Inside your Ride: Mental Skills for Being Happy and Successful with your Horse by Tonya Johnston
c 2012 Cruz Bay Publishing/Equine Network: Boulder, CO. 263 pages.
If you have ever struggled with: nerves, worry, fear, anxiety (performance or generalized), coping with pressure, etc., and it has affected your riding in a negative way—I would stop reading now and go pick up a copy of Inside Your Ride: Mental Skills for Being Happy and Successful with Your Horse. Author Tonya Johnston is a specialist in equestrian sports psychology, and her insights have increasingly appeared in articles, blogs and podcasts, with good reason. Inside Your Ride is well organized, coherent and broken down in such a way that any equestrian needing to “up their mental game” should find some helpful guidelines.
The field of sports psychology has grown exponentially in the past ten to fifteen years, going from being almost like the secret weapon of the elite athlete to a tool that even casual riders can use to move past any number of mental/psychological impediments to their goals. Today, many sports psychologists focus on specific sports. This is to our benefit, I think, as we all know that horseback riding is a sport unlike any other, due to the fact that our powerful teammates can and often do have an agenda which is different from our own. Each author has their own tools, strategies and systems which help equestrians to move through their personal blocks, and I appreciate being able to read each professional’s take on the subject in books like this one. But to be effective, the content must be clear and structured in a way that you can work through it on your own—and Johnston has hit that mark in Inside Your Ride.
While this particular book does slant towards concerns common amongst riders that compete, I think there is plenty in here for any rider who has set more fundamental goals for themselves, goals as seemingly basic as getting more time in the saddle. In fact, the first chapter is dedicated to motivation, with Johnston acknowleding that people ride for many different reasons—and she helps the reader to identify for themselves what it is about riding that makes them choose to pursue the sport. From there, the book includes chapters on confidence (who doesn’t need more of that, right?), focus, energy, attitude, resilience and more. There is even a chapter on returning to the sport, whether it be after a fall, a significant break from riding, or a break from competing.
Johnston has included many personal anecdotes and fictionalized scenarios which help prevent the book from becoming too text-booky. Instead, it reads a little bit like the script to a TED talk—“here’s how I did it, and you can do it too!”.
She has also included quotes and feedback from top professionals, which I think is a good way of showing that even the best in the world have had their self-doubts and techniques like these have helped. The only downside to this—and this is going to sound trite but it is true—is that “celebrity status” in the horse industry can be fleeting, and if an author makes reference to too many former stars it can date the book.
Many of the individuals she quotes—Bernie Traurig, John French, Leslie Howard, for a few—are icons of the sport, but I know from personal experience as a teacher/educator that if I bring up these names, I am often met with blank stares from my students. Never mind those individuals whose time at the top was even more fleeting—the Olympic medalist who doesn’t have a string of horses and so faded back into the tapestry when their top horse retired, or the equitation champion whose transition to the adult divisions has not led to the same degree of success. On a weekly basis, I am left giving my students “Google homework” to look up someone who just a few years earlier would have been on the cover of every pre-eminent equestrian magazine.
So unfortunately, even for me, someone who recognized the names and respects their experience, some sections of this book felt dated, while others felt a little too “a la minute” in that the rider referenced sort of came and went so quickly that they don’t seem a relevant source. I am not sure that the 2019 equestrian is going to recognize that all of these sources have experience worth listening to. And I don’t think I needed them to make the book work.
But maybe none of this will bother you, and you will just take note that an “experienced horse person says that this technique works” and you will go try it for yourself. Which is the real point, I think.
I suspect that this is the sort of book you can read once, take away a few key concepts, then pick up again a year later and absorb a whole new insight. Mental preparation is sort of like developing riding skills—it takes practice and some commitment, and you get better at it with time. And I think our needs change over time, too—just read this forthright piece from Steffan Peters (and if you don’t know who he is…you have Google homework, too…).
The Five Horse Types in Traditional Chinese Veterinary Medicine by Dr. Ina Gösmeier
c 2014 (Appears to be self-published) 68 pages.
One of the fundamental concepts in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is that all beings belong largely to one of the five basic elements—fire, earth, metal, water and wood. Knowing which of the elements most influence an individual can help TCM practitioners better determine the health challenges that individual is most likely to face, as well as how to best address them.
Author Dr. med vet Ina Gösmeier is an accomplished German veterinarian and equestrian. Her vet practice is based on TCM, applied kinesiology and Chinese Herbology, and she has travelled with the German team to international championships, enhancing their performance using naturopathic methods. According to the bio in her book, she also teaches, writes and lectures extensively on the subject of holistic medicine in animals, particularly acupuncture and acupressure.
I am not prepared to give up Western medicine but I admit that TCM, with its whole body approach to healing, has a certain logic to it. Rather than just focusing on specific symptoms or disorders, TCM considers the overall balance of chi (sometimes spelled qi), which is an essential life force in the body. Acupuncture/acupressure, for example, seeks to rebalance the chi and restore its harmonious flow along the body’s meridians.
In this quick read book, Dr. Gösmeier explains that horses can be classified into one of five types—Gan/Liver, Shen/Kidney, Pi/Spleen, Xin/Heart, and Fei/Lung– and that identifying horse type can help vets practicing TCM to better predict the course and duration of a disease. Based on certain symptoms for each type, it is possible for a practitioner to identify when an animal is out of balance and in need of treatment. Sometimes these symptoms are behavioral, and have seemingly nothing to do with the source of the problem. Horses are classified by considering their mind/character, social behavior, rideability and physical characteristics.
Each horse type has some positive and some negative characteristics. Some horses show traits of more than one type.
If you are intrigued by these concepts, and want to learn more—do not seek out this book. Originally written in German, it is possibly one of the poorest quality translations I have ever read. I am sure that trying to explain such unique and abstract concepts to any Westerner takes first, a fair degree of comprehension and understanding of the concepts to begin with, and second, requires the ability to break them down into smaller pieces. I would think that each word is carefully chosen, each phrase crafted to impart better clarity and meaning.
Quite simply, these concepts are lost in the translation. But it isn’t just the concepts—it is basic phrases and expressions too, things which someone who is bilingual enough to do a translation should be able to articulate more clearly. It is almost as though someone fed the document through Google Translate and hoped for the best.
I can only imagine that in the original German, this book would be much more enlightening!
This is not the blog post I was hoping to be writing right now. What I had hoped to do in this post was to proudly proclaim that after a winter of hard work and rebuilding, Anna and I had triumphantly returned to the show ring at Third Level with scores solidly in the 60’s. But that is not what happened. The truth is much less glamorous—because after a winter of hard work and rebuilding, our 2019 competitive debut was somewhat…lackluster.
Last June, I rather overambitously moved Anna up to Fourth Level, mostly because there was a show in my area that was permanently going off the calendar, and it had just seemed like a weekend of beginnings and endings and so I thought, ‘what the heck let’s just do it.’ The ride was sort of a disaster. But unlike moving up in eventing or jumpers when you are not quite ready, the risks to do so in dressage seem low. Or so I thought.
Here’s the thing. I know that this level of dressage is a reach for Anna—she is an average mover and has less than average forward intention. But I do really believe that she can do it, to a modest degree. And right now she is the best horse I have, and I enjoy riding her. There was a little tagline I read somewhere a long time ago, which has always stuck with me:
“Not every champion has to cost a whole lot. You do the best that you can with the best that you’ve got.”
When I compete Anna, I don’t go out hoping to best everyone in the class. My personal goal is to feel that I have shown the horse off to the best of our combined/mutual ability on that given day, and if the score comes back mediocre, at least I can still feel good knowing that we put our best selves forward. My tangible goal, always, is to break 60%. I don’t have 100% control of this, of course, but if I can deliver a consistent test that has some highlights (for Anna at Third Level, this is usually the walk work and the flying changes, some of which are coefficient scores), I feel like I don’t give the judge a choice but to award us the (often dreaded) score of 6: satisfactory.
But after our failed attempt at Fourth Level last summer, I hit pause. Clearly what I was doing wasn’t working, and if I wanted this little horse to be her best, I needed to change something about my strategy.
The first thing I changed was a bit unconventional—I pulled her shoes. Every summer for the past five years, the quality and integrity of her hoof wall just seemed to go downhill, until they were cracked and thin and hard to keep shoes on. Her hind feet have NEVER been shod, and the hoof wall is great. She was barefoot her first few seasons under saddle, and I only added the shoes when I sensed a little tentativeness in her stride when I began adding more intense conditioning sets for eventing. So pulling her shoes wasn’t maybe quite as odd of an idea as it might sound. I added Farrier’s Formula for about six months, and within just a shoeing cycle or two her walls were thickened and tougher. She never took a single “funny” step.
