Archive | November, 2013

Cinderella stories

25 Nov

It is The Holiday Season.

All over the world, from pagans through heathens through all kinds of religions, it is the time past Harvest, the time of renewal, rebirth, the frozen ground entreated to give forth the following Spring—and like the miracle that it is—Spring eventually comes forth.

In the horse world, spring means foals.  Breedings planned for years, or decided on over a cup of coffee. Or unplanned. Some foals will be anticipated, some will just be dropped, not  looked for until the following day, or not looked for at all.

At the high end, the nervous anticipation end, a few years down the line, a lucky breeder or two will walk off with over one million euros/dollars/currency.

At the low end, the foals will perhaps grow up, perhaps not, depending on whether their dams can forage, can produce milk, can survive whatever life has thrown their way. Or a few years down the road, they can be worth the price of their poundage.

Maybe a few will be Cinderella stories to warm the heart like these :

Hilda Keen


California schoolteacher Hilda Gurney went to the Mexico City Olympics and saw there the kind of horse needed for dressage. Returning home, she contacted various racehorse breeders, describing what she was looking for. And so she found a 17-hand plus horse with good bone, elastic gaits and what she hoped was talent for containment instead of running flat out. Lucky for her, the owner wanted  the $1500 to put towards a prize cow.

A few years later, German team coach Harry Boldt said Keen was “the best dressage horse of his time” and gave him a 2-page photo spread in his classic book, “Das Dressur Pferd.” Hilda and Keen helped the US gain a long-desired  (dry spell of 28 years) Team Bronze in 1976 at Bromont Olympics, and then after a terrible neurological illness which left him almost unable to move his head and neck, the duo returned as part of the 1984 dressage team.Keen was inducted into the U.S Dressage Federation Hall of Fame in 1997, Hilda Gurney inducted in 2007.

Magna Fortuna four footed photos

(Four Footed Photos)

Magna Fortuna

In 2009, Gail Vacca, head of the  Illinois Equine Humane Center, decided to pay a kill buyer $300 for a sad-looking Thoroughbred mare, in order to allow the animal a death with some dignity. After consulting with her veterinarian–and after the mare responded unbelievably to treatment–“Lulu” instead was sent to live at the rescue shelter. And then–she turned out to be pregnant. Great detective work uncovered the reality that the mare,Silver Option, was bred to an upcoming young sire. In 2010, Magna Fortuna was born,named and registered with the American Jockey Club. Three years later, in May 2013, he won his first race by over 9 lengths,earning his syndicate of shelter personnel/friends over US $16,000.


Neville Bardos

Named for a gangster, and too difficult at the track,let alone the other top sport riders who turned him down after a look or two, the gelding was bought byeventer Boyd Martin for $850 before the horse could be sent to slaughter.  Neville’s quirks and contrariness did not dim his athleticism or his partnership with Boyd Martin, a New Zealand native now riding for the United States.Together, they competed successfully at the Olympics and then WEG in 2010.

And then—fire. In May, 2011, trapped in a burning barn for 45 minutes, Neville Bardos made a miraculous recovery from injuries sustained in a fire that claimed the lives of six other . Smoke inhalation injuries, thanks to hyperbaric treatment, plus Neville’s own legendary toughness, saw him go on THAT YEAR to be top ten at Burghley. In 2012, Neville was voted USEF Horse of the Year.

snowman harry


Truly the stuff of which legends are made. A book, a filmed documentary (now being made), the dreams of countless horse-crazy kids, all believing that out there is their very own Snowman.

Snowman was a plough horse,used for farm work in Pennsylvania.. Age 8,  in 1956, he was sent to a meat auction and was being loaded on the trailer when Harry de Leyer made eye contact with him and thought that it was the kind of kind eye that would be good for his riding school as a lesson horse. De Leyer paid $ 80 –and the rest is truly the stuff of legends.

Sold to a neighbor, the horse kept jumping out of his paddock and eventually, de Leyer agreed to take him back. The horse could clear fences–but knocked down poles with total disregard. De Leyer was busy preparing another horse, Sinjon, for a shot at being a part of the U.S. Equestrian Team’s show jumping squad.

De Leyer did his job so well that the horse was bought for the US Team and given to a more established rider. Full of raging emotions, de Leyer went home –and decided to concentrate more on the white ex-plough horse.

The partnership grew and the pair went on not only to win the National Championship–beating every other jumper in the U.S., but far more–a TV celebrity, a Breyer horse model (twice!!) and a member of the Show Jumping Hall of Fame.



In 1988, at the age of nearly 14, Jill  Henneberg got her parents’ permission to spend $600 on a horse whose photo was up on her tack shop bulletin board.  Jill had only been riding for about 2 years in Pony Club,, but  bought the 3 year old OTTB (off the track Thoroughbred) because she felt there was a bond. The mare, named Nirvana in honor of the family’s sail boat, proved tolerant and Jill fearless—the combination somehow worked. When Nirvana was 6, Jill’s trainer Jane Cory arranged to take them to Olympian Bruce Davidson’s for a jump school. The pair went over everything.

In 1994, the pair were 8th at Rolex. Injuries continued to plague the mare, but they returned to Rolex in 1996 for a top ten finish which was enough for them to be nominated to that year’s Olympic eventing team. Jill’s infamous fall on cross-country put an end to their hopes.

 “When you buy a horse at the age of 13 for $600 and go to the Olympics, and they give you their heart and soul—“ says Henneberg—that’s everything.

The price of horseflesh just keeps getting higher as the sport ‘globalizes’. But I like to think there are more stories like this,about to happen.

Happy Holidays!


