I am a horse girl. Or woman now, I suppose. My parents indulged me by getting me a Barbie Dream Horse Trailer (quite possibly not its actual name, but I’m sure I’m not far off it) as a child and I subscribed to the “Horse Lovers” magazine as a tween. When I was 11, we moved to a farm and my Dad bought my brother and I a horse. If I had access to my family photo albums and a scanner, I’d insert a photo of my horse and myself at this point in the blog post. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately in this case, the photos in question are in storage and I was a chubby child, so I’d probably regret putting them on the Internet, in time.
Soon after, my brother broke his femur (ouch) and I followed about a year after that with my wrist. We both eventually lost interest in riding – my brother moving onto cars, while I, being around 14 years of age at the time and apparently a slow starter, became heavily involved in a series of unrequited crushes on boys from my high school.
I rediscovered horse riding as an adult and truly enjoy it. As I tend to live in cities these days (gotta make the most of them while you’re young, right?) I can’t exactly keep a horse in my backyard. Maybe a Shetland pony, although that would still probably be quite cruel. So, I indulge my love of horses by going horse riding at every opportunity, most commonly when travelling.
I’ve ridden now in four different countries – Iceland, Kyrgyzstan, Costa Rica and Cuba, with missed opportunities in the Faroes and Ireland (there’s something to be said for being organised!) and I rode a camel in the Red Centre of Australia so I’m counting that too. Kyrgyzstan you’ve already heard about – I went on a two-day horse trek, stayed in yurts in the mountainside and enjoyed every second of it. Iceland and Costa Rica were similarly pleasant and I will certainly enjoy recounting my experiences on this blog at a later date.This post however, is about my horse ride in Cuba, which was not great. In fact, I’d describe it as downright upsetting. As Cuba is a destination which is only growing in popularity, I feel it’s only fair to warn other travellers in advance for what they should be watching out for, when traversing this Caribbean country.
You see, I have my concerns about indulging in any sort of activities involving animals. I rarely go to zoos or wildlife parks outside of Australia (with Durrell in Jersey being the one exception), because I don’t want to give my money to organisations that don’t treat animals properly. The problem is and this is especially evident in countries where you don’t speak the language, you don’t always know what you’re signing up for and you’re not always in the position where you can speak up against wrongs, or even extract yourself from the situation.
This is what happened in Cuba. And maybe I could have dealt with it better, but I had also been cooped up in my casa bedroom for the last few days with a horrific stomach bug. Taking that into account, I don’t see any other way in which this could have played out.
OKAY. Enough rambling – on with the story.
I was in Trinidad, the town in Cuba that I had been most excited about visiting. The plan had been to travel there, stay a few days and then move onwards – to Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, or maybe even Santiago de Cuba – I hadn’t really decided yet.
Then a stomach bug hit both my boyfriend and I the day after my 26th birthday (timing is everything, right?). Goodness, I hadn’t felt that ill for a long time. We’d spent four days trying to recuperate, completely wasting our time in Trinidad. Having to soon circle back to Havana for a group tour, I wanted to do something neat, to mark our time spent there, besides going to the local beach.
Our casa owner spoke about two words of English and my boyfriend and I spoke the same amount of Spanish between us. Somehow, we managed to communicate that there was a man in town who took tourists out on horses to a local waterfall. I love both horses and waterfalls, so it sounded perfect. We agreed, signed up and hoped our stomachs would last the trip.
We were picked up on foot the next morning by a bonafide Cuban cowboy and walked to his place, where we were sat awkwardly in his living room with his wife, whilst he rounded up everyone else. After a bit of thumb twiddling, we were introduced to our horses. They were rather sad, skinny looking things – this was probably the first indication that something was amiss, but I was still too hazed out by my sickness to really pay attention.
We were riding with four other people – middle-aged Germans, who seemed pleasant enough. One of them chatted a bit to us about her time in Guatemala, where she’d been studying Spanish and how much she had loved that region of the world.
After about an hour or so, we stopped at a farm, for a drink and toilet break. Some Cuban music was played and I patted the horses, who already seemed exhausted and amused myself by stalking a family of chooks.
Eventually, we jumped back on the horses and continued riding, until we got to the waterfall. We’d already paid 20 CUCs for the experience (CUC stands for Cuban Convertibles, which is the currency that most visitors to the country use. 1 CUC is equivalent to 1 USD), but we were required to pay another 6 CUCs to pretty much “park” the horses, whilst we went to check out the waterfall. Our trip around Cuba was fraught with hidden costs like these. We met so many lovely people, but also plenty who were willing to scam you for a quick buck. This is not indicative of the country at all – it happens all over the world.
I sighed and handed over my money, then went on to see the waterfall.Well. Waterfall was a term that was stretching it, quite a bit. It was more a trickle of water, leading into a small lagoon that was inundated with other tourists. Frightfully disappointing to be honest, but we’d ridden all the way there, so it was time to make the most of it. I changed into my swimmers and went for a quick dip – the water was refreshingly cool at least. We soon had to hurry back into our clothes, to make the return trip back to Trinidad.
Now up until this point, all that had happened were just minor inconveniences. Yes, the horses looked a bit bedraggled, but Cuba is not a country that is known for its wealth. The waterfall was a disappointment, but it wasn’t rainy season and the swim had been nice enough.
Rather, it was the treatment of the horses on the way back that made me see red and regret the trip out there.
It quickly became evident that our guides were keen to get back home as possible. So, our meandering, gentle journey there soon turned to a hurried one back. The horses were continually whipped, often for no reason and at points that made the ride quite dangerous. I almost fell off on a couple of occasions, which could have been easily avoided without outside interference.At one point, the poor beast was struggling up a hill, when one of the cowboys sprung forward and whipped it on its hindquarters. However, the horse had nowhere to go – the path was tiny and it was nose to bottom with the horse in front of it. It skittered, tripped and I nearly tumbled to the ground – thankfully years of riding in my youth had honed my senses for such moments and I gripped on for dear life. We weren’t wearing helmets either – we’d had none provided and I really didn’t fancy cracking my skull open at any point in the ride.
I was so angry. Why whip the horse? What was that actually going to achieve? This kind of behaviour continued for the rest of the ride home, although I tried to stay as far away from the cowboys as possible after that.
When we finally arrived back, my poor horse was lagging, breathing heavily, clearly exhausted. I scrambled off its back as fast as I could and gave it a quick pat. “I’m sorry,” I whispered to it. The cowboys ignored us as they gathered up the horses and we left as quickly as we were able.
Since then, I’ve been very careful when horse riding in different countries and haven’t found myself in any similar situations since. I wish I’d listened to my gut, but after days of illness, I probably mistook the tingling sensation of “something is not right” in my belly for something entirely different. I’ll not go into details, I’m sure you get my drift.
Have you encountered any similar situations when travelling? How did you deal with it?
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