Reality versus Romance
by Basha O'Reilly FRGS
Above - French Long Riders Augustin Blanchard (left) and Marc von Polier.
You think you’re ready. So you take a deep breath, put your foot into the stirrup, swing into the saddle and ride towards the unknown horizon that’s been beckoning to you for so long.
Only things don’t work out as you planned. The dream you had longed to enjoy becomes an unexpected type of equestrian nightmare.
That is what happened to the British Long Riders Samantha “Sam” Southey and Tim Mullan.
In 2006, whilst travelling overland from Europe to the Indian Ocean, they had decided they wanted to become equestrian explorers.
“We had discovered the Long Rider's Guild website earlier that year and were inspired by those we read about,” Sam recalled later.
The problem was that neither of them had any experience travelling with horses.
“We understood we had a lot of work to do before we were ready.”
They spent the next seven years carefully preparing for the trip of a lifetime.
This included improving their riding and horsemanship skills. They also attended
first aid courses, learned a martial art to defend themselves and saved all
In an email to the Guild, Sam wrote, “We spent seven years of our life planning,
researching, talking about and saving for this long ride.”
Finally, in the summer of 2013, the excited travellers set off.
What happened did not match their expectations.
Their Mongolian riding horses, which had never been required to walk beside a pack horse, immediately gave them trouble. Even worse, the two local horses chosen to carry the large American style pack saddles were deathly afraid of the foreign equipment. An unexpected rodeo began every time the equipment was loaded, with valuable possessions thrown to all corners of camp.
Horses ran away. Tempers flared. In a very short time Sam and Tim’s dreams were shattered.
Sam wrote, “By the end of the day I wished I had never thought of this trip. When I told Tim this he said ‘We cannot give up now. After all we’ve waited seven years for this. We always knew it was going to be tough.’ That was the problem though. I told people it would be tough but I never really knew what that would feel like emotionally until it actually happened. I wanted to be heroic about the trip but here I was crying after my first hard day wishing I was at home feeling content with life.”
The magnitude of what the young travellers had set out to do was much harder than anything they had ever imagined. All their careful preparations had not protected them against the kind of brutal and unexpected problems that hit their expedition so quickly.
“The enormity of what we had set out to do was paralysing,” Sam wrote, “and I woke up each morning and for a split second would forget where I was and then remember and feel trapped.”
A dream had resulted in tears. The trip of a lifetime ended prematurely.
Same as occurred to me in Mongolia, Russia and the United States, when I discovered that a cherished dream often gallops into the harsh reality of equestrian travel.
To give Sam and Tim credit, they had known a ride across Mongolia was going to be difficult for them and the horses.
“Our journey ahead was going to be one enormous learning curve for both human and horse,” she acknowledged.
Unfortunately, many first time horse travellers lack Sam’s understanding of the ordeal that lies ahead.
The Long Riders’ Guild receives hundreds of messages every year from would-be equestrian travellers. While all of the emails are sincere, many do not understand how physically, emotionally, financially and culturally challenging a horse trip will be.
Case in point was the young European who recently asked the Guild to supply
advice on how he could make a journey across the American “Old West.” This
fellow had a specific shopping list of requirements. He wanted to ride with
cowboys and Indians. He had to be mounted on an Appaloosa. He wanted to travel
in Montana. And he only given himself a few weeks to find the right horse, make
the trip, sell the horse and return home.
Would-be Long Riders should not allow themselves to be influenced by Hollywood fantasy.
We had to explain that locating a suitable road horse was not as easy as renting a car at an airport and then driving off towards the sunset in search of your dreams, that the Old West he had seen in Hollywood movies no longer existed, that the legendary cowboys he was searching for only existed in romantic novels.
There are a multitude of reasons an equestrian journey may fail. The chance of some of these problems occurring can be reduced by careful planning. But even before you begin to deal with the specifics of where you ride, the first requirement of any would-be Long Rider is to set aside any romantic delusions and deal instead with the callous, and sometimes cruel, aspects of horse travel.
Otherwise the journey will fail.
Whenever you discuss horse travel with someone who has never done it, the person usually envisions riding in the sunshine, galloping across beautiful country, waving in joy at the happy people who are waiting to welcome the traveller into their home at the end of a long day in the saddle.
They do not foresee the tremendous amount of patience required to travel slowly across a vast landscape at 5 miles an hour. They also do not foresee being injured during a journey.
Riding horses has never been the safest of occupations.
Just ask the mighty monarchs of the past.
It wasn’t the Saxons who killed William the Conqueror. The Norman warlord died in France in 1087 when he was thrown against the pommel of the saddle and his internal organs ruptured.
After having survived a life full of wars and wounds, Genghis Khan wasn’t slain by swords of steel. He died in 1227 from injuries resulting from a fall off his horse.
Despite ruling a vast kingdom that stretched across Europe, Napoleon Bonaparte was an indifferent horseman. Among his worst falls was one on October 30, 1799 when he was thrown 12 feet and lost consciousness for several hours.
Equestrian travellers also place their health in jeopardy when they swing into the saddle.
French Long Riders Pascale Franconie and Jean-Claude Cazade both suffered injuries during their ride from France to Arabia. Pascale’s Arab stallion, Mzwina, slipped in the stable, fell on his rider and broke her collar bone. Jean-Claude’s Arab stallion, Merindian, reared while he was being groomed. He struck Jean-Claude with his front hoof, cutting open the Long Rider’s femoral artery.
The longer the trip the greater the chances that an accident will occur. Some unlucky travellers suffer more than one injury. That is what happened to Sea G. Rhydr during her two-year “ocean to ocean” journey across the United States.
After riding halfway across the United States without incident, Sea broke her toe while trying to catch her horse. Thinking the tall green grass in the pasture was pleasant to look at Sea strolled out barefoot, caught her toe under a hidden tree root and was suddenly looking down at a painful, broken digit.
That accident was only the beginning.
Later she was thrown and severely injured.
That is when Sea learned the hard lesson that any injury which disables the Long Rider imperils the health and safety of her horses as well.
Somewhere in Texas, far from family, wounded, unable to walk, and incapable of
taking care of her horses, the stricken Long Rider grappled with the “jolt of
going from being a brave soul off on a grand adventure to suddenly being an
indigent homeless person with three ponies in need of a place to stay while I
recover enough to be able to move on.”
Right: Like many Long Riders, Sea G. Rhydr suffered accidents while travelling, including suffering a serious cut across her forehead. Luckily, her host that night was a doctor, who stitched up the equestrian traveller in his living room.
Finding food and shelter for your horses is a tactical challenge even if you’re in the best of health. When you’re knocked out of action, your horse is the first to suffer. As Sea learned to her dismay, a wounded Long Rider has the immense problem of trying to heal, all the while being forced by circumstances to rely on the generosity of strangers.
“It’s one thing to ride up to somebody’s house and ask for a place to stop for the night with everybody knowing that we’ll be moving on in the morning; its a totally different thing to ask for a place to stop when I can barely walk, much less carry a bale of hay out to the herd. It’s humbling and scary to need to be taken care of by strangers, to trust somebody else to take care of my ponies, to be reminded that as much as I try to be I am not self-sufficient and cannot even procure food without assistance, to suddenly and unexpectedly need a lot of help from a lot of people, to be reminded that plans are as nothing in the face of reality.”
Sea wisely concluded, “Healing takes time.”
When accidents happen, you must learn to call upon the hidden reserves of strength and courage which lie deeply buried within your own soul.
We’ve all grown up with stories about mounted men who could ride for days. Chief among them were the mighty warriors who galloped from Mongolia deep into Europe.
Genghis Khan was proud of his mounted riders, the greatest of whom was Subotai, the renowned Mongolian general who led the army of Genghis Khan to so many victories. In 1239 Subotai and his Mongol cavalry crushed the Russians. He wasted no time invading Europe. The flower of European knighthood gathered to fight the fast-riding Mongols. Subotai smashed them into dust. Having spent his life riding fast and far, the Mongol general had little respect for the fair-weather riders he encountered in Europe.
“They are town bred people,” he is quoted as saying, “so they cannot endure fatigue.”
Subotai was also an astonishing equestrian traveller. At one point he was required to return from the edge of Europe to the heart of Central Asia as quickly as possible. He did so thanks to the ingenious and efficient mail system known as örtöö which Genghis Khan had instituted across his vast empire. This predecessor of the American Pony Express, made use of well guarded relay stations where large numbers of horses were ready for instant service.
Riding from one örtöö outpost to another, sometimes tied to the saddle to ward off exhaustion, stopping only for short periods to eat, Subotai galloped 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) from the shore of the Caspian Sea to Samarkand in little more than a week.
Yet a major misconception occurs when a 21st century person longs to travel to another country and ride alongside the romantic figures of that nation’s past. This is a type of emotional escapism which is not connected to the reality of the new millennium.
During my first horse trip I rode in Mongolia. That is when I learned what other modern equestrian travellers have also discovered. Today’s Mongols ride motorcycles, not horses, to cross great distances.
Another example of romantic myth are the legendary Cossacks.
When I started my journey from Russia to England, I was accompanied by four Cossacks. After three days they were so saddle-sore that they went home!
Such equestrian myths continue to dominate popular culture across the Atlantic.
The Cowboy remains a powerful symbol of American liberty. But in reality fences long ago cut the Old West into tiny pieces. I saw more free land in the former Soviet Union than I did on the Outlaw Trail - and I never saw a single 'cowboy' in the saddle. Mind you, I saw a lot of men wearing cowboy hats and spurs....
Nor are things any better south of the Equator.
Millions of cattle once ruled the seemingly endless grasslands of Argentina's famous pampas. But today the country's beef spend their lives crammed into the muddy corrals of U.S.-style feedlots. This has led to the decline of the gaucho, the migratory horsemen who lived a life of freedom on the once-wild pampas.
Do not confuse stories about the legendary deeds once done by Cowboys, Gauchos, Mongols and Cossacks with their descendants living in modern nations today.
It is always wise to remove the rose-coloured spectacles and take a long, hard look at the reality of what a country is like today, instead of hoping to find traces of its golden past.
Your approach on horse awakens people’s longings to travel, explore, escape and lead a fuller life. They admire your courage, envy your freedom and open their homes to you. Yet these are dangerous ideas and your journey is a cause of concern to those who worship power.
It’s not the citizens who oppose the progress of a Long Rider. Quite the contrary. It is the governments. They are obsessed with control and dominance. They rule because they have the ability to monitor, tax, imprison and intimidate their citizens. Their power is based upon their subjects remaining placidly in place.
During my journey from Russia to England, I was forced by circumstance to travel via Sweden, where officials promptly quarantined and threatened to destroy my Cossack stallion, Count Pompeii. The Swedish people were horrified and ashamed at how I had been treated by their bureaucrats.
This example illustrates a vital point. If the horse is the key to the village that opens people’s hearts, he is also the spark that ignites authoritarian aggression. This explains why Long Riders are continually taken by surprise by the hostility they encounter at borders.
Even though the year on the calendar may change, border problems for Long Riders never have. In fact, with the advent of the motor age and the decline in general equestrian knowledge, these problems and antagonisms have become more pronounced.
People who are obsessed with rules and are paranoid about security view any violation as not only a national menace but a threat to their personal career. If a rule is defeated, they could be the one who suffers the consequence. Not wanting to risk their retirement, they take the coward’s way out. They obstruct your progress instead of invoking the anger of their superiors.
No one planning
an equestrian journey should consider crossing an international border unless
all the medical and legal requirements for moving the horses have been
established in advance.
The picture on the right shows the celebrated Swiss Long Rider, Aimé Tschiffely, at a border crossing.
In a world populated by millions of unemployed horses, a person could be forgiven for thinking that it will be easy to go to another country and locate a cheap, well-trained, emotionally reliable horse.
What the uneducated person does not realize is that these are what used to be known as “soft horses.” They fail to understand that even if the rider is as hard as nails, the horse has to be equally athletic otherwise the journey is in trouble.
Previous generations understood that the ability to cover many miles depended on what condition the horse was in. That is why Genghis Khan’s Mongols believed that if you had a strong horse great distance was of no concern.
This distrust of soft horses was not restricted to the East, as knowledgeable travellers, authors, and even politicians, voiced worries about the rise of pampered equines.
As early as 1836 M. G. Manwaring expressed concern in his book, “A Comparative View of the Form and Character of the English Racer and Saddle Horse during the Past and Present Centuries.”
He wrote, “The natural qualities of the horse’s endurance, weight-carrying power and speed maintained over long distances, are found at their best in the animal which has been reared under natural conditions.”
Modern equestrian travellers should pay careful heed to these arguments.
It is taken for granted that any horse used for a journey has been well-conditioned but the importance of this point must be again insisted upon. Without proper conditioning it is impossible for the animal to properly endure the fatigue and exertion involved with any prolonged effort.
Finding and training horses for a journey takes much more time than people realize.
It is well known that a horse is ten times as strong as a man and that no man can handle a horse by physical strength alone.
Yet equestrian travel history is filled with examples of people who mistook a horse’s basic strength as an ability to carry massive amounts of weight over great distances.
The great French Long Rider Jean Louis Gouraud, who rode from Paris to Moscow, understood this important rule. He warned, “It is not the kilometres that will kill your horse, it is the kilograms”!
That is why the critical law of Long Rider packing is to never place one single item or ounce on your pack animal if it can be avoided. Not an extra packet of food. Not those warm socks. Not even an extra button you think you might need in an emergency.
Your road horse is designed to carry you, your saddle, rain gear, map and any essential paperwork. Anything, and everything, else goes on the pack animal.
If is incorrect to think that a soft horse can be instantly turned into a hard road horse, it is equally wrong to assume that all horses are emotionally capable of being used as pack animals.
When you try to turn an out of shape pasture pet into a road horse, it suffers. When you try to draft an untrained animal into being a pack horse it can lead to serious injury or death.
The other problem with pack horses is that the concept, and equipment, involved may result in a strong cultural disagreement with your hosts and their horses.
That is what Sam and Tim learned when they arrived in Mongolia with new pack saddles. No one had told them that the Mongols believe the noble horse should never be humiliated by being forced to carry luggage or equipment. Such a task was traditionally done by the family’s Bactrian camel. Today a truck or motorcycle carries a nomad family’s heavy objects from one camp to another.
When Sam and Tim arrived in Mongolia, they discovered they faced two kinds of opposition to their pack saddles, human arrogance and equine fear.
The British travellers had wisely tried to perfect the art of loading a pack saddle before they started their journey. They had practised tying knots, etc. What they hadn’t foreseen was that the Mongols had their own strong opinions on the subject.
“We had hoped to practise our chosen method of packing/loading learnt via a book from two well respected American packers. The Mongolians we were working with decided this way was no good and insisted on making something up on the spot. We vowed to keep quiet and wait until we were on our own before reverting back to the way we wanted to pack.”
But the Mongols weren’t the only problem. The local horses were terrified of the strange loads being tied across their backs.
“The plan was to practise packing and loading in the hope we could refine our skills before starting the ride,” Sam recalled. They spent four days attempting to train the nervous horses to carry the pack saddles. Years spent in freedom on the steppes could not be dismissed by a few hours of training.
Tim’s pack horse trembled with fear as the pack saddle was placed on him. When the two loads were roped onto his back, the Mongol horse began to buck wildly, throwing equipment in all directions. After breaking free, the frightened pack horse fled.
“This was one of the reasons that packing up often took us three hours in those early days. The record was five hours,” Sam said.
Hostility or Hospitality?
Riding a horse across an unknown landscape is very different than speeding along enclosed within the safety of a motorized steel-cocoon. People who drive cars usually interact with strangers only when they purchase gasoline or food. A quick meal and a fast tank full of petrol, then off the driver roars.
There is a great deal of vulnerability in being an equestrian traveller. Not only are you seeking food and shelter for you and your horse, your soul is often times starving for companionship too. A Long Rider has been compared to a small island of isolation that moves slowly over the land in search of hospitality.
Unfortunately not all cultures have a tradition of hospitality. In fact race, culture, geography and tradition all too often separate us. One of the worst things which may befall a traveller is the stealing of their beloved horse.
Even though she had made several journeys in Greece, that is what happened to British rider Penny Turner. She lost her horse near a village of notorious horse thieves.
Having awakened, Penny discovered George and his bridle were both missing. She immediately ran back towards the closest village.
“I met an elderly lady and asked, ‘Did you see anyone go by with a horse?”
'I lost my horse.'
'Oh,' she said, with an air of satisfaction, 'he'll have been stolen. The people here at Velvendo are famous for stealing horses. Didn't you know that?'
"Well no, actually."
Luckily, Penny was able to locate and recover George. She later learned that the villagers, who had begun stealing horses in the harsh times after the Second World War, carried on the practice as a local tradition.
But it isn’t only local lads who are looking for a thrill. Desperate economic times in neighbouring Albania have resulted in thieves crossing the border and stealing Greek horses from unsuspecting farmers and unwary travellers.
Much of an equestrian traveller’s existence depends upon the patience, tolerance, acceptance, assistance and generosity of strangers. That is why the concept of hospitality is so vitally important to the success of your journey.
As these examples demonstrate, when a person is sitting in the safety of their home, planning a horse trip they do not usually remember that hard times are almost certainly waiting out on the road.
Sam and Tim learned this lesson the hard way in Mongolia.
Soon after they began the journey, Sam’s still-frightened pack horse pulled away. When she dismounted to pick up the lead rope, her road horse ran away. Strapped to the saddle was the bag carrying her passport, money and bank cards.
Luckily her belongings were recovered, but a short time later thieves stole two of the travellers' horses.
“We spent the night sitting in our tent's entrance, holding the ropes of the remaining horses in case the thieves returned.”
Though they eventually managed to ride more than a thousand kilometres across Mongolia, Sam and Tim’s journey was cut short by these unforeseen problems.
The Importance of Planning
No matter where you travel on horseback two things will be awaiting you – excitement and freedom. This is what makes the idea of equestrian travel so romantic.
But the reality is that horse travel is uncompromising. It does not forgive mistakes. History proves that those who fail to understand this basic principle often do not reach their goal.
Note: This is an extract from the Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration, by CuChullaine O'Reilly.
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