by Linda Chamberlain
Claire Alldritt remembers the moment that a sheer drop on a Scottish mountain nearly claimed her horse.
She was alone amid some of the most inhospitable terrain in the country. It was too dangerous to ride on the narrow path and so she was leading Yogi on a long rein. Her pack horse called Swift was tied to Yogi’s saddle and the three of them were taking care. Everything was fine…until everything went wrong.
Yogi must have missed his footing.
‘One moment he was there. The next, he was gone. He had just stepped off the edge!’
What happened next is every rider’s nightmare. Claire was miles from help, her mobile had no signal. She was quite literally on her own.
‘I have no idea where my quick reactions came from but I dropped down on my heels to take the impact and waited for the lead rope to go tight,’ she said. ‘Swift’s lead rope was about to go tight too and in that split second I assumed that this would cause both of them to go over the edge.
‘Yogi is heavier than Swift and the physics weren’t in her favour. I am so lucky that both mine and Swift’s lead ropes went tight at the same time -she had enough sense to brace like I was doing and with me taking the impact on Yogi’s head and her taking it far forward on his saddle (she was tied to the pommel), it spun him round and at the same time stopped his fall. After what seemed like hours of scrambling (it wasn’t this long but boy did he have to work hard) and me hauling on his head, he made it back up to the track with nothing more than a few small scrapes and bruises. Double lucky – he was also facing the right way on the track as if both horses had ended up facing each other there would have been no way to sort that out.’
Claire, who is a paramedic with the Scottish Ambulance Service, is an intrepid traveller with her horses. She has ridden across Scotland – coast to coast. She camps overnight in the hills or stays in small bothies and bunkhouses. When Claire tells her family that she’s going for a bit of a ride, they don’t expect to see her for a few days! Most of the time she travels on her own; sometimes she is with a friend.
But that near-miss with Yogi on the mountain taught her some valuable lessons. She no longer ties her pack horse to Yogi’s saddle and she takes something a little more powerful than a mobile phone. A DeLorme inReach satellite device means she can let family know she is safe or call mountain rescue in an emergency.
‘It gives me peace of mind,’ she said.
Claire began her long-distance rides a few years ago. Yogi was reluctant to go out on his own and Swift was young and acted as companion on the lead rein. She became the pack horse and brought the tent as well as equipment to construct a temporary corral for the horses. If she is riding alone, Claire will check out her route in advance on bike or on foot. She needs to know if the terrain is too treacherous or if there are too many bogs.
‘I get very nervous setting off on my own and I am right to be as there is a lot that could go wrong. Mostly I worry about my horses rather than me. It is my choice and ambition to be out there so the responsibility for their wellbeing and safety is a heavy one. I often feel physically sick the morning I set off, but soon settle into the journey.’
Claire’s achievements are awe inspiring. Only recently she and her friend, Ellen Klaveness, won a new competition called the Golden Hoof after riding for 120 miles. They even got press coverage! What is even more amazing, though, is that this is managed in spite of a debilitating illness. Claire suffers from Lyme disease caught from a tick bite and has periods of flu-like symptoms, aching legs and memory loss. She has struggled against these symptoms for three years but was only diagnosed recently.
Most of us might stay at home but the draw of the hills is irresistible.
‘It’s a challenge,’ she explained. ‘The rhythm you find with your horses; the closeness and the communication. I am not saying they can talk like we can but they communicate all the time and travelling with them 24/7 makes you listen more. Many of my trails involve old drovers’ routes. It’s wonderful to get to remote spots and camp there to enjoy the peace and tranquility while your horses happily munch fresh mountain grass!
There is something else remarkable about this team – the horses are barefoot and bitless. It’s often remarked in conventional horsey circles that ‘barefoot is fine if you don’t want to do much with your horse’.
Not surprisingly no one has said such a thing to Claire’s face.
Both horses wear hoof boots (Renegades) on their front feet unless they are going for a more ‘normal’ ride closer to home. They are trimmed by Claire who is overseen by Nick Hill of Cloverroseequine. They live out 24/7 on a recently constructed track system made from hard core, stone, mud and poor grass and moss. A wooden stable building provides shelter but they are not shut in. There is also hay available around the clock. This set up is at Claire’s home and replaced their more conventional rented pasture last winter. It is more barefoot friendly as it increases the animals’ movement, strengthens their feet and reduces the amount of high-sugar grass in their diet which is known to cause hoof problems.
‘With my new track system I have seen so many positive changes in their feet. I hope the new environment will toughen them up enough to manage without boots for our longer journeys too. I have been recently inspired by a trip to Norway to ride with my friend, Ellen. We rode two barefoot Nordland Ponies over really rocky ground for 160 km. Their feet were absolutely amazing and guess what… they weren’t kept on grass either!’
You’ve already heard one of the low points in Claire long-distance riding but hearing her recount one of the highs makes it possible to understand her motivation.
‘One day in particular I won’t ever forget on my cross Scotland journey. I was near Lochnagar in Glen Muick near Ballater. It was a lovely sunny morning, we had had a lazy start after a hard mountain day the day before. We were all relaxed and were proceeding up a trail under the shade of the trees that lined it. Yogi was on “hands-free mode” –where I don’t need any reins and he is plodding along at a good pace all by himself just following the path. Swift was also on “hand-free mode” without a lead rope, she just followed on between stopping for the odd bite of grass now and then. I was literally able to pop my slippers on, put my feet up and read the newspaper yet was still travelling and still making progress. I was looking forward to our night time destination –a tiny bothy in a beautiful spot with stunning hill views. The sun was out, the birds were singing and I could hear the babble of a stream running beside the trail. Apart from my horses’ footsteps I could hear nothing else. By 11am my hip flask was out and I toasted the fantastic view that appeared as we emerged from the trees. TOTAL CONTENTMENT!’
Just published – A Barefoot Journey, my honest and light-hearted account of going barefoot – including the mistakes, the falls, the triumphs and the nightmares! A small-but-perfectly-formed field companion to my novel The First Vet. Available on Amazon UK and Amazon US – paperback for £2.84 and Kindle for 99p. The First Vet, historical romance inspired by the life and work of the amazing early vet, Bracy Clark. Paperback price £6.99, Kindle £2.24 –Amazon UK. Amazon US. This book, which has more than 30 five-star reviews and a recommend from the Historical Novel Society, sold out at the prestigious international show at Hickstead! Still available on Amazon though…
And thanks to reader Neil Platten for this photo taken while he was stuck in a traffic jam. So glad he found something to do during the long, long wait. Press the follow button, everyone, to keep in touch and leave a comment. I love to hear from you…