Category Archives: Personal Stories

Ride a Reiner

As a New Englander, I have had rather minimal exposure to the western discipline;  as they say, I know just enough to be dangerous. In fact, it is mostly through my experience as a board member of the Intercollegiate Horse Shows Association (IHSA), which offers both hunt seat and western competition, that I have acquired my limited knowledge. It is also through the IHSA that I had the opportunity to meet the talented and hard working Kelli Wainscott, coach for the Mt. Holyoke western IHSA team.

This past March, Kelli organized a benefit clinic at Clark Performance Horses in Winchendon, Mass. in which participants got to “ride a reiner”. Instruction was provided by Karen Clark, who grew up riding English but transitioned over to the western disciplines as a young adult. I have not so secretly wanted to try out reining moves but had always figured that it would be rude to just call up a reining trainer and be like, “hey, so I want to come ride one of your highly trained horses.  I don’t want to do this full time, I just want to ride a spin and a slide.  Is that cool?”  Well, this sounded like my chance to do just that!  As an added bonus, I could help the Mt. Holyoke IHSA western team fundraise for their trip to the semi finals at the same time.

img_2454
Karen is explaining something to us with great animation. Also, taking cell phone photos while on horseback in the cold is not easy.

I have been intrigued by reining since first watching it in person at IHSA Nationals in 2011. Seeing the reining there was like listening to someone speak a foreign language; the rules were undecipherable to my English-trained mind and I watched intently for any discernible pattern or predictability to the scoring. To me, all of the riders and horses looked great, and I didn’t understand why sometimes a team would receive a “zero” score after doing what looked like the same thing as everyone else. Cheering is encouraged, but I could tell that the cheers were intentionally timed, and when we tried to get into the “wooping”, we never managed to do it when everyone else did.

So I packed up my English paddock boots, half chaps and Charles Owen helmet and made the drive out to western Massachusetts under cloudy gray skies. As the miles on my GPS ticked down, I felt a pit of nervous energy grow in my belly. I suspected I would be the only full time English rider there (I think I was right in that), I knew no one other than Kelli, and I began to worry about upsetting the owner or the horses with my lack of experience.

But I needn’t have worried.  Karen set me at ease with her cheerful personality and positive attitude. She was so extremely patient and answered the groups’ numerous questions with a smile, despite the fact that we were the second three hour group on a chilly March afternoon.

Karen assigned me to a sweet chestnut Quarter Horse mare named Whiz; her delicate ears and sculpted face are extremely feminine…I do love a good mare! As Karen’s assistant handed the reins to me, she mentioned I would probably need to take the cinch up a hole. A rider from the MHC IHSA team was kind enough to show me the mechanics of a western cinch. So began the afternoon—foreign tack, foreign aids, and foreign language. Who knew that after thirty plus years of tack time, it was still possible to feel so completely beginner?

img_2449
Whiz

Once the group was mounted up, Karen gave us a few moments to get acquainted with our mounts. Whiz is sensitive and “well broke”; she certainly knows her job. After watching a few moments, Karen called me over. “I think you’ll like her in some spurs,” she said.

I don’t know if Karen had been watching to see how well I rode before offering the spurs, and I don’t know if I was given them because I had positively impressed her (in the sense of having good control) or negatively (in the sense of, gosh, she is hopeless and without these spurs she’ll never get anything done.) She came over and affixed to my Dublin paddock boots the largest set of spurs that I have ever worn in my entire life—they were full on western horseback riding spurs: thick, engraved, spangly, roweled. The kind that jangle when you walk.

This is getting serious.

Disclaimer: What I write here I share with the intent of introducing other unfamiliar English riders to reining, but it is colored through my fairly inexperienced lens. Any mistakes or misunderstandings are wholly my own!

Reining patterns are comprised of a set of movements: big fast circles, slow small circles, spins, lead changes and sliding stops. These movements can be combined in various sequences, and for some movements, there are extremely specific requirements. For example, spins must rotate for an exact number of turns, and a spin which is under or over rotated will result in a penalty or elimination. Cheers can be used to help a rider know when they are approaching the end of a specific maneuver or pattern element.

Karen started us off with riding big fast circles. One at a time, we tracked left at the end of the ring, practicing keeping the inside leg off the horse (which is incredibly hard to do when you are used to having it on all the time) and encouraging our horses to fly around the circle. As it turned out, many of the riders in my group, while experienced at western riding, were also reining rookies. As pleasure or equitation riders, they were more accustomed to slower paces and staying fairly “poised” in the saddle, while reining encourages looseness (not sloppiness) and speed. When it was our turn to try, Whiz was, well, a whiz. She clearly loves to run and it was quite freeing to just zoom around the circle. I trusted Whiz from the get go, so much so that when someone suddenly opened a small door on the side of the ring, I didn’t tense in anticipation of a spook, as I would have with my own horse. When on the job, Whiz is all business. She was so comfortable to ride, and I was having so much fun, that I hardly noticed when the left stirrup came unclipped and fell off my saddle. It was another lap before I recognized that it was missing and stopped Whiz so it could be reattached.

img_2452
Whiz and I are watching a group mate practice their circles.

“Big fasts” are usually followed by “slow smalls”, and the transition from one to the other is done by stepping hard into the outside stirrup, not by using the rein. We practiced this transition several times, and I was really blown away by how readily responsive Whiz was to the shift in my weight.  “Hmm…” I thought. “Perhaps my dressage horse should be responsive like this? And what do I do with my outside leg in my own downward transitions?”

Part of the criteria for these movements is that the circles should actually be round, and trainer Karen frequently had to remind us to keep our eyes up and frame the circle evenly. I guess riding a round circle is a challenge no matter what discipline you ride!

Once each rider had a chance to practice the circles, Karen taught us about spinning. The spins and sliding stops are, in my opinion, the two most dramatic reining movements, and the Quarter Horse’s genetic ability to sit down on their hindquarters and coil their body like a cat is just one more example of the physical manifestation of the term “horse power”. In reining, a horse should spin a set number of times (as specified by the pattern), and like a dancer, the rider needs to keep their head spinning in order to stay centered and “spot” their starting point. If the spin is over or underrotated, there are point penalties up until ¼ of a turn; if the rider misses the mark by this amount or more, then the pair is eliminated.

 

Karen had us start from a halt, choosing a point out in front of our horse’s ears to use for focus.  To go left, you just had to step into the left stirrup, slide the right leg back a touch, then shift the rein left, giving a bump with the right leg. To go right, the rider reverses all those aids.  To stop, the rider brings the rein back to center. The entire movement is done with forward intention but the horse should be pivoting in place around one hind leg.

When I asked Whiz to initiate the first spin, I thought for a moment I was going to tip right off her side! She lowered her neck and shoulders and sunk into the movement in a manner which I both expected but was somehow not ready for. Then it felt like we were going about a million miles an hour—but when I watched the video afterwards, Whiz is clearly spinning with a “oh boy got a rookie here” level of energy. There is clearly much more power available in this creature!

 

After most of us were left feeling “well spun”, Karen allowed us to try out that most iconic of reining moves—the sliding stop. This was definitely the movement I was most excited about! We came down the quarter line on the left rein; just like my dressage horse might anticipate a leg yield, Whiz knew instantly what this turn meant. The key to a good sliding stop is to build the energy in the hindquarter, holding the horse back from their full run at first so that they don’t fall onto their forehand, then releasing all of that stored power. A good slide requires that the horse is thinking uphill.

Karen coached us to hold the horse until we were about half way down the long side, and then let them RUN. Whiz sure knew how to take this cue and the feeling of her haunches dropping down and driving into the surface was a form of horse power I’m not sure I have felt before. The fact that we were running at top speed directly towards the wall, on purpose, made it slightly disconcerting; this is the type of situation I am usually trying to avoid. And the especially hard part is you are supposed to actually let your hand go forward (which I can see in the video I failed to do, and in addition, I was holding the horn). The slide happens when the rider sits back and says “whoa”. When I gave the cue, Whiz’s hindquarters dropped away while her withers lifted up. It feels like the ultimate “throw down.” It is supremely cool.

 

After spending my three hours masquerading as a western rider, I made several observations which I would like to share, for what it’s worth:

  • Despite some of the similarities, I don’t quite agree with the notion that “reining is dressage in western tack”. It is its own “thing”. The similarities are the kinds of things which I believe all horse sports share, concepts like “the horse needs to be well balanced” and “the horse needs to engage the hindquarter”. Karen told us that good reining horses have a short career because they get too smart and start to anticipate all of the moves, leading to the kinds of mistakes which cause elimination. There are no “levels” in reining—from the beginning, all tests include all of the movements. English dressage is a progressive system of training with the goal of enhancing the natural gaits of the horse. While a dressage horse can certainly start to learn a specific test, ideally there is enough variety and change in the movements that it is possible for them to have a long, progressive career.
  • During our session, Karen rode a client’s green horse, who was working in a snaffle. Most of our “finished” horses were in a curb, though one was in a bosal/hackamore. In western riding, the use of a curb bit is the mark of an experienced, well-educated horse. I guess this is similar to the way in which an upper level dressage horse is able to be ridden in a double bridle for greater clarity of the aids and improved engagement. Probably in both disciplines, there are trainers who use the curb fairly and those who only use it to achieve forced submission. But when either of these tools is used fairly, the communication between horse and rider can be lighter and softer.
  • Most eventers are familiar with the concept of a “combined test”, in which the same horse and rider do dressage and show jumping, or a derby cross, which is a fusion of the jumping phases. At this clinic, I learned about a competition called “working cow horse”, which Karen said was a great outlet for a horse which understands the requirements of reining but lacks some of the necessary pizazz to be a real reining specialist. In this competition, riders first complete a reining pattern, and then when they indicate they are ready, a cow is released which the horse and rider must then “box”, meaning they move the cow along the fence and hold them there. At more advanced levels, the horse must also “work” the cow by making them move in a circle, with the horse on the outside. I thought it was interesting to learn that western riders have their own version of “combined test” in the working cow horse competition.

Overall, my “ride a reiner” experience was just what I had hoped it would be—a fun afternoon exploring an aspect of the equestrian world which I previously had known little about, and a chance to check off one of my “equine bucket list” items. I also have to think that those of us in other disciplines could be smart to take a page out of Karen’s notebook and offer introductory clinics to our discipline. How else are riders without access to horses trained for specific disciplines ever going to have the opportunity to try out something new? Who knows how many riders have gotten the “reining bug” after doing a clinic like this one? It is so easy to pigeonhole riders into one discipline and make assumptions about what and how they must ride and in so doing we create divisions in our equestrian community which do not need to exist.   I am so grateful to organizer Kellie and our patient teachers Karen and Whiz for offering us this opportunity.

 

Advertisements

The De-Feralization of Spring

In late April, my friend Bethany shared a quote from Vonnegut which really resonated with me.  I will loosely paraphrase here; Vonnegut contends that the reason we are often so frustrated with the weather in March and April is because we are falsely under the impression that it is spring. Instead, Vonnegut identifies six seasons, not four:  January and February are still winter, but as nature wakes back up in March and April, this is not actually spring, but rather “unlocking”. Spring doesn’t actually happen until May and June, while summer hits in July and August and autumn in September and October. Then in November and December, another transition–“locking”, when nature and all of its creatures shut down, store up and settle in for the depths of winter.

img_2182
The barn cats took over one of the horse stalls. They are not impressed with winter either.

