Nacho Caravia Nagueras
All that remains
Miguel Cuenca with Guapo and Castaño
One would expect that travelling by horse-drawn carriage in Barcelona would evoke a bygone era, when the din of traffic consisted of nothing more than the clop-clopping of thousands of horses along cobbled streets. But even while gazing into the swaying croups and swishing broomtails of two chestnut stallions, such evocations were dispelled by the heavy roar of automobiles as Miguel Cuenca swung a Victoria carriage slowly out onto Avinguda Paral·lel and crawled along.
Impervious to the irritation of drivers who pulled out from behind and raced past, he tapped the horses with his whip, which was less like a whip and more like a fishing pole with a thin leather strap on the end.
Cuenca, in a dark cashmere sweater and plaid English riding cap, called out “Taño. Tañooo.” He was talking to 'Castaño,' a seven-year-old Breton who was misbehaving in some way indiscernible to the uninitiated. Cuenca squinted his entire face in an effort to prevent his large glasses from falling off. A balled-up wad of cotton was wedged in his left ear and he had to turn his head in order to absorb questions through a single, tiny hearing aid. “He’s very restless, young. I call his name to wake him up. The other one—his name is Guapo—is about 15 years old. I don’t have to remind him.”
Cuenca spoke in the sing-song accents of Andalucia, ending most sentences on a high note, as if counting off a list. “Horses are never happy working. It’s better for them when they’re eating. These are poor horses; they have to work. You know what a rich horse is? I’ll tell you. A rich horse is one who eats without working. He doesn’t even know his own name, that’s how foolish he is. If I see a poor horse, and I have a bonbon, I give it to him. But not to a rich horse. He doesn’t deserve it.”
At that moment, Castaño halted, followed immediately by his co-worker, Guapo. Again, Miguel saw something not quite obvious. “Vamo. Pish, pishhhh. Pishhhh, Tañooo.”
Just then Castaño blasted the asphalt with a stream of urine that sounded like a string of firecrackers. Nearly two minutes later, when the horse had finished, the carriage began to move forward again. Miguel touched him gently with the whip. “Anda que es guapo. Anda que guapo.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, traffic in Barcelona was primarily a horse-drawn affair, much as it had been for nearly 2,000 years. Heavy goods and trams, private carriages, stage coaches from outlying pueblos, all moved by horse—as did the taxis. In 1908, there were nearly 13,000 registered private and industrial vehicles, according to the Barcelona Register. And Professor Enric Ucelay-Da Cal, of the Universitat Pompeu Fabra, cites the 1921 general Spanish census figures that counted 34,583 horses plus almost 27,000 mules and asses—this being at a time when automobiles had already begun to replace draft animals. That industry has long since evaporated and all that remains is the concession (Andres Pujadas, S.C.P.) for which Cuenca works. The owner of that concession, Alejandro Pujadas, comes from a long lineage of draymen that he traces back to his grandfather’s grandfather.
“It’s a family business,” he told Metropolitan. “We’ve always had carriages and horses. They used to transport rubble from all the construction. By my grandfather’s time, 90 percent of the business was funerary, until such things were replaced by automobiles.
“Eventually, he was reduced to a branch of the business in Sants with one coach and four or six horses. In Sants, there used to be a ton of stables. But by then he was the only one left. He got by little by little, doing things like spaghetti Westerns in the Sixties. When he died, I took over the business. We had to close off the street to let the horses run; so, I went to the Ajuntament to see what we could do. They gave us the concession to be here.” “Here” is up on Montjuïc, behind the Poble Espanyol on Avinguda Montanyans, where Alejandro, his three employees and 15 horses have co-existed alongside a riding school, the Escuela Municipal Hípica de Puigcerdà, for the past four years.
It’s a strange thing about people who work with horses: the activity seems to breed barrel-chested men with skinny legs, while women tend to become statuesque below a thin waist. Such were the people who were grooming and feeding their horses while Pujadas explained his business. The men wore flannel and blue jeans; the women sported high, tight boots and riding trousers. Held by a halter in one of two riding rings, a black stallion galloped in circles as children bobbed atop ponies toward a nearby pond. “This is one of the best places in Barcelona,” Pujadas said. “We’re close to the centre, and yet, when you’re here, you don’t know if you’re in the city or out in the country. It’s like being apart from the world. When I have an errand—like going to the bank or something—it’s a real sacrifice.”
Despite such satisfaction with his work environment, he admitted that his job is difficult. “The horses don’t understand holidays or whether it’s day or night. You have to feed them every day. If they’re ill, you have to take care of them. It’s hard. Don’t doubt that they will get a colic the moment you’re about to leave the stable.”
Alejandro’s wife, Dorota Yagodzinska, a Polish emigrée, concurred. She works for the Escuela Hípica. “A horse is a living creature that can’t take care of itself, because it’s locked up in a box for 23 hours a day. I come here at eight in the morning, have a half-hour to eat, and go home at about 10pm, Monday through Monday. If I have a day off, it’s maybe for an afternoon. But for some reason, I love it.”
Aside from the four coaches that Pujadas sends out to carry tourists, Miguel Cuenca’s among them, he also provides all the horses used in Christmas cavalgatas, weddings and films. When Perfume was filmed here, for example, all the horses used were provided by him. “Every part of our business is essential. We can’t stop carrying tourists, we can’t stop doing films, we can’t stop doing weddings.”
It definitely appears to be for love and not money that Alejandro, his wife and employees are attracted to their profession. As Cuenca said while cutting through heavy traffic into the left lane, circling around the Estatua de Colón, “You won’t get rich working with horses. My father and brother had seven or eight coaches, and they never got rich. We used to say, ‘In this business you eat what you earn.’”
He pulled to a halt at the foot of the Rambla. The elder horse, Guapo, stood splay-footed while Castaño crossed his back legs like a young ballerina awaiting her number. Miguel climbed down from the carriage and began to beat the dust off his vehicle. “Now, I’ll just wait here until the fig falls.”