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Check One Off My Bucket List

Call me one of those crazy horse people, but even when I’m on vacation I miss my horses. (Come on, ya’ll know what I mean). Why is it that almost every conversation with friends, family or even strangers, turns to horses – even when you are in the middle of the Caribbean!

With a love of horses, it is ironic that the list of things that you want to do with your life is called a “bucket list.” I don’t know who ever named it that, but it was probably a horse person. Although I didn’t get to check the one off my list about winning that coveted “golden world show trophy,” I did check one item off recently in Jamaica that has been on my list since I was a little girl; riding in the ocean on horseback.

It may sound corny, but I have this hopelessly romantic notion about galloping down the sand with the water spraying in my face and the sun shining on my hair. Although I am a little disappointed that my trip down the sand wasn’t on Hopeful Assets, a trusty mount named, Putter, navigated his island terrain perfectly and fulfilled my lifelong dream.

My concern about being out of the country and riding was that I would end up at a stereotypical “hack string” with underfed, unruly, and overworked horses. For months, I surfed the internet to find just the right place which ended up being a stable in Ocho Rios called “Hooves.”

Established by horse lovers, Tom Wilson of Jamaica and his wife, Tina of England, the business has been in operation since 1994. Hooves is a wonderful facility tucked away on an historic and ancient sugar cane plantation nestled in the jungle of Jamaica, employing nearly 70 rescue horses. Their website had me at “Hello” – to clarify the greeting is delivered by a cheerfully nickering horse which beckons you to their page.

For all of you history lovers out there, the plantation and sugar factory ruins on the trail ride date back nearly 500 years. While riding through the woods to the ocean, you learn of the culture of the first islanders, and of Christopher Columbus who colonized Jamaica under Spanish rule. There are ongoing archaeological excavations along the ride which still yield rich artifacts and historical remnants that you can experience firsthand.

Although I had done my homework, I was relieved to find that upon arriving at the plantation, that the Hooves horses were fit, properly shod, with all of their manes neatly pulled and obviously well cared for. Guides are quick to offer that the horses receive whatever they need from an informed staff of professionals and ranch hands. The herd participates in two rides daily commencing from atop a mountain that overlooks the ocean. Because our group was experienced, we were afforded a “private” tour with two guides to our five guests.

After completing a brief questionnaire and ground lesson, we were assigned our mounts and leisurely ambled down the steep terrain through lime and citrus trees growing wild and the amazing scent of “all-spice” leaves all around us (think of the rich scent of nutmeg and cloves combined). With our senses heightened, we also enjoyed the aroma of wild hibiscus, orchids, and tropical plants of all kinds.

After passing the ancient walls of Spanish musket forts still standing in the forest, thousands of land crab holes, and hearing the stories of how mongoose eradicated the island of snakes, we noticed that there were virtually no bugs. The stable hands commented that there are practically no mosquitoes and few flies on the island which makes for a very pleasant experience around the barns.

Jamaica imports thoroughbreds to their small island nation each year from the United States for racing on their tracks. As we all know, most horses don’t make it big on the racetrack, which leads many of them to a very uncertain fate. Some of the lucky ex-race horses make polo ponies on the island, though there are many who fall through the cracks.

Through their relationship with the Jamaican Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Wilson’s rescue and re-train these unwanted racers and polo ponies, offering them a life home. If a horse is no longer serviceable, they are retired to the life of Riley in the soft grass of the mountain pastures. A notable rescue which could have ended up very differently was their horse named Hero who was left trapped in a deep drainage ditch by an irresponsible owner left to die. Once near death and drastically underweight, today Hero is the proud winner of an FEI dressage class (the facility teaches riding lessons too!).

Although I thought the rescues were limited to thoroughbreds, I was surprised to see buckskins and palominos at the farm who sure looked an awful lot like quarter horses. The manager gave me the good news is that Hooves rescues quarter horses too!

OK, back to my bucket list! Once arriving at the ocean about an hour into the journey, our group was permitted to “gallop” down the beach. Trust me; it was every bit as amazing as I had expected it to be, and the horses appeared to love the freedom on this deserted stretch of ocean as much as I did. Most tours do not involve more than walking due to the lack of experience of the patrons, however the guides commented that when experienced riders participate, that the horses LOVE to gallop as much as their riders do!

After a run down the beach, riders dismount at small thatched huts where you literally turn your horse loose – before enjoying a snack. As I gulped the fresh limeade and dined on the native cuisine of plantains and fried potatoes, I was shocked that the horses ate the abundant seaweed faster than alfalfa hay. Sure it made sense that the salt would be attractive to a horse, but the mounds of seaweed on the beach just didn’t look appetizing. The guides commented that they rarely if ever have an incident of colic, so that seaweed must have great properties.

As we all leisurely dined on our respective snacks, it wasn’t long before we were back on horseback for the highly anticipated ride through the ocean. The horses eagerly wade into the ocean, nearly bounding into the soft waves where you ride waist deep parallel to the shore for about 20 minutes. Talk about heaven. With the ride seemingly ending too soon, it was back to the farm where you dismount and simply turn your horses loose again. Although the climb is very steep, the horses don’t even get winded. Fit and happy, they continue munching on the island grass which seems mixed with a little sugar cane, quietly as they await the afternoon tour.

For those of you who have not had this experience, I highly recommend it. At 19, I have crossed a major item off my bucket list. Though it was certainly high on my list of things to do in a lifetime, I haven’t crossed off that number one item yet: Date with Tim Tebow – maybe on horseback! Alas, my bucket list may never be complete! Happy New Year!