March 22, 2023

Bonding Over Bridles and Barbie Dream Horses in the Azores

- By Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

Continue reading Bonding Over Bridles and Barbie Dream Horses in the Azores

Like most everyone, my social life really took a hit over the last two-and-a-half years of navigating COVID. The world had begun to lockdown even before I returned home from my Baja Kayak and Whale Adventure with Wild Women Expeditions in March 2020. I immediately began working from home and I haven’t been back to the office since. For an introvert, there are many elements of this new reality I’ve cherished: no unwanted small talk, fewer distractions, more productivity, quality time with my dog. But I’ve come to recognize how necessary social interaction is for my well-being, too. While I find some public situations emotionally and physically draining, being around the right people in the right settings actually charges my batteries.

Still, as I traveled 2,600 miles, solo, from my home in Maryland to a volcanic archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean in August 2022 to spend a week with a group of women I’d never met for Wild Women Expedition’s Azores Horsesback Riding Tour, the introvert in me worried whether I’d get along with everyone, if we’d have anything in common. Would this be a week of eight women merely existing together in an interesting new place, or would we create lasting friendships that transcend age, geography, and life experiences?

Brushing Barbie Dream Horses

Every woman who signs up for a trip where riding is one of the headliner activities is going to have at least one thing in common: a shared interest in horses. It doesn’t hurt that the horses at Pátio Ecolodge in Cedros, Faial (our home base for the week) were all Portuguese Lusitanos or Lusitano-crosses — essentially the Barbie Dream Horses of the equine world. What young (or young-at-heart) girl doesn’t dream about galloping off into the sunset aboard one of these magnificent steeds with their luxurious manes and tails blowing in the wind?!

Upon meeting my new Wild Sisters for the week, no time was wasted bonding over our shared anticipation of riding these alluring, tractable, and sure-footed horses. We were each assigned the sentient engine that would propel us up and down the verdant hillsides for three days and around 25 miles of trail riding. I was matched with Maia, a tall, brick house of a gray Lusitano/Hungarian Warmblood-cross mare who suited my comparable frame. I was surprised to find out that, despite being nearly white, she was young — only six years old. I also learned she had the distinction of being the first horse born at Pátio, which opened its doors in 2016.

We each spent some time getting to know our equine partners on the ground, currying and brushing the dust from their shiny coats, picking dirt out of their shod hooves, and untangling the fairy knots from their long manes and tails. The riders with less experience were assisted by the patient and skilled guides and horse managers to ensure the endurance-style saddles were properly padded out and the girths were snugged up before we mounted.

Hydrangeas, Hillsides and Horizons

We set off in two groups, split by riding experience. As we negotiated a steep downhill path toward the ocean, we marveled at the tall blue and pink hydrangea hedges sporting flower clusters the size of baseball mitts. Twisted purple morning glory vines seemed to be plotting an epic coup against the brush they covered. We inhaled the sweet aroma of the honeysuckle-like white ginger lilies while squinting at the horizon trying to discern where exactly the azure Atlantic ended and the sky began. Cows grazed peacefully alongside the trails, lifting their heads and watching with curiosity as we passed. We rode past the gated entrance to a small, tidy, stucco-walled cemetery, snaked our way along rocky bluffs, then turned up past the local soccer pitch as we made our way through the heart of the village.

Soon we were climbing the lush hillside, passing fields planted with corn, bamboo groves, and thickets of pink, orange, and yellow lantana shrubs. After cresting the hill, we took our feet out of the stirrups and stretched our knees and ankles before carefully dismounting, removing the bridles, and tying our horses to the branches of a group of small trees to rest. We hiked a short distance to a clearing where we were greeted by the effervescent Angélique Verdel, our hostess and cultural guide for the week. She had driven by car to meet us with a portable picnic table, complete with a tablecloth, polished metal cups, and carafes of local wines, juice, and water. The delicious meal of bean salad with vegetables, green salad, fresh bread, and fruit was hearty enough to reenergize us for the one-and-a-half-hour ride back without being too heavy.

The break gave us some time to unwind our muscles, climb the old whale-watching tower to take in the views — and ultimately get to know each other better. Beverley told harrowing stories of her fox hunting exploits, some of which included her niece Katherine, who was her travel partner; sisters Carole and Connie and their cousin Jodie reminisced about growing up riding horses bareback on the midwest farm they shared as kids; Leslie shared photos of the horse she leases at home in Canada. And my assigned roommate, Annemarie, fondly remembered the riding lessons she used to take near her home in the Pacific Northwest. Now that we were finally able to remember each others names, the conversations began to deepen.

As we meandered our way back to the lodge interspersed with a few sporting trots and canters, giggling ourselves silly from the excitement of it all, I began to feel those tiny seeds of doubt and concern slipping away, discarded along the trail.

Camaraderie and Calderas

Horses weren’t the only thing that helped forge our bond. On our second day, Angélique herded us in the van and drove us to the top of Faial island, and we set out to hike the rim of the caldera — about eight kilometers (a little under five miles). When we arrived, the caldera floor, which is a collapsed volcano, was covered by clouds. We set out with brown bag lunches to take in the vista while also challenging ourselves just enough.

The beginning of the climb wasn’t easy, requiring us to carefully pick our footing as we ascended almost vertically. Some of the more intrepid hikers went ahead, Beverley and I were in the middle and paired up as we were hiking at about the same pace. Some 20 years my senior and with two new knees and a replacement shoulder, she took the lead, and I followed in her footsteps as she negotiated a safe path. There were times where she would reach out a hand to help me steady on a step down or take my large camera so I could get better balance. Allowing myself to accept help is something I’m working on, but it’s something I’ve come to work on and embrace when traveling with Wild Women. Somehow, I don’t feel as vulnerable or weak being around my peers. (And, of course, I never mind jumping in to assist others.)

At the halfway point, we found a wide grassy ledge off the trail with room to sit and enjoy our well-earned lunches. The clouds had burned off and we could see the entirety of the caldera floor spread in front of us. We marveled at the handiwork of nature: the sharp crevices of the caldera walls, the variety of flora that managed to grow in spite of the harsh, rocky landscape. At one point, I felt nearly overcome by the sheer size of it all and just how small of a speck I was in comparison.

The rain and clouds moved in and out as we made our way to the finish. The last mile or so was a steady uphill climb in light rain. Beverley and I pushed our way through, my lungs burning, not able to see through the fog and raindrops on my glasses. As we made our way to the parking area, we reunited with the group to cheers and good-natured ribbing about bringing up the rear. Granted, a few of the women tapped out after the gnarly initial climb once they reached the road. They smartly took a ride back to Pátio and called it a day. While they were disappointed in themselves for not completing the ring, the rest of us assured them they had nothing to be upset about: They completed the hardest part of the hike! And sometimes knowing when to call it quits is the wise decision.

Sharing all the Feels

We took our seats in the large inflatable boat and motored offshore, the water flat as glass and a light haze settled over the land. It seemed like only minutes before we came upon a patch of roiling water. As we got closer, we saw fins, and then bottlenose dolphins emerging at the surface. Sophia, our able captain for the day, kept pace alongside the pod at a respectful distance. A few of the dolphins played in our wake, darting back and forth across the bow. Annemarie and Katherine sat on the edge of the boat, feet hanging over the edge, waiting to hear the command to slip into the water. We got in front of a pod, and Sophia gave the command: “Go!” They disappeared into the azure water. At first they seemed a bit disoriented. Alba, the marine biologist, instructed them to look underwater through their snorkel masks. The two swimmers assumed a floating position and watched for several minutes until the pod headed into the distance. It doesn’t look like much to those of us in the boat, but Annemarie and Katherine assure us there was much more going on below the surface.

Sophia maneuvered the boat toward another pod. This time Leslie and Beverley prepared to go over the side. Just as the first group did, they slid into the water and watched below them. Leslie let out an audible squeak as the dolphins dart below her. She had a huge grin as she climbed back aboard. “They weren’t interacting with me, but there was a lot of fornication happening down there!” While only half of our group chose to get in the water, everyone shared in their excitement. We peppered them with questions: “What was it like?” “Did you see very much?” “How many did you see?” And seeing Annemarie’s underwater photos and videos afterward made the rest of us feel like we were there, too.

Photo: Stacey Nedrow-Wigmore

The Invisible Wire of Faial Friends

I arrived at my airport gate just in time to see Beverley and Katherine off. We spent our last few minutes together making small talk, trying to avoid the inevitable. We’d all shared a lot over the week, and the mood was somewhat gloomy at the realization we would soon be heading back to our individual lives. There would be no more breakfasts together in the morning, eagerly looking to see if Carla drew smily faces on the hardboiled eggs. No more local delicacies cooked from the heart by Gerson for dinner. No more pop-up picnics surrounded by breathtaking vistas while Angélique’s infectious laughter carried across the hillsides. No more caipirinhas made with black vodka whipped up at the bar by Tiago, or his gentle teasing as he served our meals. Our fairytale horses would soon go on to star in others’ princess fantasies. No more Diogo or Dianne or Laura, Nina, or Elena to meet in the stable yard or take us to explore new trails.

We hugged goodbye, and Beverley and Katherine walked out the door. Halfway to the plane, Beverley turned around and waved at me through the window. I was sad to be on my own once again, but I also realized how recharged my soul felt, how the connections I’d built with the others over the week provided a spark of energy I hadn’t felt in months. While we may be separated by thousands of miles, the eight of us are forever bound together by an invisible wire that’s grounded somewhere among pastures of Lusitanos on a volcanic island in the Atlantic.

Please confirm you are a person.

Find Your Trip Let's Talk!