Of Mares and Men

Amongst many men, only two women in Seville carry out the job of coachwoman. Rocío  Moreno Florencia is one of them. In this article she explains how she got there and what challenges she found along the way.

The midday autumn sun is high in the sky‭, ‬and there is no shade in the plaza‭. ‬Between the great Cathedral of Seville‭, ‬the Archive of the Indies‭, ‬and the Royal Alcazar‭, ‬in a long line‭, ‬are horses in black harnesses awaiting the touch of a rein‭. ‬And the shouts of men‭ ‬‮–‬“Paseo‭! ‬Paseo‭! ‬Hello‭, ‬do you want a ride‭?‬”‮–‬‭ ‬can be heard over the din of tourists navigating from one site to the next‭. ‬A few skirt the horses with a wary gaze‭. ‬They’re much larger up close‭.‬

The clip-clop of hooves over stone resounds‭, ‬as a man shouts‭ ‬“‘ta luego‭!‬”‭ ‬and his colleagues echo his goodbye‭. ‬The waves of tourists move amongst some of the black and yellow carriages carrying their precious cargo‭, ‬an ordinary family elevated to the level of royalty in what could be an historic scene‭, ‬if it werent for all the‭ ‬cellphones‭. ‬The coachman and his horse turn to the right‭. ‬From the left returns another coach‭, ‬making for the end of the line behind the Archives of the Indies‭. ‬He takes his clients’‭ ‬phones‭, ‬photographs the group of friends in the carriage‭, ‬and helps them down‭. ‬They pay him and walk away‭, ‬and he is alone with‭ ‬his sweaty horse‭. ‬He makes his way to a metal box on the corner of the Archives and pulls out a hose to wash the animal off‭. ‬He‭ ‬doesn’t need to grab the reins‭; ‬the horse doesn’t move‭. ‬As the fresh water touches it‭, ‬the horse’s white coat turns to a shimmering silver‭.‬

Rocío answers a call from her boss / ADRIENNE GEORGE

The chorus of “paseos” begins again and amidst the din of church bells, shouts, and hooves, a voice stands out, lighter and clearer than the others. “Hello, a ride?” sounds the only female voice among the coach drivers. She’s younger than many of her colleagues at 26, but the confidence in her manner denotes her experience. Her name is Rocio Moreno Florencia, and she is one of only two coachwomen in Seville.

Like the meaning of her name Moreno, she is tan and dark-haired, with clear blue eyes behind large black glasses. A grin lights up her face. At her side is a bay horse that stands quietly, her coat gleaming in the sunlight. Although the mare, Daniela, is 20 years into an expected lifespan of 25 to 30, she hardly has a single grey hair. Unlike most tourists, Rocio is relaxed next to the animal of some 1,000 pounds.

“I’ve always ridden horses,” she says explaining her comfort. “Since I was little, like four years old,” she estimates; she can’t actually recall a time in her life when she couldn’t ride. While most coachmen are taught to drive a horse carriage by their families, Rocío taught herself when she was 18 years old. She learned little by little, first with teams of two, and now with only one. “I was my own teacher,” Rocio says, but she collected a mosaic of knowledge from her friends who were also part of the horse world. “I learned from their advice. I was learning from each one of them.”

However, finding work means more than just knowing how to drive. The Council of Seville requires that coachmen take both a theoretical and practical exam, in which they must prove a complete knowledge of the carriages and their parts, the care of the animals that pull them, and the responsibilities listed in the city ordinances. Furthermore, they have to understand traffic signals and know the basic history of popular monuments in Seville. They shouldn’t have any illness or physical impairment that “renders impossible or difficult the normal exercise of the profession.” And after all that, Rocio summarizes in a matter-of-fact tone, “they should be able to find a good job.” Expressed like that, it seems easy, but the job is full of misunderstandings inside and outside of the industry.

Over the past few years, cities with high levels of tourism have banned horse carriages in the streets amidst accusations of animal cruelty. Barcelona banned them in 2018, with the exception of traditional events. Montreal has promised to remove all carriages from its streets by 2020. The mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, was elected in 2013 in part due to his promises to end the carriage industry. Seville too has faced opposition to the use of horses for tourism. Reviewers on the internet claim that there is no water or food for the animals, that they’re sick or hurt, and that the coach drivers don’t know anything about horses. In reality, according to the regulatory ordinance of the carriage industry, coach drivers aren’t allowed to feed horses in view of the public; it’s a serious offense with a fine of 151 to 900 euros, a one to two-month license suspension, and a two-year probation period. A veterinarian has to ensure the health of the horses every three months. And usually, Rocio says, one coachman is responsible for three horses, one for each two days he works.

Rocío inspecting the tack / ADRIENNE GEORGE

“They think that the horses suffer for long hours, they think that we beat them, they think we don’t take care of them, and it’s completely the opposite,” she insists. “The horses are fine, they’re well-cared for, they’re perfect.” She arrives at the stables at seven in the morning every day to feed them, clean them, brush them and harness them before they leave.

It’s her turn in the line. A couple women and their kids approach her, and she smiles and invites them to her coach with the simple words, “Hello, un paseo?” She helps them up. She ensures the comfort of her clients with a wooly blanket when it’s cold or by lifting the cover if it’s sunny. In the coachman’s box, she softly pulls one of the four reins and the mare comes to life with a quick step as though she hadn’t just been napping. They round the corner by the Archives and make for the Guadalquivir River.

As the carriage merges with traffic on the busy Paseo de Cristóbal Colón, Rocio explains the historical sites they pass. “This is the Torre del Oro,” she says of a polygonal watchtower that looks like it’s been cut out of a medieval painting and glued to the modern city skyline. She describes one of the well-known stories about the Muslim dynasties, but much of what she says is lost in the noise of the motorcycles that pass her to the left. Neither Rocio nor her mare flinch; they simply trot on to the entrance of the María Luisa Park.

Rocio and Daniela stop in front of the great fountain in the Plaza de España and her clients get out to take some pictures. A coachman with a grey horse shouts, “Come on, Rocio!”. It’s difficult to hear his full comment with the noise of so many voices and hooves in the huge plaza, but he criticizes her for having five clients in her carriage. Rocio’s calm smile stiffens, but her response is good-natured; three of them are just kids, so the horse will be fine. She doesn’t say anything more about her fellow coachman until her clients return and the ride starts again.

“Some of them don’t want women around,” she explains when they arrive at a shady lane in the park. She slows Daniela’s pace to weave around the potholes in the street. “This has always been men’s work, so they aren’t used to women here.” She’s heard comments like that since her first day on the job, seven years ago at the Hermitage of the Rocío in Huelva. She was only 19 years old. “At first, I was really nervous because it’s a huge responsibility,” she recalls. “I got a lot of really good comments and a lot of really bad comments: ‘oh, since she doesn’t know how, she she’s not successful!’; and others: ‘Good for you, doing this job as a woman!’” Now, she says, her days are better, and she gets along well with her colleagues. “Now that they see that I’m just as good as them, it’s not a problem anymore.”

“Hey, Rocio!” From a kiosk in the shade of the trees, a man approaches the coach, dragging a bucket full of water behind him. She leads Daniela to the water on the side of the path and waits for the mare to finish drinking. The vendor passes her bottled water and they chat about their days at the end of the high tourist season. When the mare is finished, she says her “‘ta luego!”, and they return again to the cathedral where her customers pay her and leave.

Rocio descends from the coachman’s box and checks on her horse’s comfort, who’s already napping with her back foot propped up. The shade of the Archive has lengthened during the ride, and a group of coachmen and horses are relaxing, waiting for their next groups. Rocio will probably take one or two more rides before five o’clock when she will return with Daniela to the stables to untack her, brush her, clean her bedding, feed her, and leave at seven or eight. “Horses are my life, my passion. The truth is that I intend to get better every day. Hopefully I’ll keep working here and go home to all my animals. Always with my animals,” explains Rocío before saying goodbye. ‬‮•