Firm adherence to a code of especially moral or artistic values; incorruptibility
An unimpaired condition; soundness
The quality or state of being complete or undivided
Definition from Merriam-Webster
Recently, I have had occasion to ponder what it truly means “to have integrity”—integrity as an equestrian, as a professional, as a human being. Integrity means living your values and acting in accordance with your most deeply held principles, even when no one is watching. It means speaking up when you witness a deed or an action that violates your core beliefs, and sometimes, it means leaving a situation in which those values are violated so consistently that you can no longer function.
The equine community is fraught with situations in which one’s ability to act with integrity is put to the test. It is no secret that the horse world is more divisive than it is unified, and discord among professionals is common. When it comes to minor details of management—the “best” way to wrap a bridle, the “right” material to use in a bandage—I hope that most of us have the perspective to realize that there are, in fact, many possible (correct) answers. But when it comes to the “big stuff”— issues that truly impact the care and long-term well-being of the animals themselves—it can be harder or impossible to compromise on divergent perspectives.
When I find myself in these situations, I always try to assume good intent. In other words, if I am in disagreement with a fellow professional, but I believe that we are both operating from a place that honors our personal integrity when it comes to the care and humane treatment of horses (drawn from our education, experience and intuition), it has often been possible to resolve the conflict. These are hard conversations to have, as are any that dig down into a person’s core values and beliefs. But what of those individuals who are simply unwilling to even enter into this dialogue, perhaps because such a conversation will expose their inability to listen to others, to seek appropriate help and/or to acknowledge their own lack of knowledge or understanding?
1) Freedom from Hunger and Thirst by ready access to fresh water and diet to maintain health and vigor.
2) Freedom from Discomfort by providing appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area
3) Freedom from Pain, Injury and Disease by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment
4) Freedom to Express Normal Behavior by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of the animal’s own kind
5) Freedom from Fear and Distress by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering
These principles were first shared over fifty years ago; while progress has been made, it saddens me to know that as a whole, humankind still fails to meet even these minimal baselines in our custodianship of other species. When it comes to equines specifically, those of us who not only care for them on a daily basis but rely upon them for our livelihood perhaps should post these tenets on our fridge, on our laptop and on the mirror we look at every morning. In particular, we must ask ourselves—does my work with horses violate any of their Five Freedoms? If so, how can I, how must I, do better?
To do better requires integrity. For me, professionally and personally, in order to live with authenticity (see below), I cannot and will not tolerate those who do not act with integrity toward the animals.
The quality of being genuine or real
Definition from vocabulary.com
Having integrity requires authenticity. Authenticity is living your talk, and that sometimes means speaking and acting on behalf of your conscience. Many humans do not behave in an authentic manner. They play games, play politics, and play roles. Some are addicted to power and will do whatever it takes to maintain it, acting in different ways depending on who is around, manipulating facts, and blaming others for their own shortcomings. Trying to maintain one’s own authenticity while others around you do not is a true test.
Horses, unlike humans, are always authentic. Their actions are the direct result of their biological needs or emotional state. Horses do not deliberately act in misleading ways, have an agenda, care about your goals for them or carry an ego about what they can or cannot do. Horses just are. If we are willing, horses can teach us to live in the present and to allow our inner and outer selves to come into authentic alignment.
For humans, living with authenticity takes courage and strength. It may cost friendships, jobs or clients when living with authenticity requires you to take action. But the cost of not living with authenticity is even greater, because when we compromise on our core values, the dissonance this creates will manifest itself—physically, emotionally, psychically.
In dedicating time and reflection to this subject over the past several weeks, I am reminded yet again that attempting to control the actions, beliefs or behavior of anyone besides ourself is a futile endeavor. Knowing that I have and will continue to do my best work to promote compassionate horsemanship—and that others will do what they do— is perhaps the only way I know to overcome the impacts of those who do not operate with integrity and authenticity within the industry.
I will close today’s meanderings with one of my favorite quotes:
“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” ~ Maya Angelou
As daylight grows shorter and we enter the holiday season, it is natural for our thoughts to turn inward. This year, I find myself filled with gratitude to be the caretaker for three special horses over the age of 20 who, though semi-retired, continue to enhance the quality of my life every day.
The truth is, I think about older horses a lot, especially those who have ‘served’ their humans, whether as lesson horse, show horse, therapeutic horse or pleasure mount, and are then discarded by their caretakers upon reaching a certain age. I recognize that not all horse owners have the financial or emotional capacity to care for an aging animal, but I also am prescient enough to realize that safe homes for older horses are far fewer in number than the quantity of older animals in need. I personally know people who seem to believe that every older horse will be peacefully retired in a large grassy field somewhere, but most of us who are deeply connected to the equine world understand that not only is this hope unreasonable, it is naïve. I have come to believe that the best chance for an older horse to find a safe haven is to stay sound and be useful in some capacity. But that means as an industry, we need to get over “equestrian agism” and we also need to start planning for the later years of the horses in our care far earlier in their careers.
While the cliché “age is just a number” is as relevant to horses as it is to anyone else, in my experience horse folks get a little funny about aged horses, as though chronology alone is enough to determine an individual horse’s suitability for particular activities. It applies at both ends of the age spectrum; just as not all young horses are ready for the demands of performance at set ages (as is asked in racing, futurities, developing or young horse classes, materiale, etc.), not all older horses are ready to completely retire. Yet all too often, equestrians will discount an older equine simply because of their age—despite the fact that these animals are often the ones that are trained enough, experienced enough and mellowed out enough to be EXACTLY the type of teacher the average rider needs.
Not too long ago, I overheard someone say (in regards to a lesson horse in his early 20’s), “he’s ancient”, the speaker’s tone and affect making it abundantly clear that she felt a horse of his seniority should no longer be in work at all, never mind be used in a lesson program. Now, I have known this particular horse for at least a decade, and his current workload is a significant ‘step down’ from what he did in his glory days; additionally, he still shows up at the ring with enthusiasm and pep, occasionally runs off with a student, and is as sound as he has been his entire life. He is maintained with no medications, no special shoeing, no exceptional requirements, all of which indicate (to me) that the horse seems to be comfortable and content in his current role. I wanted to ask the speaker what alternative reality would be better for this horse, who currently receives top quality care and love and adoration from his riders in exchange for his daily participation in a non-physically demanding lesson or two. Frankly, there are older humans who do not have it so good.
As bodies age, of course there is a change in what they can physically handle. Age-related disorders may require routine monitoring from a medical expert, life-long medication and/or dietary changes to regulate. Some beings encounter bad luck in their lives, and a previous history of illness, injury, poor nutrition or dental care or inappropriate/inconsistent/inadequate exercise can all accumulate to make the onset of decline begin earlier. But with proactive care, routine maintenance and attention to detail, none of these factors are necessarily career ending; each being must be evaluated as an individual, and their care adjusted accordingly. Note that nothing I have stated here is unique to horses—it applies to humans or dogs or any other species you would like to examine.
I now believe that when it comes to horse ownership, there is a ‘point of no return’; if you maintain ownership of a horse beyond the time where they will have meaningful value to others, then you must also accept that you now have a moral obligation to see that animal through to their end of life. If you know that you will be financially or emotionally unfit to do so, then it is imperative that you find that animal an owner who can and will make that commitment, well before the time comes that the animal is unsound, unusable or unfit for work. I will say it bluntly; few quality homes exist for aged animals that cannot fill some kind of “use” unless those homes already were bonded to the animal before they became “unusable”.
The best final home for a well-cared for, aging animal is likely the one they are already in. Posting your older equine “free to good home” or “suitable for companion only” is akin to dropping your aged dog off at the shelter. Most of the time, there is no good ending to these stories.
But wait, you say. I only have a limited budget…how am I supposed to move forward with my own equestrian pursuits while maintaining this expensive, long-lived pet?
Well, here are a few options:
When it becomes clear you are outgrowing your horse (size wise, skill wise, or otherwise) sell them sooner rather than later. Don’t wait until the job gets too hard, they get hurt or they get sour from being asked to go past their limit.
Rough board your horse(s). Depending on the region, there are likely a range of rough or co-op board options that can allow owners to significantly reduce the cost of horse ownership in exchange for providing goods and/or labor.
Lease your horse to a less-experienced rider. While not without risk, a carefully vetted and supervised free-lease can be a win/win on both counts. Your horse becomes a schoolmaster for someone else while relieving you of the financial burden of maintaining the horse for a period of months or years. Further, a lease will leave you with oversight over decisions related to the horse’s long-term care. If your horse is quite experienced, charging a modest monthly lease fee (while the lessee pays for his upkeep) can give you money to put in the bank to help support him in the future. Sometimes, a lessee comes to love your horse as much as (or more than) you do, and they are willing to take on permanent responsibility for the animal’s care.
Consider leasing your “move up” horse instead of buying (see suggestion #3, though this time you are the less-experienced rider). Overall, leasing a horse will cost less than an outright purchase, and if circumstances change, a leased horse can always be returned to his owner.
Consider setting new goals. One of the best things about horses (and equestrian sports in general) is that there are many different ways to challenge you and your mount. In my career, I have tried new disciplines because they seemed well-suited to the horse I was riding at the time. Instead of moving up in your current discipline, consider trying something new with the horse you have. Perhaps your former show hunter would like to do low-level dressage; maybe your ring-soured lesson horse would enjoy hunter paces. Trying new things only deepens the bond between horse and rider.
There are plenty of other ways that people have made it work, and if you are motivated, it is almost always possible to find a solution. It won’t necessarily be easy, and it may even require some hustle and sacrifice. But I think it is beyond time that we in the equine industry normalize planning for our older horse’s later years and honor those who fully commit to the on-going care of these animals—even if that means a comfortable (older) horse is kept in light work.
Speaking for myself, watching my semi-retired horses teach other riders–allowing these riders the chance to jump their first cross country fences, to safely ride in the open, to experience what connection feels like– is almost as satisfying as it was to teach my horses these skills in the first place. It may sound trite, but seeing someone else truly enjoy your horse’s company and gain confidence and skills thanks to their wisdom is a reward beyond measure. And when I am having a tough time, or the weather is a little dicey, my “go-to” ride is not my talented youngster; it is the venerable veteran, who I can rely on to have my back when conditions are not the best. My older horses owe me nothing—yet they continue to give.
Every morning that I am greeted by these special creatures is a gift. Whether it is watching Snowy roll in his favorite spot on the grass field, watching Marquesa boss young Izzy around or waiting for Lee to finish her grain, even the simplest and most every day of occurrences bring a smile. How lucky am I to be their steward, and how enriched has my life been for having them in it?
“A bad day with your horse is still better than a good day doing most anything else”~ Kip Fladland
During a heat wave in early June, I had the opportunity to participate in a three-day clinic focusing on groundwork and foundational horsemanship with Kip Fladland at Linden Woods Farm in Durham, New Hampshire. I first heard about the clinic during the depths of our New England winter and decided it sounded like the perfect opportunity to get my rising 6-year-old Connemara/Thoroughbred cross, DRF Isabela, off farm for an educational outing.
As the owner/trainer of two younger horses (Izzy and her stablemate, the 4-year-old Morgan mare Spring Hollow Or Noir), I have been increasingly interested in understanding how effective groundwork can play a role in giving green horses a solid foundation. I think what most attracts me to these techniques is seeing how horses properly trained through effective groundwork tend to be sensitive yet sane, confident and connected to their handler, yet also respectful of boundaries. The training becomes almost a series of puzzles for the horse to solve, and it engages them as a partner rather than forcing submission.
Note that I said “properly trained”; when it comes to groundwork, most of the time what I actually see are (middle-aged) women with their rope halters waving around their arms ineffectually while their horses proceed to walk all over them. I am sure this behavior is not these owners’ intended outcome, but they as of yet lack the finesse, feel or practice to get the timing right with their body language, with the end result being a confused and slightly feral horse.
Lest you think I am being unnecessarily harsh toward middle-aged women and their rope halters, I now resemble that remark. Izzy’s rope halter arrived in the mail only about ten days before the clinic and my “flag” was made from an old dressage whip whose lash had broken off, a faded blue bandana, and a rubber band that came with my asparagus. And when I began trying to use said flag at the clinic to effect certain responses from my horse, while also maintaining particular body positioning, it felt like learning a new dance with the instructions coming in an unfamiliar language. I frequently felt awkward, overconfident, briefly successful, then full of questions.
Since returning home, I have continued to practice the techniques I learned over these three days. I am confident that I have forgotten more than I remember, despite my notes and application in practice. However, I do feel that playing with some of these basic techniques has resulted in positive changes, particularly with my young horses.
With the pandemic curtailing our travel plans last year, I looked forward to taking Izzy out in public and start exposing her to the world beyond Cold Moon Farm at this clinic. As it goes with horses, circumstances dictated that I needed to bring my veteran halfbred Connemara, JEF Anna Rose, for day one, but Izzy was able to make the trip for days two and three.
Here are a few of my top take-aways from this experience:
Controlled flag handling is key. Learning to handle the flag effectively is probably one of the most important pieces in terms of communicating your intent and desire to the horse. The flag can be used to direct them forward, turn them and encourage more activity from the hindquarters, but it can also be used to reassure them and give them confidence. The horse has to become what I would call “positively de-sensitized” to the flag, much like they do with dressage wands or longe whips. In other words, your horse should respond to the flag, but not fear it.
On day one, I had no further finished explaining that Anna tended to be rather dull and non-responsive to aids when she reacted to the flag as though I chased her with a flaming arrow. Kip watched as she spun around and around in an effort to get away from the flag’s presence near her haunches with a rather dry comment: “And you say you ride this one?”. I laughed and replied that if Anna were half as electric under saddle as she was toward that flag, we might have gotten a little further in our dressage work. By the end of the session, she tolerated the flag on her, near her and touching her pretty much anywhere.
On day two, a new horse joined our group who was rather impressively reactive to the flag. Leslie Ann McGowan, trainer at Double A Equestrians and a long time student of Kip’s, stepped in to handle the horse. Despite the horse’s honest fear and confusion, Leslie Ann remained calm and simply consistently exposed him to the flag until he started to settle. Throughout the clinic, horses had occasional big responses to the aids, or misunderstandings of the aids, to which Kip replied at one point, “She’s not a teacup and you aren’t gonna break her.” As with humans, sometimes for the horse to learn, they must make mistakes and express frustration and confusion before understanding what is expected of them. As trainers, we can’t be afraid of these messy moments if we hope to help our horse learn.
The flag is held like a tennis racket, and there are four ways to change the flag from one hand to the other, each of which will achieve an increasing degree of engagement in the hocks. When your flag changes hands, the horse usually is also changing direction. One important note is that you should never switch the flag on the ground through the blind spot in front of the horse’s nose. If you do this, the movement can scare them and some horses will strike with their forelegs.
The position of your opposite arm combines with the flag to direct the horse. If using the flag to send the horse forward, the hand should be in a leading position. If rubbing the horse with the flag to reassure them, your opposite hand should drop toward your thigh.
Reward the try but also don’t wait for perfection before you ask for more.
Whatever you are asking the horse to do: move away, turn, yield in the poll, etc., it is important to recognize the smallest effort by releasing the pressure as soon as you sense the horse is yielding to what you have asked. One of the most common ways that trainers go wrong is they hold too long, or expect too much, and the horse begins to resist rather than try.
At the same time, if we wait for every piece to be perfect before moving on, we will never get anywhere at all. As with most training, we must accept the try, and a result that is a little bit better than before, rather than nitpick doggedly until the horse is perfect.
One of our first tasks was to ask our horses to step out and away from us, leading with their outside foreleg. Kip called this “opening”; if you are “opening” to the left, the horse’s right fore will step out and the horse tracks left. To initiate the movement, we raised our hands toward the horse’s head and neck and without contact (at first), applied pressure to ask the horse to move. At first, in response, horses may raise their head, step into the handler, back up, move forward, or simply not move at all. The handler must hold her ground and not back up; the horse must learn to move out of the handler’s space. Through all of those little mistakes from the horse (‘do you want me to go this way? Or this way? How about this?) the handler must remain calm, clear in her mind of what she is looking for, and ready to release as soon as the hoof moved out.
Our next task was to open the forehand and then, using the flag, send the horse out on a small circle around us. We were to keep the horse actively moving, slightly bent to the inside through their body and with the legs moving “united”; Kip describes this as when the left legs are on the same track as each other and the right legs on their own matching track. The flag can be used to create the energy, encourage the horse to step away, or to reassure them; if the horse has become too desensitized to it, the handler will need to use the flag assertively to once again elicit a positive response. Once the horse marched several circles united and with correct bend, we asked them to halt by stepping toward the hindquarter and raising the lead diagonally toward the withers. The horse’s hindquarters should step out (crossing over with inside hind) and their neck bend in. Kip called this “disengaging” the hind quarter, though he doesn’t love that term.
