The little Speedolito arrived safe and sound at MIL’s and we’ve spent the last ten days getting to know him better. While he was utterly delighted to get off the trailer and into his paddock, he didn’t have the most restful first night. He paced and didn’t eat or drink much. MIL got him out the next day for a little lunge which seemed to set him right, and after she put him away he happily consumed the rest of his hay and drank plenty of water and hasn’t really stopped since. Apparently a little work was all he needed to know that everything would be all right?
Speedy’s going to spend a couple of months here at MIL’s while I get things all buttoned up for winter on the farm (turns out there’s a lot to do to get the orchard squared away before I can rest and just play with my pony, ugh), and he will move up my way after the holidays. As much as I would love to have him with me, I have a shitload on my plate on the farm right now and do not need the distraction. Plus, MIL has agreed to take him on for dressage bootcamp, and I’ll come down to ride and get lessons whenever I can.
While he’s down here, I’m making sure the hony gets the royal treatment. Not that his life was rough before, but we’re going full-on spoiled pony here. He got new shoes and the farrier reported that his feet are fantastic — strong, lots of sole, good growth in a cycle. He also got body work for the first time! At first he was looking at the bodyworker like “Um, why are you touching me like that??” but eventually he got reaaaallly into it.
Body worker identified a couple of sore spots along his back and suggested his last saddle probably wasn’t a great fit (whose is, in a sales program? but also boo, saddle shopping). She also gave us a stretchy-lunging routine for him to help him lift his core, engage his hind legs, and start building more of a dressage bod. She did belly lifts and hip tucks with Speedy and he was like “oh shit what is happening I had no idea my body could move like that“
Even with all the changes and crazy shit I’m throwing at him, Speedy is soooo sweet. He is such a good sport about everything — equibands, chambon, new lunging routine — he takes a minute to go “well, this is weird” quickly followed up with “okay well, I’ll try it!” You can totally see his little brain working on how to move his body with the equipment instead of against it, and he improves literally from day to day. Under saddle he totally got that I was asking him to stretch his neck down in about a ride and a half. A ride and a half! And they were like ten minute rides!
He loves a good wither scratch, and also those gooood crest scritches right up under his mane. And you can tell when he’s really appreciating a scratch because his little lips and teeth flap and go clackclackclackclackclack. I love when a horse really gets into scritches. I just feel like it shows a level of trust and engagement that is a really good sign. Oh and literally every time you walk by his paddock Speedy follows you along the fenceline like “oooh what are we gonna do now? Are you here for me? Pick me pick me pick me!” He seemed a little bit standoffish when we met him at Luhmühlen, which kinda worried me, but I was wrong!
Apparently there’s a German idiom about people who are a lot of fun, have a really great energy, are up for anything, are a great friend, etc. You might describe that person as “someone I could steal horses with”. Speedy, according to my MIL, totally has horse-stealing energy. I totally get that. (Trust the Germans to have an idiom for that — hell it’s probably a 45 character word.)
Oh and he didn’t shrink in transit!!!!! Between deciding to vet him and literally the moment I pulled him out of his paddock for the first time, I was low key panicking that I would suddenly discover he was really 128cm or something and I just hadn’t noticed that when I tried him. But he is still 153cm (almost exactly 15h) and he’s pretty perfect and his canter is still a fucking 11/10. I am just so goddamn excited that he’s mine and I CANNOT wait to do all the things with him.
Speedy has landed in LA and is languishing in the airport quarantine with a healthy temperature of 100.2*F. The staff there even sent us this super flattering picture of him.
The quarantine staff put that little Speedy Gonzales sticker on there (they put each horse’s name on the photo for the owner), which I think is super cute. I dunno it just tickles me. Some time today (Friday), the hauler will pick him up and deliver him to my MIL’s. It remains to be seen if he’ll get delivered with all the fancy new clothes his former owner sent him with (apparently a fair bit of horse clothing has been held back in the LA quarantine since COVID started). I’m not sure exactly what time he will arrive at hers, but by Saturday morning he will be TOTALLY IN MY CLUTCHES EEEEEE.
At this point, whenever I talk about Germany I feel like Michelle Flaherty (ugh I wish I were as cool as Alyson Hannigan), and much like Michelle Flaherty, I can’t stop. One day I’ll stop but today is not that day. I have some miscellaneous/big picture/wrap up/things-I-learned type thoughts that might be useful to people who are considering ever horse shopping abroad. I did some googling when we set out on this adventure last January and I really could not find that much useful information out there (I’m not really a COTH forum denizen, I just…. cannot handle the forum format anymore). So, in case you’re curious, or think it might be useful, a collection of thoughts.
You need a good agent. When we first decided to look for my horse in Germany, MIL’s feelings were (very coarsely summarized) “I’m German, I’ve bought horses from Germany before, we don’t need an agent.” She was wrong. She had a plan for how we would find horses (call trainers in German, ask about horses), but that would NOT have found us 19 horses. In addition to finding horses, Gunda and Karsten negotiated prices (Speedy’s price came down significantly from his original listing, and I didn’t do that), drove us all over the countryside, made (and cancelled) the horse-viewing appointments, kept us on time, made the PPE appointment, got Speedy onto the plane, organized the second auditions, and generally made the whole trip what it was. I have no doubt that someone very well-connected in the German horse industry could do these things. But my MIL grew up there and has horse-owning relatives who live there, and they couldn’t do it. So you’d need to be better connected than we were. Gunda and Karsten also opened up opportunities we wouldn’t have otherwise had. For a minute, our plan included trying a horse at Julia Krajewski’s barn, and Gunda lamented that Julia wouldn’t be there because she was in Avenches. There is a none percent chance I would have been able to organize my way into Julia Krajewski’s barn to try a horse without their help.
