Tag Archives: competitive trail riding

My Equine Bucket List 

Happy New Year!  Tis the season for resolutions large and small, for those promises to ourselves and others that this year we will finally take those steps towards positive change.  Here in New England, it is also the beginning of the most challenging riding season of the year, with bitterly cold temps alternating with ice or snow storms—these are real impediments when you have to ship your horse to an indoor to ride, as I do with Anna.  Therefore, it is a great time to pause to reflect upon your goals for the upcoming season—short, medium and long term.

After my summer in Vermont working with Denny Emerson (see the Tamarack Chronicles, Volumes I- VI), I came back inspired and full of new energy and ideas regarding what I want to do with my riding and within the equine industry in general.  In preparing my goals for the 2015 season, I realized that it would be a huge help to step back and really evaluate the Big Picture—to think about those goals which seem so outlandish and so far out there as to be almost unattainable.  Because the reality is, if you don’t think about those kinds of goals in a Big Picture way, you almost certainly won’t backtrack and make the changes or seek the opportunities necessary to try to take them from being a dream to a certainty.  And then someday you are likely to reflect upon your career and say, gee I had always wanted to [fill in the blank]…but it is too late now.

Lee at the awards ceremony for the 25 mile ride at GMHA Distance Days, 2014.
Lee at the awards ceremony for the 25 mile ride at GMHA Distance Days, 2014.

Therefore, this year I have formally created Chris’s Equine Bucket List, a short collection of goals, dreams and experiences that I wish to have with horses.  I maintain that this list is subject to revision and editing as I see fit, and I reserve the right to add, remove, alter and/or otherwise modify these Big Picture destinations.  However, as of right now, these are some actual goals that I want to achieve before I hang up my spurs, in no particular order.

Chris’s Equine Bucket List

  • Drive a big hitch. At Equine Affaire in Springfield, MA, this year, I was treated to a performance of the Fantasia show.  This spectacle features performances from riders and horses representing an array of breeds and disciplines.  This year, by far my favorite exhibitor was the six horse Belgian hitch from the Morrisville College Foundation.   The quiet power of each of these amazing animals combined into one suddenly small arena was just awe-inspiring.  The metal fittings on the harnesses gleamed, and the air hung heavy with the sound of their powerful feet rhythmically striking the soft footing.  I probably should start with a refresher on how to drive just one horse.  But boy, it would really be amazing to be directing that much power.
    The lead pair of a six horse hitch of black Clydesdales.  By Blodyn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
    The lead pair of a six horse hitch of black Clydesdales. By Blodyn (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Raise a foal. There is a true problem in our country with there being more horses than appropriate homes for them.  In spite of this, I have not so secretly had the desire to breed one of my mares, a desire which to date I have been able to keep reasonably in check.  That said, I still would like to have the experience at least one time of raising a foal from the very beginning, whether I am the breeder or not, and bringing them through the training process.  I have had the pleasure of working with my current horses from a very green place in their lives, but someone else had done all of the early work. I want to have the experience of raising, developing and nurturing the horse from their first days through to their time under saddle.   I also believe that this route might be my only option when it comes to getting to the FEI levels in either dressage or endurance.
  • Train my own horses. In general, I am more interested in training my own horses than I am in buying or leasing a schoolmaster to get me to a certain goal.  I think that schoolmasters are AMAZING and I am so grateful for the ones that I have had the opportunity to learn from in the past.  I also fully believe that I will seek their wisdom in short doses as I move forward in my career.  However, I take a great deal of pride (and humility) in knowing that the horses I ride and work with are the product of my own effort and time.  It is more meaningful to me to develop the relationship with each individual horse along the way. See entry # 2 for more info on this point.

    Anna and I schooling July 2011.  To date, I am the only rider to ever school her over fences.
    Anna and I schooling July 2011. To date, I am the only rider to ever school her over fences.
  • Earn my USDF Gold Medal. This one kind of relates to #5; before I can compete at a CDI, I need to actually get a horse to the FEI levels. If I am riding at the FEI levels, maybe even on a Connemara or a half bred (how cool would that be?), my goal would be to attain the scores for the silver and gold medal rider awards—two scores of 60% or higher at Fourth and Prix St. Georges for the silver, and two each at Intermediate and Grand Prix for the gold.  One of my favorite classes to compete in with my former mount Worldly (show name: Weltinus) was the musical freestyle, and I already have bronze bar scores for First and Second Level from my time with him.  The “bar” award is for freestyle performance, and is only awarded after the regular rider award for that level has been attained.  So let’s add earning the bronze, silver and gold bars, too, to this item.  What the heck.

    Worldly (Weltinus, on the left) after winning the 2006 Region 8 Second Level Freestyle championships.
    Worldly (Weltinus, on the left) after winning the 2006 Region 8 Second Level Freestyle championships.
  • Compete in a CDI. So this is definitely a huge end goal. I don’t care if I even place.  I just want to have the chance to compete in an FEI competition, and I think that dressage is the most likely niche for me to do it, maybe on my fictional Connemara, who I have also raised and trained myself.  It’s a wish list, don’t judge.
  • “Do the Florida thing”. I would really love to have the chance to see what winter in Florida is all about.  I have heard so much about it—and it seems like it would be like going to equine Disneyland.  So many talented horses, riders, instructors and clinics are available in a condensed place.  Whether riding, competing or auditing, I can’t imagine that one wouldn’t return from the experience a new horseman (and with a much lighter checkbook, I understand).  And I never object to getting out of the cold.

    (Kristen M. Clark / The Palm Beach Post)
    (Kristen M. Clark / The Palm Beach Post)
  • Keep my horses at home.  This has been a lifelong dream of mine—to have my own farm, with my horses wholly in my care.  I have been very fortunate to board at wonderful facilities but there is just nothing quite the same as being able to do everything the way you want to.  Related to this, I have a strong interest in sustainable living and sustainable agriculture, and how we can apply those concepts to horse facility management.  Having my own place would allow me to begin to experiment with these principles first hand.

