Armed escorts, roadside shootings, searing temperatures, chaotic traffic and mind-blowing bureaucracy. Despite it all, Filipe Leite completed a two-year 10,000-mile journey on horseback from Canada to Brazil. He chronicles his journey in his new book, Long Ride Home. The founder of the Long Riders’ Guild, CuChullaine O’Reilly, talks to Filipe about his remarkable journey, and the many challenges the Long Rider describes in his new book, which even included the need to befriend drug lords to get through.
You contacted the Long Riders’ Guild is 2011 in search of advice on how to make an equestrian journey from Canada to Brazil. You subsequently completed a 10,000-mile ride that lasted two years and took you and your horses through 10 countries. Can you explain how a childhood story sparked your desire to become a Long Rider?
The first story I can remember as a child is Tschiffely’s epic equestrian journey across the Americas. In the beginning of my book, Long Ride Home, I explain how I was a very scared child and when my dad turned off the lights in my room, many nights I cried, afraid of the dark. My dad would come in and tell me a part of the book Tschiffely’s Ride and use it as an example of how fear is a monster we create in our minds that we must learn to push aside. I loved the story so much. I remember sitting on my horse as a kid imagining what it would be like to cross all of those countries with the same animals. I spent the rest of my life dreaming of going on my own Long Ride. “
Your hero, Aimé Tschiffely, was denounced as being insane before he set off on his epic journey. Yet the Swiss Long Rider famously decided to ignore his critics and wrote: “Eventually there was only one thing to do: screw up my courage, burn all the bridges behind me, and start a new life, no matter where it might lead. Convinced that he who has not lived dangerously has never tasted the salt of life, one day I decided to take the plunge.” Did people try to discourage you from making the ride? Did you question your decision to seek equestrian adventure instead of following a more traditional path through life?
Yes I did, several times, especially during the planning stage! I spent nearly two years searching for sponsorship. The majority of people I contacted called me crazy and said I would certainly die crossing Mexico. They told me that it was impossible to ride such a long distance in the 21st century, that my horses couldn’t complete such a journey, etc. Even some of my close friends couldn’t understand what I was about to do. It was a very hard period of my life. But I was very focused on my goal and believed in myself. I never gave up, I just worked harder and in the end everything worked out. “
You began your journey on July 8, 2012, when you departed from the Calgary Rodeo arena. Like every equestrian traveller you were expecting to encounter traditional problems such as a loose horse shoe or finding a place to spend the night. Yet you were the first Long Rider asked by the Guild to confirm if rising temperatures were adversely affecting horse travel. Was it hotter than you had expected? Did heat affect your journey? Was the heat confined to one country or was it a factor all the way to Brazil? Should future Long Riders factor this new challenge into their travel plans?
My Long Ride has confirmed that global warming is very real! It was much hotter than I expected in all of the countries I crossed. And the majority of them were facing the worst drought in the past 100 years. The heat makes it an inferno to travel on horseback. Horses fight to breathe and sweat profusely all day. This makes them drop weight much quicker and raises the chances of saddle sores due to the heat and sweat under your saddle pads. The lack of water also makes unsupported equestrian travel nearly impossible. There were many days on my Long Ride where there was no water to give my animals. It’s impossible to carry water for horses in a pack saddle because it is too heavy. The average horse drinks about eight gallons of water a day. When there is no water to give your horse, after trekking 30km, there is a high chance the animal will colic and eventually die. It’s very scary. You spend all night awake wondering if you will lose your best friend! I love my horses so much. It broke my heart into a million little pieces when I didn’t have the essentials to give them. I will not go on another unsupported Long Ride for this reason. I still have nightmares where I can’t find water for my horses.”
People often have a romantic notion that a horse journey is akin to an extended pony picnic, one where you ride along from one pleasant place to another. Yet during Catherine Thompson’s recent ride across western Canada she was warned not to let her horses drink from streams that were heavily polluted by pesticides running off from nearby giant corporate-owned farms and ranches. Did you encounter problems finding fresh water?
Yes I did. In some countries the streams were bone dry! In others the water was too polluted for my horses to drink from. I was told if they drank, they would die. It is so sad to see humans treat our natural world like a garbage dump.”
Aimé Tschiffely concluded his journey early when an American driver intentionally hit the Long Rider’s horse, Mancha, with a car. During the ensuing years many other Long Riders have narrowly escaped being hit and in 2015 English Long Rider Christine Henchie was killed in Tanzania by a speeding bus driver. You had been warned by the Guild that traffic would be a potential threat. Were you and your horses affected by this modern menace?
Car traffic was more dangerous than grizzly bears, drug cartels or raging rivers! It is a huge challenge in the 21st century. It was impossible for me to ride 16,000 kilometres (10,000 miles) through the backcountry. So I was forced to ride next to busy roads for large portions of my Long Ride. There were times where if I stuck out my arm the trucks would hit it. They would fly right past us at 120kms an hour. It was so scary. People just don’t respect horses on the roads anymore. They are in such a hurry to get to wherever they’re going they can’t be bothered to slow down for a second. My horse Frenchie was hit by a truck in southern Mexico. It was one of the worst moments of the journey. I was forced to stop for a month and give him daily intravenous injections, vitamins and medication.”
In 1859 American Long Rider Raphael Pumpelly narrowly avoided being captured by hostile Apaches while riding in Arizona. Times change but danger remains a consistent problem for Long Riders. The biggest business in Mexico is drugs and the result is a tidal wave of murder. You are the first modern Long Rider to have ventured through the most dangerous parts of Mexico. For example, in Fresnillo two police helicopters hovered overhead as you were escorted around the town, where police and a drug cartel were engaged in a shootout. When you arrived at Zacatecas, a detachment of mounted police wearing body armor and carrying automatic weapons escorted you to safety. Did you feel at risk? Did you meet people whose lives had been adversely affected by the drug trade?
I rode through combat zones in the Americas. The war on drugs is very real. It has left countries like Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras in a terrible state. I heard stories of children being taken hostage right in front of their homes, people having their limbs ripped off before being brutally murdered and many were forced to pay a monthly war tax to the cartels in order to keep their businesses open. I saw two people shot dead on the side of the road and heard one husband trying to kill his wife with five gunshots. It’s heartbreaking. When I reached Central America I was forced to befriend drug lords to prevent myself from being killed.”
You encountered brutal political reality when your journey entered Central America. There is talk in the United States about the need to build a wall along the nation’s southern border so as to prevent refugees from seeking aid and protection in America. Did you witness any displaced people? Were children among them? What motivates people to travel north?
No one picks up their children and decides to endure a three-month journey, on foot, for no reason! These people are hungry. They are living in war zones. They are scared for their lives. They go on this migration in search of a better life for themselves and their families. I saw children with their parents trekking north. I shared my food with families making the arduous journey on foot and atop trains from Central America to the US. It was very hard to hear their stories of desperation.”
You expected to become hard-bitten and scruffy, to lose a lot of weight, to go hungry and thirsty. You expected to lose sleep, to border on exhaustion, to smell like horse sweat, taste sand in your food, freeze at night and roast during the day. You expected the worst that the land and the weather could throw at you. But ultimately it was bureaucratic red tape that delayed and nearly destroyed your journey. How did Costa Rica, Panama and Peru ambush your dreams? How dangerous are modern borders and governmental interference to 21st century Long Riders?
I hate borders! These invisible lines drawn by wealthy white men long ago make life extremely difficult for the modern Long Rider. Panama did not allow me to enter stating my horses had to have been in Costa Rica for six months prior to being imported. Then I was forced to trailer my horses through Peru. It was heartbreaking. All of the borders I encountered cost a lot of money and time to cross! Many times there was no common sense. All they wanted was money and papers. There was so much bureaucracy that I believe I will be one of the last Long Riders to cross as many countries (10) with the same horses because government regulations are literally making it impossible to cross boundaries with the same horses.”
After enduring tremendous hardships, your journey concluded when you reached your family’s hometown of Santo do Pinhal in August, 2014. Yet in what would seem to be a moment of triumph you admitted, “I cried for three days as the trip slowly came to an end.” Did you experience what some Long Riders have called the “between two worlds dilemma,” where you had to readjust to “normal” life? What advice would you offer to others about this unexpected emotional problem?
When I finished my first Long Ride my life fell apart. I had PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder). I didn’t like talking about my experiences. Life felt weird in every aspect. It just felt like I was a fish out of water. I was uncomfortable in my own skin. It took me several months to readjust to a “normal” life again. I’m not sure what advice I would offer. I think having patience and giving yourself time will help.”
Filipe’s book was first published in Brazil, where it was a best seller. It is now available in English and is now being made into a movie.
The Guild website states, “As Long Riders we categorically believe equestrian travel has no frontiers, political or otherwise. It is the heritage of every nation. Though we individually originate in every imaginable country, we as a group represent no specific nation. Our mother tongue is Horse.” Did your horses open the door to people’s hearts in many nations? Despite the many challenges you encountered and overcame, would you encourage others to swing into the saddle and ride towards the unknown horizon?
My horses opened the doors to peoples’ hearts and homes everyday of the 803 I spent travelling from Canada to Brazil. In all ten countries I crossed I was shown the true spirit of humanity. And what I can tell you is that 99.9 per cent of people are good. I trust people more now than ever. That is why I encourage others to swing into the saddle and ride towards the unknown. It is the most beautiful way to live this life we’ve been awarded. It is the closest way to travel as a local, to immerse oneself in nature, to experience the natural world. The lessons you learn, the people you meet, the emotional relationship that occurs with your horses, it’s all extraordinary!”
The majority of the modern equestrian world is dominated by a spirit of competition. Yet the Long Riders’ Guild functions as an international brotherhood where wise equestrian explorers mentor would-be travellers. Because of the duration and hardships connected to your journey an unprecedented international effort was made to assist you. German Long Rider Günter Wamser, who rode from Patagonia to Alaska, Brazilian Long Rider Pedroca de Aguiar, who had journeyed extensively in South America, American Long Rider Bernice Ende, who had made many equestrian journeys in the American west and Canadian Long Rider Stan Walchuk who taught you packing and equestrian travel skills, all agreed to act as your mentors. Did these Long Riders enhance your self-confidence? Is it important to preserve and pass on equestrian travel knowledge to posterity?
Without the help of the Long Riders Guild and the many Long Riders who helped me before leaving, I never would have left and I certainly never would have concluded the journey. These Long Riders from around the globe were instrumental to the success of my journey … It is very important to pass on equestrian travel knowledge because it insures that future generations will continue to jump into the saddle and ride off into the unknown. There is no better way to see the world then from the back of a horse. I wish all politicians were forced to go on an equestrian journey at some point in their lives. I feel like we would live in a much better world. Long Riding makes you a better person! It teaches you important lessons about the world and humanity.