Having decided to ride the Camino in the fall of 2021, and hoping that the new vaccinations against COVID would permit travel to begin again, I knew that I needed to start training for the ride. I grew up riding western-style on my father’s horses; I always loved horses—their smell, the feel of their skin, their beauty. After leaving home for boarding school in my mid-teens, my ability to ride became limited since I didn’t have access to a horse. It was a great pleasure at my first two overseas posts, Israel and Paraguay, to be able to resume riding on a regular basis. I took classes in English-style riding and even jumping. That was in my 30s. I hadn’t ridden much since then; life got in the way. When traveling out west to national parks, I would always book a trail ride—but those occasions were few. On my last trail ride, I was very uncomfortable after a couple of hours and thought, “my riding days are over.” Ten or so years later, I retired to Houston. When visitors came to town, I would frequently book a trail ride for them, but I didn’t ride myself.
So how in the heck did I think I could manage a horseback Camino? I guess it was a form of stubbornness. I wanted to make my second Camino a horseback Camino, and I’d explore that option as long as I could.
Destiny smiled on me. I contacted Cypress Trails Ranch, the only outfit I knew of in the greater Houston area that offered trail rides, as opposed to classes in an arena. I spoke to the owner, Darolyn Butler, who it turns out, competes in endurance riding events. We discussed my goals and what Cypress Trails offered, and I signed on for a monthly lease option that offered ten lessons and unlimited trail rides. Darolyn suggested that I begin with a one-hour lesson, take a break, then go for a one-hour trail ride. That sounded like a great plan to me. On May 1st, I went for my first rides.
My initial plan was gradually to build up my endurance in the saddle. I knew that horseback Caminos meant six or more hours riding each day, so I planned for two hours of riding per day spent at Cypress Trails in May, three hours in June, and four hours in July. By then, I hoped to have built up my endurance to the point that I could manage whatever the Camino required.
Darolyn herself took me out for my first “lesson.” I didn’t really need to learn how to ride, but the lessons gave me one-on-one time with different Cypress Trails wranglers. I could ask all sorts of questions about all sorts of topics. For example, I grew up around rodeos, and I loved watching equitation and show jumping competitions, but I knew nothing about endurance racing, in which a number of the Cypress Trails staffers compete.
That first day of riding was an eye-opener. Mounting from the ground was impossible for me. Luckily Cypress Trails had several heights of mounting blocks. Riding for even an hour caused not just discomfort but actual pain—hips, thighs, knees, shins, ankles. That first ride seemed like it would never end. And then I had to dismount. What an embarrassment! Three wranglers ran over to help. One stood at the horse’s head to hold him steady, one stationed himself beside me on the left to keep me from falling, and one more came over at my request. Despite a couple of attempts, I couldn’t get my right leg up and over the horse’s back and the cantle of the saddle, so I asked the third wrangler to push my leg up and over. I was mortified, but I had to get off!
After dismounting, I had to sit on the mounting block steps for a while to recover. My legs were shaking, sweat was pouring off me, I felt unsteady. Darolyn rushed out with a liquid she highly recommended to replenish electrolytes. After a short while I was able to walk to the stable to rest for an hour before going on the scheduled one-hour trail ride. The difficult mount, developing pain over the hour-long ride, and embarrassing dismount repeated themselves for the trail ride.
I thought about throwing in the towel that very first day. Who was I kidding? Old, way overweight, out of shape—this was never going to work. Why go through the pain and embarrassment? One inducement to keep trying was that I had paid for a month of riding in advance. Another was the thought that things had to get better since they could hardly get worse (unless of course I got thrown and really hurt myself). A third reason to continue was the encouragement and kindness of the Cypress Trails wranglers and staff. They all praised what they could—that I had good form on the horse, good hands, calmness and confidence once mounted.
I determined to soldier on. As my legs stretched out, I thought, the pain would lessen, then go away. I would improve at mounting and dismounting. I would lose weight before my horseback Camino. That’s what I thought then.
Over the first few weeks I rode three different horses. First, Blue. A big, good looking horse—the kind I had always favored—Blue turned out not to be right for me. Trained for trail riding, that’s all he wanted to do—plod along behind another horse. That first day I tried to ride side-by-side with Darolyn so I could hear what she was saying, but Blue was having none of it. Darolyn eventually broke off a tree branch that I could use as a crop, but Blue was still not responsive. I tried Blue once more, with the same results, then knew I wanted to try a different horse.
Next, I was offered Dusty as a mount. The wrangler who suggested him said that Dusty had been a top horse when younger but now had slowed down a bit. Still, he remained a good mount. That first time I rode Dusty, he fooled me. He willingly broke into a trot with no urging, so unlike Blue. He seemed to have the right amount of spirit—not enough to cause me to worry about being thrown, but enough that it didn’t feel like I was riding a plow horse. So I asked for Dusty the next couple of times, only to find that my first day on Dusty was an aberration. For whatever reason, he was feeling his oats that first time. Subsequently, he slowed down to the point that I had to do a lot of urging just to get him to keep up with a slow trail ride. Adios, Dusty.
Next I tried out Toby. A nondescript horse—darkish brown with no markings of any sort—I wouldn’t have picked him out from a herd to ride. I was told he was a Morgan. I grew up riding Quarter Horses; Toby looked quite different from a Quarter Horse, with relatively shorter legs and a very wide, stocky body. Despite his lack of good looks, Toby proved himself to be just the horse I was looking for to ride. Very steady, he was not “spooky,” not shying away or bolting or trying any of the tricks some horses do. On the other hand, he was very responsive to signals, both leg and voice. Toby willingly walked faster or trotted whenever I asked him to do so. He patiently endured my protracted and awkward dismounts, standing rock steady. I had found my equine partner. I brought him carrots and later peppermints (I never knew before that some horses like peppermints until one of the wranglers told me that Toby did). In return, Toby would knicker when he saw me approaching, which gave me a good feeling.
I should say something about equipment. I took my old riding helmet along with me to Cypress Trails. Darolyn scoffed at it and told me I needed to invest in a new, modern helmet. I did. I had two pairs of beautiful, handmade English riding boots in my closet, but I could no longer use either of them—my feet had gotten bigger and I had put on too much weight. I asked various wranglers for suggestions on boots, and I ordered four different pairs online, all of which I had to return. None of the local western stores had an extra wide boot that would fit. I had some English-style riding pants, but those, too, no longer fit. I went to Cypress Trails in blue jeans and stuck with those, even though Darolyn urged me to get some new riding pants, which, among other advantages, are cooler than jeans in Houston’s summer heat and have special pockets to store a cell phone on the thigh. Vanity, mostly, kept me from buying the new pants, but also the knowledge that I didn’t really need them and would only be using them for a few months. I did invest in a carrier that attaches to the saddle so that I could take along a water bottle and carry my phone without having to wear a fanny pack.
By the end of the month, I had ridden on ten different days for a total of 20 hours on horseback, but my legs still hurt each and every time I rode, making me ready to get off the horse after a half-hour but having to endure another 30 minutes of pain.