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Holly Covey

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1984 – I Was There!

Oh yes, I was there – the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984. I still have the green and orange volunteer suit, too! And somewhere in the bowels of my office, my I.D. tag and a few other things. But the really cool tennis shoes we got are long gone, sorry. They were really nice, those shoes. I spent a lot of hours in them.

This was the raw site of the XC at Fair banks Ranch, before construction. Photo by Holly Covey

Lots of eventers today weren’t born yet when the L.A. Olympics took place. Some were just little kids. Some, like me and a whole generation of west-coast eventers, were starry-eyed just to sign up and be volunteers and hang out with the best eventers in the world, although mostly from a distance.

For those that remember, the three-day event took place over five days, because the dressage and show jumping were held at Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, Ca., sort of north and east of downtown L.A. The cross country for the Olympic three-day took place at Fairbanks Ranch in Rancho Sante Fe, at a site that was destined to be a golf course after the games, just outside of Del Mar, Ca.

The schedule involved shipping the horses after dressage down to the cross country for one day, and then shipping them back to Santa Anita, with rest days in between. Yeah, it was weird, but that is what they thought would work the best. And don’t forget, this was the era of the classic, so there was roads and tracks and steeplechase at the site.

It was hot on August 1st for the cross country and the Europeans complained bitterly about the heat throughout the Games. There were temporary wash racks set up at the portable stabling for washing the horses, and I clearly remember Bettina Hoy washing her horse down after finishing the course, stopping briefly to joyfully hug first one German groom, then her horse, then another German groom while they were all four in the wash rack soaking each other down.

I volunteered all nine days of the equestrian competition at Santa Anita and had some incredible experiences. Here’s a few:

  • Meeting Prince Phillip. At the time we was president of the FEI and was responsible technically for all of the scoring of the competition, something he took very seriously. He had a box overlooking the competition arena (which was situated on the main racetrack right by the finish line) and expected the scoring sheets to be brought to him to be looked over and approved. I got to do this. It was freakin’ awesome. But it was a really long climb up the grandstand steps to his box.
  • Petting and holding Big Ben. He was a huge monster of a horse and as gentle and sweet as you can imagine. Standing at the back gate waiting to go in for the jump off, his groom asked me to hold him while she got some water.
  • Helping the foreign photographers. Many of the foreign photographers were used to having more accessible spots to photograph from, and were very dismayed to find they were given good spots from what they felt was far away. L.A. took the games VERY seriously and there was the first inklings of security there. I heard some interesting swear words in many languages.
  • The British team was mostly women and they wanted to have makeup before their interviews on camera up in the press area, where I volunteered. Nobody had any but me. Lucinda Green used my powder compact.
  • Bert DeNemethy let me and Katie Lindsay go in to the main show jumping arena and take pictures of the jumps. I’ve got one of Katie and she took one of me. Both of us treasure these.

Oh there is so much more I remember from then, but this will have to do for now. I hope everyone is planning right now to volunteer or attend in 2028!

Eventing Safety PSA: Don’t Jump Junk!

Resist this. Photo by Holly Covey.

I can’t help but cringe when I see some of the photos eventers post online of crazy DIY obstacles they’ve concocted and are jumping at home. It seems to me that if you are at all concerned about safety in eventing, you should be practicing what you preach at home.

The reasoning behind many of these stupid jumps is along the lines of, “Well, they need the schooling at home” or “It’s so low, it won’t hurt” or “He jumped it fine, what’s the problem?” Well, here’s the problem — it’s patently unsafe! Every time you ask your horse to lift himself with you attached over an obstacle, you have an obligation to both of you to do it safely.

I’ve learned my lesson. Years ago, I jumped a piece of junk that looked fun, and my horse misjudged it and cut his leg. I’ll never forgive myself. After I took care of him, I went out and collected the junk and put it in the burn pile. And based on some of the photos I’ve seen on social media, others ought to be doing the same.

Here’s my list of what to avoid jumping at home.

  • Pallets. For everything that is holy and reverent, please do not jump pallets. They are hoof catchers, trippers and impalement waiting to happen. Most pallets reside in the filthiest parts of warehouses, trucking yards and storage facilities and are loaded with bacteria. They are nailed together (not screwed) and the wood is often cheap softwood that easily splinters. Their structural integrity is very suspect due to constantly being mishandled or slammed around by forklifts with heavy items loaded on them. Even picking them up and moving them by hand requires gloves. Stay away from intact pallets. Please.
  • String, rope, cloth, plastic, blankets, carpets, netting, anything with loops or pile that can catch hooves. The law of averages says that even Sapphire or Mighty Nice will roll a pole once in a lifetime. That means if your horse happens to dip his toe the slightest bit, he could catch a carpeted or netted piece of something draped over a jump — and then you both are in real danger. Please don’t drape stuff over jumps. If you want color or interest, use brush, cornstalks, real or fake flowers, or paint, or drape stuff on the standards that aren’t jumped.
  • Insecure anything. Hell, yah, we’ve all braced the broken standard with the cement block, or propped up the other side of the rail on the broken box when you couldn’t find another cup … but the problem with doing this is you are breaking a major rule of jumping that I will outline below, the Rule of Consistency, and you jeopardize your horse’s confidence in so doing. Things that are not securely set for jumping tend to fall without warning, or will be braced and not fall when they need to. So if you can’t get it right, best not to get too carried away.

There are many dangerous things other than those outlined above, like plastic forms, poorly designed jumps and standards, broken poles that have ends like spears, pipes, baskets or boxes that are not sturdy or secure, cement blocks, the list goes on. It hurts enough just to land on a regular jump if you fall. I’ve seen a pony impaled in the abdomen by a broken pole used as a ground line, which flipped up when it was stepped on.

An inexpensive yet safer schooling jump: colorful, adjustable and versatile. Photo by Holly Covey.

That doesn’t mean you can’t safely use things as decoration on the sides or safely under a jump as a groundline, but it does mean that if you aren’t sure if something will hold up properly under a jumping horse who could possibly make a mistake, be cautious. And by “proper,” I do mean correctly placed, and of sufficient weight and strength, to be used as a jumping obstacle. 

Periodically you should inspect your jumps at home for anything loose, check for rotting wood, replace screws that are working loose, and repair broken or worn-out parts. You don’t have to have new freshly painted jumps every year but you should be sure that they are in good repair and sturdy for the intended use. Look over the tops of the coops and brush for anything sticking out that could poke legs or hooves, and check for holes or gaps that could catch a hoof should a horse make a mistake and slide into it.

Good bases on your standards are important. Photo by Holly Covey.

Anything with feet or braces on the bottom of it to help it stand on the ground should be checked and replaced if they are too sharp, have edges that haven’t been sanded off or trimmed, or are rotten. It almost goes without saying that there should not be nails in the bottoms of standards — bolts or screws are probably better, and anything else that could shatter into pieces or is too flimsy not to break when touched by a horse hoof shouldn’t be in the ring.

Teaching a horse to jump well isn’t about scaring the pee out of them with stuff you find at the end of driveways after perusing the “Free” section of Craigslist. As eventers I know we are proud that our horses are trained to jump anything we point them at, but there’s a line.

One of the most important things about teaching young event horses to jump is consistency — making the jumping sessions carefully logical, and creating questions that educate rather than scare.

Here’s the Rule of Consistency: When you have a jump course that has poles about the same size and weight, jumps about the same width and depth, and you build a course from these components that makes logical sense to a jumping horse, you provide them with a sense of security. They begin to trust the obstacle — they learn how to use themselves to clear things, they experiment with their legs and body to jump higher, or better, for you as a rider. Every schooling session isn’t a survival contest; instead, it’s a quietly competent way of teaching him to use himself correctly, the best way he can for his style and your riding. Safe jumps = safe jumping.

By setting safe, consistent courses with rails that are the same, you are creating a level playing field for your horse, and are able to mold his jumping form so that when something unusual comes along, he and you stay together over it. As your schooling progresses, using creativity to build interesting stuff to jump isn’t a bad thing as long as you are mindful of what will encourage him.

Safe jumps might mean good solid groundlines, decor on the sides, good wood on your poles and cavalletti, and always setting poles in cups. Safe jumps have sturdy fillers, smooth top surfaces, screws instead of nails, sanded or trimmed feet on the standards, no sharp edges, no billowing or flapping or unsecured strings or cloth, nothing that is likely to shatter or splinter on impact. You want a jump’s components to simply fall to the ground when crashed into, using gravity to let them drop. Things that aren’t heavy enough bounce up. Things that are flimsy tend to flip and catch legs and feet. You don’t want your horse to make a mistake and pay with a tangle.

We’ve all jumped stuff we shouldn’t have. We’ve all gotten a little carried away with junk just to make things interesting. There’s no need to panic and go out and throw all your jumps in the burn pile if they’re a little old. Just be careful what you jump at home, repair or replace things if they break, and keep it real. (And stay away from “Curb Alerts”….)

What They Did on Their Summer Vacation

Yeah, the chin isn’t up — that grinning little face is looking down at that pony’s neck, overjoyed to be finally riding. And the reins are too long– well, those fists are holding that mane so they can stay on for that bumpy trot. And the heels are up, as there are other things that young horse lover is concentrating on at the moment, like staying in the saddle!

Summer camp days! Great memories. Photo by Holly Covey

It’s easy for those of us who ride daily and have horses in our backyards to miss out on the special joy of horses for those who only get a chance to see them or be near them during vacation times. How many hours have those horse lovers spend in the car, staring out the window as the family traveled, hoping to catch a glimpse of a horse grazing in a pasture?

And finally there’s a vacation for the family that includes a couple of pony rides. Soon, they have booked a summer horse camp for a week, and the little horse lover is thoroughly and completely addicted.

For many event barns, summer might wind down for the big events and there might be a break here and there for competition, but those barns that operate summer camps are now gearing up for their big season.

While summer camps don’t have the special attraction of competition, they often bring in the bulk of a year’s income for many smaller stables, as well as provide a meaningful way to encourage kids to ride and maybe get interested in eventing and, eventually, become eventers.

Many eventers began at summer camp; many top level eventers earned a summer’s wages teaching summer camp as counselors, and even some top level event horses have begun their careers at summer camp (four-star horse Crackerjack being one of these!)

Many event barns offer summer camps for kids and even adults. Farms such as Full Moon Farm, in Finksburg, MD., annually hold a “Quarter Star” week-long eventing camp that takes eventing at the lower, smaller levels and turns it into a fun and educational experience just like the bigger, tougher, higher level three-day events.

Summer camp is a way for those who don’t have a horse to see if horses can fit within their life. Being new to a big animal who has a mind of its own, and sometimes goes where it wants to go, can be eye-opening. But most die-hard horse lovers overcome their fears and enjoy the barn and riding opportunities. It’s hard for those of us who are in the barn all the time to put ourselves in their shoes and remember what it was like to be excited to pet a soft nose for the first time.

