Blog by Michelle Mantor, Editor and Founder of Houston PetTalk.
PetTalk Editor’s Costa Rica Equine Adventure – Day 1
Sitting in the middle of the 4th largest city in the U.S. can make it challenging to connect with nature, slow your pace, appreciate the smallest details of God’s incredible earth and find moments of true peacefulness. I live a very scheduled existence – production schedules, deadlines, events, children’s schedules…you get the picture. I imagine many of you are the same. And, there are all of the distractions to boot, from cell phones to iPads to TV and more. It’s no wonder we have road rage!
So, for the past several years, I have chosen to take vacations to destinations that I believe are basic, simple and blessed with an abundance of natural beauty and wildlife. A few years back I traveled to Costa Rica (you may remember my blog of that great trip) and I loved the people, the nature, the animals and the food. What else is there to love, right?
At the same time over the last few years, I have been exploring my fascination with horses. I’ve had a few false starts on learning to ride (injuries, schedule, etc.) so this year I decided why not find a place to get back to nature while immersing myself in an equine learning experience. No distractions, no way to back out. As luck would have it, I spent only a few minutes on Google before I found a mountain retreat in no other than Costa Rica offering a week long program called “Eponicity” – a combination of the words equine, infinity and synchronicity. This “horsie immersion” as I call it, is a riding and psychotherapy program which explores the transformative potential of horse-human relationships for development and healing. I wasn’t necessarily looking for the therapy part as much as I wanted to learn more about horse behavior, care and riding but the emotional connection element sounded like a big bonus.
Eponicity is one of many types of retreats or vacation experiences offered at a remote, lush, tranquil 26-acre mountaintop retreat, Leaves and Lizards Arenal Volcano Cabin Retreat (www.leavesandlizards.com). I contacted the owner and the next thing I knew I was booking my trip.
So here I am on day 1. I arrived yesterday – after a nearly 4 hour flight from Houston to San Jose and then a 3 hour ride to Leaves and Lizards, who graciously sent their van and brave driver Jorge (I say brave because if you’ve ever traveled in Central America by car, you know what I mean). Jorge also stopped to pick up a cheery young gal named Sabina who was going for a job interview as the receptionist and yoga instructor. Her command of English was excellent which was another stroke of luck or Jorge and I would have been giving hand signals along the trip. After the hairpin turns, altitude adjustment, hilly terrain and a not so slow speedometer, I was ready for a big girl drink!
Debbie and Steve, the owners of Leaves and Lizards, met us when we pulled in along with their welcoming committee, Sam (Golden Retriever), Willie (mixed breed) and itty bitty Tootsie (probably a Chihuahua of sorts weighing in at < 4 lbs.). After check-in, we headed to my cabin…back in the van we traveled through the property which has multiple pastures for the horses, cows and other farm animals (the retreat produces their own milk, cheese, butter, some meat and some fruits), past various cabins to my cabin, the Toucan. It’s hard to explain the charm of this property and my home for the next 7 days. My best description is a tree house that’s not built in a tree. The interior makes ample use of the local wood, even using branches in creative ways and gorgeous murals everywhere you look (painted by Steve). The front porch juts out over the jungle canopy with a direct view of the Arenal Volcano. It truly feels like you are living in a tree but with modern amenities (coffee maker, fridge, robes) and the coolest table built from a local tree.
Debbie left me to unpack and to report back to the restaurant for dinner at 7 – “Be sure to stay on the gravel road and use your flashlight because of snakes”. What!!?? Even though everything is nice and all, I started to wonder what I’ve done…I’m going to be living with jungle creatures, no A/C, facing my trust issues with horses, giving up electronics (no tv or wifi in rooms), zip lining 300 ft. above the ground and participating in a rodeo. Thanks to my daughter who sent me a text of an “I’ve Got This” emogi, I took a deep breath, put on my boots and headed out with my flashlight. Down the hill and back up another, I made it to the restaurant unscathed for a delicious meal – a sweet cornbread-like muffin, tomato basil soup, pasta, vegetables and chicken. We were joined by Sabina who would be interviewing in the morning and Nina, a guest from Switzerland on an extended stay at the retreat.
After the meal, we agreed that it would be a good way to interview Sabina if she would conduct a yoga class at 8am, which she did quite adeptly. As I write, she is in her interview. She seems like a shoe-in – great personality for reception, knows her yoga, and respects the environment and energy of the earth (she is vegetarian working toward vegan). I guess I will find out if she gets the job tomorrow.
In a half hour, I’ll have my first equine encounter. Meeting at the barn at 1:30. The sun is shining, the volcano is peaking out, tiny rain showers come and go, temp is about 85 degrees. Am I relaxed yet? No but I’m getting there. It helps that I haven’t listened to the news or read a newspaper so I can retreat from the evil of the world and focus on the beauty. The equine retreat starts tomorrow but I have arrived a day early to spend some time grooming and getting used to the horses. So…here I go….next blog tomorrow.
Day 2.1: Costa Rican Equine Adventure
With Michelle Mantor
PetTalk Editor’s Costa Rica Equine Adventure – Day 2.1
Let me just start by saying Sabina got the job! I’m very happy for her because she is meant for Leaves & Lizards and vice versa. She is quite wise for her 28 years and having learned to heal herself, she will be perfect for healing others through her yoga, massage and energy.
This morning, we started the day with yoga once again, led by our teacher for the week, Francesca. A very soothing person, Francesca led us through Iyengar yoga, a form of yoga that focuses on alignment. Our session went from Yoga to Doga as Tootsie joined in helping us with our poses .
Tootsie is the biggest personality I’ve seen in a 4 lb. body!
