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