Wednesday, November 2, 2011

From Equi-Geek to Paris Chic

Before Paris, my first love was horses. Last month, both Paris and horses came together in one magnificent day.

My Nana had two horses, Topper and Joker, that lived on her Galiano Island property and before I could walk or talk properly, my Dad was taking me to the barn. I grew up under their feet, never afraid, and would sneak out of her house early in the morning just to brush the tangles out of their manes. So it was inevitable that I ended up riding, moving from weekly lessons to leasing various horses until I left home for university. Moving away from home meant the end of my daily trips to the barn. While I missed riding, what I missed most was not being around horses.

I know most girls grow out of their “horse crazy” phase. I never did. Though it took over a decade for me to get back to the barn, I never stopped thinking about horses. I would pull off the highway just to stare at a field of grazing horses and hope one would come to the fence so I could rub its face. I kept all of my gear, including my custom-made monogrammed tack box that was a gift from my Mom the year I turned 16. I moved it from apartment-to-apartment in my twenties, using it as a coffee table or clothing storage. In the very bottom I kept my chaps, polo wraps and saddle pads. Just opening the box, the comforting smell of horse, was enough to make me swoon.

I probably told Chris about my love of horses around the same time I was telling him stories about my grandfather, Buddy. As much as my riding was a family affair, it was Buddy that took me and my riding on as his full-time job. Nearly every day after school, he would be waiting to pick me up, his car pointed in the direction of the barn. Buddy learned how to groom my horse, pick its hooves and even built me a course of jumps that involved sawing a rusty barrel in half. We had the best time together and practically lived at the barn.

Buddy also became a passionate watcher of the sport. Growing up in the late 1980’s and 1990’s, Canada’s equestrian heroes were Ian Millar and Big Ben. And the place to watch them was Spruce Meadows in Calgary. When I moved away from home, it was Buddy who kept me up-to-date by watching CBC’s coverage of Spruce Meadows. He would phone me and report on Ian and Big Ben as well as his personal favourites, Jay Hayes and Zucarlos. It was always our dream to see a show together at Spruce Meadows and while we made it there one summer, it was a week off in between the summer show season.

I eventually went to my first show at Spruce Meadows in 2006. Chris had given me a trip to the Masters Tournament as a Christmas present. It was that September weekend in 2006 that Canada won the Nation’s Cup (Ian Millar was riding!) and Chris proposed to me at the All Canada Ring, with a ring he bought hours before at the Spruce Meadows Tack Shop. It was the perfect, first Spruce Meadows experience and I knew Buddy would have loved it.

Spruce Meadows made me ache for my horsey past. I watched the beautiful horses and saw the riders strut around in their breeches and boots talking about “warming-up” and “five strides down that line”. Though I was never even close to riding at the Spruce Meadows level, I missed being a rider, missed speaking the language and missed having a horse to love.

Less than three months after visiting Spruce Meadows and ten months before our first trip to Paris, Chris gave me back a part of myself that I was missing the most. I woke up on my thirtieth birthday to a card that gifted me to weekly riding lessons for an entire year. And as you can probably guess, weekly lessons turned into a lease and about a year later, we bought my thirtieth birthday lesson horse, Countess.

I have been riding again for nearly five years. In that same period, Chris and I have returned to Spruce Meadows and Paris four times each. Last month, we decided to combine the two vacations and flew to Spruce Meadows on a Friday night, watched the Masters Tournament for two days, and then flew to Paris late on the final day of the show. Horses and Paris on the same day!

The only problem with this magnificent itinerary was packing for two totally different destinations. How I dress for the barn or for a weekend at Spruce Meadows is totally different as to how I dress in Paris. The only thing horses and Paris have in common is that they are both expensive.

I know there are people out there that believe horses and being an equestrienne are incredibly chic. Fashion helps perpetuate this chic myth by telling innocent fashion wannabes that it is perfectly acceptable to wear Hunters to cocktail parties and breeches to business meetings. But trust me hanging out at the barn and riding horses isn’t chic in a Hermès sellier kind of way. It’s hard work, it’s dirty, and quite often it’s completely disgusting. I wouldn’t go near Countess in my Hermès scarf, much less an e-Bay knockoff version.

This past weekend was a perfect example... Before sitting down to write, I spent my morning at the barn where I brushed out poop dreadlocks from Countess’ tail and then tacked her up to ride in the pouring rain. After a wet ride, I groomed her dry, cleaned my tack, and spent another couple of hours taking heavy, sodden hog fuel from her paddock and replacing it with new material for winter. It was still raining. Countess ate her hay and took a nap while I grunted and sweated around her paddock. When I was finished, I was streaked with hog fuel from head-to-toe and as itchy as if I had lain down in a bed of poison ivy. I fed Countess some apples and gave her a big kiss before leaving.

The barn is one extreme but Spruce Meadows requires a different kind of horse wardrobe – it’s equi-geek.

For me, a person who arguably spends too much time considering what to wear each morning and has been almost late to work because I have spent thirty minutes trying to tie the aforementioned Hermes scarf correctly, Spruce Meadows is a chance to let my hair (mane?) down and relax with other equestrian geeks from around the world. It’s a sort of super-fandom horse haven that encourages the wearing of your riding clothes–no horse required!–and the carrying around of a giant white saddle pad to collect your favourite riders’ autographs on. Every year I look forward to dressing like my former 12-year-old horse-crazy-self and pack a suitcase full of equestrian-themed items: items like a too tight, age inappropriate pink t-shirt with white horse leaping across my chest and a bright red Masters 2008 Tournament baseball hat. And of course, my autographed saddle pad. Here I need to note that over the years Chris has collected the signatures of ALL of my riding heroes, including Ian Millar. It is not uncommon to see him leading a charge of teenage girls across the Spruce Meadows grounds, towards their show jumping target, saddle pads fluttering behind them.

This year, with my Paris wardrobe at the forefront, I had to pack less geek and more chic. No horse-themed graphic tees! As I was packing, I came across my seldom-worn Ralph Lauren big pony “Paris” polo which I had bought in Nice the year before. I love it because it has both Paris and a horse on it but its whiteness makes it completely impractical to wear to the barn and my personal style isn’t polo shirts. I seriously bought it thinking it would be perfect for weekends at Spruce Meadows. Or so I thought...

I wore my Paris polo on Nations Cup Saturday. France, rather unexpectedly with just three riders and just beating Canada by a few faults, won the Nation’s Cup. I was unpatriotically thrilled by their win and felt it was a sign that our trip to Paris would be more fabulous than ever.

Read the Spruce Meadows Media Release -

Leaving the show grounds for the day, Chris and I came across the French team leaving their press conference. In a moment of boldness, I grabbed the saddle pad from Chris and made a bee-line for them. Chris was shocked. I normally hide behind a Spruce Meadows topiary, eavesdropping, while Chris says things to Beezie Madden like, “I am your oldest fan”, as she autographs my saddle pad.

It wasn’t until I was standing in front the French team, trying to congratulate them in my blushing French and explain to them that I was going to Paris the following day (!!!), that I realized two horrible things. One, trying to speak French to a single Parisian is difficult enough but trying to speak French to a group of Parisians who are also international show jumpers - Félicitations le French - is just pointless. Their English was far better than mine. Two, I was standing in front of impeccably dressed French international show jumpers wearing an American brand, now dirty, polo shirt with “Paris” across my chest. I was so far from chic that I am surprised they didn’t alert the French border control about my impending arrival.

Instead they were charming and welcoming in a way that I have come to associate with Parisians. I went on and on about how much I loved Paris in case my chest advertisement wasn't obvious enough. They obligingly signed my saddle pad. In English, they told me they were on the same flight. Sure enough, the next night they boarded the plane with us. When we arrived in Paris, one of the team members stood chatting with Chris about upcoming competitions at Orly’s grotty baggage carousel waiting for his LV duffel to arrive.

I spend more time at the barn with Countess than anywhere else. At the barn, I live in stained clothes covered with muck and get dirtier than you would ever imagine. I shed my scarves, my LV’s and happily trade them for unflattering, tight beige pants that highlight the shadow of my cellulite. At the barn, I don’t care about being chic. I am just happy. Happier than I am anywhere but Paris…