Botswana: Okavango Delta Riding Safari–Dispatch 3

That afternoon we wind up on the opposite side of the river from camp. At first I’m relieved to see that a skiff manned by camp staff is there to help us. The question is, if we are rowed back to camp, what will the horses do? “The boat’s to bring your tack over. You swim with the horses.” Haven’t these people read their own brochure which says there are crocodiles in these here rivers? Besides, don’t they know that I don’t do bareback? No one cares to pay attention to me, and all the other guests seem to think this is a wonderful treat. Or are good at pretending so. There’s nothing for it but to strip off the saddles and swim the horses across. I remount bare back, having tied the reins to the horse’s bridle. “Just let the horse wade in, and when you feel him start to swim, let your legs float up.”

I have to bite my lip to stop from asking, “And will he be doing the crawl? Or the breast stroke?” I’ve never been on a swimming horse before and have no idea what one feels like.

“Whatever you do, do not hang onto the reins or in any way try to direct his head. A horse in water can become easily disoriented. If you grab onto him, he could flip over and drown.” The only place left for me to hold on is my horse’s mane. I grab a fistful and cluck him forward. I may be untutored, but he knows exactly what he’s doing. That’s because he lives here and he knows there’s food and a good rubdown on the other side.

Without hesitation he’s into the river and within a few steps I feel a change, as the percussion of his legs on the ground gives way to a flowing riverine extended trot. My legs float up, like they used to when my mother held my hands in hers, pulling me through the pool as she taught me how to swim at age three. I find myself lying on the horse’s slick back, now fully submerged in the river, as his strong, even strokes pull us forward. Wrapping my fingers deeper into his wet mane, I touch my toes to his haunches to help stay centered over his back. Too soon I feel his front hooves get a purchase in the soft sand. I ease my body back to upright, reluctant now to leave the euphoria of being a near-weightless body drawn by the horse’s urgent strokes, loathe to leave the cool liquid layer of water barely separating me from the warmth of my horse’s body. “Can I swim back and do it again?” I shout. The staff in the boat pretend not to hear me.

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