I think that if I were to name a place I could never go back to, I would name two: one physical place, and the place I was at (in myself), which led me to that physical place.
You see, although I was an avid horse rider and love the animals to a fault, I was, at the start of 1995, enrolled at University. However, I had just lost someone very close to me, and with that loss, I found I had lost all will to live, but not gained the courage to end myself. I lay in bed all day, all night, not sleeping, not eating, refusing to talk, finished with caring. My mother contacted Mitch and (I suspect), bullied or bribed her into taking me into her course in July. After buying me a puppy and a horse, this was her last and best effort at bringing me back.
When I heard I was being shipped off to Mitch for six months, it failed to penetrate my layer of oblivious fog. I didn’t care for the course, or myself, the puppy, the horse which was walking into the box, following me up there. I was far beyond the reach of family, friends or even enemies. I was waiting to fade.
But there are some things which work contrary to the spiral of dark in which we sometimes find ourselves, as I was about to find out in that physical place to which I can never go back.
Mitch’s yard doesn’t exist anymore. She died in 1999, and with her went the heart and soul of the place.
I remember my first day with Mitch. It was mid-winter, the day after Teal had won the Rothman’s July Handicap. Mitch was in high spirits because the horse was a rank outsider, and she had backed him to win.
The day was bright as I sweated my way from the car to our quarters, across the courtyard from the Barn, in my layers of clothing. That courtyard I would end up sweeping, and cursing, twice a day for a little under six months.
On the second trip from the car, I turned, guitar in one hand, Docs in the other, to see a dark shape rearing up, dwarfing the man in front of it. We all heard the crack as Kanga’s hoof came down on the groom’s collar bone.
Later that month, we were told why the groom, Nicholas, who also turned out to be the headman of the yard, was the only one qualified to handle the horse. Kanga, as in ‘roo’, had been taught as a foal to jump up and rest his forelegs on peoples’ shoulders as a kind of parlour trick. As he became heavier, he was punished for doing something that had earned him praise before. Naturally he was sent away. He had grown nasty and vicious, taking every opportunity to bite, kick, rear and chop when being handled from the ground. Nicholas never blamed the horse. He and Mitch were the reason Kanga was still alive.
I remember waking at 5:30 in the cold dark morning in June to feed horses, fresh warm moisture puffing from our nostrils. Forty pairs of them. Seven pairs of us. We’d start feeding in the Barn, lining up near the feedbins at the back of our quarters, so that Mitch could dish up each meal into our buckets. Then stopping at the thick, squat black bins for a handful of dry powdered molasses, (so it wouldn’t get stolen, we learned later), and one more of coarse salt.
The water was always skimmed over with ice at five in the morning. Hammarsdale gets cold in winter. Breaking it wasn’t the hardest part. Only the first in line would have to do that. It was putting your hand in again and again to get water to mix into each meal. Hands cracked and bleeding, covered in molasses and salt, it stung worse than the icy water.
We started in the Barn working up to number eighteen. Our quarters were across from the barn, and behind that, in an ‘L’ shape, was the Back; eight stables there. Another four faced onto the paddock, standing alongside the feedbins, back-to-back with one side of the ‘L’-shape. Four stables there. But the most trying was the last; the long stumble up the driveway, (you could feel how cold the sand was through your boots), past the lunge ring, and the expanse of Mitch’s garden, past Mitch’s house; the fence separating the garden from the road was grown over with honeysuckle, sweet-smelling as the sun rose in the summertime, but completely unsympathetic in the cramping dark of winter. Up to the Top stables, past the haybarn, where the last ten stood, waiting to be fed.
I think it was fear (and the clanging alert of the Zimbi), which got us up so early every morning, moving limbs which had sworn the night before to go on strike, if not left alone in bed for a few days.
Mitch’s voice emanated from somewhere near her feet, as if she had dragged it up out of the core of the Earth itself. And it had the reach of a sonic boom.
If you followed your nose, standing in the courtyard, facing the Drummond side, you would find a large paddock to the left, bordering on the Barn, and a smaller paddock to the right, onto which the feedbins and the Side stables faced. If you followed the track another thirty metres, you would arrive at the arena, sometimes red and dusty, less often dark red and slooshy, where we all eventually learned to pull our voices from the Earth, like Mitch did.
If you happened to be sitting in Mitch’s kitchen in the house, which was about a hundred metres in the other direction, up the drive, towards the Top stables, you would be able to recognise the commands Mitch gave to a student if she happened to be teaching in that arena.
And at four o’clock in the afternoon, after the horses had been brought in, we would go about the task of sweeping every trace of dust, hay and manure from the courtyard, the Barn corridor, and the front of the Side stables. There would be a silence as conversation made way and the air itself held still. Then Mitch would finish her afternoon cigarette, stand up, and boom to the sky, “LET’S PHAKELA!”, calling for the afternoon feed, her voice reaching the grooms’ quarters, all the way out in the back field, without showing a flicker of strain.
Her voice infused the yard with its resonance. It woke us up when we were asleep on our feet. It brought almost all of us to tears, at some stage or another, and it struck awe and fear into my soul at that horrible time of day when the bed was warm, the draft blowing through our quarters was icy, and every tendon, ligament and muscle in my body was calling for sick leave.
But I can also remember that there was an exhilaration, a sense of total triumph, when, after an hour of slowly blistering hands on leather, and turning feet inwards so much that knees felt about to pop out of place, that strident tone would lower into a strong, drawn-out “Goood!”.
