Having just returned from our annual trip to the Netherlands, my fiancé and I were viewing the pictures that we had taken with our new digital camera. There were of course pictures of the villages we biked thru and visited, pictures of family and friends, and pictures of HORSES! This year I was fortunate enough to convince Hans, my fiancé, to go and visit his family in January. I included the fact that his mother was turning 77 on January 14, 2007 to convince him that we could arrive early enough to take in the Stallion show. He not only agreed, but arranged with his sister to get tickets for five of us, he included, to attend the show on Saturday. (Now Hans is a dairy man and for him to agree to go and spend an entire day looking at horses was surprising to say the least.)
Before I delve into the ecstasy of the stallion show, I must explain that we visit the Netherlands once a year, staying with Hans’ parents and taking the bicycle almost everywhere we go. For anyone traveling to a foreign country, it is always better to see it with a native citizen. I have seen the parts of the Netherlands no tourist would think of and also have seen the Dutch people working and living in their own environment. This will explain some of the comments that will appear occasionally throughout this narrative.
We traveled to north Leeuwarden and arrived on Saturday in time to see several groups of young stallions who were attempting to go on to the 70 day test. My first impression upon walking into the stadium was of how many people there were there. (The Dutch are fiercely proud of their Friesian horses and they come to this show armed with pride and knowledge.) Then the first stallion came out and took my breath away. The power, the beauty, the nobility, the elegance, and the attitude they carry is something that will remain with me. I was expecting to be pleased, but never overwhelmed like this. And this was a young stallion! When the stallions aged 13 and over started coming out, many in long lines, I was so stunned by their beauty that for a while I forgot to take pictures. I was able to see, in person, stallions I had only read about and admired from pictures. I can say right now, no pictures from any camera can even begin to convey the magnificence of these horses. I saw paraded in front of me Brandus, Folkert, Fabe, Piter and the other older stallions that had come to Leeuwarden. They were showing the crowd just why they were the elder statesman of the club and the crowd responded by cheering, stomping, clapping, and whistling. I had never heard such adulation in my life.
Next to come were the stallions approved last year. The first thing that became clear was the maturity of the older stallions. The young stallions were beautiful, but the older ones demonstrated just how much the Friesian matures with age. As each group came out, Els (Hans’ sister,) and Huup, (a very knowledgeable friend of Els), would give each one stars in the program. They were doing their own inspection and after the first group had been chosen, and they had both picked the winner, I decided to keep looking at the grades they were giving the horses. Harman won the second group, Dries the third, and when the fourth group came out I was curious as to how they would grade Beart. Most of the stallions were getting one star, some one star and a half and a very few received two stars. The crowd also was their own jury, giving the stallions their approval with their reactions. When Beart came out, I held my breath, not only because I wanted him to do well, but because he was absolutely beautiful! He stood well, walked calmly and then exploded into his trot. The crowd went crazy. They again stamped their feet, their canes, they whistled and shouted. I am usually quite composed, by I was on my feet when he passed by. I looked over to Els and Huup and they were both smiling. “He is a very nice horse” said Huup, and Els showed me the three stars they had awarded him. “He is going to the finals.” Els said, and sure enough, he was pronounced winner of the group.
Teeuwis won the next group and Hans gave his opinion that he liked him the best. Els turned to him and said, “Yes, he is nice, but he is not going to win.” The last group had Mintse, Jasper and Onne all coming out. The crowd loved Mintse and but when Onne came out, they showed their enthusiasm even louder. My jaw actually dropped when he entered the arena. He is quite tall, extremely beautiful, wonderful mane and tail, and did he move!! His walk is long and relaxed, his trot was not only animated, but could he stretch it out! He was throwing those feet out and staying in the air forever. There was an attitude that he carried that no other horse did. What a horse! Els and Huup liked him so much, they gave him four stars! Sadly, Jasper had to follow him. Jasper is a crowd favorite and he is beautiful and also has a great trot. The crowd loved Jasper and showed their approval, but sadly, the judges did not and only Mintse and Onne headed to the finals.
The championship class had 12 horses that had either won or were reserve champion for their class. These 14 horses entered into the ring one at a time walking in front of the jury, around the ring several times before lining in the center. Fourteen stallions were standing in the center of the ring and each one of them behaving as if they were the only ones there. Each stood still and quietly waited their turn to show off. To the crowds delight, each stallion was shown at the trot once more, one last time to impress the judges. When each had finished, they all took to the rail at the walk again. As they passed the exit gate, the announcer let the crowd know if the horse was in or out. This decision was greeted with either applause or groans as the field was whittled down to the five finalists.
Jisse: “out, Jerke: “in”, Harmen: “in”, Gjalt: “out” (big groan), Dries, “out”, Diaitsen: “out”, (another big groan), Aan: “out”, Beart: “in” (much applause, especially from me), Teeuwis: “out”, (big groan from Hans, and a I told you so look from Els), Rik: “out” Minste: “in” (more applause), Onne: “in” ( great applause).
These five continued to walk around the ring as the jury deliberated. The announce stated that even though the crowd had decided who they liked, it was up to the jury to decide which stallion would be champion for 2007. Els and Huup both agreed it would be Onne with a young stallion for reserve. I asked why the young one for reserve and she stated that if they did not place a young one reserve, they had not been doing their job as inspectors these past years. And then the announcer stated: “The jury would like you to know that this was a very hard decision. If this was a skating race, these five horses would be within one hundredth of a second apart. But they have to place one champion and one reserve. The jury has placed Harmen as reserve champion and ONNE 376 as champion stallion for 2007!”
The crowd went crazy at this point, stamping there feet, banging their canes, clapping there hands and shouting. (I found out afterward from Hans that the people near us were shouting “correct decision”. As he made his victory run, the music was blaring, the crowd was cheering and Onne did not disappoint. He flew around the arena showing with his movement and attitude that he knew he was the best stallion this year. And what images I have to keep with me. Will I go back? Without a doubt!
On Wednesday of the following week, Hans and I headed north again, on our way to see his sister and her Friesian Joske. She had invited us up so we could not only see a “normal” Friesian (as compared to the stallions), but we were to take Joske out on the beach in a small cart. We arrived in time for coffee, before heading out to the stables. I should take just a moment here to mention that the Dutch make the very best coffee! It is strong and robust; unfortunately, they drink it from very small cups. Anyway, off we went to the stables and as Els led us to Joske’s stall, I happened to notice quite a few Friesians in with other Dutch warmbloods. The stable itself could not have been located in a more ideal spot. It was tucked up against the dunes, shielded by them from the perpetual wind that comes off the North Sea. When I was introduced to Joske, I immediately noticed that she was quite tall and very pretty. Not a stallion, but beautiful nonetheless. Els asked me if I wanted to groom her while she removed the harness from the car. I started grooming her, noticing how well behaved she was, standing quietly while tied on only one lead. I was just grabbing the soft brush when Els came back and said “Not done?” You are too fussy. I am not that fussy prior to driving,”
We harnessed up and Els drove to the beach. When we turned the corner and I saw the steep trail down to the shore, I was a little anxious. Els appeared to not even notice and headed down, all the while talking about Joske and her age and her foals and her temperament. When we reached the beach, the wind met us head on. It was really quite strong with sustained winds up to 50 mph, but Joske and Els seemed not to care. I just pulled my hat down a little lower and zipped up my jacket as far as it would go. I had dressed appropriately for the temperature, but had neglected to take into account the wind! But my ego got the best of me and I did not say a word. Off we went, down the beach. It was low tide and we traveled in the sand closest to the waves since that was more compact. It was easier for the horse there and I could not help but notice that she often drifted into the water! Not far, but far enough to cause me some concern. Els must have noticed because she told me not to worry, Joske would not go swimming today. She relayed a story about an encounter she had had the previous week at this very beach.
She was riding Joske that day and two dogs decided to that Joske was a good target and both dogs attacked Els and Joske. They jumped up on her neck and were biting her legs. Joske started kicking them and trying to bite them, but they would not give up. Els was screaming and kicking at the dogs, but that did not work either. Finally, she just rode Joske into the surf, riding right thru the breaking waves, out far enough for the dogs to finally give up. The owners were able to catch the dogs at this point and Els came out of the water screaming at the owners. Els said they were very apologetic, but by that time, Els had no use for them and just waved them away like a bug. I told Els that that was quite a story and I said that I thought it was quick thinking to go into the water, and she replied, I do that all the time. Especially when Huup and I are working with young horses, if they get away from us, we either drive them out into the sea or up into the dunes. Either way, they are not going to go far and we have them back in control right away. What a great idea, gaining control using nature and the surroundings and without using any whips, spurs or any sort of trauma. Just head them into the water!
We were about a half hour or so into our ride and when we saw Huup signaling us. He asked us if we could take his Irish setter for a run since we were already out. Els said of course and we called Axle to come and run. Huup had a few slices of bread for Joske (Els and Huup use bread as a treat for their horses), and before we headed out, he gave her about four slices, which she inhaled in an instance. We drove down the beach for about another 20 minutes and turned around. We had been trotting down the beach, in the sand, for most of the time, yet Joske was still full of energy. Els asked me if I wanted to drive, and I eagerly took the reins. Joske has a very soft mouth and she listens to every voice command that is given to her. When we headed back to the barn, we were now driving with the wind instead of against it, and that seemed to make all the difference in the world. I not longer felt like an ice cube, just a slushy. Realizing she was heading back to the barn, Joske stretched right out. Yet even with this excitement, she was still very easy to drive. Axle meanwhile was spending his time chasing seagulls and keeping an eye on us. He never stopped running!
When we got back, Els decided that we would bring Axle home instead of having Huup come back out. Incredibly, she just drove Joske up the dune and into traffic! She waited her turn and then joined the line of cars that were traveling down a cobblestone road. The road had to be no more than 35-40 feet wide, and here we were, right in the middle with cars all around, scooters passing, construction equipment roaring, and bicycles whizzing by. And here was Joske, just making her way thru the traffic, listening to every command Els gave her, and acting as if she were still on the beach. We stopped at a small house and Els yelled “Huup, Axle is here”. Huup came out and collected his dog, but not before giving Joske another half loaf of bread. (Huup and Els had just that week sold a mare and a gelding that they had co-owned. They had to sell them because Huup is fighting cancer and Els was not able to give them the attention that they needed. Huup said they both cried when the sale went thru, but both knew it was the best thing for the horses.) Huup showed me where he had kept them, in the back of his house in a garage type setting. There were two large stalls, with water and hay racks, located in the middle of the city! Not a blade of grass in sight, yet Huup and Els saw anything out of the ordinary about this. Huup said that attention and exercise were all his horses needed, and he was able to give them all they needed until he became ill. Watching Huup finger the harnesses and hearing the sadness in his voice, you can see just hoe deeply Huup misses his horses
We headed back to the stable, still winding our way thru cobblestone streets until we finally came to the bridge that leads to the stables. After unhooking Joske, Els hosed her legs down to get all the salt off. Then a wet sponge gets the rest of the salt off. A blanket is thrown on her, and Joske is led back to her stall. She was still full of energy after an hour and a half on the beach, and had not even broken out in a sweat. I commented to Els how fit she was and the only thing Els said was “yes, she is”. What Els did next really amazed me. She threw approximately 20 carrots, uncut and with the greens still attached, into Joske’s feed bucket. Of course, Joske dived right in. I did not dare ask at this point, but Els did tell me that she does that almost every time she rides. Huup grows carrots for the market and is more than generous to the horses, so Els has a free supply of carrots and takes full advantage.
It was really interesting to see the differences between how the Dutch and how we view and care for our horses. The people at the stallion show were very well informed and not all stallions received applause. They really appreciate the very good ones and do not hesitate to show it. Polite applause is given to all the rest. The horse owners themselves treat their horses as members of the family, trusting and training them in much the same way we do, but just maybe they have a deeper understand of the Friesian breed after spending centuries with them. We have a lot to learn from them and their horses.