Once More, with Feeling
Updated: Apr 15
When Carlos walked into the stable yard this morning, he gave me a soft but meaningful look and said nothing. It was our last day working together. I rounded up the horses while he fed the stallion and the chickens; the stable yard silent since Mateo and his bluetooth speaker left for Buenos Aires. There was a gentle breeze and the sun was shining; a perfect day to ride across the Estancia, checking for unwelcome capybara traps. Hunting capybaras is illegal, but capybaras are delicious, and no one will know who's to blame if you set a trap on someone else’s land. Furious at the thought of it, Carlos says he’ll set a human-sized snare near the next trap he finds, and catch those good-for-nothing hunters.
Carlos was riding Virchu, a young bay in need of some education, and I was on Sanbayon as usual. He’s a broad-nosed palomino, too hot-headed for the Americans, and too ugly for the Uruguayans. I tell him every day that he’s not ugly. He just blinks, tucks in his chin and swivels his ears around, doubtful. Slowly but surely, we’ve grown to understand each other. He’s learnt my favourite route for rounding up the other horses, he’s learnt to understand my hybrid style of riding, English-Spanish-Sudamericana, and I, in turn, have learnt to anticipate his quirks and check them. He’s still a zoco, no question, but he’s my zoco.
I suppose it all started when Sanbayon got a cold. I, incidentally, had a cold at the same time. Thankfully Carlos didn’t start trying to stick me in the neck with antibiotics. Sanbayon’s big snotty nose meant he had to be quarantined in a little coral, and it fell to me to feed and water him. He greeted me with a low nicker every morning – hm-hm-mmhmmhmm – and we’d always go out together to round up the rest of the herd. I spent the first few days watching while Carlos got a syringeful of antibiotics, then to the bam-bam-slap rhythm of ‘We Will Rock You’, tapped Sanbayon’s neck twice with the back of his hand, then stuck him with the needle. I jumped. Sanbayon barely noticed.
One evening, Carlos handed me the needle, “Dale con fe! Go on – give it to him; give it with confidence.”
This phrase has been the cornerstone of my time in Uruguay. If you try to round up horses without some attitude, they won’t budge. Whether you’re pouring water into a mate, sharpening a knife, or holding a horse’s hoof to be shod, whatever you’re doing, you have to do it with confidence. It’s the fear of getting scalded, cut, and stepped on that makes those things come to pass.
I must have tapped Sanbayon’s neck a dozen times, steeling myself for that first injection. I had Sanbayon’s headcollar in my left hand, and the full syringe in my right. I was nervous, I stalled, I didn’t jab the needle hard enough, and Sanbayon jumped. Carlos pulled the wonky needle out and we started again. Three muscles form a triangle on a horse’s neck between the mane, the shoulder, and the throat. I rubbed it with alcohol, and – con fe this time – bam-bam-slap, clean as a whistle. After that, I was trusted to give injections on my own.
“I know you’re capable,” said Carlos, “You’ve just got to know that, too.”
So, I shouldn’t have been surprised when, on our last morning together, Carlos told me what my riding lacked. We chatted while our horses weaved through the trees by the river, and I asked how I could be a better gineta, a better horsewoman.
“Confianza,” he said.
I laughed. “No seriously”, I said, “Tell me.”
“I am telling you. I don’t understand, how come you’re not scared by travelling to Uruguay all by yourself, but racing against the other grooms makes you nervous?”
Before I could answer, something splashed in the river nearby. Carlos looked at his watch. “If we canter home, we’ll just about have time to go fishing.”
My first ever fish was a dientudo, a tiny little creature, whose silvery scales came off on my fingers while I took the hook out of his mouth. His round eyes were expressionless. He didn’t bleed. I thought about Hemingway’s short story, ‘Big Two-Hearted River’, in which a twenty-something called Nick goes fishing alone, and tries not to think about things. ‘Nick felt awkward and professionally happy with all his equipment hanging from him.’ He’s a university boy, not quite made for the simple life he’s adopting for the day.
‘Nick took the line in his left hand and pulled the trout, thumping tiredly against the current, to the surface. His back was mottled the clear, water-over-gravel color, his side flashing in the sun. The rod under his right arm, Nick stooped, dipping his right hand into the current. He held the trout, never still, with his moist right hand, while he unhooked the barb from his mouth, then dropped him back into the stream.
He hung unsteadily in the current, then settled to the bottom beside a stone. Nick reached down his hand to touch him, his arm to the elbow under water. The trout was steady in the moving stream resting on the gravel, beside a stone. As Nick’s fingers touched him, touched his smooth, cool, underwater feeling, he was gone, gone in a shadow across the bottom of the stream.
He’s all right, Nick thought. He was only tired.’
I expected to feel worse about it than I did. The dientudo took a second to start swimming when I put him back in the river, and in that second my heart stopped. Then he waggled off happily to his friends. He’s alright. He was only tired. I washed the scales off my fingers in the cold water, and didn’t think about it again. It’s difficult to care about something when you don’t understand its eyes.
We only had one fishing rod between the two of us, so Carlos sat on the wooden girder supporting the bridge overhead, directing me over my shoulder. Nobody can believe I’ve never been fishing before. Here, if you’re a horseman, you’re a fisherman, a tanner, and a blacksmith too. This much became clear when a friend started forging a knife out of an old horse shoe, and all the men had an opinion on not only his hammering technique, but also on the pros and cons of using oil versus using water to cool the red-hot iron. Water cools down the metal too quickly, at the risk of making it brittle. It’ll take you longer to hammer out your knife with oil, but it’ll be stronger in the long run. The blade won’t go blunt so quickly, either. When the knife was finally finished, everyone laughed it off as a giant butter knife, “Mate that knife couldn’t even cut water!” All the same, the men handled it respectfully as they passed it around, feeling its weight in their hands.
Carlos hopped down from the wooden girder and took the fishing rod out of my hands to demonstrate. He caught a baby mojarra in an instant, whipping the line horizontally with quick but delicate movements. He let the fish go, and handed me back the rod. I cast out the line, letting it breeze through the air for a moment before it landed on the surface of the water nearby.
“Again,” he said, “Dale. Dale con fe.”
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