Tag Archives: United States Pony Club

Why Am I Still #PonyClubProud?

About a year ago, I was feeling stressed and frazzled, like so many of us, overwhelmed by my “to-do” list and wondering how I was ever going to get it all moved into the “to-done” pile. Yet amid all this busy-ness, I left my farm, my agenda, and all of the millions of pressing “must do’s”, to go spend several days as a National Examiner at a United States Pony Club certification testing. These days, a certification is always a multi-level affair and requires considerable advance coordination of candidates, fellow examiners, parents and of course, the organizer. Oh—also, the facility and flight schedules and did I mention it all is supposed to be completed on a tight budget….?

A good friend looked at me as I was juggling these variables into a cohesive package and said–“Why do you still do this? Why do you still bother with Pony Club?”

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Happy new H-B candidates and happy National Examiners at a certification in Lake Shore Region (Wisconsin). A 100% pass rate!

I looked at her and blinked. I guess I had never really bothered to try to put it into words. So this—nearly a year later, as I am sitting in the Milwaukee airport waiting for pick up to participate in this year’s upper level certification—is my attempt to do just that.

By now, I have been a volunteer/clinician/National Examiner for USPC for nearly four times as long as I was ever a member. I belonged to the Old North Bridge Pony Club in Massachusetts from about 1992-1994, and then Squamscott Pony Club in New Hampshire from 1995 through 1997, when I aged out at 21. I started out as a 15 year old D3 who kept her semi-feral Thoroughbred mare in her English teacher’s backyard and finished as a 21 year old H-A who definitely thought she knew everything there was to know about horses (let’s admit it—what 21 year old isn’t that cocky?). I had participated in two National Championships and travelled to Delaware, California, Oklahoma, Kansas and Hawaii as a Visiting Instructor.

It was an action packed few years, to say the least.

This was all back in the “old days”, when you had to pass a National Testing all on one go, when the only option was to test in all four phases (flat, arena jumping, cross country jumping and horsemanship), when you aged out at 21 and had to try to somehow reach your goals before you ran out of time.

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Me and Snapper, aka The Paper Boy, who was generously leased to me by the Reeves. I took my C2 and C3 ratings on him– this is after a very foggy show jumping round at tetrathlon rally.

I have been a district commissioner and a regional instruction coordinator. I have organized, managed and taught at countless Pony Club camps. I have organized, judged and been the technical delegate at rallies. I have taught local mounted and unmounted meetings and run local club certifications. I have served on national committees.

I can’t even possibly guess the total number of hours I have spent involved with Pony Club. And I know that at its core, Pony Club is full of passionate horsemen who deeply want to see the organization and its members succeed.

MollyandMel
This is Carmel, who I bought after finishing college. When he retired, I leased him to a D2 in Western New York Region for two years before he came back to New Hampshire and became a member of Squamscott Pony Club with his friend Molly (shown here). It was a real thrill to see a horse I loved so much help other young riders learn the ropes! I think he passed his D1-C1 ratings several times over.

As a National Examiner, I have been yelled at, threatened, physically intimidated and belittled by angry parents (never candidates). But I have also seen some of the very best—candidates who come forward and say that, even if unsuccessful, a testing was one of the most positive experiences that had had in Pony Club. One mother even brought a pie after we had told her son that he had not met standard, with a note thanking us for our compassion and saying, “It is always hard to so no to children and pie.”

But why? Why, out of all the countless equestrian organizations, have I chosen this one, specifically, to spend most of my extremely limited (read: non-existent) free time with?

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I guess to understand that, you will have to know a little bit more about me.

When my family moved to Massachusetts in 1990, I was a pretty die-hard hunt seat equitation rider. I had had the opportunity to compete a fair amount for a kid who had never even leased a horse, because our facility hosted several “C” rated AHSA horse shows and held a series of in house schooling shows for all of their clients. There was also a local hunter/jumper association in our area which coordinated a school horse show series for the major lesson factory programs, so I had even competed some at other farms.

