A tribute to Basha: Long rider’s legacy will endure

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Basha O'Reilly and Count Pompeii.
Basha O’Reilly and Count Pompeii.

Long rider Lucy Leaf, who rode 7000 miles through the United States, pays tribute to the late Basha O’Reilly, a legend of long-distance equestrian adventure, who died on January 13.

I never met her. Nor CuChullaine for that matter. But I feel I know her, for I’ve read her story, and that of her stallion, Count Pompeii, whose legend carries on in the extraordinary website she created as the hub of the Long Riders’ Guild. This is her work, I know, for she was the IT person. Though published herself, she considered CuChullaine the writer.

What a team they were, the O’Reilly’s, and will continue to be, for their work will live on, far beyond the dream of the World Ride that will be left for others to complete. But mind, I would not be surprised to hear that CuChullaine has swung back into the saddle, for I would bet it still sits in the corner of his office. One way or another, he will ride with his bride on her golden horse.

I talked to both of them, just once, on a conference call in the mid-2000s, when they located this “Lost Long Rider” deep in the Maine Woods. I have since communicated with them through email, a wonder of communication across continents. They told me they can easily tell if a person is truly a Long Rider just by talking to them. A different view, a different perspective of the world, perhaps? They would know, they are both Long Riders, but in far more challenging places than I have ever known. Thanks to them, I could read about those places and so many other horse journeys I never imagined. What a way to learn about the world and possibility, through those stories.

The world will find these stories, for Basha did the tedious magic — quietly, methodically, at her own desk, day after day, it had to be, from the moment these two met. The volume of work posted and published is nothing less than astounding. She applied computer skills she had gained before I knew how to open a laptop. Best I could tell, this was the life of this couple since the two of them founded the Long Riders’ Guild in 2001.

I don’t know how Basha and CuChullaine met. Their private life is their own. Basha once confided, however, that she agreed to marry him before they actually met. This should not be surprising. They are dashing figures, both of them. Regal, like the horses they chose to ride. And plenty courageous. The photo she first viewed might likely have been the tall fellow on his blonde horse, the Irish-American wearing a turban, armed with a rifle and a sword, riding off to fight with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. The photo he viewed might have been the relaxed and confident European woman riding her Cossack stallion in a sea of grass across the steppes of Russia. Neither were bound to place. I can imagine her saying, “Yes, of course, we can have a life together. How about a World Ride.”

But first, they needed to re-publish those horse travel books long out of print, which CuChullaine had already begun collecting. There was a website to establish as a hub of information about horse travel, an Academic Foundation to create for scientific research. There were books of their own to write and publish, and inquiries about horse travel to answer from all over the world. There were Long Riders, like me, needing to be discovered and invited to the Guild.

Sometimes one dream must be put aside for another, but who would guess this would lead to the publication of the first-ever Horse Travel Handbook, translated into several languages, no less. And then the three-volume Encyclopaedia of Equestrian Exploration, 1800 pages, an epic work that will surely find its way to the great libraries of the world. There is nothing like it anywhere. Lay-out, editing, marketing. All yours, Basha.

In 1973 Lucy Leaf set off on a 7,000 mile journey aboard a non-pedigreed horse named Igor. The duo travelled a northern route across the country from Maine to Oregon and then returned from California to Virginia via a southern route. Despite having led a very vigorous outdoor life, in 2011 a tick bite devastated Lucy’s health. Unmanageable pain spread from the tick bite across her body. The constant agony destroyed her appetite, kept her awake for days and eventually caused her to black out. She warned other Long Riders, “Having enjoyed good health all my life (and taken it for granted, no doubt) I'm amazed how quickly my health, which seemed prime only weeks ago, has gone completely south.”
Lucy Leaf pictured on Igor during their coast-to-coast 1973 trip over 7000 miles in the US, from Maine to Oregon and back east from California to Virginia.

Basha has earned her ticket to board the rocket ship pictured on the last page of the Encyclopaedia, bound for the stars beyond. She may have left a little early, but perhaps not, considering what the world has become. Intuition was always her guide. She worked right to the end. Time away from work was sharing a glass of wine. There was rarely a desire to leave their French village. No need to own a car. They maintained their role as advisors to Long Riders, providing crucial contacts or assistance as needed. More than once, they helped plan a rescue, calling on an international network of Long Riders, using the diplomatic pen as necessary. They established a respected Code of Ethics for horse travel and called out abuses. Otherwise, they faithfully collected the stories, compiled in ever-lengthening newsletters. And never was there any expected return. The website was free of any advertisement and remains so today, a model of what the World Wide Web was intended to be.

It’s hard to think of one person in this prolific and endearing partnership without the other. I once inquired how much other help they had. Not much, it appeared. Any? This year will be the 20th anniversary of the Guild. Twenty years of dedicated service and commitment, despite computer crashes, hacks and malevolent stalking. It is indeed, a legacy.

The concept of “Long Riding” is now universal, and nowhere, should a horse ever experience a saddle sore, discomfort or malnutrition while carrying its rider or packs to the farthest reaches of the globe. The “why” of horse travel is no longer such a mystery.

Basha and her iconic horse live on as legends. Ride on, Basha. Ride on, Long Rider.

» Basha O’Reilly, adventurer and renowned Long Rider, dies at 73

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