I pushed the wooden gate open of Sergio’s place, wondering if he was even home, adjusted my hat, hoping we didn’t look as clueless as what I felt. Wondering how much Sergio would rip us off when it became clear that we knew nothing about horses.
Nil. Zero. Nada.
We didn’t even know how to say the word ‘saddle’ in Spanish…
I had no idea what the word ‘halter’ meant in English.
Luckily we had Sam and Mick with us, they were our only saving grace, and thankfully a good one at that.
Sam and Mick were buying our motorbikes, and we were going to use the money from that to buy 4 horses. What were we doing selling our 2 bikes and buying 4 horses? More on that later…
But for the moment the problem was that both Heather and I knew nothing about horses – let alone how not to get ripped off when buying 4 of them in Latin America. I’d ridden a couple of times in my life during school excursions or a family vacation, and Heather had done about a few months of riding classes when she was 9 years old, until she was bucked off and never went back.
We’re about as fresh as you can get…
Ironically, these lads who were buying our bikes - who had travelled all the way from Australia to Chile - with the plan of riding the bikes all the way from Patagonia to Alaska (the reverse of what I was doing), were also a couple of proper Aussie drovers. They grew up on million acre stations, half a day from Alice Springs, rounding up herds of cattle across the breadth of Australia on horseback. Mick had literally just finished a solo stint in the Outback, droving cattle on horseback for months on end, alone in the desert with wild bovines and his equine for conversation. Sam used to do the same, but now does his droving from a helicopter instead.
Sam rounding em up...
Mick with a round up bovine
And so we couldn’t have asked for a couple of better blokes to approach Sergio with, Sam and Mick knew their shit, and they were our mates. So yeah… They were going to help us buy horses and teach us a few things, and later we would help them buy surfboards and hopefully give a little insight about wave riding.
Sergio the horse seller, was a quiet and serious sort of guy. A proper Chilean gaucho, slim figured, dark featured and the owner of perhaps 50 horses on his little farm on the hill that overlooks Punta de Lobos. As we all walked to the paddock that housed the two horses he had up for sale, I thought to myself how cool of this guy to still be farming and trading horses, when he could very easily sell just 1/20th of his property and retire on the funds. He was sitting on a gold mine and he knew it, the surrounding properties of Pichilemu stacked to the horizon with an insane amount of ‘eco-cabin’ development. But he wasn’t selling up, and instead chose to spend his days working with horses. At least for the moment…
He showed us a couple of steeds and soon he rigged them up for us - ready to test ride. This was great, except both Heather and I hadn’t ridden a horse in more than 10 years, and even if we managed to get on the horse without looking like idiots, we had no idea what a ‘good’ horse should ride like. So we got Mick and Sam to do it for us. Thanks guys.
They swung up onto the saddles like pros and trotted off to put the ponies to the test. Meanwhile, I stood back doing my best cowboy pose, hoping that by chewing on a long blade of grass that I’d look like a cowboy who knows horses so well, that he doesn’t even need to ride ‘em to buy ‘em.
In the first 5 minutes the big, black gelding had reared on his hind legs in what looked like an attempt to buck off his rider, the brown mare looked a little more controllable. (I later learned a gelding is a male horse that’s had his nuts chopped off).
They swapped horses to continue the testing, and straight away the big, black gelding reared again, this time to a height that I thought looked bloody dangerous. I didn’t want a horse that was gonna do that every couple of minutes!
But despite the dramatic display, when Mick and Sam rode back to us, they were both really impressed, Sergio had trained them well – after all he is a Chilean huaso.
A few days later after having checked some other horses in the region, we would come back to serious Sergio (who we began to realise was actually more just a reserved gentleman) to purchase Pichi and Salvador – both strong, healthy and intelligent. He offered us a fair deal - and didn’t try to gringo us (too much!) - a good man.
In the same day, we visited another little plot and bought another two, Blacky and Harimau, both solid to ride, and healthy.
We loaded the 4 horses into a truck and took them to Camilla’s house, a friend living in the little town of Cahuil next to Pichilemu. Camilla had a sweet little house, with tall grass surrounding it that was becoming a fire hazard in the summer heat. A perfect place to store the horses in the interim whilst we found out where we could buy saddles and rope, and learn to ride.
Camilla was happy to host the horses, because she wanted shorter grass on her property - and if there was only one thing I knew about horses, it was that they ate grass.
The first day or two went well, then things started to go downhill.