    On this day, I had forgotten something at home and stopped in en route home after a clinic.  Not quite what I mean when I say that "I want to bring my horse home" but it is the closest I have gotten so far....
    On this day, I had forgotten something at home and stopped in en route home after a clinic. Not quite what I mean when I say that “I want to bring my horse home” but it is the closest I have gotten so far….
  • Trail ride in Acadia National Park. I am told it is amazing—a breathtaking area, with trails specifically designed for horses. Parts of Acadia used to be owned by the Rockefellers, who have had equine enthusiasts in their family for years and who were critically involved in building the miles of carriage roads in the 1930’s.  With my newfound interest in competitive trail and my wonderful and now reliable mount Lee, I hope that a visit can be arranged in the near future.
  • Train in Europe I am not talking anything on the level of taking my own horses over and training like I am going to make a team or something like that. However, the tradition of horsemanship in countries like England, Germany or even Portugal and Spain is rich, and I think it would be greatly informative to have the chance to see how horses are managed and trained and riders are coached.
  • Complete a classic three day event. This one has been on the list for a long time, pretty much since I first learned about the novice and training level educational three day event options being held at Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in Vermont. When the lower level classic format events began, I didn’t have an event horse and was mostly riding dressage, but I thought, “Perhaps someday”.  What I didn’t count on was the fact that after taking a few years off from jumping and then returning to the eventing scene, I am not quite as brave as I once was.  So I am not sure if the reality of actually doing this is going to happen.  But for the time being, it remains on the list.  See the clause above regarding editing of the list at the owner’s whim.

    Anna at King Oak Farm, September 2014.  Photo courtesy of Flatlandsfoto/Joan Davis and used with permission.
    Anna at King Oak Farm, September 2014. Photo courtesy of Flatlandsfoto/Joan Davis and used with permission.
  • Complete a 100 mile ride. This one is a fairly recent addition to the list. I am secretly hoping that Lee might be able to complete the three day hundred at GMHA before her career is done, but if not, at some point this is something I wish to have accomplished.  As they say in the sport, “to finish is to win” and the opportunity to connect with your horse on the level which is required to prepare them and help them to get you through such an effort is a true testament to a rider’s horsemanship skills. I would be so bold as to say that someone who completes a one hundred mile ride on a horse which they have prepared themselves is not just a rider; they are a true horseman, which I consider to be the highest compliment.

    Crossing the finish line at GMHA Distance Days 2014, completing the 25 mile ride.
    Crossing the finish line at GMHA Distance Days 2014, completing the 25 mile ride.
  • Save a horse. This is not a goal which is wholly defined in my mind; it is more that I think it is of the highest importance that those who love horses remain advocates for the promotion of humane education and training. So whether attaining this objective might be quite direct, in terms of getting a horse out of a situation that is dangerous or inhumane, or indirect, in terms of providing continued education to horse lovers and support for rescues, I think it is absolutely critical that we as a community remain ever vigilant.

    It is imperative that anyone who loves and cares about horses be an advocate for their protection and well being.
    It is imperative that anyone who loves and cares about horses be an advocate for their protection and well being.
  • Ride a reiner. In the vein of stepping out of my usual comfort zone to have new experiences with horses, I have secretly had the desire to learn a little bit about—and try my hand at—riding a reiner. Mind you, my experience in riding in western saddles is limited almost exclusively to my horse packing trip out west.  I have some friends in the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA) who are western specialists, and just the other day I asked if it was reasonable to ask someone to teach a rider like myself some basics of reining on an experienced horse. She gave me some northern contacts, and then explained to me the basic aids for beginning a spin to the left.  The cues are subtle and, of course, totally not what I would do to initiate a pirouette left.  It sounds like it could be fun, and totally out of my comfort zone.  I am not looking to change disciplines, just to try it out.

    The sliding stop.
    The sliding stop.

This version of Chris’s Bucket List represents some of my thoughts as of today, early January, 2015.  I think I will see what the year brings in terms of progress towards knocking a few of these off the list, and perhaps I will check back in a year’s time to see where I have come to.

So what is on your Equine Bucket List?

Where are you going with your equestrian pursuits?
Where are you going with your equestrian pursuits?

 

 

The Tamarack Chronicles: Volume VI

Just prior to my departure from Tamarack Hill, Denny asked me what the most compelling lessons of the summer had been.  I found myself a little tongue tied, as it was nearly impossible to briefly summarize all of the concepts, large and small, that I will bring forward to my training, teaching and personal philosophies.  My time at Tamarack has been hugely influential; how to encapsulate it in just a few words?

I have been home from Vermont for less than a week, and slowly I am letting the dust settle from three months away.  Now that I have had some time for reflection, I think I am finally able to begin to tackle the answer to Denny’s question.  So here we go….

What DID you Do on your Summer Vacation?

Denny and May were generous enough to allow me to bring both of my horses to Tamarack this summer; as discussed in The Tamarack Chronicles: Volume I, had quite different goals with each of them.  I can confidently say that both horses met and exceeded my expectations of progress during the course of this summer.  The growth was slow and steady; while I was aware that both horses were improving, it is really now that I am able to step back and take a look at the overall development that I can acknowledge just how far they both came.

Lee has evolved into a true competitive trail horse.  Her current level of fitness exceeds anything that I have previously brought her to.  During our time in Vermont, she successfully completed 15 mile rides at GMHA and Hartland Riding Club and her first 25 mile ride at GMHA.  On my last day at Tamarack, Denny and I did our own personal 16 mile ride with Lee and Cordie, so though that ride didn’t include the vetting procedures it certainly counts towards her increased fitness level.  If everything stays on track, she will compete at the 25 mile ride at the GMHA Distance Days in late August.

25MileRideAug2014 004
Team “Long Sloe Gin Fizz” after completing the GMHA 25 mile ride.

