Hold the reins of Ambition

I wonder if we talk about ambition enough. Where does it come from, how much does one need in the show world, when is there too much… What an incredible scale to have almost no ambition (1) that you can barely even bother to show up to show your horse, or so much ambition (10) you would go too far to achieve some title only a few people will even remember when you are gone, maybe even putting your own horse in danger.  Should we be discussing it? Is anyone talking to future riders about it? Is it recognizable enough?  The rules we have in place may be there because some people with too much ambition couldn’t contain themselves and put horses in jeopardy, yet other people might be criticized for never having enough ambition, and dragging their feet, or wasting a trainer’s time, which leads to unintended discontent.

As a young person getting into ponies for the first time, (maybe because your parents thought it was a good idea), how large a role should ambition play? A child should have enough to want to learn how to groom a pony, pick out the feet, tack up, post on the correct diagonal, correct lead, and even learn to jump. What is a good age to start seeing ambition? 5 years? I have no idea, but I do know most trainers gets pretty excited when they see real ambition at a young age, as well as real involvement. It tends to inspire trainers to offer more knowledge and help more while the ambition exists, regardless of what is in your bank account.

I reached out to quite a few people involved with horses for input on Ambition and Inspiration, since I can only really only know how ambitious I am alone, and the responses varied. Some people never responded. Some people responded immediately.

There is a lot of consideration taken as to the people I ask questions like this, and I am not likely to pursue people just because they exist or win a lot. I don’t need extra friends, I can assure you. (I now have at least 10!). I look for people who also make good role models, or set good examples, and even if their personal lives are chaotic, imperfect, messy, absolutely wonderful, or too good to be true,  their horsey involvement seems to be pretty healthy.

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Bethany Baumgardner being fierce 

Bethany Baumgardner races horses. She is from Maryland, I know her from watching her race around timber fences practically in my backyard (those are stationary wooden objects in a field, with no brush or groundline and met at a speed of oh, I don’t know,  30 miles an hour? give or take, and on a teeny tiny little saddle with two teeny tiny little stirrups). She wins a lot, and maybe most applauded for crossing the finish line in first place last year at the Maryland National Hunt Cup, only to discover her lead weights had tragically jumped off her pad mid-race which led to a devastating disqualification due to the weight requirements. Her name won’t be put on that trophy from 2015, but I am pretty sure she has her eyes on it for 2016. And I use the word devastating, because her fans were feeling the pain. Bethany knows full well where she finished in that race. She gave a very thoughtful view on Ambition. “I believe ambition is something you are born with. Throughout history there are the people who pave new roads, push boundaries,  leave their mark and this is not without mistake. Whether this person studies and has dreams of breakthroughs in science or an athlete who wants to break records, each will need the drive and motivation to put in the work to get there. Other people are quite content with getting by. They get through school, get a job, and they support themselves. Life is great, (it may seem uneventful to some of us) but it is great and exactly what they want their life to be. Inspiration, on the other hand, everyone can find in particular places in their life. Possibly even inspiration can bring out the ambitious side of a person. Either way, I believe in dreaming big, pushing your luck, taking chances, and never looking back”.

Makayla Benjamin is a college student at Sweet Briar University in Virginia. Her solid performances in college riding earned her a spot on the Student Rider Nations Cup team, which is kind of a huge deal. It is a World Final. Not only did she make the trip to Germany to compete, she won the whole dang thing! It took me a while to figure out the format, but I eventually found this…click this: http://studentridersusa.webs.com/competitions.htm….. Makalya’s response was no less thoughtful, she looked up the actual definition, saw the words ‘earnest desire’ and feels “that if you want to be great at a sport, you have to dedicate yourself entirely. My ambition comes from within because I always try and push myself to be better. When I see riders like Beezie Madden on Cortes C, and Tori Colvin on Way Cool, or even Harry de Layer on Snowman, I wish to have that strong of a bond with all of the horses I get on. These riders inspire me to seek out that bond every time I get on a horse, even if it is only for one round – I want to know how I can get the best out of this horse.”

Maybe it is just me, but she seems concerned with the connection of horses rather than the winning with horses. Interestingly enough Psychology Today popped this article out claiming “If your eyes are on the prize, they may not be on the ballhttps://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199711/athletes-blind-ambition

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Richard Spooner (you know that no hands dude who has represented our country multiple times on the International level) also thought about my question and came back with this. “To me Ambition is the spur in my side. It drives me to act and compels me to push forward when the path is unclear. Ambition has enabled me to accomplish things that I never knew I could, but be mindful of Ambition. Ambition isn’t synonymous with balance nor does it illuminate the pathway to happiness. Ambition is just a spur and it is up to you to hold the reins.”

He might have won the award for most clever response. Someone should frame those words.

And in case you haven’t actually seen him know when to drop the reins, here ya go – you are welcome >  https://youtu.be/gtv2sK6jbp4

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Emily Williams riding Strapless 

Emily Lynne Williams. Now, if you are too young to remember Emily Williams riding a special mare named Strapless, I truly feel so sad for you. It was like watching a magic show, the duo was just incredibly poetic in everything they did together. I don’t know how else to put it. If you are like me and did happen to watch Strapless and Emily win the class of a lifetime in Florida (2003 USHJA WCHR $100,000 Hunter Spectacular), you might have to give her credit for why you are riding hunters. Everyone aspired to be her. She also won as a junior in the Equitation ring, taking home the trophy in 1999 for the USEF Medal and ASPCA Maclay. So I asked her. I was curious if she thought about Ambition. I think she absolutely does……“To me Ambition is something money can’t buy. You either have it or you don’t. It’s that drive that continues to make you strive to be better no matter how much success you have already had. It is also what keeps you from giving up when the going gets tough. It reminds me that this life is a gift every day, and reminds me to keep pursuing my goals and to never give up on my dreams.”

