I arrived in Germany on a full moon in October of 1993, and I am leaving Germany on a full moon in October of 2012. Full circles seem to be a theme in my life, Rita, but this has been one long circle! After a stop at the Global Dressage Forum in Hooge Mierde, the Netherlands, I am flying with my horses to Miami on Oct. 31.
Leaving Vechta is sad and hard. I grew up here (not sure “grew up” is the right term, but I did learn a lot) and became the person I wanted to be. I made good friends, learned a lot about people, and I will miss this place.
Before parting, it seems appropriate to tell this story about the Day Of Cat, which must have occurred in the summer of 2004 since two of the central figures in my German life were still alive then. Most people close to me know that I am an avid practical joker, and the Day Of Cat has to be one of my most glorious achievements.
I was visiting a friend one day in the small town of Sage, which incidentally is the site of one of the most well kept, beautiful WWII war cemeteries in all of Europe. I visited this cemetery often during my years in Vechta, and it never failed to put my own life into perspective.
On a sideboard in my friend’s house was a cat. A beautiful, gray tiger cat that reminded me of my barn cat, Roscoe, who helped me start my first training business in Michigan in the late 1980s and later followed me to Germany through sheer force of will in the 1990s. But when I stroked my friend’s beautiful cat, I was shocked to find that it did not respond. It was a fake cat!
Much to my delight, my friend agreed to let me borrow this life-like stuffed cat. I couldn’t take it with me right away because he wanted to play a joke on a friend. Only in the next week would I have the opportunity to carry out one of my more infamous practical jokes.
At lunch with my staff the next day, I casually mentioned, “Some cat’s got a death wish. It runs in front of my car every morning at 5 a.m. when I go to the stable to pick up my boots. Right across the road, right in front of my car! I wonder who it belongs to….”
Casey Dornan (now Nilsson) who ran my stable for many years and who has always had an answer to everything, piped up with, “Oh that’s Hedwig’s cat. He comes over from her house all the time.”
We ate our lunch and moved on to other topics.
One week later on a very hot summer day, I picked up the cat in Sage. The next morning when I went to the stable to pick up my boots (I was driving to Zeilinger’s every morning to train), I went to the stable kitchen where my people would later eat breakfast and cleared a shelf in the refrigerator. I placed the cat, “curled up and sleeping” on the shelf.
Then I left a note on the desk in the stable aisle that said, “I finally hit the damn cat. I don’t know what to do with the body.” This was 5 a.m., and my staff would arrive one hour later. Off I drove to Zeilinger’s to ride Maximus and Cadillac, and I didn’t return until 10:30 a.m.
When I arrived back at the stable, Casey and Christoffer Nilsson (joined at the hip at the time, and yes, they later married on my birthday in Sweden where it snowed) were off in the horse truck picking up a horse somewhere. Brit Santi, good friend, serious cat lover and an employee at the time, was longing a horse in the outdoor arena.
I went into the kitchen, picked up the dead cat by the tail (eeeuuww) and carried it gingerly out to the arena. Brit burst into tears—totally distraught—and started stammering.
“This, this, this…is IT!! I can’t believe you put that poor cat in the refrigerator. You know how I feel about cats. I’ve had enough! I can’t work for you anymore.”
At which point I turned the cat around and showed her the felt lining…
Brit had been the first to see the cat that morning. She’d opened the refrigerator around 6 a.m. to start off her day with her usual swig of coca cola. She had the bottle tipped and was about to swallow when she saw the body and spit coke through her nose all over the refrigerator.
Now here is the part I am still confused about. Apparently my staff was so grossed out by the fact that there was a dead cat in the refrigerator that they refused to eat breakfast in the kitchen. They took their food out of the fridge and took it outside to the picnic table to eat it. I am not sure what this achieved, but humans will do odd things in times of duress.
After talking Brit into staying on for a while, I took the cat back into the stable and put it to sleep on top of a bench. Herbert Roetepohl, brother to the owner of my stable and my many-time partner in a game of cards, came by on his morning rounds and stroked the kitty while he chatted to me. I didn’t tell him that the cat was fake because Herbert always got mad at me when I played jokes on him. So I just had a little chuckle to myself. Then I saw his brother, Manny, coming toward my stable…
Manny Roetepohl was a gruff, smart, German farmer who never failed to garner my respect. He welcomed me into his family and onto his farm, and Reitstall Roetepohl became a second home for me over the years. Sadly, both Herbert and Manny passed away during the time that I built my career in their stable. I never missed them more than in the last few weeks before my departure.
Manny raised pigs and was not unfamiliar with the cycle of birth and death in a farmer’s life. So I laid the “dead” cat on a shavings fork and walked toward him with it extended in front of me. He saw me coming.
“Dammit. I hit a cat, Manny, what should I do?”
This gruff and weathered farmer looked like he was about to cry when he saw the cat, but he took the fork from me and started marching off toward the refuse container. “Never mind. It happens…”
I stopped him before he could toss my cat. He was fully shocked to find out that it wasn’t real! But after he got over his consternation and started to laugh, I convinced him to help me with the next step. The horse truck was coming down the driveway—Casey and Christoffer returning from their errand. Manny had a famous temper (so do I, which is why we got along so well), and I made him call it up as he strode toward the oncoming truck, rage in his step, with the cat on the fork. I hid around the corner.
Casey has always been in the driver’s seat, so Christoffer jumped out of the passenger’s side before the truck even came to a halt and started pleading with both hands in the air, “I didn’t do it, Manny. It wasn’t us!”
“Why the hell did I find this in the refrigerator?!? We have a container for such things. Are you totally crazy??” he blustered.
Casey got out of the truck and blustered, “Catherine did that. Don’t yell at us.” At which point Manny and I started to laugh so hard that he dropped the cat off the fork and the joke was up.
I put the cat back in the refrigerator. The vet would be there soon…
Dr. Eckhard Gueldner, my vet of many years, taught me everything I know about practical jokes. He would turn thoughtful while palpating one of my mares and then exclaim with gusto: “She’s pregnant!” A phrase that always delighted my right hand, Casey, so much that she got a little overexcited. I’ll never forget the day she came running into the arena to tell me, “Dr. Gueldner says Flute is pregnant, and it’s going to be colt!” Fantastic powers of palpation, that vet.
He did that kind of stuff all the time, often proclaiming that horse had a heart murmur while doing a vet check and then chuckling when my face fell. Dr. Gueldner was rarely serious, so I retaliated with the occasional practical joke. I once made my trainer, Morten Thomsen, and Christoffer, lay a horse down in my arena with the saddle on while I raced around the corner into the aisle screaming, “Dr. Gueldner, come quick! A horse is down! I think it’s a heart attack!” I never saw him run so fast, stethoscope in hand….
But back to the cat. Down the driveway came Dr. G in his dusty Volvo. I met him outside the stable and explained that I had a dead cat I needed to dispose of. Disposing of things in Germany is an art unto itself so anyone who has ever lived here will understand that a request to properly dispose of a dead animal is not unusual for a vet.
I asked him to be discreet because Brit was so sensitive about cats. (By this time, my whole stable was in on the joke.) And this was Dr. Gueldner’s definition of discretion: He put on a green coverall, engulfed both arms in palpation gloves up to the armpits and came waddling into the stable in his “bio suit” with a big plastic bag asking where the body was. That man.
He was quite perplexed when I took him to the kitchen.
I opened the fridge and showed him the cat. “Why is it in the refrigerator?” he asked.
“Because it is so hot today. I didn’t want the body to stink.”
“Oh. OK. You hold the bag, I’ll pick it up,” he shrugged. So I did. He put the cat in the bag, sealed the top and walked out of the kitchen right into the hysterical throes of my staff. We got him good.
Later that week, rumors circulated throughout the horse stables in our area that our good vet couldn’t tell the difference between a real cat and fake cat. Friends of ours asked him to listen to their horse’s heart before vaccinating it to make sure it was real.
Oh we had fun in Vechta, Rita. Good times, fruitful times. And time to move on.
I will miss all these people. I will miss this life. It was a long chapter, a fabulous chapter. I will remember it fondly.
I’m Catherine Haddad Staller, and I’m sayin’ it like it is one last time from Vechta, Germany.
Training Tip of the Day: Dressage people need to lighten up.