The Long Riders' Guild

The Little Horse Is Sick


Evelyne Coquet


As a child Evelyne Coquet’s dreams had been filled with images of the medieval world and her equestrian hero, French nobleman Duke Godfrey de Bouillon, who had led the First Crusade. Introduced herself to horses at an early age, Coquet nurtured an ambitious, albeit secret dream, to follow the route of Sir Godfrey’s cavalcade the entire way from Paris to Jerusalem.

By the age of twenty-three she was an accomplished horsewoman ready at last to follow her wandering star, even if it led through some of the world’s most inhospitable regions. She thus set about making preparations for the journey of a lifetime with care and persistence, ignoring any criticism and all setbacks.

Believing that a trouble shared is a trouble halved, the French traveller enlisted her sister, nineteen-year-old Corinne, to accompany her. When the young women came up short of enough money to buy horses and equipment, Evelyne managed to persuade the French Walt Disney magazine, “Le Journal de Mickey,” to finance their expedition. The only condition set on the 50,000 franc advance was that they rename their two tough Provençal geldings “Mickey and Donald.” Even her beloved fox-terrier, who joined the expedition, was re-dubbed “Pluto.”

It was no gentle pony trek the Coquet sisters were undertaking.

Starting in late September, 1974 from the cathedral of Notre Dame, their route was to cross nine countries, some fiercely at war, take them across more than 6,000 kilometres of unknown and often times dangerous roads, lead them through gruelling deserts and over storm-covered mountains during winter conditions. Young Evelyne Coquet soon discovered that the dream of equestrian adventure is a great deal removed from the rough realities of the road; for difficulties were not long in arriving on the Coquet sisters' private Crusade.

Our departure from Adana, Turkey was reasonably spectacular, for in the middle of the crowded bazaar at the edge of town, Mickey kicked over a bicycle. He would have trampled the cyclist underfoot if the man hadn’t leaped acrobatically on top of a pile of oranges, while our little horse got more and more worked up as he tried to kick free of the pedals. As a demonstration of solidarity, Donald tried to climb up on to the empty trailer of a stationary articulated lorry, whereupon Pluto, completely terrified, ran under a car and came out the other side, with his tail stiff, and his ears flattened, yelping at the top of his voice.

What a performance !

But traffic and houses were soon left behind and we found ourselves in open country. Once again we had taken French leave, slipping away from our gendarme escort whose usefulness had become less and less apparent. They drove us mad because they didn’t like going fast and their favourite road song --- a kind of nasal chant which they intoned while they told their beads --- wasn’t at all inspiring. As guides they were utterly useless: indeed, their  incompetence was frightening. The men of the first Crusade had had arguments with their guides as they crossed Anatolia. Accusing the Turks of having deliberately led them into a particularly arid region, the Crusaders had stoned them, but we hadn’t quite reached that point yet.

The only times we regretted their absence was when we were confronted by our two hereditary enemies: dogs and children, the latter particularly, because our technique for getting rid of the former was fairly effective, but what could we do with small boys who greeted us with stones, when they weren’t peppering us with a hail of pebbles from their slings? They were the true descendants of David, and when we were caught in their stinging volleys, the horses bucked and reared, so the children would begin all over again, laughing, just for the fun of enjoying a free rodeo.

I would have laughed myself if we weren’t quite liable to lose an eye in the skirmish, and I lost count of the numbers of one-eyed children I saw in the villages, victims of this time-honoured sport. Corinne and I realized that, as we couldn’t possibly win such battles there was only one course to adopt, and following the example of Napoleon in love, beat a hasty retreat. One morning Corinne made a mistake, for finding herself cornered, she tried to retaliate and threw a large stone at her assailants. The children scattered and hid behind some rocks, but then regrouped and returned to the attack. Fortunately I was able to stage a one-woman remake of the Charge of the Light Brigade and rode into the mass again and again until Corinne was able to escape.

One evening, at six o’clock it was already dark, but we could see the slopes of the mountains. We asked some shepherds if this was Yonikoy Nazimbey, the village we were aiming for, but apparently that was twelve kilometres further on. There was no question of our reaching it in the dark, for we would have to cross a positively lunar waste without the shadow of a path. So why not spend the night in the village ahead which was called Kisildere?

It was the first time since we had been in Turkey that we had found ourselves absolutely alone. Up until then we had always been helped by the friends we had met on the road, Oliver or Patrick, sometimes by the police-chaperons provided by the Turkish government, or even by locals to whom we had been directed.

