Category Archives: Magazine Articles

Growing Pains

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.

Nori on her third birthday, June 2020

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.

When it comes to Nori, I feel this like whoa, especially when it comes to the past year.    

 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’.

Nori (left) and Izzy (right), before the troubles began.

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.

One of several photos I texted to Dr. Monika as we tried to determine “Red Alert” injury vs. “can safely wait until morning”.

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.

Looking majestic while on a hand walk fall 2020. Two halters because I sometimes don’t trust the rope one!

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.

Spring 2020, still with the “girls”.

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.

Nori in the Nori Habitat.

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.

Some of the damage from Crash # 1.

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.

It is a true miracle that Nori escaped from this with not even a scratch.

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.

Nori loves to hang out in the snow. The Bachelor Pad is in the background.

                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.

My brain, most of the time.

                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.

Creeping on Nori while walking solo on the power line trails.

                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!

How The Losers Inspire Us All

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.

Seabiscuit with jockey Red Pollard. Image courtesy of Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation and released to public domain.

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:

Quinlan Shows Us How to Lose our Leathers, No Matter the Obstacles

Learning to Trust Gave Satin’s Angel Her Wings

Back from the Brink: Kilkenny Cairo Heals at her Home on the Range

From $400 Racetrack Reject to Hampton Classic Tricolor

Author’s note: The cover image is of Seabiscuit winning the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap with Red Pollard up. You can watch the race here.

Reactions to “Learning from Olympic Pressure”

A few months back, I was reading some older issues of Practical Horseman, and I pulled an article titled “Learning from Olympic Pressure”, by Melissa Roddy Wright, from its May 2012 issue.  The article was about a talented and ambitious young professional, Clark Montgomery, who had seen himself short listed but ultimately unsuccessful in making the team for the 2008 Beijing Games. At the time of this article, he was working towards the goal of being selected for the 2012 London team.  If you follow eventing, you will know that he wasn’t—he made the short list again—but just a few weeks ago was named to the squad for Rio on his longtime partner, Loughan Glen.

clark smiling.jpg
Clark Montgomery (from Eventing Nation)

I have read many “spotlight” articles on riders from different disciplines, and I almost never find the stories so captivating that I save the article for future review.  But this one about Montgomery was different, and when I saw that he was chosen for the 2016 Rio team, it seemed a fitting opportunity to tell you why I found his story compelling.

Montgomery was just 26 when he was on the short list for Beijing; he had enjoyed a great deal of success early in his career, including completing Rolex.  His top horse at the time, Up Spirit, was green at the upper levels but had been consistent enough to place well at certain key events.  According to the article, Montgomery recognized that his horse was greener than others, and he “pushed through the summer to make Up Spirit faster across country.” (All of the quotes included herein come from the article.)

“Instead, their Olympic bid ended with a cross-country runout at the Barbury Castle International Horse Trials CIC*** in England, a mandatory early summer outing for the American short listed riders.  The following spring, Up Spirit’s season and potentially his upper level career ended with a fall at The Fork Horse Trials CIC*** in North Carolina.”

clark_upspirit_walk
Clark Montgomery and Up Spirit.  This photo is on his website, and I found it on Google Images…no credit to photographer.  Happy to edit if someone knows where it comes from!

While all riders and trainers make mistakes, not all learn from them.  It seems like for Montgomery, missing out on the team and then experiencing a fall which resulted in a serious injury to his mount caused him to reassess his entire training philosophy.

“I tried to make [Up Spirit] gain more experience and get better than he was over the summer.  It fried his brain, and he lost his trust in me.  Up until then, I’d never really lied to him about a distance or pushed him for a quicker pace than he was comfortable with.  But I decided he needed to get faster cross country; I started putting my leg on him, and he started putting on the brakes.”—Clark Montgomery

We all encounter resistance in our mounts occasionally, and one of the hardest parts of training is knowing when to push more, when to back off, and when to stay the course.  When you add into the mix a goal—and most equestrians I know are goal oriented people—or  a deadline, you have a recipe for pushing too hard, too fast or too much.  If you are lucky, your horse forgives you for your momentary loss of sensitivity or intuition, but more often we end up creating a really engrained training problem.  And worse, we diminish the relationship which we have with our horse.

With Up Spirit injured and a few other setbacks at home, Montgomery says “Suddenly I had a lot of time to sit around and think how I got to that point.  I decided pushing a horse for competition isn’t worth it….Before, I think what I loved was competing, but now, I love the horses more.  It’s a beautiful thing to have a relationship with a horse, so they can go cross country with a bond and with trust.  That’s how I’ve approached riding from late 2009 forward.”

