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Riding Horses on Padre Island

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Riding McLeod on the beach at Padre Island, Texas (Photo by Brennan Wells)

It’s about time I got on a horse.

I have zigzagged four thousand miles across Texas by car, but all the comfort and speed of machines can never compare to trotting a mile or two in the packed sand of Padre Island.

Out here, on the world’s longest barrier island, the ocean meets the fringe of Texas with ruffled rows of grey-brown surf. Far away from the plains and prairies and hills and desert, the dull-colored sandbar fades casually into the deep blue Gulf.

This land was made for horses. All over Texas I have watched them graze, nipping at spring shoots in Panhandle fields and scraping at the sage brush of Big Bend, and yet only when I arrive at land’s end do I actually swing my leg up over a leather saddle, grab the reins and really get to traveling.

McLeod is an icy white thoroughbred with a sandy mane and deep wet eyes. He is a giant beast, all muscle and backbone and haunches—and his keeper warns me right off the bat: “You gotta watch him, now, he won’t sit still long.”

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McLeod, my white thoroughbred (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

“Yeah?” I ask, a little concerned. I am no stranger to a jumpy horse.

“He’s anxious to travel,” they say.

“Well then—we have something in common,” I reply and slide my palm along McLeod’s velvety face.

My horse begins walking, stepping into the dunes, oblivious to the other horses and their respective tourist loads. For the first twenty minutes we get to know one another. I make sure he knows I like a slow and steady pace—I pull up on the reins and hold him back, then release to let him move ahead. He makes sure that I know how much he hates me pulling on his reins—that he likes the water and staying ahead of the pack. Also, he doesn’t like the smaller brown quarterhorse and the smoke from a far away fire and that curious little dog running in the sand.

We get along, this animal that is carrying me down the beach and I, the distant Texan returned home. My month has passed by too quickly, the vastness of this place still a whirl in my head, but now, on horseback—with the soft rhythm of cold ocean waves—only now does my mind slow way down and I feel myself relaxed in the saddle, toes pressed against the stirrups, riding, riding.

Puffs of sand blow away from each hoof as they pull out of the dune; long and beautiful horsetails twitch and swish as the dune flowers flap like flimsy yellow crepe paper in the wind.

The wind is always blowing here, long and strong. It was blowing on the day I arrived in Texas and it is still blowing now—blowing McLeod’s slender mane to the west. Everything else disappears and we are alone—just me and my horse and the great big sea. Hooves splash into the surf and all I do is keep riding—riding and riding across another beautiful mile of Texas.

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