Horse Trekking

I’ve been on three horse trips in the last couple of months while here in Vilcabamba. Here they are combined into this one blog post.

Gavin (the Kiwi cowboy I wrote about in the last post) convinced me to try a one-day horse trip. He didn’t have to twist very hard, I’ve been curious for a while now. I’ve never been on a horse before if you can believe it.
Gavin isn’t riding these days since he’s still recovering from testicular surgery after getting kicked in the balls by a horse, so there were two guides on the trip plus myself, four German girls and an Australian woman named Ferne that I hit it off with. Ferne grew up riding, so naturally she looked beautifully right at home on the animal. I was a bit nervous at first but managed to relax (which is the best way to not get sore and injured) and get into it. Heading out of town, I was impressed that the horses were not spooked by cars or chasing dogs. I guess they’re used to it. I really didn’t have to control the horse much – he knew the way by heart. “Your horse will lead you home.” We rode for several hours up into Podocarpus National Park, eventually making it to a beautiful high waterfall.

Wow. Being carried on a living, thinking, feeling animal is something special. The trust you hold in one another. The non-verbal communication. They’re amazing creatures – carrying all that weight on those spindly legs. Powering straight up 45° hills, scrambling over rocks and mud and straight through rivers. And all they eat is grass! It’s hard to believe they can summon such strength without eating protein. Point goes to the vegetarians.

The cantering and galloping was my favorite part – the horses really loved to run, leaving me holding on for dear life. The whole experience was fantastic, I immediately fell in love with riding. I also became intrigued by all the associated gear (the “tack“) – the saddles, stirrups, straps, bridles, bits, halters, reins. They’re all hand-crafted out of leather and steel, specially purposed and really tough. But my sore butt was asking why they don’t make modern saddles out of the same gel that those fancy bicycle seats are made from (which Aunt Marty says “feels like human flesh”). One would think in this day and age that nylon, neoprene, and other modern materials would have supplanted the leather of old. Perhaps I’ve found my calling.

After a hike to the bottom of the waterfall and a picnic (why does food always taste better outdoors?) we returned to town. About six hours round-trip. I was saddle sore for a couple of days afterward, but hooked.

Ferne and Gavin convinced me to go on an overnight trip to the house Gavin built way up in the mountains many years ago. Gavin still can’t ride, so it was just myself, Ferne, and our guide Edgar – a sweet kid who did everything. We thought more tourists might be on the trip, but in the end it was better this way – very romantic. Ferne requested Tornado again, the same horse she had last week. A black stallion, powerful in steed but putty in her hands. I had Colorado, a bigger and stronger horse than Blanco from last week. Edgar rode his own horse Niño, who is a wild one – he kept fighting Edgar, very bellicose. The actual ride up was shorter than on the one-day trip, it only took two or three hours to reach the cabin. But the scenery was spectacular – vistas for miles, thick forests that opened into fields in which to run. Edgar rode ahead clearing the path with his machete.

Arriving at Gavin’s place was sublime. It’s nestled in an ideal spot, surrounded by nothing but forest for miles around. He owns 250 hectares – the entire side of a mountain – which abuts the national park. So there’s no danger of anyone else building nearby. In fact although he owns the land, he’s entered into an agreement with the park that he’ll keep it pristine and natural.

I’m really impressed with this A-frame house that Gavin built far from any supplies. How much work that went into it – clearing the land, digging the enormous latrine, felling timber. Everything had to be carried up by horse or mule – the corrugated roof, kitchen sink, you name it. He sourced the wood for the structure from the forest. The interior has a simple but very functional kitchen with an adobe wood-fired stove, large dining table, and a sleeping loft above. Candles provide illumination. Various trinkets and posters from over the years adorn the walls. The water comes from a spring a few hundred meters away, so it’s always fresh and clean.

Next door is a low structure with several beds in each room. Very basic, just simple frame beds with thin foam mattresses and woolen blankets, but quite functional. Edgar kindly gave Ferne and I the “penthouse” (loft) and slept next door in order to give us privacy.