I have a feeling she can attest for when the going gets tough, and I commend her for contributing to this piece today. It probably wasn’t easy.

If we don’t talk to students about ambition, will they end up taking an undesirable path to success? Yes, I mean cheating. Whose responsibility is it? Can you be a 10 on the scale but not put your horse at risk? Maybe every rider thinks he/she is really ambitious, yet walks up to the ring without having studied a course map. Does this rider not want to dedicate him/herself entirely? When you fail, or think you fail, do you have enough ambition to overcome rock bottom and push through, maybe earning respect from the next up and coming group of riders or even just your peers?  Can you think about the impression you are giving others?

I watched a rider at a local medal final last year so beautifully turned out, perfectly matched with her horse, lay down a lovely trip which earned her a spot in the top four to return for a test. She was a regular competitor in the junior division, and obviously had enough experience to qualify for this particular weekend class. She sat beautifully on a horse, yet could not perform the test very well that was asked from the judges. It happens. The exasperated trainer happened to be standing right next to me, and when I looked over with sympathy, he asked me “Why don’t they want it enough? They just don’t want it like we did. I have done everything in my power to get her here, but I can’t make her want it.” I knew what he was talking about, we have all been seeing the demographics change over the years, and it seems to be greatly impacting not only our aging trainers, but younger, less jaded trainers as well…. I wish we could find a simple solution, but we can’t, there isn’t one. If we want better horsemen for the future, we have to break it all down, take responsibility for ourselves, our kids, our future, and start turning it around to give hope for the next generation. Maybe really taking that hard look at the connection, not just the winning.

There isn’t really a requirement to be ambitious to be surrounded by horses, but the role it plays reflects on the industry in general. It reflects a variety of things like education, competition, performance, results, failures, and money.  Where are you on the scale? 4-6? Do you think it matters? It certainly matters to me. I want a better sport, I want a better horse industry, I for sure want everyone to experience some sort of healthy success in whatever area they are involved in, and I am ambitious enough to look for ways to see how we can make those success stories happen.

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open the gate

I often wonder why riders who say they want to win or be better riders never utilize the one thing, the one FREE thing, that is at their disposal all the time. Riding outside the ring. I hear every excuse in the book, and I could care less what yours might be, but riding outside the ring is the of the most underutilized tools of becoming a stellar rider, and stellar horse, especially pertaining to the hunter rings. Yep – that “Cross-Country” term that brings people to firmly shake their heads, quiver in their boots, and refuse to even consider.

Yet, those who are keeping an open mind about progressing as a rider and actually do venture out into a field or woods, quite often have better equitation and better instincts in the actual show ring. And it costs absolutely nothing.

Your heels automatically go further down – Those thousands of dollars you are tossing out the window to hear your instructor/trainer/coach to remind you to put your heels down 10,000 times a year is basically achieved after one month of going outside of the ring, up and down hills, and standing in two point for a gallop (or brisk trot out, whatever). Your body has reflexes, and when you don’t want to lose your stirrups as the horse you are on is jumping sideways from a bird, guess what? Permanent Heel Down Syndrome. It is a proven science, trust me. Walking a mile back home on your own two feet is not normally an appealing option.

Speaking of reflexes, your other body parts sharpen drastically as they learn natural movements of the horse outside of the ring. A horse going around in his natural element is friskier, livelier, more on the defense from predators such as bunny rabbits, and believe me, you start to read his mind at every shudder, shake and start. Once back in the ring, everything will seem so much easier, you will be able to control the spooking before it even happens, and know to turn your horse’s head away from whatever is catching his attention.

Position. If you didn’t understand the three types of seats you are supposed to learn before going cross country, you will understand them by the time you get back. You need the two point for going up a steep incline, you need a half seat when you cross tricky terrain or a water crossing, and you fully comprehend deep seat when starting down any descent. Want to up the difficulty level? Drop your stirrups.

Have you ever been told you look down too much? Another 10k repeat from your trainer is my guess. I’ll give you a hint – looking down is kind of not a viable option for people riding outside the ring…Not only are you looking for every hazard known to man and beast, your life greatly benefits from you keeping a very keen relationship with the horizon. On the horizon could be lurking any potential suspect which might disrupt a perfectly sane outdoor experience. Your eyes will be up and in navigation mode. Permanently.

Confidence. This should be self-explanatory, but I can tell you about a hundred thousand stories of riders and horses gaining confidence merely by attempting a trek across a field, through the woods, over a log, and the giddiness that ensued. It has literally changed lives, and soaked up a fairly large portion of my monthly iPhone data with snaps, texts, and Facebook or Instagram tags. Frankly, there is not much more rewarding than someone frantically trying to recap every thrilling moment in their 15 minute escape around the farm on one of their favorite borrowed horses. I don’t now, maybe it is just me, but those moments are priceless.