This is sheer genius.

Inspired by Vonnegut, I would like to propose the Seasons of the New England Equestrian for the first third of the year: FREEZE, HOPE, DESPAIR, SPRING and DE-FERALIZATION.  Here, I present an example of the inner monologue of an avid equestrian as she cycles through each of these seasons, inspired by my own experience:

January-February (FREEZE). “It is SO cold. The wind can’t blow any harder. Oh wait– it can.” [Pause to widen stance and reset wool hat]. “The water spigot froze and I have to carry water from the bathtub upstairs. My breath has frozen on my glasses. And the gate latch froze.”  [Removes glove, exposing bare skin, in order to use body heat to thaw the latch]. “I am so lucky to have horses. I am so lucky to have horses. Repeat. WHY didn’t I go south like all my friends on Facebook?!?!”

img_2496
Lee is making sure that I am aware that I have neglected to hang her hay bag.

March 1 (HOPE).  “I see the bare earth!  Just a small patch, and it is all mud, but I saw it.  It still exists!  I will start hacking and legging the horses up soon, maybe mid-month.  We are going to get an early start on the season!  It is going to be brilliant!  We will be so fit and ready and it will be wonderful!”

March 10 (DESPAIR). In the background, the meteorologist is happily announcing the largest named blizzard of the season. There are three feet of snow out of my window and it is still snowing. This is never going to melt.  Ever.  And even if it does, it will be mud for the next six months.  I will never ride again.”

img_2250-1

April (SPRING) “I mean, it is pouring sideways, and the mud is now almost over the tops of my wellies, but the calendar says spring, right?  So maybe I can start to ride?” It should be noted here that roughly 75% of the arena is still covered in snow and ice.

img_2526
The riding arena in late April.

 

April 15 (SPRING, continued, after attempting to begin riding despite the conditions). “My horses have become completely, 100% feral.  They scream when I separate them.  They dance on the crossties like they have never been in the barn. Their girths don’t fit. One bridle was eaten by mice. I can’t find one glove. And now we have pulled a shoe.”

 

Oh spring.  All winter, I yearn for it, for the return of fair weather, better footing, all my horses at home, and longer days with sunlight from the earliest hours of the morning until late evening. But somehow the initial reality never quite lives up to my ideal. Spring arrives with excess packaging: mud, tons of winter hair, lost muscling, and dust on all my gear despite efforts to keep up with cleanliness during the off season. And the worst part, for me, is the equine behavior.  In order to get to the blissful days of summer, without fail, this next phase cannot be skipped. I call it DE-FERALIZATION. Like children who have been on summer vacation for too long, I find the first few weeks of transition from winter break to being working animals brings out some of the worst characteristics in my favorite equines.

I started the de-feralization in mid-March by bringing in each of the three horses which lived at Cold Moon Farm all winter for individual grooming sessions. Other than a few little whinnies (“I am in here…are you still out there?”), their attitudes stayed mostly calm and I was able to start shedding out the winter coats. I untangled tails and pulled manes, doing the youngster’s in small chunks since she is still not so sure about it and Lee’s during the late March blizzard when we were all stuck inside anyway. I began to see the horses under the hair. I thought, ‘wow, maybe de-feralization won’t be that bad this year.’

Insert diabolical laughter now.

I brought Anna home from the indoor on April 1. While I am SO grateful for having the ability to keep her close to home at a well maintained facility, I was also SO ready to bring her back. I knew that the first few weeks of April would be dicey as far as serious work went, so I was prepared to give Anna a few weeks’ light work upon her return home; hacking, light ring riding as the footing permitted, maybe some work in hand.

Here is a video of what happened when I turned her back out with Lee:

Anna’s first hack at home was with Marquesa; it was the older Morgan’s first ride since last year. Now 22, Marquesa has always been an old soul. Spooking just isn’t her thing; high necked Morgan alertness, yes, but spinning, wheeling, bucking, etc., nope. We thought we would take them for about twenty minutes across the power lines and around the back field, just a short walk to stretch legs.

img_2537
Spring is at least good for some stunning sun rises.  This is Izzy.

We didn’t make it out of the backyard. I mean, everyone stayed on, but between the squealing and jigging from Anna and the snorting and blowing from Quesa…well, we considered the safe return to the barn after about ten minutes to be a success.

In early April, I bought a round pen. My ring is only partially fenced and given that Izzy is turning three this year and we might want to THINK about backing her at some point, I figured that a more complete perimeter was a good idea. We set it up mid-ring, straddling the snow which still covered half the arena.

img_2611
Rabbit, the polydactyl/slacker barn cat who did NOT catch the mouse who ate my bridle.

I took Lee out to the round pen on the longe line to start her back into some sort of work.  Last year, I was able to hack her out with Marquesa and another rider, which worked really well.  But with Anna home a whole month earlier, I could only hack one horse at a time and Lee was relegated to second string status. Even at 19, Lee can be really reluctant to leave the farm by herself when she is out of practice and be cheeky in the ring, and so as a former trainer used to say, “the longe line is your friend.”

To my surprise and delight, Lee was completely civilized in the round pen. I started by just walking her—forced marching for 20-30 minutes with frequent direction changes—and she was so compliant and calm that I ended up just unclipping the line and practiced moving her around with my body language. Compared to the others, I think she has lost the most condition this winter. But at the same time, she is mostly Thoroughbred, and once she gets into work, she tends to come back to fitness fairly quickly.

img_2608
Lee’s first ride of 2018, sporting her stylish new biothane bridle.

Feeling overly ambitious, I also signed Izzy up to go to an in hand/ground work clinic with Tik Maynard in early May. I have heard Tik speak and read his articles, which all have impressed me, and I thought the opportunity was too good to pass up. But I knew that Izzy may have forgotten some of her lessons from last year after a winter off, and we had to be diligent about reviewing the basics.  In addition, she taught herself a new skill this winter—how to buck—and though the bucks are without any malice and are performed with just the sheer joy of being young and agile and quick, I was less pleased with this addition to her repertoire. My helmet became constantly planted to my head and Izzy tested my determination to prep her for the clinic on an almost daily basis.

Then on April 15, it snowed. Again.

In order to get through the De-Feralization, what is needed is consistency.  And between the weather, the footing, and my work schedule, what I didn’t seem to be finding was the one thing most necessary for success.

So this year, instead of getting overly frustrated during this time of transition, I tried to practice a different mantra: We’ve been through this before. We take baby steps. We always get through it, and once we do, the reward is worth the few weeks of challenge. This is perhaps the time of year beyond all other where we must simply acknowledge that patience is also a skill which requires practice. All you can ever do is your best, take small steps, and reward any forward progress.

img_2677
Julia and I try a mounted selfie.  Yes it is May.  Yes I am still wearing a down vest.

Instead of being upset with myself that my work schedule wouldn’t permit me to give 110% attention to each horse, I divided my time. I recruited some helpers, who came to hack with me (thanks Julia and Nikki!), allowing two horses to get attention at once. I became satisfied with shorter work sets—even just 15 minutes for Izzy—knowing that a little was better than nothing and in time, we would build on this small foundation.

Now, on the cusp of June, I am finally enjoying truly glorious spring weather, with mostly compliant horses who have a baseline of fitness.  De-feralization is complete, and true spring has officially arrived.

img_2653
Rabbit and Smokey are back in their usual “spring spot”.

 

 

Using Work in Hand to Gymnastically Develop the Horse: an Introduction to Straightness Training

Lately, my interest in broadening my understanding of various kinds of ground and in hand work has been growing, and I am enjoying learning about ways in which this work could be beneficial to both my training process and developing the relationship with my horses.

In mid February, I had the opportunity to visit Narnia Stables in Ashford, Conn., the home base for trainer Meg Brauch, who was offering a Straightness Training (ST) clinic with lecture and demo. The clinic’s title was “Using Work in Hand to Gymnastically Develop the Horse”, and photos promoting the event showed many happy horses in various stages of training. I was intrigued and roped my friend Sally into making the two and a half hour drive down for the afternoon start time.

MegandPaladin
Meg Brauch working with Paladin. Meg was kind enough to permit me to “borrow” photos from her Facebook for use with this blog.

Straightness Training is a system developed by Dutch equestrian Marijke de Jong. After one short afternoon session, I am far from qualified to fully discuss the system or its philosophies in any great length, but I did take away that it is inspired by the work of classical horsemen like Gueriniere, Baucher, and those of the Iberian peninsula, and that it is intended as a systematic and progressive system that focuses on developing a horse using humane methods.

Introduction to ST

Meg provided a basic overview of the ST system, where I recognized some clear areas of overlap with other, better-known-to me, training philosophies. First off, most of the unmounted work is done in a cavesson. I was quite impressed with the design of Meg’s cavesson.  In my experience, finding correctly fitting cavessons is a real challenge; they usually do not conform well to the muzzle or sit evenly around the bones of the skull.  The cavessons Meg uses are Baroque inspired and have a piece of padded chain over the nose; I am sure that some people will find this too harsh, and I am sure in the wrong hands it would be.  But in truth, the shape of the noseband better conformed to the muzzle than most of the off the rack cavessons out there, and the weight of the noseband overall was much less than a regular cavesson. It had a greater degree of adjustability as well; one of the horses Meg used for demonstration later in the afternoon was an Anglo-Trakhener, heavy on the Thoroughbred blood, and his refined face seemed fit well in the cavesson. This style also has an option to fairly easily add a bit, which is a useful feature.

Cavesson.jpg
There is a good view of the cavesson here as Meg appears to be asking this horse for LFS.

The ST system is based on its “five pillars”: groundwork, longeing, work in hand, riding and liberty work. The first two steps are done in a cavesson with a single line attached, and in these stages, the goal is to teach the horse how to carry themselves. The work in hand, which we were there to watch specifically, is done in a cavesson with a set of reins clipped to either side, as on a bridle. As horses become more advanced, a curb bit can be clipped to the cavesson along with a set of reins, and the horse is introduced to the concept of a double bridle.

Horses which are trained in the ST system will be introduced to many under saddle concepts prior to actually being backed; the exercises are meant to help develop the horse’s balance as well as to gymnastically work and develop the muscles.  For a youngster, ST can help the horse to understand the rein aids and develop lightness. In the end, the horse should become confident, relaxed and supple in their work. Due to the mental and physical demands, ST should not be started before the horse’s third year. Lightness was a pervasive theme, both in the application of the aids and the weight of the horse in the hand.

For the handler, ST teaches a better feel for their mount’s natural asymmetry and body position in the lateral exercises, and also helps to improve their sense of timing. Meg promised that this improved “feel” transfers over to the ridden work.

Understanding Asymmetry

Now, to really understand the importance of lateral work, you have to also appreciate that horses are naturally asymmetrical. Horses are narrower in the shoulders than the hips, and like humans, are “sided”, meaning one set of limbs tends to be in charge. In our usual handling practices, horsemen do little to improve the situation (when was the last time you led/untacked/mounted from the right or “off” side?).

