Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Raven II Drives Germany!

Monday July 30 2007

Well this was a first – a first for the Raven horsing around in Germany, and a first time driving a carriage!

Jeanne had taken the day off to take me sightseeing; we went to the Het Loo Museum, the former palace of the Netherlands Royal Family, and then to eat a traditional Dutch meal: pancakes! These pancakes are made with egg and milk and flour, and are stuffed with whatever you want: meat, fruit, shrimp, garlic, just about anything. I ordered one with bacon in it... and wondered why he brought me bowls powdered sugar and thick maple syrup to pour on it, as you'd think that would go with the sweet pancakes. No, powdered sugar and maple syrup goes with kind of any pancake! Yum!

Charles came home from work early, and in the late afternoon we got Jeanne's Haflinger pony Storm ready to go out for a carriage ride! For Storm, after dressage and jumping competitions came endurance competition, but before all of that came pulling a carriage – he was broke to that before he was broke to ride.

He's built for pulling a carriage – big and stout – like a miniature Belgian draft horse. Jeanne did 5 years of endurance on him, “but he was really too big for endurance.” Looking at him from the front, you can see exactly what she means – he's very broad and heavy boned. But he handled everything that he did well, and he still pulls a mean carriage!

Charles rolled out the carriage, which hadn't been used in a year (“we used to go for a drive every Sunday, but now – no time!”) and dusted and sprayed it clean, and Jeanne brushed Storm (while the Raven watched) and got out his harness.

When he was all dressed out, Charles drove him to the waiting carriage, and backed him up, and Charles and Jeanne attached the carriage arms to his harness and fastened the buckles. It brought back my memories of the Percheron Slim and the carriage I drove a few Christmases ago in downtown Seattle!

Once hitched up, we all piled in the cart and went out for a drive in the German countryside and Dutch sunshine. It's a farming community, so the roads are narrow and the traffic almost non-existent. Some of the roads are paved with hand-laid brick, and one of them leads to the little restored old village of Itterbeck. We walked and trotted along these roads, passing a few people, some cows, and a couple of other Haflingers who looked like they wanted to run along with us. Storm motored right along, and seemed quite happy to be out for a spin. It was a lovely cool sunny day and we met little traffic.

Something a little different than endurance riding today, and another great way to relax and see and appreciate the countryside!


Sunday, July 29, 2007

Horse of a Different Color: Akhal-Teke and Arasier

Monday July 30 2007

I didn't get enough driving on the Autobahns yesterday, so I accompanied Charles on a 3+ hour drive across Germany to near Frankfurt to pick up Jeanne's mare Elana, who'd been bred to the Arabian stallion Ganimed. He's standing at Classic Performance Stallions, owned by Urte Kern and Jost Appel. Ganimed was a very successful racehorse, and also performed well in dressage and jumping. Jeanne and Charles searched far and wide till they found this horse, who fit the bill of just like what they were looking for in a stallion for an endurance mare.

Up until recently Urte and Jost had a rather large collection of horses – dressage horses, jumpers, eventers, a few endurance horses; stallions, mares, foals, and every age in between; Arabians, Thoroughbreds, Anglo-Arabians, the Akhal-Teke, and the Akhal-Teke – Arabian cross.

The Akhal-Teke comes from Russia where they are used for flat racing. They have a reputation of being tough horses – if they survive the conditions getting to the races, and they then survive their racing careers, they are indeed a strong horse.

Over the last few years, Urte had been frustrated by the registries snubbing the Akhal-Teke – Arabian cross; the standards said the horse had to look a certain showy way, decided by people who only want looks and nothing practical that would be useful as a performance horse. In fact, they seemed to be afraid of the performance horse, wanting only the ornamantal show horse.

And so, a year ago, Urte and Jost decided to start their own breed with the Akhal-Teke and Arabian cross: the Arasier (sometimes you'll see it as Arasien). They've established their own guidelines for the breed, which are based on half-Arabian sport horse standards. It's not limited to looks, or size, or color.

Urte was happy to show us her horses, talking extensively about each one of them. The Akhal-Teke breed is quite distinctive. A golden coat is very typical of (though not exclusive in) the breed, as is their build: very angular, defined muscles, long back, distinctive neck, high head carriage, amazing floating extended natural trot, very light canter. Urte said they all have great temperaments, are very calm, obedient, and very versatile – all their Akhal-Tekes have excelled at dressage, and jumping, and some have shown promise at endurance. The movement of all of them, even the month-old Arasier foal was outstanding – some horses you train for years and never get that extended trot, and these horses all did it naturally.

In their stalls, Urte showed us their 3 Akhal Teke mares, all of the same typical golden color; this year due to circumstances beyond their control, all 3 mares unfortunately did not have foals.

Also in stalls she showed us a beautiful black Anglo-Arabian stallion, Neesahn; since they've decided to concentrate on the Arasier breed, he doesn't fit in with their program anymore. But he was such a successful dressage and jumping horse, and has passed on his genes so successfully – and has been a part of the family for so many years – it's hard to think about selling him. He was a beauty – the big solid Thoroughbred-type horse I love to look at, and a knock-out black color to boot.

Urte then brought into the indoor arena several horses to look at, to watch them move about freely. First was the chestnut stallion Ganimed, a fine specimen of the Arabian breed. Ganimed was a very successful flat racing horse, and his sire Drakon was also a successful racehorse and has produced a number of successful endurance horses in Germany.

Next was an Arabian mare with her Arasier foal (the stallion an Akhal Teke) named Eurowings. Already, at one month old, he looked like an Akhal Teke, with that characteristic high head carriage, unique neck shape, defined muscles, and that amazing floating extended trot.

Next was the pride of the stable, the golden stallion Daimir. Again, very successful at dressage and jumping, and a very natural floating, extended trot. He is very quiet and kind (Urte led him around with just a string around his neck, and he followed like a dog), and has always willingly done everything they've asked of him. “He would give you his last Tshirt,” said Urte, with obvious pride in her eyes. “He would give you two, even if he didn't have them.”

Next was a yearling Akhal-Teke colt who floated around the arena; then we looked at a few more Akhal-Tekes or Arasiers outside.

You can see the passion in the eyes of Urte and Jost about these horses. Like David Marshall and Sandie Maclean in New Zealand with their Straight Egyptians: they are passionate about breeding these horses, they believe in them. They can recite every horse in the pedigree for 3 generations and what they've done and who they're related to and their eyes light up when they're talking about them.

You can't help but feel that with such dedication, they will be successful.

You can see their websites at: www.akhal-tekes.de , www.arasier.de , www.arabians.de

Saturday, July 28, 2007

Egger Rieser Endurance

Monday July 29 2007

Jeanne Linneweever is one of the leading international Dutch riders. Last year she was 30th on the open FEI rider rank, 8th on the FEI open combination rankings with her horse Riki's Macho Man.

Jeanne started riding when she was young, competing in dressage and jumping. In 1994 she and her husband Charles went to the World Endurance Championships in The Hague in Holland, where they saw the galloping finish of the 160 km ride with America's Valerie Kanavy on Pieraz in the stadium. Jeanne decided that was what she wanted to do! And since she was getting a little tired of the show world, she did just that – switched to endurance!

At home she had a Haflinger pony, Storm, that she'd been doing dressage and jumping on (quite successfully), and he became her first endurance horse. Their first ride was in Hottenberg Holland in 1994. For 5 years they did endurance rides together, up to 80 km. Storm is big and golden with a blond mane and tail, and people always recognized him at rides - “hey, there's Storm!” - though not necessarily always Jeanne on his back! He was really too big for fast endurance riding though – big boned and wide – so she had her eyes out for another endurance mount.

Through the Dutch endurance club she'd joined, she met Eric and Anita Lamsma, who live in the area. Anita rides endurance, and her husband crews and organizes the Dutch Championships every year. Anita had a horse she wasn't getting on with well in 2000, so she asked Jeanne to ride him. Riki's Macho Man was off the racetrack, and at first he was a tough horse. He was a bit crazy, was not used to riding out on trails, would sometimes panic, and was quite spooky. He broke a few of her bones – a few times. Once Jeanne even thought of selling him, but something told her he would be a nice horse.

Jeanne and Macho completed their first 160 km in 2004, and now they've finished 5 160 km rides. They finished 26th in the 2005 European Championships in Compiegne, France; 16th in the 2006 World Championships in Aachen, Germany; and second in this year's Dutch championships at 160 km. We may see them this year's European Championships in Portugal.

In addition, they have been invited to compete in the 2007 Pre-World Championship ride in Malaysia in November. That will be a hard decision for Jeanne and Charles to make for several reasons, not the least of which is it's a long way getting there, and Macho is not the easiest of travellers. He does have a companion Shetland pony Julia that he travels with, and that does help to keep him calm. Malaysia is a tough country to ride in – tough on the horses and tough on the riders with the hot and humid conditions. But the challenge still calls.

