Riding an Ostrich

With its huge body, strong and powerful legs, and the ability to run 35 miles per hour while carrying a person, ostriches have become and unusual and unique competitor in the field of animal racing. Not a well-known sport, ostrich racing was developed in Africa, where the largest bird in the world originates from.

I myself had the opportunity to take part in this unusual activity of riding an ostrich. A few years ago I was backpacking my way around South Africa, and one day the group I was travelling with ended up at an Ostrich Farm in Oudtshoom. Our tour of the farm commenced, which included holding brand new feathery baby ostriches, and hand-feeding a rather large and imposing ostrich known as Betty, who was not particularly gentle in plucking the feed out of my outstretched hand. We were then led to a seating arena, which overlooked a large pen with a dozen or so full-grown ostriches gathered in it, each one strapped with a blue towel around its mammoth body. By this point, none of us had any idea what was going on, until our guide turned to us and said calmly:

“Who would like to ride an ostrich?”

Ostrich Racing in South Africa

After about two seconds of incredulous glances at each other, and a few whispers of ‘you can ride ostriches?’, out of the thirty of us, twenty-seven hands few up into the air. The guide picked one of us, and after they had their turn, that eager group of twenty-seven had whittled down to only four.

Let me explain the process. First of all, the two workers needed to catch an ostrich, which involved them running around the pen, trying to corner an ostrich. Once they had one cornered, they pulled out a long, thin pole with a hook on the end of it, and hooked it around the bird’s neck. At this point the bird began to try to get away, but the workers quickly pulled a bag over its head. This is where the expression ‘head in the sand’ comes from. Our guide explained it that an ostrich is so dumb, it thinks that if it can’t see anything, then there is nothing there, so as soon as you put the cloth bag over its head, it becomes completely calm and still.

You then have to climb up on to the ostrich, which is just like mounting a horse, and then you tuck your legs under the bird’s wings, hold on to the wing joints, and lean back for balance and stability.

At this point, we all naïvely thought that the next step was that the workers would lead the bird around with its bag over its head, and we would just sit on the back and hold on, like the miniature pony rides you use to have when you were a kid at your school fate.

Not even close to the truth.

Ostrich Riding in South AfricaCredit: Ostrich Riding in South Africa

Once you were sitting down and holding on, the guide whipped the bag off the ostrich’s head, it would see everyone, freak out, and run. Yes, run, while you are on its back holding on for dear life.

Now you probably can understand why the twenty-seven plummeted to just four after the first turn, but as I sat there, I decided that even if I hurt myself, the story and experience of riding an ostrich was too good to pass up, so I went next.

I wasn’t full of confidence to begin with, and it didn't help when they finally caught the bird and led it over, smiling and laughing, because this one was affectionately known as ‘Jack the Ripper’.

I clambered on to its back, and the guide kept telling me to lean back, because otherwise I’d fall, and then, quick as a flash, he pulled the bag off, and the bird, naturally terrified, bolted.

So there I was, on the back of an ostrich, holding on for dear life, with the bird running like crazy trying to get me off. There is no rhythm to an ostrich, it is just up, down or sideways, in no particular order, just lean back and try not to fall off.

There were only two ways to get off the ostrich: either you fall off and most likely break your arm, or, the two workers who are running full pelt behind the bird yell ‘OK!’, and you let go and they catch you. The problem with the second option is that for it to work, the bird had to be running in a straight line, so what does dear old Jack do? He ran zig-zag, heading for the fence. Thankfully, he straightened up, and just before he started to turn, I heard the men yelling behind me, and putting all my faith in men who think it is a good idea to ride ostriches, I closed my eyes and let go of the bird. I fell backwards off the ostrich, into four strong arms that gripped my arms and torso. Loud cheers and clapping erupted from the seating arena, and I opened my eyes and realised that not only did I survive my encounter with an ostrich, but I wasn’t injured and now had a truly unique and great story to tell everyone back home.

Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to see a proper ostrich race while I was in South Africa, but it is a similar set up to horse racing. The ostriches are each lined up in pens with swinging gates, and their eyes are covered to keep them calm and relaxed until the race starts. The race is one lap around an oval track, with the winner being the first to finish. Ostrich jockeys don’t have anything to hold on to, as the ostrich’s body shape can’t accommodate saddles or stirrups. Jockeys simply have to hold on to the wings or neck, which the use for steering the bird, and brace themselves for a bumpy ride!

Whether you are brave enough to ride an ostrich yourself, or you simply want to see the crazy nature of a proper ostrich race, it is definitely something to add to your Bucket List.