Horseback riding is an excellent way to get lost in nature while your travel. If you have ever imagined yourself galloping across a golden beach or climbing up a misty mountain searching for Mordor – this is your post. Guided tours are available all over the world. Most farms cater to visitors of all experience levels. One thing that seems to be missing in the travel blogging world are tips and tricks to turn your riding experience from night-mare (horse pun) to a rainbow unicorn. There are thousands of travelers who have never touched a horse but, sign up for treks. This is fantastic! Allow me to make your ride a little less stressful.
I grew up on the back of a horse and attribute most of my wanderlust-y ways to my experience with horses. Riding brings out this primal side and inspires me to press on for undiscovered adventure. I have trained in English and Western styles. My specialty is groundwork and saddle breaking young horses. Horses require a delicate balance of acting as an alpha and acting with kindness. They are herd animals and are prey in the wild. This causes their fight or flight instinct to be at the forefront of their decision-making process. You have to act as a team because there are two brains at work.
It’s my personal goal to ride in every country I visit. So far, I have taken treks in Ireland, Iceland, and Scotland. I could be doing better with my goal I must admit.
Take into consideration the length of time, the difficulty of the ride and the number of riders they accept for a typical ride. Check out the About page. Find out the experience levels of the guides. A respectable company will have complimentary reviews. Some key points to look for in reviews include: behavior of the horses, if the riders felt safe and quality of the guide. Corporate and private owners are normally required to carry some sort of liability insurance as horse riding is an inherent risk. Inquiring about insurance is reassuring but, usually not essential. Normally, the day of your ride you will be required to fill in a liability waiver. Be sure to answer the waiver truthfully.
For the love of the equine gods wear a damn helmet. I don’t care if it ruins your hair and I know it makes you look like a mushroom head. Take advice from the girl who was wearing a helmet and still had her brain scrambled in a freak accident. Ride enough, you will experience the premature dismount. Don’t let your trek in the Italian country side end in disaster. If the farm doesn’t offer you the use of a helmet you are under no obligation to ride. You may want to look for different accommodations. Wear a damn helmet!
As far as tops go it really doesn’t matter. Take into consideration temperature and weather. A loose-ish pair of jeans are typically the best for a ride. Shorts I would advise against unless you wish to experience the worst chafing of your entire life. Sport pants or yoga pants are okay, but they don’t offer much grip. It’s also important to pick the right shoes: sneakers will do, hiking boots are ideal, sandals are a no-no.
Take a minute to stretch out before you mount and after you dismount. You will thank me later. Cowboys walk all bow legged for a reason. Touch your toes, a quad stretch, maybe a runner’s lunge – anything to wake those legs up!
The secret to staying balanced and center: pretend there is a straight line from your shoulders, hips to ankles. Keeping this position will firm up your center of gravity. Inexperienced riders tend either sit too far back or too far forward which causes your legs to swing too far forward or back. Results: premature dismounting. Keep upright and centered with your shoulders square for best balancing.
The likelihood that the owner of operations would willingly pair you with a dangerous animal is slim but, you should always remember that any 1,500-pound animal is dangerous. Fear is healthy but, remember that the horse knows what it is doing. Freaking out or raising your voice is only going to make the situation worse. If you are having an issue alert the main rider in a low, calm voice. If you truly believe that your life is in danger, dismount.
Those leather pieces you hold in your hands? Those are attached to a metal bar inside your new friend’s mouth. Refrain from pretending to start a lawnmower to steer. Instead, if you wish to turn use short, slow pulls in the direction you want to go. Want to look like a pro? Press your opposite leg into your horse’s side. Viola! Steering. To stop, the normal cue is to pull back slowly on both reins at once and say Woah.
Risky behavior can include riding and taking pictures. It’s all too tempting to whip out your phone and snap some photos. Use your better judgment and disconnect from the world for an hour or two. Consider this too, it’s risky when you aren’t paying attention but, even more, risky for your phone if you drop it. Farms are not responsible for your technology if it gets ruined.
These creatures are gentle and don’t deserve to be treated badly. I swapped horror stories with owners about individuals on holiday (particularly stag parties) drinking while on a trek and hurting the animals. Be sure to listen and respect your guide – it’s their job, after all, to keep you safe! Regarding the mistreatment of any animal:
Horseback riding is my favorite thing to do when I travel. Remember to keep safe and have fun!
Travel food is tricky. Often a traveler must choose between cooking in unfamiliar accommodations or eating out which can add up. From a budget perspective food cost is the second largest money consuming part of travel, right behind transportation. Unless dumpster diving is your thing – to each their own – paying for food is unavoidable. Travel budgets shouldn’t preach all restrictions so, be sure to visit local eateries. My personal budget plans for eating out 2-3 times a week depending on options. Food is a vital part of the culture. If it’s time to splurge just refrain from eating at the Hard Rock Café in Prague. Find something authentic.
Markets seem to be the best option for finding delicious local produce and goods. The abundant selections of meat, cheeses, veggies and artisan goods (bread, pastries, jams) – to cover all food groups! Wandering around a farmer’s market is quickly becoming a favorite. Better yet, all proceeds fall directly back into the pockets of the locals. Markets are responsible tourism at its best. I will shop at a grocery store for fill-in items that I can’t find in a market – condiments, frozen fries and Red Bull.
How do I stay full throughout the day? I pretend I’m the mother of a toddler. To keep myself from getting a case of the hangries I always have a snack in my purse or backpack. A simple apple could be the difference between Kate-Hulk and Post-Snickers Kate. Bring enough food to keep you satisfied. With that said I wouldn’t stuff your bags with excessive ingredients. Remember kitchen sink will never fit in a purse. I’m looking at you Mary Poppins for unrealistic purse expectations.
Breakfast food is often the cheapest. Fry up some eggs rich with protein or my go-to Greek yogurt, granola, and fresh fruit combo. Eating a nutrient-rich breakfast will carry you throughout the day. I often forget to eat during the day as I’m getting distracted by bookshops or wandering around castles. I eat the largest portion of my calories in the morning. Scientifically speaking, this is the ideal way to consume food anyway but, I graduated with a degree in economics not nutrition so… A ginormous breakfast makes it easier to get be satisfied by a salad for lunch. Dinner is usually a free for all. Don’t have access to a kitchen? Sometimes hotels offer complimentary breakfasts. Be sure to take advantage of it!
Unless it’s pickled shark, before you contemplate trying it – DONT – run far, far away. Local cuisine can appear unappetizing and smell funny, remember the point of traveling is for an experience, not to be comfortable. Local watering holes are often cheaper than chain restaurants, stop into a tavern or even a food truck!
Whereas I haven’t come across a store yet that doesn’t have Doritos or Coca-Cola, certain foods are just impossible to find. However, because they are imported goods the price tag tends to be slightly steeper than the local brand. Take a deep breath, try something new. If there aren’t any Starbucks around, suck it up buttercup. Coffee is still coffee, yogurt is still yogurt, and carrots are still carrots even in France. Think of it as a gastronomic adventure.
It’s almost a reward to eat fruits and vegetables. Produce can always be found at a reasonable price. Fruits and veggies are filling so your stomach will be full throughout the day and full of fiber – so your stomach will always feel in tip-top shape.
Your Cobweb Clearer, Kate
Day three of cramming as much of the Highlands as possible. I awoke with the birdies and dragged myself to the Kia. Six hours of driving and ten hours of adventuring sure makes for a weary traveler. Repeat steps from the last two days: fuel up and Redbull. Today the goal was to drive to John O’Groats the northernmost point of mainland United Kingdom. I didn’t have anything planned in John O’Groats. I was more interested in the road. The windy A9 would merge into the two-lane coastal A99. I found a map that showed some typical, historical spots and with some help from Atlas Obscura I was rearing to have a busy day. The day was warm and sunny. Thank goodness, the weather held for my entire trip!
As I approached Dunrobin Castle the plan was to breeze through one of many stops. I ended up spending about two hours completely entranced by Andy Hughes and his birds of prey. Falconry dates to 1700 BC in the Middle East. The hunting art involves a hunter using a trained bird of prey to kill and retrieve game such as rabbit, pheasant or other species of bird. Falconry didn’t reach Europe until about 900AD. I’m positive this guy has full-on conversations with his birds. Which inevitably happens the closer relationship to a pet. Been there. I appreciated the birds but, the connection between handler and animal was spectacular to witness. Coming from an equestrian background, I understand herd mentality and the vital balance between being the alpha and gentleness. It’s slightly different working with predators. Their relationship is built on equality and trust. Teamwork is key since the solitary hunter will do what is best for itself. The flock (I suppose?) consisted of about ten falcons and two owls. Zooming around the athletic birds demonstrated their trade by ‘killing’ lures. Dunrobin castle is an excellent stop. The inside of the castle was in pristine condition and had a French flair going. It is home to the Earl of Sutherland and Clan Sutherland.
This is my comrade Cedar – an Eagle Owl. It’s his job to hang out at Dunrobin Castle and hunt rabbits. Occasionally take some pictures with girls obsessed with owls. He works with the aviary and Falconry expert Andy Hughes to hunt as well as teach conservation to travelers who pass through. As a person who also works with animals, it’s heartwarming to see someone who has such an intense bond with the creatures they care for.
Less than a mile down the road is Carn Liath Broch.
A broch is an Iron Age drystone structure that is only found in Scotland.
A broch is typically round and was used as either housing or defensive purposes – archaeologists can’t agree. It’s a splendid example if you fancy ruins and historic archaeology. Travelers only need about ten minutes to check it out. I took the opportunity to have a snack and relax in the sun. The structure overlooks a pasture and the ocean. I had the place to myself so it was delightfully silent.
The Grey Cairns of Camster are some of the oldest structures in Scotland. Clocking in at 5,000 years longstanding the stone constructions show us modern folks perfect examples of round cairns and long cairns. Cairns are typically used as burial chambers. Upon excavation in the late 19th century the long cairn produced several human skeletons untouched, but, in the round cairn, archaeologists found human and animal bones which were all burned. The two human skeletons were incomplete both missing their legs. Archaeologists presume that the round cairn was used for ritual. Guess which cairn was open for exploration? Crawl on your hands and knees or squat walk through a ten-foot tunnel into the round cairn’s antechamber. The tunnel entrance was probably 3X2 and pitch black so, seriously not for the claustrophobic. The inner chamber filtered in light through a slight hole in the top of the structure.
The next ancient site was the Hill o’ Many Stanes. The site confounds archaeologists as there no proof that the plot of land home to approximately 200 stones, arranged in 22 rows is an authentic ancient site. The straight lines and arrangement suggest that the site was a lunar chart. The Hill o’ Many Stanes is not exactly exciting, but, the mauve heather carpet along the hill makes for a unique view in contrast to the blue coastline.
Much like the cairns at Camster, Cairn o’Get sports a narrow entrance leading to a roomy antechamber. Cairn o’ Get is dissimilar to the other cairns as the top has fallen in. This site offers a peek into the structure without having to crawl on hands and knees to reach the center. To find Cairn o’ Get park along the lake and take about a mile and a half walk through some cow pastures. Don’t worry follow the back and white markers. It’s a quiet place far off the main A99. Take in the sound of a burn flowing through the waist-high ferns. Be sure to stay on the paths beyond the pastures as the land is boggy and water saturated.
The Old Wick Castle lovingly called the “Old Man of Wick” sits on a gaunt, neck of land that juts into the sea. The bones of the castle date back to the 12th century and has some ties to early Norse visitors. There is not much left of the castle, but, it’s a great walk along the coast and a bit of an adrenaline kick peering over the cliff sides. The tower is surrounded by sheer drops on three sides.
The last castle I saw was from afar. Sad times. It was on private land!
Other honorable mentions that I missed, but wanted to see:
The Yarrow Trail
Sinclair & Girnigoe Castle
See? Three days is not enough time… If you have been following along the past three posts you will know that I had three AMAZING action-packed days. I didn’t even scratch the surface of the extensive hiking trails and historical castles and archaeology sites. I think I might spend a month in the north next time!
Missed the other posts? Here ya go:
Your Cobweb Clearer, Kate
The delights of eighteen hours of sunlight are just that – seemingly endless daylight. The con is being roused by the sun at 4:30AM. Maybe I’m a bird. Dark skies put me right to sleep, but, when that sun rises – I’m ready for that worm. Or rather coffee. Goals for day two of the highlands road trip was driving from Inverness to Skye on the northern A832. On the way back visit Eilean Donan and return on the A87. Six to seven hours driving time leaves me with about eleven hours to hike, drool over castles, and get caught in a deluge at least once.
I set out at 6AM for the gas station number one rule of road tripping: never run out of gas fill up on the quarter tank mark. I picked up Red Bull and sandwich supplies from the local grocery store. Number two rule of road tripping don’t let yourself become hangry. Scotland’s narrow one-track roads don’t support road rage induced jackass behavior.
The first leg of the trip on the A832 required concentration. The landscape was stunning, but, there were too few places to stop along the one land roads. There was also a surprising amount of traffic so, it would have been impolite to pull off in a passing track. That is a sure fire way to immerse in the art of Scottish creative swearing. Plus, I was beelining for the Fairy Pools. If I arrived early enough, I could avoid the hordes of other people who want to catch a fairy by the tutu. There was plenty of signage to lead you to the trailhead once you crossed the Isle of Sky bridge. The descent into the misty valley is about ¾ of a mile. It’s a bit steep, be sure you have proper footwear. You can view the River Brittle cutting through the vast field from the trailhead but, you must hike down to the vein to feel the magic. Once you cross a series of streams and stepping stones the reward is pristine water and cerulean waterfalls tumbling into deep basalt caldrons. No fairies, but, the path lead on into a wilderness zone. Obviously, I took the opportunity to stretch my legs and was keen on a visible rock scramble. The looming mountains in the backdrop are the Black Cuillins. The gunmetal, basalt cliffs are entrancing. In the blink of an eye, I was transported into a Tolkien landscape.
Next on the docket was Eilean Donan! Brooding over the tidal island caught in a Loch trifecta is the infamous Eilean Donan castle. The Gaelic word Loch means lake – in case you were wondering. The castle sits in the middle of where Loch Duich, Long, and Alsh meet. In the early 14th century, the land was a stronghold for Clan Mackenzie. Following the first Jacobite uprising and the Battle of Glen Shiel (1715), Eilean Donan was essentially leveled. The castle was restored in the early 1900’s and has appeared in advertisements and movies ever since including a Pierce Brosnan incarnation of James Bond. Eilean Donan is iconic to Scotland. Truth time: taking pictures outside of the castle was probably the best part. Entrance into Eilean Donan seemed a little steep for what it was. Of course, it’s all preference. The rooms were filled with artifacts and notes on Scottish history but, I had absorbed the information from other locations. If this is not your first Scottish rodeo, snap pictures, eat lunch and move on.
Another great stretch of land was the twining valley of Glen Shiel. The foot of the Five Sisters mountain range is a tiny pull off with a trailhead leading up to Sgurr nan Spainteach (The Peak of the Spaniards). You will miss it. Luckily, I had the highway to myself so I just flipped it in reverse. The hill walk was the site of The Battle of Glen Shiel which ended the first Jacobite uprising and sealed the demise of Eilean Donan. Here Highland clans and a frigate of Spanish soldiers engaged the English army by ambushing them from the sheer hills. Their battlefield advantage ultimately failed them due to lack of arms and provisions. The hike up the hill was exciting and set the glutes on fire. The ferns were as tall as hip height in a few spots – quite the experience. At the top of the ridge is a remaining stone barricade and a few lichen covered structures.
Just when you thought I was done. I made one last stop. Back in Culloden is an ancient burial ground called the Clava Cairns and standing stones. There are three bronze age tombs surrounded by 8-10 standing stones. It’s a great area to read or absorb nature. There are trees you can sit under. The roots even provide comfortable seats.
The stones are the alleged inspiration for Craigh Na Dun from the Outlander series. However, Craigh Na Dun is purely fictional. No time traveling for the Travel Scout. Although, that would inspire a wicked niche blog, though, right?
Alas, I returned to my camper van and promptly went to sleep. It would be another 6AM rally for me. Again eighteen hours of daylight – I’ll be damned it I wasted them.
Be sure to check out my other action-packed road trips through the highlands:
Your Cobweb Clearer, Kate
The drive from Glasgow to Inverness is roughly 300km and three hours depending on congestion taking place the one-track roads. I suggest running the A9 from Glasgow through Glencoe and Fort William. I took a detour to reach Kilchurn Castle but, back tracked to drive through Glencoe. Everyone I spoke with urged the track. Excellent advice. The track was windy, misty and wild. The weather was a little drizzly but, when in Scotland if it isn’t raining – it’s about to.
Stop number one was the ruined Kilchurn Castle which was once a stronghold for Clan Campbell. Now forgive me – I don’t have a lick of Scottish in me or knowledge of the clan structure, but, clan Campbell seemed to be powerful in their time. Various incarnations of the Dukes of Argyll owned castles all over the surrounding areas. The hike into the ruin was short but wet. I made it beyond the walls just before a deluge.
Quick history lesson – The five-story giant had been in use since the 15th century but, fell into ruin before the 1800’s. During the first Jacobite uprising Kilchurn served as a militia stronghold. In the mid 1700’s the castle tower was struck by lightning. Parts of the fallen turret can still be seen in the inner courtyard. The castle was completely abandoned when the roof was torn off in a violent storm.
Kilchurn castle in the mist and gloom looks quite ominous. As it should, there are several legends featuring the likes of an eel monster, haunting and witches. Ghostly cries and children playing have all been reported occurrences as well as a general feeling of being unwelcome. I can’t say I had that experience – maybe I was too busy trying to stay dry!
The detour only took me thirty minutes out of the way. Onward to Fort William! I had one goal in Fort William which was to at least set foot on Ben Nevis. Ben Nevis is the highest mountain in Britain at 1,345m above sea level. Rain and time constraints had me move on rather prematurely, but, I enjoyed stretching my legs nonetheless.
I couldn’t go north and not peer into the murky waters of Loch Ness. To be honest Loch Ness was mostly underwhelming, not just because I didn’t spot Nessie. I just didn’t get any feeling from it. With that said photography opportunity was on point.
Let me first say that my plan was to camp. I was hoping to rent a tent, sleeping bag, and maybe a hot plate. I had no such luck. However, thanks to AirBNB I found a 1970’s baby blue camper van. It was adorable and the family who owned it were just as awesome. The camper van was a saving grace as I stayed much warmer than I would have in a tent. Scotland is cold people. I’m going to refer you to: 8 Outfits I Wore in the Arctic for some layering and outdoor dressing tips!
Once I settled into my new digs I decided to take a walk in the moors. A moor is a track of land that is a grassland or savanna biome with low growing shrubs and poor-quality soil. The moors in Scotland are terribly permeable and are soaked through creating bogs. Victorian stories always warn of the dangers lurking in a moor. I understand now. They are frigid and riddled with sinkholes. Approaching a moor in the daylight is daunting, let alone trying to hike one in the night.
Less than a mile from my van was Culloden Battlefield. The Battle of Culloden was fought between the English and Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite army. The campaign was to restore a Stuart king to the throne as per the divine right to rule theory. The battle marked the end of the Jacobite uprising in 1746. As a result of the loss the English wiped out the Clan culture as retribution. More than eighteen hundred men died on both sides in less than an hour. Fifteen hundred of them being from the Jacobite side. The English only suffered three hundred casualties.
The battlefield was a heavy place. Much akin to Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. It was certainly spooky visiting at dusk – completely alone. What made the field so unnerving was the bog hissing and cracking from saturation. The soil smelled like wet, rotting leaves in autumn. I always feel a certain amount of electricity on a battlefield no matter how long ago it is. Nature never forgets. Culloden is no exemption.
Your Cobweb Clearer, Kate
Blah, blah, blah I fell in love with the Highlands. Blah, blah, blah, wanderlust. Blah, blah, blah the most beautiful place I have ever been. I’ll save you the sentiment and get right to the juicy bits:
In all seriousness, it took one road trip to Inverness to spark a healthy obsession with all things tartan. I stayed in a baby blue 1970’s Volkswagen camper van in my AirBNB host’s backyard. The property was backed right up to Culloden Moor. I was all set to hunt down all of the filming locations from Outlander only to discover it was mostly shot in or around Glasgow and Edinburgh. Ugh. Well, there was always Eilean Donan and the Glencoe route from various incarnations of James Bond. I’d have to pretend that my KIA was an Aston Martin – a girl can fantasize, right? Regardless, Inverness is the perfect jump-off point to visit several major attractions in the Highlands. From the quiet city, you could plan several hundred combinations of road trips – I only had time for three. I regret not spending the entire week but, even so, I would have barely scratched the surface. Each road trip deserves its own post so, as I gather my thoughts on each of the three days I spent in the Highlands here are some teasers:
There are so many castles to visit! Most of the ruined ones are free. I prefer the ruined ones. There is usually a good walk involved and less people around. You can really feel the old vibes.
There are hardly any straight shot highways. Be prepared for two-lane roads that snake their way through the countryside.
This was hiker heaven. Keep watch for places to pull off as they are not immediately identified. They don’t call me K-Turn Kate for nuthin’.
Two Words: Fairy Pool.
I’m endlessly fascinated by ancient structures. There are hundreds of places that showcase ancient architecture and a glimpse into the past.
I’m going to talk endlessly about the Falcons at Dunrobin castle and how one day I will become a falconry expert myself. These amazing birds of prey were orphaned or injured but, taken in by the conservatory. They are trained to hunt pheasants, rabbits and other small game by the aviary expert Andy Hughes. It’s really cool to see someone who loves their animals. I have much respect for that.
The heaviest place, Culloden Battlefield.
Enjoy! There are more pictures and stories to come.
Your Cobweb Clearer, Kate
Stirling is a little town known as the Gateway to the Highlands. The ancient town used to be the stopping point for merchants in the medieval times as they traded between northern and southern Scotland. Stirling is the perfect day trip and far less crowded than Edinburgh or Glasgow. The streets will mostly be empty and you may have the entire castle to yourself – yep, a castle to yourself. Here are some more history packed reasons to visit historical Stirling:
Stirling is possibly best known for a famous battle between the Scots and English during the Wars of Scottish Independence. Despite being severely outnumbered, William Wallace lead the Scottish army to victory in 1297 and fought off the English. Today you can visit the memorial dedicated to Wallace. William Wallace sounds familiar? He is the very man who inspired the movie Braveheart.
The Church of the Holy Rude is a medieval parish founded in 1129 making it the second oldest establishment in the city. A leader of the Reformation John Knox preached the sermon for the coronation of James VI the king who would commission an English translation of the Bible. This would be the Bible we know today.
James was crowned king at such a young age because Mary Queen of Scots was being tried for an alleged plot to assassinate Elizabeth I. If the assassination attempt were successful Mary Queen of Scots would reign over Scotland, Ireland, and England. Mary tried for treason lost her head.
According to legend. A band of Vikings had their eyes set on land later to be Stirling and occupied by a small group of Celtic villagers. They planned to attack in the dead of night but, upon hearing a pack of howling wolves they decided to retreat. To this day the wolf has been the symbol of Stirling! Here I thought they were just team Stark for the iron throne…
Much like Edinburgh castle, Stirling castle sits high on a hill watching over the town below. Here is your chance to have some alone time with a Scottish castle. I visited on a Thursday and was pleasantly surprised to only run into maybe two hundred other travelers at the max. You have the option to join a free tour or wander about. I’m sure you know that I picked the latter. I even ventured into the underground barracks completely alone. Maybe? It certainly was dark and creepy. Be sure to walk the castle walls, check out the tapestry museum, and visit the royal chambers. Most of the displays are not original but, it seems the curators have taken special care to ensure an authentic experience!
Scotland’s national animal is the Unicorn. Naturally, the enemy of the lion which is a symbol of England.
Get snap happy. Stirling is terribly photogenic. Stroll along the castle walls to gain a 360 dragon’s eye view of the entire town. I don’t need to say much, the pictures speak for themselves:
This lodge was built in the 17th century and was home to members of high society at that time. Be sure to visit the castle first – admission into the lavish townhouse is granted with a castle ticket!
Mar’s Wark or rather the remnants of a lodge from the 1560’s. The location is nothing particularly outstanding but, is in the care of Scotland’s historical society. The ruins are worth taking a peek as you visit the Church of the Holy Rude or the cemetery located behind the lodge. The front of the mansion has interesting stonework.
Your Cobweb Clearer, Kate