After arrival, Edgar made us passion fruit cocktails with guacamole and chips. Yum. It turns out that my horse, Colorado, is quite fond of Doritos as well – he dug his face into the bowl before anyone noticed. I heard Ferne scream with laughter and came running to see what the commotion was about. We had to watch him the rest of the night, apparently he’ll walk right into the kitchen. Gavin has this great photo of him staring into the mirror challenging the horse staring back at him.

It was fun to watch the horses stretch after they’d been stripped of their saddles and reins, rolling around in the grass, and generally happy to be up in the mountains again with moist, fresh grass to eat (the feed is really dry down in the valley now). Oh, and to be rid of those pesky tourists and loads on their backs!

Ferne and I have been editing Gavin’s new book. This one is poetry – difficult to edit for content, but he definitely needed our help with the grammar, spelling and punctuation. So while Edgar napped, Ferne and I hung out in the hammock reading Gavin’s manuscript to each other, hearing how the poems sounded aloud. Some of them are quite clever. I can write non-fiction till the cows come home, but I’m always impressed with the sort of creative mind that can condense an entire experience into just a few lines.

Finally Edgar convinced us to take a walk through the forest with him. Although we were feeling lazy and not up for a huge hike, it was quite pleasant – with Edgar pointing out flora and fauna along the way, it became edutainment. Dinner was black bean chile burritos and quite delicious. I had gathered wood for a bonfire and carefully made a Scout-approved teepee fire which I was anxious to try lighting using only one match. But along comes Edgar to show me how it’s really done – by throwing a cupful of gasoline on the creation! Well sure, take the easy way out.

It was nearly a full moon and Venus was showing besides all of the beautiful stars. Morning came, revealing the world even more beautiful than the day before. I love that moment when camping when you first crawl out of the tent in the morning, take a deep breath of the fresh mountain air, and behold the wonder of nature before you. After a leisurely breakfast Edgar went to find the horses. They wander away in the night, especially if they suspect it’s only a two-day trip and they’ll have to go back down. They’d much rather stay up there.

Saddling up and saying goodbye to the house, we made our way back down to town. Edgar offered me the chance to try his horse Niño, which I readily accepted – fooling myself I was already a real cowboy and ready to tame this beast. Ooh boy, was this gelding sassy! He kept taking off, going this way and that, even trying to throw me at one point. Eventually I gave him back to Edgar when we had reached my place. A bit bruised and battered and badly in need of a shower, but contentedly blissful. Ferne later told me that just in the 1/2 km between my place and town, Niño escaped three times and Edgar had to go chasing after him.

Gavin has finally healed enough to get back on a horse. I’ve been waiting for this day for a long time. I’m excited to return to his mountain house, this time with the Man himself. My fellow conspiracy skeptic Roger wants to go for three days, so it will be Gavin, Roger and me for the first night; then Edgar will ride up with three more tourists to join us for the second night. I rode Colorado again, which I was happy with. We’re buddies now. Gavin’s horse kept giving him trouble the whole way up – no matter how much he kicked, clucked, or whipped the durn thing, it just wouldn’t go.

Along the way we stopped at Gavin’s lower house which I hadn’t seen yet. It’s impressive – a real sealed house with porches, shower, large kitchen, sleeping loft and a big living area – again, all built by himself – sitting by the river and surrounded by fertile land. It’s now sitting empty, but back in the day before it was wired for electricity and gas he raised two of his girls there – cooking by fire and homework by candlelight (correspondence school to New Zealand!) This house would be great to rent for a couple of months just to get away from it all and write the Great American Novel.

Upon arrival to the upper A-frame house we discover that either Edgar had left the place a disaster or somebody had found the key and broken in – the place was a mess. I’m inclined to think it was the latter. We also had no water. I felt like a kid following dad around as he chased down the problem. It gave me yet more insight into how much work Gavin had put into this place – running hose hundreds of meters through the forest, burying it all the way just in case of fire. It turned out to be multiple problems, but this guy is capable of repairing anything with sheer spit and ingenuity.

It was Gavin’s first time up there (and first time on a horse) in five months, so he spent a while cleaning up and getting the house shipshape while Roger and I watched the sunset. A beautiful rainbow came out at one point. This place is really too much – nobody would believe you if you put this on film.

The three of us sat around swapping stories, well, mostly Gavin, since he was drunk by this point and tends to tell the same tales over and over. It’s strange with alcoholics how a switch suddenly gets thrown – one minute they’re Dr. Jekyll, the next they’re Mr. Hyde.

Morning brought yummy cinnamon pancakes and cowboy coffee followed by more laying around. I finally convinced Gavin to quit puttering around and come for a hike. Boy, was I glad – it turns out the Kiwi Cowboy is quite the naturalist to boot. We went on a killer five-hour hike straight up the mountain, G stopping every 10 minutes to point out some unusual orchid, epiphyte, bromeliad, or animal print. We passed through several distinct ecological zones, it was amazing how sharply they changed. Finally reaching the top, it felt like being on top of the world. You can see clear south to Peru and north to Cuenca over hundreds of mountain ridges. The biodiversity up there is stunning – hundreds of unique species all packed together. Ferns, lichen, and orchids I’ve never even seen in photos.

Look what I just learned on Wikipedia about this area: “One study found 175,000 bromeliads per hectare in one forest; that many bromeliads can sequester 50,000 liters of water. A wide variety of organisms take advantage of the pools of water trapped by bromeliads. A study of 209 plants from the Ecuadorian lowlands identified 11,219 animals representing more than 300 distinct species, many found only on bromeliads.” We also saw a number of butterflies, of which Ecuador has some 6,000 species of.

That man is some kind of miracle – he hardly eats (thin as a rail), drinks like a fish, chain smokes, doesn’t exercise – the opposite of me. Yet who powered up the mountain first, and who was left panting 100 yards behind? You guessed it. I blame it on the altitude (3,000m). The best part was when he would spot some animal scat, crouch down and start peeling it apart with his hands to see what it had eaten. I learned a lot from him that day. We saw signs of puma, Andean spectacled bear, and the strange-looking tapir – sort-of a cross between a deer and a pig. One large cat had left 4-ft long claw marks on a tree. Cool.

By the time we got back to camp Edgar had arrived with the other guests – two young women from Slovakia who are teaching English for one year in Loja, and an Aussie chap in the midst of a RTW trip. We all hit it off,  had a lovely dinner and I made another camp fire. More horse stories were told – my favorites being the ones about the long journeys. One day last year a big group arrived in town led by a well-organized Chilean. This group was in the midst of riding from the Colombian border to Cusco, in Peru. That’s over 2,000 km! It took them three months just to get here from Colombia – and that’s only about 1/5 of the journey. They arrived with 14 horses and left with 11.. I guess some people were calling it quits. Also in the caravan was a husky that had come down from Alaska and a spider monkey they had picked up in Colombia that drank Coke. The leader had GPS and good maps, but I would still think you’d need local guides every step of the journey. It’s cool to think that one can still ride a horse over the mountains and through the countryside such a long distance in this day and age of asphalt and supertruckers. Another story involved an Argentinian farmer who wanted to talk to the president of the United States, so he rode his horse (naturally!) from Buenos Aires to Washington, DC. Took him two years.

The inevitable switch got thrown after a couple of bottles of rum. The kids wanted to get ready for bed and asked Gavin what the sleeping arrangements were – to which he became belligerent, chastising them for going to bed so early, drunkly lecturing, etc. Um.. these are your paying guests! At the moment, Gavin’s horse trips still have a good reputation in the guidebooks; but if he keeps this up, word is going to get around and business will suffer. It’s painful to watch someone you admire self-destruct. Luckily Roger stepped in and sorted them out with blankets and beds. I want to talk to Gavin about this episode, perhaps give him a bit of advice/perspective as a friend, but like most alcoholics, he immediately gets his back up and becomes defensive.

In the morning Edgar and one of the girls went off to collect the horses and came back riding one bareback. Ouch! I’ve seen 5-year olds doing that around town, but they don’t weigh anything! On our way down Gavin told me, “a horse that can’t carry a man up the mountain isn’t a horse; and a man that rides a horse down the mountain isn’t a man.” Naturally I dismounted at that moment – can’t have my male ego challenged like that! Actually, it was much easier on the horse and a whole lot faster – I free ran down, leaping over boulders and having a great time to see how quickly I could twist my ankle.

The horses are so well-behaved that when we stopped for a beer on the way back into town we didn’t even have to hitch them up. You just leave them by the side of the road and they’ll stand right there until you come back, even if it’s hours later.

There’s a nice little ritual when you arrive back in town from a horse trip. First you ride through the main square sitting tall and proud, showing off. Then when you’ve dismounted, you hand the reins to a group of boys that have been waiting all morning for your return. Some of them don’t even come up to the horse’s belly, but nonetheless they jump right on and take the horses back out to pasture.

Some of you were complaining of the long load times for videos on the blog, so I’m experimenting on this post with different formats to see what works best. Now that I have my own netbook I can compress videos and convert them, which should help things. I think that in the future I’ll use YouTube for longer videos where the quality doesn’t matter, and continue hosting shorter videos myself where I want high quality or there is a lot of motion.

Here is a short video of Blanco and I galloping through the fields.

Here I am feeding a carrot to Colorado.

Here is a short one of me chopping wood with a machete (someone’s got to introduce the hand saw to Latin America – please!)

This last video is of Colorado and I galloping. It’s being served from YouTube, which should be a lot faster than my crappy host. But the quality suffers.


Written by in: Ecuador | Tags: , ,


  • judith Johnson says:

    Hi Josh, glad to have a blog back, missed it. Three horse trips is amazing. I can’t ride a horse. Guess that’s a logic why you never did. It scares me. I went on a camel, up too high and too bumpy, sore legs and bottom. Your paths were so narrow, the mountains so steep. Scary. Gorgeous views, I see why you loved it.
    The first two videos opened as hyrogliphics, no picture. The chopping one was perfect. Can ‘t imagine building a house that way!! The utube one was fine. I am happy with the still pictures too. The plug in option found nothing to attach to. Love and hugs J

    • Josh says:

      OK, I fixed the videos. After unsuccessfully trying Flash and Shockwave streaming videos, I’ve gone back to QuickTime (H.264/MP4). Now that I have my own computer I’ll be able to compress videos in the future, which should help things. And with YouTube, I’ll be able to post longer (though lower quality) videos without making you wait an interminable time for them for them to load. Hmm, I’ll have to think about the best way to use that.

  • Marissa says:

    Um, awesome.

    You are such a cowboy.

    Did you buy some chaps?

    seriously, this sounds and looking amazing / terrifying.

    Miss you much,

  • Your Aunt Marty says:

    Nice horse stuff! Great pics as always. I like tack, too. The look and sound and smell of it, leather and creaking and clinking and jingling, and braided stuff and saddle bags. They do make saddles with gel these days but not quite as a bicycle seat feel, usually have at least leather or thick fabric, and only on your butt bone parts, sometimes knee rolls, but the general feeling is that if you’re using a saddle it’s benefit is not just as platform, but as leverage point, so ya need a little substance. Not nearly the substance you get from versions of what we call the Western saddle. To be cool we used to ride bareback with just a saddle pad and cinch, and nowadays they’ve got versions with stirrup leathers too, but lots of time just plain bareback. Actually very comfortable, you ride a different way sort of, fun, makes you feel very John Ford movie-ish.

    • Josh says:

      I’ll take your word for it that bareback riding would be comfortable! I didn’t even know you were a cowgirl – another notch on your long belt of experience. Can you believe I remembered your comment about the gel bike seats feeling like human flesh from oh, about 25 years ago? It was that first mountain bike you had – Sierra I think.

