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Michael Willham


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Side-by-Side (with Analysis!): Two Different Prelim Rides at SRF Carolina International

Michael Willham is an Intermediate/3* eventer based out of Ohio with his two competition horses, Fernhill Cayenne and Fernhill Fugitive. Michael recently spent two weeks in the Carolinas to train and stretch his horses’ legs at their first competition of the season: the Setters’ Run Farm Carolina International. You can catch up on all of EN’s coverage from SRF Carolina International here.

I am always grateful that my “vacation” each year is actually spent down in Aiken with my horses to get out of the cold, frozen Northwest Ohio. I train and then end my two-week vacation with our first competition of the year to knock the rust off after spending months in an indoor arena. I always drop down to Prelim because both myself and my horses are excited, but also a little rusty in terms of galloping and being fluid on cross country.

I did something a little different with my helmet cam videos for this competition: I spliced them together so you could see how each horse handled the questions as well as their respective speeds at various parts of the course. I also narrated the helmet cam to describe the course, what my thought process was for each jump, and how I felt it actually went.

The Prelim was actually quite straightforward. It was pretty much a “move up” course in my opinion, which I used as an opportunity to work on developing my ability to ride faster and (attempt to) make time, which still didn’t quite happen! But since I knew the jumps and combinations were super simple for what both of my horses have already done, I thought it was the perfect chance to challenge myself with speed instead of the technicality of the course.

My plans were a little foiled by Jack (Fernhill Fugitive) being so excited in the startbox that he shut down and couldn’t function for a few seconds right as we were counted out of the start, as well as him being a bit of a fire-breathing dragon (which is typical for him for the first competition of the year — he LIVES for cross country) as it is. This meant I didn’t have the control/brakes and fluidity that I would’ve liked to have.

There were quite a few times where I fought too much wasting precious seconds, as well as ending up killing the engine and adding too many strides. But he was still great and dealt with it. That is still very much a learning curve for me riding him; he’s so enthusiastic about jumping that I get a little backwards in my riding instead of trusting him more!

I typically don’t run Cayenne for time. I’ve spent years just getting experience of jumping around Intermediate+ with him for the knowledge of it, but I felt it was a good course to push him a little, too. I felt his round was quite a bit more fluid, but that is typical both because of his personality/rideability as well as the fact that I’ve had him for much longer (eight seasons versus just two on Jack). However, he did surprise me by jumping the snot out of most of the fences, sometimes even launching me a bit out of my position (keep an eye out for that Normandy Bank on the video!).

An interesting note here is that because both horses have a lot of experience jumping around bigger tracks (Jack ran around several 5* events with Phillip Dutton and Cayenne has done many Intermediates and part of an Advanced cross country — still working on that!), they both did not respect the jumps whatsoever. As a result, I had to (attempt to) hold them off the base much more than I typically do, which was not always successful. But at the end of the day, for safety’s sake, horses also need to learn to be responsible for their own jump and both are more than athletic enough to get themselves out of the situation they put themselves into.

Overall, it was a great start to the year. Jack surprised me by finally breaking through in our struggles in dressage and laying down a 23.0 to lead the 23-horse division, which Cay did the same and finally got back into the 20s with a 27.3, which has been much deserved. They both showjumped double clear; Jack kept his lead and Cay moved up to seventh. My bit of rustiness on cross country meant Jack came home with 12 seconds of time, bumping him down to third, and Cayenne came home with 17 seconds to move down to 15th.

Regardless of their placing, I was super happy with their individual performances all weekend. It was exactly what we’ve been looking for: relaxed, energetic, dressage tests, double clear show jumping rounds, and a good learning experience on running for time on cross country.

I hope you enjoy the video and can obtain some insights from it as well. I am in the process of compiling a library of videos, PDFs, interviews, lessons, and many more educational tools and knowledge into an Equestrian Masterclass. You can sign up for the free Pre-Launch email list here.

Clinic Report: ‘Pitt-Proverbs’ from the Legend Himself in Aiken

Photo courtesy of Michael Willham.

I had the amazing opportunity to audit and take a lesson from the man who holds the most 5* wins in the record books, William Fox-Pitt, while he was in Aiken for the Grand Prix Eventing Showcase at Bruce’s Field!

I spent all day Saturday auditing the show jumping lessons, while I audited a couple lessons and rode in a cross country lesson on Sunday.

I was ring/jump crew on Saturday, and most of the Sunday theories were after-the-fact after my ride, so I may be paraphrasing slightly, but I wanted to pass along information and insights that William talked about for everyone who couldn’t make it! The more detailed explanations after each item are my understanding and interpretation of what he was saying.

Overall, I got the impression that William’s focus was almost entirely on affecting and changing how the horse went; he didn’t make too many comments or adjustments on the riders themselves. 

I will say, many of the things he said I’m sure all of us would go, “Oh yeah, absolutely, that makes sense almost to a point where it isn’t really new information to me.” But on a deeper level, I think most of us don’t follow through. And that follow through is what is most important and is perhaps one of the biggest reasons why William is the eventing legend that he is. It reminds me of a saying I saw a while ago that went something like this: “Experts work on the fundamentals; beginners work on the advanced.”

  • “1st half to control/organize, 2nd half to ride” (in a related distance).

This was emphasized both days. William wanted riders to make all of their balancing/organizing/changes in the first half of a related distance (say the first 3 strides in a six stride line) and then use the 2nd half to maintain what you created. Oftentimes we try to keep changing the horse too close to the jump, which actually makes the entire jump worse than if we just rode to whatever not-perfect distance we were seeing, but in the same canter without changing on the last few strides.

  • “Shoulders!”

I probably heard this a thousand times between the two days. William highlighted keeping the horse’s shoulders under control to maintain straightness and power in the gait and in the jump. 

William emphasized lots of trot jumps to work on footwork. Each lesson on both days started with jumping from the trot. He said that he knows riders hate doing this, but it is good for the horse to figure out their feet and their bodies. He said there are many times when his “jump day” is purely walk/trot/jump transitions, no cantering jumps. It helps sharpen the horse up.

I had the pleasure of being a rider whose 5* horse refused at a Beginner Novice jump. This horse had literally only stopped one other time in all of the years I’ve had him, but he picked jumping a BN rolltop from a trot in front of William Fox-Pitt as the perfect time to have our second refusal. (Insert face-palm here). So yeah, it happens. Hopefully that goes to show you to not be too hard on yourself.


Posted by Michael Willham Eventing on Sunday, March 6, 2022

  • “Hope is a really bad word when riding a horse. We don’t like hope. We need to react to what is happening” (in terms of riding a distance).

William said this when a rider wasn’t reacting to what was underneath them. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan, and we have to adapt and switch our plan to be successful. Not just sit there and hope it all works out. But I also thought it was quite hilarious because usually “hope” is a positive word, not a negative one! But in riding, hope is definitely negative. Hope means inaction. William wants positive action when we are riding.

  • “Leg can say go, body says ‘but you can add’. You don’t go with the body when you say go with the leg”

This was said in relation to a rider putting their leg on to move a horse up to a jump and take away some of the gap they were seeing. But the rider leaned forward with their body too and the horse ended up still chipping a stride, so the rider got flung onto the neck a bit. William explained the importance of influencing the horse underneath you, but the rider staying in a dynamic/adaptable position that can go with the horse if they end up taking off, but also stay/wait with the horse if it ends up chipping. This was both for quality of the ride as well as the safety of not falling off.


Posted by Michael Willham Eventing on Sunday, March 6, 2022

  • “Change the jumps up at home, keep them interested and paying attention”

William said he likes always setting out different things, turns, lines, distances, angles, etc. Approach jumps different ways, come on shorter turns, come on longer turns. A big emphasis was keeping the horse sharp. A sharp horse is good with their feet. A sharp horse doesn’t hang a leg. A sharp horse doesn’t drop a rail. But you have to keep everything interesting in order to keep a horse sharp. You can’t just do boring lines over and over again and expect the horse to be fully interested and on their game.

