Photo used with permission of Vinny Heaford. Rest of photos by author.

Abbey Hesser explains how she found her dream job as a horseback riding guide in Andalucia.

So, Abbey, what exactly do you do?

I guide groups of between six and ten people riding through La Breña national forest in Andalucía and along the beaches of the Costa de la Luz. Every day I wake up in the middle of the countryside, tack up the horses, and take the group out for a three or four hour ride. We stop for lunch in the forest or on the beach then remount, return to the yard and spend the afternoon relaxing. So I also get to hang out with the guests – lounging by the pool, reading, going to the beach or practicing my Spanish at the neighborhood pub.

The second part of my job involves taking our guests to the nearest town for dressage lessons. This involves completing a series of steps, or dances, where you tell the horse to do things in an arena. It’s kind of like ballet in that you have specific “positions” or “motions” that you complete. The teacher is Antonio Corrales de Crespo, the man who trained the Spanish national champion in Doma Vaquera. I translate, introduce the guests to the dozens of beautiful purebred Spanish stallions housed at the barn, and occasionally help my boss train his newly-broken three-year-old stallions.

Andalucia is the mother-lode of horses. There are seventeen pure breeds originating here.

Other responsibilities of my job include taking people to the beach, on tours of the countryside, flamenco dancing or tapas tasting at the local pub, and even occasionally out to the clubs. I can’t believe I’m actually paid to do this!

How did you get the job?

A couple of years ago I backpacked Europe. Everywhere I went — hostels, organized tour groups, even free walking tours — I made sure to find a point of contact: a business card, an e-mail, whatever. When I came back to the US, I thought about ways to make travel or life abroad a more permanent thing. The first thing I did was to send a mass e-mail to everyone on my contact list, asking if any were looking to hire a part-time or short-term employee. I was open to trying just about anything, for anyone, anywhere. Spain is where I landed.

How many replies did you get from your original list of contacts?

I heard back from every single person I e-mailed. One guy I met through his walking tour in Prague had recently moved to Romania and was working at a hostel there. He offered me a job. I also had job offers at hostels in Italy, Barcelona, and Liverpool, offers as an English walking tour guide in Paris and Madrid, at a bed-and-breakfast in northern France, for a travel agent in Morocco, and at a ranch in Australia.

Did you consider taking any of those jobs instead?

My initial plan was to spend a couple months in different places, spread out over a couple of years. However, after beginning my work in Spain, I couldn’t imagine going anywhere else.

Riding horses is a specialized skill. Can I find a job like this without prior experience?

The kind of work I do does require a fairly high degree of experience, but you can learn what you need to know in about a year. You don’t have to be an incredibly skilled rider, you just have to be able to control all the horses, and take care of other people before having to worry about your own mount.

Eighty percent of competent riding is about confidence. Horses have an insane ability to sense how comfortable you are, and sometimes play up if you don’t seem competent. If you can fake confidence, a lot of times the horse will do the rest of the work for you.

What are the horses like and how are they different in Spain than everywhere else?

I’ve worked around horses my entire life and I have never experienced anything like the horses in Spain. It’s kind of like visiting the Vatican if you’re a staunch Catholic. Andalucía is the mother-lode of horses. There are seventeen pure breeds originating here, and Spanish blood filters down to most of the native breeds in South and North America. The minute you see these horses, you understand why everyone wants to breed them. They manage to be calm but fiery at the same time, which is a rare trait in a horse. They’re spirited, fast, athletic, gorgeous, and they really know how to pose for a camera.

What if I don’t want to live in Spain? Can I find this work elsewhere in the world?

Absolutely. There are horse-related jobs on every continent. Some of those jobs require you have extensive equestrian skills, but some require no prior experience with horses at all. A great website for finding horse-related work is Yard and Groom They have jobs in 40 countries, and I have always found it the easiest way to find work.

Have you tried applying for a work visa?

Yes, but there have been difficulties. Getting a work visa for a country in the Schengen agreement is difficult, especially with unemployment at over 30% in Andalucía right now. This is a null issue for EU citizens, as they are permitted to work anywhere they please in Spain.

If you aren’t an EU citizen, my best advice is to keep coming back on your 90 day tourist visa until it works out. My application took over a year to process, and I was denied twice. You make your case to stay much more convincing by learning the local language, spending time building relationships with local people who will vouch for you, and making sure you don’t do anything to hurt your reputation while you’re there. Oh, and have patience. The Spanish government offices move slowly.

Did you speak Spanish before you started this job?

Nope. I took Spanish in high school and knew how to ask for “Más cerveza, por favor.” Since I live in such a small community where few people speak English, I had no choice but to learn quickly if I wanted any kind of relationship with other human beings. I started by going to the local pub and just sat and listened. Neighbors recognized me and would try to talk with me. At first I just shook my head, but over time you learn. One day one of the bar owners pulled out two dictionaries: a Spanish to English and an English to Spanish. He handed me one and we had a real conversation, aided with shots of Honey Rum. From then on, things started to get easier.

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