Tuesday, 23 December 2014

It's a grizzly business being a sheep...

Herding the sheep started out as a fun job. It seemed easier than rounding up horses. The woolly 'baa-ing' huddle bumbled across the pastures, while we walked calmly behind on horseback, encouraging them along with 'ayyyyy-ups' and calls of 'siga siga siga'. If one panicked or strayed from the group, a quick step in its direction usually sent it bouncing towards the flock, and if not, the dog would dart round behind sending it back the way it came in a rapid scramble.

The bridge over the river caused the first bottleneck. The sheep at the front ground to a halt, seemingly blind to the chorus of shouts behind, and those behind started to shift and swivel; a mutiny was brewing. Then, all of a sudden, instead of looking at a sea of white, woolly bottoms, I was confronted with 250 baa-ing faces. In one movement, the flock flowed through the gaps between our horses and flooded towards the pasture.

The subsequent successful crossing seemed to rely on momentum: keeping them moving but not rushing them into a panic, a technique that was key for the next jam, which formed at the gates of the coral. However stupid sheep are, I couldn't help but feel that the flock leaders were dithering with a sort of knowing reluctance, and what followed confirmed that their reticence had reason...
I knew the herd was being marked and separated for sale, but I wasn't exactly sure what that involved. The reality was brutal. Each sheep was lifted on to the fence, back legs pinned behind their ears and bottoms exposed; a knife cleanly sliced through the flesh of their tail, and a hole punch marked the ear (essential work to prevent disease apparently). The girls were then dropped in a scrambling heap on the floor, running away with a bloody stump dripping down their back legs. The boys however were kept bottom-up, as a gaucho put teeth to testicles and castrated them in one gruesome mouthful. A grizzly spectacle. By the end of the morning, a small pile of bloody balls had been spat out onto the fence post, just above a sad mound of limp tails.
As it turns out, those were the lucky ones. That afternoon, I was unwittingly roped in to help bundle the remaining sheep into a lorry and off to the slaughter house. Under orders, I clambered into the back of the truck, was given a sheep and told to grip its leg tightly while the men tried to press the rest of the flock in after me. More scared of the gruff gaucho than I was of the startled sheep, I did my best to cling on to it, but my heart soon gave way to its struggles; I let it slip free when the team looked away. My morale sank even lower when I was then given another, this time instructed to hang onto it by the neck. Desperate to let go of the poor writhing creature, as soon as another sheep was thrown into the truck, I released it and leapt over the side of the lorry.

The silver lining of the afternoon was that, just before the truck gate was closed, two little lambs somehow managed to bounce their way to freedom. Happily, attempts to round them up failed; I watched with a smile as they high-tailed it to happiness in the pasture - for another year at least!

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The Pack Trip...

It was planned with military precision, according to a lengthy list that looked older than I was: four columns of typewritten script spread across a fragile sheet of scrumpled, brown A4. It turns out a huge amount of paraphernalia is required for a three-day trip on horseback; preparing 'los pilcheros' (the pack horses) every day was quite a feat. Their saddles alone - multiple pads, two wooden crosses, two girths and a confusion of leather straps - weighed a ton. They were then loaded with cumbersome suitcase-shaped paniers, an assortment of bags and a heavy tarpaulin, all strapped tight with a complex knot system that continues to baffle me. It was a palava repeated at least twice daily.

For our first stop, we unsaddled the pack horses as usual, but relatively little of their load was actually used. The venue, a small copse by a narrow stream, is one we frequent on day trips, and so the 'kitchen' is always left well-stocked: wooden chopping boards piled up in the crook of a tree, bottles of oil and vinegar balanced on the thick branches and mugs hanging from the thin ones. In the evening however, the paniers were emptied and everything was in use. That afternoon, we had ascended to the spectacular scenery and brisk temperatures of higher ground, making camp in the shelter of the forest. Tents, mattresses and sleeping bags were dished out to the riders, tea and cake served, and blackened pots and pans prepared for that night's dinner.
To economise on space, Carol (pack-trip expert) and I fashioned beds out of saddles - the pack tarpaulin as a base, saddle pads for mattresses, numnahs for padding and saddles for pillows. As such, anticipating a cold night out in the open, I savoured the warmth of the fire for as long as possible. I only shuffled away from the flames once - a brief but worthwhile venture to survey the stars from the meadow: the Southern Cross rather than the North Star, an upside-down Orion's Belt and a glittery dusting of unknowns. Otherwise, I huddled close to the coals, first simmering an enormous pot of rice, and then lingering over the embers with 'la bota' (the wineskin). By the time I snuggled into my sleeping bag, I was wearing seven layers, two pairs of trousers, three pairs of socks, a hat, gloves and a scarf. It was cosy!

