t’s the night before I leave for the Mediterranean Equestrian Tour (MET) in Oliva, Spain and I’m meticulously packing. I know I won’t sleep well since I have to be up early, so I’m taking my time checking over my camera gear and dumping images from my laptop to my external hard drive. It’s a long trip and I expect I will get plenty of work done on the plane, so I don’t want to move too many photos that still need editing and filing. My cat, Uno, can tell I’m leaving and has been alternating pouting under the bed and loudly meowing at me from the floor.
I’m a seasoned traveler in North America, but I’ve never been to Europe. My parents, husband, and co-workers humor my many questions and offer helpful advice: don’t forget a neck pillow for the plane; tell the bank you’re traveling international; set up an international cell phone plan. My dad, a retired Navy commander, is close to dropping everything and coming with me, but he settles for an extensive ‘dad talk’ about the thrills and risks of traveling abroad: “Do you have any Ambien so you can sleep on the plane?” “You are going to love the food.” “Don’t go anywhere alone.” “There are bars EVERYWHERE on the beach.”
The view from my hotel room.
I leave my house on time (that’s a good start for me) and drive a little more than two hours to the airport. My camera bag gets pinged in security; there is nothing that makes me more nervous. That’s my livelihood in there! The culprit is a bundle of loose change. The TSA agent leans over a little too closely and whispers in my ear, “People like to hide things in change.”
Door to door, it takes 26 hours for me to arrive at the Oliva Nova Hotel Beach and Golf Resort from my home in Western North Carolina, United States. The ocean view from my room is gorgeous, and even though I am pooped, I take a long, relaxing walk on the beach. The tide is coming in, but the beach is very wide here. There are a bunch of friendly dogs that bound up to me in the sand; I try to guess which of their owners are horse people. I’ve heard horses from the show are ridden on the beach in the morning, and I’m excited for those photo ops. I enjoy good wine with dinner and crash.
The next morning I spend the day acquainting myself with the show venue. There are three competition arenas and three warm-up arenas. The atmosphere is busy, but the layout makes it easy to get around. A two-story building overlooking the grand prix arena has a bar (The Club) downstairs where you can order drinks and watch the competition on the covered patio, or go upstairs to the Ocean’s restaurant for a traditional Spanish meal on the terrace. I opt to have lunch at the Central Aura Lounge between the two smaller competition arenas, sitting at a high top table and watching a few rounds.
The Central Aura Lounge overlooking the "Oliva" ring.
I hail from the eventing world, but I enjoy the edge-of-your-seat intensity of pure show jumping — a sport of inches. At shows in the States, I see familiar faces at every turn, but I don’t know anyone here. I’m an introvert at heart and honestly a bit shy (posting first person clips from the show to NF Instagram stories is a wide step outside my comfort zone). I ponder, how will I introduce myself to this crowd and track down good stories? But horse people are a welcoming bunch in general and they love to talk about their horses — that’s the ultimate ice breaker.
I knew I’d be meeting with Mathilda Karlsson to do a photoshoot for an upcoming story. She lives in Germany and rides for Sri Lanka. She’s one of the friendliest, sunniest people I’ve ever met. She has a winning smile but also a striking model ‘stare.’ The photos we capture are fantastic. She introduces me to Jamie Wingrave, a British-born rider who changed his nationality to ride for Hungary. He is simply lovely. He buys me an Americano and we chat about his life, his ambitions, and horses with bloodlines that are meaningful to each of us.
Celebrating Mathilda's clear round and fifth place finish in the CSI3* 1.50m Grand Prix.
One of my primary tasks while I’m here is to photograph Alexander Zetterman for an upcoming magazine feature. We meet that first day to go over the game plan. Bright and early in the morning we head down to the beach with a gorgeous gray I dubb “Puppy” because he’s so friendly (and because I couldn’t quite pronounce his real name). When photographing horses, you obviously can’t tell exactly them what to do and you can’t control their attitude on any given day. Puppy is a little unsure about the ocean waves today so we adjust his proximity to the water and keep him walking so he’s comfortable. I get a good workout running through the sand to stay ahead of the morning light.
Returning Puppy to the barn we capture a few more shots around the venue. Alex is soft spoken, thoughtful, and quiet unless he’s talking about his horses — then he is a storyteller. Born in Sweden, he now lives in France and he tells me he’s taking French language classes. It’s so common for Europeans to be bilingual, and I find it exceedingly frustrating that I am not. The longer I’m here and hearing Spanish, the more words and phrases I recall from the several years of Spanish I took in school. But if you don’t practice, you lose it, and Duolingo only helps so much when it comes to natural conversation. Later I look up the program Alex is using, which lets you talk with a real person over video chats. Next time I come here, I vow, I’ll speak better Spanish.
Most days I take a shuttle between the horse show and the hotel, but on Saturday I walk back to the hotel on the beach while I Facetime with my husband (and the cat, who is equally vocal). Those are my last minutes on the beach, as it pours with rain all day Sunday. I spend most of my final day at MET meeting with riders in The Club. I’m so happy to have made some friends and established some relationships over the last four days.
Lost and found.
The journey home takes twice as long as it should. Long story short, there is a major hiccup connecting flights, and I end up rerouting through JFK. As we go wheels up over New York, this country girl goggles at the urban sprawl below. As the countless houses stretch so many miles into the distance, I ponder the sheer number of people in this world, each with a unique history and story to tell of their own challenges and triumphs. There is much more I’d like to see in the world, and I feel a great appreciation for the opportunity to visit different parts of the earth thanks to my job. And that’s all thanks to horses.
Thanks to MET Oliva for welcoming me to the show. It’s an experience I won’t forget.
Thumbs up for a clear round in the grand prix for Edwin Smits and Best of Berlin BS.
Photos by Leslie Threlkeld for NoelleFloyd.com.