Column: Horse Riders of Cordillera Range

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If there’s any feature in the “City of Pines” in the present age, by which it is strongly marked, or by which it can be more aptly characterized than another, it consists in the numerous four-footed and nimble animals called horses nestled in a place called Wright Park Horse Stable Hill in Baguio City, located below the “The Mansion,” the official summer residence of the President of the Philippines.

Wright Park, a wooded area named after American Governor Luke E. Wright, lies at the city’s eastern part, fronting the main gate of The Mansion that features a rectangular and   elongated pool of shallow water often dubbed by sightseers as “Pool of Pines.”

Striking at Wright Park are  presence of centuries old Pinus Kiseya, pinus insulares or commonly known as the Benguet pine tree, these possessed of three needles, barks that are dark brown, irregularly flaking and deeply fissured.

Benguet pines can tower as high as 40 meters and above, spreading their gnarled branches in all their strange, magnificent ruggedness and beauty and giving shade to Wright Park in shadows of intersecting spectacles.

Any visitor – Cordilleran resident or tourist – finds  something homespun,  which strikes forcibly on the mind  which  Wright Park presents to the naked eye, a contrast from the generality of the innermost Baguio landscape of  markets, stores, malls,  stores and more malls.

Like you have suddenly descended upon a part of a country place, finding yourself in the midst of horde of horses teeming with neophytes trying gingerly to mount these steeds but under the watchful eyes of horse tenders who are in fact owners of these spirited animals.

All these are entirely dissimilar from all, one is regularly accustomed to viewing and experiencing in Baguio. The novelty is in fact at first delightful and exhilarating to anyone who never rode a horse in a lifetime.

Wright Park country scenes, with horses around, are the medicine  for  any   daily laborer wanting  to  file for an off day,  for  students,  children, parents, and just plain anybody preferring  to  see radiant, holiday faces, parks and gardens guarded by stately  Benguet pines and  studded with   groups of homely and wondering citizens.

They, resonant with the laughter of their little children echoing at Wright Park, feeling assured  they are  one and the same time benefiting both the mind and the body while  horses tethered there watch them with amused and disinterested eye, albeit lazily mulching grass gathered by the horse tenders – called in  tourist slang as  “Baguio pony boys.”

First-time riders wanting to try to heave themselves upon a saddled horse at Wright Park will discover to their delight that like humans, horses are also individuals possessed with singular personalities, faults as well as virtues.

First time riders  astride a horse at Wright Park  will  feel for themselves  what  Benguet  horse riders  felt long ago; settled on a horse,   a rider discerns  spontaneous  beauty on a Cordillera range.

No wonder, horses are no strangers to highland Cordillerans and no stranger still, particularly to the Benguet tribe folks, historically bound to these well-muscled animals for their eccentricities, their distinct smell and the affection they give to any horse owner.

To Benguet folks, horses are potent to their culture; horses are their ideal and how they view themselves. Its traces, embedded deep in the Benguet way of life, can still be found to this present time at Wright Park, where horse tenders offer services of their steeds or, if not doing it,   still ride the Cordillera ranges which are echoes of their traditional and cultural heritage.

Winnie Baban, a lovely lady from La Trinidad, daughter of former La Trinidad councilor Winfred Costina Baban, and who previously worked as Public Information Officer of the Department of Agrarian Reform (DAR-CAR) and now retired, revealed last Saturday about Benguet tribe folks relationship with the equine companion.

Winnie Baban, kin of  Armed Forces of the Philippines  (AFP)  General Pedro Baban (Retired)  from Alapang, La Trinidad, related, “Kavajo (horse) was the fastest animal that can reach hills and mountains back then.”

Winnie Baban continued: “I always remember my uncles with cowboy hats riding their horses   from Pico to Mines View Park.  One of my uncles loved his horse more than the girls, reason why he married late in the 70’s, ha-ha!”

“As for me,” Winnie Baban mused, “I was then exposed to the advertisement of then Marlboro country. I think that was the fad back then, together with country music. Many Benguet gentlemen, including my uncles would often queue to the movie theatres established in Baguio City then, to watch cowboy movies.”

When her uncle died in early 90’s, Winnie Baban recalled “the old folks brought his saddle” to his grave, with the firm “belief he would ride his  horse to the great beyond.”

When another of her uncle died in 2012, in Asin, Tuba, they have to rent a saddle from the Baguio pony boys as a manifestation of send-off for her uncle, a lasting tradition not even presence of pajeros, fortuners and other   brands of vehicles can shatter.

Horses reminds Daily Laborer  of another  story  told  to him in the early 1950’s  by   folks  in Buguias, Benguet, of  a  bull cow  slated to be butchered  for a wedding ceremony.

As had always been a Benguet cultural wedding rite that, “Nu ayshi baka, ayshi kasar!” Simply meaning, “If no cow for a wedding ritual, then no wedding!”

Nowadays, that old saying was humorously altered into “Nu ayshi elf, ayshi kasar!” (Simply meaning if the groom couldn’t present an elf truck to the bride, a wedding is off.)

But back to what the Buguias folks related.  Probably sensing its time was up, the cow intended for a wedding feast metamorphosed into a raging bull when Buguias folks tried to lasso him. It attacked anyone that came near it and nearly upended the wedding.

Bu those sobering details were not what the Buguias folks talked about mostly, with Daily Laborer.

Rather, it was about the “silent rider on a striped horse,” who, the Buguias old folks said appeared from nowhere, got off his horse, squared off with the raging bull, wrestled it to the ground and tied its four legs with swift tying strokes.

In the battle between the horse rider versus raging bull, the man, wounded, ended up in the infirmary (the infirmary now presently known as Abatan Lutheran Hospital) of Buguias. But to the Buguias folks, a legend had been born . . .

And they proudly dubbed him “nansakay shi kavajo,” (literally meaning   horse rider on a range) for the stranger was often heard humming, “Home on the Range,” when he landed at the infirmary.

Buguias folks said the stranger’s name was Modesto Acpit, who, they reckoned had been in his early thirties when the incident occurred.

During his recuperation, Acpit thanked the Buguias folks and told them he was headed towards Baguio City and start a horseback-riding entrepreneurship for a living for himself and his family with anyone willing to ride horse – for a reasonable fee agreed upon by both parties.

Indeed, the revelation of Acpit was a simple story   known to so many highland, Cordilleran families throughout history, of a man in search of a better life for his family in an unexplored territory.

So, Acpit left Buguias one morning unnoticed and never told the Buguias folks where he originated.  But he spoke the Benguet dialect. As mysteriously as he appeared that wedding day in 1950, he mysteriously left without ceremony.  But his legend among the lives he touched lives on.

Folks who travelled on the old Dangwa Bus Line to Baguio City heard later that Acpit became successful in his horseback riding entrepreneurship in Baguio City.

Nobody exactly knows  when horseback riding for a fee started as a business venture in Baguio City, but it is a fact that for a hundred years, Benguet people  have an inseparable history  with horses, probably the only tribe in Cordillera with a storied past with the  four-footed  steed.

From 1920 to 1937, during construction of the Halsema Highway by American engineer Eusebius Halsema, horses of the Benguet folks have been used to move people, equipment and materials.

Horses also bring to mind about a lawyer in the lowlands whom Daily Laborer came to be friends with. In all horse cases he handled, he never had an equal. For he knew the frame of a horse and the whole veterinary Pharmacopeia.  As well as horse sense.

And every horse rustler, horse dealer in lowland Pangasinan dreaded this lawyer. He knew all other diseases of horses than the government veterinarians in the lowland region knew and he had a singular taste in handling horse court cases, a truth known in the lowland lawyers’ circuit.

This lawyer friend not only examined a questionable horse himself, but he almost invariably had a horse produced in court.

And this lawyer friend in presenting a horse in court would address the judge hearing the case, thus: “With all due respect your Honor, I hereby present the horse as witness…” and thereon   goes on   to deliver a beautiful lecture about horses  that is  often received with apparent candor by any judge worth his salt.

One time, it was narrated he defended a farmer who lost his horse to a rustler who made horse gravy out of the farmer’s horse. And this lawyer friend boomed in court saying, “Your honor, my client-farmer would have rather seen his horse running with speed around Pangasinan countryside than dripping with gravy on a plate!” It was said he won his client’s case and the horse eater, fined heavily.

Goes to prove that between man and horse, there is much horse sense as ever, but horses have most of it.

Even now, Daily Laborer has this odd suspicion his lawyer-friend of his would make an excellent senatorial debater.

If that is not nor horse sense to you, then Daily Laborer does not know what is. . .

Horse in physical sense, doth import a certain quadruped or four-footed animal, which, by the apt and regular disposition of certain proper and convenient parts, is adapted, fitted and constituted for the use and need of humans.

Yes, so necessary and conducive is this animal conceived to be the worth of the  Benguet common public  that   diverse acts of cultural edicts have, from time to time, been made in favor of horses.

No wonder horse owners at Wright Park, with tongue-in-cheek, believe in the adage horses have more “horse sense” than human beings. Or in plain talk, “How we wish, common sense is more common.”