"This is Zoom," said Raoul, handing me the reins of a too-pretty bay gelding. I sighed inwardly. Never ride a horse named Zoom or Devil or Lightning if you want a leisurely ride in the countryside. "You've ridden before, right?" he added. We nodded. He seemed relieved, and another yellow flag went up in my head. "The horses are a little excited when we leave the yard," he said. "But you know how to control them?" He made a gesture of holding hard on the reins of a runaway horse. I threw in two more mental yellow flags. "They'll settle down after a couple kilometers." I sighed to myself again. I really did want a leisurely amble through the countryside, with plenty of energy for conversation and taking in the flora and fauna. I didn't want to spend it trying to keep a badly trained horse under control.
At least the thing was small - barely 14 hands high. They were delicate looking purebreds, lean and pretty. Not the chunky ram-headed mixed-breed horses usually favored in the countryside of Brazil. But likely they were stronger than they looked. Raoul and Ze, his stableman, were both six feet tall, and Raoul was not slender. I took a surreptitious look at the horses' condition and tack. They were well fed, with well trimmed and shod feet. There were thick wool pads under the saddles. That would do.
We mounted up and set off. The horses headed out at a brisk amble, but I was pleasantly surprised to find they were merely used to going somewhere, not disobedient. They were not horses inclined to dawdle along carrying tourists, but rather working horses, used to being used for transportation. Clearly they had been taught that job number one was getting to the destination as fast as possible. But the brakes and steering worked fine. And they were gaited horses, with fantastically smooth paces even at high speed. I relaxed into the tick-tock of Zoom's footfalls, feeling the rhythm of his legs as if they were my own. After a little experimenting I found the right hold on the reins to keep him at a steady and comfortable speed.
We had asked for a two hour ride, just to get to know the area. Raoul assured us there was a great bar we could head to, about an hour away. I mentally added three hours to the two hour trip. If a bar was involved we would be having lunch, and lunch in Brazil was never a brief affair. Besides, the one hour estimate was likely optimistic. I was glad I had worn a long-sleeved linen shirt over my sunscreened arms and a wide-brimmed hat to shade my face. Sunscreen was not going to be enough for five hours of tropical sunlight.
We cruised down the road, a group of six, dodging motorcycles and four-wheelers as we headed towards the village. In town we slowed down to a walk, and Raoul and Ze called out greetings to shopkeepers and residents as we passed. Leaving behind the dozen houses and small church we picked up speed again and I was impressed again with my horse's good gaits. I hadn't ridden many that would hold a silk-smooth four beat gait so steadily.
Raoul had decided our hiring him as a guide made for a good opportunity to run some errands, so our first order of business was to take a trail down to a river where he had lost his cell phone a few days earlier. We mulled around in the knee-high vegetation, staring half-heartedly at the ground. No one bothered dismounting to do a proper search except Ze, who gave a few cursory kicks at the low plants and then unstrapped a machete from his saddle and went to work chopping down a small tree near the river to widen the trail.
Raoul was mounted on a young, spirited horse that was not pleased to stand still. He fretted and paced while the older horses wisely took advantage of the stop to catch their breath. When the tree was cleared we plunged onward into the river, holding our legs out to avoid wetting our boots. Zoom lunged up the muddy bank on the other side while I held fistfuls of his mane to balance my weight over his shoulders. We crashed through the narrow forest trail and out into a vast pasture. The trail was a cattle trail, worn so deep in places that it was more a trench than a trail. We headed up a steep hill and the trench deepened. I followed Ze's example and hooked my legs up over the front of the saddle to raise my feet clear of the sides of the trench. The horses were climbing at a good clip, and there were too many opportunities for my feet to get slammed against the dirt.
We finally hit a road again. Traffic was heavier here: mostly motorcycles and four-wheelers rented by weekend tourists. The road was unpaved, but well graded. The horses ignored the vehicles and the clouds of red dust they left in their wake. Despite the lack of any organized traffic pattern and numerous blind curves everyone seemed to get out of each other's way well enough. There were no close calls.
Finally we reached the bar. It was cute: a little covered patio with a dozen tables built near a clear, deep stream. There were a couple acres of cleared grassy land around it, and a long railing in the parking lot for hitching horses. A couple of stallions were hitched to trees on the property, away from the other horses. The patio was crowded with diners and the stream side was crowded with bathers. I was a bit surprised at the enthusiasm for bathing in the mountain stream, as the water was likely ice cold.
I mentioned to Ze that I was pretty sure one of my horse's shoes was loose. I had heard the distinctive clinking that a loose shoe can make. Ze took a look, agreed, found a large rock, and used it as a hammer to secure the shoe again.
We headed to the patio and settled in. I ordered a water and the rest of the group started in on lunchtime beers. Raoul was still smoking - he had not been without a cigarette since we left the stables. Beers came, and then a round of cane liquor flavored with honey, which I accepted and found quite delicious. Our waiter was a teenage boy with a great deal of courtesy and enthusiasm for his work, but no memory. He came back three times to ask again what kind of water I had ordered (with or without bubbles), and after recommending the fried trout, promptly forgot to pass the order to the kitchen. We nibbled unenthusiastically from Ze's heaping plate of fried pork rinds while waiting for the kid to locate the lost fried trout. Raoul, meanwhile, had disappeared.
When I looked around I spotted him. He was out in the hitching area watching another restaurant patron ride his fiery young horse up and down the road at high speed. They both wandered back to the bar after a bit. Raoul said "I'm only asking $3000! It's a great price!" The other man - a plump, balding fellow with glasses - pondered. One of his friends said "Isn't that the horse that takes three hours to catch in the field, and two hours to catch in the paddock?" Laughter bounced around the nearby tables. Another man piped up "Give me $2500 and I'll take him off your hands!" More laughter.
After a good two hours of rest and relaxation, we headed out. Several of the riders got cans of beer to go and managed to drink them along the way without any spillage. The horses were tired now, ears flopping gently in rhythm to their hoofbeats. The exception was Raoul's young beast, who was still tearing along like he'd just left the stables. It was the more surprising because Raoul was not a small weight to carry. He was tall and broad, and had the large firm protruding gut of a man who drinks heavily. He was an interesting color, too: that deep ruddy bronze that light skinned people turn when they've lived in the tropics for so long that sunburn is no longer applicable. Passing me yet again on his speeding colt he asked if I wanted to give his horse a try. I smiled and declined. I had not ridden in many months, and despite the smoothness of the ride my body was beginning to ache from the unfamiliar exercise.
On the way back we stopped to collect two horses from a farm and bring them back to the stables. They were mares, pretty and gray. After waiting for the farmer to halter them, Ze tied the lead rope of the second mare firmly to the tail hair of the first, took the lead rope of the first in his hand, and we set off again. The mares were rather annoyed at their predicament for a few moments, squealing and fussing, but the insistent speed of our forward movement soon overcame their protestations and they settled into an obedient line behind Ze. I was rather impressed with the technique, more so when a bit later we passed an old man coming down the road with twelve horses, all tied nose to tail in just the same way.
There was one more errand to run. We turned down a shady lane and stopped in front of a large but tumble-down house. A man extracted himself from beneath a tractor at the sound of our arrival and called hello. He was wiry and weathered, like many of the country folk. His jeans were tattered and oily. He bantered with Raoul for a bit, and then they got down to business regarding the cost of renting pasture and whether said pasture actually had grass and water in it, what quality of grass, and how many other animals were grazing it.
When Raoul was satisfied with the research, we headed home. I knew we were getting close when all the horses' ears perked up and they picked up the pace. The closer we got the faster they went, and I didn't bother trying to slow mine down until we reached the gate. At least there one should walk, for safety and courtesy, I thought. My own preference for walking the last mile home to cool off the horses was not, apparently, a popular one.
I peeled myself out of the saddle. It was nearly 4pm. We had set out at 10am. So much for the two hour ride. I creaked and groaned my way up the stairs to the house and begged some water. Family and staff were standing and sitting in the kitchen, cleaning up plates of cold rice and beans drenched in olive oil. Three German Shepherd dogs strolled in and out, cringing submissively and hoping for handouts. The conversation was loud. Raoul joined us a few moments later, disappearing into a back room and emerging clad only in his shorts. I tried not to stare at his massive bronzed belly or at his hands, which he seemed unable to stop from constantly rearranging his privates. The gesture seemed to convey a certain emphasis to his speech: the more urgent a point he was making, the more often one hand or another would reach down and make the adjustment.
At length, after ascertaining that no, we would not be buying a horse (nor the riding boots or rain poncho he fetched and held up for our inspection) we paid him for the ride and drove home. It took three washings to get the red dust out of my white shirt.