Tag Archives: University of New Hampshire Equine Program

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

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Winter Break Training Projects 2017 Edition

In the downtime between our two semesters at the University of New Hampshire, I always try to tune up a few school horses or work with some of our newer herd members to get to know them a little bit better. Increased tack time is always good for the soul (even if the cheeks end up a little chapped from the cold!) and I appreciate the opportunity to work with different horses.  There are so many lessons to be learned.

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Sometimes winter is not so much fun. At least getting to ride extra ponies makes up for it.  Sort of.

I think school horses are simply some of the most amazing horses on the planet.  They tolerate all manner of riders and need to decipher their aids.  The riders who sit on them are, by definition, students, which means that those aids may lack refinement, finesse and sophistication.  It is the exceptional school horse that can absorb all of this without ill effect, and it is my opinion that they deserve having one consistent person work with them for a period of time every now and then.  The horse and rider have a chance to connect more deeply, and if the rider is experienced enough, they can help to break through any blocks or defensiveness that the horse may have installed in an effort to absorb some of the confusion in the aids.

During the recent winter break, I worked with three horses which are used in our dressage-only classes: Fiona, Otto and Tino. Despite all being dressage specialists, they each require a different kind of ride to elicit their best performance.  Riding each horse helped to remind me of details which I then applied to my usual dressage ride, Anna.

Fiona

Fiona is a chestnut Thoroughbred type mare who has been with our program for several years at this point.  Of all the many horses I have tried out for the program, Fiona is by far one of my favorites.  She is “my type” of ride; slender, athletic, a little sensitive, and of course, a mare.  I always enjoy reconnecting with her during our breaks.

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Fiona, through the ears. 

It has been almost one year since I last sat on Fiona, and I was a bit disconcerted at first by how much more defensive she felt this year than last.  By “defensive”, I mean that her initial reaction to any soft contact was to brace and become hollow, and she was also reluctant to actively reach with her hind legs.  It was my sense that Fiona was protecting herself, but the question was, from what?

I started by re-checking her tack, which by and large looked ok.  She was definitely due for a re-shoe, so we had that taken care of.  I then started a program which encouraged Fiona to begin to reach through her entire topline and stretch into the connection. While this idea is a key principle of dressage, it seemed to me as though she had a little bit lost her faith in that concept.

I very rarely warm up a horse at the trot completely off contact (although I always start with a ten minute or so free walk on a loose rein).  But with Fiona, I had to break my own rules.  First, Fiona absolutely needed the walking in phase; if I had a shorter than usual period of time to ride her, this was not an area where I could cut corners.  Once I moved on to the warm up trot, I didn’t shorten my reins at all, instead allowing Fiona to warm up while carrying her topline wherever she felt like she needed to with a completely floppy rein.  I didn’t ask her to align her shoulders and hips or even do more than the most basic of soft bend in the corners.  I kept all of the turns sweeping and wide and changed direction regularly.  After a few minutes like this, I very, very tactfully shortened the reins until I had a delicate, soft, pushing-toward-the-mouth contact, and I stepped Fiona into a canter.

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Fiona several years ago, with one of our graduates. 

For this horse, at this time, it is the canter which does the best job of loosening her up and encouraging her to let go.  The left lead seems to be more comfortable for her than the right, so I usually started there.  I never forced her to connect but instead encouraged it.  In the canter, Fiona is more willing to reach underneath herself with the hind leg while also allowing the rider to maintain a soft, steady, elastic feeling in the reins.  But the nanosecond that the rider gets greedy and holds too much in the rein or blocks with the seat, Fiona hollows again.  The rider must practice patience.

I went through this slow, gentle warm up with Fiona every single ride.  It honestly would take ten minutes of walking and twenty of trotting and cantering before she started to feel even remotely soft or fluid. If you pushed her harder before then, she would quite literally stop, or kick out at the leg—a sign that the question was ‘too much’.  It would be easy to label her as being resistant (“this horse won’t connect”) but I think it was much more an example of ‘this horse can’t’.  She had been blocking her body to such a degree for so long that every exercise session was only dedicated to unlocking her muscles again.

By the end of a ride, Fiona was loose, supple, forward and through.  She stayed soft in the jaw, chewing the bit and generating the “lipstick” that we like to see in a dressage horse.  Her responsiveness to the aids improved dramatically; Fiona at the end of a ride was like a completely different horse.

Fiona is not as young as she used to be, and she tends to be hard on herself out in turnout, so my sense is that all of these factors, plus her inherent personality, are simply starting to add up in creating this level of “block” in her body.  I think the lessons which I took away from working with Fiona this winter were 1) that the rider can always be more patient 2) sometimes you have to throw your usual “rules” out the window and experiment to figure out what works best—the horse is always right!  And of course, riding Fiona reinforced a rule that we always can be reminded of:  force will get you nowhere.

Otto

Otto is a wonderful little petite Ferrari of a horse, who joined our program late this summer.  He is trained through Third Level, and having seen him go a few times, I just knew that I would enjoy riding him.  As I work towards bringing Anna up to Third Level, I thought it would be helpful to take advantage of the chance to ride a schooled horse through some of those movements again.

Otto is half Arabian, and he has a tremendous “go” button.  I made the mistake on our first ride of carrying a dressage wand; it was so not needed!  The students had told me that he gets heavy in the hand, and I had personally observed him tending to tuck his nose in towards his chest and get stuck in the kind of power trot that is flashy to watch but not much fun to ride.  While still a connection issue, this is at least a different variety than the one I am used to dealing with!

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Otto was never super cooperative about stopping to have his picture taken…he just wants to GO!

Otto came to us wearing a Baucher bit.  Many people mistakenly believe that this bit uses poll pressure in its action, but this is not the case. In fact, if you put your fingers under the crown piece and then have a friend apply pressure on the rein, you will feel that there is no poll action.  A Baucher does raise the bit slightly higher against the corners of the lips and holds it steadier in the horse’s mouth; it seems to appeal most to horses which dislike any kind of fussiness in the connection.  In my experience, though, most horses just lean on it, and that is what I felt in Otto. My colleague helped switch out the Baucher for a basic jointed loose ring, which gives him more to chew on and definitely helped to improve the softness of his jaw.

The biggest key with Otto, and horses like him, is that you have to take a leap of faith and give the rein when you want to take. On the days when I would get on Otto with an agenda, and maybe too much tension in my muscles, I could feel him tend to take a bit more feel on me in return.  This is the start of that inevitable cycle of pull and tug—you pull on me, I tug on you.  I remember my mentor from many years ago, Beth Adams, saying, “It takes two to pull.”  So whenever I felt that weight increasing, I pushed the rein forward towards the corners of Otto’s mouth.  Sure, he sometimes accelerated, and then I would circle or leg yield (or both!) and take advantage of the energy to help Otto become better balanced and engaged through the use of my diagonal aids.

Otto was simply so much fun to play with.  We did a million transitions within and between gaits, worked the half pass in trot and canter, and played with his flying changes.  The entire time, I kept thinking, “give”.  The softer I stayed, the softer Otto stayed, with a more correct neck and improved connection.

This lesson was especially helpful to bring forward onto Anna, who is sort of the opposite in terms of her connection issues—she tends to be above the bit and lacks thrust.  On her, finding the right blend of steadiness in the rein (to encourage her to connect) versus give (to encourage her to stretch) is tricky.  Riding Otto reminded me that I can always offer Anna the opportunity to develop better roundness by my becoming a bit more elastic and giving for a few steps.  When I apply this concept, it is nine times out of ten that Anna softens back.  Funny how that is….

Tino

Tino is by far one of our most elegant and well bred school horses, and we are lucky to have such a lovely animal in our program.  It actually hadn’t been my intention to work with him over the break, but when he is out of work, he becomes a bit sassy for the crew to handle, so back to work he went.

Like Otto, Tino has been shown through Third level, but he has much bigger gaits, and these can make him quite challenging to ride correctly.  The sheer power of his movement can throw the rider far out of the saddle and off balance in the trot, and I think it is because of this that most of his riders hesitate to send him correctly forward.  When this happens, Tino gets stuck in a “passage trot”, which is of course horribly incorrect and not good for his muscling and long term comfort levels.

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Tino, though the ears.  You might notice a theme of there not being many people around to help with photos!

Tino has had some excellent schooling in his past, and I wanted to make sure that I did right by this horse.  I took some video of him and sent it off to a trusted friend for some feedback.  She supported my initial instinct, which was that Tino needed to come more freely forward and respond to the rider’s leg aid by reaching forward and under, rather than higher and loftier.  As with all my rides, I started each session with Tino with ten minutes of a marching free walk, and then warmed him up in the trot and canter while encouraging him to stretch through his topline and reach forward into a soft contact, all without dropping his shoulder or getting too heavily onto the forehand.

Tino’s canter is pretty gosh darn amazing.  It is rhythmical and cadenced, and I found that using forward and back adjustments in the counter canter during the warm up phase really helped Tino to loosen his topline, making more correct movement in the trot easier afterwards.

Tino Canter Work Jan 21, 2017

Once he was warmed up, I did a lot—and I mean a lot—of lateral work with him, working on getting a more correct and sharper response to the leg aids.  We did shoulder in, travers, renvers and tons of half pass.  As the strength of his topline returned, we added in more work with adjustable gaits, and I encouraged him to lengthen his stride, then come back to a shorter yet still reaching step.  I also played a lot with his changes; they are easy for him, and as my “consultant” said, “I have yet to meet a horse who was hurt because of doing the flying changes.  If they are easy, they are fun for him.”

I am thrilled with the progress Tino made over the break.  He is a powerful, athletic animal, and thankfully he is generally good natured and doesn’t use any of those qualities against us!  That being said, I think he is a really challenging school horse for riders to figure out.  To get the best work from him (as it is with any horse), the rider must ride forward.  And once Tino is really going forward, you have A L O T of horse underneath you.  That is pretty intimidating– but SO much fun.

A little of Tino at the trot (Jan 21, 2017)

Riding Tino reminded me what it is like to experience the talents of an animal who is simply bred to do their job. The “movements” are easy.  What is important to remember, especially with a horse like Tino, is that when the quality of the gaits decline, we have forgotten the purpose of dressage, which is (simply put), “to enhance the natural gaits of the horse”.  There are certainly moments when the horse is learning a new movement during which they may lose quality, but we need to remember that if this becomes the norm, it is time to take a different tack in our training.

