Life in the saddle: The remarkable horseback adventures of Luisa and Pete

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Peter Breidahl and Luisa Mayr after crossing into Uzbekistan.
Pete Breidahl and Luisa Mayr after crossing into Uzbekistan.

Pete Breidahl has spent more hours in the saddle than he can count through countries most people only dream of visiting. How did an Antipodean lad end up riding across some of the world’s most inhospitable landscapes? He tells the story in his own words.

Luisa has never been very good at getting up at the best of times; but when it’s cold, she’s even harder to get moving and will often lie all snuggled up in our sleeping bags whining about how badly she needs a pee. She screws her cute little face up and squeals “Peeeeeete … it’s cold! I don’t liiiikkkke it!” and then starts giggling through fake tears.

I’m more a morning person, and when I need to go, I just get up and go for it if there isn’t an empty bottle handy “old army habit – gross, I know”. This morning though, I saw Luisa move out of bed faster than ever before.

We were staying pretty much smack bang on the banks of Turkey’s longest river, “The Red River” which winds its way through nearby Avanos before ambling towards the Black Sea. It’s an impressive body of water, and the only river we had stayed near of any size, other than the Euphrates since leaving Mongolia. We were staying in a tiny little hut that was separated from the water by no more than 10 meters and a small fire pit where we had more than one boisterous party with the stable workers. Then, some 2 meters above the current water level, a large, decked area sprawled out over the water, shaded by overhanging willows with the last of autumn’s leaves grimly clinging to their limbs.

The crystal-clear water moved slowly, waving the long strands of maidenhair-type water reeds back and forth rhythmically under a low morning fog clinging to the colder air just above the water. Some 50 meters further, the narrow far bank was dotted with boulders at the foot of a towering limestone cliff every bit of 100 meters in height. It was a stunning scene; one Luísa was missing from the confines of her sleeping bag as I stepped outside to relieve myself in the very crisp morning air. I regretted not putting on shoes immediately, with the cold grass burning my feet as I walked towards the nearby bushes.

Just as I started a good stream … I saw it. A grey ghost – the first I’d seen in Turkey. It moved silently through the morning mist at first light, slinking silently along the far bank amongst the boulders. Well over a meter in length, almost white in color, it was the most incredible and unexpected wolf encounter I’d had yet. Without thinking, I spun and sprinted for the door making a right mess of myself as I threw myself into the hut, diving for the camera and saying the only word I could spit out at Luísa: “Wolf!”

Luísa was on my heels in nothing but undies and a top, standing beside me shirtless and barefoot in my urine-soaked camo pants. The ghost was clearly visible, and neither of us could believe our eyes as it moved downstream, vanishing as if into thin air, swallowed by the gently swirling mist. We were both freezing but fixated on the far bank by the one-in-a-million experience we had finally shared together.  So often I will see the ghosts, and our encounters have on many occasions been under violent circumstances; but Luísa had only ever caught the most fleeting glimpses. This time, the ghosts had finally decided to show themselves to her and I felt far closer to her as a result.

It was finally “our world”, standing by the remains of last night’s fire and the empty beers cans surrounding it half-naked and barefoot, marveling at a grey ghost of the steppe covered in my own urine.

Luisa and her dog Jill had spent a month riding around the steppe before we met. She is a truly wild woman. Absolutely inspiring.
Luisa and her dog Jill had spent a month riding around the steppe before we met. She is a truly wild woman. Absolutely inspiring.

Everyone has this idea of how a wolf sighting will be; everyone has an idea of how we live, and what the “romance” is really like. Well, this is what it’s really like. Luísa and I have no intention of dressing it up as anything it’s not. We are “real”. This adventure is real and we’re going to tell it exactly how it is regardless of how it makes us look. But our adventure started long before this latest in a very long line of encounters with wolves, some of which killed and maimed horses in our care, and some that met me and my heavy Mongolian horse bow on my terms, not theirs.

I grew up in Australia but lived in New Zealand for most of my adult life, and to be honest … nowhere has ever felt like “home”. I’m the lost child of a narcissistic mother, a horrific car accident in my teens, military service, a life in the hills as a hunting guide and endless adventures in hostile places and the carnage that dwelt there. I was born into a storm, and the calm doesn’t suit me or those like me, and sadly far too many men like me have grown up in search of something they can never quite find. With an ex-wife, anxiety, a complete and utter inability to “fit in and play the game” in New Zealand I found myself once more returning into that storm to which I feel so accustomed.

Only this time, I wasn’t coming back.

With two suicides of blokes just like me fresh in my mind, I desperately struggled with the words of a recently deceased friend’s wife. “Pete, I’m just glad he’s finally at peace and his suffering has come to an end”. My suffering was all my fault, and despite counseling and even trying medication briefly, the only thing that really helped was that beautiful struggle to survive in a wild place with the smell of the horse underneath me, the bitter bite of a coming winter against my face and sounds of the forest around me.

My ex said I’d never be happy until I found a glorious death. But she was content with a tiny house in Dunedin’s northeast valley and a job cleaning rat cages. Me, I wanted a glorious life, and if death comes with that then so be it; I will go to it singing my death song. Goodbye New Zealand, goodbye rules, red tape, taxes, debt and everything else that cages a man and crushes his soul. Goodbye to the house you don’t really own, and the debt that owns you. I left with 23kg of belongings, cut all ties and left a free man having lost literally everything for what I felt would be the last time.

It felt good, knowing a man is only truly free to do anything, when he’s got nothing left to lose. Drunk, exhausted, and emotional I returned to my favorite park in Outer Mongolia’s capital Ulaanbaatar with a tall boy can of beer in my hand shortly after stepping out of Chinggis Kahn international airport. I’d been here before a few times and knew my way around, so a walk first thing in the morning seemed like a good way to deal with the jetlag and 5am arrival and a two-hour stay in customs.

That’s when I met her; the woman that would change my life, and the dog that would bring us together. A little Australian cattle dog trotted past me, heading straight to a gorgeous young woman with blue eyes, a shaved head and sun-kissed skin.

And here’s where I’ll let her tell her side of things.

Three weeks pass; I want to cry. I want to scream. I close my eyes and can almost feel my hand running through the soft fur of a dusty stock horse. I can hear the birds; smell the eucalyptus and see Jill “my cattle dog” by my side with a smile. It’s all too much. I’ve failed. I’m stuck in Mongolia and the only way is back.

Within days of meeting, we decided to head from Mongolia for Germany together.
“Within days of meeting, we decided to head for Germany together. We met a mad old German guy ‘Gunter’ who’d driven his little old Toyota to Mongolia to do little more than see how far he could go before his wife ordered him home. With Luisa’s visa almost up, and winter coming we opted to hitch a ride across to Kazakhstan to begin our ride there. We took this little Toyota places no sane person would go, and the goat on the roof with us was destined to become dinner as we explored the vast Mongolian steppe.”

I’m furious with the Chinese border guards even though it’s not their fault. I’m angry at myself. I’m angry with anyone crossing my path. Empty and frustrated, I still put on a smile. I don’t want to explain, I don’t want your advice, I just want to be left alone. My dream to get Jill and I all the way back to Australia failed due to red tape. Her vet passport had the wrong chip number written in it and I couldn’t get her into China via the land borders; she had to fly in.

There was little more I could do other than sit in the park on a sunny day and feel miserable as I contemplated my inevitable return to Germany by train. It seemed so pointless, I’d come so far. We’d come so God dammed far and now I’d go back to work a kitchen job to save for a flight I couldn’t afford. As if Jill could read my mind, her soft puppy dog eyes wander to mine as if to say, ‘it’ll be OK Mum’.

 “G’day mate, can I pat your dog? Seems a bit off seein’ a Bluey here, what’s ya story hun?”

A wiry blue-eyed stranger, “clearly Australian” holding a tall boy can of local beer strides confidently towards me, snapping me out of my gloom and straight back to the confusion I so often feel in places and moments like this.

 “Sure, if she lets you.”

I just watch him, ruffing up her fur, scratching her ears and tummy and giving her cuddles much to her delight. Without stopping, he turns towards me and talks as though he’d known me half his life.

 “What brings you to Mongolia sweetie, and how the hell did you end up with an Aussie cattle dog?”

I wasn’t overly warm in my reply, still trying to figure out this random fella’s intentions.

“Well, we’re trying to head back to Australia so I can get back to work on my friend’s horse farm.”

He looks at me, this time for real. Clearly interested in more than Jill and more than just for the sake of talking to a woman. No; he looks at me because I speak his language, and share a love of horses, dogs, and living wild and free with a fearless expression of individuality. He smiles; pulls up the sleeve of his shirt and a tattoo of a horse appears. His horse, “Digger”, a wild Mongol pony from the far north of the country. To be honest I didn’t know what I should think of him at first. He’d given up on the society he’d left behind and was here to just ride off into the sunset in the direction of Europe.

Crazy … I shake my head; it’s such a ridiculous thing to do. But I have just ridden around Mongolia for four weeks. He’s fascinating and seems harmless, so I give him my number when he asks to chat later regarding my horse contacts here. A line? He has horses. .. or genuine interest in me perhaps? We part after a meeting lasting no more than two minutes … but I can’t get him out of my mind. He was so direct and so different from most of the people I have met.

