Micky Nijboer strides through the Saddle Club with contagious enthusiasm. ‘Let me show you around this little piece of paradise.’
The 9-hectare oasis lies in the pounding heart of Lagos – one of the world’s most densely crowded megacities. Outside the perimeter wall, car horns, street hawkers and truck motors screech and roar. But tranquillity blankets the horse-riding club this Wednesday morning. A gardener splashes water on the grass surrounding the white picketed riding arena; birds call out from a riot of tropical trees. The mini forest shelters two deer, a family of Grey Duikers (miniature antelopes), wild monkeys and squirrels.Micky leads the way to the stables with long, confident strides. There are 100 horses here. I’m surprised by the absence of flies, the calmness of the horses, the lack of barnyard odour. She makes arrangements with the head groom for the morning’s lessons and strokes the horse she has adopted. I get the sense that Micky, a tall and pale-skinned Dutch woman, belongs here, that the fit between her and the club is natural, a perfect fit. But the truth is that this dress, and the model, both took some adjusting before it fit just right.
‘When the possibility of a posting in Nigeria first came up, my only condition to my husband was that I would be able to continue with my passion for riding,’ explains Micky.
But the bubble of that dream burst at her first visit to the club. To start with, everyone told her that the journey was too dangerous. Then there was the issue of the difference in attitude to horse welfare. No horse in Holland has scabs and scars or horse hoof rot like the horses here did. The grooms did what could but standards of care were worlds apart.
Micky has always been passionate about horses. At the age of 16 she applied to the 4-year national Horse Management programme in order to start a career in the horse world. But she was rejected. ‘I was really lost for a while, I didn’t know what I wanted to do.’ She got a job behind the bar in a youth centre on the North Sea island of Terschelling where she met her husband.
They moved to their native province of Friesland, bought a house and started a family. Along the way, she worked in various sectors of the sport – at a stud farm, a jumping stable in Switzerland… But unless you have a wealthy family behind you, or an established name in the horse world, it is very difficult to get established in the Netherlands.
Eventually, she started a career in the food quality control industry. ‘So I focussed my passion for horses on my personal goals in dressage.’ She even earned fame as the Hero of the Horses of Mokkum. In 2006, over 200 horses were stranded in a flooded field. The entire nation watched transfixed as the military failed to rescue them, and then cheered as Micky and 5 female riders led the horses out through the rough terrain concealed under freezing November waters. It was Micky’s idea to use the natural herd instinct of the horses that naturally follow a matriarch.
And so, rather than becoming her profession, riding became her hobby. Micky explained the B to Z categorisation of competition. ‘These horses are lovely,’ she said, patting the newest addition to the club’s stable. ‘But they are at the basic B-level of breading and training.’ With her horse in Holland, she is currently working to achieve the Z level, the highest in the non-professional category.
Her perfect posture and Fries directness mask an inner timidity.
‘To be honest, that first year I had my hands full just taking care of myself, and my kids. My husband’s company is not used to having expats so I had to set everything up by myself.’ This was Micky’s first experience outside of Europe: establishing a life in Lagos was like playing a new board game without the instruction booklet. Contact with her sport and her horse were so important to her that she would fly to the Netherlands every few months, just to ride for a week.
It wasn’t until a year and half later, when her 11-year-old daughter wanted to taking riding lessons that she returned to the club. By that time, her frame of reference had changed. And so had the club.
Accompanying her daughter, she discovered that the drive to the club wasn’t as dangerous as it was made out to be: it was a quick half hour on the mainland and her driver had good information on traffic and safety conditions. Moreover, the club was looking for ways to recover its former expertise and membership base. When asked if she would give lessons, she agreed. When she was asked if she would join the executive committee as Horse Member in charge of horse welfare and managing the grooms, she rolled up her sleeves and got active.
‘At first I was really careful. I wasn’t sure what I could, what I was allowed to take on. But the committee gave me full confidence. They were open to everything I suggested.’
As we meander through the grounds, a gardener stops her, clutching a wheelbarrow. ‘Ma, tell the boys not to dump here,’ he says, scowling at the pile of household garbage that lay on a heap of dry leaves and swept earth.
After a short conversation I understood that part of her work is to manage the small village of grooms and their families that live in the enclosure behind the stalls.
‘My first goal was to get the horses healthy and then get the equipment in order – saddles and bridles… Once I had achieved that my next goal was to get the club more structured.’ But this was new territory for Micky. ‘I had no idea.’
‘At first I was really worried about imposing things on people. What price do you ask for a lesson?’ She relies heavily on the advice of others who have management experience or who have been here a long time. For instance, her husband insisted that she get people to sign a liability release form.
Riding has now become a secondary activity. ‘I ride when I have time, usually a round or two whenever I come.’ The rest of her mornings are spent on club affairs. She has traded a horse and bought another, had cement laid down between the rows of stalls to protect the horses hooves in the rainy season.
‘I’m so proud when I see the horses standing their in their shiny coats, their hooves healthy. And the growing number of people who want to come to have lessons and spend time at the club.’
Micky is now taking the club one step further: she is organising an official competition on 9 May. And so, by a circuitous and entirely unplanned path, the dream Micky had as a 16-year old Dutch girl has come true in Lagos – proof that it isn’t a place that makes us happy: by staying open to life’s possibilities, we create our own happiness.
Diane Lemieux was born in Quebec and moved to live abroad for the first time at the age of three. That journey continued through 11 countries on five continents during which she collected 4 languages, two passports and several cultural identities. She started her career in international development but decided over 15 years ago to raise her two children and pursue her passion: writing. Today, she is author of four books including The Mobile Life: a new approach to moving anywhere and Culture Smart! Nigeria.
For more information see her portfolio: www.diane-lemieux.com or blog: diane-lemieux.com/mobilelife