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S. Africa, told in a pony's tale

Black show jumper Enos Mafokate took an abused, gray coal horse, trained him and turned him into a champ -- with black riders.

December 09, 2006|Robyn Dixon | Times Staff Writer

Soweto, South Africa — HE was a skinny gray Soweto coal horse standing in the road with dull eyes, a filthy coat and his head hanging low. He had raw sores from an ill-fitting harness, hollows between each rib and protruding hips.

Just 18 months old, he was too young to be pulling a coal cart.

Enos Mafokate drove past him four years ago and leaped from his truck, wanting to bellow his outrage. Instead, he started bargaining.

"It was heartbreaking. The pony was suffering. He was bleeding, just skin and bone. He was tired. He was almost dead," Mafokate said. The moment the coalman agreed to take about $270 for the pony, Mafokate told him to unhitch the poor thing.

Then he gave the little gray a name: Lucky.

Eaton Farm is a bit more than an hour's drive from Soweto, but it's in a different world. Here the horses are brushed and braided, primped and preened, ready for the show arena. There's oil for hoofs, baby powder and hairspray for tails, baby oil for faces. Everything must be color coordinated, just so.

More than 12 years after the country's first democratic elections brought black leaders to power, it's one small miracle that a Soweto coal horse named Lucky with a black child in his saddle can somehow compete against the fancy show ponies at places like Eaton Farm -- and sometimes even win a championship, as he did last year.

If miracles were jewels, the dusty leather farrier's apron that Mafokate wears would be covered in them.

There would be a jewel for every black child Mafokate has taught to show-jump and compete, every coal horse he has saved, every coalman he has taught to care for his horse, every white person whose respect he has gained through his achievements. Even the coal horses he shoes seem gilded by fortune.

The miracles began with his own transformation from a threadbare child opening gates for white riders to South Africa's first black show jumper. He was born in Alexandra, a poor black township outside Johannesburg, but his family moved to the farming area of Rivonia, where he rode a donkey and sometimes swapped his mount to ride a pony belonging to his best friend, a farmer's son.

Eventually, for Mafokate there was no greater thrill than sitting atop his favorite mare, soaring over a huge jump in a race to make a clear round, with no barriers knocked down and no jump refused, in the shortest possible time.

Now the 62-year-old passes along his knowledge through his own show-jumping school in Soweto, a humble patch of rocky ground wedged between a couple of busy roads, the sounds of traffic and sirens drifting across the grass. He also runs an outreach program helping cart horses in Soweto and Orange Farm, another township south of Johannesburg, for a charity organization named the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals.

LUCKY'S story seems a parallel of Mafokate's, and there's something in the tale of a broken-down horse that mirrors the history of South Africa.

In a Disney movie, Lucky would have been a natural winner. In life, rescues take a bit of time.

"He was terrible when I trained him," Mafokate said. "I find horses are just like people. Some go to university and find it easy. For Lucky it was very difficult."

Sometimes Lucky refused to go. Other times, he reared up. At one point Mafokate almost gave up the idea of trying to train the young cart horse to jump. But instead of throwing in the towel, he rested the pony and took the training more slowly.

"When you would go to him he would put his ears back, because in the township, children throw stones at horses," Mafokate said. "Today he comes to you. Today you can put any child on that horse."

Not long ago, he said, someone offered him nearly $12,000 for Lucky. "I said, 'No, he's not for sale.' "

Mafokate is always talking to his horses or singing. He has pockets full of carrots and chews them constantly, for the crunch that gets equine ears pricked up. They know he'll always share.

Mafokate knows the place Lucky loves to be scratched, on his tummy: The little pony puts his head on his side and gets a faraway look in his eye.

"To me," Mafokate said, "horses are not horses. They're people."

In Orange Farm, Mafokate has seen horses so hungry that they ate their own droppings. He's seen horses shod with tin lids.

So he comes once a week with horse feed sold at cost (or given out free), horseshoes and advice.

One coalman named Anthony Damane, 37, owes his livelihood to horses but knew almost nothing about them before Mafokate showed him.

"I like them. I'm part of their family," Damane said. "Everything is because of the horses."

Several of Damane's shabby horses were tethered in the mud, one of them with ugly lumps of winter hair hanging off in skeins. Mafokate was pleased that the horses didn't look hungry but shook his head about the matted hair and patted Damane's shoulder, eyeing him with a bright but firm expression.

"We've got to get this grooming right. All that's got to come out," he said, gesturing at the hunks of hair.

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