On what was possibly the hottest and most humid weekend of July, Anna and I visited the lovely Linden Woods Farm in Durham, N.H., to clinic with USEF High Performance rider and former Dressage Youth Coach Jeremy Steinberg.
I enjoy reading Steinberg’s column in The Chronicle of the Horse and have the impression that, although a successful competitor, he also truly enjoys training horses to become the best version of themselves. To me, this is an important distinction, because I have found that when you simply enjoy being around horses, taking the time to solve their riddles is handled with a great deal more compassion than when their resistance is perceived as an impediment to reaching a goal. It also challenges you to be more creative in finding solutions, rather than insisting that each horse conform to a set formula. Steinberg’s mentors, Dietrich von Hopffgarten and Paul Belasik, are both regarded as dressage philosophers and advocates for humane, classical dressage training. Finally, Steinberg’s first Grand Prix horse was an OTTB whom he developed himself. As someone who favors riding non-traditional breeds in the dressage arena, I was excited for the opportunity to work with him directly.
For me, the pandemic has been an important period of resetting, reassessing and simply improving the bond with my horses. I wasn’t sure that Anna and I were truly ready for a clinic, particularly with someone of Steinberg’s caliber, but I assumed that if he was as horse-friendly in practice as he seemed to be in his writing, we would get something positive out of the ride.
I wasn’t disappointed!
Steinberg spends a good chunk of his time on the road—his website says that he gives an average of 48 clinics per year—and he explained that the first thing he always considers while watching a horse warm up is their conformation, and how it will impact their work.
Anna is flat in the poll, making it easy for her to lock both there and in her lower jaw when asked to connect. Steinberg’s (simple but not so simple) solution? Transitions. So many transitions.
After a basic warm up (during which Steinberg encouraged me to use my fingers and wrists quite actively to massage the bit but to keep Anna’s neck completely still), we started riding trot-halt-trot transitions. Steinberg had me hold my elbows to my sides to stabilize the contact into and out of the transition, and to ride a bit of medium trot into the halt. This is not your show ring halt, but instead a training tool to help encourage the horse to start rounding their back, while yielding the poll and croup. These trot-halt-trot transitions are, intentionally, a bit abrupt.
“Resist the urge in the halt to supple her,” Steinberg coached. “Make the hand and elbow more fixed, so that the contact is less negotiable, and when she comes to the halt the contact is solid.”
Not shockingly, at first Anna braced in her poll and jaw, particularly into the downward transition. Overall, the transitions were somewhat…ugly.
“You are trying to get the horse’s lower back to tip in the hip and pelvis,” says Steinberg. “Think more like a sliding stop. You want the horse to tuck under a bit.”
It was important to not allow walk steps in or out of the transitions (as this will cause the horse to avoid tucking the hip), and for a horse such as Anna (who is not always the most prompt to the driving aids), you cannot be afraid to really pop the whip if she is not responsive.
“Let the horse make mistakes,” says Steinberg. “Let them learn that you are not going to carry them along, and if they make a mistake, be corrective.”
The more transitions I did, focusing on promptness and really rooting my elbows to my sides, the hotter Anna became to my leg and the softer and rounder she became in the connection. By staying steady and tolerating Anna’s tendency to brace (for now), I was increasing the pressure on her to become rounder. The idea is that you are giving the horse a choice—they can continue to resist, which is uncomfortable, or they can choose to become rounder in their back and relieve the pressure.
“Do fifteen of them,” says Steinberg of the transitions. “If the horse braces, do three more.”
This work is meant to be done in many short bursts; we worked trot-halt-trot transitions on each rein, and then moved on to canter-walk-canter. I applied the same concepts to these latter transitions, with the aim of taking no more than one or two steps of walk in between each stretch of canter.
“Almost as soon as you walk, you want to go back to the canter,” says Steinberg. “It is the difference between doing a sit up and a crunch.”
The canter-walk-canter transitions help the horse to lower the croup and lighten the forehand. Steinberg compared the horse to an imperfectly balanced teeter totter—one that has a boulder (the forehand) in front of its fulcrum (the withers), with a rider sitting behind them both.
“As soon as you get on, you can feel this weight,” says Steinberg. “If you can raise the front end, the boulder will roll back. But if the forehand goes down, you have to pull on the reins to stop the boulder from rolling forward more.”
All of these prompt transitions help to create greater activity in the hindquarters, by putting a certain degree of pressure on the horse’s body and not giving them much choice in how to respond to that pressure. In Anna’s case, she needed to hit the wall of the rider’s hand. The true origin of her bracing is not in her jaw, it is in her back– but because I feel the weight in my hands, I (like most riders on similar horses) try to manipulate her back by positioning her neck.
“I want to manipulate the back with transition work,” says Steinberg. “The bracing is [the horse] wanting to stay tight in the back. But if I give in to the brace or try to soften the brace, I never give the horse the opportunity to soften the back.”
What I found quite remarkable was that despite the heat, the humidity, and the pressure, Anna really stepped up to the exercise. The sets were short but intense; Steinberg counseled to ignore the things which were not perfect, and after one or two quality transitions, give the horse a break. Many times throughout the day, after a period of increased pressure for the horse, I heard Steinberg tell the rider to reassure the horse that “mom still loves them”. During a walk break in a later set, Steinberg had this to say about adding pressure for the horse:
“When you are fairly confident that the horse is capable of doing the work—they are a correct mover, appropriate conformation, etcetera—you can put the pressure on,” says Steinberg. “You will sometimes need to be intentional like this, to help the horse really understand how to use their body.”
As the horse begins to understand stepping into the downward transitions with roundness and softness, Steinberg will add a driving aid—perhaps just a tap of the whip—to teach the horse that the roundness comes from the hind end.
“You must take a leap of faith and know that you will have some of those bad transitions,” says Steinberg. “This is how you can offer a correction, and how they can learn. There is a consequence for making the mistake, and this consequence can be just the feeling of the horse hitting the rider’s aids.”
This was by far one of the most productive and positive clinics I have had with Anna, and I have incorporated this exercise into my regular routine with great success. I am so grateful to facility owner Karen Bishop and her daughter Leslie Ann McGowan for coordinating the clinic and opening their property to outside riders despite the pandemic, and to Steinberg for making the trip up from Aiken, S.C.! Thanks, too, to Fay Morrison for coming by to help me with Anna and taking such great pictures of our ride.
While most equestrians living in temperate regions of the U.S. look forward to the pleasant weather of late spring and summer, the humidity and warm-but-not-scorching temperatures are also ideal conditions for grain mites. These tiny members of the Acaridae family are only between 100th to 300th of an inch in length and are relatives of spiders and ticks. When conditions are ideal, these common pests can occur in large numbers in grain, hay and straw, happily eating their way through your horse’s dinner.
“Grain mites eat the germ out of any kind of stored grain products and proteins,” explains Jessica Starcevich, M.S., staff entomologist with Spalding Labs. “They thrive in high humidity. Depending on the species, this means relative humidity over 70%.”
But a mite infestation is more than just a nuisance—exposure to grain mites can cause allergic reactions in several species. Grain mites are known human allergens, and ingestion of large quantities has caused lesions in the stomach lining of cattle. While more research is needed, there is increasing evidence that grain mites, which also feed on molds and fungus and spread fungal spores throughout their environment, may play a role in triggering equine respiratory syndromes.
Because mites are so small, managers might not notice their presence—at first. But with a fairly long lifespan (mites can live up to fifty-five days) and prolific reproductive capacity (a female will lay 600-800 eggs during her lifetime), it won’t take long for their numbers to compound. An active mite infestation looks as if the grain bin (or bag) has been coated in a light brown dust. The grain itself may appear dusty, and if you begin moving bags around, the mites’ crushed exoskeletons can give off a “minty” odor.
“They are most common in regular whole grains, like oats, corn and barely,” says Starcevich. “But they can infest pelleted feed and certainly sweet feed that has oats and things mixed into it.”
When it comes to grain mites, the best defense is a good offense. Many mite-prevention techniques should already be best practices in terms of grain storage. Strategies such as never pouring new grain over old, thoroughly cleaning out and scrubbing bins in between fill ups, storing grain in airtight containers and religiously cleaning up hay chaff, mold and dust, can all help eliminate the conditions that favor grain mites.
