Know Better to do Better: Mistakes I Made with Horses by Denny Emerson
c 2018 Trafalgar Square Books: North Pomfret, VT. 212 pages.
For the nearly 83,000 followers of Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Facebook page, the themes in Know Better to do Better will hopefully sound fairly familiar. Because after over sixty years of learning from horses, Emerson has developed a clear philosophy and system of training—and he will be the first to admit that in learning his craft, there were plenty of wrong turns and mistakes made along the way. This book is part autobiography, part advice column and part training manual, all within the frame of creating a written tool box for readers based upon Emerson’s own expansive career within the equine world.
What makes Emerson so eminently qualified to speak on this subject? Well, for starters he has ridden to the highest levels in both eventing and endurance, stood stallions, bred and foaled mares, and developed more horses and riders than he could possibly recall. He has served on governing boards of several national equestrian organizations, supported local and regional equestrian facilities and organizations, and stood as a staunch advocate of the Morgan horse. If the subject is horses, he has something to say about it—and there is a good chance that you should listen, because his perspective is informed by both experience and education.
In Know Better to do Better, Emerson covers themes pertinent to the horse and those pertinent to the rider. Better understanding of subjects such as horse selection, management, training approaches, rider fitness and focus and rider education will all influence the future success of a given partnership.
How many of us look back at a horse we once rode and think, gosh, if I only knew then what I know now? In this book, Emerson has done just that for about a dozen of the horses which have most influenced his development as a horseman. For an equestrian of his experience to still have the humility to acknowledge that “I could have done better” is a call to all of us to constantly question whether we are truly giving our horses the best possibility of success.
In full disclosure, I had the opportunity to spend the summer of 2014 based at Tamarack Hill with two of my mares, and spent hours riding with Emerson in the Vermont “hills”. He is freely giving of his knowledge and experience and willing to share his perspective; he will dream bigger for you than you do for yourself. Now in his upper 70’s, he still puts in more tack time than most riders I know. If you have always wished to go for a ride with Emerson but it just hasn’t worked out…pick up this book instead. I promise it won’t disappoint.
Those who follow Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Farm Facebook page may have caught his comments a few days back on the “innies” and “outies” of the horse world:
“In the great big world of riding, there are innies and outies, and this has nothing to do with belly buttons. Some riders love open spaces and no boundaries, while others find comfort and security within walls and arenas, with lots of technical requirements.
“And never the twain shall meet,” not quite literally, but how many times have you seen a dressage rider out fox hunting, or a trail rider showing a hunter?
Outie sports like fox hunting, where literally the riders have no idea, at any given moment, where the fox or coyote will lead them, or for how long, are far different from, say, show jumping, which has a specific track, and sequence of fences, and a specific start and finish, and a required time allowed.
It has been postulated that those who gravitate toward outie sports, like trail riding, fox hunting, point to point racing, and (sometimes) eventing have entirely different kinds of psychological profiles than those who prefer innie sports like dressage, show hunters and show jumping.
Outie sports tend to be less precise, exact and meticulous than innie sports. They are also often faster, perhaps more high risk, and less encumbered by rules and regulations.
Of these sports, eventing is perhaps the “swing’ sport, less outie than back in long format days, but still attracting both the innie and outie riders.
Which type of riding draws you in, the more precise, more specific innie sports, or the more “laissez faire” outie ones?”
I had to laugh a little after reading the post…because I seem to be living up to my Gemini nature and enjoy both worlds quite a bit. I have two horses right now—the distance horse that also does a bit of a dressage, and the “event horse who is becoming more of a dressage horse” who focuses much better on dressage days when we have the benefit of time spent outside of the ring in between.
I have successfully competed through 4th level in dressage, and even had the honor of owning a wonderful, big moving and super handsome Hanoverian gelding for five years who helped me finish my USDF Bronze Medal. But to just ride around and around the arena six days per week, even on a fancy mover who can execute flawless changes, smooth half passes and extravagant lengthenings, for me, starts to become a little repetitive. Worldly and I always hacked out a little bit—definitely with attention to the footing (wouldn’t want to lose an eggbar) and more frequent spooks at common objects, but I think the escape from the arena did a lot to keep his attention fresh and focus sharp when working on the precision, accuracy and submission that dressage requires. It also helped us when we showed at Saugerties (NY) and had to hack from the absolute opposite side of the show grounds, over a bridge, through the Marshall and Sterling League Finals, to the dressage arenas where the NEDA Championships were being held.
But on the flip side of the coin, I wouldn’t want to always ride out on the trail, either, for several reasons. It is one thing when a horse is totally retired, and they are basically being ridden to give them attention, companionship and light exercise. For most riders, though, riding only out of the ring makes it too easy to become sloppy and complacent with position, and to also become accepting of asymmetry in both horse and rider. Both partners will tend to favor their stronger side and do not have the same opportunity to address tightness, restriction and weakness on the less dominant side that those who work in the ring do. This kind of imbalance can, over time, contribute to uneven muscle development, saddle fit issues, pain and even lameness. I also genuinely enjoy the process of developing a horse for various arena disciplines; the steady progression of exercises and application of training pyramid concepts appeals to my methodical, organized, intellectual side.
As in most things, a balance seems to be required. Trail and distance horses, and their riders, certainly can benefit from the fundamentals of basic dressage to encourage suppleness, develop strength and improve the quality of communication. Work over basic cavaletti or even small fences can help improve footwork, coordination, strengthen hindquarters and can also prove helpful when crossing downed trees or other trail obstacles. Arena horses, like hunters and dressage horses, can also improve their level of fitness (both mental and physical) but by spending time OUTSIDE of the ring. The many balance checks required when going over uneven terrain on the trail can help to strengthen muscles and stabilize joints, hopefully helping to reduce the risk of injury from a misstep in the ring.
And just as one would not expect the trail horse to magically piaffe or clear a four foot spread in the ring, the arena horse would not be expected to handle the more significant terrain or speeds required of the competitive trail horse. Each has a specialty and is just ‘dabbling’ in the other area.
As an instructor and coach, I have been struck by how many students enter our college riding program, many from a hunt seat background, having never ridden out in the open. We are lucky to have an on campus cross country course, likely the only one of its kind in the country, where we run sanctioned events. Students riding in the more advanced levels of riding class have the opportunity to go school out on the course, under supervision. It is probably the most stressful week of riding instruction that I offer each semester, and a lot of what I have to do is manage the deep fear which many of these “arena riders” face in simply crossing the bridge to our course.
Many of these riders have never experienced even basic terrain, and have no knowledge of how to balance their horse going up or downhill, or how to hold their own bodies to stay centered when the ground is not level. They are not familiar with pulley reins, emergency dismounts or other techniques used to regain control of a fresh mount. I must constantly remind them that their arena jumping techniques should come with them onto the course, that all of the good practice and methods they have used to control pace, balance and form when jumping in the ring also apply to fences out in the open.
At the end of a school, the riders almost always fall into one of two groups—the ones which have experienced the first adrenalin rush of cross country, hooked, ready to go again, and the ones who (sometimes literally) wipe away their tears, happy to have survived the experience, hoping that they may never have to do it again. Denny was right—these are the outies and the innies. I guess we all do sort of have a tendency towards one or the other.
In the end, the question is whether you choose to accept your true nature, or whether you get brave, get disciplined, or some combination of the two, and step into the world which is less comfortable. My guess is that even if you don’t choose to stay there, you will be a better horseman for the experience.
In 2015, I was lucky enough to be one of ten recipients of an Area I Eventing Scholarship. In my application, I indicated that I planned to focus on training rather than competing Annapony this season. I used funds from the scholarship to pay for lessons with Verne Batchelder, Denny Emerson and Nancy Guyotte (see Another Clinic with Nancy Guyotte). Throughout each session, one theme became abundantly clear: Anna is a capable, but somewhat lazy, athlete, and nagging her for “more” will get you nowhere. My lesson with Nancy focused mostly on show jumping, while Verne tackled dressage and Denny, cross country. In this blog, I will discuss the main exercises and techniques learned in the sessions with Verne and Denny.
Verne Batchelder: Using Double Longeing to Improve Suppleness and Impulsion
Verne Batchelder of River House Hanoverians in Williston, FL, gives clinics regularly in New Hampshire. I have really enjoyed working with him over the past several years both with Anna and Lee. One of Verne’s great strengths is his ability to find many different approaches to correcting deficiencies, all while staying within a clear training system and progression. Verne is also an expert with work in hand, including double longeing and long lining; he regularly includes such techniques in the training programs of his own horses, which I had the opportunity to witness on a visit to his farm several years ago (see Winter Training Sessions: Mini-Pro Style).
Having worked with Verne a number of times previously, he is well familiar with Anna’s tendency to be generally lacking in impulsion. Some of this he attributes to her inherent mellow nature, but some of it is due to a lack of suppleness. We have worked on improving her suppleness in a variety of ways, including improved neck control, the use of traditional lateral exercises such as shoulder fore, leg yield and haunches in, as well as longitudinal stretching work like long and low or lengthenings.
This spring, Verne decided for the first time to incorporate some work on the double longe into our session. His intention was to provide increased support through the outside turning aids while improving control of the curvature of her neck. I remained mounted while Verne ran two lines; the outside line was simply attached to the bit ring and ran over my leg and around Anna’s hindquarters, while the inside line was set up as a sliding longe. This meant that the line ran through the inside bit ring and then attached to a loop on the girth, underneath my inside foot. With the sliding longe, the ground handler can smoothly achieve correct inside flexion. The outside line allows for a clear and consistent support through the entire arc of the horse’s body while also providing a mechanism to apply a traditional half halt.
It is quite a strange feeling to essentially have one’s horse ridden from the ground while one remains mounted! Anna has longed only a little bit, and I was definitely mildly (well, greatly) concerned that she might not be a model citizen when put into these boundaries. My job was to essentially hold the reins evenly and to remain centered, adding leg to support Verne’s body position and voice. At first, Anna was somewhat resistant to the idea of accepting the newly imposed limits. It is important for a trainer to remember that resistance is only the horse’s way of expressing their displeasure. If the question the trainer is asking the horse is fair given their physical condition and previous training, and the aids are appropriate, usually the rider’s best response is to simply ignore the resistance and remain consistent in using the aids to ask the appropriate question. In fairly short order, Anna relaxed into the new parameters established by the double longe and began to more actively engage the muscles of her topline as well as increase the degree of thrust from her hindquarters. In addition, the connection further stabilized and the quality of the bend improved.
After this session with Verne, I incorporated the use of about ten minutes of warm up on the double longe with Anna on dressage days, with the inside line set up as a sliding longe. When the horse is unmounted, side reins set just a little bit on the longer side will help to maintain straightness; as always, they should not be adjusted in such a way that the horse’s head is forced down or in. In working with this technique independently, I noticed that Anna could find her own balance and begin to develop looseness throughout her back more rapidly than when warmed up under saddle. When I rode her after this style of warm up, she was much more willing to stay “hotter” off my leg and therefore I could use a much quieter forward driving aid.
One of the other huge benefits of using the sliding longe technique to warm up was that the overall work session could remain “short and sweet”. Because she had already loosened up her muscles, it was possible to keep the actual “work” session much more focused and organized. I think this is super important with all horses, but especially those which don’t have an unlimited reserve of energy. If you can get in the ring, do what you need to do, and then go out for a hack, the horse’s attitude will stay fresher and more enthusiastic than when they anticipate a long session of drill work.
Denny Emerson: Jumping Fences off a Forward Stride
Anna and I spent the summer of 2014 up at Tamarack Hill Farm, where we worked hard to rebuild our confidence over fences (see The Tamarack Chronicles: Vol III). We left in August with a renewed sense of harmony and assurance in our jumping work and completed the fall season with placings at King Oak and Stoneleigh Burnham Horse Trials.
Overall, I was able to continue to apply the techniques I had learned at Denny’s to our regular schooling routine and keep Anna’s jumping skills tuned up while working on my own over the winter. In general, I keep the fences low enough that “mistakes” are not a big deal. I have focused a lot of energy on further refining my jumping “eye” and improving the quality and consistency of Anna’s jumping canter.
Denny always says that when under pressure, all riders will show a tendency to either “choke” or “chase” their eye. What he means is that we all have a preference for pushing a horse to lengthen their stride, perhaps leaving a bit too long, or to overly compress the horse, causing them to jump from a deep spot. While either option might be the best one in a given circumstance, neither is ideal as a method of riding to every fence; this is why most of us have to develop, through practice, the ability and habit of organizing the horse’s canter to arrive at the “ideal” take off spot. It is my opinion that horses, too, have a tendency to prefer to leave long or to jump deep, and they also need to be conditioned to be able to jump from a variety of different reasonable points.
Anna would be a “choker”. She can be carrying a decent amount of energy and power in the canter, and then in the final few strides before the fence, drop behind the leg, compress her stride, and calmly decelerate to the base with increasingly shorter strides. It isn’t quite the same as a “chip”, which is when the horse will squish one extra small stride right in front of the fence. With Anna, it is a steady deceleration which allows balanced but small strides to be fit into the space where a few longer strides would have been better. She is simply more comfortable jumping from a slightly tighter distance off a shorter stride.
For a long time, I have allowed Anna to manage her fences in this way, as it seemed to be the place from which she was most confident. It is also incredibly difficult to prevent her from doing it, and when I try to address the issue, I feel like I am beating her with my legs and/ or crop to keep the canter going. I have participated in clinics (most notably with Kim Severson) where the entire focus became trying to eliminate this change in the canter, to get Anna to jump more “out of stride”, but I always end up feeling like both Anna and I are frustrated. She also will begin to shut down if you really push her on it—her response seems to be, “hey, I jumped your fence, lady, what more do you want?”
The major issue is that there are some fences which simply do not ride as well when jumped from this tighter spot, including upright verticals like planks and wider oxers. In addition, she will often quit when faced with this deep distance and a tough question. Yet when I push her to maintain the same canter to avoid this situation, she will obstinately ignore my aids and put herself into the not ideal take off point. It is just yet another manifestation of her tendency to not stay in front of the leg. Story of our lives!
So if I rode like Michael Jung or Ingrid Klimke or any of the other equestrian elite, my horse would never have gotten to this point. But as I am a mere mortal, and have made a ‘deal’ with my horse, I am now faced with trying to change the terms of our established contract.
My session with Denny started in the show jumping arena. After a brief warm up on the flat, I began popping over a few of the smaller fences in the ring. Anna was obedient but also performing her signature “I change my canter on the approach” maneuver. Denny decided that the focus of our session was going to be keeping her much more forward overall, but especially in those critical last few strides before the fence.
Still in the show jumping ring, Denny had me kick Anna up into a cross country style canter—as much of a gallop as Anna will do under saddle (have I mentioned that she is not a very forward thinking animal?). My job was to do whatever it took—growl, flail, kick like a D2 Pony Clubber—to keep her not just in a jumping canter but a forward, cross country canter, to each and every fence I aimed at. I really did feel just like a 10 year old whose legs don’t clear the saddle flaps, both in technique and overall effectiveness. For her part, Anna did stay much more forward, but it wasn’t coming from within her—it was the result of my motivation.
So in spite of seeing this glimmer of improvement, Denny decided that we needed to go out onto the cross country course to seek more energy. Most horses show an intrinsic improvement in their forward intention when they are out in the open, and the terrain of Vermont would also provide some assistance. Denny hoped that by adding in these variables, Anna would begin to better ‘self-motivate’ in her approach to the fences.
The exercise seemed simple—pick up a positive canter at the bottom of a slope, kick on up the hill, then ride a gradual turn over the crest of the hill and allow the momentum of the descent to carry us forward down to a tire jump at the bottom. The objective? To maintain the positive, forward energy up to and across the fence, with no change in step.
It was really, really hard to not “check” Anna on the descent down the hill. The tire fence we were tackling at the base was small, and so no matter where we came to, Anna would be more than able to cope with getting us up and over. In spite of that, it took everything in my power to not try to come to a specific take off point. For the first several attempts, I did pretty well at the roll down the hill but when Anna began her typical slow down at the base, I did little to prevent it. It was truly amazing how effortlessly she could check all of that forward energy and then insert her little microstrides in before the jump.
I ended up having to channel that inner ten year old girl again, and basically kick and flail and feel like we just galloped down the hill, before Anna FINALLY jumped the tire fence directly out of stride.
Left to my own devices, I don’t think I would ever have been brave enough to ride Anna so aggressively. I still have hunter equitation roots, where aids such as visible kicking or moving out of harmony with the horse are certainly frowned upon. I think I would also have worried too much about getting her out of balance and causing her to make a dangerous mistake. But Denny made two comments regarding these thoughts: 1) The fences MUST be kept low and straightforward, so that jumping them is a given almost regardless of the horse’s balance and 2) he almost never ever coaches riders to ride like this either. Anna is just that lazy!
My major take home from this session was that no matter what, I NEED to practice remaining assertive and positive with the forward driving aids up to and away from each and every fence. I don’t think that I have been passive with my aids at all; it is just clear that in some circumstances with some horses, it is possible to be even bigger and louder with your aids than you might think is appropriate!
I would really to thank the members of the Area I Scholarship for choosing me as one of the 2015 recipients. I feel that I definitely benefitted from the instruction I gained from the scholarship, and I hope that through these blogs, other riders with lazy horses might gain some additional ideas or insights into techniques which can help them, too!
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.
Just prior to my departure from Tamarack Hill, Denny asked me what the most compelling lessons of the summer had been. I found myself a little tongue tied, as it was nearly impossible to briefly summarize all of the concepts, large and small, that I will bring forward to my training, teaching and personal philosophies. My time at Tamarack has been hugely influential; how to encapsulate it in just a few words?
I have been home from Vermont for less than a week, and slowly I am letting the dust settle from three months away. Now that I have had some time for reflection, I think I am finally able to begin to tackle the answer to Denny’s question. So here we go….
What DID you Do on your Summer Vacation?
Denny and May were generous enough to allow me to bring both of my horses to Tamarack this summer; as discussed in The Tamarack Chronicles: Volume I, had quite different goals with each of them. I can confidently say that both horses met and exceeded my expectations of progress during the course of this summer. The growth was slow and steady; while I was aware that both horses were improving, it is really now that I am able to step back and take a look at the overall development that I can acknowledge just how far they both came.
Lee has evolved into a true competitive trail horse. Her current level of fitness exceeds anything that I have previously brought her to. During our time in Vermont, she successfully completed 15 mile rides at GMHA and Hartland Riding Club and her first 25 mile ride at GMHA. On my last day at Tamarack, Denny and I did our own personal 16 mile ride with Lee and Cordie, so though that ride didn’t include the vetting procedures it certainly counts towards her increased fitness level. If everything stays on track, she will compete at the 25 mile ride at the GMHA Distance Days in late August.
Beyond the physical changes, Lee has grown tremendously in confidence. While she still does not want to be the lead horse on a trail if someone else is available to do the job, she strides out with power and ease. I have been riding her in an “S” curve hackamore, a style which Denny uses on Roxie and Cordie when hacking out, and feel completely in control. Not only that, I think she is happier to move forward in the hackamore than in a bit. She is less spooky both in the barn and out. I think that she has finally found her niche.
Anna has returned to her more confident self over fences, and the opportunity to jump “little and often” has helped to make jumping less of an anxiety filled experience for me. I competed in both of the Tamarack Jumper shows, getting back up to the 2’9” level in the second show, and competed at the Huntington Schooling Trials. With a re-emphasis on correct basics, I think I will be able to maintain this level of confidence as we move forward. I have entered her at two USEA events, King Oak and Stoneleigh Burnham, this fall.
In school, teachers are trained in pedagogical theories, based on current educational research. For example, elementary school teachers who help youngsters learn to read will use a combination of pedagogical approaches: phonics, whole language, etc. Some approaches work better for one student than another, while some students will learn no matter which approach is used. Therefore, teachers must rely on a tool box of different techniques and exercises, all while keeping a consistent philosophy in mind regarding their overall objective.
In my opinion, the best horse trainers and coaches are the ones who have a “training philosophy”, or pedagogy, which is the result of their own equestrian education and experience. The best philosophies are grounded in classical theory, a calm and patient approach, and compassion. The best trainers know that while it is important to keep an open mind and to learn about new techniques, they are also not inclined to go for the latest fad or shortcut. They know that their system will work for their horses and riders.
It is clear in working with Denny that his sixty odd years of riding experience have given him a personal pedagogy for riding education. He admits freely that he has made mistakes (and has learned from them) and that he tends to jump in feet first to new endeavors, which honestly is part of why he has been so widely successful. He regularly references the great riders and coaches of past eras (LeGoff, Steinkraus, Chapot, Jenkins, Davidson, and others) as well as the current era (Balkenhol, Davidson Jr, Dujardin, etc). In other words, he honors the legacy left by those who have come before but also continues to learn from those who are currently coaching and competing.
One of the more compelling comments which Denny made this summer was regarding the young up and coming professionals in equestrian sport. He said that in his opinion, there are two phases to a rider’s career—first, one must learn the craft, and second, one shoots for the top. Denny’s observation is that many young riders are hungry for phase two to begin, and so they sort of “gloss over” phase one. It is easy to understand why that is. Phase two is where the glory, prestige and fame occur. Phase one requires patience, hard work, diligence, persistence, and comes with little glory, prestige or fame. But without taking the time to develop your Personal Pedagogy as a trainer, based on the classical work that has come before you, it is much less likely that phase two is even going to happen. Sure, some people can buy fancy well trained horses or talk their way into getting others to buy them these horses, but for the most part, the holes will start to come through.
Denny told me this summer that when he was still actively doing clinics across the country, he was often introduced as a gold medalist, from his team’s win at the 1974 World Championships. While this fact was true, he said that it was AFTER that point that he really learned how to ride, and developed his understanding of the importance of keeping the lower leg under the rider and not jumping ahead with the upper body. His point is that in spite of the fact that he had won a gold medal, he was really still in Phase One of his career—learning his craft.
So in being exposed to Denny’s teaching this summer, it is clear to me that his Personal Pedagogy is one which emphasizes correct basics, slow, steady and methodical training, and striving to ensure that horses are left happy and content (as opposed to mentally fried and physically exhausted) at the end of a work set. Perhaps this is the most compelling lesson of the summer—it is far, far better to stop too soon in your training than to push too far or too long. As is true in so many aspects of horses, in the long run it is faster to go slow.
Being at Tamarack gave me the opportunity to step away from my “real life” and be around people who are truly driven to ride and excel. Everyone at Tamarack works hard, every day, and as summer goes along, the days get busy. The horses are happy and content, the barn is CLEAN and riders routinely ship in for training. I had my own two to ride daily, and often also was given the opportunity to hack out with Denny on Cordie, Roxie or Atti, or with fellow working student Katie on the babies, Derwin and Q. I wish I knew how many miles we logged over the course of the summer on the plentiful trails around Tamarack—a few hundred, I would guess!
It became clear to me over the course of the summer that I had been stuck in a rut with my own horses’ training programs. There is an expression, “if you keep doing what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always got” or something to that effect. Being at Tamarack allowed me to reassess my basics and especially hone in on DETAILS that allowed my horses to make big strides forward. As a trainer, I will endeavor to keep my focus on these details as I return to working independently at home.
Additionally, Denny’s emphasis on correct basics has only served to reaffirm for me as a coach and instructor that work in this area is time well spent. As someone who primarily coaches college students coming from a wide range of equestrian backgrounds, I am frequently faced with “hungry” riders who are ready for phase two of their riding career to begin. Unfortunately, many of them are still lacking a solid foundation of basic skills and understanding of training theory. I know I won’t be able to reach all of them, but if I can strive to maintain this focus on correct basics and classical theory in my instruction, I think it will only serve to benefit my students more in the long run than the alternative.
During my last week at Tamarack, Denny posed a question to me that was even more difficult than “what did you learn this summer.” What he asked me was if I knew what kind of a rider I wanted to be. This is a question that I have struggled to answer for years, so I didn’t have any better of a response for him than I usually have for myself. His query was not meant to give me an answer specifically, but rather to open my eyes to possibilities and to how my own choices will affect the outcome.
It is clear (and has always been clear) that my path is not going to lead to the upper levels of eventing or show jumping. I enjoy jumping, usually, but it does make me a little nervous and so I am best suited for low level sport. That is fine. What I have recognized this summer is that in spite of this, I actually have a fairly good eye on the ground. At times I have felt insecure in the fact that I do an extensive amount of coaching over fences in spite of no longer being as comfortable as I used to be when it comes to jumping larger obstacles. Denny reminded me that you can be a gifted instructor even if you no longer ride or even if you have never ridden at all, given a proper education. After all, Sally Swift revolutionized the equine industry with her Centered Riding concept, and she never rode at all.
I enjoy dressage, and I probably have more innate skill in that sport than in work over fences. I do want to compete at the FEI levels. But again, to make a serious bid for fame and glory in this sport would take more financial backing and all-consuming dedication than I have interest in pursuing. When I compete at the FEI levels, it will be for me, to fulfill my own goals, not to make any kind of a charge to “make a team” or be a true contender. And none of the horses in my current string are likely to be my FEI dressage mount.
So where does that leave me?
During one of our hacks, the day that he posed the question of “what kind of a rider do you want to be?”, Denny started listing the qualities of an elite endurance rider. He said that those who are successful in endurance are steady, methodical and don’t have great mood swings regarding their riding. They are motivated by the success that is completing a ride with a sound horse that is fit to continue. They have a horse who is suited for the job—usually an Arabian or perhaps an Anglo-Arabian. They come into their own at a slightly older age— where eventing is a sport largely for the young and fearless, endurance seems to appeal more to those who are able to take the time to properly condition a horse to handle the demands of long distance riding. It takes at least three years to make a 100 mile horse, which means that you need to have a long term focus in sight beyond that day or week or month.
Denny’s point is that for the most part, these are all qualities that I have, and further, that if I wanted to shoot for the elite levels in endurance, that this could in reality be a goal that can be actualized. I still have a lot to learn—you know, having completed a lifetime total of 65 competitive trail miles—but as Denny said, that is 55 more miles than I had at the beginning of the summer. I am intrigued by the sport, I have enjoyed meeting the people involved with it and appreciate the values that the sport teaches.
I have never seriously considered trying to do a ride on the level of a one day hundred, never mind something as prestigious as the Tevis Cup or Old Dominion. But Denny counseled that these rides are attainable, and do-able by someone like me, if I have the right horse. During the summer, I met a Pan Am Games medalist in endurance, Connie Walker, and a recent first time Tevis finisher (11th place!) in Gene Limlaw. Meeting these people made me realize that completing rides at this level is possible and do-able.
The idea excited me more than I would have thought it would. I am by nature a bit more cautious when it comes to taking chances, so unlike how Denny would do it, I won’t be rushing out to purchase an experienced Arabian endurance horse or moving immediately to the endurance capital of the US (I am not sure even where that is, but surprisingly, I have heard there is a large endurance community in Florida). But I am willing to consider the possibility and explore the options, large and small.
Overall, I am extremely grateful for having the opportunity to take these past three months at Tamarack and to clarify further the most important tenets of my own Personal Pedagogy. I am pleased and proud of the progress which my horses have made. I am delighted to have made new friends in Vermont and am so, so glad that I took the step out of my comfort zone to take this time to further my own riding and education.
Even though two of three phases at a horse trials involve jumping, the fact is that to be competitive you must be good at dressage. It used to be that an accurate, steady test would be enough to put you in the top six after dressage, but now that same performance will usually leave you down the leaderboard, behind those riders who have really learned to embrace the Training Pyramid (and/or who have a better mover than yours, sorry to say).
Another important observation is that if you want to be safe on cross country and to leave the rails up in show jumping, you must be able to rider your horse’s canter. And to do that, the rider must first understand what kind of canter she is looking for and to teach the horse to work in that place. Essentially, the canter must be adjustable. This means that the horse both understands how and is willing to move powerfully forward in a longer stride while maintaining balance and also is able to compress and engage without losing power. This is not a skill you teach a horse by jumping a million jumps. This is a skill you teach a horse by riding a million tiny transitions. ON THE FLAT.
While I haven’t yet put away my jumping saddle for good, I will freely admit to the fact that I actually ENJOY riding dressage. However, I know that for many jumping riders, the “d” word (dressage) is just as much of a swear as some others and they work in the sandbox only under duress. But the fact is that if you want to be a better jumping rider, you need to also better your dressage skills. As Denny says, most horses don’t have a jumping problem, they have a canter problem.
Here at Tamarack, we have touched on many different themes during our dressage lessons. Below is a brief summary of several of them.
Warm Up is the Most Important Part of the Ride
Denny attended a clinic with famed international coach Klaus Balkenhol, where he audited the sessions. One of the messages he heard there which has stuck with him is that most riders hurry their horse’s warm up. This is especially true in the dressage, but is also relevant to jumping. The rider gets on, walks a lap or two of the ring, and then will start to pick up the reins and fuss and fiddle with their horse. Balkenhol remarked that the warm up is the most important part of the ride, as it confirms that a horse’s muscles are supple and loose and ready for the day’s work.
Most horses living in the northeastern states do not have access to unlimited turnout. Yet this is a species which has evolved to take thousands of steps per day. Being stall bound is a necessary evil for many horses, but it is counter to the needs of equine physical and mental health. When we as riders are overly earnest, thinking about an upcoming competition or even just what we want to accomplish in our day’s ride, we do our horses no favors by forcing them into a connection when they are not yet ready.
Here at Tamarack, it is expected that you will walk your horse on a loose rein for about ten minutes before beginning to ask them to connect and work at a stronger pace. Often times, this “walking warmup” can occur outside of the arena, by going on a short hack. Once the rider begins her work, it is important to still take time as the horse’s muscles begin to warm up. For example, Denny often warms up in the canter in a light seat, even when in a dressage saddle, to allow the topline time to loosen.
Don’t think of the warm up as just something to get through. If breakfast is the most important meal of the day, then your warm up is the most important part of your ride. Just as we do not expect a child to focus in school when they have not been properly fueled, it is only when the horse’s muscles and mind are properly prepared for the work head of them can we expect their best effort.
Do Not Over Do
The challenge in developing dressage skills comes from finding a balance between asking the horse to push a little harder, engage a little more, be a little bit rounder or more supple, etc., without drilling. Riders who specialize in dressage are stereotyped to have, shall we say, a bit of an “attention for detail” and this can lead to a habit of drilling movements on their horses. Horses that associate the dressage arena with dull repetition and unrelenting demands are unlikely to be able to demonstrate the mental and physical relaxation that leads to supple, loose muscles, free forward movement and ultimately schwung, cadence and expression.
Denny compares the work in the dressage arena to body building at the gym. If you are looking to “bulk up” your muscles, you will need to start with weights that are just a little bit hard to lift, and do enough repetitions to cause stress but not so many as to cause strain. From there, you build, slowly and gradually, as the body adapts to the increased demands. You also don’t usually work the same muscle groups day in and day out—muscles need rest periods in order to repair and grow stronger.
If you use this same philosophy in your dressage work, you will be able to condition your horse’s muscles, tendons and ligaments to be able to handle increased demands and pressure. The growth will occur in a systematic manner, and the horse should never get to the point of feeling fried.
Put yourself back in the gym again. Imagine your least favorite machine or exercise. Now imagine that, no matter how hard you have pushed, how many reps you have done, or how much your muscles are screaming for a break, your trainer kept demanding more and more and more, well beyond what you were capable of doing that day. How will your body feel afterwards? How likely are you to return to that trainer and that gym? Realistically, you will be miserably sore and the next time you have a notion to go to the gym, you will likely hit the couch instead.
It seems so obvious that this approach is not the best way to improve strength and fitness, yet well intentioned riders do this exact thing to their horses every day by over-doing, repeating exercises too many times, and drilling on movements.
Denny says that if you think of dressage work as body building for your horse, you will be less likely to overdo the work. The horse must know that the end is in sight and that the goals are attainable. Work your horse in short sets with rest breaks. Change directions regularly. Be happy with little and reward often.
Use the Canter to Improve the Trot
Denny says that a common mistake that many riders fall into when practicing dressage is to spend a disproportionate amount of time working in the trot, while disregarding the canter. If you want your horse to become more adjustable for the jumping work, well, then you need to practice the canter on the flat.
