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Horseback Riding

The Call of the Wild

'Lucas glanced round the table, looking for the heaviest member of our group. With the exception of a girl from Chile and myself, all were Swedish ? one of the larger races in the genetic melting pot -- and only the South American was truly petite. At length, he fixed his gaze on a flabby man in a bright yellow T-shirt, whose ample gait and friendly aspect reminded me of the Honey Monster: 'How heavy are you? Lucas inquired, as politely as one can ask such a question.

'One hundred and thirty kilos'

'One hundred and thirty! Wow, you're a big man! No problem, you can take Samurai'.

'Poor old Samurai!' I thought.

In this way, the horses at Rancho Marabel were each allocated a rider. I was on a dark brown mount called Sinfo, while a pretty Swedish nurse was given Lucas' private stallion, Winston. We finished our coffees while the horses were being saddled up.

Lucas, a Belgian baker by profession, and his Dominican wife, Gladys, have been running Rancho Marabel for just over a year. 'It's not always been easy,' lamented the baker, adding a fifth spoonful of sugar to his half-finished coffee. 'There's no electricity up here, the jeep keeps breaking down, and during low season there aren't many customers. One good thing, though, is the peace and quiet. We're close enough to the tourist towns down by the coast to get supplies and find business, but far enough away to never forget what it is we love so much about this country'. Indeed, the tranquillity of the mountains is arguably the most appealing thing about horseback riding in the Dominican Republic. This is perhaps because it contrasts so completely with a routine day surrounded by hundreds of sweaty bodies on a beach. It is with some irony, then, that people go horseback riding to escape the surprisingly stressful activity of sunbathing in the Dominican Republic!

The destination of today's trek was a waterfall called Arollo Grande, roughly 5km from the ranch along an open track with few ups and downs and several stretches where a modest canter was possible - provided that the horses were so inclined. I fancied that Samurai and the Honey Monster would not be picking up a great deal of speed, and that the girl from Chile – who was obviously terrified of horses – would also be taking her time. On the other hand, Winston and the pretty Swede liked to run; and Sinfo liked to follow Winston. I, therefore, had no choice but to follow the pretty Swede! And so we all set off for Arollo Grande.

You don't have to be an accomplished rider to master one of these horses. They are so used to tourists and the route between the ranch and the waterfall that you can almost let them carry you there on autopilot. Should you wish to exercise more control over your mount, you might have to do it with a heavy hand. 'They'll do what they want unless you treat them a little roughly,' cried Lucas from his position in the rear, noticing a rider in the middle of the pack who seemed to be itching to go faster. We were all riding Creole horses: the stealthy, all-terrain animals you find at most ranches with horseback riding for tourists. What they lack in looks, they make up for with excellent temperaments and some of the surest hooves on the planet. The other type of horse found in the Dominican Republic is the Pasofino, a beautiful thoroughbred noted for the way it walks - or rather dances. It moves with high, elegant steps, and requires a relatively skilled horseman to master its proud and sometimes temperamental character. For this reason – and the high cost of purchasing one – you will not find many Pasofinos at tourist ranches.

Winston was the first to reach the clump of trees which signaled our arrival at Arollo Grande. The other horses arrived gradually in groups of two and three, and were tethered to trunks and branches so that we could continue on foot to the waterfall. The descent was steep and slippery, but not difficult; and the cascades were as beautiful as we had all hoped they would be. Three or four streams of water converged at the top of the falls, merging to form one giant sheet of froth and foam which tipped into a large, clear pool deep enough to facilitate jumps from a ledge about 13 meters above the water. This feat was performed by several members of the group with varying degrees of grace and confidence - my own effort involved an agonized leap, an ungainly fall, a painful entry, and a desperate struggle to regain my shorts before resurfacing. Special mention, however, must go to the pretty Swede, who became only the third girl in six years of Lucas coming to the waterfall to have taken the plunge.

Thus we passed our time at Arollo Grande: swimming, sunbathing on rocks, and generally showing off to anyone who cared to watch.

When you go horseback riding in the Dominican Republic, some treks are as much about your destination as how you get there. On this trip, for instance, the waterfall and the horses probably shared equal billing. Other treks, however, are for those who come principally for the horses. Here, the ride itself tends to be longer and more challenging, and you obviously get to see more of the surrounding countryside.

This is not to say that we missed out on our dose of Dominican nature. Climbing back up to where we had left our horses, we remounted and set off for the ranch. By now, we all felt reasonably comfortable on our horses: the Honey Monster had reconciled himself to the fact that his feet would occasionally drag along the ground as Samurai sagged under his weight; Winston and Sinfo were left to gallop on ahead of the others; and even the girl from Chile had come to some kind of working relationship with her horse, and was not lagging too far behind the rest of the pack. This growing confidence between man and beast allowed the former to relax a little and enjoy the ride. The track was flanked on either side by green hills which, although not excessively high, were steep enough to make us feel small and insignificant. They were lined by majestic Royal Palms and dotted with leafy banana trees, and every now and then a wispy streak of smoke betrayed the existence of human life hiding in the trees. This was a side of the Dominican Republic which, despite its beautiful simplicity, is often overlooked by tourist brochures, besotted as they are by sun, sea and sand. You should not make the same mistake.

Back at the ranch, Gladys had been busy preparing lunch, and an enormous spread of hearty, Dominican food awaited our return. This was a nice way to end the trip, giving us the chance to compare notes and evaluate our day in the saddle. It seemed that great fun had been had by all, even if the riding had taken a heavy toll on our tender bottoms. Lucas had obviously been expecting the 'bottom' issue to arise sooner or later, and was ready with his reply: 'What did you expect? We're in the Dominican Republic, the land where everything is all-inclusive'.

Go to Rancho Marabel for Adventure horseback riding.

Other Horse Files:
Fact File
Pano: The waterfall stop

Iguana Mama

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