I personally am nowhere near as driven or competition oriented as those riders with international ambitions.  But if I am honest I have still struggled with this balance with my own horses.  Anna will hopefully make her Second Level debut next week; her medium gaits lack uphill balance and need better engagement, her connection is not steady enough, especially in the canter, and she could be more supple.  We have been consistently in the 60’s at First Level for two years, though, and I just feel like it is time for us to move on and to push to demonstrate the requirements of the next level.  The perfectionist part of me wants to wait until all the details are in place.  The practical part of me says that you have to get your feet wet sometime, and in dressage, usually the worst that happens is you get a low score.

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Anna and I after a test in 2015.

Ultimately, I decided to go for it—because I think that for Anna, increasing the challenge improves her focus and her willingness to try.  In preparing her for harder work, it is necessary to really wake her up a bit, but she is never resentful or shows any signs of stress or being overpressured.  We are still working to figure out exactly what routine works best to initiate her forward thinkingness, and it is clear that some of the approaches which work well with other horses don’t work with her.  She has challenged us to be more creative and me to be better about how I use my aids and where I sit.

“The most important thing you can do as a rider is try to understand your horse both physically and mentally, and base your training on that horse’s natural abilities…Treating each horse as an individual also means understanding that you may need to experiment with several different paths to the same training goal.”—Clark Montgomery

With Lee, I am still aiming for the long term/big goal of completing the three day 100 mile ride at GMHA in early September.  We didn’t have the early spring prep that I had hoped for, with a stone bruise, a cancelled ride, and a longer than expected period of adjustment to the arrivals of new equine residents to our farm this spring.  I had to regroup and reassess, and while I am still hoping to try for the 100, I am fully prepared to stand down and refocus if she requires it.  We are entered in the two day fifty in Vermont in early August, which will be our final competitive ride before the 100.  Again, it has been and will continue to be critical to watch her behavior and demeanor to see if she is responding well to the increased demands in fitness.  Montgomery says, “In day to day life, that means watching each horse carefully for the signals they send, both under saddle and in the barn.”  A true horseman knows their mounts inside and out.

“You do have to put enough pressure on horses when you are moving them forward to make them better, but not too much that you lose the trust…You have to have goals, yes, and put pressure on horses to get better, but you can only go so far with that.  The horse has to enjoy being worked, enjoy being pushed.  If it isn’t, then you have to back off.  That may mean not going to the Olympics this summer, but at least I’ll still have a horse in the fall.” – Clark Montgomery

2014 Distance Days Awards 007
Lee at the awards ceremony for the 25 mile ride at GMHA Distance Days, 2014.

So while I am not on the hunt for an Olympic berth, it was really inspiring to read how such a talented and seemingly reflective professional at that level was able to learn from his mistakes in a way which allowed him to find a better path.  I guess it doesn’t matter whether your goals are international or local in nature, all horsemen have an obligation to do their best by their horses.   Treat your horse as an individual.  Have goals but be ready to revise them.   Try to really listen to what your horses are saying.  They are only horses, after all.  Our ambitions are not theirs.  But their willingness to cooperate with us to reach our goals is a pretty amazing and special gift, if you really think about it.

Literally while I was writing this blog, I received an update on Facebook about the current standings at Great Meadow International CIC0***.  Read here to learn more.

 

 

Detroit Horse Power

Last June, I was invited out to the Great Lakes Region of the United States Pony Club to teach at their (amazing) Regional Camp. Held at Hunter’s Run Farm in Metamora, MI, these Pony Clubbers had a great few days—most horses stayed in grass temporary pens, and the campers slept at the home of a local Pony Club family (bless them!), after riding twice daily, supplemental horse management lessons and other enrichment activities.  I know we instructors had a great time, and the whole camp ran like clockwork, with instructors rotating among groups, disciplines and subjects.

huntersrun.jpg

While I met many new faces at the camp, one stood out in particular.  David Silver was clearly not the typical Pony Club camper.  At 25 years old, he had already graduated from college and participated in the Teach for America program, working for two years with fourth and fifth graders at the Burns Elementary and Middle School on Detroit’s west side.  David had taken advantage of USPC’s age extension to rejoin the organization in an attempt to earn his H-A Pony Club certification (formerly rating).

While I admired his desire to keep learning and growing as a horseman, part of me did wonder what on earth would motivate someone so…adult…to come back to this youth organization as a participating member.  When I learned the reason, my respect for this inspiring emerging leader deepened.

It would have been easy for David to leave Detroit after his two years with Teach for America were up.  Raised in Westchester County, NY, David had competed through the CCI* level in eventing before college, and had enjoyed the advantages of a privileged upbringing.  With a degree from Dartmouth and connections up and down the east coast, there is little doubt that he could have secured a lucrative position in an upscale suburban community somewhere else, away from the struggles and challenges faced daily by the young people living in metro Detroit.

DHP logo
Detroit Horse Power’s logo.

But instead, David founded a non-profit organization called Detroit Horse Power.  As a teacher, David felt he had made real connections with his students, and wanted to do more to help them to develop the social, emotional and life skills which many of us have and take for granted: a sense of self-worth, self-efficacy,  and self-confidence,  as well as empathy, perseverance and patience, for a few.  Working with underprivileged young people in the city is a challenging task; issues such as residential transiency, poverty and neighborhood violence can be a routine part of their daily lives, with an education their only real hope of getting out.  Reflecting upon the life lessons that his years with horses had taught him, David saw an opportunity to bring his two worlds together.

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Participants in Detriot Horse Power’s second summer program in August of 2015.  David is in the red polo.

Detroit Horse Power was awarded its nonprofit status in April of 2015, and that summer, they provided programming for eighteen children during two, five day camps.   The children were vanned out of inner city Detroit to farms generously loaned to the program for its use.  Volunteers came from the local equine community as well as residents eager to work with city youth.

As most horse people know, something magical happens when you bring children and horses together.  For a young person raised in the city, meeting a horse face to face is unlike anything else which they have experienced.  Horses are big, docile and (usually) gentle, yet they require control of one’s emotion and energy.

Through their five day session, the children were given a life changing experience.  According to volunteers, children went from negative self-talk to self-confidence.  They learned to lead, groom and even ride.  They learned how to problem solve, and they learned conflict resolution skills.  They learned from farriers, vets and even a mounted police officer.  In just five days, these children had a transformative experience, made possible through the support and generosity of many and the leadership of David.

One could say that these sessions alone were a victory for a fledgling program; but David has a vision for what Detroit Horse Power will become, and these camps are just barely a warm up.  Detroit is a large, sprawling city, and due to a steady decrease in population from a high of 1.8 million in the 1950’s to 700,000 today, nearly 23 square miles within city limits lay vacant—a land mass as large as Manhattan.  Decaying, unmaintained buildings remain barely standing on some of these sites; some land is contaminated due to its previous use, while other sites have returned to grassy, unkempt lots which become trash filled homes for pests.  The city lacks the resources to maintain these vacant lands, so residents will often try to do so instead.  These untended lands are the embodiment of urban blight, reducing property values as well as the overall quality of life for residents.

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Urban blight in Detroit, MI

Where some might see an overwhelming problem, David sees an opportunity.  His vision is to open a riding and horse boarding center, right within city limits. The Detroit Horse Power riding center will be a unifying resource for its local community, allowing young people a safe place to come to receive tutoring, support and time with the horses.  Other city residents who might normally move to the suburbs to keep their horses could instead choose to stay, leaving valuable financial resources within the city.  The boarding and equestrian events activities will support the operating costs and infrastructure of the center, leaving Detroit Horse Power as an organization with the opportunity to direct all of its resources towards its programming for youth.

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A vacant, boarded up house stands in the once thriving Brush Park neighborhood with the downtown Detroit skyline behind it (Rebecca Cook/Reuters).

In 2016, Detroit Horse Power will be expanding its summer programs, reaching seventy five young people during six weeks of five day camps, held once again on farms donated to DHP for its use.  This summer’s programs are intended to be a launching point for getting into schools for the fall, with the objective of providing after school programming in horse management, as well as tutoring.

This whole story didn’t come out during my visit to Michigan last summer—that week, I helped David with some tips for longeing and bandaging as he worked to prepare for the H-A certification, a rating he attained later that summer.  David wanted the H-A as a credential to provide greater legitimacy to his work with horses and youth, because he knows that the US Pony Club and its certification system is recognized worldwide as producing thinking, skilled and effective horsemen.   I am glad I could play a small role in helping David get to where he wanted to go.

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A participant in the June 2015 Detroit Horse Power camp enjoys a visit by a mounted officer.  Photo “borrowed” from the gallery on the DHP website.

It was only after I had returned home that I began to do a bit more research, and learned more clearly what it was that David was trying to accomplish.  I was so inspired by his work and his goals that I asked him if I could do some writing related to it; a 3,000 word piece on Detroit Horse Power is scheduled to run in the July/August 2016 issue of Untacked (published by The Chronicle of the Horse).  I hope you will read it!

I must say that one of the things which has always bothered me about the horse world is seeing just how self-centered and demanding most of us horse people can be.  In college, I studied environmental conservation, and I definitely saw myself going into a field where I would be working to “make the world a better place”. In spite of my passion for riding and for horsemanship, I didn’t really want to go into the field full time because I thought it was too self-centered of a thing to do.  I know that the use of horses in therapeutic settings is increasing, and I really wish I could get interested in that for myself—but it just isn’t my niche.  So the “self-centeredness” of the equestrian world has always bothered my inner hippie soul, and it is still something I struggle with.  Hearing about someone who has so clearly been able to translate their love for horses with their desire to effect positive change is really inspiring.

If you want to learn more about Detroit Horse Power, you can follow them on Facebook or visit their website, www.detroithorsepower.org. I definitely recommend checking them out!