Este caballo es muy lindo, this horse is very beautiful, was one of the useless Spanish phrases I learned before flying to Uruguay, South America for a seven-day equestrian holiday.
Help! This horse is bucking like a bronco, would have been a much more appropriate phrase to learn. As it was, I had to make do with screaming my head off, the international language of terror. I am an experienced rider and can handle many equine vices. Bolting, spooking, rearing and spinning don’t worry me. Bucking is the only thing that sends me into paroxysms of fear. With each bronco leap I screamed louder and louder as the rest of the group completed a lovely calm canter up a hill.
Our guide, Leticia, trotted back to join me in my private rodeo hell. “Stop screaming,” she said. “You’re scaring the horse.” She also told me to drop the reins, which I did, against all instinct. Magically, the bucking stopped. By this time, the guide’s assistant, Gaucho Fernando, had come to see what all the ruckus was about. Leticia and Fernando conferred in Spanish for a moment. I could tell by their tone and the glances they threw my way that they were disapproving of my behaviour.
The horse and I were breathing in gasps as Leticia repeated, “You scared him with your screams.”
“He started it!” I said, feeling suddenly weak and childish. “I wouldn’t have been screaming if he hadn’t been trying to buck me off!” By this time the horse was standing quietly, head down and docile, as if nothing had happened. I was frightened and furious and about to dismount in a huff when Leticia explained that this horse was particularly sensitive in the mouth and that I should not pull on the reins, Ever.
“Sit back in the saddle, let the reins loose and trust your horse,” she said. “This is the Uruguayan way.”
No point explaining that I had simply picked up the reins, English fashion, in anticipation of the canter. I took a deep breath and did as she said. For the rest of the 48 km day, I never once picked up the reins. Instead, I copied the guide and gaucho in their loose, relaxed movements. It turned out to be one of the best rides of my life.
Rodeo episode aside, the Laguna Negra ride with Hidden Trails in Uruguay was tailor-made for someone like me. Beach gallops, remote ranches, friendly people, great food; it was a dream come true. Even herding cattle, something I had thought would not appeal to me, turned out to be a new passion. And riding South American style ― leaning way back in the sheepskin covered saddle ― was extremely comfortable.
Hidden Trails is a Canadian company, but there were ten people from all over the world on this trip. The one thing we all had in common was a love of real riding; this was no nose-to-tail trail ride. All the riders were able to handle challenges and fast paces. My companion and I chose the Laguna Negra trip because it met all of our criteria: warm climate, fast-paced ride, beaches galore. The rest, including a top-notch guide, ranch hosts, and gauchos who did everything for us from tacking up our horses to opening gates, was gravy. We changed mounts three times, and stayed at three ranches.
Uruguay is the second smallest country in South America, sandwiched between Brazil and Argentina. For someone from the northern hemisphere, it is a country full of wonders. There are fields of palms as far as the eye can see. The eucalyptus forests are populated by amazing creatures like rheas, capybaras and brilliant green parrots. We picked fresh dates from the palms, traversed rivers, valleys and lagoons, and wandered through groves of mysterious ombue trees with trunks like deformed elephant legs.
One day we rode to the remote ocean village of Cabo Polonio where the locals live without running water or electricity. There is no road; the only way to reach Cabo Polonio is by horseback or dune buggy. I immediately fell in love with this hippie/fisherman idyll surrounded by sand, rocky outcrops covered with sea lions, and all the seafood you can eat. Mussels grow in abundance on the rocks, but we ate shark and calamari at a beachside tavern while the horses lounged in a paddock nearby. After lunch we swam in the Atlantic Ocean, then remounted our horses to explore the beaches and dunes.
On cattle-herding day at Ranch El Charabon, we set out early to canter up hills and through valleys in search of stray cows. Fernando showed us how to circle round and chase the cows back to the herd. Most of us caught on quickly and were soon working on our own. Locate cow, circle, chase. Repeat. This is pleasure riding with a challenge and a purpose. We came out of it delighted with our accomplishments.
Ranches in Uruguay can be huge. El Charabon is one of the smaller ones, at 950 hectares. On a farm like this, herding cattle can take all day, but we were cowboys and cowgirls only for the morning. In the afternoon, we cantered through eucalyptus forests before returning to the ranch for a swim in the pool and a traditional Uruguayan asado, BBQ.
On the last canter of the last day, I saw Fernando watching me. He smiled and nodded, then turned to Leticia and said something in Spanish. The only word I understood was lindo, beautiful. After we stopped, Leticia came over to me. “Fernando is impressed with your beautiful Uruguayan riding style.” I smiled from ear to ear, feeling immensely pleased with myself and with the whole week.
The bucking incident was the only thing I didn’t love about Uruguay. I will be expanding my Spanish vocabulary for the next trip. Perhaps a phrase such as what should I know about this horse before I get on? would come in handy.
Hidden Trails offers equestrian vacations all over the world. Find them at www.hiddentrails.com
Sheila's love of travel is limitless, even if most days she really enjoys living the simple life in the small village of Warkworth, Ontario. She loves beaches, horses, pugs and sweaters. A published author, her book Amare recounts her adventures in Italy while teaching English in Sorrento. Amare is available online at Amazon in hard and soft cover as well as ebook. The book is also sold at Chapters, Barnes and Noble and other bookstores.