I also decided that I needed more consistent eyes on the ground. I began working with a local trainer whose riding and training I admire very much, and admitted that I felt out of touch with the expectations of the level I was trying to compete at. We started working together in August, and immediately went totally back to the basics. I put away the double bridle, and we worked to develop a better stretch through Anna’s topline, with more correct and consistent connection.
Going back to these essential foundation concepts was both humbling and eye opening. In previous blogs, I have noted that just driving Anna forward with whip/spur is not effective in creating forward intention. She has to be supple to go forward. I know this—but sometimes I forget, or because she is pretty much the only horse I ride, I don’t keep my expectations of her suppleness high enough, and I become complacent in what I accept from her.
The idea is simple but the execution takes finesse and correct timing and practice. You cannot push a horse forward into a block, whether the block is in the topline, the jaw or the under neck. Instead, separate out your aids a bit—ask the horse to chew the bit with a rein aid, and reward any response from them which is in the direction of reaching forward and downward. Just like anything with horses, you must ask little, reward often, and recognize any small attempt to move towards the outcome you are looking for.
For months, all I did was ride Anna is a long and low outline, doing leg yields in the stretching frame, even working towards a stretching canter. As the stretch became more consistent, I began to do a little bit of shoulder fore or shoulder in, but always with the stretch. The second I lost the stretch, it was back to the basics. As the stretchy shoulder in became more reliable, the next challenge was to change to renvers without losing the stretch. For quite awhile I ran out of long side before I had really established the new position in Anna’s body.
I boarded Anna at a local indoor in the winter. I mostly rode early in the AM or at night after work, when the ring was empty, diligently working on the stretch. It can be hard to motivate in New Hampshire in the winter, in the dark and the cold, but I was committed. And slowly, little by little, things got better, and more consistent, and without force, Anna’s energy levels improved. Her shape changed, with more correct muscling through the neck and a thinner throatlatch. While my social media feed was full of friends enjoying the warmer climates of North Carolina or Florida, I was diligently doing my homework, and truthfully looking forward to a payoff come spring and summer.
Because here is the thing—Anna is going much better. She is doing work now in the snaffle that I couldn’t have touched a year ago in the double. And more importantly, most of the time, she seems happy in the work. Is everything perfect? Of course not. Am I expecting 7’s and 8’s on most movements? Not even close…but this is part of the art of dressage, to show off the movements and elements that are your horse’s forte, and to support them in the moments which are not as easy. Most horses (except maybe Valegro) find some components of a level easier than others.
So I was pretty crushed when I took Anna to our first 2019 show at Beland Stables in Lakeville, Mass., and she scored a 59%. Yes, it was below my 60% threshold. But more frustratingly, the test was so not representative of how she has been schooling. She warmed up well but the second I started circling the arena I knew I was in trouble. Anna felt like she was stuck in the mud—the sand footing of the arena felt deep and I had no response to my leg at all. We made it through the test but it was a royal struggle, with Anna completely blowing off the walk-canter transition (which she NEVER does), and I feel as though I owe the judge a fruit basket or something for her generosity of spirit in the scoring.
Our next show was just about a week later, much closer to home at Longfellow Dressage in Nottingham, N.H. We had several decent schools during the week and I was prepared to chalk up the performance at Beland to the deep footing and warm temperatures that day. Longfellow has high quality GGT footing and a relaxed environment, and I knew there would be no environmental excuses. We had scored a 59% at Beland with a lackluster performance. Surely Longfellow would go better.
But instead, we went down two points, to a 57%. The first four movements were 7’s, and then we hit the first trot half pass left, and it was like someone put Anna on pause. Once again, I felt like I had no horse at all throughout the entire test, and she totally blew me off in the second flying change, usually one of her most reliable movements. By the end I was just kicking helplessly while my glasses slid down my nose. The judge’s only comment at the end of the test? “So much kicking…he [sic] just shut off.”
Here is the thing I have come to believe about horses. They are pretty authentic. They don’t scheme against us or plot to ruin our day. They live in the moment, and if they are content or unhappy, confident or nervous, you see it in their behavior. Horses just are. But they do have long memories and if they have had an association with something from the past, good or bad, it can influence them in the moment.
I am left wondering what Anna is trying to tell me. She schools well but clearly isn’t maintaining that ethic in the show ring. I wonder if moving up last year did more damage than just adding a low score to our resume. I wonder if it left Anna feeling that when she goes into the large arena, she is going to be asked to do something she can’t do. Maybe moving up before you are ready, even in dressage, can cause damage you don’t see.
My challenge now is to try to figure out how to change the equation, and to learn what (if anything) will motivate Anna to turn on her best self in the show ring. Since Longfellow, I have already had our vet out and done a thorough once over; we will make a few minor edits in her physical care but I am reassured that there is nothing obvious in her physical body causing this problem.
While I am disappointed that I can’t write the triumphant blog post that I was hoping to, I realize now that despite this current set back, the truth is we are still further ahead than we were a year ago. Most of the time, Anna is working more correctly, with a better topline and better balance. She is sound and healthy and I think our rides are more harmonious now. I have a clearer picture of what it is I am looking for from her, and as a result I think I can do a better job of riding her to that end, even if we don’t yet maintain it in the show ring.
Plus, taking the time to review the basics has also made me a better instructor, in my opinion. I have begun looking at every horse I work with through a more specific lens, one which is focusing on the fundamental correctness of the connection. Staying true to these foundation elements is the only correct way to move forward. There are no short cuts.
So for now we will continue to lay down strength and suppleness and go hacking and try to keep our focus positive and fun. If I want my horse to feel like a partner I need to try hard to figure out what she needs from me right now. Scores and showing and the rest cannot be the main motivation. At the end of the day it is all about the relationship with the horse, and knowing that you have done your best by the animal.
About a year ago, I attended a board meeting for an equestrian group; its leadership is populated with well intentioned, yet overextended, equine enthusiasts. We had set lofty goals for ourselves that season, few of which we had managed to attain. Our running theme throughout the meeting was that in the upcoming year, our new goal moving forward was simply to “do better”. It became both an excuse and a plan of attack.
As a result, the notion of “doing better” was something I thought about all last year, in a broader context. Many of the most pervasive and pressing issues facing the equine industry at this time boil down to needing better education, better awareness and better advocacy. In order to move towards resolution on messy, complicated problems such as the unwanted horse crisis, loss of open space, unqualified instructors, ignorant but well-intentioned horse owners and an overall lack of understanding of horses by non-horse people, we as equestrians must do better, in many facets and iterations of the concept.
And here we are, already nearly a third of the way through 2019, and for various reasons I am left still ruminating on the same theme. At the US Equestrian Federation meeting in January, I attended a panel discussion focusing on the needs of the grassroots. Most at the table defined “grassroots” as being riders who have some experience, maybe compete at local level shows, and who see issues such as cost, exclusivity and accessibility as being barriers to their participation in competitive sport at a higher level. As leaders of the USEF, it is not surprising that their definition of the grassroots is competition centric.
But I would like to take it even further.
Turning to Google Dictionary, the definition of “grassroots” is as follows: “the most basic level of an activity or an organization; ordinary people regarded as the main body of an organization’s membership.” Using this definition of grassroots, are we not talking about the vast majority of horse people?
Most equine groups draw a pyramid to represent their membership; a very small percentage of members are at the elite level represented by the narrowest part of the triangle at the top, while the vast majority is competing, training or enjoying their horses at levels closer to the bottom. I don’t like the word bottom though—I think a better word is “foundation”. Because without these riders, horse lovers, trainers, coaches and fans, THERE IS NO ELITE EQUESTRIAN. It simply cannot exist.
I firmly believe that as a sport, as an industry, equestrians are in trouble, because the base is no longer on steady ground. There are several reasons for this: constantly increasing expense, loss of equestrian lands and expanded gentrification are surely a huge part of it. But I also think that equestrians as a group still continue to allow the differences between our disciplines to divide us, rather than work towards allowing our mutual love and admiration for the horse to unite us.
In 2017, the American Horse Council repeated its economic impact study of the horse industry, and they came up with some impressive figures. $50 billion direct impact to the U.S. economy. 32 million acres of land owned and 49 million acres of land leased for horse-related uses. 7.2 million horses in the U.S. But perhaps even more telling is that of those 7.2 million, almost half (3,141,449 to be exact) are used for recreation. If we were drawing that pyramid, here is our industry’s base. Our foundation.
But how many horse owners and horse lovers are finding themselves priced out of the industry? Even on a shoestring, keeping a horse is not cheap. For many grassroots horse owners, there is sacrifice and choice involved in owning their animals. I have a lot of respect for that, because that has been my personal experience too. In order to make horse ownership a reality, I have always been in some combination of management, rough board or working boarder situation. I also have been blessed to know some exceedingly generous farm owners who were willing to let me and my horses into their lives and barns. “Where there’s a will there’s a way” may be cliché, but in my experience that plus a little bit of luck and a willingness to work hard has made opportunities happen.
I know firsthand the passion which many of those at the grassroots bring to their equestrianism. And I would like to respectfully suggest that as horsemen, we do a better job of acknowledging that any time a horse is in a situation where he is well cared for, sheltered and loved, it really doesn’t matter whether they are an elite athlete or not, whether they are living up to someone else’s agenda, whether they are wearing mismatched bellboots and a hand me down blanket. It doesn’t matter if the owner’s goal for the season is to make it to the area finals, to go to a schooling show series, to attend clinics/lessons/camps, to learn to canter, to hack on the trails or to simply spend time with their horse and work on the ground. It doesn’t matter. We need to do a better job of recognizing that what all equestrians bring to the table should be a love of the horse.
I would like to humbly propose a list of ways in which we can “do better” — for ourselves, for each other, and for our horses. I bet you can add some other ideas too; please post them in the comments.
Do Better Personally
When it comes to doing better, there is no easier place to start than with ourselves. Doing better could be as simple as finding an instructor you connect with and taking a weekly lesson. It could be committing to riding three days per week. Cleaning your tack more often. Prioritizing your riding and your goals and learning what that means for scheduling your life around this objective.
Join a horse club. Pick one that means something to you—a breed society, a discipline organization, the local trails group. Contribute to groups which keep trails open, allow horse camping, protect open space. Support a rescue whose work makes sense to you. Donate your unused equipment and supplies to someone in need. Be a part of the broader equine community.
Commit to your own continuing education. Even the best in the world do this so we mortals are certainly not exempt. Read a book (check out my many book reviews for some inspiration!). Watch a video. Follow someone on YouTube. Go to a clinic. Keep your mind open. If you are a coach or trainer, question your credentials. Get certified. Become a mentor. Be a role model that a developing equestrian can look up to. Always, always respect the animal.
When you are at the barn, put your phone away. Don’t be checking your social media and emails when you are supposed to be enjoying your horse and his company. That’s just rude.
Stop waiting for someone else to show you the way, to organize the trail ride, to get you to a clinic or show. Smile at the child who wants to pet your horse and teach them how to do so safely. Set your goals, break them down, and start achieving your dreams.
Do Better Regionally
This year in New Hampshire, a local state representative proposed a bill which would have required that animal owners, including equestrians, clean up any waste left when in a state park or forest. This is not the first time a “poop bill” has been proposed in our state, and as a result, there are already administrative rules in place that mandate the cleanup of trail heads and other common areas. Trails, though, are exempt. Equestrians and dog mushers banded together in opposition, and the proposal died in committee at the beginning of this month.
I was actively involved in letter writing, petition signing and otherwise trying to get the word out to local equestrians about the risk posed by this bill to reasonable trail access. And there were two things which really struck me as a result of this process—first, the disconnect between horseback riders and non-horse people is continuing to grow. Second, equestrians need to become more proactive in advocating for ourselves, and this means not sitting back and waiting for someone else to lead the charge. Are you an equestrian? Then the someone who needs to do something is YOU.
In online forums and in response to newspaper articles discussing the proposed bill, non-equestrian comments ranged from mildly indifferent to scathing. I was disturbed to read a number of comments which tended towards sentiments such as “equestrians need to get off their high horse and clean up their s&%t” or “equestrians are entitled and just think everyone else should have to deal with their manure”. Other common themes reflected an overall lack of understanding of horses and the logistics of riding in the open, such as the challenges associated with mounting and dismounting safely on trail, horses’ general aversion to wearing poop bags, and the difficulty of carrying clean up equipment on horseback.
We defeated the bill, this time, but I know it will be back. And I fear that there will come a time when due to a continued shift in demographics, a sense complacency in the equine community and/or other unforeseen factors, that we will not be able to win. But it doesn’t have to be that way.
As equestrians, we need to do better to unite with other trail users (snowmobilers, mountain bikers, hikers), land trusts, conservation commissions and state land protection agencies. We need to educate them about what horses are and are not, and we need to do so from a place of compassion. We need to volunteer to maintain trails and police other equestrians who use them.
If competition is more your thing—then become active with a regional show organization. Volunteer. Thank your organizers. Support local and regional shows. I have a lot of thoughts on this subject too—you can review them here.
The bottom line is, we need to do better in reaching out to our local communities to educate them about the amazing benefits which horses can bring to an area. Therapeutic programs offer recreation and cognitive, physical and emotional benefits to the differently abled, victims of trauma, and our veterans. Lesson programs give young people and adults an opportunity for wholesome fun, exercise, the chance to be outdoors and all the many benefits which come from learning to be a horseman. Farm owners contribute to the local economy both directly and through support industries like veterinary medicine, farriery, hay production and more. Horse farms help to preserve open land.
Most people are not raised around horses anymore. Sometimes they have unusual ideas of what it means to be a horseman. Yet in the American Horse Council study, 31% of American households identified as having a horse lover within them. Horses still possess a mystique, a unique draw which calls humans to them like no other species. We need to do better to encourage those horse lovers to stay connected and to allow for opportunities for community members to safely interact with our animals. Humans instinctively fear or oppose things which they do not understand.
All it takes is one positive interaction for someone to have a new level of understanding and appreciation for the horse.
Doing Better for our Horses
If this blog feels a little preachy, or a little bit soap boxy, well, I suppose it is. But for me what it comes down to, always, is our horses. I want to see our industry continue to thrive decades into the future, beyond my lifetime. I want so much to know that all horse crazy young people will have a realistic chance to enjoy all that comes with interacting with these amazing creatures, that the privilege will not become reserved only for those whose resources already allow them access to everything else. I want to ensure that we will all continue to have places to ride, both in and out of the arena, which are safe and beautiful. I want to believe that horses will continue to have a place to exist and be a part of our ever-evolving world, one where they are valued simply for being horses, not because of what they represent in status or competitive success or ego.
So again, I ask you, I ask myself, I ask all equestrians—what can we do better in 2019? And in the years to come?
Disclaimer: The views contained within this blog post are solely my own. I do not intend to speak for the other staff of the University of New Hampshire Equine Program, its students, volunteers, or other affiliates, who may well see things quite differently. I am merely using my experience as the manager of the UNH Horse Trials to inform my perspective on the continued loss of competition venues in eventing.
At the US Equestrian Federation meeting in West Palm Beach, Florida, I attended an interesting panel discussion: “Growing the Grassroots”. This presentation featured the work of a panel which included representatives from several USEF affiliates and disciplines. Bill Moroney, CEO of the USEF, facilitated the discussion, and he opened with the statement that “a majority of the USEF membership feels they are part of the grassroots.” This large group of riders mostly avoids competing at rated shows due to any of a number of barriers—cost, exclusivity and accessibility being among the most significant.
One panelist commented that local shows (which are often unrated) are doing well, and the upper levels are doing well, but there is a serious lack of opportunity in the middle levels—and this is where we are losing riders. The middle is the land of the one day rated horse show; when I was a kid, these were the “C” and “B” shows, where you were able to log miles and trips and hone your craft in the show ring, without the budget and time commitment of going to a week long “A” show, but with the pressure that comes with an increased standard of riding.
Although most of those present were speaking of the hunter/jumper scene, I couldn’t help but think about the sport of eventing. In 2018, 28 horse trials were cancelled, reducing the number of starters by over 3,000 rides. Though some of these cancellations were due to weather, many more are permanent losses to the eventing calendar. Here in Area I, we have lost Stoneleigh Burnham (which hosted twice per year), King Oak/Grindstone Mountain (King Oak used to host two per year, and the new owners tried it in 2017 but threw in the towel in 2018) and we have just recently learned that for 2019 we also are losing Fitch’s Corner in New York and Riga Meadow in Connecticut. Collectively, this represents over a century of eventing in the northeast. Losing these competitions impacts the bottom line of the US Eventing Association, which collects a starter fee for each ride, but more importantly, it is eroding access to local, one day events. You know, the ones where you log your miles and hone your craft and learn how to compete under pressure. These events are the bridge between schooling trials and premier, destination competitions.
I have been managing the University of New Hampshire Horse Trials since 2006; we are the quintessential “middle” competition, a stepping stone from the growing schooling eventing circuit to larger, more prestigious events in the region. Our competitor base is largely local, coming from within a two hour radius, along with a handful of riders from further afield.
UNH hosts two events per year (spring and fall), and for five years, we ran one in summer as well—to help replace yet another event lost to the Area, Kingsbury Hill. Since Kingsbury Hill was sold, UNH has remained the only sanctioned horse trials in New Hampshire. When Snowfields stopped running, Maine lost its only sanctioned event. For those event riders in Maine or New Hampshire, save for UNH, you have to travel to Vermont, Massachusetts or New York to compete at a USEA horse trials. Most of these losses have happened within the past 5-10 years.
Each semester, when I meet with the ten students who will head up committees of their peers to manage each phase of our horse trials (dressage, cross country, show jumping and awards/promotion), I ask them: “Why, for over forty-five years, has UNH run a horse trials on its Durham campus?”
The answers are fairly consistent: to promote the program, to give students a chance to learn about how to run a horse show, to make money. And most of these reasons are true, save for the last. It is an unusual show in which we actually turn a profit. Our goal is to break even—because truly, for us at UNH, hosting the horse trials is mostly about giving our students a living laboratory, a chance to get behind the scenes and to ‘learn by doing’ all that goes into organizing and running a horse event. We use the horse trials as a model; using similar skills, students could go on to coordinate any number of equine related activities. Plus, the experience of running a committee is a real resume booster, full of transferrable skills: organizing, communicating, delegating, meeting deadlines, coordinating, following organization rules. I hope you can tell how incredibly proud I am of the work that our students put into these competitions.
But each time I ask the question, I find myself thinking: “If this were my private farm, and I had all of these resources and the land to run cross country—would I still do it? What incentive does a private land owner have to continue to offer eventing on their property?”
Truthfully, I have no way of knowing what exactly motivates these landowners, but I sort of suspect it comes down to a deep seated love of the sport, and a desire and willingness to give back. People take pride in their properties, and I believe that many of them truly love watching others enjoy them as well. We competitors are just invited guests to a party. Let’s face it—no land owners + no organizers= no more eventing. To that end, we have to keep organizers happy. We need to be better guests.
It seems trite to say that running a farm is hard work. Maintaining a cross country course can almost be a full time job itself; it feels like you have no more finished mowing and weed whacking than you turn around and have to do it again. Mother Nature is always out to reclaim that which she considers hers. Water complexes become clogged with weeds, wooden fences rot and decay. Footing becomes compacted and worn away on trails as roots and rocks rise up. Trees fall, blocking routes and sometimes destroying jumps. I come back to my earlier point; to do this much work on a private farm in order to run a competition a handful of times per year, one which is most likely not going to make you money and might even cost you—it is a labor of love.
The event at UNH is unique for many reasons. It is the only recognized event in the country held on a college campus. It is nearly wholly coordinated and staffed by students, very few of whom would call themselves eventers. They come from myriad equestrian backgrounds: horses at home, 4-H and Pony Club, breed specialty programs (we are the land of the Morgan Horse, after all), dressage, western, therapeutic horsemanship and of course, hunter/jumper. Some have shown, some have not. Some have volunteered before, some have not. Many have never in their lives been handed a clipboard and a radio, been trained to do a job and then told: you are now in charge. They are emergent leaders. They are your future boarders, clients and friends. They are equestrians.
Volunteers, like organizers, choose to offer their time and talents for myriad reasons. Just like organizers, if they are not getting what they need from their experience, they are unlikely to do it again in the future. Our students are not volunteers in the strictest sense—they are required to participate in the horse trials as a course expectation—but like volunteers, they are trying to fit competition preparations into their very full schedules. They have classes, homework and exams, jobs, family commitments and personal lives, just like all of our competitors. They are up early, giving of their time and energy, setting up courses in the rain and then running to an exam, coordinating a dressage warm up before their peers have even gotten out of bed.
So perhaps that is why, after a week of frenzied activity and three days in a row of 12+ hours of nothing but horse trials, and bearing witness to this hard work, I bristle to receive the following types of feedback from event participants (these are from actual competitor evaluations):
“College kids were distracted and handled timing poorly….though they are college kids, so kudos for not wearing pajamas.” (How insulting is this? Really? The nicest thing you can say is at least they were dressed?)
“College kids didn’t have a clue.” (Maybe the particular student you asked a specific question of didn’t have the answer you needed. That can happen, because most of them are only familiar with the phase of the event which they prepared for. But I can guarantee you that our students, overall, have been through a more comprehensive training program than the average event volunteer. For example, our fence judges have two hours of lecture training and are taken out to see their fences in advance of the trials, in addition to the TD briefing on the day of.)
Or one of my favorites, when a prominent trainer in our area said out loud to our dressage stewards this fall, “I hate when they give you benches to sit on. It makes you lazy.” (So you would like them to stand for seven hours? With no break? Is this any way to treat a volunteer? I should probably also add that the phase ran on or ahead of schedule both days—and I can’t even begin to explain the impact that remark left on the two people it was directed towards.)
Maybe I just take these comments so personally because I know, first hand, how hard our students work to put this event together. For some, it is a steep learning curve, and when a phase is first getting under way on the first day, and people are figuring out their jobs, are there some hiccups? Sure. But the officials, full time program staff and student leaders are right there behind them, offering them support, helping them figure it out. Our students are not lazy and they are not inattentive. They are learning, and most take their duties quite seriously. They are volunteers.
I should add here that we receive positive evaluations too, and a handful of emails or notes thanking us for hosting the shows. I am always sure to share these with our students and staff. But the hurtful ones leave a sting that can be hard to forget.
When Stoneleigh-Burnham School, our sister event out in Greenfield, Mass., was forced to cancel their 2018 summer competition on the morning of the event due to excessive rain, my heart broke for them. So much time and effort, and money, was spent for naught. This private girls’ school has an equestrian program, but their focus has become primarily hunter/jumper. Like UNH, SBS has run an event for decades, on its campus, the cross country course wrapped around soccer fields and tennis courts and its main dormitory. Like most schools, it doesn’t have a generous margin of error when it comes to its budget.
Within hours of the competition cancellation, while some of its entrants were no doubt still making their way back home, having already begun their trip to the foothills of the Berkshires when they got the news, the posts started on social media. “When are we going to get a refund?” snarked one competitor. “I don’t have the money to lose on a cancelled competition.” Others chimed in. Many defended the competition and understood that this was a lose-lose situation. But the fire was lit, and some threatened to never enter the event ever again, accusing organizers of keeping funds which should be returned to competitors (contrary to the omnibus listing, which clearly stated no refund in event of cancellation).
Within two months, Stoneleigh announced that they were done with eventing for good.
Here’s the thing folks—if we want our “middle” eventing competitions to survive—organizers need to break even, volunteers must be treated with respect, and competitors need to say ‘thank you for inviting us’. We are all in this together.
“Middle” event staff and volunteers work hard and invest time, money, energy and love into presenting a quality, safe competition on a budget. We want our competitors to have fun, to meet their goals, to be challenged reasonably for their level. We take constructive feedback seriously, and over the years many changes to the format, layout and coordination of the UNH event have been the direct result of competitor feedback.
At that Grassroots round table, the panelists stated that in the hunter/jumper industry, the middle of the sport is in a bad place. There is no incentive for organizers to run local, one day recognized shows, because trainers don’t come; instead they take their clients to the high end shows, where they can camp out for a week or more. The clients which can’t afford it either bankrupt themselves trying, drop back to the schooling level or leave the sport.
Eventing must take this warning seriously. When events go off the calendar, they don’t seem to come back. There just isn’t a long list of new facilities and land owners clambering to get a spot on the schedule.
It benefits ALL of us to ensure that people who start in our sport stay in our sport. We want people to be lifelong equestrians, which means they need to have good experiences, and this includes our volunteers and organizers. As a competitor myself, I appreciate that when we are under the pressure of a show, we are not always our best selves. I warn my students about this and I can forgive a sharp word or two. But please, before you hit send on that snarky competitor evaluation, take real stock of what it is you are trying to say. Are you offering help, or are you just complaining? Is your intention to make yourself feel better or to genuinely improve the quality of a competition?
Perhaps outgoing USEA President Carol Kozlowski said it best in her “President’s Letter” in the Sept-October 2018 Eventing USA, in regards to organizing, “It’s a tough job even when things go well, and it quickly loses any appeal when an unappreciative audience runs amuck,” writes Kozlowski. She then encourages competitors to reach out to organizers to thank them for their effort and say you are looking forward to their next event, even if the show had to be cancelled or something didn’t go smoothly. If being an organizer has taught me anything about how to act as a competitor, it is the importance of being grateful for the opportunity to even be there in the first place.
Please listen to her. I promise it makes a difference. The future of our sport may depend on it.
In Search of Your Image- A Practical Guide to the Mental and Spiritual Aspects of Horsemanship by Jill Keiser Hassler
c 1993 and 1996 Mountain Press Publishing Company, Missoula, MT. 366 pages.
This slightly older book is a worthwhile read if you are someone who enjoys spending some time devoted towards introspection and dissection of your motivations and goals– sort of a perfect way to start off a new year in the depths of a New England winter!
I first came across this book on the shelf of a Pony Club library in Racine, Wisc.; it was during a time where I was reassessing goals and priorities within my own horsemanship journey, and so the intersections of personal perspective, goal setting and philosophy discussed in the book were intriguing to me. I found a copy through the useful website Alibris.com—they network with used book stores across the country and can generally track down any title at a reasonable price. I would recommend them highly!
This book seems to have been written as a labor of love by Jill Hassler, who after its publication remarried and hyphenated her last name to Hassler-Scoop. Hassler-Scoop, who passed away in 2006, was a passionate educator, former manager of Hilltop Farm in Colora, Md., and founder of several Pony Clubs, among many other accolades. She was known for her positivity, commitment to family and friends, and her deep and abiding compassion for her horses. All of these qualities come through in her writing in In Search of Your Image. As a fellow educator, after reading this book I wish I could have sat with her for a cup of tea and a discussion of our role as mentors and guides.
Upon reading it, I discovered that this book is a sequel to her Beyond the Mirrors, and she wrote it as a “step by step approach to help animal lovers discover ways to know and accept themselves through their love of an involvement with horses” (Hassler-Scoop, p. ix., 1993). Her intention is to guide readers through a process of self-discovery; to unlock what it is that matters the most to them about horses, but also how those objectives mesh (or don’t) with other important aspects of life. A deeply private person, Hassler-Scoop reveals portions of her own journey with horses, and how they have guided her, helped her, and healed her. She also shares some stories of her students, and how she used her role as teacher/mentor to guide them along their own paths to self-discovery.
I think what most struck me, as I read through the pages, is that though this book is focused on horses and goal setting and motivations, it isn’t really, at the end of the day, a horse book. It is more about causing the reader to reflect on spirituality and on their mental state of being, and how these beliefs intersect with their relationship with horses. Further, these same qualities will affect the relationship the reader has with other people and activities in their lives. It is part self-help, part sports psychology—but published before such a term and concept was fully en vogue.
Overall this book is worth the read—but it is dense. This isn’t something which you will pick up, breeze through, and throw onto a shelf. To really do it justice requires taking the time to read each chapter slowly and with care, and then set it aside to let the ideas simmer for a bit. Truthfully, it took me years to finish it—so long that by the time I reached the end I scarcely remembered the beginning, and even if I had, I was a different person by the time I got there and would likely have brought a whole different lens to my reading.
There is apparently also supposed to be a work book which the reader uses to complete various self-assessment tasks during the reading; I did not have access to this but I suppose it might be possible to track one of those down as well to support the read.
I would imagine that the people who most need to read this book are the people who are least likely to do so—because it will most appeal to the reader which is already inclined to be reflective and thoughtful, to the person who will turn their focus inward anyway. But if they can find an additional degree of understanding through its words, I suspect that Hassler-Scoop’s legacy as an educator will remain intact.
So keeping up my record as “world’s slowest blogger”, I wanted to give everyone an update on Izzy’s first official off-farm outing, which happened way back in May. Better late than never, I suppose!
DRF Isabela, better known as Izzy to her friends, just turned three at the end of May. Last year, she learned the basics of longeing, went on short trail walks ponied off her friend Marquesa, and practiced wearing a bridle and surcingle. She had the winter off, and for this year, my goals were to build on this foundation by solidifying her longeing skills, introducing a saddle, working on long lining, and maybe, if all went well, getting on and doing a few short walk abouts by the time school started in the fall.
So this spring, when I started the process of getting her back into a routine of being regularly handled, I was quite surprised to find that she had gone rather feral. Leading her had become like trying to walk a dragon. She wasn’t being mean or naughty per se, just overly joyful. It was as though she had learned to leap and buck over the winter and wanted to show off her new skills.
The problems for me were several. 1) Most of the time, I work with Izzy alone, and I didn’t want to get hurt. 2) My arena is only partially fenced, and I wasn’t confident I could hold onto her. 3) Winter hung on a LONG time this year, and the ice and snow didn’t officially clear out of my partially fenced ring until the very end of April, meaning that even if #1 and 2 weren’t issues, I didn’t have great footing to work with.
All of which left me SERIOUSLY QUESTIONING my mid-March decision to sign up for an in-hand clinic to be held at the very beginning of May with eventer and natural horsemanship trainer Tik Maynard. I much enjoyed Tik’s presentation at the Area I Annual Meeting in January, and when I saw that Fox Hill Equestrians in Barnstead, N.H., would be hosting him, I was immediately interested. Tik is based in Florida, and so opportunities to work with him for a northerly based equestrian are not likely to happen often, and Fox Hill is an easy twenty minutes up the road (as in, I turn right out of my driveway and then right onto the street with the farm, more or less). It seemed like the perfect first ‘off the farm’ outing for my youngster.
Tik was offering a lecture on horsemanship theory each morning, followed by private and small group in hand sessions and jumping lessons in the afternoon. I decided the sensible plan was to audit day one through at least the morning session, then bring Izzy for day two.
Despite her joie de vivre, I went ahead with my plan to bring her to the clinic, and I am so grateful that I stuck with it, as we both learned a great deal.
Lecture Summary: Day One
The horsemanship lecture focused on the theme of how horses learn best and gave an overview of Tik’s training philosophy. One of the main components is that humans must learn to think like a horse; when one can do that, it is easier to set up questions which horses are willing to answer.
Horses have evolved to quickly evaluate which stimuli are worthy of response, and which can safely be ignored. Only those animals which have correctly and efficiently solved this riddle survive, and we must respect that our domestic animals retain these wild traits.
To this end, horses pick up on visual cues and details that we miss, and they may react to them in unanticipated ways. We all have been guilty of responding to these behaviors defensively or angrily, but the truth is that getting emotional in this situation doesn’t do much to improve the relationship or communication between you and the horse.
The things which motivate horses to do a certain behavior, including ignoring an unpleasant or unfamiliar stimulus, are not the same things which motivate humans. Horses seek safety, food, comfort and play, in that order. Smart trainers use these motivators in their work.
Because horses seek comfort, creating situations which increase a horse’s comfort when they provide the desired behavior automatically reinforce that outcome. A common example of this in practice is the use of the rider’s leg; the pressure is slightly uncomfortable, but when the horse goes forward and the pressure goes away, the horse’s comfort level increases. Praise itself doesn’t mean much to a horse, but the release of pressure does.
Horses are scared or nervous of things which act predatory; this includes anything which comes running towards them and things which are going fast, being loud, or behaving erratically. They prefer to be approached slowly, which might not be the way we enter the paddock when our minds are preoccupied with catching a horse for a lesson—explaining why a normally cooperative horse might refuse to be caught.
Tik encouraged us to think in a positive frame of mind when asking the horse to do something. For example, think “Let’s do this” instead of “Stop doing that”.
One of our goals is to encourage our horses to play. To this end, ground work is like creating a series of puzzles for the horses to solve through trial and error. Just as with humans, horses respond to these types of mental challenge differently. “There are those which already know the answers, those which try to solve the puzzle, and those which wait to be told the answer,” said Tik. “Problem solving gets inspired when they are young.”
Solvable puzzles introduce to the horse a little bit of pressure; some pressure is needed for growth and learning, but finding the right amount is key. Too little and no learning occurs, too much and the horse may become so anxious they can’t learn at all. Because horses seek comfort, they are going to look for the release of pressure, whether that pressure is physical or mental. “Pressure motivates but the release of pressure teaches,” said Tik.
Day One Ground Work Sessions
With these thoughts in mind, we moved into the hands on portion of the morning. My friend Hilary brought her bay Thoroughbred, Tom, and Tik took the line from her. “When I first work with a horse, I want to know how interested in me he is,” said Tik. “Does he like me?”
Tik approached Tom at a slight angle, reaching a hand out and waiting for the horse to touch him first. Then he began to rub Tom’s head, neck and rump, which the horse seemed to enjoy. “Some right from the get go want to play and run, and some want to snuggle,” said Tik. “You need to play to their strengths but address their weaknesses.”
Tom wanted to be a little too much in the handler’s space, so Tik spent a few moments working on teaching Tom to back up from a soft pressure. He showed us how to use the rope as a cue in three levels of intensity: first, you flick it with your wrist; if there is no response, you then flick it with your elbow, and finally with your shoulder. Every cue with the rope starts with body language. “You may need to go through all three levels, but stop when you get the result you want,” said Tik. “When the horse is learning, go through the levels slowly and in sequence. Only once the horse knows how to do something is it OK to skip a level or two in your signals, otherwise you will desensitize the horse. Try to get BIG without getting MAD.”
When Tom gave the right response, Tik angled his body slightly away, shifted his weight onto one leg, and exhaled. They took a break. The pressure was released.
“There are three parts to this that the handler must understand,” said Tik. “There is your body language and intention. There is the handling of pressure changes. And then there is the timing of the release.”
For ground work, Tik prefers a rope halter, a heavy, dense, long rope, and a sturdy stick similar to Parelli’s Carrot Stick. Depending on the situation, Tik might choose a rope that is 12’, 22’ or even 45’ long.
Tik emphasized that consistency is key. Handlers should always start at level one in terms of pressure, and add to that baseline as needed. The only exception is in the case of dangerous behavior. “When the horse is checking out mentally, you need to get their attention back on you through the use of an exercise which you have established in a quiet time,” said Tik. “There are three goals I have for any training session: the human is safe at the end, the horse is safe at the end, and the horse is more relaxed at the end than at the beginning.”
The next set was a group lesson with five horses working in hand at once. The animals were at different stages of training as well as mental focus, which gave Tik the opportunity to speak to a variety of exercises and possible outcomes. But he started with having the horses get comfortable with their handlers standing about six feet away from them, with slack in the lead rope. “On the ground, you sometimes want the horse’s eyes and ears towards the handler but sometimes you want to direct them and their attention elsewhere,” said Tik.
One young handler and her sweet steady eddie type schoolmaster worked on learning to give from pressure on the nose. “For a lesson horse or a kid’s horse, you need to think about how sensitive you really want that animal to be,” said Tik.
Several horses in this group played with a tarp that had been laid out in the arena. “There are a few different ways you can ask the horse to cross the tarp,” said Tik. “It is like asking a riddle. You can lead them over, send them over, draw them over or back them over, if you have it secured down.”
Turk, an elegant bay Thoroughbred gelding, tended to speed up once in motion on the circle and needed to slow down and refocus on his handler; Tik helped her to cross his front feet and back feet over each other. “At first, it is about moving the whole horse forward, backwards, and then on a circle,” said Tik. “After this is established then we start to move the front half relative to the back.”
Horses can be responsible for four things: to maintain their speed and gait, to maintain their direction, to be looking where they are going, and to act like a partner. As trainers, we should not be doing these jobs for the horse. “But horses must be taught how to do these things,” said Tik.
Other than going for short trailer rides around the block last summer, Izzy has not left our farm since her arrival on a bitterly cold morning in March of 2017. I am not sure who was more nervous for the outing—Izzy or me! Two of my students, Julia and Nikki, tagged along for moral support, education and extra hands if needed.
I don’t think anyone else brought an animal as young as Izzy; I held her in the barn aisle while Tik wrapped up his morning lecture on day two, and although she danced and jigged a bit while waiting her turn, I felt she was really trying to be good. That said, I had no idea what to expect from her when we got into the ring. I think Tik fairly quickly assessed that her brain and energy needed to be redirected, and so he came back a little early from his post-lecture break to get started.
“Do you mind if I work with her for a few minutes?” he asked. I was so relieved! Yes, please!
The first thing he did was swapped out my long line for the sturdier rope line he had been using on other horses. He then let Izzy move out onto the end of the rope, where she leaped and ran and displayed the athleticism which I hope will be used for good things in the future. He wasn’t expecting her to be totally focused on him all the time; in fact, that day he said that he would be happy if she was with him 30% of the time.
“I am looking for the moment where she wants to stay still and relax,” said Tik. “I am not punishing her at all for her loss of attention or focus. Instead, I give her something else to do.”
It was truly amazing to watch Tik work with Izzy, who he had just met, in such a respectful yet constructive manner. She had moments of simply moving around him at the end of the line, and other moments of youthful behavior. He could halt her and turn her. They went and checked out the mirror together. As she started to visibly relax and become more mentally calm, Tik led her to the tarp and a wooden bridge which had been used in previous sessions. She inquisitively just walked right up to and over both objects. I was not surprised that she handled them so well, as this has been her typical response to something new, but it was lovely to see that she had the same attitude in a new place once the zoomies were behind her.
Tik wrapped up his work with Izzy by playing with some halt, walk, halt, back up transitions, teaching her to cue into his body language. He tipped his shoulders forward to encourage her to walk, squared them over his hips for the halt, and inclined them slightly backwards to cue her to back up.
After this, I took over for a few moments, practicing the same in hand transitions, and finally ending with her just hanging out all the way at the end of the long lead, while I turned my back to her and stood weighted more on one leg. I’m told she did lots of yawning, but of course I wasn’t allowed to peek!
“The more emotional something is for the horse to learn, the longer the break they get,” said Tik.
While he described his work with Izzy as being a “typical three-year-old session”, he also acknowledged that she was a pretty self-confident animal, as was evidenced by her overall response to the new situation and stimuli. “Horses like this which are clever and smart and brave are great but also a challenge,” said Tik. “You must find ways to help them learn and stay interested.”
Coming to this clinic, as mentally stressful as it was for me to do it, was absolutely the right choice to make at this stage of her training. Izzy was like a changed woman after interacting with Tik, and both his feedback and watching how he used his body language to interact with her helped to give me the confidence to do what I had sort of suspected she needed me to do—get a longer line and really send her forward when she wanted to act up. So long as your response to her is fair—I am sending you away to work a little bit not because I’m mad but because we have a job to do—she responds positively, and rather quickly settles down.
I have continued to play with some of these techniques this summer, but I will admit that I have much more to learn. It was a fascinating opportunity to do something totally different with one of the horses, and I am pleased that it was such a positive experience!
Proper saddle fit is a topic which has garnered much attention as equestrians have gained a better understanding of the intersection between tack and performance. Jochen Schleese, of Saddlefit4Life, is a saddle maker who is inspired to educate riders, owners and trainers on the basic concepts of better saddle fit. He gave a lecture and demonstration on the subject at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program in September of 2017, and the following is a brief summary of his critical points.
Several trends in modern equestrian sport have influenced the needs we must address in the design and selection of saddles. First, most riders are female, and the structure of their pelvis is different than that of a male. Female hip sockets face more forward, a shorter tail bone brings the balance point of the pelvis further forward and the seat bones are wider. However, saddle design traditionally has been oriented towards what will suit a male pelvis; when women try to ride in saddles which do not allow them to naturally sit in a comfortable, supported position, they at a minimum feel like they ‘fight the tack’, or in the long term, can suffer health complications including pain in their back, hips and knees. And of course, a rider out of balance will negatively affect the horse as well.
Secondly, the shape of horses has changed, with modern breeds trending towards being more “sporty”. As trainers, we want to encourage the horse to lift their topline up underneath the weight of the saddle and rider. But as the horse lacks collar bones, and their entire trunk is hanging from their shoulder muscles, the sheer act of saddling and sitting on a horse causes the topline to be pushed down. Just as one size shoe does not fit all wearers, one size saddle does not suit all shapes of horse, and as the horse develops muscle, even what once fit well may need adjustments. If we want to have any chance of engaging the topline correctly, we must set the horse up to be able to lift.
Horses are remarkably tolerant, and most will try to do what is asked of them even if their tack is ill fitting. But we will see the physical effects of poor fit in myriad ways—subtle cues, such as a wrinkle in the nose, pinned ears, and wide eyes are a good place to start. More significantly, we can see severe impacts such as the development of subluxations, sacroiliac issues (like hunter’s bump), swayback, scoliosis, muscle wasting and more.
A well fitted saddle will help prevent these issues, but it must be appropriate for the physique of the horse in question. And we must be cognizant that the shape of the horse will change over time.
It is critical that the position and shape of the saddle do not interfere with the cap of cartilage which is located over the top of the shoulder blade. Equally important is that the saddle cannot sit on the horse’s spine. Most horsemen know this, but at the same time, may not be able to accurately assess the true width of the spine; just because the channel is clear doesn’t mean that the panels are as well. Sometimes it is necessary to map out the areas on the horse’s back which can carry weight versus those spots where it simply can’t.
Schleese explained that there are fourteen reflex points in and around the saddle area which cause a negative reaction if they are being pinched from a saddle. Think of a reflex point having sensitivity akin to hitting your funny bone; the response to pressure is involuntary. Some of these points are more sensitive than others; Schleese used the analogies of “lemon”, “grape” or “egg” pressure to help the audience understand the tolerable amount of force on a given area. Clearly, a lemon will absorb more pressure than an egg before it breaks.
If these areas are being pinched, riders will likely experience resistance in their warm up for at least twenty minutes; this is the amount of time it takes for the nerves to go numb.
Schleese emphasized that there are nine critical points to check when assessing saddle fit for the horse:
Saddle length: The shoulder and loin areas must be non-weight bearing. In addition, the tree must have the same angle as the shoulder of the horse. It is critical to correctly identify the end of the shoulder (usually in line with the end of the mane/front of the withers) and ensure that the saddle is not impeding it. This last point was emphasized repeatedly.
Balance: The saddle’s balance point should be parallel to the ground when it is correctly placed on the horse’s back. It is the distribution of a rider’s weight, rather than the actual amount of weight, which is critical. An asymmetrical rider can almost double their impact on the horse.
No Rotation/Shifting/Twisting: The saddle should not shift to the right or left when viewed from behind. The tree points must be behind the shoulder blades.
Wither clearance: You are looking for at least two to three fingers clearance above the withers, but should also look for two to three fingers on the sides to allow for lateral work. Note here that conformation matters; the saddle will be closer to a high withered horse and farther away from one with mutton withers. There should be no pressure at all four inches below the withers when the saddle is placed on the horse. Schleese says you should be able to take a BIC pen, place it under the D-ring, and then slide it down without resistance. Otherwise, when you add a pad and the weight of a rider, the pinch which the horse feels will replicate the bite of a stallion.
Spinal Clearance: This relates to the width of the gullet—you are looking for 3-5 fingers here, enough to ensure that the saddle isn’t interfering with the spinous processes or the musculature of the horse’s back.
Billet Alignment: The billets should hang perpendicular to the ground, and the girth should be centered, not tipped forward or backwards. The girth will always position itself at the narrowest point of the rib cage, behind the elbow.
Horizontal Panel: The panels should touch evenly on the horse’s back, all the way down their length. Avoid “bridging” or rocking, which distributes the pressure unevenly, causing the horse to hollow their back.
Tree angle: The tree angle should be parallel to the shoulder angle when the saddle is positioned properly.
Tree width: The tree must be wide enough to allow for shoulder rotation, especially when jumping, but not so wide that the saddle rocks or sits on the withers. Most owners are familiar with the concept of narrow, medium or wide trees, but not that the angles of these trees can vary. This explains why a medium width tree in one saddle might not fit the same as one made by a different manufacturer.
There are two styles of saddle fitting: static fitting is done while the horse is still, while dynamic fitting considers how the horse moves as part of the fitting process. “You must bring your horsemanship and common sense with you,” says Schleese.
Dynamic fitting can give the saddle expert more information. Schleese likes to watch the horse move on the longe line at the walk with no tack; he watches the horse’s eyes, ears, and mouth, as well as the manner in which they carry their topline. In particular, he notes the tail carriage, which is essentially an elongation of the spine. How the horse carries their tail is a reflection of the way in which they have been trained. Most horses carry their tails to the left (and interestingly, their manes fall right).
“When the tail goes to the left, they will track up more easily on the left side,” says Schleese.
Schleese next will watch the horse with a rider on board, wearing their saddle as positioned by the rider; he notes that dressage riders tend to set it too far back while jumping riders tend to set too far forward. When mounted, the horse should still track up evenly and the loins should remain soft and supple. Within eight circles, the horse should begin to salivate and chew the bit.
While it is normal for the saddle to shift slightly away from the direction of the horse’s bend, it should not move dramatically. Often, issues are more subtle. For example, a saddle which is jamming into the horse’s back on the right side of their spine will cause their tail to swing left.
Schleese’s mission is to educate as many equestrians as possible on the essential elements of saddle fit. It is clearly a complex process which requires practice to master, but by reviewing the basics, any horse owner should be able to do a basic evaluation on their own saddle to determine if expert guidance is required.
Making it Happen: The Autobiography by Carl Hester
c 2014 Orion Books: London, UK. 260 pages.
ISBN 978 1 409 14767 1
Autobiography, biography and memoir have almost always been “off” my reading list, but with an increased exposure recently to this nonfiction genre through my M.F.A. program, I have become more open minded. I picked up Making it Happen, the autobiography of Carl Hester, last fall after attending his NEDA Symposium. The book is written in Hester’s voice–and the text has the unpolished quality of someone who does not write professionally—but on the back inside cover jacket it indicates the book was co-authored by equestrian journalist Bernadette Hewitt, whom Carl affectionately refers to throughout as “Bernie”. While it is no literary masterpiece, this book delivers on its promise to tell “the incredible story of one of the world’s greatest equestrians”.
The opening chapter shows us Hester at the London Olympics, just moments before the British team clinches an historic gold medal on home turf. From this career high, Hester then takes readers on the journey from his youth on the Channel Island of Sark, to boarding school and on through his rise up the ranks of equestrian sport– detailing his apprenticeships, hard horses, risky gambles and sometimes tumultuous professional relationships– to become the king of British Dressage. In 2016, Hester became a five-time Olympian with his appearance in Rio; he also is or has been the coach of all the riders on both the 2012 and 2016 squads, including two time gold medalist Charlotte Dujardin, riding Hester’s own Valegro. Perhaps the story of the 2016 Games might become an appendix if there is ever an update to the 2014 edition.
At times irreverent, only vaguely self-reflective and greatly entertaining, Hester is a lively story teller. There are many, many occasions in this book where he makes reference to someone by their first name only, and I was frequently left feeling as though I had skipped a chapter or missed a page somewhere. His prose is suggestive of the one way dialogue of someone who has drank too much coffee, when the listener can do little more than nod and murmur “oh dear” or “of course” at relevant moments. In reading the chapters, I was left feeling somewhat out of breath by the rapid fire pace of transmission—but yet still felt compelled to turn the pages. Hester takes you along for the ride.
I am not one to believe that someone is inherently interesting just because they are a celebrity, and perhaps that is partially why this particular written genre has never really appealed to me. But it can be heartening for those of us in the trenches, as it were, to remember and recognize that even the greatest of riders are people too, and that we all make mistakes. In Making It Happen, Hester owns the errors of his past and reveals his moments of hubris in equal balance to those occasions in which his good choices were deliberate or he was able to stand firm to his principles despite detractors. Perhaps one of the hardest parts of writing memoir or autobiography is to reveal the warts and dark moments; in his book, Hester does not shy from them. As a both a writer and a human, I appreciated that.
I would recommend Making it Happen to any equestrian, but I think it will be the dressage enthusiast who enjoys this story the most. When the world of “penguin suited fancy prancers” can start to feel a little too much—pick this book up. And recognize that even one of the best in the world is able to not take themselves too seriously.
As a New Englander, I have had rather minimal exposure to the western discipline; as they say, I know just enough to be dangerous. In fact, it is mostly through my experience as a board member of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA), which offers both hunt seat and western competition, that I have acquired my limited knowledge. It is also through the IHSA that I had the opportunity to meet the talented and hard working Kelli Wainscott, coach for the Mt. Holyoke western IHSA team.
This past March, Kelli organized a benefit clinic at Clark Performance Horses in Winchendon, Mass. in which participants got to “ride a reiner”. Instruction was provided by Karen Clark, who grew up riding English but transitioned over to the western disciplines as a young adult. I have not so secretly wanted to try out reining moves but had always figured that it would be rude to just call up a reining trainer and be like, “hey, so I want to come ride one of your highly trained horses. I don’t want to do this full time, I just want to ride a spin and a slide. Is that cool?” Well, this sounded like my chance to do just that! As an added bonus, I could help the Mt. Holyoke IHSA western team fundraise for their trip to the semi finals at the same time.
I have been intrigued by reining since first watching it in person at IHSA Nationals in 2011. Seeing the reining there was like listening to someone speak a foreign language; the rules were undecipherable to my English-trained mind and I watched intently for any discernible pattern or predictability to the scoring. To me, all of the riders and horses looked great, and I didn’t understand why sometimes a team would receive a “zero” score after doing what looked like the same thing as everyone else. Cheering is encouraged, but I could tell that the cheers were intentionally timed, and when we tried to get into the “wooping”, we never managed to do it when everyone else did.
So I packed up my English paddock boots, half chaps and Charles Owen helmet and made the drive out to western Massachusetts under cloudy gray skies. As the miles on my GPS ticked down, I felt a pit of nervous energy grow in my belly. I suspected I would be the only full time English rider there (I think I was right in that), I knew no one other than Kelli, and I began to worry about upsetting the owner or the horses with my lack of experience.
