Everyone has their own way of doing things, there's no right or wrong, but we have our own ground rules.
- Our ponies' welfare comes before anything else.
- It's not about how far or fast you ride, or how much money you raise, but what happens, who you meet and what you learn along the way.
- We ride, or walk with our ponies every inch of the way - so if we say we've travelled 1,000 miles, you can be sure we have.
- We take the good with the bad. We're not into pick and mix, but enjoying the challenge of a continuous long distance ride. No trailers, no boxing the bits we don't like, to avoid towns, cities, railway crossings or whatever. No being transported off by a horsebox to plush accommodation and returned to where we left off at the end of the day. Which isn't to say there's anything wrong with anyone else who opts to travel that way, but it's not the way we do things.
- We like our freedom and a bit of an adventure, so we don't have a support team or vehicle driving in front or following behind.
- We carry what we need with us in our saddlebags, which includes sleeping bags and the bare essentials. Which means we have a basic change of clothing but no party frocks for those special fundraising nights along the way.
Surfers spend their lives looking for the perfect wave, I spend mine looking for the perfect saddle. In the end what matters most is comfort for the horse and, to a lesser extent, the rider. Riding long distances over tough terrain day in, day out for weeks on end is enough to test any tack to the limit.
Which is why, after all our deliberations, and the temptation to try and get new saddles specially made for the job, we rode from John O'Groats to Lands End in our tried and tested faithfuls – Elsa in the leather GP saddle bought second hand years ago because it was too wide for any other pony, me in my synthetic Thorogood endurance saddle which isn't half as comfy as my quilted secondhand Pathfinder but about a quarter of the weight. Over the years, and thousands of miles I've travelled in it, this relatively cheap saddle has proved itself time and again, and thankfully Micky and Lancer were at the time of our ride to Lands End, interchangeable.
Since then Micky has changed in shape (sadly both he and I have become wider with age) and Magic, the widest pony I've ever sat on, even at her slimmest and trimmest, isn't comfortable in my old saddle. So for my ride to Smithfield in 2010, after trying and testing dozens, and I mean dozens, or different saddles, I've had a new Ideal Highland and Cob English saddle specifically made to fit Micky and Magic. It's as comfy for me as it is for them, and surprisingly secure, without having a high cantle which hurts my hips when I mount.
Serious riders would not be seen dead with them, but as soon as Elsa set eyes on a set of pink saddlebags, no matter how impractical, inadequate or flimsy, there was no question as to what she would carry her gear in! Time ran out before I'd perfected the home-made version converted from a pair or 10 litre rucksacks, so riding to Lands End I had a very cheap but functional set of black saddlebags which struggled to contain even the bare essentials but at least the size limits the weight on the pony's back.
In front of our saddles we have tailor made endurance front bags to carry our lunch, map, cameras and swig bottles. Elsa’s also have to accommodate a book or two. The top bag intended for a coat is ideal to hook your reins over when you fancy a bit of auto-pilot.
We have been so impressed by our front bags, which are as good now as they were when I bought them 10 years ago, that after trying and testing every different make and design of saddlebag you can buy in the UK, and failingto find exactly what I wanted, in 2009 I asked Lynn Gregory (maker of the front bags) to make me a set of bespoke rear saddle bags to my design. They have already proved their worth on trips around the Cairngorms last autumn and the Angus Glens this spring., and despite being dragged (on ponies' backs) through trees, brushing past wire and squashed through gates, they remain unmarked, and I cannot recommend them highly enough.
In a bid to save money, I tried all sorts of codged together panniers for my pack saddle, including ex-army motorcycle panniers, adapted cycle panniers and anything else I could think of, none of which really did the job, and sent me back to the drawing board - literally. Working from my basic drawings, improved further by her own bright ideas, Lynn has now made me a set of panniers and a fantastic top-bag for my pack saddle. They're more robust, functional and easy to use than anything you can buy off the peg in the USA, and a fraction of the price.
No I'm not on commission, and no my saddle bags weren't sponsored, but I cannot recommend Lynn and her Equilinn Saddle System highly enough. She makes to order, including new jazzy colours. Tel. 015394 45201, or write to Lynn Gregory, 6 Orres Drive, Windermere, Cumbria.
Having worked all over Britain in the past, I have a fairly comprehensive library of Ordnance Survey maps, which we have spent many a happy winter’s evening spreading over the kitchen table to fantasise about our route. Our maps take up more pannier space than any other item of our gear, and if we’d donated to charity what we’ve spent on maps we might have raised more than we can through our ride. But – call us old fashioned if you must – armed with our trusty highlighter pens and maps, there’s no question of the batteries failing or finding we’re out of SatNav range. I had hoped that by the time we hit the trail Elsa would have overcome her numerical dyslexia and could tell the difference between map number 25 and 52 which has all helped add to the challenge of route planning! Sadly there was no way of knowing as her nose was always too stuck into a book to look at a map.
All of the maps for my ride to Smithfield have come from Above and Beyond (www.aboveandbeyond.co.uk) who are the most reliable and competitively priced supplier of OS maps I have found, and again come highly recommended.