Singapore Polo Club stable manager Sukumar Shetty is explaining my duties as a horse groomer. “You see, when they bite...” he says.
“Uh, bite?” I ask.
“Oh, yes!” he says, brightly. “They kick, too. You can die from it.”
I think he is just trying to be reassuring.
I write this down in my notebook: “Kick. Die. Bite.” I wonder if horses enjoy a good nibble before or after kicking a person to death, or if the sequence does not matter to them.
Dr Shetty, 37, who is trained in veterinary medicine, said that before horses decide to make a meal of your face or hands, they give warning signs. A horse with ears pointed forwards is calm. If it has one ear up and one down, it is confused and if both ears are pinned back, run for cover.
Horses need to be groomed, they need to be hand-brushed from nose to tail. At the 124-year-old Singapore Polo Club, where I spend half a day, this is done every day, not just to make them look shiny and gorgeous, but also to prevent skin disease. For that, I have to stand close to the animal. The groomers I meet this morning possess all fingers, noses and ears. I am pleased by this.
Grooming a horse requires tools, he says. Curry combs help remove loose hair and other brushes are used to remove them completely. The mane and tail need special brushes, too.
He brushes down Serena, a mare, which looks calm enough. Her enormous brown eyes follow him and, when he passes me the brush, me. She smells good and brushing her induces a kind of reverie, the same one I get when ironing shirts. Quite soon, I forget about the fact that she may be thinking of me as a two-legged chew-toy.
It feels a little spooky to be so close to such a large, powerful animal such as her, especially one I can control by touch. A squeeze of the leg tells her to raise a hoof so I can dig out the crud with a hoof pick. In the tool guide Dr Shetty prints out for me, there is a tool ominously called a sweat scraper. I am happy to say that I do not have to use it.
Horses bred for racing, polo and equestrian events are the prima ballerinas of the domesticated animal kingdom. They need a huge amount of care to stay happy and healthy.
In the veterinary examination room, for example, a mare is being treated for an abscess in her hoof caused by a sharp stone. Horses fall prey to all sorts of respiratory, orthopaedic and digestive ailments. Coats need trims and hooves need cleaning, sometimes mending with glue, and shoes. Horse heatstroke is not uncommon.
Next, rubber booties on, I clean out the stables. Inside each stall, each animal has a bed of soft wood shavings, scrap from timber yards. This material after a while becomes laden with what I take to calling “horse d’oeuvres”. Just in case I am not aware of what I am about to face, the name for the job is “mucking out” or simply, “mucking”. I find muck-raking surprisingly easy, maybe because I am a journalist.
The person who grooms and sometimes exercises horses is called a syce, a word from India and used mainly in that subcontinent and in former British colonies in Asia. There are about 20 of them at the club, each taking care of about five horses. The club cannot find enough syces, because, let’s face it, horses cannot be toilet trained. But the ones I meet clearly enjoy being around the animals in their care.
It is around 7.30am and several owners have come in to ride. Some go off on the trails around the club and others, mostly women, ride around the sheltered arena, clad in boots, jodhpurs and riding caps.
Most of the 150 horses and ponies belong to club members. Ponies are horses, but smaller, along with a few other traits. Most of the charges are polo ponies, bred to be both quick and calm during the frenzy of the game.
I try my hand at feeding. It is fairly simple: Just pour the feed into its trough. Each horse has its own mix of grain, hay and supplements, depending on its age and health. And yes, they can become overweight, though that is rare given the fuss the club makes over each animal in its care.
Dr Shetty is in a pretty tricky place, as the expert caught between the animals and their owners. The care and feeding of the animals is his responsibility and it is made trickier by how the owners have their own opinions, which sometimes run counter to his.
He says that often he learns a few things from his well-travelled and usually wealthy clients. Still, diplomacy is probably a language one learns to speak well when dealing with owners who have left their precious charges in someone else’s care.
A morning spent at the club has overturned most of what I know about horses. Cowboys ride into town, perhaps a-hootin’ ’n’ hollerin’, tie old Magnolia to a hitching post, amble into a saloon for a shot of rotgut with a “Howdy, ma’am,” and a tip of the hat to a passing crinoline- skirted lady. When out in the Badlands catching outlaws, the posse’s steeds are left free to graze, bedrolls come out, beans are consumed around the campfire.
Have I been misled all this time? There is none of this round-the-clock care going on.
Perhaps the real Doc Holliday had a curry comb tucked into his saddlebag and who knows – maybe Billy The Kid did have a hoof pick packed away, next to his six-shooter.