The 2017 season marked Anna’s debut at Third Level; while we certainly didn’t make anyone nervous, as my former coach used to say, we also didn’t get arrested by the Dressage Police, so it would seem that enough of our movements were recognizable at the level that they allowed us to go on our way.
Making the jump from Second to Third level is a significant step forward in the horse’s training. The purpose of Third Level (as is stated at the top of the test) is as follows: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having begun to develop an uphill balance at Second Level, now demonstrates increased engagement, especially in the extended gaits. Transitions between collected, medium and extended gaits should be well defined and performed with engagement. The horse should be reliably on the bit and show a greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage than at Second Level.”
Oh gee, is that all?
But in all honesty, what I have found when the average dressage rider is debating moving up to Third Level is that they are worried about two things. 1) Will my horse do a flying change? 2) Can I ride in a double?
The double bridle, also known as the full bridle, is a somewhat controversial piece of equipment. Third Level is the first time its use is permitted under USEF rules. As its name implies, it has two bits—a snaffle, known as the “bridoon,” and a curb, also called a “Weymouth.” The bits serve different purposes. The snaffle helps to achieve lateral and longitudinal flexion, as well as encourages elevation in the frame. It is also used to help position the neck left or right, and encourages the horse to open the frame when necessary. The curb’s role is to increase longitudinal flexion, helping to “close” the frame by bringing the head more towards vertical. The correct use of a double bridle requires that the horse is classically trained; the rider’s hands should initiate but not force the horse’s head and neck into the correct position.
It is the use of the curb which makes the double bridle both so helpful and also potentially so harmful. For centuries, the curb was used alone and often one handed, by knights and soldiers needing immediate control and submission from their mounts. The double bridle was not commonly used until the close of the 1700’s, likely due to the influence of French masters Pluvinel and de la Guerniere. Each horseman taught that the curb bit could be used to enable the rider to achieve a higher level of communication with the horse, not simply domination. By employing two sets of reins, the rider could use the snaffle and curb bits separately or in combination, which allowed a greater degree of refined control for military maneuvers.
The curb must be carefully chosen and fit to the horse; when used appropriately, it can allow extremely refined communication between horse and rider. It is a leverage bit and applies pressure to the poll and chin groove, as well as to the bars, tongue and the neck; any force applied to its rein will be magnified on the horse.
The strength of the curb depends on several factors. The overall length of the cheek of the bit is important, but so is the length of cheek above the mouthpiece versus below it. This ratio effects the way the leverage is applied to the horse. The tightness and fit of the curb chain is also significant, with the ideal being that when the curb chain is engaged, the lower shank is brought to 45 degrees relative to the bars of the mouth. It may require some adjustment in the curb chain tension to find just the right setting. Ideally, two fingers fit between the curb chain and the chin. Finally, the shape of the mouth piece itself influences the severity of the curb. The unique size and shape of the horse’s tongue, bars and palate all must be considered. Usually, the length of the shank is about the same as the width of the mouthpiece; the curb should be a minimum of 5 mm wider at each side of the mouth to avoid the lips being squeezed between the shanks. But a too wide curb will cause muddled signals to the horse.
de la Guerniere said, “The mouthpiece has to be chosen based on the inner construction of the horse’s mouth, the levers in relation to his neck and the curb chain based on the sensitivity of his chin.”
Of course, as with any bit, its severity is directly related to the skill of the user. For example, while one might assume that a shorter shanked curb is less severe, its effects are felt more quickly and so it is not ideal for someone with unsteady hands.
I soon found that fitting the bits correctly, including consideration of the placement of the noseband, is almost an art form. I still don’t think I have the adjustment just right, as will be seen in some of the photos here.
I have ridden in doubles before, but it was only over the course of this season that I realized how little I really understood about the bridle, its use, and its effects. The horse is only ready to begin using a double when they have developed a degree of collection and self-carriage. When the hindquarter is properly engaged, the horse is then better able to lift their withers and base of the neck. The curb uses even pressure to cause the horse to yield with relaxation in their lower jaw.
