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.

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