Memories of a Norwegian Princess:
“Horses are a bit like people. Some you like and some you don’t. Some you simply click with and love, and even though they some times behave abominably, you tolerate them, because their “up side” is so worth it. Countryman was one of those horses. He had real character. He came into my life when I started riding for Henk Nooren in the Netherlands and was a dark bay horse. He didn’t look like much, but he was still quite special.”
Words: Princess Märtha Louise. Photos: Malene Nilssen
“Countryman was one of the rare horses who had been on the team for three Olympics before I got him as an eighteen-year-old. In the 1988 Seoul Olympics he came 4th with David Broome, Great Britain, he was a reserve for the British Team in the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona with the same rider and participated again at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta for Japan with Taizo Sugitani. Needless to say, he was already a hero when I got to know him and he simply loved his job. He did everything in his power competing, but his behaviour at home was quite different.
There was no one who could enter his stable box without being bitten. His nickname was Grumpy and he definitely lived up to it, being the grumpiest horse at the stables. My father said that next time, I had to know the horses nickname before we bought a horse, so that we knew what we were in for. But being grumpy was also a sign of wellness for him.
A few times we mistakenly thought we would give the old fellow a break in the field. He had, after all, jumped at a high level for many years and it had taken its toll on his legs. Other horses thrive from being in the field. It gives them high spirits and energy. Not Grumpy, though. He would start sulking and stop biting. His fur would go dull, he would get uninterested, low in spirits, lose weight and start limping. Being at the stables brought him down. And I was grateful for having a full show schedule with him on the team. He had a sixth sense for competitions, though. Four days before a show he would start perking up, running and bucking merrily in the paddock. His fur would start shining, his eyes would sparkle and as a stroke of magic, he would put weight on and stop limping. It goes without saying that he started getting grumpy and bite in the stables again. To this day, I have no idea how he did it, but four days before every show the same thing happened. We didn’t ride him much at home because we wanted to save him for the shows, so nothing happened differently in his daily routine, but still he knew. So when the day arrived and we were to take off to the show, he was ready.
In fact, he was so ready, we had to take extra care of him and his special needs. He was the hero of the stables after all fighting our way into the box to get him ready. After a few bruises, brushing and elbow grease, he was ready to be loaded on the truck. Like all other VIPs, he had to go last on the truck or wagon so that he was the first to get off at the show. And he needed his space too, as all stars do. But the space was more a protection for other horses than it was for him to get into his zen-zone before the show. If he happened to be too close to the horses next to him, they would get bite marks all down their poor heads and necks. To distract him, he got an extra big net of hay on the wagon.
“Countryman was the perfect teacher for me in the big classes. He had seen it all and I knew that whatever I steered him towards he would jump to the best of his ability, as long as his plaits were in place.”
Princess Märtha Louise
When we arrived at the show, he would start thumping his feet, kicking and neighing. Desperate to get out. In fact, he was so eager to get out, that he could hardly wait till the tailgate was down. This made it hard for the poor person who was to take him off. He really put up a fight. He meant that he knew the game and didn’t need anyone to tell him when to get off. This often resulted in a fight between man and animal, where more often than not the animal, in this case, Grumpy won. He would jerk his head back so hard that the rope would either break or the person in the desperate fight would lose him. He would bolt down the tailgate and run off into the distance, knees high, tail out, making a real stir. Of course, his competitors would try to kick him when he got too close, but he managed to avoid their quick back legs with precision like the sly fox he was. He, of course, bit anyone who came close to catching him, so his freedom often lasted for a bit. Though he knew freedom was limited, he made the best of it.
Once caught and placed in his box, the investigation of the box would commence. Sawdust would fly in all directions as he cleaned the bedding away with his front hooves till he got to the ground or to the cement. If there was grass underneath the bedding, as there is when the show stables are placed directly on the grass, he would make a nice green square in the middle of his box and start grazing till there was nothing more left than if a turtle had eaten it all.
