Paul and I first came to walk the paths of the Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche, Huelva, in Southern Spain about 16 years ago. If anyone had told me then that I would come to know this landscape as intimately as I do now, let alone that I would do so with my own horse, I’d have said they were completely bonkers. But eleven and a half years ago, in 2003, in another part of the Sierra Morena, the Sierra Norte de Sevilla, I had the unlikely chance to become the owner of a horse – Chaparro. How this came about is another story but buying Chaparro changed my life.
By the autumn of 2004 I knew I had to move Chaparro to another stable, as things weren’t working out where he was. I wasn’t around all the time and needed to rely on folk at the stable to care for him. I did a lot of soul searching and Internet searching too, in an attempt to find a solution. I even considered bringing Chaparro to Scotland, but I soon realised I couldn’t afford livery in Scotland on an artist’s income, and it probably would have proved traumatic for Chaparro.
Although I had only owned Chaparro for a year or so a bond between us existed, a bond, which now, twelve years on, is so strong that Chaparro is completely under my skin, an integral part of me. Losing him would be like losing part of my very being, like losing a limb, or worse. All sorts of ideas went through my head; I was desperate to find somewhere safe for him. I recalled a bus journey that Paul and I made on that walking holiday to Aracena and Cortegana all those years before and remembered the bus going through Galaroza. We had passed a riding stable called Picadero La Suerte. I remembered we had joked about it at the time, the name – La Suerte – which means “Luck” in Spanish – and we wondered if you needed to be lucky to stay on the horses there! As it turned out La Suerte was the name of the land and the farm. I found a website for Picadero La Suerte and wrote down a mobile number and took it with me to Spain that December, when I next went to visit Chaparro.
This was not to be an easy visit. It felt like the two of us against the world. I managed to get temporary accommodation for Chaparro in a field next to the church in the village. The man from the livestock feed store came and delivered two sacks of oats for us and the guys in the neighbouring carpenters’ workshop let me store Chaparro’s tack there. I bought a couple of big buckets for water. It was freezing at night and I was terribly worried about Chaparro as he was used to being stabled – and he’d not been getting all the food he needed while I had been away, so he was a bit skinny. During the days he was in that field I got up at the crack of dawn – I wasn’t sleeping anyway – and was always relieved to find him at the corner of the field, waiting impatiently for me, pawing the ground in anticipation of his morning feed.
I took the scrap of paper with the La Suerte number and phoned from a call box. “Hello, do you do livery for horses? How much does it cost? Do you have a horsebox? Can you come and pick up my horse from here? How soon can you do this? What else do I need to do? Should we come and visit you?” I directed all these questions to Julio, one of the sons of the owner, Iluminado, at La Suerte. Happily the reply to all the fundamental questions was “yes”, and that he would come and pick up Chaparro the day after Boxing Day but that I would need to get some paperwork sorted at my end. A visit to the vet sorted this so that I was able to transport Chaparro between provinces. There had been an outbreak of Lengua Azul (Bluetongue, a disease affecting pigs and other livestock). I then anxiously waited for Paul to come from Scotland to join me. During that time I spent as much time as I could with Chaparro, we rode out together in the freezing cold and I tried to make things as alright as I could for him, to make it normal for it just to be him and me.
Paul arrived from Scotland just before Christmas and I think was quite surprised and impressed that I’d managed to get so much sorted out in such a short time. I was running on adrenalin. Paul had hired a car so we drove over the Sierra Morena to Galaroza and met Julio and his brother Ilumi. We had a look round the stables, which were only a short walk from the village. They were clean, tidy and would make a good new home for my horse. Nowadays the facilities are even better as the family is always making improvements. We confirmed with Julio that he would come to collect Chaparro on the 27th. We had lunch at the Hostal Venecia, and drove back to the Sierra Norte where we spent Christmas Eve with some Dutch friends
Julio arrived punctually on the 27th and we bought him lunch. We then went to box Chaparro. I had no idea if he had ever been in a horsebox. We rode everywhere. I didn’t know whether to expect trouble or not. But it seemed almost as if Chaparro knew that it was time to go and that something better awaited him. Chaparro was finally learning to trust me. Julio didn’t even have to put the ramp down at the back of the van. Chaparro meekly stepped in which surprised me because in those days there wasn’t anything remotely meek or understated about Chaparro. We set off in the car, following closely behind Julio and the horsebox.
It was strange to leave the Sierra Norte; we’d ridden to most of the towns and villages there and into Extremadura, past the Ermita de la Virgen de Ara to Fuente del Arco. On one occasion we rode into Córdoba province, to San Calixto, to the Carmelite convent there. We knew the Sierra Norte well, from the strange mine workings of El Cerro de Hierro to the open Senda that leads to the north, and loved our rides along the Ribera del Huéznar up to San Nicolás del Puerto.
By the time we got to Galaroza it was dark, we backed Chaparro out of the horsebox and I heard Iluminado, whom I hadn’t met yet, remark how skinny he was. I held onto the lead rein and waited for him to stop feeling wobbly from the trip, and Iluminado, without saying anything to me (I think he thought I didn’t speak Spanish), approached me with a two kilo bag of carrots and held it out to me. I felt like weeping. It probably seems silly, but this generous gesture seemed to me like he was offering me and Chaparro the hand of friendship; a friendship which, over the years, would become stronger; between Iluminado, his wife, Virtudes, their family and myself and Paul.
Chaparro and I were directed up to the stable block and he was put in the first loose box on the left, which, to this day, remains his box. During the following days Paul and I made a stab at getting to know some of the local paths. Paul was given Marco to ride. Marco, a hispano-arabe, came to the Picadero as a baby, a “tordo picasso” with brown patches on his head, neck and ears, more reminiscent of the colouring of a Shorthorn cow. On our first ride, young Ilumi showed us the way to a pretty white village, Fuenteheridos. After that we rode on our own to Castaño del Robledo, La Nava, Valdelarco and, on my birthday, the 6th of January, we missed the turning for Navahermosa and ended up riding to Cortelazor. We didn’t see that much of the family on the visit as one of their sons had been involved in a bad motorcycle accident. In spite of that we would come back from rides to either a brief chat with Iluminado or to find that he’d left a couple of bottles of Cruzcampo out for us. We very much appreciated that they trusted us to let Paul ride out with Marco.
I returned to Galaroza the following March. Chaparro had been very well fed and cared for to the point that he seemed like a different horse; he was strong, full of beans, a complete handful, and took advantage of me at every turn, to the point where I wasn’t sure if I was able to cope. But after a subsequent trip in June, I went over again in September and by then we were doing long rides to Aracena and beyond. It wasn’t always easy, as Chaparro could be very full of himself, and over and above his youthful energy I still had a lot to learn about his residual stallion behaviour… but as long as we were out riding and going to new places, we both managed with just the occasional bit of outrageousness.
By this time I had started to get to know the family more, the village too and the surrounding countryside and the paths that criss-cross the Sierra.
Iluminado is an exceptional person. He has strong hands and a booming voice so the horses are in no doubt who is the “lead horse” at La Suerte, and who keeps everyone in line. That said, he has a very gentle caring side. He prides himself on having well nourished, properly shod and well cared for horses. I would describe him as both a no-nonsense and fun loving man, and if you are straight with him, you will have a firm friend for life. He is totally honest and says exactly what he thinks, so what you see is what you get. He’s gregarious and loves to sing and dance to Sevillanas and we’ve enjoyed a good few romerías together, riding, eating and drinking beer.
Iluminado has taught me so much about the Sierra, its history, and its people, the geography and traditions of the area. He has, like his 92 year old mother, Felicita, a marvellous memory and an eye for detail. I don’t think I’ve ever known anyone quite so observant. Our post-ride beer and tapas, either by the roaring wood fire in the bar at the Picadero or sitting outside at dusk on a warm night, with the bats fluttering around and the ravens making their way home, have been a vehicle for our friendship. I admire his astuteness and judgment too, and like to run ideas by him when I am thinking about doing a bit of research for a long ride or thinking about a project for work. I have taken on a lot of Iluminado’s advice regarding Chaparro, and my horse remains the most indulged horse at the stable.
Iluminado’s wife, Virtudes, has become a great friend over the ten years I have been going to Galaroza to ride Chaparro. Virtudes, a devoted mother of four and grandmother to María and Ilumi (III), has incorporated me into her family and makes sure that I am never stuck for anything. Last trip I broke a tooth and then, later, cut the top off my pinky with a knife whilst mushroom hunting, and it was she and Iluminado that made sure I saw a dentist and got an emergency dressing for my wound. Many’s the time someone from the family has come to pick me up in Seville to complete my journey to the Sierra. If I’m alone in Galaroza it’s because I choose to be.
Virtudes is a fair-minded person who has a personal take on everything around her and will pick up on people when she thinks they are being unreasonable or unkind. She is a fantastic cook, able to prepare all of the specialities of the Sierra but not averse to trying out new recipes… I am the happy beneficiary of the wonderful meals she prepares and I especially love Sunday lunchtimes when the usual fare is egg and chips cooked in a great black enamelled frying pan over the holm oak wood fire. This meal is what my friend Sarah Henry would call a 100%er – eggs, onions, potatoes and crispy nuggets of garlic, topped with slices of home cured jamón serrano, all produced on their farm. Once that has all been washed down with a glass or two of Ribera del Duero, a siesta is necessary but dinner that evening isn’t.
Galaroza holds a market in the town square on Wednesdays and it has now become a ritual for Virtudes and I to have breakfast at Bar Serrano (Casa de Miguel) followed by a wee saunter round the market stalls before she heads back to her household duties or up to the picadero, and I prepare to go for my ride with Chaparro.
Iluminado and Virtudes were childhood sweethearts; she was 14 when she started seeing him. They work as a team, are equally hardworking and family orientated. If there is anything I would wish for them it is for them to have a little bit more leisure time as they never seem to stop. If I ever won the lottery one the first things I would do would be to book Virtudes into a spa for a month of pampering!
Of their four sons, two work at the Picadero; Julio and Ilumi. Juan Jo, the eldest, works as a municipal policeman in Galaroza and the youngest, Gonzalo works as a bank manager in the Sierra. Julio and Ilumi complement one another at the stable and while Julio is great with paperwork, searching for funding, running courses and devising marketing ideas, Ilumi is extremely practical, dexterous and can make or fix probably just about anything. They are both experienced riders and have good horse sense. The brothers have brought on many horses over the years and become qualified guides. Julio has learned to shoe his horses and has taken this job over from his father. Like their parents, they have been good to us over the years; helping us arrange horsey accommodation on our long rides to Portugal, Extremadura, over to Zufre and helping us with the logistics of getting from A to B. I in turn take photos for them and translate the odd email that comes in English.
The number of horses at the Picadero varies from between around 25 to 30. Most of the horses belong to the Tristanchos but there are a few, like Chaparro, who are at livery there. Most of the horses there are reliable and suitable for all sorts of riders, from those who have little or no experience to people who want to ride long distances. But the boys and their father have their favourites: the late, great Hechicero, a huge dark horse from Portugal, with a white flash; Marco, of course, who shows off his Paso Español at romerías; Hotelero, Julio’s purebred Andalusian grey, who arrived as a wild 2 year old colt; and Ilumi’s beautiful, big, kind eyed, chestnut gelding, Juguete. And there’s Canastera, the glossy, black Andalusian-Arab mare, a favourite of Iluminado’s, and who is now ridden by Julio’s 6-year-old daughter, María. When Paul is here he comes out on our rides with Nerón (Nero), a big white horse with a big personality to match. Nerón has a loud trumpety neigh with which he proclaims his arrival in new towns. He’s a great character; another friend who gets along very well with Chaparro.
Over the years the family have made many improvements to the picadero: a covered school, new stables, a horse walker, a new sand school and new corrals. The installations, like the Forth Rail Bridge, are constantly being painted and cleaned. The farmhouse they rent out there is the same, always being upgraded, painted and cleaned to within an inch of its life.
Iluminado used to keep black Iberian pigs, until recently, and one year the family allowed me to make a film about the annual pig kill, which is a two day event where the home reared pigs are slaughtered, butchered into cuts of meat and made into chorizo and morcilla. It’s a family event but not for the faint hearted. If you are a meat-eater it’s good to know that the pigs have been reared free ranging amongst olive and cork oak trees, have not been put on a lorry and transported the length of the country, and that their passing is celebrated with food, drink and music.
There are goats in the top field and many’s the time I have come home to wherever I am staying with a bucket of still warm, frothy milk. Turkeys, chickens and cockerels sally forth from the hen house in the mornings to gobble up the corn scattered in the yard… but not too early because there may still be foxes and meloncillos (mongooses) at large. I am often the grateful recipient of fresh, golden-yolked eggs that make lovely, sunny tortillas. There is a pond with a couple of ducks too…
Iluminado has a huerta or kitchen garden at La Suerte. I plan to write about that separately as it deserves special attention but suffice to say that I never go home empty handed and especially enjoy September, when my fridge is filled with tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, beetroot, onions, potatoes, coriander, chard, spinach, lettuce – and Chaparro gets the odd sly carrot from Virtudes.
The stable has become a home from home for me. If I think about the place when I am in Scotland then a lump comes to my throat. Over the past decade I have been in lots of different rented houses around Galaroza but what has been constant has been Chaparro, the Picadero and the family, my family, our family.
It’s a place in which I love being. I love getting up early and being first there, feeling the burst of heat from the horses as I open the big stable door, feeding Chaparro who sticks his pink nose through the bars of the door to his box and nickers at me as I get a bucket of feed for him. I cherish listening to him as he chomps his way through his oats. His nose busily moving along the trough, and me happy knowing that he always has food and a clean bed; grateful to know that he is safe when I’m not around. Iluminado looks after Chaparro as if he was one of his own – perhaps even better because Iluminado doesn’t have to tell me that he knows how much Chaparro means to me. I know he knows. He sees my teary face every time I have to leave.
Often, as Chaparro eats his morning feed, I heat up a coffee and sit outside and just enjoy the morning, watching the ravens, culebreros (short toed eagles – circaetus gallicus), red kites and other birds… Sometimes, having sanctioned it with Iluminado, I go and pick a bag of cherry tomatoes in the huerta – “Cuando hay, hay y cuando no, no hay!”, sometimes I deadhead the roses or just use the time to sort out the saddle bags for the day’s ride.
But the Picadero is also a sociable place, I need never be lonely there; there’s always a beer, a tapa of homemade goats cheese, home preserved olives, salchichón, occasionally a revuelto de setas (scambled eggs with wild mushrooms, foraged for amongst the chestnut trees) and in winter, migas cooked over the wood fire and eaten with grilled sardines, or a warming cocido of chickpeas.
The picadero is the base for our rides, near and far, and the place where I start researching the things that I might use for work, for my drawings, my photos, my films, my writing. I learn new words there – words like “Talabartero” (harness maker); I make contact with people who can teach me about cork, about the dehesa, the flora, the fauna and the livestock – like the rare Manchado de Jabugo pigs. I know that as long as we’re there we will keep on learning.
This place is a refuge for my horse and for me. It’s somewhere he loves to come home to after a good ride out along the serrano paths – and, well, that goes for both of us. Over the last decade there we have shared Christmas Eve and Hogmanay feasts, celebrated the arrival of grandchildren, mourned lost friends and family, shared stories, dried ourselves by the fire, and watched thunderstorms from inside the old, chestnut doors of the bar, relieved that we got the horses in on time, and glad of the slow burning holm oak logs in the hearth and the delicious smells from the kitchen.
The photos on the wall of the bar are of family and friends, some two legged and some four legged, some now absent, a mixture of old family snaps and photos that I’ve taken during my time there, so Paul and I are there too. The Picadero and its people are now so familiar to me that, when I am here in Scotland, I can shut my eyes and remember where everything is, how it smells and how it sounds… I know it like the back of my hand, a magic place, one that I never take for granted.
© Jan Nimmo 24/03/15