Beyond the physical changes, Lee has grown tremendously in confidence.  While she still does not want to be the lead horse on a trail if someone else is available to do the job, she strides out with power and ease.  I have been riding her in an “S” curve hackamore, a style which Denny uses on Roxie and Cordie when hacking out, and feel completely in control.  Not only that, I think she is happier to move forward in the hackamore than in a bit.  She is less spooky both in the barn and out.  I think that she has finally found her niche.

Lee after completing her first 25 mile ride.
Lee after completing her first 25 mile ride.

Anna has returned to her more confident self over fences, and the opportunity to jump “little and often” has helped to make jumping less of an anxiety filled experience for me.  I competed in both of the Tamarack Jumper shows, getting back up to the 2’9” level in the second show, and competed at the Huntington Schooling Trials.  With a re-emphasis on correct basics, I think I will be able to maintain this level of confidence as we move forward.  I have entered her at two USEA events, King Oak and Stoneleigh Burnham, this fall.

Anna at the July 2014 Tamarack Hill Jumper Show
Anna at the July 2014 Tamarack Hill Jumper Show (Photo by May Emerson)

Philosophical Thoughts

In school, teachers are trained in pedagogical theories, based on current educational research.  For example, elementary school teachers who help youngsters learn to read will use a combination of pedagogical approaches: phonics, whole language, etc.  Some approaches work better for one student than another, while some students will learn no matter which approach is used.  Therefore, teachers must rely on a tool box of different techniques and exercises, all while keeping a consistent philosophy in mind regarding their overall objective.

In my opinion, the best horse trainers and coaches are the ones who have a “training philosophy”, or pedagogy, which is the result of their own equestrian education and experience.  The best philosophies are grounded in classical theory, a calm and patient approach, and compassion.  The best trainers know that while it is important to keep an open mind and to learn about new techniques, they are also not inclined to go for the latest fad or shortcut.  They know that their system will work for their horses and riders.

Denny and Roxie, Lee and I prior to completing the Hartland Riding Club ride in June.
Denny and Roxie, Lee and I after completing the Hartland Riding Club ride in June.

It is clear in working with Denny that his sixty odd years of riding experience have given him a personal pedagogy for riding education.  He admits freely that he has made mistakes (and has learned from them) and that he tends to jump in feet first to new endeavors, which honestly is part of why he has been so widely successful.  He regularly references the great riders and coaches of past eras (LeGoff, Steinkraus, Chapot, Jenkins, Davidson, and others) as well as the current era (Balkenhol, Davidson Jr, Dujardin, etc).  In other words, he honors the legacy left by those who have come before but also continues to learn from those who are currently coaching and competing.

One of the more compelling comments which Denny made this summer was regarding the young up and coming professionals in equestrian sport.  He said that in his opinion, there are two phases to a rider’s career—first, one must learn the craft, and second, one shoots for the top.  Denny’s observation is that many young riders are hungry for phase two to begin, and so they sort of “gloss over” phase one.  It is easy to understand why that is.  Phase two is where the glory, prestige and fame occur.  Phase one requires patience, hard work, diligence, persistence, and comes with little glory, prestige or fame.  But without taking the time to develop your Personal Pedagogy as a trainer, based on the classical work that has come before you, it is much less likely that phase two is even going to happen.  Sure, some people can buy fancy well trained horses or talk their way into getting others to buy them these horses, but for the most part, the holes will start to come through.

Denny told me this summer that when he was still actively doing clinics across the country, he was often introduced as a gold medalist, from his team’s win at the 1974 World Championships. While this fact was true, he said that it was AFTER that point that he really learned how to ride, and developed his understanding of the importance of keeping the lower leg under the rider and not jumping ahead with the upper body.  His point is that in spite of the fact that he had won a gold medal, he was really still in Phase One of his career—learning his craft.

VT hacking Lee

So in being exposed to Denny’s teaching this summer, it is clear to me that his Personal Pedagogy is one which emphasizes correct basics, slow, steady and methodical training, and striving to ensure that horses are left happy and content (as opposed to mentally fried and physically exhausted) at the end of a work set.  Perhaps this is the most compelling lesson of the summer—it is far, far better to stop too soon in your training than to push too far or too long. As is true in so many aspects of horses, in the long run it is faster to go slow.

Looking Forward

Being at Tamarack gave me the opportunity to step away from my “real life” and be around people who are truly driven to ride and excel.  Everyone at Tamarack works hard, every day, and as summer goes along, the days get busy.  The horses are happy and content, the barn is CLEAN and riders routinely ship in for training.  I had my own two to ride daily, and often also was given the opportunity to hack out with Denny on Cordie, Roxie or Atti, or with fellow working student Katie on the babies, Derwin and Q.  I wish I knew how many miles we logged over the course of the summer on the plentiful trails around Tamarack—a few hundred, I would guess!

Hacking Denny's horse, Atti.
Hacking Denny’s horse, Atti.

It became clear to me over the course of the summer that I had been stuck in a rut with my own horses’ training programs.  There is an expression, “if you keep doing what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always got” or something to that effect.  Being at Tamarack allowed me to reassess my basics and especially hone in on DETAILS that allowed my horses to make big strides forward.  As a trainer, I will endeavor to keep my focus on these details as I return to working independently at home.

Additionally, Denny’s emphasis on correct basics has only served to reaffirm for me as a coach and instructor that work in this area is time well spent.  As someone who primarily coaches college students coming from a wide range of equestrian backgrounds, I am frequently faced with “hungry” riders who are ready for phase two of their riding career to begin.  Unfortunately, many of them are still lacking a solid foundation of basic skills and understanding of training theory.  I know I won’t be able to reach all of them, but if I can strive to maintain this focus on correct basics and classical theory in my instruction, I think it will only serve to benefit my students more in the long run than the alternative.

"Between the ears"... Anna hacking on the Tamarack cross country course.
“Between the ears”… Anna hacking on the Tamarack cross country course.

During my last week at Tamarack, Denny posed a question to me that was even more difficult than “what did you learn this summer.”  What he asked me was if I knew what kind of a rider I wanted to be.  This is a question that I have struggled to answer for years, so I didn’t have any better of a response for him than I usually have for myself.  His query was not meant to give me an answer specifically, but rather to open my eyes to possibilities and to how my own choices will affect the outcome.

