On what was possibly the hottest and most humid weekend of July, Anna and I visited the lovely Linden Woods Farm in Durham, N.H., to clinic with USEF High Performance rider and former Dressage Youth Coach Jeremy Steinberg.
I enjoy reading Steinberg’s column in The Chronicle of the Horse and have the impression that, although a successful competitor, he also truly enjoys training horses to become the best version of themselves. To me, this is an important distinction, because I have found that when you simply enjoy being around horses, taking the time to solve their riddles is handled with a great deal more compassion than when their resistance is perceived as an impediment to reaching a goal. It also challenges you to be more creative in finding solutions, rather than insisting that each horse conform to a set formula. Steinberg’s mentors, Dietrich von Hopffgarten and Paul Belasik, are both regarded as dressage philosophers and advocates for humane, classical dressage training. Finally, Steinberg’s first Grand Prix horse was an OTTB whom he developed himself. As someone who favors riding non-traditional breeds in the dressage arena, I was excited for the opportunity to work with him directly.
For me, the pandemic has been an important period of resetting, reassessing and simply improving the bond with my horses. I wasn’t sure that Anna and I were truly ready for a clinic, particularly with someone of Steinberg’s caliber, but I assumed that if he was as horse-friendly in practice as he seemed to be in his writing, we would get something positive out of the ride.
I wasn’t disappointed!
Steinberg spends a good chunk of his time on the road—his website says that he gives an average of 48 clinics per year—and he explained that the first thing he always considers while watching a horse warm up is their conformation, and how it will impact their work.
Anna is flat in the poll, making it easy for her to lock both there and in her lower jaw when asked to connect. Steinberg’s (simple but not so simple) solution? Transitions. So many transitions.
After a basic warm up (during which Steinberg encouraged me to use my fingers and wrists quite actively to massage the bit but to keep Anna’s neck completely still), we started riding trot-halt-trot transitions. Steinberg had me hold my elbows to my sides to stabilize the contact into and out of the transition, and to ride a bit of medium trot into the halt. This is not your show ring halt, but instead a training tool to help encourage the horse to start rounding their back, while yielding the poll and croup. These trot-halt-trot transitions are, intentionally, a bit abrupt.
“Resist the urge in the halt to supple her,” Steinberg coached. “Make the hand and elbow more fixed, so that the contact is less negotiable, and when she comes to the halt the contact is solid.”
Not shockingly, at first Anna braced in her poll and jaw, particularly into the downward transition. Overall, the transitions were somewhat…ugly.
“You are trying to get the horse’s lower back to tip in the hip and pelvis,” says Steinberg. “Think more like a sliding stop. You want the horse to tuck under a bit.”
It was important to not allow walk steps in or out of the transitions (as this will cause the horse to avoid tucking the hip), and for a horse such as Anna (who is not always the most prompt to the driving aids), you cannot be afraid to really pop the whip if she is not responsive.
“Let the horse make mistakes,” says Steinberg. “Let them learn that you are not going to carry them along, and if they make a mistake, be corrective.”
The more transitions I did, focusing on promptness and really rooting my elbows to my sides, the hotter Anna became to my leg and the softer and rounder she became in the connection. By staying steady and tolerating Anna’s tendency to brace (for now), I was increasing the pressure on her to become rounder. The idea is that you are giving the horse a choice—they can continue to resist, which is uncomfortable, or they can choose to become rounder in their back and relieve the pressure.
“Do fifteen of them,” says Steinberg of the transitions. “If the horse braces, do three more.”
This work is meant to be done in many short bursts; we worked trot-halt-trot transitions on each rein, and then moved on to canter-walk-canter. I applied the same concepts to these latter transitions, with the aim of taking no more than one or two steps of walk in between each stretch of canter.
“Almost as soon as you walk, you want to go back to the canter,” says Steinberg. “It is the difference between doing a sit up and a crunch.”
The canter-walk-canter transitions help the horse to lower the croup and lighten the forehand. Steinberg compared the horse to an imperfectly balanced teeter totter—one that has a boulder (the forehand) in front of its fulcrum (the withers), with a rider sitting behind them both.
“As soon as you get on, you can feel this weight,” says Steinberg. “If you can raise the front end, the boulder will roll back. But if the forehand goes down, you have to pull on the reins to stop the boulder from rolling forward more.”
