Basha O’Reilly wasn’t born in the saddle, but it didn’t take her long to climb on a horse and begin a life filled with adventure and romance.
From the moment she climbed aboard her first pony, Mustard, she was destined to be an equestrian explorer.
Basha, who died in France on January 13 after a brief illness, found solace in the saddle, feeding what came to be an insatiable appetite to see the world on horseback.
Her obituary is not a notice about death. It is instead a lesson in love.
Born in Zurich, Switzerland in 1947, Barbara (Basha) Cornwall-Legh began riding at the age of five. She went on to ride at Olympic-level dressage, before being drawn to the adventures of equestrian travel.
After beginning her travels in Mongolia with Colonel John Blashford-Snell of the Scientific Expedition, in the summer of 1995 Basha visited the Russian Steppes.
There she fell in love with a blazing red Cossack stallion named Count Pompeii. That was the start of a 2500-mile expedition in which she beat off a would-be rapist and an attack by robbers.
The miles of thick forests and rocky shale made the going so tough even the hardened Cossack riders who were to have accompanied her to the Russian border, gave up after two weeks, saddle sore and weary.
Undeterred, after a six-month journey Basha arrived in Britain to a huge fanfare of publicity and wrote a book, Bandits and Bureaucrats that detailed her exploits.
Yet after her return to England, Basha knew her previous view of life had been dramatically altered.
“The thing that stood out in my mind about Russia was the freedom,” she said after her early adventures in the saddle.
“It was a magical experience. The trip made me aware that possessions are not the be-all and end-all of life. I also knew that my priorities in life had changed forever.
“Equestrian travel was what I wanted to live for. Riding Pompeii had taught me that you can either have faith or fear, but not both. That was my mantra now.”
Unfortunately, Basha discovered that after her return she no longer fitted in with the people who had previously defined her identity.
“I was not lonely – I am an only child and came to terms with being on my own long ago – but I was alone,” she once said.
“Nobody I knew could begin to understand my contempt for possessions, my urge to travel, my love for spending all day in the saddle and all night under the stars, getting boiled, frozen, soaked and seriously frightened by turns.”
While working at Lloyds of London, she felt unsettled and booked herself a two-week trip to ride through Transylvania in September, 2000.
“Then an envelope landed on the mat, containing an incredibly polite and formal letter from the equestrian journalist CuChullaine O’Reilly. He told me he, too, was a horse traveller, had started the Long Riders’ Guild and was very interested in documenting the experiences of other equestrian explorers.
“At the bottom of the letter was an email address, so I replied electronically and asked about his travels.
“CuChullaine wrote back to say that he had made two equestrian journeys in Pakistan and so our correspondence began.”
With each exchange of emails, they learned more about each other and the many things they had in common.
“We were not just horsemen but passionate about, and in tune with, horses.
“We were nomads who longed to get back in the saddle and head over the horizon with little more than a toothbrush and a sleeping bag.
“We shared a love of mountains, of wild places, of freedom, and of animals. We also shared a hatred of arrogance – men for women, one race or religion for other races or religions, people for animals – and of imperialism, and snobbery.
“I began to look forward to getting to the office in the mornings, so as to read his latest letter.”
In an early email, CuChullaine told her: “You’re a traveller, accept it. No four walls will ever close you in again. If you weren’t born a nomad, you are one now.”
Basha described reading that sentence as a releasing moment. “For the first time I understood my urge and I also realised he understood me, too.
“As we found we had more and more in common, our liking for each other turned into love.”
Soon after, she turned 53. A birthday party thrown by family and friends had left her more restless than ever. No matter what Barbara did, as she was known then, she couldn’t shake off the idea of going to see CuChullaine.
She sent an email to CuChullaine, mounted Count Pompeii, and set off riding, all the while wracked by self-doubt.
CuChullaine replied, astutely opining on why she had been restless during her birthday party.
“You were unhappy at the dinner because all the jolly goings-on were merely a disguise designed to hide away the embarrassing sadness that was pulling at your soul.
“Your friends and family were busy feeding your body. They will never understand that it is the purest essence of your being, the soul’s soul that is starving. You couldn’t find that spiritual nourishment at the table, so you went riding on Count Pompeii instead.
“You could ride all day. You could ride all night. You could ride to Russia. You could ride to the moon. But you have to realize that you have passed into an invisible country where the horse and the trip are only segments of the puzzle that will give your life the meaning that you seek.
“You are sad today because you are in search of clarity and spiritual happiness … the wind will blow and you will long to go with it. The rain will fall and you will wish you were outside letting it wash away the chains that you locked around yourself.
“A stranger will enter your life and you will long to respond.
“You are in danger of becoming sunk into the everydayness of your life and your soul is crying out in terror that it longs instead to be alive.
“You need to listen to your desires and define what great purpose it is that makes your life unique. You are searching without knowing it, riding in circles that will never end, not knowing that your life needs to be focused on the attainment of some legendary goal that even if unattainable, would define your existence and your legacy.
“Yours is a deep, deep old soul surrounded by well-meaning strangers. They will be happy when you are happy.
“They cannot articulate what mute truth lies in your heart. You do not belong, sweet Basha. You are not one of them. You never returned. You just rode back.
“Barbara was washed away. She is part of some unannounced dusty trail. She is part of your past. It wasn’t a birthday party. It was a wake for someone who no longer exists. Let go Basha and live.”
How CuChullaine met Basha
The couple may never have met at all had it not been for the accidental influence of Horse & Hound magazine.
Whereas Horse & Hound has gathered its share of editorial awards during its long journalistic life, only a handful of people know that this magazine is responsible for changing the pair’s life.
In the 1990s, when CuChullaine was searching the world for obscure equestrian travel books, his literary ally, James Allen, of J.A. Allen Publishing in London, would spend months hunting up clues for obscure titles.
In those pre-internet days, such books were as rare as hen’s teeth.
Consequently, twice a year Mr Allen would send CuChullaine a package wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. Inside each mysterious package would be unheard of literary treasures.
That is how he discovered the forgotten Long Rider authors Bill Holt, Margaret Leigh and many other names that went on to become synonymous with the Long Riders’ Guild Press, but had all fallen out of print.
In one such package, Mr Allen included an article from a recent edition of Horse & Hound.
There was no book involved (yet), but Mr Allen thought CuChullaine might enjoy reading the recently written article that recounted the remarkable story of how a plucky Englishwoman had just ridden a Cossack stallion from Russia to London.
There, staring off the page of the Horse & Hound article, was Basha Cornwall Legh.
She was sitting on the living room floor in front of a fireplace with a book in her lap. There was a smile across her pretty face. She looked like an amused lioness trying to decide if she should devour the photographer or not.
CuChullaine was so smitten that he cut out the photo of Basha and put it in his wallet, where it stayed for five years.
Life intervened and he devoted his time to writing his first book, Khyber Knights.
With that task completed in 2000, he believed that equestrian travel had reached a crisis. He decided to ask four Long Riders from three countries to meet him to discuss how equestrian travel could be saved for posterity.
The only female Long Rider he knew to invite was Basha Cornwall. He sent her a formal written letter inviting her to participate and she surprised him by replying via one of the first emails he ever received.
Soon afterward she telephoned — and they spoke non-stop for two hours.
CuChullaine recalls it was an electrifying conversation because it was the first time either of them had ever been able to speak about the intense experiences they had undergone during their journeys with horses.
They also discussed how equestrian travel was either ignored or not taken seriously by the traditional equine establishment.
In an email to Basha, CuChullaine wrote to explain his belief that horse travel, and its literature, deserved to be defended.
“The need is there. The audience is there. The problem, in my opinion, is that traditional publishers do not recognize Long Riders as a potential audience. We are, I believe, the largest, and last, unexplored segment of the equestrian world.”
He continued: “I am no longer willing to sit idly by and watch books of great historical value be shoved aside, or ignored, so that bookshelves can be filled with volumes of passé pedestrian trash. But I believe that with the advent of the internet we are eventually going to be able to track down, locate, and bring together the Long Riders of the world for the first time in history.”
In the ensuing weeks, what began as a talk about horse travel unexpectedly grew into something else.
After months of constant communication, via the newly installed medium of emails, as well as frequent telephone calls, CuChullaine realized that he had accidentally met what he described as the most astonishing woman he had ever encountered.
With nothing but a faded photo from Horse & Hound to go on, he asked Basha to marry him over the telephone.
To his delight and relief, she agreed.
Basha flew to the United States, where she and CuChullaine hosted the first Long Rider meeting, after which she returned to Britain, and sent her stallion, Count Pompeii, to the United States.
When she came back to the US, they were immediately married.
Two hearts, one goal
That was 21 years ago and Basha and CuChullaine were never parted during a unique career devoted to equestrian exploration and equine research.
In 2001, they launched the Long Riders’ Guild website, the commercial-free repository of the world’s largest collection of equestrian travel information. The Guild has supported or advised more than 100 equestrian expeditions that crossed every continent except Antarctica.
That same year they created the Long Riders’ Guild Press, which republished the world’s most precious equestrian travel books.
And the pair travelled through Europe, finding legendary Long Riders in England, Wales, France, Germany and Switzerland.
In 2007, they broadened their work by creating the Long Riders’ Guild Academic Foundation, a broad-based program designed to include a plethora of subjects ranging from history, archaeology, art, cultural studies, military, etc, to anything and everything related to mankind’s links to the horse.
In 2009 they published the first Equestrian Writers’ Guide.
In 2012 they created what is believed to be the world’s strongest set of equestrian ethics.
Three years later, they orchestrated the liberation of Long Rider Geldy Kyarizov, who had been held as a political prisoner in Turkmenistan for 13 years.
In 2018 they published the Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration, the most extensive study of equestrian travel ever created. The first and second sets of the Encyclopaedia were presented to Great Britain’s reigning monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, and to Prince Charles.
Having written and published the Horse Travel Handbook in English, the couple focused on translating the book into French, German, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian.
On Wednesday, December 30, 2020, Basha and CuChullaine celebrated the arrival of the newly published Dutch translation.
The next morning, after months of work Basha had 20 pages left to complete the French translation, when she became ill.
She was rushed to hospital, where after a brief illness she passed away peacefully in her sleep.
In addition to her tasks as the Guild webmaster and the director of the Long Riders’ Guild Press, Basha was also the executrix of the Aimé Félix Tschiffely literary estate.
When asked to explain their unorthodox romance, CuChullaine replied: “I believed that if I loved Basha with all my heart then I would find more happiness than I had ever imagined.
“That is what I’ve done from the first minute I saw her. For 20 years my heart beat in two bodies, as hers did in mine.”
Horsetalk thanks CuChullaine O’Reilly for sharing their personal correspondence.