Removing a tumor in Mozambique

The Hazards of a Travelling Vet

Once the cat is out of the bag so to speak I (Wendy – MD of Unicorn Trails) am often asked for veterinary advice while abroad. Often in very remote places where it is often impossible to find a vet and sometimes on very strange subjects (and we won’t even go into the human health subjects I am seen as being qualified to advise on!)

2014-10-30 07.10.56

Through the ears of a Marwari in India

The first time I can remember was when I was backpacking through India as a new graduate. At a small market near Jodhpur, Rajasthan I was browsing some bracelets and shawls when the owner struck up a conversation and, one hearing I was a vet, offered to give me goods in exchange for advice on his flock of chickens which had been sickening. I was horrified, well conscious of the fact I had only scraped by on avian health and avoided seeing chickens in favour of horses throughout my time at vet school. However my companion pointed out that my worst knowledge was probably light years ahead of anything else available to the stall holder and I had soon reached a tentative diagnosis of red mite infestation and dispensed some advice in exchange for a rather nice shawl.

Removing a tumor in Mozambique

Removing a tumor in Mozambique

Since then I have graduated to extracting dog teeth in Mexico, lancing abscesses on horses in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, a full general anaesthetic and eye operation on a horse in Mozambique (with telephone assistance from a UK horse specialist at a mobile phone cost of £324!) and the more common wound management/shoeing advice in many places. All with few drugs, a lot of enthusiastic but clueless assistance and no option to refuse as the alternative would be unthinkable. One farmer said he would operate himself on the horse himself if I did not as it would die if we did nothing, harsh but the truth. It is always humbling to reflect on how lucky we really are at home as pet and livestock owners to have easy access to veterinary advice and, as vets, to have access to the best drugs, in date and stored correctly so they don’t lose potency. I’ve realised that the little I do is valued far more highly when delivered in a remote place and where there is no other choice. It is real “bush practice”, a bit nerve wracking but extremely rewarding. And no-one ever complains about waiting 10 minutes!

 

Riding the Madagascar Trail

Recently I was lucky enough to escort the Unicorn Trails Madagascar Trail, so along with three lovely clients I set off to explore the Great Red Island. This is an account of our life changing adventure.

Flying over the African sunset

Flying over the African sunset

Flying into Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar, is fairly straightforward. Flights depart from Paris most days and there is only a small time difference, meaning jetlag is not a problem. Landing is an interesting experience as it would seem the airport designers never had the huge European airliners in mind when they first built the runway, meaning the brakes are applied as soon as the wheels touch the tarmac and sliding forwards off the seat is a real possibility. Having retrieved my runaway hand luggage from  three rows in front of my seat, it was time to step out onto Madagascan soil for the first time.

Driving through town

Driving through town

After what felt like an eternity of queuing (the terminal is no better suited to large influxes of passengers than the runway is) it was time to meet the rest of the group and our host André, who was easy to find in the crowd as he is much taller than average among Malagasy people. We went straight to a nearby hotel, where we were all relieved to be able to go straight to bed after a long day of travel. The next morning we were treated to a delicious breakfast of fresh pineapple, melon, banana and avocado, accompanied by a refreshing lychee juice. This was the perfect start to our first day of adventuring through Madagascar!

On the road

On the road

Driving through Antananarivo gave our first taste of the colours of the country, many houses are painted in bright pastel shades and the women leave their multi-coloured loads of washing out on the grass verges to dry, creating an accidental roadside art scene. First stop on our journey was the lemur park, a nature reserve created completely without fences which provides the native lemurs with a safe home. It’s the perfect way to see the lemurs in their natural habitat and the animals are perfectly relaxed (as one of our group, Nathalie, learnt to her cost when a Ruffed Lemur relieved itself on her shoulder!) There are many species living at the park, including the tiny nocturnal Mouse Lemur and the most famous Ring-tailed Lemur. Very soon it was time to continue our journey onwards to the ranch, with only a few holdups on the way caused by farmers driving their Zebu (similar to cattle) to market in the capital.

Ruffed Lemur

Ruffed Lemur

André is obviously very proud of his home country and this always makes for a wonderful holiday host. He was able to tell us information and stories about everything we saw along the way, and this pride was perhaps only just outweighed by the passion he has for his horses. Upon arrival we were given a tour of the stables, meeting every one of André’s precious horses and hearing their backstories. There are currently 14 ex-racehorses living there, which André rescued from Mauritius earlier this year and three of whom were to join us for their first ever trail. That evening we had our first trial ride and I was paired with a lovely bay Mauritian ex-racer, named Monsieur Dan. Also in our group were racehorses ‘Sweep Forward’ and ‘Solar Symbol’, stallions Aramis and Helios, and native cross breeds Cador and Finire.

Sunset trial ride

Sunset trial ride

The trial ride  built up the anticipation for the week ahead, so we were an excitable group sitting down to dinner that night, discussing our horses and their various quirks. Monsieur Dan was definitely the clumsy member of the group, clearly the Mauritian racecourses are carefully attended to and kept very very flat. Either that or Monsieur Dan was simply born with his talent for falling down any and every hole in his vicinity.  He was incredibly sweet though and certainly put his heard and soul into everything. Over the course of the week we of course all fell in love with our horses, I was lucky enough to also ride Aramis, probably the calmest stallion I’ve ever come across. After our delicious dinner of chicken and rice (rice is something of a national dish for the Malagasy) it was time for our last night spent in moderate comfort before starting out on the camping trail.

Setting out early in the morning we were soon surrounded by wide open mountain views, as we crossed plateau after plateau across the central highlands. The ground beneath the horses hooves was red and sandy, allowing for plenty of faster riding. Monsieur Dan and Sweep Forward particularly enjoyed the canters, and had clearly not forgotten their racing days as they took each other on. This wasn’t always ideal as they had no more idea where they were heading than their riders, but we managed to avoid disaster. Over the course of the week the horses never ceased to amaze us, the ex-racers in particular. They boldly strode through rivers up to their bellies, they walked calmly past deafening ancient farm machinery, and they covered up to 30km a day without complaint. Horses are a rarity in Madagascar and André is something of a maverick among the Malagasy people, so the fact that he is making this work using horses that are all too often seen as a ‘waste product’ after their careers is something to be applauded.

Monsieur Dan surveys the view

Monsieur Dan surveys the view

The locals, without exception, were extremely welcoming. This is not a tourist area and we met a number of people along the way who, after shyly answering our greetings, asked André in Malagasy what we had painted our skin with to make it so light. With the addition of the horses we created something of a circus scene as we entered each village, children and adults alike running for what seemed like miles just to get a closer look. The noise of riding through each village is one of my biggest memories of the trip, the happy laughter of the children, the clapping, the barking dogs, and the steady hoof beats of our horses walking through the middle of it all.

Nathalie sharing her photographs with local children

Nathalie sharing her photographs with local children

When the time came to say goodbye to our horses and grooms at the end of the trip the group was silent, each of us giving that final pat before loading our new friends onto the horse box for their journey home. I truly believe that there is no better way to get the true feel for a country than on horseback. We went to many places where no other tourists will visit, we showered in geysers, we ate what the locals eat, and we formed real friendships with real people (especially once we discovered the Malagasy speaking grooms were partial to a boiled sweet!) As far as holidays go, this was my biggest adventure yet.

 

Today’s Adventurers

Last month’s blog was about two of our more adventurous hosts, Barry and Joe Armitage, who spend their lives seeking out and preparing for their next adrenaline rush. There are a group of equine adventurers just like them, who plan and complete amazing trips on horseback in locations all around the world. Many of these people are members of the Long Riders Guild.

Long Riders Guild

Long Riders Guild

The Long Riders Guild was set up in 1994 for men and women around the world who have ridden more than 1000 continuous miles on a single equestrian journey. It’s an invitation only organisation of explorers and to date has members in 45 countries. Members include Claudia Gottet, who rode 8000 miles from Arabia to the Swiss Alps, and Vladimir Fissenko, who rode 19,000 miles from the bottom of Patagonia to the top of Alaska. Another member we know pretty well is Wendy, the MD of Unicorn Trails, who earned her place in the guild by riding in the Andes of Ecuador.

Vladimir Fissenko

Vladimir Fissenko

If you’ve ever been gripped by the desire to leave behind a comfortable life in the search for new horizons you’re certainly not alone. The need to explore and travel to destinations unknown is a part of many people throughout the world. Charles Darwin claimed that migratory desire is one of the strongest instincts and was a long rider himself, using horses for his exploratory missions in South America, Australia and Africa.

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

There are many equestrian travel books available, documenting amazing record breaking journeys and proving what amazing feats horses and humans alike are capable of. Australian adventurer Tim Cope has written a book about his incredible 6,000 mile journey  across the Eurasian Steppe, following in the footsteps of Genghis Khan. Beginning in Mongolia, he travelled through Kazakhstan, Russia, and the Ukraine, finishing his journey in Hungary. Take a look at the many books on offer, perhaps you’ll gain inspiration for your own adventure!

Tim Cope

Tim Cope

Not many people will begin with a 10,000 mile mega-journey, endurance riding and even the more adventurous riding holiday options are good ways to begin and give a bit of insight into what preparation is required for a long rider style expedition. Planning what to pack for a holiday can be stressful enough, never mind having to organise provisions for horse and rider on an epic trek. Take note of the way the horses are cared for on any point to point trails you go on – are they stabled or tethered each night? How is their feed and water transported? What happens if a horse loses a shoe on the trail? All important things to consider!

