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Holly Covey

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This Year at Fair Hill: A Glimpse Behind the Scenes

Photo courtesy of Holly Covey.

I have a friend who entered a dressage show on the same day as cross country day at Fair Hill, and I was shocked. Who would do that? Then I realized; there is a whole ‘nother world out there that does not think Fair Hill International is the most important event on the planet. Geez. Who knew?

It is said that the road to Kentucky goes down Gallaher Road. That’s for the competitors. I think for volunteers, our best time of the year also goes down Gallaher Road, too.

My oldest volunteer pin is from 2002. That for sure puts me in at 16 straight years of living and dying on that piece of gorgeous land at the corner of Gallaher Road and Elk Chapel Road in northern Maryland, but I also go back a few years before that. We think that I have been helping with the cross country course about 20 years. Wow, that is hard to type.

This year’s Fair Hill International renewal is now in its 30th year. While those of us who have come to know this event as our “home” international CCI feel like we have accomplished something, really, it’s not ours. It’s everyone’s.

There are people I’ve never met at Fair Hill who have worked hard every year doing something you and I don’t know about, but they are there. Every year I volunteer, I meet someone for the first time and we swap war stories about how many years we’ve been doing it and the Monsoon Year and other fun memories.

Not every job has been glamorous and gotten a photo on EN. Lots of jobs that go completely unheralded in putting on a great CCI and sporting event in the country are terribly difficult.

There are trash people and parking people. There are people who cook food for the volunteers long before a horse arrives to feed us while we work desperately on setting up. There are people who just run around on gaters and golf carts doing whatever. I am very envious of those people!

There are people who unhook their trucks from their horse trailers and go get cornstalks and mums and equipment and tables and chairs and set it all up. And have the time while doing their job to help others with questions, answer emails, make phone calls, straighten out problems and direct sponsors to their booth space.

There are people who spend hours on the phone months in advance getting sponsors, collecting checks, doing bookwork, accounting, advertising, and other minute detailed paperwork involved in an international sporting event.

These folks of course are all volunteers (most of them anyway) and love what they do. But they all have lives and kids and houses and jobs, too. And some have horses that still need feeding and stall cleaning and riding. At home. That other place you go to sleep and find clean clothes.

While we as volunteers are delighted to return year after year, we also know the importance of bringing in others to help and learn the essential jobs. Creating a family and experience goes that way. We have fun, too, in the midst of all that work. We’ve learned that if we didn’t, it made it hard to justify the time and attention. We all look at each other on Tuesday and compare the energy levels — pretty darn low.

Then … trailers with big logos come rumbling down Gallaher Road, horses start arriving, and riders start walking in, and trainers, and all the luminaries of the sport, and and we’re energized. They’re here! It’s starting!

While we don’t know how things will work in the new location, scheduled for 2020, right now and for next year we will continue at the Gallaher Road location for the CCI2* and CCI3*. As the FEI changes and moves its rules and proposals forward, we as volunteers are at the lowest end of the food chain. We follow as ordered.

But we are darn sure going to have a good time doing it! And our world, the third weekend in October, will always go down Gallaher Road and stop at a place we love to enjoy together. See you there!

 

A Manual for Wet Weather Hoof Care

Mud! The bane of farriers everywhere. Photo by Holly Covey.

My farrier told a story of shoeing at a stable this year where a teenager’s horse continually lost shoes. After the umpteenth time replacing a lost shoe, he asked the rider what she was doing to prevent it. She replied, “Nothing. That’s your job.”

I was aghast when I heard this – because it most certainly IS our job as horse owners and managers to keep our horse’s hooves in the best possible condition, and that means keeping the shoes on for the horse’s benefit. Not only that, but shoeing is one of the highest costs of horsekeeping – it behooves you as a horse owner to protect that investment!

The hooves are part and parcel of keeping the horse’s whole body well and require good nutrition and proper environment to be at their healthiest. The “proper environment” part is where the young teenager lost the meaning of horsemanship.

In times when there is a lot of moisture on and in the ground – such as this year in the east – it’s on us as horsemen to keep our horses’ hooves healthy by being careful about turnout in muddy and wet conditions.

Why Wet Weather Wreaks Havoc on Hooves

The horse’s hoof tends to be hard in arid conditions and soft in wet conditions. Moisture makes the hoof more “deformable.” Remember, a horse is ALWAYS on his feet, so the hard tissues (the horn and outer hoof wall structures) are subject to continual stress. When these soften, the interior structures of the hoof bear even more pressure, which tends to soften the entire hoof, and leads to a pancaking — a flatter hoof shape because the structures soften and spread.

Soft walls don’t hold nails well, and shoes loosen and are subject to loss. A soft hoof has even more difficulties with things such as white line disease, thrush and pathogens that can be absorbed into soft, mushy tissues, leading to abscesses, etc.

Mitigation Strategies

Preemptive avoidance: Persistently wet conditions can reshape a hoof, so to manage the moisture, performance horses who are turned out do need to be given a drier place to stand at least a few hours during the day or night. This allows the hoof to not be subject to continual moisture and gives it time to keep the moisture at bay. It doesn’t always work, but it helps to keep the horn tougher when a horse is stabled at least part of the day.

The easiest way to keep a horse out of the mud and water is to put them in a dry stall, of course, but that’s not always possible depending upon the stable schedule and setup. For most event horses, turnout is crucial, so good stable managers keep an eye out for the footing but turn out when the conditions seem the best – in terms of not just ground moisture, but also temperature, flies, heat, work schedule and feeding schedules.

Shavings, sawdust, straw or any other dry bedding will help to pull moisture out of the hoof as the horse stands and walks in it; regular hours of dry surface will help if a horse has no dry footing in turnout. These are used in stalls, of course, but some managers also bed their turnout sheds in order to keep moisture at bay.

In order to pay attention to the moisture level the hooves are subjected to, we look for dry paddocks, take steps to remove muddy conditions from walkways and gate areas (where horses tend to stand), and try to mitigate the time a horse has to spend in the wet and mud by turning out after the dew is off the grass, for instance.

There are products that can be used at gates and entrances that create a “mat” and moisture barrier to prevent mud, as well as using gravel, wood products, sand, etc. Soil conditions will dictate what you can use in your area of the country, what is economical, will last in all weather, and have the features your setup needs. Not everyone will be able to use sand or a commercial barrier product in outdoor conditions, but if you have a persistent problem, it’s a place to start.

Sometimes the water in your congregation areas comes from a source, such as a barn roof, or low lying area. If that’s the case, look into how you can divert the water through gutters, drainage systems, or filling in puddles that just won’t dry up. The best place to go for information on how to do that is your local county extension or soil conservation agency – they usually have free information, and are tasked with helping farm and stable owners fix and mitigate soil problems like drainage. In most cases, you’ll probably want to get a soil test before starting work so you know what kind of soil you’re working with in the area you want to fix. Changing the ground conditions can run into a lot of money, so an inexpensive soil test along with some consultation with experts would be a good first step to changing a drainage problem.

Other ways to directly affect the horse without a major construction project:

Hoof care products: There are commercial products that can be applied to the hoof wall for a moisture barrier, but the bottom of the hoof is still subject to ground moisture absorption, even with shoes and pads to protect it and a commercial product applied. There are thrush medicines that do an effective job of preventing and attacking the thrush bacteria, and other products that help to keep bacteria and pathogens at bay. Sometimes the simplest things work just as well – a weak bleach solution, for instance, in a squirt bottle to tighten and kill bacteria on the sole and frog.

Nutrition: Nutrition of the whole horse has a lot to do with hoof and horn quality, also, and that’s a whole blog in itself. Do you know what your horse is fed, and if the ingredients are helping his hooves? Check the bag labels, go online, do your research, ask an equine nutrition expert and see if you might be able to tweak your feeding program to get your horse’s hooves in better shape, too.

Awareness: If you have to turnout consistently in wet conditions, it’s good to check the clinches every day to insure the shoe is staying tight, and re-clinch if necessary; that’s something you can do with a hammer yourself, have your farrier show you how. And for sure talk with your farrier if you have a consistent shoe-blowing problem. There a lot of things he can do, and perhaps some tricks he can show you that will help.

In short, don’t leave it up to someone else. He’s dealing with your horses’ hooves for an hour or so every four to six weeks. All those other hours, it’s your responsibility! Mud is certainly one of the foremost frustrations of a farrier, too, as well as a horse manager. But it’s your job as caretaker to keep the hooves as carefully as you are keeping the rest of your horse and make the nightmare of lost shoes a little less scary.

All Eventing, All the Time

In the space of eight days, I made an expedition to a World Championship three day event, survived a major hurricane, worked long days driving 12 to 14 hours in the bowels of a major east coast city, prepared my own horse for a horse trial, decorated four courses at a local recognized horse trial, and oh, yes, competed at Training level; and today, after a needed 10-hour sleep, I am watching Plantation Field International 3* cross-country live on USEF Network.  All eventing, all the time!

Hint: I didn’t do all of those things perfectly. In fact, And my horse trial was a bit spotty — my horse is a unicorn — and I forgot to do something to one fence on the courses at Marlborough, which ended up jumping OK — and even the Plantation Field feed is a bit spotty this morning, but we all survived and it’s all good.

I think we get too far along in the perfection department to want to accept “just O.K.” If you read me regularly, you know I am always reminding myself, “This sport is HARD.” And it is. And we don’t appreciate how very difficult it can be when we watch the ease and splendor of our top level eventing athletes at the upper level events.

They make it look easy. I’m still remembering the absolute silken ride of Nicholas Astier, the focus of Ingrid Klimke, the quality of the Japanese riders and the grace of the horses over the cross-country course at Tryon. As a spectator, and big fan, these memories serve you for a few years.

Our corners. Photo by Holly Covey.

When I am riding at home I think about those riders and try to channel their riding, and I hope others are too, because they were fantastic to watch. Even if all you experienced was TV, please emulate the riding and think about how they approached and prepared horses for the questions, and how their horses responded.

Oooh, big corner at WEG. Photo by Holly Covey.

Coming home, driving through a serious rain deluge, I practiced my determination, focus, and patience. Yes, those things in everyday life we need also apply to our sport!

And then I want to talk about sharing the experience, and being a part of a hard working set of folks who care first about the sport, then their event, then how well they can cover every detail. I worked this weekend with a first-time organizer who did a fantastic job with nearly every aspect of a beloved local event. Helping her were caring, above-self folks who are dedicated to the sport, and working with people who are approaching an event with an attitude like this makes it easy to work hard.

If you have a local event who makes a plea for volunteers, it’s your duty to go and help. Even a little bit, and even for just a few hours, and before or after the event if you plan to compete. Every person’s hands are precious, every little act – even bending over to pick up a discarded water bottle and toss in bin — makes a difference. But do a little more if you can!

If you cheerfully approach a task or competition, give yourself positive feedback about your endeavor, surround yourself with people who give you help and support, and show up. Be present. Come to play and smile even if you don’t want to. This makes a difference not only to you but to others, and keeps everything at an even keel.

I am convinced that the smiles of the volunteers at Marlborough Horse Trials kept the rain mostly away and allowed the sun to come out Saturday, and that should mean something.

WEG water jumps. Photo by Holly Covey.

This sounds cheery and positive, and that’s not to mean all is rosy. Mistakes and poor experiences do happen, and were a part of both of my weekend events, but I’m going to choose to see the big picture here and go away with educational experiences from those not-so-hot moments. “You’re either winning or learning.”

And our local horse trials water jumps. Photo by Holly Covey.

The experience at WEG and at a small local horse trials a week later wasn’t really a huge contrast — it was actually a fun comparison of how shared experiences make memories and fun in a sport that ranges from Elementary to the ultimate, a World Championships. Go eventing!

WEG: Cross country Day!

How was your day on cross country? Our day started with another good bus ride, and we selected the cross country bus which took us directly down a paved driveway to be dropped off at the top of the lake right near the start box! Hooray! We had a short walk to the guys scanning tickets and were on our way for the day. I quickly did a little math; I asked my ticket-scanner how many he had done so far, he said 300-400 and there were 10 guys there, so we figured at least one hour prior to cross country, about 4,000 people were on course.

We saw a lot of horses and some really excellent rides — Ros Canter, Ingrid, Emma Tattersall, and Nicholas Astir stick out. Met a couple of British eventers, who told us they never got to see a horse at France at the last WEG, because they were stuck in traffic six miles away; they were happy they were on course before the first horse was even down to the start box, thrilled to be able to see everyone go this time. I met an endurance rider from Khazakstan and commiserated with her over the endurance race and she was OK about it, things just happen, she said, we will work for the next one. We walked back up Heartbreak Hill in time to see the last horses come through the last jumps and was a part of a small group that cheered for every rider to get them home.

Here are a few photos:

The crew fixes the pin on the oxer at the fountains. Photo by Holly Covey.

Dutton and Z. Photo by Holly Covey. 

Up the hill to the rocks. Photo by Holly Covey. 

Water jump was mobbed all day. Photo by Holly Covey. 

WEG! We Get a Ride Up the Hill

Golf cart after golf cart passed us old ladies and who stops for us but the chief course builder and course designer. They gave us a ride up Heartbreak.

It’s an amazing course but to be honest we couldn’t find out how to walk it because it looks like you’re wandering around in a construction yard. We actually had a caterpillar tractor clinking along next to us while we squeezed over next to the string.

So with a little intrepid walking and asking a lot of volunteer-looking people, we found most of the course and watched several teams try to figure out the puzzle of the water jump which was very entertaining.

We decided we knew where the start was, where the waters were, and most importantly where the beer was so we are all set for Saturday’s cross-country. The above picture is Moe’s Bar B Q in Forest City which was absolutely 100 percent awesome and tasted like heaven to us.

Oh and we shopped. Oh and we waiting in line for our bus. It looked really bad when we wandered over to the pickup place, with a very VERY long line over a block long, but it moved fast and we got on our bus after only a 16 minute 45 second wait (yes, I timed it.)

If you’re aren’t having a good time you aren’t trying. Hit that trade fair for some shopping therapy and find your way out to the water jumps, it will be fine. See ya out there! And wait for the good stuff.

#Tryon2018: WebsiteEntriesScheduleXC Start TimesIndividual ScoresTeam ScoresUltimate GuideCourse PreviewHow to Watch LiveEN’s CoverageEN’s TwitterEN’s Instagram

10 Days Away!!!!!

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

There’s a lot of excitement coming up this fall. The United States is hosting the World Equestrian Games. Wow. Just saying that gets me excited, you too, I bet. If you don’t have your tickets, there are some to be found, you can purchase from friends or others who don’t need theirs. Places to look include bulletin boards and social media from what I can see. The ticket rules allow the original purchaser to pass them to another person, so if you didn’t get a ticket and want one it looks like it’s OK to get one previously purchased.

It does look like tickets for Eventing are available, including seats for the show jumping day on Sunday, as of today. (Click here for ticket availability.)

Once we all get there, we are told traffic and parking are going to require patience. Well, we can deal, I guess. There is no ahead-of-time parking passes being sold. You have to pay to park each day and it looks like it will cost $20 per car. I imagine there will be a line to get in to pay and a line to park after you get in. There are supposed to be shuttle buses that pick up the parking lot folks and shuttle them to the event entrances. One hopes this system works if they have enough people to take money, enough buses and they run back and forth regularly — especially on cross-country day, Saturday, Sept. 15. We’ll plan on leaving plenty of time ahead.

I have no idea what or how we’re going to eat and drink. We’re probably at the mercy of the showgrounds. I know there is food there during normal competitions, but many thousands of us will be there and won’t be allowed to bring our own food in, so crossing fingers food doesn’t require huge waits or mortgage payment prices. I can go hungry, I guess until we get to a restaurant somewhere.

The course I am told has a nice hill in the center where you can see a lot of jumps, and the concessions may be located in the middle. I hope this is true. In true intrepid eventer style, I am making sure I wear comfortable shoes for walking. Maybe even boots.

My friends with serious photography habits were a bit worried about the camera rules, then when the revised guidelines came out, were a bit calmed. They hope to be able to get lots of great photos of all the best in the world over the fences and I hope we get to see their pictures afterwards.

Does anyone know what the cell phone service and internet will be like there? It would be wonderful if it’s good and we can contact our friends. Better yet, some suggested we wear items of apparel of some kind — hats, shirts, jackets, etc. — from our Areas or groups so we can recognize and find one another.

I have a feeling it might be hard to find one another if we aren’t already with each other from the parking lot! So I’ll use a little trick someone told me at Kentucky: Find a spot with a recognizable feature, near the attractions, to meet if you get lost and your cell won’t work (we use the Bruce statue there — we’ll have to find something at Tryon.)

We’re all stressing over the clear backpack thing. I’ll find something that works for carrying what I want to bring — mainly a phone, sunglasses, a hat, a credit card, maybe cash, some sunscreen, a bottle of water or an empty container for water, a couple pieces of candy for dry mouth, chapstick, aspirin, and a bandaid or two for blisters or stings. We’ll see whether that will work with the rules but I think so if packaged correctly.

I’d like to carry a waterproof pad to sit down on the ground, but not sure they will allow it; we usually stuff a small one in a backpack for Kentucky cross country day because you find yourself way out on course I always want to sit down, and eat or drink something to fuel up to walk back and the ground can be damp. They are allowing portable chairs but if you have one in a bag it will have to be searched when you enter. That might be a good option if you don’t mind carrying it with you all day; I’m not sure I will want to tote it all day with my back!

I’m debating whether to carry my camera. I have so many great photog friends, their pictures are going to be incredible, and I sure can’t do as well as the pros; but I’d like to be able to video a little bit, so I’m not sure what camera I’ll carry.

It feels like cross country day you have to be prepared, have a plan, pack carefully and strip for action like a military excursion. Having had a little experience with big crowds on cross country day, I am trusting that the venue also has a way to manage all of us spectators comfortably by having enough potties, food, and drink to keep us all happy.

All of you folks with media passes, it’s your job to let us know what to expect because you have access. Don’t forget to go out and check on us and see how we’re doing.

It’s all about the horses, so here’s to a good show and a good ride for everyone and hopeful the horses are all good, too. I hope we can see some great riding and I’m looking forward to giving everyone reports from the cheap seats!

See you there! Go eventing!

 

 

The Art of Holding a Horse

One of my favorite horse-holding pictures: Jan Byyny and Inmidair at the CCI3* jog Wednesday morning at Fair Hill International in 2013, the year they won. Photo by Holly Covey.

The holding of a horse isn’t quite as important as holding a baby, but it may be almost as dangerous — and fulfilling.

There is an art to holding a horse. Anyone who has been around a groom who has been holding lead ropes for most of their adult lives knows what their hands can do with that butter-soft leather lead shank. It is zen.

When we see photos of boyfriends skeptically but hopefully holding the lead rope of a wary, knowing horse, we all know what is just about to happen without even reading the caption. The horse makes a step, takes a pull — and it’s rodeo time.

We’ve all lead a horse down the aisle, thinking of other things, and had the horse remind us however gently or forcefully that leading them is not to be taken lightly: stepping on the end of the lead rope trailing under their feet, breaking the reins getting caught on something they shouldn’t have … and various other disasters.

Unlike many other pets, for which a leash is either an object of decoration (chihuahua), or something a man seizes and controls (pitbull), the lead rope of a horse is more of an umbilical cord at times.

We are united with a piece of twisted cotton, or a bit of leather.

I watch my grazing horse at the end of it and think of how he feels about that grass he is munching. Depending upon the weather on the day, and the moment I am holding him, I will think. I will take a turn either slapping at mosquitoes, tucking my hat over my ears a little lower in the cold, or pull up my hood against the wind. I must stop and I must stand, or slowly shuffle with him. The world doesn’t have to go on spinning for a few moments. We can just stand there.

I relax my hands — no death grip needed. The munching is a soothing rhythm. I watch him eat. I’ll check his legs, worry about his splint. I’ll watch his ears. I’ll check the swish of his tail, the look of his topline, the amount of fat over his ribs. I’ll watch the bend of his ankle and the reach of the hind leg, and check the clinches on the shoes and that the clips are folded in. Then after a while I stop checking things and just watch.

He knows I am there, holding him, watching him. He doesn’t care. He enjoys the grass. He doesn’t want to leave. I don’t either. We don’t talk, we just listen to each other. We eat grass together.

Grooms all over the world are doing it, all times of the year. Sometimes at competitions where they chat and talk with each other. Sometimes at home alone with a barnful of work to do, or an overwhelmingly tough problem to solve, or just general worry about money, relationship, job.

The lead line is a counselor.

And the art of holding a horse covers a lot of ground and stretches from your very first encounter with an equine all the way along your whole life, and hopefully, to the very end. Many who can no longer ride still own horses and handle them and lead them and hold them. Once you hold a horse, you never forget how to do it again even after many years.

The coolest part of holding a horse is the understanding he knows you are holding him, and he can’t run away, yet he can do what he pleases. It goes back to early training when he was just a foal, figuring out that when the first halter was placed on his head, that it meant his life would have meaning.

A halter does not divide the broken from the free. It creates a being, a precious life to hold in your hand and keep safe and train and compete and belong to. A lead rope is a lifeline.

So when you hand a lead over to someone it symbolizes your trust they will care and love that horse as you have come to. It means a new journey starts for them, and it is a sharing on down the line of the ancient trust a human creates with something it has tamed.

Boyfriends, take heed. Holding your girlfriend’s horse has deep and powerful meaning. Now if you could just figure out how to keep him from stepping on the lead rope! (Don’t worry — you’ll get it. Keep at it.)

Go eventing.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T

There’s your earworm for the day:

“R-e-s-p-e-c-t … find out what it means to me …” Gotta have it, just a little respect.

Oh, yes. In order to receive respect from your horse, as an event rider, it is at times essential to give respect — particularly when you are jumping a horse that tends to get slightly heavy in your hand. You don’t want to pull on the mouth. You don’t want to make constant correction, at least, I don’t. I’d rather just ask politely and get a nice, congenial, “sure, Mom,” response.

Four and a turn photo by Holly.

Most amateur riders like me I think feel the same. It should not be so much work. So, in an effort to gain back some respect, I changed the Event Horse’s bit for a little at-home jump school. Oh, my. Let’s give that idea the proper amount of respect: OH MY.

I have a rather short arena but I can set a four-stride line. This one was right on the 12-foot normal stride. I knew I’d have to gain RPMs in the turn and keep up the pace through the line, then half halt for the next turn, after the second fence in the line.

What I didn’t count on was the new and different attitude that the different bit caused in Event Horse. He galloped down the line, I gave him a little space when we landed, then sat up and politely asked, with my normal, regular, old-bit amount of pressure, for a half halt to make the turn to the right.

Whoohoo! I got it really fast, really quickly,  a really really real half halt! As in I nearly went out the front door to the left while Event Horse braked to go right. The arena fence was right there, up close and personal. We didn’t lose PVO (proper vertical order, earth-horse-rider), but it was touch and go.

So. Lesson learned. New bit equals new level of respect, and rider must subsequently adjust as well. And this is the lesson — that if you demand respect at a certain level, say, change the bit to something a bit more — be ready to change yourself to ride the horse you get. This was not a complication I had planned on.

What happened was I expected him to respect my half halt but I wasn’t thinking far enough ahead. A different bit will have a different response, and required a different use by me — I should have been milder with my half halt and not assumed the same kind of pull would work.

So in doing the exercise again, I checked myself when we landed and asked much more softly and got a more balanced and smoother turn. Light bulb moment: respect the respect you expect!!!

I’ve got a horse that can be a real bully on the ground — the more I correct him, and the consistency of correction, makes a difference and is the only thing that seems to work. If he isn’t handled for a while or if someone else handles him and treats him differently, I’m back to Square One with him in the respect department. And on occasion, even with consistent pressure, he’ll still walk over top of me or bang me with his head reaching for something. He doesn’t have a “personal space” radar.

