Country # 18 – Netherlands: Zandvoort aan Zee or How I rode a Coward Cartoon Character

This time our busy travel schedule brought us to the Netherlands. Of course my golden dream was to ride the Friesian horse, but… Well, maybe next time.

The internet site of Baarshoeve stables (Manege de Baarshoeve) promised a nice and relaxing 2.5-hour ride on the Zandvoort aan Zee beach, and I thought that it would be great, after riding on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in Morocco and the shore of the Indian Ocean in Oman, to add this Arctic Ocean experience to my list.

Zandvoort is located north-west of Amsterdam, about 20 minutes by train. Horse riding is extremely popular in the Netherlands. In fact, Holland has one of the highest numbers of horses per capita in Europe. Baarshoeve is one of the biggest riding schools in the area, stabling over 60 horses and providing lessons to about 200 club members. Funnily enough, the majority of horses have cartoon characters’ names.

Obeliks

Obeliks

Unfortunately, European weather is not that easy to predict. Despite the morning being dry and beautiful and there being almost no clouds when we got to the stables, by the time we’d brushed and saddled our horses (the 15-year-old, elephant-like Obeliks for my husband and 21-year-old Tarzan for me) it was raining cats and dogs. It would have probably stopped us in Bahrain, but there in Holland, where 250 days of the year are rainy, the stable manager, Siska, seemed not to even notice that there was a problem. The only thing she told us was that we couldn’t go to the beach because with the thunder and lightning, the horses were going to get scared and she didn’t want them to be in the open area when and if it happened, so she told us that we’d better go to dunes.

Tarzan

Tarzan

Well, dunes in Holland are not exactly the type of dunes we are used to seeing here in the Middle East. Holland’s dunes were covered with grass and wild berry bushes, which looked like if someone was celebrating Holi, the Indian festival of colors: red berries with yellow leaves here, blue berries with lime-green leaves there, violet berries with bright pink leaves on the next hill. ;-)

The Dunes :-)

The Dunes :)

I was so overwhelmed with the beauty of these dunes that I didn’t even notice the tiny flashes of lightning and distant sound of thunder, but Tarzan, unfortunately, paid more attention to the weather conditions than I did. If you think that old horses are calm, slow and boring to ride, you’ve never ridden a 17-hand, 21-year-old Dutch Warmblood who is crazy scared of storms. Within a fraction of a second, he did a 180 degree pirouette and jumped few meters left of the path. Yes, he might have been old, but he has better reactions then I do. As Siska told me later, it was a miracle that I stayed in the saddle after this. Later, Tarzan did a few more similar tricks, but I was better prepared so all went well.

One of the most lasting impressions we had was the herd of wild wooly cows which suddenly appeared on our path. Remembering what a single strike of lightning could do to my brave Tarzan, I prepared myself to gallop away from these frightening creatures with sharp horns, but surprisingly, neither did the horses pay much attention to bulls, nor were the bulls interested in confronting the horses. In fact they glared at each other for 10-15 seconds and then bulls decided to give us a path.

Silent conversation

Silent conversation

Despite being soaked from head to toe, I still consider this ride one of our best – the nature was beautiful, and as well as the wooly bulls we saw some wild rabbits, pheasants, a deer and even a bison. I know, I know it’s not unusual experience for the average European citizen, but in Bahrain, the country of my current residence, the closest you can get to wild life is to see a stray dog or a cat eating from dumpster. :) And I really envy the members of the Baarnhoeve riding school that have the opportunity to ride in such a beautiful place every day.

Do you see what I see?

Do you see what I see?

Riding routes are specially marked

Riding routes are specially marked

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Tarzan uses me as a towel

Tarzan uses me as a towel

As all great travelers i've seen more than I remember and remember more than I've seen. B. Disraeli

As all great travelers i’ve seen more than I remember and remember more than I’ve seen. B. Disraeli

Useful links:

Manege de Baarshoeve site: http://www.debaarshoeve.nl

 

Country # 19 – Iceland: 66°North or Don’t You Dare to Call Them Ponies

They say that in Iceland horses are fundamental part of the landscape, and this is, if anything, an understatement. As we drove about 300 kilometers from Reykjavik to the black volcanic sand beaches of Vik, we literally saw more horses than people. Actually, our whole trip was a chain of exciting sprints from one herd of fluffy horses to another.

In fact, horse riding is the 2nd biggest and fastest-growing touristic attraction in Iceland. For the hiking in Iceland we have chosen one of the oldest (it celebrated its 45th year in 2013) and one of the biggest farms specializing in horse riding tourism. Laxnes horse farm was founded in 1968 by Þórarinn “Póri” Jónasson and his wife Ragnheiður “Heiða” Gislason. Now the family is bigger, but they still share the same passion for horses. Well, who wouldn’t? Icelandic horses are the cutest and fluffiest ‘teddy-bears’ of the equine world.

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The breed has remained virtually unchanged since Viking times. It is believed that no external blood has been mixed with the blood of Icelandic horses since the 11th century. Currently, there are more than 77,000 horses in Iceland – one horse for every 4 citizens – the highest number of horses per capita in Europe! And on top of it 300,000 Icelandic horses now live and are bred outside of Iceland, mostly in Germany and the United Kingdom, and there are even Icelandic Equine games held every second year. But import rules for horses are so strict that it’s not even allowed to re-import horses you have exported, for example for breeding or competition purposes.

And back to our farm. Laxnes farm keeps about 130 horses. Some of them, including our guide’s horse, have won different national competitions.

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Icelandic horses are very huggable, which they are perfectly aware of. It seems that, not unlike cats, they are born with the knowledge/feeling that they destined to be adored by one and all. As a local breed these horses have all possible and impossible colors: black horses with blue eyes, dapple red, dark browns with pinkish manes and tails, you name it. In fact, I was running from one horse to another with my camera trying to save as many examples as possible of this natural variety on my memory card.

My husband got the tallest horse in the herd: a dapple grey mare, Saga, which looked almost caricature-like due to its enormously thick neck, and I got a red skewbald, Feykir. The word Feykir means so many things in Icelandic that it’s quite difficult to translate it. The closest meaning that exists in English would be ‘a gust of the wind’, and I got him because, unlike a lot of the other group members, I’d ridden before.

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I volunteered to brush Feykir before saddling, and I have to say that brushing an Icelandic horse is a unique experience. It seemed that you couldn’t get to the skin through the thick soft fur of these animals. Certainly, they have never known clipping, which is perfectly understandable in the country where horses live outside the whole year, where the average summer temperature does not exceed 15 degrees Celsius.

One interesting fact is that in order to protect Icelandic animals from outside diseases, it’s not only prohibited to bring other animals to the country, but also people are not allowed to import used tack and any kind of animal products.

When the whole group had mounted, we started our two-hour long trip along the narrow mountain path to the Troll Woman Waterfall (Trὄllafoss). Meager Icelandic Sun shone gently; unsaddled grazing horses greeted us by whinnying; and I couldn’t stop thinking that Iceland is not foreign, but rather mystical and extraterrestrial. No wonder Icelanders have lots of stories about elves and trolls; such an unusual place cannot be inhabited by usual creatures. To be honest, I felt like it wouldn’t surprise me to see a troll on the way to a waterfall or to find some weird-looking footprints on the path. Even a dragon would fit in perfectly there.

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One of the most exciting facts about Icelandic horses is that all of them are 5-gaters. In addition to the standard walk, trot and canter, they also have tὄlt (amble) and skeid or pace (which is told to be faster than a gallop).