It is clear (and has always been clear) that my path is not going to lead to the upper levels of eventing or show jumping.  I enjoy jumping, usually, but it does make me a little nervous and so I am best suited for low level sport.  That is fine.  What I have recognized this summer is that in spite of this, I actually have a fairly good eye on the ground.  At times I have felt insecure in the fact that I do an extensive amount of coaching over fences in spite of no longer being as comfortable as I used to be when it comes to jumping larger obstacles.  Denny reminded me that you can be a gifted instructor even if you no longer ride or even if you have never ridden at all, given a proper education.  After all, Sally Swift revolutionized the equine industry with her Centered Riding concept, and she never rode at all.

Looking down on the main farm from the top of the hill.
Looking down on the main farm from the top of the hill.

I enjoy dressage, and I probably have more innate skill in that sport than in work over fences.  I do want to compete at the FEI levels.  But again, to make a serious bid for fame and glory in this sport would take more financial backing and all-consuming dedication than I have interest in pursuing.  When I compete at the FEI levels, it will be for me, to fulfill my own goals, not to make any kind of a charge to “make a team” or be a true contender. And none of the horses in my current string are likely to be my FEI dressage mount.

So where does that leave me?

During one of our hacks, the day that he posed the question of “what kind of a rider do you want to be?”, Denny started listing the qualities of an elite endurance rider.  He said that those who are successful in endurance are steady, methodical and don’t have great mood swings regarding their riding.  They are motivated by the success that is completing a ride with a sound horse that is fit to continue.  They have a horse who is suited for the job—usually an Arabian or perhaps an Anglo-Arabian.  They come into their own at a slightly older age— where eventing is a sport largely for the young and fearless, endurance seems to appeal more to those who are able to take the time to properly condition a horse to handle the demands of long distance riding.  It takes at least three years to make a 100 mile horse, which means that you need to have a long term focus in sight beyond that day or week or month.

Lee showing off her prize from Hartland.
Lee showing off her prize from Hartland.

Denny’s point is that for the most part, these are all qualities that I have, and further, that if I wanted to shoot for the elite levels in endurance, that this could in reality be a goal that can be actualized.  I still have a lot to learn—you know, having completed a lifetime total of 65 competitive trail miles—but as Denny said, that is 55 more miles than I had at the beginning of the summer.  I am intrigued by the sport, I have enjoyed meeting the people involved with it and appreciate the values that the sport teaches.

I have never seriously considered trying to do a ride on the level of a one day hundred, never mind something as prestigious as the Tevis Cup or Old Dominion.  But Denny counseled that these rides are attainable, and do-able by someone like me, if I have the right horse.  During the summer, I met a Pan Am Games medalist in endurance, Connie Walker, and a recent first time Tevis finisher (11th place!) in Gene Limlaw.  Meeting these people made me realize that completing rides at this level is possible and do-able.

The idea excited me more than I would have thought it would.  I am by nature a bit more cautious when it comes to taking chances, so unlike how Denny would do it, I won’t be rushing out to purchase an experienced Arabian endurance horse or moving immediately to the endurance capital of the US (I am not sure even where that is, but surprisingly, I have heard there is a large endurance community in Florida).  But I am willing to consider the possibility and explore the options, large and small.

Overall, I am extremely grateful for having the opportunity to take these past three months at Tamarack and to clarify further the most important tenets of my own Personal Pedagogy.  I am pleased and proud of the progress which my horses have made. I am delighted to have made new friends in Vermont and am so, so glad that I took the step out of my comfort zone to take this time to further my own riding and education.

The Tamarack Chronicles: Volume II

The Tamarack Chronicles: Volume II

I think I may have found my new favorite horse sport—distance riding!  On June 8, Lee and I, along with Denny and his mare Cordie (Beaulieu’s Cool Concorde, a 9 year old Selle Luxembourg mare) completed the 15 mile competitive trail ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, VT.  It was such a great experience on several levels and I am excited that we are aiming for a second 15 mile ride this weekend, with the Hartland Riding Club in Hartland, VT.

If you love to be outside, love riding your horse, and enjoy spending time with other people who value these same things, then you may already be a trail rider.  Competitive Trail Rides (CTR) and Endurance give those of us who enjoy all of the above but also appreciate a bit of friendly competition a chance to put our horsemanship skills to a true test.

CTR How’s and Why’s

As a veteran now of TWO CTR’s, I feel MORE than qualified to explain the basics of how these rides work—haha! Just kidding.  Please take what I say here with a small grain of salt (or electrolyte) and understand that it comes from my limited personal experience and research only, not years of dedicated study and practice.

The CTRs that I have attended are by far more relaxed than any horse trials or hunter show, and nearly everyone—competitor, staff or volunteer—is quick to say hello and lend a hand.

Lee and her friend Ariat at GMHA Distance Days
Lee and her friend Ariat at GMHA Distance Days, 2013

As with most competitions, one of the first things to do upon arrival is to check in with the show office.  Here, you will sign up for your start time; at GMHA, entrants are usually sent out in small groups at two minute intervals.  You will also receive your entry number, and your horse will be marked on both sides of the hindquarter with their number in greased pencil.  This allows for easy identification of an entrant from a distance, and provides a marker that is hard to wash off when the animal is being cooled out at the completion of the ride.

The next order of business is the “vetting in”, where each entrant is carefully looked over by both a licensed veterinarian and the lay judge, who is a knowledgeable horse person.  The vetting in might be completed the day before a ride for a longer distance, or it can be done just before the day begins for shorter rides.  Rides that are sanctioned by the Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association (ECTRA) provide feedback on the vetting in/out to competitors via a carbon copy sheet which clearly identifies several critical areas for assessment.  The purpose of the vetting in is to establish a baseline for the horse’s condition prior to completing the ride.  The vet and lay judge will palpate the topline, note any rubs/blemishes/swellings, check the legs and note filling, cuts, windpuffs, etc., check anal tone, do a pinch test on the skin, note the condition of the horse’s gums and check capillary refill time.   All findings are carefully noted on the horse’s sheet.  Finally, horses are jogged in hand, moving straight away from and straight towards the judges, as well as in a circle to the left and right.  Horses will start with a perfect score of 100, and points are deducted for changes to the horse’s condition at the end of the ride.

Once all the horses have been vetted in, competitors will attend a pre-ride briefing, during which various personnel are introduced, trail markers are described and general information about the route is provided.  Additionally, riders are made aware of the time for the route; rides sanctioned by ECTRA or running under its rules seem to adhere to an average speed of 6 miles per hour.  The officials also give consideration to the weather and trail conditions to come up with a window of time during which riders should aim to complete their route.  There is a thirty minute grace period during which riders may still officially finish with point penalty.  Exceeding the grace period will result in a team’s disqualification.  Finally, the vet and the lay judge will announce what the target is for the recovery pulse and respiration rates (more on this later).  For rides longer than 15 miles, information is also provided on the mandatory hold.  I will have to update more on what this means once I tackle a 25 mile ride!

At this point, competitors will return to their horses to prepare to move out on the trail.  The rides at GMHA allow competitors to sign up to go out with another entrant(s); this practice is almost encouraged for the simple fact that you will have someone nearby in case of emergency.  Once on the trail, it is really up to the rider to pay attention to many variables to determine an appropriate pace.  You must consider your mount’s condition and how they are feeling that day, the terrain in front of you (and yet to come), the temperature, etc., and then travel at an appropriate pace.  Because CTR’s DO have a time limit, it is important to be mindful of this and to aim to travel an average of 6 miles per hour. The walk is about three miles per hour, so completing a ride on time requires maintaining a pretty steady trot.   However, there will be times on the trail where conditions warrant a slower speed (walking) and it is more important to consider your horse’s well being than to make a specific time.

Conditioning ride with friends Cordie (back) and Roxie (in front, with Denny on board).
Conditioning ride with friends Cordie (back) and Roxie (in front, with Denny on board).

Next comes the best part—the actual ride!  Vermont in the late spring and summer is a simply breathtaking place, and so as you ride along, you are able to enjoy your horse, the company of friends old and new, and of course, exquisite scenery.  The June GMHA ride took us first part way up Morgan Hill Road, and led us past amazing properties, including one of the homes of endurance Hall of Famer Steve Rojek.  The road sections of the route are on town roads of hard packed dirt, which allow you to fairly comfortably trot out.  We passed homes that even Denny hadn’t seen before, including one that appeared to have a homemade polo field and another antique home which someone was painstakingly restoring to its original appearance.  (We learned upon our return that this particular property formerly belonging to the famous actor, Michael J. Fox.  It seems like everyone wants a piece of Vermont’s beauty!)

Yet another stunning vista in Vermont, looking towards Tunbridge.
Yet another stunning vista in Vermont, looking towards Tunbridge.

Our June ride took us on about 50% trail and 50% road.  We had one ‘road crossing’ which required volunteers to police the traffic for safety.  During the course of our ride, we encountered a handful of vehicles on the roads, and every driver was courteous and respectful of our horses.  As someone who by and large avoids riding on roads when it is possible to do so, I appreciate drivers who pass horses slow and wide, and we were certain to acknowledge them with a friendly wave and smile.

One aspect that it is so important to remember is that in several instances, we were guests on private property.  GMHA sits on 65 acres and maintains an extensive trail network, with some routes on their own property but many others are only accessible through the generosity of private landowners.  Lack of space to ride is a major and critical issue facing the equine industry today, and all riders, not just trail riding enthusiasts, would be wise to take active steps to preserve the lands which they value.  This topic warrants its own blog post, so perhaps I will reflect on this more and do just that.  Visit http://www.gmhainc.org/trailpreservation.html for their thoughts on the topic.

As riders near the end of the CTR, many will try to slow their horse down to begin allowing their pulse and respiration to return to lower rates.  This is less true at an endurance ride, where the goal is to complete the distance in as quick of a time as possible while considering the well being of your mount.  Upon crossing the finish line, volunteers hand each rider a small slip noting the time of finish, and they also record the order in which each horse crosses the line, as this will determine the order for the vetting out.  Riders are then given twenty minutes to return to the stable area, remove their horse’s tack, and to sponge their horse with water to assist in lowering pulse and respiration rates.  Note that I said “sponge” not “hose”; hosing your horse is not allowed.  Competitors usually will set up multiple buckets full of cool water along with sponges and scrapers before they head out on the ride;  during the twenty minute window, riders will sponge and scrape, sponge and scrape, all in an effort to cool their mount out as efficiently as possible.  At the twenty minute mark, more volunteers will come by to measure each horse’s pulse and respiration, and then record it on the slip handed to each rider at finish.  Ideally, your horse has recovered to rates within the parameters set forth at the briefing.  Horses whose rates are still quite high will be rechecked, and horses whose rates do not drop to within normal limits within an hour will be disqualified (and checked by the vet!).

Once they have completed their P&R check, competitors proceed to the “vetting out”.  Horses are reviewed in the order in which they finished, but horses who are “friends” are usually allowed to come to the vetting out together and are reviewed in order.  The same vet and lay judge who completed the vetting in will re-evaluate the same parameters that were checked before the ride; careful attention is paid to any areas in which condition has worsened.  This may mean that the horse has acquired some rubs from the girth, or perhaps they have some swelling or scrapes from interference (shoes are permitted in CTR but protective boots are not).  Horses are also jogged out in the same manner as they were pre-ride to note any unsoundness.  Horses who show physiological signs of stress (changes in muscle or anal tone, increased capillary refill time, dry gums, etc) will have points deducted and in extreme cases might be disqualified.  Sometimes, an area might actually improve in condition; for example, a horse may have presented with windpuffs pre-ride but shows tight and clean fetlocks post ride.  Points won’t be given back for the improvement, but it is left to the judge’s discretion whether or not to deduct points for the initial blemish.  Again, all horses start the ride with a perfect score of 100, and points are deducted for exceeding the time allowed on trail, for not meeting the P&R recovery threshold and for changes to the mount’s condition at vetting out.

Some rides, like our June GMHA 15 mile, are scored on a “pass/fail” basis.  This means that no placings are awarded; it encourages riders to really consider their horse and use the ride as an opportunity to improve the horse’s fitness in the way which makes the most sense for that animal. Either your horse meets the minimum criteria and “passes” or they do not.  At a ride with placings, it will be the best conditioned and soundest horse that wins.   Therefore, the horse’s well being must always come first, as it should for all true horsemen.

Lee contemplates the view.  Or more realistically, the grazing options.
Lee contemplates the view. Or more realistically, the grazing options.

CTR Versus Endurance

I was a little shaky on the difference between a CTR and an endurance ride, but after doing some research my short answer is that in an endurance ride, the winner is the horse/rider team who finishes in the fastest time whose horse is judged sound and healthy post-ride.  Time of finish is not a factor in CTR, so long as you complete the ride within the time allowed.  One other difference is that in endurance, where the distances covered tend to be longer, forward progress can be made by an unmounted rider leading their horse.  In CTR, horses must be ridden for forward progress to count.

From the website of the North American Trail Riding Conference (NATRC; www.natrc.org):  “A competitive trail ride is similar in many respects to an endurance ride.  Both cover a set, measured course, and the veterinary judge closely monitors the horses in both sports.  Endurance rides must be completed within a maximum time, and the winner is the horse that finishes first and is judged fit to continue.  But in competitive trail riding, the horse and rider must finish the ride within a window of time, and speed is not a judging factor.  Horse manners are judged in competitive trail riding, as is horsemanship; these are not judged in endurance.  In endurance riding, horses are checked by a veterinary judge at certain points and are judged as fit to continue.  The veterinary judge in competitive trail riding will check the horse anywhere along the trail, and the horse is judged on whether his parameters have changed since the baseline established at Friday check-in.  Riders can proceed on foot in endurance riding, but for all forward motion in competitive trail riding, the rider must be mounted.  Endurance rides may be much longer than a competitive trail ride-some endurance rides go 100 miles in 24 hours!”

Preparing for the CTR: “Never Hurry, Never Tarry”

When Lee arrived in Vermont the third week of May, she was coming off a winter of steady work 5-6 days/week in the indoor arena and a spring which saw some work outside (finally) by mid April, including a few rounds of trot and canter sets.  I would tell you that she was in moderate work, but that she had not been doing the long, slow, distance style work that getting out on the trails can do for you.

Being at Tamarack is an amazing experience for someone who likes to ride out.  A local resident for over fifty years, Denny knows the land and landowners like no other, and works to help maintain a network of trails which I understand is shared with snowmobilers and cross country skiers in the winter.  Riding back on these trails is unlike any experience I have had at home; there is no traffic, no road noise, no airplanes overhead, no trash in the woods.  It is as though you have ridden back in time.  And when you ride out with Denny, he tells stories of the places you ride through, gets to open vistas and identifies landmarks and towns and points out historical markers and other features that one might otherwise not notice.

Old post marking the townline (TL) between Strafford and Tunbridge, VT
Old post marking the townline (TL) between Strafford and Tunbridge, VT

In getting ready for our first two fifteen mile rides, Denny put our horses on a schedule of hard days followed by easier rest/recovery days.  Some days, we would ride as long as two to two and a half hours, mostly walking, but also riding up some steep hills; these are hills which surely put positive stress and strain on a horse’s cardiovascular system as well as work the topline and hindquarters.  To aid my horse, I would also assume the two point position, making me a stronger rider as well!  Easier days might include an hour on flatter trails, or even light work in the arena.  As someone who is accustomed to a steady five-six exercise days/week schedule (usually four in the ring, one on the longe, one as a hack), it was a different concept for me to consider conditioning a horse by pushing a bit harder/further and then giving them a day or two of complete rest in between.  In addition, the week before a ride is usually a bit lighter, overall, so that the horse arrives to the competition feeling fresh and fit.  Though I am just beginning to learn about conditioning horses for distance work, and Denny says most of what he does he has learned through trial and error,  we have been told that this type of progression is used by serious endurance riders.  It is exquisitely important to listen to your horse—if you give them a hard ride (whether in terms of distance, terrain, speed, humidity or some combination) then your next day might be a light ride or no ride at all, to give the horse’s systems time to recover.  If you plan to ride, and the horse feels tired, then you back off even more.  Of course, over time you steadily increase the demands on your horse so that they are stronger in mind and body to hold up to the longer distances on rides.

CTRs themselves can serve as part of the conditioning process, as they offer riders a chance to work their horses under a structured format over longer distances.  In fact, you will often see these rides called conditioning distance rides (CDRs) when they are ten to fifteen miles in length.  Veterinary evaluation offers clear feedback as to how your horse coped with the demands of the ride, and a smart trainer can use this to sculpt their conditioning plan as they move forward.

When we were on the ride itself, Denny shared with me a piece of wisdom that he had gained from a serious endurance competitor; when on the trail, “never hurry, never tarry”.  You want to be more like the tortoise and less like the hare, I suppose.  Keep your horse moving at a steady, consistent pace; trot where the footing is good, walk where it isn’t or the trail is too steep (up or downhill) to trot safely.

Looking forward.
Looking forward.

Distance Planning, or, Setting Long Term Goals

When planning the career of a distance horse, you need to think long term.  Not just in terms of the actual rides you plan to attend, but for the overall health and well being of the horse themselves.  One endurance blogger reports that he believes it takes three years to put enough conditioning work into a horse before they can be a serious contender at 100 mile rides; this is not to say that they might not be fit enough to compete before then, but they will be competing for mileage/experience as opposed to try to win.  And this is assuming that no setbacks occur to horse or rider.  Denny says that preparing for distance riding is largely a question of time and place; you need the time to put in the saddle, and you need a place to do that riding (ideally a place with hills, which maximizes your conditioning time).

It is easy to get caught up in Denny’s enthusiasm for everything horses and riding related, and he has been favorably impressed with Lee’s performance so far, calling her, “one tough horse”.  He thinks that she has the capability of completing a three day 100 mile ride like the one they host each fall at GMHA, but to do something like that would require planning NOW.  In other words, instead of coming out of the indoor next spring fifteen mile fit, she needs to be twenty five or thirty mile fit.  And then next summer would be focused on continuing to gradually build the muscle, joint and organ systems to handle the increased demands required of a ride of that length.  He has me excited to try to go for it, or to at least seriously consider prepping for it, with the option of re-routing to a shorter distance if she doesn’t feel ready.

So the plan for this summer will be to continue to gradually build and to see where we end up; the Hartland Riding Club 15 mile ride is this Saturday, and based on how our horses feel, we hope to go to the GMHA 25 mile ride in early August.  Time will tell whether Lee will truly make it to a three day one hundred mile ride, but as in other horse training endeavors, I shall just keep adding layers to the onion, never hurry/never tarry, and see where we end up.

Leebacksidehacking
Roxie and Lee, from Cordie’s perspective.

The Tamarack Chronicles: Volume I

This year marked the first of a new contract for me at the University of New Hampshire, and with the contract change came a shift in scheduling—I now only work during the academic year, leaving the summer months free for other pursuits.  So what is a girl to do?  Idly sit on her back porch with her feet up, eating bonbons?  Not for this one (what is a bonbon, anyway?)…I chose to do what any nearly 38 year old equine professional would do… I chose to become a working student.

For the past three years, I have had the opportunity to make brief trips to ride at Denny Emerson’s famed Tamarack Hill Farm in Strafford, VT.  Denny is a horseman who needs no introduction, and he is the mentor of my own longtime trainer, coach and friend, Rachel Greene Lowell.  Each year, these trips have proven to be some of the most effective edits to my progress as a rider and to my horse’s education.  I figured that it was worth it to take a chance and spend the summer focusing on my own growth as an equestrian. I asked Denny if I could come up for the summer.  I found a summer sublet in cute South Royalton (So Ro, to the locals) and two days after submitting final grades for spring semester, Pug Dog, several cats and two horses in tow, I headed to Vermont. Image

Anna schooling at THF on a previous visit.

I will say that there is a significant difference between doing something like this when you are closer to forty than when you are closer to twenty…it is a humbling experience to take that step back into the role of full time student, rather than being the one who is responsible for calling the shots and making the decisions.  However, it is also heartening to hear concepts that I use in my own instruction and training reiterated by someone with the experience and wisdom of Mr. Emerson, to confirm that I am on the right path.

Having now completed my first three weeks, I will admit that there have been some outstanding high points as well as some significant lows.  This is sort of like the horse world in general, I suppose.   But overall we (horses and human) have settled into our new routine and I am so glad that I took this step.

Summer Goals: AKA, What I Did on my Summer Vacation

My two horses are quite different, and I came with different goals for each for the summer.  I have had Lee for longer and during our time together she has been a jumper, a dressage horse, a sometimes IHSA mount and most recently, a fun trail/hack horse.  Lee took her maiden voyage into the world of competitive trail riding at the 2013 Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) Distance Days, and she proved to be a real pro.  Her forward thinking trot and desire to follow the leader served her well and she breezily handled the 10+ mile ride, nearly breaking away from me at the final inspection and prompting the vet to comment, “Next time, perhaps a longer ride might tire her out more?”.  Denny has logged many hours in the sports of competitive trail riding and endurance, and has completed the rigorous Tevis Cup (is there anything this man cannot do?).  He has been a tireless advocate for the trail activities held at the Green Mountain Horse Association in South Woodstock, VT.  I want to learn much more from Denny about what goes into conditioning a horse for longer rides over terrain, and perhaps try my hand at some rides over greater distance with Lee this summer.

After three weeks at Tamarack Hill, Lee (at age 15) is learning to be a Real Horse, living outside in a field on a hill, seeing cows, dealing with bugs, and falling in love with my pony Anna.   I even caught her LAYING DOWN out in the open, with Anna also laying down by Lee’s side.  Just for some perspective, in nine years of being Lee’s human, and I have personally seen her lay down exactly ONE other time, and it was in a dark stall.  At night.   With Denny leading on one of his three mares (Atti, Cordie or Roxie), Lee has become a real solid citizen on the trails, just so long as someone else goes first.  The hills here have brought her Thoroughbred body into strong physical shape quickly, and she has happily handled muddy, slippery spring trails, creek crossings, rocks, hills, and even narrow gaps like an experienced pro.  I had the privilege of taking her on a nearly two and a half hour ride up to the Sunnyside property, also owned by the Emersons, which afforded breath taking views of the Green Mountains to the west and the White Mountains to the distant east.  It is so exciting to see this horse so happy and content and willing in her work.

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Lee many years ago, warming up for a jump clinic with Joe Forest at UNH.

As far as Anna goes, we have been struggling with confidence and communication issues over fences (see my previous blog, “Reflections on Gratitude”).  Over the winter, I still had the notion in my mind that I might be able to compete at the novice level three day event at GMHA in late July (which is something that has definitely been on my “rider’s bucket list”), but after several false starts this spring it is clear that this is simply not a reasonable expectation at this stage in the game.  Right now, competing over fences with Anna is just not as important to me as is trying to fix what has become broken in terms of confidence and faith.

So for Anna, I hope that a summer of confidence building and more regular jump schooling—as opposed to my once weekly sessions at home—might help to re-establish some of the ‘mojo’ we once had as a team.  I hope that the hacking here will allow me to condition her more successfully than I have been able to do at home with sets in the ring.  I still do hope that we can make it to an event or two later this season—but only if our communication and confidence has returned to a degree that such a challenge would be fair and reasonable.

Overall I am encouraged because in the short time that we have been here, there already has been a huge improvement in our work over fences.  I will go into more detail on this in a future post.  Anna’s work on the flat has already come forward tenfold; Denny actually got on her for me one day, and worked to create a softer jaw and increased throughness.  He feels that there is a fancy mover hiding within her, and watching him work with her showed me that there is the capacity for much growth in this area.  Exciting!

ImageAnna (left) and Lee (right) enjoy being Real Horses outside on the hill.

“Do you see the grass growing?”

One of the more persistent themes which is coming clear to me already from my time at Tamarack is a reiteration of the fact that in training horses, it is usually faster to go slowly.  This applies to increasing fitness, introducing new concepts and aids, rebuilding confidence…pretty much anything you can think of.

During several flat work sessions, Denny has discussed with us his process for introducing a horse to the mechanics of the rein aids, in particular teaching horses to give to pressure at the poll and the jaw and to remain mobile in the neck.  A horse’s ability to understand these aids is instrumental to being able to achieve throughness and engagement.  Many of the horses which Denny has worked with are OTTBs, and he points out that these horses are programmed to do one job—to run fast.  They understand the cues which help them to do this and know how to move their bodies well in one way: shoulders down, weight to the forehand and powerful hindquarters driving them forward.  When these animals begin the process of learning how to be a sport horse, the trainer must be tactful, patient and clear with the new aids.  These horses must essentially be “unprogrammed” from their old job and have a new operating system installed.   This in many ways is a harder job for the trainer than starting with a horse who knows no aids whatsoever; however, the process taken to accomplish the end goal in either case is the same.

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Spring at Tamarack Hill

All work sessions start with about ten minutes of walk on the loose rein, putting no pressure on the horse and just allowing them to loosen their bodies and mentally begin to turn their focus to work.  The next stage of the warm up is a period of low pressure trot and canter with light contact, but not yet fully asking the horse to bend, be entirely round or as actively pushing from the hindquarters.  The first canters are usually in the light seat, allowing the horse’s topline to loosen and stretch before being asked to fully carry the weight of the rider.

For horses that are not yet fully clear about the basic aids, Denny talks about “puttering”.  He says this is certainly not a term that you would read in the classical works, and he acknowledges that this technique is perhaps not how he would always have proceeded with the training when he was an ambitious and competitively minded young trainer—but it is what he now believes to be indispensable in his training.  Essentially, “puttering” is about gently introducing new aids to the horse, and waiting to reward a correct response by releasing the pressure.  So if you are asking the horse to step away from the leg, the leg would be applied lightly until the horse at some point moved away.  The rein aids are important, diverse and best introduced at the walk.  Denny says that you almost want to think of the aid as a gentle “pestering” of the horse, and when he responds, the pressure releases.  He is not a fan of short cuts like draw reins, leverage bits and other tools used by some trainers; these create a response through the infliction of pain, and he says that such a response does not really teach the horse.  Remember that a horse can feel a fly, or the lash of your dressage whip gently tickling the back of his ear.  For certain they can feel a gentle pressure on their mouth, or a push from the rider’s leg.  The horses who don’t respond to these gentle aids have probably never been taught to do so.  So instead of becoming stronger or more aggressive, you “pester” with the aids until the horse accidentally comes up with the correct answer, which you then reward.

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Lee working in the indoor at UNH.

Denny says that teaching horses these responses to the aids is like teaching them a language.  Imagine that someone is trying to tell you something, but they are speaking in a foreign tongue.  If you don’t know Spanish or German or Pig Latin, it isn’t going to matter if they whisper, speak or yell—you are not likely to respond correctly.  Why do we expect our horses to respond to aids that we have not correctly or properly taught them?

The other important point about “puttering” is that the trainer remembers that the process will take whatever time it takes.  Perhaps you introduce a concept on day one, and the horse only sort of is able to respond.  But you come back on day two, and in a short window of time the horse responds to the aids better and more clearly than on day one.  Instead of pushing for more at that moment, the wise trainer rewards the horse and leaves the lesson behind for the day.  The horse feels successful, the training has been moved forward and the horse learn to perceive that the work in the ring is not a matter of being drilled.

This is such an important concept that I need to repeat it again.  It is a theme that keeps coming back during nearly every lesson whether on the flat, over fences or on the trails.  Training takes time.  It takes whatever time it takes.  Horses should not be drilled.  The wise trainer stops MUCH earlier than most of us do, rewards the horse, and puts them away feeling mentally relaxed and physically tired but not exhausted or drained.  Trainers must be patient, they must be clear, and they must be consistent.  It sounds so, so simple, so why do more of us not adhere to this philosophy?

Denny tells a story of a clinic which he was auditing.  The rider was a well-known Olympian, riding under the direction of a world renowned trainer, on her Olympic mount.  The rider was becoming frustrated and more intense in her use of the aids (as many driven and focused people can tend to do).  After watching for a bit but saying little, the clinician finally asked the rider, “Do you mow your lawn?”.  Frustrated and confused by the apparent lack of relevance, the rider responded, “Of course.” “Well, do you see the grass growing on your lawn?” asked the clinician again.  “No,” replied the rider, still not making the connection between the questions and the situation at hand.  “You need to mow your lawn because the grass has grown,” says the clinician. “But yet you do not see the grass grow.  So it is with training your horse. Each lesson builds upon the previous one.  You do not all of a sudden have a trained horse.  It takes time.”

Denny also compares training to the layers of an onion.  Each one is built upon the layer before it.  You cannot leave steps out of the process or rush through it.  To do so will ruin horse and rider confidence, compromise physical well-being and limit the progress which could be gained otherwise.

I am learning that like many other trainers, I can be too driven and push for too much at once from my horses.  I need to be even quicker to recognize that the horse has done what they needed to do in a day’s work and let them leave the ring for a hack.  I think sometimes we are so results driven that we don’t realize that it is the summation of many small, small forward steps that will create the best outcome.

The results of this training program are plain to see when you watch the Tamarack horses work and compete.