I wish that I'd received some advice before embarking on a European horse-buying mission. I realize that flying to Europe to buy a horse is a fabulous privilege, but that doesn't mean there aren't many humorous moments. I hope this commentary provides you with a light-hearted idea of what to expect.
I arrive at the airport and am not sure what I have gotten myself into. However, I am travelling with my trainer and new business partner, who is reassuringly familiar with this process. The flight is uneventful, but then we land in Amsterdam and are supposed to be greeted by our agent.
Lesson 1: Not having a cell phone that will function in Europe is a mistake. Using a pay phone to contact someone in a foreign country is barely possible. Spring for the rental and keep the expensive calls short.
We have been up all night, and we’re feeling jet-lagged and growing concerned about abandonment. An hour later, the agent finally arrives, and the situation is brushed aside.
Lesson 2: To the Dutch, there probably isn’t much that qualifies as an issue. Clients have been standing around for an hour? One thinks: “Is the agent just a poor business person?” No.
Lesson 3: Coffee is a must. I believe it's considered a food group here. We just want to get on the road, but instead we have coffee in the airport café. This particular morning is a crash course in how people think in this area of the world—toss out the American concepts of jumping in a car and getting to work. My questions start: “When is the first appointment? How far away is it?” The responses are vague. There is no rush. I am used to a frenetic Wall Street pace, but the sooner one forgets this way of thinking, the better.
Meals are all taken and enjoyed. However, some are at “tank stops,” or gas stations as they’re known in the United States. They are everywhere since one blows through expensive fuel at an alarming rate. But I am horrified. I am spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on horses and am lunching where I would not normally visit a restroom? But actually the stops are quite good; an upgrade from those in the United States, with fresh sandwiches and food stations with odd-looking meat dishes (avoided), which I am told are quite tasty.
People stand around and eat in a social atmosphere. Nearly everything contains cucumbers and cheese. But this does not mean that vegetarians will have an easy time of it, although egg salad is extremely popular and strangely appears in nearly every sandwich. Pringles and Red Bull are rampantly consumed. I figure, hey, when in Rome, and crack open my next caffeinated beverage and munch on chips in the backseat of the car.
Lesson 4: Get used to cigarettes. Most people smoke as much as they drink coffee, even in barns. Everyone is dismissive of the “These Will Kill You” government warnings on the labels and wave away my concerns. The fact that the entire population of Europe is not dead actually makes me reconsider how toxic cigarettes are.
Lesson 5: Relax and exercise patience. The next morning begins at a normal hour. We get in the car and travel to the first horse viewing, which is clear across the country. The Netherlands is not large, so this is not really a big deal, although it initially seems alarming. I doze off in the back seat while the agent speeds in his Mercedes, dodging the cameras that clock speed and deliver tickets. This seems like a local pastime. Everyone drives really fast and tries to avoid getting caught, so just close your eyes and say a prayer. As you fly past the windmills, you will see many, many people on bicycles. I thought we stumbled onto an athletic race. No, they’re just folks going to work. The landscape is extremely flat and surreal.
One horse viewing occurs after another. Most barns are “backyard” types, yet the horses are of very high quality.
Lesson 6: Do not arrive and assume the animal will be braided, saddled and ready to go. First, you are required to drink coffee. It's considered rude to refuse. I only make the mistake of declining once, as the agent later informs me that I must have coffee before seeing the horses. I still don’t think I have detoxed from the amount of caffeine I ingested on the trip.
I sense combined suspicion and fascination with Americans. It is a bit of a problem not to speak Dutch or German. Most people do speak some English, but without an agent, we would be in trouble. They chat in Dutch while we pretend to drink cup No. 5 of coffee. I pick up an occasional word. I have a bad feeling that “stupid Americans” is a repeated phrase.
Finally, the coffee is subtly discarded, and we watch the horses go. If we like one, we get on for a ride, and then on to the next. This could be in Belgium or Germany; these countries seem like an equine triumvirate.
Lesson 7: Prepare to spend your entire day in a car. I see a horse under dim outdoor lights at 10 p.m. No one seems to find this unusual. The sellers line up cars and turn on the high beams but may as well pull out flashlights. I say, “Can’t we just do this tomorrow?” but am ignored. I am used to having my horses groomed and prepared in a beautiful indoor arena during normal business hours. Forget it. Peer through the dark and try to see the horse.
By this time, I just want food and a cocktail. All restaurants close early. I am from New York City, and it is odd to me that the sidewalks here roll up around 8 p.m.
Lesson 8: Should you want anything to drink, expect it to be warm. They don’t have ice nor see any need to provide it. We are desperate one night—as it is really hot—and stop at a bar and bribe the confused bartender for a cup of it.
And take-out doesn’t exist. We have a late pizza, and I am not terribly hungry, so I just eat one or two slices and ask to have the rest boxed up, figuring this would be a respite from cucumber sandwiches at the tank stations. They don’t do this in the Netherlands. The waiter dumps the remains in the trash, simply not understanding my unfamiliar request. The Dutch laugh at me and clearly think I'm odd.
The next day is pretty much the same. There is one barn where I walk out and want to call the authorities.
Lesson 9: Horse care means different things around the world. I was warned in advance that certain farms don’t clean out stalls on a regular basis, which can cause young horses to have faulty leg development as they position themselves on unlevel mountains of mess. I think my farrier would have a heart attack.
We video everything, so once we return to our little chalet, we review the day’s events. Sometimes this equals comic relief. There is one occasion when we are looking at a horse, and a big machine drives past.
Lesson 10: They liquidize manure on a regular basis and spread it on the ground. I find this more interesting than the horse and film that instead. There are accompanying sound and aromatic effects, and I feel that I am on another planet. Not exactly an ideal sales presentation. It is a quasi-illegal practice, apparently, but very entertaining. The Dutch watch in confusion as we double over in laughter.
I don’t think I have ever worked this hard, and then we have to make the decisions. The agent uses his veterinarian to evaluate the selections. Everything is sent to my veterinarian in the United States, and here we go with more risk. If the horse arrives and doesn’t pass the blood work processed in Iowa, he goes back at your expense. Some people fly their own veterinarians over to do the examinations, and while this might sound extravagant, I no longer question the practice.
Understand that there is a reason that imported European horses are so expensive: risk, time, and endless coffee and cucumber sandwiches!
Kathleen Stiles is a student of veterinary technology at Purdue University.