The Long Riders' Guild

The Preservation of Equestrian Travel

Basha O'Reilly FRGS

These nine Lithuanian Long Riders made a journey along an historic trail used by their ancestors between the Baltic and the Black Seas.  Photo: The Long Riders Guild

Man’s pedestrian heritage is in no danger of being forgotten.  The legendary route known as the “Inca Trail” in South America is one example.  It is a thousand years old and approximately six thousand kilometres (four thousand miles) long.  Because it is one of the oldest pedestrian trails, it is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites.


But this trail was created and used by pedestrians, not horsemen.


On the list of UNESCO World Heritage sites you can find historic town centres, ruins, forests, churches, mines and castles – but nothing for horsemen!


As motorised transport and urbanisation influence our everyday lives to a greater and greater extent, mankind’s equestrian heritage is increasingly ignored, misunderstood or ridiculed.


One example of this official hostility is the “Appalachian Way” in the United States, which was laid out by a horseman.  Today it is illegal to travel on horseback along this 3,000 kilometre (2,000-mile) track.


The problem is not confined to one continent or country.  In New Zealand horsemen are battling to preserve their rights.  But, “I am worried at the idea of mixing horses, cyclists and pedestrians,” said Cynthia Bowers, the deputy mayor of the city of Hastings.  “How could a cyclist overtake a horse safely without using his bell, which would frighten the horse?”


This person’s reaction is a classic example of the equestrian amnesia of today.  Most politicians fail to understand the need to preserve the equestrian culture of their country.


A tragic example is that it is forbidden to ride a horse in Paris.  This is ironic because modern equestrian travel began in the French capital in 1889.  During that year a Russian cavalry officer, Mikael Asseyev, rode from Kiev to the newly-erected Eiffel Tower.


Because of the power of the media, particularly Hollywood, it is easy to get a false idea about equestrian liberty, and where to find it.  The myth does not correspond with the reality.


I found this out for myself.  When I made my journey through Russia in 1995, I was expecting barbed-wire fences rather like the Iron Curtain.  But because there was no concept of private land ownership, I travelled about 2,500 kilometres (2,000 miles) from Volgograd to Poland without meeting a single fence.  The land was open and free, and I could travel wherever I wanted.


According to Hollywood, the American West consists of wide-open spaces populated by mystic Indians.  I was shocked to discover that this is not true.  In 1999 I was the first woman to travel on horseback the length of the infamous “Outlaw Trail” used by Butch Cassidy and the “Wild Bunch”.  I rode for 2,000 kilometres (1,500 miles) between the Mexican border and Butch’s hide-out, “Hole in the Wall” in Wyoming.  Unlike in the cowboy films, I found fences everywhere.  In a country where the car is worshipped, the Americans had no interest in marking or preserving this unique equestrian trail.


It is vital that our rights to travel on horseback are protected.  When they are not, equestrian travellers lose.


Jessica Bigler is one of the best Swiss Long Riders.  She made several journeys in Europe without encountering any problems.  But in 2007 her attempt to travel between Switzerland and Ireland failed in England.  Why?  “England is too hard for my horse.  The trails were all closed or overgrown, so I had to travel on the roads amongst the traffic.  It’s a shame that nothing has been done for Long Riders who want to travel in the U.K.!”


But there is good news.


Thanks to the zealous work of local horsemen, some national governments are making an effort to preserve their equestrian heritage.  For example, Australia created the “Bicentennial National Trail”.  This is 5,300 kilometres (about 3,000 miles) long and horsemen come from all around the world to ride through the Australian countryside.

Australian Long Riders Ken and Sharon Roberts were the first to travel the length of the “Bicentennial National Trail” in Australia.  Photo: Ken and Sharon Roberts


When Canada realised the potential of linking tourist dollars with equestrian heritage, it started creating a trail, the “Trans-Canadian Trail”, which will have a total of 23,000 kilometres between the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Oceans across this enormous country.


The best news, however, comes from Continental Europe, where a coalition of equestrian visionaries is working to link up historic trails in their countries to create a unique network of paths for horses.  When it is done, this network will encourage horsemen to travel easily across their own country, and to explore another.

Dutch Long Rider Michel Jacobs is one of the pioneers who are trying to preserve equestrian trails in Europe.  He rode from his home in Amsterdam to Saint Petersburg.  Photo: Michel Jacobs


Leading this new European effort is Germany.  An association there, the VFD (Vereinigung der Freizeitreiter und –fahrer in Deutschland) is trying to create a “Europe without Borders”.  German Long Rider David Wewetzer rode along the new “Iron Curtain Trail”, which leads from Turkey right up to the Arctic Ocean.  Since his return, David has become actively involved with the VFD.  He explained that the association wants to reanimate the old routes such as ancient post roads, early trails for commerce, historic and religious routes.  David said, “I see this as an opportunity to promote equestrian travel in contrast to competitions.”


One of the first countries to recognise the importance of equestrian travel was Spain.


After Jerusalem was taken by the caliph Omar in 638, Christians were wary about making the pilgrimage to the holy city.  Founded in 800, Santiago, containing the tomb of the apostle Saint James, greatly benefited from Jerusalem’s decline.  The Ways of Saint James towards this tomb come from all over Europe.


Robin Hanbury-Tenison, famous explorer in England, made the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela with his wife, Louella.

Photo: Robin Hanbury-Tenison


Pilgrims have travelled to Santiago for 1200 years, and Long Riders are still doing it today:  the Swiss, Otto Schwarz, the English, Robin and Louella Hanbury-Tenison, the Irishman Steve O’Connor, the Germans Albert Knaus and Kerstin Hüllmande and the Dutch team of Jeannette van den Eng and Margriet Dijkstra have all ridden recently to this ancient city.


There are also modern pioneers!  In 2012 nine Lithuanian Long Riders travelled between the Baltic and Black Seas.  The Dutch Long Rider, Michel Jacobs, travelled from Amsterdam to Saint Petersburg and the English Long Rider, Mefo Phillips, reopened a forgotten pilgrim route between France and Spain.

Photo: Mefo Phillips


But dangers and problems are still with us.


In 1964, Long Rider William Holt made a 5,000 mile (8,000 kilometre) journey round Europe with his horse, Trigger.  In his book, Ride a White Horse, he wrote, “In France they have almost completed a map showing how one can travel across all of France without using roads.  Marvellous!  As an Englishman I am jealous of the way the French have organised equitation on a national scale”.


But there is no longer an organization to oversee the whole of France’s wonderful forest trails.  Jean-Michel Millecamps, the publisher of Randonner à Cheval, understands the importance of preserving this heritage.  “We need a national association to watch over the trails:  today it’s the responsibility of the mayor in each community.  It is important that France does not go down the same path as England and lose its ancient trails,” he said.


In today’s world where more and more people are urban and have no idea where their food comes from, it is essential that we horsemen defend our right to make equestrian journeys, otherwise we are in danger of losing our ancient trails.  That is why the VFD campaign is so important, and we must all work together to protect our common equestrian heritage.


We must all be careful.


In addition to the dangers posed by traffic and an indifferent public, equestrian travellers continue to face the recurring problem of political antagonism.  From an historic point of view, horsemen are treated with hostility by authorities because they are free to come and go as they please.  In the past efforts have been made to control the population by forbidding equestrian travel.


After General Oliver Cromwell conquered Ireland in the seventeenth century, he passed a law forbidding Irishmen to own a horse worth more than £5.  He knew that the easiest way to subjugate a people is to take away their horses.


The tyrant Joseph Stalin also understood this.  In Russia, the private ownership of a horse was officially banned in 1928.


These two dictators knew that the horse represents geographic freedom.  If people can be confined to their towns or villages, they can be controlled.  In Europe there is a tradition of protecting the rights of man.  In 1217 the English created the Charter of the Forest to protect the citizens from the abuse of the aristocrats.


In December 2013 Vladimir Putin announced that Stalin and Cromwell were indistinguishable. "What is the essential difference between Cromwell and Stalin? Can you tell me? No difference," he declared.


In Sweden there is still a law called “allemansrätten” – the rights of all men.  This law gives citizens the right to travel across the countryside.


But there is a new breed of aristocrats threatening the rights of outdoor horsemen.  Today every square millimetre of the United Kingdom belongs to somebody who protects it jealously.  Unlike in France, most of the farms in England belong to giant corporations, who don’t want people travelling across their land.  This hostility is in contrast to the ancient tradition of free passage.


One important step is already being taken.  The Long Riders Guild and the VFD are working to create a charter designed to protect the rights of equestrian travellers in Europe.


VFD, based in Germany, is anxious to include the European equestrian community in this effort to preserve Europe’s equestrian heritage.  As David Wewetzer declared, “now we are all Europeans”.


I was lucky: I was born around the middle of the twentieth century.  I benefited from the wisdom of the cavalry soldiers who taught me to ride.  Much of their wisdom, as well as the freedom to travel which they enjoyed, has been lost today.  It is essential that we do not forget our rights to ride along the ancient paths.  For the sake of our children and grandchildren, it is our duty to protect, preserve and promote equestrian travel everywhere in the world.


Copyright (c) 2014 Basha O'Reilly

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