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Katie Lindsay: Fun and Games at the Dressage Show

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OK, as promised – “Fun and Games at the Dressage Show,” the second in my interdisciplinary fantasy interview series. (No, I will not whine any more about John’s writing skills versus mine – not too much anyway – and I will try to stay out of the saloon into which I was driven by my exchange with Britiffuffy last week. The ensuing hangover was almost as devastating as the pain of the interview itself. Note to self – pack alternate analgesic substances – of the legal variety of course.) 

Now that I have apparently thoroughly pissed off the hunter/jumper world, (at least those who can read), and in an effort to be known as an equal opportunity Pain In The Ass, I’ve decided that this week’s fantasy interview will be with dressage devotee and owner/rider, Gretel Schimmelfrog. She recently imported an 18 hand 1 inch approved Lichtensteiner Warmblood stallion, Wanton XIII, on the advice of her trainer Otto Gregor “Schmutzi” von Santenhopfbrauhaus who is also riding the horse at the show I attended.  

(Ah how sweet it is to be the snarky Dominick Dunne of equestrian sport!) 

Dressage shows amuse me – for about 20 minutes anyway. Before the Eventing and Dressage TD licenses were split up, I officiated at a bunch of dressage shows. One day, I came to a pathetic bit of self awareness – the only thing I enjoyed about the job was making DQ’s cry so I quit to pursue other sadistic pleasures. (Ask me about my personal best dressage TD day sometime. Brutal!) Dressage people are verrrrry intense and tend to be quieter than their hunter/jumper or eventing counterparts. So quiet in fact that someone with a loud guffaw of a laugh when amused (like me for example) tends to draw the most thunderous scowls. My late father used to call such expressions “Gorgonzola sneers,” so named because the sneerer looks like he/she has a piece of very ripe Gorgonzola under his/her nose. My father was a very funny man – but as usual, I digress! 

I set out to interview Ms. Schimmelfrog at the Divine Dressage Extravaganza on the Plains (that’s the real name – honest!) after doing some preliminary research on her background. She was born one of 12 children in the tiny town of Lost Virginity, Oklahoma and began her riding career barrel racing on the southwestern circuit. The highpoint came when she was crowned “Miss Teenage Oklahoma Swine Breeders’ Queen” at the Tulsa rodeo. By chance, that same rodeo featured a circus dressage performance put on by Dusty Duvall and her aging Arabian stallion Sparkle Boy, and then and there, she knew that she had found her calling. 

The first thing she changed was her name. Realizing that her birthname Gertrude Mabel Ganz lacked the necessary panache for her new lifestyle, she redubbed herself Gretel Inga Schimmelfrog after the heroine in a very short lived children’s comic strip. Never one to do anything half way, and hearing that the very best dressage is to be found in Europe, she next took her rodeo winnings and traveled abroad where she acquired  (in chronological order) a sort of German accent, the wealthy scion of a Lichtensteinian dynasty who happened to be in extremely poor health, and a trainer, the portly Herr Gregor Otto “Schmutzi” von Santenhopfbrauhaus whose claim to fame was a short period spent on the Lichtenstein Olympic Dressage team. (I’d never heard that Lichtenstein had an Olympic Dressage team, but what do I know. They ski awfully well so why not dressage?) Following the not entirely unexpected death of Herr Schimmelfrog and the subsequent settling of his estate, Greta cashed out her holdings, packed up Schmutzi and the seven warmblood horses of varying skills that she had acquired, and returned to her native country to spread the mantra of pure, classical Lichtensteiner dressage which is what they were doing when I tracked them down at the DDE on the P Show. 

I caught up with my quarry at the warm up ring where she was watching a puffing, panting and red faced Schmutzi thundering around in ever decreasing circles on a sweat drenched and thoroughly annoyed Wanton in preparation for a series of Rollkur stretching exercises destined to scatter the more conservative riders in the area. She was dressed in the prerequisite “I am a serious dressage groupie, but I’m not competing” attire – black full leather seat breeches, white nylon knee socks, black Dansko clogs, a pale lavender stretchy tee shirt, a small fanny pack, (lavender of course), and a matching pale lavender visor with her farm logo, a golden tiara, embossed on it. (Amazingly enough, she also sported perfectly matching lavender eye shadow!) 

Me – (handing her my card to establish myself as a REAL PROFESSIONAL) “Hi Ms. Schimmelfrog. I am doing a series of articles following the careers of selected imported horses in America, and I’m especially interested in learning about the progress Wanton has made since he arrived. Is this a good time to talk?” 

GS – (never taking her overly made up eyes off her horse) “Ja, ja, fine. I luff to talk about my darling horse and my passion for pure dressage.” 

Me – (taking a deep breath and fearing that this is going to be a very long day) “How long has Wanton been in the United States, and has he adjusted well?” 

GS – “He is here only six veeks. His transport vas delayed because he is too big for the standard shipping pallet. Ve vanted him to haf plenty of room on the flight. He told his communicator that he fears closed spaces.” 

Me – (weakly) “His communicator?” 

GS – “Ja, communicator. You don’t hear vell? Ve employed the best one to help Vanton over the trauma of adjusting to a new country. He is very sensitive horse. He vas restless in his stall ven he finally got to the farm, and the communicator referred me to a Feng Shui Master. He did the entire barn over using tones of lavender as the primary Feng Shui color palette. The effect has been miraculous!”  

(concurrently, the “very sensitive horse” has lowered his head and is charging bull-like  across the arena oblivious to his rider’s considerable weight hauling on his double bits) 

Me – (long day confirmed) “Do you ride Van – er – Wanton Ms. Schimmelfrog?” 

GS – “Not yet. Schmutzi doesn’t vant to break the delicate rapport betveen the two of them until he is confirmed in all three gaits. Schmutzi has an uncanny ability to anticipate Vanton’s needs.” 

(the rider for all of his uncanny ability, however, is evidently oblivious to Wanton’s well expressed need to rid himself of the abusive tub of Lichtenstein lard grinding away on his back) 

Me – (suppressing the need to simultaneously giggle and throw up) “Are you riding any other horses?” 

GS – “Oh ja, Schmutzi gives me daily lungeline lessons on a perfectly vonderful schoolmaster ve brought from Lichtenstein. He says he vill continue this until my seat is strong enough that my hands vill function independently and effectively. Maybe next month I vill canter. I learn so much just watching Schmutzi and Vanton together.”  

Me – “Is there anything in particular you’d like me to stress in my article?” 

GS – “Ja. I vould vant you to talk about the purity of Vanton’s gaits as you can see in front of you, and the elegance of both horse and rider as they strive to achieve the ultimate goal of HARMONY. To me they now look like a classical painting, and they vill only get better. Ven vill your article be out?” 

Me – (stalling for time and suddenly feeling the need to get away before I lose all semblance of self control and yank Schmutzi off the poor horse’s back and beat him to death with the two long whips he is carrying) “I’m not sure. All submitted articles are subject to editing based on available space. Thank you so much for your time.” 

GS – “Ja. You vill come to the farm soon and continue the interview?” 

Me – (mumbling something incoherent as I beat a retreat to the safety of my car.)  

Sadly, I realize that I’m not that much of a REAL PROFESSIONAL after all!

WWJHD – What Would John Have Done? 

Sigh. Depressed!  

Katie Lindsay: Fun and Games at the Hunter Show

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What pisses me off worse than anything in the world is the blinding rage I feel when reading something really good that was written by someone who is a better writer than I am. This invariably brings on alternating bouts of uncontrollable temper, insomnia, and abject teeth gnashing depression. Recently, our very own John of Eventing Nation fame and fortune (not) wrote an “interview,” Montana FAQ, that had me howling with laughter. After wiping up the coffee I’d sprayed all over my keyboard and thanking God that I do my own laundry, my Scorpion nature kicked in, the gist of which is “I don’t want to get ahead. I just want to get even.” Today, the opportunity to so so presented itself and went something like this.

A horse belonging to a good friend of mine was competing in a Hunter Derby at a quadruple (or whatever the Hell) A summer H/J show in the neighborhood. I was told that the class would run “around 11 A.M.” Now I was raised doing the hunters – indoors, outdoors , you name it – and to this day, I still love watching a good hunter go, but midway in my competitive career, I crossed over to (cue the Twilight Zone theme music) The Dark Side, eventing, where I have since been in ever evolving capacities. In the time that has elapsed, I’d managed to forget the number one thing that really annoyed me back then – waiting endlessly for Susie Creamcheese to get her ass to the in gate and ride instead of dicking around in the warm up ring waiting for her trainer to appear and earn his or her day fee bellowing inanities at her. I was painfully reminded today!

Anyway, I digress. 11 AM oozed on glacierlike to 1 PM, and in the meantime, I watched (sort of) a 2 hour, six horse Medal (or Maclay, never could tell the difference) qualifying class. I sat and sucked on a cup of pretty bad coffee and amused myself by covertly studying the father of one of the riders who alternated bellowing into his mobile phone with twitching and groaning while watching his offspring’s rivals crawl around the ring. All of a sudden, John’s Montana FAQ interview, the object of my rageful envy, popped into my consciousness. Why not a fantasy interview with a teen aged hunter equitation rider, I asked myself. It could be pretty funny – and it would give me something to do besides becoming over caffeinated, studying the backs of my eyelids, and reorganizing my life yet again. The result of this fantasy trip follows – and yes, John, I plagerized the Hell out of your piece. Sue me for all my back pay!

July 30, 2010 – Equifantasy Horse Show, Somewhere in the hot Middlewestern Boonies.

I approach teenaged girl who had earlier won a class and is now busy texting. She is dressed in the prerequisite white pattern on pattern shirt, choker, low slung baby barf colored breeches, black boots, helmet, and side buckled, bling encrusted belt. I had done some research from her show number (clever reporter that I am). Her name is Britiffuffy Loganthorne. (Note first name that combines the best of Brittany, Tiffany and Buffy, and the last name which I earlier learned was changed from Madoff four years ago by her hedge fund managing father. You get the drift – the same drift that the SEC evidently missed ….) 

Me (perkily) : “Hi. I’m (mumble name) a free lance writer doing an article for (mumble unintelligible equine magazine name) about your win. May I have a word with you?”

BL : (never missing a beat of her texting) “Huh?”

Me : (repeat opening sentence slower)

BL : “Oh yeah. Like OK.” Still texting.

Me : “You must be quite happy with your blue ribbon today. Any thoughts?”

BL : “Yeah. It was good, but it’s like a crappy ribbon. Hihowzitgone?” (the last to a passing contemporary clone)

Me :  “Your horse, Out Until Dawn, was brilliant. Does he have a stable name?”

BL : (looking up from her tiny keyboard) “Name? Oh yeah I guess. Like Hank.”

Me : “I’d like to get some pictures of him relaxing. What stall is he in?”

BL : “Stall? I dunno. I’ve never been there. My Own like brings him here to the ring for me.”

Me : “My Own?”

BL : “Yeah. My Own Groom. Everyone has one.”

Me : “What’s his name? Maybe I could get a quote from him.”

BL : “Name? Dunno. We like call them all Juan.” 

Me : (rapidly changing the subject) “Was your trainer pleased with your win?”

BL : “I guess. She told my Dad he had to buy me another practice horse if I’m going to like win at the indoors this fall. He got pretty hacked off. Everyone has at least two practice horses. I don’t like see why I can’t.” (This in an especially unattractive whiney voice). “He’ll come around.”

Me : (anxious to get some kind of usable quote out of this brain dead child) “Do you find it difficult to combine school work with your riding career, especially if your goal is doing the Indoors?”

BL : “Huh? Wadyamean?”

Me : (suddenly too tired to go on and longing for a gin and tonic to ease the pain) “Forget it. Thanks for your time.”

I exit stage left and find the nearest dark and soothing bar where I still sit depressed because John still writes better than I do and probably always will. 

Katie Lindsay: Chasing the Elusive “AHA” Moment

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Into each life, hopefully, some AHA moments shall fall. “So Katie, now WTF are you babbling about?” you may ask! This topic came about following a somewhat well lubricated dinner conversation I was having with a local trainer during which we touched upon, (among a zillion other things), the science/art whatever of teaching people how to ride a horse and guiding them toward a goal of improving their craft. We also spent some time analyzing instant gratification and fulfilling of ambition vis a vis achieving long term and genuine learning. Deep, eh? The next day, I started thinking about all the stuff we had discussed and subsequently made several mental U’ies to apply it to other aspects of equestrian sport, somewhat related to, but not the exclusive domain of actually riding a horse.
A teacher/trainer/coach can only do so much. He can impart his knowledge 24/7 until he is blue in the face, but until the student successfully ingests this knowledge, struggles to assimilate it and make it his own, understands it, and transforms it into action, nothing happens (except in some cases frustration and a rapid depletion of a bank account.) This can be a very personal and sometimes lonely process, but when the desired sequence of events actually occurs, it is by my definition, the ultimate AHA moment.
AHA moments do not as a rule happen serendipitously. The student must work at it and concentrate on trying to understand what his teacher is trying to impart. Great students spend hours on their own using the tools they have hopefully learned in order to achieve a goal. It is frequently hard, boring and discouraging work, but when the AHA moment occurs, it is a major rush.
I remember “Mongo,” an amazingly talented, versatile and thoroughly quirky Thoroughbred I acquired as a two year old and had for many years. We foxhunted and won tons in the hunter ring, but when I decided to start eventing him, we were faced with that dirty D word, Dressage. He hated it. So did I. Sitting his trot was pure agony. The clinicians I rode with and teachers I took lessons from all studied him, shook their heads gravely, and talked about “softening him and having him give me his back.” I would nod wisely as if I knew what the hell they were talking about and resume the hour’s torture. (In retrospect, I’m sure it was way harder on him than on me, but at the time, I didn’t much care. I hurt too much!) One day, I stopped in the middle of a hack and out of the blue decided that by God, THIS-WAS-GOING-TO-BE-THE-DAY that the big breakthrough would occur. Do or die. (As I recall, we were in a lovely quarry which sadly has since turned into a forest of McMansions.) Somehow, “it” happened and lo and behold, I was sitting on a soft, responsive and most of all, comfortable horse. Wow. What a glorious AHA moment that wouldn’t have happened had I not forced myself to make the words I’d been hearing my own. Sadly, in our society of instant fixes, fewer and fewer people seem to be willing to take the time and invest the sweat equity to really learn something and instead go after the Holy Grail that just may be found in the next trainer barn down the road.
I’m sure teachers have AHA moments too, moments when a student who has been a dim 40 watter suddenly sprouts a virtual light bulb over his head and “gets it.” I know horses have them, and it’s a delight when it happens.
Turning to my field of expertise – and I use that term very lightly because the more “expert” one becomes, the more one realizes that he doesn’t really know jack! I’ve been an organizer for a couple of decades, but it was really only in the last five years that I had my own personal AHA moment. In 2005, I spent some time in the hospital, and when I came home, I was faced with the challenge of putting on a CIC 1, 2 and 3 Star and a national Advanced through Training competition in several weeks. Ugh. Daunting enough when feeling good! My AHA moment happened when I realized that there were other people who could be trusted to do a job as well as and usually better than I could. For ages, I’d been advised to delegate more, and like with my Dressage lessons, I’d agree solemnly and go right on doing what I’d always done – most everything. I discovered that I really liked delegating, and thanks to a great team, the events since that day have run better and better – and I haven’t needed a total tune up and severe R and R when they were over. AHA moment at its very best!
May your AHA moments be pleasurable and lead to long lasting success! I need a nap.

Rules’ Death Spiral

 

From Katie:

RULES’ DEATH SPIRAL

I am a devoted fan of figure skating at the “upper levels.” Watching a successful quad or an incredible pairs performance is almost as exciting to me as watching WFP romp around the Rolex course. (I do, however, admit to drawing the fan line at Ice Dancing “PT and D”- Post Torvill and Dean!). I have admired clips of the Protopopovs doing their signature “Death Spiral” in their Gold Medal performance in the early 50’s and still marvel at it even though the only time I saw them live three decades later, they looked terribly frail. If you’ve never seen a death spiral, it’s very cool. The male skater stands and holds the hand of his female counterpart who spirals in a circle around him sinking lower and lower with each rotation.  

So what exactly is the point of my nattering on about this? Probably not much except that it recently struck me that the rules in our sport today, perhaps reflective of the rules that govern all of our lives, are in a kind of death spiral. Instead of working to make the rules that govern us less complicated and more easily understood, it seems that we are adding more and more in response to specific incidents that arise – and may or may not ever arise again. We have in effect become incident-specific “reactive” rather than globally “proactive.”

All this pondering was actually prompted by a conference call I took part in several weeks ago. One of the participants, a well respected official, was relating an incident that had occurred at an event the weekend before. The parent of a child was claiming that the dimensions of a jump on a Beginner Novice course exceeded specifications. In this case, the point in question was the depth of a shallow ditch. The concerned parent apparently became somewhat argumentative.  The official took the time to talk with her at length, and hopefully a positive resolution and some education resulted. Someone on the call then suggested that perhaps we need a specific rule governing the exact depth of  ditches at that level. At that point, I’m ashamed to admit that I lost it and inquired (not at all sweetly) why the Hell we had to make a rule for every (bleep)ing thing in our sport – or something to that effect. Following an embarrassed silence, a quick change of subject ensued.  

Unless one is a total anarchist, rules are necessary evils. If everyone behaved at all times and always did the honorable and right thing, there’d be far fewer – but that’s not the way it is. Looking at our own eventing rules, something that I have done for many years, I think they break down into two categories – Necessary and P.I.T.A. Necessary rules are those that strive to ensure safety for horse and rider and maintain the same conditions as much as possible for everyone across the board. Emergency requirements and fence types and dimensions for each level of expertise fall into this category (although the latter seem to be creeping into the “guidelines” category which in my opinion is not necessarily an entirely good thing). P.I.T.A. rules are those that have absolutely no bearing on safety or performance. Why in God’s name should the absence of gloves in dressage at the FEI level be punishable by elimination? Does a tail bandage or length of sleeves or wearing a stock when going without coats really make a difference in how a horse performs or in rider safety?

I also am fighting the nagging and rather nasty thought that keeps skittering across my brain that these “added on” new rules are coming into being partly because the officials who are responsible for enforcing the rules lack the experience – or skill – or balls – or whatever to make any call without a specific published rule to back it up.  Instead of making calls that speak to thespirit and intent of a rule, they cry out for something in print that will precisely justify their ruling. Granted, it’s a helluva lot safer and easier to point to a sentence in the rule book than to actually take the time to educate the person inquiring about the situation. This is lame. A large and particularly unpleasant reason for this tendency is that many officials have expressed a fear of being sued. How sad is that? And how sad is it that a beginner novice rider would even contemplate calling a lawyer over disputed time faults? But it’s happened. I occasionally find myself asking if I really want to be associated with this sport any more!

Upon rereading all this, I admit to sounding pretty negative about the current state of the sport of eventing. Possibly this is a result of having experienced a particularly crappy week – but that is no excuse. I love this sport, but I do also span a generation gap that had it’s start in a kinder, gentler and less intense time. I think we do tend to take ourselves a little too seriously and forget the reason why most of us choose to stay involved. Eventing provides an environment that promotes a wonderful rapport between man and horse, and if I choose to carp about what I see are some flaws, it is only in hopes of giving a needed half halt – a jolt that will force us to step back a pace and examine where we are going and why.

Back to my bat cave!

Katie Lindsay: JUST DO IT

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(No, this is not a Nike commercial!)

I’ve finally emerged from my spring officiating back to back, (Twin Rivers, Rolex Kentucky and Jersey Fresh), and I’m glad to have a reprieve from flailing my way through O’Hare Airport at all hours of the day and night. (Believe me, that’s a creepy damn place at 5 AM after a red eye!) It’s good to be home, too many loads of laundry notwithstanding, and also good to have a little distance in order to evaluate everything I’ve seen in the past month.

First of all, a big shout out to Mike E-S, Derek DiGrazia and John Williams for their courses at these events. I was happy to see that the tracks at both Rolex and Jersey were more open, “gallopy” and straightforward than they were last year. Horses actually had the time to look at and understand a problem before tackling it – and I think the good results reflected this trend. Kudos! Hopefully the popularity of the “show jumping without walls” kinds of courses that seemed to have been the trend in the last decade has waned? 

Horses can’t run any faster, jump any higher, or think any faster than they did at the turn of the century. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think Greyhound still holds the world’s trotting record for a mile and a half that he set in the 30’s? And how many Triple Crown winners have we seen in the past 25 years? Yet we have asked these wonderful animals to jump higher, run faster, and react quicker than they are capable of by endorsing a course design philosophy featuring one cluster of very technical problems after another separated by straight galloping stretches Start, stop, start, stop … Safety wise, this hasn’t turned out very well at all. (One reason given for this kind of design is to create prime cross country viewing areas for potential sponsors. Yikes. Can you spell tail wagging the dog?)

I had an interesting chat at Jersey with Eric Smiley, the President of the Ground Jury. My mother always used to say that everyone needs a little bit of Irish to survive in this world. Being a typical daughter, I ignored her. Silly old woman. However, while listening to Eric, I had a huge head slapping, “aha” moment. It seemed that many years after the fact, I finally got what Mom was talking about. Eric couldn’t be more Irish if he were wearing a green top hat and weird pointy shoes, and in the course of one of our conversations in which I was ranting in a somewhat agitated and pissed off manner, he said something that stopped me cold and essentially summed up the feelings I’ve been struggling with about the current state of this sport we all love. Let me elaborate and expand.  

I was whining about something or other that had happened during the day, and he looked at me and said calmly “It would appear that we have lost the ability to get out there and just do it.” This simple comment shone a spotlight for me on why we all seem to be having so many problems getting along and communicating with each other. He was speaking at that moment from a rider’s perspective, using as an example the time he had entered Badminton during a rainy spring season. (Is there any other kind in Ireland?). He had only done one hunter trial as a warm up. “I didn’t ask Hugh Thomas to change the course for me. I just kicked harder and would have pulled up if I’d had to.” Bingo. 

I think the advice to just soldier on and do it is applicable to everyone involved in our sport, not just riders. We organizers tend to overthink and obsess about things. It’s in our job description. “If we increase entry fees, will we lose entries?” “If we invest in stabling, will it attract more riders?” “If we ask judge X to officiate, will trainer Z boycott us?” There comes a time in every organizer’s life when he or she needs to throw caution to the winds, stop intellectualizing, take the plunge, and just do what feels right. That of course doesn’t negate sleepless nights – but most organizers have these anyway!

Officials face decisions many times during the course of a competition, and here too the principle of “just doing it” should come into play. The least effective officials are the ditherers. These hapless souls wont make a decision without agonizing stretches of time spent dithering about it. What rule covers this? Will a decision cause an ugly confrontation? Will I get sued? Maybe if I don’t answer, the problem will go away. I was a T.D. for a very long time, and during my tenure, came to the (over simplified) conclusion that people who ask questions generally don’t really care whether the response is a thumbs up or a thumbs down – they just want an appropriate answer in an appropriate length of time. Of course this is a rank generalization, but essentially, I think the philosophy holds true. The two tenets that must be followed in such situations are what is the intent of the rule, and how can a playing field be made level for all? Come to think of it, these two questions should never be too far from anyone’s mind when dealing with eventing problems!

Sadly we live in a “cover your ass” generation in which society habitually shifts blame to everyone else. (Look at the BP/Halliburton tap dance about the oil spill in the Gulf if you want a glaring example.)   Maybe it’s time for all of us, at least in our sport and no matter how we’re involved, to start accepting responsibility for the outcome and just do it. Maybe then we can start communicating in a reasonable way and solving problems without endless dithering and Ego-testing. 

END

Where Have All the Good Times Gone?

 

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A Walk Down an Eventing Memory Lane

 

Not to plagiarize anyone’s lyrics, but hearing/reading about the recent pissing, moaning and finger pointing going on amongst various “factions” in our sport, these words keep rolling around unbidden in my head. Where have all the good times (in eventing) gone – if in fact they have gone? And if they have gone, when did they go, where did they go, and why did they go? On second thought, and on a more global scale, what has gone FUBAR with the world we live in? When I see Jimmy Johnson, a winning football coach and NASCAR dude, hawking ExtenZe male enhancement drugs on TV, when I read of bomb threats being levied against members of Congress who voted a certain way, or when dinner time TV ads warn of diarrhea and “oily discharge” associated with certain diet drugs, I realize that life as we knew it in a kinder, gentler age is circling the drain. Yuk! 

 

Over the years, I’ve watched hundreds and maybe thousands of horses and riders leave various start boxes all over the country. Time was when there’d be expressions of excited anticipation and dare I say joy on the faces of so many of these riders. These days, not so much. Riders more often than not look grim, serious, too often scared, stressed and/or exhausted – and toward the middle of the season, horses start looking the same way – burned out and flat eyed. This is not a healthy thing. 

 

Since I began unscientifically making note of the above, I have simultaneously been struggling with the question “Why has this change occurred?” and “When did it start changing?” I keep asking myself this question and keep coming up with basically the same answer which is that the “fun” as we oldsters knew it changed when the sport itself changed. (Which came first, the chicken or the egg, she mused.) Bear with me while I expand on this somewhat pompous statement.

 

I am a based-in-reality fan of the long format/classic eventing/whatever you care to call it. Emotionally, I believe it is the ultimate in equestrian sport – a test of horse and rider worthy of being designated as a true triathlon. Realistically, however, I realize that at the upper levels of eventing as we have it today, it is dead in the water. (Zipping into my flame retardant suit as I type.) Maybe through the energy created by the Training Three Day and the Half Star it will become a viable sport again at the lower levels. Time will tell – and that would be grist for another discussion down the road. I do believe that the demise of the long format put the nail in the coffin of the whacky, sometimes zany seat of the pants fun that attracted so many of us to the sport in the first place. Galloping a steeplechase course has been likened to feeling the bugs flying into your teeth as you smile your way along. I did an interview with Bruce Davidson in 2008, and he described it as that “put your hands down and get that lovely galloping rhythm and maintain it all the way to the end” experience. Cool, huh?

 

Around the time that the long format died, and there are a zillion opinions as to why this happened, things started changing. A trend in course design became noticeable. Without the endurance factor of Phases A, B and C, “new” ways to separate the wheat from the chaff evolved in the form of cross country courses with questions of ever increasing technicality. I’ve heard it likened to show jumping without walls. At the peak of this trend, horses gallop like gangbusters between clusters of fences in varying combinations where they are forced to whoa-and-roll back before roaring off again to the next cluster.. This is ably demonstrated in the extensive speed research being done by John Staples and Reed Ayres with some frightening speeds being clocked. Concurrently, a school of thought was championed that because the endurance factor had been softened, horses could compete more often. Another theory was expressed by a trainer friend of mine who said that in the days of the long format, there was a spring three day and a fall three day. and everything in between was regarded as preparation for these events. With these goals gone, every horse trial has become a serious full out life or death competitive entity in itself. Horses are being asked to compete all year long, often every other weekend, and frequently with long road hauls from event to event as qualifications and points are being sought.

 

OK. So far, this seems to be a valid theory for the competitors who had their eye on the prize of running full format three day events. Why then, you ask, should this have had any effect on those riders for whom completing a Preliminary horse trials was the ultimate goal, those riders who by the way compose the vast majority of eventers, those who pay the bills for the group with higher aspirations and abilities? Well, folks, guess what. It has!

 

“Back when,” many eventers came into the sport from the hunt field. These intrepid foxhunters had been fairly comfortable showing their versatile horses at the hunter shows in the off season over outside courses and showing off their full drag in Corinthian classes. Starting in probably the late 70’s/early 80’s, hunter shows started up, and our venerable field hunter friends were soon outclassed. We then found a wonderful welcoming home in eventing where the most familiar and most fun phase was the cross country. (Damn that stupid dressage anyway!) As a brand new official in the late 80’s, I evaluated courses as “Would my foxhunter get around clean,” (Pre Training), “Would my foxhunter get around with maybe one stop,” (Training), or “Would my foxhunter just laugh at these questions, unload me, and go home” (Preliminary on up). 

 

Since the aforementioned death of the long format, increased technicality in lower level cross country has trickled down appreciably. Ten years ago, a coffin at training was unheard of. Today, a majority of these courses have them in some form or other along with corners (or corner like substances). Novice and Beginner Novice designers have ramped up their courses as well. It saddens me to hear trainers on beginner novice course walks advising their students to count strides and make note of their meter marks for time checks. Any wonder why Starter/Tadpole/Amoeba divisions have emerged? It is argued that these entry levels have to be made more technical in order to prepare horses and riders for the next levels up. This is valid, but one can also argue that perhaps wisdom and recent history might dictate a return at all levels to more straightforward courses. I think this is possibly starting to become reality in the past couple of years. I hope so.

 

The change in the demographics of those who participate in our sport has also had an influence on the format of the sport. As open country diminishes, more and more eventers are learning their craft in enclosed spaces. Skill is being taught by (hopefully) knowledgeable people instead of being learned through experience. Quoting Bruce again, when he was asked last year in Reston for what advice he would have for a hopeful four star rider, he responded “Just ride. Spend hours in the saddle  Ride.”

 

I wish I knew how to put the good times back in the sport – how to put joy into the start box again and laughter in the barns no matter how bad the day is going – but I don’t. Things have gotten terribly complicated for everyone involved. Riders worry about making a living in days that don’t have enough hours. Officials worry about doing the right thing and making the right call that will be fair to everyone. Organizers worry about paying the bills and providing good competitions. We have come to demand too much of each other to the detriment of our own feelings and behavior.

 

In closing, a side note of interest which may or may not be relevant. Hunter classes have gotten ridiculous with their emphasis more on the number of steps a horse takes over the quality of the steps. However, the hottest new trend in the hunter/jumper world is the Derby in which horses are asked to gallop and jump – gasp – straightforward solid fences in lieu of the measured artificial courses in the ring. Not counting the somewhat controversial indoor eventing ventures, could something like this catch on as the next logical trend in eventing, and could it be, at least at first, fun? What a concept! 

How A Misunderstanding Segued Into An Opinion Blog!

From John: It is my distinct pleasure to introduce Eventing Nation to our latest guest writer; event organizer Katie Lindsay.  One of the many great suggestions we received in our EN Census, and through emails, is that our readers would like us to showcase the different perspectives of the countless separate entities that come together to make our great sport happen each weekend.  Today I am grateful that Katie has taken the time to give us an organizer’s perspective, and I am pleased to share that perspective with all of you.  Thanks Katie, and thank you for reading.  Go eventing.

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When John and I were communicating about my writing some epic pearls of wisdom (?) for Eventing Nation, I told him that I’d like to debut with a humorous piece, something along the lines of the AEC Gobiblog that my (late) dachshund Gobi wrote for three years (with mechanical assistance from me because with his short legs, he had trouble reaching the computer keys). As fate would have it, however, and exercising the time honored privilege of a woman to change her mind for whatever damn reason suits her pleasure, I have not been feeling very witty of late. In fact, I find myself being disturbed about some relatively recent situations, a feeling that for a while threatened to become a full blown hissy fit.

As background, one of the hats I wear is that of an organizer. This hat usually sits pretty squarely on my head at a confident, somewhat jaunty angle. Occasionally though it slips a bit, and even more occasionally, it ends up dangling off my left ear. For several days, it was definitely in the latter mode until an ensuing clarification righted it again into more positive territory. What prompted the most recent snit? Probably, (aside from some personal issues too complicated to delve into at the moment), a posting by our very own John earlier this month concerning something Buck Davidson submitted in his blog about PRO (Professional Riders Organization).  John wrote:

“…according to Buck, PRO advises show organizers on what dressage and show jumping judges to hire: “Another important part of PRO is helping event organizers decide on which officials to hire…”  An organization of select riders influencing which judges are hired by competitions seems like it might potentially create a slight conflict of interest.” 

W.T.F.?

(Before I continue, a disclaimer is in order. I have a high regard for the professional horsemen who have opted to make a living at the sport we all love. God knows running narcotics from Colombia would be a whole lot more lucrative and probably less injurious to one’s health! I am also a huge fan of Buck’s. I especially enjoy his laugh which borders on being a full blown cackle, and I am always glad to see him wherever I am and in whatever capacity!) 
Back to the topic at hand, then. This posting pushed all my “shoot from the hip” buttons, but resisting the urge to dash off a snotty note to PRO, I chose instead to just settle into slow burn mode and see what develops – and in retrospect, I’m glad I exercised a (rare for me) bit of self control because it has been subsequently pointed out that this “generous” offer by PRO that Buck referred to would be implemented ONLY IF ASKED, a caveat missing from Buck’s original blog entry. Though the clarification helped a bit to soothe the savage beast in me, nonetheless I remain in watchful mode. What got me so cranked up at the time was that the statement read as a blatant manifestation of the (sadly) ever growing schism that I have been noticing in eventing between the various participating factions – organizers, officials, competitors, volunteers – and further division within each faction. Damn I wish this weren’t so! It initially came crashing into my personal radar sights two years ago when the Professional Horsemen’s Council, a USEA committee, put forward a “strong recommendation” that would require organizers to provide separate warm up areas for professionals for the purpose of showing sale horses during competitions. This request was subsequently withdrawn, but to me it epitomized a dangerous alienation within the sport. I had just gotten over that when the statement cited above appeared.  Even with the clarification which was provided, I am still left with a very queasy feeling about the state of our discipline that has led me at times to question who exactly is running the asylum! 

Let’s face it, each of our “groups” has its own area of expertise. I wouldn’t be caught dead advising Bruce or Phillip or Boyd on what bit to use on his horse because I don’t have a clue about the specifics involved or the reasoning behind whatever bit he is using. On the other side of the coin, it is only the rare multitasking competitor who would have the specific expertise to know what officials would meld with what organizations and why. In fact, what defines in a competitor’s mind an appropriate official? Maybe one who gives 9’s on someone’s trot work? Or one who overlooks a crappy change? I would be very curious to learn who is on the A list! Yes, I’m the first to admit that there are some dicey officials (and competitors and organizers and volunteers – fill in the blanks) out there. Some of these less than stellar souls also keep on being hired. Why does this happen? Maybe they are cheaper and therefore affordable for struggling events. Maybe their personalities mesh with that of the organizing committee. Maybe because they are a bit more casual with less than smoothly operating events, they get hired back. There are lots of reasons. “One man’s nemesis is another man’s prince.” As an organizer, I early on realized the importance of working with a TEAM of officials that can put Ego aside, even when they may not exactly agree among themselves, and can pull together with the shared goal of providing a successful experience for all concerned. When selecting officials, I am very mindful of that team concept and would be overly resentful should an outside entity force someone on my event who I know wouldn’t gel with that idea.

The plain old audacity of the P.H.C.’s  warm up area recommendation is a separate matter entirely, but it too shines a light on the dangerous polarization I perceive. A lot of events are feeling the land and money pinch. Had an ill conceived recommendation like this become a rule, it would be more than likely that compliance would not be possible. No events, no place to showcase these sale horses. Do the math folks! Thank God it was withdrawn – but sadly, I think the insensitivity that prompted its suggestion still exists.   

In the overall scheme of things, our sport is but a miniscule fraction of a relatively tiny segment of athletic endeavor. I see ideas like the above proposals as strengthening further divisiveness in our discipline. This is the very last thing we need! Instead, we should all take a moment to forget ourselves and walk in each other’s shoes. In Reston last year, I congratulated Jon Holling on “coming over to the dark side” and organizing an event. He looked at me with a hound dog expression, sighed, shook his head and said “Katie, I had no idea!” He thus admitted to a realization that there is a lot more to a side of the sport that he’d taken for granted up until the time he put on an organizer hat. He got it! We could all probably use the same kind of hands on diversification training that Jon got!