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 horses 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 Cabagala organized by Leaves and Lizards (their first ever!). A cabalgala 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 spectating. 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.

IMG_5532As 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.

IMG_5643 IMG_8683We 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.

IMG_5599 IMG_5531We 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.

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IMG_5583We 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.

IMG_5609 IMG_5550We 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.

IMG_0274The 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 and Steve, owners of Leaves and Lizards, and our truly incredible facilitators, Sally, Enrique and Shelley. 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