9 months ago



WORKING IN THE CITY Ears pricked: when a horse has been working in Bruges for eight hours, it is entitled to a two-day rest

In Bruges As Valentine’s Day looms, Madeleine Silver visits the romantic city of Bruges in Belgium to find out what life is really like for those horses that take centre stage in ‘the Venice of the North’ Pictures by OF all the cliché things to do on Valentine’s Day, clambering aboard a horse and carriage in the Belgian city of Bruges — “the Venice of the North” — and settling down under a rug with a date is up there. But if it’s the horses you’re interested in, rather than the tour of this somewhat Disney-like city, you can’t help wondering if this whole set-up is a bit sad; horses waiting with unfathomable patience to be picked by tourists, plodding around the same old cobbled route, bracing the bitter winter weather and madly trying to rid themselves of flies come the summer. Look a little closer though, and it seems all this pity could be unfounded; hindquarters are full, coats are gleaming (despite the grey January day) and ears are pricked. Rewind an hour or two and the day started in the most unlikely of set-ups for these working horses. Three-and-a-half kilometres outside the city centre is the home of Mark Wentein — international driving judge, proposed chef d’equipe for the Belgian driving team at the World Equestrian Games this September, editor and publisher of Belgium’s equestrian magazine Hippo Revue, and himself a Belgian single pony champion. With his son Mathias, he owns four of the 13 licences for carriages in the city and has turned his 17th-century farm into a yard that most top competition horses would consider lavish. “We forget that horses even 100 years ago used to work 10, 12, or 14 hours a day — they had a job, and that’s the reason that they were bred,” Mark tells me as we settle down to lunch in a dimly lit restaurant, the sound of hooves gently echoing around the city walls. “People forget that horses can still work if you treat them well.” TWENTY-SEVEN horses fill his sprawling American barn, which was finished four years ago, along with the farm’s original stables — a mixture of Mark’s competition horses, his son’s eventers and the city’s carriage horses. The working day for these horses is capped at eight hours, after which they head back to Mark’s yard for a compulsory two-day break. And the lines between their jobs are blurred — he likes all his carriage horses to be ridden under saddle, and one that was in the city yesterday could find itself drag-hunting the next. “All of my horses that I have competed were Mark is passionate about drag hunting — often taking his carriage horses out started in the city,” says Mark, now in his early 60s and seemingly styled on an English gent, all tweed and shiny brown brogues (“I love the British equestrian tradition,” he says).“We have no horse walker, so they walk in the city and at the same time they bring us an income.” With his matter-of-fact approach to horses — “it’s all about time and money — it’s a business” — Mark has built a thriving trade. Stables have been designed so that they can be mucked out using a machine, the carriage drivers can open and close the yard’s electric gates from the touch of a button on their Mark Wentein, an international judge, also competes in driving phones — so they don’t have to get out of the carriage — and a futuristic app is used by all employees showing which horses are in the city, which are in need of the farrier and so on, all of which is relayed on to a big screen in the yard. A “washing parlour” with hot water and a solarium is in place to make grooming easier — the horses are turned out without rugs — and natty fixtures abound, including magnets to hold back the stable door windows. But underlying this business focus is a fixation on all things equestrian; looking around his farmhouse you start to wonder if you are having horsey hallucinations. You enter via a door with a horse knocker, to the right of which is a statue made from horseshoes. Inside it’s hard to see wall space for the collection of equestrian art adorning every room, a mirror is framed by a harness, lamps appear out of horse statues, a library has been dedicated to his equestrian literature, and double doors in the sitting room open on to the all-weather outdoor arena. Do your friends think you are a little obsessed, I ask, only half joking? “I think so,” he laughs. But it hasn’t always been this way. Mark didn’t sit on a horse until he was 17, when by chance he was next to someone at school who was going to the local riding school for his choice of sport that afternoon, and Mark thought it sounded preferable to basketball. 8 February 2018 Horse & Hound 37

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