February 22, 2007 -- As fellow horsepeople, I'm sure you can empathize: When you're used to going, going, going all the time during your regular life, it seems nearly impossible to sit back and relax while on vacation. That being the case, you can understand why I would volunteer to report on the riding tours I took while on a cruise this week in the Western Caribbean.
Some might ask, Why would you WANT to ride while on vacation? I have a few answers: 1. It is too darn cold and dark to ride much at home after work during the winter. Granted, the winters in Maryland are nowhere near as cold as our northern neighbors--about 50 degrees warmer, actually. But, it's still cold. Therefore, having an opportunity to ride in the wintertime when it is both warm and light out is a luxury. 2. Writing about the riding on sea days gives me something to do other than getting too much sun on the Lido Deck. And finally 3. On previous vacations--particularly on smaller Caribbean islands--one of the best ways I've found to see a country is from the back of a horse. You have access to areas that cannot be seen from the seat of a tour bus, and I feel I've gotten a much better sense of what the day-to-day life away from the touristy areas is really like.
To set the scene, I am on a Holland America ship en route to Tampa, Fla., after a lovely--but too short--week away from the ice, snow and sub-freezing temperatures. The journey began in Tampa, headed to Key West, Fla., then off to Belize City, Belize, then south to Santo Tomas de Castilla, Guatemala, and finally to Costa Maya, Mexico, before our current run back to Tampa.
I didn't ride in our first two ports of call, as Key West isn't known for their horses--chickens and six-toed cats perhaps, but definitely not horses. No riding tour was offered by the cruise line in Belize, nor did I find one separate from the offered excursions that looked very enticing. My husband and I had a great time anyway and got to see Mayan ruins, feed howler monkeys and generally learn about the country from our lovely guide Gilly who we tracked down at the Wet Lizard Bar...but that's another story.
Once we hit Guatemala, I was getting a little antsy to get in the saddle. I had high hopes for a great tour, but I probably should have expected little and hoped for more as the riding turned out to be a disappointment. Essentially the tour was a plug for a lovely resort, and the riding was an afterthought. But like golf, a bad day riding is still better than a good day at work, so I suppose I can't complain much.
After our ship docked in Santo Tomas, we were ushered to a waiting speedboat ready to take us to the Amatique Bay Resort. We sped across the bay and were greeted by a lovely lighthouse as we entered the cove where the resort was located. The non-riders were dropped off on one side of the cove, and then our group was taken over to the other side where the horses were lined up tied to a fence awaiting our arrival.
My first impression was that these guys really needed some groceries. Granted they were of small build, but you could clearly see hipbones protruding. However, they were well groomed and had freshly roached manes and shaved tails--I assume to make it easier for upkeep. Upon closer inspection, the overall condition of their feet also was poor. I picked up a hoof after my ride and saw that the shoes were crudely made, barely held on (you could hear the shoes clinking and they were held on by a prayer) and the feet were either overgrown, had very questionable angles or both. However, the horses seemed pretty content overall--and I'd already paid--so I hopped aboard.
One interesting thing I did learn is that all the horses have roots in the U.S. They are all from Mustangs that once roamed America's plains. Apparently, a group of Mustangs was rounded up by BLM and donated to Honduras some years ago. I believe the horses we were riding were offspring from those horses, though the guide was so caught up in flirting with a young woman from California that I wasn't able to get much more info from him.
I have to say, if nothing else, the horses were very well behaved and impeccably trained. They weren't sullen or sour and would move out or pass each other if you asked. Otherwise they were content to follow head-to-tail. Our guide, who was wearing one of the biggest, sharpest set of spurs I've ever seen, relished in impressing "the girls" with his vaquero riding antics--getting his horse to gallop in place right next to you while swinging the horse's front end left and right, just missing your knee.
We mostly followed the paved roads around the resort with a short stint on a muddy trail over manmade one-horse bridges. I think my horse almost lost his hooves in one spot. A guy from the resort riding a moped was always up ahead controlling oncoming traffic for us. The trip description promised an education in the local flora and fauna, but I don't think anything about either was mentioned. Along the trail, there was a funny sign that I am sad I missed getting a picture of: Emergency Exit. I scratched my head and wondered about that one.
Before we knew it, the ride was over. I think we were out for half an hour before the guide got us off our horses, tied them up and took us on a walking tour of the resort on the way back to the beach where we could spend the afternoon. He made sure to point out the various rental options and prices for "when we come back."
So I spent an hour in the shade on the beach, swinging in a hammock watching the waves come in and the world go by. While it was peaceful, I was disappointed that I didn't get to see or learn anything about Guatemala. That thought made me restless, so I headed back to where we met the horses, figuring maybe I could find someone who could tell me more about them and just spend some quality time in the horses' presence. But when I got to where the 20 or so horses that had been just a couple hours before, I couldn't find a trace of them--not even a pile of road apples or a hoof print!
On the way back to my boat ride home, I did manage to find one more horse--a lovely little blue roan colt who was in much better flesh than the others--tied up on the front lawn grazing happily. I've noticed it's pretty common for folks in these countries to slip a rope around the horse's neck (no halter) and tie them to a tree with a long clothesline that allows them to graze at will without going too far. It seems the horses quickly get the hang of not getting tangled. But I digress. Anyway, this little guy was curious as all get out and very bothered by the bugs. He tentatively approached me, and I shooed away the biting flies and gave his ears a scratch, which he seemed to appreciate. He was very interested in a plastic bag I set down nearby and delighted in figuring out what was in there. I pulled an apple out of my tote bag and tried to teach him to enjoy this treat. (Our guide told me earlier that the horses there only ate corn and didn't like the taste of apples.) He tried it, ate a few bites and then decided the lush grass was more interesting than either the apple or me. It was time for me to get going anyway.
Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore is the managing editor of Practical Horseman magazine, a life-long rider and competitor, and loves to travel.