Category Archives: Personal Stories

Winter Break Training Projects 2017 Edition

In the downtime between our two semesters at the University of New Hampshire, I always try to tune up a few school horses or work with some of our newer herd members to get to know them a little bit better. Increased tack time is always good for the soul (even if the cheeks end up a little chapped from the cold!) and I appreciate the opportunity to work with different horses.  There are so many lessons to be learned.

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Sometimes winter is not so much fun. At least getting to ride extra ponies makes up for it.  Sort of.

I think school horses are simply some of the most amazing horses on the planet.  They tolerate all manner of riders and need to decipher their aids.  The riders who sit on them are, by definition, students, which means that those aids may lack refinement, finesse and sophistication.  It is the exceptional school horse that can absorb all of this without ill effect, and it is my opinion that they deserve having one consistent person work with them for a period of time every now and then.  The horse and rider have a chance to connect more deeply, and if the rider is experienced enough, they can help to break through any blocks or defensiveness that the horse may have installed in an effort to absorb some of the confusion in the aids.

During the recent winter break, I worked with three horses which are used in our dressage-only classes: Fiona, Otto and Tino. Despite all being dressage specialists, they each require a different kind of ride to elicit their best performance.  Riding each horse helped to remind me of details which I then applied to my usual dressage ride, Anna.

Fiona

Fiona is a chestnut Thoroughbred type mare who has been with our program for several years at this point.  Of all the many horses I have tried out for the program, Fiona is by far one of my favorites.  She is “my type” of ride; slender, athletic, a little sensitive, and of course, a mare.  I always enjoy reconnecting with her during our breaks.

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Fiona, through the ears. 

It has been almost one year since I last sat on Fiona, and I was a bit disconcerted at first by how much more defensive she felt this year than last.  By “defensive”, I mean that her initial reaction to any soft contact was to brace and become hollow, and she was also reluctant to actively reach with her hind legs.  It was my sense that Fiona was protecting herself, but the question was, from what?

I started by re-checking her tack, which by and large looked ok.  She was definitely due for a re-shoe, so we had that taken care of.  I then started a program which encouraged Fiona to begin to reach through her entire topline and stretch into the connection. While this idea is a key principle of dressage, it seemed to me as though she had a little bit lost her faith in that concept.

I very rarely warm up a horse at the trot completely off contact (although I always start with a ten minute or so free walk on a loose rein).  But with Fiona, I had to break my own rules.  First, Fiona absolutely needed the walking in phase; if I had a shorter than usual period of time to ride her, this was not an area where I could cut corners.  Once I moved on to the warm up trot, I didn’t shorten my reins at all, instead allowing Fiona to warm up while carrying her topline wherever she felt like she needed to with a completely floppy rein.  I didn’t ask her to align her shoulders and hips or even do more than the most basic of soft bend in the corners.  I kept all of the turns sweeping and wide and changed direction regularly.  After a few minutes like this, I very, very tactfully shortened the reins until I had a delicate, soft, pushing-toward-the-mouth contact, and I stepped Fiona into a canter.

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Fiona several years ago, with one of our graduates. 

For this horse, at this time, it is the canter which does the best job of loosening her up and encouraging her to let go.  The left lead seems to be more comfortable for her than the right, so I usually started there.  I never forced her to connect but instead encouraged it.  In the canter, Fiona is more willing to reach underneath herself with the hind leg while also allowing the rider to maintain a soft, steady, elastic feeling in the reins.  But the nanosecond that the rider gets greedy and holds too much in the rein or blocks with the seat, Fiona hollows again.  The rider must practice patience.

I went through this slow, gentle warm up with Fiona every single ride.  It honestly would take ten minutes of walking and twenty of trotting and cantering before she started to feel even remotely soft or fluid. If you pushed her harder before then, she would quite literally stop, or kick out at the leg—a sign that the question was ‘too much’.  It would be easy to label her as being resistant (“this horse won’t connect”) but I think it was much more an example of ‘this horse can’t’.  She had been blocking her body to such a degree for so long that every exercise session was only dedicated to unlocking her muscles again.

By the end of a ride, Fiona was loose, supple, forward and through.  She stayed soft in the jaw, chewing the bit and generating the “lipstick” that we like to see in a dressage horse.  Her responsiveness to the aids improved dramatically; Fiona at the end of a ride was like a completely different horse.

Fiona is not as young as she used to be, and she tends to be hard on herself out in turnout, so my sense is that all of these factors, plus her inherent personality, are simply starting to add up in creating this level of “block” in her body.  I think the lessons which I took away from working with Fiona this winter were 1) that the rider can always be more patient 2) sometimes you have to throw your usual “rules” out the window and experiment to figure out what works best—the horse is always right!  And of course, riding Fiona reinforced a rule that we always can be reminded of:  force will get you nowhere.

Otto

Otto is a wonderful little petite Ferrari of a horse, who joined our program late this summer.  He is trained through Third Level, and having seen him go a few times, I just knew that I would enjoy riding him.  As I work towards bringing Anna up to Third Level, I thought it would be helpful to take advantage of the chance to ride a schooled horse through some of those movements again.

Otto is half Arabian, and he has a tremendous “go” button.  I made the mistake on our first ride of carrying a dressage wand; it was so not needed!  The students had told me that he gets heavy in the hand, and I had personally observed him tending to tuck his nose in towards his chest and get stuck in the kind of power trot that is flashy to watch but not much fun to ride.  While still a connection issue, this is at least a different variety than the one I am used to dealing with!

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Otto was never super cooperative about stopping to have his picture taken…he just wants to GO!

Otto came to us wearing a Baucher bit.  Many people mistakenly believe that this bit uses poll pressure in its action, but this is not the case. In fact, if you put your fingers under the crown piece and then have a friend apply pressure on the rein, you will feel that there is no poll action.  A Baucher does raise the bit slightly higher against the corners of the lips and holds it steadier in the horse’s mouth; it seems to appeal most to horses which dislike any kind of fussiness in the connection.  In my experience, though, most horses just lean on it, and that is what I felt in Otto. My colleague helped switch out the Baucher for a basic jointed loose ring, which gives him more to chew on and definitely helped to improve the softness of his jaw.

The biggest key with Otto, and horses like him, is that you have to take a leap of faith and give the rein when you want to take. On the days when I would get on Otto with an agenda, and maybe too much tension in my muscles, I could feel him tend to take a bit more feel on me in return.  This is the start of that inevitable cycle of pull and tug—you pull on me, I tug on you.  I remember my mentor from many years ago, Beth Adams, saying, “It takes two to pull.”  So whenever I felt that weight increasing, I pushed the rein forward towards the corners of Otto’s mouth.  Sure, he sometimes accelerated, and then I would circle or leg yield (or both!) and take advantage of the energy to help Otto become better balanced and engaged through the use of my diagonal aids.

Otto was simply so much fun to play with.  We did a million transitions within and between gaits, worked the half pass in trot and canter, and played with his flying changes.  The entire time, I kept thinking, “give”.  The softer I stayed, the softer Otto stayed, with a more correct neck and improved connection.

This lesson was especially helpful to bring forward onto Anna, who is sort of the opposite in terms of her connection issues—she tends to be above the bit and lacks thrust.  On her, finding the right blend of steadiness in the rein (to encourage her to connect) versus give (to encourage her to stretch) is tricky.  Riding Otto reminded me that I can always offer Anna the opportunity to develop better roundness by my becoming a bit more elastic and giving for a few steps.  When I apply this concept, it is nine times out of ten that Anna softens back.  Funny how that is….

Tino

Tino is by far one of our most elegant and well bred school horses, and we are lucky to have such a lovely animal in our program.  It actually hadn’t been my intention to work with him over the break, but when he is out of work, he becomes a bit sassy for the crew to handle, so back to work he went.

Like Otto, Tino has been shown through Third level, but he has much bigger gaits, and these can make him quite challenging to ride correctly.  The sheer power of his movement can throw the rider far out of the saddle and off balance in the trot, and I think it is because of this that most of his riders hesitate to send him correctly forward.  When this happens, Tino gets stuck in a “passage trot”, which is of course horribly incorrect and not good for his muscling and long term comfort levels.

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Tino, though the ears.  You might notice a theme of there not being many people around to help with photos!

Tino has had some excellent schooling in his past, and I wanted to make sure that I did right by this horse.  I took some video of him and sent it off to a trusted friend for some feedback.  She supported my initial instinct, which was that Tino needed to come more freely forward and respond to the rider’s leg aid by reaching forward and under, rather than higher and loftier.  As with all my rides, I started each session with Tino with ten minutes of a marching free walk, and then warmed him up in the trot and canter while encouraging him to stretch through his topline and reach forward into a soft contact, all without dropping his shoulder or getting too heavily onto the forehand.

Tino’s canter is pretty gosh darn amazing.  It is rhythmical and cadenced, and I found that using forward and back adjustments in the counter canter during the warm up phase really helped Tino to loosen his topline, making more correct movement in the trot easier afterwards.

Tino Canter Work Jan 21, 2017

Once he was warmed up, I did a lot—and I mean a lot—of lateral work with him, working on getting a more correct and sharper response to the leg aids.  We did shoulder in, travers, renvers and tons of half pass.  As the strength of his topline returned, we added in more work with adjustable gaits, and I encouraged him to lengthen his stride, then come back to a shorter yet still reaching step.  I also played a lot with his changes; they are easy for him, and as my “consultant” said, “I have yet to meet a horse who was hurt because of doing the flying changes.  If they are easy, they are fun for him.”

I am thrilled with the progress Tino made over the break.  He is a powerful, athletic animal, and thankfully he is generally good natured and doesn’t use any of those qualities against us!  That being said, I think he is a really challenging school horse for riders to figure out.  To get the best work from him (as it is with any horse), the rider must ride forward.  And once Tino is really going forward, you have A L O T of horse underneath you.  That is pretty intimidating– but SO much fun.

A little of Tino at the trot (Jan 21, 2017)

Riding Tino reminded me what it is like to experience the talents of an animal who is simply bred to do their job. The “movements” are easy.  What is important to remember, especially with a horse like Tino, is that when the quality of the gaits decline, we have forgotten the purpose of dressage, which is (simply put), “to enhance the natural gaits of the horse”.  There are certainly moments when the horse is learning a new movement during which they may lose quality, but we need to remember that if this becomes the norm, it is time to take a different tack in our training.

On an even more basic level, riding Tino reminded me that I have to stay back with my upper body.  I have always had a tendency to tip forward, left over from my hunter/jumper days, and on most horses I get away with it.  On Tino, if I tipped forward, I immediately felt off balance due to his big movement.  I also had to make sure to keep my eyes up and forward, for the same reason.  With great power comes great responsibility, grasshopper—in this case, the responsibility to maintain one’s own position.

In a New Year, Horse Sports Look Forward

I started 2017 by attending two big meetings, one which celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA), and one which heralded the start of a new era for the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), including a re-branding effort which will have us calling the group US Equestrian.  I was struck by some common themes—and common company—between the two meetings, and it has caused me to ponder the long term future of equestrian sport as we begin this New Year.

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In general, equestrian sports are considered “elitist” by those outside of the industry and their continued existence in the Olympics Games remains questionable. Even within the business, there appears to be a dramatic divide between what I will call the “grassroots riders” and the “upper echelon” in terms of needs, motivations for being involved with horses and the ability to reach their personal and performance goals.  At the same time there are those who would argue that there is no gap, that the upper echelon depends upon the grassroots, and that the whole community is structured sort of like a pyramid, only as strong as its base.

