Where’s the Waiver?
“Did you sign the waiver?” I chortled at Siobhan, a sarcastic reference to the way horse business is done here in Brazil, as in the fact that these cowboys in flip flops have never even heard words like liability or lawsuit. So far in our travels, nobody has bothered to ask about previous riding experience, let alone fathom any repercussion resulting from injuries acquired aboard their very casually trained steeds. It is a land where, in lieu of “Inherent Danger” placards posted in the barnyard, I expect to see signs that read: Want to risk life and limb? Follow me!
One summer while working in England, I listened to pub-goers remind me day after day how serious and uptight Americans were. I took offense. After all, I could have as much fun as the next bloke. Heck, I exceled at fun. All these years later, I am guessing that the uptightness referenced other things, like all our protocols and rules, and liability worries. An equine professional in the U.S. could make herself neurotic trying to prevent a student mishap. Some days seem more about damage control than horseback instruction. Until now, in the brown and chestnut blur formed by our excessive speed, I didn’t understand what those Brits meant.
We had been on our steeds just long enough to get our stirrup lengths sorted out when our guide mumbles something Portuguese towards us and then takes off at a hoof-pounding run across Praia do Rosa beach, which at this point extended as far as my watering eyes could see. I yank in the reins, shove my butt in the saddle, and stifle a few expletives. Let me clarify that we were not just cantering along a sun-soaked beach in an idyllic postcard sort of way; we were charging like the Preakness, moving so wildly across uneven sand that I stopped wondering if it was safe. I knew it was not. The insanity would end in a few kilometers as the horses fatigued. My first miscalculation.
We race three abreast, almost trampling a surfer carrying his board home, then dodge a woman with a small child carrying a beach chair. Our horses streak sideways towards the water to find packed sand underfoot but then dart back the other direction shying away from a wave crashing. I look over at our guide—a stoned looking gaucho with sweatpants that have “gangster” embroidered across the backside and rubber boots—for some sense of where or how long we will run like this. Marcio is hunched happily on his sheepskin pad, feet shoved forward towards his horse’s chest. He flops and bounces in disorganized harmony with his crazed steed. He is 100 percent relaxation and zero percent equitation.
I try to steer my steed around a bikini clad sunbather, which presents me with the evidence that I have lost all communication with her. She will not deviate from her line. She runs with tunnel focus as if there are big stakes to claim at the end of this race, except in this case there is a towering cliff at the end. We are gunning towards the south end of Praia do Rosa beach where it runs in to a rock wall. Obviously we will slow down there and regain control of our mounts, I hypothesize through clenched teeth. My second miscalculation. Due to our blinding speed, I failed to identify a goat trail straight up the rocks behind a sign that I couldn’t read but probably said Danger, Keep Out.
We hit the trail at a gait best described as a tr-anter and, after a brief climb up, level out on a clay road where we shift back up to galloping. By now we have covered so much distance without any sign of the horses fading that I begin wondering if I will ever regain the ability to steer this runaway mare under me. She feels now like one those exhilarating rides at the amusement park that you’re pretty sure will last a lot longer than you need or want it to.
We blur past oxen tethered beside the road, past cars coming the other direction, then dart sideways into the tall reeds covering the dunes. We are still running when we reach an inland lagoon and scramble in chest-high. By now I have surrendered to the insanity, my form resembling Marcio’s except for my proper paddock boots and breeches. I am a lawless, ragged yahoo breaking every rule I have ever known or taught about trail riding. We run down hills, slam in to each other, gallop all the way back to the barn.
It has been ages since I have galloped for so long over such distance. Oh, wait. I have never known enough lunacy nor ridden a horse with enough of it to consider the kid of ride that we are break-necking through. That I was as cautious or uptight as my fellow Americans? The final miscalculation.
If I could release the death grip on my horse’s mane, I would raise a glass to my British friends. How’s THIS for uptight? Ha!
Of Horses, Beaches, and Good Thoughts
In countless ways, it was a night like none other. A massive full moon overhead illuminating miles of sand dunes in iridescent peaks on Florianopolis Island in southern Brazil would have been enough for weeks of inspired musing. But then add to this the eagerness turned terror that had become my state of being as a hyper Brazilian guy in flip flops prepared the horse I had rented for the evening.
Neither of us spoke one word of shared language, which left our communication relying on hand gestures and eyebrow twitches. My girlfriend, using some broken Spanish and even more broken Portuguese, conveyed to this man in cut off sweatpants and flip flops whose name had too many syllables for us to pronounce that I wanted to ride his horses. On my morning run, I spotted them in a small field heading out to Joaquina beach. In fact, these three grey geldings were so impressively muscled and fit that I could not stop thinking about them. Their hindquarters were toned and supple, their necks arched and well developed. This led to the dispatch of Siobhan to see what we could do about my yearning.
Not only was the guy in flip flops amenable to renting us a couple of horses, he told us to take them out under the full moon for a good romp on the dunes and the wide flat 8 kilometer beach. It was our lucky day. Right as he cinched a bundle of sheepskin in place of a saddle, though, my luck ran out. This little guy with wild green eyes started pointing at me, then back at the horse, then back at me. He was speaking quickly now, his eyes getting wide. He began making quick movements with his hands and arms. Siobhan figured out that he was saying something about my skills, or the horse’s need for a mucho, moito good rider. I then hear him say the word “rapido” a few times and it hit me that I was in for one crazy ride. In any language, frantic hand gestures and words like rapido are bad omens.
I was now fully occupied holding my breath and watching the guy tie a rope from underneath the horse’s rawhide halter down between his legs to the girth, which I guessed was supposed to prevent him from rearing or bolting. Siobhan kept chatting in her Spangalese, asking the name of each horse. The grey that I would be riding– the rapido one who had now begun snorting and grinding his teeth – was named Mal. I flashed through a quick list of other mal- words: malicious, malcontent, malfunction.
Our guide arrived on a handsome coppery Criollo and motioned for us to follow but I was reluctant to mount my steed that now flung his head around, agitated. His eyes tightened at the corners, he pulled against the rope that was supposed to keep his head down. Seeing my wariness, the guy with flip flops got on Mal, intending either to reassure me or to bronc around the barbed wire enclosure until his spunk ran out. Mal’s tail swished, his body darted left and right, the way I imagine a gorilla might when it got pissed off. The guy hops back off, indicating everything is good, bon. Now it was my turn.
Right then, one short second before telling this guy that I actually had no interest whatsoever in riding his crazy rapido horse, a critical element of horsemanship happened. I changed my thoughts. And thus, gentle reader, changed the entire potential outcome of the evening. Much as I would like to claim mind control, it was more a matter of sheer distraction. By now, the moon was so wide and bright, the tropical breezes so warm and sensuous on my bare arms that I was inebriated by the whole scene. Fast powerful waves from Joaquina beach crashed between the hoots of birds deep in the jungle. My insides puddled with relaxation and inspiration.
I vault up on Mal, who got squirrely under me, threatening to explode. By now, though, I was drunk with the moon, the fizzy ocean surf, the moist lush smell of dune vegetation. I melted in to Mal’s back rather than tightening the reins. My legs went loose, the corners of my mouth rose. And just like that, the feisty grey horse settled right down under me. He blew out a little sigh, returned his tail to a normal posture, and off we trekked into the night. Mal’s owner looked at me impressed. He lifted his eyebrows high as if puzzling over my rare composure on a horse that has probably terrified every rider before me.
Here it was, that old horsemanship adage: if you relax, your horse will relax, too.
We entered a tunnel of rubber plants and palm fronds that climbed up a steep pitch before exiting on the shifting ridge of a mountainous dune. All around us for miles, fine white sand rose in peaks and sunk in valleys. We carried on over several rises to the beach, hooves squeeking in the sand under us. Mal’s body warmed from the effort and I gave his withers a rub. He slowly turned an ear back to me and then lowered his neck, relaxing more. The moon now cast our shadows on the white ground ahead and I caught Mal’s image: refined Arabian head poised with erect ears, nose forward, ready for my cue to run rapido with the wind. But he waited like a gentleman for my wish.
A sultry breeze swirled around us. Time seemed to rush forward and march backwards and stand still all at once. Waves clapped, the moon rose higher. Magic pulsed through the night, the kind only found on horseback.
I ran my hand the length of Mal’s neck. Thank you, thank you for this.