When I woke up the following morning, the sun was still low in the sky, a light dusting of frost on the ground, and a can of water was bubbling in the fire (tended by Luca, a Mendozan leather artist also working on the trip). We woke up slowly over cups of sugary tea, rounds of mate and crusts of bread, before starting to pack up. However, just before saddling up, one of the riders announced they had discovered a dead fox in the meadow. To my surprise, Luca's eyes lit up: "En serio...? I'll take the skin!" he said excitedly, darting out of the forest.

A bewildered crowd gathered around him while he inspected the animal: a young male curled up in a ball with no sign of illness. Luca dangled it upside down by its tail looking at it critically, before declaring, "I'll slip the fur off like it's a jumper". Lowering the fox to the ground, he dropped to his knees and snipped a cut in the back foot. Then, to the squirms of onlookers, he started to blow the fox up as if it was a balloon. Mouth to fur, he puffed energetically into the fox's foot, pumping the air through the length of its body with his spare hand and lamenting not having a bicycle pump to hand. At this point, I retreated to the forest and busied myself with saddles, paniers and ropes...

I returned periodically to see the fate of the fox. The first time, Luca was elbow-deep, loosening fur from flesh; the second, it was strung up from a tree, fur half-way over shoulders (as Luca promised, much like a jumper). The third time I ventured over, I almost trod on its four paws, which lay in a pile not far off from where Luca was removing the eyes. I squeaked involuntarily and made an about turn back to the horses. Too gruesome for me!

The rest of the ride passed without major incident. Dropping down into lower ground, we traversed the hills in warm sunshine, barbecued joints of meat under the shade of the trees, and collapsed on the grass next to our horses for a siesta. By the end of the trip, I was engrained with an aromatic mix of dust, smoke and horsey grime, my H&M jeans had two sizeable holes in each buttock, and I felt like I could sleep for 24 hours straight... I can't wait for the next one!

Heading out on the 21 December, this time without the expertise of pack-trip maestro Carol, it will certainly be a very different Christmas.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Naughty horses and hairbrained chases

I wasn't entirely sure what was in store when I saddled up with Paulo "a bajar los caballos" (to get the horses down). We had rounded up the seven kept within walking distance of the coral that morning and, instructed to choose one, I had picked Chameleon, a chunky golden dun with quirky white splodges. A brief text exchange the night before had decided that the farrier would come at 10am the next morning to shoe all 23 horses. It seemed like a lot for one weekend, particularly as 16 of them were scattered across an area that usually takes us half a day to loop on horseback. Yet I was soon riding alongside Paulo in the soft sunshine of early morning, heading across expansive grasslands towards the hills where they roam.

Paulo navigated by distinctive curves and trees in the surrounding foothills, leading us to a wire fence that was all but invisible unless a few metres away. We passed through the gate and joined a sandy track that skirted the edge of the mountain, upon which Paulo started scanning the landscape for horses. Squinting into the sunshine, he indicated with vague swings of his leather whip where they might be, scrutinising every blob of colour in the distance that wasn't green: the brown smudge of a cow, the white blur of a bleached rock, or the fleeting black streak of a deer. No sign however of a horse... But, relishing riding freely through the park with no particular time-scale, I rather hoped they would stay hidden.

We came across them when we had been going for about half an hour, grazing in a dip on the right-hand slope of the mountain. The monstrous white bulk of El Calafate, a thick-necked Pecheron-cross whose width almost doubles that of the other horses, gave them away. They seemed a friendly bunch: a muddle of chestnuts, golden duns, bays and blacks, some with a spine-length dorsal stripe or striking white patches, a couple of gangly-legged foals and a few angular veterans with shaggy coats. Seeing two of their number being ridden towards them, they raised their heads in curiosity; a few whickered, while others meandered over to snuff our boots and rub their heads on our horses' sides.

