Know Better to do Better: Mistakes I Made with Horses by Denny Emerson
c 2018 Trafalgar Square Books: North Pomfret, VT. 212 pages.
For the nearly 83,000 followers of Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Facebook page, the themes in Know Better to do Better will hopefully sound fairly familiar. Because after over sixty years of learning from horses, Emerson has developed a clear philosophy and system of training—and he will be the first to admit that in learning his craft, there were plenty of wrong turns and mistakes made along the way. This book is part autobiography, part advice column and part training manual, all within the frame of creating a written tool box for readers based upon Emerson’s own expansive career within the equine world.
What makes Emerson so eminently qualified to speak on this subject? Well, for starters he has ridden to the highest levels in both eventing and endurance, stood stallions, bred and foaled mares, and developed more horses and riders than he could possibly recall. He has served on governing boards of several national equestrian organizations, supported local and regional equestrian facilities and organizations, and stood as a staunch advocate of the Morgan horse. If the subject is horses, he has something to say about it—and there is a good chance that you should listen, because his perspective is informed by both experience and education.
In Know Better to do Better, Emerson covers themes pertinent to the horse and those pertinent to the rider. Better understanding of subjects such as horse selection, management, training approaches, rider fitness and focus and rider education will all influence the future success of a given partnership.
How many of us look back at a horse we once rode and think, gosh, if I only knew then what I know now? In this book, Emerson has done just that for about a dozen of the horses which have most influenced his development as a horseman. For an equestrian of his experience to still have the humility to acknowledge that “I could have done better” is a call to all of us to constantly question whether we are truly giving our horses the best possibility of success.
In full disclosure, I had the opportunity to spend the summer of 2014 based at Tamarack Hill with two of my mares, and spent hours riding with Emerson in the Vermont “hills”. He is freely giving of his knowledge and experience and willing to share his perspective; he will dream bigger for you than you do for yourself. Now in his upper 70’s, he still puts in more tack time than most riders I know. If you have always wished to go for a ride with Emerson but it just hasn’t worked out…pick up this book instead. I promise it won’t disappoint.
Lessons Learned from the 80th Anniversary GMHA 100 Mile Ride
***Warning…this is a long post…but the 100 mile is a long ride…so I guess it all evens out!***
On September 2-4, 2016, Lee and I tackled the grueling GMHA three day 100 mile competitive trail ride (CTR) for the second year in a row. We came to the ride this year a bit more seasoned but also perhaps a bit more battered; last year, nerves were due to worry about the unknown, while this year, they were the result of knowing exactly what was to come. After finishing the ride as a complete and total rookie in 2015, I knew that both my horse and I had what it would take to do it again in terms of grit and stamina. But at seventeen years old and on her third career, Lee carries a lot of miles (literally and figuratively) on her frame, and I think the theme for our distance season this year was learning to ride the fine line between fitness and soundness.
The GMHA Distance Days weekend, now in its third year, has become a true festival of distance riding. Trail riders of many persuasions (short, middle or long distance, competitive and non) come together and enjoy the always breathtaking scenery of central Vermont in the late summer, along with the joy that comes with friendships based on shared passion. The South Woodstock area has been described so thoroughly and poetically by others that I won’t even try to match their words; suffice it to say that for me, visiting there has yet to lose its appeal.
Initially, doing the 100 mile ride again with Lee was not my intention. I was (and am) so proud of her for finishing the ride in 2015, especially wearing a saddle that I later realized totally and completely did not fit her now uber fit frame (more on the quest for the perfect distance saddle in a later blog). Last year, she suffered from welts and heat bumps, both under the saddle panels and in the girth area. I was determined to try to avoid such issues this season, even if that meant staying at shorter distances.
GMHA is known today for being an organization that supports multiple disciplines at its facility, but what many people may not know is that it was originally founded to promote trail riding in the state of Vermont. For its first ten years, members of the fledgling organization worked to create a network of bridle trails which spanned the state to all of its borders. In 1936, GMHA hosted its first long distance ride of 80 miles, to “stimulate greater interest in the breeding and use of good horses, possessed of stamina and hardiness, and qualified to make good mounts for trail use.” This ride grew to cover 100 miles, and for eighty years it has run continuously (save for 2011, when Hurricane Irene came through). This ride has a rich, historical legacy unmatched by any other ride of its kind in the country. Chelle Grald, trails coordinator at GMHA and the 2016 ride manager, calls it the “granddaddy of them all.” What serious distance rider within striking distance WOULDN’T want to be a part of the 80th anniversary ride?
Besides, if you entered, you got a commemorative belt buckle. I mean, you could buy the buckle on its own, but what was the fun in that?
This past year has been one of (mostly good) transition, and neither Lee nor I are at the same place we were a year ago, in all ways you could define it. While still on her recovery days from the 100 mile ride last year, I moved Lee to our new home at Cold Moon Farm. She spent the next nine months as its sole equine resident; we did some extensive exploration of the local trail network during the late fall, and then she enjoyed two months of total rest during the depths of winter. It was the most time off she has had since we met when she was six years old. During this break, I began researching distance saddles, and with the help of Nancy Okun at the Owl and the Rose Distance Tack, located a lightly used Lovatt and Ricketts Solstice, along with a new Skito pad. This lightweight saddle fit Lee’s topline much better than the old all purpose I had been riding in, and the Skito pad allowed her to have extra cushion.
I was pretty excited to get started with the distance season this spring, and I entered the Leveritt 25 mile CTR in April. Lee hadn’t seen another horse since September, and I wasn’t sure what her reaction was going to be. I was also worried that Lee wouldn’t be quite fit enough at that stage of the year to handle 25 miles, and I kept telling my friends that I wished it were only a 15 mile ride. As it turned out, I got my wish. The hold was about 15 miles in, and I had to pull there because Lee was a little bit off on her right front. She was sound once we got home, and some mild sensitivity to hoof testers at her next shoeing indicated that she had likely just hit a stone or something similar.
At Leveritt, I rode with my friend Robin on her lovely Morgan, Flower; we had made up two thirds of the now mildly well known “Team PB & J” on the 100 mile in 2015. Robin was super excited about working towards the 100 mile ride again, and I will admit that some of her enthusiasm began to rub off on me. At the same time, having to pull at the Leveritt ride put a little sliver of worry into my mind; namely, was Lee sound enough to keep working towards the maximum level that the sport of CTR offers?
In 2015, I relied on some of the CTR’s themselves to incorporate additional distance and duration into Lee’s conditioning plan. I looked at the Leveritt ride as a fifteen mile conditioning distance; the miles might not “count” in terms of her lifetime total, but they did “count” in terms of increasing her overall fitness. I fleshed out a schedule of gradual loading and increasing distance that would include several spring rides, a break in mid summer, and then a ramp up to the 100.
But then I had a rider qualify for the IHSA National Championships, an outstanding honor, and travelling to Lexington, KY for the competition meant missing the next planned CTR. Then, the ride I had planned to enter at the end of May was cancelled. I even tried to get to a hunter pace with a friend, thinking that would give us at least thirteen miles of new trail; it was rained out. And suddenly I was scheduled to be back up at GMHA for what should have been a back to back 50 mile in June, having not completed ANY of the step up prep rides that I had anticipated.
Concerned now that she wouldn’t have the necessary fitness, I opted to do just one day of the June GMHA distance weekend, the 25 mile CTR. I still felt woefully unprepared and worried relentlessly about both her fitness and her soundness, despite positive feedback from my farrier and two vets. We reset her shoes and added a new, more cushioning style of packing under her pads. Reunited with Team Peanut Butter and Jelly for the first time since September, Lee really did do great. She felt strong and sound and came through the weekend with flying colors, scoring the best mark she would get all season.
After the ride in June, I felt more positive about our prospects for the 100. The judges had had utterly no concerns about Lee’s soundness or her back at the June ride, and she felt strong and forward. Thus encouraged, I decided to aim for the GMHA two day 50 mile CTR in early August; based on how that went, I would make my final decision on the 100.
During the gap between the June ride and the August 50 mile CTR, I had no plans to compete Lee, only condition. I made one trip up to Tamarack Hill Farm in Strafford, VT, to ride with my mentor, Denny Emerson; ironically, during the summer of the worst drought in years, the day we planned to meet saw pouring rain. We made it around anyway, dodging rain drops. At home, I continued to balance long, slow distance rides mostly at the walk with sets in the arena to maintain her cardiovascular fitness.
About three weeks before the August ride, I decided to try a new girth with Lee. It had been recommended by my saddle fitter, and the extremely contoured shape was one favored by riders whose horses have sensitive elbows or who are prone to girth galls. I had been using the girth on Anna with great success for months, and tried it on Lee for an easy one hour walk.
I was horrified at the end of the ride to find that the girth had caused the worst chafing that I have ever seen on Lee. Both armpits were rubbed raw, and the left side in particular was swollen and tender. I couldn’t believe it; there had been no indication that the girth was pinching or loose. Regardless, the damage was done, and I saw both our short and long term goals for the season sliding away.
I reached out to my distance friends and learned about an old timey product called Bickmore Gall Salve. You can pick it up at some of the chain feed stores or in my case, the local one. I religiously treated the rubs up to four times per day for the three weeks up until the fifty, and I was really impressed by how quickly the product got them to dry and heal. Even though the label claims you can “work the horse”, I didn’t think that putting a girth on was the best plan. So for three weeks, Lee longed. I worked her up to fifty minutes, moving the longe circle all over our arena and changing directions every five minutes. The longeing didn’t increase her fitness, but it kept her legged up and allowed me to watch her move. And that was how I decided that she seemed—ever so slightly— funny on the left front when she warmed up. It always went away after a few laps at the trot. But I was sure there was something there.
Between the girth rubs and the “slightly funny left front”, I was feeling like maybe it just wasn’t in the cards for us to contest the fifty mile ride this year. Then, the day before we were scheduled to leave, my truck began making a funny whining noise. I tried to convince myself that I was being paranoid, but the noise just seemed too odd to ignore, and a quick trip to the mechanic revealed that the power steering pump was caput. Now I really began to wonder if this was a sign.
Yet I am stubborn.
I have one friend with a truck that I feel comfortable asking for a loan; one phone call later and we had wheels. So thanks to the generosity of a good friend, we headed up to GMHA, with me feeling a little bit fatalistic about things. “Whatever will be, will be,” I told myself.
I longed Lee lightly when we arrived at GMHA to loosen up, and I wasn’t sure how she would look on the uneven footing of the pavilion where we were to vet in. However, we were accepted at the initial presentation, and I decided to start to ride and see how she felt. When I got on board Lee the next morning, it was the first time that I had sat on her in nearly three weeks. I kept a close eye on the girth area and carefully sponged it at most opportunities. There was a nearly record entry for the weekend, and it was clear that excitement about Distance Days was building. For many entries, the two day 50 was the last big test before beginning the final weeks of prep for the 100 mile ride.
Overall, I thought Lee handled the ride well. I was certainly in a hyper-critical state, and analyzed every step she took. On day two, I felt that she wasn’t her best, and I seriously considered pulling up, but the more she moved the better she felt. While we made it through the ride and received our completion, I knew that she wasn’t yet ready for the 100 mile ride. Something was bothering her and I needed to resolve that.
I scheduled a visit with Dr. Monika Calitri of Seacoast Equine to check over Lee. She felt that her back had become super tight (a lifelong problem for her) and saw mild positivity to hock flexions. We opted to inject her hocks, and I contacted my saddle fitter for an adjustment on the Solstice and Skito pad prior to Distance Days. Overall, Dr. Calitri thought that Lee looked sound and fit, and remarked that the tightness in her topline was the most significant finding in her inspection.
My entry for the 100 mile sat on my kitchen table, with both the 100 and 60 mile options highlighted. After Dr. Calitri’s visit, I circled the 100 mile distance, wrote the check and threw it in the mail just a day or so before closing. I figured I could always drop back to the 60 mile ride, even right up until the last minute, but since the 100 is what we had been aiming for, we might as well give it a go.
The Heart of the Thoroughbred
The 80th Anniversary 100 mile ride was scheduled to cover the traditional white (40 mile), red (35 mile) and blue (25 mile) routes. While the white and blue routes would mirror closely the trails we had covered the previous year, the red route would be a totally new one for me; it took us across the Ottauquechee River, through the Marsh Billings-Rockefeller National Park, along the banks of the beautiful Pogue, and across the Taftsville Covered Bridge.
Day one, at forty miles, is quite a day. Horses must traverse the rocky terrain of Reading, notorious for its difficulty in allowing riders to make time. Lee felt great, totally 100%, but at the half way hold (25+ miles in), the vet judge commented that he thought there was a slight head bob at times, not significant enough to spin her, but enough to quell any feelings I had of security in Lee’s soundness. At the end of day safety check, the judging team worried that Lee’s back was too sensitive, contributing to her occasional uneven step. I was required to present again in the AM before starting on day two.
I worked with Lee in the afternoon of day one, hand walking, massaging and stretching. By morning, her topline sensitivity was much reduced and we were cleared to start day two.
In celebration of the ride’s 80th anniversary, dozens of past riders were in attendance for special events at the Woodstock Inn Country Club, the Landowner’s BBQ and the Longtimer’s Brunch Reunion. Unbeknownst to me, Lee’s breeder (and only other owner), Suzie Wong, was in attendance, along with her sister Sarah and their mother. Suzie joked that for years, her family had tried to breed a distance horse, but they always turned out to be better hunters, jumpers and eventers. In Lee, they had tried to breed a high quality hunter….and ended up with their distance horse! Suzie hadn’t seen Lee in years, and their family and friends quickly became our cheerleaders, appearing at most of the major viewing areas and both holds at days two and three.
On the red day, I was pretty excited to tackle some amazing and new to me trail. The much discussed crossing of the Ottauquechee River was pretty easy, given the drought. The route through the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Park was well groomed and fun to canter along, and the steam from early morning still rose off the Pogue as we rode past. I found it hard to completely enjoy the scenery, though, as I began to worry more and more about my horse. She felt powerful, forward and willing…but not the same between right and left. Not lame, just….different. Once the seed has been planted in your head that your horse is moving ‘funny’, it can be hard to remain confident that your horse is truly ok.
Once we exited the park, we had to tackle several miles of hard top road. First, there were cows to spook at near the park headquarters. Then, there were bikers, joggers, pedestrians, and cars galore. I was left thinking that despite the historical tradition of using this route, perhaps its time had passed, due to the hazards of the modern era. Riders are left with no option but to trot along the hard top while being fairly regaled with hazards from all directions. We had to push forward into the hold, where Suzy and her friends waited for us.
The hold on red day was stressful. Lee pulsed right down, but the vet judge was not happy with how she was moving in the jog. Again, not lame, but not completely even. They asked me how she felt, and I replied that she felt strong and I was being hyper aware of any sign of lameness. They had me jog back and forth two or three times, before suggesting that I pull her saddle and jog again. When I did so, they were much more satisfied, and told me that they suspected that it was her back which was bothering her again. They cleared me to continue and I promised to closely monitor her progress.
It was just about one mile after the hold that our trio crossed the historic Taftsville Covered Bridge. The original was swept away during the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, but the new one was built to be a close replica. A “fun fact” that I learned about covered bridges is that they were originally built so as to look like a barn, horses being more willing enter a barn than to cross a scary open bridge over rapidly moving water. I am not sure how thrilled Lee would have been to make a solo crossing, but with her friends Quinn and Flower around her, she was a willing follower. In some of the photos of us, the past meets present, as a car is sitting at the mouth of the bridge waiting to cross after us.
After finishing the thirty five mile long red trail, it came as little surprise to me that the judges yet again held Lee. By now, we were all paying close attention to her back sensitivity. One of the good things about CTR is that the judges and the riders work together as a team to monitor the horses’ condition. While we all would like to finish our rides, none of us wishes to do so at the expense of our horse’s well-being. Even though Lee felt mostly ok under saddle, it was clear that she was starting to push through some discomfort. After seventy five miles, even the most fit of animals is likely to be feeling some effects of the experience; the question becomes whether they are crossing over the line and their overall well-being is at risk.
