Have Horse, Will Travel: 10 Things to Consider Before Hitting the Trail

Someone once asked me, ‘why don’t you just position your horse in the direction of travel and let him find the best way home’?  Well that’s all very well and good, and if he is familiar with the territory then he will know exactly where to go.  But there is the thorny question of how is he going to navigate a safe way over motorways or across deep flowing rivers?  It’s not just a question of going from ‘a to b’ as the crow flies.  It is our job as carers of our beloved mounts, to navigate a safe passage at all times.

Based on my experience of long distance riding in the UK.  Here are

10 Key Points to Consider for LONG RIDING

L – is for Love and Lust

A Love for horses is essential because your horse’s welfare and safety will be your number one priority at all times. Secondly, a Lust for adventuring with horses is vital before contemplating a long distance journey with an equine partner.

Perhaps you have already started to roam far and wide with your horse?

Maybe, extend your love of horses by considering your journey as a fund-raiser for a special cause, such as The Brooke who help working horses and donkeys around the world.  Sponsorship might be another consideration.  Many horse related equipment companies are keen to sponsor you in your endeavour if they know you could endorse their products with lots of publicity.  

O – is for One

That is: One or Two Horses?  Are you planning to camp out or stay at lodgings that can accommodate a horse, along the way?  Or maybe a bit of both?  Either way, you will need to consider a pack pony if you are thinking of taking a lot of camping gear.  I like to keep things as simple as possible and going solo is my own preferred way of going.  Having a contingency plan in place if things do go a bit pair shaped is always handy.  But not essential.  Trust that you will find the answers when you need them.

N – is for Now

What’s stopping you?  What is holding you back from following your dream?  Is it Fear of traveling solo?  Family Commitments?  Dependent relatives or other animals?  Have belief in your abilities and know that you can achieve anything if you put your mind to it.

Take Action!  Follow your dreams while you can because, later might be too late.

G – is for Gear

Having the right kit is imperative.  All carefully packed and stowed away in water-proof bags.  This is where weight becomes a very important consideration.  When weighing all your gear, don’t forget to take your weight, plus the weight of your saddle into the equation.  Especially, not forgetting water containers as water is very heavy.  

Rule of thumb: The load for your horse should not exceed 20% of the ponies own body weight.  eg, if your horse weighs 500 kg, then the combined weight of you (weighed, wearing all your riding clothes plus helmet) plus the weight of your horse’s kit should not exceed 100 kg.  To lighten the load, you may have to make some important decisions about what to leave behind.

Your saddle. Before contemplating a long ride and if you want to avoid the curse of the long distance rider with saddle sores, look very carefully at your saddle and its padding. This is the one piece of kit worth spending money on to get it just right. A sheepskin saddle cloth is a natural fibre and works well when you want to wick away moisture. They also cope well with being washed.

Get your saddle properly fitted by a professional and make sure it is tried and tested and comfortable for both you and your horse in good time before you set off. But remember, your horse will probably build muscle along the way and changing shape is one of the things you must also consider.

When considering what would be essential to your kit, regardless of weight, there are a few items I would never be without.

  • No 1 personal piece of kit would be my mobile phone, charged and ready to go at all times.  For multi-tasks such as taking photos, making emergency calls, contacting hosts, a mobile torch, using map apps, making notes, etc,.  Keep this on your person at all times in case you and your horse – for any reason – are parted from one another. Make sure you have at least one deep, zipped pocket to store it in. I kept mine in my jacket pocket which, if I wasn’t wearing, I would tie the arms around my waist so that its hi-vis would still be visible. Some people prefer to carry a bum bag around their waist for their valuables, such as money, and phone etc.
  • Your horse’s passport. Commercial horse transporters will refuse to convey your horse if he/she is without a passport because their insurance will not cover an unregistered equine.
  • ID badge with the name of your horse and your mobile number, securely attached to your tack (saddle or bridle, or both).
  • pad, pencil and itinerary lists
  • a waterproof map cover
  • first aid kit for you AND your horse. Including scissors and spare T shirt.
  • spare compass, whistle and emergency bivvy bag
  • pair of crocs

R – is for Research your Route

Just like you use your reins to direct your horse, once you have decided where you are heading, you can plan your route.   Maps & Apps.  This requires finding ‘up to date’ Ordinance Survey maps (if you are using them) with a back up phone App, or two.  There are plenty of Apps (OS and horse specific ones) out there and you will need to test out a couple until you decide to go with one that works for you.  I used ‘ViewRanger’ which is an OS mapping system which allows you to buy and download ‘tiles’ for the area you require.  

The apps have the added bonus of letting you know exactly where you are located at any given time thanks to your phone’s GPS signal.  (Unless you are in a tunnel or a deep forrest).  Knowing exactly where you are in the landscape at any given time, could literally save your life, (eg, if you are lost in a bog, in the fog).  Plus, they have the added bonus that you can not only see the area on a larger scale map than the paper one you might be carrying, but also you can zoom in and out of them for a more detailed overview of where you are.  

Download emergency Apps onto your phone, like ‘what3words’ which will locate your exact position within a square metre, identified by 3 unique words.  999 will link you up with the relevant emergency services or mountain rescue people.

