My horse fascination had started around the time I began reading. I would devour novel after badly written horse-related fluff novel. It continued into high school, when I would visit our local 4H fair and dream of the day I could have a horse of my own, along with a medical practice, husband, and 3 kids – all by the age of 26, of course.
While my goals changed completely (my answer to “chemistry study session or frat party?” pretty much sealed my fate and kicked me out of the premed track), and my equine obsession faded (due in part to my Costa Rica experience), it didn’t totally disappear. I still had daydreams of myself as some kind of Dr. Doolittlesque, beloved-by-all-animals, horse whisperer.
The opportunity for a multi-day horse trek finally arose in Tupiza, Bolivia, where I could simultaneously fulfill my lifelong horsey trek dream along with seeing some of the same landscape made famous by Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (seriously!)
To be honest, the first day was a lot harder than I had anticipated, especially as a very novice equestrian.
Aside from my painful gluteus maximus (to be expected after 7 hours in a saddle, right?), my horse Musculito had tried – and succeeded for a few heart-stopping minutes that seemed to stretch into eternity – to run away with me.
He generally and genuinely scared the shit out of me with his mischievous antics. He certainly wasn’t a sweet little mild mannered children’s pony, but that should be part of the fun?
And I tried to have fun with it (I really really really really did!) but mostly I was anxious, uncomfortable, and frightened. I was probably making the situation even worse as I’ve been told horses sense fear. I played my own part in creating some kind of endlessly increasing cycle of scary.
all this beautiful scenery to see as we trekked further and further into the middle of nowhere
But as nerve-wracking as the whole thing already was, the horse trek was going to get a hell of a lot worse. My long-time DREAM was about to turn from less than comfortable into an absolute nightmare.
My guide Roberto, a (much more experienced horse riding) tourist-turned-friend Emma, and myself had stopped overnight along with our 3 horses to catch some rest and warm food at a homestay before heading back to Tupiza in the morning.
me, Emma, and the sweet son of the homestay… who would later try to stab me with an enormous needle
While my butt was harshly aching the moment I awoke, I had no idea what my bucktoothed horsey companion Musculito had in store for me, otherwise I absolutely definitely would may not have gotten out of bed.
Blissfully ignorant for the moment, I dragged my hurting body out from under the covers, immediately slapped in the face with dry, brisk, and very chilly air, smiling tightly at my fellow horse riding adventurer Emma before making my way stiffly downstairs.
We were served the breakfast of champions, or at least of every little kid’s dream: COOKIES and sugared tea.
After that sugar fest, I suited up in my leather chaps (but seriously) while Roberto tacked up our horses. Tacked up? Is that the right horsey word? What I mean to say is he put halters and saddles and all that jazz on them.
from the day before, when all was still (mostly) well
Tacking up three horses at once seemed a bit complicated but he didn’t want any help (and to be honest I probably would have been more of a hindrance than anything)… when suddenly one untied horse made a break for it!
A horse on the loose!
Roberto instantly jumped on the second horse, and handed the reins of the third horse (my Musculito) to the cookie-making homestay mom who came out to see what the fuss was about… before she frantically passed him onto me.
With very little experience riding, and literally ZERO experience holding a horse, one of the few bits of advice I knew about the behooved beasts formed a continuous loop in my head: watch your feet, and theirs. Don’t let him step on your feet. Okay….
The horse became agitated as I kept him walking (a tip I’d picked up from a childhood novel about horses, so it has to be true, right?). There was almost no space, so we just walked in circles growing increasingly anxious (both of us). I think horses smell fear?
As the minutes passed, the horse eventually refused to move with me, pulling on the lead, stomping. I tried to keep my feet away but he kept swaying in place and stepping erratically.
And then he stomped my little foot with his huge heavy ginormous one.
I experienced the sharpest and must excruciating pain of my life. I couldn’t breath. My vision turned black and then sparkly, and when I could finally gasp air I yelled.
“FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK FUCK fuck FUCK FUCK fuck”, I screamed yet somehow still held onto the reins while doubled over in pain [thank god the demon didn’t squish me again].
A hand appeared out of thin air to take the reins from me (retrospectively this is a major sign that I follow the rules too much, even instinctually, maybe I should’ve dropped the reins and gotten the hell away) and I stumbled away in shock.
I plopped onto the packed dirt ground, my face wet with tears that I didn’t remember crying, and suddenly Roberto appeared, along with the homestay mom. I guess my banshee-like profanity scream brought all my friends to the yard.
Roberto gently wiggled my shoe off while the homestay mom rubbed a popsicle (ice is a nonexistent luxury in these parts) on my bleeding foot. Without English (and my Spanish in some serious trouble due to shock), the guide worked my toes back into proper position and poured red-orange iodine over the split skin.
that’s iodine stain, not blood, a few days after the accident when the skin had started to heal and the swelling went down. excuse the ugly toenails eeeek!
During my medical treatment, an ancient man slowly caned over to silently watch what was probably the most exciting thing to ever happen in this two-house, one-horse (plus the three that we brought with us) town.
The little homestay son also tried to lend a hand, by grabbing the largest needle I’ve ever seen (I’m guessing a horse tranquilizer?) and attempting to stab me with it before his mom luckily snatched it away at the last possible moment. Jesus.
The tears slowly dried and my foot was gently bandaged. I couldn’t get my shoe back onto my swelling and misshapen foot, so I borrowed a sock from Emma to wear.
Back to business. Roberto and the homestay father lifted me back onto the demon horse while gently explaining that I’d need to ride back, as there were no cars or roads reaching here.
They both looked sick with anxiety and worry so I plastered on the biggest smile possible (trying to be genuine – it wasn’t a life threatening injury and definitely not a big deal – it just hurt like hell), which seemed to relieve them. [I later learned they could’ve lost their positions with the tour company and their livelihood if I had complained or been pissed off].
Emma gave me some good South African painkillers, and my foot flopped awkwardly with the stirrup tucked up as we made our way back to Tupiza, with Roberto holding the reins of Musculito for the most part as he constantly checked in on me.
that purple socked foot flying free
My foot was crushed, along with my childhood dream of being some kind of horse riding prodigy, but aside from a bit of painful walking for a few days (it was the very end of my trip anyways), and not being able to fit in shoes for a few months, no lasting harm was done.
Actually, the whole disaster ended up only helping me.
I learned an important lesson about myself in the world. I need to be more vocal about when I feel unsafe and uncomfortable. No, I don’t want to always take the easy way out and live in a comfort zone forever, and I’m still going to take risks that excite me.
BUT I need to do a much better job of listening to my gut, my intuition, and being authentic with myself. I knew at several points on the horse riding trip that I felt uncomfortable and genuinely concerned for my safety. It was my responsibility – and my RIGHT – to share that, and I didn’t. I worry a lot about other people’s feelings, including in this situation (if I say I’m scared, will the guide be offended? if I say I’m worried about my ability to control this horse, will it hurt the other girl’s trip?), which I don’t want to change, but I need to show adequate consideration and respect for my own feelings and experience as well.
maybe the last time I’ll be seeing this view