Sitting still in the saddle, ankle-deep in the breaking surf, staring into the azure waves almost gives you vertigo. Despite the stillness of the warm air, the silence of the island behind us, and the solidity of the horse beneath me, I lose myself in the gentle movement of the swirling water and feel the strength of the ocean tugging at me.
(alpənˌɡlō) noun - the rosy light of the setting or rising sun seen on high mountains.
There’s a fleeting moment in the fall, when the wind whips a chill through the summer air, dry leaves whisper in the shade of the forest, and the aspens are alight with autumn brilliance. Against the backdrop of somber pines, graying skies, and the first touch of winter, the aspens appear to shine in their very own light, much like the mountains come alive before the sun has appeared to greet the horizon.
Aspenglow is being deep in the woods on horseback, early on a crisp fall morning when the sun hasn’t yet risen above the opposite mountaintop and the forest is still awash in shadows, but the glowing golds, yellows, and oranges of aspens nestled in the pines, scattered across the mountainsides lights the way along the trail. Patterns of sunlight dance through the trees to the song of the wind in the branches, reflected off the leaves like shiny coins, but the sun is nowhere to be seen. This is a different kind of light, and the aspen groves glow like flames, frozen for a moment in time, lending their brilliance to the shadows surrounding.
Dry leaves crackle under the horses’ hooves, leaves rustle on brittle branches, and the air heaves a sigh heavy with the dust of summer. Autumn settles in the mountains like morning frost, crunchy underfoot even after the sun rises to meet the radiance of the aspen leaves with its own and you can feel the warmth on your face. Days still feel like summertime but nights bring a chill that settles in your bones, a yearning for fireplaces, soft blankets, and mittens.
This is my favorite time of year, when the horses and I both start favoring winter coats and every bend and corner along the trail opens up to new vistas, awash in color that wasn’t there last week and won’t be there the next. One storm, one big snowfall or a windy night, and the canvas will be swept clean until next year, but with a little luck these summer days will hang on just a bit longer, as will the leaves, to be enjoyed until the very last minute when the boots and mittens are good and ready to come out. Until then, you’ll find me on the trail, in the saddle, trying to catch the last flash of autumn aspenglow.
Most of the riders who go on trail rides while on vacation tend not to be horse people, or “real riders.” To me, real riders are those who ride regularly, either owning their own horses or taking lessons frequently, in some cases ride professionally or competitively, and in all cases know how not to behave like an idiot when around horses. These are some of the biggest giveaways one way or the other.
As we canter between fields of grass blowing in the breeze like ocean waves, a trio of zebras in the field next to us take flight, galloping alongside the horses. Join us and the Rand Hunt for an away hunt weekend on a beautiful German-owned farm in the Free State, South Africa.
This summer I set out to find a change of pace, change of scenery, and explore a different side of the equestrian world. I spent the summer months in Summit County, Colorado, guiding horse trails and leading pack trips in the breathtaking Rocky Mountains. The pace was slow, but the views were fantastic. The clientele for the most part had little to no riding background, but what they lacked in experienced they made up for in the entertainment they provided.
Part etiquette and part safety, there are certain guidelines which all equestrian travelers are encouraged to abide by. This helps to insure you have the best possible experience!
1. DO be truthful about your riding ability (to your guide, your group, or even to yourself). The horse(s) assigned to you is based on your ability and experience, as is the pace we set as a group, so remember to be realistic. Whether you used to be an A-circuit competitor or a fearless youngster who rode bareback and bridleless, if that's not who you are anymore as a rider, one trip won't bring that ability back. This applies to your fitness level as well: DO get in shape for your ride. On most trips, we will be riding almost every day for at least several hours, and you want to be up to the task, not sore and tired at the end of the day. A fit rider is also easier on your horse. Fitness and ability are two different criteria, and even talented riders must stay in shape. We want you to have the best possible ride that suits YOU, not the rider you used to be, wish you were, or would like to become.
2. DO be courteous to other riders. Someone else may ride at a different level, come from a different background, or speak another language, but we're all brought together by our love for horses. Be courteous when in the saddle; don't crowd other horses, keep a horse length behind the horse in front of you, and only ride side-by-side when space allows you to do so safely. Remember though, even when we aren’t riding, we are all on this adventure together for the duration, so please be on your best behavior.
3. DO tell your guide when you're uncomfortable. Whether your boots are giving you blisters, your saddle is pinching somewhere, or your horse is more work than fun and perhaps isn't a suitable mount, we can't help you unless you tell us, and we want to help you. This is your trip!
