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Published: Monday, 8/24/2009

Equestrian adventurers raising awareness of lost art

A FASCINATING couple came to Toledo for a brief private visit last week. Those of you who are interested in long-distance horse travel would know CuChullaine and Basha O'Reilly, also known as Asadullah and Aesha Khan. In the equestrian world, their names are up there with legends, current and past. In this specialized field, anyone who has traveled more than 1,000 miles on horseback qualifies for membership in the exclusive club.

An inherent love of horses and a keen sense of adventure took Mr. O'Reilly, then in his early 20s, to Afghanistan in the late 1970s. He rode all over the country and, when the Soviet Union invaded in 1979, he returned to America to study journalism. He accepted an offer from Boston University to teach journalism to the Afghan mujahideen and ended up in the frontier town of Peshawar.

It was in Peshawar, a cross between Casablanca and Dodge City, that he came across what he called "the swirling cocktail of turbaned freedom fighters, tight-lipped foreign mercenaries, nave foreign aid workers, cruel Pathan warlords, and more spies than ever lurked in Berlin."

During his two years in Peshawar, he made forays into the remote tribal areas of the wild western frontier of Pakistan where honor, deceit, hospitality, and religion rule side by side. From the back of a horse, he peered into the secretive underworld of prostitution, drugs, and guns, and came face to face with death on more than one occasion.

Upon his return to the United States, he wrote Khyber Knights, his seminal autobiographical novel, that takes readers on an extraordinary adventure, most of it on horseback, from fabled bazaars to the remote mountainous region of northern Pakistan, with an involuntary side trip to the notorious Rawalpindi jail, where he languished on trumped-up charges of narcotic possession.

Once you accompany CuChullaine O'Reilly on his true-life adventures you will be compelled to stay with him until he dismounts at the end of the story.

All this would have been enough for an ordinary soul but not for the restless and idealistic Mr. O'Reilly. He created the Long Riders' Guild and started the Long Riders' Press, which has published in excess of 200 travel-related books, including reprints of old classical equestrian travel books that had faded into oblivion.

Five-years ago, he met his match in the person of Basha, an elegant lady of Russian-French-German ancestry. A horsewoman since age 3, Basha is a long-distance equestrian in her own right. In 1995, she traveled 2,500 miles on horseback from Volgograd to London. Later she rode all 1,500 miles of the infamous Outlaw Trail from Mexico to Wyoming.

After a short electronic romance, they wed five years ago in London. Together they have put all their efforts and energies into equestrian travel and have been preparing for a 12,000-mile world ride that would take two years. They plan to follow the broad band of grass that circles the globe north of the celestial equator and is commonly referred to as the equestrian equator.

Their journey will start in Paris at the Eiffel Tower, pass through Germany, Austria, Hungary, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and northwest Siberia. They will then fly to North America to travel the breadth of Canada and then fly back to Scotland, pass through southern England, and end their ride at the Eiffel Tower.

They plan to use the same horses throughout the journey. Instead of extra pack horses, they will have a support vehicle to carry electronic equipment and food for the animals.

In addition to the usual activities of conducting their equestrian related business by the Internet, they will also be charting a GPS map of their travel and collecting hair samples from all the known breeds of horses they come across. The idea is to develop an international genetic registry of horses.

Both husband and wife are converts to Islam. But unlike many other converts, they practice a relaxed and totally nonjudgmental version of religion. One of the fundamental goals of their world ride is to draw attention to the philosophy of Sulah-e-Kul, peace and goodness toward all, as espoused by the great Mughal Emperor Akbar, who ruled India in the later half of the 17th century.

The O'Reillys believe that by riding virtuously one can impact the communities and societies one passes through. This is borne out by history and also by their personal experiences. It is, in essence, promotion of the brotherhood of man both between individuals and nations. They are the mounted messengers of peace, who are open-minded toward the rich cultural and religious traditions they expect to encounter on their ride.

In an era where long-distance horse travel has become a thing of the past, and where horse and man meet only at horse races or equestrian competitions, this unusual couple is bringing the lost art of this time-honored and tested pastime to public consciousness. And they are doing it with the purity of heart and purpose.

Dr. S. Amjad Hussain is a retired Toledo surgeon whose column appears every other week in The Blade.

Contact him at: aghaji@bex.net



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