Long-distance riding is gaining in popularity and schemes such as the Route d'Artagnan are opening up possibilities for everyone to make long journeys on horseback
In this hectic, 21st-century world, trekking unhurriedly through uncharted lands on a horse can seem like a long-lost dream of times gone by. But it has not died out completely.
One of the doyens of long-distance horse riding is Frenchman Emile Brager. He has crossed France, Spain and Italy, spent four years travelling 25,000km from the tip of South America through Canada to Alaska, and rode 10,000km around the US, among numerous other long journeys by bicycle and yacht. He is the author of what has become a bible for long-distance riders: ‘Techniques du Voyage à Cheval’.
In it, Brager details how to plan a journey, how to choose horses, pack-animals and companions - both human and canine - what to take and what to leave, how to survive when lost in the wilderness, how to care for horses on long journeys, and even how to kill them, should it be necessary. There’s also advice on how to find food, dealing with hostility and suspicion, keeping up your morale and health, surviving bad weather and how to shoe a horse, as well as adapting to everyday life when the voyage is over. (“The most difficult part of any long journey”, he said.) Brager even lists ways of making money out of your trip to fund the next one. It's an extraordinary book, in French only, available via Emile Brager's website.
He puts his skills down to having been born loving horses. “I always wanted to ride, but my parents couldn't afford lessons, so I had to wait until I'd finished my studies and was earning a salary before I could have them. I learned classic riding, but it wasn't really my thing and before long I was going off on longer rides with friends, for a day, two days, a week. But then I realised that alone it was even better.”
Brager set off, travelling around France, Spain and Portugal and, having realised that he not only enjoyed long-distance horse-riding but also that he could cope with all the vicissitudes en route, he said he wanted to do something more difficult. That was when he embarked on his epic ride across South America, North America and Canada.
“The best thing about that ride was the relationships. I was with my ex-partner, Marie Roeslé, and we were one sole head, we were completely in harmony with each other as well as with the animals.”
He particularly remembers Patagonia and the Chihuahuan Desert in Mexico, but there’s more to it than sightseeing.
“Long journeys are about relationships with other people; with the horse; the countryside; the people you meet; the weather you experience. When all those elements are good, it's wonderful. But you also have relationships with the bad times, bad weather, or perhaps you don't like the geography or the local culture, or there are bad vibes. Then you just have to get out of there and find a better vibe.”
Brager said the relationship with the horses he takes on his travels is paramount. “The horse is there without being consulted, and you have to get an understanding with him about how far you'll go each day, and how fast. You can't make them a slave. You try to journey in agreement, as partners.”
He said he discovered his tenacity, his determination, and his willpower on his expeditions, and that many people never really test their capability. “To achieve a long-distance journey, you must have an aim, a destination and an arrival date; you can't simply be blown by the wind.
“Journeys are made of joys and woes, so you have to have an itinerary, and if you detour 100km either side of the planned route it's fine, but you still have to arrive at the destination.”
Brager also travelled across Mongolia by bicycle, though it didn’t have quite the same thrill. “That was too easy really,” he said.
“There's always a descent after a hill and at the end you just put the bike down and leave it. But when you're riding, you have to look after the horse before you can rest. You can't just get off it and leave there all night. That's just me, though, because cycling isn't my element.”
He is quick to say the same of the sea, despite having spent a year on the ocean. "It was another technique and another relationship with the weather.” Brager said.
“The horse's health and well-being is paramount on a horse journey, but with sailing the weather is king. But it was foreign to me, I never had the same relationship with the sea as a proper sailor. The sea is cold, horses are hot, and I'm just a born horse-person.”
These days Emile Brager is slightly more settled. He runs a farm breeding mules ("good for journeys and working") with his new companion Marie Palanchon. He hosts ‘Wwoofers’ – people taking part in the World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms scheme - runs courses in long-distance riding techniques, gives talks and conferences to groups, and runs Cavaliers au Long Cours, an association for long-distance riders, which now has 120 members of 10 different nationalities, 40 of whom have already completed what Brager calls "serious journeys".
Brager and Marie also have two children together, a girl (18 months) and a boy (6 years). “That's another different journey into relationships” he joked, and the family enjoys a rural life, surrounded by animals and nature. “The children know a lot about animals, so they have good instinctive reactions,” he said proudly. “We are planning a long journey with the kids, but we won't be going anywhere with climatic or political difficulties, so it might be in Europe this time: Poland, Romania, Bulgaria or even the UK.”
Most people he meets on long journeys are very nice, kind, welcoming and friendly, he said. But he feels there's there's a mirror effect, too. People can reflect your expectations of them, but he said children are great passports for meeting people. "Also, children who travel learn so much," said Brager. “Ours will have friends all over the world, and we'll have fraternal relationships with other parents. But before we go anywhere, the kids have to be at ease walking, trotting and cantering.
"We'll need calm, reliable animals, and we have to be super-parents, who can cope with tiredness, bad weather and everything else!”
For more information about Emile Brager's journeys, his book, the association, talks, courses, and vacancies for Wwoofers, visit www.emile-brager.fr.
On d'Artagnan's trail
If you don't have four years to spare riding 25,000km across the Americas, then there are increasing numbers of holiday companies offering long-distance horse treks all over the world. But if you have a horse and prefer the DIY approach, the new EU-backed Route d'Artagnan scheme could be for you.
Six routes are in the process of being created, taking in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain, all converging on D'Artagnan's birthplace, Lupiac (Gers, 32) in south-west France. The fifth annual D’Artagnan chez d’Artagnan festival, dedicated to the famous fourth musketeer, was held on August 13-14, attended by 500 villagers all in costume.
Following the arrival of the riders, there were other events including the ‘Arrival of King Louis XIV’, along with duels and conferences. The village also has a museum dedicated to Alexandre Dumas' famous adventurer, who was, in fact, based on a real person. Meanwhile, on the same date, another festival was taking place in Mirwart, Belgium attended by 150 riders, 40 of them in costume.
The Route d'Artagnan scheme includes a Livret du Mousquetaire, to record journeys, and completing 100km is rewarded by a d’Artagnanne certificate, completing 400km will make you a bronze musketeer, 800km wins a silvermusketeer award, and anyone riding all the routes becomes a gold musketeer.
Some sections of the routes are already open, and the entire Maastricht to Lupiac route is due to be opened in 2017, with the idea being that riders can travel along as much or as little of the routes as they like, in the same way as people can walk the St-Jacques-de-Compostelle pilgrim trail but by bit if they so choose. Businesses, including hostels, restaurants and farrieries, have been encouraged to open along the way.
It is estimated that once all 4,000km of routes have been constructed, that they will be used by up to 10,000 riders per year, rising to 100,000 riders annually, as the scheme become better known.
The spirit of the route is expected to be very much “One for all, and all for one!”, and even at this early stage, many riders wear the famous blue cloaks.
The scheme is still evolving and the management association, Association Européenne pour la Route d'Artagnan (AERA) is asking for new members, particularly people wanting to volunteer in their region. They are also keen to hear from people with ideas or solutions on firstname.lastname@example.org
For maps and more information, see www.route-dartagnan.eu
For non-riders with wanderlust
For those who don't ride but still yearn to hit the road with a horse, there is always the option of travelling by horse-drawn caravan. There are numerous companies offering these “randonnées en roulottes” all over France, and they are ideal for families. The horse and caravan can be driven from village to village along a prearranged route, with the occupants preparing their own meals along the way, and stopping to explore or swim whenever the fancy takes them, and sleeping in the caravan at night.
Paul and Jean O'Callaghan, from Ireland, went on an Ecotours horse-drawn caravan holiday with their son Eoin (9) and daughter Katie (6) and drove around the Bergerac countryside. “It was absolutely exceptional, the children will have those memories for life. It exceeded every romantic expectation and then some. My daughter loved the horse, and the hosts Pascal and Nathalie really made it magic for us. A guide went with us to a different location every day and the thought that went into choosing the places was fantastic. We visited bio-farms and lakes, and camped out too. The kids were completely busy and happy all the time doing outdoor things, putting tents up and down, building campfires and looking after the horse. We also had bicycles, so we could go exploring. It was so unspoiled, a true rural idyll, like going back to a bygone era. You get more than a holiday, you get a unique experience. I'd love to do it again.”
Holiday company France Ecotours (www.france-ecotours.com) has a selection of holidays on offer all over France. Some include an accompanying roulottier who helps look after the horse and make camp in the evenings, while others are unaccompanied. Their holidays are not suitable for wheelchair users, but work very well for families with small children, or non-riders who prefer to sit in the cart rather than walk with the horse. The company operates in English, French and German.
www.fermaccueil.fr This company offers horse-related holidays for mentally and physically disabled adults and children, and includes plenty of contact with the animals, such as feeding and grooming, and the there’s also the possibility going out riding or sightseeing in a horse-drawn cart.
www2.vacances-adaptees.com has horse-drawn cart holidays for adults varying levels of mobility.
daoudou.fr also offers horse-drawn carts and equine experiences for mentally and physically disabled people