by Miguel Lanigan, October 21, 2009
About horses, I knew not much. The few I had ridden back in the States were beaten down robots one finds in rental stables-the giddy-up-go plodders that get you from A to B and back again. The horse the Colombian stable hands were leading up from the stalls below was a trembling, brown, mass of quivering muscle. The beast I was to ride furiously jerked his head from side to side; the whites of his eyes showed he did not want to be ridden-earlier riders had done him too much harm. How, I lamented to myself, had I gotten myself into this unhappy and dangerous situation I was facing.
Back in 1961, I had it made in Washington, D.C.: I was twenty-two, driving a black MGA sports car, was a co-chairman of the debutante committee, had a good paying job in the government procurement office of United States Steel, and had beautiful girl friends — the full bachelor package, Then, President Kennedy made his “Ask not speech,” and set the wheels of change in motion.
The metamorphosis from being a Washington, D.C. bon vivant to a Peace Corps volunteer began one sunny spring afternoon as I walked back to my office on K Street, from a bid opening at Main Navy. As I passed the old ICA (now AID) building I noticed a little temporary blue card taped to the front of the building proclaiming Peace Corps in embossed white lettering. Like a moth to a flame, I was drawn to check out this new program I had heard and read about. That tiny blue sign was to change my whole life's trajectory.
I followed the signs inside to the recruiting office and looked in. There were some packing boxes with piles of papers stacked on top, three chairs, a desk and a young woman sitting behind it. She looked up from what she had been doing and asked if she could help.
“Yes,” I said, “I'd like an application.”
She looked startled. “Just a minute,” she said, “Have a seat. I'll be right back.”
I sat, put my briefcase beside me, and watched her scurrying down the hallway poking her head in offices.
She returned and sat behind her desk. The little office began filling with people, all trying to look busy. I was puzzled. It was only years later, when I applied to the same woman to join a Peace Corps recruiting team, that I learned I was the first person to ask for a Peace Corps application and they were all curious to see what one looked like.
One night, three months later, I got a call at my little bachelor pad out in Virginia. It was a man from the personnel office asking if I still wanted to join the Peace Corps for assignment to Colombia. That's funny I thought, I didn't think British Colombia needed help. “Yes,” I answered, and thus began the big adventure; I had been accepted to be in the first group in the Peace Corps.
My coworkers at the government contracts office were aghast. “You did what?” was the usual response. My father, who had pulled strings to get me the USS job, was puzzled and pissed, but I was 22 and it was my choice.
Being the first group, the Peace Corps training-staff wasn't sure what to teach us to prepare us to go into outback Colombia to do our job of organizing rural community-development juntas. So, to err on the side of caution, they shot-gunned us with an amazing training course taught by academic PhDs who lectured us for twelve hours a day in Colombian history, cultural anthropology, Spanish, Colombian government, community development technique and other such academic subjects. Other experts trained us in more practical fields such as medical, first aid, self-defense and horsemanship. It was the latter that came to my aid this particular morning.
* * *
Eight hours out of the now infamous city of Medellin was my work site of Andes, Antioquia, a municipio (county) at the 4,000 feet level in the rugged mountains of Colombia, perfect for growing Colombia's world famous coffee. I was assigned to work with the Federation of Coffee Growers that had a small agricultural extension office there already.
This part of Colombia has four annual seasons — two wets and two dry, so for half the year I was riding to the outlying mountain villages on horseback in the rain, on slick, narrow mountain trails. Riding tall in the saddle looks fun and adventurous in movies but six or seven hours lurching up steep mountain trails, soaked and covered with mud splatter, got old very fast. Muscles in my legs and back, I never knew existed, shouted their existence.
Since arriving in Andes, I hadn't found a horse I wanted to buy and had to rent the poor beast rented out at Don Jose's stable.
I was running late this day and arrived at the stable after most of the horses were already rented. The stable was located halfway up the only paved block in Andes. It had been paved in concrete to allow the publico bus/cargo trucks to make it up the steep grade to the central plaza during the rainy seasons. In my fledgling Spanish, I told Jose, the stable owner, that I needed to rent a horse for the day and part of the night.
“Bueno senor,” he said, and hollered to the stable hands below, “Triaga 'El Gris' “. “Bring the gray.” I translated.
Oh no, I thought, not that gray horse again; she was the worst horse in the stable. Some one had broken one ear so that it permanently flopped to one side. She had a hernia the size of a cantaloupe on her left side that swelled alarmingly at any thing faster than a slow walk. Her fetlocks were badly damaged, and her lower lip drooped so that her yellowed teeth were always on display.
“No señor. No,” I said emphatically, “not the gris.”
“Bueno,” he said obligingly, and hollered below to forget the gris and to “Triaga el Puta Caballo.”
Again I translated tremulously… “Bring the whore horse!”
A couple of minutes later, two stable hands led the whore-horse up from below; each tightly holding his side of the bridal. The horse was big, brown, muscular and supremely pissed. His eyes darted, his ears rotated like radar dishes. Oh Christ. I thought, the macho test, the cultural anthropologist back in training had told us to expect, was upon me.
Out in front of the stable both stable hands continued to tightly grip the bridal waiting for me to mount. Another attendant lowered the stirrups to accommodate my much longer Gringo legs. The stirrups, as usual, were metal and looked like they came off a suit of armor for a small knight. They were favored by the campesinos since they protected the bare feet of the Colombians who normally rented. Another bummer — my size 13 Sears Roebuck, square-toed boots barely fit into the metal stirrups a couple of inches.
Up the street I could hear people calling out to others seated at the plaza having their morning “tintos” coffee break that the gringo was going to ride the whore-horse. Several left their coffees and hurried down the steep stretch of concrete to watch the fun. For me, it wasn't fun — I was scared shitless, but of course couldn't let them see it — this was my macho test.
I threw my saddlebags over the saddle, put my boot in the teeny stirrup, and swung up into the saddle. Puta Caballo was so mad he was trembling all over — that was good since it covered up my own trembling. I picked up the reins with the long, thick flat leather strap at the end and, in a bold a voice that belied my fear; I nodded and said “Bueno.” The two vaqueros let go of the reins and, knowing what to expect, jumped out of the way. Puta Caballo didn't disappoint them. Freed from restraint, he flattened his ears, dropped his head and jumped straight up like a horse in a Remington painting. His iron horse shoes sparked on the concrete as he spun and bucked. So frantic were his leaps, his hind legs slipped out from under him and he plopped down on his haunches with me sliding me off behind him, but still standing and hanging onto the reins. The attendants rushed in and grabbed the bridal while the horse struggled to his feet. My saddlebags remained on the saddle. With great reluctance, I jammed my boot inside the bitty armored stirrup and, once again, swung up into the saddle. Puta Caballo was nothing like the docile horses used in our training — this beast was insane.
“Bueno,” I said in a faux strong voice. By now the adrenalin was being mainlined into my bloodstream. Puta Caballo lowered his ears and went bonkers again, with the same results — me standing on the concrete firmly gripping the reins.
Once again, the stable hands grabbed the bridal, and once again I reluctantly climbed on the beast for the third time — only this time I had a plan: I noticed he always lowered his ears just before he started his manic bucking. This time, however, as the ears were going down, I snapped the leather strap at the end of the reins down hard on his head between his lowering ears. Puta Caballo was so stunned he froze and stood perfectly still with his head lowered and his legs splayed out, which suited me fine. I gave him a kick with my heels to put him in gear. He took a couple of faltering steps and when he started to lower his ears again, I flicked the leather strap off to the side of his head where he could see it. His ears went up and he took a few more halting steps up the concrete road toward the plaza where I could see the coffee drinkers pointing and talking. The campesinos that had gathered in front of the stable to watch the fun, nudged one another and commented about the “muy bravo caballo” the Gringo was riding. A few steps further on the ears started down, and again I flicked the leather strap by his face and the ears went back up. He continued up the road toward the plaza and the cobble stone road out of town.
And so I, and a very reluctant Puta Caballo, reached the plaza and rigidly rode past those sitting at tables having their morning tintos. We stutter stepped the two blocks to the edge of town. Behind us I could hear the buzz of conversation about El Peace Corps volunteer riding the whore-horse.
The town stopped abruptly two blocks on where the road made a sharp turn to the left so that we were out of sight. I was so amped with adrenalin by then I did a completely irrational thing — I reverted to brute the Marine Corps had trained me to be: I slid out of the saddle, pulled the reins over the horse's head, and punched him as hard as I could on the white blaze in the middle of his forehead. The horse was as stunned as I was — this was something entirely new for Puta Caballo. “OK you son-of-a-bitch, it's you and me,” I warned him, and pulled the reins back over his head, pulled them in as tight as I could so that his head was pulled in tight against his chest, and remounted.
“OK, let's do it,” I said. Much to my surprise and relief, Puta Caballo had had enough of the American Gringo's way of horsemanship and set off at a decent pace just nice as you please. I looked down at my swelling knuckle thinking that was really dumb.
I turned off the main dirt road and we started up a trail to get to one of the three villages I was to visit that day. I was delighted that this strong horse went up and over two hills before he showed signs of blowing. All the other rental horses became packhorses half way up the second hill. So I got off and we walked along for a while to give him a rest — I think he appreciate the act. We crossed over a small stream. I stopped to let him have a drink and another breather.
It was already dark when I left the last little village and headed back down the slick mountain trail to the road that lead back to Andes. It had rained and the narrow mountain trail, carved in the side of the mountain, was slippery. Rainwater had washed away dirt exposing large slippery round rocks. I gave Puta Caballo a loose rein so he could lower his head and see where he was going. Several hundred feet below me I could barely hear the San Juan River babbling over the rocks in the riverbed. I was relaxed and lost in thought when Puta Caballo suddenly reared up and, while doing a one-eighty so that we were now going back up the trail, he twisted his head down and clamped his big grass stained teeth on my left knee. “Goddamn you son-of-a-bitch,” I screamed out to the night. Royally indifferent to my curses, the beast plodded back up to the top of the hill.
By the time we arrived, I had cooled off. OK horse, that was fair; I did you, you did me, fair enough, we're even.” I slipped the reins over his head and led him back down the trail to the road beside the river. Again, he was nice as you please and offered no resistance when I remounted. So he and I placidly made our way back through that dark night to Don Jose's stable, each of us thinking, I'm sure, about the dinners that awaited us.
The next time I needed to rent a horse, I boldly strode into Jose's stable and commanded, “Triaga el Puta Caballo.” Jose smiled - I had passed my macho test, and besides, Puta Caballo was strong and I figured we had reached an understanding.