Horses have been in my blood as long as I can remember. I started riding as a little girl after begging and pleading with my parents to let me take lessons. With some reluctance from my parents (playing basketball or soccer would certainly have been a lot cheaper) I took my first riding lesson around 5ish and have not looked back since. People say you are horse crazy and if you don’t ride you don’t even know the half of it. Unfortunately for me horses and travel don’t always mix and both are extreme passions of mine and I always felt like either travel or horses were pulling me in their opposite directions. So I started to form a plan to travel to remote places around the world where equine cultures are still a part of everyday life. Lesotho would be my first stop.
The horse culture of South Africa and Lesotho started around the late 1600’s with the British bringing high value thoroughbreds to the Cape. Its believed that some of the breeds were Arabian, Persian or similar to the Java Pony. This would be the beginning of the Cape Horse, which became extremely popular during the Boer Wars. The Cape Horse and the Basuto Pony were most likely originally the same horse but eventually the Cape Horse became a larger, better-quality animal, and the Basuto remained smaller and stockier and developed very hardy hoofs. They have several gaits: the walk, the trot, canter, the triple and the pace. They are considered a gaited breed. Lesotho acquired Cape Horses as spoils of war but because of the harsh conditions as well as interbreeding the Cape Horse lost much of its height and stature, and the Basuto pony mostly replaced it. These ponies became incredibly sure-footed animals with amazing stamina and unrivalled courage from living in the unforgiving terrain. Because of these distinct traits they became very popular outside of Lesotho and were exported to near extinction within the country.
There was a time when roads barely existed in Lesotho outside of the capital and still to this day there are many roads only 4WD vehicles can navigate. After big investments by the government as well as trade deals with China most roads today however are tarmac. Horses have incredibly remained one of the main means of rural transportation to this day. The more I talked to the locals the more apparent it became that horses were in their blood. Most couldn’t remember exactly when they started riding but it was confusing which came first; riding horses…well actually donkeys, or walking. When you are young in Lesotho you will most likely be giving a donkey first. They have a much shorter fall to the ground than a horse so children learn to ride on donkeys. As they beome more accomplished riders it is an honor to receive their first horse. Horses are highly renowned and much more expensive than donkeys.The sight of children on their horses galloping up steep mountain passes while driving through the majestic mountains quickly became a common occurrence. I felt amazed and sometimes scared to see how nimble these horses could scamper up places which humans would have a hard time walking. I noticed that most of the children were riding bareback or without a bridle. Some of the children had devised a clever way of wrapping their tethering chain around the horse’s neck and through the mouth to create a makeshift bridle. Almost all the riders carried some sort of stick which when they were not using it to urge their mounts faster they would tap either side of the neck to steer their horses. They were not shortage of ingenious ways to ride.
With the introduction of new roads (mostly built by the Chinese in exchange for mineral rights) it is not clear if this unique equine culture will prevail. But with the rise of tourism there is a new use for horses. Pony trekking through the awe-inspiring landscapes of Lesotho have begun to take shape. There are a few operators who will arrange pony tours to remote mountain villages. You can arrange anything from a couple of hours to multi-week treks. These are not for the fainthearted as you will traverse some truly steep and rugged terrain often with only inches on either side and hundreds of feet vertical drops below. The locals may be used to it but you will need to gather all of your courage to stay calm. The reward however is unmatched. For the time being there are still many corners of Lesotho that can only be reached on horseback.