Ten Golden Rules of Horse Training by Bruce Nock, Ph.D.
c 2004 Half Halt Press, Boonesboro, MD. 188 pages. (out of print)
A few months ago, a dear friend winnowed her equestrian book collection and bequeathed to me a selection of books in need of new homes. Among them were several on the subject of horse training specifically; with an unstarted four-year-old and a lightly started six-year-old on my farm, I am currently interested in anything to do with ground work, foundational training and similar topics. With many to choose from, I simply started with the book on top of the pile: Ten Golden Rules of Horse Training by Bruce Nock.
Author Bruce Nock has experience training horses and also holds advanced degrees in psychobiology, a field in which scientists seek to explain the effect of certain biological processes on human and non-human animal behavior. At its core, Ten Golden Rules takes concepts you likely learned in Psych 101—ideas like classical conditioning, positive and negative reinforcement, stimulus and reward—and “translates” them into horse training concepts. While these ideas are common in nearly any book on the basic training of horses, Nock’s education and professional experience brings a new level of specificity and rationale to the conversation. For example, when he presents Golden Rule # 2 (Signals should stop as soon as the horse begins to make an acceptable response) he then goes on to explain not just how that looks in equestrian terms, but the science behind why that approach works best in shaping the horse’s behavior.
But Ten Golden Rules is not so densely technical that readers will feel as if they are reading a text book. In general, Nock focuses on the application of these concepts in real equestrian life and explains how their use will positively affect equine behavior and performance. He also emphasizes that his “golden rules” are applicable to all horses, of any experience, riding discipline or breed.
For me, some of the most interesting chapters dealt with using the “golden rules” to modify behavior in horses with established patterns of fear, anxiety or generalized mistrust. Using “golden rules” #9 and #10, trainers can help a horse to gain confidence around unfamiliar stimuli, both on the ground and under saddle. Nock also reaches into the classical horsemanship canon to identify traditional mounted exercises especially well suited to dissipate physical and mental tension in the horse.
Overall, Ten Golden Rules of Horse Training is an accessible book, written in a relatable style. In my opinion, the subject matter is important not just for trainers but for anyone who regularly interacts with an equine. After all, as Nock reminds us, “Each time you ask a horse to change something that he is doing, that is, ask for a transition, whether from the ground or saddle, you are training. There are no exceptions….Every time you ask a horse to do anything, he is learning one thing or another whether it is your intention or not” (Nock, 2004, pg. 15).
This book’s original publisher, Half Halt Press, is sadly no longer in business, but I believe copies still circulate on the used book market (I love www.alibris.com to find all manner of titles, usually fairly inexpensively). It is also available as an e-book through Nock’s website, http://liberatedhorsemanship.com/info/.
“When the student is ready, the Teacher will appear.”
This Buddhist quote has been on my mind recently, as I reflect on my own roles as both a student and teacher of horsemanship. In particular, I have been considering how riders within the same lesson may come to process their instructor’s guidance differently. Ultimately, it is not just the rider’s ability to interpret her coach’s directions, no matter how talented and skilled the teacher, that will lead to her further growth. It is also, perhaps more importantly, about her willingness to truly hear what the teacher has to say.
Some years ago, I read a Dressage Today article written by master horseman Charles deKunffy on the subject of the role teachers and judges play in promoting horsemanship as a living art. DeKunffy is internationally known for his dedication to classical dressage, a passion he has shared through his roles as trainer, coach, clinician and author. His words were so inspirational that I have reread the DT piece countless times, and continue to share it with those who aspire to become teachers themselves.
In the article, deKunffy says that the teacher’s obligation is to the art he teaches, a dedication demonstrated through total commitment to teaching correct classical principles. He believes that a teacher must teach all students as if they are a future Olympian—in his words, “to conduct a lesson impeccably as if it were given to the greatest rider, deserving of the greatest attention in the finest way, suitable to the horse and the rider at that particular time. This concept must be your guiding light.”
Clearly, not every horse or rider is capable of reaching elite levels of equestrian sport. Yet the fundamental concepts of horsemanship are the foundation to that work, and should guide the education of every equestrian. Therefore, the teacher who helps every rider learn the art of compassionate, empathetic, thoughtful and progressive training; who rigorously schools every rider in correct equitation, until the student has developed the necessary suppleness and strength in her body and tact and empathy in her aids, will positively impact the countless horses those students will go on to ride.
DeKunffy goes on to say that “The ethic of teaching—the job of teaching—is to stick up for what you know is right.” A horse that has been properly trained stands the best chance of remaining sound and useful for as long as possible. And we all know that when times get tough, a trained, sound horse has a greater probability of finding a caring home than one that is unsound in mind or body. While the teacher has a responsibility to her student, ultimately she has a greater responsibility to the horse.
I took advantage of some quiet moments recently to read two of deKunffy’s books, The Ethics and Passions of Dressage (1993) and Dressage Principles Illuminated (2002). These two works offer a great deal of insight into deKunffy’s philosophy of teaching and training horses and riders. If I had tried to read either of these books when they were first published, I am certain I would have tossed them aside. As a student of horsemanship then, I would not have been ready for this teacher. But in reviewing them now, decades later, I continue to find inspiration and confidence in deKunffy’s words.
The Ethics and Passions of Dressage reads like a series of short essays, almost an annotated “FAQ” of classical horsemanship (please forgive me if that sounds flippant). In particular, I appreciated the chapters detailing deKunffy’s definition of Baroque art and why horsemanship is part of that tradition. I especially valued a chapter explaining why classical horsemanship and competitive horsemanship should be synonymous terms. Let me explain why this last chapter was so meaningful.
When I first began seriously studying dressage, it was just after several elite international competitors were seen using a “new technique” called hyperflexion during their warm ups. These horses then went on to give winning performances in the competition arena. Now called rollkur and formally prohibited by the FEI, the use of this practice ignited a firestorm of passionate debate that ultimately drove a wedge between “competitive” and “classical” dressage riders.
At the time, my barnmates and I bristled whenever we heard someone say (often in a haughty manner) that they were a classical dressage rider, seemingly looking down their nose at those of us who enjoyed competition. In defense, we interpreted the term classical to mean ‘those riders too scared to test their skills in the show ring’, and wrote them off as irrelevant.
But in Ethics, deKunffy points out that there are not and should never be two kinds of dressage. Instead, the purpose bred sport horses of the modern era require an even greater commitment to the art of horsemanship, an art form that can only survive if its students are taught the correct fundamentals. A former FEI and USEF “S” dressage judge, deKunffy looks to these organizations and their judges to protect classical dressage in the competitive arena.
But he is equally adamant that competition is not the only, or even the best, way for a rider to prove her skills. He explains that the rules of classical horsemanship have been tested by thousands of riders on millions of horses. Following these rules should lead to success, and success should be defined as ‘elevating a horse to the level of art’. Whether that happens in a competition arena or at home in the schooling ring is ultimately irrelevant.
In Dressage Principles Illuminated (currently being updated), deKunffy shares his insights on the “how-to” aspect of classical horsemanship. This book is divided into three parts and covers classical philosophy and exercises for developing horse and rider in some detail. It is illustrated with photos of dancing horses, clearly light and happy in their work, who have soft mouths and eyes, lowered haunches and rounded backs.
Dressage Principles is full of quotes that I want to print and post in my barn and tack room so that I must remember them constantly. Here are a few of my favorites:
“Learning from horses is compulsory for riders, and those who resist it must suffer the consequences of ignorance through pain and damage.” (pg. 5)
“Competition can be a rewarding tool for goal orientation and discipline…Competition sharpens riders by focusing them on improved equitation and by making them aware that they are public performers.” (pg. 29)
“The horse is a perfect creature, an evolutionary wonder, without the rider. However, there can be no rider without a horse. To be an equestrian is to take a position in life dedicated to the well-being of horses in terms of their needs.” (pg. 119)
There are so many more. But again, when this book was first published, I am sure that I would have been in too much of a hurry to thoughtfully hear what the Teacher had to say.
