Notes from a lecture presented by Dr. Susan Garlinghouse at the ECTRA Winter Getaway 2017
For horses covering long distances, the management of metabolic health is of the highest priority. For the competitive distance rider, attention paid to these specific parameters can spell the difference between a completion and a pull (or retirement, for riders used to other disciplines). Distance riding is a sport whose mantra is the phrase, “to finish is to win”. Most distance riders want to have a fun and successful weekend, which means that they are bringing home a healthy horse; to this end, they are always working to learn how to better care for their mounts.
Dr. Susan Garlinghouse presented “Beating the Metabolic Pull” at the Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association (ECTRA) Winter Getaway in Boxborough, MA in early February, offering attendees instruction and strategies based on the most current of scientific evidence.
Dr. Garlinghouse is an endurance rider and has completed the grueling Tevis Cup no less than three times. She has ridden her Tennessee Walking Horse John Henry over 2,800 endurance miles. Garlinghouse referenced John Henry many times during her talks throughout the weekend, as her insights into metabolic management have been influenced by the additional challenge posed by preparing a horse with a dense build for strenuous competition. She is a well-known authority on many of the unique health and maintenance issues faced by the distance horse.
Garlinghouse emphasized that during a ride there are three primary factors which must be managed to ensure the horse’s wellbeing: hydration, gut motility and energy balance. They are listed here in their relative order of importance, and we will explore each one now in a little more detail.
Garlinghouse says that 90% of metabolic issues come from hydration loss. The line between “sufficient hydration” and a horse at risk is incredibly narrow. Horses sweat at the rate of 1.5-3.75 gallons per hour, and may produce over forty gallons of sweat during a 50 mile ride. During heavy exercise, horses may lose 5-6% of their body weight, with about 4-5 gallons of net fluid loss.
Dehydration during heavy work can affect equine athletes in all disciplines, and the effects come on quickly, beginning with 2-3% dehydration rates. Health concerns escalate rapidly from there. At 6% dehydration, capillary refill time and heart rate are elevated. At 8%, capillary refill time will be 2-3 seconds (normal is under 1), with dry mucous membranes, dry or mucous covered feces, and decreased urine output. At 10% dehydration, capillary refill time will be over three seconds, and the horse will have a high, hanging heart rate with weakness and cold extremities; this horse is in serious trouble. At 12%, the horse is close to death.
The difference between 4 to 8% hydration in a 1000 pound horse is only 4-5 gallons of water.
Some riders believe that the horse will naturally consume water sufficient to replace this lost fluid, but this is a myth. According to research done on fluid balance in endurance horses conducted at UC Davis, the horse will only replace about 2/3 of fluid loss through voluntary drinking. For example, if ten gallons of fluid have been lost, the horse will only voluntarily consume 6-7 gallons. Equally concerning is that this same research showed that over 60% of the horses starting at the 100 mile endurance rides where the studies were being conducted were already dehydrated to some extent, prior to starting the ride. Another 20% were at the high end of normal. Just 10% of the starters began the ride at optimal hydration.
Therefore, it becomes incumbent to create situations in which the horse will stay at a higher rate of hydration before and during the ride.
Garlinghouse offered several strategies to help with this. Even for the non-distance rider, some of these practices could help enhance their performance horse’s well-being, especially before intense work or competition. First, Garlinghouse recommends feeding lots and lots of hay—horses will drink 1.5-2 gallons of water for every five pounds of hay that they consume. She also reminded the audience that the rate of passage from the mouth to the hind gut is relatively slow. What you feed your horse on Thursday becomes their source of energy on Saturday.
Feeding soluble fibers, like beet pulp or soybean hulls, can also increase the fluid reservoir available to the horse during a ride. These feed stuffs help to retain fluid and electrolytes which the horse can pull from during exertion.
The manner in which we feed our horses is also important to consider. Garlinghouse explained that there are fluid shifts in the body associated with the consumption of large (over 4.5 pounds), episodic (fed more than 2-3 hours apart) meals. When we feed on this schedule, as much as 5-6 gallons of fluid shifts from the plasma and tissues and into the gastrointestinal tract, leading to a 15-24% reduction in plasma volume. The effect is transient, lasting two to three hours.
If your horse is at rest, this isn’t a big deal. But if your horse is teetering on the edge of being dehydrated, and then there is this huge fluid shift…well, that is not good.
To prevent this, riders must ensure that their horse has something going into their digestive system more frequently than every two hours. Garlinghouse emphasized that the quantity doesn’t have to be great—grazing, some carrots or apples, a baggie of soaked beet pulp—will all do just fine.
On a related note, Garlinghouse cautioned riders about the common practice of syringing large doses of electrolytes into the horse’s mouth, as this draws fluids from the plasma and into the digestive tract in a similar way to large servings of food. The effect can be minimized or eliminated by giving electrolytes in small but frequent doses, preferably after the horse has been drinking. So eight, 2 ounce doses is preferable to two, 8 ounce doses. Garlinghouse also recommends mixing electrolytes with a buffer like kaolin pectin to help reduce the risk of ulcers.
Another cause of excess dehydration is feeding high amounts of protein. Garlinghouse recommends feeding distance horses at a 10% protein rate. Protein fed at higher rates will be used for energy production, but processing protein in this manner results in waste heat, almost 3-6 times as much as what is produced through the processing of fats or carbohydrates.
