That's just a fact.
I respect horses, and I fear them, but I don't like them all that much. Tolerate them, I suppose. Treat them with the deference that larger mammals warrant, and all that.
But I don't particularly like looking at them, patting them, sitting behind their noxious rumps in a wagon being towed interminably around some landmark; marching behind them in a parade waiting to tromp in their voluminous excrement; watching them prance over fences with some stupidly-dressed twat on their backs; thrilling as they tear madly around a race track, or for that matter seeing them buck some hapless redneck and trample him into the rodeo mud.
I was once kicked by a horse in the distant past, owned by a foul little bitch named Nicola Kerslake, who kept it in the fields below our farmhouse when I was eight. The fact that I can remember the girl's name who owned the damnable creature should give testament to the fact that such events do tend to stick in my craw. (Ed note: Can dogs actually own horses?).
Anyway, in subsequent years I have been propped on the back of horses a couple of times, and although growing up in the British and Canadian countryside meant easy access to them, I have never become comfortable on the back of a giant smelly, snorting, farting, beast that outweighs me by a million pounds, has been trained by a sadistic and ritualistic bastard, has a large brain perfectly capable of making up its own mind about anything, and cares nary a whit for the hapless and terrified stranger saddled to its spine.
Needless to say, like the proverbial cat-hater smothered by felines, I seem drawn to people who love horses, including my wife and many friends.
So here we are in Costa Rica, and our friends with whom we've reunited on this trip have been regaling us with tales of idyllic moseying through this country's lush rainforests on not one but two horseback trips they've completed.
Knowing that it would be really fun to go on a day trip with them and their two small daughters, we ruled out ziplining (not too much fun for the wee ones), ATV tours (not ecologically friendly in this bastion of eco-tourism), boat cruise (unfortunately not gastrointestinally friendly to this writer's queasy stomach) and nature walk (we already took our own hike through Manuel Antonio).
Knowing that my wife would love it too, and thinking that not only should one face one's fears now and again but that perhaps one might have changed enough in one's adult years to actually enjoy such a ride, I booked the six of us onto a five hour horseback-riding daytrip in the country inland from Puerto Quepos near Manuel Antonio. We would be spending at least two and a half hours on horseback, interspersed with a swim in a waterfall and a stop for lunch.
We were picked up promptly (by Costa Rican standards) by Valentin, the ranch's dour and self-important General Manager. Along with four others we were taken on a bumpy thirty minute van ride into the highlands. The roads got progressively more and more decrepit and plunged us into a lush valley buzzing with the deafening racket of crickets, at the bottom of which we were dropped off in front of a row of ten steeds of varying sizes and colours. After a brief intro to our guide and to the tour itself, we were one-by-one paired up with a mount.
My heart rate had been slowly climbing as I watched all of the party get saddled up onto their horses. Each one of them, men women and children, looked as comfortable as if they had been born in the saddle. I was last to be paired up with my horse, "Sargeant".
Unfortunately, in one ear our guide was giving further instructions to the group while Valentin was giving me life-preserving instructions in the other, both of which were drowned out by the deafening pounding of blood in my ears. My pulse rate spun up into the thousands of beats per minute, and the reins shook in my suddenly palsied and sweaty palms. As I tried to remember wifey's sage and experienced advice, Valentin mumbled a question about whether or not the stirrup thingys were flooged out proper, or if the doodly-punk straps should be scranshed up gripperly, or some other horse-and-tack terminology like that - couldn't quite hear him properly - and so I nodded stupidly and gave him the thumbs up which required me to let go of the saddle horn thingy which of course left me teetering precariously on the brink of an undignified tumble into the manure below. It was at that point that I remembered I was supposed to grip the horse with my thighs and so I did. And that's when I discovered that the nagging pain in the inside of my thighs was a viciously exposed strap that, when gripped harder between my untoned and flabby legs, became a cleaver's edge, slicing me to the bone (or at least, protruding uncomfortably).
And then with a muffled order from somewhere up ahead, and a "tschk tschk tschk" noise soming from The Evil Valentin behind me, my horse lurched to a walk without any instruction from me.
Once I became used to the total discomfort, and the feeling of being completely unable to control my destiny, I settled into a comfortably subdued panic, and grinned stupidly when anyone looked at me. Thankfully they were all pretty focussed on their own steeds to worry about me, and so I was left to plod along at the horse's chosen pace.
As we sauntered slowly up out of the valley, the guide up ahead stopped to let us all sniff the sweetly pungent leaves of a cinammon bush, and I got my first taste of "whoa-ing" Sargeant. We juddered to an uneasy stop, with Sargeant tossing his head back and forth alarmingly. Valentin ventured that I was using too much force on the reins, and suggested I just give a light tug to stop, and a very light flick to slow. I personally felt that I was barely moving the reins and old Sarge was pretty much doing whatever the expletive he wanted to do, but I bit my tongue. Valentin went on: Turning left or right also meant a gentle pull in the desired direction. He said that I'd find my horse didn't like to walk slowly and liked to be at the front of the pack. But I wasn't to let him advance through the pack, and I was to keep him near the back with his brother.
OK. So off we trod. After a few hundred yards, I felt I was getting the hang of things, and despite the pain in my thighs, and the unpredictable swaying of the horse, I was able to steer him and stop him with what I felt was a light touch.
Our guide was sharing nuggets of information about the passing village, the flora, and some Costa Rican history. Only a few detached words wafted their way back to me, but I figured that my wife would fill me in.
After a short time spent walking through a village, we turned off the gravel road and onto a smaller track heading north into the jungle. It was very hot and humid, and the crickets shrilled deafeningly in the surrounding palms. We passed a "paper tree" plantation (aren't all trees paper trees, said the British Columbian in me?), and other vegetation of note, and then began a little climb back down into the valley. We were instructed to lean back on the way down, and to lean forward on the way up. But on the descent, Sargeant decided that he had had enough plodding along at the back of the pack with me, Cowboy Slow, on his back, and began to pick up the pace, butting up against the horses in front of him and charging ahead. Valentin had warned us not to let the horses "bunch up", and so I vainly tried to rein-in Sargeant Stubborn, but he was having none of it, and plowed on forward. By now we were starting to make our way through the pack of riders, and I could hear Valentin yelling orders at me, but I was too busy hanging on for dear life with one hand, madly pulling the reins with the other, and fending off the crush of other riders and horses with my knees. The more I pulled on the reins, the more Sargeant shook his head in complaint, and forged ahead. Finally, sweating and fearful, I got him to stop, and we let the pack walk a little ahead until Valentin was even with me again.
"Choo muss not pull so harrd on dos rayns, he duss not like eet," he said.
"Yes, I can see that," I replied testily, "but he also doesn't respond when I pull lightly, shakes his head madly when I pull harder, and doesn't want to stay at the back."
"Thees ees one of da mose easy goin' horse we haff, mayn. He is veree goo nayturred. You shood haff no problems weeth heem."
My friend Cathy trotted by on her high horse and mentioned breezily that horses tend to adopt the personality of those riding them. I glowered at her moodily, and "tschk"ed Sargeant back into the group riding down into the valley. At the bottom we forded a small creek and resumed the trail up the other side. Then things really started to go wrong. It turns out at all the horses like to run up the hill, or at least canter. And no matter what the rider's intention is, they are going to run. And when one horse in the pack started to pick up the pace, Sargeant got a whiff of the race. Suddenly he bucked underneath me and we were off. And it was and this point that I discovered that my stirrups were painfuly short. Remembering my wife's instructions to stand up a little in the saddle, and take the bumps with my thighs, I leaned forward as the horse undulated beneath me, and stood up on the stirrups. But I didn't lift up at all. The stirrups were too long. And then I realized what Valentin was trying to ask me about the stirrups back at the start, but of course I didn't understand what he was saying, and hadn't understood the importance of properly adjusted stirrups until this moment. Every time Sargeant took a leap, the saddle bucked underneath me and I took a vicious shot to the balls. Over and over, the saddle came up to meet my boys with a dull and mindless violence that quickly laid me to waste. Frantically I pulled on my reins as we struggled through the pack until, breathlessly, I was finally able to slow the horse, his head tossing angrily. We were now walking up the hill in the middle of the pack and I was taking all sorts of advice and instruction when suddenly the horse to our right, skittish and not liking Sargeant's presence on his left rear flank, struck out and kicked my horse in the stomach. Sargeant reared up and whinnied in protest, and I pulled vainly on the reins until he finally stopped. By this point I was in agony. My testicles had been pounded into mincemeat, my thighs were bruising due to the pain of trying to grip the saddle and its protruding straps, I was terrified that Sargeant was going to buck me right off, and he was snorting and shaking his head in annoyance; likely both at me and the horse that kicked him. We stood there as the pack slowed at the top of the hill, and Sargeant settled down and started eating the roadside hedgerow while I gathered my wits.
As I looked around in a daze I realized that, joy of joys, our host had suddenly decided that it was time for a photo op.
Indeed the view of the lush green valley was spectacular, but as I was fighting waves of nausea from the repeated sackings, I really wasn't in the mood. On top of it all Valentin yelled at me to stop my horse from eating the vegetation as it was poisonous to him. Frankly, I thought, if this horse is stupid enough to eat leaves and grasses that are going to kill him, then please God let him die quickly and let me get the hell OFF. But instead I pulled him away from the offending greenery and waited for our turn to line up in our little group of six and be photographed. The pictures show that I was not amused by the whole thing.
Although I would have given anything to be lying on the beach sifting the sand between my toes right at that moment, I let myself get cheered up by the good-natured ribbing of my wife and friends, and we rode off down the other side of the hill. Sargeant and I got kicked again when we got a little too close to the kicker again, this time catching me on my foot, but doing no permanent damage. And soon we arrived at a little pool where we could get off the horses and go for a swim.
After a drink of water for us, and a dip in the bracing water, we dressed again for the ride home. I approached the dreaded Valentin and got him to raise my saddle's stirrups by three notches, and when I mounted Sargeant for the thirty minute ride home, it was like riding a different horse. He sensed my new comfort, and settled down. Valentin stayed with my buddy and I at the back of the pack, and showed how his presence calmed our two horses (he was their trainer). Giant irridescent blue morpho butterflies fluttered from the bushes along the creek through which we were riding. Little spider monkeys bounced through the canopy above our heads. The horses stopped periodically to drink, and Sargeant let the pack get far ahead of him as he ducked his head to drink frequently from the stream. When he saw that they had rounded the corner ahead of us out of sight, he'd leap into a trot, and I'd have to pull and pull on his reins to get him to stop, but at least the saddle wasn't slapping my nuts any more, and I was less fearful of an imminent demise.
At the end of the ride I dismounted gratefully, patted Sargeant's neck, turned my back on him for the last time and collapsed into the waiting van. We stopped on the way home for a light lunch of traditional Costa Rican cuisine, and sampled the cashew wine.
While the others moseyed through the gift shop, I sat out in the sun, on the dusty road opposite the cafe, and sighed happily. I'd made it through without a broken spine, and with both my 'nads intact, if a little bruised. I'd faced a fear, or at least an apprehension, and survived with a couple of shreds of my dignity remaining.
All in all, it had been a good day.