Tag Archives: horsemanship

Equestrians and the Quest for Open Space

This piece is adapted from an assignment I did for a course about the value of wilderness in society; hence the references to the impact of equine presence in designated wilderness areas.  However, I think the concerns discussed herein occur in many other areas where equestrian access is permitted alongside other users.

The horse is a bit of an enigma in American society.  They are classified as livestock, yet treated by most as companion animals, which leads to constant conflict in decision making.  People are simultaneously drawn to them and fear them.  An enduring symbol of the American West, the mustang inflames passions on all sides of the arguments which arise in reference to their “management”.  Horses and civilization have gone hand in hand since between 4,000 and 3,500 years BCE, when they were first domesticated on the Asian steppes.  It would seem to follow that little to no taming of the American wilderness would have been possible without the horse.

The Wilderness Act of 1964 has ‘grandfathered’ the use of horses and pack animals in wilderness areas, despite the fact that their use gives mechanical advantage to the rider.  Allowing livestock in these areas is hardly an unprecedented event.   In fact, many existing trails were built on those created by free grazing livestock.  Many of the lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management are still grazed by livestock, on leases which can pay pennies on the acre.

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A mustang on the California/Nevada border.

In a 2012 article from the National Parks Traveler , Kurt Repanshek reported on a court ruling that the use of horses and packing within the Sequoia National Park was in violation of the Wilderness Act, because the Park had failed to study the impact of the increased use of pack animals on the area. Quite interesting is a casual read through the comments reacting to this article, which sum up some of the same arguments we equestrians hear time and again:

“…trails that are being pounded to death by hooves, eroded to dust and cobbles, and buried in manure…”

“…stock trails require a higher standard and more expensive maintenance, so the NPS essentially subsidizes this very small user group…”

“Apparently, the NPS has no problem with horses trampling and destroying nature, but if cyclists want to have access to national park trails, somehow, trail erosion becomes an issue. Oh the hypocrisy!!”

Like any user group, horseback riders come with their positives and their negatives.  To be truthful, I have little experience with the use of horses in true designated wilderness areas, but I have some experience with their use in national and state parks and other public areas.  In spite of my inherent bias as an equestrian, I still feel that the benefits of allowing this traditional use on these lands outweigh the detractors.

Let’s start by looking at a few facts…

First, horses are Big Business…this is not a “very small user group”, as our detractor put forth above.  According to the American Horse Council (2005), there are 9.2 million horses in the US, and the equine industry has a direct economic effect of $39 billion annually.  Billion.  With a B. The industry pays over $1.9 billion in taxes per year to all levels of government.  Over 70% of horse owners live in communities with a population of less than 50,000.  And the vast majority (just under 4 million) of horses are not racehorses, or show horses—they are used for “recreation”.  With these numbers, it is clear to see that we are not talking about some insignificant user group.

Secondly, manure is not a public safety hazard.  Americans are truly the most poop-phobic people.  It is really ridiculous.  From a 1998 white paper prepared by Adda Quinn for Bay State Equestrians (CA), “Horse manure is a solid waste excluded from federal regulation [by the EPA] because it neither contains significant amounts of listed hazardous components, nor exhibits hazardous properties…No major human disease has ever been accurately attributed to the intimate contact human beings have had with horses for thousands of years…The chemical constituents of horse manure are not toxic to humans. Horse guts do not contain significant levels of the two waterborne pathogens of greatest concern to human health risk, Cryptosporidium or Giardia, neither do they contain significant amounts of the bacteria E.coli 0157:H7 or Salmonella” (Quinn, 1998).

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Hacking in Vermont on private land.  Those yellow ears belong to my horse, Lee.

Historically, equestrians have been allowed access to trails in many public and private land holdings, but in the past seventy five years, those areas which continue to allow for this use have been dwindling.  It is perhaps all the more frustrating when the loss of use occurs on public land, because in many cases recreational use is one of the reasons why such lands have been set aside.

In 2009, the AHC responded to concerns from the recreational use equestrian community that there were an overwhelmingly large number of trails on public lands being closed off to equestrian use.  The Washington, DC, based organization, which is the most significant lobbying body for the equestrian industry, surveyed members regarding their experiences with federal land use.  Issues were in particular identified on lands managed by the National Park Service and the US Forest Service, but also those managed by the BLM and US Fish and Wildlife, with problems cited including lack of maintenance and lack of access through trails closed to equestrian use.  Frustrations abounded, especially when the rationale for the closures was not known.

From the report, “An initial examination of restricted access reports reveal that in most instances there was a clear history of equestrian use.  Furthermore, in only a few examples of restricted access was the respondent aware of any public process or public comment period associated with the trail closure.  Respondents in some cases are aware of a stated reason for restricted access for equestrians.  However, in a number of instances the respondent is unaware of any reason behind a closure.”

What is ironic is that some of the closures/restrictions in access have occurred on public lands given with the full intention of equestrian use.  Most notable are the carriage trails in Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, ME.  These roads were built by David Rockefeller with the intention of being available for equestrian use.  In regards to these restrictions, one respondent wrote, “There is a portion of them still open to equine use and there is a concession offering carriage rides and allowing access for people to bring their own riding horses for a fee.  But this access is only on a portion of the carriage roads…I live very close to one section …that has been closed to equine traffic.  I have requested information from Park Administration as to why this has happened and if there is any way to open the closed areas…I have received no reply from them.  In order to ride the carriage roads that are less than ½ mile from my stable I now need to trailer my horses twelve miles one way and pay to park my trailer.  There are numerous horse owners in close proximity to me that would benefit from access to our traditional riding areas.”

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Trail Riders in Acadia National Park (photo from http://portraitswithhorses.com)

And while I don’t deny that horse hooves can cause damage to trails through over use, and agree that horses should be restricted from unique and sensitive ecological areas, horses are not the only user group which can leave a mess in their wake.  Another respondent states, “The problem is not that BLM is actively denying trail access to equestrians.  The problem is that BLM is not regulating motorized use of trails.  The motorized users have caused so much damage (rutting, erosion) to the trails, they have become unusable for equestrians.”

It seems clear that there is conflict over the use of horses in some areas of federally managed lands.  Sometimes the issues are direct, such as degradation of trail quality through equestrian use.  Sometimes they are less so, and manifest in terms of lack of funding for trail maintenance, causing lack of access, or conflict with the needs of other user groups, such as hikers.  However, it is equally true that those who enjoy riding horses out in the open, the way that they historically have been, are passionate about doing what is necessary to ensure that access is not further restricted.

Why Equestrians Need Public Land Access…and why Public Lands Need Equestrians

The reality of being a rider in the modern US is that more than likely, you must pay a fee equivalent to a small mortgage to board your horse at a public stable.  Fewer people than ever are able to have the luxury of the land and space necessary to properly maintain horses, and as open land has become somewhat of a premium commodity in populated areas, the cost of being able to do so even at a boarding stable has skyrocketed.

Without trying too hard, I can name a long list of facilities which used to be horse farms, even right here in the seacoast of New Hampshire.  Running a horse farm is a labor and cost intensive affair, and some owners have simply grown tired of the grind. But many more were unable to afford to keep their properties, for many reasons.  Flat, open land is often taxed at a premium, making it hard to break even when you add in the equally high cost of the production of hay, grain and other consumables.  Once these farms were converted to subdivisions, mini malls or similar, they never have returned to a natural state, in my experience.

In New Hampshire, programs like LCHIP (NH Land and Community Heritage Investment Program) have purchased the development rights to many long standing farm properties, effectively dropping the tax rate and preventing future development of the land.  Proper and sustainable management of these farms will ensure at least pockets of open space for generations to come.

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The fact is, if equestrians wish to enjoy the privilege of riding out in the open, they simply must step up to educate and advocate for the preservation of lands in which such activity is permitted.  The Equine Land Conservation Resource (ELCR) was founded nearly a decade ago for just this purpose.  From their website , the organization’s vision is “A future in which horse lands have been conserved so that America’s equine heritage lives on and the emotional, physical and economic benefits of mankind’s bond with the horse remain accessible to all.”  The ELCR has been involved with the protection of more than 200,000 acres of land and 1,200 miles of trails.  Through their education and outreach activities, the ELCR has assisted horse owners in doing their own outreach and educational campaigns within their local communities.  The ELCR reminds us that the USFS estimates that we are losing 6,000 acres of open lands per day and that “poorly planned, uncontrolled development or sprawl, competing demands for land, and a population that is increasingly unfamiliar with horses are the greatest threats to equestrians and horse lands today.”

The preservation of wilderness within the United States was at least partially due to the young country’s quest for an identity.  The American West became a symbol of the vast lands which this country had in its borders.  Horses are indelibly linked to this heritage, and their use as a means to access far away and isolated areas is unparalleled.

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My mount, Thunder, and I, with the White Mountains of Nevada in the background.

I cannot even begin to describe some of the amazing places I have had the opportunity to visit via horseback, both in the US and abroad.  Obviously I have a love of the horse and of riding in general, but for me, there is almost no better way of reaching remote and far away areas which only rarely are visited by humans.  On foot, at best I can walk a few miles per day.  On horseback, I have gone forty or more.

Horseback riding is a way for our country’s citizens to learn to appreciate and enjoy amazing natural areas, without need of roads, tramways or cable cars.  Horseback riding gets people outside, and if the need to protect trails is what motivates these citizens to be active proponents of protecting open space, so be it.

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It is hard to believe that these mountains in Vermont were mostly pasture lands for sheep and cows not even a century ago.

The equine industry is a large and powerful user group with a strong motivation to protect and preserve open space and lands which permit equestrian use.  It would certainly behoove those interested in protection efforts to consider their needs and recruit their support.

 

 

The Goldilocks Principle

The Goldilocks Principle

Or…what a child’s story has to do with horse training

Most of us are familiar with the children’s story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. If you can overlook the notion that Goldilocks seems to have little respect for other people’s homes or property, you will notice a theme in her explorations—in any situation regarding choice, neither extreme was quite right.  Taking the middle road always led to the greatest degree of satisfaction.

