Of all the things I thought I would do on my Caribbean vacation, riding a horse would’ve been last on the list. We have horses at home; mine is a Tennessee Walker named Marley. She’s sturdy, well-trained, and bomb-proof, but I rarely ride her. I’m with Sherlock Holmes on this one: horses are crafty at both ends and dangerous in the middle.
But my husband and daughter have a dream of riding horses along the beach. I’m up for anything that gets me near the ocean, and our son comes along for the ride. We’re off-book, way off-book; instead of arranging this adventure with an official tour guide, we wandered near the port asking taxi drivers if they knew where we could ride. Twenty minutes later we’re standing outside the walled gates at the edge of the Sandals St. Lucia Resort under ironwood trees waiting for someone named Bano to catch the horses and bring them to us. “Don’t worry,” says the taxi driver as he zooms off, “I’ll be back in three hours.”
After a lovely conversation with a toothless man who tells me he sells the hematite necklaces he makes to the Sandals honeymooners—see how pretty she shines in the sunlight, you like, I make special price for you—Bano shows up. The horses are lean, bony even, and look like they could use a bushel of grain or two. When Bano asks if we’ve ever ridden, my husband says our daughter is a barrel racing champ and rodeo princess. Bano doesn’t believe until my husband pulls out his phone and shows him pictures. “Okay,” Bano says, “she can ride Formula One. He used to be a race horse.”
Formula One is a fine-boned white Arabian stallion. Alarm bells go off in my head.
“And you, Mami,” says Bano, “you ride, too?”
“I need one with training wheels,” I say. “You got one named Butterball or Marshmallow?”
He puts me on Apache, the biggest, but only about fourteen hands tall and 500 lbs lighter than Marley. Damn, I hear the horse think. Why do I always get the chunky ones?
Good, I think. Weighted down my horse is less likely to buck or run. It’s just too much effort.
I look over and see my daughter and husband weaving their horses through figure eight patterns around coconut husks in the sand.
Show-offs, I think.
“No, Sweetie,” Bano calls to my daughter, “with these horses slack reins means go fast. You have to keep them in tight check.”
“What?” she calls, clearly confused. We’ve spent a lot of time and money keeping our horses’ mouths soft and they don’t like short reins.
“Choke up,” I snap. “And if you even think of galloping, I’ll throttle you. Nice and slow, you hear me?”
“Yes, Mom,” she says with an eye roll.
This is why I don’t ride at home. I’m too slow, too careful, too boring. Riding with me means the kiddie pool when they want to surf Waimea.
We start the ride along the beach, then through red dirt fields, then down village streets. Kids coming running out of school to watch us ride past.
“Wave like you’re in a parade,” I tell my daughter. “I know you’ve had lots of practice.”
More eye rolling, but she does smile and wave at the kids.
After a short break, the horses are unsaddled, we mount again, and ride into the sea. I’m chicken and only go out as far as where the water rises over my horse’s back. Frankly, I’m afraid I’ll float off and won’t be able to get back on. Fearless on a horse in ways she’s never in the ocean alone, my daughter rides out until her horse swims. My husband chases her, and they play—each trying to knock the other off.
Soon, too soon, we wipe down the horses and saddle up. On the ride back to the ironwood trees where the taxi dropped us off, the wind blows my hat off my head. I call to my husband—in all things horses it’s his job to take care of me. As he lopes back to retrieve it, a girl about my daughter’s age calls that she will get it for me, but my husband beats her to it. I thank her and smile. Wide-eyed she asks how much it costs to ride a horse.
A thousand things flit through my mind, things that will make her laugh and shake her head. I settle on the simple truth. “$65,” I tell her.
“USD?!” she gasps, like it’s a trip to the moon. “$65 USD,” she calls to her mother.
I think about $65, not enough to fill my gas tank or buy a week’s groceries or even pay for an evening at the movies with popcorn for four.
“Yes,” I nod, jamming my hat back on my head. “To ride a horse in St. Lucia’s ocean. Once in a lifetime.”
Horse eating rocks, water crossings, and trees that reach out and snatch you are all perils of mountain trail riding. It always spooks me when the horses’ heads and ears twitch and then they suddenly peer off into the brush. Like them, I’m certain it’s a bear or a cougar with a hankering for horse meat, but more than happy to snack on the stupid human who falls off when the smarter horse bolts. I don’t like long sideways drops off hillsides, either.
Give me sharks and ocean waves any day.
On horseback, my husband Kevin and I forded about six small streams reduced to a ghost of the ripping ice melt they’d been in the spring, passed beaver dams, and nimbly high-stepped over fallen aspens. About four miles and forty-five minutes into the ride my butt ached, the button on my jeans was poking a bruise into my belly, and I had to pee. I knew I shouldn’t have chugged that Diet Coke on the drive up. I rubbed my knee.
“Who rode my saddle?” I asked.
“No one,” Kevin said.
“Are you sure? The stirrups feel short.”
He looked back, considering. “Yeah, maybe they are. I’ll fix ‘em when we get to the campsite.”
“Look at the light on the mountains,” he said. “The new green from the rain mixed with the fall colors in the warm afternoon light.”
Kevin’s an engineer by trade and temperament, but like most Celts and Welsh I think he has a warrior poet’s heart. My eyes, previously laser locked on the trail as viewed between Marley’s ears—all the better to eat you with, my dear—looked up.
At his chuckle, my eyes snapped to my lover’s face. He was beaming.
“It’s stunning,” I stammered.
“I knew you’d like it,” he said. “It’s good to see you smile.”
A date, I thought. Not a trip to Costco or a quick movie in town, but time with my husband in the mountains and away from computers, television, kids, and books. He knew the mountains would look like this and wanted to share it with me. A horse ride so spontaneous I didn’t have time to create prior plans, but important enough with the coming snow that we had to go. Was his handheld GPS gadget even missing?
A few minutes later past the rocky ridge that always reminded me of a dinosaur’s spine, we turned up the hill and reached the campsite.
“Here,” he said. “Let’s tie the horses over there and walk around.” He dismounted, took two steps, reached down, and picked up the GPS from under a sagebrush.
“You’re kidding me!”
“Nope.” He wiped it off. “Battery’s still good.”
My jaw was still hanging open. “I can’t believe you actually found it.”
“Me, too.” He chuckled and held my horse’s reins so I could dismount.
“So what do want to do now?” I asked.
“Well, I got my girl all alone in the woods…” He reached over and unstrapped a .22 rifle. “Wanna shoot?”
It was my turn to laugh. “You are such a dude!”
“I’ve been married to you for over 26 years. I see the mud and ice patches and didn’t bring a blanket. I got you on up here on a horse. If I can get you to shoot a gun, it’s a banner year.”
I sighed and sighted in a yellow aspen leaf. The things you do for love.
Sunday afternoon, drugged out on ibuprofen and hobbling, Kevin came into the house. “Wanna go on a ride with me? I checked the packs. My GPS must’ve fallen out when Brownie tipped over.”
“You’re kidding me. You lost your GPS? Again?” This was the third handheld unit he’d owned and the seventh or eighth time he’d lost one in the wilderness. I’d told him over and over that obviously God expected him to use an old school compass, not a new-fangled toy. But like a toddler with a blankie he insisted on hauling his toy everywhere. Any trip longer than 20 minutes from home and that stupid thing would be sitting on the dash, calculating speed, distance, and all things who cares engineery and geeky, marking a trail of electronic breadcrumbs we could follow back in case we missed the entire highway and had to blaze a new path back to the homestead through the vast Utah wilderness. It drove me crazy. Knowing I started it all with a Christmas present years ago didn’t make it better.
“The snow’s melted, but it’ll be back this week. I need to go today if I’m going to find it. Come with me,” he asked.
I looked out the window. “It’s cloudy. It’s going to rain.”
“It won’t,” he said.
“It’s late. It’ll be dark before we’re done.”
“We’ll take Marley and Rojo. They’re fast Tennessee Walkers,” he cajoled. “Three hours, tops.”
“More like four or five,” I said.
“Back by seven,” he said.
“More like eight.”
“It’ll be a date,” said our daughter.
“Yeah,” he said.
I looked at him. He seemed so hopeful. “Okay,” I sighed.
I am a reluctant rider. I didn’t grow up around horses. Like Sherlock Holmes, I think you have to be crazy to voluntarily get on something that’s dangerous at both ends and crafty in the middle. On tippy-toes as they pandered to an opera house diva, my family has made all kinds of accommodations for me—extra cushy saddle, wide stirrups, easy mountain trails, a mounting block, and no loping, only a slow but ground eating Tennessee Walker gait allowed. My horse Marley is the equivalent of a tricycle with training wheels and eight-wheel drive. She’s surefooted, calm, stable, and big enough to pack me around all day long.
I know she’ll take care of me, but I’m still nervous. I’ve fallen a few times. The most spectacular was when Charlie, a trusted paint I’d ridden a couple of years decided he’d rather be a bucking bronco at the rodeo. I was bruised black and blue and to this day my tailbone hurts if I sit too long. When we couldn’t find a reason for the bucking, I decided I couldn’t trust Charlie (Chucky!). It took Kevin a long time and a lot of test drives before he found Marley for me and longer still until I’d ride her without grinding my teeth the whole time.
I swear when you’re older the ground is farther and harder. A lot.
But when your spouse really really loves something, sometimes you gotta suck it up and get on a horse.
I try not to complain, but it’s hard.
It was four-thirty by the time we’d trailered the horses to the trailhead and saddled them up. In a maroon fleece jacket and hunter’s orange vest, blond hair standing out in tufts under my pink and black riding helmet, I looked like a deranged Bozo the Clown. I know because I saw the iPhone photo my husband posted on Facebook later.
At least no hunter would ever confuse me with a deer or elk. Moose, maybe.
As Kevin limped over to mount Rojo, our son’s big strawberry roan gelding, I asked, “You sure you want to do this? Shouldn’t you be in bed icing that thigh?”
“I’m fine,” he said.
“I saw the bruising.”
“I don’t bruise.”
“You did this time, Buckaroo Bonsai. Purple, yellow, and green.”
“It’s still a needle in a haystack.”
“I know exactly where I was when Brownie fell,” he said.
“Okay, Hoss,” I said. “What’re we looking for? What color is the GPS unit?”
He sighed. “Camouflage green.”
We turned and headed up the trail.
Next week Part 3: The Things We Do For Love
The whole situation dripped with irony. My husband Kevin, a former scout master of twenty years and born horseman, had been asked to help wrangle 12 and 13 year old scouts on an overnight camping trip in the mountains above Strawberry Reservoir. It was a trip he’d made many times before and our horses knew the trails well. But this time with more scouts and adults wanting to tag-along than bomb-proof mountain trail horses available, he’d resorted to bringing Brownie, our daughter’s high-test performance horse far more suited for barrel racing and rodeo grand entries than sloughing through alpine streams wearing saddle bags.
Loading up the horses, our daughter frowned. “Dad, don’t take Brownie. She’s not a mountain horse,” she said. “Besides, nobody but you can ride her.”
“I’m bringing her because I need to put kids on our other five. I’m already planning for Trigger and Marley to have double riders in buddy saddles. Peter’s bringing a couple of his horses, too, but we may have to ride out in shifts. Some campers will have to hike part of the way.”
“Brownie’ll be a handful and you’ve got a ton of green riders,” I said.
“Phhhhstt. She’ll be fine. This is not my first rodeo.”
Famous last words.
Brownie was fine until the next morning when the camp was packed up and everybody was saddled and ready to head back down the trail—except for the guy making sure everyone was saddled and ready. Kevin was the last to mount. That’s when Brownie threw a horsey hissy fit and reared.
It could’ve been all of the extras hanging off her sides—saddlebags, hornbags, ropes, rifle, canteens—that wigged her out. Or she could’ve been worried that the other horses were going to leave her. Or the excitement of the boys keyed her up. Or she could’ve simply had enough of gunshots and coyote nights and wanted her familiar corral and hay. Whatever the cause, Brownie decided she’d had enough.
She’s a diva, remember?
Brownie reared, throwing her head and her legs skyward, which to a guy who grew up training horses is merely annoying until the horse slips in the mud and starts the slow train wreck of going over backwards.
At the last moment she turned and landed on her side, pinning Kevin’s leg underneath her.
As bad as this is, it’s much better than going over backward and having the horse break your neck. Or spine. Or—
I don’t like to think about that.
So Kevin’s first thought was, “Sideways. Thank goodness!”
Not really. But I write a PG kind of blog.
The second thought was, “I hope that snapping sound was a twig and not my #^&*@$%^ femur! One broken femur this summer in the family was enough, thank you very much.”
Or thoughts to that effect.
There was a lot of pain, but cowboy tough, Kevin inventoried the damage while Brownie scampered over to one of her horse buddies with an oh, crap, I think I really screwed up sheepish look on her face.
One of Kevin’s cardinal scoutmaster rules is no matter what, everything’s chilly. Most trouble comes not from the initial incidents themselves, but from people’s reactions. Probably only Peter, another horseman and scoutmaster, had any clue how bad the situation could potentially be.
On horseback, Peter leaned down. “You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah.” When Kevin stood and took a step, he realized however bad it was, his leg probably wasn’t broken. “I don’t think it broke my femur or hip.”
“How’re your guts?”
“Fine. I’m fine.” With kids saying, whoa, that was cool, Kevin walked over to Brownie, adjusted the packs, grabbed the reins, and rode on out.
Can you imagine?
Looking back, he says he realizes now he was in shock; the whole ride back he fought passing out and falling off and is eternally grateful to Peter for keeping him engaged in conversation.
Just don’t ask Kevin what they talked about.
The next day was Sunday. At church the scouts kept telling people about how Kevin was bucked off and how it was awesome.
“I wasn’t bucked off,” he sniffed. “The horse went over backwards with me in the saddle. There’s a difference.”
But it wasn’t until he unpacked that afternoon that he discovered his precious handheld GPS was missing.
Next week Part 2: It’s a Date