On an even more basic level, riding Tino reminded me that I have to stay back with my upper body.  I have always had a tendency to tip forward, left over from my hunter/jumper days, and on most horses I get away with it.  On Tino, if I tipped forward, I immediately felt off balance due to his big movement.  I also had to make sure to keep my eyes up and forward, for the same reason.  With great power comes great responsibility, grasshopper—in this case, the responsibility to maintain one’s own position.

December Clinic Weekend

Notes on Sessions with Verne Batchelder and Cindy Canace

Annapony and I enjoyed an educational weekend in mid-December, riding twice with Verne Batchelder and once with Cindy Canace, within four days.  I have had the opportunity to work with both of these talented clinicians before, so I was excited to get some new exercises and feedback as we head into the indoor schooling season.

Verne Batchelder and the “Circle of Submission”

My two sessions with Verne came first, and were held at the lovely Fresh Creek facility in Dover, NH, home to Chesley Brook Stables.  Their insulated indoor was a welcome haven from the unseasonably cold temperature and omnipresent wind, and the GGT footing made Anna feel positively springy.

I hadn’t had the chance to connect with Verne for almost a year, and he was super positive about the progress which Anna has made in that time.  She tends to always be more forward thinking at a new venue, which is helpful, but Verne noticed that she was also moving with a greater degree of acceptance and throughness since the last time he had seen her go.  After I had done a little warm up at the basic gaits, we started to work Anna on what Verne calls “the circle of submission”.

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One of our many “circles of submission”.

The “circle of submission” is a tool which Verne frequently uses to help horses to unlock, to improve connection and to get better acceptance of the outside rein.  Usually, it is done either at the walk or trot, on a smallish (in our case ten meter) circle.  With Anna, I asked for an exaggerated flexion in her neck to the inside, and then asked her to turn her chest towards the middle of the circle, while keeping my outside elbow bent but giving.  I continued to ride her forward and encouraged her to engage the inside hind leg so it reached further over and under.  Once she started to soften her jaw, I increased the straightness by taking more bend into my outside elbow and following with the inside hand.

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When riding the “circle of submission”, one of the important end goals is being able to swivel the horse’s head at the poll, with a response of willing acceptance from the horse. In Anna’s case, the circle allowed her to connect more consistently to the outside rein.  I rode a 10 meter circle, then rode out of the circle in a lovely uphill shoulder in for several strides down the long side, then straightened her and rode forward in the rising trot.  After moving through this sequence, Anna was better able to carry her weight over the topline and actively push into the consistent connection.

The “circle of submission” can be returned to at any point the rider feels they have lost the requisite degree of connection, and/or the ability to swivel the horse at the poll.

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We then moved on to some work with haunches in and half pass. After riding a ten meter circle, I rode down the long side in haunches in.  In both the shoulder in and haunches in work, Verne cautioned against developing too much angle.  Because my goal with Anna next season is to show Third Level, Verne also reminded me that the haunches in is a preparation for the half pass. “Don’t work to perfect the haunches in,” he said, as this movement is not required above Second Level.  “Use it to develop your half pass.”

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We did several sequences of ten meter circle to haunches in on a diagonal line (which is essentially half pass).  I was thrilled to feel Anna fluidly move forward and sideways with a consistent connection and lifted shoulder.  She felt like a “big” horse!

In the canter work, we touched on the flying changes.  On my own, I have been working quite a bit with the counter canter to develop greater strength and straightness.  Anna learned clean changes through her jumping work and tends to throw them in, unasked, during the counter canter.  Verne said that in terms of laying the groundwork for Third Level, it would be appropriate to begin asking for the flying change more frequently. Using the ten meter circle again as preparation, I then rode the short diagonal and asked for a change on the line.  Verne emphasized that the short diagonals were better than long at this point, so that there are fewer strides for the horse to begin to anticipate the change.

Despite the short distance, Anna still anticipated her change, and gave one fairly exuberant effort from right to left, during which she actually kicked the bottom of my left boot!  I think we have some homework to do in terms of “calm acceptance” of this movement.

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I love that this exact moment is caught on film.

We ended the first day’s session by playing with adjustability within the gaits.  Within the trot or the canter, Anna needed to get bigger or get smaller, but always while keeping her nose in—if I allowed the reins to slip, she would slightly poke her nose forward, causing me to lose a degree of the connection and the ability to swivel the poll.

We covered a lot of ground during this session, and I left feeling thrilled by Anna’s performance.  I had felt a degree of connection, thrust and throughness which I have not experienced with her before. Verne was highly complementary of both the progress since last year and the work during our session, and I very much looked forward to day two.

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The next morning was one of the coldest so far of the season, which only meant that Anna was even more energetic, despite her hard work the day before.  We started again working with the “circle of submission”.  Verne added to his description from day one that depending on the horse, the rider can think of riding shoulder in on the circle, or ride it more like a moving turn on the forehand, or even a leg yield out of the haunches.  He emphasized, again, that no matter how you approach the “circle of submission”, its purpose is to get the hind end of the horse active and free, to get the inside hind leg under the horse’s body, and to take the horse’s neck out of the cycle of resistance.

From here, we moved onto work with haunches in and half pass in the trot.  Verne cautioned again against creating too much angle in the haunches in, which causes the horse to lose their forward intention.  In the half pass, Verne reminded me to keep a bent elbow on the outside, and to allow Anna’s shoulders to move ahead of the diagonal line first, and then to put the haunches in on the diagonal.

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Schooling haunches in.

Allowing the shoulders to come out ahead of the line was a new idea for me, and I found that it helped Anna to say more up into the outside rein during the half pass.  By focusing first on the shoulders and then adding the haunches in, the half pass became even more fluid and effortless. We have a lot of work to do to strengthen and improve her reach and carrying power, but we definitely have some new tools to use to develop the movement this winter.

In the canter work, we worked on a twenty meter circle and played with the idea of increasing pressure, then backing off. Because horses naturally tend to carry their haunches to the inside of the circle, we allowed Anna to start this way, while simultaneously increasing the activity in her hind end and increasing the weight in my outside elbow.  I then straightened Anna’s body for a few strides, allowing her to increase the collection, then softened and let the haunches slide back in.  The idea here is to just touch on the increased collection without asking for it for too many strides in a row.

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I just love this moment in the canter!

Overall, I was so excited and encouraged by the work Anna offered during our time working with Verne.  I came away with new tools to play with this winter, and Anna has shown me how much more she is capable of doing in this work.  On to Third Level we go!

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Thanks to Cayden for coming with us on Day 1 and taking all of these great photos!

Cindy Canace:  “Be a Better Backpack”

After our two days with Verne, Anna had a much needed Sunday off, giving me the opportunity to audit several sessions with USEF “S” judge and USDF Gold Medalist Cindy Canace.  Cindy came up from New Jersey to spend two days working with riders at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program.  Anna and I had worked with Cindy back in June, and we had a session scheduled again for Monday.

Watching Cindy work with our riders allowed me to observe certain themes to her teaching.  She is incredibly detail oriented, and works hard to help riders to both understand important concepts and to feel the horse underneath them.  Cindy expects the rider to keep their hands together and in front of their body, allowing the horse to reach to the bit to seek contact.  She also works to correct posture and alignment issues in the rider which impact the horse.  One of my favorite quotes of the day was that the riders needs to “be a better back pack”, in reference to the fact that our horses must essentially relearn to balance under our weight.  It is incumbent upon us to try to make that burden as easy to bear as possible.

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Cindy works with two of my students, riding UNH’s horses Morocco and Ticco.  Photo from the UNH Equine Program Facebook Page

Cindy has judged me on Anna several times in competition, in addition to working with us this summer, so she has a decent idea of her strengths and weaknesses.  In our Monday session, Cindy wanted to work on helping Anna to lift more in her shoulders and truly elevate her poll.  The exercises we did were perhaps not the most interesting for the auditors, but Cindy’s laser beam focus on excellence in the basics helped Anna to show some good progress.

Cindy first had me dramatically slow down Anna’s walk, making each step extremely deliberate, by slowing down my seat while keeping a following, elastic elbow.  She then had me execute a series of walk to halt transitions.  In each downward transition I made sure to keep my leg on, and then I released Anna from the halt by pressing with the seat bones and softening the leg and hand.  Cindy only allowed us to take two walk steps before I asked Anna to halt again.  We remained in the halt, with my leg on, until Anna began to soften in the jaw and raised her shoulders.  Cindy encouraged me to give Anna a gentle tap on the shoulder with my dressage wand to get a better response to my request for elevation or if she was inattentive.

From this work, we moved into a turn on the forehand.  Just as in the earlier exercise, Anna was allowed to take two walk steps and then I asked her to halt, holding it as before.  Cindy was particular that to initiate the turn, I needed to press with the calf muscle, not my spur, and once Anna began moving, I needed to keep the march of my seat in a walking rhythm to follow.  Cindy reminded me that even though we are emphasizing the responsiveness of the horse to the inside leg in this exercise, my outside leg and seat bone are also important and must remain active.  Ideally, in the turn on the forehand, it should take four steps to get the horse facing the opposite direction.

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Cindy worked this summer with my colleague Liz Johnson, here riding Santa Fe ISF.  Liz coordinated Cindy’s whirlwind visit to the frigid north for all of us.  Thank you Liz!

After working on the turn on the forehand, we did a few turns on the haunches, which Anna executed with a more elevated shoulder than before. I also noticed that she had developed a degree of “lipstick”, one of the visual indicators that the horse has begun to soften the jaw.  I hope the auditors saw that Anna had become softer in the jaw as the result of the work we had done to improve responsiveness in the hind end and lift in the shoulder, and not because we had done anything at all to manipulate or pull her into a position.

We then moved on to work in the trot and canter, and Cindy helped me work with the position of my left leg.  Due to now chronic knee pain, I have a great deal of trouble keeping my left leg fully internally rotated, with the knee and toe pointing forward.  Instead, my toe tends to angle out, and I have a difficult time keeping my left spur off Anna’s side without hurting my knee.  After so many months of knee pain, I have really developed some compensatory behaviors with the left leg, especially when I am tracking left and need to use the inside leg to position Anna correctly.  Cindy had me try bringing my left heel down and forward, allowing my left knee to rotate off the saddle slightly.  She then had me rotate my shoulders slightly toward the right in order to engage my outside hip.  This positioning of course felt somewhat unnatural but it did allow me to keep Anna correctly bent without my spur ending up stuck on her side.

