Tag Archives: equestrian life

On Teaching Horsemanship: Thoughts inspired by the work of Charles deKunffy

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.

Charles deKunffy, taken from his official Facebook page

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.

My late mentor, Verne Batchelder, always believed that every horse and rider was capable of great things. Here he helps me with JEF Anna Rose.

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.

Published in 1993 by Half Halt Press (ISBN 0-939481-33-2 and reissued by Xenophon Press in 2013.

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.

I have held onto nearly every completed dressage test I have ever ridden. One afternoon, I read back through some twenty years of comments. I would not recommend doing this.

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.

Originally published in 2002 by Trafalgar Square Publishers (ISBN 1-57076-233-3; Xenophon Press expects to release an “expanded” edition Spring 2021.

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)

How The Losers Inspire Us All

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.

Seabiscuit with jockey Red Pollard. Image courtesy of Seabiscuit Heritage Foundation and released to public domain.

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:

Quinlan Shows Us How to Lose our Leathers, No Matter the Obstacles

Learning to Trust Gave Satin’s Angel Her Wings

Back from the Brink: Kilkenny Cairo Heals at her Home on the Range

From $400 Racetrack Reject to Hampton Classic Tricolor

Author’s note: The cover image is of Seabiscuit winning the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap with Red Pollard up. You can watch the race here.

What Living Through a Pandemic Taught Me about Setting Goals

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.

So many of life’s challenges can be contemplated from here….Spring Hollow Marquesa.

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.

Heading out with friends. Anna and I in front, Lee (piloted by her friend Fay) in the back.

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.

Anna and I practicing our selfie skills before a summer ride.

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.  

More selfie practice, this with Spring Hollow Or Noir (Nori), a 3 year old Morgan filly. We are handwalking her twenty miles towards the Journey 100 Mile Challenge, and in the process she is learning to trust me, and that leaving home with me can be safe. As we walk away from the farm, we are becoming a herd of two. I hope that when she learns to be a riding horse next year, this foundation of trust will carry over.

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.

I mean, it is a really cool medal.

Here’s why.

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.

Lee looks nowhere near as excited as I was to complete the Valkyrie 100 Mile Challenge. But it was fun for me, because as the miles ticked down, I relived (in a small way) the second 100 mile Competitive Trail Ride that Lee and I completed together. When we had “ten to go” in Valkyrie, I remembered the rush of coming out of the final hold on day three, knowing that each beat of each stride was carrying us closer and closer to completing an amazing ride together. While these 100 miles were spread out over weeks not days, it was so lovely to know that my 21 year old partner still “has it”.

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.

Anna looking alertly at something I can’t see on a chilly October morning.

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.

At 24 years old, Spring Hollow Marquesa still busts out 15 minute miles….and it just feels easy!

And on the Pony Express route, their collective efforts have taken me out of Missouri, through Kansas and into Nebraska.

What fun!

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.

Queso and her friend Julianna have been “babysitting” DRF Isabela (Izzy), a 5 year old Connemara/TB, who is learning how to hack without being quite so unsettled by the big world around her. Without the goal of doing twenty miles on Izzy by the end of the season, it would be easy for me to just push off this essential piece of her education. Right now, she is still a little “reactive” to the world at times, and I don’t love riding through those moments! But I really, really want her to have contributed her twenty miles as a RIDING horse, so we keep chipping away with little rides each week, and slowly, she is gaining more confidence.

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.

Nori, taking a pause to contemplate the life, universe and everything.

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.

Jochen Schleese: Understanding Better Saddle Fit

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.

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Jochen discusses the sweat marks and muscling of demo horse Santa Fe ISF, after he was warmed up in his usual tack.

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.

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Here, Jochen shows how the human pelvis is meant to be centered over the topline musculature.

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.

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Santa at the beginning of the “marking up” process.  You can see the bold “X” of two “no pressure” zones.

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.

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These tree points show a design which is common even in modern saddles; they can apply too much pressure to the sensitive region below the withers and near the shoulder cap.

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.

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Note the angle of the tree points.

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.

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Jochen began his three hour presentation with a Powerpoint supported lecture. I promise the students in the background were more interested than this photo might indicate!  🙂

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.

Book Review:  Making it Happen: The Autobiography

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”.