Now into day 2, I’m approaching my first horse experience. Debbie takes me to the barn-like area that is specifically for feeding the horses, hosing them down, etc. What is different about this set-up that I haven’t seen before is that the grass/feed is in a middle section that a human can walk through but the horses can only get their head into this “trough” to eat. Talk about trial by fire! I’m here to overcome a fear of horses and my first experience is to enter their feeding area, walking past head after head after head, wondering if they will bite me. The fear of being bitten is coming from the only experience I have – canines – who are food protective and walking through their food source would be potentially dangerous. I walk through with a false bravado figuring they will see this as strength but as the day goes on, I quickly learn that horses see our real self; there is no hiding truth from them.
I move through about 10 head of horses, each nudging or touching me in some way. At the end of the trough, we walk into a larger area where Debbie sits down and starts to explain horse behavior, the holy grail of why I’m here. She sits on the side of a watering station and describes how horses are prey animals in constant worry of predators which defines their pack behavior, social structure and basically their entire existence for millions of years.
As prey animals, horses exist in herds to protect themselves and ward off danger. They have perfected their communication skills and roles within the herd for survival. Debbie explains the roles that horses play within the herd, often changing their role as necessary: The roles are:
More to come on this tomorrow. Next, Debbie also explains how to have a respectful relationship with horses. She demonstrates by showing us that the horse next to her, which is about 2 feet away, is being polite by not entering her personal space. She says he is wanting a drink of water and she is sitting on the side of the water station. She gets up, moves away and the horse moves in to drink. I didn’t even notice the horse waiting patiently next to her proving that this is going to be a truly interesting experience – testing my awareness, my ability to be in the moment, my ability to read the subtleties of the equine world but even more difficult than learning the equine communication will be my own willingness to be my authentic self, showing vulnerabilities to both the horses and the group that’s arriving tomorrow.
As I’m watching this horse drink water, another horse comes up and sniff’s at my head. “He just invaded your personal space and you allowed it. He’s testing you. If you don’t stand up for yourself, the horse will continue to try and dominate you, possibly ending up biting you” says Debbie. What?? Ok, I need to learn this personal space thing quickly! I’m thinking I don’t want to strike a horse to make it back off and this kind of dominance is not comfortable for me but I say nothing. Thankfully, Debbie’s method and the Eponaquest way of communication with the horses is not about physical power but more about energy. She shows me how I can draw from my energy, stand tall, and mentally tell the horse to back off…and he does! This is like magic!
That little success made me even more excited to get going with the program. Far from being a horse whisperer, I’m seeing this ray of beautiful sunshine peak through the clouds of doubt and fear in my mind. This is going to be transformative in more ways than just learning how to care for and understand horses.
We head off to lunch with the promise of some “ring work” afterward…more to come in part 2 of Day 2.
Day 2.2: Costa Rican Equine Adventure
With Michelle Mantor PetTalk Editor’s Costa Rica Equine Adventure – Day 2.2 Down at the Vinculo barn, Debbie brings in her horse Gitana, which means Gypsy, (the Costa Rica horses, Costarricense de Paso also known as Criollo, are a combination of several Spanish horses (Barb, Andalusian, Arab) and the Peruvian Stepping Horse.), to demonstrate horse behavior and give me a little more insight. She starts by explaining the concept of personal space which we have as humans and so do horses. This is the space where we are uncomfortable if another person (or horse, etc.) comes into this space without our permission. Have you ever had someone get too close to your face while talking to you and you begin to back up? That person was in your personal space without your permission. For horses, as prey animals, they would be uncomfortable or even feel threatened if humans approach them suddenly or without permission into their personal space.
Debbie demonstrates how to watch for a sign the horse has noticed you, take a few steps until you get another movement from the horse acknowledging you, then stop and wait, letting the horse know you are not threatening and willing to let them run away if they feel like it, and so on until you get into their personal space to do whatever you need to do…groom, saddle, etc.
This makes total sense and I like things that make sense – it takes away fear when you begin to understand something. My hesitancy or fear with horses is the unpredictability given that I don’t understand their behavior. Learning how to approach them in a polite, safe way is an awesome start to my learning process because now I have a tool to begin creating a relationship of respect.
We spend some more time with Gitana as Debbie explains the use of the Parelli stick used in lunging, ground work and she shows how her horse likes to play games, like switching directions when the stick is used, how to move her horse with just the pressure of her finger – always showing us how to reward the desired behavior from the horse when you get the response you’re looking for. Horses weigh over 1000 lbs and clearly if this horse didn’t want to move with the pressure of Debbie’s finger pushing backwards, she wouldn’t do it. But she does, Debbie rewards her with her voice and a few strokes on the neck. Now that is a relationship of mutual respect and it’s clear to me that the method of “breaking a horse” that is commonly used is misunderstanding the horse and missing the beauty of a common bond and language with the horse that will work with you because they want to, not because you are making them. That’s quite a difference in spirit when one does something out of desire versus fear.
“You want to try?” Debbie asks, Hmmm…not really but she makes me anyway LOL! With as much calm as I can muster, I use the Parelli stick and next thing I know, the horse is following my directions, running around the ring, turning as I direct and it’s the most amazing feeling – this horse is following me as the leader. Who’d have thought I could go from anxious horse observer to horse leader in just one day? Definitely not me!
With a big smile on my face, we leave the barn and head to dinner at the restaurant for a hearty, delicious meal of Tilapia, rice and vegetables that I can’t pronounce but are yummy.
It occurs to me in the middle of the meal that this place, Leaves and Lizards, is like a big family – the workers in the kitchen are giggling and having fun, some of the other staff that takes care of the horses and property are eating and some other guests have arrived and come in to eat in the big open air dining room with a dead-on view of the Arenal Volcano.
It also occurs to me that at this moment, I am very happy. And it also occurs to me that I have slowed my pace enough from the city to NOTICE that I’m happy.
Day 3: Costa Rican Equine Adventure
With Michelle Mantor
PetTalk Editor’s Costa Rica Equine Adventure – Day 3
Today our program officially starts – we are a group of 12 people going through this Eponaquest Adventure Vacation. We all meet in the restaurant – quite a diverse group, we are a collection of people from different places (Germany, Switzerland, Arizona, California, Maine), varying horse experience but all looking to learn.
After introductions we head to the Vinculo barn (vinculo means, in Spanish, unexplainable bond) where we sit at a big table and talk about what we are each hoping to achieve this week and just getting a feel for the program. Gitana is back again hanging out with us, looking for some ear scratches which I happily give.
Because the relationship with the horse we will ride and work with for the week is so important, the next thing we do is a bit mind boggling – our horse is going to pick us. The twelve of us sit in a circle in chairs facing outward and we are blindfolded. It’s an amazingly quiet process as our instructors leave the ring, go get a horse, bring it and allow it to choose each of us. It’s harder than I think to sit there for what seems like about 15 to 20 minutes with no sight and just trying to manage my mind. I didn’t want to get into any doubt scenarios and give off negative energy which might attract a horse that I couldn’t manage.
Eventually, someone takes my hand and leads me about 20 paces, places one hand on the railing and one on “my horse”. “This is your horse she is drinking water, stay here with her”. I am feeling really vulnerable now. I can’t see where I am, I don’t really know how the horse is facing and where I should put my feet because being stepped on would not be a good start for the week. I leave my hand on the horse, gently moving it around until I figure out about where on the horse my hand is and which way she is facing and I try to keep my feet as far to the side as I can. I probably look like the leaning Tower of Pisa. Another 20 minutes pass and I’m struggling with not yanking off my blindfold because my mind is starting to get antsy. Which horse picked me? What if she starts fidgeting and pins me to the railing? Is there anyone in the arena or is this a big joke? Ok, now my mind is really running away LOL!
Finally we get to take off our blindfolds and I have been picked by a white mare named Suzy who is 20 yrs old, has a few of her offspring at the retreat and is described as a very steady horse that will give you what you need and take good care of you. She has obviously played the role of mother, which is nurturer/companion, and that sounds pretty good to me. I’m thankful I didn’t send out vibes that I wanted to have an adventure!
We reconvene and discuss the process, all of us admitting our vulnerability, doubts, or even fears when our sight was taken away. It was interesting to note how much I relied on my hearing to figure out what was happening in the room, about where I was standing based on the noise outside the ring, etc. When we lose one sense we rely more on others which is a good lesson to think about – it made me more aware of the beautiful sounds of nature around me when I could no longer see.
Next we split into two groups and one by one they brought our horse in for us to “join up” together. This is a process you might have seen in horse whisperer types of films which is essentially getting your horse to follow you without using a lead rope. The idea is to figure out where the area of connection is with the horse, then the personal space of the horse. To do this, you are far back from the horse waiting to be noticed. Once you have gotten the horse to give a sign they have noticed you (look at you, twitch an ear your way or make any movement), you walk slowly toward the horse until you get another sign and when you do, stop and turn sideways, showing the horse he/she can escape if they want; you are not here as a predator which is how they would feel if you just charged up to them and invaded their personal space.
You continue this until you’ve gotten close to the horse, then you exhale and sweep your arm in the direction you want to go for the horse to follow. The idea is that they will want to follow your energy.
For some of us, it worked right away, first try. For others, no so much. Depending on our own energy and thoughts (believing the horse will follow and exhibiting strength versus doubting for example), the horse may join up quickly or might decide to give you more of a challenge. When it was my turn, I tried to stay strong minded and not let the horse feel she could dominate. She almost joined up right away and followed me for a second but I lost her. If you don’t get the horse right away, you revert to the Parelli stick to start managing the horse, getting its respect and eventually laying down the stick and getting the horse to follow you. It takes me a bit to use the stick (only hitting the ground for noise, not the horse) to gain Suzy’s respect and she follows me. What a feeling! This is like magic – I never touched her and she is following me like a puppy around the ring.
I like this “natural horsemanship” – it feels respectful, meaningful and lasting.
Tomorrow we ride!
Day 4: Costa Rican Equine Adventure
With Michelle Mantor
PetTalk Editor’s Costa Rica Equine Adventure – Day 4
We start the day at 7am with yoga on a platform overlooking the horse ring. I really want to go learn how to milk the cow, which is every morning at 7, but so is yoga and I opt for what I need versus what I want.
It’s very centering work to practice yoga and feels good when we are done and ready to have a hearty breakfast – if you think you are coming here to lose weight, you’re in the wrong place. The food is so good and healthy that I am eating more than usual but we are also going non-stop every day. I am literally struggling just to find 30 minutes a day to write this blog and answer email. I suppose I would not call this a vacation as much as an equine workshop with various adventures but it is not a lay around by the pool having rum drinks kind of vacation (which is what I often do).
Today we split into our two groups again, head to our various rings and sit down to do a mandala about our emotions (a diagram, chart or geometric pattern that represents the cosmos metaphysically or symbolically). As we do this exercise, we keep in mind the main values that the Eponaquest program embodies are: authenticity over perfection, being inquisitive over methodology being congruent rather than conforming (be true to yourself).
We work in our group by having discussions about various aspects of our lives or personalities – for instance, what is a daily challenge that we face? We work through this session, which is facilitated by our leader and we begin to understand how the horses can see “our real self”, not the masked self we might show the world. For example, if I have just gotten a phone call that my car needs $3000 in repairs before I head into the ring to work with my horse, my emotions are going to influence the situation. Let’s say my emotion is anger. The minute I am in my horse’s space, he/she may not want to work with me today, may be agitated, not do what I ask, etc. because the anger I am trying to hide on the outside is still flowing through my energy and horses read/sense energetic emotional state.
After scanning our bodies through a process with the facilitator, we work on visualizing the goal we have with our horses for this exercise, which is to greet our horse, get them to walk, then trot, and then slow to a walk, change directions, trot, walk, then join up with us. To do this, we use our energy – amp up the horse to trot and then bring our energy down, signifying we want them to walk. I’m simplifying this process for the sake of this blog but each of us had a different experience – some easy, some difficult – but we are all learning to control our energy and see what affect it has on another sentient being which teaches us a great deal in how we handle our relationships, both personal and professional.
Suzy – my horse that picked me day 1 – and I work together and everything goes almost too well, I can’t believe I’ve gotten her to do all of these things and then join up with me…almost. She starts to join up then stops. I swear I had this little doubt in my mind just when I asked her to join up and then she stopped. Oh great, I have a mind reading horse LOL! We work a little more and we finally join up and she follows me around the ring to my chair where I sit to receive feedback from the group.
When I leave the ring, I’m in astonishment. I have used my energy, at varying levels, to control and affect everything around me. Seeing this concept in a real life situation with an animal is so cool. I process this as I happily walk up the hill to my massage (part of the package). Yes, this hillside retreat offers much more than an equine adventure, massage, good food and great companions – it offers a mirror to my true self.
Day 5: Costa Rican Equine Adventure
With Michelle Mantor
PetTalk Editor’s Costa Rica Equine Adventure – Day 5
This morning’s yoga is focused on lengthening our bodies and being aware of our posture which is necessary for our first trail ride later in the day.
After breakfast of scrambled eggs, French toast, and awesome Costa Rican coffee, we go through a another mandala focusing on a chart of emotions and what those emotions represent; then how to handle them (for instance vulnerability is the feeling that something significant is about to change or be revealed so the question you might ask yourself is what belief, or perception or physical safety is about to be challenged and how can you accept this new insight because if you don’t, the feelings may intensify to rage or panic). I have no idea at the time but I am about to experience vulnerability for real later in the evening.
Later in the day we gather our gear for our first ride – I’m finally going to get in the saddle. The vulnerability for me is that I don’t have riding skills although the majority of the group does. The workshop is not about learning to ride as much as it’s about reading the horse, learning their language, creating a relationship and figuring out our own minds, intentions and consequences.
All 12 of us plus our leadership group head out of the barn and down the road to a trail that is often ridden by the horses and that they know well. We are going to ride to a waterfall, go swimming and ride back. Sounded simple enough. The foreboding was in the phrase “bring your flashlights” but I just figured this was “just in case” something happened and always be prepared.
As we start down the road to the trail, I’m apprehensive because I don’t have riding skills so I’m trying to think of all the things I have ever been taught in the few lessons I’ve had years back – be present, look ahead, control the reigns, sit up straight, breath. I try to relax and keep blowing air out telling the horse I’m not anxious but as we’ve been learning, I can’t hide emotions from the horse.
Debbie instructs me to just tell Suzy that I’m scared and ask her, either out loud or silently, to take care of me and that I will trust her. Thank God she is an older mature horse (20ish) with an old soul that knows her stuff.
A note I want to make before I forget is that one of the remarkable things about Leaves and Lizards is that, through natural horsemanship, the horses do not have bits – bridles. One of our Eponaquest instructors, Shelley, explains that with pain as the constant consequence, the horses never get a “say” and if you don’t listen to your horse, you will have a relationship of struggle.
As we progress through the trail, I realize the terrain is not going to be flat…AT ALL! Not sure why I thought terrain in Costa Rica would be flat (duh) but as we go down hills that are deep mud and the mud is of course slippery, I am more scared than I can put words to. Vulnerability starts to head toward fear and panic. Everyone is doing their best to convince me that the horses are sure-footed, they won’t fall and so on but I’m not convinced AT ALL! Just like I’m not convinced when flying that there are so few plane incidents that I shouldn’t worry because statistics say we are very safe to fly. Right.
I battle the fear, try to breathe out deep breaths and plead with Suzy mentally to keep me safe. We pass some other horses and I’m all tensed up worrying about the antics between the horses which I’ve already witnessed with some of the others, little nippy bites and even kicks. We finally arrive at the waterfall and I am more than happy to get off my horse and try to relax my body.
It’s now about 4:30 or so with only an hour left of daylight. I’m getting antsy to go. I’m nearly the first one back to the horses who’ve been turned loose in the field and we are told to catch them using our newfound “join up” skills. I fail miserably. Suzy is enjoying eating the grass and is having none of that bridle. I enlist help, feeling like a failure but I really don’t care at this moment because I want to get home before dark. The trail nearly sent me into a panic during the day so a night ride would land me in an institution.
Finally I think we are about to go and Debbie announces we going to discuss the differences between our authentic self and our conditioned self before we leave. What??!!! I’m pissed. I want to GO HOME!!! I don’t work very hard at hiding my anger but I don’t throw a fit either. As we enter into the discussion, it becomes apparent to many of us that we’ve been set up…the intention all along was to make use ride back on this treacherous trail in the pitch black of the Costa Rican forest where there is no light on a trail that is very difficult.
I see now why vulnerability, if not addressed, can lead to rage because I’m sitting right at rage’s door about now. The tension in the group is palpable and Debbie admits that the plan was to go back in the dark and tries to talk us through the feelings of vulnerability and how we also experience this in our lives and how scary is to reach down inside and trust…just give in to trust.
