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Holly Covey

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Before You Enter at A: Smart Tips From a Scribe

Photo by Holly Covey.

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

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

Be on time (= early).

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

Make a plan. 

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

Head out there. 

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

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

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

Pass the judge like a pro. 

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

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

Listen for the bell. 

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

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

Make a good first impression. 

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

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

Know your horse. 

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

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

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

Troubleshooting tips. 

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

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

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

And finally … enter at A!

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

Go Eventing.

Learning a New Dressage Test

Learning a new dressage test. Photo by Holly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gaining Inspiration from the Big Events

Sara Gumbiner and Polaris. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Do you believe in YOU?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pokey Things, Thwapper Sticks, Stinger Sticks & Snappy Poles

Photo by Leslie Wylie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Event Horse. Photo by Merrilyn Ratliff.

Schooling For Success!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Caring and Sharing: Why Young Riders Matter

A youth pipeline is vital. Photo by Holly Covey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our sport depends on it.

Cleaning Out the Tack Room

    Cleaning the tack room. Photo by Holly Covey.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Hal Microutsicos.

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

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

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

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

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

Returning to Play: Restarting After Injury

Photo by Shelby Allen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Following the Dots: On Paths, Planning and Progress

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

New year, new approach to training? Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Christmas Message

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

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

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

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

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

We call that sharing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being there. The best sharing of all.

Merry Christmas.

 

Winter Survival and the Art of Not Caring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Go Eventing.

No-Stirrup November … No Thank You!

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

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

Photo courtesy of Holly Covey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Morning After

Photo by Lisa Samoylenko. Donna Bottner, Hamish and I all watching video of XC. Photo by Lisa Samoylenko. Donna Bottner, Hamish and I all watching video of XC.

Yes, there is an eventing hangover. You get it from being on social media too much, watching your videos from friends over and over again, and re-riding your cross country course in your head driving all the way home and laying in bed trying to fall asleep. You wake up with a sore back, tired, and how that knee feels isn’t going to make the day wonderful, but there’s a blue ribbon on the desk from yesterday and that’s all I’m going to think about!

Photo by Lisa Samoylenko. Donna Bottner, Hamish and I all watching video of cross country.

It’s Monday and I am still walking about trying to wake up and remember where I am, but I’ve got a dressage test with 8s on it to remind me where I was yesterday — that was at a recognized horse trial — and what happened — Hamish won. What a great day. You don’t realize until it’s in the rearview mirror how great that dressage test was, how fun cross country was, and how you pulled off a clear round in show jumping. It sinks in slowly.

It’s still good to remember that while it was fun and we did great, I had some mistakes, and a good, well trained horse jumped me out of them. My mistakes were still the same sort of old mistakes I have been making so I need to try very hard to break habits. Creating new, better habits!

I’m not going to take you through the blow-by-blow. I’d rather talk about the things at an event that don’t always go right, and what I notice that I do to sort of not worry about them.

Dressage: When you are late to warm up to dressage, just flow with it; make a few transitions, run through the gaits, bend right and left. Eventing tests are simple and short. If someone cuts you off in the warmup use it as an excuse to make a transition. Don’t let them rattle you. Transitions come up quickly in eventing dressage tests so it’s never wrong to make a bundle of them as you warmup, and a busy warmup area is a good thing, it makes you pay attention and ride better.  I like a busy warmup. It is good for practicing focus.

Cross Country: If something isn’t perfectly perfect on cross country don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Shorten your reins, turn your toes out, (so your spur can make contact), and go forward.  (That’s a Jack LeGoff-ism, by the way). It’s cross country. It’s not for those who love riding in the arena and being perfectly posed. It’s for those who love the gallop and the wind and the bugs in your teeth. Get on with it. Who cares what it looks like. Plenty of times, people have won ribbons with one stop, so gather your wits and carry on.

Don’t get too picky. Sometimes just clunking over it is fine. Be present, ride smart, and even a horse that’s never schooled a course before will get it if you trust them. I think this is overlooked. You can make mistakes on a horse and still expect them to get the job done. It may be oversimplifying the concept of riding cross country, but even at the lowest levels (and I would think especially at the lower levels) one should expect an event horse to be bold about jumping anything you point them at. Ride them like they’ll go, not like they won’t go.

One thing I have learned about cross country is that even a horse you really think you know may surprise you, both in good and bad ways. Hamish really LOOKED at the road crossing with the cornstalks, and he really looked at a yellow table with bright flowers, both of which I have at home in my ring and jump regularly. And when we were at the start box, getting our countdown, he pooped. I was so proud of him … to me, it was a sign he knew he was going cross country — I almost cried I was so happy and couldn’t punch my watch until five seconds before instead of 10, I was so excited over the timing of the poop. (Do you see why us amateurs make trainers crazy?)

When the schedule is different from what you are normally expecting, roll with it. I have a friend who makes up her own off-track Thoroughbreds and has two now she’s brought up the levels to Preliminary and beyond. She said the same thing I thought — that finding out how your horse is to show jump after XC is pretty good to know. It would be better to know that at a horse trial than at a very big three day event that took months to get to. Don’t let learning opportunities escape you at horse trials, there are lots of them.

Show jumping: You can miss distances without too much pain if you have a good pace, a good jumping horse, and good instruction that provides you with tools in your toolbox. Although the tools are different with each horse, having them in your mental kit and being able to use them is very positive.

Having someone who helps you when it’s not coming together in the warmup it very comforting, but we each have to ride our own horses, and we have to establish the tools, practice using them, and then take them in the ring with us to use (without reminders). In the ring, if the habit of creating the correct canter is ingrained, then you get to feel the joy of having a clean round even if you miss at an oxer or two … or three … It’s only about two minutes and eight or nine speed bumps. We can do better and we need to practice show jumping more. I had only one jumping lesson prior to this horse trial and could have used three more lessons. It’s not enough to jump once a week!

