The Long Riders' Guild

A Word from the Founder

How to define Equestrian Travel?


CuChullaine O'Reilly

My friend Artie Sacks said it couldn’t be done!

Mind you, he ought to know.

He’s an Ivy-League professor, a raconteur, a world-traveler, a student of life, an observer of mankind, and most importantly, a friend to horses.

“Don’t try and define it. That’s a dead end because you and I both know it can’t be pigeon holed.”

He was speaking of course about my desire to interpret “equestrian travel.”

“There is no one explanation,” Artie insisted. “Get a group of so-called equestrian travelers in one room and you’ll find that the only theme we share is that our collective fantasy revolves around horses.”

It was pretty hard to disagree, especially when I myself believe it is the rules themselves that have conquered us today.

One look at the current international equestrian scene is enough to discourage anyone.

There are already enough law-laden equestrian clubs, organizations, societies, associations, federations, leagues, and unions to fill a two-ton phone book. If it is rules you are looking for you can belong to the Japanese Cowboy Federation, The Amalgamated Pinto Breeders, or The Lords of Dressage Unlimited.

Yes, I reluctantly agreed, maybe Artie was right?  

Artie Sacks, Ivy-League professor, raconteur, world-traveller, student of life, observer of mankind, and most importantly a friend to horses.

Perhaps it is true that the moment you try to codify equestrian travel it begins to deteriorate?

Plus, one glance at the bookshelves full of equestrian travel books here in my office was enough to remind me that the ancient history of horse journeying is centered around those who have escaped the bondage of civilisation.  

Those of us who climb up on horses have always been the adventurous spirits who rode away from the safety of the village.  If for generations we have left behind the defining walls of traditional homes, our reward has been to watch from our saddles as the night comes to drink up the last of the sun. If after sixteen hours in the saddle we are too tired to eat ourselves, we are content to see our horses safe under a perfect dome of luminous stars. If we wake up stiff from the hard embrace of mother Earth, we are greeted by the song of our happy mounts grazing quietly nearby in the gloaming. If history has taught us to lay little store in physical needs, it has also ennobled us with a full sense of our personal freedom.

No, I thought, Artie must be right. Equestrian travel isn’t about rules, rather it seemed to be about a lack of them.

Yet, I instinctively knew there were some ill-defined qualities, some “truths”, that had always run through that experience known as equestrian travel?

When I went in search of these intangible definitions I took as my compass the words of a wise woman.

Her name is Louella Hanbury-Tenison and she is a well-known equestrian traveler in her own country of England. She has ridden throughout Europe. She has gone to the land of the setting sun and ridden her horse down the length of New Zealand. She is the first Western woman on record to have ridden the entire length of the Great Wall of China!

Yet when I was lucky enough to meet her, Louella made it clear that despite these equestrian accomplishments she felt disenfranchised from the international equestrian travel community. It was in fact a disgust with today’s current set of “rules” and obsessions in the equestrian travel world which kept Louella, and her wisdom, isolated out on the moors of Cornwall.

I refer to the need of some Long Riders to justify the validity of their equestrian journeys in terms of the greatest mileage covered in the shortest possible time.

“Even if you manage to get them all together CuChullaine, they’ll only start bickering. One will say, ‘Oh, I went further than you did.’ To which another will only reply, ‘But I did it faster.’ Then a third will add triumphantly, 'Yes, but I did it on a horse with three legs!'"

Equestrian traveller Louella Hanbury-Tenison riding under the walls of the Templar castle at Ponferrada. 

Clearly there were diverse definitions running throughout our very community.

Who were we?

What sanctified one trip and not another?

Was there one underlying factor that tied the majority of us together?

If Louella was to be believed, the world’s current obsession with speed had infected the equestrian travel community. This mind-set wasn’t taking me in the right direction.

A glance at The Equestrian Travel Timeline will reveal that throughout recent history there have been a handful of horse riders who have ridden amazing distances in record time.

I could give you names, dates, and mileages.

But I won’t.

For in almost every known instance the horse was never considered to be the primary player. Instead the mare, gelding, or stallion that raced across where ever was invariably subservient to the rider’s desire to get some place faster than a horse was intended by nature to reach.

Yes, I sadly knew of Long Riders whose proudest accomplishment was not who their horse was, but rather how hard and fast they had ridden him.

In my continuing search for answers I went in search of a gentle man, Gerard Barre of France.

He has been riding for years and years, has seen many things, and ridden through countless obstacles, both physical and spiritual. All those seasons in the saddle have taught Gerard a self-effacing wisdom.

Thus it was from this simple man, this kind man, this Long Rider, that I heard a humble truth.

“To cover miles for the sake of covering miles does not allow for contemplation, except the possible contemplation of the map, the watch, of the GPS,” Gerard told me.

“What is important is not the amount of distance you ride. It is the immersion of your spirit into a state of mind which you cannot obtain except by forgetting “normal society.”

Gerard went on to explain he believed that as Long Riders this state of “forgetting” can only be found over time, and by traveling in regions where normal society has not yet put its feet, its roads, its towns, its power lines, or its concrete. Because these regions are becoming increasingly rare and harder to reach, Gerard believes the choice of a horse as our mode of travel is still historically justified. In his opinion the distance covered is therefore a  secondary consequence of the search for a new truth.

How to become a Long Rider?

“Looked at from this angle, I believe that the most important part of travelling on horseback is thus the conquest of self, of one’s “interior pole,” Gerard said.

In 1986. equestrian philosopher Gérard Barré and his wife, Giselle, travelled through the Massif Central mountains of France accompanied by their two-year-old son Jerome.

Perhaps, I thought, I was finally getting somewhere?

My original search seemed to be leading me right back to where I started, to my old pal Artie.

When I called Artie back, he surprised me by agreeing with Gerard.

“Yeah, he’s right. If you can define equestrian travel at all, it’s not about being in some sort of contest. Anytime you get a rider obsessing about miles it becomes counter-productive. All you get is some moron riding around with an odometer trying to be the “first” or the “fastest” to have traveled somewhere on horse,” this equestrian philosopher told me.

“If the Long Riders’ Guild wants to accomplish anything it ought to be to explain that equestrian travel, as we define it, isn’t about letting monsters loose on the world! You ought to promote “going” on the horse, not where, or how far, or how fast, or even “how” you get there. There shouldn’t be any goal, other than to ride.”

Finally, from the mouths of elders, I went to listen to the mouth of babes.

Mary Liebau isn’t a Long Rider in the strictest sense of the word, at least not yet.

True, the young American rode across a big portion of Ireland, and last year made a record-breaking ride across the green wilderness of Newfoundland, Canada. Yet even by the standards set by The Long Riders’ Guild Mary didn’t qualify for admission because she hadn’t ridden more than 1,000 continuous miles on one trip.

When I asked her about this she didn’t seem concerned.

“I’m not at all competitive by nature. I have never set out to hold a title or set any sort of record,” she said.

Rather the one thing Mary had learned from her horse trips was that they were the beginning, not the end, of her equestrian travels. The siren song of the saddle had claimed her heart for good it seemed. A thousand miles today or a thousand miles tomorrow? Either way, Mary didn’t care. She was going to continue riding and traveling, with rules and definitions, or even without.

Plus she understood, she said, the need to offset “trail riders” from Long Riders. People, like Mary, who had made personal, professional, emotional, and financial sacrifices in order to pursue an elusive equestrian dream shouldn’t be considered mere holiday riders. In a word these Long Riders are the astronauts of the equestrian world, the few who have made giant sacrifices to travel where few have ever ridden before.

In the end I told myself that Mary had said it best.

If there was only one way to define an equestrian traveller, then this young woman from upper New England had stumbled on it.

"Travelling on horseback is infectious...  Once you taste it, you might as well drown peacefully!"  Mary Liebau

“The only accomplishment that counts when you’re travelling is seeking out and surviving challenges with your horse. It lies in potholes and washouts, or near misses with bears. It lies in seeing every dip in the land, and learning every intimate curve of a rarely fished stream. It is the simple enjoyment of a 3 m.p.h. day imprinted with the sound of each and every hoof beat. It is the fruitful interdependence of horse and human. What other mode of travel would let you fall to sleep thanking all the saints for such simple, delicious contentment?” Mary asked me.

I didn’t have anything to say.

Mary had said it all, for all of us.

See you on the trail, saddle pals.


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