Tales from the Saddle

I wake up around 6:30 AM every morning and dress in farm or riding clothes. If I’m riding, I’ll wear my Kuhl hiking pants, a light flannel shirt, since it gets hot during the day but I’m trying to somewhat protect my skin from the sun, and my hiking boots. If I’m working: Carhart pants, a trashed tshirt, and waders. I join my Workaway host, Karl, in his house for breakfast, which is usually strawberry yogurt, granola, and a banana. We talk about the plan for the day and have about 3 cups of instant coffee, then catch up with the staff when they arrive around 7:30 AM. Nathi is a local in the valley and has worked on the farm for the last 10 years. He works every weekday as a horse groom, rider, guide, and all around farm hand. Spha and Robert have only recently started work after the lockdown. Spha helps with the riding and training, and Robert manages the gardens. Some days we all work together, like today when we burned some of the fields to make fire-breaks. We let the horses out at 8 AM; Nathi and I feed all the horses with their own feedbag. Recently, we’ve been administering routine antiparasitic medicine – this involves paste to be decanted in their mouth and an injection of about 15 mL of Dectomax into the muscle of their neck. I was a little intimidated doing the injections at first, but now it feels natural (and I only hit a vein once). Then we catch the two we’ll ride. We groom them, trim their hooves, check for ticks, and saddle up. The tack is stored in an old transport container – about 20 saddles and bridles. I use an Australian style saddle and Nathi uses a minimalist English style saddle. Tea time is from 9 – 9:30 AM, coffee for me. Then we head off for a two hour ride either lapping the 1 hour trail twice, or branching off in different directions from the farm to roam the hills for a couple of hours. Each trail is named for the tour that tourists would use, though I only know them for exercising the horses. When we get to the fields, Nathi always asks to race the horses. I know whether he knows if he has the faster horse, but I always say yes anyway. Then we fly.

I’ve spent about 40 hours in a saddle in the last four weeks I’ve been on the farm – 2 hours a day, every weekday. Since there is no tourism happening now, my job is to keep the horses trained and exercised for when the guiding business can open again. I rotated through the easier horses first and remembered how to ride again, just like riding a bike. Now I’m starting to work with the more difficult horses. My favorite is Shiva, a black horse with a funny shaped star on her forehead who loves to run. Once we found this balance together, the balance of the fact that she likes to run fast and I like to stay in the saddle, we clicked. She’s now my go-to mare to ride when we have a mission.

A Tough Project

The horse named Mulan is another story. When I first tried to ride her after a few days of ground work in the corral, she instantly launched me into the sky. I landed on my shoulder and head (but I was wearing a brain bucket) and saw stars for most of the day. I knew I had rushed her, but felt pressure from a different way of training horses down here. I’m still working out a happy compromise. In the meantime, I worked with Mulan for another week, to the point where when we were done with our lesson she had her nose into the back of my shoulder following me around the farm. But she had been abused before she came here and there’s still a lot of work to do. The second time I attempted to ride her, I felt the butterflies in my stomach as if I was taking lead on an intimidating climb. If Mulan were a climb, the adjectives in her description would be “burly,” “unpredictable,” and “dynamic start” – literally, when my foot slid into the stirrup, all four hooves left the ground making it a dynamic move to pull myself up into the saddle. She’d probably be a climb rated with an X after, for the “don’t fall” advice. She jumps sideways, forwards, backwards, diagonal – moves I’ve never felt a horse do between my legs. I stayed on and continued talking to her until she relaxed and we made a few laps around the hay field. She still scares the shit out of me, but I can understand why she is the way she is and I just hope my short time here is enough to help connect with her. She’s sort of a loner like me, so I think we can become friends.

Cleo the Pony

Since I cycle through all of the horses, I also ride the smaller ones meant for kids. Cleo, short for Cleopatra, is a queen of a little white pony. However, on the day I rode her I had wished I was on any other horse. Shiva (the speed demon) and Aramis (a leggy Arabian) broke lose from the pasture and started tearing across the hay field towards the road. Shiva’s black legs were tossing up chunks of sod as she charged and Aramis twisted and kicked in the air. I looked down at Cleo, who seemed to sigh in agreement of “oh shit,” before I asked her to chase after them. Her short little legs tried as hard as they could to catch up, but she had no chance. Luckily, the two rebels veered towards a gate that was closer to me and little Cleo gave all she could to get there in time. We shut the gate just in time and Nathi cut in from the other side to herd them back towards the farm. All was well in the end and the horses returned to the herd. I can only hope someone on a neighboring farm was watching. Cleo cannot be bothered to canter, only trot super super fast. My body felt like it was in shock from the jarring ride, as I’m sure Cleo’s did as well. But she did it. I hope we can have a more chill ride next time.