Cindy had me do many transitions, especially walk-trot-walk and trot-halt-trot.  In each transition, Anna needed to stay up in the shoulder.  Cindy had me ride a slight step of leg yield out in each transition to help engage the inside hind and keep Anna into the outside rein (a little bit of a similar concept to the “circle of submission” discussed above).

Back to the Laboratory

After our super educational weekend, I have plenty of new material to work with for the next several months in the indoor.  I appreciate having fresh eyes on our progress and to come away with ever increasing clarity as to next steps.  Now we go “back to the lab” to experiment with our new exercises and tools.  Stay tuned for further developments….

A Clinic with Cindy Canace

I have been lucky enough to know Cindy Canace, a USDF Gold Medalist and USEF “S” dressage judge from New Jersey, for many years.  However, this past week was my first opportunity to actually ride with Cindy in a clinic setting, and it was a great occasion to learn more about her training philosophies.

Cindy has made a career out of working with difficult, spoiled or otherwise challenging horses that others would not, and turning them into successful and happy performers.  In order to do this, she has established a system which she adheres to in terms of use of the aids, rider position, and progressive exercises.  By being clear and consistent, her horses respond with increased confidence to the rider’s aids.

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Annapony and I had just ridden several tests in front of Cindy at the recent University of New Hampshire dressage show, so she had a current picture in her mind’s eye of where things were at with us in the competition arena.  Cindy pointed out that a clinician’s main job is to provide a fresh set of eyes, and not to usurp the place of a regular instructor.  Specifically for Anna, Cindy wanted to challenge the honesty of her connection to the bit and work to achieve increased throughness.

For a horse competing at First Level, Cindy says that she would rather see a more open position in the neck with good energy and balance than a horse which has been pulled into too tight or restricted of a shape in the neck.  This is probably one of the reasons why Anna has scored well in front of Cindy, but as we are working towards moving to Second Level, it is necessary to achieve a greater degree of roundness and uphill balance.  Anna would prefer to be too open in the throatlatch if left to her own choices; because the purpose of Second Level is partially to confirm that the horse is “reliably on the bit”, we will need to work to erase this.

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Cindy had me move my hands closer together along Anna’s crest and ride with a much shorter rein than where I would tend to carry it.  “Put the bit where you want your horse to go” was a message repeated many times during the session.  She emphasized that the rider needs to keep her arms elastic, her shoulders down, her neck soft and her hands forward.  Cindy wants the horse to truly be seeking contact with the bit; it is the horse’s job to reach towards the bit all the time, rather than the rider taking the bit back towards their own body.

One of my greatest challenges is that most of the time I ride on my own; when you do this for too long, it is easy to pick up little bad habits.  One of my current ones is using too much inside rein, which blocks the inside hind and causes too much neck bend.  To help “reprogram” my aids, Cindy had me ride a diamond shape.  Imagine a square set within a circle, with points placed on the center line and equidistant from these points on the walls in between.  To turn Anna at each corner of the diamond, it was important to keep the inside leg at the girth and to bring the outside leg slightly back, pushing her around primarily with the outside aids.  I then used the inside leg to stop the turn and pushed Anna slightly out towards the outside aids again while aiming for the next point. We did this at the trot and the canter, decreasing the size of the circle as we became more proficient.

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Can you tell how awkward I feel with my hands this forward?

For me, the hardest part was to keep my hands out and ahead of me (‘put the bit where you want your horse to go’), even when Anna became less round or didn’t turn as crisply as I wanted.  The thing is, when your horse has gotten used to you supporting them in a particular way and you stop doing that, it takes them a few repetitions to sort things out for themselves.

Many horses have learned to balance on their inside reins; therefore, they can be taught to balance on the outside rein instead.  However, the correction takes time and dedication on the part of the rider.  “Keep your hands together and think forward,” said Cindy.  “The horse must step up to this.  Think of always pushing the reins out there.”

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Cindy reminded me that whenever I am tempted to pull on the inside rein that I needed to engage my inside leg instead.  At this, I had to chuckle—I must give this instruction myself many times per week, but it is good to know that even we instructors need reminders! Cindy also had me use a little sense of leg yield into the downward transitions to increase the connection to the outside rein, another technique which I like to use regularly. It is always good to know that your instincts are on the right track.

Cindy is wonderfully complimentary towards the rider’s horse; having ridden in many clinics, I think this is an important quality. Clinicians only get a snap shot of a horse and rider, and it is nice to hear what their immediate impressions are of the partnership.  While I usually think of Anna as not being super forward thinking, Cindy commented that my pony has a good overstep in the walk and trot; the more elastic and forward thinking that I keep my arm, the better Anna reaches through her topline and into the bit and the better the overstep gets.

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While discussing the importance of overstep (when the landing of the hind hoof reaches past the print of the front hoof on the same side), Cindy reminded auditors that there is a difference between fast and forward.  She says that in her judging, she sees too many horses which are being ridden so energetically that they move with a fast, quick tempo, causing the quality of the horse’s balance to literally go downhill.  While activity in the hind end is required to get true reach through the horse’s back, it cannot be accomplished at the cost of balance.

“We all like to micromanage,” said Cindy.  “Remember to ride the horse with leg and seat to create the bending.  Really use the outside rein to turn, even to the point of pushing the inside rein towards the horse’s ears.”

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Cindy’s overall theme was one of consistency and clarity in terms of expectations for the horse and intended outcomes.  When the horse is trying to sort out what it is that the rider wants, she emphasized that staying steady was of the highest priority.  It is much less confusing for the horse than if the rider suddenly switches her aids before the horse has answered the original question.   “Don’t change the rules of the game,” said Cindy.  “Don’t trade one problem for another—keep your aids consistent until you get the correct answer.”

Many thanks to On the Bit Events and the University of New Hampshire Equine Program for co-hosting this clinic!

Tales of a Horse Show Organizer:  Chapter One

Whether as a volunteer or paid staff, I have been involved with the organization or management of hundreds of horse shows or clinics.  Whether large or small, sanctioned or schooling, public or “in house”, some similar themes always seem to apply.  At the same time, each gathering has the opportunity for new (mis)adventures.

This past weekend, I went up to the Green Mountain Horse Association (GMHA) in South Woodstock, VT, to volunteer for the day in the show jumping phase of their spring horse trials.  I spend so much time organizing, judging or coaching at horse shows that on the few occasions that I can go be a regular volunteer, I am sort of picky about which job I am willing to do.  I offered to scribe for the show jump judge, a position from which you can watch the horses jump the course, but one that didn’t require running around on my feet all day.

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So as I was getting ready to head up on Saturday morning, I debated my footwear.  I mean, I wasn’t really going to be around the horses directly, or standing, so I could just wear something casual and comfortable, right?

Then I remembered Chapter One from my someday to be published book, “Tales of a Horse Show Organizer”.  And I threw my paddock boots in the car.

Chapter One: Consider Your Footwear

The University of New Hampshire Equine Program runs several sanctioned shows each year; at one point, we ran three US Eventing Association horse trials and two US Dressage Federation dressage shows.  My role at the dressage shows was usually more behind the scenes than the front and center one of manager for the horse trials; most often, I helped set up the arenas and then assisted with scoring during the show itself.

One particularly notable year, we were positively stuffed to capacity with entries.  Eighty stalls of temporary stabling were full, with overflow in the main UNH barn and even a few stashed at neighboring facilities.  To accommodate these riders, we set up a fourth dressage arena.  The facility layout is a little bit sprawling, with most of the show (secretary’s tent, scoring, awards, three arenas and one large warm up) clustered together; stabling is out of sight from this, around the corner and down the road.  Ring four was set adjacent to stabling, so for the competitors down there, I would imagine it felt like they were at a completely different horse show.  Though we had radio communication with the group up the road, for the most part we had little awareness of what, specifically, was going on down there.

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I was scoring as per usual; my two pugs and I were stationed in the air conditioned trailer, surrounded by computers, calculators, printers and white out.  Historically, our dressage shows seem to be plagued by high temps, humidity and sometimes disruptive thunderstorms.  While I wore my traditional khaki shorts and UNH polo, in deference to my scheduled role as scorer and the heat, I only had a pair of Crocs with me.  Not even Crocs– some sort of cheap knock off that I picked up at a discount store. Definitely not “Pony Club approved footwear”.

Sometime towards late morning on the first day of the show, we received a call that the EMT was urgently needed down at the warm up for Ring Four.  A rider had been bucked off and landed quite badly; I can’t remember if she was conscious or not, but was certainly concussed.  The speaker reported that the horse had headed down the road towards us at the main show at a pretty good gallop.

Everyone leapt into action; the EMT was mobilized, the TD notified, show staff buzzing here, there and everywhere.  I kept waiting to hear on the radio that the horse had been caught; the call never came.  The horse never appeared in our area of the show.  I picked up my own radio and asked if anyone had caught the horse or knew where the horse was.  No response.

I left the scoring booth to see that the secretary’s tent was now being staffed only by our intrepid secretary, Liz.  I asked her if she knew anything about the status of the horse.  We concluded that he/she was MIA, but had last been seen speeding towards the Dairy Facility…which borders busy intrastate Route 4.

The horse was loose.  No one was looking for the horse.  The horse was heading for a busy highway.

I hopped into Liz’s car while she stayed at the tent and sped off for the Dairy Facility.

When I arrived, I don’t even know that I closed her car door before one of the dairymen, all casual like, said to me (in a true New Englander accent), “We were a-wondrin when when ah you hoss ladies was gonna come looking”.

“So the horse came through here?”

“Ayuh.”

I glanced around and saw neither tracks nor a horse.

“Which way?”

“It upset the cows, ya know.”

“I am sorry about that.  Which way, please?”

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One of UNH’s dairy herd. I don’t know if she, specifically, was bothered by the horse in question.

They vaguely gestured off towards the edge of the facility, towards the wooded tree line.  I took off in that direction at a jog.  Somewhere in this process, I had thought to call our barn manager and have her notify the local police.  She was reluctant at first, but it was clear to me that we had a real public safety risk if the horse had managed to reach the highway.  As I neared the trees, I caught sight of horse tracks—the horse was clearly still moving at speed, and headed straight into the woods.  I plunged into the overgrown tree line, stomping down the underbrush, fronds poking through the holes of my Crocs.  I tried not to think about how much poison ivy I was running through or the scratches my bare legs were incurring from the brambles.

The path taken by the horse became quite clear once I picked up the trail.  He/she was breaking through footing that had been undisturbed by something as large and quick moving as a horse, and with some recent rain the track had easily yielded to the horse’s momentum.  The ground cover quickly changed from a leafy forested area to a bit of a wetland, replete with cattails and other associated swamp like features.  I was still running along the horse’s trail, hearing the sound of the highway increasing in proximity with each step.  I should add at this point that there are very few circumstances in which I will willingly run.  I am one of those people who, if you seem them running, you should too as likely something quite bad is coming behind me.

So there I am—running after a loose horse (which I still have not seen), towards the highway, in my Crocs, in a swamp. And all of a sudden I just sort of sunk in—my foot slid into a print from the horse and the next thing I knew I was stuck almost hip deep in the muck with one leg.  I managed to extricate both my leg and my trusty Croc, and soldiered along, slipping in a few more times.  I was totally covered in swamp mud.  My colleague Sarah had now caught up to me; she was a distance runner and had jogged the entire way over to the Dairy, catching up to the same farmer and then following me into the brush.  Together, we made our way out through the rest of the swamp and broke out onto the shoulder of Route 4.  It wasn’t clear which way the horse had turned, so we each headed in a different direction and began running.

I kept waiting to hear squealing brakes, or galloping feet, but instead, after a few minutes, I was instead approached by a cruiser with blue lights flashing.  Sarah was sitting in the passenger seat, and the officer rolled down his window.  “The horse has been caught, and I saw you two out here, so I figured I would give you a ride,” he said.  “Hop in”.  I slid into the back seat.  Fun fact:  the back seat of police cruisers is just a plastic shell, which worked out quite well for my “swamp creature” self.

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As the officer drove the cruiser towards the UNH exit, we came upon our naughty dressage horse—a beautiful, flashy chestnut with chrome, still in full tack (bridle, saddle, boots—and no, I never got the brand name of the products which stayed on through the horse’s jaunt through hill and dale)—BEING RIDDEN by a gentleman in his tennis shoes and shorts.  The man was clearly a horseman, and rode in the style of a saddleseat rider or similar.  The horse’s head was up and he was smartly stepping along as the gentleman purposefully trotted him along the side of the road.  We provided police escort to the pair all the way off the highway, down Main Street, and back to the Ring 4 warm up where the whole situation had begun.  The rider did not let up on the horse until they had reached the arena, where he smartly dismounted and took the reins over the head.

Sarah and the officer hopped out of the cruiser and headed towards the horse and rider.  An additional fun fact:  when you are in the back of a police cruiser, you cannot get out unless someone lets you out.  So I sat there, covered in swamp mud, in my UNH Equine polo shirt, waiting in the back of the cruiser to be released.  I sort of wondered if this would be the one occasion on which our Dean might arrive at one of our horse shows, to find me locked in the back of a cop car.

Eventually, the officer noticed my predicament and came to let me out.  I joined the group around the rider, who said he used to show Morgans and was actually the uncle of one of our students.  I told him that if he had liked the horse, he could probably get him for a quite reasonable price at that moment in time!  I also said that I thought he was quite brave, to get on a strange horse that was running loose alongside the highway, with no riding gear or helmet.  He looked at me quite strangely and said, “Well, I certainly wasn’t going to LEAD him off the road!”  To each his own.

The horse’s owner did end up receiving off site medical treatment, but her barn mates assumed possession of her horse and we broke up to continue our respective duties of show management or keeping the peace.  The advantage of my Croc attire was that with a good hosing, I looked moderately presentable and was only modestly stinky for the rest of my day in scoring.

But I will say that if I had to do the whole thing again, more sensible shoes would have been appropriate.  It doesn’t really matter what job you are supposed to be doing at the horse show, I guess there is always a chance you will need to catch a loose horse.

And this is why at GMHA this past weekend, I wore paddock boots for my non-horse involved volunteer role.

I still have the Crocs.

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PS: I stole the featured image (of the UNH dressage rings) for this blog from my friend Liz’s page, On the Bit Events, LLC!  She loves organizing horse shows so much she started her own business to do it! Check her company out!

Consistency and Clarity with the Aids: Winter Break Tune Ups

The university equine program is just barely back in action after a hiatus of nearly six weeks.  Over the winter break, I took advantage of the quiet arena and more relaxed schedule to work on tuning up a few of our wonderful school horses.  Ironically, it was an “all mare” sort of break, and I found myself working with a rotation of four of my favorite horses:  Marquesa, Whisper, Fiona and Morocco, in addition to my own “girls”.

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Spring Hollow Marquesa with her friend Emily.

These four horses couldn’t be more different, at first glance.  What they all have in common is that, for various reasons, they ended the fall semester not going all that well in class, and it was time for a little one on one time with the instructor for a tune up.

Having ridden most of the UNH herd at one point or another, I have firsthand knowledge of what will or will not work for each animal in terms of exercises and applications of the aids. Many of the riders I work with are at the stage of their riding career where they need to learn to modify the use of their aids to suit the individual mount they are sitting on.  The university calls our lessons “labs”, which I joke is because we are “experimenting” with figuring out which recipe of the aids will work best in a given situation.  Riders must learn what ratio to apply their aids in, and the timing, and sometimes the only way to get good at this is to play around, and to mess up a bit.  In this way, the riders are expanding their tool kit.

Fiona is a middle aged, Thoroughbred type mare.  In spite of being chestnut and a former eventer, she is hardly your stereotypical “chestnut TB mare”.  I wouldn’t describe her as hot, but I do consider her to be sensitive and the rider needs to use the aids tactfully. She is one of my most favorite horses that I have ever test ridden for UNH, and when the students started really struggling to get her connected this fall, I was kind of glad for an excuse to get back on her.  Fiona’s main issue is with suppleness—and it is chicken and the egg which she loses first, mental or physical, but once one is gone, so goes the other.

I recently read an old (September 2006) issue of Dressage Today, and there was a great article in there called, “In Search of Trust”, by Tuny Page with Beth Baumert.  I can’t find any access to it online at this point, but in the article Page is basically describing the process she went through to defuse tension in her FEI horse, Wild One.  One of her quotes is especially relevant here:

“I taught Wild One that when he blocked, the pressure from my driving aids would go on and stay on until his back relaxed, his head lowered and he started to breathe, whereupon, my driving leg aids instantly let go.”

What I realized when working with Fiona was that she and her riders had gotten into a vicious cycle of pressure/no response, as Page puts it.  When the rider would ask Fiona to step into the bridle by putting their leg on and taking light contact, Fiona tensed defensively and would raise her neck and drop her back, going almost lateral in the walk and canter and taking hectic and quick steps in the trot.  This highly tense response from the horse then caused the rider to take their leg off and try to force Fiona to lower her neck with the rein aids, which then just caused additional tension, increased hollowness, and less use of the rider’s leg.  Right from the moment the rider picked up contact, Fiona was defending herself against the rider’s aids, and the rider would play into it by removing them.

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Fiona, with her friend Emily.  A different Emily.  

To modify this response, I found that I had to do just the opposite of what might have instinctively seemed correct—I positioned Fiona to the inside with the bending aids, stayed soft and steady through the connection, and then just quietly waited with my leg on for the energy to come “through”.  There were definitely a few strides of unattractive movement each time, as Fiona processed that I wasn’t going to go away, or change my aids, or pull on her mouth.  But it took fewer and fewer strides each ride for Fiona to realize that she knew what I wanted, and she began to lower her head and neck, relax her topline, and then reach more correctly through her  back and into the bridle.  When she did so, the stride length immediately increased and the tempo stabilized.   The response to my leg, seat and rein aids became positive, and I could apply the aids and ride her from back to front.  Basically, as Page said above, I needed to keep my leg aids on until Fiona started to relax and go forward.  Not kicking or aggressively on—just patiently on, waiting.

Whisper is another of my favorite UNH horses, and it had been years since I sat on her.  She is nearly 19 years old now, and has been with the program for ten years.  In the past few semesters, it has been harder for the students to get Whisper working correctly over her back, and she has become stickier in her transitions, especially trot to canter.  I had attributed this to her advancing age and the fact that she has been a school horse for nearly a decade, but after watching her proceed to ignore most of the aids of a fairly strong rider last semester, I decided that I needed to feel for myself what was going on.

Whisper’s situation was different than Fiona’s, but as I suspected, it required a similar solution.  Left to her own choices, Whisper will travel in a long and flat outline, becoming disconnected by poking her nose out and blocking the hind end through stiffness in the muscles of the back, rather than through hollowness.  This mode of travel of course does her no favors, and when the students go to jump with Whisper, they quickly realize that they now lack the ability to adjust her canter at all. In my opinion, Whisper was a pretty easy horse to get connected—she has good training, and was always pretty willing to work correctly if you asked her to.  I thought that maybe time spent as a schoolie had caused her to become desensitized to the aids, and that this was why the students were struggling.

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Whisper waiting to do show jumping at the UNH horse trials with her friend Rachel, an activity which in Whisper’s opinion is WAY more fun than dressage.

I quickly realized that this was not the case.  Within just a few moments on our first ride, Whisper was working willingly in a round and balanced outline, staying freely forward and reaching into the bridle.  She was adjustable laterally and longitudinally, would chew the reins forward and downward, and even easily offered the balance required to counter canter.  Hmm….all of the buttons were clearly still in place and functional.

I came to the conclusion that Whisper has simply gotten very good at teaching riders to accept the “pressure/no response, pressure/no response” approach to riding.  Again, from the Page article:

“Years ago, when I rode event horses, I learned about the dynamics of why kicking a horse doesn’t work…When a rider kicks, for every moment the legs and spurs are on, there’s a moment when they are away and getting ready to kick again.  So the horse experiences pressure/absence of pressure….and so on. ..This is bad training and doesn’t work.”

Page is specifically referring to why this approach is ineffective when trying to get a horse to pass a frightening object.  You cannot force a horse to trust you, and even if you are successful in getting them to go on one occasion, the rider will have done nothing to encourage better harmony or responsiveness to the aids in the future by simply being really aggressive and then letting go.

In Whisper’s case, riders have gotten into a cycle of asking her to do something—flex her neck to the inside, for example—and then being satisfied with a lackluster response.  They put the pressure on in the aids, but then they release it before the horse does.  Whisper has learned that she can just swing her head, wait, and in a second, the rider will most likely give up and let go, and then she can swing her head back to where it was.

It is the same with the leg aids.  If the rider has not developed the ability to isolate their leg and seat, they might apply a driving leg aid, but simultaneously be holding with the seat.  So Whisper only chooses to listen to the “whoa” from the seat.  Meanwhile, the rider is now kicking, and Whisper steadfastly ignores these ever increasingly insistent aids, while both rider and instructor become frustrated with the result.

The key with Whisper is to hold the rein aid just that moment longer, until she gives, and to maintain the soft lower leg with a following seat.  It literally just takes that little bit more of consistency, of the rider really knowing that what they are asking is correct and that it is going to work.  Whisper teaches the rider to be clear and consistent. In Whisper’s case, I need to teach better, to help the students to understand that it is not unfair or incorrect to give a clear, direct aid and expect a response.  In the same issue of Dressage Today, Lisa Wilcox was quoted as saying something along the lines that the “give and take” of a half halt should be more like “take a millimeter, give a millimeter” than anything more significant or dramatic.

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Riding these horses was a valuable experience for me as an instructor.  It helped confirm for me that my suspicions regarding the root cause of some of these common challenges was accurate, and that confident, correct riding would resolve the problem.  I look forward to getting started with the semester in earnest so that we can continue to add to the students’ tool boxes.

Innie or Outie…or both?

Those who follow Denny Emerson’s Tamarack Hill Farm Facebook page may have caught his comments a few days back on the “innies” and “outies” of the horse world:

“In the great big world of riding, there are innies and outies, and this has nothing to do with belly buttons. Some riders love open spaces and no boundaries, while others find comfort and security within walls and arenas, with lots of technical requirements.

“And never the twain shall meet,” not quite literally, but how many times have you seen a dressage rider out fox hunting, or a trail rider showing a hunter?

Outie sports like fox hunting, where literally the riders have no idea, at any given moment, where the fox or coyote will lead them, or for how long, are far different from, say, show jumping, which has a specific track, and sequence of fences, and a specific start and finish, and a required time allowed.

It has been postulated that those who gravitate toward outie sports, like trail riding, fox hunting, point to point racing, and (sometimes) eventing have entirely different kinds of psychological profiles than those who prefer innie sports like dressage, show hunters and show jumping.

Outie sports tend to be less precise, exact and meticulous than innie sports. They are also often faster, perhaps more high risk, and less encumbered by rules and regulations.

Of these sports, eventing is perhaps the “swing’ sport, less outie than back in long format days, but still attracting both the innie and outie riders.

Which type of riding draws you in, the more precise, more specific innie sports, or the more “laissez faire” outie ones?”

I had to laugh a little after reading the post…because I seem to be living up to my Gemini nature and enjoy both worlds quite a bit. I have two horses right now—the distance horse that also does a bit of a dressage, and the “event horse who is becoming more of a dressage horse” who focuses much better on dressage days when we have the benefit of time spent outside of the ring in between.

I have successfully competed through 4th level in dressage, and even had the honor of owning a wonderful, big moving and super handsome Hanoverian gelding for five years who helped me finish my USDF Bronze Medal.  But to just ride around and around the arena six days per week, even on a fancy mover who can execute flawless changes, smooth half passes and extravagant lengthenings, for me, starts to become a little repetitive.  Worldly and I always hacked out a little bit—definitely with attention to the footing (wouldn’t want to lose an eggbar) and more frequent spooks at common objects, but I think the escape from the arena did a lot to keep his attention fresh and focus sharp when working on the precision, accuracy and submission that dressage requires.  It also helped us when we showed at Saugerties (NY) and had to hack from the absolute opposite side of the show grounds, over a bridge, through the Marshall and Sterling League Finals, to the dressage arenas where the NEDA Championships were being held.

 

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Worldly (Weltinus, on the left) after winning the 2006 Region 8 Second Level Freestyle championships.  And yes, we were required to put white polos on the horses–I had to go buy a set!

But on the flip side of the coin, I wouldn’t want to always ride out on the trail, either, for several reasons.  It is one thing when a horse is totally retired, and they are basically being ridden to give them attention, companionship and light exercise.  For most riders, though, riding only out of the ring makes it too easy to become sloppy and complacent with position, and to also become accepting of asymmetry in both horse and rider.  Both partners will tend to favor their stronger side and do not have the same opportunity to address tightness, restriction and weakness on the less dominant side that those who work in the ring do. This kind of imbalance can, over time, contribute to uneven muscle development, saddle fit issues, pain and even lameness.   I also genuinely enjoy the process of developing a horse for various arena disciplines; the steady progression of exercises and application of training pyramid concepts appeals to my methodical, organized, intellectual side.

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Lee and I on a New Hampshire beach.

As in most things, a balance seems to be required.  Trail and distance horses, and their riders, certainly can benefit from the fundamentals of basic dressage to encourage suppleness, develop strength and improve the quality of communication.  Work over basic cavaletti or even small fences can help improve footwork, coordination, strengthen hindquarters and can also prove helpful when crossing downed trees or other trail obstacles. Arena horses, like hunters and dressage horses, can also improve their level of fitness (both mental and physical) but by spending time OUTSIDE of the ring.  The many balance checks required when going over uneven terrain on the trail can help to strengthen muscles and stabilize joints, hopefully helping to reduce the risk of injury from a misstep in the ring.

And just as one would not expect the trail horse to magically piaffe or clear a four foot spread in the ring, the arena horse would not be expected to handle the more significant terrain or speeds required of the competitive trail horse.  Each has a specialty and is just ‘dabbling’ in the other area.

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Anna and her friend Izzy show U of New Hampshire Wildcat pride at the Wentworth Hunt Hnter Pace in May.

As an instructor and coach, I have been struck by how many students enter our college riding program, many from a hunt seat background, having never ridden out in the open.  We are lucky to have an on campus cross country course, likely the only one of its kind in the country, where we run sanctioned events.  Students riding in the more advanced levels of riding class have the opportunity to go school out on the course, under supervision.  It is probably the most stressful week of riding instruction that I offer each semester, and a lot of what I have to do is manage the deep fear which many of these “arena riders” face in simply crossing the bridge to our course.

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Heading out on the UNH cross country course with two innocent students, hoping to infect them with a love of riding out in the open and the freedom of no boundaries.

Many of these riders have never experienced even basic terrain, and have no knowledge of how to balance their horse going up or downhill, or how to hold their own bodies to stay centered when the ground is not level.  They are not familiar with pulley reins, emergency dismounts or other techniques used to regain control of a fresh mount.  I must constantly remind them that their arena jumping techniques should come with them onto the course, that all of the good practice and methods they have used to control pace, balance and form when jumping in the ring also apply to fences out in the open.

At the end of a school, the riders almost always fall into one of two groups—the ones which have experienced the first adrenalin rush of cross country, hooked, ready to go again, and the ones who (sometimes literally) wipe away their tears, happy to have survived the experience, hoping that they may never have to do it again.  Denny was right—these are the outies and the innies.  I guess we all do sort of have a tendency towards one or the other.

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I rode this cool Quarter Horse, Thunder, on a trip to the White Mountains of Nevada.

In the end, the question is whether you choose to accept your true nature, or whether you get brave, get disciplined, or some combination of the two, and step into the world which is less comfortable.  My guess is that even if you don’t choose to stay there, you will be a better horseman for the experience.

Hilary Clayton:  Biomechanical Interactions Amongst the Rider, the Tack and the Horse

Dr. Clayton shares her thoughts at the University of New Hampshire Equine Program on October 27, 2015

There is no doubt that how we ride our horses, the tack we use on them and the manner in which the horses carry themselves has a cumulative effect on their well-being over time.  Whether that effect is positive or negative is one of the questions considered in the study of equine biomechanics, which combines the disciplines of physics and physiology to study how forces and work affect the body of the horse.  Dr. Hilary Clayton is well known for the work she has done in this field, and she visited the University of New Hampshire in October of 2015 to share her thoughts on some of the more common interactions which occur amongst the horse, the rider and the tack.

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Dr. Hilary Clayton (Photo taken from her promotional poster.)

Equine Topline Mechanics 101

Clayton started her presentation with an overview of the structure of a horse’s vertebral column and how it works.  Just like in humans, the horse’s spine is made up of bone, ligaments, muscles and discs; equine discs are relatively thin compared to a human’s, and therefore horses don’t suffer from slipped discs and disc pain like humans can.  Even though the horse’s spine is horizontal, it loads similarly to a human’s in that it compresses together when force is applied.

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In this skeleton of an Arabian, it is easy to see the difference in the bones of the cervical and thoracic spine.  Note also the proximity of the spinous processes.

Each intervertebral joint has a small degree of mobility; when taken in totality, this allows for considerable movement along the entire length of the horse’s spine.  The degree and type of movement which the topline displays varies with each gait. In the walk, there is some bending and rotation in the topline, but little flexion or extension.  At the trot, there is more flexion and extension and the back is stabilized.  At the canter and the gallop, there is a great deal of flexion and extension, particularly in the lumbosacral joint, and the back is stabilized.

The Horse in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge

Instructors and trainers will often tell their clients that their horses need to move with a swinging back.  Clayton explained that this statement is not wholly accurate.  When in locomotion, the horse’s back must actually remain stable in order to support the horse’s weight and to transmit propulsive forces from the limbs. Clayton says that when the horse moves at liberty, they are not actively moving their back.  The back movement we see is due to gravity, inertia and the propulsive forces of the hind leg. In fact, excessive mobility of the bones in the spine during motion is never the goal—it is the muscles which need to be supple into order to control the movement of the spine.

Charlotte_DUJARDIN_JEM2014
Charlotte Dujardin and the incomparable Valegro.  Photo by Florence Skowron, via Wikimedai Commons.

Clayton compared the structure of the articulated vertebrae of the horse’s spine to a beam which has a support at each end.  In the horse’s case, the “beam” tends to sag a bit in the middle, due to the weight of the internal organs and other viscera.  When we add the weight of a saddle and rider to this region, we increase the hollowing of the spine and the “dip” in the middle of the beam.  Clayton explains that with a rider, the range of flexion and extension is the same but the entire cycle of the motion is more extended.

