Saddling up for a worthy cause

Horseback: A woman is riding from Argentina to New York to raise money for a therapeutic equestrian center.

March 07, 2004|By Erika Hobbs | Erika Hobbs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ELKTON - Looking like the good guy in a classic Western movie, Marianne Du Toit pulled into the Cecil County farm where she stayed last weekend, two horses in tow, the sunset behind her.

It was a pit stop for Du Toit, a 34-year-old South African who calls Ireland home, after a 22-mile trek that day from Harford County, about half on foot.

But that was a sliver of the route that had taken Du Toit 22 months to cover - one that stretched from the Amazon and will lead to New York.

The pistol-packing, machete-carrying woman is on a crusade - not to catch black-hatted frontier vigilantes, but to help disabled children.

Her goal is to travel from South to North America on horseback to raise about $1 million to build a therapeutic equestrian center where disable children can learn to ride horses in Ireland, much like Thorncroft Therapeutic Horsebackriding Inc. in Malvern, Pa. No such center exists in the European country.

Her travels led her to spend two nights in Harford and Cecil counties before heading to Pennsylvania en route to New York.

She expects to arrive there March 15 and to ride in the city's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade on March 17.

"Everything is going beautifully fine," she said from New Jersey yesterday.

Sources of inspiration

Never one to sit still - Du Toit once bicycled across Europe - the tall, thin, hazel-eyed woman said she had been planning a long horse ride for some time. Several years ago she read a magazine article about therapeutic equestrian centers for children and learned that Ireland had none.

She said she fell in love with the idea of creating an outlet for disabled youngsters and decided to tie her desire to travel into the quest for building the horse-riding retreat.

"I have always admired women with a sense of adventure, especially those who also raised funds for causes," she said. "So I thought, `If they could do it, why can't I?'"

And so Travels Across The Americas, or the TATA Challenge, was born.

Inspired by noted horseman Aime Tschiffely, who in 1925 rode 10,000 miles on horseback from Argentina to the northeastern United States, Du Toit patterned her own ride after his famous trip.

In June 2002, she began the journey in Argentina. Disease, injury and border problems made her route more circuitous than Tschiffely's, but she remains undaunted.

"I long ago gave up counting miles. It's much more personal than that," she said.

Du Toit, a human resource specialist - and occasional baker, pub waitress and piano player - built her trip on little more than hope and the kindness of strangers.

She has little experience riding horses. She has never worked with children outside of a stint as an au pair in Germany, although she hopes to enhance her psychology degree with study in child psychology.

She didn't map her route. She planned little in advance, she said, instead relying on local maps and advice to determine where she would go - and stay - next.

That was how she found Louisa Emerick, a competitive carriage driver in Elkton. Emerick had heard about Du Toit's trip as word spread through the horse community. Emerick said that months ago, through e-mail, she expressed interest in helping Du Toit. At the end of last month, Du Toit called her and showed up at her door 24 hours later.

"I'm delighted," Emerick said. "It's quite a thing to be doing something like this."

`The money will come'

Despite her determination, Du Toit has no formal blueprints, cost estimates or other business plans for the center she intends to build.

"The money will come in," Du Toit said. "I have convinced people ... I can do it."

So far, Du Toit has little money. She insists that she has done no fund raising during her ride. But her friends helped her raise about $30,000 in a small letter-writing campaign before the trip began. She expects to begin raising money once she reaches New York.

It has not been a cheap trip.

She always travels with two horses, but has lost and gained some along the way. She and her two horses had to cross the Amazon River by boat. She lost two horses to tropical disease. She had to fly with the horses from Venezuela to Costa Rica due to border-crossing problems. Later, she was turned away from Mexico and had to ship her horses back to Guatemala. Du Toit then flew to the United States, where she had to find two new horses and gear.

Yet Du Toit has persuaded many to support her cause. Much of her trip was sponsored by companies, such as the shipping giant DHL, or by the generosity of people she met along the way, from Latin American peasants to a newspaper editor in Georgia who spied her crossing over his town's border.

She even inspired one woman to drive from southeastern Ohio to Cecil County to meet her last weekend.

"It's an incredible feat," said Joy Miller Upton, a Ohio horse rider and photojournalist who saw Du Toit's story on an ABC News segment in January.

Overcoming obstacles

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