  • “Do less in the last few strides. Make your changes earlier”

This is pretty much the same as the “1st half to organize, 2nd half to ride.” But I’m repeating it again (in a slightly different way) because this was a big item William kept going to. Too often he’d see a rider try to make changes in the horse’s canter in the last couple strides before a fence, and it almost always resulted in a worse jump than if they had just left the horse alone those last few strides, even to a poor distance. At one point, William walked over to a jump and showed everyone all the possible places a horse could take off. He stood about 2′ away from a vertical, and then he walked further and stood 10′ away from the vertical. He explained that if the horse’s canter quality is good, and the consistency is there, they can take off from just about anywhere. The problems come about when we try to change them too close to the jump and interrupt the rhythm and consistency. This will also go with a later point, but another benefit is that he wants horses to take some responsibility, and not-perfect distances will help make them sharper. The canter quality is more important than the distance, don’t sacrifice the quality to get a better distance.


Posted by Michael Willham Eventing on Sunday, March 6, 2022

  • “When you need to go, allow it to be bigger. Don’t go oh s**t and gallop”

This was said when a rider saw a long spot and broke out the wing flapping, spurring, and chasing their horse to a closer distance. The horse got flatter in its stride and had a flat, low quality jump. He said when we move up to a fence, we need to keep the bounce and balance of the canter, so it is more of an “allowing” move up, versus a chasing move up. Allowing the horse to elongate their stride (which should be in our toolkit to use, if we’ve done our homework in terms of adjustability as well as in terms of that exact moment setting them up correctly beforehand) without getting flat is our goal.

  • “Don’t sit like a lemon”

This may be one of my new favorite sayings. This was said with respect to a rider sitting and doing nothing on the approach to a jump. While as I said, he doesn’t necessarily want us to be changing the last few strides, that doesn’t mean we aren’t doing anything. We need to be actively maintaining the canter and bounce.

  • “With a young horse, trot is easier to keep straight than canter. When in doubt, trot. Trot first to let them know where they’re going, then you can canter.”

This was said when there was a young/green horse in the novice group. It is easier to control and keep the trot straight, so if you are still putting some miles and confidence on a young horse, and especially when it’s something they are a little nervous about, approach in a trot first. 

  • “If they never learn to run out, then you don’t have a problem. I like wings and things for younger horses. Don’t let them know that a runout is an option.”


Posted by Michael Willham Eventing on Sunday, March 6, 2022

This was said somewhat related to the point above, in terms of how we need to train the young horses. You have a better chance of not letting them get wiggly and runout at the trot. William said that some people like testing the runouts so they can know what the horse will usually do in that situation. But he said he prefers never to let them know they can runout or refuse. Then you never will have a problem with it. He said he likes putting wings/barriers to help guide and keep young horses centered. He frequently put poles on the ground and/or against jumps to help funnel a horse who was having some skepticism about the jump.

  • “Ride and react to what you’ve got. Not what you normally have or what you should have.”

This was also reiterated both days. The best riders adapt to the situation and horse underneath them. Sometimes the horse may be a little bit more quiet than normal. Sometimes they may be more amped. Sometimes they may be a little more wiggly. This is how William can catch ride a horse around an Advanced course (a cross country course more akin to a 4*, in my opinion) at the Showcase: He rides the horse that is underneath him.

  • “Don’t ride young horses in back boots so they feel the jump if they hit it. There isn’t much risk in slicing a hind.”

He’d rather they develop a sharper back end. He says there is more risk in having a horse not develop a sharp hind end and desire to avoid leaving legs than there is in a horse hurting their leg due to lack of boots. This advice was more for younger horses, obviously he says he puts boots on for competitions, and for the more experienced horses.

  • “I like doing halts on a downhill slope. It gets them working properly and frequently makes them halt square.”
  • “Speaking of slopes, I also usually introduce medium trots on a downhill, since the slope allows for the extension already.”

William said that he likes using slopes to get horses using themselves more, and he has even used the grassy hill outside of the Land Rover Kentucky 5* dressage warmup as he warmed up for dressage in years past.

  • William frequently stressed that: “Not everything has to be foot perfect. Things will go wrong. We need to train the horse to figure it out when it goes wrong. Not protect them.” 

He typically didn’t care if the riders got the wrong distance to a jump. In fact, he sometimes encouraged it in an effort to make the horse sharper and make the horse take more responsibility. They can’t be robots following our orders and nothing else; they need to have some ambition of their own.

  • William also talked many times about riding off of your eye and the feel. Not sticking to the number you walked just because. Greener horses it is usually better to add a stride in a related distance. More experienced horses can take that stride out. But sometimes some horses are just the way they are, and you need to know that and ride what you have. 

Don’t ride the number, ride the feel and ride the horse. Sometimes we get too caught up in trying to get a specific number of strides in a combination and we end up riding much worse than if we didn’t even know what the number was and we just rode off of the feel. While knowing the distance is important, what he was trying to say was to not let that mentally freeze you into sticking to “Plan A”. You need to be able to jump in and go “change to Plan B” immediately because of what you are feeling. There were several related lines that he didn’t even walk because he wanted us to just ride off of the feel we were getting from the horse.

Outtake of Michael’s “Jack” trying to drink William’s water. Photo courtesy of Michael Willham.

I’m sure I missed some “Pitt-Proverbs” or “Pitt-wits,” but these were all of the things I wrote down in between running around being a jump crew and making sure I wasn’t run over! Overall, I would say I was shocked by his down-to-earthiness for being such an accomplished rider, but if my exposure to upper level eventing has taught me anything, it’s that almost everyone is shockingly humble and casual. I love our sport for that; there aren’t many other Olympic sports where you can so easily access training by an Olympian, let alone have them be so “normal.” Go ahead and try to get a basketball lesson from Lebron James, or a swimming lesson from Michael Phelps. I’ll wait. 

Thank you William for coming across the pond to teach us!

I’ll just end by wishing everyone a successful and safe eventing season!

Perspective: Qualifications vs. the ‘Real World’

A number of riders have shared with us their opinions about a recently proposed rule change by the USEA concerning the increased number of MERs to move up to Preliminary, Intermediate and Advanced. Michael Willham shares his perspective. 

Photo courtesy of Michael Willham.

I think it is one thing to just “be an accountant” here and look at numbers, but an entirely different issue to then take your experience and think about how those numbers play out in the real world and how they may/may not be realistic.

I am writing this out of concern for the sport as well as the vast majority of people who make up the grassroots. As someone from Ohio who has ridden Prelim/Intermediate for the past five seasons, and frequently makes trips to the east coast, I think I have a decent view of both worlds: the professional programs of the east coast, but also the everyday realities of the grassroots and non-professionals. It seems to me that these rule changes didn’t take into account the non-professionals very well.

For clarification: I will be using “Prelim+” to signify any levels Prelim and above. I will also be assuming approximately 10 competitions a year, which I think is a very decent and packed year for most horses and most riders, and is at least average, or above average for most people who compete at the mid/upper levels without a string of horses. That would assume a competition every four weeks or so, starting in March and going through November. It also assumes every single one of those competitions achieves an MER, which isn’t super realistic.

Regarding licenses and the subsequent MERs to move up to Prelim+

As a quick summary, rules are being proposed to institute licenses based on someone’s experience. Licensed A riders have 25 MERs at Intermediate+, Licensed B riders have 25 MER’s at Prelim+, and everyone else is Unlicensed.

My concern comes in at how the rules then state how each of these three different categories qualify to run Prelim+.

I will bypass the Licensed A riders, as I think the proposed regulations are also reasonable, requiring essentially 3-4 MERs, without needing to be a combination to move up to any Prelim+ level. I think it is fairly safe and logical to assume someone who has successfully run around 25+ Intermediates has a fairly good handle on when they feel safe moving a horse up.

I will make a quick note for Unlicensed riders, which basically state they need 10 MERs at the previous level before moving up. Whether 10 is the exact right number is subject to some discussion, but I think you are at least in the general ballpark. I would say you are making a tremendous jump from the existing rule of four MERs (for anyone), to 10 MERs. But overall this issue I think is in the vicinity of acceptable and there should just be some discussion on the exact number. The only caveat would be a scenario in which someone has successfully run 20 Prelims, gets a new horse with Prelim+ experience, and has to run 10 Trainings as a combination before moving back up. That doesn’t make much sense, and we should be taking into account prior experience by stating that only maybe three of those 10 Training MERs have to come as a combination.

Instead, I want to focus on what these new rules mean for Licensed B riders. The rules basically take the above scenario and magnify it exponentially.

