MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistan adventures#41 When a childhood dream becomes an adult nightmare

Lal-sar-Jangal – early winter 1989

Bashir and friend (Custom)

Qurban’s little brother Bashir and friend


The journey to visit Qurban’s family was rapidly approaching and my chance to fulfil a lifelong ambition to learn to ride a horse. As a child I had wanted more than anything to own a pony, badgering my parents to no avail. The “we can’t afford its” won. I contented myself with devouring every horsy book I could lay my hands on. I succeeded in cadging the occasional ride on a friend’s fat pony and the occasional riding lesson. My passion waned although it never completely left me.

Now, horses suddenly appeared to be very large. Qurban’s horse seemed particularly huge, and every time I passed close to where he was tethered, I had the uneasy suspicion he rolled his eyes at me in a wicked and knowing way.

IMG_0015 (Custom)

We set off in the afternoon for the three-hour ride. I was relieved to see my horse was considerably smaller than Qurban’s. Dredging my memory for all the theoretical knowledge about horsemanship stored away since childhood I declined Ibrahim’s offer of help to mount and, one foot in the stirrup I gracefully swung the other leg over the horse. The ‘How to’ books hadn’t said anything on the subject of mounting a horse while wearing Afghan dress and long chaddar. My graceful manoeuvre was marred by the necessity of having to make hasty rearrangements to my clothing to regain my modest appearance.

I took the proffered reins, afraid to grip too tightly in case the horse thought this was a signal to go, but refused the whip which was also offered. I had read my Pullen-Thomson, and knew that the bond, which would surely soon be formed between me and my horse, would be sufficient for me to direct her with the lightest of touches on the reins.

Qurban arrived, his horse impatient to be off, stamping his hooves and circling round and round, nostrils flaring. Ibrahim turned my horse around and led us to the edge of the village where I managed to raise one hand in a tentative wave of farewell to everyone who had turned out to watch. All went well for the first fifty yards. My horse stopped, refusing to put a hoof in the shallow stream we had to cross. Qurban was already miles in front, oblivious to the fact that I was no longer with him. I felt a complete idiot.  Having tried the pressure with the knees bit, the gentle tug on the reins bit and even – principles are soon abandoned in the face of acute embarrassment – a sharp kick or two with my heels, I didn’t know what else to do. Some men working in a nearby field saw my predicament and alerted Qurban, who sent his young brother, Bashir, to the rescue. He took the reins and led us through the water.

We plodded on. Plodded, rather implies a dogged determination to reach one’s destination but my horse’s speed and enthusiasm for this venture was demonstrated by a laconic shamble. I named her Slowcoach.

Qurban was still a long way ahead, half way up a mountain. On the gentle, lower slopes Slowcoach stopped. I urged her on. Qurban, impatient with my uselessness, yelled advice from far above, “Kick her!” I kicked; Slowcoach gave a huge sigh, moved forward ten yards and stopped again. I kicked, I kicked harder then, thinking I was perhaps being too squeamish about this business of getting a horse to move, I kicked harder still. Slowcoach sighed heavily again, but she did not move. Bashir had to run back down the mountain to lead her on. It was all very embarrassing.

IMG_0017 (Custom)

Bashir on Qurban’s horse, me on Slowcoach

Qurban said nothing when we finally caught up with him. On the summit of the pass he dismounted, saying we should lead the horses down as the slope was too steep for them to carry our weight. I was delighted. I made faster progress on my own two feet than on Slowcoach’s four.

We paused for a photo session of the superb views from a height of around 3000 metres.  For miles an endlessly repeating pattern of mountains and valleys, the landscape patch-worked in shades of brown and russet and golden yellow, glowed in the late afternoon sun. We were in a totally silent world. Suddenly a huge bird soared into the sky from a nearby mountain top, circling and swooping in its lonely search for prey. Qurban said it was an eagle but I knew he would have called any large bird an eagle, and debating cheerfully about other birds of prey we continued down the mountain.

Qurban on horseback (Custom)

Qurban – the world beneath him – and the sun going down because I’d taken so long.

The journey which he said took three hours actually lasted for more than six and, long before our arrival, it had assumed a nightmarish quality for me. Qurban assured me Slowcoach was not lazy and offered to exchange horses to show well she could go. I agreed, but as soon as I mounted his horse, sensing my nervousness, he began to prance around. Qurban speedily reclaimed his horse before I did any lasting damage to him, and I returned to Slowcoach with some relief, but an even greater sense of failure.

Bashir on horseback (Custom)

Bashir on Qurban’s horse, Slowcoach behind.

When darkness fell Qurban switched on a torch. We were walking along the edge of a precipice, on a path barely wide enough to accommodate a bicycle never mind a four footed animal. I wished Bashir was still leading me but he had gone to sleep behind Qurban, exhausted after climbing so many mountains, twice, to help me. When we finally arrived I dismounted and hobbled after Qurban like an old woman. I was already dreading the horrors of the return journey, when Qurban told he’d accepted an invitation for us to visit a patient’s house next day. “It’s not far, an hour by horse.”

“At your speed or mine?”  I asked fearfully.

Qurban considered, gave a ghost of a smile and amended his estimate, “Well, maybe three hours.”

49 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistan adventures#41 When a childhood dream becomes an adult nightmare

  1. Identical childhood here – same books and mean parents who never bought me a horse! My various brief experiences with riding were nothing like the books so I can well imagine your long ride Mary, but of course that was in another league compared with the various ‘riding schools’ friends and I tried.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I have only “rented” horses a couple of times. I wouldn’t do it again. I agree that they know if the rider is skilled or not ant take full advantage of the knowledge. You are such a brave woman to always plod on through whatever comes your way. The pictures are beautiful also.

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  3. As a life long rider I can imagine the state of your bottom after that ride! And I’m sure those saddles were not as comfortable as modern European ones. And yes, horses suss you out at once! Looking forward to the next installment.


  4. You did a lot better than I would have. I was only on a horse a couple of times, and didn’t like the experience. Nervous, edgy animals that always seemed to me to be considering throwing me off. One I was on stopped to eat some leaves on a bush, and would not be shifted by kicking. Another time, the horse kept constantly turning in circles, much to the amusement of the others in the ‘riding party’.
    The story of the torchlit walk along a narrow precipice was enough to put me off of any personal Afghanistan adventures completely.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Horses really know how to make a fool their inexperienced riders, don’t they? I was so gutted because I really thought it would be wonderful to have my dream come true. There will be some more horse riding adventures later, Pete, and I did become more confident.

      Liked by 1 person

    • And when they go on strike you’re left feeling such a twit. The landscape was stunning and I’d certainly never have managed the high passes on my own two feet. Poor Bashir was absolutely exhausted. Thanks for sharing.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: MarySmith’sPlace – Afghanistan adventures#41 When a childhood dream becomes an adult nightmare | Smorgasbord Blog Magazine

  6. I like horses, but I’ve never tried riding one, and I suspect my experience would be even worse than yours, Mary. (I’m clumsy even on two feet and solid ground). Thanks for sharing this! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Afghanistan adventures#41 When a childhood dream becomes an adult nightmare ~Mary Smith | Sue Vincent's Daily Echo

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