I woke quite early on day three; the stars were still out in full force as I dressed in my trailer and made my way to the barns. While Lee ate her morning grain, I gently, and then more firmly, massaged the muscles over her back and encouraged her to stretch. I then took her for a nearly forty five minute walk. At that time of the day, the air is clear and the sky brilliant. Once your eyes adjust, it is amazing how much you can still see; at the same time, your sense of hearing heightens. The faintest whisper of dawn was just visible in the sky as it came close to time to present to the judges. I did several in hand transitions, and when I could barely stop Lee I knew that she was ready.
Once again, Lee trotted off brilliantly for the judges under the lights of the pavilion. It seemed clear that whatever was bothering her that weekend wasn’t a true lameness, but instead something which improved significantly with an overnight’s rest. We were cleared to continue.
Day three, the blue trail, is a twenty five mile route, and I was reminded again of just how much shorter that feels after tackling forty and thirty five mile distances on the preceding days. Despite this, twenty five miles is still plenty of trail, and anything can happen. As we rode into the final half way hold of the weekend, our “trail boss”, Quinn, lost a shoe. While the farrier and his rider, Kat, worked to address that situation, I prepared to present to the judges. I proactively pulled Lee’s saddle and jogged her in hand without it, and much to my surprise, they were happy and let us go without a second look. At the end of our twenty minute window, Flower and Robin and Lee and I were forced to leave Quinn and Kat behind, as the shoe was still being replaced.
Neither Flower nor Lee is a huge fan of being the leader, and after nearly ninety miles, no one’s sense of humor is at its best. Without Quinn, we struggled to gain momentum. But then the most amazing thing happened. It was as though Lee switched her gears, dug in, and then she suddenly powered forward and LED, for several miles, without me bidding her to. It was as though she said, “I’ve got this, and we are going to get it done”.
It was without a doubt the “heart of a Thoroughbred” in action.
We eventually caught up to a few other riders, and our mares were willing to fall into step with them as the miles continued to tick down. Much to our surprise, Quinn and Kat were able to catch up to us just a few miles from the GMHA grounds, and it was again with a feeling of extreme pride that we returned to the announcement of our names as we entered the White Ring as a team of three.
We had done it. Again.
Lee lost a number of points from her score for the sensitivity in her topline at the final presentation, as well as a few points for “lameness consistent under some conditions”, but she had earned a second completion in as many 100 mile rides. Thirty horses had started, and just over half completed. Of those to finish, Lee was the second oldest.
As we stood at the awards ceremony, surrounded by horses and humans who I have come to admire and respect, I knew that my horse had earned her place among those in the ring. She was awarded the Perkion Award for the second year in a row, given to the best scoring Thoroughbred or Thoroughbred type, and she was also awarded the Spinner Award for the best non-registered trail horse. We finished sixth in the middleweight division, the only group of riders which saw all entrants complete the ride.
Far from being defeated, Lee remained alert and engaged after the ride. Overall, she weathered the experience well. But I knew that my horse had had to dig in to get the job done, and that she had finished the ride largely due to her Thoroughbred heart. What an amazing experience to know what it is like for your horse to bring you home on their own drive and grit.
Lee is now officially retired from the 100 mile distance. It wouldn’t be fair to ask this of her again. I still plan to compete her in distance rides, so long as she tells me that is okay, but we will stick to the “shorter” mileages. As Denny said of her in 2014, “that is one tough horse”.
I got on the Dark Mare (better known as Lee) today for our first ride since late December. In the ten years we have been together, this is the first time I have ever let her “rough out” for the winter. With our recent move and lifestyle change, though, allowing her some time for R/R seemed not just prudent but inevitable—what little tolerance I used to have for riding outside in the snow in sub zero temperatures wore off many years ago.
But spring is just around the corner, and ride entries for CTR’s are starting to come available, so I decided the time had come to get Lee back under tack. All things considered, for a sensitive Thoroughbred mare who has had two months off…she was pretty well behaved. I had planned to just walk around our fields for about an hour or so, but at the forty-five minute mark, her entire demeanor changed. She became jiggy and more spooky, and I could tell that she was on the verge of one of her infamous meltdowns. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, we headed home.
I was surprised when I untacked to discover that even with just that short bit of walking around, Lee had gotten a little sweaty on her hamstrings and under the saddle area. I think her “unsettled” behavior was just her way of telling me that she was tired and it was time to stop for the day. Knowing this, I will now adjust the plan for our next few weeks, taking shorter walks, with the goal of gradually working back up to one hour.
This experience reminded me of a fellow blogger’s post that I read just the other day. Her theme was that in training animals, it is important to consider the day’s interaction from the animal’s perspective. Specifically, she discusses that if you achieve your intended outcome for the day, but neglect to consider the quality of the interaction with the animal, then overall, your training has failed. Animals which are forced to submit to training, or who are pushed beyond their capabilities or physical endurance, typically do not willingly seek out that interaction again in the future. When considering your day’s work with the animal, the author asks, “Have you left the animal better off than before you interacted with him?”
Lately, I have been reading through some long archived copies of Dressage Today, and in the January 2007 issue, a reader “asked the expert” how they could better deal with resistance from their mount. I thought to myself that I would have no idea how to answer that question without more information, but Becky Langwost-Barlow, a USDF certified trainer, did an admirable job of doing so. Langwost-Barlow provided many excellent general thoughts in regards to resistance, but there were two paragraphs which I thought were just exceptional in regards to how the rider should handle resistance in their horse:
“Every rider makes mistakes. Some are small; some are huge; some last for seconds; some can continue for years. Even misreading how the horse is feeling can be a huge mistake, taking the rider down the path of resistance….I also don’t go for a 150 percent every time I ride. I try to break up the work and look for any sign of discontent. If the horse is cranky in his stall and doesn’t want to come to me, I know he’s not happy, and I need to look for the soreness or back off in the training.”
Being a true horseman requires that you be in tune with your horse and how they are feeling on a given day. During the summer I spent with Denny Emerson, he always reminded us that a rider cannot get on with an agenda, or be too earnest, because to do so usually meant that they rode without sensitivity or compassion for the horse which they were sitting on in the moment. While we were working to re-establish Anna’s confidence over fences that summer, there were many days where I would warm up and literally jump ten fences, then go off for a hack. It is far better to do too little in a work session than too much. The horse must always finish feeling like they have been successful.
This is not to say that you should ride without goals, or fail to address disobedience or other issues. However, such corrections must be done with mindfulness and compassion. In the November 2006 issue of Dressage Today, author John Winnett offered a historical overview in an article titled “The Foreign Influences on American Dressage”. This article discussed the role which many of the great cavalry officers played in shaping the development of riders in the US. I had never before heard of Jean Saint-Fort Paillard, a retired cavalry officer from Saumer (France) who later relocated to California after competing at the highest levels in show jumping and dressage. Paillard authored Understanding Equitation in 1974 and according to Winnett was known for his patient, humane approach to training. In Paillard’s words:
“Let us try to remember for a moment what the atmosphere in the riding hall or around the show ring would be if the horses yelped whenever they were hurt as dogs do. Wouldn’t certain jumping competitions be punctuated by howls of pain? And wouldn’t certain dressage classes be punctuated by plaintive whimpers? What a nightmare!”
I hope that this statement would give most thinking horsemen cause for pause; we certainly have all been witness to situations in which Paillard’s words might ring true. But in my opinion, a rider who overworks their horse, or who drills, or who doesn’t learn to feel enough to quit the day’s work before the horse is too tired or exhausted to argue, is just as guilty of being inhumane as the one who overuses whips, spurs, bits or various artificial contraptions.
We are only human, and the reality is that sometimes we are going to make mistakes, misread our horse or a situation, or react inappropriately. But the thinking horseman must recognize that they have erred and actively work to avoid doing so in the future.
In the memorable words sung by Kenny Rogers (and written by the much less well known Don Schlitz): “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right. You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” In horse training, the thinking horsemen must learn when to push (know when to hold ‘em), when to quit for the day (know when to fold ‘em), when to end on a good note (know when to walk away) and when to abandon a training approach which isn’t working (know when to run).
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.
Or…what a child’s story has to do with horse training
Most of us are familiar with the children’s story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If you can overlook the notion that Goldilocks seems to have little respect for other people’s homes or property, you will notice a theme in her explorations—in any situation regarding choice, neither extreme was quite right. Taking the middle road always led to the greatest degree of satisfaction.
I have come to embrace the “Goldilocks Principle”, as I have nicknamed it, in teaching riders and training horses. I have been gratified to recognize that many other accomplished horse trainers subscribe to a similar philosophy.
Take contact, for example. In dressage training, it is not correct to pull strongly on the reins, nor is it appropriate to ride with reins which are completely loose and floppy, in most circumstances. The “ideal” is a length of rein and strength in the weight which allows for a steady, consistent, elastic feel between the bit and the rider’s elbow. So, you know, something in the middle.
When you are getting ready to jump your horse, Denny Emerson always tells riders to look for the “adjustable jumping canter”—which he also calls the “middle canter”. The middle canter is not fast, rushed and tense, nor is it lazy, four beated or “tranter-y”. It has forward intention, and just enough jump. The rider can ask the horse to change the shape of their stride, but they always have the power available. Again, it is somewhere in the middle.
If we think about equitation, in its truest sense, we also avoid extremes. The rider should always remain balanced over the horse’s center, which occurs when the ear/shoulder/hip/heel line is maintained. The correct position for the rider’s lower leg: not too far ahead or too far behind center. Ideal is “somewhere in the middle.”
The Goldilocks Principle. You never knew that the story was about horse training, but Goldilocks got it right.
And while we are talking about training philosophies….
I was reading a fellow blogger’s post, where the author discussed that the training process isn’t always pretty. This is another concept which I find I consistently come back to in helping riders and horses to improve. When you try a new skill out—salsa dancing, throwing clay on a wheel, drilling a fence board on straight, whatever—do you typically pick it up effortlessly, or do you sometimes struggle a bit? I know for me, some new things come easier than others, but in most cases, it is clear that I am a neophyte. Why should it be any different for our horses? Some new things they will pick up quickly, but others will require a process of trial and error to get right.
The same is true for riders. Some people seem like naturals; maybe they have an inherent sense of balance, or timing, or “feel”—we kind of hate those people. Most of us have to experiment, make mistakes and apply aids in different combinations or intensities before we figure out what it is we are trying to do. It is okay if new skills don’t come easily. But it is important to know that what we are asking the horse to do is appropriate and fair, and that we are asking them in a manner which makes sense.
Riding horses is a complex, active sport. Equestrians always laugh when we hear comments such as “the horse does all the work”. Sure, at the end of the day it is our horse which gets us over the fence, up the mountain or down center line. However, that can only occur when we have achieved clarity in interspecies communication, combined strength and suppleness in our own bodies such that we appear to be still on an object in motion, and done enough preparation work to set the horse up to successfully complete the task at hand.
What makes riding a partnership is that sometimes they mess up and we help them out. Sometimes we make the mistake and they save our skin.
And sometimes we get it just right, and things come out somewhere in the middle. The Goldilocks Principle.
In 2015, I was lucky enough to be one of ten recipients of an Area I Eventing Scholarship. In my application, I indicated that I planned to focus on training rather than competing Annapony this season. I used funds from the scholarship to pay for lessons with Verne Batchelder, Denny Emerson and Nancy Guyotte (see Another Clinic with Nancy Guyotte). Throughout each session, one theme became abundantly clear: Anna is a capable, but somewhat lazy, athlete, and nagging her for “more” will get you nowhere. My lesson with Nancy focused mostly on show jumping, while Verne tackled dressage and Denny, cross country. In this blog, I will discuss the main exercises and techniques learned in the sessions with Verne and Denny.
Verne Batchelder: Using Double Longeing to Improve Suppleness and Impulsion
Verne Batchelder of River House Hanoverians in Williston, FL, gives clinics regularly in New Hampshire. I have really enjoyed working with him over the past several years both with Anna and Lee. One of Verne’s great strengths is his ability to find many different approaches to correcting deficiencies, all while staying within a clear training system and progression. Verne is also an expert with work in hand, including double longeing and long lining; he regularly includes such techniques in the training programs of his own horses, which I had the opportunity to witness on a visit to his farm several years ago (see Winter Training Sessions: Mini-Pro Style).
Having worked with Verne a number of times previously, he is well familiar with Anna’s tendency to be generally lacking in impulsion. Some of this he attributes to her inherent mellow nature, but some of it is due to a lack of suppleness. We have worked on improving her suppleness in a variety of ways, including improved neck control, the use of traditional lateral exercises such as shoulder fore, leg yield and haunches in, as well as longitudinal stretching work like long and low or lengthenings.
This spring, Verne decided for the first time to incorporate some work on the double longe into our session. His intention was to provide increased support through the outside turning aids while improving control of the curvature of her neck. I remained mounted while Verne ran two lines; the outside line was simply attached to the bit ring and ran over my leg and around Anna’s hindquarters, while the inside line was set up as a sliding longe. This meant that the line ran through the inside bit ring and then attached to a loop on the girth, underneath my inside foot. With the sliding longe, the ground handler can smoothly achieve correct inside flexion. The outside line allows for a clear and consistent support through the entire arc of the horse’s body while also providing a mechanism to apply a traditional half halt.
It is quite a strange feeling to essentially have one’s horse ridden from the ground while one remains mounted! Anna has longed only a little bit, and I was definitely mildly (well, greatly) concerned that she might not be a model citizen when put into these boundaries. My job was to essentially hold the reins evenly and to remain centered, adding leg to support Verne’s body position and voice. At first, Anna was somewhat resistant to the idea of accepting the newly imposed limits. It is important for a trainer to remember that resistance is only the horse’s way of expressing their displeasure. If the question the trainer is asking the horse is fair given their physical condition and previous training, and the aids are appropriate, usually the rider’s best response is to simply ignore the resistance and remain consistent in using the aids to ask the appropriate question. In fairly short order, Anna relaxed into the new parameters established by the double longe and began to more actively engage the muscles of her topline as well as increase the degree of thrust from her hindquarters. In addition, the connection further stabilized and the quality of the bend improved.
After this session with Verne, I incorporated the use of about ten minutes of warm up on the double longe with Anna on dressage days, with the inside line set up as a sliding longe. When the horse is unmounted, side reins set just a little bit on the longer side will help to maintain straightness; as always, they should not be adjusted in such a way that the horse’s head is forced down or in. In working with this technique independently, I noticed that Anna could find her own balance and begin to develop looseness throughout her back more rapidly than when warmed up under saddle. When I rode her after this style of warm up, she was much more willing to stay “hotter” off my leg and therefore I could use a much quieter forward driving aid.
One of the other huge benefits of using the sliding longe technique to warm up was that the overall work session could remain “short and sweet”. Because she had already loosened up her muscles, it was possible to keep the actual “work” session much more focused and organized. I think this is super important with all horses, but especially those which don’t have an unlimited reserve of energy. If you can get in the ring, do what you need to do, and then go out for a hack, the horse’s attitude will stay fresher and more enthusiastic than when they anticipate a long session of drill work.
Denny Emerson: Jumping Fences off a Forward Stride
Anna and I spent the summer of 2014 up at Tamarack Hill Farm, where we worked hard to rebuild our confidence over fences (see The Tamarack Chronicles: Vol III). We left in August with a renewed sense of harmony and assurance in our jumping work and completed the fall season with placings at King Oak and Stoneleigh Burnham Horse Trials.
Overall, I was able to continue to apply the techniques I had learned at Denny’s to our regular schooling routine and keep Anna’s jumping skills tuned up while working on my own over the winter. In general, I keep the fences low enough that “mistakes” are not a big deal. I have focused a lot of energy on further refining my jumping “eye” and improving the quality and consistency of Anna’s jumping canter.
Denny always says that when under pressure, all riders will show a tendency to either “choke” or “chase” their eye. What he means is that we all have a preference for pushing a horse to lengthen their stride, perhaps leaving a bit too long, or to overly compress the horse, causing them to jump from a deep spot. While either option might be the best one in a given circumstance, neither is ideal as a method of riding to every fence; this is why most of us have to develop, through practice, the ability and habit of organizing the horse’s canter to arrive at the “ideal” take off spot. It is my opinion that horses, too, have a tendency to prefer to leave long or to jump deep, and they also need to be conditioned to be able to jump from a variety of different reasonable points.
Anna would be a “choker”. She can be carrying a decent amount of energy and power in the canter, and then in the final few strides before the fence, drop behind the leg, compress her stride, and calmly decelerate to the base with increasingly shorter strides. It isn’t quite the same as a “chip”, which is when the horse will squish one extra small stride right in front of the fence. With Anna, it is a steady deceleration which allows balanced but small strides to be fit into the space where a few longer strides would have been better. She is simply more comfortable jumping from a slightly tighter distance off a shorter stride.
For a long time, I have allowed Anna to manage her fences in this way, as it seemed to be the place from which she was most confident. It is also incredibly difficult to prevent her from doing it, and when I try to address the issue, I feel like I am beating her with my legs and/ or crop to keep the canter going. I have participated in clinics (most notably with Kim Severson) where the entire focus became trying to eliminate this change in the canter, to get Anna to jump more “out of stride”, but I always end up feeling like both Anna and I are frustrated. She also will begin to shut down if you really push her on it—her response seems to be, “hey, I jumped your fence, lady, what more do you want?”
The major issue is that there are some fences which simply do not ride as well when jumped from this tighter spot, including upright verticals like planks and wider oxers. In addition, she will often quit when faced with this deep distance and a tough question. Yet when I push her to maintain the same canter to avoid this situation, she will obstinately ignore my aids and put herself into the not ideal take off point. It is just yet another manifestation of her tendency to not stay in front of the leg. Story of our lives!
So if I rode like Michael Jung or Ingrid Klimke or any of the other equestrian elite, my horse would never have gotten to this point. But as I am a mere mortal, and have made a ‘deal’ with my horse, I am now faced with trying to change the terms of our established contract.
My session with Denny started in the show jumping arena. After a brief warm up on the flat, I began popping over a few of the smaller fences in the ring. Anna was obedient but also performing her signature “I change my canter on the approach” maneuver. Denny decided that the focus of our session was going to be keeping her much more forward overall, but especially in those critical last few strides before the fence.
Still in the show jumping ring, Denny had me kick Anna up into a cross country style canter—as much of a gallop as Anna will do under saddle (have I mentioned that she is not a very forward thinking animal?). My job was to do whatever it took—growl, flail, kick like a D2 Pony Clubber—to keep her not just in a jumping canter but a forward, cross country canter, to each and every fence I aimed at. I really did feel just like a 10 year old whose legs don’t clear the saddle flaps, both in technique and overall effectiveness. For her part, Anna did stay much more forward, but it wasn’t coming from within her—it was the result of my motivation.
So in spite of seeing this glimmer of improvement, Denny decided that we needed to go out onto the cross country course to seek more energy. Most horses show an intrinsic improvement in their forward intention when they are out in the open, and the terrain of Vermont would also provide some assistance. Denny hoped that by adding in these variables, Anna would begin to better ‘self-motivate’ in her approach to the fences.
The exercise seemed simple—pick up a positive canter at the bottom of a slope, kick on up the hill, then ride a gradual turn over the crest of the hill and allow the momentum of the descent to carry us forward down to a tire jump at the bottom. The objective? To maintain the positive, forward energy up to and across the fence, with no change in step.
It was really, really hard to not “check” Anna on the descent down the hill. The tire fence we were tackling at the base was small, and so no matter where we came to, Anna would be more than able to cope with getting us up and over. In spite of that, it took everything in my power to not try to come to a specific take off point. For the first several attempts, I did pretty well at the roll down the hill but when Anna began her typical slow down at the base, I did little to prevent it. It was truly amazing how effortlessly she could check all of that forward energy and then insert her little microstrides in before the jump.
I ended up having to channel that inner ten year old girl again, and basically kick and flail and feel like we just galloped down the hill, before Anna FINALLY jumped the tire fence directly out of stride.
Left to my own devices, I don’t think I would ever have been brave enough to ride Anna so aggressively. I still have hunter equitation roots, where aids such as visible kicking or moving out of harmony with the horse are certainly frowned upon. I think I would also have worried too much about getting her out of balance and causing her to make a dangerous mistake. But Denny made two comments regarding these thoughts: 1) The fences MUST be kept low and straightforward, so that jumping them is a given almost regardless of the horse’s balance and 2) he almost never ever coaches riders to ride like this either. Anna is just that lazy!
My major take home from this session was that no matter what, I NEED to practice remaining assertive and positive with the forward driving aids up to and away from each and every fence. I don’t think that I have been passive with my aids at all; it is just clear that in some circumstances with some horses, it is possible to be even bigger and louder with your aids than you might think is appropriate!
I would really to thank the members of the Area I Scholarship for choosing me as one of the 2015 recipients. I feel that I definitely benefitted from the instruction I gained from the scholarship, and I hope that through these blogs, other riders with lazy horses might gain some additional ideas or insights into techniques which can help them, too!
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” W.H.Murray
Murray was a Scottish mountaineer and writer, who spent three years imprisoned during World War II in an enemy camp. While there, he wrote a draft for a book later called Mountaineering in Scotland on the only paper available to him—toilet paper. So he knows a thing or two about being resilient, I should think.
Denny Emerson recited this quote to me after the Dark Mare (Lee) and I completed the seemingly impossible— the rigorous three day long, one hundred mile ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association Distance Days, held annually in South Woodstock, Vermont each fall. What made the completion so sweet, and somewhat amazing, is that previous to that weekend, the longest ride that my horse and I had ever done was a two-day fifty mile route, just one month before. 2015 was only our second season riding in competitive trail, and in 2014 we had ended our first year by finishing the 25 mile ride at this same event, feeling pretty proud of that accomplishment. To say that we were rookies is an understatement of the term.
Denny had first planted the seed in my mind that aiming for the 100 mile ride was a possible goal when I spent the summer of 2014 up at his Tamarack Hill Farm. At that point, Lee and I had done exactly one 10 mile “intro” conditioning distance ride. While up in Vermont for the summer, we finished two fifteen and one twenty five mile CTR, and completed one additional twenty five mile ride after we returned home. Even while I was letting the seed incubate in my mind, there was a more dominant, rational part of my brain which was saying—trying for the 100 would be ridiculous! You have never done more than a 25 mile ride. There is no WAY you will be ready, and you have no idea what you are doing.
But still the idea ruminated….
Planning and Prep
Being fairly new to the sport meant that I had no idea how one would go about conditioning a horse to do a 100 mile ride, never mind whether or not it was a good idea to even try to do so. I gain confidence from feeling well informed and making plans, and so I figured that the New England winter presented a good opportunity to do a little research.
I started with a cover to cover read of several books, especially Hilary Clayton’s bible, Conditioning the Sport Horse, which gave me an outstanding overview of all aspects of conditioning, from physiological changes to the various forms of conditioning (interval, long slow distance, skill drills, etc) to proposed conditioning schedules for various activities. I also read several books more focused on endurance than competitive trail, but still helpful gave many helpful insights and ideas: Go the Distance by Loving, Endurance Riding by Wilde and The Complete Guide to Endurance Riding and Competition, by Snyder-Smith. Two of the major takeaways from my research were that 1) just like marathoners don’t go out and run 26.2 miles every day to get ready for their marathons, 100 mile horses don’t go out and ride tens of miles every day to get ready either and 2) a horse who has remained in consistent, steady, 60 minutes/day/6 days/week of work for many years, like Lee, likely has a fairly good base to start with. Maybe this wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.
Next, I ordered a heart rate monitor and a GPS watch which measured distance and time. It arrived shortly after one of several February blizzards, and it took me until June to be able to figure out how to use it properly (when all else fails, but only as a last resort, read ALL of the directions). The watch was immensely helpful in teaching me a sense of speed over miles—CTR is based on maintaining a fairly steady 6-7 minute mile, and developing an awareness of what this speed feels like over varied terrain is important to ensure that you finish within the allotted window.
Finally, I planned a schedule for the season. As in any discipline, you can’t push for peak performance year round. I needed to develop a program which would allow Lee to steadily build her endurance and strength over time, without pushing so hard that she became sore or sour. I decided up front that if at any point she indicated that she wasn’t feeling up to the task, I would pull back and regroup. I live in seacoast, NH, where the terrain is rather…coastal. In order to get ready for the hills and rocks of Vermont, I needed to carefully balance speed work to improve cardiovascular capacity with maintaining soundness in the musculoskeletal system.
Finally, I knew that the CTRs themselves would serve as an important component to her conditioning. I decided that we would do the 15 mile ride sponsored by VERDA in mid May, followed by a one day 30 mile ride on flatter terrain a few weeks later in Maine (Lee actually was the high point champion that day!). Based on how she felt after the 30 mile, next I aimed for the 25 mile ride at GMHA in June, and entered the “intro to endurance” 15 mile ride the next day, to have our first experience of a “back to back” weekend. Considering that she was running away with me at times on the 15 mile, I figured she was coping ok! Our final CTR before the 100 was the two day fifty at GMHA in early August.
Before I began our conditioning, I had our vet, Dr. Monika Calitri of Seacoast Equine, out in March. Lee is 16, and I wanted to make sure that there were no signs of any trouble brewing which would preclude the commencement of her conditioning plan. With Dr. Calitri’s blessing, we got the green light to move forward with our schedule, and made a plan to recheck her in mid-June, after the back to back 40 mile weekend, to see how she was doing at that point.
As we progressed through each event, Lee felt better and better. There were a few bumps in the road—she had some minor girth galls after the back to back 40 mile ride, prompting me to ask the trail community for advice (mohair/string girths), and we had some soundness concerns raised by the vet judge at the 50 mile ride, which really gave me pause, though I could personally feel and see nothing wrong. However, she came out of the recovery phase of her 50 mile feeling better than ever, and after consulting again with Dr. Calitri, we received the green light to enter the 100.
Yet in spite of the successful completion of my preparation, and the encouragement of several mentors in the trail community, I hesitated to enter the 100 mile ride. I worried that I wasn’t qualified, that I was in over my head, and maybe rerouting to the 60 mile ride, being held the same weekend, was a better plan.
But then I realized that the major reason that I was vacillating about entering the 100 mile ride was because I didn’t want to not finish it. And as it turns out, if you don’t try, you certainly will not finish. The only way to finish a 100 mile ride is to start one.
So on closing day, I dropped my entry in the mail. And so began one of the most exciting and emotional weekends I have ever experienced with my horse.
Team Peanut Butter and Jelly
I can still count on just a few fingers the total number of people I have ever completed rides with, and not one of them was entering the 100 mile. I knew that in order to be successful, I would need the guidance and companionship of someone who had done this before. Through a mutual friend, I was introduced to Kat Waters, who was entered to ride Lee Alexander’s palomino Morgan gelding, Quinn. Kat kindly agreed to let me join her and her friend, Robin McGrath, who was ironically also riding a palomino Morgan, Flower. While it was Quinn’s first 100 mile ride, all other participants were veterans from previous years. As a group, we looked like two pieces of bread and the “stuff” in the middle—Team Peanut Butter and Jelly.
I must pause here to pay respect to both Kat and Robin, without whom I am sure I would not have completed this ride. From start to finish, we all functioned as a team, and enjoyed every minute on trail and off. Kat became the team statistician, keeping track of our pace and the remaining time allowed. We jokingly referred to Quinn as the “overlord”, as he typically led the group, comprised of his own personal harem. Robin and Flower helped to set the pace, with their infectious energy and enthusiasm pushing us forward through fatigue and the seemingly never ending Vermont hills.
Our group rode the entire 100 miles from start to finish together, and I don’t think there was a happier or more excited group at any phase of the way.
Day 1—The White Loop (40 Miles)
The day prior to the ride, each competitor was required to ‘weigh in’ on the GMHA Member’s Room porch, carrying tack, helmet, boots and any other equipment they would be carrying with them. Riders were divided then into “lightweight”, “middleweight” or “heavyweight” divisions. We also had the standard “vet in”, where we presented our mounts to the judges, Dr. Ann Chaffee and Eva Norris. Lee decided that she needed to liven things up by bucking vigorously during most of her trot out. Clearly my strategy to “taper down” before the ride had left her with plenty of energy— but unfortunately, you want to try to match your trot out at the end of the ride with your initial presentation, which meant we had a lot to live up to!
The first day of the ride was the longest on trail, and I was a little nervous knowing that it would be the longest distance I had ever ridden Lee in one go. To add to my nerves, the route was to take us over the trails in Reading, which are known for being exceptionally rocky and rugged, and therefore difficult to make time on.
Our day started early. There were just nine horses entered in the 100 mile ride, and so our group of three represented fully one third of the ride’s entry. We were certainly distinct—two Morgans of color and one decidedly Thoroughbred mare. No traditional Arabians here!
Once we got on trail, we quickly realized that our three mounts really were going to stick together just like peanut butter and jelly. The time passed quickly and Lee readily pulsed down at the half way hold. I was especially pleased because with such a long distance, the hold was at about mile 25—which meant that Lee had gone nearly as far as she had ever gone before without the benefit of a mid-point break. Other than being hungry, she seemed quite good to continue.
One of the funniest moments happened at a water stop. We had caught up with another small group of 100 mile riders, and so about five or six of us were standing in a running stream, allowing our horses to drink. Lee likes the moving water best, and had finally settled down to take a good drink in, when she decided that actually she was more concerned with scratching her face on her leg. Somehow, she slipped the crownpiece of her bridle right off over her ears! We were literally in midstream, and I was NOT interested in dismounting to fix the problem. I managed to keep enough pressure on the S curve hackamore noseband that I prevented the rest of the bridle from slipping off, and then somehow manipulated the rest of the pieces back into their rightful places, all with one hand.
Upon returning to GMHA grounds, Flower and Lee pulsed down quickly, but Quinn, who is a bit thicker in his muscling, struggled to recover in his pulse parameters, despite a reduced respiration rate. Kat needed to use every minute of extra time she was granted to continue to sponge and cool Quinn. Within the rules of CTR, the most we could do was hold him or refill her water buckets—no one but the rider is allowed to apply the water, except in an emergency. After an anxious wait on all our parts, Quinn was approved by the judges and Team Peanut Butter and Jelly remained intact.
We took the horses out for several walks and periods of hand grazing. Lee seemed pretty content, and I was incredibly pleased with her for handling the rocky, rugged terrain in the Reading area with such “fight”. I looked forward to the ride the next day.
The overnight temperature was expected to be in the low 40’s, but the early evening still felt fairly pleasant. It is not a temperature that I would normally choose to blanket at, so I was surprised to see many other riders bringing out coolers and sheets as the sun dipped down. Kat and Robin explained to me that after such a big exertion, the horse’s muscles need to be kept warmer than usual to prevent stiffness or cramping as they stood in the stalls overnight. Fortunately, I had a supply of appropriate horse clothing in the trailer, so I put a sheet on Lee too. This was just one of many tips this rookie picked up from the other riders.
Day 2—The Red Loop (35 miles)
Day two sent us on the thirty five mile red loop. Today, we were joined by a medium sized group of horses and riders who were entered in the two day sixty mile ride and a small group who were doing the thirty five exclusively. The 100 milers were sent out first, though, and it was as we were getting ready to leave that I began to realize what a celebrity status the 100 mile group had at the ride. People I don’t know, or have only met once, were there to see us off, and many of them knew who we were and who we were riding.
As we started out over some of the fields at GMHA, I could feel tightness in Lee’s back, and I had a moment of panic that she was not right after her long ride the day before. After a bit of warm up, though, I could feel her muscles begin to loosen, and her stride began to lengthen and swing as it usually does.
Day two was an exciting day on so many levels. First, the route took us on trails in the town of Brownsville which I had never seen before, including one road which allowed us a fairly stunning view of Mt. Ascutney. Second, once we passed through the safety check/hold at the half way point, each mile we covered was one mile further than Lee had ever gone before. I knew that even if we didn’t finish, at that point we still had accomplished a great deal.
I noticed at the halfway hold that some of the galling which I had experienced on the June ride was starting again, in spite of using the mohair girth. I ride Lee in an all purpose saddle that I fished out of a dumpster (I am not making this up), and I had it flocked with wool over the winter. Comparing where Lee’s girth sits in relation to her elbow to the same setting on the trail saddles my friends used, I could see that it really wouldn’t matter what style of girth I chose—the placement of the billets dictate that Lee’s sensitive skin behind the elbow is destined to become pinched over longer distances. Small issues with tack which are only minor irritations on a daily basis can become major issues or even deal breakers as the miles add up. I reset the saddle, stretched her legs, and hoped for the best.
When we got back to the GMHA grounds, it was clear that the galls had grown, even though Lee didn’t seem to compromise her movement because of them. However, her always-tending-towards-tight back was now incredibly sore, to the point where even a light brush of the fingers elicited a strong reaction, and she had two “hot spots” forming in the saddle area where she was exceptionally sensitive.
The judging team was not thrilled with these developments either, and they asked me to re-present Lee to them in the morning. The rules of CTR are quite clear that no lotions, salves, medications or other “product” can be used on the horses while the competition is underway; however, soaked towels, massage and hand walking are all completely legal. I spent hours over the afternoon and into the evening applying cool towels to Lee’s hot spots and galls, alternating with periods of hand walking and grazing or massaging the long muscles of her neck, topline and hindquarter.
Gradually, there was some reduction in the swelling, and Lee’s saddle area seemed to be less sensitive. Kat returned from afternoon chores on her own local farm with several different versions of saddle pad and girth to try for the third day, as it was clear that several of the galls correlated with the positions of the string on the mohair girth.
I spent an anxious night in my trailer, hoping that Lee’s sore spots would resolve enough overnight to allow us to start. We were so close to our goal, but I didn’t want to ride her if doing so was going to compromise her well-being.
Day 3—The Blue Loop (25 miles)
It was still night out when I arose to get ready for my AM pre-check on day three. Hoping that the coyote pack which seemed to visit the grounds each morning around 4 AM had finished its rounds, I headed to the barns. No one else seemed to be up and about yet, but the horses were alert to my activity. More horses had arrived the night before as riders settled in for the twenty five and fifteen mile rides happening on day three, and the barns were fairly full.
As Lee ate her AM feed, I cautiously checked the galls from the day before. Nearly all were flat or close to it, and her sensitivity level was much reduced. I spent a little more time massaging the big muscles of her topline, while trying to keep as much of her body covered with the blanket as possible. I had done nothing towards getting ready for the day—I hadn’t prepared my hold bucket or organized feed, I hadn’t tried on any of the borrowed pads or girths—as it felt too much like tempting fate to set up for something which I might not be permitted to do. Once Lee was done eating, I took her out for a graze and a long, loosening walk. I practiced a few trot ups to get her muscles supple and warm. She seemed willing to move and to trot, and maybe a little bit rolling her eyes at me as if to say, “Really? Again?”
At 5:45 AM, we presented to our judge team at the pavilion. They noted her improved topline and asked me to jog her. I am not sure I breathed the entire time we presented ourselves in hand, but I let out a long exhale when they gave me the thumbs up to start. Team Peanut Butter and Jelly was still holding together.
I had to hustle back in the stabling area to finish preparations for the day’s ride. I scooted right out of the pre-ride briefing in order to experiment with the tack options. I ended up using a quilted and padding enforced dressage pad I found in my trailer, with my usual half pad and Kat’s fuzzy double elastic girth. This combination seemed to provide good distribution of padding over the saddle area and also elicited only a minimal response from Lee as I tacked her up.
The last day of the ride was glorious. To be quite honest, after riding forty and thirty five miles, back to back, twenty five felt like an absolute piece of cake. We enjoyed gorgeous fall weather, stunning views, and the traditional chocolate chip cookies at the top of Cookie Hill. After we passed through the final half way hold of the ride, I realized I was smiling like a crazy person and getting a little giddy. We had less than thirteen miles to go. We just might finish this thing!
I am not sure I can fully put into words the feeling of returning to the White Ring for the third time, and hearing our names announced once more, this time proclaiming us one hundred mile finishers. People on the rail cheered. I just kept stroking Lee’s neck, silently thanking her for giving me her best over the entire process—not just these three days, but the weeks and months leading up to it. As we dismounted after crossing the finish line, I gave Lee a big hug around her neck. She sighed. She isn’t much for demonstration of affection but I think after 100 miles, she was willing to put up with me just a little longer.
Thanks and Gratitude
The entire experience of my first three day 100 mile ride was amazing and humbling. The people I have met in the competitive trail community have been truly helpful and have often gone out of their way to help my rookie self out—I am greatly indebted to the wisdom and guidance of them all, but especially Robin Malkasian and Kate Burr, Denny Emerson, Sarah MacDonald and of course Kat Waters and Robin McGrath.
These rides are a ton of work to put on, and I have found both the organizers and volunteers to be gracious and helpful, frequently answering my questions and giving me guidance. And of course, all riders must acknowledge the willingness of land owners to allow us access to their properties—such an amazing privilege.
To my friends at home who also have shown me so much support and love, helped train with me and take care of me and the critters—Dr. Amanda Rizner, Pam, Molly and Kaeli McPhee, Heidi Chase, Dr. Monika Calitri and our wonderful farrier, Nancy Slombo, who often will come on a day’s notice when I change my mind and decide that no, that shoe WON’T stay on through the weekend after all– my deepest gratitude and appreciation.
But my biggest acknowledgement of all must go to the Dark Mare herself. Anyone who knows Lee and I also knows what a tremendously long road we have been on together, literally and figuratively. I am so appreciative for all that she has taught me and for finally finding a niche in which this wonderful athlete can truly excel.
Green Mountain Horse Association’s 79th Annual 100 Mile Ride
Christina Keim and Liatris: 1st place Middleweight Division, Champion Rookie Rider, Perkion Trophy for Best Scoring Thoroughbred
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.– Goethe
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
Even though two of three phases at a horse trials involve jumping, the fact is that to be competitive you must be good at dressage. It used to be that an accurate, steady test would be enough to put you in the top six after dressage, but now that same performance will usually leave you down the leaderboard, behind those riders who have really learned to embrace the Training Pyramid (and/or who have a better mover than yours, sorry to say).
Another important observation is that if you want to be safe on cross country and to leave the rails up in show jumping, you must be able to rider your horse’s canter. And to do that, the rider must first understand what kind of canter she is looking for and to teach the horse to work in that place. Essentially, the canter must be adjustable. This means that the horse both understands how and is willing to move powerfully forward in a longer stride while maintaining balance and also is able to compress and engage without losing power. This is not a skill you teach a horse by jumping a million jumps. This is a skill you teach a horse by riding a million tiny transitions. ON THE FLAT.
While I haven’t yet put away my jumping saddle for good, I will freely admit to the fact that I actually ENJOY riding dressage. However, I know that for many jumping riders, the “d” word (dressage) is just as much of a swear as some others and they work in the sandbox only under duress. But the fact is that if you want to be a better jumping rider, you need to also better your dressage skills. As Denny says, most horses don’t have a jumping problem, they have a canter problem.
Here at Tamarack, we have touched on many different themes during our dressage lessons. Below is a brief summary of several of them.
Warm Up is the Most Important Part of the Ride
Denny attended a clinic with famed international coach Klaus Balkenhol, where he audited the sessions. One of the messages he heard there which has stuck with him is that most riders hurry their horse’s warm up. This is especially true in the dressage, but is also relevant to jumping. The rider gets on, walks a lap or two of the ring, and then will start to pick up the reins and fuss and fiddle with their horse. Balkenhol remarked that the warm up is the most important part of the ride, as it confirms that a horse’s muscles are supple and loose and ready for the day’s work.
Most horses living in the northeastern states do not have access to unlimited turnout. Yet this is a species which has evolved to take thousands of steps per day. Being stall bound is a necessary evil for many horses, but it is counter to the needs of equine physical and mental health. When we as riders are overly earnest, thinking about an upcoming competition or even just what we want to accomplish in our day’s ride, we do our horses no favors by forcing them into a connection when they are not yet ready.
Here at Tamarack, it is expected that you will walk your horse on a loose rein for about ten minutes before beginning to ask them to connect and work at a stronger pace. Often times, this “walking warmup” can occur outside of the arena, by going on a short hack. Once the rider begins her work, it is important to still take time as the horse’s muscles begin to warm up. For example, Denny often warms up in the canter in a light seat, even when in a dressage saddle, to allow the topline time to loosen.
Don’t think of the warm up as just something to get through. If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, then your warm up is the most important part of your ride. Just as we do not expect a child to focus in school when they have not been properly fueled, it is only when the horse’s muscles and mind are properly prepared for the work head of them can we expect their best effort.
Do Not Over Do
The challenge in developing dressage skills comes from finding a balance between asking the horse to push a little harder, engage a little more, be a little bit rounder or more supple, etc., without drilling. Riders who specialize in dressage are stereotyped to have, shall we say, a bit of an “attention for detail” and this can lead to a habit of drilling movements on their horses. Horses that associate the dressage arena with dull repetition and unrelenting demands are unlikely to be able to demonstrate the mental and physical relaxation that leads to supple, loose muscles, free forward movement and ultimately schwung, cadence and expression.
Denny compares the work in the dressage arena to body building at the gym. If you are looking to “bulk up” your muscles, you will need to start with weights that are just a little bit hard to lift, and do enough repetitions to cause stress but not so many as to cause strain. From there, you build, slowly and gradually, as the body adapts to the increased demands. You also don’t usually work the same muscle groups day in and day out—muscles need rest periods in order to repair and grow stronger.
If you use this same philosophy in your dressage work, you will be able to condition your horse’s muscles, tendons and ligaments to be able to handle increased demands and pressure. The growth will occur in a systematic manner, and the horse should never get to the point of feeling fried.
Put yourself back in the gym again. Imagine your least favorite machine or exercise. Now imagine that, no matter how hard you have pushed, how many reps you have done, or how much your muscles are screaming for a break, your trainer kept demanding more and more and more, well beyond what you were capable of doing that day. How will your body feel afterwards? How likely are you to return to that trainer and that gym? Realistically, you will be miserably sore and the next time you have a notion to go to the gym, you will likely hit the couch instead.
It seems so obvious that this approach is not the best way to improve strength and fitness, yet well intentioned riders do this exact thing to their horses every day by over-doing, repeating exercises too many times, and drilling on movements.
Denny says that if you think of dressage work as body building for your horse, you will be less likely to overdo the work. The horse must know that the end is in sight and that the goals are attainable. Work your horse in short sets with rest breaks. Change directions regularly. Be happy with little and reward often.
Use the Canter to Improve the Trot
Denny says that a common mistake that many riders fall into when practicing dressage is to spend a disproportionate amount of time working in the trot, while disregarding the canter. If you want your horse to become more adjustable for the jumping work, well, then you need to practice the canter on the flat.
Denny uses the “hoof print game” in his canter work on the flat (as well as when warming up for jumping). Pick a point out ahead of you and ride actively towards it; Denny suggests using one of the doubtless hundreds of hoof prints in the footing. Practice getting to that point with a count of 3, 2, 1. Doing this will cause you to activate the horse’s canter with your leg and also to create balance in the canter by using your seat and upper body.
In addition to the benefit this will give you in terms of your horse’s overall adjustability, when the canter becomes connected and energetic, this will transfer over into the trot work. All horses which demonstrate a true, two beat trot have a moment of suspension in every stride, when the diagonal pairs of legs switch positions. With increased thrust from the hindquarters and swing in the topline, this moment of suspension becomes slightly longer. This increased engagement and thrust creates a better quality of gait. Of the basic gaits of the horse (walk, trot and canter), it is the trot which is most able to be improved upon. Use your canter work to create the energy you need for better trot work.
If you Want Your Horse to Move Like a Jaguar….
In dressage, it is easy to become overly focused on what the horse’s body is doing, when the reality is that how they move is often a reflection of how the rider is (or isn’t) moving. I teach my students that in the free walk, the horse should be moving like a jungle cat—supple, loose, slinky. The challenge is to then take that feeling of losgelassenheit into the rest of the gaits. But we can always come back to that jungle cat imagery.
Many times, if we as the rider imagine a feeling in our body, it is possible to steer our horses towards replicating that movement in theirs. For example, if you want the horse to move in a specific tempo, that tempo should become your posting beat.
Sometimes the harder we try as riders, the more we impede our horse’s performance. It is essential that the rider works to create elasticity and suppleness in her own body, in every joint (elbows, shoulders, and hips, especially), while not going to the extreme of being a floppy rag doll.
“If you want your horse to move like a jaguar…then you need to move like a jaguar,” says Denny.
In order to develop this suppleness, riders must also cultivate strength. Why is it so hard to sit to the trot? Well, it is a symmetrical gait with a moment of suspension, and the mechanics of its movement cause the horse’s topline to rise and fall with that rhythm. To appear still on a moving object, in this case the horse, the rider must move their body in perfect coordination with the horse’s body. Watch a dressage rider sometime—even though they appear to be immobile, look at their joints, and you will see movement. There is a unique push and pull required between suppleness and strength. This is not easy to master.
The other piece here is that riders must learn to think of themselves as athletes. Athletes, by definition, are fit. Denny isn’t saying that someone needs to be rail thin skinny to be fit—he points out that 300 pound football players are athletes while someone else might be 100 pounds and bedridden. Riding is an athletic endeavor. You cannot expect your horse to be an athlete if you are not one yourself.
The “A-Ha” Moment
Just this past week, I had one of my biggest “a-ha” moments on Anna in terms of developing her work on the flat. Anna gets a lot of points for being “cute” and is the queen of the balanced, steady test—we generally receive comments along the lines of “needs more forward energy” and “needs more suppleness/bend”.
Denny has remarked several times this summer that there are two horses in Anna; one who moves in little pony gaits and another which can move in a more elastic and fancy manner. He says that I need to become more assertive with my aids, in particular the outside rein, in order to keep her working more honestly over and through her topline. She has a tendency to bulge her shoulder and push her nose out, just a little bit, and therefore escapes being truly round and connected.
Denny has actually gotten on Anna a few times, and within fairly short order, I see her transform into the fancy mover. But somehow, when I have gone to work Anna on my own, I am not quite so quick to find this version of my horse. Instead, she has been resistant, as in my efforts to be more assertive with the outside rein instead I had become restrictive.
The “a-ha” moment came when Denny rode alongside me and said (again) that I needed to have her more onto the outside aids, and to use my ring finger to give the aid. Hold the presses. He has said this same thing countless times before, but for whatever reason, at that moment, I realized that instead of using primarily the ring finger, I had tensed my pointer and middle fingers as well. This had created a pulling pressure on my horse; once I noticed that I was holding too much with all of these fingers, I also noticed that my wrist was locked and forearm muscles tense. As I released all of this restriction, there came my horse onto the outside rein. Magic.
This experience only serves as an excellent reminder that our bodies do things all the time that we are not aware of, and which impact our horses in a negative way. It only shows that we riders really DO need to be athletes so that we can continue to develop precise and specific control of our body’s movements.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian