Living on a prayer

Ross Bryant
Ross Bryant

What is it about Widecombe-in-the-Moor? Every time I hear about someone who’s had an amazing life, or achieved some astounding feat, their proximity to this small Dartmoor village is the next thing to baffle me. We meet in the Café on the Green. Tracey is waiting, a big smile – she’s “normally late for everything”.

The instantly enthusiastic Tracey Elliot-Reep has completed a series of unique adventures. She has trekked on horseback across America, Europe, Ireland, New Zealand and Britain. Navigated frosty mountain ranges and snake infested deserts. She’s ridden trails that were thought to be impossible on horseback, often being warned by locals of the dangers of the route ahead. Most people “tend to exaggerate”, I am told. Her first trek across America from the Mexican border to Canada was over three thousand miles long, riding solo with two horses and taking over eight months.

“My childhood consisted of playing cowboys and Indians on Dartmoor ponies, I was often the Indian. Some decades later I found myself on horseback travelling through the desert. I was rounding up cattle with the Blackfoot Indians and I thought, yes! Dreams really can come true. I’m writing a book at the moment, its about encouraging people to live their dreams. We all have dreams, but life gets in the way and people forget about them.”

Stories randomly zap into Tracey’s head, sporadic anecdotal light bulbs told with a nostalgic smile.  Keeping track of chronology isn’t going to be easy.

Any hope of avoiding starting the interview with the rather cliché ‘where it all began’ question soon fades. After all, it was Dartmoor and its four-legged inhabitants that would prove to be so central to her life.

Tracey had the misfortune of suffering from dyslexia at a time when the difficulty wasn’t recognised. “I gradually completed my first book over ten years, I was working part-time alongside that. The book changed a few times and I had a friend who was my editor. I went down the self-publishing route and sold five thousand copies of my second book.”

How was overcoming the difficulty with words? “It was a struggle; my mother was the only person who could understand me. I couldn’t speak properly at all, my words were just strung together. I had a whole package of communication difficulties. So I had a real passion to help people who weren’t academic. Working with animals, ponies especially, is a real therapy, it certainly was for me.”

The stress and struggles of those early years would have a lasting impact. “For children it can be so hard when struggling with schoolwork. I went to boarding school and it just exaggerated my problems. I grew up with Dartmoor ponies and I was really blessed in that sense.”

Some years later Tracey began making postcards of Dartmoor. “I started making postcards, living in a caravan with my Jack Russell. I created six and had them printed.” She rustles around in her bag to show me one of them. “I had a target to live off five pounds a week (26 years ago) and the postcards were my only income. I went around Dartmoor selling them. Soon after, I went into greetings cards. I would travel to different towns throughout Devon and sell my work to card shops.”

After a number of different jobs, often working overseas with horses, Tracey attended a photography college in South Wales. Here she would combine her love of photography with her passion for animals and horses. Tracey has written a number of books to accompany her adventures and cinematic photos cover the table in front of us.

It would soon become obvious that Tracey’s trip across America wouldn’t be an isolated adventure. “I went to New Zealand with a friend who I met whilst on the American trip. She came to visit and we rode to the north coast of Devon, only a hundred miles, then she suggested travelling across New Zealand on horseback.”

The dream would soon come to fruition. “We arrived with just sixty pounds and a dream. We picked up work fruit picking as we went to help us along.” Long before the ease of internet blogging Tracey kept a blog with a number of travel publications. “By the time we got to Wellington we’d run out of money. People who were following the progress of the trip donated items that we needed, equipment and useful things.”

“The cities were interesting on horseback, in Wellington we just rode through the city but in Auckland the police wouldn’t let us do that. There were jibes made about not being paid to clean up horse mess.”

Tracey was in New Zealand during a major earthquake, a lucky escape that has proven to be customary on all of her trips. “I was in a car when I thought it had a blowout. As it was happening, I thought this seems like a major blowout for a tiny car. Then somebody told me it was an earthquake. Luckily, I was running late; the road I would have been on collapsed and a lot of people died.”

Tracey believes that her faith in God is what allows for a number of fortunate coincidences. An expedition in Greece some years later was no exception. “I was doing a talk in Colorado, I met someone from Nebraska who said I must get in touch with Lord Bates (Michael Bates, former Conservative MP for Teeside) from The House of Lords.

‘I called him, he was doing a peace walk from Greece to London to celebrate the Olympics. I was going to photograph him along the

way but I thought, I really wanted to do it on horseback. I needed a contact in Greece to help me with a horse. I  happened to be doing a talk for a disabled charity in Jersey soon after. Whilst there I met a Greek woman whose cousin bred racehorses in Athens.” This was one of many chance meetings and Tracey hints towards divine intervention.

After arriving in Greece, Tracey felt an unexplained desire to go to Italy, rather than the route of the peace walk. “I couldn’t explain it, just a feeling. An Italian trucker pulled over, he was cooking spaghetti bolognaise at the side of the road and offered me some. I didn’t speak a word of Italian but that was it, it was a sign, I’m going to Italy!” The spagbol of destiny had spoken.

In addition to more modest clues, Tracey cites a divine guardianship on her travels. “All my trips unfold, it just takes a leap of faith.” Once in Greece, the Greek authorities warned Tracey about going to Italy on horseback. She had arrived at the start of the migrant crisis and not long after the economic collapse of Greece. “I was in the port at Greece and the police asked wasn’t I afraid? They warned that large groups of men were crossing the
Mediterranean and it wasn’t safe.”

Getting across official borders would always prove difficult. The requirements in every country were different. “I got stuck in Italy with the wrong papers. A man who was delivering grain approached me and he was jabbering on in Italian. I had no idea what he was saying, he handed me a phone and I heard this thick Scottish accent, “I hear you’re in a spot of trouble hen?” It was a Scots woman in Italy, she said ‘come here and we’ll sort out some papers’. I couldn’t go anywhere with the ponies. Italian bureaucracy at its best.”

It is obvious that Tracey’s faith in God acts as a comforting force, one that is ever present on her adventures. “I have a relationship with God; when I was nineteen, I hitchhiked across Jerusalem, I asked God to forgive my sins. Our relationship with God is unique to us, like a fingerprint.”

Was her faith ever tested? Tracey pauses, “Gosh, there were lots of times, it’s hard to pick an exact one because there were so many hard parts of all the trips. America stands out, I had so many people  warning me of the dangers. There were snakes, drug smugglers, bears and lions. The fear was really put into me by people over there. I lost a horse in Colorado after a mountain lion showed up; the horse legged it. I made a habit of refusing to be scared, I would just ask, what now, God?”

‘Another difficult point was in Wyoming and the High Plains. I went to places that you would never dream to take a horse. There was lightening that hit more than thousand people a year. At one point, I couldn’t go back and I couldn’t go forward and I was covered in cuts and bruises.”

I am assured that whilst these seemingly divine interventions helped along the way, the journeys were never easy. “I met a French guy before crossing the Alps. He told me it was impossible to take my horse over the mountains, but most people tend to exaggerate. I had to get a run-up for some slopes to build the momentum. But you know, the only way is up. Whilst on the trip over the mountains I told my ponies that I would take them back to Dartmoor, I wanted to go south. I went down over the Pyrenees, by the time I got there I had forgotten all of my Spanish.”

The book flings open to a photo of a tent taken just outside Pamplona – famous for its annual bull run. How would one cope with camping in such an urban setting? “I would sometimes hide at night, camp out of site, you never know who’s around during the night-time hours. At dusk I would look for a hideout. In the morning I would be up early, see someone hanging around and think oh – I’m leaving just in time.”

Whilst the disparate landscapes would change, the only constant would be Tracey from the horse’s perspective. How was the bond with the horses created? “You would build trust with the horses over time, we would often go through these tunnels, with big trucks screaming past but there was just no way around. The police would often be on us too, especially in cities. The horses I took through New Zealand, well I got those ponies back to Widecombe and I still have them.”

Along with writing a number of children’s books, Tracey is invited to give talks about her experience in a number of countries. Her story has proven to be an inspiration to many but what is it that she hopes to convey when talking to crowds of people? “I want to help people who have dreams and struggles. I want to inspire them to achieve their dreams. Life happens and hardships happen, it becomes like layers of stuff that prevent us from achieving our dreams. We all have the little boy and girl inside us that started.”

Tracey’s story is one of overcoming adversity. Struggle, it seems, has been present in all of her achievements. So, with headlines of childhood anxiety being so prevalent, what is the best way to instil a sense fortitude in children?

“Adversity, hmmm, it makes us go one way or the other. Are we mollycoddling too much? I want to be an encourager, self-esteem is so important, they only need a bit of encouragement or praise to get them on the right path.

‘The natural landscape is important too, if you can look up at night at a Cathedral of stars in the sky, a place where you can dream. That’s all we need, we’re so bombarded by media and stress.”

As for her next project? “New Zealand in February. I’m currently trying to plan, its great to have a dream but you need a plan in place. Because of my communication problems in the past I really like to challenge myself. I never thought I would be able to stand in front of a crowd and talk and yet, here I am.”

If you would like to learn more about her adventures, her books and greetings cards can can be found at:

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