4. DO pack the correct equipment. Obviously, traveling with saddles and tack is cumbersome and inconvenient, and therefore not required, but do bring your own boots and helmet, above all else. Even though guides and providers may have extra equipment, nothing fits as well as your own gear. This also allows you to make yourself the most comfortable: if you're going on a safari, bring breathable breeches, and maybe a sun shade for your helmet. If you're riding for long hours, bring a padded seat cover if it would make you more comfortable.
5. DO always, always, ALWAYS follow your guide’s instructions. We give directions for good reasons, like safety and what's best for the group as a whole. Make sure you are paying close attention.
6. DON’T be late. Trips follow a certain itinerary, and in many cases we are under a deadline to reach a destination before sunset, or before it gets too hot. Delaying the group departure also makes everyone else have to wait.
7. DON’T travel without travel insurance, or at least coverage from your regular provider which covers incidents that occur while traveling. Anything can happen when you travel, and since horses, climate, and so many other factors are unpredictable, make sure you are insured, especially in case of a riding accident.
8. DON’T get so hung up on getting that perfect photo, Instagram shot, or selfie, that you miss the moment. Some of the best things just can’t be captured on a screen. Especially on horseback, please don’t even put yourself in a position where your hands are too busy with your camera/phone/tablet to have sufficient control over your horse.
9. DON'T exchange currency at the airport, where you will receive the worst exchange rates. Go to your bank or use your ATM card, or change currency before you leave.
10. DON’T forget to tip your guides. A lot of planning, research, and effort goes into making your experience the best it can possibly be.
Above all else, DO be open-minded. Every trip, every horse, and every group of riders is different. When a group of strangers are riding unfamiliar horses, sometimes things happen. Sometimes, though, they're wonderful things, and you'll walk away from the experience with great friends, lots of laughs, and memories to last a lifetime.
“Sunset in Africa. You feel as if nothing in the world can touch you.” Our guide, SW, sits beer-in-hand perched on the rickety railing of a dock surrounded by lily pads, where we have paused for sundowners after a long day on safari. The still water reflects the orange and purple glow of the setting sun as beers and ciders are passed around and gin-and-tonics poured.
This is no ordinary safari—this is a horseback adventure. Horses are, after all, the ultimate four-wheel-drive vehicle (or four-legged, as it were) and can go where jeeps and even land rovers can’t, through thick bush, across rivers, up mountainsides, and can even get up close and personal with animals who shy away from vehicles full of tourists. South Africa's thriving horse culture offers all kinds of horseback adventures across the country, but a wildlife safari on horseback is the pinnacle. Seeing the scenery from the saddle encompasses a level of immersion in nature that a standard safari vehicle just doesn’t offer, and a relationship with the wildlife that is unparalleled.
We’ve spent the last several weeks on horseback safari, beginning with the Horse Safari Company near Kruger National Park and later at Horizon Horseback Adventures in the Waterburg Biosphere area outside of Johannesburg. The main focus, of course, is the wildlife, but this is no zoo. It’s not just a matter of riding out of the lodge and finding an abundance of animals, it’s more like a scavenger hunt. Each day, we enjoy rides through open meadows, wooded hillsides, rocky outcroppings, around lakes and through creeks, searching for elusive animals by learning about their behavior, their typical hangouts, their patterns, and following tracks. This makes each sighting rewarding, as if we’ve won a prize for our hard work (and up to six hours in the saddle each day is definitely hard work!).
We often come across zebras in open plains, who let us ride right through the middle of the herd. Giraffes often take us by surprise, as they graze well-camouflaged in the trees and we only see them when we’re almost next to them. Since they don’t see the horses as predators, they let us graze alongside them, watching wearily, while they move silently through the brush. During one ride, on a long canter through some trees, we were joined by a herd of galloping wildebeest.
Later on in the same evening as twilight sets in, we remount our horses and set out for an overnight stay at a campsite in the bush. A group of giraffes, actually called a tower, cross the plain in front of us, painting the quintessential picture of Africa with their elegant elongated necks traversing the sunset, their silhouettes gliding against the pink and yellow backdrop. SW, who has just recently been kicked in the knee by a horse tangled in a wire fence, despite the pain maintains a smile that genuinely reflects his unbridled love for Africa and its magic. “This is Africa. This is what Africa is all about,” he says. This land casts a spell on you, and every visitor vows their first trip won’t be their last.
Want to read more about our safari adventures? More posts to come, about our rides in Kruger, Waterburg, and more!
In the first segment of this piece, I listed some of my favorite riding adventures I've already been on, and here are some of the adventures I haven't gone on yet!
1. MACHU PICCHU
This is such a Mecca for backpackers and hikers, one of the biggest attractions of South America as a continent as a whole, and such a wonderfully not-so-easy place to reach. But, to be completely honest, despite being from Colorado, land of the 14ers where hiking is so much more than a hobby, I don't love backpacking. In the sense of traveling, yes, I do, but as far as hiking up mountains carrying heavy stuff? No, I don't love it. But I do want to see Machu Picchu before I die, and I think riding a bus up the mountain is cheating. So how about on horseback? Having a big animal to carry all your heavy stuff while you hike, or to carry you as well, is why humans started riding horses in the first place.
2. WILDLIFE SAFARI IN AFRICA
Luckily, I'll get to cross this one off my list very soon. I've gone on wildlife safaris in South Africa, and ridden horses, but not at the same time. Of course, to do this safely, you want to be riding on a game reserve that only has non-dangerous game. I would hate for someone, anyone, particularly myself, to get pulled off a horse by a lion or some such hungry carnivore, but galloping with giraffes and zebras would be pretty incredible.
3. FOXHUNTING IN ENGLAND AND IRELAND
I've foxhunted for years now, here in Colorado, and I absolutely love it. Not just the thrill of the chase, but the sense of community, and of course, the potluck, because I'm all about the food. I've been lucky enough to foxhunt in France, which was very different, but England is where it all started and I should like to experience that. Plus, I hear all these stories about crazy foxhunts in Ireland, and even though it sounds absolutely terrifying-flying over huge stone walls and immense muddy ditches, Still, I think it's something I have to do.
4. CASTLES OF EUROPE
While we're on the subject of wild rides in Europe...OK, this one isn't as specific as I promised by creating this list, but it has a lot of possibilities. As a child, I was obsessed with castles. I wasn't one of those girls who wanted to grow up to be a princess (unless the princess got to ride horses), I mean, I did dress up as one probably at some point or another, but I was always more interested in the castles themselves than the royalty within them. I would research the floor plans so I could imagine walking the halls, and even draw out my own castle layouts. My dad told me about Neuschwanstein castle as a little girl, and when I finally went there with him at the age of 20, it was just as magical as it would have been when I was 9. When my family road tripped around France and Italy as a child, I hated museums, loathed old churches, and generally complained about most touristy things, but I loved castles. I would LOVE to ride from castle to castle in Bavaria, Germany, along the Loire Valley in France, through Tuscany in Italy, or somewhere in southern Spain (or anywhere else that has beautiful castles, I wouldn't complain).
5. VINEYARDS AND WINERIES
This one is pretty similar to 4. In France, in Burgundy or Aquitaine, or in Italy, in Tuscany or Umbria, would be a fabulous place to ride through vineyards, taste different wines that have been made by the same families for centuries, and experience the rich culture and lifestyle of these areas. This spring in South Africa we will be going on a winery tour in Stellenbosch, South Africa's famous wine country, but just for one day. I'm still excited though.
Now these are folks who really know a thing or two about horses. The Mongolian conquered most of the known world on horseback, centuries ago, and although they have lost their prowess as conquerors, they are still world-renowned horsemen. I think I could learn a lot from them, it is a beautiful and vast, empty landscape, and their culture is something so different from anything I've ever known, I think it would be a truly eye-opening experience.
7. EL CAMINO DE SANTIAGO
This pilgrimage from southern France all the way to Santiago de Compostela, Spain, is as historically significant as it is beautiful. Again with the hiking though, if I have the option to ride a horse instead, I'll take that any day. I'm so in love with France and Spain, and this region in particular, (having lived in Basque country, where the Camino begins) so I'm interested in the Camino for non-religious reasons, and I think walking it on horseback would be so much more personally gratifying for me than on foot. What appeals to me the most is the spirit of generosity along the trail; people who take in pilgrims/hikers/riders, allowing the travelers to enjoy a cultural experience along with the scenic surroundings.
A friend and I were chatting recently, about life, and travel, and things we hope to accomplish. So often I hear questions like, "what's your favorite place you've ever been?" or "what's the greatest trip you've ever taken?" Despite the frequency with which I get asked, I've never really come up with an answer. Every trip I've taken, every place I've visited, every incredible experience I've had, has been unique. Different places are beautiful, special, moving, and personally rewarding for different reasons, and in most cases, it has a lot more to do with the people I share it with; people I met somewhere along the way. These, too, are different every time, and come from such a diverse range of backgrounds and walks of life.
I loved living in Brazil because of the inner peace I found there, because for the first time in my life I didn't have a job and I didn't have to, and I could thoroughly enjoy every single hour of every single day. It was liberating, but I couldn't have done it forever. Eventually I would have needed some sort of purpose, for self-fulfillment. France always felt like home, having spent so much time there growing up. The culture felt like my own, with nuances I understood and traditions I embraced. Every time I spent time in France, I come back to my own culture feeling like an outsider, but going to France always feels like coming home. I loved everything about living there, the culture, history, landscape, and food, obviously, but mostly the people. The French get a bad rep for being cold and unwelcoming, but I've never, ever seen that side. (Granted I speak the language like a native, which helps immensely). I've been received there with nothing but open arms, smiles, and an incredible generosity, welcomed into people's homes, families, and hearts. South Africa came to feel like home as well, and I was lucky to have some very amazing adventures while I lived there. Just by accident, I landed in the right place, with the right people, at the right time, and everything clicked, which is why I can't wait to go back.
So back to my friend and I. I spend a lot more time thinking about the places I've been, that I wish I could go back to, and not nearly enough time thinking about places I would still like to go. I do think about it, sure, but I have these fuzzy ideas of places that are a bit blurry, as if in a fog. Australia...Indonesia...India...Scandinavia. Places that hold a particular interest, but for no particular reason, something about them just calls to me. But I asked my friend what was on his bucket list, and he said he felt like he had already checked most of them off. For him, I could tell this gave him immense satisfaction, as he is someone who likes to check off lists and reach goals, and it gives him a sense of accomplishment. For me, if I check everything off my list, what would be left? What would I have left to strive for? Not to mention, for every single item I check off the Bucket List, I add at least 10 more, so the list is pretty long. SO I decided to come up with a condensed version, and in light of this particular context (Equescapes) I've put together a list of places I would like to go and things I would like to do on horseback. But first, here's a list of my top 5 favorite horseback adventures I've already been on.
1. RIDING ON THE BEACH
There's just something magical about galloping across the sand, ocean spray in the air, and the sound of crashing waves. It never gets old. I never thought my first beach ride experience would be on the black sand beaches of Iceland, wearing a parka (see separate entry below), and since then I've left hoof beats in the sand in Puerto Rico, Nicaragua, Brazil, South Africa, and everywhere I get the chance.
I joined the Arapahoe Hunt in Colorado in 2011 and never looked back. Each and every hunt is unique, and every single one an adventure (sometimes for better, sometimes for worse). It's a wonderful community of horse-people, one which extends far beyond our club. I've been welcomed as a guest to foxhunt in France and South Africa, and every hunt club has its own particular customs, despite upholding many of the same traditions.
3. POLO IN ARGENTINA
Watching the Argentinian Open and seeing the world's best polo players ride some of the fittest ponies on the planet was an exceptional experience. However, although I rode a lot of polo ponies and sort of played polo when I lived there, I never actually played on a team or in any kind of official match. so I still want to go to Argentina and feel like a polo player, not just a rider who kind of sort of pretends to know a thing or two about polo and gets to stick and ball on the farm.
I was only 15 when I went to Iceland, and I would love to revisit it. I went with my whole family, and I have to give credit to the ponies - those little guys are tough, hauling guys the size of my dad and uncles up and down mountains all day. The landscape was surreal; sometimes it felt like we were on another planet. The Icelandic Pony is one of the world's purest horse breeds, since horses are not allowed to be imported into Iceland, and once they leave, they cannot come back. Only Icelandic horses born in Iceland are gaited; they develop the gait due to the rough landscape, and a foal born to gaited parents who have been exported elsewhere will normally not be gaited.
This list could not be complete without including my home state, which boasts beautiful landscapes to ride through, a thriving horse community, a competitive show circuit, a rich ranching history, and herds of wild mustangs. What a perfect place to ride!
What's the most epic equestrian adventure you've been on? We would love to hear your stories, see your photos, and we're always open to suggestions so let's plan an adventure together!
Sunlight flickered through the canopy of the pecan trees as we galloped through the orchard, closed branches overhead forming arches like a cathedral. The soft ground, carpeted in green vines, muffled our hoof beats. A pile of large logs ahead spanned the gap between the trees, and the riders in red and black jumped it one by one, like deer over a fence. Cordite never missed a beat; with ears pricked forward, he was smooth and steady to the jump, bounding over it effortlessly, and we were momentarily immersed in sunlight as we came out into the meadow at the end of the row before careening around a bend and entering the dim shade of the forest.
The Rand Hunt is the oldest hunt in South Africa, formed in 1886 with a pack of English Foxhounds from Queen Victoria’s Royal Buckhounds. The hunt is often held at the Inanda Club, where the hounds are housed and the hunt has been based since 1934 in Kylami, the horse capital of South Africa, where riding centers, stud farms, and exquisite equestrian estates abound.
By the Sunday of the hunt, I had been in South Africa for nearly a week, much of which had been spent in the saddle. I schooled youngsters with Jimmy on his farm every morning, and my afternoons were chock-full of activities involving fellow members of the hunt, from setting up the jumps we would be hunting over to spending an afternoon at the races in Johannesburg. Every hour of each day was filled with horses and I was surrounded by horse people, allowing me to ask a million questions about the hunt and giving me a vague idea as to what to expect on Sunday. It has been my experience though, that foxhunting is never uneventful, and it’s the uncertainty that is part of the thrill.
The hunt began promptly at eight, at the Astley Manor Pecan Farm in Skeerpoort. I began the hunt on a beautiful bay thoroughbred, Cando, known during his racing career as “I Can Do It.” I say beganbecause I actually finished the hunt on a different mount. Both belonged to Penny, a member of the hunt whom I had met while in South Africa the previous year. As fellow hunt enthusiasts, we had kept in touch, and it was she who invited me to participate in the hunt and coordinated my stay at Jimmy’s farm, in addition to very graciously offering me her lovely horse to ride. When I rode Cando the previous morning in a lesson with Penny’s trainer, she had warned me that although he had won Horse of the Year the previous season, and I had seen beautiful photos of her jumping him while donning her formal hunt regalia, he was not as easy as he looked and had a mind of his own when it came to jumping. All that aside, he was calm and composed while we warmed up and the hounds were gathered by Margie, the hunt master. Penny rode her other horse, Cordite, formally known as “Cannon’n Cordite,” and took the drag, the jackal scent which the hounds follow as they lead the riders through the course, which consisted of five pre-established lines. Penny would get a five minute head start with the drag on each line, leading the hounds through the chase, and after each line the hunt would regroup before the next.
As soon as the hounds were gathered and the horn blew, they were off like a shot, with Margie and the whips in rapid succession, followed by the first field at a gallop. Jimmy and I hung back and rode the first line in the second field at a trot. Not ten seconds into the first line, we came to a stop as riders struggled to convince their horses across a ditch. Cando stepped over nonchalantly and continued unfazed, as if wondering what all the fuss was about. Not long after, we crossed a rider back-tracking, looking for Margie’s hunt cap, which had come off when her horse tripped going through the very same ditch. Her cap was located and our group took off again, this time at a canter. I nearly went down when Cando stepped in a hole where an old tree had been dug out, but he righted himself right away. Another rider was not so lucky, falling off when his horse dodged a tree to the right and he went left.
As we cantered between rows of pecan trees, we came to the first two jumps, both of which Cando refused. We were riding in the middle of a pack, and Penny had warned me that he doesn’t like to jump when he has horses next to him, but it was the horses next to me who prevented me from being able to go around. The hunt regathered at a watering hole for the hounds, a bathtub, in which they took turns drinking, splashing, and laying down. The car-followers, in three vehicles, caught up and provided sips of ice water or gin and tonics for the riders before moving on to get set up at their viewing point along the next line. Penny suggested I bring Cando around a second time if he refused the next jump. Since she usually either hunts the hounds or rides at the front of the field when she rides him, she doesn’t ever have the opportunity to school him when he refuses, so he’s learned he can get away with it.
This time the hounds left before the horn was blown. A few burst loose from the grooms holding them, so the hunt waited while the master and whips tore after them and herded them back, shouting and galloping about. Many of the horses, clearly used to the routine, jigged and pranced in anticipation as the hounds were brought back, waiting for the horn, which was blown as soon as everything was back in order and the hunt exploded into motion once again. We had quite a long trot and canter through a field of young, small pecan trees before coming to more jumps, this time in a fence line so there was no option to go around. Cando refused the first one, and we were forced to circle back to take it again, which he did, encouraged by a smack on the rump from my crop. He cleared the coop by at least a meter, and I nearly came right out of the saddle. Over the next fence, he made it clear he wasn’t stopping but jumped even higher.
At the end of the line we caught up with the hunt again and Penny was having quite a bit of trouble with Cordite. He was objecting to taking the drag and being away from the other horses, and he fussed around and caused her to drop the drag line, which had caused some problems when the hounds caught up to her. So she needed to switch horses with me in order to take the drag on Cando, her steadier mount. Cordite was much younger and greener, and had been ridden by no one but Penny in the few years since he had come off the track. He had an unpredictable streak and ran a bit hot, and along the third line Jimmy and I had set up quite a few jumps, bigger than the last few, so I had had some hesitations about riding them on Cando, let alone Cordite. I skipped the jumps on that line, as I got a feel for my new mount, and was disappointed not to be in the first field, where I could have seen Jimmy, who had been so excited all week to try his lovely jumps. I’m sure Inca, Jimmy’s thoroughbred, had no trouble with them, although the line of seven jumps did put one or two other riders on the ground. Cordite was lovely, and settled down greatly by the time the hunt regathered again, and only got better and better as the hunt continued. On the final line he was flawless, a perfect gentleman, steady, soft, and smooth. He took every jump without question, slowed down and sped up when asked, and by the time we dismounted and gathered for breakfast, I couldn’t have been happier.
“Well, how was he?” asked Penny.
“Take a guess, from the smile on my face,” I said. At the races, I had heard horror stories about what a terror he had been to ride as a racehorse, but he rode for me like he was born to hunt.
Each and every hunt has its own customs and traditions, some of which are more obvious than others. I took off my hunt coat as soon as I dismounted, hot as it was, before I noticed everyone else still had theirs on. When I inquired, Penny told me we weren’t supposed to take ours off until Margie, the master, did so, and as more riders arrived at the breakfast still wearing their coats, I put mine back on. When asked when she would take hers off, Margie just giggled mischievously. When she finally did remove her red coat, she said to me, “I was waiting for someone to tell you.”
The horses were handed to the grooms to untack, water, and brush, while breakfast took place under a shade tent at the edge of the oldest pecan trees. The spread consisted of traditional Boerewors sausages, grilled and served on rolls with sweet chili sauce. At the bar, built into a trailer, gin and tonic was the standard après-hunt beverage. Jimmy, Penny, and I were among the last to leave, sitting around in the pecan tree shade telling stories and comparing our various hunting experiences.
Each and every hunt is different—not just each hunt club, or hunting location but each and every single day of hunting is unique, and never without incident. But every hunt I’ve ever been to has something in common, and it’s so much more than just the thrill of the chase, the baying of the hounds, and the formal English attire. I am always welcomed as part of the family, because above all else, foxhunting is a community, a society dedicated to the preservation of a historical tradition which transcends generations and borders.
Revisiting what it means to become a better rider, seeing my horse through new eyes, and how I started Equescapes.
The campfire was dying down. Not everyone was camping; the whole idea was, we trekked on horseback across Juri's farm with clients, a lovely couple who were spending a month riding with us, and then all of our friends joined us for a braai, a traditional South African barbecue, on the banks of the small lake where we had set up camp, some guitar-playing by Juri, spinning fire poi courtesy of Cornelia and LJ, and good company. Our friends were a lively bunch, and everyone felt welcome and right at home. We sang and drank, drank and sang, and drank some more as we watched the stars come out, because there's nothing like nation-wide rampant blackouts to really make the night sky shine, until the full moon started to come up. Marie and I were going for a moonlight ride.
When I was a kid riding horses, I was fearless. Getting hurt never crossed my mind and nothing was impossible. I was invincible, and I had infinite trust in m horses to take care of me. We would jump bareback, bridleless, while cracking whips, stand up on our horses while moving, and ride into the canal to dive off the horses into the water. Over the years, my passion for horses transformed from a romanticized one to a realistic one, and I realized that my skills had a limit and my bones were mortal. Furthermore, when horses became my career, I eventually reached a point where every horse I rode was a project, even my own. I always had a goal in mind, and every ride was a training ride. I never felt that the joy was lost, I still enjoyed every minute in the saddle (well, almost every minute, since even good horses have bad days), but something had died. The saddest part was, I didn't realize this until much too late.
This wasn't just any moonlight ride. Marie and I rode bareback and the light of the moon didn't shine into the canyon where we were camping. We were riding blind. The herd was loose in the campsite, since the general vicinity was fenced in, but the horses stayed close to the giant tent, knowing that that was where they got fed, so we didn't have to go far to fetch them. Even though it was just the two of us riding, the herd stuck together. We had six horses total, but everyone else was tired and didn't want to ride at night.
Marie's horse, Arrow, was the leader of the herd. Where he went, they all went. We were able to bridle he and Snapdragon by the light of the campfire embers and scattered rays of moonlight, but when we mounted up and began to ride, we lost the light entirely as we rode through the gorge. The whole herd followed, and we picked up a trot, then a canter, then a gallop. The horses could see in the dark where we could not, and we had to trust that they knew the way. We could hear thundering hoof beats all around us but could barely make out the other horses. Their energy fed off of one another, and the picked up speed. We couldn't have stopped them if we wanted to. At the end of the gorge, we sprinted up the hill to the top, with handfuls of mane, wind in our eyes, and stars in our hair, and then we emerged onto the plain, washed in moonlight. The horses circled at the top of the plateau, finally slowing down. Snappy tossed her head and whinnied, Grafiki answered, then Major, and Arrow took off again. We raced along the ridge, circling far above the campsite, and we could see the full moon reflected in the water below. Coming back down into the gorge on the other side, the horses slowed, out of breath from running, as were we, panting from exhilaration. We slipped off at the bottom and right into the tent, letting the horses loose again.
It wasn't just about the ride. It was trusting the horses to be our eyes where we couldn't see, our feet where we couldn't feel the ground, to take care of us and keep us safe. We had to ride with the kind of faith we rode with as children, trust our horses with all he innocence and naivete of little girls, and lose ourselves in our horses. This was no schooling ride, and none of that mattered, this was riding for the pure joy, the thrill, the rush. Food for the soul. This is what I had lost all those years ago, and getting that back was a feeling I can't even put into words.
Every equestrian has one horse, maybe a couple, maybe more, over the course of his or her career, who changes the game. Pandora was my game-changer; soul-opening and bone-shattering.
Pandora was the only horse who ever took riding away from me by injured me badly enough to prevent me from getting back in the saddle for an extended period of time. In doing so, she also gave it back - taking a step back from riding allowed me to reevaluate my passion for riding, and re-prioritize my approach to it. I came back to riding with a clearer mind, an open heart, and a refreshed attitude.
I'll never know what set her off. She'd always been a spooky mare, but it was usually a little sidestep here, a jolt forward there, reactions to noises, shadows, her imagination even, but they were generally minute. She'd been going along nicely for several months, walking and trotting off the longeline, although we usually began on the line because she would start out stiff and skittish, then relax as we went along.
I had finally reached a point where she didn't intimidate me. I knew she would startle, but I knew it wasn't anything I couldn't handle. I had broken plenty of babies in my day, and she wasn't fully unbroke-she had been ridden before me. On the ground, she was so sweet, and we had such a great connection, but under saddle, something always irked her.
We had walked for maybe a few minutes on the longeline with Marie on the other end, we changed directions, and she exploded. Leaping and bucking, bucking and leaping. This was no ordinary spook, and every time she landed and I came down on her back, it scared her even more. I wasn't coming off - she got most of the way around the circle bucking before we went down. I was in the process of realizing that while she wasn't going to buck me off, I wasn't going to be able to stop her either, and I was going to have to bail before she decided to leave the arena. Just in that moment, in the split-second that I wasn't 100% focused, she either twisted out from under me or tripped, and I went flying.
The wind was knocked out of me pretty thoroughly, but I checked to make sure I had all my teeth (I did) and turned my head to see that Marie had caught Pandora (she had). "I'm fine," I said, "just give me a minute. I'm getting back on. I'm fixing this." Marie was stroking a shaking Pandora, speaking to her in a calming tone, in her charming, German-accented English. Whether the horses were naughty or nice, she always spoke to them in English.
I tried to push myself up, but my arm wasn't working. It didn't hurt until I looked at it. My hand, relative to my arm, was upside down and at a right angle. "Marie, my arm's broken," I said very matter-of-factly. "We're going to have to go to the hospital." Looking at my arm, I thought wow, that should hurt, and only then did it start to.
I have to hand it to Marie for how well she handled everything. She immediately brought me Rescue Remedy drops and an anti-inflammatory, and some stale gummy bears to chew on for the pain. She put the horses away, fed the others so we could take the truck (or bakie, as they call it down there), left the dog at the house of a friend in the nearest village, since he couldn't come with us and she lived closer to the horses than we did, and brought me ice in a towel from her house. Another friend gave us directions over the phone to the correct hospital in the nearest city, almost an hour away, and Marie drove, even though she wasn't legally supposed to. In the village it never mattered but in the city it might. She helped fill out my hospital forms, wiped the blood from my scraped face off my chest, since it was making the male nurse blush, helped me undress and put on a hospital gown, held my hand while x-rays were taken (by far the most painful part) and then sat with me all afternoon while I was loopy on whatever the doc prescribed me until I could go into surgery. She felt like a friend of 20 years instead of someone I'd just met.
But none of that is the point. I had had riding injuries before, broken bones even, but nothing I had to go to the hospital for. Never had I been unable to get right back on the horse (although there were times I probably shouldn't have). I had several more weeks of traveling before I returned to the US, so by the time I came home, it had already been a month.
The first time I went back to the barn where my horse was leased as a lesson horse, I cried when I saw Jet. To be there with him, unable to ride, hit me so much harder than I had anticipated and I broke down. I didn't want to teach lessons - I told my boss and colleagues that it was because I didn't think it looked good for me to be teaching horseback riding with an arm in a cast that I had broken while riding. But really, I didn't want to teach others to ride when I couldn't ride. I didn't even want to be around horses when I was so helpless and useless. Weeks went by, and my frustration turned to panic, every time I thought about starting to ride again.
I would go to the barn where Jet was leased and watch other students ride him in lessons. Eventually, I would get on after their lesson and walk, maybe trot a little, but it took the entirety of the hour-long lesson for me to convince myself to do so. I didn't ride him by myself, telling everyone it was because I couldn't tack up but in truth I couldn't bring myself to try. I finally did one day, after a working student offered to tack him up for me while I stood by, feeling like the kind of snobbish rider, requiring a personal groom, that I hate and vowed never to become.
Jet had been for sale for a long time. I had bought him as a sale project, and I wasn't particularly attached to him. I would rather have sold him and used the money to travel than stay and keep having to take care of him and pay his expenses. I had finally ridden him once by myself when he went up to Wyoming on a purchase trial for a few weeks, and I was convinced he was going to sell. It sounded like the perfect fit, a great family, an ideal situation for him. Jet, however, didn't think so. He didn't do anything wrong, he just didn't click with the little girl. He wasn't aggressive towards her, just indifferent, and she didn't dislike him, but she didn't love him. So he came back. I wonder what the deciding factor for him was.
One of my clients had an older, schoolmaster Andalusian named Poderio, and one day after his lesson I asked him if we could go out on the trail. I still had a cast on my arm but I insisted I would be fine, although I needed help getting tacked up. I spent several weeks riding with him on Saturdays, convincing myself internally not to panic when I got on, knowing that this was a horse I trusted implicitly, and eventually it got a little bit better, going from walking to trotting and trotting to cantering, building my confidence while my horse developed a hay belly living in the pasture I had moved him to when I decided not to return to my job at the riding school.
But I was still terrified. As a professional, it was frustrating, knowing that I should know better but unable to quell the panic. I would longe Jet every day, and wouldn't ride unless there was someone with me, usually my mom, who would hold Jet while I got on and even walk with me for a little while. Then she would get on afterwards and fearlessly trot around the field, and Jet tolerated her bouncing seat and tugging hands with the patience of a schoolmaster. But he still made me nervous.
Many days my mom couldn't be there, and it was just Jet and me. We did lots of groundwork-things I knew he knew how to do but I hadn't done with him since he was young(er) and barely broke. Training-wise, he didn't need groundwork. He had always had great ground manners and immeasurable patience, as quarter horses do. But the groundwork solidified our relationship. So did barn chores; he had always been boarded somewhere where someone else did the feeding and mucking, and now it was all me, three times a day, spending time with him without necessarily riding him. The previous summer I had had 9 horses in training, plus Jet. When he was the last horse at the end of the day, it became a chore, an obligation, and not something I enjoyed. I think we resented each other without realizing it. Now, when I showed up to feed, he was happy to see me, and when I mucked, he would nuzzle me and seek attention. I brought him carrots and applies, which before had always run out before I made it to him at the end of the day. I would brush him for hours, like I would have done when I was a little girl. Sometimes I would just sit in the pasture while he grazed and we would enjoy each other's company.
Half a year has flown by. I have a massive scar on my left wrist and I can't bend it very far, but I'm otherwise myself again. Jet has become the horse I always wished he was and never thought he could be. I teach little kids on him. He's a rock-solid trail horse. I take him camping. My mom rides him. My friends ride him. He went from a green-broke horse I was given because no one wanted to ride him, to a schoolmaster anyone can ride. He's gone from having no brakes to being so lazy sometimes, the smaller kids can't keep him trotting. He's gone out of his way to take better care of me than he needed to, always calm and patient, because we finally know each other well enough to be in tune to those needs.
Breaking my arm and taking a step back from riding forced me to start all over, from the ground up, and somewhere along the road that took me down, I became reacquainted with my horse, and by extension, with my passion for riding. It's not about winning ribbons, it's about connecting with your horse, and the goals you set as a rider don't always have to be focused on the show ring. I don't know when it happened, or how, but at some point over the years, among hundreds, if not thousands of horses, I left my heart behind. It feel so great to ride with my heart in it again!