Firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values; incorruptibility
An unimpaired condition; soundness
The quality or state of being complete or undivided
Definition from Merriam-Webster
Recently, I have had occasion to ponder what it truly means “to have integrity”—integrity as an equestrian, as a professional, as a human being. Integrity means living your values and acting in accordance with your most deeply held principles, even when no one is watching. It means speaking up when you witness a deed or an action that violates your core beliefs, and sometimes, it means leaving a situation in which those values are violated so consistently that you can no longer function.
The equine community is fraught with situations in which one’s ability to act with integrity is put to the test. It is no secret that the horse world is more divisive than it is unified, and discord among professionals is common. When it comes to minor details of management—the “best” way to wrap a bridle, the “right” material to use in a bandage—I hope that most of us have the perspective to realize that there are, in fact, many possible (correct) answers. But when it comes to the “big stuff”— issues that truly impact the care and long-term well-being of the animals themselves—it can be harder or impossible to compromise on divergent perspectives.
When I find myself in these situations, I always try to assume good intent. In other words, if I am in disagreement with a fellow professional, but I believe that we are both operating from a place that honors our personal integrity when it comes to the care and humane treatment of horses (drawn from our education, experience and intuition), it has often been possible to resolve the conflict. These are hard conversations to have, as are any that dig down into a person’s core values and beliefs. But what of those individuals who are simply unwilling to even enter into this dialogue, perhaps because such a conversation will expose their inability to listen to others, to seek appropriate help and/or to acknowledge their own lack of knowledge or understanding?
1) Freedom from Hunger and Thirst by ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.
2) Freedom from Discomfort by providing appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
3) Freedom from Pain, Injury and Disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
4) Freedom to Express Normal Behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind
5) Freedom from Fear and Distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
These principles were first shared over fifty years ago; while progress has been made, it saddens me to know that as a whole, humankind still fails to meet even these minimal baselines in our custodianship of other species. When it comes to equines specifically, those of us who not only care for them on a daily basis but rely upon them for our livelihood perhaps should post these tenets on our fridge, on our laptop and on the mirror we look at every morning. In particular, we must ask ourselves—does my work with horses violate any of their Five Freedoms? If so, how can I, how must I, do better?
To do better requires integrity. For me, professionally and personally, in order to live with authenticity (see below), I cannot and will not tolerate those who do not act with integrity toward the animals.
The quality of being genuine or real
Definition from vocabulary.com
Having integrity requires authenticity. Authenticity is living your talk, and that sometimes means speaking and acting on behalf of your conscience. Many humans do not behave in an authentic manner. They play games, play politics, and play roles. Some are addicted to power and will do whatever it takes to maintain it, acting in different ways depending on who is around, manipulating facts, and blaming others for their own shortcomings. Trying to maintain one’s own authenticity while others around you do not is a true test.
Horses, unlike humans, are always authentic. Their actions are the direct result of their biological needs or emotional state. Horses do not deliberately act in misleading ways, have an agenda, care about your goals for them or carry an ego about what they can or cannot do. Horses just are. If we are willing, horses can teach us to live in the present and to allow our inner and outer selves to come into authentic alignment.
For humans, living with authenticity takes courage and strength. It may cost friendships, jobs or clients when living with authenticity requires you to take action. But the cost of not living with authenticity is even greater, because when we compromise on our core values, the dissonance this creates will manifest itself—physically, emotionally, psychically.
In dedicating time and reflection to this subject over the past several weeks, I am reminded yet again that attempting to control the actions, beliefs or behavior of anyone besides ourself is a futile endeavor. Knowing that I have and will continue to do my best work to promote compassionate horsemanship—and that others will do what they do— is perhaps the only way I know to overcome the impacts of those who do not operate with integrity and authenticity within the industry.
I will close today’s meanderings with one of my favorite quotes:
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” ~ Maya Angelou
As daylight grows shorter and we enter the holiday season, it is natural for our thoughts to turn inward. This year, I find myself filled with gratitude to be the caretaker for three special horses over the age of 20 who, though semi-retired, continue to enhance the quality of my life every day.
The truth is, I think about older horses a lot, especially those who have ‘served’ their humans, whether as lesson horse, show horse, therapeutic horse or pleasure mount, and are then discarded by their caretakers upon reaching a certain age. I recognize that not all horse owners have the financial or emotional capacity to care for an aging animal, but I also am prescient enough to realize that safe homes for older horses are far fewer in number than the quantity of older animals in need. I personally know people who seem to believe that every older horse will be peacefully retired in a large grassy field somewhere, but most of us who are deeply connected to the equine world understand that not only is this hope unreasonable, it is naïve. I have come to believe that the best chance for an older horse to find a safe haven is to stay sound and be useful in some capacity. But that means as an industry, we need to get over “equestrian agism” and we also need to start planning for the later years of the horses in our care far earlier in their careers.
While the cliché “age is just a number” is as relevant to horses as it is to anyone else, in my experience horse folks get a little funny about aged horses, as though chronology alone is enough to determine an individual horse’s suitability for particular activities. It applies at both ends of the age spectrum; just as not all young horses are ready for the demands of performance at set ages (as is asked in racing, futurities, developing or young horse classes, materiale, etc.), not all older horses are ready to completely retire. Yet all too often, equestrians will discount an older equine simply because of their age—despite the fact that these animals are often the ones that are trained enough, experienced enough and mellowed out enough to be EXACTLY the type of teacher the average rider needs.
Not too long ago, I overheard someone say (in regards to a lesson horse in his early 20’s), “he’s ancient”, the speaker’s tone and affect making it abundantly clear that she felt a horse of his seniority should no longer be in work at all, never mind be used in a lesson program. Now, I have known this particular horse for at least a decade, and his current workload is a significant ‘step down’ from what he did in his glory days; additionally, he still shows up at the ring with enthusiasm and pep, occasionally runs off with a student, and is as sound as he has been his entire life. He is maintained with no medications, no special shoeing, no exceptional requirements, all of which indicate (to me) that the horse seems to be comfortable and content in his current role. I wanted to ask the speaker what alternative reality would be better for this horse, who currently receives top quality care and love and adoration from his riders in exchange for his daily participation in a non-physically demanding lesson or two. Frankly, there are older humans who do not have it so good.
As bodies age, of course there is a change in what they can physically handle. Age-related disorders may require routine monitoring from a medical expert, life-long medication and/or dietary changes to regulate. Some beings encounter bad luck in their lives, and a previous history of illness, injury, poor nutrition or dental care or inappropriate/inconsistent/inadequate exercise can all accumulate to make the onset of decline begin earlier. But with proactive care, routine maintenance and attention to detail, none of these factors are necessarily career ending; each being must be evaluated as an individual, and their care adjusted accordingly. Note that nothing I have stated here is unique to horses—it applies to humans or dogs or any other species you would like to examine.
I now believe that when it comes to horse ownership, there is a ‘point of no return’; if you maintain ownership of a horse beyond the time where they will have meaningful value to others, then you must also accept that you now have a moral obligation to see that animal through to their end of life. If you know that you will be financially or emotionally unfit to do so, then it is imperative that you find that animal an owner who can and will make that commitment, well before the time comes that the animal is unsound, unusable or unfit for work. I will say it bluntly; few quality homes exist for aged animals that cannot fill some kind of “use” unless those homes already were bonded to the animal before they became “unusable”.
The best final home for a well-cared for, aging animal is likely the one they are already in. Posting your older equine “free to good home” or “suitable for companion only” is akin to dropping your aged dog off at the shelter. Most of the time, there is no good ending to these stories.
But wait, you say. I only have a limited budget…how am I supposed to move forward with my own equestrian pursuits while maintaining this expensive, long-lived pet?
Well, here are a few options:
When it becomes clear you are outgrowing your horse (size wise, skill wise, or otherwise) sell them sooner rather than later. Don’t wait until the job gets too hard, they get hurt or they get sour from being asked to go past their limit.
Rough board your horse(s). Depending on the region, there are likely a range of rough or co-op board options that can allow owners to significantly reduce the cost of horse ownership in exchange for providing goods and/or labor.