The Lost Boys of the Valley

In one of the small buildings on the farm, there’s a guy from Macedonia who makes cheese – mozzarella, halumi, gouda, all kinds. He doesn’t have to pay rent, just the electric bill for this cheese making caldrons, and to share some cheese of course. A group of homeschooled boys, came to the farm one day to learn the process. They would go on a horse ride with me later, so I joined in on the class. We made mozzarella from milk from the local dairy farm and they were full of questions and enthusiasm for the cheese making process. As teenage boys are though, they also thought they were the center of the universe. They were loud, barefoot, full of energy, and not keen to be taken out on a ride by a girl – me. I saddled the horses with Nathi and helped each one of them climb up on to their horses. The loud, eruptive behavior turned to quiet uneasiness as they realized they had no idea how to ride a horse. We went on the one-hour trail and from the moment we left to the time we got back I was stifling my laughter. We’d trot and the boys would bounce in the saddles and clutch to the reins with their legs bouncing on either side. We cantered across a field and I looked back to watch the horror cross their faces when the horses lurched ahead. They were all on easy horses, completely safe, and with their brain buckets on, but they didn’t know that. I rode Shiva and we danced around the group of riders. She sometimes rears in place and sets off like the horse in the headless horseman tale – a black flurry of legs with her long mane and tail wrapping around us. By the time we returned to the farm, the boys were quiet, well mannered, and riding on their best behavior. They helped me unsaddle and each and every one of them gave me a hug goodbye and thanked me for keeping them safe – unaware of the amusement I had from their entertainment.

Hot cows, prison gangs, and bad mojo

I’ve learned more about local culture of where I’m living in the month I’ve been here in the valley than I had in the year I was working at the research station. Being in such a remote location, we interacted little with communities of the Northern Cape, though we met people from all around the world in our patch of desert. Here is different – every time I ride with Nathi, I feel like my brain is going to explode with so much new information. If I could write in a notebook while riding a horse (well I probably can) I would be taking notes for the entire ride. Nathi is Zulu and grew up on the farm he lives on now with his extended family. One of our first conservations struck up a thoughtful debate when he asked why people in the Western world want to leave home and their family behind – why not live together and share a life with your parents, grandparents, siblings, cousins, nieces, nephews, etc. I struggled to justify my wanderlust feeling but realized there was no right answer and that it depended on what was important to the individual. Nathi has two wives and with them, five kids who range from very young to 14 years old. He had to pay 4 cows to live with his latest wife, but we’ll get to that story later. Here are some pieces of stories from our rides.

The politics of the valley is complicated. There is tension between white farmers and local Zulu villages. Farmers bought plots in the valley, but the land must be shared with the local people. This usually manifests as large fenced farms with a big farmhouse in the center of it, and on the outskirts, small brick houses built close together for local families to live. The families do not necessarily work on the farms, typically they care for their cattle. Each family is limited to the number of houses they can build on the plot, and how many cows they can have. Cows are a form of currency – the more cows you have, the wealthier you are. And when you want to live with your wife, you must pay her family cows. Typically, a wife costs 11 cows, but it is okay to pay in a few cows at a time – though you will probably have to pay interest with an extra cow or two. Herding cows can be tricky. Horse and crop farmers do not want cattle grazing on their land, but most of the land in the valley is in fact fenced and farmed. Conflict arises when cattle are found on farms and when too many houses are built – so there is constant tension in the valley. Every year, fires are set on the farms. Last year, my host lost 20 bales of hay, which left him short of food for his horses, because he started a case against the neighboring family for building too many houses. Word of mouth travels quicker than a radio or telephone, so they say. There are constant acts of revenge between these two conflicting groups. Horses and cows are stolen or killed, fires are set, houses are broken into. Nathi explained there are thieves in the valley who make their money from stealing cows and breaking into houses, both village houses and farmhouses. Cows are commonly stolen and moved up into the mountains to be hid for a few days until they can be moved to another valley to be sold. A stolen cow is called a “hot cow” and will not bring in as much money as a sale for a cow that was not stolen. A hot cow can be sold for 2000 rand while a regular cow, if it’s healthy, can be sold for 7000 rand. Sometimes the police get involved if many cows have been stolen, and fly helicopters into the mountains to search for them. Nathi himself has never stolen cows, but he knows people who do. The trick is to only steal about 10 cows, and move them all night so they are tired and will sleep in the caves of the mountains during the day, when the police are searching for them. Brands will be burnt over old ones to hide where the cattle were taken from – sometimes they’re moved all the way from Pietermaritzberg (about 2 hours drive away) to North of this valley. There are chiefs of the cow thieves at the top of each valley. Sometimes, you have to pay a toll, like a single cow, to move cattle across safely into the next valley.

