The Idea of a Holiday
The idea of a holiday in Spain seemed pretty tempting to me, a break from the routine of the event yard, a break from days of repetitive, patient preparation, the correspondence and form filling.
My girlfriend Tomasey was standing between my knees, chatting on her phone, as I sat on an old, battered leather armchair, skipping through the pages of a horse magazine at my flat near Richmond Park in London.
Tomasey knew just how to twist me around her little finger, with sweet smiles and pleading eyes. She lowered the phone from her ear and said, excitedly, ‘Harry, my friend has a place in Andalusia... a ranch on the edge of a protected forest, which we can ride through.’ She put the phone to her ear again. ‘To a fantastic beach’ she relayed. ‘We can gallop along by the ocean… Harry, please say yes.’
I sat back in my chair with an, oh I don’t know, let me think about it look on my face.
Tomasey swept her long brown hair from her hazel eyes and asked, ‘…well, darling?’
I leant forward, wrapped my arms around her and kissed her blue-jeaned hip.
A week later, we flew to Gibraltar, on the southern tip of Spain. Sitting next to Tomasey, who had the aisle seat, I took a photo of the wing of the plane against the massive backdrop of the four-hundred-meter-high rock of Gibraltar, which stood guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. Impressive, I said to myself. Tomasey didn’t look up from her magazine, she was used to travelling, and at twenty-three she had seen most of the world as a professional event rider.
On landing, we descended the steps under a warm Mediterranean sun. We carried our hand luggage across the tarmac and into the terminal, where we were greeted by Tomasey’s old school friend, Honey, who was settled comfortably into a partnership with a thirty-five-year-old Spanish ranch owner.
Honey had crystal-blue eyes and light colored hair. Her face and arms were a golden brown; bronzed by a life lived in the sun.
Tomasey flung her arms around her friend and said, ‘Honey this is Harry. Harry - Honey.’
‘Hi, Harry,’ said Honey putting her arms through mine and Tomasey’s and walking us towards the exit. ‘This little bit of Spain, Gibraltar, is actually British, so we have to walk across the border into Spain.’
I was amazed as I followed a sign of a green man walking - with the words: This way to Spain.
Ten minutes later, Tomasey and I were in the back of Honey’s Porsche Cayenne and driving out of the town of La Linea De Concepcion on the Spanish side of the border.
‘See all those cars, there in the compound,’ said Honey pointing to the left, ‘…they’re impounded for smuggling tobacco.’
Just outside La Linea we stopped at an intersection and Honey turned the Porsche onto the Spanish highway, the autovia, in the direction of her ranch in the Andalusian countryside. ‘That’s where I had my wedding reception,’ she shouted, as we flashed by the Hurricane Hotel on the coastal road. The colonial style hotel with its faded verandas, reminiscent of New Orleans or Havana.
Twenty minutes later we turned off the autovia and drove through a large fishing village; rows of rusting brown anchors lined the quay. I thought about an article I had read in the in-flight magazine, about the art world in New York. They would call that pile of scrapped anchors “art” and charge a million dollars for it, I thought, smiling to myself.
‘Does everybody call her, Honey?’ I whispered to Tomasey as we sat on the back seat with Honey’s Irish wolfhound Tessa sitting between us; its ears pricked, its eyes searching the road ahead.
‘All her friends, yes,’ Tomasey explained. ‘Her name is really Bee.’
I didn’t reply, but was puzzled, nonetheless.
‘Bee… honeybee? Oh, never mind,’ Tomasey whispered. ‘Don’t worry, you won’t be writing her out a parking ticket.’
I laughed, but the unintentional jibe about me once being a cop had caught me under the ribs.
A Spanish Ranch
Tomasey’s comment took me back to my life before I became an event rider, and even before I first travelled to Europe.
Born in New York, the son of a mounted police officer, I was ten years old when my father was shot and killed by a man he’d been chasing on horseback during a bank robbery. In memory of my Dad - who had been such an inspiration to me and my mom, Frances - I decided to follow in his footsteps.
Associating horses with grief and sadness though, I chose not to join the mounted division that my father had been such a big part of. So, after finishing High School, I joined the New York Police Department as a patrolman.
It was on one of my days off that I saw Tomasey for the first time, she was riding horseback across Central Park; her long brown hair streaming out behind her.
I found out, when she’d stopped at the exercise bars where I’d been pumping my muscles, that she was British, a rider and athlete on a working vacation. It was a case of love at first sight, not only because she was different to the other girls I had met, but because of her deep-rooted connection with horses. She brought back memories for me of riding horses with my father when I was a kid; riding bareback up sandy colored trails in the White Mountains, on vacation.
“They say opposites attract…” my partner Toni Dolman had said, as we sat in our patrol car one morning in Manhattan. He was surprised I was dating an English girl. I told him how much I had fallen for her; the girl that I’d met by chance.
I told him about my trips up-state to see her working with her horses. I also relayed how I started to love the things she did; how I too longed for the life she led. I didn’t need to tell him though, how lost I was when, at the end of that summer, Tomasey had returned home to England. I remember the day she had left New York. The hurried embrace, the hasty parting on a cold, snow covered street in downtown Manhattan; the tall, dark buildings towering silently above us.
Months had passed after she’d left, when one day I received a letter from England. Tomasey’s imaginative words opening a treasure chest of images. She wrote of horse trials, country fairs and the Royal Mews at the back of Buckingham Palace, where she worked. But, most of all, she brought to life for me the thrill of competition and the excitement of being an event rider. Her letters inspired me to ride again.
It was my partner Toni Dolman who came up with the idea for me to spend a day with horses. So, through a mounted policeman friend called Johnny Lotto, I visited a riding school in New York. From the first day I was hooked! Starting with indoor lessons, I progressed to hacks and finally rode across open fields, one to one with my instructor. I remembered with a smile, when, while still only a novice, I had bought a horse called Sam on a whim with a girl I had only just met. How proud I felt to be able to write to Tomasey and say that I owned my own horse.
It was Tomasey’s profession as an event rider that inspired me to tackle my first novice events. After a year I had jumped at intermediate level and tasted my first victory.
It was about this time that a retired Navy Commander named Alvin Griffith entered the scene. He had been watching my progress at the equestrian centre where he liked to spend his leisure time. He loved the daily routine, the disciplines of the sporting horses, and he enjoyed the social life, too. He had been impressed by my dedication and my early wins at one-day events. Alvin Griffith - who loved horses but never rode them - became my mentor and friend. He organized my trip out to California to train with a legendary horseman by the name of Turk Chantel. It was while I was there, the idea of entering the world’s premier horse trials started to become a reality. I knew Tomasey would be completing on her horse, Tolkien.
Coming full circle, helped by Alvin Griffith, plus the New York Police Bereavement and Pensions Fund, I entered for Badminton. I travelled to England with the intention to, at the very least, complete the course - and hopefully win Tomasey back at the same time.
I snapped back to the present as I hit my head on the window of Honey’s car as it lurched down a private dirt road. I had felt a chill pass over me, even though the hot Spanish sun was beating down on the roof. I felt for Tomasey’s hand across the back seat to reassure myself she was still there.
We had finally arrived at Honey’s whitewashed ranch. The entrance to the property was protected by high, electric gates, ‘to keep smugglers from stealing our four-wheel drives,’ she said. ‘They’ll use them to get their stuff up from the beach through the trees and onto the road. When they are done, they will burn and dump them.’
I was amazed at this and her other tales of smuggling. ‘There’s only about twenty miles of water between this part of Spain and Morocco,’ continued Honey over her shoulder as she manoeuvred the Porsche gingerly through the iron gates, ‘…beyond that, is Africa.’ She turned off the engine and, pushing her sunglasses up onto her head, smiled at us warmly in the rear-view mirror; her eyes a blend of Mediterranean blue, speckled with Spanish sun.
Inside the ranch, we were shown to our own bungalow. It had a veranda that overlooked a patchwork of gardens where a man in a wide-brimmed straw hat was smiling, satisfied at the freshly turned rows of green beans he had been tending. His black-and-white dog ran up and down, stopping to root with its snout when he smelt something of interest.
Above the patchwork of gardens, rolled the Andalusian countryside, dotted with dovecotes, windmills and white houses. The constant barking of dogs, a constant sound in a new and different country.
After Tomasey and I had unpacked, we joined Honey and her partner, Pepe, in a large dining room. The imposing Spaniard wore a white baseball cap and red polo shirt; his expensive looking tortoiseshell sunglasses hung by a black and gold cord around his neck; resting on his well-rounded stomach.
We were in the central gathering place in the main house. A beautiful Spanish saddle sat on a trestle by the door as an art piece, and at every door I noticed wooden bootjacks, which told me that this was very much a working ranch.
Other guests of Honey and Pepe arrived: two riders from the Netherlands, Kelsey Romana and Wendy Van Alphen. Another visitor who was a rival of Tomasey’s on the British eventing team, the highly talented, Ellis England and her accomplished teammate, Phoebe Armitage. Trudi Garland completed our party; an English friend of Tomasey’s and mine.
After drinks, the guests took their places on a long table, beneath ancient whitewashed beams. Honey and Pepe sat at either end of the table.
We had a dinner of Spanish sardines and black olive linguine. Blood red Rioja flowed as conversation started up between riders: of coming events, of new horses and past victories. I wondered what these Europeans thought of me, the American who had won Badminton at the first attempt.
No one spoke of it at the table, but on the sideboard, I could see, out of the corner of my eye, a popular horse magazine that had openly asked the question:
How will Harry Hunter of the USA fare at the approaching World Equestrian Games?
I knew that everybody at the table was asking themselves the same question about their own chances. They’d be hoping they wouldn’t pick up an injury, their horse wouldn’t go lame, and their confidence and courage would not fail them in their chosen, sometimes dangerous, sport.
Honey got up and dimmed the lights as Pepe came in from the kitchen carrying a large tray of desserts. He then lost no time in pouring Cognac over the crème brûlée. Setting them alight, he created a table of flickering blue halos and a collective ahh… went up from the guests at the table as young Charlotte, the daughter of one of the ranch hands cried, ‘Olé, look at the pretty blue lights! ‘
I had become sleepy with the effects of the long meal and large glasses of Rioja and was relieved when Honey said, ‘…well done, everyone!’ at the sight that most of the food had been eaten. ‘Time for bed and tomorrow we’ll go down to the stables and you’ll meet your horses. Goodnight.’
In our room, Tomasey and I lay back, tired and contented under our brightly-colored Spanish blankets as distant thunder rumbled away across the countryside and dogs barked from white farmhouses scattered across the Spanish hills. Our lovemaking was tender, our sleep sound; a cool night spent in each other’s hot, sunburned arms.