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Julio Muñoz is Trinidad’s “mane” man. My pal—an intense, iconoclastic, and impish “horse whisperer”—has an ability to communicate with horses perhaps unique in Cuba.
Trinidad, a four hour drive southeast of Havana, is an exquisite 18th-century time-warp with sloping cobbled streets that echo to the clip-clop of hooves. Founded in 1514 as one of Cuba’s original seven cities, this perfectly preserved colonial town was in 1988 declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. To visitors it seems to have been pickled in aspic.
Muñoz is descended from Spanish immigrants. Over two centuries the family grew wealthy and well-respected before losing most of its properties following the Revolution. Julio’s grandfather was the town gynecologist and many trinitarios were born, as was Julio, in the front room of the beautiful colonial house he would eventually inherit. (The October 1999 edition of National Geographic magazine features a photograph of Julio’s wife, Rosa, sitting with her niece on a priceless gold gilt Louis XIV-style bed that once occupied the room.)
Julio and Rosa long ago adopted me as part of their family, right up there with the live-in horse.
Thus, when National Geographic Expeditions invited me to design and lead the company’s 10-day ‘Cuba: Discover its People & Culture’ “people-to-people exchange” programs, it was a no-brainer to include Trinidad and a visit to Julio and Rosa’s home.
The highlight is when he or his wife Rosa bring whichever horse (they own seven) they have living at that time in the courtyard stable and lead it clip-clopping into the house. Right there, in among the antique furniture and two dozen people. Guests love it!
Our visitors lean forward in their seats, mouths creased in smiles, as Julio explains:
“I’ve been interested in photography since I was a kid. But playing in the cobbled streets, seeing mules and ox-carts and traditions that seem so fantastic to you, well that seemed normal to me. It was the world I grew up in,” he says, motioning to a horse-drawn cart clattering past the open window.
“In 1996 we were allowed to rent rooms to foreigners, so I quit my job as an electrical engineer. My wife and I repaired the house and opened two rooms as a bed and breakfast. It changed my world,” Julio continues. “Owning a casa particular is like going back to university. Cubans don’t have Internet or access to information like you. But we have guests from all walks of life, such as professional photographers.”
Inspired and encouraged by people like myself, and fellow National Geographic photographer David Harvey (who first introduced me to Julio in 1999), Julio fell in love with documentary photojournalism. He began to explore Trinidad with fresh eyes.
“I wanted to record everything,” Julio continues as Chloe, his four-year-old Dalmatian bounds into the lounge and leaps into guests’ laps on the sofa.
My trip members are fanning themselves from the stifling Cuban heat.
“One of the most interesting aspects of Trinidad is the countryside. I wanted to photograph campesinos—the farmers—but the only way to reach the countryside is by horse,” explains Julio, who is dressed in cowboy hat, plaid shirt, Levi jeans, and embroidered cowboy boots. “My Lada kept getting stuck in mud! So I borrowed a friend’s horse, and that’s when I fell in love with horses. I had to own one.”
Julio smiles broadly. He stands taller, proud, as he falls momentarily silent. Then he regales how his first horse, Diana, died of colic. (By chance, the previous day I’d taken a photo of Julio hugging the horse. It’s one of my favorite photos.) The young mare was born and raised inside his colonial casa. Says Julio: “She was living in the house and walking around like a dog. I have videos to prove it.”
“My house guests have included horse trainers and veterinarians,” Julio continues. “They said, ‘Julio, you could have saved your horse!’”
“It was a revelation. Because I rent rooms to foreigners, I discovered that if I’d had a gastric tube I could have saved Diana. Guests brought me books and so I began reading and reading and reading. That’s when I realized Cubans have been doing many things incorrectly.” Julio’s eyes light up. “Ah…ah! And that’s when I learned about the horse whisperer technique.”
Suddenly he turns and strides off: “Wait!… I have something to show you!”
Julio disappears into the zócalo—the rear patio—and returns moments later leading his favorite horse, Luna de Miel, by the reins. Its hooves clatter on the colonial ceramic tiles as it maneuvers calmly between the guests seated on rockers and sofas.
Julio points at me. “If it shits on the floor, he has to pick it up!”
Then Julio demonstrates his amazing communication skills with the horse, employing the techniques of Monty Roberts, the impresario ‘horse whisperer’ who has revolutionized horse-training methods with his best-selling Man Who Listens to Horses and documentaries on PBS and the BBC. His “Language of Equus” is a silent language of gestures that, says, Roberts, “conveys to [the] horse a calm, confident leadership,” instilling in the horse complete trust and a desire to be a willing partner that will want to be with, and comply with, their owner.”
“The key is to use the horse’s psychology,” says Julio, drawing the horse into the half-moon of humans, now sitting quite literally on the edge of their seats.
“The horse is a herd animal. Once you understand how horses communicate with each other through body language in the natural world, you can do amazing things. With Monty Robert’s techniques I can establish a connection,” he continues. “The horse is happy. It trusts me. It’s willing to let me do things a horse normally won’t let humans do.”
Julio moves his hands over the horse’s eyes, and extends his fingers inside Luna de Miel’s nostrils. The horse doesn’t flinch, but endures the routine patiently. Julio then puts his hand into the mare’s mouth and grabs the thick, wet tongue: “Anyone want to shake my hand?”
Then he crouches beneath the brown quarter horse and tucks himself between its rear legs. “This is a very dangerous position. Don’t do this at home!” The horse seems oblivious.
“Horses are very useful,” he says, pointing at one of my balding clients. “For example, you can use the tail as a wig.” Julio takes off his hat then grabs the tail, places it atop his head, parts it to each side, and replaces his hat.
Most important, Julio explains, is love. Lots of love. And never pain. “Never give pain to the horse!” he stresses.
Julio tries to spread the message to local campesinos (peasant farmers) through his Proyecto Diana, named for his first horse, which died of colic.
Says Julio: “The traditional method of ‘breaking’ in a horse causes pain and damage. We show other horse owners that it is possible to train a horse without using violent, traditional methods, and that we can mount a new horse in a far shorter time than a horse that is ‘broken’ through pain and submission.”
Julio jokes about how the campesinos get out the tools he’s given them when they know he’s about to visit, but it clearly pains him that few actually use them and that equally few have adopted his progressive, more humane, methods.
It’s slow progress. Still, he doesn’t give up. He continues to teach through example, hoping his methods will catch on.
Julio explains to our groups that there are relatively few veterinarians and even fewer medicines available in Cuba. Hence many campesinos use relatively useless and potentially harmful ‘home remedies.’ And sick or injured horses are left to die, or are killed, simply because the owners don’t have the means to cure them.
On a recent visit, Julio had just rescued a young half-starved foal that had been trapped in mud and which the owner had left to die.
Our National Geographic Expeditions participants looked on in awe as Julio led the foal out of the stable to demonstrate, yet again, the remarkable bond and affection he has established between man and horse.
Proyecto Diana needs donations of proper shoeing and other farrier tools, which are almost entirely lacking in Cuba.
Febraury 2014 This article formed part of the February 2014 issue of What’s On Havana Digital Magazine
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