For the love of horses
ASTRUAL WEEKES’ love for horses is immeasurable. The passion he has for grooming the majestic animals stems from the first time he made contact with one.
Its ripping muscles, pricked ears, distended nostrils and thundering heartbeat fascinated him and since then he knew he wanted a career in animal husbandry.
For the past 20 years he has been the farrier and one of the horse grooms for the mounted branch of the Royal Barbados Police Force. He said his career was not merely a job, but a way of life for his entire family.
His oldest son Deangelo Weekes shows a keen interest in horse grooming as well and he is hoping his new born baby boy Arlo Drakes follows in either his mother’s or father’s footsteps.
“I was around horses all my life. My uncle was a blacksmith and he showed me how to make horse shoes,” he said.
“As a boy I enjoyed going to the Garrison with him, so me being a horse person is natural. In fact, I have a lot of cousins and uncles that were either trainers or grooms.”
The 42-year-old, who hails from the Bayland and attended the Grantley Adams Memorial Secondary School, told EASY how he landed the job he loves dearly.
“From as long as I can remember I was coming here during every summer vacation. I wanted to learn the trade. At that time a guy by the name of Anthony Benn was in charge and I heard that the mounted police division needed a farrier. I thought I would have been the perfect candidate for the position since I was young and willing to put in thirty-three and a third.
“I had no formal training but this is a practical job and since I grew up in the stables, it was not hard applying what I learnt from my uncles and cousins to the job at hand. So basically I came here as a boy and grew up as a man. I do two separate jobs here: I am a contracted farrier and a groom.”
Astrual explained that “horse” is a universal language, so one can tell a horse by the way in which they speak.
“A real horse person speaks different to the average person. For example, we do not say a horse is brown, black or white. What people call a brown horse is actually a chestnut horse; we call white horses grey horses; they are actually born black and as they grow older they change colour, and black horses are bay horses.
“Male horses are called colts when they are born and from three years they are called stallions. When they have been castrated they are called geldings, which means they have gotten their testicles removed.
“A female horse under four years is called a filly and an older female horse is called a mare. A female horse used for breeding is called a broodmare and a horse’s female parent is known as a dam.”
Astrual also explained that the left side of the horse is its nearside, the right side is its offside, the back is its behind while the front is its fore. In addition, he said a horse is measured in hands and added that the horses selected for the mounted division are usually warmbloods or quarters. He said the selection process is based upon the endurance and durability of the horse, noting that thoroughbreds (race horses) would not be best suited for the job.
The father of two went into his daily routine at the stables, located in the compound of District A Police Station in St Michael.
“As a groom, I clean the stables and sweep the stalls. If you go to other stables you would see hay bedding on the floor but here we use rubber mats, which require less grass.”
I work from 7 a.m. until 3 p.m. On mornings, the horses eat less grass than they do on evenings, and overnight we put some grass for them to feed on; their diet usually consists of grass and feed and they eat 14 bales daily. Hay is very important because it helps them to digest.”
Astrual said he had to learn not to get attached to the horses because they eventually are put down when they get too old or suffer from severe injuries.
“I got attached to a horse named Mischief, who died at 22 years old. He was assigned to me as the senior groom because I am in charge of the station sergeant’s horse.
“I grew really fond of him since I looked after him on a daily basis from the time he was two and when he died I was sad. I had to come to grips that a lot of horses passed through here and have to die at some point.
“I went for him in England. Back then, horses were imported on their own but then people started complaining that the horses should have someone with them and so they sent me for Mischief. I travelled to England by plane and then I came back by boat. “The lifespan of a horse is roughly 25 to 30 years and the oldest horse we have currently is Duke, who was here since September 11, 1998.
Usually all the horses are sourced, and Richard Watts goes down and selects the best.
Many Barbadians usually fear horses but Astrual said he has not been able to understand why, noting that horses are friendly and loving companions.
“A horse tells you what is going on with them before they react and you can tell by the way they position their ears.
“When the horse’s ears are pointed forward that means the horse is focused, when they are straight the horse is alert and when they are drawn backwards the horse is agitated.”
Unknown to many, Astrual and other grooms play an important part for the parade at the Garrison Savannah on Independence Day. They are responsible for the horses of the mounted police looking stunning with shimmering hair. Astrual said that he really enjoys watching the horses on parade, noting he loves hearing the children screaming “look at the horses” when they pass by. He added that two years ago he plaited kanekalon on one of the horse’s ponytails.
“This year for Independence the mounted police was coming out in special blue and yellow outfits, but since the parade was moved they could not go to Kensington Oval.
“Usually the grooms are in the stables from as early as 3:30 a.m. polishing up the horses and there is a sense of excitement in the air,” he said.
Astrual wants the best for his boys. The eldest, who is 16 years old, told his father he wants to be a farrier when he grows up, good news for Astrual who said he is happy about that.
“Early last year, I was planning to do a course for US$1 200 but I said I would invest that in my son so he can be 100 per cent qualified not only in the practical but the theory.”
One day Astrual hopes to turn what he does into a family business since all he and his family ever do is “talk horse 24/7”.