Sometime ago, we heard of a newspaper article about the 10 best trail rides in the world. It turned out to be an article in the British newspaper The Daily Mail; at the top of the list was Britain's longest trail ride, which is run by Highland Horseback. The ride goes from Glass, a village near Aberdeen, across Scotland to Shiel Bridge. It sounded perfect, but many rides sound good.
When we plan a riding vacation, we do careful research. We started by visiting Highland Horseback's website, and questioning the owners via e-mail. We also asked for the e-mail addresses of people who'd gone on the ride, and asked each one a checklist of questions. After reading the emails we received, we decided that we just had to go.
In the Saddle
The night before the ride, we had a briefing at our hotel in the little village of Rothes. Highland Horseback is a family business run by Ken and Fiona Hamilton, and their two children, Stephen and Catherine. Ken showed us maps and went over our travel route. Fiona took us through the routine of tacking up, carrying gear, and caring for the horses. Stephen and Catherine handed out a sheet describing the horses available for this ride. We all read the descriptions and speculated which horse we'd like to ride. Four repeat riders requested their favorite mounts.
The next morning, we went out to the farm. I was given a chestnut gelding named Danny. I quickly checked Danny's bio, which described him as mischievous, fun-loving, with a good turn of speed, and likely to put in a buck at the start of a canter. His favorite thing was picnics, and his pet peeve was sunscreen on his nose. It was a remarkably accurate description of Danny. Having quite a pink nose, he needed the sunscreen, and on our picnic lunches, he talked quite a few people out of treats they were saving for their own horses. I was usually successful in distracting his attention at the start of the canters. As well as being fun-loving, he was food-loving, and greed often kept him calmly eating until it was time to go.
The ride offered four riding days followed by a rest day, then another four days of riding. Riders can do the whole trip or either of the four-day segments. My favorite ride took place on the fourth day when we rode along Glen Feshie. We rode along a wide green track beside the river looking up at granite outcroppings on the hills.
Shaken, but Undeterred
In the afternoon, we came to an open grassy area with lots of fallen trees. Fiona told us we could follow her as she jumped the fallen trees and ditches. I've done very little jumping and only in a riding arena. But Danny wanted to go, and the logs looked quite small, so I thought why not? But the logs got bigger. One quite large fallen tree had a low spot for jumping that didn't look very high. I carefully aimed Danny at this spot, but horses coming up from the side caused us to change direction at the last moment, and we went over at a spot that was higher than I've ever jumped. Danny landed well, and if I'd just trusted him and not tensed up, I would've been fine. But instead, I lost my balance and came off as we cantered toward a ditch. Danny waited politely while I got back on, quite unhurt but slightly damp.
Late in the afternoon, we cantered and galloped back and forth on a long grassy field with good footing. Going up the field, we had a lovely long canter; coming back, Danny galloped faster than I've ever gone before. It was exhilarating. But suddenly, I realized that we were out in front-all alone. Where to stop? As we neared the end of the field, I asked Danny to come down to a walk, which he did quite suddenly and stopped dead. As I looked back to see where the others were, I fell off, thus earning the distinction of the only rider to fall off a stationary horse. Must've been the excitement. The next day, I got lots of advice about taking a good grip of the mane while standing still.
Riding across open moorland presented a different set of challenges. The route up was often on old military roads, forestry tracks, or private tracks built to provide access to the moors for shooting grouse. Our views were of the patchwork of fields and forest, round, heather-covered hills patterned with pale-green Bilberry, great steep hillsides with maybe a few sheep, and a glimpse of Loch Ness. Some days, we encountered boggy bits. Ben, the spare horse who ran free except on the roads, was an expert at crossing the bogs; several riders chose to follow him as he selected a route. He loved water and stopped at every stream to splash his followers.
From Glen to Sea
Our last day was another day for a great glen-Glen Affric. We enjoyed a morning of long canters with the water on one side and the hills on the other. We rode on stony trails so steep we once had to lead the horses down. At the end of the day, we reached the sea. Some of the horses willingly waded in, but Danny didn't believe in wading, so we kept to the sand.
This is very much a ride for those who like long, challenging days and taking good care of their own horses. We even cleaned tack every day. Each horse had his own grooming kit. They were unsaddled at lunchtime and allowed to roll and graze while we formed a circle to fence them in. Now and then, someone had to abandon his or her sandwich to chase a horse back.
At the end of the day, we groomed and sponged our horses, applied cream on the coronet of their hooves, rubbed a special arnica and witch hazel gel on the saddle area, and sprayed fly repellent everywhere. Then we fed them like endurance horses (yummy beet pulp). It took me longer to feed and care for Danny at the end of the day than getting myself showered, groomed, and dressed for dinner.
The Daily Mail article was right; it is a great trail ride. It's the best we've ever done-but the article did mention 10 rides. That's one down and nine to go. Now, where's that checklist of questions?