Denny uses the “hoof print game” in his canter work on the flat (as well as when warming up for jumping). Pick a point out ahead of you and ride actively towards it; Denny suggests using one of the doubtless hundreds of hoof prints in the footing. Practice getting to that point with a count of 3, 2, 1. Doing this will cause you to activate the horse’s canter with your leg and also to create balance in the canter by using your seat and upper body.
In addition to the benefit this will give you in terms of your horse’s overall adjustability, when the canter becomes connected and energetic, this will transfer over into the trot work. All horses which demonstrate a true, two beat trot have a moment of suspension in every stride, when the diagonal pairs of legs switch positions. With increased thrust from the hindquarters and swing in the topline, this moment of suspension becomes slightly longer. This increased engagement and thrust creates a better quality of gait. Of the basic gaits of the horse (walk, trot and canter), it is the trot which is most able to be improved upon. Use your canter work to create the energy you need for better trot work.
If you Want Your Horse to Move Like a Jaguar….
In dressage, it is easy to become overly focused on what the horse’s body is doing, when the reality is that how they move is often a reflection of how the rider is (or isn’t) moving. I teach my students that in the free walk, the horse should be moving like a jungle cat—supple, loose, slinky. The challenge is to then take that feeling of losgelassenheit into the rest of the gaits. But we can always come back to that jungle cat imagery.
Many times, if we as the rider imagine a feeling in our body, it is possible to steer our horses towards replicating that movement in theirs. For example, if you want the horse to move in a specific tempo, that tempo should become your posting beat.
Sometimes the harder we try as riders, the more we impede our horse’s performance. It is essential that the rider works to create elasticity and suppleness in her own body, in every joint (elbows, shoulders, and hips, especially), while not going to the extreme of being a floppy rag doll.
“If you want your horse to move like a jaguar…then you need to move like a jaguar,” says Denny.
In order to develop this suppleness, riders must also cultivate strength. Why is it so hard to sit to the trot? Well, it is a symmetrical gait with a moment of suspension, and the mechanics of its movement cause the horse’s topline to rise and fall with that rhythm. To appear still on a moving object, in this case the horse, the rider must move their body in perfect coordination with the horse’s body. Watch a dressage rider sometime—even though they appear to be immobile, look at their joints, and you will see movement. There is a unique push and pull required between suppleness and strength. This is not easy to master.
The other piece here is that riders must learn to think of themselves as athletes. Athletes, by definition, are fit. Denny isn’t saying that someone needs to be rail thin skinny to be fit—he points out that 300 pound football players are athletes while someone else might be 100 pounds and bedridden. Riding is an athletic endeavor. You cannot expect your horse to be an athlete if you are not one yourself.
The “A-Ha” Moment
Just this past week, I had one of my biggest “a-ha” moments on Anna in terms of developing her work on the flat. Anna gets a lot of points for being “cute” and is the queen of the balanced, steady test—we generally receive comments along the lines of “needs more forward energy” and “needs more suppleness/bend”.
Denny has remarked several times this summer that there are two horses in Anna; one who moves in little pony gaits and another which can move in a more elastic and fancy manner. He says that I need to become more assertive with my aids, in particular the outside rein, in order to keep her working more honestly over and through her topline. She has a tendency to bulge her shoulder and push her nose out, just a little bit, and therefore escapes being truly round and connected.
Denny has actually gotten on Anna a few times, and within fairly short order, I see her transform into the fancy mover. But somehow, when I have gone to work Anna on my own, I am not quite so quick to find this version of my horse. Instead, she has been resistant, as in my efforts to be more assertive with the outside rein instead I had become restrictive.
The “a-ha” moment came when Denny rode alongside me and said (again) that I needed to have her more onto the outside aids, and to use my ring finger to give the aid. Hold the presses. He has said this same thing countless times before, but for whatever reason, at that moment, I realized that instead of using primarily the ring finger, I had tensed my pointer and middle fingers as well. This had created a pulling pressure on my horse; once I noticed that I was holding too much with all of these fingers, I also noticed that my wrist was locked and forearm muscles tense. As I released all of this restriction, there came my horse onto the outside rein. Magic.
This experience only serves as an excellent reminder that our bodies do things all the time that we are not aware of, and which impact our horses in a negative way. It only shows that we riders really DO need to be athletes so that we can continue to develop precise and specific control of our body’s movements.
Event riders are different than other jumping riders in that they are not just able to jump outside of the arena, but look forward to it with a zeal that is almost religious. But many people perceive cross country riding to be about going as fast as you can and jumping from any available distance (good or bad), all while wearing brightly colored gear. Those who do not understand what it takes to ride cross country may also be heard to say that while an equitation rider is expected to look a certain way on her courses in terms of form and function, cross country riding is simply about getting to the other side of the obstacle and how the rider looks while doing it matters little.
Clearly, these individuals have never attempted to actually ride cross country.
In fact, one of the hardest aspects of eventing is learning how to ride cross country well. It takes proper form, technique and a unique set of skills, some of which can be simulated in an arena but most of which require practice over actual cross country fences. Learning about and practicing this unique skill set is probably the best, most effective way to increase safety (and fun) for horse and rider. It also requires a certain degree of confidence and bravery that not all horses and riders have. In fact, even the best horses and riders have their limits, and it is when you push beyond these limits that accidents are more likely to occur.
We have had several occasions to work on cross country technique this summer; those horses that are currently on the farm represent levels of expertise quite literally from “grasshopper” to intermediate level, so there is quite a range of capability. However, in all cases, the same basics are emphasized.
Cross Country Variables
One of the hardest aspects of riding cross country is learning to handle changing terrain and its effects on your horse. In addition, most cross country fences are meant to be jumped from a forward canter or gallop, so a rider must become aware of speed, not just in terms of how fast they are actually going but also in terms of its effect on the horse. The faster horses travel, the more they have a tendency to go downhill with their balance and to get long and flat. Of course, this is exactly the opposite of how the horse must be balanced in order to jump well. Denny frequently quotes cross country master Lucinda Green in saying that when you come to a cross country fence with your horse, you want to feel like you are sitting on the heavy end of a teeter totter; in other words, your horse’s hindquarters are lowered and engaged and their shoulders are up. Lucinda says that you want to imagine that 75% of your horse is up in front of you as you approach a fence.
Clearly you cannot travel around an entire cross country course in this balance; it would be exhausting for your horse and an inefficient way to travel. Instead, the cross country rider must learn to master controlling their horse’s balance and speed throughout the course: while travelling between fences in the galloping seat, well off their horse’s back and with a following arm, and then to transition to a more organized and collected canter from which their horse can actually jump a fence.
Just as in arena jumping, the rider has three driving aids when approaching a cross country fence: the leg, the stick and the voice. The rider’s lower leg MUST be kept on during the approach in order to keep the hindquarters engaged. Denny says that because most riders instinctively pinch with their knees, their lower leg swings back and is ineffective as a driving aid. He says it can help to imagine that your knees and toes are pointing slightly “east and west” as you approach the fence, which is achieved by rotating the leg from the rider’s hip. In addition, keeping your chin up, particularly while coming over a drop or downhill fence, will help the rider to stay centered and balanced with the upper body. And again, just as in arena jumping, the rider should SIT during the last several strides of the approach to help the horse come to the correct take off point. Denny often coaches riders to even feel like they are staying a little too far back on the approach, with their feet just a little forward, as it is safer to be a little left behind than to be ahead of the motion.
There are so many occasions when riding cross country that a rider may slip or even let go of a rein entirely, or simply lose their balance or tension on the rein. When this happens, it is easy to also lose your bat, which means that you have eliminated one of your three driving aids. Before coming to Tamarack, I had noticed riders who had elastic bands on the ends of their jumping bats, the heavy duty kind that you would need to restrain a thick a pony tail. I am embarrassed to admit that I never knew that the reason for the band is to give you extra security in terms of hanging onto your whip while jumping cross country. You simply wrap the band around your bat two or three times, then unloop one loop and twist it around your middle finger. Voila! You and your bat are now more securely connected. I now want to do this with all of my whips, especially while hacking out.
The Glamour Fences: Drops, Banks, Ditches and Water
If you walk enough cross country courses, you will eventually notice that most of the fences fall into three categories: those which are solid fences designed like an oxer , combining height and width and often with an ascending shape(coops, roll tops, ramps, ascending rails, cordwood, etc); those which are solid fences designed like a vertical (suspended logs, regular logs, etc, overall a less common style on modern courses) and those which represent one of the varieties of what I call the “glamour jumps” of cross country—drops, banks, ditches and water.
The glamour jumps are introduced in a quite basic form at the lower levels and are embellished as horses and riders become more skilled. For example, at beginner novice, a water question is almost always just a simple “splash through”, while a novice horse may be asked to jump out of water, jump a simple fence which is set close to the water, or even to drop into the water, which is essentially combining two glamour jumps into one. Ditches start out as simple, unrevetted affairs and build into ditch/walls, trakheners and elephant traps. And so on. So if you have a horse that you are hoping is going to grow up to be an event horse, it is super important that they are calmly, systematically and clearly taught what they are to do at these types of fences. Denny says that if in spite of this training approach a horse does not want to jump these glamour fences, they are simply not going to make it as an event horse.
During one school, I had the opportunity to watch Denny work with a green OTTB who is still learning about jumping ditches. Even though she has jumped them successfully in the past, the mare was quite uncertain about going over the ditch located next to Tamarack’s main jumping arena. We first tried using a lead horse, meaning that the green mare was to closely follow a more experienced and confident horse up to and over the ditch. When this proved to be ineffective, and the rider was becoming a bit nervous, Denny switched to a different technique. He had the rider dismount and attached a longe line to the horse. Two rails were placed on standards and laid along the sides of the ditch to sort of give it a chute like effect, and two handlers with longe whips flanked each side of the ditch. Denny had the rider begin to lead the horse over the ditch, while the handlers very gently encouraged the horse with the longe whips ONLY if she began to back up and drift towards them. While the mare was still uncertain, this approach gave her time to really consider the question, it gave her a leader to follow in the human handler, and when she chose to jump (a process that took less time than to set up all of the equipment) she was absolutely in no danger of being hit in the mouth, hit in the back or losing her rider. Once across, they reversed the placement of all involved and jumped it the other way. Back and forth they went, the horse unmounted, until it was truly not a big deal at all. The horse became visibly relaxed and much more confident.
The rider remounted, the ground handlers stayed in position, and the horse was asked to quietly jump the ditch again, but now with the rider on board. The handlers had to do nothing at all, as the horse had clearly figured out the answer to the question and calmly jumped the ditch.
I really want to emphasize here that the entire process took not more than ten minutes. This was not a case of a horse being forced to jump over and over or being chased over the fence. It was more a matter of presenting the question in such a way that the horse could figure out the answer on her own. And when she did, it was No Big Deal. This is an example of one of those “bazillion successes” which one needs to create a bold, confident horse.
Denny relayed a story of another mare, one who is now successfully competing at Training level, who also was quite unsure of ditches as a youngster. I understand that her reaction to the question was quite negative and much more dramatic than that of the mare I watched them work with, but with the same calm persistence, they were able to encourage her to figure out the correct answer. Denny said that this was a pivotal turning point in that young horse’s training; he feels that if she had been made to jump the ditch through force, or if they had given up before the mare was successful, that the reluctance to jump ditches would have become a permanent and engrained habit.
Denny says that the introduction of glamour jumps like small banks, drops, water and ditches can begin with a halter and longe line for horses three or four years old. He says that introducing these questions without a rider, and in a manner in which the horse is certain to find the correct answer, is an excellent way of helping them to learn what is expected of them.
One last note about schooling “glamour jumps”—Denny says that during a cross country school, he always tries to visit the water complex last, as this is where horses seem to be most likely to pull a shoe. That way, you will have had the opportunity to complete the rest of your school, and even if the horse does lose a shoe, you likely still will have already done most of what you needed to do that day.
The Huntington Schooling Horse Trials
On July 23, Huntington Farm in South Strafford, VT, held a schooling horse trials, utilizing several of the cross country courses from their recent USEA event. As the farm is about five minutes from Tamarack, this represented the perfect opportunity for Anna and I to try to put all of our recently re-polished skills to the test.
I entered beginner novice, and my goal for the day was to give Anna a calm, positive ride throughout all three phases, without letting my intensity and anxiety take over. I must say that on the cross country course that day, Anna felt the most positive and relaxed that I think she has EVER felt. I was able to work on managing her balance and impulsion; I focused on my three stride eye and keeping soft, following arms with short reins. We were able to find a steady balance and rhythm by fence three, and from there, I almost felt like I was riding a working hunter. She remained confident and positive and willing. One of the most effective techniques that I applied to that course was focusing on keeping my chin up, especially on fences with downhill landings. Keeping my chin up helped to keep my own balance centered, and it also made it easy to pick a sight line with my eye that kept me thinking forward.
Anna finished in third place, on her dressage score of 29.0. But even without a pretty yellow ribbon, the day was a huge victory as the day overall put “another quarter in the Coke machine” of positive experiences for my horse.
Blogger’s Note: Denny told us a story of a clinic he taught at many moons ago on the West Coast. The audience was mostly children, and he had been giving them a lecture on the topic of horse training, and the importance of being consistent and working hard. He recollects that he wasn’t sure how much the children were really understanding, when one young man said to him, “I get it, Mr. Emerson, horses are like a Coke machine.” Denny admits that he didn’t see the connection at first, but the young man went on to explain that if you want to get something out of your horse, you have to put the effort in first. So training your horse is like putting the quarters into the machine when what you want at the end of it all is a refreshing drink. Never underestimate the wisdom of youth!
Additional Blogger’s Note: The cover photo here is courtesy of Joan Davis/FlatlandsFoto and was taken at the 2013 Groton House Horse Trials. Just want to make sure that this excellent photographer receives her due!
I grew up taking lessons at the local hunter/jumper barn, and so I would guesstimate that I have been jumping horses for nearly thirty years, give or take. While I have never aspired to the upper levels in any jumping discipline, there was a time in my life when I was fairly comfortable and competent over fences up to about 3’6”. As a Pony Clubber, I passed my B rating and competed at the USPC National Championships in 1994 in Senior Girls Tetrathlon, which required a 3’7” show jumping course. In fact, through most of my USPC ratings, if I could manage to squeak through the flatwork, I felt quite competent in the over fences sections. It was my forte.
But somewhere in my mid to late twenties, my feelings towards jumping changed. It was a slow transition, so painstakingly unhurried that I was almost unaware it had happened. I became less bold, far less brave and much more anxious. I have taken falls, like everyone else, and I have ridden stoppers and horses with low confidence that don’t pull you to the fences, but (fortunately), there is no single event that I can point to and say, here, this is where it began. The change was so insidious as to be almost invisible, but it occurred all the same.
When I bought Anna, she had been worked lightly under saddle at the walk and trot. The rest of her under saddle education has been from me. I took her on her first canters, taught her about dressage, and introduced her to jumping. From the very beginning, she was a willing partner, if a little lazy, and only spooked at the occasional fence. The first time she saw a ditch cross country, she just popped right over it; no fuss, no drama. Banks, drops, water— same. I competed her for three seasons of sanctioned eventing at beginner novice and novice, earning her USEA Silver Medal and taking trips to the Area I Championships at both levels (with clean cross country rounds). Sure, we had a stop here and there; at her first horse trials at Huntington, she was in first after dressage ahead of several accomplished trainers but spooked her way around the cross country course. She spooked at the glare on a freshly painted coop at Hitching Post one year. But for the most part, I could rely on her to give me her best effort, and if she did take a peek at a fence, on the second presentation she willingly went right over.
Fast forward to the fall of 2013. For the more complete story, please read my earlier blog, “Reflections on Gratitude: Part I”. But the short summary is that after completing (with only one penalty) three solid novice courses in a row (GMHA, Groton House, and Fitch’s Corner Area Champs), we were eliminated at King Oak in show jumping for three refusals, and then somehow scrambled around Stoneleigh Burnham two weeks later, in spite of refusals in both jumping phases. Gone was my willing partner. And gone was my sense of confidence or belief in the horse. Jumping had become a real chore and ceased to be fun at all. After several months of down time, I began working Anna over fences this winter in the indoor under guidance from my longtime coach. She had me focus on being softer in my arms, trying to not “set” Anna so much for a takeoff point, and to stay lighter in my seat so as to not hollow her out before the fence. Things were better—mostly. Except for oxers. And in and outs. And anything new or unusual or unexpected.
I dropped back down to beginner novice for our spring prep outings in 2014, which should have made things super easy, given her accumulated experience over fences. But at the shows, Anna got stuck, wouldn’t go, and stopped at fences for no apparent reason. I was eliminated in show jumping at two combined tests (THANK YOU to the organizers of each who recognized the schooling opportunity and allowed me to complete my rounds anyway). I was so, so discouraged. It is hard to ride confidently towards a fence while in the back of your head you think the horse might stop.
When I arrived at Tamarack in May, I was seriously worried about how on earth I was going to get through the jumping lessons. I felt so many emotions about it. I was frustrated and embarrassed. I felt like I was a bad trainer and like I had messed up my horse and caused these problems. I was worried about being overfaced or incapable of riding to the expectations of those around me. I was embarrassed to have people watch me ride.
My first jump school here did nothing to assuage my worries. We had the unfortunate luck to begin our school right as a thunderstorm was rolling in, forcing us into the indoor. Anna had yet to settle into the routine at the farm, and was anxiously calling for her new BFF Lee, as well as reacting to the thunder and rain on the indoor roof. During most lessons, Denny will call students over to him to discuss concepts relevant to the day’s exercises; while Denny was speaking that day, my horse was spinning, calling and in general acting in a disruptive and busy manner. The other horses in our group were quite green over fences, so Denny had set up a teeny tiny vertical for us to school back and forth over. The idea was to quietly trot to the fence with a soft rein and just sort of casually go over it. Anna was so tense and distracted that our “quiet trot” was more of a “forward trot/canter”. My “soft rein” was more like a steady rein as I tried in vein to keep her in the quiet trot. We approach the teeny tiny vertical—and my horse stopped.
The truth was, my own anxiety level was through the roof—I was nervous about the jump lesson, my horse’s behavior was doing nothing to sooth my nerves and now I was unable to even jump this simple fence. How much worse could it get?
Denny noted that I was (quite unconsciously) pulling back on Anna and holding tension through my arms as we approached the fence, and that when Anna did jump, she rushed over the fence. We had just gotten into such a negative cycle with one another that in order to try to fix the problem, there was little option other than to go right back to the beginning. So that is what we did.
“Earnest in a Box”
Something that has become clear to me is that when it comes to jumping, especially in public, I have begun to suffer from performance anxiety. I am so concerned about being perfect that I work myself into an anxious state which is completely counterproductive for riding. On the one hand, I know what I need to do and I know that I am physically capable of doing those things. I have years of muscle memory on my side. But in spite of this, the state of anxiety and emotional turbulence I get into are ultimately causing me to be less competent than I should be. Even going to jumping lessons had become a big deal. As in, we were going to JumpToday, instead of jumping being just a matter of course in our training.
Most of us are familiar with the term “earnest”. According to its definition in Merriam and Webster, “earnest” is an adjective which means “serious and sincere; not lighthearted or playful”. It would seem that for someone who wants to become an effective trainer and rider, being earnest in the study of horsemanship would be an admirable quality. But Denny has brought up several times that being too earnest can actually interfere with a rider’s ability to be effective. Being “earnest” can cause us to overanalyze and worry, which results in physical and mental tension. I absolutely fall into the category of “earnest rider”, and Denny has helped me realize just how much this earnestness has interfered with my desired success.
Denny coaches that there are certain aspects of ourselves that we almost have to “lock in a box” when we ride so that they don’t get in the way. For me, earnestness is one of these qualities. Each time I have a jump school, I have started to remind myself to lock my earnestness in a box, along with any feelings of performance anxiety or franticness.
Another critical concept that Denny brought forward is that ego has no place in horse training. If you need to go back to rails on the ground to work on your horse’s canter, do it. If you need to ride with a neck strap so that you don’t catch your horse in the mouth, do it. If you have to jump 18” verticals for six months because that is where you or your horse is comfortable, do it. Humility is NOT one of the qualities which should be locked in your box.
Furthermore, even though you might think that everyone around you is watching and judging (especially at a show), the reality is that at the end of the day, no one really cares about your performance except for you. So learning to let go of what others think is an important quality.
Back to Basics
Horses will provide us with the responses which they have been conditioned to understand. Teaching a horse to jump is a matter of conditioning them to understand that when they are presented to an obstacle, they jump it. But if they are punished by the rider for providing this response, whether through being caught in the mouth, pounded on their back, or being put too many times to an incorrect take off point with insufficient impulsion, then they are not going to be a willing partner.
It sounds so simple, right?
To start to rebuild both horse and rider confidence, Denny had me jump very small fences from the trot several times per week. The idea was to make jumping much less of a big deal than what it had become. This approach is what he uses when introducing greenies to jumping for the first time, as well as how he works to rebuild shaken confidence. The intent is to create a situation that is set up for success. Keep the questions simple and repeat them until it is a confirmed response. A quote from former USET coach Jack Le Goff that Denny repeats often is the guiding philosophy here: “Boldness comes from confidence, confidence comes from success, so do a bazillion little things that guarantee success and you will have a bold, confident horse.”
To begin to instill this feeling of success, I would establish a forward but not rushing trot with Anna, and before the fence make sure that I was keeping my leg on, my eyes and chin up and not leaning with my upper body. I also grabbed mane over every fence. Denny wanted me to never ever catch Anna in the mouth and by so doing discourage her effort. The reins were kept soft but not totally looped either. He would have us ‘go play’ over the fences. I only jumped the ones I felt okay with; there was no specific course or plan– very low pressure. Some days, we only jumped maybe eight or ten fences, and if she stayed happy and relaxed, we went for a hack. The pressure had totally come off.
A big turning point came one week when all of the farm’s horses were being schooled over gymnastics. There were two lines set up, one which had several bounces in a row to a one stride, and another that was a vertical one stride to an oxer one stride to another oxer. Obviously, each line was built up gradually. The fences were kept low, as the intent was to work on the horses’ form and function through the exercise. Gymnastics, and bounces in particular, are physically demanding on the horse and it is quite important to ensure that you quit while you are ahead.
On our first approach to the bounce line, Anna really backed off and though she went, it was sticky and lacked forward intention; this was the feeling which I had gotten so used to when she was faced with new and unexpected questions. Denny had me make a fairly strong correction with my whip (we actually school her over fences with a dressage whip, as you can more easily touch the horse without taking a hand off the rein). Then I reapproached—and he said something which for some reason really, really sunk in. I had to ride to the fence EXPECTING THAT SHE WAS GOING TO JUMP, instead of riding assuming that she was going to stop. So much in your body changes when you are thinking that your horse is actually going to jump the fence—you stay softer, you keep your leg on more, and if you have been coached enough, you wait with your upper body for the horse to throw you out of the saddle and close your angles.
Once I began riding EXPECTING THAT SHE WAS GOING TO JUMP, she actually did! We had no trouble through the rest of the day’s exercises.
Several days later, the horses were schooled through the gymnastics again. Denny’s wife May came out to help, as Denny was riding with us. May has retired from riding herself but still has a sharp eye and uses her years of personal experience to note fine details in horse and rider performance. She commented that during the grid line, I needed to keep my hands in a steady crest release, and not let them move around so much (where it is easy to start getting backwards pulling). She suggested shortening my rein and lengthening my arm (something which I say to my students all the time, how funny), and then finding the crest release and just staying there. When you come to the fence with your hands out ahead of you, it is SO MUCH HARDER to pull back. This was a second turning point for me. In addition to EXPECTING THAT SHE WAS GOING TO JUMP, I needed to remember to ride with SHORT REINS AND LONG ARMS, and to keep pushing her towards that contact, instead of the other way around. I was rewarded for paying attention to this detail by a horse that happily skipped through the exercises.
And in this slow, steady, methodical way, Denny began quietly increasing the questions we faced. One day we jumped the barrel fence. Another day we jumped some of the colorful panels (Tamarack has the most amazing array of beautifully painted fences). Each time, we came to the quiet trot, and I rode like I EXPECTED THAT SHE WAS GOING TO JUMP. And with each fence that she willingly popped over, a little boost of positivity went into our partnership.
Slowly, quietly, with as little fanfare as it had slipped away, I realized that my confidence was coming back, and that the horse that I had formerly trusted to jump was coming back too.
Using the Lower Leg—and What That REALLY Means
Anyone who has taken or taught a jump lesson should know that in order to encourage your horse to jump, the rider must apply leg. “Add leg!” “More leg!”
But riders (and coaches) must remember that the leg goes all the way from the hip joint down to the sole of the foot. That is a lot of real estate. Our quadriceps (thigh) muscles are usually our strongest in the leg, so when riders are coached to “add leg”, the common instinct is to squeeze with the thigh, which turns into pinching at the knee. However, if you stand still on your horse and squeeze as hard as you can with your knees, your horse will not move. This is an incorrect use of the leg.
To be effective over fences, the rider must be able to apply her LOWER leg to the horse. Denny quotes Bruce Davidson as saying that there is a control button on the horse, located just behind the girth and against the rider’s heel, which when activated will send the horse forward. But even saying that you need to apply your LOWER leg is still not descriptive enough. You must apply your leg at the location of the ankle bone/heel, and this must be positioned on the control button (just behind the girth). In order to apply this part of your leg, you actually have to rotate your leg from the HIP joint. And you also must SIT in the saddle.
When approaching the fence, the rider must shift the horse’s balance from forward and down to back and up (Denny likens this to cocking the pistol). The LOWER LEG of the rider in the location of the heel/ankle bone must be on the horse in this phase, in order to keep the hindquarters engaged and the hind leg underneath the horse. An image Denny uses is to imagine your leg coming slightly to the east-west position on the horse’s sides. The rider sits in the saddle and adjusts back with the upper body to help the horse’s shoulders to lift. The horse is the one who closes the angles of the rider’s hip and knee when he leaves the ground, while the angles of the rider’s shoulder and elbow open as she releases the rein. The rider’s body is essentially shaped like a “?” mark.
Some trainers advocate approaching fences in a light seat/half seat in the final strides, but it is quite physically impossible to apply your lower leg at the ankle bone when your seat is out of the saddle. One of the most common arguments against sitting is that it causes the horse to hollow his back; however, if you think of a dressage horse, riders sit all the time and the horse remains round and engaged. The key to successfully sitting before the fence is to do so without locking the hip and driving. The rider sits so that they can apply the leg and to ensure that they wait with the upper body.
3,2,1 Jump—Finding Your Canter
Denny frequently points out that most horses don’t have a jumping problem, they have a canter problem. Riders need to know what quality of canter is necessary for successful jumping, and they need to develop their ability to adjust that canter slightly to get to a correct take off point. He calls this “developing a three stride eye”.
Riders can work on this every single day, not by jumping, but by using hoofprints in the arena footing or other inanimate objects that are ahead of them in the ring. Practice transitioning from a travelling canter to a jumping canter and count down, “three, two, one” in rhythm with your horse’s stride as you approach your mark. If you are in jump tack, you can also practice the transition from a light/travelling seat to the sitting seat/leg on you need in front of the fence, asking your horse to shift his/her weight back and down while lifting the shoulders up.
Denny was helping me on the flat one day, and he asked me how many hoofprints I had jumped in my warm up. I had to admit to him that I had “jumped” no hoofprints, as I wasn’t happy with the responsiveness to my leg in the canter and besides, we were doing flatwork, not jumping. Denny said that working on the 3,2,1 exercise would actually IMPROVE the quality of the canter as well as my horse’s responsiveness. So I started riding with that thought in mind; sure enough, the exercise of looking for the three stride approach caused me to use my leg more effectively, thereby bringing more thrust and jump to the canter.
I personally have an easier time using an object that is up higher or is broader in my field of vision than a hoof print as a focal point; I have been using jump standards or rails on the ground to work on the 3,2,1 concept. The more a rider practices this during every ride, the sharper their eye becomes. The next step is to begin to figure out what the rider needs to do in those last three strides to affect the canter if they aren’t going to reach a perfect take off point. If they are going to stand too far off (leave long), they need to add more leg and move up. If they are going to come too close (chip/get deep), they need to half halt and further adjust the horse back. These skills make a not perfect distance less problematic—but it requires knowing when you are three strides away from the fence as well as having a horse that understands and is responsive to the aids which adjust stride length.
The first test of my rediscovered connection with Anna came at the Tamarack Hill Farm Schooling Jumper Show on June 18. THF offers these shows once/month in the summer time, seeking to fill a need for affordable, local, low intensity opportunities to practice jumping skills. Denny is a HUGE advocate for supporting these types of shows and believes strongly that event riders should take advantage of them to improve their jumping skills.
As hard as it was for me to do, I had to lock both my earnestness AND (especially) my ego in a box when I chose to enter the 20” and 2’ classes. This was a perfect opportunity for me to put all of the skills and mental focus I had been working on to the test, and to do that, I needed to keep the stakes very low.
My reward was that Anna was focused, confident, and wholly with me during both rounds and jump offs. Both of us admittedly had more experience as a team than most of the other entries in those classes, but it was with a huge surge of relief and joy that I actually felt a sense of partnership with my horse return. This was exactly what both the horse and I needed to be doing right then.
“Boldness comes from confidence. Confidence comes from success. So do a bazillion little things that guarantee success and you will have a bold, confident horse.”
It is my “earnest” hope that this jumper show represents one of those ‘bazillion little things’, and that we will only continue to grow in confidence from here.
I think I may have found my new favorite horse sport—distance riding! On June 8, Lee and I, along with Denny and his mare Cordie (Beaulieu’s Cool Concorde, a 9 year old Selle Luxembourg mare) completed the 15 mile competitive trail ride at the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, VT. It was such a great experience on several levels and I am excited that we are aiming for a second 15 mile ride this weekend, with the Hartland Riding Club in Hartland, VT.
If you love to be outside, love riding your horse, and enjoy spending time with other people who value these same things, then you may already be a trail rider. Competitive Trail Rides (CTR) and Endurance give those of us who enjoy all of the above but also appreciate a bit of friendly competition a chance to put our horsemanship skills to a true test.
CTR How’s and Why’s
As a veteran now of TWO CTR’s, I feel MORE than qualified to explain the basics of how these rides work—haha! Just kidding. Please take what I say here with a small grain of salt (or electrolyte) and understand that it comes from my limited personal experience and research only, not years of dedicated study and practice.
The CTRs that I have attended are by far more relaxed than any horse trials or hunter show, and nearly everyone—competitor, staff or volunteer—is quick to say hello and lend a hand.
As with most competitions, one of the first things to do upon arrival is to check in with the show office. Here, you will sign up for your start time; at GMHA, entrants are usually sent out in small groups at two minute intervals. You will also receive your entry number, and your horse will be marked on both sides of the hindquarter with their number in greased pencil. This allows for easy identification of an entrant from a distance, and provides a marker that is hard to wash off when the animal is being cooled out at the completion of the ride.
The next order of business is the “vetting in”, where each entrant is carefully looked over by both a licensed veterinarian and the lay judge, who is a knowledgeable horse person. The vetting in might be completed the day before a ride for a longer distance, or it can be done just before the day begins for shorter rides. Rides that are sanctioned by the Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association (ECTRA) provide feedback on the vetting in/out to competitors via a carbon copy sheet which clearly identifies several critical areas for assessment. The purpose of the vetting in is to establish a baseline for the horse’s condition prior to completing the ride. The vet and lay judge will palpate the topline, note any rubs/blemishes/swellings, check the legs and note filling, cuts, windpuffs, etc., check anal tone, do a pinch test on the skin, note the condition of the horse’s gums and check capillary refill time. All findings are carefully noted on the horse’s sheet. Finally, horses are jogged in hand, moving straight away from and straight towards the judges, as well as in a circle to the left and right. Horses will start with a perfect score of 100, and points are deducted for changes to the horse’s condition at the end of the ride.
Once all the horses have been vetted in, competitors will attend a pre-ride briefing, during which various personnel are introduced, trail markers are described and general information about the route is provided. Additionally, riders are made aware of the time for the route; rides sanctioned by ECTRA or running under its rules seem to adhere to an average speed of 6 miles per hour. The officials also give consideration to the weather and trail conditions to come up with a window of time during which riders should aim to complete their route. There is a thirty minute grace period during which riders may still officially finish with point penalty. Exceeding the grace period will result in a team’s disqualification. Finally, the vet and the lay judge will announce what the target is for the recovery pulse and respiration rates (more on this later). For rides longer than 15 miles, information is also provided on the mandatory hold. I will have to update more on what this means once I tackle a 25 mile ride!
At this point, competitors will return to their horses to prepare to move out on the trail. The rides at GMHA allow competitors to sign up to go out with another entrant(s); this practice is almost encouraged for the simple fact that you will have someone nearby in case of emergency. Once on the trail, it is really up to the rider to pay attention to many variables to determine an appropriate pace. You must consider your mount’s condition and how they are feeling that day, the terrain in front of you (and yet to come), the temperature, etc., and then travel at an appropriate pace. Because CTR’s DO have a time limit, it is important to be mindful of this and to aim to travel an average of 6 miles per hour. The walk is about three miles per hour, so completing a ride on time requires maintaining a pretty steady trot. However, there will be times on the trail where conditions warrant a slower speed (walking) and it is more important to consider your horse’s well being than to make a specific time.
Next comes the best part—the actual ride! Vermont in the late spring and summer is a simply breathtaking place, and so as you ride along, you are able to enjoy your horse, the company of friends old and new, and of course, exquisite scenery. The June GMHA ride took us first part way up Morgan Hill Road, and led us past amazing properties, including one of the homes of endurance Hall of Famer Steve Rojek. The road sections of the route are on town roads of hard packed dirt, which allow you to fairly comfortably trot out. We passed homes that even Denny hadn’t seen before, including one that appeared to have a homemade polo field and another antique home which someone was painstakingly restoring to its original appearance. (We learned upon our return that this particular property formerly belonging to the famous actor, Michael J. Fox. It seems like everyone wants a piece of Vermont’s beauty!)
Our June ride took us on about 50% trail and 50% road. We had one ‘road crossing’ which required volunteers to police the traffic for safety. During the course of our ride, we encountered a handful of vehicles on the roads, and every driver was courteous and respectful of our horses. As someone who by and large avoids riding on roads when it is possible to do so, I appreciate drivers who pass horses slow and wide, and we were certain to acknowledge them with a friendly wave and smile.
One aspect that it is so important to remember is that in several instances, we were guests on private property. GMHA sits on 65 acres and maintains an extensive trail network, with some routes on their own property but many others are only accessible through the generosity of private landowners. Lack of space to ride is a major and critical issue facing the equine industry today, and all riders, not just trail riding enthusiasts, would be wise to take active steps to preserve the lands which they value. This topic warrants its own blog post, so perhaps I will reflect on this more and do just that. Visit http://www.gmhainc.org/trailpreservation.html for their thoughts on the topic.
As riders near the end of the CTR, many will try to slow their horse down to begin allowing their pulse and respiration to return to lower rates. This is less true at an endurance ride, where the goal is to complete the distance in as quick of a time as possible while considering the well being of your mount. Upon crossing the finish line, volunteers hand each rider a small slip noting the time of finish, and they also record the order in which each horse crosses the line, as this will determine the order for the vetting out. Riders are then given twenty minutes to return to the stable area, remove their horse’s tack, and to sponge their horse with water to assist in lowering pulse and respiration rates. Note that I said “sponge” not “hose”; hosing your horse is not allowed. Competitors usually will set up multiple buckets full of cool water along with sponges and scrapers before they head out on the ride; during the twenty minute window, riders will sponge and scrape, sponge and scrape, all in an effort to cool their mount out as efficiently as possible. At the twenty minute mark, more volunteers will come by to measure each horse’s pulse and respiration, and then record it on the slip handed to each rider at finish. Ideally, your horse has recovered to rates within the parameters set forth at the briefing. Horses whose rates are still quite high will be rechecked, and horses whose rates do not drop to within normal limits within an hour will be disqualified (and checked by the vet!).
Once they have completed their P&R check, competitors proceed to the “vetting out”. Horses are reviewed in the order in which they finished, but horses who are “friends” are usually allowed to come to the vetting out together and are reviewed in order. The same vet and lay judge who completed the vetting in will re-evaluate the same parameters that were checked before the ride; careful attention is paid to any areas in which condition has worsened. This may mean that the horse has acquired some rubs from the girth, or perhaps they have some swelling or scrapes from interference (shoes are permitted in CTR but protective boots are not). Horses are also jogged out in the same manner as they were pre-ride to note any unsoundness. Horses who show physiological signs of stress (changes in muscle or anal tone, increased capillary refill time, dry gums, etc) will have points deducted and in extreme cases might be disqualified. Sometimes, an area might actually improve in condition; for example, a horse may have presented with windpuffs pre-ride but shows tight and clean fetlocks post ride. Points won’t be given back for the improvement, but it is left to the judge’s discretion whether or not to deduct points for the initial blemish. Again, all horses start the ride with a perfect score of 100, and points are deducted for exceeding the time allowed on trail, for not meeting the P&R recovery threshold and for changes to the mount’s condition at vetting out.
Some rides, like our June GMHA 15 mile, are scored on a “pass/fail” basis. This means that no placings are awarded; it encourages riders to really consider their horse and use the ride as an opportunity to improve the horse’s fitness in the way which makes the most sense for that animal. Either your horse meets the minimum criteria and “passes” or they do not. At a ride with placings, it will be the best conditioned and soundest horse that wins. Therefore, the horse’s well being must always come first, as it should for all true horsemen.
CTR Versus Endurance
I was a little shaky on the difference between a CTR and an endurance ride, but after doing some research my short answer is that in an endurance ride, the winner is the horse/rider team who finishes in the fastest time whose horse is judged sound and healthy post-ride. Time of finish is not a factor in CTR, so long as you complete the ride within the time allowed. One other difference is that in endurance, where the distances covered tend to be longer, forward progress can be made by an unmounted rider leading their horse. In CTR, horses must be ridden for forward progress to count.
From the website of the North American Trail Riding Conference (NATRC; www.natrc.org): “A competitive trail ride is similar in many respects to an endurance ride. Both cover a set, measured course, and the veterinary judge closely monitors the horses in both sports. Endurance rides must be completed within a maximum time, and the winner is the horse that finishes first and is judged fit to continue. But in competitive trail riding, the horse and rider must finish the ride within a window of time, and speed is not a judging factor. Horse manners are judged in competitive trail riding, as is horsemanship; these are not judged in endurance. In endurance riding, horses are checked by a veterinary judge at certain points and are judged as fit to continue. The veterinary judge in competitive trail riding will check the horse anywhere along the trail, and the horse is judged on whether his parameters have changed since the baseline established at Friday check-in. Riders can proceed on foot in endurance riding, but for all forward motion in competitive trail riding, the rider must be mounted. Endurance rides may be much longer than a competitive trail ride-some endurance rides go 100 miles in 24 hours!”
Preparing for the CTR: “Never Hurry, Never Tarry”
When Lee arrived in Vermont the third week of May, she was coming off a winter of steady work 5-6 days/week in the indoor arena and a spring which saw some work outside (finally) by mid April, including a few rounds of trot and canter sets. I would tell you that she was in moderate work, but that she had not been doing the long, slow, distance style work that getting out on the trails can do for you.
Being at Tamarack is an amazing experience for someone who likes to ride out. A local resident for over fifty years, Denny knows the land and landowners like no other, and works to help maintain a network of trails which I understand is shared with snowmobilers and cross country skiers in the winter. Riding back on these trails is unlike any experience I have had at home; there is no traffic, no road noise, no airplanes overhead, no trash in the woods. It is as though you have ridden back in time. And when you ride out with Denny, he tells stories of the places you ride through, gets to open vistas and identifies landmarks and towns and points out historical markers and other features that one might otherwise not notice.
In getting ready for our first two fifteen mile rides, Denny put our horses on a schedule of hard days followed by easier rest/recovery days. Some days, we would ride as long as two to two and a half hours, mostly walking, but also riding up some steep hills; these are hills which surely put positive stress and strain on a horse’s cardiovascular system as well as work the topline and hindquarters. To aid my horse, I would also assume the two point position, making me a stronger rider as well! Easier days might include an hour on flatter trails, or even light work in the arena. As someone who is accustomed to a steady five-six exercise days/week schedule (usually four in the ring, one on the longe, one as a hack), it was a different concept for me to consider conditioning a horse by pushing a bit harder/further and then giving them a day or two of complete rest in between. In addition, the week before a ride is usually a bit lighter, overall, so that the horse arrives to the competition feeling fresh and fit. Though I am just beginning to learn about conditioning horses for distance work, and Denny says most of what he does he has learned through trial and error, we have been told that this type of progression is used by serious endurance riders. It is exquisitely important to listen to your horse—if you give them a hard ride (whether in terms of distance, terrain, speed, humidity or some combination) then your next day might be a light ride or no ride at all, to give the horse’s systems time to recover. If you plan to ride, and the horse feels tired, then you back off even more. Of course, over time you steadily increase the demands on your horse so that they are stronger in mind and body to hold up to the longer distances on rides.
CTRs themselves can serve as part of the conditioning process, as they offer riders a chance to work their horses under a structured format over longer distances. In fact, you will often see these rides called conditioning distance rides (CDRs) when they are ten to fifteen miles in length. Veterinary evaluation offers clear feedback as to how your horse coped with the demands of the ride, and a smart trainer can use this to sculpt their conditioning plan as they move forward.
When we were on the ride itself, Denny shared with me a piece of wisdom that he had gained from a serious endurance competitor; when on the trail, “never hurry, never tarry”. You want to be more like the tortoise and less like the hare, I suppose. Keep your horse moving at a steady, consistent pace; trot where the footing is good, walk where it isn’t or the trail is too steep (up or downhill) to trot safely.
Distance Planning, or, Setting Long Term Goals
When planning the career of a distance horse, you need to think long term. Not just in terms of the actual rides you plan to attend, but for the overall health and well being of the horse themselves. One endurance blogger reports that he believes it takes three years to put enough conditioning work into a horse before they can be a serious contender at 100 mile rides; this is not to say that they might not be fit enough to compete before then, but they will be competing for mileage/experience as opposed to try to win. And this is assuming that no setbacks occur to horse or rider. Denny says that preparing for distance riding is largely a question of time and place; you need the time to put in the saddle, and you need a place to do that riding (ideally a place with hills, which maximizes your conditioning time).
It is easy to get caught up in Denny’s enthusiasm for everything horses and riding related, and he has been favorably impressed with Lee’s performance so far, calling her, “one tough horse”. He thinks that she has the capability of completing a three day 100 mile ride like the one they host each fall at GMHA, but to do something like that would require planning NOW. In other words, instead of coming out of the indoor next spring fifteen mile fit, she needs to be twenty five or thirty mile fit. And then next summer would be focused on continuing to gradually build the muscle, joint and organ systems to handle the increased demands required of a ride of that length. He has me excited to try to go for it, or to at least seriously consider prepping for it, with the option of re-routing to a shorter distance if she doesn’t feel ready.
So the plan for this summer will be to continue to gradually build and to see where we end up; the Hartland Riding Club 15 mile ride is this Saturday, and based on how our horses feel, we hope to go to the GMHA 25 mile ride in early August. Time will tell whether Lee will truly make it to a three day one hundred mile ride, but as in other horse training endeavors, I shall just keep adding layers to the onion, never hurry/never tarry, and see where we end up.
This year marked the first of a new contract for me at the University of New Hampshire, and with the contract change came a shift in scheduling—I now only work during the academic year, leaving the summer months free for other pursuits. So what is a girl to do? Idly sit on her back porch with her feet up, eating bonbons? Not for this one (what is a bonbon, anyway?)…I chose to do what any nearly 38 year old equine professional would do… I chose to become a working student.
For the past three years, I have had the opportunity to make brief trips to ride at Denny Emerson’s famed Tamarack Hill Farm in Strafford, VT. Denny is a horseman who needs no introduction, and he is the mentor of my own longtime trainer, coach and friend, Rachel Greene Lowell. Each year, these trips have proven to be some of the most effective edits to my progress as a rider and to my horse’s education. I figured that it was worth it to take a chance and spend the summer focusing on my own growth as an equestrian. I asked Denny if I could come up for the summer. I found a summer sublet in cute South Royalton (So Ro, to the locals) and two days after submitting final grades for spring semester, Pug Dog, several cats and two horses in tow, I headed to Vermont.
Anna schooling at THF on a previous visit.
I will say that there is a significant difference between doing something like this when you are closer to forty than when you are closer to twenty…it is a humbling experience to take that step back into the role of full time student, rather than being the one who is responsible for calling the shots and making the decisions. However, it is also heartening to hear concepts that I use in my own instruction and training reiterated by someone with the experience and wisdom of Mr. Emerson, to confirm that I am on the right path.
Having now completed my first three weeks, I will admit that there have been some outstanding high points as well as some significant lows. This is sort of like the horse world in general, I suppose. But overall we (horses and human) have settled into our new routine and I am so glad that I took this step.
Summer Goals: AKA, What I Did on my Summer Vacation
My two horses are quite different, and I came with different goals for each for the summer. I have had Lee for longer and during our time together she has been a jumper, a dressage horse, a sometimes IHSA mount and most recently, a fun trail/hack horse. Lee took her maiden voyage into the world of competitive trail riding at the 2013 Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) Distance Days, and she proved to be a real pro. Her forward thinking trot and desire to follow the leader served her well and she breezily handled the 10+ mile ride, nearly breaking away from me at the final inspection and prompting the vet to comment, “Next time, perhaps a longer ride might tire her out more?”. Denny has logged many hours in the sports of competitive trail riding and endurance, and has completed the rigorous Tevis Cup (is there anything this man cannot do?). He has been a tireless advocate for the trail activities held at the Green Mountain Horse Association in South Woodstock, VT. I want to learn much more from Denny about what goes into conditioning a horse for longer rides over terrain, and perhaps try my hand at some rides over greater distance with Lee this summer.
After three weeks at Tamarack Hill, Lee (at age 15) is learning to be a Real Horse, living outside in a field on a hill, seeing cows, dealing with bugs, and falling in love with my pony Anna. I even caught her LAYING DOWN out in the open, with Anna also laying down by Lee’s side. Just for some perspective, in nine years of being Lee’s human, and I have personally seen her lay down exactly ONE other time, and it was in a dark stall. At night. With Denny leading on one of his three mares (Atti, Cordie or Roxie), Lee has become a real solid citizen on the trails, just so long as someone else goes first. The hills here have brought her Thoroughbred body into strong physical shape quickly, and she has happily handled muddy, slippery spring trails, creek crossings, rocks, hills, and even narrow gaps like an experienced pro. I had the privilege of taking her on a nearly two and a half hour ride up to the Sunnyside property, also owned by the Emersons, which afforded breath taking views of the Green Mountains to the west and the White Mountains to the distant east. It is so exciting to see this horse so happy and content and willing in her work.
Lee many years ago, warming up for a jump clinic with Joe Forest at UNH.
As far as Anna goes, we have been struggling with confidence and communication issues over fences (see my previous blog, “Reflections on Gratitude”). Over the winter, I still had the notion in my mind that I might be able to compete at the novice level three day event at GMHA in late July (which is something that has definitely been on my “rider’s bucket list”), but after several false starts this spring it is clear that this is simply not a reasonable expectation at this stage in the game. Right now, competing over fences with Anna is just not as important to me as is trying to fix what has become broken in terms of confidence and faith.
So for Anna, I hope that a summer of confidence building and more regular jump schooling—as opposed to my once weekly sessions at home—might help to re-establish some of the ‘mojo’ we once had as a team. I hope that the hacking here will allow me to condition her more successfully than I have been able to do at home with sets in the ring. I still do hope that we can make it to an event or two later this season—but only if our communication and confidence has returned to a degree that such a challenge would be fair and reasonable.
Overall I am encouraged because in the short time that we have been here, there already has been a huge improvement in our work over fences. I will go into more detail on this in a future post. Anna’s work on the flat has already come forward tenfold; Denny actually got on her for me one day, and worked to create a softer jaw and increased throughness. He feels that there is a fancy mover hiding within her, and watching him work with her showed me that there is the capacity for much growth in this area. Exciting!
Anna (left) and Lee (right) enjoy being Real Horses outside on the hill.
“Do you see the grass growing?”
One of the more persistent themes which is coming clear to me already from my time at Tamarack is a reiteration of the fact that in training horses, it is usually faster to go slowly. This applies to increasing fitness, introducing new concepts and aids, rebuilding confidence…pretty much anything you can think of.
During several flat work sessions, Denny has discussed with us his process for introducing a horse to the mechanics of the rein aids, in particular teaching horses to give to pressure at the poll and the jaw and to remain mobile in the neck. A horse’s ability to understand these aids is instrumental to being able to achieve throughness and engagement. Many of the horses which Denny has worked with are OTTBs, and he points out that these horses are programmed to do one job—to run fast. They understand the cues which help them to do this and know how to move their bodies well in one way: shoulders down, weight to the forehand and powerful hindquarters driving them forward. When these animals begin the process of learning how to be a sport horse, the trainer must be tactful, patient and clear with the new aids. These horses must essentially be “unprogrammed” from their old job and have a new operating system installed. This in many ways is a harder job for the trainer than starting with a horse who knows no aids whatsoever; however, the process taken to accomplish the end goal in either case is the same.
Spring at Tamarack Hill
All work sessions start with about ten minutes of walk on the loose rein, putting no pressure on the horse and just allowing them to loosen their bodies and mentally begin to turn their focus to work. The next stage of the warm up is a period of low pressure trot and canter with light contact, but not yet fully asking the horse to bend, be entirely round or as actively pushing from the hindquarters. The first canters are usually in the light seat, allowing the horse’s topline to loosen and stretch before being asked to fully carry the weight of the rider.
For horses that are not yet fully clear about the basic aids, Denny talks about “puttering”. He says this is certainly not a term that you would read in the classical works, and he acknowledges that this technique is perhaps not how he would always have proceeded with the training when he was an ambitious and competitively minded young trainer—but it is what he now believes to be indispensable in his training. Essentially, “puttering” is about gently introducing new aids to the horse, and waiting to reward a correct response by releasing the pressure. So if you are asking the horse to step away from the leg, the leg would be applied lightly until the horse at some point moved away. The rein aids are important, diverse and best introduced at the walk. Denny says that you almost want to think of the aid as a gentle “pestering” of the horse, and when he responds, the pressure releases. He is not a fan of short cuts like draw reins, leverage bits and other tools used by some trainers; these create a response through the infliction of pain, and he says that such a response does not really teach the horse. Remember that a horse can feel a fly, or the lash of your dressage whip gently tickling the back of his ear. For certain they can feel a gentle pressure on their mouth, or a push from the rider’s leg. The horses who don’t respond to these gentle aids have probably never been taught to do so. So instead of becoming stronger or more aggressive, you “pester” with the aids until the horse accidentally comes up with the correct answer, which you then reward.
Lee working in the indoor at UNH.
Denny says that teaching horses these responses to the aids is like teaching them a language. Imagine that someone is trying to tell you something, but they are speaking in a foreign tongue. If you don’t know Spanish or German or Pig Latin, it isn’t going to matter if they whisper, speak or yell—you are not likely to respond correctly. Why do we expect our horses to respond to aids that we have not correctly or properly taught them?
The other important point about “puttering” is that the trainer remembers that the process will take whatever time it takes. Perhaps you introduce a concept on day one, and the horse only sort of is able to respond. But you come back on day two, and in a short window of time the horse responds to the aids better and more clearly than on day one. Instead of pushing for more at that moment, the wise trainer rewards the horse and leaves the lesson behind for the day. The horse feels successful, the training has been moved forward and the horse learn to perceive that the work in the ring is not a matter of being drilled.
This is such an important concept that I need to repeat it again. It is a theme that keeps coming back during nearly every lesson whether on the flat, over fences or on the trails. Training takes time. It takes whatever time it takes. Horses should not be drilled. The wise trainer stops MUCH earlier than most of us do, rewards the horse, and puts them away feeling mentally relaxed and physically tired but not exhausted or drained. Trainers must be patient, they must be clear, and they must be consistent. It sounds so, so simple, so why do more of us not adhere to this philosophy?
Denny tells a story of a clinic which he was auditing. The rider was a well-known Olympian, riding under the direction of a world renowned trainer, on her Olympic mount. The rider was becoming frustrated and more intense in her use of the aids (as many driven and focused people can tend to do). After watching for a bit but saying little, the clinician finally asked the rider, “Do you mow your lawn?”. Frustrated and confused by the apparent lack of relevance, the rider responded, “Of course.” “Well, do you see the grass growing on your lawn?” asked the clinician again. “No,” replied the rider, still not making the connection between the questions and the situation at hand. “You need to mow your lawn because the grass has grown,” says the clinician. “But yet you do not see the grass grow. So it is with training your horse. Each lesson builds upon the previous one. You do not all of a sudden have a trained horse. It takes time.”
Denny also compares training to the layers of an onion. Each one is built upon the layer before it. You cannot leave steps out of the process or rush through it. To do so will ruin horse and rider confidence, compromise physical well-being and limit the progress which could be gained otherwise.
I am learning that like many other trainers, I can be too driven and push for too much at once from my horses. I need to be even quicker to recognize that the horse has done what they needed to do in a day’s work and let them leave the ring for a hack. I think sometimes we are so results driven that we don’t realize that it is the summation of many small, small forward steps that will create the best outcome.
The results of this training program are plain to see when you watch the Tamarack horses work and compete.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian