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Holly Covey

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We Are Tough Mudders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over the last. Photo by Beth Rice

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

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

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

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

 

Knowing When To Stop: Easy or Hard?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress: Charge into Change

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update: Completion, Check!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conquering the Canter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everything Eventing Offered at Area II Young Riders Online Auction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s Talk About Footing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s go over some turf footing terms.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Heavy track: Wettest possible condition of a turf course.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Watch and Learn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Definitive Eventer’s Guide to Beer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coaching Myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go eventing! 2017 is here!

 

An Eventer’s 2017 Check-Off List

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

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

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

Go Eventing.

I’m Home For Christmas Vacation

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

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

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

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

“I thought you said it WASN’T ON!”

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

“GEORGE.”

“Sorry.”

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

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

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

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

“George. GEORGE!”

“Mmmm. Mmmmm. Really good. Mmmm.”

“GEORGE!!!!!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bad goats!

Bad goats!

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The Ninja-Ballerina Quotient

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Photo Is Worth a Thousand Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is Your Gut Right? The Importance of Honing Instinct

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Whoa Than Go

There is nothing easy about rehabbing an injury. It’s all about mind over painful matter, and some days, I can do it. Other days, not so much. The Halloween candy in the store is calling out to me but I’m strong — I walk past it, nose in the air. Diet rules! Yet when I get home, I have to urge myself to change into boots and breeches to ride. My knee continues to keep me sighing in discouragement.

This injury has not only cost me physical fitness but I’ve also unfortunately gained weight. Losing time in the saddle has cost me more than physical pain; I’ve found there’s a rather depressing mental anguish that comes along with it, too. I’ve tried to do other things, but it’s useless — when you’ve ridden for over 40 years, there is nothing that you want to do or are good enough at to bother with. I don’t have any other hobbies. Don’t want any. Just want to ride again!

And it’s not enough just to sit there. I want to get right back to where I left off. That’s the whole problem. You fully expect that as soon as things heal up, you’ll be right back to snuff. Unfortunately the more time off the harder it is to return to perfection. At least now it seems that way. I know that healing takes time, yada yada. I’m impatient. I wish I could just wake up and it’s normal again.

After about a month and a half back in the saddle at a very low and basic level,  I am trotting 20- and 30-meter circles in an effort to strengthen it and stabilize the quad muscles around the knee. I’ve recently moved up to a bit of canter after warming up for a while at walk and trot, and I’m repeatedly working on lateral stuff to make sure I am staying as even-sided as possible.

My long-suffering partner, Hamish, puts up with my complete crookedness in these endeavors. I have recently switched to the dressage saddle which helps with my straightness and balance, a fact that he does not relish, since flatwork is not his thing.

So both of us stick our tongues out and make a face but I keep grinding away. The good news is Hamish is really getting that doggone walk-to-canter depart thingie down. Now all I do is semi-half halt and off he strikes. The bad news is the walk-canter depart is so automatic it’s now screwed up the trot to canter transition. Gaugh. And he would really prefer to hunt, but that’s completely out at this stage of the rehab game. My modest goal is just to stay on at this point, and if things go at all well, to improve his flatwork a little bit. I am still a long way from riding well. I am only really riding just barely in balance. Who knew it would take this much work?

All thoughts of competing, or even being able to last through a jump lesson, are out, as in “not doable.” That alone is pretty much a downer, because fall is the time of year we can’t wait to get out and ride cross country and jump all the things. To put a complete cap on the downer, today I got the message on my Facebook feed that Windurra is closing the cross-country schooling course on Nov. 1.  So it’s going to be next year before I can do that! (Sobs, sorry for herself.)

When thinking more clearly, I search desperately for wisdom and encouragement. I try reading technical stuff. I try the social media groups. I meditate while trying to motivate myself. I think of my horses and what they want to do. I look at pretty pictures or re-read Winnie The Pooh. I think of my friends, and what they are doing and how happy I am for jealous I am of them. I try to say, “soon” to myself. “Soon.” “It’s coming along.” “It’s getting better.” I try to believe these little phrases.

