Back In the Saddle Again: Horseback Riding in Ecuador
My ties to cowboy life were closer than most. My father worked in the veterinary business and knew real cowboys. He would take me out to ranches where I could experience the life. I helped deliver my first calf before I was eight years old.
But my most transformative cowboy moment came a few years later. When I was 10, a cowgirl (yes, we had cowgirls too!) at one of the ranches my father visited put me on her horse. It was my first time riding solo. Up I went, and off we went. And all was well for about five minutes riding around the ranch. Until the horse got spooked.
At a full gallop, we charged across the ranch. The speed seemed inconceivable. There was no thrill for me and I could only feel the sheer terror that I couldn’t make it stop. I saw the trees approaching. We successfully passed under a 100-year-old oak tree on the ranch’s front lawn. But the next tree had low branches. The horse barreled under the limb and I took the branch full across the head. It threw me from the horse, leveled me to the ground, the wind knocked out of me and my head throbbing from the impact. My mother would later say that I wasn’t “right” for nearly a week.
Over 20 years later, my wife and I planned a trip to Ecuador. I don’t know how we landed on the idea of horseback riding in Ecuador’s Avenue of the Volcanoes, but somehow, that was on the agenda. The plan would be to ride high up into the Andes Mountains to view the legendary Cotopaxi — the world’s highest active volcano. I was filled with more than a little bit of fear. Was I going to make it? Would I back out?
That morning, as we donned our chaps, our heavy wool ponchos and helmets (thank god for helmets!), I really wasn’t looking forward to it at all. The local chagras (the Ecuadorian version of my cowboys from home) seemed to sense my apprehension and put me on a big, black horse named Melvin. Melvin wasn’t going to be doing any racing across the hills and valleys of Ecuador. His mission was much more focused—eating the long, soft blades of grass that covered the volcanic hills.
Our ride took us up the grassy slopes of the Rumiñahui volcano to the rocky cliffs on the summit. As we rode higher, breaks in the clouds allowed us to glimpse the top of the volcano. The ride up was slow and gentle.
Our chagra guide, a scrappy old man named Raphael, had brought a small thermos with him, filled with bubbling hot tea. We sat down in the grass to enjoy the view of the Pasochoa volcano across the valley. To our right, the red slopes of Cotopaxi gleamed bright in the mid-day sun.
Raphael urged us around to the northeast to a deep valley with steep cliffs. He quickly found what he was looking for — the tell-tale sign of white guano streaks on the cliff face. Pulling out a pair of binoculars, we stared at the condor nest and watched several of the birds landing.
While the ride up Rumiñahui was soft and gentle, the ride down was jarring. I knew I would be sore the next day. With each step, my horse Melvin would rock back and forth shifting me in the saddle. When possible, I would steal glances at the massive Cotopaxi volcano over my right shoulder, sometimes visible through breaks in the clouds.
The long ride back down the Rumiñahui volcano gave me a chance to think. Getting back in the saddle and confront my fears from childhood were important. Even as Melvin stopped for another mouthful of long grass, I knew this was a transformative event.