When Sari got invited to attend a mule gathering in Germany, she had a million reasons why she couldn’t (and shouldn’t) go, but that didn’t stop her!
Author: Sari Maydew, Horsemanship Magazine
A Change of Heart
Towards the end of 2017, I lost my confidence riding. It was a cumulative thing that took place over many years with many different mounts, and when my mule bolted with me my shredded nerves just about gave up.
Then in July 2018, I got a Facebook message from my friend Nathalie Leplang who owns Hepscheid Longear Trails in Belgium. She said she would be taking her four mules to an annual mule gathering in August – just over the border in western Germany – and one of the mules didn’t have a rider. Would I like to come?
Now, I had a whole host of reasons why I couldn’t. Money was tight; I’m very shy and get nervous around strangers; I don’t speak German (or Dutch, or French – Belgium has three official languages!); my much more capable husband couldn’t come with me; and, oh yes, I was terrified of riding. I had only ridden a handful of times since the bolting incident – in an arena, and on a lead-rein!
But how often does an opportunity like that come up? There aren’t a lot of mules in the UK, and I was desperate for the opportunity to meet more of them. Plus, the promise of adventure was too good to ignore.
Booking the Ticket
So a plan was hatched. Eurostar was a slightly cheaper and easier option than flying, and my parents and my in-laws generously paid for my ticket as an early birthday present. I would take a train to London, then from London I’d catch the Eurostar to Brussels, and then from Brussels I’d get on another train to Liège-Guillemins, where Nathalie would pick me up. Travel in Belgium was included on my Eurostar ticket, which I thought was excellent value.
The Adventure Begins
I was prematurely congratulating myself on doing so well when I reached Brussels station and realised I had absolutely no idea where to go. The layout was so different from British train stations, and I couldn’t find anyone to ask (which was particularly annoying, as I’d carefully memorised how to do so from my phrase book). I was starting to panic when my ears picked out the words “Guillemins” and “quatre” from the tannoy system. I ran full pelt to platform four to find a train ready to depart; forgetting how to ask properly, I just yelped “Liège-Guillemins?!” to a pair of bewildered men on the platform. They looked at me like I was a crazy lady, nodded slowly, and I leapt on the train just before the doors closed.
Nathalie was extremely friendly and welcoming and so easy to get along with. It was about an hours drive back to her place from Liège, and by the time I arrived my train-induced adrenalin levels had just about dissipated. I was introduced to Debby and Süzz, the other two ladies who I would be riding with as part of the Hepscheid Team. Süzz and I were sharing the spacious attic room which had great views out across the fields. Fortunately for me, everyone either spoke or understood very good English – although I was ashamed of myself for not knowing at least one other language well enough to converse in, particularly when surrounded by polyglots!
We had a test ride the next morning before leaving for Germany. I was put on Aurore, a Fjord mule and the steadiest of the bunch. Nathalie rode Aurore’s half-sister Tizanes, Süzz rode Dakota the partbred Ardennes, and Debby rode Spanish BamBam. When I first got on board, I felt those familiar nerves; but as soon as the gates were opened and we headed out onto the road that would take us down to the forest, I felt my fears melt away. It really was that easy. Aurore was so comfortable and solid, and she knew exactly what her job was. I could let go of the “What if’s…” and just concentrate on enjoying myself.
Once back at the farm, we loaded the mules and their gear into the trailer and headed over the border into Germany. People in continental Europe tend to use trailers rather than lorries, and Nathalie’s could only take two mules at a time so we did two runs. Luckily it wasn’t a very big distance.
A Gathering of Mules
The mule gathering was hosted by Triple Mountain Ranch, a “Wanderreitstation” – a place where travellers with or without equines can stop and stay for a few nights. It was Western themed and had a brilliant saloon bar with adjoining bunk room where the Hepscheid team were sleeping. The proprietor, Iris Ritzerfeld, also makes the most amazing liquorice schnapps (Süzz told me they call is “dropshot” in Dutch) which I would highly recommend sampling! It really helps with your foreign language skills.
Unlike England, Germany has a “right to roam” which allows far greater access to trails and makes it much easier, I think, for people to travel long distances on horse (or mule!) back. The country is also around 30% forest and we met very few other people on our rides that weekend, with only a couple of roads to cross.
Lynx or Links?
On Saturday we rode for twelve miles, mostly through forests. It was beautiful! Aurore liked being in the lead, so that was our position for most of the ride – not, perhaps, the ideal position for her rider, who doesn’t know the trails and didn’t speak German. The German word for left is “links”, and every time someone shouted it at me from further down the column I’d have a brief moment of excitement as I thought someone had spotted a lynx.
Aurore, who had carried me serenely through forestry in Belgium only the day before, decided that German tree stumps were much scarier than Belgian ones and spooked at every single one we passed.
The place we stopped at for lunch had a dedicated area for horses, with a large corral, water troughs, and hitching rails. There was also a curious pyramid shelter in the middle, presumably for riders to shelter or sleep in if the weather was bad. It came in very handy when Aurore, who I was hand-grazing, decided to try dragging me across the corral – I was able to put a foot on the base of the pyramid and use the leverage to turn her head. As you can probably imagine, a Fjord mule has an unbelievably strong neck!
Stepping Back in Time
Sunday’s ride was shorter at only eight miles, but we stopped for lunch within the walls of a 12th century castle. I think I may actually have stopped breathing for a moment as all nine of us rode across the bridge, through the barbican, and up the narrow, cobbled streets; it was like stepping back in time. I’ve visited a lot of castles, but I’ve never ridden into one before.
I had a wonderful few days in Germany and Belgium, and honestly the only bad part of the whole trip was that Nathalie’s mare did not give birth to her mule baby while I was there. I was so hoping she would!
Taking My Confidence Home
Two days after returning to England, I rode my own mule around the arena without a lead rein. The next day, I got on board and rode straight out into the big hay field without feeling the slightest hint of fear – something I could not have done a week previously. A few days later, to celebrate my birthday, I rode for six miles – the furthest I’d ridden on my own mule for over a year.
My adventure may seem very tame to some. The only real challenges I had to overcome were the ones in my head, but I gained so much in return!