Country #37 – Denmark: Copenhagen’s Bronze Herd or Icelandic Gods in Royal Forests

Days off and short breaks are meant to be relaxing, right? Wrong! :-) Whenever I manage to get them, I like to squeeze in so many things that I need another break afterward.

One time, I had to go on a four-day business trip to Bonn, Germany, and took an extra day in order to travel to Denmark afterward. I had less than 20 hours to stay in Copenhagen, and I hoped that it would be enough to see the center of the city, visit the Royal Stables, and ride in the forest with Amager Rideterapi.

Reality exceeded my expectations. First of all, when I posted my plans on Instagram, I was contacted by the @TrendyDonnaLegWhear account, which sells tights for girls with passion. :-) The owner of the company happened to live in Copenhagen and managed to design a short walking tour around the center of the city for me.

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I love strolling along the streets of unknown cities guided only by a map. And I would rather get lost than ask for directions. I agree that that’s stupid, but I like it that way. :-)

Copenhagen at 7 A.M. on a Saturday morning was absolutely stunning: the empty streets and squares were perfect for taking panoramic pictures; the beautiful shop windows made me lose my way more than once; I was the only witness of the morning national guard shift change; and parks were conveniently already open at that early hour. It felt like I had the whole city to myself; only rarely would I meet a jogger or someone walking their dog.

If someone were to ask me what color Copenhagen is, I would have to say that it’s brick orange and copper green. As I love all things related to horses, I take pictures of mounted sculptures wherever I go. And I have to admit, Copenhagen has the highest rate of mounted sculptures per square kilometer. :-)

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About two hours and ten kilometers later, I got back to the central station, ordered some coffee with Danish pastries, and waited for Lenna, the owner of Amager Rideterapi, to pick me up. Her small company specializes in hippotherapy for people with mental, musculoskeletal, or eating disorders. It was really interesting to learn about how connecting to horses can help people become healthier.

The trip to the stables took about 30 minutes, and upon arrival, we were met by a friendly group of Icelandic horses.

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Oh how I miss those fluffy little darlings. I got a 13-year-old bay gelding Baldur, named after one of the main Icelandic gods. It was such a pleasure to brush his thick coat and run my fingers through his hairy mane.

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Then Lenna brought the tack. Both the saddle and bridle were unusual for me: the bridle consisted of two separate pieces (Lenna told me that it’s more comfortable on long trips to remove one of the parts and let the horses graze), and the saddle had pretty short flaps and a girth that was probably twice as short as usual.

While I was excited about the ride, I was a little bit nervous as well. At that time, I hadn’t properly ridden in about three months. Well, I guess a little flashback would be necessary to explain why my rider self-esteem had been crushed into tiny pieces.

Back to Bahrain: I’d retired my own horse Dream and stopped riding Romeo, the Andalusian stallion I was competing with before. The reason was that I couldn’t control Romeo around other horses: he would back, rear, and behave dangerously pretty much every single day we took him out to other stables. The owner decided to give him to another rider. Thinking about my failure with Romeo day after day and blaming myself for not being a good enough rider to reveal his talents, I couldn’t shake the sad feeling that I hadn’t progressed as a rider over the previous few years and had, in fact, became worse and maybe should quit riding altogether. I was offered other horses to ride, but frankly, I was simply too afraid to get in the saddle again.

So, when we went off on a ride, I thought that I indeed needed a therapeutic horse to cure me of my fears. And after riding the very dependable Baldur in walk, trot, canter, tolt, and even pace (by mistake :-)), I thought that even though I’m not the best rider and might never reach a reasonable level, I still can enjoy riding.

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And, even better, during those “rideless” months, I didn’t completely forget how to keep my balance in the saddle.

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We rode along the rural paths of Kongelundsskoven, which is located near Copenhagen Airport. Planes were taking off right above our heads, but the horses didn’t care. Every step my Baldur took, I fell in love with him more and more. His trot was amazingly comfortable, and he listened to the slightest changes in my balance and even to my every thought. For the full two hours, he was full of enthusiasm, nothing scared him, and he was mentally with me the whole time. We went through the Royal Park, climbed hills, and cantered on the beach… and I’m forever thankful to Lenna and Baldur for this therapeutic ride.

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Taking off from Copenhagen Airport just four hours later, I had a second chance to see the route we had taken, only this time from above. I closed my eyes in an attempt to grab a little nap. My 20-hour-long trip to Bahrain had just started.

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Useful links: @amagerridetur on Instagram

Country #36 – Luxembourg: WordPress Meet-up and Learning to Ride with Your Mind

Horses, blogging, and blogging about horses changed me dramatically. From an introverted homebody who panicked every time she needed to leave the apartment or even call or ask a stranger about something, I turned into introvert who is more socially functional and who can, if you can believe it, get and accept invitations to meet up with fellow bloggers who she has never met in person before. :-) And even though I still feel a bit awkward while traveling to the new places or meeting new people, I always remember this phrase I heard somewhere: people are the same wherever you go, and good people prevail. And in my experience, that is especially true for equestrians. I’ve already written a story about my Instagram meet-up with Matilde Brand last year, and this story is about my WordPress meet-up.

About a year ago, Aoife commented on my article about visiting the living museum of Ardennes horses.

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Aoife records her daily adventures with her beautiful mares Kika and Nancy in her blog Pampered Ponies here on WordPress.

Naturally, when I got invited to Germany for a conference, I decided to fly in a couple of days earlier and finally tick the “Ride in Luxembourg” box off my wish list.

The timing couldn’t have been better, as I not only met Aoife and rode Nancy in a Luxembourg forest but also got to participate in a theoretical part of the “Ride With Your Mind” clinic.

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The session was packed with eye-opening ideas, great examples, exercises with a gymnastic ball, and fun (especially when someone was asked to pretend to be a horse for another person). Elaine has a ton of experience, so no riding questions were left unanswered. As Aoife is a far more disciplined blogger than I am, you can check out the details of the clinic on her blog: http://pampered-ponies.blogspot.my/

The next day, I met up with Aoife at about noon, and we brushed and saddled the big, sleepy girls and went out to explore the Luxembourg forest.

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Impressed by the previous day’s lecture, I was trying to keep my back straight and sit bones down and plugged in, but I guess while chatting with Aoife and admiring the blossoming Luxembourgish spring, I lost focus quite quickly.

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That perfect day was another confirmation of a universal law: all our dreams come true sooner or later, one way or another. I had hoped that Luxembourg would be my country #20, but if it had been, I would have definitely missed that awesome spring day and a chance to make another equestrian friend.

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I’d like to finish this post with a bunch of thanks:

A million thanks to Aoife for leaving that comment on my post, inviting me to the RWYM course, and allowing me to ride Nancy.

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Thanks, hugs, and kisses on the nose to Nancy, who was a perfect host and allowed me to see Luxembourg through her ears. :-)

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And big thanks to Elaine, who helped me to understand some riding principles better.

I’m Back

I’m a terribly inconsistent blogger. Sometimes, I disappear from WordPress and Instagram for ages, and I finally figured out why.

When I was little and lived in a country with zero chances to buy fresh fruits or berries in our properly cold winters, my parents prepared preserves every summer. Dozens of jars filled with pickles, mushrooms, and jams filled the shelves in our cellar. Later, when the snow drifts on the sides of the road piled up to five feet high and it was so cold outside that you would feel that even the insides of your eyelids were frozen, came the time for a special treat. You’d go down to the cellar, take one of the jars with plum jam and almonds, wipe a thick layer of dust from it, open it with a can opener, pull off the lid, and lavishly spread the jam on a piece of toast. Then you would take a bite, savor the somewhat sour taste, close your eyes, and imagine yourself back on the very day you picked those plums, cut them, put them into the large copper bowl, and stirred them with an enormous handmade wooden spoon. I used to call these jars “canned summer”; they felt so warm, so divine, so nostalgic.

Recently, I realized that it’s the same with my stories. I want them to be “cooked” in my head, be stirred and mixed with other stories and associations. And then, after a few weeks or maybe months, when I feel they are ready, I share them. As this summer came to an end, I’m ready to open jars of memories I picked this spring and summer in blooming Luxembourg, rainy Copenhagen, melting hot Greece, stormy Tunisia, sunny Malta, and breezy Portugal.

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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/

 

 

Country #31 – Saudi Arabia: Phosphorus Melting Point or Where the Earth Curves

When I tell somebody that I’ve been to Saudi Arabia, I inevitably hear one of three questions. Colleagues and acquaintances ask if I had to wear an abaya. Friends ask if I rode a horse there. And people who know me really well ask if I wore an abaya while riding a horse. Well, yes, yes and no.

I’ve started writing this story many times, but I couldn’t really get any further than the second paragraph. You know that every story has many sub-stories and many points of view. I didn’t know what I really wanted to begin my story with. Should I begin with the fact that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the least known and most secluded countries in the world? With my first impressions? With the story about my many (six, to be precise) previous attempts to get a business visa there, all of which were rejected simply because of the fact that my chromosomes are XX and not XY? Or with the fact that now I’m an official record holder as the one and only female employee to visit offices in Riyadh and Jeddah?

So when I finally (on my seventh attempt) got a business visa for my passport, my immediate thought was that the next time I might not be that lucky, so I absolutely couldn’t pass up the opportunity to add another country to my list on that particular trip. Thanks to Google, I quickly found a pretty nice place called Dirab Golf Club. It’s located about 70 km from the center of Riyadh, a bit too far away, but the possibility of adding a new country to my list makes me unstoppable, if not pigheaded ☺.

A couple of weeks later, I was in the spotless and a bit deserted Riyadh international airport feeling pretty awkward in my fresh-from-the-sewing-machine abaya.

I took a taxi, and my adventure started. On the way to the golf club, looking out at the deserted Central Province land that is so flat that you can literally see the Earth curving and observing the dozens, if not hundreds, of Saudi flags, which are, ironically, the only splashes of green around, I thought that my years of travelling had taught me not to trust common prejudices about different countries and nations. (In fact, I myself could serve as an example of stereotypes that one cannot trust—I’m Russian, but I’m not blonde; I have never drunk vodka; not once have I worn an ushanka; and never in my life have I seen a bear strolling around the city ;-)). So, I’ve chosen not to believe any Saudi stories circulating around Facebook and mostly shared by people who have never been to the Kingdom.

About 45 minutes later and over 100 km away from the airport, my driver realized that we were lost. Perfect timing! Providing him with the map didn’t help; thus, I had to navigate on my own in the city that I had spent less than one hour in. So there I was . . . on the highway, in the car, going over 120 km/h with no clue where the golf club was.

To add to my confusion, it was hotter than 45 degrees Celsius outside, and my shoulder devil kept asking me, “Tell me again, why do you do it? Wouldn’t it be better to stay in a fully air-conditioned hotel room for the whole day?” And what was my shoulder angel doing, you might ask? He cowardly remained in silence ☺.

Despite taking a few more wrong turns, we finally arrived at the stables exactly on time . . . and then the unexpected fairytale-like experience started.

First, I got introduced to Mutheeb, a 19-year-old pure Arab gelding, and then I met Saleh, my guide for the day.

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Saleh advised me to leave my abaya in the tack room as it was (surprise!) completely fine to ride without it in the territory of the club. Then I got a straw hat to protect my head from the direct sunlight, and we went on the path. Canyon-like hills, red sand, and tumbleweeds—nothing indicated that we were in the middle of the driest and one of the most strictly regulated countries in the world. “It looks like Arizona,” I said.“Everyone says so,” replied Saleh ☺.

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We rode further into the hills, and he told me his story. About 25 years earlier, he had come to the Kingdom from Egypt at the invitation of the wealthy Saudi man. Earlier that year, Saleh’s employer had given his daughter a two-year-old Arab stallion as a present for her 12th birthday, so Saleh’s job was to break the horse and to teach the girl how to ride him.

And he did just that. Years passed by, and more horses joined the stables. Then the golf club and a small hotel were built nearby. The girl grew up, married, and had children, but she still regularly comes to visit her now-retired stallion.

My 1.5-hour ride was filled with lots of equestrian stories. One of the most exciting ones was that the riding club personnel not only have polo ponies exported from Argentina, but they also managed to train some Arab horses, including Mutheeb, to play polo. Furthermore, there is some kind of polo league that has been established in the KSA.

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Unpredictably, in the low humidity, +45 Celsius didn’t feel that bad, and I enjoyed that ride much more than I would have ever imagined.

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And of course I couldn’t leave the stables without a picture of me in my abaya astride Mutheeb. To my surprise, it became the most popular picture on my Instagram.

Useful links:

http://www.dirabgolf.com/

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dirab-Golf-Country-Club/373565666052696

Country #29 – Italy: In the Footsteps of Pilgrims or Hoof Beats on the Streets of the Eternal City

If it were not for Martina Boccia, my Instagram friend and equestrian fashion blogger, this would never have happened and I would never have learned about the awesome tradition of riding horses from all over Italy and some neighboring countries to experience an audience with the pope.

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Martina on her horse Stone Princess

For such a unique event, it has surprisingly low international coverage. Just try to google “Equiraduno,” the official name of the event, and you will find close to nothing in English. As you can imagine, the event is a big deal in Italy.

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The first thing you notice when in Rome is the above-average number of beautiful people, whose faces are so easy to imagine on the obverses of Ancient Rome coins or in historical movies.

Rome is packed with tourist attractions beyond any reasonable level. For thousands of years, emperors, senators, and rich citizens were convinced that the best way to be remembered is to build something monumental, preferably bigger, more expensive, and more flamboyant than was built before. Even if building something new means ruining something old. Did you know, for example, that for years the iconic Coliseum was the biggest source of marble, travertine, and limestone for the houses of Roman nobility?

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But let me get back to Equiraduno. I participated in the last two days of travel by the yellow route: from Sacrofano to Tor di Quinto Military Riding Center in Rome on day 1 and from Tor di Quinto to Vatican and back on day 2.

On day 1, I woke up at about 8:00 am so we would have enough time to prepare the horses and be ready to leave at 9:00 am. I got the beautiful Haflinger mare Ganesha. An unexpected name for the flaxen chestnut. To me, she looked more like Marilyn Monroe or Mae West of the equine world—blondie with curves. :-) This girl surely worked on her shapes a lot. Whenever she saw an opportunity—and this was like every time we stopped—she would pull her neck down and start munching whatever she could reach for: grass, dry leaves from last year, hay, her straw bedding . . .

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At 9:30 am after the parting speech of the town’s mayor, we went off on the footsteps of pilgrims. There were about 25 of us, riding all types of horses, including Arabians and Andalusians, Maremanos, and even ponies.

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What can I say, the life of pilgrims wasn’t easy . . . especially in central Italy and especially in July. Dreams about shower and fears of getting a heat stroke didn’t really leave me during the entire ride :-) So I guess I really looked poorly when after traveling for about three and a half hours, we stopped for lunch. Martina’s mother asked me if I was tired, and when I replied, “Yes, I’m a bit,” she cheerfully informed me that this is my “sacrificio” to the pope. :-)

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I was dying to get a sip of cold water, but of course the needs of our horses came first. We loosened their girths, watered them, and let them graze under the trees. The next couple of hours were spent in the fun and noisy company of equestrians enjoying traditional Italian meals and drinks.

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Then we saddled our horses again and went for the final part of the ride to Tor di Quinto where we planned to leave our horses until the next morning.

After 20 more minutes of riding in the countryside, we were met by police escorts and finally entered the busy streets of the City of the Seven Hills.

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The biggest virtue of Ganesha was that she was the complete opposite of being a drama queen. I think everyone would agree that riding a nervous and spooky horse among dozens of other animals in the middle of the crowded city is a sure way of getting more grey hair, but Ganesha took really good care of me all the way.

We then entered the enormous Tor di Quinto. The place has great facilities enough to host hundreds of horses.

Have you ever noticed how tasty simple food and even pure water are after a long trip? Now try to imagine how an ice-cold champagne in plastic cups feels after six hours of riding under the scorching sun! The taste of pure happiness for sure!

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Second Ride in Georgia: Border Security Zone or Horses with High Heels

On day 3 of our visit to Georgia, we planned to go to the Lagodekhi Nature Reserve and take a short ride to Machi Fortress.

Lagodekhi is located on the west of Georgia in the Kakheti region, which is famous for its wines. The part of the reserve we were aiming for is located in the border security zone, and everyone who plans to hike or trail ride there should register with local authorities.

On arrival, we were introduced to our guide, Daviti, and almost identical light grey ponies. Local breeds of horses that are good for trail rides are not higher than 14 hands, so they should be classified as ponies rather than as horses.

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Local saddles looked like leather cushions with stirrups and, to say the truth, were very comfortable for the long rides. Another peculiarity I noticed here is that horses looked like they were wearing high heels because their shoes were calkinned to avoid slipping.

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At the start point of our trail ride, we passed a wooden stand that showed the traces of animals that are found in Lagodekhi. There weren’t many, but the ones we saw made the ride a bit nerve-racking. :-) Apparently, because several types of roe deer exist, many wolfs, bears, and lynxes are also present. However, we didn’t see any.

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In that time of the year, everything in Lagodekhi was so green that it made me dizzy.

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About one kilometer to the fortress, we had to dismount and continued on foot because it was too steep for horses to climb. Daviti told us that tying them up was unnecessary because they won’t go anywhere on their own. We climbed up and up over the steep bank of Matsimis Tskali River, which serves as a border between Georgia and Azerbaijan.

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It took us about another half hour to get to the fortress’s ruins. Machi, which was built in the eighth century, was the biggest fort in Kakheti and for some time even served as a summer residence of Kakheti kings. It stayed intact until the 17th century but was demolished by the Persian shah Abbas, which is very surprising knowing how difficult it was to get there.

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The fortress ruins were preserved but never restored. Nowadays, once-massive fortress walls are concealed by overgrown subtropical plants. What surprised me the most is that these 12-century-old fortifications are in better shape than some 1980s buildings down in the valley. Ancient builders certainly knew some secrets. :-)

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Many more hiking and riding routes are available in Lagodekhi, so if you want to visit the place, here are the contact details.

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Useful links: