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(David L O Smith)

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Hi, I’m David, married to Liz, and I’m rather older than most people in the group, although most people are kind enough to say that it doesn’t show that much!


My brother with Vicky holding my sister; I'm riding Jessie.  Summer 1959

My first real encounter with horses that I can remember was as a small boy on holiday on a Cornish farm: a draft horse called Darling, who I rode on whilst bringing the wheat sheaves back to the stackyard, and a chestnut pony called Jessie, who we rode bareback whilst firmly holding on to some mane and being confidently lead by Vicky, one of the farmer’s three daughters.

Although there had been several much closer encounters since then, I did not learn to ride ‘properly’ until about twenty years ago.  Finding a riding school that is willing to take an adult male can be quite a challenge (no suitable horses or suspicious of my motives) but there was a very reputable dressage school not so far away and lessons were arranged.  Hah, after about five nanoseconds, I realised that this hour was going to be the highlight of my week for some time to come.

 

My real reason for wanting to learn to ride was so that I could go out for hacks with Fern (15.1hh Arab x Hunter chestnut mare), who was Liz’s horse at the time and who was not a novice ride.  Fortunately for me, one of our friends kept her mare in Rushymeade at our back gate and at stables at the farm across the road where Liz also kept Fern. Cinders was more suitable for a novice and I was soon able to take her out with another friend riding Fern, as Liz and Fern did not get on well (their temperaments were too similar, I think).  However, Fern and I had always got on well so, confidence built up a bit, I tried going for a short hack with her.  It took about the same five nanoseconds to decide that this was what I was going to be doing in future.

So, for several years I took Fern out on the quiet bridleways around Pulloxhill in Bedfordshire, usually on our own but occasionally with other people in the village (no, let’s be honest, occasionally with young women in the village!).  Having ‘stolen’ Liz’s horse she then set about finding another one and eventually found Nenagh, who many of you will know.

Sadly, Fern's kidneys started to give up in the summer of 2007 and we said good-bye to her in October.  Read My Fond Memory of Fern.

Fern and David
Fern (see Fern's page)

Nenagh and Liz

It was Liz who ‘discovered’ natural horsemanship, through Hev, and she started working with Nenagh.  At about the same time, our farrier found Claude for me; we’d asked her about three years before to keep a look out for a suitable horse for me because Fern was getting on a bit and I’m not small.

See Claude's page

Hev was very encouraging and complimentary in saying that, although we’d not had any natural training, we were well on the way there on our own with the way we looked after and rode our horses.  Of course, Hev was then equally discouraging by moving away to Devon!  Fortunately, at about this time we met Row and Sam who said there were other aspiring natural horse owners in the area and, before not too long, a meeting at Fiona and Estelle’s parents' home lead to what was to become the very informal Naturally Horses group.  As I was a cofounder of an internet marketing company, I volunteered to manage a website with an e-mail discussion group, the idea was accepted and naturallyhorses.org.uk appeared.

 

 

Horse Riding Adventures

I also work for Unicorn Trails, who offer horse riding holidays around the world.  In the spring of 2004, I went on a Moroccan adventure: The High Atlas Explorer Trail (extensive write-up), which started in the desert at a small kasbah in the palm plantation of Skoura, traversed the High Atlas Mountains (pass of Tizi-n-Tichka at 8000 feet) and finished on the Plains of Marrakech.  The complete trip was 230 miles and involved ten and a half days of riding in the early part of May, although the weather was 'unseasonably cold' in the mountains, hence the warm clothing I have on in the picture.  There were five riders, although only two of us, and our two guides, had time to complete the whole traverse.

At the time, Nassim was not a very 'personable' horse; he would rather you let him get on with his job and then you can just get on with yours.  He didn't do this bonding 'stuff' or whinnying and whickering like the other stallions on the traverse would  for their riders but I was still sad to have to say good-bye to him after a fortnight.  (However, I rode him again as an escort for a charity fund raising challenge (short write-up) in 2006 and he was transformed - we are now firm friends!)

Go straight to rides in: Sweden
Morocco Argentina
Spain Jordan
Morocco (again) Russia
Iceland Ethiopia
Chile to Argentina Patagonia
Peru Madagascar
The Yukon  

Nassim and david in the High Atlas Mountains, Morocco
Nassim and David
(see more pictures and read more about
Crossing The High Atlas)

The following year, I joined two others from Unicorn Trails as a horse guide on a corporate holiday for 150 people from an international management consultancy that involved riding the first few days of the High Atlas Explorer Trail.  I was disappointed that Nassim was not amongst the troupe that we used; I'd liked to have seen him again and would certainly have asked for him if it'd been possible.  One day I must collate the photographs and write up this remarkable desert experience!

