Monday, July 23, 2007

Boy Do I Love the Horses

Horse riding on vacation is a bit strange. I’ve now ridden five times, and aside from the first time, each experience has evidently been a bit of a surprise to the people offering it. When we were in Naxos, where I first rode, every time we turned a corner we came upon a sign posted for Naxos Horse Riding. They were stuck on phone booths, which made sense, and on the side of the thousand-year-old Kastro, which didn’t so much. And when I called to book, Iris Neuberger (or whatever her last name was), being German, was very organized and business-like, as was the entire experience.

Ever since Naxos, even though people have advertised, or posted a big sign next to their farms, or been listed in the Lonely Planet, they’ve been surprised, and even a little bemused, when I’ve called to ride. My calls, in English or Portuguese, go something like this:

Them: “Hello?”

Me: “Is this the horse riding?”

Them: “Yes . . .”

Me: “Um, I’d like to go riding.”

Them: “Okay . . .”

Me: “Um, how about tomorrow?”

Them: “How many people?”

Me: “Well, just me.”

Them: “Okay. How long have you ridden?”

Me: “About 30 years.”

Them: “Okay.”

Me: “Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow, say, 3 pm?”

Them: “Okay, 3pm. (click)”

Me: Okay . . .

In Orkney, the girl who guided me was great—I liked her a lot—but she had just started guiding (although she rode well) and didn’t know where the trails went (although I enjoyed just being out on a horse . . . in the thick, trail-obscuring mist).

In Porto Côvo, since we were there 11 days, I thought I would ride twice. The first time, I had the above conversation, only they asked me to call back the next day to set a time (to weed out the people who weren’t, in fact, that serious about it?). The guide I had was a Belgian girl, from the Flemish part of Belgium, who spoke Portuguese and Flemish and English. The second time I tried to ride, I was given a number to call and was told, again, to call the next day to schedule . . . only after that, no one ever answered any of the phones again, so I only rode the once.

In Évora, of course, it was all organized by the Dutch owner of the house and I had that great experience riding through the Alentejo for a couple hours.

Horse riding in Montesinho Park is listed as an activity in the Lonely Planet. They say that there are stables in França, and you have to book through one of the park offices, either in Bragança, or Vinhais (a city on the western edge of the park). When I asked at the park office in Bragança, the ranger lady looked a bit confused, then said I’d have to go directly to the Centro Hipico in França. I asked if she had a phone number for the center (if they’re supposed to be making reservations for riding . . . ), and she did eventually dig one up. Nevertheless, Ian and I felt it would be easier to just go directly to the Centro Hipico.

We stopped a few days ago, on our way to the aborted fly walk. A groom named Mario was doing some horse care when we arrived—bringing in four horses who were in turnout, and letting out two young stallions (separately), changing bedding, feeding, grooming. He invited me to groom one of the horses, a lovely and sweet Lusitano named Huna (Oona), who clearly loved being scraped and polished. Fun for me, less work for him—a perfect setup.

After I’d had enough of horse-pampering, Mario found us the phone number of the center and the cell number of a guy named Paolo, who was in charge while the other manager, someone who spoke English, was in England, at Exmoor, either at a show or buying horses or something. My Portuguese isn’t that good at speed.

Later that afternoon I called the center and asked for Paolo; no, he wasn’t in yet. Later yet I called again, half-expecting a repeat of the Porto Côvo no-one-answers-the-phone-ever-again situation, but I managed to reach Paolo, and he invited me to ride today, from 4 to 5.


So when I arrived today, it turned out that none of the horses have shoes, so they couldn’t be ridden on the gravel roads running through the park. Instead, I would be able to ride in the small round arena, and in one of the pastures, if that would be okay. Since riding was what I wanted to do, and trail riding wasn’t absolutely necessary, I said sure, that would be fine.

Paolo handed me a helmet and put me on Huna, and then let me go to have my fun. And you know, it was great!

I’ve never yet had enough time in my riding lesson schedule to come up with a day for hacking (riding without an instructor—a practice session where you work, on your own, on things you’ve been learning in lessons), but when I start up lessons again I’m definitely going to make time for a hack. Huna and I circled around the arena for awhile, practicing sitting trot and leg yields and bending and cantering each direction (she preferred cantering left), then we went out into the pasture and tooled around there, doing extended trots and more cantering, and practicing turning away from the barn even though she didn’t want to. There were a few jumps set up, and I was tempted to do a couple, but decided that new horse, wrong boots (i.e. a pair of Puma sneakers—bright red, really cute), new field, and permanent jumps (they were made out of logs, not bars that can just be kicked away) were enough reasons for discretion to win. I rode a little over an hour, loving it the whole time, and at the end Paolo apologized to me for me having to work on the horse (because, I guess, she wanted to go back to her stall?). Anyway, absolutely no apology necessary. Huna and I each got some schooling, and I got some time in the saddle, and it all reminded me, yet again, that I love riding. I drove home listening to Free to Be You and Me, and grinning the whole time.

And Ian got some good work done.


Deane said...

This all makes me wonder if the experience would be any different at an American stable. You know, someone calls out of the blue and says, "I'd like to go riding." I mean, anytime I call for any product or service, there's always an initial "feeling the person out" stage. This stage is, of course, significantly short-circuited by the key phrase "I got your number from [so-and-so]". Without that though, they don't know you and you don't know them.

Have you called random barns for one-off riding appointments in America? Might be an interesting comparison.

CMT said...

This is a good point . . . organization and horsemanship don't necessarily go hand in hand . . . ever, as far as I've been able to tell.