Building Blocks

12 Nov





Riding a horse boils down to Go and Whoa.

After that, it is all building the conversation–and a rider has to decide what conversation they want to have.

There are riders who like basically one-way: Go there. Stop. Turn. Go.

There are riders who like a more complex conversation: they are called dressage riders.

And then–there are the people who help riders learn the words that make up the conversation. They are called trainers.

While there are countless such trainers, one does not need the fingers of one hand to count the truly great trainers that are alive at any given time. The ones who really can develop the art of conversation and the athleticism of truly high performance.

Why is that?

Because the job description requires left brain AND right brain. Requires humility, humor and patience. Requires knowledge and experience. Requires  an ability to inspire respect and even affection without spilling over into fear and so much awe as to inhibit reaction.

More than that–it requires intuition and sympathy. Sort of like being one of the humans who slip into the avatar bodies in the movie, “Avatar”, where director James Cameron seemed to understand the horse-human centaur’s connection better than most.


So here is a wish to establish International Dressage Trainers’ Day for that rare handful.

You know who you are.

Dressage is a sport, right?

4 Nov


The new FEI Dressage Tests for 2014 will give piaffe a coefficient of 2.

Some horses have a genius for piaffe–and others do not. Just as some horses have a fantastic walk — and others do not. No horse is perfect and it is very exciting when one comes along and has just about everything and is fortunate enough to have a human partner who clicks into a great partnership.


It only has so much to do with ‘training’. And this emphasis on piaffe is not going to improve the ‘training’. In fact,it sends a clear message to spend more time perfecting the 3Ps of dressage (Piaffe, Passage,Pirouettes), and less on underlying foundation.

IIRC, Pi-Pa and transition scores already account for  over 60% of the available points in the GPS — without the coefficient.

Of course, horses that show early promise for the 3 Ps will command ever higher prices. Just a thought.


Why the Dressage Committee doesn’t just put its Big Boy pants on and try out a pilot program 3P contest to decide some winners AND make TV happy AND make the sport less ‘boring’…is beyond me. It could be short and exciting and a real boon for new sponsors and fans alike.


For sure the movements that require the highest engagement and collection and self-carriage are what make the GP what it is. Wolfram Wittig, who has said many wonderful comments, has said, “The higher the collection, the lighter the connection.”  And that pretty much sums up good GP. That’s what we want to see, right? Self-carriage and harmony and partnership–all tied up in a lovely package of max effort, elasticity, suppleness, expression and power.


What is important is that the partnership be visible, that harmony be felt by spectator and judge alike.  Adding more significance to the piaffe is rather like coming up with Degree of Difficulty for the freestyle: it can come down to what the horse finds easy and buying the horse that finds certain movements easy.

When talking about a Valegro or a Totilas, that is the whole enchilada: a horse that has been trained in such a way to make everything seem super and easy.  For sure, the rider still has to train the horse and make a partnership, or the whole picture falls apart, no matter how fancy. While obviously talented, neither of the two named superstars were earth-shattering as young horses: they were diamonds in the rough polished by fantastic training




The reality is that FEI and the DC for whatever their reasons have decided to mandate the sport. They start with what I consider several Big Lies and move on from there as a foundation.

Big Lie # 1: We need a coefficient for piaffe so we can watch better piaffes. Me: we need more emphasis on correct training so we can watch better transition, better riding, less heavy breathing and locked backs.

Big Lie # 2: the judging will be improved with computer system coefficient degree of difficulty,etc . Me: The piaffe fan is the way many trainers INTRODUCE piaffe and has been cleverly used by umpteen rider in the arena to mask the fact that their horses do not have enough forward and engagement to want to offer really good piaffe without this preparation (ie energy added by moving around/forward as well as on the spot). Just ask Hubertus Schmidt who has said he thinks about turning while doing every piaffe in a test because it helps the movement.

How the fan is a higher degree of difficulty is beyond me. They want difficulty? put the Schaukel back in. I say it again: we have a whole cottage industry growing up all designed to make money by re-inventing the sport. Why not just have one paid judge it at C, and then for sure the opinion will always be final and clear. (That’s like 97% of all dressage tests in the USA).

 This is a subjective sport. People who like the sport understand that the judges give informed opinions–nothing more, nothing less.

Except when cronyism and over-zealous patriotism and blindness get in the way, ho ho.

The reality is, the judging is the best it has ever been. It needs to continue to grow even better, sure, but all this ‘industry’ that exists promising to make it better just seems beside the point.


FEI never used to pay any attention to dressage–but now, a miracle! The kur is attracting sponsors and serious money. London 2012 certainly proved the drawing power of dressage. So now FEI is interested. Everyone wants some power over the sport but very few seem interested in actually improving the sport, just their pocketbooks.


FWIW, , in Germany recently at one of the big regional shows, the organizers granted the riders their biggest wish and hired all new judges. The riders complained that the regularly hired judges ‘knew’ the riders and scored accordingly. The riders demanded new judges in the interest of fairness. So what happened? The scores were ALL OVER THE PLACE, and the riders were –once again–upset and unhappy.




Here is a clue : Dressage movements have many priorities and very few combinations actually have enough foundation to hit all or even most of those priorities. So the scores given will reflect that. As already noted, 1/2 point lower on several movements will make one judge seem much lower than another while scoring the same test.

This is a case of looking for the link that might be weak and open to pressure –and deciding it is the judges. Because if FEI goes after the riders, then there will be no sport–they do not like to be told anything bad even in clinics! And naturally, no one wants to upset the owners and sponsors. So that leaves the judges. It might become really interesting if the judges decide to go on strike for better treatment. ROFL.