Jan 17 2012

Yippee Yiyo Kiy-yay, Galloping All the Way

Published by at 7:03 pm under Travel,Video

It’s been a while, but I’ve ridden a lot over the years, I told the English woman on the phone last night. I’d thought a two-hour ride through the hills above Antigua would be fun. You do use Western saddles, don’t you?

In her polite British accent, she set me straight: only English riding there. You may know that English-riding enthusiasts look down on Western: You call those saddles? They’re armchairs. If English riding is an American president, Western riding is his drunken backwoods brother.

Still, Paula didn’t dismiss me right out the gate. We spent a lot of time talking about horses and riding, and she finally determined that, even as a Western rider, I possess enough intrinsic horse-sense to ride her horse. I even meet the weight limit of under-145 pounds. I’ll write you down as an experienced rider, she concluded.

Paula runs a stable with her husband, but they’re down to only two horses now: one for a guest and one for the guide—a perfect situation for this solitary traveler. My biggest hope for the adventure was that we’d get to lope and gallop. In the U.S. you can’t ever do that on a day ride, so I haven’t galloped since summer camp in Wyoming.

Don Isra picked me up at 8:30 this morning and drove me to the stables in the nearby aldea of San Juan del Obispo. He is such a kind man. I apologized once again for my terrible Spanish. He said, But you understand Spanish. You just need to practice. And speak more slowly. He’s exactly right. I just want to shove the words out of my mouth as fast as I can and get it over with.

When he rang the bell at the portón, eleven dirty dogs barreled into us. Paula and her husband are Animal People. Animal People, when capitalized, refers to those who love animals and scorn people. I can’t entirely fault them for the sentiment. They found most of their dogs in the street, looking like limp pink rags because they were starved and mangy. One collie mix won my heart for her sweetness. A wild-haired poodle-something cross couldn’t get close enough to me.

Oh, I didn’t know you’d be so tall, Paula said as she led me to the tack room. She’s not the only one who was surprised by appearances. I sometimes picture Brits as proper sorts. Paula has a fountain of wild orange hair with a white skull-cap of roots, and a blurry, cross-shaped black tattoo between her eyes. She’s in her mid-sixties.

I was wearing clothes perfect for Western riding, but Paula said they wouldn’t do for today. She dug out a pair of skin-tight riding capris. I’ll never fit into those, I warned her. They stretch, she said. She loaned me her Italian leather boots and some chaps and gloves. As I dressed, she told me all kinds of complicated things about her world of riding: how you give commands, what horses understand, how you hold the reins, how you sit in the saddle through each of the gaits. All were completely different than what I knew from my Western world. After an hour of preparation and exacting verbal instruction, I was starting to get a little worried.

All suited, I stood up. She stepped back appraisingly. You have the perfect body for a rider: tall and thin.

A leather-and-lycra goddess, I stepped outside where Paula’s 81-year-old English husband stood, looking striking in jodhpurs and knee-high boots. He said You have the perfect body for a rider. For a moment, I thought that I might end up pretty good at this English-riding stuff.

And then I saw the saddle. Or, I tried to see the saddle. It’s a tiny speck of a thing. I already knew I’d have to ride with my knees practically in my chest, but—I mean—no saddle horn, only little wispy tin bits for stirrups, no ridge to keep you from sliding off the back. They told me that with English riding, there’s little between you and the horse, so there’s a lot more interaction between rider and ridden. The horse knows what you’re feeling and who’s in charge. They respond even to small cues. You’re always in communication. If you want speed, all you do is squeeze your calves into its side.

You mean I don’t just kick it to make it go faster? This question was answered by a wince.

As we clop-clopped out the portón and up the cobblestone street, I wasn’t paying attention to the scenery. I was looking at my hands and my feet and my knees. Are my arms going forward and back with each step like they’re supposed to? Is there a straight line from my head through my shoulders through my heel? Am I hinging properly at the hip? Am I holding the reins too high? Too low? Whoops, my little finger isn’t where it should be.

We got to a dirt path and my leader, Paula’s husband, called back to me, Let’s trot!

If you’ve ridden, you know that trotting is a nasty gait that should be abolished. It feels as though your horse is on a pogo stick. It’s impossible to stay seated, so you rise up in the stirrups and sit-stand-sit with each landing. Easy for me in a Western saddle. And then we broke into a canter, a lovely experience as long as you don’t go off-balance. If you do, I realized there’s not a thing anywhere on that stupid saddle that you can grab onto. I was thinking, Am I going to fall off? I’ve got the reins all wrong. I’m still on. Does the horse know I think I’m gonna fall off?

Luckily, after a few hundred feet we slowed to a walk. Horse and rider were still in close contact. I leaned over and patted the horse’s neck. Good horse. I’m in control. Be a good horsie. I hoped this communication would override previous nonverbal exchanges.

At another open stretch my leader said, You go in front of me. I want to see how you ride. Start off with a trot and then go to a slow canter. He might as well have said, Fix me a five-course gourmet meal out of these dead cornstalks here in the field. Plus, I didn’t want him to see me fly out of the saddle. Better to do that when he wasn’t looking, and say it was the horse’s fault. Do I have to? I pleaded.

Off I went, a rag doll in the wind. The leader caught up.

That was really bad, wasn’t it? I asked.

Yes, it was, he said. Do you want to gallop now? I couldn’t believe my ears. Do you know how hard it is to ride a galloping horse? It is not for the beginning or even intermediate rider.

No, thank you. I said.

So we walked along and he talked. And talked. He had strong opinions about everything, from Newt Gingrich (he likes him) to how Guatemalans work their small farms. F***ing idiots don’t even rotate their crops. They’re violent and they don’t know how to run their own country.

¡Buenos dias! called out a guy in the field, removing his hat, wiping his brow and smiling. My leader barely nodded. I smiled and called out in reply.

I grabbed a red coffee berry off a plant as I rode by, and popped it into my mouth. It’s a little bit sweet.

He went on. If I were dictator of America, I would send all the immigrants, especially the Muslims, into the Bermuda Triangle because they’re all ruining the country. Jews are okay, though.

About his mother tongue: People are butchering the English language… text messages… Shakespeare… blah blah blah.

Finally, one I’d never heard before: People should have to pass history tests before they can vote. There should be three votes for each wealthy person to one vote per common citizen, because the aristocrats have more at stake in the country.

I realize that stuff like this comes from ignorance, but why does ignorance have such a loud and strident voice?

But I was stuck with this guy, and my safety depended on him.

He continued to give me riding instructions as we rode up and down hills, across fields and over rocks. Ready for a gallop? he asked at the next flat stretch. No, I replied. Off we went: trot, then lope… and then gallop.

Picture a rider leaning forward and gripping her horse’s mane as she’s been told to do, as the horse lopes along, kicking up dust. Looking good. The rider smiles and waves at a worker in the field. The rider’s foot slips out of one of the stirrups. The horse breaks into a full gallop. Have you ever seen a dog trying to break the neck of its toy (or a live animal)? I was that toy. But, I stayed on.

After that there were other unannounced lopes and gallops. I’ve ridden enough that I wasn’t in a blind fear during the moments of losing balance. Instead, I was running down the list of the injuries I might sustain: broken arm, internal bleeding, no injuries, broken back. All things considered, it seemed much wiser to stay on horseback.

I don’t know if I’ll ever take another stab at English riding. It is really difficult. You might think a horse is a horse. (Of course.) But it’s almost like a different kind of animal when it manifests Limey ideology.

I rode back to Antigua with a nice woman who’s a friend of the stable owners. She’s a veteran English rider. You were very brave to go on that ride, she told me. More like ignorant, methinks.

It’s hard to take pictures from horseback. I love the one after our return with the horse getting a shower. When the guy sprayed water on him, the horse opened his big horse mouth in delight.

On the walk home I saw a fabulous t-shirt I really wanted to get Adi: It had a gorilla in a Che Guevara hat with the inscription, Viva La Evolución.

I decided to try one last time to get lost in the mercado. I wanted to look for a present for Emmy. I wound deeper and deeper into the dark ocean of stalls, but the next thing I knew I had emerged, Jonah from the whale. But I kept going back in.

I have a personal theory of mercado shopping: once you stop to talk to someone in their booth, you’re in danger of buying something. If you pase adelante to look at the goods more closely, it’s hard to pase back out without a purchase. But it’s not impossible. If you spend more than a minute there, you’re in serious danger. And if you have some friendly conversation with the proprietor, you’re dead in the water. You might as well give yourself over to the shopping experience. I made the fatal “friendly conversation” error, so I took my time and looked through her toys and pocketbooks and fabric and wallets and trinkets and clothes. Despite language barriers, the small, rounded woman and I had some good laughs (she got the Spanish words for bee and butterfly confused, and I had to correct her!). She gave me a hug and kiss when I left, and handed me an extra little present on my way out. While I hate bargaining (and thus I always pay too much) these tiny cross-cultural exchanges are fun.

Yesterday I asked Doñas Rosa and Justa to talk to me in Spanish so that I could videotape the conversation. I wanted to show my students that I know first-hand their struggle to learn a language. I also wanted to give them an idea of what to expect in the class, so when I edited it I added little subtitles. Here it is in its draft form. I am mortally embarrassed to show it to you or anyone because I want you (and for some reason, especially my mother Small) to imagine that I’m really good at Spanish. Who knows why. Small: Do not show this to your new Spanish-native friend.

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5 responses so far

5 Responses to “Yippee Yiyo Kiy-yay, Galloping All the Way”

  1. Molly says:

    But I *like* riding in an armchair.

    If you combine me and you, we’d have one whole good Spanish speaker. You’re good at listening. I’m horrible at it. But I can speak fairly well now.

    I love those hortsey pictures. And the ear-covers! EAR-COVERS!!

    A bee is a buho and a butterfly is a tortuga, right?

  2. Ginna says:

    When we get home, let’s see if we can combine us. I’ll see if I can find you your own pair of ear covers, so you can look groomed when you get back to Davis. No, a buho is an elephant and a tortuga es un ATM machine.

    several rentaxe

  3. small says:

    But where is the reason for your time of birth?? Perhaps for the tippling priest??

  4. small says:

    WWWHHHEEEEeee! I DID it!! (before this, I really couldn’t find–or–when found–decipher the “two words”) Success–but it comes a little late.

  5. Ginna says:

    I am SO PROUD of my mother. Imagine my amazement when I got an e-mail saying that SMALL had made not one, but two posts!!!! My mother did that. All by herself. My father would be so proud of her technical expertise. But more relevant to this time and place, WORMLIPS is so proud. See, Maw? It wasn’t that hard, was it? And you made my day.

    Yes, the tippling priest had needed birth info before he opted for the bottle.


    Yours truly,
    from* edsatly

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