Tag Archives: horsemanship

Managing your Velociraptors…Or your herd of mares

Mares aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I don’t mind them and without any sort of conscious decision making on my part, I find that I have now acquired a herd of three of them.  Little did I know, however, that establishing harmony in this herd would prove to be so emotionally draining for all involved.

For the past nine months, the Dark Mare (Lee) has contentedly been living here alone at Cold Moon Farm.  She was pretty settled in her routine, hacked out here there and everywhere alone, and admired the goats which live next door.  This all is quite impressive given that at her core, Lee is a pretty anxious and insecure horse who draws a lot of her confidence from the animals around her.

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Lee enjoying grass in the new fencing for the summer pastures.

But last week, I upended her little world.

On Wednesday, I brought home our new friend, Spring Hollow Marquesa.  Marquesa is a 20 year old purebred Morgan who has been a part of the school horse team at the U of New Hampshire for the past eighteen years.  She is still quite full of life—everyone knows that a 20 year old Morgan is merely middle aged—but as far as we can remember, she hadn’t been off the UNH property in nearly fourteen years, and that just to school cross country.  Considering all of this, the fact that I was able to quietly load her on my own and bring her home uneventfully is pretty impressive.  But even so, the move was a big lifestyle change for her, too.

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Spring Hollow Marquesa

Marquesa is a sweet mare, and in my twelve years of teaching off of her, I have never seen her so much as flick an ear back at another horse, never mind exhibit any of the other stereotypical “marish” behaviors that people dislike.   I figured Marquesa would be dominant over Lee, who would be happy once again to have an Overlord to tell her where to stand and what to do all day.

I put them in side by side paddocks to meet and greet.  There were a few quiet squeals but nothing too terribly dramatic.  I left them like this overnight, and then the next day turned them out together for one hour on grass.  They seemed to be pretty content with one another, and were clearly taking comfort in each other’s presence—while still exhibiting all of the behaviors of sorting out dominance. And I started to see a side of Marquesa that I hadn’t before; she was acting a little bit like a bully.

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Meeting officially.

Marquesa’s main body language cue was the snaking of her neck.  Watching her do this motion over and over made my own neck hurt.  She walked circles around Lee, arching her neck and snaking it around and around.  Lee clearly understood this meant to pay attention and smartly trotted off.  I didn’t ride her in those forty-eight hours, but I suspect she easily covered ten or twenty miles being ‘driven off’ by her alpha.

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Out together for the first time.

At feeding time, I stood guard between them.  Again, the first few meals were funny…Marquesa actually tried to get to Lee’s food, in spite of my presence.  I drove her away with voice and body movement, and she reluctantly moved off, snaking her neck the whole time.  What had happened to the sweet mare that I had known for twelve years?

This is where my ‘mare drama’ started to remind me of the movie Jurassic World.  If you haven’t seen it, the lead male character, played by Chris Pratt, is a trainer who works with a pack of the highly intelligent velociraptor species.  If you are a devotee of the franchise, you will know that the “raptors” are clever, communal hunters.  They can open doors and seem to be able to use logic to solve complex problems.  If you are going to be followed by dinosaurs, raptors are not the ideal.  Pratt’s character handles the animals by establishing himself in the ‘alpha’ role; this required a relationship with each individual but in particular the beta raptor, Blue.  This alpha role was reserved for him alone; other humans could not step into his place within the hierarchy (which is played up to great theatrical drama in the movie).

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Marquesa is allowed to be dominant over Lee, but under no circumstances is she going to be allowed to be the alpha mare.

That would be me.

But I wasn’t done disrupting the peace and harmony previously enjoyed at Cold Moon Farm.  Two days after bringing Marquesa home, Annapony also joined the group.  Having previously experienced the challenges of having Anna live in the same paddock as Lee when we went to Tamarack Hill two summers ago, I had already decided that side by side living was going to be preferable this time around.

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A moment of peace after several days of chaos.

So now there were three raptors.  The challenge:  figure out how to manage the group so that horses can be handled and ridden safely with the minimum of risk to person, animal or property.

The first forty eight hours after Anna came home were probably the worst.   All three horses were acting like feral creatures; unhandled and rank, ill behaved, no respect.  I really wondered if it was going to work out.

Right now, the horses spend most of the day in the sacrifice area as they are gradually introduced to grass.  Three horses in two paddocks and one human means that in order to get everyone into the grass fields, someone at some point is going to be alone.  Anna was the logical choice, and she more or less was good about it—except for one day, when at the end of the lead rope she demonstrated the most amazing array of airs above the ground that I have ever seen from her.  I took to wearing my helmet for turn out and turn in.

The first time Anna saw the peaceful goats that live next door…velociraptor snorting and passaging up and down the fence line.  So Lee next to her also became concerned about the goats and starting running around to help her feel better.  The same goats that have been here THE ENTIRE NINE MONTHS SHE HAS LIVED HERE.  Lee’s behavior then irritated Marquesa, who started her neck snaking behavior again. This sort of communal drama played itself out repeatedly.

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Lee lays down only on rare occasions.  She seems to feel safe with this pack! Note the fence board which doesn’t fit the others.  Raptor Repair # 1.

Then came the process of separating the mares for basic care.  You know, those unusual sorts of things we like to do with them—daily grooming, riding, etc.  Oh the screaming and the calling and the nervous pooping.  The two who were left together outside weren’t happy.  The one who was inside being tacked up wasn’t happy.  The drama. The chaos.  I was left truly questioning my judgement in bringing them all together into one place.

With the mild weather, I have been sleeping with the windows open, which meant I could hear every snort or squeal, and every set of trotting hoof beats (no doubt as Marquesa snaked her neck again and set Lee off moving).  I tried only to get up when the noises sounded extreme, which took some discipline.  Still, I slept with the flashlight by my bed, ready to shine it out on their fields in the front of the house at the first sign of significant drama.

Like any good raptor pack, this group has been religiously testing the fence line.  Now, it is on the agenda for the summer to do some replacement of worn boards, run a new fenceline down one side to block off the wet area and finally install some functional electric wire to keep them off the boards.  But these edits have not yet been made.  So far, we have broken two boards and destroyed the bungee gates which were separating the two paddocks, resulting in all three raptors being out together one morning earlier this week.  That ruckus I slept straight through, and in the morning I found them all fairly peacefully existing in the same space.

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The new gate.  Installed courtesy of YouTube and my interns!

But day by day, the raptors seem to be settling into their new routine.  They are almost ready for full day grass turnout, which will give them plenty to do other than test boundaries—and if they do, they will receive a strong electric charge for their efforts.  Each horse can now successfully be taken away from the others for their daily care and exercise, with Lee being the last one to come around (it is as though nine months of pent up frustration over being home alone are all coming out in one week of temper tantrums).  Sweet Marquesa is back to being her cheerful self and is learning how to be an independent trail horse.  And Annapony has really set the bar high with excellent dressage schools and a solo hack two miles down the power line trail and back. Perhaps there is hope for this pack after all.

I wish I could say that I had stayed calm and cool through it all.  In reality, I was a nervous, worried mess and could barely focus for my worry.  If I had had a friend in my situation, I would have said the same things my friends said to me:  “Give it time”  “they will work it out”.  Intellectually, I knew this but emotionally I stressed.

In the meantime, we continue to adjust to our new lifestyle. The thing about mares is that you can’t force them to do what you want.  You must present the question and then give them time to choose to participate.

I think the raptors are choosing to be okay with their new arrangement.

Riding Aside

A Day with Side Saddle Expert Rhonda Watts-Hettinger

Considering the diversity of disciplines available for the modern rider, side saddle may seem like it would have become relegated to the annals of history, an antique style without merit to a contemporary equestrienne.  But a devoted community of side saddle riders keeps the technique alive, regularly competing aside in nearly every discipline, from eventing and fox hunting to dressage and even western.

Sure, Boyd Martin does it once, a photo gets posted and now all the groupies are fawning over how cool he is for trying it out.  But all of us normal folks also had a chance to get to know more about riding side saddle, thanks to a wonderful clinic with Rhonda Watts Hettinger at Fox Brook Farm in Berlin, MA, in early April.  The clinic was organized by volunteer extraordinaire Susan Goldfischer to benefit the Old North Bridge Hunt, of which both women are members.

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Rhonda and her homebred mare, Cricket, give a brief demonstration.

Rhonda gave us an over view of “side saddle 101” and then many in attendance gave riding aside a try, either on their own horse or one generously provided by facility owner and host, Ginny Zukatynski.

I remembered seeing Rhonda riding side saddle while competing her horse at the UNH horse trials back when I was an undergrad.  I thought eventing was hard enough without sitting side ways but she sure made it look easy, and with her formal attire she and her horse cut a sharp image.  So it was kind of cool to see her again so many years later and share her extreme passion and commitment to this traditional, feminine style of riding.

Saddle Fit

Rhonda started her presentation by informing the audience that most anything we already knew about riding astride applies to side saddle as well, and this theme certainly recurred throughout the day.