Be patient and kind to those horse loving kids if you are teaching summer camp this year. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s OK to break a little rule or two once in awhile if it puts a big smile on their face and gives them a memory they will never forget.

If you are a parent of a camper, let them enjoy horses and do what you can to help them get as many opportunities as possible to be around horses.

We all like this sport and would like to see it stick around. These kids are the ones who will make that possible. It sure doesn’t look it when you see them bouncing around the ring on the plodding school pony, but soon they will be competing, owning horses, getting on a team…

Two Unicorns in the Barn

The Unicornmobile tried to kill me this show. Photo by Holly Covey. The Unicornmobile tried to kill me this show. Photo by Holly Covey.

In the ongoing saga of getting back to eventing, it’s not fair to talk only about my one unicorn. I actually have a second poor soul that has to put up with me, Lucky, who has had a rather long green horse period.

As in maybe like six years of being green. Ah well. What with one thing and another, including three years where horses took a back seat to work and family, Lucky often got less quality time. And he has spent more time off for injuries and various aches and pains than he deserved, also. A toe crack has taken an entire year to grow out. And a fall, somehow, in the stall in late winter required two months off — although, when I found him on three legs originally I thought the worst and called the vet fully prepared to euthanize him. So he’s back in work also, alongside Hamish, and has been concentrating on the flat work.

I am happy to say his dressage schooling show this weekend was excellent. I am sad to say I am feeling some pain, however, following this excursion. And absolutely none of it is horse-induced. It’s all dumb stuff!

First thing upon arrival I let the tack room door slam, in a gust of wind, on my forearm as I opened it.  That made me gasp for a while and a scrape started a nice red stripe. Didn’t hurt when riding (of course).

Being it was dressage, I feel it would be better to do the black boots, and they are a bit different fitting than the brown ones, and I walked in them about five minutes too long — blisters on both heels. Sometime during the day, I also got some sort of a bug bite or sting on my neck, which of course itched without relief the rest of the day.

And the final hurt was tripping over the edge of the side ramp and bruising my shin but good when I got home and began to clean out the trailer. At that point, I gave up, left the cleanup for Sunday, and headed for a beer.

So how did the horse do? The horse was actually quite good. Initially, warmup was a challenge when he was extremely READY to warmup with all the other horses warming up. But he surprised me with only a very modest buck from his extensive repertoire, and other than a few tense-back moments, was quite rideable in the ring.

I, however, was quite bad in the memory department. I really did not ride the first test well and received two bloody errors. Grr. But I’ve changed. I used to let such a terrible disaster bother me all day and go back to the trailer and just fall apart. However, now, I try hard to smile through it, shake it off, and come back swinging the next time and let me tell you that sea change has taken many years of hard work on myself.

The second test was definitely better when a friend read the test for me. I was able to ride better and give him more. He loves to canter and his only fault was to keep trying to do more of it when we trotted circles or corners. For his efforts he got two good scores and primary color ribbons. Really, I’m not telling you enough about how GREAT he really was. He finds warmups a bit nerve wracking but I think he really loves going into the ring by himself, and doing the test.

I have to remember it’s only training level, only a schooling show, and only low key, but it felt pretty good to have at least part of something go right with this horse. Afterwards, we took a ride with a friend down a coolly shaded trail, splashed in some water, and came back to the trailer mostly like a gentleman.

Lucky has also had some trailer issues and I am happy to say he loaded very well with only a few minutes’ hesitation. He was overall a pretty good boy. So I tweeted afterwards, “I am so lucky, I have two unicorns in the barn,” and really, I do. They do try. They do make me smile.

It is very fortunate indeed to have two horses that have these qualities, because it takes a long time sometimes just to find out if a horse wants to give you what you think they have in them. To get to a checking point, and have positive feedback on the training at that point in time, is all we are looking for. It is essentially the reason we are in this long game, the price we pay for this so-intrinsically-rewarding thing we do with horses. It can last a lifetime and make people crazy, but it can also become all of your soul, fuel your spirit, and define “living.” This is what is meant when they say, “it’s the journey.” Really, it is living with horses.

Enough zen. Now, back to reality. I need to heal up all the boo-boos I incurred on the day. I think someone was just checking to make sure I knew it wasn’t all going to be rainbow farts and fairy dust. Got it.

New Training Resources Available to Help Build Better Volunteers

Bit checking is just one volunteer job that needs a well-trained person! Photo by Holly Covey.

Well-trained and prepared volunteers make events run smoothly and keep the experience fun and fulfilling for everyone involved. In the spirit of streamlining the experiences of eventing’s valuable volunteer friends, the USEA’s Volunteer Committee recently made a wealth of free volunteer education content available online at USEventing.com.

At the forefront are a range of comprehensive checklists outlining useful information for some common volunteer positions, ranging from announcers to scribes and jump judges to ring stewards. They are available as printable PDFs, handy for distributing at events.

Here’s an example:

A neat supplement to the checklists are these volunteer training videos, produced by Irene Doo, volunteer coordinator at Pine Hill H.T. in Texas, to help train her helpers.

She also generated the checklists for the volunteer positions, with the Volunteer Committee adding suggestions and providing them to the USEA for publication, so that events all over the country could share these materials.

The checklists are free to download for any event, and can also be found very soon at EventingVolunteers.com, the new program in use to track volunteer hours and slot available volunteers into needed jobs online for participating horse trials and events. Many thanks to Irene, Pine Hill volunteers and the staff at the USEA for providing these materials to enhance volunteer experiences all over the country.

Go eventing volunteers!

 

Update: Almost There

Photo from video by Laura K. Rayne – two waters on Novice! Whoohooo!

It’s been a couple of weeks since I updated our progress back to eventing, and there are lots of picky little details that really can be skipped over. I suppose if you were competing at a CCI**, you wouldn’t skip the picky little details, but if you are chicken, old, and marginally fit I don’t think it matters too much. It’s enough to get both legs on the correct sides of the horse and maintain proper vertical order (ground, horse, rider) most of the time. Add memorizing a dressage test, remembering a jumping course, and both walking and performing over a cross country course — all on the same day — and you have the Old Fossil Olympics going on.

So of course you are thinking, this is where she explains how and why she went off course at her latest horse trial! Ah ha! But I didn’t!

Instead this time the footing was much improved for dressage, and we got a great score despite a little mistake with the first canter depart. Unfortunately, the ring was a bit behind time, and because I have a long drive to the event site, I plan on walking the cross-country course in the two hour space between dressage and jumping phases. When the ring gets 15 minutes behind suddenly you have only 1 hour 45 minutes. When you are basically grooming for yourself, the minutes are not retrievable!

So I hacked back to the trailer, quickly stripped him, sponged his back, threw him back in his trailer to vacuum hay and ran up to the cross country course. Except … you don’t run up that legendary hill at Plantation. You walk. Slowly. Even more slowly. Finally, gasping, you stop, just a minute, and pretend you’re getting a drink of water from your bottle. Really, you’re gasping for air because you are not in shape. I don’t think anyone is in shape for that hill. It’s like the Fossil Olympic hill. You expect a cheap neck medal and finish line when you get to the top, instead, someone in jeep zooms past you spewing red dust.

So once you get to the top you go to the cross country course. The footing is extra special grass that has been mowed thankfully since last time, so it’s not so long. (When it’s really long you lose children, dogs, and jump judges in it. They find them with GPS and heat seeking technology.)

The novice course walks decently, with a couple of hairpin turns which seemed interesting, the big jumps were set in really good galloping footing, and we had TWO waters to negotiate. Two. That’s really an embarrassment of riches there! But ah ha. You thought I was going to get lost. No, I did miss Number 17 on the walk, but I found it on the map, and I remembered it when riding the course — amazingly. I was not going to …. what was that? What wasn’t I going to do? I don’t know, I can’t remember.

So I survived the Hill, the course walk, and the heat and was ready to jump. Having had a particularly good jump school with a young local professional last Sunday, I was feeling pretty ready for stadium again. However, I did make a mistake — in setting up so nicely for a rather airy vertical on the turn, I landed and didn’t go forward enough to an oxer on a turn, and buried him. He got the rail on the way up. Darn. But the rest was really good.

Photo from video by Laura K. Rayne. Looks good here but a jump later the blue is lost…

So down to cross country I went, upped the stirrups a hole, and thought — geez, the footing is so good, I’m glad I didn’t waste time putting in studs today. Of course, I canter down to the start box and he slips a little as we go in a circle to start. Yikes! Fortunately, that was the only slipping I felt the whole time, he was very good to all the early jumps, we had a few chip-ins but very forward and felt good.

We were a bit tired by the second water. I asked him to go big on the second last, a brushy top table that is rather large, and he responded with a nice, knees-up leap, but over-reached a tad on landing and pulled off his shoe. I watched it spinning merrily, shoulder high, to my left, and noted where it landed. I got to the last fence, reported I was clean to the finish people, and then told them I had to go back for the shoe. Fortunately my friend found it almost immediately and brought it back to the trailer for me.

So my Lost Shoe Luck was practically used up for the year, I bet, on that find. I don’t know anyone that ever finds lost shoes at Plantation, they disappear into the turf and are gone forever, so we count that one pretty special.

By now, it’s getting very warm. The nice breeze up on the hill is keeping it fairly good even with the cross-country vest on, but now that we are back at the trailer, I pull it off quickly and get to work washing off Hamish to cool him out. He knows now he finally gets to eat grass and I can let him stand and chow down while I pull off tack, undo boots, wash and scrape.

The trailer looks like a tornado went through and deposited the tack room contents outside. I don’t care. I used to care, but now that I am a Fossil, details like this make me say, “Wow, I actually got all that tack off him before I fainted!” Instead of,”gee what a mess.”

We remember to hydrate. By that, we mean drink water. Lots of water. We snack a bit with friends, feed the kids, cool out the horses, check the scores. Pick up the dressage tests and study them quickly and put them on the truck dash for more closer scrutiny on the long ride home. We check the scores. We hydrate. We put away all the stuff that fell out of the tack room and horse trailer. I changed out of the swamp butt full seat breeches to something drier. We check the scores yet again. Finally we are searching for the last bottle of water, and the scores are up — we finished third, but that rail was costly yet again, and would have had another primary color had I not been mentally congratulating myself.

Surviving yet another event, it seems like we had stepped up another rung on the goal ladder. I was mentally going over all the courses and jumps, when I heard that a horse had been lost at another event. How sad. I immediately thought of my bay friend, and went right out to his stall and hugged him and told him I loved him. He was appreciative but really was more interested in dinner. Sigh.

Next? I think we are taking a heat hiatus due to summer being difficult for Fossils to function correctly, but our outings will continue until we are able to enter a recognized event later on the calendar. The goal hasn’t quite been achieved yet, but I am grinding along and things look pretty good from here. Forward.

