Monday, February 14, 2011

Horses are not go-carts

"What about hats?"

"Your hair is short. You will be fine."

I looked up at the horse in front of me and then across at the rough trail that led up into the hills. Oddly, the wind blowing through my hair was not what I was primarily concerned about.

With the exception of those connected to the budding tourist trade, the main inhabitants of Patagonia are the rangers or 'gauchos'. These horse-backed loners heard sheep and cattle through the mountains and plains normally with the help of just their mount and dogs. In their account of travels with the Beagle, both Darwin and FitzRoy mention the gauchos, with the former traveling with them when he wished to go inland. Clearly, riding was the way to conquer this wide, open space so it seemed churlish not to give it a try.

Due to being a somewhat accident-prone child, I had never taken riding lessons when I was younger so my equine experience to date came from the occasional beginner-level hacks while I was on holiday. I had been assured that this outing would be similarly suitable for a complete novice, apparently so much so that hard hats were deemed completely unnecessary. The saddles were also small and largely concealed by a large thick blanket. This meant the only options for holding on were the reins (which were held in just one hand and you couldn't exactly pull on them) or the horse's mane (I wasn't too keen to pull on that either). I tried to reassure myself that this was the traditional gaucho experience and wasn't that exactly what I had desired?

I wondered how many gauchos-in-training died horrible deaths on their first outing.

We set off walking in a line up the track. My horse was third in the string, behind a small five year old and her mother. As the only non-Spanish speaker in the party of five, I was unable to exchange reassuring comments with my fellow riders. The stable-hand in charge of our group spoke excellent English, but obviously wasn't the slightest bit nervous of DEATH BY BAZURK HORSE. However, as we moved through the first gate I heard the international squeak behind me of someone feeling anxious. I felt better.

The path wound upwards but had a series of steep trenches that must be crossed. On foot, they were an uncomfortable scramble; maybe two careful steps down, a jump and then a two step leap up. This didn't look like a remotely good idea on the much larger horse with four legs to maneuver. We approached the first one.

I swallowed.
Looked around desperately for something to hold onto.
Wished I had a hard hat.

Then with a slight jostle we were over.

"When you go down, lean back on the saddle," our guide called out, first in Spanish and then in English.

Wait, why hadn't he mentioned this before we went over the first drop? Was the decent coming up INFINITELY WORSE? Perhaps no one had ever stayed mounted before on this crossing. Maybe it was six foot deep and be more bone shaking than your average roller coaster. The type whose last safety test on its wooden frame had been 1970. Before the infestation of woodworm.

"Um....!" I called out.

"Don't worry! It's exactly the same as before!"

Just before you felt no need to offer us life-saving advice.

It was at this point that I reached an important conclusion that was going to affect me for the rest of the ride:

A horse is not a go-cart.

There was no way I could have gone over that steep trench in anything with wheels and come out unharmed. I would have been thrown to one side, spun head-over-heels, ended up in a lot of pain and someone somewhere would have laughed. My horse, however, was a sentient being who knew full well how to negotiate such a drop. It picked its way carefully down and up without any change in speed. Even though it looked a highly precarious process when watching the animal in front of me, the ride itself felt almost completely smooth. One of us in this trekking unit knew what we were doing. It just wasn't me. I could live with that.

From then onwards I realized all I needed to do was trust the horse.

The only slight problem with this was that my horse hated being number three in our line. Perhaps when it saw the wide open land before us it just wanted to run. Maybe it was in a blood feud with the forefront bicolored pony. It could be that it just felt it was undignified for both of us to have to follow a five year old. I didn't know. I did know that I wasn't quite prepared to take an ad-libed route across this mountain which would culminate --in the best scenario-- with a small child being thrown to the ground.

Well, actually, I probably was, but the likelihood of the brat staying mounted and me falling to my doom was rather higher.

For the majority of the ride, a few tugs on the rein kept us in position. We rode up along the trail, stopped for a brief photo shoot and then began our decent. Seeds of worry started to blossom in my mind as we reached a prolonged steep decline.

Just trust the horse.

Right. I kept my hand as loose on the rein as possible, allowing my horse to amble comfortably down the pitted ground ... until it seized its opportunity and took off at a trot.

This ALWAYS happens to me on beginner hacks. At some point, my horse gets bored of walking and decides a brisk sprint is in order. It was, however, the first time this had happened on a sharply declining hillside.

Did I mention I wasn't wearing a helmet?!

I yelped a protest.

"Pull on the reins!" our guide called to me.

I'd thought of that before making a noise like a fretful three year old, but had dismissed it in favor for the toddler distress call because I thought pulling up on a horse when it was running downhill might go badly. Apparently though, it was still the thing to do. I pulled. My horse reluctantly came to a graceful stop.

"I see you know how to trot your horse," the guide said, jovially.

I tried to smile. It came out somewhere between a snarl and a grimace.

Any thoughts that I might have had regarding my anxiety being an overreaction were put to bed a few days later when we crossed the border to Chile. While hiking in the Torres del Paine national park, we were passed by a group of four riders ... and one horse sans rider.

Clearly, not only had one poor novice gaucho met their demise, but the group had just carried on, probably leaving the rotting corpse to be eaten by pumas.

Patagonia is a harsh harsh place.

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