Category Archives: Personal Stories

Hitting the Trails with 2020 Vision

If there is any silver lining to what has been a time of unprecedented uncertainly, fear and anxiety, it is this—

2020 will be the Year of the Trail.

COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the equestrian competition season (First World Problem alert), cancelling everything from local schooling shows right on up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This is a huge disappointment for riders that have been doing their homework all winter, especially those interscholastic and intercollegiate riders who saw their seasons abruptly end right when year end championships were scheduled to begin. Here in the northeast, our show season is pretty short anyway, so it won’t take much of a delay before it basically ends up not happening at all. And with more states enacting “stay at home” orders or lockdowns, those who board their animals are even being denied access to the companionship and comfort their horse provides.

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On a more fundamental level, most equestrian organizations and facilities rely on monies garnered from their shows or clinics to help support operating costs; scores of trainers, grooms, braiders, exercise riders and more count on a busy summer season just to cover every day expenses. Losing horse shows may seem like only a superficial problem, but for a luxury industry like ours, the impacts are going to be even more wide reaching. Once this is over, horse and equine facility owners, particularly those who have faced a reduction in income, may have to make some hard choices.

Yet despite these uncertainties, I remain hopeful that positive change can and will come from these hard times. In particular, I believe that we will see more equestrians returning to their roots, focusing on simply enjoying their horses and hitting the trails rather than competing—and that puts those of us who have been advocating for stronger trail networks and a greater understanding of the positive economic, social and aesthetic benefits of maintaining healthy, multi-use trail systems in a unique position to recruit more support for our work.

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In early February, over twenty New Hampshire area equestrian trails advocates gathered together for the first “Let’s Talk Trails” roundtable, organized by the New Hampshire Horse Council. We shared strengths and concerns and brainstormed solutions and ideas. Equestrian trail groups across the state are struggling with the same issues: declining membership, limited financial and human resources, increased encroachment on trails and loss of access. One theme became dominant through all the discussion—we need to do a better job networking not just with each other but with other trail users.

The work of protecting trails is not glamorous. It is joining local conservation commissions/trail committees and attending selectman’s meetings, keeping your ears open for opportunities to protect or grow equestrian use of public lands. It is joining land trusts, such as the Southeast Land Trust, the Monadnock Conservancy and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which are increasingly holding the easements on lands we once travelled. Land trusts and other conservation groups play an important role in protecting open space, but they often do not understand the needs or importance of allowing equestrian trail use, even on properties that have historically been used for this very purpose; as a member, we are poised to better advocate for equestrian access. It is taking the time, one on one, to speak with fellow equestrians about good trail etiquette, and also to reach out to our friends who bike, ride off road vehicles, hike or otherwise recreate on trails to educate them about safe interactions with our horses. It is talking to local landowners to hear out their concerns and ensure that equestrian use does not degrade the quality of their land. It is about looking at other trails groups as potential allies, not adversaries.

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Image from Rider’s West.

This past week I joined a webinar sponsored by American Trails, a thirty-two year old organization founded with the explicit purpose of “bridging the gap between different user types, across the whole spectrum”. American Trails is the group behind the formation of the Trails Move People Coalition (TMP), a consortium of ten different trail user groups ranging from the Back Country Horsemen of America to the National Off Highway Vehicle Conservation Council to the American Hiking Society, for the purpose of discussing and resolving those concerns affecting all groups using trails. Obviously, these diverse trail users will not agree on best practice for everything, but they are coming together with the hope of presenting a unified front for those topics where there is common ground. By becoming familiar with the needs of each type of trail user, the TMP is better able to advocate for a collective vision—one in which trail access is considered a critical part of the infrastructure of a community’s physical and economic health.

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The Essex County Trail Association is an effective multi-use trail advocacy and protection group in Massachusetts. This is their version of the universal “yield” sign used on their trail network to help keep all users safe.

On the webinar, Mike Passo, Executive Director of American Trails, shared his thoughts on our unsettled times. “When coronavirus is all said and done, people are going to need to re-create themselves,” said Passo. “Taking away people’s ability to use their trails cuts at the core of a person.”

Through the Trails Move People project, Passo and other leaders hope to develop tools necessary to unify the greater trails community: gathering hard data on the value and impact of trail users, identifying funding and other resources that benefit the trails community as a group (especially to address the trails maintenance backlog) and advocating effectively for policy, legislation and funding decisions on behalf of the trails industry to Congress and other federal agencies.

Their goals are ambitious but essential. And even on this high level, the same theme came clear—there is a fundamental need for trail users to unite and to support each other in promoting our public and private trail networks as an essential bedrock to our local and regional communities.

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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. It is the only way in which our industry will recover. Trail riding is equestrianism at the grassroots level.

It seems most likely that 2020 will not be the year of great competitive success. But it still can be a time in which we step towards other goals—goals which if they come to fruition will leave a long-lasting impact on our communities.

Are you willing to Hit the Trails with 2020 Vision?

If so, here are a few things you can do.

  • Join a trails group, and if you can afford it, join more than one. Advocacy starts at the grassroots, local level, so my personal opinion is that you start by supporting those groups that have the greatest impact on the trails/region where you ride the most. You can always expand from there.
  • Attend meetings or learn more about trails groups supporting different kinds of users. The more we as equestrians clearly understand what a snowmobiler, biker or ATV rider all need in their trail systems, the better poised we are to advocate for trail designs that can accommodate different users. Cooperation is a two-way street; equestrians are not the largest trail user group, and we are frequently misunderstood. It is up to us collectively to reach out and change that.
  • Introduce yourself to your town conservation commission. Find out what trail projects are already going on in the area, and start to look for ones that might be suitable for equestrian use.
  • VOLUNTEER! There will be plenty of grassroots work that needs to be done on trails networks across the county once we get the blessing to move freely again. Volunteering is free, gets you outside and is a wonderful way to meet other trail users.
  • GET OUT ON THE TRAILS. Take your horse somewhere you have never been. Explore a state park. Sign up for a hunter pace. Attend a meet up of a local riding club.

If living through the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic teaches us nothing else, hopefully it is a reminder that we are all deeply interconnected and must live and act in a way that considers the needs of both other people and the broader ecosystem to which we all belong. Working to preserve trails and protect equestrian access is important, and because most horse trails are shared trails, we will be serving to strengthen our ties to the local communities. And in a small way, we will be taking a step towards healing ourselves.

A few years ago, I founded an informal group called the Strafford County Equestrian Trail Riders. With just a small core group of volunteers, we have started chipping away at tasks including documenting and mapping existing trails/dirt roads in our country with the goal of creating a network, have helped to defeat a proposed “anti-manure” bill at the state level, and have represented equestrian interests to local land trusts and conservation commissions. Our total impact as of yet is not great but it is a start, a small step forward. And as everyone knows, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

Why Am I Still #PonyClubProud?

About a year ago, I was feeling stressed and frazzled, like so many of us, overwhelmed by my “to-do” list and wondering how I was ever going to get it all moved into the “to-done” pile. Yet amid all this busy-ness, I left my farm, my agenda, and all of the millions of pressing “must do’s”, to go spend several days as a National Examiner at a United States Pony Club certification testing. These days, a certification is always a multi-level affair and requires considerable advance coordination of candidates, fellow examiners, parents and of course, the organizer. Oh—also, the facility and flight schedules and did I mention it all is supposed to be completed on a tight budget….?

A good friend looked at me as I was juggling these variables into a cohesive package and said–“Why do you still do this? Why do you still bother with Pony Club?”

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Happy new H-B candidates and happy National Examiners at a certification in Lake Shore Region (Wisconsin). A 100% pass rate!

I looked at her and blinked. I guess I had never really bothered to try to put it into words. So this—nearly a year later, as I am sitting in the Milwaukee airport waiting for pick up to participate in this year’s upper level certification—is my attempt to do just that.

By now, I have been a volunteer/clinician/National Examiner for USPC for nearly four times as long as I was ever a member. I belonged to the Old North Bridge Pony Club in Massachusetts from about 1992-1994, and then Squamscott Pony Club in New Hampshire from 1995 through 1997, when I aged out at 21. I started out as a 15 year old D3 who kept her semi-feral Thoroughbred mare in her English teacher’s backyard and finished as a 21 year old H-A who definitely thought she knew everything there was to know about horses (let’s admit it—what 21 year old isn’t that cocky?). I had participated in two National Championships and travelled to Delaware, California, Oklahoma, Kansas and Hawaii as a Visiting Instructor.

It was an action packed few years, to say the least.

This was all back in the “old days”, when you had to pass a National Testing all on one go, when the only option was to test in all four phases (flat, arena jumping, cross country jumping and horsemanship), when you aged out at 21 and had to try to somehow reach your goals before you ran out of time.

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Me and Snapper, aka The Paper Boy, who was generously leased to me by the Reeves. I took my C2 and C3 ratings on him– this is after a very foggy show jumping round at tetrathlon rally.

I have been a district commissioner and a regional instruction coordinator. I have organized, managed and taught at countless Pony Club camps. I have organized, judged and been the technical delegate at rallies. I have taught local mounted and unmounted meetings and run local club certifications. I have served on national committees.

I can’t even possibly guess the total number of hours I have spent involved with Pony Club. And I know that at its core, Pony Club is full of passionate horsemen who deeply want to see the organization and its members succeed.

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This is Carmel, who I bought after finishing college. When he retired, I leased him to a D2 in Western New York Region for two years before he came back to New Hampshire and became a member of Squamscott Pony Club with his friend Molly (shown here). It was a real thrill to see a horse I loved so much help other young riders learn the ropes! I think he passed his D1-C1 ratings several times over.

As a National Examiner, I have been yelled at, threatened, physically intimidated and belittled by angry parents (never candidates). But I have also seen some of the very best—candidates who come forward and say that, even if unsuccessful, a testing was one of the most positive experiences that had had in Pony Club. One mother even brought a pie after we had told her son that he had not met standard, with a note thanking us for our compassion and saying, “It is always hard to so no to children and pie.”

But why? Why, out of all the countless equestrian organizations, have I chosen this one, specifically, to spend most of my extremely limited (read: non-existent) free time with?

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I guess to understand that, you will have to know a little bit more about me.

When my family moved to Massachusetts in 1990, I was a pretty die-hard hunt seat equitation rider. I had had the opportunity to compete a fair amount for a kid who had never even leased a horse, because our facility hosted several “C” rated AHSA horse shows and held a series of in house schooling shows for all of their clients. There was also a local hunter/jumper association in our area which coordinated a school horse show series for the major lesson factory programs, so I had even competed some at other farms.

I knew nothing about dressage other than bending.

I thought cross country was terrifying.

I had no intention, ever, of competing in a horse trials or event.

I only knew what Pony Club was because of the Saddle Club books.

But when we left New York, I lost my barn family. There, I had been a certified “barn rat”, frequently hanging out after school and helping out around the barn, even though I only had my lesson once a week. I desperately wanted to find that family again in Massachusetts, but from the beginning it was a struggle. Though I found a great hunter/jumper lesson program, it quickly became apparent to both me and my instructor that my goals outstripped any of what her wonderful lesson horses could offer. She told me she was happy to keep teaching me, but unless something changed, horse wise, she wasn’t sure how much further I could go.

I was stuck.

And then something kind of amazing happened. A wonderful woman, Ann Sorvari, who was an English teacher at my high school and my neighbor, let me start riding her Thoroughbred mare Dilly. Dilly had stood around for several years. There was only a twenty meter grass circle to ride on. Dilly really preferred to stand around and look pretty over doing actual work. But I rode her all over the subdivision we lived in, up and down Olde Harvard Road, and once a week, all the way down Burroughs Road, across Route 111, to Wetherbee Stables for a riding lesson.

Dilly was difficult to ride, and I lacked the skills at the time to help her to be better than who she was. She spooked a lot, tried to go around jumps rather than over them, and could have full on Thoroughbred melt downs over really irrelevant stuff.

Kathy, my hunt seat coach, came out to see her one day. She chose her words carefully.

“Well, she is never going to be suitable for what we do,” Kathy said. “If you take her on, you will have to set different goals.”

But like any horse crazy kid, what I wanted more than anything was a horse of my own. So when Mrs. Sorvari offered to transfer ownership of the mare to me, I had already made a shift in my mind.  Despite Dilly being rather ill suited for most riding goals, she met the one criterion that was most important—membership in the species Equus caballus.

And THAT was when I joined Pony Club. A few girls in my high school were members and they gave me their District Commissioner’s info. I knew Dilly would never make it as a hunter or an eq horse, but I figured that in eventing, it didn’t matter what you looked like so long as you made it to the other side of the jump.