 

We Are It

Jump crew at Fair Hill. Volunteers needed at your local event! Photo by Holly Covey

Somehow, the sharpest and smartest horsemen I know come from Australia. And there’s a not of them there. They seem to be the most dedicated and the most down to earth. I think it is because of how they truly have to appreciate their events, which are far between in a large country, and staffed by a few very dedicated supporters. Gosh, does that sound familiar?

When I was in harness racing, an old timer who was originally from Australia reminisced in the paddock one time about his days as a young man racing on the fair circuit. They’d ship in a truck, picket the horses overnight, set up a track with stakes and string, and “have some sport” racing horses all afternoon, then pack up when the day was done and off they’d go to the next fair. Everyone helped, everyone participated — that was part of the sport. There weren’t enough of them to “let someone else” do it. They were it.

Once, after the very last horse had finished at Fair Hill International, I was packing up the tables and chairs and tents in the cross-country warm up area. I was the last person there and it was a long day, and I was totally dragging with exhaustion. Guess who wanders by with a couple of working students but an Aussie … and they willingly pitched in, threw everything in the car and had me loaded up in about five minutes! I’ll never forget Kate Chadderton’s kind gesture — but she said, “no worries”, and meant it.

I was scribing dressage at MCTA in the lovely May fields at Shawan Downs when Boyd Martin rode a nice young horse into the ring. At one end, the horse stepped on something and it made a clink. Next time through the corner, there was another clink. As he saluted he mentioned there might be a rock in the corner.

The judge allowed me to go and check on it. I found what appeared to be a stone, but as I pushed and kicked, it was much larger than what showed up through the grass. As soon as Boyd handed off his horse to his groom he came back with his white dressage gloves and squatted down and helped me dig a pretty big chunk of granite it out of the grass. He’d already ridden. But he didn’t want someone else to step on it and hurt their horse. And there was no one else to help and the ring was getting behind time. So he pitched in.

I don’t mean to say that it’s just Australians who understand that the sport is theirs. There are lots and lots of darn good volunteers in our sport who aren’t from Down Under, who really care and understand its needs. But there are never, ever enough of them helping at events. We need more and we need them now. We need them with that Aussie spirit — we are it. There’s no one else.

I believe all riders should consider the sport “theirs” to care for, not just to compete in. This means if you see something that needs to be done, you ought to do it and not wait for someone else to figure it out. It means you should not complain. It means you should take at least one day in a year and volunteer in some capacity for some event. If you have the time you should do more than one day. It doesn’t matter what you do or where you do it, but it matters that you give that time and show up and work all day and give thanks for the opportunity to do it.

Your volunteer time is a gift, yes but it is not just a gift to the organizer or landowner. It’s a gift to you. You’ve insured the sport goes on one more event, one more year. You have given yourself the gift of education, the shared experience of being a part of great thing, or perhaps the great gift of a new friend or two met while volunteering.

The dearth of volunteers is so critical that to keep the events going in some parts of the country we may see volunteer hours become a requirement for participation in the sport. Area II’s year end awards currently require the recipients to provide at least one full day of volunteering to receive awards, and have for several years. And do you know that more than one person has lost a championship by not taking the time (through an entire season, in the country’s busiest eventing area) to volunteer at one event for one day? All that hard work and to miss out on the honor you’ve worked hard for, just because you can’t be bothered to sit in a chair and jump judge for an afternoon. For shame.

One of the busiest riders and trainers in the business, Sally Cousins, embodies this spirit. On any given event day, she’s riding upwards of four to six and sometimes even more horses in nearly every division. But Sally doesn’t use that as an excuse not to help out. She designs courses for the charity event derbies, she gives lessons for fundraisers, she supports the horse rescues, she leads course walks, among many other things she does for the sport and for events.

She recently took a horse up to Fair Hill and jumped it around a field for a television crew doing a story on eventing for a Baltimore television station. She MAKES the time (she does not really have) for the sport. I just don’t get how a rider with just two horses can’t find two hours to help set dressage rings or scribe for show jumping for an hour.

We are it. There isn’t anyone else. Volunteer!

We Are Tough Mudders

When I attended a course design seminar, I won’t forget a nugget of wisdom from John Williams: “Cross-country is not just the jumps.” When weather changes things, you often say to yourself, “oh no, this is not ideal,” and let doubts start to creep into your plans.

But part of life as horse people means we all have different experiences on horseback. And I am glad that I grew up galloping a pony bareback up and down logging roads near my childhood home in the Pacific Northwest, and that I found a way to spend time rounding up mustangs in the forested mountains of Idaho for the federal government, and spent time foxhunting on Maryland’s soggy and cold Eastern shore in the winter.

These experiences come around to help you toss out those creeping negative thoughts, and tell yourself, “Heck, yah, my horse can do that.” And it’s not really your horse, it’s you — you know you can rely on your balance and leg and hand to keep your horse up in his wither and available should he need you when the footing gets soupy.

And often, it’s not all the same soup — this last weekend’s event had a range of footing, from ankle deep slime in the soft grass dressage rings, to the resilient softness of a prepared show jumping ring, to the real variation I found on my novice cross-country course. And this is what happens. The takeoffs were improved with some gravel and packing and the landings were a bit torn up (due to having the recognized division run over the same jumps the day before). But the footing changed from hour to hour as the rain stopped and the sun came out and dried up the surface.

Even two hours after I walked the course and got ready to ride, the footing had changed a little. Nonetheless, I was immensely happy that I had gotten the Unicorn’s shoes drilled for studs, and you are darn right I studded for Novice. My repaired knee needed those studs, and it got them.

My horse did what many others did and what my friends told me their horses did. They jumped the first fence, galloped tentatively down to the second, landed and went, “hmmpf. Ok.” And decided that it wasn’t going to be too bad and off they went. Horses find the bottom of gummy footing like that if you don’t micro-manage and let them go a little.

I kind of trusted that Hamish could find his best footing and he did. After the bogey 4th fence, a red house going into the woods, was jumped really well, I felt him swell and gallop down the hill into the gulley. He barely registered the very small log out, and argued a bit with me as we took a long gallop toward the biggest fence on course, one that had everyone biting their nails, a rather imposing square box with a drop on landing.

The previous day’s action and rain had cut up the approach and takeoff on this jump, making it ride closer to 2 inches higher than it properly measured. I walked it and checked both sides — it looked like the left side had less of a drop and less chewed take-off so I opted to try and be some kind of smarty and let him break the rules and jump it off to the left side.

This worked and he popped it generously. Last week I had time to remember to breathe on some open gallop spaces but this week there wasn’t much room to breathe between things; and there were more hills. We’re both still out of shape, and I timed myself a little — knowing the recognized used 5:11 for optimum time. So while we were clean we weren’t very fast — if I had ridden the recognized (the starter is untimed) we might have had time faults.

We had TWO waters to cross, which is awesomeness in itself for Novice Starter I think, and both waters he jumped right in. He is starting to look and notice that water means stuff — he pricks his ears heading into water now — and I am trusting it’s not a spook but coming to attention, and thing that is so cool because he’s learning stuff I’m teaching him.

He took another flying leap off the bank, and we had to do the big bank down too — I get the feeling he is panicking slightly at these and I need to school them so he doesn’t get too enthusiastic — soon there may be something AFTER a bank down to jump and if he’s always overleaping the landing we may chest something, so that’s a thing to fix.

Over the last. Photo by Beth Rice

I can’t get too crazy about finishing 2nd. It’s a facility both of us have ridden around several times and he knows the lay of the land. We’re still not very fit and he and I are still making mistakes. But life is darn good when you can say the mud made no difference and your phases were all satisfactory.

That’s all for now — our next outing won’t be until June, so it is time to school and try to improve a few areas and get to work on the other horse, who has to get back into work from an injury late winter.

Many thanks to all my friends who are following the Comeback Blog on EN and thanks for taking pictures and letting me use them (and learn from them.) I owe everyone about a million photos!

If you like to see it, here’s the course we rode.

 

Knowing When To Stop: Easy or Hard?

A famous fork in the road in event central Chester County, Pennsylvania. Photo by Holly Covey.

Who are we, as eventers? Are we good at this horse thing? I think we like to think so. We encourage each other on social media. We “like” things that resonate with us. We “follow” people, we read their stuff, we link to it. A lot of upper level riders write wonderful messages and blogs to their followers and friends. It is a delight to be included in the ups and downs of our favorite riders, and it does mean a lot to those of us who follow the sport. I appreciate these riders for their honesty and willingness to share their lives with fans.

On occasion, and usually associated with something that happens at a competition, something goes awry. A mistake is made, a horse is spun, or something happens out on cross country. At times, social media becomes the water cooler, board room, or even courtroom when these incidents occur. Attention is paid, usually beyond all reason. Excuses are discussed. Rhetoric hits the gas. And what it really does is make everyone gun-shy of publicity of any kind, and that hurts us all — because we need fans in this sport desperately.

I have always been fascinated by the “story behind the story.” To me, the apology or message with lots of “love” and “if I knew” and “I owe everything to my horse” is probably fairly true, but there always seems to be something really in the background that precipitates the change or expression. We don’t always know the whole backstory — and sometimes that is because if we did we’d be horrified, but sometimes it’s because adversity is more comfortable under the covers.

One of my longest eventing friends who has mostly lower-level horses withdrew after dressage in an unrecognized event the other weekend. It’s a horse she’s had a while, she knows him well, and she knew he could do the job of show jumping and cross country; it wasn’t that she was unable to do it. She felt he was un-level. She thought she ought to stop for the day, take him home, address the problem and try again another day.

This exemplary action to me is what eventing really truly is all about — the HORSE — and how HE feels. Not how the sponsors will react, how the coach or trainer feels, what the rider thinks, the honor and prestige and expense and longterm effort … none of that means even a half-full hay bag to any horse.

If you train a horse for years to perform at competitions, don’t be surprised when he thinks he is there to perform. Of course he’s going to feel good and try for you. You trained him to do that. Because he is fit and expecting to go and do things at an event, we get a little crazed by the whole thing — and why not? We’ve worked hard, the horse probably looks like a million bucks, and we want to go on. But it’s so hard to say, “maybe not today.”

And we all will face that question — nobody wants to, but if you are going to mess with horses, someday you too will press that button and send in the entry, then go out to the barn just after the “no refund” deadline, and find Big Daddy stepping on a clip. It will happen. And you will have to make a decision — do I go on, or do I say, “not today?”

Sometimes it is clear and easy to make a decision and sometimes the outlines are blurred and the answer isn’t clear. Is he really lame? Is he really not wanting to jump? Is it too much for him? Is he too old? Is he too young? Can he manage with that condition? What should I do? And, if you are competing on the world stage, the rest of us expect you to be able to make that decision clearly. (Pause for wild laughter here.)

