The History of Equestrian Travel
by Basha O'Reilly FRGS
Have you never wanted to get in the saddle and head for the horizon? Don’t you remember the first time you understood the freedom which the horse offered you?
You are not alone!
All Long Riders, like migrating birds, are drawn toward the unknown by a secret song hidden in our DNA. If you are thinking of turning your back on the security of home to make an equestrian journey, you are already part of an ancient phenomenon. This desire has nothing to do with money, religion, gender, language or nationality.
Everyone knows that since the dawn of our relationship with the horse, men have used him for war, work and hunting. But those days are over, and these needs no longer exist. The thread of equestrian travel, however, has never been broken and is just as exciting today.
During the approximately 6,000 years that man has been riding horses, there have always been a few who used the horse to escape the limitations of their village or tribe and discover the world beyond the horizon.
Most of their stories have been lost in the mists of time. But we do have a few examples of brave people, like the French explorer Gabriel Bonvalot.
In the beginning of 1886 Bonvalot travelled on horseback from Tashkent to the Afghan frontier. The following year he crossed the Altai, Pamir and Hindu Kush mountains before arriving in Kashmir – again on horseback.
|But one can take those two journeys as simple little training rides for what followed. In 1889 he and Prince Henry of Orleans made a journey between Paris and Tonkin in French Indochina. After they had crossed Russia, the French Long Riders mounted their horses in Siberia in September 1889 and travelled towards Tibet. This winter hack across the Tibetan plain and the Himalayas is almost too arduous to comprehend. It was so cold that the mercury in the thermometer froze, causing their Siberian companions to beg the Frenchmen to return. But Bonvalot (left) and Prince Henry pressed on.|
This journey, which nobody has ever tried to repeat, inspired Jules Verne who used Bonvalot as the model for his imaginary intrepid reporter, Claudius Bombarnac. But Bonvalot’s journey was real, not a dream, and remains the legacy of a man of whom the natives said, “he is never happy except when he’s looking for a new route.”
Bonvalot is not an equestrian exception: the year 1889 is the most important in the history of equestrian travel.
On 16th April of that year the Cossack Mikhail Vasilievitch Asseyev travelled more than 2,000 miles from Kiev to Paris. He took two remounts, Diana and Vlaga, and travelled “à la Turkmène” – that is to say, he rode one in the morning and the other in the afternoon, the led horse being completely “naked” – no pack, no weight. For, as all Long Riders understand, the horse’s enemy is not the kilometres but the kilograms. When Asseyev arrived with his two mares beneath the Eiffel Tower, the Society for the Protection of Animals decorated him with a special gold medal because his horses were in excellent shape after such a long journey!
|But Asseyev’s exploit was crushed a few months later under the hooves of a little Siberian horse. At the beginning of winter he and his rider, Dmitri Peshkov (left), left their faraway outpost of Blagoveshchensk in the far east of the Russian Empire. After some amazing adventures, they arrived in St. Petersburg at the Tsar’s court having covered more than 5,500 miles – in temperatures sometimes as low as -60!|
Peshkov might still have been in St. Petersburg in May 1890 when Tsar Alexander III waved goodbye to Prince Galatzin, whom he had commissioned to undertake a 12,000 mile mounted scientific and diplomatic mission through Russia, Turkestan and Tibet.
Galatzin was ordered to make his journey, but why did Bonvalot, Asseyev and Peshkov make these incredible journeys?
Perhaps Charles Darwin, the scientist and Long Rider, was right when he claimed that the migratory desire is one of the strongest instincts. He himself rejoiced in the freedom he found during his rides in South America, Australia and Africa. He wrote that he discovered “the pleasure of living in the open air with the sky for a roof and the ground for a table.”
The three astonishing journeys of 1889 unleashed an avalanche of equestrian events whose echoes can still be felt today. Peshkov showed it was possible to cross Siberia in winter. That inspired the most extraordinary Japanese Long Rider.
|On 11th February 1892, scarcely two years after Peshkov’s journey, a Japanese samurai, Baron Yasumasa Fukushima (right), military attaché to Berlin, ended his tour of duty. Instead of taking the ship home to Tokyo he decided to travel overland – on horseback. His equestrian journey of 9,000 miles became a legend in Japan. The Emperor hailed him as a hero, and adopted his three horses in the name of the Japanese nation. The ragged clothes of the Long Rider, and his whip, were put in a temple where they are still venerated.|
Nobody could have foreseen the long-term consequences of Peshkov’s and Fukushima’s journeys across Siberia. But by a surprising coincidence, the Cossack’s journey is linked to the American outlaw, Butch Cassidy.
In 1889 an American Long Rider, Thomas Stevens, was crossing Russia on horseback when he met Peshkov. The Cossack was only a few miles away from his audience with Tsar Alexander III, and he and his horse exuded such power, even after travelling 5,500 miles, that Stevens was stunned. He wrote of this encounter in his book, Through Russia on a Mustang.
This chance meeting between the Russian and American Long Riders ensured that these incredible exploits were known around the world and had immediate repercussions.
|For example, because of Peshkov, the British Long Rider, Roger Pocock (left), was inspired to make a remarkable horseback journey from Fort McLeod in Canada to Mexico City in 1900. He is still the only person who has travelled the length of the infamous “Outlaw Trail,” a secret trail of some 5,500 miles used by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to escape the law. The unarmed Pocock boldly entered Robbers Roost where he met Cassidy himself!|
So, thanks to Pocock, equestrian travel came galloping into the twentieth century.
|The journeys of the Cossack Dmitri Peshkov and Roger Pocock inspired the Swiss Long Rider, Aimé Tschiffely, the most famous and influential equestrian traveller of the last century. Tschiffely (right) made an unbelievable journey of 10,000 miles from Buenos Aires to New York in 1925. This journey was important, not only because of its length, but because Tschiffely’s book, Tschiffely’s Ride, was translated into more languages than any other book of its kind and has never been out of print. This book in turn inspired countless horsemen and horsewomen for seven generations to swing into the saddle, including the great French Long Rider, now sadly deceased, Jean-François Ballereau, who followed Tschiffely’s hoofprints in the late 1960s.|
As the twentieth century progressed, however, with the use of cars and tractors instead of horses as work-beasts, the light of equestrian travel was almost extinguished. There were very few equestrian travellers, and even fewer books on the subject. For example, when I made my own journey on horseback between Russia and England in 1995, I didn’t know of anybody, living or dead, who had made such a journey!
Humans and their horses explore both the planet and their own souls, but until recently Long Riders didn’t have a voice. Almost everyone has forgotten that Tschiffely made a second journey on horseback, in Britain in 1932. In his book, “Bridle Paths”, the account of that journey, he suggested that there ought to be an organisation dedicated to equestrian travellers. Sixty years later the Long Riders Guild was formed to protect, preserve and promote the ancient art of equestrian travel. Today that light is growing stronger and we are seeing a renaissance.
Tschiffely continues to inspire horsemen, almost a hundred years after his journey. A young Brazilian, Filipe Leite, is making preparations to ride from Canada to Brazil. Why? Because his father read him Tschiffely’s Ride when he was a child!
Sadly, when most modern people hear the word “horse” they immediately, and only, think of sport. They don’t know that it’s still possible to travel with a horse.
But equestrian sports are often very expensive: the purchase of a horse bred for its ability to run fast, jump large obstacles, or pirouette in the ring. And there are plenty of us who have no desire to go round in circles like a goldfish in a bowl.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the man (and the woman) in the street believes that riding is reserved for the rich.
On the other hand, you can buy an inexpensive horse of any breed or any pedigree and set off on a journey. So equestrian travel is within the reach of almost any budget! And you travel in harmony with the horse, not asking of him any extreme effort, like rodeo. In the end you become a couple, interdependent: the rider needs the horse to transport him, the horse needs the rider to find shelter, food and water at the end of the day. In some cases they understand each other so well that the rider can guide his horse telepathically. Two hearts, one journey.
Equestrian travel is open to all those who have a horse and the courage to explore. Nobody can judge a Long Rider as a winner or a loser. Each journey is profoundly enriching and takes you out into the world, where the horse is the magic key to the village, in every country.
There is no need to cross Siberia in temperatures of -60. You can explore as near or as far as you like. Regardless of the miles, every journey on horseback is a challenge involving the body, spirit and mind of both species.
The DNA of Bonvalot and Ballereau still exists in France! Their spirit of exploration is running in the French Long Rider, Virginie Claeyssons, who has just completed a 1,500 mile journey across Patagonia. Virginie works with a company dedicated to the fight against malnutrition. But why on horseback? “To live a little girl’s dream – a great story of horses. To experience the nomadic way of life in contact with nature and with the rhythm of the hooves.”
Like Virginie, if you listen and learn from the voices of the past, you will understand that you too can share the intense joy of equestrian travel.
Copyright (c) 2014 Basha O'Reilly
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