So, after a pretty good dressage (well, the lowest of the event, undeniable brag there), a good cross country (with some mistakes), and a good show jump round (with some mistakes) we got to see our name at the top of the list and came home with a blue ribbon and loot. Yes, it is great and yes, it is fun to win; that never gets old. But I know that there are metrics for performance I’d like to meet, and I still need to fix things and work on stuff. No one can ride for me. It’s my task to be as good as I can be as a rider for my horse. I get one moment to gloat, feed apples to Hamish, and bask in glory here and that’s it — on with the work. Thanks — everyone!

What We Know

Find a field. Photo by Holly Covey.

I’m sitting here, waiting on slow internet, wasting life minutes, and I always think about my horses, and what I can do when I get home, and what I should work on when I ride today, etc. And, of course, thinking is often dangerous with an eventer … and I wonder, what do I really know — I mean REALLY know — about my horses and how to train them?

When you have a super lesson with someone, even if it’s a friend or nobody special bigtime Team rider, and have a breakthrough, you think, “Ah ha! This is it! I’ve unlocked the secret of the universe!” because that’s how it feels to have a lightbulb moment in your riding.

Taking a quick trip down memory lane, a lot of my lightbulb moments have come NOT in the clinics with the BNTs. But most have come very unexpectedly at unlikely times. At home, schooling in the rain. Sitting on a cold bench in the wind listening to a coach patiently work with a frazzled rider in the warmup ring at an event. Cantering around aimlessly schooling a cross country course on my own. It’s like you get into some kind of zone where the advice all of a sudden makes sense.

I wonder if all along the horses ALL have Grand Prix, Advanced level, or five-foot jumping in them, locked away, and our job as feeling, thinking riders is simply to unlock the locks and find the talent. I know that isn’t actually always true, but I am not sure if my horses don’t know that.

I have a horse that four years ago we thought would only make a foxhunter. Then we thought he’d be a great showring hunter. Now he’s loving — LOVING — the dressage. It took a solid month of INSISTING he go on the bit, and at times, I was really sure if I was doing the right thing. But once he finally understood the meaning of what I wanted, he embraced it. Really embraced it. Offering to go on the bit. Looking for the contact and the assurance. Looking for the support. Seeking my help to balance. I was very unsure — about 50/50 — as to whether I should continue in the first month of working on him. Then once we gradually started to trust each other, it became clearer and clearer that it was what I needed to do.

I don’t know why I persisted, being so unsure. After all, the last time I was unsure I fell off and tore my knee to shreds and cost me a year of rehab. This time I had a little nagging thing in the back of my mind that just kept me to task every time I rode him — ask ask ask, it said — and the horse responded. It’s hard to do that. I didn’t know what the outcome might be. I hoped.

Horses offer these snippets of understanding, these tiny moments of correctness, probably more often than we all know. We are too ignorant or blockheaded or insensitive to see or feel them, and for that, we ask their forgiveness regularly. (Peppermint treats help with that feeling, my horses report.) I wonder what we really know about them, and I wish that I had the book or manual for each horse I ride. What a great day it would be to sit on a horse and know exactly what to do.

There are a couple of things I can offer. Marilyn Payne said in a podcast about judging dressage tests, that “horses can only think of one thing at a time.” I try to remember this every time I ride through my gate to my arena. And another saying from a dear friend who has been messing with horses as long as I have: “You have to be a student of the Long Road.” I remember this when I am frustrated with not getting a result from an aid. And another, from a late friend, which has been long quoted among us oldtimers, “make mistakes going forward.” I think of this when I feel like I am in slow motion and not going anywhere.

So the answer to “what do we know?” is it’s all there, we just uncover it as we go. The horses have it in them. We have to find it. The answer is not buy another horse, try draw reins, change the trainer. The answer is in us. Go somewhere, study, listen, ride by yourself out in a big field and talk to your horse and tell him your secrets. He will let you know what you need to know.

Event Horse Conversations: Jump Day

Event Horse thinking up his next move. Photo by Holly Covey

Here’s a conversation.

Event Horse: You’re going to jump me today.

Me: How do you know?

Event Horse: I just do. I’m clairvoyant that way

Me: No, you’re not. I just put the elastic breastcollar on you with the open front boots. That’s how you know.

Event Horse: Well, if I start coughing and breathing extra hard, can we just go for a walk instead? I’d like to not jump today if it’s all the same to you.

Me: You have to jump. We have a SCHEDULE.

Event Horse: Oh, THAT. That’s right. The SCHEDULE. It’s on the wall in the tack room, right? Can I take a look at it when we get back in the barn?

Me: No. You most certainly cannot. I don’t need you to “lose” a shoe right before the event.

Event Horse: Those always happen purely by accident. I swear.

Me: Yeah, right. Just like you know when I enter something very expensive with a very early closing date and no refunds.

Event Horse: I do have clairvoyance. See?

Me: No, you don’t. You look through the window into the office and see me on the computer on Tuesdays and put two and two together.

Event Horse: I can’t help it. I just have to know what is going on. All the time. Like when you reset the jumping course and put that dreaded Green Roll Top somewhere different.

Me: Oh come on. That thing is about 25 years old and you’ve been jumping it for three years at least. And — it’s only 12 inches high! Big bad event horse … right.

Event Horse: Oh, you don’t know the boogie monsters, trolls, and ghosts that live under that horrid thing! Why, I see one right now, as a matter of fact. Did you make sure you put the neck strap on today? [Whirls]

Me: [Grabs for non-existent strap and goes WAAAAAYYYYYY up the neck] Ooooohhhhhheeeeeeeyyyyyy

Event Horse: Just when you think you are in charge. I am not giving up my throne just yet.

