Meet James Mahon, Horseback Safari Guide
Ever seen Patagonia or Mongolia … on a horse?
Welcome to Good Job, InsideHook’s deep dive into envy-inducing employment. Today, we talk with Briton James Mahon, the outdoorsman behind Patagonia-based outfitter Bagual Horse Safaris, aka the baddest-ass horseback-riding journeys this side of the Industrial Revolution.
InsideHook: Prior to starting Bagual, you participated in an endurance horse race in Chile. Can you tell us how did you get into that?
James Mahon: I was just exploring in Southern Patagonia, following the footsteps of an expedition led by Lady Florence Dixie, who traversed the region in 1869. I was on my own, pretty much lost in a remote valley, when all of a sudden, on the horizon, maybe 1,000 sheep appeared with a couple, a gaucho and loads of working dogs. We saw each other from afar and I approached them. They were amused that I was so far from anywhere on my own with my horse. They invited me to join them and spend some time at their home. I did, and road out with them for the next few days, as we chatted and got to know each other. They were fabulous horsemen, extremely knowledgeable on the environment and outdoor living and owned and managed a huge amount of wilderness land. Before I left, they invited me to come back in three months time to stay for a couple of months, and said they would give a horse to train for a long-distance race they organized annually. And so I did. The horse was very unruly to start, it was almost a case of taming, training and then racing. I raced, which is another story, and that was the beginning of my long-distance horse racing.
IH: When did you decide to start Bagual?
JM: Bagual is an old Spanish word meaning a domestic horse that has gone wild. In a way, Bagual has always existed: for as long as I can remember I have enjoyed looking to get to remoter places and find those special places that await. I decided to start Bagual officially in 2007, when I thought maybe I should share this with people who might enjoy it as well.
IH: Who are your heros in this world? The people that inspired you?
JM: Kris and Doug Tompkins [founders of The North Face] have done so much for the environment and taken conservation of wilderness land to a new level. Amazing stuff. Doug has sadly and prematurely left this world. But also the small unknown artisans of textiles and traditional music [in the region], who share my special inspirational moments.
IH: What were the biggest challenges in getting Bagual off the ground?
JM: Letting the right people know what we’re doing, and getting in touch with those who would enjoy the ride and an authentic experience.
IH: Where do you find your horses?
JM: The horses are from friends who breed herds, of which a number are tamed for riding. The same goes for riding in Patagonia and the nomad family we ride with in Mongolia.
IH: How do you find your routes and plan your safaris?
JM: All by exploring. I will always be interested in someone wanting me to do a reconnaissance trip.
IH: You have a very natural aesthetic when you ride. Where does that come from, and can you tell me a bit about the materials you wear and why you use them?
JM: I just particularly enjoy using wools, cashmeres and so on. I have learned so much from artisans over the years, like making ponchos in Patagonia: what natural dyes they use; seeing wool hand spun. You meet such interesting people. In Asia, they have wonderful traditions of making clothes, dyes and cloth. It just keeps you connected with what is real and important. You don’t need to be protected by plastic and man-made fibers!
IH: Do you feel that wild places are in decline?
JM: I am afraid so. However, in a positive sense, there are a number of people and trusts making a fantastic effort to preserve fragile environments — the Tompkins’ Trust being probably one of the most impressive and genuine.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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