Then there was the vet check. In a vet check, you run the horse at a trot in front of a vet. This is a great way to see if the horses are fit for the show. Are there lame horses, the vet will prevent them from participating. Needless to say, having his old age in mind, I was always really nervous going to the vet check. Even if he had recovered after his short break in the paddock, he was still periodically a bit lame. But I could have saved my sensitive nerves for the show itself, because when he came to the vet check he did the most beautiful extended trot you can imagine, and thus we always passed. It was like he knew what needed to be done to do what he loved the most and we seldom had to run twice regarding his old age.
After the vet check, he needed peace and quiet. This time to get into his zen-zone. He would stand in his box, eyes half closed and charge. It looked like he was sleeping, but this charging was his secret weapon. It gave him the little extra he needed to perform at top level. Which he basically always did. When he started moving, we knew that it was time to do his plaits and this time it was actually safe to go into his box without being bitten.
He liked the plaits especially well. We had tried avoiding them at smaller shows. After all, they do take a lot of time to prepare and we didn’t understand the impact of our actions in the early days. The result being that he bit me getting on the first loos-mained show and continued biting my leg when I finally got on him. Then he ran off as quickly as his four legs could carry him around the warming up arena – in the wrong direction – and I got told by the steward to get out of there promptly. Finally into the ring, he acted as though he was going nicely to the first fence. Once over the starting line, he started bucking and didn’t stop till I was on one side of the fence and him on the other.
Other plaitless shows he would simply drop a leg and have fences down which was not common in the big shows. It took a few times before we understood what the cause was. After all, a horse’s logic is not necessarily like human’s, but even more important to understand their reasoning properly. We had tried different solutions to the problem; that the rink was too small at the smaller shows, the fences too low for his liking, no vet check… It wasn’t until we met an old friend of his, who pinpointed that he was useless without his plaits, that we understood the core of the problem. Every horse has its fortés and weaknesses. Grumpy’s being plaits. We never went on a show with a lose mane ever again.
“I wish all my human friends were as trustworthy as him. I would have handled every dark corner of their psyche, if the upsides were as good – making life much easier to handle.”
Princess Märtha Louise
Countryman was the perfect teacher for me in the big classes. He had seen it all and I knew that whatever I steered him towards he would jump to the best of his ability, as long as his plaits were in place. If I came too close to a fence, he would back off. If I caught a big stride, he either took off early or did an extra stride if necessary. He was unbeatable in the jump offs and turned on a dime. In fact, he reacted so quickly and eloquently to my aids in the landing, that the turn often flung me half off and I would hang around his neck while we jumped the next fence before I got my balance back. Sometimes it even felt as though he knew what fence we were turning to before I got round to giving the aids, because he desperately wanted to be in the prize giving ceremony. Even if we didn’t get a prize I rode him anyway for the prize giving because he simply loved it so much. The bigger the crowd, the more he enjoyed it, bucking from the first stride as we entered the arena all the way to the judges. Once he found his place in the row of prize takers, he would quiet down while he got his prize and would not move a muscle till the National Anthem was done. But as the last tone faded into the hearts of the onlookers, he would start prancing about and would be very hard to hold in place as we did the laps of honour.
Countryman and I got many prizes at home in Norway and abroad. He was always there for me. Regardless of how the other horses went, I could always trust him. He loved his job. He loved jumping the fences. He loved being active, needed and part of the show circuit, getting standing ovations from the crowds. I wish all my human friends were as trustworthy as him. I would have handled every dark corner of their psyche, if the upsides were as good – making life much easier to handle.”
As a regular contributor to EQUILIFE, Princess Märtha Louise of Norway has a long fascination for horses and is an avid rider. She started riding at the age of 8 and was a known face on the showjumping scene through the nineties, doing the World Cup tours and riding on the Norwegian Showjumping Team. She stopped riding in 2000 and has just come back to the sport through her children and their budding interest for horses. In addition to her royal duties and having a focus on persons with disabilities, Princess Märtha Louise is also an entrepreneur and has founded her own business within spirituality called Soulspring. Together with Elisabeth Nordeng she gives courses, writes books and holds lectures worldwide.