Clearly, I had much to learn.

At this time in my life, there was one more major variable in the mix. Just before I started high school, my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The disease launched a full scale attack on her well-being, with an increase in symptoms that was almost quantifiable from month to month. When you are a teen with no control over something so terrifying, having a safe place to escape to is everything. The more intense her symptoms, the more I focused on studying horsemanship.

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Two long gone beauties– my mother and Dilly– probably around 1992. Gosh, I really rocked the helmet rain cover, didn’t I?

Pony Club is a volunteer organization, and parental involvement is key. But my mother was too ill to help, and my father too busy trying to take care of her and go to work and run to the grocery store. Though I didn’t know it then, perhaps the first lesson that Pony Club taught me was generosity—the many parents who picked my horse up to go to meetings or rally though it was out of their way, who spoke up for me at parent’s meetings when I didn’t have a voice, who loaned or gave me tack, equipment and other items which I couldn’t afford on my own. As an emotionally hurting teen, I was not always gracious enough in my acceptance of their support. I can only hope that they all know in their hearts what they did for me, and today I try to emulate their generosity and compassion in my interactions with others.

Here are some of the other lessons I took away from my five short years as a Pony Clubber:

The C1 examiner who complimented me on my ability to handle refusals during my show jumping course, saying, “I have met B’s who don’t know how to ride a stop like that.” This, after being told by so many that my horse (Dilly) was useless and wouldn’t teach me anything. Instead, I learned patience and tact, and developed a tool box of techniques to make things better.

The clinician who helped pull me up out of the water jump at my B prep clinic. After remounting in soggy britches and rejumping the fence, I tearfully asked if there was any point of continuing to plan on taking the test. “I absolutely think you should take the test,” she said. I learned that sometimes you have to land in the swamp and figure out how to pull yourself back up before you will get to where you want to be.

Laughing and chatting and eating Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream at 2 AM with my friend Becky while driving home from Nationals, only to realize that we had been following the wrong car and we had no idea where we were or where to go. We had to stop and wake up her mother in the back seat and admit that we hadn’t been paying enough attention. I learned that sometimes, you have to ask for help, even if it is your own fault you need help in the first place.

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Snapper and I in the show jump phase of the National Tetrathlon Rally, 1994. WHY did no one rip that rain cover off? 

Trying Tetrathlon, a four-sport contest in which you run, swim, ride and shoot (add fencing and you have modern pentalthlon). I learned that I could make myself get up and run every day, and do a flip turn in the pool, and shoot a gun, and for the first time in my entire life, feel like a real athlete. I learned that though I was never going to be the fastest or the strongest, I was still capable and that being the best athlete I could be was its own victory.

The moment at my B testing when I burst into tears when I saw the “meets standard” box checked. I couldn’t quite believe it was real—I had found and paid for the lease on my testing horse, arranged for my trailer rides to the clinics and the test and arranged for the hotel all on my own. And though there were several generous, wonderful adults who helped me along the way (including the test organizer who loaned me a car to get to and from the B&B I was staying at when my ride ditched me), it was the single biggest thing I had ever accomplished mostly on my own at that point in my life.  I couldn’t quite believe it was real. It was farther than I had ever dreamed I would go in Pony Club. I learned that I am possible.

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It was through my Pony Club family that I was able to come up with a one month lease on this appendix Quarter Horse, Cee Cee Ace (Casey), just two weeks before my B rating. The only reason her owner was willing to consider it was because I was in Pony Club– and she kindly introduced me to Quick Silver for bathing a white/gray horse! And yes, I really schooled in those– they were called “Schooling Sweats” or similar and I rode in them All. The. Time.

And when the examiners handed me back my H-A test sheet, one asked, “when will you take your A?” –and I told her I knew that it was too much, that I didn’t have a horse and wasn’t ready. She replied, “that is another lesson from Pony Club—it teaches us to know our limits.”

Perhaps. But personally, I think the opposite is true. Pony Club challenged me to stretch my limits, to grow and try to do things I had never envisioned were possible for me as an equestrian and young adult.

And Pony Club gave me a community of support and love during a time in my life when I most needed one.

So I will remain #PonyClubProud, because I know that there are children and teens now who were like me then—the ones who just so badly want to show growth and move forward, who are learning to set goals and reach for them, who may not have the full support of people around them at home. Because if for just one member I can be that voice who says, “You can do it. Never give up, keep moving forward,” that is worth more than all the hours combined.

I owe Pony Club a debt I can never repay.

#PonyClubProud

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Winter Training and Spring Renewals

This is not the blog post I was hoping to be writing right now. What I had hoped to do in this post was to proudly proclaim that after a winter of hard work and rebuilding, Anna and I had triumphantly returned to the show ring at Third Level with scores solidly in the 60’s. But that is not what happened. The truth is much less glamorous—because after a winter of hard work and rebuilding, our 2019 competitive debut was somewhat…lackluster.

Last June, I rather overambitously moved Anna up to Fourth Level, mostly because there was a show in my area that was permanently going off the calendar, and it had just seemed like a weekend of beginnings and endings and so I thought, ‘what the heck let’s just do it.’ The ride was sort of a disaster. But unlike moving up in eventing or jumpers when you are not quite ready, the risks to do so in dressage seem low. Or so I thought.

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Creeping on Anna this winter at High Knoll Equestrian Center (Rochester, NH)

Here’s the thing. I know that this level of dressage is a reach for Anna—she is an average mover and has less than average forward intention. But I do really believe that she can do it, to a modest degree. And right now she is the best horse I have, and I enjoy riding her. There was a little tagline I read somewhere a long time ago, which has always stuck with me:

“Not every champion has to cost a whole lot. You do the best that you can with the best that you’ve got.”

When I compete Anna, I don’t go out hoping to best everyone in the class. My personal goal is to feel that I have shown the horse off to the best of our combined/mutual ability on that given day, and if the score comes back mediocre, at least I can still feel good knowing that we put our best selves forward. My tangible goal, always, is to break 60%. I don’t have 100% control of this, of course, but if I can deliver a consistent test that has some highlights (for Anna at Third Level, this is usually the walk work and the flying changes, some of which are coefficient scores), I feel like I don’t give the judge a choice but to award us the (often dreaded) score of 6: satisfactory.

But after our failed attempt at Fourth Level last summer, I hit pause. Clearly what I was doing wasn’t working, and if I wanted this little horse to be her best, I needed to change something about my strategy.

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A barefoot Anna on a sunny and warm(ish) day this winter.

 

The first thing I changed was a bit unconventional—I pulled her shoes. Every summer for the past five years, the quality and integrity of her hoof wall just seemed to go downhill, until they were cracked and thin and hard to keep shoes on. Her hind feet have NEVER been shod, and the hoof wall is great. She was barefoot her first few seasons under saddle, and I only added the shoes when I sensed a little tentativeness in her stride when I began adding more intense conditioning sets for eventing. So pulling her shoes wasn’t maybe quite as odd of an idea as it might sound. I added Farrier’s Formula for about six months, and within just a shoeing cycle or two her walls were thickened and tougher. She never took a single “funny” step.

I also decided that I needed more consistent eyes on the ground. I began working with a local trainer whose riding and training I admire very much, and admitted that I felt out of touch with the expectations of the level I was trying to compete at. We started working together in August, and immediately went totally back to the basics. I put away the double bridle, and we worked to develop a better stretch through Anna’s topline, with more correct and consistent connection.

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Anna post-workout this winter. Yes, she sweat. Can you see the little bit of wrinkled/damp hair on her neck?

 

Going back to these essential foundation concepts was both humbling and eye opening. In previous blogs, I have noted that just driving Anna forward with whip/spur is not effective in creating forward intention. She has to be supple to go forward. I know this—but sometimes I forget, or because she is pretty much the only horse I ride, I don’t keep my expectations of her suppleness high enough, and I become complacent in what I accept from her.

The idea is simple but the execution takes finesse and correct timing and practice. You cannot push a horse forward into a block, whether the block is in the topline, the jaw or the under neck. Instead, separate out your aids a bit—ask the horse to chew the bit with a rein aid, and reward any response from them which is in the direction of reaching forward and downward. Just like anything with horses, you must ask little, reward often, and recognize any small attempt to move towards the outcome you are looking for.

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This isn’t Anna– it is Bailey, a sweet and hard working Gypsy Vanner cross who is on the team at UNH. I worked with him a bit over our Winter Break, developing better stretch in his topline as well. Such a fun little dude!

For months, all I did was ride Anna is a long and low outline, doing leg yields in the stretching frame, even working towards a stretching canter. As the stretch became more consistent, I began to do a little bit of shoulder fore or shoulder in, but always with the stretch. The second I lost the stretch, it was back to the basics. As the stretchy shoulder in became more reliable, the next challenge was to change to renvers without losing the stretch. For quite awhile I ran out of long side before I had really established the new position in Anna’s body.

I boarded Anna at a local indoor in the winter. I mostly rode early in the AM or at night after work, when the ring was empty, diligently working on the stretch. It can be hard to motivate in New Hampshire in the winter, in the dark and the cold, but I was committed. And slowly, little by little, things got better, and more consistent, and without force, Anna’s energy levels improved. Her shape changed, with more correct muscling through the neck and a thinner throatlatch. While my social media feed was full of friends enjoying the warmer climates of North Carolina or Florida, I was diligently doing my homework, and truthfully looking forward to a payoff come spring and summer.

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And this little fellow is Otto, an Arabian/Oldenburg who is also part of the UNH crew. I was asked to work with him a little over break, too (though I can’t remember why right now)– and guess what we worked on? I wish Anna had a third of Otto’s natural “oomph”!

Because here is the thing—Anna is going much better. She is doing work now in the snaffle that I couldn’t have touched a year ago in the double. And more importantly, most of the time, she seems happy in the work. Is everything perfect? Of course not. Am I expecting 7’s and 8’s on most movements? Not even close…but this is part of the art of dressage, to show off the movements and elements that are your horse’s forte, and to support them in the moments which are not as easy. Most horses (except maybe Valegro) find some components of a level easier than others.

So I was pretty crushed when I took Anna to our first 2019 show at Beland Stables in Lakeville, Mass., and she scored a 59%. Yes, it was below my 60% threshold. But more frustratingly, the test was so not representative of how she has been schooling. She warmed up well but the second I started circling the arena I knew I was in trouble. Anna felt like she was stuck in the mud—the sand footing of the arena felt deep and I had no response to my leg at all. We made it through the test but it was a royal struggle, with Anna completely blowing off the walk-canter transition (which she NEVER does), and I feel as though I owe the judge a fruit basket or something for her generosity of spirit in the scoring.

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Anna at Beland, looking much more interested in the geese on the pond and the grass field than having her photo taken. Yes, we rode in the double. No, I do not (in hind sight) think it was the best choice. We won the warm up though, I promise!

Our next show was just about a week later, much closer to home at Longfellow Dressage in Nottingham, N.H. We had several decent schools during the week and I was prepared to chalk up the performance at Beland to the deep footing and warm temperatures that day. Longfellow has high quality GGT footing and a relaxed environment, and I knew there would be no environmental excuses. We had scored a 59% at Beland with a lackluster performance. Surely Longfellow would go better.

But instead, we went down two points, to a 57%. The first four movements were 7’s, and then we hit the first trot half pass left, and it was like someone put Anna on pause. Once again, I felt like I had no horse at all throughout the entire test, and she totally blew me off in the second flying change, usually one of her most reliable movements. By the end I was just kicking helplessly while my glasses slid down my nose. The judge’s only comment at the end of the test? “So much kicking…he [sic] just shut off.”

Ugh.

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Getting ready to head off to Longfellow. Isn’t she adorable?

Here is the thing I have come to believe about horses. They are pretty authentic. They don’t scheme against us or plot to ruin our day. They live in the moment, and if they are content or unhappy, confident or nervous, you see it in their behavior.  Horses just are. But they do have long memories and if they have had an association with something from the past, good or bad, it can influence them in the moment.

I am left wondering what Anna is trying to tell me. She schools well but clearly isn’t maintaining that ethic in the show ring. I wonder if moving up last year did more damage than just adding a low score to our resume. I wonder if it left Anna feeling that when she goes into the large arena, she is going to be asked to do something she can’t do. Maybe moving up before you are ready, even in dressage, can cause damage you don’t see.

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And yes, we went with the double AGAIN at Longfellow. It does help with the canter work. But I think it is at least also a little part of the loss of forward. 

