Country #7 – Czech Republic: Where the Horse Whisperer Lives or the Ride Full of Joy

I think it was a true blessing to ride in that place. Although it took us about 2 hours to drive from Prague to the small village on the way to Brno, that was an insignificant price to pay for these kinds of positive emotions.

Pan Ladislav, the owner of the stable, is over 70 years old, but you’d never put him at more than 50. And he is a real, not from the books, horse whisperer.

There are about 15 horses in his stable and every one of them has a sad or even tragic story behind them. Some were very sick or even dying when he took them to his stable and healed them; others were mistreated by their previous owners or injured during competitions. But now they’ve finally got the contented and tranquil life they deserve. All the horses there are full of energy but calm and relaxed and look very happy to be finally treated fairly by a man who not only knows all about horses, but seems to understand their language.

As I finished my work at the Prague office at about 5 PM, we got to the place in the late evening just an hour before sunset. The plan was to go on a 1.5-hour trail ride to the nearby forest, but hospitable pan Ladislav couldn’t just let me go. He invited me into his old-style wooden house and offered me a drink.

Those who’ve been to the Czech Republic know that it’s famous for all kinds of home-made alcoholic beverages produced from literally any plant possible. So I got a shot of a very strong maroon liquid :-) – I still have no idea what it was – but it’s not comilfo to turn down food or drink in any country of the world, so I had to swig it. I felt dizzy immediately, but pan Ladislav tried to fill the glass again, saying that the previous one was for the right leg, so the second one is for the left, and no one rides horses with only one leg. Good manners or not, this time I had to refuse :-)

We went out to the yard and I got introduced to the tallest horse in the stable – the former racer: Joy – but before we were let to the forest I, along with other members of our small group, was asked to demonstrate some acrobatic tricks.

Actually, it’s quite interesting, the variety of initial riding tests different schools have. (I should probably write a separate post about it one day.)

So here we were asked to trot without reins, walk sitting face to tail and side saddle on both sides and then trot again with our hands, well… Call it flying. So the purpose of this welcoming alcoholic drink became apparent – if a rider can balance pretty well after a shot or two – he/she is for sure ok to ride in the forest.

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Once we’d passed our acceptance test, we were free to go. We rode through a tiny village and got into the woods. It was stunning. It felt like we were the first people ever to visit this place forgotten by civilization. Even numerous pheasants crossed our path without any signs of rush or anxiety.

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We rode over a small river and galloped up to the hills. The autumn Czech forest was a pure feast for the eyes, and it’s so sad that I somehow changed the settings of my camera to the lowest resolution possible (maybe it happened when I was taking it in and out of my pocket), but these are the only two half-decent pictures I have from that trip. Yes, it’s a pity, but maybe it’s right – fairy-tales should be kept in our memories and hearts, not in photo albums or on hard drives. :-)

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When we came back to the stables at twilight, Pan Ladislav invited me to join the Horse Party the next day, but unfortunately I already had my tickets booked for the following morning. ;-(

And regrettably I cannot share the link of the agency which organized the trip. I searched everywhere but I cannot find it again. So now I’m a bit unsure. Was I really riding a big grey mare called Joy in that forest or is that something I saw in my dreams? :-)

Country #8 – USA: Miami Dolce Vita or Butterflies Not Only in My Stomach

It was my first trip to USA and actually my first time across the pond.

As usual, I was there on a business trip, but couldn’t resist the temptation to stay for an extra day and visit a real ranch. Bar-B-Ranch, accommodating about 50 horses, is one of the oldest and biggest in Florida.

Here at Bar-B-Ranch they have all kind of activities, including trail rides, summer camps… And as the Town of Davie’s Robbins Open Space Preserve public park is less than a ten-minute ride away, you can rent a horse for a photo-shoot or a special occasion and take stunning pictures there.

I chose the evening trail ride and was very happy to finally see palominos, appaloosas and quarter-horses, the types of horses I’ve been dreaming of since I was a child.

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Bar-B-Ranch claims that they can accommodate riders of all riding abilities: from complete beginners to well-experienced riders. By the way, they don’t check your riding skills. Instead, you fill in and sign a special form, where you answer questions about your riding experience and confirm that you are aware of the risks. Our trail ride group consisted of approximately 20 people, and for half of them, that was their first time in a saddle.

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So instead of a riding test, we had a twenty-minute long lecture on horse riding and horse behaviour.

Our instructor started with this interesting introduction: “We want this experience to be safe for everybody, and when we say everybody, we mean our horses as well.” Then he explained how to prevent horses from “horsing around” and it made me look at my favourite hobby with a different perspective.

He continued with aids and explanations and it was my favourite part of the theoretical lesson. We were told that there are 5 consecutive steps in “asking” horses to move forward, and only if the previous step hasn’t worked are we allowed to move on to the next one, and then the next one, and so on.

To tell you the truth, some steps surprised me.

First: smile and silently (in your mind) ask your horse to move;

Second: change position of your body to slightly forward and give the horse more rein;

Third: squeeze the horse with your lower legs.

Fourth: kick the horse slightly.

Fifth: produce that special “Yeeeeehaaaw” sound and throw your left hand up. Yes, exactly like cowboys in Marlboro ads and westerns do.

When the lecture was over, we were introduced to our horses. I got the 18-year-old ‘Candy’, which didn’t give me the slightest opportunity to practice all of the 5 steps. In fact, I barely even smiled and she was enthusiastically half-walking half-trotting forward. Despite the horse being fully-automated, riding her felt a bit unusual. First of all, western saddles are very different from the European ones I’m used to. Then the rein… In fact it wasn’t a rein at all; it was a piece of thick short cord which I was supposed to hold with my right hand only.

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I think here I need to pause for a while and tell you about another horse in the herd, which played a comic role during our ride. Initially, I wanted to ride him because he was a really beautiful raven black gelding with a nice heart-shaped marking on his forehead. Not surprisingly, he was called Valentino. Unfortunately, he was given to another rider, a 20-something-year-old guy with characters from Tim Burton’s “The Nightmare Before Christmas” sleeve-tattooed on his arms.

The true meanings of the names of our horses become apparent when the whole group moved forward and stretched along the path. As Candy rushed forward, reacting to my half-smile, Valentino pursued her and stayed “glued” behind. The reason for it was noble but weird at the same time. In fact, Valentino loved Candy, but his love was strange to say the least. He liked to lick her croup. So every time Candy stopped, there was Valentino, diligently slobbering her hair. :-) I don’t know which of them got their name first – either Valentino for being so loving or Candy for being so sweet – but the names matched them perfectly.

Valentino’s rider was not very impressed with his behaviour, and every time we stopped I heard something like “Ok, here comes the butt again!” :-)

We rode for about 2 hours and I have to say Florida land is an amazingly colourful place even in the middle of November.

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Of course, details of my trips and rides will probably fade with time, but one moment I will remember forever. And this piece of memory will become better and more vivid with years.

There was a dark alley and those of us who had ridden before and felt confident enough were allowed to canter there. As we started our mini-race along the alley hundreds of large colourful butterflies, as if by a magic wand, left the tree branches they were hiding on and flew around.  I believe this was the most beautiful and fairy-tale-like place I’ve ever seen.

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This is how the sweetest Candy look like. (Sorry for the picture quality)

Useful links:

Bar-B-Ranch site: http://www.bar-b-ranch.com/

Country #9 – Qatar: The Sheikh’s Garden or Please, Call Me Mozart.

I don’t know why, but it’s extremely difficult to find 1- or 2-hour rides in the majority of GCC countries.

Google search gives you next to nothing: sites are not updated regularly, phones are not working… But nevertheless, after few unsuccessful attempts, I found a place to ride on the outskirts of Doha.

I will leave aside the long story how I got there – if you don’t ask a taxi driver to take you to a well-known hotel, their city knowledge is normally worse than yours, and even a map printed from Google Earth doesn’t help much. So, finding this place was an adventure on its own. We had to call the owner of the stables half a million times to get directions, but finally, almost 2 hours later, we got to Al Shamriya Equestrian Center.

The Equestrian Center is located 50 kilometres away from Doha’s downtown, on the land of Sheikh Faisal Bin Qassim Al Thani.

And the equestrian school is not the only place of interest there. You can also enjoy a visit to the Sheikh Faisal Museum, which contains the Sheikh’s personal collection of artefacts dating from the Jurassic age through the early Islamic period and up to the present day, across four themes: Islamic Art, Qatar Heritage, Vehicles, and Coins & Currency.

For the trail ride I got ‘Baby Mozart’ – a large and a bit lazy Arabian gelding.

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I was accompanied by two excited, ever-giggling sisters of 5 and 8 years old. The pony of the youngest one was led by the groom, so there was no chance to ride any faster than working walk, but that wasn’t the case.

The park where we were riding reminded me of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’ stories. It was literally packed with peacocks walking around, sitting on trees and showing off their tails. Apart from the beauty of their feathers and their larger size, these birds are not that much different from chickens, poking around in garbage cans, fighting with each other and producing this strange heartrending noise. Ok, nothing and no one is perfect in this world. :-) I get it.

Another fun impression of that day was finding the person who should hold the Guinness book record as the worst photographer in the world! Not kidding! When I asked the groom who led the pony rode by the younger sister to take a picture of me with my iPhone – he made this.

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I asked him to take a few more shots, but they were even worse. :-D I know it’s hard to believe, but the other ones didn’t even have a piece of the horse or me in the picture, so I gave up trying and ended up with a few between-the-ears pictures of Mozart and the surroundings to document my international ride #9. Sorry for potato quality.

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At the end of our 1.5-hour ride, the owner told me that she could see I can sit firmly in the saddle, and next time I can rent a horse to ride in the vast territory of the park for 1-2 hours on my own.

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Useful links:

Al Shamriya Equestrian Centre Facebook page:

Sheikh Faisal Museum site: http://www.fbqmuseum.org/index.php/about-us.html

Country #10 – Morocco: Wayward Musketeer or a Horse is Still a Horse in Casablanca

Casablanca – finally my childhood dream to ride on a beach came true, but not without a twist.

I visited Morocco on a business trip, but in one of the evenings colleagues took me to “Ferme Equestre Ould Jmel”, a small horse riding school not far away from the office.

Well, despite it being a dream come true, it was probably the most embarrassing horse riding experience in my collection. I was even thinking of skipping the most embarrassing parts of it while telling the story, but hey… I’m only human and I can, and will, mess up sometimes. :-)

First of all, as you probably already know, I speak neither French nor Arabic, so I absolutely had to be accompanied by native speakers or there would have been no chance of me negotiating the riding conditions.

Luckily, all was organized in advance and I got a very nice looking flaxen chestnut Aramis, which, as I learned just few minutes later, was absolutely not in the mood to visit a beach at 7 PM. Yes, horses cannot talk, but they don’t have to… They communicate explicitly with their actions.

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In Morocco they mount from the right side of the horse, so I already felt a bit unconfident from the moment I placed myself in the saddle. Then Aramis went to drink without my permission, and encouraged by my lack of kicking and pulling (my Bahrain instructor’s perseverance to make all my moves more gentle finally worked) Aramis made a short but exciting trip back to his stable.

And he actually stepped inside with me sitting on him, unsuccessfully trying get him out of there by using gentle reins and lower leg squeezes which work perfectly with my own horse. All in front of my colleagues, whom I’d told that I had a horse and have been riding for over 2 years now.

To end my pathetic attempts to move Aramis out, a groom took the reins and pulled the reluctant horse out of his stable. My colleague translated the groom’s instructions to me: I should have literally kicked Aramis hard to get some cooperation from his side. Horses at the school are not used to gentle squeezes of the lower leg. And, as I saw later, having horses on a bit is not considered a necessary part of horse riding here. (Just look at traditional Moroccan riders.)

And now at annual Tbourida (Fantasia) show www.ma-roc.com

… and now at annual Tbourida (Fantasia) show. Picture taken from http://www.ma-roc.com

Anyways, finally, after a few trot and canter rounds in the school arena, we managed to find some kind of compromise. I felt extremely embarrassed, but in the habit of searching for something good even in bad situations, after that ride I came up with some important equine traveller rules:

1) Never tell anybody that you are a good/experienced rider. Even if some horses can easily do flying changes and jump 1.20m, for you there will always be the naughty one which you cannot get out of the box.

2) Never assume that you learned how to ride the most effective way. What works well with a polo-pony is a terrible mistake in dressage. What is fine on well-schooled Andalusian stallions will be seen as an inability to manage the horse by Moroccan riders. So pretend you know nothing about riding and learn from local riders and local horses.

3) It is perfectly normal to have getting-used-to-each-other time with horses – the same way you need some time to get accustomed to a new car – you have to spend some time with every new horse to tune in.

4) And last but not least: Checking the settings on your camera before every trip is a MUST :-) – otherwise you risk having your best stories supported by 20 by 15 pixels photos.

I drew up a few more rules later on, and (confession) I broke them too many times, especially the last one…

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But no matter what, galloping on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean at sunset made up for all the miseries of the day. It was worth all the embarrassment and bitter lessons.

Despite the fact that me and my guide didn’t have a common language to speak, I found it surprisingly easy to communicate about horses.

The ride was exciting: we saw a sea turtle and were chased by stray dogs; raced along the ocean, dousing each other with seawater and cantered up and down the bush covered hills.

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Maybe all riders speak some kind of international horse-related language in addition to their mother tongues? :-)

Useful links:

Official site of Ferme Equestre Ould Jmelhttp://apolline-lr-equitation.blogspot.com/?view=mosaic

And Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Ferme-Equestre-Ould-Jmel/302806386402786?fref=ts