At no point did I feel like I was being taken advantage of by Gunda or Karsten. And as I’ve already mentioned, both of them were quick to admit that people absolutely get taken for a ride in the horse industry in Germany — whether you’re a novice German or an American. I spoke to an American trainer who sometimes acts as agent for her clients shopping in Germany. And no shade to her, but based on our discussion there’s a slim chance she could have lined up 19 horses for me to see over there. But let’s say I had used her as an agent; I would have paid her 10%. Gunda’s commission was covered by the seller, and would have been for any of the horses I looked at. So I saved 10% by not needing to pay an American agent. There’s also a scenario where you go to shop with your trainer (some % goes to them), you pay an American agent to put you in touch with the right people (another % goes to them), and then you’re working with a German agent over there (a seller’s % goes to them). The American agent kinda seems like tits on a bull at that point.
I’ve never shopped with an agent in America before. Maybe they would have done as much as Gunda and Karsten did. I just don’t know. (And if you need their contact information, I’d be happy to pass it along.)
Looking at 19 horses in four days is a great way to try horses. There really was something amazing about this speed-dating version of horse trying. I loved it. It’s like Dan Savage’s take on online dating. You find someone you like: great, meet them as fast as you can. Don’t talk online for a long time, don’t imagine your life with this person horse. Meet them, see if there’s chemistry, then move forward or let them go. I’ve definitely spent time imagining my life with a specific horse, only to meet them and realize they aren’t actually what I thought. The style and speed of horse-trying I had in Germany isn’t available to me here in the PNW, and I suspect really wouldn’t be available in many other places in the US. Maybe on the east coast — but then, would I have been able to try 19 within a 3 hour drive of one city?
Also, not having many pictures or video of most of those horses ahead of time was really helpful — I truly enjoyed riding horses I might have passed on otherwise, and it helped me learn more about what I actually like in a horse (and how little I could actually glean from video).
Talk about VAT. Some horse prices include a 19% VAT, which the seller doesn’t have to pay if the horse leaves the EU (within 90 days of sale). Some of the horses I met had prices including VAT, some didn’t. Just make sure you know what the price is with and without.
While we’re talking about agents… You’ve got to be honest with yourself, and your agent. This is true no matter where you’re shopping, but Gunda said that it happens all the time that a client says they want to try big fancy horses and are willing to spend the money to support it, but then they get there and they sit on the first horse and everyone thinks “oh shit, this person can’t really ride.” If I’d struggled to ride horses 1-5 on Tuesday, Gunda and Karsten would have been hard-pressed to find me different horses I could ride and try on such short notice. I also had a very clear idea of what I wanted, but enough flexibility to make it easy to find horses to try.
A couple more little etiquette things. I have no idea if this is standard, but we treated Gunda and Karsten at all our meals, and paid for gas/diesel for the vehicle we were driving. We brought them a couple of thank-you gifts from home. Had we stayed overnight in Warendorf/Kassel, we would have paid for hotel as well. Maybe nothing revolutionary, but little extra things you might need to budget for.
There’s something about Mary German horses. If you’d asked me in 2020 what my next horse would be I would have suggested something off the track or at least something American-bred. And holy shit do I still love ottbs and especially Carleigh Fedorka with a fiery passion. But there is something about the German horse training system that I just…. haven’t ever seen here. Now, important caveat: I haven’t tried many horses with quite the same price tag here in the US.
Almost every horse I rode in Germany was incredibly straightforward. I’ve ridden some “expensive” and “fancy” horses before, some “the nicest horse in the barn” and a few “this horse is green but can go all the way” types. I haven’t sat on many that were trained by pros, but a few. I have never ridden as many horses who so consistently went forward and came back from my aids as I did on that trip. By and large I rode steady, metronome canters, on horses who were happy to let me in to influence the way they were going rather than ignoring me or blocking me out. One example that stuck out to me: most of those horses could lengthen their stride to a fence without speeding up. I did a rough count with Kate, and 11 of the 14 horses I jumped could lengthen and add power without a rush of speed or running off on the landing side. I think maybe three of the horses I’ve ridden in the last ten years could do that, and I see plenty of people struggling with that exact same concept.
I’m not qualified to comment on what it is that made those horses so rideable. I’ve certainly talked the idea over with MIL and my friends, and I’ll probably keep talking about it. But there is something different going on there, and it is working for them. Tamie Smith made a comment on differences in European and American training systems as well, suggesting it might come down to basics and fundamentals. (Will Coleman also made an interesting comment along those lines, though much less direct.) I also think that if American breeders want to be taken more seriously, this might be a piece of the puzzle. There’s a lot to chew on there.
I didn’t bring a saddle. I rode in some rough saddles, but I think that was the right choice. There’s absolutely no guarantee my saddle would have fit the horses reasonably at all, and I wouldn’t have wanted to waste the time to fuck around and find out. I figured that in someone else’s saddle, I might ride like a potato. But New Horse was gonna have to tolerate some potato riding from me no matter what — that could be useful data collection. Worst case scenario, my saddle might really piss off the horse, and give me an inaccurate impression of the horse. I’d rather risk potato-riding than a poor impression of a horse.
I did bring my boots and helmet, and I should have brought my vest. I had no idea I would get to try horses on cross country, so I didn’t pack my vest. I actually toyed with the idea of bringing it just in case I felt uncomfortable jumping any of the horses, and then decided that if I didn’t feel comfortable jumping the horse I probably shouldn’t jump the horse. So now you know: if you’re going abroad to try cross country horses, bring your vest so you can try them on cross country. (I was lucky that Novell’s owner loaned me her vest to ride in.) I refused to check them because I was worried they wouldn’t make it, or my helmet would get damaged under the plane. I did end up gate checking my boots only (I was allowed to carry my helmet on) for one short leg in each direction because I knew it would be really hard for them to get lost. Also, traveling with boots and helmet in a shoulder bag suuuucks and if I could do it over I’d find a wheely bag to put them in.