Through the above description, it should be immediately apparent that the weight of the rider is inherently causing stress on the horse’s topline.  More troubling, though, is that when the horse’s back is hollowed as result of this weight, the dorsal spinous processes are approximated, which can lead to the development of the degenerative condition known as kissing spines.  Clayton’s research has shown that far more horses are affected with kissing spines than just those which show overt symptoms; however, even at a subclinical level, the syndrome can cause the horse discomfort and reduce the quality of their performance.  The good news is that when the back is rounded, the opposite effect occurs—the spinous processes are spread out. Therefore, regardless of your discipline, you horse should learn to work with a round topline.

kissingspines
In this image borrowed from a fellow wordpress user, the kissing spines can be clearly seen.

Round Backs and Development of the Horse’s Core

Clayton compared the mechanism which causes the horse’s back to be round to a “bow and string”.  The “string” is comprised of the muscles on the underside of the bones of the back, in this case the abdominal and sublumbar muscles.  The “bow” is therefore made up of the muscles located above the vertebrae.  Rounding their back requires the coordinated action of the horse’s core muscles.

Athletes of all species can achieve more optimal performance with a strong core.  These muscles are important both for balanced movement and coordinated stabilization.  Clayton divided the muscles of the horse’s core into three groups:  the back muscles, the sublumbar muscles and the abdominal muscles, and the groups work in concert to achieve the maximum mobility of the horse’s spine.

horsereactiontoweight
Image from http://www.equinechronicle.com

The back muscles make the topline hollow, round or bend right and left.  The sublumbar muscles flex the lumbosacral joint and the pelvis, which helps to bring the hind legs forward and underneath the body.  Finally, the abdominal muscles wrap all around the horse’s belly, running many different directions.  This group of muscles includes the transverse abdominal, the obliques and the rectus abdominus.  Collectively, they literally help hold the horse’s ‘guts’ in place, as well as stabilize the spine and assist with lateral bending.

Clayton explained the function of the back muscles in more specific detail. First, she discussed the longissimus and iliocostalis muscles, which are the long mobilizing muscles of the back.  They are made up of long fibers and cross many joints. These muscles are able to move the entire back of the horse.

The multifadi muscles serve the function of stabilizing the horse’s back.  These muscles are located right against the spinous processes and are comprised of short fibers which cross only a few joints; therefore, they work on only a limited area of the horse’s spine.  However, the condition of these muscles can have a profound effect on the shape of the back in a specific area.  More will be said on this later.

horse_anatomy_the_muscles_by_wiggle_chicken
Image from jenpenjen.deviantart.com

Clayton pointed out that most muscles work in pairs or layers; therefore, the deep stabilizing muscles are as important as the long mobilizing muscles, as they help to prevent vibration in the horse’s bones.  They also have a low activation threshold, which means that they will contract (along with the transverse abdominal muscle) simply in anticipation of locomotor activity.  They then serve to stabilize the horse’s spine as the limbs move.

Limited research has been done on the many effects of the horse’s stabilizing muscles on the spine.  However, research done on humans has shown that chronic back pain is often associated with atrophy of the deep stabilizing muscles, as joints then become too mobile.  Impaired spinal stabilization is an important risk factor and a predictor of recurrent back pain in humans.  Based on her research, Clayton extrapolates that a similar connection exists in horses.

core.stability.muscles
Notice how the same muscles provide stability to the human spine.  Image found on http://www.appliedpostureriding.com.au

Human research has also shown that even when back pain is resolved, the deep stabilizing muscles do not resume normal activity on their own.  Physiotherapy exercises are necessary to re-train the pre-activation of the stabilizing muscles.  In human patients who underwent this therapy, the one year recurrence rate of pain reduced from 80% to 30%.

When it comes to back pain, Clayton says that horses go through a similar cycle to humans.  When the back hurts, the deep stabilizing muscles become inactive, resulting in atrophy.  This causes the long mobilizing muscles to compensate, but since they are not equipped to stabilize the spine, these muscles spasm and cause further pain.  Therapeutic exercises are needed to reactivate the deep stabilizing muscles and to break the cycle of compensation and pain.

Developing Your Horse’s Core with Dynamic Mobilization Exercises

Clayton has developed a series of core strengthening exercises and sequences through her research, and she goes into illustrated depth about these in her book, Activate Your Horse’s Core (Sport Horse Publications, 2008). She gave a brief synopsis during her presentation.

Dynamic Mobilization Exercises are those in which the horse follows a controlled movement pattern which strengthens the muscles that move and stabilize the back.  They are comprised of rounding exercises and bending exercises.  In the rounding exercises, most of the flexion comes from the poll (high position) or the base of the neck (low position).  In the bending exercises, most of the movement comes at the base of the neck.

pilatesmobile1
Image from http://www.horseyard.com.au, from an article related to Dr. Clayton’s work.  

Clayton described a protocol which provided positive results in several “couch potato” school horses.  Using small bits of carrot to motivate the horse, they did three rounding exercises (chin to chest, chin between the carpi (knees) and chin between the fetlocks) and three lateral bending exercises (chin to girth, chin to hip, chin to hind fetlock).  For the lateral bending exercises, the human stood next to the horse, making them bend their neck around the human.  Horses did five repetitions/day and on left and right sides, if appropriate.  The exercises were repeated five days/week for three months.  Even with these stretches as the only form of exercise, the horses showed a positive development in their deep stabilizing muscles.

One of the benefits of these exercises is that the horse will only stretch as far as they are comfortable.  Ideally, the handler should encourage the horse to hold the stretch for as long as possible, but even stretching for a short period will help improve the strength of the multifidus muscle.   The best benefits are seen when these exercises are performed before the horse works each day; regular inclusion of them in a training program will help equine athletes throughout their career.  In addition, these exercises can be used in youngsters to help develop the deep stabilizing muscles before they begin under saddle training and are also especially beneficial for horses recovering from colic surgery, with appropriate approval from the attending veterinarian.

Transverse-Abdominus
Image from http://www.classicphysiotherapy.co.uk

The Role of Equipment and Rider in Equine Back Pain

When it comes to saddle selection and fit, it is clear that both the horse and the rider must be comfortable.  While the rider can simply vocalize their discomfort, the horse must express it in other ways, and it is important for riders and trainers to remain sensitive to this communication.  Unfortunately, the manner in which horses display the existence of back pain is as variable as the causes.  However, both the saddle and the rider can contribute to discomfort in the horse’s topline, and certain issues are almost sure predictors of pain in the horse.

horse-and-rider

Clayton has made extensive use of an electronic pressure mat which sits on the horse’s back in her research on saddles.  This specialized mat has 256 sensors (128 on each side of the spine) which measure force distribution on the horse’s back.  Her research has shown that the total force placed on the horse’s back varies with the size and weight of the rider and saddle as well as the gait of travel.

For example, in the trot, the suspension phase has minimal pressure, while the stance phase of each stride has the maximum force.  This is when the horse’s body is starting to rise up, but the weight of the rider is still down.  The mean force placed on the horse is at least equal to the rider’s weight in the walk; in the trot, it is two times the rider’s weight and in the canter it is three times.

equetrian-market-01
This image, taken from http://www.sensorprod.com, shows the pressure profile of a rider’s buttocks and thighs on the saddle.  Clayton’s tools offer her similar insight into the intensity, duration and location of pressure when a horse is in motion. 

Clayton says that she is frequently asked to quantify how much weight a given horse can fairly be asked to carry, but she says that this is a complex question to answer.  Variables such as the height, weight, conformation, fitness and soundness of the horse all play a role.  For example, a horse with a short and broad loin coupling can likely carry more weight than a horse of similar size with a long or narrow loin.  As far as the rider goes, variables such as weight, fitness, symmetry, balance, postural control and health issues all influence the impact they have on a given horse. Also important is the activity the horse is being asked to do—what type of work and on what kind of footing or terrain.

Finally, the saddle itself can have a positive or negative impact on a horse’s comfort level.  Each saddle is unique in terms of its load-bearing area, fit and suitability for a given horse, rider and job.   Soft tissues compress when pressure is applied.  The larger the area the force is spread over, the less overall pressure there will be.  This is one of the reasons why more modern saddles have long, broad panels.

Saddle-Panel-Diagram1-1024x501
Image from http://www.totalsaddlefit.com

Pressure is calculated via force divided by area.  Therefore, the pressure increases if the force is larger or if the contact area is smaller.  Areas of deep pressure can be very harmful, causing ulcers or necrosis of the tissue due to increased capillary pressure.  On a less extreme level, pressure can cause discomfort through abrasions.  Clayton says that it is the magnitude and duration of pressure which are most important.  Muscles in particular are easily damaged by pressure.

If you see dry spots under your saddle after work, these are areas of increased pressure which prevent the sweat glands from working and are cause for concern.

dryspot
In this photo, it is clear where there has been an area of increased pressure and therefore inhibition of the sweating mechanism. 

Interesting Saddle Trivia

In her research, Clayton has had cause to investigate a number of different areas in which saddles might impact the horse, and she shared some of her findings with the audience.

One of the first questions she looked at was whether a saddle is truly necessary.  Most riders prefer to use a saddle for the stability and security it provides them on the horse’s back, and as it turns out, horses seem to prefer that their riders use saddles, too.  Without a saddle, the pressure of the rider is distributed over a smaller area, and the focal points of that pressure are over the rider’s seat bones.  (Interestingly, Clayton found similar results when she looked at one brand of treeless saddle, as well).  Clayton found that in general, a saddle which fits the shape of the horse’s back and the shape of the rider’s pelvis will provide stability to the rider’s position, and as a result, the pressure is more evenly distributed.  She also mentioned that within a breed, 80-90% of animals will have a similar back shape.

Correct saddle fit is of course of paramount importance.  Correctly fitted saddles are more stable, which increases horse and rider harmony.   The rigid parts of the tree, including the gullet plate, the points and the bars, can cause increased areas of pressure on the horse’s back.   It is important to consider the width of the gullet plate and length of the tree’s points in relation to the position of the scapula and related muscles.  When the horse extends their forelimb, the scapula rotates back and down on its back side, and rotates a little bit up in front.  This causes the back edge of the scapula to actually slide underneath the saddle in this moment of the stride.  A well fitting saddle should allow for free movement of the scapula when the forelimb is protracted.

Dia-2-Saddle-Fit
From http://www.equilibriumproducts.com

Clayton says that the width of the tree is equally important.  The correct width allows the load to be evenly distributed over a large area.  Ideally, the contact area is long and wide, with no focal points of high pressure.  A tree which is too wide may cause the gullet to put direct pressure on the withers and/or cause high pressure along the panels close to the spine.  In addition, the saddle often tips forward and down.  A tree which is too narrow is one of the most common causes of bridging; there is more pressure at the front and the back of the panels, and the saddle tips backwards.  Clayton says that bridging is the most common saddle fit problem, and it must be evaluated with the rider on board and while the horse is in motion.

bridging
Image from http://www.saddlemakers.org.  

More nuanced aspects of saddle fit include assessing the width of the gullet and slope and shape of the panels.  A wider gullet is usually better, because it allows mobility of the spine without causing it to hit the edge of the panels.  The slope of the panels must also suit the shape of the horse’s back. Panels come in a variety of widths and curvatures, and it is important that the type chosen suits the individual animal.

Finally, Clayton emphasized that saddle pads cannot compensate for the deficiencies of a poorly fitting saddle.  However, they may increase the horse’s comfort if the saddle is essentially the correct size and shape.  Clayton says that pads made with natural fibers, such as sheepskin, seem to have a better degree of resiliency and spring.

Girths and Slipping Saddles

Girth design has evolved considerably in recent years, and Clayton touched briefly on the subject at the end of her talk.  She said that the highest pressure beneath the girth occurs just behind the elbow in the moment when the forelimb contacts the ground. In her research, contoured girths seem to do the best job in terms of reducing both force and pressure.

Finally, Clayton discussed saddles which seem to constantly slip to one side.  She says that it is important to determine if the cause of the slip is the horse, the rider or the fit of the saddle.  Subtle hind limb lameness can be blamed for the cause of many slipping saddles, particularly when the slip occurs consistently to one side and with a variety of different riders on board.  In 60% of these cases, the saddle slips towards the side of the lame/more significantly lame hind limb.  The slip will go away when the lameness is eliminated through the use of nerve or joint blocks.  Clayton commented that rider crookedness is more likely to be an effect than the cause of saddle slipping.  Clearly if the cause of the saddle slip is lameness, this issue must be addressed before the problem will go away.

Final Thoughts

Clayton’s presentation covered a broad range of topics, but one theme was quite clear—riders have an obligation to their horses to ride them in as correct of a manner as possible, in the best fitting tack possible.  In this way, riders and trainers can actively contribute to the preservation of the horse’s long term soundness and promote their well-being.

Cadre_noir_-_saut_au_piquet.jpg
With good training and attention to correct tack and conditioning, horses are truly capable of amazing feats.  “Cadre-noir-saut au piquet” by Alain Laurioux

 

 

On Being an “Ivory Tower Equestrian”

An online dictionary defines the term “ivory tower” as “a state of privileged seclusion or separation from the facts and practicalities of the real world”.  It is frequently used in a derisive way, especially in regards to academia, to imply that someone’s ideas or actions are not as relevant as they might be otherwise because they are so far out of step with reality.

The day to day life of a full time, self-employed equine professional can certainly be grueling.  These people often refer to the fact that being seriously involved with horses is a way of life, and they don’t mind the challenging aspects, including the long hours and few days off.  The up side—being able to spend so much time with horses and to watch horses and riders under their direction or care grow and develop, outweighs the challenges.  However, few would say that the self-employed route is easy, and there are certainly at least moments during which most reasonable people would consider whether the stress and adversity are really worth it.

Before joining the faculty at UNH, I too was “in the trenches” and cobbled my living together through an assortment of jobs.  In the mornings, I was an assistant barn manager at a dressage facility, completing the usual daily chores but also getting horses ready for the trainer/manager.  In the afternoons, I ran a small lesson business on borrowed school horses, teaching mostly children the basics of horsemanship.  I taught Pony Club.  I worked part time at UNH for a few semesters.  I worked in the banquet department at the Sheraton, where I learned that the best shifts were for weddings, because most everyone was in a good mood and there was a DJ and cake.   I lived from contract to contract. I paid through the nose for a health insurance policy which would still have required me to drain all savings before it would have paid a cent.

My horse Lee and two UNH IHSA team members, each of whom won a flat class on her at the home show.
My horse Lee and two UNH IHSA team members, each of whom won a flat class on her at the home show.

When I first started at UNH, it was positively decadent.  I couldn’t BELIEVE that they sent me a paycheck every two weeks just for showing up.  UNH has excellent benefits, both insurance wise and investment wise, and you can also take classes.  I was able to complete my Master’s degree mostly for free.  The hours are still long, and there have been plenty of nights and weekends dedicated to the cause.  But by and large, it has provided me with a great deal of security and stability, values which I have determined are essential for my mental health.  And most of the time, I get to do what I like to do: work with horses and humans.

Participants in UNH's therapeutic riding program.  Shazaam, Marcy and Quill are all now retired, while Snowy (second from right) is a boarder who still works part time in the therapeutic program.
Participants in UNH’s therapeutic riding program. Shazaam, Marcy and Quill are all now retired, while Snowy (second from right) is a boarder who still works part time in the therapeutic program.

Recently, I had the opportunity to spend four days in Michigan teaching a Pony Club camp—it was great fun, and a nice chance to get back to my roots.  The schedule was full, as was camp enrollment—something like 32 campers and a few Horsemasters, four mounted instructors and assorted local experts helping out with unmounted topics.

The three other instructors who I worked with all run their own riding/training/lesson businesses.  One owns a thriving eventing and dressage barn, and had during one day in the previous week taught 18 lessons and ridden something like five horses.  Another maintains foxhunters for owners who come to ride on weekends, providing full service care including daily conditioning rides and then shipping to and turning out for hunts.  The third has a combination of training horses and lesson clients, straddling the disciplines of dressage and eventing.

With members of the UNH IHSA team at a Vermont show.
With members of the UNH IHSA team at an Vermont show.

Listening to their discussions about the ups and downs of their businesses was enlightening.  One trainer travels from farm to farm in the afternoons to teach private clients.   A few clients are chronic last minute cancellers, which leaves her on the road with an hour or more of down time.  When you freelance, time is money, and when such cancellations become common it can significantly impact the bottom line. She is struggling to come up with a cancellation policy which won’t alienate her clients but can protect her interests.

The trainers all have a few “difficult” clients; we know the archetype.  They have more money than horse sense; they want to do cool and fun movements or jump big jumps with their horses, but do none of the actual work that gets you to that level; and they demand constant attention and validation.  They talked about the strategies they use to keep these clients on track, working towards attaining goals without pushing too hard, placating their concerns and worries via text and phone.  I was exhausted just listening to them.

Then there was the discussion on insurance, all aspects of it—liability/professional, but also health and disability. It is a cripplingly expensive essential. The cost can make it hard for them to save money for future plans or retirement.

It was then that I realized that I may have, quite inadvertently, become an “Ivory Tower Equestrian”, and I listened to the conversation with a bit of detachment. I used to deal with all of these concerns in my previous life, but my current reality is somewhat different.  When a student chooses to repeatedly not come to class or doesn’t want to work super hard at it, their grade is reduced.  Liability insurance is not a major concern as our activities fall under the university’s umbrella policy.  If the weather is bad for a few days, or I am out sick or need to take a day off for personal reasons, I will still get paid the same amount.

Retired UNH horse Flash models the equine digestive system for students participating in the 2013 Equine Education Day.
Retired UNH horse Flash models the equine digestive system for students participating in the 2013 Equine Education Day.

From the outside looking in, it might seem like we Ivory Tower Equestrians have it made.  And in many ways, we do.  But it is not all sunshine and roses, and in some ways the challenges we face are not all that dissimilar to those of our self-employed brethren.  They are similar, but different.

Sometimes Lee lets riders from other schools win prizes too-- here a rider from Colby Sawyer celebrates after winning reserve high point honors.
Sometimes Lee lets riders from other schools win prizes too– here a rider from Colby Sawyer celebrates after winning reserve high point honors.

At colleges/universities, programs live and die by their overall enrollments.  If your classes are full, and there are students in your degree program, then odds are good that there will be some kind of continued support for you, though rarely in the amount or frequency which is actually needed.  But the reverse of the equation is true, and the reality is that an equine program is an expensive one to run.  The “lab equipment” used in all of the hands on classes, including horsemanship but others as well, requires daily care, food, and veterinary/farrier attention.  These aren’t microscopes that sit quietly on a shelf until they are next needed.  All of the usual issues with facility maintenance apply to us, too; fencing needs to be replaced, footing wears out, tack gets worn.  In some ways, it is worse for us than at a private facility, because of the high volume of use during the academic year.  School horse saddles can be ridden in for as many as ten hours per day; when you multiply that times five days per week per a fifteen week semester, that is a lot of seat time for one saddle to see.  These costs are partially covered by the lab fees paid by students; if our classes aren’t full, or the lab fees exceed what the students are willing or able to pay, then the house of cards begins to quickly topple.

Two UNH riders with leased horse Wiggle and UNH's Whisper celebrate after their first ever two phase competition.
Two UNH riders with leased horse Wiggle and UNH’s Whisper celebrate after their first ever two phase competition.

Some people, both from within and from outside of the university setting, criticize the existence of collegiate equine programs, and they are derisive towards the validity of an equine studies degree.  Some think that all we do is ride, or that we are part of the athletics department. At one staff meeting last semester, a tenured faculty member asked if our students’ final capstone course was whether or not they could sit eight seconds on a bucking bronco.  As a program, we are constantly evaluating our curriculum both for efficacy and rigor, but still there are those who publicly and privately question what we do.  At the end of the day, the University of New Hampshire Equine Program graduate is receiving a Bachelor of Science degree, with a heavy emphasis on biological science and including courses in general biology, anatomy and physiology, genetics and nutrition, with specialty courses in equine disease and sports medicine, amongst others.  These subjects and the skills students gain in studying them are applicable to a wide range of career paths, both in and out of the equine industry. Regardless of choice of college major, it is up to the student to figure out what to do with it.  A college major, and the degree it elicits, is only a starting point; the student must then seek out opportunities to continue to grow and expand their careers.

A senior equine studies major gets Coco (leased to UNH by Camp Runoia and a valued horse in the therapeutic riding program) ready for a presentation at the Equine Education Day, spring of 2015.
A senior equine studies major gets Coco (leased to UNH by Camp Runoia and a valued horse in the therapeutic riding program) ready for a presentation at the Equine Education Day, spring of 2015.

