The Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration, hardcover, in three volumes, by CuChullaine O’Reilly. Published by the Long Riders’ Guild Press. Reviewed by Neil Clarkson.
CuChullaine O’Reilly is proof that great feats of equestrian endurance are not limited to the saddle.
His three-volume Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration is a literary tour de force and an important contribution to the collective wisdom of equestrianism.
We should never forget that much of the world was first explored on foot and on horseback. Frontiers were tamed thanks to our partnership with the horse.
Our relationship with these remarkable animals has been recorded through the millennia. They are depicted in ancient cave drawings and described in some of our earliest texts.
It is a rich and varied history.
O’Reilly, in what can only be described as a Herculean feat, has distilled the wisdom of more than 400 equestrian explorers, known as Long Riders, into his three-volume encyclopaedia, comprising some 1750 pages.
O’Reilly is no stranger to the saddle. In 1983, he embarked on an 1100-mile ride through Pakistan. He departed from the bustling hub of Peshawar, on a loop that would take him through one of the last great frontiers.
In the years that followed he founded the Long Riders’ Guild, which today boasts members from 42 countries. Membership is contingent upon riders making an equestrian journey of at least 1000 miles.
Over many years, he has helped hundreds of equestrian explorers prepare for their journeys, learning the intricacies of the highs and lows that can befall riders in the modern age.
The geopolitical terrain has changed drastically over the last 50 years.
The modern world is very different to the one explored in bygone years. Adventurers need to be better prepared than ever before.
To describe the encyclopaedia as a comprehensive guide to equestrian exploration is an understatement, pure and simple.
No one has garnered more knowledge about the joys, and the pitfalls, of equestrian travel over the last 40 years than O’Reilly.
Horse-riding is a risky pursuit at the best of times, let alone when facing the challenges of climate, endurance, political uncertainty and sometimes exhaustion.
Chapter 64 in volume two is aptly entitled Death on the Trail, providing at times graphic accounts of the gravest of misfortunes on the trail.
None is more remarkable, perhaps, that the efforts made by a handful of men to save ponies taken south to support Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s expedition bound for the South Pole. A group of working ponies ended up trapped on diminishing ice floes as the men worked valiantly to get them back on land, while killer whales patrolled the waters.
It is, to be frank, impossible to accurately describe the breadth and comprehensiveness of this work.
Yes, O’Reilly has covered the practicalities and, arguably, explored every potential eventuality arising from a long trip in the saddle.
Yes, he has left no stone unturned in describing the needs of the Long Rider on the trail.
But that is only part of the story, for these long journeys on horseback are very much an adventure of the mind. What adds immensely to the value of this equestrian trilogy is the fact that O’Reilly understands that these are spiritual journeys as much as physical ones.
It is challenging to provide any sort of judgment on a three-volume effort written by an individual who has spent decades working with Long Riders.
He has drawn not only upon his own experiences in the saddle, but those of a rather special group who have embarked on similar journeys. As an exercise, it seems eminently sensible. From a practical viewpoint, it surely would have been a task beyond most.
What can one say? The volumes may be encyclopaedic, but they are written in an engaging style, awash with insights, opinion and the rich history of Long Riding.
The books are well organised. Volume 1 deals with preparation, the horses and equipment. Volume 2 deals with the challenges and the third volume discusses the journey, the aftermath and the epilogue.
O’Reilly says it provides “practical wisdom”, which sums it up perfectly.
Perhaps the last word should be left to O’Reilly to describe the experience that is the Long Ride.
“We can,” he writes, ” look back now from the luxury of our computer-driven world and see how everything, and nothing, has changed since [the famous Long Rider] Aime Tschiffeley stepped up onto the back of his Criollo horse.
“For six thousand years each generation of mankind has been supremely confident, arrogant in the concurring belief that theirs is the ultimate expression of the human experience.
“Meanwhile the horsemen and women of history have watched from the sidelines while fires were first lit, wheels were invented, pyramids were built, railroads were laid, automobiles were driven, and computer screens peered into.
“Throughout this vast never-ending stream of human experience and effort, one thing has run through our collective unconsciousness, the need for terrestrial freedom …
“For six thousand years that altar of travel, the saddle, has been calling some of us to roam the world.
“Equestrian travel continues to thrill not because it has changed through the ages, but because it hasn’t. It fulfils a craving for adventure, travel and excitement.”
Stirring words indeed.
O’Reilly’s encyclopaedia fills that crucial void between the romantic and alluring notion of a long journey in the saddle and the harsh practicalities of actually achieving that goal.
His advice is encapsulated for would-be adventurers in nine words at the conclusion of chapter one. “Read the book. Saddle your horse. Explore the world.”