9 months ago



WORKING IN THE CITY CITY LIFE O Until World War I Bruges had more than 200 licensed “equestrian cabs”. O Today there are a total of 13 licences run by five companies, with 85 horses altogether, showing nearly 300,000 tourists the sights each year. O Carriages circulate between 9am and 10pm, and when a horse has been working for eight hours, it’s entitled to a 48-hour rest. O Together the 13 horses circulating the city at any one time produce around 50kg of manure and urine a day — most of which is caught in the poo bags that hang under their tails. The bag is attached to the front axle, so the weight is kept by the carriage, not by the horse. O The rest is cleaned up by the city council — a service that is included in the hefty annual cost of a licence (€6,500/£5,700). O They tuck into 15kg of hard feed a day when working, taking breaks to eat and drink in between tours. ‘If you never cheat on trust, they follow you,’ says Mark, who once invited a horse into his pub While he was there, one of the drivers from the city came with his carriage and asked if Mark would be interested in doing that as a job. “And the next Saturday I was in the box seat,” he says. “My mother, who was not horsey, was completely against it at the beginning — she thought it was an exclusive sport for wealthy people and that you couldn’t live off it,” he says. “But when I could prove I could make money from it and pay for my studies while I was at university, I proved her wrong.” Some years after university, he was working in a publishing house and living outside Bruges with his wife and small child. “One evening someone was ringing at my door without an appointment, and it was the man I had worked for as a student, Luc Laloo. He said he was stopping his business and as he had no one to take over in his family, asked if I wanted to take it on,” remembers Mark. “I didn’t have a penny to buy the business, but in 20 minutes we made a deal and agreed that every month I would pay him 10% of my income.” “I have quite a lot of horses that were imported from Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary to Belgium as slaughter horses,” he says. “Sometimes they are a little skinny but most of them have been working in agriculture, so when you put a harness on they are used to the work.” But of course not all horses take to the job. “I have bought horses that didn’t work out — it’s often in their character,” he says. “If you buy them from a dealer, you don’t know what might have happened to them previously in their life. And if you get a real sport horse, they can flip sometimes and get stressy in the city.” Twenty-five-year-old Rex, Mark’s oldest resident, knows the route of the tour, stops for the buses and cars, and helps the new horses attune to city life — “the music, cars, flags and people”. “Eventually they aren’t afraid of anything,” says Mark, which means they make the ideal The American-style barn at Mark’s yard. The stables can be mucked out using machines and there is a ‘washing parlour’ and solarium O A new carriage costs in the region of €20,000 (£17,600) — made using light aluminium and kitted out with modern suspension, disk brakes and electric lights. O During peak season (July to September) the farrier is at Mark’s yard at least twice a week and the vet comes once a week for preventive check-ups. equine film stars (including rubbing shoulders with Colin Farrell in the film In Bruges…). His old Welsh cob Lucky, whom he drove at Royal Windsor — where he is now a commentator — once came on stage for a play his daughter was in, which involved taking him up two floors in a lift. For a TV programme his horses came into his sitting room — “my wife thought I was mad” — and they’ve stopped by at the pub he owns while he pulls a pint. “It proves that if you have a good relationship and you never cheat on trust, they follow you,” he says. “In America being a horse whisperer is a job — here it’s logic. You need to be able to communicate with them so they can tell you when something is wrong.” And looking out on to the horses grazing on Mark’s 27 acres, nestled between the walls of the city and the canal, you can’t help thinking that these horses have got their work-life balance just right. H&H WAS Mark ever cautious of this new departure? Stepping into the unknown, to dedicate his life to horses? “No I wasn’t nervous, I think I have a little talent [with horses],” he says. “And I have always been the sort of person that decides that if I’m going to do something, I want to do it really well.” The secret to his line-up of gleaming equine tour guides is, he says, “in the eye of the master”. “We pamper them because I want horses that are full, so I need to be able to see which horse needs more oats, or one that is not in good shape.” Not all the horses that come to Mark start off looking quite so fit and healthy. 38 Horse & Hound 8 February 2018

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