In doing some of these movements, I was struck (not for the first time) by how much overlap there is between some of these concepts and the fundamentals of dressage. My former coach, Verne Batchelder, had a movement he called “the circle of submission”, in which the rider actively executed a volte and asked the horse to step the hindquarters out for several strides while maintaining the inside bend and position of the neck. However you say it–asking the horse to yield their hips, engage their hocks, move their feet—ultimately requires that the horse be willing to allow their bodies to be manipulated and their toplines to begin to relax and stretch. It is simple biomechanics; a horse cannot reach further under his body with the hind legs if his back is tight.
Kip taught a mounted session in the afternoons; I was able to make it back to observe a few hours of day two’s lesson. He emphasized that all of the flag exercises he does on the ground, he also does while mounted. Though I didn’t get to see much of how he incorporates the flag into mounted work, he mentioned that at the end of day one, he backed a leggy 2-year-old warmblood that was in our group; by the end of that first ride (which was a very low stress experience, from what I was told), he was riding with the flag.
I should ask my horses to back more often and with more intention.
Kip introduced several ways of asking the horse to back in hand which can then be translated to work under saddle. The most basic option requires the horse to back to the end of the lead rope from a rather light flick of the line; we also played with asking the horse to back with poll flexion off of noseband pressure from the halter (from each side) as well as backing on a straight line off a short shank (also from each side). This last form of backing can easily be added onto a yield of the haunches.
In later sessions, we also learned how to add neck flexion in time with the lift of the foreleg on the outside, which caused the horse to back onto an arc. We later played with backing parallel to the wall, then timing a flick of the flag with the “about to step” movement of any individual limb. This causes the horse to balance back and then push forward with more power. With four distinct limbs to focus on, there is plenty to practice.
On days two and three, when Izzy was with me, we also played with backing under saddle. Until that day, I had never asked Izzy to back even a single step with me on board, and Kip wanted us to start with five steps on a soft feel, then add a bend in the horse’s neck and back on a quarter turn! I can’t say we were the most successful pair in the ring, but thinking about our work on the ground helped with the intention under saddle. When Izzy expressed confusion, Kip had me break down the movement so it became one step back, one step bend.
One of Kip’s overall themes was to never waste an opportunity to move your horse’s feet with intention. This could be as simple as opening the forehand or yielding the haunches, or as elaborate as walking on a straight line of your choosing with the horse walking half circles in each direction in front of you.
Despite three, three hour long sessions and the opportunity to audit two hours of a second group’s mounted lesson, I know that this clinic has only allowed me to scratch the surface of a skill set that Kip says has taken him twenty-five years of hard work to earn. Since the clinic, I have been playing with these tools fairly consistently with both Izzy and Nori, and in general most of the movements are starting to feel easier and better coordinated on my end. However, I do find myself wondering what I am doing wrong—because I am certain I have already forgotten about some important detail related to timing, posture or position—but I think Kip might say that it is better to try a little than not at all. You certainly don’t get any better at new skills by just daydreaming about them.
And in terms of my initial and main motivation—to take Izzy off farm for a positive outing—this clinic was a great success. She trailered on her own like a veteran, and upon arrival did nothing sassier than a few nervous whinnies. There were so many firsts for her—first time being ridden off farm, first time being ridden in a group, first time being ridden in an indoor, first time seeing mirrors—and I think in any other setting I would have been even more nervous than she was. But by the time we had finished an hour and a half of ground work each day, getting on board for the second half of each set was basically a non-event. Izzy came home from the clinic more confident and more mature than she went into it—which means the experience was a success, even if I still need more practice on the timing with my flag or position of my body when opening the forehand.
Kip Fladland grew up in Montana and worked on several cattle ranches before meeting legendary horseman Buck Brannaman. Inspired by Brannaman’s teachings, Fladland began working for him in 1996 and traveled with him for five years. Since 2004, he has conducted his own clinics across the country as well as started/re-started thousands of horses for clients. I found Fladland to be patient, firm, clear and consistent—exactly the type of temperament necessary for success with horses, or let’s be honest, people in general. To learn more, visit his website: https://www.kipfladlandhorsemanship.com/
As always, gracious thanks to our clinic organizers, Karen Bishop and Leslie Ann McGowan of Linden Woods Farm. Thank you for continuing to bring top caliber clinicians to our area and for welcoming the local community to your lovely facility so that we all can expand our education.
the condition or period of an animal or plant spending the winter in a dormant state.
“grizzly bears gorge on seeds to prepare for hibernation”
an extended period of remaining inactive or indoors.
“the fair-weather cyclists are emerging from winter hibernation”
(all definitions from Oxford Languages)
I look forward to the arrival of spring at Cold Moon Farm each year with eager anticipation. For me, the predictability of restoring the farm to a more active state after winter’s dormancy provides a sense of satisfaction; the requirement of annual chores marks the passage of time, affirms that even when snow comes in April (as it did this year), spring will prevail in the end.
Step by step, the essential equipment of winter—bucket heaters, extension cords, heavyweight blankets, shovels—is cleaned and stowed away, replaced by hoses and fly masks and the onset of shedding season. Gardens are raked, the horse trailer pulled out of its winter parking spot, grooming tools and grain bins washed and aired out. Each task completed marks a satisfying check off the “to do” list and brings me one step closer to the best riding months of the year here in New England.
The arrival of robins and eastern bluebirds and barn swallows marks the end of winter’s rest for the horses; in the past, I have called this period the “deferalization of spring”. It starts with a renewed commitment to deep grooming, shedding blades and sturdy curry combs erasing the feathery remains of winter coats while pulling combs and thinners shorten manes that have become unkempt. The farrier pulls winter shoes and snow pads, making feet seem cleaner and lighter. We start legging up the experienced horses with thirty minute walks, increasing to an hour, then adding light arena work. The green beans go on the longe line or work in the round pen, hopefully demonstrating some memory of lessons learned last season.
This spring, it feels as though my personal equestrian hibernation has been longer than usual. This was the first winter in years I didn’t avail myself of an indoor, instead giving all of my horses three months off. Yet in some ways my “extended period of remaining inactive” began long before the winter solstice. I haven’t competed in person since 2019, took only two lessons in 2020 and otherwise hauled out just a handful of times for trail rides. Now, as both the calendar and world around me proclaim that it is time to resume activity, I find that I am struggling to emerge from my sheltered cocoon.
There are so many reasons for this. The pandemic, of course, is a huge part of it; given the many uncertainties over the past year, it was logical to simply stay home, and I am out of practice. But the pandemic also became a wonderful excuse to simply remain within my comfort zone and avoid new challenges that might intimidate me—challenges that could also test my skills and inspire me to grow. Even though doing new or difficult things can produce anxiety, nerves and even a little fear, it is the successful completion of these small challenges that develops confidence. And having had little opportunity to achieve these small stepping stones in the past eighteen months has left me feeling less confident than before all of this started.
I recently interviewed a top hunter/jumper coach and course designer on the subject of riding under pressure; he commented that humans in general tend to move away from pressure but the most successful riders instead continuously seek it, putting themselves and their equine partners into situations in which they must manage nerves, excitement, challenge and stress. Navigating pressure—whatever that looks like for you—is where growth occurs. Living within your comfort zone is safe but will not and cannot produce new growth.
My extended hibernation was inspired by the pandemic but augmented by excuses and transitions such as horses needing to step down career wise and horses needing time to mature. It has left me feeling too familiar with my comfort zone and excessively rusty and out of practice with pushing my boundaries. Now, I have a rising 6-year-old ready to go out and see the world. Regionally, shows and clinics and other equestrian activity is on the upswing. All signals indicate that the time for hibernation is over—but after such a long period of inactivity, it is so tempting to stay within the security and familiarity of my comfort zone.
an instance of resuming an activity or state after an interruption.
“a renewal of hostilities”
the action of extending the period of validity of a license, subscription, or contract.
“the contracts came up for renewal”
the replacing or repair of something that is worn out, run-down, or broken.
It is easy to feel inspired by spring. The annual process of nature’s renewal is manifested by drab fields rebounding lush and vibrant, buds on branches unfurling leaves with panache and perennial flowers and bushes bursting with color. As I complete morning chores, the air is filled with the trills and warbles of birds dividing territory and attracting mates. This natural cycle happens whether we will it or not, whether we notice it or not. The renewal is inevitable.
For me, the first true days of spring, when the sun is finally strong enough and warm enough to kiss the skin and warm the soil, are a tonic for the ache winter leaves behind. The smell of fresh earth, the feel of heat on your cheeks, the chirp and whistle of a vivacious cardinal, all demand to be experienced.
Spring is a time of inspiration and action. I make promises to myself, set goals, make lists. I think about which projects need versus would be nice to complete on the farm. I make more lists and set timelines. On a separate page I write each horse’s name. I list activities for them, too. I am a planner, and these lists are a road map directing our progress through the weeks ahead.
But even so, as imperceptibly as Mother Nature restores her environs from dormancy to activity, my inherent drive toward achieving my goals has changed. This year, I am finding the renewal offered by the change of season insufficient to fully offset my inertia.
There was a time when each spring, I highlighted activity after activity on the print out of the West Newbury Riding and Driving Club’s calendar of equine events. I was out on the road with my horses to compete or clinic two or three times per month, borrowing trailers and occasionally entire rigs from generous friends (what amazing trust they had in me) or bartering rides. When I later acquired my own trailer, I became even more mobile. I shipped out for weekly jump lessons. We hauled to competitions all over New England and New York. I let little stand in my way in pursuit of participating in those activities I had set my mind to.
For most of the early aughts, I kept two or three horses in full work year round, while also stabling two of them on rough board, finishing a Masters degree and holding down a full time job that often required evening or weekend commitments. My days started early and ran long. I had an internal drive that was impossible to ignore and compelled me to push through fatigue and frustration. I was motivated at least partially by catch phrases which are probably now memes, expressions like ‘hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard’ or ‘shoot for the moon because even if you miss you will land among the stars’.
But what used to be a raging inner fire to ‘go out and do’ seems to have tempered to a gentler glow. Where I used to wring my hands over a missed ride or schooling set, now I sigh and think, ‘well, another day’. I see photos on social media of friends who have eagerly returned to competition after vaccination (as well as those who never hung it up to begin with) and think ‘good for them’.
But these minor disappointments cannot take away the many years of success and fun we have had together. I have partnered with each of these special mares since their 6-year-old year; in 2021, Lee will be 22 and Anna, 17. Looking back at all I have experienced with them is an amazing trove of memories and moments. They have each immeasurably shaped my journey as a horseman and trainer and I consider myself lucky to have them both living in my front yard, sound, happy and useful animals, albeit in different ways than before.
The long partnerships I have enjoyed with Anna and Lee are perhaps why the thought of starting new journeys with Izzy and Nori is, at times, overwhelming. Each of these youngsters was less than two when they arrived here at Cold Moon Farm, and so of course there was much for them to learn. Izzy, now 6 years old, is at an age where she can be expected to manage more both mentally and physically. Nori, now 4, is also ready to build on the foundation laid in the past two years, which will hopefully include being backed this summer.
My younger self would have proceeded forward with a ‘just do it’ mentality, but today I hesitate and worry too much about the ‘what if’s’. And after over a year of easy excuses to avoid taking young horses out in the world, it is hard to be brave enough to tell my monkey brain to be quiet and take a seat.
Someday, maybe someday soon, I will have no excuses left. And I will have to either decide to ‘just do it’… or out of fairness to these young horses’ future, hand the reins over to someone else who can.
(in an insect or amphibian) the process of transformation from an immature form to an adult form in two or more distinct stages.
“the persistence of the larval tail during metamorphosis”
a change of the form or nature of a thing or person into a completely different one, by natural or supernatural means.
“his metamorphosis from presidential candidate to talk-show host”
There are many lessons humanity ought to take away from the experience of a global pandemic, and it seems impossible that any individual who is remotely connected to the mainstream can emerge from the past eighteen months truly unchanged. Personally, I struggle with the idea of a “return to normal,” as neither I nor the world around me are the same as before.
“The coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic will change all of us in small and large ways. I fervently hope that for many Americans, this time of challenge will allow nearly everyone the opportunity to reset their compass and focus on those pieces of our lives that matter on a deep, fundamental level. I believe that most equestrians did not start riding to win ribbons; we started riding because we felt inexplicably drawn to these powerful and majestic animals. Those of us still lucky enough to have horses in our lives after the dust settles have a responsibility to remember that magic and to share it with others.”
I’m not sure I fully recognized it then, but perhaps this sentiment was an early stage of what I can only call my equestrian metamorphosis. Increasingly, I am more interested in the positive impact that horses have on those they touch than I am in personally pursuing upper level sport. At whatever point in the future my own career comes to an end, I don’t want it to be defined only by my competitive success (or, let’s be honest, lack thereof). Instead, I hope that I will be recognized as a practitioner of compassionate horsemanship, as a model of affordable, sustainable horse management practices and as a teacher who took the time to truly listen to her students and their horses, celebrating the victory of establishing the correct foundation that makes a lifetime of enjoyment with horses possible.
For a caterpillar to become a beautiful butterfly, it literally obliterates its original form, then rearranges cells and tissues into new patterns and connections. If the chrysalis is cracked open before the process is complete, the cycle may be irrevocably interrupted. Metamorphosis is messy and destructive of old forms and behaviors. But going through this process is essential for the caterpillar to become its highest evolved self– a butterfly able to offer its services as a pollinator, visiting spring flowers and perpetuating the cycle of renewal.
Perhaps instead of considering the Pandemic Pause a set back to my continued evolution as an equestrian, I need to think of it as time spent in the chrysalis. As with the caterpillar, old models of doing things must be dismantled for new forms to emerge. Perhaps my slow return to full activity is more about testing new wings, recently unfurled, than it is about not living up to old, outdated expectations of myself. Perhaps this metamorphosis is about cementing that my horsemanship journey is and always has been about the relationship I enjoy with each horse specifically. It is about shedding the weight of expectation that I have been so accustomed to carrying so that I can instead move more freely from one beautiful moment to the next.
“When the student is ready, the Teacher will appear.”
This Buddhist quote has been on my mind recently, as I reflect on my own roles as both a student and teacher of horsemanship. In particular, I have been considering how riders within the same lesson may come to process their instructor’s guidance differently. Ultimately, it is not just the rider’s ability to interpret her coach’s directions, no matter how talented and skilled the teacher, that will lead to her further growth. It is also, perhaps more importantly, about her willingness to truly hear what the teacher has to say.
Some years ago, I read a Dressage Today article written by master horseman Charles deKunffy on the subject of the role teachers and judges play in promoting horsemanship as a living art. DeKunffy is internationally known for his dedication to classical dressage, a passion he has shared through his roles as trainer, coach, clinician and author. His words were so inspirational that I have reread the DT piece countless times, and continue to share it with those who aspire to become teachers themselves.
In the article, deKunffy says that the teacher’s obligation is to the art he teaches, a dedication demonstrated through total commitment to teaching correct classical principles. He believes that a teacher must teach all students as if they are a future Olympian—in his words, “to conduct a lesson impeccably as if it were given to the greatest rider, deserving of the greatest attention in the finest way, suitable to the horse and the rider at that particular time. This concept must be your guiding light.”
Clearly, not every horse or rider is capable of reaching elite levels of equestrian sport. Yet the fundamental concepts of horsemanship are the foundation to that work, and should guide the education of every equestrian. Therefore, the teacher who helps every rider learn the art of compassionate, empathetic, thoughtful and progressive training; who rigorously schools every rider in correct equitation, until the student has developed the necessary suppleness and strength in her body and tact and empathy in her aids, will positively impact the countless horses those students will go on to ride.
DeKunffy goes on to say that “The ethic of teaching—the job of teaching—is to stick up for what you know is right.” A horse that has been properly trained stands the best chance of remaining sound and useful for as long as possible. And we all know that when times get tough, a trained, sound horse has a greater probability of finding a caring home than one that is unsound in mind or body. While the teacher has a responsibility to her student, ultimately she has a greater responsibility to the horse.
I took advantage of some quiet moments recently to read two of deKunffy’s books, The Ethics and Passions of Dressage (1993) and Dressage Principles Illuminated (2002). These two works offer a great deal of insight into deKunffy’s philosophy of teaching and training horses and riders. If I had tried to read either of these books when they were first published, I am certain I would have tossed them aside. As a student of horsemanship then, I would not have been ready for this teacher. But in reviewing them now, decades later, I continue to find inspiration and confidence in deKunffy’s words.
The Ethics and Passions of Dressage reads like a series of short essays, almost an annotated “FAQ” of classical horsemanship (please forgive me if that sounds flippant). In particular, I appreciated the chapters detailing deKunffy’s definition of Baroque art and why horsemanship is part of that tradition. I especially valued a chapter explaining why classical horsemanship and competitive horsemanship should be synonymous terms. Let me explain why this last chapter was so meaningful.
When I first began seriously studying dressage, it was just after several elite international competitors were seen using a “new technique” called hyperflexion during their warm ups. These horses then went on to give winning performances in the competition arena. Now called rollkur and formally prohibited by the FEI, the use of this practice ignited a firestorm of passionate debate that ultimately drove a wedge between “competitive” and “classical” dressage riders.
At the time, my barnmates and I bristled whenever we heard someone say (often in a haughty manner) that they were a classical dressage rider, seemingly looking down their nose at those of us who enjoyed competition. In defense, we interpreted the term classical to mean ‘those riders too scared to test their skills in the show ring’, and wrote them off as irrelevant.
But in Ethics, deKunffy points out that there are not and should never be two kinds of dressage. Instead, the purpose bred sport horses of the modern era require an even greater commitment to the art of horsemanship, an art form that can only survive if its students are taught the correct fundamentals. A former FEI and USEF “S” dressage judge, deKunffy looks to these organizations and their judges to protect classical dressage in the competitive arena.
But he is equally adamant that competition is not the only, or even the best, way for a rider to prove her skills. He explains that the rules of classical horsemanship have been tested by thousands of riders on millions of horses. Following these rules should lead to success, and success should be defined as ‘elevating a horse to the level of art’. Whether that happens in a competition arena or at home in the schooling ring is ultimately irrelevant.
In Dressage Principles Illuminated (currently being updated), deKunffy shares his insights on the “how-to” aspect of classical horsemanship. This book is divided into three parts and covers classical philosophy and exercises for developing horse and rider in some detail. It is illustrated with photos of dancing horses, clearly light and happy in their work, who have soft mouths and eyes, lowered haunches and rounded backs.
Dressage Principles is full of quotes that I want to print and post in my barn and tack room so that I must remember them constantly. Here are a few of my favorites:
“Learning from horses is compulsory for riders, and those who resist it must suffer the consequences of ignorance through pain and damage.” (pg. 5)
“Competition can be a rewarding tool for goal orientation and discipline…Competition sharpens riders by focusing them on improved equitation and by making them aware that they are public performers.” (pg. 29)
“The horse is a perfect creature, an evolutionary wonder, without the rider. However, there can be no rider without a horse. To be an equestrian is to take a position in life dedicated to the well-being of horses in terms of their needs.” (pg. 119)
There are so many more. But again, when this book was first published, I am sure that I would have been in too much of a hurry to thoughtfully hear what the Teacher had to say.
I recognize that as a riding coach, I take my time and preach a more conservative approach than perhaps some others I know. I believe that it is always faster to go slowly. The rider who has committed to developing a strong and supportive lower leg, centered balance and an empathetic hand in the long run will be safer, more horse-friendly and have more fun that one who has not. It is my role as teacher to meet my students wherever they are and help them to achieve this goal.
As students, we can all be too greedy to show tangible progress. As teachers, it can be tempting to give in to the student and let her jump a larger fence, or move up a competitive level, especially if you worry she will leave and go to another teacher if you say no. But it is essential that the teachers of horsemanship maintain their principles in order to protect both the student and the horse.
We live in a world where everything moves so quickly and we have come to expect near instant gratification of our desires and responses to our requests. Horsemanship is not, and should never become, that type of pursuit. The true horseman understands that “It is a meditative art. You are a student of the horse.” (deKunffy, in the Chronicle article cited below).
It is perhaps only when a student shifts her thinking in this way that her Teacher will appear.
Charles deKunffy was born in Hungary and survived Nazi occupation before fleeing Soviet rule in the 1950s and emigrating to the US. He attributes his status as an elite equestrian for saving his life, literally and figuratively, both in those dark days and the years to come. He has dedicated his life to “advocating on behalf of the animal that saved him, acting as a link between the prestigious training he received in classical dressage from the masters in Europe and students of today.” (“Charles deKunffy: Saved by Horses, by Jennifer B. Calder, The Chronicle of the Horse June 5&12, 2017)
Through my work as a writer, I have been fortunate to encounter equestrians and horses who have overcome great odds to achieve some measure of success. I love telling these stories and take my responsibility as their curator seriously; sometimes the obstacles overcome are deeply personal or downright cruel, others the result of nothing more than fate or circumstances or luck (and whether luck is good or bad, it seems, is only known to the mind of the beholder). I try to write the truth of someone else’s lived experience with humility, compassion and respect for their willingness to share a piece of that life with a broader audience.
At the same time, these stories practically write themselves. When I was working on my M.F.A., an instructor shared his secret for writing compelling profiles: choose a subject who is “a loser with a dream on a quest.” I know the word “loser” could be interpreted with a negative connotation, but read it in this context as simply being the opposite of “winner”. As in, life has kicked them around a bit and other people in the same circumstances might justifiably have chosen to give up. As in, there are an awful lot of them out there, because in most contests (literal or figurative), there is only one winner.
Think about it. This formula is pervasive throughout popular literature and film. The entire Harry Potter series is essentially about a loser (an orphan whose adopted family scorns him) with a dream (to become a great wizard) on a quest (to defeat Voldemort). For a fictional horsey example, the movie Hidalgo (extremely loosely based on the life of Frank Hopkins, a real person whose real life story is a matter of debate) tells the story of a disgraced, mixed-race cowboy in turn of the century America (definitely a loser) with a dream (to save a herd of mustangs) on a quest (to win a long distance horse race). Bonus points here because the quest is literal (as it also is in the Lord of the Rings, with protagonist Frodo and his friends taking three rather lengthy books/movies to finally arrive at Mt. Doom).
We look for these “losers with a dream on a quest” in real life, too.
For a stunning example, recall the story of Seabiscuit, a cranky, nondescript, poorly conformed Thoroughbred racehorse whose shy trainer, Tom Smith, was shunned for his unorthodox methods; whose jockey, Red Pollard, was a semi-blind immigrant and whose owner, Charles S. Howard, was a successful entrepreneur whose ticket to riches (the automobile) also caused the death of his son. When this hardscrabble horse defeated regally bred champions like War Admiral in the late 1930’s, his success inspired a beleaguered nation, its citizens desperate for joy in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
In 2001, Seabiscuit’s story enjoyed a renaissance with the release of Laura Hillenbrand’s New York Times’ best-selling book. Not only did the written narrative garner too many awards to list, in 2003 it was turned into an Academy Award nominated feature film that grossed $148.3 million at the box office. (Laura Hillenbrand herself could also qualify as a loser with a dream…read this amazing essay to learn more about her own journey).
To reach such broad popularity, obviously the story of Seabiscuit resonated with a wider audience than just the horse-loving public. On its surface, Seabiscuit is a cool story about a successful racehorse. But really, it is much more than that—it is a classic underdog story, and it is as much about the people surrounding the horse as it is about the horse himself.
I think the reason for this appeal is that, each in our own ways, most of us see ourselves as losers. I know I do. Every single day, there is a tape that plays in my brain telling me that I am not good enough. It tells me that I will never be enough of a trainer to start not one but two young horses. It tells me that I will never successfully pitch my book, land an agent, and see the project through to completion. It tells me that there is always someone out there who is better at what I do than I am, and because of that, maybe I shouldn’t even bother to try.
In these dark days of winter, approaching the start of pandemic year two, that voice has been exceptionally loud.
Perhaps it is in these times especially that we most need our underdog stories— stories about losers who are so often just regular people, people like you and I, who faced adversity in whatever form but had the strength, determination and grit to persevere. People who had a dream, whether a seemingly simple one or maybe one so big and crazy that they were embarrassed to share it out loud, and yet who still took those small steps along the path to making that big and crazy dream a reality. Sometimes the path led them exactly where they hoped it would. Sometimes it didn’t. But the point is that despite the negative, the dark, that d**m voice in all of our heads whispering this is not possible, these underdogs kept shuffling, limping or crawling their way forward. And in their own ways, they prevailed.
I tend to think that underdogs are not the exception among us, but the rule, and that underdog stories are about normal people able to push past the resistance that slows each of us down. Underdog stories will always be popular because they appeal to the loser living inside each of us, the one who needs to be reminded that (in the words of the late, great Tom Petty) “even the losers get lucky sometimes.” But with all due respect to Mr. Petty, I don’t think underdogs ever prevail due to luck alone. Somewhere along the way, they turned obstacles into opportunities and adversity into strength, and told their inner critic to take a long walk off a short pier.
Here are some of my favorite underdog stories I’ve written from the past year or so:
Without a doubt, 2020 has not turned out to be the year that anyone anticipated. Since March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a worldwide pandemic, most of the structures, routines and patterns of our day to day lives came crashing to a halt. Seven months later, we are still riding the tide of changes effected as a result. Although change is inevitable, forced change, particularly when it occurs so swiftly, can be difficult to process.
Here in the U.S., the pandemic has only highlighted the gross inequities in our society, and the stress it has induced has brought many citizens to the breaking point. I am deeply grateful to have some sense of security in these challenging times, but I grow increasingly aware that my situation comes from a place of privilege, and that I work in an industry still uncomfortable with this subject. Recent dialogue on the questions of diversity, accessibility and disparity within both the equine industry and society as a whole is essential and ongoing.
When I read news stories about current events, I am gripped with a feeling of helplessness. If I think too deeply about the pandemic and its wide-reaching implications, about how it has exposed the inherent weaknesses in even supposedly “developed” societies, I feel a sense of panic about what is yet to come. Individually, we have so little control over what will happen next; collectively, we are on the same ride whether we like it or not.
What I can control, in uncertain times, is my own attitude and my own choices. Small acts of kindness, compassion and empathy do matter, and many small acts taken as a whole become something greater, a power that can overcome hatred, prejudice, self-centeredness and adversity.
With all that is going on in the world right now, it feels trite to discuss my personal goals in riding. But I also believe that despite everything, it is critical to keep moving forward when and where we can, and spending time with my horses is something that brings me a sense of fulfillment. I know this is a sentiment that many of my readers can identify with. Like many of you, I am a goal-oriented person; having something concrete that I am working toward helps to provide focus to my rides and a structure to my routine.
Early in the pandemic, I was scrolling through Facebook, where I saw that a friend had posted that she was participating in a 1,900 mile equestrian challenge along the Pony Express route. Intrigued, I clicked on the post (as one does) to learn more. This led me to the website of WARHORSE Endurance, the brainchild of Christina Hyke, an avid endurance rider, organizer and photographer based in Wisconsin. The mission of WARHORSE Endurance, according to its website, is “to provide riders, carriage drivers, runners, hikers, cyclists and walkers with a goal to aim for, an online community to cheer each other on and a completion award to commemorate their amazing journey.” Through this program, Hyke created a series of virtual challenges conceived to keep riders motivated and on track in their conditioning plans, despite the cancellation of most formal distance rides. But perhaps more importantly, she also established an international community that (via social media) could celebrate in our uniqueness while sharing in each other’s progress, offering support during setbacks and celebrating success.
To me, this sounded like just the tonic to neutralize the pandemic blues.
The WARHORSE Endurance “virtual ride” concept is rather simple. Mileage reporting is done on the honor system; entrants track the miles they spend leading, riding or driving their horse using their preferred app, then upload their progress to the website. There is also the option to include human “conditioning” miles spent hiking, running or bicycling to the mileage total. You can include miles logged all on one horse or on multiple horses. You can drive your horse. You can handwalk your rehabbing veteran, longline your green bean, or any and all combinations of the preceding options. Each challenge is what you make of it, so long as the miles are spent purposefully.
By the time I learned about WARHORSE, Hyke had already filled enrollment in two 100 mile virtual challenges and was working on filling a third. She donates a portion of each entry to charity, and when entrants reach the 100 mile threshold, they receive a medal, a patch, and/or a lapel pin, depending on the specific event.
The Pony Express 1,900 Mile Challenge that had caught my eye was Hyke’s newest venture. In what might be the longest virtual equestrian challenge in the world, entrants log their miles and track their progress along the approximate route of the Pony Express. The Pony Express ran for just eighteen months between April 1860 and October 1861, with riders starting in St. Joseph, Missouri (today commemorated by the National Pony Express Museum) and ending in Sacramento, California (now marked by the Pony Express Memorial). Back then, riders covered the route in only ten days. Virtual riders have seven years.
Time has eroded many of the specific locations of the route’s 100 +/- stops, and according to the National Park Service, “the trail’s actual route and exact length are matters of conjecture.” Therefore, the virtual route is approximated based on Hyke’s research, and an online map lets riders learn about known points of interest along the way.
Now, 100 miles is a long way to ride, run, hike or bike. 1,900 miles—from Missouri to California—is almost unfathomable. But with seven years to finish, that’s just 271 miles per year. Less than one mile a day. And if you are riding in some of Hyke’s 100 Mile Virtual Challenges, those miles can also count toward the Pony Express.
Broken down into smaller pieces, this is do-able.
In early June, I signed up for the Pony Express Virtual Challenge. Within about a week, I decided that the medal for the Valkyrie 100 Mile Challenge was pretty cool (a winged Pegasus), so I signed up for that too. Then I added the Ranger 100 Mile Challenge to my agenda when it opened in early July. And I am not ashamed to admit that on September 1, I signed up for the Journey 100 Mile Challenge too.
For me, each of these challenges is a unique opportunity and a motivation get out there with my horses, even if the world is feeling heavy. I am able to customize each Challenge, pushing me to spend more time on trail with all of my horses. It has provided a necessary and refreshing break to the routine of schooling in the arena. It has motivated me to visit new to me public trail networks. It has reminded me that while conventional competition can be fun, it has never been the end all be all for me when it comes to riding and horsemanship.
You might be thinking, I could never ride my horse 100 miles. That is so far! But yet….
Horses walk at about 3 miles per hour. Most of my rides have only been forty-five minutes to an hour, two or three miles in length. Since June, I have logged nearly 300 miles, mostly walking along the powerlines in my backyard. All of these small rides, over time, add up to something much larger.
And along the way, so many beautiful moments.
Such as– my retired distance mare Lee completing all 100 miles of the Valkyrie Challenge by late August, the final ride a 2+ mile hack squeezed in between thunderstorms on a Sunday evening that I probably would not have taken otherwise.
Or this–my Third Level dressage pony Anna completing 95 miles toward the Ranger 100 Mile Challenge. One evening, we were followed by a doe deer; on another, we came face to face with a surprised barred owl. Dividing our time between ringwork and trails, I hoped to complete the Challenge by the end of October. Weather willing, it looks like we are on track to do just that. Where our dressage training has felt less than stellar lately, here is a goal that we can attain.
With former lesson horse Marquesa, I have carved out a special route now dubbed the “Queso Loop” in her honor. Just over a mile and half in length, it is the perfect outing for a 24-year-old veteran mare when I am short on time. This past week, we found fresh moose tracks right near our farm.
And on the Pony Express route, their collective efforts have taken me out of Missouri, through Kansas and into Nebraska.
But for the Journey 100 Mile Challenge, I decided to do something a little different. The Journey Medal design incorporates the running Warhorse logo, the flying Valkyrie and the Pony Express rider into one piece of art, and the Challenge is dedicated to “enjoying the journey”. Instead of only using miles ridden on one specific horse, I decided that the only logical way to tackle this final 100 mile challenge of 2020 would be to divide the miles among each of my five mares, twenty miles each. It seemed such a beautiful symbol of the journey I have been on and continue to travel with each horse, as unique individuals.
As of October 15, I have 60.6 miles toward Journey’s completion. Lee handily finished her twenty mile contribution early on; Queso has posted just over thirteen miles and young Izzy, who is just learning how to go out on trail, has added 10.5. Once she has finished Ranger, Anna will start working on her twenty mile segment. And with three-year-old Nori, who is not yet backed, I have handwalked just over eighteen miles, often in the dark of a mid-autumn evening. I hope to complete each mare’s segment before autumn’s breeze turns to winter’s chill, but even if I don’t, every stride my horses take brings us one step closer to attaining the goal.
And in reality, this is how we collectively must get through these unstable times. The outcome is uncertain, the path twisting and forward progress at times practically impossible to measure. We must always remember that the bigger goal is achieved through smaller steps and day to day victories. But each time we make the choice to stay positive, to have faith that events will resolve, to believe that light will always prevail over darkness, we move one step closer to resolution.
Proper saddle fit is a topic which has garnered much attention as equestrians have gained a better understanding of the intersection between tack and performance. Jochen Schleese, of Saddlefit4Life, is a saddle maker who is inspired to educate riders, owners and trainers on the basic concepts of better saddle fit. He gave a lecture and demonstration on the subject at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program in September of 2017, and the following is a brief summary of his critical points.
Several trends in modern equestrian sport have influenced the needs we must address in the design and selection of saddles. First, most riders are female, and the structure of their pelvis is different than that of a male. Female hip sockets face more forward, a shorter tail bone brings the balance point of the pelvis further forward and the seat bones are wider. However, saddle design traditionally has been oriented towards what will suit a male pelvis; when women try to ride in saddles which do not allow them to naturally sit in a comfortable, supported position, they at a minimum feel like they ‘fight the tack’, or in the long term, can suffer health complications including pain in their back, hips and knees. And of course, a rider out of balance will negatively affect the horse as well.
Secondly, the shape of horses has changed, with modern breeds trending towards being more “sporty”. As trainers, we want to encourage the horse to lift their topline up underneath the weight of the saddle and rider. But as the horse lacks collar bones, and their entire trunk is hanging from their shoulder muscles, the sheer act of saddling and sitting on a horse causes the topline to be pushed down. Just as one size shoe does not fit all wearers, one size saddle does not suit all shapes of horse, and as the horse develops muscle, even what once fit well may need adjustments. If we want to have any chance of engaging the topline correctly, we must set the horse up to be able to lift.
Horses are remarkably tolerant, and most will try to do what is asked of them even if their tack is ill fitting. But we will see the physical effects of poor fit in myriad ways—subtle cues, such as a wrinkle in the nose, pinned ears, and wide eyes are a good place to start. More significantly, we can see severe impacts such as the development of subluxations, sacroiliac issues (like hunter’s bump), swayback, scoliosis, muscle wasting and more.
A well fitted saddle will help prevent these issues, but it must be appropriate for the physique of the horse in question. And we must be cognizant that the shape of the horse will change over time.
It is critical that the position and shape of the saddle do not interfere with the cap of cartilage which is located over the top of the shoulder blade. Equally important is that the saddle cannot sit on the horse’s spine. Most horsemen know this, but at the same time, may not be able to accurately assess the true width of the spine; just because the channel is clear doesn’t mean that the panels are as well. Sometimes it is necessary to map out the areas on the horse’s back which can carry weight versus those spots where it simply can’t.
Schleese explained that there are fourteen reflex points in and around the saddle area which cause a negative reaction if they are being pinched from a saddle. Think of a reflex point having sensitivity akin to hitting your funny bone; the response to pressure is involuntary. Some of these points are more sensitive than others; Schleese used the analogies of “lemon”, “grape” or “egg” pressure to help the audience understand the tolerable amount of force on a given area. Clearly, a lemon will absorb more pressure than an egg before it breaks.
If these areas are being pinched, riders will likely experience resistance in their warm up for at least twenty minutes; this is the amount of time it takes for the nerves to go numb.
Schleese emphasized that there are nine critical points to check when assessing saddle fit for the horse:
Saddle length: The shoulder and loin areas must be non-weight bearing. In addition, the tree must have the same angle as the shoulder of the horse. It is critical to correctly identify the end of the shoulder (usually in line with the end of the mane/front of the withers) and ensure that the saddle is not impeding it. This last point was emphasized repeatedly.
Balance: The saddle’s balance point should be parallel to the ground when it is correctly placed on the horse’s back. It is the distribution of a rider’s weight, rather than the actual amount of weight, which is critical. An asymmetrical rider can almost double their impact on the horse.
No Rotation/Shifting/Twisting: The saddle should not shift to the right or left when viewed from behind. The tree points must be behind the shoulder blades.
Wither clearance: You are looking for at least two to three fingers clearance above the withers, but should also look for two to three fingers on the sides to allow for lateral work. Note here that conformation matters; the saddle will be closer to a high withered horse and farther away from one with mutton withers. There should be no pressure at all four inches below the withers when the saddle is placed on the horse. Schleese says you should be able to take a BIC pen, place it under the D-ring, and then slide it down without resistance. Otherwise, when you add a pad and the weight of a rider, the pinch which the horse feels will replicate the bite of a stallion.
Spinal Clearance: This relates to the width of the gullet—you are looking for 3-5 fingers here, enough to ensure that the saddle isn’t interfering with the spinous processes or the musculature of the horse’s back.
Billet Alignment: The billets should hang perpendicular to the ground, and the girth should be centered, not tipped forward or backwards. The girth will always position itself at the narrowest point of the rib cage, behind the elbow.
Horizontal Panel: The panels should touch evenly on the horse’s back, all the way down their length. Avoid “bridging” or rocking, which distributes the pressure unevenly, causing the horse to hollow their back.
Tree angle: The tree angle should be parallel to the shoulder angle when the saddle is positioned properly.
Tree width: The tree must be wide enough to allow for shoulder rotation, especially when jumping, but not so wide that the saddle rocks or sits on the withers. Most owners are familiar with the concept of narrow, medium or wide trees, but not that the angles of these trees can vary. This explains why a medium width tree in one saddle might not fit the same as one made by a different manufacturer.
There are two styles of saddle fitting: static fitting is done while the horse is still, while dynamic fitting considers how the horse moves as part of the fitting process. “You must bring your horsemanship and common sense with you,” says Schleese.
Dynamic fitting can give the saddle expert more information. Schleese likes to watch the horse move on the longe line at the walk with no tack; he watches the horse’s eyes, ears, and mouth, as well as the manner in which they carry their topline. In particular, he notes the tail carriage, which is essentially an elongation of the spine. How the horse carries their tail is a reflection of the way in which they have been trained. Most horses carry their tails to the left (and interestingly, their manes fall right).
“When the tail goes to the left, they will track up more easily on the left side,” says Schleese.
Schleese next will watch the horse with a rider on board, wearing their saddle as positioned by the rider; he notes that dressage riders tend to set it too far back while jumping riders tend to set too far forward. When mounted, the horse should still track up evenly and the loins should remain soft and supple. Within eight circles, the horse should begin to salivate and chew the bit.
While it is normal for the saddle to shift slightly away from the direction of the horse’s bend, it should not move dramatically. Often, issues are more subtle. For example, a saddle which is jamming into the horse’s back on the right side of their spine will cause their tail to swing left.
Schleese’s mission is to educate as many equestrians as possible on the essential elements of saddle fit. It is clearly a complex process which requires practice to master, but by reviewing the basics, any horse owner should be able to do a basic evaluation on their own saddle to determine if expert guidance is required.
Making it Happen: The Autobiography by Carl Hester
c 2014 Orion Books: London, UK. 260 pages.
ISBN 978 1 409 14767 1
Autobiography, biography and memoir have almost always been “off” my reading list, but with an increased exposure recently to this nonfiction genre through my M.F.A. program, I have become more open minded. I picked up Making it Happen, the autobiography of Carl Hester, last fall after attending his NEDA Symposium. The book is written in Hester’s voice–and the text has the unpolished quality of someone who does not write professionally—but on the back inside cover jacket it indicates the book was co-authored by equestrian journalist Bernadette Hewitt, whom Carl affectionately refers to throughout as “Bernie”. While it is no literary masterpiece, this book delivers on its promise to tell “the incredible story of one of the world’s greatest equestrians”.
The opening chapter shows us Hester at the London Olympics, just moments before the British team clinches an historic gold medal on home turf. From this career high, Hester then takes readers on the journey from his youth on the Channel Island of Sark, to boarding school and on through his rise up the ranks of equestrian sport– detailing his apprenticeships, hard horses, risky gambles and sometimes tumultuous professional relationships– to become the king of British Dressage. In 2016, Hester became a five-time Olympian with his appearance in Rio; he also is or has been the coach of all the riders on both the 2012 and 2016 squads, including two time gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin, riding Hester’s own Valegro. Perhaps the story of the 2016 Games might become an appendix if there is ever an update to the 2014 edition.
At times irreverent, only vaguely self-reflective and greatly entertaining, Hester is a lively story teller. There are many, many occasions in this book where he makes reference to someone by their first name only, and I was frequently left feeling as though I had skipped a chapter or missed a page somewhere. His prose is suggestive of the one way dialogue of someone who has drank too much coffee, when the listener can do little more than nod and murmur “oh dear” or “of course” at relevant moments. In reading the chapters, I was left feeling somewhat out of breath by the rapid fire pace of transmission—but yet still felt compelled to turn the pages. Hester takes you along for the ride.
I am not one to believe that someone is inherently interesting just because they are a celebrity, and perhaps that is partially why this particular written genre has never really appealed to me. But it can be heartening for those of us in the trenches, as it were, to remember and recognize that even the greatest of riders are people too, and that we all make mistakes. In Making It Happen, Hester owns the errors of his past and reveals his moments of hubris in equal balance to those occasions in which his good choices were deliberate or he was able to stand firm to his principles despite detractors. Perhaps one of the hardest parts of writing memoir or autobiography is to reveal the warts and dark moments; in his book, Hester does not shy from them. As a both a writer and a human, I appreciated that.
I would recommend Making it Happen to any equestrian, but I think it will be the dressage enthusiast who enjoys this story the most. When the world of “penguin suited fancy prancers” can start to feel a little too much—pick this book up. And recognize that even one of the best in the world is able to not take themselves too seriously.
During the Rio Olympics, my Facebook feed was utterly blowing up with comments regarding Dutch dressage rider Adelinde Cornelissen, and her choice to retire mid-test on her veteran partner, Parzival. Just a day or so earlier, Parzival had been found with a fever and swollen jaw, determined to be the result of a bite from some foreign bug. Under the supervision of FEI veterinarians, the horse was treated with fluids; as the swelling and fever reduced, Parzival was given clearance to compete. However, Cornelissen felt that her horse did not feel right and that it was inappropriate to continue to push him to complete the demanding Grand Prix test.
Initially, Cornelissen was lauded as a hero for putting the needs of her horse ahead of medal aspirations. But quickly the backlash began. Accusations of horse abuse were rampant. Implications that the true cause of the swelling was a hairline fracture of the jaw as the result of Cornelissen’s training methods became a common chant.
Cornelissen and Parzival have been staples on the Dutch international team for years. They were the alternates for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and at the 2012 London Games her team earned the bronze and Cornelissen, the individual silver. They have had numerous other successes in the international ring, but also some lows. The most notable of these occurred at the 2010 World Equestrian Games, when the pair was eliminated due to blood in the mouth, allegedly the result of the horse biting his tongue. The 2016 Rio Games were almost certainly intended to be the 19 year old horse’s final competition.
I am not a huge follower of international equestrian sport, but I watch and see enough that I usually know the key players and the major events. Since the days of the great rivalry between Van Grunsven and Werth, the Dutch riders have frequently been criticized for the use of rollkur in their training system. Of course, the Dutch say that the method they use is different than rollkur—I think they call it “low, deep and round”—and for people who live in that world, the similarities and differences between the two techniques could be debated for hours. For the greater equestrian community, the 98% of us who do not exist in the world of elite dressage performance, the line between the two methods is very, very blurry. The FEI was finally forced to take a firm stance against the use of rollkur largely as the result of public pressure. Low, deep and round is still allowed, within certain parameters; this ruling still rankles some within the equestrian community.
From what I understand, Cornelissen has been frequently accused of using rollkur, and many negative statements have been made specifically in regards to her riding style and performances with Parzival. Given the quite passive and osmosis-like manner in which I absorb information about most of these elite riders, I do feel that it is significant that the impression I have always had of her is that she perhaps uses less than classical training methods. I have utterly no foundation on which to base the impression other than the trickle of comments which come through social media, bulletin boards and occasional articles. But yet, the impression is there.
So when the whole situation in Rio started to unfold, I initially noted that this particular rider was making (negative) headlines again. But it wasn’t until nearly every other post on my Facebook timeline was deriding her that I began to look more closely at the details. And the more I learned, the more I scratched my head over the kinds of comments I was seeing—strong, vicious statements such as, “I hate her” and “She shouldn’t be called a hero. She has been abusing that horse for years.”
Wait a minute here. Regardless of anything you might have thought or do think about this rider….she felt as though the horse was not right. She stopped performing her test. It is almost a certainty that her decision to retire put the Netherlands out of medal contention as well. She chose to retire anyway—and I am sure the pressure to produce a winning test was extremely high, given that the Netherlands is a nation which actually enjoys and follows equestrian sports. In spite of all of this…she stopped. How could this one decision alone not be considered a heroic act?
The video of Cornelissen and Parzival’s test up until she withdrew seems to have vanished from the internet. It was out there for a bit, and I watched it with great interest, because apparently some of the Armchair Quarterbacks know far more about dressage than I do, and I wanted to see what they saw: “You can tell from the minute he entered the ring that he was lame.” (What? He looked sound to me.) “He is obviously unhappy. Look at how much foam is coming out of his mouth.” (Yes, he was a bit more foamy than average, but certainly I have seen other horses look similarly and no one is saying that those horse are unhappy; some foam is actually considered a good thing. The person commenting wouldn’t know the difference.) “He just looks miserable. I feel so bad for him.”
I must say, I wish that I could take a clinic or lesson with some of these Armchair Quarterbacks. Because I will freely admit that I just didn’t see all of these horrible things that everyone else did in the video I watched. The horse is in good weight, muscle and tone. He appears healthy and willing. He was not swishing his tail, pinning his ears, visibly sucking back or showing other signs of overt resistance. I understand that at some point in the video, Parzival does start to stick out his tongue—this is a classic symptom of a contact/connection issue, and it certainly can indicate an unhappy horse. However, I was unable to see that in the footage I watched. I have seen some photos of him from Rio with his tongue out; they were all taken after the horse had left the ring.
I saw a lovely horse performing the Grand Prix, whose rider sensed was not himself, and who was pulled up. We know he had had something wrong with his face before the competition– a fact that Cornelissen doesn’t deny and in fact shared freely with fans. There is a perfectly reasonable explanation why the horse was not at his best, especially in the connection. Let’s not forget, he was cleared to compete by some of the best vets in the world.
I must really not know much about horses or dressage. But these Armchair Quarterbacks really do seem to know EVERYTHING about the training, management and performance capability of this foreign based pair. I found the amount of energy spent condemning Cornelissen to be, frankly, disappointing. One woman actually is threatening to sue Cornelissen over her alleged abuse of Parzival. I wish I was making this up.
There is an article which I use in one of my classes called, “Can Horse Sports Face the Central Park Test?”. The article looks at common practices within several prominent equine disciplines through the frame of a comment from former US Equestrian Federation president and current US Eventing Team Coach, David O’Connor. “Could I go through the middle of Central Park with an NBC camera following me around as I get my horse ready to go into a competition?” O’Connor asks. “Will you show anybody anything you’re doing? If you can’t, there’s a problem.”
This article really resonated for me, because in my years in the industry I have certainly heard tales of “those things which happen behind the barn”. The stuff that no one talks about but people know about. It happens in all equine sports, at all levels. And it is not right, and just because it is the “norm” in a certain sphere doesn’t make these activities ok. This isn’t about saying one discipline is better than another. This is about good, basic, horsemanship.
Is it possible that Cornelissen has inappropriately used rollkur, or strong bits, or other less than ideal methods to achieve a training end with Parzival? Sure. I don’t know one way or the other, because I have never spent time watching her work, or touring her facility. But I do know that the horse at 19 was sound enough in brain and body to be chosen for the Dutch squad and then flown half way around the world to represent them. So I surmise that he must have a pretty good crew of people taking care of him to get to that point—Cornelissen included.
If you want to pick on Olympic riders, maybe we should condemn all of them, and our federations while we are at it, for choosing to bring their horses to compete at a Games in an area with an active glanders outbreak? Certainly exposing some of the best in the world to this nearly unheard of disease is worthy of outrage?
Years ago, as a working student for Lendon Gray, she would really get after me for using a “half way aid”. She argued that it was far kinder to a horse to make your point once—give them a clear aid with a particular expectation of a response—than it was to nag, and nag, and nag. This lesson has really stuck with me. The fact is that daily training can be cruel too—too tight nosebands, excessive or uneducated use of spurs, aggressive use of training aids like draw reins or bigger, harsher bits, heck, even ill fitting saddles, can all cause pain and frustration in our equine partners. And let’s be honest—a rider who chooses to show mid level dressage but can hardly sit the trot, someone who wants to jump but refuses to learn to see a distance, the pleasure rider who doesn’t bother to learn about basic conditioning…are these not their own forms of cruelty to our beloved horses?
The honest to gosh truth is that if you really feel fired up and want to make a TRUE and IMPACTFUL difference to the lives of animals…start with yourself. Educate yourself. Learn from the best that you can afford. Practice. Eat healthy. Stay fit. Reach out to your friends, your neighbors, your colleagues and your clients….help them to be the best that they can be too.
There are absolutely examples of truly heinous training methods which are employed by riders to extract a certain performance from their horse. But for the Armchair Quarterbacks to vilify someone the way they did Cornelissen, without first taking a good, hard look in the mirror, is to me as much of a crime.
I only can hope that this vocal contingent can take some of that energy and direct it closer to home—where it can make a real, meaningful difference.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian