Monday, March 12, 2012

Riding in France, or How I Learned to Train the Greenies.

When I studied abroad in 2008, I was given the very unique opportunity to ride horses for college credit. It had been my goal to try to find somewhere to take a few lessons while I was there—what I found far exceeded those expectations!!

Almost as soon as I set foot in Montpellier, France, I started trolling the internet looking for somewhere to ride. This is actually pretty hard to do when you really think about it. If you google the town you are in, and horseback riding, all the results will be horse-for-hire trail riding tourist-trap places! Not quite what I had in mind, but if I really got desperate for a horse fix, the option was there. Finally I found someone! It was an eventer married to a dressage rider dynamic duo, just a few miles out of town. Perfect! So I e-mail them, saying in my most perfect French that I am a student here for a few months, I've competed at the CCI* level, and could I please come take some lessons? The dressage riding wife writes me back and says that they are no longer together, I would have to call her ex directly to discuss the plan, and here's his number. Gulp. My first phone call with a native French speaker??? It took me two days to pull together enough chutzpah to make the call, but I did. And the first words out of his mouth? "How did you get this number??" I explained, now even more out of my element, that his ex-wife gave me the number. He then informed me, quite curtly, he had moved away from the area and he couldn't help me. As a last beacon of hope, I asked if he knew if there was anyone he could recommend in the area that could help me. "Non. Il n'y a personne." And then he hung up. How French. How devastating.

I completely gave up for a few days. I tried to come to terms with the fact that I would not get to see any horses, let alone ride, for the next few months. Of course, I quickly realized that that was just not an option! I started looking again, and the way I finally found Nadia (and here is your pro-tip): I searched the name of the city in COTH archives!!

Nadia, on her horse Pimlico
So, that is how I found this CCI*** eventer, Nadia DeBuck located just outside of town who agreed to let me come out and do a trial ride. When I called her, I was ready to do anything-- grooming, barn chores, anything-- I would have happily swept the barn every day, just for a chance to be around horses! But she had a groom, and she was pleased with my background (the benefit of having done a CCI is that its has international street cred!), so she wanted me to come out and try riding a horse.

Getting out to the barn for my first "trial ride" was an adventure all in itself! I lived right downtown, near the opera house, so I had to wake up in the pre-dawn to catch the very first train of the morning, take the light rail to the furthest stop, where Nadia's groom, Ann-Marie would pick me up in her "camion blanc" (pro-tip #2: should have looked up the word "camion" before hand-- then I would have at least known to look for the white van!); that first day, we had a hell of a time finding each other, seeing as neither of us knew what the other looked like (plus I was scrutinizing every single white, gray or silver vehicle, instead of just looking for a white van). Once we found each other, off we went, for the last 10 minutes of the trip out to "L'écurie de propiétaires dans l'Hérault." There I met Nadia, and she had me ride three horses that first day: an older, sweet horse named Harold, a crazy spunky gray pony, and one of the youngsters. I hadn't realized it was a test, but it absolutely was. First, can this girl actually ride? Let's put her on a safe horse and find out. OK, she can ride. Can she be useful? Put her on the crazy pony. He bucks. Hmm. That went well. Let's see if she can ride babies. Wow. Ok, let's keep her! 

For Nadia and I, it was a win-win. She had more horses in training than she had time for in a day, and I just wanted to ride!

But wait! There's more!!

This is Neno. I'm 5'11" WOW.
There was a class offered by my study abroad program whereby if you wanted to do learn about French business in the real world, they would find you an unpaid internship, and you would also have a one-hour-per-week class to learn about French business practices. So I approached the teacher of the class and said "Hey! Why not an internship at a stable?" They said sure, have Nadia fill out these couple of forms and have her give us a call.

…And that’s how I got college credit for being a horse bum!!

I went out to the barn 3 days a week in the morning, from 8-12, and rode anywhere from 2-4 horses, went out occasionally on the weekends, got to tag along to a few shows, and generally had an awesome time! The only thing I couldn't do was jump the horses, because their owners would come out on the weekends for jumping lessons, so no jumping for me. Of course, with all the money I saved by not paying for lessons, I did a week of cross country schooling in Ireland over my Spring Break. But that's another story...
Exercising the hounds in Ireland

Nadia was pretty spare with her corrections with me-- partly the language barrier, I'm sure, but I also always felt that she trusted me enough to know what to do, and to do it correctly. At the end of the day, we would always talk about all the rides of the day-- what went well, what needed work, and how to fix it for next time. This hands off approach really gave me a lot of confidence that I was truly a "good rider" and hadn't just gotten lucky with one good horse!

Oceane with her owner, Thom
It also helped that I could really see the horses progressing in the months I was there. I remember one horse, Oceane, an 18HH 5 year old Selle Francaise monster of a mare, was extremely difficult to work with when I first arrived. She was stubborn with a bad work ethic-- she was bigger than you and she knew it!!  She had figured out that if she planted her feet on your way to the mounting block, you couldn’t get on! But I was almost a foot taller than everyone else at the barn, so my long legs came along and just started getting on from the ground, and she quickly learned to just quit her whining and go to the mounting block. Although there was one time she refused to leave her pasture-- it took Nadia, Ann-Marie and myself all working together to bring her in! Her stubbornness made her very difficult on the flat, but with patience and persistence, by the end of the semester, her dressage was competitive enough that she was winning the 5 year old classes with her young rider!
Neno, doing the 6 year old class.

Nadia was a great believer in “éthologie” for young horses. Ethologie is basically the French equivalent of natural horsemanship, practiced at the celebrated Cadre Noir long before Pat Parelli or his ilk were even born.  She insisted on all the babies beginning their ring work in a halter, putting pressure on them so they learned to cope with this level of stress before a rider ever sat on their backs. And it worked! The two horses we broke out while I was there never set a foot wrong, and we were trail riding them within the month. The core belief that I took away from éthologie is that the horse is looking for a leader, and you need to show him that YOU are that leader!

Working with Nadia and her horses gave me the confidence to return to the States and say “Yes! I know how to start a young horse!” And that’s just what I did for many local breeders and trainers, and I am looking forward to taking all that knowledge I've amassed since helping Nadia and breaking out my own homebred, Puck, this fall!

As a parting thought, I'd just like to add that a lot of my other American friends spent their study abroad time going out to discotheques and meeting French boys, and at the time I felt like I was missing out on some of those experiences. But then I remember the time I groomed at the CIC* at Nimes, and slept in the back of the camion with Ann-Marie and her daughter Audrey, and I think maybe my French experience was the most authentic of all.
La paysage autours de l' écurie: La France, Authentique.

No comments:

Post a Comment