Along for the ride:

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Memorable Moments -Good & Bad- from my Past Life as a Girl Groom

I was twenty when I went to work in Germany. I had worked at a Riding School and Livery Stable in Cornwall, near my home, and then a Show-Jumping Yard in Epping Forest. I took a temporary spot with Hunters on the Island of Bute off the Scottish coast and then set my sights on an overseas position.

I found myself living on a farm, North of Hamburg in Schleswig-Holstein. I lost my heart to Holsteiner horses in general and a stallion called Romantiker, in particular.

The family I lived and worked with bought, sold, bred and trained horses. Their son had a half-dozen good horses and was competing at a National level. They had an indoor arena, thank goodness-(boy that weather), and we were always riding something. There were days when we got through 16 horses; I'd warm them up; get them going forward on the bit; serpentines etc. and then hand them off to Dirk for some jumping. Bring out the next one and start over. I never had any trouble sleeping, that's for sure.

We were on the road a lot; leaving on Wednesday or Thursday and returning late Sunday night; depending on how far away the shows were. We would make a strange caravan of two-horse trailers hitched to older diesel-Mercedes driven by however many acolytes were needed to get the horses to their destination. There was never a shortage of female volunteers; horses alone are a girl-magnet but add a tall, blond athletic rising star to the mix and it's amazing they had to employ anyone (me) at all.

I always slept with my horses on the road; usually in temporary stabling, under a marquee; freezing in my sleeping bag, no matter how hard I tried to burrow into the straw. Up before dawn, feeding, watering, grooming, braiding manes and tails. Checking to see if party-boy Dirk was sleeping it off in his car or if he had remembered to sign in for the day's classes.

My two and a half years in Germany are a blur, as far as the geography of where we went is concerned. We went everywhere. Lots of wins, lots of camaraderie, lots of English Grooms. Getting to know all the riders and horses; seeing the same faces in new places as we all chased our dreams.

I loved to watch Olympic and World Champ Gerd Wiltfang ride. His calm, long-legged style somehow raised his horse up in front and engaged behind; apparently on a loose rein. Something I couldn't hope to replicate. One day he came out of the ring and handed his horse to me to hold. To this day I consider that moment with pride. He knew my name and he trusted me with Goldika.

Driving home from that show, half asleep in the back seat, the hypnotic swish-swish of wipers and bright-blurr headlights of Sunday go-home traffic. Sudden braking wakes me as we go into a bend and another car is facing us where there should be road. The Mercedes swerves and avoids the oncoming idiot who overtook blind. He has nowhere to go and clips the horse-trailer that we are pulling behind.

The vignette of our trailer tipping and sliding, spinning away from us on it's side, seen through the rear window, brings a lump to my throat today, almost 30 years later. Those horses were in big trouble.

I flew out of the car and ran to the trailer to open what would have been the ramp, if the thing were upright. I struggled with the weight and wedged myself in the gap shedding a little light into the dark interior. Derek; promising young Hanoverian; 17h3 at the shoulder, was lying flat on his side; his halter still attached by a lead-rope to the front tether-ring. Where was Lord? Small courageous Lord; compact, hardworking, reliable. Our standby horse who sometimes took first place by sheer tenacity. A white head popped up between Derek's forelegs. They looked at me in confusion and trust: "Get us out of here, Mum"

My boss grabbed the ramp and I went in the grooms' door at the front-now topside, like entering a submarine through the hatch. I cut the ropes with my ever-present John Deere pocket knife and somehow Lord raised himself from underneath Derek, got turned around and out. Now my boss is holding the ramp with one hand and the side of Lord's head collar with the other. Other people are coming to help, some of them horse-people returning from the same show.

Derek is trying to get up but he's a big boy; not completely grown into his legs and neck at six years old and the fiberglass walls and ceiling give no purchase. He surely has no room to turn around. He manages to wriggle backwards with a few scary slip and slides until he too is out. Someone passes me a belt to hold him with. If this baby puts his head up he is so much taller than me I'd as easily hold a giraffe.

The horses are O.K. considering. Miraculously all 8 limbs appear intact. Derek has a cut above his eye that needs stitches; we're standing at the side of a major road, in the rain and dark and flashing lights. The idiot who hit us crashed into a tree and broke his leg. Boo Hoo!

When the urgently-summoned horse transport truck came to get us those horses climbed right on board. Back to familiar surroundings. Sigh! We drove to the vet for x-rays and stitches and then home for a much needed sleep.

Physically, Derek and Lord recovered completely. A few days of stiffness walked off in pasture turn-outs. Big Boy Derek went on to a great future - Lord quit. He had used up the last of his courage and no longer wanted any kind of challenge. The verve and nerve went out of him that night. He was returned to his private-owner home and retired into a non-competitive lifestyle.

I know these horses have been long gone for decades but I remember every name and face and foible of personality of the horses who touched my heart.


  1. How lovely to meet your twenty-something self in such a suspenseful and touching situation.

    Those trailers are treacherous.

    Wonderful post, ma chère !

  2. I think I am still unresolved about why I gave up that life and what might have been if I took the other fork in the road. Hence the title of my blog.

  3. Oh, my, your story brought tears to my eyes, especially at the end with what happened with Lord. At least he had a home to go back to.

    I have a trailer and always worry about such things. People on the road just have no respect for the fact that you are carrying such precious cargo.

    Perhaps you could have taken that fork in the road, but something turned you the other way. I always think the hand of providence steers us where we should go whether we agree or not.

    And think too, as you grow older, whether that life would have agreed with you now? Would you still have the energy and physical fortitude to pursue it? Or would the work have eventually taken the heart out of something you love?

    And what other opportunities and experiences would you have missed?

    We cannot live our lives always looking backwards. That's how you crash into the trees in front.

  4. Truth be told, Jean, I was already getting burned out by my mid-twenties. Competition horses don't always get teated as well as they should, grooms sure as heck don't, and I had set-too's in broken French and German with several riders who blamed and punished their horses for their own defects.
    Life was and is full of highs and lows and we just learn to ride them out. Pun intended.
    The sun is up, promising a new day.