Horseback riding vacations in Tuscany, Italy.
Equestrian vacations in Tuscany, Italy.
Horseback riding vacations and lessons in Tuscany.
Southern Tuscany's countryside is ideal for riding vacations.
Beneath the cloudless blue skies of Italy's southern Tuscany, my chestnut-colored Arabian stallion, Amigo, and I have settled into an easy trot until our guide urges us to a gallop behind her. We soon pass through meadows with row after row of giant sunflowers and into a field dotted with round wheels of stacked hay as big as truck tires. An occasional dark green cypress tree stands sentry on a distant hill, and the only sounds are hooves gently pounding into the earth.

I am in Tuscany on a horseback riding vacation because I don't want to experience this part of Italy from a car or train. I'd also like to gain more confidence on a horse, so I've chosen an outfitter, Cross Country International, which specializes in equestrian vacations worldwide. There are seven of us, all Americans, ranging from 35 to 60, except for one teenage girl.

As we crest a hill, our guide, Enrica, pulls her grey speckled horse to a full stop. "There," she points to the ruins of a stone farmhouse. "That will someday be my riposta, my refuge." Her accent is Italian, her smile infectious. "And look at what I will see through my windows." She sweeps her gloved fingers over wheat fields shimmering in the sun, to distant medieval hilltop villages and ravines leading down to the river.

Equestrian vacations in Tuscany, Italy.
Medieval villages blend easily with extensive farms
and ravines in Tuscany.
Tuscany villa offers horseback riding vacations and lessons.
The Gori villa has been converted from an historic family farmhouse to a gracious guesthouse.

In the distance a village tower bell chimes eighteen times. It is six o'clock, time to go back to Il Poggio, our guest house and Equestrian Center in Celle sul Rigo, owned by Enrica and her husband, Roberto Gori. Il Poggio is a spacious sun-washed pink stucco villa originally a farmhouse that has been in Roberto's family since the 1800s. About ten years ago, Roberto and Enrica expanded the main house to three more buildings of suites, each with living room and dining area, fireplace, and kitchenette. Guests walk to the main dining room a few dozen feet away for hot steaming coffee latte and a huge buffet breakfast.

Though the property features two large swimming pools, a tennis court and archery facilities, the main draw is the equestrian center with 22 horses, a riding ring, and endless wooded trails that lead to meadows, vineyards and medieval villages.

Each morning we saddle up the horses and Danielli, the riding instructor, or Enrica herself, points out our destination for the day. As Il Poggio is perched on top of a hill with a 360-degree view of the surrounding countryside, we can see past the tile roofs of the nearby village of Celle sul Rigo as far as the mountains on the horizon. Yesterday, Danielli indicated a small distant hill town whose silhouetted tower looked like a rook from a chess set. We followed the old Cassia Road that originally linked Rome with Northern Italy and rode by a crumbling post house built by Ferdinand de Medici in 1587. With each ride, I feel like I am in a time machine!

Riding vacations in Italy.
Morning trail rides explore nature and
Italy's history in surrounding areas.

The usual routine is a morning trail ride, picnic lunch, a swim back at Il Poggio, and later in the afternoon, lessons in the ring. I love the bilingual instructions but I don't like posting. Most people in the group are experienced riders, accustomed to the lean design of the English saddles. I'm just an advanced beginner.

Horseback riding vacations in Tuscany, Italy.
The effectiveness of riding lessons in the ring gets put to the test out in the field!

Danielli tells me I have to learn how to control the horse and to post correctly. "Uno due," he calls, "Uno due." I pull myself up, then back down. "Don't go up so far, you are using too much energy for nothing." I try it with less effort. "Good. Better," he nods, then suddenly says, "Galoppo!" and Amigo's hooves kick up the dirt as I follow the pack. Seconds later he calls out, "Trotto," and we're back to "Uno, due, uno due." Often, the Italian guests staying at Il Poggio come to watch, and sometimes they even take riding lessons. But mainly the Italians come to eat and lounge by the pool.

"Don't Italians like to ride?" I ask Danielli. "They like to drive fast," he replies.

Yesterday we tied up our horses and explored Radicofoni, a medieval town with a 9th century castle and a spectacular view of the countryside. Then we walked through the cobblestone streets of the village, each stone house decorated with hanging pots of bright red geraniums. Inside the 14th century San Pietro Apostolo, Danielli showed us the original bell sitting in the back of the church. "Every bell is dated," he said, "so you can always tell how old a church is."

Medieval villages in Tuscany, Italy. Medieval villages in Tuscany, Italy.
The ancient streets of San Casciano dei Bagni offer a stroll through history.

We returned to the horses and Marcello, the villa's driver/handyman, drove up with a picnic lunch with Il Poggio's own white wine, home made pasta salad, fresh bread, a big hunk of homemade sheep's cheese, and fruit salad.

My favorite dish at Il Poggio's own gourmet restaurant is Pici, a local pasta only made in this region and served with garlic and spicy tomato sauce. Other nights they serve ravioli filled with potato and sheep's cheese, always followed by a fish or meat dish and mouth-watering Italian cake or gelato.

Each day we ride to a different location. We visited the steaming sulphur Renaissance pool in the main square of Bagni Vignoni; explored the medieval village and castle of San Casciano Bagni; rode through the gorges of Rocca d'Orcia; and went to Pienza, my favorite little gem. Only a city street long, this ancient town is crammed with small stores selling cheeses, olive oils, the famous local Brunello wine, and buttery-soft leather journals with hand-made paper.

And now here it is, our last day. We are with Enrica on an evening trail ride. She pats her horse and says, "So, we go back for dinner?" Silently, I let Amigo graze as I make a regretful farewell to the rolling hills and tilled soil of Tuscany, terracotta-tinged in the setting sun.

Medieval villages in Tuscany, Italy.
Celle sul Rigo is the nearest village to
Il Poggio farm and riding center.

Horseback riding vacations and lessons in Tuscany, Italy.Cross Country International offers Italy's Tuscany Trail Ride for 12 weeks per year, April to October. Riders should be able to walk, trot and canter. Cost (2007) is $2,395 per person based on shared accommodation, single supplement $495. Price includes 6 villa nights, all meals, 4 days of trail riding and lessons, transfers, and a day excursion trip to Sienna.

Cross Country International also offers equestrian vacations, www.equestrianvacations.com, and walking vacations, www.walkingvacations.com in the United States, France, England, Spain, Greece, Mexico, Ireland, Italy, Scotland, New Zealand, Portugal, Morocco, Costa Rica.

Tourism in Tuscany official website in English.

Il Poggio's owner, Enrica Gori, sets the pace.

Some of the best villa rentals in the world are in Tuscany. Many families use these luxury villas as a base to explore the beautiful Italian countryside.

Margie Goldsmith is a NYC-based travel writer who has visited over 90 countries on 6 continents. She is a contributing editor of Elite Traveler and writes for National Geographic Traveler, Dallas Morning News, Miami Herald, Baltimore Sun, and Christian Science Monitor, among others. Berkley Press published her novel, Screw Up, and her essays appear in Travelers Tales, The Walker Within, and In Search of Adventure: A Wild Travel Anthology.
Email: mgoldsmith@mgproductions.com.

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