When Cathleen decided to travel an entire country on horseback, to follow in the footsteps of her favorite Long Rider’s Guild heroes, she had no idea how to actually do it. Her goal was to travel 1,000 miles from the top of Scotland to her home in Cornwall on horseback. She had no clue what to pack, where she would sleep or how to deal with an emergency? What if her horse wasn’t the right choice? Did she make a big mistake?
Author: Cathleen Leonard
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How It All Began…
My name is Cathleen Leonard and in 2017 I rode 1,000 miles from the top of Scotland back home to Cornwall on horseback. I travelled alone and without backup. My horse carried my tent, stove and everything else I needed to be self-sufficient on the road. I used the journey to raise money for the Riding for the Disabled Association (RDA).
I was born and raised near London, U.K., and moved to Cornwall when I was 19. From the moment I first sat on a horse at the age of 8, I began dreaming of travelling the world on horseback. I was always told that such a thing wasn’t possible in this day and age. That horseback travel was a thing of the past. But when I was 14 years old, I stumbled across the Long Riders’ Guild website. I discovered that there were actually hundreds of people all over the world who were living my dreams, and travelling on horseback. I spent years avidly reading the books, blogs and websites of these amazing people, who fast became my heroes. And I decided that one day I would become a Long Rider.
After several failed attempts at journeys over the years, where I learned a great deal about how NOT to travel on horseback, including two short, taster rides around Cornwall (100 miles) and the South West (300 miles), I finally plucked up enough courage to head up to Durness, the most north-westerly town on Scottish mainland, and ride all the way back to my home near Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.
The Most Unlikely Steed for the Job
I chose my 9 year-old Ardennes gelding, Taliesin to be my companion for the journey, along with my faithful wolf-hybrid, Spirit. Taliesin is safe, solid, dependable and totally unflappable, if a little slow, and he doesn’t mind travelling alone, which is a bonus.
I’ve had Taliesin from when he was an unhandled foal. I was on the Internet looking for some cats to rescue, when I came across a website advertising horses in France, destined for slaughter. There were loads of horses on the site, and I really didn’t want any more, but he and another foal really caught my attention. I couldn’t get them out of my head! So against everyone’s advice, I bought them both, and had them transported over to England. To this day, it is the best thing I have ever done.
I never guessed that 9 years later, I would be fulfilling that childhood dream. I would become a Long Rider, because I actually did travel an entire country from Scotland to Cornwall on horseback.
The Route, Planning and Preparation to Travel an Entire Country on Horseback
It was pretty late in the summer before I committed to doing the ride. I was nervous about doing it, but the overwhelming feeling that I wanted to be out there, travelling on horseback had finally gotten the better of me.
Typically, I don’t like to over-plan things or work to a rigid schedule, there are too many unknowns and too much that can go wrong, so as planning goes, mine was pretty basic. I had a good idea of the route across Scotland, thanks to the help of Long Rider, Vyv Wood-Gee, which made use of tracks across Highland Estates and quiet roads. Once in England I used the Pennine Bridleway and then the Sabrina Way as a rough guide for the route. I had only arranged a handful of places to stay, scattered all across the country, and the rest I filled in as we went.
Where to Sleep?
Finding places to stay at the end of each day is probably the most stressful part of a horseback journey, and it’s always a worry that you won’t find anywhere and will spend a night either trespassing on someone’s property, or sleeping at the side of a road somewhere, but in the 9 weeks I was on the road, I never once failed to find accommodation. I did find myself sleeping in some rather interesting places, however, from graveyards, stables, horseboxes and dirty lambing sheds, to people’s spare rooms and B&Bs. You get pretty good at bedding down just about anywhere on such an adventure! I stayed with all kinds of people, too, from an ex Playboy bunny and her boy-toy husband, through to a Conservative County Councillor.
In Scotland I wild-camped in the mountains, or asked farmers for the use of a field and I relied totally on the kindness of strangers for accommodation, showers and washing my clothes. Once in England, I arranged stops 4 or 5 days in advance, especially around big cities where people were more wary of strangers.
Wouldn’t Dare to Dream
When we set off on the 25th of August, I was terrified. I didn’t dare think about what lay ahead. It was too much, too daunting! I learned to take each step as it came, focus only on the immediate tasks at hand, and deal with each problem as, and when, it arose. For the first month of the ride I didn’t even dare look at the map to see how far we had come, never mind how far we had left to go before we reached home.