So why don’t Americans go ride outside? Ten million reasons. But what a waste. The ultimate resource in advanced horsemanship and perfect position is completely accessible to thousands of young and old riders alike. No one seems to want to venture outside the gate, experiment with a trail ride, (or even hire trail horses), borrow friends ponies, sign up for an eventing clinic with Jimmy Wofford, or Dom Schramm, yet those same riders want to qualify for a Medal Final, win a derby, or compete at a league final. It makes no sense. There are thousands of exercises with cavalettis, poles, gymnastics and other tools suggested or sold to riders to try and improve your balance, reflexes, and sense of timing, when all you need is to find a local hunter pace or cross country course to school, and might cost at the most $20, if that.  Your trainer might frown upon your experiments, but I can guess why. Money. Maybe he or she cannot financially benefit from improvements you can make on your own. Whenever someone doesn’t want me to do something I always ask, why not? It usually is about money. Or maybe time. Time. So many horses to be ridden in that busy stable before 5 o’clock, there just isn’t enough time. You have soccer practice to get to. Well, when you or your parent writes that check to the horse show, how much time and money goes into that weekend? Did you win? Did you want to? How much was that check written for?

I can see the backlash now, ‘Oh No’, I couldn’t possibly allow my 6 figure imported horse to take a step in grass. He might go lame. He could go lame for any reason, but sure ok, whatever you want to believe. I personally think it is fun to teach an imported horse how to go up and down hills for the first time. Most of them come from the very flat Holland/Belgium or the part of Germany without inclines or turnout, and it is highly entertaining when a young horse experiences one of our hills. One descent and climb at the walk usually leaves them completely winded! It is comical for them to figure out how to navigate hills at the walk, trot, or canter, and then eventually become masters of descent!

With the increase in Derby classes I thought for sure I would see an increase in our hunter riders jumping cross country, but instead I have only seen people build crazy spooky courses in an indoor or fenced in arena where a horse is less likely to show his true colors. So what happens when the real derby asks the right questions? A whole lot of faults?

I don’t know actually, maybe this would answer my frustrations with the WIHS classes, when we are seeing horse after horse spooking at the trot jump. (read ‘Are You Judging Me?’)  Instead of having a schooling jump, maybe the horses need to just school cross country before showing at the most prestigious show of the year. Ugh, so many questions, so little opportunity for change.

Last year, while in Gulfport over the winter, I saw a couple of riders accessing the hill out by the trailer parking lot, and thought how smart! There is only one hill on the show grounds, but this father/daughter team was taking full advantage of conditioning their horses on that slight incline during their 6 week duration in Mississippi… Stumble or trip every once in a while? Probably, but they were out there for a reason, and it probably had to do with the benefits for horse and rider. I would imagine they were able to teach the horses how to overcome the occasional trip or stumble by changing the balance and placing more focus on the hind end rather than the forehand. Genius really, but then again, they were from Maryland, maybe it was just born into them.

Training on hills works, and this training center believed so much in the benefits of hills for racehorses, they actually built an uphill synthetic track for them. Wow. http://www.dceprofile.com/signature-projects/sport/ballarat-synthetic-uphill-training-track

I know, I know…… not everyone has access to the outdoors in an outdoor sport, but there are still loads of people NOT taking advantage of natural terrain, and that is a real shame for our sport. Not to mention the fun factor is literally being tossed out the window along with all those lesson dollars.  #makesnosense. #bringbackfun

If you are fortunate enough to be exposed to fox chasing, take full advantage of it, those tools learned last a lifetime. ^^same kid both pics^^

By the way, for fun I used The Google for locating State Parks that allowed trail riding? Guess what, every state has one.

Emerald Quality 2

Chapter Two of the starting of Emerald Quality, or Emma, Emmie, Pooface, or whatever her nicknames are depending on the day.

The first part of the winter season was mild, which has allowed the girls at the farm to accomplish a lot more than normal at this time of year, and it actually has been an enormous relief since I have been stuck in my own house for over five weeks, with only an occasional drive to the farm permitted to stand around to see the progress. Asking the girls to cope with piles of snow on the ground would have been rather inhumane at best.

Emmie hasn’t really reacted to her new surroundings at all. She likes her turnout, has a good view, is easy to catch, eats well, drinks well, keeps her blankets on, doesn’t run, and generally appears to be a pretty complacent animal. The older animals around the farm have been less well behaved. I don’t make it a common practice to give smooches, but Sarah PROUDLY proclaimed she snuck in a smooch without being bitten in return. Good, Sar, good. All of this fuss is more for reassurance toward the mare that the girls are here to help her learn, not hurt her chances of being successful, and it seems to be working. Emmie had a tendency to back up when you tried to put a blanket on, either out of confusion or curiosity, but a combined effort to distract her with even a modest amount of attention up front seem to help her.

The process of breaking her has been extraordinarily easy. The biggest complaint I heard in the beginning was that she wouldn’t go, so I warned the girls to please have someone on the ground encouraging her to go forward while she was learning how to get to the trot. The last thing I wanted was an attractive donkey to fool with. They figured it out, and spent an enormous amount of time doing transitions from walk to trot to halt to trot and back again. First on the lunge line unridden, then ridden, then free of the lunge line on the same circle, gradually increasing to use half the ring. Stacey was particularly religious about voice commands, something I have never mastered myself, but I can actually see a difference with the method. Emmie has also seen multiple riders, which I have always believed helps the young ones from being too keen with a certain person.