My challenge now is to try to figure out how to change the equation, and to learn what (if anything) will motivate Anna to turn on her best self in the show ring. Since Longfellow, I have already had our vet out and done a thorough once over; we will make a few minor edits in her physical care but I am reassured that there is nothing obvious in her physical body causing this problem.

While I am disappointed that I can’t write the triumphant blog post that I was hoping to, I realize now that despite this current set back, the truth is we are still further ahead than we were a year ago. Most of the time, Anna is working more correctly, with a better topline and better balance. She is sound and healthy and I think our rides are more harmonious now. I have a clearer picture of what it is I am looking for from her, and as a result I think I can do a better job of riding her to that end, even if we don’t yet maintain it in the show ring.

Plus, taking the time to review the basics has also made me a better instructor, in my opinion. I have begun looking at every horse I work with through a more specific lens, one which is focusing on the fundamental correctness of the connection. Staying true to these foundation elements is the only correct way to move forward. There are no short cuts.

So for now we will continue to lay down strength and suppleness and go hacking and try to keep our focus positive and fun. If I want my horse to feel like a partner I need to try hard to figure out what she needs from me right now. Scores and showing and the rest cannot be the main motivation. At the end of the day it is all about the relationship with the horse, and knowing that you have done your best by the animal.

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In 2019, Equestrians Need to “Do Better”

About a year ago, I attended a board meeting for an equestrian group; its leadership is populated with well intentioned, yet overextended, equine enthusiasts. We had set lofty goals for ourselves that season, few of which we had managed to attain. Our running theme throughout the meeting was that in the upcoming year, our new goal moving forward was simply to “do better”. It became both an excuse and a plan of attack.

As a result, the notion of “doing better” was something I thought about all last year, in a broader context. Many of the most pervasive and pressing issues facing the equine industry at this time boil down to needing better education, better awareness and better advocacy. In order to move towards resolution on messy, complicated problems such as the unwanted horse crisis, loss of open space, unqualified instructors, ignorant but well-intentioned horse owners and an overall lack of understanding of horses by non-horse people, we as equestrians must do better, in many facets and iterations of the concept.

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I could probably do a better job of grooming Nori.

And here we are, already nearly a third of the way through 2019, and for various reasons I am left still ruminating on the same theme. At the US Equestrian Federation meeting in January, I attended a panel discussion focusing on the needs of the grassroots. Most at the table defined “grassroots” as being riders who have some experience, maybe compete at local level shows, and who see issues such as cost, exclusivity and accessibility as being barriers to their participation in competitive sport at a higher level. As leaders of the USEF, it is not surprising that their definition of the grassroots is competition centric.

But I would like to take it even further.

Turning to Google Dictionary, the definition of “grassroots” is as follows: “the most basic level of an activity or an organization; ordinary people regarded as the main body of an organization’s membership.” Using this definition of grassroots, are we not talking about the vast majority of horse people?

Most equine groups draw a pyramid to represent their membership; a very small percentage of members are at the elite level represented by the narrowest part of the triangle at the top, while the vast majority is competing, training or enjoying their horses at levels closer to the bottom. I don’t like the word bottom though—I think a better word is “foundation”. Because without these riders, horse lovers, trainers, coaches and fans, THERE IS NO ELITE EQUESTRIAN.  It simply cannot exist.

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Nothing beats a ride with good friends.

I firmly believe that as a sport, as an industry, equestrians are in trouble, because the base is no longer on steady ground. There are several reasons for this: constantly increasing expense, loss of equestrian lands and expanded gentrification are surely a huge part of it. But I also think that equestrians as a group still continue to allow the differences between our disciplines to divide us, rather than work towards allowing our mutual love and admiration for the horse to unite us.

In 2017, the American Horse Council repeated its economic impact study of the horse industry, and they came up with some impressive figures. $50 billion direct impact to the U.S. economy. 32 million acres of land owned and 49 million acres of land leased for horse-related uses. 7.2 million horses in the U.S. But perhaps even more telling is that of those 7.2 million, almost half (3,141,449 to be exact) are used for recreation.  If we were drawing that pyramid, here is our industry’s base. Our foundation.

But how many horse owners and horse lovers are finding themselves priced out of the industry? Even on a shoestring, keeping a horse is not cheap. For many grassroots horse owners, there is sacrifice and choice involved in owning their animals. I have a lot of respect for that, because that has been my personal experience too. In order to make horse ownership a reality, I have always been in some combination of management, rough board or working boarder situation. I also have been blessed to know some exceedingly generous farm owners who were willing to let me and my horses into their lives and barns. “Where there’s a will there’s a way” may be cliché, but in my experience that plus a little bit of luck and a willingness to work hard has made opportunities happen.

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It can be hard to clean up the paddock when its resident insists on sleeping in the poo.

I know firsthand the passion which many of those at the grassroots bring to their equestrianism. And I would like to respectfully suggest that as horsemen, we do a better job of acknowledging that any time a horse is in a situation where he is well cared for, sheltered and loved, it really doesn’t matter whether they are an elite athlete or not, whether they are living up to someone else’s agenda, whether they are wearing mismatched bellboots and a hand me down blanket. It doesn’t matter if the owner’s goal for the season is to make it to the area finals, to go to a schooling show series, to attend clinics/lessons/camps, to learn to canter, to hack on the trails or to simply spend time with their horse and work on the ground. It doesn’t matter. We need to do a better job of recognizing that what all equestrians bring to the table should be a love of the horse.

I would like to humbly propose a list of ways in which we can “do better” — for ourselves, for each other, and for our horses. I bet you can add some other ideas too; please post them in the comments.

Do Better Personally

When it comes to doing better, there is no easier place to start than with ourselves. Doing better could be as simple as finding an instructor you connect with and taking a weekly lesson. It could be committing to riding three days per week. Cleaning your tack more often. Prioritizing your riding and your goals and learning what that means for scheduling your life around this objective.

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Simply spending time with your (muddy, heavily shedding) horse can be its own reward.

Join a horse club. Pick one that means something to you—a breed society, a discipline organization, the local trails group. Contribute to groups which keep trails open, allow horse camping, protect open space. Support a rescue whose work makes sense to you. Donate your unused equipment and supplies to someone in need. Be a part of the broader equine community.

Commit to your own continuing education. Even the best in the world do this so we mortals are certainly not exempt. Read a book (check out my many book reviews for some inspiration!). Watch a video. Follow someone on YouTube. Go to a clinic. Keep your mind open. If you are a coach or trainer, question your credentials. Get certified. Become a mentor. Be a role model that a developing equestrian can look up to. Always, always respect the animal.

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I make it a goal to attend as many clinics as I can each year, about a range of topics. Here, Jochen Schleese discusses saddle fit. 

When you are at the barn, put your phone away. Don’t be checking your social media and emails when you are supposed to be enjoying your horse and his company. That’s just rude.

Stop waiting for someone else to show you the way, to organize the trail ride, to get you to a clinic or show. Smile at the child who wants to pet your horse and teach them how to do so safely. Set your goals, break them down, and start achieving your dreams.

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Do Better Regionally

This year in New Hampshire, a local state representative proposed a bill which would have required that animal owners, including equestrians, clean up any waste left when in a state park or forest. This is not the first time a “poop bill” has been proposed in our state, and as a result, there are already administrative rules in place that mandate the cleanup of trail heads and other common areas. Trails, though, are exempt. Equestrians and dog mushers banded together in opposition, and the proposal died in committee at the beginning of this month.

I was actively involved in letter writing, petition signing and otherwise trying to get the word out to local equestrians about the risk posed by this bill to reasonable trail access. And there were two things which really struck me as a result of this process—first, the disconnect between horseback riders and non-horse people is continuing to grow. Second, equestrians need to become more proactive in advocating for ourselves, and this means not sitting back and waiting for someone else to lead the charge. Are you an equestrian? Then the someone who needs to do something is YOU.

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For any horse related event or activity to occur, there are hours spent in preparation, usually by volunteers. Be sure to take your turn!

In online forums and in response to newspaper articles discussing the proposed bill, non-equestrian comments ranged from mildly indifferent to scathing. I was disturbed to read a number of comments which tended towards sentiments such as “equestrians need to get off their high horse and clean up their s&%t” or “equestrians are entitled and just think everyone else should have to deal with their manure”. Other common themes reflected an overall lack of understanding of horses and the logistics of riding in the open, such as the challenges associated with mounting and dismounting safely on trail, horses’ general aversion to wearing poop bags, and the difficulty of carrying clean up equipment on horseback.

We defeated the bill, this time, but I know it will be back. And I fear that there will come a time when due to a continued shift in demographics, a sense complacency in the equine community and/or other unforeseen factors, that we will not be able to win. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

As equestrians, we need to do better to unite with other trail users (snowmobilers, mountain bikers, hikers), land trusts, conservation commissions and state land protection agencies. We need to educate them about what horses are and are not, and we need to do so from a place of compassion. We need to volunteer to maintain trails and police other equestrians who use them.

If competition is more your thing—then become active with a regional show organization. Volunteer. Thank your organizers. Support local and regional shows. I have a lot of thoughts on this subject too—you can review them here.

The bottom line is, we need to do better in reaching out to our local communities to educate them about the amazing benefits which horses can bring to an area. Therapeutic programs offer recreation and cognitive, physical and emotional benefits to the differently abled, victims of trauma, and our veterans. Lesson programs give young people and adults an opportunity for wholesome fun, exercise, the chance to be outdoors and all the many benefits which come from learning to be a horseman. Farm owners contribute to the local economy both directly and through support industries like veterinary medicine, farriery, hay production and more. Horse farms help to preserve open land.

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Most people are not raised around horses anymore. Sometimes they have unusual ideas of what it means to be a horseman. Yet in the American Horse Council study, 31% of American households identified as having a horse lover within them. Horses still possess a mystique, a unique draw which calls humans to them like no other species. We need to do better to encourage those horse lovers to stay connected and to allow for opportunities for community members to safely interact with our animals. Humans instinctively fear or oppose things which they do not understand.

All it takes is one positive interaction for someone to have a new level of understanding and appreciation for the horse.

Doing Better for our Horses

If this blog feels a little preachy, or a little bit soap boxy, well, I suppose it is. But for me what it comes down to, always, is our horses. I want to see our industry continue to thrive decades into the future, beyond my lifetime. I want so much to know that all horse crazy young people will have a realistic chance to enjoy all that comes with interacting with these amazing creatures, that the privilege will not become reserved only for those whose resources already allow them access to everything else. I want to ensure that we will all continue to have places to ride, both in and out of the arena, which are safe and beautiful. I want to believe that horses will continue to have a place to exist and be a part of our ever-evolving world, one where they are valued simply for being horses, not because of what they represent in status or competitive success or ego.

So again, I ask you, I ask myself, I ask all equestrians—what can we do better in 2019? And in the years to come?

 

Tales of a Horse Show Organizer—Somewhere in the Middle

Disclaimer: The views contained within this blog post are solely my own. I do not intend to speak for the other staff of the University of New Hampshire Equine Program, its students, volunteers, or other affiliates, who may well see things quite differently. I am merely using my experience as the manager of the UNH Horse Trials to inform my perspective on the continued loss of competition venues in eventing.

At the US Equestrian Federation meeting in West Palm Beach, Florida, I attended an interesting panel discussion: “Growing the Grassroots”. This presentation featured the work of a panel which included representatives from several USEF affiliates and disciplines. Bill Moroney, CEO of the USEF, facilitated the discussion, and he opened with the statement that “a majority of the USEF membership feels they are part of the grassroots.” This large group of riders mostly avoids competing at rated shows due to any of a number of barriers—cost, exclusivity and accessibility being among the most significant.

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The Grassroots Panel…photo “borrowed” from the USEF Annual Meeting e-newsletter emailed to members, uncredited. Like the Fiji water girl, I am in all of the photos… my profile is in the middle, looking left, with the glasses. Proof I was there, lol!

One panelist commented that local shows (which are often unrated) are doing well, and the upper levels are doing well, but there is a serious lack of opportunity in the middle levels—and this is where we are losing riders.  The middle is the land of the one day rated horse show; when I was a kid, these were the “C” and “B” shows, where you were able to log miles and trips and hone your craft in the show ring, without the budget and time commitment of going to a week long “A” show, but with the pressure that comes with an increased standard of riding.

Although most of those present were speaking of the hunter/jumper scene, I couldn’t help but think about the sport of eventing. In 2018, 28 horse trials were cancelled, reducing the number of starters by over 3,000 rides. Though some of these cancellations were due to weather, many more are permanent losses to the eventing calendar. Here in Area I, we have lost Stoneleigh Burnham (which hosted twice per year), King Oak/Grindstone Mountain (King Oak used to host two per year, and the new owners tried it in 2017 but threw in the towel in 2018) and we have just recently learned that for 2019 we also are losing Fitch’s Corner in New York and Riga Meadow in Connecticut.  Collectively, this represents over a century of eventing in the northeast. Losing these competitions impacts the bottom line of the US Eventing Association, which collects a starter fee for each ride, but more importantly, it is eroding access to local, one day events. You know, the ones where you log your miles and hone your craft and learn how to compete under pressure. These events are the bridge between schooling trials and premier, destination competitions.

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Anna at King Oak Farm, September 2014. Photo courtesy of Flatlandsfoto/Joan Davis and used with permission.

I have been managing the University of New Hampshire Horse Trials since 2006; we are the quintessential “middle” competition, a stepping stone from the growing schooling eventing circuit to larger, more prestigious events in the region. Our competitor base is largely local, coming from within a two hour radius, along with a handful of riders from further afield.

UNH hosts two events per year (spring and fall), and for five years, we ran one in summer as well—to help replace yet another event lost to the Area, Kingsbury Hill. Since Kingsbury Hill was sold, UNH has remained the only sanctioned horse trials in New Hampshire. When Snowfields stopped running, Maine lost its only sanctioned event. For those event riders in Maine or New Hampshire, save for UNH, you have to travel to Vermont, Massachusetts or New York to compete at a USEA horse trials. Most of these losses have happened within the past 5-10 years.

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Anna’s first novice at Snowfields HT, Aug 2012 Photo courtesy of DC Designs

Each semester, when I meet with the ten students who will head up committees of their peers to manage each phase of our horse trials (dressage, cross country, show jumping and awards/promotion), I ask them: “Why, for over forty-five years, has UNH run a horse trials on its Durham campus?”

The answers are fairly consistent: to promote the program, to give students a chance to learn about how to run a horse show, to make money. And most of these reasons are true, save for the last. It is an unusual show in which we actually turn a profit. Our goal is to break even—because truly, for us at UNH, hosting the horse trials is mostly about giving our students a living laboratory, a chance to get behind the scenes and to ‘learn by doing’ all that goes into organizing and running a horse event. We use the horse trials as a model; using similar skills, students could go on to coordinate any number of equine related activities. Plus, the experience of running a committee is a real resume booster, full of transferrable skills: organizing, communicating, delegating, meeting deadlines, coordinating, following organization rules. I hope you can tell how incredibly proud I am of the work that our students put into these competitions.

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Acclaimed international course designer Richard Jeffries joined UNH students and staff to design the courses for our 40th anniversary horse trials in 2011.

But each time I ask the question, I find myself thinking: “If this were my private farm, and I had all of these resources and the land to run cross country—would I still do it? What incentive does a private land owner have to continue to offer eventing on their property?”

Truthfully, I have no way of knowing what exactly motivates these landowners, but I sort of suspect it comes down to a deep seated love of the sport, and a desire and willingness to give back. People take pride in their properties, and I believe that many of them truly love watching others enjoy them as well. We competitors are just invited guests to a party.  Let’s face it—no land owners + no organizers= no more eventing. To that end, we have to keep organizers happy. We need to be better guests.

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Collecting the decor for our horse trials frequently requires the creative use of local resources.

It seems trite to say that running a farm is hard work. Maintaining a cross country course can almost be a full time job itself; it feels like you have no more finished mowing and weed whacking than you turn around and have to do it again. Mother Nature is always out to reclaim that which she considers hers. Water complexes become clogged with weeds, wooden fences rot and decay. Footing becomes compacted and worn away on trails as roots and rocks rise up. Trees fall, blocking routes and sometimes destroying jumps.  I come back to my earlier point; to do this much work on a private farm in order to run a competition a handful of times per year, one which is most likely not going to make you money and might even cost you—it is a labor of love.

The event at UNH is unique for many reasons. It is the only recognized event in the country held on a college campus. It is nearly wholly coordinated and staffed by students, very few of whom would call themselves eventers. They come from myriad equestrian backgrounds: horses at home, 4-H and Pony Club, breed specialty programs (we are the land of the Morgan Horse, after all), dressage, western, therapeutic horsemanship and of course, hunter/jumper. Some have shown, some have not. Some have volunteered before, some have not. Many have never in their lives been handed a clipboard and a radio, been trained to do a job and then told: you are now in charge. They are emergent leaders. They are your future boarders, clients and friends. They are equestrians.

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Still smiling, despite moving 20+ heavy standards and countless rails! Show Jumping Committee Chairs in Fall 2018.

Volunteers, like organizers, choose to offer their time and talents for myriad reasons. Just like organizers, if they are not getting what they need from their experience, they are unlikely to do it again in the future. Our students are not volunteers in the strictest sense—they are required to participate in the horse trials as a course expectation—but like volunteers, they are trying to fit competition preparations into their very full schedules. They have classes, homework and exams, jobs, family commitments and personal lives, just like all of our competitors. They are up early, giving of their time and energy, setting up courses in the rain and then running to an exam, coordinating a dressage warm up before their peers have even gotten out of bed.

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In between writing her grad school applications, this student committee chair made sure our cross country course looked sharp for the fall event.

So perhaps that is why, after a week of frenzied activity and three days in a row of 12+ hours of nothing but horse trials, and bearing witness to this hard work, I bristle to receive the following types of feedback from event participants (these are from actual competitor evaluations):

 “College kids were distracted and handled timing poorly….though they are college kids, so kudos for not wearing pajamas.”  (How insulting is this? Really? The nicest thing you can say is at least they were dressed?)

“College kids didn’t have a clue.” (Maybe the particular student you asked a specific question of didn’t have the answer you needed. That can happen, because most of them are only familiar with the phase of the event which they prepared for. But I can guarantee you that our students, overall, have been through a more comprehensive training program than the average event volunteer. For example, our fence judges have two hours of lecture training and are taken out to see their fences in advance of the trials, in addition to the TD briefing on the day of.)

Or one of my favorites, when a prominent trainer in our area said out loud to our dressage stewards this fall, “I hate when they give you benches to sit on. It makes you lazy.” (So you would like them to stand for seven hours? With no break? Is this any way to treat a volunteer? I should probably also add that the phase ran on or ahead of schedule both days—and I can’t even begin to explain the impact that remark left on the two people it was directed towards.)

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How many rails did we need per side again?

Maybe I just take these comments so personally because I know, first hand, how hard our students work to put this event together. For some, it is a steep learning curve, and when a phase is first getting under way on the first day, and people are figuring out their jobs, are there some hiccups? Sure. But the officials, full time program staff and student leaders are right there behind them, offering them support, helping them figure it out. Our students are not lazy and they are not inattentive. They are learning, and most take their duties quite seriously. They are volunteers.

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This group readies the start box for a spring event.

I should add here that we receive positive evaluations too, and a handful of emails or notes thanking us for hosting the shows. I am always sure to share these with our students and staff. But the hurtful ones leave a sting that can be hard to forget.

When Stoneleigh-Burnham School, our sister event out in Greenfield, Mass., was forced to cancel their 2018 summer competition on the morning of the event due to excessive rain, my heart broke for them. So much time and effort, and money, was spent for naught. This private girls’ school has an equestrian program, but their focus has become primarily hunter/jumper. Like UNH, SBS has run an event for decades, on its campus, the cross country course wrapped around soccer fields and tennis courts and its main dormitory. Like most schools, it doesn’t have a generous margin of error when it comes to its budget.

Within hours of the competition cancellation, while some of its entrants were no doubt still making their way back home, having already begun their trip to the foothills of the Berkshires when they got the news, the posts started on social media. “When are we going to get a refund?” snarked one competitor. “I don’t have the money to lose on a cancelled competition.” Others chimed in. Many defended the competition and understood that this was a lose-lose situation. But the fire was lit, and some threatened to never enter the event ever again, accusing organizers of keeping funds which should be returned to competitors (contrary to the omnibus listing, which clearly stated no refund in event of cancellation).

Within two months, Stoneleigh announced that they were done with eventing for good.

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And not one in pajamas.

Here’s the thing folks—if we want our “middle” eventing competitions to survive—organizers need to break even, volunteers must be treated with respect, and competitors need to say ‘thank you for inviting us’. We are all in this together.

“Middle” event staff and volunteers work hard and invest time, money, energy and love into presenting a quality, safe competition on a budget. We want our competitors to have fun, to meet their goals, to be challenged reasonably for their level. We take constructive feedback seriously, and over the years many changes to the format, layout and coordination of the UNH event have been the direct result of competitor feedback.

At that Grassroots round table, the panelists stated that in the hunter/jumper industry, the middle of the sport is in a bad place. There is no incentive for organizers to run local, one day recognized shows, because trainers don’t come; instead they take their clients to the high end shows, where they can camp out for a week or more. The clients which can’t afford it either bankrupt themselves trying, drop back to the schooling level or leave the sport.

Eventing must take this warning seriously. When events go off the calendar, they don’t seem to come back. There just isn’t a long list of new facilities and land owners clambering to get a spot on the schedule.

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Isn’t this what is all about? Camaraderie, fun, friends, and enjoying our horses.

 

It benefits ALL of us to ensure that people who start in our sport stay in our sport. We want people to be lifelong equestrians, which means they need to have good experiences, and this includes our volunteers and organizers. As a competitor myself, I appreciate that when we are under the pressure of a show, we are not always our best selves. I warn my students about this and I can forgive a sharp word or two. But please, before you hit send on that snarky competitor evaluation, take real stock of what it is you are trying to say. Are you offering help, or are you just complaining? Is your intention to make yourself feel better or to genuinely improve the quality of a competition?

Perhaps outgoing USEA President Carol Kozlowski said it best in her “President’s Letter” in the Sept-October 2018 Eventing USA, in regards to organizing, “It’s a tough job even when things go well, and it quickly loses any appeal when an unappreciative audience runs amuck,” writes Kozlowski. She then encourages competitors to reach out to organizers to thank them for their effort and say you are looking forward to their next event, even if the show had to be cancelled or something didn’t go smoothly. If being an organizer has taught me anything about how to act as a competitor, it is the importance of being grateful for the opportunity to even be there in the first place.

Please listen to her. I promise it makes a difference. The future of our sport may depend on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Izzy Goes to School: a clinic with Tik Maynard

So keeping up my record as “world’s slowest blogger”, I wanted to give everyone an update on Izzy’s first official off-farm outing, which happened way back in May. Better late than never, I suppose!

DRF Isabela, better known as Izzy to her friends, just turned three at the end of May. Last year, she learned the basics of longeing, went on short trail walks ponied off her friend Marquesa, and practiced wearing a bridle and surcingle. She had the winter off, and for this year, my goals were to build on this foundation by solidifying her longeing skills, introducing a saddle, working on long lining, and maybe, if all went well, getting on and doing a few short walk abouts by the time school started in the fall.

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Izzy ponying with Marquesa summer of 2017

So this spring, when I started the process of getting her back into a routine of being regularly handled, I was quite surprised to find that she had gone rather feral. Leading her had become like trying to walk a dragon.  She wasn’t being mean or naughty per se, just overly joyful. It was as though she had learned to leap and buck over the winter and wanted to show off her new skills.

The problems for me were several. 1) Most of the time, I work with Izzy alone, and I didn’t want to get hurt. 2) My arena is only partially fenced, and I wasn’t confident I could hold onto her. 3) Winter hung on a LONG time this year, and the ice and snow didn’t officially clear out of my partially fenced ring until the very end of April, meaning that even if #1 and 2 weren’t issues, I didn’t have great footing to work with.

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My ring in late April, featuring a newly purchased round pen (the acquisition of which was motivated by Izzy’s joyful behavior).

All of which left me SERIOUSLY QUESTIONING my mid-March decision to sign up for an in-hand clinic to be held at the very beginning of May with eventer and natural horsemanship trainer Tik Maynard. I much enjoyed Tik’s presentation at the Area I Annual Meeting in January, and when I saw that Fox Hill Equestrians in Barnstead, N.H., would be hosting him, I was immediately interested. Tik is based in Florida, and so opportunities to work with him for a northerly based equestrian are not likely to happen often, and Fox Hill is an easy twenty minutes up the road (as in, I turn right out of my driveway and then right onto the street with the farm, more or less). It seemed like the perfect first ‘off the farm’ outing for my youngster.

Tik was offering a lecture on horsemanship theory each morning, followed by private and small group in hand sessions and jumping lessons in the afternoon. I decided the sensible plan was to audit day one through at least the morning session, then bring Izzy for day two.

Despite her joie de vivre, I went ahead with my plan to bring her to the clinic, and I am so grateful that I stuck with it, as we both learned a great deal.

Lecture Summary: Day One

The horsemanship lecture focused on the theme of how horses learn best and gave an overview of Tik’s training philosophy. One of the main components is that humans must learn to think like a horse; when one can do that, it is easier to set up questions which horses are willing to answer.

Horses have evolved to quickly evaluate which stimuli are worthy of response, and which can safely be ignored. Only those animals which have correctly and efficiently solved this riddle survive, and we must respect that our domestic animals retain these wild traits.

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Here is Izzy, demonstrating that she is not all that concerned about crinkly tarps. This is her friend Devyn, who has given us a great deal of assistance as a second set of hands!

To this end, horses pick up on visual cues and details that we miss, and they may react to them in unanticipated ways. We all have been guilty of responding to these behaviors defensively or angrily, but the truth is that getting emotional in this situation doesn’t do much to improve the relationship or communication between you and the horse.

The things which motivate horses to do a certain behavior, including ignoring an unpleasant or unfamiliar stimulus, are not the same things which motivate humans. Horses seek safety, food, comfort and play, in that order. Smart trainers use these motivators in their work.

Because horses seek comfort, creating situations which increase a horse’s comfort when they provide the desired behavior automatically reinforce that outcome.  A common example of this in practice is the use of the rider’s leg; the pressure is slightly uncomfortable, but when the horse goes forward and the pressure goes away, the horse’s comfort level increases. Praise itself doesn’t mean much to a horse, but the release of pressure does.

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Izzy learned to wear a saddle this June.

Horses are scared or nervous of things which act predatory; this includes anything which comes running towards them and things which are going fast, being loud, or behaving erratically. They prefer to be approached slowly, which might not be the way we enter the paddock when our minds are preoccupied with catching a horse for a lesson—explaining why a normally cooperative horse might refuse to be caught.

Tik encouraged us to think in a positive frame of mind when asking the horse to do something. For example, think “Let’s do this” instead of “Stop doing that”.

One of our goals is to encourage our horses to play. To this end, ground work is like creating a series of puzzles for the horses to solve through trial and error. Just as with humans, horses respond to these types of mental challenge differently. “There are those which already know the answers, those which try to solve the puzzle, and those which wait to be told the answer,” said Tik. “Problem solving gets inspired when they are young.”

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Hey, can I help you with the weedwhacking?

Solvable puzzles introduce to the horse a little bit of pressure; some pressure is needed for growth and learning, but finding the right amount is key. Too little and no learning occurs, too much and the horse may become so anxious they can’t learn at all. Because horses seek comfort, they are going to look for the release of pressure, whether that pressure is physical or mental. “Pressure motivates but the release of pressure teaches,” said Tik.

Day One Ground Work Sessions

With these thoughts in mind, we moved into the hands on portion of the morning. My friend Hilary brought her bay Thoroughbred, Tom, and Tik took the line from her. “When I first work with a horse, I want to know how interested in me he is,” said Tik. “Does he like me?”

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Hilary and Tom

Tik approached Tom at a slight angle, reaching a hand out and waiting for the horse to touch him first. Then he began to rub Tom’s head, neck and rump, which the horse seemed to enjoy. “Some right from the get go want to play and run, and some want to snuggle,” said Tik. “You need to play to their strengths but address their weaknesses.”

Tom wanted to be a little too much in the handler’s space, so Tik spent a few moments working on teaching Tom to back up from a soft pressure. He showed us how to use the rope as a cue in three levels of intensity: first, you flick it with your wrist; if there is no response, you then flick it with your elbow, and finally with your shoulder. Every cue with the rope starts with body language.  “You may need to go through all three levels, but stop when you get the result you want,” said Tik. “When the horse is learning, go through the levels slowly and in sequence. Only once the horse knows how to do something is it OK to skip a level or two in your signals, otherwise you will desensitize the horse. Try to get BIG without getting MAD.”

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Tik works with one of the group horses.

When Tom gave the right response, Tik angled his body slightly away, shifted his weight onto one leg, and exhaled. They took a break. The pressure was released.

“There are three parts to this that the handler must understand,” said Tik. “There is your body language and intention. There is the handling of pressure changes. And then there is the timing of the release.”

For ground work, Tik prefers a rope halter, a heavy, dense, long rope, and a sturdy stick similar to Parelli’s Carrot Stick.  Depending on the situation, Tik might choose a rope that is 12’, 22’ or even 45’ long.

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Practicing waiting while not being in each others’ space. 

Tik emphasized that consistency is key. Handlers should always start at level one in terms of pressure, and add to that baseline as needed. The only exception is in the case of dangerous behavior. “When the horse is checking out mentally, you need to get their attention back on you through the use of an exercise which you have established in a quiet time,” said Tik. “There are three goals I have for any training session: the human is safe at the end, the horse is safe at the end, and the horse is more relaxed at the end than at the beginning.”

The next set was a group lesson with five horses working in hand at once. The animals were at different stages of training as well as mental focus, which gave Tik the opportunity to speak to a variety of exercises and possible outcomes. But he started with having the horses get comfortable with their handlers standing about six feet away from them, with slack in the lead rope.  “On the ground, you sometimes want the horse’s eyes and ears towards the handler but sometimes you want to direct them and their attention elsewhere,” said Tik.

One young handler and her sweet steady eddie type schoolmaster worked on learning to give from pressure on the nose. “For a lesson horse or a kid’s horse, you need to think about how sensitive you really want that animal to be,” said Tik.

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My friend Sarah works on sending her Thoroughbred, NASA, over the tarp. He is for sale, by the way!

Several horses in this group played with a tarp that had been laid out in the arena. “There are a few different ways you can ask the horse to cross the tarp,” said Tik. “It is like asking a riddle. You can lead them over, send them over, draw them over or back them over, if you have it secured down.”

Turk, an elegant bay Thoroughbred gelding, tended to speed up once in motion on the circle and needed to slow down and refocus on his handler; Tik helped her to cross his front feet and back feet over each other. “At first, it is about moving the whole horse forward, backwards, and then on a circle,” said Tik. “After this is established then we start to move the front half relative to the back.”

Horses can be responsible for four things: to maintain their speed and gait, to maintain their direction, to be looking where they are going, and to act like a partner. As trainers, we should not be doing these jobs for the horse. “But horses must be taught how to do these things,” said Tik.

Izzy’s Session

Other than going for short trailer rides around the block last summer, Izzy has not left our farm since her arrival on a bitterly cold morning in March of 2017. I am not sure who was more nervous for the outing—Izzy or me! Two of my students, Julia and Nikki, tagged along for moral support, education and extra hands if needed.

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Izzy is enjoying a “release” moment after getting a riddle right. Note Tik’s unevenly weighted feet and relaxed arms.

I don’t think anyone else brought an animal as young as Izzy; I held her in the barn aisle while Tik wrapped up his morning lecture on day two, and although she danced and jigged a bit while waiting her turn, I felt she was really trying to be good. That said, I had no idea what to expect from her when we got into the ring. I think Tik fairly quickly assessed that her brain and energy needed to be redirected, and so he came back a little early from his post-lecture break to get started.

“Do you mind if I work with her for a few minutes?” he asked. I was so relieved! Yes, please!

The first thing he did was swapped out my long line for the sturdier rope line he had been using on other horses.  He then let Izzy move out onto the end of the rope, where she leaped and ran and displayed the athleticism which I hope will be used for good things in the future. He wasn’t expecting her to be totally focused on him all the time; in fact, that day he said that he would be happy if she was with him 30% of the time.

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Izzy is actively backing away from Tik in this video grab. 

“I am looking for the moment where she wants to stay still and relax,” said Tik. “I am not punishing her at all for her loss of attention or focus. Instead, I give her something else to do.”

It was truly amazing to watch Tik work with Izzy, who he had just met, in such a respectful yet constructive manner. She had moments of simply moving around him at the end of the line, and other moments of youthful behavior. He could halt her and turn her. They went and checked out the mirror together. As she started to visibly relax and become more mentally calm, Tik led her to the tarp and a wooden bridge which had been used in previous sessions. She inquisitively just walked right up to and over both objects. I was not surprised that she handled them so well, as this has been her typical response to something new, but it was lovely to see that she had the same attitude in a new place once the zoomies were behind her.

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Once Izzy became more relaxed in her environment, Tik was able to enjoy some snuggle time with her. She is clearly miserable.

Tik wrapped up his work with Izzy by playing with some halt, walk, halt, back up transitions, teaching her to cue into his body language. He tipped his shoulders forward to encourage her to walk, squared them over his hips for the halt, and inclined them slightly backwards to cue her to back up.

After this, I took over for a few moments, practicing the same in hand transitions, and finally ending with her just hanging out all the way at the end of the long lead, while I turned my back to her and stood weighted more on one leg. I’m told she did lots of yawning, but of course I wasn’t allowed to peek!

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I’m trying so hard to not look at her while audience members asked Tik questions about our session.

“The more emotional something is for the horse to learn, the longer the break they get,” said Tik.

While he described his work with Izzy as being a “typical three-year-old session”, he also acknowledged that she was a pretty self-confident animal, as was evidenced by her overall response to the new situation and stimuli. “Horses like this which are clever and smart and brave are great but also a challenge,” said Tik. “You must find ways to help them learn and stay interested.”

Coming to this clinic, as mentally stressful as it was for me to do it, was absolutely the right choice to make at this stage of her training. Izzy was like a changed woman after interacting with Tik, and both his feedback and watching how he used his body language to interact with her helped to give me the confidence to do what I had sort of suspected she needed me to do—get a longer line and really send her forward when she wanted to act up. So long as your response to her is fair—I am sending you away to work a little bit not because I’m mad but because we have a job to do—she responds positively, and rather quickly settles down.

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Izzy has learned the basics of long lining this summer. This project was definitely not do-able until after our clinic! Thanks Devyn for the photo.

I have continued to play with some of these techniques this summer, but I will admit that I have much more to learn. It was a fascinating opportunity to do something totally different with one of the horses, and I am pleased that it was such a positive experience!

 

Ride a Reiner

As a New Englander, I have had rather minimal exposure to the western discipline;  as they say, I know just enough to be dangerous. In fact, it is mostly through my experience as a board member of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA), which offers both hunt seat and western competition, that I have acquired my limited knowledge. It is also through the IHSA that I had the opportunity to meet the talented and hard working Kelli Wainscott, coach for the Mt. Holyoke western IHSA team.

This past March, Kelli organized a benefit clinic at Clark Performance Horses in Winchendon, Mass. in which participants got to “ride a reiner”. Instruction was provided by Karen Clark, who grew up riding English but transitioned over to the western disciplines as a young adult. I have not so secretly wanted to try out reining moves but had always figured that it would be rude to just call up a reining trainer and be like, “hey, so I want to come ride one of your highly trained horses.  I don’t want to do this full time, I just want to ride a spin and a slide.  Is that cool?”  Well, this sounded like my chance to do just that!  As an added bonus, I could help the Mt. Holyoke IHSA western team fundraise for their trip to the semi finals at the same time.

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Karen is explaining something to us with great animation. Also, taking cell phone photos while on horseback in the cold is not easy.

I have been intrigued by reining since first watching it in person at IHSA Nationals in 2011. Seeing the reining there was like listening to someone speak a foreign language; the rules were undecipherable to my English-trained mind and I watched intently for any discernible pattern or predictability to the scoring. To me, all of the riders and horses looked great, and I didn’t understand why sometimes a team would receive a “zero” score after doing what looked like the same thing as everyone else. Cheering is encouraged, but I could tell that the cheers were intentionally timed, and when we tried to get into the “wooping”, we never managed to do it when everyone else did.

So I packed up my English paddock boots, half chaps and Charles Owen helmet and made the drive out to western Massachusetts under cloudy gray skies. As the miles on my GPS ticked down, I felt a pit of nervous energy grow in my belly. I suspected I would be the only full time English rider there (I think I was right in that), I knew no one other than Kelli, and I began to worry about upsetting the owner or the horses with my lack of experience.

But I needn’t have worried.  Karen set me at ease with her cheerful personality and positive attitude. She was so extremely patient and answered the groups’ numerous questions with a smile, despite the fact that we were the second three hour group on a chilly March afternoon.

Karen assigned me to a sweet chestnut Quarter Horse mare named Whiz; her delicate ears and sculpted face are extremely feminine…I do love a good mare! As Karen’s assistant handed the reins to me, she mentioned I would probably need to take the cinch up a hole. A rider from the MHC IHSA team was kind enough to show me the mechanics of a western cinch. So began the afternoon—foreign tack, foreign aids, and foreign language. Who knew that after thirty plus years of tack time, it was still possible to feel so completely beginner?

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Whiz

Once the group was mounted up, Karen gave us a few moments to get acquainted with our mounts. Whiz is sensitive and “well broke”; she certainly knows her job. After watching a few moments, Karen called me over. “I think you’ll like her in some spurs,” she said.

I don’t know if Karen had been watching to see how well I rode before offering the spurs, and I don’t know if I was given them because I had positively impressed her (in the sense of having good control) or negatively (in the sense of, gosh, she is hopeless and without these spurs she’ll never get anything done.) She came over and affixed to my Dublin paddock boots the largest set of spurs that I have ever worn in my entire life—they were full on western horseback riding spurs: thick, engraved, spangly, roweled. The kind that jangle when you walk.

This is getting serious.

Disclaimer: What I write here I share with the intent of introducing other unfamiliar English riders to reining, but it is colored through my fairly inexperienced lens. Any mistakes or misunderstandings are wholly my own!

Reining patterns are comprised of a set of movements: big fast circles, slow small circles, spins, lead changes and sliding stops. These movements can be combined in various sequences, and for some movements, there are extremely specific requirements. For example, spins must rotate for an exact number of turns, and a spin which is under or over rotated will result in a penalty or elimination. Cheers can be used to help a rider know when they are approaching the end of a specific maneuver or pattern element.

Karen started us off with riding big fast circles. One at a time, we tracked left at the end of the ring, practicing keeping the inside leg off the horse (which is incredibly hard to do when you are used to having it on all the time) and encouraging our horses to fly around the circle. As it turned out, many of the riders in my group, while experienced at western riding, were also reining rookies. As pleasure or equitation riders, they were more accustomed to slower paces and staying fairly “poised” in the saddle, while reining encourages looseness (not sloppiness) and speed. When it was our turn to try, Whiz was, well, a whiz. She clearly loves to run and it was quite freeing to just zoom around the circle. I trusted Whiz from the get go, so much so that when someone suddenly opened a small door on the side of the ring, I didn’t tense in anticipation of a spook, as I would have with my own horse. When on the job, Whiz is all business. She was so comfortable to ride, and I was having so much fun, that I hardly noticed when the left stirrup came unclipped and fell off my saddle. It was another lap before I recognized that it was missing and stopped Whiz so it could be reattached.

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Whiz and I are watching a group mate practice their circles.

“Big fasts” are usually followed by “slow smalls”, and the transition from one to the other is done by stepping hard into the outside stirrup, not by using the rein. We practiced this transition several times, and I was really blown away by how readily responsive Whiz was to the shift in my weight.  “Hmm…” I thought. “Perhaps my dressage horse should be responsive like this? And what do I do with my outside leg in my own downward transitions?”

Part of the criteria for these movements is that the circles should actually be round, and trainer Karen frequently had to remind us to keep our eyes up and frame the circle evenly. I guess riding a round circle is a challenge no matter what discipline you ride!

Once each rider had a chance to practice the circles, Karen taught us about spinning. The spins and sliding stops are, in my opinion, the two most dramatic reining movements, and the Quarter Horse’s genetic ability to sit down on their hindquarters and coil their body like a cat is just one more example of the physical manifestation of the term “horse power”. In reining, a horse should spin a set number of times (as specified by the pattern), and like a dancer, the rider needs to keep their head spinning in order to stay centered and “spot” their starting point. If the spin is over or underrotated, there are point penalties up until ¼ of a turn; if the rider misses the mark by this amount or more, then the pair is eliminated.

 

Karen had us start from a halt, choosing a point out in front of our horse’s ears to use for focus.  To go left, you just had to step into the left stirrup, slide the right leg back a touch, then shift the rein left, giving a bump with the right leg. To go right, the rider reverses all those aids.  To stop, the rider brings the rein back to center. The entire movement is done with forward intention but the horse should be pivoting in place around one hind leg.

When I asked Whiz to initiate the first spin, I thought for a moment I was going to tip right off her side! She lowered her neck and shoulders and sunk into the movement in a manner which I both expected but was somehow not ready for. Then it felt like we were going about a million miles an hour—but when I watched the video afterwards, Whiz is clearly spinning with a “oh boy got a rookie here” level of energy. There is clearly much more power available in this creature!

 

After most of us were left feeling “well spun”, Karen allowed us to try out that most iconic of reining moves—the sliding stop. This was definitely the movement I was most excited about! We came down the quarter line on the left rein; just like my dressage horse might anticipate a leg yield, Whiz knew instantly what this turn meant. The key to a good sliding stop is to build the energy in the hindquarter, holding the horse back from their full run at first so that they don’t fall onto their forehand, then releasing all of that stored power. A good slide requires that the horse is thinking uphill.

Karen coached us to hold the horse until we were about half way down the long side, and then let them RUN. Whiz sure knew how to take this cue and the feeling of her haunches dropping down and driving into the surface was a form of horse power I’m not sure I have felt before. The fact that we were running at top speed directly towards the wall, on purpose, made it slightly disconcerting; this is the type of situation I am usually trying to avoid. And the especially hard part is you are supposed to actually let your hand go forward (which I can see in the video I failed to do, and in addition, I was holding the horn). The slide happens when the rider sits back and says “whoa”. When I gave the cue, Whiz’s hindquarters dropped away while her withers lifted up. It feels like the ultimate “throw down.” It is supremely cool.

 

After spending my three hours masquerading as a western rider, I made several observations which I would like to share, for what it’s worth:

  • Despite some of the similarities, I don’t quite agree with the notion that “reining is dressage in western tack”. It is its own “thing”. The similarities are the kinds of things which I believe all horse sports share, concepts like “the horse needs to be well balanced” and “the horse needs to engage the hindquarter”. Karen told us that good reining horses have a short career because they get too smart and start to anticipate all of the moves, leading to the kinds of mistakes which cause elimination. There are no “levels” in reining—from the beginning, all tests include all of the movements. English dressage is a progressive system of training with the goal of enhancing the natural gaits of the horse. While a dressage horse can certainly start to learn a specific test, ideally there is enough variety and change in the movements that it is possible for them to have a long, progressive career.
  • During our session, Karen rode a client’s green horse, who was working in a snaffle. Most of our “finished” horses were in a curb, though one was in a bosal/hackamore. In western riding, the use of a curb bit is the mark of an experienced, well-educated horse. I guess this is similar to the way in which an upper level dressage horse is able to be ridden in a double bridle for greater clarity of the aids and improved engagement. Probably in both disciplines, there are trainers who use the curb fairly and those who only use it to achieve forced submission. But when either of these tools is used fairly, the communication between horse and rider can be lighter and softer.
  • Most eventers are familiar with the concept of a “combined test”, in which the same horse and rider do dressage and show jumping, or a derby cross, which is a fusion of the jumping phases. At this clinic, I learned about a competition called “working cow horse”, which Karen said was a great outlet for a horse which understands the requirements of reining but lacks some of the necessary pizazz to be a real reining specialist. In this competition, riders first complete a reining pattern, and then when they indicate they are ready, a cow is released which the horse and rider must then “box”, meaning they move the cow along the fence and hold them there. At more advanced levels, the horse must also “work” the cow by making them move in a circle, with the horse on the outside. I thought it was interesting to learn that western riders have their own version of “combined test” in the working cow horse competition.

Overall, my “ride a reiner” experience was just what I had hoped it would be—a fun afternoon exploring an aspect of the equestrian world which I previously had known little about, and a chance to check off one of my “equine bucket list” items. I also have to think that those of us in other disciplines could be smart to take a page out of Karen’s notebook and offer introductory clinics to our discipline. How else are riders without access to horses trained for specific disciplines ever going to have the opportunity to try out something new? Who knows how many riders have gotten the “reining bug” after doing a clinic like this one? It is so easy to pigeonhole riders into one discipline and make assumptions about what and how they must ride and in so doing we create divisions in our equestrian community which do not need to exist.   I am so grateful to organizer Kellie and our patient teachers Karen and Whiz for offering us this opportunity.

 

The De-Feralization of Spring

In late April, my friend Bethany shared a quote from Vonnegut which really resonated with me.  I will loosely paraphrase here; Vonnegut contends that the reason we are often so frustrated with the weather in March and April is because we are falsely under the impression that it is spring. Instead, Vonnegut identifies six seasons, not four:  January and February are still winter, but as nature wakes back up in March and April, this is not actually spring, but rather “unlocking”. Spring doesn’t actually happen until May and June, while summer hits in July and August and autumn in September and October. Then in November and December, another transition–“locking”, when nature and all of its creatures shut down, store up and settle in for the depths of winter.

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The barn cats took over one of the horse stalls. They are not impressed with winter either.

This is sheer genius.

Inspired by Vonnegut, I would like to propose the Seasons of the New England Equestrian for the first third of the year: FREEZE, HOPE, DESPAIR, SPRING and DE-FERALIZATION.  Here, I present an example of the inner monologue of an avid equestrian as she cycles through each of these seasons, inspired by my own experience:

January-February (FREEZE). “It is SO cold. The wind can’t blow any harder. Oh wait– it can.” [Pause to widen stance and reset wool hat]. “The water spigot froze and I have to carry water from the bathtub upstairs. My breath has frozen on my glasses. And the gate latch froze.”  [Removes glove, exposing bare skin, in order to use body heat to thaw the latch]. “I am so lucky to have horses. I am so lucky to have horses. Repeat. WHY didn’t I go south like all my friends on Facebook?!?!”

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Lee is making sure that I am aware that I have neglected to hang her hay bag.

March 1 (HOPE).  “I see the bare earth!  Just a small patch, and it is all mud, but I saw it.  It still exists!  I will start hacking and legging the horses up soon, maybe mid-month.  We are going to get an early start on the season!  It is going to be brilliant!  We will be so fit and ready and it will be wonderful!”

March 10 (DESPAIR). In the background, the meteorologist is happily announcing the largest named blizzard of the season. There are three feet of snow out of my window and it is still snowing. This is never going to melt.  Ever.  And even if it does, it will be mud for the next six months.  I will never ride again.”

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April (SPRING) “I mean, it is pouring sideways, and the mud is now almost over the tops of my wellies, but the calendar says spring, right?  So maybe I can start to ride?” It should be noted here that roughly 75% of the arena is still covered in snow and ice.

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The riding arena in late April.

 

April 15 (SPRING, continued, after attempting to begin riding despite the conditions). “My horses have become completely, 100% feral.  They scream when I separate them.  They dance on the crossties like they have never been in the barn. Their girths don’t fit. One bridle was eaten by mice. I can’t find one glove. And now we have pulled a shoe.”

 

Oh spring.  All winter, I yearn for it, for the return of fair weather, better footing, all my horses at home, and longer days with sunlight from the earliest hours of the morning until late evening. But somehow the initial reality never quite lives up to my ideal. Spring arrives with excess packaging: mud, tons of winter hair, lost muscling, and dust on all my gear despite efforts to keep up with cleanliness during the off season. And the worst part, for me, is the equine behavior.  In order to get to the blissful days of summer, without fail, this next phase cannot be skipped. I call it DE-FERALIZATION. Like children who have been on summer vacation for too long, I find the first few weeks of transition from winter break to being working animals brings out some of the worst characteristics in my favorite equines.

I started the de-feralization in mid-March by bringing in each of the three horses which lived at Cold Moon Farm all winter for individual grooming sessions. Other than a few little whinnies (“I am in here…are you still out there?”), their attitudes stayed mostly calm and I was able to start shedding out the winter coats. I untangled tails and pulled manes, doing the youngster’s in small chunks since she is still not so sure about it and Lee’s during the late March blizzard when we were all stuck inside anyway. I began to see the horses under the hair. I thought, ‘wow, maybe de-feralization won’t be that bad this year.’

Insert diabolical laughter now.

I brought Anna home from the indoor on April 1. While I am SO grateful for having the ability to keep her close to home at a well maintained facility, I was also SO ready to bring her back. I knew that the first few weeks of April would be dicey as far as serious work went, so I was prepared to give Anna a few weeks’ light work upon her return home; hacking, light ring riding as the footing permitted, maybe some work in hand.

Here is a video of what happened when I turned her back out with Lee:

Anna’s first hack at home was with Marquesa; it was the older Morgan’s first ride since last year. Now 22, Marquesa has always been an old soul. Spooking just isn’t her thing; high necked Morgan alertness, yes, but spinning, wheeling, bucking, etc., nope. We thought we would take them for about twenty minutes across the power lines and around the back field, just a short walk to stretch legs.

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Spring is at least good for some stunning sun rises.  This is Izzy.

We didn’t make it out of the backyard. I mean, everyone stayed on, but between the squealing and jigging from Anna and the snorting and blowing from Quesa…well, we considered the safe return to the barn after about ten minutes to be a success.

In early April, I bought a round pen. My ring is only partially fenced and given that Izzy is turning three this year and we might want to THINK about backing her at some point, I figured that a more complete perimeter was a good idea. We set it up mid-ring, straddling the snow which still covered half the arena.

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Rabbit, the polydactyl/slacker barn cat who did NOT catch the mouse who ate my bridle.

I took Lee out to the round pen on the longe line to start her back into some sort of work.  Last year, I was able to hack her out with Marquesa and another rider, which worked really well.  But with Anna home a whole month earlier, I could only hack one horse at a time and Lee was relegated to second string status. Even at 19, Lee can be really reluctant to leave the farm by herself when she is out of practice and be cheeky in the ring, and so as a former trainer used to say, “the longe line is your friend.”

To my surprise and delight, Lee was completely civilized in the round pen. I started by just walking her—forced marching for 20-30 minutes with frequent direction changes—and she was so compliant and calm that I ended up just unclipping the line and practiced moving her around with my body language. Compared to the others, I think she has lost the most condition this winter. But at the same time, she is mostly Thoroughbred, and once she gets into work, she tends to come back to fitness fairly quickly.

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Lee’s first ride of 2018, sporting her stylish new biothane bridle.

Feeling overly ambitious, I also signed Izzy up to go to an in hand/ground work clinic with Tik Maynard in early May. I have heard Tik speak and read his articles, which all have impressed me, and I thought the opportunity was too good to pass up. But I knew that Izzy may have forgotten some of her lessons from last year after a winter off, and we had to be diligent about reviewing the basics.  In addition, she taught herself a new skill this winter—how to buck—and though the bucks are without any malice and are performed with just the sheer joy of being young and agile and quick, I was less pleased with this addition to her repertoire. My helmet became constantly planted to my head and Izzy tested my determination to prep her for the clinic on an almost daily basis.

Then on April 15, it snowed. Again.

In order to get through the De-Feralization, what is needed is consistency.  And between the weather, the footing, and my work schedule, what I didn’t seem to be finding was the one thing most necessary for success.

So this year, instead of getting overly frustrated during this time of transition, I tried to practice a different mantra: We’ve been through this before. We take baby steps. We always get through it, and once we do, the reward is worth the few weeks of challenge. This is perhaps the time of year beyond all other where we must simply acknowledge that patience is also a skill which requires practice. All you can ever do is your best, take small steps, and reward any forward progress.

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Julia and I try a mounted selfie.  Yes it is May.  Yes I am still wearing a down vest.

Instead of being upset with myself that my work schedule wouldn’t permit me to give 110% attention to each horse, I divided my time. I recruited some helpers, who came to hack with me (thanks Julia and Nikki!), allowing two horses to get attention at once. I became satisfied with shorter work sets—even just 15 minutes for Izzy—knowing that a little was better than nothing and in time, we would build on this small foundation.

Now, on the cusp of June, I am finally enjoying truly glorious spring weather, with mostly compliant horses who have a baseline of fitness.  De-feralization is complete, and true spring has officially arrived.

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Rabbit and Smokey are back in their usual “spring spot”.

 

 

Using Work in Hand to Gymnastically Develop the Horse: an Introduction to Straightness Training

Lately, my interest in broadening my understanding of various kinds of ground and in hand work has been growing, and I am enjoying learning about ways in which this work could be beneficial to both my training process and developing the relationship with my horses.

In mid February, I had the opportunity to visit Narnia Stables in Ashford, Conn., the home base for trainer Meg Brauch, who was offering a Straightness Training (ST) clinic with lecture and demo. The clinic’s title was “Using Work in Hand to Gymnastically Develop the Horse”, and photos promoting the event showed many happy horses in various stages of training. I was intrigued and roped my friend Sally into making the two and a half hour drive down for the afternoon start time.

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Meg Brauch working with Paladin. Meg was kind enough to permit me to “borrow” photos from her Facebook for use with this blog.

Straightness Training is a system developed by Dutch equestrian Marijke de Jong. After one short afternoon session, I am far from qualified to fully discuss the system or its philosophies in any great length, but I did take away that it is inspired by the work of classical horsemen like Gueriniere, Baucher, and those of the Iberian peninsula, and that it is intended as a systematic and progressive system that focuses on developing a horse using humane methods.

Introduction to ST

Meg provided a basic overview of the ST system, where I recognized some clear areas of overlap with other, better-known-to me, training philosophies. First off, most of the unmounted work is done in a cavesson. I was quite impressed with the design of Meg’s cavesson.  In my experience, finding correctly fitting cavessons is a real challenge; they usually do not conform well to the muzzle or sit evenly around the bones of the skull.  The cavessons Meg uses are Baroque inspired and have a piece of padded chain over the nose; I am sure that some people will find this too harsh, and I am sure in the wrong hands it would be.  But in truth, the shape of the noseband better conformed to the muzzle than most of the off the rack cavessons out there, and the weight of the noseband overall was much less than a regular cavesson. It had a greater degree of adjustability as well; one of the horses Meg used for demonstration later in the afternoon was an Anglo-Trakhener, heavy on the Thoroughbred blood, and his refined face seemed fit well in the cavesson. This style also has an option to fairly easily add a bit, which is a useful feature.

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There is a good view of the cavesson here as Meg appears to be asking this horse for LFS.

The ST system is based on its “five pillars”: groundwork, longeing, work in hand, riding and liberty work. The first two steps are done in a cavesson with a single line attached, and in these stages, the goal is to teach the horse how to carry themselves. The work in hand, which we were there to watch specifically, is done in a cavesson with a set of reins clipped to either side, as on a bridle. As horses become more advanced, a curb bit can be clipped to the cavesson along with a set of reins, and the horse is introduced to the concept of a double bridle.

Horses which are trained in the ST system will be introduced to many under saddle concepts prior to actually being backed; the exercises are meant to help develop the horse’s balance as well as to gymnastically work and develop the muscles.  For a youngster, ST can help the horse to understand the rein aids and develop lightness. In the end, the horse should become confident, relaxed and supple in their work. Due to the mental and physical demands, ST should not be started before the horse’s third year. Lightness was a pervasive theme, both in the application of the aids and the weight of the horse in the hand.

For the handler, ST teaches a better feel for their mount’s natural asymmetry and body position in the lateral exercises, and also helps to improve their sense of timing. Meg promised that this improved “feel” transfers over to the ridden work.

Understanding Asymmetry

Now, to really understand the importance of lateral work, you have to also appreciate that horses are naturally asymmetrical. Horses are narrower in the shoulders than the hips, and like humans, are “sided”, meaning one set of limbs tends to be in charge. In our usual handling practices, horsemen do little to improve the situation (when was the last time you led/untacked/mounted from the right or “off” side?).

ST teaches about “eight dimensions of asymmetry”. For me, there was nothing new here, but I really liked the way the concepts were organized. Meg presented the dimensions of asymmetry as follows:

  • Lateral bending (issues here are usually the easiest to correct)
  • Horizontal imbalance (horse naturally carries more weight on forehand)
  • Front legs (Handedness, as in, which leg does your horse prefer to lead with)
  • Hind Legs (the carrying hind leg is more flexible, and the pushing hind leg tends to be straighter, stronger and less flexible)
  • Front/back ratio (the wedge shape of the horse which I referred to earlier)
  • Diagonal (one diagonal pair will be dominant, and usually the pushing hind is diagonal to the dominant front)
  • Vertical (leaning in on an angle on corners)
  • Topline (we want the horse to stretch here and be longer and rounded).

In general, a right bended horse tends to be left forelimb dominant and usually has a pushing right hind. Their concave side is their right side.  Reverse all of these for a horse which is left bended (which seems to be less common overall).

To improve the horse first requires awareness of the asymmetry on the part of the trainer. All beings are asymmetrical, but through thoughtful and steady work, improvement is always possible.

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Meg working at liberty.

Use of the Aids in ST

The pillars of ST work which are done on the ground require the use of the handler’s body language and voice, but several other aids are also important. The first is mental focus—Meg used the expression “inner picture, inner feeling”, which basically means that before a trainer begins any exercise with their horse, they should have a sense of what it is they are trying to accomplish. Related to this is the concept of “energetic aids”, which basically is saying that the handler should be centered, grounded and present, with their full attention on the horse and the task at hand. Finally, for several pillars, artificial aids like a long whip (for driving, slowing or reinforcing) or rein (used similarly to the riding reins, with inside/outside and direct/indirect cues offered) are also included. A direct rein influences the horse’s poll while an indirect rein influences the shoulders, almost like having a lasso around the horse’s neck.

The demonstration section of this clinic was focusing on the work in hand, a pillar which comes after a horse already has a basic understanding of the ground work done with a cavesson on a single line, attached to the nose. Basic circle work and an introduction to the lateral movements should be established through ground work before progressing to work in hand, which is done with a set of reins clipped to either side of the cavesson, as on a bridle. During the ground work phase, the handler works on the inside of the horse.  But during the in hand phase, the handler will transition to the outside of the horse.

The whip becomes a tool of refined communication, based primarily by its position.  It can be used to activate the hind end, or when held in front of the chest, indicates a half halt. Held at the girth, it asks for more bend or forward intention. Pointed towards the opposite hip, it becomes an advanced aid to increase the angle of the haunches in. When kept down by the handler’s side, the whip is in neutral.

Progression of Exercises

In each stage of progression through the pillars, a series of specific exercises is introduced in order. During each exercise, the horse is encouraged to maintain “LFS”—lateral bend, a forward and downward tendency, while stepping under their center of mass with the hind leg.

  • Standstill: Meg says many folks new to ST work tend to gloss over this exercise, because it seems too easy or basic. But mastering the stand still, in which the horse halts with front feet square, head and neck lowered, while willingly flexing left and right, provides an important foundation. It also gives the horse a first introduction of the cavesson and its pressure, and helps to teach them to center their mass away from their dominant fore limb.
  • Circle: Usually done only in the walk, the circle is used to help establish LFS. “We don’t tend to do these in trot or canter, because it is hard to go from the circle to a straight line and keep the horse well balanced,” says Meg.
  • LFS on Straight Line, progressing to Shoulder In
  • Haunches In
  • Renvers
  • Half Pass
  • Pirouette
  • Trot
  • Canter
Carolyn
I had to include this photo of my friend Carolyn, who seems to be practicing that pesky standstill!

Training Theory

When it comes down to it, what I witnessed at this clinic was the application of highly effective classical and operant training techniques. This is really at the root of most good animal training, whether you are talking about riding horses or training dogs or teaching some exotic zoo animal to engage in a medical exam. ST work is about applying the 3 R’s—Release, Reward, Relax. When the horse makes a move towards doing the thing you want, the handler offers a “bingo cue” (some sort of consistent sound), they release the pressure, and then immediately reward the horse with verbal or physical praise or a treat. There is then a short break to allow the horse to process what he just learned.

It is the timing and dosing of the pressure and release process which is most people’s downfall.  Basically, handlers need to AVOID pressure which is held too much, too long, too often, too suddenly or too steadily, and EMBRACE release which is early, often, quickly administered, long and soon.  Release more than you take. Through this process, the horse learns to carry the posture on his own.

There are three phases of the training process.  The first phase is teaching the horse.  In this phase, we are trying to help the horse begin to understand the exercise, and to develop the new neural pathways which will allow it to be performed. At this stage, the movement may lack gymnastic quality, or be in slow motion, similar to how we might learn a new dance step.  In the optimizing phase, the trainer focuses on improving the quality of the movement and encourages the horse to work towards self-carriage in the body and mind.  Finally, in the improvising phase, the exercise can now be used for a purpose or in a goal-oriented way.

Another way to look at the training and learning process is to understand that in doing any activity, there is the comfort zone (doing what you know and is familiar), the stretch zone (where you are trying something new that is out of your comfort zone but still attainable) and the stress zone (where what you are trying to teach is too much, too soon). Growth occurs in the stretch zone, but not every day can be a stretch day. And when we live in the stress zone… no training occurs.

Demonstration

Meg demonstrated the in hand techniques with two of her own horses.  The first horse was a 6 year old Hanoverian gelding who has had a “slow start” in his training progress due to various injuries. She demonstrated that she held each rein through the thumb and forefinger, so the overall contact was quite light.  The outside rein should cross the neck in front of the withers, but not be more than half way up the neck. The goal is to work towards holding the reins closer to the withers than the head, so that the horse is ultimately coming forward from the hindquarters and into the rein (similar to riding).  However, when the trainer loses quality, they should move their hold closer to the cavesson until the necessary elements improve. The handler’s body should be positioned off of the girth; Meg explained that it is really easy to get out in front of the horse’s shoulder.

Renfrew
Meg and her horse Renfrew.

This particular horse usually struggles with the stand still, but today demonstrated the position with his feet even and square. Meg emphasized that under saddle, the horse must learn to wait to move until the rider’s cue, and this practice starts here. She encouraged the horse to stretch forward and down using gentle pressure on the front of the cavesson, and then flexed him to the left and right with pressure on the sides.

After a few moments in the stand still, Meg moved on to doing small circles, 8-10 meters in diameter, to encourage the bending of the horse, while still asking for the forward and downward tendency.  When she asked for transitions to the halt, the effort is made mostly from the voice.  The ultimate goal is to use little to no pressure on the reins in the halt, as the horse will usually tend to come up in the neck and lean into this pressure.

Because changing the bend while in motion is fairly difficult, Meg halted her horse and changed the reins over to the opposite side to work in the other direction.

She then proceeded to demonstrate the shoulder in (be sure to not draw the horse’s nose further in than their point of shoulder) and haunches in (the horse is taught to bend around the whip, which provides the cue).

Next, Meg brought in her 19 year old schoolmaster, Paladin, an Anglo-Trakehner. He came to her due to intermittent front end lameness which had ended his competitive career; through ST work to straighten his body, redevelop movement patterns and correct asymmetrical muscling, the lameness has all but resolved.

Meg worked through all of the same initial movements with Paladin, but then also showed us work in trot and canter.  She explained that the classical masters would sometimes introduce half steps in hand before introducing the trot in order to develop balance and strength; in the faster gaits, it is best to do very short bursts to prevent the horse from losing balance. No matter the gait of the horse, the handler should always remain walking, not jogging, to keep up.

Teaching these progressive exercises in the walk and trot with a youngster can help them to understand what is wanted before trying to do the movements with a rider on board. The movements may also be done in the canter, but this requires more collection than a young horse will have; it is better to introduce the canter under saddle first and allow the horse to develop more strength before teaching these exercises in that gait.

Take Aways

When I signed up for this clinic, I was not expecting a full immersion into an organized training system. I am almost always initially skeptical of programs which promote a particular prescripted philosophy, special equipment (ex: buy this halter/video series/magic stick for just 99.95) or come with too many impassioned disciples who all function at only a very basic level. So before I “drink the Kool-Aid”, I like to try to learn a little more.

Straightness Training (http://straightnesstraining.com/) is a pretty comprehensive program.  Its founder, Marijke de Jong, has created an ambitious and heavily trademarked/registered system of instruction, coaching, certification and support. Under the “FAQ’s” page on her website are some interesting threads on integrating ST work with “other types of riding” as well as what the difference is between classical riding and Straightness Training. Here, deJong compares the different schools of classical dressage training (German, Spanish, etc.) to the branches of a tree; while the specific approaches and techniques taught in these different schools may vary, they all have the same roots. deJong’s work is drawing off much of the in hand training approaches used by classical masters. She seems to have studied this subject far more deeply than I have ever attempted to, and it is beyond the scope of this blog for me to do any analysis on the connections here.

I think we as horsemen are all enthralled with the idea of having a horse which responds to our aids with lightness and sensitivity and to have the kind of relationship with our horse that is seemingly effortless and harmonious. Certainly in Meg’s demonstration she showed that with time and care, her work on the ground has allowed each of her horses to respond to quiet and soft aids as they worked through their lateral movements.  Despite being distracted by outside stimuli and twenty auditors, both horses chose ultimately to focus on Meg, with a minimum of fuss and no force.

I think my major, most important take away from this clinic was a reminder that we must all reward more often and for less effort. It is so easy, especially in dressage or equitation work, to drill ourselves and our horses. In doing so, we fail to recognize the “try”, the little effort the animal or student puts forward to improve, because we are too focused on shaping the response to be what we want in a final performance. But in order to get to that evolved, confident and smooth answer, there are many small, incremental steps of growth and improvement. If we as teachers and trainers do not reward these steps, the progress and growth we specifically seek can be deterred.

 

 

Area I USEA Annual Meeting: Tik Maynard

I had the occasion to attend the US Eventing Association (USEA) Area I Annual Meeting out in Holyoke, MA on January 7, 2018.  I try to make it every year to attend the event organizer’s meeting, and getting to stay to hear the guest lecture each year is an added bonus.  I was quite enthused to learn that Canadian event rider Tik Maynard had been asked to speak at this year’s meeting. Recently, I read a piece Tik wrote for Practical Horseman about the ground work training he had used with his Retired Racehorse Project mount, Remarkable 54.  I found the article well written and thoughtful, and had a sense from it that Tik was an educated, thinking horseman.  In his presentation, which he called, “7 Big Picture Ideas to Get Along Better with your Horse”, he did not disappoint.

My overall impression of Tik as a horseman only improved upon hearing his introduction—the son of a show jumper and a dressage rider, he attended college in his native British Columbia before embarking on a quest for absolutely top of the line horsemanship education by spending nearly two years apprenticing with riders such as Ingrid Klimke, Johann Hinneman, Anne Kursinski and David and Karen O’Connor.  The work was hard and sometimes he didn’t measure up—in fact, he was asked to leave Hinneman’s barn for “not being good enough”.  He worked hard to spend time with some of the best in different disciplines, even though eventing became his main passion.  At the O’Connors, he had his first exposure to natural horsemanship, which completely changed the way in which Tik approached horse training.

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Tik Maynard at the Area I Meeting.

This experience inspired him to do a working student position in Texas with a western rider who specializes in training cow horses using natural horsemanship techniques.  I may be getting the exact timeline wrong here, but you get the general idea.  In working at this facility, Tik says that he didn’t learn so much about riding— he learned a lot about horses. He became more interested in the behavioral side of horses—how they think, how they respond, and how they process training.

Through his practical education, Tik developed the perspective that all trainers have a philosophy which is the result of the unique combination of their personal training in technique and theory combined with their own instinct or horse sense.  Each trainer’s philosophy will be unique to them, which he thinks is a good thing.  It is sort of his premise that a student becomes a sum total of their teachers, and every experience has something to teach us, even if what we learn is what doesn’t work well. It is only once a trainer has a solid foundation and philosophy of their own that they can begin to use their imagination to, in Tik’s words, “do something better than it has ever been done before.”

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Tik’s personal philosophy would seem to prioritize a horse which is engaged in the learning process.  He talks about “The Look”, the moment when the horse looks at the trainer with both eyes and ears focused, seemingly saying, “What are we doing today?” He emphasizes a difference between communication and control in training.  And though he was told that there was no way that he would be able to combine natural horsemanship training with developing competition horses at the highest level, he has not allowed such negativity to dissuade him from his path.

In his presentation for the Area I Meeting, Tik highlighted seven concepts which he has found to be important in working with his horses in training.

  • Taming versus training. Tik argues that there are horses being ridden and shown which are barely tame, never mind trained.  For example, when the horse is showing even a slight fear reaction to certain stimuli, or grossly overacts to a small stimulus, these can both be signs that the horse is not fully ok with what is going on.  “It is like you have this horse simmering with energy just below the surface,” says Tik. “The horse reacts to the sound of a twig snapping, but that is not the cause of the horse’s tension.” Tik gave as an example of one of his horses, Carollina, who needed to be taught to really think forward.

 

“There are lots of ways to communicate with horses, but they only have two main ways to show how they feel—either more anxiety or more relaxation,” says Tik.  “Too often people learn to compete before they learn how to ride, and before they learn how a horse thinks.”

 

  • Start with something you can Your goal may be huge (compete at Rolex) but to get there you must learn all the skills which come before. When training, start with the skills that your horse can do well—even if they are quite basic—and build from there.  Tik used the example of teaching a horse to handle a bank.  Start with:  can my horse look at the bank?  Get closer to the bank?  Look across the bank and realize that there is someplace to go?  “You must be patient,” says Tik.  “For example, almost all water problems with horses are the result of someone pushing too hard with the horse’s first experience.”

 

When working with a horse which has lost confidence, it is important to take a step back and do many small things successfully before revisiting the thing which is hard.  “People often get into trouble because they skip steps,” says Tik. “There is still an attitude out there that you ‘have to win’.  You need to know that what you get into is something you can get out of.  Do not have a battle.  Back up to something you can do, and then repeat it.”

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Becoming exposed to unfamiliar stimuli should be like a game.

 

  • Make your session with your horse like a song. When working with a horse, your training session should contain moments at different levels of intensity. The warm up is gradual, and then you may progress to a new skill or lesson which is higher intensity, before the energy gradually comes down towards the end of the session.  “All moments are not created equal,” says Tik.

Horses can only learn when they are relaxed.  Tik says if there is a scale of tension, a horse must be under a level three in order to learn.  “You need to be polite, and do little polite things to help the horse be more invested in you,” says Tik.  “If you touch the neck on one side, touch the horse on the opposite side at the same time.  Approach a crosstied horse with the same care as a hard to catch horse.”

Tik tries to end each training session by dismounting in the area where he rode, facing away from the barn. He then loosens the girth and might remove the bridle, and waits there until the horse lets go and takes a deep breath.

“Rule number one is the person is safe at the end,” says Tik.  “Rule number two is the horse is safe.  Rule number three is that the horse is more relaxed at the end of the ride than at the beginning.”

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Learning to cross tie is one important basic skill which all horses should be taught.
  • Make your horse’s world neutral.

There are stimuli which will attract your horse (positives) and those which will repel them (negatives). The trainer needs to shift the horse’s energy towards where they want it to go to. As an example, Tik spoke about acclimatizing his OTTB, Remarkable, to the coliseum in preparation for their freestyle performance at the Retired Racehorse Project. The ring was full of banners, which worried the horse.  So Tik led the horse towards the banner, and had an assistant feed Remarkable a small treat from the opposite side of each banner until the horse began to relax.

 

Trainers need to make themselves be more interesting than anything else going on.  This means that the lesson being taught must be more interesting; trainers must learn when and how to be big with their actions (body, waving a flag) and when to be more subtle.  Which leads really well into Big Picture Idea #5….

 

  • Stop at the top of the bell curve.

As a horse progresses through their training, they will get better with a new skill and then often start to get worse—this is a sign that they are bored, frustrated or similar.  Tik reminded the audience that “repetition is the mildest form of punishment”, so a better approach is to get to the top of the exercise and then stop, even if the horse gets there quickly.  Continuing to repeat the exercise once the horse has already gotten the point of it for the day will mean that they are likely to end their lesson at an energy level higher than a 3 (see Big Picture Idea # 3).

 

  • Be a problem solver. Think.

Be creative. Seek help. Think laterally. “The more you do it, the better you get,” says Tik.
“Almost everything we do with horses is about communication or motivation.”

Tik says that the best trainers learn to think like a horse, and they also are aware of how they want the horse to be responding to them.  “Dressage horses think about the rider the whole time, but for jumping horses we maybe only want them focusing on the rider during the turns,” says Tik. “Then they need to focus on the jump.  So the horse needs to learn how to smoothly shift their focus.”

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Lee says, “There is definitely something OVER THERE.”
  • What are the Olympics of Everything?

Tik joked with the audience, “what if there were an Olympics for cross ties, for leading, for being caught, etc?” His point is that no matter what kind of interaction we have with the horse, we can always work to make it better.  It is upon these smaller steps which big goals are achieved. “Have your end goal in mind but always stay in the present,” says Tik (seems relevant to so much in life, no?).

In listening to Tik’s presentation, as well as his responses to audience questions, I was struck by his calm demeanor.  He seems humble and authentic.  He did announce that he is working on a book with Trafalgar Square, scheduled for release in June 2018—I suspect that this text will be one to add to the library.