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Lee and her friend Lefty at the beach, 2008

I was born with a horse bug.  My earliest memories of wanting to ride come from nursery school.  My parents aren’t “horsey”, and neither were my closest friends growing up.  How often have we heard this kind of story?  That this obsession should come from seemingly nowhere is unexplainable, yet it happens, over and over, these people who have a seemingly insatiable desire, or need, to be connected to horses.  Where that drive takes them is a journey unique to each individual.  Some may stand atop a medal podium.  Some may be fulfilled with a quiet walk down the trail.  Yet wherever we fall on this spectrum, we are all part of the same greater community.

I believe that whether we like it or not, the events which affect the “upper echelons” of equestrian sport affect the rest of us, too, sometimes as a trickle down and sometimes as a mad rushing current.  It is a good thing when we are inspired by a gifted rider’s performance on a talented horse; it is bad when we are left explaining to friends and family why a horse dropped dead at a show, or a big name rider/trainer is suspended for positive drug tests.  But the reverse is true, as well.  If an intrinsically horse loving young person grows up to recognize that there are no longer open spaces to ride, affordable boarding stables, quality instruction and opportunities to reach personal goals,  and they put their horse dreams on a shelf, then we all lose.

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My old horse Mel taught hundreds of children and young adults how to ride.  Here he is with his friend Molly, who enjoyed a special relationship with him. 

The USEF is the umbrella organization which oversees much “sanctioned” equestrian sport in the US.  US Equestrian sets rules, approves licensed officials, offers year end awards programs and more. Yet most people are members only because they compete and membership is required to show.  When they stop competing or take time off, they allow their membership to lapse.  Some of the controversies which have come to the fore front in sanctioned competition, most recently including covert abuse of drug rules, turning a blind eye to questionable training practices, and ever increasing fees, have caused some horse lovers to choose to leave the organization—and competition—behind.  I say horse lovers, because some of these are driven individuals who have put their love for the animal ahead of their love of competition.

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The new US Equestrian logo, similar to the old but without the shield.

For me, this is what it comes down to– love of the horse.  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether someone shows or not, what discipline they ride, or even how often they ride.  What matters is that they love the horse, and they are committed to giving the horse a humane life, a safe life, one free from pain, suffering or misery, and that they love having that experience.  There is a woman at one barn I go to who doesn’t seem to ever ride.  She grooms, longes, and plays games with her horse on the ground.  It wouldn’t be for me, but that doesn’t matter.  SHE is happy, her HORSE is happy, and everyone wins. We are both horse lovers; we are equestrians.

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Lee and I after completing the GMHA three day 100 mile competitive trail ride. 

New US Equestrian president Murray Kessler sent a letter to all USEF members (of which I am one), which he basically opens with, “I love horses.”  He has been involved at all levels of equestrian sport, from local shows to watching his daughter ride at an Olympic Games.  People who only know him as the father of Reed might dismiss him as another one of those “upper echelon” people; he has been successful in business and clearly has become financially secure to the point where exceptional horses are now a reality.  Despite this, my sense from the US Equestrian meeting is that Mr. Kessler still remembers what it was like to struggle to find the funds to attend a local show, and that he holds a bigger, broader vision of what US Equestrian could be for our industry.  Instead of a pyramid, I think he sees a circle, where the grassroots supports the top but then the top turns around and gives back to the grassroots.  I think that is something quite exciting.

Mr. Kessler has promised that he will serve as an “advocate for our membership at all levels in all breeds and in all disciplines. Every member of the Federation is important and plays a role in our future.”  He has promised to help the organization take a stronger stance on fairness and safety in equestrian sport, going so far as to state that the “purposeful doping of horses cannot and will not be tolerated”.  He vows to increase access and participation in the world of horse showing.  “Competing in equestrian sports has become so expensive that it is prohibitive,” says Kessler in his letter.  It is beyond time for someone in this level of leadership to formally act on these points, for the good of everyone in the industry, not just the competitors.

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A senior equine studies major at the University of New Hampshire gets Coco (leased to UNH by Camp Runoia and a valued horse in the therapeutic riding program) ready for a presentation at the Equine Education Day, spring of 2015.

Because here’s the thing…on some level, the backyard owners need the horse show people.  Horses are a luxury item.  A robust industry means that resources are being produced and consumed, keeping tack retailers, grain suppliers, hay producers, instructors, trainers, boarding stables, veterinarians and farriers in business.  When the number of people consuming these resources dwindles, they become scarcer as suppliers go out of business.  Then the cost goes up, and all horse owners are forced to make difficult choices.

Kessler commented that his research shows that participation at the smaller USEF shows has declined by 40% over the past ten years, while entries at large scale, more costly events have gone up. In my role as the organizer for the University of New Hampshire Horse Trials, I have noticed a similar trend in eventing.  Our competition draws from a more local/regional audience, and we used to be full with close to 200 entries just a few days after opening; now, we are lucky to run 150 and are forced to accept entries post-close.  I hear other organizers of similar competitions say the same thing.  Our sanctioned summer dressage show used to run four rings with a waiting list; now we can barely fill three.

This slow and steady decline in participation is the result of so many different factors, but it is a concerning trend.  Undersubscribed competitions can’t sustain themselves forever, and sooner rather than later they stop running.  This takes the bridge between schooling competition and more prestigious ones away, leaving a gap in our circle that is hard to overcome.

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Riding Thunder in the White Mountains of California.

US Equestrian states as its new vision, “to bring the joy of horse sports to as many people as possible”.  It has created a new “fan” membership; for just $25, fan members can have access to many of the benefits which the organization offers, including access to the new learning center (which has educational videos featuring well known riders and trainers), access to the USEF network, the youth high school lettering program, and more.  The new website lists “start riding” and “learning center” as the first two tabs in their banner, ahead of “compete” and even “join USEF”.  As part of their new membership recruitment efforts, US Equestrian has given a free fan membership to every member of the IHSA and Intercollegiate Dressage Association, and perhaps some other youth organizations as well (I just happen to know those two for sure).  The website has pictures of young people on horses and recreational riders as well as the usual competition photos.  It is, frankly, refreshing.

At the IHSA’s 50th Anniversary Banquet in early January, I was struck by how many generations of equestrians were in attendance. Everyone in the room was connected through just this one organization, and those present were but a small sliver of the total number who could call themselves a current rider, alumni, coach or former coach of the IHSA.  There are close to 10,000 undergraduate members today; over fifty years, that is an enormous community.

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Many members of the University of New Hampshire IHSA team at their final show of the fall 2016 season.

Each and every equestrian needs to be mindful that we as a collective group are completely connected to one another.  Threats to open space access, to collegiate riding programs, to agriculture as a whole, all affect us.   It is crucial that equestrians seek the synergy amongst our different groups. We must work to cultivate a supportive, not competitive, atmosphere within our ranks. Our tack, goals and preferred riding speed may be diverse, but we should all be united by one thing: our love for the horse.

I challenge each of you, no matter how you define yourself as an equestrian, to work to always remember the love of the horse.  Share your love with others.  Because they are out there—those young people with the intrinsic, insatiable need to be with horses.  They are looking for you, for me, for all of us, to help them to fulfill those dreams.

 

 

The Four Seasons of Cold Moon Farm

This past September marked my first full year here at the farm, and overall Mother Nature was kind to me in my rookie year (thank Gaia!).  Each season brings its unique positives and challenges to horse keeping. I have worked on farms for decades but it is certainly a different experience when you are the one making the decisions and doing most of the work.  Now that I have had a full year under my belt here, it is time to pause and reflect on what I have learned so far.

Winter is here in New England.  A few days ago, the farm was buried under 10” of heavy new snow, and now we have huge plow piles, tunnels to gates and waters and temporarily shorted out electrical fencing.  Last winter was relatively mild, which was much appreciated as my learning curve with the new property was fairly steep.  This winter already seems as though it will be more intense; we have had more snow, more ice and more crazy temperature swings before the end of December than I think we went through all season last year.horsesfed

Winter is certainly a challenging time for horse keeping.  All tasks are made harder due to the cold, the snow, the frozen patches…if you have dealt with it, you know.  If, after doing all the work to take care of your horses, you still have the energy to ride, it is still freezing most days, and I personally dislike having to wear layers and fat gloves and heavy boots.  But here is the thing–in New England, our ecosystems NEED winter.  The snow allows underground aquifers to recharge, deciduous trees, grasses and shrubs rest, and we all have a respite from most of the creepy crawlies that plague our horses the rest of the year.  Days are short, temps are low and the footing is questionable, which means that serious training can really only occur if your horse is stabled at an indoor.  One lesson I have learned from the distance riding community is that a little rest for your horse is almost never a bad thing.  No athlete can maintain peak performance year round.  Here in the snowy north, winter is the best time to allow your equine athlete the opportunity to rest and recharge.  After all, nature is doing it, right?

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Winter can also be a time of astounding beauty.  As much as I curse the mounds of snow after a storm, there is something utterly peaceful about being outside with the clean landscape, tree boughs heavy with accumulation, and horses happily rolling, leaping and playing, whiskers and eyelashes frosted. It doesn’t seem to bother them anywhere near as much as it bothers me!  With most riders spending less time in the saddle, winter is also a perfect time to thoughtfully make plans and set goals for the upcoming season.

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A February sunset (2016).

In spite of my efforts to maintain a positive outlook towards the season, winter nearly always outstays its welcome, as far as I am concerned.  I eagerly look forward to any early signs of spring, especially as the days lengthen and winter’s piles lose their resiliency to the strength of a sun which rises ever higher in the sky.  I love the smell of the damp earth as it emerges from beneath the snow’s protective blanket and the sun begins to awaken all of the sleeping entities lying beneath the topsoil.  Seeds sprout, the grass becomes brighter and tree leaves begin to unfurl with reckless abandon.

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Getting legged up April 2016.

Spring means that we can finally give the paddock a good cleaning, knock the cobwebs down from the corners of the barn, and begin to launder blankets and stow the shovels and scrapers.  We trade snow suits for being covered with the shedding hair of our equine friends.  Spring is the time to put all of the plans which we schemed during winter’s lull into action, the time to start to condition our mounts and prepare them for the upcoming active season.

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Marquesa and Lee enjoying spring grass in May 2016.

Songbirds return.  At Cold Moon Farm, there are multiple micro habitats and a lot of edge, and the color and activity of birds just returned from warmer southern climates brings a feeling of lightness and joy.  The grass begins to stabilize and the horses can begin the slow, gradual process of acclimatizing to grazing.

But spring is not all sunshine and buttercups.  Winter clean up can be onerous, from replacing torn sod to fixing broken fencing to removing downed tree limbs.  Dirt paddocks quickly turn into quagmires as snow melt runs off and April’s showers saturate (hopefully within the next few years we will have a proper, improved drainage in the sacrifice area).  Perhaps most annoyingly, fly season officially gets underway in April with the appearance of hordes of blackflies.  And worst of all, ticks are seemingly everywhere, emerging as early as possible. Yet just as you think you can’t take any more of the mud and the bugs and the need to clean up yet another area of the farm, the season changes again.

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The hazy days of early summer.  June 2016.

Summers in New England are short and intense.  There are really only maybe eight to ten weeks of true, full on summer, and we try to make the most of it.  I think I must be part cat, because I just revel in the sun and want to absorb as much of it as possible.  I love to get up early and feel the cool, fresh air in the morning, and I can’t wait to get out and about for the day.  My favorite thing is to ride first thing in the morning, before the humidity builds up, then sip on an iced coffee and teach for the afternoon.

This past summer was super sunny, which I loved for my own purposes, but in reality, it was not the best thing for the ecosystems of the northeast. Between the light snow season and the lack of rain, New England soon found itself in a drought.  I began to hear stories of wells running dry–I soon learned that these were mostly dug wells, which go down 9-12 feet, as opposed to a drilled well like mine, which is usually 200 feet or more and taps into an aquifer. But it was stressful to know that homes around mine were experiencing problems with their wells, so I worried about what I would do if water ran out at the farm.

The drought also meant that the grass went dormant far earlier than usual.  I had to pull the horses off their grass fields in August and switch to feeding hay, almost a month earlier than I had anticipated.  On the plus side, I barely had to mow the lawn and I got away with not having a brushhog yet for the fields out back.  But as the grass began to crisp and the streams and water crossings out back ran completely dry, it was clear that the unusual weather was taking its toll.  Late summer can be a good time to spread lime on your fields, but that requires a heavy rain to help flush it into the soil.  I got lucky in the timing of an application right before one of our only big storms in August. Just as I thought that the fields and the yards and the trees couldn’t possibly take another sun soaked day, deprived of water, the seasons changed again.

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Lime being spread August 2016.

Fall here is simply stunning.  There are many maples on the property, which flamboyantly flash red and orange as the overnight temps cool and days begin to more obviously shorten.  Beech trees and a few oaks mix in as well, offering a later surge of color.  Lower in height, shrubs like sumac and dogwood are also not to be missed.  The trails out back offer a range of color displays, in every direction.  The drier air feels like a relief and this year, the fall brought with it some blessed rain to help begin to reverse the effects of an overly dry summer.  Late summer flowers bloom amidst the falling leaves, lending a competitive sense to the changing seasons.

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The view from between Anna’s ears.  October 2016.
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These two things don’t seem to belong together (October 2016).

Fall on a horse farm means it is time to prepare for winter.  The first order of business was stocking the hay barn to the gills with as many bales as will fit (here, close to 300).  Later in the season, it was time to put away the fixtures from the grass fields, which are closed for winter, then to trim the shrubs around the barn, put away the jumps and rails, and set up the heaters for the outside water.  And of course, autumn is nicknamed “fall” because of the leaves.  I have been lucky so far to either use the mower to mulch them or to allow strong winds to blow them off into the tree line; I certainly don’t relish the idea of hand raking the entire yard!

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Yes, I mowed over these, or at least the ones that didn’t blow away.   October 2016.

As fall winds down, winter begins again.  And the cycle continues.

Each year, the seasons come, the seasons stay, the seasons change.  Each season brings its positives and its negatives, but without that yin/yang balance, it would not be as easy to appreciate the variety for what it is. New England is a dynamic place, and to successfully maintain a healthy place for ourselves and our horses, managers must consider the unique challenges faced during each change of the weather.

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Marquesa shows off her “frosticles”. Winter Solstice, 2016.

So as I trudge outside yet again in my full Yeti suit, I will try to take the good with the challenging, and when it starts to get to the point where I think “I just can’t stand this (insert problem word here; examples could include mud, ticks, snow, ice, wind, torrential rain) anymore” instead I will try to say, “this too shall pass”.

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“You are so lucky to work outside,” they said.

Happy New Year.

December Clinic Weekend

Notes on Sessions with Verne Batchelder and Cindy Canace

Annapony and I enjoyed an educational weekend in mid-December, riding twice with Verne Batchelder and once with Cindy Canace, within four days.  I have had the opportunity to work with both of these talented clinicians before, so I was excited to get some new exercises and feedback as we head into the indoor schooling season.

Verne Batchelder and the “Circle of Submission”

My two sessions with Verne came first, and were held at the lovely Fresh Creek facility in Dover, NH, home to Chesley Brook Stables.  Their insulated indoor was a welcome haven from the unseasonably cold temperature and omnipresent wind, and the GGT footing made Anna feel positively springy.

I hadn’t had the chance to connect with Verne for almost a year, and he was super positive about the progress which Anna has made in that time.  She tends to always be more forward thinking at a new venue, which is helpful, but Verne noticed that she was also moving with a greater degree of acceptance and throughness since the last time he had seen her go.  After I had done a little warm up at the basic gaits, we started to work Anna on what Verne calls “the circle of submission”.

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One of our many “circles of submission”.

The “circle of submission” is a tool which Verne frequently uses to help horses to unlock, to improve connection and to get better acceptance of the outside rein.  Usually, it is done either at the walk or trot, on a smallish (in our case ten meter) circle.  With Anna, I asked for an exaggerated flexion in her neck to the inside, and then asked her to turn her chest towards the middle of the circle, while keeping my outside elbow bent but giving.  I continued to ride her forward and encouraged her to engage the inside hind leg so it reached further over and under.  Once she started to soften her jaw, I increased the straightness by taking more bend into my outside elbow and following with the inside hand.

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When riding the “circle of submission”, one of the important end goals is being able to swivel the horse’s head at the poll, with a response of willing acceptance from the horse. In Anna’s case, the circle allowed her to connect more consistently to the outside rein.  I rode a 10 meter circle, then rode out of the circle in a lovely uphill shoulder in for several strides down the long side, then straightened her and rode forward in the rising trot.  After moving through this sequence, Anna was better able to carry her weight over the topline and actively push into the consistent connection.

The “circle of submission” can be returned to at any point the rider feels they have lost the requisite degree of connection, and/or the ability to swivel the horse at the poll.

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We then moved on to some work with haunches in and half pass. After riding a ten meter circle, I rode down the long side in haunches in.  In both the shoulder in and haunches in work, Verne cautioned against developing too much angle.  Because my goal with Anna next season is to show Third Level, Verne also reminded me that the haunches in is a preparation for the half pass. “Don’t work to perfect the haunches in,” he said, as this movement is not required above Second Level.  “Use it to develop your half pass.”

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We did several sequences of ten meter circle to haunches in on a diagonal line (which is essentially half pass).  I was thrilled to feel Anna fluidly move forward and sideways with a consistent connection and lifted shoulder.  She felt like a “big” horse!

In the canter work, we touched on the flying changes.  On my own, I have been working quite a bit with the counter canter to develop greater strength and straightness.  Anna learned clean changes through her jumping work and tends to throw them in, unasked, during the counter canter.  Verne said that in terms of laying the groundwork for Third Level, it would be appropriate to begin asking for the flying change more frequently. Using the ten meter circle again as preparation, I then rode the short diagonal and asked for a change on the line.  Verne emphasized that the short diagonals were better than long at this point, so that there are fewer strides for the horse to begin to anticipate the change.

Despite the short distance, Anna still anticipated her change, and gave one fairly exuberant effort from right to left, during which she actually kicked the bottom of my left boot!  I think we have some homework to do in terms of “calm acceptance” of this movement.

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I love that this exact moment is caught on film.

We ended the first day’s session by playing with adjustability within the gaits.  Within the trot or the canter, Anna needed to get bigger or get smaller, but always while keeping her nose in—if I allowed the reins to slip, she would slightly poke her nose forward, causing me to lose a degree of the connection and the ability to swivel the poll.

We covered a lot of ground during this session, and I left feeling thrilled by Anna’s performance.  I had felt a degree of connection, thrust and throughness which I have not experienced with her before. Verne was highly complementary of both the progress since last year and the work during our session, and I very much looked forward to day two.

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The next morning was one of the coldest so far of the season, which only meant that Anna was even more energetic, despite her hard work the day before.  We started again working with the “circle of submission”.  Verne added to his description from day one that depending on the horse, the rider can think of riding shoulder in on the circle, or ride it more like a moving turn on the forehand, or even a leg yield out of the haunches.  He emphasized, again, that no matter how you approach the “circle of submission”, its purpose is to get the hind end of the horse active and free, to get the inside hind leg under the horse’s body, and to take the horse’s neck out of the cycle of resistance.

From here, we moved onto work with haunches in and half pass in the trot.  Verne cautioned again against creating too much angle in the haunches in, which causes the horse to lose their forward intention.  In the half pass, Verne reminded me to keep a bent elbow on the outside, and to allow Anna’s shoulders to move ahead of the diagonal line first, and then to put the haunches in on the diagonal.

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Schooling haunches in.

Allowing the shoulders to come out ahead of the line was a new idea for me, and I found that it helped Anna to say more up into the outside rein during the half pass.  By focusing first on the shoulders and then adding the haunches in, the half pass became even more fluid and effortless. We have a lot of work to do to strengthen and improve her reach and carrying power, but we definitely have some new tools to use to develop the movement this winter.

In the canter work, we worked on a twenty meter circle and played with the idea of increasing pressure, then backing off. Because horses naturally tend to carry their haunches to the inside of the circle, we allowed Anna to start this way, while simultaneously increasing the activity in her hind end and increasing the weight in my outside elbow.  I then straightened Anna’s body for a few strides, allowing her to increase the collection, then softened and let the haunches slide back in.  The idea here is to just touch on the increased collection without asking for it for too many strides in a row.

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I just love this moment in the canter!

Overall, I was so excited and encouraged by the work Anna offered during our time working with Verne.  I came away with new tools to play with this winter, and Anna has shown me how much more she is capable of doing in this work.  On to Third Level we go!

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Thanks to Cayden for coming with us on Day 1 and taking all of these great photos!

Cindy Canace:  “Be a Better Backpack”

After our two days with Verne, Anna had a much needed Sunday off, giving me the opportunity to audit several sessions with USEF “S” judge and USDF Gold Medalist Cindy Canace.  Cindy came up from New Jersey to spend two days working with riders at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program.  Anna and I had worked with Cindy back in June, and we had a session scheduled again for Monday.

Watching Cindy work with our riders allowed me to observe certain themes to her teaching.  She is incredibly detail oriented, and works hard to help riders to both understand important concepts and to feel the horse underneath them.  Cindy expects the rider to keep their hands together and in front of their body, allowing the horse to reach to the bit to seek contact.  She also works to correct posture and alignment issues in the rider which impact the horse.  One of my favorite quotes of the day was that the riders needs to “be a better back pack”, in reference to the fact that our horses must essentially relearn to balance under our weight.  It is incumbent upon us to try to make that burden as easy to bear as possible.

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Cindy works with two of my students, riding UNH’s horses Morocco and Ticco.  Photo from the UNH Equine Program Facebook Page

Cindy has judged me on Anna several times in competition, in addition to working with us this summer, so she has a decent idea of her strengths and weaknesses.  In our Monday session, Cindy wanted to work on helping Anna to lift more in her shoulders and truly elevate her poll.  The exercises we did were perhaps not the most interesting for the auditors, but Cindy’s laser beam focus on excellence in the basics helped Anna to show some good progress.