Now 14 years old and a pro at endurance, Macho can still be a handful; he'll still spook on training rides, and twice he's dumped her off at the finish of rides – though that's been a few years ago now. He's usually all business in a ride (though he gets bored on flat rides with repetitive loops, and he'll be spooky on rides if they're only 80 km – and he knows when he's only doing 80 km!), and sometimes he doesn't care to slow down, like on a few hazardous parts of the trail in the mud at Libramont last weekend!

Though Jeanne still takes dressage lessons, and all her horses get worked in dressage, she's happy to have left that world behind, and to be doing endurance. She loves the opportunity it gives her to travel around the world and meet people from different countries doing the same thing. It is hard, though, when you have full time jobs to support your endurance habit, which is a full-time job in itself!

Jeanne and Charles have 2 broodmares, one Adria with an adopted foal by her side (not their own) and scheduled to be bred, and the other Elana, having just been bred. They have 2 yearlings with a friend further north in Germany. The foal at Adria's side is by an Akhal Teke stallion – we'll look at Akhal Tekes next story – and owned by the stallion's owner Urte Kern. Urte may convince Jeanne to try out an Akhal Teke for endurance, so this youngster currently galloping in the paddock and terrorizing his mother (he chewed off most of her tail!) may one day be under saddle under Jeanne, going down the endurance trail!

See Jeanne's website at www.endurance-eggerriese.com

Friday, July 27, 2007

To The Netherlands

Sunday July 29 2007

I was catching a ride Sunday morning with Netherlands rider Jeanne Linneweever, from Libramont, Belgium, to Jeanne's home 6 hours north. Jean and her husband Charles are Dutch through and through, but their home is actually just over the border in Germany, out in the farming countryside where it's quiet, and there's plenty of room for her horses, and for riding.

I had to take the train back to Libramont in the rainy morning, then a bus from the station to the Libramont Fair. Instead of going right in the backside, where the endurance was, I was dropped off a ways from the front entrance. I followed the people, in the rain, into the Libramont Fair, intending to head right for the endurance area, and I got lost. This is one of the biggest agricultural Fairs in Europe, after all. Not too many of the workers even knew in which direction the endurance village was!

In the rain, with hundreds of other people, already this early in the morning, I wandered through display booths (lots of sausage booths and wine booths) and tractors, pig barns, sheep barns, horse barns, dairy cow barns. Now, a word about these dairy cows. I didn't get to see what kind they are, but they had big lumps all over them like they were afflicted with some terrible disease or were disfigured! But no! These were some prize-winning milk cows. The lumps are supposed to be there. What are they – muscle? Fat? Makes the milk richer? I didn't have time to find out, or taste the milk.

I ran, through the rain and mud, past stalls of the Ardennes draft horses, past a show ring where, in the rain, draft mares with their foals were waiting to show. And everywhere – loads of people, walking with and without umbrellas, slopping through the rain and mud, enjoying the Fair. I ran past a stadium with pony games going on in the muddy grass, past the jumping arena (sand) with competition going on in the rain.

Finally, near the jumping venue, I knew I was getting close to the endurance venue. Parked outside the jumping arena was the horse van parking – hundreds of vans, parked in a sea of mud! But which way was the endurance village? Nobody knew! It was getting close to 11 AM when I told Jeanne I'd meet them. They were probably already packed up waiting for me. I was soaked, in mud up to my ankles, and lost among a thousand horse vans! Which way – this way through the mud, or that way? Climb up on a van and look? That would have been the quickest way, but I ran and slipped back and forth through the mud until I finally came to a fence. Once I crawled through that, the trailers thinned out, and I could see I was on the backside of the endurance parking.

Jeanne and Charles and friends were indeed waiting on me (“not long,” they said, uh huh); Jeanne fetched her horse Riki's Macho Man from his covered stall, and loaded him onto the horse van with his travelling companion, rather round Shetland pony mare Julia. They closed up and handed me the keys to their assistance van... I'd be driving their niece Scarlett in the van and following the Linneweevers home. Yikes! But, the steering wheel and gear shift was on the right side, and over here they drive on the right side of the road, so it was just a matter of driving through rain – about 6 hours of it!

We stayed on roads in Germany all the way, much of them the autobahn – they are better and faster than the narrower Dutch highways (though of course we weren't driving that fast with a horse van) – and arrived at the Linneweever home, in the SUNSHINE, near the little village of Itterbeck, Germany. Jeanne and Charles moved here 4 years ago (it's just a few kilometers from the border of the Netherlands), because there's more land available, there's plenty of area to ride in right from their house, and it's less expensive than in Holland. They have been remodeling the house since then... horses take up all their spare time, imagine that!

We unloaded the horses, who went straight to roll in the mud, got them settled. Then we got ourselves settled, ordered Indonesian Chinese food. Welcome to Dutch endurance! (Or, technically, a little Dutch endurance part of Germany!)

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Belgium Libramont Fair and Endurance Ride

Saturday July 28 2007

Every year since 1926 the Libramont Fair has been held in the southern Ardennes region of Belgium, an area of dense forests and rolling hills. The forests much resemble the Pacific Northwest rainforests in the US – thick, bright green, and wet. The idea of the first Libramont fair was to promote the Ardennes draft horse. Named after this mountainous French-Belgian border region, the Ardennais originated centuries ago. It was used until the 1800's for draft work and riding; it was used in wars as a draft horse by the military up until World War I. Today the Ardennes draft horse is still used for work in the forest – where the hills might be too steep and slippery for a tractor, the draft horse is safer and more efficient.

The second Libramont Fair in 1927 had 160 horses, 3 exhibitors and 10,000 visitors; today the Fair has some 750 exhibitors, 3500 animals, almost 170,000 visitors. In addition to agricultural, livestock and forestry industry exhibits and animals, the Fair holds equine events such as breed shows, jumping competitions, pony games, driving competitions, draft pull competitions, and endurance.

Coinciding with the Libramont Fair for the second year was the Belgian Junior Championship 126 km ride, plus an open 126 km ride, and a 109 km ride. I'll skip all the ride details – you can see that at endurance.net, but I'll sum it up in one sentence: think wet, mud, gray skies, rain, and more rain – endurance in Belgium!

I'd come to the ride with Belgian endurance riders Barbara and Robert, friends of Leo's and Caroll's. Leo and Caroll left for the ride in Malaysia, so Robert and Barbara picked me up on Friday evening, and early Saturday morning (after a record 2 ½ hours of sleep), we made the start of the rides. It had started raining during the night, and was still raining steadily; already the dirt tracks were muddy and the grass tracks were soggy. The heavy gray skies made the start look less like morning than it did dusk-to-darkness. Riders were hunkered down under their helmets and in their raincoats on their horses. In Malaysia I had met Dutch endurance rider Jeanne Linneweever from the Netherlands, and I was going to be leaving Libramont with her on Sunday. She was riding the 109 km, but in the dark and rain and with raincoats and helmets, I didn't even see her on her horse.

The weather didn't seem to affect the participants however; horses were amped and riders were cheerful and optimistic as they left the grounds following a lead car out on course. Horses all wore a timing band on their leg, which Chronorace used to electronically track the horses in and out of the vet gates. Not everybody's stayed on... Jeanne found one in the mud on trail.

As the day went on, and the riders went out on their loops, everything and everybody got wetter. It got a little cool with the strong breeze at times, if your raincoat was soaked through. Which mine was. My “rainproof” Aussie hat is not Belgian rainproof. I think it held more water than my shoes. But nobody really looked like they minded the rain – it is Belgium after all, and most of the people there were used to it, and to me, it's just like 'home' – Seattle, rain rain rain, you just go on doing your thing, it's just a part of everything. And people were quite friendly, always a smile, always a hello. They seemed to enjoy being there, even the crews for the frontrunners throughout the day. The tracks for the horses, however, got worse and more treacherous as the rain continued.

Jean-Louis Leclercq, the French Chef d’Equipe, said much the same thing. “Strange weather,” he said. “This is the second time this year I've been to a ride in Belgium, and it's the second time it's been like this!” He was at this ride with 7 junior riders. “You have to ride a ride like this differently. The trail is very treacherous and slick, with holes under the mud.” Leclerq likes to see his team riders stay together for the first 2 loops, then continue on according to their horse's ability for that day. With so many good French horses being sold after rides to the Middle East and other countries, Leclerq is finding it a little hard picking enough rider-and-horse pairs for the European championships, which will be held in Lezirias, Portugal on September 8th. If the French keep selling all the good ones, the French team might be in a little trouble for good horses for themselves in the next few years. “We'll see,” he said, “it might be interesting.”

The first crew point we went to on the first loop was at a place where riders crossed a set of railroad tracks. Some horses spooked as they came to the wood and rails crossing the paved road; some slipped on the wet greasy wood, and some horses leaped in the air – as if they were electrically shocked. They were! If a horse stopped on one of the metal rails at one spot, he got a good shock, figuratively and literally!

