‘Put your left foot here, into this stirrup’ — I glanced down at a decorated steel half-shoe hanging on a leather strap — ‘and grip this stubby thing with your left hand….’ — I looked up at a sort of leather knob about the size of an orange set into the prow of the saddle — ‘and now lift your weight on to your left foot in the stirrup, swinging your right leg over the back of the horse.’ A bit of an effort, this, but it was how I was taught to get on to a boy’s bicycle and I found I still could. ‘Put your right foot into the stirrup on the other side, and settle into the saddle.’
I write this from Colombia where I am travelling this month and about which I shall hope to write for the Times. Picture me in the yard of a little farmstead, gaily painted, with high ceilings and old-fashioned verandas: the Finca San Jose, in a nature reserve on the lower slopes of the valley of the Corcora river which rushes down from the snows of a range of volcanoes between Bogota and the Pacific, themselves an immense national park, the Parc los Nevados. Above, the valley ascends into cloud and sunlight, and deep, steep forest. Here around me, wax palms 200 feet high pencil their way into the breeze.
I last rode a horse 45 years ago in Southern Rhodesia at the age of ten, and fell off. I vowed never to tangle again with these ridiculous animals. The allure of horses escapes me. Horsemanship interests me not at all. Horsiness in humans is an abomination to me. I regard the horse, as I regard sailing boats, as at best a useful means of getting where human legs cannot take us. Generally speaking, a car does this best.
But here I was. Everyone else was going riding up the valley into the forest and I did not want to look like a spoilsport. Anyway, I thought, looking at a range of exceptionally placid beasts, these were not nearly as high off the ground as the English model, and I was assured there was no need for those ridiculous crash-helmet things people wear to ride horses in England. So I decided to give it a try.
‘She’s completely placid and will never throw you off. Now, hold on to the leather knob with your left hand, hold this loop of rope loosely in your right hand, and pull it to the left to go left, and the right to go right. Pull it towards you to stop.’ I took the rope, the other ends of which were attached somehow to each side of the horse’s head. I suspect this rope is what horse people call ‘reins’, and maybe they do not say ‘left’ or ‘right’, but ‘port’ and ‘starboard’, or something; but I hope you get the picture. I banged my heels into the sides of the horse, then, when this produced no effect, gave it a little slap on the bottom, and whistled. And lo! The horse began to amble forward.
I am aware that among Spectator readers there will be an unusually large quotient of those types who know about horses. You will already be aware that I cannot convincingly pretend to be one of them. So let me instead report the experience of a complete first-timer, in the rather unlikely setting of the Colombian cloud forest.
We riders formed a procession, winding its way up a little footpath which had eroded into a narrow rut, about a foot wide and two feet deep. I was impressed at the way my horse could dance its four hooves forward within this virtual gutter, never stumbling or hitting the side. It knew the way, and started to trot. I discovered that if I spread my toes and moved my weight on to the balls of my feet, half standing up in the saddle, with my legs splayed out, the ride was smoother. Again, this was what I used to do when hitting bumps on a bicycle. It made it easier for the horse, too — to which I was beginning to warm. ‘This is all right,’ I said to myself, as a breeze cooled my brow and a hummingbird hummed by. The horse moved to a canter. ‘This is not all right,’ I said, and pulled urgently on the rope.
The horse stopped! I whistled. It walked on. ‘This is amazing,’ I thought. ‘It works.’ Then the horse stopped again and began tearing some bamboo leaves by the path on the right. I let it have a chomp, then pulled its head away towards the left and slapped its bottom and whistled, and off we went.
There followed a period of friction with the horse in front. My horse did not like it being there. When the path widened there was an overtaking manoeuvre (not my choice) and when the other horse tried to reassert its position mine flattened its ears and made a biting gesture to push the other back. I got the distinct impression that my horse disliked the other horse in a personal way, because it had no objection to any of the rest of the horses going in front, just this one. I felt my horse deserved its rider’s support, and so allowed it to relegate its enemy, even sharing in the sense of victory when we reasserted our place in the procession.
I began to observe the choices my horse made: which side of a rock or root to take, which bit of rut to pass through. She had her own mind, a quick and sharp one, often taking different decisions from the horse in front, and I could see it working, hesitating, weighing up, sometimes taking the wrong decisions but more often shrewd. Second-guessing her choices, I found we usually agreed, but that she had an irrational aversion to flat rocks. Perhaps she had once slipped and fallen on one. I was starting to feel rather fond of her. When we crossed the river, which was deep, rocky and fast-flowing, she was unafraid, looking into the clear water and picking her way through huge submerged rocks. She stopped to drink, and I let her for a bit, then asserted control by slapping her onward. And she obeyed.
After crossing and recrossing the river five times, we left the valley and began to climb up the side. This was a steep scramble for which a human would sometimes have needed to use arms to pull himself up. My horse negotiated every difficulty, even taking a little run at the steepest slopes to gather momentum. It was fun to be a passenger. Bamboo brushed our faces, hummingbirds hummed, blossoms on trees and bushes — scarlet, pink and yellow — shook as we brushed past. My steel stirrups clanked on the rocks to either side as we squeezed through narrow gaps, and I understood why they are used in South America.
Going down was harder. I peered over my horse’s mane as she picked her way, with the occasional stumble, down the rocks. I let her drink again, and when we reached the flatter path I dared to let her trot. Theme tunes from American Western movies spun through my head. Finally we wound our way up the hillock to the Finca San Jose. I dismounted easily, she standing quietly to let me. ‘Give her face a stroke and find her some grass,’ they said, but I was already moving to do so. I wanted to.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.