Tuesday, December 29, 2009


In the fall of 2001 I was invited on a trail ride in Mexico by a friend. I'd never been on an organised riding vacation and in the wake of all the chaos of my husband's death my children pressed me to accept the chance to take this holiday. It was not a commercial trip, but a group of friends and acquaintances who were traveling to Morelia in central Mexico to ride most of the way between Morelia and Uruapan, through the volcanic mountains and green countryside. It was a lovely trip and opened my eyes to equestrian tourism.

I'd been riding in Egypt for over ten years at that time and had seen the kind of riding that was available to tourists here. Most people would get cornered by one of the horse touts at the pyramids of Giza and if they were lucky would sort of toddle around in a circle....or if they were unlucky they would be chased raggedly over the desert hanging desperately onto a 50 year old saddle on a 3 year old horse. It wasn't a pretty picture at all. I had been riding in the countryside near the pyramids of Abu Sir for some time and thought that it would be interesting for other people to ride there too.

When I returned from Mexico I began thinking about what I would need to be able to take people out on my horses. The first thing was training, quite obviously to me. The thought of someone having an accident on one of my ponies horrified me, so I began testing them out with a variety of situations. They were already fine with diesel pumps, sheep flocks, hanging laundry and cars, but I gradually expanded the range of experience. I also had two four and five year old geldings to bring along into the group, so we worked each of them with one of the older horses to allow them to learn by observation the proper trail etiquette. With at first four horses and then gradually a few more, I developed a string of horses who I felt confident in offering to paying clients. I was blessed with my first clients who were the wife and daughter of the then Belgian ambassador to Egypt. Nathalie and Pauline had a wonderful sense of adventure and over the years became friends much more than riding clients. A good friend of mine who has a local travel agency advised me not to advertise too much as I would end up too busy too fast and not be able to deal with it. Good advice, but I did build my website.

Over the next few years things changed gradually for me. I realised that with the children gone to study and work in the US the huge house in Maadi was simply too big for me. I rented it out and moved to the area near the pyramids of Abu Sir where I was keeping my horses on some rented land. I also began a serious hunt for some land that I could buy so that the horses and I would be in one place. I found 2.5 feddan (roughly 2.5 acres) only a few metres from my rented house and over 18 months built a small house for me and paddocks for my horses, who now numbered roughly twelve. We were working fairly steadily, but fortunately I wasn't having to depend on my income from the riding to support the horses and myself. I was thrilled when our income almost covered our expenses, but that wasn't all that often. Growing pains can really be painful.

Fast forward about six years and things have seriously changed. I now have over twenty horses at the farm, many of them gifts from people who had a special horse that they couldn't bear to sell when they had to leave Egypt. They've moved into the herd gradually and joined the group. I've had a few babies born and have two three-year olds and three two-year olds. Word of mouth has been good to me. Many of my local clients are from the various embassies and international businesses in Cairo, many of them are women who appreciate being able to ride in a place where no one is hitting on them, where they can totally relax and enjoy the experience. I do beginner rides for the Community Services Association to introduce novices to trail riding, work with some local schools' riding clubs and take visitors to Egypt who find me through guide books or my website out riding.

Then last fall I was contacted by Wendy Hofstee of Unicorn Trails who wanted to come to the farm to ride and talk about equestrian tourism. After years of not being able to work in Egypt, they were looking for someone to work with and my work seemed to please them. So last week I had my first group of clients. From one end of the system, a client, to the other, an operator, in a few years. And it is a major change.

As a client my experience was all about laughs, comradeship and fun on the trail. I was riding a sweet little ranch mare for the 8 days of riding and the pace was leisurely to say the least. I don't think we broke into a trot more than a couple of times, but then the tour leader was a gentleman of 92 years of age who rode every day but one. Slow was fine because there was so much to see and enjoy. As an operator, the experience is somewhat more stressful. I'm watching my horses prior to a trip to be sure that they are sound. We check saddles and pads to be sure that the tack is going to be comfortable for the horses and riders...but the horses are more important from my point of view. We adjust the feed to accommodate the increase in work. I try to combine horses and riders to make happy combinations for the week. While we are riding, I'm watching the horses and riders to make sure that everyone is doing all right. Considering that a tour involves over 20 hours of riding and about 150 km of trail in 6 days, that is rather a lot of work. At the end of the week, I'm in bed at about 8 pm for a twelve hour stretch. But would I miss it? Not for anything.

copyright 2009 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, December 07, 2009

Sugar Foot

It was shoeing day today...well, not actually shoeing because most of my horses are barefoot. Our footing here is quite nice for horses being sand and dirt for the most part. My farriers are two young men who learned their trade from my old farrier, who while he isn't so aged himself has had to retire due to brain cancer. A number of Omar's clients banded together a few years ago to arrange to have him trained by visiting farriers, so Shaban and Abdel Halim have a real advantage.

Currently I have a friend from Canada staying with me who has been working with vets and farriers for years, so Paddi offered to help out with the boys to work on their barefoot trimming. In the process, we found that one of my three year olds, a sweet chestnut mare, had an abscess in her left hind foot. Paddi directed Abdel Halim to cut down to the edge of the abscess and then had us prepare a thick mixture of white sugar and betadine to draw out the infection. This gooey concoction was slathered on the bottom of the foot over the abscess, which was already starting to drain, and then a thick cotton pad was placed over the entire sticky mess.

Prior to putting on the betadine/sugar mix, Paddi had made up a patch made up of strips of the horseman's best friend, duct tape, which she had stuck to her jeans. This was then pulled off the jeans and slapped onto the cotton to hold it in place and to protect it while the mare walked around.

The duct tape should protect the cotton padding on the bottom of the foot and the cotton padding puts pressure on the abscess encouraging it to drain. The betadine and sugar mixture is an antimicrobial addition. Sugar isn't usually thought of in terms of fighting germs, but the entired concept of jams and preserves is based on the fact that sugar draws all of the moisture out of any invading organisms keeping the fruit fresh. If you ever look at a very old jar of jam in the fridge, the only place you will see mold is at the very edges of the mix where the sugar is most dilute.

After the patch was installed over the cotton padding, duct tape was wound around the hoof to keep it in place and to provide another layer of protection. Once the foot was deemed to be sufficiently bandaged, the mare carefully placed it on the ground and walked rather gingerly in her new silver footwear to the paddock. Tomorrow we will change the bandages and inspect the abscess to see how the drainage is progressing. Amazing, the uses of sugar these days!

copyright 2009 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Equestrian Consciousness Raising

I'm working through a mass of information, inspiration, and thought. I was lucky enough to have a friend of a friend come to stay at my farm to give some clinics in balanced riding, saddle fitting and ground work. To say the least, this encounter has provided food for thought on a number of fronts. I'd like to clarify something first: I've had horses for about twenty years now, all of them in Egypt. I took proper riding lessons from about the age of eight to twelve and all the riding that I've done since then has been without proper supervision other than 18 months of informal dressage lessons that I took with a friend about 13 years ago. I've been out of touch with virtually all the equestrian trends in North America for as long as I've owned horses. At the same time, my academic background in social psychology and interest in animal behaviour has been very useful in helping my horses to teach me about them. Perhaps other people might not have found so much revelation in this learning experience, but then other people aren't writing this blog.

One of the basic points that really knocked me over was the fact that horses were never made for people to ride them. That may seem truly elementary, but to a genetically horse-mad person like myself it was like a bolt of lightning. Our clinician, Zsuzsu Illes, was explaining the theory behind saddle construction to a group of us with a drawing on one of my horses. The back of the horse is like a suspension bridge, to quote Zsuzsu, created to carry the belly of the horse underneath the spine. The musculature of the back is there to provide locomotion to the horse, not to carry the sometimes considerable weight of a rider. The saddle is intended to spread the rider's weight across the back so as not to harm the horse.

Every so often one runs across an idea that knocks the years of experience for a loop. The thought that horses were not created to be ridden was one of those. Oh, I know that horses were domesticated over centuries and that riding as a discipline has developed over the centuries, but somewhere inside my soul was a horse-mad little girl who "just knew" that horses existed to be ridden. In fact, when examined seriously and without the madness, the concept that riding a horse is a somewhat unnatural act has a lot of evidence and induces wonder at the kindness of these large creatures who willingly place themselves at our beck and call. But I recall watching my last crop of youngsters starting out to carry riders. They'd been introduced to everything but a steady pressure on their backs and they were very calm for experiencing their first time under saddle. However, their steps were tentative and it was clear that one of the issues was one of balance, not so much their own alone, but that of the rider on their backs.

Recalling the horses' concerns for their ability to balance with a rider on their backs, and the design of saddles that rest on the muscles for the locomotion for the horse, the realisation of the importance of saddle fit hit me like a truck. Up to that point, the question of saddle fit had been something that I would skirt gingerly like an angry snake. In a country where virtually every saddle has been imported by someone who never had a chance to try it on a horse, what were the odds that all of my saddles would be shown to cripple my horses? Very scary thought. But Zsuzsu put my fears to rest to the extent that she could.

I have about 19 riding horses (and some youngsters still not under saddle) and about 10 saddles. Ideally, each horse and rider would have a saddle that is perfect for the combination of the two. But I have many people riding my horses so the best that I can do is try to have each horse have at least one saddle that fits him/her relatively well. After spending a couple of days trying saddles on horses, I can say that I have one saddle that doesn't fit anyone at all, and a number of horses who can use a variety of saddles with varying degrees of success. The trick to this lies in the gazillion pads that we already had on hand and the three new ones that I bought from Zsuzsu. Almost none of my saddles are perfect, but with the right combinations of pads, we reach a decent level of comfort. Considering that three of the saddles were expensive American custom fit endurance saddles (the saddlemaker fit the horses herself on a visit here years ago), one might hope for at least three horses with a perfect fit, but horses, just like us, change shape over time and now these saddles don't fit perfectly.

As we moved on to the riding clinics I found more saddle fit revelations. I was aware of pinching, rubbing, and so on as issues in saddle fit but I hadn't thought about the way that a saddle could balance or unbalance a rider. As the clinic photographer I had plenty of time to notice and think about the issues that Zsuzsu brought up. Like myself, the riders who came were people who had either bought new saddles in the hopes that they would fit existing horses or they were people who had found used saddles that more or less fit their horses. The fit could be fiddled with the right kinds of pads, but in many cases the effect on the rider of a saddle that wasn't really the right one for the horse or the rider was unfortunate. A jumping style saddle could affect the balance pulling the rider's knee forward until the heels were no longer under the hips, creating an imbalance. If the seat of the saddle was too small, or tipped the rider either forward or back, the same thing could happen.

I ride horses a lot. It's how I make my (and my horses') living. But I have never really thought as much about how I ride as I did during those two weeks with Zsuzsu. It was rather like surviving a mental tsunami. When she and I went out for a ride for fun, I started laughing about half an hour into the ride and told her she'd ruined riding for me because now I was thinking about all the things that I was doing wrong. I was only partly kidding. Nothing could ruin riding for me. It's my sanity, my joy, and I'm most alive when I'm in the saddle...to say nothing of the fact that only there do my arthritic knees not bother me. And it wasn't a bad thing to bring myself back to the consciousness that my horses were not created to carry me, although they do so very willingly, and that it is therefore my responsibility to make their work as pleasant and painless as possible.

copyright 2009 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Monday, June 29, 2009

The World Is Smaller Now

A couple of months ago I was contacted by the Longriders Guild, an organisation of people who do long distance horse treks, exploring our world in an old fashioned way in this age of cars and planes. To become a Longrider, one has to complete an authenticated trip of over one thousand miles on horseback, no mean accomplishment. I'd love to be one, but I don't really see it in the cards at this point. I've followed the Guild on their website for a number of years and have corresponded with riders who have traveled through Egypt. Basha and CuChullaine O'Reilly have built a phenomenal data base of riders who have accomplished these long rides through history and the present, created a publishing company for books about equestrian travel, manage a marvelous source of information for prospective travelers, and along the way get to do some traveling themselves...planning a round the world trip on horseback in the near future.

The Guild's reason for contacting me recently, since I'm not a Longrider, was to get my take on an event that they had been consulted about by a company that specialises in adventure tourism. The Adventurists, a British tourism company, has previously specialised in signing up people who were willing to buy a trashed out car in one part of Africa to make their way in a quasi-rally to another part. Since the company makes a serious show of NOT supplying support for the people who sign up...after all, the danger is all part of the fun, don't you know?...this is a "vacation" for the seriously addicted to adrenaline. But this winter, The Adventurists decided to branch out a bit and to offer a new holiday...a thousand mile horserace in Mongolia! They were looking to the Longriders Guild for help and support. My initial response was that these people were utterly out of their minds. How were people going to care for the horses? Did they realise how small Mongolian ponies are? A car enthusiast can fix a radiator if it breaks, but no one can fix a lame or sick horse. I really couldn't believe that they were serious.

Needless to say this support was not forthcoming. The situation that has been set up is that about 25 participants have paid roughly $5 thou each for the privilege of being landed in Mongolia where a charity who will receive a hefty donation has apparently rounded up 800 Mongolian ponies for the use of the participants in a thousand mile race across the Mongolian steppes. When the Guild first told me that the Adventurists were planning this, my return email suggested was that it was totally insane and being an optimist, I couldn't see how this would ever get off the ground. The course is utterly littered with landmines..figuratively speaking.

I live in Egypt and take horses trekking in some relatively inhospitable areas, from a horse's point of view, so some of the problems that I could see with the plan were those of language (how are these travelers going to communicate with anyone that they might meet or need assistance from? Each one is traveling alone and in competition with the others.), terrain (the area is without roads, signposts or even many settlements and Mongolia isn't precisely known for its balmy climate), experience (experienced horsemen look at an "opportunity" like this and laugh while walking away...most of these people are novices). And finally, my experience seeing what can happen in long distance races for a cash purse made me pray that the project would never get off the ground. Back in 2000 to 2002 when the UAE was making a huge push to introduce the sport of endurance racing to many of the countries in the Middle East and North Africa, there were many races for sizeable purses in countries where the locals had no idea of what was involved in traveling on a horse for a distance of over about 10 miles....and many, many, many dead horses during and after the races.

Emails have been flying back and forth for a number of months while we all waited for The Adventurists to suddenly regain sanity regarding this race, but this has not happened. Apparently the race is on, the participants have ponied up their entrance fee (to use an unforgivable pun) and possibly the biggest equestrian disaster to hit the news in recent time is in the offing. No efforts have been made for this to be sanctioned under international rules with the appropriate supervision by stewards and vets. In a serious endurance race, it is required that horses pass a veterinary check at the beginning, the end, and at stages throughout the race, generally not more that 25 miles apart. The horses' condition is of the utmost concern and if the horse is not fit to continue the rider and horse are disqualified. There are NO veterinarians involved in this project at all. A group of relatively inexperienced riders are on their own.

I would suggest that you go to the website linked to the title of this post to see the research that the Guild has conducted in their efforts to convince The Adventurists that while dropping off clueless auto enthusiasts in uncomfortable places might endanger the humans involved, they have no right to endanger the horses of Mongolia in this way. There are a number of petitions that can be signed, letters that can be sent. We are all hoping that someone with a degree of sense will block this madness. The world is a smaller place now and we are all responsible for it.

Read http://www.thelongridersguild.com/mongolia.htm

copyright 2009 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Window Shopping

The EAO, Egyptian Agricultural Organisation, is the inheritor of the Royal Egyptian Stud and a repository of bloodlines for the Egyptian Arabian horse. Roughly four hundred horses share big shady paddocks under the eucalyptus trees in Ain Shams, just outside of Heliopolis, an area that once was farmland but now, like much of Cairo, is crowded with apartment buildings. The horses there can trace pedigrees back a couple of hundred years to the deserts of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq. Much of the original blood stock was collected during military campaigns during the 1800's, during buying expeditions of the same time, or as gifts to the Egyptian monarchy.

After the revolution, the new military rulers of Egypt were not convinced that a national stud was a necessity and the private studs were considered decadent. Some of the horses in private studs were dispersed to to carters and carriage drivers, only to be discretely bought back by friends of the original owners so as not to lose the valuable bloodlines. Eventually, the new rulers of Egypt were persuaded that the horses were part of the national heritage, but the budget for the EAO has never been generous. During the 60's and 70's many of the best horses at the EAO were bought by foreigners who were establishing stud farms in North America and Europe. At some point I'm not sure when, it was decided that horses at the EAO would only be sold at auction to ensure that local breeders would have an equal chance (depending on their budgets of course) to purchase as the foreign breeders would have. Sometimes the auctions are only stallions, sometimes mares, and sometimes both are represented. This January the sale was for both mares and stallions.

I wasn't in the market for horses, not having anything like the budget for these bluebloods, but some friends wanted to go and watch the auction for a while, so we all packed into the jeep to window shop. The auction attracts horse lovers of every type. Men, women, locals, foreigners, wealthy breeders and much less wealthy stable owners...everyone gathered around a large paddock to watch mares, stallions, fillies, and colts showing off for the crowd while bids flew. Some of the horses were destined for the race track, some for breeding farms, and others for family farms where they would be trained for riding.

The prices ranged from about 15 thousand Egyptian pounds (about USD 3 thousand) to over 200 thousand Egyptian pounds that I saw bid for a lovely chestnut mare in foal to one of the EAO stallions. She was one that I would have loved to have added to my herd, but it was not to be. The event was covered by Egyptian television with a jeans-clad interviewer wandering the grounds talking to buyers, breeders and EAO officials for the camera.

We didn't stay for the entire sale. There were horses at home to take care of and the Cairo traffic wasn't going to be kind...it never is. As we left the stud we walked past the empty paddocks with the huge round feeding stands in the center and wondered about the futures of the horses we had been watching all afternoon.

copyright 2009 Maryanne Stroud Gabbani