Amateurs Like Us: Giraffes On Cross-Country And Other Adventures

Mar 7, 2017 - 10:39 PM

ALUHalle1I’m 25 years old and I live in Nairobi, Kenya, where I work for the World Bank.

I also have a horse—a 5-year-old chestnut Thoroughbred mare with a great canter, a short temper and a fabulous jump.

I grew up in the Greenspring Valley area of Maryland. My dad, Ned Halle,is an ex-MFH at Greenspring Valley Hounds (Md.) and a three-time Maryland Hunt Cup contender; my mom, Cindy, runs the polo program at Garrison Forest School (Md.) and (while she denies it) is somewhat of an institution in U.S. polo.

I took my first lessons from Debbie Supik (mother of recently profiled steeplechase groom Beth Supik) and grew up foxhunting, Pony Clubbing, eventing, racing and, ultimately, showing in the hunters and equitation under the tutelage of Katie Cooper at Caves Farm.

Like many amateurs, I stopped showing—or even riding regularly—after high school. I played four years of NCAA lacrosse, studied and worked abroad in the developing world and widened my worldview immensely.

I moved to New York City and lived there for two years, absorbed in the barely achievable balance of career advancement, social life and figuring out what one wants to do with one’s life. I thought about horses lots, but simply knew they weren’t a feasible part of my life at that point. Pragmatism numbed my passion for the sport.

Fast forward a couple of years and I’m in a yard outside of Nairobi, standing in front of a weedy 4-year-old, a chestnut mare with mane to the bottom of her neck and cracked feet.

But they were good feet, I noticed. And her shoulder was nicely sloped, tied in high above her foreleg. And her hindquarters, round enough considering her age and her only experience: hacking out in the dry savannah of Northern Kenya.

“I think I’m going to do it,” I said, to no one in particular.

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No tractors at the yard—only donkeys and carts!

And so, a year after my move to Kenya, I bought a horse. Shepherd’s Delight is a Thoroughbred by a Russian Revival, a U.S. bred South African stallion who stands in Kenya and out of Calico Sky, a Kenyan Thoroughbred mare.

By this time I had slowly ventured into the Kenyan riding scene—an insular community largely comprised of long-term expats and descendants of British settlers during the colonial period. Kenya was a British colony until 1963 and the bustling metropolis of Nairobi continues to be a haven for foreigners of all backgrounds and a hub of East Africa.

Unbeknownst to most people, Kenya actually has a horse show association and about 12 shows/events a year, largely thanks to its British colonial background and status as an expat hub.

Thanks to the riding community’s generosity, I had shown a few times on other people’s horses—mostly eventing and show jumping, but shows have a combination of show jumping, combined tests, events and British style showing classes, where the judge rides your horse as part of the process (!!). Regardless of the foreign disciplines (no more equitation classes here) I couldn’t believe that I had ever stopped riding and competing. It simply gave me so much joy.

I watched a video of myself riding the little chestnut mare around the arena—her reaction told me it was her first time ever hacking in anything but a straight line, not following directly behind another horse. She was completely on the forehand, hard-mouthed with no concept of contact.

But when I cantered her down to a small vertical (praying we got some semblance of a decent distance), she snapped her knees, dropped her neck and rounded her body like she’d jumped a million times before. I thought about what Debbie Supik told me when buying a resale pony years ago: squint your eyes. Do you like what you see?

The answer was an unequivocal yes. The journey since then has been one that both defies all normalcy (think: giraffes and zebra on the cross country course—photo evidence below) but in other ways is probably indicative of any young adults’ experience bringing along a green horse.

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Yes, those are giraffes and a wildebeest beyond the cross-country fence!

There are the early morning drives to the barn, dodging Nairobi traffic on the left side of the road, the weeks where she doesn’t get worked because I’m traveling for my job, the frustrating training rides where there’s nobody to tell me what to do. There was a splint, and a spell of time where she refused to turn right, and a kick to the shoulder by a horse with studs in.

But there are also the victories, big and small: her first clean show jumping round, her first red ribbon (yes, red is first here!), the first time she understood that I was asking for a long and low trot.

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Showing my mare, Shepherd’s Delight.

And there are the quiet moments in the mornings before work, when the mist is still rising from the valleys around Nairobi, when no one else is in the arena. Then, it’s only the rhythm of our canter, the play of my fingers on the reins, the birds (and, to be real, the occasional band of monkeys) in the trees. And, of course, the lingering smell of sweaty mane when I sit down at my desk, reenergized, refocused.

I’ve been in Kenya for just over two years. I have interviewed customers in slums across Nairobi, traced supply chains through rural Ethiopia, worked on private sector development in the relatively unstable eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. I am privileged to be in a position to work in this space but recognize the personal toll it takes. Far from the comforts and familiarities of home, the solace of horses in my life takes on a new dimension.

It’s been a year since I bought the little chestnut mare. She means so much to me; she is not just the journey that we’re on, but a symbol of making my life here sustainable as an expat, of holding onto your passions in the most unexpected of circumstances. It is worth the effort—and in some cases, the traffic bribes—to go through this process.

But it all boils down to the same fundamentals and the same sacrifices. In so many ways the struggles I face are the same as those that horse crazy 20-somethings face anywhere in the world: balancing their professional goals, their personal lives and this weird and wonderful passion we all somehow ended up with.

And, of course, finding an equine partner willing to roll with the punches along the way.

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