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.