I was 11 years old when I was introduced to the joy a horse can bring into your life. I was also introduced to the pain that accompanies getting thrown off or stupidly falling off.
My family moved to Bolivia South America in 1986. My parents were on staff at a school called Tambo. Tambo is nestled in the Comarapa valley in the Andes Mountains. The Pulquina River runs through the valley irrigating many fields of vegetables that are trucked to the cities. The arid climate is near perfect. In the summer there may be a hand full of days over 90 degrees and in the winter there might be a frost or two. The rest of the time the nights are cool and the days are warm. If there is a downfall to the climate, it is that it is a little on the dry side. But the lack of insects makes up for the dry air.
Tambo’s purpose was to educate the children of missionaries that lived around the country ministering in different capacities. Some of these people worked in the city, some in the Amazon jungle, and some high in the Andes Mountains. The students receive an American based, English education which helped them transition to life in the US after graduation.
The fertile valley is surrounded by mountains covered in cacti, mesquite, creosote, and other desert plants. Most everything native is covered in thorns unless it was planted and watered.
One of my parent’s co-workers named Paul Gess brought two horses for the students of Tambo to enjoy in April of 1987. Both were brown with black manes and tails and one had a white spot on his forehead. I believe Paul’s daughter Kathy named them Lightning and Thunder. They were not the best behaved and had very little training. They were not large horses, but I wouldn’t call them ponies either. Lightning was very laid back and stubborn while Thunder was the exact opposite. He would bolt at the drop of a hat, or as in most cases, a bird flying up out of a bush. I often felt like he was looking for an excuse to jump out of his skin and throw me off. He was fast and loved to run. When young or inexperienced kids wanted to ride a horse they were put on Lightning while Thunder was reserved for the experienced or brave riders.
Over the next two years I developed a bond with Thunder. We could often be seen riding around the school and the hills. Most of the time I rode him bareback. Saddles in Bolivia are nothing like American saddles and I was more comfortable without one. My parents bought me a nice Western saddle from another missionary, but I preferred to ride bareback because I felt it took too much time to put on the saddle. I would hold the reins in my left hand and grab a handful of mane with my right, while squeezing with my legs. My hand-me-down cowboy boots and black felt cowboy hat were two of my most prized possessions. A number of times I was caught off guard and collected a soil sample, but as time went on I became a confident and strong rider. I taught Thunder to neck reign and behave fairly well even though I had no idea how to train a horse when I started riding. Looking back, Thunder would have made a pretty good quarter horse. He could turn on a dime with a simple touch of the reigns to his neck and was explosive on a start. If he had a downfall it would be that he didn’t like to stop at times and he really didn’t like the saddle.
I was 13 when Paul approached me one day and asked if I would like to have Thunder because he and his family were moving to the city. Of course, there was no hesitation. He gave Lightning to a girl named Jolynn Klontz. I had a motorcycle to ride around, but I really loved roaming the mountains on Thunder. We could go places I couldn’t take my motorcycle and see things that very few Americans had ever seen or probably have seen to this day. Often my dog Pepper would follow along a few feet behind us and I think the two enjoyed exploring and each other’s company. Thunder never kicked my dog no matter how close he got. There were endless miles of cow trails to be explored. While we lived in a desert, I learned of many places to find water for my horse and dog. Sometimes we would go ride in the shallow river and I even had a place he could swim briefly with me on his back. I never got lost and always remembered every trail and water hole. I know I worried my mother many times as I would disappear for most of the day and come home in time for dinner. Her fear was understandable, because if I had been injured the chances of ever finding me would be a miracle. Somehow we always made it home safe and sound.
When I was 17 Paul approached me with a project. In the past he and his family worked with a native people group in eastern Bolivia called Ayoreo. These people were nomadic in the past, but now had settled into a number of villages, both in Bolivia and Paraguay. One of these, called Tobite, is where they had worked for many years. Paul had helped start a cattle ranch as a way for the natives earn income. A man named Miguel and his family ran the ranch and he needed some help training a mule. Paul had seen my bravery and ability to hang onto a crazy animal and asked me to go spend some time with Miguel since his children were young and there was only so much he could do alone. Of course, being open to adventure, I accepted the challenge immediately, the only downfall was that I had to convince my parents to let me go.