Harry had only been backed the previous year, so was not an experienced horse. But he had proved to be reliable, calm and co-operative, and quite good in traffic. Since I would be camping with Harry, perhaps in the open, I accustomed him to being tied up for grazing, and line tied as well. The line tie is a 20 metre long rope, fixed between trees about 10 feet high. From this, a long lead rope drops down, via a swivel clip to Harry’s head collar. This allows Harry to graze the full length of the 20 metres during the night. I also used a pair of hoof boots (Renegades) for his front feet, and he took easily to these.
I planned the ride along bridleways and minor roads wherever possible. I was to start at Devon’s most southerly point, East Prawle, near Salcombe, going due north over Dartmoor and Exmoor to Porlock, then east to finish on the Quantock Hills in Somerset; a journey of about 160 miles. Since Harry would have to carry both me and all my camping gear, I estimated this would take about 2 weeks, doing 12 to 20 miles a day. Harry’s luggage load would weigh about 25 pounds.
I had no crew with me, being on my own for most of the trip, but checked the route beforehand with my partner, Rachel. To reduce Harry’s load I arranged some food dumps (for him and myself) at pubs and campsites on route. I also planned to have long midday stops at sites suitable for Harry to graze for an hour or two each day.
In mid July with Harry loaded in a box, we drove to East Prawle. The following day, with good sunny weather, took me via quiet lanes and bridleways to a friend’s house, about 16 miles north. On the second day, I got to the southern edge of Dartmoor, east of Ivybridge and was offered a Gypsy caravan to sleep in for that night. I tied Harry to the shafts while I unloaded him, then used a nearby paddock for his grazing overnight.
The National Park Authority have a policy of not signing rights of way on the Moor itself, so the following day tested my map-reading and compass skills. I was heading for Princetown, about 14 miles away, where I’d arranged for Harry to have a field at Tor Royal Stables. I was also going to meet Rachel and some friends there. Harry was still not confident when crossing streams and had to ‘learn on the job’. Since he was slow to cross the first few streams, I went ahead of him, holding the 10ft lead rope, asking him to ‘walk on’; eventually, he would follow. By the end of the first full day on Dartmoor, he was much better at crossing water.
The ride from Princetown to East Okement Farm, near Okehampton two days later was the longest and most tricky part of the trek. Much of this ride was over featureless moorland so I had to rely on the compass (and good weather) to get me there.
This section crosses the Army’s firing ranges, so we checked the day before and were told there would be no firing during my ride. How wrong can one be! Thirteen miles into the day and I saw the red warning flags raised on the ranges: I was trapped! I couldn’t go back, and a detour would take me another 20 miles, by which time it would be dark. I tied Harry to the first flagpole and contemplated having to camp there the night. Fortunately I soon saw another rider coming towards me across the moor on a trusty cob. He proved to be employed by the Army, raising and lowering the flags as needed, on firing days. He said the firing had just finished, lowered flag to which I’d tied Harry up to, and wished me well on my way. More bleak moorland, some steep climbs and decents and about 7 miles later, I got to East Okement, with an hour of daylight to spare as well! I was exhausted and hungry but slept well that night in my ‘micro tent’. After a rest day I set off in hot weather, north-east towards Crediton where I had a food dump in a field next to the golf course. Harry had a field of lush grass to himself but came under attack from a large parasitic fly for a while.
During my route planning earlier in the year, I’d not been able to find anywhere to stay for the next night, near the village of Rackenford, so intended to use some common land there and line-tie Harry. Fortunately, following enquiries at the local shop, I was kindly offered the use of a sheep field for the night near the village. While I pitched the tent, Harry trotted around the edge of the field, then returned to graze alongside the tent. That night, I forsook the camping stove and had a meal in the village pub. It thundered with distant lightning that night, but never rained. I awoke to a heavy dew and the rhythmic sound of Harry munching grass close to the tent. On leaving Rackenford I met a rider on a palomino and joined her for a few miles, on my way to Exmoor and Tarr Steps. She showed me where best to cross the busy A 361, and soon I was on the southern edge of Exmoor.
