You can hear them coming.
Walking on the bricks while treating your eyes to the preserved Spanish ancestral houses, no doubt– you are in Vigan. There are many stalls selling souvenirs, wood crafts and binakol, a traditional fabric design of Ilocos. All the buildings around the City’s plaza are unified with Spanish themed architecture. There are also food stalls along a street that is called “Empanadaan,” a witty name for a place that sells traditional Vigan empanada and other local delicacies. But, the experience will never be complete without hearing the rhythmic sound made by the “Kings of the Street.” Even bigger vehicles give way to them when they are on the road. You can hear the beat, and that’s the signal that they’re near. The Kalesas are here.
Kalesa is a traditional Filipino mode of transportation, a horse drawn carriage. It was introduced in the Philippines in the 18th century by the Spaniards. Back then, only nobles and high ranking officials could afford to ride it. Up until now, there are still many places in the country where you can find kalesas mixed in traffic with private cars, jeepneys and other vehicles.
In Vigan, you don’t have to be a high-ranking official just to ride a kalesa. You just have to pay P50 if you want to have a trip around the old streets of Vigan City. Or, you can opt to rent the kalesa for an hour by paying P150 pesos and go to anywhere you want. Just remember to go back to the plaza before your time expires or you will have to pay a minimum of P75 or more depending on the excess time.
It is fun riding a Kalesa. You can feel the fresh air against your cheeks, wave at people who are smiling at you, see the old houses closer and explore the whole city without traffic. Kalesas never fail to make tourists smile. But as you enjoyed your ride, have you noticed anything wrong? Have you noticed someone who is always overlooked but most of the time unnoticed? If not, maybe you are too much engaged with the scenery. And if yes, then you heard their almost inaudible moans, the horse’s low cry of pain.
The horses that are being used in Kalesas are bred to draw heavy carriages and at most six people. Since their younger years, they are given a complete set of vitamins and other food supplements to help them build stamina and to gain strength. Then, they will be trained to follow the drivers’, or the kutseros’, commands only. Their eyes are covered by black leather rectangles, or eye patches, to prevent them from seeing where they are going and to prevent them from interacting with their environment. As a result, the horses will only follow what the drivers will ask them to do.
Lawrence*, a kutsero for three years now, said that life as a Kalesa driver is far from fun.
“There are many slow days when you’re a kutsero. Most of the time, the money that you will earn is not enough,” he said.
He started as a Kalesa driver when he was 18 years old by using his uncle’s horse named Piolo. After a year, Piolo became sick and stopped eating.
“When [horses are] sick, we give them medicine and let them rest overnight. They are expected to stand up again next morning,” said Lawrence. If the horse is still sick, it will be sent to a slaughter house to become a known delicacy in Vigan, the tapang kabayo.
He acquired a new horse named Sam but it was very stubborn. According to him, it was difficult to keep his patience especially when the horse became aggressive and uncontrollable. Although up until now, there is no existing case of rebellious horses while on the road, it is still better to be sure for the safety of the passengers.
For more than a year now, he has his favorite horse among the three named Lovely. He cares for her as if she is her girlfriend. He grooms her every day and ensures that she eats and drinks at the right time.
The culture of Kalesa fascinates tourists and locals because it is an “environment-friendly” mode of transportation. But the always overlooked factor is the welfare of the horses that they use. They are required to run up until the very last passenger gets tired. The horses are lucky if it is a slow day because they have more time to rest. But during peak days, they are lucky if they will have at least an hour break for every trip that they have. Most of the time, they only rest when the tourists ask for a stopover.
The Kutseros will whip the horses if they run slow or show signs of tiredness. They will only give them water and food when they do not have passengers. Horses are not given a day’s rest even if they are sick. There are sacks behind them to catch their feces that’s why they are many insects irritating the horses. Their tails look dirty. The stench is strong especially if you are seating next to the Kutsero.
Kalesas are an integral part of our culture and there are still many places preserving this traditional mode of transportation. But everyone must remember the stories behind every galloping horse, every moan and every rhythmic sound they make. Every time you ride a Kalesa, look at them closer, be a keen observer. By doing that, you will be able to have a broader understanding of the issues concerning horses and Kalesas. No one wants this culture and tradition to die, it is anyway a Filipino mark. What is important is you see the horses not as just mere animals but as friends that are worthy of care.
The next time you hear Kalesas coming, thank them for preserving a part of our past and giving you a great time enjoying our own culture.