Horse Ears

“Do you know how horses communicate?” Beverly asked at the beginning of our riding lesson.

My mind trotted back (it cannot race anymore) to the last time I heard Beverly ask this question. I was sitting on this same bench in the Rancho Santana stables a year ago. Or was it two years?

Trot. Trot. Trot. Just as I was pulling open memory’s file, she answered her own question: “With their ears.”

“When your horse is feeling comfortable and happy, his ears are upright,” she explained, using her cupped hands to demonstrate. “And when they are not happy, what do you suppose they do?”

“They are pulled back!” I nearly shouted, responding like the eager school child her style of pedagogy implied.

“And when their ears point forward?” Andy asked.

“Good question!” she said. “When their ears are pointing forward it means that they are no longer paying attention to you. Their ears are pointing towards what they are interested in or what they’re about to do.”

Rancho Santana, as the name suggests, has always been a ranch. Long before we bought the property 20+ years ago, horses were stabled here, along with cattle and occasionally goats.

The stable we were in is the third one in my time. The first was essentially a covered corral near the beach. The second we built a year or so after we bought the land. It housed six horses and was replaced by the current one, which is about three times larger and way nicer.

Today, the stable and surrounding paddocks are home to 15 or 20 horses. And the ranch itself frequently hosts a dozen more that somehow get onto the property and graze on its fields – free food, basically – then make their way back to their owners’ casitas at night.

I’ve never been a much of a caballero. I like the idea of riding a horse and the way a body looks sitting upright in the saddle. But I’ve never enjoyed the riding itself. When the horse is walking, it feels clunky and slow. When the horse is trotting, it’s uncomfortable. (Horse people say otherwise. I don’t believe them.) And when the horse is galloping, it’s frightening. And dangerous!

Still, I feel some sort of obligation to “use” the stables when I’m at the ranch. So I usually book one ride per stay.

Cecily, Andy, and I arrived at the stables at four in the afternoon. We figured that would give us 90 minutes of daylight in the cooler part of the afternoon. And after Beverly’s lesson (which we did enjoy), we saddled up and she tested us on the basics: going forward, backing up, and turning.

Since these horses are accustomed to amateur riders, they are very responsive. We all passed muster, so Beverly turned us over to Lorenzo, chief horse master or whatever, and his two sons. (Apparently, she felt we each needed a handler.)

Lorenzo asked me which of the half-dozen routes I wanted to take. I told him I had another idea. He looked concerned. I said I wanted to ride all the way to Los Perros, at the southern end of the ranch.

“But that will take more than an hour,” he said. “It’s not good for you to be riding back in the dark.”

I told him that my plan was to get there just before sunset and enjoy cocktails as the sun dropped behind the horizon. “You and your boys can take our horses back.”

He seemed okay with the plan, so that’s what we did.

Lorenzo was at the lead, followed by Cecily and Andy, followed by Giovanni, Lorenzo’s youngest son, followed by me, and with Lorenzo Junior at the tail.

The trip took just about an hour. It was mostly walking, with the occasional 50-yard trot. But there were steep ups and downs that tested our leg muscles. Along the way, I paid close attention to my steed’s ears – which were, I am proud to report, generally in the upright position. She labored well, up and down those hills, carrying me, at 210 pounds, on her back. By the time we arrived at Los Perros, I’d had my fill of riding for the day, and I believe my horse was happy to have me dismount. Walking stiffly to the beachside cantina, Cecily, Andy, and I agreed that it had been a good idea to make the ride one-way.

As a courtesy, I invited Lorenzo and the boys to have drinks and snacks with us. He surprised me by agreeing. We sat at a table overlooking Playa Iguana. The waves were gentle. The sky was turning orange. My Margarita was salty, not sweet, which is the only way to drink it. I asked Lorenzo if he minded taking the horses back in the dark.