Country #35 – Poland: Extended Airport Connection or Let it Snow

Our ride in Poland can be easily added to the list of Christmas miracles.

Less than a week before our trip, when I was almost desperate to find a ride in Poland, I got a message from my Instagram friend Magdalena Zoladek asking if I’d already found a place to ride near Warsaw. It was a true blessing, as not only did my Google-found contacts not reply, but I also had a very short stay (less than 10 hours) in Warsaw on my way from Helsinki back to Bahrain.

But Magdalena made the impossible. Not only did she find two horses for me and my friend, but she also picked us up at 6 a.m. from the Warsaw Old Town so that we could beat the busy Warsaw traffic and have enough time for a ride in the frozen forest and also later dropped us back exactly on time for us to catch our planes.

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And oh boy, what an eventful ride it was!

First, we were introduced to our horses—a Friesian cross mare and a Hucul pony gelding. As much as I wanted to ride the half-Friesian mare, I was absolutely sure that it might be my only chance to ride a Hucul horse. (This breed is only present in Ukraine, Romania, and Poland) So, I ended up with Rusłan.

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While I brushed his thick coat and mane and picked his hooves, Rusłan made all possible efforts to find sugar or carrots in my pockets and even chewed my sleeves as a last desperate attempt. I felt very guilty for not having anything for him :-(, so I attempted to bribe him with some hay.

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Magda, Agata, and I had finished saddling our horses when Katya confessed that one woman’s strength was simply not enough to buckle up a single girth strap of Western saddle around the enormous Fryzia’s barrel. All four of us tried to do it in turns—with no luck. We tried combined efforts—one pulling the leather up while another tried to push a pin in the hole—zero effect.

A strange thought came to my not fully woken-up mind: Fryzia, whose shape reminded me of a Dala horse at a first glance, was indeed made of wood.

We thought that it might work if we changed positions: Magda pulling, while I pushed; Katya pulling, while Magda pushed; me pulling, while Agata pushed . . . but as you can imagine, six of one is the same as half of a dozen. :-)

Eventually, team human won. Agata climbed the stable wall and mounted the mare, while three of us in a combined pulling and pushing effort managed to buckle that sturdy girth on the completely indifferent Fryzia. Hoorah!

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And on the road again!

I’m sure that in spring and autumn, this place can serve as an inexhaustible source of National Geographic photos, but even in the middle of a snowless December, it looked pretty awesome. It was like nature had a degree in design and color combinations and had deliberately selected complementary colors on the color wheel to make the best possible combinations.

img_2353I enjoyed looking around so much that I missed the moment when Rusłan stumbled and I made an unexpected somersault over his neck. I landed right in front of him, still holding the reins in both hands. Surprise!

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Luckily, my fluffy mount didn’t have any intention of running away and just shuffled to the nearest bundle of last year’s grass and started munching it apathetically. Magda helped me to mount back on, and we continued our ride.

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We cantered deeper into the forest when large, fluffy flakes of snow started to pour from the sky. That was the moment when I finally realized that New Year was just around the corner, and the time of Christmas trees, gingerbread cookies, carols, and gifts in rustling wrapping paper had come again. Although, I thought, some of the most memorable gifts come without any paper and bows. They come covered in dried mud and inspect your pockets for treats, take you to yet unknown places on their backs, and turn their black, hairy ears back to you as if trying to listen to your thoughts. These gifts are among some of the most valuable ones in my collection.

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Suddenly, my blissful meditation was interrupted by Katya’s horse, who decided to add some adrenaline to our so-far tranquil ride.

Fryzia picked up a canter and rushed across the resting field towards the stables, paying no attention to Katya’s attempts to stop, or at least turn, her. Magda’s Quarter Horse Magik and Rusłan followed her. Only Agata’s ¾ Hucul Punio was calm and mature enough to stay on the track.

Later, we learned that Fryzia’s owner likes to canter her back to the stables. So, according to Fryzia, she behaved like a really good girl and an amazing host. :-)

If you think that was enough for one day, think again!

Thanks to Agata and her trusty steed Punio, I tried something that I had wanted to try for ages but didn’t have the heart to do on an unprepared horse.

Agata told me that Punio is used for hypnotherapy so he is absolutely bomb-proof and is ready for anything. For example, he is okay if a kid sitting on him tries to catch a thrown ball, he is fine if someone stretches from the saddle over his neck and places rubber rings on his ears, and he knows to stay still if someone stands on his back.

Of course, I couldn’t deny the offer to try it. Surprisingly, it proved to not be too difficult, and although I don’t look as chic and glamorous standing on a horse’s back as Taylor Swift in the “Blank Spaces” music video, I still think it’s one of the best pictures from my travels :-).

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Country #34 – Finland: Welcome to Moominland or Suokki called Bono

Another country and another place to ride that I found thanks to my Instagram friends.

Janika Viihde, horse enthusiast, TV presenter and a model from Helsnki, advised that if we wanted to ride real Finn horses, we needed to go to Maastotalli Prerya, which is located about 50 km west of Helsinki.

I didn’t really think that it was possible to find a better place for my ride #34. Maastotalli Prerya has been owned by Marjo Norbacka for over 10 years. The place not only serves as livery facilities for privately owned horses, but also as stables, where Marjo runs her Finnish horse breeding program.

The majority of the horses on the farm are related to each other in one way or another. For example, my mount, nine-year-old Bono, named after the U2 lead singer :-), is the half-brother of Aurora, who was ridden by Katya. Their mother also still lives on the farm; Marjo’s 18-year- old mare is the mother of this five-year- old stallion.

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As you can imagine, the genealogical tree of the Maastotalli Prerya herd is quite ramified.

Brushing the horses was easy and almost unnecessary, as with the temperature slightly below zero, they didn’t have a chance to get really muddy.

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However, saddling was challenging—given a chance to not work for a few weeks, the ponies had stored enough fat and grown enough fur to make our attempts to buckle the girths almost impossible, even on the last hole.

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Struggling with the saddle had its advantages; I finally stopped shivering and felt warm enough to take off my coat.

When all three horses were ready, we rode into the forest. For the first time in two days, we had some glimpses of the meager sun, giving us hope of taking some good pictures.

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Finland’s nature was even more striking than we expected.

Barely half a kilometer away from the stable, we met a pair of wild deer. Well, we as humans would have certainly missed them, if it had not been for our horses. Katya’s Aurora stiffened and pointed her ears to the left, looking in the direction her ears were pointed we saw the deer.

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It felt a bit unsettling to know that our human senses are so weak that an animal as big as a deer can pass by unnoticed 8-O. Later, Marjo told us that it’s not unusual to meet lynxes and moose in that forest.

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The Finn horses were amazing. Nothing could stop or spook them. Aurora and Bono walked at the same tempo and speed on the roads covered with a thin layer of ice and over the logs blocking the narrow forest paths. Their broad, fluffy backs felt like comfortable sofas, be it walk, trot, or canter.

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Taking @lifebetweentheyears shot :-)

Marion explained their calmness, balance, and friendly behavior with the fact that all of them were born and raised on the farm and had never experienced ill will, so they simply don’t have a reason to be scared or mean.

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On the way back, I thought that I would love to experience this place in different seasons, as I’m sure that it looks different every month, though always breathtakingly beautiful.

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Useful links:

Maastotalli Prerya facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Maastotalli-Prerya-139840532761028/?fref=ts

Maastotalli Prerya site: https://maastotalliprerya.wordpress.com/in-english/

 

Country #33 – Norway: Meeting an Equine Celebrity or Kiss me, Batman

Be open to the world, and the world will open up back to you. That’s what my friend told me when I had just started blogging. And I keep seeing proof of it. For instance, six out of the 10 countries I rode in this year I found thanks to my Instagram.

My Norway ride was yet another story that started in the virtual world. About a year and a half ago, I first found Matilde Brand’s account. Her pictures were full of life, and her bond with her strikingly beautiful Frisian horse Batman looked almost impossible and magical. Her ability to ride tackless was (and still is) pretty much beyond my understanding.

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Naturally, when I decided to visit Oslo, I sent a message to Matilde, and a couple of weeks later, we were on the train from Oslo to Moss chatting about digital marketing, horses, vegetarian food, Nevzorov Haute Ecole, positive reinforcement, and dozens of other topics.

Upon our arrival at the stables, we went to meet Batman and Takawi (a Friesian KPWN cross that I was supposed to ride later that day). Having a bag of carrots, I was immediately surrounded by gentle giants politely but persistently asking for their treats.

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We led Batman out and brought him to the tack room to do some serious brushing. 8-O

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The location of the stables allows horses to wander in the woods and communicate freely in their small herd but also stay under the roof in harsh weather should they decide so. Naturally, they use this opportunity to the fullest, and cleaning them up can easily serve as both a warm-up and a weight-loss workout.

Before Matilde allowed me in the round pen with Batman, she gave me a master class on communication with him.

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Then, I was given a carrot and ordered to give Batman a chunk of it every time he did what I asked. “Bite them really small; you’ll need every piece of it,” she instructed me.

We started with ground work. Batman followed me..;

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he made turns on request..,

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kissed me… :-)

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and hugged me with his strong neck..,

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and posed for pictures…

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And you know what? It didn’t feel like he was doing it for the carrots, but rather for the love of a game.

For the next step, Matilde explained to me how to make Batman canter next to me.

I don’t think I will ever find the words to adequately explain that sensation. Imagine pure energy in the form of a long-maned Frisian willingly following your moves and tangibly enjoying it.

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After half a carrot was gone :-), I mounted Batman and walked him with the halter for a couple of rounds, then I removed it the same way Matilde had done before and tried to trot him completely tackless. It wasn’t difficult to make him trot, or even canter, but keeping him next to the fence was a challenge.

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With Matilde it had looked so effortless, so simple, as if Batman was reading her mind. But when my turn came, I realized how much I still needed to learn, how much fine tuning that type of riding and communication with horses requires. Later, I progressed to paying more attention to the position of my body, hands, and head, and it immediately had an effect on Batman’s moves.

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I would say that the most important insight of that day was the fact that riding horses without bridle and saddle is possible for everybody. And although it requires a lot of work, it also gives an incomparable level of satisfaction.

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After we finished my first (and hopefully not the last) tackless riding lesson, Linn brought Takawi, a 182-cm-tall Barock Pinto gelding, to the tack room for brushing and saddling.

Takawi was the first horse that I have ever ridden that was taller than me.

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He always has a few pieces of shavings on his extreme points, as no one can reach them when brushing him :-).

Saddling him looked like a separate sport discipline, as Linn had to take a swing before placing the saddle on his back.

Mounting Takawi takes a table, not a bench or a stepstool.

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And, he is one of the sweetest and kindest horses that I have ever ridden.

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We rode in a circle on the slippery fields that were yet to be covered with snow, and it felt so peaceful and safe on the back of this 18-hand giant that I secretly hoped that the ride would last forever.

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And, I’m a little jealous of Matilde and Linn, as they can ride in this beautiful place all year long.

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Useful links:

to follow Matilde and Batman journey join them on:

Instagram: @matildebrandt

Facebook: Matilde Brandt

You can also find more about Linn, Takawi and Linn’s another horse Prinsen on Instagram @imaginetakawi

Country #32 – Sweden: Too Hot to Trot or all Dreams Come True One Way or Another

If you asked me which of my traits I perceive as a blessing as much as a curse, I would say that it’s my natural competitiveness. I’ve been through some of my greatest experiences because of it, but it has also gotten me into more than a few weeks of heavy depression.

Beating my own records is one of my favorite hobbies. Speaking of which, before we embarked on this 170-hour European journey, my personal record was riding in three new countries in one week. Of course, it was meant to be beaten. And it was. I rode five horses in four countries over the course of exactly one week. And it all started in Sweden.

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Three and a half years ago, I had a booking at the Häståkeriet stables, but my business trip to Sweden was suddenly cancelled and my dream of riding in Stockholm crushed. Well, at least it was at that time.

Eighteen countries later, I was finally there, and in good company too. My best friend, the same person with whom I ditched calculus classes to sneak to the Almaty Hippodrome, “published” our very own hand-written Horse Stories magazine in school, translated Ann Sewell’s The Black Beauty into Russian over the course of the summer holidays, rode on the football field in Kyrgyzstan, galloped over green hills in Kazakhstan, and climbed the Cappadocia rocks was there to join me.

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That day, I met her at St. Ferdinand Platz subway station, and we quickly dropped her luggage off at the hotel and went to the stables. I love reading maps and hate asking directions; thankfully, navigating in Stockholm is a no-brainer. At 11 a.m., when the sun was already going down, we strolled down the endless Valhalla Street and yammered like we had during the good old times.

At the stables, we were introduced to our horses: the grey Lusitano Barao and the bay wooly North Swedish gelding Bellmax. I had never ridden Lusitano or North Swedish horses, but I quickly calculated my chances of riding Norvensk again and decided to leave Barao for Katya :-).

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Bellmax didn’t really want to be ridden that day; he would have rather gotten cozy lying under the abnormally warm winter sun (+8 degrees Celsius in the middle of December) and munching some hay.

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Convincing him to just stand up was an adventure of its own. It was as if he was teasing us: He would pretend that he was ready to stand and then fall on his side again. Attempts to pull him up by the halter were hilarious, as he was not only skillfully used the difference in weight categories but would also fold his right ear in such a way that the halter would slip from his big, fluffy head.

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When he realized that he had entertained himself enough, he calmly went to his stable and allowed all the pre-ride routines to be done.

A few minutes of brushing, saddling, picking hooves and warming bits in our palms made us feel even warmer than it already was, and I almost considered riding without my coat.

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At about 1 p.m., we couldn’t wait to finally go on hack and try to catch the last rays of the sun, which was already getting close to the horizon line, but first we had to put on high-visibility vests and self-reflective bracelets on the diagonal pairs of legs of our horses.

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Riding with Häståkeriet stables was a very special experience. It felt like over a time period of just two hours, we rode in several completely different places: The park where you ride among joggers, people walking their dogs, and mums with strollers changes to what looks like a countryside, where other horses came to neigh their hello to our small procession. Another change and we cantered along the narrow channel, and a mere 200 meters down the road we found ourselves in the Djurgårdsbrunnsviken sea port. A couple more turns later, and we were welcomed in the woods by a “Ridväg“ sign, and then we cantered under low-hanging branches and jumped over fallen logs.

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Both horses were very well behaved and eager to go forward. There was a perfect reason for that. Apart from being rental horses for tourists, they are also used in a rehabilitation program for kids with disabilities.

Two hours flew by unnoticed, and it was time to go back to the stables. We unsaddled Barao and Bellmax in record time, exchanged Facebook accounts with our guide, Amanda, and literally ran to the nearest subway station, as we knew that we might not have enough time to visit one very special museum in the center of Stockholm.

I will skip the nerve-wracking part where we managed to get lost in the narrow streets of Gamla stan. Thrice. And in case you’re interested, yes, we did have a map.

Anyway, eventually we got to the Wooden Horse Museum, though it’s probably an exaggeration to call this place a museum, as it consists of barely three to four shelves jam-packed with various dalahäst in the two-room souvenir shop.

Apart from well-known and widely popularized contemporary tail-less red figurines, there were lots of wooden horses from as early as the 17th century. There were exhibits of any color and pattern you could imagine, and their sizes varied from one meter tall down to tiny ones, one of which was even small enough to fit through a needle’s eye.

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Unfortunately, taking pictures there was not allowed, so I guess to experience the history of one of the most well-known symbols of Sweden, you’ll have to visit Stortorget, 14 in Gamla stan, Stockholm on your own :-).

Useful links:

Häståkeriet stables Facebook page: http://hastakeriet.se/

Häståkeriet stables site: https://www.facebook.com/H%C3%A4st%C3%A5keriet-108691099151863/

Wooden Horse museum: http://woodenhorsemuseumsweden.se/