Katharine Stancliff
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Katharine Stancliff

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What They Didn’t Teach Us in College

EN guest blogger Katharine Stancliff has often regaled us with stories of her “wonder horse”, Poppyfields Tristan. Now, she takes the time to reflect on sudden losses and life lessons. Many thanks to Katharine for sharing her blog, and thank you for reading.

The three amigos from this summer: Bear, Paco, and Tristan. Photo by Katharine Stancliff.

The three amigos from this summer: Bear, Paco, and Tristan. Photo by Katharine Stancliff.


When I was a kid, people would suggest I turn my love of horses to a veterinarian profession and I shied away from the thought. Not only did the idea of gore, needles, sticking your arms up various bits of the horses, turn me off, but there was always the calls to put horses down that made me know that a career path in medicine definitely wasn’t for me.

So instead, I opted for happier work like boarding, training, retail, and saddle fitting, thinking I’d be safer from grief except for my own horses.

Getting a bachelor’s degree helped prepare me for my career path and opened my eyes to new facets of equine care; farm design being less about aesthetics and more about ventilation, drainage, and safety.

Planning schedules for veterinary and farrier appointments, maintaining pastures, fencing, arenas, proper electrical considerations to protect against barn fires, all in the name of the safety and health of horses under our care. We learned how to recognize and treat illness and injury in horses, how to identify various lamenesses, and properly condition to prepare for competition. All in the name of safety.

But life doesn’t always follow the rules. Even if you offer the best care, top of the line service, and your client’s horses thrive under your care, tragedy can and will still strike.

Nothing we learned in school prepared me for the moment I saw that my best friend’s horse had sustained a life ending injury in a freak accident. Nothing prepared me for the panicked phone calls to local vets to get help as quickly as possible.

Nothing prepared me for telling my friend her horse had passed before she could see him. Nothing prepared me for the grief over a horse that was never mine, but had still managed to leave a huge impression on my heart.

But life goes on. The rest of the farm still needs care, the other horses need to be fed, stalls need to be cleaned. Seeing the other horses seeming to process the loss was the hardest. My horse Tristan was most closely attached to the horse we lost, and he never once called out to him. I caught Tristan gazing from his stall at the spot where he passed, but not a single whinny.

We take solace in the things we can. The injury was dealt with immediately, he wasn’t in pain for long. Nothing could have been done to foresee the accident. We are lucky to have the support of wonderful friends and family that have offered love and shoulders to lean on.

I will always live with some small amount of guilt. What if I had caught them to feed five minutes sooner? Would it have never happened? Would it have still happened but in the middle of the night under worse circumstances? We’ll never know, but I’ve been over and over it in my head enough to know I did everything I knew to protect him. It just wasn’t enough this time.

Appreciate every moment with your horses. For being such strong and graceful animals, they are so very precious and fragile.

We will be ok eventually, things will go back to normal. Life goes on. For now, there will still be some grief.

Rest in peace, Bear. Once by our side, but forever in our hearts.

Riding in the Blockhouse Steeplechase Amateur Race + Helmet Cam

Whee! Go Pony, go! Whee! Go Pony, go!

My first love is and always will be eventing. Nothing gets me going like executing a harmonious dressage test, followed by a bad ass cross country ride and polished off with a graceful stadium round. However, recent budget restraints have helped me start to think out of the eventing box to get my thrills and give me goals for exercising and training my horse.

We started with hunter paces this spring; lucky for me, moving to South Carolina has opened up a great big world of paces I never even knew existed, thanks to the urging of our horsey neighbors and the Western Carolina Hunter Pace circuit.

Hunter paces are fun, casual, usually fairly bite-sized distance rides over varied terrain and trails. If you’re preparing an event horse for show seasons, I highly recommend them as an excuse to get out in the open and just ride.

Recently, I attended a pace at the FENCE showgrounds, and as part of the course, we were directed to ride on some short sections of their steeplechase track. The foxhunters riding with me were willing to go at a good clip of gallop, so we had our own little mock race between the four of us.

Tristan immediately went into racehorse mode (weird for a 15.3-hand pony cross who’s never seen a racetrack in his life) and got super competitive with our buddies. Not crazy, definitely rideable, and a whole lot of fun.

Shortly after those little escapades, I found several posts online from the Blockhouse Steeplechase that an amateur race was open to the public for horses and ponies alike.

This was just a flat race, no fences to worry about, and especially with a money purse (not required to pique my interest, but winning is extra super fun when there’s a check involved) what did we have to lose by giving it a shot? At $50 an entry, it was a lot easier to chew than a $250 show bill for an event (not counting food, hotels, travel, etc.).

Ermahgerd. Gergles.

Ermahgerd. Gergles.

We attended several rider meetings to go over the requirements of our tack (I did have to go out and buy a racing overgirth to keep my saddle firmly in place, plus jockey goggles to help protect my eyes), how to properly condition our horses and even got to walk the track with a retired steeplechase jockey to help ensure our safety.

The group we had pulled together for the race included a husband and wife barrel racing team (veterans to the amateur racing scene with five to six starts for each of them in previous years), a trail rider looking for some fun, and a fellow English show rider.

When race day arrived, a hurdle I never anticipated became quite apparent. They had told us at the rider’s meetings that we absolutely needed to have at least one person at our stalls at all times during the race day. The reason, we soon discovered, was not to keep an eye on the horses, but to keep an eye on the many, MANY spectators in attendance.

I swear we saw several hundred people visiting our stalls, wanting to pet the horses and take pictures with them. From small children to the quite elderly, a love of horses was in the air.

Many people looked like they’d never interacted with a horse so up close and personal before, while some would ask about breeds and what disciplines we rode in. If just one little kid left with a newfound love of horses and the equestrian lifestyle, I believe our work in inspiring a new generation of horsemen and women was fulfilled.

Tristan not only tolerated all the affection, he simply hammed it up between naps and peppermints to reward him for his exceptional behavior. He gently allowed the smallest children to leave him with a nice pat on the nose and inquisitively peered into the many alcoholic beverages paraded past him by the adults. I was filled with pride by his super attitude all day.

The time finally came to head to the start, so we promptly tacked up and headed to “the paddock” to be instructed when to mount, warm up and line up for the race. After waiting all day, the moment had finally arrived to see if a Connemara/Trakehner cross could be a legitimate racehorse. And they’re off!

We may not have won, we may not have come close to winning, but I learned some new things about Tristan during this fun race! Firstly, when four horses start galloping at full speed right next to us, Superpony gets downright competitive!

My original plan was to have an easy gallop on the first uphill, let him stretch out on the down, go easy around the turn at the bottom, then let it loose on the homestretch.

That plan went out the window the second the flag went down. The closest parallel I can draw is to imagine sitting on a lit rocket, with minimal steering, absolutely ZERO brakes and no seatbelt. Plus, you’re loving every second of it as soon as you get over the sheer speed you’re traveling at. I honestly didn’t know we had that gear!

It was a bit disappointing to not stay with the big kids in the race, but we came out to have fun and try something new, and that’s exactly what we accomplished.

The bottom turn came up quickly and was quite sharp, so I preferred to use the little brakes I had to ease up around the turn and come home safe, rather than run at breakneck speed and risk falling or hurting Tristan. So we gave up our fourth place position by playing it safe.

Plus we got to enjoy the last haul to the finish line with the crowd screaming, “COME ON NUMBER 3! YOU CAN DO IT NUMBER 3!” We crossed the finish line dead last, but I had a huge smile on my face, and Tristan was ready to do another lap. (I swear, if we had another two laps on the course, we would have out-enduranced the whole lot of them!)

Still fresh and perky post- race. Photo courtesy of Eric Dierks.

Still fresh and perky post- race. Photo courtesy of Eric Dierks.

An exciting event like this truly isn’t possible without the help from all the wonderful volunteers. We were graced by the presence of the divine Annie Lane-Maunder, a fellow event rider and amazing equestrienne, who helped us all tremendously throughout the day and got us all to the start in an orderly manner.

Many volunteers were posted to man the gates and keep horses, jockeys and spectators safe and facilitate a fun and action packed day at the races.

It’s very easy to stay in your box and ride in just your favorite discipline well within your comfort zone. What I love most about event horses and riders is we create an athletic partnership based upon versatility.

It’s not enough to have excellent weightlifting and body building in dressage, or to just be a daringly bold jumper in cross country and an agile show jumper. You need to cram all those talents into one horse and rider and accomplish these incredible feats back to back in a stressful, judged environment surrounded by your peers.

Thus, we are a scrappy group of athletes capable of a great many things. Step outside your comfort zone. Do a pure dressage show against the DQs. Try some distance riding to work on your endurance and your horse’s partnership with you.

Ride in a race and feel what it’s like to go at a flat out gallop. Heck, go ride western once in a while and work some cows if it suits you. Gather those experiences and apply them back to your preferred discipline.

Tristan’s going to enjoy a couple days off to munch on a good bit of pasture while I narrow down our next challenge, whatever it may be. Until next time.

Focus and Intent

Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff. Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff.

Training horses is something not achieved in one day, one week or even one month. Achieving one’s goals is something that takes years, decades and even a lifetime to accomplish. Tristan and I have been on this path together for nearly nine years, but I have found the accomplishments from the past month to be truly remarkable in our progress.

The most recent eureka moment started at a clinic with our longtime trainer and friend Eric Dierks at the Gibbes Farm in St. Matthews, SC. We were a bit dissapointed to arrive Saturday morning and find that it was raining too hard to ride the first day, even with the sandy soil drinking it in; but Eric found a way to help us all get our money’s worth out of the weekend by throwing together an impromptu three hour lecture!

When I say three hours, Eric encouraged us to take notes, and I have seven full pages filled with ideas and wisdom he imparted to us. He covered everything under the sun, from his own personal training scale (1. Rider’s Position 2. Energy 3. Track and Straightness 4. Rhythm [made up of length of stride, tempo and cadence]), to Eric’s thoughts on why we are seeing so many horse and rider falls in the upper levels, and even why we as riders train and compete in the first place (which should be to improve the horse’s longevity and suppleness through proper development).

The biggest points he drove home during his lecture and the cross country lesson the following day was this: Focus and Intent.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, riders obviously should be focused on what they’re doing on horseback. How big of a concept could this really be? Well that’s partially true, we all focus on different things as we develop as riders. As a child, it’s pretty simple; heels down, eyes up, post on the correct diagonal, chin up, and smile!

As an adult, we get more into the details: find the correct distance, suppleness to the bit, activity and responsiveness off the leg, engage the hindquarters, etc. Sometimes we focus too much on the arbitrary goals (like I need my horse to keep his head down in front of the dressage judge, or I don’t want a bad jump in front of my trainer and all my friends at the show) and forget the overarching purpose of training and showing in the first place; to show the harmony and communication between horse and rider.

As we practiced our focus at the clinic, Eric had us warm up by all four riders in our group jumping a single vertical together following one another in a circle. Now instead of focusing on the jump, we were focused on keeping equal distance from the horse in front of and behind us on the circle and needed to be aware of our horse’s speed and track, as well as maintaining the proper energy to the base of the fence.

What this was encouraging in our riding was to care less about the actual jump, and more about our rhythm and straightness, especially the track before and after the fence. After warming up, we schooled over several different questions to challenge our focus and play with the new concepts we had discussed the previous day.

I finished the schooling with my interest piqued in the topic, but felt like we hadn’t really internalized the lesson and applied it to our riding. As we prepared for the upcoming shows at The Fork and FENCE Horse Trials, I tried to keep the idea of focus in the back of my mind.

The week before The Fork, I really felt like I was desperately in need of a dressage tune-up. I trailered over to Eric’s farm in Tryon, NC to take a lesson, and the concept of focus came up again. But what should I be focusing on in the dressage phase? Keeping Tristan from executing his flawless giraffe impression? Making good transitions happen? The movements of the test themselves?

Eric had me run through the test once without commentary and then asked me my thoughts on my ride. Frankly, it was a terrible attempt, very jerky and mechanical, difficult transitions, and low quality of gaits. But what was I doing wrong? Tristan is really quite a nice mover, why aren’t we showing it off when we perform and actual dressage test.

To fix it, Eric had me ride the same test again, but this time he talked me through it. “Ride actively to the next letter, make your circle. Pretend there’s a jump at B that you are actively riding to.” He broke down the test, movement by movement, until it was merely a geometric jump course with no fences, which encouraged us to ride energetically from movement to movement, completely focused on each individual part of the test.

We removed focus from the arbitrary “picture” of a round and pretty dressage horse, and instead intently focused on the actual training and riding at hand.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff.

The Fork

I was happy to find when schooling dressage the day before the show, Tristan was happily performing our dressage movements with suppleness and obedience I could have only dreamed of before. We performed the test the following day with one of our best rides to date, only lacking a bit of energy for true pizazz in the lengthenings.

However, when we went on to our stadium course, we got a bit drawn in to the crowd, excitement and colorful jumps, and reverted to starting out flat and running, but right around half way through, we found a good rhythm and and focused better on track and straightness to finish with just one rail down. Starting to understand the concept of focus, and how revolutionary it was going to become in our competitions, I felt like I had direction for our improvement on the cross country course.

The jumps on the Training course were fairly standard for the following day, and with nothing revolutionary to keep me up at night, I was focused on my plan of making sure to get Tristan in front of my leg early on in the course so all I would have to do is support the stride to each obstacle.

As we left the start box, I reached back to give him a nice hearty smack behind my leg with the crop to get the gas pedal started when our plan was utterly destroyed in an instant by my stupid, buttery fingers. I dropped my whip before the first fence. Oops.

Tristan is a wonderful horse and I love him dearly. However, he is a pony cross, and I have learned over the years that if a pony catches wind that you have nothing to back up what you’re telling him to do, you’ve got nothing. Tristan knew immediately that my whip was gone, and my focus immediately when to “Oh sh!t, now what.”

I had no back up plan. I tried using the end of my reins to flip over his neck like a western rider, but to no avail. What I did notice, was through the more difficult jumps (the trakehner, half coffin, and giant brush at the bottom of a hill) we were fine. I stayed focused on my track and energy, and we jumped through just perfectly.

But on more simple questions, I would lose focus on my track and had a stop at the B element of a turning question early on, as well as a log in the water when we got distracted by the rest of the water complex. Basically, this show drove home the fact that we had plenty of homework to reflect on for the following weekend at FENCE.

Photo courtesy of Katharine Stancliff.

Photo courtesy of Katharine Stancliff.

FENCE

Our plan for dressage went fairly well the last time, so I aimed to give us the same ride with more energy. Again, Tristan showed up for work, happy, supple, and willing with my improved focus of riding the test like a jump course and we were thrilled to put in one of the best rides of our lives (minus a bobble after the canter lengthening that the judge luckily didn’t look too harshly on) scoring our very first sub-30 dressage score ever with a 28.8!

Feeling strong, we moved on to cross country with my whip FIRMLY rubber banded to my finger to keep from slipping it through my hand again. Eric’s advice for this very forward uphill course? Ride like Tristan offended you. Not too difficult, I was still dissapointed in our performance from the previous weekend.

We came out of the start box, teeth gritted and determined to jump the hell out of this course. What followed was the strongest, most fluid and satisfying cross country rides of our lives. Every jump came directly out of a strong forward stride, Tristan didn’t bat an eyelash or put a foot wrong the entire course.

Instead of worrying about the perfect distance or a perfect jump, we were focused on rhythm, track and intent to the other side of the fence. We finished up with just a couple seconds of time to add to our awesome dressage score. I was very proud of our teamwork and how we had been able to execute the plan on course.

Warming up for stadium the following morning, I tried to make sure to get Tristan in front of my leg right away, but he still felt a bit sluggish and unresponsive. Eric pulled us aside and said, “Don’t just ask him to eventually get in front of you. Ride 3 or 4 strides of a strong, forward gallop, and then bring him back. Then 3 or 4 more forward strides. Keep playing with the back and forth.”

We adjusted our ride and immediately felt a huge improvement. Now the plan was to play it smart around the stadium course, and almost ride it more like a dressage test, focusing on the track before and after each fence more than getting perfect distance to each jump. Our ride wasn’t perfect, but something I gained was the ability to think through the course, just like I can now think through a dressage test.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff.

Photo courtesy of Nathan Stancliff.

The internal dialogue goes something like, “Ok that was a big jump over that oxer, let’s package the canter again around the turn. Straighten out our next line and ride the track. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, ok and now the inside turn to 4, keep up the energy into a packaged stride around the turn…” and so on, and so forth.

Previously, I would get so caught up in the course as a whole, it would be difficult to break it down jump by jump, movement by movement, but by shifting our focus internally on what makes a better round instead of, “Gee, I don’t want to look like a bad rider in front of my friends,” we ended up having more rhythmic, beautiful rounds! We finished in 2nd place with a 30.8.

The end result is this: when you go to a show focusing on things like making the judge like your horse, looking good in front of your friends/trainer/any pro riders that may also be competing, or the actual results, you lose sight of the big picture. We compete to exhibit the training we’ve worked very hard for at home.

You should be riding to show yourself you can have the same results under pressure as when you’re all alone in your own arena. Eric gave me a great phrase that I found myself repeating all weekend, “I respectfully don’t care what anyone thinks.” Stay focused on what’s really important and ride for yourself and the joy and pleasure of being with your horse. At the end of the day, nothing else really matters.

Becoming Infatuated With Rhythm

You'll remember Katharine Stancliff and her Connemara/Trakehner cross Poppyfields Tristan from the tearjerker helmet cam of their first Prelim completion. Her trainer, Eric Dierks, recently helped her have a light bulb moment about the walk, and now she's sharing the wisdom with us! Many thanks to Katharine for writing, and thanks for reading.

Eric and I at the Gibbes Farm for schooling. Photo by Nathan Stancliff. Eric and I at the Gibbes Farm for schooling. Photo by Nathan Stancliff.

I recently was watching my trainer, Eric Dierks, as he worked with one of his up-and-coming competition horses, Monty. I was astounded at how much time and patience he was able to spend at the walk in his warm up. He took Monty for a nice walk around the fields, up and down hills, then came into the arena and spent more time on circles, changes of direction, and collecting and lengthening the walk.

Being a bright young thing, Monty would occasionally leap about, wiggle instead of going straight and generally try to talk Eric out of working. In response, Eric would just sit quietly as if nothing had happened and continue asking Monty to walk. This went on for at least an hour before they moved on to a bit of trot and a short canter set before ending the workout. Even though the work hadn’t been very “fast,” Monty came back to the barn steaming from head to toe and exhausted.

I made a comment to Eric about how I couldn’t believe the level of patience he possessed to focus on such a (let’s face it) boring gait. Wouldn’t he rather be trotting, cantering, galloping or jumping? The answer he gave really made me reevaluate my mindset while riding (FYI I’m paraphrasing): “I was waiting for him to find his rhythm and balance at the walk before we moved onto the trot, then find his rhythm at the trot before we cantered. Once we had consistent results during all three gaits, the session was finished.”

During the several lessons I’ve had with Eric since that lesson, he rounded out the idea of rhythm for me. Just like the phrase “no hoof, no horse,” if the horse’s gait is not rhythmic, he is also out of balance. Instead of hopping on, pulling on his mouth until you achieve a false headset and heading into the dressage ring, more beneficial results can be gained by, as Eric puts it, “becoming infatuated with rhythm.” 

If the horse raises his head, that’s not him telling the rider to shove it where the sun don’t shine; instead he’s saying “hey mom, I’m having trouble finding my balance right now, can you help me out?” Maybe the horse is shuffling forward in a quick walk because his back isn’t properly warmed up and needs the rider to help him slow down the tempo and relax. Maybe the horse is dragging his toes and drudging along because he’s waiting for the rider to find her intent and lead him on to the next goal.

Once you shift the focus from the end goal — a soft and responsive horse on the bit — to the horse’s actual rhythmic footfalls, it’s amazing how much changes in the quality of work.

To achieve more productive training sessions, I began to ask myself certain questions in the warm up. What is the horse’s current rhythm? If I quicken or slow his tempo, does he fall out of balance? If he does, can I help him regain it by a supportive straightening aid or slight suppling inside bend?

Am I using too many aids and need to quiet down my body to just move with the horse? Do I have clear intent of where I want to go and how quickly I’d like to get there that I’m communicating clearly to my horse? Can I change directions without him falling out of balance? Do I have a trot ready to move immediately off my leg within this walk?

After trying to understand the walk with more depth, I was amazed to find how much time I spent warming up and analyzing my horse’s rhythm. Even for a Prelim horse coming back from winter vacation, I’ve found that my horse spends a considerable amount of time needing my help to balance and greatly benefits from longer sessions at the walk before continuing on to other work.

I love just being able to focus on relaxing in the saddle, feeling Tristan’s four-beat gait at the walk and trying my best to tune in together so we are both walking in the same mindset. Thanks to Eric, I am becoming increasingly infatuated with rhythm every day!