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