The rain stopped around noon, and blue skies even punched a few holes in the clouds, but not for long. The clouds came back, though the rain held off. That didn't dry the track out any, however. Each loop horses dropped out due to lameness.

The finish of the Junior 126 km ride was an exciting one with 3 French juniors duking it out, 3 across the finish track at a gallop. I totally missed seeing all the 109 km riders, since Barbara and Robert and I followed the course of the 126 km ride. Jeanne Linneweever was in the lead coming in off the third loop, when her horse Ricki's Macho Man vetted out lame. He'd slipped and pulled something in his shoulder. It was only slight, and it was only the second time in his career he'd vetted out. She said later this might have been the toughest ride she'd ever done due to the wet, slippery conditions. It certainly made for a different kind of challenging endurance ride.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Lingua No Franca


I keep coming back to the subject of language. Especially French!

A lingua franca is any language widely used as a means of communication among speakers of other languages. For example, English is the native language of England, but is used as a vehicular language, or lingua franca, in India. French, a Romance language, (as Romanic, not Romantic), was considered the lingua franca of diplomacy. It is not the lingua franca of The Equestrian Vagabond.

I never had to learn another language in school when I was growing up, so I've never developed that skill, or the ear. I learned to read when I was 4 or 5, and my parents spoke German, but they never saw the need to teach me. (Or wait – maybe they DID teach me, and I forgot it, and never had the knack for learning languages back then either!)

Now, Spanish has to be one of the easiest languages to learn, and seeing as I grew up in South Texas and worked for 10 years on racetracks in the U.S. where primarily Mexicans work, you'd think I'd have picked that up. Nope. I've tried, again and again, to learn Spanish, but I only get to a same certain point, and never get any further. And the little Spanish that I DO know and try to use, fools people into thinking I can actually speak it, so they'll start a conversation (or just a sentence), none of which I can follow other than picking up a word or two. Furthermore, several French people have told me, “If you know Spanish, then you know French, because the two are similar.” I beg to differ!

It can be a bit hard travelling around, when you don't speak the local language. Hard on me not understanding anything, hard on the people who continuously have to translate things to English for me. I had dinner with 2 French photographers, one who spoke about 5 words of English (about the same number as my French words), and the other who could speak a little English. But it was very hard for him, because in his head he had first to translate the French words to Spanish, then think them out in English. Very tedious for him!

Even when people are terrically friendly and kind, you can feel isolated. It's very easy to imagine how an immigrant to a foreign country feels, surrounded by people he can't understand, words he can't read, unfamiliar customs, and no one to explain them. Even with someone translating, miscommunications easily happen. It's easy to feel a bit dense, when you're the only one who can only speak English, and people around you are flipping easily between 3 languages. And really, nothing makes you feel smaller than a little green pea in a grapefruit field, when 2 little girls, ages 4 and 5, not only speak French and German, but understand ME when I talk to them in English.

Now let's talk English accents: American (and then there's the Deep South accent, the Brooklyn accent, etc), British, Australian, New Zealand, Scottish, Irish. Heck, sometimes I had a hard time understanding some deep New Zealand accents, and many years ago in Scotland I could hardly understand a Scottish guy I was hiking with. “Hoi, m'nm'sPot,” meant, “Hi, my name is Pat.” And, let's talk about the Irish – some of my favorite people on the planet! I worked briefly in an Irish stable, and the head lad's accent was so thick, I could not understand a word of what I assume was English. I got tired of saying, “What? What?” and I finally started saying, “Uh huh,” although I didn't understand anything at all, at which he probably thought I was daft because God knows what I agreed to. So, imagine a native French speaker trying to understand the myriad different English accents. Yikes!

When someone can't speak your language, or can't pronounce words in your language, the best thing to do, and the most fun, is to laugh at them and make fun of them. If you can't laugh at other people, who can you laugh at?

French-speaking Belgian Leonard tried yesterday to say, “hawk.” It was coming out as Hoke, Howk, Hook, Hock – he couldn't get the aw sound. I laughed at him. “This English!” he spluttered, “it's such an uncivilized language! Hoook. Hoock. Hawooke. Hoke.”

“Hoke is okay, it's how the British say it.”

French is my special nemesis. Nothing clicks at all. Don't know how to pronounce it, don't understand vocalization, nothing. Blank page there. Some people appear to take offense that I have not learned their French language, and they appear to be a bit incensed when I massacre the pronunciation of their words. Anything French with an “L” or an “R” in it – forget it. Feel free to laugh at me making a shambles of French, because if you can't laugh at me, who can you laugh at? You might as well get some entertainment out of it. I certainly do, because it's hopeless!

If you think about it, it's got to be the same language difference between horses and humans. Most riding horses can probably speak many different languages or dialects, because we humans all ride a little differently (except perhaps for those highly talented and trained riders). We all sit a little differently, use our hands and weight and seat and legs a little differently, and each horse has to figure out what it is we are trying to say; we must learn to communicate. Horses are, in fact, amazingly adaptable to be able to adjust to different humans. That horse that you just don't get on with, 'can't get him to do anything right!', you are just speaking a language he does not understand. Like me and dressage. Like me and French.

Instead of fighting it, trying to learn a whole new language I don't understand, maybe I'll just learn the 7 most important words in the languages of the countries I visit: yes, no, please, thank you, hello, goodbye, and Horse. Or, learn a random phrase in each language: “I would like a fan,” in Spanish, or, “How ya doin, lover?” in Arabic.

And just stick to riding horses I can communicate with.

Sunday, July 22, 2007



Friendly people, beautiful countryside, thick green wet forests, old well-preserved houses and castles, perfect lighting, not least the mild weather... Belgium has grown on me and the Raven quickly.

Leonard and Carole live in a little village, Gesves (say “zhev”) 70 km from Brussels, putting them in the southern region of Belgium, the Wallonian French-speaking part. Leo's lovely old house probably originally dates back to the 1800's – he's lived in it for 10 years. There's a few old stables and several paddocks rich with grass for his 4 horses. Many of the village dwellers rebuild the houses from the 1700's and 1800's in the old stone style. Many were big old farmhouses, half of which the family lived in and half which was the stables for the animals. Belgium has more castles per square mile than any country, and I saw a number of them driving to Leo's house from Brussels (“Oh, there's another castle”). Most people keep up their old places in meticulous condition, taking much pride in landscaping them. Brilliant, bright-colored flowers inhabit many brick and stone windowsills everywhere.

It's lovely and cool at night, and not-hot during the day, although if you don't like the weather, wait 10 minutes and it will change: sun, clouds, rain, rain and sun, wind, storm, not a breeze. It usually starts off perfectly clear every morning and starts clouding up by noon, and by evening, you can hedge your bets that it's raining somewhere in Belgium. And always, at about 8 PM for about an hour, brilliant golden evening light filters through either haze or clouds or moist air, accenting church steeples and castles, highlighting the folds of hills and the leaves on trees. Even if you're not a photographer, it makes you stare with your mouth open in amazement.

The wet forest is much like the Pacific Northwest: wet, green, thick, ferns, moss, mud, slugs (a twinge of homesickness here?). It can be hard to get a horse fit training in the forest here because of the mud, and the rocks in the mud, and the very slick up and down small wet hills, but Leo has the option of stabling his horses on an old racecourse (10 minutes from his work in downtown Brussels, so he spends lunch 2 or 3 times a week riding his horse for an hour or two), adjacent to a government-owned forest with 10's of kilometres to ride on well-maintained, groomed, non-rocky trails. It's great for canter training, but, as Leo points out, it's also good to take the horses on rocky trails in the home forest, so they learn to walk over rocks – learn to balance, balance, learn the best place to put their feet.

The Raven and I rode in the home forest a couple of times, and over the groomed track and trails through the forest just outside Brussels. On our second ride near home, squeezing along an overgrown track, suddenly beside me, a hawk feather fluttered down beside me and my horse! I reached out and grabbed for it - it touched my fingers, but slipped out of my grasp and floated to the ground. I called to Leo - “Wait!” and I started to get off to retrieve it. Then I thought not; sometimes, you have to leave a feather – you can't take them all. So, I thanked the hawk that dropped it, and rode on.

The next day, riding along the old racecourse, there, right in front of us on the grass... another hawk feather! You don't turn down 2 hawk feathers in a row. I hopped off my horse, picked it up, and stuffed it in my pocket. It looked much like a red-tailed hawk to me, and Leo said it was a “buse” - which I looked up. It's also called a Common Buzzard, and is central Europe's most common bird of prey; it looks similar to our American Red-tailed hawks or Swainson's hawks. Nice! I think the feather was a gift from the hawk to the Raven!

The Raven and I've ridden Carol's young horse Bicai, Leo's 6-year-old qualified horse Dario, and, the star of Leo's stable, 18-year-old Orfeo: a horse that's been to 2 European Championships and 4 World Championships. More on Orfeo and Leo later... Orfeo and Leo will be part of the Belgium team riding at Compiegne, France – probably one of France's two top rides - on August 25, and I will be helping Carol to crew – now THAT is going to be a big experience!

Friday, July 20, 2007

To Belgium

Monday July 16 2007

Leaving France behind once again, I headed by high-speed train (always love the train!) to Brussels, Belgium, to visit with endurance friends Leonard Liesens and Caroll Gatelier. It's the first time for me (and The Raven!) in Belgium. I'd met Leo and Carol in Malaysia in March at the Kedah ride. Steph has known Leo for many years; they met through Ridecamp, and Steph invited him to come to the US to ride Tevis. They rode together – and finished! - in 1997 for Leo's first 100-mile ride.

Belgium, a country the size of Maryland with 10.5 million people, is a country rich in history and culture, art and architecture from Romanesque, Gothic, and Baroque periods. There are more castles per square mile in Belgium than anywhere else in the world. And then there's the world famous cuisine, and the beer and chocolates! There's hundreds of Belgian beers – Belgium lays claim to having the most varied and numerous collection of beers in the world. Beer-brewing in Belgium originated in the monasteries in the Middle Ages, a fine occupation for monks, eh? Three leading chocolate makers are headquartered in Belgium: Neuhaus (founded in Brussels in 1857!), Godiva (founded 1926 in Brussels) and Leonidas (founded by a Greek living in US in early 1900's, but he subsequently moved to Belgium). I will do my best to immerse myself in the Belgian culture by trying as many different beers and chocolates as possible!

Belgium is a constitutional, popular monarchy and a parliamentary democracy. I wonder if we can get King Albert II on an endurance horse? The three official languages of Belgium are Flemish (Dutch), French, and German, but many people, especially in the big cities, speak English. The northern part of Belgium, the Flanders region, is more economically prosperous than the French-speaking southern region of Wallonia, which has caused some discontent in the country.

I arrived in Brussels in the northern part of the country to meet Leonard at his work. Brussels developed around the 970's AD , and in the 12th century became an important stop on the trade route between Cologne, Germany, and Bruges, near the North Sea. Belgium is one of the founding members of the European Union, and the headquarters for both the EU and NATO are here. You can visit any number of museums, theatres, luxury and designer stores, historical monuments, art galleries, markets, cathedrals (the St Gudule and St Michael’s Cathedral dates from the 1400's) here. You cannot, however, visit a Starbucks!

The main centerpiece of Brussels is the Grand Place, with its Baroque and Gothic guildhouses (house guilds of bakers, carpenters, archers, boatsmen, haberdashers), most built in early 1700's. The Town Hall (Hotel de Ville) dates from the 1200's. The Grand Place as been the commercial hub of the city since it was built as a market in the 1200's. You can gorge here at the cafes, chocolate stores, and souvenir stores.

The Raven will be making an appearance soon on horseback in Belgium, as well as in Brussels as a tourist!

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Back to Basics (in Belgium)

Thursday July 19 2007

OK TEV Fan Club, I was going to cross-post my endurance.net reports on the French National Endurance Championships in Saint Galmier this past weekend, but, many of these latest entries the last months are getting away from what my original horse blogging was all about. Yea, I'm travelling the world doing endurance horse stuff, but my stories have more become just reports for endurance.net instead of my normal rambling stories, which can be a bit more entertaining. And when I'm on the road doing these reports, I don't have TIME for extra rambling stories, always being behind on posting pictures (i.e. finding internet!) and catching up on writing my notes, much less producing reports and then stories.

So, from now on, if you want endurance.net reports, head to www.endurance.net/merri . I'll still post some of the stories and links here, when I just have no time to create other ones, but I'll try to keep most of the dry reports out.

I'm in Belgium now with endurance friends... the weather's great, not so hot, a lovely bit of rain now and then, lots of Belgian beer and chocolate to try, beautiful old castles and villages and stone houses from the 1700's and 1800's, the Raven had his first ride in Belgium ... more with the back-to-basic stories soon!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Spain - El Bagual

Tuesday July 10 2007

In the morning I met Coby and Jordi in a cafe next door (I had another try at an iced coffee... another tease!). I asked Jordi questions about his horses and his endurance riding through Coby, and he filled in some of the blanks that Coby and I hadn't talked about yesterday.

El Bagual, the name of Jordi's little farm, is an old Argentinian word for wild horse breaker – Coby chose the name because it fits with what Jordi does best – taming wild horses. Jordi is one of those Natural Horsemen that have a brilliant way with horses, but doesn't brag about his prowess. Jordi does what he does because he enjoys it, not for show. His business comes by word of mouth, and he has plenty to keep him busy. He's got 5 endurance horses; the rest are stallions, mares and foals, and other clients' horses that need handling or breaking.

Jordi Comellas is not a big name in endurance racing, and it's because that's not one of his goals at the moment. His work, his passion, is breaking, schooling, and taming wild horses, and building a strong, slow foundation of work underneath endurance horses. He doesn't like to start ('break') his horses till they are 5 or 6, and he believes very strongly in progressing slowly: much of that training is walking – months, even years, of walking and slow training rides, never racing. With an endurance horse he will do lots of 20 km and 40 km rides, and lots of 60 km rides with a horse before ever considering doing a 90 km or 120 km ride. And he ends up selling the horses before they get to the 120's anyway. Family tragedies interrupted a lot of training last year, but he's back on track with his training and going to endurance rides with his horses.

What are Jordi's main goals? I asked Coby. One goal is to put on a 160 km ride in Catalonia because there has never been one here. In France, horses can do 40 km, 80 km, 120 km, and 160 km rides. Some riders in Spain think there is too big a leap in distance between those rides, so here at some rides you can choose to do 20 km, 40 km, 60 km, 90 km, 120 km, or 160 km rides. Many feel that is a better progression for the horses.

And, Jordi said in Spanish, and I understood, he really would like to ride Tevis in America!

After our coffee, Coby said I'd go off with Jordi for the day while she went about her own business. Oh dear, I thought, with my whole Spanish vocabulary of about 100 words, it is going to make for a silent day. But, off with Jordi I went!

And Jordi and I started talking horses during the drive to his farm – and I could not believe it, but I understood him. Either I know a lot more Spanish than I think I do, or, it's the language of horses, (with a little bit of sign language), that makes understanding this foreign language possible. He spoke Spanish to me, not Catalon, (otherwise, forget it!) and he had to speak slowly, and repeat some things, but somehow, I instinctively pulled these words and phrases from somewhere out of the blue, and understood everything he was saying.

Jordi's been in this area for 6 yrs but doesn't like it for training – it's too flat, being right by the sea. There were some modest mountains, right there in front of us, but they are off-limits, no horses, no motorbikes. Flat ground doesn't build up a horse's heart. He can haul to mountains further away for serious training when he has to. The walking uphill and downhill builds up their muscles, teaches them to use their whole body. It's also good for their mind, and mental schooling can be as important as physical conditioning. He isn't a fan of the flat racing in the Middle East, either – as far as he can tell, there's no challenge for the rider; you don't have to know your horse at all. Mountain rides are the real endurance rides - a challenge for the horse, the rider, and the two as a team.

When we arrived at El Bagual, with its humble sign half hidden behind a raised irrigation canal, and its humble barn (some might say dilapidated or spartan, but I would say antiquated, comfortable, and character-ful), Jordi said, “It's not grand, like Stephan Chazel's or Bernat Casals' place, but it's mine.” The horses looked content, plenty of room to move around, plenty of hay to eat, and that's the important thing.

First thing, I got to watch Jordi working with unbroke horses. The first one was a young mare broke to wearing saddle and bridle, and the second was a wilder gelding that had had just a minimum of handling. With both he used ropes, feed sacks, and a plastic bag on a whip to 'sack out' the horses, get them used to standing and accepting the touch and feel and noise. He touched and petted them all over, jumped around then and on them until they relaxed; he used a lunge line, and used driving ropes to get them to move forward, turn, and learn to give to pressure.

The key, he says, is to release immediately when the horse responds to pressure. And to know when to stop working with the horse – end on a good note, otherwise there is the risk of hurting the horse, going backward in your training instead of progressing forward. He really prefers best to work with horses who have never been handled – they don't already have any bad habits, taught by humans, that need unlearning first.

For each horse, during the work session, after he had it responding well to pressure – moving away from him and coming forward - he took the horse out into the yard and led it over 'Can Alley' – a little path filled with aluminum cans. You can imagine how noisy and scary walking over cans might be for a horse. “Primera vez,” said Jordi – first time for each of them. He led the way and they willingly followed him, walking over the cans, looking at their feet closely, but with a minimum of fright.

With the gelding, who was much less broke – Jordi wore gloves out for this one - after time in the round pen and walking over cans, Jordi said he'd try to load him in the 2-horse trailer – only the second time in his life the horse had been in one. The first time was when he was a youngster, and he was driven into one to get to Jordi's place. Using the techniques he'd just used in the round pen – pressure on and instant release when he got a response, driving and releasing, within just a few minutes he got the horse into the trailer. And it was a noisy, scary trailer – it wasn't attached to a vehicle, so the trailer was rocking forward and backward depending on where the horse's weight was centered.

Jordi led him out, then back in again; and the second time, the horse walked right in (trailer rocking), and stood there freely, facing forward, and eating hay contentedly. It's like magic watching some of the things good horsemen do when they are working with horses... but it's really just common sense when you think about it. And when it's done right, and it looks like magic, it looks easy... but not everybody can do it!

We had planned to go for a ride, but, as happens on horse farms, plans change, and some clients showed up. Jordi saddled a gray horse for the young boy and gave him lessons, while he sent me to fetch and saddle another chestnut horse, Cinnamon – one that did the Hipic Can Vivet ride 2 days ago. I rode around the little farm, then Jordi sent me out on the road on my own. I didn't want to go too far – didn't want the responsibility of taking a stranger's horse out alone!

Though you can't tell a whole lot about a horse at just a walk and a short trot, I could still tell that this was an awfully nice horse. Coby had been saying that one of these days, Jordi needs to keep at least one of his good horses and start competing with it in 120 km rides. When I got back, I told them both, “This is the one you need to keep!” And Jordi must have been thinking the same thing... “En Enero (January) noventa kilometros (90 km). En Marzo (March), ciento veinte kilometros! (120 km).” His eyes lit up as he said this, and he repeated this plan to me a couple of times over the day.

Jordi got on my horse Cinnamon and led the boy around a bit on the gray horse at a trot; then he demonstrated for all of us Cinnamon's athleticism, loping and galloping, loping and sprinting. He sat well on a horse, looked like a natural part of it. I said, “He looks like the Man from Snowy River!” The Spanish Man from Bahia de Roses – watch for him and Cinnamon on a 120 km ride in Spain in March!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Roses on the Mediterranean

Monday July 9 2007

In the very northeast corner of Spain, on the Bahia de Roses (Bay of Roses) on the Mediterranean, very near the border with France, is a little unpretentious farm called El Bagual . There are about 2 dozen horses in outdoor electric-fenced pens, a round pen, a couple of horse trailers, and a crumbling antique brick barn with a few stalls, and egg-laying chickens, and one very ecstatic year-old boxer puppy named Grispetta (Popcorn).

On the fence boards of this round pen you might see some ropes, lunge lines, carrot stick (you know, the Pat Parelli whip), plastic bag on a whip, and a pair of gloves, and you might see a Spanish endurance rider and natural horseman named Jordi Comellas leading a rather wild-eyed unbroke horse into the pen to work.

I'd come to El Bagual in the usual way of my travels, with strangers: Jordi's parents, Ramon and Annamaria, who didn't know me from Adam, picked me up in Berga after Bernat arranged the ride and dropped me off with them (and it was very hard leaving Bernat and Neus, and his parents Valentine and Neus, who made my stay so welcoming and lovely). Jordi's parents didn't speak a word of English, and I quickly exhausted the little Spanish I knew talking with them. We spent most of the ride looking at each other and smiling and giggling. I understood they were taking me to Jordi and his partner Coby's place (Bernat had introduced me to them at the Hipic Can Vivet yesterday)... or somewhere thereabouts. I really wasn't sure exactly where I was going, and I wasn't too worried about it. Somewhere else in Spain to see more horse people was good enough for me!

After about 2 hours of driving, Ramon tried to explain something to me, but I wasn't getting all of the words – something about they lived in Vic (which we'd passed through), Coby and Jordi lived in M---, and 1 hour for something, and 10 minutes for something else... but I just didn't have all the words in my Spanish vocabulary to get quite what they were saying. So we just laughed. After about ten minutes we pulled into a “stop” off the highway (gas and restaurant), and there, getting out of another car, was Coby. “OH!” I said, “NOW I know what you were saying!” We all laughed. We all had a drink before getting back on the road, Jordi's parents back to Vic and home, and me with Coby toward Roses.

Coby is from the Netherlands, and speaks 7 languages. “How on earth,” I asked, having been a Uno-lingual person all my life, much to my chagrin, “does someone speak SEVEN languages?” Well in the Netherlands, you grow up speaking Dutch, French, and German; and she picked up English, then she went to Italy and learned Italian, and then came to Spain and learned Catalon, and Spanish was not so much more to learn. And she said she enjoyed studying Russian, but she wasn't even counting that as a language. “Besides,” she says, “I like to talk! I just go somewhere and start talking! Jordi sometimes asks me if I EVER shut up! And unfortunately, our kid Joel is taking after me!” She added quite gleefully.

On our hour trip to Roses, she talked and talked and answered her phone in between, and had me in stitches with comical stories. We drove from thick green forests down toward the coast, in heavy gray clouds. I hadn't realized how much I'd missed clouds and rain till I was in them. Coby had arranged for a hotel for me in Roses on the bay, and said Jordi would come pick me up in the morning, take me to his farm, talk horses with me... though Jordi did not speak any English. She said she'd be around, in person or by phone, for interpreting.

I had a little time at night to walk through the touristy town past many beach clothing stores, restaurants, and gelato places, and the boardwalk along the beach. The sunset was quite spectacular – as most Mediterranean sunsets are – the rain clouds and sun clashing on the horizon and painting the near hills and the far mountains different colors, and of course, there was a rainbow for dessert! The restaurants were crowded, and many people were out walking, late into the night. This strolling about, sitting in restaurants late into the evening is a fine European pastime.

Now, I must say a word about European hotels I've encountered so far, in Italy, France, and Spain: NO AIR! No air conditioning, no fans (though the lovely little Hotel Pallotta in Assisi had a fan for me), and sometimes you couldn't open the windows, they were bolted shut! And it wasn't for the crime. Surely it can't be just me who likes, craves, fresh air, cool air. Many of the little villages I've passed through in Spain and France have their shutters tightly closed – it looks like whole towns are empty and abandoned, though you can see a fresh flower pot outside on a balcony, or a few laundry items out to dry, so you know people live there – but shutter windows and doors are tightly closed, all day, into the evenings. Maybe it's against the heat, but even when the sun doesn't hit the windows, whole towns are shuttered. I guess that's what I get – a craving for cool fresh air wherever I go - for spending most of my life working outdoors and the last 10 years living in and appreciating the fresh air of the mountains in summers and deserts in winters!

And, the cafe con leche con hielo (coffee with milk with ice) is a TEASE! There's a little tradition, here in Catalonia at least, of this drink – hot strong coffee, with milk if you ask in a cup, served with a glass with ice cubes in it. You stir your sugar (if you want it) into the hot coffee, then dump the hot coffee into the glass with ice. Served properly, (i.e. with enough ice), your coffee becomes cold, and scrumptious (says one who always craves iced drinks).

Well. I'd had a great one of these with Bernat's family on the way home after the Hipic Can Vivet ride, and I ordered one of these here in the evening, and I got two, count-em, TWO ice cubes, which promptly melted in the very hot coffee, cooling it off very little. What can you do, but just try to learn to like hot stuffy rooms and not-cold drinks, and laugh! And follow it up with a big serving of gelato. :)

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Raid (Ride) Hipic Can Vivet

Sunday July 8 2007

Today I was going along with Bernat and a load of people to a local ride 1 1/2 hours away, the 3rd Raid (Ride) Hipic Can Vivet, at the Club Hipic Centelles, where a 20 km, 40 km, and 60 km were being held. The Casal family (and the three youngsters Bernat was escorting) would ride the 40 km.

We were off at 7:38, (“only 8 minutes late!”), and down at the bottom of the hill brother Uri and dad Valentine were merging onto the highway with their van and 2 horses. Bernat's crew, two girls and 2 boys (and Peter, who was one of the riders) followed, and we met up with another carload of people on the way. As we passed through Centelles, and turned off the small road onto the tinier, narrower road, one lane only, leading the 200 metres to the basecamp, which looked packed and chaotic, we met a horse van, 300 crew cars heading out, and another horse van. I was so scared we were going to scrape sides, because there was just no room to pull off the road, I had to employ my Sri Lankan Drive-Calming Technique: look out your side window so you don't see what your driver is going to crash into!

Somehow we squeezed by without touching, and, still dodging oncoming crew cars, we pulled into the indeed chaotic ride base. They were trying a new method for this ride: All the distances, 20, 40, and 60 km, could vet in any time between 9 and 10 AM, and could start any time between 9:30 and 10:30 AM. One of the reasons for this, said Bernat, was that too many people tend to run their horses as fast as they can at the beginning, and, since there is a speed limit, usually of around 15 km/hr (you cant' finish faster than this), so many people would pull up short of the finish line and hide and wait for the correct time to finish. And, with so many people racing in a group, more people tended to hurt their horses racing together. Bernat also thought this might be a better situation for teaching young horses; they get used to all the commotion of horses coming and going at all times, so they don't get so hyped up starting in a big group, many of which are acting goofy because they take off so fast.

As we pulled in at 9 AM, riders were already going out to start their rides, either alone or in groups; the vet ring was busy with horses vetting in, and cars were racing out of camp for crew points, and people were still arriving with their horse vans. It was like arriving in the middle of an endurance ride – people, horses, cars, coming and going, horses in and out of the vet gate – only it was the beginning of the ride.

Bernat parked and his crew unloaded his horses; Uri parked in another area and he and his dad Valentine unloaded theirs. Some of the crew, including mom Neus, took care of the paperwork for all 5 horses (which took quite a while), while the rest of the crew grazed the horses, and set up the saddles and water buckets in the crewing area. Eventually the horse passports returned, and the 5 horses vetted in for the ride. Bernat and the crew saddled them up, and off went Uri and his father Valentine, and shortly after (at 10:12 AM), Bernat (on a gray gelding) and his herd, a young girl (riding a chestnut mare of Bernat's), Peter (one of Bernat's riders, on another chestnut mare of Bernat's), and young Paul (brother of one of the little boys at the Vilaformiu camp, riding his father Salvador's horse).

Then it was time to crew! No hanging out and relaxing in basecamp here! Jump in a car with strangers (friends of Salvador's) and race down the narrow winding roads with dozens of other cars, passing by a castle on a hill, to the first crew point in a parking lot, where dozens of other cars were already parked and water bottles and jugs set up. We jumped out and grabbed spots to set up – water containers carried to an open spot and set on the ground, ready to grab and pass off to riders... and then we waited for our riders to come through. This stop must have been at the end of a long hard climb, and most of the riders must have been racing up it, because nearly every horse I saw was panting like a dog when it got to the top. Few of those riders let their horses rest and catch their breaths... they slowed to grab water and dump it on their horses, and they were off again at a trot or canter.

When Bernat's group rode up the hill, our crew swarmed onto them with water bottles, and they stopped a while, giving the horses a break, giving them plenty of water to drink, and pouring lots of water on them – it was a very warm day, in the 80's already. Bernat doesn't bring his horses to the shorter distance rides to race – to him they are strictly training rides, to get a horse used to everything – horses in camp, on the trail, at crew points and vet checks. On the trail, Bernat's horses can go, go, go, concentrate on moving forward, but at the crew points is where the horse can relax, physically and mentally, catch his breath, drink, eat grass, and not worry about catching other horses that are coming into or going out of the crew points. Back on the trail, it's all business – and easier because the horse has learned to take a little break.

Once the Casal gang moved back out onto the trail (road), our 3 cars of people refilled water jugs, loaded them back in the cars, jumped in, and raced (!) down the winding roads to the next stop – not too far away by car, but plenty of kilometers by trail, because once we were set up, we waited a while for them to appear again.

And here they came in a group, trotting down the paved road, stopping for a good drink and dousing with water – some of the riders dousing themselves too, because it was warm for everybody. Bernat's group was toward the back of all the riders, so while we were waiting to crew, and crewing, there were always other crews packing up and leaving, and other cars driving by, and motorcycles, and quads, and bicyclists passing.

When our riders left, here we go again, packing up, jumping back in the car, and racing back along the narrow winding roads, underneath the castle, back to camp to wait for our riders to come in off the first loop. We had plenty of time to get there before the horses, but I'm beginning to think that RACING along in your car is part of the fun.

Base camp was really lively now, horses of all distance coming and going, vets in the ring very busy, water flying everywhere to cool horses and people down, cars racing in and out of camp, cars trying to drive through the busy crewing areas so they could get on the road and race to their riders' next crew points. The barbecue man was busy, as was the stand selling sandwiches, cool soft drinks and water and beer on tap. Our horses vetted through fine, and had a 50 minute hold. Valentine told me, “I think the horse is better than me!” as he hobbled by with his horse. There was a good breeze blowing through camp, which saved everybody from baking.

Once they resaddled and we sent them off on the trail again, here we went again, jumping in our cars and racing to the next crew point with dozens of other cars, the narrower the road (1-lane) the better, the windier the road the better, the faster the driving the better, the dustier the roads the better! Sitting in the back seat was like a roller coaster ride, wheeee! We got set up at the crew stop, and waited, and waited, every car passing us kicking up a fine breath of dust that continuously settled over everything.

Our horses and riders came through, looking hot (the riders moreso, maybe), and they took a good water break here. Then we loaded up everything, jumped back into the car, and raced back to basecamp – that was our last crew point. In camp we waited quite a while for our riders to come in and finish. First across came Paul, Peter, and the young girl, and a few minutes later, Valentine and his two sons Bernat and Uri came across the line. Valentine had wanted to race in, but Bernat told him, "No way! You won't be able to stop your horse!" Bernat and Uri let dad cross the line first.

Valentine slowly slithered off his horse, held by his crew, landed gingerly on the ground, then hobbled after his horse. He showed me a wounded ankle – his horse had slipped in a hole on a narrow part of the trail, fallen down, and pitched Valentine to the ground, then stepped on him. Ouch! But, being an endurance rider, he got back on, and finished the race – with a smile on his face I might add. (Back home at night, he found his side injured also, and he went to the hospital for a check and a tetanus shot.)

Bernat was very pleased with all his horses, and he spent the drive home – and much of the rest of the evening, reflecting on his horses' performances, what might be next for them, what he might have done better for them, and what he might try next time.

Bernat enjoys competing in the longer rides, but he also enjoys these local training rides - partly because he enjoys the training and schooling of the horses, and partly because he knows everybody! Everywhere he waved to people, said hello, stopped and talked to them. Every van we passed on the road he honked at and told me who they were. It was one big endurance family getting together and having a good day's ride - great way to spend a Sunday in Spain!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Vilaformiu Stables II

Saturday July 7 2007

Bernat and Neus had one trial run last year with a kid's horse summer camp; it was successful, and they enjoyed it, and so this year they are doing it all summer. You can see how much they both love having the kids around – it's just like one big, noisy, happy family. (And did I say fun and NOISY?) Six kids come to stay with them at a time, for 15 days at a time, learning about horses. They ride twice a day – morning and late afternoon; they help fetch, brush, and tack their horses before their rides, and help untack and brush them afterwards, and return them to their pens.

After a huge lunch is served (I am sure Neus will send them home weighing many more pounds than when they got here, with her huge portions she dishes out),

the kids play in and around the swimming pool, then usually sit under a tree with Neus, playing cards, or listening to her tell or read a story. Neus coaches them in the arena (usually with the help of Joanna), has little teaching sessions with them about parts of the horse, or tack and equipment. The kids help clean up the dishes after meals, and I've heard a couple of them say thank you for the meal, it was delicious. Sometimes it takes a while for the kids to actually EAT their food because they are having too much of a good time talking and laughing instead of eating. So Bernat announces the beginning of the Silent Game: everyone, including Bernat and Neus, (I was exempt, I was the referee), has to be quiet for 2 minutes, and whoever talks first has to clean the bathroom in the stables. EW! (But you can't even say, “Ew!” out loud.) Well the adults can of course stretch the 2 minutes into 4, 5, 7, 8 minutes, because the kids don't have a clear sense of time; and when it gets to 7 or 8 minutes, then they know something's going on, and they tap their watch and gesture at Bernat, who plays dumb, but they can't say anything because they'll have to clean the bathroom! There's lots of pantomiming going on, and desperate attempts not to laugh out loud.

There's more hard playing is done after dinner, which happens about 10 PM; but when Bernat and Neus say it's time to go up to bed, and they ask for quiet, the kids hush right up and fall asleep – probably because they are exhausted!

After the kids' summer horse camps are over, Bernat and Neus will try putting on an endurance riding camp. This year will be the trial, to see what customers want and how things can be improved; next year they hope to carry on with it after the summer kids' camps.

Now, while summer camps are hectic enough, that's just a small portion of what goes on here in the summer. This Saturday is a good example:

At 7:30 AM, I caught a ride with Bernat from the barn-house we're sleeping in, back to the house and stables – via Berga to pick up to of the workers – where Vilaformiu was already waking up. It's like an equine Disneyland – so many people, so many things going on at the same time, so many rides. At 9:30 AM, a mini-bus came and dropped off about 25 kids. A gal Anna took about 10 down to the round pen with one pony-sans-saddle, and with another man helping (who came on the bus with the group), took the kids around the pen bareback, leading the pony, walking and trotting. Anna has worked her for 4 years, and loves it.

Meanwhile, in the other arena pen, one guy and girl had 6 riders, those who could at least steer their horses, giving them lessons. Lollipop the sheep walked around checking on everybody. Another group of kids were walking around catching horses in their pens (with help), and Bernat and a worker rode off on 2 endurance horses. About 10:30 Neus drove up with the 6 resident kids, who spilled out, and they started getting their horses together and saddling up. The sheep followed Neus everywhere, like a shadow. Meanwhile two other people showed up to ride their horses with Bernat with his second set; Bernat and the boy returned and got a new set of horses to take out (including Ahmazig for me). In the riding arena, the groups of kids changed over – new ones clambered aboard while the others stood back to watch. Some of them were obviously nervous, but the teacher-kids working with them help them to relax. About 11 AM the mini-bus came to take that group of people back.

Then I rode out with Bernat and 3 others. It was just a short trip, about 45 minutes of walking up and up, a little bit of trotting, then turning around to come back. Bernat was riding the horse would ride in a local ride tomorrow, so he just wanted to give him a little workout today. Amahzig was kind as usual, a pleasure to ride.

When we got back from our ride, the 6 resident kids were also getting back – it was happy chaos as Bernat washed his horse for tomorrow's ride, and we all brushed our horses, the kids brushed their horses and fed them stale bread baguettes – the horses LOVE them – and washed bridles, and put things away. The one boy who can speak a little english told me he was tired. I bet they all are! They stayed up very late last night watching a movie. The little 7-yr-old girl is a hoot – she's always doing something constructive: sweeping the tackroom, brushing a horse, sand-papering rusty horseshoes (how on earth would she think to do that? There's sandpaper pieces in with a box of rusty horseshoes – but has she seen someone do that before?), and picking up the broom to sweep the tackroom again.

As the kids put their horses away, Neus was walking around with the bag of baguette treats, and Lollipop the sheep was right at her heels, trying to nibble a hole in the bag. There were other people around too, coming and going, people still riding in the arena . I said to Neus, “This is crazy!” She said, “Saturdays always are... but wait till tomorrow! Sunday is more crazy!”

Lunch was again huge – pasta followed by shrimp and pork chops. I REALLY needed a siesta, but instead I watched the kids play in the swimming pool Too cold for me to jump in – I like very warm water!

After lunch more people came to ride – in several waves – and Neus was sitting with the kids on the hay bales, teaching them about horse conformation. The girl Anna is always moving – in the arena, out on the roads, escorting on foot many of the riders out on the roads/trails, or leading horses at a walk or jog in the arenas. She must do 100 miles on foot each day!

The day began to wind down around 6 or so... followed by another late dinner, and late to bed. Early to rise tomorrow to go to a local endurance ride!

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Barcelona - Monserrat

Wed-Thurs-Fri July 4-6 2007

I was Barcelona-bound, hoping to spend a few days catching up on postings, which I did, and rest, which I decidedly did NOT. I managed to get a hotel room in Barcelona the first night, but the city was completely booked the next two nights (some fashion show!), so I went from Barcelona to Monserrat to Berga for hotels each night, and while I did get caught up on my backlogged postings, I spent any 'rest' time looking for hotels, looking for wireless internet places (several places said, “Yes, we have wireless,” and when I went in to set up my computer, no, they did not have wireless, and I was unable to connect at Starbucks – darn!), looking for Universal adaptor plugs (the 'universal adaptor' I had was definitely NOT one), a SIM card, and, let's talk about deodorant.

I left my big suitcase with Bernat and Neus and took just few a few clothes in my day pack for the 2-3 days I'd be gone. (I left the Raven with them also – this was a working trip, not a tourist trip.) Well. I forgot my deodorant. No small thing, in my opinion, with me always thinking it's HOT everywhere, and me noticing that many Europeans like things hot and stuffy. (It couldn't be just me, liking things colder than a normal person...)

Well. I went to a pharmacy to buy deodorant: SEVEN POINT SIXTY EUROS, that's 7.60 Euros, which is $10.32, for a small bottle!!! What could I do, I had to get it, because it was already too hot outside for me to wander the city looking for another pharmacy. Surely the stuff must be laced with gold flecks, though I haven't seen any in it.

And I was glad I bought it, because, for my second night where I had to travel to Monserrat for a hotel, I had to take the metro four stops to the train.

Well. In the metro tunnels it was SO HOT – you'd think down there it would be cool, like it is in EVERY OTHER CITY with a metro – and on the metro train itself – OHMIGOD it was like Malaysia in there, suffocatingly hot, no air, and lots of people, hot, sweaty, clammy bodies. After two stops I was about to pass out. And I figured it out – it's a government scam! The government is in on it with the Sweat Mafia. It wasn't just me sweltering in the train. Many other people were running their hands over their faces to remove the clammy sheen of sweat, some looking very uncomfortable, several people fanning themselves – that was what tipped me off! Fifty percent of the people in the cars will stagger off the trains into the nearest tourist shop – all run by the Abanico Mob (a branch of the Sweat Mafia) – to buy Abanicos – fans! I saw Abanicos on sale in these shops, and really, I couldn't figure out why anybody would buy one of those colorful decorated hand fans. Now I know! Or fifty percent of the people will run to pharmacies (all owned and run by the Underarm Mob, the other branch of the Sweat Mafia) to buy deodorant, at E7.60 a little bottle! The government has it all figured out – leave the air off on the metro, make lots of money in the city every day selling fans and deodorant!

After the 4th stop I indeed staggered off the metro, about to faint from the hot stuffy non-air, into the warm tunnel (but better than the train car). You know, in, say, New York City, for entertainment you can ride the subway to the ends of the lines to see parts of the city (and the culture, with the people you ride with) – not here. You'd die of heat stroke if you stayed on till the end of the line.

The train was much better, a nice 1 hour ride to the village below Monserrat (“jagged mountain”), a Benedictine monastery perched on the side of unusual spire-shaped mountains where a cable car takes you up to the top. It was quite the view from up there! The strange shapes of the mountain were formed by weather – wind, rain, frost - from an aggregate of limestone, rocks and sand that once lay under the ocean. Or, you can go with the myth that says the mountain was carved by little angels with golden saws. Then there's the legend of the Holy Grail being hidden here...

It sure makes you wonder how much work went into building the monastery, all that stone being carried from somewhere. There were quite a few tourist day trippers, but it was quiet at night - only no internet! A bunch of loud happy boisterous clanging banging church bells rang merrily for a while... at 6:42 PM. And again at 9:07 PM.

Then it was back through Barcelona next day to get to my next hotel. Barcelona is one big festive city – an Athens full of people, a New York City full of people (although not QUITE that crowded): tons of people, walking, gawking, shopping; street artists, street hawkers, homeless begging; cafes, grafitti, cops, shops, water pipe cafes (HEY! Any APPLE TOBACCO???), skateboarders, hippies, the rich and the backpackers, the fashion conscious and the fashion casualties.

And now it's back to the horses, and Bernat and Neus' at Vilaformiu. Then, off to places as yet not-quite-known...

Wednesday, July 4, 2007



The boys working for Bernat saddle up the chestnut gelding Amazhig for me, I tied Raven in his bag onto the saddle, and off we went for a ride in the pre-Pyrenees mountains of Spain! Mine was a nice horse, very smooth, very responsive. I think he liked me because I scratched his ears, which were so terribly itchy his eyes rolled back in his head as I scratched this insides. We started walking up and up, up 'logging roads,' part of them connecting with a hiker/trekker trail that runs about 100 miles, and will take you through the Pyrenees into France.

I quizzed Bernat while we rode, continued picking his brain. How does he train? It depends, of course, on the horse, what race is coming up, how the horse is feeling and training. But in general, he might take the horse out 2 days on, 2 days off. If a 160 km ride is coming up, he might take him out on a long ride that week before. Just depends on the horse.

What about electrolytes? In general, he doesn't use them, but always, he listens to his horse and what he might need. He prefers to feed carrots and apples – natural things, and he will sometimes use the flora stuff for helping settle the stomach. But again, it just depends on the horse, and the day, and the ride, and each loop.

In all his methods – with horses and with people and with life, he always emphasizes that it shouldn't always be extreme, one way or the other. Find the medium that works, and stay open-minded to try something different, or change something if it needs changing – but always, always, listen to the horse and what he needs at that particular moment. It may be different every time. And after races, Bernat'll analyze every bit of the ride, and how his horse felt. Maybe he could have done something different on this loop; maybe he just got lucky and won this ride, but he could have done something better...

Feeding during races: he likes to take many different things for the horse to choose from. Ever notice how your horse will always try to eat some other horse's food? It's probably because the horse knows he needs something else that food might have in it. Or maybe he just wants a variety and he'll eat more if he has all the choices.

Bernat observed that some horses and riders or trainers just don't get along – it's just like people. You might see someone on the street, you don't know them at all, but you just get a feeling about them – ew, he's a creep, or hey, that must be a nice person. And when you meet them, same thing – some people you get along with famously, and some you just don't get on with at all. And it's the same with horses and people – sometimes they get on fine, sometimes they don't. The horse Shaman that won Florac came from a trainer that wasn't getting anywhere with him. Shaman and Cecile Demierre obviously hit it off!

Our 4 horses had a good walk up, some of it steep, some of it on trails through the green rich forest, and when we got back onto a dirt road, we started trotting, switching-backing up and up, and the last few stretches we picked up a canter. My horse loped smoothly along, both of us squinting from the rocks flying up from the feet of Bernat's mount as they pelted us in the face. Up to the top we cantered, the top o' the world, where we had 3 directions of the compass spread out far below us – it was hazy/smoggy, but bello – beautiful! The Raven enjoyed the view too, and, I saw a couple of vultures hanging high in the wind updrafts.

We walked the horses on foot all the way down – the road was slick, and hard – no need to stress their joints riding them down. The Raven had a great time, and I gave my mount some more good ear scratches in thanks for the lovely ride.

After the ride, Neus served us and 3 children lunch (made and delivered by a woman in the village, because Neus doesn't have time to cook lunch and dinner for everybody). And that Neus, you have to watch her carefully, because she PILES the food on your plate! She has this sneaky way of dumping more and more food on your plate, and if you don't watch every second, she keeps piling more on! And when you grab for your plate, she pulls it back out of your reach and puts MORE ON! When you object, she keeps PILING IT ON! She did tell me that the cook way overcooks – she tells the cook “food for 4” when there are 6, or “food for 6” when there are 9, and the cook makes enough for 12 people – so maybe she doesn't want the food to go to waste, or she just wants to put meat on everybody's bones!

I sat down with my computer afterwards to write, I really did, but Neus said “Would you like to go riding with Bernat again?” Sure! So i put my computer away... but nothing was happening yet, Bernat was off doing something, so I laid down under the tree, near where Neus was reading a story, or telling a story to the kids... not sure because I dozed off for a Siesta... and sometime later Bernat was standing over me, “Hello!” “Uh – huh? What...?” “You want to go riding?” “Uh – yea!” “It's OK, we get the horses ready, you sleep 5 more minutes.” Oh no, I couldn't be such a Princess; I got up, though it took me a good 4 minutes to actually perform that function of getting up and staggering to the stables. I like the Spanish Siesta – especially when you have someone like Neus loading you up with a big lunch!

I was given an appaloosa to ride – one of the lesson horses. “He has a head like a stone,” said Bernat. I got on to test the stirrups, and the horse started walking off, and I couldn't stop him because he had no brakes. Yikes! One of the 2 other boys was riding a chestnut (“sometimes, he likes to buck a little”) and Bernat was riding a crazy gray horse, and I got the kid's lesson horse. Who was excited as we left the property. In fact, I could feel him a bit humpy beneath me, shaking his head at times (I wasn't on his mouth at all), and wanting to put his head down. Hmmm.

He did get his head down once, but we were walking, so I got it back up, but I was quite alert to anything he might try. He was quite jittery as we started climbing up a long steep hill, but even that didn't knock the wine and vinegar out of him. He was huffing and puffing mightily behind the endurance horses as we finally climbed up onto the 'logging road' we were on yesterday. Bernat said, “We will trot some here,” and I could still feel the little Appy lesson horse ready to erupt or do something naughty beneath me. We started trotting along, in the middle of the string, and he'd give his head a shake, and start to put it down, but I'd check him, and then suddenly it happened: he leapt up, threw his head down, and propped!

“ACK!” I squawked. The boy behind me pulled up, and Bernat watched in wonder as the little lesson horse almost bucked me off! My right foot came out of the stirrup, and the things that saved me from coming off and being totally embarrassed by the kids' lesson horse was that he didn't get his head all the way down, and he stopped after that one buck. Yahoo, I stayed on! Normally I fly right off a bucking horse before he gets past the first buck.

Bernat was appalled that the appy bucked (“he's never done that!”) but I was thrilled I stayed on (luck really, no skill involved). Bernat said maybe the other horses excited him, but I said no, he'd been that way since we left. Who knows, maybe the horse and I just didn't connect, like he'd been talking about. Or maybe his girth was too tight, or he didn't like the way I sat, or maybe he didn't want to leave the house (though he does, on rides like these), or he didn't like some of the horses he was with (he definitely didn't like one of the chestnuts), or maybe he just had a bee in his bonnet today. I said, “I know! The other horses were calling him names and he was embarrassed by it!” I was making a joke, but Bernat didn't get it, and I had a hard time trying to explain, in English and my limited Spanish.

After that buck, we walked some more, then tried trotting again. Maybe the appy got it out of his system, because he wasn't so naughty, though there were still a few moments where he thought about trying it again. But then, up we started climbing on a hard trail, trotting, up and up. His little legs spun and spun to keep up with the long-stepping Arabians. This finally knocked the stuffing out of him! He couldn't have bucked if I'd started spurring him and goosing him in the flanks. Which I didn't do, even though he'd been naughty. Sometimes a horse just has to buck.

We climbed up a little more, up onto a flat above the forest where a lake used to be, and where cows now grazed – nice little spot up on a little top-slice of the world, with a view across to the top point we were at on this morning's ride. Bernat's horse didn't like cows, so he worked on a little up-close-and-personal bovine time with him. Then we headed down, getting off to walk again down the slick rocky roads. My little appy strolled along beside me, and I grabbed a few branches off some sort of bush that the horses liked, handing them to him to snack on as we went down.

We got back around 8 PM, still plenty of light, and then it was a semi-frenzy of loading the kids and all our suitcases into the SUV, and taking off up the 'logging' roads for another place a few kilometres further into the forest, where the Casals rent property, a house, a type of hotel/hostal for families, a barn converted to a type of trekker's rest, and a barn where Uri kept his horses. Bernat and I didn't fit in the SUV so I rode with him on the quad to the place.

There we all spilled into the house-barn, which quickly echoed loudly with 6 giggling, screeching, laughing, playing kids. Neus dished out the spaghetti, and here she went again, piling the food on, more and more until you almost had to tackle her onto the ground to stop dishing it out! The giggles and screeches went on throughout dinner, and ohmigod it was deafening echoing around the building, and Bernat teased the kids and shook his head, “Ay yi yi!” as the kids' squealed some more, and Neus kept dishing out the food!

I thought ohmigod we'll never get any sleep, this will be a big all-night slumber party with the kids, but, just like Bernat said earlier, when you say QUIET! with a stern look on your face, the kids get quiet and they go to sleep (not to mention they are probably tired from the riding and being outside all day then playing hard together inside!) A couple of them whispered, and Neus said “SHHH!” and the shhshed, and they went to sleep, and so did I, slept like a log.

Vilaformiu Endurance

Monday July 2 2007

I woke up... in Spain!!

More questions for, and answers from, Bernat Casals:

At first Bernat thought it was a good idea to breed, raise and train his own horses for endurance, but that's “too much work,” he says (though what they are doing now seems to me beyond too much work!). Now he buys horses, trains them, trains for other people (about 4 for W'rsan Stables in Abu Dhabi), and rides them. He keeps very detailed records of every training ride, how far, how the horse went, what saddle he wore. He in fact works with the man who makes the Zilda saddles, reporting the hours of use with saddles, offering suggestions for improvement, and testing those models out.

Bernat is very happy with his job of training and riding endurance horses , riding them in the mountains, riding them in competition. Riding clears his head; he can relax, going out in the mountains on a training ride, and his wife likes to do them too. Neus doesn't so much care for competing. Bernat doesn't want to train a big stable for any shaikhs, doesn't need more, doesn't need the politics involved; he's just happy in his little world. Which really isn't little: I saw their brochure later, offering boarding, training, riding lessons, horse trekking, summer riding camps, and if you just think about the time and effort involved in just keeping track of and taking care of 15 horses, not including any of these activities, you get a picture of how “small” their operation is!

He's very attuned to his horses – the horse he rode in Florac passed the vet checks but he just wasn't acting normal, wanting to quit in the middle of a loop, so he pulled him. The horse felt good the day after the ride, and looked good too, none the worse for wear, but Bernat was wracking his brain to come up with a cause for his behavior. Was it just not his day? Did he need a vacation? Bernat had planned to give him a vacation for a while after Florac – maybe he should have skipped Florac and given him the vacation sooner. He was beating himself up about it.

It was Bernat's first ride at Florac, and despite not finishing, he loved the ride. “It was beautiful,” he said. “People in this area live for this ride; they come out to cheer, and to help, tell you 'take care of your horse, it gets steep here,' they like having you come.”

Bernat likes the challenge of a 160 km mountain ride, where you must know your horse. It's not just a flat race, where it appears you don't have to have much horsemanship, but still, he says, there must be something you know, that a mountain rider wouldn't know, if you do the flat racing all the time. He asked the same question I do: is it better to take 24 hours to finish a 100-mile ride slow, or to ride harder and get it over with faster so the horse isn't out there so long? (Or, same question for a 12-hour 50 miler).

He was surprised when i mentioned all our multi-day rides. Two years ago he did do an 8-day ride, 60 kilometers a day, alternating with two horses. He said ride organization is difficult because riders ask and ask and ask for things: “Every rider should have to organize one ride, and they wouldn't ask so much anymore!”

Bernat tried other horse disciplines – went to French riding schools for years as a youngster – but when he found endurance, he loved it. He likes being outdoors, especially here in the mountains; he likes seeing new places from horseback, he likes feeling his horse, and nowhere better to do that but on long distance rides.