Big Lessons from A Small Island

A visit to the tiny island of Guam taught this rider to change herself instead of changing horses.

I didn’t know much about Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific Ocean, until April 2013 when my fiancé suggested that I accompany him there on a 10-day business trip. After locating the tiny island on a map—it’s no more than 10 miles wide and 30 miles long—I went to work researching where I might ride during our visit. 

Amy Nelson jumps Capricious, a lesson horse from the Rock n’ Rail Horse Ranch in Yigo, Guam. Courtesy, Amy Nelson.

As trainer and co-owner of Amy Nelson Equestrian at Hummingbird Stables in Rochester, Illinois, I’m accustomed to spending most of my waking hours in the company of horses and riders. I knew that I wouldn’t last 10 days—even in a tropical paradise—without some time in a saddle. Fortunately, I located the lone hunter/jumper barn on the island: Rock n’ Rail Horse Ranch in the small town of Yigo.

Our trip to Guam took an arduous 22 hours from Springfield, Illinois, to St. Louis, Missouri, to Houston, Texas, then to Honolulu, Hawaii, and finally to our destination. It was 88 degrees and humid when we arrived. My fiancé went to work and I happily set off to meet horses and riders.

When I introduced myself to Charlene, owner of Rock n’ Rail Ranch, she asked if I would be willing to help train her horses and teach her students during my stay. She told me that as isolated as the island is, it’s a treat to have trainers visit from the mainland and bring new perspectives.

I ended up spending every minute I could at Rock n’ Rail, riding horses, teaching lessons and even giving a jumping clinic. As I leapt out of bed at 6 each morning to beat the heat of the day, my fiancé would give me a supportive smile. I also got a loving shake of the head in the evening when I returned exhausted and covered in the bright red volcanic dirt that is so common around the farm.

Rock n’ Rail Ranch attracts a variety of riders, from locals (the Chamorro people) to members of military families. Located just five miles from Andersen Air Force Base and some 20 miles from Naval Base Guam, it provides a safe, supportive environment for many kids whose parents are active in the military. It also is a welcoming place for military spouses. I became fast friends with a rider named Allyssa, who came to Rock n’ Rail from her home on the naval base while her husband worked.

I was impressed with the skills of the equestrians I encountered on Guam. They have learned not only how to ride but how to ride well. There are maybe six horses at most on the island capable of jumping, and each has his unique habits and way of moving. So a rider on Guam learns to stay on.

I became even more convinced of that when I rode Bogey (affectionately known as Booger for a bit of a mean streak). He’s a boonie pony—the island’s version of a grade pony, generally dun in color, under 14 hands and full of vinegar. Because of his bad reputation, Bogey didn’t have a job. But after working with him for a while—and nearly coming off—I discovered that he loves to jump. The first one was the hardest, but eventually he got his leads and striding perfectly. Now the girls there ride him all the time and love him. The experience taught me how important it is not to try to fit a horse into a mold of what I think he should be. Better to listen to him and let him tell me what he wants to be.

All too often back home on the mainland, riders replace horses who can’t jump high enough or aren’t absolutely bombproof or sufficiently push-button responsive. On Guam, that isn’t an option. The people there have to adjust themselves and, as a result, they become better riders. To import and ship a horse to the tiny island is outrageously expensive. And breeding the perfect prospect isn’t an option since there are only about a dozen horses on Guam. You ride what you have and you work hard. 

And the effort is rewarded. Riding on Guam taught me the value of putting in the time to work with a horse, get the best out of what’s available and change myself instead of changing horses.

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