Learning the equine way

In an effort to use less diesel, not be so lazy, and use the 13 horses that roam the farm, free of cares and responsibilities (though they do mow the lawn), we decided to get ’em dressed and do some farm work horseback-style.  Plus, they offer a great vantage point to search for mushrooms (FYI: I’m researching Namibian fungi).  So although, at 9:30, it was a little late into the morning, Jay and I saddled up and headed out in search for some missing cattle.

On mowing duty

Jay chivalrously gave me his horse, Trooper, so named from a long ago accident and his unexpected recovery.  He’s now 22, but in good shape for an old guy.  Jay then took Tissy, a female born on the farm.  He said though Tissy may be more receptive, she scares easily (which was proven later with a surreptitious warthog), and as the more experienced rider, he had less of a chance of being thrown off.  So I got Trooper, the most stubborn horse I’ve ever met.  Though to be fair, I haven’t met many.

Literally, right out of the gate, Trooper wanted to go the opposite way as Jay and Tissy.  With my attempts to turn him left, and his refusal to do so, we ended up in a jackknife in a slim corner between a fence and a tree.  I eventually won the battle, but he got the last laugh, for as we turned left, my face and I got dragged through the acacia thorns, which in turn, stole my hat and threw it on the ground.  So while Jay and Tissy waited for us up ahead, I quickly slid off and back on the smug Trooper, and later, picking a thorn out of my eyebrow, decided that he should have a waiver each rider must sign before leaving, that they might know what to expect.  I imagined it would read something like this:

1. Ride at your own risk.  Horse is not responsible for injury to person or property.

2. Speed and direction are subject to change without warning.

3. Eating breaks may be determined by horse at any time.

P.S. Horse trips a lot for no apparent reason.

Though Trooper was certainly tricky at times, he was not completely to blame – it became clear that I was simply not a good rider.  As Jay said, the horse needs to know who’s boss.  My light tugs on the reins were lost on Trooper who promptly walked off the road for some grass.  After a few complete circles we made it back onto the road, where I had a split second to ask Jay, as we walked diagonally across his path to the other side of the road, what was wrong with this horse.

“Hold the reins tight”, he said. “The horse needs to know his rider is there.”

“I’m trying to be nice”, I explained.  I already felt bad for making him leave his high life of grass-eating all day to carry my ass all over the farm on a hot day.

“It’s like us carrying a backpack”, Jay said.

Maybe a backpack with a sack of potatoes inside, I thought.

“Plus, the horses know this road.  They know if they turn around, they get to go back home where food and friends are waiting”, he added.

So with a tighter grip on the reins, so to speak, I slowly established a relationship with Trooper, and we managed to walk in a straight line for a while.

Once off the main road and heading into the farm, Trooper seemed more interested in our journey and picked up speed, so much so, that he started trotting without any signal from me, and I did one of those cartoon things when the bottom half of your body goes on ahead without the top half.  Thankfully, the saddle had a little handle to grab on to, otherwise, I would’ve tumbled right off the back.

Jay came by with some more advice.  “He needs to know you’re in control.  That you have a direction, and are paying attention.”

This made it clear that I was not meant to be a horse rider.  I daydream easily and often, and I was looking for mushrooms more than at where we were going.  So as soon as Trooper fell into a decent saunter, not turning suddenly, tripping over his feet, or stopping to fart, sneeze, or crap, the cool breeze and rhythmic saddle squeak sent my mind a-wandering.  And as soon as he realized this, he took the opportunity to lead us off in whichever direction he deemed worthwhile.

Getting Trooper through gates was another task.  If it required turning right, he wanted to continue straight, and if it was straight ahead, he would want to turn around.  With talking and tongue-clicking and rein-tugging, I’d eventually get him through, but usually only with enough clearance for him.  The horse had no concept of space.  I inevitably needed to lift my legs over the fence poles, or duck under trees or dodge bushes, wires, etc.  As long as he fit, that was good enough.  Anyone on his back had to take care of themselves.  This resulted in a lot more thorns in my skin and a new hole in my pants.

Late morning we wandered into a relatively open field, and fell into one of our rare understandings when Trooper walked straight and turned in response to the reins.  I was even allowed to take a couple of pictures from horseback.

Of course as soon as mushrooms were spotted and I tried to get a closer look, Trooper resumed his own mysterious horse mission, and we’d do donuts, fighting for control.

Lunchtime meant a water break and a detour, specifically to bring the horses to a water point.  Trooper seemed to realize this and picked up speed again.  Whenever Trooper liked the direction we were heading for whatever reason, he walked much faster.  Tissy and Jay struggled to keep up and often had to trot, but then quickly fell behind again.  However, it turned out that the horses didn’t want water, and didn’t care for the grass under the shady tree we picked for lunch, so as we ate our bread and cookies, this was my view:

As the day grew warmer, the clouds grew in size and number and sometimes hid the sun.  When coupled with a breeze, these were the only times that I stopped sweating, and somewhere along the way, we managed to bring in some cows.

