Riding in Costa Rica – By the Light of Fireflies

The late Costa Rican afternoon had cooled down enough for a trail ride – about 25 degrees Celsius. We finished up a full, yet relaxing, first day of reflection at the Horse-Empowered Retreat at Painted Pony Guest Ranch. Now we were excited to go for our first ride of the retreat, the first of a few planned for the coming week.

Criollo mares at the retreat

A special group of Criollo mares were our guides at the Horse-Empowered Retreat.

We were a small group of women from Canada and the U.S. with varying levels of horse experience – from beginner to expert – and all with a passion for horses and warm countries. We were all of a “certain age,” and ready to learn more about ourselves through immersion in a retreat setting on a working ranch.

I had been to this guest ranch before in the Guanacaste Province of Costa Rica and fell in love with the place. I had returned to facilitate my first Horse-Empowered Retreat here, a retreat combining equine-assisted learning, natural horsemanship, yoga and cultural activities.

It was not my first time riding in Costa Rica, but it was the first time anywhere that I had such a special night ride. It was special for it combined the cultural aspects of Costa Rica, the unique landscape and a unexpected treat at the end.

Sky and Esteban of Painted Pony Guest Ranch

Skye and Esteban of the Painted Pony Guest Ranch give me a natural horsemanship lesson.

We got ready to ride out on gorgeous Criollos -matched to our abilities. My mount was Skye, a mare I have ridden in the past.  She is smart and spunky, and the dominant mare in her field who has helped me in my journey to develop my leadership skills.

Our tack was comfortable and western that afternoon, though English saddles were available. The saddles were synthetic, a sensible choice for a country with an annual rainy season and the mold problems that entails. The horses know both neck and direct reining, and they are highly sensitive to leg and seat.

The Criollo breed are sensitive and sensible horses with stamina. They also have a special gait, which makes them a very smooth ride especially at the trot. It feels more like a glide than a trot. The gait is Paso Trotto – trotting on the front end, walking on the hind. They naturally go into this gait and I found it easy to keep them there.  As this was our first ride as a group, we took it at a walk.

After a final spray of bug repellent for horse and human, we headed out on our trusty steeds for supper in a small village. It was great fun to ride through pastures and trees, up and down some gentle slopes, across a creek then through the village itself. The fields were high with grass after the rainy season and some of the pathways were overhung with huge trees, their trunks and lower branches encased by giant philodendron vines. The creek was low-banked with a trickle of water and a bit of mud. It had nearly dried up after two months into the dry season.

On the trail

One of our guides, Esteban describes another trail for another day.

Our guides were the owners of the Painted Pony Guest Ranch and Casagua Horses Tours, Kay and Esteban Peraza. They pointed out novel things along the way, such as cashews growing on bushes, sloths resting high in Guanacaste trees – the national tree of Costa Rica – and howler monkeys leaping from branch to branch over our heads. A flock of bright parakeets streaked overhead like little green rockets.

Horseback riding in Costa Rica is common because of its ranching and cowboy culture, and i have seen people riding mules as well.  Riders are welcome everywhere so we received friendly waves and smiling faces as we rode through the village.

Pre-sunset in Costa Rica is a time for visiting and relaxing before the evening meal.  Adults and teens were gathering on porches or chatting in clusters on the roadside.  Children were riding bikes or playing soccer on the dirt roads.   Dogs sprawled in the dust on and by the roads or, feeling protective, dodged out of their yards to bark at us as we rode by.   A few small and acrid fires smouldered by the side of the roads as residents burned their trash for the day.

The horses were relaxed about monkeys moving suddenly in the trees, laundry on lines, pinwheels whirling in gardens, dogs of any size, chickens on the road, motor bikes and bicycles. They have done this ride before and their training prepares them mentally for all sorts of events.

Sunset arrives about 6 PM in Costa Rica and we arrived at the cantina as the light was fading. We tied our horses to the fence or the trees then strolled in to supper.

Breaking the pinata

Watch out, it’s pinata time!

The house special was pizza cooked in a wood-fired oven, delicious with a cold beer. There was a child’s birthday party there that evening, and we were included in the celebration. Dessert was birthday cake and watching the fun as the kids swung at the pinata, often to the peril of the adults. There was a lot of laughter, the universal language.

Time to mount up and go home.  There was no moon this night. There was nervousness about our return ride, but we were reassured that all would be well. “Trust your horse, ride with a loose rein and stay balanced.” Off we went with light horses staggered in between dark horses.

As we left the dim lights of the village and headed into the black, the warm night became magical with sound, instead of sight. The rustling of the warm breeze in the trees, the soft thuds of hooves, the relaxed blowing of horses and the sighs of riders.

It was spectacular crossing the last pasture before home because it seemed there were stars everywhere.The sky was filled and the air around us and the ground…Fireflies!  We were surrounded by thousands of pinpoints of flashing lights.

After our exclamations of wonder, we rode the rest of the way home in silence. We trusted our horses too, as that is the best way to ride by the light of fireflies.

The next morning over a typical country breakfast on the porch of the main ranch house, we talked about our special ride and what it meant to us.  It taught us that our horses will take care of us when we can’t see where we are going – figuratively and literally.   It opened our hearts to the rewards of embracing new experiences.

We were going to have a great week together.