To me, horse riding centres around a kind of promise and bond between myself and the horse I’m on. I learn; sweat, bleed, fall off, occasionally break something, step in horse shit and horse piss, and get all mucky (while feeling over the moon) making sure you’ve got your post-exercise bath, and your regular feed and water, not to mention a safe place to rest. I probably test your patience by sweet-talking your ears off. And in return, you let me sit on you, cross all sorts of boundaries, try to overcome challenges, and sometimes take us to that someplace new. You are a part of what it means to know home, and to know the sensation of being free.
Freedom is riding in the wide open spaces of the Mongolian or Kazakh steppe. No houses or fencing in sight; the be all and end all of private property and capital aren’t slapping you in the face. It’s me, my horse, the feels of the balls of my feet in my riding boots pressed down and up into my metal stirrups. It’s the effortless (and much practiced) suspension of my upper body off the saddle in the canter, and the moulding of my seat bones into the saddle in the gallop. It’s connection. What does it mean to be so connected to another sentient being you can’t ‘speak’ to?
The first few days would get off to a promising start – in spite of my unsanitary and quite viscerally disgusting living conditions. I had to call on some higher mental power for this one. That, and I averted my eyes as best as I could when using the WC, giving new meaning to the phrase ‘tunnel vision’.
The average day’s plan – according to the routine Groom No. 1 followed – was a simple one that made sense. Feed & water the horses at 6am, tie them up to the pony lines for a little grooming, tack two horses up for us to ride (with the rest being exercised by hand with lead ropes held in the left and right hand) on the exercise track – what the locals call varreos (or sets), turn out the horses so they can enjoy their chill time while we muck out and sweep clean the stables and tack room. That took us to about 11.30am, at which point we’d break til 2pm, and bring in the horses for their afternoon exercise, and evening feed & waters. In between there’d be the tack cleaning or washing out gunky water buckets or whatever else we needed to do. The bulk of the day’s work would end sometime around 6.30pm-7.30pm after the horses had their dinner, with a return to the stables before bedtime (around 10pm) for a goodnight poop scoop and waters (i.e filling up water buckets).
After days of being in the city, the physical activity felt like a release. Being out in the open and free of the cacophony of traffic noises, stretching under-utilised muscles mucking out or grooming, breathing in the fresh air – the ubiquitous cigarette smoking non withstanding – and bonding with the horses coupled with the anticipation of riding again- it was simultaneously grounding and liberating in a way that pounding the pavement in a concrete jungle just …. isn’t. I did mention I wasn’t much for big cities, didn’t I.
Groom No. 1 – Ignacio, known to all as Nacho – was a skinny reed of a young man (twenty years old I think), personable and pleasant to work with. Funny, patient, and paps to the cutest puppy I had laid eyes on as yet – Rocco. The only nasty habit he possessed – that I was aware of anyway – was a propensity to chain-smoke. And boy do I mean chain-smoke everywhere. He smoked in the tack room, in the stalls, near the hay bales, in the kitchen, in the bathroom, in his room, and for completions sakes, everywhere in between. There was nary a place he did not light up in, seemingly with the blessing of the owners of the club and the outfit renting out the stables for the season. Let’s just say Health & Safety – of horses or human – was not a factor.
Nacho travelled in a pack, as most humans seem to do. His little group consisted of his similarly aged ‘brother from another mother’ (the aptly named Nachi), Tomi (an incredibly sweet boy), and the requisite older male (of course) Uncle slash father figure, the portly Carlos, who lead the general direction and tenor of the group. My working with Nacho afforded me a temporary pass into this group, and it helped to have a cushion of sorts to pad the landing. After all, I was navigating across different cultural boundaries, something I’m quite used to doing but that isn’t always necessarily a smooth process. Stepping into Argentine culture, Argentine macho culture, Argentine gaucho culture, and Argentine polo culture – all with their own rules – was made a bit more fun with these guys.
Mornings would starts around 5.30am, a sleepy gathering with the requisite mate, in the kitchen on their end of the building. The four of us would sit on benches around a – usually – filthy kitchen table with leavings from last night’s dinner and stains from who knows how many meals ago hardened into the plastic green and white checked tablecloth. I had quickly learnt to enlarge my selective blind-spot to suit the environment, but the comfort I drew from their warm welcome was tempered by the fact that I knew I was putting my own health at risk being around them. I didn’t come across a single non-smoker – and they did not have boundaries when it came to where they smoked – throughout my entire time at the club. We’d cook our separate lunches during the afternoon break and eat together before returning to the stables. They’d have their mate breaks in between and I’d listen to them speak Spanish, getting used to the cadence and improving my vocabulary, or we’d get to know each other in my staggering Spanish and their halting English. It was a convivial experience, and good fun.
Unfortunately things went downhill at the end of the first week, as the groom I started out with left and ushered in groom No. 2. What I wouldn’t know on that day was that this new guy would be No. 2 in a revolving door of grooms that would top out at 6 when I left in late October (after 8 weeks). That’s a hell of a turnover. I found out pretty fast that the grooms up the road were getting paid about USD420/month, the average it seemed. Keep in mind their bosses were polo players who stable 10-20 horses at a time (and we know how expensive horses are to maintain, much less proper athletic ones), who pay club fees in the thousands (USD of course) per season, who pay to play chukkas, and who spend a pretty penny – oh say tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars – when purchasing a polo pony.
Yeah … kinda makes you just a little sick doesn’t it. And even so, USD 420/month was a bit too much for some of them. Listening comes in handy, I’ve found, and one of my experiences was listening to owners complain about how much their grooms were asking to be paid, and how – when I questioned one of them, a twenty year old Argentine with more money that sense, morals, or compassion – stated flatly that the grooms deserved the conditions they lived in because, well … they were grooms. Remember, there wasn’t the barrier of a corporation or a hierarchy in between these words and the people they impacted, and I was curious about what an individual would feel comfortable saying to my face, as it were. No ‘management issues’ or ‘office bureaucracy’ or ‘government politics’ – excuses I’d heard in the different work environments I’d been in from the middle man, no, this was straight from the horses mouth (couldn’t resist). And let me tell you, I spoke to a few of the grooms to get their take on their living conditions and (unsurprisingly) they didn’t think they deserved to live like that, in conditions so unsanitary and poorly maintained that they didn’t feel comfortable having their families visit.
In addition to the lousy wages, the grooms were not given a single day off throughout the 3-4 month polo season. At my particular stables, I was initially told that I would get every alternate Monday after the morning jobs were done off as time off. I lasted 2 weeks. After that I asked for a day off a week. The working environment after No.1 left was terrible, and the tone was set from the top, as it so often is. Poor standards of communication not only between the people I was volunteering for but between them and us, a lack of understanding about stable management and lack of oversight, and allowances for poor behaviour in the name of expediency led to the excellent quality of work I was a part of with Groom No. 1, not to mention the attendant camaraderie, quickly becoming a thing of the past.
The people they attracted – to summarise; No 2 was a pervert who did more mate sipping, smoking, and chatting with his buddies over the way than actual working. That’s when he wasn’t making inappropriate comments or overly concerning himself with the way my shoulders felt – something I talked to the horse owners about but that they didn’t feel comfortable bringing up with the groom as they ‘needed him to work’ and I was just a volunteer, after all. Their words, not mine. No 3 was a physically aggressive brute who had a problem working with women. He liked to yell; an episode which due to a misunderstanding on his part led to him screaming at me and trying to intimidate me physically with his body led to the owners asking me to apologise for his misunderstanding. No 4 was a joke who up and left one Sunday morning because his side gig – racing his Greyhounds at the track – was more lucrative which isn’t saying much, No 5 turned out to be a lovely guy (finally) who treated me with respect and consideration, and did his share of the work, and No 6 was a sour puss who again had a problem working with women. I had called it quits by then.
It was becoming increasingly clear, as days turned into weeks, that the Brit & Argentine couple who I volunteered for, and the Brits who owned and managed the club – an ex-champion polo player for Queen and Country tut tut – took advantage of their staff in ways they would never dream of getting away with back home. The local Argentines who rented out the stables for the polo season weren’t far behind. As for me, I counted myself lucky that I could turn on my heel and walk out whenever I chose. After all, my livelihood and that of my family’s weren’t dependent on a bunch of oblivious polo playing, horse-riding – I use the term loosely here – asshats.
I was looking for something else.
I got off the Pilar Express and stood waiting in the cold, on some street. I was waiting to be picked up by a guy in a huge black pick-up truck with the words La Amistad Polo scrawled in tiny orange print below the side window (or so he said on the phone). There’s plenty of activity on the street, but the night already has this weird quality to it, a quality that would become a bit clearer to me when we stop at a supermarket and I hear Cantonese music blaring through the store’s speaker system, and would fully reveal itself on arrival at the club’s accommodations for grooms, my new home for the next 3 months.
Surreal. That’s what it felt like. I couldn’t quite believe that this man – who seemed normal enough over multiple emails and a couple of Skype calls – was actually showing me these quarters as if he fully expected me to shower (and more) here, sleep here, and cook and eat here. I was told that the pettiseros (grooms) brought their own everything (bedsheets, duvet, pillow, pillow cases, cutlery, cookware, dish soap etc etc) and that I was receiving special treatment by the very presence of the thoroughly cleaned room, the bedsheets and duvet, and the cutlery. And the lilting wardrobe too, now that I think back on it. I couldn’t quite overcome my surprise at the fact that he didn’t seem to be embarrassed at all. I was told to expect accommodation in the style of an army barracks so I definitely was not expecting to see the Shangri-La of groom accommodations, but as far as I knew discipline and cleanliness were enforced strictly in the army. Full Metal Jacket, anyone?
Its moments like this when I wish I was raised on a trailer park with the manners of a white thrash (sorry!!!), beer-swilling, gut shaking, chain smoking redneck and the attitude to match. I would’ve liked to have channelled me some Bubba on that particular night. Instead my WASP-equivalent self (the polo dynamic seemed to centre around this sort of equation) let out a gentle ‘Oh’ on the exhale followed by a light laugh (desperately trying to hide my shock) while I tried to rationalise the situation I was in. Cultural differences, I told my jet-lagged bleary myself. Maybe this was their normal, for whatever reason. After all, I had just gotten there. It was pitch dark, and I hadn’t seen much of anything else. I couldn’t very well turn around and walk out on the first night, could I? This was supposed to be an adventure.
The trade: I would be an intern or volunteer, bringing my BHS stable management knowledge, and riding skills, and being shown what I’d need to know as part of the experience of working as a volunteer groom at a polo stables in Pilar, the polo capital of the world (or so I’m told), in exchange for accommodation and lessons in riding polo ponies and playing polo. It was unusual for this sort of gig that food wasn’t included but I was willing to shell out for the food to try out this completely different experience. Besides I was told I would get a share of the tips to help cover the outflow in my strict year-long budget which always helps. Or it would if the locals tipped, which as it turns out, they don’t.
I was told that the day started at 6am, and so, on my very first morning, I fully expected the grounds of the La Quinta Polo Club to resemble the ‘challenging’ condition of the grooms’ quarters. An ‘up and comer’ I told myself. Give it a chance. Let’s see how this goes. The horses!! I brought out the big guns of pep. But as the sun rose, and the horses were fed, and the morning jobs were done and dusted, I got to explore the grounds a bit more during the siesta hour. And you can imagine my surprise at the sight of immaculately manicured polo fields, meticulously cared for horses (better it seemed than their owners would care for their staff), and a sense of disconnect or obliviousness that left me feeling like I was Alice down the rabbit hole in Wonderland, or Dorothy in Oz.
My day in Colonia del Sacramento, or Colonia in short, was one of unmitigated surprises. One of which would only become apparent a few days later. I didn’t particularly have Uruguay down as a ‘to visit’ destination, but by virtue of circumstance it had become the place to go for a visa ‘refresher’. Unfortunately, as a Malaysian I only get a continuous 30 day stay (and what can you see in thirty days, really). On this most recent visit, my second to Uruguay, I flew solo, so to speak. I decided on the 12pm Buquebus ferry (much more civilised than the 8.15am) leaving Puerto Madero for Colonia, and the 5.01pm return – giving me a bit of a cushion to head back to Pilar on the perfectly ordinary Pilar Express. Though entirely practical in nature, I wanted this little excursion to rekindle that spirit of travel that I set out on this adventure with nearly 9 months ago, a spirit I feared was being stifled under the disappointment of what my time volunteering at La Amistad Polo (and living on site at La Quinta Polo Club) had become, and what I was increasingly learning about the nature of people in the equine industry.
After my first surprise of the day – the customs officer at Colonia seizing my organic oatmeal, raisins, almonds, and sun dried tomatoes (I guess she was famished and had a hankering for a healthy yummy tummy comfort breakfast) – I headed off on the short 15 minute walk to the Old town centre. I was armed with Google’s strong contender for my ‘gluten free café in Colonia Uruguay’ request – Queriendote on Paseo San Gabriel 70,000 – and I was feeling quite peckish by then. More surprises, especially food related, and especially of the crappy sort, were the last thing I wanted.
Having said that, I was pleasantly surprised by the quaintness of old town Colonia del Sacramento. And the quiet. It was a balm to the spirit to walk down cobblestone streets lined by huge trees as far as the eye could see in all four directions, and have there just be the sound of … nothing. Occasionally, the breeze gently stirred or the birds chirped, the odd dog or two would pad by almost silently, a car or two would whir by. But other than that, it was the definition of that now antiquated saying in 21st century modern life – peace & quiet.
Over the years, living in central London (and every other big city I’ve lived in) has felt like a weight I carry on my shoulders, pressing down as soon as I step out the front door. Eventually even the double-glazing stopped being a match for the roadworks, bathroom/kitchen remodels of the surrounding flats, and general construction in a city fumbling to keep up with a burgeoning population and inadequate infrastructure. Let’s not even talk about the ever-present groups of runners banging down on the grates as they huff and puff sweatily by, strolling gossipers loudly and unreservedly sharing the intimate details of their lives, or multitudes of delivery men (from Amazon to DPD to Deliveroo) and their assortment of vehicles. Screaming kids (of all ages it seems) and the thumping of loud house music almost seem whimsical …
I didn’t find (or hear) any of that in Colonia. It was the first time in my life I felt such tranquility in a space which showed obvious signs of civilisation – houses, cars, streets, and (arguably) people (insert laughter). I wasn’t in the Mongolian steppe or up in the Kazakh mountains people. I wonder if this was what Dorothy felt like … light and airy, I could almost see myself living in one of the charming (though occasionally slightly decrepit) little houses I spotted on my walk. Standing in their faded yellows, pinks, greens, and off-cream shades – they were little pastel architectural delights that looked as if they were sensibly built to climate rather than the boxes sprouting up like weeds in London, or for that matter, Kuala Lumpur. Box living was all the rage, it seemed.
After fifteen minutes of not seeing another living soul (pretty much) I turned the corner of Manuel Lobo and stood awed at the sight of the Porton de Campo – the reconstructed 1745 city gates. It wasn’t particularly awe-inspiring by itself but when taken in context of the slightly dazed and confused way I felt at the unusual quiet – awestruck seemed natural. A bit further up and I arrived at the main square – Plaza de Armas – with its associated church Iglesia Matriz (the oldest in Uruguay, dating back to 1680). The small congregation of people enjoying their lunch and shopping – miniscule by any measure in any big city – is overwhelming by Colonia’s measure, and I quickly move on to find my little café by the waterfront. There was noo need to ruin the moment.
The last surprise Colonia had in store for me was a doozie, an all in one combo that had my ‘lovely’ waterfront cafe Queriendote at its centre. Queriendote was a chi-chi cutesy English afternoon tea joint on steroids which I took full advantage of. Its not everyday you find good tea, much less a variety of good teas, and gluten free options. That’s options, plural, that don’t cheekily try to limit themselves to the salads. Having the gentle lapping of waves as the soundtrack to lunch didn’t hurt. Unfortunately my attempts at relaxation worked so well that I left the café at 4.15pm for my 5pm ferry and didn’t notice that the establishment’s owner practiced a little fishy custom the Uruguayans have when dealing with foreign currency.
Their modus operandi: when accepting Argentine (AR) pesos, they first convert the AR to US dollars and then they convert the dollar to Uruguayan pesos, a rate which is determined solely in country and doesn’t follow the global rate. This little ‘process’ is a sure way to lose you money in the conversion, or as I like to call it, highway robbery. At this little café, I ‘lost’ …. nope, you know what, let’s not go there. Suffice it to say that my attempts to get in touch with the owner once I realised what had happened were ignored, and I hope that, dear reader, you’ll pay in USD or Uruguayan pesos if you ever find yourself in Uruguay. Fishy indeed.
Done with surprises for the day, I enjoyed some casual (and not so casual) conversation with a couple of fellow lady travellers on the Buquebus back to Buenos Aires. It was just plain nice to have a chat about what we were doing in Argentina, which led to the cornucopia of questions and answers that reveal themselves when you share things in common.
They added their voices of discontent to those of my friends (a freaking chorus by now), at my situation at the La QuintaPolo Club/La Amistad Polo (concierge service). And its funny how things would shortly turn out because I would end up leaving the dump or the shithole, as I had recently started calling it, the day after. Goodbye disgusting and unsanitary shower and toilet ‘facilities’, fly ridden kitchen with often times leaking gas stove and light-fingered grooms, urine stained duvet and the appearance of itchy bites on my arms and legs, drunken yelling past midnight on workdays that had a 6am start, 5 lessons over a span of 6 weeks in exchange for 12 hour workdays, and having to deal with a revolving door of head grooms (5 in 6 weeks – all with their own lunatic idiosyncrasies) that ranged from friendly to perverted to outright physically aggressive. All in service of ‘the organisation’ – as the owners like to call their little outfit. Oh brother, spare me from the over-inflated ego of the un-initiated. More to come on what I like to call the Polo Series: My 6 Weeks on Planet Oblivious aka Planet New Colonists.
What do you in Buenos Aires if you don’t enjoy polluted big cities, don’t eat red meat, don’t partake in the ethanol, would rather crack open the Kindle to a good ‘book’ than Tango across a milonga floor, and are all museum-d and graffiti-d out? Don’t get me wrong. A part of me knows I’m being too hard on Buenos Aires. Its a huge city with neighbourhoods that I haven’t even scratched the surface off, and a history that I haven’t quite managed to connect to yet. Having said all that, BA feels elusive, somehow.
I have checked out some of the sights – I’m not a crammer – and walked about in the different neighbourhoods (antique-y San Telmo, Recoleta aka home of the Stepford clones, Bristol-like Punta Madura, Centro) but I feel like I’ve seen Buenos Aires before. Are these cities all just starting to blend together after decades of travel? I’ve know for a few years now – let’s say 10 – that big cities are not a draw for me any longer but is it possible to feel a sense of ennui in one, while on ‘the journey’. Buenos Aires – is it fair to say its you, not me? Or have I got it the other way around. Am I missing something?
In a few days, I’ll hit my 6 month anniversary of being ‘on the road’. Its been 6 months since I lived in space I can call my own, slept in my own bed (knowing for sure it’ll be a bed bug free night), cooked a meal comfortably in my own kitchen, showered to a tune in my own bathroom, and curled up on my sofa with a wall of books surrounding me. Privacy and comfort are hard to come by when travelling on a tight budget, and I’ve been making the best of the trade-off but 6 months is a good point in time for a big sigh and a few deep breaths.
Travelling like I do – hostels, couchsurfing, renting a room in an air BnB for a few short days if I need a treat, moving every so often, relying on someone else’s cooked food when I don’t have access to a kitchen, and the presence of ethics in a ranch/stable manager – necessitates a giving up of control over multiple aspects of my life, and for someone that loves having the basics nailed down (starting with a quiet banana oatmeal breakfast), I can tell you its been hard at times. It certainly brings up the question of how to travel in the future.
At this point, I’m just killing time until polo season starts in 2 days and I make my way to a polo club in Pilar, the polo capital of the world, to try my hand at volunteering with polo ponies. With the experiences I’ve had in Mexico and Maui, stepping into a new one feels a bit like sticking my hand into a legit free-for-all cookie jar and then having someone jump out of a corner in that Scream outfit (don’t ask me why) and yell – BOO! Well, we’ll just have to see how it goes, don’t we.
Maui is what happened after Mexico – an incredibly last minute bit of decision making on my part. I’m less inclined to call it a brain fart, although that phrasing wouldn’t be entirely inaccurate. Let’s just say that weighing the merits of the decision was a spottily vague process, at best.
Why Maui, you might ask? Well, you probably wouldn’t to be honest. Most people equate Maui with paradise and leave it at that. But growing up close to some of the best beaches in the world in SE Asia leaves you immune to the often flaunted – and superficial – idea of Maui as paradise. If this sounds harsh, let me put it this way, paradise is in the eye of the beholder and living in a wildly over-priced, over-ghettoised island where I have to pay $6 for a bag of spinach while I enjoy the blue sky and balmy weather, isn’t it. Throw in the colonial history and its present incarnations, what this means for the native Hawaiians, plainly there to see for the open-eyed, and no, I wouldn’t say I was in paradise.
Admittedly, Maui was a bit of a weird step to take after Mexico, and one I definitely would not have thought to take had I not received a personal invite from two guests I met at the Rancho in Mexico. The offer: come stay with us and check out the local Paniolo – or Hawaiian cowboy – scene while you figure out what comes next. Having been the first stop on my trip, and leaden with the expectation of a warm and hospitable welcome, I was left a bit shattered when Mexico didn’t turn out well, and needed a quiet place to regroup. Misogyny was not something I had planned on encountering at the Rancho. Horse poop, tired and achy muscles, rides out into the countryside, perpetual sweatiness – YES. Misogyny – NO. That quiet place turned out to be a house in the Upcountry, in a so-called paniolo town called Kula, on the famed (and very windy) Haleakala Highway.
My hosts Heather and Sara (Heather more than Sara, for Sara had a tendency to run to her room as soon as she got home from work … I did ask why … regrettably) helped put me in touch with anyone remotely having to do with horses and riding through their super spidey network of facebook friends and acquaintances in Maui. That’s when H and I (I had a lot more in common with H, a bubbly and compassionate soul) weren’t busy having to the death bananagram tournaments, rocking out road trips (Road to Hana and Oprah’s house anyone?), baking (I assisted) banana bread and chocolate chip cookies (I had died and gone to heaven), hiking volcanos and bamboo forests, and finding out we had a heck of a lot in common.
My first paniolo (or maybe paniolo-lite) experience was at a Longhorn cattle ranch that also did trail rides, a place run by an ethically challenged little guy – a transplant from the mainland somewhere – who spat out his tobacco wad with disgusting frequency. I also saw him cheat a volunteer out of promised tip money from working days and those four hour trail rides – and here I thought he couldn’t get more disgusting. I had to revise my opinion when I met his wife and listened to them spout off about Christ. That really made me want to upchuck.
But Oh god, those trail rides. With some of the most enticing canter and gallop tracks on the property – you could potentially, or I imagined you could, feel as if you were racing to the ocean with the mountains at your back – these rides were done in a tail-nose fashion, entirely at a walk. This was painful on a whole other level. Mind numbing would be an appropriate description, and one that left me wondering at the point of having the horse in the equation. Could we legitimately call these rides? What sane person would shell out close to $300 per person for a four hour walk in a straight line while seated on their ass? In any event, the whole island was populated with similar ‘trail rides’, the reason behind which were primarily liability issues.
Things were slow after that. I visited a few ranches but didn’t lay eyes on any paniolos. Little did I know, the paniolo has come to be identified mostly by remnants of their past now currently occupied by trendy (read overpriced) boutiques and cafes in downtown Makawao. Suffice it to say the paniolo scene was a bit of a disappointment. Legend has it the working paniolo do still exist at cattle ranch Ulupalakula but alas I only found out after leaving Hawaii.
Funnily enough, I did learn that Maui’s local traditional cowboy scene had serious ties to Mexico. At least, in that historical dimension, my decision to go to Maui made some sense. As it turned out, Maui’s paniolo culture was born when vaqueros (or Spanish cowboys from Mexico) were brought in by King Kamehameha III (in 1823) to deal with the rapidly burgeoning cattle problem. The vaqueros taught the native Hawaiians their ways, and hey presto – cutting a bit of a long story short here – the paniolo came to be. While the pop culture figure of the mainland American cowboy has achieved something of an iconic and global status symbol, the paniolo (although first on the scene by about fifty years) has quietly retreated into the dusty background and remains somewhat stubbornly rooted to the local landscape of shopfronts and folklore fancy.
I said my farewells to Maui, and the lovely Collins family who hosted me for a spell, and packed for my flight. Before I left though, I spent a few days at Jillian’s – a local hunter jumper equestrian school – and was given the contact details of a polo club in Argentina. I had a few things to take care of on another continent, Asia this time, but it looked like my next horsey stop was going to be Pilar, Argentina.
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.
I started my year long sabbatical from life as I was living it on March 7th 2019. The plan was to volunteer with horses out yonder, far far away from the now boring confines of the riding school in London, England and spark some of that joy that I so readily experienced while riding out in Mongolia or Kazakhstan. Travelling from volunteer gig to volunteer gig, and being immersed in different horse cultures just seemed like icing on the cake. Backpack, riding kit, a budget, travel insurance, and my enthusiasm – what else could I possible need, right?
Well I’m five and a half months into my quasi adventure to figure some things out about myself in this nutty world, and it has certainly been a trip and a half. Ups and downs like you wouldn’t believe – revelations about myself and my life, the making and breaking of friendships, reconnecting with past loves, cultural clashes and seamless transitions, and of course, riding some amazing horses in some pretty amazing (and not so amazing) places.
To find out a bit more about myself and why I decided to pack up and everything and leave click on my About Me page. To find out what the past few months have been like and to follow me on this adventure click away on the posts. I hope you find some aspect of my documenting this journey rewarding, and I’d love to hear from you with stories of your own.