How to define Equestrian Travel?
My friend Artie Sacks said
it couldn’t be done!
Mind you, he ought to know.
He’s an Ivy-League
professor, a raconteur, a world-traveler, a student of life, an observer of
mankind, and most importantly, a friend to horses.
“Don’t try and define
it. That’s a dead end because you and I both know it can’t be pigeon
He was speaking of course
about my desire to interpret “equestrian travel.”
“There is no one
explanation,” Artie insisted. “Get a group of so-called equestrian travelers
in one room and you’ll find that the only theme we share is that our
collective fantasy revolves around horses.”
It was pretty hard to
disagree, especially when I myself believe it is the rules themselves that have
conquered us today.
One look at the current
international equestrian scene is enough to discourage anyone.
There are already enough
law-laden equestrian clubs, organizations, societies, associations, federations,
leagues, and unions to fill a two-ton phone book. If it is rules you are looking
for you can belong to the Japanese Cowboy Federation, The Amalgamated Pinto
Breeders, or The Lords of Dressage Unlimited.
Yes, I reluctantly agreed,
maybe Artie was right?
Perhaps it is true that the
moment you try to codify equestrian travel it begins to deteriorate?
Plus, one glance at the
bookshelves full of equestrian travel books here in my office was enough to
remind me that the ancient history of horse journeying is centered around those
who have escaped the bondage of civilisation.
Those of us who climb up on
horses have always been the adventurous spirits who rode away from the safety of
the village. If for generations we
have left behind the defining walls of traditional homes, our reward has been to
watch from our saddles as the night comes to drink up the last of the sun. If
after sixteen hours in the saddle we are too tired to eat ourselves, we are
content to see our horses safe under a perfect dome of luminous stars. If we
wake up stiff from the hard embrace of mother Earth, we are greeted by the song
of our happy mounts grazing quietly nearby in the gloaming. If history has
taught us to lay little store in physical needs, it has also ennobled us with a
full sense of our personal freedom.
No, I thought, Artie must
be right. Equestrian travel isn’t about rules, rather it seemed to be about a
lack of them.
Yet, I instinctively knew
there were some ill-defined qualities, some “truths”, that had always run
through that experience known as equestrian travel?
When I went in search of
these intangible definitions I took as my compass the words of a wise woman.
Her name is Louella
Hanbury-Tenison and she is a well-known equestrian traveler in her own
country of England. She has ridden throughout Europe. She has gone to the land
of the setting sun and ridden her horse down the length of New Zealand. She is
the first Western woman on record to have ridden the entire length of the Great
Wall of China!
Yet when I was lucky enough
to meet her, Louella made it clear that despite these equestrian
accomplishments she felt disenfranchised from the international equestrian
travel community. It was in fact a disgust with today’s current set of
“rules” and obsessions in the equestrian travel world which kept Louella,
and her wisdom, isolated out on the moors of Cornwall.
I refer to the need of some
Long Riders to justify the validity of their equestrian journeys in terms of the
greatest mileage covered in the shortest possible time.
“Even if you manage to get them all together CuChullaine, they’ll only start bickering. One will say, ‘Oh, I went further than you did.’ To which another will only reply, ‘But I did it faster.’ Then a third will add triumphantly, 'Yes, but I did it on a horse with three legs!'"
Clearly there were diverse
definitions running throughout our very community.
Who were we?
What sanctified one trip
and not another?
Was there one underlying
factor that tied the majority of us together?
If Louella was to be
believed, the world’s current obsession with speed had infected the equestrian
travel community. This mind-set wasn’t taking me in the right direction.
A glance at The Equestrian
Travel Timeline will reveal that throughout recent history there have been a
handful of horse riders who have ridden amazing distances in record time.
I could give you names,
dates, and mileages.
But I won’t.
For in almost every known
instance the horse was never considered to be the primary player. Instead the
mare, gelding, or stallion that raced across where ever was invariably
subservient to the rider’s desire to get some place faster than a horse was
intended by nature to reach.
Yes, I sadly knew of Long
Riders whose proudest accomplishment was not who their horse was, but rather how
hard and fast they had ridden him.
In my continuing search for
answers I went in search of a gentle man, Gerard Barre of France.
He has been riding for
years and years, has seen many things, and ridden through countless obstacles,
both physical and spiritual. All those seasons in the saddle have taught Gerard
a self-effacing wisdom.
Thus it was from this
simple man, this kind man, this Long Rider, that I heard a humble truth.
“To cover miles for the
sake of covering miles does not allow for contemplation, except the possible
contemplation of the map, the watch, of the GPS,” Gerard told me.
“What is important is not
the amount of distance you ride. It is the immersion of your spirit into a state
of mind which you cannot obtain except by forgetting “normal society.”
Gerard went on to explain he believed that as Long Riders this state of “forgetting” can only be found over time, and by traveling in regions where normal society has not yet put its feet, its roads, its towns, its power lines, or its concrete. Because these regions are becoming increasingly rare and harder to reach, Gerard believes the choice of a horse as our mode of travel is still historically justified. In his opinion the distance covered is therefore a secondary consequence of the search for a new truth.
How to become a Long Rider?
“Looked at from this angle, I believe that the most important part of traveling on horseback is thus the conquest of self, of one’s “interior pole,” Gerard said.
Perhaps, I thought, I was
finally getting somewhere?
My original search seemed
to be leading me right back to where I started, to my old pal Artie.
When I called Artie back, he surprised me by agreeing with Gerard.
“Yeah, he’s right. If
you can define equestrian travel at all, it’s not about being in some sort of
contest. Anytime you get a rider obsessing about miles it becomes
counter-productive. All you get is some moron riding around with an odometer
trying to be the “first” or the “fastest” to have traveled somewhere on
horse,” this equestrian philosopher told me.
“If the Long Riders’
Guild wants to accomplish anything it ought to be to explain that equestrian
travel, as we define it, isn’t about letting monsters loose on the world! You
ought to promote “going” on the horse, not where, or how far, or how fast,
or even “how” you get there. There shouldn’t be any goal, other than to
Finally, from the mouths of
elders, I went to listen to the mouth of babes.
Mary Liebau isn’t a Long
Rider in the strictest sense of the word, at least not yet.
True, the young American
rode across a big portion of Ireland, and last year made a record-breaking ride
across the green wilderness of Newfoundland, Canada. Yet even by the standards
set by The Long Riders’ Guild Mary didn’t qualify for admission because she
hadn’t ridden more than 1,000 continuous miles on one trip.
When I asked her about this
she didn’t seem concerned.
“I’m not at all
competitive by nature. I have never set out to hold a title or set any sort of
record,” she said.
Rather the one thing Mary
had learned from her horse trips was that they were the beginning, not the end,
of her equestrian travels. The siren song of the saddle had claimed her heart
for good it seemed. A thousand miles today or a thousand miles tomorrow? Either
way, Mary didn’t care. She was going to continue riding and traveling, with
rules and definitions, or even without.
Plus she understood, she
said, the need to offset “trail riders” from Long Riders. People, like Mary,
who had made personal, professional, emotional, and financial sacrifices in
order to pursue an elusive equestrian dream shouldn’t be considered mere
holiday riders. In a word these Long Riders are the astronauts of the equestrian
world, the few who have made giant sacrifices to travel where few have ever
In the end I told myself
that Mary had said it best.
If there was only one way to define an equestrian traveler, then this young woman from upper New England had stumbled on it.
“The only accomplishment
that counts when you’re traveling is seeking out and surviving challenges with
your horse. It lies in potholes and washouts, or near misses with bears. It lies
in seeing every dip in the land, and learning every intimate curve of a rarely
fished stream. It is the simple enjoyment of a 3 m.p.h. day imprinted with the
sound of each and every hoof beat. It is the fruitful interdependence of horse
and human. What other mode of travel would let you fall to sleep thanking all
the saints for such simple, delicious contentment?” Mary asked me.
I didn’t have anything to
Mary had said it all, for
all of us.
See you on the trail, saddle pals.
The Long Riders' Guild -
Dedicated to the memory of those who rode before us!