As I opened my eyes from my snooze in the car I was astonished to see the silhouette of a sofa with tree-trunk legs trudging awkwardly towards me. I thought I was dreaming about The Incredible Hulk or some kind of giant from Harry Potter but as my eyes got used to the light I realised that it was an ice-flyer as they like to call themselves. An ice hockey player fully clad in a helmet and face cage, toughened shoulder pads, thick chest protector, padded shorts, hard plastic shin pads and reinforced gloves. If you’ve ever been to an ice hockey match, you’ll understand that the armour is not for show, it’s for protection against the multitude of safety hazards that put the players at risk of serious injury such as the solid puck that shoots across the ice at 90 miles per hour.
John and I were sat on the front row behind a floor to ceiling window of fortified shatterproof plastic and witnessed another safety hazard that seemed to befall many a player. I lost count of how many faces were squashed up against that barrier because after the third one I winced and shut my eyes every time there was a skirmish. One of the bravest guys on the ice had to be the referee whose only safety equipment was a helmet and who was regularly slammed into the sides of the rink during play. But fear not, no cats were hurt during the game and only a few sprains and bruises were sustained by the players who were all willing participants in the match. In fact, judging by the wonky smiles and animated man-hugs, they quite enjoyed it.
The same could be said for the crowd who hollered and cheered at the slightest hint of a clash on the ice and were enthralled whenever the puck was shot through their opponents’ goal. Even more baffling than the blood-thirstiness of the onlookers was the bizarre off-the-rink contest that appeared to be going on to see who could tolerate wearing the least amount of clothes. Considering we were in Kitzbuhel (Austria) at the time and the weather outside was snow and -4°c, the urge for the men to take their tops off could only be explained by some hormonal imbalance or the human desire to compete. Luckily John did not succumb to this urge otherwise I would have been most embarrassed (because of the hair on his chest, not the size of his tummy!).
I like horses and I know they like me because I was once kissed by a horse on a fence. I was on the fence, not the horse, and it was moist and bristly but nonetheless enjoyable. The beautiful white lippizan horses you see in these pictures live at the Stanglwirt Riding School in Kitzbuhel, Austria and they did not seem like the type of horse to go around kissing unknown cats on fences. As John and I arrived by car to the Riding School as part of our Austria weekend, the lippizan horses pranced and skipped in perfect motion from their warm dry stables out on to the snow covered field before them. I watched their tails swish charmingly from side to side and their manes flow almost magically as they broke into a canter in front of us.
I decided there and then that they weren’t the only ones who could waltz around looking all willowy and elegant. So when John opened the car door I lifted my nose high into the air and puffed out my chest just as one of the horses looked towards me. Perfect timing! With one nimble action I leapt from the seat but unfortunately landed awkwardly on a patch of ice resulting in a minor skid and slight stumble. Thankfully I recovered my poise quickly at which point I swiftly turned around to hop straight back in the car. Boy that snow was cold and my knees were wet where I’d hit the deck!
After a marathon licking session my fur was back in place and I was a snug as a bug in a rug, having wrapped myself up in my favourite blanket on the back seat. I looked through the window and couldn’t help feel a sense of admiration at the stunning lippizaners so impressive with their smooth tresses of hair and muscular frames. This noble breed is renowned for graceful movements and magnificent physiques, as well as liveliness and good natures. They are born dark brown, black or grey until the white coat appears between the ages of 6 and 10. Apparently there are less than 3000 in the whole world so they are highly prized in equine circles. The horses at the Stanglwirt Riding School were clearly cherished by the humans who cared for them and I could tell by their well-groomed coats, clean hooves and happy temperaments that all their needs were met. After performing some of their stylish dressage moves, they played in the snow, flicking it around with their powerful legs and chasing after each other. They reminded me of the lambs I’ve seen frolicking around in the fields at home and I smiled to myself as it occurred to me that I’m not the only dignified animal who likes to fool around for amusement. I miss teddy!
If they made wellies for cats, I would have worn them. Unfortunately a soft knitted sock from your auntie might be a kind thought but is not going to keep your paws warm on the cold hard ground of an Austrian winter wonderland! As you can see from the photos, the vista was like a scene from a Christmas card, with piles of snow balancing on the top of fences, bending the branches of thick evergreens and glistening in the distance. This was the sight that greeted John and I as we headed out from the hotel in Kitzbuhel to watch the snow polo world cup. Who knew there was a snow polo world cup?!
John wanted to take me with him on his trip to Austria for a winter weekend break while he flexed his photography muscles at the 2016 snow polo championships and I enjoyed a rest from the photography business. Ok let’s be realistic, it’s hard enough to operate the focus mode switch on my equipment with my thumb and dewclaw, but I cannot seriously be expected to do it in 2°c with 5 cm of snow on the ground. So we both decided it would be sensible for me to stay on my blanket in the car while John stood at the edge of the pitch to capture the action.
The objective of polo is to score points against the opposing team by driving a ball into the opponents’ goal using a long-handled mallet. It sounds simple but there are a multitude of complex rules to follow such as tapping the ball on the correct side in the correct way or ensuring that the player in the line of the ball or at the smallest angle to the ball has the right of way. You would have thought that the horses end up crashing into each other or someone gets walloped in the eye with that big stick, but the rules are designed to promote the safety of the ponies and their riders and it seemed to work.
There were 3 players per team and it was all quite civilised as the players pushed the surprisingly large ball around the surprisingly small pitch. I suppose the pitch can’t be too big or they’d be worn out very quickly and the ball needs to be reasonably sized (it was about the size of a cantaloupe melon) and brightly coloured red so it can be seen. The ball is very light so the players need to strike it carefully so keep it on the ground. The horses have special shoes so they don’t slip and there are about 5 horses per player, so one horse plays for a few minutes before being taken to a warm dry box while the next horse makes an appearance. I was impressed at the agility of the horses as they were able to leap forward, stop and turn in an instant, and they seemed to anticipate where the ball was going and how the rider needed to play. John got some great shots and my favourites show the glistening snow being scattered into the air under the hooves of the horses. I’m amazed that John managed to operate the focus mode switch on his equipment considering the number of layers he had on! But he’s not the type to let thermal gloves, a cotton layer, a fleece layer, a waterproof layer and an insulated beanie get in the way of a good photo opportunity!