The Long Riders' Guild

My Kingdom for a Horse

by

Basha O'Reilly

 

Sometimes our soul's song stirs. The ice that has confined us begins to crack. Lethargy burns off in the heat of a newly discovered passion. Gypsy blood, long denied, sings to a moon, long ignored. And our life is suddenly taken galloping away from where we lived, from what we knew, from who we were.

This is the word-song of Basha Gypsy Moon, as I call her. Here is the tale of how she discovered a half-wild horse that took her past frontiers, both physical and spiritual, into a new history, a new life, and a new name.

The tale unfolds in 1994. The Soviet Union has disintegrated and a swirling political landscape allows the European equestrian adventuress to journey into previously off-limits Russia. Late that fall, Basha went riding and hunting with a group of Cossacks near Volgograd. Seeing their hardy horses running free on the fence-less steppes, Basha conceived what many would say was a crazy plan -  the idea of buying one of these magnificent horses and riding it home to England.

Now, in deep December, Basha returns to Russia with her adult daughter Katie. Their mission is to choose suitable mounts from the wild herds running across the snow-covered landscape. Basha does not realize she is about to locate Count Pompeii, the Cossack stallion who will take her not just 2,500 miles back to faraway England, but on the adventure of a lifetime.

I don’t know why, but as Katie was mounting I turned to look at some more horses tied to an old cart.  There I saw a small scrawny chestnut with white legs and a huge white blaze on his face.  His flaxen mane was full of burrs.  The bottom of his pale tail had been hacked off with a knife.  He was pathetically thin.  Physically there was nothing to recommend him.  Yet the chestnut looked at me, not in supplication but as an equal – and the expression on his face quite clearly said, “Oh, here you are at last!”

I turned to Vassily.  Vot etat, pajalusta.  Kak yevo zavood?”  (This one, please.  What is his name?) 

Vassily turned ““Count Pompeii.  No – astarojna!  On darogy – y ny loshad dla jenshina!”  (“Count Pompeii.  But be careful!  He’s expensive – and not a horse for a woman!”)

I determined to ride him immediately.

Reluctantly, Vassily gave me a leg up.  He then jumped onto another horse and shot off across the Steppes at a gallop, leaving Katie and me to follow as best we could.

Count Pompeii’s head shot up.   His small ears turned back and we set off in hot pursuit, with Katie just behind us, trying to keep up.  

On the horizon the enormous blanched sky blended with the infinite snowy Steppes.  There were no fences.  No hedges.  No obstacles at all.  I felt as if I had been transported onto the film set of Dr Zhivago. 

I crouched down in the saddle and gave Pompeii his head.  The wind whistled past my ears, Pompeii’s hooves drummed on the Steppes.  My stirrups were too short.  I hardly dared breathe the sub-zero air which was burning my lungs.  My face, the only uncovered part of me, felt like a block of ice.  Tears of cold were blurring my vision.  My fingers and toes had lost all feeling. 

Pompeii didn’t care.  In spite of his obvious lack of condition, he required no encouragement from me to catch up with Vassily, three hundred yards ahead.  He was thoroughly enjoying himself. 

So was I.

Soon we drew level with Vassily, who stared in astonishment when he saw me racing Pompeii past him.  I grinned happily at him, then suddenly remembered I was a mother!  I turned guiltily to find Katie right on our heels.  Her flushed and ecstatic face must have mirrored my own. 

 

Hard-d2.jpg (29359 bytes)

"On the horizon the enormous blanched sky blended with the infinite snowy Steppes.  There were no fences.  No hedges.  No obstacles at all.  I felt as if I had been transported onto the film set of Dr Zhivago."   

Click on photo to enlarge

 

“Now we return,” announced Vassily, and reluctantly we turned and headed back towards the barn.

“Isn’t this amazing?” I said to Katie, as Pompeii pranced beneath me. 

“Yes, that was a fantastic gallop,” she answered, grinning.

“Look at the Steppes all around us – have you ever seen anything so beautiful?”

“It’s wonderful.  Why don’t you choose this horse?” Katie pleaded.

“No, darling, sorry.  Look at the way he sticks his nose straight up in the air.  Anyway, I have set my heart on this one.”

The three of us cantered back to the barn, where Anna was waiting for us, stamping her feet on the frozen ground and smoking irritably.  She was cold, bored, impatient, and totally uninterested in horses.

“Keep that stallion away from the mares,” she shouted at me.

Oh no, I thought – not a stallion?  I couldn’t possibly buy a stallion!  I had visions of riding a rampant sex-maniac across the whole of Europe. 

In addition, there was no way I could keep a stallion once I got home.  I had hardly ever seen a stallion in England, where they were considered fearsome, oversexed creatures, to be kept for breeding purposes only. 

A mad trip was one thing, but arriving in a sleepy English village with a half-wild stallion was quite another.  And yet… despite the voice of reason, I knew that I absolutely had to have this little horse that had stolen my heart in one madcap gallop. Something unique had passed between us out there on the snowy Steppes.  I couldn’t define it then and I can’t define it now.  But whatever it was, I could not ignore it.

Before I had time to say anything, Vassily said something in Russian. 

“Do you see anything else you like in the corral?” Anna translated. 

We looked over the rails to inspect the herd in the corral.  How on earth could one choose from so many?  When I looked more closely, however, I realised it would not be too difficult.  Several of the mares were obviously in foal.   A considerable number of the horses had saddle sores.  A few had poor feet.  I dismissed about thirty for the simple reason that I did not like the look of them.

Gradually the number of potential candidates grew smaller, until, of the sixty animals in the corral, only a few were left to consider.

“I like that big black mare, and the grey mare next to her, too.  Could I take a closer look, please?” I asked 

The black one was tall – nearly 16 hands – and raw boned, with very little white on her, and the biggest mouth I have ever seen on a horse.  The grey was slightly smaller and finer boned, obviously devoted to her companion, and with a knowing look about her.   

"I liked the look of those two mares: therefore that was good enough reason to buy them.  After all, the trip itself was based on instinct, so why not choose the horses on instinct?

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I started climbing over the fence.   Vassily looked aghast and shouted something incomprehensible.  

“Stop!” Anna shrieked.  “He says you cannot go in with the horses – those two have never been touched and they’re dangerous!”  I stopped, unwillingly.

I have been around horses for over forty years, my dealings with them are entirely intuitive.  I liked the look of those two mares: therefore that was good enough reason to buy them.  After all, the trip itself was based on instinct, so why not choose the horses on instinct?

Before buying a stud, I should have discussed it with my husband.  I couldn’t telephone him, however, because there were no international telephone lines from Alexikovo. 

That evening, Katie and I sat down to discuss Pompeii.

“Mummy, obviously it’s your decision, but you know it will be very difficult to keep him in England?”

“Yes, Katie, I know there are a load of complications.  But I have GOT to have him!  After all, he seems very quiet, for a stallion.”

“And what about riding him back?  What will you do when the mares come into season?  Or you meet other mares along the way?”

“I’ve thought of that, and Anna assures me that Russian mares only come into season in the Spring.”

“He will undoubtedly be much more expensive than the mares!”

“Yes, but then stallions always are!  And perhaps I can get the money back in stud fees when we get home.  And, ” I was warming to my theme, “I want to cross this breed with English horses, and Arabs, to produce great endurance horses, and what quicker way to bring new blood in than via a stallion?”

The next day we went back to the stud.  There we huddled in Vassily’s office, a bleak, brown box of a room with scarcely enough room for the four of us, but it had a heater!  After half an hour of haggling we had agreed on a price for all three horses – a fortune by Russian standards.  The mares were, I considered, reasonably priced, but Pompeii cost five times as much as they did.  Although I didn’t understand then quite how much too much I was paying, I did realise I was paying a “tourist” price.  But Count Pompeii was a very special horse.

So it was that I bought one very young stallion, and two mares as wild as deer, from a man I had never met before.    

 

(Basha's book about her journey, "Bandits and Bureaucrats", is now available. Please contact the LRG for information.)


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