I haven’t yet experienced the same feeling of accomplishment as I did when I was awarded that one word from Mitch.
And so she could make you, or break you with a single word.
In Mitch’s yard, the horses were treated like deities, and the people were treated the way other people treat horses. The needs of the horse came first. And so we were each assigned two stables. They, and their occupants, were our responsibility for as long as we were on Mitch’s horsemastership course. Every aspect of the yard and its care was carefully meshed into every other aspect. Dipping horses coincided with our day off, which was every other Thursday. Deworming and vaccinations were all taken care of in one go, at regular, diarised intervals. Every single one of forty was watched just as carefully. And so we were to muck out, groom our two, and bring them out, in turn, for inspection, and then let them out into their respective paddocks.
I remember bringing Yehudi out into the fresh wintry courtyard for his temperature to be taken and his feet cleaned out by Mitch or Nicholas. Mitch walked over to us, smacked Yehudi on his fluffy bum, sending up a veritable stable of dust, raised one eyebrow and pointed at the Barn. Take him back and do it properly. It took me an hour and two more rejections, but Yehudi, who had patiently walked up and down the Barn corridor six times, finally got into his paddock.
Where he promptly dropped down and rolled.
I remember the riding lessons. Every weekday, except for Thursday, when half of us were sleeping late, at ten o’clock, we would wait in the red ring for Mitch to invent new ways to make our bodies cry. She would take particular note of my seat, comparing me to a question mark.
It was during one of these lessons that I got myself kicked in the shin by the horse in front.
Feeling faint and seeing the kind of dark spots reserved for when the film breaks in the cinema, I complied with her order to get up to the top and wait for her.
“Make my fucking day!” was the comment she saved for truly shitty events. It also happened to be the one she threw at me as I let my horse stomp back to the courtyard.
It was worthy of six stitches, but the hoof had avoided shattering the bone which was apparently quite a piece of luck. It made working almost impossible, and five minutes into the lesson the next day, I was told to go back up and put the horse away.
I tried sweeping the yard as Mitch sat in her wire chair, cigarette smouldering away. At some point, she told me to stop being a martyr and let someone else do it, or we would be there all night. That hurt worse than the nylon pulling my skin together.
On my day off, I got leather chaps that reached to knee-height, along with some new boots, since I had worn out the soles on my old ones.
It was on the one occasion that Mitch didn’t take the lesson, that the only other dramatic event occurred. One I may find myself drifting back to for a very long time to come.
Yehudi, refusing to jump a small cross, reared up and fell on his rider. His rider, (my friend, Elly), got out from under him. But Yehudi just lay there, making bloody mud in the red arena from his ears and eyes and nose and mouth. I crouched there, stroking his cheek, as he flew away with the wind, leaving a blank eye fixed on me.
The vet said it was a ‘brainstorm’, or a burst blood vessel in his head.
I cried a lot and Mitch called me a drama queen. I called her a heartless bitch, but not loud enough for her to hear.
The next day, another horse moved into my stable number eight in the Barn.
Not even a single horse would dare to challenge Mitch. Kaz was a hopeless case. A grey, fleabitten bag of nerves, who couldn’t be ridden near other horses or people. His habit of lifting himself on his hind legs and throwing his head around in anxiety made him a danger to himself and others. His owner was terrified of him. But I remember emerging from the Barn, after finishing up my stables, and catching one glimpse of Mitch’s private magic with horses.
The spotty grey that jogged with his nose up and hollow back, that could not even be sold at a loss, was doing a Lipizzaner prance, lifting feet high, neck arched, nostrils flaring. Five others stood along the side of the ring, taking in the sight. Not a foot out of place, and Mitch’s authority and confidence flowing into the horse like a blood transfusion.
It was another few minutes before Mitch dismounted and the spell was broken. I went up to the haybarn to bring down some bales, and Kaz was untacked and taken back to his paddock.
The very next Saturday, he was euthanized.
This all took place on high ground, with a view of Drummond on the other side of the rip which the N3 gouges through the hills on its way to Maritzburg. I remember the trees standing taller, the grass growing more lush, and the sugar cane that bordered the place tasting sweeter than any before or after. All lived there at Mitch’s sufferance, even the birds that called in the dawn and dusk. I’m sure that no weed dared to show its face in her garden at any time of the year, and the flowers bloomed in only their best colours.
All this lifted and flew away with Mitch’s spirit into the big blue. The tensely interwoven blanket of clockwork, laced with the smell of hay, manure, horsehair, sawdust, all sweet and earthy from the horses; honeysuckle and coffee and barking dogs; Boxer tobacco rolled in newspaper, tasting like a burning tree heavily laden with Bovril from the grooms; leather oil from the house, and underneath, holding it all together, the voice of Mitch.
She left behind her a barren, bare, lifeless piece of real estate, full of poles and sawdust, and some outbuildings along with the house. Has potential for conference centre and wedding venue.
Mitch used to call me her ‘Stairway to Heaven’. That was because she believed that if she succeeded in making a horsewoman of me, then she had done enough good deeds to be guaranteed a place in Heaven.
I’m not sure if she made me into a horsewoman, but I think I have become something much more: me. The ‘me’ that is living up to my potential. The potential which she saw in me, that frustrated and annoyed her, and which she tried in every way possible to bring out.
I think she earned herself a front-row seat in whatever good show they have lined up in the afterlife. And I know she would be proud of me.
I can’t go back there now. Not to that place where I couldn’t care and wanted death, and not to Mitch’s where I found my place in the cycle of life and death. I don’t believe in visiting gravestones.