There’s no other honest way to start this: I HAVE HORSES OMG I HAVE HORSES TWO LITTLE HORSES HOLY SHIT
Yeah, I got some horses. WE got some horses. My friend Karen and I, we adopted/rescued a colt and a filly that were being neglected and removed from the property of Osa Conservation. They are half-siblings (same father, different mothers) and have been together basically their whole existence. Which began exactly when, nobody has yet been able to tell us accurately. Between 12 and 18 months ago it seems. These two got “lucky” – they were taken away too young from their mothers, they were sickly and skinny and wild, but at least they are alive. Around here, I’ve learned, the slaughterhouse is a not-uncommon destination for horses like that.
We have named them Cocobolo (the colt, mine) and Bella (the little filly, Karen’s). “Cocobolo” because (a) it’s the name of a beautiful endangered tree species that I have planted on the finca, (ii) he is a rich bay brown, like cocoa as well as like cocobolo wood, or even like the outside of a coco(nut), and I am game for any interpretation (at least til we try to register him for a Derby outing with the Jockey Club where rules apply). “Bella” because Karen loves the name and is willing to correct a lifetime of locals thinking it’s Vela like a ship sail.
I grew up as one of those horse-obsessed little girls and my parents tried to indulge me. There was that small gray pony Casper at Chagrin Valley Farms who dumped an even smaller me sliding down his neck into a pile of hay. (But later let me win a few ribbons.) There were many bored trail-ride-by-the-hour horses at Meeker Park Stables who sometimes, if it was just me and my way-cooler friend Katie Broun, the guide would kick into a decent canter through the aspens. There was a season on a ranch in Wyoming, during a break from Harvard, where I understood that putting on my cowboy boots and running a gray appaloosa named Cherokee across vast sagebrush plains was the best cure I would ever find for depression.
So, yeah, it’s been my childhood dream to have a horse. But of course there’s a distinction between racing over the plains with wind in your hair, and acquiring two young, semi-feral animals that need food, medicine, shelter, running water, good pasture, love, training and all sorts of paraphernalia to make these things possible, the words for which you don’t know in English, much less Spanish. #learningcurve
Coco and Bella arrived dinged up and ribs-showing. After leaving Osa Conservation they had spent a few months under someone else’s care in what looked like a nice, large, shady pasture, mixed up with a herd of someone else’s horses. But the dry season did a number on the grass, the water, and the kiddos. By the time we were finally ready to get them, they were scrawny and covered in a horrifying number of ticks ranging in size from corn kernel to pumpkin seed. Their ears and manes and butts and even eyelids were lined with these blood-engorged ticks. It was hard to see. Coco had a fleshy gouge in his front hoof and Bella, as Karen says, looks like “a cutter”.
Of course we traumatized them even more by loading them in a cart and driving them a few miles down the highway to a small pasture on Rick’s land, directly in front of my rental house in San Miguel. This pasture will be their home until I can prepare the fences and build a corral on my actual finca 2km up the hill. In this early stage, as they heal and adjust, it’s actually great to be able to keep an eye on them all day long.
For this pasture we made them a little ranchito where they and their food can stay dry. It’s not really a corral, just a glorified roof with a very rustic chute to keep them contained if they need shots, medicine, etc. (Assuming, of course, you can get them into the damn chute!)
One thing about rural Costa Rica: everyone has opinions about how to handle horses. And boy, are those opinions different from what you see on the gringo internet. A few examples.
Re ticks and parasites:
Gringo internet: Have your horse properly tested for possible diseases. In close consultation with your veterinarian, give your horse the appropriate combination of injected, oral and topical parasite control. Regularly apply insect repellent.
Tico rural road wisdom: “Put some diluted kerosene in a backpack pump and spray him down every few weeks! Gets rid of everything.”
Re approaches to taming a horse:
Gringo internet: Spend hours with your animal from the beginning, accustoming it to your presence, your voice and your hands on all parts of its body. Touch it gently with the rope, teaching it not to fear. Earn its trust. You must ask permission to enter your horse’s space every time.
Tico rural road wisdom: Leave your horse in a pasture with essentially no human contact for the first 3.5 years of its life in order to preserve its mojo. When you’re ready to break it, lasso up and choke it to the ground in submission if necessary. It’ll learn who’s in charge.
Now I do appreciate me some good local knowledge. However, I internalized to the depths of my little suburban soul those tales of gentling the wild ponies of Chincoteague, of the mystical connection Alec had with the Black Stallion. I have no intention of beating my own Misty-equivalent into resentful submission. And Karen is way kinder than me. So, of course, we are doggedly proceeding to shower these little wild things with love and treats and animal-talk (much like baby-talk, you just have to trust your tone is getting through).
The main thing we have going for us is that they are both really stoked about food. They can’t get enough of the pellet concentrate. I imagine it tasting like what Doritos once meant to me. Actually probably more like Cinnabon with a savory kick, since we mix it up with molasses and salt and an attractively pink mixture of unknown minerals. It took Coco and Bella all of 48 hours to learn that when they hear the sound of rattling in plastic buckets, it means their equine pelletized crack is close by and they should make a beeline. So we go out and hang in the ranchito trying to fondle them while they snarf concentrate. Coco – not unlike my beloved Astro – is so focused on hoovering his food that he lets me touch him pretty much anywhere, whisper sweet nothings into his ears and identify ongoing agglomerations of ticks in his ratty mane. Bella is warier. Some days she lets love in, others not so much.
We also obviously brought in a vet. God bless Ricardo, who appears to be the only veterinarian for the grand metropolitan area of Puerto Jimenez (!), and has been making regular visits to give vitamin shots and de-parasite medicine, check on strange inflammations, take blood samples, and generally terrorize the horses with needles and spray bottles.
Coco – who arrived to us heavily anemic – has gone from passive recipient of the ass-thermometer and multiple injections during Ricardo’s first visit, three weeks ago, to escaping from the chute on the most recent appointment. He jumped over four feet high, needle tip still in his neck, caught his back feet on the bars, somersaulted over and landed on his back, practically breaking his neck before scrambling to his feet and scampering off. I screamed and then sobbed. It is, I guess, a sign of his improving health, but it was fucking scary.
This incident reminded me that the joy of having any living being in your life, under your care, is necessarily accompanied by the risk of losing something you love. And this place is fierce – there’s no impeccable, flat Kentucky bluegrass lawn. There are snakes and hidden holes in the grass, tons of insect disease vectors, a lack of medical options. Also, terrifyingly, there is me, who doesn’t know what I’m doing and could make stupid mistakes with big consequences (like not tying Coco up in that chute before Ricardo stuck him). I’m aware I let myself be convinced by Ticos who’ve grown up on farms that “having a horse is easy”, that if you’ve got land and grass and water, what the heck. Of course it’s not that simple. I am thankful knowing Coco and Bella are going to be raised by a proverbial village of good people with more knowledge than me: Karen, Carlos, Rick, and basically everyone who lives on the San Miguel road and passes by daily amused by our folly. Everyone’s keeping an eye out for our little guys.
We have such a long journey ahead of us with Coco and Bella. For now it seems to be mainly about patience. And pelletized crack.