Tuesday, Mar. 5, 2024

Shopping In Europe, Part 2: Snaffles And Gas Station Sandwiches

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This past summer, a friend, a trainer and I went to Germany and the Netherlands, assisted by a European agent, to look at dressage horses. I wrote previously about how I came to my decision to horse-shop overseas, and the preparations and planning I made prior to the trip. What follows is my experience: putting together the logistics of the trip itself, and what happened after we arrived. In part three, I’ll talk about the process of getting my new horse vetted and stateside.

While I worked on all of my pre-trip preparations, I planned the trip itself, with an eye to making the most of the week I’d have to look at horses. 

Time, Tickets And Place

When my friend went to Europe five years ago, it was February—and very, very cold. She strongly urged me not to go when the weather hovered around freezing. Both she and her trainer, who accompanied us as my own trainer could not, had robust show and work schedules, but we found a week between shows at the end of August, so I contacted Norbert Gieling, our agent, and cleared the dates with him. 

Luckily, we were all free during those dates in August; unluckily, it was two weeks after the Young Horse Championships. Norbert had been looking at horses a month before, putting together a schedule of barns to visit, but a lot of people who came for the championships stayed to shop for horses. About half of the candidates he’d found for me sold, so he had to renew his efforts a week before I arrived. I was grateful; we saw a lot of incredible horses. But next time, I might look at the big international events, and plan to come before those if possible.

One of the many truly impressive riding arenas in the Netherlands where author Rebecca Rickly tried several horses. Photos Courtesy Of Rebecca Rickly

Once I was sure that everyone was committed to going, I bought tickets. We had been watching ticket prices four months in advance of our planned trip, and when prices fell, I jumped in with both feet.

Next, I had to make sure that we had a place to stay. Norbert suggested we stay in Arnhem in the Netherlands because that was a central place from which to operate. I found a VRBO rental in town that everyone liked for a little over half the price of a hotel for the three of us. 

Nuts And Bolts: Making Sure We’re Covered

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At least six months before the trip, we made sure that everyone’s passports were up to date and would be good for the duration. Next, we researched and purchased adapters that we’d need to charge up computers and phones while in Europe.

When my friend went horse shopping in February five years ago, the airline lost her luggage, and she was without much of anything for two days. She suggested that I carry my boots/helmet with me on the plane, and to replace my boot jacks with enough clothing for at least one day’s worth of riding. That way, even if my luggage was lost, I’d have enough to get me through a day or two.

I knew I was going to ride a lot of different horses, and I wanted to make sure I kept them all straight. Based on my notes in the “educating my a**” tour, we created a PDF document that would allow us to record key information about each horse, how well it matched my criteria, as well as information about what was good/bad about the ride. Each sheet included helpful information like name, age, height, gender, breed, color/markings, experience, and so forth. Each of my top criteria (safe, kind/good mind, smooth gaits, and green change) was there to tick off–or not. We had a spot for each of us to separately note our thoughts, as well as a pro/con list at the end. I would rank each horse then, from 1 (I liked it and would like to see it again) to 3 (not for me). We made 30 copies of these sheets, so that we would be able to fill out a sheet for each horse I tried.

A Day In The Life

We built a day into our trip for us to work through our jet lag (arriving in Amsterdam on a Saturday morning, and seeing our first horses Sunday afternoon), but many people hit the ground running, going to see the first horse right after they land. On Sunday, Norbert met us near the Amsterdam airport, and we followed him to the first stables. Some of the barns were close to one another, but often we’d drive from 30 minutes to well over an hour between places. Over the week, we went to a few sale barns, often very elegant places where owners brought horses to be shown and sold. There, we were able to try several horses at one place, but more often than not, we went to individual trainer’s or breeder’s barns to see one or two horses at a time.

We spent the first three days in the Netherlands, then a full day in Germany. We usually started around 8 a.m., and often we didn’t get back to our place until early evening. I learned that gas stations have amazing sandwiches; that’s where we ate lunch most of the time. People at every barn we visited offered us coffee, espresso or water, but we brought water with us as well to ensure we stayed hydrated throughout the day.  

On our arrival at each barn, our trial horses were groomed—often braided—tacked up and waiting. The seller would ride each one to show what it could do, then my trainer would get on. She knew me and my ability, and there were a few horses she suggested I not get on, simply because she didn’t think they would be a good fit, and it’s better not to waste the time and effort of the people showing the horse if I wasn’t interested. For the most part, though, Norbert had done such a good job of selecting horses that met my criteria that I rode four to seven horses a day.

At one of her first stops near Amsterdam, Rickly tried several horses in a riding arena accented with chandeliers.

Because I was planning to start at training/first level while getting to know my new horse, I asked to try all the horses in a snaffle, and I didn’t wear spurs; I wanted to see if I could ride the horse without the double bridle or spurs. Some of the upper-level horses hadn’t been ridden in a snaffle for a while, and I struggled with connection on a few of them. At each barn, after my trainer rode, I would get on, walk around, try trotting and cantering, and, if I liked the way the horse was going, I might try some lateral work or ask if I could ride outside of the arena. Both my trainer and Norbert helped by offering advice as I rode, but if I felt I simply wasn’t connecting with a horse, I cut the ride short. 

My friend filled out a sheet for each horse I rode, as well as videotaping both my and the trainer’s rides, and each night we’d play the videos and make further notes on our sheets about what we liked and didn’t about each horse. Given how much driving we did, and how many barns we visited, these sheets were invaluable. Sometimes the horse looked different on video than it felt while I was riding (sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse), and with at least one horse, I thought I remembered things that didn’t actually happen. The sheets helped us to keep straight the horses, and our initial thoughts about them, and reinforced our assessment of each horse.

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All told, we visited 20 barns, and I rode 28 horses. Building in the time to watch the videos of each horse (while referring to the associated sheet) helped me to make that final decision. 

Tomorrow, I’ll write about how I did just that, and how I got my new partner back to the U.S.


Rebecca Rickly is a retired professor of rhetoric and technical communication at Texas Tech University who now lives in Little Rock, Arkansas. While she’s ridden since age 9, she only had her first lesson at age 45, when she finally decided she would follow her dreams and “do” eventing while living in Lubbock, Texas, there were no eventing coaches in the area. She’s now enjoying her new discipline of dressage with the 5-year-old Dutch Warmblood mare she found in Europe, as well as popping over the occasional jump on her faithful Irish Sport Horse Paddy 2.0, who, along with his predecessor, taught her how to learn.

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