Photo: Krystal riding atop Gazelle, the mare who won 3rd place in the WEG that year!
Benita, my favorite mare at the stable, surges forward beneath me like a champion. What had started out as a long, pleasant, luxurious walk with my fellow coworker and her mount had somehow turned into a mad dash for the barn. Lady luck laughed in our faces when exactly thirty minutes, and halfway, of our walk had approached. What had been clear skies and sunny morning promises had somehow turned into a massive rainstorm neither of us girls could have predicted.
But then again that’s typical Belgium weather, I thought as the brim of my helmet kept the downpour from my eyes. My light windbreaker jacket and thin riding breeches had been completely soaked through in less than a minute of the heavy rain. With no options for turning back and with the wet pavement making the horse shoes too slippery to risk riding any faster, Benita and I trotted carefully down the road.
Oncoming traffic, flashing lights, ditches on either side, strong gusts of wind and bone-chilling rain made for an adventure of a return home. I had known early on to keep my reins soft in my hands, and not just because my fingers were too frozen to grip them properly, with Benita underneath me. Of all the horses in the stables to be trapped in a storm with, I was thankful to be sitting atop this brave mare. Not because she was an easy ride, because she definitely wasn’t. Not because Benita had never bolted full speed with me on her back in an attempt to strike fear in me, which she did and which didn’t. It was simply because Benita and I understood each other. I trusted her and her instincts and was confident that Benita would stop at nothing to return safely to the barn where her three-month-old foal waited for her.
Despite the absolute cold that overwhelmed every ounce of my body, I couldn’t stop the grin from piercing my lips. I didn’t know why all of the most unlikely of events always seemed to happen to me…but I did know that I enjoyed every single second of it.
I flew to Belgium on the day of my 21st birthday back in 2010. It was to be my VERY FIRST job internationally. I had worked with horses since I was 15 and I had recently graduated from an Equestrian College. I had lots of experience with horses. I also had been living on my own in Oklahoma since I was 18. I was an independent solo traveler for years and had traveled internationally quite young as a child. But the fact that I was officially about to start a JOB overseas was a shock for me. I was over joyed and eager for the experience to work in the shadow of an Olympic rider. Ever since I was a child I dreamed to ride in the Olympics as a show jumper and this felt like it was taking me one step closer.
I spent 3 months working in Belgium for a 4-time Olympic Equestrian Eventing Rider in exchange for meals, room and lessons from her and her coaches.
Photo: Krystal and Benita
The first month at the stables was hard. I had been assigned to Benita before my boss flew to the USA to ride in the upcoming WEG and she was gone for that month. She had already assessed me in the saddle, but as she was set to leave, she assigned me to ride Benita as a test. Benita wasn’t easy, by any means and when she returned a month later and saw how much progress the two of us made together she increased my workload of horses.
Because I only had the one horse to ride that first month, I was stuck doing all the heavy barn chores such as grooming, mucking out stalls, haying all 40 horses, bringing horses in and out from the field—covering myself in deep mud—and putting and removing horses from the hot walker and treadmill. It was grunt work and I worked from 6am to 9pm every day with only a 30 minute lunch break.
Upon her return and confirming my riding talents, my Olympic boss scheduled me each day with enough horses to ride that I simply could not assist with the other grunt work chores. Those chores then fell to the working students that were not as experienced in the saddle. I had to maintain the horses training program in the arena and I would ride roughly 5 horses each day. I was trusted with the responsibility of riding the younger horses on “walks.” These walks were very enjoyable, lasting anywhere from 1-2 hours but while riding on very green horses that were extremely valuable due to their future career in the Olympics, I had a lot of weight on my shoulders.
Photo: Mud in Belgium! Something I had to learn to get used to...
I rode the horses on the roads, rain or shine. I had to slow down passing cars by riding in front of them and allowing them to pass while my horse spooked sideways. I had to hold on for my life as the same horses cowered from the large tractors plowing the fields and crops on the long ride. I enjoyed these rides and often grinned proudly when my spooky-future-Olympic babies would canter in the most gorgeous powerful frame I could ever dream.
The work was long, tough and all consuming which in the end is why, although I was offered to stay at the job far longer, I politely had to decline. I had been blessed to have been instructed as much as I had been by my Olympic coach on her Olympic horses, Benita, still my favorite.
I learned a lot and greatly appreciated the opportunity but I had my sights set for the horizon and knew that I wanted more to life than just slaving away for 16-20-hour shifts, 6 days a week. I wanted to travel. I wanted a personal life. But I also really, really wanted to keep riding Olympic horses and continue to follow my passion for a career as a professional showjumper. Which is how I ended up combining the two and following my heart to a job in Egypt, of all places. There I would be training and riding under the tutelage of an FEI II Coach (like I am now!) and also get the opportunity to travel, live and work in an exotic destination to a faraway land.
But Egypt was yet to come. I was going through plenty of culture shock in Belgium! After all, it was my first country across the pond! And at 21 years old, I wasn't quite prepared for how little I knew of the world. EVERYTHING fascinated me! From Bread-Vending Machines in the town center to the fact that the locals couldn't speak English (I was in Flemish Speaking Belgium). I felt as if my eyes had been opened for the first time and I felt hungry to take in as much of the culture and surroundings as I could. (And with one day off a week it proved difficult but I vowed to spend those days exploring the nearby town solo-style!)
I loved my time in Belgium, however and I was thankful for the chance it gave me to open my eyes to a world bigger than I had ever imagined back in the States.