Balance Golf and Riding on Vacation

Mike and Johanna Bresnan | © Donnelle Oxley

He’s a 30-something male who started playing golf for business purposes and discovered that he loves the game. He dreams of a vacation during which he can play golf every day on great courses and not feel guilty about neglecting his family or traveling companion.

She’s a 30-something female who rode horses as a child. She now watches from the rail as her daughters take riding lessons, but she fantasizes about a vacation riding horses all day through a beautiful countryside.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you have the opportunity to plan a vacation that will make the whole family happy, i.e., let you have your cake and eat it too. (Oh, about your son, the goalie? Send him to hockey camp.)

“About 30 percent of our clients are non-riding companions, many of whom are golfers,” says Karen Lancaster, whose 16-year-old company, Cross Country International, arranges more than 5,000 international horseback, golf and walking trips every year.

“Though very different, the two sports work out well together on vacation,” she adds. “Both happen in beautiful places, such as Ireland, Scotland, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Costa Rica or the Greek Isles. Our inn-to-inn trips are especially popular. The women (70 percent of our riders are women) ride out on a new trail every morning, and the guys set off to play a different golf course. They meet that evening at their lodging, a romantic little inn or an historic hotel or chateau. It’s the best of both worlds.”

The demographics of the two sports point to a degree of crossover — and to a sexist delineation that, of course, is not always true.

According to the National Golf Foundation (NGF), today’s typical golfer is a 30 to 39-year-old male (about 20 percent of all golfers are female) with a household income of more than $50,000 (28 percent) or more than $75,000 (36 percent). Today’s typical rider is a 38-year-old woman (Almost 85 percent of the membership in USA Equestrian, the governing body of horse sports in the U.S., is female.) with a household income of more than $60,000 (American Horse Council).

Of the 26 million golfers in the U.S., 6.3 million of them are avid golfers who play more than 25 rounds a year (NGF). About 7 million Americans are avid riders who participate in show or recreational horseback riding, according to the American Horse Council.

A Travel Industry of America (TIA) survey positions horseback riding as the fifth most popular soft adventure vacations (behind camping, hiking, bicycling and bird- and animal-watching, but ahead of skiing, sailing and canoeing). Another TIA survey shows that about 17 million travelers play golf on vacation, three times more than play tennis, which (unofficially) positions golf at the top of non-adventure sports travel. There are no statistics to support the fact that many young girls are “horse crazy.” Or that many former horse-crazy girls are now 30- to 60-year-olds who yearn for the horses of their childhood — or the horses they never had.

CCI’s Argyll Ride In Scotland | © Cross Country International

Types of Trips
Golf/riding trips fall loosely into three categories: inn-to-inn, one-stop destinations, and “samplers” of several nights at selected resorts. There are, of course, infinite combinations.

One option is arranging lodging and tee times through a golf vacation company (some have access to hard-to-get tee times in high season). Then ask the booking agent for contact information, and consult with hotel concierges about riding opportunities.

If you decide to put neither the cart nor the horse first, you can book your lodging in advance and scout out courses and riding opportunities when you arrive. Don’t try this in high season at the most popular venues or one or both of you may be disappointed.

Riders follow trails leading from one night’s lodging to the next, the luggage is transported by van, and golfers travel by rental car, playing courses near the ride route.

One of CCI’s most popular trips is Scotland’s Argyll Castle Trail Ride, six days of riding through the Scottish Highlands, a beautiful, rugged region steeped in history. The Argyll Peninsula is also an area where you can scarcely drive two kilometers without passing a golf course.

It turned out to be the perfect destination for Mary Madden and her husband Dan Ringeisen, who own and operate The Inn at Snakedance, a ski resort near Taos, NM. They vacation before and after ski season, and have for many years combined riding and golf. Mary usually books a structured riding agenda, and Dan arranges his own golf. The 10-handicapper, who has played all over the world, now bypasses the big-name courses and goes in search of local gems.

One fall, Mary joined a group of riders for CCI’s Argyll Castle Ride, and Dan and another golfer decided to play courses as they found them, consulting the Scottish Golf Union map ( for particulars.

“I can always play golf with other Americans,” he says, “but on vacation I really enjoy the out-of-the-way courses. They’re not crowded, and the local golfers are glad to see you. We always end up in the pub afterwards, having a great time with the locals.

“We arrived on the Argyll Peninsula before the ride started, and took a ferry over to the Isle of Erin, a tiny island with four courses on it,” says Dan. “One is a links course built in the 1880s with 13 holes. That’s all the town had room for. It was pouring rain, but we were dressed for it and had a great time. I don’t worry about my score. It’s all about being there.

“The next day we took the ferry back to the mainland. Mary met the ride and I played the course in Oban, where they make Oban Scotch. The course is very old and hilly, with tees and greens cut into the sides of hills.”

Over the next couple days, Dan and his friend played local nine-hole courses, dropping their greens fees into honor boxes. Then they drove down to the end of the peninsula to the highly respected Machrihanish Course. The first tee, with its long beach carry into a wicked ocean wind, is considered Scotland’s premier opening hole.

“It’s got to be one of the best golf values (30 pounds) in the world,” says Dan. “We played it twice, and found it quite wonderful.”

Meanwhile, Mary was enjoying riding “through perfectly beautiful countryside, stopping for lunch at pubs or castles or having picnics next to remote stone shepherd’s huts,” she says. “The horses were fit Irish crossbreds, and the guides and stable hands were all very friendly and good at their jobs. The riders start out as strangers, but with a commonality of spirit and values — an interest in the horses, the riding, the countryside, and making new friends.”