Additionally, take steps to reduce the humidity in your grain storage area. Consider installing a fan, using a dehumidifier or even desiccant packets (keep these away from farm pets). Grain moisture meters can be purchased from agricultural supply companies; stored grain should absolutely not read at more than 16%, and ideally will be much lower than that.
“Make sure there is no place hospitable for them,” says Starcevich. “If you can dry them out, they will die very quickly.”
During humid months, consider getting smaller quantities of grain delivered more frequently, so fewer bags are stored. With each delivery, do a careful inspection of each bag before opening it. If there is any evidence of mite activity, get that bag out of your storage area immediately—and contact your supplier.
“Suppliers get anxious about mites, but it’s usually not their fault, as mites could have been picked up anywhere along the process,” says Starcevich. “Suppliers actively watch for mites and try to avoid getting them. But if they do, they likely have an action plan for how to take care of it.”
If, despite your best efforts, grain mites appear, don’t panic—but do act efficiently, as it is far easier to control an outbreak when the numbers are small. The most important step is to remove the infested grain from your bin, and if possible, remove the bin itself from your storage area. Contaminated grain should be thrown out, buried in an active compost pile or spread in an extremely thin layer where it will be exposed to the sun. Removable bins should be left in the sun for several days, then treated with an acaricide such as pyrethrin. If possible, do not return grain to the bin for several weeks.
“The biggest thing is to get things dry,” says Starcevich. “And keep food sources away from the mites.”
If removing the bin is not possible, thoroughly clean the entire area, paying close attention to corners, cracks and crevices, then treat it with an acaricide. Wait a week, then treat again, then wait another week before use. While this may seem like overkill (if you will forgive the pun), juvenile grain mites living in high concentrations can morph into a phase called the hypopus, which has a sucker that they attach to animals to help them disperse to new areas. During this stage, they are highly resistant to pesticides.
Finally, reach out to your county extension agent if you have further questions. Usually, consultation and even testings are free, and they will know if there is a specific outbreak of any pests going on in your area.
On a crisp sunny morning in January 2018, I cautiously stepped out of my friend’s car into an icy parking lot and pulled the collar of my faux sheepskin lined corduroy jacket more tightly closed over my yellow knit scarf. Three or four inches of snow had fallen some 24 hours before my own arrival in Lexington, Kentucky a day earlier, and the state seemed to be hoping that the offensive accumulation might just disappear on its own. But with temps hovering in the mid-thirties, so far this strategy had proven ineffective.
I had worried that the weather might interfere with today’s visit to Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in Georgetown, Kentucky, home to nearly 200 pensioned former racehorses. I recruited my friend Rachel, a New England transplant to Lexington, to tag along with me on this frosty day; the cheerful voice on the phone had assured me that our reservations for the morning tour were still in play, but looking around the mostly empty parking lot I wondered if anyone else would be joining us.
Old Friends was founded in 2003 by former racetrack groom (and retired Boston Globe film critic) Michael Blowen. During his years working at tracks like Suffolk Downs in Boston and Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, Blowen had seen what often happened to racehorses at the end of their careers, especially at low end tracks and fairgrounds—a trip directly to the slaughterhouse. It was an accepted reality in a sport which often saw fortunes rise and fall with the clang of a starter’s bell.
“Everybody in racing says this—‘do what is best for the horse and everything else will fall into place’,” Blowen told me on the phone one day. “But people don’t follow this.”
During his years at the Globe, Blowen witnessed firsthand the magnetic effect that celebrities had on those around them— and it occurred to Blowen that he felt the same way when he witnessed a truly great race horse. And that gave him an idea.
“I thought others would feel that way, too, and thought people might be willing to pay money to see them,” says Blowen. “The idea was that these horses from Rockingham could mix with the celebrities.”
The concept was deceptively simple yet completely radical– take a big name horse that no one wanted anymore, and charge racing fans to come see them. The money raised would then offset the cost of lifetime care for racehorses with less illustrious backgrounds. Using this model, Old Friends has grown from one small leased paddock and a single horse to its current principal facility, the 236 acre Dream Chase Farm in Georgetown, and a satellite facility Old Friends at Cabin Creek in Greenfield Center, New York.
From April to October, nearly 1,000 visitors per week tour the Georgetown property hoping to see their favorite winners, including the farm’s undisputed marquee resident, Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm. But lounging in paddocks across the sprawling property are Thoroughbreds of all types; those with no pedigree to speak of, those with old injuries or arthritis from their days on the track, those horses which time forgot. Archie’s Echo was one of these, a cheap claimer who earned just $32,000 during his track career; at 26 years old he was purchased by a sympathetic soul at the notorious New Holland auction in Pennsylvania, certainly bound for slaughter. Archie was blind in one eye and in rough shape at first, but enjoyed five years of care and attention at Old Friends before passing away in May 2020.
Old Friends is a member of the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (TAA), a non-profit arm of The Jockey Club that offers accreditation and grant funding for sixty four groups providing care and rehoming services for off track Thoroughbreds. While many of these programs have been overwhelmingly successful and certainly should be celebrated, most are geared towards placing OTTBs in a new career as a riding horse. For those animals that are not suitable for riding, homes are harder to come by.
I was researching options for these types of OTTBs— often young but permanently unrideable—when I first learned of Old Friends. I was intrigued by the model and impressed by Blowen’s charisma. In our interview, he told me that he “felt like the village idiot” when he first started the project, but that didn’t stop him from moving forward. And if I am honest, though I am no longer Thoroughbred racing’s biggest fan, I completely understood him when he talked about being starstruck in the presence of a great racehorse. I remember standing by the rail at Saratoga as a young girl, gripping the chain link fence while screaming my throat raw, urging Alysheba down the stretch of the 1987 Travers Stakes (he lost), or recognizing Crème Fraiche, the 1985 Belmont winner, running there in his later career. I will always admire the grit and heart of a Thoroughbred, and believe in the tangible thrill that comes with witnessing a powerful, purpose-bred animal do exactly what he is bred to—run.
The visitor’s center at Old Friends is a rather nondescript ranch, its pale yellow paint chosen no doubt to offset the bountiful black fencing and rolling fields that surround it. Two holiday wreaths still flanked the entrance door, and four woven sunchairs, in shades of green and yellow, lined the concrete porch. Upon entering, we are immediately greeted by a pair of thoroughly well-fed cats—a tortoiseshell named Lucy, who we later learn weighs 25 pounds, and an orange and white male named Buddy, who is the designated “official greeter.” They lounge on the hardwood floor, lying half in the gift shop, half in the reception area. They leave little doubt as to who is truly in charge of this office space.
Our guide’s name is Charlie Brown, and as he shrugs into a heavy down jacket and pulls a green knit cap with “Old Friends” embroidered in gold script over his snow white hair, he nonchalantly asks where we are from. We are, in fact, the only scheduled guests to actually arrive for the morning’s tour, and he looks dressed for an arctic expedition.
“New Hampshire,” I say brightly.
Charlie nods grimly.
“Oh, that explains it then. This snow is nothing for you.”
Resignedly, he picks up a green two quart bucket filled with carrots, cubed and shredded, and leads us back out the door we had just entered. Neither cat makes a move.
We are clearly here in the off-season, in off weather, and have ended up with a particularly personal tour of the property. Most groups follow a fairly set route, stopping at specific paddocks in which the resident has become carrot-conditioned to come visit when guests arrive. Occasionally, guides will make detours by special request to allow guests to meet other residents. We quickly learn that today, Charlie will let us go (almost) anywhere we wish. Rachel and I follow him out into the snow.
Our first stop is Sarava, who is perhaps best known for his amazing upset win in the 2002 Belmont Stakes. Sarava was the biggest longshot winner in race history, going off at 70-1 odds and paying out $142.50 to win, spoiling his now neighbor War Emblem’s quest for the Triple Crown in the process. When Sarava arrived at Old Friends in 2012, he became their first resident winner of a Triple Crown race. Today, the stallion’s black mane is long and his dark bay coat fluffed out for winter; he looks more like someone’s backyard pet than a classic stakes winner. Sarava clearly knew the drill, overenthusiastically reaching for the treat bucket. Charlie affectionately scratched the aging campaigner on his forehead and popped a few carrots in his mouth.
