look on the light side of life"
Monty Python, Life of Brian
|back to ride open spaces|
Coming, as we do, from a land where people don’t ride very far because it’s always raining, we found it hard to find good advice about equipment for this trip. So we spent a long time thinking about it and scratching our heads. What would we really need? How little could we get away with? Psychologically, it’s good to set off believing that you have the best gear for the job because this leaves you free to worry about more important things, like eating. We have written this section to pass on our experience of the stuff we ended up using; we found similar feedback useful when planning our ride.
2. General points
Before plunging into the details, the following general points are worth noting:
1) The gear review which follows is based on one specific test: 5,870 miles of continuous riding over 16 months; spring in Britain, summer in France, autumn in northern Italy and Slovenia, winter in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, another spring in Turkey and another summer in Turkey, Syria and Jordan; mostly in mountains; altitude from -220m to +2900m; temperatures from -35C to +45C.
2) The gear we used was applicable to our chosen riding approach: one team (two people, two riding horses and one packhorse) and complete autonomy (as the French like to say), i.e. self sufficient, no vehicle support. The degree of autonomy that you want has a major influence on the gear that you need. If you don’t mind seeking out people every night, you might get away with no tent, stove, pans etc. If you want to get up in the mountains and have some time on your own, you’ll need more stuff.
3) I have quoted manufacturers’ names but everything we used was bought with our own hard-earned cash. Nobody gave us anything for free - this is almost certainly because we didn’t write any begging letters asking for anything for free. (This reminds me of the man from Cardiganshire who complained to God that he never won the lottery. “Why don’t you meet me halfway,” replied God, “and at least buy a ticket.”) So this is a brutally honest gear review; I don’t have to be nice to anyone.
4) Things have to be tough and durable because: (a) continuous use and difficult conditions mean that things take a battering (and anything left on the ground near a horse will get trodden on or kicked) and; (b) it can be a real pain replacing things en-route.
5) Things have to be light. We were paranoid about weight. Our riding horses are small, nippy Arabs – Ferraris rather than Land Rovers – and we couldn’t carry any significant weight on them. The packhorse’s load is a deadweight and it’s on all day. The riding horses get a break when we get off and walk but the only way you can help a packhorse is to make her load as light as possible. A rule of thumb for a dead load is that it shouldn’t exceed 80% of the allowable live load, typically taken as 20% of the horse’s weight. E.g. for a 500kg horse, the dead weight shouldn’t exceed 80kg. Allowing 20kg for grain to give a few day’s autonomy and say, 15kg for the pack saddle, pads, harness, girth etc, this leaves a ‘baggage allowance’ of 45kg – for two people and three horses this is not a lot. This meant that (a) we had to forget about taking anything we didn’t really need and (b) things had to be made from light materials. Getting the right balance between lightness and durability is not always easy. And if it is easy, it’s probably expensive!
3. Riding Horses
Made by Jean Marie Soliveres in Bugarach, south west France. The model we used was called ‘Escapade’. Jean Marie is an active ‘randonneur a cheval’ and makes saddles only for trekking and long distance use. Our saddles were light (7 or 8kg), simple (McClellen/cavalry design), tough (still good as new), practical (big solid rings and D rings for attaching/clipping) and they did the job perfectly: the riding horses had no saddle sores. Jean Marie clearly knows what he’s doing.
Although of simple design (solid GRP tree) the shape of the seat allows you to comfortably ride ‘long’ and ‘deep’, which is how we like it. This is the same principle as western saddles, i.e. saddles originally designed for men to work in all day. If you’d rather sit in a forward seat and jump over some coloured poles for twenty minutes then an English saddle may be a better choice.
Big rectangular neoprene pads made by Impakt Tel. +44 (0)1817781055. These worked and were great for sleeping on as well. We bought new ones after a year due to an accumulation of a lot of minor damage, holes and cuts – mainly due to riding through trees, thornbushes etc. Horsehair sticks in them and is very difficult to remove. We made protective sleeves for them from synthetic sheepskin. These sleeves absorbed the sweat and could be washed easily. We also slept inside the sleeves on chilly nights in Syria after we’d ditched our sleeping bags.
Elasticated neoprene. Short (dressage) style to keep buckles away from legs. Sheepskin sleeves for protection/washing. No girth galls but may consider broader, Mohair ‘string’ girth in future if we could find or make them.
