It was all too amazing to believe. My mom and her horse had won the selection trials to represent the USA at the 1982 World Dressage Championships in Switzerland. She had been on the USET before, but this time was different for me at least, I was going to be able to go as her groom! Just 15 the month before, I was the youngest groom to travel with an international squad. I'd spent a long time with horses but this was my first real job!
My grooming days with Bully started early on
After pinching myself several times to make sure it was real - the planning and packing began. In addition to my mom (Alexsandra Howard ) and her thoroughbred gelding, Bull Market, I also would be grooming for the other West coast team member, Kim Beardsley (now von Hoppfgarten) and her thoroughbred gelding Woodimix. Kim and "Woody" had traveled from Washington state for the selection trials in California and stayed at our farm in Watsonville, CA afterwards, as both horses then had to travel to Los Angeles for their flight to Germany.
Kim had brought everything she might need, but had the luxury of having a spacious truck and trailer to keep it in. "Bully" and my mom had yet to be packed. The trick was to now condense, and I do mean CONDENSE, all the equipment, tack, apparel, buckets and endless things we needed into 2 tack trunks!!! Kim and I packed and repacked and thought we finally had everything in several times until we'd look around and see one lonely riding boot still needing space. Argh! Try, try again....
In the end, everything critical made it into the trunks. We experimented with different shipping protections for the horses, bumpers, wraps, hock guards (Bully thought this was excessive and began doing airs above the ground - cancel the hock guards), fuzzies on their halters, etc. Packing the riders was relatively simple, packing for the groom involved jeans, jeans, more jeans, selected "cool" tee-shirts, and the appropriate music for the stable area...I was determined to have the spiffiest stable area in the barn!
We drove to Los Angeles and got the horses a good overnight stabling area with some friends. In the morning, we shuttled the horses to the airport and got them loaded them into the airbox (like a horse trailer without wheels) that was then taken to the waiting plane. I sat on the divider between the horses to re-assure them (although it made me nervous!) that the bumpy ride into the plane was okay. As they load the box onto the plane, it moves along rolling conveyer arrangements with abrupt changes in direction that are completely new to the horses, but they handled it very well. We had taken the precaution of giving them a little bit of tranquilizer, but I don't think they needed it. The plane was a "combo cargo", meaning if you boarded it from the front, you would have no idea that there was cargo in the back half of the plane. (Including two of the handsomest bay geldings around!) We had two seats reserved in the passenger section, but someone had to be with the horses in the back. Just for the record, cargo areas in planes are noisy, stuffy and cold! (At least this one was!) Traveling with us in the back were baby chicks (cheep-cheep-cheep times 9 hours) and a lot of boxed cargo.
The horses had been loaded early in the day, then the plane was moved to the regular passenger loading gate, so that by the time we took off the horses were working on their second haynet and having a grand ol' time. The flight itself was uneventful....just verrrrrrrry long. By the time we arrived in Frankfurt, Germany, we were out of carrots and the horses were getting grumpy. It was a nine hour flight, an hour in the trailer to the airport, an hour from loading to when we took off and now we went to the "processing center" in the Frankfurt airport and waited (the horses still in the box) for another several hours waiting for the van to arrive to take us to Switzerland. We wanted to get the horses out of the airbox to walk them around but the airport folks were adamant that they not get out of the airbox until there was another horse box to walk them directly into!
Our driver finally arrived...and spoke no English. I had one year of high school French under my belt, but no German, which is all he understood. We transferred the, by this time, "very stiff but Very Happy to be out of that airbox" horses to the van that would drive us to Lausanne, Switzerland. The original plan was to make it to a intermediate stop where the horses could rest and stay overnight in large foaling stalls. Plans got altered without discussion - one of the problems of our language barrier with our driver! He decided to press on to the Swiss border because of our late start.
