Horse Whisperers in Jaco
I shouldn't have been surprised. Andrea called out "We have to pull over," but Chris was already pulling onto the shoulder of the Route 34.
A hundred feet behind us a turtle dawdled across the two-lane coastal highway.
We park on the side of the road. Andrea ran out onto the street while I chased after her fumbling with my camera lens cap trying to capture the moment. The turtle ducked into its shell as she scooped it in her hands and carried it to the far side of the road.
I know that as a journalist I have a certain way of putting people on their best behavior, but this was so cute and genuine. I could see Chris and Andrea's concern for the turtle written all over their faces and it told me everything I needed to know about their love for animals.
I had the opportunity to spend two days with Costa Rican horse whisperers Chris and Andrea Wady, who have spent the last nine years in Costa Rica rehabilitating, loving and riding horses while running Discovery Horseback Tours.
Devoted, may be the apt word to describe the Wady's relationship to their horses. She knows their habits, their tics and their quorks; handling each one as a mother might care for different children. It's all part of a horse training technique called natural horsemanship wherein rider and horse become partners, but more importantly it's Chris and Andrea philosophy on caring for, teaching and loving horses (and life).
"I don't want to sit on a horse that's terrified of what I might do. I want a partner," Andrea said as she rode to the meadows of the 1,800-acre farm and private rainforest reserve where she keeps some of the horses. Andrea and Chris rescued each of their horses from neglectful and abusive environments. Some of the horses still bear the scars where reins or saddle were synched too tight or worse.
Out of the 17 horses that Chris and Andrea have rehabilitated, 15 of them are comfortable working with tourists, one is retired and the other is still too anxious around people from the abuse she faced with her previous owners.
That didn't stop Andrea from pulling over to see the horse when she saw him running in the field. Andrea crawled through the fence with a banana peel to feed the horse, which casually walked over. Before she fed him though, she asked him to smile. The horse threw its head in the air and spread his lips in the weirdest smile I've ever seen (note: horses do not have pretty smiles).
Chris and Andrea rehabilitate their horses using natural horsemanship, a training technique that emphasizes positive reinforcement. They build rapport with the horses communicating with them, taking care of them and training them as you might train a dog. When learning a new behavior, Andrea rewards the horse with a treat and a bit of adoration until the horse starts to associate the behavior with the reward.
Using that technique, I watched Andrea teach a mare to pick up a bucket with her teeth on command. It's really incredible to watch. You can see the mare thinking. At first, she didn't quite know why she got the treat, but she knew it had to do with the bucket. So the mare started playing with it, trying different things until she figured it out.
Chris and Andrea encourage that kind of curiosity and you can see the difference in the horses, especially in their eyes. I've been on other horseback riding tours in Costa Rica and often the horses look sullen or apathetic; like someone returning to their cubicle on a Monday morning, but never have I seen the spark of life that Chris and Andrea's horses have.
Horses & partners
Riding with Chris and Andrea really changed my perspective on horses. I mean, I always liked horses (confession: as toddler I would don a cowboy hat and ride my grandpa's horse), but every time I ever rode a horse I just jumped on in the same way you would climb in the driver's seat of a rental car.
I never experienced or understood the depths of a horse's intelligence and complexity until I went riding with Chris and Andrea. You see it in the way the horses prick their ears up when they are happy or in the playful spark in their eye right before they do something they know is mischievous. The way they seem to show all these human emotions like curiosity, anxiety, shame, pride, egoism; it's incredible. And for Chris and Andrea that compassion spills over into every other aspect of their lives. They radiate happiness and positivity hoping to spread their love for animals with everyone they encounter.