Side saddles are clearly unique from other English style saddles, with a broad, flat seat and just one stirrup, traditionally on the left, or “near” side.  The horns are also on the left; the top horn is called the ‘top pommel’ while the lower one enjoys the more colorful title of ‘leaping horn’.  Most saddles seem to fasten with whatever your chosen style is of traditional English girth, though Rhonda mentioned that the old fashioned three fold leather girths are still considered a standard appointment and are coveted by modern side saddle riders.  Unique to a side saddle is the ‘balance strap’, an additional thin strip of leather which increases the security and stability of the saddle on the right, or “off”, side. The balance strap prevents the saddle from lifting up or pitching back and forth.

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Side saddles come in many shapes and sizes.

Rhonda commented that the unfastened side saddle is particularly precarious and can easily slip due to the weight of the horns, which can be damaged should the saddle fall.  Otherwise, though, fitting a side saddle is much like fitting any other saddle.  The saddle should fit well over the withers and have clearance through the gullet; the seat should be level and bridging should be avoided.  To help support the horns on the left, side saddles usually have a longer tree point on the left side, so this area must be carefully checked to ensure it isn’t digging into the horse’s shoulder.  When padding is added to improve the fit of a side saddle, it is usually done so on the right side in order to keep the saddle centered.

The stirrup of a side saddle is considered part of the rider, not a part of the saddle, and the rider should detach it when she dismounts.  The stirrups do not run up and feature a quick release mechanism, allowing them to snap free if caught.

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A variety of different styles of stirrup.

Rhonda commented that many of the best side saddles still available are older antique models; however, many of these were made to fit Thoroughbred types and so have narrower trees.  This can provide a fit challenge when working with a modern horse, which also is typically better fed than its more historic counterpart.

Rider Attire and Styling

Most everyone that I know who has gotten into side saddle has done so because they thought that the formal habits just looked smashing, and therefore needed an excuse to wear one.  At our clinic, Rhonda was dressed in ratcatcher style, also known as informal attire to foxhunters.   However, several versions of habit were on display and ranged from historical recreations to fancy ladies’ dress.

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Cricket models her side saddle.

Rhonda offered some practical tips on attire for the aspiring side saddle rider.  Side saddle boots are cut short, especially for the right leg, so that the rider isn’t nipped behind the knee by their boot.  Riders can get away with wearing paddock boots while they are getting started.  Rhonda suggests wearing britches that match the color of your habit; apparently wearing light pants with a dark habit can be quite suggestive!

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Side saddle riders have used a safety skirt or safety apron since the early 1900’s; this skirt is specially cut so that the rider’s outer legs are covered, but the seat of the rider and off side have only a minimal amount of fabric hanging down.  This makes it easier for the rider to come free should she start to fall, without risking getting tangled in her skirts.   Riding trousers were introduced in the 1800’s to be used underneath the skirt, and today are replaced for most women with regular riding breeches.

For a rider interested in showing side saddle, the various appointments are important and could take up a whole article in and of themselves.  It would be important to consult with the rules regarding your specific discipline to be sure that you are not in violation. For example, carrying a cane on the off side is permitted in some sports but not others.

Tips and Technique

Unlike most English disciplines, side saddle riders spend most of their time sitting.  But just like when a rider sits astride, it is important to ensure correct alignment and posture, and equal balance on both seat bones.  If anything, the evenness of the rider’s seat becomes even more critical because the weight of the rider becomes an essential component of communication with the horse.  Because of the amount of sitting work, horse should not be started in side saddles until they are four to six years old and already have a base of fitness on them.

When riders first mount, they do so in the traditional manner—on the left side, by stepping the left foot into the stirrup, swinging the right leg over, and settling onto both sit bones astride.  The rider should settle here until she has her weight centered.  From there, the rider will lift her hands on the reins and bring the right leg up and in front of her, settling it on the top horn.   It is important to not shift the seat bones when the rider makes this transition; at first, most riders will find that they have to slide back.

The rider uses the right leg to support themselves, pulling the heel towards the shin of the left leg while simultaneously pointing the toe down.  There should only be a small gap behind the rider’s right knee.  The position of the saddle causes the rider to sit a little higher and further back than in a regular saddle; the reins will also need to be kept a little longer.

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Sitting aside for the first time. Balance strap adjustment!

Clearly, the rider’s weight will have a tendency to shift to the left, since this is where her legs are positioned.  In fact, back in the day when ladies rode because it was fashionable to do so, rather than because they really wanted to, many were only taught how to walk and canter on the right lead, because turning right helped to keep the rider more centered and balanced.

Because it is easier to turn right, Rhonda started each of the clinic participants out in this direction.  Most riders have been trained to look where they want to go, and so tracking right causes the rider to shift her eye—and therefore her weight—to the right.  This also allows for a secure contact of the leg on the horns.  The rider should try to keep an equal distance from her last rib to the top of the hips on both sides of their body.

Rhonda told us that anytime you get into trouble in a side saddle, the best thing to do is to pull the right shoulder back, which will automatically snug the rider into the horn.

The First Person Experience

For my first side saddle experience, I had the pleasure of riding Betty Boop, an OTTB owned by Ginny’s daughter.  Boop’s first side saddle ride had been with Rhonda in preparation for the clinic, and her second ride was with yours truly.  A seasoned hunt horse, Boop was rather unconcerned with the whole affair.

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Boop waiting for her saddle.  Her owner looks on.  Thanks for sharing her!  

As with the other riders, we started tracking right, and by keeping my eyes to the right and pulling back the right shoulder, my alignment fell into place.  I quickly determined that to be a dedicated side saddle rider, one would develop a fairly good degree of body awareness.  I tried to emulate my best yoga posture, but at first this translated into a bit of rigidity.  Rhonda reminded me to relax my shoulders and arms enough to follow the horse, which seemed quite obvious— once she pointed it out.

We soon progressed to a little trot.  We started in the sitting trot, which feels pretty easy and natural in this saddle.  The ‘post’ of a side saddle rider is much less distinct that when riding astride.  We practiced this too—a sort of shifting of the rider’s weight from the seat bones onto the thigh.  The rider never really comes out of the saddle, but the process does give horse and rider some of the benefits of posting.

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Since things seemed to be going well, Rhonda let us try a bit of canter.  Here I felt the least secure but I tried to remember what Rhonda had said about keeping the eyes and shoulder to the right.  As it turns out, after thirty plus years of riding, my body seems to know what to do on a cantering horse—even if one of my legs is hooked over funny!

Rhonda let us try a little bit of walk, trot and canter to the left as well.  She instructed me to keep focusing the eyes to the right, even though we were tracking left, in order to keep the legs secure.  Going to the left while focusing to the right may seem counterintuitive, but isn’t super different than other “counter” dressage movements, so it didn’t feel as awkward as one might imagine.  The canter to the left definitely was the most difficult of the phases, and it was here that I felt the least balanced.

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Having one’s right leg hooked over the front of the saddle does mean that the rider really has to be intuitive about how they are using their seat bones.  Rhonda said that the flying change, for example, can be achieved just by a shift in the weight and swing of the seat.  This should be true in any well trained horse, but for a side saddle horse, there is no hiding behind a leg aid.  Riders can carry a cane on the off side, and Rhonda let me carry one with Boop.  But to cue the canter, I thought more about using the inside seat bone and a little kiss sound.

Final Thoughts

Going into the day with limited knowledge of side saddle riding, I found that I have come away with quite a newfound appreciation for this unfamiliar discipline and its supporters.  Like Rhonda said, most everything you know about riding astride is also true aside, but I further feel that trying side saddle can only improve a rider’s sense of balance, feel for alignment and coordination while riding astride.

Many thanks to Rhonda, Susan, Ginny and the rest of the crew who helped put this clinic on!

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Reflections on Gratitude: Part III

Lessons Taught by the Yellow Horse

When I started this blog in March of 2016, it was nearly one year ago that the ending began.  But to tell the story from the end would not be fair or appropriate, even though the last chapter remains painfully fresh in my mind.  We will come there before this post is through, but for the moment, let’s go back to the beginning.

Becoming

I first officially met Carmel when I was in college, but I think I had been aware of him before that, through Pony Club.  Owned by the local family, Carmel had been purchased for their youngest child, but after bucking her off several times, a more suitable pony was found and Mel became the mount for their elder boys.  Carmel was a familiar fixture at mounted meetings at Mrs. Smith’s Sunrise Bay Farm in Durham, also representing Squamscott Pony Club at rallies and ratings.

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Carmel

But by the time I came to know him better, Mel was mostly being used as a school horse by a local riding instructor.  The boys had long since outgrown his slender 15.1 hand Appendix Quarter Horse frame, and the daughter now rode her own athletic Thoroughbred.  Not yet ready to sell Carmel to a new owner, the family had leased him to Dawn, where he steadfastly trotted around with all manner of student, from beginner “down upper” to those starting their foray into the competition ring.  Horseless for the first time in years, I cleaned stalls one or two mornings per week in exchange for tack time, and at some point I was offered the chance to ride Mel.

At that point in my equestrian career, I had attained my Pony Club H-A rating, I had competed up to 3’6” in the jumpers and I had done a little bit of eventing.  I had been a working student for Lendon Gray and had ridden in clinics with other “big wigs” of the industry.  I had grown up showing in hunter/jumper shows in New York State, competing on any school horse that I could convince the barn owners to throw on the trailer.  I had no idea that we were usually outclassed, that my show clothes looked second hand or that some of the people I was riding against were among the best in the sport at that time.  I had had so many amazing experiences with horses that probably just shouldn’t have been possible, but happened because someone behaved generously towards me. For the most part, I was borrowing horses, equipment, or both.

Carmel was probably fifteen years old at this point, and mostly what I had seen him do was plod along with little peanut riders.  I knew that in his younger years, he had completed several events, including the prestigious Groton House Horse Trials, which he did sans one shoe, having thrown it in the warm up.   But it was hard to look at him at that time and see the former athlete.  His mane had grown long, he rarely jumped higher than a mini vertical, and his preferred gait decidedly was a shuffling trot.  When he cantered, he usually lost his hind lead in the corners.  I considered my riding him to be rehabilitative, a chance for him to get ridden by someone a little more experienced so that he could become a little better tuned up for his lesson students.

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Applehurst Schooling Horse Trials ca 1999

Dawn is an instructor widely known for her big heart and seemingly unending generosity; she suggested that I take Carmel to a few local competitions.  After just one ride on him, she encouraged me to enter him at an upcoming two phase being held at the farm.  As it turned out, the two phase was that weekend, and as it further turned out, I probably wouldn’t have time to jump him before the show.  But not worrying about such seemingly challenging limitations, we entered it anyway—and Mel won the beginner novice division.  As it turned out, he did remember a thing or two about his competition career from so long ago.

For the better part of a year, I continued to ride Carmel and showed him a little bit, and he continued to do lessons with other students for Dawn.  It was an arrangement that as far as I was concerned was working beautifully.  For the first time since I had had a leased horse in Pony Club, I could do all the fun things that horse ownership allows:  hunter paces, hacks to Great Bay, beach trips, local schooling shows.  It didn’t bother me that I was probably already riding Mel to the limits of his physical capacity, or that he wasn’t ever going to compete at Training level in eventing or do more than a basic First Level dressage test.  I was having fun, and I like to think that he was, too.

But as it goes in life, that summer brought significant changes.  The barn where Carmel lived was closing, and the people who were based there were dispersing to several different facilities.  Carmel’s family would be moving their horses to a different facility than where Dawn would be, and that meant no more chances to ride my Yellow Horse.  I found myself losing the barn community which I had just begun to feel connected to, but more significantly, I was in danger of losing my time with Carmel.

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Applehurst Hunter Pace 1998.  We were probably waiting for our ride home!

As a recent college graduate without clear long term employment, I found myself at a crossroads in many areas of my life.  I knew in my heart that buying a horse—any horse—made no sense at that moment.  My life was too unsettled and too much was up in the air.   Further, Mel in particular was not going to be the horse to “take me to the next level”, and therefore be “worthy” of the investment of time and money.

For better or for worse, I am often driven more strongly by my emotions than reason.  There I was, crying my eyes out over losing the ride on this little horse, but rationally analyzing why I should not spend all the money my grandparents had given me for my college graduation on his purchase.  Countless times, I gave myself the speech that my father would have made had he known what was going on–“Christina, this is not a sensible idea.  You must be practical.  Buying a horse is only the beginning of the expenses associated with that purchase”.   And then I called Carmel’s owners and made an offer.

The first lesson Carmel taught me wasn’t made obvious to me until much later. Taking your horsemanship skills to new levels may not always equate to jumping bigger jumps or competing at fancier shows.  In making the commitment to this animal, I came to realize that even the most plain looking and seemingly simple horse can take a hold of your heart, and can allow you to develop a deeper relationship than you knew to be possible.

Being

Carmel was the first horse I had ever bought.  I quickly succumbed to my inner twelve year old, and he had new blankets, a custom halter and stall plate and a new to me saddle.  At first, I continued the existing arrangement with Dawn where he did some lessons to help offset his expenses, but I soon found that now that he was “mine” I didn’t want to share him anymore.  We moved to a new facility where I could afford the board on my own, and had a new beginning.

Mel’s years of lower level activity had left him stiff and overall less fit than would be ideal.  At an age when many people start thinking of backing down their horses, I was working on bringing him back up.  Mel had caught his right hind in his halter as a youngster, doing extensive damage to the stifle joint.  At the time, the injury was considered possibly life ending.  But as I understand it, Carmel’s steady nature meant that his rehab passed uneventfully, and he was ultimately left with only a slight hitch in the swing of his right hind.  I spent lots of time working on improving his strength, suppleness and agility.  We learned to long line.  I taught him to jump gymnastics in a chute so that he could develop without me on his back to disrupt his movement.  We hacked out and rode diligently, never pushing too hard but never backing away, either.  Eventually, the hitch almost totally disappeared and I had a sound, fit horse.

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Carmel and I at Pembury House HT (2000)

I competed Mel for the better part of three seasons.  I may have owned the horse, but I didn’t own a truck or trailer, and so we competed where we could hitch rides.  Again, the generosity of others in this era was humbling, as good friends lent me their expensive trucks and trailers for my personal use.  We certainly had our ups and downs in the arena, but by and large we had a ton of fun.  I had never been able to go out and do the ‘eventing thing’ before, and it was a blissful experience to feel like I was finally a part of the horse show crowd.

Carmel’s swan song with me in competition was finishing second at the Area I Novice Championships out in New York.  He got there the same way he did everything…with clear, steady consistency.  His dressage was clean and accurate, but only good enough for sixth place.  However, he went out and jumped the biggest novice course I had ever put him to double clean, both in cross country and stadium.  I had no idea that we had moved up so much, and the look on my face shows how surprised I was.

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Carmel, Area I Reserve Champion at Novice, 2000

The next season, Mel turned twenty.  I started him up in the spring (we didn’t have an indoor and had only hacked as the footing permitted it all winter) but in my heart, I knew that the horse had given me everything he had left in him the year before.  At a competition that year, I had watched helplessly from warm up as a friend’s older horse sustained a serious bow on course, needing to be trucked out in a horse ambulance.  I didn’t want that for him—he was finally fit, totally sound, and still had a job to do.

It just wasn’t with me anymore.

Through a friend, I met a great Pony Club family out in New York, and for two years Carmel did D level work with a member of the Lake Effects Pony Club in Western New York Region.  In those years, I explored my growing love of dressage and began to expand my local lesson business.  I met a family with two young daughters, one of whom was outgrowing her pony just at the time when Carmel’s little rider was becoming more of a gymnast than an equestrian.  So I brought Mel home to New Hampshire, and he returned to Squamscott Pony Club at the age of 23.

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Mel and his friend Molly

Mel was a staple of both SPC and my lesson program for four more years.  He attained several D level ratings with different riders and participated in dressage, show jumping and D rallies, along with SPC summer camp, among other activities.  One of my favorite memories of him in this era was when he and Molly did their musical freestyle; I think the music was Pink Panther themed.   There was very little “on the bit” going on, but the level of adorable was incredibly high.  I was always so proud of how well Mel carried his young riders through their activities.

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Awaiting inspection at D Rally with his friend Kaeli

In the fall of his 27th year, Mel had a series of bizarre episodes that I can only guess were some kind of seizure.  The last and most serious one started while I was doing yet another little kid riding lesson with him.  He started to twitch his head, and his eyelids began trembling.  I barely had time to pull the child off and rip off his bridle before bigger movements began.  It was terrifying.  I told the child’s father to get her out of sight, that I had no idea what was happening.  Mel was screaming the terrified whinny that horses do when they need help as he ran backwards, spun in circles and staggered.  I thought he was going to drop dead before my eyes.  But as quickly as it had come on, the episode stopped.   I pulled off his saddle and called the vet, leaving him in the fenced arena.  Then I stood and waited with him.  He seemed exhausted, and I just sobbed into his neck.  I wasn’t ready to say good bye.

Luckily for me, I didn’t have to.  We determined that Mel was in the early stages of PPID, pituitary pars intermedia (usually known as equine Cushing’s disease), and that some medication and diet changes were necessary.  It was clear to me that he was no longer safe to use for lessons, but the vet urged that low stress exercise would be helpful for him.

So after nearly a decade, it was Mel and I again together.  I bareback hacked him for the next six years—he never wore a saddle again.  Eventually I didn’t even use a proper bridle, just a hackamore.  We never went far—just a twenty to twenty five minute loop several times per week.  I usually drank my morning coffee while riding him, and a few times, I multi tasked by walking my dog off of a longe line from horseback (probably not super safe and therefore not recommended).  We were fixtures in the neighborhood where my horses lived.  Every child and probably most of the adults knew Mel’s name, and we waved at all of the children on the school bus each morning.  Life was good.