Moseying toward home in the late afternoon sauna, I realized I had learned a little about the appeal of horse riding.  In general, the draw is beyond me.  Maybe if it was the wild west and they were your companion, like a trusty dog but one you could sit on and that carried your stuff.  But just to ride horses for the sake of riding horses always seemed to me like making them work for my pleasure.  Yet as I got a feel for Trooper’s idiosyncrasies, it was like making a new friend, and getting to know his buttheaded, yet somehow charming, personality.  Nevertheless, I think we were both happy when we got home.  I got to use my legs again who were close to joining forces with my butt in mutiny.  And after being up high for so long, when I plopped onto the ground, I felt short, a rare occasion for me.

As Trooper slurped down his bucket of grains, I wondered how this episode of our sustainable farming would progress.  Regardless, the most important lesson of the day was painfully clear: don’t forget the sunscreen.

In pursuit of the elusive Namibian kangaroo

The sun had long ago set, it was probably nearly 9 pm.  Usually, we try not to drive at night because headlights, even brights, will only do so much when an antelope the size of a refrigerator decides his road-crossing must be done in front of your speeding car But my flight got in late in the afternoon, and it’s three hours to get back to the farm.  Staying in Windhoek wasn’t an option either; Jay and I both prefer the farm to the big city, especially when there are cats waiting for you.

The one good thing about driving at night is, although the wildlife is oblivious to mortality, they are active, and for the most part, it’s a whole other set of creatures than we normally get to see during the day.  There’s the owls and night jars that hang out on the road and the jackals and rabbits that fling themselves into the road.  On rare occasions, a porcupine or honey badger might waddle by.  But this particular night held something in store that I never knew existed.

We had just come to the neighbors’ farm, only another 5 minutes to go, and the headlights captured movement ahead of us on the left.  My eyes focused in on it; a small, reddish-brown furry thing, about the size of a big squirrel, with a long, black-tipped tail.  And then it raised itself onto its lengthy hind legs and hopped away.

“Huh”, I said in my tired, travel-dulled state of mind, “I didn’t know Namibia had kangaroos”.

“Yeah”, answered Jay, “it’s a springhase (said shpring-HA-zeh).  I don’t know what they’re called in English”.

“Oh.  What’s a springhase?”

“It’s a rabbit.  It just jumps on its hind legs.”

And there you go.  I may not have seen an aardwolf, a desert lion, or a lechwe, but I have at least heard of them.  Never, in my 6 years of traveling to, through, or living in this country, had I ever heard of a springhase.  There was a brand new mammal in my world.

The next day I looked it up in my animal books, but found nothing.  It didn’t help having only it’s German name but none of the pictures looked like what I saw.  So I turned to the trusty internet and googled “springhase”.  And there I learned, sensibly, that their English name is spring hare.  But in the nonsensible world of naming animals, they aren’t actually a hare.  They’re a rodent.  But a very special one, as they are the only living genus and species of the family Pedetidae.  Which may be why I’ve never heard of them.

the only living genus and species of the family Pedetidae
the only living genus and species of the family Pedetidae

If you haven’t already yet googled it yourself after buckling to curiosity, here’s a link to a site with some good pictures of the spring hare.  I want you all to know though, that being the authentic blogger that I am, I went out that night, camera in hand, in an attempt to get my own photo of this unusual animal.  Jay and Sniffeldog came too.

As we had never seen one on our farm, we drove back to the neighbors hoping they’d still be there.  Jay hauled out the giant spotlight for more precise lighting and we called the neighbors to let them know that the weird flashing out front was just us trying to get a picture of their jumping rodents.

Each time eyeballs appeared in the distance, Jay zoomed forward and I snapped a photo.  Here’s the winner from that chaotic series:

Which may just be a normal rabbit.  Eventually we reached the end of the field and only thick bush lay ahead, which I had learned from my extensive internet research, was unsuitable spring hare habitat.  So we turned around and headed for home, hoping for another glimpse.

When we saw more eyeballs, I leapt out of the car, determined to get a better picture.  I landed, however, directly in a short, unseen thorn bush and got stuck while Jay sped ahead to keep them in sight.  So while I was bumbling about with the bush, Jay got our object of pursuit directly in the spotlight as they slowly hopped away.  By the time I freed myself and caught up to them, this was the best I could get:

If you look really close you can see the long tail.

So this authentic blogger and abysmal photographer is getting on with life in Namibia and wondering what other bizarre creatures are lurking in those bushes, waiting for fortuitous discovery.