Word of caution.  Don’t always rely on a bridleway because it says so on the map.  Many are overgrown because of a lack of regular use, and unridable.  Worst still, some farmers block bridleways with locked gates, barbed wire or livestock which often means taking a long, unplanned for detour and can be very frustrating.  Local knowledge is your best bet.  Ask around for up to date information regarding safe routes for you and your horse.

Books on Long Riding:  ‘The Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration’ by the Long Riders Guild is a three part manual.  The chances are you will have already read a number of books written by people doing long distance rides.  Many stories to inspire you to take the plunge.

I – is for Itinerary

Once you have a ‘rough’ route to work with, you can begin to plan your daily rides and where you will make your rest stops.  Decide how far you think you and your horse can safely and comfortably walk in a day, which can range anywhere between 10 – 30 miles, and begin to research the area you have earmarked for an overnight stop.  Whilst you are working out the daily total, consider if this is a distance that you might be able to walk whilst leading your pony in a day.  It happens.  Also why a comfortable pair of walking boots – for you – are invaluable.  Planning rest stops for you and your horse are entirely dependant on what you and your equine are capable of and where you are, but after every 4 -6 days on the go, is a good measure.  The pacing of you and your horse is one of the keys to the success or failure of a long ride.

If you are in Scotland, or going over Dartmoor, there is a ‘right to roam’ policy and you can camp pretty much anywhere you want to, within reason and as long as you don’t leave a trail of destruction behind you, and are considerate to local landowners.  But if you are travelling elsewhere in the UK, it is advisable to make plans about where you might stay, before you set off.  

Sources of information might be: Equestrian centres; local Tourist Information Centres; family and friends along the route; Bridleway Associations; B&Bs with horse accommodation; social media; RDA centres; the local hunt; horse breeders; horse rescue centres, farmers with a barn or field for camping, riding clubs, etc… Join facebook groups like ‘Saddle Tramping uk’ or ‘The Long Riders’ Guild’ (based in USA).  Ask for advice or post requests.

During your research, (which can take several months / years), it is useful to keep a spreadsheet for your itinerary with the names, addresses and contact details of people and places where you have found accommodation.  This can help you with timings and planning roughly where you might be on any given date.  Of course, events often conspire to change your best laid plans and a bit of flexibility should always be factored into your planning.  Such as when your horse needs new shoes which is difficult to predict.  That will more likely depend on the going and the quality of the shoe iron as some horse shoes wear out quicker than others.  Again, here is where local knowledge is invaluable.

I have found that it is best to perhaps follow up an introductory email with a telephone call.  Make sure you leave your telephone number on that email.  There is nothing like talking to a real person and it is often the start of a life-long friendship.  Always remember that once your overnight stay has been confirmed, then you will need to follow up your arrangements by phoning ahead a few days before you are expected, and also just before you set out on the day you are planning to be there.  That way, someone will be expecting you and will know something is wrong if you don’t turn up.

D – is for Drive

A bit of soul searching to answer this.  What is your motivation or purpose for doing such a ride?  To spend more time with your horse?  The joy of riding through wild, open spaces?  Do you need to prove something to yourself?  Such as bravery; tenacity; or just have an adventure with your equine partner?  Is this just a long hack or are you looking for spiritual transformation?  A burning desire to do something is a great motivator.   Trust in your own instincts and in your horse’s instincts.  Listen to your heart.  Follow your own path.

I – is for Imagination

A journey of this nature means you are travelling through unknown territory.  And one thing you can be sure of is that unexpected things will happen.  This is where your creative thinking comes into play as you find imaginative ways to overcome obstacles or challenges along the way.  The more you are capable of ‘thinking on your feet / hoof’ and coming up with imaginative solutions to situations that require immediate action, the easier it will be for you.

N – is for Nag

It goes without saying (but I’ll say it all the same), that your horse is your most valuable asset – as well as ally – on a long ride.  Sturdy, Native types are brilliant because their shorter backs and strong bones are better for weight bearing.   Usually better than lighter boned, long-backed, finer animals of the same height.  But there are no hard and fast rules where horses are concerned.  I think temperament is probably more important than build.  Any fit horse with a good conformation and strong, hard feet will do the job with gusto.  If you have a sluggish beast, perhaps they are trying to tell you something and you should certainly take notice.

There is also a perception that you trail-horse must be good in traffic.  I have yet to come across a horse that is reliably, 100% ‘bomb-proof’.   Any activity with a horse is a risky business and most horse people are well aware of that anyway.  You don’t need any qualifications for the trail but a kind, calm confidence and ability with horses is essential.  Ideally, you should have built a great partnership with your horse before you set off.  If you haven’t, you will have one by the time you finish your journey. This is, without doubt, one of the most satisfying things about a long ride.

G – is for Go in Grace, with Gratitude.

If you are travelling alone with your horse, then you will probably find that your hosts are your most valuable sources of comfort and support.  Trust that, God willing, you will arrive at your destination, largely due to the kindness and support of your well-wishers and the people who have given you a place to rest your head and a stable for your horse.  The gratitude you feel will be very humbling and without doubt, life-changing.

Happy Trails!

‘We shall not cease from exploration 

And the end of all our exploring 

will be to arrive where we started 

and know the place for the first time’

T.S. Eliot