Me: Oh for cripes’ sake! Just for that, you get an extra trot set this week.

Event Horse: No biggie. I can handle it. (Snickers to himself — I know that right front shoe is loose, I’ll work on it tonight in the pasture.)

Me: So, are you warmed up enough? Are you ready to jump?

Event Horse: (Whines) OK, I’ll drop a rail on the first warmup fence. You’ll have to get off, put it back up, and then walk me back to the barn to get back on at the mounting block. While you’re turning me around, I’ll jerk the reins out of your hand and take off through the back of the barn and run out back to eat grass. Then I’ll step on the reins, breaking them. And the flapping stirrup on the saddle will get ripped off when I run real close to the corner fence post. I’ll pretend it scared me and take off bucking down the track. You’ll be really mad, then! You won’t want to jump for at least a week!

Me: (Huffing from running to catch the loose event horse with one stirrup and broken reins) So sorry, my dear. I’m tying a knot in the reins, putting the stirrup back on, going back to the ring and YOU’RE JUMPING ANYWAY.

Event Horse: Really? REALLY? I’ll just loaf along to the ring, here and she’ll change her mind – Oooooh she hit me with a stick! She must REALLY be mad now. I’d better jump a little here. OK, OK, I’m jumping, I’m jumping now! No worries!

Me: We. Are. Going. To. Jump. School. Today. No matter what!

Event Horse: I believe you. Huff, puff. I’m jumping!

Me: OK. That was good. Now we can walk. I’m going to work on the app on the phone that helps me figure out how fast we’re going so we can do our canter and trot sets closer to the proper speed.

Event Horse: Speed? Speed? I’m built for comfort, not for speed. I don’t do “gallop.” Well, I do, but it’s not very fast. Actually, it’s more like a canter. [Thinks to himself]

Me: Don’t you dare fake that limp.

Event Horse: Limp? What limp? Who’s limping? [Thinks to himself]

Me: There, that’s better. You’re doing so well, I think this is a good time to quit for the day. [Scratches withers] Good boy! [Smiles]

Event Horse: I got this. She has no idea … [Smiles]

Fall Is A Perfect Time to Volunteer

Jump judge briefing at O’Dark:30, at Plantation several years ago, photo by Holly Covey

As soon as the nights start to cool and the grass becomes dewy in the morning, I smell that deep morning grass smell and start to get excited for fall volunteer season! Yep, that’s right, I consider it a “season” because so many great autumn horse trials and events happen and it’s become a ritual of mine to be involved.

A friend recently asked me to provide her with a bit of information she could pass on to a group, explaining why volunteering is important and why her group should do it. This was such a simple request but honestly it threw me a little, as I had to think pretty hard about those questions.

I guess the “why” has to do with wanting to be a part of a shared experience that is positive, unlike the terrible storms of Hurricane Harvey and Irma, which also united people in a shared experience which was very difficult and testing. One hopes your volunteer experience in the sport of eventing is not difficult and testing! Instead, the experience should be fun, educational, important to you, and useful to the event and to the sport.

Not every volunteer experience is going to be perfect. I’ve learned, over the years, that standing (or sitting) out in a field all day has its drawbacks. But most of the time, it’s a lot of fun and something that us veteran volunteers do look forward to doing. And here’s a bit of why.

Sharing an experience, the experts tell us, provides us all with a way to respect one another, to enjoy memories, and to feel a part of the action. The draw of volunteering is we all get to see the same event, but in different ways. Our experiences are different – but the same, as we are all at the same event at the same time and place. Beyond the observations and activity, the volunteer has the knowledge they are one of many and that others are seeing and hearing what they are experiencing.

When you share an experience you have a common place to start from, you each know what it was like to be there. That feeling is sort of addictive. I think that is why we return to help year after year. We enjoy being there and with others doing something useful, and it’s not long enough to get tired of the work and just long enough to feel as though your contribution was valued.

Shared experience often means eating, or breaking bread together, which is a bonding mechanism; and interacting with others outside of family and work, which is a growth enabler. That’s a lot of fancy words meaning it’s kind of fun to step outside your familiar circle and do something new. I never had crab bisque before Fair Hill, and I also never knew really how to use a power drill before volunteering. Hey that’s a really useful skill!

So finally in the “why we do it” department, is the educational aspect of working at very high level international events. These events attract the highest qualified riders in the country, and as a result, the riding is at a high level. Watching the warmups, the performances, the adjustments while these riders are mounted on their horses is very enlightening. That’s the riding knowledge. Some of it is quite subtle and takes a lot of watching. The best fun is to watch the top coaches with the riders off in the corner on a circle somewhere; if you can hear the instruction it’s even better. Sit quietly and listen!

Another education: The differences in the conformation of these horses and how they move and how they are put together is neat to see on the jog runway; then you take that set of observations and apply them to what you see on cross-country, in stadium jumping, in dressage. That’s a breeding and conformation education.

And lastly it is also a way to learn about both the importance and pressure of competition and as a volunteer, often you can be in a position to see this drama play out firsthand. It gives you perspective on how people act, how they should act, and unfortunately at times how they should not act. You can learn from that, too. Like a great movie, big events keep us entertained!

So while you sit down and check out the calendar this fall, take a look at www.eventingvolunteers.com and see what days look good for you and consider volunteering! I know they will need you. And you just might find the experience a great one! Don’t miss out. When you smell that scent of fall leaves and crisp air, it’s time to sign up. Go eventing!

Two Unicorns and How The Sport Has Changed

Did you watch videos of horses sailing over those huge Mike E-S oxers at Plantation? Nope, none of those horses were one of my unicorns. How about the incredible win of Kim Severson at Blenheim this weekend? Nope, none of my unicorns got blue ribbons and victory gallops. How about special retired racehorse showcases, jumper shows at the famous Devon oval, big 4-H championships at prestigious horse centers, top quality dressage shows with hundreds trotting down center line … nope, didn’t make it into any of those either.

My two unicorns just helped remind me of how really hard this sport is, I mean really REALLY hard for anyone who wants to just do it because they liked the idea of galloping cross country. Not that they were bad — they were exceptionally good, as a matter of fact — but it hits home to me after about seven years of not competing in recognized events that this sport remains completely difficult. It has not changed!

I have been filling in everyone as the year has progressed, starting with a decision in the spring to stop putting it off and get back to a recognized event, and as of last weekend, I got there. I am not going to tell you the journey was a shining path of fun, nor was it entirely without inspiration and good feelings.

It hit me walking the course for the last time, after dressage on Saturday. Many of the Training jumps are next to the Novice jumps, and the numbers are painted black with white letters. The Novice jump numbers are the opposite. The last recognized events I did were with my great champion Rugby I lost four years ago, and we rode Training level a lot. The black numbers were for Rugby; I had to stop and cry a little couple of tears in the woods where no one could see. Black numbers for Rugby! 

Photo by Susan Yates.

But today I was riding Hamish and he had to look at the white numbers. I knew I had to ride him without thinking of the past and of other things; he is very honest but he is also pretty sure if it’s new, it deserves a look. The great thing about foxhunting a horse is that they just learn to go across the country, even if they haven’t seen it before, they just do it. Eventing is much like that without the herd to follow. So as an experienced foxhunter, he was used to country, but in eventing, he had to be brave and go by himself for me. This he and I have been working on. Since he’s never been to Marlborough Horse Trials, it was all new to him — I had to make sure that when he looked, he knew he had to go.

Well, no worries there! His biggest “OK Mom I got this” moment was the bold leap off the down bank, and when I asked him to gallop on at the end of the course, a big one at the last fence. Earlier in the course, when we roller-coastered down the big hill to the water jump and entered the water jump field, he took a big look around, and I allowed him to trot to the half round which was the in, then trot through the giant Tidy Bowl, and gently hopped the little log out. He landed, and went, pppffffew, there. Water’s done. Let’s go home now. And I had to unfortunately ask him to canter just a bit more and up another hill. So we had a few time faults on cross country because I was a bit conservative here and there. The second fence, a lovely brush, was also a bit sticky, but he shook it off and took off up the hill after the third like he was mad at himself! I was so lucky to be riding such a smart horse that day.

But on the way home, thinking about the course (which now I am going over in my head every quiet moment I get) I realized that I had jumped clean (but slow) on cross country, clean (but slow) on stadium, and ripped off a 30s dressage test on a half-fit horse, while competing fairly exhausted, wearing a dressage coat I hate, without anything really more than two good jumping lessons as prep. And got a ribbon to boot. I don’t recommend anyone do this like I did. It’s much better to be prepared properly. This sport is hard.

To make the week difficult for no real reason, my refrigerator died and a new one had to be purchased, and all the food we had was tossed; because I helped volunteer all day on Friday, there was no time between driving back and forth, clipping, bathing and riding, trying to get some sleep (and getting up O’Dark Thirty for four days in a row) to buy more food. So Hamish’s great breeder and number one fan, Susan Yates, came and brought a delicious picnic which saved my sorry butt. I cannot thank her enough for being there! I usually event alone so it was a real treat to have an extra pair of hands — that brought FOOD.

This event also held an unrecognized combined test on the following weekend day and in a completely insane moment, I entered my other unicorn, Nice Guy, in the Beginner Novice division. Realizing it was too much for one weekend, I went ahead and did it anyway. (You thought I was going to say scratch.) Well, things went pretty well until I walked him up to dressage warmup. Then he took a look around and said, this is NOT the dressage shows I have been going to all summer. This is DIFFERENT. And found an excuse (a baby stroller) to be a little bad.

Uh-oh. When my horses meltdown, I sort of meltdown too. Not this time! This required a nice, slow, regular warmup with emphasis on paying attention until he loosened his back and was ready to go in the ring. Well, I tried. We ended up with a much shorter warm-up than I had sort of planned on. I stuck to about ten 20-meter circles at trot and told the ring steward I was going to canter until I had to go in, bless her heart, she was not afraid and trusted me! (And thank goodness for the decision to put the jumping saddle on and not the dressage saddle. We like knee and thigh rolls.) So he went in the ring and behaved if you can believe it. And I did not forget the test! Meltdown averted!

Many thanks to the eventing stranger in the parking lot who took this for me. Unicorn #2. Photo by Holly Covey

Then he was to jump. Well, this horse has not jumped in competition for three years. So why not just take him into a terrifying warmup with kids, ponies, professionals on big warmbloods, shrill coaches yelling directions? Sure. And trot your first course a bit. Sure. And then canter your next course and jump everything with distain as if to say, “Is that all you got today, Mom?” What a horse, what a day — a second unicorn. We elected to forego a cross country schooling, since we had accomplished a lot already in the day and I didn’t want to fight traffic going home.

So finally at home, I was thinking about how I am going to write this blog for you all. My triumphant return to recognized eventing. Realization One: I really have two wonderful horses that I’ve made myself. And they are the reason I get to do this and make these plans and goals, and achieve them. And I have to really write about them and how great they are. Then I see the big events and fancy 4* horses going around, and watch the videos like everyone else, and think well my little novice horses don’t seem so terrific compared to those horses, and yet – to me – they are terrific, because they enable me. I will never jump around a Plantation, or Blenheim, or Fair Hill. And so what.