But I needn’t have worried. Karen set me at ease with her cheerful personality and positive attitude. She was so extremely patient and answered the groups’ numerous questions with a smile, despite the fact that we were the second three hour group on a chilly March afternoon.
Karen assigned me to a sweet chestnut Quarter Horse mare named Whiz; her delicate ears and sculpted face are extremely feminine…I do love a good mare! As Karen’s assistant handed the reins to me, she mentioned I would probably need to take the cinch up a hole. A rider from the MHC IHSA team was kind enough to show me the mechanics of a western cinch. So began the afternoon—foreign tack, foreign aids, and foreign language. Who knew that after thirty plus years of tack time, it was still possible to feel so completely beginner?
Once the group was mounted up, Karen gave us a few moments to get acquainted with our mounts. Whiz is sensitive and “well broke”; she certainly knows her job. After watching a few moments, Karen called me over. “I think you’ll like her in some spurs,” she said.
I don’t know if Karen had been watching to see how well I rode before offering the spurs, and I don’t know if I was given them because I had positively impressed her (in the sense of having good control) or negatively (in the sense of, gosh, she is hopeless and without these spurs she’ll never get anything done.) She came over and affixed to my Dublin paddock boots the largest set of spurs that I have ever worn in my entire life—they were full on western horseback riding spurs: thick, engraved, spangly, roweled. The kind that jangle when you walk.
This is getting serious.
Disclaimer: What I write here I share with the intent of introducing other unfamiliar English riders to reining, but it is colored through my fairly inexperienced lens. Any mistakes or misunderstandings are wholly my own!
Reining patterns are comprised of a set of movements: big fast circles, slow small circles, spins, lead changes and sliding stops. These movements can be combined in various sequences, and for some movements, there are extremely specific requirements. For example, spins must rotate for an exact number of turns, and a spin which is under or over rotated will result in a penalty or elimination. Cheers can be used to help a rider know when they are approaching the end of a specific maneuver or pattern element.
Karen started us off with riding big fast circles. One at a time, we tracked left at the end of the ring, practicing keeping the inside leg off the horse (which is incredibly hard to do when you are used to having it on all the time) and encouraging our horses to fly around the circle. As it turned out, many of the riders in my group, while experienced at western riding, were also reining rookies. As pleasure or equitation riders, they were more accustomed to slower paces and staying fairly “poised” in the saddle, while reining encourages looseness (not sloppiness) and speed. When it was our turn to try, Whiz was, well, a whiz. She clearly loves to run and it was quite freeing to just zoom around the circle. I trusted Whiz from the get go, so much so that when someone suddenly opened a small door on the side of the ring, I didn’t tense in anticipation of a spook, as I would have with my own horse. When on the job, Whiz is all business. She was so comfortable to ride, and I was having so much fun, that I hardly noticed when the left stirrup came unclipped and fell off my saddle. It was another lap before I recognized that it was missing and stopped Whiz so it could be reattached.
“Big fasts” are usually followed by “slow smalls”, and the transition from one to the other is done by stepping hard into the outside stirrup, not by using the rein. We practiced this transition several times, and I was really blown away by how readily responsive Whiz was to the shift in my weight. “Hmm…” I thought. “Perhaps my dressage horse should be responsive like this? And what do I do with my outside leg in my own downward transitions?”
Part of the criteria for these movements is that the circles should actually be round, and trainer Karen frequently had to remind us to keep our eyes up and frame the circle evenly. I guess riding a round circle is a challenge no matter what discipline you ride!
Once each rider had a chance to practice the circles, Karen taught us about spinning. The spins and sliding stops are, in my opinion, the two most dramatic reining movements, and the Quarter Horse’s genetic ability to sit down on their hindquarters and coil their body like a cat is just one more example of the physical manifestation of the term “horse power”. In reining, a horse should spin a set number of times (as specified by the pattern), and like a dancer, the rider needs to keep their head spinning in order to stay centered and “spot” their starting point. If the spin is over or underrotated, there are point penalties up until ¼ of a turn; if the rider misses the mark by this amount or more, then the pair is eliminated.
Karen had us start from a halt, choosing a point out in front of our horse’s ears to use for focus. To go left, you just had to step into the left stirrup, slide the right leg back a touch, then shift the rein left, giving a bump with the right leg. To go right, the rider reverses all those aids. To stop, the rider brings the rein back to center. The entire movement is done with forward intention but the horse should be pivoting in place around one hind leg.
When I asked Whiz to initiate the first spin, I thought for a moment I was going to tip right off her side! She lowered her neck and shoulders and sunk into the movement in a manner which I both expected but was somehow not ready for. Then it felt like we were going about a million miles an hour—but when I watched the video afterwards, Whiz is clearly spinning with a “oh boy got a rookie here” level of energy. There is clearly much more power available in this creature!
After most of us were left feeling “well spun”, Karen allowed us to try out that most iconic of reining moves—the sliding stop. This was definitely the movement I was most excited about! We came down the quarter line on the left rein; just like my dressage horse might anticipate a leg yield, Whiz knew instantly what this turn meant. The key to a good sliding stop is to build the energy in the hindquarter, holding the horse back from their full run at first so that they don’t fall onto their forehand, then releasing all of that stored power. A good slide requires that the horse is thinking uphill.
Karen coached us to hold the horse until we were about half way down the long side, and then let them RUN. Whiz sure knew how to take this cue and the feeling of her haunches dropping down and driving into the surface was a form of horse power I’m not sure I have felt before. The fact that we were running at top speed directly towards the wall, on purpose, made it slightly disconcerting; this is the type of situation I am usually trying to avoid. And the especially hard part is you are supposed to actually let your hand go forward (which I can see in the video I failed to do, and in addition, I was holding the horn). The slide happens when the rider sits back and says “whoa”. When I gave the cue, Whiz’s hindquarters dropped away while her withers lifted up. It feels like the ultimate “throw down.” It is supremely cool.
After spending my three hours masquerading as a western rider, I made several observations which I would like to share, for what it’s worth:
Despite some of the similarities, I don’t quite agree with the notion that “reining is dressage in western tack”. It is its own “thing”. The similarities are the kinds of things which I believe all horse sports share, concepts like “the horse needs to be well balanced” and “the horse needs to engage the hindquarter”. Karen told us that good reining horses have a short career because they get too smart and start to anticipate all of the moves, leading to the kinds of mistakes which cause elimination. There are no “levels” in reining—from the beginning, all tests include all of the movements. English dressage is a progressive system of training with the goal of enhancing the natural gaits of the horse. While a dressage horse can certainly start to learn a specific test, ideally there is enough variety and change in the movements that it is possible for them to have a long, progressive career.
During our session, Karen rode a client’s green horse, who was working in a snaffle. Most of our “finished” horses were in a curb, though one was in a bosal/hackamore. In western riding, the use of a curb bit is the mark of an experienced, well-educated horse. I guess this is similar to the way in which an upper level dressage horse is able to be ridden in a double bridle for greater clarity of the aids and improved engagement. Probably in both disciplines, there are trainers who use the curb fairly and those who only use it to achieve forced submission. But when either of these tools is used fairly, the communication between horse and rider can be lighter and softer.
Most eventers are familiar with the concept of a “combined test”, in which the same horse and rider do dressage and show jumping, or a derby cross, which is a fusion of the jumping phases. At this clinic, I learned about a competition called “working cow horse”, which Karen said was a great outlet for a horse which understands the requirements of reining but lacks some of the necessary pizazz to be a real reining specialist. In this competition, riders first complete a reining pattern, and then when they indicate they are ready, a cow is released which the horse and rider must then “box”, meaning they move the cow along the fence and hold them there. At more advanced levels, the horse must also “work” the cow by making them move in a circle, with the horse on the outside. I thought it was interesting to learn that western riders have their own version of “combined test” in the working cow horse competition.
Overall, my “ride a reiner” experience was just what I had hoped it would be—a fun afternoon exploring an aspect of the equestrian world which I previously had known little about, and a chance to check off one of my “equine bucket list” items. I also have to think that those of us in other disciplines could be smart to take a page out of Karen’s notebook and offer introductory clinics to our discipline. How else are riders without access to horses trained for specific disciplines ever going to have the opportunity to try out something new? Who knows how many riders have gotten the “reining bug” after doing a clinic like this one? It is so easy to pigeonhole riders into one discipline and make assumptions about what and how they must ride and in so doing we create divisions in our equestrian community which do not need to exist. I am so grateful to organizer Kellie and our patient teachers Karen and Whiz for offering us this opportunity.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian