Iran is not particularly synonymous with horse riding holidays. It is well-known for ancient ruins like Persepolis and famous for the Shiraz grape, the cities of Isfahan, Susa, Azerbaijan and Tehran, along with the black drapes of the chadar and Caspian sea sturgeon. Carpets spring to mind too, wonderful silk ones with patterns of intricately entwined flowers and animals in bright colours. Iran has an ancient and complex history. It is the home of cuneiform and of the Achaemenid Period, one of the greatest empires of all time (lasting no more than 2 centuries) embracing Iran, Mesopotamia, Syria, Egypt, Asia Minor and western India. ‘Alexander the Great’ comes to mind and his great wall, history, carpets and Islam.
But it was for the horses that I was to visit Iran and one very remarkable woman, Louise Firouz an American who married an Iranian Prince. In 1965 a small horse wandered into the stud farm that Louise and her husband owned in Iran. It was small and fine boned. Louise bred from the horse and quickly realised that it was a particular type of small horse and decided to enlist the assistance of Dr Gus Cothran (Geneticist, University of Kentucky, Lexington). She named it the Caspian Horse (equus fossilis persicus) a breed thought for many years to be extinct. All that is history now. Louise is still breeding horses and has an eye for the unusual or the athletic animal and for old breeds and certain types of horses. She has now a collection of Yarbous, (the Sythian horse) Goklen and Gatmans, Yamuds and Turkomans. (Gatman is a sub-strain of Goklen and is a Turkoman horse. It was because of my interest in the Turkoman horse and its relationship to our thoroughbred that I decided to go out and join her on an interesting trek across the mountains to the Turkmenistan border, to an area called Jagalan.
When I set off for Tehran. I made one serious error, I travelled in my jodhpurs, skin tight ones at that! I did have a long duster or Macintosh, but in that weather (26 degrees) I certainly was not inclined to wear it. In Teheran the rule of cover up is a way of life. Women are veiled, they must wear the headscarf and most are dressed in the all-enveloping black chador. They take their modesty seriously. I was not prepared for such a culture and was taken aback by their determination to conform. I took a long scarf and spent most my time in the museums trying very hard to make sure that as little of me as possible was exposed. I attracted a lot of attention!
At last, following a day of being embarrassed by my social nakedness we took off for Ghara Tappeh Sheikh, (Ghara means black, Tappeh meand hill and I still haven’t found out what Sheikh means!) the home of Louise Firouz. My companion and driver for the trip was Behrooz Ghaffari. He had been educated in Dorset and certainly had an English sense of humour. A delightful man with a talent for making everyone feel comfortable. We travelled for nine hours in a four wheel drive Toyota. I was thinking about mountains, grassland, horses and a new world. It was hot, really hot with no air conditioning. I was gasping. I wasn’t well either and this increased my lack of ease in that tin can of a car baked by a fierce summer sun. Suddenly Behrooz said we ought to stop for lunch so he made a massive detour north and headed for the Caspian. We parked in a beach-like gravel area, with the flat, bright blue sea behind us. We passed a market small but full of interesting items, one wonderful coat I should have purchased. It was a Turkmen wedding coat covered in coins. From a nearby building came the pungent smell of food cooking on charcoal. To our left was a raised carpeted platform with padded back rests protected from the scorching sun. The food was served on the carpet. The boys smoked a hubble-bubbly pipe. I watched in amazement. This was a strange new culture to me. The sturgeon arrived burned black on the edges edged with tomatoes barbecued whole and a pot of pickled garlic. Behrooz ate the pickled garlic with alarming enthusiasm.
We set off again and as I gazed out of the window of the car I realised that there were no fences. No barbed-wire, no boundaries. Every inch of England and America is sliced up into barbed-wire strips. The Enclosure Act fenced a landscape, once been open and endless, to keep people out and cattle in. Prior to that time cattle wandered the open plains and sheep were herded by a shepherd. Iran like Turkmenistan is unfenced.
Paddy fields came into view to our left and right, I saw a horse, I had no idea they grow their own rice, of course.
The work of planting looked dirty and tiring. The workers were up to their knees in brown slimy mud. It was hot, they wore hats to protect them from the fierce sun. I realised that agriculture is not the cherry on the tree that we see it as in this country, the green wellies and Barber outfits and the Land Rovers and two dogs, nothing of which reflects the true hardships of working the land. In the olden days farming was about going out in the cold and wet and tilling and ploughing in all weathers, hay-making and milking, mending fences and shovelling shit. I was aware of the huge gulf between my world and the world I was passing by. I recall a friend of mine who was left to lamb one spring on her father’s farm and described the ensuing carnage of abortions and twins being born and after-births and prolapsed wombs. She recalled being covered in shit, slime and urine not to mention blood after only a few hours and had no sleep. When she complained to her father he told her it was character forming.
We arrived in Gonbad. Behrooz who had no difficulty understanding my infatuation for horses had decided to make a detour to the race course so that I could see the local racehorses. I took some photos. Most of these I explained to him are thoroughbred types. How correct I was. Louise told me that they were in fact exactly that, Thoroughbreds.
The road to Louise’s village is magical. It runs along through a flat arable landscape which suddenly turns into a grand canyon. Ahead in my mind I saw the Badlands and South Dakota. I knew we were near when I saw the stables. Life is like this. One moment an airport the next moment a desert, the next moment in paradise. We are so lucky in this time we live.
I hugged Louise. It was so good to see her. Gill Suttle and I were to share a Yurt or Oie or Ger. I put my meagre belongings into the chosen felt tent and sat down. I had promised myself for years I would go to Iran and visit Louise. Well here I was nurturing a sense of completion. The smell of the clear, clean air was unforgettable, like a sea breeze. The night was full of stars. We feasted on sturgeon yet again, roasted on a charcoal fire. I slept not a wink that night. When the dogs stopped barking the horses neighed and when the horses stopped neighing the jackals howled and just as I thought that peace was nigh the cockerels crowed!
So the night passed with my quick pulse checking the night sounds. Toruche stands no more than 14.3 hh. In the old way of measuring. She is athletic with a bronze sheen to her coat. She dips her head into the water butt and sucks, then grabs a few morsels of grass.’An intelligent horse’ I think. I watch the others mount. Gohran and Ibraham, who work for Louise are getting the horses saddled and handed out. Louise’s laughter fools me into thinking that this is a picnic. I watch her steady caring attention to all things. Justin Tate and Susan Belgrave were busy with their packs, I see Anna in her designer cools. I had no idea she was in the design business, but by the style of clothing she just gave herself away with the flowing green silk blouse and the hat at just the right tilt. Me! I’m in my skin-tight jodhpurs, Ugh.
Our party was thus; Ruth Staines, organizer, Bridget Tempest, Artist, Justin Tate, Gill Suttle, Susan Belgrave, Anna Cockburn, and Louise Firouz, Go, Verdi, Alam, and Ibrahim. We set off across the flat landscape and towards the hills. We passed through a small village. We were soon climbing into the foothills. At one point we had to make a sharp right turn and climb up a steep path alongside a field. At the top were more hills and a wide sandy road. A sea of waving corn spread out on both sides punctuated by bright dazzling red-skirted poppies. Yarrow and cornflowers, vetch and many other flowers unknown to me filled the verges.
Toruche was part Akhal Teke and part Yarboo. She held her fine long head high and raced on with an incredible zest for life. I tried to slow her down, but she was determined. I wanted to film everyone in front of me, but hey there was no way I could do that. Toruche got her way. It is so important when riding to move in time with the horse allowing it find its own innate rhythm and not interfere. I became aware too of how my body was moving in time with the horse, my lower back or my seat absorbed the shifting roll of the horses back. I tried to move the flexing higher up to the small of my back. Once there it almost miraculously vanished. Suddenly I was at one with my horse. Toruche has large ears they are in my lower sight like tramlines. We rode on through gorgeous countryside. The hills have surrounded us like an army now, they march with us keeping us company. Louise points out some Parthian terraces. She also shows us the spot away in the distance when last year her horse fell down a steep incline rolling on her and braking her leg. Not a place to forget in a hurry.
Our first lunch break was in a small copse. We all collapsed. I couldn’t imagine why I was so tired. After all I had only sat on a horse. The sun sprinkled the rich green grass with a million dapples. It was cool there under the trees. Louise had told me that tonight we were to sleep in a forest by a river. The heat was quite intense. I conjured up the feeling of woodland and the sound of water. I saw that Toruche was sweating profusely, yet it seemed not to bother her. In front of me was Gill on Sophianne a small grey mare with a remarkable temper. She disliked being passed by anyone and was also inclined to kick. Bridget was riding the arch biter. He lunged at every horse passing him. The horses had a pecking (biting) order and left to themselves they sorted out all their problems without the interference from us. We rode on climbing one hill after another. Each time the landscape changed as we reached the top, yet there were no tops only more road. We passed through a village and the boys jumped off and got all of us drinks of fruit juice in a foil container. You soon learn to pierce the bottom with the straw instead of trying to figure out how to get the straw into the hole intended for it. That juice felt good. My throat needed the cooling nectar of the sweet liquid. The villages were all situated near water. Small rectangular buildings of mixed wood, mud and breeze blocks, where modern materials had crept in, were set about in clusters forming central courtyards. Sometimes they had verandas and this style of house became more common as we travelled east. Large containers of water were set up by the street, an Iranian version of the stand pipe. The women use plastic bottles to collect water these days. The debris from the modern throw-away society litters the gullies. They don’t seem to see it, but then nor do we, have you noticed what grows on the side of the roads these days. The children were very inquisitive and many of them shout Hello. It must be quite an event to have strangers in the village. I see donkeys carrying unbelievable loads. They take minute steps, shuffling along, hardly any piece of them can be seen under the load of grass, just their tiny feet moving like a clockwork toy.
I arrived at our first camp tired and ready to drop. I could not believe that I was so exhausted after doing nothing more than riding all day, what was my horse feeling like? Toruche, still full of beans had the beginning of a saddle sore. She only carried me one more day and then spent the rest of the journey un-ridden, wandering free between us, munching grass and taking in the views.
I was hot and dusty and the thought of a wash in the river was inviting. I wandered off towards the river which wound its way through the woods, gushing over rocks and forming crystal clear pools. I undressed behind a tree and stepped into a pool waist deep of the coldest water I have ever encountered. I thought I was going to die. Diane de Poitier, mistress to two French kings, used to wash in the Cher every morning and I reckon she must have been a tough lady. I shivered as the freezing water splashed down my back. It felt good though. Once clean I stepped out and quickly dried myself wrapping a shawl round me like a sarong. I saw someone else emerging from a similar experience looking startled but clean.
The night we ate like kings, a dish of lamb and rice. I lay in my tent listening to the water tumbling down the rocks and roaring away into time. The wind in the trees filled my consciousness as I tried to sleep. Adrenaline coursed through my veins as I absorbed every smell, sound and sight around me. The horses munched happily. Another night passed.
That morning we were all up early and the boys saddled the horses. Louise was always up first. I could hear her talking to Gorban and Ibrahim and Verdi. We had bread, honey and white cheese for breakfast with dark berry jam that stuck to everything except the bread. Scrambled eggs appeared cooked with lashings of butter, yellow and shiny with a flavour I shall never forget. I always emerged from breakfast in need of bath, like a child in a high chair. I had remembered to bring the obligatory pot of Marmite. I live on Marmite, and love watching people wrinkle up their noses at the smell. I had forgotten to bring any electrolytes, the Marmite replaced my lost salt and right up to the last day kept me going and at the end of my journey I filled the pot with hot water and drank down the last little bit of salty malted vegetable spread.
We were soon on our way. The boys took down our tents and piled them and the bags into the two support vehicles. We crossed the dear stream that had washed us the night before and let the horses drink. We were right down in a deep valley and the climb ahead of us was long and steep. Toruche was out in front again. We climbed and climbed. The sun shot bursts of light through the trees. To our right a massive canyon was dark with undergrowth. We rested from time to time. After nearly two hours we were out of the woods and the valley emerging with more hills ahead. Miles of flat, arable hilltops stretched before us waving to us with arms of tall green corn. Lunch stop that day was so especially welcome. The boys brought flasks full of green tea about two cups each. You soon learned to drink it slowly. We ate garlic sausage and ham, tomatoes and little cucumbers. White cheese with everything. Thank god the jam had been put away.
I laid back and looked at the blue sky. The air was so clean. All around us were wild flowers, verbena, yarrow, blue hairbells, vetch, orchids, poppies and cornflowers. The poppies bled into the green corn. Anna’s horse Ghezeli sweats blood on her shoulder where a parasite breaking through the blood vessels. It is caused by a cycle of the fly larvae. The Bloody Shouldered Arabian by John Wootton was probably suffering from the same complaint and Blood Sweating horses had hundreds of years ago been legendary for speed and stamina. The parasite is only found in the Ferghana valley (south of Tashkent) and around where Louise lives. So the origin of any horse exhibiting this disease is easy to establish. I watched fascinated as the dark sweat turned even darker with blood.
Louise wanted to keep up a good pace and so took the lead. Toruche was full of spring. I settled back on my sheepskin and soaked up the deepest pleasure, which for me is to be on horseback. We turned north and rode along the spurs of several hills and reached the highest spot and then began our descent. The view was spectacular across a low and somewhat arid country. We lunched among flowers. The descent was windy sometimes rising again. We met up with the crew. Some of us dismounted and walked a while. It felt good to do that. We descended about 2000 feet into a huge ridged and hilly valley. A village edged the bank of a dry river bed.
Our next camp was a river valley the other side of this village. The children shouted to us as we rode through. I heard a plaintive donkey bray somewhere behind the houses. We cantered the last bit of our journey and it felt so good. The valley we camped in was a meadow with a stream running through it. I could hear the hum of mosquitos. The boys took care of the horses and we all headed for melon and tea in the main tent. The local police turned up and demanded to know who we were. Louise handled it with great style and they soon went away. Children appeared out of nowhere. The village watched us. Dinner was barbecued chicken and outrageously good. I settled down to watch the horses happily munching and the stars flickering out in the clear evening sky. Except for the hum of mosquitos all was peaceful and soon tent flaps zipped up we were all asleep.
Sure enough in the morning I saw some large red lumps appearing on various parts of my anatomy. Toruche was to be relieved of her duties. She spent the rest of the week having a wonderful time, munching wheat and trotting along with a massive smile on her face. I was to ride the pack horse.
We set off on our third day riding back into the village and then along the river edge and followed it as it wound round the valley. Louise told us that last summer a terrible storm had burst a dam and swept down the river valley taking with it houses, cars and thousands of people. We drove down that river valley on the way home and the sight of huge oak trees stripped of bark about thirty feet up was frightening. The water had left a cavernous swathe through the forest like a bulldozer.
The wind blew and with it dust filtered into every orifice. We all pulled our scarves around us and Justin wrapped his head up completely, resembled the invisible man. My camera stashed in the right hand side of my saddlebags was easy to extract. I was tempted to snap him before he vanished. As we rode on and up and over the other side of this particular set of hills the wind worsened and blew a storm of dust over us. We travelled on. My thoughts soared skyward from between the ears of my horse. I gazed out at the spectacular countryside. I felt renewed. The boys had found a magic valley to settle for the night. Tucked away in the hills with piped, spring water. It was a piece of paradise. I drew a picture. My mind and eye coordinated for a short while before dinner took me away. I washed in water taken from the copious supply and wondered how it was that the villagers we had passed were not all living up here. The green grass pleased the horses and once again night fell on this small pack of travellers high up, miles from anywhere beneath the stars. I lay for quite a while unable to sleep listening to the night sounds. Jackals howled somewhere in the distance. Bats squeaked on their nightly rounds of food hunting. Being a city girl this peace and quiet was deafening. I knew that I wanted this moment to become my whole life. To last forever, to be there when I woke in the morning and to stay with me, I clung on to it then, I still do.
The next day I rode Angela. A little grey filly with quite a character. She had been following free until then a recent purchase, I gathered. I rode up the next massive incline and then changed horses once again and rode ‘Baran’ which means rain. ‘My dear new horse is a treasure. She moves with great ease to herself. I wrote in my diary.’ I loved Baran. She was aware that I was filming and stopped and waited and then sometimes feeling impatient she would ask to move on. She was the soul of quietness with the heart of a lion and the speed of a firefly. My dreams and reality met for moments during that day, for which I will remain indebted to Louise forever.
Today we were to cross the Atrak river, a moment of cool joy for all of us the ride had been hard and steep and it was very hot. We saw a beautiful black Turkoman stallion tethered in a village just over the Atrak river. He was splendid and knew it. My camera failed me so the memory remains locked into my head. My inner eye sees him stalking us with pride and interest along the ledge of his tethering spot. We camped that night in a grass-barren valley watched by inquisitive villagers with no water and lots of wind. The tent – I lying on the windward side – blew into my face or back all night. I slept not a second. The next morning I crawled out to see that the horses felt the same. I brushed my teeth with extra vigour. We set off around about and into the hills again. ‘How the hell does Louise know where she is. ‘ I wrote in my diary. ‘Cos I’m just plain lost.’
That next say was incredible for views. We were high up. We looked down on valleys and canyons and the sun and clouds played a symphony I watched and listened. My aching muscles were melting around the shape of my horse, like plasticine. We melded. Baran and I enjoyed each other, I could feel it. I watched her ears they watched the road, we travelled together. That night we had our best spot ever. Right up on a crossroads of the hills were ancient civilizations must have met. Susan made the acquaintance of an elderly Turkoman woman who came and joined Susan beside the fire. They talked in different tongues. They communicated. It was delightful to watch as they, arm in arm walked off into the deep grass. Bridget Tempest decide to do a swift watercolour of Susan and this woman and she presented it to her. I doubt she had ever seen a watercolour before never mind one of herself. I wandered down to see what the boys called the source. A circle of a mud filled pond about a yard across bubbling with water. The horses had to drink out of it. It was hardly water at all. I looked to my right and there laid out before me was Shangrila. A valley full of fruit trees and grass, a place of peace.
Had I found paradise? I stood for a while the source behind, me the wide open wilds of desert land way over in the distance. I knew that I did not want to go home, but could I really live without my tooth brush. These people had nothing. No doctors, no cosmetics, only the clothes they made, no entertainment no hope of wealth, only the sky and clouds and the harvest. Only their ceremonies, circumcisions, weddings, horse racing, funerals and only the day to day life to sustain them. Our next two days travels became for me a journey into my and Baran’s mind. I was falling in love with Baran. The fresh air was sweating through my veins, my lips blistered. I knew that this was a marriage of souls.
Monty Robert revealed himself again. We had a mare called Sophianne who hated having her back legs brushed she kicked like hell. So I looked around to see if I could make an extended arm. Richard Shrake’s idea actually. I had a pair of gloves. So I put one glove into the other. Then I found a stick. Then I remembered I had a bandage and bandaged the stick onto the glove and hey presto I had an extender arm. I showed Gill Suttle how you use it and school the horse. It worked a charm and soon we had Sopianne clean behind and tick free.
That night we spent in a tiny field by a stream no more than one foot wide. It was bliss and I was tired. We had done about 11 hours on horseback over rock and sandy and we the riders seemed to be all out. The horses ate. We had travelled down a river bed at the end of a long day. Tired and hot and no one quite able to say where we were to rest that night. Louise stayed very close. Suddenly Ibrahim shot past me at a gallop. His mare was bored with walking I guess and just took off after ten hours of riding. This really says something for Louise’s horses. At this last village we were told that they had sold all their horses. This break with tradition must have been hard for them as it severed tradition.
The villages came around and asked us if we would like to visit one man’s house. I guess he was important. So we all went up to meet his wife and daughters. The house had a veranda, we stepped into a long room with a tiny square window, through which the bright sunshine cast muted illumination. The walls were mud plaster smooth and a soft brown colour that Dulux will never be able to match. On the floor on a large array of cushions was the wife of the old man. She is partially paralysed and cannot move. We all bent down to greet her. She held out a thin hand that quivered with a surprising vibrancy. She smiled drawing the shawl shyly across her face. Her eyes were large, and her skin pale. Her daughters all crowded into the small room and we looked at some of the bags her daughter had made. I purchased one placing a piece of paper in it with her name on. We stayed as long as we thought fit and then took photos of them. I always felt humbled by such visits.
We travelled the next day a mere few miles to the village where Dr Ghiadi lived. He is a great friend of Louise’s and helped me to get a lot of stuff (silver bridles etc.) out of Turkmenistan. He is the most genuine and caring person in the whole world. We ate lunch at his surgery and then got a shower. What a moment that was. We each came out of the shower looking paler. The sense of moment was intense. We ate and hardly spoke. I felt once again like the adventure had come to an end and then I realised that the end is just the beginning and that what I have to do now is simulate the experience. Learn and relearn, go forward from here. It seemed difficult at that moment.
Later on we went to another village where we met the great grandson of the poet Maktoum Gulli. We were honoured with tea and lovely cakes a sort of hard cheese and melon. We asked if we could take pictures of this amazing old man. He finally agreed putting on one of his best robes. In the bookcase behind him he had many old manuscripts and told us that one was 700 years old. There is a school where he teaches the Koran. He watched us, yet he seemed to be quite un affected by our presence. Some of the others had wandered off into the centre of the village and been entertained by the women. We finally tracked down Bridget and Anna, seated in a room surrounded by women and wonderful delicacies. They brought out many things for us to buy. Beaded belts and carpets and one girl put her wedding coat on for us. The entrance to the village was a broken wall, with hardly a step in it and Louise had quite a job to climb over it with her newly mended leg. The rest of the compound was enclosed. How odd to have such a small entrance into a village? I thought.
We left there and were taken to yet another village where textiles appeared from nowhere in large quantities. Also tea appeared. Cheese and cakes and melon and tea in little bowls. We all had to sit and feast and then they brought out the textiles. I had already purchased a coat and a dress and a fine sash. The others bought saddle blankets and coats and shawls. The workmanship was astounding and the colours lovely reds and greens with yellow and white woven in. The coats of the turkmen are long and made of woven red silk with stripes in. In Jagalan I noticed that they had yellow in which is rare in Turkmenistan. By this time we were exhausted and seriously overfed. We took our plunder back to the camp site.
Next we were to visit the Turkomen stallions belonging to Dr Ghiadi, given to him by Louise. They are exquisite, one is chestnut and one bay. They both have fine heads and good conformation and stood about 15.3hh to 16hh. Louise was right they are different to the Thoroughbred, slightly longer in the back and with a lighter body but still very powerful. We then went to see the herd of mares over the hill and that was interesting too, with surprisingly good looking stock. At least Louise is helping them keep horses up there. She says it is the best breeding ground for horses of anywhere in the world. Normally there is a good rainfall and the grass is rich and tall. This year there has not been so much rain. How dependant they are on weather patterns. Natural disasters such as floods and droughts are never far away. They live in world balanced on the edge of survival.
I began to see through that dust a whole world of adaptation. Their clothing, social interaction, food, ceremonies all had a purpose. The people who gazed out at me with their brown eyes and blackened skin were the survivors of a harsh and yet fertile land. It had tamed them and them it. The balance of nature held steady through ancient ways. Modernization will not necessarily help these people. It may makes their lives easier and cleaner, but what will it do to the communities. Already many young men leave to go to the city and earn fortunes compared with their meagre agricultural wages. They may lose their souls to modernization and surely that is what we came here to find, our souls. I found mine in every tree and flower, in the faces of the children and with the horses, especially with the horses.