We all hit the ground running with Tehri, Traci and Glen, Traci’s husband and spent our first night sleeping out in the bush in a small wooden hide set beside a dam on Jejane. Jejane is a big five 5,000ha nature reserve ten minutes outside the center of town. We (the volunteers) are lucky enough to stay at Jejane’s bush camp because Glen is the manager of the reserve. Traci and Glen also live on Jejane about 20 minutes away. The night we slept out at the dam was unfortunately before Charlie’s arrival but it was a wonderful time spent around a small fire with old friends and new.
The next day we were at the stables and briefed on our new lives. I have already had quite a few adventures since arriving at African Dreams on July 29th. Realize that I have never been around horses or even really cared too much about horses before this experience but I am holding my own and learning the best I can.
Our basic weekly schedule is Mondays Wednesdays and Fridays all day at the stables doing trail rides with guests, getting lessons (lets just say that I was less than graceful on a horse the first few days but I’d like to think that my style and technique are coming along haha), helping give lessons to young children, and going on “out rides” in the bush without guests. The stables are within the Hoedspruit’s Wilderness Estate, which is a “big 3” (buffalo, rhino, leopard) property of a little more than 2,000 ha. Tuesdays and Thursdays we spend with Glen on Jejane doing whatever bush work is on the agenda. This has ranged from driving along the roads looking for oddly green grass indicating a pipe leak and then digging a trench to repair the leak.. to walking along the electric fences looking for shorts.. to clearing land and doing maintenance on infrastructure. After lunch we then head to the stables for the rest of the day. I have really enjoyed the bush work because we basically get to be out on foot on a big 5 reserve, getting dirty and also enjoying the presence of all the animals as we wander the dirt roads between job sites. One thing that is definitely a change from the white lion group is the fact that we are busy all day long at the stables and when we are doing bush work. There is always something to be doing, a horse that needs to be worked, a child’s lesson that we can help with, etc. The days that I am in my horsey zone it is awesome.. days that I am not I can hang out in the stable office and play with the stable cat that arrived just after me. While I realize that stray cats and dogs are actually a huge problem over here, I kind of wish I could just collect and save stray animals back in PA or wherever I eventually end up. Though, I know for a fact that my parents are mighty relieved that I can’t!
I have also met a great guy during my time with African Dreams and we spend quite a bit of time together!! His name is Dave and he is quite tall and absolutely handsome with the most beautiful brown eyes. He is a man of few words but is super supportive and looks out for me. I’m unfortunately getting pretty attached and already know that it is going to be hard for me to leave him behind in a month or so when I continue my African adventure elsewhere. I guess I should mention that Dave is a big beautiful mottled white and gray horse!! He was the first horse I rode that first trail ride and is the only horse I ride if I can help it. For instance I only have my lessons on Dave, which isn’t necessarily good for my riding but I figure I won’t do much or any riding when I get home so it doesn’t matter!
We have had some good times! At the beginning of August we (Traci, the remaining French girl, Lucy, Charlie and I) were on an out ride and rode into the water at one of the dams in the Wildlife Estate and before I knew it Dave had rolled and disappeared beneath me into the water. Traci had JUST finished telling us what to do if our horse tries to start swimming and I failed on all accounts to stop him haha. Luckily the water was only a meter or so deep and Dave simply rolled on his side. I just found myself standing there thigh deep in the dam still holding the reigns in total disbelief. It couldn’t have been funnier and I know if Tehri had been on the ride with us she would have fallen off her horse crying with laughter because it was definitely the highlight of everyone’s ride and the story of the week to all of our other friends. “Did you hear about how Dave took Carolyn for a swim in the dam the other day…” haha! It was hilarious.. what was a tiny bit annoying though as that my sneakers are gore-tex waterproof so my feet sloshed around in my shoes the whole ride home haha.
The very next day was my first afternoon of cantering, again on Dave. The first canter was short and sweet with not too much trouble other than me probably looking like I was about to bounce out of the saddle. Lucy of course wasn’t paying attention so she requested another small canter, which I again preformed with little grace but no issue. Running on a cantering high I figured I was on a roll and decide to try my hand again, but the third time was not a charm. I was behind Charlie following in a canter but caught up a little faster than I had anticipated and that’s went it all went down hill. I managed to steer around Charlie without incident but was not equipped to multitask in a canter. When I say multitask I mean hold on, look where I am going and avoid moving obstacles (other people on horses) in my path. My first two canters were me simply holding on for ride but this time I bit off a little more than I could chew and, in an effort to lead Dave in a direction other than straight, somehow lost my left stirrup. I also now realize that my reigns were way too long, which is why I decided to hold onto Dave’s mane.. and then neck.. which inevitably lead me to sliding off Dave’s right shoulder into a backward summersault in the arena sand. Thank god I was unscathed and was able to quickly pop onto my feet because there was quite an audience of all the other volunteers, Tehri, Traci and also 3 or 4 little girls riding their horses around. Thankfully Lucy wasn’t riding at that moment and collected Dave, who had run in her direction after shedding the extra American weight. Apparently I stayed on several moments longer than everyone witnessing the event was anticipating and that my slide off the side was quite graceful! Ha.. I do what I can! I called it a day at that point and lead Dave (on foot) up the drive from the jumping arena to the stables. Traci later informed me that I am in debt to everyone one chocolate cake for falling off a horse! One of their stable traditions haha.
Honestly, I feel badly for Dave.. he has been very patient with me haha. I have come to realize that I am very bad at taking control of the ride and the horse, something that I am now realizing has translated into my riding from my life and personality. It is actually amazing how aspects of one’s personality with strengths, weaknesses, emotions, insecurities, etc comes through in how one rides and responds to challenges on a horse. According to Traci (our resident Horse Whisperer as far as we are all concerned), she could tell certain things about me from observing me the first couple times on Dave. Something that I struggle with is taking and keeping control of my ride for I tend to let Dave be naughty and call the shots. It is the pushover in me showing through and it is a pretty significant problem for me as I learn this new sport (is horseback riding called a sport?). The other thing that I we have realized about my riding is that sometimes I lack the confidence to control the ride. For instance yesterday it took me a few laps in a trot to have the confidence to take control and tell Dave to Canter. It not a fear thing, I mean hell I have already fallen off once, but it more uncertainty in my ability to handle what I ask of Dave. For instance I ask for him to canter but I’m pretty sure my body language is telling him otherwise. I’m not going to go into it and I am getting better and more confident everyday but I still find it really interesting how certain personal things can become amplified through one’s riding. In a way it is kind of like golf.. how you perform and your mindset going into it can very easily determine the outcome of your play. For instance, if you doubt your 3 wood or psyche yourself out because of the water trap to the left of the green then you aren’t going to necessarily hit the ball with the tenacity needed to make the green. Not the best example, considering my situation involves a 500kg animal, but maybe that helps.
Another thing that has become clear is that while I am enjoying learning how to ride and being around horses and people that are brilliant rides like Tehri and Traci, I cannot say that I am a “horsey person.” After four weeks of being at the stables Monday through Saturday I can say, to Traci’s dismay, that I am more than content riding only once a day and even taking a day off from being in the saddle. The joke is that they will turn me into a proper horse person yet, but I don’t know. Maybe. I’ll let you know!
I actually got 5 days off from horseback riding between Aug 12 and 16 because we all piled into the truck and headed off to Swaziland for a horseshow where Tehri and Traci’s daughter were competing in the 100cm and 90cm jumping classes. Swaziland was beautiful. It still baffles me how it is its own country considering its size and position as a little island within South Africa. The show was at a stud farm nestled at the base of a small mountain range that seemed to surround Swaziland in all directions. The property was situated just high enough in elevation that we were above the city and development. It was green as far as the eye could see all around us until the mountains. Our only complaints were that it was cold and expensive, but other than that is was a stunning area and we had a great time. We enjoyed meeting all of Tehri and Traci’s riding competition friends. The equestrian circle is pretty small in northeastern South Africa/ Swaziland so all of these people travel to the same shows and also take turns hosting shows. I never thought that I’d end up at a horse show and in Swaziland no less but I really enjoyed watching all of the techniques and different horses. The highest jumping class was 1 meter 30 cm and it was only Tehri’s instructor! It was a smaller show was no more than 5 individuals per class. I also had a lot of fun working on my action photography technique. I’m not half bad and after Traci looked through my shots she informed me that photographers sell the same shots to rides for maybe a few hundred Rand each (maybe $30 or $40).
It has become quite the joke that if there is a thorn tree or bush, I will find it. I think there has only been one trail ride out of probably a dozen in total that I have come back totally unscathed. Its actually kind of tragic haha. But there is just something about being able to ride through the bush to a dam and watch a family of warthogs mud bath and then rub themselves on their favorite trees and logs before scampering off with tails erect. The wildlife on the Wildlife Estate has become very comfortable with the horses’ presence and we are therefore able to watch the game carry on with their day from an intimate distance without disrespecting the animal’s space. Sometimes after the 200th impala sighting from the safari Land Crusier you get a little jaded but from the back of a horse you feel like you are part of the bush as you walk past within reach of these beautiful antelope. And every time we go out on a trail ride I cross my fingers that we will have the chance to ride into a family of giraffe like I did on my very first ride as a guest. The only thing we have to worry about is the buffalo. They can be very curious and aggressive so it is important that we remain vigilant and don’t ride into a herd of them. The other day on our way to one of the dams to let the horses drink a bit, since it has gotten blooooody hott (!!!mid high 90’s!!!), we came upon the whole herd of what looked like maybe 30 some buffalo just hanging out by the pool looking like they weren’t planning on going anywhere fast!
At the end of the day at the stables my finger nails are black as can be, I’m likely nursing a sore shoulder from tearing through a knob thorn tree, I’m sore from my lesson when I was made to trot for twenty minutes, I’m covered in white hair and horse drool from loving Dave a bit too much, there is a layer of dust on every exposed part of my body no matter how many times I wash my face in the sink, I’m absolutely exhausted but I love life and sleep like the dead. Funny enough, horses often pop up in my dreams here and there.
I do need a massage though!! haha
Working in the bush the other day was another day in paradise. Driving the four row open roofed safari Land Cruiser through the bush with zebra and wildebeest along the road to our right and warthog dashing through the bush with tails high on our left, it was just another afternoon on Jejane. I love taking photos and it is to the point that I see all sorts of game and don’t even make a move for my camera (which I still take along in case) because I can simply enjoy the games’ presence as we pass. I’d also like to mention that by the time I get home I will be a pro at driving a stick shift!! Charlie and I now take turns driving the monster safari car the days that we are in the bush. Charlie of course has a bit of an advantage since they seem to all drive manual in England so my turn at the wheel provides endless entertainment. I’ve decided I am fine until I’m under pressure and the brake clutch and gas just look like a blur of pedals. For instance, the other day Charlie Glenn and I were adjusting pieces of the electrical fence that are taller enough for the vehicles to drive under so I was put behind the wheel to reverse a bit to pull up to the pole on the left side of for them to tighten and then reverse and pull up to the right side.. well having another truck coming down the one lane road was not part of the plan. Long story short, as I tried to reverse backwards off the road into the bush I got a little flustered with having to release the clutch and break to keep the car moving slowly but I wasn’t giving any gas so I kept staling as the other car is sitting in front waiting and I ended up helplessly yelling for Charlie to rescue me.. haha.. oh well! I prefer putting the car in 3rd and leaving it until absolutely necessary to switch gear!
This past Tuesday in the bush after we were done messing with the electrical fence, we called it a day and headed to the shooting range on the property with a .22 gun. Charlie and I went head to head for the number of shots initially on the paper target and then within and inner box in the middle and I’d just like to inform everyone that I won!! We are going to do it again with Traci next time and make a day of it. I forgot how much I enjoyed hanging out at a rifle range. It brought back the memories of kicking butt on the rifle range at Camp Allegheny down in Virginia when I was 8. Thinking back, it is kind of odd that I spent most of my afternoons trying to excel through all the shooting levels as an 8-year-old down there with my Huey Lewis & the News and Neil Diamond cassette tapes!?!?! Hmm.. oh well.. all I know is that I was daaaamn proud of myself when I got the rifle achievement patch at the awards ceremony at the end of the three weeks at camp!!
Then this past thursday after digging new drainage trenches for three hours along the main road, we (Charlie, Glen and I) decided it was way waaaaay too hott for manual labor and headed over to the Jejane pool for a dip, nap and tan! Ain't life tough!
Cantering success and then failure
I would just like everyone to know that on Wednesday August 26th I successfully cantered four times during a lesson without falling off!!! Haha.. Actually what is the most frustrating thing is that it really isn’t terrible challenging at all once you have the feel for it. I’m not entirely sure why but I have no problem cantering when we are out on trail and then get in the arena and have trouble getting going. Maybe it’s a space thing when I’m trying to not canter or even trot head long into one of five other horses flying around the big arena. These ten-year-olds put me to shame! Haha. The worst is when I watch this tiny tiny little girl (her heel comes to the middle of his side if that) ride Dave during her lessons and all she has to do is practically whisper canter in his ear and they are gracefully flying around the arena. Sigh.. ugh.. humpf! And now Tehri and Traci are telling me that I am jumping in the horse show that they are hosting at the end of September.. granted the poles will likely just be on the ground but oh yikes!! I tried jumping the course the other day with them and not only could I not sustain a decent canter the while way are the course but I couldn’t remember the order of the jumps. If I do compete (for fun) in the show it is going to be quite a spectacle! Who would have ever thought I’d be competing in a horse show.. NOT ME!! We’ll just have to make sure that the bush hasn’t claimed me by that point!
Well, I wrote the last paragraph before falling off Dave again yesterday (Sept 4th)! I wish I could say that the fall was as graceful as my last but sadly it wasn’t even close. I was having a fabulous lesson with my rising trot but that stupid transition from trot to canter got me again. As I went from rising trot to a sitting trot waiting for Dave to pick it up and take off, I tensed my body and again lost my left stirrup. This caused me to panic enough that I lost my balance and bailed to the right landing on my lower right hip/ back. I landed hard and there were no cutesy summersault of anything. I also properly got the wind knocked out of me and that’s not exactly a feeling I care to repeat but like the good old saying goes about getting back on the horse.. I actually got back on the horse (after I started to breath again) and trotted a bit. I almost cantered again but decided to save it for another day! I spent the next 4 hours hobbling around the stable yard like I had a wooden right leg. There was actually a kid’s birthday party at the stable and they all went on a scavenger hunt of sorts on the horses out in the bush so needless to say I stayed behind. To make myself feel useful while they were out looking for goodie baskets in the bush, I actually screwed back together our wooden couch in the office that had needed its fabric lining to be taken off and stitched. Savannah, our beautiful gray stable cat that arrived at the stable shortly after I did kept me company haha.