Thursday, August 30, 2007

Kara Leylek Akhal-teke Stud

Thursday August 30 2007

Did you ever, when you were little, hear something, or see a picture of something, that ended up shaping the course of your life? That's what happened to Michele Van Kasteren when she saw a classic picture of Kambar, a shimmering golden Akhal-teke racehorse from Turkmenistan in the 1960's. When she saw that picture as a little girl, she knew from then on she wanted an Akhal-teke. Kambar was actually a palomino color, though in Michele's photo, faded from time, he looks like a silver horse. You can still see his magnetic sheen, whatever his color, and he's a magnificent, fit, lean equine specimen. (This “magic photo of Kambar” seems to be responsible for starting the addiction of many Akhal-teke enthusiasts.)

When Michele finally had enough money to buy her first horse (an Akhal-teke, of course), she looked at 3 or 4 places until she found him. I asked how she knew that was the one she wanted, and she shrugged. “You just get a feeling.” It was Peter Van Kasteren who sold her her first Akhal-teke long ago, “and he came with the horse!” They are married now, and have 40-something purebred Akhal-tekes on their farm in southern Belgium.

While Michele always loved the Akhal-teke, she wasn't always into endurance. She took riding lessons when she was young, then got into eventing. Later on, when Peter took her to her first 120 km ride, she found out how painful endurance can be, if you weren't conditioned for it. “I went back to eventing!” “What?” I said, “But you eventers are crazy!” “Yes, but eventing doesn't last all day!” Eventually, however, Michele began competing in endurance on their Akhal-tekes when Peter took a break from riding. She started riding in international rides 3 years ago.

The two things that pique my interest in the Akhal-teke is their unique conformation, and that shimmering quality of their coat. While the many strains, or sire lines, of Akhal-tekes can be quite different, from a sleek greyhound look to an almost warmblood-type, I see in most of them the distinctive head and neck, head carriage, and floating way of moving. The metallic sheen in their coat is due to the unique structure of their hair follicles (unlike other horse breeds), a smaller, opaque core and larger, translucent outer covering, which refracts light – changes its direction - and focuses the light like a crystal. On some of the golden horses – like her stallion Myr – it's almost hypnotic. “Riding him in the sunshine is like truly riding gold!” said Michele.

Michele still calls her Akhal-teke passion and breeding farm her 'hobby,' but with over 40 horses, it must be a full time job – and she already has one of those. In good weather seasons, (this was not one of them – with all the rain Belgium, and western Europe, has had, they missed a lot of training, and therefore a lot of rides) this is a typical day: Get up 3:30-4 AM, go for a ride, then go to full-time work as a lawyer in Luxembourg, ride at lunchtime (on a horse or two she keeps at a friend's near work), return to finish up work, drive the 60 km home, and then ride another horse or two at home. “The latest I got finished riding was at midnight!” That is dedication, or, perhaps, obsession - something I seem to find in many of the Akhal-teke people I've met so far.

The Van Kasterens are on their 3rd generation of breeding Akhal-tekes. I asked which of all of them was her favorite, but Michele couldn't pick one. “They're all unique.” They aim to have 5 or 6 foals a year, keep two of them to raise and train and campaign in endurance. They have 5 in endurance competition now, and a herd of Akhal-tekes from yearlings to 5 years old, and a herd of mares turned out with their black 20-year-old stallion, Sugun (means “deer” in the Turkmen language). Throughout his career he performed in eventing and endurance, and showing. Sugun looks quite content with his lot in life right now!

Most buyers like the buckskin or dun color, but, the Van Kasterens breed for performance, not for color. And while the Van Kasterens compete with their horses in endurance, they don't specifically breed just for endurance, but performance in general, whether it be dressage, jumping, endurance or eventing, believing that the Akhal-teke is a very versatile horse.

Michele prefers to breed the mares young, get 2 or 3 foals out of them before breaking them in and starting them in endurance, since most Akhal-tekes don't fully mature till they are 7 or 8 – what we all like to think of as the beginning of the prime age for endurance horses. And, in general, the Akhal-teke is very easy to break, says Michele. “You just throw a saddle on their back. They turn their head back at you, say, 'Huh? What's that, a saddle? What, you're up there on my back? OK.' And off they go.” Of course it's probably a little more involved than that, but it goes with what others have told me of the Akhal-teke, that they are intelligent, quick to learn, and gentle. The Van Kasterens never have problems with them, such as bad feet, or colic – they've always been reputed to be tough horses throughout their existence.

As people in a minority, the Van Kasterens sometimes feel like they're fighting an uphill battle in endurance (and other sports) with their Akhal-tekes, when people try to say the Akhal-teke is not so successful in horse sports. But Michele does offer a simple, valid argument. “Just look at the numbers of Akhal-tekes there are in the world compared to the Arabian.” (One figure sited is 3500 Akhal-tekes in the world while another says 1500; and as of June 2007, there are over 996,000 registered Arabians in the world). Looking at it that way, the odd Akhal-teke completing 100-mile rides – such as Sabel, in this year's Tevis Cup - is quite an accomplishment, just for the fact that the Akhal-teke was IN the ride in the first place.

Without seeking them out, the Akhal-teke seems to keep finding its way into my endurance wanderings. It just goes to show again that there many sides to endurance around the globe: the serious endurance racing and the casual family atmosphere endurance riding; the purebred Arabian and the alternative breeds like the Akhal-teke and the mule; the shaikhs who ride and the homeless who ride (and I'm not just talking about me here!), the $1,000,000 Arabian and the $500 Arabian that would have gone to slaughter, $100,000 live-in horse trailers and the people that ride across country to get to the endurance rides (OK, so that doesn't happen so much now). There is a place for all of it. Endurance variety – the spice of life!

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Fete de la Ruralite - Rural Fair

Sunday August 26 2007

Sunday, just down the road in the village of Faulx-les-Tombs, Belgium, was a Fete de la Ruralite – a rural fair. The focal point of the fair was a Belgian Ardennais horseshow. I'd gotten my first glimpse of the Belgian Ardennais, or the Ardennes, at the Libramont Fair a few weeks ago, and here was a closeup look at the attractive, big, strong working farm horse.

The breed originated in the Ardennes region of Belgium, France, and Luxembourg, perhaps 2000 years ago, and is one of the oldest of the European draft horses. The Ardennais is still used today for farm work and logging. You could see that the handlers – most of them weathered old Belgium farmers (all wearing white) - regularly used their animals for work. Many of the horses had their tails docked, presumably to keep it out of the way during work. Many of the mares had foals at their side that roamed freely with them.

The average height is 15.1 to 16.3 hands, and the average weight 1500 to 2200 pounds - so, smaller than a percheron, but as compact and muscled and powerful. They come in all colors, though black is excluded from registration. The horses were judged on conformation and movement , judged by 3 studious men with a knowledgable eye.

The breed is known for being docile, willing, and easy to handle, though I was surprised to see that a fair number of them seemed to be spooky, jumping at things like some Arabians I've ridden. But then, these farm horses probably aren't used to such a place, a busy fair, with people everywhere, miniature horses pulling carts, hay-bales flying through the air (a human throwing contest).

The horses were not the only attraction at the fair. The big social tent, next to the show ring, was packed with people, first for a lunch, then afterward for copiously flowing wine and beer. “Everybody comes here to see and be seen,” said Leo's neighbor Eddie. “The local politicians are here.”

A local marching band played (sitting under the tent). A little miniature horse was very busy giving little cart rides – with a companion Australian Shepherd clearing the way for him, nipping people in the legs when people didn't move. Saddled ponies gave rides to kids. You could join in the hay-bale throwing contest, watch the shoeing process of a Ardennais, take a mini-cart ride or a ride in a carriage pulled by two Ardennais horses, or get your face painted. There were fruit and vegetable stands, artist booths, an ice cream vendor, a candy vendor, and later in the day, a fantastic 4-piece New Orleans jazz band – here in the heart of Belgium! The crowd grew as the pleasant sunny day went on.

Leo borrowed the key to the old church built in 1850, on the street overlooking the fair. It was beautiful inside, original stonework, nothing gaudy, just simple and cool and nice. We opened a side door and the 5 of us climbed up cobwebbed stairs to the balcony below the belfry – which I am pretty sure hadn't been visited since 1850! The 'floor' was 6 inches of bird and bat guano, with a smattering of desiccated bird and bat skeletons. We creaked open a door to the little outside balcony – scaring the feathers off a nesting pigeon – and had a great view of the fair below. Leo dared to climb a very tall aluminum ladder even higher toward the belfry (I wonder how long the ladder had been there!), but I preferred standing on the solid guano floor. What great character the church had!

We ended our afternoon at the fair with a beer (or two) with the local Belgian community, sitting next to the arena where the Ardennais were still showing , with the 4-piece band jazzing away beside us. Nice way to spend a Belgian afternoon!

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Compiegne 140-km Teams Trophy

Thursday-Friday August 23-24 2007

This time my view of this important European ride, the 140-km Compiegne Teams Trophy, would be from the inside – behind the scenes, working as a crew for Leo and his horse Orfeo. I'd be one of the myriad people scurrying around at the vet gates and the crew stops, madly tossing and sloshing water, running with buckets bottles and grain and hay and blankets and crew gear.

It was a great location for my first European crew experience: Compiegne , site of the World Endurance Championships in 2000, and the European Championships in 2005. If France is the European axis of endurance racing, then Compiegne might be considered the centerpiece of it all. Many people speak of great French rides: Florac, Ribiers, Compiegne; but invariably when they say “Compiegne” their eyes light up with a special fondness. Organizer and manager Nicolas Wahlen speaks of Compiegne the same way – he's very proud of his masterpiece, and rightly so. It's a technically challenging course, with tracks and riding lanes through state forest land - hilly terrain, sandy ground - and it brings top horses and riders from around the world to compete. In fact, said one rider, it might be more important than the European Championships for the sheer number of top French riders: at the European Championships there will be only 6 French riders; here there would be over 60 entered in the 140 km Teams Trophy. There would be a total of 84 entries, with riders from France, Spain, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Bahrain, Great Britain, Luxembourg, and Brazil.

One of the requirements for these European endurance races seems to be that you get little sleep, and so, our journey actually began the night before we left for Compiegne, when we were out way late partying with Cavalia horses. (The Australians and Kiwis take care of all that; they don't even let you delude yourself about sleep. Their rides start often at 2 AM.)

Leo and his son Julien, and Leo's horse Orfeo, had left early Thursday morning for Compiegne, and Caroll and I followed in the afternoon. We had a nice short drive of only 2 hours from Brussels to Compiegne... all under gray skies, and some rain. We tried to pawn the rain off in Belgium, but no, it was raining in France, too. Caroll was clever enough to stop at a sporting goods store and insist we buy rubber boots – which came in very handy on my first footstep outside the car on the venue grounds. It was a sea of mud! Looked like it had been raining here for a while – like maybe 3 months! But I happily sloshed through every mud pond (purposely) in my new boots. Caroll's car almost got stuck in thick gooey mud in the stable area, with wheels spinning. After the weekend was over, it looked like we'd been 4-wheeling instead of endurance racing!

We spent the afternoon setting up our gear – trunks and buckets and horse blankets and grain and hay and water – in the grooming area and the rest area under our tent where Orfeo would spend his holds eating and resting. In the late afternoon, near the vet gates, in front of the grandstand of the equestrian stadium, the rider meeting was held in French and English. We imbibed at the refreshment tent, and greeted acquaintances. I'm getting to know some of the faces in this part of the world, cheek-kiss-greeting them like I know what I'm doing. But I've never been able to keep straight how many kisses you give: I think with the French it's two, the Belgians one, the Dutch zero unless they really like you and then it's three... I'm not sure what a French and a Dutch person who really like each other do when they greet.

A large catered feast was held in another big tent – it was one big eating party with an astounding variety of food. The cooks had no problem keeping up with cooking and dishing out the hot main courses to the large numbers of people.

We got to bed late, as usual – had to visit with a lot of people in the food tent and help empty some wine bottles! The morning start was at quite a reasonable hour, 6:30 AM, and so we were up at 5, and in the car by 5:15, headed to the venue about 7 km away from the hotel. We downed a quick breakfast provided for the riders and crews, then slopped through the mud to the stables to get Orfeo ready. We greeted the other members of Leo's team, stabled nearby; and once Orfeo was saddled, we crew followed him and Leo to the starting line. It wasn't raining, but was heavily overcast, and very muggy. 84 riders left the starting line right at 6:30 for their first 32-km loop.

As the crew, we didn't go out driving on this loop. It would be too rushed, said Caroll; better to stay here and make sure we're organized, and be ready for Leo to come in off this first loop, which would likely be pandemonium. Besides, Orfeo wouldn't be drinking on the first loop anyway.

We expected them to come in to the first vet gate at about 8:30, and we spent most of that time making sure everything was ready. There were just a few people around – for the first hour – and the atmosphere was quite relaxed – no indication of the tumult to come. Cool jazz – Louis Armstrong - was playing on the venue speakers.

Around 8 AM crew cars started arriving from the first loop, and humans began trickling into the grooming area, people greeting people, waiting, visiting, all of them (us) draped in crew jewelry: horse blankets, halters, lead ropes, heart monitors as necklaces, stethoscopes, saddle racks. We carried water bottles, water buckets, grain buckets... and we waited. There was lots of cigarette smoking going on... nervous crews?

The first 5 riders came in at 8:23, (3 of which were eventually eliminated), then 3 more riders a few minutes later, then a cascade. A throng of purposeful riders and horses and crews, all going different directions, and I was right in the middle of it! Here came Leo and Orfeo... I successfully got his saddle off without forgetting to undo the cinch or something (it was easy, he had no breast collar), or dropping the saddle in the mud! Orfeo didn't want water, or hay, or cooling off... he wanted grain, we found out later! However, it was time to cool him down, get his pulse down to 64, and time the long walk to the vet gate just right. There was a crowd at the vet gate, but Orfeo entered and stopped the clock, with plenty of room inside to wait for the team of vets. When they emerged, Leo said Orfeo's pulse was 48 – not bad for an old horse.

Back at the rest area, under our tent, Orfeo scarfed his grain. When it was gone, he went straight for the closed bucket where he knew more grain was, about yanking Julien off his feet. Caroll mixed Orfeo some more grain. I made a sandwich for Leo. They had 40 minutes to rest and eat. Caroll cleaned Orfeo's legs off while he ate, Julien held him and the grain bucket, and I cleaned the sand and mud from the girth and slobber from the bit. “It's a war,” said Leo of the race, shaking his head. “Always passing, passing, this side, that side. It's very, very, very competitive. You can't relax riding in a big group.”

Then it was time to resaddle Orfeo , and they were off, headed for the out gate, and we the crew were off in the car to meet them on this second loop of 33 km. Caroll's car was crammed with water containers and extra horse gear, and her back seat was really not quite designed for a third person! Going by the road book (Julien reading, not me!), we found our way to the first appointed crew stop, which was very busy already with lots of people setting up, cars parking on the sides of the roads and on any available grassy spots. We pulled out our prepared water bottles and bucket we'd need; and Julien and Caroll went up the trail a bit with the bottles, and I stayed back with the drinking water for Orfeo. Soon, here came the leaders, and not too many minutes behind them, Leo. Orfeo wouldn't drink, and in fact stuck his nose in the bucket and lifted it up in the air, spilling most of the water on his face and chest, expressing his disdainful opinion about drinking at a time like this.

At the crew stops, all the crews stake out their little territories, strategically placing themselves at a specific spot where they think will most benefit their riders, and set up. Then they wait: hanging out, visiting, yakking, loitering, and seemingly enjoying the atmosphere (though the mood here at Compiegne isn't quite relaxed) – but the instant the first rider is spotted, the call goes up and everything changes. Murmurs shoot through the crowd and it suddenly turns into a beehive that's been whacked, with all the frantic activity – people swarming, running with buckets, waving at riders, yelling at riders, people sprinting alongside and after horses; horses stopping to drink, horses darting through the crowd, empty water bottles flying, horses shooting through and out of the beehive, dodging people and cars and each other.

We jumped in our car raced on to the next crew point, and there I stood with Sabrina Arnold's parents this time, back out of the way, giving the leading horses and crews plenty of room. Sabrina and Leo arrived together, and again Orfeo wasn't interested in drinking, only had a swallow or two. It was cause of slight consternation from Orfeo's rider and crew. After they cantered off, we crew raced back to the venue and waited for them to arrive off this second loop.

Close to 3 dozen riders came in within 2 minutes of each other. Leo and Orfeo were just 8 minutes behind the leaders. Per instructions, I waited to pull saddle to give Orfeo an undistracted chance to drink – but he wouldn't drink – so Leo finally loosened the saddle and I pulled it off. We doused Orfeo in water – head, neck, shoulders, and while his heart rate was still in the 70's, we started the long walk to the vet ring with him. I watched from the sidelines as he was trotted out... wait, was there a bobble there? Oh no - he was asked for a second trot out! Orfeo was a bit lame! Though it was inconsistent, there was something there, and he was pulled! My crewing career was over after only two loops! (As were 9 others on this loop, and 4 on the first loop.) But, that's endurance. “Too bad, it's a shame,” said Leo. “He's so fit and strong, and he wants to go, but his legs just aren't what they used to be. His legs can't keep up with his will.”

Loop 3, while the other horses went out on the 20-km trail and their crews out on the road, we packed up our things and loaded them into two cars, drove everything back to the trailer and unloaded there. Alain Porras on our team was eliminated by lameness on this loop, leaving us with 2 girls representing Team Omega. By the time the leading horses were headed out on loop 4, we were done with our work and now found ourselves as casual observers. Caroll helped crew for some other Belgians, and Leo and Julien and I went out on the loop to take pictures. Cantering past us in first was Spain's Maria Alvarez Ponton, on her gelding Julius De La Drome, who'd finished 3rd in the 160 km at Compiegne last year, followed by Nicolas Vazquez on the mare Orsane D'Angelique, and Alex Luque, on his horse Atiklan, who finished the 160 km ride at San Galmier a month ago.

At the end of the 32-km loop 4, the 3rd member of our team, Geraldine Brault vetted out for lameness, leaving only Sabrina Arnold of Germany left. Sabrina had been moving up steadily all day, from 23rd place, to 22nd, to 15th, and was now in 8th place. Our dispossessed crew now had time to sit and watch the race , visit people, have a beer or two, take a picture here and there, and catch the riders going out on the final 21-km loop. Fifteen riders went out within 3 minutes of each other, galloping out the gate in hot pursuit of the one ahead, with Nicolas Vazquez leading the charge. It looked like it could be a very close finish... what kind of strategy do you use on a last loop when you're all so close? It would likely all come down to what their horses had left, instead of what the riders had planned.

Just over 45 minutes later, a wave of excitement brought people to their feet and running to the rail of the finish for the first rider coming in: French rider Julien Lafaure on Jasmina Cabirat, who moved from 15th to first place. But the effort was too much for his horse, who did not recover and vetted out on metabolics – a tough break.

One minute later, Spain's Maria Alvarez Ponton trotted across the finish line; due to Lafaure's elimination, she became the winner of Compiegne, followed four minutes later by Nicolas Vazquez. Six minutes later, Sabrina Arnold approached the finish line with a few lengths' comfortable lead over Sophie Arnaud; but Sabrina misjudged the finish line, slowing her horse some 30 meters short of the electronic timer. Sophie was the first to realize Sabrina's mistake, and urged her horse to a gallop, and just passed Sabrina right before the finish line. Tough luck for one horse and rider, great luck for another. There were a few mildly contested sprints for the finish, but anti-climactic after the rousing race out of the last vet gate. Several horses looked quite spent as they crossed the finish line. Two more finishers vetted out at the finish line for lameness.

46 of 84 finished, with the winner Maria Alvarez Ponton averaging 18.09 km/hr. The team she was on, Germ Tonic, finished 3rd, with 3 riders across the finish line. The French Tomas Team finished first, and the Royal Team of Bahrain took second.

Dinner, certainly one of the highlights of Compiegne, was another big, boisterous, monstrously catered affair. Orfeo got his own good dinner of grain, hay and silage, and some carrots I borrowed from his next door Belgian horse neighbor.

The next morning, our ride experience at Compiegne complete, we finalized our packing, while dozens of trailers full of new horses and riders were arriving for Sunday's 119-km Young Horses Championship, for 7 and 8-year-old horses. There would be 107 entries with high stakes; many riders could expect good offers on their horses that finished near the top. 56 of 108 would end up finishing, with the winner averaging 18.8 km/h, and 7 of the horses eliminated at the finish.

We would not be staying for the Sunday ride, because our Compiegne adventure was over, and we were headed home. My first experience at crewing, European style, even if it was just a taste, for the first 2 loops, wasn't bad, especially since it was at Compiegne. I can see how it grows on you, both the crewing, and the fabled venue and occurrence that is Compiegne.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

To Compiegne: Crew Extraordinaire!

Thursday August 23 2007

That would be me, for the first time, Crew Extraordinaire, for Belgian Leonard Liesens and his horse Orfeo in the 140 km CEI*** Teams Trophy of Compiegne 2007! I would be the embedded reporter on the battlefield. Actually I would be the third wheel crew person behind Caroll and Julien (Leo's son), but it would still be my first time crewing in Europe! Come to think of it, I've only crewed a few times in America, and our crewing is certainly lower key than in Europe, especially in France, and most especially at Compiegne! What a place to be crew-initiated!

Leo's team of four consisted of himself, Alain Porras from France, Geraldine Brault from France, and Sabrina Arnold from Germany. Leo would be riding his great horse Orfeo des Iviers, an 18-year-old bay gelding who's been around the endurance block.

Orfeo and Leo met in Orfeo's younger days, after he'd thrown and killed his rider. Leo bought him for 3000 Euros. He was a difficult horse to ride at first, but with a lot of work, he turned into a very good endurance horse, very forward, all business on the trail – in the endurance rides, anyway. In training rides you can see he still has a few of his own opinions – as does Leo! - but they complement each other and work very well together. I had the special treat of riding Orfeo one day in the Belgium forest , and he was delightfully pleasant and fun to ride. He's a narrow, angular Arabian, maybe 15 hands, with a long face and a long, ground covering, comfortable canter.

In his career, Orfeo won 4 3-star endurance races, including 2 160-km races, and the 2000 Belgian Championships. They finished Top 10 in the 1999 European Championships in Portugal, Top 10 in the 2000 World Championships in Compiegne, and won the 140-km in Compiegne in 2003. They made the Belgian team selection 6 times, and Orfeo participated in a total of 2 European Championships and 4 World Championships. Not bad for a little bay horse.

Leonard himself didn't always like horses. Leo's previous wife and kids had gone to stables to take riding lessons, but at the time he wasn't interested at all. Then one day about 10 years ago, he went to a country fair and saw Arabian stallions in a show, and said, “WOW! I must get me an Arabian!” In 3 months he had bought a young Arabian mare. He started taking riding lessons, and studying books by the great classical dressage instructor Nuno Oliveira.

While continuing to improve his riding with instructors, Leo broke in his mare, and used her for trail riding. He wondered what else he could do with her, and then one day heard of endurance. He tried it, and, as happens with most of us, he was hooked.

From there he got Orfeo, and then he met Steph Teeter, who invited him to America to do some rides... including his first 100 mile ride, which was the Tevis Cup. He and Steph finished that ride in 21 hours, still his longest ride ever! He also rode the 3-day historic Outlaw Trail ride, where on one of the days he and his horse got bogged down in quicksand (it took several people to pull the horse out.) Since then, Leo's ridden all over the world, including (besides Europe and America) Dubai, Malaysia, New Zealand, Algeria.

“It's funny how thing come together,” he said. “Thanks to Orfeo I did a lot of things, have gotten to travel all over the world, and thanks to Steph I did a lot of things.”

And here I was at Compiegne, crewing for them! “What do I do?” I asked. “I don't want to do anything wrong!” I mean, what if I lose vet cards? What if I do something wrong that loses valuable time in getting Orfeo's heart rate down? What if I get lost in the swirling chaos of a vet gate and cool down the wrong horse? What do I do at a crew stop on a loop?

Leo gave me instructions on handing off a water bottle as he's coming into a crew stop on a loop. “I like to take the bottle in my right hand, so you have to be on my right side, and you'll run alongside me and hand it off – I'll be cantering – like a baton in a relay race.” Sure, I can do that, I've seen many people do that. Leo cracked up, “And don't forget to take the lid off!”

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


August 22 2007

When I was in Brussels a few weeks ago, I saw the posters for Cavalia in Brussels on August 23. Man, I thought, I've always wanted to see Cavalia! (never have). Too bad I won't be in Brussels then.

Back in Brussels on August 21 for a few days (en route to Compiegne ride in France this weekend with Belgians Leonard and Caroll) I'd forgotten all about Cavalia, until Caroll emailed me. “Do you want to go to a horseshow tomorrow night? I have two free tickets.” I emailed back, “Sure!” Love going to horse shows. Well, turns out, she was not talking about a horse show, she was talking about THE HORSE SHOW, Cavalia!!

And not only was she talking about going to see Cavalia, and not only did she have two tickets, she had two VIP TICKETS: “VIP places of course with visit of horses after the show”. Oh. My. God. This was going to be better than going backstage to see Geoff Tate after a Queensryche concert!!

I met Caroll after she finished work, we caught the train to Brussels North, then got a free Tour-and-Taxi ride to the site of the show, where Caroll's cousin Sandra met us with VIP passes. Sandra is the front of house manager with the show that's touring around Europe.
We got to wine and dine (sans the dining) in the VIP tent, shop the Cavalia goods, then... into the big tent theatre!

I spent many years working in Seattle theatre, behind the scenes with lights and sound, and I just loved it. Not just the shows themselves, but the whole behind-the-scenes life – the fascinating and complex elements of how a show is put together technically, how it comes together artistically to produce the polished magic that is on stage. I'm still the sound engineer for the black gospel musical, The Gospel at Colonus, that comes out of the closet every few years for a show, and I'm still astounded every time at how that comes together (oooh, there are stories there!) and I'm never not thrilled with the magic every time we do it, every night of the show.

And here at Cavalia was not only theatre, but theatre with horses! Always not-completely-predictable! Even with human actors, every show won't be exactly the same, so with horses, I'm there must be a lot of flexibility the performers learn to work around!

Resembling Cirque du Soleil (the Artistic Director, Norman Latourelle, is one and the same), Cavalia has human acrobats, equine performances with humans and without, ridden horses and horses at freedom, fantastic lighting design, a good group of musicians and a vocalist for live music. Beautiful horses – lusitanos, Spanish horses, quarter horses, draft horses. Single horse and rider floating through fog, passaging through snowflakes, strutting through falling autumn leaves. Horses at freedom sprinting around Frederic, or prancing around a female dancer in a pond, horses – one or two or three of them at a time - following Frederic, waltzing sideways, moving backwards, rearing, in response to just a glance or a raised eyebrow or finger. Pas de deux with two, pas de cinq (I'm might be making that term up), with 5 white lusitanos. You can see the horses enjoy their performances – some of them show off a bit more than others; some of them appear to be clearly annoyed with their fellow equine performer when he is not doing his job properly!

There were trick riders galloping full speed across the stage arena (sand, with a platform in the center); there were graceful horses under saddle with slow exaggerated movements, and a gracefully ridden lusitano sans bridle and saddle. There were riders riding two horses at once – standing on the horses' butts – and one gal riding 4 horses! Galloping full speed! And taking a jump no less!

Cavalia started off in 2003 with 29 horses; there's now some 64 horses in the show (not all are on every night), 31 of them stallions (no mares!). They range from 12 months to 22 years of age, and the average age is 8. The way they perform, you can see they are trained and handled with patience and respect for the horse. And they are spoiled – in a good way: special feed, a bath a day, a massage once a week.

We had seats smack in the center, and after the show we wandered to the horse tent (Caroll and I and about 200 other VIPs!) where we looked at the equine performers, some of who'd had the night off, and some who'd just had their after-show baths and were getting their beautiful long maines braided (protected) for the night, by the grooms and performers. All of the horses were eating and not interested in signing horse autographs, and some were clearly ready to sleep and had their butts to their stall doors, their ears laying back slightly in irritation from all the commotion. I goggled at the beautiful performers (the horses) and I did have to touch one of them, I just couldn't help myself!

Oh, yea, and we did meet Frederic, “the European 'Horse Whisperer' star of Cavalia” afterwards, also. I had a million questions I could have asked him (and I wanted to talk to the stage manager too!), but I left that to Caroll, who'd be interpreting his French reponses for me later!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Sailing Oslofjord

Thursday August 16 2007

All this talk about sailing , and the punchline is... I get seasick. I can get seasick in a bathtub. I can get seasick just looking at a ferry. And when I get seasick, it's nasty. I can throw up for hours. And here we were in Oslo, going sailing again, this time with a stiff breeze, and waves – those kind of waves that when you hit them right make you a rolling corkscrew on the water... which makes me... ill...

I'd sailed a bit in my younger days. When I was in junior high shool, my dad had a 16' sailboat, and he'd drag me along on the weekends to a nearby bay and we'd go sailing. Oh, how I moaned and whined about having to go, but once we were on the water, I actually enjoyed it. We also had a little 8' sailboat I'd take out on our little hometown 'lake.' I'd been on a sailboat only once since then – as a crew on a yacht race in San Francisco Bay (my role was to stay down in the hatch, completely out of the way) – but that was still a long time ago.

I'd never gotten sick on a sailboat, never even thought about it. I liked the feeling of the rolling boat on the waves. And so, it came as a great surprise to me when I found out that I get seasick on big boats. I discovered this affliction when I was riding a ferry from the the Outer Hebrides to the Scottish mainland. I was below deck in the cafeteria, having a coffee and watching the entertainment of the coffee cup sliding back and forth across the table as the boat started corkscrewing through the water. Cool! I thought. In about 10 minutes, I realized things were not cool. In fact, I was getting hot and clammy and... nauseous! How could this happen! I don't get sick on boats! I ran upstairs and outside on the railing, and stood for the next 2 hours in the freezing wind, staring at the horizon. I managed not to throw up, and the nausea went away, (maybe because I froze into a popsicle) and then I never thought about it again.

Until I was on a ferry from Athens to a Greek Island in the Mediterranean 2 years ago. Yea, it was a little rough, but not THAT rough, and the ferry wasn't corkscrewing, it was just riding the waves up and down. I stood out on the side of the ferry for fun, till I got too cold and wet, then walked inside to where my friend Tracy was sitting, head down and knitting furiously (she'd just had a break-up), while the boat plunged up and down... and it suddenly hit me. I ran to the loo and puked and puked, then crawled back to the seats, and laid on the ground under Tracy's feet, white-faced and moaning. She went off to get me some sea-sick pills, then went back to her furious knitting while I slept miserably on the floor.

From then on, when I've gotten on a ferry, no matter how calm the water looks, I pop the pills. And I hadn't thought about seasickness again, till today as we went out on the sailboat. And here I discovered to my delight that I still do not get sick on sailboats! (Though I wouldn't get too cocky, because even Kjersti can still get sick, if the rolling motion further out from shore is too great.)

There's something about the sea and the sound, and there's something about being out on the water , and there's something about being out on a sailboat, with just the wind to propel you along. And, there's something about being out on the water in Norway! We motored just a short distance out of the marina, then raised the mainsail and the foresail, though Per Christian did not raise them all the way, because the wind was too strong for that. “Well, too strong for us.”

I stayed out of the way while Per Christian and Kjersti sailed the boat, heading across the bay and tacking – changing directions, changing the sails (not nautical terms!) to catch the wind on the other side. Next time we tacked I helped just a smidgeon by loosening the foresail on the leeward side. There were other boats out on the water, and with the strong wind, we were all leaning – sometimes what I thought was waaaay over, at nearly a 45* angle. I remembered my dad and I tipping our sailboat over in the bay a few times. I did have a lifejacket on here but... “Can the boat turn over?” I asked. I had to know just how nervous I should get. “It won't turn over. It's got a lot of weight in the bottom, and when you get to a certain angle, the wind loses its power in the sails.” Well then, I didn't have to worry at all, other than keeping my footing and not slipping when the boat leaned, and, after all, I did have a lifejacket on. Let's cruise, then!

Then Kjersti laid down for a nap (nothing like a nap on a sailboat!), which left ME to help Per Christian with tacking. Next time we turned, I got to crank the foresail in on the new windward side. I didn't turn us over or rip a sail in two, hooray! And then, I was handed the wheel! Yikes! “Pick out a spot on that hill across the bay and head toward it. Try to keep the wind at 30*,” said Per Christian, pointing to one of the dials on the instrument pedestal (The Raven had checked these out earlier). Yikes!

We skimmed across the bay, and I had to concentrate a bit on not just keeping the boat headed in one direction, or, keeping it 30* to the wind, if the wind shifted, but, steering in the correct direction! This boat had a wheel, and from 30 years ago, my strong instinct was to steer as if using a rudder – in the opposite direction. The pull of the water and waves, the push of the wind, and the lean of the boat all pulled on the steering, and when the boat would lean way to the side, I would panic just a little and compensate – with the wind, the wrong way, which made the boat lean just a little more. Then I REALLY had to concentrate! And discovered that sailing isn't always the relaxing pasttime that it always seems, or that accomplished sailors like Per Christian and Kjersti make it look to be. (And today I didn't have to worry about traffic, which I did the next time we sailed – when I learned it's hard to see around the foresail on the leeward side, and, I don't know the boating traffic rules).

When we almost reached the shore of the other side of the fjord we turned around, then dropped the mainsail and just sailed with the foresail because we were running with the wind. And then the wind died, so we just silently floated along, about the pace of a horse's walk, which was lovely!. There was a little rain shower ahead of us, and some gray clouds ahead and to our right, but we stayed dry.

Finally the wind died and we turned on the motor to get us back to the slip, and we pulled in just before dark. That was just lovely. There's just something about the water... Now I've got a hankering to sail the Norwegian coast, and to visit Iceland and Greenland : ) . There's Icelandic ponies on Iceland, right?

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Welcome to Oslo!

Tuesday August 14 2007

So, what's the first thing you do when you arrive in Oslo, Norway? Go sailing, of course! After Kjersti and her husband Per Christian picked me up at the train station, we went straight to the marina where their 35' sailboat, Mar (means sea in Portuguese – they spent 2 years in Brazil), was moored. Kjersti made us dinner on the boat, then we unhitched the ropes (that is not nautical terms), motored out of the marina into the bay, raised the sails, and, the Raven II and I were sailing on Oslo Fjorden! We had wind for only 15 minutes, so we did more motoring than sailing today, but it was great to be out on the water (in Norway!) and not on a tour boat. And while out on the fjord we ran into (not literally) their friends Eli and Hans Jacob – the only ones they know in Oslo so far – just returning on their boat from their 6-week summer sailing holiday!

Kjersti and Per Christian have had a sailboat for the last 10 years, and just the week before I arrived, they'd moved here to Oslo from Tromsø in the north of Norway – a 4-week sailing trip along the west coast. (They'd done the trip from Oslo to Tromsø a few years ago, also.) I later saw some pictures Hans Jacob took of their sailing trip down along the northwest coast of Norway, which were just stunning. Per Christian is maybe what you'd call obsessed with sailing – something I can relate to, since I'm a bit obsessed with endurance riding. Kjersti likes many outdoor sports – sailing, hiking, skiing, and you can do all of those in Norway, though your summer sports up north are a bit short-seasoned.

The next day I hoofed it around Oslo. The city, and the area, reminds me much of Seattle, and Puget Sound: rain rain rain, green, wet, cloudy, gray, the green islands in the gray water, boats, hills and forests, more rain, fresh moist air, slugs, crows – it kind of made me homesick!

Oslo, according to Norse legends, was established around 1049. The meaning of the name Oslo, from Old Norse, might be 'the meadow beneath the ridge' or 'the meadow of the gods'.

Maritime history is an important part of Oslo and Norway. During the Viking age, from the 8th to 11th centuries, Norwegians founded settlements on Iceland, the Faroe Islands, Greenland, Britain and Ireland, and they reached Newfoundland, Canada. Today Oslo is home to some of the world's largest shipping companies and shipbrokers.

Norway's produced some of the world's greatest explorers and adventurers, including Polar explorer Roald Amundsen, the first man to reach the South Pole. There's several museums dedicated to maritime history and treasures, including the Fram museum, where you can actually board the “world's strongest ship,” the Fram (means “Forward” in Norwegian), built in 1892 and used for 3 great polar expeditions. I mean, you can walk on and around the very ship that sailed the furthest North, and the furthest South of any ship, a ship that was icelocked for years at a time. The Fram was built with a special egg-shaped hull built to rise above the crushing pressure of the ice for when the ship would become icebound at the Poles. (If you've never read Alfred Lansing's “Endurance” for a vivid account of a Polar exploration, and ships caught in ice, you're missing out.) Outside is parked and preserved the ship Gjoa, which was the first ship to sail the Northwest Passage. You can also see, at another museum, the best preserved Viking Ships ever found, buried over 1100 years ago in 3 royal burial grounds by the Oslo fjord, to carry their royal owners “to the other side.”

One evening we hiked up a nearby local hill with Hans Jacob and Eli. (The Raven came along). Hans carried up a watermelon and we sat up top overlooking Oslo and the Oslofjord under gray cloudy skies and a brisk (autumn already?!) wind.

Currently on exhibition outdoors by the waterfront in Oslo is the wildlife photography of Steve Bloom: Spirit of the Wild. Large, stunning images of wildlife – makes you think you might as well pack away your camera, he's so good – that serve to remind man of “the fragility of the world, and our need to respet protect, and preserve it.” (I mean, really! How does he get some of these photographs!?) (see HYPERLINK "" )

Some interesting thought-provoking facts presented by the exhibit:

It now takes 6 weeks to consumer the same amount of oil that took one year to consume in 1950.

Bottled water costs 1000 times the price of tap water.

The average consumption of water per day by humans: a Madagascan farmer uses 10 liters a day, a European uses 250-350 liters a day, an American uses 600 liters a day.

Public transport consumes 5 times less energy than a private car.

The world population count: 1800 – 1 billion people. 1960 – 3 billion people. 2000 – 6 billion people.

Since 1950, 30% of the planet's resources have been lost.

40% of sea life has been destroyed in the last 25 years by pollution

Gas consumed per inhabitant per year: Sub-Saharan Africa – 31 liters per year. Asia – 50 liters per year. Western Europe – 427 liters per year. North America – 1637 liters per year.

Other facts about Norway: it's the most peaceful country in the world, and Oslo is one of the most expensive cities in the world. And, Oslo has DR PEPPERS!!

Monday, August 13, 2007

To Norway!

Tuesday August 14 2007

When you travel in foreign countries, sometimes you form special bonds with certain people you meet. Someone you spend a few days on the road with, far away from home, can become a closer friend, and much quicker, than someone you meet at home and you've known for half a year. It doesn't matter if you're both from the US or if you're from the US and South Africa – you're both at this moment travelling (in this case with a backpack) in a foreign country, doing something like planning a 3-week trekking route in a Kathmandu restaurant. “Instant kinship,” I've called it. Any kind of relationships you form with people in special circumstances – travel, unique work - can be special, but nothing is like the ones you form when you're travelling in some other part of the world.

On October 18, 1991, I went out to the El Bistro restaurant in Kathmandu Nepal with Heather from Canada, Lisa from somewhere, Bob from Canada, Florence from Italy, Kjersti from Norway, Karl from Germany, Luigina from Italy, and some gal from Canada. “We had such a fine time, 9 strangers sharing a meal for a night in Katmandu,” I wrote in my journal. That dinner with Kjersti was where we decided to hook up for a 21 day trek around the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal together.

My Himalayan trekking partner! We'd struggled together, on our own foot power, over miles (3 weeks of miles) and mountains (over a pass at 17,872 feet) and rickety bridges over raging rivers. Her shoulder had been dislocated by a bad taxi ride just weeks before, and my backpack broke on the second day out. Along the way we drank tea from cups cleaned with dirt, we ate food in dirty guesthouses, children with sores and diseases clung to our legs, we struggled along exhausted on some days. We slept in places so cold we wore everything we had and only our noses were sticking out of our sleeping bags. We got tired of being dirty, we got tired of being cold, we got fatigued and winded and some days could barely go on, but we never tired of the spectacular scenery all around us.

The following is an account of our final day of ascent of Thorung La Pass in November of 1991. Andrew, a Welsh guy had been trekking with us for about a week.

MONDAY 11/4/1991
What a day! It started at 3 AM when 2 girls in our room (a dorm room of about 14 beds, military barracks style) got up to leave, but they were pretty quiet. We won’t even mention the noisy bloody Englishman and the amplified theatrical snoring we all had to suffer through all night. His group-mates weren’t kidding when they warned us about him. Then SnoreMan and the rest of that group got up about 4 AM and must not have noticed the 3 warm bodies still trying to sleep at the Ungodly hour. Or they didn’t care because they didn’t make any effort to be quiet. Pack, rattle, yap yap, laugh, wrap-wrap, pack, and the corker was when the Englishman sneezed twice. “HA AHH HAAA!” loud enough to lift the roof off the building. I should’ve stolen his acclimatization pills at night.

We laid in bed till 5:15 AM, when I could no longer stand it – I had to get up for the toilet. So I got dressed, which meant, since I was already sleeping in layers, simply putting on my wool sweater and ski jacket over my 2 or 3 day old clothes, peeling off my second layer of wool socks, and putting my dirty socked feet into my cold shoes and running out in the still-dark with my flashlight to the outdoor toilet. Another girl and I paused and stared in amazement at the brilliant stars – one in particular was beaming like a beacon.

It wasn’t THAT cold outside, but when that wind whips through the toilet stalls around your squatting bum, it’s pretty bloody cold. We got hot cups of coffee and hot porridge (yuck), and finally set off in high spirits and no altitude effects (nausea or headache) at 14,586' (4420m), at 6:25 AM. We were climbing to and over Thorung La Pass today at 17,872' (5415m), a climb of 3286' (1000m). Then we had a long way to go down... but we weren't even thinking about that yet.

It was light, and we pushed upward, ever higher out of the valley at a steady pace, and stopped in about an hour for a water/biscuit break. There were several people in the vicinity, including the 2 American girls ahead of us. We continued up, and up, climbing incredibly higher, unbelievably higher, stopping for breaks at the tops of long stretches.

It got a bit harder after 2 ½ hours – we figured we had 2 more hours to go or so. It got more difficult – false summit after false summit after false summit… our steps got slower and shorter and the breathing more difficult. I never looked past where my next 2 feet would go.

It began to get discouraging. Lower down I thought – God I wish my brothers were here! The last hour I thought – I wouldn’t wish this on anybody. The views were stunning with every new false summit, but the last part nobody cared. All that mattered was the next spot you put your foot down, and concentrating on not stumbling. I kept saying, “It’s just over this next ‘hill.’” “This is the last climb, I’m SURE of it.” Kjersti was ahead of me and would groan every time the trail shot out of view up another ‘hill.’ God, just get me up this hill, I prayed, because I can’t turn around and go back down.

My head started to hurt, my pack gained weight (this morning Andrew took some of my books and a shoe in his pack), and my body refused to go faster than a crawl. I'd take three steps and rest, take three steps and rest, bending over panting, trying to fill my lungs with deep breaths of the thin air. I couldn’t drink any more, and my body was running on empty. Then I spotted some rock piles and I knew that HAD to be the summit, or I simply wouldn’t make it. Up ahead, Kjersti yelled “Ahh haaa!” – her now-familiar victory yell. I saw the prayer flags, and could’ve collapsed with relief. We did practically collapse on the big stone cairn.

My migraine headache attacked me but I managed to take some pictures (even smiled) and we waved to a guy coming up from the Muktinath side. It was cool and windy on top, and my headache was now bordering nausea, and I knew I had to start down.

After climbing 3286' (1000m) in 5 hours, we began a descent of 5280' (1600m) which took us another 5 hours. It was miserable. Instead of decreasing, my headache got worse; the steep descent was difficult, and after about 2 hours and several stops where I had to sit a few minutes because I could go no further, Andrew took my big pack, and carried both mine and his. I honestly don’t know what I’d’ve done without him. I doubt I could’ve made it down. All I wanted to do was collapse on the trail. I longed to just let my legs buckle and sink to the ground, and never get up again.

I stopped twice more to sit a few minutes, then threw up the whole day’s worth of food and water. I felt a bit better than, but still walked down slowly and carefully as it was still very steep, while Andrew blasted way ahead of us with both my and his backpacks. Kjersti also was beat but we kept plugging along. Down, down, we couldn’t even see the bottom of the Kali Gandaki valley we were plunging into.

Finally we spotted what must be Muktinath in the far distance, but it was still at least another 1500 ft down and at least 2 hours away? I wasn’t going to make it… fighting off nausea and fatigue (although I was totally coherent, and not stumbling at all) – all I wanted was a bed. Finally we spotted a tea house – where I prayed for a bed, but there were no beds so we stopped for hot lemons. I felt so incredibly terrible and weak – I didn’t think I’d make it. I drank half the cup, and we set off, now a light descent, but Muktinath was no longer in view. Suddenly a wave of nausea hit me hard, and I barely had time to run off the trail, fall to my knees, and puke. Andrew threw the packs down and ran to me with Kleenexes and held my shoulders, Kjersti handed me water; and as the spasm wracked me and cleaned me out, I felt much better, and knew I’d make it now.

Kjersti and I had an easier walk (Andrew was now puffing hard a ways behind us – I felt SO awful he had to carry my packs! But all he said was “I’m just glad you walked down on your own. It would’ve been hell going back up for your pack after helping you down!”) We passed a large Buddhist temple which is part of Muktinath, then walked on 10 minutes to Ranipauwa where all the hotels are. I chose what I thought was in the book – the Muktinath Guest House, because there was supposed to be hot showers/hot bucket baths here. I asked inside for a triple room as Andrew struggled in behind, and unstrapped my pack from around his neck (he wore his on his back). I made a Herculean effort and lifted and carried my own pack upstairs behind the Nepali woman – and collapsed on the bed. That’s what I had dreamed of for 5 hours.

I couldn’t move – Andrew opened my sleeping bag and threw it on me, and took off my shoes. I simply lay there with my head throbbing, and as Andrew and Kjersti went downstairs for food – it was 4:30 PM – 10 hours of strenuous trekking with no meal since 6:30 AM – I laid there wrapped in my sack, with Tshirt, sweatshirt, wool sweater, ski jacket on, shivering. I must’ve slept an hour, and Andrew brought up a chapatti with jam for me – Kjersti had bought me a new mineral water - then Andrew brought up a cup of milk coffee and propped me up in bed.

I sent him back down, and drank my coffee, some water, ate half the chapatti, and rested some more. I finally felt good enough to sit up so I changed to some ‘clean’ clothes (meaning I hadn't worn them for a few days), cleaned my feet with Handiwipes, and ventured to the dining room with them where a bucket of hot coals warmed our legs under the table. I felt good enough to try the garlic soup – I figured that was good for me, and just stuck to drinking water. Kjersti and Andrew ordered apple cider (since brandy wasn’t available) but it was so bitter they both choked and couldn’t drink it. They deservedly retired to bed at 8:30; I stayed up till 9 to write, as earlier today I wondered if I’d be capable of anything besides dying. We all decided on a rest day here in Ranipauwa/Muktinath tomorrow, and if there aren’t hot showers here as advertised, we’ll move to a different hotel tomorrow.


Sixteen years later, here I was finally going to Norway to visit Kjersti. I hadn't seen her since then – we'd kept in touch once or twice a year, ocassionally sending pictures of our exploits from somewhere, riding a horse or climbing a mountain (me, with the Raven), or sailing the coast of Norway (her). I spotted her the second I stepped off the train in Oslo central station - I would have known her instantly if there had been 5000 people there – my Norwegian Himalayan trekking partner!

Sunday, August 12, 2007


Sunday August 12 2007

So the ride at Kreuth passed into history (see the story, if you like, at www. ... and then I was off to Munich for 2 nights before heading to... Norway!

I got a ride from Kreuth to Munich with endurance rider Katrin Falke-Schmidt. She's been riding endurance for 11 years – her main horse has been performing the last 7 - but she didn't ride at Kreuth because they just did the German Championships 2 weeks ago. Instead, she volunteered to help at the Kreuth ride, in the secretary's office. It was very busy and crazy, she said, but it was good to see the other administrative side of an endurance ride. She kindly dropped me right off at my hotel north of the main city center.

Munich officially became a city in 1175 AD, and it's now Germany's third largest city with 1.3 million people. München, the German name for Munich, means “Monks,” but I reckon it could possibly also be synonymous with “beer.” Biggest attraction in Munich is possibly the Hofbrauhaus, probably the most famous beer hall in the world. Munich has a big Oktoberfest, first held in 1810 in honor of the Crown Prince's marriage. Today there's still LOTS of beer consumed during the annual Oktoberfest.

Like many big European cities – Athens, Barcelona, Vienna – crowds of people are out walking,
shopping, strolling, sitting at outdoor cafes. The U-bahn is a bit convoluted, but understandable enough... but not the fares! There are only vending machines (which take only coins, no bills), and even in English you aren't sure what you want. I mean, how am I supposed to know how many zones I'm travelling in? And nobody checks your ticket, you just wing it and buy one, and stamp it in the machine before you get on. Although nobody would know if you bought a ticket or not.

Lots of bikes everywhere (though not quite as outrageous as Amsterdam), bike lanes all over the city sidewalks, and I kept gravitating toward walking in the bike lanes. I got dingalinged at a lot (the bike form of honking). And whoops! I almost knocked a lady off her bike once when I swerved onto a bike lane.

The Schwabing area I stayed in must be the Apoteke Neighborhood because there was a pharmacy on every corner, and every other store in between! Kind of like Starbucks in the Pacific Northwest... and Munich had Starbucks too! Of course I had to sample, just to compare with other Starbucks around the world (I haven't reached any conclusion – must keep taste testing). Then there was what must have been the Wicca street near the city center.

What really deserves the biggest mention when you're talking about Munich, in my opinion, is Dachau, site of the former Nazi German concentration camp, about 10 miles outside of Munich. It was the first regular concentration camp started by the Nazis, in 1933, and the one after which others were designed.

Some 200,000 prisoners from 30 countries (“political prisoners”) were held here, 1/3 of them Jews. 35,000 prisoners are believed to have died. Dachau was the second camp to be liberated by Allied Forces in 1945, and was one of the first places the media exposed the horror of the camps to the Western world.

I didn't go there this time, but I did 18 years ago, and I remember it graphically. This is what I wrote about it in 1989: “I don’t care to write much about the place, and I took only one photograph of the sculpture there at the entrance. We all watched the horrific film, then we all split up and experienced the concentration camp of Dachau. It’s all so hard to believe this all happened 50 yrs ago, or that it could have happened at all. But when you're here you know it was real, and people really did this to other people. What was really shocking now, 50 years later, was the absolute stillness of the place – no sound, no birds, no nothing, as if everything was still full of death.”

Just a thought: have we really learned much from that period of recent history?

Friday, August 10, 2007

Kreuth, Germany: Pre-Ride Day,

Friday August 10 2007

If you leave the Netherlands at 9:30 in the morning on Thursday, and you drive southeast about 10 hours, you end up in Kreuth, Germany, where you'd find a whole lot of endurance rides going on Saturday: a 39 km, CEI *60 km, CEI** 80 km and CEIJR**80 km, CEI*** 120 km/CEIJYR*** 120 km, CEIOJYR*** 120 km, CEI**160 km, and CEIO*** 160 km. Whew!

I hitched a ride with the Dutch Lamsma family, my hosts in Holland for a few days, and Jarmila Lakeman, Junior rider, and equines Sattarov, who she'd be riding in the 120 km ride, and Sattarov's chaperone, 5-year-old Mini-Shetland pony (and endurance horse, after his first 8 km ride) Panter.

It started raining as we left Holland, and it looks like it will never stop, ever. It will certainly make for cooler conditions for the 137 horses pre-entered in the rides.

The venue is a large beautiful equestrian sport center in Rieden-Kreuth in southern Germany. There are an abundance of stables, outdoor and indoor arenas, extensive riding trails, and hotel and apartments. This is the 10th year of the Show and Sportevent for Arabian Horses, put on by the ZSAA – the German Arabian breeding association. Competitions include show jumping, eventing, dressage, and Western competition, with endurance as the highlight. Ahmed Al Samarraie is president of the ZSAA and the organizer of Kreuth, and Samarraie has pulled this event off without major sponsorship. He makes it look easy.

It either rained heavily, or threatened heavy rain throughout the day, so the decision was made to move the veterinary pre-inspection of tomorrow's entries into the large indoor arena. The humans and horses wouldn't melt, but the horse passports might, and there was no need to tear up the footing in the outdoor trotting lanes for tomorrow.

It's a truly international collection of riders, from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Oman, Slovakia, Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemborg, Poland, Italy, France, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Great Britain.

Some riders to watch on Saturday include three Omanis riding horses from Jutta Schultheis's stable: Prince Loay bin Ghalib Al Said in the 160 km, his younger brother Prince Khalid bin Ghalib Al Said in the 120 km Jr ride, and Prince Ahmed bin Ghalib Al Said in the 60 km. Not because they are Princes, but because Prince Loay is riding one stunner of an Anglo Arabian horse, a gelding named Hedgard.

There's a Polish team here to support one Polish rider, Artur Landau riding Hint in the Jr 80 km. Maciej (say “Machik”) Kacprzyk and Hannah told me there are only about 10 International Polish riders (it used to be better a few years ago), and maybe 30 national riders, and most of them are currently competing in Poland, so it's good to have a representative from the country here. Recently Polish riders have done very well in Germany and Hungary and Holland. Maciej is impressed with Kreuth, the area and the organization, and he's happy to see good international competitors came here, because it looks like it will be a good ride.

One of my previous endurance hosts Stephane Chazel is riding for Team France in the 160 km ride.

In addition to Jarmila Lakeman in the 120 km Junior ride, Netherlands riders Ingrid Langen is here with her gelding Amorin Star. It's his first time at such a big competition and he's not used to that, and since it was a long haul getting here, she's only doing the 80 km ride. “That's far enough for him this time.” They were out before the vet check, touring around and looking at the outdoor vetgates and crewing area, and the tents that might be blowing a bit if wind comes up tomorrow.

Dutch rider Carla Romer is here with her good mare Fadilah R, who was raring to go during her trot out. Or, I should say rearing to go, as she did most of her trotting on two hind legs ! In fact she had to walk around a bit to calm down before she trotted out again. Jannet van Wijk is here also with her little gelding Latino for the 120 km. Both are ultimately aiming for the European Championships in Portugal in September.

Margit Harman, Austrian Chef d'Equipe was here with a team of riders, 4 for the team 160 km challenge. Unfortunately, Daniela Entner's mare Kirim Karacbey did not pass the starting vet check, (they won the 120 km here last year) and that knocked the team out, leaving only France and Germany with teams. Margit said there's only about 100 Austrian riders, with maybe only 5 doing the 160 km rides. “We don't go so fast as the French... we just come to finish!” And enjoy the rides, I expect.

Fausto Fiorucci is here to ride the 160 km on his mare Veronica Cap. Fausto, 2001 individual and team Gold Medal winner at the European Championships in Perugia, and organizer of Gubbio, Italy, got a big round of applause at the ride briefing. The ride briefing was indeed brief, Al Samarraie getting right to the heart of ride matters and ending the meeting by 8:15, so his riders could all get sleep! It was a beautiful evening, just a quiet, light drizzle, with misty clouds drifting in and out of the forest, setting for tomorrow's Kreuth endurance ride.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Team Djinti

Wednesday August 8 2007

There's about 1000 endurance riders in Holland, and maybe 25 of those who regularly do 160 km rides. One of those riders is Anita Lamsma. I went to visit Anita and her husband Eric (and Jarmilla Lakeman, who stays with them) for a few days. They have a nice place with a few acres and 7 horses on a somewhat busy road by a somewhat busy canal outside Vriezenveen. Surrounding them on all other sides are farms, and canals, and the myriad bike paths transecting Holland.

One of the seven resident horses – now retired - is Salomo Djinti, a now 18-year-old white gelding who took Anita on some amazing rides over the years. Anita started endurance riding around 1986. She was an au pair in Germany, and where she worked, she was allowed to keep her horses at the family stables. Some people at these stables rode endurance – which was riding out in the forest and the countryside like she was already doing – she said, “This is my sport!”

Anita had one horse that she rode up to 100 km, but that was as far as the horse could go, and her dream was to ride 160 km. So, she eventually looked for another horse. She and Eric searched and searched, didn't see anything particularly exciting, but when they saw Salomo Djinti, they both said, “That's the horse!” Before she ever got on him, she knew that was a good horse – you just know when you've found the one you're looking for. Djinti was 5 at the time.

So Anita's dream was to ride 160 kms? She did 8 on Salomo Djinti, including the 2000 World Championships in Compiegne, France, the 2001 European Championships in Italy, the 2002 World Championships in Jerez Spain, the 2003 European Championships in Ireland (where they finished 7th, and helped win Netherlands Team Bronze), and the 2005 European Championships in Compiegne. (He also finished the 120 km 1999 Junior Championships in Germany with Anita's niece Karin, and the 2004 Dutch Championships and the World Championships in Dubai with Joan Eikelboom riding).

One time Djinti dumped her off during a ride and ran off, didn't want to be caught – Anita got a ride on a motorcycle with one of the Shaikh's escorts. They chased Djinti, and finally caught him, and she got back on, but he was still really spooky going down the trail, which was abnormal, so she quit the ride on him. Later they drew blood and found his blood work abnormal, so he likely would have been pulled anyway if she'd continued.

And one ride they were pulled at the finish of a 160 km in Belgium for lameness - heartbreaking it was, (and questionable), but that's the way it goes. Six weeks later Djinti became Dutch National Champion, and that's how it goes. Djinti was twice more Dutch National Champion in his career.

Anita wanted to ride him in one more big race, the 2006 World Championships in Aachen, but he just wasn't the same horse. He'd go willingly and very forward down the training trail, but that was it – he wasn't playing and spooking like he usually did – he was not the real Djinti. So she retired him. Now he's pastured with his young unbroken sister, hopefully whispering to her the secrets of his success.

Anita's now riding an 18-year old mare Layla Ara Francina. She got her in 2004 from a Dutch rider who didn't get on with her so well, but Anita did. Layla and Anita finished the 160 km at the World Championships in Aachen last year, and another 160 km in Hachen, Germany. They are headed to the European Championships in Portugal in September.

With Layla, Anita also brought home the 13-year-old gelding Sattarov – the gal still owns him but is still not sure what she wants to do with him. And so Anita started riding him in endurance rides; he's finished a 150 km in Denmark. Three times, however, he's tried a 160 and not finished. One of the 160 kms he did finish, but vetted out lame at the final vet check - argh! You have to work hard riding him, keep him together and collected much of the time because he's so long (dressage training helps) and will get too tired if you just let him go all spread out the whole ride. He's very willing and always does everything you ask of him. Anita thinks he'll make a great horse for juniors because of that – he's so willing. Jarmilla will be riding him in Kreuth in the 120 km this weekend.

Anita and Jarmilla try to take dressage lessons once a week. They offered to let me join them, but oh, no thanks! I'd rather watch and take pictures. (Or, I'd rather not show off my true dressage riding colors.) It's good for the horses to learn to round up and use their back, says Anita, and besides, you can always learn something, from the instructor or the horse.

Anita's husband Eric doesn't ride, but he does crew, and he's put on the Dutch National Championships for the last 6 years, designing and marking the trails and organizing everything.

Endurance for the Lamsmas is a family affair: when Anita's parents aren't helping to crew, they will house sit the rest of the horses; Anita's sister Marjolein rides endurance, (is headed to Portugal also); Anita's neice Karin rides endurance; and now, so does their 8-year-old daughter Imke. She recently finished her first endurance ride: an 8 km ride on her little Shetland pony Panter. The whole family turned out for it to help crew. In fact, Jarmilla had just finished an 80 km ride (winning Best Condition on Sattarov), and she went right along on the 8 km ride, running beside Imke and her pony. (“There were hills there, it was tiring! Holland is normally flat!”) Eric said they took about 200 photos of Imke's first ride (they did, I saw them all!) Dutch Chef D'equipe Mechteld's youngest daughter rode her pony with Imke, and Mechteld biked alongside her. The girls loved it, as did the little endurance ponies. Imke's grooming team won the Best Groomed award! Imke is horse crazy and wants to do a 25 km ride next. You can already see how she sits a horse that she's a good rider, she's a natural, and is going to have success on whatever horse trail she chooses to take.

In fact, endurance in Holland seems to be a big family sport, and indeed a community activity. (The Libramont ride in Belgium was similar.) Families and friends of families seem to turn out for the rides, helping crew and helping volunteer, and people in the villages come out to watch and wave at the horses and riders, and offer water and help for the riders. It's a little spectator sport cosmos of endurance riding that the FEI officials seem to be clamoring for. Here it's not the people sitting in the big stands waiting for a galloping finish, it's the families and friends out on the roads, on the trails and in the fields, visiting with friends, filling water jugs, handing jugs to the riders and holding water buckets for horses, waiting in the vet gates for their family to cross the finish line, and enjoying a family day outdoors with horses and humans.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Argamak Akhal-Teke Stud

Tuesday Aug 7 2007

I touched a Baronness today!

Jeanne and Charles picked me up, and we drove an hour to De Wijk, Netherlands, where we met Janet and Rob Lam at the Argamak Studfarm of Akhal-Tekes, “Heavenly Horses,” the ancient Chinese called them, long before the advent of Western civilization. The name Argamak comes from Central Asia, and refers to the type of horse indigenous to that part of the world, including the Akhal-Teke. Janet is looking at buying another Akhal-Teke, and she wanted us to see the farm where she bought her mare Bugainvillia, that I'd seen at the Dutch endurance training weekend.

The Akhal-Teke breed originated thousands of years ago (Alexander the Great's horse Bucephalus is reputed to have had Akhal-Teke blood) on the steppes of Central Asia, centered around today's Turkmenistan and northern Iran. The name of the breed changed over the centuries, but since the 1800's have been called Akhal-Teke: Akhal, from their centralized area of the Kopet-Dag mountains of Turkmenistan, and Teke, from the main people who bred them.

The Akhal-Teke was bred namely for its qualities as a fast, hardened cavalry horse, and today carries those same qualities into a variety of horse sports, excelling in flat racing, dressage, jumping, eventing, and endurance - the Akhal-Teke is a good all around performance horse. In 1960 the Akhal-Teke stallion Absent won the Gold Medal for dressage at the Olympic Games in Rome. He won the silver and bronze medals at following Olympic Games, something no other horse has ever done. And just last week, an Akhal-Teke finished the Tevis Cup in America.

While there are a variety of types – we could see several in her horses – they all have a distinctive long back and long neck that is carried high, are 15 and 16 hands, have a golden sheen to their coat, and have light gaits. The long body and long strides come from the fact they were bred for distance running and for spear combat – unlike the Arabian with the short, agile body that was bred for hand-to-hand combat. Their hooves are hard and tough, originating from the rocky steppes upon which they originated. The long neck with the high head carriage comes from looking far out over the steppes.

Baronness Clara de Vos van Steenwijk, owner of the Argamak stud with her husband, showed us around her farm full of lovely Akhal-Tekes (and a few Warmbloods, which they used to breed) that they've been breeding for 8 years. The van Steenwijks lived in Russia for 6 years, and there fell in love with the Akhal-Teke breed. Why the Akhal-Teke?

“Well,” said Clara, “I lived in Argentina as a child, did not grow up in Holland and so I was not used to the typical big broad Dutch Warmblood types, didn't have that feeling for them. My husband was riding English Thoroughbreds, and he wanted something a little more light. We'd heard about these Akhal-Tekes when we were in Russia, so we went to look at them, and we really liked what we saw. Everybody said they had good character.” The van Steenwijks brought back 6 Akhal-Tekes with them from Russia to Holland, 2 purebreds and 2 half-breds to start their stud with.

While being a lovely lady who obviously loves her Akhal-Tekes, Clara is not just a hands-off breeder. She rides her horses for pleasure, and, at a young 70-something, she still gets on her youngsters for the first time! “But, only if I have help. It takes two people. I'm not going to get on one by myself.” (I was thinking, I'm only 40-something and I don't get on horses for the first time anymore!)

Akhal-Tekes are known for their bonding friendship with humans and for being very loyal to one person. Indeed, all the horses Clara showed us came up to greet her and be petted, even the stallions. One mare kept touching her; when Clara stepped away, the mare put her head back against Clara's shoulder. You could see the pride in her eyes when she talked about each one of them, and the dedication she has to this breed – it was a pleasure to visit!

See the Argamak Studfarm website at:

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Going Dutch (Endurance) II

Saturday – Sunday, August 4-5 2007



Or, Merri Rides Arasier in Netherlands and Germany!

One of the horses with the Dutch endurance riders that caught my eye was an Akhal-Teke – Thoroughbred cross, owned by Janet Lam. The mare had the very typical Akhal-Teke head, neck, and body, though you could definitely see the Thoroughbred in her, also. Janet Lam is another one who's passionate about the Akhal-Teke, and this mare Bugainvillia in particular. She's been riding endurance for 4 years, having started off with a Quarter Horse. The Quarter Horse was fit, but not for endurance, she discovered! She was pulled on her first ride before finishing. Janet knew she needed more of an endurance horse, and she wanted something different that not everybody had.

She went to look at some Akhal-Tekes, and at Argamak Studfarm in De Wijk, Netherlands, she found a young colt and filly she was trying to decide between. The owner, Baronness Clara de Vos van Steenwijk, had Janet try riding the colt's mare, just to see what the Akhal-Tekes felt like. When Janet got on the mare, she knew immediately that was her horse. Clara said she wasn't for sale; some other people were already buying her. “I'm sorry,” Janet told her, “but I am buying this mare. I'm going home now.” And she left the farm and went home, and waited nervously for the phone call... which eventually came: the mare was hers to buy.

Janet loves this horse, knows she may never have another one like her. She knows she should get another endurance horse (you always need at least two to compete on!), but she doesn't want to ride another horse. In fact, she is not sure she will even be interested in doing endurance after Bugainvillia is done with endurance riding. She would, however, love to breed her – just not right now. The mare this year has done a 120 km, 140 km, and 160 km ride (in the Dutch National Championships), and now she may be headed for the European Championships in Portugal. Janet has crewed a couple of years for Carmen, at European Championships and in Dubai, so she's learned a lot from that, and is now looking forward to doing her own international competitions. She appreciates these Dutch training weekends, for the support and help and knowledge she gains from the other more experienced riders.

And, the Raven and I got to ride an Akhal-Teke! An Arasier actually, half Akhal-Teke, half Tersk Arabian, named Eddie R, owned by Carmen. Carmen had started riding him for a woman who wanted him to be sold to a good home and keep him competing; Carmen tried him in a ride and liked him and bought him. From the ground, Eddie R has the typical Akhal-Teke look, and from his back, he looks like “half giraffe, half greyhound,” someone said, and, I'd add, “half camel!” His neck was as long as the camel that I once rode in India, and his trot was about as long.

Carmen said, “He's exhausting to ride, you have to ride him every step, keep him together or he'll go lame.” Carmen is very fit and normally never tired after a ride, but riding Eddie wears her out. He's done a 120 km, and just last week finished a 140 km ride. He's got a good heart rate that drops quickly, though it will drop to 60, instead of 40, like Carmen's Arabian mare Fadilah R. While Eddie's sure-footed, he's not so agile weaving in and out of trees in the forest with his long body.

I discovered that Eddie can indeed be tiring to ride. He's got an absolutely amazing trot – effortlessly eats up the ground, and very smooth. But you have to work to stay with him, center yourself on that long back in his long trot. And Eddie was very easy-going, sauntering along behind our group, trotting along with no worries and no concerns. Until we stopped for a drink. I called after the others, “We're drinking,” but, on they trotted.

Hmm, I thought... maybe I should go after them, but then, you never stop an endurance horse from drinking, especially on training rides. And Eddie had been quite relaxed, even if he fell out of sight from the horses in front of him turning a corner in the forest. Eddie had a good drink, a LONG drink, and when he looked up, the other horses were out of sight. No matter, he started walking after them, then trotting... then he LEAPED in the air! Good thing I forgot my camera, because I would have been taking pictures, and wouldn't have had both hands on the steering wheel, and I would have been launched!

So ended our quiet liesurely ride! Eddie was wide awake! He leaped forward! He propped! He wanted to bolt into a run, but there was a buck in that run! Fortunately it was easy to pull his long head up (!), but he didn't want to keep to a trot, he wanted to run! And so I had a slightly wild ride on Eddie, trying to catch up to the group, who were still trotting along ahead of us. Finally we caught up with them, but Eddie had changed. The new Eddie was quite perky, and always looking for an excuse to get into a canter – and BUCK! I kept him at his long trot – still as smooth at the faster speed – and once we did manage to get a nice canter for a few strides before he wanted to put his head down again. The Raven was having a great time in his bag on the saddle – sure, he was safe in his bag and wasn't going to get bucked off!

Our trails took us in and out of Germany and the Netherlands, and we shared the trails with hikers, joggers, bikers; we passed an area for motorcross bikes (there was some serious riding going on in that pit!), and we rode around a golf course. Oooh, I was tempted to turn Eddie upon those greens and let him run (and buck me off) but I didn't want to get Lei in trouble! It was a lovely warm sunny day in Holland-Germany for our 3 ½ hour ride. Our group of 13 had broken into 2 groups, but we all arrived back at the stables at about the same time.

After a late lunch at the boyscout camp, we returned to the stables where Dr Horsmans and Mechteld inspected the horses. Returning to the boyscout camp, we ordered out for food, sat around and talked, listened to a talk by Dr Horsmans, and a talk and slideshow by Carmen, about speed riding in the UAE.

Sunday morning it was another warm-up with aerobics or a hike in the woods, then another discussion session, then back to the stables. Some of the riders were going out for a ride again today, while Jeanne and I packed up, loaded her horse up, and headed for home.

It was fun to participate with the Dutch team training weekend – of course I don't understand Dutch, but everyone jumped in to interpret things, and they made me feel like I fit right in with them, and it was easy for me to see the value of the team, and future members of the team, getting together. And I'd be seeing some of the Dutch riders again: I'd be going to visit Anita (and Jarmila), and going with them to the Kreuth, Germany ride next weekend; I'd see Jannet Van Wijk there; I'd see Barbara in Compeigne in 3 weekends; I'd see Janet Lam next week to visit more Akhal-Tekes; and, hopefully I'd see 6 of the riders in Portugal 5 weeks!