Realization Two: This sport remains HARD. Don’t believe anyone — ANYONE — who says “eventing is easier” or “it’s changed, it’s easier now.” Bull. It’s hard. I am well past middle age and have been riding my whole life. And it’s still hard. I made a mistake in every phase, things I have to fix going forward, and there is always more work to do. Better dressage basics, those are things anyone can do. Better pace — that is also something I should work on because I know better — more practice with the watch, timing myself, getting comfortable with more gallop. More fitness. (Gad, you can never be too fit. All of us.) And lastly, friends. Lots of friends to encourage you, tell you when you are wrong, lend a hand, hold a horse, remind you to let go and kick on. Friends are the thing that makes eventing easier.

So my advice after this saga: appreciate and care for your horses a lot. Get fitter. Take more lessons and be a better student of the game. Be a fan but don’t be a fanatic. Stay cool. Under-enter and over-perform. Rely on friends and appreciate them. Go eventing.

 

Do You Have an Emergency Evacuation Plan?

Screenshot via Weather.com.

Even the best couldn’t prepare for a storm that is so epic the Weather Channel has to make a new color on their radar for its rainfall total. But as a horse owner, you have to try to be prepared for weather-related disasters. What if they say it’s really, really bad and you may need to get out? And you know the horses have to get out, too. So … what will you do?

Don’t wait til the last minute. If roads are bad, backed up, or flooded, a fully loaded horse trailer isn’t going anywhere. You don’t ever want to have to unload on the side of the road. Get your horses out before it’s gets bad. It is better to be safe than sorry.

With another hurricane bearing down and wildfires wreaking havoc in the west, it’s a good time to review your own emergency evacuation strategies.

What is bad? That might be different for each person, but really, you know your land, your region, and your weather better than any generic set of advice. What is your elevation? Do you live near drainage or water? What is the history of flood or storm surge in your area? If you don’t know, ask a long-time resident. Get information from the sources – NOAA, your state’s emergency services. Get a good weather app on your phone and when the storm arrives, start checking it every hour. Keep up on social media and see what people in your area are doing.

When you feel you have to get out, if you have a couple of things ready it will be really easy. First of all, teach your horses to load. All of them. When it comes time, all you really have to do is pop them in the trailer and off you go. Do you have more horses than spaces in the trailer? Then get on the phone and get some help lined up ahead of time from friends you know you can count on. Don’t think you can make trips … sometimes the water rises very quickly and you might be forced to leave the horses waiting at home stranded!

But wait … there’s more.

Have that truck and trailer hooked up, tires fully inflated, truck with full tank of fuel, extra fuel in portable tanks in the truck. Waterproof boots, clothes, gloves, etc. packed in the truck. Keep your phone charged up, and have a familiarity with roads in your neighborhood either by personal experience, or a good mapping app. You may not be able to use familiar or convenient roads, so know the alternative routes. This is very important when towing a trailer! Some maps show roads as passable when they are not suitable for a truck and trailer. Know your neighborhood well.

Have hay, grain, water for the horses with feeding buckets for every horse, enough for at least three days each. Extra halters and leads, including a long rope if you have one. First aid kit for both humans and horses. (Extra Vetrap for all kinds of fixes.). Fill the haybags in the trailer and fill a couple extra bags if you have them. You should have Coggins test copies in the trailer for every horse you are moving, along with veterinary records. Keep in a waterproof bag where they can be easily reached.

Put strong, thick snug fitting halters (not rope type) on the horses, and put duct tape on the halters, with the horse’s name, age, and your phone number and name. If you go to a shelter this may be required. Each horse should have a detachable lead rope, because you may need to tie them, or the lead rope might be needed to secure a stall door or opening. Don’t take blankets or sheets. If they have to be outside they will get soaked and if they are inside they might be too hot.

Bear in mind they may not allow people to stay with the horses overnight at some evacuation facilities, so you won’t be able to tend to your horses for some hours. If they have water and hay they will be fine. Don’t worry about grain. If you have a couple of bags of bedding, along with shovels or a pitchfork, and a muck basket or wheelbarrow, this might be allowed and will let you keep the stalls cleaned. But if not, don’t panic over it. There may not be a place to put the manure.

Once you get there, unload and put the horses in stalls and keep them there. Don’t take them out, walk them, let them touch noses with other horses, etc. The less movement in crowded barns with strange horses, the safer your horses will be. They can manage a couple of days without exercise; if you have horses that are getting rambunctious, check with a vet about a horse that is over-reacting, perhaps treating them for safety’s sake with medication.

Keep fresh water and hay in front of them and basically wait it out. Horses manage pretty well when locked up, as long as they can keep their gut moving with a constant source of hay or roughage, and water. Keep the water filled. Monitor their temperature if you can, and stay with them as much as you can to give them a sense of familiarity.

Pack water and food for yourself, things that don’t need refrigeration like crackers, energy bars, cookies, pretzels, etc. that will keep a few days if necessary. Put these along with important stuff like your driver’s license, phone charger, and change of clothes in a backpack that you can grab quickly and allow your hands to be free. Have a couple of large quart size sealable plastic baggies in an outside pocket of the backpack; if you have to walk through high water, stop first and get your phone in a baggie, and seal it, so it stays dry.

If the shelter allows you to stay with the horses, I hope you have a living quarter horse trailer but if not, be prepared to sleep in your truck, or possibly in the shelter area. For this reason it will be helpful to have a sleeping bag and change of clothes along with some moist cleaning wipes or other toiletries and medication you may need for a few days.

Be polite and cooperative with shelter or evacuation center managers. They don’t have time to explain what they need to do, may not know answers to all the questions you might have and have to work under pretty tough conditions, so try to take your horse where it seems safest and do the best you can to make your stay easy for them. Share tools and help others when you can. If they allow you to keep your feed in your trailer, that’s the best place for it. If the trailer can’t be used for storage and has to be parked far away or removed, then get your feed as close to your horses as you can, make sure it stays dry and out of the wind, and keep it covered and secured if possible.

You may want to keep a permanent marker pen and some duct tape handy for identifying your stalls and equipment. Like a horse show you might be sharing a barn with many other people and horses. Be prepared to get along with others.

When it’s time to leave, make sure you have a place prepared back home for them, fences repaired or barn ready. Make sure you follow shelter protocol before you load up. Check with the shelter manager for whatever is needed before exiting, such as cleaning the stalls you have used and placing the manure in a designated area.

When you return home, keep checking your horse’s temperatures for a few days to be on top of any communicable diseases. Be cautious with turnout if the storm has broken fences, or swamped fields and paddocks. Don’t feed wet hay or grain; throw it out. Once you have returned, be sure to keep up with the Emergency Services warnings and direction regarding fresh water, toxic conditions, further flooding, etc. as these might affect where you put the horses on your property, and what source of water you use.

Every area is different, each region might have different protocol or rules, and some places won’t have evacuation facilities that are close enough or will work for horses (such as pet centers only). Know what the situation is around your area; check the Emergency Services information on your local government website. The best way to prepare is keep up on the news of the weather and keep everything ready to go, just in case you have to. And I hope you do not have to leave!

Mark Your Calendars! A Roundup of 2017 National, Area and YEH/FEH Championships

Cindy Deporter and Ana D take a victory lap at AEC. Photo by Leslie Threlkeld.

Fall is coming. For our sport it’s high-gear time, time to kick it up, get riding, schooling, training, prepping for stars or move-ups. Championships are coming. It’s a dizzying whirl of national championships, area championships and young horse championships.

For the most part, riders have to qualify for eventing championships with placings earlier in the year, or within the qualifying period. For all of the 10 areas of the USEA, the area championships are part of an existing area horse trial, which hold designated championship divisions alongside the regular divisions.

One would expect Area championships to be held at the end of the season, but this is not the case in any area of the U.S.!

In Area III, the season’s end came in mid-summer, at Chattahoochee Hills Horse Trials in Fairburn, GA, held July 8-9, 2017. The rest of the year riders work toward 2018 championships. This is the earliest area championship held. It concludes the southern area’s “season,” which starts over in the winter and winds down in spring.

Area II, Area IV, Area VI and Area VII all have one or two horse trials following their area championships. Areas like Area IV,VII, X and IX basically have seasons from mid-May to early October, while other areas, such as III, stretch from January to November.

Area I has its season championships in August, at Town Hill Farm Horse Trials, Lakeville, CT, Aug. 25-27. No less than eight fall horse trials follow in that area.

Area V has a split championship, with Meadow Creek Park – The Fall Social Event, Sept. 16-7, in Kosse, TX, holding the BN-N championship divisions, and Oct. 28-29, six weeks later, the T-P championships are held in Benton, LA, at Holly Hill Fall Horse Trials. In between those two championships there are three regular horse trials.

In Area VII, the area championship is a part of Park Equine Kentucky Classique Horse Trials, held at the Kentucky Horse Park, Lexington, KY, on Sept. 1-3, 2017, the same weekend as the American Eventing Championships in Tryon, NC; and five Area VII horse trials are held after the championship in that area through September and October.

Nationally, the USEA recognizes the Future Event Horse championships in two locations, the western championship competition at Twin Rivers in CA, in Area VI, Sept. 21; and the eastern championship at Loch Moy, home of Maryland Horse Trials, in MD, Area II, Sept. 23-24, 2017. The Young Event Horse Championships are also held on both coasts; western championship at Woodside International Horse Trials, Woodside, CA, Oct. 5, and eastern championship at Fair Hill International Three Day Event, Elkton, MD, Oct. 12-13. These are the only eventing championships held in the United States that conclude the season for these horses.

The overall national championship for eventing, the American Eventing Championships (Aug.30-Sept.3, Tryon, NC), comes on Labor Day weekend; the fall eventing season pretty much follows the AECs, so the qualifying for this championship splits two years. The qualifying period stretched from May 30 last year to August 21 for 2017. (AEC qualification summary here.)

Here’s a roundup of all eventing championships in the U.S. by area.

  • Area I (New England) Qualifying criteria here; Town Hill Farm Horse Trials, 8/25-27/17
  • Area II (Mid Atlantic) Qualifying criteria here (2016 rules, not updated yet for 2017): Virginia Horse Trials, 10/26-29
  • Area III (South) Qualifying criteria is a PDF linked on this page: 2018 championships not yet set, 2017 championships were held in July at Chattahoochee Hills
  • Area IV (Midwest) Qualifying criteria here; Heritage Park Horse Trials, Olathe, KS, 10/6-8
  • Area V (Texas and surrounding) Qualifying criteria here; split championships at two events, Meadow Creek Park Horse Trials, 9/16-17, and Holly Hill Fall Horse Trials, 10/28-29
  • Area VI (California) Qualifying criteria here (2016 pdf); Fresno County Horse Park Horse Trials, 10/20-22
  • Area VII (Northwest) Qualifying criteria here: Aspen Farms, 9/8-10
  • Area VIII (Upper midwest) Qualifying criteria here: Park Equine Kentucky Classique Horse Trials, 9/1-3
  • Area IX (Southwest) Qualifying criteria here: Las Cruces Horse Trials, 10/14-15
  • Area X (West) Qualifying criteria here: The Event at Skyline, 10/6-8

 

1984 – I Was There!

