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The Road Less Travelled: Discovering Britain and Ireland on Horseback

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By Cathleen Leonard

Ever since I first sat on a horse, I dreamt that one day that was how I would travel the world. I was eight years old, and for my birthday my godmother took me riding on her Welsh Cob, Flurry.

From that moment on, my daydreams were filled with epic adventures, traveling over mountains, through forests, and exploring the vast horizons—always framed between the ears of a horse.

I’d sit looking at maps of the world for hours on end, planning routes across the globe. Linking up huge mountain ranges and rural, uninhabited places, looking for ways around big cities and built-up areas. And dreaming of freedom, trying to imagine what it would be like to travel those places on horseback. People said I was a fantasist, a daydreamer, and that horseback travel was a thing of the past. They said it was no longer possible or practical in our fast-paced modern world. But somehow I could never bring myself to let go of those dreams.

ffCathleen and Taliesin

When I was fourteen, I stumbled across the Long Riders’ Guild, a group of seriously determined equestrians who had travelled thousands of miles on horseback all over the world.

It was like a door opening. Here were the people who were living my dreams! I spent hours reading books about their adventures, watching documentaries, and trawling through blog posts on the Guild’s website, avidly soaking up the stories of these people who had quickly become my heroes.

After several failed attempts and some disheartening setbacks, I finally realised my dream in 2017—when I embarked on a Long Ride of my own.

Taking my rescued French draught horse, Taliesin, and my wolfdog, Spirit, to Durness in northwest Scotland, we travelled 1,000 miles back home to Cornwall. The journey through some of Britain’s most stunning landscapes took us nine weeks to complete. We travelled alone, without back-up or a support crew, camping and relying on the kindness and hospitality of strangers along the way. My first book, Before Winter Comes, is an account of that journey and can be found on Amazon here

Camping_Scotland Taliesin_Mudale_Scotland Devon

Horseback travel is addictive, at least I found it to be.

On the road, life was stripped back to the basics and the bare necessities. All the worries of the modern world rarely crept in to break the long hours of pensive silence as we moved quietly through the shifting landscapes. Just me and my beloved horse, with my faithful wolfdog at my side. Gone were the worries about work, finances, and the mundane experiences of traffic jams or a trip to the supermarket. Instead, our only concern was to find food, water, and shelter at the end of the day.

I developed a whole new appreciation for the simple things in life. A shower, a hot meal, clean clothes, and the offer of a bed for the night suddenly became luxuries of the highest order. And the unprecedented kindness and hospitality of complete strangers never failed to both humble and amaze me. The experience made me feel so incredibly alive that coming back to “normality” was like life in high definition color suddenly switching to black and white. It lacked the profound sense of realism, the authenticity, and the vibrancy that I’d experienced on my journey.

Cathleen_Brechfa_Forest Black_Mountains Taliesin_and_Spirit_Scotland

Not long after my return, I met my partner, Vlad. And six months later we set off again—this time headed to Ireland.

We left home in a heatwave at the end of June, rode up through the Southwest of England and all across South Wales. There we found a horse transporter to take us on the ferry across the sea to Ireland.

Vlad had never ridden a horse before he met me and was still a novice, so he rode my other rescued French draught gelding, Oisín, who is quite calm and sensible. I rode my nervous young Welsh Cob x, Dakota, who had barely been ridden in two years and had an irrational fear of drains and people. He wasn’t my first choice for a travel horse, but Taliesin went lame two days before departure so he was my only option. If ever there was a good way to give a nervous young horse an education, a journey of 1,000 miles was it! After the first hair-raising 200 miles, he began to shape up into a really lovely little horse.

Vlad_Brechfa_Forest Cathleen_Taliesin2 Dakota

As well as being horse-mad, I’m also a fiddle player, and I love traditional Irish music, myths, legends, and folklore. Ireland is rich in all of those things.

Every hill, river, headland, bridge, or village seems to have a wealth of folktales, legends, and traditional tunes attached to it.

When we reached Ireland, we rode from the southernmost point at Mizen Head to the northernmost point at Malin Head, collecting stories and fiddle tunes from the places we rode through. Halfway across Ireland, we acquired a 10hh one-eyed mule on a whim. The idea was that he could carry some of our gear to make life easier for the horses. He had other ideas, however, and did not want to carry heavy packs. Furthermore, he strongly objected to being led from the horses—and took a dislike to Vlad. So I ended up having to walk 300 miles with him to the finish line.

The book about that journey, Fiddler on the Hoof, was released on March 13, 2020, and is available to buy on Amazon here.

Spirit Micheál Road_from_Mizen West_Cork_Equestrian

The romantic dream of riding off into sunsets is just that: a romantic dream.

The reality usually looks like wet gear, wet feet, blisters, busy roads, maniac drivers, and confronting parts of yourself you’d probably rather ignore in the long hours of silent introspection. But realising your own strength, stamina, and resilience, as well as that of your horse—coupled with the strong bonds forged with your four-legged companions over hundreds of hard miles—makes it all worth it.

My horses were all rescues—deemed too useless or too dangerous for life, but traveling with them has categorically proven otherwise. They are strong, loyal animals whose willingness to travel 1,000 miles without complaint has humbled me to the core and earned them my deepest respect. They have brought my dreams to life, and I am indebted to them for that.

Dingle_beach Micheál_First_Day Vlad_Dingle

After several thousand miles, am I still dreaming of the open road and new horizons? Always! Just with a little more realism than before.

Not long after returning from Ireland, Vlad and I started dreaming again. At the end of October 2019, we both quit our jobs, sold almost everything we owned, loaded the horses and mule into a lorry, and set off for Portugal. We spent the winter helping out on a small farm near the Spanish border, waiting for the grass and warm weather to arrive so we could set off again. This time we planned to ride 3,000 miles across nine different European countries to Vlad’s homeland, Romania.

We were all packed and ready to go, our horses fit and keen to be on the road. But on the morning we were due to set off, the news came that Spain had declared a state of alert because of the new coronavirus and restricted all but the most necessary travel. A day later, the borders closed. Unable to set off, we’re now waiting out the lockdown in Portugal and hoping this all blows over soon so we can get back on the road to live our wildest dreams.

If you want to follow our journey, then please follow us on Facebook.

Gap_of_Dunloe Taliesin_Durness Vlad_Black_Valley

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