Having just returned from an extended weekend in the Boere stronghold of South Africa, aka the Free State, I thought it would be apt to write about the world of ‘Skouperde’. Some of you might raise an eyebrow (or two) wondering what link Boere and American Saddlebred horses could possibly have? One of the breeds is proud, refined and graceful in their movements, whilst the other is rough-edged and prefers the 3-2-1 approach to life in which khaki is king. No prizes for correct guesses! The ‘3-2-1 approach’ for those of you who are unfamiliar with this term is as follows: 3 litre Ford bakkie, 2 litre Coke and 1 litre brandewyn (brandy).
So what links these two polar-opposites? Absolutely nothing; apart from the fact that the horse competitions are usually held in hip-and-happening, small-town Boer communities throughout the land. One such place being Bultfontein from whence we’ve just returned. Horse shows also provide a slight distraction from an average Boer’s day spent harvesting millies, ploughing fields, harvesting sunflowers, ploughing more fields….you get the idea. It also integrates a number of elemental Boer pastimes, e.g. braaing, drinking and salivating over farm machinery.
For the Love of the Game
‘For the love of the game’ usually implies that someone will do something for little or no financial reward. Those involved with Saddlebred horse showing can almost certainly be knighted with this expression. A ‘decent’ horse, i.e. one with all four legs, tail and no hint of honkey breeding, will cost you in the order of 80,000 Rand. Some of the ‘better’ or ‘very good’ horses (although the boundaries of excellence are slightly blurred) knock on the doors of absurdity, costing somewhere in the realms of a newish 4×4.
The prize money on the other hand hovers around the couple-of-hundred Rand mark – bank a couple of good placed wins and you’ll be laughing all the way to your nearest Ocean Basket! (other reasonably-priced dinner establishment also available). In the larger events, take for example the Bloemfontein Skou, prize money can extend to approximately 1000 Rand for a win and several hundred Rand for a good placing, although we’re now talking megabucks!
A bit of background to the Saddlebred (Skouperde, Saddle Horse) breed: These horses are descendents of the mighty medieval war horses…..99.9% of them make Godzilla look tiny. An arena full of Saddle Horses with their flashy, high-stepping, exaggerated foot action will register on the earthquake Richter scale. When these horse switch into top gear (the rack), it is advisable to stand well clear as the combined hoof vibration will topple unsecured ringside gazebos, spill any overfilled (however unlikely) brandewyn en coke doppies and send clods of mud the size of meteors heading in your general direction. Wikipedia in contrast paints a very underwhelming picture of the breed, and arrogantly informs me that the American Saddlebred was developed in Kentucky by plantation owners and that it is well known as the ‘peacock of the horse show world’. Yawn…..Boring! If I was a Saddlebred, I’d much prefer the ‘War Horse’ story.
The horses themselves are kept in the horsey-equivalent of a 5 star hotel – soft bedding underfoot, temperature controlled stables, where the food trough is positioned at head height so as to avoid neck strain and filled with the best in horsey nouvelle-cuisine. The stables also feature an automated water fountain and pictures on the wall of past horsey victories. There is a hostess call button should the horse require a body blanket + balaclava (for the cold winter months), or his/her private acupuncture therapist. For the horses with even more considerate owners, a ‘Happy Horse’ play ball or apple-lick treat might even be installed to help while away the hours spent in their stables. Hoof-friendly controllers for the Wii haven’t yet been invented so that the horses can partake in inter-stable gaming, however they’ve all signed the petition which was sent to Nintendo.
Daily workout sessions consist of jogging around an indoor arena in weighted manacles (to assist with high-stepping technique), whilst all manner of circus paraphernalia is flung, blown or whipped across the horse’s path (firecrackers, vuvuzelas and baboon/sheep skins respectively) to emulate the whistles, cheering and general noise of the live monkey spectators at show events.