Oh yes, I was there – the Olympic Games in Los Angeles in 1984. I still have the green and orange volunteer suit, too! And somewhere in the bowels of my office, my I.D. tag and a few other things. But the really cool tennis shoes we got are long gone, sorry. They were really nice, those shoes. I spent a lot of hours in them.

This was the raw site of the XC at Fair banks Ranch, before construction. Photo by Holly Covey

Lots of eventers today weren’t born yet when the L.A. Olympics took place. Some were just little kids. Some, like me and a whole generation of west-coast eventers, were starry-eyed just to sign up and be volunteers and hang out with the best eventers in the world, although mostly from a distance.

For those that remember, the three-day event took place over five days, because the dressage and show jumping were held at Santa Anita racetrack in Arcadia, Ca., sort of north and east of downtown L.A. The cross country for the Olympic three-day took place at Fairbanks Ranch in Rancho Sante Fe, at a site that was destined to be a golf course after the games, just outside of Del Mar, Ca.

The schedule involved shipping the horses after dressage down to the cross country for one day, and then shipping them back to Santa Anita, with rest days in between. Yeah, it was weird, but that is what they thought would work the best. And don’t forget, this was the era of the classic, so there was roads and tracks and steeplechase at the site.

It was hot on August 1st for the cross country and the Europeans complained bitterly about the heat throughout the Games. There were temporary wash racks set up at the portable stabling for washing the horses, and I clearly remember Bettina Hoy washing her horse down after finishing the course, stopping briefly to joyfully hug first one German groom, then her horse, then another German groom while they were all four in the wash rack soaking each other down.

I volunteered all nine days of the equestrian competition at Santa Anita and had some incredible experiences. Here’s a few:

  • Meeting Prince Phillip. At the time we was president of the FEI and was responsible technically for all of the scoring of the competition, something he took very seriously. He had a box overlooking the competition arena (which was situated on the main racetrack right by the finish line) and expected the scoring sheets to be brought to him to be looked over and approved. I got to do this. It was freakin’ awesome. But it was a really long climb up the grandstand steps to his box.
  • Petting and holding Big Ben. He was a huge monster of a horse and as gentle and sweet as you can imagine. Standing at the back gate waiting to go in for the jump off, his groom asked me to hold him while she got some water.
  • Helping the foreign photographers. Many of the foreign photographers were used to having more accessible spots to photograph from, and were very dismayed to find they were given good spots from what they felt was far away. L.A. took the games VERY seriously and there was the first inklings of security there. I heard some interesting swear words in many languages.
  • The British team was mostly women and they wanted to have makeup before their interviews on camera up in the press area, where I volunteered. Nobody had any but me. Lucinda Green used my powder compact.
  • Bert DeNemethy let me and Katie Lindsay go in to the main show jumping arena and take pictures of the jumps. I’ve got one of Katie and she took one of me. Both of us treasure these.

Oh there is so much more I remember from then, but this will have to do for now. I hope everyone is planning right now to volunteer or attend in 2028!

Eventing Safety PSA: Don’t Jump Junk!

Resist this. Photo by Holly Covey.

I can’t help but cringe when I see some of the photos eventers post online of crazy DIY obstacles they’ve concocted and are jumping at home. It seems to me that if you are at all concerned about safety in eventing, you should be practicing what you preach at home.

The reasoning behind many of these stupid jumps is along the lines of, “Well, they need the schooling at home” or “It’s so low, it won’t hurt” or “He jumped it fine, what’s the problem?” Well, here’s the problem — it’s patently unsafe! Every time you ask your horse to lift himself with you attached over an obstacle, you have an obligation to both of you to do it safely.

I’ve learned my lesson. Years ago, I jumped a piece of junk that looked fun, and my horse misjudged it and cut his leg. I’ll never forgive myself. After I took care of him, I went out and collected the junk and put it in the burn pile. And based on some of the photos I’ve seen on social media, others ought to be doing the same.

Here’s my list of what to avoid jumping at home.

  • Pallets. For everything that is holy and reverent, please do not jump pallets. They are hoof catchers, trippers and impalement waiting to happen. Most pallets reside in the filthiest parts of warehouses, trucking yards and storage facilities and are loaded with bacteria. They are nailed together (not screwed) and the wood is often cheap softwood that easily splinters. Their structural integrity is very suspect due to constantly being mishandled or slammed around by forklifts with heavy items loaded on them. Even picking them up and moving them by hand requires gloves. Stay away from intact pallets. Please.
  • String, rope, cloth, plastic, blankets, carpets, netting, anything with loops or pile that can catch hooves. The law of averages says that even Sapphire or Mighty Nice will roll a pole once in a lifetime. That means if your horse happens to dip his toe the slightest bit, he could catch a carpeted or netted piece of something draped over a jump — and then you both are in real danger. Please don’t drape stuff over jumps. If you want color or interest, use brush, cornstalks, real or fake flowers, or paint, or drape stuff on the standards that aren’t jumped.
  • Insecure anything. Hell, yah, we’ve all braced the broken standard with the cement block, or propped up the other side of the rail on the broken box when you couldn’t find another cup … but the problem with doing this is you are breaking a major rule of jumping that I will outline below, the Rule of Consistency, and you jeopardize your horse’s confidence in so doing. Things that are not securely set for jumping tend to fall without warning, or will be braced and not fall when they need to. So if you can’t get it right, best not to get too carried away.

There are many dangerous things other than those outlined above, like plastic forms, poorly designed jumps and standards, broken poles that have ends like spears, pipes, baskets or boxes that are not sturdy or secure, cement blocks, the list goes on. It hurts enough just to land on a regular jump if you fall. I’ve seen a pony impaled in the abdomen by a broken pole used as a ground line, which flipped up when it was stepped on.

An inexpensive yet safer schooling jump: colorful, adjustable and versatile. Photo by Holly Covey.

That doesn’t mean you can’t safely use things as decoration on the sides or safely under a jump as a groundline, but it does mean that if you aren’t sure if something will hold up properly under a jumping horse who could possibly make a mistake, be cautious. And by “proper,” I do mean correctly placed, and of sufficient weight and strength, to be used as a jumping obstacle. 

Periodically you should inspect your jumps at home for anything loose, check for rotting wood, replace screws that are working loose, and repair broken or worn-out parts. You don’t have to have new freshly painted jumps every year but you should be sure that they are in good repair and sturdy for the intended use. Look over the tops of the coops and brush for anything sticking out that could poke legs or hooves, and check for holes or gaps that could catch a hoof should a horse make a mistake and slide into it.

Good bases on your standards are important. Photo by Holly Covey.

Anything with feet or braces on the bottom of it to help it stand on the ground should be checked and replaced if they are too sharp, have edges that haven’t been sanded off or trimmed, or are rotten. It almost goes without saying that there should not be nails in the bottoms of standards — bolts or screws are probably better, and anything else that could shatter into pieces or is too flimsy not to break when touched by a horse hoof shouldn’t be in the ring.

Teaching a horse to jump well isn’t about scaring the pee out of them with stuff you find at the end of driveways after perusing the “Free” section of Craigslist. As eventers I know we are proud that our horses are trained to jump anything we point them at, but there’s a line.

One of the most important things about teaching young event horses to jump is consistency — making the jumping sessions carefully logical, and creating questions that educate rather than scare.

Here’s the Rule of Consistency: When you have a jump course that has poles about the same size and weight, jumps about the same width and depth, and you build a course from these components that makes logical sense to a jumping horse, you provide them with a sense of security. They begin to trust the obstacle — they learn how to use themselves to clear things, they experiment with their legs and body to jump higher, or better, for you as a rider. Every schooling session isn’t a survival contest; instead, it’s a quietly competent way of teaching him to use himself correctly, the best way he can for his style and your riding. Safe jumps = safe jumping.

By setting safe, consistent courses with rails that are the same, you are creating a level playing field for your horse, and are able to mold his jumping form so that when something unusual comes along, he and you stay together over it. As your schooling progresses, using creativity to build interesting stuff to jump isn’t a bad thing as long as you are mindful of what will encourage him.

Safe jumps might mean good solid groundlines, decor on the sides, good wood on your poles and cavalletti, and always setting poles in cups. Safe jumps have sturdy fillers, smooth top surfaces, screws instead of nails, sanded or trimmed feet on the standards, no sharp edges, no billowing or flapping or unsecured strings or cloth, nothing that is likely to shatter or splinter on impact. You want a jump’s components to simply fall to the ground when crashed into, using gravity to let them drop. Things that aren’t heavy enough bounce up. Things that are flimsy tend to flip and catch legs and feet. You don’t want your horse to make a mistake and pay with a tangle.

We’ve all jumped stuff we shouldn’t have. We’ve all gotten a little carried away with junk just to make things interesting. There’s no need to panic and go out and throw all your jumps in the burn pile if they’re a little old. Just be careful what you jump at home, repair or replace things if they break, and keep it real. (And stay away from “Curb Alerts”….)

What They Did on Their Summer Vacation

Yeah, the chin isn’t up — that grinning little face is looking down at that pony’s neck, overjoyed to be finally riding. And the reins are too long– well, those fists are holding that mane so they can stay on for that bumpy trot. And the heels are up, as there are other things that young horse lover is concentrating on at the moment, like staying in the saddle!

Summer camp days! Great memories. Photo by Holly Covey

It’s easy for those of us who ride daily and have horses in our backyards to miss out on the special joy of horses for those who only get a chance to see them or be near them during vacation times. How many hours have those horse lovers spend in the car, staring out the window as the family traveled, hoping to catch a glimpse of a horse grazing in a pasture?

And finally there’s a vacation for the family that includes a couple of pony rides. Soon, they have booked a summer horse camp for a week, and the little horse lover is thoroughly and completely addicted.

For many event barns, summer might wind down for the big events and there might be a break here and there for competition, but those barns that operate summer camps are now gearing up for their big season.

While summer camps don’t have the special attraction of competition, they often bring in the bulk of a year’s income for many smaller stables, as well as provide a meaningful way to encourage kids to ride and maybe get interested in eventing and, eventually, become eventers.

Many eventers began at summer camp; many top level eventers earned a summer’s wages teaching summer camp as counselors, and even some top level event horses have begun their careers at summer camp (four-star horse Crackerjack being one of these!)

Many event barns offer summer camps for kids and even adults. Farms such as Full Moon Farm, in Finksburg, MD., annually hold a “Quarter Star” week-long eventing camp that takes eventing at the lower, smaller levels and turns it into a fun and educational experience just like the bigger, tougher, higher level three-day events.

Summer camp is a way for those who don’t have a horse to see if horses can fit within their life. Being new to a big animal who has a mind of its own, and sometimes goes where it wants to go, can be eye-opening. But most die-hard horse lovers overcome their fears and enjoy the barn and riding opportunities. It’s hard for those of us who are in the barn all the time to put ourselves in their shoes and remember what it was like to be excited to pet a soft nose for the first time.

Be patient and kind to those horse loving kids if you are teaching summer camp this year. Don’t sweat the small stuff. It’s OK to break a little rule or two once in awhile if it puts a big smile on their face and gives them a memory they will never forget.

If you are a parent of a camper, let them enjoy horses and do what you can to help them get as many opportunities as possible to be around horses.

We all like this sport and would like to see it stick around. These kids are the ones who will make that possible. It sure doesn’t look it when you see them bouncing around the ring on the plodding school pony, but soon they will be competing, owning horses, getting on a team…