AP has between 20-30 horses and mules on site and every volunteer spends at least one full day with them. I’m excited, but also nervous. I have never been near a horse before, let alone ridden one. Well, that’s not entirely true. I do remember going on a pony ride when I was quite little; you know the type where the ponies are chained to a center pole and you go around in circles? Fun for a kid, but I don’t consider it legitimate horse experience.
It’s a small group at Horse Induction: me, Craig, Julie, and David. Aside from my complete and total lack of experience, Craig hasn’t ridden horses since he was a teenager; Julie went horse-back riding for the first time with her young nephew just a month or so earlier in preparation for this; and David has had a fair amount of experience with horses, having an ex who was an avid rider he tells me in a whisper.
The morning begins with David and Julie going into the paddock to shovel horse poop while Craig and I help mix the horse feed, with its distinct warm smell of molasses scenting the air. While Craig continues with this activity, I go with one of the other handlers and a wheelbarrow full of feed to place into the concrete troughs spread around the paddock. We then join Julie and David to scoop poop for awhile.
Next up is horse grooming. This is my first time standing amongst horses and my first time touching them. I immediately sense the power and strength embodied within these animals. It is impressive, and a little nerve-wracking. Yes, I have been up close and personal with lions now, true predators, but only with the young cubs. And while, at their age, the cubs do have sharp teeth and claws, I am bigger than they are and could most likely get away if a situation went awry. The horses, like the adult lions we’re not allowed to get near, are all muscle and they’re just so obviously strong and powerful and could easily take you down if they wanted to. Not that horses want to do that, but you don’t know what may set an animal off. Despite these fears, I do enjoy our time spent brushing the horses and am starting to understand the attraction they hold for many people.
While David and Julie stay behind to groom the horses at the paddock, Craig and I jump into the back of a truck, towing a trailer with feed for Mr. Conolly’s personal horses that are kept near his residence in the park, at the Main House. There are five horses, and one is pregnant and due quite soon. We groom them for a bit and they seem to be an affectionate, close-knit group. We get back in the truck and head up to BPG to get some hay bales to bring back with us. While we’re there, over at meat prep we see some of our co-volunteers taking a snooze, both inside of and on top of a truck. A little hung-over, ladies? Some of them, who are at least semi-conscious, look over at us; their eyes open no larger than slits. We take that as a resounding yes.
When we get back to the main paddock we are each assigned our horse for the day. My horse is Silver Dime; a beautiful, big, white stallion. “Really?” I wonder to myself. I know this has previously been Stan’s and Chris’ horse for horse induction, and I naturally assumed this time it would be Craig’s. In other words, a man’s horse. I’m also told that he’s a “leader.” Personally, I’d rather be on a follower, but the handlers know the horses so I have to hope that they know how to place people and horses together. Or, maybe not. I do note that Julie gets a nice small horse.
We next learn how to put on the bit and saddle. “Really?” we now all ask out loud. “We need to stick our fingers in the horse’s mouth to get the bit in?” We all give it a try and, with the help of the horse handlers, eventually manage to get all the horses saddled up so we can have our horse riding lesson. We are also told that after lunch we will all have to put the saddle and bit back on by ourselves. I’m not feeling like I, or my horse, can be completely trusted to pull that off, but I think to myself, “Ok, I’ll worry about that later. First thing’s first: the riding lesson.”
We get on our horses and somehow get them over to the training corral. The horses are bunched up together and Craig’s horse and my horse have words with one another. Clearly, there seems to be an issue between them. Fanuel, our riding instructor, tells us, “Oh, by the way, you need to keep those two horses separated as they don’t get along.” Really? Could you have told us that sooner before we got in this predicament? So, from here on out, Craig and I try our best to keep Julie and David in-between us.
We spend the next hour or so going in circles around the corral walking and trotting. Walking is okay, and while I don’t really know what I’m doing I do seem to manage to walk around the corral, get Silver Dime to turn when he needs to turn and to stay away from Craig and his horse. But then there’s the trotting. After a couple of ridiculous attempts where I clearly am not doing it correctly, Fanuel lines us all up and has us practice the up-down movement while the horses stand still. “Up, down, up, down, up, down. Again! Up, down, up, down, up, down. Again!” It’s exhausting and hard. I don’t understand how or why people do this. But then we start trying out our trotting skills again while in motion and I suddenly sort of get it. I’m trotting. “Canter, anyone?” No, thank you. Even trotting is too high a speed for me at this early stage in my horse riding career.
Riding lesson complete, Fanuel has us take off the bits and saddles, putting them aside for when we return after lunch. We make a quick stop at our tent before lunch and I’m horrified as I look in the mirror. I am literally covered in dirt. Every exposed square inch of skin is gritty and it appears to me like I just dug my way out from being buried alive. I can’t think how this happened, then Craig reminds me of the dust devil that appeared in the corral while we were riding, and there was nowhere to go but straight through it – eyes closed, hoping no horses would get spooked and run into each other. We made it through safely, but I look quite a fright now!
When we return to the horses after lunch the bits and saddles go back on. I try to do it on my own, but have one of the horse handlers double-check because, despite my lesson, I really don’t have much confidence in what I’m doing. And did I mention how big and powerful these horses are? Which reminds me of a very important fact: they keep telling us we need to be confident on the horses. The horses can sense fear. I think to myself: “I am confident that I am fearful.”
We go back to the training corral for another few minutes of practice and then we’re heading out for our bush ride led by a guide we haven’t met. Our guide is in the front, followed by Craig, David, Julie, and then me on Silver Dime at the rear. I was told Silver Dime is a leader, but I’m pretty happy being in the back, although a little nervous my horse may decide to go on his own route, being a leader and all. I also realize that if anything were to happen to me way in the back I’m not sure anyone would notice. No one, including the guide, seems to be looking back and checking on us. One of the nice things about being in the back, however, is that I feel I can talk to Silver Dime out loud and carry on a nice, private conversation. Yes, it’s a horse, of course! And unlike Mr. Ed, Silver Dime doesn’t appear to be able to speak, but I find talking to him gives me some comfort. I tell him what a good boy he is for keeping a slow and leisurely pace and assure him that it’s okay to remain well behind the others. I also remind him that I do not want to trot (although a few times he disobeys me).
And that’s the beauty of riding a horse for me – it feels very intimate. It’s just you and your horse, and nerves be damned. You absolutely have to trust one another. The other lovely thing is that riding through the bush on a horse allows you to get pretty close to other animals because they perceive you as an extension of the animal, instead of being a human. On our ride we see wildebeest, zebra, and impala. I occasionally worry that my horse might get spooked by an animal as we approached, for example, a herd of wildebeest. But these are bush horses. This is their home and they know these animals.
We ride for about an hour-and-a-half, and as it goes on I feel my confidence grow. I notice I sit up a bit straighter and can look around more and take in the scenery. Silver Dime starts to trot a couple of times, but I am somehow able to get him to walk again. There is one moment of panic as Julie’s horse starts trotting up a small incline, and I watch her rolling over to the side of her horse and nearly fall off. It’s a scary moment and I have no idea what to do because my horse starts to trot up the same incline and I have to focus on getting him to slow down. He does slow down, and Julie does not fall off her horse, and we all make it back to the horse paddocks safely. As I get off Silver Dime my legs are shaking and bruised, and will end up being sore for another day or two.
Horse-back riding was a great experience and I’m glad I did it, especially since we had the opportunity to ride through the African bush – another unique opportunity that even the most experienced horse riders may never have. We would have other opportunities in the week ahead to go on rides if we wanted to, but Craig and I chose not to. Personally, I felt that with just our one quick lesson there was too much I didn’t know about the do’s and don’ts of riding a horse. It is a potentially dangerous activity, even for an experienced rider, and I just didn’t want to push my luck without proper instruction. I wanted my horse experience in Africa to end on a happy note.
After a much-needed shower, we have dinner and then find out that Ingonyama is going to perform again (it’s another busy client day at AP). This time, Liz convinces me to go on stage with her and join them in the final dance. Despite how sore my legs are from riding, it’s a lot of fun being on stage with all the dancers, along with a group of volunteers and clients. I owe a huge thank you to Liz for not allowing me to miss out on yet another great African experience.