Tag Archives: equestrian life

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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

Fighting Fear in Riding and in Life

I don’t know this for a fact, but my hunch is that there isn’t a single equestrian who hasn’t, at some point, experienced the limiting effects of fear.  Fear plays an important role, evolutionarily speaking, in keeping us alive.  Fear itself is an emotional experience which triggers biological responses; for many species, it triggers increased heart rate, respiration and muscle tension, and a heightened state of alertness.  Horses as a prey species are well known for their genetically driven “fight or flight” response to unfamiliar stimuli, and it is only through careful and systematic desensitization and conditioned response training that we humans can work to overcome some of these natural reactions.  But as much as the human species has tried to separate itself from other animals, the truth is that many decisions in our lives are still driven by fear, manifested by our own fight or flight response to situations which we think might cause us harm.

A few weekends ago, the UNH Equestrian Team attended a sports psychology seminar with Alannah DiBona of Windhorse Counseling. DiBona reminded all present that fear is a normal response to a situation which our brains think could cause us physical or emotional harm.  DiBona defined fear as “false evidence appearing real”, and told the riders that it is necessary to examine one’s fear in order to truly address it.

“Is the fear serving you in any way, or is it preventing you from doing something you want to do?” DiBona asked the audience.

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Fear is a funny thing, because very often it is the things which we want the most which can simultaneously scare us—this is true not just when it comes to riding and our equestrian goals, but to all aspects of our life, whether we are starting a new job, buying a house or falling in love.  And fear can really limit us. There are plenty of tips and strategies as to how equestrians should address fear in their riding.  But I guess it always comes down to that essential question: are you feeling fear because of the actual task or expectation in what you are doing, and its accompanied level of risk, or do you feel fear because in your heart of hearts, you don’t want to do what you think you want to do at all?

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Anna jumping the ditch and wall at Ledyard. I was way more worried that she was.

For the riders I work with, jumping in particular seems to trigger a large number of fear responses.  All riders (and horses) have a limit in terms of what they will be comfortable jumping in terms of height, technicality or speed.  But I feel like I work with a lot of riders who are on the line of needing to decide whether their fear is serving them or not.  In their mind, they think they want to jump, but when faced with an actual jumping exercise, the fight or flight mechanism kicks in and renders their aids ineffective.

People ride for a lot of different reasons.  But for most people, at least one of those reasons is to have fun.  We enjoy being with horses, and we value establishing a relationship and communicating with an animal of a wholly different life mindset (prey vs. predator).  There is no written rule that overcoming fear should be a part of your daily riding ritual, and having to do so doesn’t make you tougher; it just makes you suffer.  I think when a rider is starting to have recurrent physical and/or emotional manifestations of fear, it is time to consider why they are riding and what they hope to get out of it.  There are tons of ways to enjoy being around horses, and if what you are currently doing isn’t allowing you to do that, it is time to make a change.

Fearkills

This whole thought process is a corollary for me right now in another aspect of my life.  Thinking back to my earlier blog post about “living a sustainable life”, I think it is critical to analyze what you are doing when you feel like your wheels are spinning and you aren’t getting anywhere.  Fear can cause us to keep repeating the same familiar patterns over and over, even though we know that they aren’t working for us or are keeping us from doing something which is much more supportive of our core values.  There is a post circulating on Facebook which says something along the lines of, “instead of thinking of it as not having time to do something, think of it as “it’s not a priority””.

Try it and see how it feels.  “I don’t have time to ride today” vs. “It isn’t a priority to ride today”.  I think that is a pretty powerful way of looking at things.

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Right now, fear is currently preventing me from acting on something which has caused me a great deal of anxiety, frustration and anger.  I know that responding to this action against me is a priority, but the question becomes whether my fear of the possible consequences of that response is enough to still hold me back.

When it comes to fear, it might not be any easier for my students to jump an oxer than for me to deal with my personal situation. Such is the nature of fear.

 

 

 

Tough Transitions

Certain events have occurred within the past week and change which have put me into a reflective mood.  Most of us don’t like to think about the “hard stuff”—death, separation from loved ones (human or otherwise), accidents, disasters (read my blog on this last here), etc.  But whether we choose to acknowledge these things or not, they are a part of life.  Ignoring their existence is irresponsible.  When it comes to our horses, the consequences of disregarding them can be gut wrenching.

