Friday, 20 November 2009

Horses Welcome

I've been working my way through what my granny used to call 'bread and butter letters' , thanking all those who helped us, put us up, and supported us in so many ways on our trip.
It's a courtesy (although if I was as courteous as all that I would have done it before now - if YOU haven't received yours yet - it's a-coming!)
It's been a joy, actually, as I have relived all those wonderful memories of the great people we met. There are over 300 to write, so it's taking me a while. What was astonishing was that in all those miles, we didn't meet a single person who was less than friendly and hospitable.
Why was that? Most riders have tales of grumpy landowners or gratuitous rudeness, but there was no sign of any of that.
I don't have a definitive answer...but I do have some ideas about it. Firstly, where possible, I did contact people in advance. I've blogged about this before - in spite of the Land Reform Act, I do still believe that is a reasonable courtesy where horses are involved, unless the tracks are actively promoted for riding. My experience has been that, on the whole, landowners prefer to have some notice, especially if there's a gate to be unlocked!
Having said that, I didn't always do it - either because I simply couldn't find out who to speak to
or because I had to change my plans at the last minute and go a different route - usually as a result of flooding. So I did sometimes meet landowners unexpectedly but didn't have any problems, perhaps because I made an effort to be polite, including getting off my horse to explain the situation to them. (I remember reading in a newspaper article about how, during the lead up to the hunting ban, huntsmen were advised not to speak to the tv reporters etc when they were sitting on their horses - the difference in height automatically made it look as though they were looking down their noses in a superior kind of way. I think there may be a grain of truth in that, especially when speaking to the non-horsy).
Every rider's dream is probably to be able to ride along any tracks without having to ask permission - and in some places that is quite possible. For riders planning some sort of cross-country route, as I did, I don't currently believe that it is. I would also add that, for me, a huge part of the pleasure of the trip was in interacting with local people, learning about the area (and in many cases, scoring somewhere to camp or a bed for the night as a huge bonus.) In addition, it's this interaction which (hopefully) improves communication and understanding between riders and land managers.
Quite a few people have asked for my precise routes. That, to me, is a slightly difficult one - I think there is a difference between me - or anyone - riding a route (with the landowner's blessing) and then suggesting it's ok for anyone to do it - I simply don't feel I have that authority. There is an additional practical problem, in that I crossed some areas where a more novice horse could easily get into difficulties, and I wouldn't want that on my conscience either.
However, I am keen to share what I have learned with other riders! Other long distance riders were very generous to me with information. Perhaps a possible practical solution is to get together to create some sort of database to easily access who to speak to regarding access: a lot of this information is traceable on the internet, and BHS and Council Access officers and the like can be helpful, but it doesn't half take a lot of digging around: it took me a year to prepare for a three month trip. I would be very keen to hear what you think about it, and I expect this topic will resurface!
Going back to why I had so few problems, I also suspect that, because I was travelling alone, people felt more inclined to talk to me, which might not have happened had there been a group of us.
I might get some snark for this one, but I also suspect that native ponies are less threatening to the non-horsy than gleaming bay hunters - they're sort of a cross between a horse and a dog! Most people wanted to cuddle them. Really, they should have been prostrating themselves in awe and wonder - Doogs.
Today's picture is a quick watercolour sketch - I did quite a few of these on the trip, but due to the weather conditions, mostly there was a lot of 'water' and not so much in the way of 'colour'! I don't believe the boys thought that this particular tint was quite manly enough, either. And you've made me look fat - Doogs.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Herd Dynamics

In the winter months, we run our horses and ponies in the stubble fields surrounding the house.

There are many advantages to this arrangement: using the stubble fields (where there is plenty of rough grazing) rests our grass fields - good for the pasture and minimises parasite problems.

As the stubble fields are nice and close to the stables, it's also easy to get youngsters in for some handling, or geriatrics in for a few hours' respite from the rain which has been pelting down recently. This is especially valuable during these short hours of daylight.

We've been getting the foals in regularly for some handling - as they didn't get much over the summer while I was away. This helps to prepare them for weaning, which we'll do around Christmas, and also is preparing them for (shhhh!) being microchipped next week, as the law now requires.

We haven't as yet started supplementary feeding (bar a little bite of hay if something's in) as they absolutely haven't needed it: one or two mares are actually waddling! Tsk. Seriously, it's our only opportunity to get some weight off the Highlands before they face the spring grass again. The mild weather however, means that the grass in the stubbles is still actually growing - as I type this, the thermometer outside is registering 12 degrees (grass starts to grow at 6). I wonder if we'll end up like New Zealand, with year-round grass growth?

