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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
When I started this blog in March of 2016, it was nearly one year ago that the ending began. But to tell the story from the end would not be fair or appropriate, even though the last chapter remains painfully fresh in my mind. We will come there before this post is through, but for the moment, let’s go back to the beginning.
I first officially met Carmel when I was in college, but I think I had been aware of him before that, through Pony Club. Owned by the local family, Carmel had been purchased for their youngest child, but after bucking her off several times, a more suitable pony was found and Mel became the mount for their elder boys. Carmel was a familiar fixture at mounted meetings at Mrs. Smith’s Sunrise Bay Farm in Durham, also representing Squamscott Pony Club at rallies and ratings.
But by the time I came to know him better, Mel was mostly being used as a school horse by a local riding instructor. The boys had long since outgrown his slender 15.1 hand Appendix Quarter Horse frame, and the daughter now rode her own athletic Thoroughbred. Not yet ready to sell Carmel to a new owner, the family had leased him to Dawn, where he steadfastly trotted around with all manner of student, from beginner “down upper” to those starting their foray into the competition ring. Horseless for the first time in years, I cleaned stalls one or two mornings per week in exchange for tack time, and at some point I was offered the chance to ride Mel.
At that point in my equestrian career, I had attained my Pony Club H-A rating, I had competed up to 3’6” in the jumpers and I had done a little bit of eventing. I had been a working student for Lendon Gray and had ridden in clinics with other “big wigs” of the industry. I had grown up showing in hunter/jumper shows in New York State, competing on any school horse that I could convince the barn owners to throw on the trailer. I had no idea that we were usually outclassed, that my show clothes looked second hand or that some of the people I was riding against were among the best in the sport at that time. I had had so many amazing experiences with horses that probably just shouldn’t have been possible, but happened because someone behaved generously towards me. For the most part, I was borrowing horses, equipment, or both.
Carmel was probably fifteen years old at this point, and mostly what I had seen him do was plod along with little peanut riders. I knew that in his younger years, he had completed several events, including the prestigious Groton House Horse Trials, which he did sans one shoe, having thrown it in the warm up. But it was hard to look at him at that time and see the former athlete. His mane had grown long, he rarely jumped higher than a mini vertical, and his preferred gait decidedly was a shuffling trot. When he cantered, he usually lost his hind lead in the corners. I considered my riding him to be rehabilitative, a chance for him to get ridden by someone a little more experienced so that he could become a little better tuned up for his lesson students.
Dawn is an instructor widely known for her big heart and seemingly unending generosity; she suggested that I take Carmel to a few local competitions. After just one ride on him, she encouraged me to enter him at an upcoming two phase being held at the farm. As it turned out, the two phase was that weekend, and as it further turned out, I probably wouldn’t have time to jump him before the show. But not worrying about such seemingly challenging limitations, we entered it anyway—and Mel won the beginner novice division. As it turned out, he did remember a thing or two about his competition career from so long ago.
For the better part of a year, I continued to ride Carmel and showed him a little bit, and he continued to do lessons with other students for Dawn. It was an arrangement that as far as I was concerned was working beautifully. For the first time since I had had a leased horse in Pony Club, I could do all the fun things that horse ownership allows: hunter paces, hacks to Great Bay, beach trips, local schooling shows. It didn’t bother me that I was probably already riding Mel to the limits of his physical capacity, or that he wasn’t ever going to compete at Training level in eventing or do more than a basic First Level dressage test. I was having fun, and I like to think that he was, too.
But as it goes in life, that summer brought significant changes. The barn where Carmel lived was closing, and the people who were based there were dispersing to several different facilities. Carmel’s family would be moving their horses to a different facility than where Dawn would be, and that meant no more chances to ride my Yellow Horse. I found myself losing the barn community which I had just begun to feel connected to, but more significantly, I was in danger of losing my time with Carmel.
As a recent college graduate without clear long term employment, I found myself at a crossroads in many areas of my life. I knew in my heart that buying a horse—any horse—made no sense at that moment. My life was too unsettled and too much was up in the air. Further, Mel in particular was not going to be the horse to “take me to the next level”, and therefore be “worthy” of the investment of time and money.
For better or for worse, I am often driven more strongly by my emotions than reason. There I was, crying my eyes out over losing the ride on this little horse, but rationally analyzing why I should not spend all the money my grandparents had given me for my college graduation on his purchase. Countless times, I gave myself the speech that my father would have made had he known what was going on–“Christina, this is not a sensible idea. You must be practical. Buying a horse is only the beginning of the expenses associated with that purchase”. And then I called Carmel’s owners and made an offer.
The first lesson Carmel taught me wasn’t made obvious to me until much later. Taking your horsemanship skills to new levels may not always equate to jumping bigger jumps or competing at fancier shows. In making the commitment to this animal, I came to realize that even the most plain looking and seemingly simple horse can take a hold of your heart, and can allow you to develop a deeper relationship than you knew to be possible.
Carmel was the first horse I had ever bought. I quickly succumbed to my inner twelve year old, and he had new blankets, a custom halter and stall plate and a new to me saddle. At first, I continued the existing arrangement with Dawn where he did some lessons to help offset his expenses, but I soon found that now that he was “mine” I didn’t want to share him anymore. We moved to a new facility where I could afford the board on my own, and had a new beginning.
Mel’s years of lower level activity had left him stiff and overall less fit than would be ideal. At an age when many people start thinking of backing down their horses, I was working on bringing him back up. Mel had caught his right hind in his halter as a youngster, doing extensive damage to the stifle joint. At the time, the injury was considered possibly life ending. But as I understand it, Carmel’s steady nature meant that his rehab passed uneventfully, and he was ultimately left with only a slight hitch in the swing of his right hind. I spent lots of time working on improving his strength, suppleness and agility. We learned to long line. I taught him to jump gymnastics in a chute so that he could develop without me on his back to disrupt his movement. We hacked out and rode diligently, never pushing too hard but never backing away, either. Eventually, the hitch almost totally disappeared and I had a sound, fit horse.
I competed Mel for the better part of three seasons. I may have owned the horse, but I didn’t own a truck or trailer, and so we competed where we could hitch rides. Again, the generosity of others in this era was humbling, as good friends lent me their expensive trucks and trailers for my personal use. We certainly had our ups and downs in the arena, but by and large we had a ton of fun. I had never been able to go out and do the ‘eventing thing’ before, and it was a blissful experience to feel like I was finally a part of the horse show crowd.
Carmel’s swan song with me in competition was finishing second at the Area I Novice Championships out in New York. He got there the same way he did everything…with clear, steady consistency. His dressage was clean and accurate, but only good enough for sixth place. However, he went out and jumped the biggest novice course I had ever put him to double clean, both in cross country and stadium. I had no idea that we had moved up so much, and the look on my face shows how surprised I was.
The next season, Mel turned twenty. I started him up in the spring (we didn’t have an indoor and had only hacked as the footing permitted it all winter) but in my heart, I knew that the horse had given me everything he had left in him the year before. At a competition that year, I had watched helplessly from warm up as a friend’s older horse sustained a serious bow on course, needing to be trucked out in a horse ambulance. I didn’t want that for him—he was finally fit, totally sound, and still had a job to do.
It just wasn’t with me anymore.
Through a friend, I met a great Pony Club family out in New York, and for two years Carmel did D level work with a member of the Lake Effects Pony Club in Western New York Region. In those years, I explored my growing love of dressage and began to expand my local lesson business. I met a family with two young daughters, one of whom was outgrowing her pony just at the time when Carmel’s little rider was becoming more of a gymnast than an equestrian. So I brought Mel home to New Hampshire, and he returned to Squamscott Pony Club at the age of 23.
Mel was a staple of both SPC and my lesson program for four more years. He attained several D level ratings with different riders and participated in dressage, show jumping and D rallies, along with SPC summer camp, among other activities. One of my favorite memories of him in this era was when he and Molly did their musical freestyle; I think the music was Pink Panther themed. There was very little “on the bit” going on, but the level of adorable was incredibly high. I was always so proud of how well Mel carried his young riders through their activities.
In the fall of his 27th year, Mel had a series of bizarre episodes that I can only guess were some kind of seizure. The last and most serious one started while I was doing yet another little kid riding lesson with him. He started to twitch his head, and his eyelids began trembling. I barely had time to pull the child off and rip off his bridle before bigger movements began. It was terrifying. I told the child’s father to get her out of sight, that I had no idea what was happening. Mel was screaming the terrified whinny that horses do when they need help as he ran backwards, spun in circles and staggered. I thought he was going to drop dead before my eyes. But as quickly as it had come on, the episode stopped. I pulled off his saddle and called the vet, leaving him in the fenced arena. Then I stood and waited with him. He seemed exhausted, and I just sobbed into his neck. I wasn’t ready to say good bye.
Luckily for me, I didn’t have to. We determined that Mel was in the early stages of PPID, pituitary pars intermedia (usually known as equine Cushing’s disease), and that some medication and diet changes were necessary. It was clear to me that he was no longer safe to use for lessons, but the vet urged that low stress exercise would be helpful for him.
