Saturday, 7 July 2012

Barefoot African Hoofprints

This article was published in the American magazine, The Horse's Hoof , in April 2012.

Barefoot African Hoofprints

In November 2005, my fiance Billy and I arrived in Tunisia to begin a barefoot horseback expedition from the most northern point to the most southern point of Africa. Obviously, to do this, we required some very special horses. After a lot of thought and research, we had decided to use some Tunisian Barbes. The Barbe evolved in North Africa at around the same time as the Arab and is the ancestor of many of the most popular breeds in use today. They are a hardy animal, more solid in build than the Arab and much more sensible! We had envisioned buying 2 little horses out of carts but on hearing about our journey, the Tunisian government were extremely supportive and offered us the cream of the crop, a choice out of 6 of their breeding stallions from their stud.

In a normal situation, when buying a horse, one would probably have a vet check, try out the horse and maybe even take it home for a trial period. We did it very differently! At El Battan stud, each of the 6 stallions was lead out one at a time. The third horse, a chestnut with flaxen mane and tail so long it dragged on the floor, towed 2 grooms around on a bridle and I fell in love! His name is Chami (The man from Syria) and he was an unbacked, 7 year old. Choosing the second horse was a little more difficult, but we decided on a scrawny dappled grey with a roach back called Ennahali (The beekeeper), a 5 year old who had done a little work in a cart. We knew little of their history and had chosen purely on looks and a cursory check of their hooves and legs. We hadn’t even seen them trot up! 
Chami and Nali on the day we took ownership of them..
After gelding the horses and spending a couple of weeks backing and getting to know them, we started our expedition from Cap Blanc! It took 3 months to complete Tunisia, most of which was spent waiting for our Libyan visas. We experienced more of the kindness and hospitality already shown to us by the government and enjoyed learning more about Tunisian culture and tradition. We went to the races, watched show jumping, endurance races and some Fantasia horses dance to the beat of a drum, often rearing on command. In all of these disciplines, the Barbe excelled. We found them to be a horse of many talents that comes in all shapes and sizes. Billy is a master farrier who no longer believes in shoeing and advocates barefoot horses. However, he believes that if owners feel the need to shoe their horses, then it must be done properly. He spent a lot of time working with local farriers at the vet school, the studs and the race course. 3 horses he worked on at the track, previously lame, came first, second and third in the biggest race of the year!   
The trip begins - On the road in Tunisia.
Having been more than a little nervous of travelling through Libya, we found the Libyans to be the friendliest, kindest, most generous people we had ever met. It took a little while to find the horse people of Libya but once we did, it felt as if we had come home. Their traditional equestrian sport is called “Egit” which means “necklace” in Arabic. It involves lines of anything from 5 – 30 horses decked out in bejewelled bridles and saddles and riders dressed in billowing white robes riding side by side at the walk down a field, at the end of which, they spin in time and gallop back up the field shoulder to shoulder, the riders often standing straight up. Our dear friend Abdullah, the leader of one such group, rides on one side of his 30 horses. Halfway through the gallop he throws his whip across all the horses where it is caught by the man on the other side. As well as participating in local and national competitions these groups do days and days of Egit at wedding celebrations. This is a male only sport and some groups apply this rule to the horses too, allowing only stallions to participate. I felt very privileged to be allowed to watch all the practices and even give it a go on a borrowed horse. I think I had gained a little respect from the Libyan horsemen after riding Ennahali in a neck rein!

Once again, whilst waiting for visas and horses to recover from injuries, we immersed ourselves in the local culture, learnt a little Arabic and went wherever we could find horses. Apart from the traditional Egit, we went to the races and a show jumping competition. We were taken to visit the Equestrian Centre in Tripoli where I was amazed to find a fabulous indoor arena and barns full of expensive horses, most of which were given to Colonel Gaddafi by other world leaders. I joined in a jumping lesson on a 5 year old warmblood recently imported from Germany and felt as if I was at an international event riding a top quality horse in a top quality venue.
Egit - the local equestrian sport in Libya.
Whilst preparing for our first Sahara crossing we decided we needed a pack animal so we bought ourselves a little donkey. She was said to be worth her weight in gold because she could plough an area with 80 olive trees. Sadly, although we found her very strong, she was a little slow so we did what the Libyans call an “Afari” and swapped her for a 10 year old stallion pony. This time I did try him out, but only for a 20m trot bareback in a headcollar. This had all the men very worried. A woman, bareback on a stallion with no bit… surely she would die! I survived and gave him the thumbs up. We called him Rahaal (the traveller) and he very quickly wormed his way into our hearts.

After 5 and half months in lovely Libya, the next country to cross was Egypt, but we had to get in first! We arrived at the border post with all the documents we required but were told that only dogs and cats were allowed into Egypt. To prove their point, the border officials showed us a warmblood that had been there for 5 months, its owner having abandoned it there after she was told she couldn’t take him in. After 16 days of patience, persistence and politeness, we were finally allowed in! Having had to fight our way in, we were then received with mixed feelings. At times we experienced the same generosity and hospitality as the rest of North Africa but often we were viewed as tourists with plenty of money and had to bargain hard to pay a normal price for anything!
Chami full of beans on the beach in Marsa Matruh!
Christy and Nali flying in the wind!
Our best times in Egypt were spent in Marsa Matruh, a town on the Mediterranean. We stayed at the sea scouts camp across the road from the beach for over 2 months to allow us and our horses to recover from a couple of desert crossings and poor quality nutrition. All of us needed to put on a bit of weight and rest. As it was winter, we practically had the place to ourselves. We spent our days riding on the sparkling white beach and swimming the horses in the aquamarine sea. We met up with other horse owners who invited us to watch their traditional horse events. The horses and riders are turned out in elaborate tack and robes. Each rider gallops up a stretch between the crowd and fires a shotgun into the ground. One night, staying at a police check point in the south, a truck was passing with a horse on the back. The cops pulled it over and insisted the man unload his horse and demonstrate its talents. It was a dancing horse that does piaffe to the beat of a drum and is in much demand at weddings. The poor owner did as obliged and even let me have a go. Having experienced the power of the police and military in Egypt we completely understand the recent uprising there!
After 6 months in Egypt and a 5 day barge crossing of Aswan Dam, we found ourselves short of money and in Sudan! We followed the railway through the desert and spent time with the small communities along the way. By this time, our Arabic was quite good and we were able to converse on many topics. We saw few equines until reaching Khartoum, where we found many horses and donkeys used as cart animals, most of which were fat and happy. Once again we had to stop, this time because the horses had biliary (tick bite fever). The horses were unaccustomed to ticks and needed time to build up a resistance. Sadly, our little Rahaal died in September 2007. 
A wedding celebration in Egypt.
We helped out at a little riding school run by an English woman who has been in Sudan for 30 years. She gives free riding lessons to all the children from the local orphanages, many of which are disabled. We were then asked to train some ponies for a riding school belonging to the Khartoum International Community School. After training them, we started to teach. This suited us perfectly. We needed to fund the rest of our journey and our horses needed time to recover fully from their biliary. We ended up teaching there for 3 years. We started with 6 ponies and 30 children and finished with 12 horses (including our own), all barefoot of course and 130 children. Life in Khartoum was a little different from what we had previously experienced, as here we were part of the expat community rather than the local community.

In Khartoum, there is a large equestrian centre where there is racing, show jumping, tent pegging and polo. Whilst working in Khartoum, we started doing endurance with our ponies and children and created an interest in the equestrian community. Billy encouraged them to hold the first official endurance race and now it is very popular with locals who are making an effort to become FEI affiliated.

The boys at play - Khartoum Sudan.
It eventually came time for us to move on and head into Southern Sudan. There is no road south through the biggest swamp in Africa so we took another barge up the White Nile to Juba. It took 27 days! Our horses were impeccably behaved and very patient with their limited movement and crowded surroundings. On the road to Uganda we were treated with some suspicion and aggression as the last time there were horses in Southern Sudan, they were being used to attack the locals.

Crossing into Uganda was like crossing into a completely different continent - different people, new languages, torrential rainfall instead of deserts, lots of trees and vegetation, steep hills and a bit of wildlife! All horses in Uganda were wiped out during Idi Amin’s reign in the 60’s. In the last 15 years or so, a few horses have been imported and bred with. There are now about 150 horses all in the south near Kampala and most of them are owned by expats. The locals in the north have never seen a horse before. We were constantly asked if they were camels or donkeys, where their horns were, whether they ate people, why they didn’t have cloven hooves and on one occasion if they were kangaroos! On spotting us, entire schools would empty out in seconds and hundreds of children would come running towards us, screaming and shouting. The horses took it all in their stride, putting up with having their tails pulled, headcollars grabbed and completely over excited crowds!

In Southern Sudan, Billy had been very ill with malaria and typhoid and since then had never really regained his strength. On arrival in Kampala in March 2011 we decided to have blood tests. Billy’s blood count was so low he was flown back home to South Africa immediately where he was diagnosed with Leukemia. I followed a few days later after meeting a fabulous lady who offered to look after our horses. Katia has lived in East Africa for most of her life and is a real animal lover. With 16 of her own horses, 2 more were not a problem. Our horses are currently living on the banks of Lake Victoria as part of Katia’s herd where they share their paddock with Vervet monkeys and the prolific bird life. I have been to visit with the horses twice and they are perfectly happy there. Meanwhile, Billy has been undergoing treatment and it is working well! We hope to be back on the road at the end of 2012!

It has been over 6 years and 7600km since we started this journey. At the beginning we had three main goals. To ride to Cape Agulhas in South Africa, to take the same horses the whole way and for them to do it barefoot. Apparently this is not as simple as it sounds! We have battled with bureaucracy, laminitis, colic, rope burns, bilary, dehydration, malaria, typhoid and most recently leukemia and we have lost an important member of our team. On the other hand we have had the most amazing experiences and have gained lifelong friends. Every time we have been forced to stop, another door has opened and other opportunities have presented themselves.

We are more than halfway to Cape Agulhas. We still have Chami and Ennahali, now 14 and 12. They are well behaved, experienced travellers now. Chami’s tail is a little shorter and Ennahali is very solidly built and no longer has a roach back! They are both barefoot.

Christy Henchie


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