Headcollar bridles made to measure by Plas Equestrian in Carmarthenshire, West Wales. Designed for endurance, these were great and lasted the whole way. The only damage was caused by human error – forgetting to attach lead rope via ‘weak link’ e.g. baling twine – and was easily repairable. Each horse’s headcollar had a different colour stripe for easy recognition.
Stainless steel hackamore, built into clip-on unit by Plas Equestrian with same colour coding as bridles to make things easy. Worked perfectly, allowing horses to eat and drink all day without anything getting in the way. The only downside was their weight. Would try and find/make a titanium version in future.
Started with Plas Equestrian endurance reins, clip-on clip-off so doubled as lead ropes. These lasted a couple of thousand miles but eventually failed due to misuse and abuse. Main damage due to horses treading on them or us tying them up round rocks with sharp edges. We later replaced them with 7mm climbing cord attached with small snaplink carabiners. These, we also had to renew a couple of times due to similar abuse. We carried a 25m length of 7mm climbing cord for making highlines, pens etc and just cut bits off this when we needed new reins.
‘Wintec’ dressage style, synthetic. Light and comfortable due to only single thickness strap. We should have carried a spare one of these. Both of us lost them at different times, probably caught on branches of trees and pulled off the saddle.
‘FlexRide’ cage stirrups from Raddery Equine. Light, tough, safe, can use any footwear you like, perfect for the job. Needed replacements but only due to loss, not wear and tear.
Cordura bags made by Mr Go Right Go Light Don West – he’s the Cowboy Poet and he was Born to Ride, apparently. (www.havesaddlewilltravel.com)
HEALTH WARNING!! Be extremely careful not to read any of Don’s ‘cowboy’ poems. I read one by mistake – nobody had warned me – and I’m still having nightmares and flashbacks several years later.
We used pommel bags at the front (‘Pommel-Granites’) and a cantle bag at the back (‘Cantle-lope’). We’d used these for years at home on short trips. The bags are light and tough; all are still fine after going the full distance. The pommel bags have built in water bottle holders which were very useful. In the desert of Syria and Jordan we swapped the supplied bottles for bigger, 1 litre coke bottles and they fitted very snugly in the sleeves. The system allowed a good weight balance in front and behind the saddle. We used Exped dry bags as liners so the pommel bags could stay permanently attached to the saddles.
After Audin died, we had to add conventional saddlebags to this set up. Again we used Don West stuff because that’s what we had at home. This provides a lot of extra volume but unfortunately it’s all behind the saddle and so upsets the balance. We compensated as far as possible by carrying small heavy things in the front bags and light bulky stuff behind. Apart from this one aspect, I like the Don West stuff. As a mountaineer, he wondered why humans are allowed to carry nice, light, functional, cordura rucksacks but horses still had to lug heavy leather bags around. It’s a fair point.
Lowe Alpine extra large rucksack covers with drawstring closure. Packed up very small and light but big enough to cover our saddles and all bags when needed. The drawstring was a bit tricky to tuck away so maybe elasticated covers would have been better.
Aluminium adjustable #10 from Custom Packrigging Ltd in Vancouver, Canada. Light and strong, never failed. We glued and taped neoprene material to the bars to cover holes in the plastic bars and give extra cushioning. Hannah did get saddle sores but these were not the fault of the saddle – see Diary notes.
Super-wide (double) mohair string girth, attached to saddle using ‘latigos’ – very strong seatbelt-like nylon webbing. Both supplied by Custom Packrigging Ltd. Worked perfectly. No girth galls despite heavy dead load. The latigos allow precise adjustment of girth tension.
Big rectangular woolpad, backed with mill felt, again supplied by Custom Packrigging Ltd. In France we added an inch thick neoprene pad designed for use under western saddles. The two together worked very well and we had no more problems with the pack saddle rolling on Hannah’s broad back.
Plas Equestrian made us a harness (breast collar and britching??) which was very easy and quick to put on and attach to the pack saddle – just a few quick clips. This did the job perfectly and lasted fine, the only damage was caused by French rats who nibbled it when it was stored under a tree for a long rest stop.
Cordura ‘sacoches’ from Guichard Sellier in France. Very basic bags but tough cordura and very light (<2kg a pair). They lasted 5,000 miles, i.e. until we switched to two horses and no longer needed them, but had accumulated a fine collection of holes, tears and patches. The damage was caused mostly by incidents and accidents rather than general wear. Similar capacity bags in leather would be heavier and in polyethylene much heavier (15kg for a pair). They also have the advantage of being soft – very useful if you have a ‘bargy’ packhorse like Hannah. Contents needing special protection can be packed inside ‘Tupperware’ boxes. Some of the stuff inside did get damaged on two occasions: first when Hannah did a forward roll over a Gloucestershire hedge/fence combo and second when she ditched everything on a wet Slovenian road at gallop during the Third Great Escape.
