One adventuress shares how after 12 years out of the saddle she found her passion for horses once again… in Egypt of all places! She signed herself and her husband up for a horse riding holiday in Egypt and started taking riding lessons to prepare for the upcoming adventure. Follow along on their journey to the land of pyramids and pharaohs as they explore the ancient culture from between the horse’s ears.
Author: Codi Schneider
The Lure of Africa
The sand in Egypt varies depending on the mood of the desert. Sometimes she’s soft and forgiving; shifting beneath my horse’s hooves and promising to cushion me should I fall. Other times she’s rocklike and jagged; filled with the bleaching skeletons of camels, horses, and wild dogs.
I don’t want to fall.
But that doesn’t keep me from urging my horse faster and faster until we’re flying across the seemingly endless desert. Chasing the sun, battling the wind, finding joy. Something I’ve learned in life is that joy is a devious creature who often hides behind a thin veneer of risk. The slim chance of falling is worth the laughter echoing off the dunes.
The Kick I Needed
I never thought the lure of Africa would be the kick I needed to start riding again. It’d been twelve years since I’d sat in the saddle after all. Since I left for college, never expecting I wouldn’t have horses in my life again until I was thirty. I’d wanted to reignite the flame for years, but couldn’t seem to strike the match. What if I didn’t love horses as much as I used to? What if I’d changed so much that where I once found happiness, I would now find only disappointment?
But that’s the thing about horses isn’t it? Horses don’t change. They don’t stop giving love or peace or joy. They’re there for us always, even after we leave.
When I discovered African Horse Safaris and then through them, Ride Egypt, I knew it was now or never. I wanted to adventure the world on horseback so badly I ached. That void in me lifted its head and growled, refusing to be ignored.
So, I booked the trip.
And then panicked.
I wasn’t fit to ride. Surely my inner thighs were more akin to jello jigglers than muscles. Did I even remember the simplest things like how to properly hold the reins? People told me it would be like riding a bike. I used to ride all the time, they reminded me. I even had my own horse as a kid. Yes, but bikes don’t weigh 1,000 pounds and have minds of their own! I whisper-screamed in reply. On top of everything, my adventurous, athletic, animal-loving-but-terrified-of-horses husband was determined to come with me.
Seven months out from the trip, we both signed up for lessons at the only English riding stable in our valley. And risk unveiled joy.
Flying into Cairo was like flying into a city made of sand castles. There couldn’t possibly be enough grass for horses, even within the Nile river delta. Yet, horses filled the city. They pulled carts full of garlic, clover, wheat, and sugar cane. They carried tourists in flip flops to the Sphinx. And they danced to drums in the street, trained to do so with harsh bits and whips. Many, if not most, were slat-ribbed and scarred. Their bones poked from beneath their skin like coat hangers and flies cloaked their eyes. My husband and I wanted to help. We wanted to save them all.
Tourism in Egypt was hit hard after the uprising in 2011 and the economy suffered immensely. People could no longer afford expensive clover for their horses, yet they needed their horses to continue to work for them. The inevitable burden trickled down, as it always does, to the animals and they carried it in silence.
Not Only a Horse Riding Holiday in Egypt
While my husband and I weren’t in a position to save the horses, we saw on the streets, Ride Egypt and the stables they work with in Cairo are. They do rescue these horses and they nurse them back to health, retrain them, and show them how good life can actually be. Once defeated cart horses now gallop happily across the desert, snorting, neighing, and receiving love from an endless stream of equestrian adventurers. We were happy to put our money into this riding holiday. It wasn’t a gross exchange of money for pain. Of a tourist’s entertainment at an animal’s expense. It was a holiday created by horse lovers for horse lovers.
And let me whisper to you a little secret: the view of the Pyramids from between the twin canoes of your horse’s ears is breathtaking and utterly unique.
After three days of riding in the desert outside Cairo, we washed the dust from our mouths and hopped on a midnight plane. Filled with colorful turbans and hijabs and bright smiles, it flew an hour up the Nile to Luxor. There, city noises were replaced with puttering river boats and the swoosh of the wind through lemon and banana trees.
Taking a tuk-tuk from our inn overlooking the Nile to the stable, I shifted on the seat, completely saddle sore and completely happy. Honking and swerving around a mealy-looking fruit cart, I pondered the fact that adventure isn’t always comfortable. In fact, it rarely is. Adventure is moving within discomfort. It’s being completely immersed in the present moment and then it’s patting yourself on the back when you did something difficult or scary and made a memory to last a lifetime. It’s finding joy in the little things and awe in the epic.
Riding For three Days in Luxor Was a Sensory Buffet.
It was more village riding than desert and I learned that Egyptian horses are braver than American ones. Plastic bags floated about like dust motes and traffic (both car and donkey) zipped and zigzagged around us. Half-wild dogs chased us up the narrow streets and nipped at my horse’s fetlocks. Children bounced colorful balls beside muddy canals and herds of goats clogged intersections. Hercules, the little bay gelding I rode, took it all in stride. He was a perfect gentleman and my guide. It was clear he wanted me to have a good experience in his neighborhood and he moved thoughtfully through every pitfall and peril. If I could have ordered him a semi-load of carrots I would have. Then again, he ate extremely well at his stable already. He was such a good boy I think he’d have given his carrots to a street horse in need.
When we weren’t in the saddle, our time was spent touring historical places such as the Valley of the Kings, the Temple of Hatshepsut, and the Karnak Temple Complex. I loved every minute of it but was always happy to get back to our four-footed friends. Every day there was another gallop, another nicker, another melody of hooves clopping on hard packed earth.
The Red Sea
When our time in Luxor was over, we said a bittersweet farewell to our horses, hopped into a van, and drove three hours east to Hurghada. Situated on the shores of the Red Sea, Hurghada is a tourist town with very few tourists. It was almost eerie, driving through the plethora of beautiful resorts, a fair portion of which were lifeless. “Tourism in Egypt isn’t dead,” our driver told us. “Just sick.”
The place had a raw, unadorned beauty. A harshness wrapped in blue velvet that made a person want to stick to close to the sea. That’s where the life was. In fact, so much life fills the Red Sea it’s one of the best diving spots in the world. Witnessing this meeting of bright red sands and turquoise waters, we couldn’t wait to explore. Swimming with horses had been a dream of mine for as long as I could remember. Maybe it came from watching The Black Stallion or the desire to combine two of my favorite things: horses and water. Whatever the case, I was about to do it.
Swimming with Horses for The First Time
First, I prepared by slathering myself in coral safe, 50 SPF sunscreen. I always say I’m meant for the misty moors and burn like the nostrils of a gray mare. I only hoped I wouldn’t slide right out of the saddle on the ride from the stable to the sea. From there, we would untack and go bareback.
Arriving safely on an empty stretch of beach, we entered the warm, turquoise waters slowly. A layer of rock was sharp beneath the horse’s hooves and I thought again, that I didn’t want to fall. Not in that shallow water where flesh could be so easily pierced. Soon however, my white mare was neck deep, fish nibbling around her hooves, her alabaster mane floating like seaweed. And endless, open horizon stretched before us and then…lift-off. Her hooves came off the seabed and she was swimming. We were swimming, partners in a benign, watery crime.
A New Passion for Me and My Husband
Sharing whoops and grins with my husband, I pressed my calf gently against my mare’s side, guiding her to a sandbar where she could rest. Looking out at the rolling blue waves, I stroked her neck when she reached back to bump my foot happily with her nose. I could’ve easily not done this. The thought wriggled into existence. It actually would’ve been easier not to. I looked back at my husband who was on the sandbar beside me, his arms wrapped around the neck of his chestnut mare. He could’ve stayed afraid. It would’ve been easier for him to. Yet, instead, he’d stumbled bravely into a lifelong passion as well. For once you love horses, I’m pretty sure you can’t go back.
A camera was clutched in one of his hands and I had one attached to my head. Becoming equestrian adventurers had ignited another love: Filming. It was a love we already shared, but traveling the world on horseback gave us something exciting and unique to document. We’d been completely reinspired and knew when we sat down to edit our footage at home, we’d get to relive the trip again and then keep that memory rolling forever.
Risk Unveils Joy. Fear Blocks It.
One of the best decisions I ever made was booking a horse riding adventure to Africa and then walking into my local stable to relearn how to ride. It’s opened up so many doors. It’s given my husband and I shared passion. It has provided friendships with people all over the world we never would have met otherwise. It’s given us the peaceful, meditative love and friendship of countless horses. It’s introduced us to an equestrian community online and they’ve welcomed us with open arms.
We left Egypt changed. And we want to keep changing. India is next and we can’t wait to see how that experience and those people and horses change us again.
I suppose I could’ve sat on my couch and wondered. I could’ve saved some money and some hassle. But that’s not really living and I figure when the end of a person’s life comes, it’s the things they didn’t do rather than those they did that they’ll regret. Sometimes old loves need to be reignited.
Helping Horses in Egypt
Even if you can’t go to Egypt yourself, there are ways to help improve the lives of the horses there. Two ways are through the Brooke Animal Welfare Foundation, which first started in Egypt to help ex-warhorses left behind after WWI, and the Prince Fluffy Kareem charity, which helps working horses, donkeys, and camels by the Pyramids in Cairo.
My mare stepped off the sandbar and we swam again. Her head lifted above the swells and her hooves propelled us in a rocking swoop. I swallowed a mouthful of salt water and hacked it up, laughing she snorted. Looking at the ghost resorts on shore, I wished more people would come to Egypt. It’s a beautiful country with kind people and plenty of adventure. And for all the horse lovers out there, it’s a place with an abundance of horses in need of love.
Are you interested to read more fascinating stories about horse riding in Africa? Check out our other articles about safaris, volunteering and trekking on the African continent.