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Holly Covey


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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.”



“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.”


“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!


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? 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.

My Life Isn’t Mine

Missing this view is torture. Photo by Holly. Missing this view is torture. Photo by Holly.

We don’t realize how much we live and die with our horses’ soundness, health, and wellbeing. There are so many things that go into a sound and fit horse to ride each day; to be without one seems to rock your world so much that you question why you want this torture.

When my horses are lame or sore or are having a hard time coping with heat or cold, I suffer. I think about them while working: Are they warm enough, are they in the shed away from the hot sun, will their fly spray last until I get home? When they are missing a shoe, hobbling about from a lameness or injury, I can’t sleep at night thinking about what I could have done, or should have done, or should be doing.

Oh yes, I have gotten up in the middle of the night to ice a knee, soak a hoof, or just check on a sleepy eyed horse snoozing away in his stall, perfectly comfortable, until I turned on the barn lights and woke him up. I can’t stand the obsessive thoughts of their comfort so I call my vet, text my farrier, cry to my friends or endlessly google the lameness subject of the week until I feel secure I’ve done all I could. I always feel I have one more thing I could do, though. I have to find the off setting for the driven need to Take Care Of Everything.

Recently I was laid up with an injury that has had me out of the saddle for many weeks while I healed and got back strength. Meantime, my two “Can’t Make A Face Like An Event Horse” aged prospects got to relax. Along with that slack time, one decided it was the perfect opportunity to make me worry about a deep crack in a foot that has gotten steadily worse since spring monsoon season. So while he’s on the shelf, I eagerly waited for the day I could get back on the other one and start riding again.

Well, let me tell you. When you are 25, you just climb back in the saddle, walk about a bit and off you go. When you are a bit further along than that (I can check the “Vintage Rider” box on the entry form these days) it ain’t that easy, folks. I really am impatient with the slowness of the rehab in the saddle, so I do not want to miss a day at all when I can ride. It puts new meaning into dedication. “Can’t….miss…one….day,” I say to myself as I haul ass home after work and dive into breeches, hobble to the field and catch the one sound one left to ride.

My whole world crashed when he came in missing a shoe. Desperately trying not to sound desperate, I text my farrier. Good luck, he can come this afternoon. All day at work I race to finish so I can be home to hold him, and suddenly — no, not this afternoon, tomorrow; can’t get there. Oh my! I am upside down, no farrier, no ride tonight!

Then I get a grip and laugh at myself. Good grief. I can miss one night’s ride! Tack needs conditioning anyway. Clean something. Fix something. Work on one of my many unfinished projects that got dumped when I got the doctor’s OK to ride again. Take it easy, it’s ok. Look at friends’ videos on social media that I have been meaning to watch for a week.

That’s life on hold until the farrier arrives … no big deal. Until he gets here and the horse is shod and ready to go, and I am thinking while I am at work, guess what, I can RIDE when I get home! And I get all obsessing again! What breeches, where’s the bridle, clean pad, remember to … oh boy, I can ride! Yay! I have got to calm down. (But I can ride!)

What Does Your Next Four Years Look Like?

Get riding! Photo by Julia Deraska. Get riding! Photo by Julia Deraska.

There it goes … another Olympic three-day event, with its beautiful horses from all over the world, the gutting disappointments, and the surprising outcomes — some expected and some delightfully welcomed and richly deserved. You’re a fan, you watch all this stuff, stalk on social media, log in and help crash servers, because everyone wants information and pictures.

We cheer, we fans, and we know when it looks right and good and when it’s not so good. We feel for every gravity-grabbed rail. We sigh for every run-by, slide-out, stop, circle, half-effort or sad fall. I gasped with horror at Lauren and Veronica’s crashing fall and felt an immediate flattening of our hopes that the Americans might finally have the good world class result we are long overdue.

Sadly, no American team finish was in our cards, but we had the good fortune of two of our best going forward into show jumping on some really keen horses we’ve been cheering for a while. We saw Blackfoot Mystery go as an Intermediate horse and Mighty Nice, too, and watched how they were developed and created by their riders, Boyd Martin and Phillip Dutton.

So, when the team dream died, we all let ourselves cry in our beers a little and then we just said, we have four years ’til the next one so let’s get cracking. And while we know Lauren and Clark and all the others will be doing the same thing — putting aside the pain of defeat and getting motivated to get the next four years planned out.

What are you doing in the next few years? Here’s some of our “Olympic” four year plans:

“Do the Novice Three-Day.”

“Have a competitive derby horse”

“Working on my fitness, then starting on dressage year-end awards for next year!”

“Go to a recognized event.”

“Go Beginner Novice.”

So there you go. Who among us is not inspired by the beautiful dressage of Ingrid and Michi, and the steady riding of the entire French team, and the absolute wizardry of Phillip and Boyd on cross-country, the heartbreak of Sir Todd? Did you go out and get on your horse at night after sneaking peaks at video the last two days at work? Yep, so did I. We only have three years, 11 months, and 29 days left to go! Get riding!


From Crossrails to Rio

A long way from Rio but eventing just the same! Photo by Steven King

A long way from Rio but eventing just the same!
Photo by Steven King

We are scrolling through our social media, checking the pictures of the team’s horses loading on the vans, getting uniforms, and soon arriving in Rio. If you’ve been through a couple of Olympics, you know that there will be some surprises and some of the same-old, same-old.

We’ll gather around our tablets or computers to get results and maybe TV to see some taped or live action of the equestrian events. We’ll get on social media immediately following the work day to see who is leading dressage, remark on cross-country thrills, or share the link for the live stadium feed. And we’ll have EN open on a browser all the time.

But you know the eventing life goes on. While Rio has the best in the world, we’ve got the very beginners in the sport going around in dressage arenas and little crossrail jump courses all over the country. It’s late in the summer and most kids have been riding and schooling hard towards a summer’s end goal, like the local recognized horse trial, or the last in a series of combined tests at a favorite equestrian showgrounds. The Pony Clubbers are wrapping up a championship gathering and the Young Riders are in Colorado having a life-defining experience, too.

We are looking towards fall events and most of the “big” horses are back in work to get ready for them, professionals starting early in the morning while the heat of the day has yet to rise. The horses are a long way from winter blankets and cold winds; hot and humid defines your riding decisions. Some of us have battled injuries and might just be getting back to riding or working a horse that has been on the shelf. Others are excitedly starting work with young or new horses.

Eventing has a seasonality to it for each level, and late summer is a bit odd because it’s the pinnacle time for Olympic level riders, and also the top of the season for the very lowest level in the sport, the unrecognized and beginning event riders. Both sets have worked all summer to get their horses just right for the August campaigns.

While one is struggling with getting their horse in front of their yet-to-be-educated legs, the other is probably doing the same thing just in Rio and in front of thousands (but with more educated legs!). While one is entering their local combined test, nervously writing down the number of the 2’3″ class instead of the 2′ class, and hoping all the lessons and schooling will show results, the other is also filling out paperwork and hoping all the lessons and schooling will show results, too.

In the same week as the Olympic three-day event, we’re going to have recognized events with levels from Beginner Novice to Advanced, in New York, (Millbrook), Virginia (Hunt Club Farm), Michigan (Cobblestone Farm), Tennessee ( River Glen), and Iowa (Catalpa Corner Charity). And countless unrecognized events like Friends Combined Tests at Fair Hill, starting with Intro CT at two feet and the walk-trot dressage test.

This sport has a span, a clear mandate to inclusion, from top to bottom. From crossrails to Rio, we endeavor to the same process; the schooling and work towards a goal, the hope that we can live up to the challenges. This is one of the attractions of our sport. I will watch the Olympic eventers do their sport, and then I can see future Olympians live, in action from Maryland to California, on the same weekend. How cool is that?

Getting by with a Little Help from My Friends

Without volunteers I would be sunk. Photo by Holly Covey. Without volunteers I would be sunk. Photo by Holly Covey.

Help, help. I’m crippled and I can’t unload my jump trailer on Saturday night at Fair Hill. Will you help? It’s only for an hour or so.

Yes. Yes. Ting. Ting. Ting. My phone chimes with notice that helpers are coming. Friends answer the call, while I am on the Crutches Struggle Bus with a bad knee that went rogue and had to be operated on just 10 days before the second of three combined tests I was managing at Fair Hill Natural Resources Management Area in Elkton, MD.

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.

The joy of those tings coming from my half-dead phone made my heart sing — that friends would help, yes, they are coming, they will unload the whole trailer and the dressage arena, duck for cover while a thunderstorm waters the ring, then carry on setting up everything and putting everything in the secretary shack for the following day of competition. We have to haul everything in for one day — all jumps, the dressage ring, prizes, banners, everything — and it all has to be loaded and taken back home at the end of the day.

Artist Becky Raubacher of Animals To Wear contributed this incredible panel to our jump collection - one of a kind. Photo by Holly.

Artist Becky Raubacher of Animals To Wear contributed this incredible panel to our jump collection — one of a kind. Photo by Holly.

When I set up these combined tests, I thought I could handle it pretty much myself, because I usually think that way about just about everything I do in the event world. How wrong I was! When you send in your reservation it is official — you’re going to hold a show — but until it gets REAL, about four days before, you really don’t know if you can do it all yourself. And the answer is of course, you can’t.

Without the largesse and kindness of a few friends, some of whom don’t even event at all, most of the rest of us would not enjoy this sport even a tiny bit. The amount of  detail and paperwork in even an unrecognized combined test with less than 100 entries is staggering for one person already working a full time job. Emails, scheduling, times for jumping classes, copies of ALL the different tests being ridden, judges, stewards, scribes, clear round tickets … the list goes on and on. Our shows actually have some sponsorship and we have stuff to give away and packets with brochures, and I like to make sure all the riders who compete enjoy the day.

I do the courses (from the 18-inch to the CIC** course — yes, one course made to fit all in one day), I build the jumps, I order the ribbons, I clerk, organize, beg, set up, measure, hand out and pay. It’s crazy and yet people have fun and horses grow — you see them so unsure over the first jump, then the rider sits up and kicks a little, and the second and third jumps are better and by number 8 or 9 they are confidently hopping around and the big smile means something got accomplished.

We don’t do it for money, we do it for love. And how much can you thank the people who save your sorry butt when you are hopping about on one leg? As much as you can!

(The combined tests are Friends Combined Tests at Fair Hill NRMA Foxcatcher Ring, Elkton, MD. Find us on Facebook at

A Detailed Breeding Analysis of the U.S. Olympic Team Horses

Team USA! From top left clockwise: Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Cubalawn (photo by Jenni Autry); Boyd Martin and Blackfoot Mystery (photo by Jenni Autry); Lauren Kieffer and Veronica (photo by Jenni Autry); Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen (photo by Libby Law Photography). Team USA! From top left clockwise: Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Cubalawn (photo by Jenni Autry); Boyd Martin and Blackfoot Mystery (photo by Jenni Autry); Lauren Kieffer and Veronica (photo by Jenni Autry); Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen (photo by Libby Law Photography).

If you take a detailed look at the pedigrees of our U.S. Olympic Eventing Team horses, you’ll not get too far along before finding more Olympic names across all disciplines of equestrian sport. And the team horses — Blackfoot Mystery, Veronica, Fernhill Cubalawn, Loughan Glen and Doesn’t Play Fair — share numerous common relatives. Want to see what I found? Take a look!

Boyd Martin and Blackfoot Mystery. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Boyd Martin and Blackfoot Mystery. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

1. Blackfoot Mystery (Out Of Place – True Mystery by Proud Truth) U.S.-bred Thoroughbred gelding

Blackfoot Mystery is a Thoroughbred, bred in Kentucky by Out Of Place, out of the mare True Mystery by Proud Truth, bred by John O’Meara. He had three official starts on the track, all at Hollywood Park in California — finishing sixth, 13th and eighth — before being recycled out of the racehorse track and into the sport horse track.

His sire, Out Of Place, was a fairly good sire in the racing business; he had 85 percent starters and 64 percent winners before his death in 2010 at age 23 while at stud at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky. Out Of Place was a stakes winner (Clark Handicap, Gr.III) and stakes placed (Whitney, Woodward, Iselin, Donn handicaps — all Gr. 1). He sired 39 stakes winners and earners of $31 million; among the best were Free Fighter, sprinter Nightmare Affair, Orville N Wilbur’s and Certain.

So where does Blackfoot Mystery get the jumping blood? Actually, his jumping bloodlines come from all sides of his pedigree. Out Of Place is by the great Cox’s Ridge, out of Arabian Dancer by Damascus. Cox’s Ridge is by Best Turn who is by Turn-To — remember that name because you’re going to hear it again.

Blackfoot Mystery’s dam, True Mystery, is a Maryland-bred workhorse; she won the Virginia Mile and made $143,000, with 13 starts, five wins and four places on the track. True Mystery is by Proud Truth, a stallion that stood in Virginia, and out of a Lord Gaylord mare; Lord Gaylord is by Sir Gaylord, who is by Turn To and out of Somethingroyal, the dam of Secretariat. The tail female line goes to Alibhai, another Thoroughbred jumping sire line.

Blackfoot Mystery is True Mystery’s foal of 2004; her foals of 2002, 2003 and 2005 were fillies, including Elirose by Not For Love, winner of $203,650 with 48 starts and six wins. Her latest foal is B I Guy by Point Given, foaled in 2007 with nine starts to date and earnings of $5,900 — also a chestnut.

Lauren Kieffer and Veronica. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Lauren Kieffer and Veronica. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

2. Veronica (Pacific – Kimbel by Ferro) Dutch-bred KWPN mare

Listed on Sporthorse Data as KWPN (Dutch), Veronica is a bay mare born in the Netherlands in 2002 and bred by Meijel J. Basten, and currently owned by Team Rebecca. Veronica is by the KWPN stallion Pacific out of a KWPN mare Kimbel, by Olympic Ferro by Ulft.

Ferro is now known as Olympic Ferro, having competed in dressage for the Netherlands at the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. He’s the sire of 44 dressage horses, four eventers and 17 show jumpers according to Sporthorse Data, which usually lists horses that have obtained national/international results. But it’s who he’s sired that means something!

Ferro himself won team silver at the 1998 World Equestrian Games, 1999 European Championships and 2000 Olympic Games. In 2000 he placed second in the World Cup finals. But his big claim to fame is as the grandsire of the great Valegro (through Negro) and Uthopia (through Metall), who won team gold for Great Britain in dressage at the 2012 London Olympics. Valegro won individual gold for rider Charlotte Dujardin and Uthopia placed fifth individually with Carl Hester.

Ferro is also the sire of Glock’s Undercover (NED), who won team bronze and placed ninth individually in London. Ulft, Ferro’s sire, was also the damsire of Jerich Parzival (NED) who competed on the same Dutch bronze dressage team and also won individual silver, all at the 2012 London Olympics.

Going back to Veronica’s sire, Pacific is listed as a Holsteiner by Corland, a sire of show hunters and a direct male descendent of the second name we’re going to drop in this Olympic breeding examination: the great jumping sire Cor de la Bryere. Pacific is out of the Nimmerdor mare Joyful Lady.

Veronica was 2014 USEA Mare of the Year, USEF National CCI4* Champion twice at Rolex Kentucky in 2014 and 2016, and has delivered many top placings in Europe: sixth at Blenheim Palace CCI3*, 15th at Aachen CICO3* (helping the U.S. Nations Cup team to third place), and seventh at Bramham CCI3*, In 2016, she hasn’t placed lower than third in her four outings: third at Rocking Horse Open Intermediate, first at Red Hills Advanced, second in The Fork CIC3* and second at Rolex.

KWPN lists Veronica proudly as the second highest ranked Dutch-bred eventer in the world. The Dutch stud refers to her often as “Veronica (Pacific out of Kimbel keur pref prest by Ferro, breeder: J. Basten of Meijel under American Lauren Kieffer.”

Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Cubalawn. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Phillip Dutton and Fernhill Cubalawn. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

3. Fernhill Cubalawn (Con Capitol – Corse Lawn by Arkan) British-bred Holsteiner gelding

Fernhill Cubalawn is sourced through Carol Gee of Fernhill Sport Horses and is a Holsteiner by Con Capitol out of a Thoroughbred mare.

Con Capitol (listed as Holsteiner) died in 2007. He was German-bred, by the great Olympic sire Contender (Holsteiner), who sired a prolific 127 approved sons and 75 states premium mares before his death in 2014. Contender was by Calypso II, one of the great jumping sons of — yes —  Cor de la Bryere. This is an example of tail male jumping bloodlines at the highest level in the world.

But Fernhill Cubalawn’s jumping lines don’t stop there. Jumping also shows up under his dam, a Thoroughbred mare, listed as Corse Lawn xx by Arkan (GB) by Prince Tenderfoot. Prince Tenderfoot goes back to Princequillo, the most notable name in her pedigree. She is out of a Thoroughbred mare named Jubilee Leigh by Hubble Bubble, listed as an HIS (Horse Sport Ireland) premium stallion.

Hubble Bubble sired horses that also raced over fences in Ireland, and both he and Arkan are listed as archive stallions on the Vauterhill Stud website in Devon, England. Corse Lawn was said to have competed in  dressage and eventing. She’s double bred Nasrullah in the sixth generation.

Additionally, Fernhill Cubalawn’s grandsire, Contender, had a pretty important presence in the 2012 London Olympics. He is the grandsire of Ravel (USA) who finished 17th, and the damsire of Sancette (AUS); both hirses competed in dressage. He is also the sire of Bendigo (AUS) and grandsire of NZB Campino (NZL), who competed in eventing, as well as the grandsire of Codex One (GER) and damsire of Rosalia La Silla (MEX) in show jumping.

Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen claim second at Bramham International Horse Trials in the Event Rider Masters Division. Photo by Libby Law Photography.

Clark Montgomery and Loughan Glen. Photo by Libby Law Photography.

4. Loughan Glen (Limmerick – Tattymacall Mustard by Cut The Mustard) Irish-bred Irish Sport Horse gelding

Listed as an Irish Sport Horse, Loughan Glen is by the Holsteiner Limmerick and out of an Irish Sport Horse mare that features about 75% Thoroughbred breeding, Tattymacall Mustard by Cut The Mustard, a Nijinski grandson.

Tattymacall Mustard is listed as being out of an Irish Draught Sport Horse mare Culloville Victoria, by a Thoroughbred Ruffo by Riva Ridge, stablemate of the great Secretariat in the 1970s. Riva Ridge is a grandson of — no kidding, really — Turn-To. Loughan Glen was bred by Daragh Geraghty, Co. Galway. The bottom side past Culloville Victoria is somewhat unknown.

On the topside, the Holsteiner Limmerick is a grandson of the great Landgraf I, a jumping sire produced in Germany with a long list of competitive offspring to his name. And, of course, Cor de la Bryere appears in his pedigree too, through Caletto II, sire of his dam Zierblute.

Limmerick himself was a show jumper and stands in Ireland today. Some of the horses he sired include Shannondale Titan, top 10 at Bramham and 18th at Badminton in 2015 with Bill Levett; Graf Liberty, fourth at Luhmühlen with Chris Burton last year; and Lara’s Song, a British eventing mare who completed Blenheim, Burghley and Luhmühlen with Lisa Keys.

U.S. eventing fans will also know Advanced horses Effervescent, ridden by Caroline Martin, and Longwood, ridden by Katherine Coleman. Both horses are sired by Limmerick.

Maya Black and Doesn't Play Fair. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Maya Black and Doesn’t Play Fair. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

5. Doesn’t Play Fair (Camiros – Oncoeur by Coriander) U.S.-bred Holsteiner gelding

Doesn’t Play Fair was bred in the U.S. by Half Trak Farm in Stanwood, Washington. His sire, Camiros, stood at Fox Fire Farm in Washington state.

In 1994, Camiros was grand champion stallion at the Holsteiner stallion approvals in Neumunster, Germany. He was a premium stallion, given a 9 on brilliance and impulsion. And in his 1995 Medingen stallion testing, his only competition, he received a score of 106.72 on his dressage and 99.35 on his jumping — recipe for eventing greatness if there ever was one.

Camiros is by Contender (see Fernhill Cubalawn above) and out of the dam Valeska IV, a prolific mare who also produced champion stallion Corofino among her 14 foals. Here’s a video of him (and he certainly throws his movement to his offspring).

Doesn’t Play Fair has a half-sibling, Chattington RSF,  who was named USDF Grand Champion as a 3-year-old in 2014, and his full sister, Wiski HTF (video of her here) retained by Half Trak Farm, has been produced through Fourth Level in dressage.

Doesn’t Play Fair is out of Oncoeur by Coriander (Holsteiner), which is tail male to — you guessed it — Cor de la Bryere. Oncoeur is half Thoroughbred, out of I C Food, daughter of Gamble On Me, a granddaughter of Bold Ruler. I C Food was bred to warmbloods and produced two mares. I C Food’s sire Seafood is by Proud Clarion by Hail To Reason by Turn-To. There is also Sailor in her pedigree, a tail male Pilate grandson, a name often found in Thoroughbred jumping pedigrees.

Want to try breeding your own Doesn’t Play Fair? His dam, Oncoeur, is currently listed for sale on Sport Horse Nation, and she’s in foal to Mighty Magic. Click here to check out her sales listing.

What is a Course Designer?

Course design is lot more than just Course design is lot more than just "put this jump there." Photo by Holly Covey.


The late Judy Thayer, Cross-country director at Fair Hill, agonizing over a water jump design at Fair Hill International (2012) Photo by Holly.

The late Judy Thayer, Cross-country director at Fair Hill, considering a water jump design at Fair Hill International (2012) Photo by Holly Covey.

What is a Course Designer? What role do they play? In all levels of equestrian sport that involves obstacles, there is somebody, somewhere that says, “OK, put that jump over there, and this jump (or obstacle) here.” That’s the Course Designer, in a nutshell.

From the smallest schooling show, where the cross-rails predominate, and the local riding stable trainer probably sets the course herself based on how she knows her school ponies will manage with the kids piloting, on up to the very highest levels of international equestrian sport, it’s all the same task.

Basically, it’s setting obstacles based on what has been determined as the standard for the level of competition being held. While a pretty simple definition, it’s really a fantastically detailed, creative yet structured job populated by incredibly talented folks, among the most experienced and knowledgeable eventers we have in our sport in North America today.

Course design in an arena has numerous factors, but course design in an open expanse of topography over 200 acres in size is subject to a whole gamut of factors that don’t occur in a flat, level fenced ring. Such as: elevation (how high a hill is and how low the valley is), the slope of the hill and ground (steep or mild), the natural footing (before it’s improved by aerovating, adding substance or grass, or grooming and mowing), the time of day (sun, shadows, and temperature – cold? hot? dry? wet?), natural obstacles (rocks, trees, ponds), and unnatural obstacles (fences, stabling, roads, utilities that prevent digging or block access, availability of electricity or water, the siting of parking lots, warm-up areas, and even porta-potty placement).

You know those great tailgate areas we get to park and party at? Those spots are the result of a course designer sitting down with an organizer and a grounds manager and probably several other people, looking at maps, discussing tracks and access, weather, placement of things like jumbo screens, galloping lanes, and about a hundred other details many months before we unpack the tents and coolers.

That’s just a tiny part of a big job. The course designer takes all of those details into consideration and is overall, responsible for all of the layout of a competition area, although many times the organizer has already put much of the logistical planning in place.

The late Judy Thayer, Cross-country director at Fair Hill, agonizing over a water jump design at Fair Hill International (2012) Photo by Holly Covey.

The late Judy Thayer, cross country director at Fair Hill, contemplating a water jump design at Fair Hill International in 2012. Photo by Holly Covey.

Most of us today compete at established facilities, many of them public parks or open space, because a private landowning subset are increasingly under pressure in the event world today. Almost all of the North American FEI level eventing competitions are now held in publicly held facilities with a few exceptions. This brings a whole separate set of factors to play in designing courses. Public facilities come with restrictions on times, things and places — places that you would like to use but can’t for one reason or another even though it’s perfectly logical to go through that particular spot, or park in that nice flat space. So add those to the Course Designer’s bag of restrictions.

There are many other details that a Course Designer must pay attention to on a daily basis, whether or not they are on the grounds of an event site. There are constant rule changes and paper work to prepare, and meetings on the phone and in person with folks that need your time. The top course designers travel extensively, keeping them away from businesses and family a lot of the year. And most course designers I know are deeply involved in committee work, volunteering time to help educate young or beginning course designers, studying jump building, working closely with the builders and creators of courses, and giving input when asked on numerous details of any course they work with at any time.

In order to become a Course Designer, you need to be able to think about your courses from a rider’s perspective. Most of the top level CDs I know participated up to advanced level. Many were on teams, competed overseas, or participated in the classic format. They have all ridden and jumped at speed.

And of course there are other requirements for certification: apprenticing with approval of your mentor, working on courses and designing your own courses at low levels for quite a while before being allowed to design something recognized. Prospective CDs need to pass written tests, but also be given the OK by fellow CDs who are monitoring and educating them. And finally the association takes a look at a prospective CD’s credentials, body of work, recommendations, and attitude — yes, that is also looked at — before approval.

The physical fun of being a CD is getting to set courses that people will enjoy jumping their horses through. The mental part of it has to do with being able to deal with all the details and still make a fun course that makes the competition enjoyable for everyone.

At the large events, you have to remember, CDs need to please about 400 to 500 riders and horses in total — a pretty tough requirement. Will everyone have fun? No. Will the vast majority have fun? Yes.

What’s easy? It’s easy to design a course that everyone jumps clean. You just make everything small and boring. What’s hard? Designing a course that fairly tests a horse and rider and sorts out the competition. The essence of designing courses is that kernel of “just right” for the level that sorts out the dressage queens and show jump whizzes and brings the good jumping cross-country horse and competent rider into the ribbons.

Every CD I know is deeply concerned with the “Just Right” place in their designs. It’s the essence of what they live to do.

Another thing that good CDs are concerned with is designing courses, especially cross-country courses, “to the level.” The standards are published and available online for anyone to read.

These standards are the result of long and hard work by volunteers on committees, who observe, watch, build, create, design and officiate. It’s a living document that has regular changes, so it’s wise to check it once a year.

The beauty of eventing competition is that every event is different and unique. We have an incredibly diverse country in America, with wide ranging flora and fauna — our topography varies so widely that getting up a single set of requirements that “fits all” from the sandy soil of California all the way to the deep grass of Pennsylvania and rocky hills of New England is quite a feat. Keeping that individuality alive is what keeps many in the governing part of the sport up late at night. It is a constant thing in the back of a course designer’s mind: “What can I make or set here that keeps the standard, yet allows these folks to get around on Saturday?”

Most designers I know value the input of riders — they’ve been riders themselves — while being careful not to be unduly influenced by passion or emotion. What that means is they know that things they thought would work and hoped would work, but maybe didn’t actually work, will get addressed with absolute top priority concern and usually after the fray when all can think clearly and see the trees and the forest.

Many designers often get blamed when something doesn’t seem to work like it should and often it’s because there arises many things out of their control — the creek that was a tiny little trickle becomes a raging brook on competition day, or the dry weather bakes the ground to bulletproof, or a division of riders just happens to be all green at the level that day.

They have no control over who enters and why, just like they have no control over the weather or the tides or the stars. While controlling a course’s outcome is never assured, a CD relies heavily upon experience, even those designing lower-level courses, to try and get it “Just Right,” and there is no one more disappointed or concerned when there’s a negative result for the day.

They know the odds are stacked against them being perfect. They know even the best in the world don’t get it perfect all the time. And they know what they do is a highly responsible job that requires intimate knowledge of minute details that must be managed and corrected and fixed and set just so. On top of that, managing and directing a multitude of people to correct it and fix it, many of whom have little stake in the outcome, such as volunteers. And no one can do that perfectly right all the time. But they aspire to it.

Have you ever shuddered in horror at a “near miss” by a horse and rider who just barely squeaked over a jump or took a huge risky leap over something? What do you think? You say to yourself, “Wow, they need to get a jump lesson,” or “that horse needs better brakes,” or some other such criticism, but it doesn’t keep you up at night. It’s a mistake, everyone makes them. But a course designer sees the same situation on one of his or her courses and will immediately think, “why did that happen, what did I put as a ground line there, is the shadow too dark, is the sun blinding them, is the jump just before it too difficult or cause them to jump that way, is there a puddle, is there something I did?” They make check with the jump judge, ask the TD, watch that rider again over other jumps.

It’s a continual quest for knowledge that is always looking for the same goal, that “Just Right” place. Most CDs I know are happy to walk courses and discuss cross-country with anyone who happens by. Just ask them a question — they love to share their craft.

As a lower level competitor I never had a clue that course designer went through all that stuff. I just walked my courses, tried to figure out how to ride over them with whatever horse I entered, and when the time came to negotiate it, hoped the horse jumped it on first asking. Having the good fortune of some unicorns to ride, I learned a lot without making a huge amount of terrible mistakes, and I owe that, in retrospect, to some great, genius course designers like Trish Gilbert, Tremaine Cooper, Roger Haller, Morgan Rowsell, and a few more.

How lucky I am that I have ridden courses from designers like these, and learned  — however unknowingly — how to ride, just a bit, from the way they set up jumps in a field. And there are hundreds of competitors out there just like me. How lucky we all are that such people do what they do for us in U.S. eventing. Our world wouldn’t work without them. I know they will work harder and keep digging for answers, keep studying and learning, and keep looking for Just Right. It’s what they do.