In the next paddock lives the turf champion, Little Mike, whose rich bay coat gleams beneath his heavy blanket; his pasture mate, Game On Dude, is happily cribbing on the fence and ignoring us completely. Trained by Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert (who has become one of Old Friend’s greatest supporters) and a favorite of Baffert’s wife Jill, Game on Dude is the only horse to ever win the Santa Anita Handicap three times during a career in which he brought home nearly $6.5 million. Little Mike is Game on Dude’s fourth pasture buddy, and farm managers hope the two are well matched in age and energy.
Sarava is eight years older than both Little Mike and Game On Dude; in racing years, they are almost two generations apart. As Charlie tells us about each horse, there is a sparkle in his eye, as if he remembers seeing their greatest races. But while I recognize the names of the races these three have won, I know none of the animals themselves. To me, they are just…horses. And at Old Friends, that is kind of the point.
The truth is that without a guide to tell you otherwise, the average visitor would no sooner be able to discern the elite champions from the workaday claimers. At Old Friends, horses are cared for with an egalitarian philosophy, and for the most part they are allowed to simply be horses. Most live outside with run in shelters, alone or in pairs or small groups. Their manes have grown shaggy, some are barefoot, and all have ample space to move or mingle as they choose. In better weather, they graze the Kentucky bluegrass and eat carrots several times a day. Really, these horses are living their best lives.
One pair of geldings we met seemed symbolic of the greater Old Friends mission. Arson Squad and I’m Charismatic were an unlikely duo– Arson is a stakes winner who earned $1.1 million; I’m Charismatic, a well-bred gelding who never lived up to his pedigree in 92 starts. In retirement, I’m Charismatic had become completely blind, but Arson stayed by his side constantly, leading his “brother” to water, to shelter, to the fence line to receive our carrots. The crew at the Lexington Fire Department Fire Station No 5 was so inspired by Arson’s “leave no brother behind” attitude that they became the gelding’s official sponsor. I’m Charismatic passed away just six months after my visit, but Arson remains a resident today. The celebrity helping the common man—what Old Friends is all about.
Charlie brings us to a large paddock with a double fence. Its sole occupant is a nearly black horse with a crooked blaze; even from a distance, he pins his ears and flips his head in our direction, the equine equivalent of “bugger off”. Charlie slips under the first perimeter and stands in the gap, so we follow him. As it turns out, we weren’t supposed to, but Charlie has apparently deemed us horse savvy enough to stay out of harm’s way. Suddenly the horse trots straight up to the fence line and arches his neck over the perimeter towards Charlie. It is hard to tell if it is a threat or a demand. Charlie reaches out a flat palm holding a carrot, but keeps his body well away.
War Emblem, whose quest for the 2002 Triple Crown was spoiled by his now-neighbor Sarava, has made his presence known.
Charlie tells us the horse’s grumpiness is nothing new; War Emblem’s difficult disposition was well known during his racing years. Once retired, the colt’s temperamental behavior continued, and he showed virtually no interest in breeding mares, despite extensive efforts to convince him otherwise. In 2015, his Japanese owners agreed to return War Emblem to the U.S. and donated him to Old Friends. Though War Emblem was gelded before arrival and his demeanor softened somewhat as a result, the double fenced paddock was constructed specifically to help ensure everyone’s safety.
With his challenging personality and lackluster stud career, War Emblem was lucky indeed to find a soft landing at Old Friends. Few other facilities would have been inclined to take on such a quirky and potentially dangerous charge, and in Japan, land is at a premium. Unwanted animals are shipped to slaughter.
When I later heard news of this great horse’s unexpected death on March 11, 2020 at the age of 21, I flipped through the photos I had taken on this snowy January day. In several, his ears are flat back but in one, they are pricked forward as he looks into the distance, the clear blue sky a vibrant backdrop, the rays of the sun shining above him like a spotlight. In his five years at Old Friends, this enigmatic horse seemed to have found some sort of comfort.
In a statement released by Old Friends on the day of War Emblem’s death, Blowen said:
“I know we’re supposed to appreciate all of our retirees the same but he was one of the very special ones. He was tough, narcissistic, bold, and handsome. I adored him. I proudly count among a very meager number of accomplishments the day he allowed me to put his halter on without biting me. What more could I ask for? The farm will recover from his loss over time, but it’ll never be the same.”
Over the next forty-five minutes, we visit perhaps another dozen or so horses, mostly stallions and geldings (Old Friends also provides a home to a small but mighty mare herd, who are not included on the typical tour route). We meet Alphabet Soup, a wizened gray whose resume includes winning the 1996 Breeder’s Cup Classic, surviving a barn fire and contributing to science through participation in cutting edge treatments for equine melanoma. Popcorn Deelites, who played Seabiscuit in the movie of the same name. The aging Silver Ray, purchased from a livestock auction in 2013 for just $30, was a successful sire and graded stakes winner in his younger years. In 2019, he passed away at the age of 30, but during our visit he enjoyed the shredded carrots Charlie scooped from the bottom of his pail.
Charlie takes us through an elegant, airy ten stall barn. There is an office and storage and wash stall; each stall has a large outside window, and one row of stalls is connected to paddocks that allow residents to come and go at will. Not quite two years earlier, a fire had swept through a smaller medical barn located on this site, destroying it in minutes. Thankfully, only two horses were inside, and staff were able to coax them out in time, but the barn was a total loss.
It turned out that after thirteen years of providing lifetime sanctuary to hundreds of former racehorses, Old Friends had acquired a few friends of their own, and the John Hettinger Memorial Barn (where we now stood) was christened just barely six months after the fire. Fasig-Tipton’s Blue Horse Charities donated $50,000 towards its construction, along with several other generous contributions from industry supporters and fans. It was built with state-of-the-art materials and high attention to fire safety.
As we strolled through the sliding barn doors at the end of the aisle, I start to understand the depth of the connections which make Old Friends possible, and the utter enormity yet absolute necessity of its mission. The early endorsement of top trainers like Baffert helped to earn Old Friends the support of other leaders across the racing industry, enabling Blowen’s “crazy idea” to come to fruition. The successful repatriation of nine retired stallions from overseas has forged networks that may help ensure the successful return of other beloved champions in the future. Finally, many of the horses with celebrity status come with endowments or generous annual contributions from their former connections that more than sustain their upkeep. These funds, plus donations and visitor fees, help to ensure the safety and well-being of all the others, those horses whose previous work left them unfit, unsound or otherwise unsuitable for life as anything other than “just a horse”.
On a raw, damp day in late 2014, a flea-bitten grey stallion unloaded from a horse van to the reception of a crowd of nearly 100. Despite the weather, the energy was palpable; by all accounts Blowen himself was grinning like a kid in a candy store, eager to welcome the legendary Silver Charm to his new home at Old Friends. The stallion was installed in a place of prominence on the property, within view from the back porch of the main horse, where Blowen now lives. Like War Emblem, Silver Charm captured the first two legs of the Triple Crown before losing in the Belmont; unlike War Emblem, the stallion is calm and personable, and seems to take his role as farm ambassador to heart.
Charlie brings us right up to the fence, where Silver Charm is already waiting. He is bundled in a cozy Rambo rug, eyes half closed as he absorbs what little warmth might come from the day’s rays. But as soon as he perceives our approach, he snaps to attention, eye calm, ears pricked forward. He possessed the calm dignity worthy of an elder statesman, one who appreciates the responsibility that comes with fame and success.
It is easy to see why Silver Charm is a favorite of nearly everyone affiliated with Old Friends. But he had been special to Blowen for over twenty years; in an interview with Rick Capone, Blowen credits Silver Charm with being the “salvation of racing the late 1990s”. Silver Charm’s striking grey color and dramatic wins at the wire in both the Derby and Preakness made him not just a fan favorite, but wrote a story that drew new people to the sport. His quest to capture the Triple Crown nearly tripled Belmont attendance that year, and though he lost by three quarters of a length to Touch Gold (also an Old Friends resident) after a dramatic run down the stretch, Silver Charm’s grit and determination left an indelible mark upon the sport. In many ways, the horse and Blowen have much in common.