First the horses broke the fence into Camilla’s vegetable garden in the night and ate everything. Had a pretty good go of her newly transplanted fruit trees too. Sorry Camilla.
Then on Sam and Mick’s last night before leaving to Patagonia, we had a goodbye party with the Cahuil crew, a traditional Chilean BBQ at Gabriel and Temi’s place.
The next morning, I was woken by Tomas, yelling from his veranda.
“Matty the horses are gone – wake up!”
We sprung up out of the tent, a little hazy from all the chilean red wine at the goodbye party the night before, cursing myself as I ran down the hill, half naked to Camila’s place.
The horses nowhere to be seen – and we’d only owned them for 2 days. I was pretty mad at myself for not checking the fences and gates better, I guess I was stressing, because I had no idea how you go about finding 4 horses in the countryside. They can cover ground…
But luckily it was Sam and Mick to the rescue again, and it turns out that as we had been sleeping soundly, they had already been tracking the horses for hours. Since 5am, nursing the same hangover as me.
By the time H and I had gotten out of bed, the lads had located and caught 3 of the 4 horses. They’d literally followed hoofprints in the dirt for hours – using well-honed outback skills. Found them 10km away.
Salvador though, was not one to be caught easily. He was missing in a dense forest on the other side of a river about a 150m wide – he’d lunged into the river and swam across it to escape the clutches Mick and Sam. Salvador is one badass horse.
And so my first proper riding experience began. Except we didn’t have reigns or saddles. We did have some old rope that I’d quickly grabbed from Camilla’s place that had been used to hang wetsuits out to dry.
Sam made a makeshift bridle out of the rope and told me jump on, and hold on with my thighs. I was still hungover, and still a little unsure about how one mounted horses with a saddle on, let alone without one, but did what he said.
Then soon enough, all 3 of us plunged into the river on Pichi, Hari and Blacky – bareback - to hunt down the illusive and badass Salvador. We rode for a couple of hours, obstacle after bloody obstacle, but eventually we spotted Salvador in the distance looking pretty chuffed amongst 3 fillies he’d managed to sniff out.
If he hadn’t of had his nuts lopped off, he would’ve made a fine stallion stud, I think. He’s got the spirit…
It was cool to watch Sam and Mick do their thing - Salvador doesn’t like to be caught, and it took a bit of ingenuity on their behalf to make it happen. But in the end we did it, and triumphantly rode home, bareback, across the river 6 hours later…
(My nuts felt like they’d been lopped off.)
So instead of beginning their own epic trans-american trip, the lads delayed their departure, and saved the day – bloody champions!
The next morning they eventually got off.
We’d just said our hearty goodbyes to them, and I watched as they swung a leg over the motorbikes, the same bikes we’d called our homes on wheels for the last 20 months – since Alaska. They started the engines and a pang of realisation overcame me as I realised I’d forgotten to buy milk for my cereal. I almost stopped them to ask if I could quickly rip up to the store and back - it’d only take 5 minutes – water in cereal is the worst.
But instead I just stood there, it wasn’t a conscious decision, just the realisation to our new pace in life. Nothing was ever going to take 5 minutes anymore, and we’d have to get used to it.
I guess in a way that was the whole point of saying goodbye to the motor – we were simultaneously saying goodbye to modern convenience and timeframes.
I glanced over at big, black Salvador, oblivious to the idea of milkless cereal, he looks up at me with grass hanging out the side of his mouth, his ears thrust forward curiously, like he’s concentrating on something. He lets go of a long, soft fart, the sound reminiscent of the last of the air being squeezed out of my sleeping mattress inside my tent, pffffffffffffffft pffffft pffft, before going back to munching the grass contentedly.
I tell myself just keep smiling as we wave goodbye to the lads riding out the gate towards Patagonia and the ‘end of the world’, but as they did, I questioned what we’d gone and done.
That was the same gate we could’ve been riding out of to reach the end of the world too. Who knows if we’ll even make it to Ushuaia now - the winter will be here soon enough. It had been the goal of the entire journey til this point, to reach Ushuaia, and yet here I was pretty much waving goodbye to that glorious arrival.
Why did we bail? We’re so close… why aren’t I more concerned? Somehow Ushuaia’s significance has paled drastically.
Because it’s the journey - not the destination right…?
I’d become accustomed to living off a motorcycle. A world where just a little fuel goes far, a minimalist approach where you can only bring your necessities, and where you’re exposed to the elements every day, of rain, hail or shine. Or snow.
