Eventing grooms are, beyond a shadow of a doubt, some of the hardest-working people out there. For every six minute dressage test, or moment of glory over the final fence, there have been countless hours of conscientious care behind the scenes to ensure that the sport’s equine heroes are feeling and looking their absolute best. When the season wraps up and the horses’ shoes are pulled for a well-earned break, their #supergrooms finally get a chance to enjoy a much-needed rest (and an alarm that sounds later than 5 a.m. — what a concept!). But one top groom has chosen to spend her time off in a slightly different way this year.
Meet 24-year-old Jess Wilson, head girl and travelling groom for the legendary Sir Mark Todd. It’s no small task looking after Mark’s formidable string of top-level talent, and she’s on the road almost constantly throughout the season fulfilling her duties as the lynchpin of the team. But her love for horses extends well beyond the four-star competitors she tends to. She’s on a mission to improve the lives of working equids in some of the most underserved communities in the world — and this winter, she’s bringing us with her.
We’re so excited to have Jess on board the EN team, as she shares with us her experiences in Egypt and gives us a first-hand look at what Animal Care Egypt and Egypt Equine Aid are doing to help working horses, ponies and donkeys abroad. Fancy getting involved? Take a look at her JustGiving page, where she’s busy raising vital funds for both charities, and follow her on Instagram, too, for live updates from the field.
As every penny donated to my JustGiving page is going straight to my two chosen charities, I’ve self-funded all my expenses on a pretty tight budget. Direct flights were nearing £1000, so I was left with two choices: do an 18-hour trip, or arrive in the middle of the night. I opted for what I thought was the safer option, and booked a flight to my first stop, Animal Care Egypt in Luxor, with an 11-hour layover in Cairo.
After reading multiple travel blog horror stories from solo females in Cairo, ranging from hotel scams to being sexually assaulted by so-called ‘tour guides’ in the pyramid chambers, it did cross my mind to just stay in the safety of the airport for the duration. After all, 11 hours seems like nothing compared to some of the mega-long drives I’ve done across Europe and the USA en route to competitions!
In the end, I decided staying in the airport would be massively wimping out, and if I had any chance of surviving three weeks on my own in Egypt, I had no choice but to grow a pair. So, as ever, I put my faith in TripAdvisor, and through their recommendations, I arranged a driver to take me on a super-speedy tour of Cairo. The main area I wanted to see was Giza — obviously for the pyramids, but also to really see and experience what’s happening to the horses there.
I landed in Cairo at 4:30 a.m., and after the very easy and efficient process of getting a visa and going through immigration, I left the terminal to be greeted by a wall of men trying to sell me taxi rides. Luckily, I had trusty Ahmed pre-booked and waiting for me, so off we went into the madness of Cairo.
It really is hard to describe a place so full of contrasts between rich and poor, traditional and modern, filth and beauty. Side by side are five-star hotels and homes made of cardboard boxes. Traffic — six or seven cars wide across a three-lane road — is a mix of brand new Mercedes and the oldest battered Toyotas, spewing black smoke, missing mirrors, and with paintwork patched up in multiple colours. Across the street from beautifully manicured gardens, piles of rubbish and plastic are heaped along the roadside and dotted through the street, and within those piles, skinny and lame stray dogs and cats — and even, sometimes, horses — could be seen scavenging for scraps.
We arrived at the pyramids at around 7:30 a.m., which turned out to be a great time to go, as it was before the crowds and hawkers appeared. The pyramids really are amazing, and they surpassed all my expectations; I’m so glad I got to see them.
Unfortunately, the experience was slightly ruined by the heart-wrenching sight of the poor pyramid horses and camels tied up — and, in some cases, down — on a rough, rocky plateau with absolutely no shade, and not a drop of water in sight, waiting hour after hour for tourists to come and ride them.
I can understand that their owners have limited money to buy feed, so they’re going to look thin, with protruding ribs and hips. I can understand that lack of knowledge and training is going to result in poor farriery skills, so there are hooves and shoes of all different shapes and angles, resulting in deformed legs and lame steps, and I can understand that animals aren’t just seen as pets or friends in many cultures. They’re a way of transport, or a way to make money so that people can feed their children, but I will never be able to understand how or why people can be cruel and nasty to their animals for absolutely no reason.
The most vivid and spine-chilling memory I have of Cairo is the constant cracking and lashing sounds of horses getting whipped over and over again. How can we put a stop to that? I really have no idea. It takes a lot of time to change that sort of attitude. Will these horse-owners ever see their animals as sentient, loving beings? Or is this attitude too well-ingrained?
It’s a very complex problem with no simple solution, but thank god there are charities and people on the ground working towards a change. I’m on the way to Animal Care Egypt in Luxor now to see what the situation is like for the poor horses there, and hopefully I’ll be able to play a small part in making things better for them. Then, I’ll be going back to Cairo to help out at Egypt Equine Aid for a few days. Stay tuned!