Steeds, steeds, what steeds! Has the whirlwind a home in your manes? - Nikolay Gogal.
Horses were born to run, and so, as we turned ours towards the open plains before us, they needed no encouragement to break their stride. With his ears pricked forward, my sure-footed pinto, Manchas, clearly relished the opportunity to accelerate.
Not even the glacial winds screaming down at us from Cotopaxi volcano, one of the highest active volcanoes in the world, at 4,500 meters, could dull the thundering pound of horses hooves as we raced across a valley floor high in the Andes of Ecuador.
Circumnavigating the volcano in a clockwise direction and covering distances of up to 30km each day, our route unfolded in one breathtaking vista after another. Each day afforded new obstacles to challenge both horse and rider; rocky ravines to descend, glacier-fed rivers to ford, loose volcanic shale to scramble up and some tricky navigation through boggy valley floors. There were plenty of opportunities too for some fast-paced riding, with long canters across soft undulating plains carpeted with violet gentians, pursuing herds of feral horses.
I have grateful and reverential respect for the horses I ride. They are mixed blood, local Criollo, Andalusian, Arab and Peruvian Paso, combining the best features of these breeds - stamina, agility and intelligence.
Up here the air is rarefied and it takes several days for me to adjust; to overcome the exertion required for even minimal physical activity. But this does not prevent me from drinking in the wonders that abound. Tracing the slow soaring flight of a giant condor, delighting in the nighttime spectacle of dancing fire flies, or tickling trout in a glacial steam.
The chagra is the cowboy of Ecuador. Originally it was a term used by the Spanish to describe people of mixed Spanish and Quechus blood. They were employed as mounted herdsmen on the vast haciendas (ranches) established during the Spanish conquest in the 17th century. While the number of chagras has diminished over the years, today they are still employed as herdsmen, moving cattle, sheep and tourists across the Andean plains. These are tough, skilled horsemen who spend long days in the saddle navigating harsh terrain, difficult weather and extreme altitude. I am always interested in the type of saddlery used by riders in different countries. In Ecuador I was particularly taken with the carved wooden stirrups that some chagras rode with.
Situated on the Equator, from which the country is named, Ecuador is the second smallest country in South America. By nature of the variety of ecosystems - Andean peaks, Amazonian jungle, high sierra plains and the Galapagos Islands - Ecuador is home to the majority of the world's plant and animal species.
It's multi-ethnic culture is the most colourful and varied in Latin America. A visit to Otavalo's famous traditional Indian market is an unmissable opportunity to appreciate beautifully woven handcrafts created by the industrious Otavalenos community. Nearby, the model village of Cotacahi showcases the area's high quality craftsmanship in the leather industry. For a truly unforgettable experience of rural culture you can immerse yourself in the crowed markets in the Andean villages of Saquisili and Zumbahua. Here the brightly clothed Quechua Indians crowd the streets, trading everything from pigs and Llamas to on-the-spot tailoring services.The economic difficulties that Ecuador is experiencing are acute, with poverty in the rural communities particularly severe. The history of the country is a tale of Inca invasion and Colonial