Each pannier normally held between 16kg and 24kg. Although very tough, they seem very expensive for what they are and the design could be improved. Due to the high cost I would consider getting some custom made for another trip.
Big North Face Basecamp Duffle that we happened to have in the shed and have used on many climbing expeditions. Bombproof construction but a bit on the heavy side; we might have got away with a lighter bag. Useful compression straps allowed it to be made narrower in the middle than at the ends so it ‘wedged’ nicely onto the pack saddle. Again, this did the job well but would consider a custom made bag: (a) to fit onto the saddle even better and (b) to be a bit lighter.
Heavy duty plastic 7’ x 5’, folded up and placed over panniers and top bag for rain protection. At night, used to cover stack of saddles and tack outside the tent. At lunchtimes, used as big groundsheet for five star picnics and siestas. Known to us as ‘the bache’ due to description in our French ‘cheval de bat’ (packhorse) book. Occasionally known to us – after a well known processed cheese - as ‘la bache qui rit’ e.g. when it appeared to mock our attempts to fold it in a strong wind.
Supplied by Custom Packrigging Ltd , hence North American terminology. A short girth with a ring at one end and a hook at the other. Used in conjunction with lash rope – see below.
We used 12m of 10mm diameter climbing rope, i.e. same as tether ropes (see below). Used with the lash cinch to produce an ‘arrimage’ tied with a ‘noeud d’as de carreau’ (sorry, switched back to French again – if only we’d had a packhorse book in English. ‘Arrimage’ is from ‘arrimer’(to secure) and a ‘noeud d’as de carreau’ is a diamond hitch.) This lifts the panniers from the horse’s side and holds everything together very nicely so nothing bangs or bounces or flaps around. Some say this is an old fashioned method and there may well be much simpler techniques but it certainly works. We could watch Hannah charging about like a dog just let off the lead and know that her load would remain stable, even on a steep hillside.
5. Horse Running Away Prevention
Given the slightest excuse, horses like to run away; they have a highly developed talent for this activity and, what’s more, they secretly enjoy it. They lull you into a false sense of security by hanging around the tent, investigating things and treading on them, and then…whoosh! And they’re off! Just because a small dog has appeared on the horizon or because the wind chooses to rustle a plastic bag somewhere. With three horses, they think they’re a proper little herd and once the flight has taken off they just encourage each other. Hence the importance of carrying stuff for running away prevention.
Han-D-Hobbles (it could only happen in the US of A) from Don West – he’s America’s Favorite Pleasure-Trail Riding Clinician, apparently. Nice and soft and comfortable for the horse but not very hard-wearing. We wore out two sets during the ride. Held together with a carabiner which also makes them easy to attach to saddle when not in use. We always hobbled the horses if loose or in the electric pen.
12m of 10mm diameter climbing rope. One per horse, lash rope doubles as tether rope. We started with thicker, softer ropes until the horses learned their rope skills. Sealeah became a genius at untangling herself and we could leave her on a tether overnight. Audin learned not to panic if he did get tangled and would also call for human assistance. Hannah, being a bear of very little brain, never really mastered the art of ropework; her approach to entanglement usually involves the employment of increasing force until something breaks.
Top tip 1: always attach the tether rope via a ‘weak link’, e.g. loop of baling twine.
Top tip 2: don’t leave home without teaching your horse to be cool on a rope.
Allowing, say, a couple of metres of the 12m rope for attachments to horse and tethering point leaves an effective tether length of 10m. Assuming it is clear all round, this gives a grazeable area of 314m2.
Electric fence kit
Made by Horizont Agrar in Germany, this nifty little kit weighs only 1.8kg and proved to be well worth having. The kit includes a sprung spool/handle wound with 40m of electric tape, 4nr poles, 5nr tent pegs, 5nr bungee cords and a 6V energizer unit. It allows you to make a safe enclosure virtually anywhere. The energizer unit is robust and didn’t fail us – it uses 4nr 1.5V batteries which seem to last forever. The only downside is the small enclosure size when the only forage for the night is the grass enclosed:
To offset this problem, we did the