British-born Felicia and her Kenyan husband Gordie run Safaris Unlimited, an extraordinary horseback safari among the wildlife of the Masai Mara in Kenya. We catch up with Felicia, a brilliant equestrian, inventive chef and a mother of two toddlers to get an insight into her incredible life doing what she loves: Horse Riding in Kenya’s wilderness.
Author: Felicia Church
A Youth Spent Galloping in Leicestershire County
I grew up on a farm in the hunting-shooting verdant countryside of Leicestershire where my parents bred and raced horses. With my brothers, who went on to become professional polo players, we spent our childhood at the farm surrounded by animals. That is, when we were not off unleashed, galloping in the beautiful surrounding countryside.
I went on to work in the racing industry at the yearling sales. On New Year’s Eve of 2009, as I was about to start work on a new yard, a girlfriend said I must go and help out her good friend Gordie in Kenya. He desperately needed help running his wildlife horseback safari, a venture that had been going on for two generations. I sent Gordie an email, without a clue what I was getting into. I received an answer the next morning saying “I need you here in four days.”
Kenya under my skin
I knew that my responsibilities would include helping with guests and horses but that was it. I was looking forward to being briefed on arrival and meeting Gordie. But I was in for another surprise – the minute I had arrived he disappeared off to climb Mount Kenya. The only instruction I got was “Make sure none of the horses gets eaten by lions.”
It took about 5 weeks (or two safaris!) for us to fall in love with each other. I suspect that he initially saw me as just another ‘gappy’ (gap year volunteer). Having just broken up with his girlfriend, dating was the last thing on his mind. Also, he happened to be 19 years older than me. But I made him laugh.
I remember calling my Mum to say that I’d fallen for a man much older. She told me to go for it, adding that she herself had had a fantastic adventure with an older man in Kenya!
A Family Legacy
Interestingly, both my Mother and Grandmother have left their marks on the Kenyan highlands. There are still amazing stories about my Grandmother travelling through the hillside communities; how she won the Timau Cross Country race in 1939 and tales of an intrepid hunter returning to her embrace between expeditions.
Later on, my mother became the first woman to raft the Mara River. She even happened to have one of the original brochures of “Safaris Unlimited,” which was started by Gordie’s father in 1971.
But four months after I arrived Gordie sent me home. He thought I was making the wrong choice, especially with regards to our age difference. I was never worried, however. I just knew it was meant to be.
Two months later, he sent me a letter asking me to come back.
We were married in the bush in 2014.
Improving the bloodline of horses in Kenya
We live in the foothills of Mount Kenya where we keep the horses when we are not on safari. We have between 25-30 horses, depending on our needs. There are only 3,000 horses in Kenya and probably not more than 4,000 horses in the whole of East Africa.
One of my main aims in Kenya is helping to improve blood lines and the quality of the horses that we have here. We do this by supporting Sirai Stud. A brilliant stud run by a very talented women importing stallion semen from all over the world.
On safari we now have a fantastic selection of breeds including Thoroughbreds, an Arab cross, a warmblood cross, a Friesian and Boerped cross, Friesian and Percheron cross and a Boerped. Boerperd horses were originally bred to be warhorses so they are quite highly strung and very forward going. Our horses are truly amazing. I have so much admiration and love for them. They are our family, our crew. A safari wouldn’t exist without them.
Running a horse riding safari operation in Kenya
In the day, the horses stay in areas fenced with electric lines. It’s not rare to see a lion roam around. Luckily, they don’t usually hunt in the day. At night, on safaris, they stay on picket lines. We need to be careful which horse we put at each end of the line – the nervous ones tend to lose a lot of condition if we’re not careful. So we keep the more confident, relaxed ones at the ends.
The safari horse is, by definition, a truly incredible horse. Not only do they have to cope with different styles of riding, long journeys, picket lines, variable conditions but with wildlife too. Training to become a safari horse requires a lot of time and patience. I am a great believer that a horse learns from the older horses in the herd – a human just interferes. When they see that the other horses are not reacting they start to relax. If the leaders hold firm the rest will follow. That’s why we don’t push new horses towards the wildlife – we just sit quietly and wait.
The trails are always evolving so we are forever fine-tuning them. We mainly ride in the private conservancies outside the game reserve which tend to get crowded, whereas the conservancies are exclusive. These are incredible areas that have been chosen by the Masai owners to protect the wildlife and their cattle.
I’ve had to learn how to administer an IV
From the outside, our life looks very exotic. But in reality, life in Kenya, and in Africa in general, is very tough. The main issue is losing horses – we lose on average 1 horse per year, mainly to diseases. (Luckily, there is a fantastic group of women who have come up with a vaccine against African Horse Sickness.) There are only five equine vets in the whole country. Over time, I’ve had to learn how to administer an IV, I’ve also learned how to stitch a wound.
We have a staff of 6 people just for the horses and a total of 22 for the safaris. We need to move 10-15 tons of material every 2 days – that’s a lot of work. It takes about 7-10 days to prepare for a horse riding safari. You can’t really buy anything in the Masai Mara so we must have everything we need for 10-12 days in the bush. I have to order all the food, make sure everything is fresh. We also need the horses’ feed, the vet kits. Then, of course, we need all the stuff for the kids who always come with us.
Our kids have been coming on safari since they were 3 months old
Our children, 4-year old Tyga and 16-months Thego have been coming with us on safari since they were 3 months old. They are part of the camp crew! I have two wonderful Kenyan nannies and I’ve been doing a bit of homeschooling until they go off to boarding school in a few years.
Before the kids arrived, Gordie and I made a pact that we would stay together as a family and that I’d continue coming along on safaris even with the children. It’s important for a family to hold together otherwise we end up spending too much time apart. It’s ok now, but I have to say it was quite the challenge last year when I was on safari with a 3-year-old and a 3 months old. The hardest part is the preparation though, so once the safari starts it does feel a bit like a holiday.
Seeing guests in tears of joy is the best reward
Despite all the challenges – and maybe thanks to the challenges – we have a very exciting life. We constantly feel very, very alive! No day is the same and we get to experience the most wonderful things, from an elephant walking by at sunrise to the drama of a horse falling sick.
It’s very touching to see our guests cry when they leave. They get very attached to their horses. You can often see that something changed in them, Africa changed them. As we say around here, they’ve got Kenya under their skin. It is extraordinary to be able to offer such an experience.
Being a woman boss
In Kenya, it’s not common for women to be bosses, although that is now changing. I love working with Kenyans – they are very kind, caring people. We are one of the only mobile safari companies to have female staff. One is in the kitchen ensuring that our guest get delicious fresh food three times a day (as well as mounting and dismounting the kitchen in between every time) and another helps set up the guests’ tents.
Managing everything can be quite a challenge. For instance, I’m about to go to Australia with Gordie without the kids for a few weeks to promote our safaris, that’s going to be hard. Luckily my wonderful mother will be here to help. Recently we also took some guests for a safari in Argentina, where I used to live.
The pace never seems to stop! But I’ve been restricted recently because I’ve broken my leg after a silly fall from a horse. My healer said the horse did it on purpose to force me to rest! Otherwise, I’m constantly on the go.
As they say, “Make your comebacks stronger than your setbacks!”
To find out more about Felicia and Gordie’s life and the horse riding tours in Kenya, check out their website.
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