I started 2017 by attending two big meetings, one which celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA), and one which heralded the start of a new era for the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), including a re-branding effort which will have us calling the group US Equestrian. I was struck by some common themes—and common company—between the two meetings, and it has caused me to ponder the long term future of equestrian sport as we begin this New Year.
In general, equestrian sports are considered “elitist” by those outside of the industry and their continued existence in the Olympics Games remains questionable. Even within the business, there appears to be a dramatic divide between what I will call the “grassroots riders” and the “upper echelon” in terms of needs, motivations for being involved with horses and the ability to reach their personal and performance goals. At the same time there are those who would argue that there is no gap, that the upper echelon depends upon the grassroots, and that the whole community is structured sort of like a pyramid, only as strong as its base.
I was born with a horse bug. My earliest memories of wanting to ride come from nursery school. My parents aren’t “horsey”, and neither were my closest friends growing up. How often have we heard this kind of story? That this obsession should come from seemingly nowhere is unexplainable, yet it happens, over and over, these people who have a seemingly insatiable desire, or need, to be connected to horses. Where that drive takes them is a journey unique to each individual. Some may stand atop a medal podium. Some may be fulfilled with a quiet walk down the trail. Yet wherever we fall on this spectrum, we are all part of the same greater community.
I believe that whether we like it or not, the events which affect the “upper echelons” of equestrian sport affect the rest of us, too, sometimes as a trickle down and sometimes as a mad rushing current. It is a good thing when we are inspired by a gifted rider’s performance on a talented horse; it is bad when we are left explaining to friends and family why a horse dropped dead at a show, or a big name rider/trainer is suspended for positive drug tests. But the reverse is true, as well. If an intrinsically horse loving young person grows up to recognize that there are no longer open spaces to ride, affordable boarding stables, quality instruction and opportunities to reach personal goals, and they put their horse dreams on a shelf, then we all lose.
The USEF is the umbrella organization which oversees much “sanctioned” equestrian sport in the US. US Equestrian sets rules, approves licensed officials, offers year end awards programs and more. Yet most people are members only because they compete and membership is required to show. When they stop competing or take time off, they allow their membership to lapse. Some of the controversies which have come to the fore front in sanctioned competition, most recently including covert abuse of drug rules, turning a blind eye to questionable training practices, and ever increasing fees, have caused some horse lovers to choose to leave the organization—and competition—behind. I say horse lovers, because some of these are driven individuals who have put their love for the animal ahead of their love of competition.
For me, this is what it comes down to– love of the horse. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether someone shows or not, what discipline they ride, or even how often they ride. What matters is that they love the horse, and they are committed to giving the horse a humane life, a safe life, one free from pain, suffering or misery, and that they love having that experience. There is a woman at one barn I go to who doesn’t seem to ever ride. She grooms, longes, and plays games with her horse on the ground. It wouldn’t be for me, but that doesn’t matter. SHE is happy, her HORSE is happy, and everyone wins. We are both horse lovers; we are equestrians.
New US Equestrian president Murray Kessler sent a letter to all USEF members (of which I am one), which he basically opens with, “I love horses.” He has been involved at all levels of equestrian sport, from local shows to watching his daughter ride at an Olympic Games. People who only know him as the father of Reed might dismiss him as another one of those “upper echelon” people; he has been successful in business and clearly has become financially secure to the point where exceptional horses are now a reality. Despite this, my sense from the US Equestrian meeting is that Mr. Kessler still remembers what it was like to struggle to find the funds to attend a local show, and that he holds a bigger, broader vision of what US Equestrian could be for our industry. Instead of a pyramid, I think he sees a circle, where the grassroots supports the top but then the top turns around and gives back to the grassroots. I think that is something quite exciting.
Mr. Kessler has promised that he will serve as an “advocate for our membership at all levels in all breeds and in all disciplines. Every member of the Federation is important and plays a role in our future.” He has promised to help the organization take a stronger stance on fairness and safety in equestrian sport, going so far as to state that the “purposeful doping of horses cannot and will not be tolerated”. He vows to increase access and participation in the world of horse showing. “Competing in equestrian sports has become so expensive that it is prohibitive,” says Kessler in his letter. It is beyond time for someone in this level of leadership to formally act on these points, for the good of everyone in the industry, not just the competitors.
Because here’s the thing…on some level, the backyard owners need the horse show people. Horses are a luxury item. A robust industry means that resources are being produced and consumed, keeping tack retailers, grain suppliers, hay producers, instructors, trainers, boarding stables, veterinarians and farriers in business. When the number of people consuming these resources dwindles, they become scarcer as suppliers go out of business. Then the cost goes up, and all horse owners are forced to make difficult choices.
Kessler commented that his research shows that participation at the smaller USEF shows has declined by 40% over the past ten years, while entries at large scale, more costly events have gone up. In my role as the organizer for the University of New Hampshire Horse Trials, I have noticed a similar trend in eventing. Our competition draws from a more local/regional audience, and we used to be full with close to 200 entries just a few days after opening; now, we are lucky to run 150 and are forced to accept entries post-close. I hear other organizers of similar competitions say the same thing. Our sanctioned summer dressage show used to run four rings with a waiting list; now we can barely fill three.
