Day 135 – Horse Shopping & Base Camp
Horse Trading in the Balkans
“Ok, I’m interested in him. Can you please tack him up and let me see him move under saddle?
The owner of the bay horse we were looking at buying quickly tacked him up and handed Ashley the reins.
“No, I want to see him move under saddle before I ride him. You ride. I watch.”
The owner nervously shifted on his feet. He said something quietly to our translator.
“He says this horse has been in the stable since September.”
“I can’t afford to risk an injury on a horse I haven’t even seen trot before the trip. He needs to ride first.”
She translated this back to him.
“He says the horse isn’t really a leader, he is difficult to ride by himself.”
“If I’m going to buy him I need to see how he moves. If he wants to sell me this horse, he has to ride it for me first.”
Reluctantly, the man prepared to mount the bay gelding, who danced away from him, his mouth wide open, tongue lolling out.
Needless to say, we did not buy this horse. Nor did we buy the pony who froze and trembled when a human was within ten-feet of him, nor did we buy the sickle-hocked and grumpy grey gelding.
During the communist era in Albania, riding horses was considered a capitalist pastime and forbidden. The Albanian horse as a breed suffered immensely under communism. Our choices for “riding horses” were limited.
Having no luck in the Gjirokaster area we were sent down to Konispol, in the south of Albania at the Greek border, to meet with an Albanian man breeding horses for shepherds to use in the mountains named Ulsi. Ulsi was in his forties with a kind face and tanned skin. Unlike many brusque and showy Albanian men, Ulsi had a calm energy and a sweet sense of humor. We trusted him immediately and hoped to find all three horses with him. He didn’t speak any English or Italian, but we were able to communicate through a friend on the telephone and our limited Albanian. On a stormy Sunday morning, his brother brought a handful of horses down from the mountains for us to try, so we had our choice of both his and his brother’s horses.
“This is exactly what we’re not supposed to be doing!”
Quentin shouted, over the clanging of cowbells, the barking of dogs and the cries of, “Hetz! Hetz!” by the Albanian shepherds milling around.
“Just get on, let’s go!”
Quentin accepted the reins and swung up for the first time onto the grey mare. Bareback. We had politely refused to test the horses using the heavy and primitive Albanian saddles, a wooden contraption that sits high up the horse’s neck and strap behind their flanks. Once Quentin settled in, off they marched, melting into the herd of animals and people descending down the hillside. Ashley was seated similarly on the flashy black mare that she had fallen in love with yesterday. She was having less luck. Each time she encouraged the mare forward, she felt her back muscles contract; the threat to buck or spin was communicated loud and clear. As the first raindrops began to fall, Ashley got down to lead her by hand, certain the mare would not be coming on the trek. As her feet hit the ground the mare spun and reared to face her, striking at her chest with her front legs.
“How are we ever going to ride to Tropojë if we can’t even find safe horses?” Ashley mumbled desperately to herself.
Not thirty seconds later, she was seated on a young black gelding, trotting along in halter and lead rope behind the lead pony. She looked back through the loose horses and dogs separating them to see Quentin totally relaxed trotting along on Griva.
Gradually the rain grew steadily harder. Twenty minutes later we were riding in a downpour. As we rounded a corner we were faced with a swinging wooden bridge, the engorged river rushing beneath. Johnny and Ashley were behind the lead pony, and Johnny followed willingly. As the other horses clambered onto the bridge he balked a bit, the swinging vibrations from the weight of five marching horses seemingly making him sea-sick.
This is when Ashley noticed the lead pony. Not more than 13 hands, he was being ridden side-saddle in the traditional Albanian pack-saddle. He trotted down the lane, leading the whole pack, without a care in the world.
“If that pony has no major problems, he is coming with us to Tropojë,” Ashley shouted back to Quentin.
We agreed on a price for the three horses and did our own vet check. The standard vet check here consists of a dental, heart, and respiration check. We upped the bets and did several lameness exams for good measure. Everyone passed with flying colors.
One week later, we unloaded Johnny, Griva, and Düldül from the bed of a truck at our “Base Camp,” in Azim Zeneli. The small village is perched on a hill facing Gjirokaster, with a playground of trails all around. The stables where we were making camp belong to a trio of Albanians who have successfully create an equestrian vacation business taking tourists through the mountains on horseback. They had agreed to let us board our horses at the farm and to sell us two English saddles. Though we were there for a week, we rarely saw the owners, and spent most of our time with their staff, who spoke no English.
The stables were surprisingly European, with a beautiful wooden tack room and a small clubhouse to eat meals, equipped with a single bed for the night watchman. There was no toilet, nor a shower, though there was a television and WiFi.
During Base Camp week, the horses were to stay in the paddock by the stables during the day and at night we would attach them on long ropes and pitch our tent where we could peek out and see them. This would be our sleeping setup during the trek, so best to start now. The first morning at sunrise, we anxiously opened the tent flap. We were thrilled to see the three horses still attached blinking back at us.
Our pack saddle is a borrowed 1956 Swiss military saddle, with metal arms to hold the bags which we shipped from France. After a six-hours of insisting at the customs office in Tirana that we were not going to pay three-hundred euro to import personal affairs, we paid a mysterious twenty-three-euro fee and liberated the package. We adapted two plastic fruit boxes to sit on the metal arms and hold our bicycle bags. The first evening that we had these boxes, we were thrilled; “Now Düldül can carry the gear to set up the tent!” We loaded him up and strapped the bag that carries the tent on top.
The sun had already set when we began to walk down the narrow trail where Ashley had seen a flat place with good grass for the horses. Not ten feet down the slope we hear a huge crash. Düldül jumped left up the cliff, the gear and the pack saddle fell off to the right. Bless the honest pony for not bolting, he stood stock still while Ashley freed him from the pack saddle hanging off his side. The plastic fruit boxes had placed the weight too far from his body and on top of that the weight wasn’t equal. Additionally, a proper hindquarter harness was now at the top of the to-buy list. They say God takes care of the ignorant, and he did, because such an accident could have seriously injured Düldül, ending our trip before it began.
During the chaos, Griva had slipped out of Ashley’s hands, and had trotted to the top of the hill. We had seen during our prepurchase trials that she was tricky to catch, so Ashley tied Düldül and calmly made her way up the hill to get Griva.
Off Griva trotted away from the barn, down the mountain. Ashley trotted after her, cooing. Off Griva cantered, down the mountain. Ashley followed suite. For ten minutes she gave chase, as the mare worked her way down the mountain in the direction of the plain and Gjirokaster.
“For Christ’s sake, just level with me! You don’t want to go to the city,” Ashley panted, as images flashed through her mind of all the possible accidents that could happen if Griva did trot all the way to Gjirokaster.
Finally, the mare stopped. Griva sighed, and waited. Ashley walked up to her, took her lead rope, and began walking back to Base Camp. Whatever agreement they came to that night took root, because Griva hasn’t run away since.
A few weeks ago, in the Albanian Highlands, we saw a woman trim her horse’s hooves with a hammer and a kitchen knife; we were understandably paranoid about anyone touching their hooves. Ulti and Afrim, who manage the day-to-day at the stables, sized our horses’ hooves and we were instructed to go to town to buy their shoes. Having no car, we walked down to the exit of the village and waited for a car to come. Hitchhiking is very easy in Albania and we quickly met most of the residents of the village this way.
Visiting the shop Ulti recommended the man handed over our horseshoes.
“Here are the 9.5s, the 10s but 11.5, no, I don’t have that size. It must be a big horse! If you walk up the main road, there is an empty lot on the left. There will be a man selling bells and dog collars through the grate. Ask him.”
“11.5? No. It must be a big horse! Come back tomorrow and I will have them.”
The next morning as we walked towards his space at least four people stopped us to say, “He has the 11.5s for your big horse!”
Admittedly, compared to the small stature of most Albanian horses, Johnny does stand quite tall, all 15.2 hands (142cm) of him.
The next morning, we finally corralled Ulti and Afrim into shoeing our horses. They did a fantastic job, dispelling any fears we had about Albanian blacksmiths.
Gathering the Gear
As promised, we were shown ten saddles that were no longer being used by the stables, which we could buy for our trek. Of these saddles, six had broken trees. This left four, two of which fit our Johnny and Griva well enough and we were given appropriate pads to enhance the fit and protect against saddle sores. The saddles have undoubtedly seen better days and they needed the addition of O-rings to attach our saddle bags, but they’ll do the job. Two girths with broken buckles were repaired and made to fit the horses. For stirrup irons we had fewer choices but finally ended up with two pair, though Quentin’s were missing the pads and elastics.
Speaking with one of the owners on the phone, Ashley asked about breastplates and cruppers, essential for riding in mountainous territory.
“We don’t have any to sell. There is no tack shop in Albania, but there is one in Janina, in Greece.”
Discouraged but determined, that afternoon Ashley hitchhiked down to Greece, visited the tack shop for the remaining gear and hitchhiked back, arriving back at camp close to midnight.
It’s a Dangerous Business, Going Out Your Door
New shoes on, saddles fitted, bags weighed, balanced, weighed again and girths tightened, there was only one thing left to do. After nine months of dreaming, planning and organizing and with no fanfare, just a handshake to Afrim and Ulti, we mounted our horses and rode onto the trail, beginning our six-week Trans-Albanian Trek.