Climbing New Mountains

“Okay, do your thing, Nevada,” I thought, letting the reins go long. We were going downhill, it had rained earlier that day, and before us lay an extremely thick, sloppy patch of mud. I may have had disagreements with my last riding instructor, but there’s one thing I’m grateful he trained me to get comfortable with doing: giving a horse back their head.

Nevada carefully, expertly picked her way down, being used to this and much more. She would many times impress me with her goat-like precision of moving over complicated mountain terrain, and I would many times be reminded of how unsuitable equestrian norms would be here; were Nevada wearing iron shoes, it all would have been impossible. Neither would my jodhpur boots, which I had carried all the way from home, have served me well — it took Héctor one quick look to tell me that my trekking shoes were far more suitable, and it didn’t take me long to find out why.

I hadn’t ridden in a year, and hadn’t worn my half chaps for even longer — it took me three days to remember that I was wearing them the wrong way. The first day riding Nevada was mainly trying to remember technicalities, praying I wasn’t too rigid a load on her back as we faced steep uphills, one following another in what felt like endless succession. It took me a bit to feel through the saddle when one side of her back dropped — indicating her hind foot on the same side was off the ground — so that I could use my corresponding outside leg to ask for a half-pass (sideways step), remembering to open the inside rein and look where I intended to go. Nevada is a quick learner, and she soon figured it out; it came in handy whenever she neared bramble shrubs, endangering my limbs.

But I also had to remember to trust her judgement, too: Nevada knew the routes and terrain better than I ever could — no amount of pressure would convince her otherwise. Every moment I thought she came a little too close to the edge for my liking, I reminded myself that she was as disinterested in falling as I was. She and the other horses regularly follow cow trails winding up the mountain side; they know where to put their feet so as to avoid the precipice. It’s precisely where it looks most hazardous that you entrust your life to the horse.

There’s a lot of talk about “connection” — even when it’s only imagined. Whether the horses I cross paths with truly connect with me I can’t always say, but I do know when I’ve experienced it on my part: being able to assess the slightest upward incline for me to either release Nevada’s back muscles and lean forward, or to lean backward so as to faciliate a downward incline for her to tackle; or being able to discern whether a passage would be doable for a horse and letting them process and decide where to place their own feet, be it while I was leading Lula or leading Nevada over an excrutiatingly difficult rocky path down the mountain. I experience this whenever Lula’s daughter Iona chooses to approach and follow me, not because I trained her by means of a clicker for Instagram likes, but because she chooses to be in my company. What a lot of people see as a connection between a horse and human is, more often than not, actually obedience.

.  .  .

The ever-changing weather of Asturias and its peaks have forever left an impression on my heart; I found the experience so enriching that I believe I’ll never be content with limiting myself to equestrian centres. It’s in the wilder places where both horses and humans can meet their need for effectance — to interact with one’s environment. It has instilled in me an addiction for high-altitudes and to return to how I began to regularly ride — going outside.

Photo by Inés Bzik