Tag Archives: horsemanship

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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%?

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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”.

Bernie Traurig: a Solution to Every Problem

Clinicians that have trained and competed at the elite levels in multiple disciplines, have a depth of knowledge and experience that is the accumulated wisdom from countless types of horse and mentors.  Bernie Traurig, founder of www.equestriancoach.com, is just such a clinician, and he has made it his mission to give back to equestrian sport by improving access to top notch instruction, exercises and lessons.

Traurig recently gave a three day jumping clinic at Ridgeway Stables in Dover, NH, where he engaged auditors, riders and even his ring crew with tips, theory, questions and feedback.  Regardless of the level of horse or rider, Traurig’s advice and instruction centered on the importance of correct basics, equine responsiveness to appropriately applied aids, selecting the best equipment for the job and of course, always thinking like a horseman.

Here are five of the recurring themes Traurig emphasized throughout sessions which ranged from 2’9” to 3’6”.

#1: Basic Bitting is Best

Traurig believes that the best bit for each horse is the one which will offer the rider sufficient control and effectiveness in the aids in the mildest way possible.  “I don’t care what bit you have in the horse’s mouth, so long as it isn’t abrasive and works for the horse,” said Traurig.  “School in the mildest bit suitable for the horse and rider.  The horse has to accept pressure in a comfortable way.”

In fact, Traurig travels with a ‘bit bag’ and made frequent adjustments throughout the weekend to many horses’ equipment.  Every change was made on an experimental basis, with a willingness to adjust again if the change wasn’t working.

“I like to start with a single jointed bit and see how the horse responds,” Traurig said.  “If the horse has an extremely low palate, they may need a double joint.  I don’t like when [riders] just go to the gadget.  People tend to go wrong with gadgets and sharp or thin bits.”

While Traurig is not opposed to the use of leverage bits when they are required, he thinks there is a real art in finding what level of pressure a horse is happiest with on their bars.  “Stick with classical bits,” said Traurig.  “Tack rooms and tack stores should have walls and walls of Bert de Nemethy bits, not walls and walls of whatever the latest bitting fad is.”

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#2 Constantly Improve Responsiveness

Regardless of experience level, each group’s warm up began with a period of establishing an energetic and active walk.  “This is the first step in putting the horse on the aids,” said Traurig. “Your horse must always march forward from your leg, with their nose reaching forward.  The rider must have a soft contact, not loose reins.  There are two ways to walk—totally off the contact or on a correct rein.  When going between them, you do not want to disturb the walk or the movements of the neck.”

Traurig reminded riders that their leg must always be on the horse’s “go” button, and that the horse’s response to forward is most important. “Never increase the pressure from your leg unless you want a response, whether asking the horse to move forward or sideways,” said Traurig.  “Otherwise, your leg should hang passively.”

In their warm up, most groups performed a variation of an exercise which helped to improve the horse’s responsiveness to both their rein and leg aids.  At the trot, Traurig had them perform a “shoulder yield”, guiding the front of the horse towards the rail with an opening outside rein away from the neck and an indirect inside rein at the neck.   Both hands were taken out to the side, in the direction to which the shoulders should move.  “Use very little leg,” coached Traurig.  “This is mostly a rein cue.  You are looking to displace the shoulders. ”

The more riders practiced the rein yield, the more subtle their aids became.  “Eventually the horse responds so well that you don’t see the aids, and you can use a subtle opening rein to shift the horse’s line without slowing them down,” said Traurig.  “This is excellent for a hunter class.”

Traurig reminded riders that the inside rein shapes the horse’s neck.  “Inside leg to outside rein is good but there is no shape in the neck,” said Traurig.  “Every book you read says indirect rein goes to the opposite hip.  But Littauer says that this depends on the effect desired.  When used toward the outside hip the indirect rein affects the whole body, but when used towards the other hand it only affects the head and neck.  The rein aids and the leg aids must be blended together.  You have two legs and two hands.  They all have to work together.”

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Riders next performed a leg yield away from the rail, then back to the rail, first in the walk and then the trot.  “Sitting trot works best for this,” saidTraurig.  “If you feel you can’t use your leg, then drop your stirrups.”

Traurig reminded riders that how their mount responded to the aids on the flat would translate into the jumping.  “You have to know if you see a forward distance that your horse will react,” said Traurig.  “The horse has to be in front of the leg.  If your horse ignores the aids, it’s okay to be a bit firmer once in a while.”

