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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

 

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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.

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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?!?!”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

 

 

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

 

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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?

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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.

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The “golden girl”.

Relationship

Over the recent Thanksgiving holiday, I spent some time catching up on a ton of fellow blogger’s posts.  I am now the new owner of an iPad, and with shorter, colder days, curling up on the couch to catch up on other’s thoughts and activities is a welcome pasttime. One blog I follow is called “Green to 100” and it chronicles a newish rider on the quest to complete a 100 mile endurance ride.   As a rookie to the sport of distance riding myself, I find I can often relate to her stories.  But another theme which is present throughout her blogs is that of relationship, specifically with her horse.  She seeks to be a leader that her horse wants to follow, rather than to dictate to her horse about what is going to happen.  Approaching her relationship with her horse in this manner means that certain things take longer.  But it is clear that the reward of arriving where she wants to go, united as a team with her horse, is more important than getting there fast.  Quality is more important than quantity.

Reading a whole series of her blogs in a row gave me the opportunity to reflect on the nature of the horse/human relationship on a number of levels, but especially in regards to the bond I share with each of my own horses.

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Annapony, June 2015

In preparation for the winter season, Annapony has relocated to the university, which has an indoor, so that she can remain in consistent work.  I have big goals for her next season, which will require us to use the winter to train and to build strength and suppleness. She is happy enough there, and well cared for.  But I was really quite reluctant to bring her back, and kept delaying her departure from Cold Moon Farm.  It wasn’t hard for me to realize that I simply wanted her to be at home with me and with my other horses.  I genuinely enjoy being the main caretaker for my horses.  I know them so intimately that it is easy to notice when something is off.  By bringing Anna to another facility and putting her day to day care in someone else’s hands, it feels almost like a wedge is driven into our relationship.  That isn’t entirely true but I still resent the intrusion.

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Supervising Anna eating breakfast this spring.

Anna is a calm horse, most of the time. She seems to enjoy human attention (especially if there is food involved) but also likes other horses.  Her rank in the herd is towards the top but her style of leadership seems to be more threat than attack.  Anna is pretty tolerant; nervous horses on trail have run right into her hindquarters and she has never so much as flicked an ear.  That being said, I find the best approach with Anna when tackling a new skill or question is to ask, then wait a moment.  If I am too hasty, and try to force her…she resists, sometimes with great vigor.  If I give her a chance to look and understand, then she usually will comply.

The other night, I took Anna for a hack onto the cross country course right as the sun was setting.  We have already had some snow here in New Hampshire, with some mild melting, leaving the ground a hodge podge of bare spots mixed with snow covered rocks, footprints and other hard to discern anomalies.  The air was cooling off and a fairly steady breeze had picked up.  Overall, conditions were not ideal for a relaxed hack, but I was determined to get out of the ring after several days of solid arena work.  In the woods, the light was dim and features unclear, yet Anna remained mostly calm and confident.  We completed a meandering loop around the course and returned to the main facility along the edge of the reservoir, past the observatory and down a trail which was now nearly completely obscured in the fading light of day.  When there is no artificial light, it is pretty amazing how much you can still see, once your eyes adjust.  A Canada goose broke the stillness with a series of loud honks, but even this didn’t cause Anna to tense or become unsettled.  It was so calming and soothing to be riding in the near darkness, and to have nearly complete trust that my horse would keep me safe.

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A different hack. But those are Anna’s ears. From Fall 2016 at Cold Moon.

While Anna is back at school, Lee and Marquesa have remained behind at Cold Moon Farm, now living side by side instead of sharing a paddock.  Lee is so submissive to Marquesa that it can make feeding complicated, so having them separated makes management much easier.

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Marquesa and Lee, out together for the first time this May.

I wasn’t entirely sure how the transition was going to go, and overall, it was far less eventful than it was bringing everyone home this spring.

Lee and I have had a long history together—twelve years, to be exact.  I think she likes me as well as she likes any human, but she has never been a cuddly horse; she isn’t going to nicker to you (unless you are carrying her grain), and during her long residence at UNH she was known to intimidate many an inexperienced crew member with her grumpy expressions.  Lee is aloof.  But she is also an absolute bottom dweller on the equine hierarchy, and I think a lot of her behavior is only posturing to try to convince you to just go away and leave her be. Lee isn’t going to come over to you in the field; but she is unlikely to run away from you, either.  If you so much as raise your voice at her, she will recoil in horror.  Lee is insecure.

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Snack break at the Warren Tessier 20 mile ride, October, 2016.  Photo credit to Robin!

When Lee and I moved to Cold Moon Farm last September, she spent nine months with no other companion save me and the goats which live next door.  During that time, she really impressed me with her steadiness and composure.  This year, Lee overwhelmed me with her grit and attitude on the GMHA three day 100 mile ride.  But if I think back, there are SO many occasions on which Lee has stepped up to a challenge, and most of the time I think our relationship with each other has been one of mutual respect.

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Lee heading home after 90 miles; GMHA Three Day 100 mile CTR, Fall 2016 (photo courtesy of Spectrum Photography)

One of the best examples of this happened two winters ago, during Lee’s last season at UNH.  I had taken to including at least one day of longeing per week into her routine, often incorporating work over cavaletti, just to break things up and give her a new mental challenge.  At the end of a session, I usually hopped on bareback to cool her out.  One night, we were alone in the indoor working on the longe.  Each session followed a similar pattern, and Lee started to head out in the new direction without much prompting from me.  I was struck by an inspiration, and so instead of stopping her, I just unclipped her longe line.  For the next ten minutes or so, I longed Lee at the walk, trot and canter, all without the aid of a longe line.  In the indoor.  She could have gone anywhere in the ring she wanted, but instead she chose to stay with me and follow my direction on a twenty meter circle.  It was pretty amazing.

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Lee looking dressage-y at the beach in 2008.

Our newest horse, Marquesa, is different from either Anna or Lee.  For eighteen years, she has been a horse which was used in lessons that I and others taught at UNH.  I relied on her to give confidence to new cross country riders, to assist the timid jumpers, and to teach experienced riders that they still had a thing or two to learn about how ride on the flat.  She certainly respected me as the authority figure in the ring, but like many school horses I think she had become somewhat guarded about who she chose to really interact with.

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Cold Moon Farm Fall 2016 intern Nikki with Marquesa.

Marquesa is a dominant horse. She has a highly developed sense of fairness, meaning if you try to use force to correct her, she just stubbornly refuses to comply.  She can be pushy, and I think being used too many times for “equine facilitated learning sessions” has made her fairly intolerant of humans trying to use their body language to coerce her into doing their will.   However, she appreciates clear direction and boundaries, and when you treat her with kindness and fairness, she is quite sweet.  When she starts to get pushy, if you can lower your energy instead of getting upset, and then explain what you want her to do, she will usually be willing to go along with you.  Now that she is on her own side of the fence line, I find that she is more willing to interact with me directly.  Before, she was mostly concerned with continuing to exert her dominance over Lee.  Her relationship with the other horse was most important; I was just in the way.

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Marquesa keeps a close eye on her herd. 

Marquesa is still figuring out her own way in terms of post lesson horse life.  She still has several different riders, but not more than three at a time, and has been doing a mix of ring work and trail riding.  This fall, my friend Linsey took Marquesa out for a ride with me and Lee.  There are several stream crossings out on the trails, which the horses are used to.  After a recent period of heavy rain, though, one of the crossings was unexpectedly quite a bit deeper than usual.  The water came right up to Marquesa’s belly, and drenched her rider’s feet.  Marquesa froze for a moment, perhaps shocked by the sudden depth of water, but then she just kept right on going.  To get home, we had to make the same crossing going the other way, and I wasn’t sure if she would be willing to do it again.  I needn’t have worried.  She plunged right in and stormed across, as if to say, “I got this”.  Not too shabby for a horse who has lived in one place for eighteen years and has mostly worked in the ring. I think perhaps that she is starting to sort out that life here is okay.

Having two horses at home is hard in terms of relationship.  Despite centuries of domestication, horses are hard wired to want to be with other horses.  Solo horses feel vulnerable and show their distress through an array of behaviors.  Since Anna’s departure for the winter, I have continued taking Lee out for solo rides, and going for duo rides whenever someone else is available to ride Marquesa.  I haven’t quite gotten brave enough to pony one off the other just yet.

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Did someone say snacks?

This puts all of our relationships to a real test.  I can tell that Lee feels a little torn about who she should be listening to—me or Marquesa.  Marquesa screams at the top of her lungs when I take Lee away; she actually starts when I am just grooming Lee, something I do in the paddock to minimize the length of the separation.  On the one hand, I want to be able to work with each horse independently.  On the other, I respect the genetics which have kept horses as a species alive for generations.  Horsemen must work with these instincts, not against them. For her part, Lee usually walks out quietly and almost never answers Marquesa’s calls.  But as soon as we turn for home, Lee starts to bounce and jig.  Once Marquesa is in sight, she settles down.  It is like she is trying really hard to be good, but can’t quite pull it off all the time.

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Lee trying really hard to be good while I fumble with my new iPhone for a photo.  December 2016.

Listening to Marquesa scream and dealing with Lee’s jigging can try my patience.  But we are in the winding down time of the season.  Nature in New England prescribes a period of rest or hibernation for most species, a time when aquifers refill, deciduous trees go dormant, and soils take a break from producing.  The equine community similarly slows down, with fewer activities, reduced travel and less intense work outs.  There is nothing to get ready for and nowhere to go.  It is the perfect time to focus on relationship; to reconnect with what makes each horse unique and to enjoy the feeling of mutual respect which can be developed by responding to each horse as an individual.

Reactions to “Learning from Olympic Pressure”

A few months back, I was reading some older issues of Practical Horseman, and I pulled an article titled “Learning from Olympic Pressure”, by Melissa Roddy Wright, from its May 2012 issue.  The article was about a talented and ambitious young professional, Clark Montgomery, who had seen himself short listed but ultimately unsuccessful in making the team for the 2008 Beijing Games. At the time of this article, he was working towards the goal of being selected for the 2012 London team.  If you follow eventing, you will know that he wasn’t—he made the short list again—but just a few weeks ago was named to the squad for Rio on his longtime partner, Loughan Glen.

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Clark Montgomery (from Eventing Nation)

I have read many “spotlight” articles on riders from different disciplines, and I almost never find the stories so captivating that I save the article for future review.  But this one about Montgomery was different, and when I saw that he was chosen for the 2016 Rio team, it seemed a fitting opportunity to tell you why I found his story compelling.

Montgomery was just 26 when he was on the short list for Beijing; he had enjoyed a great deal of success early in his career, including completing Rolex.  His top horse at the time, Up Spirit, was green at the upper levels but had been consistent enough to place well at certain key events.  According to the article, Montgomery recognized that his horse was greener than others, and he “pushed through the summer to make Up Spirit faster across country.” (All of the quotes included herein come from the article.)

“Instead, their Olympic bid ended with a cross-country runout at the Barbury Castle International Horse Trials CIC*** in England, a mandatory early summer outing for the American short listed riders.  The following spring, Up Spirit’s season and potentially his upper level career ended with a fall at The Fork Horse Trials CIC*** in North Carolina.”

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Clark Montgomery and Up Spirit.  This photo is on his website, and I found it on Google Images…no credit to photographer.  Happy to edit if someone knows where it comes from!

While all riders and trainers make mistakes, not all learn from them.  It seems like for Montgomery, missing out on the team and then experiencing a fall which resulted in a serious injury to his mount caused him to reassess his entire training philosophy.

“I tried to make [Up Spirit] gain more experience and get better than he was over the summer.  It fried his brain, and he lost his trust in me.  Up until then, I’d never really lied to him about a distance or pushed him for a quicker pace than he was comfortable with.  But I decided he needed to get faster cross country; I started putting my leg on him, and he started putting on the brakes.”—Clark Montgomery

We all encounter resistance in our mounts occasionally, and one of the hardest parts of training is knowing when to push more, when to back off, and when to stay the course.  When you add into the mix a goal—and most equestrians I know are goal oriented people—or  a deadline, you have a recipe for pushing too hard, too fast or too much.  If you are lucky, your horse forgives you for your momentary loss of sensitivity or intuition, but more often we end up creating a really engrained training problem.  And worse, we diminish the relationship which we have with our horse.

With Up Spirit injured and a few other setbacks at home, Montgomery says “Suddenly I had a lot of time to sit around and think how I got to that point.  I decided pushing a horse for competition isn’t worth it….Before, I think what I loved was competing, but now, I love the horses more.  It’s a beautiful thing to have a relationship with a horse, so they can go cross country with a bond and with trust.  That’s how I’ve approached riding from late 2009 forward.”

I personally am nowhere near as driven or competition oriented as those riders with international ambitions.  But if I am honest I have still struggled with this balance with my own horses.  Anna will hopefully make her Second Level debut next week; her medium gaits lack uphill balance and need better engagement, her connection is not steady enough, especially in the canter, and she could be more supple.  We have been consistently in the 60’s at First Level for two years, though, and I just feel like it is time for us to move on and to push to demonstrate the requirements of the next level.  The perfectionist part of me wants to wait until all the details are in place.  The practical part of me says that you have to get your feet wet sometime, and in dressage, usually the worst that happens is you get a low score.

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Anna and I after a test in 2015.

Ultimately, I decided to go for it—because I think that for Anna, increasing the challenge improves her focus and her willingness to try.  In preparing her for harder work, it is necessary to really wake her up a bit, but she is never resentful or shows any signs of stress or being overpressured.  We are still working to figure out exactly what routine works best to initiate her forward thinkingness, and it is clear that some of the approaches which work well with other horses don’t work with her.  She has challenged us to be more creative and me to be better about how I use my aids and where I sit.

“The most important thing you can do as a rider is try to understand your horse both physically and mentally, and base your training on that horse’s natural abilities…Treating each horse as an individual also means understanding that you may need to experiment with several different paths to the same training goal.”—Clark Montgomery

With Lee, I am still aiming for the long term/big goal of completing the three day 100 mile ride at GMHA in early September.  We didn’t have the early spring prep that I had hoped for, with a stone bruise, a cancelled ride, and a longer than expected period of adjustment to the arrivals of new equine residents to our farm this spring.  I had to regroup and reassess, and while I am still hoping to try for the 100, I am fully prepared to stand down and refocus if she requires it.  We are entered in the two day fifty in Vermont in early August, which will be our final competitive ride before the 100.  Again, it has been and will continue to be critical to watch her behavior and demeanor to see if she is responding well to the increased demands in fitness.  Montgomery says, “In day to day life, that means watching each horse carefully for the signals they send, both under saddle and in the barn.”  A true horseman knows their mounts inside and out.

“You do have to put enough pressure on horses when you are moving them forward to make them better, but not too much that you lose the trust…You have to have goals, yes, and put pressure on horses to get better, but you can only go so far with that.  The horse has to enjoy being worked, enjoy being pushed.  If it isn’t, then you have to back off.  That may mean not going to the Olympics this summer, but at least I’ll still have a horse in the fall.” – Clark Montgomery

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Lee at the awards ceremony for the 25 mile ride at GMHA Distance Days, 2014.

So while I am not on the hunt for an Olympic berth, it was really inspiring to read how such a talented and seemingly reflective professional at that level was able to learn from his mistakes in a way which allowed him to find a better path.  I guess it doesn’t matter whether your goals are international or local in nature, all horsemen have an obligation to do their best by their horses.   Treat your horse as an individual.  Have goals but be ready to revise them.   Try to really listen to what your horses are saying.  They are only horses, after all.  Our ambitions are not theirs.  But their willingness to cooperate with us to reach our goals is a pretty amazing and special gift, if you really think about it.

Literally while I was writing this blog, I received an update on Facebook about the current standings at Great Meadow International CIC0***.  Read here to learn more.

 

 

Trusting the Unstrustful Horse

We joke that the Dark Mare, Lee, is a survivor. She lives her life in a fairly constant state of alertness, and if there is a sign of trouble brewing, she is going to get out of dodge.  In her younger years, she broke cross ties and halters with frequent regularity and closely monitored objects such as dumpsters, mounting blocks and piles of jumps for the presence of trolls, chipmunks and other instigators of mayhem.   While she has mellowed somewhat, in general, if danger is afoot, Lee is leaving—with or without you.

When Lee gets upset about something, she can really revert to a primitive state of fight or flight.  On the one hand, it is easy to understand that this reaction has kept horses as a species alive for eons, and the behavior is imprinted in her genetic code.  But at the same time, it is frustrating because the reaction can be so out of proportion to the problem. And at some level, one would hope that her training and systematic exposure to all kinds of stimuli would result in at least one ounce of trust in her humans, but this has not always been the case.

Lee enjoyed the cow-free cow barn in Maine at the 30 mile CTR.  I was also impressed by her overall "coping" here, including the wind blowing hard all night, which rattled the metal roof panels to no end.
Lee enjoyed the cow-free cow barn in Maine at the 30 mile CTR. I was also impressed by her overall “coping” here, including the wind blowing hard all night, which rattled the metal roof panels to no end.

As a result of dealing with this behavior for the better part of a decade, I realize that I have come to assume the worst of Lee in many circumstances, expecting her to have mini or major meltdowns over various situations.  You might think that I am about to tell you how my preconceived ideas usually set up a self-fulfilling prophecy, and that Lee lives up to my (minimal) expectations when push comes to shove.  However, increasingly, the opposite is the case, and perhaps it is I who has the trust issue, not Lee.

This March, tired of being in the indoor and looking for a change of pace, I was riding Lee in the dirt parking lot at the University of New Hampshire during its Spring Break week.  The footing was actually quite good given the season and weather we had experienced this winter, but the lot was ringed with a decently sized plow bank creating a de facto fence line and leaving only one entrance/exit from the lot.  I had planned to do a set distance, changing direction at regular intervals, working at the trot and canter.  As I was getting close to the end of my set, I noticed a fairly dark and ominous looking cloud in the not so far distance, coming from the direction that ‘weather’ normally approaches us from.  “I am almost done,” I thought. “Two more laps and I will head in. No problem.”

Lee and I took our first selfie ever at the Rockingham Rail Trail after a solo 14 mile conditioning ride this July.
Lee and I took our first selfie ever at the Rockingham Rail Trail after a solo 14 mile conditioning ride this July.

Almost before the thought was complete, the wind picked up like I have never experienced and began to howl. Debris that I hadn’t previously noticed was flying sideways and into us.  Suddenly it began to precipitate—something.  Hail? Snow balls?  I couldn’t even tell you because the intensity of the icy precipitation combined with the incredible wind meant that I couldn’t even lift my head.  Lee instinctively swung her hindquarters into the wind, but we were still being pummeled from all sides and were instantly soaked through.  I had no idea what was going to come next—I wondered if a tornado were about to blow through, and had the thought, “so this is how it will end”.

We were not in a safe situation, and I knew we needed to get out of there, but due to the snow banks and our position in the lot, to do so required riding the length of the parking lot heading straight into the wind and snow/ice/rain to reach the exit.  I truly couldn’t even raise my head to see ahead of us due to the intensity of the weather, so I dropped down onto her neck and yelled “go on!” to Lee over the wind.  And sure enough, Lee actually went—straight into the wind, neck and head down, in spite of the power of the frenzied air.  As soon as we rounded the corner, I urged her to the trot and we made a break for the barn, wind to our backs.

Denny Emerson and High Brook Rockstar and Lee and I about to start the Hartland 15 Mile CDR in July of 2014.
Denny Emerson and High Brook Rockstar and Lee and I about to start the Hartland 15 Mile CDR in July of 2014.

I was impressed with Lee that day.  She would have been well within her rights to bolt or panic, to scoot or ignore me.  But for whatever reason, she didn’t.  I was (and still am) quite proud of her for all of it and for getting the both of us to safety.

This spring, I had to move both of my horses to new facilities.  Anna had been in the same barn for five years, but Lee had been at UNH for over ten.  I wasn’t too worried about Anna making the transition, but I honestly worried and worried about Lee.  I can worry like it is my job.  The barn she moved to is a low key private barn at my good friend’s home; it allowed Lee her own paddock with run in and access to dirt roads and trails.  Perfect.  Yet I worried.  My friend has a mule—what if Lee is scared of her funny mule noises?  The fencing is just electric wire.  What if Lee doesn’t see it or respect it? What if I can’t ride Lee alone on the roads? What if…?

The night before the move, it poured, the first rain in almost a month.  When I say it poured, I am talking about the soaking type of deluge that saturates you through to your core instantly, the kind that is like a hose from above.  I don’t think I slept more than a few fits and starts as my anxiety and worry ate away at me.  What if Lee won’t go into the shelter?  What if she works herself up into a colic?

As I hitched up the trailer in the pouring rain, I not so silently cursed the Powers That Be for the weather on this most important of days.  The schedule was to move Lee first, then go back and pick up Anna, since she was taking over Lee’s stall at UNH.

When we arrived at Namaste Farm, Lee fairly quietly unloaded, marched into her new abode, and took a tour around.  She didn’t touch the wire fence.  She didn’t respond when her new neighbors whinnied to her.  While clearly not 100% settled, she was far, far less worried that I was.  We did end up having to lock her into her run in that evening, as it continued to pour, because she wanted to stand outside near the other horses (who had sensibly gone into their own sheds) even once she was shivering under her rain sheet.  Once she figured out that the shelter was dry though, she began using it on her own when the doors were re-opened the next day.  We haven’t had to shut them since.

PinelandKurLeeNewCar 100
Lee’s new friends, Taydee the Connemara and Marybeth Applebottom, the chestnut appaloosa mule.

After a day or two to settle in, I took her for her first ride.  I decided to start in the fields first.  Lee’s new neighbors whinnied as we left, but she didn’t answer, and instead was all business.  But when we got to the fields, she became quite unsettled and agitated, and was being overly spooky and difficult.  “Here we go,” I thought to myself.  “I knew this would happen.  She is going to be unrideable here.”  I ended up having to dismount for safety and led her in hand for a bit, full of negative thoughts and wondering what I had gotten myself into.

The fields were soaked after the heavy rain and I was worried about leaving hoof prints once she started to act up, so I decided that maybe I should try taking Lee down the dirt road instead.  I had hesitated to start with this, because the traffic on the road can occasionally be unpredictable and since she can be too, I thought it might be a bad combination.   However, I knew that on the road I could more confidently ask Lee to go forward and it seemed like maybe that was just what she needed.

Lee having breakfast shortly after arriving at her new home.
Lee having breakfast shortly after arriving at her new home.

So I gamely re-mounted and headed off down the road, away from the farm.  Almost instantly, my reliable distance horse was back.  She happily trotted off, one-two-one-two,  going all the way to where the pavement starts near the town line, and then home.  No issues.  No spooking.  No drama.  She was in her Zen place.

And so it has gone with Lee at Namaste Farm. Since that first ride, she has gone all the way into Newmarket and into a little subdivision, she has ridden alone and in company to Adams Point and seen her first cormorants and sailboats, and she has even come to tolerate the fields (though the bugs which live on them, not so much).  She has done nearly two hundred miles of trail since her arrival, and is just one of the herd.

I don’t think I will ever stop worrying about things which haven’t happened and might not ever happen.  I can at least recognize that the worry and anxiety I feel is, for me, an inevitable part of change, but I also am trying to learn to be more accepting of the fact that some variables are just out of my control.  I think worry starts with some kernel of truth, but then it can grow and mutate and take on a life of its own.

Lee completes her first two day 50 mile ride at GMHA, with her friends Roxie (middle, ridden by Denny Emerson) and Camille (ridden by Robin Malkasian).
Lee completes her first two day 50 mile ride at GMHA, with her friends Roxie (middle, ridden by Denny Emerson) and Camille (ridden by Robin Malkasian).

I need to start to give Lee more credit for the animal she has become.  On August 1-2, she completed her first two day 50 mile competitive trail ride (CTR), and I never felt one ounce of quit in her the whole weekend.  In a week, she has more than recovered and was joyfully jigging all over the place on our AM ride today.  While I am sure there will be situations in the future where the “survivalist” Lee comes back, I also think that I know the horse well enough to start to trust that she will cope more often than she won’t.

As we all know, trust in any relationship is a two way street.  Perhaps Lee and I are more alike than we are different in our tendency to worry.  Sometimes I take care of her, and sometimes she takes care of me.

Early AM grazing in Vermont, August 2015.
Early AM grazing in Vermont, August 2015.