And that’s not a thing I want to thump him for all the time, either. What I am doing is watching my own body language and taking care to be correct in my approach and handling and following the rules to avoid having to correct him — rewarding his good behavior and asking him politely not to step on me in the cross-ties, etc. Respecting the rules myself first.

Respect doesn’t mean cruelty and fear, big nasty bits and tight nosebands; it really means I am ready for a different level of performance and I’d like to see if we can’t develop an even deeper partnership together. I get it now.

I guess I have to make r-e-s-p-e-c-t a two-way street when I ride.

I love the story Jim Wofford tells about one of his best horses. When jumping, Jim would just have to look in the direction he wanted to head, and the horse would follow his eye upon landing. I’d like to have that kind of communication with my horses some day, where bits and bridles and reins and spurs didn’t matter, and which stirrup you weighted signaled which way to go. That’s a cool concept.

So until Event Horse gains Wofford-Level clairvoyance, and I magically develop upper level riding skills overnight, I will continue to work hard on this ammy-rider-thing and when I get big ideas to change the tack, I’ll make sure I think it through first.

Go eventing!

Courage Under Fire: Caesar Rodney’s Dark and Stormy Ride for Independence

A statue of Caesar Rodney stands today downtown Wilmington, DE. Photo by Holly Covey.

Everyone knows that we in America celebrate the 4th of July as a great national holiday, commemorating the birth of our nation. But perhaps only horse people can appreciate the great courage — and great horsemanship — 242 years ago, that made this holiday possible.

Here’s the scene: It’s July in Delaware. Hot, steamy and drenching thunderstorms are battering the flat landscape around the tiny colony’s capitol city, Dover.

Caesar Rodney, 48 year old statesman, military man and farmer, is suffering from cancer on his jaw and face. He’s at his family farm near Dover, attending to his duties as head of the Delaware militia, and that’s just one of the many public service positions he holds to serve his state and country. In addition, he was voted a delegate to the Continental Congress, currently in session in Philadelphia. But he’s home when they call the vote that rocks the world.

On June 30, 1776, a motion for independence was put forward in the Continental Congress. Debates over independence continued into July 1, 1776. A vote was held, and nine colonies voted for independence. Two colonies, Pennsylvania and South Carolina, voted against independence. One colony, New York, abstained from the vote, and another colony, Delaware, was split on its vote.

A rider bangs on the door of his mansion, rousing the household, with an urgent message from fellow statesman and delegate, Thomas McKean, in Philadelphia. The Delaware delegation, including George Read, McKean and Rodney, had voted in a tie — McKean for independence, Read against. Rodney was urgently needed in Philadelphia, about 80 miles away, for a tie-breaking vote. Could he come to Philadelphia quickly? McKean could only buy a little time before the vote would fail due to lack of consensus, and then the notion of independence might also fail, and doom the fragile union of colonies to more oppression, ruinous taxes and tyranny. Rodney was needed — and needed fast. Could he ride the 80 miles to Philadelphia on a stormy night to save the vote?

Accounts are that he left immediately, about midnight, of July 1. As he proceeded northward through Delaware farmland, using the only roads available, the thunderstorms had muddied the paths and swelled the rivers and creeks. He likely crossed several, and those in the darkness of a stormy night.

A letter to his brother Thomas indicates he went by carriage for most of the trip, but the accounts of his arrival in Philadelphia have him wet, with muddy boots and spurs — indicating he rode as well. Experts believe he used a saddle horse for at least part of the journey, and then switched to a carriage as he got to present-day New Castle county.

It is likely that he traveled northward, approximately the path of today’s U.S. Route 13, passing through Smyrna, Odessa, New Castle, Wilmington, up toward Wilmington’s Penny Hill to what is now Claymont, Delaware, and then into Pennsylvania at Marcus Hook, then what is today the city of Chester, then on to Philadelphia.

18 hours — today a journey of about an hour and a half.

The ride was undertaken with a certain amount of courage, too. It was not ideal conditions for a fast overland trip and horses were the only mode of transportation. By all accounts, Rodney was an excellent horseman, and in so being, he probably knew what lay ahead of him.

Very few documents have survived from that era, and while we don’t know exactly what Rodney looked like, we know some about Colonial Delaware life and how Rodney would have felt that evening when the messenger came knocking on his door.

He knew his decision to break the vote meant he’d have to ride hard, on a dark and wet evening, probably in thunderstorms, lightning and rain. How many of us eventers have gone on in the rain and the wind?

He knew his horse might become exhausted; perhaps it was a favorite, maybe one he raised from a good mare and bred himself. He might even have injured this horse, or watched it drop exhausted, or have to leave it behind while he hurried to a waiting carriage. We have felt those feelings, seeing a favorite horse leave us.

He would have urged the driver to push the horse or horses pulling the carriage; being a farmer and horseman, certainly he would have been full of regrets for the hard way they were treated to get him to Philadelphia. Those of us who have had our horses go lame or get hurt know these feelings well.

He arrived with muddy boots and in his spurs, we know this, on July 2, to cast his Delaware vote for independence. This put Delaware over into 2 for and 1 against, carrying the state, making the vote “for” independence from the tyranny of Great Britain.

The last line of the Declaration of Independence reads, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

(Read the full text here.)

In two days, the final documents would be written and the delegates would approve them, and on July 4, independence would be declared, and the United States would be born.

When Caesar Rodney mounted his horse on that steamy night, he knew, the moment he put his foot in the stirrup, that what he was doing would essentially insure his death. His cancer had advanced, and the only doctors who might be able to treat him were in England; voting for independence and signing the document declaring it would label him a traitor, making his arrest and imprisonment or hanging a certainty should he try to travel to England.

The Crown would also threaten to take his land, his crops, his home and conscript his servants and tenants for their military. He could be looking at bankruptcy and destruction of his property as well. No, there was nothing good to come of a vote for independence for him personally. It would mean war, and being in charge of the Delaware militia, it would mean he would have to leave his farm and raise and lead an army, convince reluctant citizens to join and fund the army and fight against a colonial power that ruled the world. He’d have to do it with fighters who had little more than a few old muskets, axes and rags on their feet. It was an immensely daunting future that Rodney faced when he mounted and rode that night.

So when you see those words, “we mutually pledge to one another our lives, our fortunes and our sacred honor,” they literally knew they ALL were signing a death warrant. That took courage.

And being eventers, we know a little bit about throwing our heart over an obstacle, and having the courage, however small, and however minor, to overcome a difficult task. We know what it takes to mount a horse, take a breath, and ride for our lives. And while we may not do 80 miles on a stormy night, and the stakes aren’t a nation at war (more like just trying to get home from work in time to ride before dark) … we know a little bit of how it feels to keep going when it gets tough, to keep trying despite all around you telling you it won’t work, and sticking up for what is right and what is fair.

The Founding Fathers of our nation indeed had courage, courage of a type we in our era will never see from current day politicians and public servants.  Those guys 242 years ago were tough, smart, courageous  — and pretty scared — but they did it anyway.

Sort of like eventers, too! Happy 4th of July — and now you know why we celebrate!

 

Gym? Pfft. Farm Life Is a Next-Level Workout

Who did THAT? Photo by Holly Covey.

They go to a gym. They work out. They run. I laugh.

Today, as I was deadweight lifting a 100-lb. track drag, and walking backwards 50 feet with it to get it out of the way of the mower, I wondered what those people who go to gyms think. I mean, why? Sure, I read all the latest research and white papers about exercise, and how barn work doesn’t relate to “real” physical activity supervised in the latest power gym by expert trainers.

Yeah, right. So how we gonna get anything done around here?

I’ll do your workout, and you get to come and pick up 400 bales of hay off the ground, throw them on a wagon, stack it, then pull it off the wagon and restack it in the barn.

I only have so many track drag deadlifts in me in a day. I don’t dare go “work out” in the morning, for fear I’d get home after work and find some sort of massive physical contest with a broken something-or-other, or have to move half the barn to get to some important part or piece of equipment, and I’d have no strength left.

Like this weekend. I decided I’d make a cross country course this weekend. Yep. Pulled out some posts, took down some fence, mowed some grass. Moved some drags and implements. Dug out some weeds on a dirtpile, worked on a tractor pushing it up to a rideable mound. Built a couple jumps. Dragged a log out of the woods to use for a jump. Cleared some brush. Trimmed back some trees. Picked up and dumped the clippings and brush. Dug out a couple of old things that needed to be moved out of the way. Moved about 50 cement blocks, restacked them, weedwacked and trimmed tall grass where they used to be and where they went in their new position.

Took me a couple hours. Working slowly, of course. In pretty much 100 percent humidity at or around 80F. But I will have five or six good cross country questions by Tuesday completed. Just small, just to school over. But it will be done.

And that was after cleaning four stalls, changing water in water tubs, sweeping, cleaning up, washing off deck furniture, and weeding a small flowerbed.

I’m not all kooky about getting stuff done, just the opposite, I leave a lot of chores unfinished and start a ton of projects I can’t seem to get finished. Most horse people with their own farms I know are somewhat the same. There is always something to do.

There’s a lot of hard, physical work involved in keeping a farm up. Not talking about a showplace — just basic mowing and dragging and watering and weed control. In this wet spring, we’ve had our share of grass and weeds running rampant. Some fields are like making an expedition to get in there and do some damage to the overgrowth. The fences are in there, last I saw.

I am always thinking about new stuff to jump or a different way to fix the run-in shed or something requiring Big Construction. For the most part, I get back to reality when I actually go out with hammer in hand and realize it’s beyond what I can do in one hour.

This time of year, it’s easy to get into projects that take time because we have light until late. As the daylight begins to recede, starting today, I will lose a minute or two each day to do my chores and start or finish outdoor projects. Then, gradually, I’m squeezed down to just being able to ride after work. And soon not even that as fall arrives.

And don’t forget the reason we do all this work is the horses, and they have to be ridden, groomed, washed, fed, watered and cared for, too. Oh, and if you live with someone else, all that applies to them, too. And what if you have a full time job?

I have gotten up early mornings to ride more years than I can count. As I approach my fifth decade of doing this stuff, I don’t even think about the various parts of my body that complain every morning. It’s discouraging to take inventory.

Farm work — just work — is often the only and all of the workout that I do each day. While I know that is not ideal, I also know that the physical work I do tires me out enough to make me feel as though a trip to the gym would be a welcome relief.

I wish I was in better shape and I wish the farm would fix itself. Wouldn’t that be great? All this new technology to have “smart homes” with computerized instructions and automation … imagine if we were to have it with the barn, the paddocks, the ring, the pastures, the yard and the flowerbeds. “Alexa, weed the front flowerbed,” or “Alexa, dump and scrub out the back field water tub and refill it.” What luxury. A smart barn.

Just think of it — are you dreaming about a robot that can set jumps for us so we never again have to get off a horse to put up a rail or a weedeating robot? Yes, please. A weedeating robot. Send me some seed money. Any venture capitalists out there? Every farm owner I know would be in sleeping bags in the parking lot lineup at Walmart should such a robot be available. At any cost!

So until that day comes my workouts remain purpose-driven. And exhausting enough. And I’m not moving that drag for a least a week (or until the weeds need cutting down!)

Before You Enter at A: Smart Tips From a Scribe

Photo by Holly Covey.

Whenever I scribe, I find out more stuff about dressage that makes just darn good sense, and helps me improve my own competitive riding.

My last scribing job got me thinking about one of the most important components of your day at an event, and the thing that starts off your competition. This is how you utilize the moments you have to trot around the dressage arena before you start your test. It seems kind of simple: You go around the ring and trot a little and then go in to be judged, but there are a few things to do, and not to do, that can really affect the quality (and score) of your judged test.

Be on time (= early).

The scourge of my life is to be on time, but in dressage, they really mean it. When it comes time for your dressage test, you must be on time. What does that mean? I think it means plan your warmup, bit check, and last minute fixes so that you are ready to approach your designated arena and do your familiarization round around the arena at least two minutes PRIOR to your ride time. This is so important. Judges have to keep things as fair as possible for everyone they judge. They try to give each rider the same amount of “around the ring” familiarization as possible, but if one rider runs late, then that pushes everything a bit behind. So if you are ready to ride at least two minutes before your scheduled time, you will not run the risk of being late.

