Dashing through the snow
What could be more breathtaking than a horse-drawn sleigh ride through a magical winter wonderland? Powerful, sure-footed horses pull you over frozen tracks, through tranquil villages, and over snow-capped mountains while you snuggle under a pile of warm blankets.
Horse sleigh rides offer a romantic and cozy way to explore the winter countryside in style!
They typically last between 30 minutes and an hour. Certain operators offer longer trips, some of which might last the whole day and include lunch at a cozy inn or restaurant. But what should you wear? Read on to find out!
Sleigh Rides: A Brief History
At the height of their popularity, horse-drawn sleighs were used to perform various farming chores and offer people of all ages a fun way to travel during the winter months.
Farmers looked forward to winter when they could cruise across the snow in a horse-drawn sleigh rather than battling to get their unsprung wagons along bumpy, muddy roads.
Traveling by sleigh was fast and smooth, with horses reaching speeds up to 22 miles per hour!
Farmers would use their sleighs to transport hay bales, winter feeds, and blocks of ice, while the more wealthy enjoyed pleasure rides to various social events.
Sleigh bells were legally required to warn pedestrians of an approaching vehicle, and remain so today.
Where in the world are horse sleigh rides common?
Horse sleigh rides are surprisingly common in North America. There are operators all around the US and Canada. For example, you can be pulled by Norwegian Fjord horses in Michigan, Belgian horses in Oregon, or Haflingers in Wisconsin.
In Europe, some of the top horse sleigh riding destinations include Lapland, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy.
Best Dressed: Sleigh Ride Edition
When you’re going on a bucket-list adventure like a horse sleigh ride, you want to look the part!
Being both comfortable and warm are very important when braving cold, winter temperatures.
There’s absolutely nothing stylish about thermal underwear but, fortunately, no one has to see it.
Staying warm on a horse sleigh ride
In the 1860s, when horse sleigh rides were all the rage, passengers would wrap themselves in furs and pack hot bricks around themselves to keep warm.
Most horse sleigh ride operators provide blankets or sheepskins to help keep their guests warm, but you still need to dress sensibly.
These days, the best winter horse riding jackets paired with ski thermals and hats and scarves are the most sensible approach.
The trick to keeping warm on a horse sleigh ride is lots of layers. Start with a set of long underwear or thermals, and then add a base layer, followed by a wool sweater or high-quality mid-layer.
Top this off with an insulated, wind-resistant jacket, thick gloves, scarf, and hat, and you should be able to enjoy the experience—without your teeth chattering the whole time.
What are the different types of horse sleighs?
Cutters and passenger sleighs are the two most common types of horse sleighs. Cutters were first introduced in the US around 1800 and are open, lightweight sleighs that have just one seat, big enough for two people to cuddle up on.
There were two basic categories of cutters, known as Albanys and Portlands. While the Portland has a straighter, more angular design, the Albany has “a slightly swelling body and curved, rounded lines.”
Passenger sleighs are much bigger and heavier than cutters, with enough room for anywhere between six and 20 people!
Passenger sleighs come in two basic designs—the bobsleigh and the standard sleigh. Bobsleighs have pairs of short sleds under the body of the carriage. These sleds can turn and swivel, making the sleigh easier to maneuver.
Equine Sleigh Rides: What to Expect
Although every equine sleigh ride is different, the one thing you can depend on is the temperature! It’s going to be cold out there, but most operators provide sheepskins or blankets to snuggle up so you can enjoy the experience without developing frostbite!
Not only will a horse-drawn sleigh take you through enchanted forests, past frozen lakes, and over snow-topped mountains, but it also takes you back in time.
Before cars were invented, horse-drawn sleighs were one of the only available methods of transport during the winter and were widely utilized for moving goods, as well as passengers.
As you glide over the powdery snow, picture yourself as a young girl off to visit an “old Fashioned tavern” with a bunch of friends all crowded into a large passenger sleigh. Or imagine yourself as a hard-working farmer, clearing snowdrifts to allow your horse and sleigh to deliver goods to the local market.
Whether you opt for a private or public sleigh ride, you’ll have an experienced guide driving the horses and pointing out local attractions. Some horse-drawn sleigh rides will take you through wildlife areas where you could catch a glimpse of elk or bison along the way.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q: How many people can ride in a horse sleigh?
While cutters are perfect for couples seeking a romantic getaway, larger sleighs are more comfortable if you’re traveling as a family or with a group of friends.
Most private horse sleigh rides accommodate between two and six people, while public sleighs can take up to 20 guests at a time.
Q: What breeds of horses pull horse sleighs?
Although some say that the horse’s temperament is more important than its breeding when it comes to pulling a horse sleigh, certain breeds are more suited to this type of work.
Larger sleighs need big, strong horses and are usually pulled by draft breeds like Belgians, Clydesdales, Shires, and Percherons.
As cutter sleighs are much smaller and lighter, they can be pulled by a wider range of horse breeds.
Morgans and Haflingers are particularly popular, although paints and Standardbreds can also do the job well—if they have the temperament for it.
Q: How much weight can a horse pull?
Most horses can pull around 1.5 times their body weight if the vehicle they’re pulling has wheels. A sleigh is harder to pull because it has runners rather than wheels, so you’d need a draft horse to pull a sleigh capable of taking four or more passengers.
Q: Where can you go for a sleigh ride?
I assumed most sleigh rides would be in very snowy parts of Europe but was pleasantly surprised to find that there are many opportunities closer to home. There are horse sleigh rides available in Aspen, Colorado, around the Bavarian village of Leavenworth in Washington State, and even in California!
You can take a horse-drawn sleigh ride around the Omni Mount Washington Resort and enjoy a cup of hot cocoa along the way, or head to Telluride in Colorado for a horse sleigh ride and a Basque-inspired dinner inside a luxurious yurt!
If you want to travel further abroad, there are some great horse sleigh excursions in Lapland, where you can also see the Northern Lights, and in Italy, where you can explore the formidable Dolomites mountain range.
Q: What kinds of animals pull sleighs?
Horses are pretty good at pulling sleighs, but they’re not the only animals capable of such a feat. Reindeer don’t just pull Santa’s sleigh—they’ve been used to transport people and goods through snowy landscapes for thousands of years.
Certain breeds of dogs are also exceptional sledders, with the Alaskan Malamute, Chinook, Samoyed, and Siberian Husky being some of the most well-known.
When the temperature drops below 20℉, it’s time for even the most dedicated horse riders to hang up their spurs, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon all hope of a horse-related activity.
Horse sleigh rides are a great way to get out and explore without risking frostbite!
Better still, you don’t need any horse experience to make the most of it. With an experienced guide and driver to take care of the details, all you have to do is stay warm and soak up everything the magical snowy landscape has to offer.
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