Monday, November 7, 2011

More of Africa

In addition to the amazing wildlife we encountered in Kenya, the horses we rode made the trip just as memorable. Their resilience, willingness, bravery and toughness will stick with me always. In my previous two blogs I told you how we crossed the Mara river between groups of hippos and were charged by elephants. Through it all the horses were keenly vigilant but never panicked or fled. It was on our third and fourth day that the full scope of their toughness was revealed.

After spending 2 nights camping on the escarpment with breathtaking vistas from the top and long rides that included galloping with Zebras and Wildebeest, we descended the escarpment to traverse the long grass plains for Lion Camp. Our travel across the plains was filled with encounters with all measure of gazelle, antelope, giraffe, cape buffalo and wonderful herds of elephants that were thankfully not aggressive. It had rained hard the day before so the air and sky were so clear and bright and everything had that fresh, after the rain smell.

Our original plan was to cross the river a fourth time but when we reached the river it was significantly deeper and the current very swift. In addition the hippos were in abundance and were bobbing in water right in the part of the river with banks safe enough to cross. Tristan, our guide, started across to test the depth while the rest of were staring at the hippos in terror.

Within feet of leaving the bank, Tristan’s horse was up to his neck in the water. Tristan quickly turned back and we scrapped the river crossing much to everyone’s relief even though in meant adding 10 miles or better to our ride before reaching Lion Camp. Let’s see a longer ride and sore behind versus drowning in the Mara River – a no brainer.

Our long way around to the bridge crossing was uneventful and at times even a bit boring. The horses didn’t blink at walking across a concrete bridge with no rails over the rushing Mara River. I don’t think I could get my horses to walk up to that bridge, let alone cross it without freaking out. After the bridge the scenery once again turned beautiful with green grass dotted by trees and an abundance of wild life. After cautiously passing another herd of elephants, Tristan and his son Archie spotted lions in the rocks of a small hill.

As we rode within range I was amazed when Tristan and Archie casually rode within feet of the lions lying amidst the rocks. Tristan knew the lions well, they were several adolescent males and an young female that Tristan had watched grow up over the seasons of bringing Safaris to this camp. The young lions were keenly interested and seemed to be in a crouch position but neither Tristan, Archie or the horse’s seemed to be concerned. Archie and Tristan beckoned for the rest of us to ride closer so I timidly asked my horse Sage to step toward them. Sage moved forward obediently completely undaunted by the proximity of predators in front of her.

The fact that the lions were apparently not hungry, they were used to the presence of people and horses and that the horses showed no fear, we were able to stand safely admiring the lions for several minutes from only a few feet away. We encountered the same pride of lions 2 mornings after with the same disinterested reaction from both lion and horses. This experience cemented my respect for the horses especially considering we witnessed this same pride of lions takedownand devour an Impala the next evening.

The weather here in California has turned to winter far too soon for my taste and horses are acting silly and spunky to say the least. Halloween weekend I started to shave my competition horses like every year and within days the temperature went from 80 degree days to 50 degree days and night lows in the 40s. As a result, my new horse Uiver started to spook at phantom demons, horse eating leaves and jackets on railings that were near to eat him. This got me thinking. Why is it that my prissy show horses go bonkers and become paranoid at a simple change of season and the horses in Africa stoically and calmly deal with deluges of rain, wind, swimming rivers, extreme terrain and standing within feet of a lion. What is it that made the instincts of the same species so different on different continents.
The horses that we rode in Africa were a variety of breeds. Most were thoroughbreds, mostly from Argentina, and some had Arab and Irish draft breeding. My Thoroughbred can be stoic and sensible about some things but let a bird fly with 10 feet and he will come unglued. So what do you think? Is it survival instincts, de-sensitization, feed, training that make the horses so different.


Laura Crum said...

I have a theory for you, Terri. My two trail horses, Henry and Sunny, behave much like your African horses. They would have crossed that bridge, no problem. I can't say about lions, but they are very used to deer, coyotes, and bobcats, and never spook at them, also birds of any sort. Henry and Sunny are both ex team roping horses, and as such had to get used to whirling ropes, charging cattle...etc. Sunny came from old Mexico, where they treat horses much as they do in Africa (based on what I know). To be frank, I think that horses that are carefully babied their whole lives just don't have the tools for dealing with adversity (this isn't meant as an insult, just a statement of fact). My own horses are experiencing the same shift in weather you describe (I live on the California coast just a little north of you) and though they buck and play in their corrals, they are still stoic and well behaved under saddle. They just have a different wok ethic. But they could not perform high level dressage movements--not even close. I think that if you wanted to find a tough, solid horse, like you rode in Africa, you could do it easily, but you might have to treat it a little differently than you treat your horses if you wanted to keep that work ethic in place. No box stalls, lots of riding outside, for instance. Just my thoughts.

Terri Rocovich said...

I agree with you 100% Laura and I know that I am very guilty of enabling my horses babied behavior and I am much tougher than most in the dressage community. My horses live out unless the weather is bad (I don't like box stalls) and I will sternly correct a horse for spooking, especially if it is something silly.

My biggest dilemma is a lack of good, safe trails to ride on. (I would kill to have your trails and open areas.)I want to ride my horses out in the open more but need safer trails to do it on. Everything by me is along streets with cars and trucks wizzing past or horrible footing. In some areas we have to ride on the asphalt which can be a recipe for desaster. I do have hills nearby that we try to go to when I can get a group together but it is not safe to ride there alone.

I do de-sensitivity training on all the babies like walking over tarps, plastic bags, cans etc. but I hesitate to do this with the older show horses that come in for fear of injury.

I am open for all suggestions. Thanks for the input.

Linda said...

I agree with Laura. I think horses that are rode a lot by confident riders and used in a variety of settings to "work" are generally desensitized to about anything, but that really is amazing to see lions so close and the horses so unbothered. I'm very impressed.

Linda Benson said...

Terri - I just have to comment on this set of pictures. Magnificent! Riding with a herd of zebras - and close to lions - how totally amazing! And the picture of elephants captured between the horse's ears is a prize winner. Wow. Thank you for sharing!

Laura Crum said...

Terri--I loved the photos, too. That is you on the gray horse, correct?

Laura Crum said...

As for the trails, I have to cross a busy road to get to my "home" trails, but it is a straight crossing, I do not have to ride along the road, which I would find too dangerous. There are trails near our practice roping arena, and we ride those, but we do haul to get to the arena. Most folks around here must haul to some park or other to get to trails. Don't you have that option where you are? I do not like riding on pavement, either, but will do it for brief sections. Its safer if the horse is barefoot.

Terri Rocovich said...

Thanks for the comments and yes that is me on the white grey. It was the trip of a lifetime and I miss it yet get excited everytime I look at the photos. In 2 years we are planning another trip to Kenya, Botswana and maybe Rhwanda to see the Gorillas before they are gone.

Laura, I can haul out to trails and after reading your comment I am going to make a concerted effort to do it more often. I do think my horses will be better for it.

Glad everyone liked the photos. Some I took and some were taken by a photographer who was with us on the trip.

Alison said...

Hi Terri, I am commenting late, but wanted to thank you for sharing your experience and photos--they are incredible!

Weighing in on the horses--I have friends from Vermont, which is big on Warmbloods and eventing. They had two gorgeous horses with spectacular movements, but finally had to give them up because any work on the trail or outside an arena ended up being dangerous--and believe me, they tried. My feeling is when horses are bred for elegance and show performance, they possess qualities that are not usually conducive to trail riding. (I've never read an article called "Fun Trail Riding with Warmbloods"!) As Laura mentioned, most good solid trail horse doesn't possess the flash for the show ring. But good luck with your trail riding--and STAY SAFE!

Francesca Prescott said...

Terri: I think you were incredibly brave to go on an adventure like this! Althugh I'd love to, I don't know whether I'd have the guts to actually go. I've loved reading about your trip, and really enjoyed your photographs,too! How amazing to have been so close to lions!

Regarding warmbloods/showhorses on trail rides, like Alison I also tend to believe that they're generally not very well suited to it. Of course, then it depends on the individual horse: Kwintus, my now retired dressage horse, was fine on trai rides. He hardly ever spooked, didn't get worked up about stuff. His only problem was that he stumbled.

Qrac isn't an ideal trail horse, although I'm sure he'll become better suited to the trails as his schooling improves and he becomes more confident. Also, to become a good trail horse, horses need to, well, do trails! And since my focus is more on dressage, I'm obviously going to spend more time in the arena. If Qrac just did trails I'm pretty certain he'd be cool about them very quickly, especially the ones he gets to know like the back of his..hoof!