Claire Alldritt lives in Scotland where she manages to go out several times a year on trail rides with her two horses. Not only does she go out by herself, using one of her horses as a pack horse, but they are both barefoot, ridden bitless and using a treeless saddle. Claire’s dream is to one day cover 1,000 miles in a single journey to join the Long Riders Guild. To date she did most of her horse riding in Scotland, but she’s seeking to venture out to explore new countries. She gives expert advice to anyone who might be contemplating solo horse expeditions, from how to plan your trip to what to bring.
Author: Charlotte Kingsman
Question: What kind of Equestrian Adventuress are you?
I’m a regular Equestrian Adventuress, in that I try to get out adventuring with my horses as often as I can. Generally, I get two or three long distance rides away each year (lasting 1-3 weeks at a time) and several shorter weekend camping trips. I call my style of equine adventuring “Dobbineering” as it is really a gentle kind of mountaineering with horses.
Lucky enough, I live in Scotland – not far from the Cairngorm National Park, so it is only a short drive to get to a location suitable to start a long-distance Dobbineering expedition. Scotland has amazing Public Access Rights which allows you to travel pretty much where ever you like so long as you respect the land, the landowners and act responsibly. I am also lucky enough to own two horses and this enables me to head off into the hills with full camping and corralling gear, using one horse as a pack-horse. I can therefore be completely self-sufficient and carry enough equipment and food to last at least one week.
The other lucky thing about my life, is that I work in a job that offers a good work/life balance. When I work, I work long hours doing a series of 12-hour shifts (I am a Paramedic), but this means that you accrue work hours quickly and therefore gain plenty of time off in between shifts. I fill this time as much as possible with adventure.
Q: How did you get into horse riding in Scotland and the “Dobbineering?”
I entered the Ambulance Service from a background of Outdoor Sports Coaching -teaching a variety of sports including white water kayaking, sea kayaking, skiing, mountain biking & mountaineering. Often these involved adventurous expeditions and I was therefore already happy, well versed and well equipped to travel and navigate in remote areas. Taking my horses to expedition and explore the hills and glens that I was already familiar with, felt like the most natural thing in the world.
Changing careers offered more stability with that all-important work/life balance and at the age of 35, I realized I was in a position for the first time in my life, to be able to contemplate buying my own horse (Yogi). I have to say, it happened very much all of a sudden –it was a kind of “now or never” decision. From a childhood interest in all things horsey, I never believed I would be fortunate enough to own my own –let alone two! Swift appeared as an unbroken 2-year old in my life, not long after Yogi did. These things just happen (least that’s as much of an explanation as my husband ever got).
They experienced love at first sight when I introduced them to each other and from that moment on, I had great difficulty in separating them from each other. Swift was young and needed to see the world anyway, so I starting leading her out from Yogi. First naked (Swift not me!), then with a saddle, then a saddle and a picnic… before I knew it, we were planning our first overnight adventure with Swift carrying all the needed equipment. Things rapidly progressed from there and only a year later I was setting off on my own with the two horses to try my first major solo expedition.
Q: Tell us about getting Yogi and Swift to where they are today
Yogi – Highland Pony X Thoroughbred
I’ve had Yogi for 10 years now and I still can’t quite believe that! He is 17 years old (has the energy of an 8-year old) and is a Highland Pony x Thoroughbred. The cross breed gives him stamina, makes him surefooted but also provides a sharp mind. I love this combination on the trail when we are moving – he is a complete machine, but he sometimes does suffer with the unpredictable Scottish weather overnight without the thick coat and hardiness of a full Highland Pony. For that reason, a large part of my pack is taken up by horse rugs!
Yogi from the start was a horse that thought everything had the potential to eat or harm him, so it has taken a lot of patience and time to make him the awesome trail horse he is now. He often would go into a bit of a brain melt down when faced with obstacles but he rarely stops at anything these days –tricky bridges, river crossings, boggy ground, rocky trails all taken in his stride. His stride can be pretty quick as he pops himself into turbo-boost mode to attack any hill, just wanting to get to the top. His drive to follow the trail (to anywhere/somewhere) is often all that has got the whole team to the end of a difficult day.
Swift – Appaloosa X Quarter Horse
Swift is now 11 years old (acts about 5) and is an Appaloosa x Quarter Horse. This cross gives a laid-back attitude, again surefooted but a somewhat quirky mind! I can honestly say that even though I have had her since she was a blank canvas from 2 years old, I’ve only just reaped the benefits of my hard work since last year. This has been the most difficult journey ever and at one point I nearly re-homed her as I felt we were never going to gel. Boy, would I have been sorry if I’d done that! She was very introvert and explosive when pushed out of her comfort zone. Her lack of communication as to when we were getting close to the comfort line made her tricky to train and I once got ejected breaking a bone in my back.
She is now letting me into her heart these days, tells me what she is thinking, is the calming influence and joker of the team. This has been very hard earned, so is an absolute honor and joy. She is turning into the most reliable trail horse and I am finding myself riding her more and more and using Yogi as pack. So gentle and light to ride – she turns when you think to turn (I am sure she can read my mind) and will go at her steady pace all day whatever is in front of her.
She is a thinker – very little phases her on the trail and she takes her time to assess the situation to find a solution. I rely on her to tackle the most tricky obstacles first now, as she will think it through and take my guidance, whereas Yogi will still sometimes go into meltdown.
Q: How do you plan your trips?
Well there is a little bit of a progression to explain here… When I first started solo expeditions, I gathered information from others who had also adventured with horses, I explored some of the trails on foot/bike first, but not all of the route – relying on what others said was suitable. I soon learnt however, that what one person thought was possible with their horse wasn’t necessarily what I would consider safe for me, on my own, with my two horses.
I then went through a phase where I wouldn’t set out on a solo expedition unless I knew exactly what I would be facing. 95% of routes would be walked, run or biked beforehand, mostly because I was terrified of my horses getting into difficulty or getting hurt. These days however – I am becoming a little more relaxed. I know what my horses are capable of, their capabilities have increased tenfold since we started out and I am more relaxed at changing plans if I have to.
More Trust Into The Horses
I still do a reconnaissance of some of the route but if I’ve been there before (even years ago), I find the motivation hard to muster to take a second look. The spare time a recce can take up is phenomenal and I’d rather spend that time riding. This can be a downfall however, as my last long-distance ride nearly came to a stop on the first day when I met a newly installed cattle grid with no side gate and no way round for horses. I ended up back tracking some considerable distance before crossing the deepest river we’ve ever crossed.
Thankfully, both horses just got on with it –so as you can see, my more relaxed attitude about changing plans is based on knowing my horses are much more experienced these days. I can trust them more to be able to face difficult situations and I have more trust in the accuracy of my own judgement of what they can cope with.
I see many people travelling in the hills these days with only a map app on their phone to guide their way. This fills me with terror about the possibility of dropped phones/wet phones/lack of battery bringing their navigational aid to an abrupt end. Many people also use technology to plan their adventures too in the form of mapping apps on the web. I only use these to work out distance/ascent, all other planning is done by pouring over maps spread out in the house or the ones pasted to the “planning wall” in my store shed. I like to see the bigger picture of how tracks and trails meet up and connect (or not) that the paper map offers.
Q: What is the Terrain like?
Scotland’s terrain is as varied as its weather and Scotland is renowned for regularly having “four seasons in one day!” A typical day could see you battle with hail/snow one minute, a howling gale the next, flash floods, followed by burning sun interspersed with thunder and lightning for good measure. On top of this there is also the famous Scottish midgy to contend with, that will eat you alive if the wind drops in anyway at all. Suddenly the idealistic view of the right to roam, the fabulous scenery and hundreds of miles of unpopulated wilderness bliss, doesn’t seem quite so peachy!
The types of terrain we deal with on a regular basis include hard granite rock, soft peaty bog, heather covered slopes, grassland, thin trails, wide trails, loose rocky scree, sand, forestry tracks, wide open hill sides with no track in sight – as I said, it’s as varied as the weather!
Learning how to predict and negotiate Scottish bogs and the rough ground found under heather is probably the biggest challenge I’ve learnt to deal with. These were hard enough to work out with just two feet and a heavy rucksack to consider, but taking the horses near, through or around these obstacles throws in a completely different dimension.
Q: What are some of the worst and best moments you’ve had on your adventures?
There are many worst and best moments I could share. Mostly the worst moments were when I was starting out with this kind of adventuring and I bit off more than I could chew. It’s a learning curve as to what you and your horses are capable of. The most frightening moments have involved narrow paths with steep slopes up to one side and a similarly steep slope downwards on the other side.
Yogi once stepped off this kind of trail by mistake nearly pulling Swift and myself with him (thankfully I had got off to walk before this happened), so I avoid these kinds of trails now if I am out there on my own. The worst moments recently have primarily been due to horrendous weather –the forecasts are rarely accurate and if you are travelling for several days, the weather can change anyway and catch you out in the hills.
The Weather Can Be Challenging
We’ve all been cold and shivering trying to get down off hills to find shelter, as even in summer in Scotland, you can get battered by hail and snow. In June this year I experienced the wettest trek so far –it rained every single day on a two week, 300 km route. At one point the wind was so strong that I just couldn’t stay on Swift and I became too cold to ride anyway, needing to walk to generate some body heat.
We battled through strong winds and horizontal sleet to complete a high pass before we could drop down into the shelter of a glen to find minimal shelter beside a ruined farm building. It was a wet camp overnight – everything got wet including my sleeping bag and the horses were shivery and miserable trying to tack up in the morning. The next day was no better and although no longer in the hills it was a long, cold, wet walk out to find the horses a barn for the night and myself a bunkhouse to dry everything out. I’m usually pretty determined and stoic but these two days nearly broke me!
Being in Sync With The Horses And Nature
The best moments happen when the whole team is completely in sync –working well together and just content to be following the trail in beautiful surroundings. Obstacles are smoothly negotiated, the horses are clearly enjoying themselves, we all know exactly what each other is thinking and all three of us seem to move as one. There are many of these moments and they have to outweigh the worst of times, or you just wouldn’t start out on the trail.
On my second trek this year – a North East Scotland traverse of 200 km, I stopped at the head of a stunning glen to camp. There was plenty of grass for the horses, it was a sunny evening with a strong breeze to keep the midgies away and I lay out on the grass next to my tent enjoying the solitude, peace and tranquility. The tranquility of the glen in the light of the slowly setting sun was only enhanced by the contented munching sound of the horses enjoying the grass and the nearby stream gently bubbling along. Moments like these are good for the soul.
Q: What kind of equipment do you use?
The equipment list prior to setting out on a trail ride can be extensive. I’ve obviously got my tent, sleeping mat, sleeping bag, cooking stove, torch, clothing, minimal toiletries, food and drink but the horses have a longer list!
I carry a collapsible corral system of poles, electric tape, a small energizer and guy-lines for the corners. Water buckets, hoof care items, repair kit, rugs, brush, first aid, spare hoof boots, tarpaulin to cover the saddles at night and fly spray. It doesn’t allow for many luxury items but I do manage to squeeze in a hip flask and my Kindle for evening relaxation. One item I wouldn’t be without is a waterproof poncho – it is so versatile as it can be used as many different things. I also ride in a Hit-Air vest (as you just never know what can happen) and carry an emergency satellite device in case it is needed in areas of poor mobile phone reception.
I ride in more of a western style as accurate feet placement control with only one hand on the (loose) reins, is fairly essential when travelling long distance over tricky trails with a second horse in tow. Swift in particular responds firstly to voice, secondly to seat and rarely needs the third option of reins – I therefore ride her in only a rope halter. She has actually never had a bit in her mouth – apart from the fact that she has a large wolf tooth on one side that would need to be removed, I’ve never felt the need to use one as she is so light and responsive from the halter.
Although Yogi also responds to voice and seat, he can be a little more pig-headed at times, particularly if worried about something. I therefore, occasionally need the backup of a stronger signal and use a bitless Indian Bosal with him. When he came to me, he was ridden in a snaffle, but he was clearly uncomfortable with it as he often held his mouth open wide and the brakes weren’t overly effective. It might sound strange, but I feel I have more control bitless during the rare times I have to over-ride his stressed brain as he no longer fights my hands. Whether it is just time on the trail or the change to bitless, I’m not sure, but he is much more relaxed now with a lower head carriage and less speed.
A Metal-Free Team
We are a metal free team and don’t use shoes either. If I lost a shoe high up in the hills, I would struggle to find a farrier to rectify the situation so I use hoof boots which can be repaired by me (or spares carried). Horses often clearly illustrate their health through their feet and I like to know what’s going on with them at all times – hooves hidden under shoes can hide a multitude of problems. Yogi actually has Cushing’s Disease and if I had hidden his hooves under shoes, I might not have found this out so soon. Sore feet after a longer trail ride was an early indication that something was wrong and since he didn’t display other more classic symptoms, the diagnosis could have been missed.
I also use treeless saddles (the Barefoot Western type) which allow me to be flexible with which horse I ride each day. These saddles can be deconstructed slightly to make an efficient pack saddle, and since a treeless fit is mostly about the pad/shims, the saddles are interchangeable to each horse.
Treeless saddles have the reputation as unsuitable for long distance riding, but I’ve only ever had problems once, despite hundreds of miles. This was during the very wet 300km trek this year –the pads were so wet all of the time that the sheepskin underlay became a bit clumpy and Yogi started with a saddle sore. This was due to me not realizing and not having the facilities to dry and clean over several days rather than the fit of the saddle and it was a lesson learnt! Thankfully I caught it just in time before it progressed and became a show stopper.
Q: What are your future plans?
I have a big goal to join the Long Riders Guild which involves a 1000-mile journey. I’d like to complete this in Scotland involving as many remote hills as possible rather than following a set trail. It would be quite some undertaking and I’m not yet sure how I am going to get the time off work that it would involve. It would be hard to contemplate this without the company of my current two horses though and Yogi isn’t the only one not getting any younger…
I’ve ridden many of routes in the Cairngorms now –some recognized routes such as the Speyside Way, the Dava Way, the East Highland Way, but many made up myself –circumnavigation of the Cairngorms, crossing Scotland from East to West at possibly its widest point and a North East Traverse to name a few. I think I need to explore further from home next time, the Scottish Borders has great riding as does the West Coast.
I’ve also not ridden much in other countries – an expedition in Norway was great fun, but I do fancy Mongolia, Tibet or Iceland. It is however, incredibly hard to leave my own horses behind to adventure without them. The Swogi team is so close knit and generally smooth these days, working with and riding other horses, feels like such hard work.
Writing About The Cross Scotland Trek
The other future project on the cards, is finally getting around to finishing a book I am writing about the Cross Scotland trek I completed. I unfortunately wasn’t well for a long period due to Lyme Disease and I struggled with dysphasia (difficulty finding words – either spoken or written). Although I still lack confidence speaking in public, I am beginning to find my written voice again and have a strong drive to finish what I’ve started – even if nobody ever wants to read it!
To hear more tales of exploring the hills and glens while horse riding in Scotland, we recommend to follow Claire’s blog. There you can learn more about “dobbineering” and wild camping in Scotland. Furthermore you can get in touch with Claire to join her for one of her adventures or get first dibs on the book she’s writing about her Cross Scotland trek.
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