“Racing is a great sport,” Blowen told me on the phone before my visit. “People would be more into it if they know that the horses were better taken care of.”
As our visit drew to a close, I took one last look across the miles of fence line and the horses contentedly resting in their paddocks, and it occurred to me that taking care of unsound retired racehorses isn’t that hard. They can live outside, go barefoot and grow heavy coats in winter. What is hard is convincing the entire racing industry that everyone involved with the sport has a lifelong obligation to the athlete—not just for the duration of their track years.
Thanks to the efforts of programs like Old Friends, we are starting to see evidence of that change.
I learned most of my essential equine conformation concepts through the progressive curriculum of the United States Pony Club, and have added to it over the years through judge’s forums, clinics, magazine articles and books. As a result, I felt that I had a pretty good handle on concepts ranging from using basic terminology to assessing plumb lines to identifying where deviations originate. I believed that I had a solid understanding of equine conformation.
Wardrope has written extensively for magazines published around the world, as well as produced ten books, and it was through one of her articles that I first became aware of her work. I was thrilled when Debbie Place, owner of the beautiful Peppergrass Farm in Dixmont, Maine, invited Wardrope for a two day clinic in November 2019.
Wardrope’s overarching message is that if we think about our horse’s workload in mechanical terms (i.e., what does he actually have to be able to do physically to be successful), and if we understand how structurally (un)suitable our horse is for his job, we can appropriately adjust our expectations to match the biomechanics of the horse. Doing so not only protects the horse’s physical well-being, but ensures that they will be happier in their work.
Wardrope is understandably protective of her materials and content, and I don’t want to infringe in any way upon her proprietary ideas through this blog. Instead of providing a deeply detailed discussion of her presentation, I will instead touch upon the highlights of Wardrope’s conformational assessment system, and how it contrasts with some of what we are traditionally taught.
A functional conformation analysis looks at seven specific areas of the horse (the lumbosacral gap, the rear triangle, stifle placement, the pillar of support, the humerus, the elbow placement, and the base of the neck), and then considers the overall package that these pieces present.
Hind End: Key Concepts
When analyzing functional conformation, start at the hindquarters and work your way forward. Wardrope compares the hindquarters to the engine of a car; it is where the power comes from, and what propels it forward. The lumbo-sacral joint (LS) serves to transmit that power to the front end, much like a car’s transmission. A conformationally correct hindquarter is of little use if the horse’s LS placement does not allow its power to transfer forward.
The LS joint is an important one in the horse’s spine. It is located just in front of the high point of the croup, and marks a point of change in the vertebra. In front of the LS, the horse’s spine is more flexible, lifting up and down as well as bending left and right. Behind the LS, the vertebrae are less mobile. A horse with good LS placement can compensate for other deficiencies far better than a horse with poor LS placement. Poor LS placement leads to negative physical effects on the animal, including incorrect muscling and the formation of a “hunter’s bump.” An equine athlete’s LS gap is ideally not more than 1.5” behind an imaginary line connecting hip to hip.
The “rear triangle” is likely a familiar concept to students of conformation; the triangle is formed by drawing a line from the top of the point of hip to the point of buttock to the visible protrusion of the tip of the stifle. The hip to buttock side reveals the position of a horse’s ilium, while the buttock to stifle line shows his femur. The shape of a horse’s triangle (which can range from equilateral to quite sloping) has a direct effect on his ability to both sit (collect) and extend (lengthen or reach forward). Depending on your sport, the “ideal” triangle varies, but I was always taught that a sport horse’s triangle should trend more towards equilateral.
Wardrope presented several photos of elite horses from popular disciplines, and analyzed their rear triangle. She quickly showed that upper level dressage and endurance athletes tended to be shorter on the ilium side compared to their femur, while elite jumpers tended to be more equal along both lines. Eventers split the difference, but those successful at upper levels had one other variable in common; the placement of their stifles was oriented towards jumping.
Stifle placement? What?
I will admit that in the past, I have perhaps not paid sufficient attention to this important joint, the physiological equivalent of the human knee. But after Wardrope’s presentation, I am certainly viewing the placement of the equine stifle in a new, appreciative way.
Watch your horse walk, focusing on the protrusion of the stifle. What is its range of motion? Does your horse move with long, swinging strides (low stifle) or a short, quick step (higher stifle)? Additionally, consider whether the stifle joint bumps into the horse’s barrel as he moves. Stifles that point outwards readily clear the ribcage and maximize the horse’s range of motion. Stifles that point straight ahead often limit the reach of the hind leg, as the joint actually hits the horse’s belly in movement.
Again, ideal stifle placement is somewhat dictated by discipline. Wardrope has worked extensively with the racing industry, and she categorizes stifle placements by running type: sprinter, miler, and distance. Ideal stifle placement for performance horses is split among these three groups, with dressage aligning with milers and all jumping disciplines and endurance favoring the distance placement. If you want to know more about these…you will need to buy one of Wardrope’s books!
Front End: Key Concepts
If the hind end is the engine and the LS the transmission, then the front end of the horse is his suspension and steering. Preserving overall soundness and promoting longevity in a horse’s career is all about lightening the forehand.
Consider again the name of Wardrope’s system: functional conformation, meaning that the horse’s structure has a function to perform. Therefore, it is perhaps no surprise that the most important conformational qualities in the front end of the horse all relate to their ability to be light on the forehand. Horses that can carry themselves towards level balance tend to stay sounder, longer, but not all horses are conformationally suited to do so.
One of Wardrope’s most important components in front end analysis is the pillar of support. This is an imaginary line that basically bisects the forelimb when the horse stands square. It allows us to see how much of the horse is out ahead of the skeletal support structure. Imagine a house with a porch overhang. A short overhang can be held up by the house itself, but the longer and wider the overhang, the more likely it is to sag without additional support. If the front limbs of the horse are part of his basic frame, they are only able to support so much mass suspended out ahead of them before the basic structures break down. In particular, look how far the pillar of support lands in front of the withers (more forward=lighter forehand), and how close it is to the horse’s elbow where it bisects the humerus (closer to elbow=heavier forehand). Ideally, the pillar ends in the rear quarter of the hoof.
Other indicators for the lightness of the forehand include the relationship of the base of neck to point of shoulder. The higher the base of neck, the lighter the forehand. If the point of shoulder is also high, even better. The longer and lower the point of shoulder (which is the external representation of the length and angle of the humerus), the heavier the horse is on his forehand.
The elbow joint is another one that I have never paid much attention to previously in conformational analysis. But if a horse’s elbows are too close to their body, the joint will hit the ribcage and the horse must compensate. Movement defects such as short strides or choppy gaits, and behavioral signs like girthiness, resistance to lateral work or refusing fences, can all be the result of tight elbows.
No horse is conformationally perfect, yet most are asked to do some sort of athletic work. Horses with deficiencies in key areas must compensate in others. We see evidence of this compensation in everything from windpuffs to under saddle resistance. Wardrope emphasized that most of the time, when horses have a performance issue, it is physically based.
“We need to listen and see if we can help the horse to overcome the issue, or change the horse’s job to suit their build,” says Wardrope.
Day two of this clinic featured demo horses, which we analyzed in hand and then watched perform under saddle. Wardrope offered various stretches and exercises which, if used routinely, can help horses to overcome some of their conformational deficiencies. While each horse’s maximum performance level will ultimately be limited by their underlying structure, practicing these basic exercises (which included elbow stretches, backing the horse up, and working over poles) can help a horse to compensate for common areas of structural weakness.
c 2017 W.W. Norton & Company, New York. 316 pages.
The American mustang has always been an enigma. He has been seen as a scourge, a resource, an icon and a symbol. He is simultaneously revered and despised. And unlike some other legendary figures of the American West, the Mustang is still living on those wild, rugged lands that have made him a study and tough creature. In his book, Wild Horse Country: the History, Myth and Future of the Mustang, Pulitzer Prize winning writer David Phillips takes us on a journey to better understand how the complex history of the American Mustang continues to shape his present and future.
The first time I saw American Mustangs was in the mid-2000’s, on a horse packing trip to the steep and rocky trails around Montgomery Pass, on the California/Nevada border. When I visited, the herd there was robust and numerous; they were arrayed across the rolling Adobe Valley Flats in family bands of two to five horses, but collectively there were well over one hundred. At the time, these mustangs were doing well, as evidenced by the numerous foals, and were valued by the local community as a source of tourism activity. I have no idea how time has treated these animals, which live on a land with no margin for error. But as I departed the region, bound for Las Vegas and my flight home, I encountered a smaller, solitary band. They were clearly not doing as well and looked as worn and wind blown as the rocks that surrounded them. Mustangs can look very different depending on the time and space in which you view them—a concept that Phillips drives home in this book.
Wild Horse Country takes the reader to Montgomery Pass and beyond, in Phillips’ search to understand what the American Mustang means to us today through an exploration of their history. He admits in the introduction that he is not a horse person, but is drawn to mustangs because he “loves the parts of the West that remain untamed” (Phillips, 2017, xxv). For Phillips, like many other Americans, mustangs are symbolic of the pioneer spirit that is synonymous with much of our frontier’s history. But he also connects the continued existence of Mustangs to a larger question: what does their legacy mean for the future of a land that is increasingly regulated and penned in?
Wild Horse Country is part history lesson, part first person narrative, and it is written to appeal to a broad audience. Phillips teaches readers about the horse’s first appearance in North America, as a tiny fox-sized creature called Hyracotherium and then its subsequent disappearance from the continent. He discovers how the horse helped change relations between Spanish explorers and our Native Americans, who took to training stolen animals with a grace and ease that made their partnership seem inevitable. Phillips looks at the mustang’s impact on art and culture, but also its effect on the lands and people of the West. He asks hard questions of the Bureau of Land Management, tasked with managing both mustangs and the land they exist upon. But he also interrogates those advocates working to preserve the mustang, and investigates the conflicts and overlaps between their agenda and those that might seem to be working in opposition.
This book is simply a fascinating read—the pacing is perfect, and Phillips brings his considerable investigative and research skills to the table in assembling each of these chapters. He artfully brings you to the lands he calls “Wild Horse Country”: “It’s not the land the horses chose. It is just the land that was left to choose. Hardscrabble islands of desiccated emptiness that herds were pushed into. Put together the patchwork where wild horses are found in the West and you have an area the size of Alabama” (Phillips, 2017, p. xvii). He deftly untangles the web of connection among the horses, the people and the land. And by the end, he even proposes a solution that might help to keep all of the pieces in balance.
This is perhaps the most even handed take I have ever read on the conflicts over mustangs that continue even now. If you are finding yourself running out of reading material during this pandemic, do yourself a favor and access a copy of this book. You won’t be disappointed.
If there is any silver lining to what has been a time of unprecedented uncertainly, fear and anxiety, it is this—
2020 will be the Year of the Trail.
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the equestrian competition season (First World Problem alert), cancelling everything from local schooling shows right on up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. This is a huge disappointment for riders that have been doing their homework all winter, especially those interscholastic and intercollegiate riders who saw their seasons abruptly end right when year end championships were scheduled to begin. Here in the northeast, our show season is pretty short anyway, so it won’t take much of a delay before it basically ends up not happening at all. And with more states enacting “stay at home” orders or lockdowns, those who board their animals are even being denied access to the companionship and comfort their horse provides.
On a more fundamental level, most equestrian organizations and facilities rely on monies garnered from their shows or clinics to help support operating costs; scores of trainers, grooms, braiders, exercise riders and more count on a busy summer season just to cover every day expenses. Losing horse shows may seem like only a superficial problem, but for a luxury industry like ours, the impacts are going to be even more wide reaching. Once this is over, horse and equine facility owners, particularly those who have faced a reduction in income, may have to make some hard choices.
Yet despite these uncertainties, I remain hopeful that positive change can and will come from these hard times. In particular, I believe that we will see more equestrians returning to their roots, focusing on simply enjoying their horses and hitting the trails rather than competing—and that puts those of us who have been advocating for stronger trail networks and a greater understanding of the positive economic, social and aesthetic benefits of maintaining healthy, multi-use trail systems in a unique position to recruit more support for our work.
In early February, over twenty New Hampshire area equestrian trails advocates gathered together for the first “Let’s Talk Trails” roundtable, organized by the New Hampshire Horse Council. We shared strengths and concerns and brainstormed solutions and ideas. Equestrian trail groups across the state are struggling with the same issues: declining membership, limited financial and human resources, increased encroachment on trails and loss of access. One theme became dominant through all the discussion—we need to do a better job networking not just with each other but with other trail users.
The work of protecting trails is not glamorous. It is joining local conservation commissions/trail committees and attending selectman’s meetings, keeping your ears open for opportunities to protect or grow equestrian use of public lands. It is joining land trusts, such as the Southeast Land Trust, the Monadnock Conservancy and the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, which are increasingly holding the easements on lands we once travelled. Land trusts and other conservation groups play an important role in protecting open space, but they often do not understand the needs or importance of allowing equestrian trail use, even on properties that have historically been used for this very purpose; as a member, we are poised to better advocate for equestrian access. It is taking the time, one on one, to speak with fellow equestrians about good trail etiquette, and also to reach out to our friends who bike, ride off road vehicles, hike or otherwise recreate on trails to educate them about safe interactions with our horses. It is talking to local landowners to hear out their concerns and ensure that equestrian use does not degrade the quality of their land. It is about looking at other trails groups as potential allies, not adversaries.
This past week I joined a webinar sponsored by American Trails, a thirty-two year old organization founded with the explicit purpose of “bridging the gap between different user types, across the whole spectrum”. American Trails is the group behind the formation of the Trails Move People Coalition (TMP), a consortium of ten different trail user groups ranging from the Back Country Horsemen of America to the National Off Highway Vehicle Conservation Council to the American Hiking Society, for the purpose of discussing and resolving those concerns affecting all groups using trails. Obviously, these diverse trail users will not agree on best practice for everything, but they are coming together with the hope of presenting a unified front for those topics where there is common ground. By becoming familiar with the needs of each type of trail user, the TMP is better able to advocate for a collective vision—one in which trail access is considered a critical part of the infrastructure of a community’s physical and economic health.
On the webinar, Mike Passo, Executive Director of American Trails, shared his thoughts on our unsettled times. “When coronavirus is all said and done, people are going to need to re-create themselves,” said Passo. “Taking away people’s ability to use their trails cuts at the core of a person.”
Through the Trails Move People project, Passo and other leaders hope to develop tools necessary to unify the greater trails community: gathering hard data on the value and impact of trail users, identifying funding and other resources that benefit the trails community as a group (especially to address the trails maintenance backlog) and advocating effectively for policy, legislation and funding decisions on behalf of the trails industry to Congress and other federal agencies.
Their goals are ambitious but essential. And even on this high level, the same theme came clear—there is a fundamental need for trail users to unite and to support each other in promoting our public and private trail networks as an essential bedrock to our local and regional communities.
The coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic will change all of us in small and large ways. I fervently hope that for many Americans, this time of challenge will allow nearly everyone the opportunity to reset their compass and focus on those pieces of our lives that matter on a deep, fundamental level. I believe that most equestrians did not start riding to win ribbons; we started riding because we felt inexplicably drawn to these powerful and majestic animals. Those of us still lucky enough to have horses in our lives after the dust settles have a responsibility to remember that magic and to share it with others. It is the only way in which our industry will recover. Trail riding is equestrianism at the grassroots level.
It seems most likely that 2020 will not be the year of great competitive success. But it still can be a time in which we step towards other goals—goals which if they come to fruition will leave a long-lasting impact on our communities.
Are you willing to Hit the Trails with 2020 Vision?
If so, here are a few things you can do.
Join a trails group, and if you can afford it, join more than one. Advocacy starts at the grassroots, local level, so my personal opinion is that you start by supporting those groups that have the greatest impact on the trails/region where you ride the most. You can always expand from there.
Attend meetings or learn more about trails groups supporting different kinds of users. The more we as equestrians clearly understand what a snowmobiler, biker or ATV rider all need in their trail systems, the better poised we are to advocate for trail designs that can accommodate different users. Cooperation is a two-way street; equestrians are not the largest trail user group, and we are frequently misunderstood. It is up to us collectively to reach out and change that.
Introduce yourself to your town conservation commission. Find out what trail projects are already going on in the area, and start to look for ones that might be suitable for equestrian use.
VOLUNTEER! There will be plenty of grassroots work that needs to be done on trails networks across the county once we get the blessing to move freely again. Volunteering is free, gets you outside and is a wonderful way to meet other trail users.
GET OUT ON THE TRAILS. Take your horse somewhere you have never been. Explore a state park. Sign up for a hunter pace. Attend a meet up of a local riding club.
If living through the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic teaches us nothing else, hopefully it is a reminder that we are all deeply interconnected and must live and act in a way that considers the needs of both other people and the broader ecosystem to which we all belong. Working to preserve trails and protect equestrian access is important, and because most horse trails are shared trails, we will be serving to strengthen our ties to the local communities. And in a small way, we will be taking a step towards healing ourselves.
A few years ago, I founded an informal group called the Strafford County Equestrian Trail Riders. With just a small core group of volunteers, we have started chipping away at tasks including documenting and mapping existing trails/dirt roads in our country with the goal of creating a network, have helped to defeat a proposed “anti-manure” bill at the state level, and have represented equestrian interests to local land trusts and conservation commissions. Our total impact as of yet is not great but it is a start, a small step forward. And as everyone knows, a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
Know Better to do Better: Mistakes I Made with Horses by Denny Emerson
c 2018 Trafalgar Square Books: North Pomfret, VT. 212 pages.
For the nearly 83,000 followers of Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Facebook page, the themes in Know Better to do Better will hopefully sound fairly familiar. Because after over sixty years of learning from horses, Emerson has developed a clear philosophy and system of training—and he will be the first to admit that in learning his craft, there were plenty of wrong turns and mistakes made along the way. This book is part autobiography, part advice column and part training manual, all within the frame of creating a written tool box for readers based upon Emerson’s own expansive career within the equine world.
What makes Emerson so eminently qualified to speak on this subject? Well, for starters he has ridden to the highest levels in both eventing and endurance, stood stallions, bred and foaled mares, and developed more horses and riders than he could possibly recall. He has served on governing boards of several national equestrian organizations, supported local and regional equestrian facilities and organizations, and stood as a staunch advocate of the Morgan horse. If the subject is horses, he has something to say about it—and there is a good chance that you should listen, because his perspective is informed by both experience and education.
In Know Better to do Better, Emerson covers themes pertinent to the horse and those pertinent to the rider. Better understanding of subjects such as horse selection, management, training approaches, rider fitness and focus and rider education will all influence the future success of a given partnership.
How many of us look back at a horse we once rode and think, gosh, if I only knew then what I know now? In this book, Emerson has done just that for about a dozen of the horses which have most influenced his development as a horseman. For an equestrian of his experience to still have the humility to acknowledge that “I could have done better” is a call to all of us to constantly question whether we are truly giving our horses the best possibility of success.
In full disclosure, I had the opportunity to spend the summer of 2014 based at Tamarack Hill with two of my mares, and spent hours riding with Emerson in the Vermont “hills”. He is freely giving of his knowledge and experience and willing to share his perspective; he will dream bigger for you than you do for yourself. Now in his upper 70’s, he still puts in more tack time than most riders I know. If you have always wished to go for a ride with Emerson but it just hasn’t worked out…pick up this book instead. I promise it won’t disappoint.
About a year ago, I was feeling stressed and frazzled, like so many of us, overwhelmed by my “to-do” list and wondering how I was ever going to get it all moved into the “to-done” pile. Yet amid all this busy-ness, I left my farm, my agenda, and all of the millions of pressing “must do’s”, to go spend several days as a National Examiner at a United States Pony Club certification testing. These days, a certification is always a multi-level affair and requires considerable advance coordination of candidates, fellow examiners, parents and of course, the organizer. Oh—also, the facility and flight schedules and did I mention it all is supposed to be completed on a tight budget….?
A good friend looked at me as I was juggling these variables into a cohesive package and said–“Why do you still do this? Why do you still bother with Pony Club?”
I looked at her and blinked. I guess I had never really bothered to try to put it into words. So this—nearly a year later, as I am sitting in the Milwaukee airport waiting for pick up to participate in this year’s upper level certification—is my attempt to do just that.
By now, I have been a volunteer/clinician/National Examiner for USPC for nearly four times as long as I was ever a member. I belonged to the Old North Bridge Pony Club in Massachusetts from about 1992-1994, and then Squamscott Pony Club in New Hampshire from 1995 through 1997, when I aged out at 21. I started out as a 15 year old D3 who kept her semi-feral Thoroughbred mare in her English teacher’s backyard and finished as a 21 year old H-A who definitely thought she knew everything there was to know about horses (let’s admit it—what 21 year old isn’t that cocky?). I had participated in two National Championships and travelled to Delaware, California, Oklahoma, Kansas and Hawaii as a Visiting Instructor.
It was an action packed few years, to say the least.
This was all back in the “old days”, when you had to pass a National Testing all on one go, when the only option was to test in all four phases (flat, arena jumping, cross country jumping and horsemanship), when you aged out at 21 and had to try to somehow reach your goals before you ran out of time.
I have been a district commissioner and a regional instruction coordinator. I have organized, managed and taught at countless Pony Club camps. I have organized, judged and been the technical delegate at rallies. I have taught local mounted and unmounted meetings and run local club certifications. I have served on national committees.
I can’t even possibly guess the total number of hours I have spent involved with Pony Club. And I know that at its core, Pony Club is full of passionate horsemen who deeply want to see the organization and its members succeed.
As a National Examiner, I have been yelled at, threatened, physically intimidated and belittled by angry parents (never candidates). But I have also seen some of the very best—candidates who come forward and say that, even if unsuccessful, a testing was one of the most positive experiences that had had in Pony Club. One mother even brought a pie after we had told her son that he had not met standard, with a note thanking us for our compassion and saying, “It is always hard to so no to children and pie.”
But why? Why, out of all the countless equestrian organizations, have I chosen this one, specifically, to spend most of my extremely limited (read: non-existent) free time with?
I guess to understand that, you will have to know a little bit more about me.
When my family moved to Massachusetts in 1990, I was a pretty die-hard hunt seat equitation rider. I had had the opportunity to compete a fair amount for a kid who had never even leased a horse, because our facility hosted several “C” rated AHSA horse shows and held a series of in house schooling shows for all of their clients. There was also a local hunter/jumper association in our area which coordinated a school horse show series for the major lesson factory programs, so I had even competed some at other farms.
I knew nothing about dressage other than bending.
I thought cross country was terrifying.
I had no intention, ever, of competing in a horse trials or event.
I only knew what Pony Club was because of the Saddle Club books.
But when we left New York, I lost my barn family. There, I had been a certified “barn rat”, frequently hanging out after school and helping out around the barn, even though I only had my lesson once a week. I desperately wanted to find that family again in Massachusetts, but from the beginning it was a struggle. Though I found a great hunter/jumper lesson program, it quickly became apparent to both me and my instructor that my goals outstripped any of what her wonderful lesson horses could offer. She told me she was happy to keep teaching me, but unless something changed, horse wise, she wasn’t sure how much further I could go.
I was stuck.
And then something kind of amazing happened. A wonderful woman, Ann Sorvari, who was an English teacher at my high school and my neighbor, let me start riding her Thoroughbred mare Dilly. Dilly had stood around for several years. There was only a twenty meter grass circle to ride on. Dilly really preferred to stand around and look pretty over doing actual work. But I rode her all over the subdivision we lived in, up and down Olde Harvard Road, and once a week, all the way down Burroughs Road, across Route 111, to Wetherbee Stables for a riding lesson.
Dilly was difficult to ride, and I lacked the skills at the time to help her to be better than who she was. She spooked a lot, tried to go around jumps rather than over them, and could have full on Thoroughbred melt downs over really irrelevant stuff.
Kathy, my hunt seat coach, came out to see her one day. She chose her words carefully.
“Well, she is never going to be suitable for what we do,” Kathy said. “If you take her on, you will have to set different goals.”
But like any horse crazy kid, what I wanted more than anything was a horse of my own. So when Mrs. Sorvari offered to transfer ownership of the mare to me, I had already made a shift in my mind. Despite Dilly being rather ill suited for most riding goals, she met the one criterion that was most important—membership in the species Equus caballus.
And THAT was when I joined Pony Club. A few girls in my high school were members and they gave me their District Commissioner’s info. I knew Dilly would never make it as a hunter or an eq horse, but I figured that in eventing, it didn’t matter what you looked like so long as you made it to the other side of the jump.
Clearly, I had much to learn.
At this time in my life, there was one more major variable in the mix. Just before I started high school, my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The disease launched a full scale attack on her well-being, with an increase in symptoms that was almost quantifiable from month to month. When you are a teen with no control over something so terrifying, having a safe place to escape to is everything. The more intense her symptoms, the more I focused on studying horsemanship.
Pony Club is a volunteer organization, and parental involvement is key. But my mother was too ill to help, and my father too busy trying to take care of her and go to work and run to the grocery store. Though I didn’t know it then, perhaps the first lesson that Pony Club taught me was generosity—the many parents who picked my horse up to go to meetings or rally though it was out of their way, who spoke up for me at parent’s meetings when I didn’t have a voice, who loaned or gave me tack, equipment and other items which I couldn’t afford on my own. As an emotionally hurting teen, I was not always gracious enough in my acceptance of their support. I can only hope that they all know in their hearts what they did for me, and today I try to emulate their generosity and compassion in my interactions with others.
Here are some of the other lessons I took away from my five short years as a Pony Clubber:
The C1 examiner who complimented me on my ability to handle refusals during my show jumping course, saying, “I have met B’s who don’t know how to ride a stop like that.” This, after being told by so many that my horse (Dilly) was useless and wouldn’t teach me anything. Instead, I learned patience and tact, and developed a tool box of techniques to make things better.
The clinician who helped pull me up out of the water jump at my B prep clinic. After remounting in soggy britches and rejumping the fence, I tearfully asked if there was any point of continuing to plan on taking the test. “I absolutely think you should take the test,” she said. I learned that sometimes you have to land in the swamp and figure out how to pull yourself back up before you will get to where you want to be.
Laughing and chatting and eating Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream at 2 AM with my friend Becky while driving home from Nationals, only to realize that we had been following the wrong car and we had no idea where we were or where to go. We had to stop and wake up her mother in the back seat and admit that we hadn’t been paying enough attention. I learned that sometimes, you have to ask for help, even if it is your own fault you need help in the first place.
Trying Tetrathlon, a four-sport contest in which you run, swim, ride and shoot (add fencing and you have modern pentalthlon). I learned that I could make myself get up and run every day, and do a flip turn in the pool, and shoot a gun, and for the first time in my entire life, feel like a real athlete. I learned that though I was never going to be the fastest or the strongest, I was still capable and that being the best athlete I could be was its own victory.
The moment at my B testing when I burst into tears when I saw the “meets standard” box checked. I couldn’t quite believe it was real—I had found and paid for the lease on my testing horse, arranged for my trailer rides to the clinics and the test and arranged for the hotel all on my own. And though there were several generous, wonderful adults who helped me along the way (including the test organizer who loaned me a car to get to and from the B&B I was staying at when my ride ditched me), it was the single biggest thing I had ever accomplished mostly on my own at that point in my life. I couldn’t quite believe it was real. It was farther than I had ever dreamed I would go in Pony Club. I learned that I am possible.
And when the examiners handed me back my H-A test sheet, one asked, “when will you take your A?” –and I told her I knew that it was too much, that I didn’t have a horse and wasn’t ready. She replied, “that is another lesson from Pony Club—it teaches us to know our limits.”
Perhaps. But personally, I think the opposite is true. Pony Club challenged me to stretch my limits, to grow and try to do things I had never envisioned were possible for me as an equestrian and young adult.
And Pony Club gave me a community of support and love during a time in my life when I most needed one.
So I will remain #PonyClubProud, because I know that there are children and teens now who were like me then—the ones who just so badly want to show growth and move forward, who are learning to set goals and reach for them, who may not have the full support of people around them at home. Because if for just one member I can be that voice who says, “You can do it. Never give up, keep moving forward,” that is worth more than all the hours combined.
Inside your Ride: Mental Skills for Being Happy and Successful with your Horse by Tonya Johnston
c 2012 Cruz Bay Publishing/Equine Network: Boulder, CO. 263 pages.
If you have ever struggled with: nerves, worry, fear, anxiety (performance or generalized), coping with pressure, etc., and it has affected your riding in a negative way—I would stop reading now and go pick up a copy of Inside Your Ride: Mental Skills for Being Happy and Successful with Your Horse. Author Tonya Johnston is a specialist in equestrian sports psychology, and her insights have increasingly appeared in articles, blogs and podcasts, with good reason. Inside Your Ride is well organized, coherent and broken down in such a way that any equestrian needing to “up their mental game” should find some helpful guidelines.
The field of sports psychology has grown exponentially in the past ten to fifteen years, going from being almost like the secret weapon of the elite athlete to a tool that even casual riders can use to move past any number of mental/psychological impediments to their goals. Today, many sports psychologists focus on specific sports. This is to our benefit, I think, as we all know that horseback riding is a sport unlike any other, due to the fact that our powerful teammates can and often do have an agenda which is different from our own. Each author has their own tools, strategies and systems which help equestrians to move through their personal blocks, and I appreciate being able to read each professional’s take on the subject in books like this one. But to be effective, the content must be clear and structured in a way that you can work through it on your own—and Johnston has hit that mark in Inside Your Ride.
While this particular book does slant towards concerns common amongst riders that compete, I think there is plenty in here for any rider who has set more fundamental goals for themselves, goals as seemingly basic as getting more time in the saddle. In fact, the first chapter is dedicated to motivation, with Johnston acknowleding that people ride for many different reasons—and she helps the reader to identify for themselves what it is about riding that makes them choose to pursue the sport. From there, the book includes chapters on confidence (who doesn’t need more of that, right?), focus, energy, attitude, resilience and more. There is even a chapter on returning to the sport, whether it be after a fall, a significant break from riding, or a break from competing.
Johnston has included many personal anecdotes and fictionalized scenarios which help prevent the book from becoming too text-booky. Instead, it reads a little bit like the script to a TED talk—“here’s how I did it, and you can do it too!”.
She has also included quotes and feedback from top professionals, which I think is a good way of showing that even the best in the world have had their self-doubts and techniques like these have helped. The only downside to this—and this is going to sound trite but it is true—is that “celebrity status” in the horse industry can be fleeting, and if an author makes reference to too many former stars it can date the book.
Many of the individuals she quotes—Bernie Traurig, John French, Leslie Howard, for a few—are icons of the sport, but I know from personal experience as a teacher/educator that if I bring up these names, I am often met with blank stares from my students. Never mind those individuals whose time at the top was even more fleeting—the Olympic medalist who doesn’t have a string of horses and so faded back into the tapestry when their top horse retired, or the equitation champion whose transition to the adult divisions has not led to the same degree of success. On a weekly basis, I am left giving my students “Google homework” to look up someone who just a few years earlier would have been on the cover of every pre-eminent equestrian magazine.
So unfortunately, even for me, someone who recognized the names and respects their experience, some sections of this book felt dated, while others felt a little too “a la minute” in that the rider referenced sort of came and went so quickly that they don’t seem a relevant source. I am not sure that the 2019 equestrian is going to recognize that all of these sources have experience worth listening to. And I don’t think I needed them to make the book work.
But maybe none of this will bother you, and you will just take note that an “experienced horse person says that this technique works” and you will go try it for yourself. Which is the real point, I think.
I suspect that this is the sort of book you can read once, take away a few key concepts, then pick up again a year later and absorb a whole new insight. Mental preparation is sort of like developing riding skills—it takes practice and some commitment, and you get better at it with time. And I think our needs change over time, too—just read this forthright piece from Steffan Peters (and if you don’t know who he is…you have Google homework, too…).
This is not the blog post I was hoping to be writing right now. What I had hoped to do in this post was to proudly proclaim that after a winter of hard work and rebuilding, Anna and I had triumphantly returned to the show ring at Third Level with scores solidly in the 60’s. But that is not what happened. The truth is much less glamorous—because after a winter of hard work and rebuilding, our 2019 competitive debut was somewhat…lackluster.
Last June, I rather overambitously moved Anna up to Fourth Level, mostly because there was a show in my area that was permanently going off the calendar, and it had just seemed like a weekend of beginnings and endings and so I thought, ‘what the heck let’s just do it.’ The ride was sort of a disaster. But unlike moving up in eventing or jumpers when you are not quite ready, the risks to do so in dressage seem low. Or so I thought.
Here’s the thing. I know that this level of dressage is a reach for Anna—she is an average mover and has less than average forward intention. But I do really believe that she can do it, to a modest degree. And right now she is the best horse I have, and I enjoy riding her. There was a little tagline I read somewhere a long time ago, which has always stuck with me:
“Not every champion has to cost a whole lot. You do the best that you can with the best that you’ve got.”
When I compete Anna, I don’t go out hoping to best everyone in the class. My personal goal is to feel that I have shown the horse off to the best of our combined/mutual ability on that given day, and if the score comes back mediocre, at least I can still feel good knowing that we put our best selves forward. My tangible goal, always, is to break 60%. I don’t have 100% control of this, of course, but if I can deliver a consistent test that has some highlights (for Anna at Third Level, this is usually the walk work and the flying changes, some of which are coefficient scores), I feel like I don’t give the judge a choice but to award us the (often dreaded) score of 6: satisfactory.
But after our failed attempt at Fourth Level last summer, I hit pause. Clearly what I was doing wasn’t working, and if I wanted this little horse to be her best, I needed to change something about my strategy.
The first thing I changed was a bit unconventional—I pulled her shoes. Every summer for the past five years, the quality and integrity of her hoof wall just seemed to go downhill, until they were cracked and thin and hard to keep shoes on. Her hind feet have NEVER been shod, and the hoof wall is great. She was barefoot her first few seasons under saddle, and I only added the shoes when I sensed a little tentativeness in her stride when I began adding more intense conditioning sets for eventing. So pulling her shoes wasn’t maybe quite as odd of an idea as it might sound. I added Farrier’s Formula for about six months, and within just a shoeing cycle or two her walls were thickened and tougher. She never took a single “funny” step.
I also decided that I needed more consistent eyes on the ground. I began working with a local trainer whose riding and training I admire very much, and admitted that I felt out of touch with the expectations of the level I was trying to compete at. We started working together in August, and immediately went totally back to the basics. I put away the double bridle, and we worked to develop a better stretch through Anna’s topline, with more correct and consistent connection.
Going back to these essential foundation concepts was both humbling and eye opening. In previous blogs, I have noted that just driving Anna forward with whip/spur is not effective in creating forward intention. She has to be supple to go forward. I know this—but sometimes I forget, or because she is pretty much the only horse I ride, I don’t keep my expectations of her suppleness high enough, and I become complacent in what I accept from her.
The idea is simple but the execution takes finesse and correct timing and practice. You cannot push a horse forward into a block, whether the block is in the topline, the jaw or the under neck. Instead, separate out your aids a bit—ask the horse to chew the bit with a rein aid, and reward any response from them which is in the direction of reaching forward and downward. Just like anything with horses, you must ask little, reward often, and recognize any small attempt to move towards the outcome you are looking for.
For months, all I did was ride Anna is a long and low outline, doing leg yields in the stretching frame, even working towards a stretching canter. As the stretch became more consistent, I began to do a little bit of shoulder fore or shoulder in, but always with the stretch. The second I lost the stretch, it was back to the basics. As the stretchy shoulder in became more reliable, the next challenge was to change to renvers without losing the stretch. For quite awhile I ran out of long side before I had really established the new position in Anna’s body.
I boarded Anna at a local indoor in the winter. I mostly rode early in the AM or at night after work, when the ring was empty, diligently working on the stretch. It can be hard to motivate in New Hampshire in the winter, in the dark and the cold, but I was committed. And slowly, little by little, things got better, and more consistent, and without force, Anna’s energy levels improved. Her shape changed, with more correct muscling through the neck and a thinner throatlatch. While my social media feed was full of friends enjoying the warmer climates of North Carolina or Florida, I was diligently doing my homework, and truthfully looking forward to a payoff come spring and summer.
Because here is the thing—Anna is going much better. She is doing work now in the snaffle that I couldn’t have touched a year ago in the double. And more importantly, most of the time, she seems happy in the work. Is everything perfect? Of course not. Am I expecting 7’s and 8’s on most movements? Not even close…but this is part of the art of dressage, to show off the movements and elements that are your horse’s forte, and to support them in the moments which are not as easy. Most horses (except maybe Valegro) find some components of a level easier than others.
So I was pretty crushed when I took Anna to our first 2019 show at Beland Stables in Lakeville, Mass., and she scored a 59%. Yes, it was below my 60% threshold. But more frustratingly, the test was so not representative of how she has been schooling. She warmed up well but the second I started circling the arena I knew I was in trouble. Anna felt like she was stuck in the mud—the sand footing of the arena felt deep and I had no response to my leg at all. We made it through the test but it was a royal struggle, with Anna completely blowing off the walk-canter transition (which she NEVER does), and I feel as though I owe the judge a fruit basket or something for her generosity of spirit in the scoring.
Our next show was just about a week later, much closer to home at Longfellow Dressage in Nottingham, N.H. We had several decent schools during the week and I was prepared to chalk up the performance at Beland to the deep footing and warm temperatures that day. Longfellow has high quality GGT footing and a relaxed environment, and I knew there would be no environmental excuses. We had scored a 59% at Beland with a lackluster performance. Surely Longfellow would go better.
But instead, we went down two points, to a 57%. The first four movements were 7’s, and then we hit the first trot half pass left, and it was like someone put Anna on pause. Once again, I felt like I had no horse at all throughout the entire test, and she totally blew me off in the second flying change, usually one of her most reliable movements. By the end I was just kicking helplessly while my glasses slid down my nose. The judge’s only comment at the end of the test? “So much kicking…he [sic] just shut off.”
Here is the thing I have come to believe about horses. They are pretty authentic. They don’t scheme against us or plot to ruin our day. They live in the moment, and if they are content or unhappy, confident or nervous, you see it in their behavior. Horses just are. But they do have long memories and if they have had an association with something from the past, good or bad, it can influence them in the moment.
I am left wondering what Anna is trying to tell me. She schools well but clearly isn’t maintaining that ethic in the show ring. I wonder if moving up last year did more damage than just adding a low score to our resume. I wonder if it left Anna feeling that when she goes into the large arena, she is going to be asked to do something she can’t do. Maybe moving up before you are ready, even in dressage, can cause damage you don’t see.
My challenge now is to try to figure out how to change the equation, and to learn what (if anything) will motivate Anna to turn on her best self in the show ring. Since Longfellow, I have already had our vet out and done a thorough once over; we will make a few minor edits in her physical care but I am reassured that there is nothing obvious in her physical body causing this problem.
While I am disappointed that I can’t write the triumphant blog post that I was hoping to, I realize now that despite this current set back, the truth is we are still further ahead than we were a year ago. Most of the time, Anna is working more correctly, with a better topline and better balance. She is sound and healthy and I think our rides are more harmonious now. I have a clearer picture of what it is I am looking for from her, and as a result I think I can do a better job of riding her to that end, even if we don’t yet maintain it in the show ring.
Plus, taking the time to review the basics has also made me a better instructor, in my opinion. I have begun looking at every horse I work with through a more specific lens, one which is focusing on the fundamental correctness of the connection. Staying true to these foundation elements is the only correct way to move forward. There are no short cuts.
So for now we will continue to lay down strength and suppleness and go hacking and try to keep our focus positive and fun. If I want my horse to feel like a partner I need to try hard to figure out what she needs from me right now. Scores and showing and the rest cannot be the main motivation. At the end of the day it is all about the relationship with the horse, and knowing that you have done your best by the animal.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian