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Led by Gerard Paagman of Ideal Harness, and Access Adventure founder Michael Muir, some traveled with The Caravan for a few days or weeks. Some came to drive, others to ride, and a few just to help and be a part of it.

The journey took them through deserts, mountains and plains, over rivers and bridges, and along highways. They drove through rain and cold, sunshine and dust. They drove on the beaches along the Gulf of Mexico.

Rests were scheduled every few days to give the animals a chance to relax and the people a chance to shop, do laundry and reorganize. A two-week break for Christmas started December 17 and reconvened in the New Year.

“The Caravan is not just an adventure – it is also a learning experience,” said Gerard Paagman. This was Gerard’s dream – to drive across a country – one he has come to know well from the seat of his orange 18-wheel tractor-trailer – but this time he would do it on the box seat with the lines of a four-in-hand of Friesian horses in his hands. A native of the Netherlands, he has always commented on the beauty of the American landscape as he traversed it at highway speed. Now he had his chance to explore and enjoy it at a slower pace.

This was Michael Muir’s fourth cross-country journey. His motivation was to reach out to injured and disabled veterans by stopping at veteran facilities and inviting them to ride on his carriage. On Veterans’ Day they participated in a parade in Yuma, Arizona. Because of his own disability, Michael now drives a wheelchair accessible carriage. He believes one should “focus on what you can do, not on what you can’t do.”

Many people opened their farms and ranches to The Caravan, providing hospitality to the travelers and their animals. The generosity of these hosts was amazing. One example – when asked where hay could be purchased, the host had a large round bale delivered that he donated to the group.

The logistics of such an enormous endeavor were complicated, and in the beginning there were some kinks. Drivers and their entourages slept in RVs, horse trailers, even tents. Getting everything packed up and moved every few days was a bit of a chore. The group spent over a week at Indian Spirit Springs in Bryan, Texas, a 900-acre ranch turned equestrian facility. Not only could Caravan participants use the clubhouse to shower and wash clothes, they could turn their horses loose. For a week they all ran free in a herd – the Friesians, the Gypsy Wagon Percherons, and even Ticket, the miniature horse. They always showed up at the trailers at feeding time and were ready in the mornings to be caught and harnessed for the day’s ride or drive.

Louise Nyquist, a 70-year-old woman from Scio, Oregon, drove her miniature horse Ticket from start to finish. “It was a chance of a lifetime,” said Louise, and it “absolutely” lived up to her expectations. “I have a whole new family,” she said.

Ticket is a 9-year-old gelding that Louise has had for four years. She started endurance training with him in July to prepare him for the journey. “He was probably the most fit of any,” said Louise. Michael Muir didn’t think he’d make it, but he was wrong. Ticket was put to a hyper-bike, weighing only 30 pounds; Louise didn’t want Ticket to have to pull any more weight than necessary.

Only a handful of people did the entire drive. One couple was John and Joanne Van Eck. They drove a Gypsy Wagon pulled by a pair of Percherons. Along the way, they modified the pole to accommodate a third horse – the added horsepower made pulling the heavy wagon easier.

What were the best parts for Louise? She says the start, from Murietta, California, and the end at Grand Oaks Resort in Florida were the highlights. However one day in Las Cruces, New Mexico, was especially meaningful. The Friesians (driven by Paagman) and Louise and Ticket, drove to the Rio Grande and ceremonially poured some water into the river that had gone totally dry. After that, they drove to an elementary school where the children came out to see the horses and carriages. Ticket welcomed the children’s attention, and as she drove up to the group, the children opened up like a “V” and the children just enveloped Louise and Ticket.

The Dragoons and the Chiricahuas in Arizona were the only parts of the drive in which Louise and Ticket didn’t participate. They were too mountainous for Ticket. The rest of the drive, they led the parade. “We were always half to three-quarters of a mile ahead of the Friesians,” said Louise. “Ticket gets into a trot and holds it for hours. The Friesians would trot a while, then walk, trot and then walk.” Louise guesses that Ticket actually drove a total of 1700 miles.

Kristin Whittington of Indiana didn’t bring her own horse, but hooked up with the Caravan in Texas, and drove Paagman’s team on the beach in Galveston. She later rejoined the group at the Louisiana/Florida border with a single Morgan. One thing that could be counted on was that you couldn’t count on anything. “By tomorrow everything would be changed,” Kristin said.

Meredith Commons Russo and her husband Jere joined the Caravan in Texas on January 4. “For me, the opportunity to have driving lessons with a four-in-hand of Friesians was second to none. Learning to tell each of the ten Friesians apart was a private daily exercise that went on for weeks.” The Russo’s didn’t bring their own turnout, but came to be a part of the crew and Meredith set up a mobile shop to make and repair whips out of their horse trailer where they also lived.

“The key people who made this happen included the incredibly generous and energetic Gerard Paagman, dedicated worker Jean-Paul Gautier, the talented and hardworking Friesian trainer and driver, Anne Ockema, and the remarkable Joan Fernandez, owner of Friesian Focus Farm in Murietta, California who started the group off and was there to help us celebrate the finish. The effort also owes a huge thanks to her benevolent presence in person but more often in spirit!” said Meredith.

As the end of the journey drew near, the group reorganized at the Florida Horse Park in Ocala to prepare for the final leg of the trip. The last 20 miles would take them to the Grand Oaks Resort in Weirsdale, Florida, and they would be joined by many more carriages and riders to help celebrate the finish. A mounted police unit would accompany them on their final drive. About a mile before the entrance, a final regouping allowed others to join in – flags a-flying.

For those who had been together for the entire journey, the end was bittersweet. “We had become a family,” said Louise. Louise and Kristin reminisced during the Windsor Trace CDE at the end of March, where both were competing. They remembered when Gerard’s big truck got stuck in the mud; when Michael Muir’s horses and carriage became bogged down to the axle in quick-sand type muck in Galveston – the horses were taken off the carriage, but Michael in his wheelchair had to wait until the carriage could be pulled out. Lots of flat tires, equipment problems occurred, but nothing marred the spirit of these intrepid pioneers.

A documentary of the entire Caravan journey is being produced by Doug and Margot McMasters, a team that has earned two Emmy’s for their previous work, and is scheduled for release at the Calgary film festival in the fall. See the trailer at http://thecaravanfilm.ca/video-trailer/

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