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.