Once greetings were out of the way, Paulo turned a circle and started walking purposefully towards them, 'clucking' with his tongue and holding the wooden handle of his whip perpendicular to the ground, the leather thong dangling below: "Vamanos chicos". The herd obediently turned away from him and starting ambling off, taking their last snatches of grass as they did so. However, what began as a laid-back trundle rapidly gathered pace; soon the whole herd was flying along the skirt of the mountain in a disorganised rabble. They gathered momentum with the gradient of the slope, Paulo and I galloping along behind, until they reached the gate in the far corner, where they congregated obediently. I hovered behind them while Paulo dismounted to fiddle with the wire catch. As he did so, the herd shuffled around and snuffed at eachother impatiently. Then, as if they had been plotting it, all 16 did an about turn and scarpered, galloping straight past me into the grassy plains behind.

When Paulo looked up, they had all but vanished. For a moment, I stood stupidily where the herd had been, before being spurred into action by Paulo; he jumped on his horse, kicked it into a gallop and shouted at me to follow. With horses charging in every direction, I had no idea which I should try to round up first, and so just followed blindly. It was a hairbrained chase: leaping ditches, splashing through bogs and slaloming around bushes (occasionally crashing through them). I had soon forgotten all about the herd and was enjoyed the ride! Paulo, who had wisely chosen a fast and flighty black gelding, soon left me trailing behind. As he disappeared into the distance, I pulled up, Chameleon blowing heavily. Most of the horses seemed to have looped back towards the fence line, but two were lingering at the far edge of the pasture and a rebellious trio were making a beeline back towards the mountain, Paulo in hot pursuit. For a few painful moments, I dithered awkwardly, unsure whether to attempt to round up the lingerers, join in the chase, or just wait and leave Paulo to do the work. I opted for the latter, walking ahead to ensure the gate was open. It didn't take long for the splinter groups to be chased back, and all 16 swept past me a flurry heading towards the coral.

The final river crossing felt like the finish line, splashing through the belly deep water and spurring on the final few as we did so. We pulled up near the coral soggy and out-of-breath but smiling, the herd dutifully filing into the enclosure ahead of us. It had been a lengthy two-hour process to 'get the horses down', and it was well past 10am by the time we had un-saddled. However, my very British concerns that the farrier would be kept waiting were unnecessary, as we had cooked an asado and shared a round of mate before he actually turned up. Even so, in a day and a half, he worked through the entire herd back-to-back, trimming feet and fitting shoes while I clipped their manes with an enormous pair of aggressive looking scissors. An exhausting weekend!

Fortunately, "subiendo los caballos" (taking the horses up) the following Monday seemed a much more relaxed affair. Nobody was in a hurry to leave, and just getting the horses out of the coral proved a struggle: they congregated in a reticent huddle at the gate, lingered over the salt lick and mosied around rubbing their tails on the wooden posts. In the end, Paulo had to ride into the coral and chase them out with his horse. They soon fell into a strung-out group, marching towards the mountain; some cantered slowly, some walked, some stopped to roll in the dusty clearings, and a droopy-lipped black gelding brought up the rear with an unhurried plod. Yet whether chasing after a rowdy rabble or calmly steering a cohesive group, moving the herd is a real highlight, naughty horses and hairbrained chases included.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Emergency food supplies, a treacherous journey and a looming test of survival skills

I sat in the back next to the barrel-bellied puppy we had plucked from the municipal pound that morning. With floppy legs, a droopy tail, downy tufts of black fur and a distinctly doggy pong, she was ungainly but endearing, and within five minutes, had wriggled onto my lap, where she stayed for the duration of the three-hour drive. We were heading to an isolated outpost high in the steppes of Parque Nahuel Huapi known as Las Mellizas (The Twins), so called because of the two lakes just behind it, one leading to the Pacific and the other to the Atlantic. José, the gaucho living there, had phoned to advise he was knee-deep in snow and running low on food over a week ago, but treacherous conditions meant reaching him was impossible. Now on his last ration of potatos, we couldn't delay any longer.

To make the trip, we recruited part-time photographer Paulo Sanchez and his smooth-cruising Land Rover Discovery called Matilda, which we stacked with food crates, bales of hay, rolls of wire (to reinforce the buildings), a chainsaw (for firewood) and the puppy (for company).

