Hy Burstein can’t quite explain his passion for riding horses, only that it first hit him as a teenager and that it’s still going strong six decades later. Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in Toronto in 1928, he recently published Ride ‘em Jewish Cowboy (Devora Publishing, 2005), a book describing his riding experiences.
Sometimes known as “Riding Hy,” the retired plastics-industry businessman has traveled the world seeking exotic trails. He’s had equestrian adventures all over Canada, the United States, Europe, Mexico and Central America, China, India, Africa, Jordan and Israel.
“The last time I went riding was in September,” said the 77-year-old grandfather. “I was 14 hours in the saddle, from 9 in the morning until 11 at night.”
That was at the TX Ranch, a large working spread near the Montana-Wyoming border where guests usually pay $1,000 a week to herd cattle. Burstein has become such a regular there that his photograph adorns the cover of its brochure. His photo album bursts with photos of himself and his sons in cowboy hats, roping and branding well-heeled specimens of brisket on the open range.
“I’ve ridden over 50,000 kilometres on a horse,” he said. “I’ve pushed over 15,000 head of cattle up the mountains to the pasture in the spring, and pushed them back down again to market in the fall.”
He’s also applied his expertise to scouting new properties for Equitor, an American firm that offers riding holidays around the world.
He started at 16 as a truck-driver for his father’s burlap bag company, and was soon driving in professional truck rodeos. At 18, he entered the professional boxing ring but didn’t stay long. “Fate was good to me: I was lucky — I got clobbered. It taught me a good lesson. It kept me out of boxing. It would have been a terrible career.”
He met and married his wife Zuzek, a former Miss Israel, during a visit to Israel in 1959, then returned home and purchased an isolated 100-acre farm in the Humber River Valley near Bolton. Gan Eden Farm, as he calls it, still affords good riding for his family each season. They also maintain a home in Tel Aviv.
As chronicled in Ride ‘em Jewish Cowboy, Burstein sought international riding adventures — and misadventures — whenever he could. Not all have been on horseback. He’s ridden a camel through the wondrous Siqh canyon in Petra, Jordan, and endured 10 hours on an elephant in India.
He once encountered an unusual object on an Australian trail. It proved to be a 15-foot python. Once in Africa, his party of riders unwittingly crossed between a lioness and her cubs. When the horses suddenly bolted, he looked back and saw a huge lioness dart between the trees. Their guide shouted at them to slow down; they did and the lioness didn’t attack.
On a visit to the Vered HaGalil ranch in Israel’s Galilee, he rode across the rolling terrain for several hours down to Lake Kinneret — the Sea of Galilee. “This was my first riding holiday in which my guide had his cell phone and a loaded pistol at his side at all times. The cell phone was used to keep in constant touch with the office in case of any emergencies and the pistol was in case of an attack from some disgruntled Arab.” (Those riding treks have since been discontinued.)
The next day, he was again riding across the open countryside and a Canadian filmcrew spotted him and filmed him for a documentary that later aired on CBC.
In all his years of riding he’s had numerous spills, of course, but no really serious injuries until he broke his collarbone in Turkey in 2000. The emergency surgery he had there involving clumsy surgical pins was at least 20 years out of date and had to be corrected in Toronto. But he’s clearly aware of the importance of getting back onto a horse after a fall. “The worst part about the accident was that I had to give up riding for almost an entire year,” he writes.
Not surprisingly, Burstein has heard numerous antisemitic remarks on the trail; once even from the proprietor of the TX Ranch, who professed a dislike of Jews in his presence. “The next morning I confronted Hip and asked him why he didn’t like Jews, as I had met many of his Jewish guests . . . and all seemed quite nice and friendly,” he writes.
“‘They talk too loud and can be very noisy,’ was his reply.
“‘Noisy?’ I asked, ‘I’ve met dozens of your guests who, after their drinking binges, would keep me up all night with their loud voices, and believe me, they weren’t Jewish. Besides, I’m Jewish.’
“‘What? You can’t be, and if you are, you’re different,” he replied in disbelief, and his face turned a deep red. . . . I received and accepted his apology, and then his final words, ‘Those Israelis sure know how to fight a war.’”
Asked about the incident, Burstein said he never considered ending the friendship. “He’s a typical Montana redneck. But he smartened up pretty quickly after I told him I was Jewish. Funny thing about Hip — most of his guests are Jewish. I couldn’t understand it.”
Burstein, a tenderfoot when it came to writing, said it took him nearly four years to complete the book. “My son bought me a typewriter. I don’t know anything about computers. I gave the pages to my secretaries to retype and then we had to edit it and get it published.”
But now he thinks he’s gotten the hang of it. “I’m working on my second book now. It’s fiction. It’s completely different.”
Writing, he said, is nothing like riding. “It’s exhausting. It takes me an hour and a half to write one page. I never know what’s coming next.” ♦