Have Helmet, Will Travel

My hesitation was brief. Never mind the irritation of trying to squish all my gear in to a small suitcase for our month-long trip to Brazil. The riding helmet hovered over the pile only a few seconds, its addition in limbo. A quick review of all previous international riding trips to countries where apparently nobody in the horse community ever files a lawsuit sent me to the closet for a second suitcase to accommodate the helmet.

As much as I preferred to pack light, I knew better than to put faith in the tour brochure photos of docile steeds plodding through sunlit meadows. Their relaxed riders wore denim pants and felt hats, nipping booze from hip flasks—a portrait of serenity. Ha! I have visited many international riding schools with similarly pleasant photos depicting the sturdy, quiet-tempered, and well-trained mounts that I can expect to ride. I have returned from these schools with blistered fingers acquired while maintaining a white knuckled grip on the reins in order to control the wild steed beneath me. I have returned vowing next time to bring both a helmet and a protective vest.

There are two points that the shiny tourist brochures fail to mention. First, their horses are never as well-tempered as they believe. Second, anything goes in the horse world outside the U.S. Read as: nobody ever sues anybody. This is worth knowing when debating about how much protective gear to pack in your suitcase.

When I first started riding in Portugal years ago, one of the school stallions had a habit of showing off his levade at random times. A rider could be in the middle of shoulder-in, for example, and the horse would suddenly stand up on his back legs. It happened to me the second day I rode. Without warning, Dakur stood straight up for what seemed like eternity. One second we were trotting down the long side of the arena, the next we were frozen in a hi-ho salute. I pushed on his neck, I squeezed him, I clucked. Nothing could get him to put his feet down. It was only a matter of seconds before he would fall backwards and crush me. A little quivery, I looked around for help. My trainer, chatting on his cell phone, raised an eyebrow to acknowledge me and then turned and went back to his conversation. He could not have cared less.

This shocked me at first. Did he not care that this helpless American girl was stranded on his rearing stallion shrieking like a baby? Then I remembered how little he concerned himself with the spook fest that was my previous lesson. I spent the entire hour bolting from one side of the arena to the other, bucking and galloping and spinning. I pleaded for a different horse to ride. My trainer nonchalantly told me that he was sure I would like the one I was on, once we got past the spooking. When might that be?, I inquired. When the weather cleared up, he explained. This particular horse didn’t like drizzly days and sometimes got “a little” spooky until the sun came back out. I suggested that, if this were really the case, perhaps the school should not use him in lessons on drizzly days. My trainer looked at me with a puzzled expression. Nah, he replied, as though I just suggested something really pointless.

As I walked back to the barn on rubbery legs, my nerves frazzled, I began to realize that maybe I had grown too accustomed to our overly cautious, highly litigious horse activity in the U.S. In fact, prior to this trip, I nearly got a hand cramp while checking boxes to renew my professional trainer’s liability paperwork for another year. Fenced property? Check. No dogs allowed? Check. Health and soundness inspection performed on all lesson horses? Check. For pages and pages, I agreed to adhere to policies limiting my hours of operation, my style of instruction, arena footing, and so on. Now here I was across the globe studying with a renowned trainer who didn’t care about his horse running away with me, much less what condition his footing, fence, or rider’s headgear was in. In Portugal they had never heard of release waivers. Ditto for Holland, Germany, and England. I learned quickly that Americans alone like to sue one another for things like climbing on a stallion that they have already been warned likes to stand on his hind legs. I also learned that, should I want to wear a helmet, I needed to bring it with me.

In all subsequent trips, I am the lone rider in the group photos with a colorful plastic dome on her head, the one who sticks out like blot in the picture. I will add, however, that I am also the one rider sitting contentedly aboard her ill-behaved stallion knowing I am somewhat protected. Never mind how nicely behaved the Brazilian group promises their horses to be, I have traveled abroad enough to know that when it comes to terms like docile, highly trained, and pleasant, the spectrum of definitions is far too wide. The overly cautious and slightly uptight American, I’m bringing my helmet just in case.

I might stick out in the photos for being the one without any wind tickling through her locks. But I’ll bet the other more stylish riders with straw or felt hats will reveal a look of wariness, their eyes scanning the skies for possibility of drizzly weather.