Choosing the Right Horse
Editor’s Note: After completing a journey from Scotland to Cornwall in 2017, Cathleen Leonard contacted the Guild and shared a vital observation. Her current journey had been successful. Her previous trip had ended prematurely. The English Long Rider was in no doubt as to what had happened. The reason was simple. Cathleen’s horses, Taliesin (left) and Oisín (right) had reacted very differently to the challenge of travelling without an equine companion.
In an email to the Guild, Cathleen wrote, “I spend a lot of time around people who have had horses all their lives. Some have worked for royal families around the world in racing and polo. But none had a clue what would be required to undertake an equestrian journey. I suppose it's the same as any other equestrian discipline though, because I wouldn't know where to begin with polo, racing or dressage. The huge difference is that in those disciplines the horses are only worked for a few hours and are then turned out or put in a stable. Those horses are not worried about until the next time they're needed. But a Road Horse, which spends 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, with a Long Rider, requires a completely different mind set. A journey requires a vastly different type of knowledge, one which many equestrians will never have encountered. Choosing the right horse is the first important lesson.”
That email resulted in Cathleen writing this important story.
As all Long Riders will know, when planning a Long Ride there are many different things to think about and plan: equipment, route, and of course, horses.
When choosing horses, most Long Riders will have to decide whether to take one horse or two, or in some cases, more than two horses, an area covered extensively in Chapter 11 of the Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration.
Once the Long Rider has decided how many horses to take on a journey, they will then have to choose a suitable horse or horses, and will usually take into consideration such things as breed, height, weight carrying capacity, stamina and temperament. However there is one vital consideration that is often overlooked: does the horse have the emotional stability and emotional stamina to undertake such a journey? And, if travelling with just one horse, can that horse cope with being alone, without the companionship of other equines every day and every night for the duration of the journey?
Horses are herd animals by nature and some do not respond well to being removed from the safety of familiar surroundings and finding themselves without the companionship of other horses for extended periods of time.
When travelling with more than one horse, this is not an issue that needs to be addressed as they will provide each other with companionship, but if travelling with just one horse, it can make all the difference to the journey, a lesson which I learnt the hard way.
In April 2016 I decided to ride one of my horses from my home in east Cornwall, England, down to Land’s End 100 miles away. This was to be a short trip, which I intended to undertake as a warm up for possible longer rides in the future. I had planned to use my part bred Ardennes gelding, Taliesin, who I had taken out on short training rides in the past and who I knew was fine to travel with and didn’t mind camping out alone for several nights at a time. However, a few weeks before we were set to leave he developed an abscess in his hoof and had to be rested for a while which meant I was unable continue with his training and getting him fit for the ride.
I decided instead to take Oisín, my Breton gelding.
I had bought both Taliesin and Oisín as untouched foals from France in 2008 and had handled and trained them both myself. Although they were very different characters, they both had calm, sensible temperaments and I reasoned that for this trip Oisín would be just fine, despite never having taken him out camping over night.
|We set off and on the first night Oisín seemed content enough, albeit a little tense and he whinnied at me whenever he saw me.|
The next day we carried on and arrived at a small animal centre where Oisín was given a paddock well out of sight of the other ponies there. He started off grazing quite happily while I set up my tent and cooked my evening meal but as soon as I crawled into my tent to sleep he began pacing up and down the fence, kicking and pawing at the gate, whinnying frantically and working himself up into a frenzy, only calming down when I came back out of my tent. In the end, afraid that he would destroy the fence or injure himself, I dragged my sleeping bag out of the tent and slept next to the fence in the cold April rain. He calmed down enough to eat and not destroy the fences that night while I got soaking wet and freezing cold.
The next day whilst tacking him up, despite there being lots of people around to distract him with scratches and food (two of his favourite things!) he would get into a panic every time I went out of sight for more than a few seconds. It was like having a 1,000kg dog with separation anxiety! During the day when we were travelling he was a little tense, but responsive and behaved well, but at night I needed to be where he could see me at all times.
The third night he was calmer in a stable with other horses around him. I was sleeping in the stable next door to him where he could see me which helped but the following morning when one of the other horses was led out for exercise, Oisín began to panic and threw his front legs over the stable door and wouldn’t calm down after that, which made tacking up a challenge.
After that he seemed to adjust to the journey somewhat and was better about letting me sleep in a tent thankfully. I think it helped that he was out in open fields full of lush grass, once with another horse next door for company (the only time I was able to leave his sight without him getting worked up and panicking) but when it came to taking him home, although he loaded into the trailer without a problem, the moment I got out, he started rearing up, throwing his legs over the breast bar so violently that the transporter thought he would break the trailer or tip it over. I ended up having to ride home in the trailer with him in order to keep him calm.
I could not have coped doing a longer ride with him as not being able to leave him unattended unless he was in the company of another horse would have made life extremely difficult, given the uncertainties of long distance equestrian travel. Even going into a shop or going to the loo was a challenge as he’d fidget, hang back on his rope, shout, paw the ground and become increasingly worked up until I returned.
After we got back home, however, I launched myself into planning another ride, of about 400 miles, this time I decided to take both Taliesin and Oisín, and Oisín absolutely loved it, was perfectly behaved and relaxed at all times and un-phased at situations which would have sent him into a frenzy had he been the only horse, even loading and travelling were fine as long as his friend was with him.
It will come, then, as no surprise for you to learn that this year when I decided to ride 1,000 miles from the top of Scotland back home to Cornwall and had to choose whether to take one horse or two, and, upon deciding for my sanity to only take one, that it was an obvious choice to take Taliesin who proved his weight in gold and didn’t seem in the least bit bothered at finding himself alone in a strange place every night of the week and didn’t mind not seeing another horse for weeks on end.
|Taliesin at home in Cornwall.|
He tied up beautifully outside shops and pubs and never seemed worried at my being out of sight in a tent or leaving him for the comfort of someone’s house. The most he would ever do was whinny a little greeting to me in the morning when I came to bring him out of the field to get him ready for the day ahead. He never even seemed tense, but appeared to enjoy being in new and interesting surroundings every day.
|Cathleen and Taliesin journey from Scotland to Cornwall in the summer of 2017.|
I am no expert on equestrian travel but my personal experience of travelling solo with each of my two horses, who, despite being of similar breed, temperament and who were both handled, raised and trained in the same way, highlights the very important issue of choosing a horse which possesses the emotional and mental stability for a Long Ride as it really can make or break a journey and add untold amounts of stress to both the horse and his Long Rider.
Main Stories from the Road page