I needed no convincing – I’d been dreaming of my IHP experience for so long I was afraid it would never happen. But for anyone who is a bit undecided I want to put into words what a fortnight as a volunteer at Italian Horse Protection really means.
You’ll probably arrive on a Saturday, in a car stuffed with bags, or get dropped off from the coach at the rickety bus stop at Frazione Mura-Montaione.
It will be sunny, and you won’t be able to stop grinning. The green hills, the horses in the distance, the gate with the IHP logo there in front of you.
You have finally got here, and the adventure you’ve been dreaming of down to the smallest detail for months, is about to begin.
Sonny will take you to the volunteers’ apartment, hand you the keys, and explain the house rules.
You’ll hear about one word in ten, you’ll be too busy imagining the idyllic time that lies ahead.
“…there’s no signal inside the house…”
Can’t wait to get started!
“…there’s no tv….”
I’ll spend all my time with the horses!
“…if the gas runs out you need to….”
How lovely those exposed beams are!
You’ll be so excited you won’t be able to sleep and will leap up like a cricket at the first squeal of the alarm at 06.00. You’ll pull on your tight jeans, your elegant Sunday walking boots, and at 7 on the dot you’ll be there, in front of the gate.
It’s cold in the morning, and even though the sun is up, you are wearing a fleece jumper.
Sonny wastes no time on ceremony.
Here’s the Pegus feed, the sugar beet, the bran…over there is the list of quantities…here is the flaked cereal, buckets over there… In the space of 10 minutes, you’ll be flattened by instructions on preparation of feeds, rules for feeding, and a dozen names of horses.
You will remember half, probably with the wrong pronunciation.
You need to be accurate and fast, because the horses are hungry, and if they are kept waiting too long, they get restless.
By 7.30 you have to have loaded food and hay onto the Land Rover. (Word of advice don’t call it a Jeep, or worse a “van”. It’s a Land Rover.)
Memorise the position where each horse eats, where the headcollars and ropes are hung up, and watch you don’t leave the buckets of feed where Pedro can get at them. When he wants, he is as silent as the grave.
Once the horses have eaten, wash the buckets (all 19 of them), refill haynets, assist with the hay steamer, muck out the boxes and put fresh straw down.
The shift ends at 11. By now, at least two horses will have drooled and snorted Pegus feed onto your hair and jumper, your jeans will be brown with dust, you will have got your fingers shut in a box door, tripped over some fencing, and sneezed loudly three times due to the dust in the straw.
Oh, make sure you get your tetanus jab before you arrive.
In between shifts, you will sleep. At 17.30 you start again so you need to recharge your batteries.
The alarm bell on the second day will be a bit less exciting. For now, you will have learned how to tie and untie the famous ‘Sonny’s knot’, fill half scoops and half measures of corn oil. More confident about the work to be done, you will have a go at stroking a horse while it is eating, and find it flattens back its ears to let you know it prefers to eat breakfast without your help (but don’t worry, you’ll find out on the third day that Valentino doesn’t like company while his head is down, and that Julia is a better bet for a stroke).
But all this will give rise to a few doubts: maybe I’m not cut out to be with horses? Yet the nice horses in the riding school I went to when I was 14 were so well behaved...but these guys here obviously do not like me...
The third day it will rain. Had to happen sooner or later.
Take a good anorak with you, one of those that don’t let even one drop through, because if your fleece gets wet it will not dry out again til the sun returns. You also need good wellies, with tractor tyre soles, otherwise you’ll find yourselves skating along on 10cm of liquid mud. And that won’t be easy, weighed down by wet clothing.
You’ll be in bed for 21.30 that day, after chucking your jeans in the residual wastebin and thrown the wastebin out of the window because you don’t have the strength to go downstairs and back.
This might be the moment when you start to think that you have taken on too much, that you miss the internet, that the pong of wet horse hair will never leave your clothes….
Hang on in there, volunteering means challenging yourself, it is an adventure not a tourist holiday. And anyway, on the fifth day the sun will come out again and you will get your socks dry.
You’ll get to the Centre five minutes early and break into a smile when you hear Pedro’s bray of welcome. You’ll have learned how to tie up Sissi and Romina’s buckets, how to give Stella her food without spilling it, and how to load the hay racks on the trailer without dislocating your shoulders.
You may need a few more days still to sort out the order in which to turn out the horses after feeding, but you will have learned the precise moment to put Valentino’s headcollar on, and how to lead Giulia and Starlight together.
You’ll get faster and surer, and Sonny will find the time to show you how to get the knots out of a mane, how to use a hoofpick, how to adjust the timer on the hay steamer, and the exact amount of water for the Pegus feed.
After a week, the soles of your poor boots will give in to the wear of long marches on the hill: no problem, you’ll find a shop that sells proper work boots this time.
You’ll find yourself less tired, and even if your legs are full of bruises, you’ll be keen to have a look around the nearby towns. I do recommend Certaldo and San Gimignano - not to be missed.
Sonny might even give you a set of keys to the gate, just to be sure that if he is late, the horses will get their breakfast and they will be fine.
You’ll feel useful, you’ll find yourself talking about horses, to the horses, and only about horses with anyone you meet. You will shower Sonny with questions about herd dynamics, on the different ways a donkey communicates, and how a blind horse perceives the world.
By the time you realise you have only three days left, your hair will have taken on the consistency of straw, but each evening, after the end of your shift, you will go up to the top of the hill to watch the sunset behind the fields, while Panda quietly grazes and Olimpique nuzzles you, looking for that last bit of carrot in the depths of a pocket.
You will feel good, and you will feel alive.
The last day you will no longer recognise yourself in the mirror, and when you shut your suitcase, you will ask yourself if this is what you really want. If maybe the place you are leaving can give you more than the one you are returning to.
Even if the place is exhausting, full of dust, and smells of wet straw.
You have changed, and all that has simply become a part of you.
I suggest warmly that you go as a volunteer to IHP, that you set out full of expectations, which you are then prepared to divest yourself of.
Put everything you have into it, don’t spare yourself.
You will come away full of life.
And if you are lucky, you’ll just decide not to leave at all.