Saturday morning I went horseback riding at a stable. I’ve been pretty excited about this. I’ve loved horses since I was a kid, and have ridden a lot throughout my life. I’ve never owned a horse, but I did lease an off-track Thoroughbred when I lived on Long Island. For the past few years in Vancouver I’ve been riding every two weeks, which helps keep me sane and connected to one of my favourite parts of life. I had a long stretch of not riding when I first moved to Vancouver, was first trying to make a go of it as a freelancer, and then was trying to make a go of it as a professional musician – not conditions that lend themselves to being able to manage horseback riding lessons. I’m very grateful to be able to bring horses back into my life now.
I’d researched this stable, checked out reviews about horse treatment and safety, and was satisfied enough to book my ride. The stable sent a driver to pick me up, and it was a stunning drive from Ubud to Tegallalang. Partly this is because we passed the Tegallalang rice terraces along the way, and the driver stopped so I could get out and have a look, early in the morning before all the tourists would swarm over the place and the little shops would be hollering for my tourist dollars. And yep, the terraces are gorgeous. Lush and green and very satisfying to the eye, all the wavy shapes and layers.
The other astonishing thing about the drive was the sheer quality of artist and handicraft shops. They line the road for miles and miles and miles. You drive through a long stretch of them and think wow, that must have been the artisan district, it was huge. Then another section of road starts up and there’s miles of them again. Woodcarvers, stonecarvers, lampmakers, mosaics, things made from shells, hammered metal, furniture, giant statues for gardens – it doesn’t stop. It’s hard to imagine how all these little places survive, and yet they do. Clearly many of them sell wholesale for export overseas – some of the wares are definitely things we get in our little fair-trade-style ecoboutiques in North America – but some of the items available are so massive that shipping would be prohibitive.
We wove up and down a steep and narrow road past farms, drove through a small village, and arrived at Ubud Horse Stables. I was given Cola to ride, a mild-mannered chestnut, and my guide had a young horse whose name I didn’t quite catch. We headed out into rice fields, a photographer tagging along on his scooter for the first while. Cola seemed to follow my guide and his horse perfectly happily, apart from trying to grab mouthfuls of grass now and then, which is a typical horse thing to do and I was ready for it and able to keep him moving. We followed trails through fields and past farmers’ huts, mountains in the background and palm trees dotting the sky.
We headed into some denser trees, and Cola just planted himself and refused to budge. It didn’t seem to be about grass any more, and he wasn’t dancing around scared of anything – he just wouldn’t go. I’m a pretty good rider and can usually deal well with such issues, but I don’t want to get aggressive with a horse I don’t know in an area I don’t know, and on a tight trail I didn’t have room to do any little turns to sort of fake him out.
So my guide came over with his horse to take my horse’s reins and lead him forward. Only his horse didn’t want to get that close to Cola, and swerved away, and my guide fell off into the bushes. Fortunately it was a soft landing, he hopped back onto his feet and onto the horse, and eventually we got Cola moving again.
We did a little trot and canter down the path, which was lovely – Cola has a very comfortable trot. Then coming around a corner at a canter, my guide’s horse suddenly spooked and reared up. There was a little girl there, no more than two, and she and the horse were equally terrified of each other. I prepared to sit through some chaos, but Cola barely twitched an ear despite the incident. My guide stayed on and calmed down his horse, the girl’s father calmed down the shrieking girl, and we continued on our way.
We walked through the town, past the houses and temples. Dogs barked a frantic frenzy as we passed, taking us to be some strange uberdog demon clearly out to invade their worlds. Kids grinned and waved and shouted hello, except for some who showed no reaction whatsoever. My guide, a local to the village, chatted with villagers and friends as we passed.
We took a turn down a steep road that headed more into jungle. This time, my guide’s horse wouldn’t go forward, and was increasingly anxious. My guide dismounted and tried leading the horse onwards gently by hand, but his horse was having none of it. He danced some fancy footwork, started pulling, jumped around – then broke free and galloped off, leaving my guide holding broken reins.
Cola was totally unfazed. He pinned his ears back as the other horse tore by, but quickly turned his attention back to grabbing mouthfuls of grass.
So now we’re down one horse. My guide asked a friend of his to keep me company while he went to get his horse, who he was pretty sure would have run straight home. I dismounted and let Cola graze, but after several minutes it seemed to suddenly dawn on him that he was alone, away from all his buddies, and not sure what he was doing there. He let out a few loud whinnies, a sort of “WHERE IS EVERYBODY?” I could feel his tension growing. Quite a bit of time had passed. I looked on Google Maps and found we were actually quite close to the stable. So I started walking him back, and finally met my guide on another horse, Mocha. His first horse had bolted off down a different road and it had taken a while to find and catch him, and then he’d made the sensible decision to come back with an older, more experienced horse.
Cola, who’d gotten the impression that he was done for the day and was about to head back to the stable, was not impressed. We got back to the steep hill where we had stopped before and now Cola wouldn’t go forward again for love or money, no matter how I pushed or coaxed him, and the more I pushed the more he was backing towards a ledge, which did not make me or my guide very happy. He suggested we swap horses, so I got up on Mocha and he took Cola. He was considerably more authoritative with Cola than I had been and after a brief argument they got sorted out and moving in the right direction.
From that point on it was smooth sailing. Mocha was quite willing to carry on behind Cola, very courteous about not grabbing grass, and even seemed a little more willing to listen to some communication in my reins, which Cola had steadfastly ignored. (Subtlety is not a trait that trail ride horses keep for long, since their job generally entails kids and novices atop them gripping, wobbling, kicking, and pulling, and they learn it’s best to just tune all that out.) We moseyed along shady jungle roads, past orchards and fields, until at last we came to an orange plantation, tied up the horses, and chugged some water. There was a lovely view down into a steep valley, and my guide picked a few oranges for us to enjoy in the increasing heat of the day. Another guide and rider, on the three-hour ride, joined us as well, and we all rode back to the stables together.
The ride back was mercifully uneventful apart from one of the other riders’ horses throwing a shoe. Mocha and Cola were good as gold. I asked my guide how old the first horse he’d ridden today was, and he said about three and a half.
WELL THAT EXPLAINS A FEW THINGS
At three, most horses are just silly. They’re barely teenagers. They haven’t seen much of anything, and everything is a big deal, and everything new to them is potentially life-threatening and needs to be spooked at. Apart from racehorses, who carry light loads and train for short spurts in a day, most training for a horse (apart from basic handling) doesn’t even start until three. Depending on the activity the horse is being trained for, many trainers won’t even start until five.
Three is a terrible age to take out on a trail unless everyone else riding with you is aware and ready for what can happen.
Three is an especially terrible age to bring out as a lead horse on a trail ride, with one other rider along who you’ve never met before and are not aware of their skill level and what they can handle. I may not have been riding the young green horse, but my horse could easily be affected by their mood and actions. I did check off my riding experience as “advanced”, but most of that has been in rings, not as much on trails when horses are more on alert and more likely to encounter potentially scary things.
I don’t know whether it was the guide or the stable, but somebody made a decision that was potentially dangerous for both horses and riders, and there were multiple close calls. Fortunately, everyone was okay and everything turned out alright. I’m aware that on this type of riding trip, the standards of safety might be lower than I’m used to in cushy coddled Canada. But it was …informative… to see it in action.
I didn’t take any pictures on horseback because I pretty much felt I had my hands full, but I did splurge on the photographer’s shots of me. So I gotta make the best of them. All photos here (except the rice terraces above) by Ubud Horse Stables.