The journey began in the foothills of the park on a dirt track with small plots of fenced off land to one side - a few huts, a handful of animals and locals that waved in greeting as we passed, one round-faced with a thick neck and just two front teeth, another gruff and crinkled with scraggly grey hair. As we left them behind, the road soon deteriorated to a vaguely distinguishable trail and the wilderness of the steppes took over. Paulo pulled up to fasten a Go-Pro to the windscreen, put on a CD of Millennium Classics and opened a family-size bag of biscuits. We were soon engulfed in the expansive hillside: earthy multicolours of light lime greens, fading beiges and turquoise tints; curvy, colourful rock formations that swelled out of the hillsides and sharp, jagged edges that protruded from sandy dunes; long grasses peppered with dandelions and half-submerged swamps. Paulo expertly traversed terrain I would have thought impassable: crumbling tracks eroded to steep diagonals, sinking, water-laden marshes and crevasse-like dips. Only once did he pull up to assess the obstacle ahead - a particularly fast-flowing river, bulging at its banks with the snow melt. However, he only hesitated for a moment, before plunging onwards. Water sloshing up at the windows, we cruised through the currents.

Around lunchtime, we arrived at Las Mellizas, a grassy clearing with just four small huts (only one of which is in use) and a wooden coral. Set back from a wide, shallow stream and surrounded by hills, it blended easily into the steppes, except for the two horses that were galloping up and down the wire fence. As we trundled through the gate, José came out to meet us. I don't know if it was because I expected someone gruff, hardened and slightly wild, but José surprised me. Slim with dark skin and a mop of black hair protruding from under his boina, he was wearing boots, baggy jeans and a blue jacket - not much given the biting mountain air. He smiled warmly, revealing a diagonally chipped front tooth, and invited us in to the main hut.

Stark and simple, with splodges of cement squashed into any cracks in the brickwork, the hut had a distinctly makeshift feel. An enormous open fireplace stretched almost the length of one wall, a stack of firewood piled up to one side and the mantelpiece scattered with an assortment of necessities - a bar of soap, a candle, a battery and jump leads, a knife sharpening stone, a fishing line and float wrapped around a 7Up bottle... A sports bag hung from a horseshoe above the firewood, the only visible personal belonging other than the radio, which was balanced in a plastic crate nailed to the wall, and the jackets hanging next to it. The bed, narrow with two threadbare blankets, flanked one wall, opposite a dining table and a large rectangular window looking out across the steppes towards the stream. Three handmade, knee-height stools were arranged in the centre of the room around a black, wood-fire oven with two big metal teapots on top, the chimney passing through a rough-hewn hole in the roof.

We unloaded the car and introduced the puppy to his new stomping ground, before a round of yerba mate was prepared and an enormous slab of meat rolled into a pan, doused with salt and put in the oven. As a vegetarian who feels the cold and works in the arts, I could not have felt more of a city softie next to these hardened Patagonians. While I resembled the Michelin Man, barely able to walk for layers of clothes, they rolled up their sleeves and took off their hats. The food seemed to take an age to cook and, while the Patagonians sucked on mate, I had to keep sneaking to the car to raid the family pack of biscuits. Then, while I nibbled on a slightly soggy spinach empanada, they sliced meat off enormous juicy joints straight into their mouths, the ferociously sharp blade of their knife flicking dangerously close to their tongues. The puppy on the other hand, rapidly adapted to his new surroundings; showing no sign of feeling the cold, he gnawed happily on the discarded bones.

José had arrived at Las Mellizas few weeks ago, charged with taking care of the land and ensuring no-one enters. The snow had at one point reached his horse's girth and, that morning, he had eaten his last ration of boiled potatoes. Even so, he had learnt the lay of the surrounding land, restored the hut in which he was living, and made a start on the others. Now with fresh supplies, he is to stay until December, when he has four days off to visit his daughter on her birthday. Over dessert (fruit), it was proposed that, in his absence, 'la gringita' (myself) could take charge. To me, the suggestion seemed so farcical I assumed it was a joke. When I realised that it was a serious proposal, I had to swallow my shock and nod enthusiastically, hunching over my mandarin to hide my horror. While not one to shy away from an adventure, I seriously doubt my survival skills would stand up to four days in arctic isolation, let alone my ability to 'take care of the land' and 'guard against trespassers'.

I have since discovered that Carol, my host, once spent 10 days living at Las Mellizas with her 20-day-old daughter. As such, should the opportunity arise, I will have a crack (albeit armed with a four-day supply of spinach empanadas and red wine). Needless to say, I have been watching recent asados and how to make a good fire with studied interest!

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

The Club, the Vet and the Borracho

There are two polo pitches, 40 plus horses, four grooms and a pack of ferociously affectionate dogs at Retiro Polo, a polo club frequented by local Argentines and tourists looking for a taste of authenticity. Even so, a sleepy, relaxed sort of vibe pervades. Apart from match days, when there is a flurry of activity, each groom quietly goes about his own business with his horses, fitting work around the comings and goings of tractor drivers, vets, delivery men, friends and family. In the six weeks I worked there, it fluctuated between bracing temperatures with torrential rain, and serious sunshine at 30° plus. Some afternoons I huddled over a glass of tea warming up with home-fried donuts, others I rode to the village for an ice-cream. And as time went by, I settled into my own vague routine - grooming the herd, riding my favourites, mucking out, rolling bandages and cleaning bridles - and got used to the ebb and flow of visitors.

Horatio, a local vet and farrier, was a regular. With a mop of grey hair, bushy, expressive eyebrows and a kind, friendly face, he has a scruffy sort of charm about him. He often arrived in time for lunch, armed with bottles of 7Up, fresh bread and biscuits. Once, he turned up three weeks running and each time presented a different girlfriend; "A boat in every port", he explained the week after. He took a no-nonsense approach to veterinary treatment: I watched him 'open-up' a small puncture wound to release the pus by repeatedly jabbing the cut with scissors, and heard in detail how he sows up mare's private parts to prevent damage to their ovaries when pulling up sharply on the polo pitch. Eeesh.

Another familiar face was Roberto el Borracho (Roberto the drunk). Weathered and wrinkled, his shabby, oversized clothes barely hide his skininess, but he thwarts all attempts at help by declaring: "Prefiero ser el borracho conocido que un alcolico anonimo!" (I'd rather be a well-known drunk than an anonymous alcoholic). Affable and friendly, albeit with a slightly dazed, dopey air, he greets everyone with a wave and a toothy grin; for me, it's always a few words of surprisingly comprehensible English. He lives, on the goodwill of the club owner, by the abandoned house adjacent to the Polo Club. Ironically, the crumbling building houses a farmyard of animals, while he lives in a makeshift hut outside. He scrapes a living by charging locals to graze their animals on the neighbouring field that, ironically, doesn't even belong to him. I am told he used to groom for polo games, recruiting a troop of boys from the local village and delegating duties. Now, polo days behind him, he appears at least twice weekly. Hunched somewhat precariously on top of his horse, a black mare that wears a shabby, brown jute rug whatever the weather, he always comes bearing a plastic bag of eggs to give to the club owner.

Having got to know the locals and the horses, I was sad to move on from Retiro Polo (despite my ineptitude on the pitch). Now in Bariloche, Argentina's chocolate capital nestled in the foothills of the Andes, I've swapped sun cream for thermals. Instead of working polo ponies and grooming for matches, I will be leading mountain rides with tourists in the mountains. Let's hope my navigation skills prove better than my hand-eye coordination on the polo pitch! I should have bought a GPS...

Saturday, 1 November 2014

The Gauchos

Fortin San Pedro: a small jineteada (buck 'n' bronco) with a big prize pot. The raffle alone warrants visiting, with prizes including a herd of 10 horses and a collection of young cows. It draws gauchos from across the province, bringing extended family and multiple herds, such that the number of horses more than triples that of spectators. The fair itself however, is quite understated. The arena is about half the size of a football pitch and surrounded by tiered benches. Handfuls of spectators cluster at the top under the shade, while early-birds have cordoned off ring-side seats in front and rigged up canvas coverings, equipped with picnic tables, deck chairs, a cool box and even a stove. Outside the arena, a selection of stands sell everything gaucho - an array of metals bits, leather halters, intricately designed bridles, fearsome whips and long-bladed knives - and an enormous grill, tended by a rosy-faced, barrel-bellied gaucho, sells meat by the kilo and 7Up by the litre.

The morning is devoted to the jineteada. A wild horse is blindfolded and tied chin-tight to a stake in the ground, a pommel cautiously fastened around its belly. A gaucho mounts, settling himself as securely as possible, and the horse is released. A frenzy of leaping, plunging and grunting ensues, the gaucho clinging on top and thwacking it with a whip to make it leap all the more. After eight seconds, a bell is rung and two teammates ride to the rescue, squashing the bronco between their horses and lifting its rider to safety. Sometimes the gaucho goes flying in the first second, other times, the horse crashes to the floor mid-jump, scrambles to its feet to leap again and the rider inexplicably remains in tact and on top. But, whether they are flung to the floor or crushed under the horse, the gauchos just get up, dust themselves off and walk away looking tough. Hard as nails.

Lunch follows the jineteada, the 'hour-long' break stretching to three to accommodate the 1kg portions of meat, a lengthy siesta and a round of yerba mate (the Argentine equivalent for tea). Action resumes at 5pm: the Enlazada (lassoing). Four gauchos stand primed at one end of the arena. Wearing heavy duty gloves, legs spread wide in a solid stance, hips rocking rhythmically in time to the rope, they work the lasso in broad circles with full arm movements above their head. Meanwhile, just outside the arena, a foal is corralled into a narrow corridor fashioned out of plastic sheets, which are smacked energetically by gauchos on the outside. The foal, frightened by the rustling walls surrounding it, and the crack of the whip from the gaucho behind, launches into the arena at a panicked gallop. The gauchos have approximately 30 metres to try and lasso it, and the foal needs to fall flat for it to class as a successful lasso - the more times the better in terms of points.

The first, a striking black foal with white socks, flew into the arena. Before it had gone 20 metres, it nosedived horribly into a violent somersault when a gaucho lassoed its front legs mid-gallop. Thankfully, it scrambled to its feet and retreated to nibble at the grass at the far end of the arena. A succession of over 40 foals went on to run the gauntlet past the gauchos: some somersaulted, some skidded, some hopped helplessly with their legs bound together before being pulled down. Very few escaped, and only one managed to tug itself free of the rope, dragging the gaucho some 50 metres before he suceeded. I tried to convince myself that all survived unharmed to happily join the growing herd at the other end of the arena, but sadly, many ended up with bloody rope burns on their knees and pronounced limps. Then, just before closing, one was lassoed around the neck and yanked awkwardly to the floor. There, it lay lifeless except for the spasms in its hind legs. Unceremoniously tied to the back of a truck, it was towed away and the enlazada continued without pause. Barbaric.

However, brutality aside, elements of the gaucho lifestyle are captivating, and seeing them altogether was a bit like stepping back in time to a mediaeval fair. All wear traditional clothes much like they wore in the 1800s, attire that is as practical now as it was 200 years ago: slip-on canvas shoes (alpargatas) or soft, leather boots; lightweight, baggy trouser (bombachos) gathered at the ankle and often tucked into socks; a brightly coloured, patterned cloth tied at the waist, a long-bladed knife tucked in at the back (for asados) and often a beaded keyring (for counting cattle) to one side; most wear a loose shirt, some with a waistcoat or a necktie, and nearly all wear the trademark 'boina' flatcap.

The closing parade was quite spectacular. It involved hundreds of gauchos (and their extended families) in all their finery: skinny ten-year-old boys, proud and confident astride their mounts; pot-bellied moustachioed men; tiny girls holding tightly to the boy in front, wearing brightly coloured floor-length dresses spread across the back of the horse; beautiful women with long curly hair flowing from under their boina; and toddlers barely able to sit up straight, flopping forwards onto their horse's shoulders. The horses were just as diverse. Some were chunky and muscular with their tails chopped short just below the dock, others flighty and wispy; browns, blacks, greys, palominos and a huge variety of patchy specimens, known somewhat disparagingly as 'manchados' ('stained'). The herd up for grabs in the raffle - young, stocky ponies streaked with black and white speckles - was also in the parade. They swirled around their 'mother mare', ridden by a portly gaucho, with a kind of desperate urgency, anxious to stay as close as possible. Another loose herd, a collection of miniature ponies, trotted in quick step behind a boy of no more than eight.

Wave upon wave of horses entered the arena, until it was almost at capacity. Then, as soon as the last rider entered, they all filed out again. Those not camping over the weekend set to the roads to ride home in the twilight. Driving back, we followed the long procession for the best part of three miles. Traffic pushed to the curbside and slowed to a walking pace, the gauchos travelled three or four abreast, some horses loose, some ridden, local villagers cheering and waving as they passed. Quite the spectacle!

Friday, 24 October 2014

Polo lesson #1: "You have to look at the ball"

Four reins in my left hand, polo stick in my right (bouncing uncomfortably in the crook of my neck), I cantered the length of the pitch. I had been tasked with tapping the ball from one end to the other, but the horse ended up kicking the ball more times than I hit it. It was about 50:50 whether I made contact with the ball, and 50:50 again as to whether it moved more than a metre. After five minutes, the neat circular swing I practiced at the start had become dangerously wobbly and lasso-like. As a result, my horse started dodging left when I tried to hit the ball - an unhelpful but understandable instinct for self-preservation.

