How I Spent My Caribbean Vacation

The crazy horse-girl part doesn’t stop just because I happened to be at the beach.

“You guys are in a unique position to live out your wildest horsey fantasies using Horse Nation as your passport.” –Wylie, editor of the world

While I still needed my actual US passport as well, this word of advice was how I found myself in a bikini trying to balance on a shockingly narrow Appaloosa/Thoroughbred mare who was steadily striding into the Caribbean Sea. “Cinnamon” and I were fast friends after a leisurely stroll down the beach, the gentle tide of the inner reef lapping up around her hooves as I guided her just behind the horse ridden by the owner and operator of Spirit of the West in Grand Cayman, Paul Rivers.

The Cayman Islands, a British territory in the Caribbean, includes the largest and most well-known, Grand Cayman, as well as two sister islands of Little Cayman and Cayman Brac lying a few hundred miles to the east. Grand Cayman, with its population of 52,601 over 76 square miles, is known as a scuba diving destination as well as an important international financial center, but also for its miles and miles of white sand beaches. Everything you’ve heard about the crystal-clear waters of the Caribbean is actually, amazingly, true.

Spirit of the West was founded by Paul Rivers, a native of Cayman, to allow him to combine his island home with his love for horses–he runs a variety of horseback tours on Grand Cayman’s West Bay, including a beach ride, the Caribbean sea swim on which I was a guest, and moonlit rides when conditions were appropriate. He called the riding tours his “bread and butter”–the source of income to allow him to enjoy his real passion in training western riding horses. Paul is a true horseman, having worked under such head-turners as Clinton Anderson, Craig Johnson and Bob Loomis; even while we ambled along the beach I observed him working his green gelding, gently encouraging the horse to yield his jaw and free up his shoulders.

The regular guests on the ride back to the trailhead.

The regular guests on the ride back to the trailhead.

Paul and his staff trailer the horses to Barkers National Forest daily for rides, all the way on the northern tip of the island. At his home ranch, Paul breeds and trains horses, mostly for use in his riding string but also for his personal enjoyment. While many horses are imported from the United States, most of the riding liveries on the island breed their own horses as well: my own mount Cinnamon was born in Cayman. Imported horses are usually flown into the island but occasionally travel by ship, with all livestock required to go through a 30-day quarantine.

Paul’s regular clients, a party of four first-time riders, rode with two of his dutiful staff a few hundred yards ahead of us, mounted on patient Quarter horses and crosses (one of the guides was on a Paso Fino cross with distinctive gaits.) As Paul and I meandered up the beach, I grilled him with questions about island equestrian life–how much did the imported hay cost? Was there a large-animal vet on this small island? What do you vaccinate for? How many private horse owners were here?

Paul patiently answered everything: feed was astronomically expensive with a single bale of hay costing over five times what you’d find in the States, since Cayman has little land that would be suited for agriculture. Hay is imported from Florida and thoroughly inspected by the government; Paul has little control over what kind of hay or even the quality brought in. There is indeed a large-animal vet on the island who serves the five riding liveries as well as three riding schools; there’s only a handful of private horse owners on the island and most of them board at one of the schools. Horses are vaccinated for rabies and tetanus. Paul did mention that the island needed a good farrier–all of the liveries do their own trimming, shoes being mostly unnecessary for riding on the beach. (Any farriers out there looking for a good reason to take an extended vacation, here’s your in.) Paul drove the typical diesel dually to haul his stock tailer, and I could only imagine the king’s ransom required to fill the thing.

Spirit of the West’s horses were all in good flesh, including Paul’s mount for the day, who I was pleasantly surprised to learn was an OTTB. Paul traveled to Ocala earlier in the spring to look at a group of Thoroughbreds off the track and imported each one. He likes the Thoroughbreds, he told me, except that some of them were proving harder to keep weight on. With the sobering cost of importing feed, I understood the financial burden. Regardless, Paul was pleased with his latest group of imports.

We caught up to the rest of the party grouped around the base of a big pine leaning out over the water and everyone dismounted. Paul and his staff quickly and expertly tied the horses and pulled saddles while the other guests and I shed some clothing down to swimsuits. Using Paul’s knee as a mounting block I shimmied back onto Cinnamon, who was built like a shark–all withers. On the other hand, I told myself as we turned the horses towards the sea, I had plenty of horse to keep me mounted in the water.

The water was bathtub-warm as the horses marched steadily deeper; Cayman is encircled by barrier reefs over the Cayman Wall meaning that many of the beaches are protected by hundreds of yards of calm water rather than directly pounded by waves. The water rose higher and higher until suddenly there was the peculiar sensation of the horses swimming beneath us, legs churning slowly but steadily, heads raised high above the surface. From our point far out in the water, I could see the scope of the white beach, dotted with palms, the turquoise Caribbean all around us. Paul waved wildly from the shore, snapping photos for all of us.

After our swim and back in the saddles for the walk home, I watched Paul working with his horse in soft serpentines across the sand, asking and releasing with a pat on the Thoroughbred’s shoulder. I reflected on my morning ride to the easy amble of Cinnamon’s walk–I thought I was in just for a simple ride along the sea, and instead received an insight into a new facet of equestrian culture. How comforting to know that wherever we might go in the world, we will always find horse people.

Still can't shake that farmer's tan though.

Still can’t shake that farmer’s tan though.

Special thanks to Paul Rivers and the staff at Spirit of the West for their hospitality and generosity!

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