Swimming in the The Trainer Gene Pool
Horse trainers in South Africa are a dying breed, due mainly to low genetic diversity, i.e. a weak gene pool from generations of inbreeding. Everyone is related in this niche group of humanity, with many trainers and their kinfolk exhibiting the 6-digit and webbed toe genetic anomalies. The situation is made worse by several of the alpha individual’s abuse of anabolic steroids, leading to male appendage and grey matter shrinkage.
Following their job graduation ceremony, trainers are issued with a free lifetime membership to the South African Saddle Horse Swingers Society (SASHSS). Membership is highly exclusive and you require a heritage line to match. For example, Trainer X is married to her daughter’s son (her nephew), effectively making the husband her daughter’s father-in-law….kapeesh?
Every trainer will have a dedicated skeleton room in their house (a single closet being too small); at least one divorce under their belts and a spattering of children (discounting those had with postman or ladies of the night). Life earnings and any spare cash will be spent on their horse tail-set collections, i.e. the fake hair attached to a horse’s natural tail to make it appear more voluptuous. These private collections are the envy of all haut-couture Paris and Italian wig-shops, with many tail-snatching crimes having been prevented by the local SAPD intelligence officers.
The Saddle Horse was bred to be ‘under saddle’ and for ‘fine harness’ use. In everyday lingo: to be ridden with a saddle and pull fancy carts. There is an entire plethora of classes at a show; from kiddies who ‘ride’ whilst being velcro’ed to their saddle classes, spotty adolescent classes and adult classes, which include 3 or 5 gaited horses of different ages (young, adult and old farts) either ridden under saddle or pulling a cart with a driver.
The ‘gaits’ effectively refer to the number of gears which a horse has, i.e. a 5 gaited horse will do a walk, trot, canter, slow gait and the rack, with the latter being the show-stopper in its stepping arsenal. 3 gaited horses are slightly lazier variants and can only manage a walk, trot and canter. Reverse gear is not usually an option in either gait category.
Shows can be incredibly entertaining to watch and high in spectator participation, especially during the fine-harness cart crashes or when a rider is unsaddled, when crowds will often storm the field to get a better look. The mobile disco music selection is an acquired taste, with the Afrikaans Top 40 from the 1920s taking pride of place in many classes.
A little-known fact is that horses will often communicate with a series of neighs, whinnies and snorts before an event class in order to decide who will carry out Operation Lose-a-Shoe (automatic disqualification), or feign a bout of skittishness in an effort to unseat their riders.
Riders are usually very well-dressed, sporting tailored 3-piece suits, bowler hats and shiny shoes. The Geisha-like make-up, slicked-back hair secured in a ribbon-adorned hair buns (complete with hairnet), is also not limited to the fairer sex. Males are often partial to a bit of eyeliner and/or lipstick and the horses themselves will have their teeth whitened and faces baby-oiled to further impress their fans.
Once you’ve attended a few of these shows, you quickly realise that the same old characters turn up time and again. Some of my favourite riders include:
Die Walvis – dwarfed by die Walvis’ ‘fuller figure’ his horse struggles with all manner of high-stepping actions and by the end of the class has generated enough sweat to meet a Sub-Saharan country’s annual water demands.
Bucky– if Disney’s Goofy could ride, this would be the closest which one could come to painting a picture of Buckteeth on her skouperd.
Augustus Gloop – famous for his role as the chubby German boy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Augustus Gloop can be seen spending his early retirement and movie royalties atop his beloved skouperd. He religiously wears a dark brown suite, owing to the fact that it hides any stains resulting from his chocolate addiction.
Moped Harry – when not atop his array of skouperde, Harry can be found trailblazing around the showgrounds on his bright yellow pocket rocket (biltong on wheels). He has several convictions for driving whilst under the influence and terrorising young children.
Silver Fox – legendary on the horsey circuit, Silver Fox likes to think of himself as a bit of a lady’s man and has achieved major success in the wooing of grannies at his local Spar hypermarket.
- Lovie– a personal friend of mine, ‘Lovie’ spends much of his arena time winning the fine harness classes, whilst his wife screams his name from the sidelines… “Mooi Lovie!”