Becoming a Cowgirl
You know the little girls that are obsessed with ponies and everything that has to do with owning their very own? I was that girl. And while I eventually got my wish in the form of a $400 Shetland pony named Buddy. Even then, I never imagined that my practice riding ponies would prepare me for a cabalgata in Costa Rica. I “suffered” for years without the thing that I was convinced would make my life complete. My sister and I even joined a 4-H group for horse lovers. While other girls dressed up in fancy western outfits and braided their horses manes in tiny bows, we would drill ourselves on the parts of the horse or simply doodle pictures of the ponies we wish we could ride. We, along with a handful of other little girls named our club “The Empty Saddles.”
Let’s Ride! A Traditional Cabalgata in Costa Rica
Perhaps if Pablo had known those details before inviting me to his towns annual cabalgata he would have better understood my enthusiasm to rent horses and ride alongside 250 others through the forest, hills, and rivers. When he told me that he even had a pair of authentic boots, a leather cowboy hat, and spurs it was a done deal. For him, the event is a tradition and it is one that is duplicated in most rural towns and cities across Costa Rica. Unlike a tope, the horse parades that are designed to show off the bulging muscles and high-stepping gate of the town’s finest and most exclusive equines, the cabalgata in Costa Rica is a more rugged affair open to all levels of equestrians and their mounts. In Marcella, it meant that friends, family and even distant neighbors were loading their horses into trailers, meeting and the towns fairgrounds, and donning their best country-western gear. This year would be my second ride, and after we saw that the rain clouds had passed, Pablo and I promptly walked down to the fair grounds. Within 30 minutes, money was exchanged and two skinny-but-fit criollo ponies were reserved and we were ready to go. By the time we mounted, the fairgrounds were swarming with horses of every shape and size, and we began running into friends and family that we hadn’t seen in a while – squeezing our legs and maneuvering the ponies for the customary kiss on the cheek or quick hand shake.
If I learned anything on horseback riding etiquette during my time in “the empty saddles,” it was thrown to the wind by the time we began the ride. With a couple hundred riders surrounding us and the first rum shots settling in our stomachs, we pushed our horses through the crowd to settle into a spot alongside the main road lined with police and emergency vehicles there for the event. My horse who I named “Tigre” for the unusual stripes on his legs ended up being a handful. The boy we rented him from had warned that “he’ll be wild at fist, but should calm down.” Whether or not he should have, Tigre wasn’t ready to slow his pace yet and we half galloped, half crow-hopped our way down the first big hill and into a cow field. The next four hours consisted of whooping and hollering cowboys, river crossings, winding trails, sliding down muddy hills, and collecting imperial beers and brown bags filled with smoked meat and yucca root. Pablo looked like Indiana Jones, I was finally on a horse, and the post-rain weather meant galloping beneath a double rainbow and getting plenty of mud flung in our face. It was a good day. Here are the pics to prove it.
Not only did I get to hang out with Indiana Jones all day, but we also received the best photo bomb to date – meet Pablo’s cousins.
A highlight of the cabalgata is crossing the town’s river – this year we crossed different sections four times as we weaved back and forth across neighbor’s farms and property.
Beers in hand, a brown paper bag with the world’s best smoked meat, and a little down time to stretch out the legs in the mountains of San Carlos.
Pablo’s hometown is definitely off the beaten path, but that’s only part of its charm. These rolling green mountains are home to some of the most incredible scenery I’ve ever experienced and to some of the friendliest people I’ve known. The cabalgata may be a rowdy day of playing cowboy but it’s also a time to appreciate the place they are from and connect with old friends and family. Many would never miss a year – the horse in the lower left photo was being ridden by a man in his 70’s.
It’s not often we get the chance to forget about everything and just be present. The highlight of the cabalgata this year wasn’t the horse, the beer, or even the crazy good smoked meat – it was the chance to make memories and live in the moment from the first gallop across the field to the last dance and churro at the country fair.