Happy New Year! Tis the season for resolutions large and small, for those promises to ourselves and others that this year we will finally take those steps towards positive change. Here in New England, it is also the beginning of the most challenging riding season of the year, with bitterly cold temps alternating with ice or snow storms—these are real impediments when you have to ship your horse to an indoor to ride, as I do with Anna. Therefore, it is a great time to pause to reflect upon your goals for the upcoming season—short, medium and long term.
After my summer in Vermont working with Denny Emerson (see the Tamarack Chronicles, Volumes I- VI), I came back inspired and full of new energy and ideas regarding what I want to do with my riding and within the equine industry in general. In preparing my goals for the 2015 season, I realized that it would be a huge help to step back and really evaluate the Big Picture—to think about those goals which seem so outlandish and so far out there as to be almost unattainable. Because the reality is, if you don’t think about those kinds of goals in a Big Picture way, you almost certainly won’t backtrack and make the changes or seek the opportunities necessary to try to take them from being a dream to a certainty. And then someday you are likely to reflect upon your career and say, gee I had always wanted to [fill in the blank]…but it is too late now.
Therefore, this year I have formally created Chris’s Equine Bucket List, a short collection of goals, dreams and experiences that I wish to have with horses. I maintain that this list is subject to revision and editing as I see fit, and I reserve the right to add, remove, alter and/or otherwise modify these Big Picture destinations. However, as of right now, these are some actual goals that I want to achieve before I hang up my spurs, in no particular order.
Chris’s Equine Bucket List
Drive a big hitch. At Equine Affaire in Springfield, MA, this year, I was treated to a performance of the Fantasia show. This spectacle features performances from riders and horses representing an array of breeds and disciplines. This year, by far my favorite exhibitor was the six horse Belgian hitch from the Morrisville College Foundation. The quiet power of each of these amazing animals combined into one suddenly small arena was just awe-inspiring. The metal fittings on the harnesses gleamed, and the air hung heavy with the sound of their powerful feet rhythmically striking the soft footing. I probably should start with a refresher on how to drive just one horse. But boy, it would really be amazing to be directing that much power.
Raise a foal. There is a true problem in our country with there being more horses than appropriate homes for them. In spite of this, I have not so secretly had the desire to breed one of my mares, a desire which to date I have been able to keep reasonably in check. That said, I still would like to have the experience at least one time of raising a foal from the very beginning, whether I am the breeder or not, and bringing them through the training process. I have had the pleasure of working with my current horses from a very green place in their lives, but someone else had done all of the early work. I want to have the experience of raising, developing and nurturing the horse from their first days through to their time under saddle. I also believe that this route might be my only option when it comes to getting to the FEI levels in either dressage or endurance.
Train my own horses. In general, I am more interested in training my own horses than I am in buying or leasing a schoolmaster to get me to a certain goal. I think that schoolmasters are AMAZING and I am so grateful for the ones that I have had the opportunity to learn from in the past. I also fully believe that I will seek their wisdom in short doses as I move forward in my career. However, I take a great deal of pride (and humility) in knowing that the horses I ride and work with are the product of my own effort and time. It is more meaningful to me to develop the relationship with each individual horse along the way. See entry # 2 for more info on this point.
Earn my USDF Gold Medal. This one kind of relates to #5; before I can compete at a CDI, I need to actually get a horse to the FEI levels. If I am riding at the FEI levels, maybe even on a Connemara or a half bred (how cool would that be?), my goal would be to attain the scores for the silver and gold medal rider awards—two scores of 60% or higher at Fourth and Prix St. Georges for the silver, and two each at Intermediate and Grand Prix for the gold. One of my favorite classes to compete in with my former mount Worldly (show name: Weltinus) was the musical freestyle, and I already have bronze bar scores for First and Second Level from my time with him. The “bar” award is for freestyle performance, and is only awarded after the regular rider award for that level has been attained. So let’s add earning the bronze, silver and gold bars, too, to this item. What the heck.
Compete in a CDI. So this is definitely a huge end goal. I don’t care if I even place. I just want to have the chance to compete in an FEI competition, and I think that dressage is the most likely niche for me to do it, maybe on my fictional Connemara, who I have also raised and trained myself. It’s a wish list, don’t judge.
“Do the Florida thing”. I would really love to have the chance to see what winter in Florida is all about. I have heard so much about it—and it seems like it would be like going to equine Disneyland. So many talented horses, riders, instructors and clinics are available in a condensed place. Whether riding, competing or auditing, I can’t imagine that one wouldn’t return from the experience a new horseman (and with a much lighter checkbook, I understand). And I never object to getting out of the cold.
Keep my horses at home. This has been a lifelong dream of mine—to have my own farm, with my horses wholly in my care. I have been very fortunate to board at wonderful facilities but there is just nothing quite the same as being able to do everything the way you want to. Related to this, I have a strong interest in sustainable living and sustainable agriculture, and how we can apply those concepts to horse facility management. Having my own place would allow me to begin to experiment with these principles first hand.
Trail ride in Acadia National Park. I am told it is amazing—a breathtaking area, with trails specifically designed for horses. Parts of Acadia used to be owned by the Rockefellers, who have had equine enthusiasts in their family for years and who were critically involved in building the miles of carriage roads in the 1930’s. With my newfound interest in competitive trail and my wonderful and now reliable mount Lee, I hope that a visit can be arranged in the near future.
Train in Europe I am not talking anything on the level of taking my own horses over and training like I am going to make a team or something like that. However, the tradition of horsemanship in countries like England, Germany or even Portugal and Spain is rich, and I think it would be greatly informative to have the chance to see how horses are managed and trained and riders are coached.
Complete a classic three day event. This one has been on the list for a long time, pretty much since I first learned about the novice and training level educational three day event options being held at Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in Vermont. When the lower level classic format events began, I didn’t have an event horse and was mostly riding dressage, but I thought, “Perhaps someday”. What I didn’t count on was the fact that after taking a few years off from jumping and then returning to the eventing scene, I am not quite as brave as I once was. So I am not sure if the reality of actually doing this is going to happen. But for the time being, it remains on the list. See the clause above regarding editing of the list at the owner’s whim.
Complete a 100 mile ride. This one is a fairly recent addition to the list. I am secretly hoping that Lee might be able to complete the three day hundred at GMHA before her career is done, but if not, at some point this is something I wish to have accomplished. As they say in the sport, “to finish is to win” and the opportunity to connect with your horse on the level which is required to prepare them and help them to get you through such an effort is a true testament to a rider’s horsemanship skills. I would be so bold as to say that someone who completes a one hundred mile ride on a horse which they have prepared themselves is not just a rider; they are a true horseman, which I consider to be the highest compliment.
Save a horse. This is not a goal which is wholly defined in my mind; it is more that I think it is of the highest importance that those who love horses remain advocates for the promotion of humane education and training. So whether attaining this objective might be quite direct, in terms of getting a horse out of a situation that is dangerous or inhumane, or indirect, in terms of providing continued education to horse lovers and support for rescues, I think it is absolutely critical that we as a community remain ever vigilant.
Ride a reiner. In the vein of stepping out of my usual comfort zone to have new experiences with horses, I have secretly had the desire to learn a little bit about—and try my hand at—riding a reiner. Mind you, my experience in riding in western saddles is limited almost exclusively to my horse packing trip out west. I have some friends in the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA) who are western specialists, and just the other day I asked if it was reasonable to ask someone to teach a rider like myself some basics of reining on an experienced horse. She gave me some northern contacts, and then explained to me the basic aids for beginning a spin to the left. The cues are subtle and, of course, totally not what I would do to initiate a pirouette left. It sounds like it could be fun, and totally out of my comfort zone. I am not looking to change disciplines, just to try it out.
This version of Chris’s Bucket List represents some of my thoughts as of today, early January, 2015. I think I will see what the year brings in terms of progress towards knocking a few of these off the list, and perhaps I will check back in a year’s time to see where I have come to.