ST teaches about “eight dimensions of asymmetry”. For me, there was nothing new here, but I really liked the way the concepts were organized. Meg presented the dimensions of asymmetry as follows:

  • Lateral bending (issues here are usually the easiest to correct)
  • Horizontal imbalance (horse naturally carries more weight on forehand)
  • Front legs (Handedness, as in, which leg does your horse prefer to lead with)
  • Hind Legs (the carrying hind leg is more flexible, and the pushing hind leg tends to be straighter, stronger and less flexible)
  • Front/back ratio (the wedge shape of the horse which I referred to earlier)
  • Diagonal (one diagonal pair will be dominant, and usually the pushing hind is diagonal to the dominant front)
  • Vertical (leaning in on an angle on corners)
  • Topline (we want the horse to stretch here and be longer and rounded).

In general, a right bended horse tends to be left forelimb dominant and usually has a pushing right hind. Their concave side is their right side.  Reverse all of these for a horse which is left bended (which seems to be less common overall).

To improve the horse first requires awareness of the asymmetry on the part of the trainer. All beings are asymmetrical, but through thoughtful and steady work, improvement is always possible.

liberty
Meg working at liberty.

Use of the Aids in ST

The pillars of ST work which are done on the ground require the use of the handler’s body language and voice, but several other aids are also important. The first is mental focus—Meg used the expression “inner picture, inner feeling”, which basically means that before a trainer begins any exercise with their horse, they should have a sense of what it is they are trying to accomplish. Related to this is the concept of “energetic aids”, which basically is saying that the handler should be centered, grounded and present, with their full attention on the horse and the task at hand. Finally, for several pillars, artificial aids like a long whip (for driving, slowing or reinforcing) or rein (used similarly to the riding reins, with inside/outside and direct/indirect cues offered) are also included. A direct rein influences the horse’s poll while an indirect rein influences the shoulders, almost like having a lasso around the horse’s neck.

The demonstration section of this clinic was focusing on the work in hand, a pillar which comes after a horse already has a basic understanding of the ground work done with a cavesson on a single line, attached to the nose. Basic circle work and an introduction to the lateral movements should be established through ground work before progressing to work in hand, which is done with a set of reins clipped to either side of the cavesson, as on a bridle. During the ground work phase, the handler works on the inside of the horse.  But during the in hand phase, the handler will transition to the outside of the horse.

The whip becomes a tool of refined communication, based primarily by its position.  It can be used to activate the hind end, or when held in front of the chest, indicates a half halt. Held at the girth, it asks for more bend or forward intention. Pointed towards the opposite hip, it becomes an advanced aid to increase the angle of the haunches in. When kept down by the handler’s side, the whip is in neutral.

Progression of Exercises

In each stage of progression through the pillars, a series of specific exercises is introduced in order. During each exercise, the horse is encouraged to maintain “LFS”—lateral bend, a forward and downward tendency, while stepping under their center of mass with the hind leg.

  • Standstill: Meg says many folks new to ST work tend to gloss over this exercise, because it seems too easy or basic. But mastering the stand still, in which the horse halts with front feet square, head and neck lowered, while willingly flexing left and right, provides an important foundation. It also gives the horse a first introduction of the cavesson and its pressure, and helps to teach them to center their mass away from their dominant fore limb.
  • Circle: Usually done only in the walk, the circle is used to help establish LFS. “We don’t tend to do these in trot or canter, because it is hard to go from the circle to a straight line and keep the horse well balanced,” says Meg.
  • LFS on Straight Line, progressing to Shoulder In
  • Haunches In
  • Renvers
  • Half Pass
  • Pirouette
  • Trot
  • Canter
Carolyn
I had to include this photo of my friend Carolyn, who seems to be practicing that pesky standstill!

Training Theory

When it comes down to it, what I witnessed at this clinic was the application of highly effective classical and operant training techniques. This is really at the root of most good animal training, whether you are talking about riding horses or training dogs or teaching some exotic zoo animal to engage in a medical exam. ST work is about applying the 3 R’s—Release, Reward, Relax. When the horse makes a move towards doing the thing you want, the handler offers a “bingo cue” (some sort of consistent sound), they release the pressure, and then immediately reward the horse with verbal or physical praise or a treat. There is then a short break to allow the horse to process what he just learned.

It is the timing and dosing of the pressure and release process which is most people’s downfall.  Basically, handlers need to AVOID pressure which is held too much, too long, too often, too suddenly or too steadily, and EMBRACE release which is early, often, quickly administered, long and soon.  Release more than you take. Through this process, the horse learns to carry the posture on his own.

There are three phases of the training process.  The first phase is teaching the horse.  In this phase, we are trying to help the horse begin to understand the exercise, and to develop the new neural pathways which will allow it to be performed. At this stage, the movement may lack gymnastic quality, or be in slow motion, similar to how we might learn a new dance step.  In the optimizing phase, the trainer focuses on improving the quality of the movement and encourages the horse to work towards self-carriage in the body and mind.  Finally, in the improvising phase, the exercise can now be used for a purpose or in a goal-oriented way.

Another way to look at the training and learning process is to understand that in doing any activity, there is the comfort zone (doing what you know and is familiar), the stretch zone (where you are trying something new that is out of your comfort zone but still attainable) and the stress zone (where what you are trying to teach is too much, too soon). Growth occurs in the stretch zone, but not every day can be a stretch day. And when we live in the stress zone… no training occurs.

Demonstration

Meg demonstrated the in hand techniques with two of her own horses.  The first horse was a 6 year old Hanoverian gelding who has had a “slow start” in his training progress due to various injuries. She demonstrated that she held each rein through the thumb and forefinger, so the overall contact was quite light.  The outside rein should cross the neck in front of the withers, but not be more than half way up the neck. The goal is to work towards holding the reins closer to the withers than the head, so that the horse is ultimately coming forward from the hindquarters and into the rein (similar to riding).  However, when the trainer loses quality, they should move their hold closer to the cavesson until the necessary elements improve. The handler’s body should be positioned off of the girth; Meg explained that it is really easy to get out in front of the horse’s shoulder.

Renfrew
Meg and her horse Renfrew.

This particular horse usually struggles with the stand still, but today demonstrated the position with his feet even and square. Meg emphasized that under saddle, the horse must learn to wait to move until the rider’s cue, and this practice starts here. She encouraged the horse to stretch forward and down using gentle pressure on the front of the cavesson, and then flexed him to the left and right with pressure on the sides.

After a few moments in the stand still, Meg moved on to doing small circles, 8-10 meters in diameter, to encourage the bending of the horse, while still asking for the forward and downward tendency.  When she asked for transitions to the halt, the effort is made mostly from the voice.  The ultimate goal is to use little to no pressure on the reins in the halt, as the horse will usually tend to come up in the neck and lean into this pressure.

Because changing the bend while in motion is fairly difficult, Meg halted her horse and changed the reins over to the opposite side to work in the other direction.

She then proceeded to demonstrate the shoulder in (be sure to not draw the horse’s nose further in than their point of shoulder) and haunches in (the horse is taught to bend around the whip, which provides the cue).

Next, Meg brought in her 19 year old schoolmaster, Paladin, an Anglo-Trakehner. He came to her due to intermittent front end lameness which had ended his competitive career; through ST work to straighten his body, redevelop movement patterns and correct asymmetrical muscling, the lameness has all but resolved.

Meg worked through all of the same initial movements with Paladin, but then also showed us work in trot and canter.  She explained that the classical masters would sometimes introduce half steps in hand before introducing the trot in order to develop balance and strength; in the faster gaits, it is best to do very short bursts to prevent the horse from losing balance. No matter the gait of the horse, the handler should always remain walking, not jogging, to keep up.

Teaching these progressive exercises in the walk and trot with a youngster can help them to understand what is wanted before trying to do the movements with a rider on board. The movements may also be done in the canter, but this requires more collection than a young horse will have; it is better to introduce the canter under saddle first and allow the horse to develop more strength before teaching these exercises in that gait.

Take Aways

When I signed up for this clinic, I was not expecting a full immersion into an organized training system. I am almost always initially skeptical of programs which promote a particular prescripted philosophy, special equipment (ex: buy this halter/video series/magic stick for just 99.95) or come with too many impassioned disciples who all function at only a very basic level. So before I “drink the Kool-Aid”, I like to try to learn a little more.

Straightness Training (http://straightnesstraining.com/) is a pretty comprehensive program.  Its founder, Marijke de Jong, has created an ambitious and heavily trademarked/registered system of instruction, coaching, certification and support. Under the “FAQ’s” page on her website are some interesting threads on integrating ST work with “other types of riding” as well as what the difference is between classical riding and Straightness Training. Here, deJong compares the different schools of classical dressage training (German, Spanish, etc.) to the branches of a tree; while the specific approaches and techniques taught in these different schools may vary, they all have the same roots. deJong’s work is drawing off much of the in hand training approaches used by classical masters. She seems to have studied this subject far more deeply than I have ever attempted to, and it is beyond the scope of this blog for me to do any analysis on the connections here.

I think we as horsemen are all enthralled with the idea of having a horse which responds to our aids with lightness and sensitivity and to have the kind of relationship with our horse that is seemingly effortless and harmonious. Certainly in Meg’s demonstration she showed that with time and care, her work on the ground has allowed each of her horses to respond to quiet and soft aids as they worked through their lateral movements.  Despite being distracted by outside stimuli and twenty auditors, both horses chose ultimately to focus on Meg, with a minimum of fuss and no force.

I think my major, most important take away from this clinic was a reminder that we must all reward more often and for less effort. It is so easy, especially in dressage or equitation work, to drill ourselves and our horses. In doing so, we fail to recognize the “try”, the little effort the animal or student puts forward to improve, because we are too focused on shaping the response to be what we want in a final performance. But in order to get to that evolved, confident and smooth answer, there are many small, incremental steps of growth and improvement. If we as teachers and trainers do not reward these steps, the progress and growth we specifically seek can be deterred.

 

 

Area I USEA Annual Meeting: Tik Maynard

I had the occasion to attend the US Eventing Association (USEA) Area I Annual Meeting out in Holyoke, MA on January 7, 2018.  I try to make it every year to attend the event organizer’s meeting, and getting to stay to hear the guest lecture each year is an added bonus.  I was quite enthused to learn that Canadian event rider Tik Maynard had been asked to speak at this year’s meeting. Recently, I read a piece Tik wrote for Practical Horseman about the ground work training he had used with his Retired Racehorse Project mount, Remarkable 54.  I found the article well written and thoughtful, and had a sense from it that Tik was an educated, thinking horseman.  In his presentation, which he called, “7 Big Picture Ideas to Get Along Better with your Horse”, he did not disappoint.

My overall impression of Tik as a horseman only improved upon hearing his introduction—the son of a show jumper and a dressage rider, he attended college in his native British Columbia before embarking on a quest for absolutely top of the line horsemanship education by spending nearly two years apprenticing with riders such as Ingrid Klimke, Johann Hinneman, Anne Kursinski and David and Karen O’Connor.  The work was hard and sometimes he didn’t measure up—in fact, he was asked to leave Hinneman’s barn for “not being good enough”.  He worked hard to spend time with some of the best in different disciplines, even though eventing became his main passion.  At the O’Connors, he had his first exposure to natural horsemanship, which completely changed the way in which Tik approached horse training.

img_2339
Tik Maynard at the Area I Meeting.

This experience inspired him to do a working student position in Texas with a western rider who specializes in training cow horses using natural horsemanship techniques.  I may be getting the exact timeline wrong here, but you get the general idea.  In working at this facility, Tik says that he didn’t learn so much about riding— he learned a lot about horses. He became more interested in the behavioral side of horses—how they think, how they respond, and how they process training.

Through his practical education, Tik developed the perspective that all trainers have a philosophy which is the result of the unique combination of their personal training in technique and theory combined with their own instinct or horse sense.  Each trainer’s philosophy will be unique to them, which he thinks is a good thing.  It is sort of his premise that a student becomes a sum total of their teachers, and every experience has something to teach us, even if what we learn is what doesn’t work well. It is only once a trainer has a solid foundation and philosophy of their own that they can begin to use their imagination to, in Tik’s words, “do something better than it has ever been done before.”

img_2341

Tik’s personal philosophy would seem to prioritize a horse which is engaged in the learning process.  He talks about “The Look”, the moment when the horse looks at the trainer with both eyes and ears focused, seemingly saying, “What are we doing today?” He emphasizes a difference between communication and control in training.  And though he was told that there was no way that he would be able to combine natural horsemanship training with developing competition horses at the highest level, he has not allowed such negativity to dissuade him from his path.

In his presentation for the Area I Meeting, Tik highlighted seven concepts which he has found to be important in working with his horses in training.

  • Taming versus training. Tik argues that there are horses being ridden and shown which are barely tame, never mind trained.  For example, when the horse is showing even a slight fear reaction to certain stimuli, or grossly overacts to a small stimulus, these can both be signs that the horse is not fully ok with what is going on.  “It is like you have this horse simmering with energy just below the surface,” says Tik. “The horse reacts to the sound of a twig snapping, but that is not the cause of the horse’s tension.” Tik gave as an example of one of his horses, Carollina, who needed to be taught to really think forward.

 

“There are lots of ways to communicate with horses, but they only have two main ways to show how they feel—either more anxiety or more relaxation,” says Tik.  “Too often people learn to compete before they learn how to ride, and before they learn how a horse thinks.”

 

  • Start with something you can Your goal may be huge (compete at Rolex) but to get there you must learn all the skills which come before. When training, start with the skills that your horse can do well—even if they are quite basic—and build from there.  Tik used the example of teaching a horse to handle a bank.  Start with:  can my horse look at the bank?  Get closer to the bank?  Look across the bank and realize that there is someplace to go?  “You must be patient,” says Tik.  “For example, almost all water problems with horses are the result of someone pushing too hard with the horse’s first experience.”

 

When working with a horse which has lost confidence, it is important to take a step back and do many small things successfully before revisiting the thing which is hard.  “People often get into trouble because they skip steps,” says Tik. “There is still an attitude out there that you ‘have to win’.  You need to know that what you get into is something you can get out of.  Do not have a battle.  Back up to something you can do, and then repeat it.”

img_1345
Becoming exposed to unfamiliar stimuli should be like a game.

 

  • Make your session with your horse like a song. When working with a horse, your training session should contain moments at different levels of intensity. The warm up is gradual, and then you may progress to a new skill or lesson which is higher intensity, before the energy gradually comes down towards the end of the session.  “All moments are not created equal,” says Tik.

Horses can only learn when they are relaxed.  Tik says if there is a scale of tension, a horse must be under a level three in order to learn.  “You need to be polite, and do little polite things to help the horse be more invested in you,” says Tik.  “If you touch the neck on one side, touch the horse on the opposite side at the same time.  Approach a crosstied horse with the same care as a hard to catch horse.”

Tik tries to end each training session by dismounting in the area where he rode, facing away from the barn. He then loosens the girth and might remove the bridle, and waits there until the horse lets go and takes a deep breath.

“Rule number one is the person is safe at the end,” says Tik.  “Rule number two is the horse is safe.  Rule number three is that the horse is more relaxed at the end of the ride than at the beginning.”

img_0964
Learning to cross tie is one important basic skill which all horses should be taught.
  • Make your horse’s world neutral.

There are stimuli which will attract your horse (positives) and those which will repel them (negatives). The trainer needs to shift the horse’s energy towards where they want it to go to. As an example, Tik spoke about acclimatizing his OTTB, Remarkable, to the coliseum in preparation for their freestyle performance at the Retired Racehorse Project. The ring was full of banners, which worried the horse.  So Tik led the horse towards the banner, and had an assistant feed Remarkable a small treat from the opposite side of each banner until the horse began to relax.

 

Trainers need to make themselves be more interesting than anything else going on.  This means that the lesson being taught must be more interesting; trainers must learn when and how to be big with their actions (body, waving a flag) and when to be more subtle.  Which leads really well into Big Picture Idea #5….

 

  • Stop at the top of the bell curve.

As a horse progresses through their training, they will get better with a new skill and then often start to get worse—this is a sign that they are bored, frustrated or similar.  Tik reminded the audience that “repetition is the mildest form of punishment”, so a better approach is to get to the top of the exercise and then stop, even if the horse gets there quickly.  Continuing to repeat the exercise once the horse has already gotten the point of it for the day will mean that they are likely to end their lesson at an energy level higher than a 3 (see Big Picture Idea # 3).

 

  • Be a problem solver. Think.

Be creative. Seek help. Think laterally. “The more you do it, the better you get,” says Tik.
“Almost everything we do with horses is about communication or motivation.”

Tik says that the best trainers learn to think like a horse, and they also are aware of how they want the horse to be responding to them.  “Dressage horses think about the rider the whole time, but for jumping horses we maybe only want them focusing on the rider during the turns,” says Tik. “Then they need to focus on the jump.  So the horse needs to learn how to smoothly shift their focus.”

from-solstice-079
Lee says, “There is definitely something OVER THERE.”
  • What are the Olympics of Everything?

Tik joked with the audience, “what if there were an Olympics for cross ties, for leading, for being caught, etc?” His point is that no matter what kind of interaction we have with the horse, we can always work to make it better.  It is upon these smaller steps which big goals are achieved. “Have your end goal in mind but always stay in the present,” says Tik (seems relevant to so much in life, no?).

In listening to Tik’s presentation, as well as his responses to audience questions, I was struck by his calm demeanor.  He seems humble and authentic.  He did announce that he is working on a book with Trafalgar Square, scheduled for release in June 2018—I suspect that this text will be one to add to the library.

 

 

Anna and the Adventures of the Double Bridle

The 2017 season marked Anna’s debut at Third Level; while we certainly didn’t make anyone nervous, as my former coach used to say, we also didn’t get arrested by the Dressage Police, so it would seem that enough of our movements were recognizable at the level that they allowed us to go on our way.

Making the jump from Second to Third level is a significant step forward in the horse’s training.  The purpose of Third Level (as is stated at the top of the test) is as follows: “To confirm that the horse demonstrates correct basics, and having begun to develop an uphill balance at Second Level, now demonstrates increased engagement, especially in the extended gaits.  Transitions between collected, medium and extended gaits should be well defined and performed with engagement.  The horse should be reliably on the bit and show a greater degree of straightness, bending, suppleness, throughness, balance and self-carriage than at Second Level.”

Oh gee, is that all?

img_1448

But in all honesty, what I have found when the average dressage rider is debating moving up to Third Level is that they are worried about two things.  1) Will my horse do a flying change?  2) Can I ride in a double?

The double bridle, also known as the full bridle, is a somewhat controversial piece of equipment.  Third Level is the first time its use is permitted under USEF rules.  As its name implies, it has two bits—a snaffle, known as the “bridoon,” and a curb, also called a “Weymouth.” The bits serve different purposes.  The snaffle helps to achieve lateral and longitudinal flexion, as well as encourages elevation in the frame.  It is also used to help position the neck left or right, and encourages the horse to open the frame when necessary.  The curb’s role is to increase longitudinal flexion, helping to “close” the frame by bringing the head more towards vertical.  The correct use of a double bridle requires that the horse is classically trained; the rider’s hands should initiate but not force the horse’s head and neck into the correct position.

img_1313
Anna’s double.  The curb is pretty flat, with minimal port, and used to belong to my Hanoverian, Worldly.

It is the use of the curb which makes the double bridle both so helpful and also potentially so harmful.  For centuries, the curb was used alone and often one handed, by knights and soldiers needing immediate control and submission from their mounts. The double bridle was not commonly used until the close of the 1700’s, likely due to the influence of French masters Pluvinel and de la Guerniere. Each horseman taught that the curb bit could be used to enable the rider to achieve a higher level of communication with the horse, not simply domination. By employing two sets of reins, the rider could use the snaffle and curb bits separately or in combination, which allowed a greater degree of refined control for military maneuvers.

The curb must be carefully chosen and fit to the horse; when used appropriately, it can allow extremely refined communication between horse and rider.  It is a leverage bit and applies pressure to the poll and chin groove, as well as to the bars, tongue and the neck; any force applied to its rein will be magnified on the horse.

img_1314
A close up of Anna’s current bits.  Talk to me in a year and we shall see what she is wearing!

The strength of the curb depends on several factors.  The overall length of the cheek of the bit is important, but so is the length of cheek above the mouthpiece versus below it.  This ratio effects the way the leverage is applied to the horse.  The tightness and fit of the curb chain is also significant, with the ideal being that when the curb chain is engaged, the lower shank is brought to 45 degrees relative to the bars of the mouth. It may require some adjustment in the curb chain tension to find just the right setting. Ideally, two fingers fit between the curb chain and the chin. Finally, the shape of the mouth piece itself influences the severity of the curb.  The unique size and shape of the horse’s tongue, bars and palate all must be considered.  Usually, the length of the shank is about the same as the width of the mouthpiece; the curb should be a minimum of 5 mm wider at each side of the mouth to avoid the lips being squeezed between the shanks.  But a too wide curb will cause muddled signals to the horse.

Anna Third Level Debut 027
What I like in this photo, from our Third Level debut, is that she is soft in the jaw, properly using the muscles of her upper neck and is slightly in front of the vertical with her forehead.  I think we are about to ride a volte here, and she needs to be better supple on the right side and more engaged with elevation in the shoulders.  I also have NO contact to speak of on the curb rein.  It is an ongoing process!

de la Guerniere said, “The mouthpiece has to be chosen based on the inner construction of the horse’s mouth, the levers in relation to his neck and the curb chain based on the sensitivity of his chin.”

Of course, as with any bit, its severity is directly related to the skill of the user.  For example, while one might assume that a shorter shanked curb is less severe, its effects are felt more quickly and so it is not ideal for someone with unsteady hands.

ThirdLevelTackShack
Anna at a show in July– here you can see that I have too much contact on the curb, and the adjustment has brought the bit almost to horizontal.  This isn’t right either!  Good thing Anna is tolerant.  What I like in this photo though is that she is well engaged, reaching over her back, and is closer to level balance.  When you are not genetically blessed with uphill carriage, it takes quite a bit of weightlifting to get there.  This lovely photo is from MKM Equine.

I soon found that fitting the bits correctly, including consideration of the placement of the noseband, is almost an art form.  I still don’t think I have the adjustment just right, as will be seen in some of the photos here.

img_1359-1
Anna after a summer ride in which she did some of her first tempi changes! Thank you to the double for our more refined control!

I have ridden in doubles before, but it was only over the course of this season that I realized how little I really understood about the bridle, its use, and its effects.  The horse is only ready to begin using a double when they have developed a degree of collection and self-carriage.  When the hindquarter is properly engaged, the horse is then better able to lift their withers and base of the neck.  The curb uses even pressure to cause the horse to yield with relaxation in their lower jaw.

I was really on the fence about whether or not Anna was ready to start working in the double, because of our ongoing connection issues.  But after a session with my dear friend Jen Verharen in March, I felt sufficiently confident to at least start asking her to hack around in the double and get used to carrying two bits in her mouth.  Anna’s first ride in the double was only remarkable in that it was utterly unremarkable.  “Ho hum,” she seemed to say.  Just another day at the office.

img_0568
After her first ride in the double.  Please do not judge me for the extremely disorganized cheekpieces.  I promise that they got sorted out for the next ride! And it was raining that day– this isn’t all sweat.  🙂

I began riding Anna in her double once per week, usually on days when I was mostly doing stretching work.  Even before I started to take a greater feel through the curb rein, I noticed an improvement in the shape of her topline and neck, which I attribute (perhaps falsely) to the style of her bridoon.  Anna’s usual snaffle is a medium thickness KK loose ring with a lozenge; the bridoon on her double is a thin single jointed loose ring.  I wonder if the simplicity of the bridoon is more comfortable for her; of course, I haven’t actually gotten around to swapping out her regular snaffle to determine this! Perhaps this is a project for the winter season.

Gradually, I began to take more feel on the curb rein and introduced Anna to gentle pressure from the leverage bit.  I found that it was important to make sure that she was sufficiently loosened first, and already reaching through her back, before I took this additional contact.  When I attended a clinic with Jan Ebeling in April, I brought the double with me, but I didn’t feel confident enough yet to actually bring it out in such a public venue.

So when I took Anna down centerline for the first time at Third Level in June, I had had no direct coaching with her in the double.  However, I felt that its use sufficiently improved Anna’s outline and way of going such that it justified its use.  In reviewing the photos, I can tell that the curb helped to improve her elevation in the trot work, but I was not fully utilizing its benefits to help her in the canter. I knew I was still being too tentative.

Anna Third Level Debut 026
In this photo from Anna’s Third Level debut, you can see that I am not really using the curb rein.

Thankfully, I was able to work with Verne Batchelder over five sessions in July, August and September, which helped us to make excellent progress and gave me better insight into the use of the double during this horse’s training.  Verne encouraged me to ride Anna in the double more frequently, citing its positive effects on achieving a more correct shape through her topline and especially in her neck.  “Do not go into battle without your gear,” he laughed, as he also encouraged me to picture Anna working more towards Third Level Test 3 than Test 1.

Most of our sessions focused on positioning Anna’s neck such that she was unable to use it to block the flow of energy.  Usually this involved taking her nose slightly past the degree of flexion in her neck, waiting for her to relax, then gently straightening her by using my outside elbow.  Verne emphasizes the need to be able to swivel the horse’s head and neck at the poll; this helps to develop the muscles of the upper neck to the degree where it actually draws up and refines the area around the throatlatch.

img_2250
So I keep struggling with the adjustment of the curb chain; here you can see that the shank of Anna’s curb tends to align too much with her lips.  It should be closer to 45 degrees in relation to her bars.

Anna has quite a good walk, and really is capable of achieving scores of “8” or higher on these movements, and so we played with some walk exercises which also would help to further improve her connection. We did a series of half turns in the walk, all the while asking her to take a rounder outline through her topline and neck, more towards an FEI level of carriage, for short periods.  These turns were larger than competition sized, and we worked towards shorter, quicker steps.  This technique should help to develop greater activity in the half pass. Afterwards, we returned to forward riding on lines and larger circles.

img_2097-1
Anna is at her winter headquarters at High Knoll Equestrian Center this year. 

Flying changes are actually quite easy for Anna, and these are also an opportunity for higher scores in the show ring.  Verne worked with us on riding changes with greater elevation of the forehand, so that they could become bigger and more expressive.  He encouraged a gentle lift of the inside snaffle rein during the change to coincide with the leg cue; this will lay the foundation for a prompter response to a subtle aid in tempi changes later on.

Finally, we spent some time working on developing Anna’s medium trot.  The medium gaits are defined by their uphill tendency, which is of course the result of better engagement, self-carriage and true collection.  The horse should lift their shoulders and withers, not just flick the front feet. If the rider only thinks about power, most often the horse will do a lengthening and instead fall to their forehand.  In the double, Verne reminded me to keep my elbows bent and to focus on riding Anna’s shoulders up.  We increased the thrust for a few steps at a time, using these as building blocks to develop strength and carrying power.

Verne feels that the double bridle is a valuable training tool for a horse like Anna, who lacks natural elevation.  “The double bridle helps with elevation of the shoulder and neck in horses which are not naturally elevated,” says Verne.  “The withers follow the reins, but the rider cannot just lift the hand.  They must keep an active half halt and the connection into their elbow.”  I learned too that it is extremely important to keep a steady feel on the snaffle, not pulling just holding, whenever Anna was pushing towards a higher degree of balance and throughness.

img_1858
Doing some stretching work in the snaffle.

I always like to give Anna a little down time as I transition back to full time work in the fall, so in September we hung the double up for a few months and focused on stretching in the snaffle and hacking on the trails.  Even without the influence of the curb, it is clear that the work we have done in the double has helped to improve the shape and correctness of Anna’s topline.

img_1608
And when we go out hacking, it is usually in a mechanical hackamore, which is what she is wearing here, though I guess it is hard to tell!

There has been some debate in recent years regarding whether the double bridle should remain mandatory equipment at the FEI levels; when showing nationally, American riders can choose to ride FEI tests in a snaffle alone.  There seems to be some belief that those who can do Grand Prix in a snaffle are better riders.  But in the right hands, the double bridle should be regarded as “an instrument of finest understanding between horse and rider” (Rottermann, Eurodressage 11/3/14). A correctly trained horse will probably do well no matter which type of bridle they are wearing.

As far as Anna and I go, we of course need to continue to improve the quality of our communication.  I am sure there are some riders and trainers who will judge me for choosing to work this horse in a double bridle before every bit and piece of Third Level work was fully confirmed.  But truthfully, it seems like it was the right choice for this horse, and using this tool tactfully has helped to further her training and improved her strength and suppleness.

img_2253
Happy Holidays from Annapony and I! 

Sources

Edwards, E. Hartley.  Saddlery. London: JA Allen and Co, Ltd.  1987.

Politz, Gerhard.  “History of Bits, Evolution of the Double Bridle”. Posted 7/17/2008 (www.equisearch.com/articles/double_bridle_071708)

Rottermann, Silke. “The Double Bridle: An Instrument of Understanding”. Posted 11/3/2014. (www.euroressage.com/equestrian/2014/11/03/double-bridle-instrument-understanding)

 

 

The Breaking Point

I am cheering with my whole heart and soul, screaming really, my throat becoming raw, jumping up and down, urging the beautiful bay filly to keep surging forward.  She is stunning—raw power, gleaming coat, the crooked stripe on her forehead and bright yellow of her jockey’s silks distinguishing her from her older, more sedately adorned rival.  They are in a tight duel—they have led the pack since leaving the starting gate—and now as they crest the top of the stretch, my favorite has started to pull out in front.  I am yelling and kicking and riding my own ride down the stretch, as though my life depended on it, as though by sharing my own energy I can help her to cross the finish line in front.

I am in my parent’s living room, hundreds of miles from Belmont Park in New York, where the Breeder’s Cup is being held.  It is October 27, 1990 and I am 14.  My cheers and encouragement are heard only by my mother and my cat, who quickly left the room as soon as she felt the pulse of my frenetic and overly wired energy.  Until that summer, we had lived just outside of Saratoga Springs, NY, and I had spent many blissful August days standing track side, admiring Thoroughbreds, learning about pedigrees, and cheering for my favorites.  I dressed as a jockey every Halloween, wearing handmade pale yellow and purple silks.  I kept scrapbooks of newspaper clippings about anything Thoroughbred, each article I found about horse racing carefully filed and labelled in a series of big red books which lived in my closet.  On major stakes race days, I listened to the call on WGNA AM radio, religiously watched every Thoroughbred race televised on NBC,  and in the age of the VCR, dutifully recorded the Triple Crown series every year, a true disciple of the sport waiting for a return of the king who would once again wear the Triple Crown.

I am watching the 1990 Breeder’s Cup Distaff, a race for champion fillies and mares aged 3 and up.  The race was largely billed as a showdown between the race’s defending champion, Bayakoa, the six year old phenom and two time American Champion Older Female Horse, and Go for Wand, who had already been voted the recipient of the 1990 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Three Year Old Filly.  It was Go for Wand who I was pulling for—and with just about 100 yards left in the race, it looked like she had it.  She had a nose in front and was still pushing forward.

Go_For_Wand_BC_615_X_400_orig
Go for Wand

And in a split second, her forehand dropped, her neck rolled, and she flipped over, throwing her jockey Randy Romero to the ground before standing and trying to limp her way down the track.

And in that same split second, as surely as I had ever known anything in my whole fourteen years, I knew that I had just watched a horse sign her own death certificate on national television.  Bayakoa went on to win; Go for Wand suffered an open fracture to her right cannon bone.

If you can stomach it, here is a video of the race. 

My screams of enthusiasm became screams of horror, and I felt something come from deep inside my chest which I had never felt before.  I thought my insides were actually going to come out like a scene in Poltergeist— I was screaming and crying and shaking and wanted to throw things.  I was so, so, so angry and on the verge of losing control.  My mother came running, turned off the TV and tried to understand what had happened.  But I just couldn’t speak.

I know now that what I had felt that day was rage.  The flame burned so intense and so hot that after the emotion quelled, I realized that it had taken from me any desire to ever watch a live horse race again.  In one fateful moment, I went from being a devoted fan of the sport to someone who could no longer watch a horse race without first knowing that all of the horses made it back to the barn at the end.

A 2016 article featuring recent research on understanding catastrophic breakdowns in racehorses.

Refusing to watch has prevented me from seeing more contemporary horrors like Barbaro break his right hind leg in the 2006 Preakness, or Eight Belles fall at the end of the 2008 Kentucky Derby, the result of the same exact type of fracture as Barbaro but in both front fetlocks.  But not watching has not prevented me from hearing about these horrible tragedies and then once again replaying the fall and death of Go for Wand where it is seared into my memory.

eightbelles
I found this image of Eight Belles, who fell after finishing second in the Derby, on Pinterest, and I have been unable to find who originally took it….but it is one of the most haunting images.  Jockey Gabriel Saez tries to keep her calm.

This might not be a popular opinion right now, but I have felt the same way about upper level eventing for years.  I have been an event rider since 1997 and have organized at least two USEA horse trials per year since 2006.  But I am tired of trying to defend the sport when it feels like every time there is a major international contest, one of the participants does not come home.  I have never competed at preliminary level or higher, and I never want to.  I am in no way a part of the upper level eventing community; I can barely even be called a passing fan.  But I am a member of the greater eventing community, and so the loss this past weekend of the talented Thoroughbred cross gelding Crackerjack, and subsequent online civil war about both that specific situation and the greater questions of safety in the sport of eventing, affects me too.

Crackerjack and Boyd Martin at Pau (Dressage)– I haven’t/won’t watch the other video– I just can’t stomach it knowing what will happen.

In recent years, I have spent a lot of time ruminating on what is fair for us to ask our equine partners to do, and how far we should push them.   I am sure I still don’t know the answer. Horses are amazing, powerful, strong and yet so fragile. People will offer trite clichés when a horse or rider dies in the course of sport such as, “well, at least they were doing what they loved.”  But these are hollow and empty words, and are just a way to fill the void left when a vibrant, athletic and enthusiastic spirit departs us in a shocking and sudden manner.  Does anyone really take comfort in them?  I doubt it.

People also like to point out that horses have a propensity to harm themselves even in what seem to be the safest of environments; everyone (including me) can tell the story of a horse fatally injured at pasture or in a stall.  But can we agree that there is some sort of difference between losing a horse through a freak barnyard mishap and an accident in competition?  I think so.

SaratogaTimesUnion.jpg
Saratoga Race Track through the lens of an uncredited Times Union photographer. 19 Thoroughbreds died during its 2017 meet, the most since 2009.  Eight died in competition, nine while training, and two from “non-racing related issues”.

It might seem like a stretch to believe that one incident can change someone from loving a horse sport to hating it.  So if I am honest about my feelings regarding Thoroughbred racing, the seeds were there before Go for Wand’s death.  I had seen horses go down before, and their memories still haunt me.  In fourth grade, I wrote a short story about one, Foundation Plan, a dark bay colt foaled in 1982, who died at Saratoga while I watched from the rail.  Seeds can sit and wait for the right set of variables to present themselves so that they can grow into a fully formed thought or emotion.  Maybe value-driven emotions need to germinate for a while before they can come to flower. When the conditions are right, your true beliefs will appear before you in their full intensity.

In an October 29, 1990 New York Times article titled, “Breeders Cup: Track Life Goes On After a Day of Death”, writer Steven Crist notes that that year’s races claimed the lives of three horses and caused the forced retirement of a fourth, Adjudicating, who finished the Sprint but was found to have a repairable fracture later that night.   From the article:

“Go for Wand’s trainer, Billy Badgett, was inconsolable immediately after the death of what he called the “horse of a lifetime” but spoke about it yesterday morning.  “She had never been challenged that way,” he said.  “She just tried too hard.”

Earlier in the piece, Crist notes:  “Casual fans, who had come to Belmont on a rare outing or tuned into the national telecast of the $10 million racing card out of curiosity, were left seeking explanations, while industry insiders tried to explain that this was a horrible concentration of a rare aspect of the sport.”

Twenty seven years later and not much seems different.  While immediate connections grieve, the greater community recoils in horror.  And an industry is left trying to pick up the pieces.

 

 

Somewhere Between Marginal and Sufficient

Anna and I finished our 2017 show season the last weekend of August at a close to home recognized USDF/USEF show, held at Longfellow Farm in Nottingham, NH.    It was a beautiful afternoon, and the show organizers really worked hard to try to make the show a special experience for competitors.  We each received a goody bag with magazines, lip balm, a box of sugar cubes and a gift certificate to a web site I cannot afford.  There were real flowers in the port a potties.  They had a mini trade fair and fresh food. Tons of my friends were there, riding, coaching and grooming, and the whole thing felt a little bit like an end of summer picnic where we were all trying to absorb the late season sun and fun.

As I was setting up my equipment, I listened to the women at the trailer next to mine go through their own preparations.  At first, I wasn’t sure who was riding and who was coaching, but ultimately determined there were two rookie riders doing their first Opportunity classes, a conscientious horse owner, and one extremely patient trainer.  The riders’ nervous energy was palpable as they struggled to pull up their new full seats, bemoaned the lack of pockets in same for sugar cubes, and valiantly figured out how to tack up their mounts while still remaining clean.  A gentleman wearing a camera stood nearby, wisely far enough back from the action so as to not get caught up in it but close enough by to be showing support.  When it came time to mount, neither could manage to do so off the top of a 5 gallon pail, the only mounting block available.  So their trainer offered each of them a leg up.

Compared to these two, who as it turned out were riding in my ring, directly after me, I was the epitome of calm.  I methodically went through my usual preparations, putting on the white base layer, the choker which fits a little too tightly, the hairnet which always leaves an indent on my forehead secured under my gray velvet helmet.  My hand me down Pikeur jacket was an expensive purchase for its original owner; I acquired it for just $30 and spent an additional $35 spent to tailor it, though it still doesn’t feel like it fits me right.  It is just a bit out of style and the collar has faded in the sun, which I’m sure no one notices but me. I felt no nerves, no worries.  I tacked up Anna, mounted off the top of my own upturned 5 gallon pail, and headed to the warm up.

img_1117-1
Anna at a show at the Tack Shack in Fremont, NH, in July.

Anna and I performed Third Level Test 1 for the fourth time this season, and got yet another 58%. I somehow mistimed my warm up, leaving me a bit shortchanged in terms of the preparation, but at the end of the day I really don’t think it would have mattered all that much.  While our performances have progressively improved, the scores have not.  We have been rocking those 50’s (it sounds like a dance party, which would be a whole lot more fun): 57,55, 59, 58.  Close but not quite there.

img_1448.jpg

I do appreciate the comments from the judges.  Judges have a challenging job; they must sit for hours, running “tapes” in their mind which include the purpose of the level and the expectations of a movement at that level, and then they translate these ideals promptly into a succinct statement which justifies their assigned score.  I have sat and observed judges and scribed.  I have graduated from the USDF “L” learner judge’s program.  I have spent hours judging at schooling shows, watching many, many tests in which there was very little dressage going on, trying to figure out how to offer feedback which will be perceived as helpful but not overly negative.  Judges are usually really trying to help the riders they are watching.

But that day at Longfellow, as I held my yellow sheet on which the judge noted “capable horse who is obedient in changes and must be rounder and better on bit and connected”, I just felt defeated.  Like, what is the point of this?  Dressage is such a dumb sport, to get all dressed up in these ridiculous uncomfortable penguin suits and go to shows where they put flowers in the port a potties and then we go and ride these redundant patterns, over and over again, hoping that for the FIVE MINUTES the judge sees our horse, we can meet some mystical expectation of “dressageyness”.  Why am I wasting my time and energy doing this? Why did I spend an hour to bathe and braid my horse and load equipment into my trailer and then ship down here? For a 58%?

img_1449
Anna doing what she does best at the Longfellow show.  Nom nom nom.

I have been teaching riding since I was eighteen years old, over half my life.  I sure thought I knew everything when I first started, and it wasn’t until I was in my thirties that I began to understand that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.  I have at least five former students to whom I taught the absolute basics of how to put a horse on the bit, which have now ridden to Grand Prix and finished their USDF Gold Medals. There are probably another five who are riding at Prix St. George or Intermediare I.  Meanwhile, I am over here still splashing around in the dressage kiddie pool, unable to get my swimmies off.

Anna Third Level Debut 027
UNH June show.

 

In the Chronicle of the Horse’s August 7 issue, there was a great article about an amateur rider named Elizabeth O’Connor.  This spring, she finished her USDF Gold Medal riding a one eyed off track Thoroughbred which she trained herself.  To say that the pair had overcome adversity to achieve this result is an understatement.  It is a story meant to inspire, to remind readers that one doesn’t have to have the fancy warmblood and that with hard work, grit and determination, one can get to the big goal.

But what if that isn’t really true, most of the time?  What if hard work and determination isn’t enough?  When do you decide that maybe the judge’s comments are correct, and it is time to pack up and go home before the Dressage Police show up and throw you out?

I was still feeling pretty defeated when I brought Anna to the beautiful Chesley Brook Stables in Dover, NH, to ride with Verne Batchelder on Labor Day.  I was tired emotionally and physically, having just ridden the two day 60 mile ride at GMHA with my Thoroughbred, Lee, finishing in the remnants of Hurricane Harvey on Sunday.  Verne quickly picked up on the fact that I seemed…down.

img_1124
Schooling with Verne at Chesley Brook in July.  Thanks Lauren for the photo!

A former classroom educator and lifelong equestrian, Verne is probably the best coach I have ever worked with in terms of getting the maximum performance out of Anna.  He has seen me ride different horses, and he knows both me and this horse well.  As professionals, there are certainly times when we need a kick in the backside but there are also times when we need a boost.  Verne reminded me that sometimes the biggest complement that a teacher receives is when their student exceeds them.  He also pointed out that I am doing Third Level on a somewhat lazy horse whose genetics do not automatically set her up for the job.  Anna is trained.  58% is close.  We are not in the 40’s.

“We are not going to become the masters of Third Level,” proclaimed Verne.  “We are going to keep going.  We are going to get this pony to FEI.”

Anna Third Level Debut 002
Warm up at UNH show in June. 

I don’t know if we will or we won’t, but that is almost irrelevant.  Everything Verne said was just what I needed to hear.  I have made a conscious choice to own my own horses, to do my own training, and to commit to the process and animals I have.  Giving up when you hit the hard spots can sometimes be the right choice, but at other times you have to just keep plugging away with the faith that with enough persistence, even the roughest of surfaces wear smooth.  If my goal was simply to get to Grand Prix, or to finish a USDF Silver or Gold Medal, I could do that….but the fastest route would be a totally different path than the one I have taken.  I haven’t chosen to lease a schoolmaster, or to buy a big mover, or even to devote my training energy and tack time 100% to dressage. And for these reasons, I have become (in my opinion) a more robust equestrian.

When I returned to my trailer at the Longfellow show, I was untacking and unbraiding Anna, who hungrily mowed down the grass of the field we were parked in.  My neighbors returned, elated, victorious; they had finished their first ever dressage tests at a rated show.  The horse owner saw me and said, “wow, I saw your test, and your horse was amazing!  It was such a great ride!”

“Thanks,” I smiled, knowing even without having seen the results that it was probably just another 58%.

“We actually rode right after you in the same ring,” she continued, flushed with excitement. “And when we saw you cantering on the diagonal, and then doing one of those changes, we totally panicked, because that wasn’t the test we knew!  Your horse is just beautiful.”

Anna Third Level Debut 068
She is kind of beautiful.  🙂

I guess I didn’t really hear her then, but in retrospect I appreciate the comments more now.  Why are we doing this silly sport, this art, called dressage?  It can’t be just for the score…because the score only represents one moment in time. You have to do it for the day to day victories, and for the incremental improvements which show that your horse is progressing.  My horse does flying changes.  And she half passes.  And she is starting to understand the double bridle.  We may be working on many elements still, but there are many others which she does well.  She received 7’s on her walk pirouettes; Verne thinks they should be 8’s.  My horse is a Third Level horse.

Anna Third Level Debut 063
This was after finishing our first ever Third Level test.  I have to remember it is the journey which matters most!

So while other people may be diving into the deep end, don’t mind me.  I’ll just be over here in the shallow end, gradually creeping my way into the deeper water. A little better than marginal, but not quite yet sufficient.

 

 

 

 

Keeping Up With the Jones’

I think every other photo or post on my social media stream is of someone’s baby horse doing some amazing accomplishment.  Whether they are winning on the line, learning to wear tack, or being taught groundwork basics, these youngsters just seem to be high achieving go-getters.

For one example, here is an excerpt from a recent sales post for a 2 year old Connemara cross (same age and cross as my Izzy):

“…Training so far has included all ground manners (cross ties, clips, loads on trailer and trailers well, leads, lunges, stands for farrier and vet, bathes, free jumps).  She has had a lot of saddle work as well as bridled (and longed in tack with no drama)…”

The mare looks lovely and has obviously had a busy spring.  But as I read the ad in early July, I have to admit that I felt, well, inadequate, in terms of my own work with Izzy.   At that time, Izzy’s resume was nowhere near so robust.

img_0964
Look, we cross tie like a grown up horse.

It’s not because she lacks the aptitude or temperament.  Izzy is simply the sweetest youngster I have ever interacted with. She is friendly, inquisitive and confident.  She arrived from Wisconsin the day before an authentic winter blizzard, and she settled right in. “No drama”, to use a recent quote.

Izzy is by the Connemara stallion Skyview’s Triton and out of a Thoroughbred mare named Honest Wit.  She was foaled on May 30, 2015, and so by my thinking she is a “young” two year old—when she arrived here in March, she wasn’t even quite two by the calendar.

img_0502
Fresh off the trailer on a very cold March morning in NH!

I spent time this spring just getting to know her better.   In working with Izzy, I want to make sure that each step of the process is taken as it comes, without hurry and with as much clarity of expectation as possible.  Izzy’s breeder, Janet M. Johnson of Dayton Ridge Farm, spends time with all of her youngsters and they work on learning “age appropriate” skills.  Izzy was already familiar with leading, grooming and having her feet handled when she arrived.  But even so, certain things were new.  The first time my farrier worked with her, Izzy regarded the foot stand with quite a look of horror and wanted nothing to do with it.  She is always a little funny with her right front hoof and sometimes pulls it away.  We just kept patiently handling her feet daily until it became routine.

One day in April, I was grooming Izzy in the barn aisle, holding her lead.  She was a little fussy and almost before I knew it, the lead had slid through my hands and Izzy was galloping down the driveway.  After a (terrifying for me) gallivant all about the front side of the property, and with the help of my housemate Lisa and a bucket of grain, she was back in hand.  But clearly we needed a better system.

img_0942

So I began introducing her to the cross ties.  I did one tie at a time, clipping the lead to the opposite side of the halter and holding it while I worked on grooming.  She explored the boundaries, and the first day that she hit the end of her tie I held my breath, not sure of what to expect.  Izzy pulled for a moment, and then just stood there.  Once I knew her response to the pressure seemed reasonable, I added the second crosstie.  And just like that…we crosstied.

While I was dealing with my knee issues this spring, intern Kelly handled most of the “walk Izzy around the property” duties.  But after recovering from my surgery, I began doing more “walk abouts” myself, taking Izzy up and down the driveway, leading from both sides, practicing transitions between the halt, walk and eventually the trot.  I added voice commands and started carrying a short bat, then a dressage whip.

img_0743
Intern Kelly, with her canine assistant Fox, take Izzy for a walk about.

As the black flies emerged in April, Izzy learned to wear a fly hat.  Bug spray made her very nervous at first, but with calm repetition you can now spray her while she stands loose in the field.

In late spring/early summer, I introduced Izzy to wearing a saddle pad.  I let her smell it, rubbed it on her body, and let her see it come up and over her back from both sides.  “No drama”.  From there, it was an easy step to wearing the soft cotton surcingle, even if I have to adjust it to the absolute smallest setting. Izzy still isn’t a fan of having it tightened, but once it is set, she seems unconcerned.

img_1031
First time wearing a saddle pad. 

I set a few further goals for her for the summer.  When presented in hand, two year olds must wear a bridle with a bit, so I felt it was appropriate for her to learn how to do that.  I wanted her to load onto and off my straight load two horse trailer quietly, and then go for a few short rides.  And I wanted to introduce her to the basics of longeing; in hand, we had started with the voice commands, but I wanted her to understand the concept of moving in a circle, responding to the handler’s voice and body cues, and to be comfortable with the equipment on and around her body. I wanted to do all of this through a series of short playful sessions, so that she enjoyed interacting with humans and remained her confident, inquisitive self.

img_1131
First day in a bridle.  Still sorting out the bit.

I am pleased to say that we have achieved all of that and more.  On each step of the journey, Izzy has remained fairly willing and mostly obedient.  Like any youngster, she has her moments of silliness and lost focus, but more often than not she stays mentally on task.  Izzy calmly wears her bit and bridle, she does transitions in hand and on a longe circle, and has happily walked and trotted over low cavaletti in hand and on the longe.  She ate several meals on the trailer and went for four short rides, two with a friend and two on her own.  And as an added bonus activity, she has been ponied off her turn out buddy Marquesa around the farm.  Maybe if I get brave I will take the pair of them out on the trails to see more of the world!

img_1301
Learning to “pony”– all three of us together!

It is funny, though, because in spite of all this success, when I see a post about someone else’s overachieving baby horse, it is hard to not compare.  Izzy doesn’t free jump (I have no where to do that, anyway), and I can’t really say that she is confirmed on the longe (she certainly doesn’t canter), and what the heck is that contraption they are longeing that youngster in anyway?  Should I be using some contraption?  I haven’t taken her off property to any breed shows, young stock shows or in hand future intergalactic performance horse testings.  She has yet to wear a saddle.  Am I doing this right? My friend’s two year does [insert accomplishment here].  Is this what human parents feel like when they find out that little Susie down the road went to elite swim camp or Johnny across the street just won a ‘budding artist’ award, while their own child is playing in a puddle and eating dirt?

img_0954-1
When learning, it is important to have good role models.

But then I remind myself to take a step back.  Because it really doesn’t matter what all of those other youngsters are doing.  The journey we are on with our own animals is just that—ours.  Izzy has successfully stepped up to—and exceeded—my expectations for her learning and development this summer.  In spite of the transition into the school year, and available daylight growing shorter, I will still have the opportunity to play with her more before winter settles in, to confirm her basic longeing, and maybe even experiment with some basic long lining to learn about steering and pressure on the bit.  But there is no hurry, no rush.  If all Izzy does this fall is continues to mature and develop physically, the time which we already spent laying a foundation this summer will be like “money in the bank” next spring.

Horses do not progress on our schedule.  My mentor Denny Emerson says all the time that the day you come into the ring with an agenda is the day you are not going to get where you want to go.  There is a difference between making progress towards your set goals and making progress, no matter what.  So I guess I will try to worry less about what everyone else’s baby horses are doing and just listen to mine.

She is pretty darn persuasive.

img_0864
The “golden girl”.

Living your Values

A lifetime ago, when I was an undergraduate, I thought that I would be leading a very different type of life.  I graduated with a B.S. in Environmental Conservation, with a specialty in Environmental Affairs, and I was really interested in environmental education.  I wanted people to understand about the amazing beauty and balance in our natural world, hoping that such exposure would lead to an appreciation which would encourage conservation.   While in school, I studied abroad at the School for Field Studies in Nairobi (Kenya),  and interned at MASSPIRG in Boston (MA), the Seacoast Science Center in Rye (NH), and the New England Aquarium in Boston (MA). I stuffed envelopes, editing mailings, collected signatures and led tidepool tours, gave interpretive talks on Seacoast history and presented countless sessions on the mighty Homarus americanus (aka the American lobster).  But on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I served them on paper plates at the local seafood emporium in order to help pay for school.

lobster
Your H. americanus “fun fact” is that the average 1 pound lobster is 6-7 years old.

Life is full of these little paradoxes and tradeoffs.  “How is the swordfish tonight?” my customers would ask.  “Oh, it’s endangered.  Perhaps a nice salad?” I would reply with a laugh, as though I were kidding.  My father still thinks that one of the funniest things I have ever said was that I served endangered species on paper plates to pay for my degree in conservation.

While I still love natural history, marine biology and believe in environmental conservation, my passion for horses and for riding has always been stronger.  Upon graduation, I worked briefly in an elementary school but shortly after found myself managing a small horse farm and teaching some lessons.  That led to other management positions and more teaching, and I never really looked back.

img_1105
A beautiful spring sunset.

It is easy to disconnect from reality when you hang in the equine world for too long.  Let’s face it—there are some facets of what we do which just smack of First World Privilege.  It is something which from time to time has really bothered me—especially when clients get all worked up because Blaze is in the wrong colored blanket/boot set, or when I hear the amount of money which someone has dropped on a new horse, saddle or trailer.  In the July/August 2017 issue of USDF Connection, Susan Reed of Albuquerque, NM, wrote in her letter to the editor, “…I cannot imagine life without my animals.  However, when I see the amount of money that is spent on horses, equipment, training, and so on, I wonder at the value systems of those who choose that lifestyle….I taught school for 25-plus years and was distressed to see that my horses had better foot care, food and medical care than many of the kids in my classes…Where is the balance between making the world a better place for all creatures and being passionate about an art form, which to me is dressage?  I haven’t found a good answer yet.” (Emphasis is mine).

I felt chills when I read Ms. Reed’s letter.  Her sentiments echo the little voice in my own head, the one which I ignored for many years but which has become louder and louder in recent months.  What have I done to make this world a better place?

img_1305
This Eastern phoebe has been nesting on my front porch this year.  She is on her second clutch of eggs.

When I moved to Cold Moon Farm two years ago, one of my goals was to make it a model of implementing sustainable practices in horse farm management.  At the same time, I run on a shoestring budget, so I know that any progress would be gradual.  What could be overwhelming can sometimes be easier to manage in smaller chunks.  In the long term, I hoped that I could learn some “best practices” and then use media to help spread the word to more equestrians.

img_1015
This gray tree frog was hanging out on the back pasture fence (no worries— this electrical wire isn’t “hot”!)

Progress has been slower than anticipated.

But slow progress is still progress, and this spring I took part in the New Hampshire Coverts Program, put on annually by UNH Cooperative Extension.  This three day workshop is geared towards land owners, managers and conservationists to train them to promote wildlife habitat conservation and forest stewardship.  I can’t believe how much information was packed into that workshop—I think most of us left feeling both overwhelmed and invigorated.

img_0859

Becoming a Coverts Cooperator is exciting to me for several reasons.  First, participating in the program allowed me to return to my “roots”, so to speak, and spend time with other conservation minded individuals.  Secondly, it showed me that becoming an effective land steward doesn’t happen overnight, and that there are many resources available for support and assistance.   Finally, I realized that it really is okay to try to manage this farm to meet my objectives; in other words, creating well placed riding trails, pastures and other horse areas is acceptable if that is what I want to do with my land.  I can emphasize improved habitat opportunities in other places on the property, and by managing the “horse parts” of the farm well, I can reduce the negative impact they might otherwise have on local ecosystems.

img_1037
White-throated sparrows are ground nesters, and so any brush hogging in shrub land areas should be done in August or later, so as to not disturb their young.

After attending the workshop, I contacted Strafford County Extension Forester Andy Fast and set up an appointment for him to visit the farm.  We walked all around the property but especially paid attention to the 26 acres which are in current use.  Two of these acres are classified as “farmland” (aka, field) and the rest are woodlot.  There are some basic trails out there but they need a brush hog and additional clearing to make them more usable for the horses.  Andy was excited by the amount of white oak on the lot, reminding me that it is a valuable food source for many species.  He recommended applying for funds through the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to create a Forest Management Plan, which would allow for a possible small timber harvest.  Well planned timber harvests can have many benefits, including improving forest health, increasing diversity, improving wildlife habitat, and possibly yielding a little income which could then be used to improve the trails.

img_1121
Wild turkey hen and her eight “turklets” in the front pastures.  Eat more ticks, please!

I also participated in two further trainings.  First, I have become a “Speaking for Wildlife” volunteer, another program coordinated through UNH Cooperative Extension.  Groups such as senior centers, youth organizations, conservation commissions, libraries, etc., can sign up to have trained volunteers present a number of scripted slide shows on topics such as NH wild history, bat conservation, vernal pools and more.  Our commitment is to try to give just one presentation per year, which seems pretty reasonable!  I also attended a field workshop on managing shrub land and young forest lands for wildlife and bird species.  We visited two different sites, identifying nearly ten species of birds and actually mist netting two.

img_1058
This beautiful male Indigo Bunting now sports an ID band after flying into the mist net. 

For me, all of these actions have been tangible, rejuvenating steps which help to bring my life back into alignment with my core values.  I love horses—that will never change, and I continue to be passionate about riding, coaching and training others.  I will continue to take active steps towards achieving my personal goals with horses and for my business.  But at the same time, it is equally important to me that I am working to make this world a better place, and to not get so all consumed in the accuracy of a ten meter circle that I forget to appreciate all of the beauty and open space around me.

img_1093
We installed three homemade bluebird boxes this spring; one housed tree swallows, and a second seems to have Eastern blue birds in it now.

Stay tuned for further updates on future actions which will help me to “live my values”.

Motivation, Apathy, and “Coming About”

Mo*ti*va*tion (noun) the general desire or willingness of someone to do something

Synonyms:  enthusiasm, drive, ambition, initiative, determination, enterprise.

Motivation, or the lack thereof, is something which we all have to deal with from time to time.  When it comes to pursuing my riding goals, fitting riding time into my busy schedule, and/or doing all the various chores related to maintaining my horses and farm, lack of motivation is something which I have only rarely struggled with. In fact, skipping a ride for even valid reasons (pouring buckets of rain, celebrating a holiday) or shirking on a duty (not grooming my retired horse every day) usually causes me to go into a state of self-flagellating guilt.

motivation1

Until this spring.

This spring has been tough on me for reasons wholly unrelated to my horses. The truth is that there is some pretty heavy “life” stuff going on, which I will get through, but the going is pretty deep right now, and I am getting tired of slogging.  Enough about that but suffice it to say that this issue has taken a TON of life energy to manage and it has left me feeling depleted, insecure and not confident.

In addition, for the past five years, I have been dealing with on again/off again knee swelling and pain which has defied a causative diagnosis but which has responded well to draining and steroid injections.  Usually it happened to one knee at a time and then the joint stayed quiet for months to years in between flare ups and treatment.  This January, both of my knees decided to gang up on me.  There was the “bad” one and the “worse” one.  This time around, my doctor decided to schedule an exploratory arthroscopy to try to get some definitive answers.  While all the “pre approvals” and pre-operative appointments were scheduled, the pain in my knees just escalated.  My knees and calves swelled.  Riding went from being non painful to bearable to misery at anything other than the walk.  Before my surgery, doing really normal people things, like putting on pants and socks, was nearly impossible to do without pain.  So you can imagine that giving proper leg aids was also a challenge.  I felt useless and ineffective on a horse.

stallmats
With the help of Intern Kelly, one spring project which got done was the installation of stall mats in the barn aisle.

Being in pain stinks.  Chronic pain becomes like a mantle that you can’t quite put down.  You can numb it, you can suppress it, but it never really goes away.   You don’t sleep as well, you don’t eat well, and you start to weigh your actions in terms of whether the pain they will incur is worth the outcome.  Example:  is it worth climbing the stairs one more time to get a sweater?  Or would I rather just be cold today?

So it would be easy to label this pain as the cause for my loss of motivation.  I tried to keep going, but I found that increasingly I would let excuses slip in to justify not riding.

“It is too cold.”

“It looks like rain and I don’t want to get my tack wet.”

“The footing is too muddy/snowy/icy/dry/uneven.”

“I have no one to ride with and my horse is going to be upset to leave the group.”

Or I might manage to ride, but only stayed on for thirty minutes before being “done”.

early spring ride
Mid April in southern New Hampshire did not bring inspirational riding weather.

I struggled to set any type of goals for the 2017 season at all.  I blamed it on not knowing what the outcome of the arthroscopy was going to be, and therefore how long I would be out of commission. But in reality, I was feeling overwhelmed by the effort it would take to actually DO any of the things which I could imagine doing.  You know, things like actually hitching the trailer, putting tack in it, and going somewhere with a horse.

I had had some tentative plans to enter a few early season distance rides with Lee.  I even got so far as to put one entry in the mail.  But I scratched just days later, after having a really bad weekend in terms of knee pain.  This was a perfectly acceptable reason for not doing the ride.  But the underlying truth was that I couldn’t stomach the idea of doing all the work to get ready to go to the ride, loading/hitching the trailer, or getting up super early to be there on time.  The ride itself was the least of my worries.

WTF was wrong with me????

izzylayingdown
Izzy has the right idea.

Apathy ap*a*thy (noun) Lack of interest, enthusiasm or concern

Synonyms: Indifference, lack of interest, lack of enthusiasm, lack of concern, uninterestedness, lethargy, ennui

My Facebook feed is dominated by horses, dogs and cats, sprinkled here and there with a few posts about children or nature.  On any given Sunday, dozens of people I know have been out and about with horses in tow, attending clinics, dressage and jumper shows, schooling cross country, attending trail rides and more.  They post their pics and rave about how wonderful the day was and how much fun they had.  This spring, I would just look at these posts and think… “huh, that seems like a lot of work.  Good for them.” And I would stare out my kitchen window at my four horses and sip my coffee.

I did the basic chores.  The horses were groomed, fly sprayed, shod, and had their spring vaccines.  I went to get additional hay to carry us through the season and ordered grain.  I sent the trailer for its spring tune up and inspection. I laundered winter blankets and scrubbed and stored winter shoes. I started transitioning the horses to grass turn out.

I rode Lee and Anna four or five days per week.  Lee hacked or longed.  Anna did light dressage schools, hacked, and practiced wearing a double.  Izzy went for walks on the driveway and learned how to stand on the cross ties and wear a fly hat.  Marquesa was groomed and ridden by friends.  It was all done by rote.

img_0731
Intern Kelly was a great riding buddy this spring!

I tried to forgive myself for feeling this way.  I tried to be patient with my body, which seemed determined to make me miserable.  I tried to set super small goals each day (like, today I will do ONE extra thing that needs to get done).  I tried, with all of the morale I had left to muster, to not completely stop moving. I worried that if I did that, I would never get moving again.

Coming About:  A nautical term, used in sailing to indicate that the bow of the boat will start to turn through the wind

Synonyms:  Helm’s Alee

I had my knee surgery on May 23.  After being in so much pain for so long, the surgery wasn’t much worse.  Unfortunately, the procedure hasn’t yielded any definitive answers but the overall cleanup which occurred (along with yet another drain/injection of the other knee) has left me feeling better than I have in months.  I am still not allowed to ride, but I have had some students coming up to keep Lee and Marquesa going.  I might try to put Anna on the longe line later. We’ll see.

While I have been on lay up, I have had plenty of time to think and analyze and assess.  And what I think I have come to is that how I feel is how I feel…and it is okay.  Maybe I don’t have huge performance goals for the season with my horses.  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t enjoy them and keep moving forward.  Sometimes, your body and soul just needs some time to heal.  That is where my life energy is focused right now.

img_0940
Signs you haven’t been driving your truck much:  the spiders are holding your Antenna Cactus hostage.

I set a few small goals for myself for the period during which I am going to be laid up:  1) re-read The New Basic Training of the Young Horse by Ingrid and Reiner Klimke 2) work on setting up a website for my farm 3) write a few blogs.  I have done some work on all three.

Last Saturday, I worked at the Central New England Region Show Jump Rally as the course designer and a judge.  The weather was pretty much perfect—sunny, slight breeze, temps in the mid to upper 60’s.  The courses rode well and the riders seemed to have fun.  I was surrounded by friends, students, former students and parents. Several of the riders were trying to qualify to compete at the USPC National Championships later this summer and it was exciting to see them ride up to the challenge.  I actually had fun.  I started to remember what that felt like.

Tues May 30 was Izzy’s birthday.  I took a few conformation photos of her so that we can compare her in one year’s time.    She has been coming into the barn independently for grooming and handling daily.  She makes me smile whenever I enter the paddock with her friendly and inquisitive nature.

DRF Isabela Age 2 001
Getting two year olds to stand still for conformation photos is challenging. DRF Isabela 5/30/17

Slowly, I can feel some of my motivation coming back.  I can guarantee that I won’t be taking the world by storm this year.  But maybe, just maybe, I can get moving in the right direction again.

With Anna, I hope to make it out for some lessons with Verne Batchelder when he is in town, and maybe make it to one dressage show.  With Lee, maybe I can do some further exploration of my local trail network, or ship up to Tamarack Hill to ride with Denny, or to Pawtuckaway State Park to ride with friends.  Maybe we do a competitive ride, maybe we don’t. I can guarantee you that Lee doesn’t care.  I want to introduce Izzy to the trailer, do some basic in hand work, and improve her behavior with the farrier.

This is progress. These are actual tasks I can see myself accomplishing. There is hope.

fitness-motivation-quotes

I am usually a results driven person, and many of my personal goals have revolved around competition.  But as Denny (Emerson) says frequently, at the end of the day, no one cares about how you did at a show except for you, and your mother (and she only cares because she wants you to come back in one piece).  Perhaps the theme for this season will be to learn to enjoy the journey and to find a balance between the process and the result.  I hope that by looking at my goals from a different perspective, I may be able to make progress towards them without starting to feel overwhelmed, apathetic or detached.

In this way, I will try to Come About. As with turning a boat, it won’t happen immediately and I may have to fight the tides.  But so long as I keep pressure on the tiller, I should see this ship turn.