Trip Start Nov 27, 2009
147Trip End Ongoing
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Alex had been around horses a lot when she was younger so was actually looking forward to a couple of weeks on a small holding with 3 horses and a hinny. I am a little less keen on horses, due to two unfortunate childhood incidents the details of which are fuzzy but that have left a lasting impression! The most peculiar of the two events was being left alone holding the reins of a horse that promptly sneezed all over me. Not nice when you're already rather scared of these creatures. However, a major childhood achievement of mine was to be the catalyst for a stampede of the sedate-as-you-like, seen-it-all-before, know-the-trail, follow-the-one-infront type of ponies used in PGL holidays for novice kids. So having avoided horses for more than 20 years, I commenced just over two two weeks of immersion therapy in the beautiful Alentejo region.
It was natural horsemanship all the way with these animals and it was a fantastic experience. The owner has spent 4 years so far working with them, and as she puts it, we learn as much as they do about how to communicate with each other. The horses would come over if you asked them to and stand to be groomed in the paddock, without being tied up. Walking with them was a real pleasure. Providing Alex concentrated on what she was doing and walked correctly, they would walk alongside her. The irony was not lost on me when a technique reminder was shouted across, "limp wrists Alex, you've got to have limp wrists!". We walked the hinny to the village to get a few supplies from the local shop. We wanted to try him with the panniers. We ended up carrying the shopping although after a little persuasion, he carried a jumper.
Alex comments on a highlight of doing some ring work for the first time. "Standing in the middle asking a horse to walk or trot by projecting my energy was unnerving. The only aid was a white stick, an arm extension never ever used to hit or frighten the animal. There were no lunge ropes nor whips for beating or other implement. At the start the horse just stood there and occasionally looked at me so I knew I was missing something, but by the end I was getting the hang of it although still using some arm signals. I knew when I was doing it right because I felt like I was running when I was just turning on the spot. After we finished, there was a surprising moment of "joining up" when the horse just followed me wherever I walked. This was something I'd seen but never experienced, and it was very rewarding to be totally accepted by the horse."
Our jobs during this time? Well, we spent a lot of time becoming expert pooper scoopers and hay providers, our room service cart making the rounds every morning.
Little owls and a multitude of other birdlife frequented the trees and bushes in the beautiful valley and my birdwatching started to become quite an obsession during our stay (though call me a Twitcher at your peril!). I spent hours, binoculars raised, trying to catch a glimpse of one of the little owls that teased all day long with their cat-like cry (they're diurnal as well as making a right racket at night). Alex even joined me on a couple of occasions, as long as she promised not to fidget, and sometimes we managed to catch sight of one or two little owls perched on a branch when they howled loud enough for us. But these owls are canny masters of camouflage indeed! Other wildlife, well we found badger tracks and several badger latrines on one of our walks but couldn't find the sett despite a good hunt around. The red legged partridges loved the hay on the paddock and were a frequent visitors, as were the nuthatches - I've never seen so many. Tawny owls joined in with the little owls in the night time gossiping which was lovely to hear... and I got very excited at my first ever glimpse of worm snakes - very very cool!!! No camera to hand though I'm afraid (check out the picture of the giant slug instead).
Our hosts Gail and Neil were very welcoming, fed us very well, and we enjoyed some great conversations over dinner. At the beginning of our stay we were joined by Manon, a very friendly and interesting wwoofer from Holland who we enjoyed spending some time with. Once again, we made friends with three lovely dogs and lots of cats who all made us feel very at home. Bookshelves were thoroughly raided during our time there, including the stash of permaculture magazines that were really fascinating. We also began learning some key aspects of natural horsemanship, a valuable gift that we will take away with us.
Our home was a lovely caravan with a porch, decking and outside kitchen. Plush indeed and providing a bigger bed than poor Brian the van.
Light pollution in this lovely valley is pretty much non existent so we were often treated to the most amazing display of stars, including Mars at one point (although I did need to check with Neil that it wasn't just a helicopter).
During our two weeks, we had an excursion out to the fantastic beach at Villa Nova de Milfontes and to a local market where we were able to practice our atrocious Portuguese. Having said that, Alex managed to haggle in Portuguese over the price of a mobile phone charger so well done her! We also had a weekend away at a Barragem (reservoir) and went out to see some old ruins.
All in all, a lovely time in truly beautiful Alentejo countryside. I am no longer scared of horses, in fact I think they're rather lovely. Whether I am at the point where I can go on the weeks-long mountain horse trek that Alex has been dreaming of is another matter - any volunteers to take my place?!