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  • James

Life Outside Society

Updated: Jun 26, 2019

A small horse and its cart hurtle along a metalled road towards Cucu Deal, an imagined farming village in southern Transylvania. It is dusk and drizzling lightly. The driver is standing up in the cart, yelling and whipping the animal to go faster.

The head of both man and horse are flung high, their eyes glazed and their mouths wide open. Both are desperate: the man, to forget how wretched he is, in drink and the thrill of violence; the horse, to escape the pain being inflicted on its mouth by the crude steel bit attached to reins onto which the man is hanging to steady himself.


The horse has two ill-fitting high studded shoes at the front, too small for its overgrown, deeply ridged hooves, evidence of laminitis, or equine gout. The creature’s hind hooves are unshod and its hind quarters uncleaned, caked in mud and excrement, a sure sign that the horse kicks, not because it is vicious but because its hooves and spine hurt it horribly.


The driver is a Vătraș, the label given to settled gypsies who, until their emancipation in the middle of the 19th century, were household slaves. Before the Communists took over, Vătrași were used by the Saxon farmers, who owned the village and its land, in keeping the high meadows and vineyards clear of rampant acacia and goldenrod. The Communists put them in charge of the commune’s cart horses, kept in state farms outside the village.


The ignorance, bad habits and poverty of people ensure that the life of a working horse in Transylvania is too often ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’. This was what life outside society would be like according to the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes.


'Life outside society' best describes the condition of the poorest here. They are victims and they take it out on their horses.

A horse is a herd animal but when a horse is a poor man’s tractor, one must do. It lives with and is fed as if it was a cow. When not working, at which time they may graze in harness while the cart behind them is loaded up with grass, maize, firewood or hay, a horse spends the greater part of its life chained up in dark, damp, stuffy standing stalls alongside two or three cows. Twice a day, it is given freshly cut or dry alfalfa, a protein rich grass for producing milk. This stationary, unventilated life and leguminous diet is tolerable for a ruminant with two stomachs but it is ruinous for the health of a foraging horse, which in its natural habitat, likes to nibble the rougher, poorer grasses, moving more or less non-stop in a herd, taking it in turns to sleep.


It is not uncommon for horses here to be given hard corn straight off the cob, like the pigs they share the courtyard with. Hard corn is starchy, indigestible, bloats the stomach and leads to colic, or twisted gut. Colic kills. In the past, the Saxons disposed of their larger fallen animals in covered pits outside the village. These days, it is more usual to feed them to the giant sheepdogs that protect the sheep from brown bears.


Two weeks ago, a fine black stallion died of colic because its owner had been feeding it a racehorse diet of two kilograms of corn a day. The beautiful body was dragged out to a field near the sheepfold and left for the dogs to feed off. These same dogs had killed two small bear cubs a few days earlier. The mother had come down on a dawn raid and lost her new family to the dogs.

There is a busy trade in ‘used’ horses in rural Transylvania. Economic need forces men here to do year-long stints working abroad. The family cart horse is sold and another acquired when the man returns to his village. These horse fairs move from place to place according to a calendar that has been in existence for well over a hundred years. Such gatherings are raw, noisy, colourful affairs, even pleasing if one overlooks the miserable condition of many of the horses. Anti-inflammatory drugs and herbal teas will hide some of the soreness and lack of condition on market day. Here there is always a buyer less fortunate and more desperate than the seller, and so the horse descends to a lower circle of suffering.


Some of these traded horses are 'black', invisible to the state veterinary authorities. They have avoided the mandatory annual blood test for Equine Infectious Anaemia virus, a disease endemic in rural Romania. The incidence of the disease has been dramatically reduced in the last eight years but it is impossible to eradicate it if there remain large numbers of untested horses moving around the country.


Large plastic crates full of badly welded curb bits and high studded shoes in two sizes, large and small, tell it all. Curb bits are not intended for driving. To pull with the slightest force on such a device involves 15cm of sharp metal hitting the roof of the mouth. The blow is greatly amplified by the weight of the man jabbing and yanking at the end of the rein.

The widespread use of such bits here is based upon the mistaken belief that they give the driver more control over the horse, as if control was achieved by inflicting pain. In the short term perhaps this is true but over time the horse numbs to such a primitive instrument, resenting and resisting until it becomes dangerous. Rearing is the result.


The high studded shoes are essential for work in the fields and for pulling heavy loads up and down the myriad muddy tracks that connect the settlements. For as long as the driver keeps to these paths, the hooves and legbones of his horse do not suffer. But there are more and more metalled roads these days. Poorer neighbours go out in the evening with their unlit carts to pilfer firewood, returning after dark along roads used by cars, sometimes with deadly results.


There is no blacksmith in our imaginary Cucu Deal, so local horses are ridden bareback to the nearest smithy, some 10 miles away, and then ridden home in their new, ill-fitting shoes. As with cows, a horse that needs to be shod is tied up between two wooden or metal rails with one leg hobbled. This village version of a cattle crush is the only way to shoe an already lame horse in great pain without getting your face smashed in.


This is grim reality for a horse enslaved by a poor, ignorant man. And yet the abundance of horse drawn carts, all with rubber tyres, can be pleasing.


On holy days, one may marvel at the sight of Darius, with his friendly, round brown face, thick black hair and billowing white shirt, driving his ample family into town in his plank cart, his horse decorated with bright red tassels to ward off the evil eye, the whole ensemble radiating a ‘raggle-taggle gypsy-o’ appeal.

On the long summer evenings, one may observe carts returning to the village from the outer lying fields laden with grass, with the women and lads who have scythed it all by hand perched high on top. One might even spot the occasional horse drawn cart without a driver heading down from the forest ridges along well-worn tracks, the exhausted human flat out and sound asleep in the cart, sure in the knowledge that his horse will get them both home to their supper.


There are magnificent and well-cared for working horses hereabouts and to see them working in harmony with their drivers fills the heart with gladness. But the dismal truth is that too many village horses, like their wretched owners, must endure a life that is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short. The condition of the horse merely reflects the condition of the human that uses it.

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