Surf trips are essential to the experience of actually being a surfer.
Exploring, searching, getting skunked, scoring, getting the best sleep of your life because you’re completely surfed out, then popping out of bed before the sun to do it all over again the next day. Most of us fly to our exotic destinations when opportunity allows. And you’ve almost certainly driven a section of coastline for a surfing road trip. These things have been done. But how many times have you done all this from atop a trusty steed?
1. Pick a suitable location and course.
Horses are not cars. Horses are not motorcycles. Quite ironically, horses are horses, and it’s essential to consider the different courses. Choose your route wisely. Being a surfing expedition you need a high density of quality waves in a relatively small region in which to undertake your journey.
Therefore, you are looking for something that’s quickly disappearing in the world. You want fewer cars, fewer people, fewer fences, and less modern bullshit being screwed down your throat. You want more wilderness, more open heartedness in the people, and plenty of grass and rivers to keep your ponies fueled up.
Heather and I chose the southern coast of Chile for the above reasons. Less development, strong and historic horse culture, the most hospitable people you can meet, lots of grass and rivers, and the allure of cold water, surfing perfection.
The world’s still a very big place on a horse.
Handy tip: Look for blank spots on the map, eg. the Lost Coast of California.
2. Choose solid steeds.
This is a very important decision and one that you’ll need a little experience to pull off. You’ll need two horses per person; one to ride and one to carry your board and camping gear. A mule or donkey would also suffice, although a donkey is rather small for a surfboard. You want a gelding or mare between 6 and 15 years of age. They need to be calm, responsive to ride, no obvious health issues, have a fast walk, not be herd-bound, and lastly, they need to be brave. This last point is in reference to the different environments they will encounter along the way, but also in regard to surfboards – it turns out surfboards are particularly terrifying objects for a horse – so yes, make sure you test that.
We had never owned horses before beginning this journey, and we didn’t plan it at all. We sold our motorbikes on Boxing Day 2015 (after riding them down from Alaska over a year and a half) and bought horses three days later (trying not to get gringo’d in the process). Luckily the guys who bought our motorbikes were a couple of drovers from the outback of Australia, and did all the test riding and health assessments for us. But even with their help we still unknowingly ended up with one old horse (when buying we were told he was 12). He’s got knobby knees, and a grey muzzle, but he’s also the most experienced and confident in any scenario. All four of the horses were terrified of surfboards initially, but after tying the boards to a tree for a few weeks and feeding them next to it we lessened the fear, and now two of our horses will carry boards without bolting for their lives. Which is handy.
Handy tip: Go with your gut instinct when choosing your beast-friend. A connection will develop over time.
3. Learn to ride and care for your horses
Please skip this step if it doesn’t apply to you. However, if you don’t know how to ride a horse I would suggest learning before embarking on your journey – it helps. You don’t necessarily need a teacher, but you do need to be willing to fall off and get back on.
Knowing how to care for your horses is paramount and is the biggest responsibility you have. It is your number one goal every day. Do not embark on your horse journey if you do not enjoy caring for animals.
Neither of us knew anything about riding or caring for horses, and even after we bought them I still couldn’t trot or put a saddle on. Let alone know how to shod or administer a penicillin shot to the neck artery of a distressed horse. But the learning process has been rewarding. Learn everything you need to know – most importantly caring for your animals, and you’re ready to go. Don’t listen to the nay-sayers.
Handy tip: Follow the intuition of your horse – they are very intelligent, and in a way that’s quite different to our own thought processes – listen to them instead.
4. Figure out your gear.
If you are based in Europe, North America or Australia it should be easy to source the standard riding gear, as well as the more niche pack rigging stuff.
If you are anywhere else you’ll probably need to get creative with the pack rigging, chances are it doesn’t exist for purchase. You will need to try several different methods with different types of gear, testing and re-testing it on practice rides until your stuff no longer falls off the horse when it walks. Do not expect your stuff to stay on if it bolts – it won’t. It is important to consider the welfare of the animal, in particular the potential for saddle sores.
No matter where you are in the world, you won’t find ready-made surfboard racks for your saddle. Most people you ask will tell you it’s not possible. It is very possible. We built two surfboard saddles that work great.
Although Chile is one of the last horse-strongholds in the world, we found pack rigging to be almost impossible to purchase here. We had to make everything from stuff we found in the cheap knock-off sections of Santiago’s markets, and we didn’t have a clue what we were doing. Get creative, think laterally and test, test, test.
Handy tip: Make sure you pack a proper surfboard repair kit and know how to use it. Horses are very good at snapping fins off, or crushing rails.
5. Free your mind and enjoy the pace.
Lastly but perhaps most importantly, you need to prepare yourself to take the time.
Forget the ideas that modern surfing portrays. Forget chasing every single swell and wind fluctuation for the perfect coalescence of conditions. Forget the idea that surfing is about performance and how much you shred. Forget brand names. Forget gasoline. Forget the pressures of society and what you should be doing with your life.
‘Cos some of them have forgotten how to live.
Instead, open your mind and heart. Simplify your daily needs. Slow your speed right down. Prepare yourself to go 10km per day. And prepare yourself to score.
Slow it way down to the original horsepower, and you’ll go places, see things and connect to people and nature in way that is impossible to achieve when traveling with a motor.