Moving to Iceland and a Horse Roundup

Chris and I had some more low key hanging out in Reykjavik until we both had early buses to different places.  It was a perfect few days so the goodbye actually wasn’t all that awful!  I napped on the bus up to northwest Iceland, the village of Varmahlið, which has 140 people.  My host Pétur picked me up at the bus stop/gas station/grocery store/buffet.  We met his fiancé Heiðrún at the house and I shared stories about Kyrgyzstan before she went to work at the hotel.  I followed Pétur around as he trained a few horses and I was in awe at the process.  I only have a theoretical working knowledge of how one trains a horse and it was amazing to see it in person.  My mind was a bit blown, which is an excellent and familiar feeling these past few months.


Once again, I was well and truly happy to move in to a room of my own.  At this point in my journey it is September 19, or 10 weeks in to my trip In France I moved every 1-4 days over the whole month, and I was totally over the unpack/pack/repeat.  Similarly, I was ecstatic to have a household with a friendly cat.  Snotra (pronounced Sno-tra, not Snot-ra) and I became great pals right off the bat.


That night, Pétur offered to share the steak he was cooking.  When I mentioned I am a vegetarian, I’m pretty sure he was so shocked that his eyebrows disappeared in his hairline.  (Later they asked me why I’m a vegetarian and he tried to persuade me by saying, “Well, Jesus ate meat.”  Little does he know just how unconvincing an argument that is for me.)


It was Petur’s birthday on my first day, and there was a live music show in town.  Their name is Ljótu Hálfvitarnir, which translates to “The Ugly Halfwits.”  They had ridiculous outfits and played fun folk Icelandic music, but in between songs they made jokes which were presumably hilarious (I’ll never know because it was all in Icelandic).  At times, I was the only person in the place not singing along to the particularly well-known ones.  They almost started singing an English song (500 Miles by the Proclaimers) but they stopped halfway through as a joke.  One of them was a wind instrument player and he had the tenor sax out for one song which made me happy.  It was a great first night.  The remainder of the weekend passed in a lull as I tried to get used to the rhythm of the house.


If you, dear reader, think I am a crazy person for going to Iceland in September and October, then let me explain first that you are not wrong, but also that I had my reasons.  In the north of Iceland where I’d decided to stay, many farmers put their horses in the same valley for the summer and collect them four months later in preparation for winter.  This roundup is called réttir, and I wanted to be in Iceland for such an event.  The local roundup took place one week after I arrived to the farm.  I had one or two days of getting used to the daily routine of breakfast, muck stalls, lunch, follow Pétur around lending a hand, coffee break, muck stalls, dinner.  After that, there was a Norwegian journalist, Mette, who was staying with us and attending the réttir in the weekend.  She is highly interested in the topic of horse meat and I learned a lot about it because of her probing questions.  It is a part of my research project that I have been tentative in exploring because of how difficult it is for me to process.  I’m not going to go into much detail for the sake of my American audience (I don’t want to shock my mother or Amy Russell).  However, the breeding industry of Icelandic horses requires for the least promising individuals to go to the slaughterhouse, otherwise farmers do not make much profit by keeping all of the duds.  It is efficient, but still breaks my heart a little bit inside.  That is exactly what I came to Iceland to learn about.

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Over the next few days Mette and I went to different pastures to photograph herds of horses (stallions one day, mares and foals the next), walked to a nearby waterfall, stopped in the next city for me to get some warmer clothes, and team-interviewing the legend of Icelandic horses Tölty, the man in the trailer below.  He is Heiðrún’s brother and international Icelandic horse competition winner.  Watch the trailer, but have tissues close by.



The Friday before the Saturday réttir, I drove all of us to a small horse competition that was just for fun.  There was an obstacle course that two different men rode a horse bareback through.  It involved picking up a pillow from the ground (which the horse was not on board with) and then picking up a beer, riding around for a bit, chugging it, and setting it back on the chair that they found it.  Then there was a rodeo clown type skit with two young men dressed as women and riding horses very badly, falling off, and being unable to get back on (which is ridiculous because these are pony-sized horses, but don’t you dare call them a pony!) and a girl rode over and stole their horses.  There was some singing, since this region is known for horse breeding and group singing, and then was a pace competition.  When people brag about the Icelandic horse, they talk about the five gaits: walk, trot, tölt, pace, and gallop.  Well this was a competition (which included Tölty and Pétur) for the fastest pace over a set distance and it was quite fun to see.  In tölt the rider hardly moves in the saddle, but pace is a bit bumpier.  Mette and I waited for our Icelandic hosts to finish up talking to all of the other spectators, and an incredibly drunk man came over to me and spoke Icelandic.  I said, “Nope!  English!”  He continued to be unintelligible, and I felt incredibly awkward and uncomfortable.  The only thing I could understand him say was, “Why not?” so I decided to literally run away.  Feet, don’t, fail me now!  My feet don’t fail me now!  At one point later I hid behind a pillar and then Mette as he wandered over to my hiding place.  Mette was already my friend at this point after three straight days of hanging out, but she really endeared herself to me when I loudly whispered, “Don’t move!” and half-crouched behind her.


The next day was the RÉTTIR!!!  We woke up early and drove to the valley where the horses stay.  Since Mette was there on journalistic business, we drove to where the herd was waiting and met some of the people who had organized the event.  The anticipation was thick in the air, and once it started I was able to help produce this video by filming the water scenes:



That really does explain what the rest of my day was like.  Mette found some Norwegians she knew so I was an honorary Norwegian for a day, which I really enjoyed.  They were all so friendly and said I had to come to Norway to see their horses!  One day I’ll make it over there (spoiler alert: I make it over there!).  I bought an Icelandic sweater because I was chilled (which contributed to being mistaken as an Icelander many times in the rest of my trip).  I’d stepped into a large hidden puddle of water when Mette and I were running around filming horses, and I was unaware that I had been a slight bit grumpy due to the cold; the sweater solved that.


I so enjoyed watching the roundup.  There was this interesting dichotomy of wild vs domesticated/tame, because the horses that were allowed to run free all summer are suddenly put in a corral and sorted out by the farmers.  It also was a traditional event which has been molded to fit the tourists.  Thirty years ago the locals would go get the horses and then stick around to drink and sing, but now some of them get the horses from the valley and put them closer for the tourists to help round up.  There were only 420 horses this year which means there were more riders than horses that they were gathering!  It was a lovely day.  I can’t believe that in the past year I googled “Icelandic horses,” learned about the réttir, was awarded the Watson, found a farm in the right region, and actually attended it.  There have been ups and downs, but it really is a charmed life I’m leading right now.


Happily moved in to a CLOSET, with HANGERS, and my Icelandic sweater.  It’s the little things in life.  Over and out.

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An Accident Waiting to Happen

I remember many things about my trail ride on 11/11/14.  The one thing I don’t remember is hitting my head.

I had a beautiful ride that afternoon.  I had stumbled upon a Norwegian woman with Quarter Horses, and in a fit of trust she suggested I borrow her horse to go riding alone in the woods without a helmet.  This situation sounds like a recipe for disaster…  And yet it wasn’t.  We ambled along, the horse and I, while I composed a song whose lyrics went like this: “How the hell did I find myself here? / What the fuck is happening? / Is this real life? / Pinch me, I’m dreaming.”  It was exciting to find myself in such a bizarre set of circumstances, enjoying the Norwegian woods from the back of an American horse whose temperament was just as I remembered from my own horses: comfortable and lazy.  It was bliss.

Back at the home of my host, Mette (who I’d met in Iceland), asked if I wanted to ride her horse alone?  I had ridden her new eventing (a sport which includes dressage, jumping, and cross-country racing) horse, Cayenne, yesterday with Mette riding a different one.  That was another fantastic ride even through the drizzling rain.  Having felt so immediately at ease with Cayenne the day before, I gladly agreed.  This way, Mette could get some work done, and I would be happily entertained by one of my favorite pastimes.  Win/win/win.  We went to the stable and saddled up, making sure to put reflective gear on both me and the horse since it was an hour before dark.  Donning Mette’s helmet, I set off for the same trail we had taken the day before.

Cayenne was noticeably less relaxed than the day before, but not worryingly so.  We rode up the road to the entrance to the park, and if she was less willing to go around the traffic barrier and terrifying boulder than the day before, then I didn’t blame her.  We rode through the woods and encountered two pedestrians and their dogs, which Cayenne (having been scared by a charging dog before) stopped and watched rather than any other bad behavior.  We turned around after having ridden for 20 minutes, so that we could conserve the light for our ride home.  I admit now that I am a poor judge of how much light is left in autumn in Scandinavia.  In Denmark, I had to walk in the dark for a half hour back to my car after walking in the woods.

When we were nearly out of the park, we crossed a bridge and turned a corner to see a strange sight.  There was a man with a flashlight and a dog with a blinking red light on his forehead.  Knowing Cayenne’s nerves, and since it was twilight to boot, I stopped her so she could get a good look at what was approaching her.  She backed up a few steps in fear and the dog barked and began to chase her.  We bolted back over the bridge, me unstable in the small English riding saddle, but yelling for her to stop and using all of my horse expertise to convince her that sprinting up the trail was not in her best interest.  I managed to stop her and turn her around to see that the dog was no longer in pursuit.  The man had his dog on a leash and had moved into the woods to get out of our way.  Unfortunately to the horse brain, now the dreaded Predator was lurking in the woods.  I managed to communicate through my anger that I only speak English, was his dog safely on a leash, and maybe he shouldn’t do that ever again.  At this point I noticed beyond the bridge was another man with two dogs.  I asked him to put his dogs on a leash if they weren’t already and he continued on his way.  Cayenne was understandably spooked, and I was proud of her for listening to me in the first place.  We walked past the scary dog in the woods with minimal snorting.

I never saw the horse coming.

Behind us we both heard the sound of a running horse.  It did not register anything special to me, but to Cayenne, they weren’t just running, they were running from something.  She already had first-hand confirmation that there was at least one Horse Monster in the woods, and she did not need any more convincing.  She sprinted with less warning and faster than I have ever experienced.  The second man with two dogs was further up the path and I yelled at him to get out of the way (though I did not remember this until two hours later).  I knew with a certainty that I was on a runaway horse who was not amenable to any of my demands, and this was the most dangerous experience I’ve ever been a part of.  After passing the man but not running over him or his dogs, I remembered the traffic barrier and “terrifying” rock at the park entrance.  I tried even harder to get her to stop but to no avail.  There was nothing for me to hold on to in the saddle, and I lost my balance when she slowed down upon noticing the barrier.  Within a few steps I had almost gotten myself seated back in the saddle.  Too frightened to actually stop, she gathered her strength and jumped the meter-high obstacle.  When we landed, I was hanging on her neck with the reigns still in my hands.  For a few paces I attempted to simultaneously stop the horse using the reigns and get back in the saddle, all the while thinking of where we would go if I actually managed to stay on her.  Which, I did not.

What I remember from the fall is this: Impact on my left hip, thinking “I’m going to have to get back on the horse” which did not last long as I felt the blinding pain in my back and hip, and then remembering that I should not stand up.  I had entirely forgotten the hiker with his two dogs as well as the rider of the horse and became immediately terrified that nobody would find me, and I wouldn’t be able to tell anyone to go look for Cayenne.  I did however remember the first dog but had forgotten it was leashed, and, though I was screaming for help, became almost as frightened that the dog would find me and bite me while I was unable to run away.

It felt like an eternity, but the two men with dogs found me (without their dogs, though I did not notice or wonder about that until much later).  They bombarded me with questions in Norwegian until they understood I was American.  I think for every question they asked, “Are you ok?  Did you hit your head?  Do you need an ambulance?”  I responded with one of my own, “Can you find my horse?  She’s my friend’s horse, can you go look for her?”  Eventually a girl walked over leading a horse and I asked, “Are you what scared the shit out of my horse?”  I never did get an answer to that…  I asked her to search for Cayenne and she agreed.  Some time later she returned with another horse (I wondered at how strange a view it is to see a horse from the position of lying on the ground) and said her friend had seen Cayenne running.  Did I want them to follow her?  Uh, what a dumb question, the answer is yes.  Please find the horse.

The first man called the emergency number while the second called Mette.  I was asked what hurt, how I fell, did I hit my head?  Eventually they asked me to stand up and I became nauseous.  This development provoked even more questions about my head and I vehemently responded, “NO.  I did not hit my head.”  They asked my birth date and social security number.  I rattled off the first easily but paused to recall my 9-digit identification.  It was decided for me that the second man, whose car was in the parking lot I had fallen in, would drive me to the hospital.  With one man on each arm, they helped me walk to the front seat, and off we went.

My rescuer was named Paul.  We drove to Mette’s house and met her outside on the road.  I cried and apologized for losing Cayenne, and she told me not to worry.  She stayed behind to look for her and Paul agreed to drive me the rest of the way to the hospital.  He was a fantastic conversationalist, and I wished I’d met him in better circumstances.  We talked about his grandchildren, being left-handed, practicing English, my scholarship, and how pretty the Norwegian woods are.  He told me Cayenne would be fine and had probably walked home already.

At the hospital, I laid down on a couch and dictated my personal information to Paul for the paperwork.  I was given acetaminophen in the triage room, sat back down in the waiting room, and then put in an emergency room to wait for the doctor.  At this point, we had gotten a call from Mette that Cayenne had indeed walked home and been caught, and a wave of emotion washed over me.  In past situations, I have had a calm head in stressful times, but that persona had vanished.  Feeling slightly better than the first shock of terror and pain, I began to hide my discomfort in humor.  I think every sentence from my mouth was an attempt to make Paul smile.  Mette came to the hospital just as the doctor showed up and I said goodbye to Paul, who had patiently waited with a stranger he’d met in the woods an hour before.  Since my hands were scraped up we exchanged an odd left-handed handshake.

The doctor was a bit full of himself and swept in the room saying, “Hello, my name is such and such, and I am the doctor.”  I replied just as darkly, “Hello, my name is McKenna, and I am the patient.”  He did not smile at my hilarious effort, bastard, but instead said that a smiling patient is his favorite kind.  Clearly he was unaware as to my coping mechanism.  He asked me loads of questions, starting with “Did you hit your head?”  I said no, once again vehement.  By examining me and moving my legs painfully all around, he concluded I had not fractured my hip in the fall but did have massive bruising.  After checking my wrist he said it was unlikely to be fractured.  But since I was nauseous, I probably had a concussion.  I was so surprised but who am I to critique the doctor?  He then handed me acetaminophen and hydrocodone for pain, and I snapped at him that if he’d read my chart he would know that I was allergic to codine.  He looked slightly ashamed and said, “Thank you for telling me.”  Thank god it wasn’t a bigger concussion or I might have added “stopped breathing” to my list of aches and pains.

Mette paid for my hospital bill (I didn’t have a wallet on me) which was surprisingly cheap.  We drove home and that is the point at which I remembered running past Paul (for the second man with dogs was Paul) in the woods.  Nausea plus forgetting a part of the accident made the doctor’s diagnosis of concussion seem more likely to me….  And then I saw the helmet.  “I didn’t hit my head” my ass.  These are not the scrapes of a life-saving helmet, but there are still obvious scratches all around the front and side of the helmet.  I did not remember rolling at all but the helmet and unexpected bruising this morning confirm that.


I took unnecessary risks by going out on a quarter horse with no helmet in unfamiliar woods carrying no cellphone.  I did not think it unduly risky to ride a horse for the second time, wearing a helmet, in the same woods as the day before.  As a competent rider, I was able to quiet a horse after we were chased by a dog, and it was the unfortunate circumstances of the failing light and being surprised by other horses around a corner that set off Cayenne in the end.  I suppose I can end with the platitude that I will be more careful in the future, but I am generally a very careful rider.  I visited Cayenne today and was not unduly upset.  I think I will be more nervous of dogs in the future, but so will she.  It is amazing that she and I are both, on the whole, unhurt by the terrible experience.  I thank my body for all it has put up with and am grateful that it was not worse.  I am a bit impressed that I was able to stay on a leaping horse, but not so much that I’ll try to incorporate jumping into my riding routine any time soon.

I think what I will end with is this: do not trust someone, especially me, when they say, “No I definitely did not hit my head.”

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As Aurelion pointed out, “Sometimes the cheapest flight is not the best.”  I woke up at the buttcrack of dawn and walked out of the apartment in Paris to find a taxi waiting for me, just as I had arranged.  But then a second taxi showed up… I believe the internal monologue of my panic went something like this: “Shitshitshitshitshitshit.”  I walked to the first taxi just as other people were getting out of it, which solved my conundrum.  At 5:30 in the morning it was startling!  I wish I could say getting to the plane was uneventful, but I was so tired (and at one point distracted by three American guys who really liked my cowboy hat) that I took the shuttle in the wrong direction of my terminal not once, not twice, but three different times.  Sometimes the cheapest flight is not the best.  Lesson learned.  I also forgot my hat in security and ran back two minutes later for it.  Doh.