Lease your horse to a less-experienced rider. While not without risk, a carefully vetted and supervised free-lease can be a win/win on both counts. Your horse becomes a schoolmaster for someone else while relieving you of the financial burden of maintaining the horse for a period of months or years. Further, a lease will leave you with oversight over decisions related to the horse’s long-term care. If your horse is quite experienced, charging a modest monthly lease fee (while the lessee pays for his upkeep) can give you money to put in the bank to help support him in the future. Sometimes, a lessee comes to love your horse as much as (or more than) you do, and they are willing to take on permanent responsibility for the animal’s care.
Consider leasing your “move up” horse instead of buying (see suggestion #3, though this time you are the less-experienced rider). Overall, leasing a horse will cost less than an outright purchase, and if circumstances change, a leased horse can always be returned to his owner.
Consider setting new goals. One of the best things about horses (and equestrian sports in general) is that there are many different ways to challenge you and your mount. In my career, I have tried new disciplines because they seemed well-suited to the horse I was riding at the time. Instead of moving up in your current discipline, consider trying something new with the horse you have. Perhaps your former show hunter would like to do low-level dressage; maybe your ring-soured lesson horse would enjoy hunter paces. Trying new things only deepens the bond between horse and rider.
There are plenty of other ways that people have made it work, and if you are motivated, it is almost always possible to find a solution. It won’t necessarily be easy, and it may even require some hustle and sacrifice. But I think it is beyond time that we in the equine industry normalize planning for our older horse’s later years and honor those who fully commit to the on-going care of these animals—even if that means a comfortable (older) horse is kept in light work.
Speaking for myself, watching my semi-retired horses teach other riders–allowing these riders the chance to jump their first cross country fences, to safely ride in the open, to experience what connection feels like– is almost as satisfying as it was to teach my horses these skills in the first place. It may sound trite, but seeing someone else truly enjoy your horse’s company and gain confidence and skills thanks to their wisdom is a reward beyond measure. And when I am having a tough time, or the weather is a little dicey, my “go-to” ride is not my talented youngster; it is the venerable veteran, who I can rely on to have my back when conditions are not the best. My older horses owe me nothing—yet they continue to give.
Every morning that I am greeted by these special creatures is a gift. Whether it is watching Snowy roll in his favorite spot on the grass field, watching Marquesa boss young Izzy around or waiting for Lee to finish her grain, even the simplest and most every day of occurrences bring a smile. How lucky am I to be their steward, and how enriched has my life been for having them in it?
“A bad day with your horse is still better than a good day doing most anything else”~ Kip Fladland
During a heat wave in early June, I had the opportunity to participate in a three-day clinic focusing on groundwork and foundational horsemanship with Kip Fladland at Linden Woods Farm in Durham, New Hampshire. I first heard about the clinic during the depths of our New England winter and decided it sounded like the perfect opportunity to get my rising 6-year-old Connemara/Thoroughbred cross, DRF Isabela, off farm for an educational outing.
As the owner/trainer of two younger horses (Izzy and her stablemate, the 4-year-old Morgan mare Spring Hollow Or Noir), I have been increasingly interested in understanding how effective groundwork can play a role in giving green horses a solid foundation. I think what most attracts me to these techniques is seeing how horses properly trained through effective groundwork tend to be sensitive yet sane, confident and connected to their handler, yet also respectful of boundaries. The training becomes almost a series of puzzles for the horse to solve, and it engages them as a partner rather than forcing submission.
Note that I said “properly trained”; when it comes to groundwork, most of the time what I actually see are (middle-aged) women with their rope halters waving around their arms ineffectually while their horses proceed to walk all over them. I am sure this behavior is not these owners’ intended outcome, but they as of yet lack the finesse, feel or practice to get the timing right with their body language, with the end result being a confused and slightly feral horse.
Lest you think I am being unnecessarily harsh toward middle-aged women and their rope halters, I now resemble that remark. Izzy’s rope halter arrived in the mail only about ten days before the clinic and my “flag” was made from an old dressage whip whose lash had broken off, a faded blue bandana, and a rubber band that came with my asparagus. And when I began trying to use said flag at the clinic to effect certain responses from my horse, while also maintaining particular body positioning, it felt like learning a new dance with the instructions coming in an unfamiliar language. I frequently felt awkward, overconfident, briefly successful, then full of questions.
Since returning home, I have continued to practice the techniques I learned over these three days. I am confident that I have forgotten more than I remember, despite my notes and application in practice. However, I do feel that playing with some of these basic techniques has resulted in positive changes, particularly with my young horses.
With the pandemic curtailing our travel plans last year, I looked forward to taking Izzy out in public and start exposing her to the world beyond Cold Moon Farm at this clinic. As it goes with horses, circumstances dictated that I needed to bring my veteran halfbred Connemara, JEF Anna Rose, for day one, but Izzy was able to make the trip for days two and three.
Here are a few of my top take-aways from this experience:
Controlled flag handling is key. Learning to handle the flag effectively is probably one of the most important pieces in terms of communicating your intent and desire to the horse. The flag can be used to direct them forward, turn them and encourage more activity from the hindquarters, but it can also be used to reassure them and give them confidence. The horse has to become what I would call “positively de-sensitized” to the flag, much like they do with dressage wands or longe whips. In other words, your horse should respond to the flag, but not fear it.
On day one, I had no further finished explaining that Anna tended to be rather dull and non-responsive to aids when she reacted to the flag as though I chased her with a flaming arrow. Kip watched as she spun around and around in an effort to get away from the flag’s presence near her haunches with a rather dry comment: “And you say you ride this one?”. I laughed and replied that if Anna were half as electric under saddle as she was toward that flag, we might have gotten a little further in our dressage work. By the end of the session, she tolerated the flag on her, near her and touching her pretty much anywhere.
On day two, a new horse joined our group who was rather impressively reactive to the flag. Leslie Ann McGowan, trainer at Double A Equestrians and a long time student of Kip’s, stepped in to handle the horse. Despite the horse’s honest fear and confusion, Leslie Ann remained calm and simply consistently exposed him to the flag until he started to settle. Throughout the clinic, horses had occasional big responses to the aids, or misunderstandings of the aids, to which Kip replied at one point, “She’s not a teacup and you aren’t gonna break her.” As with humans, sometimes for the horse to learn, they must make mistakes and express frustration and confusion before understanding what is expected of them. As trainers, we can’t be afraid of these messy moments if we hope to help our horse learn.
The flag is held like a tennis racket, and there are four ways to change the flag from one hand to the other, each of which will achieve an increasing degree of engagement in the hocks. When your flag changes hands, the horse usually is also changing direction. One important note is that you should never switch the flag on the ground through the blind spot in front of the horse’s nose. If you do this, the movement can scare them and some horses will strike with their forelegs.
The position of your opposite arm combines with the flag to direct the horse. If using the flag to send the horse forward, the hand should be in a leading position. If rubbing the horse with the flag to reassure them, your opposite hand should drop toward your thigh.
Reward the try but also don’t wait for perfection before you ask for more.
Whatever you are asking the horse to do: move away, turn, yield in the poll, etc., it is important to recognize the smallest effort by releasing the pressure as soon as you sense the horse is yielding to what you have asked. One of the most common ways that trainers go wrong is they hold too long, or expect too much, and the horse begins to resist rather than try.
At the same time, if we wait for every piece to be perfect before moving on, we will never get anywhere at all. As with most training, we must accept the try, and a result that is a little bit better than before, rather than nitpick doggedly until the horse is perfect.
One of our first tasks was to ask our horses to step out and away from us, leading with their outside foreleg. Kip called this “opening”; if you are “opening” to the left, the horse’s right fore will step out and the horse tracks left. To initiate the movement, we raised our hands toward the horse’s head and neck and without contact (at first), applied pressure to ask the horse to move. At first, in response, horses may raise their head, step into the handler, back up, move forward, or simply not move at all. The handler must hold her ground and not back up; the horse must learn to move out of the handler’s space. Through all of those little mistakes from the horse (‘do you want me to go this way? Or this way? How about this?) the handler must remain calm, clear in her mind of what she is looking for, and ready to release as soon as the hoof moved out.
