“How many do you want?” our host asked. The sky was overcast and a light drizzle fell upon us. The horses were restless, hoofs slapping through the mud, close to a hundred of them; mares, fouls, stallions gathered into a pen. The herder was riding through them looking far more gallant than he had when we first arrived.
Our SUVs had pulled up next to the cattle shed that served as the stable. Everyone averted their eyes from the man squatting near the fence, a surprised expression on his face as his squinting eyes followed our cars. His robes were spread out around him with a view of the rolling hills before him. Pooping in style.
A woman came rushing out of the stables to welcome our host. She released the stallion she was leading. It tore out across the wide-open plain to join the rest of the herd. The Pooper had also ridden off into the distance and was trotting through the herd of horses. The woman, who appeared to be in her forties, fluttered around our host.
“Everything is fine. Just fine. We are so happy you are here.” Her hair was a tangled mess, her robes gritty and she looked withered. She started rambling on about the year they’d had. Our host must not have visited in a while.
“Winter was hard. Mornings, we had to wake up as early as three. But none of the fouls died, and the summer brings plenty of grass. It is warmer, the time of flowers has begun and things are easier.” She went on to make a request. “Could you ask the manager to allow us three dris (female yaks)? I’m not complaining, but our salaries are meager, and there is plenty of grass to go around. Maybe we could be allowed three or four milking animals? Then my husband and I can have some milk and yogurt. Could you help us ask?”
Machu horses are known to be a special highland breed and the woman and her husband worked for a horse-breeding cooperative. Our host owned thirty of the horses.
In the background, the herdsman had now fully redeemed himself. He was quite the image; galloping across the grassland, lasso whirling above his head, a hundred horses galloping in front of him. We all positioned ourselves strategically, cutting off the grassland as the horses were funneled neatly into the pen.
Inside the pen, I kept my distance from the main group of men and stuck to the sides with my high school friend, our Nepali born, Harvard educated, financial advisor, Tenzin. Our host and patron had offered my husband and I horses and we were there to choose them, but we would take what he offered, that was the polite thing to do.
“How many would you like?”
My husband, Yidam, answered cautiously, “Two will be fine.”
“Two!! Have four or five!”
I squeezed into the side of the pen as a stallion backed into me. It was the black stallion that had been let out earlier. He was neighing and prancing around excitedly. The foals peeped from around their mothers’ legs. There was much choosing and pointing in the middle of the pen. Finally iPhones were pulled out, pictures taken of the selection and the gates of the pen opened. The horses poured out, at first slowly and then in a steady gallop. Their thundering hoofs got softer and their shapes blurred into wavering dots on the endless expanse of green.
“The race horse is for you and I to ride,” our patron said, turning to my husband. “The black two-year-old is for you,” he nodded at me. “You ride very well.” I beamed though I knew I had a long way to go before I was comfortable on a strong, young stallion. “The other two gray geldings can be for your friends and guests to ride.” Nodding to Tenzin, he said, “Too bad we couldn’t get a mare for you.” The group of men roared with laughter. It was all in good humor. They liked him and this was their way of initiating him into their group. If he could take being the brunt of a joke, then he was a true, thick skinned, Tibetan.
Tenzin glanced at me warily. “I trusted you to show me the way,” he said jokingly though with a touch of accusation. My face burned. When we had gone riding the other day, there had been three male horses and one mare. “I don’t want to ride the mare,” I said stubbornly, my feet fixed to the ground.
“I’ll ride it,” Tenzin, in his good-natured way, offered. The poor guy didn’t know what he was offering, but I wasn’t about to explain the situation to him. So I glanced at him, weighed the offer and considered that maybe he really didn’t care. I reasoned with myself that as a new rider he would be safer on the mare.
Yidam glared at me, “Dechen you should ride the mare!”
“I really don’t care,” Tenzin insisted. “I’ll ride whichever one you want as long as no one leads me.”
Tenzin rode off into the landscape, the foal following happily at their heels, unaware that he had just compromised his manhood, at least for the next couple of weeks.
“Tenzin gallops beautifully… On a mare,” the men roared with laughter. No nomad man would ever be caught dead riding a mare. It’s just one of those cultural things.
“No way am I ever riding a mare again,” Tenzin announced to me. “I had no idea I was putting my manhood on the line!”
I shuffled my feet regretfully. It really was my fault. At least he was still smiling.
That night, Yidam and I carefully calculated the expenses surrounding our beautiful gifts. There were saddles and bridles to buy. A horse pen would be needed, a shelter and fodder for winter. Since we were already employing so many nomads, a tender would not be difficult to find. But the first and foremost issue was where to keep them. Ritoma, where we are primarily based, already has an abundance of horses. The price of horses fell the previous year so everyone bought horses and now some families have up to twenty. A haggle over grassland has ensued and bringing four more horses would just be adding fuel to the fire. The most ideal location would be the camp, spread out on the wide grasslands of Sangkok, where we spend most of our weekends. But there, too, negotiations had to ensue with the landlord.
“Even though there’s grass everywhere,” one of my friends remarked, hands spread out across a horizon of rolling hills, an endless ocean of green, “every blade is accounted for and a horse eats a lot!”
But how can anyone refuse a gift of horses? And so, for better or for worse, we are the proud owners of four horses, including a gelding for Tenzin to ride.