August arrives. I take a deep breath and look around me. Leo is one year old. He is already a little person, walking and talking – almost. I did it! The hardest part is surely over? I persuade my mother to come to the Algarve to look after Leo for a couple of days. Paul and I are off to El Rocío – a place I visited a few years ago and have always wanted to go back. To ride through Doñana Parque on horseback.
Imagine. A town where there are more horses than people. A town where there are no tarmac roads or pavements – just sand. Outside every house, restaurant, shop and bar there are hitching posts. Alongside the houses are parked coaches and carts – as well as cars and horse boxes. On the outskirts of the town are hundreds of acres of common land where hundreds of horses are tethered (2,500 is the equine population). The circles in the sand are made not by UFOs but by horses practising their paces. The town is famous for its ‘Romeria’ when about a million pilgrims (many on horseback or in wagons) gather for a religious festival but fortunately that happens in May.
We wheel spin into the town on Paul’s motorbike. The August heat beats down on our protective clothes and helmets in one of the hottest parts of Spain. We find shelter in a small, pleasant rural hotel and wait for the sun to back off a bit before making our way to the visitor centre to wait for Grigorio in the air conditioned hut.
I watch a webcam trained on a couple of cub lynx but they are crashed out under a tree and just occasionally flick a tail or slowly roll over. Grigorio arrives and Paul and I, together with two very smartly dressed young Spanish boys from Seville, get into a 4×4 to go to the ‘stables’. Everywhere horses graze on sand and straw. Plastic bottles and ice-cream wrappers grow like bushes out of the summer wasteland. No shelter or shade. Some horses live in gardens no bigger than that of a semi. I think of the pampered horses in the UK or Germany, with wooden fenced paddocks, fluffy beds of clean straw, hay nets and shiny buckets.
When we arrive at the stables there are no horses ready and no stables as such, only a few ramshackle huts that house old coaches and carts, old tin buckets and brushes. Dry land divided by wire fence.
‘Do you need a hand?’ I ask Grigorio. He is in his twenties with black eyes, black short hair and a blinding white smile. Getting five horses ready would take me half an hour.
‘No problem,’ he says and grabs five bridles and five horses and within five minutes they are all saddled up.
I put my foot into a stirrup that looks more like a shovel and mount ‘India’ and we set off. I am the only one with a riding hat. It is 7pm and torrid. We pass by El Rocío. Horses, riders, carts and carriages jog and jingle past each. Some of them trundle, some race, some reverse, some do fancy spins. On the sand circles riders practice flying changes, piaffs, half-passes, full-passes. My eyes open wider than if I’d seen a UFO. It was as if these riders were practising for the Royal Andalucian School of Equestrian Art. An enormous cart goes by pulled by five horses. Inside an entire family and their neighbours picnic.
‘How old were you when you started riding?’ I ask Grigorio, as he makes his horse go sideways and forwards in a half pass and texts on his iPhone at the same time.
‘One,’ says Grigorio, looking up. ‘I ride before I walk.’
‘One!’ I say. That’s not possible.
‘Before I was one my father carried me in front.’ Grigorio flashes me a white smile. ‘But I didn’t have my own horse until I was four.’ He continues texting.
‘Everyone here can ride a horse before walking.’
Just then three kids pass us bareback on one very beautiful black horse, its neck beautifully arched. They were older than Leo but not much. A cart passes us, also driven by children.
‘And you do these riding tours on your own?’ I ask. It seemed like a lot of work for one person.
‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I study engineering in Seville but it wasn’t for me. This is my passion.’
Later, when we are sitting outside a restaurant draining several cold beers, exhausted from our three hour ride, we watch everyone parade through the town. Young boys accompany their fathers, older boys wearing sombreros Sevillanos – the black round disks, holding their heads high, pretending not to look at the group of girls who pass by on three dainty horses. One of them is side-saddle. This was about more than horses. This was the town’s stage and everyone was acting.
All night horse and coaches tinkle by – either family outings or young couples. We see single horses, pairs and even a troika, as well as the five horse train. At midnight riders and horse and carriages are still passing by.
Now I can’t wait to get home and get Leo on a horse. He can, after all, almost walk.