I also brought enough breeches and shirts to have a clean set every day. Okay so if you’re not a little filthbeast like me, maybe you don’t re-wear your breeches. I do. Except when I ride 11 horses in one day. Then I change my breeches. What I really needed more of was zippable layers, so that it was easier for me to add/subtract clothes as I warmed up. Oh, and I brought my spurs and was told to use them for 11 of the horses I rode. I checked those.
I had my vet on deck to watch video and get rads or vet records as soon as I could get them to her. I guess if you shop at the bigger sale barns, a lot of the horses have basic rads on file. I only looked at horses sold out of private barns, not big sale barns, so nobody had them on file. But Gunda was happy to take video of the PPE and send those to my vet here at home, and the vet clinic sent her high quality rads the same day they took them. Having my home vet on call to look at the video of horses I rode to see if she could see anything concerning there was also really helpful — I ultimately didn’t need it, but if she’d told me to pass on anyone, I would have.
I also had an amazing team of friends back here at home helping me make decisions! They watched video, listened to me gush, and gave me their honest opinions and that was very, very valuable to have.
It really was the trip of a lifetime, and I’m so grateful and lucky that I got to have the experience. I’m also literally already making a plan for the next one!!
We were slated to see two new horses on Friday morning — maybe three, you know we would be there already so why not see the other one if she was free — and then do second auditions with my top three horses from earlier in the week. We had let Horse One, Horse Five, and Horse Four’s people know that we wanted to see them again. But before we did that, two new horses.
We started the morning at the barn of an Irishman. Part of my brain was like “that’s weird, why would an Irish man move to Germany to train horses???” That was silly, because it’s basically the same as moving across the US. Culturally, Ireland and Germany are probably not so much further apart than the extremes of America. This was another of those “modest” barns, with horses found in every imaginable corner and a couple of sheep grazing on a hill next to the cross country field, yet every stall was meticulously clean and the horses were being fed massive piles of hay.
Horse Sixteen, “Mr. Cutie” was another one of the horses that I watched going around and thought “…. I probably don’t need to ride this.” He looked a bit silly (balked for a long time at a pool noodle on the ground) and hot, and I thought “nah”. But after Steffen goofily showed off a bit, jumping through a one-stride with no hands over the out-oxer, I figured I’d get on.
And man. He was fun. As soon as I got up* Steffen distracted my ground crew with the “Two Scottish Men in an Elevator” video, which I’m not entirely sure was just a coincidence. I walked Cutie back and forth over the pool noodle and while he was not the biggest fan of it, he went over it. And as for hot and spooky? Not really. Once again, just a really lovely, forward, responsive horse.
* I got a LOT of legs up on this trip. I’m so bad at legs up. My OG trainer, B, was so good at throwing me up that I usually ended up half on the other side of the horse. So I learned to collapse my hip a bit to take some of that force and end up on top of the horse, instead of on the right side of the horse. This did not work for Kate, when she gave me a leg up once and didn’t get me all the way up there. Throughout the Day Of Eleven Horses, I figured out how to coordinate with the thrower and also to keep my hip rigid so I actually ended up on top of the horse instead of halfway up. Steffen said “excellent, someone who knows how to get a leg up!!” when he threw me up onto Cutie. I suspect it was just the size difference working in my favor.
MIL was like “Do you want to jump?” and I was like “YES I WANT TO JUMP.” This horse was so straightforward to the fences. It’s a bit weird, describing every horse I rode as straightforward. Obviously, they were all straightforward in different ways, but truly — they were all easy to ride. I pointed Mr. Cutie at a fence and he was like “okay, sure.” Not in a rushing, LETS GO THERE kind of way. Just in a medium-ly-enthusiastic-but-confident-and-still-mellow way. Make sense? Steffen called out different fences for me to jump and I steered the horse around the arena and it was just…. so easy.
We headed out to the little cross country field next, where I promptly tried to fall off the horse. We jumped little things here and there over the field and then Steffen said “we’ll go jump the coop-bounce-down bank next.” I said “Oh, I’m really bad at down banks.” So Steffen said “Okay, just jump the down bank on its own then.”
I had just ridden a little series of three-step-down banks on this horse moments earlier. They went great. But what did I do here? I pulled and took my leg off and Mr. Cutie was like “okay sure, if you want me to lurch down this bank and run into a tree, I could do that.”
Steffen was like “Yeah so do that again, but keep your leg on and grab some mane. And ride out toward the other field, not toward that tree.” So I did. And it was great. And then we did the bounce down bank and that was great too. MIL was not so impressed. She said she won’t be coming to any horse shows with me since she has already had five heart attacks and isn’t sure she can stand any more.
After Mr. Cutie, we briefly looked at another mare at Steffen’s barn (Horse Seventeen) but elected not to ride her. Maybe I missed something awesome, but Mr. Cutie shot into fourth place thanks to being so dreamy, and this mare looked less fun than he was. So on we went.
Horse Nineteen was described as “a ladies’ horse”. Which I learned means a horse who is beautiful (she was beautiful), has good gaits (she had beautiful gaits), and is easy to ride (she was totally easy to ride). But even with all of that — she just wasn’t “it” for me. She just wasn’t quite as fun as Horses One, Five, Four, Sixteen, and Fifteen. A wonderful horse, but not “my horse”, as Karsten put it.
So we moved on to second auditions. They were amazing. EVERYTHING WAS AMAZING OKAY. We started with Horse Four (Novelle) at the fancier Luhmühlen gelëndeplatz (yes they have two). She carted me around like the professional she is, and showed me some of her sass as we galloped back toward the trailers. (I was like “maybe we go a bit slower?” and Novelle said “nah” and I said “please?” and she said “ugh… fine… looooserrrrr”.) Though she was out of shape she had NO problem turning on the NOS for me or her owner. After I got off, her owner jumped back on to school her over some bigger stuff and the mare absolutely ate it up. The two of them were having a blast out there, and I was half convinced her owner would recant her desire to sell.
Siggy (Horse Five) also met us at the gelëndeplatz (I’m not using this word constantly to be a prat, it’s just one of my favourite words now) and was the total heartthrob I remembered. He was game to meet me wherever I wanted him to go, and I jumped the biggest cross country fences I’ve ever jumped on him. I also tried to fall off him, to which he responded “huh, okay?” and helped pop me back into the saddle. I felt like I could enter him at Training level tomorrow and as long as I could hold on, he’d get us through the finish flags.
We met Speedy (Horse One) back at the schooling arena at Luhmühlen, where my MIL hopped on for a quick dressage school. Since dressage was his weakest phase, we wanted to see if she could “get” him enough to make a plan for us to strengthen his flat work. No surprise, the second her butt hit the saddle Speedy was like “oh yeah, I actually can dressage” and went right on the bit. That bitch. MIL coached me through a flat ride and I rode the snot out of that hony — in the best possible way. Even his trainer was like “Can I take some video? And please smile.” It was not hard to smile. I also got to meet his trainer’s kids, who were Speedy’s main jockeys, and I complimented them on the wonderful job they did with him.
Unfortunately, second auditions did not help me make a decision. At all. What they did prove is that I would be utterly delighted to bring any one of these horses home. I desperately wished that I didn’t have to make the choice. My family and ground crew were amazing. They gave me some space while I took a shower and called my husband to complain about the awful choice that was facing me. He wasn’t helpful at all either. But at least he was sympathetic.
I had my favourite. But they were close. SO close. There was a moment on Wednesday when I was walking around the breeding farm, thinking about how my life would be with a schooled, experienced, seasoned horse like Siggy. And I thought “Fuck. I’m going to go home with this incredible horse, and I’m going to think about that hony for the rest of my life.” It brought me to tears (the first of a few that week, and many since then). There wasn’t a wrong choice here. But there also wasn’t an easy one.
Saturday we attended the Mechtersen 2*, a local event run by another family friend who had been part of the Projekt Hony adventure (though not present in the car, as he was busy putting together a 2*!). After yet another late and delicious German breakfast, we headed out to watch, socialize, spectate, and deliberate.
Mechtersen was super cool. The judges’ booths were those fabulous, tiny European trailers — so when it was time to pack up dressage and get cross country started, they just hooked them up and drove away. The course was twisty and turn-y, as you’d expect of a 2*-S on limited land, but still had some good gallops and made great use of the space. There were also some questions I’ve never seen on course walks in America — like the epic three-one-stride down bank steps, or a good-sized table coming out of the woods with a landing about 3′ lower than the takeoff (not a downhill, just…. lower). We got to see several new friends there, too! Go to Germany for a week, make friends you need to support at a horse show. You know.
And I got to spend the day thinking about which of those amazing horses I wanted to take home. Truly, I would have been much happier if someone had just said to me, “this is your horse now.” There were times in the saddle with each of them that I thought “this is totally my ride.” The good things about one were equally weighed down by their weaknesses; experience and show record balanced by their price.
At the end of a long Saturday, I cried while I hugged my new friends goodbye as we got ready to head to the airport. I’ve never been good at goodbyes, and after an amazing week it felt very much like I was leaving my family behind. I will definitely be back, though. German eventing culture around Hamburg is way fun, and it would be a terrible waste of friends and family not to visit them for more horsey adventures in the future.
Speedy, however, will not. Because he’s on a plane to Los Angeles.
I didn’t dream of anything on Tuesday night. I slept like a rock, and was lucky enough to have a late call time Wednesday morning as we didn’t have any horses scheduled until the afternoon. We enjoyed a long breakfast (more brötchen and mett and quark for me! oh my god quark, I haven’t talked about quark yet) and Karsten picked us up to go visit his friend’s warmblood breeding farm.
The first thing Karsten wanted to know was how my rankings had settled out overnight. Throughout Tuesday, we discussed how the horses ranked in comparison to one another. Karsten and Gunda checked in frequently, and we talked about why the horses ranked as they did. (And in case you’re wondering, the Tuesday rankings were Horse One/Five tied, Horse Ten, Horse Four, Horse Three/Six tied, Horse Eleven, Horse Nine, Horse Two [I didn’t sit on Horses Seven and Eight].) Nothing had changed since the end of Tuesday night — Horses One and Five were both solidly tied for first.
One of the really incredible things about Germany (and Europe in general, I’ve heard) is the quality of horses that would come out of really modest facilities. Modest is…. slightly a euphemism here. If you transplanted some of the facilities I visited to the US, I would be hesitant about looking at a horse there. Some of the stabling was dark and cold (turns out windows were not a priority in old stone barns) and some of the pasture fencing was a single strand of hot wire. Yet every one of those facilities prioritized hours and hours of turnout for their horses in well-managed, lush green pastures and high-quality arena footing. I imagine that their attention to feed was equally high. It was a bit of a horsey culture shock for me.
This breeding farm, however, was not one of the modest farms. It was fucking magnificent.
A long-held family property that was formerly a hunting lodge, only a few of the pastures were actively being used by the breeding horses. The caretaker showed us around before she dashed off to a lesson (we would see her later that week at a local 2* event!) and we got to ogle the all the horses from foals to three-year-olds. The four year olds had been sent off to trainers to start their Real Lives.
I didn’t realize this until I got home, but the breeding operation itself is also is pretty incredible. I was accosting some world-class foals in that field, and being ignored by some Olympic-horse-producing broodmares. Karsten’s own mare, Lawtown Chloe, will join the broodmares next year after he decides who to breed her to.
We had another one of those fabulous-locally-owned-hotel lunches and headed back up North again to meet another pony! Horse Twelve was a very attractive little Connemara mare, and her owner brought us coffee and cake which was delightful. There is absolutely nothing in this world that will highlight your terrible riding habits like riding 15 different horses (with 14 different trainers). The number of times I heard “inside leg to outside rein” and “take more contact on the outside rein” or “more canter!”…. OKAY I GET IT. I RIDE WITH NO CONNECTION AND AM HABITUALLY UNDERPOWERED, can we please just take a minute to appreciate how I accomplish that paradox?!
Ahem. Anyway. Horse Thirteen was another total :hearteyes: moment. His trainer had just gotten back from CHIO Aachen with her big grey gelding, and there was still a good-luck flag hung up in his stall. The handsome grey gelding kept poking us while we watched Horse Thirteen, “Bug”, get tacked up. I’m not sure he appreciated being “on vacation” if it meant less scritches and treats.
With some renewed zeal for improving my riding, I tried to apply the lessons of the past two weeks 36 hours to Bug. Unfortunately for me, Bug was a different type of ride. When I shortened my reins to take a bit more feel, he was happy to stay super light in the connection and curl his nose in a little, and when I put my leg on for just a little more power he POWERED UP underneath me. His trainer did a fantastic job of coaching me on the flat and over fences. Despite this, he settled beneath my seat quickly and easily every time I suggested it. After jumping a few questions, I fessed up directly to the trainer: Bug was a super cool horse, but he would scare the absolute crap out of me if I was left to my own devices with him. With his trainer? No problem. But right now? Probably not such a good match.
Bug’s trainer understood my reasons (and Karsten complimented me for my forthrightness later), and I think that level of honesty is something that worked really well for me on this adventure. I didn’t want to lead anyone on, and I wanted to make sure I found a good match for myself. So when I felt myself a little confused and right on the edge of getting scared? I said that. When I couldn’t understand how to enact the instructions that a trainer was giving me? I said that too. And when I really enjoyed riding a horse? Probably didn’t need to say it, since I was usually grinning like an idiot. But also, a couple of horses (for example, Horse Three) were a lot of fun to ride but just didn’t stand up in comparison to some of the other horses — and I was comfortable saying that too.
On Thursday we had another loooong drive — almost all the way to Warendorf. This was also that day that had the most schedule shuffling. First, we were going to see three horses near Warendorf. Then one sold. Never fear — a contact in Warendorf found three more horses we should look at. I quickly knocked one off the list as too young: after seeing all those fantastic 5-, 6-, and 8-year olds, there was no need to visit a 4-year-old. After some discussion, we narrowed it down to just two horses: one 11-year-old 3* mare and a 5-year-old 1.20m mare.
Yet another benefit of working with a broker. Once again, Gunda contacted sellers and let them know my decisions, and nobody’s feelings were hurt. More over, Gunda was the reason we had horses added and removed, from the schedule. She made sure we packed our bags for an overnight visit if we needed, called people on the road to make sure there was nothing we were missing out on, and checked in to make sure I was happy with my journey.
I absolutely did not think I would get to try a 3* horse on this trip, and Gunda was up front about the fact that the mare was out of our budget. But she thought that Horse Fourteen, “Qitta”, would make a great comparison for us. And if I loved her, then I a) knew what I need to look for in my horse or b) knew I needed to find more money. Qitta was one of the most interesting horses I rode. She gave off a lazy, lesson-horse vibe to start with, but once I got her going (once again — with the expert help of her trainer), she perked right up and positively pulled me to the fences. This was also one of the most thorough and best lessons I got from a trainer all week.
Qitta’s trainer instructed me to give Qitta a lot of input — ask for a little outside bend, a little outside flexion, then a strong inside bend through the corners, push her into my outside rein, catch her bulging shoulder by bringing both her shoulders a little to the inside — and told me that I needed to give Qitta as much attention as I expected her to pay to me. After I gave an aid, the trainer told me to check back in with my body to make sure my weight was evenly distributed across the stirrups and on both sides of the horse.
As we came around the short side to a four-stride line, Qitta tricked me by bulging through her outside shoulder and we came to the line fairly crooked. She made up for it, of course, she’s a seasoned mare. But the trainer instructed me to make sure I check in with and corral her shoulder in the first corner of the short side so that I knew I had it underneath me for the turn to the vertical. A little flexion to the outside and a bit of my outside thigh moved Qitta’s shoulders to the inside just slightly, maybe half a hoofprint. And then when I put my outside aids on to turn to the line her shoulders just moved right over. It was super neat — a much more sophisticated version of the hauling-on-the-outside-rein I used to use through the corners.
After we left Qitta and her super trainer, we headed out to yet another fairytale property where we found total dreamboat grey mare, Horse Fifteen, “Stella”. Stella was another one I liked enough to head out to the little cross country field with, and though I couldn’t entirely steer out there (the field was much more like a cross country woods) or figure out exactly where to go, Stella was super. Zefe, her trainer, told me to head out around the outside of the school horse pasture and take Stella through the water. I cantered off through the cross country woods and around the corner and promptly got lost. Stella was very kind about it, though, and helped me find the water and headed right in — and then right out, up across the property line, aaaaaand right into the neighbor’s freshly tilled field. Oops.
I was grateful that Stella and Qitta made things easy for me. Stella easily made the top four. Qitta, though clearly very clever and experienced, wasn’t quite my ride so did not.
By Thursday night I was, ungratefully, just about ready to be done riding horses. I was tired. And I had met so many lovely horses already. Also, my ass hurt. Yes, the part that hurt most on my body was high on my glutes. I would not have predicted that. We had two more new horses to see on Friday morning, and then planned to revisit my top three in the afternoon. MIL convinced me to ride Horse Four on cross country, Horse Five was my pick for cross country, and Horse One we would flat and jump in the arena again.
Thursday night I dreamed that L was in need of a second horse, so we picked up Horse Six for her and brought him home with us. The handoff happened in a bar, and my husband weaved Horse Six between the crowded tables and chairs of the dark bar and out into the light where I filmed the momentous occasion for the ‘gram.
I don’t typically feel anxiety. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bulletproof, and if you’ve seen me at a horse show you’ll know that I do, indeed, get anxious and downright panicky at times. But I don’t dwell or sleep poorly or feel physically ill the way some people do, for which I have always been grateful. So I absolutely could not figure out what the fuck was going on Monday night, the night before my first day of meeting horses, when I woke up every 2ish hours with my heart pounding out of my chest. I half-listened to the same episode of MFM three times as I fell back asleep, and it wasn’t until I finally succumbed to wakefulness around 6:30 that I realized my rapid and intense heartbeat and poor sleep were probably symptoms of excitement-anxiety.
German breakfasts are the best. If you’re a die hard for pancakes and waffles and fruity pebs, they’re probably not for you. But if you’re like me, an assortment of delicious tiny bread rolls, cured meats, spreadable cheeses, and little pastries hits the spot. I stuffed myself at breakfast on Tuesday, thinking that I’d need my energy for the 5-6 horses I would try that day (ha ha), and was feeling pretty good. Then as soon as breakfast was done and we were waiting for our ride, I started to feel slightly sick. Not like “get to the bathroom, Nicole, you’re gonna blow” sick. Just like “wow, your stomach does not feel great,” sick.
More freaking anxiety.
I remember a friend telling me as she finished grad school that she felt terrible all the time, and the only thing that made her feel better was eating cheeseburgers. I was sympathetic, but I could not identify. Other than hunger, I didn’t have any emotions that were cured by eating. But in that moment, sitting in the hotel lobby with rocks in my stomach, waiting to go and see the most expensive horses I’d ever met, I suddenly understood. I would have kept eating indefinitely if I knew it would make me stop feeling like that.
So yeah, this trip was a major experience of ponies AND empathy.
Fortunately, once we got in the car I had the adorable Yola to distract me, and my new, wonderful friends Karsten and Gunda to help. We headed directly to Luhmühlen. Yes, the Luhmühlen. In addition to being a world class, 5* event venue, basically in my relative’s back yard so I will be back for the 5* some day, it is a beautiful boarding facility and the home of the first horse I was to try.
It’s not practical or necessary for me to write about every horse I tried; it would get boring, and I’m quite honestly not sure I even remember them all at this point. Nineteen horses later, there was a lot to remember. I had made myself a pretty extensive list of questions to ask both myself and the seller about each horse — a list I barely utilized. I think the only question I asked more than one seller was “What is your favorite thing about this horse?” Everything moved quickly; the sellers were very open about the horses from the get-go, and I really didn’t need to interrogate myself — I realized pretty quickly if a horse I was riding was one I would enjoy long term or not. Of course, having my ground crew handy to take video and make observations while I was riding was clutch.
Karsten and Gunda did all of the finding of the horses I looked at. Karsten, as mentioned previously, is just an eventing superfan. Gunda is a professional horse broker/agent. I don’t know exactly how they found the horses I ended up trying, but I know it was some combination of talking to their contacts and friends, attending shows, and the general in-the-know-ness of people well-connected in the horse industry. Whatever they did, they found me the nicest 19 horses I’ve ever met. Seriously, the least pleasant horse I rode on my trip was still a pretty cool horse, and a horse I would totally have considered had I met her without context back here at home.
Every single horse I met had a clear aid structure. And if that aid structure didn’t match mine, their trainer could explain it to me perfectly, despite the German-English barrier. They went forward from my leg and came back from my seat. They went right into the connection, even when I rode like a potato. They never once thought about stopping and they loaned me, a perfect stranger, their confidence. They were generous and kind and easy. They weren’t conflicted, and nothing I asked (or did by mistake) made them upset. They just did what I asked, and came in to fences under-powered and made up for it for me, then moved up to the next fence when they needed to. They trusted that I would not betray them, because they had never been betrayed.
Truly, I am not sure if I will ever have the privilege to ride so many wonderful horses ever again.
So back to Horse One. I was meeting my first horse in Germany. At Luhmühlen. I had barely ridden since May (maybe 12 rides, seriously) and hadn’t jumped in a year. I. Was. Anxious.
Out came this really cute hony, “Speedy”, who hadn’t jumped since the Bundeschampionate six weeks prior. His trainer rode him for a bit, jumped him a bit, and I hopped right on. I didn’t do a very good job riding him. I couldn’t really organize all the parts of my body to do what the trainer was telling me (it wasn’t complex — I was just not terribly functional) and I didn’t have enough confidence in my feel to really put my aids on. At one point the trainer said “You can stop asking nicely now — you can get angry.” But when Gunda asked “Is that enough? Or do you want to go to cross country?” I was like hell yes I’ll see what this hony is like on cross country!
So we loaded the hony up in one of those adorable tiny European trailers and headed over to the gelëndeplatz. I’m not sure how the rest of the trip would have gone if we hadn’t taken Speedy out on cross country, because that’s when things really clicked for me. The trainer pointed me at various cross country fences and Speedy just…. took me there. After jumping ten-ish fences, he suggested that I jump a trakehner. I was like “Oh, you know, I’m not sure that’s such a good idea. I haven’t jumped that type of fence in a long time, and I haven’t been on cross country in a long time.” The trainer just looked at me very kindly and said “Nicole, I really want to sell this horse. So you have to jump him over the ditch.” Evidently I have absolutely no ability to stand up to peer pressure.
It was…. so easy. We jumped another fence in prep, we took the line the trainer showed us, and Speedy lengthened his last two strides to the fence to get himself there. It felt incredible. It wasn’t a panicked, pulling lengthening the way I’ve felt other horses rush to fences. Just a confident, measured move-up. My ground crew said that was the moment they saw me light up with joy, and it is one of the most memorable moments of the trip — riding a strange horse on cross country, jumping a fence that I’m not super comfortable with, and feeling totally taken care of.
Horse five was another one that cemented my confidence. I rode three horses at the same barn and felt like every horse they brought to me was nicer than the last. Horse three was an incredibly genuine, kind, and honest five-year-old. When I looked at the trainer riding him I honestly wasn’t sure I’d enjoy him — a big, slightly heavier warmblood type. But I had told myself to get on every horse unless I really didn’t want to, and I was pleasantly surprised. He was steerable and light, and felt nothing like the “fancy warmbloods” that had once been presented to me as examples. Horse four was a super forward going mare, and though she was out of shape I could tell she was really enthusiastic about jumping. Horse five, “Siggy”, was just super.
Siggy’s trainer told me he wasn’t quite as sleepy as Horse 3, and it was true. The horse was right there underneath me, moving forward, coming back, little rollbacks…. he made it so easy. I popped him around the course they had set up and as I was coming in to a vertical I realised that it was probably at Novice height, or a little higher. It has been a LONG time since I jumped any serious Novice questions, and once again, here I was, on a strange horse, jumping the highest I’d jumped in years on a grass field.
I rode him through the five-stride imperfectly — I settled him too much to the vertical in and we came in short, and Siggy had to make up for it by lengthening in the five. And again, it was just so easy. Nothing about it felt stressful or panicked, I just closed my leg, he opened his stride up a bit and the five was right there.
Horses six through nine were at a bit of a disadvantage — though I tried them at the Downton Abbey of barns, it was pissing rain and being in the cold, wet, windy outdoor was not desirable compared to the warm indoor. It was the first place I turned down riding any horses. After riding Horse Six, who was the best-muscled and -put together horse I saw the whole trip, Horses Seven and Eight quickly proved themselves to be a little on the green side for me. Gunda quickly and easily told the trainers that I had decided not to look at the mares, and that was that. It was painless and guilt-free for me — I didn’t have to feel guilty that I had wasted the trainer’s time — and simple for them — someone they trusted just told them the buyer had changed their mind.
This was something I LOVED about shopping with a broker and having so many horses on my docket. In the past, I never had the opportunity to meet more than one horse a week. So any horse I went to meet was hard to compare to the others. I also communicated pretty extensively with a seller before meeting a horse. In part, because I have a lot of questions, and in part because it felt weird not to ask lots of questions. Though who knows why I asked all those questions — I’m not sure there was any horse I messaged about that I didn’t go to see (unless they sold or got hurt before I could get up there). Then when I was there, I felt compelled to ride the horse whether I really wanted to or not, because to not ride felt a bit too close to insulting the trainer or the horse. There was only one person I told directly, face-to-face after my ride, that I didn’t think their horse was for me. Everyone else I ghosted (ugh, I hated myself when I did that, but I could never find the right words to be polite and direct) or messaged a week or more later to let them know I wasn’t ready to commit to buying the horse.
So yeah, I wasted peoples’ time — both on the phone and in person — and I wasted my own time. Having a jam-packed schedule kept every on-topic and professional and it allowed me to compare horses to one another super easily. Everyone knew I was there to try lots of horses, not just to see their horse, which meant that nobody thought anything of it when we quickly disappeared or when I turned down a ride. Maybe I could have had that on the East Coast of the US, but definitely not here in the PNW.
After Horse Nine — another lovely 2* gelding who was happy to match me at my energy level, which at that point was next to none — we zipped up North for our last two horses. And I do mean “zipped”; the odometer was clocking in around 180km/h at times. MIL could tell I needed some fuel, so dug out some donut holes she had bought earlier in the day, and Karsten gave me a banana. I have to give them some props, because I rode the snot out of Horse Ten. But also major props to Horse Ten’s trainer, since the mare matched my biomechanics almost perfectly and was yet another super easy ride. Horse Ten is where I really hit my riding confidence groove — the trainer didn’t need to coach me too much and her body was super accessible to me.
Horse Eleven was whole experience — he wasn’t an easy ride for me (powered by only one additional donut hole since Horse Ten), but his Olympian trainer was hilarious, and gave me a great mini-lesson to put him together. “Bunny” was a very clever Irish fellow, and after biffing the line to the fence repeatedly, I can definitely see why people say Irish horses are such clever jumpers. After some struggle, Bunny and I got it together, including one super tidy canter transition after struggling with almost every other one. I’m not going to lie — I know it came with some pretty significant context, but hearing an Olympian tell me “Good! Super!” is pretty freaking delightful.
After we bid our goodbyes to Mr. Olympian and Bunny, we headed to a local hotel and snuck in just in time for dinner. I ordered cheese spaetzle (and MIL added some pork tenderloins to my order so I wouldn’t be protein deficient) and was rewarded with a heaping pile of delicious carbs and cheese. As they delivered us to our hotel just before midnight, Karsten and Gunda instructed me to dream of horses and tell them what horse I was thinking about first thing in the morning.
About a year ago I mentioned to my mother in law that I was looking for a new horse. I had actually been looking for a while, and had already gone to see a few horses, but hadn’t been able to commit to anything yet. She immediately suggested we go and look for my next horse in Germany (she is German). I declined — I didn’t have that much to spend on the horse, let alone the import fees, I wasn’t looking for anything super fancy, and I was pretty sure I could find what I needed here. MIL disagreed. If what I wanted was a safe, sane, fun horse to show on, I could find a really nice one in Germany. And as for cost, she would help me out.
The offer floored me. I love my in laws, and we have a great relationship. But I never expected an offer of financial support in the low-five-figures for my hobby. After a few weeks of talking it out, I decided to go for it (duh, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this). The worst possible thing that could happen is that I wouldn’t find a horse in my budget, and I’d be in the exact same position — horseless and searching. So in January, we booked our flights for late February and started to make plans.
Since we all lived through the last two years, you know what happened next. After postponing the trip twice, each time by about a month, we said fuck it and pushed all the way back to September. That turned out to be a great choice. I was so busy this spring and summer that I didn’t go to the barn once between late May and early August. I was very glad not to have a new horse distracting me from work during the summer. But it also gave us time to get our broker situation sorted out. Since MIL is a dressage rider, her contacts were only somewhat helpful on the event horse front. Through a lucky turn of fate, MIL’s (distant) cousin has very good friend who absolutely loves eventing, and this family friend turned out to be just the human we needed for Projekt Hony.
Now, to talk about money for a minute. I want to write about this amazing experience honestly, but I’m not really ready to just lay out exactly how much it cost for the whole world to see. I’m not wealthy, but this clearly isn’t something you just do without having some serious money behind you. (Though “serious money” probably means different things to different people.) At the same time, a lot of the experience was not because of the money I had to spend; we just got lucky with the people we knew and by having an amazing broker.
I’m going to describe the known costs as well as what I was looking for in a horse, and if you have some familiarity with travel and the horse market right now you’ll have an idea of the numbers. This is not something I could have done on my own, nor is it something I ever would have predicted myself doing if you’d asked me two years ago. It is an incredible privilege to have the family support I do to make this happen, and to be honest it is not something I am sure I will ever be able to afford again.
We set some pretty clear guidelines for my horse search, but outside of the non-negotiable things there was a lot of flexibility. My “ideal horse” was 7-11 years old and smaller than 16.1 hands, but they had to have show experience at 1.0m – 1.10m (training/prelim height), and be super sane and sound. They didn’t need to be a total packer, they didn’t need to have fancy gaits, and I didn’t mind a bit of a weirdo, but they did need to have enough knowledge to make up for my lack thereof as I work toward showing at training level.
Funnily enough, the cost of importing a horse hasn’t really changed much in the last 10 years (from what I’ve heard and read) — it’s still between $7,000 and $10,000 USD depending on things like ground transport distance, quarantine, and waiting time. And thorough pre-purchase exams are expensive everywhere — my broker told me that a very thorough exam with 45 radiographs cost about 3000 euros.
We flew in to Hamburg on Sunday the 19th, and met up with family friend, Karsten, and our broker, Gunda, that evening for dinner. We had an amazing time talking about horses, eventing, dressage, politics, horses, team selection, the Olympics, team coaches… it turns out, horse people are the same everywhere. We just want to talk about horses!!
They had sent us some video ahead of time, but only of a few horses. I asked why, and both Gunda and Karsten said that sometimes horses don’t come across accurately in video. They have found that buyers may skip horses that are worth trying or get attached to horses that aren’t quite right based solely on the video. They want the buyer to sit on a lot of horses and get an idea of what they do and don’t like from each of those rides, which then shapes what horses they see on subsequent days.
Gunda gave me a very rough run down of what our horse visits would look like. She suggested that we have the trainer ride each horse first (though she gave me the option to get on it before the trainer did) on the flat and jump a bit, then I could ride the horse. If I liked it, we could go out to try it on cross country — either right then, if there was a close gelëndeplatz (cross country field), or on a later day if I wanted. The plan was to try LOTS of horses on Tuesday — “It will be a long day,” they warned me — and then adjust the horses we would try on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday based on what I did and didn’t like of the horses on Tuesday. On Saturday, we would do second auditions of the horses I liked best and then make a decision on which one, if any, to send for a prepurchase exam.
I asked how many horses I would see on Tuesday, Karsten listed a few of the appointments — “The pony, then the Haya horse, the Irish, three with Dorothea….” I was like SIX? SIX HORSES IN ONE DAY? Gunda just shook her head and rolled her eyes at him (they were totally like an old married couple), “Karsten doesn’t even know all of the appointments, you are forgetting them.”
It was eleven. I would meet eleven horses on Tuesday. A fact I would not discover until halfway through Tuesday.
Before I met up with the Projekt Hony team, I was legitimately worried about the trip. Mostly I was worried that I didn’t have a hope of being able to ride these powerful, athletic, forward horses. But I was also worried that I wouldn’t enjoy riding them, or I would only be able to afford something very young and somewhat under-trained, or maybe that I wouldn’t get a chance to look at very many horses and it would be a waste of time. MIL was amazing though; she told me that it was fine if we didn’t pick a horse in Germany and I didn’t have to buy anything I didn’t love or wasn’t comfortable with.
I was also worried because I hadn’t participated in any planning of the trip. After MIL and I settled on what I wanted and what the budget was, I had just left things in her capable hands. My plan was just to show up in Germany on the 19th and do what I was told. It turns out, MIL wasn’t in on the plans much more than I was. Gunda and Karsten arranged everything, from finding the horses to setting up the appointments to driving us around.
I was ALSO worried (wow, apparently I had more worries than I realized) about the potential of getting ripped off. We’ve all heard the stories of people getting sold inappropriate horses, domestically or abroad. We’ve also all heard that Europeans don’t just let their nicest horses go internationally — they send us their criminal and rapist horses. We’ve heard that European trainers/horse sellers see Americans and add tens of thousands of euros to the purchase price, a quick meal ticket and easy solution for a horse they might not be able to sell in-country.
I asked Gunda and Karsten about this on Tuesday. (I felt pretty comfortable with them, because Karsten was a family friend, and after you spend ten hours in a car with people, you get pretty comfy.) They both openly admitted that it happens all the time. Dishonest people exist in the industry, and some are willing to sell inappropriate horses to anyone — German or American or Korean or Australian. It is what it is. Now that I’m 95% of the way through this process, I can wholeheartedly vouch for working with a broker you trust.
Monday we had free. Gunda had a hunting clinic with her GSP and Karsten had to work, so we took the day to sleep in a bit and explore Hamburg. Monday night we met up with MIL’s cousin for dinner and more talk about horses. The girls in their family are also horsey, so they asked about Murray and I tried to explain the…. Murrayness to them. MIL had a great idea to just show them the picture of Murray rolling on cross country.
The stereotype of Germans being straight-laced rule followers isn’t entirely wrong. Our family was somewhat horrified that Murray would do that to me, and I’m not sure they entirely believed me when I said it was hilarious and my saddle was fine. Once they got past the poorly behaved horse, MIL’s cousin proposed a toast — “zu einem aufrechten pferd” — to an upright horse. (MIL thought this was hilarious. Because it was.)