I didn’t know why I was going to Morocco, to ride a Berber Arabian stallion over 900 kilometres from the Sahara Desert to the Atlantic Ocean. I just knew I had to go. Perhaps the journey itself would reveal the almighty ‘why’, if there even was such a thing.
Opportunistic decisions had defined my life thus far, albeit as age crept up, and with a 50th birthday looming, I’d been trying to be more purposeful. If my time on the planet was getting shorter I wanted to ensure that the activities I chose – from the people I spent time with, to my work, the horses I owned, and adventures I selected – were the ones that were most meaningful to me. Whatever that meaning was.
So self-inviting myself onto a guided trip to a country I’d never visited, and whose participants had already been carefully vetted, wasn’t congruent with valuing my ever-shortening days on the Earth. But perhaps it was a collision of factors – like those accidental incidents that ensure an epic occurs – which led to my departure for a desert country 9 hours worth of time zones to the east. So what were those factors?
It was September in northwest British Columbia where I lived – a time when leaves were falling, cool air was swirling down from the arctic, winter preparations had started, and the last horseback rides up to subalpine before snow whited-out the high country were underway. I’d just returned from my first guided horseback ride through country as wild as I’d ever seen, and that experience had provided a taste of the possibilities and benefits (although drawbacks, too, but that’s another story) of sharing a trek into lesser-known countryside without the complications and challenges associated with taking my own horses. So suddenly guided trips weren’t something to avoid but instead an opportunity to embrace. That combination of winter on its way, not wanting the summer to end, and desire to continue riding and traveling by horseback through unknown country drove me to research riding trips around the world.
With a long list of Canadian and American destinations to experience with my own horses during the summer months, international trips needed to occur between September and April, when the northern winter precluded travel by horseback in the places I desired to visit. Morocco was a place my wanderlust had already identified as a country to visit and with affordable in-country costs, it seemed like a reasonable place to start my search for adventure. Serendipity and the vagaries of the internet dished up a tantalizing one-line description of a journey across Morocco in 2020. With nothing to lose and no details available about the journey, I fired off a quick email asking about the proposed trip and the potential to participate.
A few days later, a reply from the organizer – an American woman who organized small group horseback journeys of hardy adventurers to less-visited regions of the planet – replied. The trip was indeed planned, the participants had been selected, and there wasn’t space for another rider. Disappointed but undeterred, I confirmed my interest and sent her some information about myself in the event that one of the participants backed out. A few weeks later, I received a note that there was space on the trip for me if I wanted to go. Hell ya.
But purpose – or lack of it – has a way of creeping up on you. When life becomes difficult, energy is low, sleep is lacking, other priorities are on hold, and a mid-life birthday is looming, purpose suddenly seems paramount. So why did I want to go?
There were lots of reasons not to go. Guided journeys overseas are expensive in time, money, and the activities that are set aside to participate. However, I undoubtedly had an easier decision than some. I’m happily single with no children, by choice. My one horse is a feisty coming five-year-old who, although I’d prefer to continue training, would survive a six week layoff in winter quite nicely. My clients who I conduct contract work for, were supportive (and used to) my.periodic absences. Money is often in short supply, but rarely prevented activities that I felt were imperative. So I could go, I just wasn’t sure why I was going.
I didn’t know much about Morocco. I knew it was located between Europe and equatorial Africa, had a southwestern border under dispute, was home to the Atlas Mountains and was squished between the intimidating Sahara Desert and sandy coastal beaches of the Atlantic Ocean. I’d seen the movie Hidalgo, so had a Hollywoodized (read unrealistic) version of what riding across desert can entail. Other than that, I was unfamiliar with the Moroccan culture, history, language, and even the horses typical of the Indigenous peoples. Internet searches greyed-in some blanks but an understanding of the day-to-day living of the residents in small hamlets we’d be traveling through, eluded me in a way that was both disconcerting and comforting. Embracing the unknown was part of the journey and inevitably led to experiences and reflections untainted by expectations. However, understanding a bit of the history and culture of a new land often allows greater appreciation for those experiences rather than endless shallow tourist jolts of culture shock and awe. So my fairly unsuccessful research continued in an attempt to understand the basics of life in a country so climatically, historically and culturally different from my lived experience to date. But basically, I didn’t know much about where I was going. For some, that might be enough reason to go but I knew it was only a small piece of my puzzling search for purpose.
Certainly one of the reasons I wanted to go was my desire to ride a long way, all in one shot. Canada is the second largest country in the world and is blessed with a vast swath of Prairie lands across its southern middle. Riding that rolling prairie in sunshine with the wind blowing in my hair as my horse trotted along, badgers and foxes darted through long-stemmed grasses searching for mice and prairie dogs, and while birds I couldn’t name swooped overhead, was a longterm dream. As was the one that just about every other horse-crazy kid on long car rides had – galloping alongside the car, through ditches and over fences – an endless ride of miles and miles. But both those imaginings were just dreams, impossible to replicate in today’s world.
Plus as much as I loved riding the prairies and had multiple prairie rides with my own horses on my must-do list, wilderness mountain pack trips were the type of overland horse journeys that really grabbed me. I grew up hiking and camping in the wild mountains of western Canada and had spent the previous 10 years exploring lesser-known trails through the Canadian Rockies and other wilderness areas of BC and Alberta with my own horses. But my longest mountain pack trip had been three weeks. My longest trip ever, has been a one-horse solo journey along a rail-trail portion of the TransCanada Trail which spanned five weeks and 500 kilometres. But I was looking for more – more distance, more time on the trail, and more challenges preferably of the wilderness pack trip kind.
One of the challenges of doing wilderness pack trips is the lack of trails. Although Canada’s western provinces of BC and Alberta are split by the mighty Rocky Mountains – frozen peaks of the continental divide – the country simply doesn’t have long distance trails that accommodate horses. Sure, you could hack your way through land wilder and tougher than you can possibly imagine, have epics, and earn your spurs for toughness in ways few ever have. But that’s not my ideal trip. However, North America does offer other options. Two of the three long distance trails in the USA are horse-friendly – the Continental Divide Trail and Pacific Crest Trail – both of which extend from the southern USA-Mexico border north to the USA-Canada border. The problem for me is that they are in the USA, and much as I like the American friends I have, it simply isn’t Canada. So I haven’t pursued the challenges of the American long-distance trails. Yet.
But Morocco isn’t Canada either, and the proposed trip was supported by vehicles, riding across non-wilderness desert. So how did it qualify a must-do? Well, speed was one of the draws. We’d be riding at trot and canter a fair bit with the occasional gallop thrown in for fun. And I like speed.
In my much-younger competition heydays, my riding sport of choice had been three-day eventing – a horseback triathlon which involves the precision of dressage arena work with the thrill of jumping solid obstacles at speed over a rollicking track, and the challenge of show jumping in an arena, all with one highly fit horse. While training for that sport, I’d galloped young racehorses, teaching them how to change gears, flatten their bodies and stretch their necks to win races by their whiskers – which really just meant roaring along at over 40 miles per hour with a grin plastered on my face. In a takeoff from that, I experienced what I still consider to be the most fun you can have on four legs – galloping steeplechase horses.
Imagine gunning your car at a brick wall and hoping the fancy rocket-booster system that you’ve never actually had the gumption to try out, works, knowing it’s going to hurt like hell if it doesn’t. That’s what it’s like riding a galloping racehorse thrumming the ground with his pistoning legs at a five-foot hedge which extends the full width of a rolling grass steeplechase track, thighs burning in short stirrups with your lower calves and ankles gripping the postage-stamp-size leather saddle, shoulders bobbing in time with his stride, arms stretched forward and fingers tightly wrapped around the reins supporting his massive front end, goggles blurred. At the base of the fence, when your mighty beast lifts off with the force of that imaginary car rocket-booster, he blasts through the hedge as your body folds over his withers, arms stretched even farther forward, no vision, but with legs swung firmly forward, braced but not really ready for the crushing jolt of 1,000 pounds hitting the ground. As his hind feet feel for the grass to take the first stride and get away from the fence, the bow-spring of his rounded back tries to eject you from the saddle while gravitational force drags you down and the whiplash force of the jump displaces your balance. Meanwhile, your great steed single-mindedly races for the next fence regardless of the human flesh perched atop, or not. His stride flattens, stretches, he picks up speed, and the next fence looms – a downslope takeoff over a ditch which makes the height of the brush loom even higher – and your pulse races not just from exhausting physical effort, but for the exhilaration. That was what I missed: the speed, the hairiness, the centaur-like feeling of being two animals with one goal. Faster.
For all those reasons and none, I was going to Morocco.