Category Archives: Personal Stories

Equestrians and the Quest for Open Space

This piece is adapted from an assignment I did for a course about the value of wilderness in society; hence the references to the impact of equine presence in designated wilderness areas.  However, I think the concerns discussed herein occur in many other areas where equestrian access is permitted alongside other users.

The horse is a bit of an enigma in American society.  They are classified as livestock, yet treated by most as companion animals, which leads to constant conflict in decision making.  People are simultaneously drawn to them and fear them.  An enduring symbol of the American West, the mustang inflames passions on all sides of the arguments which arise in reference to their “management”.  Horses and civilization have gone hand in hand since between 4,000 and 3,500 years BCE, when they were first domesticated on the Asian steppes.  It would seem to follow that little to no taming of the American wilderness would have been possible without the horse.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 has ‘grandfathered’ the use of horses and pack animals in wilderness areas, despite the fact that their use gives mechanical advantage to the rider.  Allowing livestock in these areas is hardly an unprecedented event.   In fact, many existing trails were built on those created by free grazing livestock.  Many of the lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management are still grazed by livestock, on leases which can pay pennies on the acre.

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A mustang on the California/Nevada border.

In a 2012 article from the National Parks Traveler , Kurt Repanshek reported on a court ruling that the use of horses and packing within the Sequoia National Park was in violation of the Wilderness Act, because the Park had failed to study the impact of the increased use of pack animals on the area. Quite interesting is a casual read through the comments reacting to this article, which sum up some of the same arguments we equestrians hear time and again:

“…trails that are being pounded to death by hooves, eroded to dust and cobbles, and buried in manure…”

“…stock trails require a higher standard and more expensive maintenance, so the NPS essentially subsidizes this very small user group…”

“Apparently, the NPS has no problem with horses trampling and destroying nature, but if cyclists want to have access to national park trails, somehow, trail erosion becomes an issue. Oh the hypocrisy!!”

Like any user group, horseback riders come with their positives and their negatives.  To be truthful, I have little experience with the use of horses in true designated wilderness areas, but I have some experience with their use in national and state parks and other public areas.  In spite of my inherent bias as an equestrian, I still feel that the benefits of allowing this traditional use on these lands outweigh the detractors.

Let’s start by looking at a few facts…

First, horses are Big Business…this is not a “very small user group”, as our detractor put forth above.  According to the American Horse Council (2005), there are 9.2 million horses in the US, and the equine industry has a direct economic effect of $39 billion annually.  Billion.  With a B. The industry pays over $1.9 billion in taxes per year to all levels of government.  Over 70% of horse owners live in communities with a population of less than 50,000.  And the vast majority (just under 4 million) of horses are not racehorses, or show horses—they are used for “recreation”.  With these numbers, it is clear to see that we are not talking about some insignificant user group.

Secondly, manure is not a public safety hazard.  Americans are truly the most poop-phobic people.  It is really ridiculous.  From a 1998 white paper prepared by Adda Quinn for Bay State Equestrians (CA), “Horse manure is a solid waste excluded from federal regulation [by the EPA] because it neither contains significant amounts of listed hazardous components, nor exhibits hazardous properties…No major human disease has ever been accurately attributed to the intimate contact human beings have had with horses for thousands of years…The chemical constituents of horse manure are not toxic to humans. Horse guts do not contain significant levels of the two waterborne pathogens of greatest concern to human health risk, Cryptosporidium or Giardia, neither do they contain significant amounts of the bacteria E.coli 0157:H7 or Salmonella” (Quinn, 1998).

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Hacking in Vermont on private land.  Those yellow ears belong to my horse, Lee.

Historically, equestrians have been allowed access to trails in many public and private land holdings, but in the past seventy five years, those areas which continue to allow for this use have been dwindling.  It is perhaps all the more frustrating when the loss of use occurs on public land, because in many cases recreational use is one of the reasons why such lands have been set aside.

In 2009, the AHC responded to concerns from the recreational use equestrian community that there were an overwhelmingly large number of trails on public lands being closed off to equestrian use.  The Washington, DC, based organization, which is the most significant lobbying body for the equestrian industry, surveyed members regarding their experiences with federal land use.  Issues were in particular identified on lands managed by the National Park Service and the US Forest Service, but also those managed by the BLM and US Fish and Wildlife, with problems cited including lack of maintenance and lack of access through trails closed to equestrian use.  Frustrations abounded, especially when the rationale for the closures was not known.

From the report, “An initial examination of restricted access reports reveal that in most instances there was a clear history of equestrian use.  Furthermore, in only a few examples of restricted access was the respondent aware of any public process or public comment period associated with the trail closure.  Respondents in some cases are aware of a stated reason for restricted access for equestrians.  However, in a number of instances the respondent is unaware of any reason behind a closure.”

What is ironic is that some of the closures/restrictions in access have occurred on public lands given with the full intention of equestrian use.  Most notable are the carriage trails in Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, ME.  These roads were built by David Rockefeller with the intention of being available for equestrian use.  In regards to these restrictions, one respondent wrote, “There is a portion of them still open to equine use and there is a concession offering carriage rides and allowing access for people to bring their own riding horses for a fee.  But this access is only on a portion of the carriage roads…I live very close to one section …that has been closed to equine traffic.  I have requested information from Park Administration as to why this has happened and if there is any way to open the closed areas…I have received no reply from them.  In order to ride the carriage roads that are less than ½ mile from my stable I now need to trailer my horses twelve miles one way and pay to park my trailer.  There are numerous horse owners in close proximity to me that would benefit from access to our traditional riding areas.”

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Trail Riders in Acadia National Park (photo from http://portraitswithhorses.com)

And while I don’t deny that horse hooves can cause damage to trails through over use, and agree that horses should be restricted from unique and sensitive ecological areas, horses are not the only user group which can leave a mess in their wake.  Another respondent states, “The problem is not that BLM is actively denying trail access to equestrians.  The problem is that BLM is not regulating motorized use of trails.  The motorized users have caused so much damage (rutting, erosion) to the trails, they have become unusable for equestrians.”

It seems clear that there is conflict over the use of horses in some areas of federally managed lands.  Sometimes the issues are direct, such as degradation of trail quality through equestrian use.  Sometimes they are less so, and manifest in terms of lack of funding for trail maintenance, causing lack of access, or conflict with the needs of other user groups, such as hikers.  However, it is equally true that those who enjoy riding horses out in the open, the way that they historically have been, are passionate about doing what is necessary to ensure that access is not further restricted.

Why Equestrians Need Public Land Access…and why Public Lands Need Equestrians

The reality of being a rider in the modern US is that more than likely, you must pay a fee equivalent to a small mortgage to board your horse at a public stable.  Fewer people than ever are able to have the luxury of the land and space necessary to properly maintain horses, and as open land has become somewhat of a premium commodity in populated areas, the cost of being able to do so even at a boarding stable has skyrocketed.

Without trying too hard, I can name a long list of facilities which used to be horse farms, even right here in the seacoast of New Hampshire.  Running a horse farm is a labor and cost intensive affair, and some owners have simply grown tired of the grind. But many more were unable to afford to keep their properties, for many reasons.  Flat, open land is often taxed at a premium, making it hard to break even when you add in the equally high cost of the production of hay, grain and other consumables.  Once these farms were converted to subdivisions, mini malls or similar, they never have returned to a natural state, in my experience.

In New Hampshire, programs like LCHIP (NH Land and Community Heritage Investment Program) have purchased the development rights to many long standing farm properties, effectively dropping the tax rate and preventing future development of the land.  Proper and sustainable management of these farms will ensure at least pockets of open space for generations to come.

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The fact is, if equestrians wish to enjoy the privilege of riding out in the open, they simply must step up to educate and advocate for the preservation of lands in which such activity is permitted.  The Equine Land Conservation Resource (ELCR) was founded nearly a decade ago for just this purpose.  From their website , the organization’s vision is “A future in which horse lands have been conserved so that America’s equine heritage lives on and the emotional, physical and economic benefits of mankind’s bond with the horse remain accessible to all.”  The ELCR has been involved with the protection of more than 200,000 acres of land and 1,200 miles of trails.  Through their education and outreach activities, the ELCR has assisted horse owners in doing their own outreach and educational campaigns within their local communities.  The ELCR reminds us that the USFS estimates that we are losing 6,000 acres of open lands per day and that “poorly planned, uncontrolled development or sprawl, competing demands for land, and a population that is increasingly unfamiliar with horses are the greatest threats to equestrians and horse lands today.”

The preservation of wilderness within the United States was at least partially due to the young country’s quest for an identity.  The American West became a symbol of the vast lands which this country had in its borders.  Horses are indelibly linked to this heritage, and their use as a means to access far away and isolated areas is unparalleled.

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My mount, Thunder, and I, with the White Mountains of Nevada in the background.

I cannot even begin to describe some of the amazing places I have had the opportunity to visit via horseback, both in the US and abroad.  Obviously I have a love of the horse and of riding in general, but for me, there is almost no better way of reaching remote and far away areas which only rarely are visited by humans.  On foot, at best I can walk a few miles per day.  On horseback, I have gone forty or more.

Horseback riding is a way for our country’s citizens to learn to appreciate and enjoy amazing natural areas, without need of roads, tramways or cable cars.  Horseback riding gets people outside, and if the need to protect trails is what motivates these citizens to be active proponents of protecting open space, so be it.

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It is hard to believe that these mountains in Vermont were mostly pasture lands for sheep and cows not even a century ago.

The equine industry is a large and powerful user group with a strong motivation to protect and preserve open space and lands which permit equestrian use.  It would certainly behoove those interested in protection efforts to consider their needs and recruit their support.

 

 

Planning a Sustainable Life

I have just returned from four days in Orlando, FL, during which time I attend the annual meeting of the Board of Directors for the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA).  This group was founded in 1967, and next year will be celebrating its 50th anniversary.  This is of course a significant milestone, and much discussion at the meeting centered around the organization’s history.

My birthday this year will be one which many also consider a milestone, as it closes out another decade.  Although these landmarks are somewhat arbitrary (why do we care more when the number ends in a zero?  Couldn’t we just as joyfully commemorate the 49th anniversary as the 50th?), the tradition of giving them greater attention does provide us with a good opportunity to reflect on where we have come from, where we are at, and where we still hope to go.  Otherwise, as Ferris Bueller was want to say:

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If organizations such as the IHSA hope to remain relevant over the long term, some degree of calculated evolution is required.  Therefore, these groups tend to define a mission statement, and then create “strategic plans”, which carefully map out their objectives for the near future, the middle range and the long term.  Otherwise, lack of focus or stagnation will result in the loss of members who become drawn to more contemporary opportunities.

I have always sort of wondered in awe at people who have been able to manage their lives with a similar “strategic plan” sort of approach.  In my experience, it has usually seemed like the harder I tried to get to one specific place, the more swiftly the tide carried me elsewhere.  While I have enjoyed (most of) these adventures, back roads and eddies, I sometimes wonder how things would be if I had taken a more focused and precise approach.

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Last winter, I had the opportunity to participate in an online coaching series called “Stirrup Your Life”.  Geared for equestrians and led by my dear friend Jen Verharen of Cadence, Inc., the series led participants through a series of exercises, reflections and readings which allowed each of us to create a vision, to identify our core values and our limiting beliefs, and then to perhaps have the courage to “step into the gap” of discomfort, to stretch out of the known and familiar, in order to take steps towards achieving personal goals which were in keeping with our vision.  It was truly the first time I have ever sat down and really tried to concretely identify what I wanted my life to be like, restrictions, reality or other negatives be damned.

Participating in this coaching series was one of those activities which didn’t seem that significant in the immediate moment, but now, nearly one year later, I have begun to recognize the impact it has had on my way of thinking about goal setting and the pursuit of a contented life.  One of Jen’s main points was that if you are living a life which is out of integrity with your core values, you will likely always feel that something is wrong or missing.   It is all too easy to get caught up in the “must do’s” or “should do’s”, and then to wake up and realize that somehow you are so full of ‘busyness’ that you don’t have the time to do those things which are truly most important to you. We, as individuals, really do have the ability to modify the path we are on.  That is not to say that taking the steps to change the route is easy to do; in fact, usually it is anything but.  However, more of us are prisoners of our own mistaken beliefs, preconceived ideas and bad habits than we care to admit.

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One of my core values is a commitment towards living my life with as much mindfulness towards sustainability as is possible given my current resources.   On several levels, I have not been doing a good enough job in this area, which has certainly contributed to feelings of discontent and frustration. The term “sustainability” is a trendy one right now.  But what is really meant by it?

Merriam Webster defines “sustainability” as:

  • Able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
  • Involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
  • Able to last or continue for a long time.

Usually when most of us think of sustainability, we are referring to definition # 2 (which of course relates to # 1 and #3).  But when it comes to career, life goals and personal ambitions, it is becoming abundantly clear to me that definitions # 1 and 3 apply to these areas, as well.

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There is a balance in everything.  It is great to have goals, but some goals are exclusive to each other, and so sometimes we have to compromise or shift focus in order to accommodate needs in multiple areas, or prioritize the thing which we cannot live without.   There needs to be a balance between wanting to do EVERYTHING, RIGHT NOW, and pacing yourself.  In order to make the choices which are right for each one of us, we must know where it is we hope to go.

Envisioning a sustainable future for me doesn’t just relate to installing solar panels, composting the manure or eating locally. Sustainability means that the life energy I am putting into an activity is worth the benefit I am getting out of it.  Choosing to live sustainably means that I am deliberately and mindfully putting my time into work (paid or unpaid), relationships and other endeavors which renew and inspire me, not those which leave me feeling drained, depressed or demoralized.

I have learned to check in with my vision regularly—whenever I need to refocus or to consider whether a given commitment is in keeping with my need for a sustainable life.   Visions can be revised or edited as needed but must always accommodate core values, just as an organization returns to its mission statement and edits its strategic plan if it is not working.

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This particular blog post may not seem as “horse related” as some of the others.  For me personally, many components of my vision are about horses and my equine aspirations.  Some of these goals have proven to be exclusive of other ambitions which most people would consider to be more traditional. Most of the time, I am okay with that.  But I would be lying if I said that I never question myself and the path I have chosen.

Many of the concepts of sustainability relate not just to protecting the planet but to living a meaningful life.  And for me right now, this is everything.

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Motivating the Lazy Equine Athlete

Further Learnings from the Area I Scholarship

In 2015, I was lucky enough to be one of ten recipients of an Area I Eventing Scholarship.  In my application, I indicated that I planned to focus on training rather than competing Annapony this season.  I used funds from the scholarship to pay for lessons with Verne Batchelder, Denny Emerson and Nancy Guyotte (see Another Clinic with Nancy Guyotte).  Throughout each session, one theme became abundantly clear:  Anna is a capable, but somewhat lazy, athlete, and nagging her for “more” will get you nowhere. My lesson with Nancy focused mostly on show jumping, while Verne tackled dressage and Denny, cross country.  In this blog, I will discuss the main exercises and techniques learned in the sessions with Verne and Denny.

Verne Batchelder:  Using Double Longeing to Improve Suppleness and Impulsion

Verne Batchelder of River House Hanoverians in Williston, FL, gives clinics regularly in New Hampshire.  I have really enjoyed working with him over the past several years both with Anna and Lee.  One of Verne’s great strengths is his ability to find many different approaches to correcting deficiencies, all while staying within a clear training system and progression.  Verne is also an expert with work in hand, including double longeing and long lining; he regularly includes such techniques in the training programs of his own horses, which I had the opportunity to witness on a visit to his farm several years ago (see Winter Training Sessions: Mini-Pro Style).

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Having worked with Verne a number of times previously, he is well familiar with Anna’s tendency to be generally lacking in impulsion.  Some of this he attributes to her inherent mellow nature, but some of it is due to a lack of suppleness.    We have worked on improving her suppleness in a variety of ways, including improved neck control, the use of traditional lateral exercises such as shoulder fore, leg yield and haunches in, as well as longitudinal stretching work like long and low or lengthenings.

This spring, Verne decided for the first time to incorporate some work on the double longe into our session. His intention was to provide increased support through the outside turning aids while improving control of the curvature of her neck.    I remained mounted while Verne ran two lines; the outside line was simply attached to the bit ring and ran over my leg and around Anna’s hindquarters, while the inside line was set up as a sliding longe.  This meant that the line ran through the inside bit ring and then attached to a loop on the girth, underneath my inside foot.  With the sliding longe, the ground handler can smoothly achieve correct inside flexion.  The outside line allows for a clear and consistent support through the entire arc of the horse’s body while also providing a mechanism to apply a traditional half halt.

Here is a video which shows a little bit of basic long lining.

It is quite a strange feeling to essentially have one’s horse ridden from the ground while one remains mounted!  Anna has longed only a little bit, and I was definitely mildly (well, greatly) concerned that she might not be a model citizen when put into these boundaries.  My job was to essentially hold the reins evenly and to remain centered, adding leg to support Verne’s body position and voice.  At first, Anna was somewhat resistant to the idea of accepting the newly imposed limits.  It is important for a trainer to remember that resistance is only the horse’s way of expressing their displeasure.  If the question the trainer is asking the horse is fair given their physical condition and previous training, and the aids are appropriate, usually the rider’s best response is to simply ignore the resistance and remain consistent in using the aids to ask the appropriate question.  In fairly short order, Anna relaxed into the new parameters established by the double longe and began to more actively engage the muscles of her topline as well as increase the degree of thrust from her hindquarters.  In addition, the connection further stabilized and the quality of the bend improved.

After this session with Verne, I incorporated the use of about ten minutes of warm up on the double longe with Anna on dressage days, with the inside line set up as a sliding longe.  When the horse is unmounted, side reins set just a little bit on the longer side will help to maintain straightness; as always, they should not be adjusted in such a way that the horse’s head is forced down or in. In working with this technique independently, I noticed that Anna could find her own balance and begin to develop looseness throughout her back more rapidly than when warmed up under saddle.  When I rode her after this style of warm up, she was much more willing to stay “hotter” off my leg and therefore I could use a much quieter forward driving aid.

Here is a video of some double longeing.

One of the other huge benefits of using the sliding longe technique to warm up was that the overall work session could remain “short and sweet”.  Because she had already loosened up her muscles, it was possible to keep the actual “work” session much more focused and organized.  I think this is super important with all horses, but especially those which don’t have an unlimited reserve of energy.  If you can get in the ring, do what you need to do, and then go out for a hack, the horse’s attitude will stay fresher and more enthusiastic than when they anticipate a long session of drill work.

Denny Emerson: Jumping Fences off a Forward Stride

Anna and I spent the summer of 2014 up at Tamarack Hill Farm, where we worked hard to rebuild our confidence over fences (see The Tamarack Chronicles: Vol III).  We left in August with a renewed sense of harmony and assurance in our jumping work and completed the fall season with placings at King Oak and Stoneleigh Burnham Horse Trials.

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

Overall, I was able to continue to apply the techniques I had learned at Denny’s to our regular schooling routine and keep Anna’s jumping skills tuned up while working on my own over the winter.  In general, I keep the fences low enough that “mistakes” are not a big deal.  I have focused a lot of energy on further refining my jumping “eye” and improving the quality and consistency of Anna’s jumping canter.

Denny always says that when under pressure, all riders will show a tendency to either “choke” or “chase” their eye.  What he means is that we all have a preference for pushing a horse to lengthen their stride, perhaps leaving a bit too long, or to overly compress the horse, causing them to jump from a deep spot.  While either option might be the best one in a given circumstance, neither is ideal as a method of riding to every fence; this is why most of us have to develop,  through practice, the ability and habit of organizing the horse’s canter to arrive at the  “ideal” take off spot.  It is my opinion that horses, too, have a tendency to prefer to leave long or to jump deep, and they also need to be conditioned to be able to jump from a variety of different reasonable points.

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Anna would be a “choker”.  She can be carrying a decent amount of energy and power in the canter, and then in the final few strides before the fence, drop behind the leg, compress her stride, and calmly decelerate to the base with increasingly shorter strides.  It isn’t quite the same as a “chip”, which is when the horse will squish one extra small stride right in front of the fence.  With Anna, it is a steady deceleration which allows balanced but small strides to be fit into the space where a few longer strides would have been better.  She is simply more comfortable jumping from a slightly tighter distance off a shorter stride.

For a long time, I have allowed Anna to manage her fences in this way, as it seemed to be the place from which she was most confident.  It is also incredibly difficult to prevent her from doing it, and when I try to address the issue, I feel like I am beating her with my legs and/ or crop to keep the canter going.  I have participated in clinics (most notably with Kim Severson) where the entire focus became trying to eliminate this change in the canter, to get Anna to jump more “out of stride”, but I always end up feeling like both Anna and I are frustrated.  She also will begin to shut down if you really push her on it—her response seems to be, “hey, I jumped your fence, lady, what more do you want?”

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The major issue is that there are some fences which simply do not ride as well when jumped from this tighter spot, including upright verticals like planks and wider oxers.  In addition, she will often quit when faced with this deep distance and a tough question.  Yet when I push her to maintain the same canter to avoid this situation, she will obstinately ignore my aids and put herself into the not ideal take off point.  It is just yet another manifestation of her tendency to not stay in front of the leg.  Story of our lives!

So if I rode like Michael Jung or Ingrid Klimke or any of the other equestrian elite, my horse would never have gotten to this point.  But as I am a mere mortal, and have made a ‘deal’ with my horse, I am now faced with trying to change the terms of our established contract.

My session with Denny started in the show jumping arena.  After a brief warm up on the flat, I began popping over a few of the smaller fences in the ring.  Anna was obedient but also performing her signature “I change my canter on the approach” maneuver.  Denny decided that the focus of our session was going to be keeping her much more forward overall, but especially in those critical last few strides before the fence.

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In this lesson at Tamarack in summer of 2014, we were racing an impending storm– the energy in the air came through into the pony and we finally found some forward intention!

Still in the show jumping ring, Denny had me kick Anna up into a cross country style canter—as much of a gallop as Anna will do under saddle (have I mentioned that she is not a very forward thinking animal?).  My job was to do whatever it took—growl, flail, kick like a D2 Pony Clubber—to keep her not just in a jumping canter but a forward, cross country canter, to each and every fence I aimed at.  I really did feel just like a 10 year old whose legs don’t clear the saddle flaps, both in technique and overall effectiveness.  For her part, Anna did stay much more forward, but it wasn’t coming from within her—it was the result of my motivation.

So in spite of seeing this glimmer of improvement, Denny decided that we needed to go out onto the cross country course to seek more energy.  Most horses show an intrinsic improvement in their forward intention when they are out in the open, and the terrain of Vermont would also provide some assistance.  Denny hoped that by adding in these variables, Anna would begin to better ‘self-motivate’ in her approach to the fences.

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Working on a similar exercise at Tamarack in the summer of 2014, we had jumped up a bank and then were looking for a bounce to this vertical.  I must be trying to pick her up off the ground here!

The exercise seemed simple—pick up a positive canter at the bottom of a slope, kick on up the hill, then ride a gradual turn over the crest of the hill and allow the momentum of the descent to carry us forward down to a tire jump at the bottom.  The objective?  To maintain the positive, forward energy up to and across the fence, with no change in step.

It was really, really hard to not “check” Anna on the descent down the hill.  The tire fence we were tackling at the base was small, and so no matter where we came to, Anna would be more than able to cope with getting us up and over.  In spite of that, it took everything in my power to not try to come to a specific take off point.  For the first several attempts, I did pretty well at the roll down the hill but when Anna began her typical slow down at the base, I did little to prevent it.  It was truly amazing how effortlessly she could check all of that forward energy and then insert her little microstrides in before the jump.

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I ended up having to channel that inner ten year old girl again, and basically kick and flail and feel like we just galloped down the hill, before Anna FINALLY jumped the tire fence directly out of stride.

Left to my own devices, I don’t think I would ever have been brave enough to ride Anna so aggressively.  I still have hunter equitation roots, where aids such as visible kicking or moving out of harmony with the horse are certainly frowned upon.  I think I would also have worried too much about getting her out of balance and causing her to make a dangerous mistake.  But Denny made two comments regarding these thoughts:  1) The fences MUST be kept low and straightforward, so that jumping them is a given almost regardless of the horse’s balance and 2) he almost never ever coaches riders to ride like this either.  Anna is just that lazy!

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Finally getting it right!  Photos by Denny Emerson.

My major take home from this session was that no matter what, I NEED to practice remaining assertive and positive with the forward driving aids up to and away from each and every fence.  I don’t think that I have been passive with my aids at all; it is just clear that in some circumstances with some horses, it is possible to be even bigger and louder with your aids than you might think is appropriate!

I would really to thank the members of the Area I Scholarship for choosing me as one of the 2015 recipients.  I feel that I definitely benefitted from the instruction I gained from the scholarship, and I hope that through these blogs, other riders with lazy horses might gain some additional ideas or insights into techniques which can help them, too!

A Journey of a Thousand Miles…or One Hundred

 

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”  W.H.Murray

Murray was a Scottish mountaineer and writer, who spent three years imprisoned during World War II in an enemy camp.  While there, he wrote a draft for a book later called Mountaineering in Scotland on the only paper available to him—toilet paper.  So he knows a thing or two about being resilient, I should think.

Denny Emerson recited this quote to me after the Dark Mare (Lee) and I completed the seemingly impossible— the rigorous three day long, one hundred mile ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association Distance Days, held annually in South Woodstock, Vermont each fall.   What made the completion so sweet, and somewhat amazing, is that previous to that weekend, the longest ride that my horse and I had ever done was a two-day fifty mile route, just one month before. 2015 was only our second season riding in competitive trail, and in 2014 we had ended our first year by finishing the 25 mile ride at this same event, feeling pretty proud of that accomplishment.  To say that we were rookies is an understatement of the term.

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Lee completes her first two day 50 mile ride at GMHA, with her friends Roxie (middle, ridden by Denny Emerson) and Camille (ridden by Robin Malkasian). Photo: M. Emerson.

Denny had first planted the seed in my mind that aiming for the 100 mile ride was a possible goal when I spent the summer of 2014 up at his Tamarack Hill Farm.   At that point, Lee and I had done exactly one 10 mile “intro” conditioning distance ride.  While up in Vermont for the summer, we finished two fifteen and one twenty five mile CTR, and completed one additional twenty five mile ride after we returned home.  Even while I was letting the seed incubate in my mind, there was a more dominant, rational part of my brain which was saying—trying for the 100 would be ridiculous!  You have never done more than a 25 mile ride.  There is no WAY you will be ready, and you have no idea what you are doing.

But still the idea ruminated….

Planning and Prep

Being fairly new to the sport meant that I had no idea how one would go about conditioning a horse to do a 100 mile ride, never mind whether or not it was a good idea to even try to do so.  I gain confidence from feeling well informed and making plans, and so I figured that the New England winter presented a good opportunity to do a little research.

I started with a cover to cover read of several books, especially Hilary Clayton’s bible, Conditioning the Sport Horse, which gave me an outstanding overview of all aspects of conditioning, from physiological changes to the various forms of conditioning (interval, long slow distance, skill drills, etc) to proposed conditioning schedules for various activities.  I also read several books more focused on endurance than competitive trail, but still helpful gave many helpful insights and ideas: Go the Distance by Loving, Endurance Riding by Wilde and The Complete Guide to Endurance Riding and Competition, by Snyder-Smith.  Two of the major takeaways from my research were that 1) just like marathoners don’t go out and run 26.2 miles every day to get ready for their marathons, 100 mile horses don’t go out and ride tens of miles every day to get ready either and 2) a horse who has remained in consistent, steady, 60 minutes/day/6 days/week of work for many years, like Lee, likely has a fairly good base to start with.  Maybe this wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.

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Next, I ordered a heart rate monitor and a GPS watch which measured distance and time.  It arrived shortly after one of several February blizzards, and it took me until June to be able to figure out how to use it properly (when all else fails, but only as a last resort, read ALL of the directions).  The watch was immensely helpful in teaching me a sense of speed over miles—CTR is based on maintaining a fairly steady 6-7 minute mile, and developing an awareness of what this speed feels like over varied terrain is important to ensure that you finish within the allotted window.

Finally, I planned a schedule for the season.  As in any discipline, you can’t push for peak performance year round.  I needed to develop a program which would allow Lee to steadily build her endurance and strength over time, without pushing so hard that she became sore or sour.  I decided up front that if at any point she indicated that she wasn’t feeling up to the task, I would pull back and regroup.  I live in seacoast, NH, where the terrain is rather…coastal.  In order to get ready for the hills and rocks of Vermont, I needed to carefully balance speed work to improve cardiovascular capacity with maintaining soundness in the musculoskeletal system.

Finally, I knew that the CTRs themselves would serve as an important component to her conditioning.  I decided that we would do the 15 mile ride sponsored by VERDA in mid May, followed by a one day 30 mile ride on flatter terrain a few weeks later in Maine (Lee actually was the high point champion that day!).  Based on how she felt after the 30 mile, next I aimed for the 25 mile ride at GMHA in June, and entered the “intro to endurance” 15 mile ride the next day, to have our first experience of a “back to back” weekend.  Considering that she was running away with me at times on the 15 mile, I figured she was coping ok! Our final CTR before the 100 was the two day fifty at GMHA in early August.

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Lee went on to win the Maine 30 CTR with a perfect score of 100.

Before I began our conditioning, I had our vet, Dr. Monika Calitri of Seacoast Equine, out in March.  Lee is 16, and I wanted to make sure that there were no signs of any trouble brewing which would preclude the commencement of her conditioning plan.  With Dr. Calitri’s blessing, we got the green light to move forward with our schedule, and made a plan to recheck her in mid-June, after the back to back 40 mile weekend, to see how she was doing at that point.

As we progressed through each event, Lee felt better and better.  There were a few bumps in the road—she had some minor girth galls after the back to back 40 mile ride, prompting me to ask the trail community for advice (mohair/string girths), and we had some soundness concerns raised by the vet judge at the 50 mile ride, which really gave me pause, though I could personally feel and see nothing wrong.  However, she came out of the recovery phase of her 50 mile feeling better than ever, and after consulting again with Dr. Calitri, we received the green light to enter the 100.

Yet in spite of the successful completion of my preparation, and the encouragement of several mentors in the trail community, I hesitated to enter the 100 mile ride.  I worried that I wasn’t qualified, that I was in over my head, and maybe rerouting to the 60 mile ride, being held the same weekend, was a better plan.

But then I realized that the major reason that I was vacillating about entering the 100 mile ride was because I didn’t want to not finish it.  And as it turns out, if you don’t try, you certainly will not finish.  The only way to finish a 100 mile ride is to start one.

So on closing day, I dropped my entry in the mail.  And so began one of the most exciting and emotional weekends I have ever experienced with my horse.

Team Peanut Butter and Jelly

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Waiting to start on Day One:  Lee, Flower and Robin, Quinn and Kat.  Dr. Joan Hiltz offers us her well wishes!  Photo by H. Reynolds.

I can still count on just a few fingers the total number of people I have ever completed rides with, and not one of them was entering the 100 mile.  I knew that in order to be successful, I would need the guidance and companionship of someone who had done this before.  Through a mutual friend, I was introduced to Kat Waters, who was entered to ride Lee Alexander’s palomino Morgan gelding, Quinn.  Kat kindly agreed to let me join her and her friend, Robin McGrath, who was ironically also riding a palomino Morgan, Flower.  While it was Quinn’s first 100 mile ride, all other participants were veterans from previous years.  As a group, we looked like two pieces of bread and the “stuff” in the middle—Team Peanut Butter and Jelly.

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Flower, in the foreground, and Quinn rest after completing 40 miles on day one.

I must pause here to pay respect to both Kat and Robin, without whom I am sure I would not have completed this ride.  From start to finish, we all functioned as a team, and enjoyed every minute on trail and off.  Kat became the team statistician, keeping track of our pace and the remaining time allowed.  We jokingly referred to Quinn as the “overlord”, as he typically led the group, comprised of his own personal harem.  Robin and Flower helped to set the pace, with their infectious energy and enthusiasm pushing us forward through fatigue and the seemingly never ending Vermont hills.

Our group rode the entire 100 miles from start to finish together, and I don’t think there was a happier or more excited group at any phase of the way.

Day 1—The White Loop (40 Miles)

The day prior to the ride, each competitor was required to ‘weigh in’ on the GMHA Member’s Room porch, carrying tack, helmet, boots and any other equipment they would be carrying with them.  Riders were divided then into “lightweight”, “middleweight” or “heavyweight” divisions.  We also had the standard “vet in”, where we presented our mounts to the judges, Dr. Ann Chaffee and Eva Norris.  Lee decided that she needed to liven things up by bucking vigorously during most of her trot out.  Clearly my strategy to “taper down” before the ride had left her with plenty of energy— but unfortunately, you want to try to match your trot out at the end of the ride with your initial presentation, which meant we had a lot to live up to!

The first day of the ride was the longest on trail, and I was a little nervous knowing that it would be the longest distance I had ever ridden Lee in one go.  To add to my nerves, the route was to take us over the trails in Reading, which are known for being exceptionally rocky and rugged, and therefore difficult to make time on.

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Lee and I about to start the 100 mile ride.  Photo courtesy Robin Malkasian.

Our day started early.  There were just nine horses entered in the 100 mile ride, and so our group of three represented fully one third of the ride’s entry.  We were certainly distinct—two Morgans of color and one decidedly Thoroughbred mare.  No traditional Arabians here!

Once we got on trail, we quickly realized that our three mounts really were going to stick together just like peanut butter and jelly.  The time passed quickly and Lee readily pulsed down at the half way hold.  I was especially pleased because with such a long distance, the hold was at about mile 25—which meant that Lee had gone nearly as far as she had ever gone before without the benefit of a mid-point break.  Other than being hungry, she seemed quite good to continue.

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Quinn and his “ladies”– tackling the Reading trails on day one.  Photo courtesy of Kat Waters.

One of the funniest moments happened at a water stop.  We had caught up with another small group of 100 mile riders, and so about five or six of us were standing in a running stream, allowing our horses to drink.  Lee likes the moving water best, and had finally settled down to take a good drink in, when she decided that actually she was more concerned with scratching her face on her leg.  Somehow, she slipped the crownpiece of her bridle right off over her ears!  We were literally in midstream, and I was NOT interested in dismounting to fix the problem.  I managed to keep enough pressure on the S curve hackamore noseband that I prevented the rest of the bridle from slipping off, and then somehow manipulated the rest of the pieces back into their rightful places, all with one hand.

Upon returning to GMHA grounds, Flower and Lee pulsed down quickly, but Quinn, who is a bit thicker in his muscling, struggled to recover in his pulse parameters, despite a reduced respiration rate.  Kat needed to use every minute of extra time she was granted to continue to sponge and cool Quinn.  Within the rules of CTR, the most we could do was hold him or refill her water buckets—no one but the rider is allowed to apply the water, except in an emergency.  After an anxious wait on all our parts, Quinn was approved by the judges and Team Peanut Butter and Jelly remained intact.

We took the horses out for several walks and periods of hand grazing.  Lee seemed pretty content, and I was incredibly pleased with her for handling the rocky, rugged terrain in the Reading area with such “fight”. I looked forward to the ride the next day.

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Lee looking fairly bright and perky for a horse who just went 40 miles.

The overnight temperature was expected to be in the low 40’s, but the early evening still felt fairly pleasant.  It is not a temperature that I would normally choose to blanket at, so I was surprised to see many other riders bringing out coolers and sheets as the sun dipped down.  Kat and Robin explained to me that after such a big exertion, the horse’s muscles need to be kept warmer than usual to prevent stiffness or cramping as they stood in the stalls overnight.  Fortunately, I had a supply of appropriate horse clothing in the trailer, so I put a sheet on Lee too.  This was just one of many tips this rookie picked up from the other riders.

Day 2—The Red Loop (35 miles)

Day two sent us on the thirty five mile red loop.  Today, we were joined by a medium sized group of horses and riders who were entered in the two day sixty mile ride and a small group who were doing the thirty five exclusively.  The 100 milers were sent out first, though, and it was as we were getting ready to leave that I began to realize what a celebrity status the 100 mile group had at the ride.  People I don’t know, or have only met once, were there to see us off, and many of them knew who we were and who we were riding.

As we started out over some of the fields at GMHA, I could feel tightness in Lee’s back, and I had a moment of panic that she was not right after her long ride the day before.  After a bit of warm up, though, I could feel her muscles begin to loosen, and her stride began to lengthen and swing as it usually does.

Day two was an exciting day on so many levels.  First, the route took us on trails in the town of Brownsville which I had never seen before, including one road which allowed us a fairly stunning view of Mt. Ascutney.  Second, once we passed through the safety check/hold at the half way point, each mile we covered was one mile further than Lee had ever gone before.  I knew that even if we didn’t finish, at that point we still had accomplished a great deal.

I noticed at the halfway hold that some of the galling which I had experienced on the June ride was starting again, in spite of using the mohair girth. I ride Lee in an all purpose saddle that I fished out of a dumpster (I am not making this up), and I had it flocked with wool over the winter. Comparing where Lee’s girth sits in relation to her elbow to the same setting on the trail saddles my friends used, I could see that it really wouldn’t matter what style of girth I chose—the placement of the billets dictate that Lee’s sensitive skin behind the elbow is destined to become pinched over longer distances.  Small issues with tack which are only minor irritations on a daily basis can become major issues or even deal breakers as the miles add up.  I reset the saddle, stretched her legs, and hoped for the best.

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“Oh, the things I must endure…” says Lee. Photo courtesy of Robin Malkasian.

When we got back to the GMHA grounds, it was clear that the galls had grown, even though Lee didn’t seem to compromise her movement because of them.  However, her always-tending-towards-tight back was now incredibly sore, to the point where even a light brush of the fingers elicited a strong reaction, and she had two “hot spots” forming in the saddle area where she was exceptionally sensitive.

The judging team was not thrilled with these developments either, and they asked me to re-present Lee to them in the morning.  The rules of CTR are quite clear that no lotions, salves, medications or other “product” can be used on the horses while the competition is underway; however, soaked towels, massage and hand walking are all completely legal.  I spent hours over the afternoon and into the evening applying cool towels to Lee’s hot spots and galls, alternating with periods of hand walking and grazing or massaging the long muscles of her neck, topline and hindquarter.

Gradually, there was some reduction in the swelling, and Lee’s saddle area seemed to be less sensitive.  Kat returned from afternoon chores on her own local farm with several different versions of saddle pad and girth to try for the third day, as it was clear that several of the galls correlated with the positions of the string on the mohair girth.

I spent an anxious night in my trailer, hoping that Lee’s sore spots would resolve enough overnight to allow us to start.  We were so close to our goal, but I didn’t want to ride her if doing so was going to compromise her well-being.

Day 3—The Blue Loop (25 miles)

It was still night out when I arose to get ready for my AM pre-check on day three.  Hoping that the coyote pack which seemed to visit the grounds each morning around 4 AM had finished its rounds, I headed to the barns.  No one else seemed to be up and about yet, but the horses were alert to my activity.   More horses had arrived the night before as riders settled in for the twenty five and fifteen mile rides happening on day three, and the barns were fairly full.

As Lee ate her AM feed, I cautiously checked the galls from the day before.  Nearly all were flat or close to it, and her sensitivity level was much reduced.  I spent a little more time massaging the big muscles of her topline, while trying to keep as much of her body covered with the blanket as possible.  I had done nothing towards getting ready for the day—I hadn’t prepared my hold bucket or organized feed, I hadn’t tried on any of the borrowed pads or girths—as it felt too much like tempting fate to set up for something which I might not be permitted to do.  Once Lee was done eating, I took her out for a graze and a long, loosening walk.  I practiced a few trot ups to get her muscles supple and warm.  She seemed willing to move and to trot, and maybe a little bit rolling her eyes at me as if to say, “Really?  Again?”

At 5:45 AM, we presented to our judge team at the pavilion.  They noted her improved topline and asked me to jog her.  I am not sure I breathed the entire time we presented ourselves in hand, but I let out a long exhale when they gave me the thumbs up to start.  Team Peanut Butter and Jelly was still holding together.

I had to hustle back in the stabling area to finish preparations for the day’s ride.  I scooted right out of the pre-ride briefing in order to experiment with the tack options.  I ended up using a quilted and padding enforced dressage pad I found in my trailer, with my usual half pad and Kat’s fuzzy double elastic girth.  This combination seemed to provide good distribution of padding over the saddle area and also elicited only a minimal response from Lee as I tacked her up.

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Lee takes a break on Cookie Hill during day 3. Photo courtesy Kat Waters.

The last day of the ride was glorious.  To be quite honest, after riding forty and thirty five miles, back to back, twenty five felt like an absolute piece of cake.  We enjoyed gorgeous fall weather, stunning views, and the traditional chocolate chip cookies at the top of Cookie Hill.  After we passed through the final half way hold of the ride, I realized I was smiling like a crazy person and getting a little giddy.  We had less than thirteen miles to go.  We just might finish this thing!

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Team Peanut Butter and Jelly returning to the White Ring after completing 100 miles. Photo courtesy H. Reynolds.

I am not sure I can fully put into words the feeling of returning to the White Ring for the third time, and hearing our names announced once more, this time proclaiming us one hundred mile finishers.  People on the rail cheered.  I just kept stroking Lee’s neck, silently thanking her for giving me her best over the entire process—not just these three days, but the weeks and months leading up to it.  As we dismounted after crossing the finish line, I gave Lee a big hug around her neck.  She sighed.  She isn’t much for demonstration of affection but I think after 100 miles, she was willing to put up with me just a little longer.

Thanks and Gratitude

The entire experience of my first three day 100 mile ride was amazing and humbling. The people I have met in the competitive trail community have been truly helpful and have often gone out of their way to help my rookie self out—I am greatly indebted to the wisdom and guidance of them all, but especially Robin Malkasian and Kate Burr, Denny Emerson, Sarah MacDonald and of course Kat Waters and Robin McGrath.

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Robin and Flower won all kinds of honors, including High Point Morgan and the Reserve Champion High Point Horse of the whole ride!

 

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Kat and Quinn received honors for being the best Morgan trail horse, high point rookie horse and the horsemanship award.

These rides are a ton of work to put on, and I have found both the organizers and volunteers to be gracious and helpful, frequently answering my questions and giving me guidance.  And of course, all riders must acknowledge the willingness of land owners to allow us access to their properties—such an amazing privilege.

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Team Peanut Butter and Jelly still sticking together at the awards ceremony.

To my friends at home who also have shown me so much support and love, helped train with me and take care of me and the critters—Dr. Amanda Rizner, Pam, Molly and Kaeli McPhee, Heidi Chase, Dr. Monika Calitri and our wonderful farrier, Nancy Slombo, who often will come on a day’s notice when I change my mind and decide that no, that shoe WON’T stay on through the weekend after all– my deepest gratitude and appreciation.

But my biggest acknowledgement of all must go to the Dark Mare herself.  Anyone who knows Lee and I also knows what a tremendously long road we have been on together, literally and figuratively.  I am so appreciative for all that she has taught me and for finally finding a niche in which this wonderful athlete can truly excel.

 

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Photo credit to Denny Emerson.

Green Mountain Horse Association’s 79th Annual 100 Mile Ride

Christina Keim and Liatris:  1st place Middleweight Division, Champion Rookie Rider, Perkion Trophy for Best Scoring Thoroughbred

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.– Goethe

 

Trusting the Unstrustful Horse

We joke that the Dark Mare, Lee, is a survivor. She lives her life in a fairly constant state of alertness, and if there is a sign of trouble brewing, she is going to get out of dodge.  In her younger years, she broke cross ties and halters with frequent regularity and closely monitored objects such as dumpsters, mounting blocks and piles of jumps for the presence of trolls, chipmunks and other instigators of mayhem.   While she has mellowed somewhat, in general, if danger is afoot, Lee is leaving—with or without you.

When Lee gets upset about something, she can really revert to a primitive state of fight or flight.  On the one hand, it is easy to understand that this reaction has kept horses as a species alive for eons, and the behavior is imprinted in her genetic code.  But at the same time, it is frustrating because the reaction can be so out of proportion to the problem. And at some level, one would hope that her training and systematic exposure to all kinds of stimuli would result in at least one ounce of trust in her humans, but this has not always been the case.

Lee enjoyed the cow-free cow barn in Maine at the 30 mile CTR.  I was also impressed by her overall "coping" here, including the wind blowing hard all night, which rattled the metal roof panels to no end.
Lee enjoyed the cow-free cow barn in Maine at the 30 mile CTR. I was also impressed by her overall “coping” here, including the wind blowing hard all night, which rattled the metal roof panels to no end.

As a result of dealing with this behavior for the better part of a decade, I realize that I have come to assume the worst of Lee in many circumstances, expecting her to have mini or major meltdowns over various situations.  You might think that I am about to tell you how my preconceived ideas usually set up a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that Lee lives up to my (minimal) expectations when push comes to shove.  However, increasingly, the opposite is the case, and perhaps it is I who has the trust issue, not Lee.

This March, tired of being in the indoor and looking for a change of pace, I was riding Lee in the dirt parking lot at the University of New Hampshire during its Spring Break week.  The footing was actually quite good given the season and weather we had experienced this winter, but the lot was ringed with a decently sized plow bank creating a de facto fence line and leaving only one entrance/exit from the lot.  I had planned to do a set distance, changing direction at regular intervals, working at the trot and canter.  As I was getting close to the end of my set, I noticed a fairly dark and ominous looking cloud in the not so far distance, coming from the direction that ‘weather’ normally approaches us from.  “I am almost done,” I thought. “Two more laps and I will head in. No problem.”

Lee and I took our first selfie ever at the Rockingham Rail Trail after a solo 14 mile conditioning ride this July.
Lee and I took our first selfie ever at the Rockingham Rail Trail after a solo 14 mile conditioning ride this July.

Almost before the thought was complete, the wind picked up like I have never experienced and began to howl. Debris that I hadn’t previously noticed was flying sideways and into us.  Suddenly it began to precipitate—something.  Hail? Snow balls?  I couldn’t even tell you because the intensity of the icy precipitation combined with the incredible wind meant that I couldn’t even lift my head.  Lee instinctively swung her hindquarters into the wind, but we were still being pummeled from all sides and were instantly soaked through.  I had no idea what was going to come next—I wondered if a tornado were about to blow through, and had the thought, “so this is how it will end”.

We were not in a safe situation, and I knew we needed to get out of there, but due to the snow banks and our position in the lot, to do so required riding the length of the parking lot heading straight into the wind and snow/ice/rain to reach the exit.  I truly couldn’t even raise my head to see ahead of us due to the intensity of the weather, so I dropped down onto her neck and yelled “go on!” to Lee over the wind.  And sure enough, Lee actually went—straight into the wind, neck and head down, in spite of the power of the frenzied air.  As soon as we rounded the corner, I urged her to the trot and we made a break for the barn, wind to our backs.

Denny Emerson and High Brook Rockstar and Lee and I about to start the Hartland 15 Mile CDR in July of 2014.
Denny Emerson and High Brook Rockstar and Lee and I about to start the Hartland 15 Mile CDR in July of 2014.

I was impressed with Lee that day.  She would have been well within her rights to bolt or panic, to scoot or ignore me.  But for whatever reason, she didn’t.  I was (and still am) quite proud of her for all of it and for getting the both of us to safety.

This spring, I had to move both of my horses to new facilities.  Anna had been in the same barn for five years, but Lee had been at UNH for over ten.  I wasn’t too worried about Anna making the transition, but I honestly worried and worried about Lee.  I can worry like it is my job.  The barn she moved to is a low key private barn at my good friend’s home; it allowed Lee her own paddock with run in and access to dirt roads and trails.  Perfect.  Yet I worried.  My friend has a mule—what if Lee is scared of her funny mule noises?  The fencing is just electric wire.  What if Lee doesn’t see it or respect it? What if I can’t ride Lee alone on the roads? What if…?

The night before the move, it poured, the first rain in almost a month.  When I say it poured, I am talking about the soaking type of deluge that saturates you through to your core instantly, the kind that is like a hose from above.  I don’t think I slept more than a few fits and starts as my anxiety and worry ate away at me.  What if Lee won’t go into the shelter?  What if she works herself up into a colic?

As I hitched up the trailer in the pouring rain, I not so silently cursed the Powers That Be for the weather on this most important of days.  The schedule was to move Lee first, then go back and pick up Anna, since she was taking over Lee’s stall at UNH.

When we arrived at Namaste Farm, Lee fairly quietly unloaded, marched into her new abode, and took a tour around.  She didn’t touch the wire fence.  She didn’t respond when her new neighbors whinnied to her.  While clearly not 100% settled, she was far, far less worried that I was.  We did end up having to lock her into her run in that evening, as it continued to pour, because she wanted to stand outside near the other horses (who had sensibly gone into their own sheds) even once she was shivering under her rain sheet.  Once she figured out that the shelter was dry though, she began using it on her own when the doors were re-opened the next day.  We haven’t had to shut them since.

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Lee’s new friends, Taydee the Connemara and Marybeth Applebottom, the chestnut appaloosa mule.

After a day or two to settle in, I took her for her first ride.  I decided to start in the fields first.  Lee’s new neighbors whinnied as we left, but she didn’t answer, and instead was all business.  But when we got to the fields, she became quite unsettled and agitated, and was being overly spooky and difficult.  “Here we go,” I thought to myself.  “I knew this would happen.  She is going to be unrideable here.”  I ended up having to dismount for safety and led her in hand for a bit, full of negative thoughts and wondering what I had gotten myself into.

The fields were soaked after the heavy rain and I was worried about leaving hoof prints once she started to act up, so I decided that maybe I should try taking Lee down the dirt road instead.  I had hesitated to start with this, because the traffic on the road can occasionally be unpredictable and since she can be too, I thought it might be a bad combination.   However, I knew that on the road I could more confidently ask Lee to go forward and it seemed like maybe that was just what she needed.

Lee having breakfast shortly after arriving at her new home.
Lee having breakfast shortly after arriving at her new home.

So I gamely re-mounted and headed off down the road, away from the farm.  Almost instantly, my reliable distance horse was back.  She happily trotted off, one-two-one-two,  going all the way to where the pavement starts near the town line, and then home.  No issues.  No spooking.  No drama.  She was in her Zen place.

And so it has gone with Lee at Namaste Farm. Since that first ride, she has gone all the way into Newmarket and into a little subdivision, she has ridden alone and in company to Adams Point and seen her first cormorants and sailboats, and she has even come to tolerate the fields (though the bugs which live on them, not so much).  She has done nearly two hundred miles of trail since her arrival, and is just one of the herd.

I don’t think I will ever stop worrying about things which haven’t happened and might not ever happen.  I can at least recognize that the worry and anxiety I feel is, for me, an inevitable part of change, but I also am trying to learn to be more accepting of the fact that some variables are just out of my control.  I think worry starts with some kernel of truth, but then it can grow and mutate and take on a life of its own.

Lee completes her first two day 50 mile ride at GMHA, with her friends Roxie (middle, ridden by Denny Emerson) and Camille (ridden by Robin Malkasian).
Lee completes her first two day 50 mile ride at GMHA, with her friends Roxie (middle, ridden by Denny Emerson) and Camille (ridden by Robin Malkasian).

I need to start to give Lee more credit for the animal she has become.  On August 1-2, she completed her first two day 50 mile competitive trail ride (CTR), and I never felt one ounce of quit in her the whole weekend.  In a week, she has more than recovered and was joyfully jigging all over the place on our AM ride today.  While I am sure there will be situations in the future where the “survivalist” Lee comes back, I also think that I know the horse well enough to start to trust that she will cope more often than she won’t.

As we all know, trust in any relationship is a two way street.  Perhaps Lee and I are more alike than we are different in our tendency to worry.  Sometimes I take care of her, and sometimes she takes care of me.

Early AM grazing in Vermont, August 2015.
Early AM grazing in Vermont, August 2015.

On Being an “Ivory Tower Equestrian”

An online dictionary defines the term “ivory tower” as “a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world”.  It is frequently used in a derisive way, especially in regards to academia, to imply that someone’s ideas or actions are not as relevant as they might be otherwise because they are so far out of step with reality.

The day to day life of a full time, self-employed equine professional can certainly be grueling.  These people often refer to the fact that being seriously involved with horses is a way of life, and they don’t mind the challenging aspects, including the long hours and few days off.  The up side—being able to spend so much time with horses and to watch horses and riders under their direction or care grow and develop, outweighs the challenges.  However, few would say that the self-employed route is easy, and there are certainly at least moments during which most reasonable people would consider whether the stress and adversity are really worth it.

Before joining the faculty at UNH, I too was “in the trenches” and cobbled my living together through an assortment of jobs.  In the mornings, I was an assistant barn manager at a dressage facility, completing the usual daily chores but also getting horses ready for the trainer/manager.  In the afternoons, I ran a small lesson business on borrowed school horses, teaching mostly children the basics of horsemanship.  I taught Pony Club.  I worked part time at UNH for a few semesters.  I worked in the banquet department at the Sheraton, where I learned that the best shifts were for weddings, because most everyone was in a good mood and there was a DJ and cake.   I lived from contract to contract. I paid through the nose for a health insurance policy which would still have required me to drain all savings before it would have paid a cent.

My horse Lee and two UNH IHSA team members, each of whom won a flat class on her at the home show.
My horse Lee and two UNH IHSA team members, each of whom won a flat class on her at the home show.

When I first started at UNH, it was positively decadent.  I couldn’t BELIEVE that they sent me a paycheck every two weeks just for showing up.  UNH has excellent benefits, both insurance wise and investment wise, and you can also take classes.  I was able to complete my Master’s degree mostly for free.  The hours are still long, and there have been plenty of nights and weekends dedicated to the cause.  But by and large, it has provided me with a great deal of security and stability, values which I have determined are essential for my mental health.  And most of the time, I get to do what I like to do: work with horses and humans.

Participants in UNH's therapeutic riding program.  Shazaam, Marcy and Quill are all now retired, while Snowy (second from right) is a boarder who still works part time in the therapeutic program.
Participants in UNH’s therapeutic riding program. Shazaam, Marcy and Quill are all now retired, while Snowy (second from right) is a boarder who still works part time in the therapeutic program.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend four days in Michigan teaching a Pony Club camp—it was great fun, and a nice chance to get back to my roots.  The schedule was full, as was camp enrollment—something like 32 campers and a few Horsemasters, four mounted instructors and assorted local experts helping out with unmounted topics.

The three other instructors who I worked with all run their own riding/training/lesson businesses.  One owns a thriving eventing and dressage barn, and had during one day in the previous week taught 18 lessons and ridden something like five horses.  Another maintains foxhunters for owners who come to ride on weekends, providing full service care including daily conditioning rides and then shipping to and turning out for hunts.  The third has a combination of training horses and lesson clients, straddling the disciplines of dressage and eventing.

With members of the UNH IHSA team at a Vermont show.
With members of the UNH IHSA team at an Vermont show.

Listening to their discussions about the ups and downs of their businesses was enlightening.  One trainer travels from farm to farm in the afternoons to teach private clients.   A few clients are chronic last minute cancellers, which leaves her on the road with an hour or more of down time.  When you freelance, time is money, and when such cancellations become common it can significantly impact the bottom line. She is struggling to come up with a cancellation policy which won’t alienate her clients but can protect her interests.

The trainers all have a few “difficult” clients; we know the archetype.  They have more money than horse sense; they want to do cool and fun movements or jump big jumps with their horses, but do none of the actual work that gets you to that level; and they demand constant attention and validation.  They talked about the strategies they use to keep these clients on track, working towards attaining goals without pushing too hard, placating their concerns and worries via text and phone.  I was exhausted just listening to them.

Then there was the discussion on insurance, all aspects of it—liability/professional, but also health and disability. It is a cripplingly expensive essential. The cost can make it hard for them to save money for future plans or retirement.

It was then that I realized that I may have, quite inadvertently, become an “Ivory Tower Equestrian”, and I listened to the conversation with a bit of detachment. I used to deal with all of these concerns in my previous life, but my current reality is somewhat different.  When a student chooses to repeatedly not come to class or doesn’t want to work super hard at it, their grade is reduced.  Liability insurance is not a major concern as our activities fall under the university’s umbrella policy.  If the weather is bad for a few days, or I am out sick or need to take a day off for personal reasons, I will still get paid the same amount.

Retired UNH horse Flash models the equine digestive system for students participating in the 2013 Equine Education Day.
Retired UNH horse Flash models the equine digestive system for students participating in the 2013 Equine Education Day.

From the outside looking in, it might seem like we Ivory Tower Equestrians have it made.  And in many ways, we do.  But it is not all sunshine and roses, and in some ways the challenges we face are not all that dissimilar to those of our self-employed brethren.  They are similar, but different.

Sometimes Lee lets riders from other schools win prizes too-- here a rider from Colby Sawyer celebrates after winning reserve high point honors.
Sometimes Lee lets riders from other schools win prizes too– here a rider from Colby Sawyer celebrates after winning reserve high point honors.

At colleges/universities, programs live and die by their overall enrollments.  If your classes are full, and there are students in your degree program, then odds are good that there will be some kind of continued support for you, though rarely in the amount or frequency which is actually needed.  But the reverse of the equation is true, and the reality is that an equine program is an expensive one to run.  The “lab equipment” used in all of the hands on classes, including horsemanship but others as well, requires daily care, food, and veterinary/farrier attention.  These aren’t microscopes that sit quietly on a shelf until they are next needed.  All of the usual issues with facility maintenance apply to us, too; fencing needs to be replaced, footing wears out, tack gets worn.  In some ways, it is worse for us than at a private facility, because of the high volume of use during the academic year.  School horse saddles can be ridden in for as many as ten hours per day; when you multiply that times five days per week per a fifteen week semester, that is a lot of seat time for one saddle to see.  These costs are partially covered by the lab fees paid by students; if our classes aren’t full, or the lab fees exceed what the students are willing or able to pay, then the house of cards begins to quickly topple.

Two UNH riders with leased horse Wiggle and UNH's Whisper celebrate after their first ever two phase competition.
Two UNH riders with leased horse Wiggle and UNH’s Whisper celebrate after their first ever two phase competition.

Some people, both from within and from outside of the university setting, criticize the existence of collegiate equine programs, and they are derisive towards the validity of an equine studies degree.  Some think that all we do is ride, or that we are part of the athletics department. At one staff meeting last semester, a tenured faculty member asked if our students’ final capstone course was whether or not they could sit eight seconds on a bucking bronco.  As a program, we are constantly evaluating our curriculum both for efficacy and rigor, but still there are those who publicly and privately question what we do.  At the end of the day, the University of New Hampshire Equine Program graduate is receiving a Bachelor of Science degree, with a heavy emphasis on biological science and including courses in general biology, anatomy and physiology, genetics and nutrition, with specialty courses in equine disease and sports medicine, amongst others.  These subjects and the skills students gain in studying them are applicable to a wide range of career paths, both in and out of the equine industry. Regardless of choice of college major, it is up to the student to figure out what to do with it.  A college major, and the degree it elicits, is only a starting point; the student must then seek out opportunities to continue to grow and expand their careers.

A senior equine studies major 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.
A senior equine studies major 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.

Some of the same external critics who deride the validity of an equine degree also publicly criticize anyone who would even CONSIDER donating their horse to a collegiate program.  At least 90% of our horses come as donations from private individuals.  They come for a variety of reasons—age, manageable conditions which reduce resale value, owner financial issues, or a horse that is not up to the continued challenge of a competitive show career, for examples.  Many donors want to know that their horse will not continue to be sold on and on.  Some of our horses have been in our program for most of their lives.  They are well cared for, loved, carefully supervised, and have allowed hundreds if not thousands of horsemen to grow and develop during the animals’ careers with us.  When our horses tell us that they are no longer happy doing what we need them to do, we seek to place them in carefully screened adoptive homes, sometimes with former students.  If they are in pain, suffering or otherwise unwell in a manner which will cause a diminishing quality of life, we allow them a humane and dignified end when their time comes.  However they leave us, we cry to lose them and smile with their memories.

Longtime UNH school horse Cooper passed away this spring at the age of 23 after a period of failing health.  He was in the program for thirteen years.
Longtime UNH school horse Cooper passed away this spring at the age of 23 after a period of failing health. He was in the program for thirteen years.

People criticize equine programs because they cannot keep horses forever.  The reality is that all horses get to an age or physical condition in which their workload must be modified or ceased.  After all, this is often the reason that their original owners passed the horse on to us in the first place.  If the former owner has asked to be notified when this time comes, we always do so (and sometimes even when they have not asked, just to make them aware).  Very few are interested in taking their horses back but are grateful for the call.

UNH students riding school owned horses Clementine, Whisper and Morocco participated in a clinic with UNH graduate Nancy Guyotte.
UNH students riding school owned horses Clementine, Whisper and Morocco participated in a clinic with UNH graduate Nancy Guyotte.

The critics claim that equestrian programs at universities overwork horses, quickly sell them on, or ship them off to auction when they don’t work out.  Perhaps that happens at other places, but it does not happen here.  And frankly, it really frosts me to read those kinds of ignorant comments.  We are quite transparent with our policies and the use of our horses; in fact, every single activity we do with our horses—from riding them to practicing bandaging to therapeutic riding— must be reviewed and approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and their work hours are carefully documented.  I somehow doubt that most privately owned lesson strings receive such comprehensive and regulated monitoring.

UNH equine residents check out the view.
UNH equine residents check out the view.

We Ivory Tower Equestrians may not be working to run our own business, but many of us are working to run the business that is our program.  We must recruit new “clients” (students) and ensure that the “product” that we are selling them (a B.S. degree) is of high quality and a good value for the money.  We must balance the needs of our program with the values of a constantly changing and somewhat underfunded state university.  And just like our comrades in the field, if our clients aren’t satisfied with our output, they will take their business elsewhere.  A true Ivory Tower Equestrian who does not consider these realities will likely find themselves out of a job. Perhaps we are more alike than we are different.

UNH Equine Program co-hosted a course design clinic with internationally acclaimed designer Richard Jefferey with USEA Area I.  Here students pose with Jefferey after building the show jumping course for the UNH Horse Trials 40th Anniversary.
UNH Equine Program co-hosted a course design clinic with internationally acclaimed designer Richard Jefferey with USEA Area I. Here students pose with Jefferey after building the show jumping course for the UNH Horse Trials 40th Anniversary.

For me, this experience was an important one in terms of remembering what the daily concerns of the self-employed instruction business is like, but also to appreciate the unique benefits and challenges of the university setting.

Riding Your Own Ride

When we were kids in school, most of us were told to keep our eyes on our own papers.  Ostensibly, this was a punitive measure for not studying, designed to prevent us from getting a leg up from the students around us who we perceived to be smarter than ourselves or more likely to have the correct answer.  However, it is quite often the case that we in fact do know the right answer, and keeping our eyes on our own papers is a means to demonstrate our own skills, knowledge and strengths.

I have long struggled with feeling insecure about my riding, probably because it is the one thing above almost anything else which is tied to my self-identity.  Riding is a humbling sport, in so many ways.  How many times have we equestrians said that horses are our best teachers?  Every single day, we can learn new things about ourselves, our own horses, and about horses in general, if only we are willing and able to listen.  But sometimes our eyes stray, and we take in the movement of another horse, the skills of another rider, the amenities of a different facility, and we begin to doubt the value of what we have in front of us.

Annapony and Dark Mare (Lee)
Annapony and Dark Mare (Lee) at Tamarack Hill Farm last summer.

This happens to me all the time.  But I am slowly learning the value and technique of riding your own ride.

This spring has been a time of real growth for the dark mare, Lee.  As we progress towards our season’s goal of completing the three day 100 mile ride at GMHA in early September, I have been gradually stepping up her competitive distances.  This May, we rode our first one day thirty mile ride.  It was full of new adventures—we had to camp the night before, with Lee spending the night in a three sided cow stall at a fairground in rural Maine, while I slept in my horse trailer (the part the horse rides in, not a tack room or LQ).  We didn’t know anyone there, but the other riders and organizer went out of their way to be helpful and friendly to the rookie rider and horse.  The morning of the ride was cold, in the thirties, and as I hand grazed Lee before the ride started she was leaping about at the end of the line.  I am sure that some who witnessed her behavior wondered how the rookies were going to fare that day.

Lee enjoyed the cow-free cow barn in Maine.
Lee enjoyed the cow-free cow barn in Maine.

We rode out with another rider, a gentleman on a lovely Dutch Harness Horse who was doing day one of the three day eighty mile ride.   Lee has overall gotten much better about going out on her own, but has a hard time leaving other horses if they are around.  So for the first several miles, we stuck with the gray gelding and his veteran rider.

As both horses began to loosen up and get moving forward, they seemed to be staying at a steady pace consistent with the training rides I had been doing with Lee.  The terrain on this ride was mostly flat, which meant that it was easy to sort of just motor along.  This rider told me that he had more recently been doing endurance competitions (which is essentially a race) and so was needing to readjust his sense of pace to suit competitive trail, which requires riders to finish within a set window, neither too slow or too fast.  He used a combination of trot and canter, and for a while I kept pace with him.

But then I looked at my watch, and I realized we were averaging five minute miles.  I knew that this was not a pace that Lee could sustain, nor was it necessary to do so to finish the ride on time. So I gradually held Lee back, allowing the gray horse to push further and further ahead, eventually leaving our field of vision altogether.  For the first time in her competitive trail career, Lee and I were riding alone.

Looking forward.
Between the ears– riding Lee in Vermont summer of 2014.

Without a friend to lead her, Lee was a little less confident, spooking or shying more than usual, but she gradually settled into her own rhythm and continued steadily forward.  We continued like this for nearly ten miles, and as we traveled along, I reflected on the truth of needing to do what is right for your own horse.  In endurance riding, the tag line is, “to finish is to win”, and experienced riders talk about the importance of building a horse up for years before they get to the level of strength and experience that they can actually race and attempt to win at rides.  Competitive trail is assessed by more subjective criteria than endurance, but the overarching theme is that your horse must be well taken care of before, during and after the ride if you are going to achieve a good result.  That means that you, the rider, must make good choices for your horse in terms of when and how hard you push them onwards, which requires that you have an excellent awareness of both their fitness level and condition as well as how they are handling the ride that day.

Lee and I caught up to other riders at the half way hold, including our friend on the gray.  She quickly pulsed down to recovery criteria and continued on in good form.  But I don’t think this would have been the case if I had tried to keep up with the other horse.  It wasn’t a question of his horse being ‘better’ than mine, or he being a savvier rider.  She simply wasn’t as fit as he was, because the two horses are currently on different training paths. The gray horse’s pace was inappropriate for Lee.  It was important for me to stick to what I knew was right for my own horse, and to ride my own ride.

Lee went on to win the Maine 30 CTR with a perfect score of 100.
Lee went on to win the Maine 30 CTR with a perfect score of 100.

This June, I had the amazing opportunity to officiate in the Connemara division at the Upperville Colt and Pony Show, held in the heart of Virginia horse country.  This year was the 162nd anniversary of the show, and my first time officiating as a licensed USEF judge.  No big deal—just one of the most prestigious “AA” shows in the country, and the largest sanctioned Connemara division.   I admit I was nervous to be a part of such a cultured history in horse showing.

The show grounds are incredible, and overall the quality of the horses there matches the atmosphere.  One doesn’t bring the average workaday hunter to compete at Upperville. This is a land of quality breeding, high end care and all the accoutrements that go along with it.  There are classes running on both sides of the street, countless vendors, spectators everywhere and golf carts galore.  The evenings each feature some sort of marquee class, one night a grand prix, the next a $25,000 Hunter Derby.  Ringside parties are attended by richly dressed members of the social elite; the old money just oozes off of them, in the most non ostentatious way possible.   I am confident that the amount that most competitors spent on their week of showing would send a family of four on a decent vacation.

http://www.upperville.com/

It would be so easy to become jealous of the riders there, to long for a pair of their custom field boots (made by someone whose name I can’t pronounce), to covet their high end tack, their amazing, highly trained jumper (the one who TOTALLY ignored their cues to leave a stride out at the combination and who instead smartly touched their feet down just so and carried that rider straight into the jump off).

But instead, I am learning to ride my own ride.

Instead of getting overwhelmed by the sheer affluence of the horse show, I found myself able to look at it with new perspective. We can spend our time bemoaning the “things” or the assets which we haven’t got, or we can spend that same life energy focused on using our resources to their best advantage.  My pocket book may not be anywhere near as deep as that of the average Upperville competitor, but that doesn’t mean that I am not making steady progress towards my own goals.  Being a successful rider means different things to different people, and for me, my own success is not dictated by the caliber of the competition which I am able to afford to attend.  We each have to set those goals which make the most sense given our unique set of variables.  We need to know which goals are most important to us, and by identifying the destinations which matter the most, we can better prioritize whatever resources we have at our disposal towards reaching that goal.

Anna and her friend Izzy show U of New Hampshire Wildcat pride at the Wentworth Hunt Hnter Pace in May.
Anna and her friend Izzy show U of New Hampshire Wildcat pride at the Wentworth Hunt Hnter Pace in May.

Finally, I have a sneaking feeling that there are people who I know, who I am friends with on Facebook, who I see out and about, who are looking at me and saying, “gee, I wish I had what Chris has…she is really living the dream”.  I have two horses, a truck and trailer, a great job which allows me the freedom to pursue some of my own equestrian goals as well as the opportunity to be doing “horse things” for my paid work.  I appreciate how truly fortunate I have been to get to where I have gotten to, with the support of so many friends and family members that I couldn’t even begin to name names.  Sometimes I wasn’t as grateful to them as I should have been, for which I am sorry but I am trying to be better. And I am trying to be better about keeping in perspective the fact that there are aspiring riders who would love to be standing in my shoes.

So the next time you find yourself saying, “if only…” stop and ask yourself instead why you think that what the other person has or is doing is better than you.  Consider if the answers you have put down on your own paper are, in fact, valid and correct for you.

Ride your own ride.

Caring for the Older Horse

As the caregiver for a 33.5 year old equine (who has been in my life since he was a mere lad of 16 years), I am frequently asked for insight or advice in terms of the care of the older horse.  I have to admit that in Carmel’s case, I think I have had the advantage of some good genetics—his dam was a maiden mare in her upper twenties, who was bred by a recently gelded youngster who jumped the fence.  Clearly there is something in these lines which is determined to survive!

That being said, I feel that Carmel’s longevity and good health can also be attributed to several critical care and management decisions along the way.  I have the unique advantage of basically knowing his whole life’s history, and I know that he has always been well taken care of.  With the ever improving quality in veterinary care and an increase in owner education, it stands to reason that more people will be finding themselves caring for aged horses who are still sound, happy and healthy members of the equine community.

Carmel at one of his last events at UNH, ca 2000.
Carmel at one of his last events at UNH, ca 2000.

For me, caring for an older horse has been a gift, but it has not been without its hard times too.  Once horses reach a certain age, it is a tough truth that as the steward of that animal’s well-being, you will be asked to make some hard decisions.  Horses are expensive to maintain, and it isn’t everyone’s reality that they can afford to keep a horse who doesn’t suit their personal needs anymore.  I feel quite strongly that if you make the commitment to keep a horse into their retirement years, you have an obligation to do right by that animal—which usually means that you will be doing more than just meeting the horse’s basic needs for shelter, feed and water.  It is important to know, going into it, just where your personal “bottom” is—knowing this will hopefully help ease the difficulty of making judgement calls when they come before you.

So with all that being said, here are five tips from my own personal experience caring for older horses.

Tip # 1:  Give them a job.  In my opinion, a horse which is used to competing, regular riding or even just weekly pleasure outings doesn’t do well in complete retirement.  Horses are creatures of habit and routine, and when they are used to a consistent program, it can actually increase mental stress and contribute to physical issues when their work is ceased, particularly when such a change is made abruptly.  Certainly as horses age, their job will change.  But this doesn’t mean that they don’t still have a niche to fill.  The term “schoolmaster” is frequently used to describe the experienced horse which teaches the novice.  While it is perhaps most appropriately used to describe horses trained to elite levels, I believe that the term is relative.  Carmel never competed above novice level in eventing but went on to give lessons to many beginners who learned to walk, trot, canter, and jump small fences on him, and he took several Pony Clubbers up to the D3 level, all after he “retired” at 20.  Even today at 33.5 years old, I take Carmel for twenty minute hacks a few times per week in order to provide him with some sort of structure and routine.

Tip # 2: Quit while you are ahead. A corollary note to tip # 1 is that in order for your older horse to have a job, they must retire mostly sound.  This means that it is imperative for you to be highly in tune with your horse and to fully consider the consequences of pushing them “just one more season” at a level which is becoming a physical challenge.  While we certainly can prolong the performance career of our horses through the judicious use of all means of sports medicine therapies, it is my opinion that the conscientious horse owner must always consider at what point enough is enough.  Horses which need extreme maintenance to perform at a given level should probably step it down a notch to where their job can be done without taking such lengths.  In my case, that time came when Carmel was twenty.  While he was still handling the height and width of novice fences at that point, I could tell that the effort was becoming greater and his recovery times longer. Instead of risking an injury which might result in permanent lameness, I opted to change his job.

Carmel at the age of 27, competing at the elementary level with his friend Olivia.
Carmel at the age of 27, competing at the elementary level with his friend Olivia.

Tip # 3:  Allow for plenty of turnout. We all know that horses are herd animals which are meant to travel up to one hundred miles per day or more, foraging along the way.  It is a reality in our increasingly developed and suburbanized world that our horses frequently must be kept stalled due to lack of appropriate turnout areas.  This is truly unfortunate and contributes to all manner of health and behavioral disorders.  I have been very fortunate that since owning Carmel, he has almost always been able to live in an in/out situation where he can come and go from a shelter at his own desire.  Barring that, he has lived at a facility that allowed him to be out about twelve hours per day and kept in only at night.  I really do believe that this living situation has allowed him to remain sounder in the long run, both in mind and body.  Arthritis never had a chance to really establish itself in his joints in a debilitating manner, and his lungs remain clear due to good air circulation.  My horses go out every day for at least a little bit, even in extreme weather –and what is funny is they almost always choose to go outside in spite of it.  I do not think that we do them any favors by locking them in for our benefit.  So long as they have an accessible shelter if they need it—let them be out!

Carmel enjoying some time outside after the Blizzard of 2015.
Carmel enjoying some time outside after the Blizzard of 2015.

Tip # 3:  Provide routine veterinary care. Older horses require the same regular veterinary care that any other horse receives—but having a good relationship with your veterinarian can help you to customize their care to suit your individual needs and situation.  For example, your older horse still needs to be vaccinated each year, but some of the risk based vaccines may no longer be a priority.  This is important if your horse is one who has had a history of mild or moderate reactions to vaccination.  Annual monitoring of your older horse’s bloodwork can give you a baseline from which to compare results if your horse begins to seem a bit “off”; it can also allow your vet to notice changes in the function of the body’s systems early.  Many older horses end up developing pituitary pars intermedia dysfunction, or PPID (usually called Equine Cushing’s Disease), which often causes symptoms such as an extremely heavy hair coat that is slow to shed, a cresty neck, abnormal fat deposits and sometimes hoof abscesses and laminitis.  Confirmation of this disorder is done via blood test completed in winter, spring or summer.  For most horses, Cushing’s can be regulated through the use of diet modification, exercise and medication (pergolide)—but you will need to work closely with your vet.  Older horses also need routine dental care, but as they age and the available tooth decreases, they may not need regular floating—your vet or other qualified dental professional can advise you on your horse’s specific needs.

1998 or 1999.  I wish I could get his tail that long again!
1998 or 1999. I wish I could get his tail that long again!

Tip #4:   Give them a little attention every day. Just because you may not be riding your older horse as regularly doesn’t mean that daily attention isn’t important.  At a minimum, I always pick out feet every day and do a once over of Carmel’s entire body. In the winter, blankets come off at least every other day, but preferably daily, to check on body condition. (Blogger’s Note:  To blanket your older horse or not is a topic for another blog—I have chosen to blanket Carmel due to his tendency towards being a hard keeper and also because his PPID can cause thermoregulatory challenges.)   Even as Carmel’s activity level has decreased over the years, I have still religiously groomed him every day.  I think this is important for so many reasons—it is a way for me to keep my bond with him, and because I am in close contact with him, I notice the tiniest changes in his attitude or way of being.  Grooming promotes circulation and stimulates the oils of the skin to come to the surface, and for horses who are struggling to shed, regular grooming can help ease the process.

Tip # 5: Feed the right amount of a quality feed.  Older horses can be challenging to keep at an appropriate body condition.  Some are easy keepers and they need little to no grain to maintain a healthy weight.  Others, like Carmel, tend more towards being too thin and therefore careful feed management is necessary in order to keep them in good physical shape.   There are numerous senior feeds on the market which are formulated to meet the needs of an older equine.  They tend to be palatable, fortified, extruded and complete—meaning that if your horse struggles to chew forages, the senior feed can be used as a sole source of nutrition.  Most also dissolve easily in water to make a mash for those horses whose teeth are not up to the task of chewing.  Something I learned along the way is that senior feeds are meant to be fed at a much larger quantity than regular feeds.  We are so conditioned to feed “little and often” that it can be hard to understand that as much as five pounds of senior feed can be fed at one meal, with as much as fifteen pounds per day being totally reasonable and safe to feed.

Carmel snacking in 2012.
Carmel snacking in 2012.

Final Thoughts

The truth is that taking care of older horses is mostly about continuing to practice good horsemanship and to attend to their basic needs with the same level of attention to detail as for a competition horse.  Certainly the onset of age related conditions will require some modifications to their riding schedule and maintenance plan, but with quality care the older horse can remain a productive and happy equine citizen well into their golden years and beyond.

Preparing for the Worst: Planning for Animal Care in Disasters

First, a Little Story….

When I was a recent Pony Club graduate, I had the opportunity to travel to Kansas and Oklahoma to teach a few weeks of summer camp for some local clubs.  One club in particular had a robust program for its members; few of the riders owned their own horses but instead were dropped off at the DC’s facility, where an appropriate mount was provided.  When I asked how many horses were actually on site, the answer was “something on the order of seventy five before we stopped keeping count”.  Horses were stashed here, there and everywhere, with a large number living in a herd on the hill.  Mind you, this was Kansas, so “hill” is a relative term.  But each morning, the members would head up to the hill, halter and lead slung over one shoulder, horse treats in hand, and they rode whichever horse they could catch.

If you live in the Midwest, apparently tornado sirens become a sound synonymous with summer.  During the first several days of camp, the sirens went off at least daily, causing this New Englander’s hair to stand on end.  “Shouldn’t we take shelter or something?” I asked nervously the first time they went off, while simultaneously noting that no one else, human or equine, looked remotely concerned.  “Oh no,” came the reply.  “There is nothing going on right now.  Those just go off every time there is the remotest chance there might possibly be a tornado.  If we went inside every time they went off, we’d never get anything done.”

Waurika_Oklahoma_Tornado

The sirens continued to intermittently howl, and as the days went by, I began to adopt the “casual and carefree” attitude of the locals.  I will admit that a part of me wondered what the point was of having a warning sound which no one seemed to listen to.  Nevertheless, they lived here, I didn’t, and they weren’t worried.  So why should I be?

Then there was The One Morning.

I will never forget it.  The air was thick—humid, oppressive, heavy–the kind of air that only a strong thunderstorm can get moving again, the harbinger of a front and a change of tide.  While the air felt still on the ground, the clouds above were agitated and rolled along quickly; not in a leisurely, lazy summer afternoon sort of way, but in a hectic, hurried and disturbed manner.  And the sky was green.  Everything felt positively unsettled.  Then the sirens went off.  Again.

I went to the covered arena, where the first group of riders was already mounted and waiting to start their lesson.  I looked to read their faces, to see if any level of concern was creeping into their visages.  I certainly felt on edge.  Most were busying themselves in adjusting tack and joking with each other.  No one looked worried.  “Ok,” I thought. “This must be just another day.”

But not one beat later, the only other Real Adult on the farm (my co-instructor) came running over.  “I am going up on the hill to get the kids back down,” she yelled.  “Tell these guys to pull off the bridles and get in the shelter.”

“WHAT?!” I couldn’t help but exclaim.  Her instructions seemed irrational.

She grabbed my arm and pointed to the roiling clouds.  “Do you see how that cloud is curling that one way, but that one is doing it the opposite?” she asked.  I did.  “That is how they start.  Tornados.  This is a siren we listen to.”

http://soundbible.com/1937-Tornado-Siren-II.html

So we pulled the bridles, grabbed the attention of all the kids on the hill and ran for the storm shelter.  The older children reassured the younger ones, while I tried to remind myself that I was also supposed to be a Real Adult and needed to be calm and in charge of the situation.  Fortunately for us, the area we were in only experienced a strong thunderstorm with large and damaging hail; a neighboring town was less fortunate, as a tornado did in fact touch down, though leaving minimal damage.

The experience for me was a powerful one on a number of levels.  As someone who has lived in the northeastern US for her entire life, tornados were an unfamiliar threat; I had to rely on the wisdom and experience of the locals for guidance as to how to act.  Their reaction showed a level of composure that only comes from having done something before; even the younger children knew what to do and got themselves to a safe place efficiently and calmly.  Yet it got me thinking about how easy it is to become nonchalant about those threats that we face on a regular basis, perhaps leaving us unprepared to quickly react when true danger is imminent.

New Englanders don’t usually face threats from sudden and hard to predict events like tornados and earthquakes.  Our natural disaster risks are most often weather related—the classic “nor-easter” winter storms and blizzards, ice storms, and in milder weather, hurricanes.  These are events which have the capacity to paralyze a region figuratively and literally; however, they also usually come with plenty of warning.  In spite of this, local residents are usually found scrambling at the last minute to refill pantries, replace batteries and to check generators.

My horse, Carmel, after the New England Blizzard of 2015.
My horse, Carmel, after the New England Blizzard of 2015.

In 2011, Hurricane Irene left a devastating wake of destruction in its path, especially impacting Vermont, a state which normally escapes hurricanes relatively unscathed.  When I lived in Vermont during the summer of 2014, many of the areas which I travelled through each day to get to and from work had been under water after Irene came through.  What was chilling is the fact that the rivers in this area for the most part are shallow enough for fly fishing or even just wading; tubing is a popular past time as well, but the waters are so tame that it is possible to devote one tube to one’s beverage of choice.  It is nearly impossible to imagine that these seemingly placid rivers could ever reach a flood stage that would cause so much damage and destruction. Yet even now, three and a half years later, there are numerous locations in Vermont and New York which still have piles of debris now weathered by the sun , pushed high up on banks and into fields.  These piles serve as silent reminders that disasters can affect us in even the most unlikely of locations.

For perspective, this photo was taken from the cab of a GMC 2500 Heavy Duty pick up.  Hood is visible at bottom of image.
For perspective, this photo was taken from the cab of a GMC 2500 Heavy Duty pick up. Hood is visible at bottom of image.

Defining Disaster

Pearce (2000) defines a disaster as a non-routine event that exceeds the capacity of the affected area to respond to it in such a way as to save lives, to preserve property and to maintain the social, ecological, economic and political stability of an affected region. Disasters are usually large scale, cross geographic, political and academic boundaries and require response and recovery efforts greater than what a local community’s resources are equipped to provide.  According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), most common disasters are weather related or geological in origin; some are predictable (like a hurricane or blizzard) and some are not (earthquakes).  Clearly there are also disasters that are manmade in origin; this could include a toxic spill, a nuclear reactor failure, or acts of terrorism.

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For individuals who are responsible for managing animals, ignoring the threat of disaster is simply unacceptable.  In fact, FEMA emphasizes that owners are individually responsible for the animals under their care during a disaster threat.  If you as an animal caregiver are not prepared, then it is more likely that you will potentially experience a devastating loss.   Ultimately, animal caregivers will need less outside assistance and will experience fewer losses if they face the possibility of disaster with proper preparation.

FEMA defines five areas of emergency management:

  • Prevention
  • Protection
  • Mitigation
  • Response
  • Recovery

The first three areas are all geared towards “preparedness”, which is better defined as the prevention of or decreasing the cause, impact and consequence of disasters.  Taken cumulatively, the goal is to create “a continuous cycle of planning, organizing, training, equipping, exercising, evaluating and taking corrective action in an effort to ensure effective coordination during an incident and response”  (FEMA).  Preparedness activities include planning, training and educational actions.  Response defines those efforts which occur in the immediate aftermath of a disaster; during this phase businesses and other services might not be normal.  The term recovery addresses those restoration efforts which occur concurrently with regular operations and activities; this phase can be prolonged in the case of a severe disaster.

Considering for the care and safety of animals (livestock as well as companion) during a disaster is a critical component to a community’s Emergency Operations Plan, because experience has shown that by planning for the care of animals, a community ultimately is planning for the care of its citizens.

Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, leaving over 1800 people dead and causing nearly $89 billion in property damage (FEMA).  In addition to the loss of human life, thousands of chickens, cows and hogs were lost, as well as hundreds of horses and companion animals.  The negative effects on agriculture in the region were felt for years.  A portion of these losses were the result of individuals who failed to evacuate in a timely manner due to concerns for their animals.  It has been proven time and again that when it comes to their animals, people will put themselves at risk by going back into damaged areas to rescue animals or failing to evacuate when told to do so.

New Orleans, LA--Aerial views of damage caused from Hurricane Katrina the day after the  hurricane hit August 30, 2005.
New Orleans, LA–Aerial views of damage caused from Hurricane Katrina the day after the hurricane hit August 30, 2005.

And while major disasters like Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Irene, and the tornado which devastated Moore, Oklahoma in 2013, grab the national media headlines, livestock producers (which includes horse farms under FEMA guidelines), suffer the most losses from small scale disasters and local events, such as localized flooding, hazardous waste spills and fire.

It is easy to become overwhelmed or to feel hopeless or helpless in the face of some of these disasters.  Where should a concerned animal caregiver start when it comes to planning for disaster?

Lessons from Irene, Rita and Katrina and Moore: How to Protect Your Animals

Preparedness (prevention, protection and mitigation) are the three areas in which animal care givers have the most control of the outcome of a disaster event.  Below are some specific areas in which to focus your energy.

Know your area

Certain weather or geological events are more common in some parts of the country than others.  Here in New England, we are more likely to face severe snow or ice storms or hurricanes than fires, tsunamis or earthquakes.  However, I remember flying into Boise, ID, a few years back to the sight of smoke out the plane window, rising from uncontained wildfires in the region.  My friends from Kansas were accustomed to the threat of tornados.   Knowing which kinds of threats are most likely to affect you will help you choose the best types of protection and mitigation strategies.  This might mean relocating a barn out of a flood plain along a river, building fire stops into the landscape on a western farm or installing an automatic generator to power a well in New England.

A 2007 wildfire near Santa Barbara, CA.
A 2007 wildfire near Santa Barbara, CA.

Disaster Kit

Every animal care provider should have an emergency disaster kit which is kept stocked and accessible; it is important to periodically check the kit and update its contents.  The exact content will vary depending on the species which you are taking care of.  For companion animals like cats and dogs, the kit might contain spare harnesses/leashes, carriers/crates, bowls, litter/litter boxes, dry or canned food, spare medications, toys, beds, and copies of health paperwork; essentially, everything you would need to take care of your pet, all stored together in one place for easy collection if the need for a quick evacuation arose.

For larger animals like horses it is more complicated; however, a modified version of this kit might be kept in your trailer.  Similar to above, the kit should contain items that would allow you to care for your horse in the event that you needed to evacuate; it is ideal to be able to bring grain/hay, but in a true emergency this might not be possible.  Spare halters/leads, health paperwork, first aid kit and proof of ownership/identification are good to keep in one easy to access location.

Planning for the removal of horses and having a pre-packed disaster kit can lead to a more efficient evacuation. Photo:  Kathy Anderson, University of Nebraska
Planning for the removal of horses and having a pre-packed disaster kit can lead to a more efficient evacuation. Photo: Kathy Anderson, University of Nebraska

Identification

Having clear identification on your animals can make it possible to be reunited with them post-disaster as well as clarify ownership in situations where large numbers of animals may be gathered for shelter.  Owners of companion animals should consider implanting permanent microchip identification, but can also use tags on collars and harnesses.  Livestock such as horses can also be microchipped but identification is more likely to rely on markings, coloring, permanent ID like tattoos and brands, as well as photos.  Owners who have had to evacuate without livestock sometimes resort to labelling taped phone numbers on halters or even painting the owner’s phone number on the animal themselves.

Several horses were brought in to the Animal Disaster Response Facility staged in the Ford Arena outside Beaumont following Hurricane Rita's landfall. Bob McMillan/ FEMA Photo
Several horses were brought in to the Animal Disaster Response Facility staged in the Ford Arena outside Beaumont following Hurricane Rita’s landfall. Bob McMillan/ FEMA Photo

Plan Escape Routes/Alternative Housing

In its Emergency Management Institute training, FEMA encourages animal owners to take their pets with them when told to evacuate, if it doesn’t jeopardize human safety, even if you have no place to go. However, planning in advance for your animals will alleviate stress and worry during a chaotic time.

Consider looking into staying with friends or relatives from out of town as well as pet friendly hotels; knowing several areas to which you could go will provide alternatives if some routes are impassable.  Note that many Red Cross and public shelters are unable to allow animals in due to public health concerns.   Contact local shelters and animal welfare groups in your area in advance to locate potential shelters which will allow animals during disaster.

Large animals are obviously a bit more complicated and require advance planning. Fairgrounds, large horse farms, racetracks, show facilities and veterinary referral hospitals all have taken in livestock during evacuation orders.  Many states have an emergency DART (disaster animal rescue team) which might be able to refer owners to evacuation centers within the region.

The unfortunate reality is that when it comes to large animals like horses, it may simply be impossible to save all the animals, especially in the case of a “sudden impact” event like fire, tornado or flash flood.  In these situations, saving some is preferable to saving none, so managers should know in advance which animals are the priorities to get to safety.

If a potential disaster is aiming for your area, it is best to respond to the threat at the earliest sign of danger.  Using the tornado example from the beginning of the blog, the other adult went to get the children from the hill and so began to enact their emergency drill as soon as it became clear that a tornado threat was imminent.  This meant that all of the Pony Clubbers were able to take shelter before the storm’s force hit the area, and if a tornado had actually come through, that they had the best chance of emerging unscathed.  If the actions prove unnecessary due to the threat moving away, the practice gives managers the opportunity to assess and modify the emergency plan so that it will work effectively when it counts.

Two horses in a flooded Missouri pasture.  FEMA photo.
Two horses in a flooded Missouri pasture. FEMA photo.

Get Involved in Your Community

When it comes to disaster preparedness, no one is better equipped to plan for the safety and well-being of a community’s animal residents than their caretakers.  This is particularly true when it comes to large animals like horses.  It is the responsibility of local government to create an emergency plan to serve as the roadmap for an effective and coordinated response in the event of disaster.  These plans are typically reviewed on a regular basis, and these reviews can present the perfect opportunity for the input of knowledgeable and skilled livestock and animal caretakers.  Local resources and expertise usually are the best source of ideas, and can identify those resources which already exist or are needed within a specific community.  Developing a cohesive plan with the input of all critical stakeholders is the only way to ensure that citizens, animals and property will be protected during an emergency.

In its Emergency Management Institute training, experts from FEMA recommend that animal caretakers take the initiative to see if their community’s plan addresses the needs of livestock and companion animals.  If the existing plan does not address these concerns, then the impetus to improve or revise the plan moving forward will likely need to come from the caretakers themselves.

Further Education

FEMA offers a variety of free online courses through its Emergency Management Institute which can help provide a more complete picture of disaster planning.  These programs take participants through the disaster preparedness process and help them to consider how disaster planning can benefit their farm and community.  After passing a final exam, participants may download a certificate of completion and/or receive continuing education credits.

The whole list of offerings is found at http://training.fema.gov/is/crslist.aspx.

I have personally completed four courses relevant to planning for animals in disaster, and would highly recommend them to anyone who might find themselves in charge of the wellbeing of animals in an emergency situation.

IS-10 Animals in Disaster: Module A, Awareness and Preparedness

IS-11 Animals in Disaster: Module B, Community Planning

IS-111 Livestock in Disasters

IS-100.b Basic Incident Command System