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Sunday July 22 2007

Friendly people, beautiful countryside, thick green wet forests, old well-preserved houses and castles, perfect lighting, not least the mild weather... Belgium has grown on me and the Raven quickly.

Leonard and Carole live in a little village, Gesves (say ?zhev?) 70 km from Brussels, putting them in the southern region of Belgium, the Wallonian French-speaking part. Leo's lovely old house probably originally dates back to the 1800's ? he's lived in it for 10 years. There's a few old stables and several paddocks rich with grass for his 4 horses. Many of the village dwellers rebuild the houses from the 1700's and 1800's in the old stone style. Many were big old farmhouses, half of which the family lived in and half which was the stables for the animals. Belgium has more castles per square mile than any country, and I saw a number of them driving to Leo's house from Brussels (?Oh, there's another castle?). Most people keep up their old places in meticulous condition, taking much pride in landscaping them. Brilliant, bright-colored flowers inhabit many brick and stone windowsills everywhere.

It's lovely and cool at night, and not-hot during the day, although if you don't like the weather, wait 10 minutes and it will change: sun, clouds, rain, rain and sun, wind, storm, not a breeze. It usually starts off perfectly clear every morning and starts clouding up by noon, and by evening, you can hedge your bets that it's raining somewhere in Belgium. And always, at about 8 PM for about an hour, brilliant golden evening light filters through either haze or clouds or moist air, accenting church steeples and castles, highlighting the folds of hills and the leaves on trees. Even if you're not a photographer, it makes you stare with your mouth open in amazement.

The wet forest is much like the Pacific Northwest: wet, green, thick, ferns, moss, mud, slugs (a twinge of homesickness here?). It can be hard to get a horse fit training in the forest here because of the mud, and the rocks in the mud, and the very slick up and down small wet hills, but Leo has the option of stabling his horses on an old racecourse (10 minutes from his work in downtown Brussels, so he spends lunch 2 or 3 times a week riding his horse for an hour or two), adjacent to a government-owned forest with 10's of kilometres to ride on well-maintained, groomed, non-rocky trails. It's great for canter training, but, as Leo points out, it's also good to take the horses on rocky trails in the home forest, so they learn to walk over rocks ? learn to balance, balance, learn the best place to put their feet.

The Raven and I rode in the home forest a couple of times, and over the groomed track and trails through the forest just outside Brussels. On our second ride near home, squeezing along an overgrown track, suddenly beside me, a hawk feather fluttered down beside me and my horse! I reached out and grabbed for it - it touched my fingers, but slipped out of my grasp and floated to the ground. I called to Leo - ?Wait!? and I started to get off to retrieve it. Then I thought not; sometimes, you have to leave a feather ? you can't take them all. So, I thanked the hawk that dropped it, and rode on.

The next day, riding along the old racecourse, there, right in front of us on the grass... another hawk feather! You don't turn down 2 hawk feathers in a row. I hopped off my horse, picked it up, and stuffed it in my pocket. It looked much like a red-tailed hawk to me, and Leo said it was a ?buse? - which I looked up. It's also called a Common Buzzard, and is central Europe's most common bird of prey; it looks similar to our American Red-tailed hawks or Swainson's hawks. Nice! I think the feather was a gift from the hawk to the Raven!

The Raven and I've ridden Carol's young horse Bicai, Leo's 6-year-old qualified horse Dario, and, the star of Leo's stable, 18-year-old Orfeo: a horse that's been to 2 European Championships and 4 World Championships. More on Orfeo and Leo later... Orfeo and Leo will be part of the Belgium team riding at Compiegne, France ? probably one of France's two top rides - on August 25, and I will be helping Carol to crew ? now THAT is going to be a big experience!

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