The Long Riders' Guild

Illustration by Philippe Meyrier

Paris to Moscow on Horseback

3,333 kilometres in 75 days


Jean-Louis Gouraud


(Translated from the French and edited by Basha O'Reilly)

March 1990

Five years of effort rewarded!  

After five years of trying, Moscow has finally given me the green light:  I am to be allowed to ride into the USSR!  This it the first time that permission to do such a thing has been given to an Occidental since the 1917 October Revolution!  The Soviet Federation of Equestrian Sport has written to me:  “Be at the border of Brest (Litovsk) on 23rd June.  Before noon”!

I’ll have to leave soon, find some horses quickly.  I am determined to do the journey on French Trotters. 

April 1990

Robin (age 7) arrives from Normandy.  Prince (age 9) comes from Anjou.  They meet each other at my stables on 9th April.  They get on well. 

Three days before our departure, Francois Houdau, my farrier, comes to fit them with a magic horseshoe:  it will effectively last for 2,500 kilometres!  Nine little tungsten crampons on each shoe – inspired.    I won’t have to change them until I get to Janow, in Poland, just before we get to the USSR border!

 1st May 1990

New shoes, up to date vaccinations, we can set off at last.  We leave the stables at about 8 a.m.  The weather is beautiful.  At 10 a.m. it is very hot, and at midday it is, frankly, scorching.  The heat never gave us any respite until we got to Moscow (except for one or two days somewhere between East Germany and Poland).  It was to prove the hardest part of the journey.  Sometimes it was real hell, such as when we crossed Belarus and Russia where the huge, humid forests, the swamps, and the ditches of stagnant water all gave birth to millions of biting insects which harassed us for twenty hours a day.  “That’s still better than the cold or the rain, though”, the local people told me, by way of comfort.

May 1990

Not too many problems, or at least no great dramas.  During the first few days there were certainly some very hard moments, physically and psychologically, for the quadrupeds as much as for the biped.  But after two or three weeks, that was it:  we’d all found our rhythm.

On the morning of 27th May we passed into “the east”.  At Topen a (tiny) frontier post still separated East and West Germany.  Not for long – a few days later the border was removed, Germany was reunited and Europe transformed!

June 1990

We cross the famous Oder-Neisse Line on 4th June, at Swiecko, Poland.  Luckily, it’s Whit Monday and the motorway, which the customs men force us to use, is deserted.  On the other side of the frontier, a slightly mad Polish horseman, Jacek Szymanski, is waiting for me.  He speaks French, and will help me to cross his marvellous country in twenty days.  A nation which I found rural but warm, impoverished but generous.  A country where the horse is still a familiar sight.  In some villages my trotters draw admiring crowds and initiate endless discussions (and the inevitable drinking bouts). 

On the appointed day (23rd June), at the appointed hour (before noon) I arrive at the Soviet border accompanied by my friend Jacek, who is requested not to cross the white band which indicates the frontier of the USSR. 

A huge delegation of officials, reporters, photographers and cameramen had turned out to assist “the event”.  Here I am in the Soviet Union!  I feel very emotional.

July 1990

Brest, Minsk, Smolensk, Moscow:  a thousand kilometres in a straight, straight, straight line…  At times the towns are more than a hundred kilometres apart, which means that some nights we have to camp in the forest.  Otherwise, kolhoses and sovkhoses (community farms) are usually very welcoming.  In an strange combination of the traditional and the modern, these cooperatives or state farms have good stables and oats.  The omnipresent portraits of Lenin and socialist slogans do not seem to disturb either the relaxation or the digestion of my horses.

On 14th July, at 8 a.m., I am at Port Mojaisk, the very same one by which Napoleon entered Moscow.  Waiting for me there are five superb horsemen, a detachment of the Mounted Police, who will escort me to Red Square where Prince (who I was riding that day), Robin (who really wants to try Russian champagne) and I are welcomed triumphantly at about 11.30 a.m.  

Click on picture to enlarge

Jean-Louis Gouraud and his French Trotters, Robin and Prince, celebrate their safe arrival in Moscow’s famous Red Square.

14th July 1990

Under the Kremlin walls, we are showered with compliments, flowers and honours:  medals, diplomas, and even a certificate for the Guinness Book of Records!  And yet, I do not really think I have broken any records (except, perhaps, for the longevity of the horse shoes, which record belongs to my farrier), nor even really achieved a great exploit.  I have simply proved that a mediocre horseman, mounted on ordinary horses, without any extraordinary preparation or training, could make a long journey on horseback in the 20th century, which for that matter was routinely done before the invention of the car!  The only aspect of my journey which was a bit exceptional was its speed:  an average of 45 kilometres a day over 65 days in a row!   It’s not bad, really.  This little performance is due to the mode of riding used (“a la Turkmene” – Turkmenian-style*) and to the amazing luck which never deserted me.

No, the only thing of which I am really proud is that I brought my horses to the end of their journey in good physical and mental shape.  When we arrived in Moscow, Prince and Robin seemed to be asking, “Now Peking, which way is that?”.

I offer my saddle, pommel bags and saddle bags to the Museum of the Horse in Moscow.  One pommel bag had contained my documents.   Ah, the documents!  Health certificates, veterinary tests, passports of the International Federation, authorisation for export, permits for import:  madness!  If the free movement of human beings has made great progress, the movement of animals is of growing complexity and absurdly complicated.

24th July 1990

As I had promised to do before I left, I offer my horses to President Mikhael Gorbachev, the man who had changed the world, rocked Europe… and made my journey possible!

His wife, Raisa Gorbachev, comes to take possession of my “presents” on 24th July, at Bitsa, the huge equestrian complex where the 1980 Moscow Olympic Games had taken place, but it is only to offer them in turn to the children of Bitsa, Russia.

Post-Script : October 1990

Having returned to France (by airplane) on 25th July, I couldn’t bear it.  I had to go and see what had happened to my horses.  A short trip back to Moscow.  Relief – they are fine.  Well fed, well treated, well looked after, Prince and Robin are in fine form. 

All at once, so am I.

* “A la Turkmene” is a method of riding in which one horse carries both the rider and the baggage, while the other one is led, “naked”.  The next day it is the second horse’s turn, so the tired one can recuperate.  It presupposes very little luggage!  The theory is that “the enemy of the horse is not kilometres but kilograms.”

This remarkable story is featured  in  "Un Petit Cheval dans la Tete", a collection of equestrian stories from the "Internationale de l'Imaginaire" revue, edited by Jean-Louis Gouraud.  If you would like to order this book, please contact Maison des Cultures du Monde, 101 boulevard Raspail, 75006 Paris.  Telephone: (33) 1 45 44 72 30.

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