The Origins of the Horse Travel Handbook
I am Noor Mohammad Khan, who has known the author of this book for 40 years, and who became a Long Rider by chance, not choice, when I accompanied CuChullaine O’Reilly on the perilous equestrian journey through Pakistan that became the inspiration for this Handbook.
The tale of the Horse Travel Handbook goes back to the days when Afghanistan was still a free land where wild horsemen travelled as they had done for ages. After studying classic equitation in England, CuChullaine came to Afghanistan in search of mounted adventure. He had been inspired by the tales of great Long Riders from the past, such as Sven Hedin of Sweden, Richard Burton of England, Gabriel Bonvalot of France and Aime Tschiffely of Switzerland.
All those famous explorers wrote great books. But living as they did in the
twilight of the 19th century, they failed to foresee a day when humans would
lack the common knowledge of horse travel which generations of our ancestors had
taken for granted.
As a result knowledge of equestrian travel was at an all time low and our generation were like orphans searching for scraps of knowledge.
I was in Kabul in 1978 when CuChullaine arrived. We journeyed through the snowy whiteness of the Hindu Kush Mountains via the Salang Pass to the fabled cities of Mazar-i-Sharif, Balkh and Aqcha, where he questioned local horsemen about their customs and history. He was already discovering that the niceties he had been taught in the dressage ring had nothing to do with the reality of travelling across the steppe on a buz kashi stallion. But his dream of riding across Afghanistan was halted when Russian troops hunkered in for a prolonged decimating war of oppression and suppression in our beloved Afghanistan.
That brutal invasion had many unintended consequences, one of which was that it turned what had been a horseman’s paradise into a land of death. Another was that Afghans sent their favourite stallions into Pakistan to preserve ancient blood lines. CuChullaine and I also found ourselves in Peshawar, the center of the Afghan resistance and a city which has played such a pivotal role in modern equestrian travel history.
There he became involved with the Afghan resistance. After receiving an identity card from the Jamiat-Islami mujahadeen organization, he made plans to enter Afghanistan and join mounted Turkmen freedom fighters. He purchased a Palomino mare to make the solo trip. His journey to Afghanistan was interrupted when he became ill with hepatitis and nearly died on his way to Chitral. Despite its premature ending it was the first equestrian journey made through the area since the last British patrol rode out in 1927.
Yet that journey became the inspiration of the Karakorum Equestrian Expedition which took us through northern Pakistan. I really knew little about horses before I met CuChullaine. But we had endured enough adventures to become like brothers, so I figured if I got in the saddle and was pointed in the right direction I could do it. And I did!
Our journey took us over the 12,200 foot Shandur Pass. There we witnessed the famous annual polo game. After reaching the town of Gilgit we turned south, crossed the hostile Diamer Desert, re-entered the Karakorum Mountains, rode over the 13,690 foot Babusar Pass, went through the uneasy war-zone of Kashmir, passed across the Punjab, forded the Kabul River and finally made it back home to Peshawar.
That may sound easy. Not having any experience besides reading travel books it sounded so to me before we left, but what most readers do not realize is how high a price we paid to gain the knowledge that is now preserved in the Horse Travel Handbook.
When CuChullaine explains about the difficulty of finding suitable horses, he was recalling how we spent fruitless weeks searching in vain and how our luck changed when the Pakistani army permitted us to purchase horses from the Sargohda Remount Depot.
When he warns about the necessity of carrying weapons, he is speaking from experience. Our journey was considered so dangerous the Minister of the Interior issued us special weapons licenses that allowed us to ride through the country armed with rifles and pistols. CuChullaine also wore a sword, surely the last Long Rider to do so in the 20th century.
CuChullaine writes with accuracy about the possible loss of a beloved horse, because the night we arrived in Kafiristan our pack horse died and the next day, before we could make proper arrangements for his body, he was eaten by the local inhabitants without our knowledge or consent.
He explains that Long Riders should be aware they may face arrest or harassment in hostile countries. Such conviction comes from the fact that we were illegally arrested, tortured by Pakistani police and incarcerated in the notorious Pindi Prison prior to our journey.
The Handbook is filled with such practical advice but its knowledge was gained from the hard lessons which we, the Long Riders of our generation, had to learn from bitter experience and lonely miles.
CuChullaine and I were youthful, eager, brave and very naïve. We made many basic mistakes. But those errors in judgement were not done out of pride or arrogance. They were due to the fact that we genuinely did not know how to do things in a better, safer, more effective manner.
Other Long Riders of our generation also made mistakes. But we can't blame ourselves. If we were blind it was because no one taught us to see.
The release of the Horse Travel Handbook changes all that because the answers to the problems we encountered, plus many more, are all to be found in this unique book.
By my good luck (and with CuChullaine's help) I have had my “Long Ride.” I don't have a big desire to make another equestrian journey (but if the opportunity arises...?) When I first picked up the Horse Travel Handbook and started thumbing through it, I thought it might be a bit of a bore. But after only reading a few brief passages I found myself absorbed, so I went back to the beginning of the book and found myself unable to put it down. It is just a great read, let alone an incredible resource and informative guide for anybody planning a Long Ride.
I have witnessed how the author has spent the majority of his life finding and preserving this rare information from sources around the world. He had a great dream, to ensure that equestrian travel would be preserved for posterity, and this is the great book whose inspiration lies in the Karakorum Mountains we rode through together.
American Long Rider Noor Mohammad Khan is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and was part of the Karakoram Equestrian Expedition which made a historic journey through northern Pakistan.