Archive | December, 2013

A Christmas Carol

30 Dec


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

mixing Dickens metaphors, beg pardon, but that is because we are between the magic of Christmas—and the stress and end of the year blues and depression—and the joy of the unsullied New Year, all shiny with promises.

As usual, FEI has provided ups and downs all on its own.

Recent examples:

17 year old endurance rider only given formal warning and 500 CHF fine after her horse found to have banned substances in drug test.

The breeder—also listed as owner and trainer—was held as PR when it turned out the rider had merely “rented”  the horse for this FEI-sanctioned ride.

Fortunately for the hyphenate person, HIS daily stable manager finally stepped forth and said it was his fault—he  had meant to give the injection to a horse that was lame and laid up—but mixed up the horses because they looked so similar.


So now we have a rider who knows nothing about the horse they will ride that day in a competition that used to be the epitome of a close partnership requiring knowledge of horse care, conditioning,management, etc; A trainer who ‘forgot’ to tell the stable manager that FEI has a strict anti-doping policy; and a stable manager so fearful of losing his job he did not come forth until the last minute.

FEI’s punishments: the rider gets a formal warning and 500 CHF.

The hyphenate gets 24 month ban and fines totaling 3000 CHF

The stable manager—who knows? All he did was take the fall.

Of course, even as this is written, the  ‘failure-is-not-an-option’ ESPG (Endurance Strategic Planning Group) is working on how to make the trainer and not the rider the PR (Person Responsible) in a sport that is fast coming to resemble a car race where the drivers have never before seen their vehicles.


And of course the Case of the Missing Helmet:

Spanish rider unbelievably wins Puissance at Mechelen on  young horse he has had only a few weeks, the crowd goes crazy. He tosses his helmet into the thrilled spectator crowd and gallops around waving and smiling.

The FEI immediately eliminates him for being in the ring without his helmet—and forfeit his winnings.

Unaware of this, however, the rider continues to thrill the crowd by galloping around and then jumps a fence, much to their collective gaiety.

FEI then suspends him for jumping in the arena without a helmet.The rider, in his public statement, says he thought he helped the sport by getting the audience involved….


I give up.

What does FEI want for horse sport?
What child at that competition looks up and says—yes! I want to be a horse rider!

What message is being sent?



And finally– Cloning.

American Quarter Horse Association currently appealing a decision handed down by jury/judge that finds antitrust laws have been affected by the refusal of AQHA to register clones,  and therefore allow cloned horses to compete, breed,etc.

At the same time, in Australia, the TB industry (2nd in no of foals each year after the US) found that antitrust laws NOT affected by the refusal to allow artificial insemination, let alone cloning, in the TB industry.

The FEI, as of 2012 Olympics, has decided to allow cloned horses to compete.

What the future holds, no one can truly say, but it is a good bet that horse welfare will be at the bottom of the list of significant priorities to consider.

Happy 2014!


2013 The Year of NOPS

23 Dec


So many watersheds.

We have, this year, seen “1984” come to pass, courtesy of Snowden.

We have seen “2001” and many of the ideas and artifacts embodied in that film come to pass–all except The Big One. On the other hand, 2013 alone is enough to make me wonder if truly intelligent life Out There does not look at our turning-less-than-green/blue planet and think–well, no intelligent life there!

In horse sport, we have had an FEI General Assembly that was bizarre for so many many reasons, it is difficult to decide where to start.

— Endurance came up with a nifty acronym ,ESPG (Endurance Strategic Planning Group) and a nifty slogan–“failure is not an option”–and hardly any substantive improvements of the abysmal horse welfare situation in the sport ever since the concept/word ‘racing’ was appended to its name.

Horses will continue to die of drug induced heart attacks, break and fracture legs with abandon, etc., ridden as they are by people who may or may not have ever seen them before swinging a leg over the saddle.

Such a noble and enduring sport, made into something that can only leave a sick taste in the mouth.

— It looks as though the outgoing FEI President will also be the incoming one, despite the self-ordained statute of term limits to two terms. I must agree with the current president: it is time for new ideas, new platforms, new visions.

As it will prove impossible for anyone else to gain votes for so long as the much-admired current President does not rule out any possibility of a third term, it will be interesting to see what happens over the next several months. Say, April, when the Sports Forum and endurance will bring out their shiny-new solutions.

— The following quote from a blog on Horse Hero pretty much sums up the ‘advances’ in horse sport:

<< I am also very aware of issues on the feeding side as FEI rules mean no banned substances including NOPS (natural occurring prohibitive substances).  It is always a good idea to check the labels on the products you are using and even call up the companies to check they are doing all they can do to provide you with products that are legal to compete on….it is the rider’s responsibility to ensure they can prove evidence they are doing everything in their power to minimise the risks. … With the unfortunate news of eventer Jock Paget’s positive test results, it really strikes home that you can never be too careful. On that note, my New Year’s resolution is to ensure every horse has not just a medicine log book, but also a feed and supplement log book! >>

(I might add here that ‘unfortunate news’ extends to Isabell Werth, currently battling a possible suspension for cimetidine, an anti-acid banned by her own federation).

So 2013 will be my year that NOPS entered the vocabulary.

Cannot wait to see what 2014 holds for us all.

It takes more than a team.

18 Dec


Earlier this evening, at London’s Olympia CDI-W, Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro re-united all three world records of dressage.

It seems like only yesterday–or maybe a decade or so ago– that Edward Gal and his partner, the great Dutch stallion Totilas,  achieved rock-star status and their own nickname of ‘Ed-and-Toto’ as they climbed to the stratosphere of the sport, earning marks never seen before. Their performances made grown men cry–and deservedly so. The emotion, the power and the almost eerie inner serenity of their  partnership brought new appreciation of what one might dream or and even expect from a dressage performance. In the end, Ed and Toto held all 3 world records and were poised to accomplish we will never know what, as the horse was sold at 10 years of age, not yet having reached his maturity as a top sport athlete.

Toti and Ed(Margaret Duncan)

(Margaret Duncan photo)

And now, we have Charlotte and Blueberry, as Valegro is called at home.

First came the Grand Prix Special,  the most difficult and technical of the three GP tests.  April 29, 2012, at Hagen,  they added the GPS, 88.02,  breaking Ed and Toto’s 86.46 at Aachen in 2010.

Grand Prix. Then this year, August 22, 2013, at the European Championships, their 85.942 moved  their own 84.45 to second best and Ed and Toto’s  84.08 from 2009 Europeans relegated to 3rd.

Freestyle. And on December 17, 2013, at Olympia, they added the Freestyle. 93.97, finally beating Edward Gal and Totilas’ 92.30

Second to them in this freestyle was Edward Gal with his new partner, Undercover. Should Undercover (known as Frits in his barn) gain a bit more serenity of his own, it is possible that the final piece of the puzzle will find its rightful place for this exciting top sport partnership and Gal might find a way to reclaim some of the records.

At this high, high level of top sport, there are only superlatives.

Charlotte’s strong,impeccable core and really supple hips which allow her to match Valegro’s unbelievably powerful rear end stride for stride; the connection that cycles through the partnership, making it look as though she really can ‘suggest’ with a balance shift here, a soft calf there, an extra ounce or two in the rein for just the moment to catch Valegro’s attention–and on they bound, flowing into the next movement.

Valegro turned 11 this year, and his new topline shows greater muscling for the strength moves, his ever  stronger hind legs are able to provide all the power and expression, and  his balance and rhythm have never been more evident.

Thank you, Team Hester for providing us with these exquisite moments.

Thank you to Valegro and Charlotte Dujardin, of course, two top sport athletes whose partnership is self-evident every time they take a step,in or out of the arena.

Thank you to co-owner of Valegro Roly Luard, for the long-term sponsorship and even greater passion that has allowed Team Hester to grow as it has.

Thank you also to Valegro’s other co-owner as well as teacher- trainer, the incomparable Carl Hester, most definitely dressage’s Man of the Moment; a moment which will hopefully last for the rest of the time Carl spends with horses.

Dressage is supposed to be about presenting the result of communicating with the horse: the rider asks for a movement, the horse responds. Go and Whoa.

On top of that primitive two word communication, entire dialogues are constructed, using ever more complex yet subtle cues, until the  perfect partnership is (nearly) achieved.

Carl’s knowledge and experience has been on display over the years with countless horses, and has netted him over  66 National Titles, 8 National Championships,  an Olympic Team Gold at London, and the grateful thanks of  countless horse lovers, for making us believe it is possible to set out with one good horse, one willing and able rider, and produce something this remarkable and precious and rare.

Miracles and horses

11 Dec


Issa El Santo


Isabell Werth and El Santo have just had a triumph at the CDI5* in Salzburg. So many people had written this horse off

But if one has a dream to succeed in dressage– and nowhere does it require more belief in oneself  and maybe even more so, the horse—then miracles can and do happen.

Because only in dressage is each stride, each moment, measured against an ideal. It is not enough to bend the horse and get from one side to the other—no. There is the bend. There is Rhythm.Balance.Suppleness. Fluency. Expression. As well as precision and geometry and  of course no mistakes.


It is not enough to perform 15 one-tempis—they must be uphill, have power and spring, cover ground, begin and end in the same rhythm and size and effortlessly flow into the next movement with no loss of connection or contact.


And then there is the piaffe…El Santo’s talent both to move uphill and to sit was early visible—and it proved not much later to be his undoing,as he simply could not balance all that load/power and keep the forward energy that piaffe requires.

(Nearly everything to do with horse sport is a matter of opposites. In the wild, horses piaffe when very excited; in the arena, they are to do it under control, only when asked, and glide in and out of this burst of energy as though attending a tea party.)

What a long,strange trip it has been and continues to be.

Ernie (El Santo’s stable name)   somehow licked the bars of his stall /drank some backwashed water from the neighboring stall and came away with the grains of cimetidine fed to his  convalescent neighbor, Warum Nicht. Cimetidine is  a prohibited substance under German equine medication rules, and a small amount was found in Ernie’s drug test from a CDN last June.Of course, in most of the known world, cimetidine is used freely as an anti-acid to control stomach ulcers in horse and human alike. Isabell firmly stated she would contest any suspension, and is currently doing just that. Meanwhile, as no decision has yet been finalized,she competes, and with incredible confidence and success.

And so here is Salzburg,

What has been the key? Oh, sure, Issa changed stuff, played with different ideas. But I believe it is down to her inner confidence. She has maybe her best horse ever in the Bellissimo x  Cacir AA mare, Bella Rose; this may well be the fairytale package.

When a rider can paint on a perfect canvas, and  inspiration flows from the fingertips, it often carried over to the other canvases…Whatever obstacles have been placed in Werth’s path, she seems to be so ‘in the zone’ , her joy and confidence have entered into her horses and the resulting performance.

Here is the freestyle from Salzburg:



2 Dec




To every season,

Turn turn turn…

And a few times a year, it is the season for clinics in the horse world.

No matter who the clinician, no matter who gets to ride—someone is usually unhappy. (This is especially true in the dressage world—a sport where every gesture, every nuance, every twitch of an ear or eyelid can engender paragraphs of doubt or ecstasy, depending on who is  doing the watching).

Over and over, I hear the cry that spectators want to watch people like themselves— ‘ordinary’ riders on ‘ordinary’ horses—be taught by the most knowledgeable clinicians in the world.

And I ask—to what end?

What does anyone think is going to happen out there?

Do they really think the horse is some kind of bionic golf club or tennis racket? That the pro will stand close behind, move your body into the timing and swing and a miracle will now occur and the racket or club will connect with the ball and sail it far  away to the specific and desired target?

And that—more important—their own body will magically remember every nuance of the complex movement and timing and reproduce it—even when a different set of signals are  actually called for the next time because the horse has set up differently?


Here’s the deal: whether you choose to watch Mark Todd or Fox-Pitt, Meredith Michaels-Beerbaum or Roger Yves Bost, Carl Hester or Helen Langenhanenberg  –or your best friend—you can only see what you ALREADY understand.

What your body/mind has already incorporated through knowledge/experience and made sense of. Because that is how human beings are programmed. You cannot see the subtle half halt, the slight re-adjustment of the body weight when Kyra Kyrklund or Andrew Nicholson or Ludger Beerbaum does it because it all has to happen too quickly to be actually seen. It is FELT, not seen.

And in order to feel it, there is the matter of the pesky 10,000 hours, 10,000 CORRECT repetitions, that are necessary. It is not enough to practice, it must be perfect practice. It must translate into reflex that is on ‘auto-pilot’; i.e., it must be the response the body makes before the mind even really processes what the horse has ‘said’. Because that is what training means, as opposed to riding.

Riding is, basically, sitting on the horse and following the movement and getting one’s hips to swing and keep the body in balance.

Training is having a conversation with the horse, and is basically, what comes after learning to ride well.

It is not enough to know how to swing the golf club–it is a requirement that one can influence the club during the swing.

And the problem is—the horse is a sentient being. We ride because it is not exciting enough to try to control a ball. If the ball does not go to the desired target, we know  the fault is within us. Better focus, better biomechanics, better trajectory— et voilà

If a horse does not get to the desired target, there are countless possibilities, especially the ‘mis-communication’ card.  (control and controlling the uncontrollable—ie the horse)

So how can any clinician really ‘fix’ any equestrian problem within the space of a lesson or three, UNLESS the rider already has the tools to adjust/change/commit to inner muscle memory, the increments required to produce the desired result?

Equestrian, no matter which discipline, is about TWO athletes.

Everyone wants active hind legs, whether to jump or turn or sit. But activity without connection is useless—you see it all the time when the rider’s head starts bobbing because the horse has locked/dropped its back and there is no way to swing the hips as the back is no longer swinging.

Doing fifty zillion half passes will indeed make the hind legs more active—but at a great cost to the hocks and other joints.. The rein connection will only get heavier and less elastic. The horse athlete will only get either more unhappy or more tuned out in order to accommodate the riding.

And so on and so on, clinic after clinic.


So — what is the solution?

In Europe, the top equestrian countries are creating better educational tools, better ways to make that education available to interested parties, despite the fact that horses are an expensive sport. Germany has days set aside for barns to open their doors to the public–and receive help from local government agencies to publicize the events and even make suggestions for more turnout. Holland has an entire sport program that never stops looking for ways to publicize equestrian. England, as everyone knows, has committed lottery funding,etc., to ensure that the interest in horses reaches city kids and more.

In the U.S., two organizations are trying to find a way: US.Eventing Association and Pony Club are helping individual riders establish little schools, where  school horses are available and anyone in that community can learn to ride. This is happening because Brian Sabo, the current president of USEA, is committed to the big picture and has convinced the board of U.S. Pony Club.

I really hope that whoever takes over at US Equestrian Federation, after John Long retires, considers horse sport on this most necessary level–and then does something about it.