Clare Dyson was twelve when she started using ordnance survey maps to plan her rides, fantasizing about a bigger quest. More than twenty years later, with a tent, a collie and an untrained Fell Pony, she set out for the mountains of the Lake District National Park. Finally she could make her childhood dream of horse trekking in the Lake District come true.
Author: Sarah Dimichino
To drivers passing through the small town in northern England, the sight is nothing unusual: a woman on horseback trotting down the road, a collie following at her heels. But if they were to slow down and take a better look, they might notice that the horse—actually more of a large pony—is packed with an unusual amount of gear. They might see the preternatural connection between the pony and collie as they pick their way through traffic, or the look of concentration on the woman’s face as she guides her team, aware of the consequences of a sudden spook. And if they really stopped and got to know Clare Dyson, they’d see that this is the proudest moment of a thirty-day odyssey.
At the edge of town, Clare breathes, settles back in her saddle and pats her horse’s neck. “Guys, that was amazing!”
Journey of a Lifetime
In May 2018, Clare Dyson completed a month-long trek through England’s Lake District National Park with a collie and a Fell Pony named Pansy. The pony didn’t belong to Clare, nor was she broke to ride—Clare had to do that herself, in between hours at her full-time job. “She never tried to get me off or anything,” Clare, 36, explains modestly when asked how she approached training a horse for the first time in her life. “It was just like sanding down a piece of wood.” Her casual attitude belies the preparation that went into a journey she’d been dreaming of since childhood.
A Childhood on Horseback
Clare grew up riding, but a trail ride at age twelve changed how she saw the sport. “It was like, ‘this is what it’s all about! It’s not just about going round the school and figuring out what’s happening with the canter and rising trot and sitting trot’—it was like, ‘I’m in the woods on a horse, this is amazing.’ I think that was the moment for me.”
Soon, Clare was navigating the bridlepaths of southern England using ordnance survey maps and a keen sense of direction. Her mother’s friends were horrified—“aren’t you afraid she’ll get lost?” But it was too late. An independence was growing in the British teen that would set the tone for the rest of her life. “The thing I find really fascinating about horse riding and women,” she says, “is that it teaches you to be so assertive. You have to be strong, not only physically, but mentally as well.”
Clare knows something about mental strength. In a childhood fraught with family tension and tragedy, horses and the outdoors were often her only means of escape. The adult Clare continued to keep these elements in her life, traveling overland to Mongolia at age 26 to horse trek for two months. There she hired a guide and learned the essentials of camping with horses. I could do this, she thought. I could do this alone.
Back in England, Clare turned her love of the outdoors into a career. “I sort of fell into this lovely world of outdoor instructing and then working with people from disadvantaged backgrounds—helping people grow confidence and work in teams and learn leadership, all by using outdoor activities like canoeing and climbing and being in the mountains.” The job meant that Clare needed to move from the south of England, where she’d grown up, to the north, near the Lake District National Park where she’d eventually do her trip. The south, with its gently rolling hills and dense population, felt a world away from this strange, wild landscape of rocks, pine trees, and craggy fells.
Clare booked in to see a therapist shortly before her thirtieth birthday: “I said, ‘I’ll just go for a bit; I’ve got a few things I want to work out,’” she remembers. “I was there for six years. I went every two weeks for six years and worked really hard.” As the process wore to a natural end, she felt as though “a huge boulder” had shifted, allowing her to approach horseback riding for the first time as something joyful in its own right; something more than just an escape from reality.
Remembering a Dream
“What’s your dream?”
The question is posed as a challenge. Clare looks back at the boy watching her intently, waiting for her answer. He’s one of the young people at the camp she works at, and he’s worked through a mountain of challenges of his own. For a moment, Clare is silent.
“That’s a really good question,” she says finally. And then: “I’d love to do a trip overland on horseback.”
“Well then — why don’t you do it?”
The question echoes in Clare’s mind. By the time October comes around, she’s made a decision.
Finding a Horse
The trip would take place in May. It would last exactly one month and take Clare through the winding trails of England’s largest national park, just south of the Scotland border. She’d bring her dog, Finn, and a light camping kit. There was just one problem: Clare didn’t own a horse.
