May 202016
view from the saddle
unloading harry

Unloading Harry at first campsite, East Prawle, Devon.

Harry had only been backed the previous year, so was not an experienced horse. But he had proved to be reliable, calm and co-operative, and quite good in traffic. Since I would be camping with Harry, perhaps in the open, I accustomed him to being tied up for grazing, and line tied as well. The line tie is a 20 metre long rope, fixed between trees about 10 feet high. From this, a long lead rope drops down, via a swivel clip to Harry’s head collar. This allows Harry to graze the full length of the 20 metres during the night. I also used a pair of hoof boots (Renegades) for his front feet, and he took easily to these.
I planned the ride along bridleways and minor roads wherever possible. I was to start at Devon’s most southerly point, East Prawle, near Salcombe, going due north over Dartmoor and Exmoor to Porlock, then east to finish on the Quantock Hills in Somerset; a journey of about 160 miles. Since Harry would have to carry both me and all my camping gear, I estimated this would take about 2 weeks, doing 12 to 20 miles a day. Harry’s luggage load would weigh about 25 pounds.

I had no crew with me, being on my own for most of the trip, but checked the route beforehand with my partner, Rachel. To reduce Harry’s load I arranged some food dumps (for him and myself) at pubs and campsites on route. I also planned to have long midday stops at sites suitable for Harry to graze for an hour or two each day.

harry inspecting tent

Harry inspecting the tent at East Prawle.

In mid July with Harry loaded in a box, we drove to East Prawle. The following day, with good sunny weather, took me via quiet lanes and bridleways to a friend’s house, about 16 miles north. On the second day, I got to the southern edge of Dartmoor, east of Ivybridge and was offered a Gypsy caravan to sleep in for that night. I tied Harry to the shafts while I unloaded him, then used a nearby paddock for his grazing overnight.

harry with gypsy caravan

Harry at the static Gypsy caravan; my first night on Dartmoor.

The National Park Authority have a policy of not signing rights of way on the Moor itself, so the following day tested my map-reading and compass skills. I was heading for Princetown, about 14 miles away, where I’d arranged for Harry to have a field at Tor Royal Stables. I was also going to meet Rachel and some friends there. Harry was still not confident when crossing streams and had to ‘learn on the job’. Since he was slow to cross the first few streams, I went ahead of him, holding the 10ft lead rope, asking him to ‘walk on’; eventually, he would follow. By the end of the first full day on Dartmoor, he was much better at crossing water.
The ride from Princetown to East Okement Farm, near Okehampton two days later was the longest and most tricky part of the trek. Much of this ride was over featureless moorland so I had to rely on the compass (and good weather) to get me there.

lunchbreak at firing range

Harry tied to Army firing range marker post, during a lunch break.

This section crosses the Army’s firing ranges, so we checked the day before and were told there would be no firing during my ride. How wrong can one be! Thirteen miles into the day and I saw the red warning flags raised on the ranges: I was trapped! I couldn’t go back, and a detour would take me another 20 miles, by which time it would be dark. I tied Harry to the first flagpole and contemplated having to camp there the night. Fortunately I soon saw another rider coming towards me across the moor on a trusty cob. He proved to be employed by the Army, raising and lowering the flags as needed, on firing days. He said the firing had just finished, lowered flag to which I’d tied Harry up to, and wished me well on my way. More bleak moorland, some steep climbs and decents and about 7 miles later, I got to East Okement, with an hour of daylight to spare as well! I was exhausted and hungry but slept well that night in my ‘micro tent’. After a rest day I set off in hot weather, north-east towards Crediton where I had a food dump in a field next to the golf course. Harry had a field of lush grass to himself but came under attack from a large parasitic fly for a while.
During my route planning earlier in the year, I’d not been able to find anywhere to stay for the next night, near the village of Rackenford, so intended to use some common land there and line-tie Harry. Fortunately, following enquiries at the local shop, I was kindly offered the use of a sheep field for the night near the village. While I pitched the tent, Harry trotted around the edge of the field, then returned to graze alongside the tent. That night, I forsook the camping stove and had a meal in the village pub. It thundered with distant lightning that night, but never rained. I awoke to a heavy dew and the rhythmic sound of Harry munching grass close to the tent. On leaving Rackenford I met a rider on a palomino and joined her for a few miles, on my way to Exmoor and Tarr Steps. She showed me where best to cross the busy A 361, and soon I was on the southern edge of Exmoor.

view from the saddle

The best view of the countryside; from the saddle!

The rest of the trek was much easier. Exmoor’s bridleways are generally well way-marked. Over the following days I went due north, crossing the River Barle at Tarr Steps, then a long climb up to Dunkery Beacon, dropping down to the coast near Porlock. That night I stayed at the Owl and Hawk Centre, in nearby Allerford. From here, for the last three days, my route took me east over the Brendon Hills to the Quantock Hills. Much of this section runs along the Coleridge Way which connects Exmoor with the Quantock Hills. Though some parts are footpaths only, it is well marked with long sections of bridleways, quiet lanes, shady tracks and woodland. I finished at Broomfield on the Quantocks. From here Harry was taken home in a trailer; a short trip to Axbridge.

Crossing River Barle

Crossing the River Barle, Tarr Steps, Exmoor.

Dunkerry Beacon

At Dunkery Beacon, Exmoor.

Camping with your horse for two weeks means you certainly get to know him. I don’t have an exercise yard for Harry, so much of his schooling has been taught out hacking. By minimising aversive methods during training, Harry’s progress has been very good and his behaviours fairly predictable. I was fortunate in having good weather for most of the ride. Indeed it was very hot and the main issue was clouds of horse flies, particularly on Dartmoor. The people I met along the way, whether horsey types or not were very helpful and this has encouraged me to plan more trips like this. I think there is a real advantage in going barefoot and I feel shoeing could cause more trouble than it is ever worth; a horse is more ‘self-reliant’ when barefoot and farriers are irrelevant. The Renegade hoof boots worked well and I would recommend them to anyone. Using a bitless bridle leaves Harry’s mouth unencumbered and easier for him to feed on route. I trained him to put his head down on cue, and let him graze as the opportunities arise.
I hate mobile phones. The whole point for me, of being out and about is that you are removed from contact for a while. But I took one with me, keeping it in my pocket, not on the horse! The phone was kept switched off. I would only have used it to call for help if I or Harry were really stuck. However, there was no signal for much of the ride particularly on Dartmoor. Harry also wore bright red metal dog-tag labels on his head collar and saddle with my contact details, in case we got separated. Doing a ride on your own, means you need to be prepared for everything. I took both a folding pruning saw and a small hacksaw, in case of any blocked gates/fences on route. Fortunately, I only needed the pruning saw on two occasions to clear some fallen branches; but if gates had been locked on any public right of way, I would have sawn the locks off. I took first aid stuff for both myself and Harry, so I could dress and sterilise minor wounds if needed.
While Harry is very aware of everything going on around him, he is not a nervous or flighty horse. Many horses react nervously to ‘new’ objects which appear in a familiar environment, they do not seem to do the same where the whole environment (the route being travelled) is new. So, when travelling along unfamiliar routes as we were every day, Harry accepted whatever he saw, such as road works, traffic lights, safety barriers etc. without a problem. Sadly, we met very few other riders during my trek, and no one else camping with their horse. The Dartmoor national park’s policy of not waymarking across the moor must put many people (not just horse riders) off. This seems wrong, since they should be encouraging such use of the countryside.
I weigh about 10st 4lb, but wanted to keep the weight down for Harry’s load, so weight was the critical issue with all the camping gear. To help Harry, I got off for at least 10 minutes each hour and walked him in-hand. I also dismounted when going up and down very steep hills, and where other ground conditions might be tricky for him. The tent is little more than a bivvy bag. It’s just about big enough for one person and little else. I stored my tack and food etc. overnights in a plastic storm shelter. I had some of my main meals in pubs along the way, and this meant less food had to be carried each day, plus I had some good beer! I kept a daily diary of my progress, as memory is not always reliable. I have another interest in bird watching, and riding often allows a close approach to wildlife. The ride started with very rare Cirl Buntings in south Devon, plus lots of Buzzards, Ravens, Yellowhammers and Stock Doves and the occasional Peregrine Falcon. Travelling at a few miles an hour from the back of horse is the perfect way to appreciate our countryside. I also felt a bit more in tune with how people would have travelled 100 years ago before cars tore the countryside apart with strips of tarmac everywhere. I wish more riders would try something like this. I’m planning another trip for this year…

Greg Glendell, Somerset.

Photos by Rachel Lewis and Greg Glendell


This and the previous article (Returning to Riding – part 1. Training Harry ) were originally published in 2015 in the Equine Behaviour Forum printed journal; the EBF is a member-0nly organisation. Greg Glendell is planning another trip with Harry at the end of May 2016.


May 132016
Greg with Harry
Greg with Harry

Greg with Harry

I had not ridden regularly for many years, but took up riding again recently.  In early 2013 I bought Harry; an un-backed 15 hh chestnut Crabbett Arab gelding.  Harry’s registered name is Magic Magnet, by Ibn Silver out of Bint Magnetta; born 1st June 2009.  He lives out with a rescue pony, Dobbin; neither is stabled but both have access to a barn.

As a companion parrot behaviourist, I’m familiar with learning theory and a scientific approach to behavioural work, but most of this has been done with birds not horses.  I have never had any formal training in riding, but learnt informally many years ago on my friends’ horses.  I am still not familiar with the language commonly used by many horsey folks and find terms such as ‘being firm’ and ‘discipline’ etc. both vague and anthropomorphic.  Like most, if not all animals, horses seem incapable of making intentional or malicious errors, so notions of ‘discipline’ seem irrelevant.

Harry is very inquisitive.  While I was still working on finishing various jobs in his barn, he would frequently come to see what I was up to, inspecting the tools I was using.  I generally encouraged these investigations and would show him new things as I worked near him.  Before starting any formal training sessions, I asked Harry to come when I called his name. This seemed preferable than having to ‘catch him up’ from the field.  Within 3 days, using food rewards, Harry’s recall was quite reliable.  He would also come without seeing me, so long as I used the same cue, a whistling call and saying ‘Harry, come here!’  After some routine vet’s checks and settling in for a few months, Harry proved to be sound and ready to be backed.

Training ride

Greg and Harry; training ride for camping trip.

Training problems

Harry had never seen road traffic, or been ridden, or saddled, though he had worn an in-hand bridle with a nylon bit.  So, I was in at the deep end, and needed help to start training him.  I went to various horse events and spoke with other horse riding friends about training methods.  I booked a trainer who used conventional methods which relied on negative reinforcement, even during basic groundwork.  After a few minutes of this I could see Harry was not happy, so I ended the session.  I had to check myself and what I was doing.  When working with any animal, the first thing to ask ourselves, is not ‘Will this work?’ but ‘Is this right; is it humane?’  These conventional methods were failing this test.  I felt I had let Harry down, but how does one apologise to a horse!

I sought help from several equestrian societies here in the UK.  But none seemed to either accept or understand learning theory.  Instead, they relied on traditional aversive methods for most training.  Sadly, this also seemed to be the case with many horse welfare groups.  Indeed, watching other trainers at work, it seemed horses were being trained while in their barely-controlled flight response.  This seemed an eminently dangerous practice with such large powerful animals.

Eventually I made contact with a few equestrians who were clearly familiar with more humane training methods, and took up their suggestions.  McGreevy and MacLean’s book, Equitation Science seemed very good, but still too reliant on aversive stimuli.  Emma Lethbridge’s Knowing Your Horse was very good, as was Mark Hanson’s Your Hidden Horse.  So at least I knew there were horse-friendly methods used by some equestrians.  These training problems prompted me to look into other aspects of traditional horse care as well.  I could not find a scientific case for shoeing, (but plenty against!) nor having to use a bit.  So I thought it best for Harry to be ridden barefoot, bitless and with minimal contact.  Harry’s training was to be based on positive reinforcement wherever possible.  Negative reinforcement would be as mild and brief as possible.  Positive punishment was to be avoided.  I also wanted to avoid Harry getting too excited or fearful while being asked to learn new things, as I felt a calm approach would make things much safer, particularly when I would eventually be riding in traffic.  To teach walk, trot, stop, go back etc, I used mild negative reinforcement via the lead rope on his head collar, paired with a verbal cue, for the action asked for.  Within a few weeks he learnt to accept verbal cues only on most occasions.  Unlike my work with birds, horses seem to be very poor at generalising from novel experiences.  I could get Harry used to novel objects in the yard, like traffic cones and moving wheelbarrows etc., but these same objects 100 yards down the road would be treated with suspicion.  Only repeated exposure in different locations seemed to work.

First outings.

Next, Harry was introduced, in-hand, to local quiet lanes and traffic, while led in his head collar.  Walks were up to 12 miles long, 3 to 5 days a week.  He was walked along routes I would eventually be riding him, accompanied by my partner and the ‘experienced’ Dobbin, also on a lead rope.  This process took nearly two months before he would consistently and calmly accept most vehicles.  Later, still in hand, he was introduced to larger, faster traffic a few miles away.  This was carried out by gradual exposure to large vehicles in a 30mph zone along a stretch of the A38.  Initially he was asked to stand and view these from a distance he found comfortable.  If he remained reasonably calm (head not raised) he was rewarded using food and praise.  His distance to heavy traffic was slowly reduced over a few weeks, at a pace determined by his level of acceptance.  Following this he was walked along this road, in-hand, first with Dobbin, then alone.  Occasionally we had a few scary moments.  While Harry is not perfect in heavy traffic, he is pretty good.  This desensitisation to heavy traffic, prior to riding has been extremely valuable.

Introduction to tack.

Using food rewards Harry was asked to accept wearing his tack.  Training sessions were short, usually about 5 minutes, but sometimes several times a day.  This process took about a week.  The bridle used was a Dr Cook’s cross-under bitless.  The saddle was shown to Harry, so he could smell it and explore it with his muzzle to get used to it.  Then it was placed on his back, without the girth and he was asked to stand still for a few seconds, after which he was rewarded with a carrot and verbal praise and the saddle removed.  Later these periods were extended, and the girth fastened loosely, later still the girth was tightened, and stirrups were introduced.  Unwanted behaviours were rare.  But on two occasions Harry showed some inclination to mugging.  Here, I walked out of his sight so he could not earn any rewards for a short time (negative punishment).

Grazing break

Harry takes a grazing break during a day’s ride


This seemed like a major challenge (for me!) since I had never backed a horse before.  But Harry’s progress had so far been rapid, and he remained calm in training sessions.  I had a friend help me who held his reins while he was placed next to a mounting block.  I then asked Harry to ‘Stand’ (remain motionless for a few seconds), while I put some pressure from one foot in a stirrup, or leant on him, belly flop style, over the saddle.  I did this from both his nearside and offside.  In later sessions, I got astride him and remained in the saddle for a few seconds only; dismounted and rewarded him with food and verbal praise.  Later still I rewarded him while mounted.  My helper then led him around the yard, while I was on board.  Sometimes he would fidget prior to me getting on him.  In this case, I walked away and left him tied up alone, returning to try again a few minutes later.  I refused to get on board, or give rewards if he moved.   Now, when asked to ‘Stand’ he stands like a rock to be mounted from either side, wherever we are.

I wanted to be able to ride him in walk and trot, before riding him along the same quiet lanes he’d already been used to while in hand.  So the following steps were done in the yard and his field.  Since he was used to responding to verbal requests when in hand, he still accepted these when ridden.  So I combined gentle pressure via legs and/or reins, as needed with the requests to ‘stand’ ‘walk’, ‘trot’ ‘go back’ etc.  He was slow to trot on request and his first attempts at this with me onboard felt very wobbly.  But within a few weeks, we both accomplished a reasonable posting trot.  The bitless bridle has been a boon.  I feel much safer without having anything in Harry’s mouth.  Verbal cues are used first for changes in gait and direction.  Only if these cues are not accepted do I use my legs and reins as needed.  Even then the pressure is mild and with Harry’s quick reactions the pressure is also brief.  So we were now ready to go out for his first ride.

First hacking sessions.

Clad in hi-viz vests, we took Dobbin with us on a lead rein.  The first few rides were short, again along familiar lanes.  Harry did not mind most traffic, as he’d got used to this during many earlier walks in-hand.  But cyclists induced a threat response, with his ears held back tightly if they came too close.  I ignored this, just asking him to ‘walk on’.  Some noisy motorbikes and large vans which came too close or approached too quickly caused a fear response and Harry would start to shy away from them; so with a raised hand I asked these drivers to stop for me.  Harry was asked to walk past them in his own time.  I have also had do this with police cars and ambulances with sirens blaring while ‘blue-lighting’ past me.  Where Harry felt unable to pass a vehicle while staying reasonably calm, I dismounted and lead him past.  Gradually he learnt to accept these vehicles, though he is still not confident with large loud tractors and it is difficult to get regular, predictable exposure to these which would help with his training.

Dr Cook Bitless Bridle

Harry wearing Dr Cook’s cross-under bitless bridle (noseband has been padded) and Biothane headcollar. Dunkery Beacon, Exmoor, Somerset.

Harry remains barefoot, bitless and is not subjected to reprimands or positive punishment.  I feel much safer without him wearing a bit and I ride with little or no contact, giving verbal cues before resorting to physical aids.  After backing and basic schooling, Harry was ridden 12 to 20 miles a day, several times a week, as part of his training for a forthcoming camping trip.  On long rides I dismount every hour for about 10 minutes and walk with him.  This gives him a rest from carrying me and helps me keep fit as well!  I also dismount on ground that might be too difficult for him, where he might lose his footing.  Harry took some time to get used to crossing water and squeezing through narrow places on some of our more tricky bridleways.  But he remains calm, he makes a point of coming to see me when I go to his field, and he seems to really enjoy being groomed.  He stands still as his tack is put on him and when being mounted.  When out riding, he’ll go almost anywhere I point him, without making a drama out of things we encounter on our rides.  He is happy to be tied up for an hour at lunch-time to graze, or for a while at a pub or café while I get my own food.  He has turned out to be very co-operative and calm, and I feel this is the best insurance for both my safety and his welfare.  I am convinced that more horses and riders would benefit greatly by using gentle training methods based on learning theory.

Copyright:  Greg Glendell 2014

 In part two, Greg describes his camping trip with Harry over Dartmoor and Exmoor.