Doing the camino on horseback

In April 2002 my sister Susie and I set off from Canterbury Cathedral to raise money for charity by riding our Appaloosas along the mediaeval pilgrim routes through France and Spain, known as the Way of St. James. We’re just middle-aged happy hackers who had never done any endurance riding, and when I bought my leopard-spotted Leo in 1999 he was a successful show horse and I’m sure a trip to Spain wasn’t what he had in mind! Susie’s Apollo, bought in 2000 specifically for the trip, was an Irish/Appaloosa cross of unknown history with enough loud spots to give you a migraine. Many of our sponsors wisely waited to see if we made it before contributing, and our blacksmith for one didn’t believe we would. With good reason. Leo had flat feet with thin hoof walls, quite unsuitable for long distance riding, and Apollo turned out to have such a farrier phobia that he had to be sedated.

But we got there. It took us just over four months to ride the 1700 miles from Canterbury to our destination, Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, and the horses wore through so many sets of shoes that Apollo became quite blasé about blacksmiths. We chose this route because Susie, who was very involved with her local church, wanted to make a true pilgrimage, and in my case a dose of cancer (now eleven years behind me) concentrated my mind on making a dream to do a very long distance ride come true.

My non-horsy husband drove my ancient horsebox with his golf clubs defiantly tied to the central partition with headcollar ropes. Susie and I rode to Dover, loaded the horses into Bessie the Bedford for the Channel crossing on the ferry, and disembarked at Calais. We rode south east of Paris to Vézelay in Burgundy where we joined the main pilgrim route, but then we diverted down a lesser known pilgrim track through the Auvergne because it looked more interesting. And it was, but Susie suffers from vertigo and she still hasn’t forgiven me for dragging her across the Massif Central! We rejoined the Way of St. James at Cahors and crossed over the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles, sticking to the relatively low main road, and headed south to Pamplona. From there it was due west via Burgos and León to Galicia in north west Spain, following the yellow arrows that signpost the Way for the foot pilgrims and, as a result, having to take the horses through all the major cities, with a large supply of plastic bags and rubber gloves so we could clear up numerous pedestrian precincts behind them!

We took their hard feed in the lorry, but they supplemented it with everything from clover to Mars Bars and Magnum ice-creams. Unfortunately Apollo overdosed on green alfalfa in Spain, which resulted in an unscheduled interlude of lorry travel for him and Susie whilst he recovered. We were in the foothills of the first of two mountain ranges when it happened so Leo and I, pushing on because time was short, crossed them on our own.

Riding alone was an entirely different experience, one of intense closeness with my horse, of trust as we thundered along beside an abyss for the sheer exhilarating hell of it. But although Susie and I grumbled at each other’s different natural pace occasionally, we rode together companionably for all those months, and the horses were best friends. It was my husband who drew the short straw; in Spain we were far from the beaten track and golf courses, and he read dozens of books while waiting for Susie and me to catch up with him each day.

Leo and Apollo carried us or followed us unquestioningly wherever we asked them to go. When the Way went unexpectedly through a house, they calmly clopped in one door and out of the other. They didn’t turn a hair either at HGVs brushing past or at being caught in the middle of herds of galloping goats heading home, and they stood quietly when a violent storm in the Pyrenees exploded overhead, with lightning sizzling horribly close to their bits and stirrups. In the cities Leo sometimes grew impatient when the traffic lights were red, nudging the vehicle in front with his nose, while the opportunist Apollo took advantage of one long wait at a pedestrian crossing to eat Susie’s straw hat. And when Susie marched me round many a church and cathedral, intent on improving my religious education, they peered curiously into what they obviously perceived to be the interior of some lofty cool stable.

We rode for days on the high Spanish plains where the only shade at midday was thrown by a lone vulture wheeling overhead; the temperature reached 40ºC but the horses adapted to it, and despite the rocky terrain they never went lame or needed so much as an exercise boot between them.

We slept in Bessie, camped or stayed at pilgrim refugios. We took some electric fencing with us and created mini fields on campsites, beside cemeteries (where there was always a cold water tap, normally used for the flowers rather than an equine water bucket!) and on communal land, courtesy of the village mayors. We met helpful farmers, superior Thoroughbred owners, and a Frenchman who was proud to be a descendant of the last of the great tiger trainers. Most of all we met other pilgrims of countless shapes, sizes, nationalities and quirks, including one who engaged us in nonchalant conversation while walking along wearing nothing at all except a bum bag. Over his bum.

The strangest night for Leo and Apollo was the one they spent under the bullring spectator stands in Sahagún. There were so many horsy hazards in the form of broken glass, lumps of concrete and machinery bristling with spikes that there was no question of fencing it off. There was nowhere else to stay and all we could do was tell them to be careful. And they were.

Finally we reached Santiago, clattering along the cobbled streets into the city centre under the disapproving eyes of the police, and we tied Leo and Apollo to a shop window while we had our pilgrim passports stamped to show we’d made it, and then went and hugged the statue of St. James in the Cathedral as all the pilgrims do.

Returning home again in Bessie, I was nostalgic within hours for our life on the road, and it’s been hard to settle back to a nine to five existence in an office. In fact I haven’t, and Leo tells me he’s bored and would like another trip. I’ve written a book about our adventures and now I’m planning another ride for charity, this time to Rome. Susie turned pale when I mentioned the Alps, so Leo and I will ride it alone, following old paths down the eastern side of France and crossing the mountains into Italy near Briançon. I’m hoping my husband will drive Bessie again, and I’ve already found two promising golf courses on the map close to the pass at Montgenèvre …