Saturday, September 29, 2012

Celebrating Aiken | 9/29/12

A Diverse Equestrian Community

By Pam Gleason, Photography by Gary Knoll 

If you talk to horse people who have recently relocated to Aiken, you tend to hear the same story all the time. “I came to Aiken to visit, and I loved it so much I bought a farm here,” they say.

When horsemen explain why they moved to Aiken, most cite the welcoming equestrian environment. It is a city with a country atmosphere, a quiet place with a cosmopolitan feel, where horses are an accepted part of life. The street signs sport images of horse heads, and life-sized, painted horse statues adorn city sidewalks and plazas. There are unpaved roads in the downtown equestrian district and equestrian crosswalks with the push-to-cross buttons positioned at rider height. And then there are the visible horse people: people dressed in riding clothes while they have lunch downtown, people driving carriages along residential streets, parades of horse trailers coming in and out of town. There are horse people of every description and every discipline.

Not everyone who rides, drives and competes in Aiken is a resident, a property owner, or even a regular visitor. One of the chief attractions of Aiken is that it is not just a great place to live with horses, it’s a great place to visit with them. Aiken has many competitions of all types that are available and accessible to people who ship their horses in for a weekend, a week, or even a month or two. The tradition of having visiting horsemen goes back to the turn of the last century and the founding of Aiken’s fabled Winter Colony. Back in the years before World War II, much of Aiken’s winter population was composed of horsemen who traveled South to ride, train and play with their horses in a congenial atmosphere. These people, whether they owned property in town, stayed at a hotel or rented a “cottage” were even called “tourists.”

Aiken’s Equestrian History

Horse people discovered Aiken after the end of the Civil War, when the mild winter climate earned the city a reputation for having “healthy air” that could prevent or even cure tuberculosis. Like many cities in the South, it sprouted tuberculosis sanitariums, as well as hotels and resorts for people who migrated to the warm climate during the winter with a sickly relative. A typical example might be a well-to-do family from New York, Boston or Chicago with an unhealthy child, one they feared might be on the way to having consumption, which was the popular term for tuberculosis. Starting in the middle of the 19th century, there was a belief that tuberculosis could be cured by a warm, dry climate, plenty of fresh air, outdoor exercise and good nutrition. Aiken’s winter atmosphere was considered ideal.

It was not long before healthy Northerners realized that the climate was equally congenial for outdoor sports. Winters were sunny and temperate, the sandy soil never froze, and horses and people alike found the atmosphere invigorating. People came down in the winter to stay at one of the luxurious hotels that catered to them. Restaurants advertised that their tables were “supplied direct from New York.” Many people loved Aiken so much they built their own “cottages” and stables so that they could spend an entire season. As early as the 1880s, Aiken was referred to as the “Newport of the South.” By the second decade of the twentieth century, the Winter Colony was an established Aiken feature.

The Winter Colonists were an active group. They foxhunted, golfed, went bird shooting, played polo and enjoyed driving their carriages at great speed down the city’s broad, tree-lined boulevards or through narrow, twisting trails in Aiken’s vast woods. Amateur racehorse and steeplechase trainers spent their winters conditioning their charges under the Aiken sun. Amateur standardbred drivers challenged one Summer 2012 The Aiken Horse 11 another to races on the Aiken Mile Track. People who visited Aiken often remarked that there was not much nightlife in Aiken. This was because everyone got up so early. The “perfect Aiken day” was one in which you participated in five or more sports.

The city became a winter playground for well-known families with names like Hitchcock, Whitney, Vanderbilt, Astor and Clark. It was an exclusive place. “Aiken winter society is said to be uncrashable,” noted an article in the Palm Beach Post. “Millionaires have built or bought magnificent estates, strings of polo ponies and come to Aiken with high hopes, only to retreat to some more penetrable resort where their blood doesn’t have to be as blue as that of their horses.”

Aiken’s established families might not have been welcoming to outsiders, but they had a keen sense of responsibility to each other and to the sporting traditions they were creating. In fact, many of those traditions survive today, and are open to people outside exclusive social circles. These traditions owe their longevity to the foresight of the original colonists, who made provisions to preserve the playgrounds they had enjoyed so much.

For instance, William C. Whitney, who was Secretary of the Navy under Grover Cleveland, established a permanent trust for Whitney Polo Field in 1901, with the stipulation that it was to be used for “all kinds of sports and pastimes in the City of Aiken.” Whitney Field was first used for polo in the spring of 1882, and has been the site of matches ever since, making it the oldest polo field in continuous use in the country.

The Hitchcock family was responsible for much of the growth of the old Winter Colony, and for many of the traditions that survive today. Louise Eustis (who became Louise Hitchcock) was brought to Aiken by her aunt, Celestine Eustis, in 1872, when she was six. Celestine had become Louise’s guardian after both of her parents died of tuberculosis in France. Louise was frail as a child, and Celestine made every effort to keep her healthy, including ensuring she had plenty of outdoor exercise, which meant horseback riding. Louise grew up loving horses, the outdoors and Aiken. When she met and married Thomas Hitchcock, who was a member of New York society, she convinced him to come to Aiken for the winters and the Hitchcocks soon had their friends joining them on their Southern pilgrimage.

In 1916, the Hitchcock family established the annual Aiken Horse Show and started the Aiken Hounds, a drag hunt in the Hitchcock Woods. Both traditions thrive today, chiefly because the woods themselves are owned and maintained by a trust, the Hitchcock Woods Foundation, which is devoted to preserving them. The woods are Aiken’s heart - a 2,200 acre nature preserve just blocks from the city’s center. They are laced with over 65 miles of sandy trails, featuring jumping lines as well as winding paths that go up and down wooded hills. In the spring, these hills blossom with kalmia and rhododendron. The towering pines and the filtered sunlight can give the place the feeling of a cathedral. Cathedral Aisle is, in fact, the name of one of the most popular trails. Walkers, riders and carriages are welcome, but motorized vehicles are not: cars have never been allowed in the woods, preserving them for equestrian use. There is one weekend each year when this rule is broken. Every spring cars are allowed to drive down the trail to the Aiken Horse Show ring to watch the competition.

Aiken’s Seasons

Although some might consider the era of the Winter Colony to be Aiken’s Golden Age, the city has been experiencing a Renaissance in the 21st century. This is especially true among members of the equestrian set, who have been rediscovering Aiken and all it has to offer. One thing that makes Aiken stand out as an equestrian community is that there are so many different disciplines that are practiced so close to each other. Moreover, horse people of all types feel as though they are part of the same community. In many places, the horse show people don’t talk to the polo people, and the racing people wouldn’t know the driving people. This is not true in Aiken – of course, there are bound to be disagreements, but generally speaking, everyone gets along 12 The Aiken Horse Summer 2012 and people from different equestrian walks of life know and respect one another.

Although you can find people practicing each of Aiken’s horse sports throughout the year, there are some definite seasons for each discipline – times when one discipline is dominant in the city. The fall is all about polo, which has a second season in the spring. The Aiken area has an astounding 11 polo clubs that offer practices, matches and tournaments. Including private and practice fields, Aiken has about 50 polo pitches, many of them irrigated, well maintained and of the best quality. There are at least 70 polo players who own property in the area and the number of players in town swells in the spring and fall. Polo is available at all levels and for all budgets, from 0 goal arena games up to medium and high goal United States Polo Association tournaments.

Later in the fall, combined driving takes the spotlight. Aiken has a thriving (and growing) community of drivers, as well as its own International level combined driving event at Katydid Farm each November. There are many smaller schooling shows and driving trials throughout the fall and winter. In addition, the Aiken Driving Club and South Carolina Pleasure Drivers Association organize regular outings. In some places, people who ride keep away from people who drive – after all, many riding horses are spooked by horses pulling carriages. In Aiken, riders and drivers get along and go together. In fact, at the annual “Salute to Driving” held each February, Shelly Temple (an international level driver) and Phillip Dutton (an Olympic eventer) have performed a pas de deux in the dressage arena.

The winter has two main disciplines: foxhunting and eventing. The foxhunting season in Aiken gets started in November, just as it is ending in New York and New England. The Aiken area has four recognized hunts and one mock hunt. Hunt junkies can go out every day of the week, and many of them do. Aiken is a haven for foxhunters from northern climes. There are many individuals that come down for the season, and Aiken is also the winter hunting grounds for the historic Toronto North York Hunt, which operates in conjunction with Whiskey Road Foxhounds. Each February, Aiken seems to be overflowing with visiting hunters who come for Whiskey Road’s hunt week, or the Festival of Hunting organized by the Edisto River Hounds.

The second main winter discipline is eventing. From February through March, Aiken becomes one of America’s two main destinations for professional and amateur event riders. There are two competitions per week, as well as many clinics and schooling opportunities. The United States Equestrian Federation holds training sessions for horses and riders on its high performance list throughout the two months, bringing in the best riders in the sport, who often stick around to compete in local horse trials. The eventing scene grows every year, and it is not uncommon for a competition to have 400 or more entries.

Winter is also the time for Thoroughbred racing, although there are no actual races in Aiken. Rather, the Aiken Training Track in the downtown historic district becomes the schooling ground for young racehorses, some of them destined for great things. The winter training season ends in March with the first leg of the Aiken Triple Crown – three weekends of different, spectator-friendly horse sports. These start with the Aiken Trials, a day of races for young Thoroughbreds. Next comes the Aiken Steeplechase, which regularly attracts about 30,000 spectators each year. Finally, there is the annual Pacers and Polo match that benefits the University of South Carolina Aiken and ushers in the spring polo season.

Springtime is a time for horse shows. It starts with the annual Aiken Horse Show in the Woods, one of the longest running and most historic hunter shows in the country. This show is a major benefit for the Hitchcock Woods Foundation. Then, the annual Aiken Spring Classic comes to Highfields Event Center for two and a half weeks, featuring Grand Prix jumping competitions as well as the International Hunter Derby. There are also other horse shows throughout the year, including the newly established Aiken Fall Festival, also at Highfields, which is held each September.

The only season that can’t be identified with any particular discipline is the summer. Summer has traditionally been a quiet time in Aiken, a time when horsemen train green horses or take some time off. This is changing, however. There are now regular polo practices at various fields throughout the county during the hottest months. There are also schooling horse shows at Highfields Event Center downtown, as well as at Belvoir Farm South in Windsor. For the eventing set, Paradise Farm has clinics and Full Gallop Farm has schooling horse trials.

Throughout the year, many other horse sports contribute to the equestrian atmosphere. There is an active dressage community with four recognized shows per year. There is an Aiken chapter of the Pony Club. Another group of people study and practice natural horsemanship. Each January, the Augusta Futurity, a 10-day-long cutting horse competition, comes to the James Brown Arena, just across the river in Georgia. This is the largest cutting horse show east of the Mississippi, attracting some of the top names in the sport. There is a growing group of people in the area who participate in reining, roping and ranch horse competitions. There is truly something for everyone.

Off the Horse

For horse-themed entertainment that doesn’t require horses, one can visit the Thoroughbred Hall of Fame and Museum in Hopeland Gardens. The museum is housed in a converted carriage house and is dedicated to the 39 national champion racehorses that trained in Aiken at some point in their careers. These horses include the immortal Kelso (you can see a pair of his shoes) and Kentucky Derby winners Swale and Pleasant Colony. There is also a permanent Pete Bostwick exhibit upstairs. Bostwick, whose name was synonymous with Aiken polo for over a quarter of a century, was not just a nationally-known polo player, he was also a celebrated steeplechase jockey.

History buffs might also want to visit the Aiken County Historical museum. This museum has some interesting polo memorabilia and newspaper clippings and also puts on equestrian-themed exhibits, depending on what is going on in Aiken’s horse world. Other historic attractions include the Aiken Visitors Center and Train Museum located in the recently rebuilt Aiken Railroad Depot.

Aiken’s Charms

Aiken may very well be a horseman’s paradise, but the city also offers a great deal more. The charming downtown has numerous shops, boutiques and restaurants. There are movies, a thriving arts community, museums, galleries, a top-notch hospital and a four-year university. The business community is bustling. Columbia, the state capitol is about an hour’s drive to the east. If you drive a bit more than two hours, you can be in Atlanta, Charlotte or Charleston. Not that you will want to leave once you are here. Aiken has so much to do and the city itself is so warm and welcoming, there seems little reason to go elsewhere. Aiken has wonderful climate, horses, history, culture and a strong sense of community. Who could ask for more?

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Secret Lives of Horses | 9/26/2012

The Odd Couple

By Mary Jane Howell, Photography by Gary Knoll

Upon hearing the names “Sunshine Bob” and “Wentworth” you might think of characters in an old Western movie or perhaps a 1930s vaudeville act. In reality, the owners of those names are an odd couple living at Equine Rescue of Aiken. Sunshine Bob is a one-eyed Thoroughbred who, before coming to Aiken, was literally wasting away while running in cheap claiming races. Wentworth is a Belgian draft horse who spent most of his life toiling in the fields of an Amish farm.
The fact that the two horses are now best buddies and will live out their days as companions in Aiken is a testament to the perseverance of Jim Rhodes, the manager of Equine Rescue of Aiken, and to its benefactor Isabel Furland.
Jim spotted Sunshine Bob while making a visit to the racetrack in Charles Town, West Virginia, in October 2009. Jim runs a few of his own horses at that track, but he also brings some Thoroughbreds back to Aiken for adoption on a regular basis.
“The first time I saw Bob he was in a stall in a concrete barn across the street from the main stable area at Charles Town,” recalls Jim. “It was so dark and dreary that I couldn’t imagine keeping any animal there, and yet there was Bob. He was the sweetest horse, curious about everything and not the least bit skittish, even though he had lost his right eye. He was severely underweight and I couldn’t believe that he was being run a couple of times a month.”
Jim fell in love with Bob and promptly called Isabel Furland about the gelding’s plight. She gave him the go-ahead to try and get the horse for Equine Rescue of Aiken, but Bob’s owner didn’t want to give him up. Jim left Charles Town without Bob, but with the hope that the owner would consider selling him in the near future. A month later, Isabel’s husband Richard called Jim, relaying the message that his wife wanted Sunshine Bob as her Christmas present that year.
Jim called Bob’s trainer with an offer, but was told that the gelding’s owner planned to keep running Bob with the hope of earning checks on the racetrack. To that end Bob had been moved to Ohio to run at Thistledown and Beulah Park. Sunshine Bob was a winner once in his career – he won a maiden claiming race at Charles Town back in March of 2009. That was the only time he would get his photo taken in the winner’s circle.
Nearly ten months passed before Jim heard from Bob’s connections. During the ensuing months – from November of 2009 until August of 2010 – Bob ran 13 times, with his best finish a third place. After that last race, Bob’s trainer called Jim, saying that for $800 the gelding could be his. Jim wired the money and arrangements were made to ship the horse to Charles Town, where a stall was waiting in the barn of Kenny Huffman, Jim’s trainer.
“I was so excited when Kenny called and said, ‘Your one-eyed horse just arrived,’” says Jim. “I was putting together a load of horses from Charles Town, so Bob had to wait a few weeks to get to Aiken, but Kenny made sure he was taken care of in the meantime.”

Jim returned to Charles Town and was in the process of loading his trailer for the trip back to Aiken, when he received a call from Isabel Furland. She asked if he minded driving to New Jersey because she had just purchased a Belgian draft horse from the weekly Camelot Auction there, through a website that finds homes for those animals not sold each week.
“I knew Miss Isabel had a passion for draft horses and it’s a sad fact that adoptions for those breeds are very difficult, so I was not completely taken by surprise with her call,” laughs Jim. “So the Charles Town horses and I headed to New Jersey and nine hours later we met Wentworth.”

Wentworth was 17 at the time – a broken down, skinny (but still huge!) toffee-colored teddy bear.
“You could tell he had done a ton of work in his day, and he still had collar sores to prove it,” Jim says. “It was as if they had taken him from the field right to the auction yard, after all those years of work.”

For the trip to Aiken, Jim put Bob and Wentworth side by side, with a large hay net between them. By the time the journey south was complete, the two horses were the best of friends.

Today, Bob and Wentworth share a pasture at the rescue with a few other horses, but the two only have time for each other. Both horses are now in good condition – Wentworth, no longer skinny, weighs in at a hefty 1400 pounds. Their coats are shiny and both exude contentment and good health.

“Bob and Wentworth are permanent residents,” says Jim. “I wouldn’t let one be adopted without the other and we certainly don’t have a waiting list for draft horses.”

Bob’s racing career spanned three years, during which he ran 30 times, with a win, a pair of seconds and three third place finishes. From all that work, running in cheap claiming races, he earned a mere $22,273. The fact that he had only one eye and he was distanced in the majority of his races could have turned him sour, and who could blame him. But somehow, Sunshine Bob lived up to his name. Perhaps the saying “blood will tell” holds true: his paternal grandsire was the gutsy Unbridled, winner of the 1990 Kentucky Derby, while his maternal grandsire was the spectacular sprinter Meadowlake. Sunshine Bob obviously did not inherit the raw talent of his grandparents, but he did retain their class, and that is what Jim saw on that day he first encountered the horse at Charles Town.

We can only imagine what the wise old Wentworth has seen in his nearly two decades of life. For sure he had never come across a one-eyed Thoroughbred during his days as an Amish farm horse!

Fate brought the unlikely pair together and thanks to the haven that is Equine Rescue of Aiken, Sunshine Bob and Wentworth will have peace and friendship there for all their remaining years.

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Demystifying the Lead Change | 9/19/2012

Patience and Practice Make Perfect

by John Abbott

Horses that compete in the hunter or the equitation ring often need to demonstrate correct flying lead changes on course. The whole picture of a hunter is one of smoothness, rhythm and balance, so it is important that the change, if one is necessary, does not disrupt that picture. A good lead change is one that comes through in one stride, typically from back to front. This means that the horse changes with his hind legs first, and by the time his front legs land, they, too, are on the new lead. The rider should be sitting still and looking as if nothing has happened.
If you miss a lead change, or do one badly, it could ruin your chances in the class. One example of an incorrect lead change would be if the horse only changes in front or behind and canters disunited for one or more strides. Other typical problems include speeding up or slowing down, wringing the tail, bucking or crow-hopping. The flying change is important, and if you want to succeed, it makes sense to spend time schooling it.

Because there seems to be a mystery to teaching lead changes to horses, I would like to offer an explanation that I hope will be simple and easy to follow.

Let’s start with talking about the canter. To me, riding the canter is like riding an ocean wave. There is a rise and fall to it. Some horses give more lift or bounce than others. These horses are more likely to do lead changes easily, but not always. Horses with a flat slow, unengaged canter are tougher to teach. It can be done, but it will just take more time.

For example, I had a horse in training that was an American Warmblood cross. He was big and on the drafty side and did not have a great back end, but he had a motor. It took him about four months of consistent work before he got it, but once he got it, lead changes were easy for him. He had to build the right muscle to be able to overcome his conformation. Lots of counter canter work helped. He went on to become a show horse and did quite well in the hunter and equitation ring.

The most important advice I can give is to take it slow. Work on simple changes - dropping to a trot and then striking off on the other lead - on a diagonal line across the ring until you can perform these changes fluidly with only one trot step in the change. This may take time, but it is worth the wait to get good, smooth, relaxed flying changes. You want your horse to strike off calmly on the new lead as you step into your outside stirrup and bend in the new direction. It is important that the horse stay on a straight line as he performs the change, even though he is bending in the new direction.

When you ask for the change, your timing is important. As I said earlier, the canter is like a wave. You need to start asking for the lead change when the wave is low, which means that three of the horse’s hooves are on the ground. You will still be asking as the wave comes back up, when your horse’s hooves are in the air.

Once you have your horse doing a quiet, smooth simple change with one trot step between the new lead and the old one, it is time to start asking for the flying change. If your horse has more natural forward impulsion, then the changes will probably start to happen on their own. However, if your horse starts to rush across the diagonal, then you must work on being slow first – for instance you might need to trot more until he gets the idea that changing leads is not a race. On the other hand, if your horse is lazy you want to make sure you have relaxed, simple changes first. Then work on impulsion through the simple change until your horse offers the flying change.