I was really on the fence about whether or not Anna was ready to start working in the double, because of our ongoing connection issues. But after a session with my dear friend Jen Verharen in March, I felt sufficiently confident to at least start asking her to hack around in the double and get used to carrying two bits in her mouth. Anna’s first ride in the double was only remarkable in that it was utterly unremarkable. “Ho hum,” she seemed to say. Just another day at the office.
I began riding Anna in her double once per week, usually on days when I was mostly doing stretching work. Even before I started to take a greater feel through the curb rein, I noticed an improvement in the shape of her topline and neck, which I attribute (perhaps falsely) to the style of her bridoon. Anna’s usual snaffle is a medium thickness KK loose ring with a lozenge; the bridoon on her double is a thin single jointed loose ring. I wonder if the simplicity of the bridoon is more comfortable for her; of course, I haven’t actually gotten around to swapping out her regular snaffle to determine this! Perhaps this is a project for the winter season.
Gradually, I began to take more feel on the curb rein and introduced Anna to gentle pressure from the leverage bit. I found that it was important to make sure that she was sufficiently loosened first, and already reaching through her back, before I took this additional contact. When I attended a clinic with Jan Ebeling in April, I brought the double with me, but I didn’t feel confident enough yet to actually bring it out in such a public venue.
So when I took Anna down centerline for the first time at Third Level in June, I had had no direct coaching with her in the double. However, I felt that its use sufficiently improved Anna’s outline and way of going such that it justified its use. In reviewing the photos, I can tell that the curb helped to improve her elevation in the trot work, but I was not fully utilizing its benefits to help her in the canter. I knew I was still being too tentative.
Thankfully, I was able to work with Verne Batchelder over five sessions in July, August and September, which helped us to make excellent progress and gave me better insight into the use of the double during this horse’s training. Verne encouraged me to ride Anna in the double more frequently, citing its positive effects on achieving a more correct shape through her topline and especially in her neck. “Do not go into battle without your gear,” he laughed, as he also encouraged me to picture Anna working more towards Third Level Test 3 than Test 1.
Most of our sessions focused on positioning Anna’s neck such that she was unable to use it to block the flow of energy. Usually this involved taking her nose slightly past the degree of flexion in her neck, waiting for her to relax, then gently straightening her by using my outside elbow. Verne emphasizes the need to be able to swivel the horse’s head and neck at the poll; this helps to develop the muscles of the upper neck to the degree where it actually draws up and refines the area around the throatlatch.
Anna has quite a good walk, and really is capable of achieving scores of “8” or higher on these movements, and so we played with some walk exercises which also would help to further improve her connection. We did a series of half turns in the walk, all the while asking her to take a rounder outline through her topline and neck, more towards an FEI level of carriage, for short periods. These turns were larger than competition sized, and we worked towards shorter, quicker steps. This technique should help to develop greater activity in the half pass. Afterwards, we returned to forward riding on lines and larger circles.
Flying changes are actually quite easy for Anna, and these are also an opportunity for higher scores in the show ring. Verne worked with us on riding changes with greater elevation of the forehand, so that they could become bigger and more expressive. He encouraged a gentle lift of the inside snaffle rein during the change to coincide with the leg cue; this will lay the foundation for a prompter response to a subtle aid in tempi changes later on.
Finally, we spent some time working on developing Anna’s medium trot. The medium gaits are defined by their uphill tendency, which is of course the result of better engagement, self-carriage and true collection. The horse should lift their shoulders and withers, not just flick the front feet. If the rider only thinks about power, most often the horse will do a lengthening and instead fall to their forehand. In the double, Verne reminded me to keep my elbows bent and to focus on riding Anna’s shoulders up. We increased the thrust for a few steps at a time, using these as building blocks to develop strength and carrying power.
Verne feels that the double bridle is a valuable training tool for a horse like Anna, who lacks natural elevation. “The double bridle helps with elevation of the shoulder and neck in horses which are not naturally elevated,” says Verne. “The withers follow the reins, but the rider cannot just lift the hand. They must keep an active half halt and the connection into their elbow.” I learned too that it is extremely important to keep a steady feel on the snaffle, not pulling just holding, whenever Anna was pushing towards a higher degree of balance and throughness.
I always like to give Anna a little down time as I transition back to full time work in the fall, so in September we hung the double up for a few months and focused on stretching in the snaffle and hacking on the trails. Even without the influence of the curb, it is clear that the work we have done in the double has helped to improve the shape and correctness of Anna’s topline.
There has been some debate in recent years regarding whether the double bridle should remain mandatory equipment at the FEI levels; when showing nationally, American riders can choose to ride FEI tests in a snaffle alone. There seems to be some belief that those who can do Grand Prix in a snaffle are better riders. But in the right hands, the double bridle should be regarded as “an instrument of finest understanding between horse and rider” (Rottermann, Eurodressage 11/3/14). A correctly trained horse will probably do well no matter which type of bridle they are wearing.
As far as Anna and I go, we of course need to continue to improve the quality of our communication. I am sure there are some riders and trainers who will judge me for choosing to work this horse in a double bridle before every bit and piece of Third Level work was fully confirmed. But truthfully, it seems like it was the right choice for this horse, and using this tool tactfully has helped to further her training and improved her strength and suppleness.
Edwards, E. Hartley. Saddlery. London: JA Allen and Co, Ltd. 1987.
Notes on Sessions with Verne Batchelder and Cindy Canace
Annapony and I enjoyed an educational weekend in mid-December, riding twice with Verne Batchelder and once with Cindy Canace, within four days. I have had the opportunity to work with both of these talented clinicians before, so I was excited to get some new exercises and feedback as we head into the indoor schooling season.
Verne Batchelder and the “Circle of Submission”
My two sessions with Verne came first, and were held at the lovely Fresh Creek facility in Dover, NH, home to Chesley Brook Stables. Their insulated indoor was a welcome haven from the unseasonably cold temperature and omnipresent wind, and the GGT footing made Anna feel positively springy.
I hadn’t had the chance to connect with Verne for almost a year, and he was super positive about the progress which Anna has made in that time. She tends to always be more forward thinking at a new venue, which is helpful, but Verne noticed that she was also moving with a greater degree of acceptance and throughness since the last time he had seen her go. After I had done a little warm up at the basic gaits, we started to work Anna on what Verne calls “the circle of submission”.
The “circle of submission” is a tool which Verne frequently uses to help horses to unlock, to improve connection and to get better acceptance of the outside rein. Usually, it is done either at the walk or trot, on a smallish (in our case ten meter) circle. With Anna, I asked for an exaggerated flexion in her neck to the inside, and then asked her to turn her chest towards the middle of the circle, while keeping my outside elbow bent but giving. I continued to ride her forward and encouraged her to engage the inside hind leg so it reached further over and under. Once she started to soften her jaw, I increased the straightness by taking more bend into my outside elbow and following with the inside hand.
When riding the “circle of submission”, one of the important end goals is being able to swivel the horse’s head at the poll, with a response of willing acceptance from the horse. In Anna’s case, the circle allowed her to connect more consistently to the outside rein. I rode a 10 meter circle, then rode out of the circle in a lovely uphill shoulder in for several strides down the long side, then straightened her and rode forward in the rising trot. After moving through this sequence, Anna was better able to carry her weight over the topline and actively push into the consistent connection.
The “circle of submission” can be returned to at any point the rider feels they have lost the requisite degree of connection, and/or the ability to swivel the horse at the poll.
We then moved on to some work with haunches in and half pass. After riding a ten meter circle, I rode down the long side in haunches in. In both the shoulder in and haunches in work, Verne cautioned against developing too much angle. Because my goal with Anna next season is to show Third Level, Verne also reminded me that the haunches in is a preparation for the half pass. “Don’t work to perfect the haunches in,” he said, as this movement is not required above Second Level. “Use it to develop your half pass.”
We did several sequences of ten meter circle to haunches in on a diagonal line (which is essentially half pass). I was thrilled to feel Anna fluidly move forward and sideways with a consistent connection and lifted shoulder. She felt like a “big” horse!
In the canter work, we touched on the flying changes. On my own, I have been working quite a bit with the counter canter to develop greater strength and straightness. Anna learned clean changes through her jumping work and tends to throw them in, unasked, during the counter canter. Verne said that in terms of laying the groundwork for Third Level, it would be appropriate to begin asking for the flying change more frequently. Using the ten meter circle again as preparation, I then rode the short diagonal and asked for a change on the line. Verne emphasized that the short diagonals were better than long at this point, so that there are fewer strides for the horse to begin to anticipate the change.
Despite the short distance, Anna still anticipated her change, and gave one fairly exuberant effort from right to left, during which she actually kicked the bottom of my left boot! I think we have some homework to do in terms of “calm acceptance” of this movement.
We ended the first day’s session by playing with adjustability within the gaits. Within the trot or the canter, Anna needed to get bigger or get smaller, but always while keeping her nose in—if I allowed the reins to slip, she would slightly poke her nose forward, causing me to lose a degree of the connection and the ability to swivel the poll.
We covered a lot of ground during this session, and I left feeling thrilled by Anna’s performance. I had felt a degree of connection, thrust and throughness which I have not experienced with her before. Verne was highly complementary of both the progress since last year and the work during our session, and I very much looked forward to day two.
The next morning was one of the coldest so far of the season, which only meant that Anna was even more energetic, despite her hard work the day before. We started again working with the “circle of submission”. Verne added to his description from day one that depending on the horse, the rider can think of riding shoulder in on the circle, or ride it more like a moving turn on the forehand, or even a leg yield out of the haunches. He emphasized, again, that no matter how you approach the “circle of submission”, its purpose is to get the hind end of the horse active and free, to get the inside hind leg under the horse’s body, and to take the horse’s neck out of the cycle of resistance.
From here, we moved onto work with haunches in and half pass in the trot. Verne cautioned again against creating too much angle in the haunches in, which causes the horse to lose their forward intention. In the half pass, Verne reminded me to keep a bent elbow on the outside, and to allow Anna’s shoulders to move ahead of the diagonal line first, and then to put the haunches in on the diagonal.
Allowing the shoulders to come out ahead of the line was a new idea for me, and I found that it helped Anna to say more up into the outside rein during the half pass. By focusing first on the shoulders and then adding the haunches in, the half pass became even more fluid and effortless. We have a lot of work to do to strengthen and improve her reach and carrying power, but we definitely have some new tools to use to develop the movement this winter.
In the canter work, we worked on a twenty meter circle and played with the idea of increasing pressure, then backing off. Because horses naturally tend to carry their haunches to the inside of the circle, we allowed Anna to start this way, while simultaneously increasing the activity in her hind end and increasing the weight in my outside elbow. I then straightened Anna’s body for a few strides, allowing her to increase the collection, then softened and let the haunches slide back in. The idea here is to just touch on the increased collection without asking for it for too many strides in a row.
Overall, I was so excited and encouraged by the work Anna offered during our time working with Verne. I came away with new tools to play with this winter, and Anna has shown me how much more she is capable of doing in this work. On to Third Level we go!
Cindy Canace: “Be a Better Backpack”
After our two days with Verne, Anna had a much needed Sunday off, giving me the opportunity to audit several sessions with USEF “S” judge and USDF Gold Medalist Cindy Canace. Cindy came up from New Jersey to spend two days working with riders at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program. Anna and I had worked with Cindy back in June, and we had a session scheduled again for Monday.
Watching Cindy work with our riders allowed me to observe certain themes to her teaching. She is incredibly detail oriented, and works hard to help riders to both understand important concepts and to feel the horse underneath them. Cindy expects the rider to keep their hands together and in front of their body, allowing the horse to reach to the bit to seek contact. She also works to correct posture and alignment issues in the rider which impact the horse. One of my favorite quotes of the day was that the riders needs to “be a better back pack”, in reference to the fact that our horses must essentially relearn to balance under our weight. It is incumbent upon us to try to make that burden as easy to bear as possible.
Cindy has judged me on Anna several times in competition, in addition to working with us this summer, so she has a decent idea of her strengths and weaknesses. In our Monday session, Cindy wanted to work on helping Anna to lift more in her shoulders and truly elevate her poll. The exercises we did were perhaps not the most interesting for the auditors, but Cindy’s laser beam focus on excellence in the basics helped Anna to show some good progress.
Cindy first had me dramatically slow down Anna’s walk, making each step extremely deliberate, by slowing down my seat while keeping a following, elastic elbow. She then had me execute a series of walk to halt transitions. In each downward transition I made sure to keep my leg on, and then I released Anna from the halt by pressing with the seat bones and softening the leg and hand. Cindy only allowed us to take two walk steps before I asked Anna to halt again. We remained in the halt, with my leg on, until Anna began to soften in the jaw and raised her shoulders. Cindy encouraged me to give Anna a gentle tap on the shoulder with my dressage wand to get a better response to my request for elevation or if she was inattentive.
From this work, we moved into a turn on the forehand. Just as in the earlier exercise, Anna was allowed to take two walk steps and then I asked her to halt, holding it as before. Cindy was particular that to initiate the turn, I needed to press with the calf muscle, not my spur, and once Anna began moving, I needed to keep the march of my seat in a walking rhythm to follow. Cindy reminded me that even though we are emphasizing the responsiveness of the horse to the inside leg in this exercise, my outside leg and seat bone are also important and must remain active. Ideally, in the turn on the forehand, it should take four steps to get the horse facing the opposite direction.
After working on the turn on the forehand, we did a few turns on the haunches, which Anna executed with a more elevated shoulder than before. I also noticed that she had developed a degree of “lipstick”, one of the visual indicators that the horse has begun to soften the jaw. I hope the auditors saw that Anna had become softer in the jaw as the result of the work we had done to improve responsiveness in the hind end and lift in the shoulder, and not because we had done anything at all to manipulate or pull her into a position.
We then moved on to work in the trot and canter, and Cindy helped me work with the position of my left leg. Due to now chronic knee pain, I have a great deal of trouble keeping my left leg fully internally rotated, with the knee and toe pointing forward. Instead, my toe tends to angle out, and I have a difficult time keeping my left spur off Anna’s side without hurting my knee. After so many months of knee pain, I have really developed some compensatory behaviors with the left leg, especially when I am tracking left and need to use the inside leg to position Anna correctly. Cindy had me try bringing my left heel down and forward, allowing my left knee to rotate off the saddle slightly. She then had me rotate my shoulders slightly toward the right in order to engage my outside hip. This positioning of course felt somewhat unnatural but it did allow me to keep Anna correctly bent without my spur ending up stuck on her side.
Cindy had me do many transitions, especially walk-trot-walk and trot-halt-trot. In each transition, Anna needed to stay up in the shoulder. Cindy had me ride a slight step of leg yield out in each transition to help engage the inside hind and keep Anna into the outside rein (a little bit of a similar concept to the “circle of submission” discussed above).
Back to the Laboratory
After our super educational weekend, I have plenty of new material to work with for the next several months in the indoor. I appreciate having fresh eyes on our progress and to come away with ever increasing clarity as to next steps. Now we go “back to the lab” to experiment with our new exercises and tools. Stay tuned for further developments….
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.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian