In the Saddle with Uruguay’s Horse Whisperer
Hoping to step off the face of the earth for a few days, Duncan Madden takes to the saddle and disappears into a Uruguayan wilderness with Lucie, the horse whisperer.
“Lucie, your dreadlock is caught in another thistle,” I whisper through the haze of smoke and glowing orange embers drifting from the crackling campfire between us.
It’s an occupational hazard for our horse whisper host and guide over these undulating Uruguayan hills. Untangling herself from said thistle, she flashes me a smile and proffers a plate piled high with veggie stir-fry steaming with spices and edged with the familiar charcoal residue of open fire cooking. It tastes great, and even more so washed down with a very decent Uruguayan red diligently carried all day by our trusty packhorse, Trueno.
Above us a cloudless twilight sky stretches into infinity, slowly darkening and perforating as a billion individual lights awaken to put on the greatest show in the universe. An evening chill descends, the night chorus begins, and lying there contemplating the walk to my tent, the worries that concerned me about this trip – three days in the saddle, veggie-only food, rough sleeping with minimal comforts – fade away completely. This is brilliant.
It’s a reminder that this isn’t a two-hour trail through the New Forest
Our day had started fifteen hours earlier when we set out from Caballos de Luz, Lucie’s equine retreat set deep in the Sierras de Rocha. We’d spent a comfortable night there, prepping for the trip and meeting our small, mixed group of fellow riders. Accompanying my girlfriend and myself were a Swiss videographer and his mother, a young German backpacker and a sexagenarian French socialite clad head to toe in Polo gear. But as is so often the case, our varied lives and experiences quickly conspired to make us friends as well as mere companions on the trail.
We’d met the horses too – a beautiful herd that would be our companions over the following days. Lucie’s philosophy towards horsemanship is one of cooperation rather than submission, and it shows in each of her horses’ behaviour. She uses techniques of love, patience and understanding to train them, inspired by famous horse trainers like Monty Roberts and Pat Parelli. She’s a real life horse whisperer.
My horse is Ojala, a beautiful Criollo giant with a gentle temperament. On our first day riding from Sierras de Rocha to our camp at Rio Alferez we become tentative friends as he guides me through the patterned green landscape. We wade knee deep through rivers, canter past remote farmsteads where dogs bark and flit around us like moths near a flame, and traverse narrow wooded trails ducking low branches and hopping over hidden roots. Through it all Ojala carries me serenely, enjoying the experience every bit as much as his rider.
Later in the afternoon, a snake slithers in front of us through the grass. And although I barely glimpse it, Ojala rears in fright, rolling me from his back and onto my own. I get up, dust myself down and laugh in relief as Lucie checks us both for injuries. We’re fine, but it’s a reminder that this isn’t a two-hour trail through the New Forest.
Time drifts by in a beatific haze and before I know it, we’re trotting into the reserva and our camp for the night
We awake early the next day with the sun beating down and the smell of coffee luring us from tent to fire. Overnight the horses have found a gap in our camping field’s fence and made a break for freedom – or rather, they’ve wandered a few metres to graze on tastier looking grass. We spend a humorous hour rounding them up before setting off.
Today is the most remote of our excursion, taking us from Campamento del Alferez to Reserva Quebrada del Yerbal. Lucie sets a sedate pace, giving us time to drink in the countryside around us. The skies and landscapes are huge. Low hills stretch in every direction, pockmarked by eucalyptus forests and herds of cows and half-wild horses. Trails criss-cross the ground in a web of confusion but Lucie knows them like the back of her hand and a lifetime in the saddle puts her and us at complete ease.
Time drifts by in a beatific haze and before I know it, we’re trotting into the reserva and our camp for the night. Hot and dusty, we tether, brush and feed the horses before wandering towards the fire Lucie’s team has been busy setting up.
There’s a treat in store too – a short ridge by our tents leads down to the banks of the Arroyo de Rocha where we strip off and dive in to wash away the day’s trails and ‘eau de cheval’. Entertainment that night comes from Lucie, who regales us with songs in English, Spanish and Hebrew. The whole thing feels like it’s lifted from the pages of a Mark Twain book.
The last day and I’m still not walking like John Wayne, which is as much a surprise as a bonus. My sleep was as deep and recuperative as I can ever remember – the kind you have to earn to enjoy – and I feel ready for another day in the saddle.
If you fancy more horse-riding adventurers, why not read Johan Smits experience Sampling the Great Outdoors in Kyrgyzstan.
As it turns out, it’s more like a long lazy morning skirting farms and homesteads before we mosey back into Caballos de Luz, relaxed and grinning. There’s freshly baked pizza and homemade lemonade awaiting us, but it can wait until we’ve unsaddled, washed, brushed and fed the horses because that’s the priority of life here.
And rightly so. The relationship between Lucie, her husband Santi, their team, their guests, their horses and their environment is utterly symbiotic. A beautifully managed balancing act that provides them with the life they want, and the rest of us with a taste of the life so many dream of.
And if you don’t believe me, just ask that Swiss videographer we rode with. Nowadays you’ll find him on a ranch in Uruguay or riding his horses through the hinterland.
Read more about embarking on your own horse whisperer trek with Lucie at https://www.caballosdeluz.com/english
Travel Begins at 40 Editor
- Mark Bibby Jackson
Hi David – thanks for the compliment and also for the advice.
Very well written, thanks for the tips! Indeed, there is much to do at Uruguay. If you like the beach, you can head out to the Atlantic coast. If you seek culture, you can head to the Two UNESCO world heritage sites.
However, there are tourist-targeting scammers and petty crime to be wary of. Do be wary of beach thefts, fake goods, long taxi routes, ATM scams, fake fortune tellers and magicians and many more!