Updated: Apr 15, 2020
Ivan was mucking out the stables when I arrived in the morning. As usual, he didn’t hear my first ‘hello’ over the noise of the dumper. He eventually looks over, leaning on his broom.
“Hola Alicia, que pasa? What’s up?”
He greets me like this every morning, and I still haven’t figured out the right response. At first I’d reply, “Not much”, but the Spanish greet each other with a mutual exchange of ‘que pasa’s, neither of them actually answering the question. I gave it a go. It went like this.
“Hola, Ivan, que pasa?”
“Que tal, bien? Que pasa?”
I was stuck in an infinite loop of ‘que pasa’s and I didn’t know how to get out.
“It’s my last day today. Finally I won’t be bothering you about the chismes all the time.”
I tacked up my horse and went to get a lunge rope. I found myself fingering through all the ropes, looking for my favourite. I hadn’t realised I could be the kind of person who had a favourite lunge rope. I began with Charlie Brown, then Number Eleven. Charlie Brown’s hooves are getting long. I’m sad to miss his first shoeing. At one point he tripped up in the sand just before Ivan started up the dumper. The combination was all too much for him. He locked his wide eyes on mine, then panicked. He was pulling away from me as hard as he could, using his strong neck and the speed of his gallop to try and break free of the lunge rope. The rope threatens to burn my hands as it starts to slip. If he wins this, he’ll learn that he’s stronger than me. He’ll never forget it. I hold onto a knot in the rope for extra grip, and, with both hands, I use my whole bodyweight to pull Charlie Brown towards me. I win.
Marta arrived while I was showering Number Eleven, and we both got a lesson in the schooling ring before lunch. Guillermo calls to me across the stableyard, “Alice, get out Number …”, he thought for a moment, then smiled a little, “Get out El Peralta; Stallion Number Three.” Guillermo knows how much I love this horse. Santi shook his head as I stroked Number Three’s big nose.
“You know the worst thing?” he said, “Peralta’s the envy of Seville, and the girl who owns him isn’t even interested. He was a gift from her uncle, a top rejoneador (a horseback bullfighter).”
I’ve been here a month and I haven’t seen her once. His curious lips find the end of his rope. He knows he’s not supposed to chew it. He looks at me while he manoeuvres it into his mouth. Silly horse. I take my time tacking him up.
Out in the schooling ring, Guillermo’s on foot, teaching Marta to do cambios (changes). The horse gallops diagonally across the arena; one stride leading with the left leg, one stride leading with the right. It looks as if it’s skipping. I warm up Number Three around them, and then instructions start coming my way.
“Circle. Gallop. Slower. Good. Again. Heels down. There. Good. Now the left. Good.”
This is unheard of. Even Santi and Marta get told to shorten their reins.
“Okay, now busca la pista to the left.” This is a Doma Vaquera-style manoeuvre that I’ve never learnt before. I start by cantering slowly down the central line, then curve the horse’s head to the right and push with my left foot. Number Three obliges, and canters sideways while keeping his body pointing straight ahead.
“Good. Again. Less hand. More foot.”
“You’re going easy on me now, ‘cause I’m leaving.”
“No, no.” says Guillermo, and turns back towards the stables. Marta chips in, “You have got better.”
It was my turn to repay Rosario’s thousand favours, and make the lunch. She was excited to try English food. Her daughter was sceptical and vetted my recipe before agreeing to join us. She says she doesn’t like strange food.
“It’s called Cottage Pie. Pastel de la Cabaña, I guess. It’s just meat and potatoes, you’ll be fine.”
Everybody ate seconds, except Guillermo, who skipped pie altogether and ate an entire packet of biscuits with a hot chocolate instead. Sometimes I think I’ve got him figured out. I haven’t.
Guillermo suggests that he, Marta and I should go for a last paseito. Night closes in too early now for it to be worth taking a siesta. I tack up Number Fifteen: the grey with a cropped tail (la jaca torda), the one that’s ‘muy bruto’. He’s not bruto today. The three of us canter slowly beside the train-tracks. Marta and I are in front, with Guillermo following behind on a youngster. Nobody’s talking. The rhythm of the horse’s hooves is quiet on the soft earth. As we trot the loop home, Guillermo catches up with Marta to correct her hands. They start discussing the horse’s bridle and I hang back. Guillermo glances back at me and spots something. He almost corrects me but decides against it. The shadows lengthen, the low sun only picking up the fluff around my horse’s ears. I am left in peace.
I’ve only been present for lock-up twice. On my very first evening, before I’d even seen Sanlúcar in the daylight, I followed Marta and Guillermo around the unfamiliar stable yard while they did the rounds with the wheelie-bin of horse food. Today I did the same again. Number Three kicked his stable door in anticipation, spooky Number Thirteen snorted gently, and the line of greys from Twenty to Twenty-Four all weaved their heads in unison. Charlie Brown was meek. He only blinked. Then the lights were switched off and the gates swung shut.
I hugged Rosario goodbye in the morning. She half let go, then pulled me in again.
“You’ve got a home here any time,” she said, holding my hands. “And stay in touch. I’ll text you. Just a bit. I don’t want to be annoying. Just to find out how you’re getting along in Argentina.” She bustled me out of the door, wiping her eyes. “Oh ignore me, ignore me. Off you go. Adiós, Alicia.”
Goodbye, Rosario. Goodbye, Sanlúcar. I’ll be back soon.
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