I’ve lived in China, Central America, West Africa, and on Guam. You wouldn’t think it possible to find horses to ride in all those places, but I did. In fact, the only place I had trouble was Texas, of all places. And not for lack of trying. The self-named “Friendship” State wasn’t too friendly when it came to sharing their animals. At least not in the six months we lived in Denton.
In Belize, Bob and I ran a jungle lodge that specialized in horseback riding tours, so that was easy. We had twenty horses in our care and I rode nearly every one of them over a fourteen month period. I fell in love with more than a few and so would be hard pressed to name a favorite. Mercedes comes to mind. I’ll never forget the day she and I galloped down to the vega, startling two wide-eyed children while crossing a stream. I reined her up to keep from running them over and she stood impatiently, nostrils flaring, angrily pawing the water, sending plumes of spray into the air. The kids, thinking they had seen the devil herself, turned and ran.
That little island off the coast of Nicaragua was a bit more unlikely. Little Corn Island was only 800 acres or so and the residents had repeatedly voted against putting in a landing strip or even a big dock. People came and went in small skiffs called pangas. Again, we were running a lodge, this time one that featured fishing and diving tours. When we had fuel shipped in on the Barco, they anchored outside the reef and we sent our guys out to meet them. Their crew pushed the fifty-five gallon drums of diesel fuel overboard so our staff could lash them to their skiffs. Somehow people had brought in horses. They must have swam them to shore from the big boat.
We had the only internet cafe on the island. The first time Paola rode down from the other end of the island on her stallion Gibley, I was so excited I nearly swallowed my tongue. She tied the horse to a tree and walked into our compound, removing her computer from her backpack. I soon learned Paola had moved from Italy to build a lodge on the other end of this tiny island. Seeing how horse crazy I was, she invited me up to ride and soon sent a man in a small boat to ferry me over.
We got involved with all kinds of horses on Guam. I started by calling every stable on the island and making appointments to visit. We threw in with a woman who had half a dozen surprisingly well-bred horses and she soon hooked up us with Mr. Wu. He owned and operated a big hardware store, and as a hobby owned four horses and fourteen dogs. He needed help with his animals and was willing to pay us for care and training. Although he was from Taiwan, we shared enough basic mandarin to communicate. His English was very good, too.
He had a Belgian mare named Cher and her two-year-old daughter who he’d named Chastity who was becoming a handful. We nicknamed her Chasti-brat and taught her some ground manners. Mr. Wu’s dogs, most of them Dalmatians, were suffering from multiple maladies. The first thing we did was get the vet out for a look see. I’ll never forget what he said about Cher as he examined her. “This horse,” he said, “has no joy in her life.” We treated Cher’s fetlocks for fungus, Cream Baby’s leg for summer sores, clipped the dog’s toenails, and got everyone vaccinated and wormed. I believe we left things better than we found them and were happy to have access to Cream Baby when Bob’s daughters arrived for the summer, so they would have something to ride.
In Ghana, we routinely rode at The Green Ranch on Lake Bosumtwi with our beloved Elodie. She was one of the most notable horsewomen I’ve ever met and it took me months to appreciate it. Elodie was French, unassuming and practical. She flouted no fancy equine training degrees, and yet her horses were all sweet and willing.
One day Elodie invited me to go horse shopping with her. We went to look at a gorgeous four-year-old mare who had become quite spoiled. Quazar, a red roan with perfect conformation lived with three enormous rams and two humans who bent to her every whim. Her owners were repatriating to Italy and hoped Elodie would adopt all four animals. On the way home, I expressed my concerns about Quazar’s disposition.
Elodie agreed to take the mare and three rams. The next time I saw Quazar, I could hardly believe she was the same horse. Elodie’s quiet steadiness and intolerance for nonsense had paid off. Quazar had joined the big girl world. She was quiet and willing, and working well under saddle. I was thrilled to ride her on my 59th birthday.
The most unlikely arrangement occurred in China. For six months, Bob ran a manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Tianjin, a city of ten million. I went into work with Bob three days a week and was on my own the other two. I would literally try to walk out of the city, which I found could not be done in hours. Days, perhaps.
Bob’s employers put us up in the Tianjin Hyatt during that time and we got to know some of the staff quite well. One irresistible young lady, who had adopted the English nickname of Kitty approached us one day and asked if we would teach her to ride. Well, this was a conundrum. How in the hell were we going to get our hands on a horse?
Horseback riding in China was a cheap thrill. The routine goes like this, you pay the handler for a ride, they hoist you up onto a horse, holding tight to their head so they can’t bite you, and fold your fingers around a piece of rebar set into the leather saddle. Gesturing wildly, they emphasize the importance of maintaining your death grip, then they let loose of the bridle and slap the horse on the ass. The horse races around the track, returns to the handlers, and you’re done. Rides like this cost the equivalent of 2 US Dollars.
Nonplussed, Kitty suggested we approach the horse handlers at one of the riding tracks at the Forest Park, not far outside of town. We knew the place. Characteristically, it had been trampled to within an inch of its life by millions of feet over thousands of years. Having lived in the rain forest, the idea of calling this place a forest seemed laughable.
The Forest Park was a place of unbridled sport. The go carts were a popular attraction as very few Chinese drive. Another spot was set up for archery, only instead of straw and fabric targets, one aimed for a fat hen. If you managed to impale a chicken, you took it home for dinner.
True to her word, Kitty negotiated a deal wherein we could rent three Mongolian ponies to go wherever we wanted for an hour for only 60 yuan ($US 7.50). The lessons began. For the most part, everything went smoothly although we panicked when Kitty noticed her girth had come loose. Luckily she didn’t fall and we dismounted to tighten up her saddle.
Remounting, we discovered why the handlers held the ponies for us. Those bad ponies nipped and cow kicked when we tried to get back on which explained why the handlers always held their heads. We stood in front of their shoulder, pulled their head to the right and hopped on.
Looking back, I’m surprised and grateful that I managed to work horses into my life despite my travels. Everywhere except Texas. I’ll never figure that one out.