Whatever you aim to achieve, make it enjoyable for yourself and your equine companion. There’s no competition to ride record breaking numbers of miles, wherever you find yourself in the world just ride on and enjoy the view.

Between the horses ears in India

Between the horses ears in India

 

Guest Blog – The Mongol Derby

We’re very lucky to work with hosts and horse owners around the world who share the same adventurous philosophy as ourselves – we all want to get out and explore as much as we can and of course the best way to do that is on horseback! Barry and Joe are two of our lovely hosts in South Africa, they run the Cape Winelands Adventure and the Wild Coast Adventure. This is their account of taking part in the Mongol Derby –

Boxing has been a fabulous revelation for me. I love it, and along with cycling it has gotten me into the best physical shape of my life. Add to that the fact that stepping into the ring has more in common with riding a belligerent Mongol pony than almost anything else I can think off, and my preparation for our second crack at the Mongol Derby was….well….perfect! The difference of course, is that you feel very much alone sitting on a manic hyper skittish equine in the middle of one of the least populated wildernesses in the world! No baying crowd a few meters away pounding the canvass, witnessing you taking another blow to a bit that wishes it hadn’t.

Boxing induced black eyes, a bruised nose and thick lip aside I was ready for this challenge. Joe and I were there to win. We knew what needed to be done. We knew what riding for 14 hours a day felt like. We had done it by the spade full over the previous year, riding over 5000km in endurance rides and our own particular discipline that we call adventure riding. I had pared down both my body and my gear, taking just what was absolutely necessary, and I made the weight limit easily, unlike last year. The most critical addition to our gear was a 7m length of rope; one end to be attached to the bit ring and the other, in a neat coil, by an elastic band to our belts. The idea was that if we got dumped, we would have a few seconds to grab the rope as it fizzed free of its elastic band, hauled out across the steppe by a crazed bolting pony. It worked! Perfectly! Three times! I didn’t lose a bloody pony all race, but I did come home with rope burns on my fingers. I’ll take the rope burns happily rather than feeling that dreadful hollow sensation of desperation you get when seeing your mount heading across the steppe like a Chinese rocket, your precious saddle attached….for the moment, and wondering if you will ever be able to find it or your horse again. On seeing a picture of my damaged hands one facebook friend suggested that I wear gloves in future. I had been!! The rope had burnt merrily through those in a flash before heading on delightedly through my flesh, made tender by too much glove wearing! Catch 22 you might say but the main thing was that I didn’t have to catch even one of the horses from which I had made a messy unscheduled dismount.

We had just a few hours once we landed in Ulaan Bator, before heading to the start camp, to get our phone cards sorted so that we would be able to send text, video and pics back to HQ in Cape Town, as well as twitter messages to anyone who could be bothered to follow. We had fancy new solar panels from Voltaic fitted to our back packs to charge our iPhones for the eight days that we would be flying solo across the steppe without a socket in sight. We also had a promising little gadget called a Spot Connect. It’s like the trackers used by Mongol Derby HQ to track the riders in the race but this one allows you to send 40 character messages via satellite and a blue tooth link from your smart phone to twitter or a designated  phone number from anywhere in the world except …well …South Africa! That was what the bumf said. It turns out that you can’t send messages from a pretty large part of Mongolia either as it stopped finding satellites after the third day! This bit of kit does not come highly recommended but the Voltaic solar chargers do, they performed astonishingly well even in overcast conditions and easily kept our phones powered up for the duration of the race, and for sometime after we stopped careering across Mongolia and had taken to our tent at the finish camp to do what Joe and I tend to do at the end of any trip: play cards! Endlessly….for hours and hours! I don’t know why it has become a habit but it has, and we play without thinking or caring about winning or losing. A form of meditation maybe, an interface to get us back into the real world, or maybe I’m just looking for an excuse because Joe won!

Due to commitments at home we would be arriving at the start camp a day late, but we figured we knew the deal and that one day to be briefed, and get a quick ride in to settle the nerves associated with getting on those unpredictable little beasts would be enough. It was, and having dodged the airag and vodka extravaganza the night before, we got to the start line in pretty good shape. We could tell just from the vibe that this year the competition was going to be stiff. I figured early on that the Irish lads were the ones to beat. Some of the girls from the UAE were looking pretty determined and capable too. Coz the Aussie and Will the Cowboy looked like they might be made of sterner stuff than their flamboyant dress sense suggested, but other than that I couldn’t tell who might bubble to the surface. We just needed to be sure that we were in the bunch that did.

An over enthusiastic whoop from Sam the Kiwi set the whole bloody herd off on a mad gallop from the gun, me cursing him under my breath, working hard to keep my horse under control and desperate to stay on till the whole lot calmed down. It was like a not too orderly runaway train, more like the bit just after it leaves the rails than the bit just before with all the carriages in a straight line. Nothing about this was orderly or straight line-ish at all and the crazy dash, lasting for almost 5km, saw at least the five riders hit the deck; some with broken bones and all but the Aussie losing their horses. I survived but only for my horse to take what seemed like an age to get through the first vet check. We finally managed to clear the first station in about 15th position, a little further back than we had hoped but this race is not won on the first stage and we knew that the leaders would poke their heads clear of the pack on about the third day. We just needed to stay in touch with the leading group till then, when first flush of enthusiasm would have had worn off and bodies would begin to tire. We struggled to get through the second station, with Joe’s horse just squeaking through with a heart rate of 64 in the last minute of his 45 minute vetting period. It was a close call early on but we had worked out a system for this eventuality: with me filling backpacks with water, eating and taking food to Joe while he walked his horse to get it through the vet check. This system worked well for us and we consistently made up time on our rivals by being disciplined getting through the horse stations.

The pace had been fast over the first two stages and we knew that we would easily make a third stage on the short first day, but no further. We cruised in at just after 8:30pm in about sixth position with a few others slipping in before the 9:00pm cut off. There were about ten of us who made the third station on the first night, and having got to know each other crammed together in a ger full of guffaws prompted by the hysterical banter between the foul mouthed Aussie, the Cowboy Will, and the Irish lads, we set off in the morning at seven sharp in a mini re-enactment of the previous day’s start. Everyone stayed on, the leading bunch had already shed those who wouldn’t make the top of the leader board, and we rode the first part of that leg with the Irish lads, and Charlotte and Julie, a quartet that we would get to know well over the next few days. Reports had come in overnight of the injuries behind us, a broken collar bone, broken ribs, a cracked pelvis and a punctured lung: a pretty big haul for day one.

I can’t really remember much of day two other than disjointed snippets. Joe’s journal will give a far more detailed account of proceedings than mine, so I will leave the nuts and bolts to him. We settled into a rhythm, trying to get the most out of our horses and to navigate well, trying to be as efficient as possible. We hooked up with various riders from time to time, including Sam who was battling riding alone, but we eventually peeled away from him not wanting to help him along too much as he was looking like a threat. Mattheus, a Swede with whom Joe and I had had a little run-in with that morning, peeled away from us as we passed not wanting to engage with two grumpy South African’s too much (he really does have the worst people skills of almost anyone that I have ever met). His countryman Chris, who sat a bucking horse for a good 30 seconds the previous day, earning huge respect from the other riders, did the opposite, wanting to apologize for Mattheus’ weirdly offensive approach to life. The Cowboy was around and about for a while too, riding in his beautifully fluid western way but he had some kind of mishap later that day and we didn’t see him again until the finish. I had a real dud horse on the third stage of the day, and had to walk him in from a long way out, arriving convinced that we were slipping down the field. To our surprise we found all the leaders at station 6 in various stages of clearing the vet check, eating, selecting horses and tacking up. Due to the long walk our horses cleared quickly and were the first out, surprised but chuffed.

A few kilometres out Michaela came past us at speed, followed shortly by Julie and Charlotte. The chicks clearly meant business! But, I fear, their tactic of going like the gate had been left open, in a straight line over a not too insignificant ridge didn’t really work for them. Joe and I took a low slow ride around the ridge, worried about the heat and lack of water, and hooked up with a track alongside a long straight tar road heading in the right direction. We hauled all three of the girls in over the next hour or two, taking the lead again when we left Michaela whose horse was struggling. We had ridden together for a while but she had fallen behind and her horse had stopped dead. She shouted for us to carry on but we thought that we should try to help get her in to the horse station, so we rode back to make contact and her horse managed to follow for a few hundred meters before it stumbled and rolled, Michaela fortunately rolling free unhurt. Her horse was also unhurt from the fall but clearly tired. She told us to push on as we might not make it in to station 7 if we waited for her. She was going to try and walk her horse in and Joe suggested that she could always overnight at the village about 3km short of the horse station if she couldn’t. That was that, or so we thought!

Joe and I eased our horses into the station, getting in well before the 9pm cut off and, passing the vet check easily, quickly set about selecting our horses for the next day, as the light was draining away fast. The first horse I chose from the high line had not been vetted and I was told by the station vet, South African Pete Dommett, that I needed to choose again. My second and third choices were also declined me before I found a reasonable looking horse, one of only a handful on the line that had been cleared. I figured that this situation would somehow be sorted out by the time riding started at seven the next morning as both the Irish lads, Charlotte and Julie had snuck into the station just after the 9pm cut off, picking up a half hour penalty to be taken at station 9, but they would still be leaving with us the next morning.

We settled down for the night blissfully unaware that the events of the evening would come to have a huge effect on our efforts to win this incredible race.

End of Part 1.

The Ride: Race across the Steppe – episode 1 from The Ride on Vimeo.

 

Ethiopia

Top 10 Horseback Adventures

Many of us will have a dream, a goal, a lifelong ambition that we’d love to achieve one day. For some this can be a competitive ambition, for example run a marathon or qualify at a chosen sport on a national level. Sometimes the achievement can be in the journey – seeing things that you’ve never seen before and meeting new people around the world. Here are our Top 10 horseback adventures, let us know what your dream achievement would be!

1. Trekking between the Pamir Mountains in Tajikistan
DSC_0739When : July 2015
Suitable for : Experienced and physically fit riders, a large amount of this ride is at high altitude.
What makes it special : You will ride through a number of mountain passes between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, going through areas rarely seen by tourists.

2. Become an Abyssinian Explorer in Ethiopia
EthiopiaWhen : November 2015
Suitable for : Intermediate to experienced riders, with good physical fitness for the high altitude.
What makes it special : You’ll ride through the National Park in Ethiopia’s highlands, inhabited by many rare endemic species of wildlife and traversed by the nomadic Oromo people.

3.  The Mongol Derby – The world’s toughest horse race
Mongol DerbyWhen : The race takes place yearly in August
Suitable for : Experienced and adventurous riders – this is tough!
What makes it special : The 1000km course recreates Chinggis Kahn’s legendary postal system, completing the race is an achievement few can boast.

4. Get back to basics on the Yukon Expedition in Canada
YukonWhen : Throughout the summer months
Suitable for : Beginners onwards, but a good general fitness level will definitely help.
What makes it special : The only way to see this part of Canada is by horseback, the terrain is unforgiving and many parts of the trail are inaccessible by vehicle. Everything you need for the week is carried by pack horses.

5.  Step back in time on an ancient Icelandic glacier trail
Glacier TrailWhen : Throughout the summer months
Suitable for : Intermediate riders onwards
What makes it special : Move back in time and ride along the historic Kjölu trail as Icelanders did throughout the centuries on their journey to the summer parliament at Thingvellir.

6. Be part of the Great Australian Outback Cattle Drive
Australian Cattle HerdingWhen : Every August
Suitable for : Novice riders onwards, a good sense of humour is most important
What makes it special : Follow the ancient Aboriginal trading route whilst herding 500 head of cattle.

7. Cross the Andes on horseback AndesWhen : December to February
Suitable for : Anyone who wants an adventure! No experience necessary
What makes it special : On this historic trip you will cross the Andes
on horseback following the route taken by San Martín in 1817 to free the people of Chile.

8. Make new discoveries on the Madagascar Trail
MadagascarWhen : Dates on request outside of the rainy season
Suitable for : Experienced riders
What makes it special : You’ll be riding through areas rarely if ever visited by tourists, this is a true exploratory expedition.

9. Visit the Phyang Festival during a trek in Ladakh, India
LadakhWhen : July 2015
Suitable for : Anyone with a head for heights! No riding experience necessary
What makes it special : You’ll visit some remote monasteries en route and really get to appreciate the rugged contrasts of the Himalayas.

10. Enjoy the highest altitude gallop in the world in Ecuador
La Alegria

When : Dates available throughout the year
Suitable for : Intermediate riders onwards
What makes it special : Ride above the clouds in an area surrounded by 11 volcanos.

What would your dream destination be?

 

 

Village Rides – Crete

When I started on my journey to Crete I had high expectations – my colleague Danni had been peppering the weeks leading up to my trip with stories and photographs from her own visits to our hosts there, and I was more than ready to experience it all for myself. Within 5 minutes of arriving I knew that Danni’s enthusiasm for this destination was not unfounded, and I was about to see why she has returned there year on year.

A garden view

A garden view

The hotel is run by Sabine and Manolis, who live in the idyllic mountain setting with their two children, a small herd of horses, Elvis the cat & Dudo the dog.

Elvis the Cat & Dudo the Dog

Elvis the Cat & Dudo the Dog

Upon arrival we were greeted by Manolis and shown to our rooms, which were spacious, beautifully furnished and spotlessly clean. It’s a testament to how nice the rooms were that I noticed them at all, compared with the   absolutely magical view outside. Each and every room has its own garden or balcony, where guests can sit and take in the stunning views across the valley below.  Sitting on the balcony, with the gentle sounds of goat bells in the distance and eagles gliding through the skies above is the perfect introduction to the peace and tranquillity on offer here.

Balcony view

 Having settled into our rooms, my friends and I wandered down to the restaurant to have a pre-dinner drink on the terrace. Manolis joined us and we sat and chatted as the sun went down over the other side of the valley. Sabine and Manolis are totally involved with everything that goes on at the hotel, and they do everything they can to make sure guests feel completely at home during their stay. From collecting guests at the airport to leading trails and shoeing the horses, they are always busy making the hotel the best it can possibly be. Manolis had no sooner finished telling us about how he had spent the winter re-paving the gardens, than he was jumping up to finish cooking that night’s dinner, leaving us bowled over by his passion and enthusiasm.

Dinner on the terrace

Dinner on the terrace

And what a dinner it was. While guests are welcome to request a set meal from a menu if they want to, the far nicer alternative is to eat from a selection of sharing plates that showcase the traditional Cretan cuisine. This also creates a communal dining experience, perfect for solo travellers. We left the dinner table that evening full of delicious moussaka, fried courgette, fava, salad and beetroot tzatziki to name a few, many of the ingredients of which are home-grown in the hotel gardens.

Riding lesson in the mountains

Riding lesson in the mountains

After a comfortable night’s sleep I woke fresh and ready for the half day ride which I was due to join. After a wonderful breakfast of scrambled eggs, freshly baked bread, yogurt and honey, I joined three fellow riding guests at the stables. Sabine suggested I should ride Wallino, a very handsome Friesian gelding. Everyone is encouraged to groom and tack up their own horses, safe in the knowledge that help is on hand if needed.

Meeting Wallino

Meeting Wallino

Before long we were on board and setting out across the yard, down the hill and into the valley. The horses were all well behaved and a pleasure to ride, taking the rocky mountain paths in their stride. We gradually climbed to the top of a mountain, passing through tiny villages and cantering where the terrain allowed. The views were spectacular, at one point we could even see the sea in the far distance.

On the trail

On the trail

Upon returning to the stables, we washed down the horses with cool water, and after the hot ride no one seemed particularly concerned about ‘accidentally’ turning the hose pipe on themselves. After making sure the horses were comfortable it was the turn of the riders to shower and spend the afternoon relaxing by the pool or on the terrace.

Wallino's stable view

Wallino’s stable view

I was very sad to see my time at the hotel come to an end, and it seems that everybody shares this feeling, no matter how long their stay. Even my non-riding friends were reluctant to leave after our short stay. The welcoming atmosphere created by Sabine and Manolis is second to none, so if you’re looking for some inexpensive and relaxing luxury look no further.

The Horse Listener

There comes a point in every horse rider’s career when the realisation dawns on them – the creature they are sitting on or standing next to is bigger, and perhaps more importantly, stronger, than they will ever be. For some this realisation is the beginning of the end, the first step towards giving it all up. For others, it’s the start of a lifetime passion for creating lasting bonds between horse and rider based on trust and compassion.

 Running with the Herd

 The average 16hh riding horse weighs in excess of 550kg (1212lbs). That’s a lot of weight to come charging towards you, especially when you consider that the majority of that will be muscle. The heaviest horse ever recorded was called Samson, a Shire horse weighing in at 1524kg (3360lbs), he was also 21.2hh. Even when a horse is not ‘Samson-sized’ it’s wise not to enter into a battle of strength with them, because there’s only going to be one winner of that fight, and it’s not going to be the two-legged contestant!

Samson

Samson

For as long as people have been riding horses, they have been coming up with their own methods and ideas for training them. Natural horsemanship has been growing in popularity for a number of years now – essentially it’s the idea of understanding and using a horse’s natural instincts as a part of the training process. The most famous advocate of this method is Monty Roberts, and there are teachers of the ‘Monty Roberts Method’ all over the world.

Monty Roberts has made a living from writing books and giving live demonstrations to audiences who are keen to learn about his techniques. He is Queen Elizabeth’s official advisor on her beloved horses, having first demonstrated his skills at Windsor Castle in 1989. This was his lucky break, and when asked if it would have all happened without the Queen he said ‘Hell no, I’d still be in California struggling if it wasn’t for her’

Monty Roberts

Monty Roberts

Roberts’ legacy, along with various films and documentaries, has helped to tie the idea of natural horsemanship to the image of the US cowboy.  The need for a trusting partnership is paramount for ranching and cattle driving – each movement made by horse and rider must be perfectly in sync. The very best horses used by cattle ranchers will sense which way a steer will run and move to block them before the rider can react.

Ranches are realising the popularity of natural horsemanship methods, with many of them training their own horses in this way and offering spaces for guests. This is not just in the US either, there are ranches in Portugal and France offering similar experiences –

Western Style Algarve

Beautiful Algarve - Portugal

The Western Ranch in Portugal’s beautiful Algarve region is the perfect destination for a short break, simply to get away from life’s stresses and relax surrounded by nature. Stephan, your host at the ranch, has always used natural horsemanship methods for training his horses. This year he’s also running special week-long programmes with the aid of a local Monty Roberts trained teacher, with the aim of giving more people the chance to putting these methods into practice.  There’s still room left to join the course in May and June.

 Bridger Ranch, Montana

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The Bridger Ranch in Montana has been owned by the hosts’ family for generations, and their love and knowledge of the local area is clear to see. Most of the horses are born and trained at the ranch, and regular training clinics take place throughout the year allowing guests to learn about the way things are done.

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Many of the ranches are suitable for everyone – beginners to experienced riders – meaning that everyone can join in at their own level and learn more about the training methods used.

Adventures in the Yukon

Today, I’d like to share my thoughts on a piece of coverage Unicorn Trails recently received in the Telegraph – and an adventure holiday that I was very pleased to be a part of.

The Trip of a Lifetime

There is no doubt that, if we are lucky, we all get to go on a trip of a lifetime but I feel particularly lucky to have been an escort on this adventure in such an unspoilt wilderness.

It was over thirty years ago that I was last there but little has changed other than a bit more tarmac, traffic lights and parking meters in Whitehorse; the frontier spirit, the trading posts, the pick up trucks and the long haul lorries were very much as I remembered them, and of course the panoramas were unchanged.

Louise & Dolly’s New Adventure

Louise shares her anxiety about the risks, particularly the possibility that, she as a very new rider and Dolly as a child, might spoil the trip for the other riders, and she reveals her concern for Dolly when the days were long and the weather was wet and windy; they coped with it all stoically and Dolly became a popular member of the team in her own right.

I was delighted that they both had such a great time and that Louise has written so enthusiastically about their adventure because I am sure that others could do the same if they could see that the horses are not a barrier, even to a non rider.

Not having children and being a far from child-orientated person myself, I found that leading Dolly on the rope was quite exacting at times but that was entirely due to my not being at all used to having responsibility for a child, rather than Dolly or her behaviour, which was exemplary.  Louise was most appreciative of my supervision and she said I managed perfectly well, so I’ll chalk that up to another bit of (rather late in) life experience.

Of course, this is a riding adventure and yet it turns out that Louise found, as many others new to riding have done, that the challenge is not with the riding, nor with the horses.  No, the riding is always the easy and relaxing part, all the effort comes with the ‘housekeeping’ of keeping track of all your bits of kit, with ablutions, living under canvas, cooking in the open – in short, the same challenges that you would face with any backcountry adventure, such as a walking trek or white-water rafting trip.  An adventurous spirit is all you need.

I was delighted that they both had such a great time and that Louise has written so enthusiastically about their horse riding adventure because I am sure that others could do the same if they could see that the horses are not a barrier, even to a non rider.

I have been most fortunate to have been on a number of trips of a lifetime on horseback so I suppose that I have become used to most of the routine and it mostly passes without much thought.  Interesting though it no doubt is to many, I would not have thought to have mentioned the earth privy or the unobtrusive hunt for a quiet spot each day.  Nor did I notice the poor weather; it did rain, yes, but I remember the open blue skies, the vast glacial landscape, the long vistas, on the one hand, and, on the other, the first sip of a hot drink in the morning that was prepared on the wood fire, scooping up clear ice-cold water from the mountain stream, the instant slumber that that overcomes me as soon as I crawl into my sleeping bag.

A Typical Day on a Horse Riding Adventure

I am frequently asked “What’s it like on a typical day on a horse riding adventure?”  There is no day that would cover all the trip but a day may start with the waking dreams of a luxury en suite whilst still snuggled into a warm sleeping bag but on sloping, undulating ground and preparing to reverse the gymnastics of the previous night to emerge from a tent into the ‘fresh’ morning of cold stones and soggy vegetation to retrieve damp, stiff boots …. oh but such magnificent scenery in the soft golden light, horses contentedly munching away, the aroma of a wood fire, the distant call of a wild animal and real fresh morning air.

After a wash and dress, there’s breakfast to be had but I like to pitch in with the jobs if I can and so I might fetch water from a stream, or collect up the debris from the fire-side party of the night before.  Bags are then packed and carefully stowed on the pack animals along with the tents and all the other provisions. There rarely appears to be any rush as horses are tacked up and riders mount but eventually we are off.

Mountain trail horses are sure-footed and there is no need to micro-manage as they pick their way across the most rugged ground, sometimes across steep scree slopes or along narrow ledges, but there’s no need to fear as you climb higher and higher.  Time flies by as the vistas unfold and soon there is a stop for a rest and lazy picnic lunch in some shade by a cool mountain stream or waterfall.  Early afternoon will see the riders on their way again as the sun comes round behind them, colours slowly turn to gold and the site to set up the next camp comes into view.

The day’s ride over, horses are untacked and released to drink and graze in the oasis of a water-meadow before being tied up for the night.  The campsite is soon buzzing with such tasks as building a campfire for cooking, putting up tents and preparing food.  With many hands, in no time at all it’s time to eat and drink – and to talk long into the night around the fire about the adventures of the day before going off to a deep sleep and to dream some more.

