Rolling With the Punches

Don Fuentes allowed the five of us plus our six horses to camp in his back field.

 Rolling With the Punches 

“Canela has been badly bitten,” Beto tells me. I’m sitting enjoying my first maté on the first day of our second year on the horses. We are back in Argentina, back in the same area as we rode in last year since we have Alex’s daughter and son-in-law along with us and we thought they would enjoy meeting some of the characters we spent time with last year. The Spanish word for “to bite,” however, sounds a lot like “to die,” and at first I thought Beto was telling me that Canela, his lovely strawberry roan mare, was dead. She had been tethered overnight in the field behind Don Fuentes’ house where we had also set up our tents. When Beto went to find her, he discovered the problem. 
It wasn’t an auspicious start to our month-long trip given that Beto had already lost one of our horses. You might remember Beto, our very lovely paralyzed-down-one-side, blind-in-the-other-eye guide who drove me batty last year. I’m not sure how I was talked into hiring him again, but here we were. To Beto’s credit, he had done a great job of looking after the horses over the winter. When we drove out to see them about ten days ago, they were fat and sassy well, the two of our horses that were there were fat and sassy. According to Beto, our ever-faithful, though mulish packhorse el Moro and Mosquito, the big flea-bitten grey gelding who Alex had ridden the previous year, had jumped the fence a few days earlier. Beto assured us that the duo had made the two-to-three-hour trip back to Manuel Mol’s from where Moro came. Though you would never guess it given Moro was more Volvo sedan than Jaguar convertible in appearance, he was a notorious escape artist. Beto told us, No problem, dont worry.
I should have known better.
A few days later when we showed up at Manuel’s the man I described last year as a cross between Ben Cartwright and Florence Nightingale given how smoothly he moved between caring for his bedridden wife, baking excellent fry bread, tending his sheep, playing his guitar while singing milongas soulful made-up songs that often, as in Manuels case, describe the day’s events and mending Alex’s damaged knee, we learned that while Moro had indeed gone “home,” Mosquito had not accompanied him. In other words, he was lost a condition that a friend gracelessly advised us could mean that he had been killed and eaten. We hoped not. While Beto and Manuel assured us Mosquito would eventually turn up, we were in need of a horse to rent for the week that Daniel, Alex’s son-in-law, would be riding with us. When we didn’t have any luck with that plan, we made arrangements to have our gear transported by truck to our next spot, hopeful that we could continue on in this way for Daniel’s leg of the trip. We would ride two of our horses and three of Beto’s and have only one packhorse.
Despite this complication, I was enjoying the sun and the fresh air and my maté in an open field behind Don Fuentes’ small farm. So when Beto told me about Canela, I hoped the injury wasn’t serious — how bad could a bite be anyway? But it did occur to me that we were already short a horse. “Can we ride her?” I asked. He assured me we could and then scurried off.
Curious, I walked up to Don Fuentes’s barn where Beto had tied up Canela. On the front of her left front leg above the knee, her skin had been peeled back from a patch of flesh the size of a deck of cards, maybe larger. Thankfully, there was no gash, no torn muscle, but a flap of skin hung from the bright red wound. Blood dripped from where it was collecting in the pocket behind where the skin dangled lifelessly. It had obviously been bleeding for some time because now-crusted black rivulets extended the length of her leg to her hoof. Her lower lip was red from where she’d been worrying the damage. Though superficial, it was big and nasty.
Soon Beto reappeared carrying a large, bass-clef-shaped needle and some thick black thread. “You are going to sew it up yourself?” I asked doubtfully. He assured me he knew what he was doing, as he threaded the needle, something not easily done when you have partial use of one arm and only one eye. “Are you sure?” I asked again as he untied Canela and handed me the lead rope. Meanwhile, he grabbed the piece of hanging skin and pulled it up to cover the wound. “How about we clean it first?” I suggested, my Pony Club training (and basic first aid) kicking in. “No, we will spray it afterwards,” he insisted. It seemed like a really bad idea to me, but it was his horse and he’s a very stubborn man. “Well, okay,” I said, “but at least clean your hands and the needle.” I had some antibacterial lotion in my pocket and he used that to clean up as best he could.
With me holding Canela, Beto did his best to jam the needle through the upper edge of the flap of skin. Not surprisingly, Canela pulled back before he could insert the needle properly. The needle ripped a bit of her hide. He tried a couple more times with the same result. Despite his best efforts and Canela’s stoic nature, there was no way she was going stand still. Why would she? Beto then grabbed the long rope that was attached to her halter, looped it around her back legs and then around her neck using a system common to Argentinian gauchos. If she tried to step back with her hind legs she would only pull against the rope that was looped around her neck. In this way, she would be easier to keep still.
As it turned out, I had to haul on the rope around her back legs while holding onto her lead rope and encouraging her to be brave. Meanwhile, Beto methodically stitched up the flapping skin, something that would have been tricky for anyone, and quite astounding given his disabilities. Unfortunately, I let my amazement at his handiwork override my logic. I knew it was a really bad idea to close a wound that had not been thoroughly and meticulously disinfected. Sure, after being stitched up it looked much better, in fact you wouldn’t have noticed it was there unless someone pointed it out to you, and Canela did return to grazing the short grass around us as soon as Beto was done, and it was only superficial, but it was huge and now bacteria was trapped inside a nice warm environment perfect for it to grow and turn into a nasty infection.
Again, I let my faith in Beto get the better of me. He led Canela around. She was perfectly sound; the wound was virtually invisible and she seemed quite unperturbed by the whole event. “We can ride her?” I asked hesitantly. “No problem,” said Beto as if I were some nitwit. We drenched the wound in disinfectant spray, then I asked Beto what he thought had caused the wound. He wasn’t certain, but he told me he’d seen an enormous billy goat nearby the evening before. Then he pointed to the wound and showed me what looked like a pair of tooth-sized shallow marks that were about the width of a goat’s mouth apart. He said that maybe the ram had bitten Canela who had been tied up for the night. It didn’t seem very plausible, but upon reflection, there didn’t seem to be a better or more obvious explanation. Poor old Canela, bitten by a goat!
A bit shaken, we managed to arrange for our gear to be driven up to our friend Julio’s Lago Lezana Lodge, where we planned to stay overnight. We conferred about whether Canela was okay and then, with Beto’s encouragement, decided that keeping her moving was likely the best way to prevent swelling and, hopefully, keep any infection at bay. We tacked up the horses and rode on. For the first two hours, Canela seemed fine, but for the last hour on the downhill leg of the trip, she began to favour her injured leg. By the time we arrived at Julio’s, she really was sore. But there was no heat in the wound that would have indicated infection had set in, and there was no swelling. We reapplied the disinfectant spray and decided that it was best to call the vet just in case. He agreed to come the next day, and we hoped that she would be okay until then.

The view of Lago Lezana from the lovely Lago Lezana Lodge.

 It was a lovely evening with our good friend Julio. The stories about his time spent as an Argentinian politician before the corruption became too much for him entertained us, Alex’s daughter Laura and her husband Daniel and even Julio’s 80-plus-year-old, long-suffering mother who was visiting from Buenos Aires. Julio, with our encouragement, told Laura and Daniel about how, after he left government, he took a job with the United Nations in Rwanda and ended up in jail in Kigali, not once, but twice before deciding to leave the revolution-torn nation. Wine flowed, the pasta tasted as it only can after a long day spent in the fresh air, and we went to sleep in Julio’s comfortable beds hopeful that all would be well in the morning.

Unfortunately, when I ran down to check on Canela the next day, her leg was swollen from the top to below her knee. It was warm and sore, and she dragged it along when I encouraged her to walk. It wasn’t terribly infected, but it was on its way to becoming a real mess. I hoped the vet would come soon. Meanwhile, we changed our plans and Julio graciously invited us to stay another night. Making the best of the delay, we made ourselves useful by building a brick walkway through Julio’s vegetable garden and weeding where it was needed. We looked longlingly out over Lago Lezana, the 11-kilometre-long, crystal clear blue and normally warm lake upon which Julios lodge, Lago Lezana Lodge ( sits. But it had been unusually cool and swimming was not in the cards.