So at the moment I have a couple of rehab projects in the barn. Really, they are fine, it’s me who needs the rehab. While I am riding a little, I am also walking with them, as they walk for their return to soundness. Both of us out there in the dark and rain, walking. Neither of us like it but we are in it together. We will survive and we will fight for it, right Buddy? Yep. He pulls on the lead rope. He wants a little grass before having to go back in the barn for the night. It’s OK. Go ahead. Stop and have the grass. And while you munch, I’ll dream of one of those little Snickers bars in the Halloween candy bag in the store for a while. And then we go back in.

Warm Up Gone Wild

Photo by Holly Covey. Photo by Holly Covey.

What’s the greatest way in eventing to make everyone hate you? Yell “GET AWAY FROM THAT JUMP” in warm-up when an amateur rider and her husband reach to change the height of the oxer.

Are you depressed and would like to descend into the depths of hell? Try going to a horse trial and warming up for a Novice division. It’s one of the more terrifying tasks on horseback you will ever face because of “those trainers.”

The ones that hog the jumps. The ones that yell at others. The ones that teach an entire lesson in the warm-up ring to just one student 20 minutes before their stadium round and succeed in disrupting the warm-up of other competitors in addition to making their poor spouses or friends who happen to be there to help literally cry from frustration.

Eventers used to tell one another about the hole in front of jump seven or warn each other of the slick corner in stadium. Now they warn others that “Terry Trainer is here today!” meaning gird your loins for the fight to get your three jumps in warm-up.

These trainers have many tactics, but a couple of them are: jumping in front of the oxer as you head down towards it, or managing to put their hand on a rail or pull the pin on the jump cup just as you are three strides away. Darn! Didn’t get that jump in. Oh well.

Canter around again, and see if I can slide in behind the student she’s teaching … nope, that didn’t work either, she ran in front of the jump again! Canter around again. Pick the vertical this time. Nope, she’s going to run over and put that jump down, so now it’s lower than what your horse needs. Please! Leave it alone! Let someone else jump!

Now we all pay the same entry fee, and everyone has an equal right to the jumps. Except them. They are more than equal. They get the whole jump for the whole time they need it. And you don’t. You just keep circling. Your horse puts his ears back and says, “Huh?”

And don’t try to complain to anyone. They’ve got that base covered, too. They’ve entered 16 of their students in the horse trial just so they would have a clear upper hand when an official is contacted for a complaint. They have previously intimidated the poor volunteer warm-up coordinator so well that she is huddling in the corner in a puddle of tears and texting her BFF: “I’ll never volunteer here again!”

Some riders just have had enough. They canter around, call out the jump and keep coming regardless of where the trainer is parked. Look out! Everyone is covering their eyes and secretly pulling out their phones to video what is sure to be the wreck of the century … but by sheer luck, they miss each other by inches.

Hey, it may be the most exciting place on the grounds. I’m definitely going to make sure I take my camera to the warm-up area the next event I attend. I’ll compare to my husband’s video at the demolition derby and we’ll see whose is more spectacular.

And meanwhile, the only advice I can give is maybe pretend you’re deaf when the jump-hogging trainer yells at you. The video of the wreck might get a lot of hits on social media.

Volunteering: The Shared Experience

Photo courtesy of Kaiti Saunders Photo courtesy of Kaiti Saunders

Make it so they say, “why not volunteer?” instead of “why volunteer?” Bear with me: I’m going to tell you a story about shared experience and encouraging volunteers.

While attending Washington State University for my first degree, I worked part time at the vet school, took some classes there and had the immensely good fortune to have as an adviser the dean of the school at the time, Dr. Leo Bustad. He wrote a small but powerful book, Compassion: Our Last Great Hope.

Dr. Bustad was much more than a nuclear scientist, World War II prisoner of war, veterinarian and learned college dean. He was a guy who cared about animals and about how people treated them, and did groundbreaking international work in the field of the human-animal bond. The list of Dr. Bustad’s accomplishments is very large, but one thing he lived really has resonated with me my whole life. He knew people needed to feel like they belonged in order to be really useful.

He called it empathy. Tasting salt and breaking bread together was his way of saying cry together, eat together, share, and you will enhance the human experience — gain knowledge, create great things, go places. His life experiences from concentration camp to vet schools helped him see the importance of belonging.

The shared experience is a moment in time when your best friends are right there with you, watching the great rides on the cross country course; or maybe you are silently scribing while the FEI judge next to you in her clipped British accent is giving you scores on the Olympic team rider performing in front of you in the manicured dressage arena.

It’s the laugh you all get out of a funny incident or comment someone makes while you are picking up rails in the warm-up ring. It’s the smile you share, the things you see and do, while with others as a part of a big or small event. It’s getting on social media after the day is done and seeing yourself in the background of photos while Boyd Martin or Phillip Dutton warm-up. It’s talking about what happened with others that know because they were there too.

This special knowledge, this experience, is what makes the day and the time memorable and unique for all of us individually and collectively. It’s what we remember when we think of the day: the feeling that we “belonged” for even perhaps a few hours to a special competition, a special venue, or a special group of people that we really admired and enjoyed.

If you ask someone what they liked the most about their volunteer job, they will have different answers, even from someone who is doing the same job at the same time. Everyone’s experience is different. Each experience is unique.

But, unfortunately, if someone has even a remotely negative experience, that’s the first thing they will remember. Perhaps a jump judge was forgotten when the lunches were brought around, or they couldn’t find any shade or water on a hot day. Perhaps a trainer gave a warm-up volunteer grief. Perhaps a rider walked past or ignored a volunteer raking a path or picking up garbage.

In this way, the negative experience puts a pin in the shared experience balloon. Small acts, comments, or even the opposite — ignoring someone — makes the shared experience into a drudgery that the volunteer tells themselves they will complete the penance but do it no more.

Scientists tell us that shared experience amplifies the experience. This intensity carries over with either bad or good experiences — it’s “more” when with others. As such, a shared experience is very powerful.

A study had subjects taste chocolates. While tasting them at the same time, the subjects reported the chocolates tasted better than when they each tasted a sample alone. The subjects also reported feeling more absorbed in the tasting experience and more in tune with the other participant when they where tasting together.

Psychological scientist Erica Boothby of Yale University, author of the study, says, “I have found that merely doing the same activity at the same time as another person intensifies people’s experiences of that activity, whether it’s something pleasant or unpleasant.” Read more on the study here.

So how do we create positive shared experiences for volunteers in eventing? Eventmanagerblog.com says there are five universals FEELINGS that make any type of event memorable.

  • Fun. One funny incident can make even a serious tone into something memorable.
  • Frustration. Yes, frustration. “The power of frustration is immense.” The articles uses the example of waiting in long lines as a way of making an experience special; a really long wait means there were a huge amount of people, or that the concert was so good it was well worth the long wait. This could translate into giving your volunteers a problem to solve, or finding a faster and better way to do something.
  • Surprise. Unexpected and meaningful surprises make people want to remember the experience and cause them to reach for their phones to record the moment; it’s that special to them. We never know what will happen; often volunteers can be there when something surprising happens and can rectify or help, such as catch a loose horse.
  • Anticipation. Waiting for an event “creates uniqueness and exclusivity” (sounds like eventing!), especially a large event or notable event in a region. Sending out emails, explaining the parking or lunch arrangements, providing a map and a schedule gives volunteers something clear to anticipate, as an example.
  • Spontaneity. Well, the sport of eventing has nothing on concerts for THAT. Both Boyd Martin and Phillip Dutton fell off one right after the other in the CIC2* cross country at Plantation Field! Horses are always adding an unpredictable element to the sport, and this covers the sheer enjoyment of not knowing what might happen, so you have to be there to find out.

Finally, enhancing the volunteer shared experience has to do with food. For centuries, even probably as far back in time as the beginning of the human social interaction, sharing food was a way to communicate.

Breaking bread together in some form or another is a phrase found in every major worldwide religion. Eating together or sharing food and drink together breaks down social isolation and is culturally extending. Feed your volunteers and try to have at least one period where they are eating together, not individually out on course.

Find a way to get your volunteers together for a party, a social occasion, a year-end banquet, awards dinner, luncheon or appreciation occasion. This helps the volunteers interact with one another and recreate their shared experience; it further enhances their good feelings about the event and willingness to return for additional experiences in the future. It’s all science, folks. We are predictable, and we like to do it over and over.

How to Thank a Volunteer

#jumpjudge #seriousstuff

A photo posted by tina (@tberthaudin) on

How do you thank a volunteer?

