Without a doubt, 2020 has not turned out to be the year that anyone anticipated. Since March 11, when the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak to be a worldwide pandemic, most of the structures, routines and patterns of our day to day lives came crashing to a halt. Seven months later, we are still riding the tide of changes effected as a result. Although change is inevitable, forced change, particularly when it occurs so swiftly, can be difficult to process.
Here in the U.S., the pandemic has only highlighted the gross inequities in our society, and the stress it has induced has brought many citizens to the breaking point. I am deeply grateful to have some sense of security in these challenging times, but I grow increasingly aware that my situation comes from a place of privilege, and that I work in an industry still uncomfortable with this subject. Recent dialogue on the questions of diversity, accessibility and disparity within both the equine industry and society as a whole is essential and ongoing.
When I read news stories about current events, I am gripped with a feeling of helplessness. If I think too deeply about the pandemic and its wide-reaching implications, about how it has exposed the inherent weaknesses in even supposedly “developed” societies, I feel a sense of panic about what is yet to come. Individually, we have so little control over what will happen next; collectively, we are on the same ride whether we like it or not.
What I can control, in uncertain times, is my own attitude and my own choices. Small acts of kindness, compassion and empathy do matter, and many small acts taken as a whole become something greater, a power that can overcome hatred, prejudice, self-centeredness and adversity.
With all that is going on in the world right now, it feels trite to discuss my personal goals in riding. But I also believe that despite everything, it is critical to keep moving forward when and where we can, and spending time with my horses is something that brings me a sense of fulfillment. I know this is a sentiment that many of my readers can identify with. Like many of you, I am a goal-oriented person; having something concrete that I am working toward helps to provide focus to my rides and a structure to my routine.
Early in the pandemic, I was scrolling through Facebook, where I saw that a friend had posted that she was participating in a 1,900 mile equestrian challenge along the Pony Express route. Intrigued, I clicked on the post (as one does) to learn more. This led me to the website of WARHORSE Endurance, the brainchild of Christina Hyke, an avid endurance rider, organizer and photographer based in Wisconsin. The mission of WARHORSE Endurance, according to its website, is “to provide riders, carriage drivers, runners, hikers, cyclists and walkers with a goal to aim for, an online community to cheer each other on and a completion award to commemorate their amazing journey.” Through this program, Hyke created a series of virtual challenges conceived to keep riders motivated and on track in their conditioning plans, despite the cancellation of most formal distance rides. But perhaps more importantly, she also established an international community that (via social media) could celebrate in our uniqueness while sharing in each other’s progress, offering support during setbacks and celebrating success.
To me, this sounded like just the tonic to neutralize the pandemic blues.
The WARHORSE Endurance “virtual ride” concept is rather simple. Mileage reporting is done on the honor system; entrants track the miles they spend leading, riding or driving their horse using their preferred app, then upload their progress to the website. There is also the option to include human “conditioning” miles spent hiking, running or bicycling to the mileage total. You can include miles logged all on one horse or on multiple horses. You can drive your horse. You can handwalk your rehabbing veteran, longline your green bean, or any and all combinations of the preceding options. Each challenge is what you make of it, so long as the miles are spent purposefully.
By the time I learned about WARHORSE, Hyke had already filled enrollment in two 100 mile virtual challenges and was working on filling a third. She donates a portion of each entry to charity, and when entrants reach the 100 mile threshold, they receive a medal, a patch, and/or a lapel pin, depending on the specific event.
The Pony Express 1,900 Mile Challenge that had caught my eye was Hyke’s newest venture. In what might be the longest virtual equestrian challenge in the world, entrants log their miles and track their progress along the approximate route of the Pony Express. The Pony Express ran for just eighteen months between April 1860 and October 1861, with riders starting in St. Joseph, Missouri (today commemorated by the National Pony Express Museum) and ending in Sacramento, California (now marked by the Pony Express Memorial). Back then, riders covered the route in only ten days. Virtual riders have seven years.
Time has eroded many of the specific locations of the route’s 100 +/- stops, and according to the National Park Service, “the trail’s actual route and exact length are matters of conjecture.” Therefore, the virtual route is approximated based on Hyke’s research, and an online map lets riders learn about known points of interest along the way.
Now, 100 miles is a long way to ride, run, hike or bike. 1,900 miles—from Missouri to California—is almost unfathomable. But with seven years to finish, that’s just 271 miles per year. Less than one mile a day. And if you are riding in some of Hyke’s 100 Mile Virtual Challenges, those miles can also count toward the Pony Express.
Broken down into smaller pieces, this is do-able.
In early June, I signed up for the Pony Express Virtual Challenge. Within about a week, I decided that the medal for the Valkyrie 100 Mile Challenge was pretty cool (a winged Pegasus), so I signed up for that too. Then I added the Ranger 100 Mile Challenge to my agenda when it opened in early July. And I am not ashamed to admit that on September 1, I signed up for the Journey 100 Mile Challenge too.
For me, each of these challenges is a unique opportunity and a motivation get out there with my horses, even if the world is feeling heavy. I am able to customize each Challenge, pushing me to spend more time on trail with all of my horses. It has provided a necessary and refreshing break to the routine of schooling in the arena. It has motivated me to visit new to me public trail networks. It has reminded me that while conventional competition can be fun, it has never been the end all be all for me when it comes to riding and horsemanship.
You might be thinking, I could never ride my horse 100 miles. That is so far! But yet….
Horses walk at about 3 miles per hour. Most of my rides have only been forty-five minutes to an hour, two or three miles in length. Since June, I have logged nearly 300 miles, mostly walking along the powerlines in my backyard. All of these small rides, over time, add up to something much larger.
And along the way, so many beautiful moments.
Such as– my retired distance mare Lee completing all 100 miles of the Valkyrie Challenge by late August, the final ride a 2+ mile hack squeezed in between thunderstorms on a Sunday evening that I probably would not have taken otherwise.
Or this–my Third Level dressage pony Anna completing 95 miles toward the Ranger 100 Mile Challenge. One evening, we were followed by a doe deer; on another, we came face to face with a surprised barred owl. Dividing our time between ringwork and trails, I hoped to complete the Challenge by the end of October. Weather willing, it looks like we are on track to do just that. Where our dressage training has felt less than stellar lately, here is a goal that we can attain.
With former lesson horse Marquesa, I have carved out a special route now dubbed the “Queso Loop” in her honor. Just over a mile and half in length, it is the perfect outing for a 24-year-old veteran mare when I am short on time. This past week, we found fresh moose tracks right near our farm.
And on the Pony Express route, their collective efforts have taken me out of Missouri, through Kansas and into Nebraska.
But for the Journey 100 Mile Challenge, I decided to do something a little different. The Journey Medal design incorporates the running Warhorse logo, the flying Valkyrie and the Pony Express rider into one piece of art, and the Challenge is dedicated to “enjoying the journey”. Instead of only using miles ridden on one specific horse, I decided that the only logical way to tackle this final 100 mile challenge of 2020 would be to divide the miles among each of my five mares, twenty miles each. It seemed such a beautiful symbol of the journey I have been on and continue to travel with each horse, as unique individuals.
As of October 15, I have 60.6 miles toward Journey’s completion. Lee handily finished her twenty mile contribution early on; Queso has posted just over thirteen miles and young Izzy, who is just learning how to go out on trail, has added 10.5. Once she has finished Ranger, Anna will start working on her twenty mile segment. And with three-year-old Nori, who is not yet backed, I have handwalked just over eighteen miles, often in the dark of a mid-autumn evening. I hope to complete each mare’s segment before autumn’s breeze turns to winter’s chill, but even if I don’t, every stride my horses take brings us one step closer to attaining the goal.
And in reality, this is how we collectively must get through these unstable times. The outcome is uncertain, the path twisting and forward progress at times practically impossible to measure. We must always remember that the bigger goal is achieved through smaller steps and day to day victories. But each time we make the choice to stay positive, to have faith that events will resolve, to believe that light will always prevail over darkness, we move one step closer to resolution.
Motivation, or the lack thereof, is something which we all have to deal with from time to time. When it comes to pursuing my riding goals, fitting riding time into my busy schedule, and/or doing all the various chores related to maintaining my horses and farm, lack of motivation is something which I have only rarely struggled with. In fact, skipping a ride for even valid reasons (pouring buckets of rain, celebrating a holiday) or shirking on a duty (not grooming my retired horse every day) usually causes me to go into a state of self-flagellating guilt.
Until this spring.
This spring has been tough on me for reasons wholly unrelated to my horses. The truth is that there is some pretty heavy “life” stuff going on, which I will get through, but the going is pretty deep right now, and I am getting tired of slogging. Enough about that but suffice it to say that this issue has taken a TON of life energy to manage and it has left me feeling depleted, insecure and not confident.
In addition, for the past five years, I have been dealing with on again/off again knee swelling and pain which has defied a causative diagnosis but which has responded well to draining and steroid injections. Usually it happened to one knee at a time and then the joint stayed quiet for months to years in between flare ups and treatment. This January, both of my knees decided to gang up on me. There was the “bad” one and the “worse” one. This time around, my doctor decided to schedule an exploratory arthroscopy to try to get some definitive answers. While all the “pre approvals” and pre-operative appointments were scheduled, the pain in my knees just escalated. My knees and calves swelled. Riding went from being non painful to bearable to misery at anything other than the walk. Before my surgery, doing really normal people things, like putting on pants and socks, was nearly impossible to do without pain. So you can imagine that giving proper leg aids was also a challenge. I felt useless and ineffective on a horse.
Being in pain stinks. Chronic pain becomes like a mantle that you can’t quite put down. You can numb it, you can suppress it, but it never really goes away. You don’t sleep as well, you don’t eat well, and you start to weigh your actions in terms of whether the pain they will incur is worth the outcome. Example: is it worth climbing the stairs one more time to get a sweater? Or would I rather just be cold today?
So it would be easy to label this pain as the cause for my loss of motivation. I tried to keep going, but I found that increasingly I would let excuses slip in to justify not riding.
“It is too cold.”
“It looks like rain and I don’t want to get my tack wet.”
“The footing is too muddy/snowy/icy/dry/uneven.”
“I have no one to ride with and my horse is going to be upset to leave the group.”
Or I might manage to ride, but only stayed on for thirty minutes before being “done”.
I struggled to set any type of goals for the 2017 season at all. I blamed it on not knowing what the outcome of the arthroscopy was going to be, and therefore how long I would be out of commission. But in reality, I was feeling overwhelmed by the effort it would take to actually DO any of the things which I could imagine doing. You know, things like actually hitching the trailer, putting tack in it, and going somewhere with a horse.
I had had some tentative plans to enter a few early season distance rides with Lee. I even got so far as to put one entry in the mail. But I scratched just days later, after having a really bad weekend in terms of knee pain. This was a perfectly acceptable reason for not doing the ride. But the underlying truth was that I couldn’t stomach the idea of doing all the work to get ready to go to the ride, loading/hitching the trailer, or getting up super early to be there on time. The ride itself was the least of my worries.
WTF was wrong with me????
Apathy ap*a*thy (noun) Lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern
Synonyms: Indifference, lack of interest, lack of enthusiasm, lack of concern, uninterestedness, lethargy, ennui
My Facebook feed is dominated by horses, dogs and cats, sprinkled here and there with a few posts about children or nature. On any given Sunday, dozens of people I know have been out and about with horses in tow, attending clinics, dressage and jumper shows, schooling cross country, attending trail rides and more. They post their pics and rave about how wonderful the day was and how much fun they had. This spring, I would just look at these posts and think… “huh, that seems like a lot of work. Good for them.” And I would stare out my kitchen window at my four horses and sip my coffee.
I did the basic chores. The horses were groomed, fly sprayed, shod, and had their spring vaccines. I went to get additional hay to carry us through the season and ordered grain. I sent the trailer for its spring tune up and inspection. I laundered winter blankets and scrubbed and stored winter shoes. I started transitioning the horses to grass turn out.
I rode Lee and Anna four or five days per week. Lee hacked or longed. Anna did light dressage schools, hacked, and practiced wearing a double. Izzy went for walks on the driveway and learned how to stand on the cross ties and wear a fly hat. Marquesa was groomed and ridden by friends. It was all done by rote.
I tried to forgive myself for feeling this way. I tried to be patient with my body, which seemed determined to make me miserable. I tried to set super small goals each day (like, today I will do ONE extra thing that needs to get done). I tried, with all of the morale I had left to muster, to not completely stop moving. I worried that if I did that, I would never get moving again.
Coming About: A nautical term, used in sailing to indicate that the bow of the boat will start to turn through the wind
Synonyms: Helm’s Alee
I had my knee surgery on May 23. After being in so much pain for so long, the surgery wasn’t much worse. Unfortunately, the procedure hasn’t yielded any definitive answers but the overall cleanup which occurred (along with yet another drain/injection of the other knee) has left me feeling better than I have in months. I am still not allowed to ride, but I have had some students coming up to keep Lee and Marquesa going. I might try to put Anna on the longe line later. We’ll see.
While I have been on lay up, I have had plenty of time to think and analyze and assess. And what I think I have come to is that how I feel is how I feel…and it is okay. Maybe I don’t have huge performance goals for the season with my horses. But that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy them and keep moving forward. Sometimes, your body and soul just needs some time to heal. That is where my life energy is focused right now.
I set a few small goals for myself for the period during which I am going to be laid up: 1) re-read The New Basic Training of the Young Horse by Ingrid and Reiner Klimke 2) work on setting up a website for my farm 3) write a few blogs. I have done some work on all three.
Last Saturday, I worked at the Central New England Region Show Jump Rally as the course designer and a judge. The weather was pretty much perfect—sunny, slight breeze, temps in the mid to upper 60’s. The courses rode well and the riders seemed to have fun. I was surrounded by friends, students, former students and parents. Several of the riders were trying to qualify to compete at the USPC National Championships later this summer and it was exciting to see them ride up to the challenge. I actually had fun. I started to remember what that felt like.
Tues May 30 was Izzy’s birthday. I took a few conformation photos of her so that we can compare her in one year’s time. She has been coming into the barn independently for grooming and handling daily. She makes me smile whenever I enter the paddock with her friendly and inquisitive nature.
Slowly, I can feel some of my motivation coming back. I can guarantee that I won’t be taking the world by storm this year. But maybe, just maybe, I can get moving in the right direction again.
With Anna, I hope to make it out for some lessons with Verne Batchelder when he is in town, and maybe make it to one dressage show. With Lee, maybe I can do some further exploration of my local trail network, or ship up to Tamarack Hill to ride with Denny, or to Pawtuckaway State Park to ride with friends. Maybe we do a competitive ride, maybe we don’t. I can guarantee you that Lee doesn’t care. I want to introduce Izzy to the trailer, do some basic in hand work, and improve her behavior with the farrier.
This is progress. These are actual tasks I can see myself accomplishing. There is hope.
I am usually a results driven person, and many of my personal goals have revolved around competition. But as Denny (Emerson) says frequently, at the end of the day, no one cares about how you did at a show except for you, and your mother (and she only cares because she wants you to come back in one piece). Perhaps the theme for this season will be to learn to enjoy the journey and to find a balance between the process and the result. I hope that by looking at my goals from a different perspective, I may be able to make progress towards them without starting to feel overwhelmed, apathetic or detached.
In this way, I will try to Come About. As with turning a boat, it won’t happen immediately and I may have to fight the tides. But so long as I keep pressure on the tiller, I should see this ship turn.
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.
I have just returned from four days in Orlando, FL, during which time I attend the annual meeting of the Board of Directors for the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA). This group was founded in 1967, and next year will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. This is of course a significant milestone, and much discussion at the meeting centered around the organization’s history.
My birthday this year will be one which many also consider a milestone, as it closes out another decade. Although these landmarks are somewhat arbitrary (why do we care more when the number ends in a zero? Couldn’t we just as joyfully commemorate the 49th anniversary as the 50th?), the tradition of giving them greater attention does provide us with a good opportunity to reflect on where we have come from, where we are at, and where we still hope to go. Otherwise, as Ferris Bueller was want to say:
If organizations such as the IHSA hope to remain relevant over the long term, some degree of calculated evolution is required. Therefore, these groups tend to define a mission statement, and then create “strategic plans”, which carefully map out their objectives for the near future, the middle range and the long term. Otherwise, lack of focus or stagnation will result in the loss of members who become drawn to more contemporary opportunities.
I have always sort of wondered in awe at people who have been able to manage their lives with a similar “strategic plan” sort of approach. In my experience, it has usually seemed like the harder I tried to get to one specific place, the more swiftly the tide carried me elsewhere. While I have enjoyed (most of) these adventures, back roads and eddies, I sometimes wonder how things would be if I had taken a more focused and precise approach.
Last winter, I had the opportunity to participate in an online coaching series called “Stirrup Your Life”. Geared for equestrians and led by my dear friend Jen Verharen of Cadence, Inc., the series led participants through a series of exercises, reflections and readings which allowed each of us to create a vision, to identify our core values and our limiting beliefs, and then to perhaps have the courage to “step into the gap” of discomfort, to stretch out of the known and familiar, in order to take steps towards achieving personal goals which were in keeping with our vision. It was truly the first time I have ever sat down and really tried to concretely identify what I wanted my life to be like, restrictions, reality or other negatives be damned.
Participating in this coaching series was one of those activities which didn’t seem that significant in the immediate moment, but now, nearly one year later, I have begun to recognize the impact it has had on my way of thinking about goal setting and the pursuit of a contented life. One of Jen’s main points was that if you are living a life which is out of integrity with your core values, you will likely always feel that something is wrong or missing. It is all too easy to get caught up in the “must do’s” or “should do’s”, and then to wake up and realize that somehow you are so full of ‘busyness’ that you don’t have the time to do those things which are truly most important to you. We, as individuals, really do have the ability to modify the path we are on. That is not to say that taking the steps to change the route is easy to do; in fact, usually it is anything but. However, more of us are prisoners of our own mistaken beliefs, preconceived ideas and bad habits than we care to admit.
One of my core values is a commitment towards living my life with as much mindfulness towards sustainability as is possible given my current resources. On several levels, I have not been doing a good enough job in this area, which has certainly contributed to feelings of discontent and frustration. The term “sustainability” is a trendy one right now. But what is really meant by it?
Merriam Webster defines “sustainability” as:
Able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
Involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
Able to last or continue for a long time.
Usually when most of us think of sustainability, we are referring to definition # 2 (which of course relates to # 1 and #3). But when it comes to career, life goals and personal ambitions, it is becoming abundantly clear to me that definitions # 1 and 3 apply to these areas, as well.
There is a balance in everything. It is great to have goals, but some goals are exclusive to each other, and so sometimes we have to compromise or shift focus in order to accommodate needs in multiple areas, or prioritize the thing which we cannot live without. There needs to be a balance between wanting to do EVERYTHING, RIGHT NOW, and pacing yourself. In order to make the choices which are right for each one of us, we must know where it is we hope to go.
Envisioning a sustainable future for me doesn’t just relate to installing solar panels, composting the manure or eating locally. Sustainability means that the life energy I am putting into an activity is worth the benefit I am getting out of it. Choosing to live sustainably means that I am deliberately and mindfully putting my time into work (paid or unpaid), relationships and other endeavors which renew and inspire me, not those which leave me feeling drained, depressed or demoralized.
I have learned to check in with my vision regularly—whenever I need to refocus or to consider whether a given commitment is in keeping with my need for a sustainable life. Visions can be revised or edited as needed but must always accommodate core values, just as an organization returns to its mission statement and edits its strategic plan if it is not working.
This particular blog post may not seem as “horse related” as some of the others. For me personally, many components of my vision are about horses and my equine aspirations. Some of these goals have proven to be exclusive of other ambitions which most people would consider to be more traditional. Most of the time, I am okay with that. But I would be lying if I said that I never question myself and the path I have chosen.
Many of the concepts of sustainability relate not just to protecting the planet but to living a meaningful life. And for me right now, this is everything.
“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.
Just prior to my departure from Tamarack Hill, Denny asked me what the most compelling lessons of the summer had been. I found myself a little tongue tied, as it was nearly impossible to briefly summarize all of the concepts, large and small, that I will bring forward to my training, teaching and personal philosophies. My time at Tamarack has been hugely influential; how to encapsulate it in just a few words?
I have been home from Vermont for less than a week, and slowly I am letting the dust settle from three months away. Now that I have had some time for reflection, I think I am finally able to begin to tackle the answer to Denny’s question. So here we go….
What DID you Do on your Summer Vacation?
Denny and May were generous enough to allow me to bring both of my horses to Tamarack this summer; as discussed in The Tamarack Chronicles: Volume I, had quite different goals with each of them. I can confidently say that both horses met and exceeded my expectations of progress during the course of this summer. The growth was slow and steady; while I was aware that both horses were improving, it is really now that I am able to step back and take a look at the overall development that I can acknowledge just how far they both came.
Lee has evolved into a true competitive trail horse. Her current level of fitness exceeds anything that I have previously brought her to. During our time in Vermont, she successfully completed 15 mile rides at GMHA and Hartland Riding Club and her first 25 mile ride at GMHA. On my last day at Tamarack, Denny and I did our own personal 16 mile ride with Lee and Cordie, so though that ride didn’t include the vetting procedures it certainly counts towards her increased fitness level. If everything stays on track, she will compete at the 25 mile ride at the GMHA Distance Days in late August.
Beyond the physical changes, Lee has grown tremendously in confidence. While she still does not want to be the lead horse on a trail if someone else is available to do the job, she strides out with power and ease. I have been riding her in an “S” curve hackamore, a style which Denny uses on Roxie and Cordie when hacking out, and feel completely in control. Not only that, I think she is happier to move forward in the hackamore than in a bit. She is less spooky both in the barn and out. I think that she has finally found her niche.
Anna has returned to her more confident self over fences, and the opportunity to jump “little and often” has helped to make jumping less of an anxiety filled experience for me. I competed in both of the Tamarack Jumper shows, getting back up to the 2’9” level in the second show, and competed at the Huntington Schooling Trials. With a re-emphasis on correct basics, I think I will be able to maintain this level of confidence as we move forward. I have entered her at two USEA events, King Oak and Stoneleigh Burnham, this fall.
In school, teachers are trained in pedagogical theories, based on current educational research. For example, elementary school teachers who help youngsters learn to read will use a combination of pedagogical approaches: phonics, whole language, etc. Some approaches work better for one student than another, while some students will learn no matter which approach is used. Therefore, teachers must rely on a tool box of different techniques and exercises, all while keeping a consistent philosophy in mind regarding their overall objective.
In my opinion, the best horse trainers and coaches are the ones who have a “training philosophy”, or pedagogy, which is the result of their own equestrian education and experience. The best philosophies are grounded in classical theory, a calm and patient approach, and compassion. The best trainers know that while it is important to keep an open mind and to learn about new techniques, they are also not inclined to go for the latest fad or shortcut. They know that their system will work for their horses and riders.
It is clear in working with Denny that his sixty odd years of riding experience have given him a personal pedagogy for riding education. He admits freely that he has made mistakes (and has learned from them) and that he tends to jump in feet first to new endeavors, which honestly is part of why he has been so widely successful. He regularly references the great riders and coaches of past eras (LeGoff, Steinkraus, Chapot, Jenkins, Davidson, and others) as well as the current era (Balkenhol, Davidson Jr, Dujardin, etc). In other words, he honors the legacy left by those who have come before but also continues to learn from those who are currently coaching and competing.
One of the more compelling comments which Denny made this summer was regarding the young up and coming professionals in equestrian sport. He said that in his opinion, there are two phases to a rider’s career—first, one must learn the craft, and second, one shoots for the top. Denny’s observation is that many young riders are hungry for phase two to begin, and so they sort of “gloss over” phase one. It is easy to understand why that is. Phase two is where the glory, prestige and fame occur. Phase one requires patience, hard work, diligence, persistence, and comes with little glory, prestige or fame. But without taking the time to develop your Personal Pedagogy as a trainer, based on the classical work that has come before you, it is much less likely that phase two is even going to happen. Sure, some people can buy fancy well trained horses or talk their way into getting others to buy them these horses, but for the most part, the holes will start to come through.
Denny told me this summer that when he was still actively doing clinics across the country, he was often introduced as a gold medalist, from his team’s win at the 1974 World Championships. While this fact was true, he said that it was AFTER that point that he really learned how to ride, and developed his understanding of the importance of keeping the lower leg under the rider and not jumping ahead with the upper body. His point is that in spite of the fact that he had won a gold medal, he was really still in Phase One of his career—learning his craft.
So in being exposed to Denny’s teaching this summer, it is clear to me that his Personal Pedagogy is one which emphasizes correct basics, slow, steady and methodical training, and striving to ensure that horses are left happy and content (as opposed to mentally fried and physically exhausted) at the end of a work set. Perhaps this is the most compelling lesson of the summer—it is far, far better to stop too soon in your training than to push too far or too long. As is true in so many aspects of horses, in the long run it is faster to go slow.
Being at Tamarack gave me the opportunity to step away from my “real life” and be around people who are truly driven to ride and excel. Everyone at Tamarack works hard, every day, and as summer goes along, the days get busy. The horses are happy and content, the barn is CLEAN and riders routinely ship in for training. I had my own two to ride daily, and often also was given the opportunity to hack out with Denny on Cordie, Roxie or Atti, or with fellow working student Katie on the babies, Derwin and Q. I wish I knew how many miles we logged over the course of the summer on the plentiful trails around Tamarack—a few hundred, I would guess!
It became clear to me over the course of the summer that I had been stuck in a rut with my own horses’ training programs. There is an expression, “if you keep doing what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always got” or something to that effect. Being at Tamarack allowed me to reassess my basics and especially hone in on DETAILS that allowed my horses to make big strides forward. As a trainer, I will endeavor to keep my focus on these details as I return to working independently at home.
Additionally, Denny’s emphasis on correct basics has only served to reaffirm for me as a coach and instructor that work in this area is time well spent. As someone who primarily coaches college students coming from a wide range of equestrian backgrounds, I am frequently faced with “hungry” riders who are ready for phase two of their riding career to begin. Unfortunately, many of them are still lacking a solid foundation of basic skills and understanding of training theory. I know I won’t be able to reach all of them, but if I can strive to maintain this focus on correct basics and classical theory in my instruction, I think it will only serve to benefit my students more in the long run than the alternative.
During my last week at Tamarack, Denny posed a question to me that was even more difficult than “what did you learn this summer.” What he asked me was if I knew what kind of a rider I wanted to be. This is a question that I have struggled to answer for years, so I didn’t have any better of a response for him than I usually have for myself. His query was not meant to give me an answer specifically, but rather to open my eyes to possibilities and to how my own choices will affect the outcome.
It is clear (and has always been clear) that my path is not going to lead to the upper levels of eventing or show jumping. I enjoy jumping, usually, but it does make me a little nervous and so I am best suited for low level sport. That is fine. What I have recognized this summer is that in spite of this, I actually have a fairly good eye on the ground. At times I have felt insecure in the fact that I do an extensive amount of coaching over fences in spite of no longer being as comfortable as I used to be when it comes to jumping larger obstacles. Denny reminded me that you can be a gifted instructor even if you no longer ride or even if you have never ridden at all, given a proper education. After all, Sally Swift revolutionized the equine industry with her Centered Riding concept, and she never rode at all.
I enjoy dressage, and I probably have more innate skill in that sport than in work over fences. I do want to compete at the FEI levels. But again, to make a serious bid for fame and glory in this sport would take more financial backing and all-consuming dedication than I have interest in pursuing. When I compete at the FEI levels, it will be for me, to fulfill my own goals, not to make any kind of a charge to “make a team” or be a true contender. And none of the horses in my current string are likely to be my FEI dressage mount.
So where does that leave me?
During one of our hacks, the day that he posed the question of “what kind of a rider do you want to be?”, Denny started listing the qualities of an elite endurance rider. He said that those who are successful in endurance are steady, methodical and don’t have great mood swings regarding their riding. They are motivated by the success that is completing a ride with a sound horse that is fit to continue. They have a horse who is suited for the job—usually an Arabian or perhaps an Anglo-Arabian. They come into their own at a slightly older age— where eventing is a sport largely for the young and fearless, endurance seems to appeal more to those who are able to take the time to properly condition a horse to handle the demands of long distance riding. It takes at least three years to make a 100 mile horse, which means that you need to have a long term focus in sight beyond that day or week or month.
Denny’s point is that for the most part, these are all qualities that I have, and further, that if I wanted to shoot for the elite levels in endurance, that this could in reality be a goal that can be actualized. I still have a lot to learn—you know, having completed a lifetime total of 65 competitive trail miles—but as Denny said, that is 55 more miles than I had at the beginning of the summer. I am intrigued by the sport, I have enjoyed meeting the people involved with it and appreciate the values that the sport teaches.
I have never seriously considered trying to do a ride on the level of a one day hundred, never mind something as prestigious as the Tevis Cup or Old Dominion. But Denny counseled that these rides are attainable, and do-able by someone like me, if I have the right horse. During the summer, I met a Pan Am Games medalist in endurance, Connie Walker, and a recent first time Tevis finisher (11th place!) in Gene Limlaw. Meeting these people made me realize that completing rides at this level is possible and do-able.
The idea excited me more than I would have thought it would. I am by nature a bit more cautious when it comes to taking chances, so unlike how Denny would do it, I won’t be rushing out to purchase an experienced Arabian endurance horse or moving immediately to the endurance capital of the US (I am not sure even where that is, but surprisingly, I have heard there is a large endurance community in Florida). But I am willing to consider the possibility and explore the options, large and small.
Overall, I am extremely grateful for having the opportunity to take these past three months at Tamarack and to clarify further the most important tenets of my own Personal Pedagogy. I am pleased and proud of the progress which my horses have made. I am delighted to have made new friends in Vermont and am so, so glad that I took the step out of my comfort zone to take this time to further my own riding and education.
I will admit that I have a demanding personality. I have high expectations of myself in terms of performance, commitment and excellence, and I tend to push these expectations onto those around me, including my horses. Sometimes this level of focus is an asset, but I am beginning to realize that sometimes I need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and let go.
This fall, I had a less than stellar run of events with Annapony. We took August off from competition, but I noticed that even in training sets she wasn’t her usual willing self. I felt like when I asked for “more”, whether it was more impulsion, more roundness, more suppleness, more, her response was, “meh”. At the end of the month, we had the fabulous opportunity to clinic with upper level rider Kim Severson. But my pony was just not a willing participant, and Kim’s insistence that we repeat each exercise until it was fluid and forward just created frustration in me and resistance in Anna. I perceived that Kim didn’t think I was trying enough, but I felt like I was riding harder, not smarter, and my horse didn’t appreciate it.
The next weekend, Anna was entered at King Oak, an event where last fall we had done just our second novice and finished on a 24.4. Dressage went great; I tried to stay elastic through the elbow, utilized counter canter in the warm up to loosen her topline and focused on keeping her forward and loose in the ring, and we came out with a 24.0. But stadium was a different story—she felt okay in warmup, but not outstanding, not like she was really taking me to the fences. In the arena, the strong wind that day was causing décor to ripple and flow, and Anna was uncharacteristically spooky. She startled at the judge, ignored my leg when I asked her to “go”, but in spite of this clocked around the first five fences. Then, abruptly, she refused at fence six. It nothing about the fence; her attention had left the ring and was focused on an eliminated horse/rider leaving the cross country course in front of us. I kicked her over on the second attempt, only to have her stop at the next fence, when her focus went to the undulating brush in the box beneath it. It quickly dawned on me that I had only one stop left—and the only remaining obstacle was the combination, which hadn’t been schooling well at home. I admit it—I rode into it half-heartedly, expecting the stop which inevitably came. I returned to my stall, secretly relieved that I wasn’t going to have to try to kick her around the cross country course that day.
On the drive home that day, I wondered why this was all happening—I had been doing everything “right”, after all. I ride five or six days a week; each week a careful balance of work in the ring on the flat and over fences and work out in the open conditioning or hacking. My horses receive excellent feed, regular farrier/vet care, I have excellent coaching—why wasn’t it all coming together? I began making plans to scratch my final entry of the season for Stoneleigh Burnham, just two weeks away. I didn’t care about losing the entry fee; I couldn’t face the thought of being eliminated again and I didn’t see any way that anything else was going to happen.
[Before I continue this story, I will add here that I did have concerns during this time that something was physically wrong with Anna—I had my vet out and she did a thorough work up, including lameness exam, blood work, Lyme’s test, Vitamin E/Selenium levels, etc—and everything came back negative. To paraphrase Dr. C, “I believe you that you feel like something is wrong, but medically I can’t explain it”. With this knowledge in hand, I had to conclude that the problem was likely a training issue and moved forward from there.]
I found myself in the days after King Oak feeling angry. I mean, FirstWorldProblem here, but I was angry—angry that my horse had been eliminated, angry that I had felt like a failure not just at the event but at the clinic the week before, and angry that I felt I was working so hard but spinning in circles like a hamster on her wheel. Needless to say, training rides were not outstanding in these days—I was unable to remain focused on what the overall horse was telling me she needed, and instead only concentrated on the fact that she wasn’t doing what I wanted. I wanted to scratch from SBS, but I also didn’t want to end the season with an elimination. I thought maybe if I could just somehow ride even harder, I could make it better in time.
The week in between King Oak and SBS, three of us went schooling on our bay mares at historic Ledyard Farm in Massachusetts. Three different horses, three different goals. One friend was preparing to compete at the UNH Horse Trials at the end of the month on a talented mare that needed more exposure to ditches (the mare happily loped over the various Ledyard ditches with nary a hesitation); the other was prepping for the novice three day at Waredaca on her draft cross. And me—well, we were just trying to get our mojo back.
Anna was a superstar nearly everywhere—she jumped coops, the trakhener, a ditch/wall, bounced up and down banks and drops without batting an eye. She begrudgingly dropped into the water and jumped out. But nothing with was done with a tremendous amount of fanfare—just enough effort to get the job done. Not a drop more.
But even so, I started to feel a little better. Here was my sensible horse, the one who didn’t stop at fences she wasn’t scared of, the one who was willing to at least try. We were nearing the end of our schooling set—we had been on for over an hour—and our coach encouraged us to try a narrowish log fence between two trees. It had at one time been a more solid looking stone wall framed by the wood, but time had caused the definition of the fence to erode. No matter—it looked jumpable, and a good test of going a bit from light to dark.
I went first with Anna. Or I should say, attempted first. She headed to the fence willingly, but as we came to the takeoff zone it was like she suddenly couldn’t tell where the fence was. She scrambled a bit, ending up kneeling on top of the fence with one front leg while the other was extended over it. She slithered back off the jump, but not without catching her hoof on a rock as she did so. Thankfully she was physically okay, but with that one mistake, my tentative feeling of confidence and fun evaporated. I felt like I had let her down by asking her to jump the fence, as though I had tricked her.
In an effort to end with something more positive, we returned to a basic coop fence that we had jumped earlier, and she willingly jumped it. I knew I should be happy with that but I still felt like the whole ride had been undone by the one mistake. Perfectionism can be a horrible disease.
Still, we headed off to SBS the following weekend. Stoneleigh Burnham is a place that holds a soft spot in my heart. I attended the Bonnie Castle Riding Camp there in the summers of 1989 and 1990; I rode in my first “A” rated horse show there, on SBS’s mount Fudge Ripple, and I still have the treasured 3rd place ribbon we earned in the Novice Equitation class. It is also where I had my first actual exposure to eventing, given that I was a hunter/jumper kid from upstate New York at the time. I was given the (I thought) privileged job of holding up the rope during the road crossing for cross country for the SBS summer event in 1990. I felt so important, because I had seen people doing the same job at the Olympics on TV. For various reasons, I have never been able to compete in the event there until this fall, and I at least looked on the opportunity to do so as a “coming home” of sorts.
My goal for the event, to be quite honest, was just to finish. I had no expectations other than that, or so I thought. The courses looked straightforward and inviting, and I felt the energy of warm childhood memories invigorating me to ride assertively and confidently.
Dressage is a consistent phase for Anna; while she occasionally pulls out scores in the 20’s, she normally lands between 33 and 36. Steady and consistent, but nothing flashy or extravagant. Her test felt willing and fairly fluid, good enough this day for a 31.0. Hey, at least I can do lower level dressage fairly well, if nothing else.
At SBS, riders show jump first and then go directly on to cross country. This format actually works pretty well for Anna, being the energy conservationist that she is. Enough time to catch your breath but not so much that you have to fully warm up twice. I warmed up for show jumping with a clear plan; she was to stay forward off of my leg, go through several transitions within gaits, and jump enough to be tuned up but not so much that the efforts became blasé. As my turn approached, the wind picked up again, a la King Oak, and I noticed that the taping which designated the show jump area was beginning to flutter and sway in the wind. “Great,” I found myself thinking. “Now she is going to spook at that.” But I quickly shut down the chatter (something I am pretty good at doing, in the moment) and instead acknowledged that it was a variable I was going to have to ride through.
Anna and I made it around the show jumping course at SBS, but it sure wasn’t pretty. She took down two rails, both due to her being more attentive to her environment than to me, and had a stop at an oxer, again due to spooking. But unlike at King Oak, where the surprise of finding myself in that situation caused me to be slow to react, this time I was ready. I rode like a “crazy banshee woman”, an expression my students will likely recognize. In all reality, I overrode. But at that point, I didn’t care, so long as she jumped the d@&n jumps. I have to admit it didn’t feel satisfying to finish the course; I was embarrassed about having to ride that hard and that overtly and was vaguely grateful to not know many of the spectators lining the arena’s edge. I looked away from Judge Nancy Guyotte as I exited, too mortified by the ride to acknowledge that we knew each other.
Cross country was a similar story. Usually I can ride out of the box and pump Anna up, and she goes from there. But this day, I felt like I couldn’t take my foot off the accelerator for even a stride. She just never found her rhythm. She handled most of the tricky stuff fine, including a bigger/wider option ditch and some turning questions in an open field. But then, at a Helsinki, again, a stop. I had decelerated coming through the water crossing just before it, and failed to get the response to my leg that I needed coming up to the fence. I could feel the stop coming and simultaneously that nothing that I did at that point was going to matter. Still, I wasn’t going down without a fight. Whack, whack, whack. Kick, kick, kick. Whack, whack, whack. I knew my three slap rule and used it.
On attempt two, Anna went over the fence (her issue was not with the fence itself, apparently), but I rode the rest of the course with one hand on the reins and one hand using the whip behind my leg off the ground. We came through the finish just one second below optimum time, my horse literally dripping with sweat on a cool September day. We had done it—we had finished the event. That was what I had set as our goal for the weekend, what I wanted to do. Or so I thought.
Because the truth is, even though we finished the event that day, it wasn’t a finish where I felt a sense of connection with my horse or a feeling of pride in a job well done. I felt as though she had done what I asked, begrudgingly, and that I had had to coerce her to give me the effort that she did. This is not how I want to ride or train, and this is not the kind of relationship that I have had with this horse for the previous three years.
It was time to take a BIG step back and to re-evaluate. I realized that without a willing partner, reaching your goals is next to impossible. And more than finishing an event, or attaining the next level of competitive success, I wanted my willing partner back. This is a horse that, previous to this fall, has always been so willing to try, from the very first time I sat on her. From her first jump in the arena, to her first cross country fence, it was unusual to ever have more than one stop at something, and then only if she didn’t understand the question. I looked forward to riding this horse each day more than any other horse I have ridden in the past few years, because she was just so much fun. Somewhere, we had lost that.
I put away the spurs. I parked the horse trailer. And for the next three months, we mostly hacked, did some light ring work, and then hacked some more. Instead of riding with a “hard mind”, focused only on the end goal (I want to get my dressage scores down, I want to have her going solidly in Second Level work, I want, I need, I expect), I tried to think about riding with gratitude. With a sense of thanks— for how lucky am I to have the opportunity to work with this animal, to enjoy her presence, to hack through the woods and enjoy the local farmlands, to even have the opportunity to be upset that everything wasn’t perfect. These are privileges, and I needed to start paying more attention to what my horse was offering me than to what she wasn’t.
With the onset of winter here in New England, we have begun our annual pilgrimage to the local indoor for training. Again, as much as having to hitch up the trailer to go ride every day is an inconvenience, I try to focus on gratitude, that an indoor right down the road is available for our use. This transition also has marked the start of a new beginning. I have been slowly increasing the workload, rebuilding muscle and trying to stay completely in tune with Anna’s mood and responses to the increased work. I am trying to respond to resistance not as, “I won’t” but “I can’t”; it is then for me to determine whether the cause is physical (she needs more strength or suppleness) or mental (I don’t understand what you want).
I still can’t shake the thought that something was physically bothering Anna this fall. She grows an incredibly heavy and thick winter coat; perhaps metabolically while this transition occurs she feels lower in energy, and as a naturally quiet horse this makes mustering extra “go” difficult. So next year I will plan to clip her earlier in the season. Perhaps it has to do with her going into anestrous, though she is not a particularly ‘marish’ mare. I wonder if she tweaked a muscle somewhere in her topline or hindquarter, not enough to make her lame but enough to make her reluctant to go. So I moving forward, I will be doubly careful to ensure that she is well conditioned and work to bring her into the season with a higher level of fitness.
But more than anything, I will try to remember that even though it is important, even essential, to have big goals on your ‘to do’ list, it is the day to day rides that make up the bulk of your relationship with your horse. “Riding with gratitude” will be my mantra for the 2014 season as I try to remember that being the best horseman I can be is not measured in the competitive arena but in the respect and relationship that I have with my horse.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian