May 01,2015


“Tales From Outside The Underbrush” is meant to succeed the monthly series of predecessor essays that were in effect, largely if not exclusively set inside “The Underbrush” of geological exploration and forestry, to a universe outside that specialized environment. This “outside world” is one where life is also lived and experienced, and though most often reflecting a different level of circumstance, is not necessarily suggestive of a higher level of civilized behaviour and experience nor a more intelligent reaction to such by the author; just different and outside the conventional underbrush. Hyperbole will continue to be employed for emphasis or effect, or just to avoid the boredom of straight fact or opinion. Reader reaction and comment is invited and welcomed if delivered in a civilized fashion.

This month’s entry continues the tale.


"Show me your horse and I will tell you who you are."

Old English Saying

"There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

variously attributed to Sir Winston Churchilll and Will Rodgers



"It is not enough for a man to know how to ride; he must know how to fall."

Mexican Proverb

One experience not elsewhere related concerns my “career” as a jockey! It had not taken long for me to become a good rider, in no small part because I was forced to work at it, most often under highly varied and difficult types of terrain. Partly also however, was the fact that I had taken to riding with great joy and enthusiasm, coupled with what appeared to be some natural talent for the activity. While most of my riding was related to work in the field, occasional periods briefly spent at “base” in the village of Sigchos also involved horses from time to time. Although technically and thankfully bereft of a feudal system of land ownership and control that had previously existed in the region and that at the time of my residency in Ecuador still persisted elsewhere in the country, a good deal of the land in the immediate area around Sigchos was owned and controlled by a handful of wealthy landowners. Part of the symbolism and show of that wealth consisted in owning exceptional horses, often thoroughbreds of fine stock such as Arabians or other breeds. As one form of amusement as well as an opportunity to display and brag about their steeds, races were often staged between the horses of these landowners. Working out of Sigchos, our group of gringos, which means “strangers” and is not necessarily pejorative as depicted in western cowboy movies, was nonetheless conspicuous simply for our being there. As such we were deemed to be on the same social level as the landowners and treated as such both by them and the local indigenous population. Needless to say, these horse races involved only the steeds of the landed gentry; indigenous peoples and their horses need not apply. Normally staged as part of the weekly weekend Sigchos market, and which has been described in “The Saint And The Sinner” in my book “Tales From The Underbrush”, the races were nonetheless an event to be enjoyed by all and sundry.

In a manner I can no longer recall, it had come to the attention of these landowners that not only was I a horse rider, but unlike my gringo brethren it must immodestly be confessed, I was a good one. It was therefore ventured that I should partake in these races, an offer I eagerly accepted, never having been on a horse of the calibre now being offered me. The village of Sigchos was perched on a high plateau, at an altitude of some 3,000 metres (10,000 feet), and at a distance of several kilometres from a deeply incised, kilometre deep valley. The race was designed to start in the main square in the village, from thence to the lip of the valley so noted and back to the village square. I recall that the race was normally one such circuit but occasionally would be designated to be a more challenging two circuits in length. Normally loaned a horse by one of the landowners and deemed to be representing myself, on occasion I was asked to represent the landowner himself in the race, thusly acquiring some additional pressure to perform well and uphold the bragging rights of said owner and horse.

With perhaps several dozen high priced animals milling about the square in organized confusion, their riders astride fancy embossed leather and silvered saddles, a shot was fired into the air and the race was on. Even with wearing sunglasses, the fine grained soil and ash of the plateau’s volcanic terrain quickly welled up in choking, boisterous, blinding clouds, and vision became a problem. Riders and their animals became elusive shadows, not only to spectators but to the riders themselves. The first couple of races in which I participated were, while tremendously exciting, unnerving nonetheless. Unsure of the course’s turning point, unable to clearly see, and being bumped on all sides by other wildly exhorting, whip flailing riders and their horses, I felt helpless to act independently, being content or unable to do anything but be swept along in the chaos. Sensing the turning point largely from the change in direction of the mob, the home stretch became more readily manageable as the race strung out in reflection of the horses’ speed and stamina and the management of same by their riders.

Although initially unsuccessful I shamed neither my horses nor their owners by my efforts. Learning the course also helped. The turning point in the race was often some innocuous bush or stunted tree alarmingly close to the edge of the precipitous valley cliff and known apparently to all and sundry except me. With time, that disadvantage gradually became overcome as I became familiar with the subtle variations that defined a course one weekend compared to what it might be the next. Seemingly being twice the weight of most of the other riders did not help either, especially in the longer races where stamina played a greater role than outright speed. But learn I did and with a monumental enjoyment of the occasions, I gradually experienced considerable and growing success in the races. I must have accomplished something of value because before it was over, and when on the infrequent occasions I was in from the field and available for the races, it became a matter of pride amongst the land owners as to for whom and on which horse the “gringo” would ride. For me it mattered not. The horses proffered me were all magnificent and the thrill they offered under me at full gallop was exhilarating and memorable to this day.

To be continued

Copyright © 2015 Ian de W. Semple. All rights reserved.

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