The Basotho Pony
November 29, 2011
The trip of a lifetime, thanks to the Basotho pony.
“I have never been so dirty as an adult” my husband accurately reflected after our second full day in the Lesotho mountains. We had been riding atop the agile Basotho ponies to remote villages where the children have never seen a motorized vehicle and the babies shied from our white faces. It was on this trip that I fell in love with the Basotho people and the remarkable animals that support their livelihoods.
We arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa on Friday the 18th of November. There we rented a car and drove over deeply potholed roads to the South African-Lesotho border. Lesotho is a small mountainous country that is completely surrounded by the country of South Africa and is the home of the Sotho-speaking (Basotho) people.
Although few Americans have heard of it, pony trekking in Lesotho is a “must do” in Southern Africa. My husband, an expert on African development, has known this for some time, and we were finally taking the time to make our own trek. I knew that we would be riding ponies that were born and bred to handle the mountainous ascents and descents, but I was picturing something like the donkeys that carry people into the Grand Canyon. I had no idea .
“Nerves will be tested on the first day as you descend into the river gorge” was the description in the Xeroxed informational booklet that we found in our rustic base-lodge. And they were not kidding! The Basotho pony has evolved from the South African Cape horse, the Arabian horse and the Connemara ponies from Ireland . The result is a small horse with ferocious strength, agility, and unlike the donkey, this animal is patient and fearless. With 100 to 200 pounds of human or gear on their backs, they climb and hop up and down rocky faces that only sheep and goats would traverse in any other part of the world.
Now, I grew up riding horses. My childhood companion was a hot-blooded Arabian that tested my riding abilities, but even I was shocked and hanging on for dear life as my pony took me down into this gorge on sheer chalky faces and over steep uneven rocks. I leaned back as far as I could and squeezed tightly with my out-of-shape thighs, and yes, closed my eyes sometimes. Somehow we made it down to the river – and that was just in the first hour. There were a lot more rugged mountains ahead.
Alex was the name of my pony, I think. It seemed like our guide made up names when I asked what the horses’ names were. They may not really have names, as they are regarded truly as vehicles. Naming your horse would be like naming your car. Some people do it, but it isn’t the norm. Consequently, these horses don’t seem to bond with their human. That isn’t really true, they just aren’t bonded like our spoiled animals, who run for attention to anyone who might feed or pet them. There is a different kind of bond here, and it results in an animal that is incredibly easy to be around. These horses don’t kick or bite like most donkeys I know. They respond quickly to commands and could be trusted with a small child running under their legs.
So, the stoic Alex carried me for seven hours on that first day. We finally made it over the most rugged mountain pass to the village of Sekoting. There we were greeted by children and the village sangoma (traditional healer), who lived next door to the Basotho hut where we were to stay. Our hut, leased from the village chief, was round with hard mud-dung floors, adobe walls and a thatched roof. It was stocked with a gas burner, a bucket of spring water (to which we added purification tablets) and mats for sleeping. The red dust was everywhere, but we settled in and began to watch the end of a day in the life of a remote African village.
Large herds of white angora goats and sheep were shepherded into twig-fenced enclosures. It seems that all the boys are shepherds and the older ones brought in the family’s small herd of cattle. The cattle in this region are the symbol of wealth and are worth a lot, so owning 4 or 5 cows is a big deal. The cows spend the night in stone enclosures with the donkeys. The village appeared to own one Basotho pony, who was blanketed for the coming storm. My husband and I joked about this truly being a “one horse town”.
The next day we again rode to another village near a spectacular waterfall. Because we arrived earlier, we were able to see more of how the villagers and their animals survive in these arid mountains.
A pig was nestled up against the rondavel of our host family. Tiny baby Angora goats wandered around the village bleating for their mothers. Apparently, the babies cannot handle the rugged terrain, but the mother goats must be taken into the mountains to graze, so they leave their babies behind for the day and are reunited at night. The grandmother and village elder, seemed to take pity on the tiniest ones, as they rested at her feet in the shade of her hut.
One thing I learned is that there is no organized feeding or watering of any of the animals. Everything must make it on its own. Herding dogs didn’t beg from people because they know they aren’t getting anything from them. They make due with the legs, feet and heads of cows that have been slaughtered for food. So, as you walk out of the villages, you find large cow bones just lying around. Chickens and their chicks strut around picking up grass seeds and bits of corn leftover from the corn that is ground by the villagers as their main staple. While on the trail our horses grazed at night and drank from rivers that we crossed during the day. (Back at the base lodge, these hard working horses were fed grain and corn)
What a perfect way to spend the Thanksgiving holiday. We met joyful children, caring elders and enjoyed stars so bright and dense that the sky seemed one mass of light. All the while, we were getting dirtier and dirtier from the red dust that permeated the air, our horses’ blankets and even our sleeping bag. Sometimes you have to let go of social norms and just let yourself get really, deeply dirty to remind you what to be truly grateful for. I love that about Africa