On the flight to Reykjavik, I realized I hadn’t done quite enough research about the place that I was going.  Feeling guilty, I watched all of the touristy-aimed promotional videos about the different regions of Iceland and was disappointed that none of them said anything about horses!  Poor marketing choice.  I met Chris Johnson in the airport and was greeted with a penguin wave before I got close enough to tackle him in a bear hug.  We got bus tickets from the airport to the city and as SOON as we walked out of the door we were hit by a fierce gust of wind and freezing rain.  I most definitely squealed loudly, and someone walked past us and whispered ominously, “Welcome to Iceland.”

We checked in to the hostel and had a miniature investigation of the tourist street of Reykjavik, including a purchase of beer bottle moustaches.  It was so nice to have someone to be weird with.  Highlights of Reykjavik besides getting to be consistently strange include walking to the Grotta light house, figuring out the bus system, going to geothermally heated pools three times, history museum of Iceland (pretty small since there have only been 1000 years of occupation), hiking on Viðey island, and having a fancy schmancy Indian restaurant dinner compliments of the Johnsons.  We also saw a seal out in the harbor and hung out with it for 10 minutes.  He would dip down under the waves and pop up again and we’d walk to where he was to say hello again.  It is possible we named him George.


My favorite part was the day trip outside of the city.  If you go to Iceland, you have to see the nature!  At the first stop everyone went inside for a tour of a geothermal plant, but Chris and I stayed outside and played on the moss and lava.  It was definitely more fun and the moss gets to be a foot deep in places.  All of the other places we stopped were beautimous: a crater we hiked around (and I learned Chris is part mountain goat), a cute waterfall, Geyser, Gullfoss, and Parliament plains.  The latter is the rift between the North American and European plates which causes a huge cliff to jut out of the landscape, which is where the Icelandic tribes used to gather once a year.  Our tour attempted stop to pet Icelandic horses at one point and Chris and I use teeth and a barbed wire fence to cut an apple in half, but then we realized the horses were behind another fence and too far away.  We stopped later and gave it to a different pasture of horses, and there were two men with cowboy hats that stopped with us as well.  I was too shy to talk to the cowboys. Who knows where that came from.

Eat your heart out.  Enjoy the photos of the sites we stopped at on our tour: The crater, Geyser, Gullfoss (golden waterfall), and Parliament plains.


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Final France

Once in Caen, I walked to the house of my new Couch Surfing host, a girl about my age who lives with her parents and is working at a booth at the WEG.  They were immediately pleasant and welcoming, and I settled into a room for the next few nights.

My host, Marie, was also a vegetarian and we discussed that amazing veggie burger that we have both discovered in the Games Village.  I didn’t have anything planned so I went to the ticket booth to see if there were any more tickets for the individual vaulting finals.  As I was walking there, someone in a different line said she had an extra ticket if I wanted to buy it, since she wasn’t sure if there were any more for sale.  I jumped on that, and barely cared that she charged me 4€ more than she paid for it….  Still worth it!  This event, while still vaulting, was a freestyle which showed off each athlete’s strengths.  I had seen many of the women perform a few days before, but all of the men were new to me.  It was like watching someone dance on the back of a horse, occasionally throwing in a trick riding move of jumping off the horse and back on in the same movement.  The women’s winner, Joanna Eccles, is definitely deserving of the title and it is not her first win at the WEGs either!  The male silver medalist, Nicolas Andreani, was French and was dressed up like Einstein.  I thought he fell off which would have been major points off, but either it was part of his routine or he covered it so well that people fell for it.

I wandered over to a short music festival that had a woman with gray hair and sunglasses playing the bari sax as backup in the band.  I was so excited.  I then was able to talk my way in to the evening part of the vaulting, since my ticket said “Vaulting PM” but was only technically supposed to work for the Freestyle and not the Team event.  I was reeeeally impressed that it worked out and I got to see the team vaulting, which is like gymnastics/dance/cheerleading on horses.  Usually they have young girls, boys, or small women at the top of their pyramids and that person is called the “Flyer.”  Below is the French team, who came in third but I think did the best job.  Their Flyer is 13 year old Robin Krausse and he was pretty damn good.  It was so much fun to see what new (to me) things people do with horses!  Humans are a creative bunch.

I had taken a bike from my hosts in order to get to the games and ended up biking home in the dark, wearing all black (none of that was intentional guys).  I did get lost for a bit but I found my way and learned a valuable lesson:  one cannot ride a bike and read a map at the same time.

The next morning I biked to the course for carriage driving and only got minimally lost.  This event, again, blew my mind a little bit.  There were many different areas with different types of obstacle tests (at least 7 that I saw).  I camped out at the first one I saw for quite a while and got to move closer and closer as other people migrated away.  From that vantage point, I could see the left and right lead horses split a pole if they were not entirely sure which direction the driver was telling them to go.  If they whole team went the wrong way it was really hard to get the trap to back up but if just one or two of the horses did then the horses carefully backed up and went the right way through the obstacles.  It was a complicated pattern, which didn’t help matters.  I moved to see all of the other tests and my favorite one, besides my starting point, was the one which involved a water course.

I’m not ashamed at all to say that I went back to the Games Village for another one of the fantastic  veggie burgerrrrrrs.  I had one last horse event in store at the WEGs.  There is an English educator who has a program called Horses Inside Out in which she paints different body parts on the horse and does demonstrations.  In this particular one, she painted the bones of the horse for a dressage demonstration.  In a nearby tent there was footage of a horse painted with the digestive system and an explanation of how to keep horses healthy.

It was my last day and I spent a lot of time sitting on the grass reminiscing about all of the different forms of horsemanship I had seen in France thus far competitions and side-shows: para-dressage, show jumping, both individual and team vaulting, carriage driving; horse ball, exhibitions at two breeding grounds, horses used as garbage trucks, police horses, medieval war reenactors, trick riding, horse training “at liberty,” and horses used as educational tools.  Then there were the random things like the small man with the team of six miniature horses pulling his carriage, the pony that had dragon wings painted on his side for photos, or the horse with a floor-length mane that posed seated in a chair for photos.  For each of these performances, I encountered something completely different from my own way of relating to horses, and I sometimes questioned the ethics of their training methods or even the event itself.  All in all, there is even more variety and creativity in horse performance and competition than I expected.  I left my last day at the World Equestrian Games satisfied that, even if I didn’t get to shadow or interview any competitors, my eyes had still been opened to some of the wonders of the horse world.

Even if I was done with the WEGs, I wasn’t quite through with horses in France.  My friend Karel (remember her from other posts?  Friendly French girl who was a WEG volunteer) offered for me to come visit her home in Brittany.  We drove to the west of France, stopped at the house to pick up the dogs, then went to the stable for her to ride her horse.  That was the first time I’d seen a horse on a treadmill.  After seeing such high-class competitors with their fancy horses and their difficult disciplines, it was refreshing to see a normal person in an average barn loving her FREAKISHLY TALL horse.  Over the next three days we saw someone else ride her horse (as a potential candidate for borrowing him while she studies abroad), walked around adorable Breton villages (Douarnenez and Locronan), played in the sea with the dogs, and watched a lot of Friends together.  It was delightful for someone who was a stranger two weeks ago to let me have a glimpse of her life, and it didn’t hurt that there was also sunshine, horses, dogs, and the sea.  I lost a foot race to a dog named Jazz, squealed as I stepped on too many squishy things at the beach, played a new card game, and learned to say marc’h (horse) in Breton.  It was such a change from the hyper-formal competitions I’d seen, but primarily I had fun in seeing what someone else’s “normal” consists of in everyday life.  I was sad to say goodbye to my friend when she took me to the train station, but that is the nature of my life right now.  I’m not sure if it is getting easier as I go along.


Notre Dame de Bonne Nouvelle in Locranan

Back in Paris, this marks the first time I’ve gotten to say goodbye to new friends and then see them again!  Remember the friendly, impressively hospitable couple that I met in Kyrgyzstan?  I hung out in a park by the Louvre waiting for them to get home from work, and then we went for a really fun dinner (but I can never seem to represent great conversation into even a decent blog post).  Since I had missed the Louvre my previous time in Paris, Aurelion and I went and saw all the highlights.  I also got a chance to see the view from the top of the Notre Dame, saw Guardians of the Galaxy (first movie theatre outside the U.S. for me!) and had a meeting with a fellow horsey anthropologist I’ve found online.  It was a happy few days in Paris, primarily because I had such warm companions to share it with.  As much as I was enjoying the sun and culture of France, I needed to move on to somewhere further outside of my cultural and temperature comfort zone.  Next up, Iceland.

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Haras du Pin (is pronounced in no way like it’s spelled)

I had tickets to jumping (yay!) but lived pretty far away from the city center (boo!) so it took me an hour by tram and bus to get to the arena.  As it turns out, watching show jumping is stressful for me.  For the jumps that I had the best view of, I would get a knot in the pit of my stomach as soon as the horse’s feet left the ground that only untied itself when their hooves returned to terra firma.  It was exciting to hear the audible groan from the crowd (in an otherwise solid minute and a half of silence) whenever a competitor knocked down a fence.  I had learned already that “oxer” is the type of jump which is longer, so I at least had a word for that.  Otherwise I observed that the first three jumps seemed the simplest, and the most difficult looked to be those which were spaced the closest since that required the strides be just right in between.  The worst performance I saw involved someone knocking down six fences in their course.

I hopped on one of the WEG shuttles to the Games Village, where I stopped in at the Ariat boot booth.  The week before I showed them my shoelace keeper which had busted in Paris, and they said to stop by later to see if they can replace it for free.  That was ample incentive to get me to drop in, and . . . They replaced the boots for free!  I am very pleased with their commitment to their product and my satisfaction as a customer.  I have no idea if it was my backstory (I’ve had the shoes less than two months, and they really need to make it another ten before busting) that got me the swap, but I highly appreciate the result.  Now my black boots match my black cowboy hat, and I feel one step closer to a wardrobe that clashes less horrendously.

After lunch of the best veggie burger ever, I watched a women’s competition of vaulting in which they all performed the same routine on horseback.  To the uninitiated, (as I was a few days before) equestrian vaulting looks like a combination of interpretive dance, gymnastics, and trick riding.  The vaulter, lunger (person making the horse go in a circle) and horse all enter the ring together, the music starts, and the vaulter trots out to the horse.  I say “trot” because they run alongside the horse mimicking his stride before grabbing handles and hoisting themselves up on his back.  I was amazed throughout every rendition, even though I had no idea what criteria was used to determine an excellent performance.  My favorite vaulter was a Russian woman, and I got chill bumps watching; she wasn’t even in the top 10.  Even though the routines were identical, I was never bored.  I left the stadium that afternoon quite content with my level of knowledge of vaulting, which was limited, but astounded by the beauty of a woman standing up on the back of a galloping horse.

I made the trek back to the apartment and chatted with my host, who was writing a fanzine in preparation for an anime convention.  Karel picked me up, and we drove an hour away to Haras du Pin, one of France’s national stud farms.  They are responsible for the upkeep of French breeds, like the “Selle Francais” or the French saddle horse, Percheron, and Norman Cob.  They also have some Anglo-Arabs, Arabians, Lippizzaner’s, etc.  Karel has a friend from her old stable that works at the stud farm now (Tiphaine), and we were invited to come visit for an evening.  We noticed the friend’s phone was turned off once we reached the town, and we didn’t have directions to her house.  Since it was such a small town, we drove to the Haras and asked of the first person if they happened to know where Tiphaine kept her horse…?  Surprisingly, that worked, and we found her and her puppy at her stables.  We drove a few minutes to Tiphaine apartment, which is a five minute walk away from her work.  Taking the puppy, Joey, with us, we walked to the grounds and received an unofficial (French) tour.  I saw the backstage area of the school, where people learn to be horse trainers, carriage drivers, and saddle makers.  This was the location of the cross-country eventing about a week before, and I learned that a horse died after he crossed the finish line.  More on that later.  Another girl came over to hang out and, since I couldn’t understand French, I spent most of the night stalking the kitten and trying to convince him that he loves me.

Karel had work the next afternoon, so we went to the Haras for the museum, grabbed lunch, and she went on her way.  Getting lunch was a bit difficult since the Haras is in a town of less than 400 people, but after driving literally in a circle, we found a restaurant.  I got dropped off at the apartment with the puppy and the kitten, who is by this point a fan of McKenna.  I was in hog heaven.  Later in the afternoon I had a formal tour of the grounds in which I learned that the Haras was founded in 1715, they currently have their first woman director, and that the Percheron was mainly bred for meat after the advent of the tractor.  In the evening there was a going-away party for the students (misspoken as a “go-away party”) in which I chatted with a French/Irish woman who is a vet at the Haras and her husband is a trainer.  I was also befriended by a gray-haired man, Gilles, who rides dressage and show jumping, and was one of the flag bearers for the opening ceremony of the Games.  He said the most profound thing about the Percheron: “If we do not eat it, the breed will disappear.”  As mentioned in the tour, the French people did not know what to do with their large breed after they were replaced with farm equipment.  Gilles indicated that people were invested in their draft horse but, like many people in the 1940’s, did not know what their horses would be used for in the future.  Other solutions included breeding shows, competitions, police work, and pleasure riding.  Farming for food would never have crossed my mind, but I am sure it is not a unique resolution.

I left the party early due to the limited number of English speakers, and grabbed the kitten from off the roof before I went to bed.

It was my last day at the Haras.  I watched a riding presentation which had two horse trainers doing some trick riding stuff, as well as an exhibition of the French breeds which are maintained there.  My friend Gilles from the night before was showing the Selle Francais (French Saddle Horse) in dressage alongside a woman who rode side saddle.  She made it look SO COOL.  Since I wrote far more of my thesis than I’d planned on the influence of side saddle on women’s relationships to horses and freedom, it was a treat to see a woman ride (and jump) competently and make it look easy.

Tiphaine was in Caen for the day and offered to drive me to the train station when she got back that night, but she got stuck in major traffic.  She called a friend to come get me, and I was driven by the assistant director of the Haras to the train station.  It was quite fun to pick her brain about how the eventing had gone the week before, how she likes her job, etc.  I asked the question I don’t particularly enjoy getting: “Do you ride every day?”  Instead of grumbling like me that she doesn’t have the time but she wishes she did, she replied, “Yes, I have to!”  Her horse is kept in a stall and only turned out for part of the day, and if she does not ride him, then he does not get enough exercise.  In that way it is somewhat of a chore to ride, instead of a treat.  I do believe that is the kind of interesting difference I am meant to encounter on this Watson year.  Over and out.

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There were no events lined up for the next day so I wandered around the exhibits.  If it’s even vaguely horse related and for sale, it was present in one of the hundreds of booths.  Overpriced WEG paraphernalia (think €50 for a t shirt), trailers, cars, tack, clothing, medicine, supplements, novelties, subscriptions, food vendors, all present.  There were lots of cowboy hats in the crowd, and I was so nostalgic that I bought a black felt hat from a French woman.  Mom: now that I’ve paid for my own hat, I know why you got so mad that Little McKenna sat her little butt on your cowboy hats on the regular.  I feel like I have a little bit of home now, and maybe someone will come up to talk to me about horses since I’m displaying my interest so obviously.  It also doubles as a “please don’t try to speak French to me” alert.  A short note on my food for the day.  In an effort to slowly wean myself off of the 10-15 cups of tea per day, I bought a coke with lunch that turned out to be €3.  In comparison, my lovely sandwich only cost 6.  It was called “The Norman” made up of food the region is known for: camembert, apples, and an herb butter.  (Mama and Michael:  If you are worried that I am not eating enough, it’s only because I find writing about food to be boring so I frequently edit meals out unless they are as interesting as The Norman.)


In an event arena, I saw fun horse displays.  Some were similar to the Opening Ceremony, like the reenactment of the Battle of Hastings.  It was not entirely accurate, as I definitely saw a Saxon help William back onto his horse when he fell off.  The garde republicaine performed some of their dressage moves en mass, and there was another display of Akhal Tekes.  They are the most beautiful horses I’ve ever seen and look like grayhounds, but I think of it the same way I do dressage: it’s very pretty, and incredibly artificial.  The same riders from the ceremony on the Moroccan Barbs showed off their trick riding moves.  Dad used to show off by taking one step off while Boomer was still walking and pop back in the saddle.  That was step one for the trick riders, but they also rode backwards (like Bek!), did flips around the saddle horn, ran for several steps alongside their horses, and rode upside down.  Who knew both Daddy and Bek have Step 1 of Trick Riding in their bag of tricks?


PHOTOS: Garde republicaine; William the Conqueror Reenactment: Sorry Fred Baker, the first war reenactment I saw was the Battle of Hastings.


Wearing my fancy new cowboy hat, I stopped at the information booth to ask a few questions.  There was a French girl with fantastic English that I chatted with for quite some time.  I asked if all of the volunteers are horse people and she said, “No, some of them are just regional volunteers,” and rolled her eyes.  I left to watch some more horse shows, and was kicking myself for not realizing she’s the kind of person I came here to meet.  I fabricated a question or two in order to go back to her info booth and ended by asking if she wanted to grab coffee and talk about horses some time.  We exchanged details, and I had a facebook friend request waiting for me when I got back to home.  Agnes threw together a risotto recipe and I told her I envied her ability to do that, and thanked her for the suggestion that the couch surfer cook food on the second night as a way to share recipes and help out.  She said that I am by far the most helpful couch surfer she’s hosted, and she’s had around 25 in the past.  :-D  I finally had a request from a different host I had contacted who is a horse rider in the area, and he came to pick me up to rescue me from whatever I’m allergic to in her apartment.  Agnes and I parted as friends, and I said I’d look her up when I came back to Caen next week.


Moroccan Barbs and trick riding.


The boy couchsurfing host said the only reason he accepted my request is because he felt guilty for being a part of the site but never being involved in it, which I thought was a weird way to start.  He then became paranoid that I was going to infest his flat with bedbugs and had me put all of my luggage in trash bags for the night.  I understand the precaution, though I don’t think that’s what the problem is.  We stayed up watching a pilot episode of a tv series that neither of us got much out of because we talked about his American ex-girlfriend (who I already like more than him) the whole time.  I happily went to sleep, but was itchy all night.  The inhumanity!!!


I had tickets for the first event possible: para-dressage.  I woke and walked to the venue, since the fella’s apartment was in the city center.  I picked up my ticket since it had to be printed and there wasn’t one at the apartment, then took a shuttle to the hippodrome.  I sat in the rain and watched the event for probably an hour, then slunk out in search of food (there was no breakfast food in the flat).  I struck off in the general direction of the city center and stopped at a bakery for a delightful goat cheese eggplant tart thingie, and finally decided the state of ichiness was unbearable enough that I needed to find a doctor.  A bit terrified of the process, I asked for directions at a pharmacy and was directed a few blocks away.  I couldn’t figure out how to open the door so I waited for people to come out before slinking in to take the stairs to the waiting room.  Eventually a doctor showed up and asked if I had an appointment (in French) and I said no.  He took me to a room, examined my rash, said it was bites of some sort and gave me two prescriptions.  The whole experience took about 15 minutes and €23, plus €12 for the two prescriptions.  Fantastic, that is way better than at home!


I had made plans to meet the French girl, Karel, at her booth at 2:45.  I arrived at 2:45 and spent a half hour looking for her information point.  It was raining even harder by that point and I was madder than a wet hen and afraid that my error would cause me to miss meeting her.  I eventually found it and returned to the land of the happy.  We watched a demonstration of show jumping, which is her preferred sport, and went off to find a screen showing the day’s dressage.  We watched together and she explained what each of the different movements were, how hard they are compared to each other, and other subtleties of the movements.  It was great fun for me. There was a group of four Spanish riders who have various talents, one of which includes a man riding his horse and using a long stick to draw art in the sand as he rides.  It was beautiful, creative, and such an odd concept.  It made me think of Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon.


Then we went to the “Kentucky Ale Bar” and ordered beers from a man who is genuinely from Kentucky.  He said things like “Sundee” and “nuthin” and I almost asked him to read me the menu because of how happy his accent made me.  I asked if he rode horses and he promptly replied, “girl, you ever seen a black cowboy?”  It was a good joke, but I ruined it by saying, “yes, three.”  I then launched into a brief explanation of the demographics of cowboys of the Wild West, noticed nobody was as interested as me, and shut up.  He spoke with another American and mentioned they guy’s daughter is the #1 barrel racer in the world at 13 years old, and she would be giving a demonstration at the arena shortly.  The Kentucky man gave us key chain souvenirs on our way out because he was so happy to have found people who speak English.  We watched the barrel racing and Karel and my roles were reversed, with me explain some of the ins and outs of barrel racing.  I told her the girl was clearly holding back because I’ve seen faster times in Conway, Arkansas.  Then there were two more dressage riders, a mother and daughter, giving a demonstration and Karel quizzed me on the different moves.  I got pretty good by the end.


Looking for something to do, we went to the train station so I could get a ticket out of Caen for the week, and then we had dinner together.  I was so excited that A) my pizza had nothing remotely like mayonnaise on it and B) that it had four types of yummy French cheese on it.  She showed me photos of her horse Jazz and invited me to her home in Bretagne at the end of the Games.  I accepted without hesitation.  THAT is why Watson doesn’t want me to buy all of my plane tickets at once, so I can do unanticipated/relevant side trips like that.  We walked back towards the expo park together and I told stories about horses in Kyrgyzstan before I had to turn off.  It rained much more than it had all day on my way home.


When I got back to the confusing couch surfer’s apartment, he said, “I was going to say I thought you’d missed the rain, but clearly not.”  His English is great because of the aforementioned American ex-girlfriend.  I said, “In English, it would be appropriate to say I look like a drowned rat.” 

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World Equestrian Games

In Caen I tried couchsurfing for the first time.  But since I was a bit ambiguous about my date and time of arrival, I only had the info on getting from the train station to the nearest bus stop to Agnes’ (the host) apartment.  As the train was pulling up to the station I borrowed a girl’s phone to call Agnes, establishing that she would just pick me up from the train station since she was driving home anyway.  We met in the parking lot and she pointed out all of the World Equestrian Games decorations and changes that have happened to the town.  We got to her home that is actually in the next city, Bretteville, and I met her happy fat cat Gigi (pronounced like the “g” in “dressage”).  Agnes introduced me to both the concept of “aperitif,” a pre-dinner drink, and the local drink “pommeau,” an apple cider wine thing.  We listened to jazz music as we cooked dinner together and laid out the futon in the basement before bed.


The next morning I woke up with strange bites on my chest that I still cannot diagnose.  It is probably because my foot began to feel better.  France is not kind to my body.  Agnes was in the middle of renovating the tiles in her bathroom so a friend came over to help with that, and I left them to go check out the pre-games Caen.  At the bus stop I met a man, heretofore regarded as Harrison Forward, who within three minutes of our interaction said he would visit me in Mississippi.  I ignored it.  It came up again, and I didn’t reply.  Forward then asked, “are you married?” and I gave the only logical response to that line of inquiry: Yes.  But where is my ring, he wanted to know.  Good question….  Nobody was this presumptuous in Kyrgyzstan where I wore the Anti-Boy Device any time I was in public (perhaps, I now know, because Bek was telling everyone I was his girlfriend), but I really didn’t anticipate it would be a necessary accessory in France!  I explained that I don’t wear it when I travel.  Yay me, a convincing lie!  Harrison wanted my phone number but “unfortunately” I don’t have a French number.  What about Facebook?  This was borderline harassment, so I committed a feminist sin.  I said, “I don’t think my husband would like that.”  The words tasted bad, but I was in dire straits.  To be even more definite about my unavailable status, I showed him photos of Chris (hey Chris, by the way, we were married for about 15 minutes in case you didn’t feel it in the force).  Harrison Forward, in the last push before the bus came, suggested I just ask my husband if I could share my contact information, but my trump card was, again, “no French phone, sorry!”  The bus came and we happily parted ways.  Note: Harrison Forward bore absolutely no resemblance whatsoever to Harrison Ford in body, spirit or mind.


In Caen I hopped out at the stop closest to the horsy action and ran into some WEG volunteers and a horse owner who was trying to find her way, but she was supremely uninterested in speaking with me.  I asked at three different entrances if there was any way I could get in as a researcher.  The English abilities improved with each stop, but the answer was a firm no at each location.  I was finally directed to the hippodrome where I had the same response.  I got quite glum that my idiotic plan, “Go to Caen, meet competitors, magically be allowed inside” wasn’t bearing fruit.  Disappointed, I consoled myself with retail therapy: a lunch of a smoothie and a wrap, plus the greatest amenity I could expect right now, a new pair of SHOES.  They are really small ballet flats that are designed to fold in half for easy stowage in a traveler’s luggage.  I know everyone really wanted to know that I now have THREE pairs of shoes.


Somewhat pacified, I walked to the Abbey dus Hommes and the chateau in the center of town.  William the Conqueror built the castle in 1060.  He wanted to marry his distant cousin, Matilda, but the pope was not a fan, so Guillome (William) built Abbey dus Hommes (men’s abbey) and Abbey dus Dames (women’s abbey) basically as a bribe, which was successful.  The chateau had a museum of Normans that this archaeology dork enjoyed, and a temporary exhibit on French horsemanship from the 1500’s, which I clearly devoured.  There were plenty of English signs so I didn’t miss a thing.  My favorite part were the stirrups that went with side saddles which were made to look like dainty women’s shoes.


I made my way back to the flat, went grocery shopping (where Agnes teased me I might run into Harrison Forward, though thankfully that was not the case) and cooked mom’s mac n cheese recipe.  There are 300-400 types of cheese in France, but no cheddar, so I substituted a French one.  I calculated the measurements into metric units (mL, g, cm, C) and the result wasn’t half bad.  I moved to a different fold-out couch (“click-clack” because it takes two clicks to change from couch to bed) upstairs since something bit me or I’m allergic to something downstairs.


I spent a lot of time the next day coming up with Plan B, aka, “since I can’t get backstage to meet competitors, how do I make the best of my time in Caen/France?”  First step, acquire affordable tickets to as many different equine events as possible; second step, leave Caen for a week where there are absolutely no available hotel spaces and limited interested couchsurfing hosts to go somewhere else with horses.  There were, thankfully, no inquiries of my marital status at the bus stop and I went to the ticket booth and signed myself up to attend the Opening Ceremony, which met all above requirements except “affordable.”  There was a “Chevaux et cavaliers” (horses and riders) art display in the gallery on the chateau grounds that I got to see for free since I’m under 26, which is a good thing because it was a disappointing exhibit.  I returned to the fantastic horse exhibit, where I colored in a drawing of a pink-haired woman on a blue horse at the kid’s table for at least 45 minutes.  I got funny looks; I did not care.


I grabbed a bite to eat on the way to the Opening Ceremony and waited in the queue for an hour to get in and nab a perfect seat thirty minutes before it started.  There were French and English announcers, and it barely registered that the woman was speaking with an American accent.  There was a flyover by the Patrouille de France acrobatics team followed by a presentation of horses of honor.  Those are four breeds that are being showcased during the ceremony and are the French Cobb, American Quarter Horse (squee!), Akhal Teke, and Moroccan Barb.  During the parade of nations that have representatives in the Games (total of 74 nations which took over an hour), the French announcer calmly said, “Canada,” followed by the ecstatic English translation, “CANADAAA!”  So, North American accent, noted.  I was not surprised to see cowboy hats on the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Chile, and Mexican competitors, but was truly shocked to see so many on Finnish and Danish riders.  Of the eight events over the next two weeks, reining is a predominantly American sport but clearly there are competitors from elsewhere.  The other events are dressage, para-dressage, jumping, eventing, vaulting, driving, and endurance.  Also included are showcases of polo and horse-ball.


Then there were speeches, blah blah blah, yay France, thank the sponsors, and the Prime Minister spoke one sentence, “Let the Games begin!”  On to the spectacle….


It’s so hard to describe the performance.  There were creative audio-visual effects.  I saw the Garde Republicain play instruments on horseback (photo), a horse-ball demonstration, a cowboy and cowgirl ride around projections of cattle, a dance of knights and pawns on a checker board, a recreation of William the Conqueror on horseback, a video of the Bayeux Tapestry, a short vaulting performance, a showcase of horse-related impressionist art, riding by Saumur Cadre Noir, and one man ride two horses standing at a gallop while ten others followed in line.  It was a fantastic way to start off the event, and a great use of my time and money.  Unfortunately, the bus to the next town wasn’t running anymore, so I had to walk 15 minutes to the edge of Caen, wait for the bus that wasn’t coming, ask some police officers which way was Bretteville and get a free map from them (“a French present”), and walk 25 minutes home.  Still worth it.



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