‘An amazing experience’: Pony and rider cross Britain coast to coast

  • A rider and her Fell pony have raised almost £6,000 for Macmillan Cancer Support after successfully crossing the UK west to east along the challenging Trans Pennine Trail.

    Sarah Bartlett and Billy are the first horse and rider combination to have tackled the whole route from Southport to Hornsea — which involved big and busy roads linking up the sections of trail.

    The epic trip involved eight days of travelling between 25 and 30 miles a day, which Sarah described as a “hard slog at times”but an “amazing experience”.

    “There were the lows, including the horse lorry we were staying in each night breaking down halfway through the trek, but there were many highs and many memories made,” she said.

    On the August bank holiday they got caught in the heatwave while crossing the Pennines at Woodhead Stretch and had to steady their pace, which meant longer gaps between the planned water stops.

    “We’d done a lot of hill training but it was a hot day and we’d gone up one steep hill and there was no one to be seen anywhere, just sheep and the pennines,” Sarah recalled. “We came across a six-inch deep puddle and he just planted in it and started taking the odd sip — for a horse who doesn’t normally drink much on the road that let me know how hot he was. We had to stop there and rest for about 40 minutes.

    “We had brought Equidgel with us to encourage him to drink at the stops but it was just such a warm day — there were a couple of occasions like that where I started to have doubts about whether I should ask him to do it.”

    At another point, an error of route caused them to cover 46 miles in one day and the knock-on effect left Sarah considering giving up.

    “On the sixth day I was in pain and Billy was over-tired,” she said. “It was a real low point, we were just by Drax power station on a long and busy high-speed road at rush hour and we still had another 10 miles to go that day and I pulled off the road to rest.

    “My ankle was throbbing as were my wrists in which I have tendonitis and my outlook was bleak. Billy did not feel sound and so we took it slowly, but I worried whether there was something very wrong and if we should actually carry on.”

    Sarah said she had videoed herself talking about how she was feeling and had posted it on the Facebook page for the trip. She was buoyed as she saw donations start to flood in.

    Fortunately Billy bounced back, and they completed the final two days of their trek alongside Sarah’s friend Gill Ellis and her pony Alf.

    “I was still concerned about Billy the following morning, but Alf and Gill took the weight and carried the heavy saddle bags that Billy had been laden with for the previous six days,” Sarah said. “As soon as we started to trot, I knew I had no need for worry as he was rested and back on form.”

    While she rode most of the route, Sarah did drive Billy for one particularly challenging section of road northeast of the centre of Liverpool.

    “Where we had to go through Widness to Warrington there was no access to the Trans Pennine Trail and there was a point where we had to go down a four-lane stretch of road in lane three, because of where we needed to turn off. I opted for the carriage there as I’m more of a confident driver than a rider and I thought we’d be more visible to drivers that way — although we were plastered in high-vis throughout the trip.”

    The 215-mile coast-to-coast journey across northern England took eight months to plan and was inspired by Sarah’s father’s shock terminal cancer diagnosis at Christmas, at the age of just 53.

    “He’s a very active, proud businessman and we only found out because he had a fall and broke his arm and leg from tripping up a step, which is not what you’d expect in a man his age.

    “We found out he had cancer which started in his kidneys and spread to his liver, lymph nodes, ribcage and various other bones, which is why they broke,” she explained.

    “My dad was the one who nurtured my love of horses as a child and he was the one who sent me for riding lessons.

    “It had always been on my bucket list to do a long-distance ride and when dad was in hospital just after he got his diagnosis we were given a lot of support from Macmillan, who came out and helped him secure things like benefits,” she said. “We got talking and I thought if I was going to do a big ride, I’d rather do it for a good cause than for the hell of it.”

    Sarah, who now lives in Worcestershire where she works as a dog trainer, chose the Pennine trail as her father’s south Yorkshire home is right in the middle of it. It’s an area she knows well from childhood, and where she also has fond memories of working for a western-riding Fell trekking centre in her teens.

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    While it was full of stunning scenery, and the trip proved a bigger challenge than she expected and Sarah confessed she might have had second thoughts if she had known “how much energy the planning would take”.

    “I can see why a horse and rider have not done the length of the  trail before, there are so many big roads to tackle to join up parts of the trail that do not have access for horses,” she said. “The maps also had a lot of mistakes on, and even with all the kit there was still space for things to go wrong.”

    Sarah added that as well as being grateful to the “lovely people” she met on the way — with all of those hosting her and Billy for the night doing so for free — she would for ever be in the debt of her amazing pony.

    Billy is Sarah’s first horse who she bought four and a half years ago and she describes him as a brilliant safe hack with whom she has formed a “special bond”.

    “He kept me safe over all of those miles, lorries speeding by us, being in the third lane of a four-lane large roundabout and all without batting an eye nor twitching an ear, only concerned to get where we were going and keeping us both safe,” she said.

    “He really is a pony in a million and I never take his bravery for granted. What an absolute star he is and how lucky I am to have him in my life.”

    Donations to Macmillan for Sarah and Billy’s trip can still be made on her fundraising page.

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