The first thing I notice is the hats. This is not Ascot, so there are no ladies in ostrich feathers, but a ragged crowd of men wearing everything from gumboots and jeans to big patterned blankets. We’re gathered along a track curving through stubbly fields, with a hazy backdrop of blue mountains. It’s a big race day at the Morija cultural festival, so you might expect the headgear of choice to be the Basotho hat, the woven cone traditionally favoured by herders (and adapted as lampshades in tourist lodges). But I can see only one man in a 150-strong crowd wearing a Basotho hat, and I think he’s doing it ironically. It certainly doesn’t match his T-shirt and jeans.
Most men are wearing beanies, caps and cowboy hats. There are also a toy policeman’s helmet, decorated with green and orange stones; a hard hat worn by a spectator (no jockeys bother with such frippery); a few balaclavas; a white face mask and a Davy Crockett-style hat with what I’m afraid is a genuine African wild cat tail. “He’s a horse whisperer,” a member of the crowd reveals. Later the man shows his skill, coaxing a black stallion into displays of grace and dexterity that would challenge a Lippizaner.
Even without taking into account wild hats and horse whisperers, the scene is unique. That’s because this is a tripling contest and tripling is a gait peculiar to Lesotho, a special style of “prancing” or “parading” which still involves speed as one of its elements. It’s also been called a “two-time lateral gait”, in which fore and hind legs on the same side work together.
“Tripling is a sport of traditional horsemanship,” says Kefuoe Namane, who organises pony trekking expeditions from Morija. “It’s faster than a trot but stops short of breaking into a gallop. It feels like a car with good shock absorbers – it’s very comfortable for the rider. If you travel long distances, it’s the best gait.”
I’m sitting on the grass, drinking home-made ginger beer, 50c a cup, waiting for the crowd to elect judges. Around us, riders are tearing up and down, men are shouting songs, waving sticks and blowing whistles; the blasts code for “This is the best horse here, it’s going to win!”
The prize money is not huge – the winner will receive R1500 – and there is no gambling, although people may place friendly bets among themselves. The riders are trainers or owners, not professional jockeys. Some are herdsmen, who would ordinarily mount their stallions to travel to cattle posts in the mountains. Competitors have come from all over, the wealthier hiring horse boxes, others loading stallions into bakkies, like one man who brought two down from Maseru in the back of his Isuzu. “For the love of the game, people do it,” Namane says.
This morning, we watched the short tripling, which is like a dressage competition. The winner stood out, one judge tells us, because his horse’s steps were “well organised”. From Ha Matala in Maseru, Maphale Seboka has been a judge for the past two years and the tall old man cuts an impressive figure in a blue-patterned kobo on the grandstand. His son is a trainer who has a horse running later – a black stallion named Hearse, “like the car for dead people”, the judge says, laughing. Hearse is not the most unusual name here today, not by a furlong. Entries for the afternoon’s long tripling race include Braaipack, Lunch, Television, Koliamalla (Tragedy) and Mafenetha (Poison). I like Diatura (Expensive).
The starting line is hidden in a dip – horses must race over a kilometre track, lined with white stones, while maintaining the tripling gait. If horses slip up, judges, posted at the start, middle and finish, will penalise them, so winning demands speed and style.
There are two heats, with six horses in each, then the semis and finals. The crowd grows over the hours and when the five finalists ride off to the starting line, there’s a deep roar from the men and ululating from the women – who are massively outnumbered but not out voiced. In the distance, someone lowers a whip, and they’re off. It’s a surreal scene: beautiful blue mountains, rough dirt track; prime horseflesh, jockeys in gumboots. Heads turn as a chestnut tosses its mane like something out of a shampoo commercial, while a grey cultivates a circus look with a harness seemingly strung from yellow ribbons. Dust billows as hooves thunder past and the value of the gas mask one rider wears becomes apparent.
It’s a close finish but last year’s champion, Mantahane Mpelo, from the Berea district, wins again. He’s riding the chestnut, an eight-year-old named Suoaofale (Sesotho for “scratching on cowskin”). Mpelo is “very happy!” with his win and plans to spend the R1500 on food and medicine for his horse.
To top off his triumph, Mpelo has a very good hat: a cowboy number in faux tiger fur. And at his breast is a sheriff’s badge.
“Where did you get it?” I ask.
“Just a shop.” He smiles.
Ascot suddenly seems a little staid.
(edited version of the article published in the SUNDAY INDEPENDENT)
Article by Genevieve Swart