Long Distance Riders in the 21st Century
In the twenty-first century there are still those who travel on horseback. It is not about rides but long-haul routes, often tens of thousands of kilometres.
They are perpetrated by people who, by choice, adopt a nomadic lifestyle at length, over months or years. It answers some urge to leave the sedentary way of life, to escape the modern world and to go into the unknown. On top of a horse.
They are those who "have the courage to break the chains of cities and ride towards the horizon," says CuChullaine O'Reilly, a founder of the Long Rider's Guild, an international association of equestrian explorers. The association represents men and women throughout the world who have travelled over a thousand statute miles (1609 kilometres) in one continuous journey on horseback.
Currently, believes CuChullaine O'Reilly, there are "several hundred" Long Riders.
Everything is beautiful because everything is slow
One of the most appreciated features cited by long distance riders is the slowness with which the trip progresses. The horse travels at an average of 5 kilometres per hour. This slowness they cite as one of the great charms because it sets up an ideal balance between progression and observation of the world.
To search the wildernesses of Central Asia on top of a horse, the French writer Sylvain Tesson wrote some of the most vivid pages of nomadism in the modern era. In the book "Petit Traité sur l'immensité du monde" he raises the question: "Does anyone ever see a nomad in a hurry?” This rejection of speed puts man in harmony with the landscape. "Why is it that everything is beautiful? Because everything is slow," he noted in his "Géographie de l'instant".
American Long Rider Sea G Rhydr rode “ocean to ocean” across the USA.
"It's a rhythm that lends itself to contemplation," said Sea G Rhydr, an American who recently crossed the United States to ride from the West Coast to the East Coast for 25 months.
Günter Wamser, a German, confirms this view. Once a motorcycle traveller, he recalls how the charm of equestrian trips started when he happened to exchange his motorcycle for a horse somewhere in Guatemala. "I realized immediately one of the biggest advantages of travelling on horseback.”
Travel at a slow pace is much more intense than with speed because if a person travels slowly the density of experiences greatly increases", Wamser explains.
Günter took his time: in a horse journey across the entire Americas from Patagonia in the far south to Alaska in the far north he covered more than 30,000 kilometres.
"It is the most suitable time to travel," Arita Baaijens tells us on the phone. The Dutch woman had spent years travelling with camels through the inhospitable areas of the deserts of Sudan, Egypt or Mauritania and wrote several books on the subject. In recent times she has been more dedicated to horseback trips in the remote lands of Kazakhstan, China, Mongolia and Russia. "I'm not really against cars, but I would never make a car or motorcycle expedition because, apart from the noise, this means that we are not in touch with the environment around us and I like to be in contact with nature," Baaijens explains.
In all this there is a certain will to transcend the modern world that manifests a voluntary refusal of motor-driven travel. Regarding that point, CuChullaine O'Reilly is the most assertive. In an exchange with Jornal de Notícias he said, "For the last fifty years, the world has been reduced to mediocrity by travel machines."
CuChullaine O'Reilly is the author of "Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration" and many describe him as the world's leading expert on the subject. He tries to clarify the above statement: "The long distances that challenged our ancestors are now an easy conquest. The foreign lands have lost their mystery. Prohibited continents are crossed in hours. Oceans are only a nuisance overcome by a faceless pilot as passengers struggle to stay awake during the second film of the flight," he tells us.
CuChullaine O’Reilly has spent more than thirty years studying equestrian travel techniques on every continent.
Now, in this age of "Anonymous trips" that require us to "travel within the steel of a plane or the cocoon of a car," the horse, he argues, can be "the connection to the amazing world around us." "You cannot relate to the world if you're flying," he claims. But on top of a horse saddle, the traveller interacts with the world. "He does not travel at the speed of sound. He moves at the pace of the wind."
"When you ride on your horse in search of adventure," continues the author, "you're no longer an anonymous cog in a flying machine. You are free to break the boundaries of today’s increasingly restrictive world."
"How about returning the horse to Brazil?"
There are several motivations that lead the riders out into the world. One is the tremendous influence exercised by the Swiss writer Aimé Tschiffely. In his book "Tschiffely's Ride", first published in 1933, he recounts his trip from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to New York, USA. Reportedly these pages have inspired five generations of long-distance riders. The Brazilian Filipe Masetti Leite is one of them.
"When I was a kid, my father read me the book before going to sleep. I would lie on my bed and imagine how it would be to travel on horseback through all those countries," he tells us on the phone.
Several years later, Filipe was studying journalism in Canada when a light bulb went off in his head, "What about making a horse journey back to Brazil?" His initial fear - "I do not know if is possible to make such a trip in the 21st century" – faded as he began researching the topic.
Then on July 8, 2012, he jumped onto a horse in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and set off, with another horse along to carry the stuff. He arrived in Espírito Santo do Pinhal, Sao Paulo, Brazil, 803 days later. And he arrived with three horses because the Cherokee Indians in the United States had given him a Mustang.
Along the way, Filipe Leite lived adventures such as in the days of old. He witnessed situations like the time a man took five shots at a woman or the time people were killed on a road in Guatemala. In Honduras he received shelter in the home of a drug dealer.
Brazilian Long Rider Filipe Leite in Bolivia.
The biggest advantage of travelling on horseback, he said, is the fact that you need help every day and that this stimulates contact with people. "Almost every day I spoke with 10, 20 or 30 people who ran to find me help in one way or another. They gave me water or a place to sleep," he says. "And that would not have happened if I were to drive in a car and ask directions to a hotel." Because of the horse, he said, "We have a much greater contact with the locals than with any other kind of trip."
This generosity was indeed the biggest lesson he learned in those 803 days. "The trip opened my eyes to the amount of good people in the world," he summarizes. He remembered a poor family that hosted him in Guatemala. "The people had nothing. It was a tiny house with very little food. But they killed the only chicken they had, that was being saved for Christmas, to give me something to eat that night. That is the lesson I learned; the goodness of human beings."
Love the animal as a child
Long-distance riders share the view that the biggest challenge of these odysseys is ensuring the health of their animals. They need to find water for the animals to drink or grass to eat. And it's not always easy. "I lived with my horses 24 hours a day. There were nights when I could not find water or food to give them and it cut me to the heart because they had become my children," recalled the Brazilian Long Rider.
French Long Ride Sylvain Tesson rode the ancient Silk Road through Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
Sylvain Tesson has written on the subject by reporting about a time when he lived and rode on the plains of Mongolia, "I found a new pleasure by observing the horses eating. No other song is so sweet to the rider's ear than the noise of a horse chewing."
Sea G Rhydr recalled that finding water can pose a challenge, especially where running water is scarce. "Sometimes it is also difficult to deal with its abundance when we need to go through or around rivers."
Günter rode from Patagonia to Alaska.
Günter Wamser discovered the same concerns. "The biggest worry of the trips is always the welfare of the animals, giving them good nutrition, time to rest and keeping them safe at all times." The German says that in his experience, "it is even more difficult if we travel close to civilization. While the dangers in wilderness areas can be controlled (staying safe in an area of bears, for example), security is beyond our control if we ride close to busy roads. Sometimes," he continues, "we have no choice, and I remember them as the worst times of the whole trip."
"You become very Zen"
Why do these knights nourish a particular propensity to travel in remote areas, frequently far from civilization, often being isolated, or in search of a communion with the elements? Both the big horse routes in Central Asia and the camel routes in the deserts had a tremendous impact on Arita Baaijens. It opened new perspectives on an existential level.
"Maybe people will not realize this, but I learned in the desert that, I, Arita Baaijens do not exist as such. We are all a fantasy. We think we know who we are but if we travel alone for a long period we realize that what we are is what other people think about us," explains the Dutch Long Rider. “So if there is no one around you, you become very Zen. Thou art nothing, while you are all", she concludes.
Dutch Long Rider Arita Baaijens completed the first modern circumnavigation of the entire Altai Mountain Range on horseback.
CuChullaine O'Reilly told us that this kind of trip "puts you in direct contact with someone you should know best: yourself."
"Sooner or later we all die of something and this is out of our control," says Sea G Rhydr. It was also why she decided to travel by horse from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. "I decided to follow where my dream led me. And I'm willing to say ‘yes’ to the next adventure while I’m still here."
All of this is done without fear or phobias. In the 25 months of her voyage, Sea learned that "the world is much safer and more enjoyable than we are often led to believe." When she found herself alone in a harsh landscape, Sea G Rhydr learned "not to listen to the voice of fear and be more comfortable with the unknown."
Arita Baaijens shares the same viewpoint. "I came across many difficulties and was alone for several weeks in roadless areas or nothing at all," she says. Baaijens learned she had to be firm to face the uncertainties of life. "Whatever happens, I learned to be able to deal with it in one way or another. And it makes me feel good."
A long relationshipSome may admire these people in twenty-first century society, others will be unable to understand how there are still people travelling by horse when there are planes. Are these people hippies or malcontents, discontented with the social structure?
And are the long-distance riders an endangered species? The answer is a resounding no, says CuChullaine O'Reilly.
"For over 100 years people have been predicting that humanity no longer needs the horse," he says. But he then evokes the long relationship between humans and equines. “We can look back now from the luxury of our computer-driven world and see how everything, and nothing, has changed since the first Long Rider stepped up onto the back of his/her horse.”
CuChullaine, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers’ Club, is the author of Khyber Knights.
“However,” he continues, “For six thousand years each generation of mankind has been supremely confident, arrogant in the recurring belief that theirs is the ultimate expression of the human experience. Meanwhile the horsemen and women of history have watched from the sidelines while fires were first lit, wheels were invented, pyramids were built, railroad lines were laid, automobiles were driven, and computer screens were peered into. Throughout this vast never-ending stream of human experience and effort one thing has run through our collective unconsciousness, the need for terrestrial freedom,” he says.
No animal has impacted the development of our species to such an extent as the horse, he says. “It transformed our ancestors from plodding pedestrians into a race of roamers.”
As such, and despite the passage of thousands of years, "Equestrian travel has changed very little."
"There have been improvements in equipment but the basic laws still apply. There will always be a handful of riders eager to explore the world, no matter what year is marked on the calendar," predicts the Long Rider.
This article was first published in Portuguese in Jornal de Notícias.
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