Cindy first had me dramatically slow down Anna’s walk, making each step extremely deliberate, by slowing down my seat while keeping a following, elastic elbow.  She then had me execute a series of walk to halt transitions.  In each downward transition I made sure to keep my leg on, and then I released Anna from the halt by pressing with the seat bones and softening the leg and hand.  Cindy only allowed us to take two walk steps before I asked Anna to halt again.  We remained in the halt, with my leg on, until Anna began to soften in the jaw and raised her shoulders.  Cindy encouraged me to give Anna a gentle tap on the shoulder with my dressage wand to get a better response to my request for elevation or if she was inattentive.

From this work, we moved into a turn on the forehand.  Just as in the earlier exercise, Anna was allowed to take two walk steps and then I asked her to halt, holding it as before.  Cindy was particular that to initiate the turn, I needed to press with the calf muscle, not my spur, and once Anna began moving, I needed to keep the march of my seat in a walking rhythm to follow.  Cindy reminded me that even though we are emphasizing the responsiveness of the horse to the inside leg in this exercise, my outside leg and seat bone are also important and must remain active.  Ideally, in the turn on the forehand, it should take four steps to get the horse facing the opposite direction.

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Cindy worked this summer with my colleague Liz Johnson, here riding Santa Fe ISF.  Liz coordinated Cindy’s whirlwind visit to the frigid north for all of us.  Thank you Liz!

After working on the turn on the forehand, we did a few turns on the haunches, which Anna executed with a more elevated shoulder than before. I also noticed that she had developed a degree of “lipstick”, one of the visual indicators that the horse has begun to soften the jaw.  I hope the auditors saw that Anna had become softer in the jaw as the result of the work we had done to improve responsiveness in the hind end and lift in the shoulder, and not because we had done anything at all to manipulate or pull her into a position.

We then moved on to work in the trot and canter, and Cindy helped me work with the position of my left leg.  Due to now chronic knee pain, I have a great deal of trouble keeping my left leg fully internally rotated, with the knee and toe pointing forward.  Instead, my toe tends to angle out, and I have a difficult time keeping my left spur off Anna’s side without hurting my knee.  After so many months of knee pain, I have really developed some compensatory behaviors with the left leg, especially when I am tracking left and need to use the inside leg to position Anna correctly.  Cindy had me try bringing my left heel down and forward, allowing my left knee to rotate off the saddle slightly.  She then had me rotate my shoulders slightly toward the right in order to engage my outside hip.  This positioning of course felt somewhat unnatural but it did allow me to keep Anna correctly bent without my spur ending up stuck on her side.

Cindy had me do many transitions, especially walk-trot-walk and trot-halt-trot.  In each transition, Anna needed to stay up in the shoulder.  Cindy had me ride a slight step of leg yield out in each transition to help engage the inside hind and keep Anna into the outside rein (a little bit of a similar concept to the “circle of submission” discussed above).

Back to the Laboratory

After our super educational weekend, I have plenty of new material to work with for the next several months in the indoor.  I appreciate having fresh eyes on our progress and to come away with ever increasing clarity as to next steps.  Now we go “back to the lab” to experiment with our new exercises and tools.  Stay tuned for further developments….

Relationship

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I spent some time catching up on a ton of fellow blogger’s posts.  I am now the new owner of an iPad, and with shorter, colder days, curling up on the couch to catch up on other’s thoughts and activities is a welcome pasttime. One blog I follow is called “Green to 100” and it chronicles a newish rider on the quest to complete a 100 mile endurance ride.   As a rookie to the sport of distance riding myself, I find I can often relate to her stories.  But another theme which is present throughout her blogs is that of relationship, specifically with her horse.  She seeks to be a leader that her horse wants to follow, rather than to dictate to her horse about what is going to happen.  Approaching her relationship with her horse in this manner means that certain things take longer.  But it is clear that the reward of arriving where she wants to go, united as a team with her horse, is more important than getting there fast.  Quality is more important than quantity.

Reading a whole series of her blogs in a row gave me the opportunity to reflect on the nature of the horse/human relationship on a number of levels, but especially in regards to the bond I share with each of my own horses.

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Annapony, June 2015

In preparation for the winter season, Annapony has relocated to the university, which has an indoor, so that she can remain in consistent work.  I have big goals for her next season, which will require us to use the winter to train and to build strength and suppleness. She is happy enough there, and well cared for.  But I was really quite reluctant to bring her back, and kept delaying her departure from Cold Moon Farm.  It wasn’t hard for me to realize that I simply wanted her to be at home with me and with my other horses.  I genuinely enjoy being the main caretaker for my horses.  I know them so intimately that it is easy to notice when something is off.  By bringing Anna to another facility and putting her day to day care in someone else’s hands, it feels almost like a wedge is driven into our relationship.  That isn’t entirely true but I still resent the intrusion.

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Supervising Anna eating breakfast this spring.

Anna is a calm horse, most of the time. She seems to enjoy human attention (especially if there is food involved) but also likes other horses.  Her rank in the herd is towards the top but her style of leadership seems to be more threat than attack.  Anna is pretty tolerant; nervous horses on trail have run right into her hindquarters and she has never so much as flicked an ear.  That being said, I find the best approach with Anna when tackling a new skill or question is to ask, then wait a moment.  If I am too hasty, and try to force her…she resists, sometimes with great vigor.  If I give her a chance to look and understand, then she usually will comply.

The other night, I took Anna for a hack onto the cross country course right as the sun was setting.  We have already had some snow here in New Hampshire, with some mild melting, leaving the ground a hodge podge of bare spots mixed with snow covered rocks, footprints and other hard to discern anomalies.  The air was cooling off and a fairly steady breeze had picked up.  Overall, conditions were not ideal for a relaxed hack, but I was determined to get out of the ring after several days of solid arena work.  In the woods, the light was dim and features unclear, yet Anna remained mostly calm and confident.  We completed a meandering loop around the course and returned to the main facility along the edge of the reservoir, past the observatory and down a trail which was now nearly completely obscured in the fading light of day.  When there is no artificial light, it is pretty amazing how much you can still see, once your eyes adjust.  A Canada goose broke the stillness with a series of loud honks, but even this didn’t cause Anna to tense or become unsettled.  It was so calming and soothing to be riding in the near darkness, and to have nearly complete trust that my horse would keep me safe.

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A different hack. But those are Anna’s ears. From Fall 2016 at Cold Moon.

While Anna is back at school, Lee and Marquesa have remained behind at Cold Moon Farm, now living side by side instead of sharing a paddock.  Lee is so submissive to Marquesa that it can make feeding complicated, so having them separated makes management much easier.

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Marquesa and Lee, out together for the first time this May.

I wasn’t entirely sure how the transition was going to go, and overall, it was far less eventful than it was bringing everyone home this spring.

Lee and I have had a long history together—twelve years, to be exact.  I think she likes me as well as she likes any human, but she has never been a cuddly horse; she isn’t going to nicker to you (unless you are carrying her grain), and during her long residence at UNH she was known to intimidate many an inexperienced crew member with her grumpy expressions.  Lee is aloof.  But she is also an absolute bottom dweller on the equine hierarchy, and I think a lot of her behavior is only posturing to try to convince you to just go away and leave her be. Lee isn’t going to come over to you in the field; but she is unlikely to run away from you, either.  If you so much as raise your voice at her, she will recoil in horror.  Lee is insecure.

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Snack break at the Warren Tessier 20 mile ride, October, 2016.  Photo credit to Robin!

When Lee and I moved to Cold Moon Farm last September, she spent nine months with no other companion save me and the goats which live next door.  During that time, she really impressed me with her steadiness and composure.  This year, Lee overwhelmed me with her grit and attitude on the GMHA three day 100 mile ride.  But if I think back, there are SO many occasions on which Lee has stepped up to a challenge, and most of the time I think our relationship with each other has been one of mutual respect.

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Lee heading home after 90 miles; GMHA Three Day 100 mile CTR, Fall 2016 (photo courtesy of Spectrum Photography)

One of the best examples of this happened two winters ago, during Lee’s last season at UNH.  I had taken to including at least one day of longeing per week into her routine, often incorporating work over cavaletti, just to break things up and give her a new mental challenge.  At the end of a session, I usually hopped on bareback to cool her out.  One night, we were alone in the indoor working on the longe.  Each session followed a similar pattern, and Lee started to head out in the new direction without much prompting from me.  I was struck by an inspiration, and so instead of stopping her, I just unclipped her longe line.  For the next ten minutes or so, I longed Lee at the walk, trot and canter, all without the aid of a longe line.  In the indoor.  She could have gone anywhere in the ring she wanted, but instead she chose to stay with me and follow my direction on a twenty meter circle.  It was pretty amazing.

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Lee looking dressage-y at the beach in 2008.

Our newest horse, Marquesa, is different from either Anna or Lee.  For eighteen years, she has been a horse which was used in lessons that I and others taught at UNH.  I relied on her to give confidence to new cross country riders, to assist the timid jumpers, and to teach experienced riders that they still had a thing or two to learn about how ride on the flat.  She certainly respected me as the authority figure in the ring, but like many school horses I think she had become somewhat guarded about who she chose to really interact with.

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Cold Moon Farm Fall 2016 intern Nikki with Marquesa.

Marquesa is a dominant horse. She has a highly developed sense of fairness, meaning if you try to use force to correct her, she just stubbornly refuses to comply.  She can be pushy, and I think being used too many times for “equine facilitated learning sessions” has made her fairly intolerant of humans trying to use their body language to coerce her into doing their will.   However, she appreciates clear direction and boundaries, and when you treat her with kindness and fairness, she is quite sweet.  When she starts to get pushy, if you can lower your energy instead of getting upset, and then explain what you want her to do, she will usually be willing to go along with you.  Now that she is on her own side of the fence line, I find that she is more willing to interact with me directly.  Before, she was mostly concerned with continuing to exert her dominance over Lee.  Her relationship with the other horse was most important; I was just in the way.

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Marquesa keeps a close eye on her herd. 

Marquesa is still figuring out her own way in terms of post lesson horse life.  She still has several different riders, but not more than three at a time, and has been doing a mix of ring work and trail riding.  This fall, my friend Linsey took Marquesa out for a ride with me and Lee.  There are several stream crossings out on the trails, which the horses are used to.  After a recent period of heavy rain, though, one of the crossings was unexpectedly quite a bit deeper than usual.  The water came right up to Marquesa’s belly, and drenched her rider’s feet.  Marquesa froze for a moment, perhaps shocked by the sudden depth of water, but then she just kept right on going.  To get home, we had to make the same crossing going the other way, and I wasn’t sure if she would be willing to do it again.  I needn’t have worried.  She plunged right in and stormed across, as if to say, “I got this”.  Not too shabby for a horse who has lived in one place for eighteen years and has mostly worked in the ring. I think perhaps that she is starting to sort out that life here is okay.

Having two horses at home is hard in terms of relationship.  Despite centuries of domestication, horses are hard wired to want to be with other horses.  Solo horses feel vulnerable and show their distress through an array of behaviors.  Since Anna’s departure for the winter, I have continued taking Lee out for solo rides, and going for duo rides whenever someone else is available to ride Marquesa.  I haven’t quite gotten brave enough to pony one off the other just yet.

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Did someone say snacks?

This puts all of our relationships to a real test.  I can tell that Lee feels a little torn about who she should be listening to—me or Marquesa.  Marquesa screams at the top of her lungs when I take Lee away; she actually starts when I am just grooming Lee, something I do in the paddock to minimize the length of the separation.  On the one hand, I want to be able to work with each horse independently.  On the other, I respect the genetics which have kept horses as a species alive for generations.  Horsemen must work with these instincts, not against them. For her part, Lee usually walks out quietly and almost never answers Marquesa’s calls.  But as soon as we turn for home, Lee starts to bounce and jig.  Once Marquesa is in sight, she settles down.  It is like she is trying really hard to be good, but can’t quite pull it off all the time.

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Lee trying really hard to be good while I fumble with my new iPhone for a photo.  December 2016.

Listening to Marquesa scream and dealing with Lee’s jigging can try my patience.  But we are in the winding down time of the season.  Nature in New England prescribes a period of rest or hibernation for most species, a time when aquifers refill, deciduous trees go dormant, and soils take a break from producing.  The equine community similarly slows down, with fewer activities, reduced travel and less intense work outs.  There is nothing to get ready for and nowhere to go.  It is the perfect time to focus on relationship; to reconnect with what makes each horse unique and to enjoy the feeling of mutual respect which can be developed by responding to each horse as an individual.

‘Tis the Season

So I may have missed #GivingTuesday with this blog, but in the spirit of the season I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on some of the amazing non-profits which I have had the opportunity to be involved with this past year.  Any or all of them would be worthy recipients of a seasonal donation, should you be so inclined.  Alternatively, choose a group that YOU believe in and support, close to your own home.  Donations don’t have to be monetary (though I am sure that is always appreciated)…donations of goods and services often also fill a need.  And so many non-profits rely upon the dedication and commitment of good volunteers.  Really, there is just no excuse to not get behind a cause that is important to you!

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for UnTacked magazine about Detroit Horse Power, a 501(c)3 nonprofit founded by David Silver.  DHP’s mission seeks to use horses to provide opportunities for Detroit’s underserved youth, and in the long term, to establish an equestrian center within city limits which will provide the residents with a center for community events and equestrian services.  The story of the path which led David to the creation of DHP was really inspirational to me; I have so much admiration for people who identify a problem, see a solution, and then actively set themselves on the path to put the plan into action, despite some seemingly insurmountable hurdles.  You can read more about Detroit Horse Power here or visit their website at www.detroithorsepower.org.

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Detroit Horse Power Summer Camp participants from a 2015 session; founder David Silver is in the red polo on the right.

The United States Pony Club is still a group near and dear to my heart.  USPC states as its mission that it “develops character, leadership, confidence and a sense of community in youth through a program that teaches the care of horses and ponies, riding and mounted sports.” USPC is represented by its graduates in many walks of life, from the upper levels of equestrian sport, to related fields such as veterinary medicine, to leadership roles in various equestrian organizations.  Perhaps as significantly, USPC graduates cite their experience as Pony Clubbers as being influential in contributing to their success in other, non-equestrian, ventures.  Visit www.ponyclub.org to learn more.

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The Equine Land Conservation Resource (www.elcr.org) is one of the most organized and effective advocacy groups supporting the cause of equestrian land preservation.  Since 2007, the organization has assisted in protecting more than 200,000 acres of land and more than 1,200 miles of trails.  They maintain an online resource library, with free information on topics such as conservation tools for horse lands, best management practices, and more.  The ELCR keeps tabs on local threats to equestrian access across the country, and helps to provide solid facts and figures to present to key stakeholders.  Through their partnership with My Horse University, the ELCR provides free webinars on topics such as manure management, developing a private trail system, and more.  As a community, we MUST be attentive to the long term management of public and private lands which allow equestrian use.  We can all list places where we used to ride; once equestrians have lost access, it almost never returns.

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Just recently, I had the chance to write a Charity Spotlight on the Standardbred Retirement Foundation for an upcoming issue of UnTacked.  This group was founded in 1989 by two women closely affiliated with the Standardbred racing industry, and since its inception they have helped to place over one hundred horses per year.  As with many racehorses, some animals are left with injuries and other limitations which make them unsuitable as riding horses; the SRF will retain ownership of these animals and provides them with care for the rest of their lives.   The organization remains involved with all of the horses which it places, requiring twice yearly follow ups on the animal’s health and well-being, signed by the owner’s veterinarian.  In addition to saving literally thousands of horses in its twenty six year existence, the SRF has assisted with programs for at-risk youth, exposing them to the sweet, gentle personalities of the Standardbred horse.  Executive director Judith Bokman commented in her interview with me that their limiting factor, always, is funding.  With more funding, they could take in more horses and expand their youth programming.  To learn more, visit www.adoptahorse.org.

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Standardbreds are uniquely identified via their freeze brand, seen here.  Their gentle personality and willing nature make them wonderful riding and companion horses.

Finally, an introduction to All Better Pets, a Manchester, NH, based nonprofit with the mission of providing care to abandoned and homeless pets. This organization is affiliated with the Center for Advanced Veterinary Care, a small animal emergency and referral hospital. Many of the animals which come to the clinic are in need of medical attention for treatable conditions; without intervention, however, euthanasia would be the only option.  Since 2010, the organization has helped over 200 animals get well and find new homes, and has provided assistance to hundreds of others through affiliations with other groups.  I am a little partial to All Better Pets because my cat, Nieva (nee Willow) is an alum.  She is pretty much perfect. Visit www.allbetterpets.org to learn more.

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Nieva

These are just five worthy organizations for your consideration this holiday season.  Please comment with information about YOUR non-profit organization of choice.  Even small donations add up, and in this season of giving please do not forget to consider the importance of supporting the efforts of these grassroots groups.

Friendship, sportsmanship, horsemanship and love…and the heart of a Thoroughbred

Lessons Learned from the 80th Anniversary GMHA 100 Mile Ride

***Warning…this is a long post…but the 100 mile is a long ride…so I guess it all evens out!***

On September 2-4, 2016, Lee and I tackled the grueling GMHA three day 100 mile competitive trail ride (CTR) for the second year in a row.  We came to the ride this year a bit more seasoned but also perhaps a bit more battered; last year, nerves were due to worry about the unknown, while this year, they were the result of knowing exactly what was to come. After finishing the ride as a complete and total rookie in 2015, I knew that both my horse and I had what it would take to do it again in terms of grit and stamina.  But at seventeen years old and on her third career, Lee carries a lot of miles (literally and figuratively) on her frame, and I think the theme for our distance season this year was learning to ride the fine line between fitness and soundness.

The GMHA Distance Days weekend, now in its third year, has become a true festival of distance riding.  Trail riders of many persuasions (short, middle or long distance, competitive and non) come together and enjoy the always breathtaking scenery of central Vermont in the late summer, along with the joy that comes with friendships based on shared passion.   The South Woodstock area has been described so thoroughly and poetically by others that I won’t even try to match their words; suffice it to say that for me, visiting there has yet to lose its appeal.

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Lee and her stall display at Distance Days 2016

Initially, doing the 100 mile ride again with Lee was not my intention.  I was (and am) so proud of her for finishing the ride in 2015, especially wearing a saddle that I later realized totally and completely did not fit her now uber fit frame (more on the quest for the perfect distance saddle in a later blog).   Last year, she suffered from welts and heat bumps, both under the saddle panels and in the girth area.  I was determined to try to avoid such issues this season, even if that meant staying at shorter distances.

GMHA is known today for being an organization that supports multiple disciplines at its facility, but what many people may not know is that it was originally founded to promote trail riding in the state of Vermont. For its first ten years, members of the fledgling organization worked to create a network of bridle trails which spanned the state to all of its borders.  In 1936, GMHA hosted its first long distance ride of 80 miles, to “stimulate greater interest in the breeding and use of good horses, possessed of stamina and hardiness, and qualified to make good mounts for trail use.”  This ride grew to cover 100 miles, and for eighty years it has run continuously (save for 2011, when Hurricane Irene came through).  This ride has a rich, historical legacy unmatched by any other ride of its kind in the country.  Chelle Grald, trails coordinator at GMHA and the 2016 ride manager, calls it the “granddaddy of them all.”  What serious distance rider within striking distance WOULDN’T want to be a part of the 80th anniversary ride?

Besides, if you entered, you got a commemorative belt buckle.  I mean, you could buy the buckle on its own, but what was the fun in that?

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The Commemorative Belt Buckle, supported by Lee’s Perkion Award for best scoring Thoroughbred.

This past year has been one of (mostly good) transition, and neither Lee nor I are at the same place we were a year ago, in all ways you could define it.  While still on her recovery days from the 100 mile ride last year, I moved Lee to our new home at Cold Moon Farm.  She spent the next nine months as its sole equine resident; we did some extensive exploration of the local trail network during the late fall, and then she enjoyed two months of total rest during the depths of winter.  It was the most time off she has had since we met when she was six years old.  During this break, I began researching distance saddles, and with the help of Nancy Okun at the Owl and the Rose Distance Tack, located a lightly used Lovatt and Ricketts Solstice, along with a new Skito pad.  This lightweight saddle fit Lee’s topline much better than the old all purpose I had been riding in, and the Skito pad allowed her to have extra cushion.

I was pretty excited to get started with the distance season this spring, and I entered the Leveritt 25 mile CTR in April.  Lee hadn’t seen another horse since September, and I wasn’t sure what her reaction was going to be.   I was also worried that Lee wouldn’t be quite fit enough at that stage of the year to handle 25 miles, and I kept telling my friends that I wished it were only a 15 mile ride.  As it turned out, I got my wish.  The hold was about 15 miles in, and I had to pull there because Lee was a little bit off on her right front.  She was sound once we got home, and some mild sensitivity to hoof testers at her next shoeing indicated that she had likely just hit a stone or something similar.

At Leveritt, I rode with my friend Robin on her lovely Morgan, Flower; we had made up two thirds of the now mildly well known “Team PB & J” on the 100 mile in 2015.  Robin was super excited about working towards the 100 mile ride again, and I will admit that some of her enthusiasm began to rub off on me.  At the same time, having to pull at the Leveritt ride put a little sliver of worry into my mind; namely, was Lee sound enough to keep working towards the maximum level that the sport of CTR offers?

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Flower, Quinn and Lee resting up for the start of the ride.

In 2015, I relied on some of the CTR’s themselves to incorporate additional distance and duration into Lee’s conditioning plan.  I looked at the Leveritt ride as a fifteen mile conditioning distance; the miles might not “count” in terms of her lifetime total, but they did “count” in terms of increasing her overall fitness.  I fleshed out a schedule of gradual loading and increasing distance that would include several spring rides, a break in mid summer, and then a ramp up to the 100.

But then I had a rider qualify for the IHSA National Championships, an outstanding honor, and travelling to Lexington, KY for the competition meant missing the next planned CTR.  Then, the ride I had planned to enter at the end of May was cancelled.  I even tried to get to a hunter pace with a friend, thinking that would give us at least thirteen miles of new trail; it was rained out.  And suddenly I was scheduled to be back up at GMHA for what should have been a back to back 50 mile in June, having not completed ANY of the step up prep rides that I had anticipated.

Concerned now that she wouldn’t have the necessary fitness, I opted to do just one day of the June  GMHA distance weekend, the 25 mile CTR. I still felt woefully unprepared and worried relentlessly about both her fitness and her soundness, despite positive feedback from my farrier and two vets.  We reset her shoes and added a new, more cushioning style of packing under her pads.  Reunited with Team Peanut Butter and Jelly for the first time since September, Lee really did do great.  She felt strong and sound and came through the weekend with flying colors, scoring the best mark she would get all season.

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Team Peanut Butter and Jelly after finishing the June 25 mile CTR at GMHA.

After the ride in June, I felt more positive about our prospects for the 100.  The judges had had utterly no concerns about Lee’s soundness or her back at the June ride, and she felt strong and forward.  Thus encouraged, I decided to aim for the GMHA two day 50 mile CTR in early August; based on how that went, I would make my final decision on the 100.

During the gap between the June ride and the August 50 mile CTR, I had no plans to compete Lee, only condition.  I made one trip up to Tamarack Hill Farm in Strafford, VT, to ride with my mentor, Denny Emerson; ironically, during the summer of the worst drought in years, the day we planned to meet saw pouring rain.  We made it around anyway, dodging rain drops.  At home, I continued to balance long, slow distance rides mostly at the walk with sets in the arena to maintain her cardiovascular fitness.

About three weeks before the August ride, I decided to try a new girth with Lee.  It had been recommended by my saddle fitter, and the extremely contoured shape was one favored by riders whose horses have sensitive elbows or who are prone to girth galls.  I had been using the girth on Anna with great success for months, and tried it on Lee for an easy one hour walk.

I was horrified at the end of the ride to find that the girth had caused the worst chafing that I have ever seen on Lee.  Both armpits were rubbed raw, and the left side in particular was swollen and tender.  I couldn’t believe it; there had been no indication that the girth was pinching or loose.  Regardless, the damage was done, and I saw both our short and long term goals for the season sliding away.

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The raw rub on Lee’s left armpit area.  It is crazy that this came from just one ride, at the walk.

I reached out to my distance friends and learned about an old timey product called Bickmore Gall Salve.  You can pick it up at some of the chain feed stores or in my case, the local one.  I religiously treated the rubs up to four times per day for the three weeks up until the fifty, and I was really impressed by how quickly the product got them to dry and heal.  Even though the label claims you can “work the horse”, I didn’t think that putting a girth on was the best plan.  So for three weeks, Lee longed.  I worked her up to fifty minutes, moving the longe circle all over our arena and changing directions every five minutes.  The longeing didn’t increase her fitness, but it kept her legged up and allowed me to watch her move.  And that was how I decided that she seemed—ever so slightly— funny on the left front when she warmed up.  It always went away after a few laps at the trot.  But I was sure there was something there.

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This stuff was a game changer.  Just don’t read the ingredient list too closely….

Between the girth rubs and the “slightly funny left front”, I was feeling like maybe it just wasn’t in the cards for us to contest the fifty mile ride this year.  Then, the day before we were scheduled to leave, my truck began making a funny whining noise.  I tried to convince myself that I was being paranoid, but the noise just seemed too odd to ignore, and a quick trip to the mechanic revealed that the power steering pump was caput.  Now I really began to wonder if this was a sign.

Yet I am stubborn.

I have one friend with a truck that I feel comfortable asking for a loan; one phone call later and we had wheels.  So thanks to the generosity of a good friend, we headed up to GMHA, with me feeling a little bit fatalistic about things.  “Whatever will be, will be,” I told myself.

I longed Lee lightly when we arrived at GMHA to loosen up, and I wasn’t sure how she would look on the uneven footing of the pavilion where we were to vet in.  However, we were accepted at the initial presentation, and I decided to start to ride and see how she felt.  When I got on board Lee the next morning, it was the first time that I had sat on her in nearly three weeks.  I kept a close eye on the girth area and carefully sponged it at most opportunities.  There was a nearly record entry for the weekend, and it was clear that excitement about Distance Days was building.  For many entries, the two day 50 was the last big test before beginning the final weeks of prep for the 100 mile ride.

Overall, I thought Lee handled the ride well.  I was certainly in a hyper-critical state, and analyzed every step she took.  On day two, I felt that she wasn’t her best, and I seriously considered pulling up, but the more she moved the better she felt. While we made it through the ride and received our completion, I knew that she wasn’t yet ready for the 100 mile ride.  Something was bothering her and I needed to resolve that.

I scheduled a visit with Dr. Monika Calitri of Seacoast Equine to check over Lee.  She felt that her back had become super tight (a lifelong problem for her) and saw mild positivity to hock flexions.  We opted to inject her hocks, and I contacted my saddle fitter for an adjustment on the Solstice and Skito pad prior to Distance Days.  Overall, Dr. Calitri thought that Lee looked sound and fit, and remarked that the tightness in her topline was the most significant finding in her inspection.

My entry for the 100 mile sat on my kitchen table, with both the 100 and 60 mile options highlighted.  After Dr. Calitri’s visit, I circled the 100 mile distance, wrote the check and threw it in the mail just a day or so before closing.  I figured I could always drop back to the 60 mile ride, even right up until the last minute, but since the 100 is what we had been aiming for, we might as well give it a go.

The Heart of the Thoroughbred

The 80th Anniversary 100 mile ride was scheduled to cover the traditional white (40 mile), red (35 mile) and blue (25 mile) routes. While the white and blue routes would mirror closely the trails we had covered the previous year, the red route would be a totally new one for me; it took us across the Ottauquechee River, through the Marsh Billings-Rockefeller National Park, along the banks of the beautiful Pogue, and across the Taftsville Covered Bridge.

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On trail, day two.  Photo courtesy of Sue Achenbach.

Day one, at forty miles, is quite a day.  Horses must traverse the rocky terrain of Reading, notorious for its difficulty in allowing riders to make time.  Lee felt great, totally 100%, but at the half way hold (25+ miles in), the vet judge commented that he thought there was a slight head bob at times, not significant enough to spin her, but enough to quell any feelings I had of security in Lee’s soundness.  At the end of day safety check, the judging team worried that Lee’s back was too sensitive, contributing to her occasional uneven step.  I was required to present again in the AM before starting on day two.

I worked with Lee in the afternoon of day one, hand walking, massaging and stretching.  By morning, her topline sensitivity was much reduced and we were cleared to start day two.

In celebration of the ride’s 80th anniversary, dozens of past riders were in attendance for special events at the Woodstock Inn Country Club, the Landowner’s BBQ and the Longtimer’s Brunch Reunion.  Unbeknownst to me, Lee’s breeder (and only other owner), Suzie Wong, was in attendance, along with her sister Sarah and their mother.  Suzie joked that for years, her family had tried to breed a distance horse, but they always turned out to be better hunters, jumpers and eventers.  In Lee, they had tried to breed a high quality hunter….and ended up with their distance horse!  Suzie hadn’t seen Lee in years, and their family and friends quickly became our cheerleaders, appearing at most of the major viewing areas and both holds at days two and three.

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Lee’s breeder, Suzy Wong, rode in the distance rides at GMHA in the past. Lee shows her usual enthusiasm for posing for photos after finishing on day three.

On the red day, I was pretty excited to tackle some amazing and new to me trail. The much discussed crossing of the Ottauquechee River was pretty easy, given the drought.   The route through the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Park was well groomed and fun to canter along, and the steam from early morning still rose off the Pogue as we rode past.  I found it hard to completely enjoy the scenery, though, as I began to worry more and more about my horse.  She felt powerful, forward and willing…but not the same between right and left.  Not lame, just….different.  Once the seed has been planted in your head that your horse is moving ‘funny’, it can be hard to remain confident that your horse is truly ok.

Once we exited the park, we had to tackle several miles of hard top road.  First, there were cows to spook at near the park headquarters.  Then, there were bikers, joggers, pedestrians, and cars galore.  I was left thinking that despite the historical tradition of using this route, perhaps its time had passed, due to the hazards of the modern era.  Riders are left with no option but to trot along the hard top while being fairly regaled with hazards from all directions.  We had to push forward into the hold, where Suzy and her friends waited for us.

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Suzy inspects as we prepare to head out from the hold on day two. Photo courtesy of Sue Achenbach.

The hold on red day was stressful.  Lee pulsed right down, but the vet judge was not happy with how she was moving in the jog.  Again, not lame, but not completely even.  They asked me how she felt, and I replied that she felt strong and I was being hyper aware of any sign of lameness.  They had me jog back and forth two or three times, before suggesting that I pull her saddle and jog again.  When I did so, they were much more satisfied, and told me that they suspected that it was her back which was bothering her again.  They cleared me to continue and I promised to closely monitor her progress.

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Presenting to vet judge Dr. Nick Kohut, President of ECTRA, at the hold on day two. Photo courtesy of Sue Achenbach.

It was just about one mile after the hold that our trio crossed the historic Taftsville Covered Bridge.  The original was swept away during the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, but the new one was built to be a close replica.  A “fun fact” that I learned about covered bridges is that they were originally built so as to look like a barn, horses being more willing enter a barn than to cross a scary open bridge over rapidly moving water.  I am not sure how thrilled Lee would have been to make a solo crossing, but with her friends Quinn and Flower around her, she was a willing follower.  In some of the photos of us, the past meets present, as a car is sitting at the mouth of the bridge waiting to cross after us.

After finishing the thirty five mile long red trail, it came as little surprise to me that the judges yet again held Lee.  By now, we were all paying close attention to her back sensitivity.  One of the good things about CTR is that the judges and the riders work together as a team to monitor the horses’ condition.  While we all would like to finish our rides, none of us wishes to do so at the expense of our horse’s well-being.  Even though Lee felt mostly ok under saddle, it was clear that she was starting to push through some discomfort.  After seventy five miles, even the most fit of animals is likely to be feeling some effects of the experience; the question becomes whether they are crossing over the line and their overall well-being is at risk.

I woke quite early on day three; the stars were still out in full force as I dressed in my trailer and made my way to the barns.  While Lee ate her morning grain, I gently, and then more firmly, massaged the muscles over her back and encouraged her to stretch.  I then took her for a nearly forty five minute walk.  At that time of the day, the air is clear and the sky brilliant.  Once your eyes adjust, it is amazing how much you can still see; at the same time, your sense of hearing heightens.  The faintest whisper of dawn was just visible in the sky as it came close to time to present to the judges.  I did several in hand transitions, and when I could barely stop Lee I knew that she was ready.

Once again, Lee trotted off brilliantly for the judges under the lights of the pavilion.  It seemed clear that whatever was bothering her that weekend wasn’t a true lameness, but instead something which improved significantly with an overnight’s rest.  We were cleared to continue.

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“The look of eagles”.  I took this while out on one of our post ride “walk abouts” during the 100 mile ride this year.

Day three, the blue trail, is a twenty five mile route, and I was reminded again of just how much shorter that feels after tackling forty and thirty five mile distances on the preceding days.  Despite this, twenty five miles is still plenty of trail, and anything can happen.  As we rode into the final half way hold of the weekend, our “trail boss”, Quinn, lost a shoe.  While the farrier and his rider, Kat, worked to address that situation, I prepared to present to the judges.  I proactively pulled Lee’s saddle and jogged her in hand without it, and much to my surprise, they were happy and let us go without a second look.  At the end of our twenty minute window, Flower and Robin and Lee and I were forced to leave Quinn and Kat behind, as the shoe was still being replaced.

Neither Flower nor Lee is a huge fan of being the leader, and after nearly ninety miles, no one’s sense of humor is at its best.   Without Quinn, we struggled to gain momentum.  But then the most amazing thing happened.  It was as though Lee switched her gears, dug in, and then she suddenly powered forward and LED, for several miles, without me bidding her to.  It was as though she said, “I’ve got this, and we are going to get it done”.

It was without a doubt the “heart of a Thoroughbred” in action.

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Lee coming out of the hold on day three, 90 miles into the ride.  This is, hands down, THE BEST photo I have ever seen of her.  Ever.  It says it all.  Photo courtesy of John Miller at Spectrum Photography.

We eventually caught up to a few other riders, and our mares were willing to fall into step with them as the miles continued to tick down.  Much to our surprise, Quinn and Kat were able to catch up to us just a few miles from the GMHA grounds, and it was again with a feeling of extreme pride that we returned to the announcement of our names as we entered the White Ring as a team of three.

We had done it.  Again.

Lee lost a number of points from her score for the sensitivity in her topline at the final presentation, as well as a few points for “lameness consistent under some conditions”, but she had earned a second completion in as many 100 mile rides.    Thirty horses had started, and just over half completed. Of those to finish, Lee was the second oldest.

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The entry list for each year’s 100 mile ride stays up for one full season.  This is the 100 mile entry for 2016.

As we stood at the awards ceremony, surrounded by horses and humans who I have come to admire and respect, I knew that my horse had earned her place among those in the ring.  She was awarded the Perkion Award for the second year in a row, given to the best scoring Thoroughbred or Thoroughbred type, and she was also awarded the Spinner Award for the best non-registered trail horse.  We finished sixth in the middleweight division, the only group of riders which saw all entrants complete the ride.

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Lee at the awards ceremony. She looks pretty good for a horse that just went 100 miles, I think!

Far from being defeated, Lee remained alert and engaged after the ride.  Overall, she weathered the experience well.  But I knew that my horse had had to dig in to get the job done, and that she had finished the ride largely due to her Thoroughbred heart.   What an amazing experience to know what it is like for your horse to bring you home on their own drive and grit.

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Lee is now officially retired from the 100 mile distance.  It wouldn’t be fair to ask this of her again.  I still plan to compete her in distance rides, so long as she tells me that is okay, but we will stick to the “shorter” mileages.  As Denny said of her in 2014, “that is one tough horse”.

She has more than proven him right.

 

Adelinde Cornelissen and the Arm Chair Quarterback

During the Rio Olympics, my Facebook feed was utterly blowing up with comments regarding Dutch dressage rider Adelinde Cornelissen, and her choice to retire mid-test on her veteran partner, Parzival. Just a day or so earlier, Parzival had been found with a fever and swollen jaw, determined to be the result of a bite from some foreign bug.  Under the supervision of FEI veterinarians, the horse was treated with fluids; as the swelling and fever reduced, Parzival was given clearance to compete.  However, Cornelissen felt that her horse did not feel right and that it was inappropriate to continue to push him to complete the demanding Grand Prix test.

Initially, Cornelissen was lauded as a hero for putting the needs of her horse ahead of medal aspirations.  But quickly the backlash began.  Accusations of horse abuse were rampant. Implications that the true cause of the swelling was a hairline fracture of the jaw as the result of Cornelissen’s training methods became a common chant.

Cornelissen and Parzival have been staples on the Dutch international team for years.  They were the alternates for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and at the 2012 London Games her team earned the bronze and Cornelissen, the individual silver.  They have had numerous other successes in the international ring, but also some lows.  The most notable of these occurred at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, when the pair was eliminated due to blood in the mouth, allegedly the result of the horse biting his tongue.  The 2016 Rio Games were almost certainly intended to be the 19 year old horse’s final competition.

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Parzival was disqualified from the 2010 World Equestrian Games after blood appeared in his mouth. 

I am not a huge follower of international equestrian sport, but I watch and see enough that I usually know the key players and the major events.  Since the days of the great rivalry between Van Grunsven and Werth, the Dutch riders have frequently been criticized for the use of rollkur in their training system.  Of course, the Dutch say that the method they use is different than rollkur—I think they call it “low, deep and round”—and for people who live in that world, the similarities and differences between the two techniques could be debated for hours.  For the greater equestrian community, the 98% of us who do not exist in the world of elite dressage performance, the line between the two methods is very, very blurry.  The FEI was finally forced to take a firm stance against the use of rollkur largely as the result of public pressure.  Low, deep and round is still allowed, within certain parameters; this ruling still rankles some within the equestrian community.

From what I understand, Cornelissen has been frequently accused of using rollkur, and many negative statements have been made specifically in regards to her riding style and performances with Parzival.  Given the quite passive and osmosis-like manner in which I absorb information about most of these elite riders, I do feel that it is significant that the impression I have always had of her is that she perhaps uses less than classical training methods.  I have utterly no foundation on which to base the impression other than the trickle of comments which come through social media, bulletin boards and occasional articles.  But yet, the impression is there.

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Photos like this one, easy to find on the internet, do not do much to ease Cornelissen’s public image. 

So when the whole situation in Rio started to unfold, I initially noted that this particular rider was making (negative) headlines again.  But it wasn’t until nearly every other post on my Facebook timeline was deriding her that I began to look more closely at the details.  And the more I learned, the more I scratched my head over the kinds of comments I was seeing—strong, vicious statements such as, “I hate her” and “She shouldn’t be called a hero.  She has been abusing that horse for years.”

Wait a minute here.  Regardless of anything you might have thought or do think about this rider….she felt as though the horse was not right.  She stopped performing her test.  It is almost a certainty that her decision to retire put the Netherlands out of medal contention as well.  She chose to retire anyway—and I am sure the pressure to produce a winning test was extremely high, given that the Netherlands is a nation which actually enjoys and follows equestrian sports.  In spite of all of this…she stopped.   How could this one decision alone not be considered a heroic act?

Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival FEI World Cup 2009

The video of Cornelissen and Parzival’s test up until she withdrew seems to have vanished from the internet.  It was out there for a bit, and I watched it with great interest, because apparently some of the Armchair Quarterbacks know far more about dressage than I do, and I wanted to see what they saw:  “You can tell from the minute he entered the ring that he was lame.” (What?  He looked sound to me.)  “He is obviously unhappy.  Look at how much foam is coming out of his mouth.” (Yes, he was  a bit more foamy than average, but certainly I have seen other horses look similarly and no one is saying that those horse are unhappy; some foam is actually considered a good thing. The person commenting wouldn’t know the difference.) “He just looks miserable.  I feel so bad for him.”

I must say, I wish that I could take a clinic or lesson with some of these Armchair Quarterbacks.  Because I will freely admit that I just didn’t see all of these horrible things that everyone else did in the video I watched.  The horse is in good weight, muscle and tone.  He appears healthy and willing.  He was not swishing his tail, pinning his ears, visibly sucking back or showing other signs of overt resistance.  I understand that at some point in the video, Parzival does start to stick out his tongue—this is a classic symptom of a contact/connection issue, and it certainly can indicate an unhappy horse.  However, I was unable to see that in the footage I watched.  I have seen some photos of him from Rio with his tongue out; they were all taken after the horse had left the ring.

I saw a lovely horse performing the Grand Prix, whose rider sensed was not himself, and who was pulled up. We know he had had something wrong with his face before the competition– a fact that Cornelissen doesn’t deny and in fact shared freely with fans. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation why the horse was not at his best, especially in the connection. Let’s not forget, he was cleared to compete by some of the best vets in the world.

I must really not know much about horses or dressage.  But these Armchair Quarterbacks really do seem to know EVERYTHING about the training, management and performance capability of this foreign based pair.  I found the amount of energy spent condemning Cornelissen to be, frankly, disappointing.  One woman actually is threatening to sue Cornelissen over her alleged abuse of Parzival.  I wish I was making this up.

There is an article which I use in one of my classes called, “Can Horse Sports Face the Central Park Test?”. The article looks at common practices within several prominent equine disciplines through the frame of a comment from former US Equestrian Federation president and current US Eventing Team Coach, David O’Connor.  “Could I go through the middle of Central Park with an NBC camera following me around as I get my horse ready to go into a competition?” O’Connor asks.  “Will you show anybody anything you’re doing? If you can’t, there’s a problem.”

This article really resonated for me, because in my years in the industry I have certainly heard tales of “those things which happen behind the barn”.  The stuff that no one talks about but people know about.  It happens in all equine sports, at all levels.  And it is not right, and just because it is the “norm” in a certain sphere doesn’t make these activities ok.  This isn’t about saying one discipline is better than another.  This is about good, basic, horsemanship.

Is it possible that Cornelissen has inappropriately used rollkur, or strong bits, or other less than ideal methods to achieve a training end with Parzival?  Sure.  I don’t know one way or the other, because I have never spent time watching her work, or touring her facility.  But I do know that the horse at 19 was sound enough in brain and body to be chosen for the Dutch squad and then flown half way around the world to represent them.  So I surmise that he must have a pretty good crew of people taking care of him to get to that point—Cornelissen included.

If you want to pick on Olympic riders, maybe we should condemn all of them, and our federations while we are at it, for choosing to bring their horses to compete at a Games in an area with an active glanders outbreak?   Certainly exposing some of the best in the world to this nearly unheard of disease is worthy of outrage?

Years ago, as a working student for Lendon Gray, she would really get after me for using a “half way aid”.  She argued that it was far kinder to a horse to make your point once—give them a clear aid with a particular expectation of a response—than it was to nag, and nag, and nag.  This lesson has really stuck with me.  The fact is that daily training can be cruel too—too tight nosebands, excessive or uneducated use of spurs, aggressive use of training aids like draw reins or bigger, harsher bits, heck, even ill fitting saddles, can all cause pain and frustration in our equine partners.   And let’s be honest—a rider who chooses to show mid level dressage but can hardly sit the trot, someone who wants to jump but refuses to learn to see a distance, the pleasure rider who doesn’t bother to learn about basic conditioning…are these not their own forms of cruelty to our beloved horses?

The honest to gosh truth is that if you really feel fired up and want to make a TRUE and  IMPACTFUL difference to the lives of animals…start with yourself.  Educate yourself.  Learn from the best that you can afford.  Practice.  Eat healthy.  Stay fit.  Reach out to your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues and your clients….help them to be the best that they can be too.

There are absolutely examples of truly heinous training methods which are employed by riders to extract a certain performance from their horse.  But for the Armchair Quarterbacks to vilify someone the way they did Cornelissen, without first taking a good, hard look in the mirror, is to me as much of a crime.

I only can hope that this vocal contingent can take some of that energy and direct it closer to home—where it can make a real, meaningful difference.

 

A Clinic with Cindy Canace

I have been lucky enough to know Cindy Canace, a USDF Gold Medalist and USEF “S” dressage judge from New Jersey, for many years.  However, this past week was my first opportunity to actually ride with Cindy in a clinic setting, and it was a great occasion to learn more about her training philosophies.

Cindy has made a career out of working with difficult, spoiled or otherwise challenging horses that others would not, and turning them into successful and happy performers.  In order to do this, she has established a system which she adheres to in terms of use of the aids, rider position, and progressive exercises.  By being clear and consistent, her horses respond with increased confidence to the rider’s aids.

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Annapony and I had just ridden several tests in front of Cindy at the recent University of New Hampshire dressage show, so she had a current picture in her mind’s eye of where things were at with us in the competition arena.  Cindy pointed out that a clinician’s main job is to provide a fresh set of eyes, and not to usurp the place of a regular instructor.  Specifically for Anna, Cindy wanted to challenge the honesty of her connection to the bit and work to achieve increased throughness.

For a horse competing at First Level, Cindy says that she would rather see a more open position in the neck with good energy and balance than a horse which has been pulled into too tight or restricted of a shape in the neck.  This is probably one of the reasons why Anna has scored well in front of Cindy, but as we are working towards moving to Second Level, it is necessary to achieve a greater degree of roundness and uphill balance.  Anna would prefer to be too open in the throatlatch if left to her own choices; because the purpose of Second Level is partially to confirm that the horse is “reliably on the bit”, we will need to work to erase this.

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Cindy had me move my hands closer together along Anna’s crest and ride with a much shorter rein than where I would tend to carry it.  “Put the bit where you want your horse to go” was a message repeated many times during the session.  She emphasized that the rider needs to keep her arms elastic, her shoulders down, her neck soft and her hands forward.  Cindy wants the horse to truly be seeking contact with the bit; it is the horse’s job to reach towards the bit all the time, rather than the rider taking the bit back towards their own body.

One of my greatest challenges is that most of the time I ride on my own; when you do this for too long, it is easy to pick up little bad habits.  One of my current ones is using too much inside rein, which blocks the inside hind and causes too much neck bend.  To help “reprogram” my aids, Cindy had me ride a diamond shape.  Imagine a square set within a circle, with points placed on the center line and equidistant from these points on the walls in between.  To turn Anna at each corner of the diamond, it was important to keep the inside leg at the girth and to bring the outside leg slightly back, pushing her around primarily with the outside aids.  I then used the inside leg to stop the turn and pushed Anna slightly out towards the outside aids again while aiming for the next point. We did this at the trot and the canter, decreasing the size of the circle as we became more proficient.

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Can you tell how awkward I feel with my hands this forward?

For me, the hardest part was to keep my hands out and ahead of me (‘put the bit where you want your horse to go’), even when Anna became less round or didn’t turn as crisply as I wanted.  The thing is, when your horse has gotten used to you supporting them in a particular way and you stop doing that, it takes them a few repetitions to sort things out for themselves.

Many horses have learned to balance on their inside reins; therefore, they can be taught to balance on the outside rein instead.  However, the correction takes time and dedication on the part of the rider.  “Keep your hands together and think forward,” said Cindy.  “The horse must step up to this.  Think of always pushing the reins out there.”

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Cindy reminded me that whenever I am tempted to pull on the inside rein that I needed to engage my inside leg instead.  At this, I had to chuckle—I must give this instruction myself many times per week, but it is good to know that even we instructors need reminders! Cindy also had me use a little sense of leg yield into the downward transitions to increase the connection to the outside rein, another technique which I like to use regularly. It is always good to know that your instincts are on the right track.

Cindy is wonderfully complimentary towards the rider’s horse; having ridden in many clinics, I think this is an important quality. Clinicians only get a snap shot of a horse and rider, and it is nice to hear what their immediate impressions are of the partnership.  While I usually think of Anna as not being super forward thinking, Cindy commented that my pony has a good overstep in the walk and trot; the more elastic and forward thinking that I keep my arm, the better Anna reaches through her topline and into the bit and the better the overstep gets.

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While discussing the importance of overstep (when the landing of the hind hoof reaches past the print of the front hoof on the same side), Cindy reminded auditors that there is a difference between fast and forward.  She says that in her judging, she sees too many horses which are being ridden so energetically that they move with a fast, quick tempo, causing the quality of the horse’s balance to literally go downhill.  While activity in the hind end is required to get true reach through the horse’s back, it cannot be accomplished at the cost of balance.

“We all like to micromanage,” said Cindy.  “Remember to ride the horse with leg and seat to create the bending.  Really use the outside rein to turn, even to the point of pushing the inside rein towards the horse’s ears.”

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Cindy’s overall theme was one of consistency and clarity in terms of expectations for the horse and intended outcomes.  When the horse is trying to sort out what it is that the rider wants, she emphasized that staying steady was of the highest priority.  It is much less confusing for the horse than if the rider suddenly switches her aids before the horse has answered the original question.   “Don’t change the rules of the game,” said Cindy.  “Don’t trade one problem for another—keep your aids consistent until you get the correct answer.”

Many thanks to On the Bit Events and the University of New Hampshire Equine Program for co-hosting this clinic!

On Horsemanship and Sportsmanship

Most of us who are involved with horses and horse showing prefer to be seen as both good horsemen and good sports.  If you stay in this game long enough, you will learn that when your success is predicated on the cooperation of a 1000+ pound flight or flight animal that also has a seeming proclivity for self-destruction, it is important to stay humble and not become too greedy.

With that being said, doing your homework, carefully prepping, setting goals and hopefully achieving them are all totally reasonable expectations.  In fact, these qualities are probably ideal in terms of making any sort of progress at all.  It is pretty easy to be a good sport when things are going your way, and you feel successful.  But where you are really put to the test is when the deck is stacked against you or the outcome isn’t what you had hoped for.  It seems that for some people, the ability to persevere and to continue to demonstrate the highest levels of sportsmanship and horsemanship comes naturally; nature vs. nurture, maybe.  Others of us have to dig a little bit deeper and consciously choose to maintain our best selves in these difficult times.

I have been reading a stack of old Dressage Today magazines, and I came across an “On Deck” column in the November 2007 issue written by a young lady named Holly Bergay.  At the time, Holly was just 15 years old.  She wrote about her first experience competing as a junior at the NAJYRC.  Now, I know what you might be thinking (because my brain would go there too)—to make an NAJYRC team, riders have to be talented and have access to both high quality horses and coaching.  It is easy to assume that these riders enjoy a certain amount of support and privilege that others do not; that their path has been made easy for them.  But when you start really talking to each individual rider, you will quickly learn that for most, there is a veritable army of people helping, contributing, supporting, fundraising, loaning horses, offering coaching, etc.  Holly was one of these riders; based in Arizona at the time, the expense alone of shipping all the way to Virginia for the competition must have been daunting for her middle class family.

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Holly Bergay (photo credit Phelps Photos)

And there is one other detail about Holly.  She was born with no left arm below her elbow, making her “the first disabled rider to ever compete at NAJYRC against able-bodied riders” (her words).

Holly tells the story of her and her teammates’ experiences at the competition; she rode for Region 5, and all of her teammates came from the west coast (Colorado, Arizona and Utah).  Though they were used to competing against one another, the riders didn’t really get to know each other until the trip east.  You might think that the hard part was qualifying for the Championships and then making their long trek to Virginia.  But the Region 5 team’s challenges were far from over.

One rider never even got to make the trip because her horse colicked before leaving home.

Another horse failed the initial jog (fortunately only due to an abscess, but still, what rotten timing).

Yet another rider arrived for day one of the mounted competition to find that her horse had ripped his eyelid open on a bridle hook, necessitating medical treatment which precluded him from competing.

I am sure that for these riders, who had invested so much of themselves in getting to this point, these events were terrible disappointments.  Yet according to Holly, her teammates showed “phenomenal horsemanship” in dealing with these blows and “made us all truly appreciate the opportunity to show”.  They learned to cheer for those who were still riding in the competition, even though with only two Young Riders left, the region’s team was ineligible for awards.

Holly talks about the tremendous pressure she felt competing as a junior; she wanted to do well for her team, for her trainer and for her horse.  She had come in with the lowest qualifying score of the team and was afraid of having a bad show.  But Holly had an additional weight to carry:  “I felt that if I didn’t do well, I would be letting down not just myself but the entire disabled community.”

Can you imagine feeling that way, at just 15 years old?

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Holly and Lilly at the NAJYRC (taken from her Facebook)

Holly’s story goes on to relate her own personal success on her mare, Lilly, and her team’s joy over their seventh placed finish.  Her language frequently includes words like “accomplishment”, “opportunity”, “proud”, “excitement” and “privilege”. You would think that the team had all won gold, but in reality no one took home a medal.  Holly ended up placing the highest of any rider from her region, making the top ten for the junior freestyle.  But you have a sense that she was modest about the achievement, and took greater pride in the fact that she had set out to accomplish her main goal—showing that a disabled rider could hold their own at the NAJYRC.  And in her own words, “I did not medal in the competition, but I took back things that were much more valuable than just a medal.  I learned both horsemanship and sportsmanship.  I met amazing people.  I formed an even stronger bond with my horse and, most important, I proved that I am not limited by my disability.”

I found Holly’s voice refreshing and her attitude moving.  Interested to know where Holly was now, I Googled her name (isn’t the internet wonderful)—and what came up showed me that the young girl of fifteen has matured into an inspirational young adult of twenty four.  And in the years between her debut at the NAJYRC and now, she has faced her own share of highs and lows, success, challenges and disappointments.

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Holly and Grand Ballerina (taken from her Facebook page).

After returning to compete in the NAYRC in 2008, Holly became internationally ranked in para-equestrian; in 2012, she was named to the World Equestrian Games team on the horse Grand Ballerina.  The mare unfortunately went lame just prior to the competition and so she was unable to compete.  After the financial investment incurred during the qualification process, followed by the disappointment of having to withdraw, Holly gave up riding altogether for a period of time.

But she returned to the sport and with the assistance of owner Violet Jen, Holly began to ride and compete the Hanoverian stallion Rubino Bellissimo.  The team entered the 2014 Para-Equestrian National Championship ranked second in the nation, and were considered strong favorites for selection to the World Equestrian Games team set to compete in Normandy, France.

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Holly and Rubino Bellisimo (taken from her Facebook page).  

Over $10,000 was raised to get Rubino and Holly to the New Jersey competition.  Just days before they were set to compete, Rubino began to exhibit signs of discomfort.   According to a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rubino’s condition quickly deteriorated and he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor that had begun to spread to muscles, nerves and bones.  With no hope of recovery and a rapidly declining quality of life, he was euthanized with Holly at his side.

Holly and Rubino’s last performance together.

I can’t even imagine going from the expectation of success and possibly achieving a dream such as qualifying to represent your country in international competition at that level to the devastating loss of a partner and friend in just a few days’ time.  It takes some kind of degree of sportsmanship and horsemanship and heck, just sheer grit, to keep pushing through that kind of challenging emotion.  And when you add to that the fact that your bank balance doesn’t rival that of a rock star or internet mogul, and you know just how much others have invested in your goals to support you—it weighs on you.

In the same Union-Tribune article, it says that Holly went to her family’s home in Colorado to grieve the loss.  Then she planned to return to her business in California, the San Diego Saddle Club, to regroup and possibly begin again.  She specifically mentioned the amazing community of horse people in the San Diego area, and that she either hoped to find a young horse to bring along or find another opportunity.  I can find no mention of her for 2015, so I have no idea where she stands today.

While you and I might not be on the short list for Rio, each one of us goes through some version of this struggle each and every day, don’t you think? Learning to take the highs and the lows, to make the best decisions for ourselves and our equine partners, and to do our very best to just be grateful that most of the time, we even have the opportunity to do the amazing things we do with our animals.  To try to find the balance between our competitive ambitions and the needs of our horses, and to know when it is ok to push a little harder versus when it is better to call it day.

I certainly admire Holly’s perseverance in the face of multiple challenges, and you just have to hope that if she can hang in there a bit longer, some of her fortunes will turn.  I have never met Holly, but perhaps if she ever reads this she will know that her story has touched another horseman and that I am rooting for her, wherever her equestrian pursuits might take her.  Our sport needs horsemen and sportsmen like Holly.