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...