The Tamarack Chronicles: Volume VI

Just prior to my departure from Tamarack Hill, Denny asked me what the most compelling lessons of the summer had been.  I found myself a little tongue tied, as it was nearly impossible to briefly summarize all of the concepts, large and small, that I will bring forward to my training, teaching and personal philosophies.  My time at Tamarack has been hugely influential; how to encapsulate it in just a few words?

I have been home from Vermont for less than a week, and slowly I am letting the dust settle from three months away.  Now that I have had some time for reflection, I think I am finally able to begin to tackle the answer to Denny’s question.  So here we go….

What DID you Do on your Summer Vacation?

Denny and May were generous enough to allow me to bring both of my horses to Tamarack this summer; as discussed in The Tamarack Chronicles: Volume I, had quite different goals with each of them.  I can confidently say that both horses met and exceeded my expectations of progress during the course of this summer.  The growth was slow and steady; while I was aware that both horses were improving, it is really now that I am able to step back and take a look at the overall development that I can acknowledge just how far they both came.

Lee has evolved into a true competitive trail horse.  Her current level of fitness exceeds anything that I have previously brought her to.  During our time in Vermont, she successfully completed 15 mile rides at GMHA and Hartland Riding Club and her first 25 mile ride at GMHA.  On my last day at Tamarack, Denny and I did our own personal 16 mile ride with Lee and Cordie, so though that ride didn’t include the vetting procedures it certainly counts towards her increased fitness level.  If everything stays on track, she will compete at the 25 mile ride at the GMHA Distance Days in late August.

25MileRideAug2014 004
Team “Long Sloe Gin Fizz” after completing the GMHA 25 mile ride.

Beyond the physical changes, Lee has grown tremendously in confidence.  While she still does not want to be the lead horse on a trail if someone else is available to do the job, she strides out with power and ease.  I have been riding her in an “S” curve hackamore, a style which Denny uses on Roxie and Cordie when hacking out, and feel completely in control.  Not only that, I think she is happier to move forward in the hackamore than in a bit.  She is less spooky both in the barn and out.  I think that she has finally found her niche.

Lee after completing her first 25 mile ride.
Lee after completing her first 25 mile ride.

Anna has returned to her more confident self over fences, and the opportunity to jump “little and often” has helped to make jumping less of an anxiety filled experience for me.  I competed in both of the Tamarack Jumper shows, getting back up to the 2’9” level in the second show, and competed at the Huntington Schooling Trials.  With a re-emphasis on correct basics, I think I will be able to maintain this level of confidence as we move forward.  I have entered her at two USEA events, King Oak and Stoneleigh Burnham, this fall.

Anna at the July 2014 Tamarack Hill Jumper Show
Anna at the July 2014 Tamarack Hill Jumper Show (Photo by May Emerson)

Philosophical Thoughts

In school, teachers are trained in pedagogical theories, based on current educational research.  For example, elementary school teachers who help youngsters learn to read will use a combination of pedagogical approaches: phonics, whole language, etc.  Some approaches work better for one student than another, while some students will learn no matter which approach is used.  Therefore, teachers must rely on a tool box of different techniques and exercises, all while keeping a consistent philosophy in mind regarding their overall objective.

In my opinion, the best horse trainers and coaches are the ones who have a “training philosophy”, or pedagogy, which is the result of their own equestrian education and experience.  The best philosophies are grounded in classical theory, a calm and patient approach, and compassion.  The best trainers know that while it is important to keep an open mind and to learn about new techniques, they are also not inclined to go for the latest fad or shortcut.  They know that their system will work for their horses and riders.

Denny and Roxie, Lee and I prior to completing the Hartland Riding Club ride in June.
Denny and Roxie, Lee and I after completing the Hartland Riding Club ride in June.

It is clear in working with Denny that his sixty odd years of riding experience have given him a personal pedagogy for riding education.  He admits freely that he has made mistakes (and has learned from them) and that he tends to jump in feet first to new endeavors, which honestly is part of why he has been so widely successful.  He regularly references the great riders and coaches of past eras (LeGoff, Steinkraus, Chapot, Jenkins, Davidson, and others) as well as the current era (Balkenhol, Davidson Jr, Dujardin, etc).  In other words, he honors the legacy left by those who have come before but also continues to learn from those who are currently coaching and competing.

One of the more compelling comments which Denny made this summer was regarding the young up and coming professionals in equestrian sport.  He said that in his opinion, there are two phases to a rider’s career—first, one must learn the craft, and second, one shoots for the top.  Denny’s observation is that many young riders are hungry for phase two to begin, and so they sort of “gloss over” phase one.  It is easy to understand why that is.  Phase two is where the glory, prestige and fame occur.  Phase one requires patience, hard work, diligence, persistence, and comes with little glory, prestige or fame.  But without taking the time to develop your Personal Pedagogy as a trainer, based on the classical work that has come before you, it is much less likely that phase two is even going to happen.  Sure, some people can buy fancy well trained horses or talk their way into getting others to buy them these horses, but for the most part, the holes will start to come through.

Denny told me this summer that when he was still actively doing clinics across the country, he was often introduced as a gold medalist, from his team’s win at the 1974 World Championships. While this fact was true, he said that it was AFTER that point that he really learned how to ride, and developed his understanding of the importance of keeping the lower leg under the rider and not jumping ahead with the upper body.  His point is that in spite of the fact that he had won a gold medal, he was really still in Phase One of his career—learning his craft.

VT hacking Lee

So in being exposed to Denny’s teaching this summer, it is clear to me that his Personal Pedagogy is one which emphasizes correct basics, slow, steady and methodical training, and striving to ensure that horses are left happy and content (as opposed to mentally fried and physically exhausted) at the end of a work set.  Perhaps this is the most compelling lesson of the summer—it is far, far better to stop too soon in your training than to push too far or too long. As is true in so many aspects of horses, in the long run it is faster to go slow.

Looking Forward

Being at Tamarack gave me the opportunity to step away from my “real life” and be around people who are truly driven to ride and excel.  Everyone at Tamarack works hard, every day, and as summer goes along, the days get busy.  The horses are happy and content, the barn is CLEAN and riders routinely ship in for training.  I had my own two to ride daily, and often also was given the opportunity to hack out with Denny on Cordie, Roxie or Atti, or with fellow working student Katie on the babies, Derwin and Q.  I wish I knew how many miles we logged over the course of the summer on the plentiful trails around Tamarack—a few hundred, I would guess!

Hacking Denny's horse, Atti.
Hacking Denny’s horse, Atti.

It became clear to me over the course of the summer that I had been stuck in a rut with my own horses’ training programs.  There is an expression, “if you keep doing what you’ve always done you’ll get what you’ve always got” or something to that effect.  Being at Tamarack allowed me to reassess my basics and especially hone in on DETAILS that allowed my horses to make big strides forward.  As a trainer, I will endeavor to keep my focus on these details as I return to working independently at home.

Additionally, Denny’s emphasis on correct basics has only served to reaffirm for me as a coach and instructor that work in this area is time well spent.  As someone who primarily coaches college students coming from a wide range of equestrian backgrounds, I am frequently faced with “hungry” riders who are ready for phase two of their riding career to begin.  Unfortunately, many of them are still lacking a solid foundation of basic skills and understanding of training theory.  I know I won’t be able to reach all of them, but if I can strive to maintain this focus on correct basics and classical theory in my instruction, I think it will only serve to benefit my students more in the long run than the alternative.

"Between the ears"... Anna hacking on the Tamarack cross country course.
“Between the ears”… Anna hacking on the Tamarack cross country course.

During my last week at Tamarack, Denny posed a question to me that was even more difficult than “what did you learn this summer.”  What he asked me was if I knew what kind of a rider I wanted to be.  This is a question that I have struggled to answer for years, so I didn’t have any better of a response for him than I usually have for myself.  His query was not meant to give me an answer specifically, but rather to open my eyes to possibilities and to how my own choices will affect the outcome.

It is clear (and has always been clear) that my path is not going to lead to the upper levels of eventing or show jumping.  I enjoy jumping, usually, but it does make me a little nervous and so I am best suited for low level sport.  That is fine.  What I have recognized this summer is that in spite of this, I actually have a fairly good eye on the ground.  At times I have felt insecure in the fact that I do an extensive amount of coaching over fences in spite of no longer being as comfortable as I used to be when it comes to jumping larger obstacles.  Denny reminded me that you can be a gifted instructor even if you no longer ride or even if you have never ridden at all, given a proper education.  After all, Sally Swift revolutionized the equine industry with her Centered Riding concept, and she never rode at all.

Looking down on the main farm from the top of the hill.
Looking down on the main farm from the top of the hill.

I enjoy dressage, and I probably have more innate skill in that sport than in work over fences.  I do want to compete at the FEI levels.  But again, to make a serious bid for fame and glory in this sport would take more financial backing and all-consuming dedication than I have interest in pursuing.  When I compete at the FEI levels, it will be for me, to fulfill my own goals, not to make any kind of a charge to “make a team” or be a true contender. And none of the horses in my current string are likely to be my FEI dressage mount.

So where does that leave me?

During one of our hacks, the day that he posed the question of “what kind of a rider do you want to be?”, Denny started listing the qualities of an elite endurance rider.  He said that those who are successful in endurance are steady, methodical and don’t have great mood swings regarding their riding.  They are motivated by the success that is completing a ride with a sound horse that is fit to continue.  They have a horse who is suited for the job—usually an Arabian or perhaps an Anglo-Arabian.  They come into their own at a slightly older age— where eventing is a sport largely for the young and fearless, endurance seems to appeal more to those who are able to take the time to properly condition a horse to handle the demands of long distance riding.  It takes at least three years to make a 100 mile horse, which means that you need to have a long term focus in sight beyond that day or week or month.

Lee showing off her prize from Hartland.
Lee showing off her prize from Hartland.

Denny’s point is that for the most part, these are all qualities that I have, and further, that if I wanted to shoot for the elite levels in endurance, that this could in reality be a goal that can be actualized.  I still have a lot to learn—you know, having completed a lifetime total of 65 competitive trail miles—but as Denny said, that is 55 more miles than I had at the beginning of the summer.  I am intrigued by the sport, I have enjoyed meeting the people involved with it and appreciate the values that the sport teaches.

I have never seriously considered trying to do a ride on the level of a one day hundred, never mind something as prestigious as the Tevis Cup or Old Dominion.  But Denny counseled that these rides are attainable, and do-able by someone like me, if I have the right horse.  During the summer, I met a Pan Am Games medalist in endurance, Connie Walker, and a recent first time Tevis finisher (11th place!) in Gene Limlaw.  Meeting these people made me realize that completing rides at this level is possible and do-able.

The idea excited me more than I would have thought it would.  I am by nature a bit more cautious when it comes to taking chances, so unlike how Denny would do it, I won’t be rushing out to purchase an experienced Arabian endurance horse or moving immediately to the endurance capital of the US (I am not sure even where that is, but surprisingly, I have heard there is a large endurance community in Florida).  But I am willing to consider the possibility and explore the options, large and small.

Overall, I am extremely grateful for having the opportunity to take these past three months at Tamarack and to clarify further the most important tenets of my own Personal Pedagogy.  I am pleased and proud of the progress which my horses have made. I am delighted to have made new friends in Vermont and am so, so glad that I took the step out of my comfort zone to take this time to further my own riding and education.

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