So after nearly a decade, it was Mel and I again together. I bareback hacked him for the next six years—he never wore a saddle again. Eventually I didn’t even use a proper bridle, just a hackamore. We never went far—just a twenty to twenty five minute loop several times per week. I usually drank my morning coffee while riding him, and a few times, I multi tasked by walking my dog off of a longe line from horseback (probably not super safe and therefore not recommended). We were fixtures in the neighborhood where my horses lived. Every child and probably most of the adults knew Mel’s name, and we waved at all of the children on the school bus each morning. Life was good.
The second lesson that Carmel taught me is that horses have something to offer all of us, if we are willing to listen to their and our needs of the moment. Carmel offered so many people so much joy. I could have been selfish and kept him to myself—but in by sharing him with others, he stayed sound and loved and always had a job that was appropriate for his stage of life.
Owning an older horse is hard on the heart, because you know that at some point, either something dramatic is going to happen, or you are going to have to make a hard decision. For me, it was always in the back of my brain, and when I arrived to feed the horses each morning, I unconsciously held my breath until I saw Mel’s face poking out at me from his stall.
About a year ago, Mel went off his grain while I was away for the weekend. Never a robust eater, Mel was known for going on “hunger strikes”, seemingly at whim. He was receiving three soupy meals of Triple Crown Senior per day, the only form of grain that he wanted to eat. I figured that this was another round of not liking the consistency of his feed, so I grumbled at him and kept trying to find a formulation that he found appealing.
But as the days passed and he still steadfastly refused to eat anything at all, I became concerned and had the vet out. She thought he looked great, wondered if possibly a tooth was bothering him, and pulled some bloodwork just to check. The results were mostly good, but he had slightly elevated kidney values—however, nothing overt stood out as being a problem.
I continued to try to pique his interest in eating. I took samples of every grain I could find from every barn I was affiliated with. I tried feeding him mashes, dry feed, and chopped up apples. Sometimes, he would perk up and take a few bites. But he never finished anything, and returned to his spot to sleep in the sun.
The days kept going by. And still he refused to eat. His abdomen started to tuck up, and he passed less and less manure, until there were days when none was passed at all. I could also tell that he was barely drinking. My best friend, a small animal vet, resurrected her IV skills from her equine veterinary internship and ran fluids for me, staying till nearly eleven o’clock on a cold early spring evening. My regular vet gave him a steroid injection used frequently post-surgery to stimulate appetite.
And still, he refused to eat.
I am not a vet, but I know enough about biology to know that an animal which has refused to eat for three weeks is not feeling well. Nothing was obviously pointing to the cause, but the question became clear—how long do you let this go on? Because a horse which is not eating or drinking will, eventually, begin to suffer from some sort of metabolic breakdown or develop colic. These conditions cause suffering, something which this horse did not deserve.
Every day, I spent time with him. I groomed his winter coat and brushed his mane and tail. I spent every moment with him trying to absorb the essence of his being—every scent, every expression, so that I could commit it forever to my memory. And I cried and cried. I cried until I was dry of tears, and then I just walked around with a hollow feeling inside. Horses only live in the moment, and Carmel only knew that he didn’t feel well. It was only I who was truly suffering.
On April 7, 2015, I stayed with Mel until he exhaled his last breath. He let go with a big sigh, under sedation, his head resting on my thighs.
This fall, I moved to my own farm, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Mel has moved here with me, and once spring is in full bloom and I have found the right spot, I will inter his remains in this beautiful place.
The final lesson that Carmel taught me is that sometimes, you have to learn to let go, even if your heart is breaking, because to hang on is pure selfishness. It has taken me a full year to write of this, and the tears still fall as freely today as they did then.
“Goodbye my friend. My light is diminished in your absence, but you left me with your spirit intact and I can feel it shining on me now. Grief is like a pearl, with the warm memories wrapping around the pain at its center, slowly taking away the sting. The tears fall daily, trying to flush away this grief which is lying so heavily over my soul. “ – CJK 4/7/15
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” W.H.Murray
Murray was a Scottish mountaineer and writer, who spent three years imprisoned during World War II in an enemy camp. While there, he wrote a draft for a book later called Mountaineering in Scotland on the only paper available to him—toilet paper. So he knows a thing or two about being resilient, I should think.
Denny Emerson recited this quote to me after the Dark Mare (Lee) and I completed the seemingly impossible— the rigorous three day long, one hundred mile ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association Distance Days, held annually in South Woodstock, Vermont each fall. What made the completion so sweet, and somewhat amazing, is that previous to that weekend, the longest ride that my horse and I had ever done was a two-day fifty mile route, just one month before. 2015 was only our second season riding in competitive trail, and in 2014 we had ended our first year by finishing the 25 mile ride at this same event, feeling pretty proud of that accomplishment. To say that we were rookies is an understatement of the term.
Denny had first planted the seed in my mind that aiming for the 100 mile ride was a possible goal when I spent the summer of 2014 up at his Tamarack Hill Farm. At that point, Lee and I had done exactly one 10 mile “intro” conditioning distance ride. While up in Vermont for the summer, we finished two fifteen and one twenty five mile CTR, and completed one additional twenty five mile ride after we returned home. Even while I was letting the seed incubate in my mind, there was a more dominant, rational part of my brain which was saying—trying for the 100 would be ridiculous! You have never done more than a 25 mile ride. There is no WAY you will be ready, and you have no idea what you are doing.
But still the idea ruminated….
Planning and Prep
Being fairly new to the sport meant that I had no idea how one would go about conditioning a horse to do a 100 mile ride, never mind whether or not it was a good idea to even try to do so. I gain confidence from feeling well informed and making plans, and so I figured that the New England winter presented a good opportunity to do a little research.
I started with a cover to cover read of several books, especially Hilary Clayton’s bible, Conditioning the Sport Horse, which gave me an outstanding overview of all aspects of conditioning, from physiological changes to the various forms of conditioning (interval, long slow distance, skill drills, etc) to proposed conditioning schedules for various activities. I also read several books more focused on endurance than competitive trail, but still helpful gave many helpful insights and ideas: Go the Distance by Loving, Endurance Riding by Wilde and The Complete Guide to Endurance Riding and Competition, by Snyder-Smith. Two of the major takeaways from my research were that 1) just like marathoners don’t go out and run 26.2 miles every day to get ready for their marathons, 100 mile horses don’t go out and ride tens of miles every day to get ready either and 2) a horse who has remained in consistent, steady, 60 minutes/day/6 days/week of work for many years, like Lee, likely has a fairly good base to start with. Maybe this wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.
Next, I ordered a heart rate monitor and a GPS watch which measured distance and time. It arrived shortly after one of several February blizzards, and it took me until June to be able to figure out how to use it properly (when all else fails, but only as a last resort, read ALL of the directions). The watch was immensely helpful in teaching me a sense of speed over miles—CTR is based on maintaining a fairly steady 6-7 minute mile, and developing an awareness of what this speed feels like over varied terrain is important to ensure that you finish within the allotted window.
Finally, I planned a schedule for the season. As in any discipline, you can’t push for peak performance year round. I needed to develop a program which would allow Lee to steadily build her endurance and strength over time, without pushing so hard that she became sore or sour. I decided up front that if at any point she indicated that she wasn’t feeling up to the task, I would pull back and regroup. I live in seacoast, NH, where the terrain is rather…coastal. In order to get ready for the hills and rocks of Vermont, I needed to carefully balance speed work to improve cardiovascular capacity with maintaining soundness in the musculoskeletal system.
Finally, I knew that the CTRs themselves would serve as an important component to her conditioning. I decided that we would do the 15 mile ride sponsored by VERDA in mid May, followed by a one day 30 mile ride on flatter terrain a few weeks later in Maine (Lee actually was the high point champion that day!). Based on how she felt after the 30 mile, next I aimed for the 25 mile ride at GMHA in June, and entered the “intro to endurance” 15 mile ride the next day, to have our first experience of a “back to back” weekend. Considering that she was running away with me at times on the 15 mile, I figured she was coping ok! Our final CTR before the 100 was the two day fifty at GMHA in early August.
Before I began our conditioning, I had our vet, Dr. Monika Calitri of Seacoast Equine, out in March. Lee is 16, and I wanted to make sure that there were no signs of any trouble brewing which would preclude the commencement of her conditioning plan. With Dr. Calitri’s blessing, we got the green light to move forward with our schedule, and made a plan to recheck her in mid-June, after the back to back 40 mile weekend, to see how she was doing at that point.
As we progressed through each event, Lee felt better and better. There were a few bumps in the road—she had some minor girth galls after the back to back 40 mile ride, prompting me to ask the trail community for advice (mohair/string girths), and we had some soundness concerns raised by the vet judge at the 50 mile ride, which really gave me pause, though I could personally feel and see nothing wrong. However, she came out of the recovery phase of her 50 mile feeling better than ever, and after consulting again with Dr. Calitri, we received the green light to enter the 100.
Yet in spite of the successful completion of my preparation, and the encouragement of several mentors in the trail community, I hesitated to enter the 100 mile ride. I worried that I wasn’t qualified, that I was in over my head, and maybe rerouting to the 60 mile ride, being held the same weekend, was a better plan.
But then I realized that the major reason that I was vacillating about entering the 100 mile ride was because I didn’t want to not finish it. And as it turns out, if you don’t try, you certainly will not finish. The only way to finish a 100 mile ride is to start one.
So on closing day, I dropped my entry in the mail. And so began one of the most exciting and emotional weekends I have ever experienced with my horse.
Team Peanut Butter and Jelly
I can still count on just a few fingers the total number of people I have ever completed rides with, and not one of them was entering the 100 mile. I knew that in order to be successful, I would need the guidance and companionship of someone who had done this before. Through a mutual friend, I was introduced to Kat Waters, who was entered to ride Lee Alexander’s palomino Morgan gelding, Quinn. Kat kindly agreed to let me join her and her friend, Robin McGrath, who was ironically also riding a palomino Morgan, Flower. While it was Quinn’s first 100 mile ride, all other participants were veterans from previous years. As a group, we looked like two pieces of bread and the “stuff” in the middle—Team Peanut Butter and Jelly.
I must pause here to pay respect to both Kat and Robin, without whom I am sure I would not have completed this ride. From start to finish, we all functioned as a team, and enjoyed every minute on trail and off. Kat became the team statistician, keeping track of our pace and the remaining time allowed. We jokingly referred to Quinn as the “overlord”, as he typically led the group, comprised of his own personal harem. Robin and Flower helped to set the pace, with their infectious energy and enthusiasm pushing us forward through fatigue and the seemingly never ending Vermont hills.
Our group rode the entire 100 miles from start to finish together, and I don’t think there was a happier or more excited group at any phase of the way.
Day 1—The White Loop (40 Miles)
The day prior to the ride, each competitor was required to ‘weigh in’ on the GMHA Member’s Room porch, carrying tack, helmet, boots and any other equipment they would be carrying with them. Riders were divided then into “lightweight”, “middleweight” or “heavyweight” divisions. We also had the standard “vet in”, where we presented our mounts to the judges, Dr. Ann Chaffee and Eva Norris. Lee decided that she needed to liven things up by bucking vigorously during most of her trot out. Clearly my strategy to “taper down” before the ride had left her with plenty of energy— but unfortunately, you want to try to match your trot out at the end of the ride with your initial presentation, which meant we had a lot to live up to!
The first day of the ride was the longest on trail, and I was a little nervous knowing that it would be the longest distance I had ever ridden Lee in one go. To add to my nerves, the route was to take us over the trails in Reading, which are known for being exceptionally rocky and rugged, and therefore difficult to make time on.
Our day started early. There were just nine horses entered in the 100 mile ride, and so our group of three represented fully one third of the ride’s entry. We were certainly distinct—two Morgans of color and one decidedly Thoroughbred mare. No traditional Arabians here!
Once we got on trail, we quickly realized that our three mounts really were going to stick together just like peanut butter and jelly. The time passed quickly and Lee readily pulsed down at the half way hold. I was especially pleased because with such a long distance, the hold was at about mile 25—which meant that Lee had gone nearly as far as she had ever gone before without the benefit of a mid-point break. Other than being hungry, she seemed quite good to continue.
One of the funniest moments happened at a water stop. We had caught up with another small group of 100 mile riders, and so about five or six of us were standing in a running stream, allowing our horses to drink. Lee likes the moving water best, and had finally settled down to take a good drink in, when she decided that actually she was more concerned with scratching her face on her leg. Somehow, she slipped the crownpiece of her bridle right off over her ears! We were literally in midstream, and I was NOT interested in dismounting to fix the problem. I managed to keep enough pressure on the S curve hackamore noseband that I prevented the rest of the bridle from slipping off, and then somehow manipulated the rest of the pieces back into their rightful places, all with one hand.
Upon returning to GMHA grounds, Flower and Lee pulsed down quickly, but Quinn, who is a bit thicker in his muscling, struggled to recover in his pulse parameters, despite a reduced respiration rate. Kat needed to use every minute of extra time she was granted to continue to sponge and cool Quinn. Within the rules of CTR, the most we could do was hold him or refill her water buckets—no one but the rider is allowed to apply the water, except in an emergency. After an anxious wait on all our parts, Quinn was approved by the judges and Team Peanut Butter and Jelly remained intact.
We took the horses out for several walks and periods of hand grazing. Lee seemed pretty content, and I was incredibly pleased with her for handling the rocky, rugged terrain in the Reading area with such “fight”. I looked forward to the ride the next day.
The overnight temperature was expected to be in the low 40’s, but the early evening still felt fairly pleasant. It is not a temperature that I would normally choose to blanket at, so I was surprised to see many other riders bringing out coolers and sheets as the sun dipped down. Kat and Robin explained to me that after such a big exertion, the horse’s muscles need to be kept warmer than usual to prevent stiffness or cramping as they stood in the stalls overnight. Fortunately, I had a supply of appropriate horse clothing in the trailer, so I put a sheet on Lee too. This was just one of many tips this rookie picked up from the other riders.
Day 2—The Red Loop (35 miles)
Day two sent us on the thirty five mile red loop. Today, we were joined by a medium sized group of horses and riders who were entered in the two day sixty mile ride and a small group who were doing the thirty five exclusively. The 100 milers were sent out first, though, and it was as we were getting ready to leave that I began to realize what a celebrity status the 100 mile group had at the ride. People I don’t know, or have only met once, were there to see us off, and many of them knew who we were and who we were riding.
As we started out over some of the fields at GMHA, I could feel tightness in Lee’s back, and I had a moment of panic that she was not right after her long ride the day before. After a bit of warm up, though, I could feel her muscles begin to loosen, and her stride began to lengthen and swing as it usually does.
Day two was an exciting day on so many levels. First, the route took us on trails in the town of Brownsville which I had never seen before, including one road which allowed us a fairly stunning view of Mt. Ascutney. Second, once we passed through the safety check/hold at the half way point, each mile we covered was one mile further than Lee had ever gone before. I knew that even if we didn’t finish, at that point we still had accomplished a great deal.
I noticed at the halfway hold that some of the galling which I had experienced on the June ride was starting again, in spite of using the mohair girth. I ride Lee in an all purpose saddle that I fished out of a dumpster (I am not making this up), and I had it flocked with wool over the winter. Comparing where Lee’s girth sits in relation to her elbow to the same setting on the trail saddles my friends used, I could see that it really wouldn’t matter what style of girth I chose—the placement of the billets dictate that Lee’s sensitive skin behind the elbow is destined to become pinched over longer distances. Small issues with tack which are only minor irritations on a daily basis can become major issues or even deal breakers as the miles add up. I reset the saddle, stretched her legs, and hoped for the best.
When we got back to the GMHA grounds, it was clear that the galls had grown, even though Lee didn’t seem to compromise her movement because of them. However, her always-tending-towards-tight back was now incredibly sore, to the point where even a light brush of the fingers elicited a strong reaction, and she had two “hot spots” forming in the saddle area where she was exceptionally sensitive.
The judging team was not thrilled with these developments either, and they asked me to re-present Lee to them in the morning. The rules of CTR are quite clear that no lotions, salves, medications or other “product” can be used on the horses while the competition is underway; however, soaked towels, massage and hand walking are all completely legal. I spent hours over the afternoon and into the evening applying cool towels to Lee’s hot spots and galls, alternating with periods of hand walking and grazing or massaging the long muscles of her neck, topline and hindquarter.
Gradually, there was some reduction in the swelling, and Lee’s saddle area seemed to be less sensitive. Kat returned from afternoon chores on her own local farm with several different versions of saddle pad and girth to try for the third day, as it was clear that several of the galls correlated with the positions of the string on the mohair girth.
I spent an anxious night in my trailer, hoping that Lee’s sore spots would resolve enough overnight to allow us to start. We were so close to our goal, but I didn’t want to ride her if doing so was going to compromise her well-being.
Day 3—The Blue Loop (25 miles)
It was still night out when I arose to get ready for my AM pre-check on day three. Hoping that the coyote pack which seemed to visit the grounds each morning around 4 AM had finished its rounds, I headed to the barns. No one else seemed to be up and about yet, but the horses were alert to my activity. More horses had arrived the night before as riders settled in for the twenty five and fifteen mile rides happening on day three, and the barns were fairly full.
As Lee ate her AM feed, I cautiously checked the galls from the day before. Nearly all were flat or close to it, and her sensitivity level was much reduced. I spent a little more time massaging the big muscles of her topline, while trying to keep as much of her body covered with the blanket as possible. I had done nothing towards getting ready for the day—I hadn’t prepared my hold bucket or organized feed, I hadn’t tried on any of the borrowed pads or girths—as it felt too much like tempting fate to set up for something which I might not be permitted to do. Once Lee was done eating, I took her out for a graze and a long, loosening walk. I practiced a few trot ups to get her muscles supple and warm. She seemed willing to move and to trot, and maybe a little bit rolling her eyes at me as if to say, “Really? Again?”
At 5:45 AM, we presented to our judge team at the pavilion. They noted her improved topline and asked me to jog her. I am not sure I breathed the entire time we presented ourselves in hand, but I let out a long exhale when they gave me the thumbs up to start. Team Peanut Butter and Jelly was still holding together.
I had to hustle back in the stabling area to finish preparations for the day’s ride. I scooted right out of the pre-ride briefing in order to experiment with the tack options. I ended up using a quilted and padding enforced dressage pad I found in my trailer, with my usual half pad and Kat’s fuzzy double elastic girth. This combination seemed to provide good distribution of padding over the saddle area and also elicited only a minimal response from Lee as I tacked her up.
The last day of the ride was glorious. To be quite honest, after riding forty and thirty five miles, back to back, twenty five felt like an absolute piece of cake. We enjoyed gorgeous fall weather, stunning views, and the traditional chocolate chip cookies at the top of Cookie Hill. After we passed through the final half way hold of the ride, I realized I was smiling like a crazy person and getting a little giddy. We had less than thirteen miles to go. We just might finish this thing!
I am not sure I can fully put into words the feeling of returning to the White Ring for the third time, and hearing our names announced once more, this time proclaiming us one hundred mile finishers. People on the rail cheered. I just kept stroking Lee’s neck, silently thanking her for giving me her best over the entire process—not just these three days, but the weeks and months leading up to it. As we dismounted after crossing the finish line, I gave Lee a big hug around her neck. She sighed. She isn’t much for demonstration of affection but I think after 100 miles, she was willing to put up with me just a little longer.
Thanks and Gratitude
The entire experience of my first three day 100 mile ride was amazing and humbling. The people I have met in the competitive trail community have been truly helpful and have often gone out of their way to help my rookie self out—I am greatly indebted to the wisdom and guidance of them all, but especially Robin Malkasian and Kate Burr, Denny Emerson, Sarah MacDonald and of course Kat Waters and Robin McGrath.
These rides are a ton of work to put on, and I have found both the organizers and volunteers to be gracious and helpful, frequently answering my questions and giving me guidance. And of course, all riders must acknowledge the willingness of land owners to allow us access to their properties—such an amazing privilege.
To my friends at home who also have shown me so much support and love, helped train with me and take care of me and the critters—Dr. Amanda Rizner, Pam, Molly and Kaeli McPhee, Heidi Chase, Dr. Monika Calitri and our wonderful farrier, Nancy Slombo, who often will come on a day’s notice when I change my mind and decide that no, that shoe WON’T stay on through the weekend after all– my deepest gratitude and appreciation.
But my biggest acknowledgement of all must go to the Dark Mare herself. Anyone who knows Lee and I also knows what a tremendously long road we have been on together, literally and figuratively. I am so appreciative for all that she has taught me and for finally finding a niche in which this wonderful athlete can truly excel.
Green Mountain Horse Association’s 79th Annual 100 Mile Ride
Christina Keim and Liatris: 1st place Middleweight Division, Champion Rookie Rider, Perkion Trophy for Best Scoring Thoroughbred
Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.– Goethe
When we were kids in school, most of us were told to keep our eyes on our own papers. Ostensibly, this was a punitive measure for not studying, designed to prevent us from getting a leg up from the students around us who we perceived to be smarter than ourselves or more likely to have the correct answer. However, it is quite often the case that we in fact do know the right answer, and keeping our eyes on our own papers is a means to demonstrate our own skills, knowledge and strengths.
I have long struggled with feeling insecure about my riding, probably because it is the one thing above almost anything else which is tied to my self-identity. Riding is a humbling sport, in so many ways. How many times have we equestrians said that horses are our best teachers? Every single day, we can learn new things about ourselves, our own horses, and about horses in general, if only we are willing and able to listen. But sometimes our eyes stray, and we take in the movement of another horse, the skills of another rider, the amenities of a different facility, and we begin to doubt the value of what we have in front of us.
This happens to me all the time. But I am slowly learning the value and technique of riding your own ride.
This spring has been a time of real growth for the dark mare, Lee. As we progress towards our season’s goal of completing the three day 100 mile ride at GMHA in early September, I have been gradually stepping up her competitive distances. This May, we rode our first one day thirty mile ride. It was full of new adventures—we had to camp the night before, with Lee spending the night in a three sided cow stall at a fairground in rural Maine, while I slept in my horse trailer (the part the horse rides in, not a tack room or LQ). We didn’t know anyone there, but the other riders and organizer went out of their way to be helpful and friendly to the rookie rider and horse. The morning of the ride was cold, in the thirties, and as I hand grazed Lee before the ride started she was leaping about at the end of the line. I am sure that some who witnessed her behavior wondered how the rookies were going to fare that day.
We rode out with another rider, a gentleman on a lovely Dutch Harness Horse who was doing day one of the three day eighty mile ride. Lee has overall gotten much better about going out on her own, but has a hard time leaving other horses if they are around. So for the first several miles, we stuck with the gray gelding and his veteran rider.
As both horses began to loosen up and get moving forward, they seemed to be staying at a steady pace consistent with the training rides I had been doing with Lee. The terrain on this ride was mostly flat, which meant that it was easy to sort of just motor along. This rider told me that he had more recently been doing endurance competitions (which is essentially a race) and so was needing to readjust his sense of pace to suit competitive trail, which requires riders to finish within a set window, neither too slow or too fast. He used a combination of trot and canter, and for a while I kept pace with him.
But then I looked at my watch, and I realized we were averaging five minute miles. I knew that this was not a pace that Lee could sustain, nor was it necessary to do so to finish the ride on time. So I gradually held Lee back, allowing the gray horse to push further and further ahead, eventually leaving our field of vision altogether. For the first time in her competitive trail career, Lee and I were riding alone.
Without a friend to lead her, Lee was a little less confident, spooking or shying more than usual, but she gradually settled into her own rhythm and continued steadily forward. We continued like this for nearly ten miles, and as we traveled along, I reflected on the truth of needing to do what is right for your own horse. In endurance riding, the tag line is, “to finish is to win”, and experienced riders talk about the importance of building a horse up for years before they get to the level of strength and experience that they can actually race and attempt to win at rides. Competitive trail is assessed by more subjective criteria than endurance, but the overarching theme is that your horse must be well taken care of before, during and after the ride if you are going to achieve a good result. That means that you, the rider, must make good choices for your horse in terms of when and how hard you push them onwards, which requires that you have an excellent awareness of both their fitness level and condition as well as how they are handling the ride that day.
Lee and I caught up to other riders at the half way hold, including our friend on the gray. She quickly pulsed down to recovery criteria and continued on in good form. But I don’t think this would have been the case if I had tried to keep up with the other horse. It wasn’t a question of his horse being ‘better’ than mine, or he being a savvier rider. She simply wasn’t as fit as he was, because the two horses are currently on different training paths. The gray horse’s pace was inappropriate for Lee. It was important for me to stick to what I knew was right for my own horse, and to ride my own ride.
This June, I had the amazing opportunity to officiate in the Connemara division at the Upperville Colt and Pony Show, held in the heart of Virginia horse country. This year was the 162nd anniversary of the show, and my first time officiating as a licensed USEF judge. No big deal—just one of the most prestigious “AA” shows in the country, and the largest sanctioned Connemara division. I admit I was nervous to be a part of such a cultured history in horse showing.
The show grounds are incredible, and overall the quality of the horses there matches the atmosphere. One doesn’t bring the average workaday hunter to compete at Upperville. This is a land of quality breeding, high end care and all the accoutrements that go along with it. There are classes running on both sides of the street, countless vendors, spectators everywhere and golf carts galore. The evenings each feature some sort of marquee class, one night a grand prix, the next a $25,000 Hunter Derby. Ringside parties are attended by richly dressed members of the social elite; the old money just oozes off of them, in the most non ostentatious way possible. I am confident that the amount that most competitors spent on their week of showing would send a family of four on a decent vacation.
It would be so easy to become jealous of the riders there, to long for a pair of their custom field boots (made by someone whose name I can’t pronounce), to covet their high end tack, their amazing, highly trained jumper (the one who TOTALLY ignored their cues to leave a stride out at the combination and who instead smartly touched their feet down just so and carried that rider straight into the jump off).
But instead, I am learning to ride my own ride.
Instead of getting overwhelmed by the sheer affluence of the horse show, I found myself able to look at it with new perspective. We can spend our time bemoaning the “things” or the assets which we haven’t got, or we can spend that same life energy focused on using our resources to their best advantage. My pocket book may not be anywhere near as deep as that of the average Upperville competitor, but that doesn’t mean that I am not making steady progress towards my own goals. Being a successful rider means different things to different people, and for me, my own success is not dictated by the caliber of the competition which I am able to afford to attend. We each have to set those goals which make the most sense given our unique set of variables. We need to know which goals are most important to us, and by identifying the destinations which matter the most, we can better prioritize whatever resources we have at our disposal towards reaching that goal.
Finally, I have a sneaking feeling that there are people who I know, who I am friends with on Facebook, who I see out and about, who are looking at me and saying, “gee, I wish I had what Chris has…she is really living the dream”. I have two horses, a truck and trailer, a great job which allows me the freedom to pursue some of my own equestrian goals as well as the opportunity to be doing “horse things” for my paid work. I appreciate how truly fortunate I have been to get to where I have gotten to, with the support of so many friends and family members that I couldn’t even begin to name names. Sometimes I wasn’t as grateful to them as I should have been, for which I am sorry but I am trying to be better. And I am trying to be better about keeping in perspective the fact that there are aspiring riders who would love to be standing in my shoes.
So the next time you find yourself saying, “if only…” stop and ask yourself instead why you think that what the other person has or is doing is better than you. Consider if the answers you have put down on your own paper are, in fact, valid and correct for you.
It had been nearly five hours. We had just a few moments to spare, but confident of crossing the finish line before our 4 hour and 55 minute deadline, we had slackened to a walk, allowing our horses to slow their respiration and pulse in preparation for the check- in to come. As the finish line neared, I felt a tightness developing in my chest as I became almost choked up with pride for my horse. And as we crossed the bridge bringing us back to the B barn at GMHA, and the volunteers handed us our time in slips, I bit back a few tears. She had done it. Lee had finished her first 25 mile ride. WE had finished OUR first 25 mile ride. Getting to this point had been such a long, long road—literally and figuratively—that I was almost lost for words.
In the Beginning
From day one, Lee has never been easy. I met her when she was six years old. She had been sent to live for the winter at the dressage farm where I was then employed. Her owner was quite busy juggling a young son, running her own business and commuting from Massachusetts, and so Lee stood around more than she worked. Somehow I was asked, or offered, to ride her a few days a week. She was quite green on many levels, and also quite quirky, which just enhanced the greenness. Here is a basic list of Lee’s early challenges:
I had to longe her each and every time before I rode—or else. I had to mount her from the ground, because she wouldn’t go near the mounting block. She didn’t cross tie at first, and even after she learned, for the longest time if I left her alone for even a second to run to the tack room, I would hear the crack and thump which indicated that she had broken her ties or the halter and run off. She also wouldn’t let you within fifteen feet of her with clippers of any kind, and even if you were clipping someone else, that was still cause to run away. Brooms were also problematic—whether in use, being carried past, or simply leaning against the wall. (Blogger’s Note: None of the above issues are issues anymore, except the clippers. That is a still a “no go”. You simply must learn to pick your battles).
Lee’s owner had left her ‘dressage bridle’, since Lee was at the dressage barn, meaning simply that it had a flash noseband. But when her mouth was held shut, Lee just would refuse to move at all. So off came the flash; I have never used one on her again.
Even given these quirks, we began to slowly make progress in terms reinforcing the basics. One day, Lee’s owner was chatting with the farm owner, and she said, “maybe Chris would like to compete Lee next summer.” The farm owner’s response? “In what?” (probably accompanied by a roll of the eye). And for Lee, that has always been the $10,000 question.
Today, we shall be Eventers
Given that Lee is ¾ Thoroughbred, by the stallion Loyal Pal, and out of a part Holsteiner mare named Lakshmi who herself competed in hunters and eventing, and at the time I still considered myself primarily an event rider, my first thought was that Lee would make a wonderful event horse. She is built in a very Thoroughbred-y manner, with a low neck, slight but solid frame and a hind end built for engagement. She also has an excellent gallop. In fact, one of the best gallops I have ever seen from her was the day she dumped me off into a puddle of icy water behind the UNH Equine Center, then spun and went galloping back to the main barn, where she broke through someone else’s crosstie, fell in the aisle, slid across the floor into the boarder’s tack room door, got up, ran back down the aisle and was finally caught heading towards Main Street and campus. While all this was happening, I still sat there in the mud and slush, thinking to myself, “my, what a beautiful gallop she has. She will make a great cross country horse.” This, before I entertained some less charitable thoughts about her recent behavior.
So even though she was green and a bit looky (“she is funny about fill under the fences”, said her now former owner, “but it gets better when the jumps are bigger”), I figured with enough exposure she would come around, right?
Not so much.
I hacked Lee and hunter paced her. I jumped her over little jumps in the ring. But when it came to cross country, she was absolutely not interested. She resolutely refused to jump anything which remotely resembled a cross country fence (coop, roll top, log, you name it). I remember riding on the UNH cross country course nearly ten years ago with the captain of my riding team mounted on a steady eddy type veteran, trying to use him as a lead for Lee to jump a very basic log. After umpteen refusals, my student looked at me with a sad expression and said, “I just don’t think she is going to jump it”.
I did eventually (read, five or more years after the early attempts) get Lee to follow another horse over a few logs on a pace event, and got her to jump a few small logs on the UNH course independently. And she has always been willing to go into water and up and down banks and drops (remember that I said she was quirky?) Unfortunately, to be an event horse, this just wasn’t going to cut the mustard.
But that was okay, because Lee was so speedy and cat like, and turned so quickly, perhaps she had a more appropriate niche—the jumper ring. I really like doing jumpers and thought it would be fun to have a handy and quick horse. So that is where we quickly shifted our focus.
Perhaps Show Jumpers?
Monday, February 22, 2010
Just a quick note to be sure you are ok? We all have those days!—MKB
I still have this email in my inbox. It is from the organizer of a series of local winter schooling jumper shows that I have frequently attended, and it is in reference to the day I fell off not once but twice at the same show. The first fall, if I recall correctly, was the result of a spook at a faux stone wall placed under a tiny (2’3”) vertical. The second one came later, when my horse decided to refuse an oxer— after she had already taken off. She and I landed in somewhere in the middle of the spread, but we did not land together. It was a low moment. I thought the email was an incredibly kind and considerate gesture from one rider to another.
Lee and I have attended more clinics together than I have with any other horse, ever. I have jumped her with Nona Garson, Linda Allen, Amy Barrington, Greg Best, Michael Page, Joe Forest and probably other luminaries whom I am forgetting about. The clinic setting is really her happy place, because you have plenty of opportunity to check out the fences before being asked to jump them, to warm up in the arena where you are expected to perform and if you spook at something, you get another chance to make it right.
This of course is NOT the case in the jumper ring. I learned quickly that skipping the schooling warm up was simply not an option. And if some condition of the ring changed in between schooling and my round (i.e., they brought out a digital timer), that could be a real deal breaker.
As I had expected, Lee was quick and cat like. She turned well and moved up well. Unfortunately, she was just as quick to chicken out and stop short, even over a fence which she had already jumped. There really was no rhyme or reason. It seemed like with Lee, you either won or you were eliminated. There was no in between.
I spent an inordinate amount of time working with Lee over fences before admitting defeat. I know others would have stopped sooner, and perhaps I should have too, but I will say that looking back at those years I learned some lessons along the way that I am not sure I would have been ready to learn at other points in my career.
Greg Best was one of my favorite clinicians to work with. He is patient and kind, never runs on time, and spends as much focus as is needed to get to wherever you need to get to with a given horse in a session. I had entered Lee in the three foot group; the morning of day one, she had a little bit of a bellyache, prompting a visit from the vet and causing me to pull a UNH school horse into service. I had only ridden that horse once, the day we tried him out for the program, but Windsor was experienced and well-schooled and rose to the occasion admirably. While I was grateful to have a backup come available, I was disappointed to not be able to bring my own horse. When she was cleared by the vet to go to days two and three of the clinic, I was quite relieved.
I have always ridden Lee in a plain cavesson noseband, and a basic snaffle bit. She is difficult in the connection, and seems to go best in a bit with solid rings. At that time, I had her in a single jointed Baucher snaffle. Many equestrians erroneously assume that the Baucher has leverage, because it has rings which attach to the cheekpieces, with a separate ring for your rein. However, what the unique cheekpiece attachment does is in effect to lift the bit higher in the corners of the mouth, thereby causing it to be more stable. It was the best fit I had found for her and she was fairly willing to go to it.
Greg watched me warm up Lee, along with the rest of the group. He doesn’t say much during the warm up, just observes and takes in what he sees. I couldn’t have ridden more than ten minutes before he called me over to ask about my bit.
Now, I had by this time noticed that Greg is a believer in riding in the mildest bit possible. He had already taken away a plethora of twists, gags and elevators from other clinic participants, and I had been feeling pretty good about my Baucher as being a mild enough snaffle.
“I think you have too much bit,” says Greg.
Well, darn. Now what? Greg travels with a bag that I can only compare to that of Mary Poppins—it is a nondescript, small duffle, faded from hour upon hour of sitting in sunny arenas. But when you open it up, it seems to magically contain bits, spurs, straps, doohickeys and all other manner of tools that can modify tack. From the depths of the bag, he pulled out a loop of leather. He called it a sidepull; I have also learned that this piece of equipment can be called a non-mechanical hackamore. Simply put, you remove your horse’s bit and noseband and attach the cheekpieces instead to two rings on the sides of the leather loop; your reins attach to two rings which are positioned just under the jawbones. It seemed like it was just one step up from riding in a halter and leadrope. I said as much to Greg.
“Yes, basically,” he shrugged.
And that was how I rode Lee for nearly five hours over two days in the clinic. The sidepull absorbed any defect in my release or timing, and Lee became more and more freely forward under its influence. I had no trouble at all stopping or steering her. She was so much happier without a bit.
She was again expressing her preferences in tack, if I had only known to listen.
Lee’s swan song as a jumping horse came at a clinic with eventer Amy Barrington. I have ridden with Amy several times; she is a creative instructor and sets up exercises and courses which you don’t think you can possibly jump—but then she breaks it all down into pieces and the next thing you know you have gone and jumped it all. At this clinic, we jumped a skinny one stride, constructed out of half a wooden coop placed on top of half a brick wall, with a wing on one side. Never in a million years did I think Lee would go near something that odd looking, never mind go over it.
Piece by piece, we put the course together. And then we did the whole thing—all the oxers, all the odd combinations and spooky fences, all at 3’-3’3”, without a single refusal. It was like nirvana. But I had had to ride really really hard, wear really big spurs and dig in to the bottom of my bucket of grit to get it done.
And I knew that if I had to ride that hard to get the job done, the horse probably wasn’t meant to do it.
Amy seconded my thoughts, saying, “You might be able to get her through this….but you might not. She sure is hard.”
Around this time, I was completing the USDF “L” judge’s training program, and at my final exam at Poplar Place in Georgia, the most ADORABLE little dark bay mare did some simply wonderful tests at the First Level Championships. “Hmm…”, I thought. “That horse moves and is built a lot like Lee. Maybe I should make her a dressage horse….”
So we put away the jumping tack and put on a dressage saddle. Now THIS would really be her niche, right?
Then Dressage, For Sure
Overall, I feel quite competent in the dressage arena. I can put most horses together to a level appropriate for their training fairly efficiently and I think I have a decent eye for problems from the ground. However, riding Lee on the flat made me feel like I knew nothing—not one thing—about how to put a horse On The Bit. It was so humbling. Even though my main focus for Lee had been as a jumping horse, I also had been steadily working with her dressage training all along the way. I had shown her lightly in the dressage arena; she scored a 65% at her first rated show at Training Level, and had also gone to many local schooling shows, with results ranging from $( % (look up the numbers on your computer) to upper 60’s at Training and First Level.
I began looking for a dressage instructor who would “get” this quirky horse. My first choice was someone who suggested riding her in draw reins—no thank you. I continued to work on my own before connecting with Paulien Alberts. Paulien is based in Holland (of course, why would it be someone local?) and she did a series of clinics in southern Maine geared towards para-dressage riders. The same out of the box thinking that made her successful with equestrians with physical challenges also made her successful for Lee. She was also willing to get on and ride my horse—something no one else had been willing to do. With Paulien on board, I could really see the “dancer” side of Lee come out. It was so much fun.
While the sessions with Paulien helped us to develop, I continued to look for someone closer to home to work with more regularly. For about a year, I worked with another trainer who had a European background, but it became clear that her enthusiasm for working with Lee quickly had waned and I moved on. I found the most success with another travelling clinician, Verne Batchelder. Like Paulien, Verne understood that this horse was unique and was willing to work with us “as is”. He also was willing to ride her, which I think speaks volumes. It is easy to look at Lee and think that she is a simple ride and that it is the pilot who prevents her from achieving her full dressage-y potential. But anyone who has gotten on and actually tried to correctly connect her quickly realizes that she is not that simple at all. It has been a humbling experience to work with a horse that is so hard to put together. And I know that others have judged me for it—both in terms of, “why are you wasting your time” and “why can’t you do a better job”? But their judgments are their problem, not mine. What Lee has taught me is that while the rider is OFTEN the cause of the horse’s problems, they are not always the WHOLE cause of them, and until you have personally sat on a horse and felt what is going on for yourself, you cannot KNOW what is going on. So perhaps don’t be so quick to judge others.
Showing Lee in dressage was easier than showing her over fences, but her performance could be as inconsistent. I took her to the NEDA Spring Show, and she had an absolute meltdown in the busy atmosphere of the Marshfield Fairgrounds (hence the $(% score that is on her record). I scratched from my classes on day two and just took her home. However, the most colorful showing experience I had came at the GMHA dressage show in June of the same year.
It was my birthday weekend, and I travelled to Vermont with my two pugs, Lee, and my sometimes trusty maroon pick up (mercifully now retired and working at a camp somewhere). I was looking forward to a pleasant weekend of good weather, to meet up with some friends, and to ride four Training level dressage tests.
As was my routine, I rode Lee around upon arrival, and although alert, she seemed more relaxed than she had been at the NEDA show. I personally feel that the sprawling layout there is quite horse friendly and have found most of my mounts to be at ease at GMHA. Three of my four tests were scheduled for the Upwey ring, so I concentrated my schooling in that area and then hacked around the rest of the grounds.
The next day, I headed out to Upwey to warm up for the first test. Overnight, a herd of black and white Holstein dairy cows must have been moved to a new field, because this morning, they were all hanging out directly behind the judge’s booth of my arena. As in, judge’s booth, narrow Vermont road, large herd of cows. They seemed to be taking in the warm up, rings, and general increased level of activity with a sort of detached bovine disinterest.
Lee took one look at those cows and went into full on “survival” mode. She would go nowhere near that end of the warm up, even in hand, and actually flipped her tail up, Arabian style, while velociraptor-snorting in their direction. Not one other horse in the warmup was having this sort of reaction. Excellent.
I valiantly carried on and when the time came, tried to ride our test. Lee would go no closer to the judge’s booth than “X”, and at one point was cantering backwards away from the cows. I didn’t even know horses could do that. After what I would consider a heroic effort to create some sort of Dressage in my horse, I saluted the judge and asked to be excused. She leaned out of the booth.
“I think you are very brave!” she yelled out.
Upon returning to stabling, I was beyond frustrated. How many more excuses could I give this animal? I mean, all I wanted her to do was walk trot and canter in the ring with her head down. Seriously, was this too much to ask? Had I not been patient enough?
While glowering in my stall, a friend and her daughter stopped by to see how my ride had gone. One look at my stormy expression said it all. “You know, J.K. has a cowboy with her,” said my friend. “He hacks all of her horses around and gets them over stuff like that. Do you know her? You should go ask if he would ride Lee.”
I knew J.K. by reputation only, and knew she had serious FEI horses that went well in the ring. I also knew I had never, ever, not one time, paid someone to ride my horse for me when they were being bad. It seemed like an admission of failure. But at that point, after everything I had gone through with Lee, I really, really just wanted to ride one dressage test in the ring like a normal horse. So I went to find J.K.
“Hello, we haven’t met,” I said. “My name is Chris, and I work at UNH Equine Program,” (figuring I would throw that in there for good measure). “I hear you have a cowboy with you.”
“Oh, I DO have a cowboy with me!” J.K. enthusiastically responded.
“Could I borrow him for a few minutes?”
So I was introduced to her cowboy, whose actual name I don’t even remember, and then introduced the cowboy to Lee. I now had quite a posse of friends and acquaintances following the saga of “Lee and the Cows in Upwey”, and this posse joined us as I sent Lee and her new cowboy friend towards the mounting block. He was a biggish fellow—not heavy in an out of shape way, just large like a muscled man can be, and he wore full chaps, big spurs, and a helmet only under duress as it was the GMHA policy. He mounted my petite, 15+ hand mare, and gave her a squeeze. She promptly tried to go straight up. He booted her forward, in a totally appropriate way, and she moved forward. “That might be the end of it,” whispered one of the posse members.
“Oh, it better not be the end of it,” I growled. And I knew it wouldn’t be, because she would never give up that quickly.
The cowboy brought Lee to the warmup, and starting at the end furthest away from the cows, who I am pretty sure were now hanging out at the road side edge of their field just to taunt the horses, began to play with Lee in her basic gaits. He slowly and steadily made his way down to the end of the warm up closest to the cows, where he worked her some more. He also let her stand and look, and to blow some more like a velociraptor. She did become slightly more relaxed—but that wasn’t saying too much. After about thirty minutes or so, he rode back over to me.
“Well, I don’t think you’ll be roping cows off of this one,” he drawled in his British accent.
Apparently horses besides my own were having enough problems with the bovine residents that the show management had decided to open up the Upwey arena for schooling that night. I scratched from my afternoon test and made arrangements for the cowboy to ride Lee again during the schooling time. The posse was now double in size, and people had brought alcoholic drinks. They were ready to be entertained.
Lee demonstrated her considerable athletic prowess and made me appreciate that the money I was paying the cowboy was well spent. She leapt, ran sideways and backwards and nearly took out the perimeter string. Again, the cowboy was patient yet firm, and his chief attribute was his ability to sit his hefty self squarely in the saddle no matter where the horse went underneath him. Again, Lee got better, but there was no way I was going to be able to go down centerline with her with cows anywhere near the judge’s booth.
So I scratched yet another test, the morning test for day two, but resolved that I WOULD ride my last test, scheduled for the Walker Ring— all the way across the grounds from the cows and Upwey. The cowboy agreed to be on standby, just in case.
In preparation, I took Lee over and walked her all over the area near Walker (totally cow free) and let her graze there for what seemed like hours. When our scheduled time came, we executed what for us was a near perfect test—she scored a 63% and placed 3rd, but that ribbon may as well have been a gold medal for all that blood, sweat and tears that went into it.
I began to think my horse was autistic. It seemed like she needed a completely steady, stable and predictable environment to perform her best, without any of those pesky distractions or interferences common in the real world. I showed her several more times in recognized dressage competition, but there was always that unpredictability to contend with. I decided that maybe I should focus more on training and clinics with her, and less on showing.
Lee developed to the point where she was able to do most Second and some Third Level movements—but movements only. She does not carry herself in quite enough collection and lacks the quality of connection and throughness required at these levels. Verne understands that, and was willing to work on improving the quality of the connection through the use of movements, instead of drilling endlessly on a 20 meter circle trying to make the connection better. I have always been pleased with the progress that Lee ended up making, but I was also painfully aware that I was still probably trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.
Some friends suggested that I sell Lee. “You really have tried and tried with this horse…maybe it is time to move on?” I know they meant well. But in spite of all the ups and downs, I still liked riding the horse—maybe because each step forward was so hard won. I also had real worries about what would happen to such a quirky horse on the open market.
During all of this, I have always done random things with Lee that you wouldn’t think she would like doing. She has been to the beach several times. I have ridden her while the ROTC students practiced helicopter training across the street from our facility. I have ridden her under the lights in the outdoor at night. She is foot perfect at IHSA flat practice and shows, even with a full set of bleachers and other horses acting naughty around her. She doesn’t flinch with Durham launches its fireworks directly across the street from our facility. But I still struggled to figure out what this horse truly wanted to do. What was her niche? They all have one….I just had to find it.
But really…Competitive Trail?!
In 2013, Denny Emerson began really talking up an event called GMHA Distance Days on his Facebook page. The premier event of the weekend was the three day long 100 mile ride, but divisions were offered with as few as just ten miles required. A friend of mine was actively conditioning her mare for a novice level three day, and for some reason, I got a little caught up in the excitement and decided that perhaps Lee and I could do the ten mile ride with her.
To be quite honest, I would say that any horse who is ridden regularly (let’s say five to six days per week, for an hour or more per day of walk, trot and canter) should be able to handle a distance as short as ten miles without too much fuss. But being diligent, my friend and I took our mares to several parks and local trail systems to work on their “distance” conditioning.
About a week or so before the big event, we took the mares to the local Rockingham Recreational Trail for one final long trot outing. The trail is a former railroad, and it is flat, has decent footing, and stretches all the way from the Newfields/Newmarket line to Manchester, NH, if you are brave enough to cross a few very busy roads (for the record, I am not that brave). Branching off of the rail trail are several other trail networks, mostly maintained by local conservation organizations, all open to non-motorized users, including horseback riders. Having gone back and forth along the main trail several times, on this visit we decided to explore one of these side trails. This proved to be the start of an unexpected adventure.
It became clear that these side trails were less heavily used than the main rail trail, and there were areas in which the brush and branches became quite a bit narrower. We explored several paths, most of which led to dead ends or areas which were too wooded to take the horses. We passed along areas where we were completely in forest and areas which lead us through meadow or formerly logged terrain. It was after passing through one of these more open areas that my friend’s horse began stomping her hind feet in an odd manner, almost like she was kicking out at Lee. Almost immediately, Lee started acting oddly, too, and I looked down to see a wasp sticking out of her neck. Quickly assessing the situation, I squished the wasp and yelled, ‘wasps, GO NOW!!!”
We cantered away as fast as was possible, and amazingly, neither of us was stung ourselves and our mares declined to buck us off. Unfortunately, the only way we knew how to get back to the main trail meant returning through the same area. After catching our collective breath for a few moments, we turned and moved swiftly through the “wasp” area. Neither of us ever saw the nest, but it must have been a ground hive, and a few more stings were acquired going back through that section of trail.
Deciding that we had had enough adventure “off roading”, we returned to the main rail trail and continued our progress towards Epping—away from our trailers, which were at the start of the trail in Newfields. After a few minutes, Lee started flipping her head somewhat violently, almost yanking the reins from my hands and reaching to scratch her nose on her leg. The behavior increased in intensity and persistence, and I realized that she had developed a few hives around the area where I had pulled out the wasp.
I wasn’t too concerned, because the hives seemed to be just around the one area and that seemed to be a logical reaction to a sting. But soon Lee’s entire demeanor became more frantic, more frazzled, and I asked my friend if we could turn around to head back to the trailers—some 5.5 miles away. When my friend turned, she took one look at Lee and I could see by her face that things weren’t good. The hives had spread and increased in size and thickness—almost before your eyes. I vaulted off, and began pulling off tack. Lee’s entire body was quickly consumed—her major leg joints looked like basketballs, her lips puffed like an actress after Botox, and not one square inch of her body was left alone. Terrifyingly, her outer nostrils had also begun to swell. She was clearly in distress, and here we were, miles from our trailers, in the woods, somewhere between Newfields and Epping.
My friend called our vet. We couldn’t even tell her what town we were in. I led Lee, carrying my saddle, to a crossing where the rail trail came close to a road. Some bicyclists passed by and were able to identify the route we were on, and we passed the info along to the vet’s service. And then we stood and waited.
I can’t remember ever feeling so powerless, so helpless and so scared for my horse. After what seemed like an eternity, our vet, Dr. Monika Calitri of Seacoast Equine, arrived. She had been out jogging, and hadn’t even taken the time to change out of her running clothes. She quickly got Lee started on some strong anti-inflammatories and reassured me that as scary as she looked, my horse would probably be okay.
While the medication clearly brought Lee prompt relief, she still was a lumpy, swollen mess and she was in no condition to be ridden back to the trail head. Dr. Calitri, bless her, called her partner and asked him to bring her own personal truck and trailer, still hitched from a show the day before. Once he arrived, we loaded both horses and they took us back to the trail head. What service, what kindness, and I am grateful to this day for her compassion towards my horse.
In spite of this setback, we were able to compete at the ten mile ride and had an amazing time. The people were so open, friendly and welcoming. I loved the chance to be out on the trail and to see areas of the country that I would not have otherwise accessed. I had the notion that this was perhaps something I wanted to do more of.
In spending the summer of 2014 with Denny (see The Tamarack Chronicles, Vol I- VI), I was able to spend hours riding out on the hilly trails around Tamarack. Lee became fitter than she has ever been, and interestingly, the fitter she got, the less spooky she was. Finally, she had become secure and confident. I started riding her in an “s” curve hackamore, which makes it easier to allow for hydrating and eating on trail; but interestingly, she also became so much more willing to just “go”. In the hackamore, she has had moments of being a little spooky or silly, and I have never felt even a little bit out of control. I just don’t need the bit. As she travels down the trail, her lower lip droops. It is sort of adorable.
On trail, Lee is still Lee. She still hates cows. And for the most part, she won’t go first…but never say never, as towards the end of this summer, she has actually begun to willingly lead other horses on familiar trails. She recently acted as babysitter for a green horse on a hack. This could be a sign of the impending apocalypse—just as a heads up.
Crossing the finish line at our first 25 mile ride this August at GMHA caused me to feel so overwhelmed with pride and gratitude. This horse really and truly gave me her everything on the trail, which was rocky, hilly and technical. She readily kept up with a pair of experienced Arabians and quickly pulsed down to the appropriate parameters. I realize that in the scheme of competitive trail, 25 miles is still just the beginning, but compared to anything the horse had done previously, it was far and beyond the best effort she had ever made—and I think she even had fun!
My years with Lee have really taught me so much about what it means to be a horseman. In some ways, I feel like the more I have learned about horsemanship, the less I know. Lee has been a humbling horse to work with, and though many have encouraged me to move her along, I am so glad that I have not done so.
I have always been a rider who adapted disciplines to the horse I had at hand, more or less. In my quest to find a niche for Lee, I have had occasion to clinic with so many amazing horsemen and women, and their lessons have been important ones. I have experimented with different types of equipment and approaches for training. I have competed and schooled, travelled and stayed home. I have literally ridden over mountains and across rivers.
Lee has taught me to listen to the horse. And in her own way, she is predictably unpredictable. Lee moonlights as an IHSA flat horse for the University of New Hampshire team, and she is probably the most consistent draw of the group. At one practice, she carried our walk trot rider around the ring after she had been bucked off another horse. The fall had been scary, the rider’s confidence severely shaken, and Lee just quietly moved along, in spite of the rider’s green aids. I was so proud of her that day, even more proud than when she carried another rider to the reserve high point championship at our home show.
I have enjoyed rides under stars and moonlit skies.
I have galloped down the beach.
So while Lee has never turned into an elite competitor, she is still an amazing animal, and I am so grateful that our paths have crossed.
January 2014 marked my official one year anniversary as a student of yoga. Our instructors (at 3 Bridges Yoga in Durham and Portsmouth, NH, and York, ME) are kind enough to call us “yogis”, which I have always understood to mean someone who is a master of yoga—and I am far from that! But for simplicity’s sake I will use the term “yogi” in this blog when referring to myself and fellow students at our studio.
“But we thought this blog was about horses, and riding, and all of that,” says You the Reader. “Why are you talking about yoga?”
Well, because the more I learn about yoga, the more I like it, and the more connections I can make to the pursuit of equestrian interests. In fact, some people (and especially my ex) have told me for years that I really should try yoga. “Yoga would be so good for your tight hamstrings.” “Yoga can really help you to relax; you are always so wound up.” “Yoga is a really good work out, not like going to the gym at all.” But if you know me at all, pretty much the best way to guarantee that I WON’T do something is to tell me it is just the thing I should do. I thought yoga would be a bunch of overly positive and bendy people sitting on mats, breathing and sweating. What I found is that there are in fact lots of positive people at yoga, as well as bendy ones, and you do breathe and sweat. But yoga HAS been good for my tight hamstrings, and to help me relax, and to cross train muscles that I don’t use in other aspects of my life. Gosh darn if my ex wasn’t right…wonder what else he was right about…but I digress!
There are many physical benefits to the body from doing yoga. For equestrians in particular, yoga improves flexibility and suppleness across the board, but especially in the hips, shoulders and spine. You will expand your ability to center and balance. You can increase your core strength and stability. And yoga is low impact, so it doesn’t wear out important joints like your knees or jar your back. For these reasons alone, yoga is good for equestrians.
But what especially surprised me was how much you can learn about the psychology of riding effectively through the practice of yoga. So, here are five important insights I have learned from yoga, and how they relate to my world as an equestrian.
Insight # 1: Be Present
One of the best things about yoga is its emphasis on “being present”. I have often seen this phrase printed on t-shirts and stickers and thought “that’s a good sentiment, but who has time?” When you come to the yoga studio, ‘being present’ is a real and actual thing which you strive to do. I can get so busy, sometimes it feels like I am just frantically running from one activity to the next, valiantly trying to extinguish one fire before it ignites something else. My mind is always racing, full of random thoughts about this and that, to the point that I have taken to carrying around a “Take a Note Notebook”, where I can at least jot down the random thoughts which pop into my head while I am doing one thing that have nothing to do with that thing at all. In this way I can let go of the thoughts and try to focus on what I am supposed to be doing.
In the practice of yoga, the best teachers acknowledge the fact that we all have a stream of thoughts running through our head that has nothing to do with what we are doing and which draw our focus and attention away from the moment at hand. So while you are reading this blog, you might also be thinking, “oh, I needed to pick up some bread” or “gee whiz, I never got the laundry done”. Another example, and more significant: how many times have you been in conversation with someone, and all you are doing is thinking about your response to what they are saying, rather than listening? Our yoga teachers would just tell us to acknowledge those random thoughts and then send them on their way.
Yoga practice at our studio begins with a few moments of “arriving on your mat”. We sit in a comfortable seat, close our eyes, and send those miscellaneous thoughts out of our minds. Instead, you concentrate on your breath, and on how your body is feeling that day. Now, I used to think that this was all yoga was—sitting still, breathing in and out, occasionally doing a movement. But this quiet and focused breathing is just the beginning— and also the essence, as when the practice becomes too much or you have lost your way, you return to the breath.
Unfortunately, this same mental chatter follows me onto my horses when I ride. For me, riding is the best part of my day—getting to the barn is the first thing I want to do, and I would always prefer to ride early in the day, when my energy is highest and my focus most clear. But it is not always possible. When my mind is busy, and I do not focus on what I am feeling in the horse, the quality of my communication immediately deteriorates. Riding with a distracted mind is probably as unsuccessful as when we ride with a strong agenda. The Dark Mare (Lee) is especially sensitive to my lack of focus.
Yoga has increased my ability to send those extraneous thoughts out of my mind. I realize that now, when my mind starts to get distracted and I have circled the ring without focus, I am more quickly aware of the fact and able to return to the present moment. In riding, it is also easy to only concentrate on the long term goal, and in so doing, we miss all of the present moments which help us to get there. But even more significantly, if we cannot learn to focus on the minute to minute of the day to day, we may be less likely to get to the ultimate goal we are aiming for.
Insight # 2: Find your Edge
Yoga is an individual practice. We are encouraged to keep our focus on our own mats, meaning that you are not letting your eyes wander around the room to see how and what everyone else is doing. By maintaining focus on your own mat, you become more aware of how a pose or posture is feeling within your own body, and you are able to focus on your own breath. When I am able to maintain this focus, the rest of the room sort of disappears, and I am able to acknowledge how I am feeling that day and at that moment.
Each pose has variations. Each pose has levels of difficulty, which is a uniquely personal quality to define. What I find easy you may find quite difficult. It is up to each yogi to find her or his “edge”. This is the place where the pose becomes a little bit challenging but is not unattainable. The goal is never to outdo your neighbor or to reach/stretch/bend/twist until you are in pain. The goal is to find that place where it is a little bit hard but you can still challenge yourself to focus on your breath and stay present in the moment and just be. A powerful and related concept is that our minds will give up before our body does. So when things get hard, that pesky voice starts up again, saying “you can’t do this”. It is a practice to learn to silence that voice, or to teach it to say “this is hard but I can breathe and I can do my best” instead.
How ISN’T this concept relevant to us as equestrians? If you hope to develop new skills, increase your feel, better your timing and coordination—you have to find your edge. This is the place where the demands are high but the outcome is still attainable. You have to learn new skills and gradually push yourself out of your personal comfort zone. We have to pay attention to our own riding, and not compare our progress to those around us who are on their own journey. We have to stay attuned to our own horse, body and situation, and use our strengths to help support our weaknesses.
No one finds all aspects of yoga or riding to be easy or simple. Some poses will be easier and some will be harder. Some parts of being a horseman will come smoothly and others will take time.
“When the student is ready, the Teacher will appear.” The Buddha
Insight # 3: Return to the Breath
So what happens when we get to our edge? Well, if you are like me, you begin to tense up both mentally and physically. You think, “This is hard. Can I do this? I can’t do this. But I want to do this. I have to try to do this.” And so many of us manifest this mental resistance with physical—we grit our teeth, we tense our muscles, we hold our breath.
Vinyasa yoga (the style which I have been practicing) is a Sanskrit term which essentially means “breath synchronized with movement”. So when you move through the poses, generally there is an inhale phase followed by an exhale. Coordinating your movement with this steady breath allows you to flow through the postures.
When a yogi finds their edge, they focus on the breath. In. Out. You quiet your mind of all of the negative thoughts. And you breathe. We breathe something like 28,800 times a day—we ought to be fairly good at it.
When we find our edge as riders, we too should return to the breath. This could be as literal as that simple action—remembering to breathe in and out, allowing our nerves and tension to leave the body and permitting the body to return to its neutral and ready state, so it can do those physical movements that we have worked so hard to master. Or if we consider that breath is the foundation to yoga, we could think about a rider returning to the basics of correct riding and training—remaining balanced over the horse’s center, the Training Pyramid, or even just the concept of taking things down a notch and returning to a skill that we have mastered when things start to not go as smoothly as we had hoped.
Insight # 4: Honor your Body
There are days where I have to drag myself to yoga. I know I should go, but I am feeling tired or overwhelmed with other obligations; sometimes I am just being lazy. Most of the time, I can motivate myself when I feel this way, and I am glad for having gone to practice. Sometimes I go anyway, but I don’t push myself as hard as I might on another day. And, I am still learning that it is okay sometimes to acknowledge that some days it is just too much to ask of yourself to always push through; on those days I just go home.
There is a pose in yoga called “child’s pose”. The yogi is close to the ground with bent knees pressed wide. You reach your arms forward and press your forehead to the mat. Its name is well suited, as you can easily imagine a small child positioned in this way. It is a pose of rest, and you are encouraged to come here when you lose your breath, when the practice has become too hard, when you just need a break. There is no judgment, only encouragement to ‘honor your body’ when it tells you that it needs to be in child’s pose.
Shouldn’t we all have permission to take a “child’s pose” when we need it? To acknowledge that today was a hard day, and I am physically and mentally tired, and so in my ride tonight, I will need to listen to that and not push too hard? Or to give ourselves permission to do what we need to do to be comfortable: stretch, to take a walk break, to go for a hack instead of work in the arena. You don’t have to train for the Olympics every day.
I think our horses need permission to be in ‘child’s pose’ as much as we do. They are beings too, and they do not feel the same from one day to the next. The day all of the snow is sliding off the roof might make them be jumpy and nervous and unfocused on your aids, and so you cannot demand as much from them in the work. The ride after a hard school or one where they learned a new skill might need to be lighter, easier or emphasize things which they do well. Horses cannot be expected to be the same from day to day any more than we can expect that of ourselves.
We can’t all go at 110% all the time. We have to honor our bodies and respect that each day is different.
Insight # 5: Find Gratitude
At the beginning of class, while we are still settling our minds and trying to become present in the moment, our teachers often ask us to take a moment to set an intention for class. The intention could be a goal (today I will stay present), it could simply be to honor your body and all that it does for you or it could even be to focus on a person or other special element of your life to which you wish to send energy.
Maybe this last statement sounds a bit “out there” and is too touchy feely for you, and if so, that’s okay. But what I find comes to me, over and over and over, is to have gratitude for the good things going my way. For how lucky I am to have my horses, and the freedom and time to ride them. For how lucky I am to have a body which allows me to still do the things I love to do. It is so, so easy to focus on what we don’t have or where we are wishing we were, and in doing so, we lose sight of the awesome things we all have around us in the here and now. Okay, that sounds super cheesy and Hallmark card worthy, and I realize that sentiments like that are expressed all the time. I guess we all need to come to our own realization of that fact, and the practice of yoga has helped to do that for me.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian