When I was 10 years old my parents moved from the inner city of Duesseldorf to the outskirts of Mettmann in Germany. Here I grew up with ducks, geese, swans and chickens.
Our home was situated next to a farm. The farmer’s daughter had a pony, a mix of a Fjord and draft horse. Gino was the first horse I loved, groomed and sat on. Several stories are edged into my mind with Gino.
He was the first horse who ever stood on my foot. Yes, it hurt and he thought it was a very comfortable place to stand on. One day his owner called him from the other end of the pasture but he wouldn’t move a muscle towards her. She finally walked all the way to where he stood near the fence. Gino’s hind legs were caught in some barbwire and this smart horse kept his wits and waited for help. The farm was close to a hiking trail and sometime hikers had the idea to take a short cut through the pasture to get to the forest. Gino would watch them and wait until they where in the middle of the pasture. Then he would suddenly gallop full speed towards them. It was always fun to see how fast the hikers would turn and “run for their lives”.
My godfather Hans was a passionate jumper show rider when he was young. Realizing that I was entranced with horses he convinced my parents to send me for two weeks on a riding holiday in Worms, Germany to learn the basics.
After that I attended riding lessons for two years at a riding stable near our home until my parents decided that it would be a lot cheaper to have a pony that could run on the neighboring farm. So without any real horse experience and no knowledge of how to take care of a horse, my parents asked the farmer’s brother-in-law, a riding stable owner, to sell us a horse.
Since I can remember I was in love with Haflingers, my father thought Icelandic horses with the five gaits would be cool. One Monday afternoon the farmer’s brother-in-law we called Uncle, came with a Fjord mix. Uncle put me on him, hopped on Sandy, an English Hunter the farmer’s daughter owned at that time and off we rode into the forest. I didn’t quite know what hit me, but I must have done alright because at the end of the ride Uncle determined that the pony and I were a good fit.
Uncle stroke a bargain with my father and I had a pony. (This is a classic example of how to not buy a horse). The pony’s name was Flicka, but we decided that as a gelding he should have a male name. My mom, the one in the family creative with animal names, she named every swan, chicken and some of the geese, baptized the pony Tobias. From then on we called him Toby.
After riding Toby 4 or 5 times by myself and getting into life threatening situations, I decided that riding wasn’t what was important and from then on Toby ran year round in the pastures with Sandy, loved, groomed and fed by me and the farmer’s daughter.
Toby and Sandy taught me about herd behavior and leadership. I wasn’t really leadership material then and had no clue how to communicate with horses other than using my voice. So needles to say I was the lowest ranking herd member, which taught me to be alert at all times to prevent accidental run overs and such.
During three summers my parents allowed me to vacation at the Fohlenhof Ebbs in Ebbs/Austria. Ebbs is known world-wide as the most important stud farm for Haflingers. I was in heaven in Austria: Mountains, Haflinger and wonderful humans with a great dialect. Here I learned more about, caring for horses, riding, and many facts around movement, diseases and proper care.
When I finished High School and ready to go to University I had to make a hard decision. Because I did not want to let go of Toby I signed up at the University of Duesseldorf to Chemistry although I knew that it wasn’t a good idea to stay at home. Divine intervention arranged a trip to Southern Germany with a friend to visit the University of Ulm. Situated on a hill at the border to Bavaria (my next favored location to Austria) with only a total of 3000 students at that time, I couldn’t help it, I had to sign up to study there. My parents graciously agreed to support me studying in Ulm.
I was still very clear that I didn’t want to risk selling Toby and losing control of his fate. My solution was to gift him to the farmer’s daughter, saddle, cleaning tools and all. This didn’t go over very well with my father but I stood firm.
During my visits home from the university I used to say hello to him. But this became increasingly more difficult as my father developed a horse allergy and I didn’t want to risk him having an allergic shock. So I watched Toby from afar, happy that he had such a good live.
Toby lived a long life and reached his mid 20s. I was surprised that the night he died I dreamed about him dying. The next morning I just knew that he was dead. The farmer’s daughter, heart-broken herself, was afraid to tell me. My knowing was confirmed when I visited my parents the next time. My father drove me home and just when we stopped in front of the house he turned to me and said: By the way Toby died. I could see in his face that he was afraid of my reaction, but I only turned around to him and said: Yes, I know.
During my last three years at the University of Ulm, I took some riding lessons and then leased with two other girls Dorado, a 19-year old dressage horse. Although fairly stiff by then, he could do flying changes at one tempi, and many other things. My dressage riding skills were still in the beginning stages. Dorado was a great teacher. He would only do something if I asked him correctly. It took me two years to ride flying changes with two tempi with him. He taught me how to use my lower back and achieve a more independent, relaxed seat. I used to ride him without stir ups, which improved my seat and balance enormously.
My girl friend A. and I loved him to pieces and had a great time with him, as long as we didn’t attempt to ride on trails. To us it seemed that Dorado was looking for anything he could use as an excuse to spook. Those trail rides were adventurous to say the least.
During the same time I befriended a show rider. B. was showing her horse Archie in dressage (M-class and later S-class). We had an agreement. I would help her during the shows to get ready and take care of Archie and she would teach me, through observation of other riders, how to ride. We had incredible fun and I learned a lot around horses and riding.
As a thank you, she let me rider her brother’s Grand Prix-Winner Grandenschatz. Far to advanced for me, Grandenschatz ran away under me. I used to ride Dorado with little leg pressure and Grandenschatz was used to lots of leg pressure in order to slow him down. So we zipped through the arena. At one point I must have given him the aids for piaffe and he turned around under me. A feeling I never forgot. It felt like a dream come true. It was an honor riding him.
I loved watching horses being ridden and my friend B. took me to private lessons she had with different trainers. Those were special times and I treasured every moment. I would suck in every movement, feeling how it must feel as a rider and observing the horse. Even one of the trainers commented on the intensity and concentration he saw in me as a spectator.
A trip to Austria in 1990 provided more experiences and horse teachers. Two friends of mine and I went on a one week trail ride along the Danube (Wachau, Austria). We rode every day in a group of 15 along trails, while our luggage was transported to the next overnight point. On the first day we stayed near the home farm to try out our horses and get acquainted with everyone. I started out on Jessica, a Haflinger with a lot of humor and wit. After grooming and saddling her I needed to pick up some gear. Having an intuition, I turned around to one of my friends and asked her to keep an eye on Jessica. Needless to say I had hardly turned my back, when Jessica’s knees buckled and she got ready to roll around on the ground saddle and all. Did I mention my intuition? 🙂
Jessica went lame during this first day and with some sadness I had to switch horses. Bonsai, fresh from the race track, was chosen as my partner. The lesson that stood out with him was a ferry ride. He had never been on a ferry but because all the other horses just went clip, clop onto the swimming object it never entered his mind to have any qualms about it. That was a powerful lesson. It was a trip filled with camaraderie, funny stories, lessons from the horses and sore butts.
When I moved to America in 1993, I left horses and all other animals behind. I closed the door shut, knowing that as a scientist I would have no time or money to pursue this path. It took 18 years to physically reconnect with the horses and consciously pick up the path again.