Horse d’oeuvres, anyone?

23 03 2008

Zimbabwe horse 

A four-legged buffet cart

Everyone knows that dogs and small children can smell fear, but I believe that horses can tell when you used too many glue sticks in kindergarten. How else can you explain why every time I have ever mounted a horse, I have very nearly lost my life?

I am a gentle person. I carry spiders out of the house on pieces of paper, and I avoid stepping on lines of ants. Dogs generally like me, cats ignore me in a loving way and a penguin once fell asleep on my camera bag. But for some reason, horses are not amongst my admirers.

My first equestrian endeavour came at Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe. It sounded like an excellent plan at the time. After signing a very long disclaimer that I swear included the words ‘dismemberment’ and ‘decapitation’, I mounted my docile old steed and patted him affectionately on the neck. I was instructed with the basic rudiments of stop, go, left and right. What more could I possibly need?

We soon turned down a narrow track into the bush. It was not long after sunrise and the light was a golden yellow that filtered lazily through the tree tops. The air was fresh and quiet save for the morning song of birds. A small antelope darted from the tall grass, stopped to stare at us and continued on. Life was great and I loved every moment…until we spotted the lion tracks.

Our guide halted our single-file procession and looked around nervously.










Zim track

Photo blurred due to fear

“Lion tracks,” she stammered, pointing at an imprint in the soft sand. “Very fresh too. Stay close together in single file, and if you see a lion, wave your arms around and shout loudly.”  Lions consider horse meat to be quite the delicacy and a rare treat. As I was perched on one, I felt like a glazed cherry on a cup cake at a children’s birthday party. The guide cantered back and sternly told me to ensure that I followed her instructions properly in future. I began to object, but she was already gone. My horse turned its head and taunted me with one large, knowing eye.

As our procession moved faster, I realised I was last in line and therefore almost certainly first eaten. To make matters worse, my horse suddenly veered into the tall lion-hiding grass. I pulled on the reigns, but my efforts were ignored. I tried gentle encouragement. Forfeiting all masculine pride, I begged and pleaded, but still we went further towards being a main course. Our guide noticed and shouted angrily for me to return to the path, as if I had chosen to join the à la carte menu. Eventually, after a few mouth-fulls of grass we regained the trail and emerged into a clearing. I heaved a mammoth sigh of relief.


The Zambezi raced past us, a wide rolling expanse of water fringed on either side by pristine bush. In a calm pool in the centre we could see a pod of hippos, their eyes and piggy-ears poking into the air. A crocodile lazed on the far bank, barely distinguishable amongst fallen trees. The river tumbled over Victoria Falls a mile downstream and although we couldn’t see it, we could hear its thunderous roar. We sat and watched a circling African fish eagle. Not contented with its salad, my horse now decided it wanted a drink of water. 

Fresh, Zambezi water.

I tolerated its first sips from the bank, but as it waded deeper and deeper, from ankle-depth, to knee and upwards, I began to once again heave on the reigns. The river was racing faster the further we went. It was like a conveyor belt at a sushi restaurant with the crocodiles as the customers, and us as the sashimi. I tugged on the reigns with all my strength, only to have that taunting eye stare at me again…and then move deeper into the river, my toes dipped into the flow. I began to realise I was going to be the first person that day to go over Vic Falls without a barrel. Our guide galloped into midstream, angrily grabbed the reigns from my hands and swiftly led us to the shore. My horse, of course, meekly followed like an obedient lemming: a vision of innocence.

For the rest of the ride I was instructed to follow immediately behind the guide, which I did, and inevitably my horse did precisely as told. You could almost see its halo hovering above its mane.  Back at the stable, I dismounted and walked bow-legged into the shade. My horse looked at me, snorted…and winked, before gently ambling away.

Post and photos by: Simon Vaughan © 2008



One response

3 04 2008

After reading your story, I have to say that it is a relief to discover that I am not the only person that seems to be disliked by every single horse that I have previously ridden. My last riding adventure was definitely my last (she says) but I have to say that I did it in style. I was staying at a Ger camp in Mongolia and it was one week before the Nadaam Festival, Mongolia’s biggest festival, which takes place every July. I was told by our guide that everyone in Mongolia is born knowing how to ride, and when you see tiny children fearlessly galloping across the vast plains, you can’t help but to be in awe of them. It really is inspiring, and for this reason, I chose to participate in an optional horse ride, which would take us to where there were hundreds of people practising for the upcoming celebrations. We rode and had a wonderful time, taking in the amazing scenery and enjoying beautiful sunny weather. We watched local children race and admired their amazing riding skills. It was time to go back to the camp and we were all trotting along. It really was a perfect day…Until. My horse began to speed up. I pulled tightly on the reigns but it became faster and I began to panic. I could not stop. I went racing past my friends and was yelling for help. I was holding on so tight and tears were coming to my eyes. I was nearly at the front of the group where all the proficient riders were. I went hurtling past them all. HELP! Fortunately one of the guides accompanying the group managed to catch up with us, calm the horse down and we stopped. My heart was pounding in my chest and my legs were like jelly / jello! It turned out the saddle strap had been loose and had been hitting the horse against the leg. My cries and screams had not helped the situation as the horse took this as a sign to go faster. Stupid horse! I was very relieved to get back to the Ger camp alive (although sunburnt) and I remember our local guide coming up to me and saying that I had very good technique!!! After this experience, I really did not know whether to take her remark as a compliment or not!

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