If you are looking for insight into the training techniques, horse selection criteria or the horsemanship philosophy of Hester…well, this is not your book. But if you are a person who wants to believe that someone from modest beginnings can really make it to the top of a wealth infused sport like dressage—then read on.

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Ok, so my copy wasn’t “updated with a new postscript”…maybe this is the reference to the 2016 Games?

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.

4/5 stars

 

Adelinde Cornelissen and the Arm Chair Quarterback

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.

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Parzival was disqualified from the 2010 World Equestrian Games after blood appeared in his mouth. 

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.

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Photos like this one, easy to find on the internet, do not do much to ease Cornelissen’s public image. 

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?

Adelinde Cornelissen and Parzival FEI World Cup 2009

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.

 

Reactions to “Learning from Olympic Pressure”

A few months back, I was reading some older issues of Practical Horseman, and I pulled an article titled “Learning from Olympic Pressure”, by Melissa Roddy Wright, from its May 2012 issue.  The article was about a talented and ambitious young professional, Clark Montgomery, who had seen himself short listed but ultimately unsuccessful in making the team for the 2008 Beijing Games. At the time of this article, he was working towards the goal of being selected for the 2012 London team.  If you follow eventing, you will know that he wasn’t—he made the short list again—but just a few weeks ago was named to the squad for Rio on his longtime partner, Loughan Glen.

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Clark Montgomery (from Eventing Nation)

I have read many “spotlight” articles on riders from different disciplines, and I almost never find the stories so captivating that I save the article for future review.  But this one about Montgomery was different, and when I saw that he was chosen for the 2016 Rio team, it seemed a fitting opportunity to tell you why I found his story compelling.

Montgomery was just 26 when he was on the short list for Beijing; he had enjoyed a great deal of success early in his career, including completing Rolex.  His top horse at the time, Up Spirit, was green at the upper levels but had been consistent enough to place well at certain key events.  According to the article, Montgomery recognized that his horse was greener than others, and he “pushed through the summer to make Up Spirit faster across country.” (All of the quotes included herein come from the article.)

“Instead, their Olympic bid ended with a cross-country runout at the Barbury Castle International Horse Trials CIC*** in England, a mandatory early summer outing for the American short listed riders.  The following spring, Up Spirit’s season and potentially his upper level career ended with a fall at The Fork Horse Trials CIC*** in North Carolina.”

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Clark Montgomery and Up Spirit.  This photo is on his website, and I found it on Google Images…no credit to photographer.  Happy to edit if someone knows where it comes from!

While all riders and trainers make mistakes, not all learn from them.  It seems like for Montgomery, missing out on the team and then experiencing a fall which resulted in a serious injury to his mount caused him to reassess his entire training philosophy.

“I tried to make [Up Spirit] gain more experience and get better than he was over the summer.  It fried his brain, and he lost his trust in me.  Up until then, I’d never really lied to him about a distance or pushed him for a quicker pace than he was comfortable with.  But I decided he needed to get faster cross country; I started putting my leg on him, and he started putting on the brakes.”—Clark Montgomery

We all encounter resistance in our mounts occasionally, and one of the hardest parts of training is knowing when to push more, when to back off, and when to stay the course.  When you add into the mix a goal—and most equestrians I know are goal oriented people—or  a deadline, you have a recipe for pushing too hard, too fast or too much.  If you are lucky, your horse forgives you for your momentary loss of sensitivity or intuition, but more often we end up creating a really engrained training problem.  And worse, we diminish the relationship which we have with our horse.

With Up Spirit injured and a few other setbacks at home, Montgomery says “Suddenly I had a lot of time to sit around and think how I got to that point.  I decided pushing a horse for competition isn’t worth it….Before, I think what I loved was competing, but now, I love the horses more.  It’s a beautiful thing to have a relationship with a horse, so they can go cross country with a bond and with trust.  That’s how I’ve approached riding from late 2009 forward.”

I personally am nowhere near as driven or competition oriented as those riders with international ambitions.  But if I am honest I have still struggled with this balance with my own horses.  Anna will hopefully make her Second Level debut next week; her medium gaits lack uphill balance and need better engagement, her connection is not steady enough, especially in the canter, and she could be more supple.  We have been consistently in the 60’s at First Level for two years, though, and I just feel like it is time for us to move on and to push to demonstrate the requirements of the next level.  The perfectionist part of me wants to wait until all the details are in place.  The practical part of me says that you have to get your feet wet sometime, and in dressage, usually the worst that happens is you get a low score.

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Anna and I after a test in 2015.

Ultimately, I decided to go for it—because I think that for Anna, increasing the challenge improves her focus and her willingness to try.  In preparing her for harder work, it is necessary to really wake her up a bit, but she is never resentful or shows any signs of stress or being overpressured.  We are still working to figure out exactly what routine works best to initiate her forward thinkingness, and it is clear that some of the approaches which work well with other horses don’t work with her.  She has challenged us to be more creative and me to be better about how I use my aids and where I sit.

“The most important thing you can do as a rider is try to understand your horse both physically and mentally, and base your training on that horse’s natural abilities…Treating each horse as an individual also means understanding that you may need to experiment with several different paths to the same training goal.”—Clark Montgomery

With Lee, I am still aiming for the long term/big goal of completing the three day 100 mile ride at GMHA in early September.  We didn’t have the early spring prep that I had hoped for, with a stone bruise, a cancelled ride, and a longer than expected period of adjustment to the arrivals of new equine residents to our farm this spring.  I had to regroup and reassess, and while I am still hoping to try for the 100, I am fully prepared to stand down and refocus if she requires it.  We are entered in the two day fifty in Vermont in early August, which will be our final competitive ride before the 100.  Again, it has been and will continue to be critical to watch her behavior and demeanor to see if she is responding well to the increased demands in fitness.  Montgomery says, “In day to day life, that means watching each horse carefully for the signals they send, both under saddle and in the barn.”  A true horseman knows their mounts inside and out.

“You do have to put enough pressure on horses when you are moving them forward to make them better, but not too much that you lose the trust…You have to have goals, yes, and put pressure on horses to get better, but you can only go so far with that.  The horse has to enjoy being worked, enjoy being pushed.  If it isn’t, then you have to back off.  That may mean not going to the Olympics this summer, but at least I’ll still have a horse in the fall.” – Clark Montgomery

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Lee at the awards ceremony for the 25 mile ride at GMHA Distance Days, 2014.

So while I am not on the hunt for an Olympic berth, it was really inspiring to read how such a talented and seemingly reflective professional at that level was able to learn from his mistakes in a way which allowed him to find a better path.  I guess it doesn’t matter whether your goals are international or local in nature, all horsemen have an obligation to do their best by their horses.   Treat your horse as an individual.  Have goals but be ready to revise them.   Try to really listen to what your horses are saying.  They are only horses, after all.  Our ambitions are not theirs.  But their willingness to cooperate with us to reach our goals is a pretty amazing and special gift, if you really think about it.

Literally while I was writing this blog, I received an update on Facebook about the current standings at Great Meadow International CIC0***.  Read here to learn more.

 

 

A Clinic with Cindy Canace

I have been lucky enough to know Cindy Canace, a USDF Gold Medalist and USEF “S” dressage judge from New Jersey, for many years.  However, this past week was my first opportunity to actually ride with Cindy in a clinic setting, and it was a great occasion to learn more about her training philosophies.

Cindy has made a career out of working with difficult, spoiled or otherwise challenging horses that others would not, and turning them into successful and happy performers.  In order to do this, she has established a system which she adheres to in terms of use of the aids, rider position, and progressive exercises.  By being clear and consistent, her horses respond with increased confidence to the rider’s aids.

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Annapony and I had just ridden several tests in front of Cindy at the recent University of New Hampshire dressage show, so she had a current picture in her mind’s eye of where things were at with us in the competition arena.  Cindy pointed out that a clinician’s main job is to provide a fresh set of eyes, and not to usurp the place of a regular instructor.  Specifically for Anna, Cindy wanted to challenge the honesty of her connection to the bit and work to achieve increased throughness.

For a horse competing at First Level, Cindy says that she would rather see a more open position in the neck with good energy and balance than a horse which has been pulled into too tight or restricted of a shape in the neck.  This is probably one of the reasons why Anna has scored well in front of Cindy, but as we are working towards moving to Second Level, it is necessary to achieve a greater degree of roundness and uphill balance.  Anna would prefer to be too open in the throatlatch if left to her own choices; because the purpose of Second Level is partially to confirm that the horse is “reliably on the bit”, we will need to work to erase this.

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Cindy had me move my hands closer together along Anna’s crest and ride with a much shorter rein than where I would tend to carry it.  “Put the bit where you want your horse to go” was a message repeated many times during the session.  She emphasized that the rider needs to keep her arms elastic, her shoulders down, her neck soft and her hands forward.  Cindy wants the horse to truly be seeking contact with the bit; it is the horse’s job to reach towards the bit all the time, rather than the rider taking the bit back towards their own body.

One of my greatest challenges is that most of the time I ride on my own; when you do this for too long, it is easy to pick up little bad habits.  One of my current ones is using too much inside rein, which blocks the inside hind and causes too much neck bend.  To help “reprogram” my aids, Cindy had me ride a diamond shape.  Imagine a square set within a circle, with points placed on the center line and equidistant from these points on the walls in between.  To turn Anna at each corner of the diamond, it was important to keep the inside leg at the girth and to bring the outside leg slightly back, pushing her around primarily with the outside aids.  I then used the inside leg to stop the turn and pushed Anna slightly out towards the outside aids again while aiming for the next point. We did this at the trot and the canter, decreasing the size of the circle as we became more proficient.

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Can you tell how awkward I feel with my hands this forward?

For me, the hardest part was to keep my hands out and ahead of me (‘put the bit where you want your horse to go’), even when Anna became less round or didn’t turn as crisply as I wanted.  The thing is, when your horse has gotten used to you supporting them in a particular way and you stop doing that, it takes them a few repetitions to sort things out for themselves.

Many horses have learned to balance on their inside reins; therefore, they can be taught to balance on the outside rein instead.  However, the correction takes time and dedication on the part of the rider.  “Keep your hands together and think forward,” said Cindy.  “The horse must step up to this.  Think of always pushing the reins out there.”

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Cindy reminded me that whenever I am tempted to pull on the inside rein that I needed to engage my inside leg instead.  At this, I had to chuckle—I must give this instruction myself many times per week, but it is good to know that even we instructors need reminders! Cindy also had me use a little sense of leg yield into the downward transitions to increase the connection to the outside rein, another technique which I like to use regularly. It is always good to know that your instincts are on the right track.

Cindy is wonderfully complimentary towards the rider’s horse; having ridden in many clinics, I think this is an important quality. Clinicians only get a snap shot of a horse and rider, and it is nice to hear what their immediate impressions are of the partnership.  While I usually think of Anna as not being super forward thinking, Cindy commented that my pony has a good overstep in the walk and trot; the more elastic and forward thinking that I keep my arm, the better Anna reaches through her topline and into the bit and the better the overstep gets.

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While discussing the importance of overstep (when the landing of the hind hoof reaches past the print of the front hoof on the same side), Cindy reminded auditors that there is a difference between fast and forward.  She says that in her judging, she sees too many horses which are being ridden so energetically that they move with a fast, quick tempo, causing the quality of the horse’s balance to literally go downhill.  While activity in the hind end is required to get true reach through the horse’s back, it cannot be accomplished at the cost of balance.

“We all like to micromanage,” said Cindy.  “Remember to ride the horse with leg and seat to create the bending.  Really use the outside rein to turn, even to the point of pushing the inside rein towards the horse’s ears.”

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Cindy’s overall theme was one of consistency and clarity in terms of expectations for the horse and intended outcomes.  When the horse is trying to sort out what it is that the rider wants, she emphasized that staying steady was of the highest priority.  It is much less confusing for the horse than if the rider suddenly switches her aids before the horse has answered the original question.   “Don’t change the rules of the game,” said Cindy.  “Don’t trade one problem for another—keep your aids consistent until you get the correct answer.”

Many thanks to On the Bit Events and the University of New Hampshire Equine Program for co-hosting this clinic!

On Horsemanship and Sportsmanship

Most of us who are involved with horses and horse showing prefer to be seen as both good horsemen and good sports.  If you stay in this game long enough, you will learn that when your success is predicated on the cooperation of a 1000+ pound flight or flight animal that also has a seeming proclivity for self-destruction, it is important to stay humble and not become too greedy.

With that being said, doing your homework, carefully prepping, setting goals and hopefully achieving them are all totally reasonable expectations.  In fact, these qualities are probably ideal in terms of making any sort of progress at all.  It is pretty easy to be a good sport when things are going your way, and you feel successful.  But where you are really put to the test is when the deck is stacked against you or the outcome isn’t what you had hoped for.  It seems that for some people, the ability to persevere and to continue to demonstrate the highest levels of sportsmanship and horsemanship comes naturally; nature vs. nurture, maybe.  Others of us have to dig a little bit deeper and consciously choose to maintain our best selves in these difficult times.

I have been reading a stack of old Dressage Today magazines, and I came across an “On Deck” column in the November 2007 issue written by a young lady named Holly Bergay.  At the time, Holly was just 15 years old.  She wrote about her first experience competing as a junior at the NAJYRC.  Now, I know what you might be thinking (because my brain would go there too)—to make an NAJYRC team, riders have to be talented and have access to both high quality horses and coaching.  It is easy to assume that these riders enjoy a certain amount of support and privilege that others do not; that their path has been made easy for them.  But when you start really talking to each individual rider, you will quickly learn that for most, there is a veritable army of people helping, contributing, supporting, fundraising, loaning horses, offering coaching, etc.  Holly was one of these riders; based in Arizona at the time, the expense alone of shipping all the way to Virginia for the competition must have been daunting for her middle class family.

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Holly Bergay (photo credit Phelps Photos)

And there is one other detail about Holly.  She was born with no left arm below her elbow, making her “the first disabled rider to ever compete at NAJYRC against able-bodied riders” (her words).

Holly tells the story of her and her teammates’ experiences at the competition; she rode for Region 5, and all of her teammates came from the west coast (Colorado, Arizona and Utah).  Though they were used to competing against one another, the riders didn’t really get to know each other until the trip east.  You might think that the hard part was qualifying for the Championships and then making their long trek to Virginia.  But the Region 5 team’s challenges were far from over.

One rider never even got to make the trip because her horse colicked before leaving home.

Another horse failed the initial jog (fortunately only due to an abscess, but still, what rotten timing).

Yet another rider arrived for day one of the mounted competition to find that her horse had ripped his eyelid open on a bridle hook, necessitating medical treatment which precluded him from competing.

I am sure that for these riders, who had invested so much of themselves in getting to this point, these events were terrible disappointments.  Yet according to Holly, her teammates showed “phenomenal horsemanship” in dealing with these blows and “made us all truly appreciate the opportunity to show”.  They learned to cheer for those who were still riding in the competition, even though with only two Young Riders left, the region’s team was ineligible for awards.

Holly talks about the tremendous pressure she felt competing as a junior; she wanted to do well for her team, for her trainer and for her horse.  She had come in with the lowest qualifying score of the team and was afraid of having a bad show.  But Holly had an additional weight to carry:  “I felt that if I didn’t do well, I would be letting down not just myself but the entire disabled community.”

Can you imagine feeling that way, at just 15 years old?

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Holly and Lilly at the NAJYRC (taken from her Facebook)

Holly’s story goes on to relate her own personal success on her mare, Lilly, and her team’s joy over their seventh placed finish.  Her language frequently includes words like “accomplishment”, “opportunity”, “proud”, “excitement” and “privilege”. You would think that the team had all won gold, but in reality no one took home a medal.  Holly ended up placing the highest of any rider from her region, making the top ten for the junior freestyle.  But you have a sense that she was modest about the achievement, and took greater pride in the fact that she had set out to accomplish her main goal—showing that a disabled rider could hold their own at the NAJYRC.  And in her own words, “I did not medal in the competition, but I took back things that were much more valuable than just a medal.  I learned both horsemanship and sportsmanship.  I met amazing people.  I formed an even stronger bond with my horse and, most important, I proved that I am not limited by my disability.”

I found Holly’s voice refreshing and her attitude moving.  Interested to know where Holly was now, I Googled her name (isn’t the internet wonderful)—and what came up showed me that the young girl of fifteen has matured into an inspirational young adult of twenty four.  And in the years between her debut at the NAJYRC and now, she has faced her own share of highs and lows, success, challenges and disappointments.

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Holly and Grand Ballerina (taken from her Facebook page).

After returning to compete in the NAYRC in 2008, Holly became internationally ranked in para-equestrian; in 2012, she was named to the World Equestrian Games team on the horse Grand Ballerina.  The mare unfortunately went lame just prior to the competition and so she was unable to compete.  After the financial investment incurred during the qualification process, followed by the disappointment of having to withdraw, Holly gave up riding altogether for a period of time.

But she returned to the sport and with the assistance of owner Violet Jen, Holly began to ride and compete the Hanoverian stallion Rubino Bellissimo.  The team entered the 2014 Para-Equestrian National Championship ranked second in the nation, and were considered strong favorites for selection to the World Equestrian Games team set to compete in Normandy, France.

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Holly and Rubino Bellisimo (taken from her Facebook page).  

Over $10,000 was raised to get Rubino and Holly to the New Jersey competition.  Just days before they were set to compete, Rubino began to exhibit signs of discomfort.   According to a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rubino’s condition quickly deteriorated and he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor that had begun to spread to muscles, nerves and bones.  With no hope of recovery and a rapidly declining quality of life, he was euthanized with Holly at his side.

Holly and Rubino’s last performance together.

I can’t even imagine going from the expectation of success and possibly achieving a dream such as qualifying to represent your country in international competition at that level to the devastating loss of a partner and friend in just a few days’ time.  It takes some kind of degree of sportsmanship and horsemanship and heck, just sheer grit, to keep pushing through that kind of challenging emotion.  And when you add to that the fact that your bank balance doesn’t rival that of a rock star or internet mogul, and you know just how much others have invested in your goals to support you—it weighs on you.

In the same Union-Tribune article, it says that Holly went to her family’s home in Colorado to grieve the loss.  Then she planned to return to her business in California, the San Diego Saddle Club, to regroup and possibly begin again.  She specifically mentioned the amazing community of horse people in the San Diego area, and that she either hoped to find a young horse to bring along or find another opportunity.  I can find no mention of her for 2015, so I have no idea where she stands today.

While you and I might not be on the short list for Rio, each one of us goes through some version of this struggle each and every day, don’t you think? Learning to take the highs and the lows, to make the best decisions for ourselves and our equine partners, and to do our very best to just be grateful that most of the time, we even have the opportunity to do the amazing things we do with our animals.  To try to find the balance between our competitive ambitions and the needs of our horses, and to know when it is ok to push a little harder versus when it is better to call it day.

I certainly admire Holly’s perseverance in the face of multiple challenges, and you just have to hope that if she can hang in there a bit longer, some of her fortunes will turn.  I have never met Holly, but perhaps if she ever reads this she will know that her story has touched another horseman and that I am rooting for her, wherever her equestrian pursuits might take her.  Our sport needs horsemen and sportsmen like Holly.

 

Five reasons why YOU should ride at the GMHA Distance Days

Spring has come early to these parts, and with it the itch to get out and about.  After a two month rest during the heart of winter, the Dark Mare is working on getting legged up for what will hopefully be a full season of competitive trail riding.  My big goal is to successfully complete the 80th anniversary three day 100 mile ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, VT, in September, the centerpiece of its Distance Days weekend.

Lee and I completed this ride in 2015, both of us rookies to the sport.  It was singularly one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences that I have ever had with one of my horses, and I have been able to meet so many enthusiastic, helpful and fun people as a result of the training and preparation that went into it.

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“Team Peanut Butter and Jelly”, GMHA Distance Days 2015– Kat Waters and High Brook Quintessential, me and Lee, Robin McGrath and Aikanes Sunflower.  We did the 100 miles together.

The 100 mile ride is the marquee event of the festival of trail riding that is Distance Days.  There is truly something for everyone; if you enjoy amazing scenery, challenging trails, the camaraderie of fellow trail riding enthusiasts and the opportunity to pursue personal goals, Distance Days is for you.

Here are five reasons why YOU should plan to ride at the GMHA Distance Days.

1) Become a part of history.

The GMHA 100 Mile ride is, as ride manager Chelle Grald describes it, “the granddaddy of them all”.  Begun by the fledgling GMHA organization in 1936, the ride initially was held in Rutland, VT, just over fifty miles away from its current home in South Woodstock.  It was the first ride of its kind, and it remains the oldest distance ride in the US, predating the famous Tevis Cup endurance ride by nineteen years. It has run every year without interruption, with the exception of 2011 (you may remember a little storm called “Irene”, which blew through just before the ride weekend, leaving a good chunk of Vermont underwater….).

GMHA was founded as an “altruistic organization” for the purpose of encouraging the breeding and use of horses in the state of Vermont, as well as to develop a system of bridle trails throughout the state.  In its early years, over one thousand miles of trails were marked, traversing from the Massachusetts state line in the south to the Canadian border. Dues in the early years were just $2.00, which included a subscription to their magazine.

The 100 mile ride quickly became the highlight of the organization’s annual calendar.  Part social event and part horsemanship demonstration, riders came from as far away as Indiana and Virginia in the early years; some riders actually RODE to the ride, covering over three hundred miles before the competition even had begun.  Riders ran the gamut—children as young as nine were known to complete the ride, and men and women alike delighted in the thrill and challenge.  Mrs. Fletcher Harper, a passionate foxhunter, won the 100 mile ride riding side saddle.

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Mrs. Fletcher Harper, who by all accounts was a fearless rider, jumping downed trees on trail while others searched for a route around.  Photo from GMHA archives.

All manner of horses have successfully completed the GMHA 100 mile ride—Welsh ponies, mules, Thoroughbreds, Morgans, grade crosses, and of course, the now ubiquitous Arabians.  Families would line the route to cheer on the riders; for many of these non-equestrians, it was THE social event of the summer. In its heyday, the ride had hundreds of entrants and a wait list.

Distance Days represents the opportunity to participate in a piece of living history, to add your name to an ever growing list of riders (and horses) who tackled the challenge of traversing the rugged and beautiful terrain of the Kedron Valley.

2) Short Rides, Medium Rides and Team Events

You are quite probably reading this right now and thinking, “well, that sounds pretty amazing, but 100 miles is a LOOONG way.”  You are totally right.  Maybe you aren’t up for that challenge quite yet….

And that is why  Distance Days offers more than just the 100 mile ride.  There will be five other ride lengths for competitive trail riders:  15, 25, 35, 40, and 60 miles.  The 60 mile is a two day ride, but the other rides are all one day long.  The entrants on these rides will be sharing the trail with the 100 milers, and so if you and your horse aren’t up to the rigors of the full 100 miles, you can still get a taste of the ride on these shorter routes.

The 100 mile ride covers the 40 mile WHITE trail on day one, the 35 mile RED trail on day two and the 25 mile BLUE trail on day three.  These trails cover terrain in the towns of Woodstock, Reading, Hartland, West Windsor and Hartford, and visit such historic and classic Vermont landmarks as the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historic Park and the Taftsville Covered Bridge.

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The historic Taftsville Covered Bridge has long been a highlight of the 100 mile ride.  The original bridge was destroyed by Hurricane Irene but was restored in 2014.  The bridge will be included on the 2016 route.  Photo courtesy GMHA.

Another aspect of Distance Days that is super cool is that the ride management has come up with a unique idea for this 80th anniversary weekend:  the 100 mile team relay.  There are several options, but basically 2-3 riders can make up a team, and by completing the requisite combination of shorter rides, can collectively complete the 100 mile distance.  Special awards will be given to the team with the best average score over all their rides.  If one rider were very ambitious but didn’t have one horse that could do all 100 miles, they could do each chunk of the distance on a different horse, or do 2/3 on one and the rest on another.
See, you could be a 100 mile rider yet!

 

3) Non Competitive Fun

Competitive trail riding is sort of unique among horse sports, because you really and truly are competing against yourself; rather, you are trying to use all of your horsemanship expertise to bring home a horse that is no worse for the wear after covering your chosen distance.  Horses all start with a perfect score, and at the end of the ride, they are compared to their starting condition.  Points are deducted for negative changes.

But some people really just aren’t into competing, and that is totally ok—Distance Days has something for them, too!  CTR requires travelling at a faster pace than what many recreational trail riders might choose, and this could be another good reason to go with the Pleasure Ride option held on Distance Days weekend instead.

GMHA 50 Mile Finish 2015
Lee completes her first two day 50 mile ride at GMHA in 2015, with her friends Roxie (middle, ridden by Denny Emerson) and Camille (ridden by Robin Malkasian).

Pleasure rides will be offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Distance Days.  You can do any and all combinations of day(s).  On Friday and Saturday, riders can choose from short (6-8 miles), medium (12-15 miles) or long (20 miles) options.  On Sunday, riders can pick from 6 or 10 mile options.

Horses and riders which finish the entire weekend’s worth of long options (so 50 miles total) will complete the 50 Mile Pleasure Horse Challenge, and will be recognized at the Sunday awards ceremony.

4) Stunning Scenery

Let’s be honest—there aren’t too many places which can beat Vermont in the late summer when it comes to stunning views, the hint of fall color and crisp, clear air.

The Kedron Valley is an especially picturesque region of the state, with many classic New England style farm houses and barns, stunning estates, covered bridges and burbling brooks.  Trails in the area are a combination of the quintessential Vermont dirt road and wooded routes.

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Yet another stunning vista in Vermont, looking towards Tunbridge.

And of course, there are the hills. No one will deny that a horse and rider must have a certain degree of fitness to handle them.  The route covered during the Distance Days weekend tackles several of the most rigorous in the area, including  Cookie Hill and Heartbreak Hill, for a few.  But the reward for the climb to the summit is often a panoramic, expansive view, hearkening back to a time when horses were the dominant mode of transportation and the ‘conveniences’ of the modern era were far in the future.

The popular equestrian travel website www.equitrekking.com featured the trails around GMHA in its “50 States Trail Project” as the ‘place to visit’ in Vermont. You can read more about it here.

5) Friendship, Sportsmanship, Horsemanship and Love

The themes of “friendship, sportsmanship, horsemanship and love” are the dominant motivations for most of those who choose to tackle a challenge such as the three day 100 mile ride.  Grald has decided to highlight the significance of each of these important values in the commemorative Distance Days Program, which will be given to all entrants.  Included in the program will be vignettes from riders past and present, photos and even the recipe for the tasty Cookie Hill chocolate chip cookies.

Distance Days will feature several opportunities to socialize as well as to honor the contributions of the volunteers and landowners, without whose generosity these sorts of experiences would not be possible. The 100 Mile Banquet will be a fancy affair, to be held at the Woodstock Country Club and chaired by longtime Woodstock resident Mrs. Nancy Lewis, who rode in the 1946 100 mile ride. A special presentation by historian and author Dale Johnson at the banquet will spotlight the role of the historic Woodstock Inn Stables in the early years of the ride. Riders have a chance to thank landowners for their support at the catered BBQ on Friday, allowing a fun and informal opportunity to share memories and fun. Between the finish and awards ceremony on Sunday, 100-mile alumni will gather for a Longtimer’s Reunion. Finally, Sunday’s awards ceremony will follow the traditional catered brunch.

This ride has given many future endurance riders their first taste of serious distance riding, and has taught them the fundamentals of good horsemanship that these sister sports require.  Judges Dr. Nick Kohut (current president of the Eastern Competitive Trail Riding Association) and Linda Ferguson Glock will bring their extensive experience as riders, organizers and volunteers to the weekend.  Dr. Joan Hiltz will work with riders on the 15 mile ride.  Each step of the way, horses are closely monitored by their own riders but also by these experienced horsemen, to ensure that the animals’ care and well-being remain of the highest priority.

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Denny Emerson is just one of many horsemen who got their start in distance riding at GMHA.  Emerson has gone on to complete the Tevis Cup and 2300 endurance miles.  Photo courtesy GMHA.

In spite of its legacy, rides like the GMHA 100 mile can only continue to flourish with the support of riders who are interested in participating in the shorter distance events which run concurrently with it.  With continued loss of open space to train, amongst other issues, fewer and fewer riders have the time or inclination to commit themselves to preparing a horse for such a rigorous challenge as a 100 mile ride.  Events like Distance Days are incredibly important, because they draw together all of the diverse types of rider who are ultimately united through their love of horses and “riding out”.

If this blog has piqued your interest, you can learn more about Distance Days at its website, https://www.gmhainc.org/trails/, or follow on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GmhaDistanceDays/?fref=ts