The second lesson that Carmel taught me is that horses have something to offer all of us, if we are willing to listen to their and our needs of the moment.  Carmel offered so many people so much joy. I could have been selfish and kept him to myself—but in by sharing him with others, he stayed sound and loved and always had a job that was appropriate for his stage of life.

Letting Go

Owning an older horse is hard on the heart, because you know that at some point, either something dramatic is going to happen, or you are going to have to make a hard decision.  For me, it was always in the back of my brain, and when I arrived to feed the horses each morning, I unconsciously held my breath until I saw Mel’s face poking out at me from his stall.

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In mostly retirement (2011)

About a year ago, Mel went off his grain while I was away for the weekend.  Never a robust eater, Mel was known for going on “hunger strikes”, seemingly at whim.  He was receiving three soupy meals of Triple Crown Senior per day, the only form of grain that he wanted to eat.  I figured that this was another round of not liking the consistency of his feed, so I grumbled at him and kept trying to find a formulation that he found appealing.

But as the days passed and he still steadfastly refused to eat anything at all, I became concerned and had the vet out.  She thought he looked great, wondered if possibly a tooth was bothering him, and pulled some bloodwork just to check.  The results were mostly good, but he had slightly elevated kidney values—however, nothing overt stood out as being a problem.

I continued to try to pique his interest in eating.  I took samples of every grain I could find from every barn I was affiliated with.  I tried feeding him mashes, dry feed, and chopped up apples.  Sometimes, he would perk up and take a few bites.  But he never finished anything, and returned to his spot to sleep in the sun.

The days kept going by.  And still he refused to eat.  His abdomen started to tuck up, and he passed less and less manure, until there were days when none was passed at all. I could also tell that he was barely drinking.  My best friend, a small animal vet, resurrected her IV skills from her equine veterinary internship and ran fluids for me, staying till nearly eleven o’clock on a cold early spring evening.  My regular vet gave him a steroid injection used frequently post-surgery to stimulate appetite.

And still, he refused to eat.

I am not a vet, but I know enough about biology to know that an animal which has refused to eat for three weeks is not feeling well.  Nothing was obviously pointing to the cause, but the question became clear—how long do you let this go on?  Because a horse which is not eating or drinking will, eventually, begin to suffer from some sort of metabolic breakdown or develop colic. These conditions cause suffering, something which this horse did not deserve.

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April 2015, 34 years old

Every day, I spent time with him.  I groomed his winter coat and brushed his mane and tail.  I spent every moment with him trying to absorb the essence of his being—every scent, every expression, so that I could commit it forever to my memory.  And I cried and cried.  I cried until I was dry of tears, and then I just walked around with a hollow feeling inside. Horses only live in the moment, and Carmel only knew that he didn’t feel well.  It was only I who was truly suffering.

On April 7, 2015, I stayed with Mel until he exhaled his last breath.  He let go with a big sigh, under sedation, his head resting on my thighs.

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This fall, I moved to my own farm, the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.  Mel has moved here with me, and once spring is in full bloom and I have found the right spot, I will inter his remains in this beautiful place.

The final lesson that Carmel taught me is that sometimes, you have to learn to let go, even if your heart is breaking, because to hang on is pure selfishness.  It has taken me a full year to write of this, and the tears still fall as freely today as they did then.

“Goodbye my friend.  My light is diminished in your absence, but you left me with your spirit intact and I can feel it shining on me now.  Grief is like a pearl, with the warm memories wrapping around the pain at its center, slowly taking away the sting.  The tears fall daily, trying to flush away this grief which is lying so heavily over my soul. “ – CJK 4/7/15

I miss you, my Yellow Horse.

Five reasons why YOU should ride at the GMHA Distance Days

Spring has come early to these parts, and with it the itch to get out and about.  After a two month rest during the heart of winter, the Dark Mare is working on getting legged up for what will hopefully be a full season of competitive trail riding.  My big goal is to successfully complete the 80th anniversary three day 100 mile ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, VT, in September, the centerpiece of its Distance Days weekend.

Lee and I completed this ride in 2015, both of us rookies to the sport.  It was singularly one of the most amazing and rewarding experiences that I have ever had with one of my horses, and I have been able to meet so many enthusiastic, helpful and fun people as a result of the training and preparation that went into it.

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“Team Peanut Butter and Jelly”, GMHA Distance Days 2015– Kat Waters and High Brook Quintessential, me and Lee, Robin McGrath and Aikanes Sunflower.  We did the 100 miles together.

The 100 mile ride is the marquee event of the festival of trail riding that is Distance Days.  There is truly something for everyone; if you enjoy amazing scenery, challenging trails, the camaraderie of fellow trail riding enthusiasts and the opportunity to pursue personal goals, Distance Days is for you.

Here are five reasons why YOU should plan to ride at the GMHA Distance Days.

1) Become a part of history.

The GMHA 100 Mile ride is, as ride manager Chelle Grald describes it, “the granddaddy of them all”.  Begun by the fledgling GMHA organization in 1936, the ride initially was held in Rutland, VT, just over fifty miles away from its current home in South Woodstock.  It was the first ride of its kind, and it remains the oldest distance ride in the US, predating the famous Tevis Cup endurance ride by nineteen years. It has run every year without interruption, with the exception of 2011 (you may remember a little storm called “Irene”, which blew through just before the ride weekend, leaving a good chunk of Vermont underwater….).

GMHA was founded as an “altruistic organization” for the purpose of encouraging the breeding and use of horses in the state of Vermont, as well as to develop a system of bridle trails throughout the state.  In its early years, over one thousand miles of trails were marked, traversing from the Massachusetts state line in the south to the Canadian border. Dues in the early years were just $2.00, which included a subscription to their magazine.

The 100 mile ride quickly became the highlight of the organization’s annual calendar.  Part social event and part horsemanship demonstration, riders came from as far away as Indiana and Virginia in the early years; some riders actually RODE to the ride, covering over three hundred miles before the competition even had begun.  Riders ran the gamut—children as young as nine were known to complete the ride, and men and women alike delighted in the thrill and challenge.  Mrs. Fletcher Harper, a passionate foxhunter, won the 100 mile ride riding side saddle.

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Mrs. Fletcher Harper, who by all accounts was a fearless rider, jumping downed trees on trail while others searched for a route around.  Photo from GMHA archives.

All manner of horses have successfully completed the GMHA 100 mile ride—Welsh ponies, mules, Thoroughbreds, Morgans, grade crosses, and of course, the now ubiquitous Arabians.  Families would line the route to cheer on the riders; for many of these non-equestrians, it was THE social event of the summer. In its heyday, the ride had hundreds of entrants and a wait list.

Distance Days represents the opportunity to participate in a piece of living history, to add your name to an ever growing list of riders (and horses) who tackled the challenge of traversing the rugged and beautiful terrain of the Kedron Valley.

2) Short Rides, Medium Rides and Team Events

You are quite probably reading this right now and thinking, “well, that sounds pretty amazing, but 100 miles is a LOOONG way.”  You are totally right.  Maybe you aren’t up for that challenge quite yet….

And that is why  Distance Days offers more than just the 100 mile ride.  There will be five other ride lengths for competitive trail riders:  15, 25, 35, 40, and 60 miles.  The 60 mile is a two day ride, but the other rides are all one day long.  The entrants on these rides will be sharing the trail with the 100 milers, and so if you and your horse aren’t up to the rigors of the full 100 miles, you can still get a taste of the ride on these shorter routes.

The 100 mile ride covers the 40 mile WHITE trail on day one, the 35 mile RED trail on day two and the 25 mile BLUE trail on day three.  These trails cover terrain in the towns of Woodstock, Reading, Hartland, West Windsor and Hartford, and visit such historic and classic Vermont landmarks as the Marsh Billings Rockefeller National Historic Park and the Taftsville Covered Bridge.

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The historic Taftsville Covered Bridge has long been a highlight of the 100 mile ride.  The original bridge was destroyed by Hurricane Irene but was restored in 2014.  The bridge will be included on the 2016 route.  Photo courtesy GMHA.

Another aspect of Distance Days that is super cool is that the ride management has come up with a unique idea for this 80th anniversary weekend:  the 100 mile team relay.  There are several options, but basically 2-3 riders can make up a team, and by completing the requisite combination of shorter rides, can collectively complete the 100 mile distance.  Special awards will be given to the team with the best average score over all their rides.  If one rider were very ambitious but didn’t have one horse that could do all 100 miles, they could do each chunk of the distance on a different horse, or do 2/3 on one and the rest on another.
See, you could be a 100 mile rider yet!

 

3) Non Competitive Fun

Competitive trail riding is sort of unique among horse sports, because you really and truly are competing against yourself; rather, you are trying to use all of your horsemanship expertise to bring home a horse that is no worse for the wear after covering your chosen distance.  Horses all start with a perfect score, and at the end of the ride, they are compared to their starting condition.  Points are deducted for negative changes.

But some people really just aren’t into competing, and that is totally ok—Distance Days has something for them, too!  CTR requires travelling at a faster pace than what many recreational trail riders might choose, and this could be another good reason to go with the Pleasure Ride option held on Distance Days weekend instead.

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Lee completes her first two day 50 mile ride at GMHA in 2015, with her friends Roxie (middle, ridden by Denny Emerson) and Camille (ridden by Robin Malkasian).

Pleasure rides will be offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday of Distance Days.  You can do any and all combinations of day(s).  On Friday and Saturday, riders can choose from short (6-8 miles), medium (12-15 miles) or long (20 miles) options.  On Sunday, riders can pick from 6 or 10 mile options.

Horses and riders which finish the entire weekend’s worth of long options (so 50 miles total) will complete the 50 Mile Pleasure Horse Challenge, and will be recognized at the Sunday awards ceremony.

4) Stunning Scenery

Let’s be honest—there aren’t too many places which can beat Vermont in the late summer when it comes to stunning views, the hint of fall color and crisp, clear air.

The Kedron Valley is an especially picturesque region of the state, with many classic New England style farm houses and barns, stunning estates, covered bridges and burbling brooks.  Trails in the area are a combination of the quintessential Vermont dirt road and wooded routes.

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Yet another stunning vista in Vermont, looking towards Tunbridge.

And of course, there are the hills. No one will deny that a horse and rider must have a certain degree of fitness to handle them.  The route covered during the Distance Days weekend tackles several of the most rigorous in the area, including  Cookie Hill and Heartbreak Hill, for a few.  But the reward for the climb to the summit is often a panoramic, expansive view, hearkening back to a time when horses were the dominant mode of transportation and the ‘conveniences’ of the modern era were far in the future.

The popular equestrian travel website www.equitrekking.com featured the trails around GMHA in its “50 States Trail Project” as the ‘place to visit’ in Vermont. You can read more about it here.

5) Friendship, Sportsmanship, Horsemanship and Love

The themes of “friendship, sportsmanship, horsemanship and love” are the dominant motivations for most of those who choose to tackle a challenge such as the three day 100 mile ride.  Grald has decided to highlight the significance of each of these important values in the commemorative Distance Days Program, which will be given to all entrants.  Included in the program will be vignettes from riders past and present, photos and even the recipe for the tasty Cookie Hill chocolate chip cookies.

Distance Days will feature several opportunities to socialize as well as to honor the contributions of the volunteers and landowners, without whose generosity these sorts of experiences would not be possible. The 100 Mile Banquet will be a fancy affair, to be held at the Woodstock Country Club and chaired by longtime Woodstock resident Mrs. Nancy Lewis, who rode in the 1946 100 mile ride. A special presentation by historian and author Dale Johnson at the banquet will spotlight the role of the historic Woodstock Inn Stables in the early years of the ride. Riders have a chance to thank landowners for their support at the catered BBQ on Friday, allowing a fun and informal opportunity to share memories and fun. Between the finish and awards ceremony on Sunday, 100-mile alumni will gather for a Longtimer’s Reunion. Finally, Sunday’s awards ceremony will follow the traditional catered brunch.

This ride has given many future endurance riders their first taste of serious distance riding, and has taught them the fundamentals of good horsemanship that these sister sports require.  Judges Dr. Nick Kohut (current president of the Eastern Competitive Trail Riding Association) and Linda Ferguson Glock will bring their extensive experience as riders, organizers and volunteers to the weekend.  Dr. Joan Hiltz will work with riders on the 15 mile ride.  Each step of the way, horses are closely monitored by their own riders but also by these experienced horsemen, to ensure that the animals’ care and well-being remain of the highest priority.

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Denny Emerson is just one of many horsemen who got their start in distance riding at GMHA.  Emerson has gone on to complete the Tevis Cup and 2300 endurance miles.  Photo courtesy GMHA.

In spite of its legacy, rides like the GMHA 100 mile can only continue to flourish with the support of riders who are interested in participating in the shorter distance events which run concurrently with it.  With continued loss of open space to train, amongst other issues, fewer and fewer riders have the time or inclination to commit themselves to preparing a horse for such a rigorous challenge as a 100 mile ride.  Events like Distance Days are incredibly important, because they draw together all of the diverse types of rider who are ultimately united through their love of horses and “riding out”.

If this blog has piqued your interest, you can learn more about Distance Days at its website, https://www.gmhainc.org/trails/, or follow on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/GmhaDistanceDays/?fref=ts

 

 

 

 

 

Detroit Horse Power

Last June, I was invited out to the Great Lakes Region of the United States Pony Club to teach at their (amazing) Regional Camp. Held at Hunter’s Run Farm in Metamora, MI, these Pony Clubbers had a great few days—most horses stayed in grass temporary pens, and the campers slept at the home of a local Pony Club family (bless them!), after riding twice daily, supplemental horse management lessons and other enrichment activities.  I know we instructors had a great time, and the whole camp ran like clockwork, with instructors rotating among groups, disciplines and subjects.

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While I met many new faces at the camp, one stood out in particular.  David Silver was clearly not the typical Pony Club camper.  At 25 years old, he had already graduated from college and participated in the Teach for America program, working for two years with fourth and fifth graders at the Burns Elementary and Middle School on Detroit’s west side.  David had taken advantage of USPC’s age extension to rejoin the organization in an attempt to earn his H-A Pony Club certification (formerly rating).

While I admired his desire to keep learning and growing as a horseman, part of me did wonder what on earth would motivate someone so…adult…to come back to this youth organization as a participating member.  When I learned the reason, my respect for this inspiring emerging leader deepened.

It would have been easy for David to leave Detroit after his two years with Teach for America were up.  Raised in Westchester County, NY, David had competed through the CCI* level in eventing before college, and had enjoyed the advantages of a privileged upbringing.  With a degree from Dartmouth and connections up and down the east coast, there is little doubt that he could have secured a lucrative position in an upscale suburban community somewhere else, away from the struggles and challenges faced daily by the young people living in metro Detroit.

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Detroit Horse Power’s logo.

But instead, David founded a non-profit organization called Detroit Horse Power.  As a teacher, David felt he had made real connections with his students, and wanted to do more to help them to develop the social, emotional and life skills which many of us have and take for granted: a sense of self-worth, self-efficacy,  and self-confidence,  as well as empathy, perseverance and patience, for a few.  Working with underprivileged young people in the city is a challenging task; issues such as residential transiency, poverty and neighborhood violence can be a routine part of their daily lives, with an education their only real hope of getting out.  Reflecting upon the life lessons that his years with horses had taught him, David saw an opportunity to bring his two worlds together.

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Participants in Detriot Horse Power’s second summer program in August of 2015.  David is in the red polo.

Detroit Horse Power was awarded its nonprofit status in April of 2015, and that summer, they provided programming for eighteen children during two, five day camps.   The children were vanned out of inner city Detroit to farms generously loaned to the program for its use.  Volunteers came from the local equine community as well as residents eager to work with city youth.

As most horse people know, something magical happens when you bring children and horses together.  For a young person raised in the city, meeting a horse face to face is unlike anything else which they have experienced.  Horses are big, docile and (usually) gentle, yet they require control of one’s emotion and energy.

Through their five day session, the children were given a life changing experience.  According to volunteers, children went from negative self-talk to self-confidence.  They learned to lead, groom and even ride.  They learned how to problem solve, and they learned conflict resolution skills.  They learned from farriers, vets and even a mounted police officer.  In just five days, these children had a transformative experience, made possible through the support and generosity of many and the leadership of David.

One could say that these sessions alone were a victory for a fledgling program; but David has a vision for what Detroit Horse Power will become, and these camps are just barely a warm up.  Detroit is a large, sprawling city, and due to a steady decrease in population from a high of 1.8 million in the 1950’s to 700,000 today, nearly 23 square miles within city limits lay vacant—a land mass as large as Manhattan.  Decaying, unmaintained buildings remain barely standing on some of these sites; some land is contaminated due to its previous use, while other sites have returned to grassy, unkempt lots which become trash filled homes for pests.  The city lacks the resources to maintain these vacant lands, so residents will often try to do so instead.  These untended lands are the embodiment of urban blight, reducing property values as well as the overall quality of life for residents.

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Urban blight in Detroit, MI

Where some might see an overwhelming problem, David sees an opportunity.  His vision is to open a riding and horse boarding center, right within city limits. The Detroit Horse Power riding center will be a unifying resource for its local community, allowing young people a safe place to come to receive tutoring, support and time with the horses.  Other city residents who might normally move to the suburbs to keep their horses could instead choose to stay, leaving valuable financial resources within the city.  The boarding and equestrian events activities will support the operating costs and infrastructure of the center, leaving Detroit Horse Power as an organization with the opportunity to direct all of its resources towards its programming for youth.

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A vacant, boarded up house stands in the once thriving Brush Park neighborhood with the downtown Detroit skyline behind it (Rebecca Cook/Reuters).

In 2016, Detroit Horse Power will be expanding its summer programs, reaching seventy five young people during six weeks of five day camps, held once again on farms donated to DHP for its use.  This summer’s programs are intended to be a launching point for getting into schools for the fall, with the objective of providing after school programming in horse management, as well as tutoring.

This whole story didn’t come out during my visit to Michigan last summer—that week, I helped David with some tips for longeing and bandaging as he worked to prepare for the H-A certification, a rating he attained later that summer.  David wanted the H-A as a credential to provide greater legitimacy to his work with horses and youth, because he knows that the US Pony Club and its certification system is recognized worldwide as producing thinking, skilled and effective horsemen.   I am glad I could play a small role in helping David get to where he wanted to go.

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A participant in the June 2015 Detroit Horse Power camp enjoys a visit by a mounted officer.  Photo “borrowed” from the gallery on the DHP website.

It was only after I had returned home that I began to do a bit more research, and learned more clearly what it was that David was trying to accomplish.  I was so inspired by his work and his goals that I asked him if I could do some writing related to it; a 3,000 word piece on Detroit Horse Power is scheduled to run in the July/August 2016 issue of Untacked (published by The Chronicle of the Horse).  I hope you will read it!

I must say that one of the things which has always bothered me about the horse world is seeing just how self-centered and demanding most of us horse people can be.  In college, I studied environmental conservation, and I definitely saw myself going into a field where I would be working to “make the world a better place”. In spite of my passion for riding and for horsemanship, I didn’t really want to go into the field full time because I thought it was too self-centered of a thing to do.  I know that the use of horses in therapeutic settings is increasing, and I really wish I could get interested in that for myself—but it just isn’t my niche.  So the “self-centeredness” of the equestrian world has always bothered my inner hippie soul, and it is still something I struggle with.  Hearing about someone who has so clearly been able to translate their love for horses with their desire to effect positive change is really inspiring.

If you want to learn more about Detroit Horse Power, you can follow them on Facebook or visit their website, www.detroithorsepower.org. I definitely recommend checking them out!

Ya Gotta Know When to Hold ‘Em….and When to Fold ‘Em

I got on the Dark Mare (better known as Lee) today for our first ride since late December.  In the ten years we have been together, this is the first time I have ever let her “rough out” for the winter.  With our recent move and lifestyle change, though, allowing her some time for R/R seemed not just prudent but inevitable—what little tolerance I used to have for riding outside in the snow in sub zero temperatures wore off many years ago.

But spring is just around the corner, and ride entries for CTR’s are starting to come available, so I decided the time had come to get Lee back under tack.  All things considered, for a sensitive Thoroughbred mare who has had two months off…she was pretty well behaved.  I had planned to just walk around our fields for about an hour or so, but at the forty-five minute mark, her entire demeanor changed.  She became jiggy and more spooky, and I could tell that she was on the verge of one of her infamous meltdowns.  Deciding that discretion was the better part of valor, we headed home.

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Lee and I out on the trails at the farm in late fall, 2015.

I was surprised when I untacked to discover that even with just that short bit of walking around, Lee had gotten a little sweaty on her hamstrings and under the saddle area.  I think her “unsettled” behavior was just her way of telling me that she was tired and it was time to stop for the day.  Knowing this, I will now adjust the plan for our next few weeks, taking shorter walks, with the goal of gradually working back up to one hour.

This experience reminded me of a fellow blogger’s post that I read just the other day.  Her theme was that in training animals, it is important to consider the day’s interaction from the animal’s perspective.  Specifically, she discusses that if you achieve your intended outcome for the day, but neglect to consider the quality of the interaction with the animal, then overall, your training has failed.  Animals which are forced to submit to training, or who are pushed beyond their capabilities or physical endurance, typically do not willingly seek out that interaction again in the future.   When considering your day’s work with the animal, the author asks, “Have you left the animal better off than before you interacted with him?”

Lately, I have been reading through some long archived copies of Dressage Today, and in the January 2007 issue, a reader “asked the expert” how they could better deal with resistance from their mount.  I thought to myself that I would have no idea how to answer that question without more information, but Becky Langwost-Barlow, a USDF certified trainer, did an admirable job of doing so.  Langwost-Barlow provided many excellent general thoughts in regards to resistance, but there were two paragraphs which I thought were just exceptional in regards to how the rider should handle resistance in their horse:

                “Every rider makes mistakes.  Some are small; some are huge; some last for seconds; some can continue for years.  Even misreading how the horse is feeling can be a huge mistake, taking the rider down the path of resistance….I also don’t go for a 150 percent every time I ride.  I try to break up the work and look for any sign of discontent.  If the horse is cranky in his stall and doesn’t want to come to me, I know he’s not happy, and I need to look for the soreness or back off in the training.”

Being a true horseman requires that you be in tune with your horse and how they are feeling on a given day.  During the summer I spent with Denny Emerson, he always reminded us that a rider cannot get on with an agenda, or be too earnest, because to do so usually meant that they rode without sensitivity or compassion for the horse which they were sitting on in the moment.  While we were working to re-establish Anna’s confidence over fences that summer, there were many days where I would warm up and literally jump ten fences, then go off for a hack.  It is far better to do too little in a work session than too much.  The horse must always finish feeling like they have been successful.

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Anna and I schooling at Tamarack, summer of 2014.

This is not to say that you should ride without goals, or fail to address disobedience or other issues.  However, such corrections must be done with mindfulness and compassion.  In the November 2006 issue of Dressage Today, author John Winnett offered a historical overview in an article titled “The Foreign Influences on American Dressage”.  This article discussed the role which many of the great cavalry officers played in shaping the development of riders in the US.  I had never before heard of Jean Saint-Fort Paillard, a retired cavalry officer from Saumer (France) who later relocated to California after competing at the highest levels in show jumping and dressage.  Paillard authored Understanding Equitation in 1974 and according to Winnett was known for his patient, humane approach to training.  In Paillard’s words:

“Let us try to remember for a moment what the atmosphere in the riding hall or around the show ring would be if the horses yelped whenever they were hurt as dogs do.  Wouldn’t certain jumping competitions be punctuated by howls of pain?  And wouldn’t certain dressage classes be punctuated by plaintive whimpers?  What a nightmare!”

I hope that this statement would give most thinking horsemen cause for pause; we certainly have all been witness to situations in which Paillard’s words might ring true. But in my opinion, a rider who overworks their horse, or who drills, or who doesn’t learn to feel enough to quit the day’s work before the horse is too tired or exhausted to argue, is just as guilty of being inhumane as the one who overuses whips, spurs, bits or various artificial contraptions.

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We are only human, and the reality is that sometimes we are going to make mistakes, misread our horse or a situation, or react inappropriately.  But the thinking horseman must recognize that they have erred and actively work to avoid doing so in the future.

In the memorable words sung by Kenny Rogers (and written by the much less well known Don Schlitz): “If you’re gonna play the game, boy, you gotta learn to play it right.  You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.”   In horse training, the thinking horsemen must learn when to push (know when to hold ‘em), when to quit for the day (know when to fold ‘em), when to end on a good note (know when to walk away) and when to abandon a training approach which isn’t working (know when to run).

 

 

A Day with Conrad Schumacher

In late March 2015, an invitation to ride locally in a clinic with dressage master Conrad Schumacher passed through my Facebook feed.  At first, I thought it might be a mistake, but sure enough the clinic was being held right down the road at Longfellow Dressage in Nottingham, NH, and there was one space left.  Almost before I knew what I was doing, I decided to sign up to ride with him on Annapony.

This forty-five minute session was PRICEY, and I was determined to get my money’s worth by spending the rest of the day auditing the other rides.  As my own ride was scheduled for the first session after the lunch break, I was able to have the equivalent of nine extra lessons by watching all of the others.

Schumacher spoke to several themes throughout the day.  These included neck control, good basics, correct use of the aids and taking time.

Neck Control

Even before participating in this clinic, I had read that Schumacher is known for his emphasis on ‘neck control’.  In fact, I had saved a 2004 article from the June Dressage Today in which he discussed various aspects of this concept, and I reviewed said document in preparation for the clinic.  So I was pleased to be able to hear more about this concept during several of the day’s sessions.

During the very first session of the day, Schumacher had the rider work on stretching the horse’s neck in the halt, which he said allows the horse to open up their jaw.  He commented that when the horse is not used to doing this, at first they will tend to lift the neck and become hollow.  The rider must wait until the horse begins to relax and for the neck to be good before moving forward.   If the horse moves away from the bit in the halt (backs up), the rider must be sure to keep their hips square, stay tall and push their heels down, thereby pushing the horse forward onto the bit.  In this moment, the rider may also keep the hands a little wide.  Never should the horse be punished for backing up.

Schumacher said that it should be a priority for the rider to achieve the correct flexion in the horse’s neck during the first fifteen minutes of the ride, which leaves thirty minutes or so to “do the work which needs to be done”.  Even something as seemingly simple as a transition is improved in quality when the horse is good in the neck.

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Conrad Schumacher puts a watchful eye on a horse/rider team.

Schumacher frequently used turn on the forehand as a tool to improve connection and engagement, as well as to increase the degree of neck control and obedience.  The exercise should never be used as a punishment, but may be used as a correction. He emphasized that it is very important that the rider not over flex the neck when doing a turn on the forehand; when there is too much flexion, the horse can escape the exercise.  Schumacher said that the neck can only flex properly when it is held vertically.  Flexion, when asked for correctly, should be nearly invisible.  The rider uses their inside hand a little bit diagonally towards the horse.  When executing a turn on the forehand, the rider’s aids should come and go, and the horse should stretch a little downward.

It is not appropriate for the horse to be working with a short neck unless they are working at a level where the movements (piaffe and passage, for example), require it.  While doing basic work, the horse should have a long neck.

Schumacher commented that, “Riding a horse with a proper neck is a bit more complicated but it is what dressage is about.  It’s not about the movements.  The movements are easy. When you have neck control, everything will be better.”

Basics, Basics, Basics

Another theme of Schumacher’s teaching was the importance of correct, classically applied basics.  It doesn’t matter how many times we hear this or read it—it seems like the importance of correct basics needs to be restated, because certainly we all bear witness to trainers and coaches who seem to favor short cuts.

Schumacher reminded riders to always go with the horse to the hand, not the other way around.  He said, “Everything in dressage that is difficult comes first.  The beginner in dressage has a big amount to learn, to correctly get the horse in the neck and to the bit.”

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Anna and I during our session.

Several horses in the clinic were schooling at levels requiring collected gaits.  Schumacher emphasized that even at the beginning stages of playing with collection, the horse must stay in the same rhythm.  “Do not let the horse slow down,” Schumacher reminded riders.  He emphasized that the concept of rhythm on the training pyramid is not just about the beats of the gait; it is also about the tempo.  Schumacher said that only by keeping the correct tempo in each gait can the rider work to develop relaxation, which is of course the next rung of the training pyramid.  Collection is based on throughness and relaxation.

“We can see collection when we stretch a horse and they don’t run,” said Schumacher.  “Collection begins with self carriage.”

With collected work comes the importance of realistic expectations.  “You cannot expect too much,” said Schumacher.  “You cannot go directly into the highest degree of collection.”

Correct Use of the Aids

Schumacher was particular about the rider’s position and their correct use of the aids, both natural and artificial, and gave tips for specific movements.

Riders need to remember to move the horse using the rider’s entire body, not just the legs and the reins.  Schumacher compared it to dancing—when you dance, you dance with your whole body, not just the arms and the legs.

He emphasized that the whip is never to be used as a punishment, but as a tool to improve communication.  It can be used to help to maintain the tempo of the gait.  Schumacher advised that it is better to not kick with the leg, but instead to tap with the whip if the horse is not forward enough.  Overall, the rider should try to do less with their aids.

Riders who are using the double bridle must be taught how to do so correctly.  The opposite hand should be used to shorten the snaffle rein when necessary, and care must be taken to not overtighten the curb.

Riders must remember to sit tall in the saddle and allow their arms to hang loosely.  Sitting tall should not translate into heaviness with the upper body.

When asking for the halt, the rider must step down and through their leg, bringing their pelvis forward.  All of this occurs before any weight is added into the rider’s hands.  The halt must come from the body of the rider, not the reins.  For the horse to halt, the rider must halt.

In the reinback, the rider should keep their lower leg a little bit back, and their upper body light, so that the horse’s back is free to move.

Schumacher commented that most riders know that their horse should be “on the outside rein”, but lack clarity about what that really means.  “People often think, ‘oh, I am holding the outside rein and so the horse is on it,’ but that is not correct,” said Schumacher.  “The rider needs to be able to give on the outside rein and the horse must go to it.  The rider must not hold on at all.”  To this end, when asking for lateral work, the rider’s outside hand must allow the horse to move into it.

Schumacher says that we say we want to get the horse on the outside rein, but we more correctly mean the outside aids—which includes the rider’s leg. In a properly ridden shoulder in, the rider’s inside leg is a little further forward than the outside. The rider’s seat must bend.  If the rider attempts a shoulder in without keeping the outside leg back, the horse will not be on the outside rein.  And when drawing the outside leg back, it should be moved from the hip, not just the knee.

Contact requires that the rider keep a fist which is shut.  The softness we riders seek comes from the arm and shoulder of the rider staying relaxed, which in turn allows the horse to give in their neck and shoulder as well.

Schumacher reminded riders that the biggest reward to the horse is when the rider does nothing.   Steadiness in the rider is paramount.  “See the big picture,” said Schumacher.  “Do not react to every little thing, especially when the horse is basically right.”

Taking Time

Schumacher is incredibly pro-horse and horse friendly.  Over and over he emphasized the importance of patience and not pushing the horse. “The only way we help them is to be nice to them,” said Schumacher.  “All the other ways do not help them. Don’t punish him, convince him.”

Schumacher believes that horses aren’t naughty so much as they are insecure.  The rider must be calm and not use their whip as a punishment; instead, it is a reminder, a cue saying, “hey, come on buddy.”

One rider rode a highly talented, young but sensitive, mare.  While challenging her by riding a ten meter circle followed by a transition to walk while approaching the wall, the mare became tense.  Schumacher said, “You must be brave and give a little bit.  Take the stress away by letting the horse stretch a little.”  Incorporating short bits of stretching into the mare’s work, followed by riding forward for a few strides, allowed the development of a more correct neck and longer, more swinging steps.

The rider must remember to reward their horse when the desired result has been achieved. Schumacher reminded riders that it takes time to build a horse’s muscles.  Especially when working on developing increased collection, the horse requires frequent breaks.

Horses which have been trained correctly and provided with good care can stay sound and happy for many years, as was testified by a lovely twenty year old Hanoverian who did many movements of the Grand Prix with his rider.  Schumacher said that with the increased quality of equine medical care, he sees more and more older horses which still move really well. “When they are sound and they enjoy their work, it is important that they keep moving,” said Schumacher.  “It doesn’t help them, though, to not be ridden well.”

Schumacher tied this back to the importance of correct basics.  “You do not go out and work the Grand Prix every day,” said Schumacher.  “It all depends on the basic work.  This works their body, keeps them healthy, and they stay fit.”

Emphasis was placed on the importance of taking time to prepare the horse’s body to do what the rider wants it to do.  “The horse may be willing but they must also be physically ready to do the work,” said Schumacher.

In a similar vein, the rider must finish the day’s work once the horse understands what is asked, but before he runs out of muscle strength and the gaits begin to deteriorate.

In working through movements, Schumacher asks for smoothness before expression.  “If you start with expression, everything falls apart,” said Schumacher.

My Ride

I have been quite lucky in my career to have had the opportunity to work with many VIPs of the equestrian community.  Usually, though, there isn’t much of an audience, and my Inner Critic (I am sure you have one, too) was in full force as the number of days leading to the ride dwindled in number.

As I have gotten older, I have developed a degree of performance anxiety, most typically in relation to jumping.  However, I will totally admit that I cannot remember the last time I was so nervous to ride in front of other people as I was when it came to this clinic.  After watching the morning sessions, my Inner Critic was in full battle cry:  your horse is too “normal”, you aren’t riding at a high enough level, the quality of your connection isn’t good enough, everyone watching is going to judge you…and on it went.  However, I retained the presence of mind to be able to remind myself that out of the dozens of spectators, only ten of us were actually riding on this day, and it is always much easier to sit in judgement than to sit in the saddle and be judged.

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I took advantage of the lunch break to loosen Anna up before our session started.  Riders in the clinic each wore an earpiece so Schumacher’s voice did not need to be projected so strongly; I have never ridden with one before, and one of the other riders helped me to get the technology properly situated.  When Schumacher returned to the ring and began to speak, I almost jumped out of the saddle.  It was as though I could feel his words in my head!

Schumacher asked me to continue to work for a few more moments, watching, and then asked me to stop.  To this point, I had only ridden Anna in a plain cavesson, not because of any strong opposition to flash nosebands but rather because it was what I owned that fit her. That being said, I believe that flash nosebands have a place in the training process, but I don’t necessarily feel that they are the right equipment for every horse.

However, in the German system, the flash noseband is de rigeur, and Schumacher commented that they are necessary in order to create complete neck control.  “You must ensure that horse doesn’t use an open mouth to evade the connection, or to figure out how to put the tongue over the bit,” said Schumacher.

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Anna models her makeshift flash noseband.

A flash noseband was found in the barn, and it was looped around our cavesson.   Consistency in the connection has been a challenge at times with Anna, and I was interested to see what her response to the flash would be.  But Schumacher wasn’t done adding equipment.   He requested a draw rein—certainly not classical equipment.  He called it a “supporting rein”, and ran it around the girth, between the front legs and then up and through the newly added flash noseband on Anna’s hollow side.  I held the rein as one would hold the curb rein on a double.  The rein only comes into play if the horse raises their head beyond a certain level, much like a martingale would.  Schumacher said that the supporting rein helps to create stability in the contact, and therefore is appropriate to use in a classical training system.

Our session focused heavily on neck control and improving the stability in the connection.  Schumacher had me ride a series of walk-halt-walk transitions, staying in the halt under the neck got rounder and then immediately stepping forward into the walk as a reward for responding.  Once we moved to the trot, we continued to work on transitions but incorporated smaller circles, timing the transition from trot to walk as we angled towards the wall.  In the trot, Schumacher had me use a slight yield of the haunches to the outside to increase the roundness, followed by riding straight and forward.

I think that all of the exercises worked well to improve Anna’s consistency in the connection and overall roundness.  The addition of the flash noseband was helpful, even though there were a few moments of pony rebellion against its slight restriction.  The supporting rein was not particularly helpful, in my opinion.  Since riding in this clinic, I have acquired a well fitting flash noseband, which I think has allowed the quality of our connection to increase.  I have not used the supporting rein again.

Overall, the ride was positive and I was left with several new ideas and exercises to “take to the lab” and experiment with.  It is always helpful to spend time listening to the training philosophy and techniques of individuals who work out of a clear, progressive system.  Whether riding or auditing, taking part in these sorts of experiences can only help to broaden our base of knowledge.

Tough Transitions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Consistency and Clarity with the Aids: Winter Break Tune Ups

The university equine program is just barely back in action after a hiatus of nearly six weeks.  Over the winter break, I took advantage of the quiet arena and more relaxed schedule to work on tuning up a few of our wonderful school horses.  Ironically, it was an “all mare” sort of break, and I found myself working with a rotation of four of my favorite horses:  Marquesa, Whisper, Fiona and Morocco, in addition to my own “girls”.

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Spring Hollow Marquesa with her friend Emily.

These four horses couldn’t be more different, at first glance.  What they all have in common is that, for various reasons, they ended the fall semester not going all that well in class, and it was time for a little one on one time with the instructor for a tune up.

Having ridden most of the UNH herd at one point or another, I have firsthand knowledge of what will or will not work for each animal in terms of exercises and applications of the aids. Many of the riders I work with are at the stage of their riding career where they need to learn to modify the use of their aids to suit the individual mount they are sitting on.  The university calls our lessons “labs”, which I joke is because we are “experimenting” with figuring out which recipe of the aids will work best in a given situation.  Riders must learn what ratio to apply their aids in, and the timing, and sometimes the only way to get good at this is to play around, and to mess up a bit.  In this way, the riders are expanding their tool kit.

Fiona is a middle aged, Thoroughbred type mare.  In spite of being chestnut and a former eventer, she is hardly your stereotypical “chestnut TB mare”.  I wouldn’t describe her as hot, but I do consider her to be sensitive and the rider needs to use the aids tactfully. She is one of my most favorite horses that I have ever test ridden for UNH, and when the students started really struggling to get her connected this fall, I was kind of glad for an excuse to get back on her.  Fiona’s main issue is with suppleness—and it is chicken and the egg which she loses first, mental or physical, but once one is gone, so goes the other.

I recently read an old (September 2006) issue of Dressage Today, and there was a great article in there called, “In Search of Trust”, by Tuny Page with Beth Baumert.  I can’t find any access to it online at this point, but in the article Page is basically describing the process she went through to defuse tension in her FEI horse, Wild One.  One of her quotes is especially relevant here:

“I taught Wild One that when he blocked, the pressure from my driving aids would go on and stay on until his back relaxed, his head lowered and he started to breathe, whereupon, my driving leg aids instantly let go.”

What I realized when working with Fiona was that she and her riders had gotten into a vicious cycle of pressure/no response, as Page puts it.  When the rider would ask Fiona to step into the bridle by putting their leg on and taking light contact, Fiona tensed defensively and would raise her neck and drop her back, going almost lateral in the walk and canter and taking hectic and quick steps in the trot.  This highly tense response from the horse then caused the rider to take their leg off and try to force Fiona to lower her neck with the rein aids, which then just caused additional tension, increased hollowness, and less use of the rider’s leg.  Right from the moment the rider picked up contact, Fiona was defending herself against the rider’s aids, and the rider would play into it by removing them.

Fiona
Fiona, with her friend Emily.  A different Emily.  

To modify this response, I found that I had to do just the opposite of what might have instinctively seemed correct—I positioned Fiona to the inside with the bending aids, stayed soft and steady through the connection, and then just quietly waited with my leg on for the energy to come “through”.  There were definitely a few strides of unattractive movement each time, as Fiona processed that I wasn’t going to go away, or change my aids, or pull on her mouth.  But it took fewer and fewer strides each ride for Fiona to realize that she knew what I wanted, and she began to lower her head and neck, relax her topline, and then reach more correctly through her  back and into the bridle.  When she did so, the stride length immediately increased and the tempo stabilized.   The response to my leg, seat and rein aids became positive, and I could apply the aids and ride her from back to front.  Basically, as Page said above, I needed to keep my leg aids on until Fiona started to relax and go forward.  Not kicking or aggressively on—just patiently on, waiting.

Whisper is another of my favorite UNH horses, and it had been years since I sat on her.  She is nearly 19 years old now, and has been with the program for ten years.  In the past few semesters, it has been harder for the students to get Whisper working correctly over her back, and she has become stickier in her transitions, especially trot to canter.  I had attributed this to her advancing age and the fact that she has been a school horse for nearly a decade, but after watching her proceed to ignore most of the aids of a fairly strong rider last semester, I decided that I needed to feel for myself what was going on.

Whisper’s situation was different than Fiona’s, but as I suspected, it required a similar solution.  Left to her own choices, Whisper will travel in a long and flat outline, becoming disconnected by poking her nose out and blocking the hind end through stiffness in the muscles of the back, rather than through hollowness.  This mode of travel of course does her no favors, and when the students go to jump with Whisper, they quickly realize that they now lack the ability to adjust her canter at all. In my opinion, Whisper was a pretty easy horse to get connected—she has good training, and was always pretty willing to work correctly if you asked her to.  I thought that maybe time spent as a schoolie had caused her to become desensitized to the aids, and that this was why the students were struggling.

Whisper2
Whisper waiting to do show jumping at the UNH horse trials with her friend Rachel, an activity which in Whisper’s opinion is WAY more fun than dressage.

I quickly realized that this was not the case.  Within just a few moments on our first ride, Whisper was working willingly in a round and balanced outline, staying freely forward and reaching into the bridle.  She was adjustable laterally and longitudinally, would chew the reins forward and downward, and even easily offered the balance required to counter canter.  Hmm….all of the buttons were clearly still in place and functional.

I came to the conclusion that Whisper has simply gotten very good at teaching riders to accept the “pressure/no response, pressure/no response” approach to riding.  Again, from the Page article:

“Years ago, when I rode event horses, I learned about the dynamics of why kicking a horse doesn’t work…When a rider kicks, for every moment the legs and spurs are on, there’s a moment when they are away and getting ready to kick again.  So the horse experiences pressure/absence of pressure….and so on. ..This is bad training and doesn’t work.”

Page is specifically referring to why this approach is ineffective when trying to get a horse to pass a frightening object.  You cannot force a horse to trust you, and even if you are successful in getting them to go on one occasion, the rider will have done nothing to encourage better harmony or responsiveness to the aids in the future by simply being really aggressive and then letting go.

In Whisper’s case, riders have gotten into a cycle of asking her to do something—flex her neck to the inside, for example—and then being satisfied with a lackluster response.  They put the pressure on in the aids, but then they release it before the horse does.  Whisper has learned that she can just swing her head, wait, and in a second, the rider will most likely give up and let go, and then she can swing her head back to where it was.

It is the same with the leg aids.  If the rider has not developed the ability to isolate their leg and seat, they might apply a driving leg aid, but simultaneously be holding with the seat.  So Whisper only chooses to listen to the “whoa” from the seat.  Meanwhile, the rider is now kicking, and Whisper steadfastly ignores these ever increasingly insistent aids, while both rider and instructor become frustrated with the result.

The key with Whisper is to hold the rein aid just that moment longer, until she gives, and to maintain the soft lower leg with a following seat.  It literally just takes that little bit more of consistency, of the rider really knowing that what they are asking is correct and that it is going to work.  Whisper teaches the rider to be clear and consistent. In Whisper’s case, I need to teach better, to help the students to understand that it is not unfair or incorrect to give a clear, direct aid and expect a response.  In the same issue of Dressage Today, Lisa Wilcox was quoted as saying something along the lines that the “give and take” of a half halt should be more like “take a millimeter, give a millimeter” than anything more significant or dramatic.

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Riding these horses was a valuable experience for me as an instructor.  It helped confirm for me that my suspicions regarding the root cause of some of these common challenges was accurate, and that confident, correct riding would resolve the problem.  I look forward to getting started with the semester in earnest so that we can continue to add to the students’ tool boxes.

Innie or Outie…or both?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

WorldlyatReg8
Worldly (Weltinus, on the left) after winning the 2006 Region 8 Second Level Freestyle championships.  And yes, we were required to put white polos on the horses–I had to go buy a set!

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

LeeBeach2008
Lee and I on a New Hampshire beach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I rode this cool Quarter Horse, Thunder, on a trip to the White Mountains of Nevada.

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