The way it connected us to the local people. No steel cage or windscreen to prevent conversation with the curious people wanting to shake your hand and ask where you’re from. No insulated bubble to hide away in when you feel tired, to turn up the music, turn on the air conditioning or eat a comforting bag of chips.
You can’t eat a bag of chips with a helmet on. You can barely get your glove in the bag.
I loved riding that bike, I loved the lifestyle and the challenge, we both did. Well Heather sort’ve did…
But the truth was that living off of a motorcycle had become the norm, it was never boring, but it was no longer that strange and unfamiliar machine that I had tentatively jumped on in Alaska.
I guess way back then I didn’t know what I was in for, my psychology was all over the place, I was scared of almost everything, camping alone with the gnarly bears of Yakutat, and riding the continent on a machine I didn’t have a clue about.
And now here I am, not alone anymore but standing next to my Canadian girlfriend, in yet another situation of not having a clue of what we were in for. I do know that we are now the owners of 4 horses – and 2 saddles. Along with bridles, and hackamores, and feedbags, and rope, and 2 pack-saddles, and brushes, and maps – we’ve got all the gear, but no idea.
But even with all this uncertainty ahead, that strange sense of anxiety is nowhere to be found.
Sam and Mick are gone now and can no longer save us - in a matter of minutes they’ve travelled what would take us all day to achieve on the horses – when we’re eventually ready to leave that is.
Sometimes I think about what the horses themselves might be contemplating.
It struck me that this whole adventure thing is no longer just about us, and that our horses are about to embark into the unknown also, into their own journey of a lifetime, and just like Heather and I, are getting used to big adjustments in their lives.
In a way they’re the same as us, they have personalities, feelings, needs and fears. And they’re going to need to trust us, they’re going to live with us and carry us on their backs down the coastline of Chile, into the wilderness of Patagonia.
And in the same way, we need to care for them, find them rivers to drink from daily, good pasture to munch on every few hours, remove stones from their hooves and find grain where we can. Even taking into account the emotional support, the grooming and resting time that’ll be required to sustain the expedition.
There are so many things to think about, stuff that we haven’t yet worked out systems for.
Earlier today we tried to strap a surfboard to Blacky for the first time, and it’s safe to say we wont be trying it again. I’ve never seen a horse freak out so much, so much energy and power in such a large animal - raring, bucking and galloping for her life. I’ve definitely got a better understanding of where the term ‘horsepower’ comes from. The rope burned from my hands, surfboard and saddlebags swinging from her side as she bolted, trampled and ripped everything apart – she was no longer rational, just in a full flight of terror and destruction.
First time we’d tried to use the saddle-bags, and now they’re ripped, and Blacky is traumatised.
First time either of us realised what we are really dealing with, and that it isn’t just a fun thing to do while travelling, it was going to be difficult, and after Blacky’s display it feels a lot more dangerous than what the motorcycles ever had.
They’re so bloody strong. And they’re always so scared of everything. I almost fell off the other day whilst galloping at full speed, because a painted yellow line on the road stopped Salvador in his tracks. Turns out he doesn’t like yellow lines - white lines are fine - but don’t even try and get him near a yellow one.
What happens if they freak out in front of a moving car?! So many unknowns. Either way we are going to make the surfboards happen – we have to, otherwise we may as well quit…
We haven’t dared to rig a board to Salvador.
But Harimau’s seen a lot in his time and I think we’ll get there with him. The guy who sold Hari to us (not Sergio) said he was 12, but we later we found out he’s a fair bit older than that. A bloody grandpa of a horse! Used for everything in his time, including the Chilean styled races, which are notoriously unsafe and not always ethical (according to locals).
But he’s doing well, we’ve been feeding him up, and reckon he’ll be right… he’s super calm, and also super responsive to ride…
And luckily Pichi seems pretty cool with it too…
We were planning on swapping out the pack horses and rotating the riding to give them rests and keep things a bit more interesting for them – but not now. We have two for riding, Heather on Blacky and me on Salvador, and Pichi and Hari with the cargo loads, because they’re not terrified of surfboards…
Twin keeled fish on a four footed equine.
Perhaps that’s the biggest thing we need to get our heads around after travelling for so long on bikes - that we’re dealing with a beast of an animal. You can’t just pull up for the night, turn the engines off, leave your gear in the panniers on the bike, go to sleep and expect that everything’s going to be fine in the morning. The bike is a machine with replaceable parts that you can turn off and on with a flick of a switch, then pull on the throttle and not slow down until your body’s exhausted. It doesn’t care, it doesn’t think – it just goes.
The horse is a living, thinking being who bleeds just like we do. Who farts, gets tired, annoyed, thirsty, or stomps their feet in happiness at the prospect of more grain.
I am quickly realising that more than anything they are prey animals – they get scared, spooked and frightened of anything. A funny noise behind them, a plastic bag blowing in the wind, or the most terrifying of them all, to be approached with the utmost of caution – a small pile of unmoving rubbish on the side of the road.
Unlike a motorbike they won’t just wait for you when you jump off, and if you don’t tie em up properly they’ll be 10km down the road and across the bloody river before you know it.
So why have we taken this step backwards, or to the side, or is it forward? If it’s all going to be so much more challenging, so foreign and slow, why did we sell the bikes in the first place?
This is why…
Personality over technology.
Chile is one of the world’s cultural strongholds of the horse, where huasos and gauchos (Latin American cowboys) are commonplace, their unmistakeable footsteps down the street sounding jingles from spurred boots upon the crunchy gravel.
Photo by our friends: Stefan & Ulli
Photo by our friends: Stefan & Ulli
Photo by our friends: Stefan & Ulli
I’ve always admired the horse, that noble and mysterious air. And right now we the have time and inclination to learn, perhaps more time than sense, definitely more time than money.
So why not? Why not say ‘yes’ and make a little dream a reality?
A pertinent encounter for us, was reaching South America.
Riding our motorbikes high up into the Andean mountains, we were greeted with the open and true hospitality of hard working locals. The same people tending to their farms in the same way they always have for thousands of years. One tiny hamlet in particular made us stop and think.
The villagers had gathered at the local store (pretty much just a house with a couple of things for sale) and were spending the afternoon together as a community, enjoying beers and singing songs after a hard day’s work. Everyone clad in home-made Llama ponchos (called ‘ruanas’ locally). We were invited to hang out, and so we did, and we were offered a beer, so we drank.
And we watched as more people arrived to the little store/pub thing on horseback, some of them coming from a few days ride away, from their far off plots in the mountains. Soon enough the little store had become a thriving hub of smiling, laughing and hugging your mates.
But as quickly as it had all come together, the little party began to disintegrate, and after only 1 or 2 beers each, the people jumped back on their horses and rode towards home. We were offered to stay with a local family.
What struck me most was the effortlessness of it all, and the tightness of the community. The small village, the few friends and family, the 1 or 2 beers, the home-made ruanas (ponchos), the pub that is actually just Juan’s spare room, the party that was not actually a party, but just what the townsfolk did together after each hard day’s work.
And the horses.
There were no billboards. No traffic. No squeezing like factory-packed sardines onto rush-hour trains or frustratingly choked freeways bound for desperate schedules and the eternal servitude of the one, almighty ‘Economy’.
And even though that world is no longer our lives, especially now in this travelling phase, there was something special about the quiet approach of the horses that made us stop and think. Almost silent, so natural, so beautifully regal yet so grounded.
Life seemed so much more simple.
The next day (after sitting around all night in a 200 year old stone cottage) we said goodbye to the family and the little hamlet, and rode down towards the coast. We stopped at a gas station, and somehow the horses came up in conversation. And right there, amongst the fumes of spilt petrol and radio advertisements, below the neon sign of some photoshopped chick with her tits out, smiling perfectly to sell us something we didn’t need - we made the decision.
It was a concrete decision in less than 10 minutes.
We’d sell the bikes and buy some horses. Not because we didn’t love our bikes, but because change can be a good thing. And just because you don’t know the first thing about how to change, doesn’t mean that it can’t be done…
Luckily it’s been a fortunate and coincidental transition so far, more superstitious people might even call the fluke of selling the bikes to our cowboy mates from the Outback - ‘fateful’.
Neither of us believe in a pre-determined fate, but I do believe that in order to grow, and potentially find something meaningful, a good place to start is with a challenge.
And so we’re going to try to clip-clop our way down into one of the richest surf zones of South America, and to do it slowly. A place where crowds don’t exist, but world-class waves do, where we won’t need gas stations or roads, but where we will need rain gear and a camera.
A place where there are rolling green hills to graze and camp upon, with fat trout in cool rivers to catch, whilst our horses drink deeply at the end of the day.