Teaching Tips for Horseback Riding Instructors by Jo Struby
c 2013 Rose Dog Books Pittsburgh, PA, 94 pages
As a professional riding instructor, I always keep my eye out for new resources and reference materials which can help me to improve the quality of my work. Teaching Tips for Horseback Riding Instructors, by Jo Struby, was reviewed in a recent issue of Eventing USA, the publication of the US Eventing Association, and it caught my eye. Ms. Struby used to teach at Wetherbee Farm in Boxborough, MA, and while I am sure she doesn’t remember it we had several conversations while I was in high school. Struby is a former vice president of the former US Combined Training Association and also holds an M.A. in Education, which both have clearly influenced her perspective as an instructor.
This book is not intended to be read from cover to cover, though certainly one could do so. Instead, Struby envisions readers to use the book as a reference. She is specifically targeting instructors and teachers of horsemanship, stating in her forward that she hoped her book would fill a gap in the available literature by addressing the art of teaching horsemanship, rather than the specifics of riding and horsemanship itself. In this book, Struby has compiled over sixty “teaching tips”, which she originally wrote monthly and sold by subscription from 1996-2000.
Struby’s tips are arranged by category, ranging from philosophy of instruction to curriculum and lesson organization to teaching tools and techniques to student needs and desires. Instructors looking for insight or inspiration in a specific category can easily utilize the table of contents and locate short, succinct blocks of reference material on a given subject. Struby is clear that she is not intending to create a text book, and the format of the book feels very much like a collection of shorter articles than one longer, cohesive reference book. I believe that she was successful in achieving her aim.
The content in each of the segments is of decent quality and shows Struby’s background in the field of education. Her material addresses students’ unique learning styles and motivations, as well as how these can influence their progress as horsemen. For me, though, the delivery was sometimes tedious to process for several reasons. There are pervasive grammar and typographical errors throughout the text which impeded comprehension and lend an air of poor quality execution to the book. It is also completely text—visual learners always benefit from quality graphics and I feel there is no reason to not include them in any book.
I don’t have a sense that this book went into a widespread printing, and I had to contact the publisher directly to get a copy. For the motivated instructor, I think it is worth taking the effort to pick up a copy to use as a reference in order to better apply educational concepts to riding instruction. It is too bad that readers must be prepared to wade through some of the editing issues and somewhat low quality of production in order to access what is in reality quality content.
Notes from a lecture presented by Dr. Susan Garlinghouse at the ECTRA Winter Getaway 2017
For horses covering long distances, the management of metabolic health is of the highest priority. For the competitive distance rider, attention paid to these specific parameters can spell the difference between a completion and a pull (or retirement, for riders used to other disciplines). Distance riding is a sport whose mantra is the phrase, “to finish is to win”. Most distance riders want to have a fun and successful weekend, which means that they are bringing home a healthy horse; to this end, they are always working to learn how to better care for their mounts.
Dr. Susan Garlinghouse presented “Beating the Metabolic Pull” at the Eastern Competitive Trail Ride Association (ECTRA) Winter Getaway in Boxborough, MA in early February, offering attendees instruction and strategies based on the most current of scientific evidence.
Dr. Garlinghouse is an endurance rider and has completed the grueling Tevis Cup no less than three times. She has ridden her Tennessee Walking Horse John Henry over 2,800 endurance miles. Garlinghouse referenced John Henry many times during her talks throughout the weekend, as her insights into metabolic management have been influenced by the additional challenge posed by preparing a horse with a dense build for strenuous competition. She is a well-known authority on many of the unique health and maintenance issues faced by the distance horse.
Garlinghouse emphasized that during a ride there are three primary factors which must be managed to ensure the horse’s wellbeing: hydration, gut motility and energy balance. They are listed here in their relative order of importance, and we will explore each one now in a little more detail.
Garlinghouse says that 90% of metabolic issues come from hydration loss. The line between “sufficient hydration” and a horse at risk is incredibly narrow. Horses sweat at the rate of 1.5-3.75 gallons per hour, and may produce over forty gallons of sweat during a 50 mile ride. During heavy exercise, horses may lose 5-6% of their body weight, with about 4-5 gallons of net fluid loss.
Dehydration during heavy work can affect equine athletes in all disciplines, and the effects come on quickly, beginning with 2-3% dehydration rates. Health concerns escalate rapidly from there. At 6% dehydration, capillary refill time and heart rate are elevated. At 8%, capillary refill time will be 2-3 seconds (normal is under 1), with dry mucous membranes, dry or mucous covered feces, and decreased urine output. At 10% dehydration, capillary refill time will be over three seconds, and the horse will have a high, hanging heart rate with weakness and cold extremities; this horse is in serious trouble. At 12%, the horse is close to death.
The difference between 4 to 8% hydration in a 1000 pound horse is only 4-5 gallons of water.
Some riders believe that the horse will naturally consume water sufficient to replace this lost fluid, but this is a myth. According to research done on fluid balance in endurance horses conducted at UC Davis, the horse will only replace about 2/3 of fluid loss through voluntary drinking. For example, if ten gallons of fluid have been lost, the horse will only voluntarily consume 6-7 gallons. Equally concerning is that this same research showed that over 60% of the horses starting at the 100 mile endurance rides where the studies were being conducted were already dehydrated to some extent, prior to starting the ride. Another 20% were at the high end of normal. Just 10% of the starters began the ride at optimal hydration.
Therefore, it becomes incumbent to create situations in which the horse will stay at a higher rate of hydration before and during the ride.
Garlinghouse offered several strategies to help with this. Even for the non-distance rider, some of these practices could help enhance their performance horse’s well-being, especially before intense work or competition. First, Garlinghouse recommends feeding lots and lots of hay—horses will drink 1.5-2 gallons of water for every five pounds of hay that they consume. She also reminded the audience that the rate of passage from the mouth to the hind gut is relatively slow. What you feed your horse on Thursday becomes their source of energy on Saturday.
Feeding soluble fibers, like beet pulp or soybean hulls, can also increase the fluid reservoir available to the horse during a ride. These feed stuffs help to retain fluid and electrolytes which the horse can pull from during exertion.
The manner in which we feed our horses is also important to consider. Garlinghouse explained that there are fluid shifts in the body associated with the consumption of large (over 4.5 pounds), episodic (fed more than 2-3 hours apart) meals. When we feed on this schedule, as much as 5-6 gallons of fluid shifts from the plasma and tissues and into the gastrointestinal tract, leading to a 15-24% reduction in plasma volume. The effect is transient, lasting two to three hours.
If your horse is at rest, this isn’t a big deal. But if your horse is teetering on the edge of being dehydrated, and then there is this huge fluid shift…well, that is not good.
To prevent this, riders must ensure that their horse has something going into their digestive system more frequently than every two hours. Garlinghouse emphasized that the quantity doesn’t have to be great—grazing, some carrots or apples, a baggie of soaked beet pulp—will all do just fine.
On a related note, Garlinghouse cautioned riders about the common practice of syringing large doses of electrolytes into the horse’s mouth, as this draws fluids from the plasma and into the digestive tract in a similar way to large servings of food. The effect can be minimized or eliminated by giving electrolytes in small but frequent doses, preferably after the horse has been drinking. So eight, 2 ounce doses is preferable to two, 8 ounce doses. Garlinghouse also recommends mixing electrolytes with a buffer like kaolin pectin to help reduce the risk of ulcers.
Another cause of excess dehydration is feeding high amounts of protein. Garlinghouse recommends feeding distance horses at a 10% protein rate. Protein fed at higher rates will be used for energy production, but processing protein in this manner results in waste heat, almost 3-6 times as much as what is produced through the processing of fats or carbohydrates.
Garlinghouse’s “Fast Facts” on Hydration:
Maximize your horse’s forage intake for 2-3 days before the big ride to increase their reservoir of fluids and electrolytes
Provide small, frequent meals throughout the ride rather than a few large ones
Minimize the amount of protein in the diet
While dehydration is responsible for 90% of metabolic problems, gut motility can be one of the first accurate indicators of stress. Gut motility slows down when blood supply is reduced, which can happen anytime the horse’s systems are under excessive demand somewhere else. This is because the gastrointestinal system is the last in line in terms of the “pecking order” amongst the horse’s body systems; vital organs like the brain, heart and lungs come first, followed by the muscles of locomotion, then skin surfaces for heat dissipation…and then the GI tract. This chain of command stems from the horse’s prey animal status; if you are about to be eaten, it is more important that you can effectively run away than that you can digest your breakfast.
For the well-being of the horse, it is important to actively monitor and stimulate GI activity during a ride. Garlinghouse recommends carrying a high quality stethoscope and have a vet teach the rider how to check all four quadrants. Improving motility can be as simple as keeping small amounts of feed in the stomach, which triggers a hormonal release thereby increasing motility. Another strategy is to occasionally slow down, which will reduce heat production and therefore the demand on the skin surfaces to release excess heat. The nature of distance riding can cause a horse’s body to think is constantly being chased. Slowing down will reverse this effect.
Garlinghouse cautions against feeding pellets or cubes at a ride, both of which require extra fluids to process. Instead, feed soaked products, including hay. The better the horse’s overall hydration, the more efficiently he will circulate his blood and therefore improve his gut motility.
A distant third to hydration and gut motility in terms of managing the horse’s metabolism during a ride is energy balance. There are many different strategies related to effectively managing a horse’s feed ration leading up to and during a ride. Garlinghouse helped to dispel some common misconceptions and offered some practical tips to help ensure adequate energy reserves for the endurance horse.
There are two primary sources of energy for exercise: fats and glucose (from carbohydrates). Fats are more energy dense, offering 2.25 times the energy of an equivalent amount of carbohydrate, and the body can store fats in much greater quantities. Glucose is generated from the breakdown of carbs; limited amounts are stored as glycogen in the muscle and liver, but glucose is the limiting substrate in fatigue. Therefore, the thoughtful rider should be trying to maintain glycogen stores by balancing the diet with fat.
Garlinghouse suggests a ration with 10-12% fat in a commercial grain is acceptable, so long as horses are given time to get used to it. Fats are calorically dense and help to maintain the horse’s body weight. They also have a glycogen sparing effect. Additionally, Garlinghouse recommends supplementing with a glucose source throughout the ride. Riders should not provide extra fats during a ride, as the horse cannot process fat that quickly. A horse in good body condition already has all the fat they need for the day’s energy requirements. Horses should not arrive at the ride so thin that ribs are visible, as they do not have an adequate fat reserve.
One of Garlinghouse’s most important messages related to energy balance was that horses should not receive a large grain meal within four hours of their ride. Feeding grain causes an increase in blood pressure, triggers insulin release and inhibits the utilization of fat. In the distance athlete, this is particularly troublesome because the horse will experience something similar to a ‘sugar high’; the transient effects of the grain meal will cause the horse to be hyper to start the ride but then they will experience a ‘crash’. Most grain digestion occurs in the small intestine, and the stresses of the ride will cause some of the grain to spill into the cecum undigested. The bacteria which live in the cecum are not able to process grain, and this can cause GI stress.
Garlinghouse again emphasized that horses should be fed a meal with a high glycogen index (like a sloppy beet pulp meal) not later than midnight before a ride. On the ride morning, horses should receive unlimited hay and then small, frequent meals throughout the ride day, which will minimize the insulin response while maintaining gut motility.
There is certainly always more to learn when it comes to managing a horse’s well being during a long distance ride. Garlinghouse gave attendees plenty to think about and apply to their own horse’s feeding and management strategies as we move into the 2017 season.
Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse by Paul D. Cronin
C 2004 University of Virginia Press, Charlottesville 274 pages
Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse was originally given to me to review for possible use as a text in a course I teach at the University of New Hampshire. I had high hopes for the book, as author Paul Cronin is a well-respected protégé of the late Vladimir Littauer and also the longtime director at Sweet Briar College’s riding program. The content of the book is geared towards the riding and training of hunter/jumpers and is well organized. Unfortunately, it is also dry and dense, with dated images, and will simply not be read by the Millennials I am now responsible for educating. If you tell me that you have a Millennial-aged student who will actually read this book….I frankly don’t believe you.
I started reading Schooling and Riding the Sport Horse back in 2014. I finished it late in 2016. I was stubborn and determined to get through it. It is simply not a page turner.
As a rider/trainer whose interests tend more towards dressage and eventing, I still find a great deal of helpful inspiration in understanding the training systems used by those who are more oriented towards hunters, equitation and jumpers. In this book, I do think that Cronin clearly and progressively lays out the elements of his system, which is geared to develop the position, controls and schooling of the horse used in forward seat riding. But starting as early as the introduction, I started to take issue with what I perceived as his derogatory tone towards the classical dressage system and his belief in the superiority of what he calls the “American hunter seat”. I think I had a hard time letting go of this perceived slight throughout the rest of the book.
With that being said, I found much to agree with in the book as well. I appreciated his emphasis on the importance of correct and progressive work on the flat to prepare horse and rider for over fences performance. For example, Cronin points out that “it is not accurate to refer to the short gaits with hunters as classical collected gaits. That is a concept that has a special meaning in educated classical dressage riding. The hunters are not collected and on the bit but are connected and on soft contact” (Cronin, 2004, p. 33). This sentence is contained in his chapter on “Position and Controls”, in which he details some of the differences in theory and objective between what I would call classical dressage theory and American hunter seat theory.
Another theme in the book which I appreciated was Cronin’s direct acknowledgement that all horses and riders have their “niche”; not every horse needs to be trained to the highest levels, because not every rider aspires to ride to them. “Not all horses and riders will be able to achieve the advanced level of control not do they need to in order to experience safe, enjoyable riding” (Cronin, 2004, p. 46). He further expands this concept in other chapters, including “Evaluating and Selecting a Horse” and “The Philosophy for Schooling in the Modern Hunter/Jumper System”.
The last half or so of the book is the description of a systematic and progressive series of “schooling periods” which takes the horse successively through seven stages of training. Each phase includes key concepts and exercises to be attained during the schooling period, important concepts to keep in mind and pitfalls to watch for, as well as some sample plans for workouts and training sessions. The most important theme is “systematic progression”. Each step is to be taken in turn, not sooner, not later. A serious trainer could absolutely use this series to develop a young horse or retrain one who had inconsistencies in previous work.
My sentiments towards this book softened as I read through the chapters on the schooling periods. It is clear to me that Cronin is a classical trainer in the style of American forward seat riding, and believes firmly in consistency, patience and slow, steady, horse-oriented progress. I was able to draw more connections between his concepts and those common to the training of dressage and eventing horses in these chapters than the others (mind you, this was all in year three of reading the book).
Overall, this book really is a good source of information, even if it is written in an “old school” style which makes it a bit dense. For a reader who is able to thoughtfully digest any of the classical texts on horsemanship written by the old masters, this book would certainly ring true and fit right into that library. Unfortunately, for the average modern reader of horsemanship books, I am afraid the terminology used throughout the book is too uncommon, the text too dry, and the photos too dated to make it a useful reference. I suspect that most ambitious modern riders who purchased this book have left it sitting on their shelves amongst the others which they have never quite made it around to reading. If you are looking for an easy read on progressive horsemanship—this isn’t your book. If you want to delve into a systematic progression for the training of hunters and jumpers, and enjoy really taking the time to understand the heritage left by Littauer (who went on to influence so many of the great American horsemen of the 20th century), then this text may be worth the time to plod through.
** Bloggers note: If you like the featured image at the top, it is sold as a decal here.**
In the downtime between our two semesters at the University of New Hampshire, I always try to tune up a few school horses or work with some of our newer herd members to get to know them a little bit better. Increased tack time is always good for the soul (even if the cheeks end up a little chapped from the cold!) and I appreciate the opportunity to work with different horses. There are so many lessons to be learned.
I think school horses are simply some of the most amazing horses on the planet. They tolerate all manner of riders and need to decipher their aids. The riders who sit on them are, by definition, students, which means that those aids may lack refinement, finesse and sophistication. It is the exceptional school horse that can absorb all of this without ill effect, and it is my opinion that they deserve having one consistent person work with them for a period of time every now and then. The horse and rider have a chance to connect more deeply, and if the rider is experienced enough, they can help to break through any blocks or defensiveness that the horse may have installed in an effort to absorb some of the confusion in the aids.
During the recent winter break, I worked with three horses which are used in our dressage-only classes: Fiona, Otto and Tino. Despite all being dressage specialists, they each require a different kind of ride to elicit their best performance. Riding each horse helped to remind me of details which I then applied to my usual dressage ride, Anna.
Fiona is a chestnut Thoroughbred type mare who has been with our program for several years at this point. Of all the many horses I have tried out for the program, Fiona is by far one of my favorites. She is “my type” of ride; slender, athletic, a little sensitive, and of course, a mare. I always enjoy reconnecting with her during our breaks.
It has been almost one year since I last sat on Fiona, and I was a bit disconcerted at first by how much more defensive she felt this year than last. By “defensive”, I mean that her initial reaction to any soft contact was to brace and become hollow, and she was also reluctant to actively reach with her hind legs. It was my sense that Fiona was protecting herself, but the question was, from what?
I started by re-checking her tack, which by and large looked ok. She was definitely due for a re-shoe, so we had that taken care of. I then started a program which encouraged Fiona to begin to reach through her entire topline and stretch into the connection. While this idea is a key principle of dressage, it seemed to me as though she had a little bit lost her faith in that concept.
I very rarely warm up a horse at the trot completely off contact (although I always start with a ten minute or so free walk on a loose rein). But with Fiona, I had to break my own rules. First, Fiona absolutely needed the walking in phase; if I had a shorter than usual period of time to ride her, this was not an area where I could cut corners. Once I moved on to the warm up trot, I didn’t shorten my reins at all, instead allowing Fiona to warm up while carrying her topline wherever she felt like she needed to with a completely floppy rein. I didn’t ask her to align her shoulders and hips or even do more than the most basic of soft bend in the corners. I kept all of the turns sweeping and wide and changed direction regularly. After a few minutes like this, I very, very tactfully shortened the reins until I had a delicate, soft, pushing-toward-the-mouth contact, and I stepped Fiona into a canter.
For this horse, at this time, it is the canter which does the best job of loosening her up and encouraging her to let go. The left lead seems to be more comfortable for her than the right, so I usually started there. I never forced her to connect but instead encouraged it. In the canter, Fiona is more willing to reach underneath herself with the hind leg while also allowing the rider to maintain a soft, steady, elastic feeling in the reins. But the nanosecond that the rider gets greedy and holds too much in the rein or blocks with the seat, Fiona hollows again. The rider must practice patience.
I went through this slow, gentle warm up with Fiona every single ride. It honestly would take ten minutes of walking and twenty of trotting and cantering before she started to feel even remotely soft or fluid. If you pushed her harder before then, she would quite literally stop, or kick out at the leg—a sign that the question was ‘too much’. It would be easy to label her as being resistant (“this horse won’t connect”) but I think it was much more an example of ‘this horse can’t’. She had been blocking her body to such a degree for so long that every exercise session was only dedicated to unlocking her muscles again.
By the end of a ride, Fiona was loose, supple, forward and through. She stayed soft in the jaw, chewing the bit and generating the “lipstick” that we like to see in a dressage horse. Her responsiveness to the aids improved dramatically; Fiona at the end of a ride was like a completely different horse.
Fiona is not as young as she used to be, and she tends to be hard on herself out in turnout, so my sense is that all of these factors, plus her inherent personality, are simply starting to add up in creating this level of “block” in her body. I think the lessons which I took away from working with Fiona this winter were 1) that the rider can always be more patient 2) sometimes you have to throw your usual “rules” out the window and experiment to figure out what works best—the horse is always right! And of course, riding Fiona reinforced a rule that we always can be reminded of: force will get you nowhere.
Otto is a wonderful little petite Ferrari of a horse, who joined our program late this summer. He is trained through Third Level, and having seen him go a few times, I just knew that I would enjoy riding him. As I work towards bringing Anna up to Third Level, I thought it would be helpful to take advantage of the chance to ride a schooled horse through some of those movements again.
Otto is half Arabian, and he has a tremendous “go” button. I made the mistake on our first ride of carrying a dressage wand; it was so not needed! The students had told me that he gets heavy in the hand, and I had personally observed him tending to tuck his nose in towards his chest and get stuck in the kind of power trot that is flashy to watch but not much fun to ride. While still a connection issue, this is at least a different variety than the one I am used to dealing with!
Otto came to us wearing a Baucher bit. Many people mistakenly believe that this bit uses poll pressure in its action, but this is not the case. In fact, if you put your fingers under the crown piece and then have a friend apply pressure on the rein, you will feel that there is no poll action. A Baucher does raise the bit slightly higher against the corners of the lips and holds it steadier in the horse’s mouth; it seems to appeal most to horses which dislike any kind of fussiness in the connection. In my experience, though, most horses just lean on it, and that is what I felt in Otto. My colleague helped switch out the Baucher for a basic jointed loose ring, which gives him more to chew on and definitely helped to improve the softness of his jaw.
The biggest key with Otto, and horses like him, is that you have to take a leap of faith and give the rein when you want to take. On the days when I would get on Otto with an agenda, and maybe too much tension in my muscles, I could feel him tend to take a bit more feel on me in return. This is the start of that inevitable cycle of pull and tug—you pull on me, I tug on you. I remember my mentor from many years ago, Beth Adams, saying, “It takes two to pull.” So whenever I felt that weight increasing, I pushed the rein forward towards the corners of Otto’s mouth. Sure, he sometimes accelerated, and then I would circle or leg yield (or both!) and take advantage of the energy to help Otto become better balanced and engaged through the use of my diagonal aids.
Otto was simply so much fun to play with. We did a million transitions within and between gaits, worked the half pass in trot and canter, and played with his flying changes. The entire time, I kept thinking, “give”. The softer I stayed, the softer Otto stayed, with a more correct neck and improved connection.
This lesson was especially helpful to bring forward onto Anna, who is sort of the opposite in terms of her connection issues—she tends to be above the bit and lacks thrust. On her, finding the right blend of steadiness in the rein (to encourage her to connect) versus give (to encourage her to stretch) is tricky. Riding Otto reminded me that I can always offer Anna the opportunity to develop better roundness by my becoming a bit more elastic and giving for a few steps. When I apply this concept, it is nine times out of ten that Anna softens back. Funny how that is….
Tino is by far one of our most elegant and well bred school horses, and we are lucky to have such a lovely animal in our program. It actually hadn’t been my intention to work with him over the break, but when he is out of work, he becomes a bit sassy for the crew to handle, so back to work he went.
Like Otto, Tino has been shown through Third level, but he has much bigger gaits, and these can make him quite challenging to ride correctly. The sheer power of his movement can throw the rider far out of the saddle and off balance in the trot, and I think it is because of this that most of his riders hesitate to send him correctly forward. When this happens, Tino gets stuck in a “passage trot”, which is of course horribly incorrect and not good for his muscling and long term comfort levels.
Tino has had some excellent schooling in his past, and I wanted to make sure that I did right by this horse. I took some video of him and sent it off to a trusted friend for some feedback. She supported my initial instinct, which was that Tino needed to come more freely forward and respond to the rider’s leg aid by reaching forward and under, rather than higher and loftier. As with all my rides, I started each session with Tino with ten minutes of a marching free walk, and then warmed him up in the trot and canter while encouraging him to stretch through his topline and reach forward into a soft contact, all without dropping his shoulder or getting too heavily onto the forehand.
Tino’s canter is pretty gosh darn amazing. It is rhythmical and cadenced, and I found that using forward and back adjustments in the counter canter during the warm up phase really helped Tino to loosen his topline, making more correct movement in the trot easier afterwards.
Once he was warmed up, I did a lot—and I mean a lot—of lateral work with him, working on getting a more correct and sharper response to the leg aids. We did shoulder in, travers, renvers and tons of half pass. As the strength of his topline returned, we added in more work with adjustable gaits, and I encouraged him to lengthen his stride, then come back to a shorter yet still reaching step. I also played a lot with his changes; they are easy for him, and as my “consultant” said, “I have yet to meet a horse who was hurt because of doing the flying changes. If they are easy, they are fun for him.”
I am thrilled with the progress Tino made over the break. He is a powerful, athletic animal, and thankfully he is generally good natured and doesn’t use any of those qualities against us! That being said, I think he is a really challenging school horse for riders to figure out. To get the best work from him (as it is with any horse), the rider must ride forward. And once Tino is really going forward, you have A L O T of horse underneath you. That is pretty intimidating– but SO much fun.
Riding Tino reminded me what it is like to experience the talents of an animal who is simply bred to do their job. The “movements” are easy. What is important to remember, especially with a horse like Tino, is that when the quality of the gaits decline, we have forgotten the purpose of dressage, which is (simply put), “to enhance the natural gaits of the horse”. There are certainly moments when the horse is learning a new movement during which they may lose quality, but we need to remember that if this becomes the norm, it is time to take a different tack in our training.
On an even more basic level, riding Tino reminded me that I have to stay back with my upper body. I have always had a tendency to tip forward, left over from my hunter/jumper days, and on most horses I get away with it. On Tino, if I tipped forward, I immediately felt off balance due to his big movement. I also had to make sure to keep my eyes up and forward, for the same reason. With great power comes great responsibility, grasshopper—in this case, the responsibility to maintain one’s own position.
I started 2017 by attending two big meetings, one which celebrated the 50th Anniversary of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA), and one which heralded the start of a new era for the United States Equestrian Federation (USEF), including a re-branding effort which will have us calling the group US Equestrian. I was struck by some common themes—and common company—between the two meetings, and it has caused me to ponder the long term future of equestrian sport as we begin this New Year.
In general, equestrian sports are considered “elitist” by those outside of the industry and their continued existence in the Olympics Games remains questionable. Even within the business, there appears to be a dramatic divide between what I will call the “grassroots riders” and the “upper echelon” in terms of needs, motivations for being involved with horses and the ability to reach their personal and performance goals. At the same time there are those who would argue that there is no gap, that the upper echelon depends upon the grassroots, and that the whole community is structured sort of like a pyramid, only as strong as its base.