Gary Rockwell and Stephen Clarke: The FEI 5* Judges’ Symposium
At The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms, New Gloucester, ME
The state of Maine may not be thought of as an epicenter of dressage, but the staff at the Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms are working to change that. With all-star trainers like Olympian Michael Poulin and former Young Rider champion Gwyneth McPherson heading the coaching team, and assistant trainer/organizer Jennifer Dillon pulling together equestrian A-list clinics, this facility is sure to make a positive influence on the education of dressage enthusiasts from across the northeast.
An early season Nor’easter didn’t keep attendees away from what was billed as the Five Star Symposium on Dec 9-10, 2014. FEI 5* judges Gary Rockwell of the US and Stephen Clarke of the UK were invited to Pineland to help educate participants’ eyes towards the quality of performance. Several talented riders, including Poulin and McPherson but also Jutta Lee, David Collins, Laura Noyes and Heather Blitz, demonstrated movements and performed complete tests ranging from Training level to Grand Prix, while Rockwell and Clarke provided scores and commentary. This format meant that auditors could gain perspective as riders, trainers and judges, depending on their area of personal focus. In addition, several USEF rated judges sat ring side and offered further comment/question to round out the experience. As a representative of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Equine Program, I was able to attend on day two, bringing along fourteen of our program’s students. We are most grateful to the Equestrian Center at Pineland Farm for this amazing opportunity.
Rockwell and Clarke banter like old friends do and were remarkably “in sync” with their judging and remarks, rarely deviating more than one point from one another. Throughout the day, their feedback combined training tips with judging perspective, as well as insight into the theory behind why correct riding is the best kind of riding.
Transitions, Tension and Test Riding
As the day began, auditors were treated to the performances of a pair of talented four year olds, ridden by Collins and Lee. One horse demonstrated the 2015 Training Level Test 3, while the other rode the FEI Four Year Old test. The USEF tests are scored in a traditional manner, with a comment/score given for each movement, while the FEI Young Horse tests are scored with overall marks given for each of the gaits, submissiveness and overall impression.
Let me start by commenting that any one of us would likely have traded the outfit we were wearing that day and offered to sit in our undies on the bleachers in exchange for a ride on either of these lovely youngsters. The tests that they performed were scored in the 70’s and low 80’s by Rockwell and Clarke, giving those present an excellent picture of what a high standard of performance and correct training looks like.
At these introductory levels, much emphasis is placed on the correctness of the basic paces. No matter how good a mover the horse is, Clarke and Rockwell emphasized that in order to show a horse’s paces to their best advantage, riders must perfect the transitions. The quality of the transition will determine how well and how clearly the horse begins the next gait. Even horses with “average” gaits can improve in quality with correct transitions.
On a related note, tension (mental or physical) will block a horse’s throughness and ultimately impede the quality of their gaits. The judges remarked that tension in the canter is especially common in developing horses, and it is important that horses come into the gait with suppleness and swing.
One of the most challenging movements in the lower level tests is the infamous “stretchy circle”. Judges are usually quite critical of the performance of this movement, with common mistakes including loss of rhythm/regularity, loss of balance, and failure to reach through the topline and down to the bit. Clarke and Rockwell emphasized that it is important for riders to remember that the stretchy circle is not meant to be just a test movement; it is a test of the horse’s balance and throughness and must be incorporated into the regular work.
An interesting point came up as Clarke and Rockwell discussed the performance of Collins’ mount, Bojing. This talented youngster already moves with the confidence and poise of an experienced campaigner, but occasionally showed his youth in certain moments of the test, particularly in terms of showcasing his full power. Clarke and Rockwell remarked that in training a horse from day to day, riders can get in the habit of doing things the same way they always have. However, the result of good training should be a horse that changes and develops, and it is important for riders to remember that with this growth may come a need to moderate an aid—perhaps to change how it is given, or the intensity of it.
We would be treated to several additional examples of this axiom as the day progressed.
Although the demonstration horses performed fairly good halts during their test rides, Clarke and Rockwell remarked that at the lower levels, the squareness of the halt is less critical than the overall obedience, submission, steadiness and straightness as seen from “C”. Once these qualities are maintained, it will become easier for the rider to ride the horse from back to front to achieve a square halt.
One additional discussion which emerged after watching the first few horses perform was related to the choice of bit for individual horses. Clarke and Rockwell emphasized that horses who demonstrate “mouth” issues are usually also holding internal tension; this cause must be sought and addressed before the mouth issues will resolve. According to the judges, riders who constantly change bits to look for a solution to mouth issues are sometimes overlooking the most common one—the rider themselves. Asymmetry, weakness, lack of balance and lack of coordination in the rider can all manifest as mouth issues in the horse. Therefore, if the horse has an issue in the mouth—look to the rider first.
Gait Distinctions, Soft Rein Backs and Head Tilts
2015 Third Level Test 3, 2015 Fourth Level Test 3 (and boy, is that test ramped up!) and the FEI Prix St. Georges tests were demonstrated by Poulin on a client’s horse, Blitz on the young stallion Ripline and McPherson on an older campaigner, Flair. Again, all three horses demonstrated quality tests and allowed auditors a clear picture of what is expected at the given level. Clarke and Rockwell began asking riders to stay a moment longer in the ring with these older horses, in order to repeat certain movements or to demonstrate particular points. What became clear through the feedback provided by the judges is that, for these medium level horses, continued attention to the finer points allows for an increase in the quality of performance.
Rein back is a movement that appears in tests starting at the Second Level. Horses should halt quietly, and then step backwards without visibly losing balance, dropping or raising the poll, or stepping sideways. It is actually quite an unnatural movement for the horse and requires a great deal of submission. Clarke and Rockwell said that if there is restriction in the reins during the rein back, the horse will brace against this and drag their feet. Instead, the rider must learn to execute the rein back with a soft hand.
Turn on the haunches and walk pirouettes also appear at these levels, which led to a bit of friendly US-UK terminology debate. Clarke explained that the term “turn on the haunches” is an old military movement that has nothing to do with maintaining the rhythm or regularity of the gait, two qualities which are “must have’s” when performing this movement in the modern arena. Therefore, Clarke insists that a more correct description for a “turn on the haunches” is really “large walk pirouette”, which is actually a classical dressage movement. Rockwell simply shrugged his shoulders and sipped his coffee at this. No matter what you call them, the horse must maintain a clear four beat rhythm and the rider must be especially careful to not allow the horse to “stick” behind.
The three talented horses which demonstrated the middle level tests were also able to present auditors with three different levels of proficiency with the medium and extended gaits. Often, riders “push” for so much in their medium gaits that there is not a clear difference between it and the extended gait. However, Clarke and Rockwell admitted that judges must also partially take the blame for this, because they sometimes too harshly score a “normal” medium trot. So of course, this led to a discussion of what exactly is being expected in each of these paces.
Clarke and Rockwell explained that in the medium gaits, there is a soft, quiet opening of the steps with no loss of roundness or throughness. Extended gaits, by contrast, are the “utmost”, and need to be more than the medium. For those of us who ride horses with limited natural gaits, it is best to really go for it in the medium gaits, and to accept the comment of “not much difference” in the extended movements.
Blitz and Ripline had to execute a challenging movement in the new USEF Fourth Level Test 3—the shoulder in on the center line. From “C”, the judge commented that the horse was not correctly bent and the movement was not clear. From where we sat on the side, the movement had seemed okay. This was a great example of how a judge can only assess what they can actually see (review the “Judge’s Notebook” section below). Rockwell had Blitz repeat the movement, this time being certain to keep Ripline’s hind legs on the center line, with the forehand only to the side of the line. Once the letter “A” could clearly be seen between the horse’s hind legs, the angle and bend of the movement became more correct and the score was adjusted accordingly.
Occasionally during their tests, each of these horses had demonstrated a slight head tilt which negatively impacted the score for that movement. This led to an interesting discussion of where in the horse’s body submission to the bend begins. In a horse that is accepting the aids correctly, the ribcage gives to the rider’s inside leg and the horse steps to the connection of the outside rein, allowing the rider to then be “free and easy” with the inside rein. When the horse doesn’t move off the leg appropriately (and therefore lacks true submission to the bend), the rider will use the inside rein more than they ought to, which begins the head tilt.
The Elite Levels: “It’s from another planet”
Auditors were in for a real treat after the lunch break, when Lee returned with Glorious Feeling to demonstrate Intermediate A, and Laura Noyes rode her own Galveston in the Intermediate B. However, the finale was not to be missed, and 2012 London Olympics alternate team members Blitz and her own Paragon elicited multiple “10’s” from the judges and the now infamous comment, “It’s from another planet” (in reference to Paragon’s extended trot). I must admit that my note-taking fell off the page a bit during these last few rides as I was so mesmerized by the horses’ performances.
Clarke and Rockwell discussed the meaning of a horse “being on the outside rein” as the effect of how much control and influence a rider has with the outside rein, versus the amount of weight the rider feels in the outside rein. This sense of connection to the outside rein is a must have requirement in order to execute the rapid changes of bend, balance and pace required in these elite level tests.
Less experienced riders tend to focus on the head and neck of the horse, and as riders gain experience, they learn to look through the whole body to see the lift through the topline and engagement of the supporting muscles, which then allows the poll to come to be the highest point with the nose just in front of vertical. These confirmed FEI horses demonstrated this correct balance clearly and showed how this much power can still be soft.
Earlier, Clarke and Rockwell had emphasized the importance of constantly checking in with how the rider is using her aids as the horse grows and develops. With Galveston, Noyes delivered an accurate and fluid test that had many good (“8”) and very good (“9”) movements. However, the judges felt that the horse still had more to offer and that Noyes was not quite asking enough. By changing the balance between her forward leg aid and restraining seat and rein aids, as well as modifying the timing of the two, Galveston began to produce an extended trot which elicited a collective gasp from the audience. Surely Noyes knew this trot was in there, but now she has new tools to play with in order to develop it further.
In these tests, Clarke and Rockwell discussed the critical importance of preparation for movements and the use of transitions and corners to aid in building up the required power and correct balance. For example, in the sequence changes (the four, three, two and one tempi’s), the rider must come onto the diagonal and create an uphill balance in the horse and then release into the first change, as opposed to trying to push into them. The medium and extended trots are also a release of stored energy that has been built up in advance; if the rider has failed to build the energy, she cannot magically create the power required for these paces at the letter itself.
Blitz and Paragon were truly inspirational to watch. At 18 hands, the chestnut gelding would command attention no matter what, but the incredible sitting in his piaffe/passage, the ease of his tempi changes and of course the unbelievable power and control demonstrated in his extended trot were simply magical. I think everyone there knew we were watching a special partnership.
Clarke and Rockwell of course have seen (and judged) this team before, and both remarked on the tremendous growth in the horse’s confidence. “Whatever you are doing in your training program—keep doing it,” commented Clarke. The judges said that for so many horses, no matter what, the muscular growth acquired through consistent training will help them develop the confidence to do the movements. For a Grand Prix horse, learning the movements themselves is only a beginning. Clarke and Rockwell said that if you are lucky, it takes five years to develop a horse to Grand Prix, and then another two years to put it all together in the arena. So much of this development comes down to the strength of the horse in being able to correctly do the movements.
As a (2007) graduate of the United States Dressage Federation’s “L” judge’s training program, I can assure you that the view from C is one that comes only after years of dedication, effort and growth in terms of developing one’s eye, skill, vocabulary and clarity. While I am lucky to be invited to judge at local schooling horse trials and dressage shows, I am not sure that I will ever feel fully qualified or up to the commitment of pursuing the dressage judge’s license. Completing the “L” program has helped me to interpret judge’s comments on my own tests with better clarity and also to know that most judges truly want to help the competitors to be better. I have an immense amount of respect for the challenge that judges face in their role.
Clarke and Rockwell represent the pinnacle of judging, and I was completely impressed with how they came within one point of each other on nearly every movement, with similar comments. As adhering to the training pyramid will lead to a horse with correct basics, these gentlemen show that the progress judges make through their own training helps to refine the eye and to create cohesion and consistency in a subjective discipline.
Throughout the day, Clarke and Rockwell offered insight into the role and mind of a judge, both by actually scoring/commenting on the tests being performed and also through their discussion of each performance. In addition, they fielded questions from the audience.
Here are a few of the “judging notes” I picked up throughout the day.
Judges must actually use the entire scale to reflect what they are really seeing. During the course of the day’s rides, we heard Clarke and Rockwell say everything from 3 to 10. I must admit, I find it hard to get out of “six-ville” when judging, so it was exciting to see the quality of performance which elicits higher marks, as well as the fact that these elite judges will forgive minor mistakes (like a small stumble).
One of the main purposes of the Young Horse classes is to educate the public; this is especially true in Europe, where such classes will draw a large crowd. In the YH tests, judges want to see a relaxed, confident horse which is being shown in a natural balance. Horses may have three super gaits naturally but the training must still be correct, and the young horse must not move artificially. The Four Year Old test is roughly equivalent to the USEF Training/First Level; the Five Year Old test is roughly equivalent to the USEF Second/Third Level and the 6 Year Old test is roughly equivalent to USEF Third/Fourth Level.
When a horse is actively teeth grinding or tail swishing during their work, it is important to look at the overall picture and to not immediately interpret this as a symptom of resistance; judges should not automatically deduct points. Frequently if there is tension in the horse there will be additional cues. Not every horse that grinds their teeth or swings their tail is being resistant.
The collective marks are meant to be a summary of the overall test. Therefore, a test whose movements are full of 5’s and 6’s should not have collective marks that are 7’s and 8’s. Errors in the test should not affect the rider scores in the collective marks.
You can only judge what you can really see, not what you think or assume is happening. This was especially clear when the judge at “C” and the judge at the side had different marks or conflicting comments.
To arrive at a score, the judge must consider all of the qualities that they like (positive) versus those things that were negative. The judge must ask, “where is your eye drawn to?” and start there. Beware the generic comment (“needs more impulsion”). If it needs to be said, try to be specific (“needs more impulsion at ‘K’”).
The rider is responsible for the submission score and the overall performance of the horse that day; therefore, a rider may receive a different mark for “rider” from the same judge on the same day for different performances or different horses.
If someone comes into the ring, takes a risk and pulls it off (for example, they really went for a big medium trot), give them the points. Otherwise, why would riders ever bother to take risks, and the result is boring dressage.
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.
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.
I have just returned from Ocala, FL, where I participated in a Winter Training Session. No, not one of THOSE training sessions—a more personal one, targeted for someone whose ambitions are currently a bit less lofty than those on the High Performance List.
Over the past year and change, I have had the opportunity to reconnect with clinician Verne Batchelder of River House Hanoverians in Williston, FL (formerly of Piermont, NH). Along with wife Jeanie Hahn and daughter Nora, he runs a successful breeding and training business whose products are competing successfully through the Grand Prix level in dressage and elite levels in show jumping, eventing and hunters as well. We are lucky to have a lovely mare named Morocco in our program at UNH who is by their former stallion, Maronjo.
The trainers at River House regularly incorporate schooling on the longe, on long lines and in hand into their horses’ training programs, and in our lessons Verne has frequently made reference to how one technique or another would be of assistance to me. I feel quite proficient with single line longeing, and have used it somewhat regularly with the Dark Mare (Lee) to help better develop the strength in her topline, the swing in her back and self-carriage. However, my exposure to other techniques, such as double longeing or long lining, has been relatively limited. When my schedule caused me to be in the Ocala area anyway, I invited myself over to their farm in order to learn more about how these trainers use unmounted training techniques to improve under saddle performance.
I should preface this discussion by saying that any errors contained within are likely mine, and also that I believe this subject to be one of those on which horsemen tend to be divided, depending on your training philosophy. So please take these comments at their face value; not gospel but rather my observation and notes.
Verne explained that the development of a horse’s ground training is progressive, and begins as you might imagine at the most basic level when you teach a youngster how to lead. Young stock should be regularly handled from both the left and the right hand sides, though Verne admits that at a busy breeding operation this can be hard to monitor. He jokes that the easiest way to ensure that babies learn to lead from both sides is to lead two at a time, and to trade off on which horse is on which side! I think that to do that you need to be a bit braver than I am.
The next step is to teach the young horse to safely longe on the single line. There are many well established and effective techniques for doing this, but at a fairly early age (less than two full years old) the young horse should be able to wear a cavesson and surcingle and be able to maintain their rhythm on a longe circle. Side reins can be introduced but not until the youngster has some concept about what is being expected of them, and they are not used to force a frame in the neck. In many training programs, this will mark the end of a horse’s ground training, which closes the door on other opportunities to develop the horse.
An interesting note here—Verne insists that all of his youngsters are longed off of a cavesson or even a tightly fitted halter, either on their own or over a bridle. He feels it is of paramount importance that when they make a “young horse mistake”, such as slipping, scooting, shying, etc, that they are not then jerked hard in the mouth. Even once the bit has been introduced, a halter or cavesson is worn over it and the line attached here rather than the bit directly. River House’s young stallion, Spot, is currently just beginning his under saddle training, and while Verne rides him off of a snaffle bit, the horse wears a halter over the bridle, with a second rein attached to it where the crossties would go, which he uses to stop Spot if he gets scared. Of course, safety is paramount, and if the young horse is behaving in a dangerous manner, then a stronger means of control may be needed and the bit can be used.
I had the opportunity to watch Nora longe River House’s two and half year old colt; he had had several days off. I was impressed with his overall good behavior on the line, especially given the impending arrival of the ‘polar vortex’, which was bringing rapidly dropping temps and strong winds to the area. This horse was able to stay quite steady walk, trot, and canter and was confident with his side reins, which were attached to a halter worn over his bridle.
Sometime in the two year old year, most horses are ready to begin “double longeing”. Double longeing is similar to long lining, except that for the most part the demands and expectations are more basic, and the horse remains on the circle. Using two longe lines, you attach one to the inside ring of your cavesson or bit (depending on the horse’s experience) and one to the outside. Your horse must become accustomed to feeling of the outside line around their haunches, but once they do, this technique is quite effective in helping them to understand the concept of an inside and an outside rein. This technique can also be used to help review this concept with horses that resist the connection.
Double longeing is helpful for other purposes as well. I observed Verne work with a client’s mare on the double longe, and his goals for her were to use the ground work to improve the quality of her rhythm, increase the activity of the hindquarters and to increase the horse’s overall level of suppleness. Having used this as a warm up, when he began the day’s work under saddle, the horse was ready to work at a higher level of activity and engagement. In addition, work on the double longe can help to increase the horse’s submission.
Long lining is a logical extension from double longeing, and can begin to be introduced from a horse’s three year old year on. The River House trainers sometimes use side reins with their long lines, which helps to increase the horse’s degree of straightness, but for other horses only the lines are used. I was only to get a taste of long lining during my stay, but the ladies were kind enough to show me work on the lines with three quite different horses, all of whom are schooling Grand Prix. So basically in terms of long lining training, we went right to the college level!
Prior to beginning their work on the long lines, the horses were each longed on the single line in side reins to allow them to warm up their bodies. Long line work can be quite concentrated and focused, and as I learned, timing is everything—timing in giving the right aid at the right time, timing in terms of ensuring that the work is long enough but not too long. Knowing to quit when you are ahead is a mantra that all excellent trainers subscribe to, but unfortunately sometimes the ability to recognize that moment only comes from having missed the moment at other times.
Each horse was worked with Jeanie at the head, holding a lead line clipped to the bit, while Nora expertly managed the long lines and the driving whip. The long liner stands much closer to the horse than they would as a longer; most of the time she walked just off the horse’s flank, where the contact could be maintained quite steadily and the whip used as a tactful aid. This trainer team works all of the upper level horses on the long lines weekly, and it was clear that they have developed quite a partnership.
The first horse, in retrospect, seemed to be the least confirmed in his work, though this could just be my impression, as I did not see any of these horses go under saddle during my stay. On the lines, Nora explained that they were mainly focusing on trying to develop better rhythm in the passage work. On this day, they had left him in shorter side reins, a technique which had worked well on their previous school. Today, however, this horse still seemed confused and wanted to swing the haunches or get ‘hovery’ in his movement, rather than maintaining his rhythm. “Oh well,” shrugged Nora. “Back to the drawing board.”
The second horse they brought out was a lovely, refined, tending towards hot mare who is aiming to show in the developing Grand Prix this year. The difference in her level of confidence and focus from the first horse was remarkable, and her ability to truly sit to collect herself in this work was impressive. The ladies worked the mare in both directions, not more than ten or fifteen minutes total, and through the work there was a clear improvement in quality. I noticed here that the handler at the head tended to bounce in the rhythm she was looking for from the horse, whether consciously or not I don’t know!
The third horse they worked was a big, expressive mover. In his work, the trainers emphasized the development of increased rhythm, impulsion and straightness, as well as the quality of transitions in and out of each movement. Some work was done with transitions between the movements, as well as transitions from the walk. This horse at times showed his power by trying to push away from the women, who needed to quickly coordinate their efforts to steady him but also provide a release from the pressure. As he came to a better place in terms of clarity, impulsion and cadence, the trainers stopped work for the day, even though they had only gone in one direction. Mentally and physically, the work had taken him to the edge and he had found his way back, so it was the moment to “quit while you were ahead”.
Overall I was quite impressed by the quality of the team work and the accuracy of the timing demonstrated by Jeanie and Nora. As Jeanie later emphasized during a lesson, the most important aid a trainer can give is the release. How many times have we heard this, and how hard is it to always effectively do it?
The pinnacle of the ground work is the work ‘in hand’, which Nora demonstrated as a warm up with their stallion, Bretone (Tony to his friends). Using just a cluck, a dressage type wand and a light feel of the reins, Nora showed Tony’s piaffe and passage; he is clearly quite well schooled in this work and knows what is expected, and it was an excellent demonstration of the fact that these movements initiate with the hindquarters, not the reins.
I had the opportunity to work Tony in hand myself the next day, which was quite a thrill. Tony is a big fellow, but quite a gentleman and rather tolerant of my attempts to tell him what I wanted him to do. Working the horse in hand should not be begun prior to their 5 year old year. It requires a fair degree of coordination on the part of the handler. You carry the whip (which is a longer, driving style whip) in your dominant hand, and hold the lead line close to the bit, all while walking backwards. Using your lead, it is possible to half halt the horse as well as elevate the poll, while the whip cues the hindquarters. Ultimately, though, the majority of the cues should come from the handler’s body language and the length of your step. We began with the piaffe, which you initiate with a touch of the whip at the hock and a cluck. To transition to the passage, the whip is raised and can touch the horse at the point of hip, along with an increase in the handler’s length of step.
A few notes on side reins—the adjustment in terms of both length and height is quite important, and the trainer should not hesitate to adjust them as necessary. For younger horses, the side reins should be set higher on their sides, while more advanced horses can handle the lines being set lower. The horses at River House that I watched work all warmed up in their side reins on the longe, a technique that I myself prefer, though I can imagine many scenarios in which this would not be safe or sensible. Clearly, these horses are accustomed to their ground work and are conditioned both mentally and physically to the use of the side reins.
Another useful piece of equipment that the River House trainers use (we used it on Tony, in fact, during my in hand practice), is what Verne nicknamed the homemade Willi Schulteis bridle. This is a basic cavesson to which a bridoon sliphead (what the snaffle bit on a double hangs off of) is added. It is then possible to easily add a bit to your cavesson, which then allows much flexibility in the training along with a close fit.
I am most grateful to Verne, Jeanie and Nora for taking time out of their busy schedules to accommodate me and my questions and for sharing a glimpse of their training with me. If you want to learn more about them, visit their website at www.rhhanoverians.com.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian