How to Ride in Western Europe
by Andrea Kukalova
In 2017 Andrea Kukalova and Milan Rousek made a journey from Husinec-Ře (a small village ten kilometres from Prague) in the Czech Republic, across Germany, France and on to their final destination, Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The Czech Long Riders travelled 2161 kilometres (1343 miles) during the eight month trip.
Finding your horses
The most important thing about the horse is his training. If you don´t know how to train the horse yourself, or you can´t work with a problem horse and teach it (as very few people can), then take someone with you, like a veterianarian or an experienced horseman to check the health of the horse you are inspecting.
Before you buy a horse, be sure to test ride it several times on different kinds of trails, Let your friends test ride the horse too. We even took children from our riding club to see how the horse would react and obey different people, especially someone who is not an experienced rider. You might like the horse personally but there could be a problem that you dont realize. That is why it important to remember that when it comes to buying a horse, more heads more knows, more eyes more sees.
We prefer small horses that are not fast but have very sure steps and do not get tired easily. Breeds close to original horses (such as our Mongolian Hucul and Norwegian Fjord horse) usually don´t suffer from diseases. Plus it is easy to feed them with only grass in summer time and hay in winter. Of course it´s a question of personal preferences. Some people like a big horse with a long stride and I agree it can be disappointing when you´re riding a smaller horse but not moving faster than if you were walking on foot.
|Stázka and Matŭsek, the Hucul and Fjord horses that made the journey across Europe.|
I recommend that you choose horses that are used to living in open pastures, not in stalls or inside a barn. The outside horse knows which plants are good to eat and they don´t freak out in nature or become frightened in open spaces. Most riders also recomend taking a pack horse for two Long Riders. We didn´t do this because we thought that two road horses would be enough. And we couldn´t imagine how to manage leading a pack horse on a rope or how to walk with two horses, one in each hand. So to make it easier on our horses and to help them, we didnt ride all the time. And we always gave them at least one free day a week (but sometimes much more).
In the end of our trip when Milan was travelling alone for 300 kilometres, he realized how much easier it was having just one horse. But of course if you´re going to travel alone, take two horses or a mule. Horses are herd animals and don´t feel good if they´re alone. The horse would never sleep calmly if there´s no friend to keep a guard and physical deprivation can lead to health problems.
If you´re not form Europe and you´re going to buy horses here, you´ll find the cheapest and best ones can be found in Spain (where people from all over Europe now go to buy good strong horses). Because of a recent crisis in Spain many locals had to sell their horses because they had no money to feed them (hay is very expensive there). Other countries where you can find good cheap horses are Poland or the Czech Republic, I don´t recommend that you try to buy a horse in France or Germany unless you want a special breed with papers. But such horses are not very wise for travelling.
Even if you have a trail horse who is used to walking long distances, or a horse that is used to doing endurance racing, you should train the travelling horse for a specific situation you´ll find in Western Europe.
We usually think that continents such as Asia or Africa are overpopulated. But Europe is also overpopulated. It is the second smallest continent and people built towns and cities there for quite a long time. Of course they are nice mountain areas with not so many people living and natural parks. But there is also a tradition of tourism, that makes these places (especially in the summer holiday months of July and August) very crowded. So you must trust your horse. He must be able to walk in a tunnel or on a bridge. That is another advantage of a small horse, because you´re going to ask yourself Is this bridge strong enough to hold us? Most important is to make sure that the horse is not afraid of cars, trucks, trains, tractors and big agricultural machines. Also, be aware that there is the sound of shooting (especially if you´re going to travel in Autumn, because Europeans are crazy about hunting).
What we did was take our horses during training to the edge of Prague, where we let them stand under a bidge when there´s a train passing on it, crossing big streets with traffic lights that makes sounds, got them used to walk on white lines painted on the road, etc. You never know how many times you´ll need to walk through town and it´s only safe if you did it with your horse before and you know you can trust him. For example you will need to buy food at least twice a week (I think we did it more often). But in most of Europe there are only supermarkets on the suburb of big towns. Small shops in little villages are rather rare and of course are more expensive. You should teach your horse to stand next to a shop calmly on a lead rope, where he can eat grass if is available. If you buy him some carrots or apples, he will also learn to like these food stops.
Good training also gives you more freedom in planning route, because you won´t have to refuse walking next to a river just because there´s a train on the other side, walking on the edge of a big road for certain kilometers if you can´t find a little trail in nature, or crossing a town. For example we decided to go through Lyon. It took us all day to travel those 20 kilometres. But if we had decided to travel around Lyon, it would have made us travel at least 50 kilometres across a hard terrain.
Planning your route
Of course everyone prefers natural trails with soft ground for horse riding but it can be challenging in western Europe. During the last few years many cycling paths were built and of course they are covered in concrete. The cyclists are much faster than horse riders, so if you need to follow a cycle route, walk on the edge. But remember that in some countries it is prohibited to ride a horse on cycle paths (for example in France). I recommend that you follow rivers as often as possible. Not only will you have enough water for your horses but you will usually also find good grass too.
Tourist paths in nature are nice. In the Czech Republic there is always a sign that shows how many kilometres to the next destination. You can walk anywhere just by following these tourist routes. And they tell you what to expect just by the color used for that path. There are four types of nature paths. Yellow is usually the most difficult terrain. Because it´s connecting other trails, it can be a shortcut, but it is not always good for horses. Red is a long trail that you can follow for many kilometres. In the mountains it often goes on the ridge. Blue are regional trails and green are local trails. These two types of trails follow roads more often. but never big roads. And if you find tourist marks with circle inside (instead of usual line), it´s a symbol for horse trails.
In other countries we´ve found that walking on tourist roads was more difficult. For example in Germany all the signs are of the same color. Trails have different names but you cant determine where are they going by the name. And many of the trails go in circles. But if you want to follow the traditional Camino Santiago in Germany. as we did, that is easy because they call it Jacobsweg. But this trail is rather long and you will visit all the churches and monasteries for miles around. So we took shortcuts sometimes. In France following walking paths is impossible with horses, especially in Alsace. There are many little wooden bridges, which are dangerous for horses. Because of this problem we walked through water six times in one afternoon. After that we changed direction and started to follow rivers instead. France has also many stupid gates on cycling paths. Only a few of them will let you walk through with a horse. I wondered if there are specialized trails for horses in France and think the answer is maybe yes. But we did´t find any in the areas where we went. We know something like that exists in Germany. There are also stables in Germany where you can spend night. And in Spain they Caminos for horse riders.
I prefer apps in smartphone. If you´re a modern person familiar with technical information, you can use mapy.cz or another off line map service instead of paper maps. It´s difficult for me to open a paper map in the saddle. And if you want to see little roads you´ll need a new map after 50 or 100 kilometres. Sometimes we were given local paper maps as a present but we hardly ever used them. Of course with a cell phone you have the problem with charging it in nature. That´s why we had two power banks and a solar panel in case of rain.
And of course don´t plan too much because circumstances will make you change your plans often. Sometimes weather changes and you better stop than continue in strong wind or rain. Another time friendly locals may invite you to spend the day with them and you would lose the chance of meeting friends, tasting real local food. as well the chance to enjoy a hot shower and washing machine, just because of making more miles in the afternoon.
Depending on what country are you starting in, April may be hot enough to begin travelling. Spain, southern France (and maybe Portugal, but I have no personal experience yet) April would be already hot enough in northern France, Germany and the Czech Republic.
But if you starting in other countries further north, you should wait at least until May. We had very bad luck in 2017 when night temperature in the Czech Republic still went below zero at night in May. So we started in June. It is not normal traditional European weather. But with climate change we can expect more extreme weather in Europe. The same in autumn. In Germany September was very rainy and already cold. As we crossed the border into France and continued south, the warm weather followed us through all of October.
Especially in summer, but in the South it can be through the entire year, there´s not enough rain water. So you´ll be walking next to dry rivers and streams. This means it can be hard to find water for your horses. So remember in France in case of an emergency, you´ll always find drinkable water (even for humans) at a cemetery. Usually if you ask local people for water, they´ll give it to you (there was just one time that they did not help us in France). In Spain finding water is easier in towns and villages, where there is usually a fountain with drinkable water. Water fountains are often located on playgrounds. But remember that there is even less water in nature.
You can meet strong rain and thunder everywhere in Europe, so be prepared for it. Make sure your bags are waterproof and always keep your important things such as documents, electronics, and some dry clothes in a plastic bag. You can ride all month without any rain and then encounter a strong storm. The weather can change in a moment, especially in the mountains. It can also rain for a week without stopping. (I wish nothing like that happens on your trip). In the Czech Republic or Germany, there are often little wooden shelters in nature around tourist trails and anyone can use these shelters if needed. But we saw nothing like that in France or Spain.
The last annoying thing is the wind, it is strong in the coastal areas. But it is also a problem around the Rhone River, where there is only a small valley with high mountains (Central Massif and Alps) on both sides. The wind there is called the Mistral and it usually blows for three days in a row. The wind around the Pyrenees Mountains is called the Tramontan, I don´t understand why someone gave a different name to the wind, but it´s same annoying wind as the Mistral. Locals says it´s more common in winter time.
My first advice is to only take the things you´ll really need and nothing more. Definitely find yourself good saddle bags and a saddle that fits your horse. Some people (like Milan) prefer western saddles because the saddle horn is useful. You will definitely need rope to tie the horses, a tent for bad weather, a sleeping bag (I highly recommend a feather sleeping bag) and a cooker. We were afraid of using propane or butane because it was like having a bomb on our horses back. So we used a cooker that used alcohol fuel instead. You can find alcohol anywhere in big shops. They call it Brennspiritus in Germany and Alcool a bruler in France. A knife, spoon and a flashlight are also essential.
For electronics I think a smartphone is enough. But you´ll need a good powerbank or two to charge it when you travel out of civilisation. We also used our solar panel many times. Later we´ve bought an army computer (because we had broken our two normal laptops in the first 500 kilometres). Having a computer is a nice thing and it makes your connection to the world easier. But it´s not a necessity.
For sleeping we put our horse blankets on the floor of our tent. It´s more comfortable than without. But now I wonder how could I survive, as the winter was coming we were using more blankets and washed them less often, so soon horses we´ve met first thought we´re also horses just by smell. When I think about it some light self-inflatable mattresses could be better. I also recommend placing a really waterproof layer under your tent. Even good tents can get little holes in bottom, especially if you set up your tent every day, because not every time you´ll have perfect spot and the south of France and Spain are full of little stones.
If your budget is not limited, you´ll always find a restaurant or bakery even in small villages of Western Europe. Civilisation is everywhere so you don´t have to bother with carrying a weeks worth of food supplies on your horse´s back. For us money was a limit, so we most often ate pasta or cous-cous prepared on our cooker. We ate muesli for breakfast, carefully with milk: more fat and more trot highers risk of becoming butter (so I often bought powdered), bread with whatever (often consumed just in front of shop where we´ve bought it) and seasonal fruits found along the way. We also tasted some local specialities when friendly people invited us for a dinner. These occasions were always like holidays for us. Just be sure you have enough food with you for Sunday, because all the shops are closed in Germany all day and in France in the afternoon. Also remember that French and Spanish shops often have two or three hour lasting break in the middle of the day.
Drinking water to refill is not so easy to find in Germany or France. There are some spots with free accessible water but it is definitely not available in every village in Spain. So we usually carried about 5 PET bottles with us and filled them up if we had an opportunity. We also often asked people to refill our bottles and everybody (with just one exception) helped us. Sometimes we even got apples or bread for our horses with the water. In France you can also always find drinkable water at a cemetery.
If you are an European Union resident, you can travel with your horse with just one condition; the horse must be vaccinated every year. No one ever asked to see our horses papers, but we of course followed the rules. If you´re going to rent your horse, also pay attention to his health condition and vaccination. In case of an emergency, you´ll always find a veterinanian in Western Europe. But be careful because the bill will cost you a lot. Two visits from the vet, who cleaned the wound and gave the horse antibiotics cost us about 200 Euros.
I wish you a safe trip without health issues. But anyway you´ll need a blacksmith every two months. Some people travel with horse barefoot. But I don´t recommend it because you´ll walk many kilometres a day on concrete and even natural roads will have many little rocks. Or you may use plastic boots (see the experiences of other Long Riders if you want to try them). Looking for a blacksmith (marechal ferrand in France or Hoofsmith in Germany) can be tricky. Some of them have a long waiting list. But another one may be friendly and will make you horseshoes just because of his respect of you being a Long Rider. If you are desperate, try to ask for help from one of the big horse riding clubs. They have many horses, so a blacksmith often comes every week.
As we traveled with Hucul and Fjord horses, we never had problems with feeding them. Even in winter they ate just grass from nature. Because we´ve changed location every day, our horses basically got better (and more natural) nutrition than most other horses. They also became very picky. Our horse Maty could break a fence if he didn´t get enough good grass. Maybe it´s because they always lived in pastures, so they have good instincts, and I´m happy about it. They never ate anything bad. I could not recognize all the poisonous plants along the way but they somehow avoided them naturally.
My last note is here just to remind you that Western Europe is very populated, so you basically can´t put your tent anywhere you like. It can happen that you will have walked many kilometres in the day. When evening arrives you will be tired and have to camp next to a big town. This happened to us twice in Germany, that we accidentally camped on somebody´s property and then met the owner in the morning. But luckily they were always very kind to us. Planning in advance can keep you safe from such situations. But you´ll always find some obstacles. For example you may encounter a stream even though the map says the area is dry. With a long ride it is almost impossible to plan every night. If you´re dreaming about spending nights under the stars with just you and your horse in untouched nature you should basically pick another part of world to travel in. On the other hand you should consider all the people you´ll meet who will look at you with curiosity. Most of them are nice and some may even become your close friends as happened to us.