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Lauren's Blog post # 3
My adventure through Europe was nothing short of extraordinary. The sights, the tastes, the culture, and, of course, the horses were all incredible, and traveling with locals meant it wasn’t any sort of typical tourist vacation. For two whole weeks I immersed myself in an atmosphere, not to mention language, which was completely foreign to me- and I loved every second.
Visiting the Spanish Riding School in Vienna was absolutely incredible. It was amazing to walk through the old city (with thick puffy white snow falling all around) and into a historical building, only to find a most immaculate equestrian facility within. Having seen the classical performance many times on film and in print, I was thrilled to have the opportunity to watch the horses school, and there were a few take-home things that really stood out to me.
The structure, and not just the physical structure in which they trained- ornate, classical, beautiful, and timeless; It felt as though we were going to sit and watch royalty dine under looming chandeliers much less horses make pretty circles… Everything had structure. Horses entered the arena in order and started their figures as though each had a stop watch on their wrist; 5 minutes walk, 10 trot and lateral work, 5 canter, 5 for more complicated movements, and 5 to cool down. With 5 horses in the arena at a time riders seemed to track one way and then switch directions collectively- for the most part.
The precision of movements and adherence to correctness was incredible, these people had discipline, and rightfully so given the ten plus years of training they went through within the school to reach that level. It was relieving to see, however, that even at this level of mastery of the sport, the horses still try the same tricks they do with us in our every day life. I felt a little more anchored back on earth upon seeing a particular young one scoot out of the “scary corner” three times in a row. Confirmed, there is a “scary corner” at the Spanish riding school, too. It just couldn’t be THAT perfect!!
All horses lined up along the centerline and received their coolers as their riders dismounted and their grooms whisked them off to their gold plated stalls… Ok, so it was pretty perfect… Although, one thing, which caught my eye, was that it seemed the crops used for schooling were branches pulled off a tree. Oh, the comforts of your favorite “crop tree.” Don’t lie; we all have one in the yard.
From Vienna I made my way to Slovakia where I stayed with the Vermes family and got to experience their horseback archery school, and what a difference from the cathedral in Vienna! Horses lived healthily and happily in a large pasture and drank from the bordering river. Riding happened bareback and in rope hackamores, as the goal is unison with the horse and partnership.
Thus, riding bareback and simply a rope hackamore we went off into the forest for a good hack. Fifteen minutes into the ride we were warmed up and ready to hit the track, which was codeword for “the advanced cross country course we carved into the forest.” We hit a fast canter and made it over some knee height branches. Easy. I got this. However suddenly, and before I could do anything about it, the jumps and elements got larger and larger until I was galloping full speed ahead towards unsettlingly sized logs, down banks, up banks, and frozen water complexes amongst the snow. All of this, mind you, was bareback and in a hackamore. The 20-degree weather did not add to the horse’s controllability.
I lived. Barely. And upon pulling up to a walk I was yelling words of which I cannot repeat here to the handsome dude who drug me through all of this mayhem. I guess I passed the test…
I got to watch and participate in the team practice held every Sunday. That was an incredible experience of horsemanship, teamwork, commitment, wherewithal, and friendship. Practice starts with ranch work. No matter the weather, everyone gears up to help on the farm. Mending fences, trimming brush, cutting wood, it was all part of the warm up. Next, the athletic portion begins. A series of boot-camp like exercises are done in the arena for the better part of an hour- everyone gets a serious mix of cardio and strength training.
At this point, the horses are brought in to the arena and they are incorporated into the physical routine. Lined up along the center, six horses stood like statues as we threw medicine balls over them, ran underneath them, and jump squatted between them. Even the gutsiest of down-to-earth event riders I know might think twice about doing this, but the horses were so used to the routine and quite enjoyed the interaction.
Then began the groundwork with the horses. In hand, horses warmed up at walk and trot and performed lateral work and games to get the mind thinking. By the time riding happened both horses and riders were tuned up and ready to set out, again, bareback and in a rope hackamore. We rode out on the archery field in patterns and formations, and incorporated the bending and lateral work we had started in hand.
It was really the most complete exercise in human and horse training I had ever experienced, as first the rider was led to physical and mental preparation, then the horses, and finally in unison. It was wonderful, however I might have to slowly introduce my students to the idea of “take a dead run at your horse and somersault underneath him, then ten star jumps…”
All in all, Europe was an incredible adventure and left me yearning for more and perhaps a return sometime soon!
Until next time,