“Day: 1, Eurolife,” is what I think to myself as I rise before the sun to begin work at Ludo Philippaerts’ Stoeterij Dorperheide in Belgium. I’ve heard all the stories about working one’s butt off in Europe and I try to remind myself that life here will be far from glamorous. All the same, I have to mentally pinch myself every time I pass by the trophy room where Ludo’s World Cup sits, or when I see Parco or Ottorongo, Ludo’s current and former Olympic and World Cup horses.
There is plenty of work to keep everybody working in the stable busy all day, even though there are a dozen of us. I am used to the way most hunter/jumper barns work in California: grooms clean, feed and tack horses, riders ride. That divide at home is stark, but if I knew anything about barns in Europe before I arrived it was that here, everyone shares the work. Every rider cleans the stalls, feeds the horses, sweeps aisles and cleans tack. With 50 horses in training, there is lots of work to be done, but with everyone pitching in it is finished in a timely fashion, and done well.
Once I know the system I become part of the machine: arriving at 7:30 a.m. to feed grain, muck the straw boxes, push new straw into the stalls, feed hay and sweep. I find that I love and miss shavings-bedded stalls; straw is heavy to lift, awkward to walk in. It is laughably quaint to find myself standing in straw up to my knees with metal pitchfork in hand, but after a week of sore arms and wrists I start to get it down. This “grunt work” is usually completed in under two hours, and after a quick break for breakfast we all start riding.
Ludo’s tack room.
Every rider has roughly the same group of four to seven horses that they work every day. The non-riding grooms help the riders with the most horses tack up before they are on to other things. They move hay, drag the arenas, unpack and pack for shows, and bodyclip horses. Bodyclipping is endless here; betweens shows and sales there is a need for every horse to be freshly bodyclipped every other week.
On the first morning, my name is put next to half a dozen horses to ride, and I am mildly surprised that no one puts me through a formal audition to assess my riding. Aside from a quick meeting with Ludo and his brother Johan, who manages and runs the sale barn, there are no formalities before I begin work. I can only assume that the riding video of myself I sent before I arrived is enough proof that I know how to sit on a horse.
With the “un”-formalities over, I begin to get a chance to sort the other riders out and watch them ride. Everyone rides with soft hands and a quiet leg. They all look very educated at first glance, but as I continue to study them I begin to notice small differences. Kai and Gustavo are Ludo’s main show riders, and they school every horse through from behind, in a deep, engaged frame. Ludo’s head groom Sigrid cares for his string of top horses, and has the privilege of hacking Parco most mornings. A Brazilian girl rides many of the sale horses. Sandy, the French rider, is assigned to Ludo’s sons’ horses, which are always in a state of being prepared for or coming home from a show. Emy, the young (and short) Swedish rider, is assigned to all ponies, a fact that I will find out she is not thrilled with. Ludo’s twin 14 year old sons have recently grown out of ponies and moved on to horses, which has created a surplus of very talented jumper ponies now for sale.
The outdoor arena.
Flatwork, Flatwork, Flatwork
The common thread in everyone’s riding is flatwork, flatwork, flatwork. If this is the way horses should be trained, I was under-riding and over-jumping my charges at home. As far as I can tell, these horses are only jumped when they are being prepared for a show or shown to a client. Every horse is schooled for an hour, and given ample time to warm up and cool down. The property is adjacent to miles of flat, wooded trails, and schooling in the arenas is liberally combined with hacks in the “forest,” as they call it. Having so many riders equals more quality put into each horse, both on and off the ground. I am re-appreciating the value in grooming one’s own horse.
The horses I ride also have a common thread: they are all amazing to ride! Every horse has a canter that I want to sit on all day, and they trot with impulsion that makes me float for a moment on the upbeat in a steady rhythm that comes naturally. Feeling each horse lighten his front end and powerfully bound into an upward transition is fun and thrilling.
My instant favorite is a young sale horse named Beckham, who is as intelligent as he is attractive. Even though he has green horse tendencies, he learns quickly and is super athletic. Johan says he has a future in the Grand Prix rings, and his price tag reflects his potential. There is a gorgeous black stallion that would easily clean up in the hunter rings at home; my American friend Chrissy gets to ride him. The “going” Grand Prix horses are mostly for Kai and Gustavo to exercise.
Between showing and doing whatever else he does, I don’t see Ludo often. When he is at the barn it is brief, and I haven’t yet seen him school the riders or many horses. He watches me silently when I ride, which is a nerve wracking experience. I tried to arrive without expectations of how things would be, so as not to be disappointed. It is proving that any riding instruction I hoped to get will be few and far between.
On a trail ride through the forest.
Home is the Back of a Horse
Although I can’t exactly fault it, the focus is on the horses, not the riders. It is clearer still that I am simply an employee hired to do a job. There is a class line here, and it lies not between riders and grooms, but between Ludo’s family and “the help.” Being grouped into the latter, along with Ludo’s housekeeper and nanny, is an unusual feeling for this Bay Area girl who carried the responsibilities of second in command at a posh show stable in Woodside not one month ago. Ludo’s wife doesn’t introduce herself; his sons play in the barn aisles and loudly ride ATVs around the property, their eyes glancing over me with little interest as they pass by. Is this the trade-off for riding incredible horses? And am I ok with it? I never said I wouldn’t have doubts. . .
Even though I imagined I’d travel here someday, actually living on the other side of the world is still a reality that I haven’t quite come to terms with (Yes, this is my first cross-continental trip). But although the geography, the signs and the people are foreign from everything I know, I find comfort in the fact that barns are the same everywhere, and this is staving off the loneliness and homesickness for now. When Parco the Olympic horse proves he’s not cast in gold by sneezing and rubbing his nose on me, it brings everything into perspective. For now, home for me is on the back of a horse. And the view from this current home is looking pretty good.
Erin Gilmore can be reached at email@example.com.