Interview with Cathleen Leonard
For many people, horseback travelling is a dream. But some are adventurous enough to take the plunge. Long rider Cathleen Leonard (http://www.astrangerequest.co.uk/) has agreed to answer a few questions.
A few words of introduction about you...
I grew up near London, UK, in a very non-horsey family. Neither of my parents had any interest in horses and my older sister, who had taken a few lessons when she was little, had quickly given up. Luckily for me, my godmother was a keen equestrian. On my eighth birthday she offered to take me riding on her little Welsh Cob, Flurry, and from that moment I was hooked.
After a few rides with her, I began taking weekly lessons at a local equestrian centre. I was never a particularly good rider; I found going round and round in a sand school quite boring and I had no real interest in dressage, jumping, or any of the usual equestrian disciplines. All I ever wanted to do was go out and explore the countryside.
When I was 17, after a few years of sharing a pony with a neighbour, I eventually got a horse of my own. She was a little Haflinger mare and a dream come true. We’d disappear for hours on end, wandering the local lanes and bridleways together when I probably should have been studying for my exams. The feeling that gave me was one of total freedom and I loved every minute of it.
Eight months after she arrived, I bought two draft foals from France that I’d seen advertised on the internet. They were destined for slaughter, like so many other horses in France, but the thought of them being killed for meat was too much to bear. Their photos haunted me day and night so I went against the advice of all my friends and family, emptied my savings account and offered those two little foals a home. They had never been handled and I’d never had any experience working with youngsters so it was a bit of a learning curve, but we got there in the end.
Why and how did you start long riding?
As a child I often used to daydream about heading off on epic adventures on horseback, like the heros from the stories my father used to read to me. Mostly I’d find myself looking at the countryside and imagining myself riding through it on a horse. Mountains, forests, open fields - it all looked so inviting. I would spend hours poring over maps and working out routes across the globe, taking in the most remote, mountainous, and least populated places on the planet and I’d wonder what it would feel like to be there on a horse.
I didn’t tell many people about my dream to travel the world on horseback. The few who I did mention it to usually laughed at my childish fancies and said that horseback travel was a thing of the past; in this age of motorised transport, riding around the world was no longer possible. I decided I was going to do it anyway.
Everything changed when I discovered the Long Riders’ Guild. I was about 14 years old and was trawling some obscure corner of the internet, looking for evidence that horseback travel was still possible in the 21st century, when I stumbled across Guild’s website. It was like opening a door to another world. Here were the people who were living my dreams, travelling the world on horseback, proving that it could still be done. I spent years gathering information and reading about their adventures - blogs, websites, books, anything I could get my hands on - and dreaming more than ever of the adventures I was going to have one day with my little herd of equines.
I was 21 when I finally began doing little excursions of my own. I’d usually ride out onto Bodmin Moor, just up the road from where I was living in Cornwall at the time, and would spend the night there before heading home again in the morning. I didn’t really enjoy those trips if I’m honest. I never slept well; I was always cold, uncomfortable, and worried my horse would break loose and run home in the night. The next day I’d go back to the comfort of my home, have a nice hot shower, and tumble into my comfortable bed resolved to give up on this equestrian travel idea because it really wasn’t for me. But, after a few days, my run-in with the unromantic realities of horseback travel would wear off and I’d find myself daydreaming again.
At one point I set myself a goal: to ride to Land’s End in Cornwall. It was only about a hundred miles from where I lived. I made my first attempt in 2012 but gave up and went home after the first night out when the weather turned bad and I was once again confronted with the reality of being cold, tired, and soaked to the bone. After a few more failed attempts and several false starts where I’d suddenly find every possible reason why I couldn’t set off, I finally managed to ride to Land’s End in April 2016. Although it was only six days on the road, completing that journey felt like a huge achievement. I think the number of times I’d tried and failed had turned it into a massive obstacle in my head. As soon as I got back home I began planning the next trip: a four hundred mile loop of the South West of England in July 2016.
That journey was disastrous. Everything that could go wrong, did - including two car accidents that happened right next to us! - and I found myself wanting to give up and go home every single day. I stuck it out for three weeks and eventually quit a hundred miles before the end, vowing never to travel on horseback ever again.
Just over a year later I found myself in the north of Scotland with Taliesin - one of my rescued French draft horses - and my wolf dog, Spirit, about to embark on a 1,000 mile long journey back to Cornwall. I didn’t know anyone in Scotland, I was about nine hundred miles away from my nearest friends, I had no support, no back-up, no pre-planned stops - just a pile of maps and a vague route plan.
What were the main difficulties or obstacles (if any) you had to face before being able to embark on your adventures? Did it take much organisation?
The biggest obstacles I encountered were in my own head. Overcoming my anxiety - the fear of the unknown, of all that could go wrong, the worry that I’d not find anywhere safe for me and my horse to stay every night - was definitely the biggest challenge. Ignoring all my doubts, taking the plunge, and trusting that everything would be ok was quite hard. The main reason that I started my first major Long Ride in Scotland - as far from home as possible - was because I knew that it would be an awful lot harder to give up at the first sign of trouble. I didn’t trust myself to ride away from all the comfort, familiarity, and security of home because it would have been too easy to find an excuse to quit as soon as the going got tough. I had to outsmart my cowardice and almost force myself to do the journey.
The practical side of things, like planning the route and organising transport, finding equipment, and places to stay, was actually fairly easy. For my early trips I arranged every overnight stop before setting off, but I found that quite restrictive. There were times when both myself and the horses needed an extra day’s rest which meant I had to reschedule all my other stops further down the line. When I rode from Scotland to Cornwall in 2017 I hardly arranged any accommodation at all and just hoped to find something on the day. That worked really well in Scotland but by the time I crossed over into England it was the end of September, the days were getting shorter, the weather colder and wetter so I started organising stop-overs in advance just for peace of mind. I would never plan more than four days ahead, just in case something happened and we got delayed.
You did several solo travels. Do you think being a woman makes it more difficult to travel alone (in terms of safety, for instance)? What advice would you give to other women dreaming of solo equestrian travelling?
As a woman travelling alone you certainly receive more criticism than a man doing the same thing. It actually makes me quite sad that, due to my gender, my choices are always being scrutinised and questioned in a way that men’s are not. I was frequently asked ‘aren’t you worried?’, but for the most part I wasn’t. You have to believe that the majority of people are nice and not out to hurt you, otherwise you’d never do anything. That said, there were a few occasions where I felt a little uncomfortable and was quite glad that I had my dog with me. She’s a wolf hybrid so she looks fairly intimidating. She used to growl and bark if anyone approached the tent, which I found very reassuring and never discouraged.
In some respects, being a woman travelling alone actually has some advantages. I think people see you as vulnerable and because of that they’re more willing to help you and offer hospitality. When travelling around Ireland on horseback with my (male) partner in 2018 I noticed that we were often left to our own devices and I couldn’t help thinking that, were I travelling alone, people would probably have been more inclined to invite me into their home, offer me a shower, food, and maybe even a bed.
If you’re a woman dreaming of travelling alone but are worried about your personal safety taking some self-defence classes is a great idea. I spent a few months learning Krav Maga and absolutely loved it. Knowing some basic techniques to get yourself out of a sticky situation is very useful and can give you the confidence you need to set off. Also, just listen to your gut when people offer you somewhere to stay. If there’s something a bit ‘off’ about someone, just move on and keep looking.
What was your most memorable journey (or leg of a journey) and why?
I think my ride from Scotland to Cornwall in 2017 is the journey I’ll always remember. That was the big one, the realisation of my dream, where everything finally fell into place. Up until then I’d made a few small attempts at horseback travel with varying degrees of success and I could never really decide whether I liked it or not, could never reconcile the dream to the reality, but that journey changed everything. Not only did it give me some much-needed confidence in myself, and teach me a huge amount about horseback travel, but it also showed me a whole new side to my horse as well. The bonds we built on that journey were incredible. I have so much love and respect for Taliesin after everything we went through together; so much gratitude for the way he carried me - unfaltering and without complaint - or walked beside me every step of the way.
There have been several hair-raising moments and a lot of near misses over the years. I’ve had a horse fall into a bog, watched my horse tumble backwards into a stream halfway up a mountain and land on top of my partner, witnessed two car accidents - one where a car flipped over in front of us - but I think my most terrifying moment was trying to cross a busy dual carriageway with two horses and a dog and getting stuck in the middle of two speeding lanes of traffic with the horses starting to panic and feeling like they were going to bolt. That one still makes my heart race whenever I think about it. It was very stupid of me to put us in such a dangerous situation and it could have ended very badly. Luckily it didn’t, but I don’t like to think about it.
Do you believe every horse can go on a long ride or does it take a special one?
This is a question I get asked an awful lot. While in theory all horses can travel, some take to life on the road a whole lot better than others.
Things that make a good travel horse, in my opinion:
- A calm, level-headed temperament
- A small and sturdy animal - small enough to mount easily from the ground, yet sturdy enough to carry a rider and packs
- Thick-skinned, hardy, and able to cope in all weathers
- An easy keeper with a good appetite who is happy eating anything and everything and holds their weight without the need for additional hard feed or rugging
- Good feet
As a general rule, it’s best to pick a horse or pony native to the country where you’re planning to travel because they’re well-adapted to the environment.
Things that make a bad travel horse:
- A highly strung horse who stresses easily
- A horse who is easily frightened and isn’t good in traffic
- A hard keeper who needs a lot of additional feed to hold his weight
- A horse who needs consistency and routine
- A tall horse that can’t be easily mounted from the ground (tall horses also make saddling up and loading packs more difficult)
- A thin-skinned, warmblooded horse that needs protection from the weather
There are probably more considerations when it comes to choosing a good horse, but those are the basics. It’s also worth noting that some horses do better travelling with an equine companion.
My French draft horses, Taliesin and Oisín are pretty good travel horses. They’re both relaxed and sensible in traffic; nothing really scares them; they live out all year round without rugs or shoes; they’re very strong and hardy; they’ll eat anything; and they don’t need much to get fat, which - although difficult to manage under sedentary circumstances - makes them ideal for travelling. Of the two, Taliesin travels well alone, while Oisín needs another horse for company or else he becomes very anxious and stressed. I also have a Welsh Cob cross who’s quite highly-strung and skittish. His quirks make him less than ideal for travelling, but he’s got a heart of gold and stamina that would put an endurance horse to shame. I rode him 1,000 miles around Ireland in 2018 and he did a fantastic job, even if his irrational fear of people and drain covers kept me permanently on my toes. On that journey we picked up a tiny little one-eyed hinny near Limerick, but he’s another story altogether.
What are your plans for the immediate future?
In October 2019, my partner, Vlad, and I sold everything we owned, loaded our little team of equines and our wolfdog into a lorry and drove from Britain down to Portugal for the winter. Our plan was to ride from Portugal to Vlad’s homeland, Romania, in March 2020. The journey would have been about 3,000 miles and taken us eight months to complete. Unfortunately on the day we were due to leave, Spain went into lockdown and closed its borders with Portugal so we were unable to set off. By the time lockdown restrictions were lifted, it was already too hot and dry to start our journey across Europe so we’re going to try again in March 2021.
A journey you dream of making...
I have a very long list of journeys I’d like to make, but some of the bigger ones are to:
- ride up through Scandinavia and experience the midnight sun
- travel around the Balkans
- ride across Russia and Siberia
- ride the PCT in the States
- ride across Mongolia (although everyone seems to want to do that
- ride around New Zealand
The list goes on. I think it’s probably easier to ask me where I don’t want to ride!
To conclude, is there a piece of advice you wish you'd been given before starting travelling?
I did so much research before ever starting out that I don’t think there was anything I wish I’d known. All that was missing was hands-on experience. You can read as much as you like and talk to any number of experienced people, but nothing will ever fully prepare you for the reality of the journey and some lessons need to be learned the hard way.
For anyone looking for information on horseback travel The Long Riders’ Guild is a brilliant resource. Along with their website, they’ve published several really useful books on horseback travel that are well worth a read.
You can also visit her Facebook page.