Our next task was to open the forehand and then, using the flag, send the horse out on a small circle around us. We were to keep the horse actively moving, slightly bent to the inside through their body and with the legs moving “united”; Kip describes this as when the left legs are on the same track as each other and the right legs on their own matching track. The flag can be used to create the energy, encourage the horse to step away, or to reassure them; if the horse has become too desensitized to it, the handler will need to use the flag assertively to once again elicit a positive response. Once the horse marched several circles united and with correct bend, we asked them to halt by stepping toward the hindquarter and raising the lead diagonally toward the withers. The horse’s hindquarters should step out (crossing over with inside hind) and their neck bend in. Kip called this “disengaging” the hind quarter, though he doesn’t love that term.
In doing some of these movements, I was struck (not for the first time) by how much overlap there is between some of these concepts and the fundamentals of dressage. My former coach, Verne Batchelder, had a movement he called “the circle of submission”, in which the rider actively executed a volte and asked the horse to step the hindquarters out for several strides while maintaining the inside bend and position of the neck. However you say it–asking the horse to yield their hips, engage their hocks, move their feet—ultimately requires that the horse be willing to allow their bodies to be manipulated and their toplines to begin to relax and stretch. It is simple biomechanics; a horse cannot reach further under his body with the hind legs if his back is tight.
Kip taught a mounted session in the afternoons; I was able to make it back to observe a few hours of day two’s lesson. He emphasized that all of the flag exercises he does on the ground, he also does while mounted. Though I didn’t get to see much of how he incorporates the flag into mounted work, he mentioned that at the end of day one, he backed a leggy 2-year-old warmblood that was in our group; by the end of that first ride (which was a very low stress experience, from what I was told), he was riding with the flag.
I should ask my horses to back more often and with more intention.
Kip introduced several ways of asking the horse to back in hand which can then be translated to work under saddle. The most basic option requires the horse to back to the end of the lead rope from a rather light flick of the line; we also played with asking the horse to back with poll flexion off of noseband pressure from the halter (from each side) as well as backing on a straight line off a short shank (also from each side). This last form of backing can easily be added onto a yield of the haunches.
In later sessions, we also learned how to add neck flexion in time with the lift of the foreleg on the outside, which caused the horse to back onto an arc. We later played with backing parallel to the wall, then timing a flick of the flag with the “about to step” movement of any individual limb. This causes the horse to balance back and then push forward with more power. With four distinct limbs to focus on, there is plenty to practice.
On days two and three, when Izzy was with me, we also played with backing under saddle. Until that day, I had never asked Izzy to back even a single step with me on board, and Kip wanted us to start with five steps on a soft feel, then add a bend in the horse’s neck and back on a quarter turn! I can’t say we were the most successful pair in the ring, but thinking about our work on the ground helped with the intention under saddle. When Izzy expressed confusion, Kip had me break down the movement so it became one step back, one step bend.
One of Kip’s overall themes was to never waste an opportunity to move your horse’s feet with intention. This could be as simple as opening the forehand or yielding the haunches, or as elaborate as walking on a straight line of your choosing with the horse walking half circles in each direction in front of you.
Despite three, three hour long sessions and the opportunity to audit two hours of a second group’s mounted lesson, I know that this clinic has only allowed me to scratch the surface of a skill set that Kip says has taken him twenty-five years of hard work to earn. Since the clinic, I have been playing with these tools fairly consistently with both Izzy and Nori, and in general most of the movements are starting to feel easier and better coordinated on my end. However, I do find myself wondering what I am doing wrong—because I am certain I have already forgotten about some important detail related to timing, posture or position—but I think Kip might say that it is better to try a little than not at all. You certainly don’t get any better at new skills by just daydreaming about them.
And in terms of my initial and main motivation—to take Izzy off farm for a positive outing—this clinic was a great success. She trailered on her own like a veteran, and upon arrival did nothing sassier than a few nervous whinnies. There were so many firsts for her—first time being ridden off farm, first time being ridden in a group, first time being ridden in an indoor, first time seeing mirrors—and I think in any other setting I would have been even more nervous than she was. But by the time we had finished an hour and a half of ground work each day, getting on board for the second half of each set was basically a non-event. Izzy came home from the clinic more confident and more mature than she went into it—which means the experience was a success, even if I still need more practice on the timing with my flag or position of my body when opening the forehand.
Kip Fladland grew up in Montana and worked on several cattle ranches before meeting legendary horseman Buck Brannaman. Inspired by Brannaman’s teachings, Fladland began working for him in 1996 and traveled with him for five years. Since 2004, he has conducted his own clinics across the country as well as started/re-started thousands of horses for clients. I found Fladland to be patient, firm, clear and consistent—exactly the type of temperament necessary for success with horses, or let’s be honest, people in general. To learn more, visit his website: https://www.kipfladlandhorsemanship.com/
As always, gracious thanks to our clinic organizers, Karen Bishop and Leslie Ann McGowan of Linden Woods Farm. Thank you for continuing to bring top caliber clinicians to our area and for welcoming the local community to your lovely facility so that we all can expand our education.
the condition or period of an animal or plant spending the winter in a dormant state.
“grizzly bears gorge on seeds to prepare for hibernation”
an extended period of remaining inactive or indoors.
“the fair-weather cyclists are emerging from winter hibernation”
(all definitions from Oxford Languages)
I look forward to the arrival of spring at Cold Moon Farm each year with eager anticipation. For me, the predictability of restoring the farm to a more active state after winter’s dormancy provides a sense of satisfaction; the requirement of annual chores marks the passage of time, affirms that even when snow comes in April (as it did this year), spring will prevail in the end.
Step by step, the essential equipment of winter—bucket heaters, extension cords, heavyweight blankets, shovels—is cleaned and stowed away, replaced by hoses and fly masks and the onset of shedding season. Gardens are raked, the horse trailer pulled out of its winter parking spot, grooming tools and grain bins washed and aired out. Each task completed marks a satisfying check off the “to do” list and brings me one step closer to the best riding months of the year here in New England.
The arrival of robins and eastern bluebirds and barn swallows marks the end of winter’s rest for the horses; in the past, I have called this period the “deferalization of spring”. It starts with a renewed commitment to deep grooming, shedding blades and sturdy curry combs erasing the feathery remains of winter coats while pulling combs and thinners shorten manes that have become unkempt. The farrier pulls winter shoes and snow pads, making feet seem cleaner and lighter. We start legging up the experienced horses with thirty minute walks, increasing to an hour, then adding light arena work. The green beans go on the longe line or work in the round pen, hopefully demonstrating some memory of lessons learned last season.
This spring, it feels as though my personal equestrian hibernation has been longer than usual. This was the first winter in years I didn’t avail myself of an indoor, instead giving all of my horses three months off. Yet in some ways my “extended period of remaining inactive” began long before the winter solstice. I haven’t competed in person since 2019, took only two lessons in 2020 and otherwise hauled out just a handful of times for trail rides. Now, as both the calendar and world around me proclaim that it is time to resume activity, I find that I am struggling to emerge from my sheltered cocoon.
There are so many reasons for this. The pandemic, of course, is a huge part of it; given the many uncertainties over the past year, it was logical to simply stay home, and I am out of practice. But the pandemic also became a wonderful excuse to simply remain within my comfort zone and avoid new challenges that might intimidate me—challenges that could also test my skills and inspire me to grow. Even though doing new or difficult things can produce anxiety, nerves and even a little fear, it is the successful completion of these small challenges that develops confidence. And having had little opportunity to achieve these small stepping stones in the past eighteen months has left me feeling less confident than before all of this started.
I recently interviewed a top hunter/jumper coach and course designer on the subject of riding under pressure; he commented that humans in general tend to move away from pressure but the most successful riders instead continuously seek it, putting themselves and their equine partners into situations in which they must manage nerves, excitement, challenge and stress. Navigating pressure—whatever that looks like for you—is where growth occurs. Living within your comfort zone is safe but will not and cannot produce new growth.
My extended hibernation was inspired by the pandemic but augmented by excuses and transitions such as horses needing to step down career wise and horses needing time to mature. It has left me feeling too familiar with my comfort zone and excessively rusty and out of practice with pushing my boundaries. Now, I have a rising 6-year-old ready to go out and see the world. Regionally, shows and clinics and other equestrian activity is on the upswing. All signals indicate that the time for hibernation is over—but after such a long period of inactivity, it is so tempting to stay within the security and familiarity of my comfort zone.
an instance of resuming an activity or state after an interruption.
“a renewal of hostilities”
the action of extending the period of validity of a license, subscription, or contract.
“the contracts came up for renewal”
the replacing or repair of something that is worn out, run-down, or broken.
It is easy to feel inspired by spring. The annual process of nature’s renewal is manifested by drab fields rebounding lush and vibrant, buds on branches unfurling leaves with panache and perennial flowers and bushes bursting with color. As I complete morning chores, the air is filled with the trills and warbles of birds dividing territory and attracting mates. This natural cycle happens whether we will it or not, whether we notice it or not. The renewal is inevitable.
For me, the first true days of spring, when the sun is finally strong enough and warm enough to kiss the skin and warm the soil, are a tonic for the ache winter leaves behind. The smell of fresh earth, the feel of heat on your cheeks, the chirp and whistle of a vivacious cardinal, all demand to be experienced.
Spring is a time of inspiration and action. I make promises to myself, set goals, make lists. I think about which projects need versus would be nice to complete on the farm. I make more lists and set timelines. On a separate page I write each horse’s name. I list activities for them, too. I am a planner, and these lists are a road map directing our progress through the weeks ahead.
But even so, as imperceptibly as Mother Nature restores her environs from dormancy to activity, my inherent drive toward achieving my goals has changed. This year, I am finding the renewal offered by the change of season insufficient to fully offset my inertia.
There was a time when each spring, I highlighted activity after activity on the print out of the West Newbury Riding and Driving Club’s calendar of equine events. I was out on the road with my horses to compete or clinic two or three times per month, borrowing trailers and occasionally entire rigs from generous friends (what amazing trust they had in me) or bartering rides. When I later acquired my own trailer, I became even more mobile. I shipped out for weekly jump lessons. We hauled to competitions all over New England and New York. I let little stand in my way in pursuit of participating in those activities I had set my mind to.
For most of the early aughts, I kept two or three horses in full work year round, while also stabling two of them on rough board, finishing a Masters degree and holding down a full time job that often required evening or weekend commitments. My days started early and ran long. I had an internal drive that was impossible to ignore and compelled me to push through fatigue and frustration. I was motivated at least partially by catch phrases which are probably now memes, expressions like ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ or ‘shoot for the moon because even if you miss you will land among the stars’.
But what used to be a raging inner fire to ‘go out and do’ seems to have tempered to a gentler glow. Where I used to wring my hands over a missed ride or schooling set, now I sigh and think, ‘well, another day’. I see photos on social media of friends who have eagerly returned to competition after vaccination (as well as those who never hung it up to begin with) and think ‘good for them’.
But these minor disappointments cannot take away the many years of success and fun we have had together. I have partnered with each of these special mares since their 6-year-old year; in 2021, Lee will be 22 and Anna, 17. Looking back at all I have experienced with them is an amazing trove of memories and moments. They have each immeasurably shaped my journey as a horseman and trainer and I consider myself lucky to have them both living in my front yard, sound, happy and useful animals, albeit in different ways than before.
The long partnerships I have enjoyed with Anna and Lee are perhaps why the thought of starting new journeys with Izzy and Nori is, at times, overwhelming. Each of these youngsters was less than two when they arrived here at Cold Moon Farm, and so of course there was much for them to learn. Izzy, now 6 years old, is at an age where she can be expected to manage more both mentally and physically. Nori, now 4, is also ready to build on the foundation laid in the past two years, which will hopefully include being backed this summer.
My younger self would have proceeded forward with a ‘just do it’ mentality, but today I hesitate and worry too much about the ‘what if’s’. And after over a year of easy excuses to avoid taking young horses out in the world, it is hard to be brave enough to tell my monkey brain to be quiet and take a seat.
Someday, maybe someday soon, I will have no excuses left. And I will have to either decide to ‘just do it’… or out of fairness to these young horses’ future, hand the reins over to someone else who can.
(in an insect or amphibian) the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages.
“the persistence of the larval tail during metamorphosis”
a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one, by natural or supernatural means.
“his metamorphosis from presidential candidate to talk-show host”
There are many lessons humanity ought to take away from the experience of a global pandemic, and it seems impossible that any individual who is remotely connected to the mainstream can emerge from the past eighteen months truly unchanged. Personally, I struggle with the idea of a “return to normal,” as neither I nor the world around me are the same as before.
“The coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic will change all of us in small and large ways. I fervently hope that for many Americans, this time of challenge will allow nearly everyone the opportunity to reset their compass and focus on those pieces of our lives that matter on a deep, fundamental level. I believe that most equestrians did not start riding to win ribbons; we started riding because we felt inexplicably drawn to these powerful and majestic animals. Those of us still lucky enough to have horses in our lives after the dust settles have a responsibility to remember that magic and to share it with others.”
I’m not sure I fully recognized it then, but perhaps this sentiment was an early stage of what I can only call my equestrian metamorphosis. Increasingly, I am more interested in the positive impact that horses have on those they touch than I am in personally pursuing upper level sport. At whatever point in the future my own career comes to an end, I don’t want it to be defined only by my competitive success (or, let’s be honest, lack thereof). Instead, I hope that I will be recognized as a practitioner of compassionate horsemanship, as a model of affordable, sustainable horse management practices and as a teacher who took the time to truly listen to her students and their horses, celebrating the victory of establishing the correct foundation that makes a lifetime of enjoyment with horses possible.
For a caterpillar to become a beautiful butterfly, it literally obliterates its original form, then rearranges cells and tissues into new patterns and connections. If the chrysalis is cracked open before the process is complete, the cycle may be irrevocably interrupted. Metamorphosis is messy and destructive of old forms and behaviors. But going through this process is essential for the caterpillar to become its highest evolved self– a butterfly able to offer its services as a pollinator, visiting spring flowers and perpetuating the cycle of renewal.
Perhaps instead of considering the Pandemic Pause a set back to my continued evolution as an equestrian, I need to think of it as time spent in the chrysalis. As with the caterpillar, old models of doing things must be dismantled for new forms to emerge. Perhaps my slow return to full activity is more about testing new wings, recently unfurled, than it is about not living up to old, outdated expectations of myself. Perhaps this metamorphosis is about cementing that my horsemanship journey is and always has been about the relationship I enjoy with each horse specifically. It is about shedding the weight of expectation that I have been so accustomed to carrying so that I can instead move more freely from one beautiful moment to the next.
Spring Hollow Or Noir, who goes by Nori at home, is a rising 4 year old Morgan and the youngest horse at Cold Moon Farm. I recently learned that she is the first foal of her sire, Spring Hollow Statesman, and many eyes besides my own are eagerly watching her develop. I adore her, I admire her and I am excited about her future. But at the same time, raising young horses isn’t all sunshine and lollipops, and that is what I want to talk about in this blog.
When it comes to raising and developing a young horse, I think it is important for equestrians to share stories of challenge and setback and to be honest about the ups and downs of the training process. Sure, sharing the victories feels pretty sweet and I appreciate hearing about those moments– but let’s not pretend that getting there didn’t include hitting a few potholes along the way. Otherwise, it is too easy to scroll social media posts and feel as if we are being left behind by our peers, progressing too slowly, or are otherwise doing things wrong.
Separating Your Seedlings
In theory, I would have liked to back Nori this past summer, when she was 3, as I did with Izzy; here, “backing” is defined as me sitting on her in a saddle while being led around by a ground handler. Compared to Izzy at the same age, Nori looked much more physically developed yet mentally, she seemed much younger. I decided to hold off.
That choice was a good one, because as it turned out, Nori had her own plans for what she wanted to accomplish in her three-year-old summer.
For the better part of two years, Nori and DRF Isabela, (two years older and better known as Izzy) were the best of friends. They shared hay piles, took naps together and scratched each other’s backs. But as Nori matured, small cracks began to form in their relationship. From day one, the herd ranking had clearly been Marquesa at the top, Izzy in the middle and Nori at the bottom. But by summer 2020, Nori began subtly staking her claim on a higher social rank. The symptoms were so understated at first that I almost missed them—slightly more frequent squeals, small bite marks, an occasional challenge for a prime sleeping spot—but by early summer there was no mistaking that in Nori, we had a ‘social climber on the rise’.
One day in early July, I came home from a day of hiking to find Nori a bit more banged up than usual; she had a few new cuts, all small, and a front leg was a little puffy. Then I realized that she was intermittently locking her stifle. Ugh. After a video consult with my vet, we deferred further investigation of the injury until the next day. Dr. Monika’s exam revealed that Nori had overextended her left stifle, resulting in some inflammation and a possible teeny tiny avulsion fracture where a piece of ligament had pulled away from bone. Stall rest was out of the question so we opted to do a round of NSAIDs and to try to keep Nori as quiet as possible in her paddock. Thankfully, the swelling resolved and the stifle stabilized after only a few minor setbacks.
But the die had been cast. Over the next several weeks, while Nori was supposed to be “resting quietly in her paddock”, the tension between her and Izzy escalated. Sometimes, the two were their usual inseparable selves. But increasingly, I heard scuffles in the paddock, their intensity growing with each skirmish.
The final straw came one morning at 5:00 AM. I awoke to the sound of a significant altercation between one or more horses, accompanied by worried whinnies from the rest of the herd. I ran out in my pajamas to find that Izzy had cornered Nori and was trying to kick her over and over. I grabbed a halter and lead and ran into the paddock, swinging the rope and yelling like a crazy banshee woman (it is perhaps a good thing that my closest neighbor is also an early riser). I’m not sure this was the smartest move–nor do I know what I would have done next had it proved unsuccessful– but it distracted Izzy long enough that Nori could get away. I threw everyone some hay, checked over each horse and headed back into the house.
However, I knew the reprieve would only be temporary.
Over coffee that morning, I commented, “You know, if I was boarding somewhere, I would be all over the barn manager to get my horse out of that paddock. NOW.”
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a single readily available location on the property to put Nori, or anyone else, without significant reconfiguration. While I finished my own breakfast, I worked out a short-term arrangement that would at least get us through the day. I moved our elder statesman, Snowy, to a grass field where he spends most mornings anyway, then moved Nori into Snowy’s “Bachelor Pad”– a dry lot attached to a two-stall shelter. As I slipped her halter off, I exhaled a sigh of relief. For the moment, at least, the situation was stabilized.
Later that day, we subdivided the Bachelor Pad in half with three strands of electric rope, added a new gate and voila– Snowy and Nori became neighbors. Despite neither horse having tons of room, they adjusted well and we worked hard to ensure that each horse had extra “out of paddock” time. Snowy spent four or five hours every day in the grass turnout and went for regular rides, and Nori went for hand walks in addition to daily groundwork training. I was relieved that Nori was indifferent when Snowy left to go do things without her; she seemed to enjoy supervising activity in the riding arena, located just adjacent.
But with fall rapidly approaching and winter on its heels, these two tiny turnouts could not be a permanent solution. After several rounds of brainstorming, we spent the rest of the summer and early fall building an additional in/out stall with its own fenced dry lot area off the side of the barn. In early October, the new “Nori Habitat” was finally ready and she moved in.
Seedlings Up Rooted
In a perfect world, a young horse has other young horses to play with. Though Nori seemed quite content in her own space, I worried that she would need additional sources of psychological engagement now that she wasn’t directly next to another horse. But ultimately, I felt the separation was a sacrifice I had to make to reduce the risk of serious injury. I made an effort to spend time with her every day, even as the weather grew colder.
One Saturday afternoon in mid-December, I was sitting at my writing desk and staring out the big window that faces the Nori Habitat. Suddenly, there was a loud “whoosh” and a second later Nori slammed full bore into her heavy duty gate, bending the metal and knocking it off the top hinge. Snow sliding off the metal roof of the barn had startled her, and she did what many startled horses do; she ran. But the paddock is just a few strides long, the footing was slippery from early snow, and she couldn’t stop in time. That night, we had to use the tractor to flatten the gate in order to get it reattached correctly. Fortunately, Nori was uninjured.
A month later, Nori spooked and knocked the gate off its hinges again. The damage was less severe this time, but as we worked to get the pieces reconnected, I felt the first twinges of concern brewing in my subconscious. Is this going to be a “thing”? Will this horse learn to practice self-restraint? Will she desensitize to the noise before she causes herself serious injury?
Then one evening in early February, Nori spooked and ran a third time. Learning from her previous mistakes, she turned to avoid the gate but instead she slid into the wooden fence itself. Her momentum broke a 4×4 post as well as a three board fence lined with strands of aluminum wire. Now loose, Nori ran to the gate of her original paddock, where Izzy and Marquesa stood, whinnying their worry.
I was incredulous when we caught her that the filly had emerged unscathed. Not even a tiny tear on her Horsewear blanket revealed that she had just demolished a fairly significant fence line.
By headlamp and tractor light, that evening we managed to reconstruct the fence. The broken post was partially frozen into the ground and we had to pour hot water around the stump, fastening a chain to pull it out of the earth. By 8 PM, Nori was back in her Habitat. But I was a mass of nerves.
This situation is a time bomb, I thought as I tossed and turned that night instead of sleeping. We have been lucky so far. But if she keeps hitting the fence, sooner or later, our luck will run out.
I started to worry that, despite my very best efforts, I was failing to meet this horse’s basic needs.
About two weeks later, on a warmish sunny February afternoon, I went out to throw lunch hay to find Nori soaked in sweat on her chest and flanks. She had been totally fine just a few hours earlier, when I had groomed her, but now she was anxious, pawing and wanting to roll. I immediately assumed she was colicking, but then I heard the roar of snowmobiles and the accompanying cheers of their riders coming from the powerline trails behind the farm. Whenever the machines raced past, Nori’s eyes grew bigger and her anxious behavior increased.
Still wondering if she was starting to colic, I haltered her and took her out of the paddock. She had a good roll in softer snow and immediately started nibbling hay in between anxious spins. I walked her around and tried to soothe her, but she was inconsolable. I finally put her back in the paddock and watched her helplessly.
I AM failing this horse. No matter what I do, she isn’t happy.
There probably isn’t a worse feeling in the world than knowing you have a problem and trying every solution you can think of, only to have the problem get worse.
Maybe she just needs a little more space?
I briefly debated putting Nori back out with her original herd, but with winter footing and the memories of earlier issues still clear, I quickly crossed that idea off the list. Then I looked at Snowy, sleeping in the sun in his Bachelor Pad. Without the divider, it was maybe a third larger than the Nori Habitat. The position of the double sided shed provided a buffer from the noises out back. Snowy never reacts when snow comes sliding down off the roof and at 26+ years old, prefers to only amble slowly.
Within a few minutes, I had traded the two horses—Nori went in the Bachelor Pad (perhaps now a “She Shed”?) and Snowy in the Nori Habitat. He quickly busied himself cleaning up her hay. She spent the rest of the afternoon pirouetting and bucking, pacing and prancing. But she could do so without sliding into the fence, or the gate, and eventually she seemed to burn herself out and settled to eating hay, too.
And this arrangement is where each horse is currently located. Whether it will work long term—well, at this point, who really knows? It is working for now, and with improving weather and footing, Nori will only be getting more interactions and activities to keep her mind and body busy. All I can do is hope.
But that day with the snowmobiles was, for me, a personal low. It was a day where I doubted if I have what it takes to work with this talented, athletic, sensitive mare and wondered if she would simply be better off with someone else.
I want my horses to be content, to feel safe and secure in their environment. What is this mare trying to tell me she needs that I am not giving her?
This season, it is one of my goals to try to figure that out.
Blogger’s Note: In addition to all of the above, Nori has also intermittently experienced Free Fecal Water (FFW), a messy and unsightly condition in which excess water is passed alongside normally formed balls of manure. My article, “When Passing Manure Becomes a Messy Predicament”, from the March 8 & 15, 2021 issue of The Chronicle of the Horse, takes a closer look at what we know (and don’t know) about this syndrome. One advantage of Nori moving into her own space has been being able to customize her diet; with these adjustments, her symptoms have almost wholly resolved. Fingers crossed!
Ten Golden Rules of Horse Training by Bruce Nock, Ph.D.
c 2004 Half Halt Press, Boonesboro, MD. 188 pages. (out of print)
A few months ago, a dear friend winnowed her equestrian book collection and bequeathed to me a selection of books in need of new homes. Among them were several on the subject of horse training specifically; with an unstarted four-year-old and a lightly started six-year-old on my farm, I am currently interested in anything to do with ground work, foundational training and similar topics. With many to choose from, I simply started with the book on top of the pile: Ten Golden Rules of Horse Training by Bruce Nock.
Author Bruce Nock has experience training horses and also holds advanced degrees in psychobiology, a field in which scientists seek to explain the effect of certain biological processes on human and non-human animal behavior. At its core, Ten Golden Rules takes concepts you likely learned in Psych 101—ideas like classical conditioning, positive and negative reinforcement, stimulus and reward—and “translates” them into horse training concepts. While these ideas are common in nearly any book on the basic training of horses, Nock’s education and professional experience brings a new level of specificity and rationale to the conversation. For example, when he presents Golden Rule # 2 (Signals should stop as soon as the horse begins to make an acceptable response) he then goes on to explain not just how that looks in equestrian terms, but the science behind why that approach works best in shaping the horse’s behavior.
But Ten Golden Rules is not so densely technical that readers will feel as if they are reading a text book. In general, Nock focuses on the application of these concepts in real equestrian life and explains how their use will positively affect equine behavior and performance. He also emphasizes that his “golden rules” are applicable to all horses, of any experience, riding discipline or breed.
For me, some of the most interesting chapters dealt with using the “golden rules” to modify behavior in horses with established patterns of fear, anxiety or generalized mistrust. Using “golden rules” #9 and #10, trainers can help a horse to gain confidence around unfamiliar stimuli, both on the ground and under saddle. Nock also reaches into the classical horsemanship canon to identify traditional mounted exercises especially well suited to dissipate physical and mental tension in the horse.
Overall, Ten Golden Rules of Horse Training is an accessible book, written in a relatable style. In my opinion, the subject matter is important not just for trainers but for anyone who regularly interacts with an equine. After all, as Nock reminds us, “Each time you ask a horse to change something that he is doing, that is, ask for a transition, whether from the ground or saddle, you are training. There are no exceptions….Every time you ask a horse to do anything, he is learning one thing or another whether it is your intention or not” (Nock, 2004, pg. 15).
This book’s original publisher, Half Halt Press, is sadly no longer in business, but I believe copies still circulate on the used book market (I love www.alibris.com to find all manner of titles, usually fairly inexpensively). It is also available as an e-book through Nock’s website, http://liberatedhorsemanship.com/info/.
“When the student is ready, the Teacher will appear.”
This Buddhist quote has been on my mind recently, as I reflect on my own roles as both a student and teacher of horsemanship. In particular, I have been considering how riders within the same lesson may come to process their instructor’s guidance differently. Ultimately, it is not just the rider’s ability to interpret her coach’s directions, no matter how talented and skilled the teacher, that will lead to her further growth. It is also, perhaps more importantly, about her willingness to truly hear what the teacher has to say.
Some years ago, I read a Dressage Today article written by master horseman Charles deKunffy on the subject of the role teachers and judges play in promoting horsemanship as a living art. DeKunffy is internationally known for his dedication to classical dressage, a passion he has shared through his roles as trainer, coach, clinician and author. His words were so inspirational that I have reread the DT piece countless times, and continue to share it with those who aspire to become teachers themselves.
In the article, deKunffy says that the teacher’s obligation is to the art he teaches, a dedication demonstrated through total commitment to teaching correct classical principles. He believes that a teacher must teach all students as if they are a future Olympian—in his words, “to conduct a lesson impeccably as if it were given to the greatest rider, deserving of the greatest attention in the finest way, suitable to the horse and the rider at that particular time. This concept must be your guiding light.”
Clearly, not every horse or rider is capable of reaching elite levels of equestrian sport. Yet the fundamental concepts of horsemanship are the foundation to that work, and should guide the education of every equestrian. Therefore, the teacher who helps every rider learn the art of compassionate, empathetic, thoughtful and progressive training; who rigorously schools every rider in correct equitation, until the student has developed the necessary suppleness and strength in her body and tact and empathy in her aids, will positively impact the countless horses those students will go on to ride.
DeKunffy goes on to say that “The ethic of teaching—the job of teaching—is to stick up for what you know is right.” A horse that has been properly trained stands the best chance of remaining sound and useful for as long as possible. And we all know that when times get tough, a trained, sound horse has a greater probability of finding a caring home than one that is unsound in mind or body. While the teacher has a responsibility to her student, ultimately she has a greater responsibility to the horse.
I took advantage of some quiet moments recently to read two of deKunffy’s books, The Ethics and Passions of Dressage (1993) and Dressage Principles Illuminated (2002). These two works offer a great deal of insight into deKunffy’s philosophy of teaching and training horses and riders. If I had tried to read either of these books when they were first published, I am certain I would have tossed them aside. As a student of horsemanship then, I would not have been ready for this teacher. But in reviewing them now, decades later, I continue to find inspiration and confidence in deKunffy’s words.
The Ethics and Passions of Dressage reads like a series of short essays, almost an annotated “FAQ” of classical horsemanship (please forgive me if that sounds flippant). In particular, I appreciated the chapters detailing deKunffy’s definition of Baroque art and why horsemanship is part of that tradition. I especially valued a chapter explaining why classical horsemanship and competitive horsemanship should be synonymous terms. Let me explain why this last chapter was so meaningful.
When I first began seriously studying dressage, it was just after several elite international competitors were seen using a “new technique” called hyperflexion during their warm ups. These horses then went on to give winning performances in the competition arena. Now called rollkur and formally prohibited by the FEI, the use of this practice ignited a firestorm of passionate debate that ultimately drove a wedge between “competitive” and “classical” dressage riders.
At the time, my barnmates and I bristled whenever we heard someone say (often in a haughty manner) that they were a classical dressage rider, seemingly looking down their nose at those of us who enjoyed competition. In defense, we interpreted the term classical to mean ‘those riders too scared to test their skills in the show ring’, and wrote them off as irrelevant.
But in Ethics, deKunffy points out that there are not and should never be two kinds of dressage. Instead, the purpose bred sport horses of the modern era require an even greater commitment to the art of horsemanship, an art form that can only survive if its students are taught the correct fundamentals. A former FEI and USEF “S” dressage judge, deKunffy looks to these organizations and their judges to protect classical dressage in the competitive arena.
But he is equally adamant that competition is not the only, or even the best, way for a rider to prove her skills. He explains that the rules of classical horsemanship have been tested by thousands of riders on millions of horses. Following these rules should lead to success, and success should be defined as ‘elevating a horse to the level of art’. Whether that happens in a competition arena or at home in the schooling ring is ultimately irrelevant.
In Dressage Principles Illuminated (currently being updated), deKunffy shares his insights on the “how-to” aspect of classical horsemanship. This book is divided into three parts and covers classical philosophy and exercises for developing horse and rider in some detail. It is illustrated with photos of dancing horses, clearly light and happy in their work, who have soft mouths and eyes, lowered haunches and rounded backs.
Dressage Principles is full of quotes that I want to print and post in my barn and tack room so that I must remember them constantly. Here are a few of my favorites:
“Learning from horses is compulsory for riders, and those who resist it must suffer the consequences of ignorance through pain and damage.” (pg. 5)
“Competition can be a rewarding tool for goal orientation and discipline…Competition sharpens riders by focusing them on improved equitation and by making them aware that they are public performers.” (pg. 29)
“The horse is a perfect creature, an evolutionary wonder, without the rider. However, there can be no rider without a horse. To be an equestrian is to take a position in life dedicated to the well-being of horses in terms of their needs.” (pg. 119)
There are so many more. But again, when this book was first published, I am sure that I would have been in too much of a hurry to thoughtfully hear what the Teacher had to say.
I recognize that as a riding coach, I take my time and preach a more conservative approach than perhaps some others I know. I believe that it is always faster to go slowly. The rider who has committed to developing a strong and supportive lower leg, centered balance and an empathetic hand in the long run will be safer, more horse-friendly and have more fun that one who has not. It is my role as teacher to meet my students wherever they are and help them to achieve this goal.
As students, we can all be too greedy to show tangible progress. As teachers, it can be tempting to give in to the student and let her jump a larger fence, or move up a competitive level, especially if you worry she will leave and go to another teacher if you say no. But it is essential that the teachers of horsemanship maintain their principles in order to protect both the student and the horse.
We live in a world where everything moves so quickly and we have come to expect near instant gratification of our desires and responses to our requests. Horsemanship is not, and should never become, that type of pursuit. The true horseman understands that “It is a meditative art. You are a student of the horse.” (deKunffy, in the Chronicle article cited below).
It is perhaps only when a student shifts her thinking in this way that her Teacher will appear.
Charles deKunffy was born in Hungary and survived Nazi occupation before fleeing Soviet rule in the 1950s and emigrating to the US. He attributes his status as an elite equestrian for saving his life, literally and figuratively, both in those dark days and the years to come. He has dedicated his life to “advocating on behalf of the animal that saved him, acting as a link between the prestigious training he received in classical dressage from the masters in Europe and students of today.” (“Charles deKunffy: Saved by Horses, by Jennifer B. Calder, The Chronicle of the Horse June 5&12, 2017)
Through my work as a writer, I have been fortunate to encounter equestrians and horses who have overcome great odds to achieve some measure of success. I love telling these stories and take my responsibility as their curator seriously; sometimes the obstacles overcome are deeply personal or downright cruel, others the result of nothing more than fate or circumstances or luck (and whether luck is good or bad, it seems, is only known to the mind of the beholder). I try to write the truth of someone else’s lived experience with humility, compassion and respect for their willingness to share a piece of that life with a broader audience.
At the same time, these stories practically write themselves. When I was working on my M.F.A., an instructor shared his secret for writing compelling profiles: choose a subject who is “a loser with a dream on a quest.” I know the word “loser” could be interpreted with a negative connotation, but read it in this context as simply being the opposite of “winner”. As in, life has kicked them around a bit and other people in the same circumstances might justifiably have chosen to give up. As in, there are an awful lot of them out there, because in most contests (literal or figurative), there is only one winner.
Think about it. This formula is pervasive throughout popular literature and film. The entire Harry Potter series is essentially about a loser (an orphan whose adopted family scorns him) with a dream (to become a great wizard) on a quest (to defeat Voldemort). For a fictional horsey example, the movie Hidalgo (extremely loosely based on the life of Frank Hopkins, a real person whose real life story is a matter of debate) tells the story of a disgraced, mixed-race cowboy in turn of the century America (definitely a loser) with a dream (to save a herd of mustangs) on a quest (to win a long distance horse race). Bonus points here because the quest is literal (as it also is in the Lord of the Rings, with protagonist Frodo and his friends taking three rather lengthy books/movies to finally arrive at Mt. Doom).
We look for these “losers with a dream on a quest” in real life, too.
For a stunning example, recall the story of Seabiscuit, a cranky, nondescript, poorly conformed Thoroughbred racehorse whose shy trainer, Tom Smith, was shunned for his unorthodox methods; whose jockey, Red Pollard, was a semi-blind immigrant and whose owner, Charles S. Howard, was a successful entrepreneur whose ticket to riches (the automobile) also caused the death of his son. When this hardscrabble horse defeated regally bred champions like War Admiral in the late 1930’s, his success inspired a beleaguered nation, its citizens desperate for joy in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
In 2001, Seabiscuit’s story enjoyed a renaissance with the release of Laura Hillenbrand’s New York Times’ best-selling book. Not only did the written narrative garner too many awards to list, in 2003 it was turned into an Academy Award nominated feature film that grossed $148.3 million at the box office. (Laura Hillenbrand herself could also qualify as a loser with a dream…read this amazing essay to learn more about her own journey).
To reach such broad popularity, obviously the story of Seabiscuit resonated with a wider audience than just the horse-loving public. On its surface, Seabiscuit is a cool story about a successful racehorse. But really, it is much more than that—it is a classic underdog story, and it is as much about the people surrounding the horse as it is about the horse himself.
I think the reason for this appeal is that, each in our own ways, most of us see ourselves as losers. I know I do. Every single day, there is a tape that plays in my brain telling me that I am not good enough. It tells me that I will never be enough of a trainer to start not one but two young horses. It tells me that I will never successfully pitch my book, land an agent, and see the project through to completion. It tells me that there is always someone out there who is better at what I do than I am, and because of that, maybe I shouldn’t even bother to try.
In these dark days of winter, approaching the start of pandemic year two, that voice has been exceptionally loud.
Perhaps it is in these times especially that we most need our underdog stories— stories about losers who are so often just regular people, people like you and I, who faced adversity in whatever form but had the strength, determination and grit to persevere. People who had a dream, whether a seemingly simple one or maybe one so big and crazy that they were embarrassed to share it out loud, and yet who still took those small steps along the path to making that big and crazy dream a reality. Sometimes the path led them exactly where they hoped it would. Sometimes it didn’t. But the point is that despite the negative, the dark, that d**m voice in all of our heads whispering this is not possible, these underdogs kept shuffling, limping or crawling their way forward. And in their own ways, they prevailed.
I tend to think that underdogs are not the exception among us, but the rule, and that underdog stories are about normal people able to push past the resistance that slows each of us down. Underdog stories will always be popular because they appeal to the loser living inside each of us, the one who needs to be reminded that (in the words of the late, great Tom Petty) “even the losers get lucky sometimes.” But with all due respect to Mr. Petty, I don’t think underdogs ever prevail due to luck alone. Somewhere along the way, they turned obstacles into opportunities and adversity into strength, and told their inner critic to take a long walk off a short pier.
Here are some of my favorite underdog stories I’ve written from the past year or so:
Ah, the New Year. While there is nothing inherently special in the change of a calendar number, there is perhaps a certain logic in taking a few moments to reflect on the year that was and the year yet to come. Particularly here in the northeast, the New Year ushers in the height of winter, a time when even Mother Nature herself is primarily hibernating, resting and still. It is a time when many of us instinctively turn inward.
I believe that it is impossible—and perhaps irresponsible—to come out of the experience that was 2020 without a greater appreciation for all of the many positive elements in our lives, and to carry this perspective with us into the future. For me, I believe one of 2020’s greatest lessons was in being reminded that reshaping goals to suit your individual circumstances is not a form of failure. In fact, it may be a mark of “excellence”.
I recently came across a column titled “Defining Excellence” that originally ran in the October 2016 issue of Dressage Today, written by Dr. Jenny Susser, a sports psychologist. Particularly on the cusp of a new year, in an era of continued long-term uncertainty, her thoughts really resonated with me.
“What is excellence?” Dr. Susser asks. “Many of us see excellence as a distant, intangible phenomenon reserved for someone else…something that has nothing to do with us as individuals…I believe that we are all excellent, not just periodically or on a special occasion, but daily.”
This is a strange winter for me, because it marks the first time in over twenty years that I have not stabled or had access to an indoor arena to keep my horses in work. Even stranger, to not go indoors was a deliberate and conscious choice, made for many valid reasons (pandemic, finances, horse needed a break). But despite the logic behind it, for the first several weeks after the ground froze and ice and snow made hacking unpleasant and the horses were truly on vacation for the foreseeable future, I found myself feeling extremely unsettled. I saw photos and videos on social media of friends and acquaintances schooling, training and even competing. I saw snowbird equestrians prepping for their southern migration, and those who have already permanently moved to more temperate climates fairly reveling in that choice. And I thought to myself—I want to be doing that. I am just wasting time right now. I will never get to where I want to go if I take all these months off.
“If you are spending a lot of energy comparing yourself, your horse, your progress, your ability or your results to anyone else, that is basically swimming in someone else’s lane,” says Dr. Susser, who was a competitive swimmer. “Staying in yours is a way of sticking to your strengths, minimizing your weaknesses and performing to plan.”
Ride your own ride. This is a mantra I share with students all the time. But I need to give myself permission to practice this philosophy when it comes to my own goals. The progress I make must be measured against only one metric—my own. Are my horses and I doing a little better than the week before? The day before? Do we finish the day’s activity—whether it is a ride or groundwork session or even just grooming on the crossties—safe, happy and relaxed? Is my horse better off after my interaction with her than she was before it?
“Excellence is not only relative but is highly personal,” writes Dr. Susser. “Sadly, this sentiment is not typically embraced, especially in our dressage culture, where nothing ever seems to be good enough. If you think about it, we see excellence every day but perhaps miss the opportunity to celebrate because we are stuck on a definition of excellence that seems like it will forever exclude us.”
A new frame: My choice to give all of my mares the winter off is one of excellence. Rest gives bodies and minds time to heal and recover from the micro and macro stresses of harder work. Rest gives a break from the routine of work, which can sometimes become too stagnant or repetitive. In preparing for a distance ride, the rest days are as important as the conditioning days, if not more so. Rest is part of a plan to achieve excellence not just in the present moment but in the future as well.
“…if we begin to move our measure of excellence to ourselves, then something becomes possible,” says Dr. Susser. “Create lots of ways to assess your excellence and make them highly personal and relative to you, your horse and your goals.”
Looking forward into a new year, I am going to strive to keep this as my main objective: to achieve excellence every day. Excellence is achieved in small details, in making gradual progress toward larger objectives, and yes, in tangible outcomes such as competitive success as well. But perhaps the best mark of excellence is returning a relaxed horse to the paddock after a satisfying work set—and knowing that both horse and rider will be excited to do it all again the next day.
Horse shows are an essential aspect of the equine industry. According to the 2017 Economic Impact of the US Horse Industry Report, produced by the American Horse Council, over 1.2 million horses are used in competitive events annually and the four largest organizations sanction nearly 6,000 competitive opportunities, supporting 241,000 jobs and adding $11.8 billion in direct value to the national economy. What this report doesn’t capture, though, is the percentage of equestrians that might want to compete, or compete more often, but are limited by any number of factors. What if I told you that, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, most if not ALL of those limitations can be overcome?
Skeptical? I wouldn’t have believed me either, until the pandemic forced me to rethink content for a university course I teach, “Principles of Horse Trials Management”. Normally, students in this course play an integral role in the production and administration of our US Eventing Association sanctioned horse trials, held right on campus. But this fall, campus and local restrictions precluded us from being able to welcome outside guests to our facility and the trials were cancelled. I needed a meaningful, hands on, real world activity that would challenge students to learn, grow and experience some of the skills, tasks and problem-solving required in traditional competition management— all while maintaining social distancing and density rules.
Enter (figuratively and literally) the virtual horse show.
Prior to this year, I had heard of virtual shows but never thought much about them. But thanks to COVID, opportunities to compete in virtual horse shows have increased, with many organizations—ours included– making their first forays into the genre.
At first, I didn’t know quite where to start, so I decided to conduct some research. By which I mean, I entered a virtual show.
Dressage Show Online offers both virtual show management for groups/individuals as well as hosts shows of their own. There is no membership fee required to join; just create a profile, add your mount’s info, and then you can start competing. Tests cost just $30 (in total; no add on fees are required, and this includes the shipping for prizes). Once entered, riders film their test—in one take, from start to finish—and then upload it to the site before the deadline. Within a few days, the judge scores and provides comments on the test electronically and uploads a pdf of the score sheet. The judges range from USDF “L” graduates to USEF “S” judges—so this is legitimate scoring and feedback, just like you would expect at a traditional in person show.
The UNH Virtual Dressage Show that my students organized was inspired by this experience, but we put our own ‘Wildcat twist’ on the process. Entries were divided into an open division and a lesson horse division (where “serviceably sound” would be overlooked in the judging and protective boots allowed), and offered a “best turned out” award. And since we lacked a fancy website for competitors to upload to, we asked them to send videos via YouTube links that we compiled into a playlist for our judge.
I had no idea what kind of interest, if any, equestrians would have in entering the UNH Virtual Dressage Show. After purchasing ribbons and hiring USEF “r” judge Leslie deGrandmaison, I calculated that if we came up with 42 entries, we would at least break even.
Nearly 100 entries later, I learned that not only would people enter, they would do so with enthusiasm. What impressed me most, though, was the wide range of reasons that riders gave for doing so.
Some riders were UNH grads, wanting to compete at their alma mater one more time; others were regular competitors who had chosen not to travel to shows this season. Some belonged to barn or scholastic equestrian teams and had made a day of filming everyone’s videos, offering each other encouragement and support, a fun facsimile of a day at a regular horse show. But I was especially surprised by how many entrants were riders that in general lacked other opportunities to compete: they had no trailer, or their horse didn’t trailer well. Their horse was a lease, not allowed to leave the property. Their horse was older, and going to regular shows was too stressful. Yet they all wanted feedback and the opportunity to dress themselves and their horses up a little bit and show off their skills.
From an organizational perspective, a virtual show is more work behind the scenes than you might think. Once those videos started rolling in…well, there was a lot of detail-oriented work in making sure that each one played for us, was saved correctly and then added in the right order to the playlist. Like any show, you have your usual last minute hiccups; horses with abscesses needing to be substituted by a stablemate, entrants that ran out of time to video and needed to scratch, people who were overambitious in signing up for a higher level that wanted to change their entry. We also used paper tests that had to be copied, labelled, put in order, and mailed to our judge, so these late changes were harder to accommodate. But now that I have done it all once, I know better how to do it again. As with managing any horse show, the more you do it, the savvier you become.
From a competitor’s perspective—I was pleasantly impressed by my virtual show experience, and I am planning to enter again next season. The best part (well, besides the $30 entry fee) is that the feedback I received related to my young horse’s performance in her usual ring, under typical conditions. Truthfully, this is in many ways more helpful right now than comments I might get at an offsite show, where she will likely be more tense, anxious, or distracted than usual (she is just 5 years old, after all). Through the virtual show, I received a mini lesson from one of the best in the business; it helped to confirm that my training was on track and challenged me to put all the pieces together sequentially, under a little bit of pressure (aka, my videographer was not going to tolerate me asking for multiple re-takes). Entering a few shows next season will allow me to track progress in the training and provide me with areas to focus on next. Some virtual show platforms (such as Dressage Show Online) even offer championships and year end and performance awards.
But from an industry perspective, these unique competitions are serving the needs of an audience that traditional shows can’t reach, as well as providing an outlet for traditional competitors looking for additional feedback. At a time when the costs of traditional (especially sanctioned) competition are ever increasing, virtual shows eliminate much of the expense while maintaining the fun and achievement of competition. Riding at shows puts us—and our skills—under pressure, and can serve as a litmus test of how secure we are in our work. Whether we are riding for a judge in the booth or one behind the screen, we all want to put our best hoof forward.
Post-pandemic, I hope to see the virtual horse show community continue to thrive, because I believe that moving forward, we need to increase inclusive opportunities for our sport. Virtual shows fill an important niche within our community by offering affordable, accessible competitive opportunities for equestrians at all levels.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian