The morning before my flight, I made sure I had everything I would need in my luggage… for about the fifth or sixth time (you can never be too sure). It felt like getting ready for a horse show, but a horse show on the other side of the planet! I checked the forecast for the area and it looked like temps were going to be hovering around 14C (upper 50’sF), so I packed an extra sweater and Nate drove me to the airport. The flight to Honk Kong was short and uneventful. The Honk Kong International Airport is absolutely huge and beautiful. There are gates from #1 all the way into the 500’s spread over several floors and wings. Luckily, most of the gate screens alternated between English and Cantonese, so I was able to find my way around. There were many luxury shops and even some American food (McDonalds, Starbucks, Popeyes Chicken). The Honk Kong Dollar symbol is just like ours, so before I did a quick currency conversion, I was completely shocked at the prices on everything. My Starbucks tea was $38 and most of the dinner options were somewhere between $70 and $110. Now someone, somewhere had told me that Honk Kong is very expensive place to travel in, so it didn’t seem impossible, until I checked my bank statement and saw that my $38 tea actually only cost $4.88! Well, it turns out that the Honk Kong Dollar converts to roughly .13 US cents, so things turned out to be a bit cheaper than normal. *Note to self: There are other “$’s” out there…
The airport was super clean and had big flower boxes full of ferns and orchids planted all around. My lay over was over five hours long, but with everything to see, it went by pretty quickly. I learned something on the flight to Amsterdam: A flight full of Dutch people is a like a party in the sky! I am used to long flights typically being quiet and boring, but this one was quite fun. There was lots of chatter and a generally happy feeling on that flight and the only thing that I can contribute it to was all of the Dutch passengers on board. It was great! My flight arrived early the morning before my training began with the Bartels, so I used my “spare” day to go and visit a friend in Holland.
Once I got out of the city, everything was so beautiful. When asked by residents how I liked the area, my answer was typically met with some laughter. Ok, so I may have gushed on a bit about how beautiful I thought everything is, but it was all the truth! When you live somewhere for your whole life, it all looks normal to you, but from a visitors eye, I was in love. Everything is so green and lush everywhere you look. Driving down the expressway, there are huge fields full of brown and white cows or sheep to the left and the right. Some of these fields had windmills in them… real windmills. Not the big white ceiling fan looking ones we have in the States, but picturesque little brick building with large wooden sails spinning in the wind. They were so beautiful… I am lucky I was able to stay on the road!
Driving in Holland is like in the US, left side of the car, right side of the road. I did not have trouble switching back over, but I did forget to swap my “fast lanes”. Here in Japan, driving on the left side of the road means that the lane furthest to the right is the fast lane. So here I am obediently following the speed limit over in the left lane. Well, it was fine at first, because it was early and no one else was on the road, but as soon as traffic picked up, there was no shortage of helpful citizens willing to point out my mistake. When I first picked up my rental car, I was warned that there are speed cameras everywhere in Holland, so I made sure that I was not exceeding the posted limit. I think I was the only driver concerned with this threat. The speed limit on the expressway was 130 kilometres per hour, which is a little over 80 miles per hour and I might as well have been pushing my car down the road at 130kph. Everyone was headed somewhere fast! My car was very nosey and as soon as I went 4kph over the speed limit, a little voice asked, “Do you know that you are driving over the posted speed limit?” haha! So I just stayed in my slow lane and enjoyed the sights…
The roads off of the expressway are only slightly wider than a one way road in the States and when you approach another vehicle, you both slow down and pull off to the side far enough to pass each other and then continue on your way. Traffic was very light out in the country. Many of the roads were lined with tall trees on either side and most had a paved bike path. I believe I saw more bicycles than cars on the road! My first stop was Judy Arbouw’s stable in Strijen. We have been importing horses through Judy’s stable for almost fifteen years and I was very excited to spend the day with her. Her stable is set in a beautiful little town with brick roads and colonial style homes. She had two beautiful horses for me to ride, so I changed into riding clothes and headed out to the barn. It was much colder than what I was expecting, so I was glad to hear that she wanted to train in the indoor! Judy was a very successful Grand Prix competitor in her younger years and even competed Anky van Grunsven’s famous Bonfire as a young horse. She currently focuses on training and sales in Holland and I was very excited about having a lesson with her!
My first horse was a beautiful German gelding named Wow. He was leggy and sensitive and a real fun horse to train. As we warmed up, she told me that he could be a bit “sticky” under the saddle and needed to work on releasing his back and connecting the energy from his hind leg all the way up to the bridle. It was a fun, successful ride and a great way to start! (see Training Notes) Next, I rode a Dutch gelding named Gabbana. This horse had a much different way of going. He had a powerful build and a tendency to push into the bridle. He was a bit more challenging to balance, as he wanted to rush his rhythm and fall out of self-carriage if he was allowed to push into the bridle. We focused on slow power and shoulder flexibility to make self-carriage possible as we moved into more advanced exercises. (see Training Notes)
It was a fabulous morning and I am so glad that I was able to fit it into my trip. Judy has a great eye and a barn full of beautiful horses. While we were untacking, her stallion Four Legends came through the barn and he was a real doll! If I didn’t know who he was, I wouldn’t have even thought he was a stallion at all. Very kind and charming. I was told that he is lovely to train as well. If he passes along his temperament to his offspring, I would love to work with one of his foals.
After we chatted a bit, I got back onto the road and headed towards Hooge Mierde. It took me about an hour to get to the Bartels stable and it too is placed in a lovely little town. Driving through the gates at the Academy Bartels gave me quite an excited feeling. The facility is pristine with brick driveways and paths everywhere. The barns are white brick with green and dark wood trim. The stalls all have a windows, so there were lots of handsome heads poking out as I drove by. I was greeted by Ana (one of the barns head grooms) and a feisty little weiner dog named Fritz. Ana took me to my apartment and told me that I was welcome to hang out in the barn for the afternoon. My plan was to wash up a bit and then go watch some rides, but as soon as I walked into that warm apartment, I knew it wasn’t going to happen! I had been awake for thirty two hours, drove two hours and rode two horses… I slept from around 4pm that afternoon until 6am the next morning. It felt so good!
That morning, I made a cup of coffee, put on my breeches and head out to the barn. It was a very special feeling walking into the barn of a person that I have looked up to for as long as I can remember. The wash racks were full of fabulous horses being tacked up, grooms scurrying around and I could hear that the indoor arena was being disked. The barn manager Desire called me into the tack room and asked me about my trip. She was very nice and had everything under control. She asked me if I wanted to go meet my horse, so we headed over to the “hotel” stalls. The facilities here are incredible. There are three indoor arenas, two outdoors, a sand galloping track and several different “wings” to the barn. The mares have their own area, as do the stallions and there is a section of stalls for training horses. The next aisle down is the “hotel” barn. This is where all of the short term training and trailer-in horses stay. Each barn has several wash racks, a feed room and a tack room inside.
I fell in love with my horses head from fifty yards away. He looked like a giant Breyer horse with a little pony head and big, soft eyes. He was brought in from a barn down the road, as many of the sales horses had been very recently sold and they needed something for me to ride. No one knew anything about him! His name was W, he was delivered with his own bridle and thats about it. So we took him up to the main barn, so we could find a saddle that would fit him. While we were looking through the saddle options, Imke walked in and introduced herself. She is very warm and had one heck of a handshake! She asked if we had found something that fits him and if I would like to ride him a bit in the morning to get to know him before our afternoon training kicked off. So, we finished tacking him up and head out to where Imke was riding. Well, up until this point, he had been very civil, but somewhere between the wash rack and the outdoor, he woke up. He woke up so much in fact, that the groom asked if I still want to get on him! Did I want to? Not that much. Did I have to? Yes. He was going to be my horse during training and I had the opportunity to have a private early morning ride with Imke Schellekens-Bartels… we are doing this W.
So, I put him on a circle and we got to know each other. I made the mistake of assuming that he would be a light ride. He is only about 16h and has a dainty little face, but he is surprisingly strong. He was very “up” and seemed to be enjoying dragging me around the arena very much. Not only was this our first ride together, but this was also the first time I was able to watch Imke ride in person. I rode many lines headed in her general direction, so I could watch her ride a bit. She was riding a fabulous big black horse and seemed to be working on lightness in collected canter. One of the first things I noticed about her was the balance she had in the saddle. She was very centered over this horse and remained balanced whether the horse was struggling or excelling. It was beautiful to watch.
After about twenty minutes of trot and canter work, W was still quite strong, but we had an hour of riding ahead of us later that afternoon, so I took him back to the barn. He is very charming to work with. He checked my pockets for snacks, stood like a statue for his bath and absolutely loved having his head rubbed with a towel. We went for short hand walk and then I put him back into his stall for lunch. There was a “training week” going on at the Academy, so eight new horses were brought into the hotel barn later that morning. I was relieved to find out that all of the other riders spoke English and they were all very friendly! After we were all introduced, Imke gave us the ride time schedule for the afternoon and told everyone that she wanted us all to come to our lesson with a definite plan for the day. Every rider needs to have a specific goal for the ride. It is not the end of the world if you don’t get all the way to that goal, but a ride without a goal is a waste of effort. Imke had many wise words on this topic (and others) that I will list a little later on. Once our meeting was finished, I had four hours until my lesson, so I headed over to the indoor to see if anyone was riding…
As soon as I walked in, I was thrilled to see that Tineke was riding in the indoor, along with several others. I have always loved watching Tineke. She has been a successful in so many competitions including World and European Championships and the Barcelona and Atlanta Olympic Games. I remember watching how quiet she rode and wanting to look like that myself as a young rider and now I am sitting in the indoor, drinking a cup of coffee, watching her school one of her upcoming horses. It was surreal.
In the days leading up to this trip, I thought a lot about what it would be like to watch these riders that I have looked up to for my entire riding life in their own environment. When we see them, they are almost always at a competition. We all ride different at a competition. Some of us get nervous or tense, but these International riders have worked their whole lives at presenting their very best in front of a crowd and to the judges. This is what we base all of our feelings about them on. Its kind of crazy when you think about it. Our entire opinion can be formed on a five minute slice of time that we watch on our laptop, while comfortably sitting on our couch. That is such a tiny element of the big picture. I have had the opportunity to watch some very successful competitors behind the scenes and have been really impressed by some and very disappointed by others. You never know until you are actually there watching the action and even then, one ride on one horse doesn’t tell you everything. I have had many rides that I would be very disappointed if I heard someone based their entire opinions on my riding and training off of. I have also ridden some horses, that if I am being really honest with myself, would have looked just as good with a steady handed monkey, so when you think about things this way, it should take us a while to form our opinions on a riders system and abilities. Now I want to preface what I am about to say by saying that neither Tineke Bartels or Imke Schellekens-Bartels need my endorsement in any way. They are incredibly successful riders and have been so for many years, but I was given the privilege of watching them train many horses over many days, both in the saddle and as a coach, in their own stable and I could not watch enough.
That first time I watched Tineke, she was on a very compact chestnut mare. She was not doing anything fancy, just walk-halt and trot-walk transitions. She seemed to be focusing on straightness and making sure that the mare was waiting for her aids. She kept her in a very neat trot that I probably would have ignored if it were another rider, but there was something special that was going on. Although Tineke was not using big visible aids, the mare was resisting the small corrections that she was making. I could not stop watching how patient and focused Tineke was. It was so obvious that there was something she was working towards and nothing was going to derail this goal. As the ride progressed, she added some half-pass and shoulder-in, but still all ridden in a very average trot. Imke was also in the arena riding a big beautiful bay and Tineke schooled them a bit while she gave her mare a rest. Imke looked the same on this horse as she did earlier that morning… so balanced and connected to her horse. It was interesting to watch Tineke and Imke work together like this. I felt very privileged to be watching them working together like this. A few moments later, Tineke picked her little mare up and went back to work. I was totally shocked by what I saw. This modest little mare turned out to be one of the most incredible horses I have ever seen. It was cool to be able to see what Tineke had been working towards all come to fruition. This mare became so expressive and light and the range she had in her gaits was simply amazing. I was lucky enough to watch Tineke school this mare several more times during my stay and she is a horse that I will never forget.
All motivated from watching such beautiful riders, I tacked up W and headed to the arena. He was much more relaxed this time and I was hoping that as he felt more relaxed, that he would be an easier ride. Today, this wasn’t the case. The ride was quite difficult and pretty frustrating. He was very strong in the bridle. My bottom two fingers were numb towards the end of my ride and I was exhausted. Imke said that she hoped tomorrow would be a better ride and if he continued on this way, we would have to talk about other options.
Later that evening, I went back to my apartment, took some aspirin and thought about the ride. I did not like this horse. I was not looking forward to riding him again either. I was so disappointed that this was the horse that I would be riding during the precious days that I had to train with Imke. So, after a few moments of despair, I started to think about what I did not like about W. I did not like that he was difficult to sit on and I did not like how strong he was in the bridle. These two “complaints” were definitely connected. If he would be a little better in the contact, he would be a whole lot more comfortable to ride, so essentially, I had one complaint about him… a BIG complaint, but one none the less. It just so happened that his biggest flaw was also one of my pet peeves. I don’t like riding heavy horses and over the past few years, I have been blessed to ride and train a nice group of lighter horses. I know myself as a rider and W is not the type of horse that I would choose to ride, but did I need to be in love with him to learn from him? No, I did not. Did he need to be my favourite type of horse in order for me to enjoy the journey of training him? No he does not. And did he have to be fun in order for me to improve myself as a rider? Not at all!
I fell asleep with all of these thoughts rolling around in my head and I woke up the next morning with a plan…
Click here to go to Training in Holland - Part II