“When I first rode him, I thought, ‘Shit, I don’t think I can control this guy’.”
It’s just after sunrise and Solana Perez is driving us through the winding mountain roads of Baguio City in her beat-up pickup, still coated in ashfall from the Taal Volcano eruption. We’re heading to Itogon, Benguet, to catch a wild horse. Sol, a 25-year-old Baguio-born artist, is referring, of course, to her first love, a horse named Viper.
Most kids in the ‘90s grew up with rollerblades and skateboards; Sol and her friends, they were riding before they could walk. She met Viper when she was 10 or 11. “We were at that age where we wanted to do really stupid things,” she laughs. A slender wisp of a woman in oversized hiking boots, you’d easily think her teen years weren’t long behind her. The plan was to break into the forested land between Camp John Hay and Baguio Country Club. The pony boys, the iconic caballeros that hang around Wright Park, suggested she try Viper: he was young, fast, and suited for the mountains. But he wasn’t named Viper for nothing. One night, he got loose and got into a standoff with a taxi. The taxi lost.
Sol will be the first Filipino to join the Mongol Derby, the longest, most grueling horse race in the world. Participants ride barely trained horses 1000 kilometers across the wild and windswept steppes of Mongolia, through mountains and valleys, rivers and sand dunes, wetlands and forests. There are stations every 40 kilometers where they swap their rides for fresh mounts and fill up on water and food. Other than that, there’ll be absolutely no support. The race is self-navigated, and at night they’ll sleep in a tent under the stars, or else knock on the doors of local families when it’s too cold.
The race retraces the route of Genghis Khan’s horse messenger system, when the surefooted swiftness of a horse and the skill of its rider could determine the outcome of a battle, or the security of an empire. To qualify as finishers, riders need to complete the Mongol Derby in less than ten days. Less than half are expected to reach the finish line at all.
“My horse is like my second brain, my second body. I need horses the way some people need long walks or good music.” <callout-alt-author>Solana Perez<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
“I joined the race on a lark, actually.” Sol had been following the race for a few years, and in 2019 the winner was a 71-year-old man from Idaho.
While we’re stopped at a red light, she shows me a picture on her phone. Viper is rearing up on his hind legs, and riding him, bareback, cool as you like, is a thirteen-year-old Solana. “A palomino!” I can’t help but exclaim, a former horse girl myself, before the classes got too expensive and serious. “He was too gwapo,” she scoffs, her voice gruff with affection. “When the light hit him, he just shimmered. He was the kind of horse you can’t be the same, afterwards.”
Seriously, what is it with girls and horses?
There are 20 or so feral horses living in this river valley in Itogon—some were let loose, some ran away, and still others have never been tamed. The pony boys are going to show Sol how to catch and ride a wild one.
The mid-morning sun burns overhead as they jump out of the pickup and get to work. Melzon Silvino, the best horse wrangler among them, hops into the saddle of the younger one, Nemo, and with a whooping heeyah! gallops straight at the other horses. His legs are straight and stock-still, Western style, but instead of boots, he wears tsinelas. With one hand he holds onto his cowboy hat as the horse-tail of his mullet flies behind him in the hot, dry wind.
With much shouting and clapping, the pony boys drive the horses into a small tributary, a dead-end, stringing up a rope across the mouth of the canyon. Sol points out Rain, a soot-colored stallion that her horse mentor Gina Capito Damian had started to train as a yearling before hard times forced her to let him run free. The plan is for Sol to train him.
Melzon attaches a looped rope to one end of a massive bamboo pole and walks straight towards the frightened horses. His cut-off t-shirt exposes huge, powerful arms from years of breaking in horses. He singles out Rain and swings the pole, trying to anticipate his movements. On the third attempt the noose slips over Rain’s head and tightens.
Dropping the pole, Melzon grabs the rope slithering on the ground and loops it around a nearby tree trunk. Two more men help him winch the rope tighter. Rain bucks and screams in fear and rage. His eyes and teeth flash white. The veins in his neck bulge under the noose. If they don’t bring Rain under control quickly, he could strangle himself in the attempt to flee.
The pony boys. . . do their best to manage the horse populations and ensure that they’re healthy. The horses may run free, but in truth they are watched over.
The hoots and hollers have stopped now. All I can hear is the sound of bodies wrestling for control, my heartbeat counting down like a referee.
Melzon grabs Rain by the ear, trying to get him in headlock. Another guy slams his weight against the horse’s withers. A hoof connects with a solid thud against a shoulder. Melzon twists Rain’s neck under his arm and down they both go.
Two more pony boys spring forward to restrain the flailing horse. More fleshy thuds. A leg. Some ribs. Toes and fingernails. Melzon keeps Rain’s head pinned to the ground as a pony boy puts a halter on him and removes the lasso. Just as quickly as they sprung on the horse, the pony boys release him. Rain stands shakily, eyeing his captors and testing the rope tethering him to the tree. All of us—horses and humans—are trembling with adrenaline.
Sol asks if she can give it a go. If the pony boys are nervous about the idea, they don’t let on. After a couple of tries with the heavy bamboo pole, she manages to bring in a lean, leggy youngster. She wrestles him to the ground, but the horse manages to get a couple solid kicks in before she can secure his feet. I gasp but the pony boys stand back. They give her tips, holler their encouragement, ready to help if Sol asks. Sol doesn’t ask.
Horse wrangling is dangerous, violent work. “To break in a horse”—there is violence in the words themselves. It depends on the technique, of course, but with effective horse handlers, the physical force isn’t gratuitous. Once the horse is under control, the pony boys’ voices turn soothing, their hands gentle. They put a coil of rope beneath a captured mare’s face to protect her eyes from the rocks. Another guy picks burrs from her hair. They rub the horse’s ears and face, comforting them, grooming them, getting them used to a human’s touch. The relationship begins with fear and anger, but the goal is to grow something that’s ultimately stronger because it’s mutual: trust and respect. Maybe even love.
The methods may seem cruel to city-born sensibilities—some go so far as to accuse the pony boys of abuse. But Sol tells me that without them the wild horses that still roam the mountains around Baguio would be in serious trouble. The pony boys and the local government do their best to manage the horse populations and ensure that they’re healthy. The horses may run free, but in truth they are watched over.
“Horseback riding is part of the heritage and history of Baguio. I don’t want to envision a new normal without the pony boys.” <callout-alt-author>Solana Perez<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
“I’ve just been trying to get as many hours in the saddle as possible,” Sol says, as we spit out watermelon seeds into the grass. During the Derby, she’ll be riding 14 hours a day, so she’s working her way up from her current average of six to eight hours a day.
Overseeing her training as a rider is Gina. Long active with the Kabadjo Horse Handlers Association, she is like a mother to the pony boys, and every inch a horse lady: ruddy cheeks, strong compact body, muddy rubber boots, a quiet but assured energy. “I don’t gossip with her or anything,” Sol shares. “We just genuinely like each other and agree on horses.”
Gina asks me if Sol told me about the race last year. I shake my head no. She totally dominated it. It took Sol two more circuits just to slow her horse down. “I barely remember the race,” laughs Sol. “All I know is that I was holding on to dear life.”
Gina insists I see the photo; in it, Sol is riding “skin” as she usually does, hunched over her horse’s neck, her teeth bared in a snarl.
“That race? What I felt wasn’t fear, but rage. Gina saw it, too. That deep rage has sat with me for so long, and shaped my choices whether I want them to or not.” Baguio in January believes in winter, and Sol and I are waiting for the water to boil. I’ve invited her over to Easter Home, the cozy bed & breakfast I’m staying at, for some green tea.
Sol couldn’t tell me this in front of Gina and the pony boys, whose friendship and acceptance she worked hard for. She couldn’t talk about where she got her first lessons in horse wrangling: at school. She was bullied a lot. For being a crazy horse girl. For being dark-skinned but Englisera. For having a single mom. Sol’s mom, an environmental anthropologist, raised her by herself. She hasn’t seen her dad, “another crazy artist,” in years.
Boys would tell her she wasn’t a virgin because she rode horses. Or they’d say her mom was a whore who had sex with a horse. She learned how to throw a punch, kick a boy in the balls, grab a bully by the collar and throw him down the stairs. “I think that’s why Viper and I got along so well. We met each other with the same inner rage and learned to understand each other from that place, in a way that no one else ever paid attention to or wanted to see.” Before she met Viper, Sol says she was the little lampa girl, riding the easier horses, following the bigger kids around.
Seriously, what is it with girls and horses?
At first, it was war between the two of them. They must have made quite the scene, fighting like a dysfunctional couple in the middle of Wright Park, as gaping tourists and indoor kids were led around in sluggish circles. Sol still has scar tissue on her thigh from one of Viper’s bites, but she gave as good as she got. “I guess I was gigil also,” she shrugs.
But eventually, something between the horse and the girl changed. Instead of fighting each other, it became the two of them fighting against the world. They were a team. “I started riding on my own. After you ride a horse like that, you think you can ride anything.”
Sol can’t explain how it happened. “I’m always stumped when people ask me to talk about horses. It’s not something I can separate from myself. My horse is like my second brain, my second body. I need horses the way some people need long walks or good music.”
Any horse person can tell you that riding horses means falling off horses. Once, Sol broke her leg while trying to help an inexperienced rider with a skittish horse. She had no choice but to grit her teeth, get back on her horse, and guide them both home.
But there are ways to break that can’t be steeled against. Sol learned this on the day Viper died.
“I wasn’t riding him as much as before—you know how we get caught up in other things. It got really bad. I was living with my ex at the time, and he just couldn’t reach me emotionally at all.” Their relationship fell apart, and Sol found herself spiraling deeper and downward.
“That’s why Viper and I got along so well. We met each other with the same inner rage and learned to understand each other from that place.” <callout-alt-author>Solana Perez<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>
Sol looks down at her cup of tea, growing tepid in the chill air of the dark drawing room. Her voice grows quiet, but she doesn’t balk at the turn our conversation has taken.
People don’t understand that, all too often, the most unbearable aspect of depression is the guilt. What threatens to send the afflicted over the edge is the pressure to force a smile, to put on a show to soothe the fear and worry emanating from loved ones. This moment gave her the space and time she desperately needed to not be okay, to feel things through without all of the well-meaning insistence that she should be.
Compared to the unfathomable void that waits for us in our darkest, loneliest moments, riding horses across Central Asia now seems a prospect way less terrifying.
In clicking on the application Sol sought out a challenge, and found one: the Derby permeates and punctuates her days, shapes her thoughts around questions of strategy; structures her time around the rigors of training. “I’ve never felt more alive,” she says, sitting cross-legged, hugging her knees. Once more, life is going. She holds it firmly by the reins and kicks it into a gallop across wide, open plains.
This story was originally published in GRID Volume 09.