In July 2019, Pete Breidahl and Luisa Mayr set off from Mongolia to ride to Luisa’s home in Memmingen, Bavaria (Germany). Two-and-a-half years, a global pandemic and 12,000 kilometres later they arrived.
The pair have written two books telling the story of their trip (Wanderlust and Covid Cowboys) and Pete has written a third: The 21st Century Cavalry Manual. I spoke to Pete about this excellent “how-to” guide for anyone who wants to travel and live self-contained on horseback.
This book is a very practical guide to riding over distance carrying your own gear, but it also reads like a manifesto. Do you see it that way?
Absolutely! A lot of the equestrian world is so detached from reality. Riders have grooms and other people to do the hard work, their horses are stalled and rugged and their gear is all “matchy-matchy”…
How do you value your life when everything is so easy? Our horses live outdoors, un-rugged and eat meadow hay. I have one set of tack and it can be washed with a water blaster. I really believe that the western mental health crisis has been caused by lack of real difficulty in so many people’s lives; when we’re uncomfortable and cold, all of our sensations are amplified and intensified. You feel like you are really living and you feel happy. I want to inspire people who are depressed to get outside into nature!
Nine thousand kilometres on horseback changes your perspective in so many ways. You can see the damage we do to our horses very clearly, because the distance magnifies any harm you might be inadvertently causing. A horse might cope with a poorly-packed saddle for 10 or even 30 kilometres, for example, but if you get up the next morning and ask that horse to go another 30 kilometres with the same poorly-loaded pack, you will start to see problems. It doesn’t matter what you look like, but it really does matter that your horse is comfortable. The hardship of riding long distance forces you to focus on what is important.
I suppose the lessons you learned from riding such a long distance would be valuable for all riders, when you put it like that?
Absolutely. We’re taking other riders along with us for two weeks of our next trip and when we put out the invitation, we were swamped with responses from people keen to learn.
Did you have any real highs from your trip?
Probably my best day was in Romania in the Carpathian mountains. We were pushing to reach Dracula’s castle and riding very high up, maybe at an altitude of 2,000 metres. There was no sign of man, or very little; alpine grazing stopped years ago so the only traces were a few crumbling stone walls. I saw incredibly vivid colours and the smells were so strong. I saw swarms of insects, newts, salamanders, bears, deer and even wild horses. It’s difficult to put into words, but riding through emerald pastures and a sea of flowers on an amazing horse was a spiritual experience.
And no doubt there were some lows to balance out the good bits…?
Yes, sadly. The worst bits were always people and how poorly some treat their horses and animals. That said, wolves are a close second. We had a lot of horses taken by wolves in Georgia. We couldn’t protect the foals and there were no vets really to treat the horses that were attacked; of the two equine vets in Georgia one was an alcoholic and one was just useless. It was heartbreaking.
On a more personal note, I am still devastated that I had to leave horses behind at one of the borders we crossed. Their names were Sandy and Bill the Bastard. They were great horses, but it just wasn’t possible to take them any further. I had epic, life-changing experiences with those horses and saying goodbye was incredibly hard.
And after all that, would you do it again?
We would and we are!
Luisa and I are getting married on June 25th this year and then we will leave immediately for a 4,000-kilometre honeymoon from Bavaria through Switzerland, across the border into Italy and then we will travel through Slovenia, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland before heading back to Bavaria.
The outside riders will join us for the two weeks we ride along Hannibal’s route to Rome (Switzerland to Italy) and Luisa and I plan to film the trip this time, with the aim of making a documentary about the connection between horses, people and nature.
Sounds brilliant. I’m a bit jealous…
Well, it’s open to anyone to step out of the machine that makes you depressed, sad and mad. You don’t have to be a cog! All you have to do is take your western mindset and throw it in the bin.
Except from The 21st Century Cavalry Manual
I doubt I will ever be able to find the words to explain to those in the world I left behind why wild places call to me, or why I’ve spent most of my adult life at the very fringe of society amongst men and women who are the last of their kind.
It’s been a blessed life at times, but one of extreme hardships and lessons I learnt all too often through easily avoidable failures. Failures not just as a nomadic horseman, but as a man, a partner, and father. This life is physically challenging, and it carries with it just as great an emotional and mental toll. The rewards, however, have helped me find the peace I had spent my life searching for in all the wrong places. To truly live wild and free with your horse amongst others as seemingly mad as you are, is the only way someone like me can ever feel a sense of belonging, contentment, and true happiness.
But… I had no idea where to even begin planning a horseback adventure, I just knew it was calling to me, and in a way has been all my life; I just didn’t know it at the time. I can actually recall looking back all these years later where the obsession with horses began. It began with a movie I saw sometime late in the 1980s called “The Light Horsemen”. A classic Australian film about the mounted infantry that charged Beersheba, a town in modern day Israel, capturing its wells and saving countless allied lives.
But it wasn’t the lure of adventure and battle on foreign soils that grabbed me, it was a moment shared between a soldier and his horse prior to the charge. The horses had been without water for days, and upon hearing of the charge, a Digger muttered the words “Bugger this” and gave his horse the last of his water from his hat. I was speechless, and to this day I’m moved to tears by that scene when I watch it. That bond: that unspoken bond between a man and horse that would die for one another… I wanted to feel that.
When Sergeant Brooks and Trouper Radburn fell in battle, their partners stood for two days without food or water by their graves. This image is heart breaking not only at the loss of two Australians so close to the end of the war, but because of the 136,000 horses Australia sent, only one came home. The rest were shot, and usually each bloke shot his best mate’s horse. There are simply no words to describe the bond between these men and their horses, and I wanted to experience it, or something close. I have and my life will never be the same.
I rode whenever I could growing up in Australia, and whenever I was near a horse I felt things I can’t describe to those who don’t share what I do with horses. Their smell, their sounds and movements, it all just feels so natural to me. But there was no chance for me to own a horse until well into my 30s while living in New Zealand. It was for therapy more than anything that I came to own a dirty, moody little 145cm mare I named “Beersheba”. She was a Standardbred trotter, and at 14 she was opinionated, but a great horse to hack about the pine forests of Dunedin on. Better still, with no dreams of showing and a total financial investment of only a few hundred dollars, I could really afford to enjoy her for less than $50 a week!
She taught me plenty, but more importantly she taught me about the people that love horses, and just how different they were from me. My girlfriend at the time, a very anxious English girl and an absolutely terrible rider, loved horses more than life itself but could never get over her fear of them. Regardless of lessons, many of which she would constantly impart upon me, she simply could not manage her emotions and has now stopped riding altogether, I’ve been told. Although to this day I don’t consider myself a particularly good rider, I was never uncomfortable around horses and soon started to get great results from Beersheba in contrast to my girlfriend’s endless disasters at huge expense on a series of horses.
Her $3,000 saddle, her $4,500 horse and her world of very valuable knowledge counted for nothing when she saw a plastic bag blowing in the breeze. Me, I was usually drunk on my $500 horse, bareback, swinging a rope in circles with one hand as I sipped from a hip flask with the other. Mentally, I was different, and my lack of knowledge nor care for it set me up perfectly for my first ride into the wilds of northern Mongolia in 2017. I didn’t really plan anything, I was there on unrelated business and met a few hunters over a Facebook group, organised a wolf hunt on horseback, got in a purple Prius filled with vodka and then headed 1000 kilometres across the steppe and into the forest on a wild Mongolian horse I named Digger.
Digger changed me. All I had once been died in Mongolia, and I was reborn a horseman.
Digger changed me. All I had once been died in Mongolia, and I was reborn a horseman.
Digger taught me to ride without fear; to embrace my imminent death and just live in the moment. He changed my life, and he’s one hell of a warrior. Digger chased down and killed a wounded wolf, the same wolf that killed five horses from his herd that week. I will never forget this horse as long as I live and owe him the happiness I enjoy today.
But like any newborn, I had to learn to crawl before those first wobbly steps on the way to running and escaping my past and the crippling anxiety I felt trying to fit in at “home”. But despite my best intentions to set myself up for success, I failed. I failed because those that offered me advice, should for the most part have not bee offering any at all, to anyone. The so-called “expert” group everyone tells you to contact don’t reply to emails and when they do, they talk about the 1980s and are both condescending and downright rude. The books I read about “long riding” were all outdated, opinionated and none were able to truly offer the kind of advice I ended up needing despite one even being sold as the “bible” of long riding. I guess if you mean it was written a long time ago, that part is at least true.
I did all I could to prepare; I worked at a Warmblood stud and racing stables, helped farriers, vets and made or purchased the best gear I could. I’d planned to fly to Mongolia, meet up with Digger and simply ride West in search of adventure. But fate had other plans, instead placing a little Australian Cattle Dog in my path that led me to her German master Luisa, the woman I now proudly call my fiancée. Luisa and her dog Jill had been riding around Mongolia together for the summer and had enjoyed both great success as well as failure. After being halted because of Jill at the Chinese border on her way to Australia, Luisa was now looking at the long road back to Germany. So, within days of meeting, we decided to set off together on what became a 780-day, 12,000-kilometre adventure across 14 countries with 9,000 kilometres in the saddle.
We learned hard lessons, as well as easy ones imparted to us by the horsemen of the steppe and nature herself. And the horses; our greatest teachers of all imparted their wisdom at every step. We tell plenty of stories about these adventures in our books “Wanderlust” and “Covid Cowboys”, but this book is not for telling stories. This book is designed to impart the knowledge I wish I had before I left in the vain hope it may save its reader from some of the mistakes we made.