Not every outfit is safe and professional. My story, and how to best keep this from happening to you.
Yesterday I spent $100 effectively to be belittled, criticized for touching horses, and then criticized for not knowing in advance that certain horses had a tendency to fight. This after my horse, during a short ride, got into a nasty kicking contest with my lead guide’s horse, I was thrown over her neck, split my lower lip, but was able to climb back on unassisted after hanging like a heavy necklace around this large Thoroughbred’s neck.
“You got too close,” Elizabeth, Makoa Farm’s owner and one of the two veterinarians, had to say when we got back. It was delivered with the kind of withering tone your mother might use to communicate how much of an idiot you were.
Well forgive me for pointing out the obvious, that these horses didn’t like each other, that they got into fights, that they were likely to behave badly was information you bloody well might have told me before we went out for a ride.
Not that it’s a safety concern or anything.
But I’m ahead of myself.
Let me preface this, if I may, by saying that I’m a very, very good rider. No expert (oh please) but I have ridden all over world in 45 countries on all kinds of horses in all kinds of conditions for nine hours a day for weeks at a time. I have been kicked, bitten, bucked off, and run off with, but by god I am not afraid, nor do I come off easily. It’s fair to say I know what the hell I’m doing most times. I also know to respect that I am in a new country, with new horses. With that I expect that since the owners know that, or should know that, they would take the time to explain any special circumstances or animal idiosyncrasies. Just for safety’s sake. But hell, that’s just me. What do I know?
A friend had researched and then recommended Makoa Farms as a way to spend part of a day horse riding here in Moshi, Tanzania. They have a place on the slopes of Kilimanjaro. She and I both wrote to inquire and my buddy recommended me as a writer with the idea that we might organize a small trade. Their Germany-based agent offered me a booking for a half-day. I’d offered to do a trade for a story, but they demurred. This is important. She wrote me that I had to prove that a story of mine resulted in bookings, which is not only impossible for a writer, that’s the job of the marketing department. I write excellent copy. What a company does with it is their job, or else I get hired to more in-depth work. I should have taken that answer as a clue.
It wasn’t the only thing that struck me a touch clueless.
I politely explained to the German agent that I don’t work for free and that I would be happy to pay for the ride, but that I wouldn’t be doing articles to help them get business if a trade wasn’t possible. As I live on a veteran’s disability, I have to mind my pennies, and trades for services allow me to do what I do. Not everyone gets it. Which is just fine. But when you are a full-paying client, you then deserve to be treated with a measure of respect.
I landed at Makoa at 1 pm. The sprawling 358 acres began life some twenty years ago when Elizabeth and her husband Lazlo, both vets, came to this part of Africa. They have an organization which does critically-important work for rehabbing animals. That part I do admire and absolutely respect. I am very excited for them that they have donors who have provided real money for significant improvements.
What I didn’t respect was how Elizabeth treated me right away. They have a barn where the horses stand outside their stalls in open areas. I’ve never seen that before, not in all my travels. As I followed her into the open area I reached out, as I always do, to the various horses. They reacted negatively, so I pulled my hand back, but not before Elizabeth barked at me,
Can’t you see their eyes, Julia, they don’t want to be touched! They have just eaten and now they are taking a rest! You need to leave them alone!
All right. So why did you not inform me of that, as I have never heard of horses being fed three times a day, nor have I seen this kind of setup before, nor have I seen horses standing around inside a barn into which she has just led me, where the horses are all well within reach. Anyone who loves horses will want to touch them, and I am passionately in love with horses.
If they are likely to bite, this is a safety issue. Why would you lead me into a barn, fail to tell me that I might want to be mindful of their condition and mood, but instead wait until I’ve already reached out and then slam me for it, treating me, a competent 67-year-old professional, like a toddler reaching for a cookie jar?
At that point, I knew that it wasn’t going to be a good day.
I bit my tongue, hard, and continued on the tour. The animals (which ranged from a fine five-year-old cheetah to an aging marmot to a tiny duiker), which had been badly abused by humans, were recovering, or had recovered. This was the proof of what they did very well. The problem is that they want the horse riding to help get donors to pay for their animal work. If that’s the case, I hope they have very good friends in high places.
On our walk out to see the baby elephants, Elizabeth said honestly that she much preferred animals to people as a child. Unfortunately that is very obvious. Painfully so.
At lunch I spoke with a few of the people who are working with her. One of them is an Austrian animal trainer. Among her responsibilities is training both horses and riders for the Tanzanian police force. That’s another example of good work. More on that trainer later.
During our conversation, Elizabeth took a swipe at Offbeat Safaris, an outfit with whom I’d just had a superb ride. That is hugely unprofessional. She has no idea about my connection to them, and to slam them during a casual conversation is completely out of line. For all she knows I might be a major donor. She is welcome to her opinion about anyone else, but to not take the time to explore what I know and feel about this other outfit is rude both to me and to my friends at Offbeat.
A lovely young girl and our African guide were sent out with me to ride the bushy paths, roads and trails on the property. We were on three quite tall Thoroughbreds. I was on put a German saddle, which had awkwardly-placed forward pads and stirrups which had a bad habit of coming off my feet no matter what I did. We shortened them, which helped, but they continued to be an issue, particularly at the canter. But because I am an excellent rider I can ride the canter whether I have stirrups or not, which a lot of riders can’t.
The area that Makoa owns is covered in high bushes right now, the result of seasonally unusual rains. That makes for gorgeous riding. The short program I was on began around four pm to six or so, basically $45 an hour. That’s not bad. What was bad was that there was no warning whatsoever about the horse’s temperaments. I got some riding advice, which we always do, when the horses are from another country and riding style, but not a word about how my horse and the guide’s horse definitely had an issue. The very pleasant young woman who came out with me simply told me about the treat process (the small snacks for our mounts) and the preferred reining style. That was all.
It swiftly became clear it was inadequate information.
My horse had a lovely long stride, so that even when I kept her back some four or five lengths at the canter, she swiftly caught up to the lead horse, who made his displeasure known by laying his ears back and threatening. You’re a fool not to notice, but many don’t, especially if they aren’t experienced. I did my best to hold her off to give him a good head start, and worked hard to keep her far enough back to keep from annoying the lead guide’s horse. She didn’t like being held back. Most good runners don’t. Besides, I love a good all-out gallop, which the landscape didn’t quite allow for safely.
Fine. However the guide never bothered to say anything about keeping a greater distance until we were nearly halfway through the ride, and by this time his horse had clearly indicated his ill temper. Nobody had said a thing about how his horse might kick or get pissy while at the canter. Again, this is a serious safety issue. Perhaps more importantly, if you as the stable owner know those horses don’t get along, don’t bloody well send them out together. There were plenty of animals to choose from at the stable, and I didn’t see that any were lame.
In all fairness to Makoa, they have their own reasons for sending out certain horses. I’m not a mind reader there either. But I do watch, observe and I also get to make some informed guesses based on the riding I’ve done in those 45 countries. This struck me as very bad business.
And then there’s this, off their website:
We will cater for novice, intermediate and advanced riders. Novices and beginners can join short riding trips inside Makoa-Farm only.
The fundamental issue with this is what while you might be on their property, and this is presented as a safe alternative for beginners, what I experienced was just the opposite.
We nearly had a disaster. The three of us had stopped for a moment. The guide and I weren’t far apart when it happened. Again, I was doing my level best to get my mare to back off and keep her facing away from his horse, as it was quite obvious there was a problem. I asked her gently and softly to turn away from him, she refused, and would keep edging closer. I had to pull hard, which I hate to do with any horse, and she resisted, as most horses will do, when they’ve decided where they want to go. Then, without warning, the guide’s horse took a powerful sideswipe kick at her body with his left back leg. Instantly my mare laid her ears flat, swiveled swiftly around to the left, her head in the bushes, and started kicking repeatedly at his horse with real gusto.
I got thrown forward and off balance to the right, which was right between the two. I grabbed her neck and hung on hard until the fireworks were over, my left foot almost completely over her back and still in the stirrup. Thank god I’ve got considerable upper body strength. I held onto her, grabbed her mane and the neck strap and hauled myself back up. There was blood in my mouth. I’d split my lip.
Minor injuries. But not if I’d completely come off, and ended up between two pissed-off horses having it out at our rest spot. This is how people end up badly injured or dead.
I’ve never been on a ride where one horse picks a fight in close quarters, while mounted. That’s a new one for me. And dangerous as hell for the horses and everyone else, especially if nobody bothers to tell the new rider that bad blood exists. I’ve never been particularly good at equine mind reading, and I usually have been able to trust a facility to have well-behaved mounts.
However, as a friend who has before, and will no longer, sent riders to this farm said, he knows of a number of people who’ve been injured riding with them. I can’t even imagine someone with far less experience, less strength and confidence in that situation.
Elizabeth has a highly-trained professional animal trainer, the woman I sat with at lunch, who works with her three months a year. At the very least, if Makoa’s got behavioral issues with their horses, that woman might want to be working with those who clearly have problems and pose a direct danger to her clients. But that’s just me. I’m not privy to their priorities, nor am I privy to their budget. But when I see behavioral challenges with the horses, and we were riding in what Makoa considers the area for beginners, I have to ask why her skills aren’t being pointed where there is clearly a need.
But there’s more.
On the way back, at the canter, up ahead the guide’s horse swerved without warning, very hard to the right, up and over and through the bushes onto another road. The guide didn’t give notice, so my guess is that he didn’t see it coming either. His horse did this twice, including swerving so hard that my mare nearly unseated me again as she jinked hard right into the bushes.
That looked to me that the guide himself wasn’t in full control of his horse, and he has no clue what the animal is likely to do. While that’s almost always the case in a place like Africa where a monkey or a baboon can send your animal skittering sideways, fair warning that this is likely to happen is a damned good idea in advance. If the guide is familiar with the area, where the animals might be (such as a favorite tree for the vervets) then you’d think that he’d have his horse under a crisper rein in those areas. I can’t know what was going on with him; all I have is the behavior.
When we got back, Elizabeth asked how it went. When I told her that we’d had “a little excitement,” she didn’t bother to ask if anyone had been hurt or anything at all about how we were. She simply said, again with that tone that you use with errant children, that
“You must have been too close to him.”
She still doesn’t know, nor does she apparently care, that I’d split my lip.
I wrote a triple prize-winning book called Wordfood which describes, among other things, the toxic habit of setting people up to fail and then catching them doing something wrong. She’d done this twice already. When we got back to the house, and I paid her, she asked me to write about my ride on Trip Advisor. This is pretty much what I’m saying, and without apology.
Makoa Farms has a safety issue. They have a customer relations issue. They have a real problem with communications, and if what happened to me is any indication, not only would I never ride with them again, but I most certainly wouldn’t send anyone else there.
The typical response of a stable owner who has issues like this is to blame the rider for being inept. Kindly. My trainers have put me on problem horses that rear, bite, buck, run away and do their best to rip my leg off or scrape me off under a tree branch. I have introductory letters from my trainers and stable owners which describe how much they trust me to take on their worst horses. I don’t compete in the ring. I ride in the wild, on some pretty remarkable creatures, in extreme conditions for up to nine hours a day. I am pretty fearless. There aren’t a lot of folks who can and would do what I do, and most certainly not at 67.
What I am not is foolish. I would not put myself on a horse with known issues with the guide horse in Africa, on land where you and I know damned good and well there are surprises around any and every corner. It’s challenging enough to learn a new mount, learn a brand new saddle, with stirrups that I have difficulty managing to stay in due to the unfamiliar design, head out at the canter with a feisty lead horse who is clearly unpredictable. That’s a setup. And it was.
And because she did it twice, it seems to be Elizabeth’s habit to set you up for failure, then dun you for not knowing what you couldn’t possibly know beforehand. Once is all right. Twice is a pattern. Because I’ve got feedback from other folks whom I trust that validate this, I’m comfortable making this public. That’s toxic behavior.
This article is a factual account. My opinions are something else, but the facts stand for themselves. Anyone who considers riding with them needs to know what to expect.
I am quite sure Makoa Farms won’t be happy about the feedback. But kindly let me be specific: what they do with animals, which is under the Kilimanjaro C.R.E.W. moniker, is very good, admirable and worth supporting, and I hope you do donate, if you are so inclined.
However I would far more enthusiastically recommend OffBeat Safaris in Kenya, where safety is a very serious business.
As a rider (at any level), before you ride with an outfit in any country, you need to know:
- What kinds of animals, their temperaments and any behavioral idiosyncrasies they may have with you, on the ride or each other BEFORE you set out on a ride. Offbeat did this with great thoroughness and precision, we all knew what our horses might do, who kicked when another horse got closer. And that was all before we set out for our familiarization ride. That is what professional outfits do. (You can also ask, which isn’t a bad idea).
- What kinds of behavior to expect if you tour the barn BEFORE you walk in. You and I make the very reasonable assumption that if you are inside standing around with the horses that they are accustomed to people and that they can be touched. If they can’t be for any reason, you need to know before you are inside, surrounded by tons of horse flesh, hooves and teeth. Under no circumstances should anyone be in a barn with these huge animals if for any reason they are likely to bite or kick because some uninformed person doesn’t know that they are “taking a nap after lunch.” (Again you can always ask)
- Their track record. My friend, a tour operator in this area, had bad experiences. I wish I’d waited until I heard from him before setting out because I’d have done something else. My safety comes first. It doesn’t appear to at Makoa, if my experience is any indication. That others have been injured on rides there says that their safety concerns are lax. As a previous Walt Disney World employee, I can tell you that the worldwide gold standard is safety first. Period. When you and I are on horseback, that covers a great many considerations. In this case, do ask. Absolutely. And be fully aware that far too many Trip Advisor reports aren’t necessarily real. Every online review that sounds too good and which doesn’t offer specific details is, in my mind, suspect. That’s why reports are a bit longer.
Those of us who ride regularly and all over the world, who have a lot of confidence in our abilities, can be more comfortable with questionable conditions. We have handled plenty. None of us want to be hijacked by them along the way. You and I have the right to be adequately informed, which includes choosing to not head out into the African bush on horses who clearly don’t care for one another. Those animals should possess the training and manners to be able to stand in fairly close proximity and be cantered near each other without pitching a hissy fit that can pitch a rider overboard and right into the emergency room.
I’m not a fool. I like risk, and I absolutely sign up for a big portion of it. Those of us who fly, skydive, bungee jump and other dangerous sports are not exactly shrinking violets. But I inform myself and I bloody well expect as a paying guest to be provided with what I need to be prepared and know what I’m getting into.
Above all, I don’t sign up for bad manners, poor customer service, bad safety practices and someone who slams people I both like and admire for my own personal reasons. And then am asked for a positive review on Trip Advisor.
Elizabeth said she doesn’t like people. That is achingly obvious, and it’s a big part of the problem. The cure: stay out of the public eye. Stick with the C.R.E.W. work which is your best gift. Hire a professional who is deeply committed to safety and the joy of the ride.
And make sure your animals are safe, or at the very, very least, that your riders know what to expect from them.