Champs (pronounced Shompse)
and David


Champs and David in the desert, Morocco

Spain

Hasni and David on the Aragon Trail, Spain
Hasni and David on the Aragon Trail

By way of a rest from the corporate holiday work, I went on the Aragon Trail in in Spain September last year.  Here is just one picture of Hasni and me in the mountains.  It was a shame that the weather was so wet in a region that is normally so dry, and had been for about two years - until I arrived!  There are more pictures and a write up of this canyon and mountain trail on my website.

  

Morocco


Nassim and David on the Skoura to Tarbahlt Desert Trail, Morocco

Here I am with Nassim again, this time on the Skoura to Tarbahlt Desert Trail in February, 2006 when I was an escort for Unicorn Trails to a party of riders who raised nearly 100,000 Euro for the Irish Heart Foundation on the Moroccan Horse Trek Challenge.  Although the five and half days riding, for up to nine hours per day, through taxing terrain was quite demanding, the highlight of the trip for me was the  gallops to our final campsite in the sand dunes. On my own website, there are more pictures, and a write-up of this charity desert challenge but here (to the left) you may see a video of the gallop* .

 

* This video clip is 2½ minutes, and subtitled: "I'm not sure if this was covered by the travel insurance!"

OK, I could not resist just one more picture - here I am (below) at the end of the first gallop; the last gallop was to our white tents in the sand dunes in the distance.

Berber-Arab stallions at the end of the desert gallops

 

Icelandic horses on the Glacier Trail
The riders with their Icelandic Horses

Iceland

Rodi and David on the Glacier Trail
Before Unicorn Trails offers a riding holiday destination, a senior person in the company goes to check it out - it's a tough job but somebody has to do it!  Liz and I recently went together to check on the Yates Trail in Co. Sligo in NW Ireland and then I went to Iceland to ride on the Glacier Trail.  We rode 160 miles in five and a half days, from the coast in the south up over the highlands, through the glaciers, to the Atlantic in the north (almost to the Arctic Circle). We had 73 Icelandic horses for 20 riders and we each changed horses once or twice every day; the unridden horses ran free with us, a group of riders at the front to stop them overtaking, and a group at the rear to encourage them on when they dawdled or stopped to eat the meagre grass.

Glacier Trail, Iceland - Unicorn Trails

Icelandic Horses

Glacier Trail, Iceland - Unicorn Trails

Gullfoss Waterfall on the Glacier Trail, Iceland - Unicorn Trails

David on Glacier Trail, Iceland - Unicorn Trails

 

Sweden

I went on another exploratory ride for Unicorn Trails: the Forest and Lakes Trail in Sweden, riding with Natural Horsemanship as the heart of the experience. The North Swedish Horses (cold bloods) are powerful but biddable animals, real ‘diesels’ in their performance (bit slow to warm up but they go and go and go!)  We rode in side-pull (bitless) bridles.  Rather than a point-to point trail, this was a 'star ride', that is out to different locations in the forest for a picnic lunch and then back to a very comfortable ‘pub’ (within the horse barn) and farm house accommodation each evening.  There is mandatory natural horsemanship tuition, demonstrations and exercises on the first day before a gentle ride on forest tracks.   On the daily rides, we had many long canters,  but we also had a night-time moonlight ride, when we swam in a lake, baked bread, relaxed in an open air hot tub and had a BBQ.  On one evening we had hands-on experience driving a draught horse for timber collection.  On my last day, I was privileged to be given Bull to ride, the largest horse on the farm who was originally trained as a draught horse and had only recently been out on the trials.

Bull and David on the Forest and Lakes Trail, Sweden

David and Bull

 

Argentina

Uplands in the Salta Region, Argentina
Uplands in the Salta Region, Argentina

David and Cecilia

David and Cecilia

Argentina is always in popular demand for riding holidays and, although Unicorn Trails had rides there (including over the Andes in Patagonia and Chile to Argentina - Across the Andes ), I was fortunate to be able to go out and investigate Andes mountain rides in the Salta region, in the north west, and in the Mendoza region in the centre of the country.  

Before riding in Salta, I was taken on a tour of the arid areas where I delighted in the desert and mountain scenery with Giant Cactus and the ruins of lost native cultures and I was already won over.  

My first ride was up and over the Chilo Slopes, in the Andes Range, which divide two valleys: one green and lush, the other brown and dry.  It was fascinating to observe the vegetation change from the familiar European grasses and oak trees to the the cactus and other desert plants.  Three of us rode fine, native horses but we also took along a mule to carry our provisions, as there there were no roads or villages on the way.

Mountain rest for David and Cecilia

Ready to set off up the slopes again.

 

Passing over the summit  >

Riding in the Andes

David riding Paso  Fino stallion in Amblayo, Argentina

Our ride ended at the tiny but delightful town of Amblayo at 8000 ft (2400 m) where there were no cars and the only visible means of transport was equine - or human.  

It was here that our host family proudly asked me if I would like to ride their Paso Fino stallion around the square.  Of course I was a little nervous but how could I pass such an honour of an invitation?  The owner brought the stallion out and he offered to ride him first, which seemed like a fair and reassuring idea to me.  Excitement mounted as he swished confidently around the dusty town square and observers appeared from 'nowhere' - and then it was my turn!  Now, you know that feeling when you sense all a horse's energy is stored in a big spring and it's time to go ...  Actually, although I say it myself, I thought I did quite well.

Having made my successful circuit, our host raised his hand and, through my Argentinean companion as an interpreter, commented that I had rode well but, next time around the square, I might like to go not quite so close to all the mares shading under the trees!

 

<  Riding the Paso Fino stallion around the square in Amblayo

Sadly, I was able to sample only just this part of the Incas Trail Expedition that is now available from Unicorn Trails.

I didn't really want to leave the Salta region because I was not really looking forward to the overnight bus journey to Mendoza; I have experienced overnight bus journeys in various parts of the world before and there'd not been much to choose between them.  But this bus journey was almost the highlight of the trip!  The bus was more like a small moving hotel that left a very pleasant central bus terminal in Salta at about four in the afternoon and arrived at Mendoza at about nine the following morning.  We were served tea shortly after the journey began, then I read and dozed, was woken up to have my evening meal with wine, and more wine and a movie.  At about eleven, I reclined my chair into a completely horizontal position and the next thing I remember was being gently woken up just after eight to be asked if I would like some breakfast - and we were 600 miles to the south west in Mendoza!

The High Andes, Mendoza
The High Andes, Mendoza

Argentine Army horse in the Andes near La Palenquera

As I was in Mendoza in November and early December, it was too early to be able to go over the High Andes, even if there had been time, but I was able to ride on just part of the trail that is now Chile to Argentina - Across The Andes, which follows the historic route of San Martín in 1817 when his army crossed the High Andes to liberate the people of Chile in 1817.  However, I promised myself that I really will do this one day - and so I did, in January, 2010 - see below.

San Martín took cavalry horses, although many perished, but to conserve them as best he could the riders rode mules that were far more suited to the mountain terrain.  The animals for this trip were provided by the Argentinean army in La Palenquera so I was able to ride an Argentinean army horse for part of the way but I was privileged also to ride one of their mules that is regularly used by the cavalry to patrol the upland regions.  She was sure footed and very comfortable to ride so - apart from the larger ears in the view - you would not know that you were with a mule.  I think mules have had a very bad press from horse riders.

David with Argentine Army horse in the Andes near La Palenquera

David with Argentine Army horse in the Andes near La Palenquera

Andes picnic, transported by mule

Did I mention the wine?  My Argentinean companion surveys our afternoon meal.  All our provisions were carried by the trusty army mules 

 

Mules do not deserve their bad press (IMHO)  >

David with Argentine Army mule in the Andes near La Palenquera

After the riding, I was taken on a trip around a vineyard in an open two-horse carriage and in a 4x4 to see abandoned slate mines (shade of my exploits as a teenager in North Wales), which was all very interesting but, eventually, we had to return by plane to Buenos Aires.   After the wonderful wildernesses of Salta and Mendoza, the bustling and exciting city was quite a shock but quite marvelous in its own way.  I was taken on the most extraordinarily different bus tour (bus to first place, blinds are wound down, short introductory video on the area, get out and walk, back on bus to next place, repeat - brilliant!) but the less that is said about my disastrous Tango lessons with a young dance teacher the better.  The Tango dinner and lively entertainment afterwards made up for it, though.


Jordan

Charity Riders in Wadi Rum, Jordan
Charity Riders in Wadi Rum, Jordan

 

Charity Riders in Wadi Rum, Jordan - Unicorn Trails

In 2007, Unicorn Trails was asked to arrange another charity horse trek for for the Irish Heart Foundation, this time to be in Wadi Rum in Jordan.  Again, there were about 25 riders and much of the challenge was in the basic accommodation and ablution arrangements - of the latter there were none, and of the former there was the open sky, all of which suited me but it was not universally popular!

As well as the desert riding, we visited Petra and stayed for one night in a luxury hotel by the Dead Sea.

This ride was adapted from a Unicorn Trails ride, Wadi Rum.

David's horse Adrienne in Wadi Rum, Jordan

 

My mare for the week, Adrienne

David riding Adrienne in Wadi Rum, Jordan

 

Russia

David gallops in the crisp Russian snow
Long canters and gallops in the crisp Russian snow

In February 2009, I escorted nine riders on a Snow Adventure in Russia; it was also a sort of exploratory ride for Unicorn Trails so I was also there to check up on it, although we were very confident that it would be fine because our French counterparts had sent riders and an escort for the past few years.  It was a wonderful experience, quite different from other rides: -25C but clear, still and bright (actually, I used to live on the North American prairie, so it was not a first in that sense - and improved by there being no wind :) but wrapped up well with lots of layers and plenty of long trots, we were never cold.  With overnight sleeper trains to and from the Vologda region where we were riding, we also had a lightning tour of Moscow on arrival and similar visit to St Petersburg, including the Hermitage, before departure.  Most people, who know that I went, thought I was nuts but I shall always remember this adventure.

There were also three non-riders and they travelled in the troika or the duga; all our horses were willing but we all had a soft spot for these courageous horses.


Kaldoonia

David with Kaldoonia, Russian Snow Adventure - Unicorn Trails

Troika on the Russian Snow Adventure - Unicorn Trails

Duga on the Russian Snow Adventure - Unicorn Trails

Riders on the Russian Snow Adventure - Unicorn Trails

 

Ethiopia

Not many people would think of Ethiopia as an adventurous holiday destination but Ethiopia is a large country and many parts are not representative of those that sadly make the international news.  By riding in the Bale Mountains in the Ethiopian Highlands, I was pleased to be able to make a small contribution to a co-operative conservation effort in the Oromia Region that promotes sustainable and community-based management of the forest.

The Changiti Forest dwellers are encouraged to find an alternative to wood collection as a source of  income.  All tourism in the region comes through the forest users group union (representing the large community) and a locally owned and run Tour Guides’ Association; payments go directly to them.  Each day, a new team of horses and assistants are hired from the local community to ensure that each community (and not just the ones at the foot of the mountains) gain from tourism.  Upon arrival at each forest camp the assistants feed the horses and then bring them back to their homes.  The next day, a new team of horses and assistants are hired from the local community.

Riding through the dappled Changiti Forest ...

... and into the open uplands

The brave little horses are ridden in a bit-less, Cherokee-type of rope bridle, which were easy to untie when we stopped for a break but not so easy to put back again!  The expert horsemen would retie them for each of us in a few seconds.

My horse, Blanc, pauses for thought during a break in the forest.
 

The horses also brought along all our provisions, camping gear and personal belongings; the horsemen walked as they had to take their horses back at the end of the day.

The farmers are all very proud of their horses and, of course, they all want theirs to be the ones to be chosen for the ride for the day.  Some are decorated in the hope of making them more appealing, whilst others are decorated after they are chosen as a celebration.
 

Unicorn Trails provided money to buy barley so that our horses could be fed each morning, before the ride began, and again in the afternoon before their owners rode them back home again.  Most of the horses knew what to do with their grain but some clearly had never come across it before and were quite suspicious at first.
 

Here I am higher up in the region - as you can tell from my clothes, it's rather cold and windy; the air is also rather thin but our horses and Abyssinian horsemen are quite adapted to it.

Our tents were set up next to the unoccupied nomad huts, which we used as somewhere to cook and eat.

This really was a trek that gave me memories that will last a lifetime. 

 

Chile to Argentina - Across the High Andes   By request I have written up, in more detail and more pictures, my ride across the High Andes

I mentioned that when I was last in Argentina in Mendoza, it was November and early December and so it was too early in the season for us to go over the High Andes but I had promised myself that I really would do this one day.  I have experienced several mountain crossing 'trips of a lifetime' but this has been the most memorable of all!

The crossing took us from the Andean foothills near Los Andes in Chile to the plains of Mendoza in Argentina; we enjoyed seven days riding over mountain passes, including the Espinacito Slope at 4500m (14,760ft) and six nights camping in the remotest of places.  There are no roads on this historic route, which was taken by San Martín in 1817 when his army crossed the High Andes to liberate the people of Chile in 1817, so we had to take all our camping gear, provisions and personal belongings (limited to 10kg per person) along with us on pack horses and mules.

My faithful Chilean Criollo took me from the start of the trek in the foothills of Los Andes to the heights of the Chilean- Argentinean border.

Here my first Argentinean horse and I pause at the top of a pass whilst the rider of the accompanying mule takes our picture.  Sadly, my horse had a bad saddle sore and I asked to change horses; she was used on light pack duties for the remainder of the trip.

Each day, whilst we were in the highest part of the Andes, the mighty condor would soar over us until they had decided that nothing was dying - and then they would go away until the next day!

We might have been camping in the wilds but we did it in style as you can see.  Oh, and did I mention the splendid South American wine?

On the third day, we arrived at the Chilean Army  boarder post.  We camped here but we did not cross over into Argentina until the we had ridden for much of the following day.

My tent mates and me - we got along really well :)

The three Australians who are clients of Unicorn Trails so I 'kept an eye out' for them - they are a great team who have done crazy things together since they were much younger men; they welcomed me into their group, even though I am a Pomme!

After a fairly long day riding, we choose a likely spot to pitch our tents - somewhere dry and flat and not too far away from the campfire or the water.

There were many times when we just had to stop and take in the spectacular scenery and extensive mountain views.

I never cease to be amazed at the rough terrain that horses will cover; they took all this, and much harder, in their stride.

At the Chilean-Argentinean boarder we said good-bye to our Chilean horses (who were taken back by our Chilean gauchos) and we transferred to our Argentinean horses, who had been brought up to meet us.  We rested here for a while in an Inca shelter; it was very strange to think that we were using this for the same purpose as people had done for hundreds of years.

We pause for a while at the highest point, the Espinacito Slope at 4500m (14,760ft) 

To reach the highest point of the Espinacito Slope, we so depended upon our horses as, step by step, they wound their way up in the rarified atmosphere.

There was no hurrying on this part of the trip and patience was truly a virtue as each horse took its turn to advance a few paces and then pause for breath.  The long line seemed to me like a caterpillar making its way along a branch.

I think it was a joke but I was awarded 'Best Dressed Andean Rider' on this day!

There is no doubt that this trip was quite demanding, although it was so exhilarating that I didn't realize it at the time.  To have been twenty years younger might have helped but it wasn't the physical activity that was demanding it was more the 'housekeeping' and the logistics of keeping track of where each item of kit had got to so that you could retrieve it instantly when needed (eg sun hat and spare camera batteries are in front of right hand pannier bag)   So, after seven days riding and six nights mountain camping, I was delighted to be able to go on to look at a new luxury ride in Patagonia.

  

Patagonia

In great contrast to the effort of camping in wild places, I was pampered and lived in luxury as I have never experienced before whilst on the Luxury Patagonia Lodge Retreat  at 'The End of The World'.  The estancia, in the mountains of southern Chile, is a very exclusive fly fishing destination but horses have always been a way of life there and the remote location is perfect for 'get away from it all' riding retreat.

The cabins and lodge of the estancia nestle in the Andean foot hills; overnight snow added crispness to the scene on my last day.

All the riding horses were bred on the estancia and are wonderfully responsive and sure footed.  Natural horsemanship has always been the norm here, which I found encouraging.

How wonderful it felt to sleep in a real bed that had been made for me and to wake each morning to look through picture windows, find fresh coffee and ...

... a roaring wood burning stove.

A picnic spot and river crossing

On our way to visit a lake and a neighbouring estancia, we paused for a while on a promontory; long ago, there had been a suspension foot bridge here but only the rusty main wires remain spanning the gorge.

Everything on the estancia has been built by the family and is so well appointed.  The tack room here is a typical example of the neat and tidy arrangements.

And at the end of the day, there's always a hot tub waiting.

 

 

Peru
Having returned from a luxury ride in  Peru, I must write up this adventure.  There are outline details (including an itinerary) of the Luxury Sacred Valley ride on the Unicorn Trails website:
www.unicorntrails.com/latinamerica/peru/luxurysacredvalley.

 Madagascar
I also escorted a ride in Madagascar and I must write this up too!  There are outline details (including an itinerary) of the Madagascar Trail on the Unicorn Trails website:
www.unicorntrails.com/africa/madagascar/madagascartrail

The Yukon
In July last year, I went off to the Yukon to escort a group, including a reporter from a national newspaper and a wildlife photographer.  I have been to the Yukon before, not riding, but it was a long time ago; I was half my age and I was interested to see what has changed in half a lifetime - not a lot!  I shall be writing up our expedition.
There are outline details (including an itinerary) of the Yukon Expedition on the Unicorn Trails website: www.unicorntrails.com/northamerica/canada/yukonexpedition and the reporter's piece appeared in the Telegraph Travel Magazine in February.

 

I shall write more about my horse adventures  from time to time but, meanwhile, you may read a bit more about them and what else I do (model engineering, railway models, old tractors and other old vehicles), on my website:  www.davidlosmith.co.uk.

 

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