Country # 14 – Russia: The Great Mongol or the Travel to The Valley of The Seven Lakes

Altai is a mountain range in South Russian but don’t be mistaken by the word “South”. Temperatures rarely get over 20°C in summer, it rains almost every day and snow never melts on the peaks there.

Rave reviews from my best friend, who went to Altai 2 years ago, spoke louder than any Tripadvisor’s recommendations could, so we started packing. The only difficulty was getting there. All in all, it took us about a day and a half, but 3 flights and 2 long bus trips later we were in Elekmonar.

In Elekmonar, a small village at the foot of the mountain range, we met Olga, the owner of Mayak Altaya agency. Growing up in Moscow, she, as many others, got so called “Altai fever” after her first visit about 7 years ago. Charmed by Altai nature, she decided to dramatically change her life and moved from the hectic megapolis to rural area. Initially working as a horse riding instructor and guide, she later bought a few horses and opened her own travel agency.

Olga with her mare Raketa

Olga with her mare Raketa

The first day of our trip was spent at basecamp. The agenda was simple:

  • befriend other group members,
  • decide what and how we were going to cook during the next 3 days,
  • pack essentials and raw food in archimacks (saddlebags)
  • and pray for the next three days not to be too cold and rainy.

We failed only one task… The last one. :-)

On the second day our guides, Uncle Sasha and his 19-year-old son Yrys, woke up before sunrise to bring the horses from the pastures.

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After the buckwheat porridge and herbal tea cooked on the open fire had nicely settled in our stomachs :-), we went to see our new best friends. We spend about half an hour learning the basics of saddling, (dis)mounting, riding up and down the hill, and then we were allowed to choose our horses.

And of course I accidentally chose the best horse in the herd. Or, maybe he chose me? Meet Mongol, a 14-year-old phlegmatic gelding, who wasn’t even interested in the piece of bread I brought him as an introduction present. :-)

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A few minutes up the road, the group members started to complain about the horses trying to get rid of them by choosing to walk under low hanging branches. :-) Being a fanatical horses’ advocate, I tried to explain equine point of view – they go where they can fit themselves, without thinking much about riders. And why should they? So it’s a rider’s responsibility to watch out for branches and steer away. Horse sense in action.

The road to the second camp was not a piece of cake. A narrow rocky path, thickly covered with mud went mostly uphill, and I cannot help but think that these horses earn their winter hay in a hard way. But on the bright side they only work 3-4 months a year, and spend all the rest of the time on pastures.

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We were approximately half way to the camp when the rain started. Tiny, almost unnoticeable drops at first; it got stronger and stronger every minute. Wrapped in oilskins and shivering from the cold and dampness, we were all thinking aloud “Are we there yet?” No, we were not. Only 3 hours of riding up and down hills later, we finally got there. After such a long way, that flat and almost dry spot under the pines seemed to be a heaven on Earth.

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But before setting the camp, kindling the fire and changing to dry drier clothes, we had to take care of our horses. We were asked to unsaddle them, put bells on their necks, hobble the front legs and let them graze. And finally (and most importantly), we covered all the saddles with raincoats.

While hobbling, I noticed that Mongol had lost his left front shoe, so I was told to avoid stones and choose the softest possible paths the next day.

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The rest of the day we were busy with camp duties: tent assembling, dinner cooking, and attempting to dry soaking clothes.

At midnight, wrapped in a few layers of clothes, I fell asleep lulled by the melody of the raindrops and horse bells.

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When we woke up the next day, it was foggy but luckily not raining. One of the morning chores was to clean the horses from yesterday’s mud. (Well, as much as possible.) We didn’t have any brushes or combs, so Yrys taught me to brush like locals. First, you need to find a short 15-20 cm branch with the bark still on it, so it’s comfortable enough to scrape off the dried mud from horse skin. Initially, I was quite skeptical, but it worked perfectly. A few minutes later Mongol turned from muddy leopard appaloosa to an ordinary grey.

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The next step was to clean his mane of burrs. It’s not common to cut or pull horses manes here, so some of them had quite extensive dreads. Also, I was told that for good luck one needs to untangle the horse’s mane with her hands, without a comb, as is tradition. Although, I suspect that the instructors just wanted to trick me into untangling as many manes as possible. :-)

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Only half an hour away from the camp, on the way to the valley, the land looked completely different. No more trees and 4-foot-long grass (a.k.a. fast food for horses, which they ate on the go); just fog, short grass and blue flowers. I felt lost on an unknown cold planet, where sun and blue sky had never existed.

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Later, ancient Altai gods took pity on us and the fog got thinner. We even could briefly see the lakes through the gaps between clouds.

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And then we played… snowballs. Yes, even in July there are some shallow gullies where snow never melts. This is how I remember the Valley of the Seven Lakes: surrealistic pictures of people wearing oversize green oilskins throwing snowballs on a lawn covered with blossoming flowers.

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With Buran, Uncle Sasha's bear hunting dog

With Buran, Uncle Sasha’s bear hunting dog

For dessert, our guides offered us “Ice-cream for tourists” – last year’s snow mixed with sweetened condensed milk, but demand was very low. Probably a better advertising campaign would’ve helped :-)

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The entire way back I was checking if Mongol felt okay. He didn’t noticeably limp, but he was deliberately choosing the softer path.

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On the way back we stopped to climb the Castle of Mountain Spirits (60 meters rocks appearing from nowhere on the plateau)

On the way back we stopped to climb the Castle of Mountain Spirits (60 meters rocks appearing from nowhere on the plateau)

When our camp was on the doorstep, we stopped again. We tied up horses, gulped our simple lunch and followed Yrys to a waterfall. I personally will never forget that waterfall because I almost broke my left leg there. :-) Trust me… Summer in Altai is not the best time for splashing around in a waterfall (neither are the other seasons :-)). But thanks to an adrenalin rush and a group member who had spare dry trousers, I didn’t catch cold.

Few seconds to the epic fall

Few seconds to the epic fall

The end of that exciting day was spent trying… if not to dry, then at least to make our clothes less soaking wet :-) Have you ever dried wet clothes by the fire? It’s far more difficult and hopelessly interminable than you might think. So we had to stay at the fire place long after midnight, listening to Uncle Sasha’s stories about Altai traditions, horses and bear hunting.

One of my favorite stories was about the Heavenly Horse. Contrary to modern astronomy, recognizing 2 constellations – Ursa Major (the Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (the Little Bear), the ancient Altai people believed that it was one large constellation, where Polaris was an iron peg to which the Horse was tied by a winding rope.

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On the last day, when we had got used to almost constant rain, suddenly (all weather changes are sudden here) the brightly shining sun appeared in the sky.

After breakfast, Yrys told me that he had rounded up all the horses except Mongol, which despite hobbles and a lost shoe, had wandered quite far away. So I had to catch him and ride him back to the camp bareback. That was my first bareback riding experience, but thanks to Mongol’s wide back, it appeared to be easier than I thought.

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After I’d brought Mongol back to the camp, we agreed that I would swap horses with Uncle Sasha, As he knew the way better, he would choose softer paths for Mongol, and I would take his 10-year-old black Karat. (Karat actually means Black horse in Altai language :-))

Uncle Sasha riding Mongol

Uncle Sasha riding Mongol

That day we finally got some sun tan and saw how beautiful the road was, which we hadn’t noticed before due to the fog.

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In the evening, Yrys taught me to catch a horse with a lasso. Well, I didn’t catch any horses – all of them went quite far away when they saw me with a rope – but after a few dozen attempts, I managed to catch a birch stump a few times ;-)

Saying goodbye, Uncle Sasha told me that they would like to invite me to work as an instructor. Well… I’d have to seriously think about it :-)

Leaving Altai, I bought a white onyx horse figurine in the small souvenir shop. It will remind me why I will always miss the remote sounds of horse bells when falling asleep.

Useful links: Site of Mayak Altaya agency: http://www.altaiforum.com/

Country # 15 – Iraq: The Story of Unexpected or There Must Be a Horse for a Stranger

Despite my best efforts, a few times I couldn’t find places to ride in the countries I visited: in Moscow in the Olympic Equestrian complex Bitsa, I was told that I had to book at least 6 lessons in advance and they are not open on weekends; in Kuwait none of the phone numbers I found on the internet actually worked; in Algeria… Well, my French is simply not good enough to book a lesson or a hack. (Maybe next time :-))

But today I want to tell you about a place I hadn’t even dreamed of riding in. Yes, Erbil, Northern Kurdistan, is the safest city in Iraq so far, but it is surrounded by places where bomb blasts and terrorist attacks are part of daily life. In a country where every working day starts with the news of how many people were killed and injured last night, it seemed highly unlikely that I could find any horse riding activities.

But as it said in the Bible: Seek and you shall find.

Although I had tried to Google any equestrian activities prior to my business trip, and although my colleagues, knowing about my weird hobby, tried to help me, unsurprisingly there was nothing available according to the Mighty-All-Knowing Google.

But on the last day of the visit I saw a newspaper with a picture of horse racing. Unfortunately, I don’t read Arabic, let alone Kurdish, so I asked my colleagues what the picture was related to and they told me that it was an ad for the Mam Center – a small zoo and stables. Would you believe it? In five minutes an appointment was made and we agreed to go there right after we finished work.

So 2 hours later, outside of Erbil on the way to Kirkuk, we found a really nice place with well-equipped and perfectly-maintained stables, racing track and arenas for show jumping and flat work. And there were a lot of people with kids. It looked like the owner’s business was booming.

Recalling all my previous rides, I think that every horse I’ve ridden was special in some way: Aramis in Casablanca was the most stubborn one, while Al Masa from Muscat was the most tractable; Joy from Brno was the biggest and Baursak from Almaty – the fluffiest one. My ride in Iraq was also special – he had the weirdest name a horse can get: Autobus. He got this nickname due to his long body and short legs – a kind of a horse dachshund.

It might be one of the worst quality pictures in my collection, but at the same time it’s the most valuable one.

It might be one of the worst quality pictures in my collection, but at the same time it’s the most valuable one.

There in Iraq it was the second time I promised myself to try to ride alone next time; riding in front of colleagues is like taking part in a very important competition. You keep thinking that somebody is assessing your performance, and the fact that you are riding a completely unfamiliar horse in an unknown environment doesn’t help you to get the highest marks. All in all, Autobus’ “test drive” was quite good, and as my colleague told me: now I had something to be truly proud of. “I don’t think any of your friends can say that they’ve ridden a horse in Iraq”.

Riding Autobus. No category C licence required.

Riding Autobus. No category C licence required.

The owner of the stables, a long haired, cowboy-like, 50-year-old gentleman, was very kind to promise me to ride a beautiful Arabian mare from the Saddam Hussein stables the next time I come. Well, looking forward.

On the way back, passing through the checkpoints, I couldn’t stop thinking that whatever political, cultural and environmental difficulties nations are experiencing, there will always be horses and there will always be people that cannot imagine their lives without them.

P.S. I wrote this text 2 years ago on the plane on my way back from Erbil. Now, with the ISIS attacks, the situation in Iraq has worsened ten-fold. I really hope that the owner and the horses are safe and will be able to go back to their normal lives soon.

Country # 22 – Belgium: On the Shore of North Sea or Riding Skewbald Pegasus

Of course, knowing that I would go to Belgium to see the shrimp fishing on horseback, I asked if there was any way to take part in the fishing itself, but I was told that the most I could do is to ride in the carriage pulled by 2 horses… well this obviously wouldn’t count as a riding in Belgium, so I searched further and found contacts of Equibeach – a nice small manege (as they call stables and horse riding schools here) home to about 40 horses of all possible breeds, colors and sizes.

Spickey, a rare colored mare of unknown breed, didn’t pay much attention to me during brushing and saddling. But she obviously liked the bit of neck and back massage I gave her.

At 6:30PM myself and 3 more ladies from the stable were ready to go. Unfortunately, we couldn’t go earlier because in the high season (from the 15th of June till the 15th of October) horses are not allowed on the beach between 10AM and 7PM.

The road to the beach was winding between picturesque dunes, covered with bushes with berries both eatable and poisonous :-). When riding through blackberry thickets, the girls tried to reach the berries on the go. I followed their example and realized that it was an amazing exercise for balancing in the saddle. Long walks were followed by trotting and galloping over the hills and on the narrow paths between the tree trunks.

Level - Bushes

Level – Bushes

Dodging away from another branch, I thought that riding on the dunes resembled a computer game. You know… The Mario Brothers kind.

Look: You are going through the different levels: riding on grass, in traffic, and on the deep sand of dunes. Eat the right berry and you will obtain life (health); eat the wrong one and… it’s almost certain to disagree with you sooner or later; see the rabbit and you get some extra points; don’t fold fast enough and you will be hit by a low-hanging branch.

Here they have special traffic signal buttons for horse riders - how great is that!

Here they have special traffic signal buttons for horse riders – how great is that!

And if you play well enough for an hour or so, you will reach the highest level of the game: the North Sea beach.

Level - North SeaI. f you look close enough, you will see that Spickey is actually a grey skewbald

Level – North SeaI. f you look close enough, you will see that Spickey is actually a grey skewbald

Some time ago I realized that we rarely feel happy exactly at the moment of happiness. More often we either anticipate it – I’ll be the happiest person in the world when … and if … (fill the blanks) – or understand that we’ve been very happy in the past without realizing it. The feel of current happiness is very rare and thus even more precious. So why am I telling you this? Galloping on the shore of Oostduinkerke gave me that feeling of this-exact-moment happiness. Maybe because it was the closest I could get to riding on clouds.

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I think that the whole idea of riding a winged horse came to the ancient horseman’s mind when he was galloping on an ocean shore like this. When the shallow water reflects the sky it’s so easy to mistake land for the heavens and fall in love with the dream of riding on clouds.

Spickey, the Pegasus

Spickey, the Pegasus

The world is full of places where you feel a special kind of belonging. Imagine you are somewhere for the first time in your life and yet you feel like it means something very important to you. Is it a place you’ve seen in your dreams? Or is it a place you’ve lived one of your former lives in? Or does it feel that this place will mean something in the future? Koksijde beach was exactly this type of place – inexplicably familiar, inviting, extra-terrestrial, and I know for sure, I will be back here.

Useful links:

Equibeach manege: http://www.equibeach.be

On the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List or What Does Mina Do for a Living?

I’m quite a contradictory person. On the one hand, I hate nothing more than leaving my comfort zone; on the other hand, I’m constantly finding myself in situations when my comfort zone cannot even be seen on the horizon on a clear day. So this story started exactly like this – miles away from home and even further away from my comfort zone.

I had to go to Germany for a business trip and I couldn’t miss the opportunity to take 2 days of vacation and spend them on the shore of the North Sea in the lovely little town of Oostduinkerke, Northern Belgium, and witness a very unique horse related tradition.

So I travelled for over 20 hours, which is not a big issue for me. I just had to wake up at 1:30AM that day, fly from Manama to Abu-Dhabi, change planes to Dusseldorf, and take a train with two changes from Dusseldorf to Oostende via Aahen and Welk… (No, I cannot remember the name of the station) and then take a tram… Whew… 5 countries in one day, my personal record so far.

And did I tell you that I speak neither French, nor German, nor Flemish. Still not challenging enough? Then check this out… Due to a silly mistake in my hotel booking, I end up without a hotel in an unknown town at 10PM. And to make matters even more adventurous, before going I’d volunteered to write an article about this experience for K2 magazine, which is published in Turkey by my friend Kristal Karakus. :-)

But you know what? I’m quite good at the sorting out problems I create for myself – it seems like years of experience do help :-). And hey! I only need to write about horses (not cars, cacti, financial crises or cooking), so still quite comfort-able.

I’m not sure if that article will be published or not, but in my blog I can write whatever I want, so here is the story I titled:

On the UNESCO Intangible Heritage List or What Does Mina Do for a Living?

Mina… This enormous (as any Brabant horse should be) black roan mare has one of the most unique horse professions in the world. She, along with less than a dozen equine colleagues, is a fisherhorse.

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Here in the place where if you drive 40km North-East you get to the Netherlands, and 10km to the South-East – France, where horses are huge, surefooted and phlegmatic, 12 local families still keep practicing a 500-year-old tradition so unique that in December 2013 UNESCO recognized it as an Intangible Cultural heritage.

Every year starting from mid-June till mid-September, not more than 3 times a week, when the tide is low, these Brabant and Hainaut horses are used for fishing shrimps on the vast beach of Oostduinkerke, North Belgium.

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If you’re lucky and choose the day wisely, you can even taste the fresh catch, cooked on the beach promenade. It’s not that easy, though. For example, in 2014 it happened only seven times in 3 months.

The day I was in Oostduinkerke, fishing started at 9AM. Fishermen arrived at the beach either on horseback or by horse-pulled carts. They wore bright yellow oilskins and rubber waders, so no matter what the weather is – clear and sunny or cloudy or even rainy – you will end up with very good pictures, so don’t forget to charge your camera battery.

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Upon arrival, fishermen attach 2 wicker baskets to both sides of the primitive wooden saddles, check the nets and the fishing starts.

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Oostduinkerke has a perfect beach for shrimp fishing – the slope is gentle and there are no underwater obstacles. Horses get breast-deep into the water and stroll back and forward along the beach pulling the nets behind them. This form of fishing doesn’t disturb the sea floor like modern-day trawling, but obviously it takes way more effort.

When nets feel heavy enough, people and horses get back to the starting point to empty them. Horses have a few minutes of well-deserved rest and can dry a bit, but for the fishermen the most arduous work begins. The catch is washed, sorted and put into the baskets.

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And the beach becomes very colorful and noisy. Not only are the tourists surrounding the horses and fishermen and taking in-your-face pictures of everybody and everything, but it’s also an hour not to be missed for always hungry seagulls, which were impatiently waiting for men and horses to make them a breakfast.

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Depending on the catch, they may go into the sea again. But time is precious – they have only one hour before and one hour after low tide for fishing.

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When it’s all done, and baskets are filled with grey shrimps, fishermen harness their horses again and stay on the Astridplein for a few more minutes so everybody can take a picture with Mina and her equine colleagues and chat with the fishermen.

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These people and horses are genuine celebrities of Oostduinkerke. You can find their photos on postcards, magnets, booklets and framed pictures literally everywhere in the town. And this is well-deserved because the tradition, which hundreds of years ago was common in Belgium, Netherlands, Northern France and Eastern England, nowadays exists only in this small Northern Belgian town thanks to these twelve families.

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This was one of the last Mina appearances on the beach this year. As the water gets colder around the middle of September, fishermen close the season just to open it again next year around mid-June, as has been done for hundreds of years and, hopefully, will continue for years to come.

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EquiBingo

For the last 4 years my best friend and I have been making our New Year Resolutions in the format of Bingo.

The process is quite exciting – first of all you need to imagine travelling to the future one year ahead. Then imagine yourself being extremely proud of your achievements and feeling happy because the last year was just FANTASTIC!!! (yes, with capital letters and exclamation marks). Logically, the next step is to think what exactly was FANTASTIC!!! Then you start getting ideas of what you want to achieve. For example, you want to lose 20 pounds, save a particular amount of money, travel to Greenland or get over 65% on the Novice dressage test. When you come up with your super-wish-list, you need to word your goals in the present tense. Apparently, this way there is more chance you will achieve them.

If your friends and relatives also have their goals in Bingo format, you can set some rules and play Bingo against (or, better to say, ‘with’) each other. For example, the first one to cross a straight line, or the one with the highest number of goals crossed out, wins a pre-defined prize.

Normally, I have some riding goals on my overall Bingo list, but then I thought “why not make a separate Bingo list for my equestrian dreams?“ And here we are: 49 goals for the next… Let’s say 5 to 7 years. Actually, I already have some squares crossed off, but I’m still way too far away from a single straight line.

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And as I hate playing interesting games alone, please feel free to join me. :-) Create your Bingo-list or use mine and start crossing those goals off!

Don’t forget to share how many Bingo points you have, and what your latest achievement was, in the comments section.

Have fun!

Xoxo

P.S. These are my achievements so far:

1. Checked! Rode Mr. Buttons (Irish Draft Horse) during a showjumping clinic run by Karen Whinston in Bahrain in May 2014. Mr. Buttons was later renamed to Professor Buttons as he was a very demanding horse and required everything to be done very precisely.

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4. Rode this beauty for the first time in March 2014 in Bahrain. We have been inseparable since. Not surprisingly, although the horse is not mine, our names match just perfectly: Romeo and Yulia.

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8. Not sure that it can be counted, but I tried to throw a lasso Altai style in August 2013. Read the full story in November.

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14. Did it! I milked a horse at the Engagement of the Stallion Celebration in the middle of Kazakhstan steppe in May 2014.

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17. Almost there! So far it’s 22 (in alphabetic order): Bahrain, Belgium, Czech Republic, Egypt, Iceland, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Morocco, Netherlands, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Singapore, Spain, Turkey, UAE, Ukraine, USA.

18. Done in October 2013! See the story about the Laxnes Horse farm and Feikir by the link.

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19. Done! My first beach ride happened to be in Casablanca in April 2012.

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22. Another great beach ride in Muscat, Oman in May 2012

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27. Done! Took a picture with Przwalski’s horse in Real Escuela, Spain in July 2014.

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28. Done in August 2014! Read more about riding with Equibeach on the 18th of October.

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29. Learned to ride side-saddle in USA in May 2014. Here is the full story.

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32. Took part in a Horse Wedding Celebration in Kazakhstan (May 2014). The full story can be found here.

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42. I don’t think I can count it, but my side-saddle horse Grand, back in USA, was a former police horse :-) and here is the picture

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47. Watch shrimp fishing on horseback. Done in August 2014. Read the full story in my next post.

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48. Watched Real Escuela show in July 2014

Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to take pictures of the show or in the museums, so this picture is not mine

Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to take pictures of the show or in the museums, so this picture is not mine