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Lauren's Blog post # 4: Of Equines, Oats, and things International
The hunter division; For some, it's akin to pulling teeth, for others it's like watching fine ballet. I have always laid somewhere in the middle. Growing up around the hunter-jumper circuit I can appreciate a nicely turned out hunter and enjoy watching beautiful rounds, but if you ask me what makes my heart go pitter-patter I’ll be the first to quote Ricky Bobby, “I wanna go fast.”
This being said, I spent my time in the hunter ring. Somewhere on VHS tape my mom still has footage of my first walk trot classes through cross-rails and later into the short stirrup division with the background music of whatever original Game-Boy theme song my ever-patient brother happened to be playing. Moving up the levels and into the equitation division I finally broke into the jumper ring as a socially awkward middle schooler, and thank god because I finally had a way to take out all of that pre-teen angst. Once I got a taste of the cross-country field that was it. It was balls to the wall, war paint and all. I found my tribe.
Now, I say all of this because we all want to jump big and go fast. Or, if you’re a hunter rider, jump pretty and travel at a moderate pace, which, despite my propensity to turn and burn, has become immeasurably more valuable to me and I will explain why.
For the greater part of the last year I have been riding in Eastern Europe and I have been doing all that I can to observe and absorb every bit of it that is available to me. What I have found is that while some things are hugely more favorable here for the sport-horse enthusiast, other things leave me scratching my head and wondering if there might be a better solution. So, as a communications major, I am going to make my critique by means of a compliment sandwich; a little bit of good on either end acting as the bread to the meat of critique, metaphorically speaking.
Lets start with the good. Horse sport here is taken as seriously as any other sport. The local version of “Sports Authority” has a long aisle dedicated to equestriennes, which was just as intriguing to me as it might sound to you. Affordable prices though somewhat questionable quality, it was about what I would expect for entry-level riders. There were no saddles, however you could find boots, chaps, brushes, pads, horse boots, accessories, a simple assortment of bits, crops, and the like. Although I wasn’t entirely convinced I wasn’t walking through the adult section of a store for people with incredibly “unique” interests involving assorted equestrian equipment, It was a totally ok place to pick up random tack of which quality isn’t of utmost importance, something I wish were more common at home.
On a second positive note, boarding and showing horses here is a much more affordable endeavor, even at the nicest facilities, however its worth mentioning that I am referring to our (American) financial scale, and not theirs. While the equivalent of $175 monthly for full service, turn outs, grain, etc. might sound like pocket change to us, the thing to remember is that on this part of the world the average salary is around $500 monthly. Thus, while I say affordable, I mean by US standards. Anyone looking to purchase and develop horses with the ability to rely on remote income, this is your place, that is, if you can deal with the long cold winters, mind boggling language barriers, and other pleasantries tied to Eastern Europe living. Disenchanted yet?
Circling back to my opening statement regarding the Hunter division, I never realized how broke we get horses at home. I watch Maclay Medal Finals rounds on YouTube and cry into my blistered hands over the land of soft, adjustable, well-trained horses and beautiful riders. Flatwork is gospel at home. Whether we are an event rider, dressage rider, hunter rider, or jumper rider, we all have our inner George Morris whispering unspeakable things into our ears as we work to perfect our hip angle, leg position, and that *&#!ing left wrist which wont stay straight FOR THE LOVE OF GOD.
Here I am handed a questionably handled four year old stud (everything has balls here) in fire breathing dragon mode as he just ate his third serving of cracked oats for the day. I kid you not, if it grows a mane and has four hooves, it eats oats. Lots of oats. All the oats. So. Many. Oats. I watch as the fences get set at 1.20 plus. Hoping I lost something in translation and scanning the arena for another horse and rider pair who might look more the part, I realize that I am in fact the only mounted rider and coach is, in fact, pointing me over these fences. So, I grit my teeth, pull up my big girl panties, and pray to something holy that the fat loose-ring snaffle my noble steed is currently gnawing on is going to serve me well as I step into battle.
There have been some questionable moments, but I have my Ricky Bobby mentality to thank that I have been fighting a good fight in the land of balls and oats. All the oats. So. Many. Oats.
I have a select number of horses in my program full time, which is nice because I have been able to tone down the oat intake and hone in on my flatwork and dressage training to develop them from a foundational approach of softness and responsiveness, which has translated well into my over-fences work. I have had the opportunity to compete with some exceptionally talented animals and I am looking forward to the continued development of my competitive career here. While there are ups and downs for myself with regards to the challenges of life in an extremely foreign country, the entire experience is creating a tougher, more flexible, and knowledgeable version of myself.
Being at the horse shows has been an experience within itself. My first show took place in February, which, geographically speaking, meant I had my first show in full winter gear. Now, you see, the die hard equine traditionalist inside me who will opt for show coat in even the hottest weather felt she could handle a little chill and cut the down laden winter parka for the sake of style. However, the answer would be no, Lauren. That’s a bad idea, California girl. You will freeze before you cross your timers, Lauren. Don’t try it, its eighteen degrees out. I don’t care how indoor your show is, it will never be indoor enough for eighteen degrees.