On the first night we camped out in a valley in the highlands. I found a nice sheltered spot with long, rich grass under some trees near a river at the head of Loch Hope. About half an hour later the midges arrived. I’ve never seen anything like it! There were so many of them you could hear the collective hum of their minute, beating wings and they absolutely plastered me, Taliesin and Spirit, feasting on every bit of exposed skin they could find.
Taliesin suffers from sweat-itch so it was torture and none of the sprays I had brought with me worked against those vile creatures. We spent a horrendous night being eaten alive, and all I could hear was Taliesin running up and down all night long trying to escape the midges.
A Bad Start
In the morning, Taliesin had had enough. Somehow I managed to get him tacked up with all his fidgeting, but I stupidly didn’t check the girth before we set off and the saddle, packs and all, ended up underneath him. Somehow I managed to get the girth undone upside down before Taliesin became too wound up and exploded, but once everything was off him, I couldn’t hold him anymore, and he marched off up the mountain back the way we’d come the night before.
I had to chase him through several bogs and streams before I finally caught him, and then had no choice but to turn him loose into an enormous, fenced area of forestry where he disappeared off out of sight, I had no idea where to, but at least he was in an enclosed area. I then spent an hour or more lugging all the gear half a mile up the mountain to a more exposed place where there were fewer midges before going in search of Taliesin, who luckily I found.
What on Earth am I Doing Here?
It was a bad start to the trip and I did ask myself several times what on earth I was doing out there and whose stupid idea had it been to go all the way up to the north of Scotland and ride home. Luckily I had no choice but to just get on with it. If I hadn’t been so far from home, I would probably have given up then and there. Things got easier after that though and we got better at finding midge-free camping spots. Taliesin never tried to abandon me again either.
I suppose most people’s idea of travelling on horseback consists of riding merrily off into the sunset and sleeping under the stars next to an open fire like something out of an old Western movie. It’s warm, dry, romanticised and all rather rose-tinted.
The reality is usually blistered feet, aching muscles and a wet tent on boggy, windswept mountainside, wearing smelly, wet clothes day in and day out, and you can absolutely forget about having dry feet either!
Fortunately, I had a rough idea of what to expect from my ‘taster’ rides over the years, so I had no illusions about how tough the journey would actually be. What made it all worthwhile, however, was the breathtaking countryside, and what surprised and delighted me the most was the people we met, nearly all of whom were generous, helpful and hospitable.
The journey really restored my faith in humanity and the kindness of strangers. For example, one day when travelling from Melgarve Bothy over to Loch Laggan, I somehow managed to lose the pack containing all the dog food for Spirit. I had slung it over the horn of my Australian stock saddle to give her a break from carrying it while I was leading Taliesin and it had fallen off somewhere along the track without me noticing. We were nowhere near a shop and wouldn’t be for several days so there was no chance of replacing it.
I went back along the track looking for the pack but I finally gave up after about a mile. I didn’t know what we were going to feed Spirit for the next few days. A little while later, whilst walking along a busy stretch of road, a pick-up truck towing a trailer pulled into a layby and the drivers got out to chat and find out what we were doing. It transpired that they were driving a trailer-load of food to a scouts camp further along the valley, so when they heard what had happened, they immediately started rummaging about in the trailer and found Spirit a load of tuna, mackerel, sardines and oat cakes to tide her over to the next time we found a shop. She was delighted, and I couldn’t believe our luck!
The Daily Slog
Days on the road soon fell into a pretty steady rhythm. Most days I was up early and packed down by about 8:00am with all my saddlebags meticulously weighed and balanced, then we’d hit the road by 9 or 10am. We would stop frequently for Taliesin to graze and for Spirit to rest her paws. I walked a lot to give Taliesin’s back a rest throughout the day, and in an average day we were covering around 20 miles, with up to two days off each week. I actually must have walked at least 500 miles of the trip, if not more because I preferred leading Taliesin to riding him. It felt nicer that way, more like a partnership.
If I had no stop planned for the night, I’d usually start looking for accommodation any time after 3pm. That would give us enough time to find somewhere before dark. If we were in a remote area and wanted to be near people for the night, I’d try to arrive near civilisation any time after 4pm, but better yet, after 5 when people would be back from work. Any earlier and there was less likelihood of finding someone to ask for a field.
Anything’s Better than a Tent…
I tried to find Taliesin a field each night because he doesn’t hobble or tether well, but I carried electric fencing for emergencies and when we were wild camping. Occasionally he was stabled, but being inside made him sweat badly, and eating hay made him cough, so I if I had a choice I always chose a field over a stable. For myself, as long as Taliesin was happy, it didn’t matter where I slept, but my motto was: anything is better than a tent! Which didn’t always prove true when I found myself in a mouse-infested caravan, or a sheep-shed that hadn’t been mucked out since lambing and had since become the toilet of a fox or farm dog!
Food, Water and Other Basic Considerations
Grass was Taliesin’s main source of food, but if we were staying with equestrians and they offered Taliesin feed, I would always accept. We were travelling in the autumn so there wasn’t a lot of goodness in the grass, especially up in the mountains so Taliesin did lose some weight.
We were never short of water, though, and I always offered Taliesin a drink if we were passing a stream or a clean puddle.
I relied on people for clean drinking water for myself, carried a ‘life straw’ for emergencies and sometimes I used water from the streams in the Highlands for cooking or tea, but I always boiled it well. I carried enough food for about 5 days and would stock up on supplies whenever we passed a shop. There were lots of little village shops in Scotland, but sadly in England, they were few and far between so I then had to rely on my hosts for lifts into town.
Taliesin was shod before we left and finding a farrier was something I had been worried about when the time came to re-shoe him. Farriers are hard to come by at the best of times, but we were very lucky to find them as and when we needed them, and good ones too! Never underestimate the value of luck. It has played a vital role in all of my journeys!
In Case of an Emergency…
People have often asked me if I had an emergency plan if something went wrong. I actually didn’t. I just hoped that if there was a serious problem we would find kind people to help us out, and somewhere to rest up, or wait for transport home if we needed it.
In the U.K. you’re never far from people and rarely without phone signal so help would never be far away. I think people are always willing to lend a hand in a crisis. Luckily for us, I never had to test that theory. Several people we stayed with and even some people who passed us on the road, did say to ring them if we got stuck and they’d come and rescue us. Two men driving a horse lorry up near Lanark even offered to give us lift to our stop that night, but I felt that would be cheating.
What Will It Cost?
Costs and funding are always the big questions on a journey like this, and while I never really sat down and added everything up, I would say that it probably cost me somewhere in the region of £4000, including transport and maps. The money came out of the savings I had worked hard for over the years, and all donations raised for the RDA went to them. I’d have done the journey with or without a cause, but I reasoned that if I was going to do something stupid like ride a horse from Scotland to Cornwall, then why shouldn’t somebody somewhere benefit from it.
How It Ended
By the end of the journey I didn’t actually want to go home. I really struggled with myself over that, and when I did get home, I really struggled to settle back into ‘normal’ life.
I find chasing my dreams and journeying solo very empowering. It’s tough, but you really get to know yourself by doing these things. You discover your limits, your strengths and your weaknesses, and you meet some amazing people along the way. It’s also an incredible way to bond with your animals. Because of my journeys, I know my horses inside out. I really trust them and I’d like to think we have an understanding and plenty of mutual respect.
A Little Piece of Advice to Travel an Entire Country on Horseback
If I have one piece of advice for anyone, its to do it while you can. Life is too short. You never know what’s around the corner. I know it’s obvious and bit cliché, but it’s also true. I’ve worked as a carer, tending to the elderly, the sick and the dying and that has taught me that life is short and time is precious, that you never know what’s around the corner and not to take time or health for granted.
Don’t put off making your dreams a reality. Circumstances are never going to be perfect, you’ll never have enough money, enough time, the perfect horse, or done enough training and/or planning and preparation, but sometimes you just have to get on and do it. Take a leap of faith and trust that it’ll all work out somehow!
For more practical advice and inspiration, check out the Long Riders’ Guild and buy the Horse Travel Handbook by CuChulaine O’Reilly. It contains all the best, most comprehensive information and advice on doing long distance journeys on horseback.
To follow Cathleen’s adventures or get in touch with her you can follow her Facebook page “A Strange Request”.
Furthermore, Cathleen wrote a book about this epic ride. All her experiences and learnings on how to travel an entire country on horseback are in there. The book tells “the story of one woman’s journey of self-discovery, courage, determination, and encounters with the better side of human nature.” Order your copy right away: “Before Winter Comes: A Journey on Horseback from Scotland to Cornwall”.
And if you still crave for more input about Long Distance Horse Riding then check out what other adventuresses have to say about this topic.