On the second day in Viñales, I woke up with a dull ache in my legs.
“The four hours of horseback riding yesterday certainly left an uncomfortable reminder.” I mused as I waddled to the bathroom. The problem was that my adventures in the saddle were not over yet. I wondered how much of today I would spend trying to hold on to my horse, as my muscles still ached from yesterday’s attempt. After breakfast, we were greeted by a horse-pulled creaky wooden carriage and a new guide. A little part of me hoped that this little carriage was going to be our main transportation throughout the day. We rode through town to the outskirts and were dropped off at a small farmhouse for a tour.
After the tobacco farm tour was over, we walked over to where Alyassan and Chocolate were chilling in the shade. The same horses that we rode yesterday, who spent the majority of the day bickering over who would take the lead, biting each other, and ignoring instructions from our guide, seemed much calmer and happier today. I surprised myself by actually feeling excited to get back in the saddle, despite multiple welts and bruises in my “saddle area” from yesterday.
I was also amazed at how much easier the riding was today. I was no longer clutching the front and back of the saddle with every swaying movement of the horse beneath me. Somehow my body figured out that keeping my feet securely in the stirrups and engaging the muscles of my legs to squeeze Chocolate’s sides allowed me to stay comfortably in the saddle and freed up my hands. I was also a bit more familiar with Chocolate’s temperament and knew that I needed to keep him away from Alyassan and preferably at the head of the pack. This was much easier than I thought, as Alyassan still kept a grudge at having been bitten yesterday and stayed far back from both Chocolate and our guide’s horse.
What I didn’t expect was the terrain. If the day before we had an occasional thorny bush growing too close to the path or a bit of an uneven trail, today we had to cross fast-flowing streams, trot up narrow, winding paths, brave rocky terrain, climb up steep inclines, and gingerly descend into sudden trail drop-offs. Had we encountered this terrain on the first day, I would have certainly fallen off and likely multiple times. But today I knew to trust Chocolate and hoped that he knew to trust me as well. As I rode, I was aware of my horse’s subtle movements and moved in sync with his pace. I leaned forward in my saddle as I felt his muscles tense up when we climbed a hill and leaned back when he carefully navigated a steep decline. I allowed myself to get splashed in mud and soaked in water and baked by the sun. My legs and butt hurt, but not enough to lessen my enjoyment of the ride and the magnificent views.
We were navigating a muddy and narrow trail when we encountered another group of horse riders, going the same way as us, just slightly ahead. Chocolate immediately tried to catch up and overtake them. It took all my control and our guide’s yelling to get him to ease up and stay back. Then, another rider on a beautiful brown horse came from behind and started to overtake us, to join the group in front. He passed by dejected Alyassan in the back, by our guide’s horse, and as soon as he approached Chocolate, the war was on. I grasped the reins and tried to turn my horse’s head away from the approaching stallion. No such luck. Chocolate heaved his body to the left in an attempt to block and probably bite the galloping horse. Thankfully the approaching rider was far more experienced than me. He smacked Chocolate’s head with an empty plastic bottle and with a loud crinkly thud disoriented Chocolate shrunk back and allowed the rider to pass by.
“Chocolate!” our guide exasperatedly yelled. Chocolate just grunted in disapproval.
I shrugged it off. I was used to his competitiveness by now and gently guided him to stay away from other horses for the rest of the ride toward a small restaurant with gorgeous views where we stopped for lunch.
And then Chocolate bit our guide. No, not our guide’s horse, our actual guide. I just mounted the horse, after a lunch break, and the guide bent down in front of Chocolate to pick something up from the ground. Suddenly, my horse angrily snorted, lurched forward, and bit the guide on the back. The bewildered and scared look that man had when he tried to get away from the stomping horse is something I will probably remember forever. I tried my best to maintain my composure. I still had hours of horse riding in front of me and didn’t want to be afraid of my horse or unsure of how to handle myself.
The guide waved off my questions and pretended to be ok. I decided to follow suit and act unbothered as well. The tour continued successfully with the tiny exception of Victor almost falling off his horse while crossing a particularly quick-flowing stream. In his own words, he was so taken up with how effortlessly I held onto my horse during this rough crossing, that he failed to notice his horse starting the same crossing and was almost jolted out of the saddle.
The next morning, as we ate our breakfast, our guide stopped by for a quick chat.
“Male horses, when they reach a certain age, can become very competitive with each other…” he said, in a voice that suggested he was simply musing on the general nature of horses.
We nodded along as he described how the temperament of a horse changes depending on their age and socialization, patiently waiting for this unprompted lecture to be eventually used as an apology or excuse for Chocolate’s behavior. I had already decided that all of this was water under the bridge and was ready to wave off any incoming regrets or explanations.
“So anyway,” the guide said, “Chocolate is getting castrated today.”
“I am sorry!” I blurted out.
And that is how, in an unexpected turn of events, I found myself apologizing to the horse that waged war and destruction down the gorgeous trails of Viñales, while I barely held on.
All of this started when I confidently said “Yes!” to the inquiry about my horse-riding skills. If anyone now asks me if I know how to ride a horse, the answer will be, “Only a very calm horse walking in a very straight line.”