Category Archives: Magazine Articles

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.

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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.”

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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

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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.

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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.

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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!