Some of the same external critics who deride the validity of an equine degree also publicly criticize anyone who would even CONSIDER donating their horse to a collegiate program.  At least 90% of our horses come as donations from private individuals.  They come for a variety of reasons—age, manageable conditions which reduce resale value, owner financial issues, or a horse that is not up to the continued challenge of a competitive show career, for examples.  Many donors want to know that their horse will not continue to be sold on and on.  Some of our horses have been in our program for most of their lives.  They are well cared for, loved, carefully supervised, and have allowed hundreds if not thousands of horsemen to grow and develop during the animals’ careers with us.  When our horses tell us that they are no longer happy doing what we need them to do, we seek to place them in carefully screened adoptive homes, sometimes with former students.  If they are in pain, suffering or otherwise unwell in a manner which will cause a diminishing quality of life, we allow them a humane and dignified end when their time comes.  However they leave us, we cry to lose them and smile with their memories.

Longtime UNH school horse Cooper passed away this spring at the age of 23 after a period of failing health.  He was in the program for thirteen years.
Longtime UNH school horse Cooper passed away this spring at the age of 23 after a period of failing health. He was in the program for thirteen years.

People criticize equine programs because they cannot keep horses forever.  The reality is that all horses get to an age or physical condition in which their workload must be modified or ceased.  After all, this is often the reason that their original owners passed the horse on to us in the first place.  If the former owner has asked to be notified when this time comes, we always do so (and sometimes even when they have not asked, just to make them aware).  Very few are interested in taking their horses back but are grateful for the call.

UNH students riding school owned horses Clementine, Whisper and Morocco participated in a clinic with UNH graduate Nancy Guyotte.
UNH students riding school owned horses Clementine, Whisper and Morocco participated in a clinic with UNH graduate Nancy Guyotte.

The critics claim that equestrian programs at universities overwork horses, quickly sell them on, or ship them off to auction when they don’t work out.  Perhaps that happens at other places, but it does not happen here.  And frankly, it really frosts me to read those kinds of ignorant comments.  We are quite transparent with our policies and the use of our horses; in fact, every single activity we do with our horses—from riding them to practicing bandaging to therapeutic riding— must be reviewed and approved by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, and their work hours are carefully documented.  I somehow doubt that most privately owned lesson strings receive such comprehensive and regulated monitoring.

UNH equine residents check out the view.
UNH equine residents check out the view.

We Ivory Tower Equestrians may not be working to run our own business, but many of us are working to run the business that is our program.  We must recruit new “clients” (students) and ensure that the “product” that we are selling them (a B.S. degree) is of high quality and a good value for the money.  We must balance the needs of our program with the values of a constantly changing and somewhat underfunded state university.  And just like our comrades in the field, if our clients aren’t satisfied with our output, they will take their business elsewhere.  A true Ivory Tower Equestrian who does not consider these realities will likely find themselves out of a job. Perhaps we are more alike than we are different.

UNH Equine Program co-hosted a course design clinic with internationally acclaimed designer Richard Jefferey with USEA Area I.  Here students pose with Jefferey after building the show jumping course for the UNH Horse Trials 40th Anniversary.
UNH Equine Program co-hosted a course design clinic with internationally acclaimed designer Richard Jefferey with USEA Area I. Here students pose with Jefferey after building the show jumping course for the UNH Horse Trials 40th Anniversary.

For me, this experience was an important one in terms of remembering what the daily concerns of the self-employed instruction business is like, but also to appreciate the unique benefits and challenges of the university setting.

A Clinic with Nancy Guyotte

On December 15, 2014, the U of New Hampshire Equine Program hosted a jumping clinic with eventing veteran Nancy Guyotte.  Nancy, of Hill, NH, is a graduate of the UNH Animal Science program and was involved with the early years of its now well established horse trials.  Of course, Nancy also went on to great personal success of her own as an eventing rider, coach and breeder.  Our students very much enjoyed having the opportunity to work with her; I was also able to squeeze myself into one of the groups, which was great fun and a positive experience!

Getting Started: Connection and Suppleness

In my personal experience, taking a clinic with someone new can be a nerve wracking undertaking, particularly when the focus is work over fences.  I have absolutely had the experience of riding with a clinician who simply raised the fences higher and higher, assuming I guess that it is everyone’s goal to jump large obstacles, even if they do so poorly.  I like to be challenged and to learn new exercises, but I don’t want to find my horse overfaced with the questions in front of us.

I think it is hard for clinicians as well, especially when they are coming in cold and don’t totally know for sure what the expertise level will be of the riders they are working with or the caliber and training of the horses.

Therefore, I wholly appreciated that after a brief round of introductions and review of equipment, our session with Nancy began working with cavaletti and flatwork.  Nancy wanted our group to focus on suppleness, responsiveness, adjustability and connection in our flat work, which are also important qualities to bring forward into the work over fences.  In my own instruction, I try to help my students to make this association as well—because for many riders who like to jump, flatwork is just what you do to warm up, not the main focus of a ride.

Anna warming up.
Anna warming up.

After a working in phase of work in walk, trot and canter, Nancy began to focus more directly on each horse’s lateral and longitudinal suppleness as well as the overall connection from hindquarters to the bridle.  Two exercises were particularly helpful for me.  The first was using a bit of counter-flexion with a leg yield of just a few steps to the inside to get Anna more even between both reins, as opposed to overflexed in the neck without bend through the ribcage (a favorite evasion).  This mini-exercise is used as a microadjustment, a rebalancing of the aids, and it is super effective.  Another exercise that Nancy had the group work on was turn on the forehand.  I don’t school this movement frequently, though I do use other forms of leg yield and turn on the haunches.  Turn on the forehand can help improve the connection to the outside rein as well as the engagement of the inside hind.  If your horse gets stuck, you should step forward for a few strides and then return to the turn.  You can also think about riding a small circle with the hind legs, and a smaller circle with the front ones, rather than making the turn be completely “on the spot”.

As our group rode the turn on the forehand, most of us would do 180 degrees and then leave the movement.  Nancy reminded us that you can go 360 degrees around, or even just keep your horse in the movement until you are satisfied with the result.

An Eye for Detail

Once the horses had worked in, we began working over a straight row of four cavaletti poles.  If you do not have traditional cavaletti (the kind with an “x” at the end), it is important to try to use square poles which cannot roll or to brace round rails with plastic blocks or other similar tools.

Nancy set up a row of cavaletti at a distance of 4’6” on centerline; we walked through the rails first and then proceeded to the trot. At this distance, the horse should put one trot step in between each of the rails.  The advantage of using centerline is that you can reverse directions after each approach and therefore work the horse equally on both sides.  The challenge is that it then becomes harder to keep the horse straight.

Working through the cavaletti.
Working through the cavaletti.

I have usually allowed my horses to stretch and reach a bit over cavaletti rails, but Nancy pointed out that when Anna did this, she was taking advantage of the rails as an opportunity to become disconnected.  Nancy encouraged me to take a bit more time prior to coming through the rails to really get Anna through and over the back, and then reminded me to keep my lower leg on as we came over the rails.   With successive repetitions through the rails, Anna began to more consistently remain connected and increased her activity.

Next we moved on to work over a fan of three rails.  In a “fan” pattern, the rider approaches the rails with bend through the horse’s ribcage, as opposed to the straighter line taken through rails on the center line.  The inside rails of the fan are closer together, while the outside rails are spread further apart.  In this case, Nancy placed the rails such that the center to center approach was at 9 feet.  This meant that the horses could trot through the rails, taking two steps in between each, or canter through in a bounce stride.  Depending on the horse’s natural length of stride, fading to the inside of the fan or pushing towards the outside might make the exercise easier.  However, Nancy emphasized the importance of being able to create the middle canter, and to be able to maintain the bend, balance, connection and energy through the center of the rails.

Coming through the fan.
Coming through the fan.

Though this sort of exercise sounds as though it should be rather easy, the reality is that to keep each component of the horse’s gait and body position wholly under control of the rider is actually quite difficult.  The horses in our group tended to start over the first rail straight (so, perpendicular to the center of the rail) but then veered off on a tangent, rather than remaining connected, bent and engaged through the inside hind leg.  With successive repetitions, each of the horses became more consistent through the exercise.  Nancy remarked that she actually keeps an exercise like this set up in her arena most of the time, so that it can remain a regular component of her schooling.

Eventually, the center element of the fan became slightly elevated, and we began to approach the first rail in trot but then ask for the canter as we crossed the third rail.  Finding the timing for this aid was most possible when the approach into the exercise was correctly executed.

What I most appreciated during this segment of our session was Nancy’s impressive eye for detail.  It was always the most subtle things which made the biggest difference— for example, lowering the hands slightly or supporting with the lower leg more consistently. As always, the constant focus and attention on basics is essential for success.

Moving on to Jumps

These preparatory cavaletti exercises were actually quite demanding on the horses.  On the one hand, work over cavaletti can be less arduous than actual jumping and therefore represents an excellent method to work on jumping related skills without adding wear and tear on the horse.  On the flip side, these kinds of exercises require the horse to consistently and deliberately flex and then engage the hind limbs, as well as add greater elevation to the forehand and shoulder.  The stress of the exercise is cumulative.  Muscles become fatigued and then mistakes can be made, which is when injury might occur.  So it is important to find the balance.

After our preparatory cavaletti work during this session, we moved on to working over a few fences.  Essentially, we began over the fan, and then maintained the bouncy canter which the exercise had created to a modified oxer.  From there, it was an immediate bending line, then a related distance on the diagonal.

On course!
On course!

Again, few repetitions were necessary but details were important.  Nancy pointed out that though Anna has a lovely flying change, sometimes she uses it as an excuse to not remain connected, and has a tendency to try to swing the haunches.  I have a bad habit of raising my hands on the approach to a fence, which of course just ruins the canter, and Nancy reminded me to keep the hand low and allow Anna to come forward at the fences.

Take Home Thoughts

At this time of the year, when we are stuck indoors and usually are sharing our ring space with other users, it can be a real challenge to keep jumping skills tuned up or set a full course.  The use of exercises such as those which Nancy used in this clinic can be a great way to provide some relief to the monotony of the arena while also helping to polish jumping skills.  In fact, most of the exercises we practiced would be quite appropriate for any horse and rider, whether they jump or not, to help maintain fitness, improve the development of a correct connection and build strength.  I have already begun incorporating one day per week of cavaletti work into my routine and hope that through its use I can further improve Anna’s connection and swing.