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By John Geary
(For Travel Writers’ Tales)


I was in the water, and hanging on for dear life – or at least to prevent any embarrassment. And I was once again, swimming with an animal.

This one was a bit different, though...

Plenty of people swim with dolphins in the Bahamas, stingrays in the Cayman Islands’ “Stingray City,” manatees in Florida, even sharks in Maui – those activities are actually pretty common tourist experiences these days, for anyone comfortable in water.

But one adventure that may be not quite as mainstream is the one you can experience at the Hacienda Dona Engracia, Mexico. There, you can swim with horses.

That’s how I found myself to be hanging on to the back of a horse in the middle of a Mexican river.

Located in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains near Puerto Vallarta, this Mexican ranch offers horseback riding for guests, and for those who may want to experience something different, they can swim with the horses.

It doesn’t really matter what level of experience you have, as they provide horses for riders of many different experience levels. And they always start off with a bit of riding lesson before heading out onto the trails.

The vaqueros always instruct with a sense of humour, too, which helps ease any nervousness a novice rider may feel.

Once you’re matched with a horse and saddled up, it’s time to hit trail.

I’ve been on plenty of trail rides, from the Andes of Peru and the jungles of Belize to the Alberta Badlands and Ontario’s green forests, and each ride is a little different, offering different types of landscapes and experiences. If you have an active imagination, you may also wander into a different place in your mind as you relax into the ride.

I’ve been Allan Quartermain on horseback along Africa’s Zambezi, Indiana Jones in Central America - on this trip, I was the Cisco Kid, looking around for my sidekick Pancho. Once you relax into the ride, it’s easy to imagine yourself as any fictional hero who’s ever used a horse. I could almost hear the lyrics of that 1970s pop song … “He’d drink whiskey, Pancho’d drink the wine...”

We did have some fine drink during our visit there, although it wasn’t whiskey, or wine. But more on that in a bit.

As we rode through the woods, I noticed that there was more green than I expected. The vision of Mexico I have is often coloured by the numerous spaghetti westerns I watched while growing up, but the country is very diverse. While it was very warm, and it certainly wouldn’t be mistaken for a tropical rainforest, it was not as dry and desert-like as some might think.

Once we got to the river, it got a whole lot wetter.

Not every horse is able to swim with a rider. And it’s done bareback, so rather than unsaddle all the horses, one or two are unsaddled, then riders take turns. One of the guides always swims ahead of the horse to guide it. And he is swimming – as is the horse. This is not like fording at a shallow spot – the animal is swimming.

I’d never ridden bareback before and once you get into the water, you really do have to hang on – or you’ll end swimming. I managed to stay on for most of the short swim, but slipped off a few yards before the exit point. Hey, I was hot, I wanted to cool off a bit (that was my story, anyways).

Back at the ranch, we were treated to a tour of the tequila making facility, getting a quick lesson about how the potent liquor is distilled. It’s made from the blue agave plant which is a “desert succulent,” not a cactus (so much for cactus coolers!) as some think. After the short tour, we sampled some of the varieties of tequila produced there. They offer the usual silver, repasado, and anejo, as well as three flavored tequilas: peach, almond, and coffee.

But we weren’t done yet...

After our tasting tour, we enjoyed a buffet-style Mexican meal, accompanied by some pretty senoritas and their handsome male amigos performing Mexican dances to some lively traditional tunes. Guests are even given the opportunity to “get up and boogie” with the dancers at one point.

The dancing ended with a rather fitting performance: a dancing horse, bringing everything full circle. I’ll say this: it might have been the tequila I had before eating, but the horse had better moves than I did…



The ranch provides facilities for day tours only, and while you don’t absolutely need reservations, it’s probably best to call ahead to let them know you’re coming, otherwise you risk disappointment if all the horses are already out on rides.

If you swim with a horse, bring a bathing suit so you don’t ride back in wet jeans.

For more information, visit

Visit Puerto Vallarta can also help with arranging a trip, transportation details, etc.

Several major airlines fly to Puerto Vallarta from Canada.

(All photos ©John Geary)

Photos and captions by John Geary

1. Getting-ready-ride-with-instructions-from-one-of-the-vaqueros.

2. View-from-a-horse.

3. Into-the-river-to-swim-with-a-horse.

4. Who-want-some-tequila?

5. A-pretty-senorita-dances-up-a-storm.

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