“In Spain we have well-behaved horses and badly-behaved children,” he said, glancing over his shoulder and smiling. My mind flitted back to the snotty-nosed ten-year-old I had had the misfortune to encounter on the metro the week before. Shouting “hija de puta” (“son of a bitch”) at the top of her voice, an entire carriageful of commuters had recoiled into their seats from her screams. As if to illustrate his point further, he popped his horse into a short, bouncy canter, travelling no more than 5m before halting abruptly and executing a neat pirouette to unlock the gate. His horse, a wispy black mare wearing an elaborately knotted coloured cloth on her forehead (the traditional answer to fly repellant spray), was obediently attentive to his every move. Delicately playing with the bit in her mouth, the long, metal shanks on either side clinking gently as she did so, she spun easily on her haunches as he swung open the gate and held it open for me to pass.
I had long since given up the hope of finding any affordable riding options in Spain, and as such could hardly believe my luck when I found myself astride a classy, Hanoverian gelding in the midst of the Sierra last Friday. The result of a curious series of chance encounters, I have now enjoyed three such horseback excursions. It began a few weeks ago when, somewhat optimistically, I gave my number to a man-on-a-horse in the hope of securing a stable-based summer job. To my surprise, a few days, later one of his acquaintances rang to invite me on a four hour trip through the outlying valleys of Madrid - an unforgettable outing that led to two further trips (and a long afternoon spent writing about it).
When, after initial introductions, he justified his extravagant garb by explaining that he had been hunting wild pigs the day before and didn´t want to dirty two suits, I assumed he was joking. However, it soon became apparent that, bizarre as it seemed, Jaime was speaking in all seriousness. As we rode, he indicated the borders of his territory with casual sweeps of his arm that seemed to cover entire swathes of the mountainside (just one estate of many scattered throughout Spain of course) and regaled me with fantastical tales of his ancesters adventures in England in the 1500s. Occasionally he would draw to a sharp halt and swoop down easily from his saddle to snatch a handful of grasses and offer me a generous bunch of sweet-smelling lavendar or thyme. Needless to say, it was a surreal experience cantering behind such a character through his meadows of long grass flecked with white, purple and yellow flowers.
I have to say, I felt as if I had been teleported back to the fifteenth century. Jaime was the model of decorum and propriety, holding open gates (when on horseback) and doors (when on foot), helping me to put my jacket on and insisting on addressing me in English when possible. In exchange, I had to make a concerted effort to use the polite “you” form when speaking to him – an unexpected test for my spanish. Predictably he was also ultra-conservative, and more than once the conversation veered onto passionate rants about council restrictions and the interference of conservationalists on his land. Combined with a few toe-curling moments of political incorrectness, I spent a large part of the day biting my tongue or feigning incomprehension.
Naive as it sounds, I didn´t realise that such families still existed - the whole thing had a slightly feudal feel to it. In fact, I frequently found myself imagining Jaime to be the infamous Sheriff of Nottingham, insatiably greedy, ruthlessly squeezing every last penny from the commoners in the village and on occasions when I found myself cantering more or less on my own, it was all too easy to picture myself as the female equivalent of Robin Hood galloping through the territory of the enemy. All I needed was a bow and arrow... and perhaps a catapult.