  • Your Aunt Marty says:

    Excellent memory! One of my most treasured memories of you from that era, before that era, was your incredible memory and mental skills when you were I”m sure under 3 years old and we were lost in an underground warren and parking structure where we’d gone through identical halls and nameless doors and up and down stairs and elevators and been lost repeatedly and backtracked etc, and when it was time to get back to the car the grownups all looked at each other in depressed realization that we were never going to find the car, never ever ever, we were going to have to live there forever. You looked up from down near the floor and said ‘Car?’ and we probably patronizingly explained that we were trying to get us to the car… and you said ‘Car!’ and set off confidently and we were all so dispirited we followed you as Emma said if he says he knows where the car is he knows where the car is. She was right. We’d all have been growing old there to this day if you didn’t have a spectacular memory for routes or spaces or something amazing. Do you still have this?

    My skill list is goofy to the point of pathology, but yes, I can ride a horse. Bareback is comfortable even for boys and their boys, you ride more slouched, back on your butt, and you don’t whap up and down as you do on a saddle so you’re not bangin’ yer boys. ‘Proper’ riding is done with most of your support, balance and control gotten from your thighs and knees, and that closeness is enhanced bareback, a very natural way of riding that leads to good habits later. Put a helmet on a kid, no saddle, and let him loose and he’ll be safer than with a saddle, just slides off and no getting your foot caught in a stirrup or leather which is how many accidents happen. You can’t go fast bareback until you’re good enough to go fast mostly. And basically it’s fun, you feel very elemental and totally cool. My lottery fantasies always include horses. Hard to get ’em on the boat, but worth it…

    • Josh says:

      Wow, great story! I don’t remember that event, but I do continue to have good spatial memory – which is probably why I ended up in technical theatre. I can be messing about upstage in the pitch black on an uneven set and know instinctively exactly how many steps I can take walking backwards before falling into the orchestra pit. It makes the local crews nervous, but hasn’t failed me yet.

      Speaking of walking in the dark, you were the one who first gave me a love of night walks. It was revelatory to me. This was developed a few years later at the nature camp where we would take the kids through the woods at night with eyes closed and holding hands, using only our feet to feel the path. It was around this time I began to notice that those who had watched horror flicks would get freaked out. To this day I refuse to watch scary films – I don’t want those images haunting my pleasant night walks and making me afraid of nature.

      Good info about riding bareback. It makes sense, seems like a good way to learn how to ride. Now I want to try it! This being Peru, they have Paso horses around here – the ones whose feet go out sideways (?) instead of up and down, making for a much smoother ride. Speaking of children and horses, Gavin (my cowboy friend in Vilcabamba) tells the story of how just after getting his teeth kicked out by one horse and being kicked in the balls by another, his 2-year old climbed up the tail of the same horse, hand over hand until she was seated – and the horse was tranquil as could be.

  • Your Aunt Marty says:

    That damn Blair Witch Project movie drove tons of young people out of the woods, not sure why that one was so powerful but.

    Lots of kids raised with horses, not necessarily by the book but instinctive. Jockeys and exercise riders and polo trainers and ranch kids all have it (this doesn’t include me, I started too late.) Horses are interesting, very different from the dogs and cats we’re more used to, fellow omnivores and both predator and prey. Horses are just prey, and vegetarian, so they think completely alien about things. Very different to take a walk with a horse than a dog or cat. They notice different things, are frightened by different triggers, are focused on food continuously more than animal eaters are, interact very differently with us.

    Pasos are great, very famous in horse literature in distance and endurance and heroic rides tales. They’re smart, Arabian blood, survivors, got a pony quality to them (ponies are very smart.) The people’s variety, as opposed to the cream of the crop rich folks types, remind me of the Mongolian horses, very tough little guys. I envy your opportunity, sounded fun. These are my current favorite kind of horse. Except some ponies, Arabians, Shires…

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