This slow and steady decline in participation is the result of so many different factors, but it is a concerning trend. Undersubscribed competitions can’t sustain themselves forever, and sooner rather than later they stop running. This takes the bridge between schooling competition and more prestigious ones away, leaving a gap in our circle that is hard to overcome.
US Equestrian states as its new vision, “to bring the joy of horse sports to as many people as possible”. It has created a new “fan” membership; for just $25, fan members can have access to many of the benefits which the organization offers, including access to the new learning center (which has educational videos featuring well known riders and trainers), access to the USEF network, the youth high school lettering program, and more. The new website lists “start riding” and “learning center” as the first two tabs in their banner, ahead of “compete” and even “join USEF”. As part of their new membership recruitment efforts, US Equestrian has given a free fan membership to every member of the IHSA and Intercollegiate Dressage Association, and perhaps some other youth organizations as well (I just happen to know those two for sure). The website has pictures of young people on horses and recreational riders as well as the usual competition photos. It is, frankly, refreshing.
At the IHSA’s 50th Anniversary Banquet in early January, I was struck by how many generations of equestrians were in attendance. Everyone in the room was connected through just this one organization, and those present were but a small sliver of the total number who could call themselves a current rider, alumni, coach or former coach of the IHSA. There are close to 10,000 undergraduate members today; over fifty years, that is an enormous community.
Each and every equestrian needs to be mindful that we as a collective group are completely connected to one another. Threats to open space access, to collegiate riding programs, to agriculture as a whole, all affect us. It is crucial that equestrians seek the synergy amongst our different groups. We must work to cultivate a supportive, not competitive, atmosphere within our ranks. Our tack, goals and preferred riding speed may be diverse, but we should all be united by one thing: our love for the horse.
I challenge each of you, no matter how you define yourself as an equestrian, to work to always remember the love of the horse. Share your love with others. Because they are out there—those young people with the intrinsic, insatiable need to be with horses. They are looking for you, for me, for all of us, to help them to fulfill those dreams.
An online dictionary defines the term “ivory tower” as “a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world”. It is frequently used in a derisive way, especially in regards to academia, to imply that someone’s ideas or actions are not as relevant as they might be otherwise because they are so far out of step with reality.
The day to day life of a full time, self-employed equine professional can certainly be grueling. These people often refer to the fact that being seriously involved with horses is a way of life, and they don’t mind the challenging aspects, including the long hours and few days off. The up side—being able to spend so much time with horses and to watch horses and riders under their direction or care grow and develop, outweighs the challenges. However, few would say that the self-employed route is easy, and there are certainly at least moments during which most reasonable people would consider whether the stress and adversity are really worth it.
Before joining the faculty at UNH, I too was “in the trenches” and cobbled my living together through an assortment of jobs. In the mornings, I was an assistant barn manager at a dressage facility, completing the usual daily chores but also getting horses ready for the trainer/manager. In the afternoons, I ran a small lesson business on borrowed school horses, teaching mostly children the basics of horsemanship. I taught Pony Club. I worked part time at UNH for a few semesters. I worked in the banquet department at the Sheraton, where I learned that the best shifts were for weddings, because most everyone was in a good mood and there was a DJ and cake. I lived from contract to contract. I paid through the nose for a health insurance policy which would still have required me to drain all savings before it would have paid a cent.
When I first started at UNH, it was positively decadent. I couldn’t BELIEVE that they sent me a paycheck every two weeks just for showing up. UNH has excellent benefits, both insurance wise and investment wise, and you can also take classes. I was able to complete my Master’s degree mostly for free. The hours are still long, and there have been plenty of nights and weekends dedicated to the cause. But by and large, it has provided me with a great deal of security and stability, values which I have determined are essential for my mental health. And most of the time, I get to do what I like to do: work with horses and humans.
Recently, I had the opportunity to spend four days in Michigan teaching a Pony Club camp—it was great fun, and a nice chance to get back to my roots. The schedule was full, as was camp enrollment—something like 32 campers and a few Horsemasters, four mounted instructors and assorted local experts helping out with unmounted topics.
The three other instructors who I worked with all run their own riding/training/lesson businesses. One owns a thriving eventing and dressage barn, and had during one day in the previous week taught 18 lessons and ridden something like five horses. Another maintains foxhunters for owners who come to ride on weekends, providing full service care including daily conditioning rides and then shipping to and turning out for hunts. The third has a combination of training horses and lesson clients, straddling the disciplines of dressage and eventing.
Listening to their discussions about the ups and downs of their businesses was enlightening. One trainer travels from farm to farm in the afternoons to teach private clients. A few clients are chronic last minute cancellers, which leaves her on the road with an hour or more of down time. When you freelance, time is money, and when such cancellations become common it can significantly impact the bottom line. She is struggling to come up with a cancellation policy which won’t alienate her clients but can protect her interests.
The trainers all have a few “difficult” clients; we know the archetype. They have more money than horse sense; they want to do cool and fun movements or jump big jumps with their horses, but do none of the actual work that gets you to that level; and they demand constant attention and validation. They talked about the strategies they use to keep these clients on track, working towards attaining goals without pushing too hard, placating their concerns and worries via text and phone. I was exhausted just listening to them.
Then there was the discussion on insurance, all aspects of it—liability/professional, but also health and disability. It is a cripplingly expensive essential. The cost can make it hard for them to save money for future plans or retirement.
