Equine Atlantic

I watched my mare, a thirteen year old Shire-thoroughbred cross, walk up the ramp leading into the tractor-trailer truck. Then I patted her nose though the window, the horse with a look of, “Oh, not again,” because she had done the Transcontinental trip the year before, when I finished college on the East Coast and moved back to Colorado. The truck rumbled down the drive and I watched it go, me feeling bewildered and unsteady. Its destination: New York City, John F. Kennedy Airport, the first stop in a long journey that would end in Durham, UK, around two weeks after the moment I watched Gypsum boarding the truck. I must be out of my mind, I thought. Moving myself and my horse to the UK for a master’s degree and eventual PhD; lots of people go abroad for grad school, but who brings their horse?

Four days later, the shipping company called me to report that Gypsum had arrived safe and sound at their stables, somewhere north of New York City. She would be there for a few days, a short rest, before she boarded a plane to Amsterdam at JFK. A couple days later, laden down by luggage — a wheelie, a big duffle, and a set of Irish bagpipes — I rode the A train to JFK and shuffled into the airport, where the horse transporters drove me to an outbuildings in the sprawling complex. There were six stables, Gypsum and several other horses munching hay. I spent an hour brushing Gypsum in the stable before I told her to have a good flight and was given a lift back to the human terminal at the airport to board my own flight to Amsterdam. It’s a scary thought, putting a horse on a plane, and there is a pervasive urban myth prognosticating that if a horse panics on a plane, they’ll shoot it first and ask questions later. This isn’t true. The horses ride in sturdy shipping containers with solid, steel walls. And if someone’s racehorse worth millions of dollars can travel by air, Gypsum could cope. She was travelling with Dutta Corps., who more recently flew the European horses to Las Vegas for the 2015 World Equestrian Games.

So far so good. Everyone where they were supposed to be.

I checked in at the Singapore Airlines counter. As I’d been unable to find a cheap direct flight, I was taking Singapore Airlines from JFK to Frankfurt, then a connecting flight to Schiphol. The lady looked dubiously at my bagpipes case saying, “You can’t take that as carry-on.”

I explained that it was an extremely delicate and valuable musical instrument, and it could not travel in the hold.

“Sorry, no hard cases allowed on board.”

I went for tears — I am not above this — but she remained unmoved.

The passenger in line behind me suggested, “You could buy a soft bag at one of the airport luggage shops, put the instrument in that, and check the empty hard case.”

I ran through the airport, found a duffle bag for ninety dollars, which hurt, but it would be the best ninety dollars I ever spent. The pipes didn’t even fit very well — the drones stuck out of the duffle bag — but it was better than them being tossed around in the belly of the plane.

I inched through security, then waited at the gate. And waited an extra hour because the flight crew’s previous flight was delayed, so ours was an hour late taking off. Then, as it turned out, every other flight was taking off at the same time, so we sat in an interminable line of planes on the runway for another hour. I hoped Gypsum was having a better trip than I was. But we did take off, and while I was worried about making the connecting plane in Frankfurt with our two-hour delay, I consoled myself with the free booze Singapore Airlines proffered even the coach passengers. Gypsum probably wasn’t getting free wine.

By the time the plane landed in Frankfurt and we disembarked, my Lufthansa flight to Amsterdam was long gone. There was a voicemail waiting for me, reporting that Gypsum’s plane had landed on time and she was in the stables near Schiphol Airport. I knew I had to get to Amsterdam in the next twenty-four hours, as I was catching a lift to England with Gypsum in the truck (or indeed, lorry), and I was worried they would leave without me. In a jet-lagged haze, I stood in a line of passengers who had missed connecting flights due to the delay, the line stalled by a hysterical American woman with a thick New York accent and a screaming child, the woman ranting and raving about why needed to be on a flight to Venice in the next hour, her husband looking sullen and embarrassed, like he’d rather be anywhere else. Then, it was my turn.

“Your name isn’t on this list,” said the Lufthansa rep.

“What?” I said.

“It’s not on the list.”

I stared at her in blank horror, almost tearful. I showed her my printed e-ticket.

She did something on her computer. “Oh. Your name is on a different list. You have a flight in four hours.”

The terror of not getting to my horse, or to England, dissipated. Then I called the shipping company, explaining the delay, the rebooked flight, and entertained myself with my laptop in the airport for four or five hours. Eventually I boarded my next plane and it landed in Amsterdam an hour or so later. Once I’d retrieved my bags from the baggage claim, I was to call the horse transporters and they would pick me up. I waited. And waited. I watched the baggage claim empty of passengers and the last lonely bag, which wasn’t mine, making its circuit of the baggage carousel. I was reaching the queasy conclusion that my bags were not here. First, phoning the horse shippers, reporting more delays, and then making my way into the lost luggage office. My bags, according to the computer, were still in Germany. I explained that I was only staying one night in the Netherlands and would then be travelling overland to England, via the Calais Ferry.

“Where are you staying tonight?” asked the lost baggage lady. Tall, very blonde, very Dutch.

“The Horse Hotel.” That’s what I was told it was called: a stable with some hotel rooms attached, located a few miles from the airport.

She looked at me as if I was from Jupiter. “The Horse Hotel?”

“Yeah, it’s nearby. It’s where horses go after they fly into this airport.” I wasn’t doing anything to convince her of my sanity.

She looked through a list of hotels. “I don’t have a Horse Hotel.”

I showed her the paperwork I had, which included the name of the place in Dutch, but she didn’t look any less bewildered.

“The Horse Hotel? Well, where is your final destination?”

“Durham, England.” I gave her the address of my postgrad student accommodation in Durham.

“Are you staying anywhere between your night here and your arrival in Durham? When will you arrive in Durham?”

“I have no idea. I’m travelling in a truck. With the horse. I don’t know how long it will take or where we are stopping en-route.”

She took a note of the Durham address, probably wondering if I’d already visited the Amsterdam coffee shops.

Resigned and exhausted, now with only the bagpipes in their duffle and a laptop, I met the horse transporters at the pick-up area. They drove me to the site of equine arrivals and departures, a hangar in a distant corner of the airport. Given my late arrival, I had to wait in their office while another shipment of horses went out. I watched a couple Gypsy cobs being loaded into the shipping container-type stalls inside the hangar. Then the horse container trundled along a conveyor belt to a 747 waiting out on the tarmac. When the container reached the plane, a forklift raised it and moved it inside. My horse would have gone through the same process in JFK.

Once the cobs had boarded their flight, the transporter, Dave, a paunchy, amicable Londoner who would be our driver as far as Kent, took me to the hotel, where I was at last reunited with Gypsum. She was in a stable, eating hay, looking none the worse for wear. I called my old barn manager in Colorado with the relatively good news that the horse and I had made it to Amsterdam but my luggage hadn’t. At the hotel, I met Dave’s co-driver, Ben, and an American girl called Julie, who was as mad as I was and also bringing her horse to college in the UK. Ben was quiet, smiling silently at Dave’s jokes, and he wore a tank top which showed off rippling muscles and tatoos coiling up to his shoulders. Julie was a petite, bubbly brunette, a hunter rider who thought college in Gloucester was going be like a giant sorority party because the drinking age in the UK is 18.

We borrowed bicycles, marveled at the Netherlands’ bike path network, and headed for the pub, where I nursed a Dutch lager, my head fuzzy, jet-lagged, crashing into a wall of culture shock, wondering what the hell I was doing with my life. England is far away from Colorado. The manic weeks of preparing to move overseas had suddenly culiminated in drinking Dutch beer with English lorry drivers in an alien country.

The next day, I prayed that my luggage would miraculously appear at the Horse Hotel, but it didn’t. So with nothing to my name except for a horse and a set of bagpipes, we set off for England, Julie and I in the back of the cab, the two horses, Gypsum and Julie’s thoroughbred gelding, in the lorry. The drive to Calais was monotonous, endless Dutch and then French motorway, trucks, flat lands with crops and cows all around us for hours, a bit like crossing the Midwest but with more traffic, until we got to the port. Our drivers had an argument with the port authority, who said that the ferry leaving now was full and we would have to wait for the next one. Dave insisted that since we had live animals on board, we were meant to have priority in terms of lorry space on the boat. I don’t think his argument made much of an impact, as we had to sit for a couple hours waiting, Dave complaining about the French. “The English love horses. They always let us board immediately when we’re coming from Dover. But the French eat them; they don’t care!” The horses drank some water, munched on hay, and didn’t seem to mind.

Eventually, we boarded a ferry, following a procession of trucks into the vehicle deck, a vast cavern in the belly of the ship. The horses stayed on board the lorry, while we climbed up the stairs to the passenger lounge. We had access to the trucker’s lounge, which offered a buffet of greasy sausages, eggs, bacon, and mystery meat. The buffet was my first encounter with the British fry-up. Horrified, I shied away from it, eating a desultory banana. An hour or two later, we were called back to the vehicle deck.

Our destination was Hythe, a village not far from Dover. We unloaded the horses and settled them into stables a few miles out of the village. Then Julie and I were taken to a bed and breakfast in town. I was thinking how grateful I was for her companionship; how we could grab a few drinks at the pub together. Two crazy Americans, who had dragged our horses overseas. Best mates, right? But then Ben the lorry driver appeared at the pub. He and Julie disappeared. So that was that. I was better chat than Ben, who had none, but he had a penis. Still, feeling a little abandoned, I had a beer on my own and spent the night becoming acquainted with British television.

Julie’s dalliance with Ben would be brief, because a lorry arrived the following day to pick up her and her gelding. The B&B was even more lonely. My lift was not due to arrive until the following day, but it did not appear until two days later. I asked the stable manager if there was a place to ride. He thought it was a bizarre request, but then it’s grooms, or no one, who travel with horses, not fuddled owners who are at the loosest of ends, stuck in a strange town where they have nothing to do and don’t know anyone. Riding Gypsum was something familiar, reassuring, like putting an old sweatshirt, and she’d traveled well, so no reason not to. The stable was a stopover for horses coming across from the continent; it had no arena. Nonetheless, as weird as he found it, the stable manager let me ride in an empty field. Our first ride on British soil was that field in Kent.

I passed time wandering around the Hythe high street and buying clothes in a charity shop. I also found an improved instrument case for the pipes, and made friends with a bartender at the pub, who’s name was Craig and who was spellbound when I told him why I was in Hythe. He said he had never been out of Southeast England. Moving a horse across the Atlantic seemed outrageous, but so daft that it must be true. He gave me his mobile phone number and as a parting gift, a t-shirt, an oversize one with a Guinness logo.

I was sitting on the tack box in front of Gypsum’s stall when our lorry arrived late in the afternoon, Gypsum and I boarding for the last stage of this journey. Our drive that day was, disappointingly, not very far, only to Newmarket. Malcolm, the taciturn Scottish driver, asked me if I had a hotel. It did not take long to discover that there were no hostels in Newmarket, the hotels were expensive, and there was no choice but to crash on the back seats of the lorry, parked in a layby near the stables.

Before he crawled into his bed, on a platform above the seats, Malcolm grunted, “Don’t tell my wife.”

Or my mother, I thought. Gypsum had a big box stall. I lay on that hard seat and wished I was sharing her soft bed of shavings.

At six am the next morning, we collected Gypsum and several other horses from the stables, and then set off. If one were to take the motorway from Newmarket to Durham, it would only take a few hours. But we didn’t. Malcolm had to follow a circuitous route through England, picking up and dropping off horses. We went to the Queen’s stables, ornate, Victorian buildings with lush pastures, collecting a spooky, thoroughbred-looking horse who had to be wrestled on board by four men. Somewhere in Nottingham, we had to pick up a mare and a foal, who, to Malcolm’s annoyance, were still out in the field. With Malcolm looking grumpy, the people explained that the mare would not board the lorry unless her friend went on first, so after chasing horses around for a while, the horse that wasn’t going was loaded, then the one who was walked up the ramp, and the first mare was taken off. Even with its mother on board, the foal wasn’t keen, so myself, Malcolm, and another guy manhandled it up the ramp. The next pick-up, somewhere in the vicinity of Manchester, was up a twisty single-track road. Malcolm grumbled, then informed the horse’s handlers he would not take the lorry up that road. They told him to wait at the local pub. Twenty minutes later, the people appeared, leading the horse into the carpark. At least it loaded without any trouble.

That was our last pick-up before Malcolm cut across the country to the A1 and drove to County Durham. I was never so relieved to see a motorway. We were his last drop-off that day. Gypsum was grateful to get off that lorry and be done with travelling, and so was I. Horsekeeping in the UK would prove quite different from the US, but a warm stable was a warm stable, and in that moment, it was all she cared about.

The horse was settled, but I was still worried about my luggage. I needed a change from the Guinness t-shirt and charity shop track bottoms. When I showed up at Durham University, I was delighted: the luggage had survived, making its own way across Europe, arriving in Durham slightly worn out and bedraggled. Just like the rest of us.