• Alice Whaley

The Herd

Updated: Apr 15

Horses are sociable creatures; when they’re loose on the Estancia, they always hang out in the same cliques, munching away on their favourite patches of grass. My first task in the morning is to round them up over 200 hectares of open pasture and push them into the corral near the stable yard. I tack up Tobiana, a doe-eyed skewbald, and set off at a gallop to the herd’s usual spots.

I first learnt to herd horses while I was working at El Rincon Polo Club. People like to get mushy about horses, talking our deep connection and all that, but the better I get at herding, the more I realise that horses aren’t remotely mushy about us. The operation of herding rests on the fact that horses out to pasture will do their best to avoid you. If you approach them from the left, they’ll run to the right, and the moment you’re on their right, well, they’ll swerve to the left.

Starting is the hardest part. It’s best to begin with the horses furthest from the gate into the corral, giving them a wide berth as you go around them, then approach the herd from behind at a canter. Quite often they take no notice, continuing to chew absent-mindedly with one sleepy ear cocked in my general direction. Round I go again, faster this time – and louder.

Vamos, vamOS (let’s go!)… HO!”

Eventually one horse begrudgingly shifts off, then another, and soon they’re all galloping towards the stable yard, tails flying in the wind. It’s at this point that I feel exceptionally cool. With one hand on my cowboy hat, and the other on the reins, I thunder along behind the herd, swerving left and right to direct them into the corral. The trick is to watch the horses at the front of the herd; if they start to turn, the rest will follow.

All’s well until the dogs arrive. The Cimarrón is a Uruguayan breed, built like a boxer with a long nose. They’re blondish or rusty orange, with distinctive black tiger-stripes over their lean, muscular bodies. The breed descended from dogs that bred and survived in the wild; cimarron can also mean feral in Latin American Spanish. Supposedly they’re brave, they’re excellent guard dogs, and can be the best friend of a cattle-farmer. I don’t think ours ever got the memo. We have two Cimarróns, one dark and the other bright, and both love to play cat amongst the pigeons. Instead of helpfully running behind the herd, they wait in the stableyard until there’s a tantalising knot of forty horses ready to go through the gate. Then, they pounce, the horses scatter, each dog barks with glee at its achievement, chasing the horses further and further across the estancia, and I have to start again.

This morning, predictably, a pony called Chimichurri and his best friend Morena Gruesa were ruminating across the river, again. Either the grass really is greener on the other side, or they’ve figured out that they get left out of the morning round up if they spend the night over there. The river’s too deep to wade across in a recado, so Mateo and I ditched our tack and galloped over to the riverbank bareback. Mateo’s horse thinks she’s a dolphin, plunging herself into the river at every opportunity before she’s even asked. My Tobiana, not so much. She dipped her toes in the shallows, stuck her entire head into the water, then – shocked at the wetness of the water – did an about turn and began marching back to the stable yard. Absolutely not.

I turned her around, and this time we were both in for a shock as the ground fell away beneath us.

“Watch out for the hole!” cried Mateo, a moment too late.

Only Tobiana’s flared nostrils, wide eyes, and pricked up ears were visible above the water. A suspended moment of panic as she and I both thought we were going under, then her hoof struck land, and we clambered out inelegantly together. We stood on the riverbank for a moment, dripping and catching our breath. Tobiana was snorting – half panting, half flabbergasted; I couldn’t help but laugh.

The pioneering horses already on the riverbank had stopped their grazing to watch the scene. Herding them across the river wasn’t going to be easy, especially after my fiasco. Mateo and I gently cantered around them. Plop, plop, plop – the horses threw themselves into the water and swam doggy paddle in a neat line towards the stable yard, stopped for a quick bite to eat, then galloped on home. I giggled at the thought of them wilfully taking themselves for a little dip every evening. Tobiana was doubly sceptical of the river on the way home, but – never one to be left behind – she whinnied to her friends once, then made the plunge again.

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