Where does one find a horse to borrow for a month off the grid?
“I started talking to people,” Clare says simply.
One of those people lived on a bus on the side of a mountain. He had hexagonal glasses, a gold front tooth, and one of the last wild-kept herds of Fell Ponies in the UK. His name was Tom and he was fascinated by Clare’s idea.
Tom’s horses weren’t the sleek variety of Fell Pony favored at British horse shows. Shaggy, stocky and mostly unbroken, they’d never learned flying lead changes but knew how to survive harsh UK winters by digging through the snow to find food. Clare saw immediately that they were exactly what she was looking for and chose five-year-old Pansy as the horse for her trip. “I didn’t do any schooling, particularly,” she admits. “It was just kind of like, ‘let’s kick out on the trail and see how we go.’ But I can’t tell you how much of a good animal she is, she’s very intelligent and very steady, but she’s not lacking in spirit, either. It’s like she’s been here before.”
The first thing Clare needed was a good set of saddle bags, but finding them was surprisingly difficult. After scouring “dodgy-looking websites in different parts of the world,” she discovered a custom saddle-bag maker, Lin Gregory, who just happened to live two miles up the road. The tailored bags ended up being the perfect fit.
Clare describes her kit as “really super lightweight.”
“I had two front panniers and two back panniers. In the front left was Finn’s dog food, which was just dry biscuit, and then on the right side was my food, which was really basic.”
The back panniers contained extremely lightweight versions of a tent, sleeping bag, camping mat, stove and pan. Clare even chopped the handle off her hairbrush to save weight. “And that hairbrush, I shared with Pansy,” she remembers with a laugh. “Everything was shared, had a dual purpose. The numnah, for example, is great for sitting on when you’re cooking and it’s great for the dog to sleep on, so everything just doubles up.”
Great Adventures need Great Solutions
Even the tether was specially constructed to save weight. “The system I used, and that Tom has always used,” Clare explains, “is you have a really thick leather belt around the horse’s neck, and that’s comfortable for them. And then that’s attached to a chain, so the chain goes twice around their legs, and then that’s attached to a pin in the ground. Everything has turning parts, so it can’t get tangled up, and the chain can’t go tight around the leg.”
A chain would have been too heavy to carry around, but Tom’s father, Walter, had a solution. “He made this tether rope that was a strong but narrow rope inside hose pipe, and then the hose pipe can’t go tight, and it’s cushioned as well. I got an aluminum pin made that was light and that I could smash into the ground.”
Food for the Road
Part of the challenge of life on the road was keeping everyone well-fed on the most lightweight yet nutritious food possible. Clare’s spartan diet consisted of “mostly muesli with water, coffee, oat cakes, cheese, packets of 50 pence couscous and these wafer bars called Tunnocks Caramels.” Once in a while, she treated herself to a real dinner at various pubs along the way.
Finn ate dry dog food, but Pansy only needed grass. The team restocked supplies about every five days. “On one part of the journey there weren’t any shops, so I asked some friends to drop off a box of food to pick up. Apart from that I stopped at the odd shop to pick up supplies. These were small village stores in the valleys, mainly.”
Playing it by Ear
Clare planned the first week of the trip and figured out the rest as she went. Typically, the team covered between five and fifteen miles a day, with rest days every four to five days. Clare gives two reasons for her conservative pace:
“First, Pansy was five years old, so ready for work but still maturing. I didn’t want to push her and cause her to go lame or experience any long-term physical issues from doing too much.
“Also, it wasn’t a trip to prove how far we could go. It was about going slow, immersing ourselves in the experience—the landscape, the people and the flora and fauna we could see on the way. We were able to just go at our own pace and if we felt like stopping longer because we had met some great people (which we did) or wanted to stay in a particular place, then we could. In total we did about 250 miles over the month. So quality, not quantity.”
Wild-Camping and the Daily Routine
Clare remembers day three with a slight groan: “It was nerve-wracking the first night, wild-camping with a tether; I was very, very relieved to see Pansy at the end of it. I don’t think any of us really slept that night.”