Under these new rules, Licensed B riders need seven MERs *as a combination* at the previous level in order to move up to any level Prelim+. (i.e. they need seven Training MERs as a combination to go Prelim, seven Prelim MERs to go Intermediate, etc.) Let me play out a scenario on why I think this is illogical and imposes overly harsh restrictions on people without adding much of any benefit to safety.

Keep in mind, Licensed B riders have successfully completed a *MINIMUM* of 25 Prelims. Potentially even more, and potentially others at Intermediate or even Advanced. I would say that they fall into the top 1% of riders out there today, and most people would look at them as fairly experienced, even if they aren’t the next Olympic hopeful. Also keep in mind that this is just counting MERs, while there are many instances where people come away with lots of experience from running a Prelim+ but just had a completely-safe mistake at a single fence, which means that most people have much more experience than just what their MERs show. I don’t think there are many people who run around Prelim+ for years and never come home with a 20, but yet they still gained valuable experience.

Scenario 1 – Jim Doe is a trainer who specializes in bringing young horses up to Prelim and typically selling them from there. He has successfully completed 60 Prelims and 15 Intermediates over the past four years with several different horses. I.e. he is fairly experienced at Prelim and Intermediate and knows what he is doing and when a horse feels ready. He gets a break with a horse he thinks is truly special and has some owners go in on buying the horse who has run around Intermediate for a year with a different rider but has the potential for more. Jim now has to take this horse to SEVEN Training level events, before being able to even get back to the level they are both easily experienced at. Essentially Jim loses almost an entire year of truly getting to know this horse at a competition with any real sort of challenge. I do not think many people would bat an eye at Jim taking the horse out to one or two Training Levels and then moving them back up to Prelim. Or potentially even starting him at Prelim since they both have a decent amount of experience. And I don’t think many people would say that would be unsafe, given their experience.

Scenario 2 – I will take this one even further within the specifications outlined in this rule:
Jane Doe has successfully completed 25 Prelims, eight Intermediates, and 10 Advanced with her horse. I.e., for someone to successfully run around eight Intermediates and 10 Advanced, she has spent very likely the last three years minimum going these levels after accounting for some competitions with jump penalties. She gets a new horse because her current one is getting old or isn’t able to take her past Advanced, but she has dreams of galloping around a 5*. This new horse is a seasoned 5* horse, having competed at five of them in the past few years, in addition to many Advanced, 4*s, etc.

However, because of this rule, as a Licensed B rider, Jane has to get seven MERs as a combination with this new horse. This means Jane, as a fairly experienced Intermediate/Advanced rider, with a 5* horse, needs to go to SEVEN Training level events before she is even allowed to go Prelim. (Can you imagine the ridiculousness of an Advanced level rider and a 5* horse having to gallop around not only one, but seven Training level events? Essentially about a whole season worth?)

Oh but she’s not done, now she also needs to go to SEVEN Prelim level events before she is allowed to go Intermediate. We’re now at 14 competitions, easily a minimum of a year and a half into their combination together and this Advanced level rider and 5* horse has just galloped through the flags of a Prelim.

And she’s still not done. Now they need another SEVEN Intermediates before going back to Advanced level.

Essentially, this Advanced level rider just wasted 21 competitions, easily at LEAST two years worth, but possibly three years, of competitions, her horse’s life/ability, and her time and money just to get back to the level she was originally competing at for over a year with a different horse. And that’s saying everything is perfect and she is able to attend every competition, 10 a year, without any abscesses, completely-safe mistakes, etc. This does not make any logical sense at all.

If you would allow, let me present a framework for a logical way to enact these proposed changes while keeping the majority of them the same.

I think the simplest way to get rid of these absolutely ridiculous real-life scenarios is to slightly modify the rule to better reflect prior experience. Essentially, we should be taking into account the fact that Licensed B riders could also have a plethora of experience that makes them knowledgeable about their and their horse’s capabilities even though they aren’t qualified for License A (after all, 25 successful Prelims+ is nothing to scoff at). Basically this revolves around the fact that the rules require them to obtain all of these MERs as a combination.

Regardless of the horse, it makes fairly logical sense that Unlicensed riders need to work up from Training. Although this would still be a little burdensome for them if they have successfully completed 30 Trainings and get a horse that has run around Prelim, and now they have to spend another 10 at Training? That also seems to be a little stretch. This issue gets magnified and explodes when you consider License B riders.

Here is what I think makes fairly logical and safe sense, while keeping the basis of the existing proposed framework. We can debate the exact number, but I think it is a fairly reasonable number.

For Unlicensed riders: A minimum of 10 MERs at the previous level to move up to each Prelim+ level. At least three of those must come as a combination.

For License B riders: A minimum of seven MERs at the previous level to move up to Intermediate or Advanced. At least 3 of those must come as a combination. For Prelim, a minimum of four MERs, not necessarily as a combination. (I am making Prelim the same as License A riders, because License B riders have enough experience to acknowledge when a horse is ready for Prelim, since they’ve successfully completed a minimum of 25 of them.)

This framework keeps the proposal’s way of classifying riders by experience (License levels), keeps the increased MER requirements for levels, but just adds the caveat which recognizes that experienced riders can be ready to safely take a horse at the upper levels a little earlier due to prior experience.

This mindset of accounting for prior other-horse experience is evident in the proposed rules for License A riders. The new rules don’t require them even having a single competition together, all qualifications can be separate. I say we allow for a step down from that for License B and Unlicensed riders, which requires a handful of combination MERs. Instead, the proposed rules goes from no-combinations required, to needing seven or 10, which I think is an extreme step, as outlined in the above scenarios.

I honestly shudder to think at what the current proposed rules would mean for anyone selling an upper level horse. The rules would make virtually all buyers who aren’t other professional riders take the horse Training Level. This would also be destroying the Young Rider program as many of them obtain mounts with more experience, but now they would be forced to spend a full season at Training Level.

All of these upper level horses who go for a “step-down” in their career to someone running Prelim or Intermediate would have a year or two of their life wasted running well below the level they and their new riders would realistically be capable of. And many of these upper level horses step down later in their careers, so taking two years to bring them up the levels limits a large chunk of their remaining viable years.

Regarding the general change to Appendix 3:National levels at Preliminary and above, at least one of the required results must have been obtained within six weeks prior to the competition.”

There is unfortunately no more context to this, as it is stated right off the bat. How does this affect people who have already ridden at these Prelim+ levels? Is this qualification only for people (or combinations?) attempting to move up to this Prelim+ level for the first time? As it is currently written, this rule has none of these specifics. As it is written, this would imply that a 5* rider would need to take their 5* horse to Training level six weeks before attempting a Prelim? Obviously I know that is not the intent.

But let’s just move on and say that this rule is only for someone/combination moving up to any of the Prelim+ levels for the first time, which I think is the only semi-logical way to interpret this. But that still doesn’t seem to make much sense to me. Let me draw out a hypothetical, but easily common scenario:

Jane Doe has successfully gone Training level for the past 20+ competitions. She competes once a month and has competed in May. It is June and she is ready to move up to Prelim at her June horse trials. The day before leaving, her horse comes up with an abscess, causing her to scratch from her June horse trials. The horse recovers after a week and she spends the next month cross country schooling with her 5* instructor. Now this new rule would require her to make her August horse trial back at Training before even being allowed to attempt another Prelim? I don’t know if any experienced, safety-conscious 5* riders would even bat an eye at saying she is still good to go Prelim and that she is “unsafe” just because her last competition was two months ago instead of one month ago.

You would also have to take into account that, even barring small abscess-like scenarios such as this, not everyone is able to compete every six weeks. Someone might compete only every two to three months due to a number of personal reasons, but spends all of their time at home schooling and training the right way to move up to Prelim. But because of this rule, they are effectively shut out from ever competing at Prelim?

The logical, safety-conscious, experienced eventer would say that there are far too many scenarios that could be brushed off that prevent someone from getting a result six weeks prior, that ultimately have no effect on the safety of the combination moving up. I understand the intent behind trying to make sure people are prepared, but this rule may be preventing the *chance* of one ill-prepared rider having a bad injury/fall with this rule if they illogically attempt to move up to Prelim after six months off, but you are possibly preventing 100 other well-prepared riders from ever being able to move up. Of course I do not want anyone to ever get injured, but this rule is effectively closing the door to many people without a logical, realistic benefit to safety.

Perhaps the easiest way to amend this is to just extend the time frame (this is again assuming that this rule is only for people moving up to a level for the first time). Moving it to maybe a three-month time frame would I think be reasonable while also ensuring safety. That way it would prevent anyone from moving up to a new level at the first competition after the winter off-season (at least for those up north), and it would still have a recent-enough time frame to be safe but yet account for the chance of missing a competition and not being totally hung out to dry.

Why Imperfect Competition Records Make Better Riders

Here at EN, we are very excited about a rising generation of young professionals who have the horsemanship, work ethic and talent to make it to the top of the sport. Michael Willham, an Ohio-based three-star eventer and USDF Bronze Medalist, is one such eventer who has consistently impressed us with his commitment to his horses’ well-being and conscientiousness about the training process. Today he shares a reflection on finding value in competitions where things don’t go according to plan.  

In this photo Michael and Fernhill Fugitive slid into the base of a jump coming out of the water as he was trying to push off. They made it safely to the other side (see sequence below) but, Michael notes, “That was not a pleasant feeling!” Photo by GRC Photo.


Such a loaded word. We all experience it. Yet we all feel ashamed of it. Hide it from others. In a world, sport, and discipline that demands “survival of the fittest”, we stow it away, attempting to never let it see the light of day.

Eventing is special, in my opinion. Out of all the disciplines, eventing is towards the top of disciplines where we view our competition mostly in terms of ourselves, not in terms of our relative place compared to others. In fact, we have such a friendly and helpful competitive environment that you’ll frequently hear competitors who have finished cross country giving some helpful advice regarding striding in combinations and things that were more difficult than they seemed on foot to those who are yet to go.

Yet we still doubt ourselves. “Am I doing the right thing?” “Should I drop down a level?” “Am I doing right by my horse?” “Why can’t I seem to get it all together like so-and-so?” It manifests itself every time we end the weekend with a number greater than 0 in the cross country jump penalty column, or even worse, a letter in that column.

I’ve certainly had my fair share of those weekends. For example, at a competition a few weeks ago when I was talking to someone that knows me from being around competitions for years, I laughed when they said that people were always questioning when I would move up because I always do so well and they don’t want me in their division.

I laughed because I haven’t finished in the 30’s with my Fernhill Cayenne horse since March of 2017, and not in the 20’s since 2016 when we were going Prelim.

In the past 3 1/2 show seasons since my first move up to Intermediate, I’ve finished with at least a 20 in the cross country jump penalty column seven times and with a letter another six times.

Additionally, it is too much to ask of him to go for time at Prelim or Intermediate, so the past three seasons I just go out to have fun, let him run at a speed he is comfortable with and don’t care if we come home a minute or more over the time. But that means time penalties in the high teens, 20’s and 30’s. Not exactly a competitive score to go for the win.

In the past, I’ve looked at my record on Cayenne and winced. And honestly, I still do sometimes. But I’ve also developed a deeper appreciation for all of those 20’s/40’s/R’s/RF’s/E’s. I can point to every single one of those on our record and tell you what happened, what mistake I made, and
what I learned. And for 99% of them, I can say that I haven’t repeated that mistake again.

I’ve doubted myself many times, none more so than maybe the time I went from a full stretch of seven competitions at Intermediate (including a 2*L) with no jump penalties to a stretch of seven competitions at Intermediate, 3*S, and then even Prelim with jump penalties and letters.

But each of those had important lessons that I took away. Some related to how I needed to school my horse with water, some related to how I needed to school my horse with coffins, one on controlling my horse’s shoulder, one on being able to recognize when my horse starts mentally getting frazzled, one on knowing when to call it a day, one on finding out how my horse reacts to being held on course, and some that my vet and I reflect back on and say that joint issues that became apparent months afterward may have actually been making him uncomfortable before he otherwise showed it and before we even knew it.

Onward and upward. Photo by GRC Photo.

Not only did I take away all of these lessons to make me a better rider, but it also helped me realize that while there were things we could work on (and we did drop down to Prelim at some points), the issues weren’t “Intermediate level issues”, nor were they “unsafe/dangerous issues” that would be major cause for concern moving forward. They were a “confidence while in water” issue, they were a “landing downhill issue” (which was one we look back at and think the joint discomfort may have played a role), they were a “I just massively screwed up my ride to the jump and I should’ve done better issue.” (That last one I like to call an “I’m not a Phillip Dutton issue.”)

We can school cross country until we’re blue in the face, but it still isn’t the same as running around it at a competition. The atmosphere is electric, adrenaline is high. All it takes is one slip up. One bad stride, one honest mistake, one time of your horse being slightly not-confident in the jump, or one time of being slightly off your line that can make the difference between a 0 versus a different number/letter in the jump penalty column. We make mistakes all the time at home in our training (how many times have you had a perfect jump school at home?), but yet strive for perfection at competitions. But sometimes, perfection isn’t realistic.

And that’s okay.

Photo courtesy of Michael Willham.

We just need to put our time into training at home, make our horse understand their job, know where their body is, and be fit enough for the sport. And we need jumps that are built to recognize that humans and horses are imperfect creatures. We can’t expect perfection for hundreds of riders, each over dozens of jumps at a competition. However, it is important to note that we still need to take into account the type of issue and decide with ourselves and the help of our trainers if it is an unsafe issue that necessitates taking a step back.

But otherwise, something will always go wrong. Someone will end the weekend on a letter, someone will end the weekend with a 20 or 40 or 60 in the jump penalty column. Many people will, actually. It’s only a matter of time before our number gets picked from the proverbial bingo roller of fate for that.

What matters is what you take away from it. You can choose to be upset and defeated and negative. Or you can acknowledge those feelings, yet turn around and say “Okay, this is what went wrong, and this is how I am going to prevent that from happening again.” It’s your decision.

Be able to point at each of those numbers and letters on your record and describe what went wrong and what you learned moving forward from there. Don’t be ashamed of those jump penalty numbers and letters; in fact, be proud of them. Each one of those is a battle scar that has ultimately contributed to your ability as a rider today.

Challenge: Donate a Would-Have-Been Entry Fee to the Frangible Fence Fund

Fundraising for frangible fence implementation in the U.S. took a massive step forward this week. Between the USEA Foundation’s Frangible Fence Research initiative and a GoFundMe effort, eventing supporters have raised a little over $100,000. Now, the Manton Foundation has agreed to do matching funds for what you have raised up to $250,000. A $500,000 fundraising goal suddenly seems well within reach — especially if we all band together to get there. EN’s good friend and three-star eventer Michael Willham has a brilliant idea about how to achieve that goal. 

Photo courtesy of ERA International.

So I’ve been thinking… (I know, that’s scary!)

We’ve all been negatively affected by this point with cancellations to competitions we were planning on going to. What if we had a way of turning that negative into a positive?

Eventing and the frangible fence fund have taken a back seat to everything that is going on right now, mostly for good reason, as we have bigger priorities to take care of.

However, that doesn’t mean that we can just forget about it.

So here’s my challenge to all of you:

For those of us in a situation where we are still working and/or those who are fortunate enough to not have to worry about finances in this current day and age of the economy, but are missing out on your competitions because they’re canceled, how about we donate at least one of our competition entry fees to the frangible fence fund?

We’re saving the money since we’re not entering in the competition, why not put that money to good use and promote the future of the sport? You were planning on using it for eventing anyway — this is just a slightly different path that you’d be taking.

By now, I think almost every eventer will have at least 1 competition they’ve missed out on. I know I will have missed a minimum of thre right now, but I’m assuming everything in May will most likely be canceled too, so that’ll be the fourth competition I will miss.

I know some of them are rescheduling, but let’s face it, we’re just not going to go to the same number of competitions this year as any of us had originally planned. We eventers are super careful of our horses, and we aren’t going to run them twice as often just because we missed the first part of show season.

So think of it. If all of us (again, only if you’re not facing hardship because of the quarantines and whatnot) took that money and donated it to the frangible fund, we’d hit our first $500k target easily!

Say an average of 300 entries at a competition, with perhaps an average total entry/stabling fee of $350 (this is probably super conservative, because it isn’t accounting for FEI price premiums, and also doesn’t include any of the gas, hotel, food, etc that any of us would be spending).

If just the people from ONE canceled competition all donated just their entry fees to the frangible fund, that would be $105,000! Over 1/5th of the way to the first goal.

Now just imagine if we took even just one month’s worth of events and did this. I don’t even know how many that is, but if it’s even 10 competitions, we would double our goal and not only be able to outfit tables with frangible tech, but also begin on all of the other jumps.

I have sent in my donation, and I challenge all of you to do the same.

Professional riders, please consider proposing this to your owners. Amateur riders, if you aren’t financially being affected by the virus, please consider this too.

Let’s turn this negative into a positive for the sport.

How to Donate

Donations to the USEA Foundation are fully tax-deductible. Donate today by going to and selecting “Frangible Technology Fund” from the dropdown menu.

Sponsorships Scams: A Letter of Warning to My Eventing Friends

If a sponsorship offer comes your way that smells fishy or seems too good to be true, think twice before buying in. Photo by Leslie Wylie. If a sponsorship offer comes your way that smells fishy or seems too good to be true, think twice before buying in. Photo by Leslie Wylie.

Many of us look with envy at those riders who have sponsorships — after all, they are getting free (or discounted) horse products. Who wouldn’t want that? The following is a warning about a certain company that has been conducting a large outreach under the guise of a “partnership.”

I will be writing a second article within the next few days to go over the “boring” rules if you want to be sure not to get penalized and fined by horse sport governing body for having the wrong classification. But I wanted first and foremost to issue this warning to people to be careful of what they agree to, as there has been one company that has been conducting a huge outreach to boost their sales while perhaps behaving somewhat unethically in terms of how they are phrasing it and conducting their marketing.

It still is a fine product that is very well-known over in Europe. I just have personal issues with how they are conducting their marketing and getting people to buy their product. So by all means you can still accept their offer. I just wanted to offer a word of warning that they are doing this with MANY, many people and that it might not be all it seems cracked up to be.

I won’t name any names, but they have not only personally conned me into buying their product at a discounted price under the guise of a “partial sponsorship,” but they have also reached out to at least four of my friends on Facebook within the past few months as well, three in the past couple days. I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you reading this have been targeted as well.

I was contacted by this company on Facebook a few months ago with a “partial sponsorship,” which was a discount off of their merchandise in exchange for promoting the product, putting stickers on my truck and trailer, etc. I thought, great! Sponsorships aren’t easy to come by, so anything that gets my name out there more in order to get more would be great.

However, the alarms should’ve been going off that it was very strange that a company reaches out to you with a sponsorship. That doesn’t normally happen; I won’t say it never happens, but usually you have to at least have some sort of relationship with the company. More alarms should’ve been going off when they said they found me on the FEI ranking lists, where I actually only have one point, so I’m essentially tied for dead-last.

Why would they reach out to someone based on that? Well, as you will see, it wasn’t the “sponsorship” deal that they told me and we initially agreed to.

They waited until I had received my order to contact me to tell me not to tell anyone that I have a sponsorship with them. They wanted me to keep it secret that I was getting incentivized to promote their product, under the weak claim that their distributors were getting upset that the manufacturer was doing this promotion. I absolutely did not like how sneaky and underhanded that seemed, so I told them no, I would not do that, and that our relationship is over.

I place great value on honesty and promoting quality products and companies. But I also value transparency, if I’m getting incentivized by someone, you should know that so you can take that into account. I’m currently sponsored by Nutrena and Prestige Saddlery, both quality products that I’ve been using for many years prior, but there should also be an asterisk if I talk about horse feeds or saddles. That’s just what ethical standard that we, as people being incentivized by a company, should uphold.

I was very disappointed and upset for two reasons. One, they tricked me into buying their product. They knew that just having a “sale” wouldn’t get them many customers, so they personally reached out to people via ranking lists to make it seem more personal and more of a partnership. I wouldn’t have bought the product if it wasn’t a sponsorship.

I was also disappointed and upset that they are CONTINUING to do this, offering people partnerships (or whatever phrase they are terming it now) by personally contacting them through Facebook (maybe other channels too, I’m not sure) when at the same time they are telling them not to tell anyone about it. So they’re sponsoring people, even if they aren’t “calling” it that. They are giving discounts on their products in exchange for promotion of the product.

This is still going on after they claimed they did not want me calling it a sponsorship anymore because their distributors were upset. Yet they continue with it anyway. It was someone from the family who contacted me (had the same last name as the company), although now I’ve noticed that he had to create a NEW Facebook page that he’s been using to contact people recently. Everything about it is just shady, in my opinion.

So take this as a warning: If you receive any message or request from a person representing a company offering you a “deal” or “partnership opportunity” or whatever they are choosing to call it now, be wary. As I will explain in the next article, you are entering dangerous territory in terms of being classified as a Professional. If you still want to take the discount and buy the product, then that is your choice.

I just wanted to send out this warning to my friends in the eventing community (and beyond) that this company is engaging in very shady behavior. While nothing they are doing is illegal, it’s very ethically and morally compromising, definitely in a gray area of being not forthright.

What’s in Your Ring? Pole Work with Michael Willham

This week’s edition of “What’s in Your Ring?” comes courtesy of Michael Willham, winner of the Hagyard Midsouth Long Format Prelim Three-Day in October. Michael and his 8-year-old Irish Sport Horse Fernhill Cayenne (A.K.A. “Cayenne” or “Cay”) led from start to finish and while they added 1.2 time penalties on endurance day, they were the only pair in the division to have a fault free show jumping round, locking in the win. 

In addition to eventing, he is a senior at Otterbein University, majoring and minoring in all things business (management, administration, economics, finance, and marketing) and regularly contributes to EN as well! Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to share with us one of your favorite exercises, Michael.

Michael Willham and Fernhill Cayenne, winners of the Hagyard Midsouth Long Format Prelim 3-Day Event. Photo by Photography In Stride.

Michael Willham and Fernhill Cayenne, winners of the Hagyard Midsouth Long Format Prelim 3-Day Event. Photo by Photography In Stride.

Eventing Nation contacted me to ask if I would contribute to their “What’s in Your Ring” series. Of course, I agreed, because I am always excited to pass on my knowledge to other people, even though I don’t claim to be an expert by any extreme stretch of the imagination. Perhaps that is part of the helpfulness though, I’m relatable: a mid-level eventer having some bumps along the road, trying to figure things out as I go, just like many other people.

You’re also in for a treat, because I wore my helmet cam so that you can get a rider’s eye view of how the exercise looks from horseback!

This exercise calls for only five poles, so set up and take down time is basically non-existent! However, you could keep adding on to it if you wanted to increase the difficulty!

Normally I only have a vague idea of what I want to accomplish when I put some pole exercises out. However, every week when I do pole-work, I include one thing time and time again: a 6 stride line.

Why you may ask? Well, at its foundation, I work on adjustability, which is perhaps one of the biggest challenges for many of us. I go through in the regular six strides, collect for 8, 9, sometimes 10 strides (my eventer is a little bit like a cruise ship, not the most adjustable – which is why we work on this!), and then lengthen and get it in 3 or 4 strides.

Photo by Michael Willham.

Photo by Michael Willham.

Diagram by Michael Willham.

Diagram by Michael Willham.

I set up the same 6 stride line each time in order to gauge each ride to the previous ones. Some weeks, like this video, we aren’t as adjustable. We only got down to 4 and up to 8 strides. Other weeks, we get down to 3 and up to 9 (and we’re almost at 10). It also changes depending on the saddle. Using a dressage saddle tends to add a stride, so we get down to 4 and up to 10.

It’s extremely important to know your horse though. Some horses are more adjustable than others; some horses are more adjustable one way and not so much the other. For example, my Prelim/1* horse eats distance for breakfast (without milk) and the 3 stride in a 6 stride is fairly easy for him. However we struggle to get past 9 strides in collection.

On the other hand, my retired novice-level eventer turned dressage horse struggles with lengthening, getting 4 strides on an extremely good day, but is TERRIFIC at collecting: we’re almost at 12 strides!

I also like setting up some sort of collecting, turning exercise. These are specifically for my eventer because, again, he sometimes turns like a cruise ship. I really like what I set up in this exercise. It is a set of 3 poles, set on a short 2 stride, 90 degree alternating bending line. The first pole turns right 90 degrees in a short 2 strides to the 2nd , which then turns left 90 degrees in 2 strides to the 3rd pole; basically creating an S shape. (I also threw in one of the straight line poles as a bending line just for something else to do, but it was 6-7 strides away).

