Horse safari: Riding into the lions’ den

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Horseback safaris offer a different way to experience the African bush

South African company Wait A Little organize tours into game reserves

Husband and wife team train horses to cope with demands of facing game animals

Horses, including thoroughbreds, keep calm even when stalked by lions

CNN  — 

African safaris conjure up images of four-wheel drive cars trundling through games parks carrying tourists with binoculars clamped to their eyes.

But if you want to get a bit closer to some of nature’s most beautiful beasts then heading out on four legs, not four wheels, might be your best bet.

Venturing into the continent’s game reserves on horseback may seem a little daunting but is one of the best ways to experience the environment, says Philip Kusseler, co-owner of Wait A Little horse safaris.

Kusseler has been leading outings into South Africa’s Karongwe and Greater Makalali Game Reserves near the famous Kruger National Park for more than a decade.

His stable of around 40 horses at a farm in Ofcolaco in the northwest of the country includes warmbloods, native Boerperds and former thoroughbreds.

The ex-racehorses may be more used to chasing on the turf than exploring the bush, but Kusseler says that once trained they make for great tour guides.

“When you get a retired racehorse, you have extremely fit horse right from the beginning which is of course very good to work with. Secondly, you get a horse that likes to excite itself and learn new things,” Kusseler told CNN’s Winning Post.

Most racehorses face an uncertain future when their track days come to an end – usually at the age of around six or seven.

A lucky few are sent to stud while others, like double Gold Cup winner Kauto Star, try their luck at different equestrian disciplines. Some will see out their days at animal sanctuaries but many are simply slaughtered because owners are unable or unwilling to foot the bill for upkeep once their racing days are through.

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Kusseler is looking to grow his current stock of three ex-racers which are prepared for their new role by his wife Gerti, a former dressage rider and FEI coach.

“We train all our horses in basic dressage,” she explains. “It’s very important that they are responsive and trust the rider and trust the aids of the rider. The basic training and dressage helps a lot to make them responsive and fun to ride as well.”

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Riding into the lions' den
02:06 - Source: CNN

All horses spend a minimum of two years being schooled at a purpose-built riding arena at the farm and also in the bush where they learn to deal with some of nature’s most intimidating creatures.

“When an ex-racehorse sees a lion,” explains Philip Kusseler, “you can feel it’s heartbeat through the saddle but he soon learns to cope with it and they are just as cool as any other horse breed.”

“Trekking with horses is extremely dangerous because the horse fits the lions prey preference perfectly. But they are so well-trained and so well disciplined that they don’t react like a prey animal would, so the lions get quite confused.”

Along with the “Big Five” game (lions, elephants, rhinos leopards and buffalo) Wait A Little’s intrepid guests can expect to come across zebras, wildebeests, hippos and giraffe amid 35,000 hectares of game park.

But as Gerti concedes, seeing these beasts up close from the saddle is not everyone’s idea of a good time.

“We have had people that were too scared. I can’t say it’s 100% safe because it isn’t. But it is very, very safe when you go out with Philip because he has such huge experience,” she says.

“He gives his horses a lot of confidence and sometimes some horses need that. I always say the animals are the least dangerous – the most dangerous thing is riding horses.”

Of course, there are other modes of transport with anything from trains to camels ready to carry you through the bush. Most tourists still opt for a traditional four-wheel drive vehicles but the Kusselers wouldn’t swap their thoroughbred horsepower for anything else.

“They are just lovely,” says Philip Kusseler. “As long as you are able to stimulate them in the bush by having wonderful outrides you will have a horse that keeps on smiling.”

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