Where are you staying tonight?” asked the lost baggage lady at Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in the Netherlands.
“The Horse Hotel,” I said, referring to the stable, with hotel rooms attached, located a few miles from the airport.
She stared at me. “The Horse Hotel?”
“It’s where horses go after they fly into this airport.”
She gave me a strange look, then scanned through a list of hotels. “I don’t have a Horse Hotel.”
I showed her my paperwork, which included the name of the place in Dutch. But this did not help. The Horse Hotel wasn’t on her list in any language. Shifting gears, she asked “Well, where is your final destination?”
“Durham, England,” I responded.
“Are you staying anywhere between your night here and your arrival in Durham? When will you arrive there?”
“I have no idea. I’m traveling in a truck. With the horse,” I said. “I don’t know how long it will take or where we are stopping en route.”
With a blank expression, she made note of the Durham address.
I was in this predicament because I’d been accepted into a postgraduate program at Durham University. So I was moving to the United Kingdom with my mare Gypsum, a Shire-Thoroughbred cross. I arranged our flights and paperwork through Dutta Corps, an international horse-transportation company.
A week before, Gypsum was transported from Boulder, Colorado to Kennedy Airport in New York, where she was loaded onto a 747. Meanwhile, I made my own transcontinental trip to the same airport and boarded a different plane. I looked forward to being reunited with Gypsum at Schiphol.
The process had seemed daunting, but it proceeded as smoothly as you might expect, given it’s usually equestrian stars like Steffen Peters or Carl Hester that are flying horses around the planet. This horse-transport business is a slick operation, I told myself. And it was, until my commercial flight was delayed for four hours—and I learned upon arriving in Amsterdam that my luggage was still in New York.
The first step in our journey
But both Gypsum and I were now in the Netherlands, that was the important thing. And the horse transporter, Dave, rescued me from Schiphol and drove me to the Horse Hotel.
When I got there, Gypsum had already settled in, nibbling hay in a stall. She seemed unsurprised to see me. Long journeys were not new to her, she’d traveled across the States a couple of times.
That evening, I met Dave’s younger co-driver, Ben, as well as an American girl called Julie, who was also bringing her horse to college in the UK, proving I wasn’t the only crazy person. We borrowed bicycles and headed for a pub to drink Dutch lager. In a jet-lagged haze, I wondered what I was doing here. I’d left Boulder—Boulder, the place everyone wants to live—for Northeast England. Who does that? I live in Glasgow now, so the question remains open.
We set off for the UK at the crack of dawn. Transporters work to a tight schedule, so we couldn’t wait for my luggage. Julie and I sat in the cab, while our horses, Gypsum and Julie’s Thoroughbred gelding, rode in the back. The drive to Calais took us over first Dutch and then French highways, passing farms and crop fields stretching on for miles. Dave, a true horseman, shared stories from his years of driving trucks for the horse industry.
At Calais, we boarded a ferry that would take us across the channel to England. The horses stayed on the truck, parked on the vehicle deck, while we went into the lounge. It was dim and the air smoky, so I wandered the decks. About an hour and a half later, the pale cliffs of Dover came into view, and we prepared for arrival.
Arrival in England
Our destination, Hythe, was a short drive from the ferry terminal. When we arrived, we unloaded the horses and settled them into stables near the village. The drivers took Julie and me to a Bed & Breakfast in town. I had a beer at the pub and spent the night watching TV, overwhelmed by life and baffled by Doctor Who and the British obsession with panel shows.
Julie’s transport to Gloucester arrived the next day. My lorry was scheduled to arrive in two days, maybe three. In the meantime, the stable manager let me ride in an empty field on the property, although I think he was bemused by my request. Most people passing through his layover barn don’t ride.
Later, I wandered the village, buying clothes in a charity shop, and made friends with Craig, the bartender at the pub. He was dumbfounded by the whole notion of moving horses overseas. But he gave me a clean t-shirt after I explained why I had no luggage.
Our lorry arrived late one afternoon, and Gypsum and I embarked on the next leg of this journey. The trip that day was relatively short, just a couple hours north to Newmarket, where we would pick up more horses.
When we arrived, Malcolm, the taciturn Scottish driver, asked me if I had a hotel. Obviously not—I didn’t even know we would be going to Newmarket. Mobile internet was crude in those days, but I quickly discovered that there were no hostels in Newmarket, and the few hotels nearby were eye-wateringly expensive. Consequently, I spent a sleepless night on the hard back seat of the lorry cab. Malcolm, who had a bunk above, muttered, “Don’t tell my wife.”
I responded, “Don’t tell my mother.”
At six the next morning, we loaded Gypsum and the other horses, then set off. If you used the motorway (what the British call their highways), the drive from Newmarket to Durham would take around four hours. Instead, Malcolm followed a circuitous route over back roads, picking up more horses. He didn’t say much and clearly wasn’t used to human passengers, so I listened to my iPod. It felt antisocial, but I think that was how Malcolm preferred it.
Last stop: The queen’s stable
One of our stops was the Queen’s stables, where verdant pastures surrounded ornate Victorian barns. Malcolm grumpily collected a nervous Thoroughbred; four mend helped wrestle the horse on board.
Somewhere near Nottingham, we stopped to pick up a mare and a foal who were still loose in their field. With Malcolm surlier than ever, the owners explained that the mare would not board the lorry unless her friend went on first. So after chasing horses around a field, the men first loaded the mare who was staying. Then, once the actual passenger had walked up the ramp, the owner led the first mare off. Now it was the foal’s turn. But he seemed to have inherited his dam’s aversion to loading. The little fellow planted his feet and skittered backward. I pitched in to help Malcolm and the other guy muscle the youngster aboard.
The next pickup, somewhere in Lancashire, took us up a single-lane road, hardly wider than the truck. Malcolm swore, and then he phoned the horse’s handlers to inform them that he would not be taking his lorry any further. They told him to wait at the local pub. Twenty minutes later, two people led a horse into the pub parking lot. Fortunately, this time loading was not a problem.
The Lancashire pub was our final diversion before Malcolm cut across the country to the A1, now on a straight course for County Durham. I have never been so relieved to see a highway. Our new stables were in a weary, ex-coal-mining town called Tow Law, half an hour west of Durham City.
We were the final drop-off. The other horses, destined for Scotland, would spend the night at the lorry company’s barn on the border. Gypsum, finally fed up with travel, dragged me down the ramp. Looking at my mare, I wondered if she knew how far she had traveled— if she wondered why we had chosen a place where it rains all the time.