If you are a rider (and you’re the reason they do spend the time and make the effort to show up), then there are lots of ways to thank a volunteer.

The first thing you can do is be on time. Then you can smile, and say “thank you.” That really means a lot! You can be courteous even when the volunteer may be wrong or mistaken. Make sure all the people with you — your trainer, your coach, your parents, your grooms or friends — are equally courteous, too.

Do your students or barn mates volunteer? Offer them free lessons or rides for volunteering time in your sport. Offer services to volunteer groups, like course walks or talks or even demonstrations on how to use studs or set up gymnastics.

Do you have sponsors? Suggest that they donate to volunteers who give to the sport by offering merchandise, a discount, coupons or promotional items to your local event volunteer coordinator. Give a volunteer a shout-out on your social media, or post a photo of one of your favorites doing their job. These sorts of gestures may take only a moment of time but can create a volunteer (and a fan) for life.

My view for the next 6 hours…WOOO #jumpjudge

A photo posted by Maddy (@maddypeirce) on

If you are a coach or trainer, be mindful that volunteers you encounter base their continued commitment to the sport on how you treat them.

Your attitude, your manners, your courtesy and your approach to them should be no less than impeccable. Treat a volunteer like the president of the company. And you would be surprised how many actually ARE high-ranking people in business, or medical or legal professionals, or even colonels and generals. And some are well-meaning kids, generous parents or non-horse people just wanting to get closer to horses.

Your business depends upon their generosity, literally. There is absolutely no excuse for an event professional to treat a volunteer any other way than correctly in all encounters no matter what: how late you are, how bad your student’s horse is behaving, how things are going in the warmup ring. Always!

No one is perfect and people make mistakes but any correction should always be brought to the event organizer or an official, not the volunteer. No volunteer should EVER be treated in a negative manner by any eventing professional. It’s simply unsporting and unacceptable.

Help a little. If you see a volunteer struggling with a tight schedule or someone who seems exhausted after running out to pick up rails in stadium all afternoon, offer to give them a 15-minute break and do their job for a while! Fifteen minutes of your day can make a volunteer for life. “Wow! Joe Trainer helped me today!”

And consider giving more than 15 minutes. Offer to do a job that might take half a day or more. Many times organizers need help before or after events. See if you can offer some support on a non-competition day. The organizer will remember your gesture!

Outstanding in her field #jumpjudge

A photo posted by wendycityto (@wendycityto) on

Are you a parent or owner? Be mindful of the job that volunteers do so your horse or child can compete. While you concentrate on being a good supporter, they are concentrating on doing a vital job to the competition. Respect the work they do and offer to help if you can — it can keep your mind off things, too!

If you are an owner, consider sponsoring a prize that could be awarded to a volunteer. Fund lunches or a thank-you dinner, or think of something they need or could use and offer to help obtain it, like renting more golf carts, etc. These gestures do mean something and make a difference to volunteer coordinators and organizers — it’s easier to send out emails begging for help the next year if they remember that great party after cross country!

Most volunteers are riders. Most volunteers understand the sport. Most volunteers are experienced and familiar with the jobs they are doing. Don’t underestimate the value of their contribution. Because eventing requires many volunteers — even the smallest event needs many jump judges — the whole contribution of many people has a ripple effect across your area and the nation.

#witsendhorsetrials #dressagescribe #sunnyhorseshow #goeventing

A photo posted by astartecreative (@astartecreative) on

Volunteerism must be nurtured and protected in eventing. One cross word, one nasty comment could lose that person forever. This is a small sport. We can’t afford to lose volunteers!

Next up from Holly: “The Shared Experience,” the major reason people return to volunteer year after year, how this is created and how it can be destroyed.

Marlborough Horse Trials Celebrates Its 25th Year of Sport

Courses run through four fields. Photo by Holly Covey. Courses run through four fields. Photo by Holly Covey.

Not many things as temporary as a horse trials seem to last 25 years these days. But the Marlborough Horse Trials has stood the test of a quarter century well, and after Sept. 17th’s annual presentation, has a great future ahead.

Marlborough’s annual USEA recognized horse trials ran opposite the mighty Plantation Field CICs, and was up against the AEC entry drain as well, yet put on a first class competition for full Beginner Novice, Novice, Training and Open Preliminary divisions. Marlborough is held at the Rosaryville State Park in Upper Marlboro, Maryland, a 982-acre day park in conservancy. It’s open to the public all year round, with many bikers, hikers and pleasure riders as well as hunters, so course work can only take place just before the event.

Rosaryville is also the home of the famous Mt. Airy Mansion, originally thought to have been built in the 1670s, and one of the oldest Maryland mansions connected to the Calvert family, the Lords Proprietor of colonial Maryland. Rosaryville is in the middle of traditional hunt country, and the mansion was thought to be a hunting lodge for the Lords Baltimore. President George Washington attended the wedding of his adopted son at Mt. Airy Mansion in 1774, and in the last century it was known as a very popular society gathering place when owned by Washington socialite. The state purchased it in 1973 and the mansion still hosts weddings and social occasions. (The mansion is in a different part of the park than the horse trials courses.)

Courses run through four fields. Photo by Holly Covey.

Courses run through four fields. Photo by Holly Covey.

And by first-class, I do mean it! The crew included two USET former team riders officiating (Carol Kozlowski, president of the ground jury, and John Williams, course designer); the delightfully organized Brian O’Connor of Speakeasy announcing; Area II favorites Pat Mansfield as TD and Kathy White as show jumping judge; and a host of very experienced and long-time Marlborough volunteers capably handling all the details of competition. Organizer Donna Bottner, just back from coordinating the AEC Adult Team Competition, spearheaded the horse trials with assistant Cherie Chauvin — both active eventers themselves and long-time volunteers with Marlborough.

Many of the past organizers and officials of the horse trials attended and watched the competition, including Andrea “Andie” Brinkley, who organized it for 16 years, and the “First Lady” of Marlborough Horse Trials, Dorothy Troutman. Rosaryville Conservancy President Paula Sothoron also attended.

Current organizer, Donna Bottner, said, “This year was bittersweet. John Williams did a fantastic job picking up the torch for Roger Haller with our courses. I just wish he were here with us, since he was instrumental in getting us started 25 years ago, and helped me survive the past several years with his humor and mentorship.”

“This event would not be here at all if not for the efforts of Dorothy Troutman and Pam Link when they first entertained the idea, and were the major force in getting Roger Haller and Chris Milanesi to design and build the course,” Donna said. “They all fundraised, improvised and saw us through the toughest times. Andie was the organizer for 16 years before handing it over to me eight years ago. If not for Andie, there would not be a Marlborough today. Our announcer, Brian O’Connor, called Andie on Friday to insure her presence; he told her he wasn’t going to announce without her there!”

A new bank for lower level riders has been built near the newly rebuilt water complex. Photo by Holly Covey.

A new bank for lower level riders has been built near the newly rebuilt water complex. Photo by Holly Covey.

Donna noted that she learned something new on Saturday: “Mrs. Troutman told me that the Training ditch in the back field (which we’ve renovated a few times) was originally dug by a gravedigger. She said he knew exactly how deep to dig it and how wide it should be for a half coffin. I really can’t make these things up!”

The courses run through several hilly fields and the time was real factor for almost all levels. Marlborough does offer a classic cross-country course, where horses and riders expect changes of terrain both up and down, banks, ditches, traditional obstacles like logs and coops but some nice newer portable jumps that offer flexibility and creative use of the slopes and hills.

There are even some trails through the woods with a jump or two. All of the courses went through the four fields adjacent to the pavilions in the center of the park, with dressage held in a flatter area of one of the fields, and show jumping nearby on a slightly sloped grass ring. Warm up is generous and right next to the competition rings, so young horses new to eventing have a comfortable atmosphere in which to perform.

New cross country courses this year came from FEI/USEF course designer and former USET event team rider John Williams, assisted with the expertise of John Wells this year and Tyson Rementer. The tracks appeared to ride smoothly and featured a completely rebuilt water complex, which caused few difficulties.

“It was a good course to ride,” said one competitor. “Training had just the right mix of difficult and let-up jumps to move up.”

And for the future? Organizer Donna Bottner said, “Having greatly improved the water feature, a new Beginner Novice bank and adding drain tiles in that field, we have a lot to offer and will keeping improving each year. John is already thinking about new tracks we haven’t used previously and that really is exciting.”

So the future of Marlborough remains bright. “The best part of the day for me is watching riders galloping by with big smiles on their faces. It’s really the only reward I need,” said Donna.

Here are a few videos of the revamped cross-country course from Saturday:

The Training double of ramps, 4A and B:

The Training hay rack double:

The water jump:

The novice half-coffin:

Results can be found here. For more information on cross-country schooling days and other equestrian opportunities at Marlborough, check their website. Cross country schooling was held Sunday, Sept. 18, and a cross country jumping clinic with Stephen Bradley will take place Tuesday, Sept. 20 (click here for info) and open cross country schooling will be available Saturday, Sept. 24. The group will also host a hunter pace November 19. All events are weather permitting.

Go Eventing at Marlborough Horse Trials!

 

Time Flies, and Lags, When You’re Eventing

Plantation Field, 2014. Photo by Holly Covey. Plantation Field, 2014. Photo by Holly Covey.

We cannot make more of it. We can’t make it go faster, hurry it up, or find a way to go back or slow it down. And in the horse business, especially the eventing sport, how do we wish we could! Time has its own thing and there isn’t much we can do about it.

Certain things just take time — healing boo-boos, or more serious injuries, waiting for rashes and skin eruptions and bruises to heal. Waiting for broken bones to heal. Waiting for grabs, and sore backs, and scraped hocks, and banged stifles to heal. Waiting for that abscess to dry out.

It’s not just medical concerns. It’s waiting for the moment that your horse says, “ah ha, I get it — that‘s what the half halt is for!” Or figures out that extra stride can help him find the fence with more energy to clear it. Time taken to school and train pays off eventually, but meanwhile, it’s on the clock every day.

In the event world, there’s a lot of time on the back of horse and not always jumping and schooling. A lot of time has to go into conditioning our horses from the low levels right on up to the top horses in the strong. How many minutes and hours a week in the saddle have you spent? Hot or cold, rain or shine, bugs and flies, snowflakes and raindrops, days when your back hurts so much you can barely post the trot, days when you fall asleep in the saddle, days when you just want to get it over with and get back to the barn.

And once in the barn, there’s a huge amount of attention paid to time there. Chores are never done, and some days you walk in early in the morning and don’t sit down until after dark. How many days have you longed for a chair and just five minutes of peace, but the vet just pulled in, he’s an hour late, and you have three horses waiting for him ….

For riders, too, time has to be taken to get organized, not just for the morning that the farrier and the vet are coming and there are two lessons to teach, but for the month ahead and the year’s plan. And if you’re in the rare air of the CCI level, even two or three years planned out. Time flashes by faster than that idiot on the motorcycle that buzzed your truck this morning on the highway.

You look at the clock, and it’s just after morning feed, you’re getting on your first horse, and the next glance you get, it’s after 9 p.m. and your last lesson is done. Where did the time go, where did the day go, what happened to this week?

There’s a lot of science floating around about managing time and advice from professionals about doing a lot of things to make your use of time more effective, and often those things just don’t seem to work well in the horse world. We’re working with an animal, after all. They get hurt, they lose shoes, they scrape and bump and cut themselves, they kick at flies and strain muscles and tendons.

As fall arrives, the daylight shortens and time becomes even more critical if you work a full time job during the day. You start to hurry a bit more to get home faster. Soon you’ll be riding in the dusk, and then the dark. You know this should be the year you put in the arena lights, but it never seems so important when you can ride in the light most of the summer.

Time doesn’t wait for us, and it doesn’t give us any breaks. It takes what it wants from our lives and gives us only what we make out of it.

This is why these big wins at big competitions mean so much. They represent just one small slice of time, a time and a place, where time gave you that piece of life that you have worked for, dreamed about, schemed and planned and arranged and hoped for. You forget all the hard things when they hand you that blue ribbon (or put that medal round your neck) and you get to stand proudly for a picture, on a horse you’ve lived half your life with. Go get time by the ear and pull it with you. It will be worth every second.

Course Walk Etiquette: Unspoken Rules of the Galloping Lane

Holly Covey has volunteered for many than a decade as a cross country course decorator at Fair Hill International Horse Trials. As we gear up for the fall season, Holly shares some course walk etiquette tips for competitors and spectators alike. Many thanks to Holly and all of the volunteers who dedicate their time to decorating the jumps so beautifully at Fair Hill and beyond.

Beautifully decorated jumps need to stay that way for a whole week! Photo by Holly Covey. Beautifully decorated jumps need to stay that way for a whole week! Photo by Holly Covey.

The rain begins a steady, soaking rhythm on your back as you are bent, placing flowers at the base of the huge wooden table on the cross county course. You’ve been working all day: shoveling mulch; fixing decorations; loading and unloading flowers, pots of mulch, greenery and brush. Your feet are tired, your hands are sore and you are almost soaked through. But the course is done, and all agree, it’s beautiful. Now the worry begins. It has to stay that way for a whole week!

Here come the riders to examine every detail as they get ready to compete on the weekend. And with them … the trainers, the coaches, the owners, the sponsors, the kids, the dogs, the friends — you hope that they respect the work that the volunteers have done in creating beautiful fences for them to jump. You hope.

There is an etiquette to walking a cross country course. The rules state that the jumps, once approved by the Ground Jury, must not be altered. This is for a good reason — so that the fences appear the same to the riders as they gallop up as they did when they walked the course. It is very difficult to have everything perfect on the Monday before the competition and have it stay that way for cross country day on Saturday, but that is what is required.

We hope the flowers stay bright and select budding bushes just for that reason. We keep them watered or cover them up and protect them from animals, insects, wind and rain. The decor is fixed with sturdy fasteners that will withstand weather; designs are made to last in wind or hot sun or heavy rain. Mulch and brush are placed so that they stay put, often with a lot of shoveling and raking to make them stay. Things that might fly away, roll or move in a breeze are all tied down in a safe way that keeps them straight yet doesn’t interfere with the horse’s jump.

Most cross country courses are out in the fields and subject to wildlife; in the case of some events, even deer and foxes often try to vandalize the tasty looking goodies on or around the jumps. (One year at Fair Hill, foxes played all night with realistic-looking feathered chickens, strewing them all over the field after volunteers had spent most of a day placing them carefully on jumps.)

We can’t do much about the wildlife but cross our fingers and hope the activity in the field keeps them away for a few days. But to be honest, the other worry for many of us who decorate is something that everyone can do something about: dogs.

Yes, domestic — leashed and unleashed — dogs. Many of the plants and decorations for cross country are placed at the base or bottom of jumps, and these areas are quite vulnerable to dogs who are towed along on cross country walks. When dogs urinate on decorations or plants, they can kill the flowers, many of which have to be returned, in good shape, to local businesses who have loaned them to the event.

Someone will have to pick up that flower pot, or decoration or straw bale, and heft it onto their truck bed, or stack it to be stored until next year in a shed or barn, or wrap it up in plastic for storage. That process is made all the more difficult and unpleasant when dogs have done their business on the decorations.

The proper way to walk a course is with respect and attention to the obstacles and the layout, looking at the jumps and not touching and not letting others touch, not climbing on obstacles, not sitting on them for photos prior to competition day, not trodding on decor or flowers, or letting your dog relieve himself on them. Volunteers have to pick up that decor, touch it and remove it, so please don’t take your dog on your course walk unless you can monitor where he is going and where he is lifting his leg.

Please also remember to respect galloping lanes. Stringing out galloping lanes takes hours and hours of walking and hard work by volunteers. It’s not easy, and it’s not cheap to put up hundreds of feet of string to protect precious footing that has been groomed for an entire year. Unfortunately, many people do not see galloping lane string as any sort of barrier to access; they stretch it up and duck under and wander out on the course to take photographs or take a short cut. Please don’t.

Galloping lanes are restricted for a reason, especially if the weather makes lanes slick or slippery, or dry and hard. Continual pressure on the ground from errant wanderers makes it worse, and there is often no way to fix the footing prior to the competition day once its been trodden into mush by hundreds of feet feet. Please preserve the course for the sake of the horses and riders.

Great courses come from great efforts by good people who care. People who don’t respect the courses can hurt that effort. As we go into our fall three-day event season, please respect these cross country courses by remembering a few courtesies: Consider leaving the dog at the barn, or let someone else who is not riding control it on the walk to keep it away from the jumps. And you’re not riding, please stay out of the galloping lanes.