Lorraine Jackson recounts what she learned about a third-world, former-Soviet country from its people’s relationships with their horses.
I should preface this by saying that I don’t normally go on “horse vacations” in the traditional sense. Rather, horses happen to me while I am traveling, and I have no choice but to become engrossed in horse hair and horse smell and ask the horse person all sorts of horse questions in horse sign language, assuming we don’t both speak English. That’s the beauty of Our People. You could be a Martian and a Mafioso, but if you both like the smell of manure, you’re good.
Three years ago I was in a former Soviet country in Eastern Europe called Moldova. Don’t feel bad if you’ve never heard of it, seeing as it takes about three hours to drive from one end to the other. I was there to visit a friend in the Peace Corps, and to research some of my Jewish ancestry–all of which occurred–but my horse bonus was Bellia.
On my first full day in country, we wearily stumbled to and from the outhouse and rinsed off with wet-wipes (no indoor plumbing) before heading out on a walk to see the village. We noticed right away that the lucky families had a late 1980s government-issued car, but most didn’t. The second-luckiest (or most lucky, depending on your perspective) had horses and carts. In fact, farmers shared one tractor per village, but most preferred a horse. I had been prepared ahead of time for the fact that villagers view their horses as more dependable tractors, and that Moldovans were not affectionate to their animals. It turns out, that was a very silly thing to prepare for.
Look at this picture, and tell me this man doesn’t love his mare:
This man was a complete stranger to me and all of my companions, and he instantly offered to take us for a cart ride up the path a way. It was bumpy, it was slow-going, and it was no easy feat for his little mare, Bellia (which translates roughly to White Beauty), so we kept it short. But the gift that the man imparted was so crystal clear to me–it was the gift of time with a horse in a strange place, from one horse lover to another. In the midst of a country with an eight-hour time difference, a unique language, and of an entirely different mindset, I found myself at home amongst the people who understand the glory that is warm grassy nostril air. And that experience really changed the flavor of the rest of my trip.
As my time in Moldova went on, I was forced to deal with some of the harsh realities of the country: archaic and underfunded education, sobering health problems, corrupted government officials, and some tragic Jewish history. But I kept the old man and his horse in the back of my mind, holding close that these were people who, despite a rough and tormented history, had stayed soft enough to love a horse. This vision reminded me to look for the softness in seemingly hardened people, and I was moved by women who took in orphans, and teachers who had to draw new maps by hand to show children the post-soviet world, and villages building medical clinics. Bellia and the old man taught me that if you truly want to know a country, look at how they love their horses.