Five-star eventer Mikki Kuchta and her daughter, Advanced eventer Bridgette Miller, operate Aiken Bach Farm in Aiken, SC, and Patterson, NY, where they train eventing clients and horses from the Beginner Novice through Advanced level. With no horse trials to enter, Aiken Bach got creative during the coronavirus outbreak.
The last recognized competition that any of our horses competed in was March 14th. Our winter operation runs out of our 38-acre farm in Aiken, South Carolina. On March 14th we had 16 horses in training on our farm. The announcements started coming in from equestrian organizations via email. All recognized competitions would be canceled for 14 days, and then almost immediately for 30 days … and then indefinitely.
Initially the concerns were for the horses trying to qualify to move up levels or FEI horses entered in competitions that were important and necessary to work up the levels. Since there are more National horse trials than FEI divisions, we were more concerned about the loss of FEI outings available. So, as eventers do, we talked to each client about the impact on their season and looked for a different plan that could be started after the coronavirus was under control. Little did we know how bad things were going to be!
We began to take precautions to keep our clients and staff safe, following guidelines to minimize contamination on surfaces. Many of our clients stay up north during the winter months and travel back and forth to ride or compete their horses that are with us in full training. That travel stopped. So what we were left with was a staff of five, two clients who winter in south Carolina and 16 event horses in full training. We practiced social distancing, clients used their own brushes, etc. but we did continue to train these horses as that is our job. Whether we rode them or not, we would still be together everyday to feed and care for them.
As Aiken shut down all restaurants and other activities involving the gathering of people, we pretty much stayed on the farm. With the occasional outing using precautions to locate the essentials: TP!!!! Bread, milk, eggs, etc…. The shelves in Aiken, as in much of the U.S. were bare of these essentials by the end of each day. We couldn’t find a thermometer (for humans) anywhere for several weeks. Plenty of equine thermometers on the farm … but the staff was healthy, thank goodness.
Once we had experienced the run on essentials we did start to worry about access to horse feed and hay. So we worked with the local distributors and started to stockpile extra supplies just in case! We watched the news, horrified by what was happening, and we really took our precautions seriously. But then — here you are on a horse farm with fit horses and eager riders and so you just keep training. We have goals for each horse and each rider and we continued lessons for working students and our two clients. The one thing we did stop was conditioning rides. Since the horses were not imminently headed to competition we decided to save their legs and just use regular work and trail rides to keep them fit.
There is nothing quite like competition! When you train you can have “do-overs” and you can repeat exercises and work towards perfection. But at a competition after your warm up ,you get one shot at the dressage test, or jump course or cross country test — NO “do-overs.”
Take a jumping lesson, for instance: you start small, you work on parts of a course, one piece at a time, then you raise the jumps, and eventually if that’s the plan for the day, you ride a full course … finally putting everything together that you just practiced at a variety of heights. NOT the same as competing. So almost one month after everything shut down I decided we would hold two “in barn” (just working students, Bridgette and I and our two clients) competitions.
A jumper show with a jump-off on one day and a jumper derby three days later. The energy in the barn changed. There was a level of excitement and nerves that had been absent for weeks.
I did this mostly for our wonderful working students. Working students work really hard … EVERYDAY … even when the world appeared to be crumbling around you. They are away from their families at a time when you want to be with your families and you have to keep going, no matter how you are feeling emotionally, because horses cannot care for themselves. Working students like their lessons and they work hard to become better riders, but during this time, they were deprived of their ability to test their new skills and see where they were as competitors.
That changed on April 8th: competition day at the farm. I set a jumper course that would work with minor changes from Intermediate level to Beginner Novice. There would be a vertical and an oxer, not on the course, that could be used as warm up fences. We raised them as necessary as you would in a warm up area. Then the starting signal was sounded and the first rider was on course. It was a 13 jump course with bending lines and roll backs. Each rider rode the full course, then we went to the jump-off: a seven-jump course with optional inside turns and angles available for the brave accurate riders. (All of our riders who rode these inside options did them masterfully.) I was IMPRESSED. We timed the jump-off round and had recycled ribbons and mounted awards and a prize for the fastest jump-off round of the day. Smiles all day both from proud “competitors” and from their trainers: Bridgette and myself. Affirmation of the hard work everyone had been doing. We had a total of 11 horses in the jumper show (many client horses ridden by Mikki and Bridgette).
There was a buzz that afternoon around the barn just like Saturday night at a big event, when everyone is telling the tales of their cross country round from that day. Smiles and pride and a sense of accomplishment, affirmation of hours of hard work paying off, pats and treats for our equine partners and, most of all, a little distraction from a world in turmoil.
The jumper derby was to be held in our three-acre cross country schooling field. A combination of show jumps and cross country jumps. Four courses in total from Beginner Novice to Preliminary. Each a different track measured with a wheel and marked at start and finish. This would be judged on jumping faults as well as pace. The optimum time was posted on each course map as were the speed faults for BN-T — but no one was allowed to use a watch — and let me tell you: on a relatively short course (700-900m) the window between Optimum Time and Speed Fault time is very small. 10-20 seconds for most levels. Speeds were slower than USEA parameters since our area is small and the courses were short.
Each course was appropriate for the levels — every level had a ditch and Preliminary had a lot of combinations: angled half coffin, chevron bending five-stride to corner, angled two-stride and a Weldons Wall. Beginner Novice had a 2’3” vertical show jump three strides from a half riveted ditch. Every level had a corner made from rails, standards and a barrel. Low and narrow for BN and then full sized and wide for P. The Derby had 14 horses (also with several riders riding multiple horses throughout the day).
The evening before the competition the six riders (two trainers, two students and two working students) were out walking their courses and the butterflies were released! Everyone was nervous … that good kind of nervous that competition brings out in event riders. We test ourselves, all the time. The competition verifies what we have done in our preparation. Do we remember how we should ride to a particular type of question. Do we have the correct balance and pace and line? Let’s find out — in competition.
I found these “competitions” very beneficial and really rewarding. Everyone was reminded of the nerves and pressure of competition, even though it was at home and amongst friends. As riders were tacking up and warming up, most of them were very quiet and pensive and admittedly nervous. So without paying show fees, traveling for hours and getting a hotel, we managed to create the same environment — which then led to the positive affirmation of our training.
This is how we made the best of a difficult situation.