Modern mythology: Riders stage 1,500-mile trek in the name of art and politics

Athens, Greece (CNN)It could be a story out of Greek mythology: three men and a woman setting out on horseback to ride across Europe in 100 days. Tagging along with them is a rider-less steed named after the Greek messenger of the gods, Hermes.

But this isn't a poetic narrative from Homer. It's actually happening now, a wondrous and rather surreal conjunction, both marathon horse ride and contemporary artwork. (Anything, it seems, can be art these days if the artist decrees it.)
The piece is titled "The Transit of Hermes," and in one sense, it's romantic. It harks back nostalgically 150 so years or so to a time before the automobile, when horses ruled and you could canter freely across any border.
Scottish artist Ross Birrell came up with the idea in 2014 as a commission for the international arts exhibition Documenta, held every five years.
Since its inception in 1955, the exhibition has always been held in Kassel in Germany. But this time, artistic director Adam Szymczyk proposed that Documenta 14 be split between two European cities -- namely Kassel and Athens -- to respond to Europe's current state of flux.
Birrell's idea was to link the two cities with a long ride -- or, in his words, "a mobile, participatory, human-equine ensemble" -- exploring the refugee crisis and the current political drift towards xenophobia and closed borders. He'll make a film about the ride, to be shown as part of the exhibition.

Finding a kindred spirit

The distance from Athens to Kassel is about 1,500 miles. The riders will cross seven countries: Greece, Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria and Germany.
It's a mighty long journey and a test of endurance for both man and horse.
Birrell's aim is for something "visual and poetic," the ride "happening out there, invisibly, beyond the mountains." But first, he had to find someone to execute it for him.
Peter van der Gugten, a 62-year-old Swiss-German, is a member of the Long Riders' Guild, an international association of equestrian explorers founded in 1994. He's ridden across the Andes, and regularly takes treks up into the Swiss Alps. But he was surprised to be approached to lead the Athens-Kassel ride.
"To me, artists are living on a different planet," he said with a chuckle.
But so far the collaboration had been "great fun, and a great adventure." As a long rider, he himself fights for open borders for horses, "but horses aren't as important as people." So he is riding in the spirit of someone who believes that "the foreigner is that friend you haven't met yet."
Birrell is not a rider. But what the two men do share is an ardent admiration for a heroic Swiss-Argentine horseman, Aime Felix Tschiffely, who rode 10,000 miles from Buenos Aires to New York from 1925.

Hidden complexities

The Athens-Kassel ride has demanded meticulous and complex planning. There's been a great deal of logistics and tortuous bureaucracy involving the transport of horses across borders.
An important part of the costs -- "the lion's share," according to Birrell -- are being met by public funding and sponsorship.
Van der Gugten carefully assembled the team: a Hungarian, Zsolt Szabo, a German, David Wewetzer and an Argentine-Bavarian, Tina Boche.
He chose the horses, all special breeds renowned for their stamina and hardiness. Two animals are from the Caucasus, breeds favored by the Cossacks and the old Russian cavalry. Another is a Criollo, the Argentine breed used by Tschiffely. The fourth is a Haflinger, a breed from the Austrian Tyrol and Northern Italy.
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At six, Hermes is the youngest and smallest, an Arravani breed from the Arcadian mountains in southern Greece.
Van der Gugten had hoped to buy a 12-year-old white stallion, but couldn't find one in time, so they bought Hermes. He's not mature enough to be ridden over a long distance, so he will serve as a packhorse instead. Van der Gufgten regards him as a messenger, a representative of Greek culture.
The horses will walk, trot and be lead for between eight to 12 hours a day, averaging 30 miles. If any of the horses go lame, they will be put onto trailers until they recover. The same happens when they cross borders.
They will largely ride off road in the mountains and through national parks and forests. They will have local guides, vets and a few modern aides like GPS to help them.
The long riders are taking hammer and nails and 120 horseshoes; they will re-shoe the horses themselves when necessary.
"This is the ride of a lifetime," says Van der Gugten, cheerfully and emphatically. "The biggest challenge will be the riders themselves getting tired. We will never know where we will sleep until we find grazing for the horses."
The team departed on April 9, and is expect to arrive in Kassel early in July, feeling just a little bit saddle-sore.
Documenta 14 runs in Athens until July 16, 2017, and in Kassel from June 10 to Sept. 17, 2017.