Leisure: Horsing around Israel

Horse riding has many benefits, both physical and mental.

Riders hitting the trail in the Galilee (photo credit: ROY KATALAN)
Riders hitting the trail in the Galilee
(photo credit: ROY KATALAN)
While horseback riding may not be the first activity people conjure up when thinking of Israel, it has become increasingly popular here, both for riding lessons and for trail rides.
One significant aspect of the sport that is growing in popularity and acceptance is therapeutic horse riding. Therapeutic riding is a form of treatment that focuses on – among other things – the needs of the rider to create a connection between horse and rider. This activity has been shown to improve physical, cognitive and social skills. In Israel, the health funds often cover this therapy for those with physical or mental disabilities or those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
One place that offers therapeutic riding, along with riding lessons and trail rides for enjoyment, is the Omri Ranch. The ranch – which has specialized in therapeutic riding since its inception in 1997 – is located in Jerusalem near Moshav Ora and is accessible by public transportation. It was established by Yaakov and Shlomit Gigi and is very much a family-run business. Their son, Eli, now runs the business on a day-today basis. The ranch works with all four health funds and teaches riders from as young as three years of age up through the elderly. A specially priced trial lesson is offered before deciding whether to sign up for a course of three to six months’ duration. For therapeutic riding, a preliminary meeting is held with the instructor, the participant and the parent (where the participant is a minor) to coordinate goals and expectations for the lessons and to address issues and concerns.
The instructors at Omri Ranch are qualified riding therapists and instructors who have undergone intense training in how to teach riding and to recognize various horse behaviors that might affect interaction with riders. Volunteers assist with care of the horses and help instructors with tasks such as lifting disabled riders. The instructors speak a variety of languages including Hebrew, English and Yiddish.
In addition to learning how to ride, the rider learns how to care for the horse, prepare it for the lesson, control the animal from the ground and how to ride on trails. The ranch also has a covered ring in which lessons and activities can take place rain or shine.
While the majority of people visiting the ranch take therapeutic riding lessons, Omri also offers regular riding lessons and trail rides in the Jerusalem Hills for those ages 14 and above. For younger children, there are short rides led by an instructor, as well as a petting zoo. The ranch offers non-residential riding camps for children during the summer, in which children also learn how to care for horses. Last summer, some 130 children between the ages of eight and 14 participated. For a special treat, the ranch offers trail rides with a picnic, some of which have even become the setting for marriage proposals.
I have been taking weekly riding lessons at the Omri Ranch since July. Until a friend recommended the ranch, I was unaware that such lessons were available in the capital. Workers at the ranch – who refer to the horses as their friends – display a high level of professionalism and adherence to safety for both the riders and the horses. My instructor, in particular, has been very patient and encouraging, and after a week spent working in front of a computer, our riding lesson has become the highlight of my week. It is an incredible feeling to unwind, spending time outside with a horse and feeling the satisfaction of learning how to ride. My only complaint is that the half-hour lesson goes by too quickly.
AMERICAN-BORN Rachel Kontorovich is a relative newcomer to the Israeli horse-riding scene, but by no means to riding itself. Kontorovich, who moved to Israel in 2013 with her husband and four children, has been riding since the age of eight and has competed in regional horse shows on the West Coast of the US. She also spent nearly three years working at a Spanish Mustang ranch in northern Idaho, where she fell in love with long-distance trail riding.
Since moving to Israel, Kontorovich completed a year-long course to qualify as a certified instructor in both English and Western riding, and now also works and trains at a professional show-jumping stable in the center of the country. An experienced trail and endurance rider, she has taken part in a 40- km. endurance race.
After working for a horse-vacations company in Israel, Kontorovich has now set up her own company, IsraTrails, offering horse-riding adventures around Israel, both for locals and tourists. IsraTrails coordinates an entire trip from start to finish, including picking up clients from the airport when needed and organizing all accommodations and food, catering to all levels of kosher certification.
Kontorovich works with select stables around the country that are fully insured and staffed with certified instructors and veteran trail leaders, which enables her to offer day trips or vacation packages throughout the country. Group sizes can range from five to 15 people at a variety of levels of riding ability. A Judean Desert tour, or a five-day adventure package in the Golan, are for moderate to advanced riders, whereas the shorter Mediterranean beach tours and one-to-two-hour sunset rides, complete with cowboy cookouts, are suitable for all levels. There is a package suitable for everyone, whether it be the seasoned equestrian wishing to ride up to 30 km. per day, a holiday rider looking for a relaxing trip, a bar/bat mitzva experience, a honeymoon package, or an executive retreat.
When necessary, horsemanship lessons are given prior to riding, showing how to groom and prepare the horses. Clients who need basic riding instruction before heading out on the trail get that as well. Kontorovich brings American standards to the experience of riding through Israel. The horses, equipment and trails are all checked beforehand to ensure their suitability, both for safety and, in the case of the trails, for enjoyment and beauty. She feels that Israel brings a unique magic to equine vacations. Many places in the country are only accessible on horseback, and the thrill of visiting Israel’s abundant biblical and archeological sites on horseback is simply unrivaled.
Another nearby ranch that offers therapeutic and regular riding lessons, as well as trail rides, is the King David Stables, located 15 minutes from Jerusalem at Moshav Yad Hashmona. Set up by South African immigrants of more than 40 years ago, Sidney and Anthony Lipschitz, King David Stables is another family business with three generations working at the ranch.
King David also offers specialized activities such as archery and trail riding through the Judean Hills. In addition, it provides boarding and training for privately owned horses, offering permanent veterinary supervision and advice on matters such as imprint training, in which from a young age horses are taught to accept humans without fear.
The stables offer Passover and summer camps for children from the ages of six through 15. In these holiday camps, participants learn how to ride and how to take care of horses, including basic veterinary skills. Children can also take part in other fun activities such as paintball and lassoing.
Horse riding has many benefits, both physical and mental. In a day and age in which we lead sedentary lives, spending time outside with a horse is a great way to meet new people and see different parts of the country. So, if you would like to try a new experience, grab the horse by the reins and sign up for a trial lesson.
Visit Omri Ranch at www.omri-ranch.co.il/ and on Facebook, or call (02) 641-2408.
Visit IsraTrails at www.isratrails.com. You can follow Rachel Kontorovich on Facebook and on Instagram @rachel_kontorovich or call her at 058-610-2067.
Visit the King David Stables at www.kingdavidstables.com or on Facebook or at 054-747-1681.