The horse has been an integral part of daily life in Tucson and Southern Arizona since the Spanish introduced the beast to the Southwest back in the 1500s. The new, useful animal transformed the lives and cultures of the native peoples here virtually overnight, and still today there is a distinct subculture of “horse people” in the Old Pueblo whose lives are dedicated to the care and enjoyment of the equestrian kind. There are quite a few such people who will rent you a usually friendly, docile horse and guide you and your new friend deep into the desert on trails once traversed by conquistadores, cowboys, and Indians.
Most places require that kids be at least six years old to ride, and most have a 230-pound maximum weight limit, but call ahead to make sure. Spring rides are the best, obviously, especially when the desert’s in bloom. Summer is different—go early in the morning or book one of the fun evening or nighttime rides many places offer. Always wear long pants and closed-toed shoes, and always bring a hat, though it doesn’t necessarily have to be the cowboy type.
Pantano Riding Stables
About 13 miles southeast of town, out in the shaggy cactus-and-scrub desert not far from Saguaro National Park East, the friendly folks at Pantano Riding Stables (4450 S. Houghton Rd., 520/298-8980, Winter daily 8 a.m.–5 p.m., summer daily 8 a.m.–noon and 4–6:30 p.m., $35 for 1 hour, $45 for 1.5 hours, $65 for 2 hours, $50 for sunset ride) will take you out and make you feel like a real cowboy. Along with the usual one- to two-hour trail rides, they offer a fun “campfire ride” where you can dine under the stars as if you’re working some kind of roundup. The desert out this way is beautiful and thick, and if you go when the cacti are blooming you are in for a spectacular show. It’s a good idea to call ahead for a reservation.
Pusch Ridge Riding Stables
In the northwest foothills of the Santa Catalina Mountains, about 20 miles northwest of town near Catalina State Park, Pusch Ridge Riding Stables (13700 N. Oracle Rd., 520/825-1664, Daily 8 a.m.–4 p.m., $40 one hour, $60 two hours, $50 sunset ride) go out on fun desertland trail rides every hour on the hour 8 a.m.–3 p.m. every day. During the busy spring season, rides typically include about 6–8 riders and a guide. The “moonlight rides” here are particularly enchanting, making one feel a bit like an outlaw on the run. These last 1.5 hours and cost $60 per person with a minimum of four riders. They also offer half-day ($100 pp) and full-day ($160 pp) rides, and private rides ($85 per hour). Call ahead for reservations, especially on the weekends.