Horse power may be making a comeback

By Richard Sharp, The Independent
Thursday, 18th September 2008

Millennial pursuit? Dan Tipple and Armani in East London
Millennial pursuit? Dan Tipple and Armani in East London
Photo: Teri Pengilley

It could be a scene from a bygone age: a pony and trap makes its way over Tower Bridge. But this pony and trap, driven by Dan Tipple, is surrounded by cars, their drivers slowing down for a look. Armani the pony transports Dan all over London, including into the centre, where he will drop his daughter off for one of her shopping trips.

"I sometimes pick up my daughter from her school, which goes down very well with her friends," explains Tipple, who stables his horse at Mudchute city farm in east London. "From a safety point of view you have to avoid going through tunnels like Rotherhithe or dual carriageways, but it's OK to use roads and drivers are tolerant. If I could, I would use my pony and trap all the time. Apart from the environmental benefits, it brings freedom and the journey is dictated by the pony. I also often collect shopping from the supermarket the same way."

Spurred on by rising fuel costs and concerns for the environment, growing numbers of people are deserting their cars. And some have found a creative, environmentally friendly mode of transport: horses are providing the means to travel into cities, drop children at school, do the shopping and even commute. In some cases, it's quicker to do these trips on horseback.

Theresa Salmon uses her cob horse to travel around Newham, East London. She saddles up to go to the supermarket or visit the cash machine. She says: "If I take the car to the supermarket it takes longer. I have the option of cutting through the park so I manage to avoid the main road. I also collect my seven-year-old daughter from the primary school."

Using horses for regular trips is something we should be seeing more of, Salmon believes. "Plenty more people could use horses in cities for all sorts of different reasons if they had somewhere to stable them. The Olympics in East London provides the perfect opportunity for improved horse-riding infrastructure to be introduced. Cycle lanes could be adapted to be multi-use so that horses could be used in a more integrated manner alongside pedestrians and cyclists. It's as if horses have been forgotten about and it's a shame, as they have been a feature of London life for centuries."

Even in the countryside, where stabling might be less of a problem, horse travel has died out. But there are those who are rediscovering the joys of travelling on four legs. Sarah Lindley is a personal assistant to a company director in Okehampton, Devon, and travels to work by horse. Motivated by rising fuel costs, she explains: "I decided that with the increase in petrol prices I needed to do something, and as I already owned a horse I decided that I could travel to work and get some exercise for myself and the horse at the same time. However, I am fortunate in that where I work has a field where I can leave my horse. I also have a colleague who also commutes to work by horse."

Safety is a critical consideration as part of journey planning. Lindley's route takes in roads as well as bridle paths, so horse and rider wear high-visibility jackets. While Lindley is one of a very small group of people travelling to work by horse, her experience would suggest that if there is somewhere to stable your steed, it's possible that commuting this way could become more popular. I warm to the idea of future commuters arriving for work and stabling their living 4x4s, grabbing a coffee and then striding into the office.

Melanie Bailey from West Dorset takes her five-year-old son and seven-year old daughter to the local primary school each day by pony. The journey is over country byways, which is the safest route to avoid crossing a busy main road. Bailey explains her reasons for using four legs to get her children to school and back: "If there is an accident or a lorry breaks down on one of the narrow lanes in the village, the road can be at a standstill. But I can collect the children and travel home across the fields, avoiding the roads and making my journey far quicker. I am also motivated to take my children to school by environmental concerns. Horses and ponies would be used more for commuting if the roads were made safer."

Another school-runner, Jackie Jones, who lives among the Chiltern Hills in Oxfordshire, chaperones her youngest child's pony ride to school. The two-mile round trip across roads and cross country takes half an hour. Jones says: "It's a good way to save petrol and I cycle alongside him. It's also a great way for me, my son and the pony to get some exercise. It's fairly unusual to see a five-year-old riding to school and we get a lot of friendly waves and comments from local people."

According to Department for Transport's 2006 National Travel Survey, the number of children travelling to school by car over the past 20 years has doubled, with 41 per cent of trips to school by children aged between five and 10 years old undertaken by car. Tony Armstrong, chief executive of Living Streets, which runs the Walk to School Campaign, says: "Driving children to school means we are creating unnecessary pollution, adding to congestion at peak times and encouraging our children to get used to a sedentary lifestyle."

Keen to give urban riding a try, I visited Westway Stables, incongruously cocooned beneath the A40 flyover in West London. Clare Hall, access officer from the British Horse Society, introduced me to my horse, Ned, and helped me climb, gingerly, on to his back. Riding as a novice into rush-hour traffic was fairly daunting, but it was surprising how cars slowed down and acted in a considerate manner. Hall explains: "I believe riding horses in cities can be safer than in rural areas, as vehicles in London are often so surprised to see horses so they are really cautious around them. The average road speed is also much slower in London and cars cannot fail to see a horse. I was once crossing a road near Green Park when a car stopped and the driver offered me an apple for my horse. In rural areas, speeding traffic can be huge problem for horse riders."

Ned expertly negotiated a plethora of raised paving stones, pot holes and other obstacles, serving to illustrate how well horses can cope when dealing with tough urban terrains. Returning to the stables, we picked blackberries that were hanging over a graffiti-covered wall, and fed them to a hungry Ned as a reward for his hard work. Thanks to the superior height advantage, this impromptu snack would normally have been out of reach for any wannabe pedestrian pickers. The ride helped to fuel my understanding of urban riders, to see how they find balance and tranquility amid the mayhem. The motorway drivers obliviously hurtling over one of London's best-kept secrets only added to the Wild Westway's mysterious and dreamlike allure.

Steed for speed
  • Children under 14 must wear a helmet by law, though everyone should anyway.
  • You must not take a horse on to a footpath or pavement. Ride on the road.
  • Always use bridle paths - not cycle tracks - where possible.
  • In poor visibility, riders must wear reflective clothing, and put reflective strips around the horse's legs and tail-guard.
  • Always tie to a firmly anchored object. Old posts or fencing can be weak at the bottom, and may be ripped up.
  • It is illegal to buy or sell a horse, or use it for purposes of competing or breeding without a valid horse passport.
  • Tani Burns

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