Me and my dad hitchhiking in the back of a pickup truck

My Fantastical Ethiopian Horse Riding Experience 🦄

The photo is of my dad and me while hitchhiking from Ethiopia to Djibouti, a few months after this story took place. Best I could do since there were no photos from the day of.

Recently my mom and her partner reminded me of something I’d emailed them long ago that they thought was funny. So I dug it out of an old online backup. I figured I might as well share it for posterity.

  • Date: January, 2002.
  • Details: Written at age 16 while in Ethiopia.
  • Changes: Although I’ve left the original voice intact, I’ve made a lot of small changes (with help from my girlfriend). Apparently my 16 year old self didn’t like headings, and thought excessive exclamation marks and capitalization were hella funny.

Some people’s fantasies and nightmares happen at the same time. That happened to me once, on my dad’s 45th birthday. It was a day to remember. I’ll start from the very beginning.

Once Upon a Time…

…In a magical city far away, known only to hardcore geography buffs and called Addis Ababa (the capital of Ethiopia, for those who fancy their geography softcore), my dad and I woke up at 8:01 am to yet another day. Only a few hours earlier we’d still been sparring over a merciless Scrabble championship. This was a longstanding tradition for us that naturally ended in total obliteration for the birthday boy.

My dad had just turned 45 that morning so I was trying to explain to him, as gently as I could, that he’s now in his 50s if you round it off. Somehow he didn’t seem to agree with this stroke of mathematical genius. But even so, ignorance no matter how blatant was not going to get in the way of our plans for that day. We’d been scheming and plotting for nearly a week. The time had come for us to perform an ancient ritual that is primitive yet sophisticated yet deeply manly. Yes that’s right, we were going horseback riding. And our planned destination was up the more than 3,000 meter high mountains surrounding the city.

After a meal with tasty injera (a spongy, sour flatbread that’s Ethiopia’s national dish), we headed off in search of a stable my dad had once heard of named (total truth here) Balderass. A foreshadowing of things to come, perhaps? We were trying to hitchhike there without knowing exactly where it was, so naturally, we ended up completely lost.

Then suddenly! Just as we were contemplating giving up all hope and sanity to dejectedly walk off with our faces downcast into the wilderness to become nomads who would eventually be forced to trade superfluous body parts for a little toilet paper… just then, someone who happened to live right near Balderass picked us up. Oh thank god. We were going to make it. We were going to live.

Animal Farm

Before I write any more, I think I should explain something. My horse riding experience up to that point was mostly limited to children’s fairs where I’d been slowly walked in circles on horses with highly padded saddles and insurance policies. So when we got to Balderass and went to choose from the hundreds of rougher and more wild looking horses they had at their massive stables, panic started to set in big time (in very short time) as I walked down an aisle—hands shielding my face—trying to protect my eyes from their spooky-looking horses with names I could only imagine like Vertebrae Pulverizer or Shell Shock Inducer.

“Do you have any really calm, obedient, sleepy horses?” I asked, bottom lip quivering. “A really, really easygoing one.”

“No problem!” gushed the manager. (Secret translation: Once our horses are through with you, you won’t be physically able to worry about this problem, sucker.) “Nooo problem!” he said again, just to rub it in. This did little to comfort my lip.

My blood pressure soon subsided, however, when they brought out two fine-looking beasts that they described to us as “very quiet” horses. Based on things to come, I’m going to assume that this had little to do with how law-abiding they were, and just meant they were mute.

Giddy Up

So off we went with our friendly Ethiopian guide leading the way. It wasn’t long before we found the next twist in our adventure: our guide had an English vocabulary composed entirely of two words, “up” and “down.” He wouldn’t stop saying them, either. I mean, that’s how he was trying to explain how to properly ride while the horses were trotting. You’re supposed to move yourself up and down, instead of just letting the horse whack you around. This, in theory, would’ve helped me a lot if I could’ve mastered it, since the saddles we were using consisted entirely of something that felt like a futuristic metal-reinforced cardboard. My dad’s more plentiful blubber meant the pain factor was slightly less concentrated for him, but we both still had what I’ve come to affectionately refer to as our bondage and discipline horse riding experience.

Seriously! I had metal spikes spurring into my right leg and butt cheek the entire time. I would have loved to trade butt check for left leg; but unfortunately, as in real-life bondage and discipline, I had little say over the treatment of my various private parts.

As our guide peacefully trotted ahead, his “UP down UP down” didn’t seem to capture the violence of the experience. All I wanted to do at that moment was fall off my horse and curl up by the side of the road, to give some time for a certain body part of mine to recuperate.

(If I sound like a giant wussie, that’s because I am.)

A Gift Horse in the Mouth

There’s more. Did I mention how my sadistic horse was possessed with an evil desire to bring revenge on me for riding it, by slamming its head upwards whenever I needed to lean forward? Well it’s true. And I have the split-open lip, throbbing headache, and horsehair aftertaste in my mouth to prove it.

Besides violence, my horse’s two other favorite hobbies were: 1) leaving humongous public outhouse droppings the size of John Candy’s head, and 2) pretending not to understand any of my commands:

Guide: UP down, UP down …

Me: Okay now. Whoooooa horsey, slow down there. Hold your horses, horse. Stop, dammit!

Wicked horse: (speeds up)

Me: WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE! STOPPPPPPPP! HEEL! SIT! HELP!

Guide: … UP down, UP down, UP down …

Me: (whhhack! crunch!)

That last part was the sound of getting hit in the face again, then having my nuts fold directly in half after a particularly nasty bump, then me folding in half in pain.

The gods of fertility and horse riding, I learned, are very close relatives.

Horsing Around

“Alright, alright,” I can now hear my horse-loving readers shouting at me. “Enough about all that already. We don’t want to hear about you. We wanna hear about those big, intense, hot-blooded, fertile animals you were with. Did you develop a spiritual bond with them? Did you feed them properly and frequently? Were they provided with adequate toilet facilities? What type of women do they like? Do you ever daydream about them when you’re all alone? Did you discover your inner child and embrace a passionate relationship with naked Mother Nature on the mountaintop?”

Well, slow down a second there. Let me first say that I think you’re really, really creepy. With that out of the way, I think you’re right that it’s about time to change the subject and start writing about the whole other side of the story: the fun factor. We actually had heaps of this stuff!

After 20 minutes or so past the outskirts of the city, the view changed dramatically as we started up the mountain. I was roving far above Addis Ababa on my blizzard-white horse, with zero people or civilization around. We were riding through Eucalyptus trees brought from Australia by Emperor Menelik II about a hundred years ago, and we were surrounded by golden plains, cool jagged rocks, an incredible panorama of the city below us, and of course wonderful views of the big, majestic butts of the horses in front of us. Glorious!

At the top of the mountain there was a big open field we galloped through at breakneck horsepower to our hearts’ content, nearly killing ourselves in the process. This was kickass fun, and probably one of the highlights of my entire life. Galloping was so cool, and I was finally able to do the “UP down” thing better. But then I’d pull the reins and get whacked in the face again by my stupid horse, and need to wrap my arms around its neck to keep myself from catapulting off. Nevertheless, it was quite the experience galloping side by side with my dad on the edge of the mountain with the entire city in the valley below us.

Jumping Off

When the ordeal was finally over and we made it back to the stables, tears began to flow as we smooched our horses one long last kiss goodbye. It had been such a magical time being knocked around for over two hours, so we were getting quite emotional. We headed off for the horizon on foot…and never looked back.

It was time to hitchhike home, so the two of us were soon all thumbs on the street. We eventually shared a ride out of there with about 10,000 condoms. That is, in a condom transport van (CTV), which naturally made for plenty of jokes about how very protected we felt inside. But before we got home, we made a quick detour at our local Pizza Deli Roma to shove Tuna Pizza Jumbo down our gullets, and to enjoy their wonderful extra highly padded chairs. Aaaaaaaaahhhh.

Over the next few days, the pain in our various body parts refused to let us forget what a great time we’d had. Perhaps one day horse riding adventures like this one will become a tradition for us, like having Scrabble championships, making Toblerone sandwiches, getting stranded in weird countries, or seriously exaggerating when writing stories. Only time will tell. But one thing’s for sure: All in all, it was a fabulous experience. If you ever happen to be in the area—for example, if you’re on a plane that’s highjacked by prank-loving aliens who take a poll of where all the passengers would least like to stop and it’s unanimously Ethiopia so that’s exactly where they take you (that’s how I got here)—and you have spare time slotted for Authentic African Adventure, you might want to check out Balderass Stables.

Just make sure to pack plenty of injera in your underwear.

—The end— 🏇🏻

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