The idea of spending a life behind bars has always seemed horrifying to me. A whole life, that is yours to live one way or another until you die, spent in a cell for a crime – such a waste. Though I never knew much about prisons, even in the states, I learned quite a bit about the local prisons here in neighboring towns. Nathi spent two days in prison after he was a suspect for a house break in, on this farm. The police never found who stole the items from the house, though Nathi knew who it was. He says it’s always good to know thieves and not to be a spy and cross them, so that when your things or cows are stolen you can ask them if they know anything about who took them. On the first day of prison, when you walk through, you are asked if you want to become a worker. If you do, you are asked which group you’d like to work for – 26, 27, or 28. If you do not join a work group, you are a target for the workers. I couldn’t keep straight exactly how each group differed, but they all involved attacking, beating, and killing workers from the other group, or the prison guards. In order to graduate from your group, you typically had to kill someone in prison – even if you weren’t in prison for murder in the first place. If you didn’t do it though, perhaps you would be the target from a worker to kill. If you graduate, the number of your group is tattooed or branded onto you – like the back of your neck, upper shoulder, or forearm. Assuming you make it out of prison, and you graduated, it was dangerous to be back in the real world if people knew which worker group you belonged to. Maybe a member of 27 killed a person someone knew in the city you now resided in. I learned that there are 59 murders recorded a day in South Africa, though it is suspected that it is much more.

There is a witchdoctor in the valley. I’ve never believed in psychics or fortunetellers, but I can’t help my curiosity about how someone would read me. I asked Nathi his thoughts on this and learned a whole lot about bad mojo. He said he’d never go to a witchdoctor because perhaps they could actually ruin your future, if they were jealous of your success or happiness, or if they just didn’t like you. The witchdoctor could cast bad mojo on you and ruin your life. You could even in fact place bad mojo on someone yourself, with the right plants and resources. Most of the examples he provided for why you would do this involved a cheating partner. If your partner cheats, then the mojo you set for them would find them and make them suffer – like making them sick. I wondered if this sickness was actually an STD or perhaps HIV, since it is so prevalent here. Surely a cheating partner would be a huge risk to your own health, let alone their own.

A dam hangs above the valley and sometimes we ride along side of it before turning off into the hills. I noticed “caution crocodile!” signs and laughed pointing it out to Nathi – surely there were no crocodiles up here. There weren’t he assured; there are monitor lizards that maybe people thought were crocodiles and the signs were to keep people from swimming in the dam, since it was a liability. But myth has it that there is a big snake in the water. One that has taken 7 people from the side of the reservoir and made them disappear.

There is a small man that comes to life every day at 4 PM – the Tikoloshe. There are small statues made of him, there’s even one in the saddle room on the farm. The Tikoloshe likes to play, especially with kids, and is very mischievous. I sort of thought of this character like a Leprechaun. If you are lucky enough to befriend a Tikoloshe for many years, he may give you a magic stone that will give you good luck. This stone could also make you invisible, which could help you take the things you needed like food and cattle. Nathi’s friend knew a Tikoloshe and invited him to meet him, but once they went to the meeting place in the forest, the Tikoloshe changed his mind that he didn’t want to meet Nathi, and his friend never saw him again because he abused his trust.

These are only a few of the stories I’ve been told by Nathi as he sits perched on his saddle, slightly twisted backwards to chat with me. I learn about the wildlife here – the porcupine, fish eagles, bees, bucks that are hunted illegally by gangs with dogs, animals on the game farm next to us like ostrich, hartebeest, waterbuck, zebra and bush pig. I learn about the invasive plants like the black waddle tree and gumtree (Eucalyptus) from Australia, the marijuana (dagga) brought down from Lesotho, and the pecan nuts that drop from the trees lining the farm. I am exposed to the unrest in the valley, and surroundings, and struggle to understand what I should do about it. For now, I am listening and learning and aware.

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