We’re walking down a dirt road, 6 of us, each holding the lead to a horse that patiently plods along beside us. It is sunny, blue sky, one or two white clouds, t-shirt weather. Lush green meadows line either side of the road.
Before we met them, before they bounded down from an upper meadow into the corral, our host spoke about the horses in several languages, each of which he spoke fluently to accommodate our several nationalities.
“These are rescue horses”, he said in Dutch accented English. “They have been beaten and attacked by other horses and humans. We’re teaching them to trust again.” He had been a successful businessman in Amsterdam until he got sick of it and decided to shelter himself and the discarded horses on a sparse piece of land in Portugal.
This was day 2 of a week long trip to Portugal my youngest son gave me for my 80th birthday. He remembered trips I had taken with each of my kids – when he was little. “I did?” I asked, trying to sort through 8 decades of misfiled memories. “I felt really special” he said.
Our host gently leads his horse into the left meadow. “Time to eat”, he says.
My horse follows enthusiastically. He blows through happily widened nostrils, pulls me over to a large clump of grass and chomps, blows, chews… finds another clump… chomps, blows, chews… pulls, pulls…
At the Lisbon airport, instead of rushing us through, the car rental agent teaches us some Portuguese: I learn “Thank you”(Obrigado from men- Obrigada from woman) and “Thank you very much“ (Muito Obrigado). Cool!
As he eats, I notice short, black scars on his neck and back. Horse bites or barbed wire, I surmise. I stroke his back. All but one of the horses are white, with grey manes and tails. One, a tan horse, the smallest, is led by my son, who, at 6’3” has an arm casually draped around him.
My son has planned the week sparingly, preferring, as I do, to just explore. He’s scheduled a couple of Airbnbs and a few events, like meeting these horses.
The leader knows them like a mother knows her kids. My son’s horse, he tells us, is the herd leader – young, tough, and irascible. His name is Rocky. Yep, after that Rocky.
My son picks a small Toyota and we drive south for about 2 hours to beach country. The highway is like any US highway, with fewer cars, and muito fewer trucks, but when we leave the highway, we hit narrow roads that started as foot paths hundreds of years ago and wind their way from farms to towns to cities and back. Small cars -there are no big ones – share the roads with pedestrians who chat and stroll unhurried by deadlines or bills due, or deposits to be made.
After about 15 minutes, horses and humans leave that meadow and follow our host up the road to another meadow and another grass break. I tell him he’s a good horse, scratch under his chin and pat his neck. I see others doing the same thing.
We stop at a grocery store. It is pretty and bright with narrow aisles and lots of food with names we don’t understand. We gather some basics, eggs, bread, juice and pay with credit card. Aisles are narrow. Shoppers pull small, wheeled baskets and chat and smile. The check-out lady holds up the line to learn where we’re from and how long we’ll be there and where’re we’re headed next and… no-one behind us complains.
After two grass breaks, we head back, strolling quietly alongside our horses.
One morning I nap; he gets a surfing lesson. We cook. We stroll through small towns. We wander beaches where we carry our shoes and feel the sand as we walk by couples with young children quietly playing in the water or just racing the waves back and forth. Whether they are in a restaurant or on the street or playing in the sand, children are left to their pursuits as parents watch. It is rare you hear a cry or an outburst. They are admonished as necessary, but without anger. They are treated as children, not small adults.
Back at the corral we remove the rope halters and take pictures. That’s when the host brings out a bucket of dark goop for each horse… as a reward, I guess, for being patient with tourists. It looks awful, but the horses gobble it like 2 year olds with ice cream. They are relaxed and happy. So are we.
One beach is overhung by natural bridges where visitors stand behind split-rail fences guarding a 30 foot drop, where water rushes in, pauses in the sand, and then flows back out to sea. Along with one or two other tourists, I climb over the fence to stand on the edge to get a picture – somewhat wobbly, as my 80 year old back and legs almost fail me. As I climb back I hear my son mumble, “Freaking me out, Dad.”
You have to follow before you can lead, I always told my kids (But don’t forget how to follow, I remind myself.)
For one whole week, I’ve broken character: followed while my son led. He took me to a country with virtually none of the stress Americans feel every day, a country filled with sun, beaches, and small pleasures, and people who live with little – little friction, little strife, little conflict. It was the best trip of my life.
Maybe the horses have it right. Maybe I can get used to following.
Obrigado, Haydn. Muito Obrigado.