Across the Heart of Europe

By Louis Hall, HRL Guest Author

The facts are obvious. Scottish Long Rider Louis Hall pioneered the first modern equestrian trail from Italy to Spain. The journey took 110 days to complete, with 84 days spent in the saddle.

Louis rode 2,789 kilometres (1,733 miles). It was the spiritual dimension of the journey that took the young Long Rider by surprise. He learned that in these uncertain times his adventure managed to untie the angst and fears of hearts and minds everywhere he rode. This is the remarkable story of a traveller who discovered that, “I once knew horses to be healers. I then understood them to be unifiers. I now know them to be companions in a world that thirsts for healing, unity and friendship.”

I was 18 years old when I was told about the healing powers of the Tsaatan tribe in Mongolia. Their methods were clandestine and natural, unverifiable to the western eye. Everything they had come to be stemmed from the messages and laws laid down by their ancestors. They had survived unsanctified Soviet rule. Through the wild and bucolic simplicity of their lives, their minds and their environment, and through the serene powers of the reindeer through which they survived, the Tsaatan tribe were practising healers. The only way to reach them was by car or horse. The path seemed obvious.

It was at this time that I received a disturbing phone call from a close friend of mine. His voice would fade away and then jolt back into concreteness, as if his mind was being thrashed about in the bottom of a boat. I was told soon after that he was unwell, alone, and was sinking into a drug and urban-induced state of psychosis, causing him to lose touch with reality. His words and thoughts had become dark and self-involved; the boy he was once was being torn away. I asked him if he wanted to come to Mongolia with me.

On the shores of Lake Khövsgöl in northern Mongolia, May 2014.

This journey was where my understanding of horses really began. Previous to this I had ridden ponies when growing up in Scotland and had worked on a stud farm in Australia. ‘Chunky’, my Scottish childhood steed, was strong, disobedient and fast. But in Mongolia it became clear that these animals were far more than just a facilitator for sport, pleasure or escape; in this trip they became a very real and formidable source of healing and discovery. Three of us bought four Mongolian ponies from a wily farmer and rode into the eastern steppe in search of the sacred Tsaatan people and their curative reindeer. By day five our ponies had been stolen by the farmer’s sons and we found ourselves completely stranded in a mesmerising pinewood gorge. As it is with all adventures, nothing worthwhile should come easy. In the space of four weeks, we managed to recover our ponies and find the tribe. We lived with them and fished with them. No one spoke the same language, but their devotion to the reindeer, our mission for experience, and the shared appreciation for the horse allowed for words to become needless.

In 2020 the world as we knew it came to an oppressive halt and the COVID-19 pandemic ruptured our definition of freedom. I thought of all the people unable to leave their homes due to underlying illnesses and all the individuals craving an escape. Exploration – making mistakes in order to learn – is an instinctive process of growth for all animals. This, along with physical portrayals of affection, became illegal. Most of all, I thought of a man called Leo. Leo is a friend and hero who died aged 26 due to his lifelong battle with Cystic Fibrosis. Despite his ill health, Leo lived life like no one else, never taking a second for granted. I took huge strength from him and, aged 24, with four working limbs and a healthy enough body and mind, I decided that it was my opportunity to do something good for those who had no other choice but to sit behind closed doors.

I couldn’t bear the idea that adventure should be silenced. In June 2020 I found a Highland/Connemara pony called Irelanda, and on 24th July I set off from John O’Groats, Scotland, and made my way down the entire length of the UK, reaching Land’s End 57 days and 1147 miles later. Bitless and unsupported, me and Irlanda raised over £38,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Trust. The journey was coined ‘The Big Hoof.’

Journey’s beginning at John O’Groats, Scotland.

The moment I left John O’Groats I realised that the ride wasn’t going to be the one that I had envisaged. During the little time I had to plan, I imagined that it was going to be an experience of solitude and self-reflection, an enduring battle with the elements, bogs, fatigue and angry farmers. Other than the bogs, I couldn’t have been further from the truth.

Individuals, animals and humans magnetised to this extraordinary pony, Irelanda, and to the natural rhythm of what we were doing. The cause that I was riding for resonated with people all over the UK. I could feel Leo’s spirit watching over us, walking with us, warning us away from sink holes. Out of 57 nights I stayed with strangers for 49. They are now friends. I was overwhelmed with the extraordinary kindness and the limitless generosity shown by people from all walks of life.

Sharing breakfast with Irelanda.

Just like in the eastern steppes, the horse opened us all up, connected us. By the end of the first week, it had become starkly clear that the ride I had envisaged on my own was never meant to exist; this was a journey made by everyone.

The spirit of the horse was for everyone!

In this uncertain time, an adventure – a peaceful expression of liberty and discovery – managed to untie the angst and fears of hearts and minds everywhere, at least everywhere reached by Irelanda. By the time I reached Land’s End, I had become fully intoxicated with this uniting energy of hope. Everything was alive and untainted – as if the horse had brought us back to when we were children.

If Mongolia had revealed the horse to be a creature of healing, the ride down the UK introduced me to an animal capable of uniting.

The message needed to be heard and felt by everyone.

I set about to establish The Big Hoof as a charity to promote adventure and well being through the power of the horse.

Through creating long distance rides, The Big Hoof’s mission is to pioneer new and accessible routes around the UK, Europe and, hopefully, the world; to share that living and connected sensation, the strength of community cultivated by the care and understanding of the horse and the meeting of strangers. There is no hiding with a horse. They mirror your emotions and make you dig deep to uncover your strength. At the same time, I felt strongly the requirement to fundraise for relevant causes that needed awareness, from life-threatening illnesses to mental trauma, and, in all of this, to illustrate an alternative way to live, with a fierce appreciation and gratitude being at the centre of mine and the charity’s ability to do and give.

In a remarkably short time The Big Hoof charity has achieved a great deal including:

Raising more than £70,000 for European charities focusing on mental health, refugees and life-threatening illnesses.

Travelling more than 4000 kilometres through 5 countries spreading our message of hope and well being.

Creating the first conclusive riding trail across the Ligurian Alps.

Pioneering the first equestrian trail from Italy to Spain.

As a member of the international Long Rider’s Guild, our guides and journals have provided the information required for people all over the world to make a life changing journey for themselves.

As the national lockdown came to an end the damage done revealed itself like the uncovering of a neglected wound. The impacts of the restrictions-to many, a necessary evil – were felt gravely by the most vulnerable in society. Suicide levels had risen, the state of the country’s mental health had worsened, and horizons had been shifted and dimmed to such an extent that even the idea of travel to a foreign country had become a source of anxiety and stress. Strangers became potential health threats; community and touch a thing to be cautioned. As soon as it was permitted, I went back to my job in London at Ross Nye Stables, Hyde Park, and, in every hour outside of this, set to work in finding a way to ride across Europe for a charity that supports sufferers of ill mental health. I wanted to illustrate a tale of real connection, between ourselves, the horse and each other and, of course, an adventure.

The world always needs stories. Stories connect us.

Russia invaded the Ukraine on 24th February 2022, and I was due to ride on 24th March. This shocking act of aggression made me question what I was doing – how dare I ride a horse across the sunny hills of France, in the opposite direction of war, when people are dying and suffering at the hands of violence? I had to truthfully evaluate why it was that this ride ‘needed to be done.’

My ego had to be strung out and analysed as if I were a surgeon. I sought the opinions of those I respected and from those who didn’t know me at all. For me, the option of volunteering for a charity felt like a far simpler and more effective way of making myself useful. I was all set to abandon the ride and to book my flight to Poland until I spoke with a man who runs one of the most successful hands-on British charities operating in the Ukraine to date. I wondered if he needed more volunteers, if me coming out would be of any use. His reply was simple, “as we all must, do what only you can do.”

“I can ride,” I replied, without thinking.

“Well, there you go. Make that the useful thing.”

Soon after the conversation I found an incredible charity that supports refugees and displaced communities with all forms of mental distress and trauma, and I booked my flight to Italy.

The world pushes against you and you push back.

Obtaining the horse was an unconventional task. With only three weeks before the ride was due to begin,the horse Ihadmanaged tofind and the sponsorshipmoneyI had acquired to fund it, had fallen through. This was one of several opportunities where the ride could have gone one of two ways – forwards or nowhere. Using the promised words of friends and of people I had only just met, I jumped in a hire car and drove from Naplesto Milan, visiting eight different yards in five days and, on the point of making one out of wood, I came across a horse in Bosana, an exceptional Arab endurance stable in Piacenza, just south of Milan. The last horse I saw that day was a 6-year-old bay Arab gelding called Sasha. He had strong shoulders, a handsome face, a soft muzzle, and deep, dark, olive shaped eyes. He was disobedient and strong, just like Chunky. He was perfect.

Sasha, loyal companion and spiritual guide.

Five days later I began the ride from a place near Lucignano, Siena. Originally the plan had been to ride from Naples, Italy, to El Rocio, Spain, retracing the hoofprints of Carlo di Borbone, uncovering the hidden steps of Don Quixote, and arriving in time to revel in the Romeria de El Rocio festival on 2nd June. Instead, however, I decided that I would ride along the Cantabrian coast of Spain, using the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, the one-thousand-year-old pilgrimage trail that attracts millions of pilgrims each year.

Connecting people and sharing the message of hope was integral to this ride – and all rides made by The Big Hoof – so journeying upon a passage full of pilgrims united by the pursuit of something real and new within themselves, for whatever reason that may be, was a clear way for Sasha and I to go. For the first week we used the ancient Via Francigena our guide through blissful Tuscany, a pilgrimage route that goes from Canterbury to Rome. Despite it being the last week of March it felt and smelt like a hay and honey summer. After crossing the Magra River that flows into the Tyrrhenian Sea, we reached the foothills of the Ligurian Alps on 1st April.

Everything was about to change.

Unknown to me, these mountains had never been crossed in their entirety on horseback and, more to the point, there was no existing route. My incredible younger sister, Mariella, drove out to meet me in a 4 x 4. Feed was going to be an issue. After contacting the Long Riders Guild, I was put in touch with Italian Long Rider Paula Giacomini. She then connected me with two Ligurian locals, Serena Berton and Lara Borello.

It just so happened that these wonderful women were very keen to create a single horse trail across the Ligurian Alps themselves. I was to be their guinea pig. The four of us pored over maps and compiled routes using local knowledge and tracks from the Alta via Monti Liguri hiking route. We were a team of strangers united by the challenge, the love of the horse, and the will to make something special happen, the pioneering of an accessible route for future riders.

The journey took 110 days to complete, with 84 days spent in the saddle. Louis rode 2,789 kilometres (1,733 miles).

I spent five days with Mariella, Serena and Lara and when the time came for me to leave, the first snows of the year began to fall. The snow didn’t stop falling for almost two weeks. There is a reason Napoleon crossed the Alps in May and Hannibal in June. This was 6th April. Mariella dropped feed in as many places as she could but, as was to be expected, my route was hard to follow. Every day was uncertain.

It took me 20 long days to cross the Alps. I didn’t ride once. It was quite honestly the hardest thing I have ever done. I became very aware of how vulnerable me and Sasha were. A handsaw came into use almost every day to cut down trees and branches that had fallen on the long-neglected trails. I lost a lot of weight but, strangely, I was never truly tired. I realised during this crossing how much further I could go if there was something else to work or strive for, something beyond me.

Snow in the Ligurian Alps.

We averaged 36 kilometres a day. If someone had suggested to me that I walk across the Ligurian Alps in April with an 18-kilogram backpack on, then I would have politely told them where to go, but the fact that I was accompanied by Sasha, travelling and learning together, I never thought twice. The sense of care I had for him overruled any possible self-doubts I may have otherwise had. In my head, there was never an option to hesitate or wonder – I had to keep this extraordinary animal healthy and content, that was the only thing that mattered. To do this we had to keep going, side by side.

At times the landscape felt like the makings of a recurring dream; the terrain a patchwork of silver snow and dark forests; the deep-rooted partisan trails; the surreal light of the Ligurian sea, green and blue far below. At other times these mountains were a claustrophobic nightmare, with the shuddering sounds of wolves and the sights of their tracks mocking our every night and waking moment. A cuckoo bird followed us for three days. Bells tolled from empty churches. It is interesting how trapped you can feel in such a wild and remote environment; the only horizon you seem to see is the formless silhouette of another mountain.

Walking to spare Sasha.

But we were not alone. Whenever we reached her, the sight of Mariella was like the sight of long-lost best friend. I would never have been able to have crossed those mountains without her support. If I were to cross the Alps again, I would do it in the early summer, when the vegetation isn’t dead or covered by a mantle of snow.

In the past many people have contacted The Big Hoof to express their interest in riding with us. Journeys with The Big Hoof are designed to be accessible to everyone, a vehicle for whatever private incentive they might have, in the hope that, one day, we can offer our own herd of experienced horses, allowing people to participate in our rides wherever we might be.

Istia and Kiki in the Alpes-Maritimes.

Dutch rider and film maker Kiki Ho contacted The Big Hoof in December 2021 stating that she was interested in joining the ride to Cape Finisterre. The next time I heard from her was in the obscure town of Pietrasanta, Liguria. I was exhausted, Sasha had a swelling on his back from the awful Podium saddle we had been using in Tuscany, and I was probably at my lowest I had been in a very long time, deep in the claustrophobic nightmare of the mountains. Kiki arrived with her own horse. In August 2021 she had lost her sister, her only sibling. A death and a pursuit of something greater lead two strangers to a haunted stable built by Napoleon, somewhere in the Ligurian Alps. Together, we rode all the way to Spain.

Beyond the Alps, France was the most accessible, horse friendly and accommodating section of the ride. The Voies Vertes, the Green Ways, are an extensive chain of cycle paths interlinked across France and other parts of Europe. Funded by the EU, these paths are flat, smooth and perfect to ride on. France has thousands of kilometres of Voies Vertes and thousands more kilometres of hiking routes, GR trails and bridle paths.

In France’s Alpes Maritimes equestrian adventure is encouraged!

Furthermore, once we reached Arles, and after riding up the steps of Emperor Augstus’ Amphithéâtred’Arles, we found ourselves on the ‘Arles Way.’ This is a well sign posted prelude to the Camino de Santiago de Compostela.

Travelling along the canals of the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, the wild-horse grasslands of the Camargues, the amaranth banks of the Midi Pyrenees lakes and into the lush, emerald landscape of Basque Country – France was a horseman’s paradise. There were farriers, vets and suitable stables almost everywhere we went. For us humans, the gîtes were numerous and camping spots were easily reached.

Unlike Italy, French hamlets and mountain villages are not deserted – water fountains work, cafés are open, the people are living!

We crossed the Pyrenees using the mountain of La Rhune and by lunchtime on 5th June we were in Spain. I decided to use the northern route (Camino del Norte) of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela as I have an awful sense of direction and I had already walked the Camino Frances, the most popular path, a few years previously. The Camino Frances crosses over the Pyrenees from Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port into Roncesvalles and then continues into Pamplona and then along Spain to Santiago de Compostela. The Camino del Norte heads towards San Sebastian, Santander and Oviedo, hugging the Cantabrian Coast, creating a varied journey of beach, concrete road and mountains. I would recommend the Camino Frances for an easier journey on horseback. Despite obtaining a brilliant Prestige Athena saddle in France, I was forced to walk on foot in parts of Spain due to the dangers and difficulties of Franco’s concrete trails. Asphalt is the enemy.

Kiki in the Pyrenees.

I know Spain well and always feel a warm sense of kinship in this blood-red country. The stables we stayed at were eccentric and makeshift. The spirit of a pilgrimage, a journey, distills and intoxicates people – or perhaps it is the people that light up the trail – and deciding to use the Camino de Santiago de Compostela as the basis of our Spanish crossing created incredible friendships, connections and very moving experiences. I met the kindest people on the entire ride in this way. Only in Spain would a police officer assist you and your horse in crossing the Bilbao estuary on a water taxi, “I’m sure Don Quixote would have done it.”

As I discovered after day one on the ride down the UK, journeys like these cannot, and should not, be completed without the involvement of friends and strangers. What a terrible journey that would be. Throughout the ride I made sure to stay with vets wherever possible. I made a point of maintaining contact with professionals and horse owners that I trusted; the endurance riding community is extensive throughout Europe, always happy to offer a helping hand; a farrier would pass you on to another farrier; the message of the ride and what I was doing would sometimes proceed me too.

