Where art thou, lovely Mexico?
Mexico was my first stop. In my head, I hear the sound of a car grinding to a screeching halt when I think back on my time at the ranch. I started off excited, of course. I had been a guest at the Rancho a few months before I started volunteering as a wrangler, and while I had had a few quiet misgivings about the state of the horses, I mistakenly thought that I could use my time there to be of some help. I had also been treated well as a guest which on hindsight, gave me an entirely false idea of how I’d be welcomed back as a member of the staff. My conversation with the Guest Experience Manager at the time, a North American we’ll call Ms. Happy Happy Sunshine, was confidence inspiring. In return for food and lodging, I’d be expected to ride out with the guests, give some one-on-one instruction to the newbies, be a communications bridge between English speaking guests and the local wranglers when needed, work up to leading trips while I learnt the routes, and take care of the horses – turning them out, bringing them in, grooming, feeding, tack stuff, and what have you. I had no conception of any shitstorms on the horizon. It seemed straight-forward enough.
And when I did start in March, it went well for the first couple of days. Living on the grounds close to the horses, being able to pop out and just admire them chowing down on their hay as the sun set was an exercise in tranquility. The physicality of the work and twice-a-day (sometimes thrice-a-day) rides were mentally and spiritually clarifying, It was the right turn of events for me, at that point in my life, and I was feeling the peace of mind of having made the right choice. Of recognising a problem in my life back in London, and actively working to address it. As astronaut Chris Hadfield likes to say, I was “working the problem”. But the ugly macho culture of the land – not exclusive to the hombres, mind you – reared its ugly head and took a giant shit on my peace of mind. Sigh. I can tell you it was a goddamn disappointment. I had worked hard to get to where I was, and to me, this all felt exceedingly unnecessary and a waste of time, energy, and oxygen. But to them, it was the be all and the end all of their existence in (and perhaps out of) the Rancho. Their interdependent sense of themselves relied on showing me that I was not wanted there which they did in various petty and small-minded, but nonetheless hurtful ways.
The local male wranglers – all 3 of them – got their panties in a twist at a lady – much less a foreign lady – coming up and doing the work they were doing. The fact that I was taking instruction from Ms. HH Sunshine probably stuck in their craw too. Their female counterparts in the kitchen (where I relied on getting my meals in return for the work I was doing) got their panties in an even bigger twist – or so it seemed – at the fact that I was working with their men (and was working to take them away, of course). For what else would I do in life without a Mexican man of my very own. Oh my. Oh my. Let’s just say that by the end of the week I felt like I was stuck in a really bad telenovela, having received my education muy rapido in the gender dynamics of small town Mexican culture. I realised pretty fast that I had been presented with an overly-sanitised environment during my time as a guest. In my naïveté, I thought that the warmth I felt – a tool of the trade – would simply translate to my new role. Instead, I saw and heard what they really thought of the people staying at the Rancho.
In essence, my on-the-ground education was now being expanded to include the behind the scenes ugliness of the business I was volunteering in (a horse riding outfit that caters exclusively to tourists), and the driving motivator of money above all else, including animal welfare. I saw horses not getting enough to eat, horses being over-ridden without sufficient rest, ill horses being ridden twice a day on fast canter rides that should’ve been quarantined, horses being ill-treated by hot-tempered local wranglers, and a horse being put down due to a severely broken leg after a local wrangler’s negligence had left it tied up overnight with horses it shouldn’t have been near. What happened to the wrangler, you may ask? Nothing. He turned up for work the next day, and we all had to pretend like nothing was amiss and get the tourists out on their rides less anything detract from their happy happy experience.
I kid you not, the Rancho was referred to as “a happy happy place” for its overwhelmingly American, Canadian, and European customers. We were expected to actively hide the simplest issues, such as a horse not doing well, to ensure guests were uninterruptedly happy in this, their happy happy place. As I came to learn more about the Rancho’s management, the less surprised I was at the things I saw. The ethics, or lack thereof, came from the top and the bottom line was the dollar amount made. Its owner, a European woman, micro-managed from a more palatable location (she supposedly couldn’t stand the telenovela environment either but hey, cheap labour) through Ms. HH Sunshine and the General Manager – a Mexican man who was mostly absent but appeared for meals and to lord it over select people. The embedded layers of dysfunction became almost perfectly ordinary and boring once you took the horses and exotic locale out of the question.
What about the guests, you may ask? Well, the guests aren’t entirely blameless in this whole enterprise. Putting aside the ones that know next to nothing about horses and have never ridden before, I saw experienced riders from the UK and other parts of Europe ride ill horses like they wouldn’t in their own home countries. Their malnourished state was shrugged at as a ‘local’ way of doing things. I personally know of a few that plan on returning for more. What do you do with that? When the concerned ones did raise an issue or two with Ms. HH Sunshine, she blithely brushed aside their worries while eviscerating them behind their backs.
As for myself, I got an eye-opener of an experience and left 2 weeks after I started. I wasn’t making any bit of difference, and I was disappointed, frustrated, and just a little heartbroken. My suggestions to rest ill horses were ignored, and the local dramatics were making life untenable for me at the Rancho. After all, did I just leave my life in London – and all that wasn’t working with it – to willingly put myself through the dysfunctional grinder I had stumbled into.
As for the Rancho, its still listed as a “luxury” horse riding retreat cranking out those tourist dollars.