This is a hard thing for our sport — when it’s a thing that might be clear to others but not to the one who has to make the decision. The horse goes fine at home; he’s right, he’s experienced, he’s fit — and then out of the blue, he tells you that big brush corner is not something he can do today, and it ends your whole world. How we wish we knew that before … but sometimes the horses don’t want to let us down until they simply can’t. In National Velvet, Velvet says The Pie “burst himself for me and I asked him and he burst himself again.” Yes. We know that feeling.

I think because our horses are fit, their condition disguises stuff — the vets can chime in here — but that’s my suggestion. They think they are world-beaters. We get fooled. And if I get fooled, I want to be a fool in this case. It’s the greatest feeling in the world to be sitting on a fit horse who is ready to fly — there is nothing more to life than that, is there?!

And there are repercussions for stopping. Trainers, coaches, owners to answer to. Criticism for being chicken, afraid, not ready, under-conditioned, etc. It takes a village to get a horse to the upper levels but the village finds other things to do when a rider sticks out their neck and makes a decision to stop and reroute to something else down the road. Consequences aren’t always great.

And all I can say is, we’ve all been there with horses. There are horses I’ve made mistakes with — as we all have — and times I’ve gone, or not stopped, when I should have. And there are times when I’ve used my brain and said, “not today,” and it wasn’t the end of the world, and I’ve learned from that, too. The point is: Stopping is a thing you gain with experience, just like going on and moving up are things that are also gained from experience. And all that, and we will err because … well, because we just don’t want to stop believing. We’re wired that way.

So, stopping is tough. And that’s not a bad thing for a horse, is it? All they really want is good things to eat and not to hurt. Everything else is our “never mind” as my dad used to say. I just hope if ever I have to that it will be easy and clear to decide to stop. That in itself is a difficult thing, so I wish for that for everyone else, too. That’s who we are. Go Eventing.

Progress: Charge into Change

Hamish, just woken from a nap at the event. Photo by Holly Covey.

This week, I had to learn a new test and deal with weather, in addition to getting more comfortable with an upward change in height and the requirements of that level. I almost wrote “charge” there, instead of change, because I almost felt like I was charging into this whole season, guns blazing. In fact, one of my friends even wrote, “so you’ll be moving up to Training next week,” after I posted about getting around OK on Sunday at Novice.

Noooooooo …. not yet! Sunday I knew that the Novice would suit my horse, and it was quite comfortable for both of us, yet the challenge forced a few errors that need some practice to fix.

First, dressage. You know, when you have been riding for over 50 years, it’s a bit discouraging to get a 6 on your position in the collectives. That’s barely above average — like I’ve only been riding 10 years. Yikes. Guess I need some more video and some eyes on the ground. What am I doing? I must look like a gunny sack of kittens strapped to that saddle! Hmmm. Not a good visual.

And the other bad news is, the horse is really, really smart, and is very very aware he’s doing a dressage test in the ring in front of the judge, and when that occurs, there’s really no need to listen, nor respond the same way to the aids that he does in the warmup when Mommy really MEANS it. When Mommy means it in the ring, you can fluff a little because, well, it’s the ring, and the judge is watching and you want to do it because you can. So we also are probably going to have to get to a dressage schooling show sooner or later and pretend the judge isn’t there and it isn’t a test – plus carry a dressage whip.

On to jumping. The rain began in earnest, and it was a bit chilly, as well. Usually I plan on wearing stuff to suit hot weather, but this time it was not really very warm. Our times took place in the morning, which was fortunate. The ground was a bit soft, and the first thing I got in warm-up for show jumping was a bit of spook at a pile of unused showjumps in the end of the warm-up area. I stuck to the “little warm-up” with only a few jumps, got a pace that felt good then it was my turn.

Sometimes you think you got it. Sometimes you hope you got it. And sometimes you know you don’t have it but are in there and have to do it anyway. I felt like I was slow, then fast, then slow, then fast, but was able to get a fair round out of the rain, footing, and downhill distances. We pulled a rail going downhill on the second jump, a vertical which was not very big, but I did not have him balanced enough, he was quite close to it and I of course tipped forward, and he couldn’t clear it.

Landing after some of the show jumps was a bit sticky so I knew that cross-country might have the same sort of problem. I made sure to let Mr. Know It All look at a couple of the bigger solid cross country jumps out in cross country warm-up and jumped two of the spookier ones just to make sure he was aware it was solid stuff coming up.

Off we went! I think he was again a bit unsure that is was “on course” and not “schooling” because he expected to be pulled up after two jumps. Instead, I got up in two-point, kept asking him to canter on, and channeled our inner Badminton. “Put your brave pants on and keep kicking,” I thought. (Sir Mark Todd quote.)

When you ask your horse to do something, it is always your hope that you will not be out of position and interfere with him when he does it. I think that is something I really want to be able to do every time I jump a fence — not interfere — and help the horse when he takes off and lands. My first mistake on course was a downbank which I knew he would either leap or nearly stop to step off carefully. I trotted and squeezed and clucked, and got the Brave Pants leap. Well, when your horse does that you shouldn’t snag him in the mouth because your hands are down on the neck on landing — which is what I did. Darn it. He tries and I punish him. (Need more practice.)

Asked him to canter on after that error, and he forgave me so on we went. Cantered down the hill, through a couple of other jumps, turn to water, a little house in, and through the pond, and a little house out — all quite good with a little short to the first house.

We then went down hill to a ramp then ditch. I sat and squeezed and aimed a bit to the left of the mushed up footing and he took a flying leap, I was in the back seat fortunately, and he was a bit surprised at the drop — guess my sitting back didn’t register with him that it might be downhill. (Need more practice.) He sailed over the ditch and I let him trot comfortably up a steeper hill because we were both breathing.

I reminded myself in every spot where I had straight gallop room to breathe. I have to tell you, this is the first time I have really paid attention to breathing on course and I wish I had done this years ago with some of the other horses I have ridden. This course was longer with more hills than last week yet I think we both finished with more puff than last time, so I know trotting occasionally helped him.

Here’s a video, thanks to my friend Katie McIntyre.

The last fences were an upbank to a mound, down to a fence on the back – where I muffed the distance again — and the last fence, a wide but narrow table, which again I muffed. (Need more practice.) I think once we did the little footwork on the bank, he didn’t think he had to gallop on again — so I know I have to have more canter between jumps. If I were schooling, I think someone watching would have said, “do it again and this time, more pace.”

So the good news is a good solid completion, a rail in show jumping, and a good but trending down dressage test; his score was 33.3, plus the 4 for the rail, and we ended fifth in our division, which is very satisfactory, I think for one of the area’s more difficult unrecognized horse trials, and for a step up in height and length. Just to give you an idea of how tough competition can be at this venue, I was in second after dressage, and just the one rail moved me down three places. Time for a lesson or two before the next competition! (And….need more practice…..)

Update: Completion, Check!

My happy place. Photo by Merrilyn Ratliff with Monica Fiss Burdette’s camera!

I promised to update everyone on the progress I’ve made with returning to competing again in the sport I love. The progress report is “some more work to do” but satisfactory nonetheless.

I have learned I really do not need to stress over this. I do not need to overpack the trailer. I do not need to overpack clothing for myself (one pair of boots and breeches will suffice).  Don’t over-ride and don’t over-jump — you won’t be over-tired. And definitely park in the dirt and not the fresh green grass — makes the day MUCH easier and I’ll explain that in a minute.

Entering a lovely, long-standing unrecognized event held by our local pony club, I knew fairly well what to expect: great footing, good organization, friendly faces and a mild early season challenge to the courses. All was as expected and sometimes that’s really what you need to keep your confidence developing positively.

Surprises are part of the sport — you learn to roll with the punches — but to protect a sometimes fragile confidence you want to find a way to get the job done without drama or concern. Fortunately for me the day was quiet!

I think we give ourselves much too much attention; it is smarter just to walk it once and say, “Just canter around and look for the numbers.” Honestly the hardest part of the day was walking parts of the course in deep grass — my knee was a little tired from it all Sunday night, but I know I have to continue rehab.

I followed my epiphany of No-Sleep Saturday: “Don’t Over____ It.” As in over-warmup. Over-jump. Over-everything. And doggone, it worked. Still working on maintaining uphill balance for the duration of the dressage test, but most of it was pretty solid. We need work on stretching, and on straightness.

Following the mantra, I only jumped four warmup jumps — well, maybe five — crossrail, crossrail, vertical, vertical, oxer, oxer (I guess that is six.) The show jumping rode well — I asked for a steadier distance to three jumps that I knew I couldn’t get him round for. The two stride rode a bit snug but I “whoaed” before it, and I made the last jump also throttled back and short because it was a downhill vertical.

In our area we go straight out to cross-country following stadium so no need to warm up for it. I started with a hop over a tiny log and cantered on, the second fence was a bit weak so I asked for a more forward canter after and the rest of it was super. I opted to do a bank up to the bank down, while only the bank down was flagged, I wanted to make sure my big old boy didn’t have to be cranked around on the top of it, and wanted it to be straightforward to him.

The rest with one exception rode very well, he looked carefully at the water but let me canter him right down into it then trotted in front of my leg to the up bank. I trotted him up the steep hill so we could both catch a breath. There were a few more then a larger hayrack; here I made a mistake. I tried to use a downhill-uphill swale in front of the jump to develop a better balance, but it was further out from the fence than I thought I needed in order to get him balanced. So I waited til I was near the jump, and the distance was very off and he stabbed in a short one and clambered over it. Lesson learned — never too early to balance!

While we got a nice primary colored ribbon, my biggest concern was both of our fitness. I was breathing hard and so was he, and for only 14 jumps I thought that was not very good. But by the time we walked five minutes back to the trailer, both of us were breathing normally. That was all the actual metric calculation I could get, since you have to get your vest and helmet and gloves off, and loosen the girth and take off the bridle and put on the halter, then untack, wash down, remove studs and all that stuff when you solo event. So no numbers, just anecdotal evidence that we recovered shortly and should do more fitness work.

And … parking on the dirt meant Mr. Vacuum had to eat from the haybag, and not be reaching constantly to graze on the good grass part of the parking lot. This made for much easier day in terms of tacking up and untacking, as there was no tugging on halter for me all day, and no worries he’d get his lead rope caught on something while stretching down to try and snack on grass while tied. He actually slept in the horse trailer while I went on my course walk, so that also was a good thing for his first event of the year. I like that he has recognized when he is in the trailer he can relax.

So that was the day. I’ve entered two more and have a lot to look forward to including a move up to the next little tiny unrecognized level so more adventures later this month. Onward!

Conquering the Canter

A year ago at Plantation, a week after I broke my leg and Jules Ennis got the ride. Photo by Holly Covey.