I knew nothing about dressage other than bending.

I thought cross country was terrifying.

I had no intention, ever, of competing in a horse trials or event.

I only knew what Pony Club was because of the Saddle Club books.

But when we left New York, I lost my barn family. There, I had been a certified “barn rat”, frequently hanging out after school and helping out around the barn, even though I only had my lesson once a week. I desperately wanted to find that family again in Massachusetts, but from the beginning it was a struggle. Though I found a great hunter/jumper lesson program, it quickly became apparent to both me and my instructor that my goals outstripped any of what her wonderful lesson horses could offer. She told me she was happy to keep teaching me, but unless something changed, horse wise, she wasn’t sure how much further I could go.

I was stuck.

And then something kind of amazing happened. A wonderful woman, Ann Sorvari, who was an English teacher at my high school and my neighbor, let me start riding her Thoroughbred mare Dilly. Dilly had stood around for several years. There was only a twenty meter grass circle to ride on. Dilly really preferred to stand around and look pretty over doing actual work. But I rode her all over the subdivision we lived in, up and down Olde Harvard Road, and once a week, all the way down Burroughs Road, across Route 111, to Wetherbee Stables for a riding lesson.

Dilly was difficult to ride, and I lacked the skills at the time to help her to be better than who she was. She spooked a lot, tried to go around jumps rather than over them, and could have full on Thoroughbred melt downs over really irrelevant stuff.

Kathy, my hunt seat coach, came out to see her one day. She chose her words carefully.

“Well, she is never going to be suitable for what we do,” Kathy said. “If you take her on, you will have to set different goals.”

But like any horse crazy kid, what I wanted more than anything was a horse of my own. So when Mrs. Sorvari offered to transfer ownership of the mare to me, I had already made a shift in my mind.  Despite Dilly being rather ill suited for most riding goals, she met the one criterion that was most important—membership in the species Equus caballus.

And THAT was when I joined Pony Club. A few girls in my high school were members and they gave me their District Commissioner’s info. I knew Dilly would never make it as a hunter or an eq horse, but I figured that in eventing, it didn’t matter what you looked like so long as you made it to the other side of the jump.

Clearly, I had much to learn.

At this time in my life, there was one more major variable in the mix. Just before I started high school, my mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The disease launched a full scale attack on her well-being, with an increase in symptoms that was almost quantifiable from month to month. When you are a teen with no control over something so terrifying, having a safe place to escape to is everything. The more intense her symptoms, the more I focused on studying horsemanship.

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Two long gone beauties– my mother and Dilly– probably around 1992. Gosh, I really rocked the helmet rain cover, didn’t I?

Pony Club is a volunteer organization, and parental involvement is key. But my mother was too ill to help, and my father too busy trying to take care of her and go to work and run to the grocery store. Though I didn’t know it then, perhaps the first lesson that Pony Club taught me was generosity—the many parents who picked my horse up to go to meetings or rally though it was out of their way, who spoke up for me at parent’s meetings when I didn’t have a voice, who loaned or gave me tack, equipment and other items which I couldn’t afford on my own. As an emotionally hurting teen, I was not always gracious enough in my acceptance of their support. I can only hope that they all know in their hearts what they did for me, and today I try to emulate their generosity and compassion in my interactions with others.

Here are some of the other lessons I took away from my five short years as a Pony Clubber:

The C1 examiner who complimented me on my ability to handle refusals during my show jumping course, saying, “I have met B’s who don’t know how to ride a stop like that.” This, after being told by so many that my horse (Dilly) was useless and wouldn’t teach me anything. Instead, I learned patience and tact, and developed a tool box of techniques to make things better.

The clinician who helped pull me up out of the water jump at my B prep clinic. After remounting in soggy britches and rejumping the fence, I tearfully asked if there was any point of continuing to plan on taking the test. “I absolutely think you should take the test,” she said. I learned that sometimes you have to land in the swamp and figure out how to pull yourself back up before you will get to where you want to be.

Laughing and chatting and eating Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream at 2 AM with my friend Becky while driving home from Nationals, only to realize that we had been following the wrong car and we had no idea where we were or where to go. We had to stop and wake up her mother in the back seat and admit that we hadn’t been paying enough attention. I learned that sometimes, you have to ask for help, even if it is your own fault you need help in the first place.

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Snapper and I in the show jump phase of the National Tetrathlon Rally, 1994. WHY did no one rip that rain cover off? 

Trying Tetrathlon, a four-sport contest in which you run, swim, ride and shoot (add fencing and you have modern pentalthlon). I learned that I could make myself get up and run every day, and do a flip turn in the pool, and shoot a gun, and for the first time in my entire life, feel like a real athlete. I learned that though I was never going to be the fastest or the strongest, I was still capable and that being the best athlete I could be was its own victory.

The moment at my B testing when I burst into tears when I saw the “meets standard” box checked. I couldn’t quite believe it was real—I had found and paid for the lease on my testing horse, arranged for my trailer rides to the clinics and the test and arranged for the hotel all on my own. And though there were several generous, wonderful adults who helped me along the way (including the test organizer who loaned me a car to get to and from the B&B I was staying at when my ride ditched me), it was the single biggest thing I had ever accomplished mostly on my own at that point in my life.  I couldn’t quite believe it was real. It was farther than I had ever dreamed I would go in Pony Club. I learned that I am possible.

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It was through my Pony Club family that I was able to come up with a one month lease on this appendix Quarter Horse, Cee Cee Ace (Casey), just two weeks before my B rating. The only reason her owner was willing to consider it was because I was in Pony Club– and she kindly introduced me to Quick Silver for bathing a white/gray horse! And yes, I really schooled in those– they were called “Schooling Sweats” or similar and I rode in them All. The. Time.

And when the examiners handed me back my H-A test sheet, one asked, “when will you take your A?” –and I told her I knew that it was too much, that I didn’t have a horse and wasn’t ready. She replied, “that is another lesson from Pony Club—it teaches us to know our limits.”

Perhaps. But personally, I think the opposite is true. Pony Club challenged me to stretch my limits, to grow and try to do things I had never envisioned were possible for me as an equestrian and young adult.

And Pony Club gave me a community of support and love during a time in my life when I most needed one.

So I will remain #PonyClubProud, because I know that there are children and teens now who were like me then—the ones who just so badly want to show growth and move forward, who are learning to set goals and reach for them, who may not have the full support of people around them at home. Because if for just one member I can be that voice who says, “You can do it. Never give up, keep moving forward,” that is worth more than all the hours combined.

I owe Pony Club a debt I can never repay.

#PonyClubProud

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‘Tis the Season

So I may have missed #GivingTuesday with this blog, but in the spirit of the season I wanted to take a few minutes to reflect on some of the amazing non-profits which I have had the opportunity to be involved with this past year.  Any or all of them would be worthy recipients of a seasonal donation, should you be so inclined.  Alternatively, choose a group that YOU believe in and support, close to your own home.  Donations don’t have to be monetary (though I am sure that is always appreciated)…donations of goods and services often also fill a need.  And so many non-profits rely upon the dedication and commitment of good volunteers.  Really, there is just no excuse to not get behind a cause that is important to you!

Earlier this year, I wrote a piece for UnTacked magazine about Detroit Horse Power, a 501(c)3 nonprofit founded by David Silver.  DHP’s mission seeks to use horses to provide opportunities for Detroit’s underserved youth, and in the long term, to establish an equestrian center within city limits which will provide the residents with a center for community events and equestrian services.  The story of the path which led David to the creation of DHP was really inspirational to me; I have so much admiration for people who identify a problem, see a solution, and then actively set themselves on the path to put the plan into action, despite some seemingly insurmountable hurdles.  You can read more about Detroit Horse Power here or visit their website at www.detroithorsepower.org.

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Detroit Horse Power Summer Camp participants from a 2015 session; founder David Silver is in the red polo on the right.

The United States Pony Club is still a group near and dear to my heart.  USPC states as its mission that it “develops character, leadership, confidence and a sense of community in youth through a program that teaches the care of horses and ponies, riding and mounted sports.” USPC is represented by its graduates in many walks of life, from the upper levels of equestrian sport, to related fields such as veterinary medicine, to leadership roles in various equestrian organizations.  Perhaps as significantly, USPC graduates cite their experience as Pony Clubbers as being influential in contributing to their success in other, non-equestrian, ventures.  Visit www.ponyclub.org to learn more.

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The Equine Land Conservation Resource (www.elcr.org) is one of the most organized and effective advocacy groups supporting the cause of equestrian land preservation.  Since 2007, the organization has assisted in protecting more than 200,000 acres of land and more than 1,200 miles of trails.  They maintain an online resource library, with free information on topics such as conservation tools for horse lands, best management practices, and more.  The ELCR keeps tabs on local threats to equestrian access across the country, and helps to provide solid facts and figures to present to key stakeholders.  Through their partnership with My Horse University, the ELCR provides free webinars on topics such as manure management, developing a private trail system, and more.  As a community, we MUST be attentive to the long term management of public and private lands which allow equestrian use.  We can all list places where we used to ride; once equestrians have lost access, it almost never returns.

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Just recently, I had the chance to write a Charity Spotlight on the Standardbred Retirement Foundation for an upcoming issue of UnTacked.  This group was founded in 1989 by two women closely affiliated with the Standardbred racing industry, and since its inception they have helped to place over one hundred horses per year.  As with many racehorses, some animals are left with injuries and other limitations which make them unsuitable as riding horses; the SRF will retain ownership of these animals and provides them with care for the rest of their lives.   The organization remains involved with all of the horses which it places, requiring twice yearly follow ups on the animal’s health and well-being, signed by the owner’s veterinarian.  In addition to saving literally thousands of horses in its twenty six year existence, the SRF has assisted with programs for at-risk youth, exposing them to the sweet, gentle personalities of the Standardbred horse.  Executive director Judith Bokman commented in her interview with me that their limiting factor, always, is funding.  With more funding, they could take in more horses and expand their youth programming.  To learn more, visit www.adoptahorse.org.

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Standardbreds are uniquely identified via their freeze brand, seen here.  Their gentle personality and willing nature make them wonderful riding and companion horses.

Finally, an introduction to All Better Pets, a Manchester, NH, based nonprofit with the mission of providing care to abandoned and homeless pets. This organization is affiliated with the Center for Advanced Veterinary Care, a small animal emergency and referral hospital. Many of the animals which come to the clinic are in need of medical attention for treatable conditions; without intervention, however, euthanasia would be the only option.  Since 2010, the organization has helped over 200 animals get well and find new homes, and has provided assistance to hundreds of others through affiliations with other groups.  I am a little partial to All Better Pets because my cat, Nieva (nee Willow) is an alum.  She is pretty much perfect. Visit www.allbetterpets.org to learn more.

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Nieva

These are just five worthy organizations for your consideration this holiday season.  Please comment with information about YOUR non-profit organization of choice.  Even small donations add up, and in this season of giving please do not forget to consider the importance of supporting the efforts of these grassroots groups.

Reflections on Gratitude: Part III

Lessons Taught by the Yellow Horse

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

Becoming

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

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Carmel

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

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

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

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Applehurst Schooling Horse Trials ca 1999

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being

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

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

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Carmel and I at Pembury House HT (2000)

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

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

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Carmel, Area I Reserve Champion at Novice, 2000

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

It just wasn’t with me anymore.

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

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Mel and his friend Molly

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

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Awaiting inspection at D Rally with his friend Kaeli

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

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

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

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

Letting Go

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

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In mostly retirement (2011)

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

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

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

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

And still, he refused to eat.

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

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April 2015, 34 years old

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

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

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

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

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

I miss you, my Yellow Horse.

Detroit Horse Power

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

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

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

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

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Detroit Horse Power’s logo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Urban blight in Detroit, MI

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Being an “Ivory Tower Equestrian”

An online dictionary defines the term “ivory tower” as “a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world”.  It is frequently used in a derisive way, especially in regards to academia, to imply that someone’s ideas or actions are not as relevant as they might be otherwise because they are so far out of step with reality.

The day to day life of a full time, self-employed equine professional can certainly be grueling.  These people often refer to the fact that being seriously involved with horses is a way of life, and they don’t mind the challenging aspects, including the long hours and few days off.  The up side—being able to spend so much time with horses and to watch horses and riders under their direction or care grow and develop, outweighs the challenges.  However, few would say that the self-employed route is easy, and there are certainly at least moments during which most reasonable people would consider whether the stress and adversity are really worth it.

Before joining the faculty at UNH, I too was “in the trenches” and cobbled my living together through an assortment of jobs.  In the mornings, I was an assistant barn manager at a dressage facility, completing the usual daily chores but also getting horses ready for the trainer/manager.  In the afternoons, I ran a small lesson business on borrowed school horses, teaching mostly children the basics of horsemanship.  I taught Pony Club.  I worked part time at UNH for a few semesters.  I worked in the banquet department at the Sheraton, where I learned that the best shifts were for weddings, because most everyone was in a good mood and there was a DJ and cake.   I lived from contract to contract. I paid through the nose for a health insurance policy which would still have required me to drain all savings before it would have paid a cent.

My horse Lee and two UNH IHSA team members, each of whom won a flat class on her at the home show.
My horse Lee and two UNH IHSA team members, each of whom won a flat class on her at the home show.

When I first started at UNH, it was positively decadent.  I couldn’t BELIEVE that they sent me a paycheck every two weeks just for showing up.  UNH has excellent benefits, both insurance wise and investment wise, and you can also take classes.  I was able to complete my Master’s degree mostly for free.  The hours are still long, and there have been plenty of nights and weekends dedicated to the cause.  But by and large, it has provided me with a great deal of security and stability, values which I have determined are essential for my mental health.  And most of the time, I get to do what I like to do: work with horses and humans.

Participants in UNH's therapeutic riding program.  Shazaam, Marcy and Quill are all now retired, while Snowy (second from right) is a boarder who still works part time in the therapeutic program.
Participants in UNH’s therapeutic riding program. Shazaam, Marcy and Quill are all now retired, while Snowy (second from right) is a boarder who still works part time in the therapeutic program.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend four days in Michigan teaching a Pony Club camp—it was great fun, and a nice chance to get back to my roots.  The schedule was full, as was camp enrollment—something like 32 campers and a few Horsemasters, four mounted instructors and assorted local experts helping out with unmounted topics.

The three other instructors who I worked with all run their own riding/training/lesson businesses.  One owns a thriving eventing and dressage barn, and had during one day in the previous week taught 18 lessons and ridden something like five horses.  Another maintains foxhunters for owners who come to ride on weekends, providing full service care including daily conditioning rides and then shipping to and turning out for hunts.  The third has a combination of training horses and lesson clients, straddling the disciplines of dressage and eventing.

With members of the UNH IHSA team at a Vermont show.
With members of the UNH IHSA team at an Vermont show.

Listening to their discussions about the ups and downs of their businesses was enlightening.  One trainer travels from farm to farm in the afternoons to teach private clients.   A few clients are chronic last minute cancellers, which leaves her on the road with an hour or more of down time.  When you freelance, time is money, and when such cancellations become common it can significantly impact the bottom line. She is struggling to come up with a cancellation policy which won’t alienate her clients but can protect her interests.

The trainers all have a few “difficult” clients; we know the archetype.  They have more money than horse sense; they want to do cool and fun movements or jump big jumps with their horses, but do none of the actual work that gets you to that level; and they demand constant attention and validation.  They talked about the strategies they use to keep these clients on track, working towards attaining goals without pushing too hard, placating their concerns and worries via text and phone.  I was exhausted just listening to them.

Then there was the discussion on insurance, all aspects of it—liability/professional, but also health and disability. It is a cripplingly expensive essential. The cost can make it hard for them to save money for future plans or retirement.

It was then that I realized that I may have, quite inadvertently, become an “Ivory Tower Equestrian”, and I listened to the conversation with a bit of detachment. I used to deal with all of these concerns in my previous life, but my current reality is somewhat different.  When a student chooses to repeatedly not come to class or doesn’t want to work super hard at it, their grade is reduced.  Liability insurance is not a major concern as our activities fall under the university’s umbrella policy.  If the weather is bad for a few days, or I am out sick or need to take a day off for personal reasons, I will still get paid the same amount.

Retired UNH horse Flash models the equine digestive system for students participating in the 2013 Equine Education Day.
Retired UNH horse Flash models the equine digestive system for students participating in the 2013 Equine Education Day.

From the outside looking in, it might seem like we Ivory Tower Equestrians have it made.  And in many ways, we do.  But it is not all sunshine and roses, and in some ways the challenges we face are not all that dissimilar to those of our self-employed brethren.  They are similar, but different.

Sometimes Lee lets riders from other schools win prizes too-- here a rider from Colby Sawyer celebrates after winning reserve high point honors.
Sometimes Lee lets riders from other schools win prizes too– here a rider from Colby Sawyer celebrates after winning reserve high point honors.

At colleges/universities, programs live and die by their overall enrollments.  If your classes are full, and there are students in your degree program, then odds are good that there will be some kind of continued support for you, though rarely in the amount or frequency which is actually needed.  But the reverse of the equation is true, and the reality is that an equine program is an expensive one to run.  The “lab equipment” used in all of the hands on classes, including horsemanship but others as well, requires daily care, food, and veterinary/farrier attention.  These aren’t microscopes that sit quietly on a shelf until they are next needed.  All of the usual issues with facility maintenance apply to us, too; fencing needs to be replaced, footing wears out, tack gets worn.  In some ways, it is worse for us than at a private facility, because of the high volume of use during the academic year.  School horse saddles can be ridden in for as many as ten hours per day; when you multiply that times five days per week per a fifteen week semester, that is a lot of seat time for one saddle to see.  These costs are partially covered by the lab fees paid by students; if our classes aren’t full, or the lab fees exceed what the students are willing or able to pay, then the house of cards begins to quickly topple.

Two UNH riders with leased horse Wiggle and UNH's Whisper celebrate after their first ever two phase competition.
Two UNH riders with leased horse Wiggle and UNH’s Whisper celebrate after their first ever two phase competition.

Some people, both from within and from outside of the university setting, criticize the existence of collegiate equine programs, and they are derisive towards the validity of an equine studies degree.  Some think that all we do is ride, or that we are part of the athletics department. At one staff meeting last semester, a tenured faculty member asked if our students’ final capstone course was whether or not they could sit eight seconds on a bucking bronco.  As a program, we are constantly evaluating our curriculum both for efficacy and rigor, but still there are those who publicly and privately question what we do.  At the end of the day, the University of New Hampshire Equine Program graduate is receiving a Bachelor of Science degree, with a heavy emphasis on biological science and including courses in general biology, anatomy and physiology, genetics and nutrition, with specialty courses in equine disease and sports medicine, amongst others.  These subjects and the skills students gain in studying them are applicable to a wide range of career paths, both in and out of the equine industry. Regardless of choice of college major, it is up to the student to figure out what to do with it.  A college major, and the degree it elicits, is only a starting point; the student must then seek out opportunities to continue to grow and expand their careers.

A senior equine studies major gets Coco (leased to UNH by Camp Runoia and a valued horse in the therapeutic riding program) ready for a presentation at the Equine Education Day, spring of 2015.
A senior equine studies major gets Coco (leased to UNH by Camp Runoia and a valued horse in the therapeutic riding program) ready for a presentation at the Equine Education Day, spring of 2015.

Some of the same external critics who deride the validity of an equine degree also publicly criticize anyone who would even CONSIDER donating their horse to a collegiate program.  At least 90% of our horses come as donations from private individuals.  They come for a variety of reasons—age, manageable conditions which reduce resale value, owner financial issues, or a horse that is not up to the continued challenge of a competitive show career, for examples.  Many donors want to know that their horse will not continue to be sold on and on.  Some of our horses have been in our program for most of their lives.  They are well cared for, loved, carefully supervised, and have allowed hundreds if not thousands of horsemen to grow and develop during the animals’ careers with us.  When our horses tell us that they are no longer happy doing what we need them to do, we seek to place them in carefully screened adoptive homes, sometimes with former students.  If they are in pain, suffering or otherwise unwell in a manner which will cause a diminishing quality of life, we allow them a humane and dignified end when their time comes.  However they leave us, we cry to lose them and smile with their memories.

Longtime UNH school horse Cooper passed away this spring at the age of 23 after a period of failing health.  He was in the program for thirteen years.
Longtime UNH school horse Cooper passed away this spring at the age of 23 after a period of failing health. He was in the program for thirteen years.

People criticize equine programs because they cannot keep horses forever.  The reality is that all horses get to an age or physical condition in which their workload must be modified or ceased.  After all, this is often the reason that their original owners passed the horse on to us in the first place.  If the former owner has asked to be notified when this time comes, we always do so (and sometimes even when they have not asked, just to make them aware).  Very few are interested in taking their horses back but are grateful for the call.

UNH students riding school owned horses Clementine, Whisper and Morocco participated in a clinic with UNH graduate Nancy Guyotte.
UNH students riding school owned horses Clementine, Whisper and Morocco participated in a clinic with UNH graduate Nancy Guyotte.

The critics claim that equestrian programs at universities overwork horses, quickly sell them on, or ship them off to auction when they don’t work out.  Perhaps that happens at other places, but it does not happen here.  And frankly, it really frosts me to read those kinds of ignorant comments.  We are quite transparent with our policies and the use of our horses; in fact, every single activity we do with our horses—from riding them to practicing bandaging to therapeutic riding— must be reviewed and approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and their work hours are carefully documented.  I somehow doubt that most privately owned lesson strings receive such comprehensive and regulated monitoring.

UNH equine residents check out the view.
UNH equine residents check out the view.

We Ivory Tower Equestrians may not be working to run our own business, but many of us are working to run the business that is our program.  We must recruit new “clients” (students) and ensure that the “product” that we are selling them (a B.S. degree) is of high quality and a good value for the money.  We must balance the needs of our program with the values of a constantly changing and somewhat underfunded state university.  And just like our comrades in the field, if our clients aren’t satisfied with our output, they will take their business elsewhere.  A true Ivory Tower Equestrian who does not consider these realities will likely find themselves out of a job. Perhaps we are more alike than we are different.

UNH Equine Program co-hosted a course design clinic with internationally acclaimed designer Richard Jefferey with USEA Area I.  Here students pose with Jefferey after building the show jumping course for the UNH Horse Trials 40th Anniversary.
UNH Equine Program co-hosted a course design clinic with internationally acclaimed designer Richard Jefferey with USEA Area I. Here students pose with Jefferey after building the show jumping course for the UNH Horse Trials 40th Anniversary.

For me, this experience was an important one in terms of remembering what the daily concerns of the self-employed instruction business is like, but also to appreciate the unique benefits and challenges of the university setting.