Equestrianism: Tolstoy tells of great trek along ancient trade route
Four friends overcome extremes of hardship in Silk Road adventures
Saturday 20 December 2003
Alexandra Tolstoy tells of her astonishing 5,000-mile trek on horses and camels in The Last Secrets Of The Silk Road (Profile Books, £16.99). She undertook this epic journey, which took her across the remote mountains and deserts of Central Asia and China, with three young women whom she had met at Edinburgh University.
The four intrepid friends encountered extremes of heat and cold as well as torrential rain and ferocious winds as they retraced the ancient trading route. At one stage, the winds that came "howling in from the Gobi Desert" made it "impossible to walk, as each step became a fight against an invisible force".
As befits a descendant (albeit indirect) of the author of War And Peace, Tolstoy writes with splendid verve and candour about the joys, hardships, rows, bouts of illness, dangers and sense of achievement that were experienced during the eight months of travelling. The horses and camels were by no means angelic, but they are described with affection and with understandable concern for their welfare.
While we can enjoy Tolstoy's adventures vicariously - and, thankfully, without the hardships - William Micklem's Complete Horse Riding Manual (Dorling Kindersley, £25) is very much a get-up-and-go book. With copious illustrations, which include some wonderful photographic sequences by Kit Houghton, the 400 pages provide a fully comprehensive guide to riding horses - at any age and at all levels of competence.
The book includes four helpful troubleshooting sections (on basic horse training, dressage, show jumping and cross-country) as well as physical and mental preparations. Should you doubt your ability, Micklem will both encourage and challenge you. "Nothing can take the place of persistence," he writes. "Talent will obviously not - the world is full of unsuccessful people with great talent. Education will not, because the world is also full of educated people whose lives stagnate."
Micklem, who is the training director at the Gleneagles Mark Phillips Equestrian Centre, has been working with horses and riders for more than 30 years. He has made some staunch friends on the way, notably Karen O'Connor who was a member of the United States bronze medal team at the Sydney Olympics. "He has shaped my career, as he has so many others," O'Connor writes in the foreword to his book.
Like Micklem, Sylvia Loch insists that everybody can achieve the goal she sets out in Invisible Riding (D J Murphy Publishers, £12.99). This involves learning to make such subtle communications with the horse as to render the application of the aids virtually invisible. It also involves commitment: "unless one really wants to ride in a better way and in partnership, it simply won't happen."
Loch is an acknowledged expert on the methods passed down to us through the centuries by past masters of classical riding. "For classical read 'natural'," she writes, as she sets about revealing "The secret of balance for you and your horse", which is the book's subtitle.
According to Loch, "the whole philosophy of riding this way is based on logic - i.e. adhering to Nature's laws of balance, gravity, locomotion, etc". Achieving the goal brings its reward, which Loch expresses with pleasing simplicity. It will mean that "our horse - any horse - understands us and does things easily".
Understanding is also the principal aim of Abigail Hogg's The Horse Behaviour Handbook (David and Charles, £19.99) in which she explores the reasons why horses react to certain situations and looks at ways to deal with the problems that arise when handling or riding them. She makes a convincing argument for keeping horses in groups and outdoors - as would happen in their natural habitat. This gives them the three elements that Hogg believes are important in keeping them mentally balanced: time for foraging, social contact and space to move. The text is backed up by photographs, some of which give charmingly graphic examples of the way horses behave when they are free to roam.
Janet Rising, the editor of Pony magazine, brings us another offering from the D J Murphy stable in The Bumper Book Of Horses And Riders (£9.99). This is a cheerful compilation of facts and pictures, puzzles and quizzes that should help to keep younger riders happily absorbed.
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