We got to the border, but not early enough to make it across (in the 1980's they closed the country border from late night to early morning). Our driver wanted to just park in the line of big rigs waiting for the early morning opening, but at this point we'd had enough and told the driver (with the help of some other truckers' language skills) that we had to find a field *somewhere* to walk the horses. He was reluctant, but we prevailed and eventually found a lovely agricultural field and unloaded the horses for a hand walk in the moonlight and mist of the German nighttime. The mood was fairly bright and we had a peaceful saunter...The horses were happy, we were happy, and everything was lovely until the police car rolled by. Our driver, up until this point a rather laid-back sort of fellow, suddenly became very agitated and could not wait to get us back onto the van and get out of there! We reloaded and headed back to the border to wait for the 5AM opening.
When I woke up the next morning (sleeping on haybales and tack trunks is highly overrated) to the most picturesque scenery passing by the window of the horse van. We were about an hour out of Lausanne and the rest of the ride was like a living postcard - just a beautiful land! Green, rolling hills, not an ounce of pollution evident to the eye...
We were the first ones there as well as the first of the US contingent to arrive. The rest of the team had decided to go to one show in Holland before the Championships. The show grounds were situated next to a Swiss army barracks and an arena and grandstands had been built especially for the Championships. The stabling was in portable wooden stalls situated in what would normally be a riding arena. Our stable was the first row of stalls and the horses settled in quite well. (By now they had formed an almost visible umbilical cord between them - the Bay Bobbsey Twins!)
Sandy on Bully and Kim on Woodi cooling out after training
The housing situation was interesting: Kim and my mom of course were in a nice downtown Lausanne hotel (advanced riders in Europe are expected to live well and have grooms to care for their horses), the grooms were slated to live in the Swiss army barracks at the show site. As we had arrived early, the first night I was scheduled to be there, most of the Swiss army men were still in the barracks. As my French was not yet near what might be called conversational, I opted to stay with the riders that first night!
As the rest of the teams arrived, it was fun to watch all the horses I had read about and followed in the horse magazines strut around in their pajamas, with their "hair down", as it were. The lone Italian rider was stabled right behind us, that horse's groom was (like me) only 15 years old and while she spoke no English and I knew no Italian, we both had a bit of French and were able to have a good time and work on our French at the same time. The British team were across the aisle from the Italians, with my personal favorite horse of all, Pinnocchio. The Germans, Dutch, Swiss and others were in the rows toward the other end of the stabling area. There were some permanent stalls under the army barracks where the Russians and Mexicans were stabled. This kept them somewhat isolated from the rest of the teams.
[This was before things "opened up" in Russia - the riders were followed by "escorts" that were armed with some serious-looking guns! This severely dampened any desire I'd had to meet the Russian horses and riders/grooms to trade pins!]
The rest of the US contingent arrived and settled into the other side of our row. I learned some nifty tricks from the other more experienced grooms: How to make a saddle rack out of a sweat scraper and baling twine, several different ways to braid manes and forelocks, and other "inside" grooming tips. On the other hand, I shared my braiding techniques, and gave the other grooms the inside scoop on how to manage the Stable Manager. He ran a tight and EARLY ship. The wagon to take manure away came twice a day at 6am and 6pm, the feed wagon came shortly thereafter for each barn to take one feeding's worth of (I guess you could call it) hay. The other US grooms were not early risers (nor was I, but I knew that the hay/manure dude meant it when he said it was 6 am or not at all) and quickly became unpopular with the Stable Manager. He wanted the stable area clean and presentable by 7am when it opened for photographers and the press. I managed to become a morning person for the duration of the tour - much to the amazement of those who know me now!
Our home away from home
The best part of this whole trip was watching nothing but the best in the world work and train on the non-competition days. Many different styles, but all with the same goal. There were several different practice arenas with excellent footing, teams were scheduled to work out at certain times on certain days. At first, several of the riders were quite nervous, but with successive days, they were able to re-focus on riding their best. I remember Reiner Klimke doing a piaffe (trot in place) on his young horse Pascal that knocked my socks off: so effortless, willing and submissive - a beautiful picture! The eventual winner of the World Championship, Christina Stuckelburger and her giant fellow Granat, were amazing to watch. He would come out most days wanting to PLAY - and he plays very seriously! She did amazingly to stay with some of his antics, but they always settled into some high powered dressage.