Thus, after I crossed my finish timers and ice picked my hands off the reins, I put on layer two through sixteen and rode on while coach laughed on and muttered something in Hungarian.
While the weather was far out of anyone’s control, there were some things which were astonishingly different for me. Because of the weather everyone warmed up in a secondary indoor ring which I’m still entirely convinced was a converted utility closet. Someone simply removed the vacuum and bulk-stock toilet paper, threw in a handful of footing, and VIOLA, an arena. There were sixteen horses jumping in a space so small I swear I could touch both walls at one time. To second this, people were yelling out their directions in Hungarian, which I’ll admit, still sounds a little fuzzy to me.
So, there I was aboard an ever so talented yet ever so intact stud colt, who was entirely certain that all of the horses were there for his pleasure, so to speak. I literally rode a five-legged Johnny Bravo through a sea of hormonal pheromones and survived. No horses were molested, and that was likely more of an accomplishment than jumping clean and within. Nothing phases these people here, a quality I so hope to bring home and keep in my back pocket for those moments when some dressage princess somewhere is reeling over a dog off it’s leash. Ill lean in and snicker in my best evil villain Eastern European accent “you think this bad circumstance?”
Now, since the weather has warmed up enough to tolerate riding in a mere thermal shirt and vest, the outdoor circuit has started. I cant say that there is so much that differs from home, however there generally aren’t jump-off’s as we are used to at home in the jumper division. Your course consists of 8-13 jumps, and sometimes you will cross secondary timers at around fence 7 and go into your speed round. There is typically only one ring operating, which is a bit of a contrast from our sprawling grounds which boast two jumper and three hunter rings, and classes are massive as there aren’t so many divisions. There were 115 riders in the 1.20 division, all mashed into one class. The winning round took a stride out of every line, including the two-stride combination. I had to command the winner on such ballsy riding and then hastily proceed to change my underwear. It made me think that perhaps splitting into more divisions might promote safer riding.
There are definitely measures taken for the sake of correct riding here, but I am afraid they might be missing certain markers, which might benefit the sport as a whole. Trainers must go through a certification program, a requirement not mandatory at home however I think it should be more implemented and available. I myself am not certified, though I have run my own business and assisted for many professionals, my credentials lie within experience. My Hungarian boyfriend tends to think that, while certification has its merits, there can be a lot that is said for raw experience. While someone can pass a test and ride a course, there is a lot that might be missed within the whole track to becoming a trainer.
At home, our serious competitive career starts at the walk trot level. Here, it starts at the .90 jumpers. It is entirely understandable that ambitious young riders want to be competing within their first few years, however I feel as though at home we have more realistic milestones to hit given the timeframe. I have brought many kids and adults from the walk-trot into the jumper division, and the focus is on correct riding and mastery of horsemanship. This takes time and patience and true dedication to correct riding. The Hunter and Equitation division does wonders for the riders who transition into the Jumpers and on to Eventing, as riders learn finesse and the art of making every transition and jump look seamless. These ideals and methodologies hold throughout entire riding careers and make for some incredible athletes and horses alike. I would argue that though I have seen many exceptions, much of the riding that I see here is mechanical, which I completely understand given that the underlying goal is to get the horse around the course fast and clean. If that’s all you’ve ever known, what is there to compare to?
It seems that the focus here is on “a horse that can jump” versus “a horse that can be ridden” and I get it because, well, jumping is fun. We all want to skip to the sweet stuff because lets be real, our inner George Morris doesn’t always have the kindest things to say. It’s hard to put the slow, monotonous, boring work in to create invisible transitions and reliable adjustability when the same thing happens if we just mouth check and dig spurs along the way.
I am fortunate to be working with some incredible horse-people who want to make adjustments for the improvement of the sport. I am equally fortunate to have access to incredibly talented horses and a team that believes in me through this International adventure. There is so much to take in and learn, and my ultimate goal is to develop these horses to the point of sale to US clients. There is a relatively un-accessed selection of exceptional sport horses here at prices well worth the import fees.
While there are many popular equine destinations in Europe, Hungary is not the first place that comes to mind for most people. Goulash, perhaps yes, but quality equine imports is not top on the list, and I get it; its hard to get to, and even if you can get past the fact that the alphabet has FOURTEEN vowels, its hard to communicate here. I would like to bridge the gap because I am really liking much of what I am seeing in horseflesh, minus some oats. Ok. A lot of oats.
All joking aside, moving to this foreign land has done nothing but develop me as a rider and as a human. And while I sometimes pine for home and look forward to one day heading back to the land of sunshine and surf, I’ll continue to develop myself here to the extent that I can, hope to inspire inner George Morris’ in those around me, and encourage others to take the risk and just GO if ever they are presented the opportunity to follow their passions in a far away land.
While there might be language barriers here, the one thing that is universal is the love for the equine. Coach might yell at me in Hungarian, and when that fails in German (the latter I know even less of), but the language of horse is without boundaries, this I know for certain.