Tour Operator Landy Blank Tees Off | © Donnelle Oxley

For the vacationer who prefers to unpack only once, there are resorts in the U.S. and abroad with enough golf and riding to fill many days. Here are a few world-class examples:

Scotland’s Gleneagles Resort (, 011-44 0 1764 662231) has three famous 18-hole routes and the 9-hole Wee Course. James Braid designed the classic King’s and Queen’s layouts, and the PGA Centenary Course, chosen as the 2014 Ryder Cup venue, is a Jack Nicklaus creation. Gleneagles Equestrian Center is one of the finest in the world, offering instruction in jumping, dressage, eventing and carriage driving. The lodging, dining, spa and other activities such as falconry, sporting clays and fishing are equally superb.

Ireland’s Mt. Juliet (, 011-353 0 56 73000), a 200-year-old County Kilkenny estate with 59 luxurious rooms, has a Jack Nickaus-designed course that hosted three Irish Opens in the 90s and is the site for the 2002 America Express World Golf Championship in September. Superb practice facilities include a unique par 53 18-hole putting course. And there are other courses near the resort. Mt. Juliet is home to the Kilkenny Hounds and the Ballylinch Stud, legendary names in foxhunting and horse breeding. The hotel staff will wake you to witness a foal being born, and during foxhunting season capable riders can join the hunt. Riders can take lessons from experts in all major disciplines, and hack along trails on the 1,500-acre estate. After golf and riding, there’s shooting, archery, fishing, tennis, cycling and walking, a health center and spa.

In County Limerick, Ireland, is the Adare Manor Hotel and Golf Club (, 011-353 0 61 396566). The 840-acre 18th-century estate has a beautifully landscaped Robert Trent Jones Sr. golf course that is considered one of the best in the country. Nearby is the Clonshire Equestrian Center (home to the famous County Limerick Fox Hounds and the Limerick Horse Trials), which offers expert instruction in jumping, dressage and cross country, and unlimited trail riding in the countryside.

The Grand Cypress Resort (, 800-835-7377 Orlando, FL) has 45 holes of Jack Nicklaus-designed golf, and one of the country’s finest riding programs. The Grand Cypress Equestrian Center offers instruction, indoors and out, in jumping, dressage, eventing and Western riding at all levels. A network of trails laces the 1,500-acre resort, which also hosts a variety of competitions.

Some vacationers choose to stay several days at two or three locations.

Johanna and Mike Bresnan are former Californians who now own and operate an intimate eco-resort, Vista del Valle (, near Grecia, Costa Rica. Johanna leads small groups of riders through mountainside coffee plantations to mountaintops with panoramas of distant volcanoes. Mike, an avid golfer, arranges golf for guests at a variety of courses designed by major architects.

When the Bresnans go on vacation, it is a busman’s holiday, because they focus on golf and riding.

“We’ve been on three trips with Landy Blank of Costa Rica Golf Adventures (,” says Johanna. “Landy arranges the golf first, and makes every effort to find riding facilities nearby. It works out beautifully.”

“On our trip to Ireland last year, I went off every day to play great courses such as Royal County Down, Royal Port Stewart, Royal Port Rush, Waterford, Donnegal, Tralee, Ballybunion and Old Head — and Johanna went off to ride,” says Mike.

“I remember playing Tralee and seeing miles of white sand dunes that were two kilometers wide in some places,” says Mike. “That night Johanna told me about what fun she’d had riding through those dunes. The day we played Ballybunion, she rode through the forests with a local hunt club and came back excited about seeing deer and pheasants.”

“One day the horse rental place decided I was capable of riding alone, so I set off through the woods,” says Johanna. “It was one of those magical rides where I felt there were Leprechauns around every corner. I didn’t see them, but I felt their presence. And I saw lots of wildlife.”

Johanna Bresnan and Dale Leatherman | © Donnelle Oxley

Last year, Bob Forsythe, a New York securities trader, and his girlfriend, corporate attorney Gabrielle Falger, visited Ireland with another rider/golfer couple. Gabrielle came up with the idea and booked portions of the trip through CCI, while Bob arranged tee times and some of the accommodations.

“A combination trip is the perfect solution, because no one ends up being a ‘golf widow,'” says Bob, a 6-handicap. “I play golf two or three times a week and Gabrielle rides two or three times a week. My childhood friend and his girlfriend have a similar arrangement, so this trip worked beautifully for us. It’s not hard to arrange, but for tee times at major courses during high season you need to work six months ahead.”

The two golfers played Ballybunion (which is more spectacular that Pebble Beach, Bob says), Mt. Juliet, Adare Manor, and Old Head, some of them more than once.

“We chose Ireland because it’s one of the greatest horse countries in the world as well as having legendary golf,” says Bob. “You could spend two or three weeks there and never repeat. The accommodations were memorable, as was the food — great local seafood and produce beautifully prepared and presented.”

The two riders took daily excursions from nearby stables. “I was very impressed with the Irish horses,” says Gabrielle. “They are sturdy, honest and athletic. The horsemanship is very natural, with none of the fussing like we do in New York, with equine acupuncture and massage. I wondered if I was up to going cross country and jumping brooks, stone walls and fences, but I discovered the horses take care of you.”

It’s obvious that two very different sports can successfully co-exist on the same vacation. Golfers will politely acknowledge that the riders had a terrific experience and then quietly continue with their hole-by-hole review of the day. And vice-versa. But occasionally there is a person who just doesn’t understand the nature of compromise.

“In all of our trips, there has only been one person who just didn’t get it,” says an amused Dan Ringeisen. “One morning a woman said to me, ‘You’re not riding?’ I said, ‘No, I’m playing golf.’ ‘Wiener,’ she said, and bustled away. I avoided her the rest of the trip. She was obviously deranged.”

Dale Leatherman is a golfer and a rider, so every vacation presents a delightful dilemma.

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