Make a plan. 

Warmup procedures vary from event to event. Some warmup areas are close to the competition ring; others are further away and harder to estimate how much time it takes, so it makes sense to get up to dressage warmup in plenty of time to get all that figured out, check out the proper ring for your test, etc. Plan for what you will do when you enter and start your warmup circle. Will you go right, or left? Which side do you think your whip should be? What looks spooky and likely to draw a shy?

Head out there. 

It’s proper to wait until the rider before you has done their final salute before starting your warmup circle. The judge stops judging at the salute, so if the rider prior to you takes their time wandering out of the ring, you can keep warming up, just stay out of the exiting horse’s path.

Many times events have multiple arenas running at once. Do be mindful as you enter for your warmup circuit that the horse next to you might be in their test, or that a horse could be acting up next to your ring. If that is the case, it may be best to go the other way, turn the opposite direction, or go to the end or other side — tension tends to excite neighboring horses — to keep your horse focused and away from potential trouble!

Don’t hover around the end of the arena, waiting for the bell. Trot beside the boards up to the judge so she knows you are the next horse in her ring. When you “claim” the warmup circuit around your ring, the judge can relax knowing she doesn’t have to worry that the next rider hasn’t shown up, or guess which rider hovering at the end is the next one in her ring.

Pass the judge like a pro. 

If you are not sure how your horse will be with the judge and scribe at C (whether they are in a car, booth, or at a table, etc.) make sure you trot past it and let him see it. Even with an experienced horse, it’s always a good idea to approach the car and speak. Then your horse is aware there is something there. It’s OK to walk or trot past the car (pass in the front), and, in my experience from scribing, I think most judges don’t care how you go past — as I explain below, sometimes they are busy anyhow — but the important thing is don’t make a bad impression by stopping for a long time to chat or halting and expecting to be addressed. You’re just using up your warmup time, and making yourself late. The polite thing to do is keep moving, smile, and go on about your warmup loop. We can see you; we’re just busy.

It is a nice courtesy to put a horse’s head number on the side where the scribe can see it on your first circuit. (That goes back to the planning which way you will turn.) It’s OK by most judges to say hello, but do remember to put a happy expression on your face! Don’t worry if the scribe or judge doesn’t respond, often they are busy writing the collective remarks down from the previous rider, checking they did not forget a score or keeping up with the judge’s comments, and can’t always respond. They are aware of you, don’t think they don’t know you are there, because they do, but they aren’t ready to give you their full attention until you hear that bell.

Listen for the bell. 

Know that you have 45 seconds from the bell (or other signal) to get into the ring. Please be aware that you CANNOT TROT ALL THE WAY AROUND even the short ring in 45 seconds. That is not that long, but many think they can make it, and you would be surprised to know quite a few just squeak in the ring with no more than a second or two to spare! It’s a -2 deduction if you are late, so don’t chance it! Try this at home: set your timer on your phone for 45 seconds, pick up a trot, hit the button, and see how far around your ring you can get before it sounds. Now you know how far you can go in the time you have.

So when you hear the bell, immediately begin to plan the track of your entrance. If you happen to be on the long side, going towards A, keep going and plan your turn to enter; if you are going away from A, gently halt, but turn around in a workmanlike manner. You don’t have to hurry, but if you are going away from A and hear the bell and then turn around to enter, the judge knows you have heard the bell and are paying attention, which is always a good thing. If she sounds the bell and you keep going away from the entrance at A, the judge might not think you heard it.

Make a good first impression. 

From scribing, I’ve heard a few remarks over the years from judges — as the warmup rounds are the first impression a rider will make, even though not judged — and here are some common observations:

Go forward. Trot in, and keep that forward trot as you go around next to the boards. Do some transitions if time permits, just to check to see your horse is still in front of your leg and that your half halt is working. Adjust your reins and position your whip. Most judges like to see your horse on your aids and hopefully focusing on the job at hand as you trot in to start your test, and keeping him forward and regular to start with goes a long way toward showing a judge you are there to do the job well.

Know your horse. 

Not every horse will warmup the same: some need quieter steady work, others need more, etc. The important thing is to know your horse, and what will work and what makes him anxious — and avoid riding him in a way that doesn’t help your test score. This takes practice and feel!

Do you have a horse that reacts to the sand from their feet hitting the plastic boards? You may want to warmup right next to the plastic bar type arenas, so you get an idea of whether your horse will be OK with that noise or if you may need to adjust your riding in the ring when it happens. Another reason to ride close to the ring is if you aren’t sure you will hear the bell; keeping close insures you will be close enough to hear it.

Every horse is different. Some might need to walk a bit to relax and focus just before going in the ring. If that is the case for you, just be sure you plan for the time that takes. If you use up most of your warmup around the ring to walk, you won’t be able to establish a good trot rhythm in time to enter, ready to be judged. You may need to take the first two or three movements into the test to establish the trot, and therefore you’ll be throwing away a few points.

Troubleshooting tips. 

Sometimes if your horse is unfocused and looking around, the best way to proceed is not to let him do as he pleases, but to put him to work and ask him to behave. Judges I have scribed for always are dismayed when they watch a rider waste warmup time letting the horse look around until the bell, without making an effort to get him on the aids before going in the ring.

The warmup around the ring isn’t the time to do a lot of schooling or training, either. If you try a transition and mess it up, let it go. You may not have time to fix it before the bell rings; so make sure that if you plan on a transition or two, that you keep them simple and clear.

Perhaps you are on time but you haven’t heard the bell (or whistle, etc.), and keep warming up. If you aren’t sure, or it seems like a long time, check with the judge, don’t just keep circling. They are much happier being asked by the rider who is unsure, than left sitting in the car wondering what the heck you are doing circling around and around. If you didn’t hear the bell, make sure they know you didn’t hear it but be nice about it. Remember, you are responsible for riding at the correct time regardless of whether you heard the bell to enter, or not. And don’t enter until you hear it, as the judge isn’t ready to give you their full attention until they ring the bell.

And finally … enter at A!

Plan how you will enter at A. Don’t make a wiggle around the letter; make a curve that takes you past the letter onto the center line, from either side. If you wiggle around A, that makes your horse look like he is wandering down center line, and the judge is seated where she can clearly see that. When it is time to go in, enter like you mean it! Put a pleasant expression on your face, take a breath, and go for it!

Go Eventing.

Learning a New Dressage Test

Learning a new dressage test. Photo by Holly.

So, we decided to take a look at the omnibus page, and find out which test we are to ride in our upcoming event. Loading it on the phone, and tacking up the horse after work, off we set for the front yard.

The front yard is not really a yard. It has some landscaping, true, but it really is a dressage arena masquerading as a lawn. This provides some interesting entertainment, because being a lawn, with ornamental trees and flowers, as well as being some sort of a major crossroads for the neighborhood strays, it seems to attract all sorts of little animals.

So out we trudge to the arena, and I pull out the phone to begin to learn the test. Only there are like six texts I have to figure out first. And then there are 10 emails, too. And have to check Instagram and the latest crapola on other social media … oh, yeah, the test.

Meanwhile we’ve been walking for a while and I decide we had better start trotting. Second trot step, he nearly creams a bunny rabbit. Rabbit bolts. Horse bolts — the other direction. Suddenly I am without stirrups hanging around his neck and phone goes flying.

Fortunately, the phone has a good case. I save the day with the neck strap (oh yes, we ride with one of those every day), and figure, what the heck, I read through it at least twice, I know it without looking. So I shimmy back into the tack, and decide not to get the phone, but keep warming up and trot what I think is the pattern of the test, just to get to know it. Figure I’ll get the phone later. I know where it is. It’s beeping every now and again.

Except I really don’t know the test, and after trotting around pretty aimlessly for a while I decided I should really look for the phone. I had a basic idea where it was. Fortunately the occasional beep from social media posts gave it away, and I got off to pick it up. And there was the snake. And you know what snakes do. They look at you. And you look at the snake. And really it is not much time before you move and scream and they probably do the snake equivalent of screaming and move also. Except it’s towards you. So you leave. If you could leave the zip code, that would be pretty OK. Mostly I just went to the other corner of the dressage arena and tried to breathe again.

So after my oxygen uptake increased and I was able to prevent myself from having the Big One right there, we circled around and I wanted to get back on the horse really bad so I wasn’t in any snake path or anything and reached out to snatch the phone and quickly got back on. Now I can practice this test, all the distractions are out of the way. Except the snake which is in the corner sort of by M. So we didn’t do anything near M. So … the free walk sort of got turned toward C. And other necessary modifications. As you who are not lovers of reptiles will understand completely.

Do not forget the bunny rabbit. He is now somewhere out there in the taller grass on the other side of the arena but must have bunny friends he has to get to across the arena, so he sneaks through about X. Excuse me. I need to hop through. Just hopping through. Sheesh, I’m trying to get this canter transition in the right place. Really? Really?

The horse is not even caring about the rabbit now, as we’ve stopped to try and memorize the last little bits, and my phone has rather run out of battery, and I’m trying to get the test back up, and while we’re on that little break … he’s eating grass.

And eating. And like one of those Thelwell ponies who won’t lift their heads with a jackhammer, he eats. I tug on the reins like a little kid, thinking, this can’t be real. No one my age has trouble picking a horse’s head up out of the grass. Do I need to tie a hay string from his crownpiece to the front of the saddle? Finally I give him a big kick, and he reluctantly lifts his head, tufts of grass wadding out of his mouth.

“Dressage test,” I am huffing. Back to learning the dressage test. Please. And here comes the next set of assistants … the neighbor’s errant goats. They wander across the driveway, heading for the taller grass … see me … and beat feet back to their side — and back through the electric fence. Zing. Nothing is hurt but feelings.

So it’s finally quiet. Time to work on the test again. This time, I’m looking at the letters, thinking … that isn’t right … H is supposed to be over there … is that right? I can’t suddenly remember where the letters are supposed to go and I think they are, well, turned around a bit. So … if I learned the test going to the letters and now the letters are wrong …. the whole session is completely wasted.

So I give up, the phone has finally died with no battery left, the stray neighborhood cats are trotting through the arena on their way to my barn on their rounds. The pair of doves that live on the house roof are cooing. A couple of other birds are singing their night songs and the sun is going down. I am really doing a lot more communing with nature than I am learning a dressage test out here.

My horse really wants to graze, and you know, I sort of am hungry for dinner, too. So we called it a session and went back to the barn. And that, my friends, is what passes for learning a dressage test on my front lawn!

Gaining Inspiration from the Big Events

Sara Gumbiner and Polaris. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Do you believe in YOU?

The great riding that was in abundance at two special locations in the world in the last two weeks is a great place to start the process of believing in yourself and your horse. It probably should be noted that it is important to not just look at two riders’ performances, but at the rest of the 120-plus best-in-the-world riders who crossed the start lines at two great venues half the world apart.

I absolutely love to watch cross country videos and having Badminton and Kentucky past performances to watch online is like a godsend. If you’re a visual learner, or even can just appreciate really scopey horses jumping really well for talented, strong, and very good riders, you will appreciate what I am talking about!

Of course, my jumps are big at half the size, but we can all use better equitation, better balance, and better preparation for the questions we face on our cross-country courses. It’s a treasure trove of education — so please don’t forget to watch the great ones!

See Sara Gumbiner, and her remarkable performance last week at Kentucky. See also Jonelle Price, and her remarkable performance this week at Badminton. Positive and fabulous. These competitors together inspired me a great deal. I have been thinking about their riding and their influence has rubbed off! It means a lot that dreams do come true. It’s evidence that the rest of us can get there, too. Maybe not Kentucky or Badminton. But our own Kentuckys, and our own Badmintons are out there for us and we have to keep believing and working. Use the inspiration available to you for a positive result!

So go out there and use what you see on the live feed and on TV on Sunday afternoon to inspire you to ride better and work harder in the barn and in the tack. Keep believing.

Who are your favorites? What rides did you like? Share them with friends and discuss their merits. (One of my personal favorites was Lauren Kieffer on Veronica through the Eclipse Cross Pond (18abc) at Badminton. She was right with the mare as she pinged off the bank over that huge airy oxer in the out, a fabulous ride, where so many of the riders sat back.)

Land Rover Kentucky Three-Day Event: Re-watch all phases via USEF Network here

Mitsubishi Motors Badminton Horse Trials: Coverage of the cross country phase will be available to re-watch here on Monday, May 7, at 5 p.m. EST

Pokey Things, Thwapper Sticks, Stinger Sticks & Snappy Poles

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Event Horse would like to talk to all his fellow event horses out there in Event Land about pokey things, thwapper sticks, stinger sticks, and snappy poles. Roughly translated, that means spurs, crops, dressage whips and lunge whips.

Event Horse says, “of all the things, the snappy poles are the least scary and the next least scary is pokey things. Because of my excellent disposition, I don’t much care about the snappy poles. They are attached to human’s arms, and I just can’t see them very well with only one eye (while I am being lunged). So I tend not to pay much attention.”

“Pokey things are not too bad. I rarely need to feel the whole end of the pokey thing in my ribs, anyhow. I have found if I jump forward when she just touches it to my side, she takes it away and gives me a wither scratch, so I don’t fear those too much,” he says.

Event Horse feels thwappers (crops) and stingers (dressage whips) are not very nice. He dislikes the noise of the crop on his side or flank. I don’t need that! he says. And his least favorite is the dressage whip, which he calls a stinger stick.

“These remind me of when my mother stirred up a nest of hornets and I got stung as a foal, ” Event Horse explains. “I dislike the stinger stick immensely. I always tried to look at it while Mommy rode with it until I trusted her and got used to her holding it without hitting me. It’s still not my favorite, ” he said.

He feels Event Horses like him should not have to deal with dressage whips. He reminded Mommy that he dislikes them by kicking at it while being ridden. It reminded her to be careful how she holds it, and maybe get a shorter one that won’t tickle his side. (Noted by Mommy.)

Thwappers don’t scare him as much, but he has heard some stories about them by the racehorses he has stabled with and knows they can be noisy but don’t hurt. Once Mommy used it when he was not going across a ditch while out hunting. Event Horse did not like the ditch. In fact, he did not like the ditch worse than he did not like the thwapper. So he went around. (It was a really deep and big ditch, Mommy actually didn’t use the thwapper that much because she trusted Event Horse when he said it was too big.)

Mommy says two taps maximum on all things. If the pokey things don’t work, then I get the thwapper twice. If I still don’t want to go, she looks at it and makes sure it’s not too big or too deep for me, because I will go most of the time over anything. That’s her rule.

“I have to try, or tell her ‘no’ politely — and if I get two taps and don’t go, then she knows it’s too big. I am very strong Event Horse and can jump most anything, so when I say, ‘no, too big’ it is bigger than Kentucky and I can’t do it and make sure she stays up there where she belongs. Mommy knows this. So she keeps her thwapper with her but doesn’t use it much. I don’t need it!” says Event Horse.

“I asked her why she carries the thwapper every ride. She says a long time ago an instructor named Jack told her, ‘Do not go to war without a gun.’ So she always carries it,” he says. Event Horse would like other event horses to know that is probably why all their riders carry them when they ride, too. He says not to worry, if you are big strong event horse and jump all the things, your Mommy won’t ever touch you with the thwapper, and that’s a good thing.

Event Horse. Photo by Merrilyn Ratliff.

Schooling For Success!

Playing the cross country schooling game. Photo by Holly Covey.

There have probably been a million blogs written on “how to cross country school,” and I guess this is the millionth-plus-one, but I’d like to talk about how I’ve learned to school my event horses over the years.

In the beginning, back in the Dark Ages, when I first was introduced to “horse trials” — there was no such thing as “schooling” a cross country course before you got to an event. I don’t recall being able to trailer to a course, and ride over the jumps there prior to the competition in the early days. We didn’t have very many events, most were a really long way away, and the crusty old military generals that built the courses didn’t want anyone to be anywhere near their precious courses until COMPETITION.  I remember one of these luminaries telling us all we “should have gone hunting all winter” to prepare — that would have been nice, if we lived closer than 1,000 miles from the nearest hunt. Hmmm. We built stuff at home and hoped it would do!

Later, when I moved to an area with more events, the concept of “going schooling” was a new thing we all moved heaven and earth to be able to do. We’d all go together in a group, spent most of a day, rode over the whole property and jumped, jumped, jumped. Then we’d go back to the trailers, eat and drink or picnic, do up our horses and ship home. The fee was like $10. We’d all sleep well that night!

Later, when the first USCTA Book of Eventing was published, we discovered that some people made their own water jumps at home (there were instructions!) and we thought that was a great idea and much better than zooming out to the barn to ride immediately after a monsoon. We used to drag jumps to the edge of the large puddles/small lakes in the arena immediately after large thunderstorms, quickly tack up and warmup, and splash through pretending we were jumping water jumps before the water drained into the sandy soil.

Mostly, we just got to the events crossing our fingers that we’d jumped enough at home, and would walk the courses with a mixture of trepidation, fear and cold sweat. There were a LOT more built-in, solid jumps in those days, and lots of stuff that was pretty unforgiving of mistakes even at the lowest levels. I clearly remember jumping solid log bounces, jumping docks IN water, jumping off docks into water, hayracks with totally false groundlines, and solid corners canted on the downhill, among other pretty gnarly stuff. There has been good change since those days!

Since those old days, I have since learned so much more about how to teach a horse to like cross country, and most of it has come from the close supervision and coaching from very good instructors. Far from the winging-it days, now I do it differently — and I have to think it’s a lot easier on the horses.

And in the decades I’ve been hauling horses to cross country courses I have learned that horses do understand and retain the things they are taught and exposed to, and that riders should think about what you expect your horse to do and how he feels about it when you ask. I know I don’t ride like I used to years ago, where we galloped at it and hoped for the best; today I think I try a bit more to be a better and more sympathetic rider, with more skill and less seat-of-the-pants technique.

When USET rider and top horsewoman Bonnie Mosser first coached me at Fair Hill in the Sawmill Field, she concentrated on my position and getting my horse in front of my leg. Rather than just fly around jumping willy nilly, it was organized. My riding reminders: stay in balance, do not catch the mouth, look where we wanted to go and where we wanted the feet to be when we landed. I was a disaster! I hung on my poor horse’s mouth, pinched on my knees, fell off over every drop, and had no clue how to get the poor thing through the water. For some reason, Bonnie magnanimously took me on (probably because she felt so sorry for my good horse) and completely improved my riding and my understanding of what I was trying to do on cross country. I owe much of what I learned about cross country riding from people like Bonnie, and am grateful for every lesson I was able to have with these top level riders — they have made my experience in eventing very enjoyable. And my horses would probably agree!

These concentrated lessons on MY position and MY riding really ended up helping my horses. It wasn’t a matter of “him doing this and that.” It was more ME being in balance and not interfering, and letting him do the job. Cross country schooling really is about riding across the country with your horse, with the least amount of work and interference, isn’t it? So easy to say — so hard to do!

Added to the position education were also often-detailed discussions about how to ride certain fences, such as questions with downhill approaches, drops, water, jumps on a curve, using momentum, achieving a more balanced gallop, and more. You learned even more on course walks with these riders at local events and horse trials, and the instruction would back up what you did when you came back and schooled a week later.

An early lesson I learned to hack about the field to warm up, letting my horse look and absorb, perhaps even to walk quietly through the water on the way to warmup, without jumping anything (a great way to introduce it to your horse before asking them to associate jumping with it).  And I learned that on the warmup trot, as a rider it was my responsibility to tighten my girth, check my reins, carry my bat, have on my gloves and spurs; and also to be observant on the warmup, checking the footing, looking at the landings and take-offs of jumps as I hacked past, watching out for holes or rocks, noticing where the greenhead flies might be and also the wasps! And if it didn’t look good — we didn’t do it.

I learned to gauge my horse’s interest and enthusiasm by cantering a big warmup circle, sending them forward, then bringing them back a few times, to see how the brakes and steering and gas pedal worked on the day. Sometimes we would find out in the first five minutes that we’d need a stronger bit, or different tack, long before we would start jumping, and would make a quick change to keep the session productive.

I learned that we always start with a simple, straightforward fence with a good ground line, like a log, and always a level below our current ability. We keep it low and correct, working on basics for the first third of the session. We then would move on to the second third of the lesson, where we would jump a few more difficult fences or take on something spooky or more complicated — a downhill jump, a turning question, something requiring a change of position and adjustment in stride. The last third would be spent on the most difficult things, because we were now warmed up and in front of the leg. That would be the time for attempting the coffins, water, drops and combinations. Then as a final test we might jump a few jumps in a row, and would quit on a good note with lots of praise and walk to cool out.

Of course, if anything went wrong, we’d work on it; and sometimes we’d change the order of difficulty around, or drop down a level and create confidence, if someone got scared or had a problem. We worked most of the time in small groups with similar jumping ability so we could school approximately the same jumps in the same portion of the field together. We also learned from watching one another, too! And throughout we kept moving. It was rare to park and sit — keeping your horse warm and walking was done so they would be ready when it was your turn at an obstacle. Cross country is not like a lesson at home; the horses need to relate to jumping a course and going from one question to the next as a whole, not as jump, rest, jump, rest. Tips like these I learned over the years working with people who have decades of experience making event horses.

For me, having those eyes on the ground from a very knowledgeable and experienced instructor made a huge difference in how my horse perceived cross country. It became something like a fun game we both enjoyed. That is always how I think a cross country schooling should be for both humans and horses. I really didn’t know how to methodically school a horse over cross country and simulate that fun game, until I got knowledgeable help. And I’m glad courses are different from the old days, too!

Caring and Sharing: Why Young Riders Matter

A youth pipeline is vital. Photo by Holly Covey

You can’t have a sport without a youth pipeline. Every successful sport has one. Bringing up children on ponies, then teens on horses, and finally, young adults on event horses keeps our sport alive — literally.

So, even if you, as an adult eventer, may not have a dog in the young rider hunt, you can recognize the vital importance of the Junior and Young Rider programs in supporting eventing horsemanship and sportsmanship. Our sport has a future, basically because each Area in the United States funds Young Rider (riders aged 16 to 21 years) teams to go to an international competition, and learn what it takes to compete at a high level.

Young Rider programs are different from USPC (Pony Club) programs, and different from regular horse trials with junior divisions. Young Riders are encouraged on an international scale, with a whole set of FEI rules. In the United States, we have developed our Young Rider program on a USEA area by area basis, which helps our vast nation put together young rider teams that can compete at our own North American Junior and Young Rider Championship. Eventing is only one division of the NAJYRC; show jumping and dressage also participate.

In 2018, the NAJYRC for show jumping (including Children’s classes) and dressage will be held at Old Salem Farm, North Salem, NY. For eventing, it will again be held at Rebecca Farms, as a part of The Event At Rebecca Farms, in Kalispell, MT., July 18-22. Young Riders compete at the one star and two star levels.

I’d like to take a moment and talk about the experience that these riders may have. While not all make the team, and not all get to ride at the championships, they are encouraged to attend and belong to the group. This promotes a sense of comaraderie, creates lifelong friendships, teaches children how to get along with one another and rely and learn from one another. It exposes the kids to other ways of doing things, how to live and work together, and the process of changing ones’ mindset from “me” to “us.” The value of this is beyond compare in the horse world and probably spills over to the rest of their lives, too.

In addition to the personal expansion, a young rider does go through a selection process with their horses, their coaches, and family members. How great is that? We are teaching a young rider, still in their formative years, the value of riding under pressure and the importance of detail, preparation, organization, and horsemanship to achieve a goal. Isn’t that what we’d like to see, going forward — riders representing America that can handle the pressure in top international competition. Not bad.

Quite a few of our upper level riders today had Young Rider experiences. Most of them think fondly of their competition team experience — a few credit it with helping them become the professional riders they are today.

Here’s what Murray Kessler, president of the USEF, has to say about the Young Rider championship program: “These championships are a very important part of the developmental pathway that USEF must prioritize. For many young athletes, this is the first time that they will get championship experience or the opportunity to compete as part of a team representing their country, so these championships are a big deal.”

Young riders and their families also have a positive impact financially on the sport and provide support for organizations, events, trainers, coaches, suppliers and services that work within the industry. Their contributions are mighty, and the economic impact is important. Ask yourself if you’re someone who has benefited directly from coaching, training or selling a horse to a young rider. A healthy Young Rider (or Young Rider advancement program) is a good thing for your business.

So, what are you doing to help? Perhaps you are assisting with your Young Rider team, supporting their fundraisers (team participation is very expensive, often in the thousands and many riders need the help of donated funds), giving time, or a facility for training — encouraging the kids in your barn to join a YRAP (Young Riders Advancement Program).

In Area II, the YRAP helps kids go behind the scenes and shadow officials at recognized events. Most of these kids are eventing and riding at the Novice or Training level, or may not be old enough yet to join the YR program (age 16 to 21); YRAP in Area II gives them a taste of the things they need to know in order to move up to Young Riders competition, and offers them some recognition, sets up teams at recognized events and helps prepare parents and coaches, too.

Fundraising is a major part of support for the YR teams, and that is because any qualified rider should not be held back from participating because of finances. It’s always a good thing to have a fund to help everyone on the team participate, even if some riders are more able to afford the travel required. Most of the east coast teams in 2017 and looking forward to 2018 are having to raise lots of funds to help get horses to Montana from the east coast, just like many of the west coast young riders in the past have had to raise funds to help get east, when the NAJYRCs are held on the eastern side of the U.S. Because of the large size of the U.S. and Canada, our young rider competitors are used to long travel distances to participate in these championships — they are a big deal and they require commitment from families in a big way.

So as an eventer, I’d like to think that you understand the need for helping out our Young Rider programs, and can find a way to help support the various fundraisers that each Area has to help their kids get to Montana this year.

Here are links to Area fundraising programs, or just their websites if they don’t have a fundraising specific page —Area I, Area II, Area III, Area VIArea V, Area VIArea VIIArea VIIIArea IX, Area X. Eventing Nation is always happy to help get the word out about YR fundraising efforts: You can email us details at [email protected]

In addition, there’s some more support you can offer, and that has to do with being an adult, and creating a positive attitude for the kids who are dreaming the Big Dream of Young Riders. While it’s easy to post on social media what your opinion might be on Young Rider programs in your area, there’s a pretty serious impact you might be having on those kids who read those comments — it never hurts to know a little bit about the influence you as an adult eventer might be having.

This is taken from an article written by Brian McNeill, a 4-H Youth development specialist with the University of Minnesota Extension. It applies pretty closely to our Young Riders.

“Non-parental adults in community organizations play an important role with youth. Studies done with 4-H youth show adults in their 4-H clubs make them feel important (65%) and listen to them (64%). In addition, most youth reported that their volunteer leaders do pay attention to them (74%)

“Some specific characteristics of non-parental adults who play this role include that they are: Good listeners; supporters: and have a good sense of youth development.

“Organizations that work with young people want a positive and successful experience for the youth they serve. Expecting and encouraging these characteristics in non-parental adults ensures they are creating the most positive experience possible for the young people.”

So as non-parental adults (and I emphasize “adults” here), it is up to us in this sport as caring people to make sure we make all of our actions for Young Riders POSITIVE. They have enough disappointment, downers and difficulties to surmount in the sport of eventing, as we all know. This sport is HARD. The young riders who have chosen this path deserve only support and “the most positive experience possible” by all adults who have anything to do with this program, on or off the field.

Our leadership example sets the tone. I’d like to see today’s young riders become tomorrow’s sport leaders — and, hopefully, what they learn from us will help them to work towards making our sport survive — and leave it better than we give it to them.

What can you do? Encourage young riders you interact with. Be a fan of your local young rider team. Support fundraisers, “like” and share the links, give something if you can. Have positive messages. Come out and cheer and support them when they compete. Be a positive force that encourages others, because you don’t know when — or how — you will influence a young person.

Our sport depends on it.

Cleaning Out the Tack Room

    Cleaning the tack room. Photo by Holly Covey.

There is a rhythm to life with horses. We are one with universe when we are with our horses, or in our barn and peace space. Except … when we have to clean out the tack room.

I’m not afraid. I waded right in today, loins girded, full measure of courage loaded. I was going to scour that tack room from top to bottom, sweep, cobweb, wipe, clean, pick up, fold, organize and arrange. Yes, that was the initial plan.

But. Of course, the courage leaked out and wandered down the barn aisle, looking for an empty feed sack to put the swept-up dirt in, and found an old magazine it really needed to look in. I didn’t get sidetracked. Oh no. I had to make sure all the boots were paired up correctly and the velcro was all picked out, that was really important. And fold up all the pads and sort the good ones from the show ones, and put the show ones in the horse trailer. And there were some programs and literature in the horse trailer from last year’s events, and I needed to read them.

So, there was all this stuff I took out of the tack room and threw/placed carefully in the aisle, and then I did the cleaning stuff, and then … it was time for checking my phone. And I put a few more things away onto shelves, and found a few things I hadn’t seen for a while, and … so that’s how the tack room cleaning went. I should know better than to think I could do it an hour or two.

Of course, it took all day. And I don’t really have that much stuff. Or do I?  The last halter my best ever horse wore, the day we put him to sleep, and the last saddle pad he won, a white embroidered one from Surefire Horse Trials where he won a Training Level division on a hot Sunday afternoon, and we were almost the last trailer out of the field that day as the sun set in Virginia. What do you do with such things, so precious? What drawer do they go in?

Photo by Hal Microutsicos.

And the leather halter and name plate of the lovely young horse I sold on, and heard he was euthanized just a year later from an accident. The sad memories of my former horses, the leg wraps they wore, the bits they liked (and didn’t like), medicine that was labeled for a horse long gone. Leftover things, bits and pieces, memories that slide by of horses that helped me be the rider I am today.

Of course, I’ve been letting it go for a while, just because I knew I’d find stuff that made me sad, and in the middle of the winter — it’s hard to be motivated in the cold to be wiping stuff and cleaning. Same for the middle of event season, you’re busy, you’ve got stuff to do and can’t spare the time to dive into a big project. In the fall, the light is leaving and you don’t have time. It’s too hot in the summer to be moving things around and cleaning under them. Oh, the excuses. But the real reason was I didn’t want to see that halter, that saddle pad, that nameplate, that medicine jar, those bits, those bridles, the things that reminded me of great times with great horses past.

There are two ways to handle a tack room. Clean it all the time, throw things out, purge and glean constantly. Keep it so clean you could cook on the top of the plastic saddle pad keeper and do surgery on the floor. Hmmm. Well, it’s a goal.

Or the other way. Hang a bridle, then hang another bridle. Throw a pad. Throw another pad on top, and yet another. Unrolled bandages. A wee bit of dirt in the corner … more dirt near the door because the welcome mat got moved over for some reason and didn’t get put back where it belonged … a couple of things that belonged elsewhere but ended up on the floor, in a stack, on top of a cabinet or falling out of a drawer. You don’t do it on purpose — it just gets away from you. Like your life. You let things go, because you don’t want to put your hands on the sad stuff.

Cleaning out the tack room, then, becomes a metaphor for your life — having the courage to dive into a mess, fix it, get it better, deal with the sad stuff, empty out your soul a little bit. And when you turn off the light, and close the door, there is nothing left but the satisfaction of a long-put-off job done — finally — “There. The tack room is cleaned.” Not just the tack room, either.

Returning to Play: Restarting After Injury

Photo by Shelby Allen.

Sometimes our inside voices just aren’t loud enough to save us from unseen dangers with horses, and let’s face it, we’ve all been there – made the expedient move, instead of the smart move, and paid the consequences.

One of the problems with getting older is guess what? You don’t heal as well as you used to. In my case, it hurts for a longer and more intense period of time, and rehab wasn’t a given. I was totally surprised, at first, by the amount of time it took to heal from my major injury and how weak I was when I got back to riding.

I have to credit my experience with rehabbing racehorses for a gem of wisdom I used that I think helped me. It’s the concept of “tack walking.” This is simply tacking up the horse and walking it in hand. It’s a way of schooling young racehorses, it’s often used for rehab purposes or for calming, and sometimes a training technique. I’ve used it on rehabbing horses who were meant to be ridden when coming back to work, where lunging was not indicated. Walking in hand, while the horse is tacked, has a number of super advantages for an older rider

  • It’s warmup for me. Walking for a few minutes in the arena footing is a great warmup, especially if it’s a bit deep and soft – lots of good exercise in that
  • I position myself to walk the horse approximately at the place where the neck joins the horse’s shoulder, with the reins over the horse’s head, my right hand near the bit and left hand holding the end of both reins.
  • I walk my horse in the exact pattern I expect to ride in the ring – past other horses, around jumps, past things, in the 20m circle I hope to be riding, or around the outside edge of the ring, seeing everything. It’s important to see the track you’ll ride, and walk it with both of you.
  • There’s a reason for that – I want to see how the horse reacts to the doorways, horses, jumps, etc. in that pattern, BEFORE I’m in the saddle trying to hang on. If my horse reacts – to anything – while I’m leading him, then I am forewarned about his behavior while I may be mounted, and WHERE it might happen.
  • Walking with your horse is going to give you an idea of how your horse feels that day, before you put your foot in the stirrup, or make lunging plans. I will know from walking beside him for a few turns around the ring how aware he is today, how fired up or how quiet he may be.
  • You want him to walk beside you, marching along, not towing you and not dragging along behind. If he invades your space or bangs into you, correct him and establish pecking order right from the first step into the ring. If he drags behind and acts uninterested, bring the dressage whip with you, reinforce your “cluck” aid and encourage him to walk up correctly beside you. This helps you get him prepared for receiving direction once you are in the saddle, and it sounds like a small thing, but it can make a difference mentally to the horse.
  • Those things – setting the tone, checking the attitude, and familiarizing with the ring – all help me, because I don’t have the reaction time I had when I was 20. I am less able to make a save now than I was as a young rider, and those facts are what they are. So knowing what might be coming or where to expect a teleport practice is going to forewarn me!

Here’s what to keep in mind as you return to riding after rehabbing:

  • Lead him to the mounting block and park him. Literally. The “sit and stay” of the horse world – the mounting block needs to be a place where movement only happens by your direction. The horses that explode once you get on them, or freak out when you drag a foot over their but when mounting – these are the things that terrify me, and I want to do everything I can to prevent accidents when I am at a vulnerable position, on one leg, while mounting. I want my horses to be comfortable, quiet, accepting and standing at the mounting block no matter what. So take your time there even with an apparently broke and well trained horse. (I don’t try to mount from the ground.)
  • Have you stretched yourself? Bend at the waist, touch your toes with both hands; bend your knee, one leg at a time, pulling the bent knee up to your chest while standing on one foot, then the other leg; lunge, using the mounting block steps; do some arm windmills; trunk twists; etc. I do stretch most of the time before I mount, just a couple of minutes’ worth, but it’s very helpful for me. I know there are great riding exercises one can do and probably experts who can chime in with complete workout regimens – but just stretch, somehow, before you get in the saddle.
  • Listen to the little voices. Does the horse just not seem like they want to be ridden today? Is there something not quite right about the way they are walking – too tense? Something noisy outside the ring, something scary coming down the road, what if the wind blows a tree branch across the indoor roof? Am I ready?
  • Don’t think your seat will save you. Make sure your legs are ready for catching your balance – make rising to a two-point one of the first things you do when you mount, stretching your heels down, feel the horse’s sides with your calf, allow your shoulders to be square and back straight.  And occasionally while riding, walk, stay on a circle for control, and check that your two-point still works.
  • For goodness’ sake, shorten your reins. My biggest problem! The worst excuse for falling off I have ever heard was, “I didn’t want to hang on his mouth,” so they left the reins long – literally having no control when the horse threw his head up and the reins were 14 inches too long. We just can’t reef in that much rein in time to make an adjustment in steering. Ride with a shorter rein than you think you need. If it is a well trained horse, it’s used to being ridden on contact. Along with that goes the mantra – “let go”. If you are going, don’t hang on; another hard thing to do!
  • Don’t look down (again, one of my problems) and don’t ride with a narrow focus. Keep your chin up and head turning, and take in what is going on – so you can be prepared BEFORE your horse sees the cat jump out of the rafters onto the arena fence. It’s always a good plan to stay on a circle with your horse slightly bent in direction of travel when we are just getting back started. Safer for you and correct for your horse.
  • RELAX. When I started back riding after my injury and rehab, I was a bit worried about my fitness and balance and about the fitness of my horse. I had to get over that worry, and just take it slow. I wasn’t able to ride for an hour first time back. I had to be happy with 15 minutes, and most of that at walk. But I pushed a little more each day back and soon, by the end of the month, I was up to 30 minutes of riding time and able to stay comfortable at all three gaits. I made it organized – today a circle and a half at posting trot, tomorrow, twice around; next day, three times around and so on.
  • Everyone’s experience is different and everyone’s horses are different. Be patient with yourself and your healing process, and with your horse. If you think your horse would be better for you if ridden first by a more able person before you sit on, then do it. Same for lunging. If you think it might be a good idea, then do it.
  • Expect rusty – in everything. Posting will be hard. Your legs and back will hurt. The amount of contact with the reins will be confusing. Stirrups are going to feel short, and you may adjust them a few times before they feel OK again.
  • Don’t let how you feel today make you sad or depressed. Believe in the process and give it time. I ripped off the lowest dressage score I have ever had in a recognized event a year AFTER I had my injury, so you can get back to form and back to competing and riding just as good if not better than you were before injury! Just be smart about your restart! Good luck!

Following the Dots: On Paths, Planning and Progress

Winter is a great time to meditate on plans, paths and the “Long Road.” Photo by Holly Covey.

New year, new approach to training? Maybe.

Sometimes, when you look at a season from the beginning to the end, and make all sorts of plans for yourself and your horse, it all looks clear. The dots are there. The lines are straight, from dot to dot. You’re going to this, and that. The horse will go here, and then there. We will qualify at dot, dot, and dot. Then we will compete at dot, and dot, to prepare. Then there is big dot, perhaps at the end of the season, with a red circle around it.

Yet, when you look at a season, it’s not always a straight line in between those dots. More like curves and spirals and some loops backwards. We actually HOPE we can get to big dot in the season.

So how do we get this stuff going our way? We take out the freebie feed store calendar, and start checking with local stables on the upcoming schooling shows, look at booking vacation around competitions, and put a finger on general pieces of the calendar where you have to get a cross country school in or work toward a clinic weekend. And that’s all just for one horse. Maybe you have two or three and each is going in a different direction. It’s like calendar tetris!

I have to continually remind myself about the “why” of doing this. We are not supposed just go to a show to go to a show. We are supposed to get to a show to test what we are working on. The competitions are meant to educate — show us the holes, teach us the failings and the things that need practice in both our riding and in our horses’ education. We’re not supposed to just go because they’re there.

I think this goes to the heart of the “move-up” question. The cool thing about eventing is that we aren’t locked down, like low level hunter schooling shows, to a pretty rigid sort of course design (outside-diagonal, or some variation thereof). Our divisions are different from event to event — what’s easy at one event is hard at another, some events are great for everyone trying it for the first time, some events are very difficult for the level and meant to prepare a rider for the next higher division.

It is this very diversity that makes eventing competition so fun and educational. I think that is the reason we have this “move-up” mentality, because we overcome different courses all the time. We count on the education at one event making us ready for the next. In contrast, our friends in the hunter world work on perfection. Their move-up slows; they spend a lot more time doing those outside-diagonal-outside-diagonal courses than we do, looking for excellence in detail. Or perhaps they feel more comfortable with the challenge of getting it consistently excellent.

Both ideals go someplace and require strength of purpose, attention to detail, a drive to succeed and courage to keep trying when you don’t get it right. Where I get concerned is the lack of trying to get better, and letting the competition just “be there.” That does nothing for me as a rider except make me dangerously comfortable right where I am. What’s the danger in that? The danger is I may lose that drive to educate myself. Should we do shows just to do shows? My feeling is we shouldn’t.

Of course, there are many reasons for folks to stay at the same level for years and years. Heck, yeah, I get that. There are some Novice courses that pretty much masquerade at the level, and you cross the finish line on cross country and go, “Where’s Training level, it can’t get much harder than THAT was!”

A friend of mine coined the phrase, “Be a student of the Long Road,” and I think of this saying often. I watch the local shows, I learn by watching, I go home, I ride and train. I think of the Long Road. Where I want to be at the end of the season. Where I want to be at the end of three seasons ahead. My challenge is to take each show, each course, and put it squarely in the middle of that Long Road, and see how it gets me down that line, from dot to dot.

The Christmas Message

Christmas snow at a former family farm. Photo by Holly Covey.

Yeah, well, I snuck a couple of Christmas cookies for breakfast along with my coffee, so I’m wired up to write a big long holiday blog all about exciting stuff, but, I did a bad thing. I went looking in an old box of photos for a picture to illustrate this blog, and it got all sad and bad.

My goal was to find a picture of myself and my horses on a long past Christmas day and share it with you, and talk about how much fun Christmas and the holidays were when I was young and we had our first horses. We had no idea then that horses might be with us the rest of our lives. We didn’t think of the future, the way animals might age, and change, and leave our lives and with that leaving, cause us grief and pain. We didn’t have any idea about growing up and being an adult and paying for the things we wanted, and having to deal with supporting ourselves. And how horses are not an easy part of that.

If I could give all of my fossil-class eventers some advice: Don’t go looking at old photos this time of year, unless you are into the eggnog and have loved ones near. It’s pretty hard. For those of you still young in this sport, start saving those Christmas day photos now, and make sure you’re in a few of them.

I kept looking and realized all the photos were of others and places and trees and animals, and none of me. Mostly because I was the one behind the camera and not in front of it. I was always looking for beauty and I sort of have that habit today, of always looking for a the pretty scene or the right shot. That’s what photographers do. But in a way that’s the fun of holidays, finding the beauty of the things around you, and giving it back to others.

We call that sharing.

In this sport, we pride ourselves on our sharing. From the moment you arrive at an event, and park next to other eventers, you start to share. Help hold the horse so your neighbor can mount. Ask if anyone would like a cup of hot coffee from your thermos. Chat about where they are from, and how far it took to get here. Oh the stories I could tell, the places I’ve been, but there’s no time for that now, we have to walk a course. And we share information about the course — “look out for the hole between fence 5 and 6” — and be careful in warmup, the corner is slick, and … share a smile … share a “good ride” … share a hug with friends who finally got through cross country without a stop.

And we share sympathy with terrible losses, and we share empathy and commiserate when things don’t go to plan, and we share support when stuff happens that seems wrong and inconsiderate and shameful. We offer ourselves, our horsie beings, our hope that things will be better next time. We stay optimistic for others and keep thinking positive, even when it’s like, really adulting hard to do that. Nobody said sharing was always easy to do.

People who have shared with me have created some of the most wonderful memories of my life. People like my dear friends who have given me horses and stuck with me when all seemed hopeless, and the people behind eventing-centric businesses like Waredaca Farm and Plantation Field.

I remember jump-judging in April at Plantation Field, and just taking in the beauty of that green grass and thinking, “I want to ride over a course again here before I die,” and getting the chance to do it one year later. How lucky that this facility (and all eventing facilities are) is open to all who want to compete, how generous that the landowner shares this incredible place with all of us eventers. I remember feeling odd when I pulled in to park at Waredaca this year, usually I get those little butterflies in my stomach, but all I felt was gratitude — that after 10 years and losing my lifetime unicorn horse, that life handed me another unicorn, and there I was — competing again. There’s no dollar figure on that gift.

So mostly in this sport, if you look at it the right way, we get shared with a lot more than we share out. To fix that, many of us share back to the sport, by giving time, giving services, giving goods to silent auctions to raise funds for the kids or scholarships or other good causes. All seems to work as it should, as long as you don’t get sucked into reading the expert armchair commentary on the social media outlets (where their definition of sharing is word vomit you’re all supposed to take as gospel on high). (Anti-sharing.) This time of year when I have some time to read a little, I try very hard to keep the purpose of the season in mind while getting through six pages of crap I know not to be true.

So let’s end on a note that makes us happy to be here and grateful for our sport and the relationships we cherish within it. Share not just this holiday season, but try to find a way to make sharing meaningful this year. Eventing faces some stresses, we are losing land for cross country courses and we are losing events. Our breeders are losing business overseas, our riders are working too hard to share much. Our organizers and sponsors share as much as they can without giving away everything. So let’s help one another and share a bit to help a lot.

Here’s a few ways we can share all year round:

Volunteer at an event; volunteer for your Area; volunteer for a committee; volunteering drives just about everything in this sport, because it takes financial stress off organized event competitions. If you can support a local tack shop, do so. Take a look at the sponsors listed on your favorite rider’s page and support them when you make your next order. Tell people when you see a nice horse for sale, not for a commission, but to help a friend who bred that nice colt. Take a working student out for dinner or bring lunch to the barn for everyone, or think of something you can do that helps in some way make someone else’s life a bit easier. Do a favor for someone and don’t expect anything in return. Be nice. Be courteous. That’s sharing, too, creating an atmosphere of kindness — it rubs off. (Something I personally must remember to do more often.)

Think about how it felt those many Christmases ago when things were different, and there was no stress and no bills and no worries but just a pony waiting in the paddock for you after all the stuff under the tree got handed out. I remember that Christmas day ride through the neighborhood with leftover ribbon from Christmas presents tied in the mane and tail, and all your friends had ponies and horses with ribbons, too. And that one day we just rode and enjoyed the cold day and were friends forever and it was the best Christmas.

Being there. The best sharing of all.

Merry Christmas.

 

Winter Survival and the Art of Not Caring

I was freezing in this photo. Photo by Holly Covey.

Stay sane, my friends, and don’t get jealous when everyone evacuates to the south to ride in warm weather with only one layer on. Don’t go stark raving mad when the faucet in the barn is frozen AGAIN. Keep calm and carry on when the only heavy blanket your Master Shredder has is pretty much in pieces, blowing across the paddock, when you arrive at the barn after work.

Yes, my friends, there is an important mental task to practice in the winter. The Art of Not Caring. Water off a duck’s back. The “so what” attitude. Que sera, sera … uhm, yeah. Sometimes, in the muffly folds of my scarf pulled over my nose and mouth, I scream away all my frustration with the weather — and no one can hear. And the fuzzy bits taste like hay and horse snot so there is a double reason to not let it bother me.

Winter for us in the north means “let’s ride bareback” instead of “gymnastic jump school” today. It sort of takes your gumption (and your breath) away when the wind blows about 25mph in 29 degrees Fahrenheit, so more often than not, riding time turns into Fix the Faucet time, chip the ice from the barn door time, load extra hay into stalls time, and block the wind from the broken window in the tack room time.

Even the little animals find nice little spots to stay warm, like the feral cat that jumped on my head in the dark hay room last night and caused me to fall over the wheelbarrow, with an armful of hay spilling all over. And the mouse in the feed can that ran up my arm when I lifted the scoop of grain. And some happy little birdie staying warm obviously by perching on Hamish’s broad warm back (the poop spots on his new blanket gives you away, Little Birdie).

So … instead of trying to ride just go inside and shop that tack sale online! Sure, why not. Take a look at the 2018 eventing calendar. Look up clinics on social media and see who is galloping down over the four-foot oxers making them look like nothing. Watch videos ’til your data runs out. Get in political arguments with friends on Facebook. Yes, passing the time keeps you from caring about riding and keeping the training up. For a short while.

If you don’t have an indoor, you’re really going to have to take pills to stay calm about the training … you look out the window and watch the wind blow the bare tree branches sideways. The snow is blowing up your nose. You check the forecast and it says there might be a 30-degree day the middle of next week and you start making plans. If I can squeeze those double layer Carhartts over my windpros and cuddle duds and find my silk glove liners, maybe I can ride for 15 minutes.

In years past I have trained throughout most of our winters especially when they were mild. It is a struggle to find daylight this time of year to ride, and it’s difficult when it’s cold and windy like it is today. I dream about having a job that allows me a real vacation to go to Aiken, or be able to afford to ride in an indoor all winter. The thing is, it’s still cold in the south, and it’s still cold if you have an indoor — and there are other drawbacks all the time to keeping on a riding schedule and working toward a goal, some warmer/drier than others. I have to calm down about missing training days. Nobody will die if I don’t ride.

How about you? Do you laugh it off, or struggle to keep from worrying to death over breaks in your schedule? I am trying very hard not to panic. I’ll get that arena out there thawed some day. That topline will return … someday. Those trot extensions will just have to look good in pasture when the plastic bag blows under his belly, rather than feel great under saddle. Yes, I can master the Not Caring attitude. Sure. (Stuffs glove in mouth to keep from screaming.)

A PSA to Eventing’s Armchair Quarterbacks: If You’re Not Doing This, You Don’t Get to Talk

Eventing is HARD. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

Full Moon Farm Horse Trials on Sunday morning. Photo by Holly Covey.

After the glow of the big win at Waredaca, I entered the very last Area II event of the season at Full Moon Farm. This is a legendary “last hurrah” in our area, being scheduled for the second weekend in November, when weather could be anything. In years past, the hardy souls who have competed there come ready for snow, heat, wind, rain and cold.

We were delighted with only cold this year; the frosty parking field slid a few trucks around but a helpful parking person suggested putting it in four wheel drive while on the gravel road (which I did) and the parking was non eventful. So the beginning of the day, and the end of the day went well for me but just about everything in between wasn’t quite as successful. More on that below. First, a couple of thoughts, and because I am a Fossil, I get to have an opinion based on experience.

I evented back in the ’80s and ’90s.  I watched a lot as a journalist and spectator, too, in addition to riding in events. I can tell you that there is a big difference in the way events are run today and the way they were managed then.

The entire experience today is a long way from the rough and ready stuff we used to be subject to, and I for one am glad of it. Our horses weren’t always the first thought back then, but I am happy to say in my experience as a 40-year-plus horsewoman, today there is a much different adherence to horsemanship principles in our sport and that’s a good thing.

There is much safer course design for both show jumping and cross country at the lowest levels, which are what I primarily see and compete in. I cannot understand the criticism and nay-saying of people who do not challenge themselves in these events as they are conducted today. The rules keep it fair, but the competition is intense and to a high standard! The footing requirements, the angles, placement, height, width and construction of the cross-country courses is NOTHING like it was 30-40 years ago. We don’t need to impress anyone in this sport; we’ve paid our dues. Now we are looking for excellence — across the board — in all divisions from our Starter/Amoeba levels on up. Doing it WELL matters in eventing now.

In the days, “git’r dun” was the overriding mantra. Those today who are whining about “endurance” obviously haven’t gotten up at 4:30 a.m., driven two to three hours on the interstate with three or four precious horses in a 26-foot trailer, organized three riders, walked three cross-country courses, and ridden a dressage test before 8:30 a.m.

Obviously, those who complain about “events today” haven’t seen the hours and number of volunteers who have been working for weeks on the footing and the cross country jumps and the dressage arena and the show jumps. Where are the complainers when the parking lot volunteers are in two layers of Carhartts in the dark helping people park those big trailers with precious horses. What part of this sport do you get to complain about?

Those people who showed up to compete are the ones who really get to talk. They are the ones who have it all on the line, not you. They are the ones who do the hard work schooling and training at home to be ready to the high standard required of recognized competition today. The standards are higher. The work is harder. The endurance, skill, competition requirements far eclipse the events I attended three decades ago. I would rather listen to a rider who has completed a recognized Novice right now, than the highest Grand Eventing Poobah.

You can no longer skate around cross-country looking dangerous but getting between the flags, and get a ribbon in recognized competition (at least in Area II) today. Today, in our eventing, you have to be good at dressage, good at show jumping, and good at cross country to be close to the top of the classification, and I’m here to say THAT IS THE WAY IT SHOULD BE. I don’t want to lay down a lovely dressage test, have a perfect show jump round, and a good cross country and get beat by someone who had a crappy dressage test or dangerous show jumping round. Just because they have more “endurance” by some outsider’s cockamamy standard. The people I compete against work hard. They are good. They can ride. It’s an insult to say that we need to add anything to the sport, to change it by going backwards because someone is nostalgic for the good old days.

It’s hard as it is to get it just right in all three phases, and that’s why we love it. As horsepeople we embrace this unique three-way challenge that our sport provides. We may have been attracted to it by the fun of the cross country, but the intrigue of good dressage basics and the difficulty of achieving a perfect show jumping round kept it interesting. No longer is it enough to have “just OK.” You have to be good at withstanding the pressure of competition, too, as the sport has doubled in growth since the ’70s, too. The standards are all ratcheted upward and should be. No longer are we “just passing through” the dressage arena and show jumping arenas so we can get out on the cross country field.

So, the last event of the season in Area II was a good place for me to get out some of my thoughts, and the conclusion I have come to is this: you non-riders and non-eventers that somehow get to drive the emphasis in this sport need to shut the hell up. You need to come to a recognized event with a hundred smiling volunteers despite the fact that it is 29 degrees. You need to park in the frosty field and watch beginning riders warm up horses on a side hill for dressage, trainers courteously working with students and each other, all happy to be here yet sad it’s the last event of the season.

You need to see a carefully prepared cross country course with ice in the water jump and beautiful decorations that were lovingly placed by volunteers. You need to show jump in a greasy field with landing divots that your horse cleverly avoids by jumping off to the side. You need to walk a course in 29 degrees. You need to sit by a firepot and warm your backside and talk to friends who also got up at 4:30 a.m. You need to see four dressage arenas running on time, like clockwork, and one bundled up dressage warmup steward in the field keeping it all going with a smile, all day long. You complainers, where are you? You need to be with the organizers and course designer out in the field watching all day, monitoring every single horse and rider, ready for anything, but having constructed courses with years of experience behind them, knowing good riding and proper preparation by the competitors will make your day boring.

You complainers: You need to see eventing as it is. Today. A sport with a bunch of really great people in it, working really hard to keep it great. A sport with a bunch of really good riders from Starter on up who care and know they have to work hard at home to be good in all three phases. A sport that isn’t looking backward for future questions, but that is building on the expertise and experience of its most engaged leaders, people who listen, people who lead, people who have shown by example what it means to volunteer, to change the rules for the better, lift all the boats with their own rising tide of excellence.

So, I’ve made you read all of this two cents before I got to my own summation of the day, and I can tell you that mistake after mistake sandwiched by the good parking spot and great cross country round pushed my results to a third place finish. While I misread my watch and was an hour early for dressage — then had a fairly poor show jumping round which was thankfully missed by most of my friends — the cross country rode so well and it was great to have Hamish pull me up and down the hills.

He’s getting fans, people keep telling me they love watching him — I think it’s just his big ol’ tail — but I am darn near sad we don’t get to compete any more this year. There are things I need to fix and I want to get them right! I can’t wait for the first events of the season next year. I had a great time competing this year and the sport just keeps getting better. No complaints. Back to work over the winter — see all of you real eventers again in 2018.

Go Eventing.

No-Stirrup November … No Thank You!

Today marks the beginning of the equestrian world’s least beloved annual tradition, No-Stirrup November. Riding sans stirrups has obvious benefits — the promise of thighs of steel and a velcro butt in a month’s time … who can resist the allure of that?

Holly Covey, that’s who. She ain’t buying it. Holly charmed us with this delightfully grumpy tirade against No-Stirrup November. Enjoy and look for more of her writing on Blogger’s Row!

Photo courtesy of Holly Covey.

No-stirrups November has all the charm and attraction of a root canal for me. Yeah, right, SUUUURRRE, I’m going to ride without stirrups on my hairy, out of work, grain-fed happy little fatsos on a frigid and dark evening after a slogging long day at work.

No-stress November is more what I am searching for. Like somebody I can text that will have both my wildebeests caught up from their outback prairie, groomed to a shine and tacked up ready to ride in the sparkling, lighted indoor. Whoops, oh, that was last week’s fantasy. This week we just settle for getting the mud off where the saddle pad and girth have to go.

And they want me to take my stirrups off my saddle. In the dark of night, when it’s trending toward 45 degrees, and my fingers and toes are no longer sending back “alive” signals to my brain. Yeah, RIGHT. I’m going to lie about riding without stirrups all day long. You betcha. Simple survival here.

The thing is, I know the no-stirrup thing is good for you, but … so is a root canal, if you really like full size Snickers in your Halloween trick or treat bucket. There is no gain without pain. I’d watch an entire afternoon of bad B movies if I thought it would help me stay on over a big oxer, but honestly, riding without stirrups is going to do more to undo all my hard work of staying in the saddle than it will help. I’m certain of it.

It’s the feeling of needing to cling — HARD — when one of my excuses-for-event-horses decides the neighbor’s plastic bag of trash floating gently on the breeze past him is not entirely to be trusted. It’s the screaming quads that won’t leave me alone all day at work the next day. And it’s the pushing-the-envelope mentality that frankly keeps me from toying with the loss of proper vertical order. I’m chicken in my old age.

Those of you with young, elastic bodies that bounce, look away. You don’t need to see what’s coming next. Not to scare anyone, but when you age, you can’t stay on a bucking horse like you used to be able to. No, those suction cup legs fade away somewhere down there below the 44D’s, and the wrinkles and sags now become your finest asset in the saddle. Your butt sticks to the saddle on purpose because you need to keep it there or your lawyer will be expecting a visit from your heirs. Like fine wine, your equitation ages to the point where losing your stirrups becomes a feared and inevitably fateful enterprise. So NO ONE who is old, and still doing what passes for riding, does it on purpose, Grasshopper.

No, us old-timers are deeply concerned about the whole concept of riding without all convenient accessories that come with our saddles. We pay for those stirrups, by God, we’re using them. I’ll exercise my 2nd Amendment to keep any individual from taking away my constitutional right to stirrups. (Hmm. Good idea for a bumper sticker, eh?) It’s better for my horses. It’s better for my family. It’s better for my mortgage, my boss at work, my bank account, my doctor and my hairdresser if I ride with those stirrups.

Of course I can probably stay on without them — for a while — well, for a few moments — maybe seconds … but I know there’s no need to be trying to prove anything at my age and experience level. My horses also have strong feelings about the potential loss of vertical order in the universe, and those cunning bastards live for the day I lose grip and slide sideways. With glee they will take immediate advantage, of that I am so sure. This is the reason I keep a handful of peppermint treats in my pocket. It is my safety device of last resort; and the horses KNOW they are there. (It seems to be working so far.)

All due respect to Leslie Wylie, whose no-stirrup exploit on the Mongolian steppe is the stuff of complete legend, but I’ll never ever live up to that stratospheric standard. I don’t even know someone who could ride a whole day without stirrups. And still have intact reproductive organs and a brain that functioned reasonably well. So Leslie, you’re the gold standard, babe, when it comes to stirrupless conquest.

LW: At least some good came out of it! Photo courtesy of Leslie Wylie.

No-stirrup November is a delightful idea someone bored with a well-lit, softly footed indoor arena thought up while riding their smooth-as-silk warmblood around in tiny circles, with lots and lots of health insurance with no deductibles or copays. My OTTB yaks can’t wait for November, they have been plotting revenge for months. When that saddle sans stirrups is strapped on, I can feel the energy ramp up, the eyeballs roll, the gerbils hit that wheel … the clock starts ticking down to Event Horse Revenge Day. I’m doomed!

So this year, I’m chucking the whole idea. Instead, I’ll do 30 seconds more planking each day to make up for it. Or maybe I’ll just do the little teeny Snickers instead of the full-sized ones. No, that’s a bad idea. Forget I said that. Just the planking ought to do it. Sorry, dear horses, no Revenge day this November. That’ll have to wait until First Water Jump of Spring. (Yikes!) Go eventing — with stirrups!