I’m coming to the end of my second week at the picadero in Sanlúcar. The novelty is wearing off, and so is the skin on my fingers. I’m happy, exhausted, well-fed, and strong. I'm still the weakest of the lot, and it's hard, continuing to make mistakes every day. "It's okay," said a nice man called Javier, "You've got to walk before you can run."
Every day, I wake up at about 8 to the one-upmanship of twenty cockerels. First challenge of the day: shower. The showerhead shoots horizontally with all the force of a fire hose. It’s a choice between a faceful of water, or staying completely dry. I have yet to figure out why the loo-roll holder is hung at head-height, inside the shower.
When I get to the stables the horses are eating their breakfast, and so is the groom, Ivan. He’s seventeen, and most adept at reversing the grumbling orange dumper around the tight corners of the stableyard. He’s the only person who I really feel I can ask any question without a hint of judgement. He’ll be mucking out one of the stables across the yard while I’m tacking up the first horse of the day.
He leans his shovel against the stable door, slides through the fence of the schooling ring, cuts across the middle in a low-urgency jog, and climbs through to help me on the other side. Turns out I’ve got the stirrup tangled up with the girth. He nods quietly at my embarrassed Thankyous, and heads back to his work.
It’s a bit of a gamble, taking Ivan’s help. After all, he’s a novice too.
“Are you sure I’m not meant to tie up the stirrups for lunging?” I ask.
“Yes yes”, he says.
So, off I go. I tend to lunge two or three horses in the morning, then ride one or two before lunch. 15 minutes walking, trotting and galloping on the horse’s left leg; 15 minutes the other way. Untack it. Wash it down. Get out the next horse. Tack it up. Off we go again. Guillermo walks in, and it turns out Ivan was wrong about the stirrups. Crap. “Ali! What are you doing? The stirrups are made of iron! You’ll hurt the horse!” Double crap. Maybe I ought to trust my instincts. My instincts put the horse’s boots on backwards on Day One. Maybe not.
I’ve learnt the particular gripe of all the horses I lunge. Guillermo’s horse, the dark mare of stable 25, is often lazy to start off with. Never before have I experienced cheek-fatigue. I’ve got it now from clicking at her, incessantly. As soon as I stop clicking, she stops trotting. As luck would have it, someone will always walk into the stable yard at precisely the moment that the horse begins walking.
“Ali! You’ve got to make her run!”
I know, I know. I’m sorry, it’s just –
Instead of saying anything, I just click at her and get her trotting again.
With all this learning, I’ve had to get a bit creative with different ways of saying “Thank you for your advice and I will endeavour to carry it out in future, to the best of my ability.” So far we’ve got: “Yes”, “OK”, “I see”, “I understand”, and, in exceptional circumstances, “I’m sorry.” I say these five phrases so often that I’m starting to forget the rest of my Spanish.
One chestnut gelding spooks easily when people are near his face. That means that I’ve got to enlist Ivan’s help when I’m changing the direction in which I’m lunging him. Yesterday, Ivan disappeared. I’d been taking the chestnut on the left-leg for half an hour and Ivan still wasn’t back. A girl called Clara walks in. I asked for her help changing the leg, explaining that the horse is very flighty. She didn’t hear me say that the chestnut had escaped on the last two occasions that Ivan and I had tried to adjust its bridle. Clara approached his head, and the horse stood stock-still, calm as can be. Oh Christ. This isn’t the same horse. Clara smiled at me and slowly explained how to unclip the rope from the left and clip it onto the right side, while demonstrating. She repeated herself twice in her clearest, loudest, simplest Spanish. A little piece of me died. I promise, I know; I know this. It wasn’t worth trying to explain. I thanked her and, cursing myself, got the horse trotting on the right leg.
The horses know that lunging is all about voice control. They’ve spent far more hours in the schooling ring than I have. Even so, when you’re lunging, you hold your horse with one hand, and a whip with the other. The whip’s a wooden branch that has been shaved down until it’s more or less straight, with a long leather strap from somewhere else tied to the end. It’s heavy. It’s not even long enough to reach the horse’s bottom, but the horse doesn’t know that.
After a few hours of lunging, lifting a saddle onto a horse’s back starts becoming an issue. I get my first chance to sit down. That is, I get to sit down astride a moving horse. I’m usually working Seven, a lazy grey, or Three, the long-maned stallion. This is the fun bit, and it’s never without a bit of drama. The other day I was lunging Number Three early in the morning. He’s not a morning horse. He was bucking his huge great heart out; leaping and galloping while I used all my weight to keep control of him at the end of the lunge rope. Marta stood and looked on. I looked to her for reassurance as the rope started slipping, along with my composure.
“Make him run; para que no pinga.”
This is what I came for. Pinga. A wonderful word, not in the dictionary.
- Pinga: verb; to buck, mess around, or – to all intents and purposes – to ping. -
Round and round he went, until he’d just about pinged himself out.
“Okay,” said Marta, “Now you get on him.”
I think I momentarily turned Catholic as my stomach dropped. I put my foot in the very tall stirrup, and the stallion did a little side-step, as if to show me he wasn’t pinged out quite yet. On my first day, Guillermo told me always to watch a horse’s ears. “The ears sing,” he said, “They tell you if he’s listening to you, or if he’s about to get a fright.” This horse’s ears were practically on stalks.
Marta and I went trotting over the railway bridge, then galloping around the country lanes. We’d take short rests to let the dogs catch up, then set off again. I’m still struggling to get Three galloping on his left leg, but Marta reminds me than these things come in time.
Read 'Home Comforts' for part 2.
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