Sunday, November 27, 2022

The Final Ride

I was in tears today.

The horse ride has lasted a week. There are seven other riders, including the lead guide, Marc, and his adjutant Carlos who brings up the rear of the file. Two of the riders I've ridden with before: Sharon in Turkey and Susan in both Turkey and Mongolia. Endurance riding in foreign countries is kind of a niche thing to do, so there aren't that many organising outfits and inevitably you meet up with some of the same people again, even ten years later. 

As always, I'm the least experienced rider. Horse people tend to be dedicated to the lifestyle, for reasons beyond me and the scope of a blog post, but not least because it is no small effort to own and care for a horse. In any case, I'd estimate my hours in the saddle at about a hundred. None of the other riders would be able to count theirs.

So I'm always open to and asking for tips. This is a tricky business, because horse riding is quite a subtle exercise and all the things you need to do are remembered in different ways by different people, who find some tips more meaningful than others. Do you keep your heels down or your toes up? Do you balance in the canter with your knees or your thighs? Is manipulating the bit with the reins like cradling a bird or like squeezing an avocado in the shop? Learning is parsing what people tell you and deciding whether or not to take it on board. You can't listen to everything because some of it seems to contradict, there are different styles of riding (Western vs English, for example) and indeed different riders will have different ideas. I've even heard some horse people described as bitchy; you can imagine conflicts of opinion over something they care deeply about. 

Not these riders, though. We are a team. All week I've been accruing tips from the others, and the last day would be our biggest ride—8-9 hours in the saddle. Marc warned me it would be a tough day, even for the experienced riders, but he had confidence I could do it. There were a few things I needed to be mindful of, such as my balance in the canter and my posting in the trot as we'd be covering a lot of ground, but I could do it.

We were up at 6am with the crowing roosters to hit the trail by eight. Our first day riding (not counting familiarisation time with our horses, mine being the hardy Criollo paint El Greco) was almost as long as this one would be, perhaps seven hours, but was a bit gentler with more time out of the saddle leading the horses on foot over steep terrain. 

At the end of that day my right ankle was really sore. This is a strange place to be sore from riding and led us to consider my stirrup length. Different riders are different shapes with different length legs and different riding preferences (not to mention different tack on different horses), so adjusting stirrup length is routine. But for seven hours of ignorance I unknowingly rode with not only my stirrups too short but one shorter than the other. This was easily resolved on the second day with a length that relieved my long legs and gave me much better contact with the horse, but I suffered the recovering ankle for the rest of the ride. 

Like every other day we ride single file, out of rural towns along the road edge where countless restaurants and cafes abut the road—there is no kerb or pedestrian space—where dogs constantly harangue our well-trained horses that never spook; into thick jungle that encroaches on the road, sometimes nearly taking it over; up constructed horse trails amid coffee plantations and into the slick Andean jungle proper. 

Then we hit our first big hill. To take us to the top we tackle it with a canter to gather momentum. This would be my test, a culmination of all the things I've learned and the tips I've collected, my chance to prove Marc's faith in me and to give back to the team with my competence to keep up with them. Not that this is my first canter, nor ours as a team, but it's my least practised gait. 

Everything shifts into a different position and up we go. I keep my heels aligned below my ears to maintain balance in the saddle, while simultaneously pitching my weight gently forward over the withers so not to deadweight the horse. I'm last in the file but for Carlos, and the clatter of hooves in front of me tattoos a satisfying rhythm in the jungle, urging us on. "Come on, Greco! Yah, yah!" I encourage. He gives so much. We keep up, I keep up, clatta-ta clatta-ta clatta-ta, pressing, spurring him on... and then, halfway up the long, steep hill, I tip forward and our balance goes off. His canter breaks. The rest of the team races away as El Greco is reduced by gravity to a walk.

I'm devastated. The hill is so steep I can't get him back up, even into a trot. Carlos stays with me, but we step, step, step up the long grade with the sound ahead of racing hooves disappearing away into silence. It's awful. I've cruelled the pitch. Events overtake me.

It's ages before we see the top of the hill where all have stopped to wait for me. I'm crushed low to see them. I'm so disappointed in myself and I've let the team down. I'm apologetic. I try to explain.

Of course, no one thinks anything of it but it's a good hour before I manage to regain my composure. I keep back in the queue and pull up my bandana to mask my face and my welling eyes. This upsurge of emotion surprises me. It's been a hard week, this is a hard day, we've all been through so much together, and I am really trying. I've let Greco down; he can do it, but I can't. 

Down the other side of the mountain we descend, leaning back in the saddle to shift our weight for the horses. It's so steep it's precarious, but Greco is sensible and the horses are sure-footed, despite the occasional slip. 

After half an hour of this we level out and rejoin a trafficked rural road. The occasional vehicle lumbers past us, tooting its horn, and intermittent motorcycles race behind them. But suddenly we approach them again from behind, backed up, with drivers out of their trucks milling about, looking down over a lip where the road falls away. It's a washout. The road is gone. The mountainside has taken it out. It seems an ongoing battle between constructed roads and sodden mountains here. As we get close to the edge we see down into the maw of the abyss (as we all afterwards refer to it); looking back at us is a truck stuck on the rise, driver's head out the window. No one believes that the five or six men (locals, it turns out, there for the afternoon entertainment) on a half-inch rope tied to the front of the truck are going to accomplish anything. But with it over their shoulders like the winning leg of a tug-of-war, they crest the lip of the abyss at a run, big smiles on all their faces. Up comes the truck. 

For horses, it's no problem. We dismount, guide them through the throng of vehicles and people, ably aided by Pete from our logistical support crew who turns up in the work truck looking authoritative in orange vest wielding a "PASEO" (slow) sign.

An hour or two later in a sudden but regular late afternoon rain we finally arrive at the stables where we will say goodbye to our horses. We dismount, untack, and Marc approaches me... to congratulate me on my performance. I lament to him my failure on the hill and he reassures me; he says even he, with all his experience, sometimes loses his balance in a canter. I didn't let down anyone. I kept up, controlled my horse, and we arrived on time. I should be pleased, he says, at the day's accomplishment. It was a hard ride, even for the experienced.

I go to say goodbye to Greco. I wrap my arms around his neck and I can barely keep from blubbering. They give so much, Marc says, and he's right. Greco worked so hard, for me, for what I asked him to do. You really forge a bond because of the hard work you do together. After all, the zenith of good riding is to become one with the horse.

I go to my room, get in the shower stall, turn on the water and, in my first moments alone, it all comes out: all I can do is bawl. A full release of the whole day's emotions. I'm proud of myself, humbled by the challenge, relieved at the success and sad it's all over... it's all too much. My sobbing tears merge with the water streaming down my face.

I did it.

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