Before he transported his entire stable of horses and staff (myself included) to Wellington, FL, for the Winter Equestrian Festival and 2008 Olympic Selection Trials, I spent the fall working for Olympic rider Peter Wylde at his home base in the small town of Elmpt, Germany. I went to work for Peter chiefly because he was going to allow me the opportunity to travel with him as his groom on the European fall indoor circuit. Just two weeks after I began working for him I would be going to a CSI**** in Liege, Belgium. I had gotten my backstage pass to an elite, international competition. No matter that at times I felt a bit like Dorothy landing in Oz.
I assumed that two weeks of dress rehearsal would be enough time to get to know the horses and learn the routine of the barn. It turned out that two weeks barely scratched the surface. Every task I performed, from blanketing horses to cleaning tack, was familiar, but each action required extra attention. Bits were always polished to a clean shine, the blankets had to be hung just so, and mistakes were rarely, if ever, made. I gradually realized that I would never be able to walk by another barn aisle or crosstie mess again.
Lipton conserving his energy before his class.
Ready or Not
As a newly christened student of detail, off I went to Liege. I was thrilled that Fein Cera was one of the three horses that Peter was competing with at this show. The horse I knew from my television set and the pages of my Dover catalog had literally come to life before me. She was temporarily mine to groom and care for; the teenager inside me kept shrieking “this is sooooo cool!!” I should have been nervous, but I wasn’t, and part of the reason was that even though there were only three horses showing, I wasn’t grooming alone. My co-worker Justyna, a Polish woman who usually worked as a filler when a member of the full time staff went on extended holiday, was working this show as well. It was another ratio that I liked!
It was typically cold and rainy in Liege, but Stable Wylde was lucky enough to have our stalls indoors and close to the show ring. Other unlucky competitors were stabled in overflow stalls outside the main building, exposed to the elements and leaky roofs of the temporary stalls. I was very happy to have escaped that fate. As Justyna and I set up our supplies and barn area, I noticed how stark and workmanlike the stable areas were. Unlike hunter/jumper shows in the U.S., where elaborate curtains, temporary sod and cushy outdoor furniture is the norm in every barn’s setup, barn setups here were basic, with the necessary equipment organized in rolling metal cases placed outside stalls, one per rider. The time to show off, I would learn, was in the ring.
Stable area: spartan, basic, minimalist. Much like many Europeans I met.
Bells and Whistles
Peter’s horses were far from ordinary, but I was struck that they weren’t the fire-breathing beasts that I had formerly suspected top show jumpers to be. All of his horses were surprisingly easy to handle on the ground. They all stood still outside in the freezing rain while I crouched underneath their bellies and washed sand from their legs. Fein Cera would stand ground tied in the middle of our aisle while we tacked her up, regardless of unfamiliar horses and people constantly passing by. Let’s Fly, a half brother to the famous Shutterfly, closed his eyes and cocked a leg when Peter braided him before his class. I was very grateful for these small luxuries. Dealing with an unruly horse and simultaneously learning the ropes of Peter’s meticulous show routine wouldn’t have been a great combination.
For all their coolness on the ground, the horses did begin breathing fire when let loose on course. Lipton D’Lothian, Peter’s speed horse, transformed into a shiny chestnut blur as soon as he saw the first jump. Only 16 hands, I could have sworn that the expression on his face became more cheerful with each jump he cleared. Fein Cera was amazing to watch; as soon as Peter’s foot hit the stirrup she transformed into a tightly attuned ball of nerves and muscle, her feet barely touching the ground when she moved. The Olympic veterans were unquestionably head turners, even in Europe, where American riders and their horses rarely rise above their European counterparts.
Blinding spotlights added to the ambience, here’s Peter at the entrance to the ring.
A funny thing happened before Fein Cera’s warm-up class on Friday. As I trailed Peter to the ring, carefully folding the cooler that I’d just pulled off of Cera’s back, I glanced up and suddenly bore witness to a rare scene. Timing or providence had combined, and Peter was trotting solo around the warm-up ring. During every other moment of the show, the small space had been a scene of at least 20 riders moving at all speeds and competing for jumps in semi-organized chaos. Smoke wafting over from a nearby refreshment stand added to the divine atmosphere, and the spectators that packed the rail crowded in closer, intent on observing every move that the famous pair executed.
That was a spontaneous performance, but every other aspect of the show was a planned production. It was exciting for me to see show jumping get the audience appreciation and respect I had always thought it deserved in the U.S. Young riders that competed earlier in the week were given the same treatment as the international riders that competed in the big classes. A full crowd packed the bleachers and stood six deep to watch teenagers jump three-foot courses. A lengthy awards ceremony, complete with spotlight and victory gallop, awaited the winning riders after every class. We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto.
Erin Gilmore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.