Riding over the wide open spaces, across the hills and moors of Britain, brings a special sense of exhilaration and freedom. These heather and grass covered uplands are home to sheep, grouse and wildlife and little else, so one may ride for hours without seeing human habitation.
Will my horse be able to manage?
A horse from lowland Britain will have to be fit enough to cope with rough ground and steep slopes. Coming downhill is often more of a challenge than going up so you may prefer to get off and lead. Some of the tracks will be stony and a horse with sensitive feet may need to be shod with pads. The horse must be willing to ford rivers and cross bridges, so it is wise to practice before you set off. There will be gates to open and close and some where you will have to get off and heave so a cooperative, well trained horse will be a great help.
What are the bridleways like?
Many of the bridleways and traditional riding routes in the uplands are ancient tracks linking one valley with another. The best are green or sandy roads or stone tracks across the hills which are easy to follow, although in some places the rider should be prepared for a steep drop on one side. Some moorland bridleways may be no more than faint sheeptracks. Ground can be very rocky, have sharp stones or be soft and potentially boggy. Some are suitable in August and September when they have dried out but are not advisable earlier in the year. On peat uplands, some may be trods – historic routes where slabs were laid across the path to support packhorses or traffic, many laid by early monks on trade routes. Modern day equivalents have been used on some trails, especially National Trails such as the Pennine Bridleway and the Cleveland Way. Keep to the trods as you may sink in soft ground off the slabs.
Soft and boggy ground is the most widespread hazard to riders in these areas. If you are on a track the problem patches should be clear to see, so look out for areas of dark brown wet peat. These areas should be avoided by going carefully round the edge. If your horse is unwilling to go forward, get off and lead him or give him to your companion while you check the ground on foot. Remember if he is adamant, he may know best.
Many of the heather moors are managed for grouse and the shooting season lasts from 12 August to 10 December. There is no shooting on Sundays. While the bridleways must remain open and shoots take careful account of public access, you may find that gunfire is closer than you or your horse is comfortable with. If you come across a shoot, please behave with respect and tolerance for others and wait while a drive is in progress.
Some areas are used for military training. These are generally well signed, but there may be artillery firing in the distance and soldiers suddenly appearing from cover.
Remote areas are often flown over by the RAF at low altitude but it is usually the rider rather than the horse that is upset by their sudden noisy appearance.
Very stony ground, rock slabs and loose scree can be difficult to ride over. Remember it is much easier for a horse to keep his feet if you are leading him.
Lack of shelter means that high winds can make riding difficult and tiring but poor visibility is perhaps a greater hazard as it is easy to lose one's sense of direction and map reading becomes more difficult. Listen to the weather forecast and, if necessary, take a rest day or keep to roads and tracks in the valleys or forested areas if low cloud or high wind is expected. If you are caught out by deteriorating conditions, it is often better to return the way you came as the horses will be able to sense which way to turn even if you can't remember.
What should I take with me?
- Hi-viz clothing for you and your horse
- A headcollar and long lead rope for leading over difficult terrain and at lunch stops. Wear the headcollar under the bridle for quick access and have the rope either knotted round the horse’s neck or clipped on a D ring. In problem situations you need this equipment immediately, trying to use your bridle or put on a headcollar while your horse is distressed may lose vital time.
- A breast plate will prevent the risk of your saddle slipping back on steep climbs.
- Windproof and waterproof clothing
- Sun protection for exposed skin. Protect any pink patches on your horse as well.
- A water bottle that is attached to the saddle and a sponge tied to the saddle can be used to cool the horse when fording streams
- A saddle bag or waist bag with basic first aid for horse and rider. Other essentials are a hoof pick, a penknife and binder twine.
- A saddle bag for food, spare clothing and maps.
- A temporary shoe replacement/sole protection can be tied to a D ring in case a shoe is lost.
- A mobile phone which includes an ICE (In Case of Emergency) contact number
- A whistle, bright torch with full batteries and foil survival blanket.
Never ride alone. A party of three is best in case something goes wrong. Tell someone, preferably with a written note, where you are going each day. Be aware of the risk of no-one knowing your location if you change your route from your original intention
Leave dogs at home. This is sheep rearing country and the habitat of many ground nesting birds which are easily disturbed by a dog. You cannot fully control a dog while mounted.
Close and secure all gates, however difficult, if they were closed when you reached them. Allow plenty of time to complete your ride, it always takes longer than you expect on unfamiliar ground.