#3 Constantly Improve Position

“You should fix your position flaws not because of ‘good equitation’ but for correct basics,” said Traurig.

Traurig gave riders well balanced feedback, quick to offer praise even when some elements of an exercise went wrong.  In particular, he helped the riders to learn to feel when their positions were hindering their ride.

“The goal in the walk is to have elastic arms, allowing the horse to accept a soft feel and reach long over their backs,” said Traurig.  Several riders struggled at first to find the right balance between holding the reins too much or not enough, and Traurig helped them to find the middle ground.

In the warm up work, riders were told to stretch out at the two point in the trot, creating a 30 degree angle in the hip. Many riders felt their lower legs slide back when they transitioned into two point.  “When the leg goes back too far, you have to exaggerate holding it too far forward for at least thirty days,” said Traurig.  “Then it will be normal.”

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Traurig helped riders to become more aware of their release style.  “A crest release on a hunter is fine, and the long crest release is fashionable, but it has a longer recovery time when you need to correct the line,” said Traurig.  “The automatic release allows more refined use of the rein aids in the air.  Riders can start using an opening rein to take their horse out to the rail before they even land.”

Even experienced riders can benefit from position checks.   On day two, Traurig challenged the most advanced riders to warm up without their irons in the counter canter.  He then had them raise their outside arm above their head, then drop the arm to hang behind their knee, all while maintaining the counter canter.  After returning to sitting trot, the riders were told to use their inside hand to grab the pommel to really pull their seat down.  Finally, they were asked to post without their irons for ten feet, then hold two point for ten feet, continuing this around the arena.

“When I was on the Team, we were each longed at least once per week,” said Traurig.  “Longeing is the best way to develop increased independence in the seat, and daily longeing will help make anyone a better rider.”

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#4 Perfect Practice Makes Perfect

A lot of becoming an effective rider is about knowing what to do and when, in just the right amount.  To achieve this end requires hours of practice; but as we all know, only correct practice will build the long term responses we want in horse and rider.

One young horse became hot and excited when approaching the fences.  “Repetition of schooling exercises which decrease anxiety and the aggressive approach to the jump are in order,” said Traurig.  “It is tedious, but necessary.”

For this horse, Traurig prescribed trotting jumps with plenty of halts after fences, with an emphasis on a gradual rather than abrupt transition.  “Take a few strides,” said Traurig. “As you practice it more, you can expect the halt to become more prompt.”

Once the horse jumped more quietly, he was allowed to canter a few fences, followed by a halt.  Eventually this would build to cantering into a line and trotting out.  “Be a horseman,” said Traurig.  “Always quit when the horse has been good, especially when they are young and green and have done well.”

Another experienced horse had a habit of stopping at new fences.  Traurig told the rider that she must carry a crop that is “worthy of a correction”.  “Do not change how you ride at a show,” said Traurig.  “Do not be intimidated by the crowd.  If the horse stops, you must give the correction.  Ride your horse absolutely quiet unless they stop.  Then you make the correction.  And then you ride like they are the best horse in the world.  You cannot ride a stopper aggressively.”

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#5 Details Matter

To be a truly excellent horseman, the rider must always pay attention to the smallest elements of precision, whether it is in terms of care, tack adjustment, or ridden performance.

Traurig’s sharp eye missed no detail and gave all participants a sense of the type of attention required.  For one example, he reminded everyone that spurs must be worn on the spur rest, or else it is not possible for the rider to apply their leg without using the spur.

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In another correction, Traurig told riders that they must be precise with the timing for the flying change.  “Do not do the change on a curved line,” coached Traurig.  “Hold them straight.  There are three fundamentals to riding a good change.  First, you need impulsion which you can balance, straightness produced by holding the line with an opening rein on the outside, and the correct timing and intensity of the leg aid, which is determined by who you are riding.  If the horse is hot or sensitive, you may have to stay in half seat to help them stay quiet.

If a horse has not yet learned the flying change, and especially when there is little room on the recovery side of a fence, riders should plan to trot at the corner no matter what.  “It is better to do this than to allow the horse to start swapping in front without changing behind,” said Traurig.

Knowing what is expected for your specific jumping discipline also falls in this category.  “For example, if there is a bending line on your hunter course, most of them are smooth so both holding the counter canter or doing a change is acceptable,” said Traurig.  “In lower level equitation, the same is true, but in higher levels you must either land on your new lead or do the flying change.”

