The Ride of Her Life

How one Mobilian’s unbridled passion for horses took her to the ends of the earth and back again.

Intrepid Equestrian Mobilian and lifelong rider Ashley Parsons led a team of five across the wilds of Kyrgyzstan, pushing boundaries and bonding with beasts. // Photos by Quentin Boehm

The sun rose bright that morning, peeking over the mountaintops of Kyrgyzstan, a land rich in natural beauty, nomadic traditions and breathtaking scenery. Just a hair smaller than South Dakota, you’ll find this lightly populated nation on your typical, garden-variety map of Central Asia, bounded by Kazakhstan on the northwest and north, by China on the east and south, and by Tajikistan and Uzbekistan on the south and west. The countryside, though, is anything but ordinary. Somewhere on a distant hilltop, a shepherd lifts his gaze to the horizon and tends to his flock, moving toward highland pastures in search of fresh water and nutritious grass. The clear, blue sky greets him with all the wondrous and endless possibilities of a new day. Indeed, there may be no one more familiar with this terrain or well acquainted with its winding trails than the local shepherds.

This is the land where sky and mountain meet. Livestock graze. Horses abound. This is home. And this is where our story begins. 

But first, a brief introduction is in order. After all, you must meet the heroine of our tale, who will soon be just as familiar with this region as the indigenous shepherds who dwell there. 

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Some 12,000 miles away, deep in south Alabama, 27-year-old Ashley Parsons was rapidly embracing what had always been her destiny. Growing up in West Mobile on Eliza Jordan Road, just south of Tanner Williams, she had known since childhood that her life would orient itself around horse culture. And why not? Her mother did own and operate Mobile Equestrian Center. Perhaps it was fate that would lead her to discover a burning passion for the saddle. She just couldn’t get enough. 

Eventually combining her love of travel with her flair for writing, Parsons would go on to become a journalist for popular adventure media outlets such as Lonely Planet, Les Others, Komoot, Atlas Obscura, Fodor’s Travel, Sidetracked Mag and several others. She was smitten with the mountains, captivated by nature, and utterly enamored of bold expeditions. While friends and family were engrossed in common hobbies like cooking and exercise, Parsons was picking up backcountry skiing, gravel cycling, camping, animal tracking, trail running and mountaineering. 

Into the Wild Ashley Parsons and Quentin Boëhm led their three Kyrgyz stallions past villages, over mountain passes and through some near misses.

MB caught up with the intrepid rider-turned-explorer while she was in the States visiting family for Christmas. 

“I literally grew up at the Equestrian Center back when my mom was running it,” she says. “I would play in the dressage arena while she was giving lessons. All of the people who I saw every day all loved horses. And, as a kid, you want to be like the people you’re around. I went to St. Paul’s through middle school and after that I was homeschooled so that I could have more time for traveling to horse competitions. I was a teenager during this time and started training with Gerard Kirsch who was based out of Pensacola. As you might surmise from his name, he is French. Later, when I went off to college at Birmingham Southern, he really encouraged me to do a year abroad in France.” 

Parsons’ time in France would prove to be yet another catalyst for change in her life as she spent a year here learning the language and becoming a skilled rider. After completing her bachelor’s degree in international business and French at BSC, she moved back to France permanently, this time to live there and teach English. But, as Parsons puts it, this was really “just another excuse to keep riding horses.” She would go on to complete her master’s degree in Paris at the American University and teach social business at HEC Paris, a business school and grande ecole located in Jouy-en-Josas, a southwestern outer suburb in The City of Light. 

Three years in Paris, however, left her restless and itching for more. That’s when she met her partner Quentin Boëhm. And now, the biggest change of all was imminent.  

“[When I met Quentin], he had just returned to France after working abroad in Singapore in finance,” she recalls. “He was reevaluating things and we both realized we wanted to live our lives outside in nature. We planned to travel for a year or two from France toward the east and toward southeast Asia. We didn’t want to fly or do the digital nomad life. He wanted to cycle, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do. We were both reading a lot of adventure books, watching documentaries and asking people questions. We talked with several people who had done these kinds of trips before. We discovered that much of what we wanted to do was actually normal and possible. That’s when I realized people traveled by horseback.” 

Man and Beast Bonding with the horses was always the objective, but Parsons never imagined she would love the three stallions— or come to depend on them— so much.

Parsons had always trusted horses. From her earliest days as a child, she spent her nights dreaming of building a bond with a horse, not unlike the riders of Central Asia who practically live on horseback. The only way for her to discover if this was possible was to journey deep into the heart of The Land of the Celestial Mountains with Boëhm at her side, purchase three horses and embark on a daring months-long journey that would ultimately cover over 1,600 kilometers stretching between southern Kyrgyzstan and the Tian Shan Mountain range. The latter, translated to English, means “The Mountains of God/Heaven.” 

After establishing a route through Central Asia, a plan began to form. Together, Parsons and Boëhm would cycle from France to Indonesia. During the first summer, they would cycle through the Balkans. The second summer would take them to Central Asia, along The Silk Road, and would require navigating high-altitude mountain passes, crossing snow, desert and rivers in order to complete the expedition. The trip would end on horseback in Kyrgyzstan at the aforementioned Tian Shan Mountains. The couple agreed to professionally film their adventure and would subsequently narrate, edit and produce their own documentary. (“En Selle: The Kyrgyz Ride” will be available online later this year.) 

In January 2019, the pair departed from Boëhms family home in France. Parsons was 27 at the time. Now, at 31, she looks back on the epic horse trek with all the passion and excitement of a young woman still living her dream, a young woman who can’t wait to return again. 

“I was on the road, more or less, from like 27 to 30. We were in Kyrgyzstan for six months and on horseback for four months [throughout 2021]. We’ve been back in France for two years now. It took us about a year and a half to put the film together.” 

With the help of their local translator Faysi, Parsons and Boëhm purchased three Kyrgyz stallions to carry them across Central Asia. Each day of the trek brought its own unique set of challenges, not the least of which included finding trails and campsites. Routine eventually became the norm: wake up, eat breakfast, break down camp, tack up the horses, ride, walk, eat lunch, walk, ride, walk, set up camp, eat, sleep, repeat. Teamwork between man and beast was imperative. The elements can be harsh and unforgiving. The nights can be long. 

Parsons admits that, more than once, she wondered why things were so difficult. As she emphasizes repeatedly, the hospitality of the Kyrgyz people proved paramount. 

“Without the families who invited us in for tea, gave us advice or directions or kept us around for a meal, we would never have been able to cross Kyrgyzstan with our horses,” she says. 

The success of the journey, however, would be measured not so much by reaching a particular destination, but by developing a deep and meaningful connection with each of these horses along the way. Parsons will be the first to tell you that they are the true heroes of this saga. Let’s meet them now. 

Fidel, the Trustworthy | Age: 10 years old 

Rider: Quentin Boëhm

Sure-footed, strong and confident, Fidel was purchased from a neighboring local village through a connection with one of Faysi’s family members and is the first stallion to join the team in the beginning. In regard to his physical strength and determination, Parsons says he is truly exceptional.

“If you could draw the type of horse you want to take on a trip like this, it would be Fidel. Once I met him, I knew that we had to take him with us. He is excited to go see new things. He’s curious. He listens. He’s always in the present moment. He’s not worried about things that happen or that might happen. And he’s just solid.” 

MB caught up with Fidel on a recent Skype call. He agrees wholeheartedly with Parsons’ assessment of him. 

“I’m strong, tough and smart,” he says. “Even big rivers can’t stop me! My Achilles heel, though: I am afraid of big trucks and trains.” 

Parsons says that, despite the scarcity of operational Kyrgyz railroads, Fidel is indeed terrified of trains. 

“Once [during the journey] we followed the train tracks in order to cross a river,” she recalls. 

“We stopped for lunch on the other side, and the train came rolling slowly by. Fidel almost jumped out of his skin!” 

We pressed Fidel for clarification on this particular instance, but he had no comment. 

Chaï, the Nice Guy | Age: 7 years old 

Role: Packhorse 

After a long week of looking unsuccessfully for additional horses in the village, Parsons reluctantly agreed to drive to a local bazaar in Ozgon [Uzgen], a town in the Osh Region of Kyrgyzstan and home to the largest bazaar of that region. (The area is roughly the size of three football fields and is full of animals, including mares and shepherd’s horses, the latter of which are typically smaller and adapted to herding livestock in the mountains.) It was here where she hoped that she and Boëhm would find the two remaining stallions needed for their journey. 

“I saw several horses that did not fit what we needed,” says Parsons. “And then I saw Chaï. He was not injured, but he was very skinny. I’m not sure if I had been given three hours to decide, I would choose Chaï, but I only had two minutes, so we bought him.” 

We reached out to Chaï for a comment. He was very honest and straightforward with us, which we appreciated. 

“Look, I’m not a complicated guy. I’m just here to have fun and laugh. Even if I seem like a sweetheart, I hate cows, goats, and sheep. I really hate them.” 

Most stallions are known to take a little while to warm up to their new owners. Chaï, however, immediately fell in love with Parsons and Boëhm. 

“He loves taking big naps laid flat out on the ground, almost like he’s dead,” says Parsons with a laugh. “We could immediately tell that he was comfortable with us because he always lets us cuddle him when he is napping.” 

Tian, the Stormy | Age: 12 years old 

Rider: Ashley Parsons 

Near the end of the bazaar, Ashley spotted a chestnut horse with his ears pinned back. As she recalls, he was “making nasty faces at everyone.” Thankfully, this did not dissuade her from giving him a chance. 

“He’s not very nice, but his body is nice and he’s kind of fancy,” she says. “But I could feel somewhere in there, I think, or maybe I just hope, that there is a nice horse who has a lot of spirit and who is really smart. So, we bought Tian.” 

MB landed a FaceTime call with Tian last month. He was more than happy to let us know how he feels about Parsons. 

“I take up a lot of space, and I’m very opinionated, but I’m not a bad guy,” he said. “I want to be the leader of the herd — of all the herds! I like it when Parsons pays attention to me, and only me.” 

Apparently, this jealousy and desire for the spotlight extends even beyond Parsons. 

“Tian collects a fan club wherever he goes,” she says. “All of the Kyrgyz ladies loved him and one little girl even drew a portrait of him.” 

From their first view of the celestial mountain steppe to the final moments of the exhausting journey, these three adventurous Kyrgyz stallions were wholly dependent upon Parsons and Boëhm for their health, safety, wellbeing, and so much more. It’s a two-way relationship though as, without the horses, survival, travel, and progress would have been impossible. Perhaps the most difficult and sobering reality of all, however, came as the expedition drew to a close and both Parsons and Boëhm grappled with the fact that they would be leaving Fidel, Chaï and Tian in the care of their friend Hélène, a Frenchwoman who has lived in Kyrgyzstan for over 20 years. 

“It felt like I was losing my wings, my eyes and my heart.”
remembers Parsons. “But I knew that they would be in good hands.”

Thankfully, this would not be goodbye. This would only be see you later. 

For three months, they had slept under the stars, weathered unforeseen challenges, drank Kumis in yurts with nomads and grown closer than ever to three incredible horses. Now, with an unbreakable bond between man and stallion firmly established, and an emotional friendship that runs deeper than many people will ever know or understand in this lifetime, plans to return are already in the works. 

Unable to bring the stallions back to Europe in 2021, Parsons has made the decision to “extend the adventure and bring them home to France, at the foot of Mont Blanc, crossing the Carpathians and the Alps in 2024.” This will serve as the basis for a follow-up documentary film titled “En Selle: The Alpine Passage.”  After all, who doesn’t love a good sequel? 

And for anyone who may dream of one day taking their own horseback journey to an unknown land, Parsons has some wise words.

“I would really want to encourage people to consider adventure as accessible,” she says. “Now that I’m back in France, I do a lot of micro-adventures, which are not full expeditions. You don’t have to do full expeditions to have an adventure. I think anything that pushes you out of your comfort zone, makes you sweat, makes you feel like it could be too hard when you do it, is an adventure. I hear a lot of people in America saying things [about me] like, ‘Oh my gosh. This is insane. You’re a professional. I could never do this.’ And, the truth is, actually you could. You don’t know how many times I cried when I was doing this. It’s not that I’m exceptional. It’s that I’m persistent.”

Stay tuned to for details and information about Parson and Boëhms next adventure and be sure to follow them on Instagram

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