Updated: Apr 15, 2020
Arriving at El Rincon Polo Club, near Punta Del Este, Uruguay, really meant arriving at the home of Sofia and Mattias, with whom I’m staying for the next part of the story. Their house is at the top of a gentle slope, surrounded by fields of horses, amongst which are two small ponds, a stable yard without any stables, and a house where the grooms live. Next to the house is a wide, flat and neatly mown area: the polo field, of course.
I’m greeted by a chubby dog whose age and sun-induced drowsiness prevent her from wagging her tail as quickly as she’d like. Her ears are at 90 degrees to each other, so when she cocks her head and considers me with doleful eyes, her right ear points towards the floor. Sofia introduces us, “This is Guapa (Beautiful). I love her.” These two declarations are both stated as equally concrete and important facts. I give her a hearty tickle and Guapa wags her whole body as drifts of grey fur float across the lawn on the breeze.
Something black and beady is glinting behind a table-leg. At the sight of its mother, it makes itself known.
“Zorri!” squeals Sofia, crouching and stretching out her arms.
An angular ball of fuzz leaps and gambols towards her. Contained between a tiny triangular face and a stubby pointed tail, it’s got the pot-belly of a puppy and the lurching gait of a kitten. Sofia uses her six-months-pregnant tummy as a cushion for the fox-cub, who eyes me carefully as she gnaws at Sofia’s fingers.
Down at the stable yard, the menagerie grows tenfold. Five more dogs weave between the legs of the semi-dormant horses tied on long ropes to the wooden roof shading the yard. It’s an open, dusty area, with a brick tack-room on one side and a wooden outbuilding on the other. The horses aren’t overly tall, as polo players want to be relatively close to the ground, but, being thoroughbreds, they’re sleek and lean. Their muscles twitch intermittently in an effort to shift off the flies. Sofia glances down at my boots.
“How are those for trotting? Comfy?”
Confused - these are riding boots after all - I say yes. She unties a horse and tells me to trot it. “What, bareback?” I ask.
“No, no, you’re not getting on the horse.” Ah good, I thought, lunging. I know what I’m doing here. I flirted with the idea that I might even be able to impress my new boss. That would really be something. Sofia continued, “I just need you to take it for a little jog. Just run over to the tractor and back.” My ideas of impressing her fell back to earth with a thump. I’m fine on four legs, but running on two legs is absolutely not my forte. Sofia stood cross-armed and slightly frowning while I clunked slowly around the tractor. The horse barely broke a walk. She handed me another horse and told me to go again. “Maybe if you could go a little faster this time?” I did my best.
Mattias, her partner, turned up and joined her in close observation. They discussed between themselves, pensive and frowning hard in my general direction. Oh dear.
“It’s manco”, says Sofia.
“No, no, it’s rengo,” says Mattias.
“Maybe it’s both?” says Sofia.
“Hm. It could be neither. Ali, take it again please.”
A couple of grooms joined in on the debate. Deciding whether a horse is manco or rengo seems to be very important. Sofia uncrossed her arms conclusively. “Yes,” she said, “The left hand is hurting him.” Apparently, this horse is manco after all. Seeing my bewilderment perhaps too plainly on my face, she added, “He’s lame on his hands. He’d be rengo if his back feet were hurting.”
I led the horse onto the rubber matting in one of the two small buildings that flank the wooden sun-shade. Sofia commences fiddling amongst the hundred boxes and bottles crowded onto a metal shelf. She puts the horse to sleep with a small injection in the neck, and gets out the sonogram machine while his head slowly droops to the floor. He staggers a little to keep his footing but stays standing up. I did my best to stop his swaying head from hitting the little table where Sofia was busy organising various medicines. I hadn’t realised she was a vet. With the scanner-thing in hand, she almost began to squat to reach the horse’s ankles. She caught herself going about an old habit and considered her belly for a second, before fetching a pink plastic collapsible stool. She sighed, enrapt, while blurry grey shapes appeared on the little screen, “I just love scanning horses. I could do it for hours.”
I asked if it was the same machine they used on humans, and, yes, she said she’d be able to see a broken bone or something but she hasn’t studied human anatomy enough for anything more nuanced. I held back my burning question which was definitely silly and possibly offensive to a serious medical professional.
She sighed again. “I used to scan my tummy when the baby was smaller, when she was small enough that I could see all of her at once. Not anymore. You can only see a hand or a head at a time and they're all blown up so she looks kind of, I dunno…” – here Sofia broke out of Spanish – “freaky.” Not such a silly question after all.
The next horse was a stallion called Occidental, “like the wind,” added a groom. Now, I’m not exactly superstitious but I’ve learnt that animals who are named after forces of nature are usually something to be reckoned with. We went and fetched the stallion from his private field, and Diego, the groom, assured me that Occidental might whinnie at the sight of the mares, but that I mustn’t be frightened because the horse wouldn’t actually do anything. With this advice in mind, I kept a relatively tight hold on the lead-rope as I manoeuvred him through the haphazard maze of bodies tied any-which-way under the sun-shade. Occidental did whinnie. One of his more sensitive lady-friends took a fright and whipped around, pushing another mare in the process so that poor Occidental ended up with a large, shiny, sweet-smelling bottom in his face. This was all too much for the pent-up stallion so he lurched – to my surprise – backwards, pulling away from me on his rope with taut front legs and flared nostrils. The whole stable yard was in a panic now, with various mares very affronted at this flighty stallion disturbing their afternoon nap. None of them were tied to anything so stoic and rigid as a wall. I wasn’t sure whether or not I should continue pulling this horse who apparently ‘wouldn’t do anything’; I didn’t want to look weak, but then again, it really did seem as if this was somewhat more hectic than the scenario I was warned about. Diego grabbed the rope out of my hands and took Occidental out of the fray. I sighed and looked at my feet, remembering the escape of Stallion Number Three on my first day in Sanlúcar.
Soon, thundering hooves started to rumble in the distance, growing loud as thirty loose horses swept into the stable yard. The leader of the herd paused for a moment to greet a friend, who was still recovering from Occidental’s visit. All the other horses paused too. With wide, swivelling eyes, they looked around, as if trying to remember what it was they came to do. Nobody looked much concerned, so I pretended not to be surprised, continuing about my business with half an eye on the horses, until a groom finally showed up behind the herd, bringing up the rear and moving them on towards the field behind the stable yard.
A chestnut mare with a white star on her forehead had been ridden especially hard on the weekend, and flinched when Sofia’s experienced hands danced down her spine, pressing and squeezing intermittently. Sofia disappeared into her medical shed and came back with a litre of clear liquid and a long tube. Like everything else in this polo club, the bottle was tied to one of the loops hanging limply from the roof, and it was my job to hold the horse’s head while the anti-inflammatory drip flowed through a needle and into its neck. It smelled like sickly sweet off-milk: malignant and saccharine in the roof of one’s mouth. I did my best not to breathe. I occasionally stuck my nose into the horse’s fur to take a long breath, peacefully observing as the shadows grew longer and the light turned golden, and yet more horses were dubbed manco or rengo.
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