Rachael Walker
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Rachael Walker

Achievements

About Rachael Walker

Hi, my name is Rachael, and I am an eventer. I have been addicted for nearly ten years now, and it doesn’t seem like there’s much hope for recovery. Right now my main ride is a 7-year-old fireball mare named Lili, who is a rescue I picked up when she was 1 1/2 years old. We just completed our first Training level this fall, and scored our first NQR! Love this brave little girl. I own, operate and occasionally curse at a 50-acre farm with my husband. We raise pastured livestock including (but never limited to!) sheep, cattle, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and the requisite cats, dogs, goats and one totally useless mini-mule.

Eventing Background

USEA Rider Profile Click to view profile
Area 4
Highest Level Competed Training
Farm Name Walker Farms

Latest Articles Written

Mornings With Ike

Ike, me, latte. Early morning perfection. Ike, me, latte. Early morning perfection.

As a shoestring eventer, I’m always looking for ways to enhance my tiny competition budget, and I’ve found that braiding at shows is a fun way to earn a little extra cash. I get to know my fellow competitors and their ponies in the process, and many of them use me for braiding regularly.

One of the horses I’ve had the privilege of getting ot know is Ike. Ike is a 25-year-old Dutch warmblood who has been shown through Intermediare 1. He is currently leased and ridden by an adult amateur named Barbara, who has shown him PSG and I-1. To me, Ike is a sweet-faced old man who tolerates me early in the mornings on show weekeds. He stands patiently at 6 a.m. while I braid him up and never begs for his breakfast, which I feed him when we’re done.

The best face to see early in the morning.

The best face to see early in the morning.

You don’t have to hang out with Ike for very long to figure out that he knows more than the rest of us. He has been showing PSG and I-1 since 2001 with various riders; he is the consummate schoolmaster. Ike can pull out flying changes, pirouettes, collection and extension.

He understands what it means when I pull my braiding step up next to his neck and thread my yarn needle. Everybody who knows Ike has a special place in their heart for him, practically reveres him. The amount of respect people have for this horse is overwhelming.

There is a reason his owner will never sell him. In the words of Ike’s current lessee, Barbara, “Ike is a true schoolmaster. His training is impeccable. He is very tolerant and forgiving of me, his older amateur rider (I am 64.) He is fun to ride and a great teacher. But best of all, he is a nice guy.  If he could be potty trained, I’d let him live in the house. Hanging out with Ike – just hand grazing or grooming – is pleasant and companionable. He loves his showers, and loves to have his face rubbed with a wet towel. He is a big fan of apples.”

A work in progress.

A work in progress.

This is Ike. Yes, he is talented; yes, is is trained to a very high level in dressage. But Ike is like a gentleman in his later years of life — if you listen closely, he imparts his own kind of wisdom that has nothing to do with showing or scores or ribbons. My mornings with Ike are truly special.

I’m only one small person in his grand life, and my part in it is pretty insignificant. But even in those brief morning moments we share, Ike has had an impact on my life. I always take extra care with his braids to make sure the old man comes out as shining as possible.

Making Ike's soccer balls as perfect as possible.

Making Ike’s soccer balls as perfect as possible.

I love coming to the show grounds before dawn, pulling in with the rising sun and a steaming latte, clicking the clasp on my braiding belt and threading a new strand of cord, and seeing Ike’s curious eyes and floppy lip appear around the stall door. Ike’s eyes reflect a younger self, mischevious and quizzical, and in the hour I spend with him while the sun comes over the horizon we talk about any topic that comes to mind.

The master himself enjoying a well-deserved breakfast.

The master himself enjoying a well-deserved breakfast.

 

He gets a lot of neck scratches and wither rubs. He gets a large piece of love from me, in addition to so many other people in his life. He deserves it.

These are my mornings with Ike.

True Grit

I event a mare. A young mare. She is wonderful, impatient, ballsy, quirky, intelligent, athletic, sensitive — the list goes on. Last year, when she was 7, we made it to Training level (with a few bumps along the way), and got our first NQR.

Then we had a few decades of winter, something like a mini-ice age — typical for Wisconsin. And after a solid 7 months in an indoor without a blade of grass in sight, we started out this spring with two Novice level events. I have some amazing help in the form of a few trainers, and after July’s Novice event my mare and I were rolling up to last weekend’s Training debut like a purring diesel engine.

The beast herself, ready for some cross country action.

The beast herself, ready for some cross country action.

My trainer Allie and I traveled, together with our two bay rescue mares Lili and Lucy, in my rig to Catalpa Corner Charity Horse Trials in Iowa City, IA. We rode the night before the competition around the gorgeous grounds with a blazing sunset silhouetting our mares’ lovely, relaxed frames. We met up with old friends, chatted it up with new ones, inflated the air mattress and tucked ourselves in the trailer’s tack room for the night.

Dressage came early for both of us the next morning, with cross country following very quickly after. Allie went out Prelim on her mare first and brought in a double clear (whoop!), and within half an hour I was warming up.

Everybody needs Superman sparkles on XC day!

Everybody needs Superman sparkles on XC day!

Warm-up felt okay. Lili was jumping pretty well, I was feeling nervous but without that edge of needing to puke or flee. I spent a minute and a half wandering in and out of the start box . . . and Lili came out of it already backing off the first jump. A simple log. Her eyes were everywhere but the fence and I could feel how far they were bugging out of her head. She fishtailed to the log and jumped it like something was going to reach up and grab her legs. Oh, lord.

I don’t know this horse. The mare underneath me at the start of that course was not the mare that has spent the last four years dragging me to fences. She is not the mare that all of my trainers have been helping me teach how to wait. She is not the ball-busting, eat-it-up cross country machine I had three weeks ago at our last competition. This mare is scared. She is nervous. And suddenly, so am I.

We made it over four fences. At fence 5A there was a stop, a flash of big bay ears, and a bang, and then I was sitting on the mushroom coop with my legs sticking out in front of me and my air vest inflated, listening to the jump judge radio ‘rider fall’ as I unbuckled the reins to extricate them from the running martingale. Eventing at its finest.

Airbag of shame. I poofed.

Airbag of shame. I poofed.

Fast forward. Through the long walk back, all of the extraordinary folks who asked if I was okay, sympathized without judging me, poured me a drink and handed me a cupcake. Eventing is really filled with amazing people.

One of Catalpa's many gorgeous XC jumps. Schooling success on day two!

One of Catalpa’s many gorgeous XC jumps. Schooling success on day two!

The next day I went out on the course schooling with Allie. The organizers were so kind and offered free schooling to those of us whose weekends went unexpectedly awry. We warmed up, got a few kinks straightened out, and started the course again. Fences 1, 2, 3 and 4 were great. Fence 5A was the 24-hours-later replay of the day before, and off I went again.

Confidence level? Somewhere between ‘don’t-cry-you-weenie’ and ‘I’m-not-getting-back-on’. I don’t typically fall. I have decent stickability and take lessons to keep improving my form and function, and usually my mare is very honest, so falling is not something that factors into my normal routine. Twice in two days at the same fence sucked the bottom out of my bravery.

Fences 5A and 5B were a rounded coop on a diagonal line down, across a little stream, and back up to a corner.

I got back on. I re-approached to the coop. I listened to everything Allie was calling to me as we cantered, straightened, and headed for the jump. I gritted my teeth so hard I probably nearly bit my tongue off. I held my core just as much in an effort to kill the butterflies as in an effort to stay on top of my damned saddle. I pushed the voice screaming ‘I don’t wan’t to!’ to a corner of my brain and snugged my legs around Lili’s barrel. I may have even been brave enough to keep my eyes open.

She sailed over. I think I started breathing again. There was a lot of neck rubbing going on.

We jumped the corner alone after that, then put the line together. Suddenly I had my mare back, and she was gunning for the fences again. Allie coached me through the rest of the course, some of which was easy and some a bit trickier. In the back was a max-everything table with brush on top that tested the depth of my newfound (if somewhat shaky) confidence. Lili earned her carrots and I earned my ice cream at that fence.

Clearing the enormous brushbox, earning our stripes out schooling.

Clearing the enormous brushbox, earning our stripes out schooling.

I learned a lot this last weekend. So did my fabulous mare. I learned some things about how far I can push myself, about real determination and facing fear. I found a lot more grit than I thought I had.

And I’m about to learn how to re-pack an airvest.

Fences 5A and B at Catalpa Corner Charity Horse Trials.

Go determination. Go Eventing.

Hay!

Waiting for the tractor to come pick me up.

Waiting for the tractor to come pick me up.

Tis the season: that time of year when the weatherman predicts four or five dry days in a row and, in a flurry of activity, I’m cross-referencing about six other weather sites while my husband greases the cutter and runs out to buy extra twine.

Haying season. Baling season. Don’t-get-in-the-house-til-11-pm-hope-you-premade-dinner season. Between the two farms we own and three fields we rent, the hubby and I run about 60+ acres of hay.

Most of it in small squares that need a good deal of TLC to make it into the hayloft in a timely manner, stacked nicely and awaiting that dreaded “s”-word come winter.

Hundreds of square meals, ready to be packed away in the hayloft!

Hundreds of square meals, ready to be packed away in the hayloft!

Over the years I’ve become more hay-season savvy. Every year we put hay down and, without fail, my husband panics the next day, convinced the hay isn’t going to dry in time, or there might be a rainstorm — which is when I encourage him to do a little day-drinkin’ and try to pull him off the ledge.

Inevitably, the day after that the hay is dry and ready or nearly-ready to bale and he begins breathing normally again (well, at least until something breaks on the tractor or baler).

Farmyard full of work.

Farmyard full of work.

Apart from the inevitable stacking in the end, my jobs are usually tedding and raking. For the uninitiated, tedding means flipping/flinging/throwing the hay around with a machine to spread it back on the field for further drying.

We recently purchased a tedder, which has cut down on hubby’s stroke-like symptoms, as it can cut an entire day off drying time of a hay field. When he brought it home, he informed me that it’s an Italian design, and was thus dubbed (by yours truly) to be the ‘Italian Eggbeater’.

The 'Italian Eggbeater' and I are up to some serious hay-flinging!

The ‘Italian Eggbeater’ and I are up to some serious hay-flinging!

Tedding is the best job EVER, because there’s no pressure to do anything in straight lines, make even rows, or even drive in any particular pattern. It’s the perfect job for an ADD-afflicted eventer like myself.

I love taking ‘my’ tractor, an Allis WD narrow front named Flash Gordon, down the road and spending an afternoon or evening in the field with some good tunes on my headset, flinging hay around to my heart’s content.

Flash Gordon and me! Dressed perfectly appropriately in breeches and a Walker Farms Eventing tee.

Flash Gordon and me! Dressed perfectly appropriately for tractor-driving in breeches and a Walker Farms Eventing tee.

Typically Flash and I will also help rake hay, and during baling my job is to drive hay racks from farm to field and back again, in a slow, one-woman parade down our country road with trucks, tractors and wagons.

Most of the work, from cutting all the way to stacking in the hay mow, is done solely by my husband and I, though sometimes we rope unsuspecting neighbors and friends into helping by promising things like ice cream or beer when we’re through.

Most poor people don’t realize that ‘quitting time’ on a farm is a very vague, normally late concept. Haying season is full of late nights, missed meals, frantic wagon unloading, and emergency runs to the hardware/auto parts/tire repair stores.

Single-handedly keeping the ice cream business going during haying season.

Single-handedly keeping the ice cream business going during haying season.

And at the end of it all? The rewards, in addition to a full hay mow, bulging biceps and an awesome tan, is a field absolutely MADE for galloping. Give me a mare who can’t wait to hit 650 mpm and a smooth, freshly cut track and I’m in heaven.

The PERFECT gallop spot.

The PERFECT gallop spot.

Spring Fever: Lambing Edition

Meet Charm. Possibly the new love of my life. Meet Charm. Possibly the new love of my life.

Springtime on a farm usually means babies, and in my case, it’s lambs. Teeny, tiny baby sheeps whose squeaky ‘baaa’s can keep me mesmerized for hours at a time.

Over the years I’ve gone from the ‘oh-my-god-what-am-I-doing?’ approach to lambing to ‘I-have-a-kit-ready-in-the-barn-BRING-IT!’. And yet, I still manage to get caught in the wrong pants sometimes.

The ovine maternity ward.

The ovine maternity ward.

Our ‘ladies’ (ie – the 22 enormously, uncomfortably pregnant ewes) have been looking like they may lamb at any moment for a couple of weeks now, keeping my husband and I both on the edge of our seats doing late-night and early-morning checks. And for several weeks our frequent flock checks were met with quiet, cud-chewing sheep who were decidedly NOT giving birth.

Last weekend I rode in a dressage clinic, and on Sunday I put on my flashy new breeches, belted in my shirt and made a valiant ‘DQ’ effort to look pretty and put-together. Upon arriving home, I unloaded my mare and turned her out so she could have a good roll and talk to her boyfriend. And then I made a mistake – I went to do flock check BEFORE changing out of my pretty, shiny new breeches.

One of our original ‘Fab Four’ ewes was far enough into labor for two miniature cloven feet to have made an appearance. I put her in a lambing pen and gave her some space and time, eventually gloving up to give what ended up being a fairly large single ram lamb a little pull on the way out. Within ten minutes he was standing, bleating, nursing, and waving his little tail.

I hung a water bucket, fluffed some fresh straw bedding, gave his mom another flake of hay . . . and looked down to see all kinds of unidentifiable birthing fluids in various Picasso-esque splashes on the aforementioned sparkly new breeches. Maybe time to put a pair of scrubs in the lambing kit?

Still wet and a little floppy.

Still wet and a little floppy.

Three days later I was smart enough to actually put ON the pair of scrubs to help our oldest ewe, Lula, with her twins. She has a dropped uterus, so has a hard time pushing and does better with a little ovine obstetric assistance. In my scrubs, Airwalks, and shoulder-length AI glove, I made a strange-looking but VERY enthusiastic sheep midwife.

The plan was to deliver Lula’s tiny bundles and then take my mare to the field for gallop day (!). When the twins were delivered, breathing, flopping around like frogs trying to stand for the first time, and being zealously scrubbed over by their mom’s tongue, I figured it was time to change into breeches and grab the stud kit.

Lula and I. This baby thing requires some serious concentration.

Lula and I. This baby thing requires some serious concentration.

On the way back to the house I detoured around to pass by the sheep pen one more time . . . and noticed another ewe fairly far into labor. More tiny feet! My mare was standing just on the other side of the fence, which made a somewhat ironic tableau.

Playing the waiting game's not so bad in this weather.

Playing the waiting game’s not so bad in this weather.

I plonked myself in the hay to play the waiting game. and after about 45 minutes it was pretty clear something was a little stuck. This particular ewe is a bit more skittish, so there was some roping involved (note to self: time to brush up on roping skillz).

Once the ewe was installed in her lambing pen and another glove was attached to my arm, all that was needed was a little rearrangement of one front leg to bring everything around into alignment and within ten minutes there was another set of twins on the ground. The level of pint-sized baa-ing going on in the ovine maternity ward right then would have made even the toughest cowboy swoon.

Baby baaaa.

Baby baaaa.

I grudgingly peeked at the rest of the flock out of one eye. I was momentarily panicked by one gigantic ewe laying in a funny position, but in the next moment she burped up a ball of cud and started chewing away, so I took off for the house at about 150 mpm, shucked my encrusted scrubs directly into the washing machine and jumped into my breeches on the fly out the door.

Being born is awfully hard work.

Being born is awfully hard work.

Within half an hour I was out in the hay field on my mare, doing more like 450 mpm in the glorious sunshine with the wind whistling past our faces. Laughing. There were several tiny, healthy lambs and their satisfied moms back in my 140-year-old barn, snug under heat lamps and cuddled up in some fluffy piles of straw.

The Wisconsin winter had faded away to the kind of spring day that infuses high spirits in everyone, and my girl and I were both riding the crest of the wave across that hay field.

The first baby out exploring his new world:

We Do It For the Horses

My first eventer, Rabbit. My first eventer, Rabbit.

Five years ago, I lost my first eventer to colic. I was home alone on a cold January day when he rolled, got up, pawed and rolled again. Within 10 minutes he was down and there was nothing I could do to get him up. Waiting that interminable 20 minutes for the vet was starting to send me over the edge, so in a panic I called one of my best friends. She turned up in a flash wearing her best pea coat, nice pants, good shoes. Clearly, she’d jumped in her car without even taking the time to change.

My first eventer, Rabbit.

My first eventer, Rabbit.

When the vet did show up, the three of us managed to haul him to his feet so the vet could sedate and tube him. We frog-marched him around and around the driveway, each holding onto a different piece of horse, tubing, oil jug and lead rope. Blood, oil and sweat marked our passage in the white snow.

Five hours later, the horse was down in the arena, the vet had come back from another call and my throat was so closed up, all I could do was nod my final assent. I looked over at my friend, who by now was filthy in her decidedly non-barn clothes, and thought how lucky I was to have somebody drop everything for me when I needed it.

Enjoying our time together.

Enjoying our time together.

Fast forward to last week. I was home alone for four days, my husband gone on a work trip. A student and friend had texted me to say her horse was colicking asked if I would send some good vibes. I assured her she was at the front of my thoughts and sent my hopes that the horse would quickly recover. At 8 p.m. that night my phone rang. My student asked if I had a stock trailer and if I’d be willing to transport her horse to the university’s equine hospital for treatment.

I think it’s fair to say I’ve never driven faster with a trailer than that night on the way to her barn. By some miracle, we got the horse up and, between a team of half a dozen people armed with whips, plastic bags, voices and lots of ‘hup’-ing and clapping, sent her into my trailer and shut the door. The drive to the U was something straight out of a movie — the first thunderstorm of the season had just broken over our heads as darkness fell, so we made the trip in the pouring rain, thunder and lightning under an inky black sky. The fuel light on my truck flashed on just as we pulled into the unloading zone at the equine hospital.

Despite the best docs on call, the mare was unable to be saved. Autopsy revealed two holes in her diaphragm, believed to have been there since birth. It would seem her intestines had become lodged in her lungs and were unable to get back. When it was all over, I made it back home sometime after 1 a.m.

The mare my friend lost.

The mare my friend lost.

The next day my friend messaged me to say thanks, again, and ask what she owed me for my time and fuel. I told her nothing. Someone once did much the same for me, dropping everything at a moment’s notice to do everything in her power to help when she knew I couldn’t do it alone. It wasn’t even a question that, given the chance, I would do the same.

It’s what you do for friends, for the people in your horse community.” I told her, “You do it for others, they do it for you, and we all do it for the horses.”

Dom Schramm in Minnesota: An Organizer’s Perspective

This past weekend Dom Schramm came to Minnesota (Go Area IV!) to teach a group of enthusiastic, beginning-of-the-season riders at the University of Minnesota’s Leatherdale Center. As the clinic organizer, this was by far the largest event I had ever attempted to pull off; the worry surrounding this was definitely proven by some of my late-night, wine-induced emails to two VERY helpful assistants.

After the flurry of scheduling, rescheduling, last-minute panicked driving around to get a working sound system up and running, and a few eleventh hour stabling crises, I had to rush across town to pick up Dom from the airport.

Five lanes of honking, squealing, merging-without-signals, yelling traffic later, I hit the hazards on my little VW Bug, waved to Dom at curbside pickup, threw his bag in the back and him in the front, and peeled out of the airport feeling like I had just kidnapped the poor man. Let the madness begin!

Those of you who have attended a larger clinic know how much of a whirlwind it can be, and as the organizer and head come-to-me-if-you-have-a-problem person, the whirlwind felt, at times, more like a cyclone. Are we in Minnesota anymore, Toto?

The first group in the arena!

The first group in the arena!

Set-up Friday night was great, as some of my riders graciously lent a hand to put out pretty much every pole and standard available to us in a dizzying array of footwork and striding exercises. Saturday morning we were back at the barn early, me making coffee and answering last-minute questions, Dom putting the finishing touches on the exercises he was using for the riders that day.

I opened the gates of the indoor arena to our first group of riders, and we were ready for take-off. It was a heady feeling, watching this clinic that I’d been working on since January hit zero hour. Things were mostly out of my hands now, but Dom ran that clinic like the professional that he is.

Every session ran on time, and Dom was great about bringing the best out of each individual horse and rider without getting stuck on any one at the expense of the others in the group. He spent time answering questions, writing up fitness plans, taking selfies with the riders, and talking some of the more nervous riders into a place where they found confidence.

Selfie with Dom! Photo courtesy of Jen Selvig.

Selfie with Dom! Photo courtesy of Jen Selvig.

The exercises were tough, especially for us waaaaay up northerners just coming out of hibernation, but as I watched I was impressed at how everybody, from the Starter Novice group up to the established Prelim riders, tackled everything enthusiastically and made progress through the weekend.

Dom has a great way of bringing things back when ‘the wheels fall off’, taking a moment to just quiet the horse and rider before beginning again. The very Aussie ‘no worries!’ echoed throughout the weekend, putting everybody at ease and creating an atmosphere that invited people to try, to not be afraid of making mistakes, and to learn.

Dom chat with a riders about her goals and plans for the season.

Dom chat with a riders about her goals and plans for the season.

Saturday’s exercises started off with two seemingly innocuous ground poles, five strides apart along the long side. Of course, riders were asked to put in 4, 5, 6, 7, and even 9 strides in some cases. The sessions moved along to include five bounces on a curve, three jumps on a half-circle that were two or three strides apart, depending on what Dom called out as the rider was heading towards the first, and two skinny fill-blocks with arches cut out of the bottom.

Dom looks on as a rider navigates part of a course.

Dom looks on as a rider navigates part of a course.

I didn’t even have to ask for feedback — a peek through Facebook that night showed exactly how everybody was feeling:

  • “What a fun and positive clinic!”
  • “Dom was constructive, positive and funny!”
  • “We did a lot of awesome technical exercises that really made us both think.”
  • “I really enjoyed this clinic. I’m looking forward to Dom coming back this summer.”
  • “Can’t wait until the next one!”

Sunday was far less panic-inducing for me, after the relatively smooth success of Saturday, and I watched the first group go in without my heart feeling like it was going to fly right out of my chest. The sessions Sunday were more course-oriented, with some tricky lines and Dom insisting on riders getting the strides he asked for, changing up striding in the bending lines to create flexibility in the canter.

Dom was always quietly insistent that riders get it right, and if that meant schlepping poles around to create a tunnel block the left or right side of a jump to encourage straightness, putting apex poles in an oxer, or hefting cavalletti over to an exercise to encourage a horse to jump rounder, Dom was willing to put in the work to help the horses and riders succeed.

Dom walks out the distance for placement poles to help a rushing horse slow the canter.

Dom walks out the distance for placement poles to help a rushing horse slow the canter.

Many groups Sunday also worked over a liverpool, and Dom’s took the time to explain his step-by-step approach for teaching not only liverpools, but any strange, scary, or difficult obstacle. He emphasized that it’s always OK to go back and break something down into smaller steps when a horse is having difficulty understanding the whole picture.
More than one rider was apprehensive about heading over the liverpool, but every horse jumped it within a few minutes when presented with the smaller pieces that encouraged relaxation in both the horse and rider.
Putting the pieces together at the liverpool.

Putting the pieces together at the liverpool.

Minnesota will, happily, be host to Dom twice more this season, at Woodloch Stable in Hugo in July and September. I know many riders who are already looking forward to the next clinic installment, including me as I’ll get to ride!
Organizing a clinic of this magnitude definitely had its high moments, like watching Dom greet the first group and knowing the baby you’ve been slaving over for months has finally come to fruition, and its low moments, like mucking out stalls after people have left and forgotten to do so, and this one had some strange moments, like being called away to help get a lamb unstuck from a feeder in the livestock barns at the University. A
And it definitely had its satisfying moments, most memorably Sunday night’s celebratory burgers and local brews before Dom’s flight took off, the two of us clinking our ‘cheers’ to a job well done.

Auditing the High Performance Training Sessions in Sunny Florida

This way? That way? David O'Connor and Liz Halliday-Sharp decide which jumps to tackle. Photo by Rachael Walker. This way? That way? David O'Connor and Liz Halliday-Sharp decide which jumps to tackle. Photo by Rachael Walker.

This post should probably be subtitled “The two days I spent stalking David O’Connor.” I am a self-admitted auditor-a-holic. I love watching a clinician teach an array of riders for an entire day or weekend. I will jump crew until my arms fall off to be close enough to hear every word.

So when the list went up with the High Performance training session dates, I thought: “Here it is! The excuse I’ve been waiting for to get out of the frozen Wisconsin tundra and fly somewhere warm!” Not to mention, two days of getting to watch our nation’s top riders train with DOC. Hello, Priceline!

David looks on as Marilyn navigates a corner.

David O’Connor looks on as Marilyn Little navigates a corner. Photo by Rachael Walker.

I arrived at Meredyth South in Ocala on day one of the training sessions, armed with my chair; my camera; and a backpack full of snacks, notebook, sunglasses, water bottle, extra pens and phone. The only thing I was missing was a sign plastered to my forehead reading “Tourist From the Great White North!” — although that sign probably would have been redundant.

I found David teaching Julie Richards in the dressage ring, where he greeted me warmly (and proceeded to answer the many questions I threw at him throughout the training sessions). And from there we took off, spending two days running between the dressage ring, cross country field, stadium ring and Longwood South’s covered indoor after the rain got to be too much on Tuesday. In the afternoons, Silvio Mazzoni was up in the jumper ring, which was a treat to watch.

My pink sneaker were happy to spend an afternoon in the Florida sunshine!

My pink sneakers were happy to spend an afternoon in the Florida sunshine! Photo by Rachael Walker.

There are many take-aways from any clinic: nuggets of wisdom from the instructor that resonate with you; observing the riding styles and effectiveness of any given rider; watching a trainer make changes in a horse and rider; and, at times, seeing things that the trainer tries out that don’t work for a particular pair.

It’s educational to watch the clinician, rider and horse work through exercises that are more routine and see how the instructor handles bigger issues that crop up when a horse or rider is stuck.

This particular clinic was fantastic both in how it was special and different, but also in how it was the same as any other clinic. Many of the exercises, key concepts and phrases David repeated through the lessons weren’t anything different from what most instructors are doing with students day in and day out. Newsflash: It really is all about the outside rein. And even our top riders sometimes struggle to get their bodies to be in the right places at the right times.

But, even though there was nothing too earth-shattering going on — there was. When Silvio asked a rider to put 6, 7 or 8 strides in a given line, they did. Immediately. These riders know how to put a horse where they want it and adjust accordingly.

Buck joked on Tuesday that he was just prepping for Badminton.

Buck Davidson joked on Tuesday that he was just prepping for Badminton. Photo by Rachael Walker.

The riders’ level of attention to detail is part of what makes them as good as they are. Whereas a rider like me will have a lesson that is all about trying to get eight #!$% strides in that combination, it was routine for every rider I watched.

When David asked for a rider to put a horse low, go from collected to medium to collected within a shoulder-in or haunches-in or execute a flying change, it happened. The level of precision and detail displayed by these riders is what we should all be striving for.

There were moments I’ll be taking back to my own students, like when David and Liz Halliday-Shap had a great discussion about placement of a serpentine and, after Liz tried breaking things down into algebra (“That would be geometry, Liz,” says David. “Don’t make me do math at all!” she retorts), David got out his little orange cones and put out “gates” for Liz to ride through so that they were both clear of the place on the sides of the ring where the serpentine would touch.

I live for orange cones. And now none of my students have to feel inadequate, because the horse and rider pair utilizing the cones at that particular moment are aiming for Rolex this spring and riding with the U.S. team’s chef d’equipe.

David whips out his cones as Liz Halliday looks on.

David O’Connor whips out his cones as Liz Halliday-Sharp looks on. Photo by Rachael Walker.

Both David and Silvio repeatedly asked for riders to soften the horse, then allow the stretch in the neck. Many riders were told to press their hands/elbows slightly forward, to supple and then release, to let the horse stretch into the contact — in both dressage and jumping. Both coaches frequently asked riders to give the horse a pat. Both used exercises to get a rider turning with the outside rein, and both asked for precision as well as relaxation in riding.

My personal horse is a sometimes tricky, hot little mare, and there was something I watched many riders do that made an impression on me. Inevitably, riders would get to “that spot” with their horses — the one where the horse is amped to jump, wound by the environment or whatever it is and starts to have a bit of a meltdown. Or, as my one trainer puts it, “the wheels fall off.”

Liz practicing her serpentine.

Liz Halliday-Sharp practices serpentines. Photo by Rachael Walker.

Every rider I watched took a moment, a time-out of sorts, to release the reins, rub the horse’s neck and basically say, “It’s OK, you’re all right,” before picking the reins back up and restarting.

We all know how frustrating these moments can be, and, as competitive human beings, our instinct is often to “push through it.” But by allowing the horse to take a 5- or 10-second breath, get a little scratch and a rub, and re-set his mind, riders were then able to pick back up and start again with a horse that was in a better head space.

David and Silvio catching up.

David O’Connor and Silvio Mazzoni catching up. Photo by Rachael Walker.

It’s great to belong to a sport where the horses aren’t seen just as machines, and time was taken with each horse over the two-day clinic to make sure the exercises were appropriate and helpful and that the horse came away feeling good about his or her work.

I was greeted warmly by all of the riders, as well as David and Silvio (obvious as it was that I was the Wisconsin tourist acting like a kid in a candy store); kindly chauffeured around in David’s golf cart when we had to travel a long ways; and spent two great afternoons moving jumps for Silvio. My overall impression was that this is a great group of people working together to get the best out of their horses.

Ahhhh, Florida!

Ahhhh, Florida! Photo by Rachael Walker.

And the Florida sunshine didn’t hurt, either. I mean, palm trees around the water complex. Palm trees!

Go Florida. Go Eventing.

 

Some Days You Gotta Dance

These girls are set for the cold! Hiding out behind the all-you-can-eat buffet.

These girls are set for the cold! Hiding out behind the all-you-can-eat buffet.

At our farm, all the creatures live outside, with (of course) access to shelters of various shapes and sizes to accommodate the critters of various shapes and sizes. So when the polar vortex comes knocking, there is a flurry of activity to prepare — every pen gets new hay bales, water tanks all get topped up, extension cords checked, new bedding laid down. The hope is not to have to start a tractor, open a hydrant, carry a hose, or fix any electrical problems while it’s 10, 20 or 30 below zero.

Polar nostrils.

Polar nostrils.

So when the last cold one hit, and the temps were forecasted to drop to around -20, my hubby and I had spent the last “warm” day doing all the aforementioned chores. The morning the vortex swirled in, I pulled, zipped, laced, stuffed and wrapped myself and headed out to feed. My husband’s family was staying with us for Christmas, and that morning was to be present opening (the idea of which excited my 4- and 6-year-old niece and nephew to no end).

Dressed for success!

Dressed for success!

Here it comes; Murphy’s Law. Because it was 20 below, because we had family and plans for the morning, because horses are horses … as I walked out the door, I noticed the occupants of the front two paddocks engaged in a game of “touch me! touch me!” over the fence. As I watched in what can only be described as “frozen” horror, one of the old geldings put his front feet over the electric fence tape and dragged the entire thing backwards. There went all my little plastic insulators …  *pop*   *pop*   *pop*   *splinter*

Thankfully, fence tape is a forgiving beast, and no ponies were harmed in the destroying of my fence. But the fat pony in the adjacent paddock saw his opportunity and was through the new opening like a shot, cantering around in not his paddock like a kid at recess, practically sticking his tongue out at me.  Oh, naughty pony.

I think at this point my vocabulary shrunk down to only the four-letter words. I nailed that pony with a death glare and shouted something halfway intelligible at him that included phrases like “pony shish kebabs.” He must have caught my drift, because the mischievous light in his eyes turned to white-rimmed panic as he frantically ran the fence line looking for his gateway to safety. I gotta say, when properly motivated, that pony has some nice hops! He made a beautiful little foxhunter leap back into his rightful home.

Faced with about 75 feet of broken, downed, needs-repair-immediately fence line, I clumped to the barn to retrieve my fencing tub of goodies, tromped across the farm to pull the plug on the electricity to the fence, muttered some more into my facemask about so-and-so horses and ponies with no respect for what a windchill factor of -30 can do to a poor girl’s cheeks — and then I grabbed the most important tool of all: my iPod. With all my favorite Latin men on board — Enrique, Pitbull, Juanes, Ricky … hola, boys.

Most of the time around the farm you’ll find me with one earbud plugged in. Chores take on a distinctly Zumba-ish feel. There’s not much that makes mundane or repetitive chores go faster than a good soundtrack, and that frozen morning, I had a good one. Appropriately jamming along to “Bailando,” “Livin’ la Vida Loca,” “Fireball,” “Mala Gente” (though I thought “Mala Caballos” might be more appropriate … ) and “No Pare La Fiesta,” free to sing along as loud as I wanted through my face mask, I had the fence back up before my cheeks had even lost all their feeling. I think all the dancing probably helped keep the blood flowing, too.

The two completely unashamed fence-destroyers enjoying an afternoon nap, later that day.

The two completely unashamed fence-destroyers enjoying an afternoon nap, later that day.

There is something very satisfying about completing a job that has a tangible outcome. Call me simple, but I think those blue-collar, do-it-with-your-hands, take-nothing-and-make-something jobs leave you with the best feeling of accomplishment. By the time I had the fence back together, clicking along with electricity, tools tucked away and ponies now calmly eating hay, any anger or frustration I had felt was completely gone. I gave the fat pony a good ear rub before letting Pit Bull’s lyrics “can’t stop me now!” take me back to the house, where my husband was waiting with what seemed like the best latté I had ever tasted.

‘Fallen Rider’ Musings

One of us completed 13 fences on course . . . and one of us cleared the 14th, too!
Photo by Xpress Foto One of us completed 13 fences on course . . . and one of us cleared the 14th, too! Photo by Xpress Foto

I want to preface this blog post by saying that this is all very tongue-in-cheek — I have absolutely no problem with USEA wanting to gather information about rider falls in order to make our sport better, safer, and enjoyable and available to us all.

That said …

I live in Wisconsin. Yesterday, the polar vortex that we all remember so vividly from last year (cue horror film music and shaky camera work) came BACK. With a vengeance. I woke up to -20º and a horse that had decided to use his front legs to pull down a fence line. *facepalm* My fingers truly appreciated stretching, squeezing, pounding, hammering and swearing all those little plastic insulators back into place. I can almost feel my fingertips again …

Today was no better — it’s been 48 hours without a single degree above zero at our farm. I must say, the ponies are doing wonderfully — eating my entire savings account, toasting in their spendy, trendy blankies, drinking from clean, clear, heated water tanks that are sucking my electric bill down a black hole. And asking for treats, as always.

It’s not really too bad in my insulated coveralls and enormous chopper mittens, either, if I’m being truthful. But we LOOOOVE to complain about the cold up here, and it HAS been a while since we’ve gotten to see a nice green field for galloping on.

Sparkly and cold!

Sparkly and cold!

So, you can imagine how wonderful it felt, on the first Monday back to work after the holidays, at the beginning of January, in the freezing-donkey cold, to find this in my inbox:

“Dear Eventing Competitor,

Our records indicate that someone at this email address had a rider/horse fall on cross-country at a USEA recognized event in 2014.”

Ouch. Thanks for the reminder! Just when winter had been here long enough that I convinced myself our season was flawless, had mentally revised all my dressage scores to something in the 20s, and erased all the rails that came clattering down behind us.

Is she also thinking about dressage . . . ?

Is she also thinking about dressage . . . ?

I get it — USEA wants to know more about what kinds of falls we’re having out here, what might be causing them, if there’s anything to be done to make our sport safer. I applaud it! But here’s what I really think:

What might have caused this fall? Well, let’s face it, I definitely can’t ride like the Fox. Either one of them. Heck, I can’t even ride as well as most of the young riders out there! Also, I seem to be lacking the superglue factor that keeps the greats like Boyd and P. Dutty hanging on by a toenail while they use their superhero strength to hoist themselves back in the tack. (Sidenote: Are they human?!?). Perhaps more time without stirrups will help … and a little duct tape?

At what type of fence did the fall occur? At a corner, henceforth known as the “horse-eating-corner-of-death-in-the-scary-Blair-Witch-woods.” I had no idea my adorable mare had a problem with corners. It’s pretty clear from the picture, though, that I still remembered how to jump it, even if she was a conscientious objector.

One of us completed 13 fences on course . . . and one of us cleared the 14th, too! Photo by Xpress Foto

One of us completed 13 fences on course . . . and one of us cleared the 14th, too!
Photo courtesy of Xpress Foto.

Did my horse have sufficient impulsion and balance prior to the fence? Ummmm … if you ask my trainer, he seems to always say we need more of both. Clearly, I thought things might have been going okay, until it was obvious that they weren’t. Although it appears she was sufficiently balanced enough to pirouette right away from that danged scary corner.

But the best question of all asks if I would stay at the level or drop back … and I am VERY proud to say that my little mare and I not only stayed at the level, but conquered it the following weekend with a solid XC ride and a respectable number to begin our journey at Training Level. USEA is doing their part to make our sport safer, but I definitely felt accomplished to have put on my big-girl pants and tried again. The success was so much sweeter.

So I think I’ll sit here in my warm house, after tucking all the critters in for the night, and remember not only the unfortunate fall, but all of the superstar moments before and after. And feel that Lili and I are a better team because of it.

Go winter. Go courage. Go eventing!

Winter Quiet

My favorite furry pony. My favorite furry pony.

So, it snowed here. In the strictest sense (i.e. my farmyard) it snowed about two inches. At my parent’s house two hours north, it snowed 20 inches. IN ONE DAY.

Winter is not a new or unexpected phenomenon, but it seems to take me completely by surprise every year. I laughed out loud (probably snorted) when I read that Doug Payne spends a whole afternoon sorting blankets in preparation.

We tend to spend about two or three months trying to get ready for winter, and STILL when the temperature first drops below freezing I’m running madly around crying, ‘Where are the damn tank heaters? Why are there no extension cords?’ But the frantic running also serves to increase my core temperature, so perhaps it’s a survival instinct.

While things on the farm kick into high (panicked) gear at the approach of winter, and everybody hits Facebook to whine and moan, ride time on my mare comes to a screeching halt. I’ve been building fences, pounding t-posts, moving water tanks, repairing shelters, washing blankets, trailering hogs and sheep…the list goes on.

Not much time to spend on leg yields and jump grids, but I find that my limited time with my peanut takes on a less frantic, more ‘enjoy our time’ pace. The last event of my season was way back at the end of September, and since then we’ve been doing a whole lot of ‘nothing’ – leisurely trail rides in the fall foliage, impromptu bareback rides at night, and some playtime in the new snow.

And I find that I don’t mind. Winter brings with it a more relaxed feel, time to look at ourselves and try to improve. I have time to really go fix those flatwork things that niggle us all season long, time to have fun groundwork days and bareback rides and just enjoy my horse. Because as much as I’m a competitor, I’m in this for the love of all the furry fat ponies.

Sundance Horse Trials: Area IV’s Newest Star

Picture Frame Picture Frame

Last weekend my student and I made the five-hour trek to check out Area IV’s newest recognized event at Sundance Farm in Plymouth, Wisc. For us, it was the last easily accessible event in our area before winter arrives.

Sundance Farm is owned by Kelly and Steve Mahloch, who, along with their daughters Whitney and Ali, have been active in Area IV eventing as a family for many years. Although Sundance has held non-recognized mini-events in the past, this year was their first recognized horse trial.

We arrived, EN-style, after a beautiful drive through southern Wisconsin’s colorful farm country on Friday afternoon and were immediately welcomed to the stabling area by Leah, who made sure we knew where everything was situated and told us to ask her about any stabling questions we might have.

Stabling, as well as dressage and stadium (held on Saturday) were all taking place at the Sheboygan County fairgrounds, and the cross country action was over at the Mahloch farm on Sunday, about four miles away.

Arriving at Sundance, EN-style.

Arriving at the event at Sundance Farm, EN-style.

The sun came shining in on a bunch of gleaming, braided ponies on Saturday morning. With the start of the day came the vendors — a local tack shop, an equine artist, a saddle company, and (drumroll please …) a coffee shop on wheels!

I know I wasn’t the only competitor excited by the prospect of a delicious latté to jumpstart sandbox day. When lunchtime rolled around there was also a local food truck making pulled pork and chicken sandwiches on homemade bread with in-house slaws and sauces.

Dressage was held in an awesome white sand arena with some lovely foliage for a backdrop. The show was small — just under 50 competitors — so dressage wrapped up around noon. Energy levels in the barn began to shift as riders buckled on breastplates, screwed in studs, velcroed open-front boots and carefully placed jump saddles on their mounts.

The stadium course was situated on a grassy space adjacent to the stabling area, and it was a fairly big but wonderfully rideable course. The footing, also used as parking space for the fairgrounds, was a little dry and slippery, which caused problems for a few riders, but overall the course rode well.

The beautiful dressage ring at Sundance.

The beautiful dressage ring at Sundance.

After Saturday’s competition wrapped up (and after we all wrapped up our horses, as well!), the whole crew shifted to the Mahloch’s farm for a cross country coursewalk and a wine-and-cheese competitor party (and so many divine desserts!). The Mahloch farm is situated next door to the Sargento cheese plant, so the food at the party was not your average cheese plate. Viva Wisconsin!

I had walked both the Beginner Novice and Training courses the night before with my student, and was impressed with the size and scope of the Training course. During a chat with Kelly, the course designer, on Saturday, she told me that while people thought the course would be ‘soft’ because it is the farm’s first recognized event, that they were in for a surprise. Rather than the mandated half of the course being maximum height, Kelly said she had far more questions reaching max size. I gulped and told her that I had noticed!

All of the cross country courses are beautifully designed and wind through woods, pastures and through a central area with the water complex that is a fabulous spectator viewing area. The competitor party was full of people laughing, chatting, kids running around the course, and music blasting from the radio. With the setting sun casting reds, oranges and golds through the trees, there was no other place I could imagine wanting to be at that moment.

Beautiful backdrop for a competitor party.

Beautiful backdrop for a competitor party.

Sunday morning saw all the competitors in the barns before the sun, packing equipment and equines for the short trek to the Mahloch’s farm. Once there, we were all directed to park in a large, flat field that was centrally located near the wash racks and vendors, and which had a convenient water truck parked smack in the middle.

Cross country day was, as always, full of adrenaline. The courses rode well, the footing was fabulous, the spectators cheered us on like we were at Rolex. I was pleased to find the footing was great throughout the terrain changes on course, between the shady wooded areas and the sunnier pasture areas.

My student and I gave Sundance’s first recognized trial four thumbs up – the ponies approved with a rousing eight hooves firmly planted in front of their hay nets on the drive home after their cross country exertions.

The volunteers were friendly and helpful (and abundant!), the show ran incredibly smoothly, the Mahlochs were warm and welcoming, and many other competitors said what a great time they had.

Many thanks to the Mahloch’s for giving Area IV eventers another fabulous horse trial destination! Walker Farms Eventing plans to come back next year to Sundance Farm’s Fall Horse Trial on September 26-27, and we hope to see more Area IV’ers joining us!

 And here’s a virtual tour of the Training level course at Sundance Farm HT:

Traveling: FarmGirl Style

If anybody has ever offered you a “free” horse, you know the term “free” is a complete lie not really true. Even a free horse has to eat, drink and be sheltered, and if you want to ride this “free” horse it will also need tack, suitable to your discipline. This free horse needs vet care, farrier care, and all the extras like a halter and lead, brushes, possibly blankets.

And any horse you’d like to show needs transportation. I am lucky enough to have my own truck and trailer, so I get to go to lessons and clinics and shows when it suits my schedule, and not just when I can beg, borrow or steal a rig to get my horse to the venue. The catch?

Trusty Rusty . . . a true standout.

Trusty Rusty . . . a true standout.

I farm . . . and so does my trailer. Not only can I not afford to buy a trailer that costs the same as a small house (and is potentially better furnished), I also have a dual-purpose trailer that hauls pigs, sheep, cows, goats, chickens, and one totally useless fabulously cute mini-mule. My trailer has seen all sizes and consistencies of poop, from little brown sheep turds to the sprayed-on-the-walls stressed-cow pies.

Archie, the mini-mule.

Archie, the mini-mule.

Too much information? Sometimes the horses feel that way, too. They walk into the trailer after four pigs have been taken to market, and the noses squinch, lips curl up, eyes bug out a little. By now, most of my horses are pretty OK with other livestock smells and walk right in, but horses newer to the place sometimes have second or third thoughts about climbing aboard!

My trailer is affectionately known as ‘Trusty Rusty’, ‘The Rustbucket’, and ‘Yeah, that one’s mine.’ The floor is solid, the tires are generally good, and the whole thing is made of steel, so it’s heavy-duty (and also just heavy). There is no dressing room or tack room, so we cram as much gear as possible into the gooseneck space, and the rest gets packed into the truck box and backseat. I’ve gotten real good at ‘Horse Show Tetris’. Thankfully, my trailer is painted red (well, parts of it), so the rust blends in quite nicely. Although it sure is a standout at a show, among all the white and silver.

But this trailer? This is the first trailer I drove. I spent countless hours in the driveway, backing and turning, parking and re-parking, panicking at the thought of having to park at shows. It has hauled me to everything from my first dressage show with a little Quarter Horse I had at the time to my first Training level event this weekend. It has brought friend’s horses along for the ride countless times, taught green horses how to load, brought rescue horses to a safe haven. This trailer serves as a ‘hotel’ at horse shows where I can’t afford a real one – the army cot goes in the front half of the stock trailer, and sweet dreams to me.

Showing at its finest.

Showing at its finest.

So no, my trailer isn’t fancy, and sometimes it smells, quite frankly, like cow sh . . . pies. Between the hubby and I we try to keep it sound, serviceable and electrically functional. This year I think the budget is going to stretch to purchasing a new (used!) aluminum stock combo with (drumroll please . . . ) a DRESSING ROOM! I’m beside myself at the thought.

Old ‘Rusty’ will surely stick around (because really, who would buy that?), and continue hauling animals to the butcher, taking sheep to summer pasture, and getting me into trouble when the odd critter hitches a ride home. And really, after over ten years of memories, I would be too sad to see it go.

Rockin’ with Ralph Hill at Steepleview Horse Trials

Team members showing off the backs of their Team Gear. Team members showing off the backs of their Team Gear.

This past weekend was the annual Steepleview Horse Trials at Walter and Jean Kunz’s lovely Steepleview Farm in Delano, MN. The cross country course is fabulous, the show is run efficiently by a dedicated group of volunteers, and the weather gods obviously loved us enough to divert the storms for 48 hours so we could get our groove on.

But the best part about Steepleview’s Horse Trials? The TEAM CHALLENGE! Every year, a few weeks before the event, emails go flying and Facebook posts appear as competitors form teams at each level (teams can cross division lines, so Junior and Senior riders can all be on the same team, so long as they are riding the same level, ie – Novice). Once there are four members on the team, the naming game begins. Are you the Flying Monkees? Will-Ride-For-Wine? Feisty Fliers? Jumping Jalepeños?

As usual, I did not know all my team members this year (which makes the Team Challenge a great opportunity to make new friends!), but it turns out we all ride with Ralph Hill.

In case you don’t know the indomitable Ralph, he is ‘The Man’. Ralph has competed in everything up to and including Rolex, and in the alternate Olympics in 1980 when the U.S. boycotted the Moscow Games. But what Ralph is really known for is getting inside a horse’s head and seeing the world through equine eyes.

The hamster is always on the wheel in Ralph’s brain, rolling out exercises to get the spooky horse feeling confident, the squirmy horse ‘flying straight’, and the bold know-it-all horse to come back and listen to the rider. In his course walks he differentiates how the ride would be on a horse new to the level versus a horse that will be moving up the next time out. In training he is quick to change an exercise that isn’t working for a particular horse, and is always dreaming up things to get us riders to feel what he wants us to execute.

Ralph also has a lot of catch phrases that come out when he’s excited or frustrated. Everyone who rides with him live to hear the words ‘Hot Dang!’ after a fence or mini-course – time for a fist-pump from the ‘jockey’ and from Ralph himself. So when our team needed a name, ‘Hot Dang!’ seemed only too appropriate.

The members of Team Hot Dang with Ralph in front of the start box. Jen Stano, Hehmi Ely, Ralph Hill, Ingvill Ramberg, Rachael Walker.

The members of Team Hot Dang with Ralph in front of the start box. Jen Stano, Hehmi Ely, Ralph Hill, Ingvill Ramberg, Rachael Walker.

Once we established the name, I got all excited like an elementary school kid and spent some arts-and-crafts time with puffy paints and t-shirts, staking out the dining room table for a week while my creations dried. Ralph pulled his shirt over his head Friday evening, posed for pics in the start box with the team, and didn’t take the shirt off until the last rider had gone stadium on Sunday afternoon.

I may have passed out team shirts, but Ralph brought us all ‘inspirational’ pics of him riding at Rolex ‘back in the day’ to hang on our stalls, walked all the courses with ‘his’ team, and even pulled us all out Saturday night for a ‘team jog’.

I had a fair number of competitors ask why we were all running our horses up and down in front of the barns, Ralph shouting instructions on the proper way to get your horse jogging next to you for inspection. I think he’s trying to groom the next generation of Rolex riders. I think sometimes he makes us do things for his own amusement. I think he was thrilled to have a whole team of ‘Ralph-ettes’ to supervise and mentor for the weekend.

Go Eventing! Hot Dang!