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Archive for the ‘Working Student’ Category

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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Back in the Saddle

The weather has finally turned more seasonable, and there’s talk and the smell of spring in the air.  It’s bizarre to realize that I’m agreeing with statements like, “finally, it’s starting to feel like spring!” in the middle of February.  February is not spring, I don’t care what anyone tells me.  Yet, there is that sudden softness in the air that makes me think winter might be over.  Maybe I’ll just pretend it’s April already, and things will seem less strange.

I’ve had a couple of really good rides last week.  Wednesday I had a lesson on Odette, who is a French thoroughbred who raced up until a few years ago.  She’s sensitive and tends to run when she gets out of balance, so a lot of the rider’s job is to keep your own body well balanced and in synch with her, so that she feeds off of that security and steadies herself.  I rode her on the lunge line, so all of the control of her speed was up to me and subtle shifts in my weight on her back and how much I went with her movement or held myself stiller than it.  (Sorry, for the non-dressage folks this is probably as exciting and understandable as watching cross-country skiing in the Winter Olympics.  Hang in there.  Or, feel free to skip this bit).  Anyway, she reminded me a lot of an ex-polo pony I used to ride, Gali, who was extremely sensitive to every slight movement the rider made.  Odette is slightly less rigid and tense, which means that when I did something right she responded, gratifyingly, by relaxing and coming through (Laymans’ Cliff Notes: in dressage, when a horse is “through” or “on the bit” it means that they are using their bodies in a way that the energy from their hind legs comes up over their backs and through their necks, creating a flow of energy that allows them to carry more of their weight on their back legs, lifting their front ends and making them move more balanced and athletically.).  However, getting her there took a lot of mental and physical concentration on my part, and since I’ve always been a pretty timid rider, it also took a lot of control to not get nervous when she did start to speed up and get unbalanced – because, not having any connection to the horse’s mouth (on the lunge line the instructor holds the rope attached tot he horse’s face, so the rider doesn’t have to worry about steering) makes you feel pretty out of control, even if the point of the exercise is to learn to control the horse without the reins.  It was hard, but satisfying, because I could feel myself making progress even within the space of the lesson.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, several evenings per week we all go out for a hack before feeding time.  On Thursday I rode Tali, who’s a big, gangly, kind of funny-looking grey gelding.  He’s a sweetie, and one of the best trail horses I’ve ever ridden outside in the big scary world.  I was told that he used to be quite tense on trail rides, but he was relaxed and happy yesterday, seeming to have decided at some point that this whole exploring thing wasn’t so scary, and that racing the other horses home really is a waste of his energy.  He seemed to be genuinely having fun, which makes riding infinitely more fun for me.  We went down the road that leads to the farm (and by “road” I mean the one-lane track that splits off of the main, very narrow, two-lane road about a 3/4 of a mile away, and leads to this and one other farm at the bottom of the hill), and across to some fields and a dirt road on the other side of the main road.  It was beautiful, just nearing sunset, the horses were good – nobody even thought about spooking at the deer we saw leaping through the field, or the pheasant wandering down the track ahead of us – and as we were heading back up the hill to the farm I could see the Pyrenees in the distance, with a bank of reddish clouds hanging over them.  It was more than a little bit surreal.

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I seem to have brought winter to the south.  Ever since I arrived last weekend there’s been unseasonably cold temperatures, and for the last two days it’s been snowing on and off.  They say it rarely snows here, and when it does the accumulation doesn’t last more than a few hours.  This snow started yesterday, fell all night, and shows no sign of melting even now that the flurries have stopped.  Some kind of cosmic weather pattern bringing me just a taste of the blizzards back home, perhaps?  I’m not complaining  – it’s certainly pretty, and I can handle a few inches of fluffy white stuff, just to remind me that it’s really winter.

For the next nine weeks I will be a working student at a dressage barn in south-western France.  The farm, called Picoyne, is in the region called the Gers, in Gascony – closest to the tiny village of Bazian, if you really want to Google Maps-it.  The Gers (pronounced “Zhers”) is an area of rolling hills, mostly open fields and agricultural land.  Picoyne is on the top of one of these hills, with a view over the surrounding area, and, on clear days, all the way to the Pyrenees mountains a few hours’ drive south.  It’s a beautiful landscape, more like Tuscany than the plains of northern France.

I’m here working for and learning from two Scottish sisters, who moved here with their parents several years ago to start the stable and open a business offering riding holidays.  Gabby and Camille train the horses and teach lessons to some people from the local area, too.

Ca-Va (grey) and Odette looking out their back windows

There are sixteen horses on the farm, ranging from two 2 year-olds to Camille’s 27 year-old childhood horse who wanders the property at liberty, as the sort of farm mascot.  Most of them are thoroughbreds and crosses, generally bigger and heavier than many American dressage horses.  They are very interested in natural horse care here, so the horses are all barefoot (no shoes, for the non-horsefolk), but they wear hoof boots when they work, to give them a little extra protection and support.  They also eat homemade feed, made from grinding whole oats and mixing it with a powdered coconut meal that’s supposed to be a good source of energy and alfalfa pellets and soaking the whole mess in water so that it’s appetizing and not dusty.  Some also get ground corn and/or a bit of bee pollen (which has lots of good stuff in it), but none of the supplements or processed feeds that are pretty much the norm in most barns.  I haven’t learned enough about it yet to decide if the extra time spent preparing the feed is worth any benefit the horses get from it, but if you follow the theory that less processed food is better for humans, then perhaps it is.  It’s certainly interesting, and it smells amazing – the coconut meal smells like chocolate when it’s soaked, and the oats smell like bread…my stomach gets pretty growly mixing the mash in the morning before I’ve had my own breakfast!

Days start later here than any barn I’ve ever worked at – 8 or even 8:30 most mornings.  Highly civilized.  The horses go out at night, so we bring them in from the field and feed, and the come back up to the house for breakfast.  After that Gabby and Camille each work 3-4 horses, and I help groom and tack up.  I have a lesson during one of the sets, too.  They follow somewhat the theory of the Spanish Riding School, which is based on establishing a correct position in the saddle, and an effective seat before you work on any of the classical dressage movements.  They do it on the lunge line so that the rider can learn to control their body, and with it the horse’s body, without using and/or relying on the reins.  It’s a great way to become really aware of everything your body does in relation to the horse, and I think it will be really helpful for my riding in general.  It’s a much subtler way of relating to the horse, which is one of the things I really like about dressage.

After working for most of the middle of the day we go in for lunch around 3, and then back out to work another set of horses before feeding and turning them out, and cleaning the barn.  Dinner is around 9, and then it’s off to bed to sleep away the sore muscles.

It’s a long day, but a pretty laid-back one.  I’ve worked at several barns that have upwards of 30 horses who all need to be fed, turned out/in, and cleaned up after every day, usually by only 2 people, so the name of the game was always efficiency.  Don’t walk one way to get something empty handed if there’s something that needs to go that way, and the flow of the day is always planned to maximize the amount of work that can get done with the minimal amount of unnecessary effort (retracing ones steps is a waste of time, in short).  Here, though, while things all get done in an orderly manner, there’s a much more relaxed atmosphere about it.  Rather French, actually.  It’s nice, not feeling like I should be thinking three steps ahead of whatever I’m doing at that moment, but I’m so used to being on top of every move I make in a barn that it will take some getting used to.  And, Hilary or Susie, if you’re reading this – don’t worry, I won’t forget how to do it all the proper way.

Phoenix (L) and Kaffa

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