this one time, in germany

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.

American Pie This One Time At Band Camp GIF by IFC - Find & Share on GIPHY

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.)

the secret to meeting 11 horses in one day

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.

loved these little plaques that winners get at events in Germany! more fun than a ribbon and way more fun than a plate!

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.

But.

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 was assaulted for a piece of banana by this one – “Querulant”

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.

not Germany – the horse I’ve been riding recently sometimes looks at me over his shoulder for a treat and it always cracks me up

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!!

keep pinching yourself

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.

chicken ataaaaaaack!

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.

the incomparable Kai Ruder shows us how it’s done at the steeplechase fence

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.

that’s an airy chevron up top, three down banks, and about five strides to a steeplechase fence

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 plan to Los Angeles.

horse outside

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.

this baby loved my hair tuft

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.

The breeder created plaques for his horses — Horse Ten was “Crimson Reef”

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.

There were so many delightful dogs and I didn’t steal a SINGLE ONE.

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.

WE SAW AN IGEL! Qitta’s trainer’s children tamed it and it watched me while I rode. After it took this nap in the sun.

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.

this mare was such a fun ride

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.

If you never hear from me again, it’s because I’ve run away to clean stalls on this breeding farm

fueled by brötchen+ anxiety

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.

yes please feed me all the tiny breads

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.

literally have no idea when the last time was that I jumped higher than 2’6″

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.

such a good boy

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.

Seriously, the Downton Abbey of barns. When we walked in one of the working students was WASHING THE WALLS. Which explained how they stayed so white.

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.

but for real if anyone wants a super nice five year old, I know several

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.

After dinner, the waitress delivered me a tiny glass of apple-pear schnapps and declared “Vitamins!” Taking such good care of me!

in search of aufrecht

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.

Super casual manor house surrounded by 17th century buildings that comprise a village square now converted into a national team member’s training facility and pony club. Just Europe things, you know.

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.

A foal would fit under the plane in my luggage, right? Incidentally, this is the same farm that bred Butts Avondale and Butts Avedon.

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.

My broker’s adorable GSP – Yola

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.

GSP at your service — here to clean up any cheese spaetzle or pork tenderloin you might drop. Apparently in German restaurants dogs are more acceptable table companions than children, a cultural choice I don’t hate.

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.”

The Steinkraus breeding farm — where I met the above foals

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.

Hamburg graffiti on trend for the week.

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 met several indoor arenas to die for. This one has an automated watering system that runs along the track in the center of the building.

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.

You know. This picture.

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.)

And so the search for Aufrecht began.

pony steps big changes

The crab and I are trucking right along getting to know one another.

On Monday we had a short discussion about bridling and then visited the mounting block for a while. We played with clicker training at the mounting block but finally Sebastian made it clear he was just going to keep stepping that right hind away from the block when I got up there. So I brought out a stick and tapped him on the right haunch when he stepped aside, which resulted in Sebastian suggesting that I never ever ever visit the right side of his body ever again. After we got past that ridiculous offer, I gave him another cookie while I stood on the mounting block, he crunched on it while I got on, and then looked at me like “Oh well if that’s all you wanted, why didn’t you say so in the first place?” I got off and on a few more times then called it good.

the annoyed face of a pony who had to acquiesce to bridling AND being sat upon

On Tuesday, we did the same thing. Bridle a few times, visit the mounting block a little, casual walk around the arena, lots of clicks and treats. I also started clicking for hoof picking (less Spanish walk, more civilized school pony please) and that stuck immediately.

On Wednesday I dashed out after work for more of the same. This time I tried to really consciously relax my seat and thighs, as Sebastian had jigged and fallen into the trot more and more often in our rides. I suspected I might be clamping on a little bit too much and conveying too much energy to him, and I was partially right. A more relaxed seat led to more relaxed pony. We meandered around the arena and I practiced steering just with the movement of my hips. I visited the far end of the arena a lot and after a calm walk circle there would get off, give the crab a cookie, and walk back to the mounting block for another go. I wanted Sebastian to think of all parts of the arena as neutral (not gate = cookie = good / far corner = spooky wet patch = scary, something I picked up at a Tik Maynard talk last year).

definitive proof Murray’s blankets were way too big for him – this cooler was made for him and fit him similarly

Thursday evening I ran out to drop off some things and stuff cookies in Sebastian’s face before returning home to sit in front of the fireplace (because the PNW is fucking cold and damp and I can’t ride in that shit every day ffs).

Did you catch that? My basically day-by-day recounting of time at the barn?! I just slipped back into making time for the barn every day like I haven’t been a less-than-fifty-percent-time-er for the last 2.5 years. Yes, the pony continues to be fun and we are enjoying ourselves getting to know one another. Almost as much as that, I’m enjoying being an every-day-barn-person again! I did not realize how much of my life was just zapped away from me when Murray went into retirement and I became horseless. Even with a half lease, it wasn’t the same. I couldn’t just duck out to the barn to dawdle around and talk to my friends and look at my cute horse — I mean, I guess I could have and just never did? It would definitely have been weirder to go to the barn on not-my-riding-day to hang out with not-my-horse. Whatever the mental block was, it existed.

Sebastian has been very kind about my disruption of his life/schedule but in order to maintain his continued good attitude I have been bribing him with bran water. He appreciates.

I didn’t realize quite how much I missed it. I knew that I missed having control of my own horse and getting to make all the decisions not being beholden to anyone else’s schedule. And I knew I missed not getting to ride every day and make a training plan and track progress in a specific way. But there was definitely a “getting to the barn every day” feeling that I missed, and that I’m very glad to have back.

I thought we were friends

I never thought I’d say this, but Kate has done me wrong. What?! How?! How could that sweet, intelligent, kind, apologetic mid-westerner do anyone wrong?!!!

Well might you ask.

It’s a PONY. She sent me a PONY.

yes obviously I bought him a rain sheet in panda pattern duh

This is not a horse. This is not a small horse. This is not even a hony. THIS IS STRAIGHT UP A PONY IN A SLIGHTLY TALLER THAN PONY DISGUISE.

Friends don’t give friends ponies.

So far, Sebastian has played such pony games with me as:

Look, I can turn all the way around in the cross ties!

I’ve never been asked to stand still before.

I’ve never been fed before and need to eat all this hay on the ground.

I’m extremely hungry and must climb back in through my stall window to get at my grain.

Thank you for putting that half pad on the saddle rack, I have kindly put it inside my feed tub in my stall.

I don’t pick my front feet up for cleaning, I only Spanish walk.

My real mother doesn’t make me stand by the mounting block.

Oh was your saddle on that rack? I put it on the ground for you.

I don’t wear a bridle at home.

IT’S SMOLL, IT’S CURIOUS, IT’S DEVIOUS, AND IT’S CUTE AS HELL.

IT’S A PONY.

In all seriousness, I’m really enjoying getting to know Li’l Sebastian. He is totally testing the limits right now while settling in — which is fine. He’s been here less than a week, there are a ton of horses he’s never met walking by him all the time, he’s in a whole new routine, oh and also it’s literally 40* cooler than it was at his last home. Also the feed thing I can kinda forgive. TrJ goes to great lengths to source incredibly high quality grass hay for us here, and it’s quite hard to get hay this nice in California, especially the bay area. I get it. Shit’s delicious.

I’ve also realized that I must give off “bully me” vibes to horses. Or at least very strong “you can play hard with this one” vibes. Murray, Flounder, Timer, Fergus, Sebastian… I’m sensing a trend in horses casually stepping all over my boundaries and not giving a fuck about it.

What Sebastian doesn’t know? I had a Murray. And if that horse taught me anything it’s… well, realistically, he taught me almost everything. I’m not going to say that Murray pulled out every trick in the book, but I learned a whole hell of a lot about handling goofy shit from that horse, and Sebastian is going to have to get really creative to one-up him.

But that’s the thing — Sebastian totally does not act like a horse who wants to one-up Murray. He doesn’t even act like a horse who really, legitimately wants to get away from me and what I’m doing to him (er, yes, I also know what that looks like because that was also Murray). The second I free him from pressure he’s like “great, what’s next weirdo?” and when I put him back in his stall, he turns around to check in with me after a bite of hay.

I cornered a saddle fitter in the parking lot on Saturday and tricked her into looking at my saddle for me — she said “It’s really not that bad”. HOORAY for not having to buy a new saddle for Sebastian.

Sunday night we went five rounds over putting a bit in his mouth. First, Sebastian said no. (NB: he said “okay” on Thursday and “ugh, fine” on Friday soooo) Next, I worked on shaping him to put his face down into the bridle. After a bit of clicker training and a bit of negative reinforcement and tussling, I got the bit in his mouth five times, each one quicker than the last. And then I gave him a big handful of alfalfa pellets and untacked him and put him away.

Another thing I learned from Murray: it takes the time it takes.

I’m not tripping about not being able to ride on Sunday. I’m sure I’ll need to skip a few more rides over the next month or so as the crab and I revisit some basics. And that’s cool too. I’ve ridden Sebastian at Kate’s before, and he’s a solid citizen there. So I can be pretty sure that this is just the “new home, who dis?” attitude some horses get. We will be trucking along as cute as can be before we know it.

a bit of light

There’s a special pit of despair you get admission to when you suddenly lose a horse. Painted on the wall is a door with a sign above it that says “ESCAPE via INAPPROPRIATE REBOUND HORSE”. I had never really understood before why and how people would make such terrible decisions on potential life partners right after losing a horse. I thought a lot of things would stop me from doing that — needing some time, trying to retain a scrap of common sense, friends who would caution against poor choices.

I get it now. A week ago Monday I would have paid a stupid amount of money for something to pour my excess emotion into and some hope.

spoiler alert: this post includes hope

[And here’s the thing: I already believe that many humans lay waaaay too much emotional baggage on to their horses. The language I hear some people use about horses — that they are their therapists, their best friends, the only thing keeping them sane — I don’t think that’s fair to horses. I don’t think it’s kind to ask them to carry their burdens AND ours for an indefinite period of time. To get a new horse and dump all your sadness and expectations and dreams from your old horse and broken hopes and dreams for a new horse and expect that to heal you seems triply unfair.]

Fergus died on Monday. On Tuesday, I decided I would ask my old trainer if she had an ottb project she could send me for a little while. With Fergus gone, I had nothing to ride. TrB’s program doesn’t have a whole lot of catch rides available, and most of the ones that come up go to her teenagers — it’s a big soft spot she has and that’s okay. But I knew that without Ferg, I was shit out of a ride.

And because I talked to my friends pretty much nonstop Monday and Tuesday (and they were there for it — <3), when I mentioned this plan Kate asked “So do you want Sebastian for a couple of months?”

THE EARS

And so the next day I started calling haulers and the day after that I had his trip booked and on Tuesday, Kate’s working student put Sebastian on the trailer for me and on Wednesday morning he walked off the trailer to a brave new cold, wet world in Oregon.

Li’l Sebastian is one of Kate’s incredible Craigslist finds. He’s a certified Pupper Horse, and mostly wants to be right next to you so he can lick you and you can scratch his neck. He’s got some pretty solid training on him (thanks to Kate and her students!) and is a very cool creature who, just the Sunday before he came up here, became unemployed by virtue of his rider heading back to college. He has been the perfect distraction.

So far Sebastian’s greatest flaws are wanting to be too close to me for good photos and screaming in loneliness after having his life torn apart and a 17 hour trailer ride. Criminal, I know. Oh well, that and discovering that he could trick the Big Poppa of his pasture into playing rougher than an old man should.

meeting his new pasture buddy (big poppa pictured behind)

Maybe it’s hypocritical to fill Fergus’s stall with a loaner horse less than two weeks after his death. I certainly was pretty judgmental about it a few hundred characters ago. But new horses are full of hope, and planning and preparing are distractions. So I’ve promised Sebastian that he has no shoes to fill, and if we don’t get along, he has a home and can go there at any time. (Because, I reiterate: my friends are the best.)

I’m so grateful to have friends who know what the pit of despair is like and how a super cute hony can help you find your way out of it. I’m so grateful to have a community (you guys!) who knows what this is like, whose words and sympathies are more than platitudes.

To paraphrase Malcolm Reynolds, if you can’t walk, crawl. If you can’t do that, find someone to carry you. Thanks friends, for being willing to do some heavy lifting.

death

Fergus died a week ago.

He colicked acutely and severely in the early hours of the morning. When surgeons opened him up a few hours later, they discovered that most of his small intestine was necrotic and entrapped. They euthanized on the table.

always happy to loan a hand while you were peeing in his stall

I didn’t write about Fergus as much as I could have. A combination of time and the weirdness of writing about a horse that isn’t your own. Thankfully, that is my only regret.

enthusiastic

Fergus made it easy to love him. He was so genuine and honest, there wasn’t a deceitful bone in his body. You had treats? He wanted treats! You could be his new best friend.

He was just particular enough to make it feel special when it was apparent that he really liked you. TrJ topped the list, then me, then his real mommy, A. And I only came before A because I was a much more plentiful treat dispenser, and she was the Evil Needle Poker of Adequan Times.

when you get distracted partway through adjusting cheekpieces

But he was just fussy and zippy enough under saddle that it was really apparent when he was working with you or was doing his own thing, and you could tell from the rail who he appreciated riding him.

Fergus was the first horse I’ve known who really did enjoy a good cuddle. He wasn’t much of one for wither scratches — I only found a good itchy spot on him once — but he would happily stand there, resting his head on your shoulder, even taking a little nap if you’d allow it.

pinnacle of two goals: ground tying + standing on balance pads

He was always tolerant of stupid human games. Go for a walk in the early morning with a coffee mug? Into it. Play unmounted games and fling yourself off his body? Into it. Canter bareback on the track and nearly fall off the side? Confused, but into it.

bizarrely remedial at standing with his legs straight and hips-width apart

He was fun, and talented, and an excellent teacher. I could have enjoyed learning from Fergus for years to come.

shared my sentiment about the gross wet we’ve had lately

I am so grateful that this little horse let me be his person. That he made me laugh and groan and smile and sigh exasperatedly and think and wonder and dream.

slow and steady survived 2020

Through some kind of prophetic wisdom, I was really gentle with myself in terms of goals this year. Seriously, I could not believe it when I couldn’t find a “2020 goals” post on the blog today, and had to literally go back and back (okay not that far back, not deluding myself about how much I wrote this year) to find “slow and steady wins 2020“.

Despite the fact that 2020 was an absolute shitshow for the world at large and for many people personally, I was lucky enough to have a good year. I did not get sick, and nobody in my friends and family circle was significantly affected by illness — pandemically or otherwise. My partner didn’t lose his job, so even when I wasn’t getting paid, we were fine. There was plenty to do on the farm and we live in the country, so got to spend tons of time outside and never felt trapped or cramped. My barn stayed open and safe, and Fergola stayed magnificent.

And the biggest thing: horse shows getting shut down literally saved the farm this year. It may sound melodramatic but in March I was getting ready to drive to California to scribe for Megan’s L program (I was so excited!) and start ramping up for the horse trails, despite the utterly massive to-do list I had for our orchard in the spring (pruning and fertilizing, but when you’re one person with 8000 trees, the list is a biggie). Then California was like “no, don’t do that” and USEF was like “nope, none of that either!” about all horse shows. And suddenly I had the time I needed to get those orchard tasks done. More than that, I was forced to step back, slow down, and tidy up all the “high priority” things in my life that always seemed to get bumped by “emergency” things.

I was really very, very lucky. For which I am grateful.

My biggest goal for 2020 was to journal every ride. And holy shit, I did that. I have a small moleskine notebook that I was journaling in personally, and Ferg’s owner and I shared a notebook in her trunk to keep notes and let one another know what was going on. The sight of my very full journal pages gave me so much joy as I filled them out, and looking at it again I’m excited to read back on our rides!

I also had pretty good success with “shut up and just do what my trainer tells me to.” I’m not perfect, by any means. But I took my own advice to heart and listened to TrJ, even when my gut was like “no! GRAB THAT RIGHT REIN NICOLE!” If I was confused or her instructions felt counter-intuitive, I made a point to get a better understanding of the why, so I could better enact the what.

I completely forgot about 12 months of position fixes. I had some great success with position fixes this year! My hands and position over fences are wildly improved, as is my body-awareness generally. But I did not tackle this in a month-by-month fashion, and probably didn’t dedicate as much time to them as I could have.

In terms of horse plans, I was absolutely successful: I kept leasing and I did not buy a horse! I also rode way more horses! Not in the semi-regular way I had been hoping (since everyone being home made it so that many fewer catch rides were needed at the barn, plus there’s a literal bevy of teenagers for me to compete with), but I tried six horses this fall and got to rid several friends’ horses. This helped to give me a way better idea of what I want in a horse. And, as an added bonus, I managed to save a goodly sum for New Horse as well! I don’t think I’ve ever been so successful with my horse goals before. This is amazing.

As a very brief update, the horse search is super weird and borderline insane right now. I didn’t go to California over the holidays, I haven’t seen any more horses, and I’ve basically stopped looking seriously at ads lately. After coming to terms with the fact that I probably can’t afford ($$ or time) the horse I really want to compete and grow on and meeting the perfect hony candidate for fun, games, and learning, my MIL floated the idea of helping me get that horse. In Germany.

So now we’re exploring how realistic that idea is. (It may very well not happen, but for now, that’s the post-vaccine plan.)

On the other hand, I had wild failure on the blog front: I did not, anywhere near it, blog once per week. I wrote 15 blogs this year, which comes out to about one every four weeks. Oops. In my defense, it turns out it’s super weird to blog about not-your-horse. So hopefully I can solve this own-horse problem sooner rather than later and alleviate that block.

Personally, I wanted to have no zero days; i.e. to chip away at the long and delightful to-do list that comes with being a grownup and living in a 70s farm house. This one’s hard to quantify, but I’d consider it successful. For a while I wrote down my no zero days activity in my planner in lavender after I did it each day so I could see my progress. But holy shit, once you get to cleaning the cabinets and the inside of the fridge and behind the oven you realize HOW MUCH that stuff needs to get done on a regular basis and just ugh.

I also planned on 12 months of personal improvements but, once again, I promptly forgot about that. Without some kind of journal-reminder, that’s going to be a hard one to stick to. (And I hardly ever look at my planner from June-August, so those months might get forked anyway.)

In the garden, my goal was to grow all the produce I needed for Thanksgiving (I had a couple of personal caveats like carrots and potatoes, since we have rodent problems that make those crops a bad idea right now). We didn’t really have Thanksgiving this year, so this turned out to be kinda a wash. But I did grow enough to host a fully functional Thanksgiving: winter squash, onions, celeriac, celery, and tons of corn! I somehow flunked out on the green beans though which is super embarrassing, since they are crazy easy to grow. A halfsie-success, and a great goal for this year also.

Sadly, I do not think I succeeded at my goal of reading 40 books. I could only list 30 when I tried just now, and though there may very well be some that didn’t make the list, I have a hard time believing it was a full 10 of them. In roughly reverse chronological order:

Words of Radiance, Fool’s Fate, Fool’s Errand, American Gods, Hidden Figures, Golden Fool, The Cooking Gene, Mythos, V for Vendetta, Guards! Guards!, Feet of Clay, The Shepherd’s Life***, Monstrous Regiment, Unorthodox, Ancillary Mercy, Ancillary Sword, Artemis, Elantris, Ancillary Justice, The Raven Tower, The Realms of the Gods, Emperor Mage, Wolf Speaker, Wild Magic, Ride With Your Mind, Ship of Destiny, Ship of Magic, Mad Ship, Wyrd Sisters, The Long Earth

*** Highly, highly, highly recommended if you take only one book of interest from this list

Finally, the horse show goals. The biggie. The multi-part-er. The goals that would make our shows better than ever before! Well, obviously, with pandemic we didn’t really do shows. We tested the waters toward the end of the year with a dressage show. It was great, and super relaxed compared to a full on HT. In terms of my personal goals for our team, I did manage to delegate more tasks to trusted team members and come in under budget, but we didn’t have a weekly social media presence.

This is definitely a “better luck in 21” situation. It didn’t make sense for us to run our HTs with all the weirdness of 2020, but we are all in for this year!

A few other highlights from this weirdo year:

We hatched a boatload of (20!) chicks.

Some were freaking napping champions.

The last one out was a slowpoke and I had to warm her up in a snood next to my neck. She grew up into the magnificent Becky with the Good Hair, and was the first of the new crop to lay.

We had a new family member join us.

I cleaned out the last bay of the tractor shed and found FIVE mummified opposums!

This magnificent tripawd and his parents came to visit for some quarantine-farm time.

Ferg and I got to go cross country schooling!

I went kayaking on one of our creeks, only got about 200 feet in either direction, and found a beaver dam!

We harvested >120 pounds of paste tomatoes, and a whole lot of other things.

Including 25 pounds of the most beautiful corn I’ve ever seen.

We cleaned up a huge part of our basement! I mean, it’s probably less than a quarter of the basement but compare it to before (and that’s after we removed a full 30yd dumpster of trash).

So. It wasn’t too awful of a year. Let’s do it again, but better.