Garlinghouse’s “Fast Facts” on Hydration:
Maximize your horse’s forage intake for 2-3 days before the big ride to increase their reservoir of fluids and electrolytes
Provide small, frequent meals throughout the ride rather than a few large ones
Minimize the amount of protein in the diet
While dehydration is responsible for 90% of metabolic problems, gut motility can be one of the first accurate indicators of stress. Gut motility slows down when blood supply is reduced, which can happen anytime the horse’s systems are under excessive demand somewhere else. This is because the gastrointestinal system is the last in line in terms of the “pecking order” amongst the horse’s body systems; vital organs like the brain, heart and lungs come first, followed by the muscles of locomotion, then skin surfaces for heat dissipation…and then the GI tract. This chain of command stems from the horse’s prey animal status; if you are about to be eaten, it is more important that you can effectively run away than that you can digest your breakfast.
For the well-being of the horse, it is important to actively monitor and stimulate GI activity during a ride. Garlinghouse recommends carrying a high quality stethoscope and have a vet teach the rider how to check all four quadrants. Improving motility can be as simple as keeping small amounts of feed in the stomach, which triggers a hormonal release thereby increasing motility. Another strategy is to occasionally slow down, which will reduce heat production and therefore the demand on the skin surfaces to release excess heat. The nature of distance riding can cause a horse’s body to think is constantly being chased. Slowing down will reverse this effect.
Garlinghouse cautions against feeding pellets or cubes at a ride, both of which require extra fluids to process. Instead, feed soaked products, including hay. The better the horse’s overall hydration, the more efficiently he will circulate his blood and therefore improve his gut motility.
A distant third to hydration and gut motility in terms of managing the horse’s metabolism during a ride is energy balance. There are many different strategies related to effectively managing a horse’s feed ration leading up to and during a ride. Garlinghouse helped to dispel some common misconceptions and offered some practical tips to help ensure adequate energy reserves for the endurance horse.
There are two primary sources of energy for exercise: fats and glucose (from carbohydrates). Fats are more energy dense, offering 2.25 times the energy of an equivalent amount of carbohydrate, and the body can store fats in much greater quantities. Glucose is generated from the breakdown of carbs; limited amounts are stored as glycogen in the muscle and liver, but glucose is the limiting substrate in fatigue. Therefore, the thoughtful rider should be trying to maintain glycogen stores by balancing the diet with fat.
Garlinghouse suggests a ration with 10-12% fat in a commercial grain is acceptable, so long as horses are given time to get used to it. Fats are calorically dense and help to maintain the horse’s body weight. They also have a glycogen sparing effect. Additionally, Garlinghouse recommends supplementing with a glucose source throughout the ride. Riders should not provide extra fats during a ride, as the horse cannot process fat that quickly. A horse in good body condition already has all the fat they need for the day’s energy requirements. Horses should not arrive at the ride so thin that ribs are visible, as they do not have an adequate fat reserve.
One of Garlinghouse’s most important messages related to energy balance was that horses should not receive a large grain meal within four hours of their ride. Feeding grain causes an increase in blood pressure, triggers insulin release and inhibits the utilization of fat. In the distance athlete, this is particularly troublesome because the horse will experience something similar to a ‘sugar high’; the transient effects of the grain meal will cause the horse to be hyper to start the ride but then they will experience a ‘crash’. Most grain digestion occurs in the small intestine, and the stresses of the ride will cause some of the grain to spill into the cecum undigested. The bacteria which live in the cecum are not able to process grain, and this can cause GI stress.
Garlinghouse again emphasized that horses should be fed a meal with a high glycogen index (like a sloppy beet pulp meal) not later than midnight before a ride. On the ride morning, horses should receive unlimited hay and then small, frequent meals throughout the ride day, which will minimize the insulin response while maintaining gut motility.
There is certainly always more to learn when it comes to managing a horse’s well being during a long distance ride. Garlinghouse gave attendees plenty to think about and apply to their own horse’s feeding and management strategies as we move into the 2017 season.
Those who follow Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Farm Facebook page may have caught his comments a few days back on the “innies” and “outies” of the horse world:
“In the great big world of riding, there are innies and outies, and this has nothing to do with belly buttons. Some riders love open spaces and no boundaries, while others find comfort and security within walls and arenas, with lots of technical requirements.
“And never the twain shall meet,” not quite literally, but how many times have you seen a dressage rider out fox hunting, or a trail rider showing a hunter?
Outie sports like fox hunting, where literally the riders have no idea, at any given moment, where the fox or coyote will lead them, or for how long, are far different from, say, show jumping, which has a specific track, and sequence of fences, and a specific start and finish, and a required time allowed.
It has been postulated that those who gravitate toward outie sports, like trail riding, fox hunting, point to point racing, and (sometimes) eventing have entirely different kinds of psychological profiles than those who prefer innie sports like dressage, show hunters and show jumping.
Outie sports tend to be less precise, exact and meticulous than innie sports. They are also often faster, perhaps more high risk, and less encumbered by rules and regulations.
Of these sports, eventing is perhaps the “swing’ sport, less outie than back in long format days, but still attracting both the innie and outie riders.
Which type of riding draws you in, the more precise, more specific innie sports, or the more “laissez faire” outie ones?”
I had to laugh a little after reading the post…because I seem to be living up to my Gemini nature and enjoy both worlds quite a bit. I have two horses right now—the distance horse that also does a bit of a dressage, and the “event horse who is becoming more of a dressage horse” who focuses much better on dressage days when we have the benefit of time spent outside of the ring in between.
I have successfully competed through 4th level in dressage, and even had the honor of owning a wonderful, big moving and super handsome Hanoverian gelding for five years who helped me finish my USDF Bronze Medal. But to just ride around and around the arena six days per week, even on a fancy mover who can execute flawless changes, smooth half passes and extravagant lengthenings, for me, starts to become a little repetitive. Worldly and I always hacked out a little bit—definitely with attention to the footing (wouldn’t want to lose an eggbar) and more frequent spooks at common objects, but I think the escape from the arena did a lot to keep his attention fresh and focus sharp when working on the precision, accuracy and submission that dressage requires. It also helped us when we showed at Saugerties (NY) and had to hack from the absolute opposite side of the show grounds, over a bridge, through the Marshall and Sterling League Finals, to the dressage arenas where the NEDA Championships were being held.
But on the flip side of the coin, I wouldn’t want to always ride out on the trail, either, for several reasons. It is one thing when a horse is totally retired, and they are basically being ridden to give them attention, companionship and light exercise. For most riders, though, riding only out of the ring makes it too easy to become sloppy and complacent with position, and to also become accepting of asymmetry in both horse and rider. Both partners will tend to favor their stronger side and do not have the same opportunity to address tightness, restriction and weakness on the less dominant side that those who work in the ring do. This kind of imbalance can, over time, contribute to uneven muscle development, saddle fit issues, pain and even lameness. I also genuinely enjoy the process of developing a horse for various arena disciplines; the steady progression of exercises and application of training pyramid concepts appeals to my methodical, organized, intellectual side.
As in most things, a balance seems to be required. Trail and distance horses, and their riders, certainly can benefit from the fundamentals of basic dressage to encourage suppleness, develop strength and improve the quality of communication. Work over basic cavaletti or even small fences can help improve footwork, coordination, strengthen hindquarters and can also prove helpful when crossing downed trees or other trail obstacles. Arena horses, like hunters and dressage horses, can also improve their level of fitness (both mental and physical) but by spending time OUTSIDE of the ring. The many balance checks required when going over uneven terrain on the trail can help to strengthen muscles and stabilize joints, hopefully helping to reduce the risk of injury from a misstep in the ring.
And just as one would not expect the trail horse to magically piaffe or clear a four foot spread in the ring, the arena horse would not be expected to handle the more significant terrain or speeds required of the competitive trail horse. Each has a specialty and is just ‘dabbling’ in the other area.
As an instructor and coach, I have been struck by how many students enter our college riding program, many from a hunt seat background, having never ridden out in the open. We are lucky to have an on campus cross country course, likely the only one of its kind in the country, where we run sanctioned events. Students riding in the more advanced levels of riding class have the opportunity to go school out on the course, under supervision. It is probably the most stressful week of riding instruction that I offer each semester, and a lot of what I have to do is manage the deep fear which many of these “arena riders” face in simply crossing the bridge to our course.
Many of these riders have never experienced even basic terrain, and have no knowledge of how to balance their horse going up or downhill, or how to hold their own bodies to stay centered when the ground is not level. They are not familiar with pulley reins, emergency dismounts or other techniques used to regain control of a fresh mount. I must constantly remind them that their arena jumping techniques should come with them onto the course, that all of the good practice and methods they have used to control pace, balance and form when jumping in the ring also apply to fences out in the open.
At the end of a school, the riders almost always fall into one of two groups—the ones which have experienced the first adrenalin rush of cross country, hooked, ready to go again, and the ones who (sometimes literally) wipe away their tears, happy to have survived the experience, hoping that they may never have to do it again. Denny was right—these are the outies and the innies. I guess we all do sort of have a tendency towards one or the other.
In the end, the question is whether you choose to accept your true nature, or whether you get brave, get disciplined, or some combination of the two, and step into the world which is less comfortable. My guess is that even if you don’t choose to stay there, you will be a better horseman for the experience.
c 1991 Sport Horse Publications, Mason, MI, 256 pages
Still referred to by many as the “Bible” of equine conditioning principles, I picked up Clayton’s 1991 work, Conditioning Sport Horses, this past winter as I was beginning to think seriously about the demands of conditioning for long distance riding. I was worried at first that the book might be a bit dry or too technical for me, a non-scientist, to understand. However, Clayton is skilled at breaking down complex concepts into manageable pieces and I found it a fairly pleasurable read.
Conditioning Sport Horses is divided into three chunks. Part One looks at the major systems involved in the process of preparing a horse for athletic work and devotes full chapters to the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, energy production, muscles, thermoregulation and fluid and electrolyte balance. Part Two delves into the “practical aspects of conditioning” and covers concepts such as general conditioning principles, cardiovascular conditioning, strength training, increasing suppleness, and managing these elements in a horse’s overall training program (including using a heart rate monitor and providing adequate nutrition). Finally, Part Three shows how to use these concepts to prepare a horse for the specific demands of various disciplines; Clayton addresses the traditional sport horse disciplines but also several western sports as well as polo, endurance and chuck wagon racing (!).
I read this book much like I would a text book, underlining key concepts and passages and pasting sticky notes on others. Doing so really helped me to dig into the material. While I have studied conditioning concepts in the past, I have never done so with the intensity or scrutiny that I have brought to my work this season, and Clayton’s writing included many important concepts and principles that I am not sure I have truly ever heard before, as well as reminded me of old favorites.
For example, we have all been told that we shouldn’t feed our horses immediately following a hard work because the blood supply has been shifted away from the digestive organs. Clayton includes a graph which shows that during exercise, just over 75% of the cardiac output and distribution of blood flow is shifted to the horse’s muscles, and less than one quarter is dedicated to all of the other organs in the body. A horse at rest is nearly opposite of these values. Seeing the ratio so clearly visually depicted really drove the point home (see Clayton, 1991, page 14).
Another relevant question was answered in the chapter on thermoregulation. Here in New Hampshire, winters can get downright frigid, and the question “when is it too cold to ride” is often raised, in particular in reference to whether or not conditions are safe for the horse. Clayton settles the point clearly: “Compared with horses exercising at normal temperatures, horses undergoing strenuous exercise at -25* C(-13* F) have no significant changes in heart rate, lactate production, blood gas tensions, gait or lung tissue morphology” (Clayton, 1991, p 70). So next winter when I choose to not ride when the temps are in the single digits, I will know that it is for me that I am staying in the warmth, not for my horse!
