Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Classy horses, feudal landlords and a Robin Hood wannabe

“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.

He was immaculately turned out, wearing a sharp, broad-brimmed hat and an elegant brown suit. Cut in the traditional style, the jacket was short-bodied and the trousers high-waisted, belted with a coloured scarf that had been fastened around his middle like a cumberbund. On his boots, recently shined and resting in large, bucket-style stirrups, he sported some fearsome looking metal spurs that bent unforgivingly towards his horses flanks. Sat easily in the deep curves of a Western saddle padded with thick sheepskins, he held the reins casually in one hand, the other hanging loosely at his side. In short, a picture of Spanish equitation. A sorry comparison, I was wearing stone-washed jeans and an unglamourously oversized Adidas waterproof: notably scruffy.

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).

Though at first glance, the horses seem rather skinny and shrunken compared to the fleshy specimens I´m used to in England, there can be no doubt that the Spanish breed and raise a special class of horses. Versatile and suprisingly hardy, they climbed up steep, rocky inclines and slid down sharp drops laced with tree roots without once stumbling, crossed rivers and jumped ditches without batting an eyelid and slalomed through pine tree forests at a measured in-hand canter just as easily as they lengthened their stride to a ground-covering gallop in the clearings. As fresh and spirited after four hours as they were at the start, I felt like I was sitting on a very narrow, explosively energetic goldmine. I found myself alongside this exemplar of Spanish equitation when, following a horsebox malfunction, we had to abandon the planned mountain excursion and reroute to a closer location. It was only on being informed that the well-dressed horseman beside me was the owner of the estate on which we were riding that I realised that I was rubbing shoulders with the aristocracy - the Marquess  Patoso del Arco to be precise (otherwise known as Jaime).

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.

One such meadow was home to numerous horses running free across the valley - the yearlings he had bred last spring. Like a scene out of Black Beauty, we were rapidly surrounded by the young, inquisitive noses and excited snorts of three of four youngsters, all shooed away by Jaime with a firm “yah” and unconcerned flick of his stick when they came too close. In the valley beyond we passed the outer shell of a grand stable block pendant in mid-construction. Large enough to house 20 horses and equipped with two arenas, it was suitably stylish, decked with a fitting plaque that read: “Por Necessidad Batallo, Y Cuando Puesto en mi Silla, Voy Ensanchando mis Castillas, Encima de un Caballo" (For necessity I battle, and Once in my Throne, I will Widen my Castles on Horseback).

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.

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