How to Ride in Great Britain
Elizabeth Hill Davies
In 2011 Elizabeth Hill Davies rode a thousands miles across Great Britain. One part of the journey took her along the beautiful Pennine Way (above).
Finding a horse - Since Great Britain isn't quite as attractive as some other parts of the world, I'm going to assume most future Long Riders will be residents and probably already own the horse they want to journey with.
As a general rule, you want a medium-sized, sure footed and traffic safe (!!!) horse or pony. If you don't already own one, there are a few options as to where you can buy. If you are planning to keep it afterwards, it can be worth speaking to a horse rescue where they will know, and are most likely to be honest about, the animal's behaviour. I doubt they will give you a horse for the sole purpose of the journey, though.
Otherwise there are "horses and ponies for sale," Facebook groups by region, websites, magazines with adverts and breeders, though they may not have horses of the right age with good training due to the nature of their business. Auctions may be an option but be aware that lots of dodgy horses end up there so even though the price may be fantastic, you could be putting yourself and the animal at risk or giving yourself a lot of extra work with training.
Be aware that most horses will not be used to carrying anything other than a standard English saddle and bridle. Other saddles, let alone baggage, bitless bridles etc. are a very rare sight and very few horses and humans will have seen them before. You'll need to take the time necessary to get your animal used to the equipment.
How many horses - That mostly depends on how much planning you want to do and whether you are willing to be a slave to an itinerary. I had a 1.57 m riding horse with saddle bags and a 1.35 m pack pony that carried about 34kg in his panniers, (and a Shetland pony and a dog). But they didn't carry luggage and didn't cause much extra luggage either. Taking along the pack pony meant I could pack camping gear and had much better chances of finding a good place for the night without doing any pre-planning. If you want to travel light, I would advise organising overnight stays beforehand, which is infinitely possible but more likely to mean you'll have to pay to stay (there are quite a few horse and rider bed and breakfasts around the country) and spend a lot of time planning.
Planning your route - This depends on whether you take camping equipment or not. I went for a GPS (SatMap) and did all my planning over just two days with Google Maps - and the route was excellent so no regrets there. I carried a road map for emergencies (that never got used) but otherwise just had to follow the blue line on my GPS screen, which was very easy.
Elizabeth had great success with a device known as the Sat Map. It equipped her with a treasure-trove of the most accurate maps, all of which were stored in a palm-sized device.
“I spent ages wondering whether it was best to get maps or to get an outdoor GPS and just carry an additional large scale map and compass for emergencies. The fact that I would have needed more than seventy 1:50,000 maps for the planned journey, which would have worked out very expensive and logistically complicated, eventually convinced me. Why on earth did I ever doubt what would be best?”
The small Sat Map unit is easy to use and allows you to fine-tune your route on the move. It displays the map on a 3.5” colour screen and the battery lasts up to 120 hours in hibernate mode.
“Don't get me wrong - I love map reading and hardly ever get lost with one, but it is fantastic to know without a doubt what your position is and where to go.”
Be aware that Great Britain is very different to many other countries in Europe in that there are hardly any countryside paths! What is a gravel or woodland track in France/Germany/Spain with only restricted access for vehicles is a single lane tarmac road where cars can legally drive up to 60 mph. There are bridleways, though they are frequently not well maintained, very muddy and dotted with gates. It is therefore infinitely possible to plan your journey on Google Maps without missing out on much. You can of course be spontaneous if you see a lovely area along your route.
The British countryside is not like Continental Europe where you have vast woodlands with well-maintained paths. Besides the national parks that are mostly just vast areas of grassland, Britain has islands of woodland that you may or may not be allowed to ride in but they are rarely big enough to give you more than an hour's riding. We did a lot of zig-zagging in order to keep to the smallest possible roads and to cross major roads in the best and safest places. There are of course good 1:50,000 and 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey maps if you'd like to stick to the paper version.
There are some very nice long-distance bridle ways. Check the British Horse Society's website for information on them. They should be well-marked and maintained. The Pennine Bridleway will take you up through the centre of England and is a good scenic route. I found it a little hard-going with three horses and a dog because of the number of gates and the many instances where you did 3 sides of a square compared to the route along the road but with just one or two horses per person, it is a good route.
As we could be very self-sufficient during our overnight stays, I had the route clearly planned out but searched for somewhere to stay every night. I'd recommend light travellers organise as many overnight stays as possible in advance. The most times I ever had to ask whether we could stay was three.
Weather - Be prepared for regular rain, sun, warmth, cold, wind and heat (sometimes). And if you are on the road between October and March, cancel the heat and a large portion of the warmth and add a lot more rain to the mix.
The best weather is from April to September and especially in May and June.
Gear & Tack - It is well worth getting a saddle that distributes the weight better than a standard English one and they aren't easily available in Great Britain. Have a look around and think of bringing your saddle of choice if you come from abroad. The same goes for any non-English bridle you might want to use. I leave the head collar with the lead rope tied to the saddle on full-time and use a Colombian bosal custom-made for my horse's size with a 4 millimetre rope for reins that can be easily hung over the saddle while grazing and comes in handy for other jobs.
I used four rucksacks - two small at the front, two medium at the back - strapped to each other as the saddle bags, which worked a treat. Again, proper, good quality horse bags aren't readily available here. I also used waterproof bag liners. The pack pony carried Custom Pack Rigging's adjustable pack saddle that was equipped with small panniers, which served us extremely well.
|Elizabeth and her horse Dino were the first equestrian travellers to use the Canadian adjustable pack saddle in a special ten-year international field test.|
My own clothing consisted of GORE TEX rain gear (ex navy from the military surplus store) and a poncho to keep the worst of the rain off and the saddle dry, very good quality waterproof hiking boots, high gaiters (the hiking version), a more or less waterproof cap, two pairs of jeans, two long-sleeved and two short-sleeved t-shirts and two fleeces that could be layered depending on the temperature.
For the horses: hoof boots, 1 brush, rasp and hoof pick, 1 spare hoof boot each, boot repair kit, lightweight rugs.
For all: first aid kit and fly/midge spray. High-Viz gear
For the dog: food, Ruffwear boots (!), bowl, lightweight waterproof coat. The boots were extremely important during the first half of the journey. Despite a lot of training, she was in agony after 3 days on the road. We used the boots for half of most days for about 6 weeks.
As a general rule, if what you need isn't standard English style, bring it with you or be prepared to order online.
Knives: be aware that it isn't precisely legal to carry a knife in Great Britain but of course you should have one when you're dealing with animals, ropes and straps. There is a loophole if you "need" a knife but it's best to keep the fact you're carrying one quiet.
Grazing: we carried a mobile fence most of the way, a 15 millimetre rope, and hobbles.
Other: GPS, map(s), spare batteries (4 sets seem to be ample when you can charge regularly), head torch.
Horse care - In most British countryside you can expect to do around 20 miles a day, sometimes less and never more than 30. We never did more than 27. But then it's not about the miles anyway. If you see a nice place to stay early on, do it.
A lot of the areas in national parks like the Brecon Beacons or in the middle of England along the Pennine Bridleway, in Yorkshire, the Lake District and in the Scottish Highlands are open countryside and you can theoretically pitch your tent and ride anywhere that suits you. But be aware of a couple of things. The grass isn't good at all so your horses may well still be hungry in the morning. Also, be aware that if you only hobble the front legs, they can still run very fast and far. They can only walk slowly, they can't trot but they can definitely do a good canter so front leg hobbles alone aren't enough to keep them close at night. That's where the mobile electric fence comes in. It's a quite small package, doesn't weigh especially much and is worth its weight in gold if you plan to camp wild on a regular basis. The standard kit tends to come with only 4 poles so you'll do well to get a couple more and also a bit more wire.
High-roping for grazing: Just forget it. Britain has very few trees and where there are trees there doesn't tend to be any grass.
Tethering: lots of people do it, I don't and never will as I'm just too worried about my horses getting hurt.
You'll most likely find that good grazing is enough to keep the horses happy and well-fed. It's worth letting them stop at mineral/vitamin buckets that are frequently dotted around the mountains for the sheep or asking whether they have one where you stay overnight. A fair number of people will offer you grain, too. I started my journey by sticking to the rule of 10 minutes of grazing per hour of riding but ended up with my horses getting too fat despite all the exercise so we reduced to about 30 minutes in the middle of the day and of course good grazing all night.
|Hoof care: My horses wear boots (Easyboots) and I trim myself. It's a good way to do a long ride here. If you prefer to have your horse shod, it shouldn't be too difficult to ask at any equestrian place for their farrier's contact details and most do a relatively good job. I find normal farriers aren't too good with barefoot horses, though.|
Rugs: You will often be okay in the summer but in April/May it can still get cold and wet with a strong wind and no trees for protection. If you have the space, it's therefore worth taking a lightweight waterproof rug for those few horrible nights.
Where to stay - As I said, the wild areas of the many national parks are lovely but the grass isn't good. Equestrian centres can be comfortable but they might not always take you in because they genuinely have no space or want to avoid contamination - you're likely to be asked whether your horses have been recently wormed at the very least. Another downside is that most of their fields are over-grazed so not good for horses that have worked all day. Sheep farmers can be a bit picky and will frequently send you away. My favourites are cattle/dairy farmers! They tend to be very welcoming and have fantastic grazing and often don't mind putting your horses in with the cattle if there's no spare field. Cattle farmers who also have sheep are also usually okay and welcoming.
|“One night I slept in a beautiful ‘gentleman’s wagon’.”|
If you carry camping equipment, it's rare for you to be sent away. You may then just be left alone to look after yourself but more often than not, you will be allowed to use a socket to charge your gadgets, frequently get invited in for food, can regularly use the shower and sometimes get offered use of the washing machine. In fact, I think most people who let you use the shower would probably let you use the washing machine if you asked. I normally washed t-shirts and underwear in the shower to keep things simple.
Charities - Yes, they have their place here. They are a very big thing in the United Kingdom and most people give money to at least one good cause. It can be very helpful for your trip to choose a nice charity to support and put a note to that effect on your luggage (I had a small sign on each side of the pack pony’s panniers). Your ride won't only actually benefit people or animals as a result but you will find hosts are a lot more welcoming. We were allowed to stay over several times despite a not so good start when people found out that we were doing our ride for charity. If you support a charity, you'll want to keep a little box for money handy as you'll frequently be stopped and given money along the way.
Fly care - Avon's Skin so Soft is great for humans and horses! And for the horses "Butox" is an excellent choice. It's actually for cattle and can only be bought from a vet but one small dose along the neck and back (10ml, so less than it says on the packet) will keep biting insects at bay for weeks.
Learn from the locals - Within reason in England and Wales. There are knowledgeable locals but horses are rarely allowed on human footpaths and humans rarely take bridleways and avoid roads so you won't have especially much in common with the locals. I always find it's worth asking about nice places but if you are sure of your route, there's not much point in asking locals.
|Reality not romance. Because of Great Britain’s heavy urbanization, Elizabeth did not always travel through lush forests or grassy meadows.|
Again, most British people absolutely can't imagine a long ride so they won't be the best guides because they don't understand the requirements. And as horrible as it sounds, I learnt not to trust locals when they tell you where to stay. They find it hard to understand that most farmers with good grass will let you stay so get concerned and a bit desperate with their willingness to help. Some very helpful locals landed us on the worst field of the trip and I had three horses not feeling well with the diarrhoea for three days and had to get them ready the following day on an extremely steep slope.
You may want more local knowledge in Scotland, though.
If you're not from here, be sure to know at least basic English as very few people will know your language.
Food - This should not be a problem. It's rare to not see a town with bigger shops or at least a village shop for very long so you can just leave the horse outside while you go shopping. People are very welcoming and will frequently invite you in for dinner. I was vegetarian, not far off vegan, during my trip and had no trouble. Farmers sometimes didn't understand it but all were friendly. Even the owner of an intensive hog farm let me stay once despite my "Compassion in World Farming" t-shirt. Several farmers commented how important the charity's work was.
Safety - Criminals are of no real concern. The only major concern is keeping safe on the many roads you will have to use. Wear well-visible colours and keep to the edge of the road. You will still have the occasional idiot making contact with your baggage while overtaking but that's hopefully all. Most people are friendly if you are friendly but stand your ground if it's unsafe for a car to pass and somebody gets impatient.
Be sure to make your horses traffic safe, especially if you have more than one to deal with.
Last but not least: Take care, be really friendly, brace yourself for almost the same questions from and conversations with everybody you meet and you are almost sure to have a fantastic journey!
My trip was amazing and I enjoyed very nearly every single moment of it and hope to bore my grandchildren with the stories one day. Long Rides are a very simple activity. When you are well prepared, have well trained animals and a little portion of luck to go with it, nothing dramatic or especially exciting happens. That's the wonderful thing about it - the simplicity. You just wake up in the morning and have exactly two jobs for the day: take care of the team and walk. It's physically demanding, but mentally relaxing.