[We were able to visit Christine's barn after the competition - one word - "Charming!" Granat had his own picture window with red geraniums in a box below.] Never underestimate watching and learning from the best!
Kim and the coach discuss the ride
As my first experience with an international level competition, there was much to learn: turnout for the FEI vet check (bridle, braided, groomed to a spitshine, hooves), managing the schedules of two horses (everyone else had one groom per horse - much easier!), and learning to keep stressed out riders and coaches happy! There were some interesting political winds blowing, but nothing too horrible, just irritating. The team made some faux pas (goofs) due to inexperience; FYI, for those riders planning to ride in international event, it is customary to salute the ground jury as the team rides by during the opening ceremony. :-)
The Parade of Teams: Left to Right Sandy, Carol Grant, Kim
During the Championships there was an amazing trade fair of horsey clothing, equipment, art, etc. And on a completely non-horsey note for the chocoholics reading this, something I found interesting, in Switzerland, Mars bars don't have nuts, they're like Milky Way bars! :-) The adrenaline rush of sending "your" horses (and mother!) into the World Championship arena is something else. I was proud of how the horses were turned out - they were happy and immaculate, I'd done my best to get them there. Now it was up to them to perform.
I thought the Americans were slightly underscored (not that I'm biased!) but when the dust settled at the end of the competition, Bully was 6th in the final Freestyle standings! (Sorry I don't recall Woodi's placing...as I'm writing this it was almost 14 years ago - oh dear, now I feel really old!!!)
The evening before the last day of competition, the riders had a big competitor's party, but the grooms had their own party as well! Jean, the Stable Manager, made a special comment that of the grooms at the Championships, he felt that I was the best! However, the award that was given that night was to the best team of grooms...let this be a lesson to everyone that in many cases it is indeed the EARLY groom that wins the prize! But it was a special honor of which I really have fond memories - I set out to do my best, and it was noticed and recognized!
We packed up and headed to a big show in Germany for the following weekend. The stabling was in an old indoor riding arena, very hot and stuffy, but excellent footing! (Several of the very well-known trainers in our aisle actually did piaffe work in hand in the aisle before heading out to school! They also only watered their horses by hand...imagine having to ignore horses who want to drink as you fill the buckets for your own! Their rationale was to have the horses always "looking forward to seeing them/good things happen with people" but it seemed extreme to me.) The USET had arranged for the grooms to stay with German families near the stabling area, so I once more got to struggle with German while meeting some very nice people.
The riders did well, but almost seemed the dressage competition was the low priority. There was so much going on! A huge jumping competition, demonstrations of Roman riding, riding one horse while driving another, wild Fjord ponies zinging around, a full Combined Driving Event (the water hazard was breathtaking!), and the trade fair to end all trade fairs! Fortunately the US dollar was very strong at the time, so the daily stipend I had as a groom went a long way, and I was able to buy some wonderful German tack and equipment. The show drew huge crowds, and the program clearly catered to folks who didn't particularly know much about horses.
It was winding up so quickly, we were to head home right after the show. I had loaded up on beaucoup Swiss and German chocolate and spent my last deutchemark on wonderful horse goodies...the horse goodies made it back to the states (the trunks were packed even tighter than before!), the chocolate was consumed on the flight home. (Hey it was a really long flight!) School was to start the next day, so I caught a commuter flight home from Los Angeles as the horses had to head into quarantine for a bit. The next day in Algebra II, I was having a hard time sitting still, from 4 weeks of constant hustling to this? Argh! The day was spent dreaming of getting home and telling my horse Clyde about all the wonderful things I'd seen.
However, looking back on it all now, I think I learned more skills during that month in Europe (without seeing a single museum) than I did in the whole semester of Algebra II.
Intensive dressage study made our jumping much better!
Today, Anne Howard, MPT, operates Bodies In Balance, specializing in physical therapy for riders and horses, specifically spinal stabilization and balance training for riders using many of Mary Wanless' theories and techniques. Wanless is the author of Natural Rider and Ride With Your Mind, and other books and videos. More information at www.in-balance.com
And special thanks to Melinda (the illustrated woman) Hallmark for proofreading!
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