Magazine article Geographical

Reins on the Plains: Saddling Up and Riding a Mighty Steed across a Vast Open Steppe like the Marauding Mongols of Yore-Such Expeditions Come with Their Own Unique Set of Problems, as Much Today as 1,000 Years Ago. Tim Cope Looks Back at the Equipment He Used on His Intrepid Journey across Eurasia on Horseback

Magazine article Geographical

Reins on the Plains: Saddling Up and Riding a Mighty Steed across a Vast Open Steppe like the Marauding Mongols of Yore-Such Expeditions Come with Their Own Unique Set of Problems, as Much Today as 1,000 Years Ago. Tim Cope Looks Back at the Equipment He Used on His Intrepid Journey across Eurasia on Horseback

Article excerpt

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It only took seconds to leap from the tent and rush barefoot into the darkness, but I was already too late. The sound of galloping horses faded beyond camp and I fell to my knees clutching the only remaining evidence of my equine friends: a bell and one pair of hobbles. The sweeping openness of the Mongolian steppe, which had inspired me in the light of day, now taunted me with its emptiness.

At two in the morning, just five days into a 10,000-kilometre horseback journey from Mongolia to Hungary on the ancient trail of mounted nomads, my horses had been stolen. Ironically, the bell I held in my hand was supposed to have woken me as my alarm against thieves. Only luck had kept my third horse from the rustlers. At dawn, I rode off, and by some miracle spotted my two stolen horses in a herd under the watch of a herdsman. 'These horses came to me by themselves this morning. You must have tied them badly!' he said, grinning.

It would take two more horse thefts, four testing border crossings and 13 horses before I reached the Danube. During my three-and-a-half-year journey, I experienced temperatures that ranged from -50[degrees]C on the 'starving steppe' to +50[degrees]C in the Kazakh desert. In hindsight, this first challenge was a gentle warning: you should never underestimate the dangers waiting to scuttle an equestrian journey.

BACK IN THE SADDLE

Nothing ruins more horses, cancels more trips, and causes more agony for riders than the saddle. Choosing the right saddle is crucial, but the choice can be overwhelming when faced with such a huge array of saddle types and a market driven by the latest fashion. Recommendations from experienced riders before I began included western, Australian stock, endurance, First World War cavalry, and Mongolian styles. I was left not knowing whether to use a cutting-edge or traditional model.

When choosing a saddle, it's pertinent to reflect on the horsemen and -women who domesticated the horse on the Eurasian steppe about 5,500 years ago. They rode their way into legend under leaders such as Attila and Genghis Khan. These equestrian explorers developed the first saddle, stirrup, bridle and bit. Their lives depended on these items. Although times have changed, the principles of choosing equipment, the needs of horses, and the fundamental design of the saddle haven't. The saddle needs to be tough, light, sturdy, versatile, functional and safe for both horse and rider.

Be wary of colourful advertisements and advances in saddle technology, which are often only of value to riders in dressage rings who seldom ride as long or as hard as 'Long Riders' (as members of the Long Riders' Guild are known). For example, synthetic saddles are lighter and cheaper than leather. But they soak up water like a sponge, dry slowly, and wear out rapidly.

On the road, you will be travelling six to eight hours a day in the saddle. You will be exposed to a wide range of weather conditions, there will be scant opportunity to clean your saddle, and you will have to fit it to a variety of different-shaped horses. Long saddles distribute weight over a greater area and can reduce the risk of horse injury, but they shouldn't apply weight beyond the ribs. Stirrups should have a wide, flat base and not be tight-fitting. D-rings need to be strong and plentiful for attaching saddlebags. If someone suggests that the saddle is proven on an extended journey, then you want names, dates and distances. Ultimately, it doesn't matter whether your saddle is a traditional or modern design, but it must be a work of art from an equine engineering point of view.

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Choosing the wrong saddle blanket can quickly lead to saddle sores. A golden rule is that anything applied directly to the horse with pressure, or that is prone to friction, should be a natural material. Don't be fooled by synthetic pads, which may work for riders who only travel for a few hours each week on their horses. …

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