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March 24, 2011

Life Lessons Learned Abroad

It was five miles to the nearest village, so the fastest way to get to town was to hop aboard a sale pony and head out. Cartoon by Custer Cassidy.

When I was in college, I spent a year in England as an exchange student. To help pay expenses, I worked as a combination au pair girl and stable manager for a woman who showed jumpers internationally. To say this was a learning experience would have been putting it mildly. The farm was five miles from the nearest village, and our closest neighbors were a mile down the lane. When I tell you that I grew up in some of the major capital cities of the world, you’ll realize the culture shock. And when I add that 2-year-old kiddies are not my favorite people, you will realize that I was desperately short of “the ready” when I took the job.

The master of the place where I lived was a Scot, and he played the bagpipes and the accordion. I am an opera buff. Enough said. The bagpipes were kept in a Harry Potter-style cupboard under the stairs, and the door had a distinctive squeak. The instant that cupboard door squeaked, both Border Collies, the kid I cared for and any horses currently turned out within earshot would head for the far end of the property. The less said about the accordion, the better.

The Border Collies were great. They helped me bring the horses in at feeding time, and they would herd a particular pony for me when it was being difficult to catch. They slept on or in my bed (particularly nice in the wintertime when the owners didn’t believe in overheating the place), which was fine until the night of the Big Storm. The owners were away for the weekend with the kid, and I was a big-city girl alone five miles from anywhere with a stable full of very expensive show jumpers and two Border Collies. In the middle of the night Collie No. 1 suddenly leapt up, all his fur standing straight up, growling. So I grabbed the cricket bat that I always kept handy and proceeded to investigate to the accompaniment of enormous thunder-and-lightning cacophony and rain coming down in buckets. The horses were fine, there were no intruders, just a lot of thunder, and the dog probably had had a nightmare. It took me a long time to get back to sleep.

These were the two dogs that we left in the house when the family took me along for a night on the town. We came home to find the lower level of the house in complete disarray. The dogs, bored by being shut up in the house (even though the weather outside was ghastly), had experimented and discovered that if you pounced on the foot pedal on the refrigerator, the door flew open. By the time we got home, there was nothing left in the refrigerator, a great deal of scrap and glass on the kitchen floor, and those dear doggies spent the rest of the night outdoors in the nasty weather. Then we took the pedal off the refrigerator.

That was the place where I discovered that fresh eggs don’t travel well in a backpack. The village was five miles down a country lane, or three miles by the footpath if you went on horseback. There were a couple of ponies that I was supposed to be schooling to be children’s foxhunters, so, when I was sent to the village to pick up groceries between semi-monthly trips to the city to stock up, I’d sling on a big backpack, grab one of the ponies, and ride down to the village. The market in the village was also the post office, the police station and gas pump (or properly—the petrol pump) and was in the back of the building that housed the village pub. There was a rail where I could tie the pony safely while I went in and did my shopping. This was in the days when the grocer/postmistress/gas station attendant, who happened also to be the wife of the constable (you can guess the size of the village), kept tally sheets in a drawer of her desk. She’d scribble down what you had bought and send a monthly invoice to the house.

So I packed the groceries into my backpack (including the dozen eggs), slung the backpack on, and hopped back up on the pony. So far, so good. We came to the gate. On the way to the village, I’d put the pony over the gate with no thought. It was about 3’6”, but the pony hunted regularly, and we had never had a problem with the height. You can guess what’s coming. On the way home, we picked up our good canter, sailed over the gate and landed a little awkwardly with the weight of the groceries on my back. There was a lurch and a squelch, and I felt this gooey sort of sensation down my back— at least some of the dozen eggs had given up the ghost.

One Way To School A Ditch

There was one particularly trying sale pony that I’d been told to work over ditches. If he was going to hunt, he was going to have to jump ditches, and at that point he wouldn’t. The family had left for a holiday, and I took the pony out to a water meadow where I knew there was a nice ditch that I could practice over—not too wide with nice, clear banks. Being young and overconfident, I was out by myself. To make a long story short, after a series of refusals, which got progressively nastier, I turned the pony again, smacked him and headed for the ditch. I ended up head first in what turned out to be a foot of water over about 3 feet of mud.

I had kept hold of my reins, and the pony stood at the edge of the ditch cropping grass. He did nothing to help me out. After swearing a blue streak and discovering that the ditch was just too high and steep for me to climb out, I started trying to figure out what to do next. Then a very cultured, well-bred English voice called down from above me, “Are you all right?” I responded in my best American vernacular, the gist of which was: “No, I’m not all right.”

Bless her. This woman, beautifully turned out in breeches and boots and a hacking jacket with a lovely scarf on her head, got off a very nice-looking horse, got down on her stomach and pulled me out of the ditch. Needless to say, I got several pounds of mud on her in the process, for which I apologized. She said to think nothing of it and asked what the problem was. I explained that I was having trouble with the pony, and that I was at my wits end. By this time I was in tears.

She spent the next half hour helping me and giving me some very useful tips. By the time she climbed back up on her very nice horse, we had that foul pony going politely over ditches (he never did go back to refusing them). I thanked her and asked if I could buy her a drink, which she refused. After she’d left, it finally dawned on me just exactly who this woman was. I’m not going to mention her name, but if you look in the rosters of British three-day eventing stars, her name appears near the top of any list. And I got her covered in mud.

A Different Sort Of Showing Experience

Showing in England is a different game than it is in the States. First, their hunter classes are exactly that—classes for horses suitable to be field hunters. The judges ride—yes, get on—each and every entry (or at least the finalists in one of the huge classes) and “test-drive” them. This means your horse had better be broke, really broke, before you show him in a hunter class. And the fences are real hunting type fences, requiring a good galloping pace and the kind of brilliance we used to see on outside courses. If you wanted the equivalent of our show hunter classes, you went in the hacks. These were the pretty boys of the English show world, and ladies’ hacks were often presented sidesaddle.

I didn’t get to play in the show hack classes since that was well outside our area of expertise (even in those days horse people specialized). But everything I know about Corinthian classes (these classes used to be reserved for the fancy indoor shows and places like Devon. You showed in full formal hunting regalia, and your horse had to be outfitted “just so,” with sewn bridlework, a sandwich case and flask on your saddle with rigidly specified stuff in both, a hunting whip and a spare pair of string gloves positioned in precise alignment under your saddle flap), I learned by trial and error (lots of error) in those working hunter classes.

I can still prepare a regulation turkey sandwich (no crust, cut in half on the diagonal), fill a flask (grape juice for juniors, brandy—or something stronger if you could get it—for adults), crack a whip (I was asked to do that once and managed to do it without injury to either the pony or myself!) and line a pair of string gloves up “just so” under my saddle, so that the thumb on each glove is pointed in the correct direction, the glove is on the correct side of the horse, and the fingertips show just the regulation amount.

The popular, big money classes were jumpers of all stripes. Ponies started at 3’6” as I recall, and those were for the kids and the least-experienced ponies. The idea of showing over 2’6” wouldn’t enter the minds of the kids I worked with. Galloping up to a 3’6” fence on a 12.2-hand pony is a test of courage the first time you do it. When you are looking up at a jump toward which you and your trustworthy (you hope) steed are charging, you hope devoutly that your faith in your own immortality and your steed’s ability have not been misplaced. Fortunately, our hunting ponies were made of sterner stuff, and we survived to rejoin the battle another day.

We also did some dressage tests with the sale ponies, just to confirm them for possible marketing to Pony Clubbers. There was one really memorable day. I was riding one of my employer’s fancy horses (he needed an outing, and she had commitments elsewhere) in a mid-level class.

In England, there is a saying that if the sun ever shines on a horse show day, they postpone the show because the horses don’t know what to make of the light and shadow. True to form, it started to rain. Rain meant no spectators, unfortunately, because we wanted the fancy horse seen for sales purposes.

I was in the warm-up and three away from my first ride when all of a sudden a huge swarm of spectators sloshed through the mud to my arena, where no one had been before. Now I knew in my heart, as well as my head, that they weren’t coming to see this nice horse and me, not in this rain. So I glanced around at the other competitors in the warm-up and discovered, to my horror, that I was bracketed.

Mark Phillips, at that time Britain’s leading event rider and Olympic gold medallist, was the number directly in front of me, riding an absolutely gorgeous young horse. The number directly after me in the order of go was his then wife, Princess Anne, at that time European eventing champion, on something equally stunning. Turned out the spectators were primarily press and paparazzi, getting filthy dirty in search of photo-ops. Can you say “intimidated” boys and girls? Needless to say we plowed that test pretty badly.

After that particular shake-up, I started to settle down and enjoy the moment without worrying about riding against the big names. Since the country is small, almost all their shows are highly competitive and have enormous entries. The stars have to start their babies somewhere, and it usually turned out to be the somewhere that I happened to be. Although it took a while, I started to enjoy living out in the country, the calmer pace and the quiet. I even learned how to safely transport eggs on the back of a pony. It took me about three weeks to get used to living on a farm with nothing except cows and crickets making noise at night, and it took almost as long to re-adjust to the noises of the city when I returned to the States.

Kathie P. Mautner grew up as a "Foreign Service brat," and now she works as an insurance attorney and competes in ballroom dancing. Her horse experience includes eventing, dressage and hunter/jumpers as well as volunteering as a Pony Club D.C. "I'm a survivor of ponies of all sizes," said Mautner. She also writes humor pieces for the Chronicle recalling her mispent youth as well as a serious column every now and then.

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