I was born with a horse bug. My earliest memories of wanting to ride come from nursery school. My parents aren’t “horsey”, and neither were my closest friends growing up. How often have we heard this kind of story? That this obsession should come from seemingly nowhere is unexplainable, yet it happens, over and over, these people who have a seemingly insatiable desire, or need, to be connected to horses. Where that drive takes them is a journey unique to each individual. Some may stand atop a medal podium. Some may be fulfilled with a quiet walk down the trail. Yet wherever we fall on this spectrum, we are all part of the same greater community.
I believe that whether we like it or not, the events which affect the “upper echelons” of equestrian sport affect the rest of us, too, sometimes as a trickle down and sometimes as a mad rushing current. It is a good thing when we are inspired by a gifted rider’s performance on a talented horse; it is bad when we are left explaining to friends and family why a horse dropped dead at a show, or a big name rider/trainer is suspended for positive drug tests. But the reverse is true, as well. If an intrinsically horse loving young person grows up to recognize that there are no longer open spaces to ride, affordable boarding stables, quality instruction and opportunities to reach personal goals, and they put their horse dreams on a shelf, then we all lose.
The USEF is the umbrella organization which oversees much “sanctioned” equestrian sport in the US. US Equestrian sets rules, approves licensed officials, offers year end awards programs and more. Yet most people are members only because they compete and membership is required to show. When they stop competing or take time off, they allow their membership to lapse. Some of the controversies which have come to the fore front in sanctioned competition, most recently including covert abuse of drug rules, turning a blind eye to questionable training practices, and ever increasing fees, have caused some horse lovers to choose to leave the organization—and competition—behind. I say horse lovers, because some of these are driven individuals who have put their love for the animal ahead of their love of competition.
For me, this is what it comes down to– love of the horse. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter whether someone shows or not, what discipline they ride, or even how often they ride. What matters is that they love the horse, and they are committed to giving the horse a humane life, a safe life, one free from pain, suffering or misery, and that they love having that experience. There is a woman at one barn I go to who doesn’t seem to ever ride. She grooms, longes, and plays games with her horse on the ground. It wouldn’t be for me, but that doesn’t matter. SHE is happy, her HORSE is happy, and everyone wins. We are both horse lovers; we are equestrians.
New US Equestrian president Murray Kessler sent a letter to all USEF members (of which I am one), which he basically opens with, “I love horses.” He has been involved at all levels of equestrian sport, from local shows to watching his daughter ride at an Olympic Games. People who only know him as the father of Reed might dismiss him as another one of those “upper echelon” people; he has been successful in business and clearly has become financially secure to the point where exceptional horses are now a reality. Despite this, my sense from the US Equestrian meeting is that Mr. Kessler still remembers what it was like to struggle to find the funds to attend a local show, and that he holds a bigger, broader vision of what US Equestrian could be for our industry. Instead of a pyramid, I think he sees a circle, where the grassroots supports the top but then the top turns around and gives back to the grassroots. I think that is something quite exciting.
Mr. Kessler has promised that he will serve as an “advocate for our membership at all levels in all breeds and in all disciplines. Every member of the Federation is important and plays a role in our future.” He has promised to help the organization take a stronger stance on fairness and safety in equestrian sport, going so far as to state that the “purposeful doping of horses cannot and will not be tolerated”. He vows to increase access and participation in the world of horse showing. “Competing in equestrian sports has become so expensive that it is prohibitive,” says Kessler in his letter. It is beyond time for someone in this level of leadership to formally act on these points, for the good of everyone in the industry, not just the competitors.
Because here’s the thing…on some level, the backyard owners need the horse show people. Horses are a luxury item. A robust industry means that resources are being produced and consumed, keeping tack retailers, grain suppliers, hay producers, instructors, trainers, boarding stables, veterinarians and farriers in business. When the number of people consuming these resources dwindles, they become scarcer as suppliers go out of business. Then the cost goes up, and all horse owners are forced to make difficult choices.
Kessler commented that his research shows that participation at the smaller USEF shows has declined by 40% over the past ten years, while entries at large scale, more costly events have gone up. In my role as the organizer for the University of New Hampshire Horse Trials, I have noticed a similar trend in eventing. Our competition draws from a more local/regional audience, and we used to be full with close to 200 entries just a few days after opening; now, we are lucky to run 150 and are forced to accept entries post-close. I hear other organizers of similar competitions say the same thing. Our sanctioned summer dressage show used to run four rings with a waiting list; now we can barely fill three.
This slow and steady decline in participation is the result of so many different factors, but it is a concerning trend. Undersubscribed competitions can’t sustain themselves forever, and sooner rather than later they stop running. This takes the bridge between schooling competition and more prestigious ones away, leaving a gap in our circle that is hard to overcome.
US Equestrian states as its new vision, “to bring the joy of horse sports to as many people as possible”. It has created a new “fan” membership; for just $25, fan members can have access to many of the benefits which the organization offers, including access to the new learning center (which has educational videos featuring well known riders and trainers), access to the USEF network, the youth high school lettering program, and more. The new website lists “start riding” and “learning center” as the first two tabs in their banner, ahead of “compete” and even “join USEF”. As part of their new membership recruitment efforts, US Equestrian has given a free fan membership to every member of the IHSA and Intercollegiate Dressage Association, and perhaps some other youth organizations as well (I just happen to know those two for sure). The website has pictures of young people on horses and recreational riders as well as the usual competition photos. It is, frankly, refreshing.
At the IHSA’s 50th Anniversary Banquet in early January, I was struck by how many generations of equestrians were in attendance. Everyone in the room was connected through just this one organization, and those present were but a small sliver of the total number who could call themselves a current rider, alumni, coach or former coach of the IHSA. There are close to 10,000 undergraduate members today; over fifty years, that is an enormous community.
Each and every equestrian needs to be mindful that we as a collective group are completely connected to one another. Threats to open space access, to collegiate riding programs, to agriculture as a whole, all affect us. It is crucial that equestrians seek the synergy amongst our different groups. We must work to cultivate a supportive, not competitive, atmosphere within our ranks. Our tack, goals and preferred riding speed may be diverse, but we should all be united by one thing: our love for the horse.
I challenge each of you, no matter how you define yourself as an equestrian, to work to always remember the love of the horse. Share your love with others. Because they are out there—those young people with the intrinsic, insatiable need to be with horses. They are looking for you, for me, for all of us, to help them to fulfill those dreams.
This past September marked my first full year here at the farm, and overall Mother Nature was kind to me in my rookie year (thank Gaia!). Each season brings its unique positives and challenges to horse keeping. I have worked on farms for decades but it is certainly a different experience when you are the one making the decisions and doing most of the work. Now that I have had a full year under my belt here, it is time to pause and reflect on what I have learned so far.
Winter is here in New England. A few days ago, the farm was buried under 10” of heavy new snow, and now we have huge plow piles, tunnels to gates and waters and temporarily shorted out electrical fencing. Last winter was relatively mild, which was much appreciated as my learning curve with the new property was fairly steep. This winter already seems as though it will be more intense; we have had more snow, more ice and more crazy temperature swings before the end of December than I think we went through all season last year.
Winter is certainly a challenging time for horse keeping. All tasks are made harder due to the cold, the snow, the frozen patches…if you have dealt with it, you know. If, after doing all the work to take care of your horses, you still have the energy to ride, it is still freezing most days, and I personally dislike having to wear layers and fat gloves and heavy boots. But here is the thing–in New England, our ecosystems NEED winter. The snow allows underground aquifers to recharge, deciduous trees, grasses and shrubs rest, and we all have a respite from most of the creepy crawlies that plague our horses the rest of the year. Days are short, temps are low and the footing is questionable, which means that serious training can really only occur if your horse is stabled at an indoor. One lesson I have learned from the distance riding community is that a little rest for your horse is almost never a bad thing. No athlete can maintain peak performance year round. Here in the snowy north, winter is the best time to allow your equine athlete the opportunity to rest and recharge. After all, nature is doing it, right?
Winter can also be a time of astounding beauty. As much as I curse the mounds of snow after a storm, there is something utterly peaceful about being outside with the clean landscape, tree boughs heavy with accumulation, and horses happily rolling, leaping and playing, whiskers and eyelashes frosted. It doesn’t seem to bother them anywhere near as much as it bothers me! With most riders spending less time in the saddle, winter is also a perfect time to thoughtfully make plans and set goals for the upcoming season.
In spite of my efforts to maintain a positive outlook towards the season, winter nearly always outstays its welcome, as far as I am concerned. I eagerly look forward to any early signs of spring, especially as the days lengthen and winter’s piles lose their resiliency to the strength of a sun which rises ever higher in the sky. I love the smell of the damp earth as it emerges from beneath the snow’s protective blanket and the sun begins to awaken all of the sleeping entities lying beneath the topsoil. Seeds sprout, the grass becomes brighter and tree leaves begin to unfurl with reckless abandon.
Spring means that we can finally give the paddock a good cleaning, knock the cobwebs down from the corners of the barn, and begin to launder blankets and stow the shovels and scrapers. We trade snow suits for being covered with the shedding hair of our equine friends. Spring is the time to put all of the plans which we schemed during winter’s lull into action, the time to start to condition our mounts and prepare them for the upcoming active season.
Songbirds return. At Cold Moon Farm, there are multiple micro habitats and a lot of edge, and the color and activity of birds just returned from warmer southern climates brings a feeling of lightness and joy. The grass begins to stabilize and the horses can begin the slow, gradual process of acclimatizing to grazing.
But spring is not all sunshine and buttercups. Winter clean up can be onerous, from replacing torn sod to fixing broken fencing to removing downed tree limbs. Dirt paddocks quickly turn into quagmires as snow melt runs off and April’s showers saturate (hopefully within the next few years we will have a proper, improved drainage in the sacrifice area). Perhaps most annoyingly, fly season officially gets underway in April with the appearance of hordes of blackflies. And worst of all, ticks are seemingly everywhere, emerging as early as possible. Yet just as you think you can’t take any more of the mud and the bugs and the need to clean up yet another area of the farm, the season changes again.
Summers in New England are short and intense. There are really only maybe eight to ten weeks of true, full on summer, and we try to make the most of it. I think I must be part cat, because I just revel in the sun and want to absorb as much of it as possible. I love to get up early and feel the cool, fresh air in the morning, and I can’t wait to get out and about for the day. My favorite thing is to ride first thing in the morning, before the humidity builds up, then sip on an iced coffee and teach for the afternoon.
This past summer was super sunny, which I loved for my own purposes, but in reality, it was not the best thing for the ecosystems of the northeast. Between the light snow season and the lack of rain, New England soon found itself in a drought. I began to hear stories of wells running dry–I soon learned that these were mostly dug wells, which go down 9-12 feet, as opposed to a drilled well like mine, which is usually 200 feet or more and taps into an aquifer. But it was stressful to know that homes around mine were experiencing problems with their wells, so I worried about what I would do if water ran out at the farm.
The drought also meant that the grass went dormant far earlier than usual. I had to pull the horses off their grass fields in August and switch to feeding hay, almost a month earlier than I had anticipated. On the plus side, I barely had to mow the lawn and I got away with not having a brushhog yet for the fields out back. But as the grass began to crisp and the streams and water crossings out back ran completely dry, it was clear that the unusual weather was taking its toll. Late summer can be a good time to spread lime on your fields, but that requires a heavy rain to help flush it into the soil. I got lucky in the timing of an application right before one of our only big storms in August. Just as I thought that the fields and the yards and the trees couldn’t possibly take another sun soaked day, deprived of water, the seasons changed again.
Fall here is simply stunning. There are many maples on the property, which flamboyantly flash red and orange as the overnight temps cool and days begin to more obviously shorten. Beech trees and a few oaks mix in as well, offering a later surge of color. Lower in height, shrubs like sumac and dogwood are also not to be missed. The trails out back offer a range of color displays, in every direction. The drier air feels like a relief and this year, the fall brought with it some blessed rain to help begin to reverse the effects of an overly dry summer. Late summer flowers bloom amidst the falling leaves, lending a competitive sense to the changing seasons.
Fall on a horse farm means it is time to prepare for winter. The first order of business was stocking the hay barn to the gills with as many bales as will fit (here, close to 300). Later in the season, it was time to put away the fixtures from the grass fields, which are closed for winter, then to trim the shrubs around the barn, put away the jumps and rails, and set up the heaters for the outside water. And of course, autumn is nicknamed “fall” because of the leaves. I have been lucky so far to either use the mower to mulch them or to allow strong winds to blow them off into the tree line; I certainly don’t relish the idea of hand raking the entire yard!
As fall winds down, winter begins again. And the cycle continues.
Each year, the seasons come, the seasons stay, the seasons change. Each season brings its positives and its negatives, but without that yin/yang balance, it would not be as easy to appreciate the variety for what it is. New England is a dynamic place, and to successfully maintain a healthy place for ourselves and our horses, managers must consider the unique challenges faced during each change of the weather.
So as I trudge outside yet again in my full Yeti suit, I will try to take the good with the challenging, and when it starts to get to the point where I think “I just can’t stand this (insert problem word here; examples could include mud, ticks, snow, ice, wind, torrential rain) anymore” instead I will try to say, “this too shall pass”.
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….
Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I spent some time catching up on a ton of fellow blogger’s posts. I am now the new owner of an iPad, and with shorter, colder days, curling up on the couch to catch up on other’s thoughts and activities is a welcome pasttime. One blog I follow is called “Green to 100” and it chronicles a newish rider on the quest to complete a 100 mile endurance ride. As a rookie to the sport of distance riding myself, I find I can often relate to her stories. But another theme which is present throughout her blogs is that of relationship, specifically with her horse. She seeks to be a leader that her horse wants to follow, rather than to dictate to her horse about what is going to happen. Approaching her relationship with her horse in this manner means that certain things take longer. But it is clear that the reward of arriving where she wants to go, united as a team with her horse, is more important than getting there fast. Quality is more important than quantity.
Reading a whole series of her blogs in a row gave me the opportunity to reflect on the nature of the horse/human relationship on a number of levels, but especially in regards to the bond I share with each of my own horses.
In preparation for the winter season, Annapony has relocated to the university, which has an indoor, so that she can remain in consistent work. I have big goals for her next season, which will require us to use the winter to train and to build strength and suppleness. She is happy enough there, and well cared for. But I was really quite reluctant to bring her back, and kept delaying her departure from Cold Moon Farm. It wasn’t hard for me to realize that I simply wanted her to be at home with me and with my other horses. I genuinely enjoy being the main caretaker for my horses. I know them so intimately that it is easy to notice when something is off. By bringing Anna to another facility and putting her day to day care in someone else’s hands, it feels almost like a wedge is driven into our relationship. That isn’t entirely true but I still resent the intrusion.
Anna is a calm horse, most of the time. She seems to enjoy human attention (especially if there is food involved) but also likes other horses. Her rank in the herd is towards the top but her style of leadership seems to be more threat than attack. Anna is pretty tolerant; nervous horses on trail have run right into her hindquarters and she has never so much as flicked an ear. That being said, I find the best approach with Anna when tackling a new skill or question is to ask, then wait a moment. If I am too hasty, and try to force her…she resists, sometimes with great vigor. If I give her a chance to look and understand, then she usually will comply.
The other night, I took Anna for a hack onto the cross country course right as the sun was setting. We have already had some snow here in New Hampshire, with some mild melting, leaving the ground a hodge podge of bare spots mixed with snow covered rocks, footprints and other hard to discern anomalies. The air was cooling off and a fairly steady breeze had picked up. Overall, conditions were not ideal for a relaxed hack, but I was determined to get out of the ring after several days of solid arena work. In the woods, the light was dim and features unclear, yet Anna remained mostly calm and confident. We completed a meandering loop around the course and returned to the main facility along the edge of the reservoir, past the observatory and down a trail which was now nearly completely obscured in the fading light of day. When there is no artificial light, it is pretty amazing how much you can still see, once your eyes adjust. A Canada goose broke the stillness with a series of loud honks, but even this didn’t cause Anna to tense or become unsettled. It was so calming and soothing to be riding in the near darkness, and to have nearly complete trust that my horse would keep me safe.
While Anna is back at school, Lee and Marquesa have remained behind at Cold Moon Farm, now living side by side instead of sharing a paddock. Lee is so submissive to Marquesa that it can make feeding complicated, so having them separated makes management much easier.
Lee and I have had a long history together—twelve years, to be exact. I think she likes me as well as she likes any human, but she has never been a cuddly horse; she isn’t going to nicker to you (unless you are carrying her grain), and during her long residence at UNH she was known to intimidate many an inexperienced crew member with her grumpy expressions. Lee is aloof. But she is also an absolute bottom dweller on the equine hierarchy, and I think a lot of her behavior is only posturing to try to convince you to just go away and leave her be. Lee isn’t going to come over to you in the field; but she is unlikely to run away from you, either. If you so much as raise your voice at her, she will recoil in horror. Lee is insecure.
When Lee and I moved to Cold Moon Farm last September, she spent nine months with no other companion save me and the goats which live next door. During that time, she really impressed me with her steadiness and composure. This year, Lee overwhelmed me with her grit and attitude on the GMHA three day 100 mile ride. But if I think back, there are SO many occasions on which Lee has stepped up to a challenge, and most of the time I think our relationship with each other has been one of mutual respect.
One of the best examples of this happened two winters ago, during Lee’s last season at UNH. I had taken to including at least one day of longeing per week into her routine, often incorporating work over cavaletti, just to break things up and give her a new mental challenge. At the end of a session, I usually hopped on bareback to cool her out. One night, we were alone in the indoor working on the longe. Each session followed a similar pattern, and Lee started to head out in the new direction without much prompting from me. I was struck by an inspiration, and so instead of stopping her, I just unclipped her longe line. For the next ten minutes or so, I longed Lee at the walk, trot and canter, all without the aid of a longe line. In the indoor. She could have gone anywhere in the ring she wanted, but instead she chose to stay with me and follow my direction on a twenty meter circle. It was pretty amazing.
Our newest horse, Marquesa, is different from either Anna or Lee. For eighteen years, she has been a horse which was used in lessons that I and others taught at UNH. I relied on her to give confidence to new cross country riders, to assist the timid jumpers, and to teach experienced riders that they still had a thing or two to learn about how ride on the flat. She certainly respected me as the authority figure in the ring, but like many school horses I think she had become somewhat guarded about who she chose to really interact with.
Marquesa is a dominant horse. She has a highly developed sense of fairness, meaning if you try to use force to correct her, she just stubbornly refuses to comply. She can be pushy, and I think being used too many times for “equine facilitated learning sessions” has made her fairly intolerant of humans trying to use their body language to coerce her into doing their will. However, she appreciates clear direction and boundaries, and when you treat her with kindness and fairness, she is quite sweet. When she starts to get pushy, if you can lower your energy instead of getting upset, and then explain what you want her to do, she will usually be willing to go along with you. Now that she is on her own side of the fence line, I find that she is more willing to interact with me directly. Before, she was mostly concerned with continuing to exert her dominance over Lee. Her relationship with the other horse was most important; I was just in the way.
Marquesa is still figuring out her own way in terms of post lesson horse life. She still has several different riders, but not more than three at a time, and has been doing a mix of ring work and trail riding. This fall, my friend Linsey took Marquesa out for a ride with me and Lee. There are several stream crossings out on the trails, which the horses are used to. After a recent period of heavy rain, though, one of the crossings was unexpectedly quite a bit deeper than usual. The water came right up to Marquesa’s belly, and drenched her rider’s feet. Marquesa froze for a moment, perhaps shocked by the sudden depth of water, but then she just kept right on going. To get home, we had to make the same crossing going the other way, and I wasn’t sure if she would be willing to do it again. I needn’t have worried. She plunged right in and stormed across, as if to say, “I got this”. Not too shabby for a horse who has lived in one place for eighteen years and has mostly worked in the ring. I think perhaps that she is starting to sort out that life here is okay.
Having two horses at home is hard in terms of relationship. Despite centuries of domestication, horses are hard wired to want to be with other horses. Solo horses feel vulnerable and show their distress through an array of behaviors. Since Anna’s departure for the winter, I have continued taking Lee out for solo rides, and going for duo rides whenever someone else is available to ride Marquesa. I haven’t quite gotten brave enough to pony one off the other just yet.
This puts all of our relationships to a real test. I can tell that Lee feels a little torn about who she should be listening to—me or Marquesa. Marquesa screams at the top of her lungs when I take Lee away; she actually starts when I am just grooming Lee, something I do in the paddock to minimize the length of the separation. On the one hand, I want to be able to work with each horse independently. On the other, I respect the genetics which have kept horses as a species alive for generations. Horsemen must work with these instincts, not against them. For her part, Lee usually walks out quietly and almost never answers Marquesa’s calls. But as soon as we turn for home, Lee starts to bounce and jig. Once Marquesa is in sight, she settles down. It is like she is trying really hard to be good, but can’t quite pull it off all the time.
Listening to Marquesa scream and dealing with Lee’s jigging can try my patience. But we are in the winding down time of the season. Nature in New England prescribes a period of rest or hibernation for most species, a time when aquifers refill, deciduous trees go dormant, and soils take a break from producing. The equine community similarly slows down, with fewer activities, reduced travel and less intense work outs. There is nothing to get ready for and nowhere to go. It is the perfect time to focus on relationship; to reconnect with what makes each horse unique and to enjoy the feeling of mutual respect which can be developed by responding to each horse as an individual.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Paddock Paradise: a Guide to Natural Horse Boarding by Jamie Jackson
C 2006 Star Ridge Publishing, Harrison, AR, 122 pages
Paddock Paradise has been in my library for a few years (please see previous book reviews in which I confess to being a book hoarder). I have come to believe that the ideal horsekeeping situation is one in which the animal can come and go as they please, rather than the model which is conventional in most boarding stables where horses are turned out for a period and then returned to their box stalls. Here at Cold Moon Farm, my horses are out 24/7 with access to run ins. I was interested in this book to learn yet another different perspective on the subject.
Author Jaime Jackson is an advocate for natural horse care practices, from boarding to foot care to feeding. His work has been inspired by personal study of wild horse behavior and ecology, as well as his own experience. In Paddock Paradise, Jackson provides readers with some background as to where his ideas originated, outlines a model for the ingredients of a Paddock Paradise, and concludes with a successful real world implementation of his system.
Jackson outlines a “day in the life” of a wild horse herd, covering in some detail topics such as herd dynamics, the search for water, food, salt licks, and shelter, as well as the role of predators in determining the herd’s habits and behavior. He emphasizes that their search for food keeps herds nearly continuously on the move, and that the overall quality of their forage is poor. Jackson also observed the condition of the wild horses’ feet and concluded that their nomadic lifestyle, covering all manner of terrain, assisted in keeping their feet even and strong.
Inspired by his observations, Jackson began to brainstorm a model for domestic horse keeping which would “create a living space that suits the equine mind” (Jackson, 2006, p.63). Jackson compares the conventional model for horse keeping to an “equine internment camp” (Jackson, 2006, p. 13); in contrast, he has named his alternative system “Paddock Paradise”.
“The beauty of the Paddock Paradise model is that, through a unique fencing configuration—adaptable to most if not all equine properties—and strategically applied stimuli, it “tricks” the horse into thinking he’s in wild horse country, “paradise” in other words. Instead of resisting natural movement, he willingly engages in it. Through stimulated natural movement, he becomes healthier, and this is our major goal.”
–Jaime Jackson, Paddock Paradise, 2006, p. 63
Jackson’s book provides a basic outline as to how a farm manager could convert their property to be a “paddock paradise”. My (extremely) short synopsis is that one would take the existing paddock and install a line of electric fencing on the inside, about fifteen feet away from and parallel to the perimeter. The space in between fences becomes the “track”. The next steps include scraping away most grass and then installing any of a number of “features” which will motivate the horses to move around the track. The features one chooses to install may be influenced by the existing terrain, amenities and resources available, but the ultimate goal is to use “Paddock Paradise as a means of getting horses out of stalls, conventional paddocks, and other modes of close confinement that simulate “predator” environments that are so harmful to the mental and physical well-being of horses” (Jackson, 2006, p. 68).
The entire notion of Paddock Paradise is a bit revolutionary, and I can’t say that I am 100% on board with all of the conclusions regarding domestic horse care that Jackson has drawn from his self-study of wild horses (one example is his suggestion that horses are best fed a mix of grass-type hays and unsweetened oats in small quantities, as this most closely mirrors a wild horse diet). However, I do fully applaud his ability to look at the conventional beliefs regarding domestic horse keeping through a different lens. Just because something is “the way we have always done it” does not mean that it will forevermore be the best technique. Taking our “business as usual” ideas and holding them up to a lens to assess whether they can sustain the scrutiny, to me, is never a bad thing. We don’t have to embrace every new idea or notion, but certainly keeping an open mind to possibilities can allow us opportunities to integrate bits and pieces into the systems which we are accustomed to.
Jackson released an updated edition of Paddock Paradise in 2016. His website expands on some of his ideas regarding natural horse care and provides examples of “real world” approaches to creating Paddock Paradises in a variety of different climates and topographies. I was surprised to recognize after reading this book how many references I have come across to facilities with a “paddock paradise”, or people seeking same. It would appear that in certain communities, Jackson’s “revolutionary idea” has inspired further creative thought.
I would recommend this book for people who have an open mind to alternative perspectives on horse management and to people who already embrace holistic approaches to horse care—but also to those who are pretty secure in their beliefs regarding conventional techniques, so that they can better examine them and look for areas to more closely align our human expectations of horses with the inherent “equine nature” which they all possess.
Celebrating the incurable addiction which is being an equestrian