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So far everyone has agreed she is an exceptionally smart animal, showing little signs of fear, which will be a huge advantage to her future career. She could care less about stepping over poles, which we introduced after only the second week. Finding the trigger to the canter is proving the bigger challenge. Emmie doesn’t have a lot of ambition to go fast, and with the combination of the girls breaking a young horse for the first time, some days have proven quite comical. Stacey was the first to attempt the canter, and all I can say is THANK THE LORD it wasn’t summer, otherwise she might have passed out from the exertion to get to that final gait. There was so much grunting, groaning, and other expletives, it was just not possible for me to keep a straight face. We managed one lap to the right, and half a lap to the left after multiple failed attempts, but that is totally fine, I wasn’t worried. No bucking, no spooking, just a really beautiful extended trot for the most part. I carried a lunge whip from the ground to add encouragement, but she basically ignored me.

Besides finding the canter gear, the main challenge so far has been dismounting, it seemed odd for Emmie to comprehend that the rider should come off of her back after a ride. So Stacey has spent more time at the mounting block just working on getting up, down, standing, even using the mounting block to dismount (I KNOW, I told her to do this because of my own personal knee injury which prevents me from a proper dismount – hush)  There are days when the ground is frozen she can just work on this without having to do any other flatwork. Fine by me.

One of the biggest mistakes I see in people working with young horses, is the feeling that they should be ridden like old horses. I have never understood this. Young horses do not come with a prepaid education. They literally have no idea what the heck is going on.  There is no structure requiring you to have a Walk/Trot/Canter session in both directions and trot a cross rail. Some days just getting the tack on and standing around the ring or field is actually a very good lesson of the day. And healthy. Over achieving has never been my thing. Repetition works wonders. I could care less if you think it is boring, because repetition solidifies education – good or bad. Bad habits are hard to break for a reason. Well educated horses never waiver from what they have repeated ten thousand times. It is not that complicated. It is how we learned to write out the alphabet, one letter at a time over and over again.

The making of a childrens hunter, for example, is not a competition to see how much the horse can accomplish in the shortest amount of time. There needs to be an incredibly solid foundation, because that childrens hunter is going to see a lot of questionable rides in its future, and it needs to understand what tolerance is. Six weeks mastering steering and Trot/Walk/Halt transitions? Sounds good to me. When you can recognize that you have a little quality in your hands, you know six weeks is a blip on the screen of a young horses life.

Emma’s first road trip to an indoor was so easy. She loaded up with the older horses, and ate hay while waiting her turn. She thought she was supposed to paw, but we reminded her no, and it stopped. After the first set was finished, Stacey pulled her off, walked her into the indoor, I held her while she was tacked up, then she went for a short lunge and then short hack. We managed to get a bit of canter, with Stacey huffing and puffing, and then she hung out on a loopy rein while the other horse jumped around with Dani.

The temps are dropping quickly here in Maryland, we will finally see a bit of the real season, but I am pretty happy with her progress so far, I think this spring will be super fun for all of us.

The USEF wants you back

The 2016 USEF meeting in Lexington, KY. Good call having it close to home. Their home, not ours. Unraveling the mysteries of what has happened inside the USEF over the past couple years was overwhelming, at best. I came here as a normal person, like the rest of the horse show world, completely out of place, and a little clueless, having assumed for years the organizations run themselves;  we pay our dues, get a nice award if we are successful, and pay for a team to go to the Olympics, without actually putting any faces to the organization, or even knowing who to call when I have a question.  Well, guess what? Maybe my ignorance has served me well for 40 years, but it might be time to grow up a bit. I actually met a whole bunch of humans who actually care about the wild collection of horse people in this country. Dang it. I was not prepared for it at all.

Upon arrival I immediately learned that the giant jerk pickle leading the organization for the last 18 months was abruptly and unanimously kicked onto the street. You can use your imagination for the details. He didn’t care about any of us, you, me, the horses, none of it. He had his eye on some other unattainable position, and was merely using us as a springboard.  Bye Felicia. In the wake, a whole slew of PEOPLE who DO give a mouse’s butt what happens to all of us, (and the horses) is left behind. And everyone wants to get busy to repair the damage and come up out of the fog. Against every fiber in my body, I was super impressed.

Another Town Hall Meeting for Drugs and Medication…

Hearings are going to be published for us to view, starting after this next rash a lawsuits. That’s a good thing. I walked away with a clearer understanding about how the process works for drug infractions. Pamphlets have been made to guide you through exactly how they come to verdicts based on the severity of the infraction, (even though they do not have to stick to the exact printed formula). Sometimes penalties can be harsher, or lighter, but there is a guide at least. It is advised you come to a hearing if you have been issued an infraction, make it happen, get here to tell your story, even if you don’t have any more evidence or excuse for what happened to you. They cannot make decisions in the future for the rest of us without you showing up to tell your story. NO MATTER WHAT, SHOW UP. for more info, here https://www.usef.org/_iframes/drugs/rules.aspx. Do I think this is solving the real issues? meh, no, but publishing hearings is a good start. Go to the Chronicle for the more professional details. http://www.chronofhorse.com/article/usef-town-hall-tackles-doping-and-due-process

Some things being discussed for the future I have a hard time seeing implemented. For some reason, there is an urgency for all future horses (showing at recognized shows) to be subject to a necropsy, should they drop dead in the ring or on the grounds. I am suspect of this for many reasons. Why would they want to know? What do they think will be found? What if the only clinic able to perform one is 10 or more hours away? It is costly, and even with a small re-imbursement from the USEF, you are responsible for transport of a dead animal to a clinic. Regardless, it is still only being discussed. I think the main goal is for the vets within the USEF to have a more informative relationship with the vets at shows, so if disease out breaks occur, there is communication on how to handle it, and major inconveniences can be avoided. I have to say, the horse show management committee seems willing to work on ideas, at the very least find a way to isolate sick horses on show grounds. We actually do need this. Stephen Schumacher is incredibly patient, explains his position countless times, and I want to believe him, I really do. He will talk with me, or anyone when it comes to the vet side of the USEF. He seems to have good intentions for a really crappy job description. This piece was written in 2013 and echoes many of the same issues http://www.julieannafreund.com/apps/blog/usef-re-thinks-its-drug-policies

I was intrigued by the International Disciplines Committee, or IDC, in which Joe Mattingley  (CEO of the Galena Territory http://www.thegalenaterritory.com/GTA/The_Galena_Territory/About_The_Territory/GTA/Explore/About_The_Territory.aspx?hkey=2a2bc60d-95aa-4726-86c5-655f8510c809) gave an inspirational and passionate commentary on how the U.S. really needs more presence inside the FEI (currently we don’t have any); and also how the training of coaches, trainers, and teachers in the future could possibly be a lifesaver for our sport. Imagine if we were somehow providing education for our enthusiastic riders to become career coaches? To further discuss the possibility, Will Connell (http://www.usefnetwork.com/news/11422/2014/7/2/will_connell_named_as_usef_director.aspx) provided a Town Hall for us to throw out ideas on how to make this come about. He asked the legendary Yogi Breisner to Skype into the meeting and talk to how the program is Great Britain works, and rallied us all to want come up with ideas on how to do it. No idea how to fund it, but it would be an incredible asset to keep people in sport. Then maybe juniors won’t think their careers are over at the age of 18. Think again kids, coaches are needed, here is how to become one…….

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Other topics discussed? Bringing the USEF into this century. It is antiquated, electronically and with regard to accessibility. It really shouldn’t be that difficult to figure out the ‘show pass fee’ debate. As far as entering shows online – it gets simpler every year, do it, pre-enter, be prepared as an exhibitor. Horse show managers will appreciate this, and run a better show for you, but it will also simplify a helluva lot of paperwork within the organization. Boring stuff, I know, but when your membership fees go up, part of it will be on you, me and our laziness. Know that a nonmember is going to part of your group this weekend? Plan ahead so USEF isn’t chasing you or your client around for $30. These things waste time and money they can’t afford to lose anymore. The former leader led the organization down a painful and expensive road. The tightening of the belt is upon all of us. You don’t want to see the fees raised next year? This is one step, only one. There are a hundred, but you are in control of proper paperwork at the very least.

The Board of Directors wants this to become a service organization again for the members, it was said over and over and over again. Service, service service. I didn’t find one person against making this a better and more friendly, fruitful, and important organization again. Can they do it? Overnight, no, eventually, absolutely.

I found two heroes this week. The first comes from marketing. Colby Connell is only 6 months into her new job. Guess what is in her background?? SMARTPAK. The Holy Grail of a small company gone large, right? Her team might be the freshest influx of talent I have ever seen. She had every magical word and phrase under the sun which sucked me right in. If she can make this work she will be sought after by every  major head hunter in the world. She WANTS more connection with the membership. She KNOWS the USEF works for the members, and she wants to try and prove it. She will use EVERY social media outlet to get you involved and inspired – even me – to the point I was offering up my own unprofessional services, I bounced up to her table and acted like a fool – PICK ME! PICK ME!! Blog about it! Use pictures! Instagram it! Tumblr it! I could not have been more awkward and she could not have been any nicer or more accommodating. All Hail team Colby. Have an idea?? email her right now!! Want to volunteer? (good for your career btw) email her. She is magical. cconnell@usef.org, or Andrea aevans@usef.org.

My second choice for the hero win is Lisa Roskins. She came here to pitch her ideas to USEF for next year.  Did you know the World Cup Final is coming to Omaha in 2017?? That is a city in Nebraska. It is in the center our country. Lisa was an integral part of getting it there, and she is determined to make it interesting. How? Get this – she wants an entire arena devoted to the HORSE – every horse, every discipline, every rider, every handler, every opportunity to educate, view, learn, feel, touch, smell, whatever the verb, it is going to be in that arena for the duration of the event… FREE. did i mention FREE, did you pick up on that word FREE?? You can imagine how I feel about a chance to show America about horses for free. AND THEN walk across the hall to watch a world class competition. (not free). An exposition with a competition. Think of ideas now, book your rooms, this is going to be incredible if she can get the support. Have an idea? Want to partake in the expo? Email her here! : contactOEF@omahaequestrian.com, or Patty LaVelle – plavelle@omahaequestrian.com.

I have to give an enormous amount of credit to Mary Babick. She was here all day every day in every meeting, solving rule change proposal problems, and working, working, working for all of us. I think she did the work of twenty people, just in this week, not to mention leading up to it. The research she had to compile was tremendous, and it is hard to argue against her logic. She strives for every positive trait this show world has to offer, and it is damn near impossible not to believe in her. I don’t really know what her role will be officially in the USHJA as they adjust to the changes made from the president Bill Moroney shifting roles, but I don’t think anyone else wants her in any other position than leader. Well, maybe one. But he wasn’t here this week. Regardless, she isn’t worried about it, she is working for us every single day, still teaching and running her Knightsbridge farm in New Jersey. http://www.knightsbridgefarms.com/

Everyone knows Bill Moroney as the role he played with USHJA has been a subject of my aggravation for ages, most publicly since September of 2015. If you read the first post of this blog, it is all spelled out for you, I never ever truly believed in the USHJA, but have taken a few small steps in regards to changing my opinion of it. I am trying to get myself better educated, more involved, grumpily maybe, but I am doing it. The programs might be good programs, but the implementation has always fallen short with hunter people, and we always find a way to get around using them, so they are a hard sell; then I get all bitter when I have to face raised dues. It is frustrating. However, this sudden upheaval which led to him being the current and new CEO of the USEF might actually be the proper role for him.  I don’t know where his clarity was in the past, but here I can honestly say I have never seen him be more well spoken, confident, and forward thinking. Ever. Maybe this problem solver situation is the answer, I have no idea how to predict it, but he gave a pretty darn good first impression as leader of the USEF. You know perfectly well how hard that is for me to admit. I don’t mind to give him a chance, at the very least.

I walked up to a few strangers and asked how they felt about the changes, not surprisingly, every one I asked was relieved, positive, and thankful we were back in the hands of a horse person.

You also might consider attending one of these annual meetings. The networking is amazing, and as everyone has to learn the hard way, it is networking which keeps you in the business of horses. If nothing else you can be in the same room with some famous people. (hint Beezie Madden!! David O’Connor!)

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I literally was two feet away from David O’Connor

In the next few years, these meetings might be able to become more like the USEA conventions, which are fun, provide educational seminars, and get people working together. Maybe they do not have as many rule changes to deal with or committee discussions, and let’s face it – the eventers know how to put on a convention, but the USEF and USHJA could do the same, follow up with the ideas, the fun, the learning, and encourage people to work together.

Either way, I am viewing from the outside in, I am not on a committee (yet), I am not sharing the inner workings like someone else could do, and gas is cheap right now, but I am kind of thinking this is the fresh start of the USEF for 2016.

Are you judging me?

I wonder if I am the only one out here that doesn’t have a problem with judging. The number one most complained about topic in the hunters – is judging. I can’t figure it out, people have asked me to write about it but I haven’t had much of a complaint about the way hunters are judged. Riding a show hunter is very difficult. Choosing a hunter is very difficult. Training a hunter is very difficult. There are no short cuts. The high difficulty level probably explains the rise in drug infractions in our sport, which should not be pinned on the hunter judges, that isn’t completely fair. Many of our judges are or were exhibitors themselves, or are still trainers in our business.  They really do pay attention when you walk in the ring, they do want every horse to be successful, and they get excited when horses perform well. They are perfectly aware of the time, money, and energy this sport consumes, and they do not take it lightly.

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Our lack of education might deserve more of the blame. For riders, the lack of hunter clinics versus the jumper clinics could be a good reason (let’s face it, jumper/equitation clinics far outnumber hunter clinics). Maybe everyone thinks they know it all already, or the clinics are too expensive, or the top riders don’t have enough time to spend teaching clinics, (fair assumption), but it seems to come back to education.

It is hard to find places to solely train on hunters, even in a highly dense area like mine, unless you are willing to be on the road. Really good trainers don’t stay home, they go compete, we don’t have the depth of horsemen unwilling to travel that will take the time to teach young (or any age) people the secrets of riding hunters for weeks or months at a time. In the eventing world there is a better chance of being an educated working student, because 3-day horses really cannot compete every weekend, so they spend more time at home. In the hunter world, good hunter riders/trainers get paid to ride on the circuit, and our shows start early in the week. How can you blame them for not being available at home long enough for a proper education? Those who make a living on the A-Circuit are only home on Mondays, if at all, and try to make an attempt to close the barn that day to catch up on some sort of life outside the stable. They have to make a living, somehow, and also be a human.  Hunter horses can show a lot more than 3-day horses, and an average hunter rider/trainer can get paid to show almost every week of the year, especially if they are catch riding for multiple trainers.

Over the past few years I have been paying closer and closer attention to scoring and judging, trying to look for patterns, and trying to make sense of what all the complaining is about, but I haven’t really been able to find anything remarkable about the process. A horse goes around, with its ears pricked; brings its knees up; uses its back; lands on the correct lead; seems to like his job; – then on to the next. To me, I see the most athletic horses winning, which is a good thing. Athleticism is key over beauty when it comes to portraying a show hunter. Beauty is kind of like the icing on top. Every person out there deserves an opinion on what a classic show hunter should be, and some days you are going to win, others, you will not be better than third. If a young horse gets wild in the ring guess what? His jump will be wild and too quick off the ground, and he won’t win. Maybe his rider just spurred him off the ground or was too stiff to cause that anxiety in the air. Who knows. We are not all perfect riders. The busier the show stable, the more difficult it is to gently prepare a young horse for the ring, but that is not the judge’s fault. I don’t believe in excessive lunging, either, but I have learned that I can no longer take 15-20 horses to a show and expect perfect results. I had to make a really tough choice based on what I could afford to do well, and what I wanted to do well.

There have been a few exceptional horses, of course, Rox Dene was the most classic hunter I can remember, and won an extraordinary amount in her career. Each decade seems to have a prominent classic winning hunter, but I don’t think muddying the waters with numerical scoring on each fault will solve the problem. I can’t support this. It has been suggested only a few points be detracted from the score for a rail falling on course.  A rail falling on course does not bring an Olympian a gold medal, so why should a rail falling in a hunter ring still bring a first place at Derby Finals?  Subjective scoring has a place here, otherwise there is a jumper division available.

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I think what keeps people coming back to the ring is the fact that everyone still has a chance to win that day depending on the judging. If the same horse wins EVERY weekend, why would anyone bother to show up to compete against it? The way it stands now, I actually have a chance to beat Kelley Farmer if she has a rail. It will be my day that day. I don’t think this is wrong, I think it is what keeps me in the sport. I like my horses, but I don’t prepare them like she does, so I can pretty happy when I jog at the top of a class at Upperville, for instance, despite the championship going to her or someone else. It is an honor to even be in the same class, really, but I have a realistic mindset about the ribbon color I am going to receive. It makes me be more selective about the competitions I choose, as well. I will choose where I LIKE to show more often than where the ‘trendy’ place to show is. For example, I will NEVER again show in a class with 150 other horses. To me, there is no point, even if my best friend thinks otherwise. I set my goals differently, and plan according to my own personal agenda. I am never going to show at a venue where show staff is mean to me, I am going to be handing my money to Classic Company, for example, because I have never been mistreated at any of their shows.

Education is the blame here, not necessarily the judging, I see judges trying really hard to do it right, and even more so now due to online streaming of major events. All the major venues are streaming live from here on out in our sport, more classes are being videotaped from beginning to end, (Tryon in N.C. and Swan Lake Stables in P.A. have EVERY round taped in each class for anyone to watch) and it seems that the judges are doing a better job. If they are not getting it right, they aren’t going to get those same jobs in the future, so why would they screw up now?

Politics probably still play a part, but it is waning more each year. The equitation ring might be different, but as far as watching the hunters, the judges can’t be held responsible for the detriments of our sport. It really has to come back to education. Our system isn’t quite set up as easily as training be a Grand Prix rider or winning 3-day rider. Don’t let the stigma of the hunter ring keep you from competing these days, the trick is figuring out how to do it all correctly, not quickly. Good show hunters take years, not months to make, and you may have to search for the right way to learn it;  this time it is not all right in front of you. You might even need a book!!

To me the most frustrating times when watching major events like WIHS, is when the horses don’t seem to have an even playing field. The numbers are no longer big in the professional divisions at that show, and I think it comes down to the aggravation of the venue. The ring is SO different to what the horses see all year long, and all of a sudden, these giant flowered pillars are squished together, and it becomes entirely a competition of who has the least spooky horse that day. It is painful to watch. If there was just ONE opportunity to jump one or two of those jumps before they head into the ring, we might be seeing a more even class. It isn’t fair, so each year owners balk at the thought of competing in downtown D.C., and rightly so. The lighting changes, the craziness of horses hacking at all hours of the night together is not only unsafe, but silly, there are merely a few poles with which to practice, no walls, no greens, and we end up having horses with scores in the 60’s pinning. I think this year only 6 conformation horses bothered to show up. My husband could have judged those classes, and it didn’t make for a very good competition for the supposedly best horses of the country. I still love the show, but I can’t convince my clients to fork over that much money for a 5% chance of success.

Progressive solutions need to come forward to help, not hurt the industry, not only for the public, but for the people involved: owners, riders, and trainers. And we need more hunter clinics. And at the very least, we need more hunter clinics for riders.

The door is also wide open for you to become a judge yourself. The age requirement? You must be over the age of 18. Get familiar with the rule book, get familiar with the process, there are a lot of horse shows out there, not enough judges to fill those slots. With the opening of some major venues over the last couple of years, and more divisions being offered, we need you on both sides of the in-gate.

Danny Robertshaw wrote a great article for Practical Horseman on judging hunters –  I think Betty Oare has done the same thing – certainly Linda Andrisani is very outspoken. She points out almost 30 faults she has to take into consideration when she is judging. She made an effort to explain it all to you in a DVD. Go read what they have to say, it makes a difference. Take their advice. Buy the DVD. It is good stuff.

http://askthehorseshowjudge.com/

http://practicalhorsemanmag.com/article/what-makes-winning-hunter-round-30510

http://www.thehorsestudio.com/dvd-the-judges-eye.html

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Dirty words

I would love to see this dirty phrase eradicated forever.  LAST JUNIOR YEAR.

This ‘term’ we have erroneously created in the horse show industry has been the detriment to teenagers across this country, and to this day, it continues to amaze me that juniors are thinking that at the age of 18, they will become worthless as riders. How did this happen? Who is responsible? Why would anyone stress about being 17 years old and have an upcoming birthday?? We don’t have enough classes and leagues for you to participate in as an Amateur? I’m kidding, we do, I assure you. Probably one of the greatest experiences of my life happened this year at WIHS with the 10k Adult classic, and I was just a small part of it.  There is actually more emphasis now being put on the adult divisions than ANY other divisions that are offered. There is even a new team championship offered from the USHJA, and it is expected to be a really big deal.

Is there too much concentration put on Big Equitation classes, that they have become the means to an end?  Most people who are serious about the sport of riding on the recognized show circuit  do keep riding after the age of 17, I can assure you. No other discipline has this ludicrous fear. Since I was immersed in the Eventing world at that age, I never heard the term before I started coaching kids at a school several years later. Then I realized it became a serious psychological malfunction of an already shaky teenager’s mind. It was so baffling. So, what, you might have to switch to a new horse once your Eq Horse lease is up? Is that the worst thing to happen?

Is it the end of riding in the Junior Hunters that is so unnerving? Were you a great catch rider for a 3’6” junior hunter that you didn’t own, and now you won’t be able to ride in the Amateur Owners because you don’t own it or can’t afford it? And maybe you feel you just figured out how to ride 3’6” well in the last six months? Maybe get on the board of USHJA and ask for a new division called Old People That Don’t Own A Horse, But Want to Jump 3’6”. Or, enter a Derby. You have options.

College riding is still riding. Loads of colleges have riding programs, teams, or are located near a place where you can to continue to ride, no matter the discipline. Your Last Junior Year is not a legitimate fear or stress factor, yet LOADS of junior riders have this stigma about it. Why? Are you freaking out because you can’t compete in the same division as your best friend? You both are attending the same show, share the same hotel room, carpool, eat every meal together, so whats the problem?

Or maybe it comes from the parents….. How could you possibly let them down? They are your parents whether you are successful or not, it is not possible for parents to love you less because you didn’t qualify for Devon. If they actually do behave like this, go get adopted by someone else, they are terrible parents.

Riding a horse, no matter the division, is a glorious privilege, your value as a person has never been based on the division you ride in, (or anything else for that matter) it is your personality which dictates your success in life. Maybe you restructure your junior years, then and spread out your talent, no one is forcing you to choose to JUST be an Equitation rider, there actually are options. If you didn’t make any sacrifices for the horse you rode as a 17 year old, yet your best friend did, was there a discussion about the pressure of winning with that horse? Sports psychologists sell all sorts of expensive material on how to overcome nervousness and incapacitating fears in the ring, when maybe all it has really become is a fear of turning 18.

If you think I can’t understand the fears rolling around heads of teenagers quickly approaching the December 1st career is over date, you are absolutely right. I can’t relate. I would no more go back to the age of 16 or 17 then poke my eyes out. I probably blocked a lot out. At that age, despite being an amazingly fearless rider, with many accomplishments,  my equine education, and sophistication of body control as a rider happened when I was more mature in my 20’s, when I wasn’t trying to get good scores on SAT’s and weary from other responsibilities and obligations. My talent was cultivated long after those endless, painful years of high school. If you are intending on keeping riding in your life, your best years are yet to come.

What can we do to reassure teenagers that the Last Junior Year is not a deadline? I asked Kori Pickett in Maryland what she thought about it, and she absolutely agreed many kids have a stigma about the end of the junior years, (she jokingly referred to it as the Apocalypse)  and how she handled it as she was off to college before Indoors started, but she chose to skip those competitions which kept her away from her studies her final year, despite qualifying for them. Did it affect her? Not really, she always knew horses would be a part of her life regardless, and could easily return to them between semesters, following graduation, and now around her job. And what did she just do this year that I only know a few people have been lucky enough to have experienced? A Fox hunting trip alongside her Dad… in Ireland!! Yes, she went hunting in Ireland (one of the most challenging terrains out there) with her DAD by her side! Not only that, she often hunts with him here in Maryland, or challenges him to an occasional gymkhana. What could possibly be more magical? Will Kori show more in the future? Sure, not that it matters, horses are a consistent part of her life, but I think she is pretty content what she is doing now, maybe the happiest I have ever seen her. Her values are placed elsewhere at the moment.

I placed the same question to a former student I had while teaching at Garrison Forest, Melanie O’Boyle. Her response was that her her accomplishments as a junior on her horse were, (in her mind), not living up to her expectations, and each time she gave her best performance but her horse let her down was another disappointment she felt drained the enthusiasm out of her. I looked at myself and saw someone who only had one horse so I couldn’t do all the things that famous young riders could. I had only done the jumpers a few times because getting Libby around the hunters was becoming too frustrating. But unfortunately aging doesn’t stop and I had to suck it up. We retired Libby after I finished high school and my parents practically begged me to take my first year of college off of riding. Being a person who hates to disappoint them, I listened, but I’m glad I did. The summer after my first year was when I realized that not being a junior wasn’t a bad thing. I thought your opportunities changed when you became an adult, but they don’t. You can still experiment in any discipline, you can still qualify for finals, you can still be a barn rat.”

Melanie went on to form an incredible bond with a trainer in Texas to this day has not been shaken. She has intrinsically become involved in almost every aspect of the barn, learning more about the horsemanship side of it now that she has the time to enjoy it.

Trevor Hawthorne also responded, he now runs an import business in Pennsylvania and can be found consistently winning and selling horses on the recognized circuit.

“The last junior year brings a daunting reality that comes along with the close of what most believe to be their only shot in this sport. But I couldn’t disagree more. While a majority of junior riders act as though life behind the junior hunters, junior jumpers, and equitation simply doesn’t exist, I was anxiously awaiting the dreaded term “aged out” because of all the new opportunities it would bring. In a sport centered around tradition and an industry that has evolved in so many ways recently, the transition from being a junior to an amateur or professional forces you to think about where you stand amongst it all. From school and career obligations to financial and relationship reasons, it becomes more difficult to balance life in and out of the horse world. This stark contrast between the junior career of chasing points and having the latest trendy show coat is frankly terrifying to most riders. But with that said, life goes on. Sure, the equitation ring has slipped away- but who really misses that? Not me! Life goes on after your junior career if you so choose. Sure, the real world can interrupt now and then and saddle time tends to dwindle, but if you want it bad enough- you’ll make it happen.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.