The Tamarack Chronicles: Volume I

This year marked the first of a new contract for me at the University of New Hampshire, and with the contract change came a shift in scheduling—I now only work during the academic year, leaving the summer months free for other pursuits.  So what is a girl to do?  Idly sit on her back porch with her feet up, eating bonbons?  Not for this one (what is a bonbon, anyway?)…I chose to do what any nearly 38 year old equine professional would do… I chose to become a working student.

For the past three years, I have had the opportunity to make brief trips to ride at Denny Emerson’s famed Tamarack Hill Farm in Strafford, VT.  Denny is a horseman who needs no introduction, and he is the mentor of my own longtime trainer, coach and friend, Rachel Greene Lowell.  Each year, these trips have proven to be some of the most effective edits to my progress as a rider and to my horse’s education.  I figured that it was worth it to take a chance and spend the summer focusing on my own growth as an equestrian. I asked Denny if I could come up for the summer.  I found a summer sublet in cute South Royalton (So Ro, to the locals) and two days after submitting final grades for spring semester, Pug Dog, several cats and two horses in tow, I headed to Vermont. Image

Anna schooling at THF on a previous visit.

I will say that there is a significant difference between doing something like this when you are closer to forty than when you are closer to twenty…it is a humbling experience to take that step back into the role of full time student, rather than being the one who is responsible for calling the shots and making the decisions.  However, it is also heartening to hear concepts that I use in my own instruction and training reiterated by someone with the experience and wisdom of Mr. Emerson, to confirm that I am on the right path.

Having now completed my first three weeks, I will admit that there have been some outstanding high points as well as some significant lows.  This is sort of like the horse world in general, I suppose.   But overall we (horses and human) have settled into our new routine and I am so glad that I took this step.

Summer Goals: AKA, What I Did on my Summer Vacation

My two horses are quite different, and I came with different goals for each for the summer.  I have had Lee for longer and during our time together she has been a jumper, a dressage horse, a sometimes IHSA mount and most recently, a fun trail/hack horse.  Lee took her maiden voyage into the world of competitive trail riding at the 2013 Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) Distance Days, and she proved to be a real pro.  Her forward thinking trot and desire to follow the leader served her well and she breezily handled the 10+ mile ride, nearly breaking away from me at the final inspection and prompting the vet to comment, “Next time, perhaps a longer ride might tire her out more?”.  Denny has logged many hours in the sports of competitive trail riding and endurance, and has completed the rigorous Tevis Cup (is there anything this man cannot do?).  He has been a tireless advocate for the trail activities held at the Green Mountain Horse Association in South Woodstock, VT.  I want to learn much more from Denny about what goes into conditioning a horse for longer rides over terrain, and perhaps try my hand at some rides over greater distance with Lee this summer.

After three weeks at Tamarack Hill, Lee (at age 15) is learning to be a Real Horse, living outside in a field on a hill, seeing cows, dealing with bugs, and falling in love with my pony Anna.   I even caught her LAYING DOWN out in the open, with Anna also laying down by Lee’s side.  Just for some perspective, in nine years of being Lee’s human, and I have personally seen her lay down exactly ONE other time, and it was in a dark stall.  At night.   With Denny leading on one of his three mares (Atti, Cordie or Roxie), Lee has become a real solid citizen on the trails, just so long as someone else goes first.  The hills here have brought her Thoroughbred body into strong physical shape quickly, and she has happily handled muddy, slippery spring trails, creek crossings, rocks, hills, and even narrow gaps like an experienced pro.  I had the privilege of taking her on a nearly two and a half hour ride up to the Sunnyside property, also owned by the Emersons, which afforded breath taking views of the Green Mountains to the west and the White Mountains to the distant east.  It is so exciting to see this horse so happy and content and willing in her work.

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Lee many years ago, warming up for a jump clinic with Joe Forest at UNH.

As far as Anna goes, we have been struggling with confidence and communication issues over fences (see my previous blog, “Reflections on Gratitude”).  Over the winter, I still had the notion in my mind that I might be able to compete at the novice level three day event at GMHA in late July (which is something that has definitely been on my “rider’s bucket list”), but after several false starts this spring it is clear that this is simply not a reasonable expectation at this stage in the game.  Right now, competing over fences with Anna is just not as important to me as is trying to fix what has become broken in terms of confidence and faith.

So for Anna, I hope that a summer of confidence building and more regular jump schooling—as opposed to my once weekly sessions at home—might help to re-establish some of the ‘mojo’ we once had as a team.  I hope that the hacking here will allow me to condition her more successfully than I have been able to do at home with sets in the ring.  I still do hope that we can make it to an event or two later this season—but only if our communication and confidence has returned to a degree that such a challenge would be fair and reasonable.

Overall I am encouraged because in the short time that we have been here, there already has been a huge improvement in our work over fences.  I will go into more detail on this in a future post.  Anna’s work on the flat has already come forward tenfold; Denny actually got on her for me one day, and worked to create a softer jaw and increased throughness.  He feels that there is a fancy mover hiding within her, and watching him work with her showed me that there is the capacity for much growth in this area.  Exciting!

ImageAnna (left) and Lee (right) enjoy being Real Horses outside on the hill.

“Do you see the grass growing?”

One of the more persistent themes which is coming clear to me already from my time at Tamarack is a reiteration of the fact that in training horses, it is usually faster to go slowly.  This applies to increasing fitness, introducing new concepts and aids, rebuilding confidence…pretty much anything you can think of.

During several flat work sessions, Denny has discussed with us his process for introducing a horse to the mechanics of the rein aids, in particular teaching horses to give to pressure at the poll and the jaw and to remain mobile in the neck.  A horse’s ability to understand these aids is instrumental to being able to achieve throughness and engagement.  Many of the horses which Denny has worked with are OTTBs, and he points out that these horses are programmed to do one job—to run fast.  They understand the cues which help them to do this and know how to move their bodies well in one way: shoulders down, weight to the forehand and powerful hindquarters driving them forward.  When these animals begin the process of learning how to be a sport horse, the trainer must be tactful, patient and clear with the new aids.  These horses must essentially be “unprogrammed” from their old job and have a new operating system installed.   This in many ways is a harder job for the trainer than starting with a horse who knows no aids whatsoever; however, the process taken to accomplish the end goal in either case is the same.

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Spring at Tamarack Hill

All work sessions start with about ten minutes of walk on the loose rein, putting no pressure on the horse and just allowing them to loosen their bodies and mentally begin to turn their focus to work.  The next stage of the warm up is a period of low pressure trot and canter with light contact, but not yet fully asking the horse to bend, be entirely round or as actively pushing from the hindquarters.  The first canters are usually in the light seat, allowing the horse’s topline to loosen and stretch before being asked to fully carry the weight of the rider.

For horses that are not yet fully clear about the basic aids, Denny talks about “puttering”.  He says this is certainly not a term that you would read in the classical works, and he acknowledges that this technique is perhaps not how he would always have proceeded with the training when he was an ambitious and competitively minded young trainer—but it is what he now believes to be indispensable in his training.  Essentially, “puttering” is about gently introducing new aids to the horse, and waiting to reward a correct response by releasing the pressure.  So if you are asking the horse to step away from the leg, the leg would be applied lightly until the horse at some point moved away.  The rein aids are important, diverse and best introduced at the walk.  Denny says that you almost want to think of the aid as a gentle “pestering” of the horse, and when he responds, the pressure releases.  He is not a fan of short cuts like draw reins, leverage bits and other tools used by some trainers; these create a response through the infliction of pain, and he says that such a response does not really teach the horse.  Remember that a horse can feel a fly, or the lash of your dressage whip gently tickling the back of his ear.  For certain they can feel a gentle pressure on their mouth, or a push from the rider’s leg.  The horses who don’t respond to these gentle aids have probably never been taught to do so.  So instead of becoming stronger or more aggressive, you “pester” with the aids until the horse accidentally comes up with the correct answer, which you then reward.

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Lee working in the indoor at UNH.

Denny says that teaching horses these responses to the aids is like teaching them a language.  Imagine that someone is trying to tell you something, but they are speaking in a foreign tongue.  If you don’t know Spanish or German or Pig Latin, it isn’t going to matter if they whisper, speak or yell—you are not likely to respond correctly.  Why do we expect our horses to respond to aids that we have not correctly or properly taught them?

The other important point about “puttering” is that the trainer remembers that the process will take whatever time it takes.  Perhaps you introduce a concept on day one, and the horse only sort of is able to respond.  But you come back on day two, and in a short window of time the horse responds to the aids better and more clearly than on day one.  Instead of pushing for more at that moment, the wise trainer rewards the horse and leaves the lesson behind for the day.  The horse feels successful, the training has been moved forward and the horse learn to perceive that the work in the ring is not a matter of being drilled.

This is such an important concept that I need to repeat it again.  It is a theme that keeps coming back during nearly every lesson whether on the flat, over fences or on the trails.  Training takes time.  It takes whatever time it takes.  Horses should not be drilled.  The wise trainer stops MUCH earlier than most of us do, rewards the horse, and puts them away feeling mentally relaxed and physically tired but not exhausted or drained.  Trainers must be patient, they must be clear, and they must be consistent.  It sounds so, so simple, so why do more of us not adhere to this philosophy?

Denny tells a story of a clinic which he was auditing.  The rider was a well-known Olympian, riding under the direction of a world renowned trainer, on her Olympic mount.  The rider was becoming frustrated and more intense in her use of the aids (as many driven and focused people can tend to do).  After watching for a bit but saying little, the clinician finally asked the rider, “Do you mow your lawn?”.  Frustrated and confused by the apparent lack of relevance, the rider responded, “Of course.” “Well, do you see the grass growing on your lawn?” asked the clinician again.  “No,” replied the rider, still not making the connection between the questions and the situation at hand.  “You need to mow your lawn because the grass has grown,” says the clinician. “But yet you do not see the grass grow.  So it is with training your horse. Each lesson builds upon the previous one.  You do not all of a sudden have a trained horse.  It takes time.”

Denny also compares training to the layers of an onion.  Each one is built upon the layer before it.  You cannot leave steps out of the process or rush through it.  To do so will ruin horse and rider confidence, compromise physical well-being and limit the progress which could be gained otherwise.

I am learning that like many other trainers, I can be too driven and push for too much at once from my horses.  I need to be even quicker to recognize that the horse has done what they needed to do in a day’s work and let them leave the ring for a hack.  I think sometimes we are so results driven that we don’t realize that it is the summation of many small, small forward steps that will create the best outcome.

The results of this training program are plain to see when you watch the Tamarack horses work and compete.

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