Finding My Inner Guacha

“Riding a horse,” said Juan Manuel, “is like sex. Do it with confidence and personality.”
My previous experience consisted of trail rides.
Confidence? Personality? Sex? As far as riding went, I’d never got past the first kiss.
No worries.
Juan had faith and I had time.
Juan Manuel owns the Panagea Estancia and Backpacker’s Hostel, in the heartbreakingly beautiful cattle country of northeastern Uruguay, where I’d come to escape the ordinary.
The landscape was isolated – rolling hills with rocky outcroppings, stretching in all directions.
I expected cattle, but was stunned by armadillos scuttling like tiny, crazed tanks through the short grass or ostriches galloping on impossibly spindly legs.
I nearly lost my grip — on the reins and my senses —gawking in wonder.
Juan helped me refocus. “The Panagea is a cattle ranch,” he says. “Work doesn’t stop for guests.”
There’s limited electricity and no WiFi but frankly, email seems trivial. What matters is saddling your horse securely so you don’t slide like butter off a hot knife.
Gauchos — Uruguayan cowboys— put sheepskins on top of their saddles. Cushy, but if not lashed tightly, the side-to-side riding rhythm sends you slip-sliding. That’s the last thing a cowherd wants.
Cows are big, stubborn and none too bright - herding them requires total horse/rider cooperation.
Juan assured me my first mount was a star.
“Tango is very gentle. You’ll be fine.”
He had a soft coat, a temperament to match and a silky mane trimmed gaucho-style, with a longish piece for a handhold. By the time Tango’s saddle and sheepskin were in place, we’d bonded like Krazy Glue. A quick lesson from Juan on steering left and right, and we were off.
Sure-footed Tango smoothly circled delinquent cows while I made herding noises.
Tongue-clicking didn’t work so, drawing on tv cowboy lingo, I tried, “Yeehaw!”
The cows responded, I felt like a real gaucha (Uruguayan cowgirl) and Tango and I became a team.
But Juan’s rule is you never ride the same horse twice.
“Sunshine,” he said, grinning as I clung to Tango. “You don’t need Tango – you can ride anything. There are no bad horses — just bad riders.”
Juan was right. Each time I heaved myself onto a different horse, there was a moment’s doubt but soon, I’d sink into the sheepskin and a sense of security.
After riding and herding, I helped Juan put an end to many young male cows’ plans for a sex life. (No vivid details. Let’s just say at the Panagea, little elastic bands aren’t for hairstyling.)
By nightfall, I was so tired, I didn’t mind hauling water from the well to flush the toilet, remembered to step over — not on — the box of baby chicks overnighting in the kitchen, and latched the door to keep out skunks, ostriches and armadillos.
Juan and the Panagea taught me to ride —with personality and confidence –to work with my hands not a computer, and to master horses, cattle and myself.

L Fleming

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