Pack horses and basket hitches: a how to

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I was warned before we set off that the majority of long distance journeys by horse fail due to problems with the pack horse. Certainly it’s true that this is an aspect of horsemanship that is rarely explored and mastered, at least in the UK, and I found  relatively little information about it readily accessible. So here is a brief explainer for anyone who might be interested.

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Thru-riding the Colorado Trail: Preparation and kit

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Our journey along the Colorado required a lot of preparation, not least in ensuring we had all the kit we needed to travel through the backcountry safely. I’ve ridden since I was a little girl, and spent all my weekends competing as a teenager. But travelling long distance, and using packhorses, was a whole new arena for me and required a lot of advance study.

An Australian friend of mine, Tim Cope – who rode 6000 miles across the Eurasian steppes for his bestselling book On The Trail of Genghis Khan – was kind enough to spend a few days with me, running through the equipment and knots he found necessary during his three years on the road. He also introduced me to some of his friends in the area – the Baird family, of Bogong Horseback Adventures, and the mountain man and stunt rider Ken Connley – who taught me to tie box- and diamond hitches for the pack saddle.

CuChullaine O’Reilly of the Long Riders’ Guild and Megan Lewis, who recently completed a round-the-world ride, were also extremely helpful, answering questions by email and over the phone.

Getting the right kit together was important: weight was a huge consideration. Over such rugged terrain it was important to keep as much weight off the horses’ backs as possible –  and carrying ‘dead weight’ in the form of bags/boxes is much more difficult to manage compared to the ‘live weight’ of humans, which will balance itself (and can easily jump off in a crisis!).

After the fold, find a full kit list of what we packed – plus a few notes about what worked and what we had trouble with. Price too was a big factor – I made a lot of judgement calls about what was safe to scrimp on, and what would be worth investing in.

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Horseback along the Colorado Trail

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This summer, my partner Richard and I spent six weeks riding 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains along the Colorado Trail.

It’s a fabulous route through a very dramatic backcountry landscape, taking in eight mountain ranges, four designated ‘wilderness’ areas, and gaining (and losing) around 89,354 feet over its length.

Our journey was an amazing adventure – a wild, lifechanging summer in the forest, during which we crossed mountain passes and high mesas, camped in wildflower meadows and bathed in freshwater lakes – and we had a lot of interest from other horsey people that we met along the way. For those interested in organising a similar expedition, I’ll post to this site in the coming days some information about how we planned it, the equipment we used and a few lessons about ultra-long-distance riding that we learnt the hard way.

We travelled unsupported, with three amazing quarter horses I hired from an enormous equestrian venture called Sombrero Ranches. To do so was remarkably simple – I just had to arrange to visit their ranch near Boulder, CO, a few days in advance to pick them out, and to find suitable road transport for them to the trailhead near Littleton, south Denver. After that, we were on our own – carrying all necessary equipment with us in our saddlebags and on the pack horse.

The horses – two paint geldings and an Appaloosa mare – came branded with ID numbers, but with no names, so our first challenge was to select them some suitable ‘trail names’: after some back-and-forth we settled on Pepper (for the little salt-and-pepper Appaloosa), Pinto and Numero (for the two paints). They made a beautiful little herd, and did us proud, taking the most hairy situations in their stride.

As they were unknown quantities at the start, we decided to travel at a fairly leisurely pace until we got acquainted with each other (and our new equipment). Potentially – if one was using one’s own (fit, trail-savvy) horses, and had road support supplying equipment and feed – the distance might be achieved in as little as 4 weeks, but for us the journey is far more important than the destination.

Before departure we made an interactive map of the full route, from Denver to Durango (near the border with New Mexico), on CalTopo, which can be viewed here. A flat image of a map created by the amazing Colorado Trail Foundation can be found after the fold. Continue reading

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Society of Authors and PPA Scotland

diyncegwsaajvkkI’ve had a couple of pieces of lovely news recently.

In late September, I returned from a long trip to the US, during which I rode 500 miles through the Rocky Mountains along the Colorado Trail . I’ll post about this at length (including details of kit and route) when I have a moment. But one happy surprise was a letter on the doormat telling me that I’d been given the John Heygate Award for travel writing from the Society of Authors. A real confidence boost. I’d recommend any published authors to a) join the society, which is effectively a union for authors, and provides lots of support and advice when required, and b) enter the awards they administrate, of which there are several.

I have also recently heard that I have been shortlisted for feature writer of the year for the second year running by PPA Scotland. Winners are announced at the prize ceremony on 23 November – I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but either way it’s a pleasure just to be in the running.

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The abstract beauty of maths

I was delighted to contribute an essay to the New Humanist, which discusses the concept of ‘abstract beauty’ and the way mathematicians can perceive certain formulae to be aesthetically pleasing. I’m not a mathematician myself, so I was delighted to see it praised by the University of Oxford’s maths department on Twitter.

“Euler’s identity, for example—e + 1 = 0, an equation that combines five of the most important numbers in mathematics—is often cited, both by individual academics and in wider polls, as the most beautiful equation of all time. Stanford mathematician Keith Devlin, for example, has likened it to “a Shakespearean sonnet that captures the very essence of love, or a painting that brings out the beauty of the human form that is far more than just skin deep.”

There’s a technical barrier to appreciating the beauty of maths, that does not exist to the same extent in art, or music. “I doubt you can appreciate it the way mathematicians do,” Ian Stewart, professor of mathematics at Warwick University, told me. “But by reading the right books and articles, a layperson might get a sense of what’s involved. It’s a bit like reading poetry in a language you don’t speak: someone has to translate it for you.”

Full text is not yet online—and the New Humanist is still on newsstands for another few weeks. But I’ll post the full article online after that.

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Across Scotland on horseback

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My friend Iona Scobie, who runs East Rhidorroch Estate near Ullapool, rides her four Highland ponies cross-country twice a year, east coast to west coast and vice versa, between their summer and winter grazing. It’s a journey of about 70 miles, and usually takes around three days—via road, forestry track, sheep path and peat bog, roughly in that order.

This year, me and my partner Rich joined her for the journey, riding three horses and having the fourth—a youngster called Boo—follow on behind. We slept in a hayloft and an abandoned cottage, and stopped off at the Glenbeg bothy too on the very, very wet last day on the hill.

Usually we’d keep at least one of the horses contained, but on the last night, we let them loose on the hill to let them relax and crossed our fingers they’d stick close by. Luckily they did. Or, not lucky exactly: after several days on the move together, the horses come to perceive our group as their ‘herd’ and like to stay in eyeshot of all its members.

I’ll write about the trip in more depth for the next issue of EQY, but in the meantime, here’s a brief postcard from the peatbogs written for the Guardian’s Country Diary section. Full text after the fold.  Continue reading

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Third issue of Equestrian Year out now

The third issue of Equestrian Year (EQy) is out now. Horses have always been a passion of mine, so I love contributing to this annual glossy magazine—through which I have met many of my sporting heroes (such as Ian Stark and Zara Philips).

This issue I spoke to two rising stars in the showjumping and eventing worlds: Douglas Duffin and Wills Oakden, both of whom recently made their debuts on the national squads at the very highest levels.

I also interviewed Jo Barry: one of Britain’s best dressage riders who, in 2014, suffered a life-changing brain injury in a freak accident while schooling a trusted veteran horse at home. Having seriously damaged the pons (the nerve-dense junction box between brain and spine), she had to learn to walk, talk and ride again—but through an incredible work ethic and the support from family, friends and sponsors has returned to the very top of her game. I was very moved by her remarkable story and strength of character.

The magazine is still out on newstands, but I’ll post the full text of my features online in a few months.

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Finding beauty in post-industrial landscapes

I was pleased to contribute to issue five of Avaunt magazine, an award-winning journal which is “dedicated to documenting and celebrating human endeavour, from the wildest, highest, deepest, coldest and hottest corners of the Earth and beyond.” It runs excellent new writing on adventure, science, technology, style and culture.

I visited the Slate Islands, off the coast of Argyll, for an essay on the surprising beauty that can be found in man-made, post-industrial, landscapes. It has been beautifully illustrated by images of the Isle of Easdale by Jon Tonks.

Anywhere would be pretty in summer, maybe: when brambles and rioting wildflowers – harebells, montbretia, thrift, golden rods, spotted orchids – are there to soften the edges. In January, when I return, the look is more austere. Easdale is stripped right back to its bone structure: hollow-cheeked, quarries sunk into its skull like eye-sockets, staring… All around come great chutes of broken slate – the spoiled by-products of the quarrying, undersized or tinged with impurities. Their edges bristle, like iron filings teased with a magnet. But here and there, order rises amid the chaos: tightly stacked embankments and walls form safe passages; drystone dykes outline monotone blocks of vegetation (the rust of thick-packed reeds, the sickly green of winter grass, the brown and tattered heather) in bold, abstract patterns.

Even now, in its off-season, this is a remarkable place. But how is one to explain its appeal? From where arises the strange beauty of the desolation and the ruin? To admire an attractive landscape is usually to marvel at its innocence, its untouched nature, whereas here, the hand of man is omnipresent. Easdale is a terraformed island cast aside.

I find parallels in the work of Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, famous for his beautiful, abstract images of open-cut mines, motorway intersections and nickel tailings, or land artists like Robert Smithson, who was pre-occupied with collapsed mines, abandoned buildings and a more generalised sense of disintegration.

Standing here in the brutalist sculpture of Easdale and surrounds, I can’t help recalling the words of the critic Barbara Reise, who dryly commented upon viewing Smithson’s show in 1969 that his works were “consistently less interesting than rock quarries themselves.” For if the work of Smithson, Richard Long and others can be seen as meditations upon man’s relationship to land, then aren’t post-industrial landscapes like Easdale and the remnants of the lost Eilean nam Beitheach the ultimate objets trouvé?

The magazine is biannual, so I’ll post the full text online come autumn when it’s off newstands. Until then, the latest issue is available here.

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Book interviews and country diary

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I’ve still got my head down working on a longer term project, but in the mean time I continue to conduct interviews and edit for the literary site Five Books, which you should visit and follow if, like me, you like to keep a to-be-read pile larger than your bedside table or to hear authors/academics/public figures talking about their areas of expertise in depth. Recently I’ve spoken to author Matthew Green about post-traumatic stress, journalist and memoirist Bryony Gordon about depression, and academic Philippa Levine about eugenics.

I also contributed another short entry to the Guardian’s Country Diary, this time about horse-riding in the Black Isle during pheasant shooting season. Text at the Guardian website here, or after the fold.  Continue reading

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Paperback edition of Thicker Than Water

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I love the new paperback covers. Available from 23 February, 2017.

I’ll also be appearing alongside the historian Jim Hunter at the Aye Write! book festival in Glasgow, at the Mitchell Library on Wednesday 15th March at 6.30pm. We’ll be discussing the impact of the Highland Clearances – in Scotland and beyond. Hope to see you there. Tickets.

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