Unsuitable for motors; this is one of my favourite road signs! We all moan about the amount of traffic on the roads, but do we make the best use of off road riding?
Our bridleways group organised a ride for local riders and found most of them had never used a bridleway just half a mile from their stable door. The reasons they gave varied, either they didn’t know how to find off road routes to ride, or didn’t trust that they or their horse could cope with hazards and route finding.
Does this sound familiar? I can sympathise. A quick look at a map will show footpaths, bridleways, restricted byways, byways open to all traffic (BOATs) and other routes with public access (ORPAs). You can ride any of these by right except footpaths.
BUT some routes ridden for fifty years or more are shown as footpaths on the map. In our area a track known as
Don’t give up yet. Just as you’d not expect to go to a show with a young horse without schooling you can enjoy off- road riding with good preparation.
First, some training for you! Buy a map of your area. The Explorer series is the best. Make a colour photocopy of the section you want to investigate; it’s quite legal unless you hand out dozens of copies to your friends. It will be much easier to carry with you than the map itself as you check out your local rides and less expensive if its gets soaking wet.
Have good look at the meaning of the symbols, which is shown in the Key. You will see that the field boundaries are shown (in black) on the map, very useful when covering new ground. The brown lines are the contours. If these are close together you will be on steep ground. Blue lines are streams. If the bridleway fords one this is shown. Many bridleways end on a busy main road. This might not be a problem; in our area main roads, such as the A34, often have safe verges, where minor rural lanes are narrow and can have surprisingly heavy fast traffic.
To find a route for yourself, trace a potential route in marker pen on your photocopy and measure its length. I wind a bit of cotton along the route then use the scale at the bottom of the map, but the grid square of blue lines on the map are one kilometre across and give you a rough guide. You will ride a new route at 7kph/5mph only if you trot most of the way, allowing for gates, checking the map and so on. You’d be surprised how slowly you go! You could always walk the route first to check it. If you can follow the route on an aerial photo, Google Earth has a very useful measuring feature.
If you feel faint at the thought of map reading on horseback, there are other ways. Talk to other local riders. Find your area’s bridleways and local endurance groups. Go on their organised rides, which are usually held on public rights of way open to horse riders. Look on the BHS website to see if the ‘Where to Ride’ series has a volume for your area. This series gives written descriptions of rides in many counties. There are bridleway route guides on several websites. In
Your public library should have details of local rail trails and country parks with access for riders. Paid access is also available in some country parks, on farm rides and Toll rides.
Now, can your horse cope with off road riding? Most off road hazards are much less dangerous than traffic. A bit of practice will mean you can both enjoy the experience. You can practice opening and shutting gates, mounting and dismounting, crossing water in ditches and fords, ducking under branches, crossing bridges, banks, logs and steps. This is not cross country, you will only need to do this in walk but you must be confident and in control. Your horse needs to stand quietly when required, whether you are map reading, opening a sticky gate or having a well earned drink at the pub you’ve found on the route! A local farmer might help you accustom your horse to walking quietly past cattle, sheep and pigs. Round here we also have to cope with deer, peacocks, alpacas and ostrich!
If you feel you need a confidence boost yourself, have some riding lessons to brush up your skills.
Who knows, you could end up a champion at Le Trec, as this training is perfect for this competition. At the very least you and your horse will have a fun enjoying the countryside on routes that are ‘unsuitable for motors’.