How I came to Ride a Horse into the Ocean at a STEM Conference

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There’s a photo of me that I used as my Facebook profile photo for a while, that portrayed something I had never expected to do in my life. It received its share of good-natured mockery from friends (“Fabio” comments come to mind), but I guess I deserved that.

I rode a horse into the Caribbean Sea, until it was swimming. While attending a STEM conference.

Okay, let me back up and explain this.

In October of 2017 I was invited to be the keynote speaker at a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) Conference in the Cayman Islands – all expenses paid. I didn’t hesitate in saying yes. The conference sounded incredible – organized by a tiny island community with a dynamic university, assisting its students to find world-changing career paths. I wanted to be part of it. It was somewhere I had never been before, and the alluring pictures I had seen online of shimmering, clear turquoise water and miles of golden sandy beaches also made me think how nice the post-conference evenings could be.

The small island of Grand Cayman was even better than I had hoped. There was not much time to see it, however, because I was there to work. The days were long, full, and active. My keynote presentation audience included the Minister of Culture, the education minister, ambassadors, and two University Presidents, along with many local science-fascinated kids. It was quite a challenge to try and reach such a varied audience, but judging by the response, I pulled it off. I talked about key moments in the history of science when someone bucked the consensus, and in doing so changed our understanding and our lives today. I encouraged the students to be just as creatively and positively disruptive in their own future careers.

The local college students were incredible: smart and confident in ways that I felt would guarantee their future success. The local children were hungry to showcase science fair presentations and gain careers advice. The university had an amazing home-built solar observatory that we toured, and kids as young as ten years old were making presentations about earthquake-resistant buildings during the conference sessions. There were direct correlations with student populations in the San Diego area, and I was excited about ideas I could implement on my return.

I walked across the street from my hotel on any evening that was free of events and swam in the calm ocean at sunset, and it was magical. I was even able to swim with stingrays in the enormous bay. And yet as the conference neared an end, I accepted I was not going to see much more of this beautiful place.

I had, however, noticed that there were cruise ships that anchored just off the coast. Small boats brought tourists ashore, and with only a few hours on the island, local companies would whisk them off to some quick adventure.

They also picked up and dropped off at my hotel.

After giving my last conference presentation, I saw that I’d have a couple of hours free. It was all the time I’d need. Not long after I left the conference podium, I was riding a horse Western-style along the beach in the beautiful national park on the other side of the island. I’d long wanted to ride a horse by the ocean, and figured I’d get to do it some day – in California. This tropical island felt even more magical. The experience was, however, about to get even better.

 After removing the saddle, I rode the horse bareback into the warm Caribbean water. I’d been assured that the horses only did this if they wanted to – and warned that if this horse didn’t, she would either refuse to go in, or would dump me in the water and head back to shore.

She chose to ride straight into the water. It was a magical sensation, riding as the ocean rose around me. I could feel her hooves find their way along the sea bed, and as she went deeper she grew lighter and lighter, until she was barely touching the bottom. Then came a magical moment when her hooves were merely gently scraping the tops of rocks, and then – she was no longer touching the bottom. She was swimming.

I leaned forward and, half lying, half floating, rode on her back. It's indescribably dreamlike, to hold a warm horse’s neck, feeling this enormous animal swim, feeling her hair ripple and muscles move in the tropical water, feeling her breathe as she rises and falls in the ocean with every breath. To feel the vibration of the legs as she moves through the water. It’s an odd sense of weightlessness, where my arms were barely holding her as we moved through the water.

After she swam towards the horizon in the general direction of Jamaica for a while, she gradually arced back to shore… and the moment came again where her hooves gently touched the sea bed, and I gradually transitioned from floating above her to once again riding bareback. Heavier and heavier with every step, we transitioned from the smooth lightness of water to riding out of the water and up the beach.

Riding back along the shore, I reflected on how surreal the experience had been. And if I would ever pass this way in life again and repeat it.

I hope so.

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