It was then that I realized that I may have, quite inadvertently, become an “Ivory Tower Equestrian”, and I listened to the conversation with a bit of detachment. I used to deal with all of these concerns in my previous life, but my current reality is somewhat different. When a student chooses to repeatedly not come to class or doesn’t want to work super hard at it, their grade is reduced. Liability insurance is not a major concern as our activities fall under the university’s umbrella policy. If the weather is bad for a few days, or I am out sick or need to take a day off for personal reasons, I will still get paid the same amount.
From the outside looking in, it might seem like we Ivory Tower Equestrians have it made. And in many ways, we do. But it is not all sunshine and roses, and in some ways the challenges we face are not all that dissimilar to those of our self-employed brethren. They are similar, but different.
At colleges/universities, programs live and die by their overall enrollments. If your classes are full, and there are students in your degree program, then odds are good that there will be some kind of continued support for you, though rarely in the amount or frequency which is actually needed. But the reverse of the equation is true, and the reality is that an equine program is an expensive one to run. The “lab equipment” used in all of the hands on classes, including horsemanship but others as well, requires daily care, food, and veterinary/farrier attention. These aren’t microscopes that sit quietly on a shelf until they are next needed. All of the usual issues with facility maintenance apply to us, too; fencing needs to be replaced, footing wears out, tack gets worn. In some ways, it is worse for us than at a private facility, because of the high volume of use during the academic year. School horse saddles can be ridden in for as many as ten hours per day; when you multiply that times five days per week per a fifteen week semester, that is a lot of seat time for one saddle to see. These costs are partially covered by the lab fees paid by students; if our classes aren’t full, or the lab fees exceed what the students are willing or able to pay, then the house of cards begins to quickly topple.
Some people, both from within and from outside of the university setting, criticize the existence of collegiate equine programs, and they are derisive towards the validity of an equine studies degree. Some think that all we do is ride, or that we are part of the athletics department. At one staff meeting last semester, a tenured faculty member asked if our students’ final capstone course was whether or not they could sit eight seconds on a bucking bronco. As a program, we are constantly evaluating our curriculum both for efficacy and rigor, but still there are those who publicly and privately question what we do. At the end of the day, the University of New Hampshire Equine Program graduate is receiving a Bachelor of Science degree, with a heavy emphasis on biological science and including courses in general biology, anatomy and physiology, genetics and nutrition, with specialty courses in equine disease and sports medicine, amongst others. These subjects and the skills students gain in studying them are applicable to a wide range of career paths, both in and out of the equine industry. Regardless of choice of college major, it is up to the student to figure out what to do with it. A college major, and the degree it elicits, is only a starting point; the student must then seek out opportunities to continue to grow and expand their careers.
Some of the same external critics who deride the validity of an equine degree also publicly criticize anyone who would even CONSIDER donating their horse to a collegiate program. At least 90% of our horses come as donations from private individuals. They come for a variety of reasons—age, manageable conditions which reduce resale value, owner financial issues, or a horse that is not up to the continued challenge of a competitive show career, for examples. Many donors want to know that their horse will not continue to be sold on and on. Some of our horses have been in our program for most of their lives. They are well cared for, loved, carefully supervised, and have allowed hundreds if not thousands of horsemen to grow and develop during the animals’ careers with us. When our horses tell us that they are no longer happy doing what we need them to do, we seek to place them in carefully screened adoptive homes, sometimes with former students. If they are in pain, suffering or otherwise unwell in a manner which will cause a diminishing quality of life, we allow them a humane and dignified end when their time comes. However they leave us, we cry to lose them and smile with their memories.
People criticize equine programs because they cannot keep horses forever. The reality is that all horses get to an age or physical condition in which their workload must be modified or ceased. After all, this is often the reason that their original owners passed the horse on to us in the first place. If the former owner has asked to be notified when this time comes, we always do so (and sometimes even when they have not asked, just to make them aware). Very few are interested in taking their horses back but are grateful for the call.
The critics claim that equestrian programs at universities overwork horses, quickly sell them on, or ship them off to auction when they don’t work out. Perhaps that happens at other places, but it does not happen here. And frankly, it really frosts me to read those kinds of ignorant comments. We are quite transparent with our policies and the use of our horses; in fact, every single activity we do with our horses—from riding them to practicing bandaging to therapeutic riding— must be reviewed and approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and their work hours are carefully documented. I somehow doubt that most privately owned lesson strings receive such comprehensive and regulated monitoring.
We Ivory Tower Equestrians may not be working to run our own business, but many of us are working to run the business that is our program. We must recruit new “clients” (students) and ensure that the “product” that we are selling them (a B.S. degree) is of high quality and a good value for the money. We must balance the needs of our program with the values of a constantly changing and somewhat underfunded state university. And just like our comrades in the field, if our clients aren’t satisfied with our output, they will take their business elsewhere. A true Ivory Tower Equestrian who does not consider these realities will likely find themselves out of a job. Perhaps we are more alike than we are different.
For me, this experience was an important one in terms of remembering what the daily concerns of the self-employed instruction business is like, but also to appreciate the unique benefits and challenges of the university setting.
It had been nearly five hours. We had just a few moments to spare, but confident of crossing the finish line before our 4 hour and 55 minute deadline, we had slackened to a walk, allowing our horses to slow their respiration and pulse in preparation for the check- in to come. As the finish line neared, I felt a tightness developing in my chest as I became almost choked up with pride for my horse. And as we crossed the bridge bringing us back to the B barn at GMHA, and the volunteers handed us our time in slips, I bit back a few tears. She had done it. Lee had finished her first 25 mile ride. WE had finished OUR first 25 mile ride. Getting to this point had been such a long, long road—literally and figuratively—that I was almost lost for words.
In the Beginning
From day one, Lee has never been easy. I met her when she was six years old. She had been sent to live for the winter at the dressage farm where I was then employed. Her owner was quite busy juggling a young son, running her own business and commuting from Massachusetts, and so Lee stood around more than she worked. Somehow I was asked, or offered, to ride her a few days a week. She was quite green on many levels, and also quite quirky, which just enhanced the greenness. Here is a basic list of Lee’s early challenges:
I had to longe her each and every time before I rode—or else. I had to mount her from the ground, because she wouldn’t go near the mounting block. She didn’t cross tie at first, and even after she learned, for the longest time if I left her alone for even a second to run to the tack room, I would hear the crack and thump which indicated that she had broken her ties or the halter and run off. She also wouldn’t let you within fifteen feet of her with clippers of any kind, and even if you were clipping someone else, that was still cause to run away. Brooms were also problematic—whether in use, being carried past, or simply leaning against the wall. (Blogger’s Note: None of the above issues are issues anymore, except the clippers. That is a still a “no go”. You simply must learn to pick your battles).
Lee’s owner had left her ‘dressage bridle’, since Lee was at the dressage barn, meaning simply that it had a flash noseband. But when her mouth was held shut, Lee just would refuse to move at all. So off came the flash; I have never used one on her again.
Even given these quirks, we began to slowly make progress in terms reinforcing the basics. One day, Lee’s owner was chatting with the farm owner, and she said, “maybe Chris would like to compete Lee next summer.” The farm owner’s response? “In what?” (probably accompanied by a roll of the eye). And for Lee, that has always been the $10,000 question.
Today, we shall be Eventers
Given that Lee is ¾ Thoroughbred, by the stallion Loyal Pal, and out of a part Holsteiner mare named Lakshmi who herself competed in hunters and eventing, and at the time I still considered myself primarily an event rider, my first thought was that Lee would make a wonderful event horse. She is built in a very Thoroughbred-y manner, with a low neck, slight but solid frame and a hind end built for engagement. She also has an excellent gallop. In fact, one of the best gallops I have ever seen from her was the day she dumped me off into a puddle of icy water behind the UNH Equine Center, then spun and went galloping back to the main barn, where she broke through someone else’s crosstie, fell in the aisle, slid across the floor into the boarder’s tack room door, got up, ran back down the aisle and was finally caught heading towards Main Street and campus. While all this was happening, I still sat there in the mud and slush, thinking to myself, “my, what a beautiful gallop she has. She will make a great cross country horse.” This, before I entertained some less charitable thoughts about her recent behavior.
So even though she was green and a bit looky (“she is funny about fill under the fences”, said her now former owner, “but it gets better when the jumps are bigger”), I figured with enough exposure she would come around, right?
Not so much.
I hacked Lee and hunter paced her. I jumped her over little jumps in the ring. But when it came to cross country, she was absolutely not interested. She resolutely refused to jump anything which remotely resembled a cross country fence (coop, roll top, log, you name it). I remember riding on the UNH cross country course nearly ten years ago with the captain of my riding team mounted on a steady eddy type veteran, trying to use him as a lead for Lee to jump a very basic log. After umpteen refusals, my student looked at me with a sad expression and said, “I just don’t think she is going to jump it”.
I did eventually (read, five or more years after the early attempts) get Lee to follow another horse over a few logs on a pace event, and got her to jump a few small logs on the UNH course independently. And she has always been willing to go into water and up and down banks and drops (remember that I said she was quirky?) Unfortunately, to be an event horse, this just wasn’t going to cut the mustard.
But that was okay, because Lee was so speedy and cat like, and turned so quickly, perhaps she had a more appropriate niche—the jumper ring. I really like doing jumpers and thought it would be fun to have a handy and quick horse. So that is where we quickly shifted our focus.
Perhaps Show Jumpers?
Monday, February 22, 2010
Just a quick note to be sure you are ok? We all have those days!—MKB
I still have this email in my inbox. It is from the organizer of a series of local winter schooling jumper shows that I have frequently attended, and it is in reference to the day I fell off not once but twice at the same show. The first fall, if I recall correctly, was the result of a spook at a faux stone wall placed under a tiny (2’3”) vertical. The second one came later, when my horse decided to refuse an oxer— after she had already taken off. She and I landed in somewhere in the middle of the spread, but we did not land together. It was a low moment. I thought the email was an incredibly kind and considerate gesture from one rider to another.
Lee and I have attended more clinics together than I have with any other horse, ever. I have jumped her with Nona Garson, Linda Allen, Amy Barrington, Greg Best, Michael Page, Joe Forest and probably other luminaries whom I am forgetting about. The clinic setting is really her happy place, because you have plenty of opportunity to check out the fences before being asked to jump them, to warm up in the arena where you are expected to perform and if you spook at something, you get another chance to make it right.
This of course is NOT the case in the jumper ring. I learned quickly that skipping the schooling warm up was simply not an option. And if some condition of the ring changed in between schooling and my round (i.e., they brought out a digital timer), that could be a real deal breaker.
As I had expected, Lee was quick and cat like. She turned well and moved up well. Unfortunately, she was just as quick to chicken out and stop short, even over a fence which she had already jumped. There really was no rhyme or reason. It seemed like with Lee, you either won or you were eliminated. There was no in between.
I spent an inordinate amount of time working with Lee over fences before admitting defeat. I know others would have stopped sooner, and perhaps I should have too, but I will say that looking back at those years I learned some lessons along the way that I am not sure I would have been ready to learn at other points in my career.
Greg Best was one of my favorite clinicians to work with. He is patient and kind, never runs on time, and spends as much focus as is needed to get to wherever you need to get to with a given horse in a session. I had entered Lee in the three foot group; the morning of day one, she had a little bit of a bellyache, prompting a visit from the vet and causing me to pull a UNH school horse into service. I had only ridden that horse once, the day we tried him out for the program, but Windsor was experienced and well-schooled and rose to the occasion admirably. While I was grateful to have a backup come available, I was disappointed to not be able to bring my own horse. When she was cleared by the vet to go to days two and three of the clinic, I was quite relieved.
I have always ridden Lee in a plain cavesson noseband, and a basic snaffle bit. She is difficult in the connection, and seems to go best in a bit with solid rings. At that time, I had her in a single jointed Baucher snaffle. Many equestrians erroneously assume that the Baucher has leverage, because it has rings which attach to the cheekpieces, with a separate ring for your rein. However, what the unique cheekpiece attachment does is in effect to lift the bit higher in the corners of the mouth, thereby causing it to be more stable. It was the best fit I had found for her and she was fairly willing to go to it.
Greg watched me warm up Lee, along with the rest of the group. He doesn’t say much during the warm up, just observes and takes in what he sees. I couldn’t have ridden more than ten minutes before he called me over to ask about my bit.
Now, I had by this time noticed that Greg is a believer in riding in the mildest bit possible. He had already taken away a plethora of twists, gags and elevators from other clinic participants, and I had been feeling pretty good about my Baucher as being a mild enough snaffle.
“I think you have too much bit,” says Greg.
Well, darn. Now what? Greg travels with a bag that I can only compare to that of Mary Poppins—it is a nondescript, small duffle, faded from hour upon hour of sitting in sunny arenas. But when you open it up, it seems to magically contain bits, spurs, straps, doohickeys and all other manner of tools that can modify tack. From the depths of the bag, he pulled out a loop of leather. He called it a sidepull; I have also learned that this piece of equipment can be called a non-mechanical hackamore. Simply put, you remove your horse’s bit and noseband and attach the cheekpieces instead to two rings on the sides of the leather loop; your reins attach to two rings which are positioned just under the jawbones. It seemed like it was just one step up from riding in a halter and leadrope. I said as much to Greg.
“Yes, basically,” he shrugged.
And that was how I rode Lee for nearly five hours over two days in the clinic. The sidepull absorbed any defect in my release or timing, and Lee became more and more freely forward under its influence. I had no trouble at all stopping or steering her. She was so much happier without a bit.
She was again expressing her preferences in tack, if I had only known to listen.
Lee’s swan song as a jumping horse came at a clinic with eventer Amy Barrington. I have ridden with Amy several times; she is a creative instructor and sets up exercises and courses which you don’t think you can possibly jump—but then she breaks it all down into pieces and the next thing you know you have gone and jumped it all. At this clinic, we jumped a skinny one stride, constructed out of half a wooden coop placed on top of half a brick wall, with a wing on one side. Never in a million years did I think Lee would go near something that odd looking, never mind go over it.
Piece by piece, we put the course together. And then we did the whole thing—all the oxers, all the odd combinations and spooky fences, all at 3’-3’3”, without a single refusal. It was like nirvana. But I had had to ride really really hard, wear really big spurs and dig in to the bottom of my bucket of grit to get it done.
And I knew that if I had to ride that hard to get the job done, the horse probably wasn’t meant to do it.
Amy seconded my thoughts, saying, “You might be able to get her through this….but you might not. She sure is hard.”
Around this time, I was completing the USDF “L” judge’s training program, and at my final exam at Poplar Place in Georgia, the most ADORABLE little dark bay mare did some simply wonderful tests at the First Level Championships. “Hmm…”, I thought. “That horse moves and is built a lot like Lee. Maybe I should make her a dressage horse….”
So we put away the jumping tack and put on a dressage saddle. Now THIS would really be her niche, right?
Then Dressage, For Sure
Overall, I feel quite competent in the dressage arena. I can put most horses together to a level appropriate for their training fairly efficiently and I think I have a decent eye for problems from the ground. However, riding Lee on the flat made me feel like I knew nothing—not one thing—about how to put a horse On The Bit. It was so humbling. Even though my main focus for Lee had been as a jumping horse, I also had been steadily working with her dressage training all along the way. I had shown her lightly in the dressage arena; she scored a 65% at her first rated show at Training Level, and had also gone to many local schooling shows, with results ranging from $( % (look up the numbers on your computer) to upper 60’s at Training and First Level.
I began looking for a dressage instructor who would “get” this quirky horse. My first choice was someone who suggested riding her in draw reins—no thank you. I continued to work on my own before connecting with Paulien Alberts. Paulien is based in Holland (of course, why would it be someone local?) and she did a series of clinics in southern Maine geared towards para-dressage riders. The same out of the box thinking that made her successful with equestrians with physical challenges also made her successful for Lee. She was also willing to get on and ride my horse—something no one else had been willing to do. With Paulien on board, I could really see the “dancer” side of Lee come out. It was so much fun.
While the sessions with Paulien helped us to develop, I continued to look for someone closer to home to work with more regularly. For about a year, I worked with another trainer who had a European background, but it became clear that her enthusiasm for working with Lee quickly had waned and I moved on. I found the most success with another travelling clinician, Verne Batchelder. Like Paulien, Verne understood that this horse was unique and was willing to work with us “as is”. He also was willing to ride her, which I think speaks volumes. It is easy to look at Lee and think that she is a simple ride and that it is the pilot who prevents her from achieving her full dressage-y potential. But anyone who has gotten on and actually tried to correctly connect her quickly realizes that she is not that simple at all. It has been a humbling experience to work with a horse that is so hard to put together. And I know that others have judged me for it—both in terms of, “why are you wasting your time” and “why can’t you do a better job”? But their judgments are their problem, not mine. What Lee has taught me is that while the rider is OFTEN the cause of the horse’s problems, they are not always the WHOLE cause of them, and until you have personally sat on a horse and felt what is going on for yourself, you cannot KNOW what is going on. So perhaps don’t be so quick to judge others.
Showing Lee in dressage was easier than showing her over fences, but her performance could be as inconsistent. I took her to the NEDA Spring Show, and she had an absolute meltdown in the busy atmosphere of the Marshfield Fairgrounds (hence the $(% score that is on her record). I scratched from my classes on day two and just took her home. However, the most colorful showing experience I had came at the GMHA dressage show in June of the same year.
It was my birthday weekend, and I travelled to Vermont with my two pugs, Lee, and my sometimes trusty maroon pick up (mercifully now retired and working at a camp somewhere). I was looking forward to a pleasant weekend of good weather, to meet up with some friends, and to ride four Training level dressage tests.
As was my routine, I rode Lee around upon arrival, and although alert, she seemed more relaxed than she had been at the NEDA show. I personally feel that the sprawling layout there is quite horse friendly and have found most of my mounts to be at ease at GMHA. Three of my four tests were scheduled for the Upwey ring, so I concentrated my schooling in that area and then hacked around the rest of the grounds.
The next day, I headed out to Upwey to warm up for the first test. Overnight, a herd of black and white Holstein dairy cows must have been moved to a new field, because this morning, they were all hanging out directly behind the judge’s booth of my arena. As in, judge’s booth, narrow Vermont road, large herd of cows. They seemed to be taking in the warm up, rings, and general increased level of activity with a sort of detached bovine disinterest.
Lee took one look at those cows and went into full on “survival” mode. She would go nowhere near that end of the warm up, even in hand, and actually flipped her tail up, Arabian style, while velociraptor-snorting in their direction. Not one other horse in the warmup was having this sort of reaction. Excellent.
I valiantly carried on and when the time came, tried to ride our test. Lee would go no closer to the judge’s booth than “X”, and at one point was cantering backwards away from the cows. I didn’t even know horses could do that. After what I would consider a heroic effort to create some sort of Dressage in my horse, I saluted the judge and asked to be excused. She leaned out of the booth.
“I think you are very brave!” she yelled out.
Upon returning to stabling, I was beyond frustrated. How many more excuses could I give this animal? I mean, all I wanted her to do was walk trot and canter in the ring with her head down. Seriously, was this too much to ask? Had I not been patient enough?
While glowering in my stall, a friend and her daughter stopped by to see how my ride had gone. One look at my stormy expression said it all. “You know, J.K. has a cowboy with her,” said my friend. “He hacks all of her horses around and gets them over stuff like that. Do you know her? You should go ask if he would ride Lee.”
I knew J.K. by reputation only, and knew she had serious FEI horses that went well in the ring. I also knew I had never, ever, not one time, paid someone to ride my horse for me when they were being bad. It seemed like an admission of failure. But at that point, after everything I had gone through with Lee, I really, really just wanted to ride one dressage test in the ring like a normal horse. So I went to find J.K.
“Hello, we haven’t met,” I said. “My name is Chris, and I work at UNH Equine Program,” (figuring I would throw that in there for good measure). “I hear you have a cowboy with you.”
“Oh, I DO have a cowboy with me!” J.K. enthusiastically responded.
“Could I borrow him for a few minutes?”
So I was introduced to her cowboy, whose actual name I don’t even remember, and then introduced the cowboy to Lee. I now had quite a posse of friends and acquaintances following the saga of “Lee and the Cows in Upwey”, and this posse joined us as I sent Lee and her new cowboy friend towards the mounting block. He was a biggish fellow—not heavy in an out of shape way, just large like a muscled man can be, and he wore full chaps, big spurs, and a helmet only under duress as it was the GMHA policy. He mounted my petite, 15+ hand mare, and gave her a squeeze. She promptly tried to go straight up. He booted her forward, in a totally appropriate way, and she moved forward. “That might be the end of it,” whispered one of the posse members.
“Oh, it better not be the end of it,” I growled. And I knew it wouldn’t be, because she would never give up that quickly.
The cowboy brought Lee to the warmup, and starting at the end furthest away from the cows, who I am pretty sure were now hanging out at the road side edge of their field just to taunt the horses, began to play with Lee in her basic gaits. He slowly and steadily made his way down to the end of the warm up closest to the cows, where he worked her some more. He also let her stand and look, and to blow some more like a velociraptor. She did become slightly more relaxed—but that wasn’t saying too much. After about thirty minutes or so, he rode back over to me.
“Well, I don’t think you’ll be roping cows off of this one,” he drawled in his British accent.
Apparently horses besides my own were having enough problems with the bovine residents that the show management had decided to open up the Upwey arena for schooling that night. I scratched from my afternoon test and made arrangements for the cowboy to ride Lee again during the schooling time. The posse was now double in size, and people had brought alcoholic drinks. They were ready to be entertained.
Lee demonstrated her considerable athletic prowess and made me appreciate that the money I was paying the cowboy was well spent. She leapt, ran sideways and backwards and nearly took out the perimeter string. Again, the cowboy was patient yet firm, and his chief attribute was his ability to sit his hefty self squarely in the saddle no matter where the horse went underneath him. Again, Lee got better, but there was no way I was going to be able to go down centerline with her with cows anywhere near the judge’s booth.
So I scratched yet another test, the morning test for day two, but resolved that I WOULD ride my last test, scheduled for the Walker Ring— all the way across the grounds from the cows and Upwey. The cowboy agreed to be on standby, just in case.
In preparation, I took Lee over and walked her all over the area near Walker (totally cow free) and let her graze there for what seemed like hours. When our scheduled time came, we executed what for us was a near perfect test—she scored a 63% and placed 3rd, but that ribbon may as well have been a gold medal for all that blood, sweat and tears that went into it.
I began to think my horse was autistic. It seemed like she needed a completely steady, stable and predictable environment to perform her best, without any of those pesky distractions or interferences common in the real world. I showed her several more times in recognized dressage competition, but there was always that unpredictability to contend with. I decided that maybe I should focus more on training and clinics with her, and less on showing.
Lee developed to the point where she was able to do most Second and some Third Level movements—but movements only. She does not carry herself in quite enough collection and lacks the quality of connection and throughness required at these levels. Verne understands that, and was willing to work on improving the quality of the connection through the use of movements, instead of drilling endlessly on a 20 meter circle trying to make the connection better. I have always been pleased with the progress that Lee ended up making, but I was also painfully aware that I was still probably trying to shove a square peg into a round hole.
Some friends suggested that I sell Lee. “You really have tried and tried with this horse…maybe it is time to move on?” I know they meant well. But in spite of all the ups and downs, I still liked riding the horse—maybe because each step forward was so hard won. I also had real worries about what would happen to such a quirky horse on the open market.
During all of this, I have always done random things with Lee that you wouldn’t think she would like doing. She has been to the beach several times. I have ridden her while the ROTC students practiced helicopter training across the street from our facility. I have ridden her under the lights in the outdoor at night. She is foot perfect at IHSA flat practice and shows, even with a full set of bleachers and other horses acting naughty around her. She doesn’t flinch with Durham launches its fireworks directly across the street from our facility. But I still struggled to figure out what this horse truly wanted to do. What was her niche? They all have one….I just had to find it.
But really…Competitive Trail?!
In 2013, Denny Emerson began really talking up an event called GMHA Distance Days on his Facebook page. The premier event of the weekend was the three day long 100 mile ride, but divisions were offered with as few as just ten miles required. A friend of mine was actively conditioning her mare for a novice level three day, and for some reason, I got a little caught up in the excitement and decided that perhaps Lee and I could do the ten mile ride with her.
To be quite honest, I would say that any horse who is ridden regularly (let’s say five to six days per week, for an hour or more per day of walk, trot and canter) should be able to handle a distance as short as ten miles without too much fuss. But being diligent, my friend and I took our mares to several parks and local trail systems to work on their “distance” conditioning.
About a week or so before the big event, we took the mares to the local Rockingham Recreational Trail for one final long trot outing. The trail is a former railroad, and it is flat, has decent footing, and stretches all the way from the Newfields/Newmarket line to Manchester, NH, if you are brave enough to cross a few very busy roads (for the record, I am not that brave). Branching off of the rail trail are several other trail networks, mostly maintained by local conservation organizations, all open to non-motorized users, including horseback riders. Having gone back and forth along the main trail several times, on this visit we decided to explore one of these side trails. This proved to be the start of an unexpected adventure.
It became clear that these side trails were less heavily used than the main rail trail, and there were areas in which the brush and branches became quite a bit narrower. We explored several paths, most of which led to dead ends or areas which were too wooded to take the horses. We passed along areas where we were completely in forest and areas which lead us through meadow or formerly logged terrain. It was after passing through one of these more open areas that my friend’s horse began stomping her hind feet in an odd manner, almost like she was kicking out at Lee. Almost immediately, Lee started acting oddly, too, and I looked down to see a wasp sticking out of her neck. Quickly assessing the situation, I squished the wasp and yelled, ‘wasps, GO NOW!!!”
We cantered away as fast as was possible, and amazingly, neither of us was stung ourselves and our mares declined to buck us off. Unfortunately, the only way we knew how to get back to the main trail meant returning through the same area. After catching our collective breath for a few moments, we turned and moved swiftly through the “wasp” area. Neither of us ever saw the nest, but it must have been a ground hive, and a few more stings were acquired going back through that section of trail.
Deciding that we had had enough adventure “off roading”, we returned to the main rail trail and continued our progress towards Epping—away from our trailers, which were at the start of the trail in Newfields. After a few minutes, Lee started flipping her head somewhat violently, almost yanking the reins from my hands and reaching to scratch her nose on her leg. The behavior increased in intensity and persistence, and I realized that she had developed a few hives around the area where I had pulled out the wasp.
I wasn’t too concerned, because the hives seemed to be just around the one area and that seemed to be a logical reaction to a sting. But soon Lee’s entire demeanor became more frantic, more frazzled, and I asked my friend if we could turn around to head back to the trailers—some 5.5 miles away. When my friend turned, she took one look at Lee and I could see by her face that things weren’t good. The hives had spread and increased in size and thickness—almost before your eyes. I vaulted off, and began pulling off tack. Lee’s entire body was quickly consumed—her major leg joints looked like basketballs, her lips puffed like an actress after Botox, and not one square inch of her body was left alone. Terrifyingly, her outer nostrils had also begun to swell. She was clearly in distress, and here we were, miles from our trailers, in the woods, somewhere between Newfields and Epping.
My friend called our vet. We couldn’t even tell her what town we were in. I led Lee, carrying my saddle, to a crossing where the rail trail came close to a road. Some bicyclists passed by and were able to identify the route we were on, and we passed the info along to the vet’s service. And then we stood and waited.
I can’t remember ever feeling so powerless, so helpless and so scared for my horse. After what seemed like an eternity, our vet, Dr. Monika Calitri of Seacoast Equine, arrived. She had been out jogging, and hadn’t even taken the time to change out of her running clothes. She quickly got Lee started on some strong anti-inflammatories and reassured me that as scary as she looked, my horse would probably be okay.
While the medication clearly brought Lee prompt relief, she still was a lumpy, swollen mess and she was in no condition to be ridden back to the trail head. Dr. Calitri, bless her, called her partner and asked him to bring her own personal truck and trailer, still hitched from a show the day before. Once he arrived, we loaded both horses and they took us back to the trail head. What service, what kindness, and I am grateful to this day for her compassion towards my horse.
In spite of this setback, we were able to compete at the ten mile ride and had an amazing time. The people were so open, friendly and welcoming. I loved the chance to be out on the trail and to see areas of the country that I would not have otherwise accessed. I had the notion that this was perhaps something I wanted to do more of.
In spending the summer of 2014 with Denny (see The Tamarack Chronicles, Vol I- VI), I was able to spend hours riding out on the hilly trails around Tamarack. Lee became fitter than she has ever been, and interestingly, the fitter she got, the less spooky she was. Finally, she had become secure and confident. I started riding her in an “s” curve hackamore, which makes it easier to allow for hydrating and eating on trail; but interestingly, she also became so much more willing to just “go”. In the hackamore, she has had moments of being a little spooky or silly, and I have never felt even a little bit out of control. I just don’t need the bit. As she travels down the trail, her lower lip droops. It is sort of adorable.
On trail, Lee is still Lee. She still hates cows. And for the most part, she won’t go first…but never say never, as towards the end of this summer, she has actually begun to willingly lead other horses on familiar trails. She recently acted as babysitter for a green horse on a hack. This could be a sign of the impending apocalypse—just as a heads up.
Crossing the finish line at our first 25 mile ride this August at GMHA caused me to feel so overwhelmed with pride and gratitude. This horse really and truly gave me her everything on the trail, which was rocky, hilly and technical. She readily kept up with a pair of experienced Arabians and quickly pulsed down to the appropriate parameters. I realize that in the scheme of competitive trail, 25 miles is still just the beginning, but compared to anything the horse had done previously, it was far and beyond the best effort she had ever made—and I think she even had fun!
My years with Lee have really taught me so much about what it means to be a horseman. In some ways, I feel like the more I have learned about horsemanship, the less I know. Lee has been a humbling horse to work with, and though many have encouraged me to move her along, I am so glad that I have not done so.
I have always been a rider who adapted disciplines to the horse I had at hand, more or less. In my quest to find a niche for Lee, I have had occasion to clinic with so many amazing horsemen and women, and their lessons have been important ones. I have experimented with different types of equipment and approaches for training. I have competed and schooled, travelled and stayed home. I have literally ridden over mountains and across rivers.
Lee has taught me to listen to the horse. And in her own way, she is predictably unpredictable. Lee moonlights as an IHSA flat horse for the University of New Hampshire team, and she is probably the most consistent draw of the group. At one practice, she carried our walk trot rider around the ring after she had been bucked off another horse. The fall had been scary, the rider’s confidence severely shaken, and Lee just quietly moved along, in spite of the rider’s green aids. I was so proud of her that day, even more proud than when she carried another rider to the reserve high point championship at our home show.
I have enjoyed rides under stars and moonlit skies.
I have galloped down the beach.
So while Lee has never turned into an elite competitor, she is still an amazing animal, and I am so grateful that our paths have crossed.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian