A heartfelt guest post by Kayla Seeger, intern of Weddings in Vieques
This past weekend was a huge weekend in the world of horses. Even though being in the crowd, wearing a big floppy hat, and drinking a mint julep while betting on races would’ve been a blast; instead, I was actually riding a horse!
No, I wasn’t competing in the Kentucky Derby (are you kidding? I’m too tall to be a jockey). In fact, I wasn’t anywhere near the state of Kentucky. I was in Vieques, Puerto Rico, where I have been the past four months working for Weddings in Vieques, and my intern partner-in-crime, Devon, and I got the chance to tour the island on its famous Paso Fino horses, compliments of the company Taxi Horses.
Don’t let the name fool you, this is not a taxi company. If you are looking for a ride around the island, you need to dial 741-TAXI. Taxi Horses is a riding company that got started in December 2012 and gives tourists or locals the chance to ride one of the Paso Fino horses that inhabit the island of Vieques. It also gave me the chance to cross another thing off my Bucket List.
Even though I’m from Iowa, my horseback riding experience is limited. I mean cows and pigs are much more prevalent in my home state, and if you need someone to shuck an ear of corn, I’m your girl! The only experience I have with horses is sitting atop a brightly-colored, painted pony, as it moves up and down to annoyingly cheerful music, on the merry-go-round at the local amusement park. I’d rate my experience level about the same as your average five-year-old’s.
When we arrived at the starting point of the tour, we were greeted by Gypsy, our tour guide and owner of the company (he’s also President of the local City Council, so he wouldn’t be your tour guide on an actual work day). Under his tutelage, it turned out my low experience level was nothing to worry about. Before we even got on the horses, he showed us how to hold the reins and direct the horse. When it came time to mount, he helped us up, and guided us around the small parking lot to make sure we had a handle on what to do. After a few more basic instructions, we were off!
As we followed our guide up the main road to our first turn-off point, my horse, Clifford, and I got acquainted. It turns out Clifford likes to snack, so I knew we’d get along just fine, but he startled me when he stopped to munch on some seeds on the side of the road. Gypsy advised me to tug the reins and give him a quick kick and that was all it took to get moving again. The horses that the company has you ride have done this tour numerous times. They are sweet and gentle and I never had any concerns about him running off or being rambunctious. It’s not like you’re riding a stallion bare back!
Plus, all the guides are experienced with tourists and able to assist you at a moment’s notice. Just to be safe (and because our boss Sandy Malone threatens to fire us if we don’t), I chose to wear a helmet. Taxi Horses requires helmets for anyone under the age of 18 and offers them to any other riders who may want them.
The first part of the tour, we went up a steep hill in order to get a bird’s eye view of the island. I have to say that I’m glad it was the horse climbing that hill and not me, though I did feel the need to apologize profusely to Clifford for making him carry me. Once we made it to the top, we stopped for a photo op because the view was spectacular. Since it’s not safe to take pictures while riding (especially for inexperienced riders), Gypsy got off his horse and took pictures of us on our horses with the main island and Culebra in the background.
We rode the horses back down the hill (again, I was happy I wasn’t the horse), and made our way down to the beach. Once on the sand, the horses picked up speed and I felt like I was in one of those scenes from a movie. You know the ones, where the lady is riding across the beach towards her prince charming who is waiting to whisk her away to a happily ever after. Expect I was riding with Devon, who as much as I like her, isn’t an attractive, muscular man, and we weren’t actually going all that fast, and I’m sure I looked a lot less graceful. But we were on the beach, so that has to count for something.
We actually rode out into the water! The horses love to splash and play in the ocean similar to a small child. A little advice, make sure that you aren’t wearing shoes or pants that can’t get wet because you definitely want to get in the water. When else will you be able to say you rode horseback in the ocean?
We traveled along a couple of the beaches, with the horses climbing over rocks and through the sand. We stopped for another photo op with the ocean background and had the opportunity to ride our horses without following the guide. It gave us the chance to pick up speed and pretend we were jockeys in the Derby. After playing around for a while, we headed back to the starting point and dismounted. At this point, we had a final photo op and took selfies with our horses, which in this technology driven world was a must! The horses had their own iPhones too.
If you know anything about Vieques, you know that wild horses are everywhere. The bumper sticker, “SLOW – Horses in Road” is on the back window of many vehicles in both English and Spanish. So how did we get all of these horses (about 2,000) on Vieques? Because even though they love the water, I can ensure you they didn’t swim all the way here from Spain.
The Paso Fino horses were brought to Vieques by the Spaniards and were a Berber and Spanish-mixed breed. They bred these horses with other purebreds to make a new breed that could handle the Puerto Rican climate. These horses became known as the Paso Finos. The Paso Fino horse has a smooth gait, which is abnormal compared to other horses, and keeps the rider from bouncing up and down. You know when these horses are coming because they make a sound similar to a high-heeled shoe on a wooden floor. This is a side effect of their special gait, where they always have three hooves on the ground and one in the air.
Even more interesting about these horses is that they actually stay in families, so when you see one on the road you can be sure that there are two or three others nearby, which remind me a lot of the deer population in Iowa. There is never just one, so be careful while driving. Paso Finos here also sleep lying down, so don’t let that alarm you. I promise they aren’t sick, just taking a siesta! Smart horsies.
I had done my research before arriving on the island and knew about the horses that roam everywhere on the island. The joke from my family and friends was that I could just ride a wild horse to work. Little did I know that this actually happens, all the time. Horses are the main mode of transportation for some island residents and it’s not unusual to see a couple tied up in front of a bar or store.
There is a joke on the island that when you see a horse roaming around it probably belongs to someone. If you take it home, you should expect a knock on your door a few hours later for the owner to come claim it. The horses aren’t like dogs, they don’t wear collars, and not many are branded. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to determine ownership of a horse just by looking at it. It is just one of those things that you have to be a local to completely understand.
Even though attending the Kentucky Derby is on my Bucket List and would have been a blast, I am so glad that I was on this little island, enjoying the stunning scenery, and learning how to ride a horse this past weekend. It is something I recommend for anyone, no matter age or skill level, visiting the island. It is a lot more fun than a merry-go-round and you don’t have to listen to that awful music either. It’s actually quite peaceful and gives you the opportunity to take in the beauty of the island from a totally new perspective.
Added bonus – even though the horses you’re riding aren’t wild, if you embellish just a tad, riding a Paso Fino horse through the water on a tropical island is a great story to tell your friends!
Kayla Seeger, Intern at Weddings in Vieques