I was followed by my instructor, the Doctor, a former surgeon and polo fanatic who founded the polo club the year I was born. An exemplar of polo prowess, he scooped up the ball from wherever it ended up after my botched shots, showing off a wide array of sharp 360° swings that sliced the ball from under the horse's neck, or cut it from beside the hind legs. He shouted encouragement and instructions after each of my wild swipes: 'You have to look at the ball!', 'Hit the ball don't just touch it!', and after every shot he made, the ball appeared just ahead of me. While very convenient placement, it was unnerving when a hard ball rocketed past at body level. After one hit my horse squarely on the behind, I began to flinch every time I heard the clunk of his stick.

We did one run of the pitch at full speed, during which I completely lost control of both stick and horse. Unable to turn or stop, I didn't even make a convincing run to the goal, but went straight past it on the far right. Just a small taster of the terrifying pace of polo. I was also given an introduction on how to fight for the ball by 'riding off' the opposing player. The Doctor demonstrated by barging his horse up against mine and hooking his knee in front of my saddle. My horse, something of a polo veteran, sportingly shouldered up against the opposition for a while, but I was all too keen to retreat and give way!

After lesson #1, I was invited to join in a baby chukka of two against one on the polo pitch. Unable to hit the ball, let alone receive or aim a pass, I just galloped in circles and tried to look busy. I vaguely followed the instructions barked by my teammate, but in general, did my best to avoid going anywhere near the ball. Unfortunately, my horse was much more competitive; on more than one occasion, she skid into a sharp 180° turn and sped after the ball, despite the reluctance of her passenger. The experience took me back to my school days and haplessly running around the lacrosse pitch. At least this time there was a horse underneath me!

The lessons have offered a glimpse into what a real game of polo would be like: fast and ferocious, demanding extraordinary control of stick, ball and horse... Needless to say, it's not the sort of sport I will excel in!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

The Polo Game

"They're coming to play at 5pm". A phone call announces the forthcoming game. It may only be amateur polo - just 28 minutes of play spread over four chukkas, rather than 49 minutes and seven chukkas - but it is an intense, pressurised hour or more for the grooms. Each is responsible for two riders and eight horses, supplying fresh mounts for each chukka in exchange for two that have just played. The horses arrive from the pitch glistening with foamy sweat, their sides heaving and nostrils flared: seven minutes to untack them, swap their saddles onto fresh horses and take off their bandages before the next two arrive... The game is a chaotic blur of sweaty animals and dirty leather tack.

The preparation begins about 2 hours before. 32 horses are groomed; 64 legs are bandaged; bridles, saddles and bandages are piled up ready for use. A grid with the details of the game is passed around the grooms - which riders play which horses in what order - and there is a reshuffle of horses and equipment, before as many as possible are tacked up and their tails tied in a plaited knot. Then, the players turn up; the game gets underway. An exhausting hour or two later, they disappear as suddenly as they arrived.

A polo virgin and less than 48 hours in Argentina, my first game is a baptism of fire. I don't know my horses names, have never tacked up a polo pony before, and know the players only by the initials embossed on their tack. I am apprehensive, to say the least, about my complete polo ignorance. However, when the riders arrive, they are happy to give me a whistle-stop introduction. It turns out that the horses I had that morning christened as Sammy, Alfred, Molly and Pimms, are officially called Dalinda, Jacinta, Quarta Milla and Marie, and each wears a different, but equally aggressive-looking bit. I hastily scribble down names, distinguishing feature, type of bridle and order of play on a scrumpled scrap of paper. 

I'm also given a crash course on how to saddle a polo pony: instead of a buckle, a long leather strap is threaded through loops on the girth and the saddle, cinched suffocatingly tight and then knotted. Whether I lack technique or brute strength, it seems highly impractical and time-consuming when you have eight ponies to saddle at speed! A rapid demo on how to plait the tail into a neat bun follows, a fiddly piece of handiwork I am yet to master without tying multiple messy knots. The game itself is a whirlwind. I frequently fumble for the scribbled notes, trying to identify horse, bridle and relevant chukka, all the while being handed horses drenched in sweat and gasping for breath. The pace is overwhelming. 

Three weeks on and I still find games a bit traumatic. I have however picked up a few tricks of the trade: rub Vaseline on the girth so it's easier to cinch up; if the tail knot is unachievable, there is no shame in just using tape; if possible, have every horse saddled before the game even starts! I have also learnt the names of the horses, the bits and the players. I still need the scrap of paper though!

Saturday, 4 October 2014

An Argentine Groom #2

Hector is slightly detached from the other grooms. He sticks to his own horses, his own stable block, his own corale and his own routine. He's up at 5am to turn the horses out and reappears periodically throughout the day, whether to do his laundry, shoe a horse, or ride one. Slightly bow-legged, he prowls around the yard wearing pumps, loose chinos wrapped close to his calves by horse bandages, and a large cotton shirt that billows out behind him when he rides (when not covered by a woollen, M&S-style jersey). The carved wooden handle of a knife pokes out of his belt, and he often has a few loops of baling twine around his neck.

A polo player as well as a groom, entrusted with training the youngest horses and working the most difficult ones, there's no doubt that he is the most experienced horseman of the grooms. He couldn't look more at home on a horse. Legs thrust forwards and right arm held easily at waist height, he can put any horse through its paces, whether galloping across the fields and pulling up to a sharp stop, or practising razor sharp turns in the menage.

He's travelled across Europe with polo ponies, and has worked here for 17 years - he's currently sleeping in the guest room of the Polo Club House while waiting for the construction of his own on-site house to finish. Hardened perhaps by years of earning his living from horses, he's certainly on the severe side - he's been known to castrate a stallion with a kitchen knife to save on the vets bills.

He works with his son, a sweet but shy teenager who I've never heard utter a word. An efficient, self-contained duo, they go about their work wordlessly. Yet even so, Hector is a noisy presence on the yard. He hollers directions at his herd, 'aaaayy's' loudly at a horse if it misbehaves, sings as he works and, when he does stop to chat, speaks loudly in an incomprehensible garble.

It takes him two weeks to talk to me, during which time I'm referred to as 'la Chica'. We have since advanced to a 'buen dia Lottie' greeting, and a 'finitio?' bark if I'm near him when I get off a horse. Yesterday, he even gave me a few tips (and a thumbs up) in the menage when we happened to be riding there together. It may be slow, but it's progress!

Sunday, 28 September 2014

An Argentine Groom #1

When I first meet Paulo, he's brusque and almost surly.  Round-faced with smooth, dark features, he's wearing a baggy adidas jumper, nike trainers and a black flat cap; he could be a teenager, but for the rotund bulge of his belly and calm, confident manner. First off, he takes me to meet my horses: 'Son tuyos' he emphasises, as if pleased to pass on the responsibility. Trailing a handful of halters, we pass through a gate hidden under the trees and enter a large sloping square of land covered in patches of waist-high scrub - a field that is seemingly devoid of horses. With a gruff grunt and wave of his arm, he indicates that I walk in the opposite direction to him, and then let's out a deep 'hee-ahhh' holler that resonates from the depths of his belly. Six heads, ears-pricked, pop up above the bushes. Dotted randomly across the field, there are blacks, browns and one with a striking white blaze down its nose.

He hollers again and, to my surprise, the horses amble into a trot and form a small herd that trundles through the gap between us and towards the gate. Guided by whistles and 'hee-ahhh's', they lope into a canter and disappear single-file through the gate. By the time we catch up, they have bundled into a small square corale just beyond the stable block. A suspicious, tail-swishing huddle, they are young and skinny with coats shabby from the winter. As Paulo approaches, they shift their quarters and raise their chins warily. Unperturbed, he tiptoes towards them, traversing the mud with unexpected grace. He reaches one and, as it moves to shy away, gently slips an arm around its neck as if embracing it, fastening the halter as he does so.

Over the next few days, Paulo diligently instructs me in grooming, bandaging, tack cleaning and coraling, meticulously correcting the slightest variation in his instructions until my technique exactly mirrors his own. I begin to realise that his brusqueness is more economy of words than surliness, something that extends to his sense of humour - an abrupt comment or sarcastic remark is immediately softened by a toothy grin and a chuckle. It could also in part be shyness - when talking to other grooms, his words slur into one long garble, rushing out through smiling lips that barely part.

Paulo is one of ten brothers and father of two. He previously worked as a mechanic and, now 22, has worked at the 'caballeriza' (yard) for a year and a half. Ironically for a groom, he can't ride following an operation to remove a hernia. Instead, he exercises the horses up to six at a time in the corale, cracking a whip at their heels as they whorl around him. He fills the time he would be riding a variety of ways. Most often, it is food preparation and digestion. Elaborate lunches so far have included roast chicken, battered aubergine and chicken stews, on rainy days followed by  fried dough eaten with spoonfuls of dulce de leche. Digestion involves extended snoozing on the sofa: cap over face and hands on belly, the room fills with his snores.