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Harmony with Horses

Text by Debbie Kunder / Photography by Steve Keith

As tiny as it is, it’s no wonder that Aruba has a rather small equestrian community. Yet within this community, 18 dedicated youths diligently train in order to be part of Aruba’s national equestrian team, Team Mundial. I took a closer look at the local youths who happily inhabit this interesting world of equestrianism, meeting up with six of them, along with their coach, Gino Werleman, at Villa Floralina, a beautifully appointed ranch where Interpaso Aruba, the island’s annual paso fino horse competition, takes place.

Aruba National Equestrian Team
Team Mundial riders (from left to right): Willem Werleman, Dwayne Chirino, Gabriela Piazzi, Zoey Arends, Elizabeth Johnson & Nina van Romondt

Let’s just say that my own experience with horse riding goes as far as riding trail horses, so I honestly had very little idea what was involved in a paso fino competition. I soon learned that each competition is actually two different competitions: the rider is judged in the first, and the horse in the second. In the rider competition, the rider earns points for their posture and how well they manage the horse during a series of exercises. The exercises include maneuvering the horse through a figure-eight course and a serpentine course, as well as demonstrating the ability to control the horse’s “paso” on a sounding board. (The paso fino horse is named for its signature “paso” (step), which is a four-beat lateral gait.) During the horse competition, the horse itself is judged on its mastery of a different series of exercises.

Aruba National Equestrian Team

Most of the members of Team Mundial only compete in the rider competition. They are not yet strong enough nor experienced enough to handle their horses in the more rigorous horse competition. Rather, the horses’ trainers show the horses during this segment. Many of the riders yearn to someday learn how to train their own horses, but for now, only one of the national team members, 16-year-old Willem Werleman, Gino’s son, trains his own horse and shows it himself in the horse competition. Impressively, Willem is the youngest horse trainer on the island and has won his fair share of awards at international competitions.

Aruba National Equestrian Team
Zoey Arends: “I'm very competitive and hate to lose. Competitions are teaching me how to lose gracefully.”
Aruba National Equestrian Team
Nina van Romondt: “The bond between me and my horse is like magic.”

As one of the parents schooled me in the workings of the paso fino competition, I enjoyed the mini impromptu show in the ring as the riders and their horses strutted their stuff. Listening to the four-beat staccato of a paso fino’s gait on the sounding board is a true pleasure. Dwayne Chirino, who’s been riding for two years, agrees with me. “When you’re in the ring and everybody is screaming your name, and then there’s the moment when you reach the sounding board and everybody stays quiet to listen to the ‘paso’ of the horse—that’s what I like so much about the competitions.” Another true pleasure is witnessing the precision of movement exhibited by each rider-and-horse team. I had to wonder, How much of this control and precision comes from the rider, and how much from the horse? Gino explained, “It’s like a really good car. The car has the ability to perform really well, but if the driver is no good, then the car won’t be driven to its maximum potential.”

Aruba horse competition
Gino coaching team rider Willem Werleman.

Another parent shed a bit more light on what is required of the rider. “It all comes down to creating harmony with the horse,” she explained. Basically, the rider must keep the horse in rhythm and moving at a consistent pace while maintaining perfect posture. The rider uses their hands, their legs, and sounds to control the horse, but these efforts must be virtually imperceptible to the judges at competitions. The ab and leg workout that the rider gets, however, proves that the seemingly effortless harmony created with the horse is anything but effortless.

But exercise isn’t the only thing these youngsters are getting out of the sport. As with most competitive sports, equestrianism teaches discipline and responsibility. Each rider also learns how to respect their horse, trust it, and take care of it, oftentimes developing a truly special friendship with it. Elizabeth Johnson, who’s been riding since she was five years old, explained, “I honestly couldn’t imagine my life without these wonderful creatures. A horse is a friend that you can always rely on, that you can always trust, that will always return the love that you give it. I always feel in my comfort zone around them.” Gabriela Piazzi echoed this sentiment. “The connection that I have with my horse feels like an unbreakable bond. Every day, I go to the ranch and see my horse look at me while I step out of the car with her ears in front—I always look forward to that!” It’s pure, unconditional love.

Aruba horse competition
Elizabeth Johnson: “I just love the rush I get when riding. Horses are so beautiful and powerful.”
Aruba National Equestrian Team
Gabriela Piazzi: “The most important thing that a person should have with their horse is trust, because if you don't trust your horse, who knows what could happen.”

Fifteen-year-old Zoey Arends confided that riding is her therapy. She has a lot of energy, and if she doesn’t get out of the house to ride every day, or at least go to the stable to see and smell her horse, she has difficulty sleeping at night. Most of all, she enjoys riding on the peaceful north coast of the island, either by herself or with a friend.

Aruba horses

Through their sport, these youth equestrians also have the opportunity to travel internationally. Most recently, the team traveled to compete in Puerto Rico, with several of the riders earning awards. At these competitions, the team members get to see new places, make new friends, and learn about new cultures. Elizabeth shared, “The competitions for me are a great opportunity to have fun with friends—the cheering, the competing, the laughter, the memorable moments. It’s basically like a big get-together with friends and family.” Simply put, these kids are having the times of their lives.

Find out what Team Mundial is up to now by visiting @OCAruba on Facebook.