Pura Vida: Horsing Around in Costa Rica
If there’s one word that describes Costa Rica perfectly, it’s magical. Costa Rica is a place with unmatched biodiversity, kind people, delicious food, and balmy weather. Not only did I experience all of that—I also got to play with horses! As serendipity would have it, Barking Horse Farm started following me on Instagram, so I checked out their profile and website. This farm specializes in Parelli Natural Horsemanship and Jungle Trekking, and hosts interns and volunteers throughout the year, so I thought going to Barking Horse Farm would be a great opportunity to travel and learn more about Parelli Natural Horsemanship. I originally planned to stay for three months, but ended up staying only one month for personal reasons. The month flew by, and I can’t wait to return to this beautiful country!
I arrived at night and took a cab from the airport in San Jose to the farm, which is in an area called San Rafael Abajo, near a town called Puriscal. The headlights of the cab revealed in the darkness how green everything was; the flora and fauna were so lush, I thought they may overtake the road at any moment. Everything was shiny with a slick layer of moisture. I arrived at the tail end of the rainy season, so the mornings were sunny and bright, then the rain would roll through in the afternoon. Only in my last week there did the rain stop as the dry season began. Numerous dogs watched us as we passed, sometimes observing from a distance, other times chasing us and nipping at the tires. The curvy, hilly paved roads turned into bumpy gravel roads. I finally arrived at the farm and was greeted by a committee of one human, four dogs, and too many cats to count. I began settling in and putting my things away when I heard the sound of tires spinning. The cab was stuck in the driveway, in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere! In the darkness and mud, it’s easy to understand how it happened. Pamala, the farm owner’s friend and the human member of my greeting committee, hooked up a cable to the farm vehicle, pulled the cab out, and it was on its way. The excitement for the evening was over. With the roads and animals quiet, I could finally close my eyes and rest. I fell asleep to the melodic rhythm of the bugs’ and frogs’ songs. The matter-of-fact crowing of the rooster woke me. The bugs continued their soft hum into the morning. The birds sang their gentle tunes as the rooster’s crows faded.
Other volunteers arrived in the following days. They hailed from the UK, Germany, Poland, and France. We were all very excited to go up to the pasture and see the horses. They live not at the farm, but in a pasture near the top of a mountain, where it’s a bit cooler and breezier compared to the climate at the farm, which tends to be warmer since it lays in a valley. We all climbed into the farm vehicle, a tough Isuzu four-by-four, and headed out to meet the horses. On the way, we encountered an obstacle, and one thing I learned is that Costa Rica is full of obstacles. You can either curse your luck and let the obstacles cause you frustration, or you can look at them as a learning opportunity. I chose the latter. There was a truck broken down in the middle of the road, and a group of Costa Rican men was trying to push it out of the way, but to no avail. I got out of our vehicle and walked over to help push. The men looked skeptical, but all the other lady volunteers also walked over to help and we got the truck moved in no time. We parted ways with smiles and, “Muchas gracias!”
The horses seemed mildly interested to see us. They had been off for months, enjoying their vacation from the busy season. We brought treats with us, scraps of fruit, which the horses absolutely loved. In the days that followed, the group settled into a nice daily routine. We’d begin our day with yoga (taught by me), have fruit, oatmeal, and happy eggs for breakfast, feed the animals here (I was responsible for feeding the chickens), then go up to the pasture and work with the horses. We began with groundwork and the Seven Games from Parelli Natural Horsemanship, and some days we rode bareback and with the rope halters. The horses took well to us, despite their realization that our visits meant their vacation was over. We always brought them treats, and they thoroughly enjoyed them. We’d then return to the farm and enjoy a delicious lunch prepared by Marta, who has worked at the farm for 10 years. The meals were vegetarian and sometimes even vegan, which was really great. During the afternoon rains, we’d relax, read, and socialize. A few hours later, we’d prepare dinner and after dinner, we’d watch some Parelli DVDs or play games.
Liz, the owner of Barking Horse Farm, arrived to the farm a few days after us volunteers. She took us up to play with the horses quite a few times and taught us some fun Parelli training techniques. One day we worked on carrot stick riding, which was an exciting challenge. We also got to go on numerous rides. The trails here are mostly on gravel and dirt roads, and the horses are so hardy and sure-footed. We saw majestic views, picturesque sugarcane fields, and wildlife galore. One day we rode over two hours to get to a breathtaking river. At one point, the trail gets so steep, narrow, and full of rocks and boulders that the horses have to be sent down without the riders. I had never done anything like that before, so I was curious to see how the horses handled it. It was like rock scrambling for horses. They stayed relaxed, carefully and confidently making their way down the hill and then back up on our way back. We had packed a delicious vegan lunch of a watermelon and brown rice with veggies. The river was so refreshing and there was no one there but us—a true paradise. There’s another river just a 15 minutes’ walk from the farm. The waterfall there creates a spectacular ambiance. I went every chance I got and returned glowing every time. There’s something about Costa Rica that makes it impossible to be unhappy.
In addition to horsing around, we also got to have some very local experiences. One day we helped a local farmer harvest beans, beating them with sticks to release the beans from the stalks. It’s hot, tiring work, but many hands made light work that day.
Another day we went to a trapiche, or sugarcane factory. I use the word factory loosely, because it’s not at all like a factory in the U.S. This factory is very small and run by three brothers. We got to taste the sugarcane in four different forms: first the juice, then the hot, thick liquid, then the taffy-like substance, and finally in its final form as a block of sugar. We were all fascinated by the process and varying flavors.
The only bad time I experienced was the night we went to an exhibition of the Costa Rican horse. Liz had warned us that Costa Rican training methods are harsh, but I wasn’t prepared for what I saw. The horses looked stressed out and fearful, and there were many large riders on horses that were too small for them. The bits being used were harsh, and every rider wore pain-inducing (for the horse) spurs. The first rider and horse entered the ring performing what looked like a perverse version of a passage. I say perverse because the horse was tense, constantly flicking its tail, pinning its ears, and wrinkling its eyes and nostrils. The horse was also hollow, and the underside of its neck was overdeveloped, making it clear that it was forced to carry itself in an unhealthy position on a regular basis. The rider maneuvered the horse onto a platform where the “passage” turned into a kind of piaffe. It seemed the demonstration would never end, and my heart ached for the horse more and more with each passing second. This type of treatment and training is a result of ignorance, of not knowing there’s a better way. I can only hope that if and when these people are exposed to a better way, they’ll change.
Liz’s passion and love for horses is inspiring, and her tenacity and commitment to pursuing Natural Horsemanship is admirable in a country where the traditional treatment of horses is harsh and violent. Liz’s horses are healthy and happy; they’re also the most bomb-proof horses I’ve ever met. I hope to return again one day to do a trek to the beach, which I didn’t get to do this time. The people I met, the horses I bonded with, and the memories I made are treasures I’ll remember for a lifetime.
Below are some photos from the trip. Visit my Facebook page to view the full album.