Do you have a plan for what would happen to your horses if something should cause you to be unable to take care of them anymore?  I suspect that many horse owners do not, and instead just sort of assume that a friend or family member will step in to make decisions regarding our horse’s care or potential rehoming.  But this puts an extreme burden upon loved ones who may or may not be up to the task.  How many times have you read a story of the family member who meant well, but didn’t feed/water/shoe the horse?  Or the pets brought to the shelter because no one in the family had the wherewithal to take additional animals into their homes?

A fellow blogger shared a somewhat unsettling story about a veterinarian friend of hers who has been saddled with the task of placing twenty four horses after their owner passed away.  The owner had suffered a period of failing health but was unwilling to rehome any of her animals, choosing instead to provide for them in her will.  Unfortunately, most of her horses are unbroke, older and unregistered—all common reasons for animals to end up in the auction pipeline, sent to an uncertain fate.  Clearly, this owner loved her animals and couldn’t bear the thought of parting with them while she was still alive.  Unfortunately, making this choice has perhaps precluded the possibility of most of these horses finding appropriate new homes, and has placed a tremendous, heartbreaking burden on her friend.

A friend of mine passed away last week after a long fight with a terminal illness.  We hadn’t been in touch for a long time, but shared several years of friendship and I feel lucky that the picture of her in my mind remains of a time when she still was robust and in good health.  Her beloved horse, which she bred and trained herself, is safe at the farm which has been his home for eighteen years.  He is in good hands there, and care will be taken to find the right placement for him; I suspect he would always be welcomed back, should that be needed.  But no one will ever have the intense, empathetic bond with him that she did, and the sentimental part of me grieves for a loss which he likely doesn’t conceptualize.

University programs like the one I work at are frequently the recipients of horses whose usefulness has passed for their owners.  Often, these animals are unsaleable due to age, soundness or other variable, or would only fetch a fraction of their original purchase price, so owners looking to move on are often open to the possibility of a donation.  I think that many donors are comforted in knowing where their horse is going to end up, and are satisfied to know that it is unlikely that the animal will be passed from place to place, to an uncertain end.

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Our lovely mare Morocco, who came to us after her owner passed away unexpectedly.

But the hard reality is that we can’t keep the horses forever, either.  At UNH, our informal policy has been that as our horses approach 20, we try to find new homes for them, while they are still sound and happy.  Prospective adopters are carefully screened, and it is nice to know that many of our beloved school horses get to enjoy their golden years one on one with an owner who loves them.  But sometimes, the factors which caused them to be difficult to rehome in the first place come back to haunt them, and we the human caretakers are faced with tough choices.

During the first week of our spring semester, one of our older school horses sustained an injury in my class.  We were longeing, as we always do at the beginning of the term.  This horse in particular longes quite well and has been used many times in our longeing classes to teach newbies the ropes.  On this particular day, he had longed quite quietly at his end of the arena with a competent and experienced student, while the horse at the other end was being all sorts of sassy and fresh.  We got that horse settled and into a more obedient and working attitude, when for no apparent reason, our veteran school horse decided to take one lap on the line leaping and bucking.  None of us even saw him take a funky step—but suddenly he stopped short, holding up his left front leg, trembling head to toe.

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Ice and his friend Meri at the Equine Educational Day 2015.

I had joked with the students at the start of class that this particular horse was 23 going on 5 in his mind.  His “goofy” behavior on the line was just that—a few little hoo-hahs from a horse feeling playful, nothing naughty or dangerous.  I guess it was just a little too much on older legs on that day at that time.

In all my years of working with horses, this is the first time something like this has happened to me.  I am devastated.  I have replayed the entire morning over and over again, tossing and turning through nights with sporadic sleep, wondering if I made an error in judgement.  But what I keep coming back to is this—we did nothing differently that day than we have done hundreds of times, each semester, for many years.  We all know how fragile and delicate these animals are, for all of their strength, endurance and stoicism.  There was no obvious previous indication that anything was brewing or off with this particular animal, and up until the moment where things were not ok, all had been proceeding totally like normal.

This horse is currently on stall rest.  So far, he is coping ok, and after the first day or so, does not seem to be in undue amounts of pain.  But the preliminary diagnosis is fairly bleak, and at 23, the question becomes whether it is fair to even attempt the rehab such an injury would require.  My friends and colleagues have been supportive, reminding me that it is not my fault, that such an injury could have happened at any time.  I would say the same thing to them if the roles were reversed; but it was I who was teaching that day, and it is I who am taking this the hardest.

This is one of those times where the rational brain and the emotional heart come into conflict.  As our horses’ caregivers, companions and greatest advocates, the onus is on each of us to make the right choices when these crossroads come, keeping the animal’s best interest in mind.  It is not right to pass the problem on to someone else to deal with— it is our duty to consider the available resources, the possible outcomes, and make the hard calls.  And I doubt that it matters how much we prepare our rational brains to accept this reality; our emotional hearts will always take it hard.  It is the price we pay for love.

I probably shouldn’t even be sharing all of these thoughts on here.  But these are the subjects which we don’t want to acknowledge or talk about, and maybe that makes it even harder than it already is.  Right now, my emotional heart needs the support.

 

 

Innie or Outie…or both?

Those who follow Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Farm Facebook page may have caught his comments a few days back on the “innies” and “outies” of the horse world:

“In the great big world of riding, there are innies and outies, and this has nothing to do with belly buttons. Some riders love open spaces and no boundaries, while others find comfort and security within walls and arenas, with lots of technical requirements.

“And never the twain shall meet,” not quite literally, but how many times have you seen a dressage rider out fox hunting, or a trail rider showing a hunter?

Outie sports like fox hunting, where literally the riders have no idea, at any given moment, where the fox or coyote will lead them, or for how long, are far different from, say, show jumping, which has a specific track, and sequence of fences, and a specific start and finish, and a required time allowed.

It has been postulated that those who gravitate toward outie sports, like trail riding, fox hunting, point to point racing, and (sometimes) eventing have entirely different kinds of psychological profiles than those who prefer innie sports like dressage, show hunters and show jumping.

Outie sports tend to be less precise, exact and meticulous than innie sports. They are also often faster, perhaps more high risk, and less encumbered by rules and regulations.

Of these sports, eventing is perhaps the “swing’ sport, less outie than back in long format days, but still attracting both the innie and outie riders.

Which type of riding draws you in, the more precise, more specific innie sports, or the more “laissez faire” outie ones?”

I had to laugh a little after reading the post…because I seem to be living up to my Gemini nature and enjoy both worlds quite a bit. I have two horses right now—the distance horse that also does a bit of a dressage, and the “event horse who is becoming more of a dressage horse” who focuses much better on dressage days when we have the benefit of time spent outside of the ring in between.

I have successfully competed through 4th level in dressage, and even had the honor of owning a wonderful, big moving and super handsome Hanoverian gelding for five years who helped me finish my USDF Bronze Medal.  But to just ride around and around the arena six days per week, even on a fancy mover who can execute flawless changes, smooth half passes and extravagant lengthenings, for me, starts to become a little repetitive.  Worldly and I always hacked out a little bit—definitely with attention to the footing (wouldn’t want to lose an eggbar) and more frequent spooks at common objects, but I think the escape from the arena did a lot to keep his attention fresh and focus sharp when working on the precision, accuracy and submission that dressage requires.  It also helped us when we showed at Saugerties (NY) and had to hack from the absolute opposite side of the show grounds, over a bridge, through the Marshall and Sterling League Finals, to the dressage arenas where the NEDA Championships were being held.

 

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Worldly (Weltinus, on the left) after winning the 2006 Region 8 Second Level Freestyle championships.  And yes, we were required to put white polos on the horses–I had to go buy a set!

But on the flip side of the coin, I wouldn’t want to always ride out on the trail, either, for several reasons.  It is one thing when a horse is totally retired, and they are basically being ridden to give them attention, companionship and light exercise.  For most riders, though, riding only out of the ring makes it too easy to become sloppy and complacent with position, and to also become accepting of asymmetry in both horse and rider.  Both partners will tend to favor their stronger side and do not have the same opportunity to address tightness, restriction and weakness on the less dominant side that those who work in the ring do. This kind of imbalance can, over time, contribute to uneven muscle development, saddle fit issues, pain and even lameness.   I also genuinely enjoy the process of developing a horse for various arena disciplines; the steady progression of exercises and application of training pyramid concepts appeals to my methodical, organized, intellectual side.

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Lee and I on a New Hampshire beach.

As in most things, a balance seems to be required.  Trail and distance horses, and their riders, certainly can benefit from the fundamentals of basic dressage to encourage suppleness, develop strength and improve the quality of communication.  Work over basic cavaletti or even small fences can help improve footwork, coordination, strengthen hindquarters and can also prove helpful when crossing downed trees or other trail obstacles. Arena horses, like hunters and dressage horses, can also improve their level of fitness (both mental and physical) but by spending time OUTSIDE of the ring.  The many balance checks required when going over uneven terrain on the trail can help to strengthen muscles and stabilize joints, hopefully helping to reduce the risk of injury from a misstep in the ring.

And just as one would not expect the trail horse to magically piaffe or clear a four foot spread in the ring, the arena horse would not be expected to handle the more significant terrain or speeds required of the competitive trail horse.  Each has a specialty and is just ‘dabbling’ in the other area.

Kitten and Wentworth Pace May 15 004
Anna and her friend Izzy show U of New Hampshire Wildcat pride at the Wentworth Hunt Hnter Pace in May.

As an instructor and coach, I have been struck by how many students enter our college riding program, many from a hunt seat background, having never ridden out in the open.  We are lucky to have an on campus cross country course, likely the only one of its kind in the country, where we run sanctioned events.  Students riding in the more advanced levels of riding class have the opportunity to go school out on the course, under supervision.  It is probably the most stressful week of riding instruction that I offer each semester, and a lot of what I have to do is manage the deep fear which many of these “arena riders” face in simply crossing the bridge to our course.

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Heading out on the UNH cross country course with two innocent students, hoping to infect them with a love of riding out in the open and the freedom of no boundaries.

Many of these riders have never experienced even basic terrain, and have no knowledge of how to balance their horse going up or downhill, or how to hold their own bodies to stay centered when the ground is not level.  They are not familiar with pulley reins, emergency dismounts or other techniques used to regain control of a fresh mount.  I must constantly remind them that their arena jumping techniques should come with them onto the course, that all of the good practice and methods they have used to control pace, balance and form when jumping in the ring also apply to fences out in the open.

At the end of a school, the riders almost always fall into one of two groups—the ones which have experienced the first adrenalin rush of cross country, hooked, ready to go again, and the ones who (sometimes literally) wipe away their tears, happy to have survived the experience, hoping that they may never have to do it again.  Denny was right—these are the outies and the innies.  I guess we all do sort of have a tendency towards one or the other.

Nevada and Eastern California 2012 582
I rode this cool Quarter Horse, Thunder, on a trip to the White Mountains of Nevada.

In the end, the question is whether you choose to accept your true nature, or whether you get brave, get disciplined, or some combination of the two, and step into the world which is less comfortable.  My guess is that even if you don’t choose to stay there, you will be a better horseman for the experience.

The Goldilocks Principle

The Goldilocks Principle

Or…what a child’s story has to do with horse training

Most of us are familiar with the children’s story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If you can overlook the notion that Goldilocks seems to have little respect for other people’s homes or property, you will notice a theme in her explorations—in any situation regarding choice, neither extreme was quite right.  Taking the middle road always led to the greatest degree of satisfaction.

I have come to embrace the “Goldilocks Principle”, as I have nicknamed it, in teaching riders and training horses.  I have been gratified to recognize that many other accomplished horse trainers subscribe to a similar philosophy.

Goldilocks

Take contact, for example.  In dressage training, it is not correct to pull strongly on the reins, nor is it appropriate to ride with reins which are completely loose and floppy, in most circumstances.  The “ideal” is a length of rein and strength in the weight which allows for a steady, consistent, elastic feel between the bit and the rider’s elbow.  So, you know, something in the middle.

When you are getting ready to jump your horse, Denny Emerson always tells riders to look for the “adjustable jumping canter”—which he also calls the “middle canter”.  The middle canter is not fast, rushed and tense, nor is it lazy, four beated or “tranter-y”.  It has forward intention, and just enough jump.  The rider can ask the horse to change the shape of their stride, but they always have the power available.  Again, it is somewhere in the middle.

If we think about equitation, in its truest sense, we also avoid extremes.  The rider should always remain balanced over the horse’s center, which occurs when the ear/shoulder/hip/heel line is maintained.  The correct position for the rider’s lower leg:  not too far ahead or too far behind center.  Ideal is “somewhere in the middle.”

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The Goldilocks Principle.  You never knew that the story was about horse training, but Goldilocks got it right.

And while we are talking about training philosophies….