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Even knowing how to ride a line well comes down to details.  “See your jump first, then look beyond it,” said Traurig.  “Approach management is key.  For example, knowing where to come to on the in of your bending line to effect the distance is a skill.  The trick is to hold your line on the landing so as to not put you on a half stride.”

Traurig told riders that for any line which requires a turn, the best technique is to look for the approach to the second fence first, then back up the line to where you have to make the turn from.  “Whenever you don’t see [a distance], stay out further and shorten the stride a little to buy some time,” said Traurig.

Finally, Traurig reminded riders that every horse has their own “right” canter, a speed at which they jump the best out of.  “You can jump any course in the world with good track control and the ability to adjust the length of stride,” said Traurig.

Final Take Aways

Traurig is an attentive and enthusiastic educator, passionate about communicating with all present the fundamental basics which underlay any successful equestrian performance.  Blending a commitment to correct basics with his precise ability to customize exercises and tools to suit each unique pair, Traurig is a master at giving riders the information they need to know, right when they need to hear it.

Traurig’s final piece of advice?  “The most important part of your body when you ride is your brain,” said Traurig.

This blog was previously posted on Horse Network.  Thanks for sharing!

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

Book Review:  The New Basic Training of the Young Horse

The New Basic Training of the Young Horse by Ingrid and Reiner Klimke

c 2006 Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT 208 pages

ISBN 978-1-57076345-8

Accomplished horseman Ingrid Klimke has updated this classic text of her late father with great success.  It has been years since I read the original, and I took advantage of being laid up while recovering from knee surgery to review the updated edition.

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As she did with Reiner Klimke’s Cavaletti for Dressage and Jumping, Ingrid has refreshed the text and in particular the illustrations for the modern reader.  I especially enjoyed images of a 5 year old Windfall, the Trakhener stallion who went on to represent the US at the Olympics in eventing, and several of a young Damon Hill.  Many of the photos included in this updated edition are of Ingrid and her students riding three, four and five year olds; it is clear that the overall quality of animal in her stable is quite high, though, and so it was almost discouraging to see how wonderful these youngsters looked compared to how “normal” ones do, even at an older age.  However, it is important to have a clear picture of what it is you are trying to achieve, and these photos certainly represent this ideal well.

As is Klimke’s hallmark, the book takes readers through a system of progressive education for the youngster starting with being brought into the “yard” right through to their first season of competition.  While Klimke reminds readers that each horse is unique, and training must progress at an individual rate, it also seems clear that her horses progress fairly steadily and consistently.  When an animal is genetically gifted with three good gaits, a willing temperament and a natural aptitude for the work, it is naturally going to be easier to develop them in the sport horse disciplines.  I think it is important for those of us riding more “average” horses to bear in mind that some of the aspects of the process which come smoothly to Klimke on her string may necessarily take longer for the rest of us.

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My own DRF Isabela, foaled in 2015.

With that being said, The New Basic Training of the Young Horse still offers readers an in depth review of important concepts related to the training scale and those exercises which help to develop them, as well as entire chapters devoted to the horse’s basic education, longeing (on the line and free), cavaletti work, jumping and cross country skills.  This sequence offers readers a glimpse into the progressive system which Klimke uses to develop her own horses; she emphasizes that youngsters should be trained on the flat, over fences and in the open before choosing to specialize in dressage or show jumping, if they show an aptitude here.

There are a few particular nuggets which I found especially meaningful.  In fact, the text opens with a copy of a letter written to Ingrid by her father, in which he says, “We want to understand the nature of the horse, respect his personality and not suppress it throughout his training.  Then we are on the right way” (Klimke, 2006, p.11).  I think this is a meaningful mantra for all trainers and riders, regardless of their specialty.  I might post it in my barn.

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At the end of the day, the most important activity in most horse’s schedule is this. 

 

Klimke reminds us that “the aim of basic training for the young horse is to use a systematic method to create a solid foundation for future specialization in a given discipline…we want the young horse, with the weight of the rider on his back, to stay in balance and outline while retaining his natural movement” (Klimke, 2006, p. 16).

In her section on longeing, Klimke states “Correct longeing is as important as correct riding and requires a lot of experience and intuition” (Klimke, 2006, p. 38).  I personally feel that longeing well is almost a lost art; I see far more incorrect, unsafe and unproductive longeing than the alternative, so I especially appreciated her further comments on this subject in this chapter.   She also reminds us that “the quieter the trainer and assistant(s), the calmer the horse will be” (Klimke, 2006, p. 51).  It can be hard when you get frustrated, but horsemen must learn to cultivate this type of mental calmness in themselves if they hope to achieve it in their horses.  Klimke goes on to elaborate on the importance of longeing in helping to warm up the muscles of a young horse’s topline, as well as taking the edge off, prior to mounted exercises with the rider.

The next several chapters dissect the training scale and the application of its concepts to the basic training of the youngster.  In particular, Klimke reminds trainers that “all exercises and movements should be ridden on the longest possible contact (with poll flexion) to improve the horse’s ability to work through the back” (Klimke, 2006, p. 67) (italics are the author’s).  This is a truly classical response to those riders and trainers who choose to force a young horse to work with an extremely flexed poll and short neck.

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Young horses can learn best from an older, experienced partner.

Another quote which I thought was particularly important was in regards to making mistakes as a trainer.  “It is unavoidable that we sometimes push the horse too hard; no trainer is perfect.  However, experienced riders acknowledge that they are solely responsible for their mistakes.  It is important to make the best of each situation” (Klimke, 2006 p. 71-72).  And as with helping children to learn how to behave, “the horse should be rewarded for all exercises done well and ignored for the ones that were not” (Klimke, 2006, p. 72).

 I found the chapters which focused on the basic ridden training to be an excellent, clearly written review of the fundamental concepts related to the training scale.  Klimke details many basic exercises, including the proper use of the aids and the common mistakes made by horse and rider, as well as defines essential concepts, phrases and movements. She emphasizes the importance of cavaletti work in the basic training of a horse, saying that it offers an opportunity to overcome problems in all phases of training.

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New cavaletti all ready to be put to work. 

Klimke introduces the youngster to fences first with free jumping, proceeding to grids and small courses.  I will admit that her progression is more ambitious than what I would be up for, but even spread out over a longer period, it certainly provides a clear framework for the process of training over fences.  She also reminds readers that “jump training in the first year should only be done if the horse is willing” (Klimke, 2006, p. 152).

What I found especially refreshing about this book is Klimke’s emphasis that the basic training should be the same for all horses, regardless of their future discipline.  In general, I believe that this is the most appropriate philosophy.  Regardless of the rider’s discipline of choice,  the horse that has a broader base of training will be more confident, more experienced and will be more likely to suit the needs of a future owner.  I do not believe that specialization of a young horse (or young rider) provides them with the best foundation for future success.

Much like Klimke’s other written work, I think that The New Basic Training of the Young Horse should be required reading for any serious trainer or rider of sport horses.

5/5 stars

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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”.

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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????

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Clinic with Jan Ebeling:  Keep the Details Clear

In mid April, 2017, Linden Woods Farm in Durham, NH hosted a two day clinic with Olympian Jan Ebeling.  A serious rider and competitor, Ebeling brought his attention to detail and clear training system to the east coast, to the benefit of horses and riders ranging from First Level through FEI.

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Jan Ebeling

I was only able to attend day two of the clinic due to work commitments, but felt fortunate to be able to audit several sessions before taking my own lesson on Annapony at the end of the day.  As I watched Ebeling work with a series of different types of horse, several themes emerged.  In particular, Ebeling emphasized POSITIVE ENERGY, CLEAR EXPECTATOINS, MINIMAL BEND and CLARITY IN THE AIDS, regardless of the level of training of the horse or movement being executed. Calm and systematic riding was the order of the day.

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Ebeling “debriefs” with clinic rider Kara Riley-King, who rode Zamiro.

Ebeling told the audience that he always starts his training sessions the same way, with a progressive warm up.  “I start by establishing a steady tempo and use larger circles and changes on the diagonals,” said Ebeling.  “Nothing too tight.”

Ebeling reminded riders that all horses have an easier side, which is usually tracking to the left.  This is the best direction to start both the warm up phase of a ride as well as to introduce new figures and movements.  He recommends spending three to four minutes on each side, then adding in some work at the canter, before offering the horse a short break.

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Emily Staley on Gatsby work on their free walk.

“Once the horse has had a warm up, they are ready for a more collected tempo and sitting work,” says Ebeling.  For all horses save the most green, Ebeling believes in the rider working out of the sitting trot post warm up.  For a greener horse, Ebeling says that he might stay in the posting trot a bit longer, especially if the contact and connection become less consistent in the sitting work.

For the greener horses, Ebeling emphasized the critical importance of riding with positive energy, which he says prevents the horse from thinking that a slower tempo is acceptable. At the same time, the rider must be careful to not ask for more tempo than the horse is able to keep balanced.   “Most horses are pretty happy to go forward if you make it their habit,” says Ebeling.  “If you have inconsistency in the frame, add a little bit of tempo, keep riding forward, and keep the hand the same.”

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Jan Ebeling raved about Leslie Ann Guilbault’s young mount, Belfast (owned by a sponsor), saying, “He is a great horse.  A talented horse.  I am looking for weaknesses.  Mostly he needs to be stronger still.”

Establishing consistency in the expectations and performance was a theme which Ebeling returned to frequently.  The free walk is another area in which Ebeling emphasized this idea.  “The free walk should always go to the buckle and the rider must make the habit of always expecting a brisk, energetic walk,” says Ebeling.  “When there is a transition from free walk to medium walk, the steps and frame become shorter but the rhythm and energy stay the same.”

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Anna and I during our set.

The use of transitions between and within gaits was another theme which ran amongst the sessions.  When riders do transitions on green horses, the exercises serve to tune up the horse’s understanding of the aids.  It is important that the rider keep their aids consistent and clear.  One example Ebeling brought forward was the position of the rider’s outside leg in the canter.  “You must be super clear with your leg aid in the transitions, bending your knee and bringing the leg back,” says Ebeling.  “Keep the outer leg back in the canter, not just for the transition, but also to support the gait.  It must stay in place—no exceptions.”

Ebeling used transitions in many ways with riders throughout the day.  Some horses did trot-walk-trot transitions in fairly quick succession, sometimes with only three strides in between each.  With others, he shortened the timing so that the transition became more of an “almost walk” transition, or instead asked the horse to go into a short lengthening.  Ebeling asked one rider to send her horse forward on the short side and then collect them through the shoulder in into an “almost walk” transition, and then ride forward into a ten meter volte.   These frequent transitions challenged the horse’s balance and encouraged them to respond promptly to rider’s aids. For greener horses, Ebeling likes to use a little voice in the transitions.  If the horse makes mistakes, such as coming above the bit or choosing the wrong lead, Ebeling reminded riders to not get into a battle with their horse; instead, just make them do the transition again.

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I must have liked something about this transition with that smile on my face!

Throughout the day, horses and riders both made mistakes.  Ebeling reminded all that this is a necessary part of learning, but emphasized that it is important to not give the horse a break on a poor transition or movement.  Ebeling says that when the horse repeatedly makes the same mistake on a figure, it is up to the rider to figure out how to change the cycle.  This may mean making the exercise easier for the horse, overexaggerating an aid, or appreciating that at the moment, the exercise may require more strength than the horse has developed.  “Even when the mistake is repeated, remind yourself that it is just a phase,” says Ebeling.  “It can be frustrating, but don’t panic.  It is just a matter of practicing.”

Ebeling also spoke of the importance of doing movements and transitions at different places within the arena.   This can also be helpful when a horse starts to anticipate an exercise.   “The same exercise, done at a different place in the arena, isn’t really the same exercise,” says Ebeling.  “The goal is to get the horse to do the things you want so that you are able to praise them…you are always looking for the moment where you can praise them for doing the right thing.”

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Practicing.

Being effectively able to apply the aids requires that the rider understand what the correct aids should be, and then to experiment with the intensity of each aid to determine the optimal application.  One rider struggled with her half pass.  Ebeling reminded her that it was important to keep the shoulder fore position as she turned her horse onto the line of the half pass, then to ride sideways through the use of the inner leg and outside rein; he said the half pass is basically two movements in one.  But too much outside leg causes the haunches to lead, and too little will prevent the forward and sideways movement from developing.  The rider must find the balance in the aids for success.

Ebeling reminded riders that keeping their position consistent is one of the quickest and most efficient ways to get the horse to understand the aids.  “You must be very disciplined,” says Ebeling.

Ebeling told several riders (me included!) to be careful with their bending aids.  It is easy to get the horses over bent to the inside, but the aid which needs to be emphasized is the outside rein.  “Bend only a little and then get light,” says Ebeling.  “Backing off on the rein aids doesn’t mean dropping them, it is like a softening.  When you think to give, it is not necessary to move the arm, just relax the muscles.  Finish every half halt with a release.”

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In my ride with Ebeling on Anna, these themes came forward yet again.  I was a bit nervous going into the ride, as I was dealing with a knee injury which prevented me from effectively closing my right leg aids.  And though she sported a trace clip, Anna definitely felt that this early spring afternoon was warmer than she liked given the amount of winter coat she was still wearing. In spite of these variables, we tried our best to step up to Ebeling’s program.

Here is some video of Anna early in our set with Jan Ebeling.

In our ride, Ebeling worked to help me keep Anna more positively forward (yes, the entire Story of Our Lives).  He reminded me to watch the balance between the inside and the outside rein, particularly when tracking right, and that I need to be more steadfast in the consistency in the outside rein.  One easy tip he offered was to increase the tension of my ring finger on the reins.  Most riders will grip more tightly with their index and middle fingers, but increasing the tension of the ring finger will allow the rein contact and connection to remain steady yet not become restrictive.  Ebeling had me ride Anna virtually straight into each corner, and then ask for only about two to three strides of bend in the corner itself.

A little further along…contact is getting more consistent.

Ebeling also had me ride many trot canter transitions to sharpen her response to the leg aid.  In the upward transition, I had to make sure to not allow my shoulders to tip forward and to remain soft in the rein contact without letting go.  For the downward transition, Ebeling wanted me to use virtually no rein pressure at all but instead use seat and voice aids…then immediately ride steady and forward.

Some transitions.

While I felt that the quality of our connection improved through the set, I was a little disappointed in Anna’s overall lackluster response to the forward aids.  In my opinion, she got a bit hot and tired and would have done better with a few shorter/intense sets rather than longer ones.  I found it really difficult to keep her stepping up into the bridle, and in reviewing the photos and videos after the ride, she looks like she is barely round.  Ebeling as well seemed a little flummoxed by her lackadaisical nature, and suggested that it might be helpful to treat her like an event horse again by taking her out for some gallop sets (not an option till my knee heals, I am afraid!).   He also suggested looking at her feeding regimen to see if there is a way to feed increased energy without increasing her weight.

Serpentine work.

While I was a bit disappointed by the quality of my own performance, overall I really enjoyed watching Ebeling teach the other clinic participants and appreciated the consistency in his message.  I would definitely come audit again, and perhaps ride once I am healed up!

Some nice walk work and then some tired trot!

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I would like to thank my friend Mikaela for coming along with us!  She was the best coffee getter, pony holder, photo taker and all around cheer leader ever!

 

Improving Balance in the Non Traditional Dressage Horse: a ride with Jen Verharen

I might be the world’s slowest blogger but I suppose better late than never!  This blog is the summary of my notes from a lesson I took with my dear friend Jen Verheran, who visited us here in NH in early March on what turned out to be the most frigid weekend of our entire winter. Jen is an accomplished rider and trainer, as well as the founder and principal at Cadence Coaching, Inc.  Jen is also a fellow Connemara lover, and I was really interested to hear her thoughts on Anna.  We were able to squeeze one ride in together around the sessions she did for the UNH Equestrian Team.

If you follow my blog, you will no doubt recognize that Anna is not known for being the most forward thinking of mounts.  While she is pretty willing to do whatever is asked, she does not naturally possess a high degree of “forward intention”.  I showed her lightly at Second Level last season with decent scores, and she currently schools most of the Third Level movements.  But impulsion is always the variable which seems to be lacking, and coming up with new ways to inspire and motivate her is a real challenge.  I don’t frequently get the opportunity for feedback from ‘eyes on the ground’, either, and I was interested in Jen’s honest opinion in regards to where Anna stood against the expectations for Third Level.

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It was too cold for anyone to get photos of Anna and I, but here is a bundled up Jen coaching members of the UNH Equestrian team the same weekend!

Jen has a lot of experience with Connemaras and Connemara crosses, having owned several during her career.  While the breed is known for being quite versatile and athletic, they are not typically big movers.  Despite being half Trakehner, Anna seems to primarily display the traits of her Irish ancestors. Most principles of dressage training come from the German school, which favors warmblood type horses; the German training philosophy emphasizes riding the horse actively forward into the hand.  This is an excellent approach, and it works really well on horses which either naturally go forward or who are easily able to be motivated forward.  It does not work so well when you have a horse whose response to nearly any driving aid is…meh.

I will sidebar here to note that Anna has been this way since the get-go.  She isn’t desensitized.  She was never sensitized to begin with.  The very first time I carried a dressage whip with her, she didn’t respond in any way.  Not negative, not positive…just non responsive. You can really wallop her to no effect.  So louder or harder leg or whip aids just do not work.  I have never met a horse like her in that regard.

Jen told me that in working with her Connemaras, she took a lot of inspiration from the techniques of the French school.  This training philosophy favors Baroque and Thoroughbred type horses.  While these two varieties of horse might not seem similar at first, they both are types which seem to develop more correct forward activity when they are ridden first into a steady balance.  Baroque type horses tend to be better at collected movement than they are at moving with ground covering strides, whereas Thoroughbreds can cover ground but tend to be heavily downhill.  Asking either of these types of horse to go more forward, without first establishing better balance, is usually an exercise in frustration for all involved.  Specifically, the rider needs to do exercises which encourage the horse to better use the loin area just behind the saddle until the horse feels that they are moving within their own balance.  Only then can the rider expect greater forward energy.

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Jen introduced me to a series of exercises geared towards loosening Anna’s body, as well as lateral movements specifically to improve the softness of her loin area.  After a basic walk/trot/canter warm up, I returned to an active medium walk and put Anna into a shoulder in, then shortened stride and rode a turn on the forehand.  We then did a variation on this, where I put Anna into renvers (haunches out), and then rode turn on the forehand again from this position.  While it felt a bit ‘backwards’ at first, this exercise helped increase Anna’s suppleness pretty quickly.

From there, we moved onto the trot and began working on a series of transitions between trot and walk on a twenty meter circle.  During the trot strides, the focus was on keeping the trot bouncy; rather than just moving more forward, it was about creating more spring.  Once Anna’s trot started to develop a more consistent degree of spring and energy, I began to go large.  We then rode a sequence of movements, starting with a ten meter circle at the top of the long side, into shoulder fore going straight ahead, then establishing counter flexion and leg yielding in from the rail, finishing in shoulder fore.  This exercise was completed all down one long side, and it was super at keeping Anna focused. The frequent transitions helped to keep the trot lively and the connection clear.

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Anna performing lateral work with Verne Batchelder in December 2016.

Jen suggested that I ride Anna with minimal to no bend, especially in the canter, because of her tendency to bend more in the neck than in the body.  Anna is super compact, and like most horses, her neck is her most flexible area.  But when the neck overbends to the inside, the opposite shoulder pops out.  By riding her in a straighter alignment from poll to tail, it is easier to narrow the space between the inside hind and outside fore.  This further allowed me to adjust the position of her head at the poll.  I noticed the benefit of riding this way most clearly at the canter, which is the gait at which we have had the greatest degree of challenge in terms of keeping steady connection.  As I practiced this over the next few months, I have seen a huge improvement in the quality of the canter in general.  It also was a theme which came up during a clinic I took with Jan Ebeling in April (more on this in a future blog, I promise!).

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Jen definitely received the “hardy solider” award for coaching through an absolutely FRIGID weekend!

Jen told me that she wanted to throw as many exercises at me as possible so that I would have several new tools to use to improve the quality of Anna’s movement and connection.  I was impressed by how much softer, rounder and steadier Anna became through the course of our ride (did I mention that it was maybe 18 degrees??), and she developed both lipstick and soft eyes and ears.  Without ever doing a single “forward” transition, Anna had become much more willing and supple off the leg, and had developed a much increased ‘hot’ response to the forward aids.

Jen recommended that I continue to play with the exercises which she offered for the next month or so, and if they seemed solid at that point, it would be time to add greater adjustability within the movements and gaits.   The goal of the work is to continue to improve her balance, so that she is able to engage the hind leg better and develop connection with a soft lower back.

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Jen is such a positive and enthusiastic coach, and she really helped me with some fresh eyes on Anna’s training program.  Of course she lives on the West Coast, as all my favorite teachers seem to be as far from NH as you can get and still be in the US! I asked Jen if she thought that introducing the double bridle would be appropriate, and she encouraged me to go ahead and try it; some horses do simply go better in the double, even with a light curb contact (as it turns out, Anna seems to be one of those horses, too…more on this later as well!).  Finally, she encouraged me to change my mind set about Anna; instead of thinking, “she will go Third level”, Jen told me to start saying to myself and others that Anna is “working at Third Level”.  By thinking of her as a Third Level horse, I will come to each training session with a different attitude and set of expectations, which will more than likely help Anna to continue to step into the role.

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Anna after her first ride in her double bridle.  “Ho Hum” she says.  We have since fixed the cheekpiece conundrum seen here….

Jen’s lesson was a perfect bridge between some of the concepts and techniques which we have worked on with Verne Batchelder in the past and those used by Jan Ebeling at our session in April.  It is always nice to see the pieces connect together!

Book Review: Suffering in Silence

Suffering in Silence by Jochen Schleese

c 2012 Trafalgar Square North Pomfret, VT, 187 pages

ISBN 978-1570766534

I first read an excerpt of Jochen Schleese’s book, Suffering in Silence: the Saddle-Fit Link to Physical and Psychological Trauma in Horses, in an old issue of Dressage Today magazine.  The segment provided there included information regarding the natural asymmetry of the horse, detailing how this condition develops, and how this asymmetry impacts saddle fit.  I was struck by the technical precision in the writing and the clear passion which Schleese had for the subject.  I immediately ordered a copy of the book to review in more depth.

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Schleese is a Certified Master Saddler and Saddle Ergonomist, and Schleese Saddles are known as being “ergonomically correct” for female riders.  In this book, Schleese goes into a great deal of detailed explanation regarding the how’s and why’s of his theory of saddle fitting.  In particular, he highlights the personal research he has done into the differences between male and female pelvic anatomy, and how this can impact each gender’s relative position in the saddle. What was even more interesting to me, though, were his thoughts on the ideal fit of the saddle to the horse.

Jochen Schleese discusses the importance of saddle fit

I have struggled to find the ideal saddle fit for two of my own horses; one is a distance horse who has completed two 100 mile competitive trail rides, and the other is a Connemara cross who does mostly dressage (each has their own tack).  In the past, I have had certified saddle fitters adding pads, shims and all manner of other manipulations to make saddles fit.  After experiencing years of frustration, I began working with someone new, who identified some basic issues, such as an inappropriate tree width, as being part of my problem.  Still, the process of finding a correctly fitting saddle can make someone feel like the princess and the pea.

Schleese emphasizes that a well fitting saddle for the horse must be a priority, as this variable, more than many others, can influence a horse’s long term soundness.  In this book, he describes the horse’s saddle support area, with detailed discussion of the muscles, ligaments and tendons involved.  Schleese uses clear descriptions as well as outstanding illustrations and diagrams to help the reader to see and understand where the saddle should be placed, the interaction of the saddle, girth and the biomechanics of the horse, and the importance of clearing the equine scapula.  I can’t say enough about the quality of this discussion, and I think it is something which every horseman should read and absorb.  I simply haven’t seen it done better, anywhere.

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Schleese draws areas important for saddle fit consideration on this horse; this image is used both in their text and on Saddlefit 4 Life’s website.  Unable to find an official credit but go to Saddlefit 4 Life for more!

I have since learned that Schleese is somewhat of a controversial figure in the saddle fitting/making community.  There are some who feel that his “saddles for women” theme is just a gimmick to sell saddles; one saddler I spoke with said that if you want to sell saddles in the modern market, they “all better fit women”.  Schleese also is a proponent of rear-facing gullet plates, a design which is counter to the principles espoused by the Society of Master Saddlers, a large certifying organization based in the U.K.  However, there are many other saddlers who consider Schleese’s work to be inspirational; one local saddler says that his work is in fact what inspired her to become a certified saddle fitter.

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My mare Lee demonstrates how poorly her old saddle really fit her…and she did a 100 mile ride in this!

With all that being said, I don’t consider this book to be a sales pitch, but rather the outcome of one man’s passion for promoting greater awareness of the critical importance of saddle fit for horse and rider.  The text is clear and accessible to any conscientious horseman, the book is incredibly well illustrated through diagram and photograph, and many additional resources are provided where readers can learn more.

I was so inspired by reading this book that I have actually reached out to Schleese’s company, Saddlefit 4 Life, and we will be hosting a seminar with him at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program on September 20, 2017. Visit www.equine.unh.edu fore more information.

5/5 stars