In Kisildere, a village of troglodytes with houses melting into the rocks, cut off from everything, no electricity, no telephone, not even a television aerial, no one had ever heard of us.

As I didn’t want to beg for food and shelter (I had lost the knack), I attacked the problem obliquely by asking the ragamuffins who had rushed up to stare at us, “Which is the road to Yonikoy?”

Their reaction was precisely what I had hoped for: “You can’t get to Yonikoy at this time of night. You’ll have to sleep here.”

Even before I could ask: “Yes, but where?” one of the lads invited us to come home with him.

Child’s play !

All the same, we thought we had better decline his offer and trust ourselves to the mukhtar (mayor), for if anything were to happen to us, he’s be the one to deal with the authorities. Our would-be host directed us to the mayor’s house, but as he had gone to the cafe, a child darted off to fetch him, while his wife, a solid matron with no false modesty, came out to examine us, flanked by her two sons, two upstanding stalwarts aged about eighteen or twenty.

“You tourists?” she demanded. “Girls or boys?”

She didn’t wait for an answer but began to feel Corinne’s chest. As my sister usually carried a passport, a card case and other items in the pockets of her anorak, doubt continued to reign, whereupon she began to examine me too. She went about it so vigorously (and I don’t like being pinched) that I protested loudly.

The boys intervened: “Mama, stop, that’s enough.”

But the she-wolf wouldn’t listen and continued her investigation, whereupon I yelled even louder. It was ironic that people had always warned us against the Turks but never against their wives.

The eldest son grabbed our tigress and sent her about her business.

“Mama, go back indoors.”

She obeyed, but as she departed, the mad creature yelled at her sons, “Guzel ! Choch gurzel ! Heyde !”

My bad Turkish was quite fluent enough for me to understand that she was encouraging them: “Pretty girls ! Go on my sons, what are you waiting for?”

Fortunately the mukhtar arrived, not a moment too soon. We held out our letter of introduction form the Turkish tourist office in Paris,  which he didn’t even glance at (perhaps he couldn’t read), and without a word, beckoned to us to follow him. He led us to his stable and installed our horses, then ordered his sons  to take us to one of their cousins, which meant we were spared further assaults from their hysterical mother.

Afterwards the two boys led us to another house where we were given a cold meal. For some time I had been saying to Corinne every time I examined the horses, “Donald’s hind legs are all right.”

This was by way of reassuring myself, for his forelegs worried me a great deal. Ever since we left Paris, every specialist had noticed that he hadn’t got good legs: and some predicted that he couldn’t last more than 100 kilometres, but to date he had covered more than 4,000 and hadn’t done so badly.   

Now I was forced to admit that his right foreleg was over-heating slightly and wondered if perhaps we shouldn’t have been more careful ? But after all, our two equine friends had seemed to be in fine fettle, and as they were given plentiful rations of oats, we had pressed on with the trip, even allowing ourselves short spells of trotting when the ground was suitable so that we could reach our stopping places a little earlier than planned. Besides, I had an additional personal reason for wanting to trot: the hotel maid who had patched my jeans in Istanbul, knowing nothing of the particular needs of riders, had used a piece of very stiff material and some nylon thread, so that my jeans chafed horribly, and I was only too glad to give my bottom a rest by trotting, standing up in my stirrups.

As soon as I appreciated Donald’s difficulties, I didn’t hesitate to sacrifice my own comfort. First of all, I decided no more trotting. Next Corinne and I would change horses. As Donald had swollen and painful legs, and I had problems with my backside, I would walk as much as possible, leading Donald, while Corinne could ride Mickey. Donald and I would be more or less playing the part of halt leading the halt.

We could console ourselves by thinking that most of the crossing of Anatolia had been carried out by Crusaders in similar or even worse conditions, the knights having to go on foot because their horses had died of thirst. A few privileged souls found a way of being transported --- by oxen.

We wondered what had become of the freezing temperatures which only a few days before had reminded us of Siberia. At Sarimazi, on the way to Iskenderun (the old Alexandretta), we were driven from our beds by the heat at four o’clock in the morning.

Next morning, when we opened the stable, it looked like it had been struck by a typhoon, with everything tossed about in wild disorder. The horses must have been fighting half the night, and they had broken down the partition I had put up between them. Mickey stood with his feet in the debris and Donald lay full-length, his head under the manger, and didn’t move, not even when we held a bowl of oats under his nose.

“Come along, little one, up you get.”  

Click on photo to enlarge

The French sisters, Corinne and Evelyne Coquet, are seen riding triumphantly into Jerusalem after crossing Europe, Turkey and the Middle East. 

Noise, daylight, fresh oats, caresses, slaps on the rump, nothing could move Donald, who gazed at us sadly, raised his head a little and let it fall back on the soiled bedding with a profound sigh.

I was afraid he was seriously hurt, for his left foreleg was stretched out in front of him , completely limp, in an unnatural position. I untied him,  pulled his head and tail to help him get out from under the manger and stand up. The leg wouldn’t bend, and I wondered if it was broken. My throat went dry, tears were not far away.

Would we have to put him down because he had broken a leg fighting in a Turkish stable ?

It would be too unfair, but as he continued to moan, and his eyes expressed all the suffering in the world,  I could well believe that he was trying to say he had come to his journey’s end and was imploring us to let him die in peace. All the same I made him stand up, which was the only way of finding out if the leg was broken or not. He managed to scramble up eventually and stood swaying, not knowing which leg to stand on.

No, I didn’t think the leg was broken, but he had obviously had a bad kick on his left thigh and had hurt himself on the shoulder joint, probably from bumping into the stone manger. I imagined that he was suffering from lumbago and arthritis as well and the previous day’s four hours on the rocky bed of a dry mountain stream, plus four hours of scrambling about in the mountains under a blinding sun, hadn’t done him any good at all. In short, Donald was in such bad shape that we couldn’t possibly leave that morning, and I asked if we could send for a vet ?

“There’s one at Ceyhan about eighteen kilometres away and he’ll have to be fetched in a tractor, but he works for the Ministry of Agriculture and you’ll have to get permission first from the sub-prefect.”

I was given the green light quickly enough, that’s to say after five visits to five different civil servants working in five different offices and drinking the five obligatory cups of coffee.

At Ceyhan the vet didn’t wait to see his patient before writing a prescription for a few basic medicines, including a healing lotion for his feet, which couldn’t possibly do him any harm. He recommended a day’s rest, though I would have expected him to be more generous, but in any event we couldn’t stay where we were. Our host, the mukhtar, had to leave his cows out in the sun  while the horses occupied his stables, and as that situation couldn’t possibly continue, the vet advised us to walk the horses as far Turunglu, a small village by the sea about five kilometres away.

The mukhtar was quite happy to transport our saddles and gear in his tractor while we took the horses down a gently sloping sandy path.  As we went on, Donald seemed to perk up little by little,  only very slightly of course, but unfortunately the heat didn’t help his swollen legs. Every time we stopped, he wouldn’t stand on his right foreleg, but merely touched the ground gingerly with the tip of this hoof. Obviously it hurt him a great deal.

We had to turn a donkey out before we could install our horses in his stable, and I took care to build up a very solid partition, firmly fixed with a heavy beam, and tied Mickey up very short so that he couldn’t interfere with Donald.

No sooner had we reached the stable than Donald lay down and stretched his head out in the dust.

I was so upset I nearly cried.

Then I decided to reduce his rations by half, for perhaps he was suffering from over-eating. We had been giving him twelve litres of barley a day which was rather a lot. I noticed that the Turks always mixed their barley with chopped straw to stimulate digestion, but our horses had refused this mixture and Mickey had already gone on hunger strike (for a week) until I had given up and omitted the straw before he collapsed from malnutrition.

Corinne reconnoitered the beach to find a place where we could take Donald to bathe, but it was pitch-dark before she returned: the sea was much further away than we had imagined, so Donald’s sea-water cure would have to be put off until the next day.

In the morning I had an inexplicable presentiment and let Corinne go round to the stable alone. I moment later she reappeared white as a sheet and out of breath, her eyes staring: “Come quickly, he’s dead !”

I flew to the stable and found Donald lying on his right side, all four legs rigid, his head in the sawdust, his eyes turned up and the muscles of his back as hard as iron. In spite of the noise I made, he hadn’t moved an eyelid, but when I touched his head I discovered he wasn’t dead, at least not quite, for he was still breathing, his sides lifting and falling gently. His eyelids closed and then reopened, but the look he gave me was completely desperate,  I raised his head gently to let him breathe some fresh air instead of dust, and then I started to talk to him, as if he was a dear friend, which of course he was.

“Honey-child, my dear little horse, please don’t die ..... you’ve done such wonders already ..... nearly 5,000 kilometres in five months, that’s a wonderful achievement ..... I know you’re tired, but I can’t leave you here,  you know how the peasants treat their horses.”

“Please get up and come with us ..... it’s only another 1,000 kilometres to Jerusalem and that’s not so very much. We’ll go very slowly and we’ll stick to the beach all the time, so you can go for a swim every day, and after that, we’ll take you home to France. You’ll spend the rest of your days in green fields with fresh grass and lucerne as high as your heart.”

Donald tried to get up, using his knees to prevent straining the painful tendons and managed to get to his feet with a groan of pain. When he was finally up, he rested his forelegs by putting all his weight on his back legs and arching his back, for his muscles had lost all their elasticity. He kept resting one forefoot on top of the other as he tried to get comfortable. I gave him a drink and settled him outside on the grass, while Corinne and I rubbed him from head to foot with vinegar and water. I was just about to give him another injection when the headman of the village grabbed my hand.

“Wretched woman ! You can’t give him all that .... you’ll kill him.”

And apparently he knew what he was talking about, for he was a qualified male nurse. Yet the vet, as far as I had been able to understand, had told me to use the rest of the bottle for a second injection. The nurse showed me the prescription, but as it was written in Turkish ..... however,  he took the syringe, squirted out twenty-five per cent of the remaining liquid, gave Donald the injection and swore it was quite sufficient to make my little invalid canter all the way to Jerusalem. I could only pray that Allah had heard his disciple.

In any case, my mind was made up. To pamper Donald and let him do nothing was the surest way of condemning him to death. We had to get him on the move again, taking things very gently, only five or six kilometres a day,  obviously without any kind of load.  Corinne and I could ride Mickey turn and turn about, and our friend Patrick, who we had met on the road earlier, could be safely entrusted with Donald’s saddle and the rest of our gear. Patrick was perfectly capable of organizing that kind of staff work as there were any number of carts and tractors moving in our direction.

Even though it was only the beginning of March, when we set out the next morning the sun was already hot enough to give Corinne and me both headaches, and the horses suffered from the heat even more than we did, particularly our little sick friend. It took us much longer than we had expected to get back to the seashore once we had rounded the bay and crossed a road through orchards and vegetable plots. The labourers were incredibly kind, offering us fruit and water for the horses, and pieces of bread for Pluto. The nearer we got to the Syrian frontier however the more we had to resign ourselves to the fact that we never would see any of the famous Turkish bandits we had been warned about.

Finally we reached the beach, and Mickey and Donald were able to have their first bath. Mickey was afraid of the waves and didn’t seem to like the salt water much, so I didn’t try and force him, but Donald stood quite calmly in water up to his belly, for a good half hour, as if he understood that this was his only chance of recovery. We splashed him with water and afterwards, of his own accord, he waded into deeper water until he was swimming, and then returned to the beach, where we let him dry in the sun. Later he went off exploring (the sea had obviously given him an appetite) and showed a marked preference for the flowering thistles that grew everywhere. I thought he looked slightly better.

Until we reached Alexandretta, there were no new developments.

Thanks to his injection and daily swims, Donald managed to cope more or less, but after Alexandretta it was a different story. We had to leave the coast in order to cross the main plain of Amanus and climb down again towards Antioch. The ascent was tough on everyone: for Mickey who had to carry one or the other of us, for Corinne and me who had to climb on foot, gritting our teeth because we both had blisters and were terribly stiff, and for Donald whose laboured breathing didn’t sound at all good.

Every morning when I woke up, my stomach turned over for fear I might find he had died in the night, and I would wait as long as I could before going into the stable on tiptoe, as if it were a sickroom.

One morning, at dawn at Gopbogasi, Corinne got up first and was so nervous that she broke the rusty key in the lock, and the door had to be smashed in with a pickaxe, I heard the horses getting to their feet and the whinny from Donald which meant, “Get a move on, I’m hungry.” He may have been ill, but he was still the greediest horse I have ever known,  so once more I could feel a little optimistic.

When we finally got into the stable, Donald looked at me sideways, obviously pleased with himself, and I knew that he must have something on his conscience. To see him up to his old tricks  again was an absolute joy, and on this occasion his mane and forelock were stuck full of white fluff; and his halter was hanging free at the end of the picket. So I knew what must have happened.

After we had left them the previous night, he had spied a better place than his stall, so he had pulled up the stake and gone to roll in a pile of freshly picked cotton. The trampled mess showed that Donald had spent the night on that ultra-soft mattress rather than the ground, unlike that great fool of a Mickey!

Read a 2013 interview with Evelyne.

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