Connecting, embracing and sharing who you are, what you are doing and where you are going with as many people as possible is a simple way to keep you safe anywhere in the world. We are always only one moment away from disaster and one second away from a horse in danger; you never know when you might need someone’s help. Hopefully, one day, you can help them too.

Because the old Long Rider saying still holds true, “The Horse is the key to the village,” strangers quickly become friends.

One of the greatest joys of the ride was to make friends and ride with locals. Out of almost 90 nights in different places, I stayed with over 70 locals, free of charge. The only thing I made sure to save money for was Sasha’s stabling or paddock, his vet bills and his feed. My bed was always to be decided on arrival, most of the time I never knew who I was going to meet and where I was going to wake up. Having no choice made me grateful for anything I received.

As the ending drew near, and with the sunset of Cape Finisterre only weeks away, it became starkly obvious how much the land had changed since the last time I had walked to Santiago de Compostela. Farmed eucalyptus trees and cloned maize crop dominated swathes of Galicia. Cars had increased, roads had spread like an asphalt oozing sickness and the people swarmed the Camino in their thousands, many leaving litter. There seems an increasing disconnect with people and nature, a genuine lack of familiarity and belonging with the world outside the city. Some people I met appeared like fish out of water within the wild and rural landscape.

At the conclusion of an emotionally intense equestrian journey Long Riders unexpectedly find themselves caught in the limbo known as “between two worlds.”

For me, the summer of 2022 proved to be the most disturbing display of the earth in pain and in demise that I have ever witnessed. The news of the devastating forest fires that were sweeping across the world-from the USA to Australia – became very real the closer we reached Cape Finisterre. In Europe alone over 560,000 hectares of land were burnt – four times the annual average in a matter of weeks. One of the great benefits of travelling on horseback is the speed and height from which you experience your environment. You never linger long enough for the colours and the scenes to become normal, and yet you move slow enough for your senses to absorb almost everything, just for a moment. In time, you begin to see the world through the eyes of a horse. I never saw the world in such a fragile state as I did on this ride.

We passed underneath the shadow of the Cathedral de Santiago de Compostela, the one-thousand-year-old cathedral and arcadia for millions of pilgrims around the world, and we reached Cape Finisterre, ‘the end of the land,’ on 12th July. We had made it.

Six sets of shoes, 2789 kilometres and 110 days later. Together me and Kiki raised over £24,000 for the two mental health organisations that we were supporting: Amna and Museum of the Mind. Amna is a charity that provides psychological support to refugees, and Museum of the Mind is a Dutch organisation that destigmatises mental divergencies and celebrates neurological differences through art and expression.

The night before the final day, I spoke with Rob Pope, the ‘real Forrest Gump‘, and he calmly warned me of the empty feeling that was to follow the completion of the journey. Every word was true.

And so, the adventure must continue.

Seeds of America and BLM mustangs were planted in my head during the final parts of the ride. Geographically, after finishing on the most western point of Spain, ‘the end of the land’, stepping upon the footsteps of legendary Long Rider Aimé Tschiffely, there is only one logical next step: a ride across America, from east to west, ‘ocean to ocean.’

In a country and a time defined by discordancy I believe that a documented ride across America could potentially make a very positive difference: connecting and resewing a land’s community through the simple, human message of a primitive journey on a primitive animal. The horse is the animal that represents the freedom which encompasses all that we have come from and all that we need to return to; our ark and our home.

Whatever happens, I feel exceptionally fortunate to have spent a small time of my life in a microscopic moment of human existence, appreciating the earth in the company of a horse.

Scottish Long Rider Louis Hall is a writer, actor, and founder of The Big Hoof charity, an organisation that promotes adventure and well being through equestrian travel by raising money for local and international charities. Louis discovered the healing powers of the horse when he was 18 years old while in search of the Tsataan tribe in northern Mongolia. Since then his life has been patterned around the relationship between man and horse, bringing that raw understanding into a modern context. In 2020 he rode the length of the UK. In 2021 he rode 2800 kilometres across Europe, a journey which is being made into a film.
Louis is now preparing to ride “ocean to ocean” across the USA.

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