It’s dusk, we mount our horses and head back. We are going up steep hillsides, coming down in mud, crossing a small river (where the horses like to lay down unless you have the leadership skills to not let them…just a little more pressure to add to the situation!). I can’t even begin to write about my emotions and fear. I’m feeling panic but constantly trying to talk myself down from that edge; it’s exhausting and this goes on for an hour. There are parts of the trail that are flat as we cross some pastures and those moments were truly beautiful. The lightening bugs were out (we never see those at home anymore!), the sounds of all the animals in the forest/countryside was eerie but peaceful, and there was a sense of nature and calm that is indescribable – if only we could stay on flat land.
But we can’t. Panic comes right back as we approach a steep hill of deep mud leading to another river crossing and the darkness is thick and my only thankful thought is that I got one of the two white horses giving off just a bit of light. I had forgotten how dark “dark” is in the country with no lights from houses. There is also barbed wire on either side of the trail that I can’t see. I pull out my itty bitty flashlight which doesn’t do much good but it gives me a momentary release from the terror in my chest that I can’t see what’s ahead and I can’t fathom how my horse can either.
After what seemed like an eternal time in panic mode, we make it home alive. I’m so pissed I just head back to my cabin and practically tear off the cork of a bottle of wine with my teeth. Why would a beginner like me be subjected to what I see as a dangerous situation and be pushed to that level of fear? To learn to trust of course. Ok, I get it. I need to trust Suzy implicitly for the remainder of the week while simultaneously making sure that I don’t let her take advantage of me at times when I need to show leadership because if I can’t be the leader when needed, then what good am I to the herd?
Day 6: Costa Rican Equine Adventure
With Michelle Mantor
PetTalk Editor’s Costa Rica Equine Adventure – Day 6
Today I miss yoga class because I wake up at 7:05. Bummer. I really enjoy this new morning ritual of yoga by the horse ring, looking at the amazing mountain scenery, listening to the cacophony of birds and hearing the horses neighing just above us in the barn.
During breakfast, Debbie asks us to discuss our night ride from the previous night. It’s a good discussion of how many of us were scared, vulnerable and even angry but several people said that although they were concerned and anxious, once they were on the ride in the dark and realized the only option was to trust the horse to get you home safe because they know the trail, they felt euphoric to hand over responsibility – just sit back and let the horses be in control. I was not one of these people. I would say euphoria was the LAST thing on my mind. However, since I lived to tell about this adventure, it does give me a much greater trust of my horse – which is probably a metaphor for my life: trust and stop trying to control everything.
We also watch a fascinating TED Talk by Brene Brown on Vulnerability (check it out on You Tube…if you get nothing more from this week long blog, watch this video!). The video delves into what happens to those who embrace vulnerability and those who choose not to. As Renee puts it, we are the most drugged and overweight nation because we want to be numb ourselves from the bad feelings and only feel the good, which of course isn’t possible.
Next we head to our respective areas to do more ground work with our horses. One by one, our horses are brought into the ring and through our energy and use of the Parelli stick, we get our horse to walk in a circle, trot in a circle, change directions and do the same and then join up. We take notice of the energy it takes as well as our intentions. Horses understand intent. If your intent is to be a predator, meaning put pressure on them and once they give you what you want and you keep putting pressure on them, that’s when they will go toward their fight or flight reaction. We learn just how much pressure our horse needs to perform what we are asking and then we back off the pressure and so forth.
Suzy does great. She only gives me a sassy flip of the head once when I ask her, with a strong swat at the ground with the Parelli stick, to trot but she does it and once again, much to my amazement, she joins up with me immediately. Horses truly do live in the moment, don’t hold grudges and watch for every sign of energy change which they adjust to. Sixty million years of evolution has created an animal that is very sensitive to every little detail, otherwise they would not have survived as a prey animal.
Now I see why horse people are horse people. These powerful yet sensitive creatures are some of the best teachers on earth.
Day 7: Costa Rican Equine Adventure
With Michelle Mantor
PetTalk Editor’s Costa Rica Equine Adventure – Day 7
It’s the day I’ve been waiting for, the “off property” day when we can choose from a list of several activities for the morning, then a ride around the Arenal Volcano on our horses in the afternoon. No yoga this morning due to an 8 am departure. Our choices for the morning activity are Hanging Bridges/Nature Walk, Zip lining, Canyoning or Volunteer at the Wildlife Rescue Center. It’s probably not hard to guess which one I pick. Yes, the wildlife center. I can’t wait to see the critters they have – totally different from the wildlife at home.
But, it wasn’t meant to be. The Wildlife Rescue Center was full for the day so I had to pick between the other three options. After the terror of the night ride, I really didn’t want anything thrill-seeking. I just wanted to walk on my own feet. “You signed up for an adventure vacation” says one of my fellow adventurers. Right. I appreciate their version of sarcasm. I contemplate the options of walking across dangling bridges that may or may not be in disrepair, flying 200 feet above the rain forest canopy attached only by a wire, or repelling down rock walls into a river gorge – hmmmm. Hard choice. “Can I just stay home?” I ask. “You can but you’ll miss the volcano ride,” says Debbie. Crap. I don’t want to miss the highlight of the entire trip so I realize I have to pick one. I look unsure as I think this through. “You’re going Canyoning,” Debbie says without hesitation. Ok, I guess it’s better to just be told what to do rather than waffling.
Decision made, we get instructions on what to bring. “Be sure to wear something that you are ok with getting wet.” I thought I was repelling down canyon/gorge walls. Hopefully only once. “Including your head.” What??? Am I going to fall head first into the river below? I feel fear creeping up…more adventure.
We climb in the cars and head toward the Arenal Volcano, the main attraction for tourists in this area of Costa Rica (North Central). A few have decided to go to the Hanging Bridges, a few to the Zip line course and 8 of us are going “canyoning.” We have no idea what we are in for. Only Debbie has done this before and I’m proud to say I’m not the only one who would prefer to have stayed stationary and not test our “vulnerability” once again.
We arrive and our guides give us a quick safety course as they hook a harness with multiple carabineers to our waists. They show us how to ease off the platform backwards to begin repelling face forward to the rocks plus how to go faster, slower, brake. He also tells us not to touch anything in the flora/fauna because last week someone touched a fer de lance (super big snake) not knowing what it was. I get to face two of my biggest fears all in one adventure, heights and snakes. I’m thinking a swinging bridge looks pretty good right now.
We head down a steep path to a wooden platform that is only strong enough to hold 6 of us so the others hang back. I’m third in line. I peak over the side of the platform. Below me, about 30 ft. down, is a narrow, rocky canyon filled with plants, rocks, water, moss, and the guide who has repelled down to be the other end of the rope. I’m definitely scared but not as scared as riding a horse through a treacherous trail in the dark. The trail was about trusting the horse; the repelling is about rusting the guides and the ropes. I bend my knees, swing off the platform and dangle in the air – for a photo of all things! I make my way to the bottom, relieved to touch down but the water is COLD and flowing and the rocks are slippery. I find a spot to wait for the others. Everyone makes it down after much cheering and cajoling.
We walk down the river canyon over slippery rocks and repeat this process again as our guides swing us into waterfalls, make us jump from rocks into pools of water, drop us quickly from 20 feet above, send us zip lining to another platform and so on. It’s exhausting, cold and challenging but we make it to the bottom river bed and walk about half mile down a shallow river, where the water is warmer, and laugh and joke our way back to the finish where we are met with the best pineapple and watermelon I’ve ever eaten. It’s definitely a feeling of accomplishment and a relaxing moment knowing we have made it.
As we are about to leave, we get the bonus of seeing a family of howler monkeys in the tree above. Nice touch to the end of another challenge met.
We dry off, hop in the car and head to the base of the volcano where our horses have been trucked to meet us. The guys from Leaves and Lizards have brought us homemade pizza (so good!) and we hop on our horses and head straight up the mountainside. I’m apprehensive about anything steep but I try to calm myself, sit back in the saddle and enjoy the day with Suzy. She is showing me she is the perfect horse for me – starts slow, warms up to a little more liveliness but not more than I can handle and overrules me when she knows the best path to take.
I’m really at a loss for words in describing this ride. The weather is perfect and we are assured by the locals that a beautiful day like this with a full view of the volcano, no rain, about 70 degrees. We climb up a mountainside to a plateau that feels like you could touch the volcano. We stop for a group photo and a few of the experienced riders feel the energy of the moment and jump up and stand on their saddles. What balance! And what joy in their faces!
We continue on and our guide, Enrique who is so knowledgeable and supportive, gives us the most incredible tour to mountain vistas where we could see for miles, down to a green moss covered lake where he explains this area was previously the old road before the volcano erupted in 1968 killing around 80 people. He tells us about some of extremely large trees (the Cieba tree is huge; the tallest one is CR is 80m high!), plants, flowers, local history and each view we ride to seems more amazing than the next. We finally make it to the pinnacle of the mountain and we all just sit on our horses staring at the view. It’s definitely one of the best views I’ve ever seen.
We continue on and when we get to the bottom of a valley and we have a straight path back up to the top and we all given a chance to canter our horses to the top if we want to try it. The experienced riders jump at the chance. It looks so exhilarating and I have trotted a couple of times with Suzy so I decide to go for it. I’m side by side with one of our instructors, Sally, and she takes off and calls Suzy to go and in Suzy style, she trots a bit then kicks it into a canter and I hold on for dear life to the saddle horn.
That was so cool! Actually the canter is smoother than the trot so it felt good on my sore bottom that has been riding for hours on this trip – I assume this gets better over time with more riding?
The day is coming to a close and we ride back down to mountain, load up the horses and head home for a delicious dinner together. We share photos and relive the day’s events. We’ve become our own herd. It’s interesting how you can bond so closely with 16 strangers over the course of a week when you share your feelings, challenges, triumphs and support for each other.
The one thing I can say about this day is that on a horse in the remote countryside, you can see things you would never be able to see any other way. I’m thankful for the many gifts the horses are giving us this week – support, life lessons and unparalleled views from what feels like the top of the world.
Day 8: Costa Rican Equine Adventure
With Michelle Mantor
PetTalk Editor’s Costa Rica Equine Adventure – Day 8
It’s a bit rainy this morning but the rain here never seems to last long. It can be raining one minute and sun shining the next so I head to morning Yoga in a light mist. Kinda cool actually. We work on postures that are good for riding, opening our hips and we do a guided mediation to focus on being connected to our surroundings and feeling peaceful. I am able to make it into some of the tougher stretches but getting out of the stretch is not so simple.
After breakfast (bacon, eggs, pancakes, fresh cut mango/pineapple/watermelon, and good Costa Rican coffee) we do some ground work with our horses on imitating the 5 roles of the herd (dominant, sentinel, nurturer/companion, leader and predator). I won’t go into this much because it’s a large part of the course and I can’t do it justice but suffice to say you can learn a lot about yourself as you delve into these roles that we all move in and out of in daily life. To learn more check out Linda Kohanov’s 2013 book The Power of the Herd, and her upcoming book The Five Roles of a Master Herder (due in June 2016). It is truly fascinating to apply the power of the herd dynamics to our human lives – so I encourage you to research this concept.
Later in the day we take a group ride from the facility down to the river to ride our horses in the water. I am assured by all that this is fun, not scary. Hmmm. Not sure I am all on board for that assessment but I get up on Suzy and we head out. And as usual, Suzy and I are last. She is a slow starter and also a bit tricky about taking the path on the edge of the road so she can grab a bite of grass now and then. I’m not supposed to let her but I would say she won that battle about 70% of the time. By being last, we get a chance to chat with our guide Enrique, who spots some howler monkeys in the trees and I listen and learn more about his life in Costa Rica. The people here are always smiling and are very family oriented, a good example for all.
We reach the river on a not too difficult ride and we each tie our horses to a tree. We start by doing another mandala with the question, “What is my biggest challenge each day”? and we are painting our mandala on our horses. Cool! I’m seeing the advantage immediately of having a white horse LOL! I paint a mandala representing my struggle with trying to control my everyday life – it’s hard to let some things just go. Everyone shares their paintings which are all really cool and then it’s time to play with our horses in the river.
Some horses immediately laid down in the water and some wanted to swim but Suzy decided to just stand in the water and watch. Although she is known for loving the water, her 7 month old foal is with us on the trip so I think she was in “mom” mode, not fun mode. It looked like a blast for those that got to jump bareback on their horse and swim along.
We make it back home ok, with Arenal Suzy’s foal, continuing to bump into us, chew at the rope, cut in front of us and basically be a teenager. But he’s so cute it’s fun to be in his energy even if he can be a little annoying at the same time. Dinner is served and we all relax and share stories from the day. It’s a peaceful end to the day and I realize how grateful I am to be part of such a supportive group – all different in many ways but yet the same – seeking a deeper understanding of both horses and ourselves.
Final Day: Costa Rican Equine Adventure
With Michelle Mantor
PetTalk Editor’s Costa Rica Equine Adventure – Day 9
Today is our final “working” day. Tomorrow is a free day to work on whatever we feel needs closure (I am going work with the great Shelly Rosenberg, www.shelleyrosenberg.com, on riding technique). I begin with morning yoga where we practice breathing life into our bodies in those areas that often feel “dead” – upper back between the shoulders and hip flexors. This morning I feel more peaceful than I have in years. It has taken me 10 days to finally let go of stress and practice being in the moment. I realize that this is the longest amount of days I have traveled in many years and the first time the trip was focused on self discovery. I’ve always heard it takes at least a week to settle down from our hectic daily lives, shed the stressful thoughts and feel calm enough for the mind to say in the moment. My meditation prayer this morning is one of gratitude for the opportunity to be in this place of beautiful nature surrounded by people with good intentions. Imagine if everyone in the world could feel peaceful and safe – what a different world it would be.
After breakfast, several people in the group who had experienced difficulty in getting their horse to do what they were asking in ground work (walk, trot, change directions, etc.) have asked to work with their horses again this morning so I go along to watch. I’m a visual learner so watching others helps me a great deal. Again, by being “present” as I watched (rather than my usual habit of thinking about anything BUT what I’m doing), I see how the energy level of the person is almost like a string tied to the horse. One person, who was very calm (but not meek), worked her horse beautifully as though it was choreographed. Another person, who was unsure and a bit nervous, had to work much harder and got less of a result. I could feel the tension in the air, see it in the horse’s eyes and definitely witness in the person struggling. I log in my mind that this is a good lesson for me to remember with my kids – stay focused on what I want them to do, stay calm and when the discussion is a non-negotiable item, don’t revert to escalation and yelling – it really accomplishes nothing – but remain balanced and unwavering.
After the groundwork session, we all head to our cabins to get dressed for what will be one of the big highlights of the adventure, a Calbagata organized by Leaves and Lizards (their first ever!). A calbagata is a community horse ride and today we are riding to raise money for the local community center. Residents of the community are joining us at the retreat for food, drinks and some fun games in the riding ring. It’s festive and we try to dig out something nice to wear other than our “I don’t care wear” that we have been working in all week. As everyone starts to arrive, some local seniors make sugar cane juice for the group using a fancy machine set up ring side. They put the cane in one end and it comes out the other pressing out the juice to a bucket below. The juice is fresh but a bit sweet for my liking. Probably would be good with Rum LOL!
Speaking of Rum, some of the local young men are passing around a “moonshine” type of drink mixed with condensed milk. Given my riding skills, or lack thereof, I figure I shouldn’t drink and ride but since most everyone is, I figure I can’t get much worse and it might even relax me enough to stop freaking out over the terrain we might be crossing. I take a couple of shots and it tastes like Bailey’s Irish Cream. I could drink more but figure there is a limit to how relaxed I should be while maintaining my balance.
The group joins in a game of trying to collect a small ring attached to a wire overhead with a pencil as they ride through with their horse. I opt for the spectator role. Some of these cowboys are quite hyped up and so are their horses so I stay put but it’s fun to watch. We have some awesome traditional Costa Rican food (pork, rice, etc.) and head out on the trail for a 3-4 hour ride with a stop in between for refreshments. My butt hurts just thinking about 4 hours in a saddle.
As usual, Suzy starts our last. My group is up ahead and I end up in a group of 6 Costa Rican cowboys all speaking Spanish to me – which I don’t understand one word of. I’m trying to get Suzy to do anything but walk as slow as possible but I don’t have a stick to give her a swat on the butt and I’m not adept enough of a rider to grab one from a tree. So we ride with these guys for a bit but thankfully they get bored with our snail’s pace and move ahead. Finally, Sally, one of our facilitators, comes to save me. She hands me a stick and all Suzy has to do is see the stick and she trots. This makes me laugh! She is this huge, strong animal that couldn’t even really feel a swat of a stick on her butt and somehow the thought of it makes her perk up.
We head uphill across a pasture with grass so tall it’s knocking my feet out of the stirrups – and of course Suzy is trying to grab bites along the way. Eventually we get to a hilltop with a great view and catch up with the rest of the riders. We go through a narrow fence – barbed wire on each side – only wide enough for a horse/rider. We get through this and have to shoot straight up a hill so steep that you feel like you’re going to fall off your horse backwards. My palms are sweating; Sally gives me instruction about how to hold on and Suzy, thankfully once again, traverses a path that is a zig zag rather than straight uphill understanding that my body is as tense as a small nun at a penguin shoot. We almost reach the top and the cowboys yell something to us in Spanish – apparently our group got separated from the front group and we’ve gone the wrong way. What?? Crap! Now we have to turn around and go DOWN this steep hill and back through the narrow barbed wire passage. I lean back, hold on and pray. We get back down and I really wish I had my camera to capture this moment: the cows we passed on the other side of the barbed wire passage decided to follow us so now there are about 25 cows in the passage clogging it up. The cowboys have to get these cows to turn around and go back the other way when there isn’t even room for them to turn around. Somehow, with lots of hooping and hollering, they do it and it’s fascinating to watch.
Onward we go up hills, down hills into valleys, back up on mountaintops with indescribable views – this is PURE nature – no houses, no roads, no cars, very little sound-just beauty. Eventually we get to a steep hill that surpasses my Freak Out meter that ends in a rocky river stream with huge rocks and mud at the bottom. Debbie looks at me and says, “get off your horse and we’ll walk you over”. Thank God! I’m the only one that walks it…even the other two total novices decide to try it. They make me look like a wimp and I really don’t care. I figure there are a few cowboy snickers too. Still don’t care. Debbie takes my hand and we cross this muddy, slippery flowing creek with mud up to our ankles.
Still don’t care because I made it across without dying.
We continue on for another hour. My butt really hurts now. Finally, we reach an open field where the refreshments/party is taking place. Locals are gathered round, a guy with a great voice is singing in front of a parked van with audio equipment, there is a small schoolhouse being used for laying out the best fruit I’ve ever eaten (pineapple/watermelon/bananas). People are passing out beers, sodas or that yummy moonshine thing again. I opt for a shot of that. Tastes good. I ask for a glass full LOL! Oh well…I’ve been told to trust Suzy so if I listen to my masters, I should be able to ride after a glass of moonshine and she still take care of me, right? It’s really an interesting experience to stand amongst a community that clearly enjoys one another’s company (everyone is laughing and smiling although I don’t know what they are saying). Their resources (cars, homes, schools, amenities, etc.) are extremely limited by US standards. Many of the homes are basically shacks…no windows, dirt floors…and the people are so happy. They are not numbing themselves with drugs, running to malls to buy stuff they don’t need, watching ridiculous shows like the Kardashians; to me, they seem as if they are “satisfied” rather than “seeking”. Very cool.
We thank everyone and get back in the saddle, as much as that hurts. I give Suzy a banana and she eats it quickly then promptly reaches and snaps up the peel and eats it too. I giggle. She winks. Off we go. The trip back was going well and I realize that we might be getting back just after dusk but I don’t panic because I know that by that time we will be close to the retreat and that’s not as dark as the forest from nights ago. Plus, I rationalize, I’m more confident in my horse and skills. That’s a comforting thought until I recognize an interesting tree that was on the trail from the night from hell ride. I ask another rider, “isn’t this the trail we rode in the dark?” She replies, “uhhh, yes”. I ask another and they confirm in a sheepish way. Now I’m getting the picture. Everyone knew we were going back on the trail that I found so scary and it was getting dark – there was definitely a conspiracy in the air to not tell me! Debbie rides up and I ask about the trail – she can’t believe I recognized it (the terrain is similar everywhere and we’ve been on several rides by now). “I know that tree back there Debbie because you pointed it out to me”. We both laugh. Nothing else I can do now. I’m worried about the muddy river crossing which was one of the worst spots on the trail in my opinion. I’m hoping we’ve passed that before we hooked up to this trial but no, of course we haven’t.
We come to the river crossing, I hold my breath…and voila! It was so easy! I don’t know if I was more confident or the ground was less muddy than it had been a week before but either way, I’ll take it! Just after dark, we get back to the retreat, I give Suzy a big hug of thanks and we head to the community center for a little party and dinner with the locals.
The following day, our last day, we have a little ceremony and share memories and photos. As part of our wrap up, we each are given 17 pieces of paper (there are a total of 17 people including our instructors), and we are to write one nice word or phrase about each person in the group and then we each read 5 of our pieces of paper chosen randomly. I love this game,because I love words! We go around the table and then it’s my turn. I pull out my first word, “Determined” I read. Next word, “Brave”. Hmm…never thought of myself as brave so that’s cool. I read another and it says, “Soft and Strong”. My heart does a little cartwheel. I read the fifth one and it says “Joy”. I want to cry. What a beautiful word to have attributed to me.
As a parting gift, the team has given us something amazing – a keychain they made with a horse charm and a cutting of our horse’s tail hair. Nothing could be more fitting – I have a little piece of Suzy’s tail to treasure forever and she has a little piece of my heart forever.
I want to give a BIG thank you to Debbie Draves and Steve Legg, owners of Leaves and Lizards, and our truly incredible Eponaquest Eponicity equine learning facilitators, Sally Nilsson, Enrique Molina and Shelley Rosenberg. I hope you enjoy reading about my adventures over the last 9 days and look for an article about this trip in Houston PetTalk later this year. To learn more about Leaves and Lizards (as a vacation or to experience an Eponaquest workshops), visit www.leavesandlizards.com.