The Long Riders' Guild

Long Rider Jakki Cunningham and the SLL rides from the Camargue to London - 2005 – 2008 – 2012.

by Dominic Dandridge and Sheila Cosma

“Horses and people unite for the cause of children with disabilities”

The SLL (Sète-Lorient-Londres/London) charity was created by founder and president Jakki Cunningham in Brittany and registered on 8 September 2003 in France and then registered in the UK with the Charity Commission for England and Wales.

 

Jakki chose the hardy Camargue horse, an ancient breed known for its stamina, hardiness and agility

Jakki had a dream. Shadowing a near-death experience, an asthma attack on a boat in Brittany, France in 2002; her dream was to acquire and donate four Camargue horses to two riding centres for the particular benefit of children with disabilities. The plan was to ride the horses across France, at the horses' pace, to Brittany where two of the horses were to be given, and then on to England for the donation of the other two horses. The SLL Charity was formed with this aim.

There were 3 successful rides. The first project and ride took place during the summer of 2005. Two further rides followed, in 2008 with 8 Camargue horses and then in 2012 with 9 Camargues and 2 supply wagons drawn by 4 draft horses. All the horses were donated to centres which would use them for equine therapy activities.

Jakki and Luke Tucker hold aloft the Long Riders’ Guild flag which accompanied one of the Caravans of Hope.

Jakki and the SLL charity have many links with France. Her mother was French from Marseille, a travel writer and secretary for French WW2 statesman Charles-de-Gaulle. Camargue horses were chosen for their rusticity, endurance, kind nature and good character. Sète was the final destination of the London-Languedoc-Sète car rally which was organised and run by Jakki's parents between 1950 and 1975. Arles, in the Camargue, is twinned with Wisbech, near to one of the horses’ destination in England and where Jakki’s nephew who has Down’s syndrome was attending an RDA centre to which a horse was donated in 2005. Lorient and London were both home to Jakki for many years, and during the planning of the SLL projects, and she made the Camargue her home from 2013.

The first ride, the 2005 White Horses ride, prepared the way for grander projects with multiple aims. Jakki rode all the way; she was accompanied by other riders and an escort vehicle with a horse trailer. The four horses selected in 2005 from their breeder at Mas Saint Germain in the Camargue were all mares; three of them were four years old and one was fourteen. After a preparation period of 4 weeks, the horses, Nounnat, Numba, Lucie and Dourno, received a blessing before setting out from Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer on their epic journey with their riders, and back-up team, on 3 May 2005. The team was made up of 3 to 5 people, some of whom were only available to participate for a short period. The project was supported by sponsors and patrons, including The Princes Trust, Land Rover UK and Vans Fautras France who provided a vehicle and trailer, Dodson & Horrell (horse feeds), Forestier (who loaned saddles), IGN maps, Brittany Ferries, Riding for the Disabled, Adapei (France). Many more companies and individuals gave donations and support, and there was much press coverage along the way.

The journey across France took in many regions and departments, and a variety of scenery and accommodation for the horses and riders. When no suitable overnight lodging was offered or available, the tents and portable fence were used, the riders camping alongside the horses in a field kindly offered by a commune or farmer. Overnight accommodation in a gîte or a house, with hot showers and a meal were a welcome luxury! The route was plotted ahead every day, using tracks wherever possible, but sometimes towns had to be negotiated. Having the support vehicle and trailer meant that the driver could arrive ahead of the horses to set things up, and a horse could be rested for a day and travel in the trailer; and at times when there were only 2 riders, one horse would be led. Jakki also made the rule of leading the saddled horses for the first and last kilometres of the day, and rest days were scheduled in to the planning. The health of the horses was paramount, but all did very well and there were no major lamenesses.

During the journey the young English and French people discovered each other’s culture and language, and they learnt how to prepare and harness the horses. Far away from their inner-city homes, they learnt how to integrate socially and contribute to community life. They learned to respect other people, animals and, more generally, the environment.

The team and 4 horses arrived in Lorient in Brittany on 1 August to a reception before the town hall. The ponies were rested during the month of August at a riding centre near Lorient. On 6 September two of the Camargues, Dourno and Lucie, were ridden over to Plumelec where they were presented to the Bruyères educational centre for children and adults with disabilities, amid great excitement, a reception and a church blessing.

The other two horses continued their journey. The Channel crossing by ferry from St Malo to Portsmouth was made in the trailer. They continued the ride on towards London and St John's Wood where the ponies stayed four days with the King's Troop at their stables. A mounted police escort took them to St Mark’s Church in Primrose Hill for a blessing by the Bishop of London. On leaving London they continued onwards towards Cambridge and finally up to Norfolk. Nounnat and Numba were handed over to the Magpie centre, Wallington Hall, near King's Lynn on 18 October 2005.

Much was learned from this first project; the primary aim of riding and donating Camargue horses for use in equine therapy was successfully achieved, but Jakki had ideas for a second project which would include more horses and additional aims; the horses would be ridden by disadvantaged youngsters who would benefit from the experience.

The young travellers soon learned that riding across France was no pony picnic. Rainy days in the saddle are a fact of life to Long Riders.

The 2008 project White Horses - Journey of Discovery started to take form. This time, in response to feedback and suggestions from the RDA and centres wishing to receive a Camargue, the horses selected were all to be geldings, stronger and more mature, and the horses were sourced from selected breeders in the Camargue. SLL now had its own website, and became widely known as the White Horses charity. Jakki put all her energy into its promotion and fund-raising, supported by loyal friends and volunteers.

The planning of the 2008 ride was similar to its predecessor, although the route across France was slightly different. The team and horses gathered in the Camargue at the Mas de Tourblanque in Gageron, near Arles; the English and French young people all arrived on Monday 28 April to get to know each other and prepare the horses and riders; some of the teenagers were new to horses and riding but they learnt fast. The group set out on their long ride, after a departure ceremony at the Mas de la Cure (Maison du Cheval Camargue), on 5 May 2008. Jakki wrote a vivid account and description of the trip*, which was of course, eventful, and it was filmed for a documentary which can be viewed on SLL’s YouTube channel. The project was hugely successful, the horses were donated to selected equestrian centres in Brittany and southern England during September and October 2008. After all the shared experiences, the breaking up of the team and the parting of friends and beloved horses was an emotional time for everyone. Many of the participants were to be reunited in 2012, as an even grander project was already being envisaged!

Even though Bethany Jameson had no previous experience with horses, she became a Member of the Guild. She said, “After a few falls off my friend’s horse I felt horses weren’t for me, but that all changed when I got involved with the Caravan of Hope. Waking up to beautiful horses every morning was a pleasure, living with them for so long; we were like a family and the horses were like brothers and sisters. It has been by far the best experience of my life."

Fast forward 4 years of hard work and fund raising, planning and logistics, inspired by Jakki and supported by a large team of loyal volunteers. The project became the SLL Caravan of Hope 2012 and the aims and scope evolved further, to include 2 horse-drawn wagons as support vehicles, drawn by 4 draft horses to be donated as well as the 8 Camargues. The project could be promoted as more environmentally friendly, but it complicated the route planning, as the wagons could not always go on the tracks the horses could, and fund-raising was tougher as more money was needed, and it became harder to find sponsors. Fred Kermel joined the team and became Jakki’s right-hand man and Vice-President of the French association, based in Brittany. Luke Tucker, a motivated young man who participated in 2008 as one of the young riders, joined the team as ride leader, having obtained the necessary credentials and experience. Luke and Jakki were both honoured to become members of the Long Riders Guild and carry their flag during the ride, which took place successfully in the spring and summer of 2012. The ride finished in central London with a reception at the French Institute on 29 September. All the horses were donated to centres in Brittany and England, some of which had already received a Camargue from previous projects. Jakki wrote regular blog entries describing their adventures and life on the road, illustrated by many photos**.

Jakki’s organisation, the SLL, donated Camargue horses to RDA programmes in France and England.

After the projects and rides of 2008 and 2012, Jakki and SLL produced colour brochures full of information about all the horses and people involved in the projects. These served to promote the charity and explain the aims and successes, as well as to thank everyone involved including sponsors, volunteers and supporters, the riders, the centres, and people they stayed with along the way. These are available in PDF format, in French and English, and with the blog they are testament to the enormity of the projects and their overall success. The inspiration and driving force that brought so many people together and united them to act for the cause of horses and people with disabilities, was Jakki Cunningham.

Jakki's Legacy - Horses and Humans celebrate at the end of the journey in England.

A further Caravan of Hope project was planned for 2017 but very sadly Jakki became extremely ill. Lung cancer attacked a scar shadowing her 2002 asthma attack and she passed away in Avignon, France in October 2016. The dream ended in tragic nightmare and the project had to be abandoned. Horses that had already been purchased were donated for use in equine therapy projects, as planned, but transported to the receiving centres by lorry, and the SLL charity closed.

Jakki’s diary account of the 2008 ride

YouTube channel - sllassoc:

Some quotes from the blog which give an impression of the experiences of Jakki and the team on the road:

14 June 2012: “Jakki sets off with Peter in the 'kitchen' carriage up the slope from the Mairie track to the road and, the brakes fail - probably due to the torrential rain. The carriage slides slowly, unforgivingly and unstoppably into the ditch besides the track which fortunately has a hedge alongside it, preventing further mishap. Huge relief as the horses are fine and we tie them to a tree while we decide how to extricate ourselves from the situation.  Within two minutes, Jakki hails a 4 x 4 coming along the road with a trailer in tow.  The very nice driver, with Fred's help and ropes which we fortunately have, tows the carriage back onto the track.”

Sunday 29 July 2012: “Mme H then shows us her field - which has water for the horses - and that is where we stay...  The Mayor arrives and gives us permission to use the local school toilets just 30 seconds down the road and which also has fresh water for our drinking needs.  Beth and Jakki go to the tap in the sink out in the open in the playground and wash their hair.  Freezing water refreshes them both and they are glad to have 'clean hair.  The evening is crowned by a pot-au-feu à la Fred, cooked in the pressure cooker, which is both delicious and heart-warming.”

September 2012: “What an experience driving and riding through London again.  We stop off in Prince Consort Road (in between Exhibition Road and Queensgate) to munch a sandwich and time our arrival around the corner at Queensberry Place.  Policemen and meter wardens are all very friendly.  Fred is opposite the Royal Albert Hall - when has a Frenchman ever done that - station his carriage and horses outside the Royal Albert Hall - certainly not for many a year.”

Jakki Cunningham leads the Caravan of Hope into London. Bon Voyage, Long Rider!

 

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