Archive for March, 2010

Living on a horse farm in the south of France sounds romantic.  Idyllic, even – I know.  And yet, I had worked at enough horse farms for long enough before coming here that I knew it wasn’t going to be all sunshine and sweet hay and hacking out from your country estate on your perfectly groomed hunter for an afternoon gallop through the meadow.  In reality farming life is farming life, and while horses are generally a bit more immediately rewarding than potatoes or soybeans, it’s dirty and tiring and often involves hours of tedium in exchange for the moments of fun and excitement.

Days here start at the highly civilized hour of 8 or 8:30 AM.  We get up, and usually divide into two groups – Tom (the other working student) and I head down to the stable to bring the horses in from the fields while Camille and Gaby start making the feeds.  The horses live in two groups – the main group of 11, who spend the night out in the system of fields and tracks they have set up to try to imitate the way herds of horses naturally move from one grazing area to another  in the wild, and a smaller group of five, nicknamed “The Family” and ruled by the pseudo-stallion Raffi (yes, I said pseudo-stallion.  If you want more information, and aren’t turned off by the words “undescended testicles”, go here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ridgling).  The main group can come straight into the stable area from their fields, through a makeshift alleyway we set up with some strings across the driveway, and while they all know exactly which stall they live in, we invariably have to spend five or ten minutes yelling things like “Hope, get in your box.  Hope!  I’m talking to you.  Stop eating Mojo and Tali’s hay and GO HOME.  And Xas, that means you too.  Hey, Ca Va, who said you could go around the back and pig out on alfalfa?  Get back here you great big whale…”  Once they’re all sorted into their assigned stalls, happily munching away on hay, we head up the hill to collect Raffi, Amy and Deshie from The Family (the other two, Tati and Uno, are still too young to be worked regularly, and so usually stay out in the field during the day while the others are being ridden).  Once they’re also nose-deep in their nets full of hay we head up the hill (again) to help with the cooking – the preparation of the equine breakfasts, that is.  Their homemade feed involves a somewhat elaborate process of soaking and grinding grains, and portioning out amounts of each into un-labled buckets destined for each of the 16 horses.  Eventually I might learn the secret method to this madness, but so far my involvement in it is limited to helping to mix up each mash once its combination of alfalfa meal, ground oats, coconut meal, bee pollen and/or ground corn and barley has been achieved.  I’m the sous chef, essentially.

After the feeds have been distributed and the horses have had their blankets taken off, if necessary, the human contingent goes up to the house for breakfast.  While we’re eating (the usual offerings of cereals, yoghurt and toast – I’m becoming slightly obsessed with a combination of Wheetabix and this killer Carrefour-brand museli they have) Camille and Gaby write out the riding schedule for the day, and then we head back down to the stables to start the horses’ work day.

It’s almost an assembly line-style process, where while they are riding Tom and I are grooming and tacking up the next pair of horses to be worked.  We usually do four sets in the morning, with me and Tom each getting a lesson during one session.  I love grooming horses, I find it satisfying and fun, but it’s also hard work when done properly, and especially hard when they’ve been rolling in the mud, which here is about 90% pure clay, and sticks to their fur like glue.    This leads to some arguments with the more sensitive and/or ornery among the bunch, who don’t take very kindly to being scraped and picked at to the degree necessary to actually get them looking respectable.  Odette and I have had several conversations about how she’s really not allowed to fling her foot in the air just because she’s decided I’m not allowed to brush that particular bit of her leg anymore.  I understand her point, but really, there are manners to be upheld here, and flinging one’s hoof in a person’s general direction is not exactly following them.

We go in for lunch around 3:30 or 4:00, after the last set has been put away and everyone checked to make sure they have water and enough hay to last them into the rest of the afternoon.  Lunch is usually soup or some kind of pasta, after which, if the weather cooperates and it’s not too late, we’ll go back to the stables to each tack up our own horse for a quick hack out into the countryside.  These are usually pleasant and low key, but depending on the cast of characters can occasionally be a bit hairy – like the day last week when Hope had a panic attack at seeing a dog pop out of nowhere – like a wolf!, which made Mojo (with me on board) have a corresponding who, what, where, ohmygod what are we freaking out about???  moment, ending in two flaked-out horses, three hoof boots scattered across the road (the one downside to that particular piece of equipment is that they’re liable to wardrobe malfunctions when a horse has a numbskull moment and feet go flying in every direction), and two annoyed riders.  But, eventually everyone regained their brains, if not entirely their sanity, and the rest of the ride went off without incident.

After the last ride of the day there is dinner to be fed, the horses to be turned back out into the fields (dressed appropriately for the weather, of course), stalls to be cleaned, feed buckets to be rinsed, grooming areas to be swept clean, water buckets to be filled, and hay nets to stuff and hang in the stalls for the next day.   These days, by the time we’re cleaning the stables it’s usually dark, and let me tell you, maneuvering a wheelbarrow full of horse poo up a narrow wooden plank laid on top of a somewhat sodden compost pile, in the dark, can have it’s hairy moments.  But, the reward is that on clear nights, of which there have been many, you can see what seems like every star in the sky twinkling over head, dimmed only ever so slightly by the lights from farms and the handful of tiny villages that dot the landscape.  It’s views like that, and the satisfaction of making even some small breakthrough during my lessons, that makes it all worth it.  Farming life isn’t glamorous, but if you can find pleasure or peace at the top of a muck heap, it’s not all that bad.

Jeremy and Esmée (as seen from the afore-mentioned muck heap)


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Sunnier Days

In some kind of cosmic “hah hah, you thought you were so smart, didn’t you?” moment, it’s snowing again today in Gascony, while it’s sunny and warmer both in Paris and back home in Massachusetts.  But, I’m keeping in mind the two weeks of lovely weather we just had, and in that spirit, posting a few pictures.

Kaffa and Phoenix waiting to come in for their breakfast on a misty morning.

Tali, demonstrating his finest attempt to make every bit of his body not covered by his blanket a lovely shade of Gascony Clay brown.  Why do greys always love to roll so much?

Tali and Mojo discussing how much they dislike being clean?  Tali is displeased, at least…

Xas (left) and Ca Va, half-sisters known affectionately as “The Whales” (they’re not the most delicate of girls), finishing up the last of the breakfast hay on a lazy weekend morning.

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