“Ewww… your horse stinks.”
It wasn’t exactly the response for which I was hoping after I plodded over to a couple of sunbathing backpackers who had waved at me.
But I have to admit: he did indeed stink. Both myself and my steed had been sweating under the high-noon sun of a tropical island. The wet, 900-pound scapegoat beneath me remained stoic despite the abuse. I sat more upright in the saddle to salvage some dignity.
The travelers were cute—and Swedish. Like many of their kind, they had fled Scandinavian February for a warmer place. They also wanted to know how and why I happened to riding a horse on the beach in Koh Lanta, Thailand.
After a few minutes of friendly conversation, we had arranged to meet in the evening to watch a fire show—the default, nightly entertainment on an island such as Koh Lanta. With plans made and a growing number of flies gathering, the time had come for me to make my exit. The close of any moment is as important as the open, and I wanted my future friends to anticipate our rendezvous for the rest of the afternoon. The plan was to ride off romantically along the edge of the sea, hopefully leaving a wake of mystery.
With a horse beneath me, making a memorable exit should have been fairly straightforward. Hollywood had already done all the hard work. This was in 2006, and there weren’t yet enough Americans traveling in Thailand to debunk the stereotypes. The list of romantic possibilities was endlessly in my favor.
Maybe I was a mysterious American nomad, traveling alone; a tortured soul, an Indiana Jones adventurer rudely stripped of his hat and Colt six-shooter by Thai immigration authorities; a quiet man who only removed his well-chewed cigar to spit, say something profound, or take a pull from a bottle of rot-gut whiskey.
Sitting tall in the saddle, I said goodbye and pulled the reins. Surprisingly, the horse complied, and we spun with some flair for our dramatic exit. But as Napoleon once warned, the most dangerous part of battle is victory. I never saw the ambush coming.
The horse, sensing an opportunity to contribute to the scene in a memorable way, promptly lifted his tail and dropped a steaming, sizable pile of half-digested hay within arm’s reach of the Swedes’ beach towels.
I remained stiff in the saddle, horrified beyond action, but a reflexive “oh no … ” escaped my lips.
There was no need to turn around to see what happened. I had felt the horse’s flanks quivering against my legs. The bastard gave a monumental effort. The sheer sound of his record-breaking bowel movement hitting the sand was impressive.
It was time to exit the crime scene immediately.
My horse picked up pace without my doing anything. Even he understood that a tragedy had transpired. Dark and ancient curses involving various Norse deities followed us audibly down the beach. As well as the flies. Like many of us travelers, my horse had a stomach problem. Lots of innocent sunbathers had to relocate their beach base camps that day.
Earlier in the morning, I had wandered into a travel office on Koh Lanta’s Long Beach to book a boat somewhere. The owner, Mr. Yat, was a short, twitchy, mustached man with a sun-weathered face. He was friendly enough; however, I got the feeling that he sold more than just tickets to backpackers. A signboard in front of his shop listed “The Moon” as a potential destination. Magic mushrooms were readily available on most Thai islands.
Inside the office was a hand-scrawled sign advertising horseback riding lessons on the beach. Instantly, whatever neurons inside my head that typically lead to great adventures or horrific injuries began to fire in excitement. I pictured galloping up and down the lengthy stretch of sand with foam splashing up around us, our manes blowing in the wind.
More importantly, this was my first opportunity to learn how to handle a horse without fear of a broken collarbone—a painful rite of passage for some of my equestrian friends back home in Kentucky. Surely, falling into sand couldn’t hurt that bad.
My hometown of Lexington is proudly billed as the “Horse Capital of the World” because of the number of horses per capita. But I had only been on a horse once in my life, and it had tried to kill me as three Irish women howled with laughter.
The fact that I was from Kentucky and had only experienced the absolute terror of sitting on a horse once in my 30 years of life was embarrassing. I wanted to feel the magic and better understand the importance people place on these majestic animals. Horses in Lexington regularly sell for 7-digit prices.
Here on Koh Lanta, riding lessons were only $10, a mere fraction of what they would cost at home. I could learn to ride in a beautiful setting—with fewer Irish girls watching—and have a soft place to fall if things went wrong.
A fateful decision was made. It was time to saddle up.
I told Mr. Yat that I wanted to learn to ride. I was ready to join the leathery ranks of manly men such as Clint Eastwood, the Marlboro Man, and Fabio. I wanted to be bucking at the county fair one day alongside George Strait, our faded Levi’s held up by enormous buckles. Flip-flops would have to be exchanged for snake-skin boots soon.
Mr Yat sighed deeply. Additional lines creased his brown forehead. With another deep exhale, he told his partner to watch the shop and then we walked to his motorbike.
“Hop on. We’ll go get horse.”
We bounced on his sputtering scooter to the main road, turned right onto a dirt path, and rode a short distance to his sun-scorched farm in the island interior. Insects droned loudly from the tall weeds around us.
The farm appeared occupied by animals in various conditions. Mr. Yat went inside the barn alone while I waited. Many concerning sounds of struggle came from within the leaning structure’s shadows. Eventually, Mr. Yat emerged leading a tacked-up, not-so-happy horse by a long shank. He stopped a few feet away from me. My future mount and I began to size each other up.
Horses in Kentucky are often revered, expensive animals. Streets get named after Kentucky Derby winners. People in tuxedos drop those same names at galas, the way one might mention celebrities. The horse barns definitely offered better living conditions than my backpacker guesthouses. If a racehorse in Kentucky kicks a groomer in the head, gasping bystanders might rush out to ensure contact with a human skull didn’t injure the thoroughbred’s hoof—you get the idea.
This irritable horse, on the other hand, looked like it had been rejected by the pet food industry and instead was forced into the tourism industry.
“What’s his name?” I asked Mr. Yat.
“His name is Horse.”
Well, now we were getting somewhere. That in itself would cause any animal a life of self doubt and low aspirations. Maybe the sad appearance wasn’t the horse’s fault after all. People at home name horses as carefully as they do their children. No animal named Horse would ever win the Kentucky Derby. You name your son Rock, Stone, Wolf, or Dick Armey if you want him to go on to big things.
This horse had obviously been robbed of his potential. I was prepared to at least lend the poor animal some hope, and if nothing else, some visions of grandeur. I wanted him dreaming of rich women with floppy hats and white gloves cheering for us. They would spill their mint juleps in excitement as we showed, placed—or preferably—won someday at Keeneland.
The horse was still staring at me intensely. His ears twitched irritably, and his tail swished at flies. There were always flies.
“Well hello there, fella.”
I patted the horse’s neck and immediately retracted my hand, sticky with goo. Green snot and foam had spread from his mouth to shoulders. Even the horse’s stance was peculiar. Cooked spaghetti had better posture. Was there an equine equivalent for leprosy? And could it be contagious? The entire scene reeked of decay. Grooming obviously wasn’t of high concern on the farm.
“Mr. Yat, I don’t mind helping groom your horse after … ”
The horse bit me.
The square, yellow imprints left on my forearm didn’t feel like a sign of affection. In fact, the bite hurt like hell. I was pondering how I should react when the miserable animal snapped again, narrowly missing my right hand. I noticed his eyes were full of malice as he searched for a meaty appendage within reach.
Mr. Yat shrugged and sighed, “Now you understand.”
I climbed into the saddle anyway; it was half of an English saddle with mismatched stirrups. Rather than join me or draw another horse as I had expected, Mr. Yat led us back to the main road by motorbike. I barely had the reins in hand when Horse pushed forward to keep up with his owner.
With little warning, I found myself on a horse—one that most definitely hated my guts—trotting alongside a busy road in Thailand. Although I didn’t feel safe, there was no stopping. I didn’t even know how to stop. Mr. Yat puttered ahead of us on his scooter without looking back. Every time I pulled back on the reins to slow us down, the blasted animal turned its head to bite me again. A Komodo dragon would have been safer company.
The clomp clomp of hooves on hard asphalt many feet below me was ominous. This was a less-than-ideal place to be on a horse for the second time in my life. I bounced clumsily in the saddle. Island residents passed us with horns blaring. My nervous ride lurched and jumped, threatening to send me flying. Christopher Reeve and Stephen Hawking’s speaking chair kept coming to mind. I’d be lucky to break just a collarbone.
It was with great relief that we turned down the beach path and I felt hooves sink deeply into soft sand. The extent of my instruction—my “riding lesson”—was Mr. Yat telling me to be back at this spot around 3 p.m.
Flabbergasted, I dismounted and stammered out some basic questions about equestrianism that seemed sensible enough. For instance, I still didn’t know how to stop or turn. Mr. Yat’s response was to break a green stick off of a nearby tree. He handed me the weapon and told me to use it liberally. When it broke—and he predicted that it would due to all the imminent lashings—I was to cut another one from the tree.
“Horse will understand.”
I had no intentions of whipping his horse, so I handed the makeshift crop back to Mr. Yat. Just as I began my protest, the horse extended its neck and bit me again—this time even harder.
OK! Give me the damned stick!
In the spirit of adventure, I climbed into the saddle and situated myself. Despite the rocky start, the time for pressing into the unknown had arrived, a feeling I had learned to cherish during my travels. I discovered that simply moving the crop to the rear of the horse—no contact necessary—was enough to get us going forward. Stopping was another matter entirely, but I hacked through and got the hang of things. An hour later, I could almost go where I wanted, like up to unsuspecting Swedes. Amazingly, I never fell.
We rode up and down the beach that morning, learning along the way. And despite the unstable footing near the water, I took us into the sea a few times to cool down as the sun began to climb. Horse seemed to like getting wet; it was quite possibly the only bath he had experienced.
Our first interaction of many that day was with a Scandinavian family, a warmly smiling mom and her two young daughters. For the safety of the children, I would have stayed far, far away, but they waved us over with delight. A sense of dread washed over me when they left the refuge of their beach umbrella and boldly approached us. I could just imagine the Bangkok Post headlines: Vicious Foreigner Atop Crazed Horse Stomps Tourist Family into Sand.
I leaned forward and hissed into a twitching ear, “Stay cool or I swear to Buddha I will eat you tonight.”
Horse complied. All was going well, so far. Expecting an unfortunate loss of tiny fingers, I shut my eyes when the oldest daughter reached to pet the horse’s neck, however, nothing happened. The mom wrinkled her nose in disgust as she noted the mucus clinging to her daughters’ hands. She was already digging around in her beach bag for something.
I felt like telling her to forget the wet wipe. These kids would need a full-scale scrub-down with wire brushes, lye soap, and the works. I already planned to burn my swim shorts at the end of the day. Given the stench, they were to be chalked up as a field loss.
Despite the mucus issue, the two daughters enjoyed petting Horse. I dare say we had become a part of their vacation memories. Photos were snapped. For a moment, I felt like a hero sitting atop my docile steed. Maybe there was something to this equestrian thing after all. Horse had no shortage of personality, albeit maybe that of someone you would really like to drown for the betterment of the world.
When the family was safely out of range, I gratefully patted Horse on the neck for his good behavior and almost lost a finger in the process.
After riding around for several hours, two things were apparent: my bottom was sustaining damage and Horse was growing increasingly irritable. The commands that worked earlier were now failing miserably. Even the sea didn’t excite us anymore. The day was growing hot—island hot—and neither of us had drinking water.
My survival sense was tingling. If I continued to push my luck and Horse’s patience, there could be dire consequences. No, it was time to go home. All adventures, when stretched too far, can snap and turn ugly.
The time was only 1 p.m. My plan was to tie up Horse in the shade at our rendezvous spot with Mr. Yat, then get us some water. I would wait safely out of biting range until time was up.
I was surprised to see Mr. Yat already waiting for us two hours earlier than planned, rather than minding his shop. He grinned and folded his newspaper when I rode up.
“I knew you’d be back early.”
This story about learning (sort of) to ride a horse on the beach in Koh Lanta was originally written back in 2010.