Keith Swenson is the founder of Stone Horse Expeditions & Travel and has many years of experience with wilderness expeditions, managing protected areas and advising on tourism operations in national parks. With Stone Horse, he focuses on high-quality, low impact horse riding adventures – a passion he has held since growing up and working with horses on his father’s farm.
Early in his career, Keith worked as a wilderness ranger and whitewater kayak and raft guide in Idaho, USA. At the same time, he enjoyed ice and alpine climbing in Canada, New Zealand, Nepal and the Antarctic. In Antarctica, he spent many years as a survival instructor and safety coordinator while guiding expeditions and research groups. He also worked as a team leader and station manager for an international effort to protect the Antarctic continent and ocean.
While living in New Zealand, and becoming a permanent resident, he helped found the New Zealand Nature Institute and concentrated on forest protection with the Waitutu Forest project near Fiordlands National Park. From New Zealand, Keith took up one of his most challenging positions: field manager for a large wildlife sanctuary in the Sultanate of Oman. He oversaw the Bedu ranger staff, developing tourism operations and running anti-poaching units. Keith has also worked with protected area and tourism programs in South Asia (Sri Lanka and Laos). Arriving in Mongolia to assist with the development of ranger training and the national park system, Keith easily took advantage of the horse culture in exploring the country and then inviting guests to join in his horseback adventures.
Stone Horse Expeditions & Travel was born out of this fascination for the wild and admiration for the tough Mongolian horse. Sharing his passion for wilderness travel and horses with guests has become the essence of Stone Horse Expeditions & Travel as the provider of the finest horseback expeditions in Mongolia.
How do the experiences you offer give guests a unique perspective on the history, people or culture of Mongolia?
Just coming to Mongolia, you immerse yourself into the culture immediately. Getting out into the countryside and into the national parks, we are riding through areas that have been used by nomadic peoples for centuries. On some of the trails, you could imagine that Chinggis Khan himself would have ridden here. We ride past old stone monuments that are several thousand years old and could hold a person, or just an honored horse. These were horse cultures after all and they revered their horses, just as we do today. Our horseman and camp staff and the nomadic herders we work with add to the stories as we travel. It is the region of Mongolia where Chinggis Khan himself grew up and our riding is not that much different from what the Mongols of those days were doing.
How have the experiences that you offer evolved since their inception?
This year we included and undertook a “Wilderness Conservation Holiday Adventure”, whereby guests who would like to do more than just enjoy a horse riding expedition through a great natural landscape, “give back” a little as well. This is a trip we designed with the park to spend several days traveling into the Khentii Mountains, meeting with park rangers, and then taking a couple of days to do some park improvement around high use sites before continuing on with the horse ride. This year we cleaned up several campsites and built a wilderness toilet in a high use area around a beautiful wilderness lake. We packed in on horseback all the materials and tools needed. The guests loved it, and we’ll make this a regular feature of our yearly expeditions.
What is one detail of an experience you provide that may go unnoticed by guests, but which you feel is important?
There are so many things that we and our staff do, with preparing the horses throughout the year, the food supplies, the equipment and our own training, that it’s hard to point to just one detail. I guess I could say it’s how we look out for our guest riders to take care of or avoid any problems with the horses, equipment or terrain we travel through, before they even notice. A horseback expedition has a lot of moving parts, with the pack horses, the riders, lead lines, bridles and saddles. So, to keep it all moving smoothly we have to be on top of things and prevent any unforeseen incidents from happening well before they could potentially occur, while still giving our guests the freedom to just ride and enjoy the cultural and wilderness landscapes we travel through.
What do you wish every guest knew as they consider traveling to Mongolia with Stone Horse Expeditions?
These are horse riding expeditions, so a little horse riding knowledge would help. Barring that, guests should know their physical abilities and that we move throughout the day. They should consider whether they have a keen sense of adventure and really want to try new activities beyond the usual. This would help as they consider this type of trip. We have had a number of people join us who have little experience with riding horses, but their keen sense of adventure and self-confidence had them quickly learning and moving along very well.
What is one travel trend that really excites you?
The one travel trend that excites me is the increase in Adventure Travel experiences. With our trips, we provide a serious adventure travel excursion in a very unique region of the world, Central Asia. Adventure Travel is the fastest growing sector of the tourism industry worldwide and this quest by travelers to do something different, exciting, outdoors, is fueling this. The other aspect of Adventure Travel enthusiasts is the fact that they overwhelmingly seek out travel that is very conscious of the environment and protecting the wild places of the earth. If they feel the impact on the environment is too damaging, or the company they may travel with is not practicing good environmental standards, they’ll pass on that country or activity. This is an exciting trend, this growing awareness by adventure tourists and the power they have to change behavior in the tourism sector for the better.
Aside from the destination, what sets Stone Horse Expeditions apart from other equestrian travel companies?
We own and know all of our horses well. This is a big safety aspect of what we do. We hand make our own “Stone Horse” saddles, specifically made for the Mongolian horse, but are comfortable and safe for both horse and rider. Safety stirrups are a feature of all of our saddles.
Our safety measures are some of the best with procedures in place for emergency situations. All Stone Horse staff are trained in first aid, as wilderness first responders or emergency medical technicians. A satellite phone and extensive first aid kits are part of our equipment.
Food for our meals is well sourced, fresh and varied. We cater to vegetarians, vegans, and gluten free as well as meat eaters. Nutritious tasty meals are important for the daily travel by horseback that we do.
The camping and riding equipment we provide, tents, sleeping bags, helmets, half chaps, are of high quality and robust enough for wilderness travel. We don’t want anything falling apart. Potential guests can also download our ebook from the website, “The Right Gear for Horseback Riding Expeditions”, which helps them prepare for traveling to Mongolia.
Health and hygiene are important for extended wilderness travel, especially with horses. We provide clean, filtered or boiled drinking water and instruct our guests on the use of a “wilderness toilet”, in case they’re unfamiliar with that aspect of camping.
We also provide for our horses, making sure they all have preseason health checks by qualified veterinarians before our trips start. We carry a horse first aid kit to take care of any problems during a trip and ensure that our horses are not only well fed during each expedition, but throughout the year with hay and oats.
These are just some of the points that set us apart as a company that provides a higher standard and a higher quality experience for our guests. As long time guides and wilderness travelers we know what it takes to make a safe, comfortable trip. We list more in a blog found on our website here: https://stonehorsemongolia.com/ecotourism-adventures-on-horseback-in-mongolia/
What is one insiders tip to getting the most out of an experiential travel vacation?
Be prepared for and embrace the unexpected. I’ll add a second, keep physically fit. It helps with the first.
What is one strategy that has helped your business to grow?
The one strategy that has helped our business grow is consistency. We take great pains to be consistent in the level of service we provide our guests, with the high standard of equipment we use, the care for our horses that make them the best for the types of trips we do, the meals we prepare during the trips and the general service we and our staff deliver. Being consistent, to our guests and potential clients so they know they can count on that is very important. We have more returning guests every year and they want to do the same thing, these great horse rides we do, which is quite different from their everyday life, but we maintain the consistency of the above.
What is one personal habit that has helped you to be successful?
Get up early, stick to your routine (maybe a little boring, but consistent), concentrate on what you do best, stay healthy and fit.
Please share one instance where a guest had a moving or emotional reaction to the experience you provided to them.
We’ve never really had anyone become too emotional, but they are moved a little by the scenery we spent time in, or leaving our staff at the end of a their trip, whom they’ve come to know, and as they let their horses go after having spent so much time with them. At the completion of each trip, we ask that each rider unsaddle their own horse, walk them out and release them. Everyone enjoys this moment as they say goodbye to the horse that carried them through some extraordinary country for the past weeks.