Tὄlt is an amazing gait. It’s extremely comfortable and feels like sitting in a boat in the breeze. But that bliss didn’t last for too long. The group was going faster and faster and Feykir changed up to a trot, and I made a very fast transition from heaven to hell. Feykir’s trot was so hasty and so small that I neither could do raising, nor could I quickly adjust to the sitting one. Feykir was not the only one to rush to trot so the whole group suddenly quit chatting and stopped smiling delightfully, everyone was busy trying to keep their saddles between themselves and their horses. Unfortunately, not all managed to. After a few meters of flipping trot, one girl fell down onto the rocky road. On the positive side, Icelandic horses are quite short – about 125-135 cm – so it’s not that scary to fall from one. But never ever call an Icelandic horse a pony! They are Viking horses, and “Vikings on ponies” doesn’t sound quite right :-)

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During the short pause, while waiting for the group members who were lagging behind, I asked the instructor how to “change gears.” In theory, it sounded really easy: just sit back, really back, with your legs forward and from time to time squeeze reins. Well it worked about one time out of 3. All the rest of the times I spent adjusting to Feykir’s kicking-my-soul-out-of-my-body trot. I made a promise to myself that the next time I won’t say that I’ve ridden before, and maybe I will get nicer tὄlter.

We spent about half an hour at the waterfall and mounted again. Like all horses all over the world, our small herd was more than happy to turn back home.

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We were going faster and faster and there was not enough sitting back and squeezing reins in the world to keep Feykir tὄlting, so I was putting up with his juddery trot, when he suddenly started cantering. It felt like I was sitting in a cozy rocking chair and watching a film about Iceland on National Geographic. All I could think in that moment was “Feykir, please never stop cantering.”

A few days later, on the way back to sunny Bahrain, I read a book about Icelandic horses which I bought on the last day of our trip. One poem by Einar Benediktsson, I liked especially:

Man is but half-man when he is alone
But teamed with another his true measure is shown
And the rider on horseback is regal in stature
The uncrowned king of a world of his own.

And I’ll be forever thankful to all the horses that make me feel that way.

Icelandic Beauty

Icelandic beauty

Those blue eyes

Those blue eyes

Viking horse

Viking horse

At Trollafoss

At Trollafoss

Herd of Teddy Bear Horses

Herd of Teddy Bear Horses

Beautiful Saga

Beautiful Saga

Fluffy (1)

Useful links:

Laxnes Horse Farm site: www.laxnes.is

Country # 20 – Egypt: Stable Booked Under My Name or Happy New Year of the Horse

To be honest, this isn’t the first time I’ve ridden in Egypt. Nine years ago I took part in a donkey riding relay, but I guess that doesn’t count.

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When my boss told me to go to Egypt for a business trip, he mentioned that he’d asked to book Concorde El Salam hotel for me. “You will understand why,” he added. And I surely did. The local health club provides horse riding lessons along with other more standard services, like spa and gym. Well that’s the kind of health club I would like to have in each hotel I stay in. Just a hint to hoteliers :-)

To book a 30-minute riding lesson, you have to buy a ticket and go to the arena to wait for you turn. While waiting, I watched group of other people riding, mostly kids on the walking horses led by grooms. Call it a 6th sense, but I knew that this tall skinny ginger mare with the nicely-contrasting bright blue bridal would be my ride today. And I was right. About 15 minutes later, the stable owner gestured me over. We made the stirrups longer and my international ride #20 started. As usual for the start, I rode some circles in walk to see how responsive the horse was. Well, as you could expect, a horse ridden by many can easily win an Oscar by creatively pretending that she doesn’t understand what you want from her. It took us about 5 minutes of circling and a whip in my hand (which I actually didn’t need to use) to improve our mutual understanding.

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Reem, meaning ‘gazelle’ in Arabic, had a nice forward going trot; as for a canter… Well, she tried to pull some tricks again. Unfortunately for Reem, her attempts to add a small buck to every stride didn’t prevent me from cantering, but rather added some fun. “Seriously, Reem! I have the perfect no-matter-what-stay-in-the-saddle trainer – my own horse, Dream – so these kind of tricks do not work on me.”

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After a while I thought that this bucking might be the sign of her being uncomfortable for whatever reason, so I decided to canter in a two-point position, and it worked just perfectly; she was going easily round and round while I was jockey-style balancing on her back.

Overall, Reem behaved quite weirdly – it’s the first time I’ve seen a horse which was showing contradicting signs of relaxation and anger at the same time. She was snoring while bucking and laying her ears down while going nicely on a bit. Well, she is a mare, so I guess girls are allowed to play the drama queen sometimes.

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All in all, it was a great way to celebrate the beginning of the lunar year of the horse by ticking off country number 20 on my list. Hope many more are to come.

P.S. Colleagues promised to organize pyramid riding the next time I visit. Can’t wait.

 

Useful links:

Concorde El Salam Cairo site: http://cairo.concorde-hotels.com/en/?

A-la Lara Croft or Fluent Neigh is Spoken Here

Here I am again, waiting for another flight, going through my newly made memories and organizing pictures, videos and notes.

It’s time for new story called “A-la Lara Croft or Fluent Neigh is Spoken Here”.

Why Lara Croft you may ask? When I was telling my friends that I was going to learn how to ride side-saddle, every second person asked me if I wanted to be like Lara Croft in Tomb Raider? While I would love to resemble Lara Croft at least a tiny bit (in any way), my obsession with the idea of riding side-saddle started long before Angelina Jolie rode that beautiful Frisian horse in the movie.

In fact it started when I was 6 and my parents took me to Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. I don’t remember the other paintings I saw that day, because “Rider” by Karl Bruilov completely absorbed my attention. I was standing there spellbound and the only thought that occupied my mind was “when I grew up I want to be like her.” But at the time I couldn’t have been further away from that dream – I was a dark-haired 6-year-old, wearing ordinary clothes, with no horse, let alone a side saddle…

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But all our dreams come true sooner or later, one way or another. Many years, a few beautiful dresses and more than enough hairstyles later (blonde included), I’m ready for my first side saddle lessons in Dancing Horse Farm, Lebanon, Ohio.

My coach, the absolutely amazing Helen Trimeloni, learned how to ride side-saddle because her horse Willy didn’t want to do flying changes and they couldn’t progress with higher level dressage. So she decided to change discipline. (Btw, later Willy learned to do flying changes and even compete up to Prix St. George).

While we were brushing a 9-year-old bay, Grand, Helen told me his story. He was imported from Canada a few years ago to be a police horse in Cincinnati. But the plan got changed and the city decided against having mounted police, so Grand was sold to the school – an absolutely priceless purchase as I learned later. According to his passport, Grand is a Canadian warmblood, but he looks more like a draft horse.

After Grand became a bit cleaner, and we – a bit dustier, Helen brought the saddle. “It was made in the 1920s,” she told me.  “It would be great to know its whole history, but I don’t think it’s possible now.” Wow! An almost 100-year-old saddle!!! It’s rare to have such a chance to touch, or rather to sit on, a piece of history.

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Talking about history, women have been riding with two legs on the same side since ancient Greece, but only as passengers, as they didn’t have any control of the horse, which had to be led by another rider sitting astride. A more practical design resembling the modern style of side saddles was created in the 16th century by Catherine de’Medici, which from my point of view makes her the first feminist.

So back to our vintage saddle, unlike the straight one it’s flat on top and has 4 girths – I know, we women like to overcomplicate things.

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Some rules to remember when riding side-saddle :

–          left heel down,
–          right toe down (You may think this would be easy for a person who always loses dressage test marks for keeping her heels up. Think again! In side saddle I had a tendency to keep my right heel down :-))
–          upper pommel should be right under your right knee, which makes you sit as far in the saddle as possible,
–          as the reins are much longer, they have to be kept on both sides of your right knee,
–          hips should be as parallel to the horse’s shoulders as possible, so the weight is distributed evenly.

My first 45-minute lesson went really fast, and trying to recall it I’m getting nothing but a series of flashbacks:

–          First question: “Mounting… How?”
–          Answer: “Sit astride first and only then put the left leg under the lower pommel and right on top of the upper one.”
–          When Grand started to walk: “No way can anyone enjoy this way of riding!”
–          The second thought a couple of minutes later: “It’s actually fun and I look quite elegant in the mirror.”
–          “Hey, Helen! Do you remember the song ‘Walk like an Egyptian?’ I sit like an Egyptian.”
–          After a circle of trot: “I never felt these muscles when riding straight saddle.”
–          The sensation after a circle of canter: “Wow! He actually listens to the whip on the right side the same way he listens to my leg on the left side.”
–          Lesson is over: “Already?”
–          “How on Earth do you dismount?”

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When I brought Grand back to the barn, I noticed that he, not unlike the other horses in the stables, has a file with an A4 piece of paper attached to the wall next to the door of his stall. This piece of paper had all his details on it: name, year of the birth, name of the owner, emergency contact phone, type of food he prefers and even some behavior characteristics. This is where I learned that he cannot stand Friesians. Why? Nobody knows, but it’s not about the color, as he has a perfectly friendly relationship with two jet black Canadian horses: Mye and Jubilee.

By the way, Dancing Horse Farm is kind of United Nations of the Equine world. They have over 20 different breeds of horses here, some common to the US like Appaloosas, Mustangs, Painted horses, Morgans, along with more rare examples, like Half-Andalusian, Haflinger, Hanoverian, etc.

Second day. They tell if you see a person wearing only one chap and one spur, you can bet that his side-saddled horse is not far away. My to-be-side-saddled horse was away in the paddock enjoying his breakfast. Remember the movie ‘Catch me if you can’? Well, on that day I kind of took part in the sequel. First, Grand was running away on his own.  Then he asked his fellows for help. I swear these horses have some kind of special friendship. While I was trying to catch Grand, who was always 5 meters in front of me, 4 other horses, as by an inaudible and invisible sign from him, cantered in our direction and surrounded him in such a way that no matter how much I tried to get to his face, I kept seeing 3 tails in front of me. Eventually, an old trick worked – I started scratching Grand’s croup then his right side, then his neck, then his ears, and before he understood what had happened – the halter was on him and he obediently walked with me to the gate.

Riding side-saddle was already a dream come true, but jumping in side saddle was completely beyond my expectations, yet we did it in the second lesson. Helen told me that Grand likes to jump, but he never really had a talent for it. He normally canters quite nicely but then doesn’t know what to do right before the jump. Well, that’s a lot of horse to take off :-)

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On my last, fourth day on Dancing Horse Farm, Helen lent me her side saddle apron, a weird-shaped piece of material which looks like skirt from the front and a wide belt from the back, and it bends over your right leg as one half of a pair of trousers (Yeah, try to imagine it :-)).

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We trotted a bit, cantered a bit and then jumped 2 jumps in a row. I thought one jump was difficult, but two…! Actually, when you are concentrating on readjusting your position between jumps, it seems easier. I finally found the rhythm and understood that the simplest way to get over the jump is to do almost the same as in a normal saddle – fold forward when you feel the horse taking off and unfold when you feel all 4 legs on the ground. When I had got this, life became way easier. In the end we even jumped the course of 7 jumps (up to 45 cm), a feat which I would never have expected in just 4 lessons, and all credit goes to my great teachers Helen and Grand.

In between my side saddle lessons I had a few more dressage and show jumping lessons with Helen. Here in Dancing Horse Farm they teach the RWYM (Ride With Your Mind) approach, which I first heard of at the Karen Winston clinic, but this is a completely different story which is yet to be told. So if you happen to be in Kentucky or Ohio, go visit Dancing Horse Farm, enjoy their display of horses from all over the world, take a few lessons and pass on my regards to Helen.

xoxo

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Grand: Gentle giant with hazelnut eyes

Grand: Gentle giant with hazelnut eyes

Love this picture even though it shows how not to sit in a side saddle

Love this picture, even though it shows how not to sit in a side saddle

Big boy Townie

Big boy Townie

Townie: Helen's show jumping horse teaching me to jump bouncers

Townie: Helen’s show jumping horse teaching me to jump bouncers

Side saddle: just imagine! It was made when our great-grandparents were teenagers

Side saddle: just imagine! It was made when our great-grandparents were teenagers

Auto portray in Apollo's eye

Auto portray in Apollo’s eye

Useful links:

Dancing Horse Farm site: http://www.mydhf.com
Dancing Horse Farm Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/DancingHorseFarm