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.