All of these prompt transitions help to create greater activity in the hindquarters, by putting a certain degree of pressure on the horse’s body and not giving them much choice in how to respond to that pressure. In Anna’s case, she needed to hit the wall of the rider’s hand. The true origin of her bracing is not in her jaw, it is in her back– but because I feel the weight in my hands, I (like most riders on similar horses) try to manipulate her back by positioning her neck.
“I want to manipulate the back with transition work,” says Steinberg. “The bracing is [the horse] wanting to stay tight in the back. But if I give in to the brace or try to soften the brace, I never give the horse the opportunity to soften the back.”
What I found quite remarkable was that despite the heat, the humidity, and the pressure, Anna really stepped up to the exercise. The sets were short but intense; Steinberg counseled to ignore the things which were not perfect, and after one or two quality transitions, give the horse a break. Many times throughout the day, after a period of increased pressure for the horse, I heard Steinberg tell the rider to reassure the horse that “mom still loves them”. During a walk break in a later set, Steinberg had this to say about adding pressure for the horse:
“When you are fairly confident that the horse is capable of doing the work—they are a correct mover, appropriate conformation, etcetera—you can put the pressure on,” says Steinberg. “You will sometimes need to be intentional like this, to help the horse really understand how to use their body.”
As the horse begins to understand stepping into the downward transitions with roundness and softness, Steinberg will add a driving aid—perhaps just a tap of the whip—to teach the horse that the roundness comes from the hind end.
“You must take a leap of faith and know that you will have some of those bad transitions,” says Steinberg. “This is how you can offer a correction, and how they can learn. There is a consequence for making the mistake, and this consequence can be just the feeling of the horse hitting the rider’s aids.”
This was by far one of the most productive and positive clinics I have had with Anna, and I have incorporated this exercise into my regular routine with great success. I am so grateful to facility owner Karen Bishop and her daughter Leslie Ann McGowan for coordinating the clinic and opening their property to outside riders despite the pandemic, and to Steinberg for making the trip up from Aiken, S.C.! Thanks, too, to Fay Morrison for coming by to help me with Anna and taking such great pictures of our ride.
On a crisp sunny morning in January 2018, I cautiously stepped out of my friend’s car into an icy parking lot and pulled the collar of my faux sheepskin lined corduroy jacket more tightly closed over my yellow knit scarf. Three or four inches of snow had fallen some 24 hours before my own arrival in Lexington, Kentucky a day earlier, and the state seemed to be hoping that the offensive accumulation might just disappear on its own. But with temps hovering in the mid-thirties, so far this strategy had proven ineffective.
I had worried that the weather might interfere with today’s visit to Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in Georgetown, Kentucky, home to nearly 200 pensioned former racehorses. I recruited my friend Rachel, a New England transplant to Lexington, to tag along with me on this frosty day; the cheerful voice on the phone had assured me that our reservations for the morning tour were still in play, but looking around the mostly empty parking lot I wondered if anyone else would be joining us.
Old Friends was founded in 2003 by former racetrack groom (and retired Boston Globe film critic) Michael Blowen. During his years working at tracks like Suffolk Downs in Boston and Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, Blowen had seen what often happened to racehorses at the end of their careers, especially at low end tracks and fairgrounds—a trip directly to the slaughterhouse. It was an accepted reality in a sport which often saw fortunes rise and fall with the clang of a starter’s bell.
“Everybody in racing says this—‘do what is best for the horse and everything else will fall into place’,” Blowen told me on the phone one day. “But people don’t follow this.”
During his years at the Globe, Blowen witnessed firsthand the magnetic effect that celebrities had on those around them— and it occurred to Blowen that he felt the same way when he witnessed a truly great race horse. And that gave him an idea.
“I thought others would feel that way, too, and thought people might be willing to pay money to see them,” says Blowen. “The idea was that these horses from Rockingham could mix with the celebrities.”
The concept was deceptively simple yet completely radical– take a big name horse that no one wanted anymore, and charge racing fans to come see them. The money raised would then offset the cost of lifetime care for racehorses with less illustrious backgrounds. Using this model, Old Friends has grown from one small leased paddock and a single horse to its current principal facility, the 236 acre Dream Chase Farm in Georgetown, and a satellite facility Old Friends at Cabin Creek in Greenfield Center, New York.
From April to October, nearly 1,000 visitors per week tour the Georgetown property hoping to see their favorite winners, including the farm’s undisputed marquee resident, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm. But lounging in paddocks across the sprawling property are Thoroughbreds of all types; those with no pedigree to speak of, those with old injuries or arthritis from their days on the track, those horses which time forgot. Archie’s Echo was one of these, a cheap claimer who earned just $32,000 during his track career; at 26 years old he was purchased by a sympathetic soul at the notorious New Holland auction in Pennsylvania, certainly bound for slaughter. Archie was blind in one eye and in rough shape at first, but enjoyed five years of care and attention at Old Friends before passing away in May 2020.
Old Friends is a member of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), a non-profit arm of The Jockey Club that offers accreditation and grant funding for sixty four groups providing care and rehoming services for off track Thoroughbreds. While many of these programs have been overwhelmingly successful and certainly should be celebrated, most are geared towards placing OTTBs in a new career as a riding horse. For those animals that are not suitable for riding, homes are harder to come by.
I was researching options for these types of OTTBs— often young but permanently unrideable—when I first learned of Old Friends. I was intrigued by the model and impressed by Blowen’s charisma. In our interview, he told me that he “felt like the village idiot” when he first started the project, but that didn’t stop him from moving forward. And if I am honest, though I am no longer Thoroughbred racing’s biggest fan, I completely understood him when he talked about being starstruck in the presence of a great racehorse. I remember standing by the rail at Saratoga as a young girl, gripping the chain link fence while screaming my throat raw, urging Alysheba down the stretch of the 1987 Travers Stakes (he lost), or recognizing Crème Fraiche, the 1985 Belmont winner, running there in his later career. I will always admire the grit and heart of a Thoroughbred, and believe in the tangible thrill that comes with witnessing a powerful, purpose-bred animal do exactly what he is bred to—run.
The visitor’s center at Old Friends is a rather nondescript ranch, its pale yellow paint chosen no doubt to offset the bountiful black fencing and rolling fields that surround it. Two holiday wreaths still flanked the entrance door, and four woven sunchairs, in shades of green and yellow, lined the concrete porch. Upon entering, we are immediately greeted by a pair of thoroughly well-fed cats—a tortoiseshell named Lucy, who we later learn weighs 25 pounds, and an orange and white male named Buddy, who is the designated “official greeter.” They lounge on the hardwood floor, lying half in the gift shop, half in the reception area. They leave little doubt as to who is truly in charge of this office space.
Our guide’s name is Charlie Brown, and as he shrugs into a heavy down jacket and pulls a green knit cap with “Old Friends” embroidered in gold script over his snow white hair, he nonchalantly asks where we are from. We are, in fact, the only scheduled guests to actually arrive for the morning’s tour, and he looks dressed for an arctic expedition.
“New Hampshire,” I say brightly.
Charlie nods grimly.
“Oh, that explains it then. This snow is nothing for you.”
Resignedly, he picks up a green two quart bucket filled with carrots, cubed and shredded, and leads us back out the door we had just entered. Neither cat makes a move.
We are clearly here in the off-season, in off weather, and have ended up with a particularly personal tour of the property. Most groups follow a fairly set route, stopping at specific paddocks in which the resident has become carrot-conditioned to come visit when guests arrive. Occasionally, guides will make detours by special request to allow guests to meet other residents. We quickly learn that today, Charlie will let us go (almost) anywhere we wish. Rachel and I follow him out into the snow.
Our first stop is Sarava, who is perhaps best known for his amazing upset win in the 2002 Belmont Stakes. Sarava was the biggest longshot winner in race history, going off at 70-1 odds and paying out $142.50 to win, spoiling his now neighbor War Emblem’s quest for the Triple Crown in the process. When Sarava arrived at Old Friends in 2012, he became their first resident winner of a Triple Crown race. Today, the stallion’s black mane is long and his dark bay coat fluffed out for winter; he looks more like someone’s backyard pet than a classic stakes winner. Sarava clearly knew the drill, overenthusiastically reaching for the treat bucket. Charlie affectionately scratched the aging campaigner on his forehead and popped a few carrots in his mouth.
In the next paddock lives the turf champion, Little Mike, whose rich bay coat gleams beneath his heavy blanket; his pasture mate, Game On Dude, is happily cribbing on the fence and ignoring us completely. Trained by Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert (who has become one of Old Friend’s greatest supporters) and a favorite of Baffert’s wife Jill, Game on Dude is the only horse to ever win the Santa Anita Handicap three times during a career in which he brought home nearly $6.5 million. Little Mike is Game on Dude’s fourth pasture buddy, and farm managers hope the two are well matched in age and energy.
Sarava is eight years older than both Little Mike and Game On Dude; in racing years, they are almost two generations apart. As Charlie tells us about each horse, there is a sparkle in his eye, as if he remembers seeing their greatest races. But while I recognize the names of the races these three have won, I know none of the animals themselves. To me, they are just…horses. And at Old Friends, that is kind of the point.
The truth is that without a guide to tell you otherwise, the average visitor would no sooner be able to discern the elite champions from the workaday claimers. At Old Friends, horses are cared for with an egalitarian philosophy, and for the most part they are allowed to simply be horses. Most live outside with run in shelters, alone or in pairs or small groups. Their manes have grown shaggy, some are barefoot, and all have ample space to move or mingle as they choose. In better weather, they graze the Kentucky bluegrass and eat carrots several times a day. Really, these horses are living their best lives.
One pair of geldings we met seemed symbolic of the greater Old Friends mission. Arson Squad and I’m Charismatic were an unlikely duo– Arson is a stakes winner who earned $1.1 million; I’m Charismatic, a well-bred gelding who never lived up to his pedigree in 92 starts. In retirement, I’m Charismatic had become completely blind, but Arson stayed by his side constantly, leading his “brother” to water, to shelter, to the fence line to receive our carrots. The crew at the Lexington Fire Department Fire Station No 5 was so inspired by Arson’s “leave no brother behind” attitude that they became the gelding’s official sponsor. I’m Charismatic passed away just six months after my visit, but Arson remains a resident today. The celebrity helping the common man—what Old Friends is all about.
Charlie brings us to a large paddock with a double fence. Its sole occupant is a nearly black horse with a crooked blaze; even from a distance, he pins his ears and flips his head in our direction, the equine equivalent of “bugger off”. Charlie slips under the first perimeter and stands in the gap, so we follow him. As it turns out, we weren’t supposed to, but Charlie has apparently deemed us horse savvy enough to stay out of harm’s way. Suddenly the horse trots straight up to the fence line and arches his neck over the perimeter towards Charlie. It is hard to tell if it is a threat or a demand. Charlie reaches out a flat palm holding a carrot, but keeps his body well away.
War Emblem, whose quest for the 2002 Triple Crown was spoiled by his now-neighbor Sarava, has made his presence known.
Charlie tells us the horse’s grumpiness is nothing new; War Emblem’s difficult disposition was well known during his racing years. Once retired, the colt’s temperamental behavior continued, and he showed virtually no interest in breeding mares, despite extensive efforts to convince him otherwise. In 2015, his Japanese owners agreed to return War Emblem to the U.S. and donated him to Old Friends. Though War Emblem was gelded before arrival and his demeanor softened somewhat as a result, the double fenced paddock was constructed specifically to help ensure everyone’s safety.
With his challenging personality and lackluster stud career, War Emblem was lucky indeed to find a soft landing at Old Friends. Few other facilities would have been inclined to take on such a quirky and potentially dangerous charge, and in Japan, land is at a premium. Unwanted animals are shipped to slaughter.
When I later heard news of this great horse’s unexpected death on March 11, 2020 at the age of 21, I flipped through the photos I had taken on this snowy January day. In several, his ears are flat back but in one, they are pricked forward as he looks into the distance, the clear blue sky a vibrant backdrop, the rays of the sun shining above him like a spotlight. In his five years at Old Friends, this enigmatic horse seemed to have found some sort of comfort.
In a statement released by Old Friends on the day of War Emblem’s death, Blowen said:
“I know we’re supposed to appreciate all of our retirees the same but he was one of the very special ones. He was tough, narcissistic, bold, and handsome. I adored him. I proudly count among a very meager number of accomplishments the day he allowed me to put his halter on without biting me. What more could I ask for? The farm will recover from his loss over time, but it’ll never be the same.”
Over the next forty-five minutes, we visit perhaps another dozen or so horses, mostly stallions and geldings (Old Friends also provides a home to a small but mighty mare herd, who are not included on the typical tour route). We meet Alphabet Soup, a wizened gray whose resume includes winning the 1996 Breeder’s Cup Classic, surviving a barn fire and contributing to science through participation in cutting edge treatments for equine melanoma. Popcorn Deelites, who played Seabiscuit in the movie of the same name. The aging Silver Ray, purchased from a livestock auction in 2013 for just $30, was a successful sire and graded stakes winner in his younger years. In 2019, he passed away at the age of 30, but during our visit he enjoyed the shredded carrots Charlie scooped from the bottom of his pail.
Charlie takes us through an elegant, airy ten stall barn. There is an office and storage and wash stall; each stall has a large outside window, and one row of stalls is connected to paddocks that allow residents to come and go at will. Not quite two years earlier, a fire had swept through a smaller medical barn located on this site, destroying it in minutes. Thankfully, only two horses were inside, and staff were able to coax them out in time, but the barn was a total loss.
It turned out that after thirteen years of providing lifetime sanctuary to hundreds of former racehorses, Old Friends had acquired a few friends of their own, and the John Hettinger Memorial Barn (where we now stood) was christened just barely six months after the fire. Fasig-Tipton’s Blue Horse Charities donated $50,000 towards its construction, along with several other generous contributions from industry supporters and fans. It was built with state-of-the-art materials and high attention to fire safety.
As we strolled through the sliding barn doors at the end of the aisle, I start to understand the depth of the connections which make Old Friends possible, and the utter enormity yet absolute necessity of its mission. The early endorsement of top trainers like Baffert helped to earn Old Friends the support of other leaders across the racing industry, enabling Blowen’s “crazy idea” to come to fruition. The successful repatriation of nine retired stallions from overseas has forged networks that may help ensure the successful return of other beloved champions in the future. Finally, many of the horses with celebrity status come with endowments or generous annual contributions from their former connections that more than sustain their upkeep. These funds, plus donations and visitor fees, help to ensure the safety and well-being of all the others, those horses whose previous work left them unfit, unsound or otherwise unsuitable for life as anything other than “just a horse”.
On a raw, damp day in late 2014, a flea-bitten grey stallion unloaded from a horse van to the reception of a crowd of nearly 100. Despite the weather, the energy was palpable; by all accounts Blowen himself was grinning like a kid in a candy store, eager to welcome the legendary Silver Charm to his new home at Old Friends. The stallion was installed in a place of prominence on the property, within view from the back porch of the main horse, where Blowen now lives. Like War Emblem, Silver Charm captured the first two legs of the Triple Crown before losing in the Belmont; unlike War Emblem, the stallion is calm and personable, and seems to take his role as farm ambassador to heart.
Charlie brings us right up to the fence, where Silver Charm is already waiting. He is bundled in a cozy Rambo rug, eyes half closed as he absorbs what little warmth might come from the day’s rays. But as soon as he perceives our approach, he snaps to attention, eye calm, ears pricked forward. He possessed the calm dignity worthy of an elder statesman, one who appreciates the responsibility that comes with fame and success.
It is easy to see why Silver Charm is a favorite of nearly everyone affiliated with Old Friends. But he had been special to Blowen for over twenty years; in an interview with Rick Capone, Blowen credits Silver Charm with being the “salvation of racing the late 1990s”. Silver Charm’s striking grey color and dramatic wins at the wire in both the Derby and Preakness made him not just a fan favorite, but wrote a story that drew new people to the sport. His quest to capture the Triple Crown nearly tripled Belmont attendance that year, and though he lost by three quarters of a length to Touch Gold (also an Old Friends resident) after a dramatic run down the stretch, Silver Charm’s grit and determination left an indelible mark upon the sport. In many ways, the horse and Blowen have much in common.
“Racing is a great sport,” Blowen told me on the phone before my visit. “People would be more into it if they know that the horses were better taken care of.”
As our visit drew to a close, I took one last look across the miles of fence line and the horses contentedly resting in their paddocks, and it occurred to me that taking care of unsound retired racehorses isn’t that hard. They can live outside, go barefoot and grow heavy coats in winter. What is hard is convincing the entire racing industry that everyone involved with the sport has a lifelong obligation to the athlete—not just for the duration of their track years.
Thanks to the efforts of programs like Old Friends, we are starting to see evidence of that change.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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?”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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!
“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.
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!
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.
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?
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.
“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.
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.
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?!?!”
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!”
Anna at her boarding stable during “hope”
The calm before the late March blizzard.
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.”
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.
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.”
They left the browband and reins alone; these were from a different bridle and evidently less tasty leather.
A close up of my mouse-devoured bridle.
A close up of my mouse-devoured bridle.
They left the browband and reins alone; these were from a different bridle and evidently less tasty leather.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian