Friday, June 29, 2012

Show Jumping | 6/29/2012

An interview with Michel Vaillancourt

By Mary Jane Howell

When Michel Vaillancourt was just 22, he won an individual silver medal at the 1976 Olympic Games in front of a hometown crowd in Montreal. Partnered with the 7-year-old horse Branch County, whom he had only ridden for three months before the Games, Michel earned his medal in dramatic fashion after a rain-soaked jump-off with the West German rider Alwin Schockemohle. Although Schockemohle had a perfect round and captured the gold, Michel was overjoyed with his finish.
After the 1976 Olympic Games Michel continued to represent Canada for several more years in the jumper ring. He rode the horse Crimson Tide to a team silver medal at the 1979 Pan American Games in Puerto Rico and then was part of the gold medal team at the 1980 Alternate Olympics, which were held in Rotterdam (Canada was one of the countries that boycotted that year’s Moscow Olympics.)
With the London 2012 Olympics only four months away, the United States Equestrian Federation’s Selection Trials for the show jumping team have concluded and a long list has been named. This seems like the perfect time for a discussion with Michel about the status of American show jumping and a look back at his career.
Michel pulls no punches when he says that there is trouble afoot on the American show jumping scene. George Morris, the current U.S. show jumping chef d’equipe, aired similar sentiments last November at the USEF’s open forum on jumping in Lexington, Ky. Michel is in a unique position to judge the health of the sport. Not only was he one of Canada’s top riders, he also went on to coach the Canadian team in the 1990s. Today he is one of North America’s leading course designers.
“The sport has changed dramatically since the Montreal Olympics,” says Michel. “Those games were the last time (until very recently) that we saw the really massive jumps – they were so high and so wide! The horses were different as well – American Thoroughbreds who were in many cases off the track. They had been bred to run and they were quick. They may not have been the prettiest jumpers, but they could get around the ring. Now we have the warmbloods from Europe – bigger, heavier horses that require a more aggressive riding style. That in turn has led most riders to have the same style.”
Michel recalls that when he first started show jumping, riding styles were so different from one country to the next you could tell the nationality of a rider by the second jump. Michel modeled his own personal style after his American heroes – Joe Fargis, Conrad Homfeld and William Steinkraus – riders who sat erect and had flair!
Nowadays not only are the American riders mounted primarily on European stock, but many of our top riders train and compete in Europe for a part of each year, which in turn leads to a weakened top echelon in shows at home.
“We have lost the elite tour we used to have. It started in Florida then moved on to summer shows such as Chagrin Valley (Ohio), Devon (Pennsylvania) and Lake Placid (New York). The indoor circuit would be in the fall (Harrisburg and Washington, to name two). These were the A shows and everyone went. The shows still exist and are still very popular, but perhaps some of them have lost a bit of their prestige because of the lack of depth at the top,” explains Michel.
“The numbers are not in the grand prix rings anymore,” Michel says. “Let’s say there are 1,000 entries at a show – maybe only 20 are in the grand prix. That percentage is skewed. The base is broader because of horse shows needing to make money, and they are trying to find a spot for everyone. We are rewarding mediocrity and not giving enough incentive to riders to try and be the very best.”
Michel has been asked to design courses at the top shows such as the Winter Equestrian Festival in Wellington, Fla and at Spruce Meadows in Calgary, but he must also be adept at designing 2’6” jumps for children’s hunter classes at smaller venues.
“There’s a lot of variety in my work, but what I have seen over the years is that there’s plenty of prize money out there for riders without them having to really strive for the top,” Michel says. “It used to be that if you weren’t good enough you packed it in or tried harder. But now there are rewards for everyone.”
The blame falls on many shoulders – horse show managers, trainers, owners, and even the riders. What worries Michel is that he doesn’t see anyone “taking the bull by the horns,” although last November’s USEF’s open forum was at least a start. He thinks that perhaps when Robert Ridland, the incoming chef d’equipe, takes the reins of the team, there might be some serious changes.
“I would like to see the sport controlled a bit more. We don’t have a strong enough governing body for our sport, which would in turn put stronger guidelines in place,” says Michel.
For his part, Michel is as passionate about course design as he was about riding and teaching. It was a natural progression and he laughs when he thinks about the times he was critical of a course as a rider. Now he’s the one trying to design the perfect course!

“Many people are interested in course design, but I believe that those of us who were riders really have an easier time picking up the skills,” he explains. “I’ve just come back from Wellington where, for the fourth season in a row, I was asked to be one of the course designers for the international arena. Each week belongs to a different designer, and it’s always a huge privilege to be there. You’d better sharpen your pencil before you go!”

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Secret Lives of Horses | 6/22/2012

Paddy the Event Horse

By Mary Jane Howell, Photography by Gary Knoll

Paddy is probably one of the most contented and recognizable horses on Chime Bell Church Road. He has the distinguished white hair of an elder statesman, and a bevy of female companions in his paddock. What more could a 28-year-old Thoroughbred gelding wish for after a career that spanned six years on the racetrack and many more in the eventing world?

Paddy has been owned by Shirl Tronoski since 1996, but he was born and raised a Midwesterner. His Jockey Club papers state that he is an Illinois bred, and, although his dam never raced, his sire, Young Bob, was a graded stakes winner and carried the blood of the great Roberto. In October 1985, when Paddy was a yearling, he went through the ring at a mixed sale, bringing just $3,000. Fortunately for Paddy, the buyer that afternoon was Arthur Menshouse, a notable owner and racing aficionado in the Midwest. Arthur’s brother Don trained all of his horses, so racing really was a family affair for the Menshouse siblings.

Paddy’s registered name was Man of the House, which must have been a play on Arthur and Don’s last name. Paddy (the nickname Shirl gave him later in life) was a model of consistency early in his racing career. As a 2-year-old, he raced six times and rewarded Arthur Menshouse with a solid return on his previous year’s investment – nearly $18,000 in purse earnings. He won his first start and then had a pair of seconds and thirds in stakes company.

Man of the House ran almost exclusively at Fairmount Park in Collinsville, Illinois, which is about 12 miles from St. Louis, Missouri on the eastern shore of the Mississippi. That track is a far cry from Chicago’s sophisticated Arlington Park, but Paddy was king there for several years, winning races in five of his six competitive seasons. When he was retired in 1991 at age 7, Paddy had run 48 times, collected 11 winner’s circle photos and his earnings stood at $134,288. He had won several stakes races for his owner, and placed in a handful of others.
What happened over the next years is a bit of a mystery. In 1996, the gelding turned up in the barn of an Ocala, Florida horse trader. He didn’t have any formal training and Shirl likes to imagine that he was turned out in a big pasture as a reward for his years of hard work at the track.
At that time, Shirl was living in Florida and embracing the world of eventing. Her horse at that time had a terrible work ethic and Shirl complained to her friend Sophie that there were only two modes of operation when she was riding him – when he was “on” she would come away with a ribbon, but when he was “off ” there was the possibility that she would be taken away by the paramedics. Sophie had just acquired Paddy and had been pleased with the progress he had made in a little over a month – he cleared three feet the first time she asked him to jump!
Shirl was introduced to Paddy and was impressed with his gameness, and before too long she purchased him. The pair’s first outing was at a USCTA horse trials in Altoona, Fla. at Rocking Horse Stables. Going in the Beginner Novice division, Shirl and Paddy were in fourth place heading into stadium.
“At the final fence Paddy grabbed one of his front shoes almost completely off and was cantering on the clip,” recalls Shirl. “I had to pull up, of course, and dismount, which meant we were eliminated. In my heart I knew that one of the ribbons was his, but we’d have to wait for another day.”

In his next show, Shirl had a friend ride Paddy. In what was only his second competition, he performed incredibly, having double clear rounds and ultimately finishing seventh. The gelding was as admirable in the eventing world as he had been on the race track.
Although he was all business when he had a rider on his back, Paddy was another animal entirely when he was in his stall.
“He had the worst stable manners I had ever seen,” Shirl says. “He was forever trying to bite and kick me, and my husband nicknamed him ‘The Great White.’ Finally I had had enough and gave him back to my friend Sophie.”
A few months later, Sophie discovered she was pregnant and didn’t want to work around Paddy’s flying legs and snapping teeth. She called Shirl up and asked her to take the gelding back. Shirl decided to give him another try.

“I thought he just didn’t like me and had taken that very personally,” Shirl laughs. “Knowing that he was horrendous with everyone made it a challenge!”

Whenever he was tacked up for schooling or a show Shirl said he became the perfect airline steward and all but asked, “How can I help you today?”

“I never had a horse who loved competing so much,” says Shirl. “I remember at one Novice level event we had some trouble in the stadium round. For some reason I couldn’t see the distance to a jump and I panicked, throwing the reins at him and taking my leg off. Paddy hesitated a split second, probably thinking ‘Where did you go?’ and then crawled over the fence anyway. There was such a clattering of rails that I was sure we had taken the standards down as well so I didn’t even look back. But after a few more jumps I heard the announcer say that we had had a clean round – no rails and no time faults. Amazing!”

“At that particular show we were going Training level for the first time. The cross country course looked huge! Paddy’s ears were like radar – he was always looking for the next fence. After the third fence I realized all I had to do was hang on and steer. Paddy would set himself up for the jump and he never missed. We were in the ribbons even though we had not scored all that great in dressage.”

Jumping was Paddy’s favorite part of eventing. Shirl says that at one show the dressage ring was very close to the stadium jumping ring. Paddy had half of his attention on his dressage moves and the other half on the jumps, which made his trot more like a parade prance. Shirl remembers that she smiled through the whole test, even though she knew they wouldn’t get a good score.

Paddy was 15 at that show, and Shirl competed him until he was 20. They would do between six and 10 shows a year, and all were an adventure.

“He would always grunt when he jumped,” laughs Shirl. “He was not great with tucking his knees so he compensated by jumping higher. It was a thrill. Ditches had to be his favorite things in the world and he would literally launch himself at them.”

As he aged, Paddy mellowed, not only in his demeanor but in his coloring. He has gone from a flinty steel color to a flea bitten grey, although from a distance he looks white. When Shirl moved to Aiken in 2008, she made sure that Paddy had a life of leisure and now his only job is babysitting broodmares and their babies.

“For all the years we competed, Paddy always managed to keep himself between me and the ground… and he doesn’t owe me a penny,” says Shirl.

Shirl said that Paddy’s show name was Patton since he was always such a war horse. The pair have been together for more than 15 years and although there were some fierce battles in the beginning, he has been the horse of a lifetime for her.

“I was born loving horses,” Shirl says. “Before I got my first pony I would ride the sawhorses in my father’s workshop. But even in my wildest imagination I never thought I would own a horse like Paddy.”

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Questions About Dressage | Ask the Judge | 6/15/2012

Questions About Dressage

With Amy McElroy

Amy McElroy is a USEF R judge, qualified to officiate at any USEF recognized show at all national dressage levels. She rides, trains and teaches at Fairlane Farm in Aiken and judges about a dozen dressage shows and events each year. In her popular Ask the Judge column, she answers readers' questions about dressage.

Dear Amy,
I have a question about leg yielding. I am not getting very good marks in this move, although I think I am very accurate. My test comments say “too much neck-in” or “too much bending.” I thought you should have bend. So, what makes a good leg yield?
                                                                                                   -Yeilding But Low Scoring

Dear Yeilding,
If you are already doing leg yields, you must be fairly skilled in your dressage training. Leg yielding is first seen in First Level Test 2 and First Level Test 3 in the USDF Dressage test. In eventing, it first shows up in the Preliminary dressage test. In First Level 2, you must leg yield both left and right, and the movement is worth double points (it has a coefficient of two.) In First Level Test 3, you must also yield to the left and to the right, but only one of these movements has a coefficient of two. The leg yield can have a big influence on your score, so it is an important movement to master. Leg yielding is the first sidewise movement that your horse will learn.

Let’s see what the USDF guidelines say about leg yielding:

Purpose: To demonstrate the suppleness and lateral responsiveness of the horse.

Execution: The horse should be straight with only a slight position away from the direction he is moving. He must show a clear cross-over of the inside legs over the outside legs. The horse should be almost parallel to the long side, with the forehand slightly leading.

Essence: The cross-over of the inside legs over the outside legs; the regularity of the trot; the lateral responsiveness, the alignment, balance and self carriage, and freedom and flexion

Positives: 1. Body nearly parallel to track; 2. Slight flexion of poll away from direction of movement; 3. Neck in line with rest of spine; 4. Crossing of inner limbs; 5. Forward reach of leading limbs, especially the hind leg.

Negatives: 1. Horse loses balance, regularity, or varying tempo; 2. Neck not in line with rest of spine; 3. Side stepping with leading legs; 4. Not crossing inner legs; 5. Twisted at withers, or too much bend in neck; 6. Running sideways; 7. Haunches leading or trailing.

Misconceptions: 1. Crossing is the main thing, even if it means the leading hind leg is simply side stepping rather than going forward. 2. There should be “bend” rather than slight flexion in the poll.
Leg yielding is not a bending movement. This is why it is considered a “two-track” movement, and is not considered a lateral movement.

A good leg yield consists of:

Obedience: The horse moves easily off your leg while staying in a steady tempo and frame.

Accuracy: The movement starts and finishes at the prescribed letter. This means the horse is in the act of leg yielding when the rider’s body is parallel to the starting letter, and that the leg yield finishes when the rider’s body is parallel to the ending letter. (Hint: leave plenty of time to prepare!)

Cross-over: The inside legs should pass and cross in front of the outside legs. The bigger the cross, the better (this shows scope.)

Impulsion: Your horse’s tempo should be the same before, during and after the leg yield.

Acceptance of bit: The horse is accepting enough contact required for First Level. He should be even on both reins and sides of the neck, even though he should be looking slightly away from the direction of travel.
Harmony: The leg yield should look effortless. The rider should have invisible aids, and present a pleasing and seamless picture.
A lot of work goes into a good leg yield. It is a good idea to school this movement, as its aim is to help improve the rider’s aids and the horse’s obedience. It is a great suppling move, helping to improve the freedom of the shoulders and hindquarters, as well as the horse’s balance. All of this will help you to climb to Second Level, which is the first time you are required to demonstrate collection.

I hope these guidelines will help you improve your score. A well ridden leg yield gives you a great feeling, and it can be a lot of fun for you and your horse!

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in The Aiken Horse. It is reprinted here by permission.