Janine Whyte, the self-proclaimed Globetrotting Cowgirl, was bitten by the travel bug in 2007 while backpacking around the world on a year-long sabbatical from work. In 2009 she stumbled across the world of equitourism and discovered that she could combine her two greatest passions in life: horses and travel. Since her first horseback safari in Botswana in May 2009, Janine has travelled off the beaten track and on four hooves in over 20 countries, enjoying many adventures including traversing the mighty Andes mountains and crossing the oldest desert in the world. Having just returned from a year working around Africa on horse safaris in exchange for food and board, Janine has decided to write a book about her experiences.
Read on to learn what life’s like as (potentially) the most addicted and dedicated globetrotter in the world!
What is your first memory of horses?
I don’t come from a traditionally horsey background but I’ve always been drawn to horses. I remember my Grandmother had a donkey that we used to attempt to ride bareback as kids and one of her cows, Cooby, was a real old pet that we used to play horse with, but no horses! When I was six my family moved from an urban area to a more rural area and I remember saying to my Mam, ‘This is great, now that we live in the countryside I want to learn to ride a horse!’ Call it coincidence or divine intervention, but as it transpired our new neighbour, a mere two fields down the road, had some horses and was a riding instructor, so she would take myself and my brother to the local riding school and teach us how to ride. A few years later she opened her own riding school, right on my doorstep, and that is where I spent the bulk of my childhood, surrounded by horses.
What does riding or being with horses mean to you? How have they influenced or changed your life?
I have been surrounded by horses since I was six years of age and I can’t imagine a life without horses in it. Being in the company of horses is as natural as breathing to me. I’m at my happiest when I’m astride a horse and despite having spent over thirty years in the saddle, it still never ceases to amaze me that these valiant and noble creatures allow us on their backs for our own selfish entertainment. They are incredibly special animals, valuable teachers and wonderful companions.
The partnership and connection between horse and rider is an incredible relationship built on understanding, trust and most importantly respect. I have been to many beautiful places in this world, but I would never have been able to experience these adventures without the courage, passion and companionship of these angels without wings. Horses helped me to find my wings and fly, fly, fly.
You seem to be living two lives – could you explain how you balance your incredible riding adventures with everyday life?
People think I have this awesome life of travel and I do love it – I go on amazing adventures at least four times a year, but I also work extremely hard for it. I’m a Diagnostic Radiographer by profession, which is a 24/7, 365 day-a-year job, and no, it does not pay well – which is why I have to work so many hours! Also, I can accumulate extra time off by working certain overtime and on-call shifts, which equates to more holiday time for travelling!! When I’m not travelling, the only other thing I am doing is working. I am in the hospital six days a week, I often work 60 hour weeks (basic hours plus on call and overtime), I’m working nights and weekends, I sacrifice holidays such as Christmas with my family, I sacrifice fun weekends with my friends, but I do all of this willingly because I know that my reward is a few weeks of total bliss discovering our world and adventuring with my beloved equine friends.
I have made a lot of sacrifices to be able to travel as I do; I’m not married, nor do I have children. I own very few possessions. My car is currently 11 years old and I refuse to change it until it literally falls apart! I do not own my own home and due to the spiralling cost of rent here in Ireland I moved in with the most wonderful room-mates a girl could have, my parents! I’m not a complete free loader – I do pay rent and I do my fair share of house work, coupled with being a technology assistant to the older generation! I’m not a very extravagant person: I don’t go on crazy shopping expeditions, in fact I loathe shopping, and I’m not out every weekend fine dining and swilling wine. I’m a simple person with simple needs who prefers to spend money making memories and travelling rather than accumulating possessions.
What made you decide to share your globetrotting adventures with the world?
I always wanted my voice to be heard, to try to inspire others, and a part of me really wants to change the world! I’m just a normal person with a normal job; I never thought that what I am passionate about was unique or special at all, it’s just something I do. But every time I came home from a trip and told my stories to friends and family they urged me to write a blog, get my adventures out there. Writing about my travels was a giant leap of faith! I started planning my blog in July 2017 and finally had the courage to put it out there and introduce the world to Indiananeeners Globetrotting Cowgirl in October 2017, after much procrastination and self-doubt, questioning whether anyone would ever read it.
I also had a deeper motivation for writing my blog. I wanted to show people that there is more than one way to live your life and that it’s okay if you don’t follow the Status Quo. You’re not a failure if you choose to take the path less travelled, you’re not a failure if you haven’t reached all the milestones that society dictates for us by the time you’re thirty, and most importantly, you’re not alone. The world certainly needs more free thinkers, more adventurers, more healers and peacekeepers, more storytellers and travellers, and your tribe are out there! I really wanted to spread the message that you only get one life, a fragile and precious gift – don’t waste it doing what you think you SHOULD be doing or what you think is EXPECTED of you… do what makes you HAPPY, what makes your heart sing, what makes you glow with joy, what gets the blood pumping through your veins and what puts an enormous smile on your face.
Let’s talk Madagascar! How did you come to be riding there, and what was that first adventure like?
I’d always been intrigued by Madagascar, its unique biodiversity, flora and fauna, and the sense of mystery that surrounds it. I also really enjoy getting off the beaten track and travelling the less well-trodden tourist path, so to speak, and I of course like to do it by horse. When I found a riding holiday in Madagascar there was no question that I would have to do it!
Horse riding is the perfect way to travel Madagascar and perfectly demonstrates the diversity of landscapes on the island. Over the 16 days of that first ride along the highlands and east coast, we emerged from the hustle and bustle of Tana to the quiet rural villages of the Volcanic Highlands. As our horses carefully meandered along the dusty red roads and picked their way meticulously through the black volcanic rock, hordes of excited children waved and screamed in delight at the rare sight of the horses. Beaming smiles and friendly waves extended from village to village, the word quickly passing that the ‘chevalier’ were coming!! At one point we even managed to stop a village football tournament when all the spectators turned their backs to gaze in wonder upon the horses! Riding in the Volcanic Midwest we were totally immersed in the life of those around us… farmers busy at work in emerald green rice fields straightened from their stooped stance and unfurled their gnarled hands to wave greetings, women busy doing chores dotted the landscape with brightly coloured clothes as the washing lay drying in the midday sun. Stopping at a local market for some rich, dark coffee, we became part of village life. Children smiled, waved, sang and chanted, flanking us from the highlands into the lush green rainforests and onto the crashing waves of the Indian Ocean where we enjoyed long, exhilarating canters along sandy tree-lined tracks, sandwiched between the waves of the ocean and the calm waters of the Canal des Pangalanes until we reached the ‘end of the world’.
What is it about riding in Madagascar that captivates you?
It is a country unlike any other I have ever visited. Visiting Madagascar, you take a huge leap back in time. Zebu carts trundle down the sandy village roads interspersed sporadically by the low murmuring hum of a motorcycle. Farm work is done by scythe and shovel, the plough pulled not by tractor but instead by the humble zebu, the rice fields tilled by hand. Primitive and simple as it may appear, Madagascar is a land full of hidden charm and unexpected surprises. What really makes this ride special is the labour of love it entails. This ride was built out of a dream and a passion for horses and country. A lot of the horses at Faka Ranch have spent time on the racetrack in Mauritius and have now been given a second chance at life as safari horses, as opposed to what usually happens to failed or retired racehorses. The horses not only provide an interesting sight as they glide through the villages, they also provide a very valuable and much needed employment opportunity for many members of the local community. Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world… lack of education and infrastructure make it seem almost hopeless at times, poverty is everywhere, and yet there is a simplistic joy radiating out of every pore. Riding through the countryside I witnessed incredible community spirit: everybody helps one another with what little they have, something that has been lost in our western ‘civilisation’. It’s an incredibly humbling experience and gave me much food for thought.
Madagascar may not have many luxurious five star hotels, but it has so much more… imagine falling asleep under a blanket of twinkling stars, the full moon bathing the earth in a pale, ghostly glow, the waves of the Indian Ocean crashing rhythmically against the golden grains of sand lulling you into tranquillity and calm. Imagine bathing in mineral rich waters, having your body scrubbed with the earth’s nutrient rich mud and having your aching muscles massaged before falling asleep to the sound of the river trickling below and the horses nickering softly in the distance. Imagine peeling open your tent to gaze upon the rising sun spraying ruby reds and golden yellows across the sky, fishermen paddling their pirogues seamlessly across the lake, nets cast silently to catch the fruits that lie beneath. Imagine trundling down a potholed rocky track and turning a corner to find a hidden gem of thatched bungalows with marbled bathrooms and starched white sheets, the heavy incense of perfumed petals wafting through the night sky…
How could you not be captivated?!
Can you tell us about the time you spent working with ex-racehorses on the ranch?
Madagascar is not a country with a strong horse culture – in fact there are only approximately 350 horses on the island, with 31 of these stabled at Faka Ranch, a mixture of locally bred Malagasy horses and Thoroughbreds. The horses at Faka Ranch are all special in their own individual and unique way, many having spent a previous life on the racetrack in Mauritius.
I returned to the Red Isle in April 2018, not as a guest but as a volunteer. I’ve had the privilege of growing up in a country steeped in horse culture, surrounded by horses my whole life and riding for almost 30 years, so it was time to share the knowledge and give others an opportunity to learn. My mission was to help the horses of Faka Ranch in their new roles as safari horses, a complete change from life on the track, a complete re-education. Re-training racehorses is not an easy task – it takes time, patience and experience. As I mentioned previously, Madagascar does not have a big horse culture; people are more accustomed to the humble zebu than the valiant equine. The grooms at Faka Ranch are incredible natural riders with seamless balance and seat, something you cannot teach. It’s almost instinctive to some of them and they are all self-taught, which is extremely admirable. The horses are also impeccably behaved on the trail – there is an abundance of noise and chaos as you ride through the villages between children laughing and singing, chickens squawking, pigs squealing, engines backfiring, and they take it all in their stride.
Ex-racehorses have a huge heart, incredible work ethic and extreme athleticism, but they are trained to do a specific job: they are trained to go fast, to compete and to win. Life as a trail horse in Madagascar is completely different. It requires more stamina, more hours under saddle over continuous days, more ascents and descents as we navigate the Volcanic Highlands over a variety of different terrain, and it requires control of speed.
My main focus with the horses was to create balance, suppleness, flexibility and impulsion. I generally started my sessions with some free lunging in the small pen on both reins in trot and canter, so I could get a sense of the horse’s way of moving. I used my voice a lot – I often refer to it as the ‘forgotten aid’, as we don’t use our voices enough when working with horses. It’s not what you say, it’s the tone that’s important. I would then tack up and just walk on my feet around the arena, changing direction sporadically, the horse following me, stopping every now and then and emphasising the word ‘whoa’. Before mounting I would do some poll flexion and then it was time for the real work to begin, 40 minutes or so in the saddle. I used a mix of techniques including transitions, circles and serpentines, pole work and trotting in each of my sessions.
I spoke a lot with the grooms about the importance of this work. I did demonstrations and lessons with them and I also photocopied a lot of material and pictorial aids for them to keep and go over in their own time. It wasn’t always easy, as English is not a common language at all in Madagascar, but with my few words of Malagase, the few words and English sentences I taught the grooms and a common language of French, I was able to paint a picture!
What’s your preferred way to give back to the people and places you encounter on your travels?
I like to write about them. Share my experiences as a solo female traveller in these far flung, off-the-beaten-track countries to demonstrate to others what it is truly like there, in the hope that it will inspire others to travel and raise some tourist revenue for the country in question.
I will also always pack some educational or basic medical supplies to distribute to schools and clinics along the way. Another way I like to give back is to share some of my skills and knowledge with others as they wish, such as giving riding lessons or English lessons. It doesn’t cost anything to help somebody.
Who is your favourite safari horse of all time and why?
This is very difficult – it’s like asking somebody to choose a favourite child! Each horse brought me to unforgettable places on expeditions where our hoofbeats were many but our hearts beat as one. They are all special and all hold a place in my heart, but there is always one that is truly unforgettable and extraordinary, and for me that horse is Jordan.
I rode Jordan in July 2015 on the Andorra Trail starting in Spain. We travelled 350 kilometres through three countries in 11 days. I didn’t realise it when I first laid eyes on this beautiful chestnut Anglo-Arab, but Jordan would become my most important teacher. Horses see something in us that draws them to us, and I believe that Jordan and I chose each other. He needed to be understood, for somebody to learn his story, and in return he would teach me about myself.
Despite being 11 years old, it was only in the previous two years that anybody other than the owner of the trails could ride Jordan. He was purchased as a three-year-old and Rudi almost sent him back because he was completely crazy. Nobody could get close to him, but Rudi’s patience and perseverance paid off and Jordan became an amazing horse to ride, albeit not for everybody, only a select few. A special horse with serious trust issues.
I had been warned that Jordan was a handful, bossy, a bit of a bully and slightly aggressive, all of which became apparent as I tried to groom him for the first time… hoof stamping, teeth barring, head swinging. Many would think he was ‘a bad horse’ and needed discipline; but I believed that there had to be a reason for this behaviour, for these actions. I’m of the belief that horses are not inherently ‘bad’; they learn these behaviours as a coping mechanism or as a defence. As time went on I figured that if Jordan truly wanted to hurt me he would – he could easily bite or kick me at any given time as I crouched by his legs whilst brushing them, but his teeth always grasped at thin air, his stamping hooves always grossly misplaced. His actions were a lot of bravado.
I used to watch Jordan a lot in the paddock with the other horses – so much can be learned from just observing. Jordan was a bit of a loner, preferring his own company, using defensive kicks and warning signs to keep others away from him, almost like he was protecting himself, the old ‘I’ll get you before you get me’ sentiment. As the days went on Jordan relaxed a great deal around me during our numerous grooming sessions, and we were making a lot of progress until one day he completely switched. I couldn’t even get within a foot of him. He glared at me with his ears pinned back and his teeth barred, hooves flying, he meant business: he did not want me anywhere near him. Rudi assured me this was ‘just Jordan’. For two days I had to let Rudi prepare Jordan for me whilst I prepared his horse.
I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t upset by it. I had never hurt Jordan, I had only shown kindness, and I couldn’t understand why he suddenly despised me so much. I pondered it a lot as we rode through the countryside and suddenly a picture began to weave itself in my head… the defensive behaviour, bravado, trust issues… something or somebody must’ve hurt Jordan in his past and I wondered if Jordan had been abused prior to Rudi obtaining him. It was then that the penny dropped… perhaps I had done something completely unintentionally that triggered a memory or response?
A horse will reflect exactly what you need to learn about yourself. Are you brave enough to ask? Are you strong enough to learn? Are you humble enough to listen? It was in that moment that I was confronted with a reality: Jordan and I were reflections of one another. In Jordan I saw me, I saw reactions that were extreme when triggered, I saw a fear of being hurt, I saw a tough exterior with a very sensitive soul… it was quite uncanny! Horses are incredible levellers and a great pathway to help us realise who we truly are. I’ll be forever grateful to Jordan for being my mirror, and the most special horse I’ve had the pleasure to ride. Jordan and I got on great after that and had a wonderful last few days on the trail. He’s still going strong and anyone who has ridden him since has really enjoyed him!
What has travelling the world on horseback taught you the most?
‘You can see what man made from the seat of an automobile, but the best way to see what God made is from the back of a horse.’ – Charles M. Russell
I have learnt so many lessons from my years of travelling the world on horseback. I’ve learnt the true meaning of trust, respect, communication and partnership between horse and rider. I’ve learnt invaluable snippets of wisdom from each culture that I’ve been privileged enough to spend time with and I’ve learnt that beauty exists around every corner in our world. Most importantly I’ve learned that there is no right or wrong way to live life, there is no one size fits all, that all we can do is live as best we can with our one precious life.
And finally, if you could choose any Globetrotting ride to add to your calendar, which would it be?
Just one?! The more I travel, the more I want to travel, and the bucket list never seems to get any shorter!! I’ve recently stumbled across Sumba Island and the incredible horse culture that exists there. Horses are the soul of Sumba and the Sumbanese believe that their own souls are spiritually linked to the horse – it’s a belief that resonates deeply with me. It also looks like the most idyllic and magical environment to indulge one’s equine passions, so if I could choose only one Globetrotting ride, it would be The Sumba Ride in Indonesia.