HARLINGEN — A woman galloped across the asphalt on her sleek sorrel, a passionate sense of renewal in every step.

Nearby, Juan Tovar and other members of the Cowboy’s Horsemen Association readied their mounts Saturday morning for the twelve-mile ride to give toys to local kids. They’d gathered in the parking lot behind the Valero’s gas station on Expressway 77 in Combes, kids in their smart jeans and cowboy smiles, horses struggling against tight reins, music pumping excitement into the air.

It was a return to familiar things, with a spirit and energy fresh and new, laced with a taste of the ecstatic for its vitality against the backdrop of the pandemic. The Christmas Cowboy Toy Drive to Sebastian was back in grand style.

“Believe me, after being gone for so long with the COVID and stuff and not being able to be here…” he looked around at the horses and riders “we have about 60 riders.”

He gestured now toward the bicycles crowding an F150.

“We have all these bicycles and these toys for the kids in Sebastian,” he said.

Nearby the “Party Bus” prepared to cook sausage and fajitas for the riders. George Tovar, president of the association, was excited about bringing toys to the kids.

“We just want to give back to the community,” he said. “Last year we didn’t do it because of COVID, so now we’re just trying to get back to normal.”

Last year at this same time, people were in lockdown as the COVID virus terrorized the world with the threat of a slow and agonizing death. Only a few riders turned out for the Christmas ride, and there was no excitement or fanfare.

“The county wouldn’t let us go into Sebastian,” Tovar said. “We just got to the post office, but we couldn’t go into the city because of COVID.”

Not so this year. Everyone, even the horses, seemed charged with a powerful appetite for the coming trail ride.

“It feels great!” said a joyful Rick Acosta, who has been doing the ride for more than 20 years. His great-granddaughter, Briana Noyola aged 20, struggled with two horses, one of them named “Whisky.”

“She’s been doing it since she was three,” he said proudly.

Looking around at the riders quickly filling the parking lot and the partly cloudy skies, he smiled with satisfaction.

“The weather is holding up, everything’s looking good,” he said. “It’s a good turnout.”