S. Africa, told in a pony's tale

Times Staff Writer

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.

With a downward glance, he noticed a bay mare named Kuva, with a big gentle head and two white socks, standing awkwardly. Minutes later he was prizing off her shoes, chiseling off the dirt from her hoofs and revealing bruised feet beneath, painful because the shoes were too small.

Carefully shaping new shoes for the mare with a tink, tink, tink, and nailing them on, Mafokate recounted his story.

AS a 7-year-old, he ran to open the gates for riders at a riding school about two miles from his home, then raced to the tearoom to hold their horses when they had tea. He'd get a penny or a cake.

"I'd be so happy because I had patted a horse, I'd touched a horse that day," he said, sounding a lot like the title character in "National Velvet."

He fell in love with one of the school horses, a magnificent beauty named Black Magic. He tried to approach to stroke its velvet muzzle, but the grooms brusquely ordered him off. "I was dying to pat him," he said. "I'll never forget that horse because he was in my heart."

When he was 16, he ran away from home and got a job as a groom.

Later he worked for a top show jumper, Leslie Taylor, who taught him to ride and jump. Taylor, who died in 2002, was considered the country's best show-jumping instructor.

"I told them I knew how to ride, but I didn't," Mafokate said. "They put me on a gray horse and it ran away with me. But luckily I didn't fall off until I was in the stable."

In his first competition in 1961, he rode barefoot and in overalls because he had nothing else. In the years that followed, he competed in the grooms' classes against other blacks -- he was banned from competing with whites. But they weren't allowed to jump.

It was a long struggle to win the right to compete as equals with whites.

It wasn't until 1975 when the Marist Brothers prep school in Sandton revolutionized the sport by opening its show-jumping competitions to blacks. In 1977, black grooms could jump in pairs, alongside their white bosses. In 1978, Mafokate was allowed to join the Transvaal Horse Society, which had been for whites only, and after that he could compete against whites where he liked. He started to win.

He won the championship at the Constantia Show Ground in Cape Town in 1977 and 1978. When he won in the heavily Afrikaner Orange Free State in 1981, he left in a hurry, pretending his horse was sick, afraid that he might face violence if he accepted an invitation to the post-event party.

Now he has walls covered with prize rosettes.

In 1980 he competed in Britain's Royal International Horse Show. He placed fifth among 31 riders. In 1984, he was champion at the Royal Agricultural Show in Britain and was mobbed by supporters, eager to touch him, hear his voice or just see his smiling face. No other black South African rider has had a successful international career.

IN 1988 he returned to Soweto to work with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and start his show-jumping school, giving poor black children a chance to break into the white-dominated sport.

"I can make a rider of any child," Mafokate said.

On weekends, he shouts advice as youths canter and trot around a rough Soweto field under his watchful eye.

One recent day, Teboho Motseho, 18, was among them. As a young boy, Motseho would hang around a coal yard near his house in Soweto, just to be near the horses. To ride, he wears a pair of old school shoes with broken soles.

His first time on horseback, he fell and gashed his elbow, but he kept coming back.

"Mr. Mafokate taught us many things: how to ride, how to care for horses. He taught me you should trust your horse. Don't be aggressive to the horse. You should pat the horse, show that love," said Motseho, who lost his mother to AIDS. "A horse can be your friend."

Mafokate takes his pupils to shows all over South Africa. He's sometimes a little disorganized about getting the entry forms in on time, but these days it doesn't matter. They bend the rules for him. He was recently made a lifetime member of the Horse Society, the first black awarded that honor.

UNLIKE Lucky, Mafokate was a natural, but still his path has been hard.

As recently as 2000, when Mafokate turned up to compete at a show in Orange Free State, people asked him who his boss was, whose horses he had with him, and who was going to ride them.

"I said, 'Me.' They said, 'No, where's the boss?' " One man even demanded to see the receipt for his horses. "I said, 'Go to hell.' "

It was a sweet moment when he won his event.

But in April he had a different welcome when he won in Orange Free State. "Everything has changed. I was like Mandela. From 2000 to 2006, I've seen a lot of change," he said.

Yet the sport is still so exclusive that few blacks can break in. Even Mafokate can't afford to stable his 13 horses. Some live at the Soweto riding school, and a white friend keeps the others for free on an elite horse property in the Fourways area, north of Johannesburg.

There, a little gray pony has his own blanket, feed bucket and water trough. He lives in a roomy stable and is led to the paddock every day. Sometimes he works in competitions, but he always has Mondays off.

The little gray pony is Lucky.


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