I have come to embrace the “Goldilocks Principle”, as I have nicknamed it, in teaching riders and training horses.  I have been gratified to recognize that many other accomplished horse trainers subscribe to a similar philosophy.

Goldilocks

Take contact, for example.  In dressage training, it is not correct to pull strongly on the reins, nor is it appropriate to ride with reins which are completely loose and floppy, in most circumstances.  The “ideal” is a length of rein and strength in the weight which allows for a steady, consistent, elastic feel between the bit and the rider’s elbow.  So, you know, something in the middle.

When you are getting ready to jump your horse, Denny Emerson always tells riders to look for the “adjustable jumping canter”—which he also calls the “middle canter”.  The middle canter is not fast, rushed and tense, nor is it lazy, four beated or “tranter-y”.  It has forward intention, and just enough jump.  The rider can ask the horse to change the shape of their stride, but they always have the power available.  Again, it is somewhere in the middle.

If we think about equitation, in its truest sense, we also avoid extremes.  The rider should always remain balanced over the horse’s center, which occurs when the ear/shoulder/hip/heel line is maintained.  The correct position for the rider’s lower leg:  not too far ahead or too far behind center.  Ideal is “somewhere in the middle.”

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The Goldilocks Principle.  You never knew that the story was about horse training, but Goldilocks got it right.

And while we are talking about training philosophies….

I was reading a fellow blogger’s post, where the author discussed that the training process isn’t always pretty.  This is another concept which I find I consistently come back to in helping riders and horses to improve.  When you try a new skill out—salsa dancing, throwing clay on a wheel, drilling a fence board on straight, whatever—do you typically pick it up effortlessly, or do you sometimes struggle a bit?  I know for me, some new things come easier than others, but in most cases, it is clear that I am a neophyte.  Why should it be any different for our horses? Some new things they will pick up quickly, but others will require a process of trial and error to get right.

The same is true for riders.  Some people seem like naturals; maybe they have an inherent sense of balance, or timing, or “feel”—we kind of hate those people.  Most of us have to experiment, make mistakes and apply aids in different combinations or intensities before we figure out what it is we are trying to do.  It is okay if new skills don’t come easily.  But it is important to know that what we are asking the horse to do is appropriate and fair, and that we are asking them in a manner which makes sense.

Riding horses is a complex, active sport.  Equestrians always laugh when we hear comments such as “the horse does all the work”.  Sure, at the end of the day it is our horse which gets us over the fence, up the mountain or down center line.  However, that can only occur when we have achieved clarity in interspecies communication, combined strength and suppleness in our own bodies such that we appear to be still on an object in motion, and done enough preparation work to set the horse up to successfully complete the task at hand.

What makes riding a partnership is that sometimes they mess up and we help them out.  Sometimes we make the mistake and they save our skin.

And sometimes we get it just right, and things come out somewhere in the middle.  The Goldilocks Principle.

 

 

 

Planning a Sustainable Life

I have just returned from four days in Orlando, FL, during which time I attend the annual meeting of the Board of Directors for the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA).  This group was founded in 1967, and next year will be celebrating its 50th anniversary.  This is of course a significant milestone, and much discussion at the meeting centered around the organization’s history.

My birthday this year will be one which many also consider a milestone, as it closes out another decade.  Although these landmarks are somewhat arbitrary (why do we care more when the number ends in a zero?  Couldn’t we just as joyfully commemorate the 49th anniversary as the 50th?), the tradition of giving them greater attention does provide us with a good opportunity to reflect on where we have come from, where we are at, and where we still hope to go.  Otherwise, as Ferris Bueller was want to say:

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If organizations such as the IHSA hope to remain relevant over the long term, some degree of calculated evolution is required.  Therefore, these groups tend to define a mission statement, and then create “strategic plans”, which carefully map out their objectives for the near future, the middle range and the long term.  Otherwise, lack of focus or stagnation will result in the loss of members who become drawn to more contemporary opportunities.

I have always sort of wondered in awe at people who have been able to manage their lives with a similar “strategic plan” sort of approach.  In my experience, it has usually seemed like the harder I tried to get to one specific place, the more swiftly the tide carried me elsewhere.  While I have enjoyed (most of) these adventures, back roads and eddies, I sometimes wonder how things would be if I had taken a more focused and precise approach.

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Last winter, I had the opportunity to participate in an online coaching series called “Stirrup Your Life”.  Geared for equestrians and led by my dear friend Jen Verharen of Cadence, Inc., the series led participants through a series of exercises, reflections and readings which allowed each of us to create a vision, to identify our core values and our limiting beliefs, and then to perhaps have the courage to “step into the gap” of discomfort, to stretch out of the known and familiar, in order to take steps towards achieving personal goals which were in keeping with our vision.  It was truly the first time I have ever sat down and really tried to concretely identify what I wanted my life to be like, restrictions, reality or other negatives be damned.

Participating in this coaching series was one of those activities which didn’t seem that significant in the immediate moment, but now, nearly one year later, I have begun to recognize the impact it has had on my way of thinking about goal setting and the pursuit of a contented life.  One of Jen’s main points was that if you are living a life which is out of integrity with your core values, you will likely always feel that something is wrong or missing.   It is all too easy to get caught up in the “must do’s” or “should do’s”, and then to wake up and realize that somehow you are so full of ‘busyness’ that you don’t have the time to do those things which are truly most important to you. We, as individuals, really do have the ability to modify the path we are on.  That is not to say that taking the steps to change the route is easy to do; in fact, usually it is anything but.  However, more of us are prisoners of our own mistaken beliefs, preconceived ideas and bad habits than we care to admit.

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One of my core values is a commitment towards living my life with as much mindfulness towards sustainability as is possible given my current resources.   On several levels, I have not been doing a good enough job in this area, which has certainly contributed to feelings of discontent and frustration. The term “sustainability” is a trendy one right now.  But what is really meant by it?

Merriam Webster defines “sustainability” as:

  • Able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
  • Involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
  • Able to last or continue for a long time.

Usually when most of us think of sustainability, we are referring to definition # 2 (which of course relates to # 1 and #3).  But when it comes to career, life goals and personal ambitions, it is becoming abundantly clear to me that definitions # 1 and 3 apply to these areas, as well.

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There is a balance in everything.  It is great to have goals, but some goals are exclusive to each other, and so sometimes we have to compromise or shift focus in order to accommodate needs in multiple areas, or prioritize the thing which we cannot live without.   There needs to be a balance between wanting to do EVERYTHING, RIGHT NOW, and pacing yourself.  In order to make the choices which are right for each one of us, we must know where it is we hope to go.

Envisioning a sustainable future for me doesn’t just relate to installing solar panels, composting the manure or eating locally. Sustainability means that the life energy I am putting into an activity is worth the benefit I am getting out of it.  Choosing to live sustainably means that I am deliberately and mindfully putting my time into work (paid or unpaid), relationships and other endeavors which renew and inspire me, not those which leave me feeling drained, depressed or demoralized.

I have learned to check in with my vision regularly—whenever I need to refocus or to consider whether a given commitment is in keeping with my need for a sustainable life.   Visions can be revised or edited as needed but must always accommodate core values, just as an organization returns to its mission statement and edits its strategic plan if it is not working.

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This particular blog post may not seem as “horse related” as some of the others.  For me personally, many components of my vision are about horses and my equine aspirations.  Some of these goals have proven to be exclusive of other ambitions which most people would consider to be more traditional. Most of the time, I am okay with that.  But I would be lying if I said that I never question myself and the path I have chosen.

Many of the concepts of sustainability relate not just to protecting the planet but to living a meaningful life.  And for me right now, this is everything.

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A New Year, a New Focus

 

With the start of a new calendar year, I am taking advantage of shorter days and less motivation to be outside in order to pour greater effort into my writing in general, including more regular attention to this blog.  If you are a new reader, welcome, and if you are a returning reader, welcome back!

If you have landed on Chronicles of a Mini-Pro, then you likely have an interest in the equestrian world.  We share an interest in common. I found myself enamored of horses starting at an early age and have been fortunate enough to parlay this passion into a full time career.  However, the route which I have taken to this point has not been direct and my role within the industry is ever-evolving.  At the end of the day, though, my greatest passion is to simply be on the farm and around my horses.  Any day is a better day if it involves horses.

In this blog, you will read a variety of different types of posts—stories of my own personal experiences with horses, reports from clinics which I have audited or ridden in, reflections, observations and insights from my own riding, teaching or training, book reviews and training tips.   I hope to share the ups and the downs which any equestrian experiences, as well as provide a forum to always reflect back onto what horses mean to me, and the critical relationship I have with them.  I also hope to document the process of turning my Cold Moon Farm into a model of sustainability, marrying these concepts with horse keeping practices.  A healthy planet is a key foundation to healthy farms and horses, as well as a more viable equine industry in the long term.

The longer I have been around horses, the more I feel there is to learn about them.  I hope that you will enjoy reading along with me as I continue to explore all that being intimately involved with these animals has to offer.  I hope that you, as a reader, will feel a degree of connection with the subject matter or perhaps even recognize shades of your own experience which mirror mine. I hope that you can take away a kernel of new information, or inspiration, or comfort, or whatever quality it is you are needing, from the words I write here.

If you will do me the honor, please click on the “follow” tab below.  This will allow you to get a notification as new posts become available.

Book Review: The Complete Guide to Endurance Riding and Competition

 

By Donna Snyder-Smith

c 1998 Howell Book House, New York, NY 244 pages

ISBN 0-87605-284-7

I picked up Snyder-Smith’s book in preparation for my successful first time attempt at completing a three day 100 mile competitive trail ride.  The author is an experienced horsewoman with a broad background and successful Tevis Cup completion on her resume; while the focus of the book was more on endurance riding than competitive trail, I found that more than anything, it was a book about good horsemanship, and there is something which riders of any discipline can take away from it.

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In this book, Snyder-Smith takes a comprehensive look at the details of how to prepare a horse and rider team for success in the sport of endurance.  Full chapters are dedicated to riding in balance, gymnastic development of the horse, conditioning and feeding the endurance horse and the merits of various types of equipment.  The book concludes with a look at the requirements for crewing at an endurance ride and then the dynamics of a ride itself.

What struck me over and over in reading this book was how so much of what the author stated applied to not just endurance horses, but to all equine athletes.  For example, she outlines the requirements for a successful endurance horse as follows: “good feet, a good respiratory system, a good mind, to be an efficient mover, the desire to do it” (Snyder-Smith, p. 8).  However, these are ideal qualities for ANY performance horse, though perhaps certain other disciplines could be more forgiving to a horse which does not have the best attributes in some of these areas.

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Lee and I on the last day of the three day 100 mile ride at GMHA (VT), fall 2015.

In her chapter on the importance of rider balance, Snyder-Smith goes into great detail on the importance of body awareness, symmetry and correct riding position and their collective effect on the horse for better or for worse.  If a rider is expecting a horse to carry them over tens of miles of terrain, it is critical that the rider is doing their part to be efficient and to maintain their own balance and coordination.   Horses can cope with rider asymmetry or weakness to a point, but adding in the cumulative stress of a long ride to the mix means that an inefficient rider can make the difference between a completion or a pull.  Lest anyone think that trail riders need not be attentive to the performance of their mount, Snyder-Smith states that “Riding that is comfortable and productive for both horse and rider is based on the rider’s ability to feel the horse and what it is doing with its body” (Snyder-Smith, p 22).  In other words, riding well, and riding correctly, matters!

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Lee at the Wentworth schooling show in 2010. Photo Credit to Mystical Photography, used here with permission.

In her chapter on preparing the endurance horse, Snyder-Smith addresses the difference between conditioning and training, and emphasizes that both are required for success in endurance.  Snyder-Smith explains that endurance horses need to spend time in the arena in order to develop their flexibility, suppleness and strength.  In fact, she proposes that basic dressage training is an excellent way to introduce a “systematic, gymnastic training program…to enable horses to perform to the limits of their athletic capabilities without injury,” (Snyder-Smith, p 63).  Another especially important concept for successful conditioning is that “if you are not able or willing to listen to your horse and learn from him, your success as an endurance rider will be limited” (Snyder-Smith, p. 84).  Again, the author is specifically referencing conditioning for the sport of endurance, but the reality is that this idea applies to all disciplines across the board.  Another universally applicable statement is that “commonsense is the single ingredient that, when missing, causes the greatest damage to horses” (Snyder-Smith, p 87).

Throughout the book, Snyder -Smith inserts tips and helpful hints from her own experience as a distance rider.  For example, she suggests mixing electrolytes with baby food like strained carrots or applesauce to make them more palatable. She also discusses the experience of how having a vet make a comment about your horse’s soundness at a check can cause even an experienced rider to doubt the animal’s fitness to continue.  Having personally had this experience at a few rides, I know how much it gets under your skin and infiltrates your consciousness, even when you are really fairly confident that the horse is okay and what the vet saw might be just fatigue or the result of a misstep.

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Three happy distances horses at the end of a successful ride!

Overall, I found Snyder-Smith’s writing easy to follow and the concepts clearly explained and well-articulated.  This book was immensely helpful to me in my own preparation for the 100 mile ride, and to help me as a novice to become more familiar with the requirements of the sport.  But more than anything, I found the author’s perspective on horsemanship refreshing.  Simply put, if you take your time, do your homework and only ask of the horse that which you have properly prepared them for, you can expect their best effort.  For this reason, I would recommend the book to riders of any discipline who are reaching out of their comfort zones for a larger goal.

“If your horse has it in him, you’ll be able to get it out of him if you don’t ask for too much too soon and use him up,” (Snyder-Smith, p 175).

5/5 stars

 

A Journey of a Thousand Miles…or One Hundred

 

“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one’s favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.”  W.H.Murray

Murray was a Scottish mountaineer and writer, who spent three years imprisoned during World War II in an enemy camp.  While there, he wrote a draft for a book later called Mountaineering in Scotland on the only paper available to him—toilet paper.  So he knows a thing or two about being resilient, I should think.

Denny Emerson recited this quote to me after the Dark Mare (Lee) and I completed the seemingly impossible— the rigorous three day long, one hundred mile ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association Distance Days, held annually in South Woodstock, Vermont each fall.   What made the completion so sweet, and somewhat amazing, is that previous to that weekend, the longest ride that my horse and I had ever done was a two-day fifty mile route, just one month before. 2015 was only our second season riding in competitive trail, and in 2014 we had ended our first year by finishing the 25 mile ride at this same event, feeling pretty proud of that accomplishment.  To say that we were rookies is an understatement of the term.

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

Denny had first planted the seed in my mind that aiming for the 100 mile ride was a possible goal when I spent the summer of 2014 up at his Tamarack Hill Farm.   At that point, Lee and I had done exactly one 10 mile “intro” conditioning distance ride.  While up in Vermont for the summer, we finished two fifteen and one twenty five mile CTR, and completed one additional twenty five mile ride after we returned home.  Even while I was letting the seed incubate in my mind, there was a more dominant, rational part of my brain which was saying—trying for the 100 would be ridiculous!  You have never done more than a 25 mile ride.  There is no WAY you will be ready, and you have no idea what you are doing.

But still the idea ruminated….

Planning and Prep

Being fairly new to the sport meant that I had no idea how one would go about conditioning a horse to do a 100 mile ride, never mind whether or not it was a good idea to even try to do so.  I gain confidence from feeling well informed and making plans, and so I figured that the New England winter presented a good opportunity to do a little research.

I started with a cover to cover read of several books, especially Hilary Clayton’s bible, Conditioning the Sport Horse, which gave me an outstanding overview of all aspects of conditioning, from physiological changes to the various forms of conditioning (interval, long slow distance, skill drills, etc) to proposed conditioning schedules for various activities.  I also read several books more focused on endurance than competitive trail, but still helpful gave many helpful insights and ideas: Go the Distance by Loving, Endurance Riding by Wilde and The Complete Guide to Endurance Riding and Competition, by Snyder-Smith.  Two of the major takeaways from my research were that 1) just like marathoners don’t go out and run 26.2 miles every day to get ready for their marathons, 100 mile horses don’t go out and ride tens of miles every day to get ready either and 2) a horse who has remained in consistent, steady, 60 minutes/day/6 days/week of work for many years, like Lee, likely has a fairly good base to start with.  Maybe this wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.

Wilde Cover

 

Next, I ordered a heart rate monitor and a GPS watch which measured distance and time.  It arrived shortly after one of several February blizzards, and it took me until June to be able to figure out how to use it properly (when all else fails, but only as a last resort, read ALL of the directions).  The watch was immensely helpful in teaching me a sense of speed over miles—CTR is based on maintaining a fairly steady 6-7 minute mile, and developing an awareness of what this speed feels like over varied terrain is important to ensure that you finish within the allotted window.

Finally, I planned a schedule for the season.  As in any discipline, you can’t push for peak performance year round.  I needed to develop a program which would allow Lee to steadily build her endurance and strength over time, without pushing so hard that she became sore or sour.  I decided up front that if at any point she indicated that she wasn’t feeling up to the task, I would pull back and regroup.  I live in seacoast, NH, where the terrain is rather…coastal.  In order to get ready for the hills and rocks of Vermont, I needed to carefully balance speed work to improve cardiovascular capacity with maintaining soundness in the musculoskeletal system.

Finally, I knew that the CTRs themselves would serve as an important component to her conditioning.  I decided that we would do the 15 mile ride sponsored by VERDA in mid May, followed by a one day 30 mile ride on flatter terrain a few weeks later in Maine (Lee actually was the high point champion that day!).  Based on how she felt after the 30 mile, next I aimed for the 25 mile ride at GMHA in June, and entered the “intro to endurance” 15 mile ride the next day, to have our first experience of a “back to back” weekend.  Considering that she was running away with me at times on the 15 mile, I figured she was coping ok! Our final CTR before the 100 was the two day fifty at GMHA in early August.

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Lee went on to win the Maine 30 CTR with a perfect score of 100.

Before I began our conditioning, I had our vet, Dr. Monika Calitri of Seacoast Equine, out in March.  Lee is 16, and I wanted to make sure that there were no signs of any trouble brewing which would preclude the commencement of her conditioning plan.  With Dr. Calitri’s blessing, we got the green light to move forward with our schedule, and made a plan to recheck her in mid-June, after the back to back 40 mile weekend, to see how she was doing at that point.

As we progressed through each event, Lee felt better and better.  There were a few bumps in the road—she had some minor girth galls after the back to back 40 mile ride, prompting me to ask the trail community for advice (mohair/string girths), and we had some soundness concerns raised by the vet judge at the 50 mile ride, which really gave me pause, though I could personally feel and see nothing wrong.  However, she came out of the recovery phase of her 50 mile feeling better than ever, and after consulting again with Dr. Calitri, we received the green light to enter the 100.

Yet in spite of the successful completion of my preparation, and the encouragement of several mentors in the trail community, I hesitated to enter the 100 mile ride.  I worried that I wasn’t qualified, that I was in over my head, and maybe rerouting to the 60 mile ride, being held the same weekend, was a better plan.

But then I realized that the major reason that I was vacillating about entering the 100 mile ride was because I didn’t want to not finish it.  And as it turns out, if you don’t try, you certainly will not finish.  The only way to finish a 100 mile ride is to start one.

So on closing day, I dropped my entry in the mail.  And so began one of the most exciting and emotional weekends I have ever experienced with my horse.

Team Peanut Butter and Jelly

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Waiting to start on Day One:  Lee, Flower and Robin, Quinn and Kat.  Dr. Joan Hiltz offers us her well wishes!  Photo by H. Reynolds.

I can still count on just a few fingers the total number of people I have ever completed rides with, and not one of them was entering the 100 mile.  I knew that in order to be successful, I would need the guidance and companionship of someone who had done this before.  Through a mutual friend, I was introduced to Kat Waters, who was entered to ride Lee Alexander’s palomino Morgan gelding, Quinn.  Kat kindly agreed to let me join her and her friend, Robin McGrath, who was ironically also riding a palomino Morgan, Flower.  While it was Quinn’s first 100 mile ride, all other participants were veterans from previous years.  As a group, we looked like two pieces of bread and the “stuff” in the middle—Team Peanut Butter and Jelly.

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Flower, in the foreground, and Quinn rest after completing 40 miles on day one.

I must pause here to pay respect to both Kat and Robin, without whom I am sure I would not have completed this ride.  From start to finish, we all functioned as a team, and enjoyed every minute on trail and off.  Kat became the team statistician, keeping track of our pace and the remaining time allowed.  We jokingly referred to Quinn as the “overlord”, as he typically led the group, comprised of his own personal harem.  Robin and Flower helped to set the pace, with their infectious energy and enthusiasm pushing us forward through fatigue and the seemingly never ending Vermont hills.

Our group rode the entire 100 miles from start to finish together, and I don’t think there was a happier or more excited group at any phase of the way.

Day 1—The White Loop (40 Miles)

The day prior to the ride, each competitor was required to ‘weigh in’ on the GMHA Member’s Room porch, carrying tack, helmet, boots and any other equipment they would be carrying with them.  Riders were divided then into “lightweight”, “middleweight” or “heavyweight” divisions.  We also had the standard “vet in”, where we presented our mounts to the judges, Dr. Ann Chaffee and Eva Norris.  Lee decided that she needed to liven things up by bucking vigorously during most of her trot out.  Clearly my strategy to “taper down” before the ride had left her with plenty of energy— but unfortunately, you want to try to match your trot out at the end of the ride with your initial presentation, which meant we had a lot to live up to!

The first day of the ride was the longest on trail, and I was a little nervous knowing that it would be the longest distance I had ever ridden Lee in one go.  To add to my nerves, the route was to take us over the trails in Reading, which are known for being exceptionally rocky and rugged, and therefore difficult to make time on.

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Lee and I about to start the 100 mile ride.  Photo courtesy Robin Malkasian.

Our day started early.  There were just nine horses entered in the 100 mile ride, and so our group of three represented fully one third of the ride’s entry.  We were certainly distinct—two Morgans of color and one decidedly Thoroughbred mare.  No traditional Arabians here!

Once we got on trail, we quickly realized that our three mounts really were going to stick together just like peanut butter and jelly.  The time passed quickly and Lee readily pulsed down at the half way hold.  I was especially pleased because with such a long distance, the hold was at about mile 25—which meant that Lee had gone nearly as far as she had ever gone before without the benefit of a mid-point break.  Other than being hungry, she seemed quite good to continue.

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Quinn and his “ladies”– tackling the Reading trails on day one.  Photo courtesy of Kat Waters.

One of the funniest moments happened at a water stop.  We had caught up with another small group of 100 mile riders, and so about five or six of us were standing in a running stream, allowing our horses to drink.  Lee likes the moving water best, and had finally settled down to take a good drink in, when she decided that actually she was more concerned with scratching her face on her leg.  Somehow, she slipped the crownpiece of her bridle right off over her ears!  We were literally in midstream, and I was NOT interested in dismounting to fix the problem.  I managed to keep enough pressure on the S curve hackamore noseband that I prevented the rest of the bridle from slipping off, and then somehow manipulated the rest of the pieces back into their rightful places, all with one hand.

Upon returning to GMHA grounds, Flower and Lee pulsed down quickly, but Quinn, who is a bit thicker in his muscling, struggled to recover in his pulse parameters, despite a reduced respiration rate.  Kat needed to use every minute of extra time she was granted to continue to sponge and cool Quinn.  Within the rules of CTR, the most we could do was hold him or refill her water buckets—no one but the rider is allowed to apply the water, except in an emergency.  After an anxious wait on all our parts, Quinn was approved by the judges and Team Peanut Butter and Jelly remained intact.

We took the horses out for several walks and periods of hand grazing.  Lee seemed pretty content, and I was incredibly pleased with her for handling the rocky, rugged terrain in the Reading area with such “fight”. I looked forward to the ride the next day.

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Lee looking fairly bright and perky for a horse who just went 40 miles.

The overnight temperature was expected to be in the low 40’s, but the early evening still felt fairly pleasant.  It is not a temperature that I would normally choose to blanket at, so I was surprised to see many other riders bringing out coolers and sheets as the sun dipped down.  Kat and Robin explained to me that after such a big exertion, the horse’s muscles need to be kept warmer than usual to prevent stiffness or cramping as they stood in the stalls overnight.  Fortunately, I had a supply of appropriate horse clothing in the trailer, so I put a sheet on Lee too.  This was just one of many tips this rookie picked up from the other riders.

Day 2—The Red Loop (35 miles)

Day two sent us on the thirty five mile red loop.  Today, we were joined by a medium sized group of horses and riders who were entered in the two day sixty mile ride and a small group who were doing the thirty five exclusively.  The 100 milers were sent out first, though, and it was as we were getting ready to leave that I began to realize what a celebrity status the 100 mile group had at the ride.  People I don’t know, or have only met once, were there to see us off, and many of them knew who we were and who we were riding.

As we started out over some of the fields at GMHA, I could feel tightness in Lee’s back, and I had a moment of panic that she was not right after her long ride the day before.  After a bit of warm up, though, I could feel her muscles begin to loosen, and her stride began to lengthen and swing as it usually does.

Day two was an exciting day on so many levels.  First, the route took us on trails in the town of Brownsville which I had never seen before, including one road which allowed us a fairly stunning view of Mt. Ascutney.  Second, once we passed through the safety check/hold at the half way point, each mile we covered was one mile further than Lee had ever gone before.  I knew that even if we didn’t finish, at that point we still had accomplished a great deal.

I noticed at the halfway hold that some of the galling which I had experienced on the June ride was starting again, in spite of using the mohair girth. I ride Lee in an all purpose saddle that I fished out of a dumpster (I am not making this up), and I had it flocked with wool over the winter. Comparing where Lee’s girth sits in relation to her elbow to the same setting on the trail saddles my friends used, I could see that it really wouldn’t matter what style of girth I chose—the placement of the billets dictate that Lee’s sensitive skin behind the elbow is destined to become pinched over longer distances.  Small issues with tack which are only minor irritations on a daily basis can become major issues or even deal breakers as the miles add up.  I reset the saddle, stretched her legs, and hoped for the best.

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“Oh, the things I must endure…” says Lee. Photo courtesy of Robin Malkasian.

When we got back to the GMHA grounds, it was clear that the galls had grown, even though Lee didn’t seem to compromise her movement because of them.  However, her always-tending-towards-tight back was now incredibly sore, to the point where even a light brush of the fingers elicited a strong reaction, and she had two “hot spots” forming in the saddle area where she was exceptionally sensitive.

The judging team was not thrilled with these developments either, and they asked me to re-present Lee to them in the morning.  The rules of CTR are quite clear that no lotions, salves, medications or other “product” can be used on the horses while the competition is underway; however, soaked towels, massage and hand walking are all completely legal.  I spent hours over the afternoon and into the evening applying cool towels to Lee’s hot spots and galls, alternating with periods of hand walking and grazing or massaging the long muscles of her neck, topline and hindquarter.

Gradually, there was some reduction in the swelling, and Lee’s saddle area seemed to be less sensitive.  Kat returned from afternoon chores on her own local farm with several different versions of saddle pad and girth to try for the third day, as it was clear that several of the galls correlated with the positions of the string on the mohair girth.

I spent an anxious night in my trailer, hoping that Lee’s sore spots would resolve enough overnight to allow us to start.  We were so close to our goal, but I didn’t want to ride her if doing so was going to compromise her well-being.

Day 3—The Blue Loop (25 miles)

It was still night out when I arose to get ready for my AM pre-check on day three.  Hoping that the coyote pack which seemed to visit the grounds each morning around 4 AM had finished its rounds, I headed to the barns.  No one else seemed to be up and about yet, but the horses were alert to my activity.   More horses had arrived the night before as riders settled in for the twenty five and fifteen mile rides happening on day three, and the barns were fairly full.

As Lee ate her AM feed, I cautiously checked the galls from the day before.  Nearly all were flat or close to it, and her sensitivity level was much reduced.  I spent a little more time massaging the big muscles of her topline, while trying to keep as much of her body covered with the blanket as possible.  I had done nothing towards getting ready for the day—I hadn’t prepared my hold bucket or organized feed, I hadn’t tried on any of the borrowed pads or girths—as it felt too much like tempting fate to set up for something which I might not be permitted to do.  Once Lee was done eating, I took her out for a graze and a long, loosening walk.  I practiced a few trot ups to get her muscles supple and warm.  She seemed willing to move and to trot, and maybe a little bit rolling her eyes at me as if to say, “Really?  Again?”

At 5:45 AM, we presented to our judge team at the pavilion.  They noted her improved topline and asked me to jog her.  I am not sure I breathed the entire time we presented ourselves in hand, but I let out a long exhale when they gave me the thumbs up to start.  Team Peanut Butter and Jelly was still holding together.

I had to hustle back in the stabling area to finish preparations for the day’s ride.  I scooted right out of the pre-ride briefing in order to experiment with the tack options.  I ended up using a quilted and padding enforced dressage pad I found in my trailer, with my usual half pad and Kat’s fuzzy double elastic girth.  This combination seemed to provide good distribution of padding over the saddle area and also elicited only a minimal response from Lee as I tacked her up.

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Lee takes a break on Cookie Hill during day 3. Photo courtesy Kat Waters.

The last day of the ride was glorious.  To be quite honest, after riding forty and thirty five miles, back to back, twenty five felt like an absolute piece of cake.  We enjoyed gorgeous fall weather, stunning views, and the traditional chocolate chip cookies at the top of Cookie Hill.  After we passed through the final half way hold of the ride, I realized I was smiling like a crazy person and getting a little giddy.  We had less than thirteen miles to go.  We just might finish this thing!

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Team Peanut Butter and Jelly returning to the White Ring after completing 100 miles. Photo courtesy H. Reynolds.

I am not sure I can fully put into words the feeling of returning to the White Ring for the third time, and hearing our names announced once more, this time proclaiming us one hundred mile finishers.  People on the rail cheered.  I just kept stroking Lee’s neck, silently thanking her for giving me her best over the entire process—not just these three days, but the weeks and months leading up to it.  As we dismounted after crossing the finish line, I gave Lee a big hug around her neck.  She sighed.  She isn’t much for demonstration of affection but I think after 100 miles, she was willing to put up with me just a little longer.

Thanks and Gratitude

The entire experience of my first three day 100 mile ride was amazing and humbling. The people I have met in the competitive trail community have been truly helpful and have often gone out of their way to help my rookie self out—I am greatly indebted to the wisdom and guidance of them all, but especially Robin Malkasian and Kate Burr, Denny Emerson, Sarah MacDonald and of course Kat Waters and Robin McGrath.

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Robin and Flower won all kinds of honors, including High Point Morgan and the Reserve Champion High Point Horse of the whole ride!

 

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Kat and Quinn received honors for being the best Morgan trail horse, high point rookie horse and the horsemanship award.

These rides are a ton of work to put on, and I have found both the organizers and volunteers to be gracious and helpful, frequently answering my questions and giving me guidance.  And of course, all riders must acknowledge the willingness of land owners to allow us access to their properties—such an amazing privilege.

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Team Peanut Butter and Jelly still sticking together at the awards ceremony.

To my friends at home who also have shown me so much support and love, helped train with me and take care of me and the critters—Dr. Amanda Rizner, Pam, Molly and Kaeli McPhee, Heidi Chase, Dr. Monika Calitri and our wonderful farrier, Nancy Slombo, who often will come on a day’s notice when I change my mind and decide that no, that shoe WON’T stay on through the weekend after all– my deepest gratitude and appreciation.

But my biggest acknowledgement of all must go to the Dark Mare herself.  Anyone who knows Lee and I also knows what a tremendously long road we have been on together, literally and figuratively.  I am so appreciative for all that she has taught me and for finally finding a niche in which this wonderful athlete can truly excel.

 

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Photo credit to Denny Emerson.

Green Mountain Horse Association’s 79th Annual 100 Mile Ride

Christina Keim and Liatris:  1st place Middleweight Division, Champion Rookie Rider, Perkion Trophy for Best Scoring Thoroughbred

Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it.– Goethe

 

Trusting the Unstrustful Horse

We joke that the Dark Mare, Lee, is a survivor. She lives her life in a fairly constant state of alertness, and if there is a sign of trouble brewing, she is going to get out of dodge.  In her younger years, she broke cross ties and halters with frequent regularity and closely monitored objects such as dumpsters, mounting blocks and piles of jumps for the presence of trolls, chipmunks and other instigators of mayhem.   While she has mellowed somewhat, in general, if danger is afoot, Lee is leaving—with or without you.

When Lee gets upset about something, she can really revert to a primitive state of fight or flight.  On the one hand, it is easy to understand that this reaction has kept horses as a species alive for eons, and the behavior is imprinted in her genetic code.  But at the same time, it is frustrating because the reaction can be so out of proportion to the problem. And at some level, one would hope that her training and systematic exposure to all kinds of stimuli would result in at least one ounce of trust in her humans, but this has not always been the case.

Lee enjoyed the cow-free cow barn in Maine at the 30 mile CTR.  I was also impressed by her overall "coping" here, including the wind blowing hard all night, which rattled the metal roof panels to no end.
Lee enjoyed the cow-free cow barn in Maine at the 30 mile CTR. I was also impressed by her overall “coping” here, including the wind blowing hard all night, which rattled the metal roof panels to no end.

As a result of dealing with this behavior for the better part of a decade, I realize that I have come to assume the worst of Lee in many circumstances, expecting her to have mini or major meltdowns over various situations.  You might think that I am about to tell you how my preconceived ideas usually set up a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that Lee lives up to my (minimal) expectations when push comes to shove.  However, increasingly, the opposite is the case, and perhaps it is I who has the trust issue, not Lee.

This March, tired of being in the indoor and looking for a change of pace, I was riding Lee in the dirt parking lot at the University of New Hampshire during its Spring Break week.  The footing was actually quite good given the season and weather we had experienced this winter, but the lot was ringed with a decently sized plow bank creating a de facto fence line and leaving only one entrance/exit from the lot.  I had planned to do a set distance, changing direction at regular intervals, working at the trot and canter.  As I was getting close to the end of my set, I noticed a fairly dark and ominous looking cloud in the not so far distance, coming from the direction that ‘weather’ normally approaches us from.  “I am almost done,” I thought. “Two more laps and I will head in. No problem.”

Lee and I took our first selfie ever at the Rockingham Rail Trail after a solo 14 mile conditioning ride this July.
Lee and I took our first selfie ever at the Rockingham Rail Trail after a solo 14 mile conditioning ride this July.

Almost before the thought was complete, the wind picked up like I have never experienced and began to howl. Debris that I hadn’t previously noticed was flying sideways and into us.  Suddenly it began to precipitate—something.  Hail? Snow balls?  I couldn’t even tell you because the intensity of the icy precipitation combined with the incredible wind meant that I couldn’t even lift my head.  Lee instinctively swung her hindquarters into the wind, but we were still being pummeled from all sides and were instantly soaked through.  I had no idea what was going to come next—I wondered if a tornado were about to blow through, and had the thought, “so this is how it will end”.

We were not in a safe situation, and I knew we needed to get out of there, but due to the snow banks and our position in the lot, to do so required riding the length of the parking lot heading straight into the wind and snow/ice/rain to reach the exit.  I truly couldn’t even raise my head to see ahead of us due to the intensity of the weather, so I dropped down onto her neck and yelled “go on!” to Lee over the wind.  And sure enough, Lee actually went—straight into the wind, neck and head down, in spite of the power of the frenzied air.  As soon as we rounded the corner, I urged her to the trot and we made a break for the barn, wind to our backs.

Denny Emerson and High Brook Rockstar and Lee and I about to start the Hartland 15 Mile CDR in July of 2014.
Denny Emerson and High Brook Rockstar and Lee and I about to start the Hartland 15 Mile CDR in July of 2014.

I was impressed with Lee that day.  She would have been well within her rights to bolt or panic, to scoot or ignore me.  But for whatever reason, she didn’t.  I was (and still am) quite proud of her for all of it and for getting the both of us to safety.

This spring, I had to move both of my horses to new facilities.  Anna had been in the same barn for five years, but Lee had been at UNH for over ten.  I wasn’t too worried about Anna making the transition, but I honestly worried and worried about Lee.  I can worry like it is my job.  The barn she moved to is a low key private barn at my good friend’s home; it allowed Lee her own paddock with run in and access to dirt roads and trails.  Perfect.  Yet I worried.  My friend has a mule—what if Lee is scared of her funny mule noises?  The fencing is just electric wire.  What if Lee doesn’t see it or respect it? What if I can’t ride Lee alone on the roads? What if…?

The night before the move, it poured, the first rain in almost a month.  When I say it poured, I am talking about the soaking type of deluge that saturates you through to your core instantly, the kind that is like a hose from above.  I don’t think I slept more than a few fits and starts as my anxiety and worry ate away at me.  What if Lee won’t go into the shelter?  What if she works herself up into a colic?

As I hitched up the trailer in the pouring rain, I not so silently cursed the Powers That Be for the weather on this most important of days.  The schedule was to move Lee first, then go back and pick up Anna, since she was taking over Lee’s stall at UNH.

When we arrived at Namaste Farm, Lee fairly quietly unloaded, marched into her new abode, and took a tour around.  She didn’t touch the wire fence.  She didn’t respond when her new neighbors whinnied to her.  While clearly not 100% settled, she was far, far less worried that I was.  We did end up having to lock her into her run in that evening, as it continued to pour, because she wanted to stand outside near the other horses (who had sensibly gone into their own sheds) even once she was shivering under her rain sheet.  Once she figured out that the shelter was dry though, she began using it on her own when the doors were re-opened the next day.  We haven’t had to shut them since.

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Lee’s new friends, Taydee the Connemara and Marybeth Applebottom, the chestnut appaloosa mule.

After a day or two to settle in, I took her for her first ride.  I decided to start in the fields first.  Lee’s new neighbors whinnied as we left, but she didn’t answer, and instead was all business.  But when we got to the fields, she became quite unsettled and agitated, and was being overly spooky and difficult.  “Here we go,” I thought to myself.  “I knew this would happen.  She is going to be unrideable here.”  I ended up having to dismount for safety and led her in hand for a bit, full of negative thoughts and wondering what I had gotten myself into.

The fields were soaked after the heavy rain and I was worried about leaving hoof prints once she started to act up, so I decided that maybe I should try taking Lee down the dirt road instead.  I had hesitated to start with this, because the traffic on the road can occasionally be unpredictable and since she can be too, I thought it might be a bad combination.   However, I knew that on the road I could more confidently ask Lee to go forward and it seemed like maybe that was just what she needed.

Lee having breakfast shortly after arriving at her new home.
Lee having breakfast shortly after arriving at her new home.

So I gamely re-mounted and headed off down the road, away from the farm.  Almost instantly, my reliable distance horse was back.  She happily trotted off, one-two-one-two,  going all the way to where the pavement starts near the town line, and then home.  No issues.  No spooking.  No drama.  She was in her Zen place.

And so it has gone with Lee at Namaste Farm. Since that first ride, she has gone all the way into Newmarket and into a little subdivision, she has ridden alone and in company to Adams Point and seen her first cormorants and sailboats, and she has even come to tolerate the fields (though the bugs which live on them, not so much).  She has done nearly two hundred miles of trail since her arrival, and is just one of the herd.

I don’t think I will ever stop worrying about things which haven’t happened and might not ever happen.  I can at least recognize that the worry and anxiety I feel is, for me, an inevitable part of change, but I also am trying to learn to be more accepting of the fact that some variables are just out of my control.  I think worry starts with some kernel of truth, but then it can grow and mutate and take on a life of its own.

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

I need to start to give Lee more credit for the animal she has become.  On August 1-2, she completed her first two day 50 mile competitive trail ride (CTR), and I never felt one ounce of quit in her the whole weekend.  In a week, she has more than recovered and was joyfully jigging all over the place on our AM ride today.  While I am sure there will be situations in the future where the “survivalist” Lee comes back, I also think that I know the horse well enough to start to trust that she will cope more often than she won’t.

As we all know, trust in any relationship is a two way street.  Perhaps Lee and I are more alike than we are different in our tendency to worry.  Sometimes I take care of her, and sometimes she takes care of me.

Early AM grazing in Vermont, August 2015.
Early AM grazing in Vermont, August 2015.

Gary Rockwell and Stephen Clarke: The FEI 5* Judges’ Symposium

Gary Rockwell and Stephen Clarke:  The FEI 5* Judges’ Symposium

At The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms, New Gloucester, ME

12/10/14

The state of Maine may not be thought of as an epicenter of dressage, but the staff at the Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms are working to change that.  With all-star trainers like Olympian Michael Poulin and former Young Rider champion Gwyneth McPherson heading the coaching team, and assistant trainer/organizer Jennifer Dillon pulling together equestrian A-list clinics, this facility is sure to make a positive influence on the education of dressage enthusiasts from across the northeast.

An early season Nor’easter didn’t keep attendees away from what was billed as the Five Star Symposium on Dec 9-10, 2014.  FEI 5* judges Gary Rockwell of the US and Stephen Clarke of the UK were invited to Pineland to help educate participants’ eyes towards the quality of performance.  Several talented riders, including Poulin and McPherson but also Jutta Lee, David Collins, Laura Noyes and Heather Blitz, demonstrated movements and performed complete tests ranging from Training level to Grand Prix, while Rockwell and Clarke provided scores and commentary.  This format meant that auditors could gain perspective as riders, trainers and judges, depending on their area of personal focus.  In addition, several USEF rated judges sat ring side and offered further comment/question to round out the experience.  As a representative of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Equine Program, I was able to attend on day two, bringing along fourteen of our program’s students.  We are most grateful to the Equestrian Center at Pineland Farm for this amazing opportunity.

Students from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Equine Program thoroughly enjoyed their visit to The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms.
Students from the University of New Hampshire (UNH) Equine Program thoroughly enjoyed their visit to The Equestrian Center at Pineland Farms.

Rockwell and Clarke banter like old friends do and were remarkably “in sync” with their judging and remarks, rarely deviating more than one point from one another.  Throughout the day, their feedback combined training tips with judging perspective, as well as insight into the theory behind why correct riding is the best kind of riding.

Transitions, Tension and Test Riding

As the day began, auditors were treated to the performances of a pair of talented four year olds, ridden by Collins and Lee. One horse demonstrated the 2015 Training Level Test 3, while the other rode the FEI Four Year Old test.  The USEF tests are scored in a traditional manner, with a comment/score given for each movement, while the FEI Young Horse tests are scored with overall marks given for each of the gaits, submissiveness and overall impression.

Let me start by commenting that any one of us would likely have traded the outfit we were wearing that day and offered to sit in our undies on the bleachers in exchange for a ride on either of these lovely youngsters.  The tests that they performed were scored in the 70’s and low 80’s by Rockwell and Clarke, giving those present an excellent picture of what a high standard of performance  and correct training looks like.

At these introductory levels, much emphasis is placed on the correctness of the basic paces. No matter how good a mover the horse is, Clarke and Rockwell emphasized that in order to show a horse’s paces to their best advantage, riders must perfect the transitions.  The quality of the transition will determine how well and how clearly the horse begins the next gait.  Even horses with “average” gaits can improve in quality with correct transitions.

On a related note, tension (mental or physical) will block a horse’s throughness and ultimately impede the quality of their gaits.  The judges remarked that tension in the canter is especially common in developing horses, and it is important that horses come into the gait with suppleness and swing.

One of the most challenging movements in the lower level tests is the infamous “stretchy circle”.  Judges are usually quite critical of the performance of this movement, with common mistakes including loss of rhythm/regularity, loss of balance, and failure to reach through the topline and down to the bit.  Clarke and Rockwell emphasized that it is important for riders to remember that the stretchy circle is not meant to be just a test movement; it is a test of the horse’s balance and throughness and must be incorporated into the regular work.

David Collins riding Bojing (unattributed but taken from his website, www.centerlinestables.org).
David Collins riding Bojing (unattributed but taken from his website, http://www.centerlinestables.org).

An interesting point came up as Clarke and Rockwell discussed the performance of Collins’ mount, Bojing.  This talented youngster already moves with the confidence and poise of an experienced campaigner, but occasionally showed his youth in certain moments of the test, particularly in terms of showcasing his full power.  Clarke and Rockwell remarked that in training a horse from day to day, riders can get in the habit of doing things the same way they always have.  However, the result of good training should be a horse that changes and develops, and it is important for riders to remember that with this growth may come a need to moderate an aid—perhaps to change how it is given, or the intensity of it.

We would be treated to several additional examples of this axiom as the day progressed.

Although the demonstration horses performed fairly good halts during their test rides, Clarke and Rockwell remarked that at the lower levels, the squareness of the halt is less critical than the overall obedience, submission, steadiness and straightness as seen from “C”.  Once these qualities are maintained, it will become easier for the rider to ride the horse from back to front to achieve a square halt.

One additional discussion which emerged after watching the first few horses perform was related to the choice of bit for individual horses.  Clarke and Rockwell emphasized that horses who demonstrate “mouth” issues are usually also holding internal tension; this cause must be sought and addressed before the mouth issues will resolve.  According to the judges, riders who constantly change bits to look for a solution to mouth issues are sometimes overlooking the most common one—the rider themselves.  Asymmetry, weakness, lack of balance and lack of coordination in the rider can all manifest as mouth issues in the horse.  Therefore, if the horse has an issue in the mouth—look to the rider first.

Gait Distinctions, Soft Rein Backs and Head Tilts

2015 Third Level Test 3, 2015 Fourth Level Test 3 (and boy, is that test ramped up!) and the FEI Prix St. Georges tests were demonstrated by Poulin on a client’s horse, Blitz on the young stallion Ripline and McPherson on an older campaigner, Flair.  Again, all three horses demonstrated quality tests and allowed auditors a clear picture of what is expected at the given level.  Clarke and Rockwell began asking riders to stay a moment longer in the ring with these older horses, in order to repeat certain movements or to demonstrate particular points.  What became clear through the feedback provided by the judges is that, for these medium level horses, continued attention to the finer points allows for an increase in the quality of performance.

Rein back is a movement that appears in tests starting at the Second Level.  Horses should halt quietly, and then step backwards without visibly losing balance, dropping or raising the poll, or stepping sideways.  It is actually quite an unnatural movement for the horse and requires a great deal of submission.  Clarke and Rockwell said that if there is restriction in the reins during the rein back, the horse will brace against this and drag their feet.  Instead, the rider must learn to execute the rein back with a soft hand.

Turn on the haunches and walk pirouettes also appear at these levels, which led to a bit of friendly US-UK terminology debate. Clarke explained that the term “turn on the haunches” is an old military movement that has nothing to do with maintaining the rhythm or regularity of the gait, two qualities which are “must have’s” when performing this movement in the modern arena.  Therefore, Clarke insists that a more correct description for a “turn on the haunches” is really “large walk pirouette”, which is actually a classical dressage movement.  Rockwell simply shrugged his shoulders and sipped his coffee at this. No matter what you call them, the horse must maintain a clear four beat rhythm and the rider must be especially careful to not allow the horse to “stick” behind.

The three talented horses which demonstrated the middle level tests were also able to present auditors with three different levels of proficiency with the medium and extended gaits.  Often, riders “push” for so much in their medium gaits that there is not a clear difference between it and the extended gait.  However, Clarke and Rockwell admitted that judges must also partially take the blame for this, because they sometimes too harshly score a “normal” medium trot.  So of course, this led to a discussion of what exactly is being expected in each of these paces.

Clarke and Rockwell explained that in the medium gaits, there is a soft, quiet opening of the steps with no loss of roundness or throughness.  Extended gaits, by contrast, are the “utmost”, and need to be more than the medium.  For those of us who ride horses with limited natural gaits, it is best to really go for it in the medium gaits, and to accept the comment of “not much difference” in the extended movements.

Blitz and Ripline had to execute a challenging movement in the new USEF Fourth Level Test 3—the shoulder in on the center line.  From “C”, the judge commented that the horse was not correctly bent and the movement was not clear.  From where we sat on the side, the movement had seemed okay.  This was a great example of how a judge can only assess what they can actually see (review the “Judge’s Notebook” section below).  Rockwell had Blitz repeat the movement, this time being certain to keep Ripline’s hind legs on the center line, with the forehand only to the side of the line.  Once the letter “A” could clearly be seen between the horse’s hind legs, the angle and bend of the movement became more correct and the score was adjusted accordingly.

Occasionally during their tests, each of these horses had demonstrated a slight head tilt which negatively impacted the score for that movement.  This led to an interesting discussion of where in the horse’s body submission to the bend begins.  In a horse that is accepting the aids correctly, the ribcage gives to the rider’s inside leg and the horse steps to the connection of the outside rein, allowing the rider to then be “free and easy” with the inside rein.  When the horse doesn’t move off the leg appropriately (and therefore lacks true submission to the bend), the rider will use the inside rein more than they ought to, which begins the head tilt.

The Elite Levels:  “It’s from another planet”

Auditors were in for a real treat after the lunch break, when Lee returned with Glorious Feeling to demonstrate Intermediate A, and Laura Noyes rode her own Galveston in the Intermediate B.  However, the finale was not to be missed, and 2012 London Olympics alternate team members Blitz and her own Paragon elicited multiple “10’s” from the judges and the now infamous comment, “It’s from another planet” (in reference to Paragon’s extended trot).  I must admit that my note-taking fell off the page a bit during these last few rides as I was so mesmerized by the horses’ performances.

Clarke and Rockwell discussed the meaning of a horse “being on the outside rein” as the effect of how much control and influence a rider has with the outside rein, versus the amount of weight the rider feels in the outside rein.  This sense of connection to the outside rein is a must have requirement in order to execute the rapid changes of bend, balance and pace required in these elite level tests.

Jutta Lee and Glorious Feeling listen to the comments from Rockwell and Clarke.
Jutta Lee and Glorious Feeling listen to the comments from Rockwell and Clarke.

Less experienced riders tend to focus on the head and neck of the horse, and as riders gain experience, they learn to look through the whole body to see the lift through the topline and engagement of the supporting muscles, which then allows the poll to come to be the highest point with the nose just in front of vertical.  These confirmed FEI horses demonstrated this correct balance clearly and showed how this much power can still be soft.

Earlier, Clarke and Rockwell had emphasized the importance of constantly checking in with how the rider is using her aids as the horse grows and develops.  With Galveston, Noyes delivered an accurate and fluid test that had many good (“8”) and very good (“9”) movements.  However, the judges felt that the horse still had more to offer and that Noyes was not quite asking enough.  By changing the balance between her forward leg aid and restraining seat and rein aids, as well as modifying the timing of the two, Galveston began to produce an extended trot which elicited a collective gasp from the audience.  Surely Noyes knew this trot was in there, but now she has new tools to play with in order to develop it further.

In these tests, Clarke and Rockwell discussed the critical importance of preparation for movements and the use of transitions and corners to aid in building up the required power and correct balance.  For example, in the sequence changes (the four, three, two and one tempi’s), the rider must come onto the diagonal and create an uphill balance in the horse and then release into the first change, as opposed to trying to push into them.  The medium and extended trots are also a release of stored energy that has been built up in advance; if the rider has failed to build the energy, she cannot magically create the power required for these paces at the letter itself.

Blitz and Paragon were truly inspirational to watch.  At 18 hands, the chestnut gelding would command attention no matter what, but the incredible sitting in his piaffe/passage, the ease of his tempi changes and of course the unbelievable power and control demonstrated in his extended trot were simply magical.  I think everyone there knew we were watching a special partnership.

Clarke and Rockwell of course have seen (and judged) this team before, and both remarked on the tremendous growth in the horse’s confidence.  “Whatever you are doing in your training program—keep doing it,” commented Clarke.  The judges said that for so many horses, no matter what, the muscular growth acquired through consistent training will help them develop the confidence to do the movements.  For a Grand Prix horse, learning the movements themselves is only a beginning.  Clarke and Rockwell said that if you are lucky, it takes five years to develop a horse to Grand Prix, and then another two years to put it all together in the arena. So much of this development comes down to the strength of the horse in being able to correctly do the movements.

Judge’s Notebook

As a (2007) graduate of the United States Dressage Federation’s “L” judge’s training program, I can assure you that the view from C is one that comes only after years of dedication, effort and growth in terms of developing one’s eye, skill, vocabulary and clarity.  While I am lucky to be invited to judge at local schooling horse trials and dressage shows, I am not sure that I will ever feel fully qualified or up to the commitment of pursuing the dressage judge’s license.  Completing the “L” program has helped me to interpret judge’s comments on my own tests with better clarity and also to know that most judges truly want to help the competitors to be better. I have an immense amount of respect for the challenge that judges face in their role.

Clarke and Rockwell represent the pinnacle of judging, and I was completely impressed with how they came within one point of each other on nearly every movement, with similar comments.  As adhering to the training pyramid will lead to a horse with correct basics, these gentlemen show that the progress judges make through their own training helps to refine the eye and to create cohesion and consistency in a subjective discipline.

Throughout the day, Clarke and Rockwell offered insight into the role and mind of a judge, both by actually scoring/commenting on the tests being performed and also through their discussion of each performance.  In addition, they fielded questions from the audience.

Here are a few of the “judging notes” I picked up throughout the day.

  • Judges must actually use the entire scale to reflect what they are really seeing. During the course of the day’s rides, we heard Clarke and Rockwell say everything from 3 to 10.  I must admit, I find it hard to get out of “six-ville” when judging, so it was exciting to see the quality of performance which elicits higher marks, as well as the fact that these elite judges will forgive minor mistakes (like a small stumble).
  • One of the main purposes of the Young Horse classes is to educate the public; this is especially true in Europe, where such classes will draw a large crowd. In the YH tests, judges want to see a relaxed, confident horse which is being shown in a natural balance.  Horses may have three super gaits naturally but the training must still be correct, and the young horse must not move artificially.  The Four Year Old test is roughly equivalent to the USEF Training/First Level; the Five Year Old test is roughly equivalent to the USEF Second/Third Level and the 6 Year Old test is roughly equivalent to USEF Third/Fourth Level.
  • When a horse is actively teeth grinding or tail swishing during their work, it is important to look at the overall picture and to not immediately interpret this as a symptom of resistance; judges should not automatically deduct points. Frequently if there is tension in the horse there will be additional cues.  Not every horse that grinds their teeth or swings their tail is being resistant.
  • The collective marks are meant to be a summary of the overall test. Therefore, a test whose movements are full of 5’s and 6’s should not have collective marks that are 7’s and 8’s.  Errors in the test should not affect the rider scores in the collective marks.
  • You can only judge what you can really see, not what you think or assume is happening. This was especially clear when the judge at “C” and the judge at the side had different marks or conflicting comments.
  • To arrive at a score, the judge must consider all of the qualities that they like (positive) versus those things that were negative. The judge must ask, “where is your eye drawn to?” and start there.  Beware the generic comment (“needs more impulsion”).  If it needs to be said, try to be specific (“needs more impulsion at ‘K’”).
  • The rider is responsible for the submission score and the overall performance of the horse that day; therefore, a rider may receive a different mark for “rider” from the same judge on the same day for different performances or different horses.
  • If someone comes into the ring, takes a risk and pulls it off (for example, they really went for a big medium trot), give them the points. Otherwise, why would riders ever bother to take risks, and the result is boring dressage.

    A dressage judge's job is never easy....
    A dressage judge’s job is never easy….

Reflections on Gratitude: Part I

I will admit that I have a demanding personality.  I have high expectations of myself in terms of performance, commitment and excellence, and I tend to push these expectations onto those around me, including my horses.  Sometimes this level of focus is an asset, but I am beginning to realize that sometimes I need to take a step back, take a deep breath, and let go.

This fall, I had a less than stellar run of events with Annapony.   We took August off from competition, but I noticed that even in training sets she wasn’t her usual willing self.  I felt like when I asked for “more”, whether it was more impulsion, more roundness, more suppleness, more, her response was, “meh”.  At the end of the month, we had the fabulous opportunity to clinic with upper level rider Kim Severson.  But my pony was just not a willing participant, and Kim’s insistence that we repeat each exercise until it was fluid and forward just created frustration in me and resistance in Anna.  I perceived that Kim didn’t think I was trying enough, but I felt like I was riding harder, not smarter, and my horse didn’t appreciate it.

The next weekend, Anna was entered at King Oak, an event where last fall we had done just our second novice and finished on a 24.4.  Dressage went great; I tried to stay elastic through the elbow, utilized counter canter in the warm up to loosen her topline and focused on keeping her forward and loose in the ring, and we came out with a 24.0.  But stadium was a different story—she felt okay in warmup, but not outstanding, not like she was really taking me to the fences.  In the arena, the strong wind that day was causing décor to ripple and flow, and Anna was uncharacteristically spooky.  She startled at the judge, ignored my leg when I asked her to “go”, but in spite of this clocked around the first five fences.  Then, abruptly, she refused at fence six.  It nothing about the fence; her attention had left the ring and was focused on an eliminated horse/rider leaving the cross country course in front of us.  I kicked her over on the second attempt, only to have her stop at the next fence, when her focus went to the undulating brush in the box beneath it.  It quickly dawned on me that I had only one stop left—and the only remaining obstacle was the combination, which hadn’t been schooling well at home.  I admit it—I rode into it half-heartedly, expecting the stop which inevitably came.  I returned to my stall, secretly relieved that I wasn’t going to have to try to kick her around the cross country course that day.

JEF Anna Rose at the King Oak Fall Horse Trials, 2012 (photo credit to DC Designs)
JEF Anna Rose at the King Oak Fall Horse Trials, 2012 (photo credit to DC Designs)

On the drive home that day, I wondered why this was all happening—I had been doing everything “right”, after all.  I ride five or six days a week; each week a careful balance of work in the ring on the flat and over fences and work out in the open conditioning or hacking.  My horses receive excellent feed, regular farrier/vet care, I have excellent coaching—why wasn’t it all coming together?  I began making plans to scratch my final entry of the season for Stoneleigh Burnham, just two weeks away.  I didn’t care about losing the entry fee; I couldn’t face the thought of being eliminated again and I didn’t see any way that anything else was going to happen.

[Before I continue this story, I will add here that I did have concerns  during this time that something was physically wrong with Anna—I had my vet out and she did a thorough work up, including lameness exam, blood work, Lyme’s test, Vitamin E/Selenium levels, etc—and everything came back negative.  To paraphrase Dr. C, “I believe you that you feel like something is wrong, but medically I can’t explain it”.  With this knowledge in hand, I had to conclude that the problem was likely a training issue and moved forward from there.]

I found myself in the days after King Oak feeling angry.  I mean, FirstWorldProblem here, but I was angry—angry that my horse had been eliminated, angry that I had felt like a failure not just at the event but at the clinic the week before, and angry that I felt I was working so hard but spinning in circles like a hamster on her wheel.  Needless to say, training rides were not outstanding in these days—I was unable to remain focused on what the overall horse was telling me she needed, and instead only concentrated on the fact that she wasn’t doing what I wanted.  I wanted to scratch from SBS, but I also didn’t want to end the season with an elimination.  I thought maybe if I could just somehow ride even harder, I could make it better in time.

The week in between King Oak and SBS, three of us went schooling on our bay mares at historic Ledyard Farm in Massachusetts.  Three different horses, three different goals.  One friend was preparing to compete at the UNH Horse Trials at the end of the month on a talented mare that needed more exposure to ditches (the mare happily loped over the various Ledyard ditches with nary a hesitation); the other was prepping for the novice three day at Waredaca on her draft cross.  And me—well, we were just trying to get our mojo back.

Ledyard Farm, Fall 2013
The Bay Mares Club at Ledyard Farm, Fall 2013

Anna was a superstar nearly everywhere—she jumped coops, the trakhener, a ditch/wall, bounced up and down banks and drops without batting an eye.  She begrudgingly dropped into the water and jumped out.  But nothing with was done with a tremendous amount of fanfare—just enough effort to get the job done.  Not a drop more.

Anna jumping the ditch and wall at Ledyard.
Anna jumping the ditch and wall at Ledyard.

But even so, I started to feel a little better.  Here was my sensible horse, the one who didn’t stop at fences she wasn’t scared of, the one who was willing to at least try. We were nearing the end of our schooling set—we had been on for over an hour—and our coach encouraged us to try a narrowish log fence between two trees.  It had at one time been a more solid looking stone wall framed by the wood, but time had caused the definition of the fence to erode.  No matter—it looked jumpable, and a good test of going a bit from light to dark.

Anna drops into water just before the "mishap".  Note my excellent facial expression.
Anna drops into water just before the “mishap”. Note my excellent facial expression.

I went first with Anna.  Or I should say, attempted first.  She headed to the fence willingly, but as we came to the takeoff zone it was like she suddenly couldn’t tell where the fence was.  She scrambled a bit, ending up kneeling on top of the fence with one front leg while the other was extended over it.  She slithered back off the jump, but not without catching her hoof on a rock as she did so.  Thankfully she was physically okay, but with that one mistake, my tentative feeling of confidence and fun evaporated.  I felt like I had let her down by asking her to jump the fence, as though I had tricked her.

In an effort to end with something more positive, we returned to a basic coop fence that we had jumped earlier, and she willingly jumped it.  I knew I should be happy with that but I still felt like the whole ride had been undone by the one mistake.  Perfectionism can be a horrible disease.

Still, we headed off to SBS the following weekend.  Stoneleigh Burnham is a place that holds a soft spot in my heart.  I attended the Bonnie Castle Riding Camp there in the summers of 1989 and 1990; I rode in my first “A” rated horse show there, on SBS’s mount Fudge Ripple, and I still have the treasured 3rd place ribbon we earned in the Novice Equitation class.   It is also where I had my first actual exposure to eventing, given that I was a hunter/jumper kid from upstate New York at the time.  I was given the (I thought) privileged job of holding up the rope during the road crossing for cross country for the SBS summer event in 1990.  I felt so important, because I had seen people doing the same job at the Olympics on TV.   For various reasons, I have never been able to compete in the event there until this fall, and I at least looked on the opportunity to do so as a “coming home” of sorts.

My goal for the event, to be quite honest, was just to finish.  I had no expectations other than that, or so I thought.  The courses looked straightforward and inviting, and I felt the energy of warm childhood memories invigorating me to ride assertively and confidently.

Dressage is a consistent phase for Anna; while she occasionally pulls out scores in the 20’s, she normally lands between 33 and 36.  Steady and consistent, but nothing flashy or extravagant.  Her test felt willing and fairly fluid, good enough this day for a 31.0.  Hey, at least I can do lower level dressage fairly well, if nothing else.

At SBS, riders show jump first and then go directly on to cross country.  This format actually works pretty well for Anna, being the energy conservationist that she is.  Enough time to catch your breath but not so much that you have to fully warm up twice.  I warmed up for show jumping with a clear plan; she was to stay forward off of my leg, go through several transitions within gaits, and jump enough to be tuned up but not so much that the efforts became blasé.  As my turn approached, the wind picked up again, a la King Oak, and I noticed that the taping which designated the show jump area was beginning to flutter and sway in the wind.  “Great,” I found myself thinking.  “Now she is going to spook at that.”    But I quickly shut down the chatter (something I am pretty good at doing, in the moment) and instead acknowledged that it was a variable I was going to have to ride through.

Anna and I made it around the show jumping course at SBS, but it sure wasn’t pretty.  She took down two rails, both due to her being more attentive to her environment than to me, and had a stop at an oxer, again due to spooking.  But unlike at King Oak, where the surprise of finding myself in that situation caused me to be slow to react, this time I was ready. I rode like a “crazy banshee woman”, an expression my students will likely recognize.  In all reality, I overrode.  But at that point, I didn’t care, so long as she jumped the d@&n jumps.  I have to admit it didn’t feel satisfying to finish the course; I was embarrassed about having to ride that hard and that overtly and was vaguely grateful to not know many of the spectators lining the arena’s edge.  I looked away from Judge Nancy Guyotte as I exited, too mortified by the ride to acknowledge that we knew each other.

Anna and I having a fun time doing Daniel Stewart's 'playground' exercise, July 2013 at UNH.
Anna and I having a fun time doing Daniel Stewart’s ‘playground’ exercise, July 2013 at UNH.

Cross country was a similar story.  Usually I can ride out of the box and pump Anna up, and she goes from there.  But this day, I felt like I couldn’t take my foot off the accelerator for even a stride.  She just never found her rhythm.  She handled most of the tricky stuff fine, including a bigger/wider option ditch and some turning questions in an open field.  But then, at a Helsinki, again, a stop.  I had decelerated coming through the water crossing just before it, and failed to get the response to my leg that I needed coming up to the fence.  I could feel the stop coming and simultaneously that nothing that I did at that point was going to matter.  Still, I wasn’t going down without a fight.  Whack, whack, whack. Kick, kick, kick. Whack, whack, whack.  I knew my three slap rule and used it.

On attempt two, Anna went over the fence (her issue was not with the fence itself, apparently), but I rode the rest of the course with one hand on the reins and one hand using the whip behind my leg off the ground.  We came through the finish just one second below optimum time, my horse literally dripping with sweat on a cool September day.  We had done it—we had finished the event.  That was what I had set as our goal for the weekend, what I wanted to do.  Or so I thought.

Because the truth is, even though we finished the event that day, it wasn’t a finish where I felt a sense of connection with my horse or a feeling of pride in a job well done.  I felt as though she had done what I asked, begrudgingly, and that I had had to coerce her to give me the effort that she did.  This is not how I want to ride or train, and this is not the kind of relationship that I have had with this horse for the previous three years.

Our first ride-- already a match!
Our first ride– already a match!

It was time to take a BIG step back and to re-evaluate.  I realized that without a willing partner, reaching your goals is next to impossible.  And more than finishing an event, or attaining the next level of competitive success, I wanted my willing partner back.  This is a horse that, previous to this fall, has always been so willing to try, from the very first time I sat on her.  From her first jump in the arena, to her first cross country fence, it was unusual to ever have more than one stop at something, and then only if she didn’t understand the question.  I looked forward to riding this horse each day more than any other horse I have ridden in the past few years, because she was just so much fun.  Somewhere, we had lost that.

I put away the spurs.  I parked the horse trailer. And for the next three months, we mostly hacked, did some light ring work, and then hacked some more.  Instead of riding with a “hard mind”, focused only on the end goal (I want to get my dressage scores down, I want to have her going solidly in Second Level work, I want, I need, I expect), I tried to think about riding with gratitude.  With a sense of thanks— for how lucky am I to have the opportunity to work with this animal, to enjoy her presence, to hack through the woods and enjoy the local farmlands, to even have the opportunity to be upset that everything wasn’t perfect.  These are privileges, and I needed to start paying more attention to what my horse was offering me than to what she wasn’t.

cropped-p9094451-m12.jpg

With the onset of winter here in New England, we have begun our annual pilgrimage to the local indoor for training. Again, as much as having to hitch up the trailer to go ride every day is an inconvenience, I try to focus on gratitude, that an indoor right down the road is available for our use.  This transition also has marked the start of a new beginning.  I have been slowly increasing the workload, rebuilding muscle and trying to stay completely in tune with Anna’s mood and responses to the increased work.  I am trying to respond to resistance not as, “I won’t” but “I can’t”; it is then for me to determine whether the cause is physical (she needs more strength or suppleness) or mental (I don’t understand what you want).

I still can’t shake the thought that something was physically bothering Anna this fall.  She grows an incredibly heavy and thick winter coat; perhaps metabolically while this transition occurs she feels lower in energy, and as a naturally quiet horse this makes mustering extra “go” difficult.  So next year I will plan to clip her earlier in the season.  Perhaps it has to do with her going into anestrous, though she is not a particularly ‘marish’ mare.  I wonder if she tweaked a muscle somewhere in her topline or hindquarter, not enough to make her lame but enough to make her reluctant to go.  So I moving forward, I will be doubly careful to ensure that she is well conditioned and work to bring her into the season with a higher level of fitness.

But more than anything, I will try to remember that even though it is important, even essential, to have big goals on your ‘to do’ list, it is the day to day rides that make up the bulk of your relationship with your horse.  “Riding with gratitude” will be my mantra for the 2014 season as I try to remember that being the best horseman I can be is not measured in the competitive arena but in the respect and relationship that I have with my horse.