By Erin Dunigan
Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Do you feel it? A sense of familiarity tinged with distance. It's the aroma of boundless expanses, something that resonates within you, yet remains elusive amidst the daily hustle of navigating traffic, toiling in front of screens, chauffeuring kids from one activity to another. This aroma, like a faint whisper, reminds you of something profound that stirs within.
It's the wildness, the liberation - that sense of feeling free, untethered, expansive. It's not about your 9 to 5 grind but about connecting with your authentic self, with what truly matters. As you immerse yourself in this vision, a rhythmic sound punctuates the moment – the symphony of hooves.
Hundreds of them.
Clop, clop, clop, clop – a four-beat cadence as the horses find their stride. The sound of hoofbeats and the kicked-up dust gradually pull you back to reality, a reality that surrounds you on all sides - the cabalgata.
A cabalgata, loosely translated as a "horseback journey," is like a marathon for equestrians – individual, yes, but also together, side by side, tracing a common path yet each one on his or her own journey.
In Baja California, the cabalgata is as central to the culture as tacos, Tecate, or margaritas. The very verb "cabalgar" signifies "to ride horses together." No rush, no timetables, just traversing open landscapes with fellow vaqueros and vaqueras, united in your passion for horses and the freedom they embody.
Imagine embracing the wildness, the freedom, and the deep connection that a cabalgata offers. It's not just a horseback ride; it's a journey that allows you to rediscover a part of yourself buried beneath the obligations of everyday life. As you leave behind the computer screens and the traffic jams, you find solace in the open range, riding alongside kindred spirits who share your yearning for something more.
Epic does not overstate it.
On this particular Saturday, La Mision, a tranquil village an hour south of the border, played host to the cabalgata. Vaqueros gathered at the rodeo grounds, arriving from as far away as Tecate, Tijuana, Rosarito, and Ensenada. Others, like our group, locals of La Mision, rode from their ranches to congregate in the arena for the customary cabalgata roll call.
Before embarking, horses and riders fanned out, encircling the rodeo arena, numbering off one by one. "Uno, dos, tres..." up to ciento veinte – 120 riders at the outset, soon swelling to 150 as more joined the caravan along the way.
A cabalgata has no distinct objective; it's not a race with winners or losers. It's about immersing yourself in nature, savoring the journey, forging connections, and bonding with your horse.
The duration varies, depending on the route and organizers. Some, like the Cabalgata de La Raza (which crosses the hills above Rosarito) in October, span vast distances, offering a concentrated day of riding. Others, like the San Jose de la Zorra cabalgata, near Baja’s famed Valle de Guadalupe, extend over two days, with an overnight camp at the San Jose de la Zorra Indian Reservation.
However, the La Mision cabalgata takes a more leisurely pace – a four-hour jaunt, punctuated by stops to rest and the occasional beer purchased from a pickup truck trailing the riders.
For us locals, the route is familiar – leaving the rodeo grounds, meandering through estuary trails, and crossing the river. This year's heavy rains have swelled the river, lending an element of challenge. While our horses wade through the chest-high waters confidently, some riders hesitantly linger on the banks, not wanting to be the first to cross.
As we make our way across the river we head toward the beach, another novel experience for those from other regions. Some horses enter into the the waves without hesitation, while others shy away, as if fearing the sea will dissolve them.
Leaving the beach, the trail starts to ascend towards the mesa. This is where the terrain challenges both horse and rider. Steep switchbacks carve their way up the slope, demanding a harmonious partnership between human and equine. As you ascend, you can't help but marvel at the bond you share with your horse, each step a testament to trust and cooperation.
The mesa sprawls ahead, a vast expanse of unspoiled beauty. Cows graze leisurely on either side of the trail. Here, the endless sky kisses the earth, and the horizon stretches out. You can feel it - you’re not just on a ride; you're part of something greater, something deeper, something untouched by the modern world's constraints.
Along the journey, conversations, and cervezas, flow freely among riders. Friends who regularly participate in the various cabalgatas are reunited. Those who are new quickly become amigos on the journey, sharing stories and laughter. The cabalgata is a microcosm of connection, where societal roles fade, and a shared love for horses and nature bridges the gaps.
As the ride unfolds, time loses its urgency, replaced by the rhythmic cadence of hooves and the camaraderie that envelops you. The distant worries of the daily grind fade into the background, leaving only the present moment.
And then, the journey nears its conclusion. As you descend from the mesa back to the valley, the horses can feel they are headed in the direction of home. Their pace quickens. In spite of going all day, you can feel a lightness in their step as you travel along the valley floor, back to where only hours before, the day began.
Back at the rodeo grounds, the cabalgata concludes. Riders dismount, water their horses, enjoy a plate of freshly made birria and hot tortillas, and share stories of the ride. As you bid farewell to your newfound companions, you carry with you not just memories but a renewed sense of self.
The cabalgata experience is a reminder that there's a yearning within each of us for the untamed, for the connection to nature that often lies dormant in the humdrum of daily life. It's a call to break free from the monotony, to climb into the saddle and embark on a journey that awakens the spirit.
So, if you've ever yearned for the untethered spirit of the wild, consider trading the routine for a day of camaraderie, adventure, and the soul-stirring experience of a cabalgata. Let the hoofbeats carry you away, and let the wilderness awaken a sense of wonder that has been dormant for too long. Embark on your dreams and let the journey redefine your connection to nature, to community, and to yourself.
Vamos a cabalgar!
For more information on cabagaltas or to reserve your spot in the next one email horsesbyjose(at)gmail.com or check out the Horses by Jose website.
Erin Dunigan is a writer, photographer, and horsewoman who has always felt at home in Baja California. She spent her childhood traveling back and forth between her native Southern California and her grandmother's home in La Mision. For the past 14 years she has made Baja her home. You can follow her adventures on Instagram at @edunny.
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