Tuesday September 6
Sabine took Hex for a hack and a light ride in the morning, and after his shower and mash, we loaded him up along with all of our things. Auf Wiedersehen, Deutschland!
Sabine and I drove ahead of Hex in her rental car (we had returned mine a couple days before), and stopped for some lunch at a Dutch rest stop on the highway. Holy cow, it could not have been more different than our American rest stops! There was a chef preparing fresh smoothies and juices, sandwiches, soups, and salads, plus there was fresh bread and delicious coffee available. Heaven!
While eating we got a call from Hex’s driver that she had arrived to the show, but they wouldn’t let her unload. We finished our lunch and raced to meet her at the showgrounds to find out what was going on.
From what I understand, two things went wrong to make us arrive two hours too early. One, we had told the transport company that Hex should arrive at the showgrounds at 4:00pm, which was when the showgrounds were supposed to open. Somehow, whether the traffic was better than planned or this wasn’t communicated well enough, they arrived at 3:00 instead. Second, Sabine and I, as well as the five or so other horse vans that arrived before we did, were under the impression that the showgrounds opened at 4:00, when the show office said they weren’t opening until 5:00. I don’t know if this was changed last-minute, or if lots of people somehow all made this same mistake, but long story short, we had to sit in the parking lot for two hours before unloading. Luckily, we were able to park in the shade, and our van had fans and plenty of hay, mash, and water, but no one was happy. People started unloading their horses (mind, mostly very young breeding stallions who had traveled for hours if not days at this point) and handwalking around the parking lot just to keep them calm. What a nightmare! Luckily everyone stayed safe and healthy, and we were all ready to go when they opened the gates at 5:00.
Before entering the stables, each horse had to have their microchip scanned and their temperature taken. To me, this was so stressful! Some of these horses had already been standing around for hours, and were really not happy to stand quietly while being checked. I was so grateful that Hex was a super good boy, and we were quickly walking off to the stables. Here we met our third obstacle of the evening, where was our stall? There were no signs (certainly none in English) and I had no record of a stabling chart. So I hand walked Hex around the barns while everyone scattered to try and find some information. Finally, we found our stall, found the shavings, and got Hex all settled into his new home for the week. We were so fortunate to be put in the permanent stalls, with automatic waters and windows that opened; Hex was in a corner stall, so he had two windows! The stalls were really nice and roomy, and he rolled and rolled happily while we set up our Team U.S.A. tack stall.
Our original plan had been for Sabine to hack in the morning, which she did, and school with her coach Christine Traurig at the show in the afternoon. I don’t know who learned it, but we quickly found out that riding and even lunging was absolutely not allowed anywhere on the showgrounds until Wednesday. We were only allowed to handwalk around the stables in the parking lot. What?! None of us had ever heard of a rule like this, especially at a show where you have lots of nervous and antsy young horses. So now we had to go back to the drawing board and make a new plan for the week. Christine and I spent half an hour (…half an hour!) deciphering and decoding the schedule of the arenas to find out when and where Sabine could ride each day. I copied down the times and arenas where we wanted to school each day, and taped it to the wall of our tack room so there would be no more mistakes.
Wednesday September 7
The next day was pretty quiet other than one more small blip. We lost our tack stall! Sabine rode in the morning, and we headed back to the hotel for a little while in the afternoon. While we were gone, Hex’s owner Sandy and bodyworker Julie had to quickly pull all of our things out of the stall and into the aisle in front of Hex’s stall. If I’ve learned one thing on this trip, it’s that you have to just go with the flow and make the best out of every situation! So we packed the unnecessary things into one trunk which Julie generously let us keep in her car, and I made do my working out of two trunks. Since we were using the show’s hay and stall cleaning tools, this worked out fine. But it sure was crowded! Wednesday was also the day that our stablemates and fellow Team U.S.A. members arrived; Jennifer Hoffman and her two horses, six-year-old Mani’s Endeavor and Rondoro Noblesse who would be competing in the Grand Prix, as well as her groom Jenna and her husband Jürgen. It was so fun to have our own little corner of American flags among the sea of orange!
Thursday September 8
We had a huge thunder storm Wednesday night (at least it seemed huge to this California girl, I don’t think my old New England self would have thought much of it!) Which meant that the parking Thursday morning was absolutely flooded. And because the show had officially started, the grooms were no longer allowed to park near the stabling, but on the complete opposite side of the showgrounds. I was not happy. I had already killed my barn sneakers earlier in the week (the poor things disintegrated) so I was stuck wearing my nice, wool, Allbirds sneakers. Sabine made a valiant effort to find me some rainboots but to no avail.
Thursday was the day of the jog for the six-year-old horses, so we had a real schedule to stick to.
In any international event (“CDI”), the horses competing must “jog” (or trot in hand) in front of an FEI veterinarian to judge their soundness, to make sure they are healthy and fit to compete. At the jog they also check each horse’s microchip to verify their identity, and take the horse’s FEI passport to hold during competition.
Sabine wanted to ride in the morning before the jog. I wasn’t sure if I would have enough time to braid in between her ride and her jog, so I decided to braid before her ride. Well, I definitely should have practiced my braiding at Gut Auric, because they were not nearly as good as I would have liked. I decided at the last minute between her ride and the jog to redo them, after purchasing some braiding gel and new waxed thread. While it was stressful, I’m glad I made that decision as the braids looked much better the second time. Phew!
Ahead of time, I had been sure that Hex’s paperwork was all in order to present to the jury at the jog. This included his FEI recognition card, his KWPN breed passport, and a paper stating that he has extensions in his tail (this must be declared to the ground jury at the time of the jog). But when I picked up the book to head to the jog, it felt too light. Sabine had taken the breed passport out, and when I asked she said we didn’t need it. She certainly knows what she’s doing, and has been to many more CDI competitions than I have, but it didn’t feel right to just leave the breed passport behind, so I put it in my backpack just in case.
Well, when the time came to give the ground jury Hex’s paperwork, sure enough they asked, where is his breed passport? I have to admit I was very relieved and glad that I had brought it with us, and quickly handed it over. Crisis averted! And lesson learned, always listen to your gut and when in doubt, bring everything! I’d much rather walk around with a heavy backpack than not have access to something I may need, whether at the jog or at the warmup arena.
That evening, Hex’s breeding manager Edgar Schutte of Eurequine Stallions had arranged for him to be seen by the KWPN, to see if they would license him for breeding. The KWPN is known to be the most strict of the registries, and also hard to reach from the U.S. Being at their headquarters in Ermelo was the perfect opportunity for them to see Hex in person. I don’t fully understand the KWPN licensing process as it is very complicated, but from what I understand they needed to see him in hand and in person to first judge his conformation, then they would watch his test the following day. I was nervous presenting him, as they only spoke Dutch, and as they also seemed very serious and unimpressed, I wasn’t very hopeful that they would approve him. We wouldn’t hear the results until much later, anyway.
On the way back to the hotel we saw a glorious double rainbow filling up the whole sky, and I thought that must mean good luck for tomorrow’s competition. Once inside my hotel room I turned on the TV and flipped to the only English-speaking news channel to hear that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II had passed. As a lifelong and passionate equestrian herself, I think our community felt this loss especially. The news station spoke about the unusual number of rainbows around the U.K. on that day, and I ????
Friday September 9
Friday morning brought the first day of competition for the six-year-old horses! Sabine and Hex were set to compete in Arena 2 at 1:36pm. I arrived a bit early to give Hex his warm mash, go for a couple of hand walks in the morning, then I plugged in my headphones to get in the zone for his braiding and grooming. As a groom, I get even more nervous before a test than I do when I’m the rider! Maybe it’s because as a groom, I can do everything as well as I can, but ultimately I have no control over how the warmup or the test goes. It’s so nerve-racking!
Christine coached Sabine quietly while I stood by waiting to provide sugar cubes, sticky spray, or anything else Sabine might need. At their time, they went through a path in the berm separating the warmup arena and the competition arena and… the gate was closed. They were the first to go after a break, and the gate keepers hadn’t returned. She stood at the gate, unsure of what to do. I was pretty sure that she would get disqualified if I, as a groom, tried to go in, but I wasn’t sure if that would count under the circumstances. Ultimately, the judge at E got out of his box to open the gate (to the laughter and applause of the audience) and Sabine went into the arena to get wait for the bell.
They had a really nice test. I didn’t see the judge’s comments, but from what I remember it was a very clean, if maybe a bit tired test. Hex didn’t quite have the amount of brilliance that we know he can show. But for a six-year-old horse who had flown halfway around the world to his first international competition, I think he was absolutely brilliant. They earned a 81.4% to land them in 14th place out of an enormous class of 42 combinations, just one place behind a spot to the Finals.
The way it works at this competition is that every horse competes in the Qualifying class. The top twelve combinations in the qualifying event get a ticket straight to the Finals on Sunday. The remaining horses continue onto the Small Finals, or Semifinals, where the top three then earn a spot to continue onto the Finals. There was a tie for 12th place in this year’s Qualifying class, so thirteen horses moved directly onto the Final on Sunday. Since Hex placed 14th, he would have to compete in the Small Final on Saturday to try and earn a top three finish to move onto the Final.
Saturday September 10
Saturday was just as stressful (for me, at least) as Friday. My morning routine was more or less the same as the day before as I prepared for their 11:15 ride time. This is my favorite time, as it gives plenty to time to get everything done without too much waiting around. I followed the same routine as yesterday as I got him ready, this time with a slightly shorter warmup time. This is also always stressful, because the closer you cut the warmup time, the more precise and on-time everything else needs to be, as there’s no room for error!
Christine warmed them up again and they looked fabulous. He really is such a good boy. We pulled their boots at the very last minute, and they were off into the main arena!
Honestly, the whole test is a blur for me, I was so nervous! But from what I remember it was clean and slightly more precise and with better quality than the day before. They finished the test with an 84.4%, with every score above 8, landing them in 4th and once again just one place out of the Finals. The judges commented, “In the walk, super relaxed from the start, elastic and supple, really powerful trot, very talented canter, well balanced. A really outstanding horse very strong, capable of super high marks.” It was disappointing that they didn’t make it to the Final but I don’t think we could have asked any more of Hex. He absolutely did his job, tried his heart out, and didn’t put a foot wrong the whole weekend. And being the absolute ham that he is, he thought he had won the whole thing, and could not have been more pleased with himself. After a good gallop in the awards ceremony, he had earned himself a warm mash, a massage from Julie, and a nice long vacation in sunny California.
Sunday September 11
I spent most of Sunday morning packing up our things, an enormous feat that I can’t believe I pulled off. I checked Hex out at the show office, made sure that we had the proper stallion tracing paperwork, collected his passport, and our transport arrived a little after lunchtime to take Hex and me to our next stop, the Gelissen headquarters, a few hours away. Hex and I were to spend the night there, getting the final paperwork ready for our flight back to L.A., and we would leave for the airport early Tuesday morning.
No one was there when we arrived, so the driver offered to drive me into town to find some dinner. I ended up getting something that looked like breaded sausage, but ended up being some kind of pork in a peanut butter sauce (which may sound good, but it wasn’t), so I just had fries for dinner. I walked the 45 minutes back to Gelissen before dark, and found a key that had my name on it. I found a door that the key fit into, which I assumed was to be my bedroom for the night. (Remember what I was saying about going with the flow?) I tucked Hex in for the night, and went to bed myself.
Monday September 12
The next morning I gave Hex breakfast and walked back into the little town to look for a grocery store. I bought myself breakfast and some snacks for the flight, and a nice construction man helped me check out, which for some reason seemed a more complicated process than it is at Trader Joe’s… I think I was supposed to have some sort of membership or card.
I walked back to the barn through an old cemetery surrounding a beautiful cathedral. None of the doors were open, but it was beautiful to see from the outside. Many of the tombstones dated back to the 16th and 17th centuries.
When I got back to Gelissen, I found a lady in the office and asked when the vet would be coming. She said 1:00. So at 12:30, I sat down in the lobby to wait. I found an old book called The Leading Stallions of Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg of the year 2003, which was fascinating, and luckily had English translations.
I sat there for a while, never seeing or hearing another person, until finally at 2:30 someone came into the lobby.
Are you with Gorgeous Latino, they asked.
Well, he’s leaving now. Did you want to go with him?
Eek! I ran upstairs to grab my luggage, and raced into the van. Of course I had been planning for an early morning departure the following morning, but once again you have got to be ready to go with the flow. I asked the driver where we were going, and that’s when I found out we were flying out of the Amsterdam airport.
There were already a few lorries there when we arrived so we had to wait for a few minutes before unloading. Just like before, we took Hex off the van, scanned his microchip, and put him in a nice big box with hay and water all ready for him. He had a whole wing of stalls to himself, and I think he appreciated the peace and quiet. The flight crew asked if I wanted a hotel room, and I said yes please! So they made some calls, gave me a printed receipt for the room, and took me to the hotel, just a few minutes away.
The line was long, and the person who dropped me off had to get back to the horses. But when I presented my receipt, the receptionist told me they had booked my ticket at the wrong hotel! Apparently this is a common mistake because there was a line of people standing outside of the hotel, waiting for a shuttle to bring them to the correct hotel. I joined the crowd and called Sabine to figure out how to let the flight crew know that I would be at a different hotel in the morning.
Long story short, it all got sorted out. I had a delicious dinner at the hotel with a very flirtatious bartender, and got a few hours of sleep in before my early morning pickup.
Tuesday September 13
I met the shuttle outside my hotel at 4:45 and we headed straight to the horses.
There were two full flights that day, one to L.A. and one to Miami, so we had to receive lots more horses before loading them onto pallets. Hex stayed nice and quiet in his box while loads of new horses kept coming into the airport.
I was very grateful that Hex was the very last horse to load onto a pallet, so he didn’t have to stand around long. Unlike at LAX, we didn’t stay with the horses between loading onto the pallets and onto the plane, I think because this was a much longer distance. Once they were on their pallets they were connected into a long train and slowly transported across the airport, while we took a shuttle into the crew entrance to go through security and get a quick breakfast. It was actually really cool to see where all of the pilots and flight attendants go, behind the scenes. We took another shuttle with our pilots to our plane, a 777 I think, and we climbed up the long and rattly stairs (carrying all of our luggage) onto the plane. We quickly dropped our things off and headed to the cargo hold to get the horses situated. As each pallet was raised into the plane, we quickly opened up their little windows to give them more air, as the flight was going to be so full (about 38 horses I think) there wouldn’t be room to move between them during the flight.
I have no idea how long this took, but eventually all of the horses and cargo was loaded and the doors closed. We headed into our little cabin with only four seats to get settled for our long flight. I was the only one with a one-way ticket, this time. The three other grooms had to turn right back around as soon as we landed, with another shipment of horses!
The flight was the same as before. We had food and blankets and the chairs on this plane reclined even more, with foot rests. I slept and watched downloaded movies and read by book in between our checks on the horses every two hours. Everyone flew super well, they all drank and ate plenty of hay. I think Hex slept most of the way. Landing went smoothly, and as soon the horses were on the ground they were in the hands of the quarantine crew from JetPets. I followed the pilots through customs, and eventually landed outside of arrivals at LAX. It was a bit of a shock to be standing back in my home country, surrounded by people who have probably never seen a horse in real life, after the adventure I had just had. I had a bit of stress finding a way home, as an Uber was going to cost about $400, but I eventually found a bus that took me to a train station, which I took to Solana Beach, from where I took an Uber to the barn, where my car was parked and my dog was waiting for me. After three days of traveling, I was home by 11:00 and ready to sleep for a week! I had so much fun on this trip, and learned so much. I am so glad that I was able to spend this time with Hex and Sabine, and I hope this may open more doors for me in the future! I certainly made lots of new friends and have a renewed taste for adventure!
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