The death of Basha O’Reilly early this year shocked the Long Rider community. Accomplished American Long Rider Lucy Leaf, who rode her horse 7000 miles across the United States in the 1970s, reviews O’Reilly’s book, Bandits and Bureaucrats, which chronicles a remarkable 2500-mile ride from Russia to England in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
“She is one of us now,” the rider shouted and the Cossacks cheered. The interpreter handed Basha O’Reilly a Cossack bridle. It was offered as a gift in recognition of her riding abilities.
The trip to Russia arose from an offer from her English friend who had been invited to a dog show and trials in Moscow. “Why don’t you come?” she put to Basha. “While we’re there, would you like to ride with the Cossacks?”
Protectors of the steppes, these fierce horsemen had been associated with freedom and independence since the 15th century. “Of course I would,” came the excited response.
Two days of riding with the Cossacks convinced Basha that their rugged, sturdy horses matched their reputation. Then and there, she decided she wanted to buy several for herself, and to ride them 2500 miles home to England, though she had never heard of such a thing in modern times. The idea sounded completely natural to her, but to others, it was fantastical dangerous madness.
“My civilized, privileged, sophisticated side rejected the idea as absurd, but some strange, new, wild part of me refused to let it die.”
Bandits and Bureaucrats is the story of her horseback journey across western Russia, Belarus and Poland and then finally the last miles to her home in England. The year was 1995, during the confusion following the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was no tradition of travel in Russia, and therefore no tradition of hospitality. But as Basha noted, there were also no fences. The steppes lay open, travelers could camp anywhere, and with proper documentation, foreigners could travel without a guide. She would need to learn Russian, and also how to sleep in a tent. In the life she left behind, “roughing it” had meant enduring a four-star versus a five-star hotel.
Joining a scientific expedition on horseback for a month in Mongolia sealed the dream. Spending whole days in the saddle, feeling the elements and living in simplicity suited her well. Her linguistic skills contributed to the journey. At last, it was time to return to Russia to choose horses and begin the planning for her own journey.
Basha, a middle-aged professional in a second marriage, her daughter grown, enjoyed a lovely home, stables and gardens in the quiet English countryside, along with a couple horses, dogs, cats, and chickens. She had enjoyed success as a software trainer in the early days of computer technology. A recession had brought a lull in her work, but there was also unrest in a marriage where she felt her value lay mostly in her money-making capacity. She felt no guilt leaving the household and the bills to him. Her husband tried to talk her out of such a dangerous undertaking, but was simultaneously thrilled with the fame the journey might bring. Fame was clearly not her motive. She really didn’t know her purpose, except to introduce these hardy horses to England for cross-breeding.
Choosing the horses brought more clarity. There was instant recognition of one particular horse that caught her attention. A gallop across the snowy steppes confirmed it. Then she learned that this horse named “Count Pompeii” was a stallion. A woman riding across the steppes of Russia already bordered on insanity. Bringing a half-wild stallion home was over the top. But Pompeii had stolen her heart. She paid his price, five times that of the mares chosen.
To the Cossacks and most others, the obvious way to get horses to England was by lorry. But for Basha, the aim was to ride them to England, not to subject them to the confines of a truck. The locals convinced her, however, that a truck would be needed as a support vehicle to carry oats, hay, water, spare horseshoes and camping gear. And of course, they said, she would need a driver. And a couple more riders.
Basha returned in May, expecting to depart within 10 days. She had paid well to have the horses further trained, conditioned, and fed extra portions, in preparation for the long journey. Her contact with the Moscow Academy of Sciences, also well-paid, had months to acquire the extensive documents and permits required for horses, riders and drivers for travel in Russia as well as the border crossings, one of the biggest hurdles. Blood tests ruling out various contagious diseases in the horses had already been cleared.
It was well into July before the group left amid much fanfare, a month later than planned. Two drivers, two Cossack riders, and a loaded van comprised the “support team” for Basha, her stallion, and three mares. The troubles began before the tent was pitched on the very first night. The Cossacks who claimed they knew the country became lost immediately, adding twice the mileage planned for the first day. And the second as well. By day four, one of the Cossack riders begged to go home — for he was saddle sore! The others feared bandits. And one of the mares was so unmanageable she had to be given away. Even that was problematic in document-driven Russia. The “team” would prove to be the biggest impediment of the entire journey.