I was curious about this Aussie fella, so I called him and agree to meet up with him the following day. He came past the backpackers I’d called home for months, and we walked Jill to a river flanked by tall summer grass and low sprawling willows and sat chatting over a few beers. He said I was crazy after my four-week adventure … laughing about the hazards I’d been blind to; inspired as much by my passion as I was of his. He talked with so much love; going on and on about his old dog who’d recently passed, and his pony that he “connected” with while wolf hunting for weeks on end in the forests along the Russian frontier. So much so that I immediately felt I could trust him. He was not only equipped for his ride but prepared after years of training and life experience. He fascinated yet scared me a little in such a way I lost track of time and space … and then there’s an offer. At first, I think he is joking, but no, he is serious.

“You wanna join me? I’m going that way anyway; I’ve got no real plans other than living …”

I am speechless… Me? No! Why not? No!  Ten days later, hours and days of wondering, questioning … and I’m on my way with a happy scream!

And 780 days later, we had crossed some 12,000km to Bavaria covering no less than 9000km of it in the saddle of dozens of horses across 13 countries. I literally can’t even begin to tell the tales of these adventures in a magazine-length article. I mean … where do you start? The bear encounters? Galloping across the steppe amongst wild horses on a buckskin stallion at sunset, or playing Kupkari perhaps? A game as old as horsemanship itself, in which men charge about atop Karibair stallions using a 70kg dead sheep as a ball? Or the Caucuses, Carpathians or the Austrian Alps? It’s a tale that takes a long time to tell, and it’s the moral that I will share here: That empathy and honesty lead to love.

My stunning buckskin Kazakh stallion "Bill the Bastard".
My stunning buckskin Kazakh stallion “Bill the Bastard”. Bill was the descendant of the very first horses ever ridden, and his love for me took about a week to appear. When it did … man, what a beautiful horse. He was one of the kindest, softest, and affectionate horses I have ever ridden. Together we covered a couple of thousand kilometres and sadly he could not cross into Uzbekistan with us. The need to change horses at borders was the most heart-breaking aspect of the entire journey.

Luísa and I fell madly in love despite a big age difference, the fact she was a vegan chef, and I was a former hunting guide, and we were from completely different cultures whose great-grandfathers fought against one another. The honesty and empathy needed to deal daily with each other and the horses living as nomadic horsemen was the foundation for everything I had ever dreamed of finding in myself and a partner. I found the missing piece of myself not so much in Luísa, but in the person that she and our mutual love and understanding of horses has allowed me to become.

I am finally happy. I have found peace, love, and a sense of contentment looking in the mirror despite all my personal failings. Horses, a little cattle dog, and a crazy German chick weren’t waiting for me a few streets away … they too were waiting out in the storm. We marry in June this year, then we are back in the saddle to do it all over again, and again, and again. This is our life now, pure wild and free.

Life on the Kazakh steppe was incredible but very challenging.
Life on the Kazakh steppe was incredible but very challenging. We fell in love with life, each other, and our horses. We lived as a nomadic family, moving anything up to 50km a day on these stunning Kazakh horses as we pressed southwest to avoid the coming winter and the “grey ghosts of the steppe” that were always stalking us and the horses. Out here, wolves are just part of life and although almost impossible to see, they are always there.

In June we set off on a 4000km wander of the European Alps on my Kabardian horse and Luísa’s pure Arabian from the high deserts of Cappadocia in central Turkey, before setting our sights on a ride all the way to Singapore so we can fly our boys to Australia and keep on riding.

We fund it with both our books about our travels and how to set up for long rides, as well as making custom carbon fiber saddles and fitting out saddles for long riders.

It’s a good life, and if you would like to find us on social media, find our books, or see our entire trip on YouTube, visit us online.

We fund our travels with our books on how to set up for long rides, as well as making custom carbon fiber saddles and fitting out saddles for long riders.
Luisa and I failed more times than any other riders we have ever met. Every bit of advice we received before setting off wasn’t helpful, and every time we looked on Instagram or Facebook, we saw more advice like that which set us up to do nothing but fail. As a result, we wrote The 21st Century Cavalry Manual, with everything we wished we knew before we set off, as well as two brutally honest books Wanderlust, and Covid Cowboys, about everything we got wrong — as well as the beauty and magic we found in the craziness that’s been the last two years in the saddle.
Peter Breidahl and Luisa Mayr after crossing into Uzbekistan.
Once we crossed into Uzbekistan, we rode Karibar horses and … wow! I rode a completely wild stallion who was more than a handful, to say the least. It took three people to hold him down so I could get on him, and my first ride was through a city during a snowstorm. Don’t believe anyone could be that stupid? Well … we filmed it and it’s on our YouTube channel along with our crazy Uzbek adventures playing Kupkari.
As we pushed ever westwards, Covid hit stopping us dead in our tracks in the stunning nation of Georgia.
As we pushed ever westwards, Covid hit, stopping us dead in our tracks in the stunning nation of Georgia. Here we rode dozens of amazing horses and paused high in the mountains to break wild Georgian mustangs during lockdown. We rode in the Tusheti mountains too, at one time on 10cm-wide trails across the face of a 1000m cliff. Yep, also on YouTube if you don’t believe the insanity of what another horseman considers normal!
We battled wolves the entire way, but in Georgia they were just brutal.
We battled wolves the entire way, but in Georgia they were just brutal. Sadly, this foal succumbed to his wounds as did over half the wild-born foals on the ranch that year, and an older mare. Our world and our reality are harsh. It’s why we both are so deeply in love as we have lived through hell together. People love wolves, and I don’t want to live in a world without them, but for us, they aren’t on the TV, they are the glowing eyes in my torch beam as I hold full draw on my bow waiting for them to either charge, or vanish into the darkness.
Crossing into Turkey was incredible, and the switch to pure Arabian horses changed the world as we knew it.
Crossing into Turkey was incredible, and the switch to pure Arabian horses changed the world as we knew it. I was only just good enough to ride an Arabian, but the way they speak to you make them a real “horseman’s horse” if you ask me. In my opinion, there are no finer horses on earth above the Russian Kabardian and the Turkish Arabian.
In Turkey, strangely, we found a heap of couches along the way Luisa loved to pose on with Jill and her Arabian horse Midnight.
Covid … yep, it changed the world but we were in Turkey where tourists had zero restrictions and everyone else was in lockdown! We could ride down empty motorways and strangely, we found a heap of couches along the way Luisa loved to pose on with Jill and her Arabian horse Midnight.
Both of our horses were named after ANZAC legends, and we were given permission to ride all over the Gallipoli peninsula by the Turkish government. Here we are at the high watermark of the allied advance with my utterly insane weapon of a horse named “Sandy”. He was an ex-racehorse as well as a movie star and, my word, could he move! I covered about 1400km on him in 7 weeks and we were devastated when we couldn’t cross into Europe on our boys because of an error by multiple vets.
It was a financial disaster that cost us months, but we managed to get two exceptional horses out of Turkey and into Bulgaria.
It was a financial disaster that cost us months, but we managed to get two exceptional horses out of Turkey and into Bulgaria. Luisa acquired a former racehorse named Smokey, who, in my opinion, is the finest Arabian horse in Europe. He is literally an equine god, and Marengo, his best mate and half-brother out of a Kabardian mare. “Google them, they are the finest horse on earth you’ve never heard of”. Marengo is an utter weapon. Kabardian horses halted the German advance on Moscow as they could still fight when the German panzers froze. Although not as fast in a straight line as Smokey, Marengo is able to climb anything and will do things no sane horse will attempt. They are our forever horses, both geldings, hopelessly pair bonded and seven years old, they are arguably the two finest long-ride trained horses in Europe.
By the time we had reached Bulgaria, we had finally really figured out how to both pack a horse correctly as well as move at full noise without damaging the horse.
By the time we had reached Bulgaria, we had finally really figured out how to both pack a horse correctly as well as move at full noise without damaging the horse. We covered over 3600km on Marengo and Smokey and both boys can run 2-minute miles in full kit effortlessly.
As we pushed into Europe, summer created new challenges.
As we pushed into Europe, summer created new challenges. We saw fewer wolves, but as we pressed into the Romanian Carpathians, we started to meet a new adversary … bears. Transylvania is utterly mental! It’s like another world completely and for me was personally the highlight of the trip. But it wasn’t just bears that caused us issues,  the insects were relentless!
After the grandeur of the mountains anything made by man just seemed lame.
We decided were in Transylvania, so we must go to Dracula’s castle, right? Well, we did. But after a week in the Carpathians, we didn’t even bother going in. Why? Because after the grandeur of the mountains anything made by man just seemed kind of lame.
After 780 days "married at first sight", there was only one end to this story.
After 780 days “married at first sight”, there was only one end to this story. As Luisa hugged her mum outside the family home in tears, I quietly asked her father’s permission to marry Luisa. I’d promised to keep his daughter safe some two years earlier, giving my word I’d get her safely home. He felt I had nothing to prove, despite having no job, no car, no money, and nothing but tatty clothing and a saddled horse to my name. He knew I loved his daughter, that she was happy and that’s all that mattered to him.

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