An Interview with
Evelyne Coquet - Living Legend
Basha O'Reilly FRGS
There are many nations on planet Earth. Most of them have been home to Long Riders both past and present. But only a few of these countries can claim to have given birth to those rare men and women who inspired a generation and inflamed the admiration of their nation.
France can be justifiably proud of being the mother of two of the most influential Long Riders in the modern era.
Gabriel Bonvalot’s amazing equestrian journey from Paris to Hanoi via Tibet astonished nineteenth-century France.
But courage is not restricted to one sex.
In the twentieth century, France witnessed the rise of her greatest female Long Rider, Evelyne Coquet.
At a time when the ancient art of equestrian travel was in danger of becoming extinct, the young Frenchwoman was inspired to follow in the hoofprints of Godfrey de Bouillon. Though she lacked any equestrian travel experience, what Evelyne had was courage and determination.
When she decided to make the first modern ride from Paris to Jerusalem, she was joined by her enthusiastic younger sister, Corinne. Mounted on two strong French horses, this intrepid duo boldly rode towards an unknown horizon. After overcoming a host of unforeseen dangers and challenges, they rode into Jerusalem in triumph in 1974.
The 6000 km. journey would have been remarkable enough, but it was the book that Evelyne wrote which triggered the renaissance of French equestrian travel. Other names, which are now well known, owe their inspiration to the courage and vision of the Coquet sisters.
Nor were Evelyn’s adventures concluded. Soon after her marriage, Evelyne and her husband undertook an extraordinary exploration of the Amazon. When their first child was born, they placed him in a basket, strapped him to a pony, and explored the highlands of Scotland. After her daughter was born, the family explored South Africa with the father and children in a wagon and Evelyne in the saddle.
|Evelyne crossing a small river in the Amazon. "The most dangerous situation I encountered was during the journey in the Amazon with my husband. The underfed horses were too weak to continue. We left them with some missionaries and continued on foot, with the luggage, in the heart of the forest. Fréderic caught malaria and was delirious. I didn’t think I could get him out of there alive."|
For too many years this living legend has been overshadowed.
The “Voices of Exploration” is an exciting new series of interviews which will be conducted with the world’s most important living Long Riders.
How and when did you start riding?
I was 13. While walking in Deauville one rainy day, I saw a horse being lunged. An old riding teacher was teaching a frightened child to keep his balance. I immediately asked to try.
Vaulting handles helped to stabilise me, my thighs were each side of the horse’s back, espousing the movement, while my lower legs were wrapped around his flanks. Warmth passed from one body to another. I loved it.
At a stroke, the horse became my friend forever.
Had you ever envisaged becoming an equestrian explorer?
After this decisive encounter, I joined an equestrian centre at Nevers, where I lived and learned classical equitation. Some of my family went hunting, so I followed many hunts. In that time I discovered different disciplines. It was through another chance that became involved in Long Riding.
At the time it was an activity little practised in France. A friend told me about Henri Roque in Provence. He took horsemen to Saint James of Compostella.
Not to return to the stable every night, to go from village to village on unknown paths, to live with one’s horse all day and to wake up beside him in the morning, like the cowboys, like the messengers of the past. The idea was seductive.
I had three weeks’ holiday, no other projects, not enough time to ride very far, but it was a trial. I created a bundle, stuck a series of maps in my pockets, and left!
Towpaths, the Loire, the Allier, the Forez mountains, the Cevennes. Glorious landscapes, people overflowing with kindness. Marvellous.
I made up my mind. I would set off again and next time I would take more time. I would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
What inspired you to become a Long Rider, and why?
It was obviously the joy of spending my days on horseback which motivated me. Horses have the great advantage of being silent. With him one notices the calm of the countryside, the music of the forests, the activities of the villagers. Sometimes by pricking his ears the horse himself attracts his rider’s attention to a wild animal. A real bond develops between the two as the days pass. With the horse you make effortless progress and, mile after mile, you finish by reaching your goal.
Thanks to him, you are welcomed everywhere and by everybody. I read a book by a young couple who left for Jerusalem on foot. They had endless problems. For my part, travelling on horseback, I never had to sleep outside, I was never hungry (except in the Amazon) and neither were my horses. The horse opens doors. From the lowest to the highest, man is naturally well disposed to the horse which brings with it a welcome for the rider. This brings the opportunity for multiple encounters which you rarely get under other conditions.
It was for all these reasons that, after my first journey to Jerusalem, I decided to undertake a series of expeditions: in the Amazon, in Scotland with a baby, in South Africa with two children, in Morocco, in Mongolia etc.
Now I am a grandmother and perhaps I’ll go away with my oldest granddaughter this summer.
|When Evelyne's first child was born, she and her husband placed him in a basket, strapped him to a pony, and explored the highlands of Scotland.|
At the beginning of the 1970s there was a lack of knowledge regarding equestrian travel. How did you prepare for your journey to Jerusalem?
I went to Provence to stay with a professional who organised rides of a few days around his home. He understood horses very well, and gave us useful advice on how to adapt their feed to what we could find on the way. He also helped us to sort out indispensable material. Tricks like ‘take a plain blanket which you can fold in four, rather than a saddle blanket; if it gets very cold it will protect the horse’s back.’
Then I raided France’s biggest map-seller and bought as many maps as I could at 1:50000. They covered France, Germany and Austria. After that it was quite difficult to find detailed maps, but the secondary roads were often just dirt roads in those countries at the time, so we managed.
After all your adventures in so many countries, what was the most dangerous situation you encountered?
During the journey in the Amazon with my husband. The underfed horses were too weak to continue. We left them with some missionaries and continued on foot, with the luggage, in the heart of the forest. Fréderic caught malaria and was delirious. I didn’t think I could get him out of there alive.
You must have met thousands of people during your journeys in so many countries: how did most of them react to you and your message?
Most of the people we came across, or who gave us hospitality, seemed perplexed, indeed completely uncomprehending: why come from so far away, on horseback, when there are cars and airplanes?
What was the greatest sacrifice you made to become an equestrian explorer?
If I had carried on being an English teacher, I would have had, financially speaking, a much more comfortable retirement. But really, I do not regret anything! My Long Rides spiced up my life and filled my head with fabulous memories.
|After her daughter was born, Evelyne and her the family explored South Africa with the father and children in a wagon and Evelyne in the saddle.|
What is the greatest change in the world of equestrian travel since you began travelling?
Like many ways of travel, equitation has become much more developed and democratised. Tourists are everywhere, alone or in groups, on foot, in buses, on bicycles or on horseback. This affects the welcome that the locals offer spontaneously.
What is the most essential advice you would give to a would-be Long Rider?
For a long journey on horseback, I would confirm the advice given to me before I left for Jerusalem: “if the day’s journey is too long, work on hours rather than on the paces” (better to walk for two more hours than to trot, especially if the horse is laden). 18 miles a day is ideal, as it keeps horse and rider fit. What joy! But not always possible.
You can read Evelyne's story about her horse nearly dying on the way to Jerusalem here.
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