Friday, Apr. 12, 2024

A Week In The Life: A European Horse-Shopping Trip

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This winter, I sold my top Grand Prix horse, Guernsey Elvis, who was owned by an amazing syndicate of supporters. Nearly all of them wanted to continue the partnership and invest in another horse for me to bring up the levels. While I always exhaust my American contacts first, the reality of shopping for international-caliber horses is that our European friends make more of them than we do here in the United States—and in countries that are much smaller than ours—so shopping in Europe is often more efficient. Add in that U.S. horse prices are still really pretty wild at the high end. So I recently found myself in the fortunate position of organizing an adventure to Denmark—my first in the several years since the pandemic paused easy travel—guided by my friends and agents of the past 15 years, Babsi Neidhardt-Clark and Martha Thomas. 

I prefer to be guided by an agent rather than try to wing it myself, so for this trip, I gave Babsi and Martha a price-point ceiling and a general type: 6-8 years old with a flying change, big enough for my 5’10” self and keen but not totally feral. Then we picked a week where I could get away from my day job, booked tickets to Denmark, and off I went!

Dressed in my comfiest breeches so I’m ready to fly and hit the ground to ride when I land in Denmark. I’ll be going straight from the airport to our first stop: Olympian Cathrine Dufour’s barn. Lauren Sprieser Photos

THURSDAY

3 p.m. Eastern Daylight Time Let’s go! I’ve made my way to the Miami airport two hours early because I’ve never been here before. But airports really aren’t that hard, so of course I’m at my gate, just sitting around. I could eat dinner now and then just crash once I get on the plane, armed with ALL the sleep-inducing drugs, but it’s a Lufthansa flight, and the Germans are a terribly prompt people, so I’m sure they’ll do a quick dinner service (included in the price of my ticket), and I won’t lose much sleep time, right?

Ha. The plane is delayed, and then dinner takes forever. I finally pop all my pills and try and settle in, only to be serenaded by several squawking children screaming the songs of their people alllll night long. I probably achieve four hours of restless sleep. This is gonna be a good day.

FRIDAY

8 a.m. Central European Time It’s 3 a.m. back home, so breakfast isn’t really on my body’s radar, but I’ve got time to kill in Frankfurt, Germany, before my connection to Copenhagen, and I am never queasy except for when I’m on a wacky international travel schedule, so a sandwich it is. European bread is magnificent, and I’m almost willing to forgive the little gremlins who kept me up all night. 

Noon Denmark! I’ve never been! It’s windy! But I managed to sneak a wee nap while connecting through Frankfurt and another few minutes on this plane, adding maybe half an hour to the sleep total. Add to that the restorative power of a German brötchen roll, and I’m ready for the day.

That’s good, because after being picked up (and handed a sandwich for the road) by Babsi and Martha, who have been playing equestrian tour guides here in Denmark for 15 years, our first stop is the barn of Olympic medalist and one of my total heroes, Cathrine Dufour. Cathrine doesn’t have anything meeting my criteria at the moment, but Babsi and Martha are looking for a few other clients, and they’ve asked if I would be willing to play crash-test dummy and test ride amateur-safe FEI schoolmasters. (I am happy to oblige; riding horses at Cathrine’s barn is not exactly a burden!)

Cathrine is an utter delight, and I manage not to totally geek out and embarrass myself, which I consider a great professional and personal achievement. Also, she follows me on Instagram now, so I’m retiring, because there is nothing else to achieve. 

7:30 p.m. At one of the four barns we visit today, I sit on one horse for me, and it’s not what I’m looking for, which is fine. On this trip, almost all of the horses I will see have been pre-screened by Martha and Babsi, so they’ve already ruled out some that they didn’t think passed the muster, but there’s still 10 or so for me to meet while I’m here. Sometimes that’s how these trips go, and sometimes they’re more last-minute, and I end up seeing more horses that haven’t been pre-screened. 

My rule of thumb is that if I think there’s a chance that the horse is what I want, I’ll at least get on, but I’m also a savvy professional, and I know fairly quickly if it’s My Horse. And if it’s not My Horse, I don’t linger on. There’s no point in wasting the time of a seller. I don’t consider that rude, nor does almost everyone I’ve ever tried horses with, anywhere in Europe. (Most Americans feel that way too, but not all!)

9 p.m. Unfortunately today involved a tremendous amount of driving, so we don’t get to our hotel until quite late. The dark and my lack of sleep on the plane have me falling asleep while talking, which Babsi and Martha either don’t notice or are too nice to say anything about.

I rally to inhale a delicious dinner that I wish I’d had more time to appreciate and a glass of red wine to help me sleep, which I probably don’t need, because in spite of the early-to-my-body hour, I’m out like a light and sleep right to my alarm—unheard of for me!

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SATURDAY

7:30 a.m. Oof. My body still thinks it’s 2:30 a.m., so this feels like an early start. But a worthwhile one, because after a delicious breakfast composed almost entirely of cheese (I’d like to live here now) and a cuppa, we’re off to the first barn. We  see two super candidates there, and then we’re off. We look mostly at horses for me today, with a smattering of ones for amateur clients (that I am, once again, tasked with riding; what a terrible burden it is to sit on fancy and civilized beasts, woe is me).

Gotta love a hotel where the breakfast buffet is essentially one extended cheese board.

2 p.m. Lunch is from a gas station, but if you’ve never been to a European gas station, it is a very different experience than the average Shell on the side of the highway in the U.S. I have the willpower of a gnat, so I treat myself to a delicious fish and chips with French fries. It belatedly occurs to me that there’s more sitting trot in my future today.

2:47 p.m. I have regrets. Especially because our last stop of the afternoon is the stunning Blue Hors stud, a gorgeous facility that does it all: breeding, stallions and training from the ground up to the Olympics. We sit on two horses there that are phenomenal in their training and type, and while they’re younger and greener than what I’m looking for on this trip, I will cheerfully accept donations to bring one home because he could be a world-beater when he comes along. Holy cow.

We also must be playing our cards right, because we are invited back for the 30th anniversary stallion show, and even better, given seats in the VIP section. By some miracle I packed eyeliner, because it’s…

4:30 p.m. … and we’re off to a different hotel (the hotel we stayed at the first night had a special event requiring all of its rooms this evening, so we got the boot) for a quick costume change, so we can get back to the shindig. 

The view from our VIP seats for Blue Hors’ 30th anniversary stallion show.

5:30 p.m. We have an absolutely SMASHING good time, with delicious food, fine drinks and, above all else, exceptional equine entertainment. They present many of their top breeding stallions as well as some of their offspring. (Some are presented under saddle as young as 3 years old—the size of the cojones on those young horse riders, to just waltz on in on something that has MAYBE been a few weeks under saddle? Daaaang.) Such an inspirational night, to see both the tremendous quality of horses and very peaceful riding. But also an intimidating night, because boy howdy, the bar is getting awfully high!

SUNDAY

9:30 a.m. I’m delighted that we get a later start today, especially because today the clocks sprang ahead in Denmark. So I lose another hour compared to Florida, where it’s currently 3:30 a.m. But I gain another incredible breakfast, and off we go to try more horses. 

In general, trying horses in Europe is both inspiring and comforting. Because yes, they’re breeding MORE good warmblood dressage-type horses than we are, and in smaller countries where that horseflesh is more concentrated. But they also have boring horses. They also have horses with the same things we deal with—imperfect mouths, imperfect feet, cheeky moments of temper. And European riding is just like American riding: There’s good, there’s bad, there’s everything in between. There’s nothing magical about a human butt just because it has an EU passport. 

Some we see at huge training and sales stables; some we see in a farmer’s backyard arena. Some are bred out the wazoo; some have unremarkable genetics but have learned to do stellar things. 

2:03 p.m. Lunch is a candy bar made of marzipan smothered in dark chocolate. Sorry, not sorry.

6 p.m. Many businesses in this country, including many restaurants, are closed on Sundays. Martha and Babsi’s usual haunts are on that list, so we try something new for dinner, and it’s an extraordinary meal, hands down one of the most amazing meals of my life. I’m a bit of a foodie, so meals made by kindred spirits are a joy, but the love and thoughtfulness these guys put into their meals, including tremendous herb-infused beverage concoctions from their garden? Extraordinary. We’re going to have to go get more Danish horses just so I can come back and eat here!

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Packing like a pro for a short equine shopping trip.

MONDAY

6 a.m. My last act before going to bed was sending videos to my brain trust: my coaches, as well as some trusted friends, plus the members of the Elvis Syndicate. And this morning, I catch up on all their comments, which are the same as mine. So today, the name of the game is trying the two we all liked the most and hopefully narrowing down to one. That means a nice short day, which means a late start, which means I can sleep in… or at least I COULD sleep in, if I knew how. These four- to five-day trips are exactly the right amount of time to acclimate to the new time zone. Blarg.

11 a.m. Our two top choices have been narrowed to one. When trying sale horses anywhere, I always like to try them twice—once where the usual rider rides them first, so I can see them go a bit, see what decisions the rider makes, and see what the warmup looks like (which sometimes really doesn’t matter, and sometimes matters a great deal); once where I start them from the beginning. 

And that was the factor today. One horse that I liked two days ago goes vastly, vastly better when I start it first; one goes vastly, vastly worse. And this is the voodoo magic part of horse-human matchmaking: I’m a perfectly competent rider, and so are the people selling the horses I liked, but there’s a chemistry factor that really does transcend the “specs.” Both horses met my criteria on age, training, temperament, type, height, the works, but the first one also liked me a lot, while the other was indifferent about me and my riding. So that’s that!

1:30 p.m. It’s hailing.

Test riding “Cadeau,” a 7-year-old Danish Warmblood, who ended up being our top choice.

1:45 p.m. Nope, it’s snowing. Time to get out of Denmark.

1:52 p.m. Ok, a quick trip to a tack shop. I’m expecting lots of glitter and colors, as are de rigueur in U.S. dressage fashion right now, but this shop’s offerings are quite tame. Now time to get out of Denmark.

2:06 p.m. Weeeeell, maybe one quick stop at a grocery store to bring home some candy for my staff. Also, it’s really snowing. OK, now time to get out of Denmark. 

A last-minute trip to a local tack shop reveals some crystal brow bands but overall more restrained offerings than the bling that’s so popular in the U.S. right now.

But alas, my flight isn’t until tomorrow at o-dark-thirty, so I’m delivered to the airport hotel, where I get my first workout in in about a month, have a quite-delicious meal, and go to bed at 8 p.m. local time (2 p.m. Eastern time) so I can wake up at…

Tuesday

4:30 a.m. Central European Time My journey back to the U.S. begins, at least according to Eastern Time, around the time some people at home are going to bed Monday night (10:30 p.m.). My flight from Copenhagen to Frankfurt goes off without a hitch, but there were labor strikes at the Frankfurt airport yesterday, so it’s a mess, and my flight to Miami ends up two hours late. 

3:30 p.m. Eastern Time I land in Miami at just the right time to—after negotiating customs and getting out of the airport—hit the city’s afternoon rush hour traffic  By the time I get back to Wellington, it’s 7 p.m.—and 1 a.m. to my Denmark-adapted body. But it’s OK, because the spinach I put on my Domino’s pizza is probably the first vegetable I’ve eaten in 24 hours, so at least I’ve done something for my health. 

8:30 p.m. Just before I crash, at what feels like 2:30 a.m. to my body, I get a ping from my American vet saying I can set up a vetting for my top choice. So I fire off a text to Babsi, still in Denmark. Let’s see what the future brings!

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