the stuff

"Always look on the light side of life"
Monty Python, Life of Brian

back to the fairly big ride

  back to ride open spaces


1.   Introduction

2.   General points

3.   Riding Horses

4.   Packhorse

5.   Horse Running Away Prevention

6.   Horse Eating and Drinking

7.   Horse Rugs

8.   Veterinary Kit

9.   Farriery Kit

10. Repair Kit

11. Human Stuff

1. Introduction

Coming, as we do, from a land where people don’t ride very far because it’s always raining, we found it hard to find good advice about equipment for this trip. So we spent a long time thinking about it and scratching our heads. What would we really need? How little could we get away with? Psychologically, it’s good to set off believing that you have the best gear for the job because this leaves you free to worry about more important things, like eating. We have written this section to pass on our experience of the stuff we ended up using; we found similar feedback useful when planning our ride.

2. General points

Before plunging into the details, the following general points are worth noting:

1) The gear review which follows is based on one specific test: 5,870 miles of continuous riding over 16 months; spring in Britain, summer in France, autumn in northern Italy and Slovenia, winter in Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Greece, another spring in Turkey and another summer in Turkey, Syria and Jordan; mostly in mountains; altitude from -220m to +2900m; temperatures from -35C to +45C.

2) The gear we used was applicable to our chosen riding approach: one team (two people, two riding horses and one packhorse) and complete autonomy (as the French like to say), i.e. self sufficient, no vehicle support. The degree of autonomy that you want has a major influence on the gear that you need. If you don’t mind seeking out people every night, you might get away with no tent, stove, pans etc. If you want to get up in the mountains and have some time on your own, you’ll need more stuff.

3) I have quoted manufacturers’ names but everything we used was bought with our own hard-earned cash. Nobody gave us anything for free - this is almost certainly because we didn’t write any begging letters asking for anything for free. (This reminds me of the man from Cardiganshire who complained to God that he never won the lottery. “Why don’t you meet me halfway,” replied God, “and at least buy a ticket.”) So this is a brutally honest gear review; I don’t have to be nice to anyone.

4) Things have to be tough and durable because: (a) continuous use and difficult conditions mean that things take a battering (and anything left on the ground near a horse will get trodden on or kicked) and; (b) it can be a real pain replacing things en-route.

5) Things have to be light. We were paranoid about weight. Our riding horses are small, nippy Arabs – Ferraris rather than Land Rovers – and we couldn’t carry any significant weight on them. The packhorse’s load is a deadweight and it’s on all day. The riding horses get a break when we get off and walk but the only way you can help a packhorse is to make her load as light as possible. A rule of thumb for a dead load is that it shouldn’t exceed 80% of the allowable live load, typically taken as 20% of the horse’s weight. E.g. for a 500kg horse, the dead weight shouldn’t exceed 80kg. Allowing 20kg for grain to give a few day’s autonomy and say, 15kg for the pack saddle, pads, harness, girth etc, this leaves a ‘baggage allowance’ of 45kg – for two people and three horses this is not a lot. This meant that (a) we had to forget about taking anything we didn’t really need and (b) things had to be made from light materials. Getting the right balance between lightness and durability is not always easy. And if it is easy, it’s probably expensive!

3. Riding Horses


Made by Jean Marie Soliveres in Bugarach, south west France.  The model we used was called ‘Escapade’. Jean Marie is an active ‘randonneur a cheval’ and makes saddles only for trekking and long distance use. Our saddles were light (7 or 8kg), simple (McClellen/cavalry design), tough (still good as new), practical (big solid rings and D rings for attaching/clipping) and they did the job perfectly: the riding horses had no saddle sores. Jean Marie clearly knows what he’s doing.

Although of simple design (solid GRP tree) the shape of the seat allows you to comfortably ride ‘long’ and ‘deep’, which is how we like it. This is the same principle as western saddles, i.e. saddles originally designed for men to work in all day. If you’d rather sit in a forward seat and jump over some coloured poles for twenty minutes then an English saddle may be a better choice.


Big rectangular neoprene pads made by Impakt Tel. +44 (0)1817781055. These worked and were great for sleeping on as well. We bought new ones after a year due to an accumulation of a lot of minor damage, holes and cuts – mainly due to riding through trees, thornbushes etc. Horsehair sticks in them and is very difficult to remove. We made protective sleeves for them from synthetic sheepskin. These sleeves absorbed the sweat and could be washed easily. We also slept inside the sleeves on chilly nights in Syria after we’d ditched our sleeping bags.


Elasticated neoprene. Short (dressage) style to keep buckles away from legs. Sheepskin sleeves for protection/washing. No girth galls but may consider broader, Mohair ‘string’ girth in future if we could find or make them.


Headcollar bridles made to measure by Plas Equestrian in Carmarthenshire, West Wales.  Designed for endurance, these were great and lasted the whole way. The only damage was caused by human error – forgetting to attach lead rope via ‘weak link’ e.g. baling twine – and was easily repairable. Each horse’s headcollar had a different colour stripe for easy recognition.


Stainless steel hackamore, built into clip-on unit by Plas Equestrian with same colour coding as bridles to make things easy. Worked perfectly, allowing horses to eat and drink all day without anything getting in the way. The only downside was their weight. Would try and find/make a titanium version in future.

Reins/lead rope

Started with Plas Equestrian endurance reins, clip-on clip-off so doubled as lead ropes. These lasted a couple of thousand miles but eventually failed due to misuse and abuse. Main damage due to horses treading on them or us tying them up round rocks with sharp edges. We later replaced them with 7mm climbing cord attached with small snaplink carabiners. These, we also had to renew a couple of times due to similar abuse. We carried a 25m length of 7mm climbing cord for making highlines, pens etc and just cut bits off this when we needed new reins.

Stirrup leathers

‘Wintec’ dressage style, synthetic. Light and comfortable due to only single thickness strap. We should have carried a spare one of these. Both of us lost them at different times, probably caught on branches of trees and pulled off the saddle.


‘FlexRide’ cage stirrups from Raddery Equine. Light, tough, safe, can use any footwear you like, perfect for the job. Needed replacements but only due to loss, not wear and tear.


Cordura bags made by Mr Go Right Go Light Don West – he’s the Cowboy Poet and he was Born to Ride, apparently. (

HEALTH WARNING!! Be extremely careful not to read any of Don’s ‘cowboy’ poems. I read one by mistake – nobody had warned me – and I’m still having nightmares and flashbacks several years later.

We used pommel bags at the front (‘Pommel-Granites’) and a cantle bag at the back (‘Cantle-lope’). We’d used these for years at home on short trips. The bags are light and tough; all are still fine after going the full distance. The pommel bags have built in water bottle holders which were very useful. In the desert of Syria and Jordan we swapped the supplied bottles for bigger, 1 litre coke bottles and they fitted very snugly in the sleeves. The system allowed a good weight balance in front and behind the saddle. We used Exped dry bags as liners so the pommel bags could stay permanently attached to the saddles.

After Audin died, we had to add conventional saddlebags to this set up. Again we used Don West stuff because that’s what we had at home. This provides a lot of extra volume but unfortunately it’s all behind the saddle and so upsets the balance. We compensated as far as possible by carrying small heavy things in the front bags and light bulky stuff behind. Apart from this one aspect, I like the Don West stuff. As a mountaineer, he wondered why humans are allowed to carry nice, light, functional, cordura rucksacks but horses still had to lug heavy leather bags around. It’s a fair point.

Saddle covers

Lowe Alpine extra large rucksack covers with drawstring closure. Packed up very small and light but big enough to cover our saddles and all bags when needed. The drawstring was a bit tricky to tuck away so maybe elasticated covers would have been better.

4. Packhorse

Pack saddle

Aluminium adjustable #10 from Custom Packrigging Ltd in Vancouver, Canada.  Light and strong, never failed. We glued and taped neoprene material to the bars to cover holes in the plastic bars and give extra cushioning. Hannah did get saddle sores but these were not the fault of the saddle – see Diary notes.


Super-wide (double) mohair string girth, attached to saddle using ‘latigos’ – very strong seatbelt-like nylon webbing. Both supplied by Custom Packrigging Ltd. Worked perfectly. No girth galls despite heavy dead load. The latigos allow precise adjustment of girth tension.


Big rectangular woolpad, backed with mill felt, again supplied by Custom Packrigging Ltd. In France we added an inch thick neoprene pad designed for use under western saddles. The two together worked very well and we had no more problems with the pack saddle rolling on Hannah’s broad back.


Plas Equestrian made us a harness (breast collar and britching??) which was very easy and quick to put on and attach to the pack saddle – just a few quick clips. This did the job perfectly and lasted fine, the only damage was caused by French rats who nibbled it when it was stored under a tree for a long rest stop.


Cordura ‘sacoches’ from Guichard Sellier in France.  Very basic bags but tough cordura and very light (<2kg a pair). They lasted 5,000 miles, i.e. until we switched to two horses and no longer needed them, but had accumulated a fine collection of holes, tears and patches. The damage was caused mostly by incidents and accidents rather than general wear. Similar capacity bags in leather would be heavier and in polyethylene much heavier (15kg for a pair). They also have the advantage of being soft – very useful if you have a ‘bargy’ packhorse like Hannah. Contents needing special protection can be packed inside ‘Tupperware’ boxes. Some of the stuff inside did get damaged on two occasions: first when Hannah did a forward roll over a Gloucestershire hedge/fence combo and second when she ditched everything on a wet Slovenian road at gallop during the Third Great Escape.

Each pannier normally held between 16kg and 24kg. Although very tough, they seem very expensive for what they are and the design could be improved. Due to the high cost I would consider getting some custom made for another trip.

Top Bag

Big North Face Basecamp Duffle that we happened to have in the shed and have used on many climbing expeditions. Bombproof construction but a bit on the heavy side; we might have got away with a lighter bag. Useful compression straps allowed it to be made narrower in the middle than at the ends so it ‘wedged’ nicely onto the pack saddle. Again, this did the job well but would consider a custom made bag: (a) to fit onto the saddle even better and (b) to be a bit lighter.


Heavy duty plastic 7’ x 5’, folded up and placed over panniers and top bag for rain protection. At night, used to cover stack of saddles and tack outside the tent. At lunchtimes, used as big groundsheet for five star picnics and siestas. Known to us as ‘the bache’ due to description in our French ‘cheval de bat’ (packhorse) book. Occasionally known to us – after a well known processed cheese - as ‘la bache qui rit’ e.g. when it appeared to mock our attempts to fold it in a strong wind.

Lash cinch

Supplied by Custom Packrigging Ltd , hence North American terminology. A short girth with a ring at one end and a hook at the other. Used in conjunction with lash rope – see below.

Lash rope

We used 12m of 10mm diameter climbing rope, i.e. same as tether ropes (see below). Used with the lash cinch to produce an ‘arrimage’ tied with a ‘noeud d’as de carreau’ (sorry, switched back to French again – if only we’d had a packhorse book in English. ‘Arrimage’ is from ‘arrimer’(to secure) and a ‘noeud d’as de carreau’ is a diamond hitch.) This lifts the panniers from the horse’s side and holds everything together very nicely so nothing bangs or bounces or flaps around. Some say this is an old fashioned method and there may well be much simpler techniques but it certainly works. We could watch Hannah charging about like a dog just let off the lead and know that her load would remain stable, even on a steep hillside.

5. Horse Running Away Prevention

Given the slightest excuse, horses like to run away; they have a highly developed talent for this activity and, what’s more, they secretly enjoy it. They lull you into a false sense of security by hanging around the tent, investigating things and treading on them, and then…whoosh! And they’re off! Just because a small dog has appeared on the horizon or because the wind chooses to rustle a plastic bag somewhere. With three horses, they think they’re a proper little herd and once the flight has taken off they just encourage each other. Hence the importance of carrying stuff for running away prevention.


Han-D-Hobbles (it could only happen in the US of A) from Don West – he’s America’s Favorite Pleasure-Trail Riding Clinician, apparently. Nice and soft and comfortable for the horse but not very hard-wearing. We wore out two sets during the ride. Held together with a carabiner which also makes them easy to attach to saddle when not in use. We always hobbled the horses if loose or in the electric pen.

Tether Ropes

12m of 10mm diameter climbing rope. One per horse, lash rope doubles as tether rope. We started with thicker, softer ropes until the horses learned their rope skills. Sealeah became a genius at untangling herself and we could leave her on a tether overnight. Audin learned not to panic if he did get tangled and would also call for human assistance. Hannah, being a bear of very little brain, never really mastered the art of ropework; her approach to entanglement usually involves the employment of increasing force until something breaks.

Top tip 1: always attach the tether rope via a ‘weak link’, e.g. loop of baling twine.

Top tip 2: don’t leave home without teaching your horse to be cool on a rope.

Allowing, say, a couple of metres of the 12m rope for attachments to horse and tethering point leaves an effective tether length of 10m. Assuming it is clear all round, this gives a grazeable area of 314m2.

Electric fence kit

Made by Horizont Agrar in Germany, this nifty little kit weighs only 1.8kg and proved to be well worth having. The kit includes a sprung spool/handle wound with 40m of electric tape, 4nr poles, 5nr tent pegs, 5nr bungee cords and a 6V energizer unit. It allows you to make a safe enclosure virtually anywhere. The energizer unit is robust and didn’t fail us – it uses 4nr 1.5V batteries which seem to last forever. The only downside is the small enclosure size when the only forage for the night is the grass enclosed:

Grazeable Area Per Horse (m2)

12m tether rope (10m effective radius)


1 horse in electric pen


2 horses in electric pen


3 horses in electric pen


To offset this problem, we did the following:

a) Put Sealeah on a tether rope overnight wherever possible;

b) Used a longer length of electric tape – 60m was the most we could fit on the spool but this alone gives an area of 225m2;

c) Made full use of any fixed walls or fences to count as sides of the pen. E.g. with a wall 30m long you can use the 60m of tape on three sides to give an area of 450m2;

d) Used ropes tied between trees to make a pen side;

e) Left the horses outside the pen until last thing at night.

Bag of bits

We carried a small stuffsack with short bits of rope, climbing cord, climbing tape, bungee cord and baling twine. These allow you to use trees, telegraph poles, boulders etc as supports for the electric tape. This type of support is stronger than using the kit poles and means you can use the poles to give additional support to long lengths (>10m) of tape. Somehow we lost the spring in our spool/handle but the fence can be kept nicely in tension by using bungee cord on one of the supporting points.

Highline rope

A 25m length of 7mm climbing cord. Used for making a highline where no room for other methods or if trees are in an orchard and shouldn’t be eaten. Light, due to small diameter, and gives greater flexibility if attachment points are sparse. We cut lengths off this to make new reins when needed.

6. Horse Eating and Drinking

For carrying grain we had two 30 litre Ortleib dry bags, cylindrical with rollover top. Carried either at base of packhorse panniers or clipped together with a carabiner and hung over a riding horse saddle. These did the job perfectly, withstood much abuse and lasted the full course.

For feeding grain we used plastic mesh nosebags from Custom Packrigging Ltd. The first set wore out in approx 7 months, the second set lasted the remaining 9 months and are still fine.

Ortleib square folding washing bowls. We carried two of these (medium size) and used them for mixing feed, feeding strawley and holding water overnight. The first two wore out after about a year. By mistake we were sent a large size as replacement but this proved very handy in the hotter countries for holding a big volume of water overnight.

Backcountry buckets from Don West - he’s your Learning Leader for Equine Adventure, apparently. We carried two of these, cordura outer with nylon lining. Just the job for carrying water or offering the horses a drink on the road. Can be knocked over if left with a horse so best to just let them drink and then take it out of range. Light and tough, these would easily have lasted the whole course if I hadn’t been impatient to get going on a bitter Bulgarian morning and smashed them against a wall to try and get the ice out of them. This ripped the lining and left us with leaking water buckets until we picked up replacements five months later in Damascus. Jeez, I was popular.

7. Horse Rugs

We started with very light, compact, single skin nylon rugs made for us by Plas Equestrian. Unfortunately we got the light/durable balance wrong and they ripped far too easily. For winter, after a bit of experimenting, we found a good solution: rugs made by Kingshead. Looking at the website, I think the model we used must have been the ‘Sapphire’, described as ‘ideal summer turnout’ rug . These had a tough outer and slick inner lining but no insulation. We made very light fleece rugs to go underneath. The rug and fleece rolled up together could be carried quite easily on the back of the saddle.

8. Veterinary Kit

Too big until you need it, at which time it becomes a wonderful source of magical potions that you wouldn’t want to be without. Not my department, I'm afraid.  Contact Lisa the Vet for advice. 

9. Farriery Kit

Also Lisa’s department but a bit simpler for a layman to describe. After France, Lisa did all the shoeing and I became quite skilled at passing her nails and listening to the sweet sounds of everything going swimmingly: “Bother!”, “Flip!” etc etc etc.

We used Natural Balance shoes, sent out from home to various Poste Restante locations. The horses went very well in these shoes. We hadn’t used them before this trip but will from now on, having seen how well they work.

Our farriery kit contained:

a) Multi-purpose tool called Tot-One ( shown to us in Italy. Combines hammer, nail cutter, nail remover (claw) and clench former.

b) Buffer

c) Rasp (no handle and sawn off to reduce weight)

d) Hoof nippers

e) Hoof knife

f) Blade sharpener

We also carried a few spare shoes and enough nails to fit them.

10. Repair Kit

Two litre Tupperware-type box with various needles, strong thread, superglue, fabric glue, seam sealant, duct tape, insulation tape, bits of fabric, spare buckles etc.

11. Human Stuff


We used our climbing clothing, e.g. coolmax, thermals, fleece, pertex, gore-tex, down etc for virtually everything, the only exception being leather half chaps. Climbing clothing – particularly from the better manufacturers – is cut for freedom of movement, which makes doing things a lot easier. My favourite item of clothing was a Patagonia Puffball pullover: windproof, showerproof, warm (very thin layer of synthetic insulation), perfectly cut, light, compressible. This item is so good that Patagonia in their wisdom decided to stop making it.

To keep the rain off we had Berghaus Paclite Goretex jackets and overtrousers. The Paclite shells were perfect because at least 95% of the time it wasn’t raining so they remained, extremely light and hardly taking up any room, in our saddlebags. When it did rain, we could put on a complete Goretex shell that’s so light you hardly know you’re wearing it. The overtrousers did get damaged by thornbushes, sharp branches etc and by the end of Turkey (14 months) they were so trashed we binned them. Luckily it didn’t rain once after that.

For winter, we allowed ourselves the luxury of a down jacket and are very glad that we did. A lot of the time in winter, we were halfway up a Carpathian or a Balkan and even when we weren’t, it was still Dec/Jan/Feb in Eastern Europe and we were still living outside, i.e. it was cold. Lisa was so fond of hers she didn’t take it off until spring.


We used mountain walking boots and wore out three pairs each. I used light fabric boots in summer and heavier leather boots in winter. The fabric boots had a Goretex lining but this was unnecessary for the second summer in Turkey, Syria and Jordan and caused even-sweatier-than-normal feet until the boots were broken in sufficiently for the lining to become damaged and allow better ventilation.


We use three different tents. All were similar design and all weighed just over 3kg. The inners were free standing domes but with rectangular base and only two crossed over poles. Each long side had a doorway. The flysheet was supported by a third pole which lay perpendicular to the doorways and created big storage areas at each entrance. There are very few tents available with this layout. I wouldn’t use it for climbing in the Himalayas but for our purposes on this trip it was ideal. The big, wide side entrances provide enough storage space for baggage and make it very easy to get in and out.

a) Our first summer tent was an MSR Sidewinder 3. This model is now discontinued so there’s not much point talking about it.

b) For winter we used a Fairydown Assault 2. This is very compact for two people so it helps if you’re good friends. It’s made from good tough materials and was nice and cosy for winter nights. The small packed size meant that we had enough baggage space to carry our bulkier winter sleeping bags. One chilly January morning in Romania I picked up the inner tent to shake out some crumbs, hay etc and both poles simultaneously snapped – I don’t think this model uses the very best quality alloy poles, which seems inconsistent with the rest of the tent’s build quality.

c) For the second summer we had a North Face Roadrunner 3. A three man tent so lots of space and plenty of mesh in the inner to make it light and well ventilated. Very well made, did the job perfectly but was never tested in any really bad weather. For Syria and Jordan we ditched the flysheet and used only the inner, which did a good job of keeping insects out.


I used a ¾ length Thermarest Ultralite and was very glad of it. Lisa thinks I’m soft; she slept on the neoprene numnahs and woolpad. For summer we had very light Rab down sleeping bags (400g down). For winter we used much warmer but heavier Rab down bags (800g down). We used silk liners for comfort and easy washing. Synthetic sleeping bags of similar warmth would be far bulkier and heavier. As long as you keep down dry it’s simply the best. We carried the sleeping bags inside their supplied stuffsacks and Exped compression dry bags; they never got wet.

The coldest conditions we experienced were crossing the Balkans in Bulgaria in February. For about a week the night-time temperature dropped below -30C. The down bags kept us warm but we did have to keep our clothes on (in Lisa’s case, all her clothes including down jacket). NB for an extra warm glow at night, it helps to get snuggled into your sleeping bag and eat a big pile of oily food. Which brings us on to the subject of…


We carried an MSR Dragonfly stove, a couple of aluminium pans, a stainless steel mug and a titanium mug/kettle. The latter is a perfect example of very light and very durable (and therefore very expensive). The stove is multi-fuel but only really works well on white gas or kerosene. White gas is almost impossible to find and kerosene was very difficult in some countries. In Britain, we could only find it in garden centres. In France, it was non existent and we had to switch to a gas stove. In Slovenia, we switched back to the Dragonfly and stuck with that until the end of Turkey after which we did without a stove to save weight. I had some real struggles to find kerosene and although the stove is excellent (small, light, fast boiling) I would definitely look into using an alcohol burning stove on another trip. Alcohol is always available and with the amount we were given in Eastern Europe we could have kept the stove burning all night every night.

Bits and Pieces

a) Spring balance – essential for checking packhorse panniers are equal weight.

b) Knives – one small Swiss army knife and one bigger single blade folding knife. Didn’t find any need for huge machete, guns or other weapons of mass destruction. Big smile usually works. If not, run away.

c) Exped dry bag stuffsacks – lots of these, all different sizes and colours, makes grabbing the right thing easy.

d) Petzl Tikka Plus headtorches – comfortable to wear, bright and superlight (only 78g). Uses three AAA batteries.

e) Silva compass – smallest, simplest, lightest model. Described in literature as ‘suitable for scouts or short walks only’! Lived in my pocket and did us well for 5,870 miles by continuing to show us where north is.

f) Garmin Geko 301 GPS – smallest, simplest, lightest model. Didn’t use it at all for first 13 months, then used it a lot for last 3. Uses 2 AAA batteries. These won’t last more than about a day or two if it’s on all the time while moving, i.e. if you want to measure the exact distance traveled.

g) Canon Ixus 500 digital camera, CF memory cards, CF card reader, spare batteries and mains charger. I took all photos on maximum resolution on the basis that file sizes that seem big now won’t in a few years time. I copied the CF cards onto CDs when I could get to an internet café and posted the CDs home. All CDs arrived home safely. Pictures not as good as slides for projecting but they look alright on a PC screen. Camera also takes up to 3minutes of video.

h) Sony ICF-SW100 Shortwave radio. Luxury item! Superb quality radio, only 200g and smaller than palm of hand but excellent speaker so easy for two people to listen. Uses 2 AA batteries. Meant we could listen to Wales winning the Grand Slam while we sat on a Turkish hillside overlooking the Dardanelles – priceless.