Perhaps one of the most interesting segments of Conditioning the Sport Horse is the section on general conditioning principles. When most riders think of conditioning, it seems that their minds immediately go to the concept of “sets”; going out and riding at a certain speed or pace for a specific period of time, then allowing the horse to partially recover before completing another round. I am not sure that riders in non-aerobic disciplines (dressage comes to mind) often think hard about their horse’s “conditioning plan”. Clayton explains in great detail that the term conditioning encompasses far more than just improving the horse’s cardiovascular capacity; in fact, this system is the fastest one to improve with exercise, while other equally critical systems (such as the musculoskeletal system) lag behind. If a rider fails to address each of the critical areas of conditioning, their equine athlete’s performance will be compromised (at best) or they will risk injury or breakdown (at worst).
There are three components to the volume of exercise which a horse is in: intensity, duration and frequency. Smart riders are able to gradually increase the horse’s capacity in each of these areas, though not in all three at once (Clayton, 1991, 80-81). Strategically incorporating the various forms of conditioning with these principles will allow for the most consistent and safe increase in athletic capacity.
This book is full of practical and useful tips, everything from how to make your own electrolytes (3 parts sodium chloride to one part potassium chloride—see page 72) to how to introduce fitness concepts to a green horse in any discipline to feeding strategies for animals in endurance sports which will maximize performance. In the chapters on specific disciplines, Clayton provides clear and do-able formats for conditioning in each sport, attending to each of the major categories of conditioning. I learned a lot from reading each chapter, even for those disciplines which are not my specialty.
If you are going to consider yourself a serious student of the correct and conscientious development of the equine athlete, you simply MUST have this book on your shelves. Read it, underline it, dog ear it, and refer to it regularly as you create a conditioning plan for your athlete— and whether they are a dressage specialist, a reiner, a show jumper, or something else, your horse will thank you.
It had been nearly five hours. We had just a few moments to spare, but confident of crossing the finish line before our 4 hour and 55 minute deadline, we had slackened to a walk, allowing our horses to slow their respiration and pulse in preparation for the check- in to come. As the finish line neared, I felt a tightness developing in my chest as I became almost choked up with pride for my horse. And as we crossed the bridge bringing us back to the B barn at GMHA, and the volunteers handed us our time in slips, I bit back a few tears. She had done it. Lee had finished her first 25 mile ride. WE had finished OUR first 25 mile ride. Getting to this point had been such a long, long road—literally and figuratively—that I was almost lost for words.
In the Beginning
From day one, Lee has never been easy. I met her when she was six years old. She had been sent to live for the winter at the dressage farm where I was then employed. Her owner was quite busy juggling a young son, running her own business and commuting from Massachusetts, and so Lee stood around more than she worked. Somehow I was asked, or offered, to ride her a few days a week. She was quite green on many levels, and also quite quirky, which just enhanced the greenness. Here is a basic list of Lee’s early challenges:
I had to longe her each and every time before I rode—or else. I had to mount her from the ground, because she wouldn’t go near the mounting block. She didn’t cross tie at first, and even after she learned, for the longest time if I left her alone for even a second to run to the tack room, I would hear the crack and thump which indicated that she had broken her ties or the halter and run off. She also wouldn’t let you within fifteen feet of her with clippers of any kind, and even if you were clipping someone else, that was still cause to run away. Brooms were also problematic—whether in use, being carried past, or simply leaning against the wall. (Blogger’s Note: None of the above issues are issues anymore, except the clippers. That is a still a “no go”. You simply must learn to pick your battles).
Lee’s owner had left her ‘dressage bridle’, since Lee was at the dressage barn, meaning simply that it had a flash noseband. But when her mouth was held shut, Lee just would refuse to move at all. So off came the flash; I have never used one on her again.
Even given these quirks, we began to slowly make progress in terms reinforcing the basics. One day, Lee’s owner was chatting with the farm owner, and she said, “maybe Chris would like to compete Lee next summer.” The farm owner’s response? “In what?” (probably accompanied by a roll of the eye). And for Lee, that has always been the $10,000 question.
Today, we shall be Eventers
Given that Lee is ¾ Thoroughbred, by the stallion Loyal Pal, and out of a part Holsteiner mare named Lakshmi who herself competed in hunters and eventing, and at the time I still considered myself primarily an event rider, my first thought was that Lee would make a wonderful event horse. She is built in a very Thoroughbred-y manner, with a low neck, slight but solid frame and a hind end built for engagement. She also has an excellent gallop. In fact, one of the best gallops I have ever seen from her was the day she dumped me off into a puddle of icy water behind the UNH Equine Center, then spun and went galloping back to the main barn, where she broke through someone else’s crosstie, fell in the aisle, slid across the floor into the boarder’s tack room door, got up, ran back down the aisle and was finally caught heading towards Main Street and campus. While all this was happening, I still sat there in the mud and slush, thinking to myself, “my, what a beautiful gallop she has. She will make a great cross country horse.” This, before I entertained some less charitable thoughts about her recent behavior.
So even though she was green and a bit looky (“she is funny about fill under the fences”, said her now former owner, “but it gets better when the jumps are bigger”), I figured with enough exposure she would come around, right?
Not so much.
I hacked Lee and hunter paced her. I jumped her over little jumps in the ring. But when it came to cross country, she was absolutely not interested. She resolutely refused to jump anything which remotely resembled a cross country fence (coop, roll top, log, you name it). I remember riding on the UNH cross country course nearly ten years ago with the captain of my riding team mounted on a steady eddy type veteran, trying to use him as a lead for Lee to jump a very basic log. After umpteen refusals, my student looked at me with a sad expression and said, “I just don’t think she is going to jump it”.
I did eventually (read, five or more years after the early attempts) get Lee to follow another horse over a few logs on a pace event, and got her to jump a few small logs on the UNH course independently. And she has always been willing to go into water and up and down banks and drops (remember that I said she was quirky?) Unfortunately, to be an event horse, this just wasn’t going to cut the mustard.
But that was okay, because Lee was so speedy and cat like, and turned so quickly, perhaps she had a more appropriate niche—the jumper ring. I really like doing jumpers and thought it would be fun to have a handy and quick horse. So that is where we quickly shifted our focus.
Perhaps Show Jumpers?
Monday, February 22, 2010
Just a quick note to be sure you are ok? We all have those days!—MKB
I still have this email in my inbox. It is from the organizer of a series of local winter schooling jumper shows that I have frequently attended, and it is in reference to the day I fell off not once but twice at the same show. The first fall, if I recall correctly, was the result of a spook at a faux stone wall placed under a tiny (2’3”) vertical. The second one came later, when my horse decided to refuse an oxer— after she had already taken off. She and I landed in somewhere in the middle of the spread, but we did not land together. It was a low moment. I thought the email was an incredibly kind and considerate gesture from one rider to another.
Lee and I have attended more clinics together than I have with any other horse, ever. I have jumped her with Nona Garson, Linda Allen, Amy Barrington, Greg Best, Michael Page, Joe Forest and probably other luminaries whom I am forgetting about. The clinic setting is really her happy place, because you have plenty of opportunity to check out the fences before being asked to jump them, to warm up in the arena where you are expected to perform and if you spook at something, you get another chance to make it right.
This of course is NOT the case in the jumper ring. I learned quickly that skipping the schooling warm up was simply not an option. And if some condition of the ring changed in between schooling and my round (i.e., they brought out a digital timer), that could be a real deal breaker.
As I had expected, Lee was quick and cat like. She turned well and moved up well. Unfortunately, she was just as quick to chicken out and stop short, even over a fence which she had already jumped. There really was no rhyme or reason. It seemed like with Lee, you either won or you were eliminated. There was no in between.
I spent an inordinate amount of time working with Lee over fences before admitting defeat. I know others would have stopped sooner, and perhaps I should have too, but I will say that looking back at those years I learned some lessons along the way that I am not sure I would have been ready to learn at other points in my career.
Greg Best was one of my favorite clinicians to work with. He is patient and kind, never runs on time, and spends as much focus as is needed to get to wherever you need to get to with a given horse in a session. I had entered Lee in the three foot group; the morning of day one, she had a little bit of a bellyache, prompting a visit from the vet and causing me to pull a UNH school horse into service. I had only ridden that horse once, the day we tried him out for the program, but Windsor was experienced and well-schooled and rose to the occasion admirably. While I was grateful to have a backup come available, I was disappointed to not be able to bring my own horse. When she was cleared by the vet to go to days two and three of the clinic, I was quite relieved.
I have always ridden Lee in a plain cavesson noseband, and a basic snaffle bit. She is difficult in the connection, and seems to go best in a bit with solid rings. At that time, I had her in a single jointed Baucher snaffle. Many equestrians erroneously assume that the Baucher has leverage, because it has rings which attach to the cheekpieces, with a separate ring for your rein. However, what the unique cheekpiece attachment does is in effect to lift the bit higher in the corners of the mouth, thereby causing it to be more stable. It was the best fit I had found for her and she was fairly willing to go to it.
Greg watched me warm up Lee, along with the rest of the group. He doesn’t say much during the warm up, just observes and takes in what he sees. I couldn’t have ridden more than ten minutes before he called me over to ask about my bit.
Now, I had by this time noticed that Greg is a believer in riding in the mildest bit possible. He had already taken away a plethora of twists, gags and elevators from other clinic participants, and I had been feeling pretty good about my Baucher as being a mild enough snaffle.
“I think you have too much bit,” says Greg.
Well, darn. Now what? Greg travels with a bag that I can only compare to that of Mary Poppins—it is a nondescript, small duffle, faded from hour upon hour of sitting in sunny arenas. But when you open it up, it seems to magically contain bits, spurs, straps, doohickeys and all other manner of tools that can modify tack. From the depths of the bag, he pulled out a loop of leather. He called it a sidepull; I have also learned that this piece of equipment can be called a non-mechanical hackamore. Simply put, you remove your horse’s bit and noseband and attach the cheekpieces instead to two rings on the sides of the leather loop; your reins attach to two rings which are positioned just under the jawbones. It seemed like it was just one step up from riding in a halter and leadrope. I said as much to Greg.
“Yes, basically,” he shrugged.
And that was how I rode Lee for nearly five hours over two days in the clinic. The sidepull absorbed any defect in my release or timing, and Lee became more and more freely forward under its influence. I had no trouble at all stopping or steering her. She was so much happier without a bit.
She was again expressing her preferences in tack, if I had only known to listen.
Lee’s swan song as a jumping horse came at a clinic with eventer Amy Barrington. I have ridden with Amy several times; she is a creative instructor and sets up exercises and courses which you don’t think you can possibly jump—but then she breaks it all down into pieces and the next thing you know you have gone and jumped it all. At this clinic, we jumped a skinny one stride, constructed out of half a wooden coop placed on top of half a brick wall, with a wing on one side. Never in a million years did I think Lee would go near something that odd looking, never mind go over it.
Piece by piece, we put the course together. And then we did the whole thing—all the oxers, all the odd combinations and spooky fences, all at 3’-3’3”, without a single refusal. It was like nirvana. But I had had to ride really really hard, wear really big spurs and dig in to the bottom of my bucket of grit to get it done.
And I knew that if I had to ride that hard to get the job done, the horse probably wasn’t meant to do it.
Amy seconded my thoughts, saying, “You might be able to get her through this….but you might not. She sure is hard.”
Around this time, I was completing the USDF “L” judge’s training program, and at my final exam at Poplar Place in Georgia, the most ADORABLE little dark bay mare did some simply wonderful tests at the First Level Championships. “Hmm…”, I thought. “That horse moves and is built a lot like Lee. Maybe I should make her a dressage horse….”
So we put away the jumping tack and put on a dressage saddle. Now THIS would really be her niche, right?
Then Dressage, For Sure
Overall, I feel quite competent in the dressage arena. I can put most horses together to a level appropriate for their training fairly efficiently and I think I have a decent eye for problems from the ground. However, riding Lee on the flat made me feel like I knew nothing—not one thing—about how to put a horse On The Bit. It was so humbling. Even though my main focus for Lee had been as a jumping horse, I also had been steadily working with her dressage training all along the way. I had shown her lightly in the dressage arena; she scored a 65% at her first rated show at Training Level, and had also gone to many local schooling shows, with results ranging from $( % (look up the numbers on your computer) to upper 60’s at Training and First Level.
I began looking for a dressage instructor who would “get” this quirky horse. My first choice was someone who suggested riding her in draw reins—no thank you. I continued to work on my own before connecting with Paulien Alberts. Paulien is based in Holland (of course, why would it be someone local?) and she did a series of clinics in southern Maine geared towards para-dressage riders. The same out of the box thinking that made her successful with equestrians with physical challenges also made her successful for Lee. She was also willing to get on and ride my horse—something no one else had been willing to do. With Paulien on board, I could really see the “dancer” side of Lee come out. It was so much fun.
While the sessions with Paulien helped us to develop, I continued to look for someone closer to home to work with more regularly. For about a year, I worked with another trainer who had a European background, but it became clear that her enthusiasm for working with Lee quickly had waned and I moved on. I found the most success with another travelling clinician, Verne Batchelder. Like Paulien, Verne understood that this horse was unique and was willing to work with us “as is”. He also was willing to ride her, which I think speaks volumes. It is easy to look at Lee and think that she is a simple ride and that it is the pilot who prevents her from achieving her full dressage-y potential. But anyone who has gotten on and actually tried to correctly connect her quickly realizes that she is not that simple at all. It has been a humbling experience to work with a horse that is so hard to put together. And I know that others have judged me for it—both in terms of, “why are you wasting your time” and “why can’t you do a better job”? But their judgments are their problem, not mine. What Lee has taught me is that while the rider is OFTEN the cause of the horse’s problems, they are not always the WHOLE cause of them, and until you have personally sat on a horse and felt what is going on for yourself, you cannot KNOW what is going on. So perhaps don’t be so quick to judge others.
Showing Lee in dressage was easier than showing her over fences, but her performance could be as inconsistent. I took her to the NEDA Spring Show, and she had an absolute meltdown in the busy atmosphere of the Marshfield Fairgrounds (hence the $(% score that is on her record). I scratched from my classes on day two and just took her home. However, the most colorful showing experience I had came at the GMHA dressage show in June of the same year.
It was my birthday weekend, and I travelled to Vermont with my two pugs, Lee, and my sometimes trusty maroon pick up (mercifully now retired and working at a camp somewhere). I was looking forward to a pleasant weekend of good weather, to meet up with some friends, and to ride four Training level dressage tests.
As was my routine, I rode Lee around upon arrival, and although alert, she seemed more relaxed than she had been at the NEDA show. I personally feel that the sprawling layout there is quite horse friendly and have found most of my mounts to be at ease at GMHA. Three of my four tests were scheduled for the Upwey ring, so I concentrated my schooling in that area and then hacked around the rest of the grounds.
The next day, I headed out to Upwey to warm up for the first test. Overnight, a herd of black and white Holstein dairy cows must have been moved to a new field, because this morning, they were all hanging out directly behind the judge’s booth of my arena. As in, judge’s booth, narrow Vermont road, large herd of cows. They seemed to be taking in the warm up, rings, and general increased level of activity with a sort of detached bovine disinterest.
Lee took one look at those cows and went into full on “survival” mode. She would go nowhere near that end of the warm up, even in hand, and actually flipped her tail up, Arabian style, while velociraptor-snorting in their direction. Not one other horse in the warmup was having this sort of reaction. Excellent.
I valiantly carried on and when the time came, tried to ride our test. Lee would go no closer to the judge’s booth than “X”, and at one point was cantering backwards away from the cows. I didn’t even know horses could do that. After what I would consider a heroic effort to create some sort of Dressage in my horse, I saluted the judge and asked to be excused. She leaned out of the booth.
“I think you are very brave!” she yelled out.
Upon returning to stabling, I was beyond frustrated. How many more excuses could I give this animal? I mean, all I wanted her to do was walk trot and canter in the ring with her head down. Seriously, was this too much to ask? Had I not been patient enough?
While glowering in my stall, a friend and her daughter stopped by to see how my ride had gone. One look at my stormy expression said it all. “You know, J.K. has a cowboy with her,” said my friend. “He hacks all of her horses around and gets them over stuff like that. Do you know her? You should go ask if he would ride Lee.”
I knew J.K. by reputation only, and knew she had serious FEI horses that went well in the ring. I also knew I had never, ever, not one time, paid someone to ride my horse for me when they were being bad. It seemed like an admission of failure. But at that point, after everything I had gone through with Lee, I really, really just wanted to ride one dressage test in the ring like a normal horse. So I went to find J.K.
“Hello, we haven’t met,” I said. “My name is Chris, and I work at UNH Equine Program,” (figuring I would throw that in there for good measure). “I hear you have a cowboy with you.”
“Oh, I DO have a cowboy with me!” J.K. enthusiastically responded.
“Could I borrow him for a few minutes?”
So I was introduced to her cowboy, whose actual name I don’t even remember, and then introduced the cowboy to Lee. I now had quite a posse of friends and acquaintances following the saga of “Lee and the Cows in Upwey”, and this posse joined us as I sent Lee and her new cowboy friend towards the mounting block. He was a biggish fellow—not heavy in an out of shape way, just large like a muscled man can be, and he wore full chaps, big spurs, and a helmet only under duress as it was the GMHA policy. He mounted my petite, 15+ hand mare, and gave her a squeeze. She promptly tried to go straight up. He booted her forward, in a totally appropriate way, and she moved forward. “That might be the end of it,” whispered one of the posse members.
“Oh, it better not be the end of it,” I growled. And I knew it wouldn’t be, because she would never give up that quickly.
The cowboy brought Lee to the warmup, and starting at the end furthest away from the cows, who I am pretty sure were now hanging out at the road side edge of their field just to taunt the horses, began to play with Lee in her basic gaits. He slowly and steadily made his way down to the end of the warm up closest to the cows, where he worked her some more. He also let her stand and look, and to blow some more like a velociraptor. She did become slightly more relaxed—but that wasn’t saying too much. After about thirty minutes or so, he rode back over to me.
“Well, I don’t think you’ll be roping cows off of this one,” he drawled in his British accent.
Apparently horses besides my own were having enough problems with the bovine residents that the show management had decided to open up the Upwey arena for schooling that night. I scratched from my afternoon test and made arrangements for the cowboy to ride Lee again during the schooling time. The posse was now double in size, and people had brought alcoholic drinks. They were ready to be entertained.
Lee demonstrated her considerable athletic prowess and made me appreciate that the money I was paying the cowboy was well spent. She leapt, ran sideways and backwards and nearly took out the perimeter string. Again, the cowboy was patient yet firm, and his chief attribute was his ability to sit his hefty self squarely in the saddle no matter where the horse went underneath him. Again, Lee got better, but there was no way I was going to be able to go down centerline with her with cows anywhere near the judge’s booth.
So I scratched yet another test, the morning test for day two, but resolved that I WOULD ride my last test, scheduled for the Walker Ring— all the way across the grounds from the cows and Upwey. The cowboy agreed to be on standby, just in case.
In preparation, I took Lee over and walked her all over the area near Walker (totally cow free) and let her graze there for what seemed like hours. When our scheduled time came, we executed what for us was a near perfect test—she scored a 63% and placed 3rd, but that ribbon may as well have been a gold medal for all that blood, sweat and tears that went into it.
I began to think my horse was autistic. It seemed like she needed a completely steady, stable and predictable environment to perform her best, without any of those pesky distractions or interferences common in the real world. I showed her several more times in recognized dressage competition, but there was always that unpredictability to contend with. I decided that maybe I should focus more on training and clinics with her, and less on showing.
Lee developed to the point where she was able to do most Second and some Third Level movements—but movements only. She does not carry herself in quite enough collection and lacks the quality of connection and throughness required at these levels. Verne understands that, and was willing to work on improving the quality of the connection through the use of movements, instead of drilling endlessly on a 20 meter circle trying to make the connection better. I have always been pleased with the progress that Lee ended up making, but I was also painfully aware that I was still probably trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.
Some friends suggested that I sell Lee. “You really have tried and tried with this horse…maybe it is time to move on?” I know they meant well. But in spite of all the ups and downs, I still liked riding the horse—maybe because each step forward was so hard won. I also had real worries about what would happen to such a quirky horse on the open market.
During all of this, I have always done random things with Lee that you wouldn’t think she would like doing. She has been to the beach several times. I have ridden her while the ROTC students practiced helicopter training across the street from our facility. I have ridden her under the lights in the outdoor at night. She is foot perfect at IHSA flat practice and shows, even with a full set of bleachers and other horses acting naughty around her. She doesn’t flinch with Durham launches its fireworks directly across the street from our facility. But I still struggled to figure out what this horse truly wanted to do. What was her niche? They all have one….I just had to find it.
But really…Competitive Trail?!
In 2013, Denny Emerson began really talking up an event called GMHA Distance Days on his Facebook page. The premier event of the weekend was the three day long 100 mile ride, but divisions were offered with as few as just ten miles required. A friend of mine was actively conditioning her mare for a novice level three day, and for some reason, I got a little caught up in the excitement and decided that perhaps Lee and I could do the ten mile ride with her.
To be quite honest, I would say that any horse who is ridden regularly (let’s say five to six days per week, for an hour or more per day of walk, trot and canter) should be able to handle a distance as short as ten miles without too much fuss. But being diligent, my friend and I took our mares to several parks and local trail systems to work on their “distance” conditioning.
About a week or so before the big event, we took the mares to the local Rockingham Recreational Trail for one final long trot outing. The trail is a former railroad, and it is flat, has decent footing, and stretches all the way from the Newfields/Newmarket line to Manchester, NH, if you are brave enough to cross a few very busy roads (for the record, I am not that brave). Branching off of the rail trail are several other trail networks, mostly maintained by local conservation organizations, all open to non-motorized users, including horseback riders. Having gone back and forth along the main trail several times, on this visit we decided to explore one of these side trails. This proved to be the start of an unexpected adventure.
It became clear that these side trails were less heavily used than the main rail trail, and there were areas in which the brush and branches became quite a bit narrower. We explored several paths, most of which led to dead ends or areas which were too wooded to take the horses. We passed along areas where we were completely in forest and areas which lead us through meadow or formerly logged terrain. It was after passing through one of these more open areas that my friend’s horse began stomping her hind feet in an odd manner, almost like she was kicking out at Lee. Almost immediately, Lee started acting oddly, too, and I looked down to see a wasp sticking out of her neck. Quickly assessing the situation, I squished the wasp and yelled, ‘wasps, GO NOW!!!”
We cantered away as fast as was possible, and amazingly, neither of us was stung ourselves and our mares declined to buck us off. Unfortunately, the only way we knew how to get back to the main trail meant returning through the same area. After catching our collective breath for a few moments, we turned and moved swiftly through the “wasp” area. Neither of us ever saw the nest, but it must have been a ground hive, and a few more stings were acquired going back through that section of trail.
Deciding that we had had enough adventure “off roading”, we returned to the main rail trail and continued our progress towards Epping—away from our trailers, which were at the start of the trail in Newfields. After a few minutes, Lee started flipping her head somewhat violently, almost yanking the reins from my hands and reaching to scratch her nose on her leg. The behavior increased in intensity and persistence, and I realized that she had developed a few hives around the area where I had pulled out the wasp.
I wasn’t too concerned, because the hives seemed to be just around the one area and that seemed to be a logical reaction to a sting. But soon Lee’s entire demeanor became more frantic, more frazzled, and I asked my friend if we could turn around to head back to the trailers—some 5.5 miles away. When my friend turned, she took one look at Lee and I could see by her face that things weren’t good. The hives had spread and increased in size and thickness—almost before your eyes. I vaulted off, and began pulling off tack. Lee’s entire body was quickly consumed—her major leg joints looked like basketballs, her lips puffed like an actress after Botox, and not one square inch of her body was left alone. Terrifyingly, her outer nostrils had also begun to swell. She was clearly in distress, and here we were, miles from our trailers, in the woods, somewhere between Newfields and Epping.
My friend called our vet. We couldn’t even tell her what town we were in. I led Lee, carrying my saddle, to a crossing where the rail trail came close to a road. Some bicyclists passed by and were able to identify the route we were on, and we passed the info along to the vet’s service. And then we stood and waited.
I can’t remember ever feeling so powerless, so helpless and so scared for my horse. After what seemed like an eternity, our vet, Dr. Monika Calitri of Seacoast Equine, arrived. She had been out jogging, and hadn’t even taken the time to change out of her running clothes. She quickly got Lee started on some strong anti-inflammatories and reassured me that as scary as she looked, my horse would probably be okay.
While the medication clearly brought Lee prompt relief, she still was a lumpy, swollen mess and she was in no condition to be ridden back to the trail head. Dr. Calitri, bless her, called her partner and asked him to bring her own personal truck and trailer, still hitched from a show the day before. Once he arrived, we loaded both horses and they took us back to the trail head. What service, what kindness, and I am grateful to this day for her compassion towards my horse.
In spite of this setback, we were able to compete at the ten mile ride and had an amazing time. The people were so open, friendly and welcoming. I loved the chance to be out on the trail and to see areas of the country that I would not have otherwise accessed. I had the notion that this was perhaps something I wanted to do more of.
In spending the summer of 2014 with Denny (see The Tamarack Chronicles, Vol I- VI), I was able to spend hours riding out on the hilly trails around Tamarack. Lee became fitter than she has ever been, and interestingly, the fitter she got, the less spooky she was. Finally, she had become secure and confident. I started riding her in an “s” curve hackamore, which makes it easier to allow for hydrating and eating on trail; but interestingly, she also became so much more willing to just “go”. In the hackamore, she has had moments of being a little spooky or silly, and I have never felt even a little bit out of control. I just don’t need the bit. As she travels down the trail, her lower lip droops. It is sort of adorable.
On trail, Lee is still Lee. She still hates cows. And for the most part, she won’t go first…but never say never, as towards the end of this summer, she has actually begun to willingly lead other horses on familiar trails. She recently acted as babysitter for a green horse on a hack. This could be a sign of the impending apocalypse—just as a heads up.
Crossing the finish line at our first 25 mile ride this August at GMHA caused me to feel so overwhelmed with pride and gratitude. This horse really and truly gave me her everything on the trail, which was rocky, hilly and technical. She readily kept up with a pair of experienced Arabians and quickly pulsed down to the appropriate parameters. I realize that in the scheme of competitive trail, 25 miles is still just the beginning, but compared to anything the horse had done previously, it was far and beyond the best effort she had ever made—and I think she even had fun!
My years with Lee have really taught me so much about what it means to be a horseman. In some ways, I feel like the more I have learned about horsemanship, the less I know. Lee has been a humbling horse to work with, and though many have encouraged me to move her along, I am so glad that I have not done so.
I have always been a rider who adapted disciplines to the horse I had at hand, more or less. In my quest to find a niche for Lee, I have had occasion to clinic with so many amazing horsemen and women, and their lessons have been important ones. I have experimented with different types of equipment and approaches for training. I have competed and schooled, travelled and stayed home. I have literally ridden over mountains and across rivers.
Lee has taught me to listen to the horse. And in her own way, she is predictably unpredictable. Lee moonlights as an IHSA flat horse for the University of New Hampshire team, and she is probably the most consistent draw of the group. At one practice, she carried our walk trot rider around the ring after she had been bucked off another horse. The fall had been scary, the rider’s confidence severely shaken, and Lee just quietly moved along, in spite of the rider’s green aids. I was so proud of her that day, even more proud than when she carried another rider to the reserve high point championship at our home show.
I have enjoyed rides under stars and moonlit skies.
I have galloped down the beach.
So while Lee has never turned into an elite competitor, she is still an amazing animal, and I am so grateful that our paths have crossed.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian