Folks, it’s been a good ride over the Abyssinian highlands, but as of the 1rst of November 2013, Equus Ethiopia will cease all of its horse riding operations. From this date, the stables are closed to guests, and while the horses will remain for a short while, they will be soon departing for sunnier climes – and greener pastures. You can read some posts about some of our treks and see photographs here & here & here & here.
Equus started six long years ago – can time fly this fast on the back of an Abyssinian pony?! – with four horses, two donkeys, a couple of old saddles, one Franco-British transplant – your servitor Yves Marie Stranger – at Cheshire homes, near Menagesha, where my good friends Lilla Heaslip and Ato Gebre Medhin, respectively the fund raiser and the director of the beautiful polio rehabilitation center for kids, one day innocently had asked:
‘Would you like to use the farm for some horses?’
The polio center had an unused farm building that we soon set up as a stable. Dida Dabi & Elias Negusie joined us from the start and became trip leaders and excellent horsemen. Together, we bought horses, trained horses and rode out, rain or shine. I thank them here for their dedication and hard work. Today, they have some of the best riding skills in the country and you’d have to travel far from these highlands to find better horsemen.
Shortly after our rustic beginnings, Mrs Meheret Tesfa Mikael became Equus’ general manager – how else could my formidable mother in law’s energies be canalized? – If Meheret never became a horsewomen, although she did ride to the forest of Menagesha Suba a few times without complaining, she proved herself to be an invaluable addition to the team with her attention to detail, and become a much loved fixture at the stables – from myself for her hard work and attentiveness, and from our guests whom she would always welcome with great warmth.
My wife, Lydia Fantaye Stranger, was a constant support and tirelessly worked to make Equus a success, even learning to ride -very well, I hasten to add. I well remember one fateful conversation we had one afternoon on the drive back from the stables many years ago. Lydia had been riding for a year and some. She asked me to rate her riding skills, on a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being the highest grade (she has a thing about scales and benchmarks). I gave her a quick and honest answer, telling her:
‘You’re probably a strong 3…’
Seeing her incredulous look, I hastened to add that I rated myself ‘perhaps’ a solid 4 and a half, after riding for twenty years, but the damage was done and this little conversation about her riding skills regularly crops up in our most heated exchanges to this day.
Be it what it may -and let me rush to add, before you ask, that Lydia’s current riding grade is a carefully guarded secret – suffice to say that it is very high indeed – I would like to thank Lydia here. Without her unflinching support – and far more savvy business skills than mine – Equus Ethiopia would never have gotten into the saddle, let alone rode on for six years. So thank you Lydia. I couldn’t have done it without you.
There are three other people I wish to thank here. All three of them not only gave their full moral support from the very start, but also reached into their pockets and contributed the financial kernel from which Equus would start to grow.
Without Sarah nothing would have happened – Sarah is my mother, an intensely urban and quintessentially British soul, who nevertheless encouraged me to go forward with a project that must have seemed to her somewhat fanciful and akin to Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I am happy Sarah made it to Ethiopia last year, and was able to ride a horse for the first time since she was 15! And it must be true what they say about never forgetting to ride bikes and horses, because she sat down on her pony and that was that: as comfortable as if she’d just dismounted yesterday, instead of 45 years ago! Thank you Sarah. Please come and ride the two horses I have kept sometime soon.
Without my dear friends Jane & Sven, nothing would have happened either. Again, they lent me their ear, did not dismiss my idea out of hand, and contributed to it financially, even after it was evident from their friend Avtar’s gentle and intelligent probing during a weekend in Norfolk, that I hadn’t the faintest idea what a business was, or what it was supposed to do. Thank you Sven, thank you Jane! You never actually made it to see what the business looked like, but I hope you’ll be in Ethiopia soon too.
After those first three years at Cheshire it was time to move on, and we found a new hospitable port of call in Edward and Sian Harman’s apple orchard farm near the village of Solulta, just to the north of Addis Ababa. Edward – known to all as Eddie – built a stunning U shaped stable using the local wattle and daub technique. It looked good and was also ideal for the crisp cold of this very high location. Here, in this verdant valley lying just inside the Entoto Forest, Equus happily spent another three years, running weekend trips & hacks into the forest and over the plateaus, and treks of up to six days long, all the way to the Blue Nile Gorge to the north, and reaching as far as the Eastern Escarpment in Ancobar, with our Zara Yacob Trek from the forest of Menagesha Suba to the heights above Debre Berhan.
Besides setting up new trekking routes, Equus also contributed to ameliorating horse riding in Ethiopia, by giving training sessions in horsemanship & horse handling as well as hoof care and feeding, horse trekking guiding skills and using safer and better riding tack. Equus’ staff all lent a hand in these activities, both on site in Solulta, and travelling to different locations in Ethiopia. In this manner, Equus is proud to have made a contribution to the field of outdoor riding in Ethiopia. We conducted training for the new community tourism ventures in Lephis, Menz & in the Bale National Park for ESTA and the Frankfurt Zoological Society – and if Equus Ethiopia is indeed closing down, Elias, Dida & myself are all still ‘in the saddle’ in Ethiopia, and available for advice and training sessions.
During these six years, Equus has welcomed guests from all over the world (from the UK, from France, the US, Argentina, China…). A common phrase that guests would use, and that kept recurring was ‘But this looks like ….. ! (cue insert the Cotswolds, the Pampa, South Africa, or any other worldwide location). People didn’t know Ethiopia looked like this. People didn’t know Abyssinian ponies were this good. People didn’t know we had hay bales in Ethiopia. There was much people didn’t know about Ethiopia it seemed.
And therein perhaps lied at least part of the problem: people had to be convinced that Ethiopia was a riding destination. People had to be reassured there was enough to eat for horses in Ethiopia. That we didn’t only have camels and that the whole country wasn’t a desert. And so, it often seemed that popularizing horse riding treks in Ethiopia was one long slog, an uphill canter in which the crest of the Entoto Hills was always receding somewhere farther into the distance. Truth be told, before attempting this venture, I had worked as an English teacher, translator, shepherd, barman, journalist and a whole host of other activities as disparate as they were similar in one underlying theme: none of them had anything to do with business. A business plan? What’s that? Accounts? Never heard of them. Cash flow? Neither.
So yes, I started a horse trekking company in Ethiopia on a whim and without planning. I started a horse trekking company because I grew up with horses, because I liked training them and because, years ago (twelve years ago!), when I first drove over the Entoto Hills off towards Debre Libanos, in the midst of the rain season for an ill advised camping expedition with Eric Manuguerra in his Russian four wheel drive, and caught sight of the rolling highlands I exclaimed: ‘Give me a horse now!’
And horses I soon found, first came Tatek, then Beka, Guduma, Kiya & and later Simbad, Kali and all the others. Excellent horses – or ponies – all of them: sturdy, docile and easy to ride. Yes, and short too, but I’ve always been partial to a short horse. They eat less, are often less flighty and stronger – and you don’t fall from so high. And as I once wrote on this blog, Abyssinian ponies may be short, but they still offer excellent perspectives on Ethiopia.
For of course, if I made no financial gains during these six years – business plans do have their uses, as I have now learnt, the hard way – I gained much. I know the plains of northern Shoa to the Blue Nile, from the forest of Menagesha Suba to the Eastern Escarpment as well as I once knew my native Pyrenees – as we say in French, I know these whereabouts, brooks, markets trails and tree clumps ‘comme ma poche‘ – that is to say in plain English, that I know them as well as my own pocket.
These gentle rolling plateaus full of brooks, yellow flowers, barley and teff, and the pristine peasant strongholds of the local farmers, were certainly worth a year, or two, or six, and as we rode out, with Elias, with Dida, & with our guests from the world’s four corners, I would certainly say I made gains myself, but of the intangible kind, and I would venture to say that our guests did too. They were often bemused and awed with the sights, smells and ‘gallopability’ of these great rolling highlands. This was an Arcadia far from the common image of Ethiopia most people have. An Argentinian rider told me this was better riding ground than the Pampa itself, now all crisscrossed with fences, and I readily believed her.
And my Amharic is much better for it, and even my smattering of Oromo and my in-depth knowledge of the country – the type of knowledge one only attains by riding tired late into the night, by having a physical feel for the terrain, its smell and texture, under the sun and under the rain, and by meeting people, quite literally, on their own grounds –those excellent perspectives afforded by the short Abyssinian ponies. But intangible experiences are all very well – and indispensable to the good life – but you do also need something heavy and tangible in you own pocket too – and that, Equus Ethiopia, through no fault of its own, has failed to provide.
Could it have been different? Did the worldwide financial crisis that started the very same year we opened the company have a detrimental impact? Possibly. I remember one of the tour companies specialized in horse riding holidays we worked with, telling me their bread & butter business – relatively cheap riding vacations in Spain – ‘were down by 50 %.’
Who knows? But of course it didn’t help that Europeans, the main clients for this kind of holiday, were feeling pinched, loosing jobs and not optimistic about the future. That is to say, probably not in the right frame of mind to spend their hard earned savings on a strange and untested riding destination. That said, companies like Randocheval (France), Ride World Wide (UK), Hidden Trails (USA) and Wild Frontiers (UK) did send us guests. The latter invariably loved the experience of riding in Ethiopia and gave positive feedback and yes, probably did talk to their friends… but a downturn is a downturn and so yes, I do think this had an impact on our rides here in Ethiopia. The tour companies did their marketing job just fine, but couldn’t sell a strange new ‘product’ in this depressed economy. I’d like to thank our partnering tour companies here, for the trust they put in Equus Ethiopia, and their time and effort in promoting Ethiopia as a riding destination.
Salmon Fishing in Ethiopia?
Sometimes quixotic ideas work, more often they do not. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen is a funny book about the misguided attempts to set up trout fishing in Yemen, with aid money galore and high minded politicians – sounds familiar? It’s a book that I greatly enjoyed (by the way, you can fish trout in Ethiopia, in the streams of Bale, and there is even a trout farm, and a very successful one I am told, up there too), but was there something quixotic and fantastical about setting up a riding business in Ethiopia? No, I don’t believe so. True, Ethiopia has its own idiosyncratic way of operating – heavy on regulation, with constant paperwork and a thousand chits of stamped paper for every task – and very little flexibility and initiative. I well remember a departing BBC correspondent’s last dispatch, in which she chose to write about the dreaded stamp she always had to carry around to authenticate her documents with. Yes, the inflexibility and lack of initiative and control freakery add enormously to costs, yes, the constant fear of being told you haven’t submitted the right paperwork (with the associated fines and slaps on the wrist and costly hours & hours & hours of wasted time) is a strong deterrent to running a successful business, but no, at the end of the day, this is not why my business didn’t work. Ethiopia may be a difficult place to do business in, but it’s not the wrong place to do business in. Conducting affairs in Ethiopia may be challenging, but it can also be rewarding. And Ethiopia (that looks so like the Cotswolds, the South African veld, the south of France and South Carolina and a host of other beautiful worldwide locations) is a country of the horse with a long and rich equestrian tradition. I remain convinced Ethiopia has some of the best riding grounds in the world. And Ethiopia may be a difficult place to operate in, but it is also a very easy place work in too by other yardsticks. So I have no complaints, with Ethiopia, or Ethiopians, or their way of conducting their affairs. Equus Ethiopia didn’t gallop ahead because of an economic downturn – perhaps – and because from the very start it was conceived as a hobby horse. That absence of business plan again from yours truly.
But there’s not much sense in flogging a dead horse, be it an Ethiopian one – if our excellent ponies will pardon the expression – and sometimes you should know when to call it quits. The time has come to close the stables, sell the horses, and look for greener pastures – and I am happy to announce that all of the horses have found a new home, as have all of our employees – including my strong minded but fair and kind mother in law, and that the beautiful stables in Solulta, with their warm raw earth walls, will remain open for Addis Ababa riders to stable their horses in years to come. I know of few places where I would enjoy to ride more. For my part, I will be continuing to translate & interpret & write in Ethiopia. And yes, I am of course keeping two horses to continue riding the Entoto Hills and those green rolling plateaux I have come to love so much – and besides, I don’t want to lose my hard earned riding skills. I think I’ve reached grade 4.8 on that scale of riding ability I mentioned earlier -I have the ambition to make it to six one day. As to my business skills, I think I’m now a 2 – ten being the highest grade of course. Farewell and godspeed.