This exercise can also be adjustable depending on the level, regular stride of the horse, and how difficult you want to make it. I set mine up on a short-ish 2 strides (I walk about 24 feet, with sharp 90 degree angles, with very skinny ground poles (they were about 3 feet wide, if I had to guess). This exercise really stresses the accuracy (you have to get in the middle, otherwise they’ll just miss the pole completely), collection (a short 2 stride), and turning (90 degree turns).

But you can obviously use longer poles, a little bit bigger distance between poles, and/or slightly less turning angles, especially when you’re first starting out.

*Warning* this exercise is harder than it seems! If it isn’t hard, then you’re either Phillip Dutton or you need to tweak it: shorten the distance/increase the angle/use skinnier poles/add more poles into the combination!

I also like where I set it up in the ring. I used already set up jumps in order to essentially make blind turns for him. I think this makes the exercise a more useful training tool, so that they have to be sure to listen to you, otherwise they’ll miss the turn!

I try to maintain a single lead throughout the “S” turn, since a flying change can lengthen their stride and throw off the turn. Maintaining the same lead is also good counter canter practice and helps you focus more on turning their shoulder: a very helpful tool for better jump rounds!

Again, I am not an expert by any means, so take this as advice from a fellow “amateur” competitor. (I’m not technically an amateur since I have a few sponsors, but I am in the sense that I only compete my one horse and I’ve only gone up to Prelim/1*). And remember, you can definitely do better than what I did in the 6 stride line! He was just not feeling the adjustability that day, so we only went from 4-8. I’d normally aim for at least 3-9 on Cayenne, while working towards 3-10.

Hopefully this helps someone out there! Give it a try the next time you do pole work! If you make it a routine, you should definitely start seeing some progress in adjustability! I know I did!

Thank you for sharing, Michael! Click here to read more of Michael’s EN submissions. 

Do you have an exercise to share or is there an eventer you would like to nominate for the series? Email [email protected].

How to Survive Your First FEI Event

Michael Willham is a member of the Otterbein University Eventing Team in Ohio and a regular guest contributor on EN. You may have read his articles about adventures in Aiken and tackling his first long format Training Three-Day. Now he’s back with tips about how to survive your first FEI event. Many thanks to Michael for writing, and thanks for reading!

Michael Willham and Fernhill Cayenne at Richland. Photo by Renea Willham.

Michael Willham and Fernhill Cayenne at Richland. Photo by Renea Willham.

You may have read my article last fall on how to survive your first long format event when I competed at the Hagyard Midsouth Training Three-Day Event at the Kentucky Horse Park. Well now I’ve officially survived my first CIC* at Richland Park Horse Trials, and I’m here with the next survival guide.

While my dressage and show jumping may not have been up to par with what we can normally do, the cross country is what really matters, and that was SUPER FUN!

Fernhill Cayenne and I have had random blips out on cross country since we’ve moved up this spring. A clear round in our first Prelim, a refusal at the next, a fall at the water after that, then a clear round, another fall, another clear, but never making the time. Well I was bound and determined to go clear AND inside the time, and that’s exactly what we did!

We were one of only 10 double clear rounds in the 39-horse division, and it moved us back up to finish a respectable 14th. Regardless of where we finished, I couldn’t have been happier with my boy for taking me around my first CIC* cross country double clear.

Without further ado, although they might not be as hilarious as my experience at the long format, here are my dos and don’ts of your first FEI event.

DON’T forget the white tie. I made the realization that I needed a white tie instead of my colored tie about an hour before my dressage! Luckily we eventers are a helpful bunch, and I found one I could borrow. (And then went to the store to buy my own for show jumping).

DON’T be controversial about dressage. One judge gave me a 24.55 (raw score before FEI multiplier) while the other gave me a 40.0. Don’t be the rider who has his test taken by the judges to dinner so they can discuss it further.

DON’T bust out singing “Dressage Skillz” when you see Dom Schramm. Quietly sing it in your head and have it get stuck in there, only to get renewed when you see him again and again.

DON’T get backed off when the plain brown warm-up jumps change to bright, colorful show jumping rails. Our normal double clear show jumping round turned into a 9 penalty score as we dropped a rail at the A and C element of the triple and came in one second over time. My guess is we were very backed off because the rails went from natural brown in warm-up to bright and colorful in the ring.

DON’T think the volunteer in charge of the spectator crossing path is waving you down with his red flag. I was flying past him and saw a red flag out of the corner of my eye. I yelled to ask if it was for me, then realized he was keep the spectators safely out of the path.

DO order your shadbelly many, many months in advance so you aren’t a nervous wreck when it doesn’t arrive until two weeks before the event. Four to six weeks turned into “well I can’t guarantee it will be there in time.” Luckily my buddy at Animo pulled it off and got it to me in time.

DO practice riding dressage without a whip at home. I always have a whip to re-energize his hind end, but you can’t take one in an FEI dressage test. I had my work cut out for me to keep him energized throughout the whole test.

DO watch how the other divisions handle the conditions before you go out on cross country. If you have time, watch as many rounds as you can! It really helped to see that the only good rides in the wet conditions were the truly forward and attacking rides. Anyone who backed off to the jumps got stuck at the base.

DO change your stud choice to bigger studs if conditions call for it.

DO go mudding and blaze around your first CIC* cross country double clear. After all, this is what we are all here for. (Bonus points if your horse is Irish and can switch into four-wheel drive. He knows what’s up when the weather gets wet!)

Here is the helmet cam video. Click the settings to upgrade the video quality and ride along with me on this wonderful course.

As always, a big thank you goes out to my parents, my trainers, my friends back home who were rooting for me, and my sponsors Nutrena Horse Feed and Prestige Saddlery.

A Horse of a Different Color: Elmegaardens Affair

I write this story as sort of a bittersweet ending to a wonderful career. Although it has been unofficial for some time that I am retiring Affair from eventing, this is the official declaration of her retirement. This story is my tribute to all that she has done for me, from introducing me to eventing, to putting up with each other’s green mistakes while we learn the ropes, to our final season where we placed in the top three in all five events. Do you have a "Horse of a Different Color" to spotlight? Tip EN at [email protected].

Photo via Michael Willham. Photo via Michael Willham.

Meet Elmegaardens Affair, “Affair”, a 12-year-old Knabstrupper Mare. Yes, you read that right, the keyboard did not go on the fritz. A Knabstrupper is a Warmblood breed originating from Denmark, numbering only about 1,500 in the world.

They are an extremely intelligent breed, used in dressage, show-jumping, and of course, the circus. They are known for their spotted coat genetics, very similar to the Appaloosa. However, Knabstruppers are not related to the Appaloosa. They merely contain the same genetic variation in their color that causes the differences in coat.

Not only is she wildly colorful, but she is actually quad-colored! She is white, has both black and brown spots, as well as one tiny fingerprint-sized buckskin colored spot inside one of the regular spots. She also has a spot in the shape of a heart on her hip, as well as an arrangement of spots on the side/underside of her barrel that is also in the shape of a heart.

Affair is anything but a “pony”. She stands at 17 hands tall and weighs in right around 1375 lbs. Affair has evented through recognized Novice Level with me (and one unrecognized Training level). She was my first horse, buying her what seems like forever ago, but was only about five years ago.

Affair was born in Denmark, then sold to Scotland shortly after. She spent several years out in a field being a horse until a breeder here in America bought her to start breeding Knabstruppers. Affair was impregnated over in Scotland, and then once she received the green light to travel, was shipped over here to the U.S.

In the intervening weeks, Affair lost the baby (while it was still just a clump of cells). Since it was now later in the breeding season and Affair had not done anything performance-wise, the breeder decided to ship her up to my barn to start her training under saddle until the following year.

I eventually fell in love with her and my parents ended up buying her as my first horse when I was 16. Looking back, it may not have been the smartest idea, seeing as how both of us had barely started jumping, but with Affair’s forgiving personality, the “green on green makes black and blue” cliché didn’t happen.

Affair loving life on cross country. Photo via Michael Willham.

Affair loving life on cross country. Photo via Michael Willham.

