Updated: Feb 11, 2020
10 miles off the coast of eastern Puerto Rico, nestled among the converging waters of the Atlantic and Caribbean oceans, an island sits calmly. Bathed daily with ocean sprays and light breezes, inhabited by a mix of Taino descendants and American snow birds. Unassuming at first glance, with its jungle covered mountain tops, this island called Vieques now holds a special place in my heart. Not because of its beautiful people, or bustling culture, no. This island holds a secret that has captured my heart and forever changed my life. In this magical place, where Caribbean horses roam free, a New York City kid learned how to ride a Paso Fino.
Jorge Olivo posing for a picture at the airport moments before beginning his flight duties for the day.
When I first heard that I had been assigned a flight duty in Vieques, I was overwhelmed with joy. (On a side note, I am an airline pilot for a small regional airline) Having spent the last winter in Montana, I was eager to embrace the island life. I had heard of Vieques before. A place where wild horses freely graze the neighborhood landscape. I was determined to learn how to ride. Growing up in the big apple, walking past the Central Park horse carriage tours was as close as I'd ever come to a horse.
"Go home horse, you're drunk!!" A pack of wild horses roaming the streets of Esperanza. One of them apperantly has a taste for Presidente Beer. He must be Dominican horse.
As I stepped off the small Cessna 402 aircraft and set foot onto Vieques, my face kissed by the salty sea breeze, I realized that this was a special place. Like a total New Yorker, I hailed a cab, and when a black jeep pulled up with "Vieques Taxi" labeled in yellow across its side, I thought, "This place must mean business when the taxis are jeeps". I hopped on board and as we rolled down the narrow streets of the 201, I was impressed by how the jungle met the sea. Walls of vines and trees broken only by the sparse settlements of men.
I arrived to my Caribbean home in Esperanza and immediately started to investigate how to get a horse here on the island. I had a couple of choices, catch one of the wild ones (one without a brand), train it, then ride it; or buy one from a horse owner on the island. The latter would be the easiest, so I called a few places and got a hit. A local horse tour company had a few extra horses for sale. So I made some arrangements and in a week I was at the tour place's doorstep ready for the experience.
I brought a friend of mine, a native to the island, to look at the horses for sale and advice me on their condition. He agreed, and we both set out and looked through his stock. She immediately caught my eye. Luna was the biggest horse in the lot, and that's not saying much because these Paso Fino horses don't grow too big here on the Island. Never the less, as I approached her, she was calm and stable, I knew I found the right horse for me.
A couple of days later, I returned to ride Luna for the first time on an official tour of the North side of the island. I was so nervous, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I hopped on the English saddled Luna and the tour guide gave me a simple riding lesson. I learned how to steer left and right, how to stop, how to go forward and how to turn around. "All you need to know", I thought to myself. After the tour, I felt confident that I had learned everything I needed to learn. So I paid the tour guide, bought Luna and for our first ride, we went from Isabela II to Esperanza, a long trek for a novice like me.
Luna taking a nap after an afternoon ride.
The first thing I wanted to do was learn how to ride fast. Luna has, as they say it down here "tres cambios" or three shifts. A simple walk, a Paso Fino like trot, and a full gallop. I needed to master all three. For a week straight I watched riding videos on Youtube and read all that I could read online about horse care. In a short week I stepped up my equestrian knowledge from "non-existent" to "total rookie". I would shortly learn that with horses, you will never stop learning. I had no other choice than to implement the little bit of riding knowledge I gained from Youtube and headed out on my own. I took Luna to the beach and decided it was time to ride hard. On a side note, at this point I had no saddle, so I was forced to learn "A lo indio" (Indian style ie. bareback). Sweating and nervous, with nothing but a small pad beneath me, I tightly gripped the reins and with a knot in my throat gave the forward command. Luna took off, and thanks to her light Paso Fino trot, I was able to stay on, initially. As soon as I had any hope of staying on throughout the entire beach head, she made a small change in direction that I didn't anticipate, and poof! Next thing I know I had a face full of sand with Luna in the distance looking back at me like, "Come on dude, that wasn't even fast". After a few days of beach rides and falls, I was finally ready to ride her to work.
Early morning, December 24th, 2015... Christmas Eve. Our first ride to work. 6:00 AM, all is quiet. The sun just barely creeping over the horizon. Luna's footsteps reverberating through the neighborhood, clat clat clat clat! The air, the perfect temperature. The breeze, mostly still, softly caressing my skin. The fresh smell of morning rain and jungle flowers swirling throughout our space. The perfect day. After an hour and a half ride (it took that long because without a saddle, believe me you don't want to go any faster than you have to), we finally made it to the airport. I found a nice place for her to graze near the airport and went off to fly for the day. Around 3 pm I came to check on her, refilled her water bucket and set off again to finish my day of flying. I returned around 8 pm, eager and excited for our night ride back to our place. To my horror, Luna was gone, stolen! Apparently someone had taken her for a joy ride, and ditched her in town. I found her the next day, barely able to walk, with a huge gash on her lip probably from a crude rope bit. That day I learned that Vieques has a rather high rate of horse thievery. I learned my lesson real quick. From that day forward, I started tying Luna up deep in the jungle next to the airport. Hidden from any would be thief. After two weeks of recovery, Luna was ready to ride again. With a fresh new western saddle, we have been inseparable ever since.
You have to have a certain amount of grit and commitment to ride your horse to work now a days. Specially when you work a 14 hour shift. With the newly furnished saddle, me and Luna could comfortably make it to the airport in 40 minutes. Not bad for a commute to work in NYC. It is an experience that will forever stay with me. Its funny... When things slow down in our lives, you get to see all the very small and simple things that make living in this world enjoyable. In our daily rush to get where ever it is that we are going, we miss the things that make this world beautiful and amazing, specially in a place like Vieques. In the early morning rides, it was amazing to ride alone through the narrow streets as the sun rises over the ocean. At night, riding through the darkness, the night sky lights up with a million stars. Riding past Gallito beach, the sounds of the crashing waves at night is a sound that will forever be timeless. If I've learned one thing from my time here on the island, its that life is short, so ride a horse, go to the beach, have an adventure and enjoy the small things this world has to offer.
Written by: Jorge R Olivo