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The Horses of Vieques

as much a part of the island as the sand and sea

After arriving on Vieques your first encounter may very well be with a horse. Strolling on beaches or grazing by the side of the roads and the grounds of your guesthouse, these majestic animals have free reign of the island.

“Are the horses on Vieques wild?” is a common question posed daily by visitors. The answer is not a simple yes or no, and will strike up an age-old debate regarding their status. For the most part, the horses are not wild, but many of their owners do not keep them on their land. When the horse is needed the owner will go and find it. Generally horses will return to grazing land time after time, and families and herds stick together, following the same routes to their spots. The owner will often know where to look. Plus, there is an informal network of communication. On a small island everyone knows everyone – and their horse. And most of the horses are branded.

Allowing the horses to roam freely offers the island visitor idyllic scenes of a time when cars and traffic were less prevalent. The sight of a watchful mare guiding her wobbly foal along a dirt road, or frisky, saddleless horses at play against white sand and blue sea evokes feelings of nature’s tranquility. On the other hand, seeing a horse injured and without proper medical care or suffering from malnutrition during droughts, evokes sadness and frustration. The challenge for Vieques horse owners and residents is to find the balance.

Daily life on Vieques is simpatico with these magnificent and docile creatures, as much an integral part of the island as the sand and sea. They are still a main mode of transportation for some locals. You’ll see many Viequenses riding, sometimes bareback, headed to the local store or human watering hole. Additionally, there are several horseback riding businesses offering beach rides on both coasts of the island as well as interior rides through the streets and up the mountainsides. Many visitors fulfill a bucket list item by riding into a beach sunset.

Horses play a role in the social outings as well. A cabalgata,  or “group ride”, is not unlike the gathering of motorcycle enthusiasts who organize bike rallies. On Vieques a cabalgata is a procession of horses and riders who assemble in a designated place then ride to another location, usually stopping at establishments along the way for refreshments and socializing. These gatherings can happen anytime throughout the year and typically do so close to holidays. The horse community of Vieques is a very tight-knit group with an established network of word-of-mouth communications. The events are well-attended, and you may spot one during your visit here. Usually, the men and women riders are dressed in typical western riding gear; boots, hats and jeans. The horses are also dressed, featuring beautiful and unique tack including custom saddles and decorated cinches and breast collars.

Amazonas de Vieques, an all-female group of about 40 riders get together each month to ride. Dania Ayala, the club’s founder and president, says they have strict rules for how their horses are treated and there are no running contests. The women wear reflective shirts bearing the message “no es un deporte es Nuestra Pasion” (It is not a sport it’s our passion).

For the many more horses not carefully tended to, the challenge is great. The herds are growing, bringing greater equine health and space issues. Recent periods of drought and increased tourism on the island puts them at greater risk. Penny Miller, founding member of the Vieques Humane Society in 1986 (along with Christina Mitchell, Royce and Selenia Bleth and Kitty Ketterma), has served the animals of Vieques with selfless dedication, especially the horses. She is concerned about the welfare of the herds on the island. “Almost everyone owns a horse, but is not necessarily responsible for the horse if it is in need of care. The responsibility to survive [then] lies with the animal, not with the owner. This is the problem.”

Fortunately, efforts are in place to improve conditions with an exciting, steady change towards education and the proper care of the horses.

Sargeant Dennis Ramon has established the Club de Caballistas Inc. de Vieques, a horse group with a focus on children and organized activities to keep the kids and the horses safe.

Johny “Wachu” Colon is hoping to have a horse camp for kids in the near future and is very concerned about humane education for horses on the island. He is working on organizing monthly horse events like cabalgatas or beach outings. The goal of these events is to keep the kids on a horse and out of trouble. Colon has been around horses all of his life (“I’ve had a horse since I was in my mama’s belly”), and it’s his passion to educate others about their care. “If [the kids] are with a group of people who care about them and care about their horses, [they] are bound to have fun and learn something at the same time.”

A big difference has been made by JUNTOS (Spanish for together), a program begun in 2013 by River Karmen that has introduced privately funded humane education into the school system of Vieques. JUNTOS employee Adora Negron teaches the idea of responsible pet ownership, kind treatment toward animals and the prevention of cruelty.

Juntos Vieques, Inc. is now embarking on a long term project to create on-going horse registration and education clinics for owners thanks to a generous donation from Marion Fisher and Gallery Galleon. The purpose of these clinics is to develop a process of committed ownership and stewardship of the island’s horses. Registered horses will receive a micro-chip for monitoring purposes inserted by a veterinarian, an important first step that will hopefully lead to mandatory registration and proof of ownership in the future.

Paso Fino horses

taka taka taka taka

The horses with the fine walk

Paso Fino, meaning “fine step”, is a breed of horse brought to the Caribbean from Spain. Puerto Ricans are extremely proud of these horses known for their fine step and their “brio” or fire and energy. They are revered for their smooth, steady, four-beat gait producing a rapid footfall, unbroken rhythm and little forward movement. The two main groups of Paso Finos – Puerto Rican and Columbian (now routinely inter-bred) – developed independently from each other but share Spanish ancestors. This magnificent breed was cultivated over a period of 500 years on Puerto Rico and is a blend of the Barb, Spanish Jennet, and Andalusian horse.  Breeding over the years focused on their gait, which has produced a fine, rapid step that gives such a comfortable ride that their riders barely move. On Vieques, there used to be competitions where the riders balanced a glass of water on their hats and rode down the main street of Isabel II without spilling a drop.

If you see a Paso Fino horse perform it is difficult to believe that it hasn’t been trained to move this way. The gait comes naturally to the breed, and foals even exhibit the gift of the four beat rhythm from birth. Training can refine the step and, as with any athlete, exercise, stretching and refinement of movements will make the horse more efficient and faster.

Enrique Morales, better known as “Kike”, has owned Paso Finos since the 90s. He states, “It is getting harder to own a Paso Fino horse mostly because of the cost. The elite breed are extremely valuable horses, and the cost of vitamins, care, a trainer, stable, and veterinarians is prohibitively expensive. On Vieques there is no large animal veterinarian or farrier to take care of hooves and shoes, and there are limited working stables, trainers or competitive events.”

Kike’s horses are training with Carlos Conde, Jr. in Puerto Rico. The Conde family of Vieques has owned and trained Paso Fino horses since the 1960s starting with the grandfather Carlos Conde. The trade has been passed on through three generations and now his son and their sons are professional riders and professional trainers of some of the finest Paso Fino horses in Puerto Rico and the world.

Another name synonymous with horses on Vieques is Papo Lopez. Papo started riding horses when he was very young but has learned to train them since he was 13. He went to seminars in Columbia and Peru and took college courses on stable management and training to earn his training certificate. His mentor, Cunda Figueroa taught him, “controlling a horse is like playing the piano, you use all your fingers. And the slightest movement of your little pinky finger will tell the horse something…tell that horse what you want it to do.”

There are occassionally Paso Fino competitions on Vieques but more often in Puerto Rico. If you have the opportunity to go to one and witness the proud and fiery Paso Finos in action it will be a memory of a lifetime.

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