Pierre Vernay, Frederic Vernay and Jean-Yves Lapaix
Many people could ride around the world but never find the wisdom needed to become a Long Rider. Lacking a moral compass, some could be staring disaster in the face and choose to ignore a horse’s suffering. One notorious example of placing ego before ethics occurred in the summer of 1990 when three Frenchmen made the ill-fated decision to take horses into Canada’s barren Arctic Circle.
Having read about Captain Robert Scott’s use of horses in Antarctica, Pierre Vernay (above), his brother, Frederic, and Jean-Yves Lapaix decided to stage their own equestrian expedition across an icy environment. Because international law now forbids the importation of any animals onto Antarctica, the Europeans decided they would attempt to use horses to travel across part of Canada’s desolate Arctic Circle. The problem was that even though the men had previous cold weather travel experience, they knew nothing about equines. That didn’t stop them from basing their efforts on a primary lie.
After having arrived in Canada with their equipment, they informed the sceptical authorities, “We are horse specialists.” All the while they privately admitted, “We will never be able to take care of the horses ourselves.”
To offset their ignorance, they tried to enlist local help. Dubious Canadian horsemen refused to become involved. Unperturbed, the Frenchmen bought two horses under false pretences from unsuspecting people in Montreal. The recruits were unsuitable. Valentine was a three-year-old gelding. Prunelle was a six-year-old brood mare who hadn’t been worked in four years. With their equine victims recruited, the Frenchmen headed to the airport.
The original plan was to try and reach the magnetic north pole. But the pilot took one look at the horses and refused to risk his aircraft by flying the team so far north. A last-minute compromise was reached when the airman reluctantly agreed to take men and horses to Cornwallis Island. Though it had been aptly described as “killingly sad,” what mattered to the Frenchmen was that their destination lay within the Arctic Circle. They shoved the horse aboard the plane and ignored the warnings of previous travellers, one of whom had written, “Cornwallis Island is one of the most desolate places anywhere on the planet.”
After the plane departed, they began efforts to circumnavigate the island. It didn’t take long for trouble to find them. To begin with, the horses became completely disorientated by the permanent daylight and the polar environment. But there was no time to delay. The animals were quickly hitched to heavy sleds and urged to begin pulling. Problems arose because neither animal had been trained to perform this task. They became tangled in the harness and suffered wounds when their legs slammed into the sleds. The answer was to drive them on anyway.
|The animals were quickly hitched to heavy sleds and urged to begin pulling. Problems arose because neither animal had been trained to perform this task.|
Being uninformed about the horse’s basic nutritional requirements, the French team had grossly underestimated how much food each horse would require. Before attempting to cross Greenland in 1914, one of the greatest equine polar explorers, Captain Johan Koch, had landed six tons of hay on the shore, so as to provide ample nourishment for this team of sixteen horses. The Frenchmen hadn’t brought a wisp of hay nor was there a blade of grass. They planned to rely on an inadequate daily grain ration. It didn’t take long before the horses became so hungry they “reduced their lead ropes to crumbs.” No problem. The Frenchmen replaced the ropes with chains.
As the hungry horses were driven across the ice and snow (right) week after week, the effect of their starvation became visible. ”Valentine’s ribs can be seen and he eats his droppings as soon as they emerge,” one Frenchman wrote. The mare was even worse. Her ribs were showing, her hair was falling out and she had lost all her strength. “Prunelle is drained of energy and stops in her tracks. She will not respond to solicitations by voice or even lashes of the whip. Every time she lies down, she gives a deep sigh and we fear the worst.”
What occurred next can be compared to an equine version of the “Bataan Death March,” when starving British soldiers were walked to death by their Japanese captors.
“The grain reserve is running out and in two days they will have nothing to eat. I decide to ration them by diminishing their ration a further 30%,” the expedition leader wrote. When the sun rose, the starving and exhausted horses were stretched out full length on the cold ground. “There are no droppings on the ground, which shows the horses had eaten them during the night. We have more and more the impression that we are putting their lives at risk.”
No matter. The determined Frenchmen marched on; until the mare collapsed. With her sides sunken in and her head thrown back, Prunelle reminded the French leader of a dead donkey carcass he had seen in Djibouti. They unloaded her and administered a dubious home-made remedy containing belladonna, a plant so toxic that even eating one leaf can be fatal. “The effect was catastrophic,” he noted. Yet the mare miraculously survived. In her weakened condition, she was allowed to tag along without any burdens.
|This meant that Valentine was loaded with 80 kilos (176 pounds) of gear on his back. It didn’t take long before the gelding collapsed on the ice.|
This meant that Valentine was loaded with 80 kilos (176 pounds) of gear on his back. It didn’t take long before the gelding collapsed on the ice. Eventually, after travelling for eighty days, the group reached the island’s only hamlet. “The horses immediately threw themselves at some greenery they found.” That’s because Valentine and Prunelle had not received any grass or fodder for more than fifty days.
Upon reaching the village of Resolute, the leader mounted the mare and enjoyed “the ultimate pleasure” by riding her into town. Canadians quickly expressed their disgust but the French traveller scoffed at his critics.
Before the plane arrived to fly them back to Montreal, word of the horses’ condition had spread south. Officials of the SPCA were waiting to lodge a complaint when the horses landed but no legal charges were filed. The French travellers didn’t waste any time unloading the emaciated horses on new owners. They quickly departed for home but not before deriding their accusers as “sinister.” After returning to France, the leader penned a vainglorious book.
Within those shameful pages Vernay thought to leave the truth about the journey buried under the Arctic ice. He didn’t realize the public would know the horses had paid the price for his team’s colossal ignorance and collective arrogance. Being fools, these men never realized that despite their claims to bravery their trip was an atrocity in motion.
Thirsting for glory, these knaves had travelled with horses for eighty days and never found an iota of integrity.
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