There are two very typical young adult coming-of-age things I have never done: living in a college dorm, and the typical four-month backpacking trip. Instead, at the age of seventeen, the day after receiving my high school diploma, I got on a plane with an address written on a piece of paper – for my working student position at an eventing yard in Belgium.
I arrived in the evening, a little shell-shocked after flying alone for the first time (I managed to get stuck in an elevator and almost missed my flight). In the student quarters, a bunch of women, some ten years my senior, were putting on makeup and selecting heels. They were going out partying, and invited me to come. I squared my shoulders and told them thank you, but that I should probably get a good night of sleep in preparation for my first day of work. After all, I was there to be serious and dedicated and not have too much fun.
Boy, was I ever wrong.
A few minutes later, I caved, rooting in my suitcase for the one skirt I had packed. As we piled into the car, I marvelled at how that morning I had woken up in my own bed, and was now going clubbing for the first time in my life – in a foreign country with a group of strangers. I got a grand total of thirty minutes of sleep that night, and earned my nickname of “the Crazy Canadian” (as a side note, staying up for thirty-six hours straight is a great way to beat jet lag).
The number of students at the yard fluctuated from four to twelve in my three months there, usually of totally different nationalities. Lunchtimes were a medley of different foods and languages and teasing about cultural stereotypes. Since I was the youngest, I was treated as the mildly annoying but thoroughly amusing little sister.
I was particularly close with the head groom, Marion, a quiet and thoughtful French girl who rode like she meant business. After much pestering, she agreed to give me a lunge lesson on the schoolmaster so that I could learn her secrets of sitting the trot properly. “I will teach you to sit de trot,” she said, in all seriousness, “If you teach me ‘ow to dance.” It was a good trade – we were both quite studious in our assigned tasks.
And then there was Greta, who was German by way of British schooling. She could get any horse to smarten up by simply looking them in the eye and scolding: “Come on, man. Pull yourself together.” When her and I were left alone to care for fifty horses one day, I harrumphed, complaining that we barely had enough time to feed the horses and rotate them through the walker. She snatched the chore list from my hands, calmly dictating a course of action. In the end, we even each had enough time to ride one horse. She changed the way I thought about task organization and management.
I will never forget the Irish girl, Claire, who pulled me off the arena floor after I fell off of a spooky mare on my first day (maybe something to do with the hangover and half hour of sleep?), and told me I owed the team a bottle of tequila.
I thought she was kidding. “In Canada, we just bake some cookies,” I halfway joked, dusting off my breeches.
“No,” she affirmed. “Tequila.” I blinked. I had never bought alcohol before in my life. I wasn’t going to tell her that.
Months later, when we were grooming together at an event, I walked triumphantly into the barn, snapping a fifty euro note in between my fingers. I had found it on the ground of the dressage warmup ring.
“Claire,” I wiggled my eyebrows, “Guess who’s buying beers tonight.”
That riders party was one of the most fun nights of my life. Neither Claire or I really cared that no one else was dancing except for us, and even noticed people taking videos of us. We responded by dragging them onto the dance floor.
When we attended a rider’s meeting the next morning, one of the stewards spotted Claire and I. “These are your girls? Interesting,” he stated flatly to our boss. Then he winked at us in a conspirational fashion.
Delicious Belgian beer aside, there was no slacking off. I showed up every morning, I worked hard, and I learned. I was surrounded by people who were doing the same. We were all there for the same reason: to become better horse people. We would have lively dinner table debates about icing and lunging techniques.
Years later, I’m realizing that one summer had more impact on me than years of dorm living or backpacking. At that impressionable time in my life, I learned to hold my own in a team of riders and grooms much more experienced than I. I learned to party like a European (newsflash: they are much better at it than we are). Having gone our separate ways, I now have friends sprinkled all over the world, also known as couches to crash on when traveling.
There were the hard skills and experience of upper-level grooming, but also a wealth of life lessons. And every year, on the anniversary of that fateful flight overseas, I find an imported Belgian beer to cheers my friends with; surrogate brothers and sisters who taught me how to sit the trot and party responsibly. Thanks, guys.