Recently got a good jump school in with a top trainer. He told me I should put some poles down after a jump or two in order to keep my drafty cross horse from deflating around my turns and losing impulsion.

So, I went home and set a pole 10 feet from a small 2’6″ vertical and another pole on the other side, 10 feet away. And set out to fix that cornering canter problem.

I started just deciding to make loops around the ring , to create a rhythm and keep it going. Jump the little set up on the long side, land, canter the corner, down the other long side, corner, and jump the little set up.

What a difference it makes when you pay attention to your canter all the way around the ring, let the horse find the rail, and just try to remain balanced and wait for the landing. My only job is to just safeguard that canter especially on landing.

My horse is very smart and figured out fast that there was not a stop involved in this exercise, and that he had to keep cantering around. Changing directions, I felt him settle into a canter almost by himself where he was motoring through the turn and keeping going when turned down the long side.

I tested the canter by adding an oxer on the other long side; the first two times down to it, I did not get perfect distances although the canter seemed alright. Then I experimented by creating a bit more energy and had a shorter distance than I wanted but the landing seemed better. Finally the fourth try was the best, and I quit while I was cemented in on that canter.

The reason we all like to event is we like to test ourselves, and we like to see how we do against others. So what’s wrong with practicing testing yourself at home? I wanted to see if I could really, REALLY keep the right canter in the turns without someone telling me.

I also like to set up things that have 12-foot distances or broken lines to see how they ride and what I can do to make the distance work. Do you watch videos and read “What’s In Your Ring,” and pour over the gymnastics advice that the top professionals publish here and there? I sure do. I go home and I set it up all about 2 feet high and walk it, and see what it feels like, and then I’ll ride it and see whether I can handle it or not.

In this way I have slowly but steadily brought my eye back in and gotten my nerve slowly working itself back into my schooling on a regular basis. It’s been one year since I broke my knee — a long, arduous process, not just to fix my leg but also my confidence.

Test yourself, keep testing, keep trying. It’s a slow process but it’s working. At first, I was so bad and so weak, I thought I should really quit this; now I’m still feeling weak but a bit more confident now. I’ve actually entered an event and I hope I am ready for the test! I’ll give everyone a progress report in about a week.

Everything Eventing Offered at Area II Young Riders Online Auction

What’s on your eventing Bucket List? Your very own Eric Bull-made cross country jump? How about a private lesson on a four-star event horse? Or a space at the hottest new clinic sweeping the country? A pair of Vogel boots? An ad for your business on the front page of Eventing Nation? Well, Area II Young Riders want to be your enabler!

The fundraising online auction now underway has all of those things! All you have to do is login and bid. And in addition to those treasures, there are well over 60 items listed including lessons from just about every eventing trainer and coach in a five-state area!

Eric Bull is donating this brush wedge to Area II Young Riders! Photo courtesy of ETB Jumps.

Landsafe Equestrian has donated one space to its scheduled May 13-14 seminar at Waredaca Farm, Laytonsville, MD., valued at $325. Eric Bull’s ETB Equine Construction has donated a Brush Wedge jump, valued at $600. USET Event Team rider and Olympian Jane Sleeper has donated a private lesson and ride on her venerable four-star mare, UN, in Cochranville, PA. Courtesy of Area II Adult Rider Beth Sokohl, a pair of custom size 9/wide Vogel field boots have been donated (value $2,000). And your very own Eventing Nation has offered ad space valued at $2,000 to a lucky bidder.

In addition, you’ll find cross country schoolings, coaching sessions, gift certificates and much more, so browse through the listings and place a bid. The auction closes on Sunday night, April 23, 2017 with all payments due by the end of the next business day and there are easy payment methods available. Check it out!

The Area II Young Riders would like to thank all donors and participants supporting its “Road to Rebecca” campaign, as they raise funds to participate in the 2017 NAJYRC at Rebecca Farms in Kalispell, MT, in July. The Area II Young Riders team is coached by Holly Caravella, Chef d’Equipe is Meg Kepferle, and YR coordinator is Chris Donovan.

Let’s Talk About Footing

Muddy! A people-crossing on the course, taken after the last horse had gone by, at the end of a wet day at Rolex in 2015. Photo by Holly Covey. Muddy! A people-crossing on the course, taken after the last horse had gone by, at the end of a wet day at Rolex in 2015. Photo by Holly Covey.

What is the single most important thing to just about everyone on cross country day at the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event? Oh yes, it is footing. How the beautiful Kentucky bluegrass is going to hold up for the greatest day in eventing on that last Saturday in April means everything. Everything!

Back in the day, Mother Nature had a lot more to say about footing than today. Today we have synthetic and manufactured footing that has changed much of what we expect for good footing in arena horse sports. That’s a good thing. Manufactured footing has changed the game, and made it better for a lot of jumping horses.

The one exception in horse sport is — you guessed it — eventing, where we have one phase left that remains pretty much subject to nature: cross-country. Because our sport allows us to experience uphill, downhill, water, ditches, banks and more natural terrain (or at least, it’s supposed to), our horses encounter footing that is not as consistent as a beautiful raked arena.

That’s the reason we love it — and hate it, too. How many of us have come off cross country missing a shoe, or two, or noticing with dismay a heel grab or worse? Do we blame the footing? I’m remembering a very wise old trainer saying to me, “The footing can’t talk back,” meaning if you blame it, you don’t have to blame the trainer, the jockey or the track management.

March is a really good time to refresh ourselves on footing, and how to evaluate it when we encounter different conditions. While many in the sport have the delightful experience of Carolina loam and sand most of the winter, some of us have things a bit more challenging. (I’m looking out the window at mixed snow and rain as I write.)

The reason there are different terms for footing other than “perfect” or “good” is this: Horses CAN go in less than perfect footing. Yes, they can perform beautifully for not only the best in the sport but for those of us quite a few rungs lower on the ladder. Footing that is not extremely muddy, damp, wet, sticky — all of that — is perfectly OK to run on, provided you have some experience and your horse does, too, and both are properly prepared.

Extremes in weather do produce conditions that are horrible and unsporting, and in such cases the most experienced heads at the event get together and agonize over the decision to either cancel or modify cross country. These decisions, like the one recently at Carolina Horse Park to abandon the Sunday cross country phases of the Southern Pines Horse Trials, March 10-11, due to a nasty early morning snowfall, are never ever made lightly. In Carolina’s case, the snow was packing and balling in horses’ feet in warmup, and one competitor told me they couldn’t even canter on level ground to a warmup fence without sliding. There are many factors in officials giving things a call, but it’s usually going to be an extreme event — like Carolina’s — before the decision is made.

Rain in many areas of the country can lead to conditions that are less than perfect but rain shouldn’t be stopping a horse or a rider in eventing from learning how to go when the ground isn’t absolutely perfect. The point is, you can’t gain experience on less than perfect footing if you don’t practice on it a little bit now and again. With the experience you will gain, you’ll know whether your horse gets that he has to go a little differently, or whether he won’t. And if you pay attention, you can adjust your riding accordingly.

There is nothing on earth as great as the feeling of getting that cross country course licked, and when you do it in less than perfect conditions the accomplishment is magnified even more. So take the time to educate yourself a little on footing.

The established turf of Fair Hill has not been plowed in many decades. Photo by Holly Covey.

Let’s go over some turf footing terms.

Most of these have to do with water — how much of it actually lays on the surface of the ground, how much gets absorbed, and how it is absorbed in the layers just under the surface of a horse’s hoof. You don’t have to be a soil scientist to understand that water and dirt make mud; and grass soaks up the water and prevents mud from happening until it can’t soak up any more water or until the horse’s hooves cut it up and compromise the grass’ root system, which acts as a sponge.

Here’s a visual: Think of a grassy field as a giant sponge. You can do this at your own kitchen sink — with just an ordinary dish sponge. Start with it totally dry, and then add water gradually, finally soak it til it’s sloppy wet – and you’ll get an idea of the following turf footing conditions:

Hard track: Condition of a turf course where there is no resiliency to the surface.

Firm track: Firm, resilient surface, a condition of a turf course corresponding to fast track on a dirt track.

Yielding: Condition of a turf course with a great deal of moisture. Horses sink into it noticeably.

Soft track: Condition of a turf course with a large amount of moisture. Horses sink very deeply into it.

Heavy track: Wettest possible condition of a turf course.

The conditions may also be called “deep” if there has been a heavy rain wherein the grass is very soaked and the surface is quite sloppy. This is similar to “muddy,” but with a bit more water. “Muddy” is a very heavy condition, thick and holding. Then there’s “yielding,” wherein the upper surface will show a footprint as the horse gallops over. But the problem with a yielding surface is that is won’t maintain for a whole bunch of horses working over it, and will get to muddy or deep rather quickly.

This is the reason many large farms with well groomed pastures don’t really want a whole fields of foxhunters galloping over their land, and at least in the hunt country of Chester County, one will drive past signs on the coops that say, “Staff Only.” The landowners want to limit the damage to grass turf to just one or two horses galloping across rather than dozens.

Turf, or grass, is only as good as its root system. The grass you grow on your lawn is not the same sort of grass that is holding the soil out on the cross country fields. There are many roads to Rome when it comes to grass, and that’s not the purpose of this article, but suffice it to say that grasslands and pastures make up the bulk of the footing on most of the cross country courses recognized by the USEA in this country. So knowing a little bit about grass, dirt, and its most important factor of change — its ability to hold or shed water — should help you as an eventer.

There is no question that the type of grass, the root system of the grass, and the many layers of soil structure deeply influence the kind of ground that a cross country track can be built on and run over. Places like Plantation Field in Chester County, PA, and Fair Hill Natural Resource Management Area in Cecil County, MD, are event facilities built over grasslands that have not been plowed for in some cases a century or more.

This creates an incredible “mattress” of footing, of a mature, established grassy root system untouched for many decades. The beauty of this undisturbed subsurface is its immense capacity to absorb and repel rainwater; often heavy rain for hours barely makes a difference in the surface. But if this ground is very dry, the clay in it makes the surface hard, concrete-like, and the rain will run off rather than cut the ground and wash away roots. The mattress also keeps rocks down in the layers and from being pulled up to the surface where a galloping horse may contact them. (These famous soils led to the birth of our nation and in part were some of the reasons England fought so hard to try and keep America a territory, by the way.)

Another type of soil that creates great tracks are the sandy grasslands, found in places like North and South Carolina, and in the beautiful loam and scenic hills of California, among other wonderful eventing facilities. Depending upon their plasticity (ability to soak up and hold) water, these courses can be maintained for jumping for many years. These places with great soils get to have several events a year because the footing can take the traffic, and repair itself, from horses, vehicles, and people. Never underestimate the value of six good inches of topsoil!

So we know that these grasslands are good footing. And we’ve covered why they aren’t plowed up or turned over to disturb the topsoil — because that’s a short term solution for an immediate problem but will do more damage than good over the long run. So how do managers “do something” about the footing on these tracks?

The answer to that question varies because each event is different and subject to different moisture levels, but aeration (putting holes in the ground to open it to moisture reception) is one way managers try to soften hard turf. Jimmy Wofford has described aerated tracks, like those at the Rolex Kentucky Three-day event course, like galloping on an egg crate — to a horse.  He cautions that a human can’t feel what the horse feels as it travels on aerated ground.

Photo by Boyd Martin of the aerated footing at Pine Top’s March horse trials.

Aerating is like a mini-massage for topsoil. The aggravator-type soil conditioner is pulled by a large tractor with hydraulic connectors. Basically, there are several models, but how it works is round bars, with pokers on them, are dragged over the surface. The bars and pokers are wiggled as they are rolling, pushing holes into the surface rather than digging it or cutting it like plows and discs. Rather than cutting the roots of grass, it sort of pushes them around.

When moisture happens, it rolls into the holes and is slowly released, much like a water bucket with a pinhole in the bottom. But it is millions of tiny buckets, and in this way the managers get as much out of any rain as possible. If they don’t get any moisture, the “aeration” of the ground serves like an egg crate to cushion the hooves. There are some variations, depending upon machines, to this concept of working the ground on the galloping tracks, but basically it’s the same sort of goal — to make the footing softer, more absorbent, less hard, or concussive.

If you really want to manage footing on cross country to make it perfect, irrigation and underground drainage are the ultimate in control. Only a few places on earth can afford to kick Mother Nature to the curb like this, and what a joy it is to gallop over such tracks — eventers universally praise them, but they’re not really doable for most competitions in North America.

So back to what we normally encounter every day. When we ride today in our rings and fields, we encounter a lot of different conditions. Our horses can discern these conditions very well — after all, it’s their hooves! Most of our horses know when it’s slippery, wet, muddy or deep and change the speed and energy in which they step very markedly, regardless of whether the rider tells them what to do! In some ways that’s a great thing, but sometimes, especially young horses, can make mistakes.

If we continuously ride only on groomed surfaces (and in my case, on level ground) when I do go to a place with different footing or hills, my horses often need to adjust a little. Having some foxhunting experience really helps a horse understand footing changes and how to cope, because within a two to three hour hunt you can encounter everything from hard pan to deep mud. If we school only on great stuff, our horses learn to go a certain way. If we school over different conditions, we can teach them to cope with footing and that’s a good thing for our safety.

 

Watch and Learn

If you can't watch it live, watch the video! Photo by Holly Covey. If you can't watch it live, watch the video! Photo by Holly Covey.

I disagree with anyone who says you can’t learn how to at least ride a little bit better from watching video. I’m a visual learner, so I know I can translate what I see into what to do on the back of my horse. So when I’m not able to watch competition live, I’ll check out the latest links and events available either streaming or from recorded video sources such as YouTube and Vimeo after the fact.

We all know and love The Horse Pesterer for his great video compilations, and his knack for getting super slow-mo through those really tough combinations, where the best among us make it look sooooo easy. Of course, live is a lot of fun and usually best, but video is a close substitute.

When I watch a stadium jumping round, I try to watch the horse’s overall energy and balance first, where his legs are going, and how his head and neck are working with his body to get over the jump. I like to watch the connection of a horse with the rider’s main source of steering (the bit and the hands) with the rider’s seat and legs.

Not every rider is perfect. Sometimes the perfect riders don’t get results, either. And sometimes the riders you see not entirely classically correct get incredible efforts from horses. So I watch the whole picture first without picking anything apart.

My second view I always notice a few things I missed first time around — like the correct distances to the individual jumps, maybe a half halt correctly placed so that the horse meets the distance perfectly or the opposite. I try to see WHY a rail might have been dropped, and try to guess whether it was front, or hind, that touched it — before scrolling back and going slo-mo to be sure. And occasionally I’ll stop the action and go frame by frame to watch how a horse is reacting to the aids or not reacting.

When watching cross country, I focus on the balance and the speed as well as how the rider sets a horse up for a obstacle or question. And I watch the horse’s ears and attitude, to see how they “read” the question. When a horse is confused, relaxed, confident, unsure, and occasionally angry — you can see all of this from the set of the ears and expression of the eyes, body, and even the tail.

I’m not critical; I’m watching for applications I can make when something similar happens to me. I try to watch a few favorites on cross country as much as I can: Kim Severson, Colleen Rutledge, Sally Cousins, Jane Sleeper. These gals are about the best in the country and I know I can’t go wrong seeing how they manage even their Novice horses on simple courses. I’m sure you have your favorite riders, too, so make it a point to watch them in person when you can, or check video from events.

All of this helps me to understand where I should be in the saddle or how I can better achieve balance and get out of the way of my horse. Of course, trying isn’t nearly the same as doing, but when I put a picture in my mind of a great round, I try to ride like the good example I’ve watched. It helps to pick horses and riders that fit my horses and my body type, too.

It’s rare that anyone, even the best, can ride a totally perfect round, and that’s not what I’m looking for. I’m looking for the horse that might land from a fence and lengthen, or flatten, and what the rider does to correct it and get the balance back for the next fence. I want to emulate that success.

Some riders you can’t even see the beautiful flow of equitation. They operate so efficiently, and the horse is so tuned to them. Those are the most interesting to me, as I will play those clips over and over! When my instructor or coach tells me to correct something, I can pull up a memory of a part of a round I’ve done where I had to perform that correction — or I can pull up that video playback of someone else doing that correction.

Either way, I want to increase my ability to ride better. In that way I take what I have seen and apply it to what I am doing, without waiting until I have all the experience to draw on. That’s how I use my visual learning preference to my advantage.

If you’re a visual learner, too, what are your “tricks” to better enhance your riding? Post a comment! Here’s one of my short video clips from Rolex, that I’ve probably watched 50 times or more. Take a look!

The Definitive Eventer’s Guide to Beer

Eventers ... we have beer stored in our jumps. Photo by Leslie Wylie. Eventers ... we have beer stored in our jumps. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

There’s a little blog about matching wine to your horse problems going around. I read it. And I get it. But really, eventers are beer people, aren’t they? So when you have a rocking cross country, the beer to have with that is a good old American IPA — and plenty of it. (Where I come from, we are partial to Dogfish Head.)

Forget your dressage test? There’s a beer for that … try a Belgian Pale Ale, great for crying in. How about those four rails down in stadium? You’ll need something dark and foreboding, like the English Oatmeal Stout. And the cross-country course walk of course calls for a Bohemian style Pilsner just so everyone can get in the spirit of walking for miles looking at gigantic fences nobody can figure out how to negotiate.

I’m here to tell you after many years of drinking beers, and many years of eventing, there’s definitely some sort of connection between beer and its many flavors, and eventing and its many ways to get eliminated.

Forgot your armband? There’s a beer for that — try a blonde ale (for obvious reasons.) Or maybe you forgot to tell your groom babe to replace the rubber rein stops on the special fancy stitched bridle from the new sponsor. Yep — eliminated … match this particular disappointment with a wee heavy Scottish ale.

Oh and don’t forget the classic whip-carry-into-dressage, (now only elimination at championships) which calls specifically for the dark lager, guaranteed to erase all bad memories, or basically all memory if enough is consumed. For the truly miserable, try the Oktoberfest Bock style beer. Or should we pair that one with the event that is cold, rainy, wet and muddy? And takes place in October?

Of particular interest to those of us who eliminate ourselves by missing jumps, on both show jumping and cross-country courses, we have to go with the American amber ale, great for restoring the “what the hell” attitude.

And for the rider who forgot the head number, the gloves in dressage, the protection vest under the airbag vest, forgot to unhook the airbag before dismounting, forgot the spurs, forgot the crop, forgot the sunscreen, forgot the raincoat or the spare horse trailer tire … there’s the English brown porter — which is so horrible you’ll never forget any of those things ever again if you have to drink THAT beer as penance.

There’s a special pairing for the boot zipper fail — the Stout …

What’s the very worst? I guess to have your horse spun at the jog on Sunday … might as well really wallow in the pity and try an English milk stout beer (YUCK). That is truly the worst and it would really fit the occasion, I think.

So there you go, the eventer’s guide to beer and how to pair it with your experience at your event. And if you’re not an eventer or a beer drinker — of course there is a non-alcoholic beer just for you. You can drink it while you’re online giving advice to all the four-star riders out there from your keyboard. Cheers!

Coaching Myself

Coaching myself. Not always a great idea! Photo by Holly Covey Coaching myself. Not always a great idea! Photo by Holly Covey

I have about as much skill on a horse as the pinky fingernail of Phillip Dutton. But that doesn’t mean I can’t channel him once in a while and today I think I made progress. I coached myself through a problem.

I’ve got a bucky one. He gets away with it because I am afraid there might be painful consequences if I make an issue of it. Every flat school, the first time I ask for a canter, he will often tighten his back and give a lofty hind end buck, or two, just to check and make sure I really meant it. It’s annoying. It’s gotten into my head. I trot forever telling myself it’s ok, as soon as he’s got the edge off, he won’t buck when he canters for the first time. I just have to trot more. It doesn’t work. He bucks anyway.

But it was time to coach myself. It was raining a cold rain, and I was hungry, I’d been outside a long time getting wet, and annoyed with myself for being chicken. I need to find a way to canter without getting that bucking, I thought. What can I do? What would Phillip do?

Today, I thought, when Lucky bucks and lazes away like that, Phillip wouldn’t allow that. I’ve watched enough of his clinics and riding to know that he wouldn’t get mad, but he’d be firm and clear that the canter aid meant canter, not buck, that the leg meant forward, not kick out, that the work would get very hard if there were attitude shown about this pretty basic command. Then he would give the horse a chance to respond correctly, praise him, reinforce it, and go on.

I sat back down, put both legs on, sent him forward, then insisted on working trot and asked again. When we got a little attitude I did shoulder in across the circle, bent him right and left, and asked again as clearly as I could. This time I got a good working canter, a little mouth chewing and ear pinning, but it worked.

When I felt the back get tense and a buck about to happen, I put the leg on and yielded across the field about an acre or two and then did it the other way. Oh you want to loft that hind end? How about  moving it left and right instead? For about 15 minutes? Ah ha!

Having eyes on the ground is a luxury for so many of us, and I know it’s a really important part of riding well. But sometimes it’s a thing I have to do as the rider at the moment in the saddle of the horse who has been allowed to dictate the exercise. There’s an urgency to feel, and then fix, right now, right here.

I have been slacking on insisting on acceptable behavior from this horse. I know why. I don’t want to get tossed. I’ve seen this horse buck on his own. If he took a notion to do one of his half-best while I’m in the saddle, I think it would probably hurt for a while once I came to (sample here). Perfect example of talking myself into a course of inaction and thinking it would work. But it never really does. You’re kicking that can down the road, and it truly does mean that every ride, every half halt and transition, you are reinforcing the training – good and bad. Every ride.

So, today, in the damp, cold rain alone with him in my field, I coached myself through the disobedience. “I don’t want to fall off but I don’t want to be afraid of this either every time I sit on Your Highnesses’ hiney. So there’s the deal. You buck – you work. You show attitude – you get the pinky fingernail of Phillip.”

I put my legs on, I reminded myself to be fair, but I stayed on through a couple of pretty good sunfishes and then sent him forward. He ducked his head. I pulled it up. He pretzeled sideways. I straightened him and sent him forward again – and again. Mommy’s a BITCH! Whine! Of course, it worked – duh. He gave up and softened, and while he was a little wary, he ended well.

I was ridiculously relieved. I had stayed on. It was like winning, but not like I won a fight, but like you got a 9 on a trot extension or jumped a clean stadium. The high of satisfaction that I’d made a decision and it was the right one for a change. I went for walk and gave him lots of praise, then tried once last set of canter transitions before ending for the day, and he was behaved and contrite. He politely asked for his treat when I got off in the barn. I call that progress. But it started with me!

It’s Over! Reflecting on the Year That Was & Looking Ahead to 2017

It's over! Sara Barczewski, who managed an event derby at Fair Hill, after finishing a long hot day in the field. Photo by  her mother, Ruthie Franczek. It's over! Sara Barczewski, who managed an event derby at Fair Hill, after finishing a long hot day in the field. Photo by her mother, Ruthie Franczek.

Goodbye, 2016! At last, the end of a year of frustrations, pain and learning opportunities. Thanks, I’ve had quite enough learning opportunities! I should be a genius by now, with all the learning opportunities I’ve been forced to swallow this last year. It’s time to start having fun again.

This year eventing also has had some sad times. We lost Phillipa Humphreys — a terrible blow to our sport which left us with resolve to do better in her memory. We lost Roger Haller, an icon in our sport — but he’s left us a great legacy for the future.

We had the Olympics and the disappointing team finish, but the incredible individual bronze performance of Phillip Dutton and Mighty Nice, and the equally incredible job Boyd Martin did with a green Blackfoot Mystery over the world’s toughest cross country course ever.

Our national eventing association had a big gain; we welcome the leadership of our own Carol Kozlowski, a longtime competitor and USEA leader who also has competed at the highest levels and was responsible for the changing of the weight rule back in the day, which had a huge impact on the sport. We look forward to her time as president of the USEA in 2017.

We look forward to increased attention paid to adult amateurs, volunteers and kids in the sport. We hope the sponsors and supporters from last year step up this year to help us. Prize money helps everyone and it keeps us going forward, training hard, trying new things, keeping bills paid and the sport vibrant.

We know our cross country gurus are working hard on studying better, safer ways to make jumps, and we look forward to even better rides over safer courses in 2017.

We hope that the ugly stuff is way overcome by the great stuff when it comes to issues and difficulties. The horse is always, always foremost, and it’s our hope that 2017 gets that message installed in every eventer.

We want everyone to have fun, we want competition to be fair and properly judged and scored, we want everyone to have a great ride. Every single rider, every horse, all year in every event. Not just the big events, not just the favorite ones, not just the high profile ones or the ones with the live stream or big PR — the small ones, too, in every corner of the country. They are all worthy of greatness.

Go eventing! 2017 is here!

 

An Eventer’s 2017 Check-Off List

Mike Huber coaching at Radnor in 1986. Photo courtesy of Holly Covey. Going to an event and having fun will create a lifetime memory. Mike Huber coaching at Radnor in 1986. Photo courtesy of Holly Covey. Going to an event and having fun will create a lifetime memory.

What are you planning in 2017? Oh yes, events, schoolings, training, a trip here or there, lots of horsey stuff … but maybe there are a few things that every eventer should also put on their calendar! Like:

  1. Volunteer somewhere for a whole day. It will give you a new perspective and educate you about yourself and your sport.
  2. Do something with your horse that is out of your usual box — perhaps a dressage show or jumper show, maybe a hunter show or equitation class, or clinic with someone other than your regulars.
  3. Take a day off training, schooling, teaching, coaching, etc., and spend a grateful evening with family — and let them know you appreciate them.
  4. Be kind to someone who is beneath you. They may be above you someday and will remember.
  5. Contribute to a worthwhile cause in your sport. If this is your profession, then it is your duty to support it. If this is your hobby, then it is your prerogative, but it is important for those coming behind you.
  6. Keep your horse’s well being foremost. When you’re tempted to reach for a stronger bit, ask yourself if you are the problem first. The best in the sport ride in simple snaffles most of the time. Be introspective and critical of self, before assigning blame or looking for excuses.
  7. Study your chosen field. Make it a point to know something of its history and background as well as current knowledge in the field. Read something other than the rulebook and social media!
  8. Have fun with friends at an event even if you didn’t win or had a bad day. You may not remember the color of the ribbon in years hence, but you will remember the joy!

Go Eventing.

I’m Home For Christmas Vacation

Being home during the day for Christmas vacation, I’m being entertained by all the animals in the neighborhood. Here’s a sample viewing … I watched my neighbors’ pair of pet goats sneak over to my backyard this morning, and the scene went like this.

“George, I don’t think you should … really, that horse looks rather cross … George!”

“Oh Ethel don’t be such a chicken. Come on. The electric isn’t on.”

“Well … OK … where did you go through? Right HERE EEEEEEEEE!!!!”

“I thought you said it WASN’T ON!”

“Sorry. I didn’t get shocked, guess you have to just duck a little faster.”

“GEORGE.”

“Sorry.”

“Uh oh, here comes that horse! Oh my! He’s wearing a TENT. Do you see that? He doesn’t look anything like our horses! He’s WAAAAY bigger. But his hay sure smells good. Come on, Ethel, smell that nice hay over there. Let’s go eat it!”

“George, that horse is awfully big. I’m staying out here and watching in case the Jack Russell Terrorist comes out of the house. You know they come out of no where and are very fast.”

“Ethel, you’re afraid of everything. MMMMmmmm. Just taste that hay. I think it’s timothy. Good stuff. (munch, munch)”

“George, I’m heading back. I think I see the Jack Russell Terrorist now.”

“George. GEORGE!”

“Mmmm. Mmmmm. Really good. Mmmm.”

“GEORGE!!!!!”

“EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE…” I think you can sort of put the rest in your head – one bad Standardbred bay gelding, with a “tent” flapping (blanket) goes after the male goat, who heads quickly to the part of the fence he has slid under to get in.

Yes, the electric is indeed on, and yes, he gets shocked, bawls, jumps, runs and heads back. His mate looking on has already dived for the cover of their pen with the Jack Russell hot on her heels, and they nearly collide with each other trying to jump back into their pen. They hit the wire, tangle, and about 60 feet rip with a zing out of the insulators. The Jack Russell is delighted with the chaos. The barking wakes the dead.

Back on my side, the horse wheels, does a 180 and squirts off bucking in the opposite direction upon hearing the fence ripping, comes down on his front heel and rips off a shoe which goes careening 50 feet in the air, pinging against the side of the tin-sided barn sounding like a gunshot. The Jack Russell yelps, tucks tail, runs for the porch. The goats make for the safety of the home base. The horse now running full tilt kettles all other horses on the property and now we have a pasture-tearing fest as the draft cross lumbers about after the 17-hand Thoroughbred skimming the corners, throwing clods.

The neighbors on the other side have two sedentary and ancient Arabians who can barely move; they watch with lazy interest until one of the draft crosses’ turns on the circuit around the field throws some mud clods over to their fenceline. Off they hobble with as much gusto as they can manage, but fling up their heads and tails to show their disgust.

The red-breasted hawk perched on the tallest fence post watches all with aplomb. Although she did swoop down and check out a dark mud clod…thinking it was a rat or mole, I assume. In the barn, the cats dove for cover when the shoe hit the side and it’s my bet they won’t be out for dinner.

All of this happened within a ten minute span of time and I didn’t even get my second boot on before the uproar was done, and all that was left was:

12 muddy dirt clods, 11 holes in the pasture, 10 yards of fence wire, 9 broken insulators, eight minutes of screaming, seven cats a hiding, six feet of skid marks, five broken boards — four huffing pasture puffs, three hooves with shoes, two defiant goats and a Jack Russell Terrorist on the porch!

Bad goats!

Bad goats!

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The Ninja-Ballerina Quotient

Perfect balance! What we are all seeking in eventing. Photo courtesy of Holly Covey. Perfect balance! What we are all seeking in eventing. Photo courtesy of Holly Covey.

In all things, there is a season … so the famous old saying goes. In eventing, we too have seasons, but not just for competition and training our horses. We also have seasons of the spirit.

A human changes throughout their life; so a rider also changes from the early days of beginner awkwardness to middle years of competency and balance in the saddle and life. As we progress, we swing constantly from ninja warrior, fighting the battles in the ring with a green or reluctant horse, to prima ballerina, flexible and soft, creating a beautiful scene of harmony.

One of the reasons I think the sport of eventing attracts so many riders in middle life are the multiple opportunities to excel, the three avenues of sport to tackle and master and see through to the end. The phases work together to produce a horseman from start to finish line, and we get the experiences of competition, equitation, training, strategy, care and horsemanship along the way.

There’s a lot written about riders who work hard, nose to the grindstone, produce their own horses from first backing to three-star, and we admire their toughness and skill. We also admire riders who seamlessly ride many different horses well, taking on rogues and sensitive, difficult horses and producing beautiful cross country rounds from each — often in the same day.

It’s a balance we seek, the happy medium, the right amount of force and the right amount of kindness. In order to get a horse in front of your leg, you may have to carry a whip, and you may have to use it. That’s the ninja part. In order to get the proper lateral work out of your horse, you may have to sit very still and apply just a light aid to get the right amount of bend. That’s the ballerina.

For those of us in life who were just a little bit of dancer and just a little bit of warrior, eventing seems like a good fit. We don’t have to stand up to impossible expectations, fight for respect, mind political objectives, tiptoe around or wield authority in the flow of learning that is eventing. We can be good and not have to be great. We can achieve without specializing. We can tap into both our sword and our tutu to enjoy the sport and riding our horses.

So here’s the constant problem with this quotient: It’s an equal share of warrior and dancer that produces the sporting spirit. That last thing isn’t the most important thing in the world, and sometimes it’s not even important at all to some event riders. Not everyone wants to worry about competition, winning and all that. Sometimes, you just compete to check your progress, and in that vein, sporting spirit becomes all about FAIRNESS.

No one set gains more than another set. No one is seen as worse or better than another rider or competitor, no matter why they are there or how they arrive. All have equality, Olympic medalist to 60-year-old Beginner Novice eventer, 18-year-old young rider candidate to 8-year-old on the pony, professional on eight horses and backyard amateur on one cherished lifetime horse.

Some people in eventing confuse competitiveness with business. They do not want fairness; they want an advantage. Because they make their living in the sport, they equate competition with opportunity. When we give importance to this, we do a disservice to the balance, and I believe, we jeopardize the very attraction of the balance the sport gives us. If 30,000 people thought the ticket they bought to attend Rolex cross-country Saturday was to pad the pockets of the 40 or so pros that rode that day, they certainly wouldn’t be there to cheer them. Why do they come? You know the answer.

Having a great sport with balance needs its members to show up and bring the sword on occasion. We’ll fight for the right thing in our sport, and we’ll stand up to bullies who want to capitalize on wrong-headed aggressiveness. Yet, we’ll temper the competitiveness with sensitivity to our horses who are but willing animals giving us what we ask.

We’ll stand for those who aren’t talking or can’t make it to the meetings. We’ll argue for fairness, protect the weak, look out for the inexperienced and newbies. Aggression isn’t always the answer, whether in the warm-up ring on up to the highest levels of the sport. Sometimes tact and skill are more important than big bits. When we lose the ninja side to the ballerina side, the spirit of the sport suffers.

This balancing of spirit in the sport also means we’ll find solutions for the needs of upper-level riders living out of their horse trailers and eating ramen noodles trying to afford entry fees and travel expenses. We’ll take into account the hard work and care needed to keep top level horses in the game, in this country and overseas and seek funding to keep owners in the game. We need to keep all our great organizers coming back to year after year to let their land be a place of sport, and most important of all, increase respect of the volunteers who literally carry the sport on their backs. We need aggressive solutions to these concerns!

We’re ninjas AND we’re ballerinas. We all are. That’s why we’re here, why we ride, why we spend most of our non-working waking hours in the barn, on the horse, online or on foot at events, volunteering and cheering. We ride like warriors at the trakehner and yet have to put on the tutu and make fun of ourselves once in a while.  We seek the mixture of tough and soft, strong and sensitive, the balance of accomplishment over great tests yet the satisfaction of simply nailing that canter depart. This balance creates the spirit.

We check our spirit for this balance each day we ride, and it makes us whole beings and better people. Our horses create this opportunity for us, and we are never wrong to thank them and appreciate them for the education they provide us and the sport. How much our lives are enriched by their generosity and kind willingness, and how our hearts (and other body parts occasionally) ache to ride better and become the rider our horses need us to be. It is our mission.

How are you balancing the quotient? In your everyday riding and in your consideration for the sport you love? Here’s your challenge: Wear the tutu, but carry the sword, just in case. Keep an eye out for fairness in everything you see and hear in eventing this year. From the USEA Convention to winter clinics and seminars to lessons, competition, volunteering, and interaction with professionals and officials. Keep the balance. Seek the spirit of the sport, the balance of ninja and ballerina. Wear the tutu, but carry the sword!

A Photo Is Worth a Thousand Words

My mother on her brother's field hunter, Sis,  near Ambler, PA, probably 1945-1947. Photo courtesy of Holly Covey. My mother on her brother's field hunter, Sis, near Ambler, PA, probably 1945-1947. Photo courtesy of Holly Covey.

This time of year, we’ve got less and less daylight to ride and be with our horses. Many eventers find this time of year is when we actually pay a bit more attention to our families and places we live (as in houses, apartments, bedrooms, etc.) A bit less barn time and bit more home time.

So, while you’re sitting around doing very little eventing, it might be time to do a little reflecting on your year, and taking time to sort through the photos on your phone, check out the professional photos online that depict you or your horses, or go through things at home that have stacked up.

Social media has a great way of reminding you what you did a few years ago. But there are only a couple of years available. (See the date on the photo I have of my mother riding in this blog — not available on social media!)

Right here I’d like to make a little plea: support your great professional photographers in eventing by making a purchase this month or next. Buy several photographs or videos. Send them as presents to those you love, or just keep them and put them somewhere safe.

In looking back through many of my professional photo purchases, I truly can say that they are the best possessions I have. They bring back wonderful memories and make me feel whole and connected to eventing and my horses. They are proof I did it.

Photos on phones and in computers don’t live forever. No matter how many protections you have, something unfortunate can happen and they are all gone. I’ve got thumb drives, floppy disks, and video cassettes … and the window is closing fast on the last two in terms of technology and I need to get them transferred onto something more timely and safe.

And with still photos, it’s best to have a printed copy that is safely framed and preserved. Even if you don’t plan on displaying every photo you buy, keep them safe and put them someplace where they won’t be affected by water, heat, light, mice, bugs, or annoying little brothers or sisters!

As for your own digital memories, sometime this holiday or winter season: TAKE THE TIME. Do backup your photos (memories) and get them saved somewhere safe. If you can’t remember how to do it, ask a friend or check out the instructions on your phone or device. Send them to friends or family, put them in a hard drive or on an external drive you can save, use a saving device, or get old fashioned and print them out.

Photos and images are the proof you did it, they are memories that belong to you that no one can take, so don’t neglect them. Get them where you may someday see them again in a year or two, and have a great laugh, or look at them next week, it doesn’t matter, but keep them.

Is Your Gut Right? The Importance of Honing Instinct

Katie McIntyre on her green OTTB, Indian Fighter, winning Intro Dressage. Photo by Steven King.

Katie McIntyre on her green OTTB, Indian Fighter, winning Intro Dressage. Photo by Steven King.

You have a great new green horse. You just got him last week and have spent a few long days working with him, grooming, riding, maybe a lesson or two, or a trip to the tack shop for a shopping spree (whoohooo! who doesn’t love that?) But…

How fast are you moving with this horse? How’s he handling all the new stuff you’re throwing at him? Does he like what you are doing? How do you know?

Answer: The Gut Feeling. When you have a couple of years in the saddle and have ridden a few horses, however badly, you do get a feel for when it doesn’t seem quite right. Whether it’s lameness, or reluctance, or bad balance — as a rider you can feel when it’s not quite the same as it was yesterday or changes from the way it started.

I think your instructor or trainer would like you to hone that feeling. They know that gut will tell you what you need to know and when you need to know it. They love your Gut Feeling and try really hard to get you to love it, too, because it’s what makes you safe and successful. (And that makes them successful, too.)

As amateurs our problem is not listening to The Gut Feeling when it jumps up and says, “Hey, you are about to find out way more than you want to know about the local emergency wing of the closest hospital.” As much as we would like to have an instruction manual about The Gut Feeling, we don’t get one with a new young horse.

How do you get one? Where does it come from? Well …. professionals gain experience by practice. They have a lot of time on green horses and know what makes them tick. How would a top professional treat a green horse? Would they go slow, reinforce the basics, take time, and carefully monitor the horse’s learning ability and character? Yes, yes, and yes. Would the professional keep the stimulus to a minimum and allow the horse time to fit into the new work schedule, new barn, new feed, new neighbors, new sights and sounds in the barn? Yes. Would the professional keep the workload low and the handling safe, quiet, slow, deliberate? Yes.

So, if you simply follow your trainer’s blueprint, or if you don’t have a specific person you work with all the time, stalk a great eventing professional and see how they do it. Or take to the research like re-reading books by Phillip Dutton (I consider his book a real eventing bible for young horse riders), or other good reads from authors like Pippa Funnell, Mark Phillips, Jimmy Wofford, etc. This is the time of year you can take your time, and get it right.

Is a cross-country school, jumping lesson, dressage show on your schedule? See how your horse feels the week before, the day before, the morning of. Trust your gut. Sometimes, horses step up and prove us all wrong, but other times, a single trip to another farm with a lot of new sights and sounds scares them backwards in your training several months.

One of the most useful phrases I use in riding all the time is something I heard from a natural horsemanship trainer at an expo, working with a horse in a very small pen in front of hundreds of noisy spectators, and that is: “Recognize the try.” He wasn’t getting very far with the horse, the environment had him very wired, yet he carefully gave the horse the benefit of the doubt and offered praise every chance he could. To the amateur eye, it didn’t look very progressive, but if you watched the horse’s demeanor, he relaxed more and more as the session went on — and there was a positive change at the end (where he promptly rewarded the horse and stopped).

How do we know when it’s time to praise, and when it’s time to ask for more? Well, if you can answer that question you are going to go far in the horse business. For the rest of us, we have some work to do.

So many of us as amateur riders do not “recognize the try,” or at least, do it less times than we should. Our young horses try to relax, try to soften their outline, try to stretch over their backs — but hit a holding, firm hand instead. They try to drop their head and view the ditch — but hit a brick wall when the rider won’t let them see it. They try to jump but the rider misses timing their form to match the effort and hits their back with their seat, or worse, their mouth with their hands. All things that make a young horse go, “yuck.” It’s easy to see this — it’s on the social media every day. People make mistakes. It’s not easy to do a young horse the right way. We’ve all been there.

Here’s a few tips for care and feeding of your Gut Feeling.

Vet the Show: One way to keep it happy is to pick your new places and new things carefully with your green horse. Before hauling over and expecting a great schooling, go check out the new cross-country course on foot first. What’s scary about the water jump? How is that ditch going to ride? Is there too much to see in the parking lot, or is there a crazy neighbor with a bouncy castle? Be prepared. Know where you are going. Pick a good place.

Buddy Up: Work with your horse’s instinct rather than against it. Take a trusted other horse friend for him and for you. Having a second person see what you are feeling is a good way to practice listening to your Gut Feeling. Horses always are better together, they’re herd animals. Ride together at home first before going out.

Get Dressed: Set yourself up for success by being properly tacked and properly attired — vest, boots, crop, martingale, tight girth, properly fitted saddle, all safely adjusted and in good solid condition to handle the stress of a bad shy, or quick stop. Don’t let a broken piece of equipment cause a problem that you’ll have to go back home and fix with many weeks of work. It’s a waste of time and totally preventable.

Call in the Experts: Consider the wise counsel of a professional before setting out on a young horse adventure. Get an assessment of your horse’s ability and yours before trying the show or schooling. Listen to the pro’s advice and contrast it with your feelings about the ride. Check your progress against the “pro” standard.

Check Off Skill List: I also check my young horses against something really simple like a Training Level dressage test. I read through the test and just think to myself, can I do that movement, can I do this movement, how would it be if I did it out in the field without a fence? If I don’t get very many “yes” answers to that question I know I have more work to do at home to get the horse on my aids a little bit more.

As amateur riders we are eager to get going, to follow through on dreams and goals, so much so that we have to try to remember it’s a partnership. Before your partner gets to the point of mutiny, make sure as the captain of the ship that you are using your Gut Feeling for the enjoyment of both your horse and yourself!