Horseback riding, Mexican style

When I moved to the south shore of Lake Chapala in Jalisco, Mexico, I decided that to ride my horse alone safely I needed to learn how to ride Mexican-style. The Mexican school of riding is specifically adapted to the conditions of this area. While it is based on the Spanish school, it has taken the best of English and Western and developed its own equipment and techniques. Like any school of riding, the equipment and techniques can be severe, or can be the gentlest “horse whisperer” kind of technique that works with the horse’s psyche.

In my riding adventures around Ajijic, I had the pleasure to ride with a horse whisperer kind of trainer, an Indio man named Jose Luis, who turns out the gentlest, most wonderful horses even though they were usually young stallions. In the US few male horses are stallions, so we tend to believe that stallions are wild creatures. But Mexicans rarely neuter (geld) a horse. Even the teenage girl Escaramuza riders, who perform amazing synchronized ballet on horseback, sidesaddle, all ride stallions. I begged Jose Luis to teach me and my horse how to ride Mexican, promising to do everything he said, no matter how strange it seemed to me. Only then did he say yes.

Jose Luis took in my horse and turned him into one of his patented Mexican horses. He put him in a Mexican saddle and taught him to ride with confidence through all kinds of obstacles and brush and flying bags. He always protected my horse’s sensitive mouth, slowly finding the perfect, gentle Mexican bit for him from his collection of hundreds. In Mexico, when a horse is sold the bit goes with him, so he has the same bit for life. The reins are one short loop of rope for one-finger control, like a joystick.

I learned that Mexican riding is a dance with the horse. It’s all about the “ritmo,” the rhythm: keeping the ritmo is everything. At first I rode another horse while he rode mine, then switching, and as we rode hour after hour I learned that there is a purpose for everything. Every piece of latigo (leather strips) is meant for tying something – a rain poncho, a flask or canteen, the lead rope to the halter which is always left on the horse in case he falls down a mountain. The rope is rolled and tied with specific knots, like in boating. The saddle horn is large and flat so it can’t puncture a gut, and a lasso can be looped around it. The pommel or front ledge of the saddle is high, holding you in the correct position. The stirrups are slightly forward in a “chair position,” comfortably between Western and dressage. A machete scabbard ties under your left leg with the hilt near your hand to hack away the vines that grow across the trails during the rainy season.

After many hours of instruction, my horse and I are riding alone for a few minutes, then half an hour, then a full ride. We are both comfortable in our new Mexican skins. It is time to take him to his new home on the south shore. In my last lesson, Jose Luis informs me that no self-respecting Mexican would ride without a sombrero; it is like riding without a shirt or pants. On my way home that day I pick out a handsome hat.

In my rides on the south shore I have kept my promise to Jose Luis to do what he says, resisting the urge to do things the American way. I am keeping the rhythm.