Looking back, Basha kicks herself for not realizing she could have packed two horses and possibly avoided the need for a support vehicle. This would have conformed with the way horse journeys have been conducted through the centuries. But though she herself had used camels as pack animals in Mongolia, it never occurred to her to pack horses. It simply wasn’t done in England, nor had it been for more than a century there, so this method of travel support was not familiar to her.
In 1995, there were no instruction manuals for traveling on horseback. Other than one book, a classic entitled Tschiffely’s Ride about a historic equestrian journey spanning the Americas, there was little information about equestrian travel. The vast amount of wisdom from centuries of dependency on horses for every aspect of travel had been completely lost since the world became motorized. For centuries, the warning cry “The Cossacks are coming!” inspired dread across Central Asia and Western Europe. Descended from Mongol or Tartar nomads, “a Cossack would learn to shoot from the saddle as soon as he could ride, and to ride as soon as he could walk”. But the Cossacks had been nearly annihilated during the Bolshevik Revolution, along with much of their equestrian and nomadic wisdom, it appeared.
This dearth of knowledge would change dramatically in the future, but Basha would not know at the time that she would be instrumental in making that happen. Riders of the latter 20th century had to essentially re-invent the wheel as pertains to horse travel. As far as Basha knew, she was the only one who had even thought of actual travel on horseback in modern times. She would later learn there were many, but the internet was yet to come.
The book is aptly named, for, as Basha expected, bureaucratic problems would be her greatest challenge in a country still under the shadow of tight control. A border challenge could foil the entire journey. She learned that horses were considered to be contagious, and could even potentially be shot, with no recourse. Three-quarters of a century of Communist repression left a population that was uninformed, powerless and fearful. Living conditions and communications remained primitive. Food and car parts were scarce, horseshoes non-existent. And always, there were grave warnings of bandits ahead. “Not here, but definitely ahead.” And wolves also. Vicious wolves, and bears too. The Cossacks begged to go home. The only solution, they said, was to truck the horses home. Basha remained determined to ride. At the border with Belarus, a new van and support team arrived, from England. And a new set of problems ensued.
The book is mostly about overcoming challenges, which seemed to be Basha’s job alone. It is well-written with realistic dialog, providing insight into peoples and cultures few have experienced, during a window of freedom that would soon close. As the riders progressed westward, open steppes gradually changed to forested pathways, but the travel remained quite suitable for horse travel in most places. River crossings always presented challenges, from unstable floating rafts to traffic hazards on bridges.
Pompeii was always the star. I loved the conversations Basha had with her horses, particularly her brave stallion, hesitant to step onto a rusty floating bridge or chain of rotted log rafts with gaping holes to navigate.
“It’ll be fine if you’re careful,” Basha would tell him. “Are you sure?” the horse would seem to say. “If you’re so sure, then why are you afraid?” You can’t fool a horse when it comes to emotions. You can have faith or you can have fear, Basha related, but not both.
How safe was a woman traveling, even in the company of men? Men under the influence of alcohol were a constant menace. Self-defense skills and quick-thinking assertiveness were called for more than once. Couldn’t a person feel homesick, with family and friends far away? Months on the trail, with her equine companions, Basha began to question the concept of home. While virtually all of her helpers appeared to suffer from one thing or another, Basha felt completely at home on the trail. Returning to her life of comfort and privilege held less and less appeal to her.
Basha’s journey may have been one of the most expensive in modern history, not from poor planning, but from man-made challenges that defy common sense, from primitive Russia through modern Europe. She has the distinction of being the only person to ride out of Russia in the 20th century. But what is remarkable about this ride is the transformation that occurred afterward. It was her brave stallion who showed Basha a different path, reinforcing her belief in the choice of faith over fear.
I think that women especially will find inspiration through this book. How many times Basha heard, “It is impossible, it can’t be done, it is too dangerous”. She simply refused to believe it. This is a person who heeded the restlessness, who listened to the voice inside calling for freedom. When later, a bold opportunity presented itself, she had the confidence to follow it. Her epilogue will warm the heart and you can be sure that Count Pompeii is with her.
Basha O’Reilly went on to co-found the Long Riders’ Guild.