Editor’s note: Katie Woodburn, Sechelt resident and recent Chatelech graduate, travelled to Belgium this summer to train in equestrian sports. The following is an account of her experience.
My name is Katie Woodburn. I am 17 and in love with horses — so in love, in fact, that I travelled halfway around the world to Waffleland (also known as Belgium) in order to learn more about these majestic animals and the art of riding them.
After spending my high school years hanging out at the barn, starting as a “barn rat” and eventually progressing to my coaching certification, I was absolutely certain that this way of life was imperative for my existence.
I was absolutely ecstatic when I found I had landed a working student position with Karin Donckers, a five-time Olympic equestrian. The arrangement: I would live at her stables and work in exchange for food and training.
I was on a plane scarcely two weeks after getting my hands on my diploma, and arrived at Donckers Stables smack in the middle of preparations for the Olympic Games in London.
I have occasionally allowed myself to entertain dreams of representing Canada at the Olympics, so sitting at the dinner table with Donckers and listening to discussions of training schedules and packing lists was quite inspiring. The excitement, shared by the other members of the team (whose nationalities included English, French, Irish, American, Dutch, Belgian, Estonian, German, Swedish and Korean) was contagious, and the whole place absolutely vibrated with anticipation.
Of course, I was in for even more work than I had expected (and received fewer lessons than I had hoped for).
I got a sizable reality check as to how much hard work it takes to become an Olympian, not only for the athlete, but their entire support team as well. Donckers (and her parents) have devoted their hearts and souls to her aspirations, and we were expected to as well. The days varied from 10 to 14 hours, and it’s safe to say that I’ve never been so exhausted in my entire life. Despite this, the experience I gained has been absolutely invaluable.
I wedged myself into a part (however small) of the upper echelon of the sport. My brain, surrounded (literally) by 50 horses day and night, as well as such knowledgeable people, turned into more of a sponge than ever before. If I ever found quadratic formulas even half as interesting as I do a nice bit of horseflesh, I would be at Harvard becoming a rocket scientist right now. Sorry, Dad!
Of course, no trip to Europe is complete without marvelling at the culture. People wear heels to horse shows and eat sandwiches with forks and knives. They have a toast spread that tastes like cookies and an awe-inspiring efficient train system. The beer is not only delectable, but also perfectly legal for me to buy! Perhaps the thing which made me feel most at home with Belgians is our mutual insistence on the importance of chocolate, and mayonnaise.
That said, there are certain things about the West Coast that I missed dearly, such as the smell of Sechelt Inlet in the morning. I discovered that my body has a biological timer that made me crave blackberries like mad when they came into season. Unfortunately, what is considered a weed in our town costs roughly 10 cents per berry in a Belgian fruit stand. Is it too cliché to miss maple syrup? — because I do.
Wherever this experience takes me, I feel that it has given me not only applied skills but has taught me life lessons as well. I feel more prepared to tackle my mission, which is to be the absolute best that I can be at this sport.
My aspiration to one day be an Olympian is no longer kept secret for fear of ridicule, but has been re-categorized as a semi-possible goal. I encourage others my age to throw your doubts out the window and chase after whatever you want in life, no matter how “unrealistic” it may seem.
This is, after all, the opportune moment.