The rest of the trek was much easier. Exmoor’s bridleways are generally well way-marked. Over the following days I went due north, crossing the River Barle at Tarr Steps, then a long climb up to Dunkery Beacon, dropping down to the coast near Porlock. That night I stayed at the Owl and Hawk Centre, in nearby Allerford. From here, for the last three days, my route took me east over the Brendon Hills to the Quantock Hills. Much of this section runs along the Coleridge Way which connects Exmoor with the Quantock Hills. Though some parts are footpaths only, it is well marked with long sections of bridleways, quiet lanes, shady tracks and woodland. I finished at Broomfield on the Quantocks. From here Harry was taken home in a trailer; a short trip to Axbridge.
Camping with your horse for two weeks means you certainly get to know him. I don’t have an exercise yard for Harry, so much of his schooling has been taught out hacking. By minimising aversive methods during training, Harry’s progress has been very good and his behaviours fairly predictable. I was fortunate in having good weather for most of the ride. Indeed it was very hot and the main issue was clouds of horse flies, particularly on Dartmoor. The people I met along the way, whether horsey types or not were very helpful and this has encouraged me to plan more trips like this. I think there is a real advantage in going barefoot and I feel shoeing could cause more trouble than it is ever worth; a horse is more ‘self-reliant’ when barefoot and farriers are irrelevant. The Renegade hoof boots worked well and I would recommend them to anyone. Using a bitless bridle leaves Harry’s mouth unencumbered and easier for him to feed on route. I trained him to put his head down on cue, and let him graze as the opportunities arise.
I hate mobile phones. The whole point for me, of being out and about is that you are removed from contact for a while. But I took one with me, keeping it in my pocket, not on the horse! The phone was kept switched off. I would only have used it to call for help if I or Harry were really stuck. However, there was no signal for much of the ride particularly on Dartmoor. Harry also wore bright red metal dog-tag labels on his head collar and saddle with my contact details, in case we got separated. Doing a ride on your own, means you need to be prepared for everything. I took both a folding pruning saw and a small hacksaw, in case of any blocked gates/fences on route. Fortunately, I only needed the pruning saw on two occasions to clear some fallen branches; but if gates had been locked on any public right of way, I would have sawn the locks off. I took first aid stuff for both myself and Harry, so I could dress and sterilise minor wounds if needed.
While Harry is very aware of everything going on around him, he is not a nervous or flighty horse. Many horses react nervously to ‘new’ objects which appear in a familiar environment, they do not seem to do the same where the whole environment (the route being travelled) is new. So, when travelling along unfamiliar routes as we were every day, Harry accepted whatever he saw, such as road works, traffic lights, safety barriers etc. without a problem. Sadly, we met very few other riders during my trek, and no one else camping with their horse. The Dartmoor national park’s policy of not waymarking across the moor must put many people (not just horse riders) off. This seems wrong, since they should be encouraging such use of the countryside.
I weigh about 10st 4lb, but wanted to keep the weight down for Harry’s load, so weight was the critical issue with all the camping gear. To help Harry, I got off for at least 10 minutes each hour and walked him in-hand. I also dismounted when going up and down very steep hills, and where other ground conditions might be tricky for him. The tent is little more than a bivvy bag. It’s just about big enough for one person and little else. I stored my tack and food etc. overnights in a plastic storm shelter. I had some of my main meals in pubs along the way, and this meant less food had to be carried each day, plus I had some good beer! I kept a daily diary of my progress, as memory is not always reliable. I have another interest in bird watching, and riding often allows a close approach to wildlife. The ride started with very rare Cirl Buntings in south Devon, plus lots of Buzzards, Ravens, Yellowhammers and Stock Doves and the occasional Peregrine Falcon. Travelling at a few miles an hour from the back of horse is the perfect way to appreciate our countryside. I also felt a bit more in tune with how people would have travelled 100 years ago before cars tore the countryside apart with strips of tarmac everywhere. I wish more riders would try something like this. I’m planning another trip for this year…