One of my fondest childhood memories was the summer I was 12, when our father rented a house in Baguio for a whole month – sheer euphoria for a kid. The house was on Military Cut-Off Road almost facing the entrance of Camp John Hay. Breakfast was next door at the D & E Restaurant (the current site of the Nevada Inn), an arrangement my dad had made with the owner, his friend. I still remember the wonderful waffles and bacon, which I never got tired of. Ice cream at Camp John Hay in the afternoons would make our day.

Inevitably, horseback riding was the most sought-after activity for us siblings. So much so that I recall the horse handlers coming to the house with their charges in tow so that we would not have to go to the usual riding areas. They came almost everyday – many times unbidden – but a soulful look directed at my mom, plus a lot of begging, and she would relent. Riding in cool weather and breathing in the refreshing and invigorating scent of the pines will forever be etched in my memories.

Horses have always been associated with Baguio. As far back as the Spanish era, these played a significant role in the development of the area when the Spaniards put up a sanitarium in La Trinidad in the mid-1800s for those suffering from tropical diseases and from the heat of the lowlands, which they called tropical fatigue. In the later part of the 19th century, they investigated the viability of putting up a sanitarium in Baguio to complement their colony in La Trinidad.

It was also the Spaniards who initiated the highland vegetable industry. Because of the mountainous terrain, horses were perfect for these travels, and the bridle paths were used more and more. While carabao and oxen carts were used then for the supply and the growing vegetable trade between Benguet and Manila, these were very slow, and using horses was still the best option for personal travel. Eventually, the Spaniards planned Naguilian road.

Baguio was then an Ibaloi settlement. The natives were partly agricultural, and also raised carabaos, cows and horses in their hillside pastures. Validating the comprehensive Spanish report, the Americans developed the city of Baguio in the early 1900s mainly as a complex of convalescent hospital buildings for their military and civil personnel.

Unaccustomed to the tropical weather, many Americans, like their Spanish counterparts, suffered from recurrent fevers, heat stress, intestinal problems like dysentery, as well as illnesses like malaria, cholera and even depression. Baguio’s temperate weather was considered ideal for the recovery of body and spirit. With the establishment of Camp John Hay, soldiers could undergo rigorous military exercises and training in a cool and refreshing environment.

With the completion of Kennon Road in 1905, more and more people came to enjoy Baguio’s weather. From a center for therapeutic services, Baguio’s development into a recreational and social destination rapidly grew, with the mix of American military and civil personnel, missionaries and teachers, plantation owners, merchants and other businessmen who came during the summer months to escape the heat of the lowlands. In modern-day parlance, the early Americans went to Baguio to de-stress, recharge and simply chill.

To address the growing number of visitors, one of the buildings of the sanitarium complex was converted into the Pines Hotel, the then-premier hotel in Baguio with the best accommodations.

Baguio continued growing and developing as a recreational, educational and vacation destination, and slowly, over many years, motor vehicles replaced horses for transportation to and from Baguio, as well as within the city. It is not known exactly when the horses evolved from a functional existence to a recreational activity for children since they existed simultaneously for a considerable time.

It has been decades since that wonderful summer in Baguio. We returned to Baguio many more times, and we would always ride horses – all the way into our teen years and indeed, into our adulthood. Always, it was an exhilarating experience, since beautiful big horses were then available too, and we would gallop away from Wright Park to the area near Baguio Country Club or through the pine forests behind the park. As the years went by, it was our children, nieces and nephews that we brought to Wright Park. I have no doubt that their memories are as precious
as ours.

Ever an evolving activity, some horses’ manes are now dyed to match the neon colors of the popular children’s toy, “Little Pony”. Over the years, so much has changed and yet at the same time, so little has changed. Just this year, my little grandnieces were initiated into this family pastime and experienced their daily horseback rides, bringing a beloved tradition down all of three generations.