COOLMORE AND A HEALTHY COUNTRYSIDE
THERE IS NOTHING LIKE A PROPER IRISH HORSEMAN
Anyone ever heard of Coolmore? You’ve got to love racing to know about this extraordinary place. The racing world is very far from my bed, but when a good friend took me on a little trip to Ireland I was able to admire the stunning valley where Coolmore Stud is situated with my very own eyes and what a treat it was!
It came as a surprise. I have blogged about this trip before; we were staying with proper Irish horseman Ned Norris in County Kilkenny. A warm personality seems to be the norm in Ireland and this man certainly was that. Together with his stalwart wife they made our trip into a complete experience, including being treated as part of the family for the duration of our stay.
‘THE ARSE WILL TEK YE’
We had been looking at and trying quite a few horses during our visit, not only in Kilkenny itself but also in Wexford county which is known for its mean ditches. I have had to politely refuse several great invitations because of those monsters. They would tell me I didn’t have to worry, ‘the arse will tek ye’, which only made me more nervous. The thought to sit on an unstoppable horse in unknown terrain with hedges the size of small houses, a piece of rusty barbed wire here and there, and on top of it the odd ditch of a few metres deep did not at all appeal to me!
JAMESON IN THE MORNING, IN THE AFTERNOON AND IN THE EVENING
The Irish are incredibly hospitable and if I wasn’t going to ride, I had to drink, Jameson, very delicious, everywhere we went this ‘wee dram’ came out of the cupboard; in the morning,in the afternoon, in the evening. And out would come the old picture albums…beautiful black and white photo’s going back many years. Rugged faces with a bit of gentle mischief in it, completely at home in their beloved countryside on their brave steeds with their hounds and after the fox.
In Holland we only know the drag hunt. When fox hunting turned into drag hunting in England in 2004 it caused a lot of upset and controversy. Among my pupils and friends some were appalled, others took up hunting because of it. Drag hunting is possibly faster, not much waiting around the shrubbery and dens where the cunning fox might be hiding. A good friend, who was taken hunting by her parents as a small child did not like it for that reason. She once told me, ‘I hated it, you were either soaking wet, bored stiff or scared shitless.’
Other than the fact that the Irish love their hunting, they are equally proud of the world famous Irish thoroughbred and this brings us back to Coolmore.
On our last day, which happened to be a Sunday, the grandchild of our host was being baptized and of course we were invited. It was a grand occasion which, by the way, was in the town of Fethard in Tipperary. (Ever heard of McCarthy’s? This pub, being the regular of the racing fraternity, happened to be opposite the church. I had my first Irish Guinness there!)
So, on this beautifully sunny day, on our way to the service, the car passed through the last line of trees on the brow of a hill and there it was…basking in the autumnal sunshine. The entire valley laid out meticulously with immaculate fields, lanes lined with trees and perfectly trimmed hedges. Some fields had cows in them, others sheep and of course some with horses. Broodmares or youngsters presumably. I can only say, it was mind blowing and overwhelming.
HORSE SICK FIELDS AND MUD HOLES
What I found most impressive was that, with the Irish thoroughbred being the main interest, it is still run as a mixed farm for the sake of the quality of the fields. As much as I love horses, I do love a happy well-balanced agricultural landscape and have a hard time looking at horse sick fields, or worse, mud holes that don’t even recover anymore during the summer. When I was in Holland last month I saw a few of those there as well and it wasn’t pretty. Not only does it look terrible, colics and worm infections are difficult to avoid when horses have to live like that.
THE ULTIMATE BREEDING STATION IN THE WHOLE WORLD
The brave fighter pilot Tim Vigors was the original brain behind Coolmore and responsible for extending the farm into a breeding station for race horses. He began after the Second World War with the 175 hectare farm. In 1975 famous horse trainer Vincent O’Brien, together with son-in-law John Magnier and Robert Mangster took over the helm in order to develop the business even further with the vision of creating the ultimate breeding station in the world. The decision to keep the cattle and sheep as a by-product is what makes this valley so extra special and healthy, at the same time still maintaining some of its originality.
PROUD HOBBY FARMER
For many years I did this myself on a very small scale. On my 20 acres, other than some horses, I had a small flock of sheep and a few beef cows, plus I made haylage to sell. The first and last thing of the day was a walk with my dogs across the fields to check whether everyone was still where they were supposed to be. It was a joy and I took great pride in the fact that my land looked clean and well-managed.
I love riding and looking at horses, but I do also love a well-maintained farmland…
Top picture: Coolmore Stud
Middle: some of the cattle at Coolmore Stud
Bottom: My rescue sheepdog Travel rounding my small flock of Suffolk Mule crosses
MAARTEN VAN STEK, WE'RE READY FOR YOU!
‘BOERENKOOL MET WORST’
‘Marc will collect you, just text your address’, this was the Facebook message from dressage trainer Maarten van Stek after I realized my mistake: there was no train to the horse yard where he was expecting me. Never had been.
Not only did Maarten’s husband Marc collect me, he also cooked my favourite meal that evening: ‘boerenkool met worst’, which is cabbage greens mashed with potatoes and smoked sausage.
But before that I had the joy of sitting at the side of an outdoor school in a sun that made the air feel like spring and all I had to do was watch Maarten ride his William, the gentle Hanovarian with whom he will hopefully be competing Grand Prix before this year is over.
They are a beautiful team. The difference with last year was quite something, so much more compact, more muscled, more precise. The one- and two-timers kept on coming. Maarten was able to push him, because he knew he could, in the piaffe work, trusting he would pick the fruits the next day. And remember, all of this with one hand. When I watch the two of them I forget…
MY FIRST DUTCH EMPLOYMENT
Maarten and Marc were my last little ‘outing’ before I would jump back on the plane to Cornwall. My trip had been a grand time, starting with the KWPN stallion show in Den Bosch (staying in the best Bed & Breakfast ever!) followed by visiting loads of old friends and…my first employment as freelance journalist for Dutch equine magazine the Hoefslag, equivalent of English magazine the Horse and Hound. A full day with two powerpoint presentations about the use of hormones in the breeding world and the use of DNA samples and genetic selection as a new method to decrease joint issues amongst others. A challenge and I loved it!
SPARKS WERE FLYING!
But now I was at the end of my three-week trip and being on Maarten’s side for nearly two days, would give me yet another chance to increase my knowledge as a trainer.
After last year’s initial meeting, followed by a very successful clinic in Cornwall with some of my pupils, I had very much hoped that Maarten and my friendship and working relationship would continue, if not grow.
And growing it did. Also, the sparks were flying! When Marc was patiently cooking and the smoked sausage made my mouth water, Maarten and I had a feisty little discussion about whip use. His point was that there has got to be greater commitment of the riders to keep their lower leg sufficiently forward in order to be able to kick at the correct part of the horse’s belly, where the nerves will make the muscles contract the same way we jump when someone sticks his fingers in the sensitive area above our waist. Only then will the horse fully understand and learn to respect and only then will the basic training create a smooth track to the higher levels.
His explanation: ‘Do you use a whip when you try to lift the legs of your horse when picking their feet out? No! you again and again squeeze at the right place until in the end, out of respect the horse lifts its feet when you point. Sitting on top makes no difference’.
Just being able to have that discussion proved our mutual respect, me the pupil, he my teacher…
A THANK YOU AFTER 35 YEARS
This was my second visit, Last year was the first time we met after my ‘out of the blue’ email to him. In short: ‘Dear Maarten you don’t know me but when I read about a Dutch one-armed dressage rider on his way to the Grand Prix, I knew it had to be you. About 35 years ago, I watched one of your clinics. I was still on crutches after a car accident, in which I nearly lost my leg…’
I remember all too well how I blubbered that evening, when I came home. Maarten was then already an extremely accomplished instructor and when he threw himself with his one arm effortlessly on a client’s horse, he managed to quietly achieve a metamorphosis within no time, which made me feel awful, why he and not me? I had had to stop my courses at the equestrian school; you can’t ride properly with a crooked body and the doctor had said I should be grateful that I was able to walk again, kind of…and then I got angry…at myself. And 35 years later I could thank Maarten. Competed Prix St George, helped two pupils to get there and actively teaching more than ever.
That evening so long ago gave me the grit and the energy to keep fighting, put my teeth back into it. Just like he did, and still does, because, believe me, for Maarten every day is a challenge, although he is too humble to ever brag about that.
A ROSE CALLED ‘WILLIAM’
So, last year in May, we met again and in the most unusual way. I had to go and find them. Their GPS in their rental car from Exeter airport had brought them somewhere near Golant, but wasn’t clever enough to find my farm. So, in the pitch black two cars slowly glided past one another, the drivers carefully glaring whether they recognized each other, ready to be seriously embarrassed if this was not the case. Marc was driving and I had not met him yet, so I nearly put my foot on the accelerator.
At home, after I received a lovely rose, called ‘William’, we had a cup of tea, a glass of wine and went to bed. Next day we were going to make a lot of miles, giving Marc the chance to do some sight-seeing, whilst Maarten would be teaching.
TRUST AND FRIENDSHIP
Last year’s clinic was a great success. It gave all of us, pupils and instructor, such a boost, so much more focus to build on. But most of all, the human side of it. The fact that, in this increasingly tough world, it is still possible to take a risk by opening up, baring one’s soul and receive the gift of a friendship in the most spontaneous way…that I found the best bit of all.
AND AFTER WILLIAM, HARRY ARRIVED...
Since about a month William has got company; Harry arrived. Just like the royal family, including the hair colour!
On last week’s visit I was also given the chance to watch Harry in work. Harry is by nature an athlete with a conformation that makes everything relatively easy for him. It really brought home to me how hard William works for Maarten, purely on his character, something Maarten so very much appreciates in him. But, ‘it takes two to tango’, and it is the fine bond between Maarten and William which motivates William to push for the ultimate.
And if Maarten and Harry can find a similar passion, the future will be bright; that is my humble opinion.
Maarten has lessons with renowned trainer Alex van Silfhout, father of Olympic rider Diederik van Silfhout. On the way to the airport, when Maarten was telling me he sometimes wished Alex was at times a bit more critical on his position, I had to laugh out loud! I can only drool when I watch him ride, starting with his impeccable leg position…
LOWER LEG FORWARD!!
Maarten is a busy man; other than his two horses to train, he has a lot of pupils. But…in May he will visit Cornwall again. This time at Victoria Hunton’s lovely indoor school near Bodmin. As soon as we put the post on Facebook, three days were booked in no time, so we may have to add a fourth day, depending.
In the meantime, I’m back into the groove. The first week of teaching in fairly horrendous weather conditions is behind me, my pupils having shown tremendous dedication to want to ride despite the vicious squalls at times. Message was to all: ‘Okay guys, if we from now on make an extra effort to keep that lower leg forward, join your own dotted line together with the dotted line of your horse and, other than that, try not too hard, too much, too soon when riding for Maarten, we will benefit three times, maybe even four times, more than last year’s visit!’
It seemed to work, so on we go, full throttle. Maarten van Stek, we’re ready for you!
Top picture: Maarten van Stek with William at a demonstration at the Dutch happening 'Horse Event'
Middle: the best Bed & Breakfast of Den Bosch with host Thecla Renders making sure we are over-indulged!
Bottom: Maarten and William in training with dear friend Miriam Voorwinde on her horse ValegrA in the background. Miriam helps Maarten often at his competitions.
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About Liz Barclay
Her love for horses together with her dedication made her into the trainer and dressage rider she is, today. She is versatile and inventive and likes a challenge; whether it is a technical training question, a confidence issue or a problem involving the management of the horse or pony.
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