Another advantage - or perhaps not- of having them all near the house is that I can watch them from my office window. (I'm supposed to be writing, but hey...)

It is fascinating to watch closely the herd dynamics - who pals up with whom as a grazing buddy, who prefers to graze on their own on the fringe of the group. The foals and yearlings are getting bolder and more cheeky towards the older horses, until they overstep the boundaries and are sent scuttling by an exasperated adult.

It is a very settled herd, where each individual seems to know their place. I never witness kicking or biting (bar the foals, in play). The most aggression is the odd bit of face-pulling.

I know how lucky we are to be able to keep our animals in a semi-natural way, with plenty of space for all. I recently refused to sell a 2 yo to a buyer who wanted to keep him in a yard with no winter turnout at all. I know many horses are kept like that from necessity, but it's far from ideal, especially for a growing, boisterous youngster - probably for any horse, come to that.

We have bought in thoroughbreds out of training in the past who didn't know how to graze having been kept in stables all their life: they would just mooch around by the gate, not eating (food only comes in a bucket or haynet obviously) staring wistfully at their box door. It wasn't long before they got the hang of it and started to get cheeky about being caught though!

Monday, 16 November 2009

You Talking to Me???

Over the weekend Yeoman was invited to take part in an animal communication and training workshop, at a local yard.
Now, I don't know what you think about animal communicators: it's not something I have any experience of, and I really didn't know what to expect. I must say I had visions of some poor communicator squinting at Yeoman and saying 'I'm sorry, I'm not picking this up clearly...he seems to be claiming he's just been ridden for a thousand miles...!'
There were about ten equine 'guinea pigs' there, who were 'communicated with' - if that's the right terminology - by two tutors and their students in two groups.
I must say I found the day very interesting: undoubtedly they could pick up on lots of verifiable truths about each horse, including old injuries (of which there was no visible sign) and according to the owners, were also very accurate in reading the horse's personalities. They picked up on one horse's extreme grief (his old stablemate had just been put down a few days ago) and other things which they couldn't possibly have known.
Yeoman showed every sign of thoroughly enjoying the experience. Both groups 'read' him in very similar terms. According to them he has a huge spirit and has been a horse many times before - he has always worked very very hard. One communicator said that he has an infinite capacity for work - as I've blogged about before, that is certainly true - he is tireless.
Interestingly, they pointed out that he has until recently always been in the shadow of another horse, which I would also accept, since he's often been compared to Doogs (and not always favourably, I regret to say). She said that he would be a fantastic RDA horse as he has a strong desire to help - not a career I would necessarily have put number one on his list of possible jobs!
However, it did set me thinking: because he was difficult to start under saddle, I have always thought of him as a bit of a delinquent. When I really thought hard about it, though, it must be at least two years since he ever put a foot wrong - perhaps it's time I updated my view of him!
He had no physical issues at all, unlike most of the other horses, who seemed to have very long lists! According to the communicators, he is very politely spoken (so I should hope).
He is apparently also becoming much more confident in himself. One slightly spooky thing was when he got home and was turned out, he did something which he has NEVER done before, which was to (politely) round up all the mares in the field. Doogs just stood and watched - there was no altercation of any kind.
So - a bit of fun? Or perhaps a glimpse into something a bit uncanny? Jury's out, but still a most interesting day.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Ladybird Update

Followers of this blog from the start will remember how game little Ladybird stepped into the breach for the first three weeks of the trip, after Yeoman went on his self-harming jag.

She was an absolute star, taking everything calmly in her stride (in spite of literally being dragged out of the nettles with only a few days' notice.)

You might also remember that she was initially 'dumped' on us by her owner and we had to go through all the tedious legal channels to gain ownership of her so that we could decide what was going to happen to her in the long term.

Since her expedition down to the borders on the trip, she has been away being professionally schooled and is now ready to go on to a new owner, provided we can find the home she deserves. If she were a little bigger (she's 13.3) or I, alas, were a little smaller (!) I wouldn't part with her - but she needs to go somewhere where she can be used and enjoyed to the full.

She's 5, and currently has all the basics in place: walk, trot, canter and is happily hacking out on her own and with others and will go first or last. She hasn't started jumping yet, but is comfortably coping with all sorts of varied terrain out on hacks. She is of course also trained to carry packs! She has the most lovely willing nature, but due to her youth is not really suitable for a novice: ideally we are looking for a long-term home with a small adult or a confident older child who has support from a horsy family. She has lovely straight movement and excellent conformation and would show.

Her one drawback is that she sometimes cribs, probably as a result of how she was kept in an earlier life. She has been improving, especially as she has now got other things to think about, but she would be better in a home where she has full turnout. She gets on well with other horses.

She is easy to catch, box and shoe, and has the potential to be a cracking all-round pony - so if you are looking for one (or know someone who is) and would like further details, you can contact me, Kate Godfrey, 0n 01828 632463 or email me at

Thursday, 12 November 2009

Don't Fence Me In

Ok - good gear, bad gear!

Before I left, you may have read on the website that I was trialling a corral kit from Electric Fencing Direct. Obviously, keeping the boys contained overnight was a major priority - not just in the wilds, but also when we camped near to roads or other hazards.

I would like to say (with absolutely no pressure from the manufacturers I should point out!) that this was a cracking piece of kit, which survived being put up every night (and sometimes at lunchtimes too) in wet and windy conditions and only weighed 2.5 kg. It took less than 5 mins to put up.

The posts fold down (a bit like tent poles) so the whole caboodle makes a neat little package for carrying. You use bungee cords to stabilise the posts, and they never fell down. I carried 200m of 10mm tape: normally I prefer the 20mm variety for visibility, but when travelling the 10mm tape packed down smaller and lighter. Sometimes I would use an existing fence for one side of the corral, to give them more grazing room - or if I was in a secure field anyway, I would use the corral to surround my campsite and fence the ponies out, to stop them eating my tea or trying to climb in my sleeping bag.

The whole thing is powered by a little 'Shrike' unit which, though powered with torch batteries which are easily available when you're travelling, still has a hearty sting. Doogs and Yeoman are very respectful of electric fencing, which meant I only actually switched it on when I was going to sleep to conserve power - but the batteries lasted for the whole trip anyway.

I couldn't have done the trip the way I did without this corral - it meant that we were completely free to stop wherever there was suitable grazing, and I never had to worry about them not being there in the morning or getting tangled in rubbish fences and pulling shoes off in the night.

Definitely good kit: more details from

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Tail End - and a Ticking Off!

Firstly, apologies to those many many people who have been in touch to give me a hard time for leaving those poor ponies stuck on Mount Keen for so long!

Yes, we're safely home - but the combination of three months in the pure mountain air, followed by a shopping trip to Dundee, resulted in a dreadful bout of flu for me - obviously my system was no longer able to cope with twenty-first century urban bugs.

I'm feeling better now (thank you) although still a bit feeble. I rode the boys out today for the first time in company with my friend Felicity - the ponies set off as though they were intending to do the whole thousand mile route backwards - so obviously still feeling pretty fit!

There's still a lot of 'finishing off' to do on the blog, and I will get there I promise.

One of the most common questions has been ' so how much total weight DID you lose/gain'? You will remember that there was a splendid scoff for two riding on this, at the Kinloch House Hotel Blairgowrie.

The answer is we lost a total of 39 kgs - nothing at all really, given that the ponies had NO additional feeding on the trip. For those who really want to know, it broke down thus: Doogs lost 30 kg; Yeoman lost 8 kg; and I lost...well, you do the maths. All I can say is, I must have been in fantastic shape before I left. Nothing to do with the splendid round Scotland hospitality, then...

The boys were delighted to get home. Somewhat to my surprise, I haven't had any trouble catching them since we got back either! Doogs was immediately surrounded by his gingernut thoroughbred harem, where he has remained ever since. I swear I've caught him saying , "and you'll never guess what we did next..." as the mares flutter their eyelashes and look impressed.

Yeoman - well I think it's fair to say that he left home a boy and came back a man - such a change in a horse, from a somewhat dippy delinquent, to a senior and responsible member of our little equine community.

Now we're back in cyberspace, check into the blog now and again to find out about the gear we wouldn't be without (and what went in the bin); what I'll do differently next time (and what that 'next time' is going to be - very exciting!) and equally exciting (to me anyway), the full-length unexpurgated book version of the trip which is due for publication in the spring. The profits from the book will go to World Horse Welfare International Training. There are also lots of great photos to catch up on which I'll post as I go - sending pictures to the blog en route was a little challenging at times.

Hope all you grief-givers are a little happier now!