Costa Rica; Horse Riding through Paradise
The fun of horse riding in Costa Rica isn't just about the wonderful Criollo horses, but a lesson in conservation.
Racoons, Sloths and Criollos; Riding Costa Rica!
The main reason for my visit was to ride horses. My friend Wendy owns a specialist horse riding travel agency in England, and together we were looking at horse riding holidays in Costa Rica for her portfolio of packages.
Ingrid, our hostess, opened the door of her house and welcomed us with a wriggling baby racoon in the crook of her arm. Mingo was like a puppy but very much naughtier; he chewed toes obsessively and could not resist the temptation to dip his paw into a hot cup of tea. He loved people and would make piteous clicking sounds when locked outside. Ingrid, a trained ornithologist guide, found him tied outside a local house on one of her trips and rescued him.“But what will you do with him?” I asked. “Keep him, I suppose,” she shrugged. “I can’t put him back into the wild now, he wouldn’t cope.”
Ingrid also introduced us to her pet two-toed sloth, Piripopi, twelve years old and partial to chocolate and potato chips. Piripopi lived his life in true slow motion and spent most of his time upside down on the garden furniture.
As well as being a guide, Ingrid is an avid horse lover and had somehow accumulated eight horses. As they peacefully ate their way into her coffers, she had decided that the time had come for them to earn their keep.
The sun was shining brightly as we prepared to take Ingrid’s horses by truck to a farm a couple of hours’ drive outside San Jose for a day of riding. I watched in amazement as these horses calmly jumped several feet of open space into the back of an oversized, ricketty pickup.
Meeting Spyros, my “Caballo de Paso Costarricense”
My horse, Spyros, was an Arab crossed with the local criollo breed. He was gentle and eminently sensible and a delight to ride. Local horses are ridden in “bozal” bridles, which are made of rope and have no bit. A couple of knots at the back of the noseband exert pressure above the chin to control the horse. All the horses I rode in Costa Rica were trained to neck rein, very responsive to seat and legs, and they would stop at the slightest pressure.
Twenty-five years ago Costa Rica developed its own breed “Caballo de Paso Costarricense”. This is a bit of a mouthful but it just means Costa Rican Paso horse. In Latin America there is a strong tradition of gaited or “Paso” horses – the Peruvian Paso Fino is the most famous. People say that if you ride a Paso horse you will be spoiled forever and never want to ride anything else. Paso trot is like sitting in an armchair – but it is also very hard work for the horse. Criollo horses have paso genes and are very comfortable to ride but they also have the strength and stamina necessary for working with cattle, which is what they were bred for.
Riding through Paradise
We rode through tracts of luxuriant rainforest, past flame coloured heliconia plants and giant bird of paradise flowers. Around us danced butterflies of electric blue, lemon yellow, orange and brown. Hills covered with coffee plants and fluorescent green pasture surrounded us. Soon we were overtaken by some of Ingrid’s friends who were training for the Central American Endurance championship.
Endurance riding is a relatively new sport in Costa Rica, and Ingrid was obsessive about it. With a degree in biology and a Masters in veterinary tropical medicine, she had a deep and thorough understanding of the physiological basis for training a horse to ride endurance. She told us that the state of the sport was not good. People were too competitive and there was a lack of the most basic understanding of how to ensure the health of a horse subjected to such intense physical pressure.
In the afternoon we stopped at an open air country bar for a quick drink with Ingrid’s riding friends. Several hours and an embarrassing number of beer bottles later, after making friends with the locals and dancing the evening away, we staggered back to our horses and headed back to the farmhouse in the pitch dark. The black jungle loomed around us and, seeing double, there was twice the number of stars twinkling lighting the night sky! When we finally got back the horse truck was still waiting for us, the driver was smiling and friendly and not at all put out that we were so late. The big advantage of being in a country where everyone is always late, is that nobody cares if you are.
The night before we left, Mingo got into my first aid kit and with lightning speed extracted a paracetamol tablet from its foil wrapper. Visions of death by paracetamol poisoning assaulted me as I raced down the stairs holding the scruff of an indignant and terrified racoon, tablet clearly visible on his hard palate. “Wendy, Wendy, a spoon, quick!” With consummate surgical skill Wendy levered the tablet out while I kept my iron grip on Mingo’s scruff and Ingrid hovered anxiously. The tablet extraction was successful but I may have sunk in the racoon’s popularity list as that was the last I saw of Mingo until we left!
In recent years Costa Rica has made huge efforts to promote nature conservation, but in practice, the laws concerning wildlife are often vague and unenforceable. With a special permit it is legal to breed wildlife but only the third generation can be sold – it is impossible to differentiate between them.
Ingrid shows such cares for her horses and the environment. If others show the same level of passion as her, then there is hope for the wildlife of Costa Rica.
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Adapted by Andrew Knapp from Tania Krupitza’s account of her riding experience in Costa Rica for Unicorn Trails.