Tuesday May 22- Horses and Herding Wildebeest

At Antelope Park, in addition to the elephants and lions, there are the stables (which have been introduced in this blog before).  The horses, which are a reckless and crazy creature on their own, require an introductory course in which volunteers interested in playing polo, going on game rides, and just riding in general must take before being allowed on the horses.  Alex, who in real life (because obviously we are living a fake life right now) rides horse and teaches horse back riding, is a modern day horse lady.  So needless to say, she was in her element with the horses and had me begging and pleading to do our intro course with the horses.  So finally, after two weeks, we were finally able to get our foot in the door. 

Our morning with the horse intro began with horse food making.  I don’t remember if I have recapped this event before but here I go again.  Horse food making is necessary to put gas in the tank, but it was not one of my favourite jobs.  The food, which is sliced and diced hay, oat stuff, and other goodies that horses like, is mixed together in a labour-filled process (for the average coach potato). Basically, everything is chopped up if it comes in sizes usually larger than 2 inches. So everything, and I mean everything, is dusty.  Since everything is so dusty, it can cause respiration problems for the horses (and people making the food), so to prevent the horses (and people after the fact) from breathing in dust and dirt, you first lay down the hay, in a cement basin and water it.  Then you add everything else on top of the damp hay, and water it too, and mix it with a shovel, pitchfork or broom, whatever you have on hand, so it is all mixed and not clumpy.  Sounds easy?  Sure, except the water makes everything sticky and horses don’t like sticky food with clumps so you spend a lot more time mixing, and flipping than what is initially thought as necessary and all this mixing and flipping stirs up dusty, inducing stinging eyes and hay fever in people who don't have allergies.

After making the food, and being sufficiently covered in dust, (but looking the part of a real cowgirl), we went to deliver the goods to the horses.  The horses know when to expect food and they bombard the wheelbarrow when they finally realized our cargo was food.  Luckily,  Alex the horse lady, chased away the horses so that I could get to the trough.

After making food for our lovely little horse friends, we met Andy, our guide.  Andy is a polo player, and a kick-ass person who knows a lot about horses and loves each and every horse.  After our meet and greet, we were told to head for breakfast and return afterwards to continue out intro.
Shortly after breakfast, we returned to the stables.  We found several horses tied up to the fence; several polo horses and some older, more seasoned horses, each with a saddle, reign, bit and bridle waiting nearby.  Andy met us and showed us to our brushes as we were to brush our horses then tack them up.  I for one have never tacked up a horse, not to mention ride one in a very long time.

Here is a trip down memory lane, that I may have mentioned before but its applicable to the topic at hand.  Horses and I really don’t get along.  I love horses, but I don’t know anything about them.  So, as a result, horses sense my nervousness, and chances are, being nervous, I am doing something wrong while trying to be an expert.  Because I am such a hot mess when dealing with horses, shit goes down.  Seriously.  The last 3, I repeat 3 times I have been on a horse, the horse has rolled, or tried to roll on me.  I am an expert at diving and dodging, so luckily, my legs have remained intact and I have sustained no injuries.  You see though?  I must be doing something wrong because the horses just go “Ok, that’s it, this has to come to an end” and then they proceed to drop to their knees with me in the saddle and start to roll over.  Panic stricken, I leap off the horse, usually letting go of the reigns and then I have to catch my horse which inevitably runs away.  Hot mess.

So tacking a horse is one task, and luckily Owen, our video and media expert (and best rapper at Antelope Park), tacked my horse up for me and I got up on my horse like a pro.  But inside, I was nervous as hell.  Alex is prancing around on the back of her horse and I am clutching the saddle (which is an English saddle, so no horn to hold onto) and reigns for dear life.  Luckily, I was placed with an elder horse who obediently followed Andy into the ring, along with the other 5 horses in our group.  Once in the ring, Andy told us that we would learn the basics: how to trot and post, canter and gallop.  I was terrified.  Worse still, Andy tells me my horse likes to trip because he is old and then he reaches into his back pocket and hands me a crop.  Before this day, I had no idea what a riding crop was except for its use in Fifty Shades of Grey (the trilogy was my reading for the flight to Africa, and stay at Antelope Park- this was before I found out it was “mommy porn”).  Andy says to me while I am tentatively holding the crop that my horse is stubborn and doesn’t like to trot or do anything faster than a walk so I would have to use the crop, which meant that I would be removing at least one hand from its secure position on the saddle.

Lined up on one side of the ring, we each attempted to trot and post to the other side.  I’ve never posted before because I have never had to on my friendly walking trail rides, so I looked like a hot mess, again.  Alex showed me what I should be doing and slowly but surely I got better, but not great.  I took not great though because if I continued the way I was going, I would have been in a butt-cast for the rest of my trip.  Then, it was time to canter, which went better because it meant no posting, but my horse was stubborn and tried to walk.  The next thing I know, Andy was slapping my horse’s butt to make it move.  Well that sure did it, he moved! 

After mastering all of our riding techniques, we were told we were going to play tag on horseback.  It was interesting… as I am manoeuvring around the ring, crop in hand, the person that was "it" came charging at me and my horse.  Scaring me, I flashed the crop by the horses face by accident.  Meanwhile, my horse startled due to the charging horse and flashing crop, so my horse finally decided it would be time to move.  So, he bolted.  He started to run straight towards the end of the ring where there is a partially opened gate.  He bolted and as he is running, I realise there is a pile of tires in front of me.  I literally closed my eyes and hoped to God that my horse could dodge without tripping or jump without falling.  I was secretly hoping for the previous because I had never trotted a horse, let alone jump a horse.  Well, my horse jumped the pile of tires, as small as it may have been (maybe 2 feet), and then charged through the barely open gate, skimmed a tree with a low hanging branch that I dodged and then screeched to a halt by the fence where he had been tied up before.

Shaken but alive, I convinced my horse to go back to the ring where we remained ringside until the end of the game.  We then went back to the fence, undressed our horses, brushed them out and went for lunch.

Alex, in her element, encouraged me to continue because I was hesitant to return and get on a horse and do our next activity, a game ride.

After lunch, we returned back to the stables where out horses were waiting.  We again tacked them up and prepared ourselves for our ride into the bush. Tentative, holding a crop, I made my horse obediently follow the other horses up the trail and into the bush.  We were encouraged to trot, which I did like a pro (in my eyes) until we encountered game.  Game rides are excellent.  The horses put the other animals at ease and so it is easy to get close with an animal or even get lost in a herd of animals without spooking them away.  We saw impala, zebra, giraffe and wildebeest, but the highlight of the trip was herding.  We encountered a large group of wildebeest during the middle of our ride, and Lucky, our game ride guide, told us we would herd the wildebeest.  We were divided into groups and urged our horses to gallop at the wildebeest.  It was MADNESS and absolutely AMAZING.  The thundering hooves, the dust cloud that resulted and the snorting of the wildebeest and they started to run- it doesn’t get much better than that.  I could hear people yelling and urging their horse’s forwards, and those with polo horses shot off to the front of the pack. I lagged behind with my lazy horse and watched as the startled wildebeest circled around and broke free of the surrounding horses.  Once the dust settled, we all regrouped and continued on our way to find more game until we eventually returned back to the stables.

Extremely content with the past ride, I returned my horse to him pasture and went back to camp.  I felt inspired and confident after successfully trotting and galloping and being part of a wildebeest herding, and couldn’t wait to get out again.

Once back at camp, we went and regrouped with the rest of the volunteers.  We divided into our groups with our respective lion handlers and headed out on our anticipated evening walk.   After missing my lioness’ all day, I was excited and anxious to see my little cuddly Lewa and Laili who greeted me and were ready to entertain on the walk.  Being the eldest of the cubs, Laili and Lewa entertain a bit more than the P’s and chase more often.  On this walk, we encountered plenty of game which had congregated conveniently close to the camp after our game ride and provided easy targets for the L’s to stalk and chase. 

After our walk in the chilling evening air, with the African sunset in the background, we went back to have a shower.  Alex and I were covered head to toe in dirt from our herding extravaganza, and needed to wash away our dirt suit.  In the showers, I was relishing in the warm water (which was still warm because it was before dinner) when I heard a scream.  Concerned, I yelled back to Alex who was having a mild panic (FYI- the showers are individual… no need to jump to the conclusion of communal showers…).  I was expecting for her to tell me that she had seen a frog jump out from until the palate in the shower (because the frogs live in there- little shower guests).  Instead, she told me she had found a tick in an inappropriate spot.  I wasn’t overly surprised because only a few days before I went to Victoria Falls, I had found one nestled into the back of my neck, directly between my piercings.  Luckily, neither of us had a tick who had decided to begin its blood meal, so the tick was easily removed and crushed after a minor panic attack.

The day finished on a high note, Alex hadn’t gotten lymes disease from the tick and I had ridden a horse like a pro.  Success!

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