Updated: Apr 15, 2020
Mateo and I spent the afternoon sitting on the fence of the corral, watching Carlito break in a young bay called Rayo, Lightning. As always, Mateo was holding a thermos in one hand and his maté bowl in the other, ready to share a maté with anyone who happened to share his company. Carlito stroked the white flash on Rayo’s forehead, and presented him with a saddle. The long leather rectangle has a padded arc at the front and back, and a gap running the down the middle criss-crossed with leather thread. The stiff panels on either side are embossed with patterns and pictures of horses.
“This, brother, is a recado.”
Rayo sniffed it and snorted, then looked to Carlito, bemused. Carlos swung it onto Rayo’s back, and just as the leather hit the horse’s fur, thunder cracked in the distance. Rayo’s eyes widened; what in God’s name was this recado and why did it break the sky. Carlito laid a flat palm on Rayo’s neck. Rayo seemed to understand.
One by one, the sudadero, the mandil, the basto, the cincha, the pelego and the sobrecincha were all hoisted onto Rayo’s untried back. The Uruguayan tack hasn’t changed since before the invention of the buckle, so all these layers are held together by endless lengths of cow-gut leather (cuero) looped between metal rings. Coming from Spain, where the saddle comes in one piece and sits directly on the horse’s back, it all seems enormously inefficient to me. Perhaps I’m missing the point. Even so, it only gets more counterintuitive in the untacking stage. You take the whole get-up off the horse in one piece, then dismantle it and place the layers on the rack in reverse order. Your recado ends up inside out, ready to be painstakingly assembled on the horse’s back for its next outing.
The upshot is that Mateo and I had time to drink a fair few matés before it was time for one of us to try getting on Rayo’s back. (Maybe that’s the point?) Today, it was Mateo’s turn. I’d already had my run in with yesterday’s chestnut, who was now tied to the fence of the corral in the hope that she’d learn by watching the lesson. She was more interested in watching the storm. Thunder was striking more frequently now, with lightning flashing in bolts and scratches over the lagoon to the south. Mateo gently swung himself onto the saddle and began to bid Rayo move.
Rayo’s first steps took him west, past the swirling disc of leaden cloud, and towards a greenish patch of sky where the daylight trickled through the watery curtain like the sun through a curling wave. Another lap of the corral, and the storm was churning close over the field.
“We’ll stay until it starts raining,” said Carlito, turning up his collar.
One more lap, and the world was washed from vision in the downpour.
Panting, laughing, and soaked to the skin, Carlito, Mateo and I crowded in the doorway of the tack room and watched. No one said a thing. The estancia was striped and muddled, as if the rain was running down a windowpane. It couldn’t last for long. We knew it couldn’t, but hoped to the heavens that it would. Soon the power cut out, and we settled down on the mismatched benches of the tack room to share maté, listen to the twangling guitar of folkloré, and marvel at the storm. It’s easy to hail the simple life, but the truth is that the afternoon wouldn’t have been the same without Mateo’s Spotify and a Bluetooth speaker. We slid open the doors to let the light in and, dimly aware that we should really be at work, we absent-mindedly rubbed oil on the recados while Carlos’ told stories of the best pingos he ever trained, and the worst consequences of wearing espadrilles instead of riding boots. Mateo, a born and raised Argentinian, had a great deal to contend with about the espadrilles.
Eventually, the maté bowl was shining bright as leather from being passed between our oily hands, and the thermos was finally empty. The atmosphere in a group changes when the last drops of water slowly trickle out.
“Che,” says Mateo, “Dude, how about some tortas fritas. Can’t have a storm without tortas fritas. Yes or yes – they’ll be making them down at the container.”
‘Si o si’, yes or yes, is a Uruguayan phrase I’ve come to love. It means ‘definitely’, and, suffice to say, the weather had brought fried dough to the container where the polo grooms live, and I did want to try my first ever torta frita – si o si.
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