20121130-093709.jpgTHREE DUDES

“Dude!” my teenage daughter, Rachel, exclaims. “This is awesome!” In the current vernacular of teenspeak this means she’s enjoying her first attempt at horseback riding. Dude, I think to myself. That’s exactly what we are – dudes. We don’t know the first thing about riding horses. We are in the corral of Rancho El Charro a few miles from downtown Puerto Vallarta, and Rafael, our guide, is assigning horses to us. Rachel is mounted astride Baby, a horse with the long legs of a moose. I have been paired with Payaso, a beautiful horse with white face and stockings. “Payaso” is Spanish for clown. Ranch owner Pamela de Aguirre assures me that Payaso was named for his all-white face and not for his behavior. My son, Nicholas, has a horse named Cantaritas.

Long ago, as a boy, I rode a horse. It took off running through the Southern California desert at what seemed like 85 mph with me on its back. It totally ignored my attempts to communicate “stop” to it via the reins. I pulled those reins with all my might but that horse just kept running. After deciding that my horse was going to run all the way to the distant mountains and buck me off onto a pile of sharp rocks, I chose to foil his evil plan by leaping from the saddle. I landed in some prickly desert bush which thoroughly lacerated my face and arms. I still relate to horses in terms of that wicked animal.

Pamela assures me that only gentle horses are assigned to beginning riders. I lean forward in the saddle and pat Payaso on the neck. “You’re a good horse, aren’t you, Payaso?” My words are part question and part self-reassuring statement. “You’re not going to try any funny stuff, are you?” I decide I’m going to be firm with Payaso. They say a horse can sense its rider’s emotions and I want Payaso to sense nothing but determination and self-confidence. I’ll show him who is boss right from the start and there won’t be any problem.

Rafael leads our small party through the streets of the village of Playa Grande and into the Pitillal River. The river water is clear and shallow. I notice that Rachel and Nicholas have discovered their saddle horns too. We all agree they make great handles and each of us has gripped our own with at least one hand. The horses know the trail well and Payaso doesn’t seem to require any instructions from me to keep him headed in the right direction. We move easily along the side of the river and past a rock quarry. I relax a little. On either side of the river steep hillsides rise at least a thousand feet. They are covered by lush tropical vegetation. Large hawks circle slowly overhead. A long-necked egret is intently fishing for crayfish in the river nearby and ignores us as we pass within twenty feet. I decide that horseback is a great place from which to sightsee as the horse takes the responsibility for avoiding obstacles. I crane my neck upward at a large tree with fleshy limbs. “We call that the tourist tree” Rafael tells me. He explains that it gets its name from its reddish, peeling bark that reminds locals of sunburned Yankee tourists. We pass an old man with two burros who is burning logs in the riverbed to make charcoal.

We cross the river again and start up a dirt road into the forest. By this time I have decided that it is a waste of time for me to hold Payaso’s reins. He knows perfectly well where we are going. I allow the reins to fall on his neck and I grip the saddle horn with both hands. Here, I figure, they will do the most good should I start to fall off.

Now that the trail has become a relatively wide dirt road, Baby decides that he will pass Payaso and become the leader. Payaso decides Baby will do no such thing and he surges ahead of Baby. My head is snapped back by the unexpected acceleration, and before I know it, I am a passive participant in a horse race. Too late, I remember that the reins do serve a purpose. Even though I am firmly clinging to the saddle, it is Payaso who is making the decisions for the two of us. Déjà vu, my boyhood ride of terror is starting all over again.

“Daaaaad!” Rachel yells. “Do something!” I manage to grab Payaso’s reins from his neck with one hand and pull. Miracle of miracles, Payaso slows down. I pull some more and he slows to a walk. Baby settles in beside us. Impressed by my own horsemanship, I confidently tell Rachel “You just have to let your horse know that you’re the boss.”

Tune in tomorrow for the exciting conclusion of Dude Rides Again