There's something to be said about the human-horse bond. Whether it's a cowboy galloping with his horse along the American plains, an Arab riding his horse through the desert, or an Australian and his trusty steed shuttling cattle, the idea of being on a horse seems to me the ultimate expression of oneness and freedom.
Not that I was ever any good at horsemanship. Despite riding lessons in mainland United States, Hawaii, Australia, and the Philippines, I never reached that transcendent moment of oneness with my horse, and I had more or less given up on the idea of riding while on vacation. That was until I went to Negril, Jamaica and my eye caught four magic words: SWIM with your horse. I was enamored with the idea and signed up, buoyed by the prospect that I might finally experience the human-horse bond that had so far been elusive.
The Chukka horse-riding experience was held at a private 500-acre beach plantation. The three other riders and I spent a glorious 75 minutes leisurely walking through a plantation bursting with plantains, pineapple, mango, and African tulip trees. There was one moment of excitement when we encountered a bona fide, open-jawed crocodile near the river. Fully expecting to be thrown from my horse, I was astonished and impressed that Franz didn't so much as blink.
Franz's calm demeanor at the sight of the toothsome reptile convinced me he was special. After reaching the beach, we riders changed into our bathing suits while the guides removed the horses' saddles. Ready to go, we climbed back on, but something was wrong. Franz flatly refused to get in the water. Even when one of the guides took him gently by the head and led him in he pawed at the surface, grunting and splashing my fellow riders and their horses. Great, I thought. Crocodiles are okay but water won't do. My new friends laughed, but their horses seemed annoyed at his antics.
"Um, does Franz like the water?" I asked the guide.
"Yeah, mon! He likka little kid that wanna splash ev'ybody!"
I liked the analogy. But then I saw bright yellow-green clumps floating past and realized Franz was defecating. With a yelp, I pulled my legs out of the water and on top of Franz's head. I heard shouts from the other riders and saw that their legs were also on their horses' heads. All of the horses were pooping!
Unlike on land, where a pooping horse is no problem, it seemed an important concern in this beautiful ocean. The idea of swimming seemed less and less attractive.
The guide had a good laugh on us. "It's just grass, mon."
And with that he and his horse led us deeper into the Caribbean until I felt Franz's hooves leave the sandy surface and only our heads remained above water. Before us was open ocean.
Following the guide's lead, I laced my fingers through Franz's mane and held on tight. To my wonder and joy, he'd transformed into something altogether magical. I couldn't believe how fast he plowed through the water. Dogs and their doggie-paddles had nothing on him. With Franz swimming confidently under me, I relaxed into a flow of happy memories and fancied possibilities. One moment, I was four years old again, holding on to my mom's long braid as she snorkeled in Mamburao. She was a secret mermaid, and I was a secret mermaid, too. Disconnected thoughts followed: I should have looked at becoming a swim-horse jockey. Maybe it wasn't too late . . . Were there schools I could go to learn? How far could the two of us go? I half-expected a friendly whale to pull alongside and join our great adventure.
I guess I got too caught up in my fantasies . . . instead of a friendly whale I was surprised to see another horse and our guide swim up and latch onto us. Apparently we really were headed out to sea, and it was time to go back.
That day I learned that there is indeed something to be said about the bond between horse and human. Some people experience that combination of oneness and freedom on land. I found that magical feeling in a way I never imagined – at sea.
Fun Tours Jamaica: Funtoursjamaica.com. The cost of the 2-hour tour is US$75.