• Alice Whaley

Tonterías : Nonsense

Updated: Apr 15

The 35-degree days of Week Two are behind us, the rains of Week Three have passed, and the dry and bitter cold has set in for Week Four. There’s only air-con in my little bungalow. It was definitely built for the summer. Rosario, Guillermo’s mother, insisted on giving me a fluffy sheet, a fluffy pillowcase, and an extra blanket, as well as the duvet that I’d originally asked for.

Work starts at 10 now, and even though the day’s supposed to have warmed up a bit, my fingers still fumble with the first horse’s girth. ‘Girth’ isn’t actually the right word; I mean cinchuelo, but I don’t know how to say that in English. Maybe I am turning Andaluz after all. The trouble is, I’d never seen half the bells and whistles before I came here, and I certainly didn’t know any of their names. Now, I know which collection of Spanish sounds refers to which collection of leather straps, but I’ve still got no idea about the English vocab. Today I messaged Guillermo asking if I should use the saddle with the – with the – Hang on. How the hell do I spell that thing that sounds like pechupetra? I know that ‘chest’ is ‘pecho’, so I went for pecho petral and he didn’t correct me.

Ivan came to the rescue and told me just to put on the same shim-eh as yesterday. Okay. Shim-eh. That’s the bridle for lunging, with the hoops on the noseband. I put it on Number Thirteen. Ivan pulled the girth and the throatlash, frowned, then pulled the baticola (the loop under the horse’s tail). There was nothing to adjust. He shifted the noseband a little, just for good measure, then nodded and led Number Thirteen into the sandschool.

“Pass me that shim-eh.”

But the horse is already wearing its shim-eh? I followed the direction of his arm, and saw only a set of black elastics. Baffled, I brought them. Apparently that was the right thing to do. I looked up shim-eh later. It’s really chisme, and it just means ‘thingamajig’. And there I was thinking I’d learnt some technical horse vocab.

This horse is a chestnut with a white stripe down his broad nose. He gives me the heebie-jeebies because you can always see the whites of his eyes. He holds his head as high as the elastics will permit and looks me in the eye the whole time I’m lunging him, as if he’s ready to spook and turn himself inside out at any moment. I’ve just got him cantering well when I hear,

No, Alicia. The leg.”

“Wasn’t he on the left?”

“The left hand, yes, not the left foot.”

Oh for Christ’s sake this is getting silly now. I whistle to slow Number Thirteen, and click to start him galloping again.

"There you are.”

It feels as if I’ve gone into Hard Mode. I’m now dealing with all sorts of legs, and lunging more difficult horses quite regularly. Number Eleven was the second horse of the day.

Dale que corre.” (Give it to him so he runs.)


Pero que no galope.” (But not so he canters.)

“Ok.” What?

Guillermo was exercising his horse around me and Number Eleven in the outdoor schooling ring. I click, and Number Eleven sets off at the world’s slowest trot. “So he runs!” calls Guillermo. I click: nothing. I crack the whip; he gallops. I whistle; Number Eleven stops completely. Back to trot. Around and around we go like that, and I can feel Guillermo watching. I know I’m doing it wrong but I don’t know how to do it right.

“Look, Ali, you’ve got to run towards the horse’s bum and then he’ll speed up.”


After a few strides I ease off. Number Eleven eases off too.

“Don’t get tired! Push him!”

As soon as I lower my whip-arm again, Number Eleven pauses. He steps inwards, as if to break the circle altogether and run towards the stables instead.

“He’s laughing at you!”

Honestly, I don’t blame him. I’ve got the whip raised in one hand, the lunge rope in the other, and I’m running around and around in circles behind Number Eleven, who is a lot faster than me but still not very fast. The schooling ring is filled with deep sand, which doesn’t make things easier, and one of my legs is tangled up with my end of the lunge rope.

“Fine. Walk him for a bit, then shower him.”

After lunch, Santi took one look at me and very helpfully pointed out that I was sunburnt. We tacked up Number Seven and Number Fourteen, and rode down to through acres of olive trees to the river. On the way, Guillermo took special care to call Santi and ask about every piece of tack the horses were wearing. Santi hung up and shook his head, smiling. “Guillermo’s obsessed with the chismes.” He reached up and picked an olive, holding it out to me. It gently rolled around his flat palm with the rhythm of the horse’s paces. “We’re well past harvest time. There shouldn’t be olives on the trees anymore.” The olive in his hand was black, and hard, and small. “The labour to pick them costs more than the olives are worth. There just hasn’t been any rain.”

We came to a shallow river. A goatherd was moving his animals through the nearby trees. He had his head pressed to his shoulder, his phone sandwiched in between. He mouthed a silent hola at us as we passed.

“Me and my friends used to come here as kids. Tonterías. Silliness. Just fooling around on the horses.”

I remembered being six, with my best friend sitting behind me on my pony’s back, waving at goatherds. Tonterías.

Back at the stables, everyone was very serious. People were riding at El Rocío tomorrow, and the horses’ ears needed shaving. Bizarre. It was my job to hold the horse’s head still while Enrique managed the clippers. I had managed to keep a straight face until now, but my instructions were just too absurd. There’s a piece of rubber tubing, like a stiff old hose-pipe, with a loop of bailer twine at the end. You put the horse’s top lip in the loop, and twist the pipe so the loop tightens. The horse goes to sleep. I’d love to know how this was invented.

The clippers died when Number Twenty-Seven was mid-haircut. It had only had one ear trimmed. This was a disaster. Enrique told Antonio to tell Javier to call his son, and get Javier Junior to bring more clippers. Another, different, Javier came and claimed he was a dab hand with scissors. It just didn’t look the same. The farrier turned up in the meantime; he couldn’t help, but agreed that yes, this was a disaster. The foal in Stable One peeked its nose over the wall to watch the goings-on as the farrier got to work. The foal’s never been shod and looked horrified at the thought. Somehow everyone was in on the commotion but we still had a horse with one bald ear.

Enrique’s dog, Odin, started yowling. He was sitting very still, staring through the fence into the olive grove next door. Before I know it, I hear,

“Alicia, I’ve got a present for you.”

Enrique’s lanced a rat with a pitchfork.

Odin can barely contain himself, while the other dogs look totally bemused.

“Quick, someone hold Odin’s collar so we can teach our dogs how to rat.”

The other dogs sniff the rat and wander off. Odin barks at them as if to explain to them that this is a rat that they’re missing out on.

“Stop it, Enrique, get rid of it!” someone shouts.

“Okay, okay,” he says. He gets the pitchfork and hurls the dead rat over the fence. It travels about three feet, before landing in a tree, at eye-level. He laughs it off. “It’s a prize for Javier when he gets here.”

Javier Junior arrived, armed with a little metal briefcase containing the much-demanded clippers. By this point, the odd-eared horse was restless, and holding its lip wasn’t working as well as it had before. Antonio stepped in as The Most Experienced Ear Trimmer, took the clippers of Enrique, and achieved perfectly symmetrical piquitos.

“You’ve got to leave a little bit of hair at the tip of the ear,” he explained to me, “those are the piquitos.”

Right. Because, shaving its ears entirely, that would be absurd.

Previous blog: La Montería: After Wild Boar

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