Jay R Leyma helps a young boy climb up, to mount a pony using a white monoblock chair as ladder of sorts, for a photo opportunity with the verdant landscape of the cool Tagaytay Ridge as backdrop. He puts a wide-brimmed black cowboy hat on the boy’s head as prop, a perfect shade against the noontime sun.

I’ve been at this job for almost 9 years,” the 19year old college student proudly says. As a full scholar taking Bachelor of Science in Education at the City College of Tagaytay, he still finds time to work as a pony handler. “Tuition is free but I still have to earn money for my allowance and pay miscellaneous fees,” he shares.

Ira, the cream-colored pony, is seven years old. She is owned by Jay R’s brotherin-law, and is one of the four ponies used for photo shoots at Picnic Grove. There are almost a hundred horses of all colors and sizes that ply the trade catering to Tagaytay tourists. He charges ₱20 per person, with two riders maximum per photo shoot, working from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.

“I charge 350 pesos per hour if one wants to go horseback riding around the hilly terrain overlooking the famous Taal Volcano and the distant People’s Park,” he says. On the average, he nets ₱1,000 to ₱1,500 on a good day, especially on holidays when tourists troop to the picnic area, near the zip-line and cable car riders. “But sometimes, I go home empty handed when business is poor. Umuuwi ring luhaan (Sometimes you go home frustrated),” he sighs. Business picks up on weekends, holidays, and summer vacations.

Ira was purchased for less than ₱20,000, when she was an emaciated pony who could be likened to bony Rosinante, Don Quixote’s famous horse. But now she is a healthy, heavily built pony, literally picture-perfect for the photo shoots. “She is now worth over ₱35,000,” Jay R estimates. “Nasa hitsura rin ng kabayo ang presyo (The horse’s price can be in its looks). We feed her with grass and horse feed. No need to give vitamins.”

When asked for a memorable experience as a pony handler, he ponders for a few seconds and grins, “I remember when I was still new in this business, I tried to copy Lone Ranger’s galloping ride on Silver and finishing with the horse’s two front feet up in the air. I lost my balance and fell down with a loud thud. Luckily, I wasn’t seriously hurt, just had a sore lower back and buttocks, and bruised ego. I told myself not to try the stunt again.”

Jay R politely requests to cut short the interview as parents, with their eager kids in tow, are lining up for the pony-photo opportunity.

Business is brisk on a Black Saturday.

This story appeared in Animal Scene’s May 2016 issue.