Tag Archives: horses

Reactions to “Learning from Olympic Pressure”

A few months back, I was reading some older issues of Practical Horseman, and I pulled an article titled “Learning from Olympic Pressure”, by Melissa Roddy Wright, from its May 2012 issue.  The article was about a talented and ambitious young professional, Clark Montgomery, who had seen himself short listed but ultimately unsuccessful in making the team for the 2008 Beijing Games. At the time of this article, he was working towards the goal of being selected for the 2012 London team.  If you follow eventing, you will know that he wasn’t—he made the short list again—but just a few weeks ago was named to the squad for Rio on his longtime partner, Loughan Glen.

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Clark Montgomery (from Eventing Nation)

I have read many “spotlight” articles on riders from different disciplines, and I almost never find the stories so captivating that I save the article for future review.  But this one about Montgomery was different, and when I saw that he was chosen for the 2016 Rio team, it seemed a fitting opportunity to tell you why I found his story compelling.

Montgomery was just 26 when he was on the short list for Beijing; he had enjoyed a great deal of success early in his career, including completing Rolex.  His top horse at the time, Up Spirit, was green at the upper levels but had been consistent enough to place well at certain key events.  According to the article, Montgomery recognized that his horse was greener than others, and he “pushed through the summer to make Up Spirit faster across country.” (All of the quotes included herein come from the article.)

“Instead, their Olympic bid ended with a cross-country runout at the Barbury Castle International Horse Trials CIC*** in England, a mandatory early summer outing for the American short listed riders.  The following spring, Up Spirit’s season and potentially his upper level career ended with a fall at The Fork Horse Trials CIC*** in North Carolina.”

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Clark Montgomery and Up Spirit.  This photo is on his website, and I found it on Google Images…no credit to photographer.  Happy to edit if someone knows where it comes from!

While all riders and trainers make mistakes, not all learn from them.  It seems like for Montgomery, missing out on the team and then experiencing a fall which resulted in a serious injury to his mount caused him to reassess his entire training philosophy.

“I tried to make [Up Spirit] gain more experience and get better than he was over the summer.  It fried his brain, and he lost his trust in me.  Up until then, I’d never really lied to him about a distance or pushed him for a quicker pace than he was comfortable with.  But I decided he needed to get faster cross country; I started putting my leg on him, and he started putting on the brakes.”—Clark Montgomery

We all encounter resistance in our mounts occasionally, and one of the hardest parts of training is knowing when to push more, when to back off, and when to stay the course.  When you add into the mix a goal—and most equestrians I know are goal oriented people—or  a deadline, you have a recipe for pushing too hard, too fast or too much.  If you are lucky, your horse forgives you for your momentary loss of sensitivity or intuition, but more often we end up creating a really engrained training problem.  And worse, we diminish the relationship which we have with our horse.

With Up Spirit injured and a few other setbacks at home, Montgomery says “Suddenly I had a lot of time to sit around and think how I got to that point.  I decided pushing a horse for competition isn’t worth it….Before, I think what I loved was competing, but now, I love the horses more.  It’s a beautiful thing to have a relationship with a horse, so they can go cross country with a bond and with trust.  That’s how I’ve approached riding from late 2009 forward.”

I personally am nowhere near as driven or competition oriented as those riders with international ambitions.  But if I am honest I have still struggled with this balance with my own horses.  Anna will hopefully make her Second Level debut next week; her medium gaits lack uphill balance and need better engagement, her connection is not steady enough, especially in the canter, and she could be more supple.  We have been consistently in the 60’s at First Level for two years, though, and I just feel like it is time for us to move on and to push to demonstrate the requirements of the next level.  The perfectionist part of me wants to wait until all the details are in place.  The practical part of me says that you have to get your feet wet sometime, and in dressage, usually the worst that happens is you get a low score.

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Anna and I after a test in 2015.

Ultimately, I decided to go for it—because I think that for Anna, increasing the challenge improves her focus and her willingness to try.  In preparing her for harder work, it is necessary to really wake her up a bit, but she is never resentful or shows any signs of stress or being overpressured.  We are still working to figure out exactly what routine works best to initiate her forward thinkingness, and it is clear that some of the approaches which work well with other horses don’t work with her.  She has challenged us to be more creative and me to be better about how I use my aids and where I sit.

“The most important thing you can do as a rider is try to understand your horse both physically and mentally, and base your training on that horse’s natural abilities…Treating each horse as an individual also means understanding that you may need to experiment with several different paths to the same training goal.”—Clark Montgomery

With Lee, I am still aiming for the long term/big goal of completing the three day 100 mile ride at GMHA in early September.  We didn’t have the early spring prep that I had hoped for, with a stone bruise, a cancelled ride, and a longer than expected period of adjustment to the arrivals of new equine residents to our farm this spring.  I had to regroup and reassess, and while I am still hoping to try for the 100, I am fully prepared to stand down and refocus if she requires it.  We are entered in the two day fifty in Vermont in early August, which will be our final competitive ride before the 100.  Again, it has been and will continue to be critical to watch her behavior and demeanor to see if she is responding well to the increased demands in fitness.  Montgomery says, “In day to day life, that means watching each horse carefully for the signals they send, both under saddle and in the barn.”  A true horseman knows their mounts inside and out.

“You do have to put enough pressure on horses when you are moving them forward to make them better, but not too much that you lose the trust…You have to have goals, yes, and put pressure on horses to get better, but you can only go so far with that.  The horse has to enjoy being worked, enjoy being pushed.  If it isn’t, then you have to back off.  That may mean not going to the Olympics this summer, but at least I’ll still have a horse in the fall.” – Clark Montgomery

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Lee at the awards ceremony for the 25 mile ride at GMHA Distance Days, 2014.

So while I am not on the hunt for an Olympic berth, it was really inspiring to read how such a talented and seemingly reflective professional at that level was able to learn from his mistakes in a way which allowed him to find a better path.  I guess it doesn’t matter whether your goals are international or local in nature, all horsemen have an obligation to do their best by their horses.   Treat your horse as an individual.  Have goals but be ready to revise them.   Try to really listen to what your horses are saying.  They are only horses, after all.  Our ambitions are not theirs.  But their willingness to cooperate with us to reach our goals is a pretty amazing and special gift, if you really think about it.

Literally while I was writing this blog, I received an update on Facebook about the current standings at Great Meadow International CIC0***.  Read here to learn more.

 

 

A Clinic with Cindy Canace

I have been lucky enough to know Cindy Canace, a USDF Gold Medalist and USEF “S” dressage judge from New Jersey, for many years.  However, this past week was my first opportunity to actually ride with Cindy in a clinic setting, and it was a great occasion to learn more about her training philosophies.

Cindy has made a career out of working with difficult, spoiled or otherwise challenging horses that others would not, and turning them into successful and happy performers.  In order to do this, she has established a system which she adheres to in terms of use of the aids, rider position, and progressive exercises.  By being clear and consistent, her horses respond with increased confidence to the rider’s aids.

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Annapony and I had just ridden several tests in front of Cindy at the recent University of New Hampshire dressage show, so she had a current picture in her mind’s eye of where things were at with us in the competition arena.  Cindy pointed out that a clinician’s main job is to provide a fresh set of eyes, and not to usurp the place of a regular instructor.  Specifically for Anna, Cindy wanted to challenge the honesty of her connection to the bit and work to achieve increased throughness.

For a horse competing at First Level, Cindy says that she would rather see a more open position in the neck with good energy and balance than a horse which has been pulled into too tight or restricted of a shape in the neck.  This is probably one of the reasons why Anna has scored well in front of Cindy, but as we are working towards moving to Second Level, it is necessary to achieve a greater degree of roundness and uphill balance.  Anna would prefer to be too open in the throatlatch if left to her own choices; because the purpose of Second Level is partially to confirm that the horse is “reliably on the bit”, we will need to work to erase this.

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Cindy had me move my hands closer together along Anna’s crest and ride with a much shorter rein than where I would tend to carry it.  “Put the bit where you want your horse to go” was a message repeated many times during the session.  She emphasized that the rider needs to keep her arms elastic, her shoulders down, her neck soft and her hands forward.  Cindy wants the horse to truly be seeking contact with the bit; it is the horse’s job to reach towards the bit all the time, rather than the rider taking the bit back towards their own body.

One of my greatest challenges is that most of the time I ride on my own; when you do this for too long, it is easy to pick up little bad habits.  One of my current ones is using too much inside rein, which blocks the inside hind and causes too much neck bend.  To help “reprogram” my aids, Cindy had me ride a diamond shape.  Imagine a square set within a circle, with points placed on the center line and equidistant from these points on the walls in between.  To turn Anna at each corner of the diamond, it was important to keep the inside leg at the girth and to bring the outside leg slightly back, pushing her around primarily with the outside aids.  I then used the inside leg to stop the turn and pushed Anna slightly out towards the outside aids again while aiming for the next point. We did this at the trot and the canter, decreasing the size of the circle as we became more proficient.

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Can you tell how awkward I feel with my hands this forward?

For me, the hardest part was to keep my hands out and ahead of me (‘put the bit where you want your horse to go’), even when Anna became less round or didn’t turn as crisply as I wanted.  The thing is, when your horse has gotten used to you supporting them in a particular way and you stop doing that, it takes them a few repetitions to sort things out for themselves.

Many horses have learned to balance on their inside reins; therefore, they can be taught to balance on the outside rein instead.  However, the correction takes time and dedication on the part of the rider.  “Keep your hands together and think forward,” said Cindy.  “The horse must step up to this.  Think of always pushing the reins out there.”

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Cindy reminded me that whenever I am tempted to pull on the inside rein that I needed to engage my inside leg instead.  At this, I had to chuckle—I must give this instruction myself many times per week, but it is good to know that even we instructors need reminders! Cindy also had me use a little sense of leg yield into the downward transitions to increase the connection to the outside rein, another technique which I like to use regularly. It is always good to know that your instincts are on the right track.

Cindy is wonderfully complimentary towards the rider’s horse; having ridden in many clinics, I think this is an important quality. Clinicians only get a snap shot of a horse and rider, and it is nice to hear what their immediate impressions are of the partnership.  While I usually think of Anna as not being super forward thinking, Cindy commented that my pony has a good overstep in the walk and trot; the more elastic and forward thinking that I keep my arm, the better Anna reaches through her topline and into the bit and the better the overstep gets.

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While discussing the importance of overstep (when the landing of the hind hoof reaches past the print of the front hoof on the same side), Cindy reminded auditors that there is a difference between fast and forward.  She says that in her judging, she sees too many horses which are being ridden so energetically that they move with a fast, quick tempo, causing the quality of the horse’s balance to literally go downhill.  While activity in the hind end is required to get true reach through the horse’s back, it cannot be accomplished at the cost of balance.

“We all like to micromanage,” said Cindy.  “Remember to ride the horse with leg and seat to create the bending.  Really use the outside rein to turn, even to the point of pushing the inside rein towards the horse’s ears.”

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Cindy’s overall theme was one of consistency and clarity in terms of expectations for the horse and intended outcomes.  When the horse is trying to sort out what it is that the rider wants, she emphasized that staying steady was of the highest priority.  It is much less confusing for the horse than if the rider suddenly switches her aids before the horse has answered the original question.   “Don’t change the rules of the game,” said Cindy.  “Don’t trade one problem for another—keep your aids consistent until you get the correct answer.”

Many thanks to On the Bit Events and the University of New Hampshire Equine Program for co-hosting this clinic!

On Horsemanship and Sportsmanship

Most of us who are involved with horses and horse showing prefer to be seen as both good horsemen and good sports.  If you stay in this game long enough, you will learn that when your success is predicated on the cooperation of a 1000+ pound flight or flight animal that also has a seeming proclivity for self-destruction, it is important to stay humble and not become too greedy.

With that being said, doing your homework, carefully prepping, setting goals and hopefully achieving them are all totally reasonable expectations.  In fact, these qualities are probably ideal in terms of making any sort of progress at all.  It is pretty easy to be a good sport when things are going your way, and you feel successful.  But where you are really put to the test is when the deck is stacked against you or the outcome isn’t what you had hoped for.  It seems that for some people, the ability to persevere and to continue to demonstrate the highest levels of sportsmanship and horsemanship comes naturally; nature vs. nurture, maybe.  Others of us have to dig a little bit deeper and consciously choose to maintain our best selves in these difficult times.

I have been reading a stack of old Dressage Today magazines, and I came across an “On Deck” column in the November 2007 issue written by a young lady named Holly Bergay.  At the time, Holly was just 15 years old.  She wrote about her first experience competing as a junior at the NAJYRC.  Now, I know what you might be thinking (because my brain would go there too)—to make an NAJYRC team, riders have to be talented and have access to both high quality horses and coaching.  It is easy to assume that these riders enjoy a certain amount of support and privilege that others do not; that their path has been made easy for them.  But when you start really talking to each individual rider, you will quickly learn that for most, there is a veritable army of people helping, contributing, supporting, fundraising, loaning horses, offering coaching, etc.  Holly was one of these riders; based in Arizona at the time, the expense alone of shipping all the way to Virginia for the competition must have been daunting for her middle class family.

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Holly Bergay (photo credit Phelps Photos)

And there is one other detail about Holly.  She was born with no left arm below her elbow, making her “the first disabled rider to ever compete at NAJYRC against able-bodied riders” (her words).

Holly tells the story of her and her teammates’ experiences at the competition; she rode for Region 5, and all of her teammates came from the west coast (Colorado, Arizona and Utah).  Though they were used to competing against one another, the riders didn’t really get to know each other until the trip east.  You might think that the hard part was qualifying for the Championships and then making their long trek to Virginia.  But the Region 5 team’s challenges were far from over.

One rider never even got to make the trip because her horse colicked before leaving home.

Another horse failed the initial jog (fortunately only due to an abscess, but still, what rotten timing).

Yet another rider arrived for day one of the mounted competition to find that her horse had ripped his eyelid open on a bridle hook, necessitating medical treatment which precluded him from competing.

I am sure that for these riders, who had invested so much of themselves in getting to this point, these events were terrible disappointments.  Yet according to Holly, her teammates showed “phenomenal horsemanship” in dealing with these blows and “made us all truly appreciate the opportunity to show”.  They learned to cheer for those who were still riding in the competition, even though with only two Young Riders left, the region’s team was ineligible for awards.

Holly talks about the tremendous pressure she felt competing as a junior; she wanted to do well for her team, for her trainer and for her horse.  She had come in with the lowest qualifying score of the team and was afraid of having a bad show.  But Holly had an additional weight to carry:  “I felt that if I didn’t do well, I would be letting down not just myself but the entire disabled community.”

Can you imagine feeling that way, at just 15 years old?

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Holly and Lilly at the NAJYRC (taken from her Facebook)

Holly’s story goes on to relate her own personal success on her mare, Lilly, and her team’s joy over their seventh placed finish.  Her language frequently includes words like “accomplishment”, “opportunity”, “proud”, “excitement” and “privilege”. You would think that the team had all won gold, but in reality no one took home a medal.  Holly ended up placing the highest of any rider from her region, making the top ten for the junior freestyle.  But you have a sense that she was modest about the achievement, and took greater pride in the fact that she had set out to accomplish her main goal—showing that a disabled rider could hold their own at the NAJYRC.  And in her own words, “I did not medal in the competition, but I took back things that were much more valuable than just a medal.  I learned both horsemanship and sportsmanship.  I met amazing people.  I formed an even stronger bond with my horse and, most important, I proved that I am not limited by my disability.”

I found Holly’s voice refreshing and her attitude moving.  Interested to know where Holly was now, I Googled her name (isn’t the internet wonderful)—and what came up showed me that the young girl of fifteen has matured into an inspirational young adult of twenty four.  And in the years between her debut at the NAJYRC and now, she has faced her own share of highs and lows, success, challenges and disappointments.

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Holly and Grand Ballerina (taken from her Facebook page).

After returning to compete in the NAYRC in 2008, Holly became internationally ranked in para-equestrian; in 2012, she was named to the World Equestrian Games team on the horse Grand Ballerina.  The mare unfortunately went lame just prior to the competition and so she was unable to compete.  After the financial investment incurred during the qualification process, followed by the disappointment of having to withdraw, Holly gave up riding altogether for a period of time.

But she returned to the sport and with the assistance of owner Violet Jen, Holly began to ride and compete the Hanoverian stallion Rubino Bellissimo.  The team entered the 2014 Para-Equestrian National Championship ranked second in the nation, and were considered strong favorites for selection to the World Equestrian Games team set to compete in Normandy, France.

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Holly and Rubino Bellisimo (taken from her Facebook page).  

Over $10,000 was raised to get Rubino and Holly to the New Jersey competition.  Just days before they were set to compete, Rubino began to exhibit signs of discomfort.   According to a story in the San Diego Union-Tribune, Rubino’s condition quickly deteriorated and he was diagnosed with a malignant tumor that had begun to spread to muscles, nerves and bones.  With no hope of recovery and a rapidly declining quality of life, he was euthanized with Holly at his side.

Holly and Rubino’s last performance together.

I can’t even imagine going from the expectation of success and possibly achieving a dream such as qualifying to represent your country in international competition at that level to the devastating loss of a partner and friend in just a few days’ time.  It takes some kind of degree of sportsmanship and horsemanship and heck, just sheer grit, to keep pushing through that kind of challenging emotion.  And when you add to that the fact that your bank balance doesn’t rival that of a rock star or internet mogul, and you know just how much others have invested in your goals to support you—it weighs on you.

In the same Union-Tribune article, it says that Holly went to her family’s home in Colorado to grieve the loss.  Then she planned to return to her business in California, the San Diego Saddle Club, to regroup and possibly begin again.  She specifically mentioned the amazing community of horse people in the San Diego area, and that she either hoped to find a young horse to bring along or find another opportunity.  I can find no mention of her for 2015, so I have no idea where she stands today.

While you and I might not be on the short list for Rio, each one of us goes through some version of this struggle each and every day, don’t you think? Learning to take the highs and the lows, to make the best decisions for ourselves and our equine partners, and to do our very best to just be grateful that most of the time, we even have the opportunity to do the amazing things we do with our animals.  To try to find the balance between our competitive ambitions and the needs of our horses, and to know when it is ok to push a little harder versus when it is better to call it day.

I certainly admire Holly’s perseverance in the face of multiple challenges, and you just have to hope that if she can hang in there a bit longer, some of her fortunes will turn.  I have never met Holly, but perhaps if she ever reads this she will know that her story has touched another horseman and that I am rooting for her, wherever her equestrian pursuits might take her.  Our sport needs horsemen and sportsmen like Holly.

 

Tales of a Horse Show Organizer:  Chapter One

Whether as a volunteer or paid staff, I have been involved with the organization or management of hundreds of horse shows or clinics.  Whether large or small, sanctioned or schooling, public or “in house”, some similar themes always seem to apply.  At the same time, each gathering has the opportunity for new (mis)adventures.

This past weekend, I went up to the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, VT, to volunteer for the day in the show jumping phase of their spring horse trials.  I spend so much time organizing, judging or coaching at horse shows that on the few occasions that I can go be a regular volunteer, I am sort of picky about which job I am willing to do.  I offered to scribe for the show jump judge, a position from which you can watch the horses jump the course, but one that didn’t require running around on my feet all day.

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So as I was getting ready to head up on Saturday morning, I debated my footwear.  I mean, I wasn’t really going to be around the horses directly, or standing, so I could just wear something casual and comfortable, right?

Then I remembered Chapter One from my someday to be published book, “Tales of a Horse Show Organizer”.  And I threw my paddock boots in the car.

Chapter One: Consider Your Footwear

The University of New Hampshire Equine Program runs several sanctioned shows each year; at one point, we ran three US Eventing Association horse trials and two US Dressage Federation dressage shows.  My role at the dressage shows was usually more behind the scenes than the front and center one of manager for the horse trials; most often, I helped set up the arenas and then assisted with scoring during the show itself.

One particularly notable year, we were positively stuffed to capacity with entries.  Eighty stalls of temporary stabling were full, with overflow in the main UNH barn and even a few stashed at neighboring facilities.  To accommodate these riders, we set up a fourth dressage arena.  The facility layout is a little bit sprawling, with most of the show (secretary’s tent, scoring, awards, three arenas and one large warm up) clustered together; stabling is out of sight from this, around the corner and down the road.  Ring four was set adjacent to stabling, so for the competitors down there, I would imagine it felt like they were at a completely different horse show.  Though we had radio communication with the group up the road, for the most part we had little awareness of what, specifically, was going on down there.

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I was scoring as per usual; my two pugs and I were stationed in the air conditioned trailer, surrounded by computers, calculators, printers and white out.  Historically, our dressage shows seem to be plagued by high temps, humidity and sometimes disruptive thunderstorms.  While I wore my traditional khaki shorts and UNH polo, in deference to my scheduled role as scorer and the heat, I only had a pair of Crocs with me.  Not even Crocs– some sort of cheap knock off that I picked up at a discount store. Definitely not “Pony Club approved footwear”.

Sometime towards late morning on the first day of the show, we received a call that the EMT was urgently needed down at the warm up for Ring Four.  A rider had been bucked off and landed quite badly; I can’t remember if she was conscious or not, but was certainly concussed.  The speaker reported that the horse had headed down the road towards us at the main show at a pretty good gallop.

Everyone leapt into action; the EMT was mobilized, the TD notified, show staff buzzing here, there and everywhere.  I kept waiting to hear on the radio that the horse had been caught; the call never came.  The horse never appeared in our area of the show.  I picked up my own radio and asked if anyone had caught the horse or knew where the horse was.  No response.

I left the scoring booth to see that the secretary’s tent was now being staffed only by our intrepid secretary, Liz.  I asked her if she knew anything about the status of the horse.  We concluded that he/she was MIA, but had last been seen speeding towards the Dairy Facility…which borders busy intrastate Route 4.

The horse was loose.  No one was looking for the horse.  The horse was heading for a busy highway.

I hopped into Liz’s car while she stayed at the tent and sped off for the Dairy Facility.

When I arrived, I don’t even know that I closed her car door before one of the dairymen, all casual like, said to me (in a true New Englander accent), “We were a-wondrin when when ah you hoss ladies was gonna come looking”.

“So the horse came through here?”

“Ayuh.”

I glanced around and saw neither tracks nor a horse.

“Which way?”

“It upset the cows, ya know.”

“I am sorry about that.  Which way, please?”

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One of UNH’s dairy herd. I don’t know if she, specifically, was bothered by the horse in question.

They vaguely gestured off towards the edge of the facility, towards the wooded tree line.  I took off in that direction at a jog.  Somewhere in this process, I had thought to call our barn manager and have her notify the local police.  She was reluctant at first, but it was clear to me that we had a real public safety risk if the horse had managed to reach the highway.  As I neared the trees, I caught sight of horse tracks—the horse was clearly still moving at speed, and headed straight into the woods.  I plunged into the overgrown tree line, stomping down the underbrush, fronds poking through the holes of my Crocs.  I tried not to think about how much poison ivy I was running through or the scratches my bare legs were incurring from the brambles.

The path taken by the horse became quite clear once I picked up the trail.  He/she was breaking through footing that had been undisturbed by something as large and quick moving as a horse, and with some recent rain the track had easily yielded to the horse’s momentum.  The ground cover quickly changed from a leafy forested area to a bit of a wetland, replete with cattails and other associated swamp like features.  I was still running along the horse’s trail, hearing the sound of the highway increasing in proximity with each step.  I should add at this point that there are very few circumstances in which I will willingly run.  I am one of those people who, if you seem them running, you should too as likely something quite bad is coming behind me.

So there I am—running after a loose horse (which I still have not seen), towards the highway, in my Crocs, in a swamp. And all of a sudden I just sort of sunk in—my foot slid into a print from the horse and the next thing I knew I was stuck almost hip deep in the muck with one leg.  I managed to extricate both my leg and my trusty Croc, and soldiered along, slipping in a few more times.  I was totally covered in swamp mud.  My colleague Sarah had now caught up to me; she was a distance runner and had jogged the entire way over to the Dairy, catching up to the same farmer and then following me into the brush.  Together, we made our way out through the rest of the swamp and broke out onto the shoulder of Route 4.  It wasn’t clear which way the horse had turned, so we each headed in a different direction and began running.

I kept waiting to hear squealing brakes, or galloping feet, but instead, after a few minutes, I was instead approached by a cruiser with blue lights flashing.  Sarah was sitting in the passenger seat, and the officer rolled down his window.  “The horse has been caught, and I saw you two out here, so I figured I would give you a ride,” he said.  “Hop in”.  I slid into the back seat.  Fun fact:  the back seat of police cruisers is just a plastic shell, which worked out quite well for my “swamp creature” self.

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As the officer drove the cruiser towards the UNH exit, we came upon our naughty dressage horse—a beautiful, flashy chestnut with chrome, still in full tack (bridle, saddle, boots—and no, I never got the brand name of the products which stayed on through the horse’s jaunt through hill and dale)—BEING RIDDEN by a gentleman in his tennis shoes and shorts.  The man was clearly a horseman, and rode in the style of a saddleseat rider or similar.  The horse’s head was up and he was smartly stepping along as the gentleman purposefully trotted him along the side of the road.  We provided police escort to the pair all the way off the highway, down Main Street, and back to the Ring 4 warm up where the whole situation had begun.  The rider did not let up on the horse until they had reached the arena, where he smartly dismounted and took the reins over the head.

Sarah and the officer hopped out of the cruiser and headed towards the horse and rider.  An additional fun fact:  when you are in the back of a police cruiser, you cannot get out unless someone lets you out.  So I sat there, covered in swamp mud, in my UNH Equine polo shirt, waiting in the back of the cruiser to be released.  I sort of wondered if this would be the one occasion on which our Dean might arrive at one of our horse shows, to find me locked in the back of a cop car.

Eventually, the officer noticed my predicament and came to let me out.  I joined the group around the rider, who said he used to show Morgans and was actually the uncle of one of our students.  I told him that if he had liked the horse, he could probably get him for a quite reasonable price at that moment in time!  I also said that I thought he was quite brave, to get on a strange horse that was running loose alongside the highway, with no riding gear or helmet.  He looked at me quite strangely and said, “Well, I certainly wasn’t going to LEAD him off the road!”  To each his own.

The horse’s owner did end up receiving off site medical treatment, but her barn mates assumed possession of her horse and we broke up to continue our respective duties of show management or keeping the peace.  The advantage of my Croc attire was that with a good hosing, I looked moderately presentable and was only modestly stinky for the rest of my day in scoring.

But I will say that if I had to do the whole thing again, more sensible shoes would have been appropriate.  It doesn’t really matter what job you are supposed to be doing at the horse show, I guess there is always a chance you will need to catch a loose horse.

And this is why at GMHA this past weekend, I wore paddock boots for my non-horse involved volunteer role.

I still have the Crocs.

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PS: I stole the featured image (of the UNH dressage rings) for this blog from my friend Liz’s page, On the Bit Events, LLC!  She loves organizing horse shows so much she started her own business to do it! Check her company out!

Managing your Velociraptors…Or your herd of mares

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

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

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

But last week, I upended her little world.

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

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Spring Hollow Marquesa

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

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

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Meeting officially.

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

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Out together for the first time.

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

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

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

That would be me.

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

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A moment of peace after several days of chaos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riding Aside

A Day with Side Saddle Expert Rhonda Watts-Hettinger

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

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

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

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

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

Saddle Fit

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

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

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Side saddles come in many shapes and sizes.

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

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

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A variety of different styles of stirrup.

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

Rider Attire and Styling

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

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Cricket models her side saddle.

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

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

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

Tips and Technique

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

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

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

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Sitting aside for the first time. Balance strap adjustment!

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

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

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

The First Person Experience

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Thoughts

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

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

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Reflections on Gratitude: Part III

Lessons Taught by the Yellow Horse

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

Becoming

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

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Carmel

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

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

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

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Applehurst Schooling Horse Trials ca 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being

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

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

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Carmel and I at Pembury House HT (2000)

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

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

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Carmel, Area I Reserve Champion at Novice, 2000

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

It just wasn’t with me anymore.

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

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Mel and his friend Molly

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

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Awaiting inspection at D Rally with his friend Kaeli

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

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

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

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

Letting Go

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

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In mostly retirement (2011)

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

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

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

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

And still, he refused to eat.

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

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April 2015, 34 years old

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

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

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

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

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

I miss you, my Yellow Horse.

Detroit Horse Power

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

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

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

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

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Detroit Horse Power’s logo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Urban blight in Detroit, MI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anna and I schooling at Tamarack, summer of 2014.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Day with Conrad Schumacher

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

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

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

Neck Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Basics, Basics, Basics

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

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

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Anna and I during our session.

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

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

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

Correct Use of the Aids

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taking Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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Anna models her makeshift flash noseband.

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

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

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

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