www.thelongridersguild.com. But anywhere a long ride is physically demanding and a logistics challenge. In Britain the commonest really long ride is John O’Groats to Lands End, between 950 and 1400 miles depending which way you go. Few people can take the months you need for this, but hundreds will ride for a week or two or three. Many will have support from someone with a lorry, others will use a lorry to get them and the horses to their starting point, leave it there and do a circular route or arrange for transport to get them home again at the end of their ride. Few start on horseback from home. I am grateful for having been given advice and shared experience by British longriders: Elizabeth Barrett, Vyv Wood-Gee, Grant Nicolle, Judy Sharrock and Lisa Hill, and for the books of Richard Barnes and John Labouchere.All over the world people make long rides. Journeys may be thousands of miles in conditions that are seriously hard and risky – for a look at this go to the Long Riders’ Guild website:
Planning is Essential. Most rides in the UK are carefully planned because:
- Accommodation for rider and horse is not readily available in most places. Unless you are camping and chancing it, a bed and a field or stable need to be booked in advance;
- Safe routes for long rides are not mapped out all over the place and those that do exist may not go where you want. The British Horse Society is the chief national promoter of routes, see www.ride-uk.org.ukand offers a way to finding invaluable information in any area, see www.emagin.org.
Roads and Traffic.
Few bridleways go more than a couple of miles. Riders have to use roads to get from one bit of off-road route to another. Increasing volume and speed of traffic are reducing freedom to ride long distances by changing conditions on the roads which riders must use. Horses differ hugely in temperament and behaviour and not every horse is very steady in traffic, or next to a railway, or near loud noise etc and the route needs to take account of this. However, even if a horse is rock steady, many roads that were acceptably safe even 20 years ago are now risky because of traffic speeds and volumes. And many of us, as drivers, just assume that round the bend the road will be clear. On top of that, more people drive than ever and many know little or nothing about animals.
The Highway Code: How many of us know what the Highway Code says about horses on the road, how they should be ridden, where riders should position themselves and how drivers should treat them? You can see some of the Code at www.direct.gov.uk/en/TravelAndTransport/Highwaycode/Horseridersandanimals/index.htm
Horses On-road and Off-road.
Most roads were created by people walking, droving animals, riding, or using animal drawn transport. Horses are allowed on all roads, except motorways and some other specifically restricted bits. The off-road rights of way network of footpaths, bridleways and byways, was defined in the 1950s when fewer horses were being ridden than at any time in the last few hundred years and mountain bikes did not exist. Horses and, since 1968, cyclists are allowed on bridleways, and are allowed on byways, but these seldom provide a coherent network so planning a route for a long ride is a huge task with lots of maps.
80 percent of the off road network in England is footpaths and only open to walkers. The creation of access land (the right to roam) gave wider access to walkers but nothing to riders. Horses and riders are not allowed on many of the cycle paths that have been created in recent years, mostly on old railway lines, despite research showing that when they are allowed it works fine, despite horse riders needing to get safely off road just as much as cyclists, and despite government ministers saying they should be allowed.
More people now ride as a sport, exercise or leisure activity than ever. There are over 4 million riders in the UK and 75 per cent of them are women and girls. There are more horses, over a million, than for decades. So there is serious need for a better safe multiuser network. However, there is little appetite, or money, for this in central govenment or in much of of local government despite Sport England having found that the most significant disincentive for people to take up riding is lack of safe routes. Improvements that have been achieved have very often been through the work of Bridleway Associations and individual, very committed, riders. You can find contact details for Bridleway Associations in the Riding Off Road section of the British Horse Society website, www.bhs.org.uk. I am proud to have been involved with The Forest of Dean Horse Riders & Carriage Drivers Association and the Mid Cotswold Tracks and Trails Group. Both associations have struggled and fought for better off-road access.
What we really need are a lot more, new, bridleways (routes open to walkers, cyclists and riders) created where they are needed to fill the many many gaps in what should be a network.The most exciting prospect for creating new routes, where they are actually needed, is being pioneered by The Trails Trust which, with support from Natural England and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, has published a Guide for Local Groups, see www.thetrailstrust.org.uk.