But the trio soon became accustomed to sleeping under the stars. “I spent one night in a friend’s log cabin, one in a goat shed and one in a barn. Every night was camping apart from those three, though. Some nights were in farmers’ fields where I turned up and asked. Other nights, I would say about 40% of the time, we were wild camping in the valleys and mountains.”
Soon, things fell into a routine. Mornings began with Pansy poking her head in the tent or licking the side. Then Clare checked her team and made breakfast for herself and Finn before packing up and “faffing about,” as she describes it.
The team was never in a hurry. “We set off when we were ready – I didn’t rush off at the crack of dawn.” There were breaks on the way and an hour snooze at lunch time. “When we found somewhere to stop for the night I’d either tether Pansy or let her free to graze. Then I set up camp— tent, stove, food for me and Finn. Later I went for a swim in a river or lake. After that I would just chill out with a book, write my diary or watch wildlife where we were.”
Friends on the Trail
“I don’t know about farmers in the US, but I find farmers quite terrifying.” Clare laughs, remembering. “Like—‘get off my land,’ you know. It’s quite scary.”
It was a farmer who helped her after an incident with a slippery bridge left Pansy missing a shoe. Despite Clare’s initial trepidation, “he couldn’t have been nicer,” providing a stall for Pansy and coffee and an egg sandwich for Clare while she got a farrier out. It proved to be the first of many friendly encounters on trail.
“That happened quite a few times,” Clare recalls. “People would bend over backwards. One lady came over and said, ‘Do you want a shower?’ And I was like—‘ah, I’ve been washing in rivers and lakes—actually, I’d love to wash my hair!’ She couldn’t have been happier. She brought all these fluffy towels and shampoos, she was so excited. And so kind. People are so lovely out there.”
As the month wore to a close, Clare took stock of a trip that had gone amazingly well. “We had unprecedented good weather and that made a huge difference,” she remembers. “I was waking up everything morning to blue sky and sun. I wasn’t sharing a tent with a soggy dog for a month.”
To be sure, there had been mishaps. The stumble on the bridge had shaken Clare’s confidence and almost cost her the trip. There’d been the first day of the trip. Back then she fell flat on her back because she didn’t get her leg all the way over her enormous kit while mounting for the first time. And of course, there’d been the map incident.
“I opened up the map whilst riding along the top of a mountain. Pansy freaked, bolted and we nearly ran over a small family. I had to drop the map and shout an apology as we careered past out of control. Luckily, I managed to stop her and go back and apologize profusely to the family who were laughing and pick up my map!
Life Will Never be the Same Again
But these had been small detours in an otherwise smooth journey. And it was hard not to grieve the end of something that had consumed her dreams for so long. The nights by the fire with Finn and Pansy, the austerity of the mountains in the early morning, and the feeling of being alone in the wild, but the farthest thing from lonely—they were not things she could make last, as much as she wanted to. But they were things she could keep.
She thought back to the escapist horseback treks of her childhood and early adulthood, and to the six years of deep and difficult personal growth that had finally come to an end. Things were different now. Horses were no longer an escape. She didn’t need to escape—she’d faced what she needed to face, and the physical journey she’d just undertaken was a manifestation of that. A rite of passage? Maybe. More like a line in the sand. Things would never go back to the way they were, and that was all right.
“I think where the hard work was, and the suffering of my trip, was really before my trip.”
Back home, Clare found herself something of a local celebrity. A short clip by the BBC about her trip went viral, garnering millions of views. She was asked to speak at conferences and realized that more people had been affected by her journey than she’d realized. “It obviously really resonated with people,” she muses over the phone as our conversation draws to an end.
Does Clare have any plans with horses going forward?
“I’ve definitely got a feeling of doing more,” she begins slowly. “I’ve never owned my own horse until Pansy’s younger sister came up for sale recently. And she’s a pony called Gilly. So I’m in the process of gradually breaking her in and she’s coming along really nicely. I think she’s going to make a good pony for doing adventures on.”
The journey, like all good journeys, continues.
England and the United Kingdom have lots of beautiful places to explore. Whether it is the National Parks or Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Read about these places and other Adventuresses Adventures in our United Kingdom section.
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