I was reading a fellow blogger’s post, where the author discussed that the training process isn’t always pretty.  This is another concept which I find I consistently come back to in helping riders and horses to improve.  When you try a new skill out—salsa dancing, throwing clay on a wheel, drilling a fence board on straight, whatever—do you typically pick it up effortlessly, or do you sometimes struggle a bit?  I know for me, some new things come easier than others, but in most cases, it is clear that I am a neophyte.  Why should it be any different for our horses? Some new things they will pick up quickly, but others will require a process of trial and error to get right.

The same is true for riders.  Some people seem like naturals; maybe they have an inherent sense of balance, or timing, or “feel”—we kind of hate those people.  Most of us have to experiment, make mistakes and apply aids in different combinations or intensities before we figure out what it is we are trying to do.  It is okay if new skills don’t come easily.  But it is important to know that what we are asking the horse to do is appropriate and fair, and that we are asking them in a manner which makes sense.

Riding horses is a complex, active sport.  Equestrians always laugh when we hear comments such as “the horse does all the work”.  Sure, at the end of the day it is our horse which gets us over the fence, up the mountain or down center line.  However, that can only occur when we have achieved clarity in interspecies communication, combined strength and suppleness in our own bodies such that we appear to be still on an object in motion, and done enough preparation work to set the horse up to successfully complete the task at hand.

What makes riding a partnership is that sometimes they mess up and we help them out.  Sometimes we make the mistake and they save our skin.

And sometimes we get it just right, and things come out somewhere in the middle.  The Goldilocks Principle.

 

 

 

Planning a Sustainable Life

I have just returned from four days in Orlando, FL, during which time I attend the annual meeting of the Board of Directors for the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA).  This group was founded in 1967, and next year will be celebrating its 50th anniversary.  This is of course a significant milestone, and much discussion at the meeting centered around the organization’s history.

My birthday this year will be one which many also consider a milestone, as it closes out another decade.  Although these landmarks are somewhat arbitrary (why do we care more when the number ends in a zero?  Couldn’t we just as joyfully commemorate the 49th anniversary as the 50th?), the tradition of giving them greater attention does provide us with a good opportunity to reflect on where we have come from, where we are at, and where we still hope to go.  Otherwise, as Ferris Bueller was want to say:

Bueller

If organizations such as the IHSA hope to remain relevant over the long term, some degree of calculated evolution is required.  Therefore, these groups tend to define a mission statement, and then create “strategic plans”, which carefully map out their objectives for the near future, the middle range and the long term.  Otherwise, lack of focus or stagnation will result in the loss of members who become drawn to more contemporary opportunities.

I have always sort of wondered in awe at people who have been able to manage their lives with a similar “strategic plan” sort of approach.  In my experience, it has usually seemed like the harder I tried to get to one specific place, the more swiftly the tide carried me elsewhere.  While I have enjoyed (most of) these adventures, back roads and eddies, I sometimes wonder how things would be if I had taken a more focused and precise approach.

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Last winter, I had the opportunity to participate in an online coaching series called “Stirrup Your Life”.  Geared for equestrians and led by my dear friend Jen Verharen of Cadence, Inc., the series led participants through a series of exercises, reflections and readings which allowed each of us to create a vision, to identify our core values and our limiting beliefs, and then to perhaps have the courage to “step into the gap” of discomfort, to stretch out of the known and familiar, in order to take steps towards achieving personal goals which were in keeping with our vision.  It was truly the first time I have ever sat down and really tried to concretely identify what I wanted my life to be like, restrictions, reality or other negatives be damned.

Participating in this coaching series was one of those activities which didn’t seem that significant in the immediate moment, but now, nearly one year later, I have begun to recognize the impact it has had on my way of thinking about goal setting and the pursuit of a contented life.  One of Jen’s main points was that if you are living a life which is out of integrity with your core values, you will likely always feel that something is wrong or missing.   It is all too easy to get caught up in the “must do’s” or “should do’s”, and then to wake up and realize that somehow you are so full of ‘busyness’ that you don’t have the time to do those things which are truly most important to you. We, as individuals, really do have the ability to modify the path we are on.  That is not to say that taking the steps to change the route is easy to do; in fact, usually it is anything but.  However, more of us are prisoners of our own mistaken beliefs, preconceived ideas and bad habits than we care to admit.

Horsememe3

One of my core values is a commitment towards living my life with as much mindfulness towards sustainability as is possible given my current resources.   On several levels, I have not been doing a good enough job in this area, which has certainly contributed to feelings of discontent and frustration. The term “sustainability” is a trendy one right now.  But what is really meant by it?

Merriam Webster defines “sustainability” as:

  • Able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
  • Involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
  • Able to last or continue for a long time.

Usually when most of us think of sustainability, we are referring to definition # 2 (which of course relates to # 1 and #3).  But when it comes to career, life goals and personal ambitions, it is becoming abundantly clear to me that definitions # 1 and 3 apply to these areas, as well.

Sustainabilitysgoalmeme

There is a balance in everything.  It is great to have goals, but some goals are exclusive to each other, and so sometimes we have to compromise or shift focus in order to accommodate needs in multiple areas, or prioritize the thing which we cannot live without.   There needs to be a balance between wanting to do EVERYTHING, RIGHT NOW, and pacing yourself.  In order to make the choices which are right for each one of us, we must know where it is we hope to go.

Envisioning a sustainable future for me doesn’t just relate to installing solar panels, composting the manure or eating locally. Sustainability means that the life energy I am putting into an activity is worth the benefit I am getting out of it.  Choosing to live sustainably means that I am deliberately and mindfully putting my time into work (paid or unpaid), relationships and other endeavors which renew and inspire me, not those which leave me feeling drained, depressed or demoralized.

I have learned to check in with my vision regularly—whenever I need to refocus or to consider whether a given commitment is in keeping with my need for a sustainable life.   Visions can be revised or edited as needed but must always accommodate core values, just as an organization returns to its mission statement and edits its strategic plan if it is not working.

Horsememe2

This particular blog post may not seem as “horse related” as some of the others.  For me personally, many components of my vision are about horses and my equine aspirations.  Some of these goals have proven to be exclusive of other ambitions which most people would consider to be more traditional. Most of the time, I am okay with that.  But I would be lying if I said that I never question myself and the path I have chosen.

Many of the concepts of sustainability relate not just to protecting the planet but to living a meaningful life.  And for me right now, this is everything.

LifesJourney

On Being an “Ivory Tower Equestrian”

An online dictionary defines the term “ivory tower” as “a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world”.  It is frequently used in a derisive way, especially in regards to academia, to imply that someone’s ideas or actions are not as relevant as they might be otherwise because they are so far out of step with reality.

The day to day life of a full time, self-employed equine professional can certainly be grueling.  These people often refer to the fact that being seriously involved with horses is a way of life, and they don’t mind the challenging aspects, including the long hours and few days off.  The up side—being able to spend so much time with horses and to watch horses and riders under their direction or care grow and develop, outweighs the challenges.  However, few would say that the self-employed route is easy, and there are certainly at least moments during which most reasonable people would consider whether the stress and adversity are really worth it.

Before joining the faculty at UNH, I too was “in the trenches” and cobbled my living together through an assortment of jobs.  In the mornings, I was an assistant barn manager at a dressage facility, completing the usual daily chores but also getting horses ready for the trainer/manager.  In the afternoons, I ran a small lesson business on borrowed school horses, teaching mostly children the basics of horsemanship.  I taught Pony Club.  I worked part time at UNH for a few semesters.  I worked in the banquet department at the Sheraton, where I learned that the best shifts were for weddings, because most everyone was in a good mood and there was a DJ and cake.   I lived from contract to contract. I paid through the nose for a health insurance policy which would still have required me to drain all savings before it would have paid a cent.

My horse Lee and two UNH IHSA team members, each of whom won a flat class on her at the home show.
My horse Lee and two UNH IHSA team members, each of whom won a flat class on her at the home show.

When I first started at UNH, it was positively decadent.  I couldn’t BELIEVE that they sent me a paycheck every two weeks just for showing up.  UNH has excellent benefits, both insurance wise and investment wise, and you can also take classes.  I was able to complete my Master’s degree mostly for free.  The hours are still long, and there have been plenty of nights and weekends dedicated to the cause.  But by and large, it has provided me with a great deal of security and stability, values which I have determined are essential for my mental health.  And most of the time, I get to do what I like to do: work with horses and humans.

Participants in UNH's therapeutic riding program.  Shazaam, Marcy and Quill are all now retired, while Snowy (second from right) is a boarder who still works part time in the therapeutic program.
Participants in UNH’s therapeutic riding program. Shazaam, Marcy and Quill are all now retired, while Snowy (second from right) is a boarder who still works part time in the therapeutic program.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend four days in Michigan teaching a Pony Club camp—it was great fun, and a nice chance to get back to my roots.  The schedule was full, as was camp enrollment—something like 32 campers and a few Horsemasters, four mounted instructors and assorted local experts helping out with unmounted topics.

The three other instructors who I worked with all run their own riding/training/lesson businesses.  One owns a thriving eventing and dressage barn, and had during one day in the previous week taught 18 lessons and ridden something like five horses.  Another maintains foxhunters for owners who come to ride on weekends, providing full service care including daily conditioning rides and then shipping to and turning out for hunts.  The third has a combination of training horses and lesson clients, straddling the disciplines of dressage and eventing.

With members of the UNH IHSA team at a Vermont show.
With members of the UNH IHSA team at an Vermont show.

Listening to their discussions about the ups and downs of their businesses was enlightening.  One trainer travels from farm to farm in the afternoons to teach private clients.   A few clients are chronic last minute cancellers, which leaves her on the road with an hour or more of down time.  When you freelance, time is money, and when such cancellations become common it can significantly impact the bottom line. She is struggling to come up with a cancellation policy which won’t alienate her clients but can protect her interests.

The trainers all have a few “difficult” clients; we know the archetype.  They have more money than horse sense; they want to do cool and fun movements or jump big jumps with their horses, but do none of the actual work that gets you to that level; and they demand constant attention and validation.  They talked about the strategies they use to keep these clients on track, working towards attaining goals without pushing too hard, placating their concerns and worries via text and phone.  I was exhausted just listening to them.

Then there was the discussion on insurance, all aspects of it—liability/professional, but also health and disability. It is a cripplingly expensive essential. The cost can make it hard for them to save money for future plans or retirement.

It was then that I realized that I may have, quite inadvertently, become an “Ivory Tower Equestrian”, and I listened to the conversation with a bit of detachment. I used to deal with all of these concerns in my previous life, but my current reality is somewhat different.  When a student chooses to repeatedly not come to class or doesn’t want to work super hard at it, their grade is reduced.  Liability insurance is not a major concern as our activities fall under the university’s umbrella policy.  If the weather is bad for a few days, or I am out sick or need to take a day off for personal reasons, I will still get paid the same amount.

Retired UNH horse Flash models the equine digestive system for students participating in the 2013 Equine Education Day.
Retired UNH horse Flash models the equine digestive system for students participating in the 2013 Equine Education Day.

From the outside looking in, it might seem like we Ivory Tower Equestrians have it made.  And in many ways, we do.  But it is not all sunshine and roses, and in some ways the challenges we face are not all that dissimilar to those of our self-employed brethren.  They are similar, but different.

Sometimes Lee lets riders from other schools win prizes too-- here a rider from Colby Sawyer celebrates after winning reserve high point honors.
Sometimes Lee lets riders from other schools win prizes too– here a rider from Colby Sawyer celebrates after winning reserve high point honors.

At colleges/universities, programs live and die by their overall enrollments.  If your classes are full, and there are students in your degree program, then odds are good that there will be some kind of continued support for you, though rarely in the amount or frequency which is actually needed.  But the reverse of the equation is true, and the reality is that an equine program is an expensive one to run.  The “lab equipment” used in all of the hands on classes, including horsemanship but others as well, requires daily care, food, and veterinary/farrier attention.  These aren’t microscopes that sit quietly on a shelf until they are next needed.  All of the usual issues with facility maintenance apply to us, too; fencing needs to be replaced, footing wears out, tack gets worn.  In some ways, it is worse for us than at a private facility, because of the high volume of use during the academic year.  School horse saddles can be ridden in for as many as ten hours per day; when you multiply that times five days per week per a fifteen week semester, that is a lot of seat time for one saddle to see.  These costs are partially covered by the lab fees paid by students; if our classes aren’t full, or the lab fees exceed what the students are willing or able to pay, then the house of cards begins to quickly topple.

Two UNH riders with leased horse Wiggle and UNH's Whisper celebrate after their first ever two phase competition.
Two UNH riders with leased horse Wiggle and UNH’s Whisper celebrate after their first ever two phase competition.

Some people, both from within and from outside of the university setting, criticize the existence of collegiate equine programs, and they are derisive towards the validity of an equine studies degree.  Some think that all we do is ride, or that we are part of the athletics department. At one staff meeting last semester, a tenured faculty member asked if our students’ final capstone course was whether or not they could sit eight seconds on a bucking bronco.  As a program, we are constantly evaluating our curriculum both for efficacy and rigor, but still there are those who publicly and privately question what we do.  At the end of the day, the University of New Hampshire Equine Program graduate is receiving a Bachelor of Science degree, with a heavy emphasis on biological science and including courses in general biology, anatomy and physiology, genetics and nutrition, with specialty courses in equine disease and sports medicine, amongst others.  These subjects and the skills students gain in studying them are applicable to a wide range of career paths, both in and out of the equine industry. Regardless of choice of college major, it is up to the student to figure out what to do with it.  A college major, and the degree it elicits, is only a starting point; the student must then seek out opportunities to continue to grow and expand their careers.

A senior equine studies major gets Coco (leased to UNH by Camp Runoia and a valued horse in the therapeutic riding program) ready for a presentation at the Equine Education Day, spring of 2015.
A senior equine studies major gets Coco (leased to UNH by Camp Runoia and a valued horse in the therapeutic riding program) ready for a presentation at the Equine Education Day, spring of 2015.

Some of the same external critics who deride the validity of an equine degree also publicly criticize anyone who would even CONSIDER donating their horse to a collegiate program.  At least 90% of our horses come as donations from private individuals.  They come for a variety of reasons—age, manageable conditions which reduce resale value, owner financial issues, or a horse that is not up to the continued challenge of a competitive show career, for examples.  Many donors want to know that their horse will not continue to be sold on and on.  Some of our horses have been in our program for most of their lives.  They are well cared for, loved, carefully supervised, and have allowed hundreds if not thousands of horsemen to grow and develop during the animals’ careers with us.  When our horses tell us that they are no longer happy doing what we need them to do, we seek to place them in carefully screened adoptive homes, sometimes with former students.  If they are in pain, suffering or otherwise unwell in a manner which will cause a diminishing quality of life, we allow them a humane and dignified end when their time comes.  However they leave us, we cry to lose them and smile with their memories.

Longtime UNH school horse Cooper passed away this spring at the age of 23 after a period of failing health.  He was in the program for thirteen years.
Longtime UNH school horse Cooper passed away this spring at the age of 23 after a period of failing health. He was in the program for thirteen years.

People criticize equine programs because they cannot keep horses forever.  The reality is that all horses get to an age or physical condition in which their workload must be modified or ceased.  After all, this is often the reason that their original owners passed the horse on to us in the first place.  If the former owner has asked to be notified when this time comes, we always do so (and sometimes even when they have not asked, just to make them aware).  Very few are interested in taking their horses back but are grateful for the call.

UNH students riding school owned horses Clementine, Whisper and Morocco participated in a clinic with UNH graduate Nancy Guyotte.
UNH students riding school owned horses Clementine, Whisper and Morocco participated in a clinic with UNH graduate Nancy Guyotte.

The critics claim that equestrian programs at universities overwork horses, quickly sell them on, or ship them off to auction when they don’t work out.  Perhaps that happens at other places, but it does not happen here.  And frankly, it really frosts me to read those kinds of ignorant comments.  We are quite transparent with our policies and the use of our horses; in fact, every single activity we do with our horses—from riding them to practicing bandaging to therapeutic riding— must be reviewed and approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and their work hours are carefully documented.  I somehow doubt that most privately owned lesson strings receive such comprehensive and regulated monitoring.

UNH equine residents check out the view.
UNH equine residents check out the view.

We Ivory Tower Equestrians may not be working to run our own business, but many of us are working to run the business that is our program.  We must recruit new “clients” (students) and ensure that the “product” that we are selling them (a B.S. degree) is of high quality and a good value for the money.  We must balance the needs of our program with the values of a constantly changing and somewhat underfunded state university.  And just like our comrades in the field, if our clients aren’t satisfied with our output, they will take their business elsewhere.  A true Ivory Tower Equestrian who does not consider these realities will likely find themselves out of a job. Perhaps we are more alike than we are different.

UNH Equine Program co-hosted a course design clinic with internationally acclaimed designer Richard Jefferey with USEA Area I.  Here students pose with Jefferey after building the show jumping course for the UNH Horse Trials 40th Anniversary.
UNH Equine Program co-hosted a course design clinic with internationally acclaimed designer Richard Jefferey with USEA Area I. Here students pose with Jefferey after building the show jumping course for the UNH Horse Trials 40th Anniversary.

For me, this experience was an important one in terms of remembering what the daily concerns of the self-employed instruction business is like, but also to appreciate the unique benefits and challenges of the university setting.