After buying her, I combined my passions for dressage and jumping into the only logical choice: eventing! We went to two shows in 2011 to get our feet wet, and then proceeded to have regular show seasons in the years afterward.

Dressage is my most natural phase and combined with her obedience and workmanlike behavior, we generally did well in it. However, the first two seasons (2012 and 2013) were very hit or miss. We’d have great dressage scores, but were still learning to be brave out on cross country and sharp with our feet in show-jumping. So almost every show we’d have a rail down or a refusal out on cross country.

The latter half of 2013 was our breakout season, before a minor injury set us back. Starting up again in 2014, we continued our success all the way through Novice level, including an unrecognized Training level event. Unfortunately, we had a major setback with another tendon injury at the end of 2014.

Affair took almost 13 months to come back from that, not starting back into full flat work until this past November. The decision to retire her was very difficult for me. Not because I can’t let go of her eventing, but because she absolutely loves jumping. Anyone who has seen her jumping knows that she has a certain pep in her step and twinkle in her eye when she starts jumping. Her ears are always pricked forward, looking for the next thing to fly over.

However, as the ancient Roman philosopher Seneca wrote, “Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” While we may not be adding the splash of color to the eventing world anymore, I have started to look into making our new splash in the “Dressage – Dressage” world.

Working around my eventing schedule with my other horse, Cayenne, I want to try to make it out to some Dressage competitions this summer at 1st, 2nd, and 3rd levels to earn our Bronze Medal. So watch out dressage world! There’s an eventer coming to take over and dizzy you with her spots (and movement!)

Saturday Video: Full Gallop Farm Prelim Helmet Cam

Collegiate eventer Michael Willham sent us his helmet cam video from his first Prelim run at Full Gallop Farm. Michael wrote the following blog about his run. Many thanks to Michael for the update, and thank you for reading!

Well, my fellow eventers, I did it. I made the jump from Training to Prelim last weekend at Full Gallop Farm’s Horse Trials in Aiken, SC while I was on my Spring Break. And let me tell you, it was SO MUCH FUN!

Now I know that many of you don’t have aspirations to make it to the Preliminary level and that’s absolutely fine. The only person who should care about what level you go is you. If you’re content and having a blast going at Beginner Novice or Novice, that is great! As for me, I don’t know how far I want to take this, but I definitely knew I wanted to at least go Prelim.

After going Training level all of last year, culminating in the Training 3 Day at the Kentucky Horse Park in October, I knew I was ready to make the move up this season. I am fortunate enough to be able to go down to Aiken and train with Phillip Dutton for two weeks over my Spring Break (I took an extra week off, you know, because: horses). I entered in two shows: Training at the first and the Prelim at the second show. I didn’t know exactly what cobwebs I would be dealing with after five months off from showing (and from being outside, darn Ohio weather).

I had prepared, prepared, and then prepared some more for this day. I have the utmost trust in my trainers, my preparation, and my horse. But no matter how much I could train for this, it was still nerve-wracking. It was only the second show of the year and I didn’t have anyone to coach me at the show or to walk the courses with me. In a strange way, I think I actually might ride better without my trainer, let me explain this seemingly outrageous statement…

Without my trainer, I take complete and total responsibility for figuring out how to ride the course, I don’t rely on being told what to do. Without my trainer, I, alone, am responsible for how I warm up.

Without my trainer, I have to employ all of my experience, all of my training, and all of my preparation without being told to do so.

Now I am not saying that I don’t value my trainer helping me at home or at shows, I wouldn’t be able to do this without them. But what I am saying is that it’s almost a sort of challenge that I have to step up to the plate, put up or shut up, go big or go home. As someone who always sets goals, is always tough on themselves, is always finding ways that I fell short and resolving to fix them, I like being challenged. And this challenge of riding without any guidance, especially moving up a level, is perhaps the biggest
challenge of them all.

Walking your first Prelim cross country course is definitely an eye-opening experience. First of all, it seemed as if everything was either a huge table or a skinny. I kept thinking “ride forward, don’t ride backwards to the jumps, keep the energy and he can jump it”. However, everything looked small once I was on Cayenne.

He is such a fantastic horse and he made all of those massive tables seem small.

Backtracking a little bit, we had a great test in the little white ring, despite it still being a little slick from the morning dew. Show jumping went great as well, going double clear over our first official Prelim stadium course. I didn’t want to know my dressage score or where I was placed though. It didn’t matter, I was just looking forward to cross country the next day. I wanted to go around clear. I wasn’t going to worry about making time, I didn’t want to sacrifice my riding and preparation for the jumps in pursuit of making time.

Cue the next day where we blaze around cross country like champs and end up coming in only 13 seconds over the Optimum Time on a course where nobody in the division made the time. I am so proud of my big, brown Irishman. It still hasn’t really sunk in fully yet, we’re a Prelim pair.

He got some huge hugs as we walked back. Tack off, sponging, studs out, hand walking, the works. It wasn’t until he was snuggled up in his box stall in the trailer with his ice boots on that I looked at the scores. We scored an amazing 24.6 in dressage, which put us in the lead. Coupled with our double clear show jumping and 5.2 time penalties out on cross country, we ended with a sub-30 final score and a first place finish at my first Prelim!

So my piece of advice, don’t let the absence of a trainer stop you from taking the leap of faith. If you’re ready for it, place trust in your preparation and go for it. This isn’t for everyone, we all still need our trainers, but there’s also a point in your training that you should be confident and capable enough to compete on your own every now and again, if you’re comfortable with that!

A big thank you to everyone who has made all of this possible! There’s too many to list. Without my parents, none of this would even be remotely possible. And thank you to my sponsor, Nutrena, who keeps my horse fueled up and ready to go.

Take the Time

Cayenne, left, enjoying Christmas Break. Affair … not so much. She’s on the “naughty list” with that face.
Cayenne, left, enjoying Christmas Break. Affair … not so much. She’s on the “naughty list” with that face.

“Time heals all wounds.” “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” The quotes about time are virtually endless (much like time itself!). It is something that we think we have so much of only to find out that it has flown past us without our recognition. We sometimes take for granted all of the time we have until something happens that makes us realize how precious this concept really is.

Perhaps I am getting too philosophical here (probably because of the philosophy class I am currently taking!). My purpose in writing this was to express my thoughts on how time relates to horses. Sometimes (or most of the time) horses’ time and schedules are not compatible with our own. We need to learn to take a step back and reexamine our priorities.

Now, I am not claiming to be an expert by any stretch of the imagination. I just thought that we always hear from our trainers and all-around amazing riders how to do things, but sometimes the best advice comes from people at our own level who are struggling with the same difficulties that we are. Sometimes it’s even the exact same advice, but for some reason, it clicks when we hear it from someone who DOESN’T have their act altogether.

I don’t think I’m saying anything earth-shattering here, but if just one single person reads this and has an “Ah-Ha!” moment, then writing this has been worthwhile. Plus, let’s be honest, it’s much more fun to write about horses than to do homework …

As winter break of my junior year in college approached this past December, I wanted to give my competition horse, Cayenne, a two-week vacation. Probably not the longest vacation in the world, but with my plans to move up to Prelim sometime next season and the ever-present goal to keep progressing in my riding capabilities, we need all of the rides that we can get to improve and prepare. So he got two weeks off, and then I started slowly bringing him back into work after that.

Well, apparently Cayenne decided that he liked the vacation too much and that working was hard, so he twisted his shoe, stepped on the clip, and ultimately gave himself an abscess after being back into work for about two weeks. After all was said and done, he had been off for another 2 ½ weeks between getting the abscess out, hardening the hoof back up and getting the shoe put back on. So in roughly 1 ½ months, he had been actually working for about 2 weeks.

OK, time to get back to work. I am planning on heading down to Aiken during my spring break to get the competition cobwebs out, so we need to get our butts back into fighting shape! But I realized something extremely important as I was bringing him back into work. Yes, it was difficult for both of us as we were fighting to rebuild those lost muscles, but this epiphany concerned something deeper than just muscle weakness. In having that time off, we had essentially hit a “reset button” in our training.

"Ready to go back to work, dad!"

“Ready to go back to work, dad!”

He still knew all of what I was asking for; that’s not what I mean by that. But rather, all of the areas where we had struggled before or were attempting to learn or improve upon, were reopened with a fresh perspective. In having the time off, we both moved on from our own issues. I am able to relax and approach problems with an open mind, not thinking about them in terms of how we didn’t fix them the other day, but rather how I can ask in a way that he understands and accepts.

We both wiped the slate clean in terms of not getting annoyed by each other’s inconsistencies. For example, as a training tool, we had been trying to learn how to half pass at the trot. He was starting to get it before the break, but we would get one good half pass mixed in with a couple other ones whose negative attributes came from tenseness, crookedness, lack of impulsion or all of the above.

But after hitting the “reset button,” we’re both more relaxed and not anticipatory of negative things when we are trying to work on them again. We still need to rebuild our hind end muscles, but the beginnings of the mastery of this movement are a lot smoother.

So what I have been trying to say is that you should not be afraid of taking time off and taking a step back. Sure, it may seem like you’re losing precious time to practice and ride, but it may actually help both you and your horse to decompress, chill out and re-approach things with a clean slate.

It places the emphasis back on the basics: impulsion and balance, longitudinal and lateral suppleness, and many others. Having a vacation, even just a few days, is actually a very important tool that you can put in your tool belt to bring out when you’re having issues. It certainly helped me!

How To Survive Your First Long Format Event

Michael Willham is a member of the Otterbein University Eventing Team in Ohio. You may have read an article he submitted a while ago about his adventures down in Aiken this Spring. Now he’s back to finish off the season with another article, albeit with a humorous twist!

Michael Willham and Fernhill Cayenne. Photo by Renea Willham.

Michael Willham and Fernhill Cayenne. Photo by Renea Willham.

My season with my new horse, Fernhill Cayenne, has gone fantastic. We had solid performances at Training all year round and I am hoping to move up to the big “P” word sometime next year.

I am here to bring you my tips and tricks for competing in your very first Training 3-Day Long Format. I competed at the Hagyard Midsouth Training Three-Day Event this October and ended up finishing my season with a win.

For those of you with a sense of humor, here are my dos and don’ts for tackling the long format. Yes, all of these things did actually happen to me! It certainly was an interesting week.

Celebrating the win! Photo by Renea Willham.

Celebrating the win! Photo by Renea Willham.

Don’t: Look like a sissy running in your first jog.
Do: Remember to run like a normal person for your second jog.

Don’t: Forget to halt at the beginning of your dressage test.
Do: Laugh at yourself for doing so.

Don’t: Fall off three minutes into Phase A.
Do: Run your butt off to catch your horse, get back on and gallop the rest of the way to make time.

Don’t: Let your fall cloud your judgment for the rest of the three phases.
Do: Be happy that it doesn’t mean elimination and kick on!

Don’t: Get tired halfway through the final phase (cross country).
Do: Dig deep and ignore the pain and numbness in your arms and legs.

Don’t: Underestimate the level of fitness required for a three-day.
Do: Make your horse fit enough to gallop all of Phase A and still have enough energy for the other three phases.

Don’t: Forget your dress socks for the jog at home.
Do: Be innovative and put your boot socks on to coordinate the right color.

Don’t: Let your nerves get to you as you are sitting in first going into show jumping.
Do: Be one of nine people out of 35 to go double clear and clinch the win!

Do: Reflect on the craziness of the three-day, be surprised and proud of your horse that you actually made it through!

Bringing Home the Blues: A Classic Feel-Good Redemption Story

Michael Willman and Fernhill Cayenne. Photo courtesy of the Willham family. Michael Willman and Fernhill Cayenne. Photo courtesy of the Willham family.

My name is Michael Willham and I am a Nutrena® sponsored rider and member of the Otterbein University Eventing team in Ohio. I got a much later start into the world of horses than many others, I started taking hunter/jumper lessons when I was 11. However, after several years, I got tired of “looking pretty” and started taking some dressage lessons, then dove headfirst into the craziness that we all know and love: eventing.

This was when I got my first horse, a Knabstrupper mare named Elmegaardens Affair.

Knabstruppers are a rare warmblood breed from Denmark known for their spotted coat coloring, but are no relation to the Appaloosa. There are only about 125 or so in the U.S and only about 3,000 worldwide.

“Affair” is an 11 year old, 17.0 hh leopard spotted Knabstrupper mare who ran away with my heart (as well as wearing a couple heart-shaped spots in her coloring!). I evented her for the past three years, starting out as one of those “blind leading the blind” situations; as I was still a green rider, and she was only under saddle for about 2 years.

I had never evented before her, and she had never evented before me, so we both learned from each other’s mistakes and progressed in our abilities.

Affair and I have had our ups and downs, but this past 2014 season we really clicked and figured everything out. We competed in six events, never placing below third place in any of them. We won three of them, placed second once, and placed third twice. We had such a great year that I was ranked the number one Young Adult Rider at Novice Level on the USEA leaderboards while she was ranked #22 Novice Horse.

Michael and Elmegaardens Affair. Photo courtesy of the Willman family.

Michael and Elmegaardens Affair. Photo courtesy of the Willham family.

We were riding high on all of our accomplishments and were set to travel down to Texas for the AECs in late September.

We had a pretty quiet week, taking it easy with our last jumping lesson and dressage lesson with my trainers Kari Briggs and Bruce Mandeville before we went to Texas. However, the day before we were to leave, I noticed a small bump on Affair’s leg. I became worried and called the vet out.

My worst fears had been realized: she had a slight tear in her superficial digital flexor tendon. My horse’s well being is of the utmost importance, so I immediately scratched from the show and started making plans for treatment and rehab.

It looked like not only would our 2014 season come to an early end, but I would also not be showing in 2015 due to the long recovery time to ensure that everything was healed before coming back into such a strenuous sport.

That was when my parents and I sat down to talk. They knew how much Affair meant to me, as well as how much my sport meant to me and my ambitions to keep progressing up the levels. They offered their financial support (as well as their undying mental and emotional support) in finding a horse with some upper level experience to “teach me the ropes” and help me move up the levels and continue showing.

I am eternally grateful for all the opportunities they have provided for me throughout my life. Words cannot even come close describe how important their support is to me.

With the help of Phillip Dutton, we found a fantastic young horse who had competed up to the one-star level in Ireland at none other than the famous Fernhill Sport Horses. It was a little nerve-wracking, as I had never gotten to sit on the horse myself, but we saw competition videos as well as videos of Phillip riding him, and we trusted in Phillip’s judgment.

A couple of weeks later, I came home from college for my winter break to be surprised by an early Christmas present: Fernhill Cayenne, a 16.3 hh bay Irish Sport Horse with springs in his feet, a heart of gold, and a glimmer of kindness in his eyes.

I spent the last two months figuring out his buttons and trying to solidify our partnership before heading down to Aiken, South Carolina for an early start to the season. In late February, we left bitter cold Ohio and 10 ½ hours later arrived in warm and sunny South Carolina.


Photo courtesy of Michael Willman.

Photo courtesy of Michael Willman.

We stayed at Phillip Dutton’s barn, getting several lessons from him in between a packed schedule of three shows in two and a half weeks. I didn’t quite know what to expect, because I didn’t have the chance to ride him in a dressage ring yet, or even outside!

I knew Cayenne was capable of putting in a great dressage test since he has such fantastic movement, and he certainly delivered. At our very first show together at Full Gallop Farm, we put in an astounding 22.8 dressage test and went double clear in stadium and cross country to lead from start to finish in our Novice class. I was ecstatic with how well we performed at our first show together.

But wait, there’s more! Cayenne repeated this performance not once more, but twice. We put in a 25.7 dressage test and double clear rounds at Sporting Days (along with earning third in our random scramble Team Challenge) and then again for our third show back at Full Gallop with a 27.8 dressage test and double clear rounds. After an exhausting few weeks of training and showing, we came home with three blue ribbons. Not too shabby of a start to our partnership and show season!

Not to worry though, Affair will not take it lightly that her new Irish brother is taking all of the glory. She will be fit and raring to go once my vet and I deem it safe for her to resume competing. Affair is not one to be out-done!

After our impressive showing down in South Carolina, I am planning our move up to Training level once shows start up here in Area 8. I could not have done all of this without the immense support of my passion by my parents, as well as my sponsor Nutrena, Phillip Dutton for finding me such an amazing horse, and Carol Gee for producing and selling me this wonderful guy.

Watch out Area 8, we’re taking this season by storm!