I recognize that as a riding coach, I take my time and preach a more conservative approach than perhaps some others I know. I believe that it is always faster to go slowly. The rider who has committed to developing a strong and supportive lower leg, centered balance and an empathetic hand in the long run will be safer, more horse-friendly and have more fun that one who has not. It is my role as teacher to meet my students wherever they are and help them to achieve this goal.
As students, we can all be too greedy to show tangible progress. As teachers, it can be tempting to give in to the student and let her jump a larger fence, or move up a competitive level, especially if you worry she will leave and go to another teacher if you say no. But it is essential that the teachers of horsemanship maintain their principles in order to protect both the student and the horse.
We live in a world where everything moves so quickly and we have come to expect near instant gratification of our desires and responses to our requests. Horsemanship is not, and should never become, that type of pursuit. The true horseman understands that “It is a meditative art. You are a student of the horse.” (deKunffy, in the Chronicle article cited below).
It is perhaps only when a student shifts her thinking in this way that her Teacher will appear.
Charles deKunffy was born in Hungary and survived Nazi occupation before fleeing Soviet rule in the 1950s and emigrating to the US. He attributes his status as an elite equestrian for saving his life, literally and figuratively, both in those dark days and the years to come. He has dedicated his life to “advocating on behalf of the animal that saved him, acting as a link between the prestigious training he received in classical dressage from the masters in Europe and students of today.” (“Charles deKunffy: Saved by Horses, by Jennifer B. Calder, The Chronicle of the Horse June 5&12, 2017)
Through my work as a writer, I have been fortunate to encounter equestrians and horses who have overcome great odds to achieve some measure of success. I love telling these stories and take my responsibility as their curator seriously; sometimes the obstacles overcome are deeply personal or downright cruel, others the result of nothing more than fate or circumstances or luck (and whether luck is good or bad, it seems, is only known to the mind of the beholder). I try to write the truth of someone else’s lived experience with humility, compassion and respect for their willingness to share a piece of that life with a broader audience.
At the same time, these stories practically write themselves. When I was working on my M.F.A., an instructor shared his secret for writing compelling profiles: choose a subject who is “a loser with a dream on a quest.” I know the word “loser” could be interpreted with a negative connotation, but read it in this context as simply being the opposite of “winner”. As in, life has kicked them around a bit and other people in the same circumstances might justifiably have chosen to give up. As in, there are an awful lot of them out there, because in most contests (literal or figurative), there is only one winner.
Think about it. This formula is pervasive throughout popular literature and film. The entire Harry Potter series is essentially about a loser (an orphan whose adopted family scorns him) with a dream (to become a great wizard) on a quest (to defeat Voldemort). For a fictional horsey example, the movie Hidalgo (extremely loosely based on the life of Frank Hopkins, a real person whose real life story is a matter of debate) tells the story of a disgraced, mixed-race cowboy in turn of the century America (definitely a loser) with a dream (to save a herd of mustangs) on a quest (to win a long distance horse race). Bonus points here because the quest is literal (as it also is in the Lord of the Rings, with protagonist Frodo and his friends taking three rather lengthy books/movies to finally arrive at Mt. Doom).
We look for these “losers with a dream on a quest” in real life, too.
For a stunning example, recall the story of Seabiscuit, a cranky, nondescript, poorly conformed Thoroughbred racehorse whose shy trainer, Tom Smith, was shunned for his unorthodox methods; whose jockey, Red Pollard, was a semi-blind immigrant and whose owner, Charles S. Howard, was a successful entrepreneur whose ticket to riches (the automobile) also caused the death of his son. When this hardscrabble horse defeated regally bred champions like War Admiral in the late 1930’s, his success inspired a beleaguered nation, its citizens desperate for joy in the aftermath of the Great Depression.
In 2001, Seabiscuit’s story enjoyed a renaissance with the release of Laura Hillenbrand’s New York Times’ best-selling book. Not only did the written narrative garner too many awards to list, in 2003 it was turned into an Academy Award nominated feature film that grossed $148.3 million at the box office. (Laura Hillenbrand herself could also qualify as a loser with a dream…read this amazing essay to learn more about her own journey).
To reach such broad popularity, obviously the story of Seabiscuit resonated with a wider audience than just the horse-loving public. On its surface, Seabiscuit is a cool story about a successful racehorse. But really, it is much more than that—it is a classic underdog story, and it is as much about the people surrounding the horse as it is about the horse himself.
I think the reason for this appeal is that, each in our own ways, most of us see ourselves as losers. I know I do. Every single day, there is a tape that plays in my brain telling me that I am not good enough. It tells me that I will never be enough of a trainer to start not one but two young horses. It tells me that I will never successfully pitch my book, land an agent, and see the project through to completion. It tells me that there is always someone out there who is better at what I do than I am, and because of that, maybe I shouldn’t even bother to try.
In these dark days of winter, approaching the start of pandemic year two, that voice has been exceptionally loud.
Perhaps it is in these times especially that we most need our underdog stories— stories about losers who are so often just regular people, people like you and I, who faced adversity in whatever form but had the strength, determination and grit to persevere. People who had a dream, whether a seemingly simple one or maybe one so big and crazy that they were embarrassed to share it out loud, and yet who still took those small steps along the path to making that big and crazy dream a reality. Sometimes the path led them exactly where they hoped it would. Sometimes it didn’t. But the point is that despite the negative, the dark, that d**m voice in all of our heads whispering this is not possible, these underdogs kept shuffling, limping or crawling their way forward. And in their own ways, they prevailed.
I tend to think that underdogs are not the exception among us, but the rule, and that underdog stories are about normal people able to push past the resistance that slows each of us down. Underdog stories will always be popular because they appeal to the loser living inside each of us, the one who needs to be reminded that (in the words of the late, great Tom Petty) “even the losers get lucky sometimes.” But with all due respect to Mr. Petty, I don’t think underdogs ever prevail due to luck alone. Somewhere along the way, they turned obstacles into opportunities and adversity into strength, and told their inner critic to take a long walk off a short pier.
Here are some of my favorite underdog stories I’ve written from the past year or so:
Ah, the New Year. While there is nothing inherently special in the change of a calendar number, there is perhaps a certain logic in taking a few moments to reflect on the year that was and the year yet to come. Particularly here in the northeast, the New Year ushers in the height of winter, a time when even Mother Nature herself is primarily hibernating, resting and still. It is a time when many of us instinctively turn inward.
I believe that it is impossible—and perhaps irresponsible—to come out of the experience that was 2020 without a greater appreciation for all of the many positive elements in our lives, and to carry this perspective with us into the future. For me, I believe one of 2020’s greatest lessons was in being reminded that reshaping goals to suit your individual circumstances is not a form of failure. In fact, it may be a mark of “excellence”.
I recently came across a column titled “Defining Excellence” that originally ran in the October 2016 issue of Dressage Today, written by Dr. Jenny Susser, a sports psychologist. Particularly on the cusp of a new year, in an era of continued long-term uncertainty, her thoughts really resonated with me.
“What is excellence?” Dr. Susser asks. “Many of us see excellence as a distant, intangible phenomenon reserved for someone else…something that has nothing to do with us as individuals…I believe that we are all excellent, not just periodically or on a special occasion, but daily.”
This is a strange winter for me, because it marks the first time in over twenty years that I have not stabled or had access to an indoor arena to keep my horses in work. Even stranger, to not go indoors was a deliberate and conscious choice, made for many valid reasons (pandemic, finances, horse needed a break). But despite the logic behind it, for the first several weeks after the ground froze and ice and snow made hacking unpleasant and the horses were truly on vacation for the foreseeable future, I found myself feeling extremely unsettled. I saw photos and videos on social media of friends and acquaintances schooling, training and even competing. I saw snowbird equestrians prepping for their southern migration, and those who have already permanently moved to more temperate climates fairly reveling in that choice. And I thought to myself—I want to be doing that. I am just wasting time right now. I will never get to where I want to go if I take all these months off.
“If you are spending a lot of energy comparing yourself, your horse, your progress, your ability or your results to anyone else, that is basically swimming in someone else’s lane,” says Dr. Susser, who was a competitive swimmer. “Staying in yours is a way of sticking to your strengths, minimizing your weaknesses and performing to plan.”
Ride your own ride. This is a mantra I share with students all the time. But I need to give myself permission to practice this philosophy when it comes to my own goals. The progress I make must be measured against only one metric—my own. Are my horses and I doing a little better than the week before? The day before? Do we finish the day’s activity—whether it is a ride or groundwork session or even just grooming on the crossties—safe, happy and relaxed? Is my horse better off after my interaction with her than she was before it?
“Excellence is not only relative but is highly personal,” writes Dr. Susser. “Sadly, this sentiment is not typically embraced, especially in our dressage culture, where nothing ever seems to be good enough. If you think about it, we see excellence every day but perhaps miss the opportunity to celebrate because we are stuck on a definition of excellence that seems like it will forever exclude us.”
A new frame: My choice to give all of my mares the winter off is one of excellence. Rest gives bodies and minds time to heal and recover from the micro and macro stresses of harder work. Rest gives a break from the routine of work, which can sometimes become too stagnant or repetitive. In preparing for a distance ride, the rest days are as important as the conditioning days, if not more so. Rest is part of a plan to achieve excellence not just in the present moment but in the future as well.
“…if we begin to move our measure of excellence to ourselves, then something becomes possible,” says Dr. Susser. “Create lots of ways to assess your excellence and make them highly personal and relative to you, your horse and your goals.”
Looking forward into a new year, I am going to strive to keep this as my main objective: to achieve excellence every day. Excellence is achieved in small details, in making gradual progress toward larger objectives, and yes, in tangible outcomes such as competitive success as well. But perhaps the best mark of excellence is returning a relaxed horse to the paddock after a satisfying work set—and knowing that both horse and rider will be excited to do it all again the next day.
Horse shows are an essential aspect of the equine industry. According to the 2017 Economic Impact of the US Horse Industry Report, produced by the American Horse Council, over 1.2 million horses are used in competitive events annually and the four largest organizations sanction nearly 6,000 competitive opportunities, supporting 241,000 jobs and adding $11.8 billion in direct value to the national economy. What this report doesn’t capture, though, is the percentage of equestrians that might want to compete, or compete more often, but are limited by any number of factors. What if I told you that, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, most if not ALL of those limitations can be overcome?
Skeptical? I wouldn’t have believed me either, until the pandemic forced me to rethink content for a university course I teach, “Principles of Horse Trials Management”. Normally, students in this course play an integral role in the production and administration of our US Eventing Association sanctioned horse trials, held right on campus. But this fall, campus and local restrictions precluded us from being able to welcome outside guests to our facility and the trials were cancelled. I needed a meaningful, hands on, real world activity that would challenge students to learn, grow and experience some of the skills, tasks and problem-solving required in traditional competition management— all while maintaining social distancing and density rules.
Enter (figuratively and literally) the virtual horse show.
Prior to this year, I had heard of virtual shows but never thought much about them. But thanks to COVID, opportunities to compete in virtual horse shows have increased, with many organizations—ours included– making their first forays into the genre.
At first, I didn’t know quite where to start, so I decided to conduct some research. By which I mean, I entered a virtual show.
Dressage Show Online offers both virtual show management for groups/individuals as well as hosts shows of their own. There is no membership fee required to join; just create a profile, add your mount’s info, and then you can start competing. Tests cost just $30 (in total; no add on fees are required, and this includes the shipping for prizes). Once entered, riders film their test—in one take, from start to finish—and then upload it to the site before the deadline. Within a few days, the judge scores and provides comments on the test electronically and uploads a pdf of the score sheet. The judges range from USDF “L” graduates to USEF “S” judges—so this is legitimate scoring and feedback, just like you would expect at a traditional in person show.
The UNH Virtual Dressage Show that my students organized was inspired by this experience, but we put our own ‘Wildcat twist’ on the process. Entries were divided into an open division and a lesson horse division (where “serviceably sound” would be overlooked in the judging and protective boots allowed), and offered a “best turned out” award. And since we lacked a fancy website for competitors to upload to, we asked them to send videos via YouTube links that we compiled into a playlist for our judge.
I had no idea what kind of interest, if any, equestrians would have in entering the UNH Virtual Dressage Show. After purchasing ribbons and hiring USEF “r” judge Leslie deGrandmaison, I calculated that if we came up with 42 entries, we would at least break even.
Nearly 100 entries later, I learned that not only would people enter, they would do so with enthusiasm. What impressed me most, though, was the wide range of reasons that riders gave for doing so.
Some riders were UNH grads, wanting to compete at their alma mater one more time; others were regular competitors who had chosen not to travel to shows this season. Some belonged to barn or scholastic equestrian teams and had made a day of filming everyone’s videos, offering each other encouragement and support, a fun facsimile of a day at a regular horse show. But I was especially surprised by how many entrants were riders that in general lacked other opportunities to compete: they had no trailer, or their horse didn’t trailer well. Their horse was a lease, not allowed to leave the property. Their horse was older, and going to regular shows was too stressful. Yet they all wanted feedback and the opportunity to dress themselves and their horses up a little bit and show off their skills.
From an organizational perspective, a virtual show is more work behind the scenes than you might think. Once those videos started rolling in…well, there was a lot of detail-oriented work in making sure that each one played for us, was saved correctly and then added in the right order to the playlist. Like any show, you have your usual last minute hiccups; horses with abscesses needing to be substituted by a stablemate, entrants that ran out of time to video and needed to scratch, people who were overambitious in signing up for a higher level that wanted to change their entry. We also used paper tests that had to be copied, labelled, put in order, and mailed to our judge, so these late changes were harder to accommodate. But now that I have done it all once, I know better how to do it again. As with managing any horse show, the more you do it, the savvier you become.
From a competitor’s perspective—I was pleasantly impressed by my virtual show experience, and I am planning to enter again next season. The best part (well, besides the $30 entry fee) is that the feedback I received related to my young horse’s performance in her usual ring, under typical conditions. Truthfully, this is in many ways more helpful right now than comments I might get at an offsite show, where she will likely be more tense, anxious, or distracted than usual (she is just 5 years old, after all). Through the virtual show, I received a mini lesson from one of the best in the business; it helped to confirm that my training was on track and challenged me to put all the pieces together sequentially, under a little bit of pressure (aka, my videographer was not going to tolerate me asking for multiple re-takes). Entering a few shows next season will allow me to track progress in the training and provide me with areas to focus on next. Some virtual show platforms (such as Dressage Show Online) even offer championships and year end and performance awards.
But from an industry perspective, these unique competitions are serving the needs of an audience that traditional shows can’t reach, as well as providing an outlet for traditional competitors looking for additional feedback. At a time when the costs of traditional (especially sanctioned) competition are ever increasing, virtual shows eliminate much of the expense while maintaining the fun and achievement of competition. Riding at shows puts us—and our skills—under pressure, and can serve as a litmus test of how secure we are in our work. Whether we are riding for a judge in the booth or one behind the screen, we all want to put our best hoof forward.
Post-pandemic, I hope to see the virtual horse show community continue to thrive, because I believe that moving forward, we need to increase inclusive opportunities for our sport. Virtual shows fill an important niche within our community by offering affordable, accessible competitive opportunities for equestrians at all levels.
On an unseasonably warm day in mid-October, I hauled JEF Anna Rose to beautiful Linden Woods Farm in Durham, N.H., for one final educational outing of the season—a clinic with Jeremy Steinberg. Anna and I rode with Jeremy earlier this summer, and the experience was both positive and helpful. But this fall, most of my arena sets with Anna had left me frustrated. We have a decade-long partnership, but yet it feels as if we are always dealing with the same fundamental issue, namely, generating positive forward energy. This fall, every ride was a struggle, and I found myself losing enthusiasm for doing much in the arena with her at all. I think she felt exactly the same way.
As I attempted to get the earpiece sorted out at the start of my ride, I told Jeremy a bit of what I had been experiencing with her: The lackluster response to any forward driving aid. The blocked right jaw. The dull and non-adjustable feeling in the contact, because without energy and thrust from the hindquarters, there wasn’t anything to actually adjust. I told him that I didn’t feel like very much of a horse trainer, that Anna didn’t even feel like a Training Level horse (never mind a Third Level horse) and that I really hated having to ride so aggressively for such a minimal response. He nodded along with my comments, listening thoughtfully before he replied.
“Remove your emotion from this—it is not you. Some horses are this way. It is just the soul of this horse,” Jeremy said kindly.
As I blinked away unexpected tears, Jeremy proceeded to tell me about several horses from his past, horses who like Anna had many wonderful qualities—temperament, genetics, beauty— but who didn’t have much ‘get up and go’, who lacked the inner fire that would allow them to easily climb the ladder in dressage.
The thing of it is, to the external viewer, it looks as if these horses should be able to do the work. The viewer concludes it is the rider who is simply not doing enough, or perhaps not riding well enough, to get the horse to perform to his full potential.
Jeremy recalled a time when he was working with one of these horses under the tutelage of his mentor. His mentor kept offering feedback but nothing seemed to be improving the horse’s performance. Not wanting to be disrespectful but also becoming increasingly frustrated, Jeremy finally asked the mentor to get on and feel for himself.
“And then he understood it!” Jeremy explained triumphantly. Even the mentor couldn’t get the horse to perform.
At the clinic that day, we spent the entire ride simply focused on sending Anna forward. It was not pretty, and it was not fun. Jeremy advised that I establish in my own mind a ‘minimum tempo’, and if she dropped below that pace even a whisker, I was to firmly, forcefully, apply all of my driving aids. Hard. Even if we ended up in a gallop (which admittedly still took a few solid kicks with the spur and a strong whack with the wand). The emphasis was all on the upward transition.
In the moments where the energy was better, I tried to stay quiet and still while maintaining a steady contact, even if only for one stride. The perpetual issues I experience with Anna’s poll and jaw stem from her stalled engine; get the engine moving again, and the connection issues usually take care of themselves.
“Leave your brain out of the ring—be instinctive,” Jeremy offered by way of explaining the reaction time required. “When she dies in the tempo, then she must go, even if it is up to the gallop.”
For forty-five minutes or so, this is what we did. Me, kicking and using the dressage whip assertively, until I felt as if I were back on a cross country course desperately trying to make time. Anna, offering a few strides of a positive gait. The inevitable slow down. And repeat. Over and over and over.
Eventually, when Anna did offer a few consistent strides in minimum tempo, we added in a little shoulder in or a ten meter circle. Inevitably, I had to ride out of the movement with assertive aids yet again. There were a few nicer moments, but mostly it felt like one of us was working a whole lot harder than the other. And also, as if I had taken this exact lesson so very many times before.
While I rode, I kept hearing Jeremy’s voice on repeat: Some horses are just this way. It is the soul of this horse.
After our lesson, I stayed to watch a few more riders. In particular I wanted to see Leslie Ann McGowan, Linden Wood’s resident trainer, schooling the warmblood gelding Belfast, because this horse just makes me smile. I first saw this talented duo at a clinic with Jan Ebeling in 2017; the gelding was perhaps 6 years old then, new to Leslie Ann and quite green, yet everything he did looked easy. Effortless. Joyful. Now showing at the FEI levels, Belfast and Leslie Ann spent the day’s set working on canter pirouettes. Even when the pressure increased and the work became a little more demanding, the horse never quit or backed down.
The difference between his effort and Anna’s hit me like a fist. The soul of this horse was dancing. He was happy being an elite dressage horse. She is not.
I bought Anna from her breeder as a green broke 6-year-old who had never even been cantered under saddle. The breeder described the mare’s personality by saying she “was pretty content to just watch”. Over the years, I have repeatedly been reminded of her breeder’s insight whenever I have challenged Anna to increase her performance level. Anna has always done whatever it is I have asked of her. But I have often had to ask with emphasis.
As a team, we have done and seen and accomplished a lot. She took me around my first (and only) Groton House Horse Trials and to two double clean cross country trips at the Fitch’s Corner Area I Eventing championships. She spent three months with me at Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Farm, where we solidified our partnership over fences and hacked in the Vermont countryside. She received my first (and only) high score of the day at a dressage competition (back at Training Level) and she has earned scores over 60% all the way to Third Level Test 3. This fall, she and I completed the Ranger 100 Mile Challenge, tackling those miles in bite sized pieces along the trails in our backyard.
When I started concentrating on dressage with her, I had hoped that maybe she would make it to FEI. Perhaps that was too lofty of a goal; I knew she would never be a high scorer there but I hoped to finally have a chance to canter down centerline in tails, on a horse I trained myself. A few years ago, I could imagine riding Anna to what would be a pinnacle in my equestrian career.
But more recently, I have downgraded my goals for her—from FEI to Fourth. From Fourth to really solid Third. Most recently, I hoped to collect the last two scores I need for the USDF Bronze Bar in the Third Level Musical Freestyle. We spent a whole season chasing them. The closest we came was still two points too low.
It would mean so much to me to finish that long-term project with this horse, and then call it a day for her dressage career. But not if the cost is having to ride Anna so hard that she is completely miserable, and all the joy has left her. Not at the cost of her soul.
When we got home from the clinic, I put up her dressage saddle and haven’t taken it off the rack since. Instead, we have hit the trails, and I have let her mane grow long and coat thick and fuzzy. Anna will stay home this winter and once the weather turns, for the first time since the age of 6, she will have a few months off to just be a horse.
It is a fine line we tread sometimes, as stewards of these magnificent animals, to know when to push them through resistance in their training and when they have given us enough. It is equally difficult to come so close to your destination and then choose to turn back. But ultimately riding requires a partnership; two hearts working together as a team.
I do not know what is next for Anna and I. But whatever comes, I must honor the soul of this special horse, and not force her to be someone she is not.
Without a doubt, 2020 has not turned out to be the year that anyone anticipated. Since March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a worldwide pandemic, most of the structures, routines and patterns of our day to day lives came crashing to a halt. Seven months later, we are still riding the tide of changes effected as a result. Although change is inevitable, forced change, particularly when it occurs so swiftly, can be difficult to process.
Here in the U.S., the pandemic has only highlighted the gross inequities in our society, and the stress it has induced has brought many citizens to the breaking point. I am deeply grateful to have some sense of security in these challenging times, but I grow increasingly aware that my situation comes from a place of privilege, and that I work in an industry still uncomfortable with this subject. Recent dialogue on the questions of diversity, accessibility and disparity within both the equine industry and society as a whole is essential and ongoing.
When I read news stories about current events, I am gripped with a feeling of helplessness. If I think too deeply about the pandemic and its wide-reaching implications, about how it has exposed the inherent weaknesses in even supposedly “developed” societies, I feel a sense of panic about what is yet to come. Individually, we have so little control over what will happen next; collectively, we are on the same ride whether we like it or not.
What I can control, in uncertain times, is my own attitude and my own choices. Small acts of kindness, compassion and empathy do matter, and many small acts taken as a whole become something greater, a power that can overcome hatred, prejudice, self-centeredness and adversity.
With all that is going on in the world right now, it feels trite to discuss my personal goals in riding. But I also believe that despite everything, it is critical to keep moving forward when and where we can, and spending time with my horses is something that brings me a sense of fulfillment. I know this is a sentiment that many of my readers can identify with. Like many of you, I am a goal-oriented person; having something concrete that I am working toward helps to provide focus to my rides and a structure to my routine.
Early in the pandemic, I was scrolling through Facebook, where I saw that a friend had posted that she was participating in a 1,900 mile equestrian challenge along the Pony Express route. Intrigued, I clicked on the post (as one does) to learn more. This led me to the website of WARHORSE Endurance, the brainchild of Christina Hyke, an avid endurance rider, organizer and photographer based in Wisconsin. The mission of WARHORSE Endurance, according to its website, is “to provide riders, carriage drivers, runners, hikers, cyclists and walkers with a goal to aim for, an online community to cheer each other on and a completion award to commemorate their amazing journey.” Through this program, Hyke created a series of virtual challenges conceived to keep riders motivated and on track in their conditioning plans, despite the cancellation of most formal distance rides. But perhaps more importantly, she also established an international community that (via social media) could celebrate in our uniqueness while sharing in each other’s progress, offering support during setbacks and celebrating success.
To me, this sounded like just the tonic to neutralize the pandemic blues.
The WARHORSE Endurance “virtual ride” concept is rather simple. Mileage reporting is done on the honor system; entrants track the miles they spend leading, riding or driving their horse using their preferred app, then upload their progress to the website. There is also the option to include human “conditioning” miles spent hiking, running or bicycling to the mileage total. You can include miles logged all on one horse or on multiple horses. You can drive your horse. You can handwalk your rehabbing veteran, longline your green bean, or any and all combinations of the preceding options. Each challenge is what you make of it, so long as the miles are spent purposefully.
By the time I learned about WARHORSE, Hyke had already filled enrollment in two 100 mile virtual challenges and was working on filling a third. She donates a portion of each entry to charity, and when entrants reach the 100 mile threshold, they receive a medal, a patch, and/or a lapel pin, depending on the specific event.
The Pony Express 1,900 Mile Challenge that had caught my eye was Hyke’s newest venture. In what might be the longest virtual equestrian challenge in the world, entrants log their miles and track their progress along the approximate route of the Pony Express. The Pony Express ran for just eighteen months between April 1860 and October 1861, with riders starting in St. Joseph, Missouri (today commemorated by the National Pony Express Museum) and ending in Sacramento, California (now marked by the Pony Express Memorial). Back then, riders covered the route in only ten days. Virtual riders have seven years.
Time has eroded many of the specific locations of the route’s 100 +/- stops, and according to the National Park Service, “the trail’s actual route and exact length are matters of conjecture.” Therefore, the virtual route is approximated based on Hyke’s research, and an online map lets riders learn about known points of interest along the way.
Now, 100 miles is a long way to ride, run, hike or bike. 1,900 miles—from Missouri to California—is almost unfathomable. But with seven years to finish, that’s just 271 miles per year. Less than one mile a day. And if you are riding in some of Hyke’s 100 Mile Virtual Challenges, those miles can also count toward the Pony Express.
Broken down into smaller pieces, this is do-able.
In early June, I signed up for the Pony Express Virtual Challenge. Within about a week, I decided that the medal for the Valkyrie 100 Mile Challenge was pretty cool (a winged Pegasus), so I signed up for that too. Then I added the Ranger 100 Mile Challenge to my agenda when it opened in early July. And I am not ashamed to admit that on September 1, I signed up for the Journey 100 Mile Challenge too.
For me, each of these challenges is a unique opportunity and a motivation get out there with my horses, even if the world is feeling heavy. I am able to customize each Challenge, pushing me to spend more time on trail with all of my horses. It has provided a necessary and refreshing break to the routine of schooling in the arena. It has motivated me to visit new to me public trail networks. It has reminded me that while conventional competition can be fun, it has never been the end all be all for me when it comes to riding and horsemanship.
You might be thinking, I could never ride my horse 100 miles. That is so far! But yet….
Horses walk at about 3 miles per hour. Most of my rides have only been forty-five minutes to an hour, two or three miles in length. Since June, I have logged nearly 300 miles, mostly walking along the powerlines in my backyard. All of these small rides, over time, add up to something much larger.
And along the way, so many beautiful moments.
Such as– my retired distance mare Lee completing all 100 miles of the Valkyrie Challenge by late August, the final ride a 2+ mile hack squeezed in between thunderstorms on a Sunday evening that I probably would not have taken otherwise.
Or this–my Third Level dressage pony Anna completing 95 miles toward the Ranger 100 Mile Challenge. One evening, we were followed by a doe deer; on another, we came face to face with a surprised barred owl. Dividing our time between ringwork and trails, I hoped to complete the Challenge by the end of October. Weather willing, it looks like we are on track to do just that. Where our dressage training has felt less than stellar lately, here is a goal that we can attain.
With former lesson horse Marquesa, I have carved out a special route now dubbed the “Queso Loop” in her honor. Just over a mile and half in length, it is the perfect outing for a 24-year-old veteran mare when I am short on time. This past week, we found fresh moose tracks right near our farm.
And on the Pony Express route, their collective efforts have taken me out of Missouri, through Kansas and into Nebraska.
But for the Journey 100 Mile Challenge, I decided to do something a little different. The Journey Medal design incorporates the running Warhorse logo, the flying Valkyrie and the Pony Express rider into one piece of art, and the Challenge is dedicated to “enjoying the journey”. Instead of only using miles ridden on one specific horse, I decided that the only logical way to tackle this final 100 mile challenge of 2020 would be to divide the miles among each of my five mares, twenty miles each. It seemed such a beautiful symbol of the journey I have been on and continue to travel with each horse, as unique individuals.
As of October 15, I have 60.6 miles toward Journey’s completion. Lee handily finished her twenty mile contribution early on; Queso has posted just over thirteen miles and young Izzy, who is just learning how to go out on trail, has added 10.5. Once she has finished Ranger, Anna will start working on her twenty mile segment. And with three-year-old Nori, who is not yet backed, I have handwalked just over eighteen miles, often in the dark of a mid-autumn evening. I hope to complete each mare’s segment before autumn’s breeze turns to winter’s chill, but even if I don’t, every stride my horses take brings us one step closer to attaining the goal.
And in reality, this is how we collectively must get through these unstable times. The outcome is uncertain, the path twisting and forward progress at times practically impossible to measure. We must always remember that the bigger goal is achieved through smaller steps and day to day victories. But each time we make the choice to stay positive, to have faith that events will resolve, to believe that light will always prevail over darkness, we move one step closer to resolution.
On what was possibly the hottest and most humid weekend of July, Anna and I visited the lovely Linden Woods Farm in Durham, N.H., to clinic with USEF High Performance rider and former Dressage Youth Coach Jeremy Steinberg.
I enjoy reading Steinberg’s column in The Chronicle of the Horse and have the impression that, although a successful competitor, he also truly enjoys training horses to become the best version of themselves. To me, this is an important distinction, because I have found that when you simply enjoy being around horses, taking the time to solve their riddles is handled with a great deal more compassion than when their resistance is perceived as an impediment to reaching a goal. It also challenges you to be more creative in finding solutions, rather than insisting that each horse conform to a set formula. Steinberg’s mentors, Dietrich von Hopffgarten and Paul Belasik, are both regarded as dressage philosophers and advocates for humane, classical dressage training. Finally, Steinberg’s first Grand Prix horse was an OTTB whom he developed himself. As someone who favors riding non-traditional breeds in the dressage arena, I was excited for the opportunity to work with him directly.
For me, the pandemic has been an important period of resetting, reassessing and simply improving the bond with my horses. I wasn’t sure that Anna and I were truly ready for a clinic, particularly with someone of Steinberg’s caliber, but I assumed that if he was as horse-friendly in practice as he seemed to be in his writing, we would get something positive out of the ride.
I wasn’t disappointed!
Steinberg spends a good chunk of his time on the road—his website says that he gives an average of 48 clinics per year—and he explained that the first thing he always considers while watching a horse warm up is their conformation, and how it will impact their work.
Anna is flat in the poll, making it easy for her to lock both there and in her lower jaw when asked to connect. Steinberg’s (simple but not so simple) solution? Transitions. So many transitions.
After a basic warm up (during which Steinberg encouraged me to use my fingers and wrists quite actively to massage the bit but to keep Anna’s neck completely still), we started riding trot-halt-trot transitions. Steinberg had me hold my elbows to my sides to stabilize the contact into and out of the transition, and to ride a bit of medium trot into the halt. This is not your show ring halt, but instead a training tool to help encourage the horse to start rounding their back, while yielding the poll and croup. These trot-halt-trot transitions are, intentionally, a bit abrupt.
“Resist the urge in the halt to supple her,” Steinberg coached. “Make the hand and elbow more fixed, so that the contact is less negotiable, and when she comes to the halt the contact is solid.”
Not shockingly, at first Anna braced in her poll and jaw, particularly into the downward transition. Overall, the transitions were somewhat…ugly.
“You are trying to get the horse’s lower back to tip in the hip and pelvis,” says Steinberg. “Think more like a sliding stop. You want the horse to tuck under a bit.”
It was important to not allow walk steps in or out of the transitions (as this will cause the horse to avoid tucking the hip), and for a horse such as Anna (who is not always the most prompt to the driving aids), you cannot be afraid to really pop the whip if she is not responsive.
“Let the horse make mistakes,” says Steinberg. “Let them learn that you are not going to carry them along, and if they make a mistake, be corrective.”
The more transitions I did, focusing on promptness and really rooting my elbows to my sides, the hotter Anna became to my leg and the softer and rounder she became in the connection. By staying steady and tolerating Anna’s tendency to brace (for now), I was increasing the pressure on her to become rounder. The idea is that you are giving the horse a choice—they can continue to resist, which is uncomfortable, or they can choose to become rounder in their back and relieve the pressure.
“Do fifteen of them,” says Steinberg of the transitions. “If the horse braces, do three more.”
This work is meant to be done in many short bursts; we worked trot-halt-trot transitions on each rein, and then moved on to canter-walk-canter. I applied the same concepts to these latter transitions, with the aim of taking no more than one or two steps of walk in between each stretch of canter.
“Almost as soon as you walk, you want to go back to the canter,” says Steinberg. “It is the difference between doing a sit up and a crunch.”
The canter-walk-canter transitions help the horse to lower the croup and lighten the forehand. Steinberg compared the horse to an imperfectly balanced teeter totter—one that has a boulder (the forehand) in front of its fulcrum (the withers), with a rider sitting behind them both.
“As soon as you get on, you can feel this weight,” says Steinberg. “If you can raise the front end, the boulder will roll back. But if the forehand goes down, you have to pull on the reins to stop the boulder from rolling forward more.”
All of these prompt transitions help to create greater activity in the hindquarters, by putting a certain degree of pressure on the horse’s body and not giving them much choice in how to respond to that pressure. In Anna’s case, she needed to hit the wall of the rider’s hand. The true origin of her bracing is not in her jaw, it is in her back– but because I feel the weight in my hands, I (like most riders on similar horses) try to manipulate her back by positioning her neck.
“I want to manipulate the back with transition work,” says Steinberg. “The bracing is [the horse] wanting to stay tight in the back. But if I give in to the brace or try to soften the brace, I never give the horse the opportunity to soften the back.”
What I found quite remarkable was that despite the heat, the humidity, and the pressure, Anna really stepped up to the exercise. The sets were short but intense; Steinberg counseled to ignore the things which were not perfect, and after one or two quality transitions, give the horse a break. Many times throughout the day, after a period of increased pressure for the horse, I heard Steinberg tell the rider to reassure the horse that “mom still loves them”. During a walk break in a later set, Steinberg had this to say about adding pressure for the horse:
“When you are fairly confident that the horse is capable of doing the work—they are a correct mover, appropriate conformation, etcetera—you can put the pressure on,” says Steinberg. “You will sometimes need to be intentional like this, to help the horse really understand how to use their body.”
As the horse begins to understand stepping into the downward transitions with roundness and softness, Steinberg will add a driving aid—perhaps just a tap of the whip—to teach the horse that the roundness comes from the hind end.
“You must take a leap of faith and know that you will have some of those bad transitions,” says Steinberg. “This is how you can offer a correction, and how they can learn. There is a consequence for making the mistake, and this consequence can be just the feeling of the horse hitting the rider’s aids.”
This was by far one of the most productive and positive clinics I have had with Anna, and I have incorporated this exercise into my regular routine with great success. I am so grateful to facility owner Karen Bishop and her daughter Leslie Ann McGowan for coordinating the clinic and opening their property to outside riders despite the pandemic, and to Steinberg for making the trip up from Aiken, S.C.! Thanks, too, to Fay Morrison for coming by to help me with Anna and taking such great pictures of our ride.
While most equestrians living in temperate regions of the U.S. look forward to the pleasant weather of late spring and summer, the humidity and warm-but-not-scorching temperatures are also ideal conditions for grain mites. These tiny members of the Acaridae family are only between 100th to 300th of an inch in length and are relatives of spiders and ticks. When conditions are ideal, these common pests can occur in large numbers in grain, hay and straw, happily eating their way through your horse’s dinner.
“Grain mites eat the germ out of any kind of stored grain products and proteins,” explains Jessica Starcevich, M.S., staff entomologist with Spalding Labs. “They thrive in high humidity. Depending on the species, this means relative humidity over 70%.”
But a mite infestation is more than just a nuisance—exposure to grain mites can cause allergic reactions in several species. Grain mites are known human allergens, and ingestion of large quantities has caused lesions in the stomach lining of cattle. While more research is needed, there is increasing evidence that grain mites, which also feed on molds and fungus and spread fungal spores throughout their environment, may play a role in triggering equine respiratory syndromes.
Because mites are so small, managers might not notice their presence—at first. But with a fairly long lifespan (mites can live up to fifty-five days) and prolific reproductive capacity (a female will lay 600-800 eggs during her lifetime), it won’t take long for their numbers to compound. An active mite infestation looks as if the grain bin (or bag) has been coated in a light brown dust. The grain itself may appear dusty, and if you begin moving bags around, the mites’ crushed exoskeletons can give off a “minty” odor.
“They are most common in regular whole grains, like oats, corn and barely,” says Starcevich. “But they can infest pelleted feed and certainly sweet feed that has oats and things mixed into it.”
When it comes to grain mites, the best defense is a good offense. Many mite-prevention techniques should already be best practices in terms of grain storage. Strategies such as never pouring new grain over old, thoroughly cleaning out and scrubbing bins in between fill ups, storing grain in airtight containers and religiously cleaning up hay chaff, mold and dust, can all help eliminate the conditions that favor grain mites.
Additionally, take steps to reduce the humidity in your grain storage area. Consider installing a fan, using a dehumidifier or even desiccant packets (keep these away from farm pets). Grain moisture meters can be purchased from agricultural supply companies; stored grain should absolutely not read at more than 16%, and ideally will be much lower than that.
“Make sure there is no place hospitable for them,” says Starcevich. “If you can dry them out, they will die very quickly.”
During humid months, consider getting smaller quantities of grain delivered more frequently, so fewer bags are stored. With each delivery, do a careful inspection of each bag before opening it. If there is any evidence of mite activity, get that bag out of your storage area immediately—and contact your supplier.
“Suppliers get anxious about mites, but it’s usually not their fault, as mites could have been picked up anywhere along the process,” says Starcevich. “Suppliers actively watch for mites and try to avoid getting them. But if they do, they likely have an action plan for how to take care of it.”
If, despite your best efforts, grain mites appear, don’t panic—but do act efficiently, as it is far easier to control an outbreak when the numbers are small. The most important step is to remove the infested grain from your bin, and if possible, remove the bin itself from your storage area. Contaminated grain should be thrown out, buried in an active compost pile or spread in an extremely thin layer where it will be exposed to the sun. Removable bins should be left in the sun for several days, then treated with an acaricide such as pyrethrin. If possible, do not return grain to the bin for several weeks.
“The biggest thing is to get things dry,” says Starcevich. “And keep food sources away from the mites.”
If removing the bin is not possible, thoroughly clean the entire area, paying close attention to corners, cracks and crevices, then treat it with an acaricide. Wait a week, then treat again, then wait another week before use. While this may seem like overkill (if you will forgive the pun), juvenile grain mites living in high concentrations can morph into a phase called the hypopus, which has a sucker that they attach to animals to help them disperse to new areas. During this stage, they are highly resistant to pesticides.
Finally, reach out to your county extension agent if you have further questions. Usually, consultation and even testings are free, and they will know if there is a specific outbreak of any pests going on in your area.
On a crisp sunny morning in January 2018, I cautiously stepped out of my friend’s car into an icy parking lot and pulled the collar of my faux sheepskin lined corduroy jacket more tightly closed over my yellow knit scarf. Three or four inches of snow had fallen some 24 hours before my own arrival in Lexington, Kentucky a day earlier, and the state seemed to be hoping that the offensive accumulation might just disappear on its own. But with temps hovering in the mid-thirties, so far this strategy had proven ineffective.
I had worried that the weather might interfere with today’s visit to Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in Georgetown, Kentucky, home to nearly 200 pensioned former racehorses. I recruited my friend Rachel, a New England transplant to Lexington, to tag along with me on this frosty day; the cheerful voice on the phone had assured me that our reservations for the morning tour were still in play, but looking around the mostly empty parking lot I wondered if anyone else would be joining us.
Old Friends was founded in 2003 by former racetrack groom (and retired Boston Globe film critic) Michael Blowen. During his years working at tracks like Suffolk Downs in Boston and Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, Blowen had seen what often happened to racehorses at the end of their careers, especially at low end tracks and fairgrounds—a trip directly to the slaughterhouse. It was an accepted reality in a sport which often saw fortunes rise and fall with the clang of a starter’s bell.
“Everybody in racing says this—‘do what is best for the horse and everything else will fall into place’,” Blowen told me on the phone one day. “But people don’t follow this.”
During his years at the Globe, Blowen witnessed firsthand the magnetic effect that celebrities had on those around them— and it occurred to Blowen that he felt the same way when he witnessed a truly great race horse. And that gave him an idea.
“I thought others would feel that way, too, and thought people might be willing to pay money to see them,” says Blowen. “The idea was that these horses from Rockingham could mix with the celebrities.”
The concept was deceptively simple yet completely radical– take a big name horse that no one wanted anymore, and charge racing fans to come see them. The money raised would then offset the cost of lifetime care for racehorses with less illustrious backgrounds. Using this model, Old Friends has grown from one small leased paddock and a single horse to its current principal facility, the 236 acre Dream Chase Farm in Georgetown, and a satellite facility Old Friends at Cabin Creek in Greenfield Center, New York.
From April to October, nearly 1,000 visitors per week tour the Georgetown property hoping to see their favorite winners, including the farm’s undisputed marquee resident, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm. But lounging in paddocks across the sprawling property are Thoroughbreds of all types; those with no pedigree to speak of, those with old injuries or arthritis from their days on the track, those horses which time forgot. Archie’s Echo was one of these, a cheap claimer who earned just $32,000 during his track career; at 26 years old he was purchased by a sympathetic soul at the notorious New Holland auction in Pennsylvania, certainly bound for slaughter. Archie was blind in one eye and in rough shape at first, but enjoyed five years of care and attention at Old Friends before passing away in May 2020.
Old Friends is a member of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), a non-profit arm of The Jockey Club that offers accreditation and grant funding for sixty four groups providing care and rehoming services for off track Thoroughbreds. While many of these programs have been overwhelmingly successful and certainly should be celebrated, most are geared towards placing OTTBs in a new career as a riding horse. For those animals that are not suitable for riding, homes are harder to come by.
I was researching options for these types of OTTBs— often young but permanently unrideable—when I first learned of Old Friends. I was intrigued by the model and impressed by Blowen’s charisma. In our interview, he told me that he “felt like the village idiot” when he first started the project, but that didn’t stop him from moving forward. And if I am honest, though I am no longer Thoroughbred racing’s biggest fan, I completely understood him when he talked about being starstruck in the presence of a great racehorse. I remember standing by the rail at Saratoga as a young girl, gripping the chain link fence while screaming my throat raw, urging Alysheba down the stretch of the 1987 Travers Stakes (he lost), or recognizing Crème Fraiche, the 1985 Belmont winner, running there in his later career. I will always admire the grit and heart of a Thoroughbred, and believe in the tangible thrill that comes with witnessing a powerful, purpose-bred animal do exactly what he is bred to—run.
The visitor’s center at Old Friends is a rather nondescript ranch, its pale yellow paint chosen no doubt to offset the bountiful black fencing and rolling fields that surround it. Two holiday wreaths still flanked the entrance door, and four woven sunchairs, in shades of green and yellow, lined the concrete porch. Upon entering, we are immediately greeted by a pair of thoroughly well-fed cats—a tortoiseshell named Lucy, who we later learn weighs 25 pounds, and an orange and white male named Buddy, who is the designated “official greeter.” They lounge on the hardwood floor, lying half in the gift shop, half in the reception area. They leave little doubt as to who is truly in charge of this office space.
Our guide’s name is Charlie Brown, and as he shrugs into a heavy down jacket and pulls a green knit cap with “Old Friends” embroidered in gold script over his snow white hair, he nonchalantly asks where we are from. We are, in fact, the only scheduled guests to actually arrive for the morning’s tour, and he looks dressed for an arctic expedition.
“New Hampshire,” I say brightly.
Charlie nods grimly.
“Oh, that explains it then. This snow is nothing for you.”
Resignedly, he picks up a green two quart bucket filled with carrots, cubed and shredded, and leads us back out the door we had just entered. Neither cat makes a move.
We are clearly here in the off-season, in off weather, and have ended up with a particularly personal tour of the property. Most groups follow a fairly set route, stopping at specific paddocks in which the resident has become carrot-conditioned to come visit when guests arrive. Occasionally, guides will make detours by special request to allow guests to meet other residents. We quickly learn that today, Charlie will let us go (almost) anywhere we wish. Rachel and I follow him out into the snow.
Our first stop is Sarava, who is perhaps best known for his amazing upset win in the 2002 Belmont Stakes. Sarava was the biggest longshot winner in race history, going off at 70-1 odds and paying out $142.50 to win, spoiling his now neighbor War Emblem’s quest for the Triple Crown in the process. When Sarava arrived at Old Friends in 2012, he became their first resident winner of a Triple Crown race. Today, the stallion’s black mane is long and his dark bay coat fluffed out for winter; he looks more like someone’s backyard pet than a classic stakes winner. Sarava clearly knew the drill, overenthusiastically reaching for the treat bucket. Charlie affectionately scratched the aging campaigner on his forehead and popped a few carrots in his mouth.
In the next paddock lives the turf champion, Little Mike, whose rich bay coat gleams beneath his heavy blanket; his pasture mate, Game On Dude, is happily cribbing on the fence and ignoring us completely. Trained by Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert (who has become one of Old Friend’s greatest supporters) and a favorite of Baffert’s wife Jill, Game on Dude is the only horse to ever win the Santa Anita Handicap three times during a career in which he brought home nearly $6.5 million. Little Mike is Game on Dude’s fourth pasture buddy, and farm managers hope the two are well matched in age and energy.
Sarava is eight years older than both Little Mike and Game On Dude; in racing years, they are almost two generations apart. As Charlie tells us about each horse, there is a sparkle in his eye, as if he remembers seeing their greatest races. But while I recognize the names of the races these three have won, I know none of the animals themselves. To me, they are just…horses. And at Old Friends, that is kind of the point.
The truth is that without a guide to tell you otherwise, the average visitor would no sooner be able to discern the elite champions from the workaday claimers. At Old Friends, horses are cared for with an egalitarian philosophy, and for the most part they are allowed to simply be horses. Most live outside with run in shelters, alone or in pairs or small groups. Their manes have grown shaggy, some are barefoot, and all have ample space to move or mingle as they choose. In better weather, they graze the Kentucky bluegrass and eat carrots several times a day. Really, these horses are living their best lives.
One pair of geldings we met seemed symbolic of the greater Old Friends mission. Arson Squad and I’m Charismatic were an unlikely duo– Arson is a stakes winner who earned $1.1 million; I’m Charismatic, a well-bred gelding who never lived up to his pedigree in 92 starts. In retirement, I’m Charismatic had become completely blind, but Arson stayed by his side constantly, leading his “brother” to water, to shelter, to the fence line to receive our carrots. The crew at the Lexington Fire Department Fire Station No 5 was so inspired by Arson’s “leave no brother behind” attitude that they became the gelding’s official sponsor. I’m Charismatic passed away just six months after my visit, but Arson remains a resident today. The celebrity helping the common man—what Old Friends is all about.
Charlie brings us to a large paddock with a double fence. Its sole occupant is a nearly black horse with a crooked blaze; even from a distance, he pins his ears and flips his head in our direction, the equine equivalent of “bugger off”. Charlie slips under the first perimeter and stands in the gap, so we follow him. As it turns out, we weren’t supposed to, but Charlie has apparently deemed us horse savvy enough to stay out of harm’s way. Suddenly the horse trots straight up to the fence line and arches his neck over the perimeter towards Charlie. It is hard to tell if it is a threat or a demand. Charlie reaches out a flat palm holding a carrot, but keeps his body well away.
War Emblem, whose quest for the 2002 Triple Crown was spoiled by his now-neighbor Sarava, has made his presence known.
Charlie tells us the horse’s grumpiness is nothing new; War Emblem’s difficult disposition was well known during his racing years. Once retired, the colt’s temperamental behavior continued, and he showed virtually no interest in breeding mares, despite extensive efforts to convince him otherwise. In 2015, his Japanese owners agreed to return War Emblem to the U.S. and donated him to Old Friends. Though War Emblem was gelded before arrival and his demeanor softened somewhat as a result, the double fenced paddock was constructed specifically to help ensure everyone’s safety.
With his challenging personality and lackluster stud career, War Emblem was lucky indeed to find a soft landing at Old Friends. Few other facilities would have been inclined to take on such a quirky and potentially dangerous charge, and in Japan, land is at a premium. Unwanted animals are shipped to slaughter.
When I later heard news of this great horse’s unexpected death on March 11, 2020 at the age of 21, I flipped through the photos I had taken on this snowy January day. In several, his ears are flat back but in one, they are pricked forward as he looks into the distance, the clear blue sky a vibrant backdrop, the rays of the sun shining above him like a spotlight. In his five years at Old Friends, this enigmatic horse seemed to have found some sort of comfort.
In a statement released by Old Friends on the day of War Emblem’s death, Blowen said:
“I know we’re supposed to appreciate all of our retirees the same but he was one of the very special ones. He was tough, narcissistic, bold, and handsome. I adored him. I proudly count among a very meager number of accomplishments the day he allowed me to put his halter on without biting me. What more could I ask for? The farm will recover from his loss over time, but it’ll never be the same.”
Over the next forty-five minutes, we visit perhaps another dozen or so horses, mostly stallions and geldings (Old Friends also provides a home to a small but mighty mare herd, who are not included on the typical tour route). We meet Alphabet Soup, a wizened gray whose resume includes winning the 1996 Breeder’s Cup Classic, surviving a barn fire and contributing to science through participation in cutting edge treatments for equine melanoma. Popcorn Deelites, who played Seabiscuit in the movie of the same name. The aging Silver Ray, purchased from a livestock auction in 2013 for just $30, was a successful sire and graded stakes winner in his younger years. In 2019, he passed away at the age of 30, but during our visit he enjoyed the shredded carrots Charlie scooped from the bottom of his pail.
Charlie takes us through an elegant, airy ten stall barn. There is an office and storage and wash stall; each stall has a large outside window, and one row of stalls is connected to paddocks that allow residents to come and go at will. Not quite two years earlier, a fire had swept through a smaller medical barn located on this site, destroying it in minutes. Thankfully, only two horses were inside, and staff were able to coax them out in time, but the barn was a total loss.
It turned out that after thirteen years of providing lifetime sanctuary to hundreds of former racehorses, Old Friends had acquired a few friends of their own, and the John Hettinger Memorial Barn (where we now stood) was christened just barely six months after the fire. Fasig-Tipton’s Blue Horse Charities donated $50,000 towards its construction, along with several other generous contributions from industry supporters and fans. It was built with state-of-the-art materials and high attention to fire safety.
As we strolled through the sliding barn doors at the end of the aisle, I start to understand the depth of the connections which make Old Friends possible, and the utter enormity yet absolute necessity of its mission. The early endorsement of top trainers like Baffert helped to earn Old Friends the support of other leaders across the racing industry, enabling Blowen’s “crazy idea” to come to fruition. The successful repatriation of nine retired stallions from overseas has forged networks that may help ensure the successful return of other beloved champions in the future. Finally, many of the horses with celebrity status come with endowments or generous annual contributions from their former connections that more than sustain their upkeep. These funds, plus donations and visitor fees, help to ensure the safety and well-being of all the others, those horses whose previous work left them unfit, unsound or otherwise unsuitable for life as anything other than “just a horse”.
On a raw, damp day in late 2014, a flea-bitten grey stallion unloaded from a horse van to the reception of a crowd of nearly 100. Despite the weather, the energy was palpable; by all accounts Blowen himself was grinning like a kid in a candy store, eager to welcome the legendary Silver Charm to his new home at Old Friends. The stallion was installed in a place of prominence on the property, within view from the back porch of the main horse, where Blowen now lives. Like War Emblem, Silver Charm captured the first two legs of the Triple Crown before losing in the Belmont; unlike War Emblem, the stallion is calm and personable, and seems to take his role as farm ambassador to heart.
Charlie brings us right up to the fence, where Silver Charm is already waiting. He is bundled in a cozy Rambo rug, eyes half closed as he absorbs what little warmth might come from the day’s rays. But as soon as he perceives our approach, he snaps to attention, eye calm, ears pricked forward. He possessed the calm dignity worthy of an elder statesman, one who appreciates the responsibility that comes with fame and success.
It is easy to see why Silver Charm is a favorite of nearly everyone affiliated with Old Friends. But he had been special to Blowen for over twenty years; in an interview with Rick Capone, Blowen credits Silver Charm with being the “salvation of racing the late 1990s”. Silver Charm’s striking grey color and dramatic wins at the wire in both the Derby and Preakness made him not just a fan favorite, but wrote a story that drew new people to the sport. His quest to capture the Triple Crown nearly tripled Belmont attendance that year, and though he lost by three quarters of a length to Touch Gold (also an Old Friends resident) after a dramatic run down the stretch, Silver Charm’s grit and determination left an indelible mark upon the sport. In many ways, the horse and Blowen have much in common.
“Racing is a great sport,” Blowen told me on the phone before my visit. “People would be more into it if they know that the horses were better taken care of.”
As our visit drew to a close, I took one last look across the miles of fence line and the horses contentedly resting in their paddocks, and it occurred to me that taking care of unsound retired racehorses isn’t that hard. They can live outside, go barefoot and grow heavy coats in winter. What is hard is convincing the entire racing industry that everyone involved with the sport has a lifelong obligation to the athlete—not just for the duration of their track years.
Thanks to the efforts of programs like Old Friends, we are starting to see evidence of that change.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian