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June 21, 2010

Meet The Horses Behind A Jamaican Riding Vacation

Riding horses in the ocean is one of the best ways to experience equestrian pursuits in Jamaica.

Ever wanted to know more about the willing horses that provide beach rides in tropical vacation spots like Jamaica? Rosie Edwards spent two summers working in a stable at a resort and came home with a whole new outlook on horse care.

If I were to mention Jamaica, what associations would spring to your mind? The sun, the sand, the music, the…herbs? It might be quite a while before you thought about horseback riding in Jamaica, but the two summers I spent working at the Half Moon Equestrian Centre in Montego Bay left me with enduring memories and a lasting love for the island.

The riding center is part of the Half Moon Resort, which is centered around Half Moon Bay; a two mile stretch of idyllic white sand beaches. The stables are owned by Trina DeLisser, a Fédération Equestre Internationale show jumping judge and successful show jumper. She is also one of the wackiest and kindest people I’ve ever had the fortune to meet. The equestrian center has 30 horses as well as a variety of other animals including donkeys and two troublesome goats.

Swimming is the main work for most of the horses, and the beach ride is the most popular activity. This involves a short ride to the beach through the picturesque grounds of Half Moon Resort. The horses’ saddles are removed, and tourists get the opportunity to ride bareback along the beach into the refreshing Caribbean ocean for a swim. I’ve never experienced such a euphoric feeling as floating atop a horse swimming through the ocean.

Riding in Jamaica is a must if you’re visiting as a tourist. The experience is simply delightful. However, the education I received over my lengthier stay there about a different style of horse care and training made even more of an impact on me.

Horse Care In A Developing Nation

My experiences at the stables highlighted for me how much we take for granted about keeping horses in a developed country. The Jamaican climate—in both the physical sense as well as the socio-economic context—poses many challenges to horse keeping.

U.S. horse owners take for granted many key equestrian services, such as easy access to veterinarians, farriers, equine chiropractors and dentists. These equine professionals are scarce in Jamaica, and veterinary hospitals and standard equipment such as x-ray machines are non-existent.

This makes inevitable ailments much more worrying and serious. Feed options are very limited, and the availability of hay is almost nil, so the colic risk is high. In the intense heat the occurrence of colic at the stables is much higher than the average U.S. farm. Without an equine hospital on the island, colic cases, which are potentially curable, often lead to death.

This difficult reality became apparent to me last summer when Lee, a young talented show jumper, suffered a particularly severe colic. Treatment options were basic and limited, and the attending veterinarian doubted Lee would survive without surgical intervention. Lee did pull through, but it was touch and go, and the powerlessness of the vet and owner to help the suffering horse really upset me.

The incredibly hot Jamaican climate poses another challenge to horse-keeping. Most of the horses at the stables are Thoroughbreds or horses of light build, and so they cope fairly well with the high temperatures. However, on really hot days the elderly horses struggle and require hosing regularly with cold water to keep cool.

It would be impossible to keep heavily built horses or cobs on the island due to the heat. Sweetiepie, the resident Shetland pony, is the closest thing to a heavy horse that I saw. As the oldest horse at the stables with the biggest attitude, Sweetie is indisputably king of the yard, and he knows it. In addition to the special treatment that this position demands, he must also be clipped year round so he can stay cool.

The warm climate poses relatively minor problems for the horses and staff, but the inevitable hurricanes and tropical storms, which hit the island annually, are another matter. The difficulty of keeping horses with the threat of such severe weather is made more serious by the difficulty in storing food and bedding.

Sand Bedding And Cut Grass

In Jamaica, the normal materials for horse bedding and feed are simply unavailable. You can’t run down to the feed store and buy a bag of shavings or a bale of hay.

As an alternative to hay, the horses eat tall, protein rich Guinea Grass which grows abundantly on the island. Every day stable workers make an expedition to cut grass as forage for the horses. They use only machetes, and this is seriously hard work in the searing heat.

To deal with the absence of conventional bedding, the stable floors are designed for maximum drainage, which makes the minimal bedding more effective. Ever year the floor of the stables is dug out and filled with large rocks, progressing to smaller rocks near the surface and finally sand from the beach. Workers regularly collect sand to top up the bedding, and they also mix in wood shavings.

The shavings come from a local coffin maker, as this is the only place where they're available all year round! This method creates an impressively effective drainage system, which provides the horses with dry and comfortable stables. The stalls are cool rather than heat retaining—a vital feature in the Caribbean climate.

These alternative methods for feeding and bedding horses are time consuming, but they do have upsides as well. The absence of hay and straw means there are no vermin—unless you count the giant land crabs which often shelter from the heat in the stables.

A Relaxed Style Of Horsemanship

The Jamaican people have a well-deserved reputation for being laid back, which is expressed in the motto: “No Problem Mon!”

This relaxed approach to life is evident in their approach to horsemanship. At the stables, there are 10 members of staff of varying levels of skill, from experienced instructors to very new apprentices. The cost of horseback riding is well beyond the means of the average Jamaican, so the majority of the staff have little or no horse experience before joining the stables, and they are trained from scratch by Trina and the more experienced members of staff.

It amazed me how quickly the inexperienced apprentices developed into competent riders and trainers, a phenomenon, which I believe is largely attributable to the laid back Jamaican approach to life. The “no problem” attitude rubs off on the horses, and they respond with a relaxed attitude in their work.

Most of the horses at the stables are ex-racehorses, which are sometimes stigmatized as difficult and certainly not recommended for beginner riders. Yet the majority of the horses at Half Moon are incredibly calm, safe and willing riding horses, ridden predominantly by beginner and inexperienced riders. There are very few ponies on the island, so many of these ex-racehorses are also ridden by children, in some cases so small that their legs hardly reach past the saddle flaps.

That these happy, calm and infinitely generous horses are a product of training from individuals who haven’t come from an equestrian background is nothing less than remarkable. The effectiveness of the training despite the trainers’ relative inexperience taught me an important horsemanship lesson: the effect of “thinking Jamaican.”

Technical knowledge and ability is important in horse training, but it’s equally important to pay attention to the influence our attitude has on our horses. Horses act as a mirror to the people around them. A nervous, tense rider creates a nervous horse. However technically accurate someone’s horsemanship is, if he or she lacks a positive attitude, then the horse won’t respond positively. If, however, you approach the horse with a confident, empathetic and relaxed attitude, then even if you make mistakes, the horse is much more likely to respond well.

The horses at Half Moon prove this. Even the apprentice riders, who have less than six months equestrian experience, happily canter and gallop newly off-the-track ex-racehorses bareback to exercise them. None of the team ever expects things to go wrong, the horses respond to this outlook, and as a result things rarely do. No Problem!