The Bucket List

From riding through the Brazilian Rainforest to galloping across the wide sandy expanses of the Namibian Desert, everyone has that dream trip that they hope one day to complete. Even for those just learning to ride, there is the dream of cantering along long white beaches with the waves lapping at the horses’ hooves. For experienced riders and novices alike, there are adventure rides which push skills to the limit and offer an exhilarating life experience.  

Galloping across the Namib Desert

Galloping across the Namib Desert

Countless studies have shown that people gain greater lasting happiness from experiences rather than possessions. Experiences create memories, central to the person you truly are, while for the most part possessions are eventually forgotten or replaced. Taking on an adventure, testing your capabilities and experiencing totally different cultures, will form the memories that bring a smile to your face for the rest of your life.

One such adventure is the Yukon Expedition in Canada, a true pack trip where supplies and tents are carried on pack horses throughout the trail. The remote landscape is sure to make an impression, as the only other life riders are likely to encounter is of the wild variety – moose, bears and eagles.

Trekking with pack horses

Trekking with pack horses

 If you like the idea of encountering unusual wildlife, but would prefer to do so in a warmer location, the Madagascar Trail could be for you.  This trail was developed with the help of Christina Dodwell, a prominent explorer, and is a real adventure as you ride through areas far off the beaten track and unreachable by other tourists. There is of course the chance to see the island’s most famous residents, the lemurs of Madagascar.

An inquisitive lemur

An inquisitive lemur

Seeking out new cultures in far-flung destinations is perhaps one of the most attractive aspects of travel, especially as a common interest such as horse riding can cross the language barrier. The Shamalong Race Trek in Tibet gives riders an insight into a cultural tradition that has been going on for centuries, as you trek towards the Shamalong Festival learning nomadic skills along the way.

Spectators at the Festival

Spectators at the Festival

If you have a sense of adventure and a passion for broadening your horizons there is a destination out there, just waiting for you to discover it.

Material possessions will come and go; but experiences last a lifetime.

 

 

Birthday Milestones

Happy Brithday horseBirthdays are great aren’t they?

Celebrating another year, opening presents from loved ones, and looking back over what you’ve achieved in the past 12 months. That’s all lovely, but I find that there can be a stressful side to birthdays too, and that part usually begins a month or so before the big day. It starts with this simple, well-meaning question –

‘So, what are you doing for your birthday?’

Ahhhhh! I don’t know. Was I supposed to have planned something already? What if I plan something that my friends don’t enjoy? Will they still come? Why am I dealing with this stress when it’s MY birthday?! I’m sure we’ve all felt this way at some point, especially for those milestone birthdays when the pressure to organise an event is even greater.

So how about doing something amazing that you will remember forever and, more importantly, is something you actually really truly want to do? Going on the trip of a lifetime is the perfect way to celebrate a birthday milestone. Start the next year of your life by doing something extraordinary, whether you are a total beginner who’s always wanted to ride or an experienced rider who wants to test their skills and broaden their horizons there is something here for you. Here’s a list of a few popular adventure-of-a-lifetime destinations:

Giraffe on the Masai Plains

Giraffe on the Masai Plains

Masai Mara on Horseback – Kenya

The safari of all safaris. Escape the tourists by seeing all the big game the Mara has to offer from horseback. When the riding ability required is – ‘Fit confident experienced riders able to gallop out of danger’ you just know that this ride is going to be really, really good. Each night will be spent in the luxury of walk-in tents with proper beds and showers, moved each day by the support team to give you a truly authentic safari experience. Fast riding, an abundance of game, and luxurious accommodation combine to create a fantastic way to spend any birthday.

Galloping with Zebra

Galloping with Zebra

Northern Lights – Iceland

Seeing the Northern lights is on many a person’s ‘bucket list’, so spending a birthday viewing this natural phenomenon is a great way to start off the next chapter in your life. The horses here have a special smooth gait known as the ‘tölt’, and they will happily carry you over the unforgiving wild terrain. While in Iceland you can check out other famous sights such as the Blue Lagoon, volcanoes and geysers, and maybe even go whale watching.

Northern Lights

Northern Lights

Andes Crossing – Chile to Argentina 

If you really want to kick off your 21st/30th/40th/50th/60th year with a bang how about following in the footsteps of San Martín by taking part in the historic Andes crossing. San Martín took the high Andes route in 1817 to free the people of Chile, and now you can ride the exact path he used. Not only will this leave you with the most amazing memories, but being able to answer the earlier question of ‘What are you doing for your birthday?’ with a casual reference to crossing the Andes might just be the icing on the birthday cake.

Crossing the Andes with Pioneros

Crossing the Andes with Pioneros

Mountain Views in the Andes

Mountain Views in the Andes