Explorers’ Web described CuChullaine O'Reilly as “a living legend” and praised his adventure travel book, Khyber Knights, as “magical.” After completing the longest recorded horseback ride in Pakistan's history, as described in that book, CuChullaine specialized in equestrian exploration and historical research. Click here to read an excerpt from Khyber Knights.
A Founder of the Long Riders Guild and Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society and the Explorers’ Club, CuChullaine has published hundreds of travel books in five languages and advised more than a hundred equestrian expeditions on every continent except Antarctica. He is also the author of The Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration and The Horse Travel Handbook.
What is the single greatest change you have witnessed in the equestrian world during your life time?
The demise of the traditional male-dominated equestrian cultures, such as the Cossack, gaucho, cavalry and cowboy, and their replacement in North America and Western Europe by a show-ring oriented, fashion conscious, female-dominated urban horse world.
Do you ride?
To ride is to live.
Do you own a horse?
Though my mare Shavon saved me from certain death, my life is not currently blessed by the inclusion of an equine companion.
Who is your favourite horse in history?
Bucephalus. Even though he is normally associated with his rider Alexander the Great’s military conquests, the legendary black stallion was also the first documented road horse. Not counting their various side adventures, Bucephalus carried Alexander at least 3,000 miles from Macedonia to the Battle of the Hydaspes, located in modern-day Pakistan. When Bucephalus was killed there in battle, the intense emotional bond which existed between this horse and rider caused Alexander to raise a city dedicated to his mount. My book, Khyber Knights, explains how such acts of interspecies devotion foreshadow the actions of Long Riders and road horses throughout history, who jointly risk their lives so as to complete remarkable journeys together.
Who do you think was the most influential equestrian human in history and why?
While Genghis Khan certainly had the largest mounted impact on human history, the equestrian journey undertaken by the Swiss Long Rider Aimé Tschiffely exerted a tremendous influence on modern human-horse relations. With the dawning in the 1920s of the motorized age, equestrian travel should have been headed to an inevitable extinction. However, Aimé’s journey from Buenos Aires to New York resulted in his writing a book, Tschiffely’s Ride, which inspired generations to continue to explore the Earth on horseback and nearly single-handedly kept the ancient art of equestrian travel alive till the dawning of the 21st century.
What was your greatest equestrian influence from books or cinema when you were young?
Having been confined to a dressage ring in my youth, the perimeters of my safe equestrian world were destroyed when I saw the film, The Horsemen. Based on the book by the same name, the 1971 film told the story of how one of Afghanistan’s wild buz khazi riders undertook a perilous equestrian journey across that still untamed land. With visions of turbans dancing in my head, I left my English riding school and went to Afghanistan in search of my own mounted adventures.
What equestrian book would you recommend today and why?
There are two fantastic books which have been largely overlooked by reader/riders. The Great Match Race by John Eisenberg recounts the story of the greatest horse race in history. The book is so exciting that even if your plane was crashing, you couldn’t stop reading. Plus, Hunters, Herders and Hamburgers by Professor Richard Bulliet provides a chilling prediction of the type of horse world we have unknowingly ushered in with this new century.
How did you initially become interested in your specific equestrian speciality?
My journey to Afghanistan led to an unrequited search for books and knowledge regarding equestrian exploration and travel.
What prompted you to enter that field?
Two events led me to decide to enter the equestrian publishing field. First, the renowned London equestrian publisher, James Allen, had recently died but not before helping me gather together as many equestrian travel titles as could be found. Mr. Allen had confirmed that to the best of his knowledge no one had ever undertaken an international study of equestrian travel, nor its impact on history. Soon after Mr. Allen died, it became increasingly difficult to locate Aimé Tschiffely’s book in second-hand bookshops. Fearing that this precious portion of mankind’s equestrian heritage was in danger of extinction, I decided to launch The Long Riders’ Guild Press.
Did someone encourage your decision or inspire you?
My wife, the English Long Rider, Basha Cornwall Legh, didn’t merely inspire me, she is the one who literally brought each and every book back to life, either through republishing a new version of the original edition, or in many cases, by retyping the entire book. We published a book a week for more than five years.
When did you begin your research, investigation, work?
After my solo ride through the North West Frontier Province of Pakistan I made a determined effort to lay my hands on every equestrian travel account I could, so as to learn from the mistakes made by Historical Long Riders. Sadly I realized that these books, while undoubtedly entertaining, were largely travel accounts. Because they lived in an age wherein equestrian knowledge was so ubiquitous, these authors had made no effort to tell their readers “how” they had made their equestrian journeys. They had instead told them “what” they saw. That’s when it dawned on me that the situation was similar to a 20th century person leaving instructions to his grandchildren explaining how we used to operate a rotary telephone machine, change the ribbon in a typewriter or drive a car with a manual transmission. It was information deemed of no importance. That realization set in motion my search for equestrian wisdom which is still on-going.
What do you think is your most important discovery, achievement or insight regarding your equestrian work?
The realization that modern mankind allowed its collective equestrian wisdom to largely die unnoticed, all the while celebrating the birth of the motorized vehicle. If, for the sake of argument, mankind has been riding for six thousand years, this priceless equestrian heritage nearly disappeared in less than a hundred years. The result is that today the majority of mankind is suffering from collective equestrian amnesia, wherein legends and folktales are accepted at face value because the urbanized reader/riders have no generational experience to fall back on, a limited number of books to rely upon, too many “horse whisperers” and not enough academic role models to inspire confidence and leadership.
What modern technology, techniques and media have you found most helpful?
The internet has assisted us in finding every major equestrian traveller. Email has placed the Guild in touch with them. Print-on-demand technology has allowed us to publish hundreds of books in five languages. Though in some respects we are more ignorant than any of our ancestors, we are on the brink of witnessing a renaissance of equestrian wisdom and travel.
What part of your work do you find most fulfilling?
The Russians say that the dead weep for joy when you bring their books back to life, so my role as a publisher is of immense personal importance. Yet my primary role is still to assist someone to complete a life-changing equestrian journey.
What’s been your biggest disappointment in your work?
My lack of linguistic skills.
How do you explain the gulf between academic equestrian investigation and the average horse owner?
The problem is multi-faceted. To begin with, the primary responsibility lies with the vast majority of mainstream monthly equestrian magazines. Their addiction to commercialism, matched with their emphasis on nationalist competitive events, resulted in a short-sighted series of events which saw them not only ignoring issues of great intellectual importance, but also avidly avoiding equestrian research, which has resulted in today’s deplorable lack of communication between academics and reader/riders.
Yet the academics bear a portion of the blame. There is little evidence to indicate that they tried to share their results with average reader/riders. They instead published papers designed to appeal to colleagues in their narrow fields of interest. This resulted in a calcification of discussion between academic fields whose investigations could have had broad long-term implications for other scientists. Moreover, those papers which were released were couched in terms which would tax the linguistic abilities of a Harvard professor. Such displays of erudition do nothing to educate the horseman at large, rather they embarrass him and discourage him from attempting further study.
The lamentable result is that for fifty years we have been subjected to countless forgettable magazine stories about people riding in circles like goldfish swimming in a glass bowl, all the while massive social and scientific influences are afoot, but remain all too often either under-reported or misunderstood.
What equestrian subjects are in need of more research and investigation?
Until now the horse has been seen as the refuge for romantics or the rich. That outdated and inaccurate theory must be dispensed with. For example, though a young person can attend university and study the archaeology of rocks or music, there is no defined equestrian archaeology program. Considering the fact that there is an impassioned international debate afoot among certain academics as to where and when mankind first became mounted, it beggars belief that there is not an immediate call to foster serious equestrian research in the widest possible array of academic study.
Which part of the equestrian world would you like to see reformed and why?
The use of the training method known as rollkur is an offence against the trusting spirit of the horse. Anyone caught using this deplorable cruelty, so as to force their mount to carry it’s head in an unnatural advantage, should be arrested and any official condoning this practice should be banned for life from participating in any professional equestrian event.
How do you traditionally deliver your findings or message and how would you ideally like to do so?
The Long Riders’ Guild, in all its various aspects, combines the Bronze Age practice of equestrian travel with state-of-the-art technology. The result is a “Genghis Khan meets the Matrix” combination of skills from various ages. While we make every effort to keep abreast of technological developments, I am continually frustrated by the reliance, dependence on and addiction to the English language. Hopefully we shall soon see reliable translation software which will allow us to share knowledge in any language which the reader chooses. Such linguistic ability will enable us to strengthen the international brotherhood enjoyed by Long Riders.
What intellectual, technical or ethical advances would you like to see in the horse world?
The issue of ethics in the horse world is in serious need of investigation and redefining. All too often money plays far too large role in the fate of horses. Thus we have witnessed the FEI’s recent relaxing of drug-related rules, the continuance of brutally disposing of young Thoroughbreds after their track life is cut short or the endorsement of pointless sports such as “reining” which are designed to highlight the rider’s ego, not the horse’s natural athletic abilities. So long as money sits in the saddle the horse will continue to be abused and wolves in jodhpurs and sheep’s clothing will continue to issue edicts from Geneva about how deeply they care.
Do you foresee any difficulties for the horse world in the immediate future?
The rise of the motorized age in the early 20th century brought about the modern world’s first equinocide, wherein millions of North American horses who were no longer needed either in urban work places or on the farm, were mercilessly killed and canned for dog food.
Though there are a number of visible factors at work, a similar equine disaster is once again looming. While there is a plethora of equestrian magazines, the majority of which are busy churning out one forgettable issue after another, none of them have sensed the need to investigate the connection between the overall physical decline in horses and any link to the growth of “Big Oil.” To put it plainly, the rise of the automobile has seen the decline of the horse, in terms of overall strength, perseverance and travel performance.
This is because 20th century America encouraged the development of a new equestrian way of life, one dependant upon a constant supply of cheap petroleum and pretty horses. The result gave rise to luxury equestrian events inhabited by “oil horses,” a type of prestige possession which had been bred for looks, not results.
One unforeseen aspect of the emergence of this mounted petite bourgeoisie was that millions of people became back-yard horse breeders. These animals were largely kept as indicators of social status, had no long term practical purpose and have now become financial liabilities. With the closing of the traditional equine abattoirs, we are witnessing a stream of stories about horse hoarders whose animals are found starving to death in grassless fields. As the social and economic landscape of this new century continues to change from its 20th century predecessor, we will again witness the destruction of horses on a scale unseen since the 1920s.
What is the greatest challenge facing the horse world in the long term?
Horses continue to be used as emotional tokens of personal definition, and not in a realistic day-to-day manner as practised by our ancestors. This will increase the danger of equine tribalism.
In his ground-breaking work, “Race, Ethnicity, Species, Breed Totemism and Horse Breed Classification in America,” Dr. John Borneman described how citizens of the United States adopted certain horse breeds to reflect their view of themselves in the 20th century. The Arabian was thought to be fiery and sensual, the Mustang apt to be described as tough and combative and the Thoroughbred believed to be a reflection of an owner who was rich and sophisticated. In any case, because the owners were not actually using the horses to travel great distances, the relative merits of each breed are largely a matter of coffee house chatter and internet banter.
Horses are thus not being used to achieve a sense of personal geographic liberty but to define an owner’s definition of themselves to others, in the same manner as a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, a Hummer four-wheel-drive off-road vehicle or a luxurious Mercedes Benz sports car might be. For these people, it is not how far you ride, but what you own, that makes all the difference.
Another aspect of this social dilemma can be linked to the Baby Boomers, which contain nearly 80 million members, making it the largest generation in America’s history. Having spent their childhood watching romanticized galloping cowboy programs on television, as the Baby Boomers matured they changed from passive childhood horse watchers into adult horse owners and breeders. Yet with this transformation came serious social repercussions. Alongside the rise of the late 20th century neighbourhood horse show came a corresponding explosion in horse breeding, as amateur backyard owners bred millions more horses than were actually needed. For decades the equine slaughter industry served as a silent conduit for those animals which were unwanted, all the while the shows continued to award blue ribbons and encourage the breeding of disposable equines aimed at ego boosting.
With the Baby Boomers having now reached the ages of 45 to 60, they are entering their retirement years and are less likely to spend money on horses than they did in their thirties. With only half as many members, Generation X, presents far fewer potential riders and horse owners. Additionally, a world-wide economic recession has further devastated the incomes of previously rich horse owners who had formerly counted on access to cheap hay, horses and petroleum.
What books, magazines, websites, etc. can people read and review to learn more about your work?
My book, Khyber Knights, describes my mounted adventures in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The Horse Travel Handbook is a cavalry-style manual I wrote which explains how to make an equestrian journey in any part of the world. My equestrian research articles are available on line at either The Long Rider’s Guild or the Long Riders’ Guild Academic Foundation websites.
Any final thoughts?
Though horses and humans are collectively facing new challenges, I remain optimistic that their common history will ensure that this unique inter-species relationship will continue to flourish.
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