Invited to Bhutan to Start the ONLY Horse Riding Program

The Tiger's Nest Temple built on a steep cliff

Some countries still believe horse riding is for MEN. An advocate for women’s empowerment, Krystal is determined to continue to bring education and her love of horses to young girls worldwide. 

Five Bhutanese mountain ponies ridden by Krystal and the soon to be trail guides

I’ll never forget when I was invited to the country of Bhutan in order to introduce the very first equestrian program in the entire country that wasn’t affiliated with the royal military. I was both ecstatic and bewildered with the amount of responsibility and good fortune that landed in my lap. I hadn’t known what to expect when I took the assignment. I had assumed that after two years living in India I was just about ready for anything… how wrong I was!

Krystal and two horses relax during a riding break in Bhutan

Horse riding in this small, landlocked country was not a familiar sport or hobby. Only the military were known to ride horses. The small local Himalayan Mountain Ponies were merely used to carry heavy supplies up the mountain side. The herders would chase the ponies carrying the large packs with long sticks while the sure-footed creatures carefully made their way up steep, rocky slopes and crossing shallow rivers while treading lightly on the wet stones, careful not to slip and careen down the dangerous path.

Krystal and her horse Firefly at the top of the Febila pass in Bhutan
Bhutan Horse Riding Adventure and Equestrian Holiday

After two weeks of intensive training to the staff about everything horses, I was thankful for a much needed break. Although the Bhutanese men were extremely friendly and polite, I was looking forward to some girly time. Luckily, one of the daughters of the owner of the homestay I was living in offered to take me out. The girl wrapped garlands of silk around my waist in the traditional style dress and we set off on foot towards the nearest temple only a couple miles away. Girly talk ensued the entire round trip and I was fascinated by this young girl, who had been raised with such foreign customs to my own. I hadn’t known, in my past life back in America, that working with horses would give me the opportunity to have amazing encounters with people much like the one I was experiencing in this moment and I felt grateful for it.

The riders on their Bhutanese mountain ponies are passing a group of children
People in Bhutan aren’t used to seeing horses being ridden! The children were so excited!

The girl smiled brightly as she admired me in the traditional dress. My blonde hairs and green eyes contrasted to her features as she looked up at me. My long legs caused me to tower over her like an awkward Amazonian. “Krystal,” she said to me thoughtfully, “I really think it’s amazing what you do for a living.” I pursed my lips in confusion but before I could say anything she continued, “You know, I didn’t even know that it was possible for girls to ride horses.” The words hit me like a kick to the chest. “But now, thanks to you, I know it can be done! And the idea that you can make money for something like that?! Riding horses!?” She laughed in disbelief. “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.”

This wasn’t the first time I had been confronted with the notion that “horses are for men.” Nearly three years living in Asia and two years in the Middle East had taught me that I was a woman living in a man’s world. I had been matched against countless Retired Military Generals and men shouting at me in various languages. I had dusted myself off after being launched from my horse and slammed into wooden jumps only to spring back into the saddle and try again without a tear shed to prevent the men from thinking me as “weak.” I had survived men making the assumption that the only possible reason for me being in their country was because “she’s here with her husband,” only to disappoint them. I had been tested, tried, sexually harassed, embarrassed, and tormented all in masochistic attempt at “proving myself.”

A group of Riders on Bhutanese mountain ponies in front of a temple

In all my efforts and all my hidden tears, I had spent countless nights wondering if any of my hard work was actually accounting to anything. What good am I doing? I used to think. I’m not making any difference…

“Krystal,” the girl had said, “I didn’t know it was possible until I saw you.” And then I realized how much of a difference I was making. My realization didn’t stop there. Girls from countless cities and remote villages where I continued to spread my love of horses continued to approach me and thank me. They thanked me for showing them it can be done. They thanked me for showing the men it could be done too, and that it wasn’t “a man’s sport,” as they had previously believed. Then I realized that the men too would approach me and shyly ask me questions. They wondered how a woman with much less physical strength and force and power than a man could control a wild beast of a horse without brute force or a whip. They asked me why the horses were listening to me when they couldn’t even see me ask the question.

Two riders arguing about directions during horse riding in Bhutan

Maybe empowering women and girls in other countries doesn’t just mean teaching English or volunteering at a charity. Maybe it means doing what you love, travelling solo and showing to the world that it CAN BE DONE. That women can go out and do daring things and be bold and beautiful and independent. Maybe the more women that go out and travel and do what they love the more we will inspire other women to do the same thing. And the more women we motivate to follow their own path, the more stereotypes and stigmas we will break and the impossible will suddenly be possible. I am lucky that horses exist around the world. It is because of horses I have gone to places and cities and faraway lands that as a little girl I could never have imagined possible. Horses have brought me together with people and women in all cultures and languages and beliefs and I am forever grateful to these noble animals for giving me the world. Now go out and break down the barriers, climb the mountains, scale the walls, and go the distance! In 2019, I am returning to Bhutan with 8 persons! Find out more about the Bhuran Horse Riding Adventure 2019!

Riders are crossing a bridge behind a couple of prayer flags while horse riding in Bhutan

Published by Krystal Kelly

Krystal Kelly is a California girl on a Quest to see every country. She is a certified FEI II Show Jumping coach and has worked in over 20+ countries with horses on 5 continents. She is an award winning author, podcaster, youtuber, film documentarian and clinician. She is founder and CEO of Equestrian Adventuresses and The International Equestrian. Her mission is to help empower women around the world to ride horses.

4 thoughts on “Invited to Bhutan to Start the ONLY Horse Riding Program

  1. I just returned from Bhutan and fell in love with the horses, many of which roam the roads unattended while they graze. ( mine would be long gone!)

    Does anyone sell them here in the US?
    202-421-4866. Lynda


  2. I just returned from Bhutan and fell in love with the horses, many of which roam the roads unattended while they graze. ( mine would be long gone!)

    Does anyone sell them here in the US?
    202-421-4866. Lynda


    1. Hello Lynda! The horses in Bhutan originated from Tibet many many years ago and in recent days in Bhutan a man from (I believe) Belgium has brought Haflinger horses and attempted to mix them with the local ponies. The Haflinger breed didn’t do too well in the mountains so that project failed but you can see some of the ponies resembling a bit more of their build and color! The ponies are mostly wild as you mentioned, roaming the mountains freely because the locals only used them when they needed to carry packs up the mountains (or they use yaks.) The black horses are used in religious ceremonies and only the deities are allowed to ride them! (The gods and goddesses!)


    2. I don’t know of anyone selling them in the US but I think the ponies are so surefooted and brave because of the harsh environment they live! I love them very much and especially my Prince (the pretty horse I’m riding in the first photo 5 years ago my husband is riding in the other photo this year!)


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