trips appeal to certain types of riders.
"Before we book a trip, we ask clients about their riding ability, likes and dislikes," Hallauer said. "The right trip depends on whether you like to rough it or have luxury accommodations, whether you prefer gourmet food or campfire cooking, whether you want to learn the history of the country or learn to ride better."
Most riders who take the trips are 25 to 60 years old and all must be solid riders. "But you don't have to be an expert or know how to jump," Hallauer said. The only requirements are that a rider be able to handle a horse at all gaits (walk, trot, canter and gallop), be able to ride on all types of terrain and be able to sit in the saddle up to six hours a day.
While Ireland and France are among the most popular destinations, her favorite is the trip to Exmoor, in Somersetshire in southwest England. "There is a lot of good, fast riding, and the terrain changes constantly," Hallauer said. "You go from the open moors to green meadows to river banks. It's breathtaking."
Fits offers riding trips to two dozen countries. Prices vary considerably and generally do not include air fare to a designated meeting point in the country. Among the least expensive vacations are 6 days in Mexico ($590) or 8 days in Canada ($725). Topping the price list are 16 days in Australia ($3,900, an exception that includes air fare from Los Angeles) and 20 days in China ($3,950, with a Hong Kong meeting point).
Accommodations vary from hotels to castles to private horse farms. On the Exmoor trip, there are no more than eight riders to a group, and they stay in small, family-type inns. On the French trip that Bailey took, there were no phones or TVs in the rooms, and meals were served in family style at a big table.
"(In France) we would ride out each morning in a different direction and eventually ride right up to someone's yard," Bailey said. "We'd put the horses in their barn and go into their home for breakfast. It was charming."
With Paula Voorhees, Bailey co-owns the Club, a private riding group based at Ortega Equestrian Center in San Juan Capistrano. As part of the group's social functions, Bailey is arranging a presentation of international riding vacations through Fits Equestrian. The Jan. 29 evening at the Balboa Bay Club in Newport Beach will include a buffet for $5. It is open to any interested rider, but reservations are required. The Club can be reached at (714) 661-3090 or Bailey at (714) 854-0763.
Information on the riding trips may also be obtained from Fits Equestrian, 2011 Alamo Pintado Road, Solvang, Calif. 93463, (805) 688-9494.
Darlene Sordillo, an author of two books on horse training, covers equestrian sports for The Times. Readers may send horse-related news to her at: Orange County Life, The Times, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, Calif. 92626.