There are a few common rider mistakes that make it hard for the horse to perform a change properly. The most common mistake is that the rider leans forward and in the direction of the new lead. If you lean into the inside shoulder, this throws the horse onto his forehand and makes him less likely to do a flying change. Instead, you should sit up and step into the outside stirrup. This will help your horse stay balanced and lift his inside shoulder during the transition from one lead to the other.

The other bit of advice here is make sure that your horse is wearing front and especially rear boots of some sort. While he is learning he might kick himself or interfere behind and if he starts to knock his ankles he will not want to do his changes because they hurt him. Also, if your horse is older he might need to have a veterinarian examine and possibly treat his hocks, especially if he used to do his changes and now does not.

In review:
1. Do simple changes through the trot until they are slow and relaxed with one step at the trot - take your time here, because this is an important step.
2. Work on impulsion with the quiet, lazy horse through the simple changes; let the horse with the motor offer the changes. With both types of horse, work on counter canter to build the muscles needed for flying changes.
3. Be patient. It is worth the wait to have a quiet, relaxed lead change. If you rush this process you will get fast and hurried changes which will not be appreciated in the show ring. It might take months, but eventually you will be rewarded with fluent, effortless changes, the kind that help make a horse a winner.

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

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Designing Women | 9/12/2012

Nancy Mann

By Mary Jane Howell, Photography by Gary Knoll

The year 1975 was a tumultuous one around the world – the war in Vietnam escalated and then came to an end, political assassinations abounded, there were revolutions and natural disasters. In the midst of the turmoil, however, it was a banner year for sports. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier whipped the world into a frenzy with the fight that was dubbed the “Thrilla in Manila,” Bjorn Borg, Arthur Ashe, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King were the stars of tennis, while Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson ruled the fairways. It was the year of the great filly Ruffian, who overshadowed her male counterparts, but lost her life after breaking down in a match race with the Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.
On March 26 of that same year, Nancy Mann (then called Nancy Bielan) won the third race at Rhode Island’s Lincoln Downs in what was only her third start as a professional jockey. The horse, a 6-year-old chestnut gelding named Norse Plume, paid $82.80 for the win. Nancy was 19 and was less than a year out of high school. Norse Plume was owned and trained by Florence Gemma, a wellrespected trainer in New England.

Fast-forward several decades - Nancy is now living in Aiken and designing equestrian properties. Quite a transition from the life of a jockey!

“Designing has always been in my blood,” says Nancy. “My mom was a phenomenal designer – whether she was making a cocktail dress or helping someone design their patio – she just had that special touch. We lived in Barrington, Rhode Island, not exactly Milan, but my mom made sure that I had lots of opportunities.”

Ballet and art classes were the norm for Nancy, but she begged for (and received) her first horse when she was 10. A few years later she got a really good pony and although he frequently ran off with her, he would jump anything. During summers and on weekends Nancy spent most of her free time at the Palmer River Riding Club, honing the riding skills that would be invaluable to her later on the track. She fox hunted, showed jumpers and was in Pony Club. She also rode her fair share of Thoroughbreds fresh off the track.

While Nancy was still in high school she caught the eye of Terry Dunleavy, a local trainer, who, after seeing her in action at a Pony Club rally told her she should be at the race track galloping horses. He introduced Nancy to several trainers and before she knew it she was exercising horses on weekends and during summer vacations.

As soon as Nancy graduated from Barrington High School, she was off to the track. In those days a rider had to be apprenticed to a trainer, and Florence Gemma took Nancy under her wing.

After her win on Norse Plume, there was no stopping the young jockey. She continued to ride at Lincoln Downs, then moved on to Narragansett Park, the track where she had the most success. On October 16, 1975, she rode two winners on the card – Lorello and Summer Winds. In one win picture she is in pink silks, in the other in yellow, but the smile is the same – that ear-to-ear grin of a teenager living her dream at 19.

With the confidence earned from her success at Lincoln Downs and Narragansett, Nancy moved her tack to Suffolk Downs in Boston and Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire; larger tracks with better purses. The flip side, however, was that at Suffolk there was a pre-existing jockey colony that was tough to crack.

“I had better success at Rockingham,” recalls Nancy. “I was riding some nice horses and having a good time. It was my third year of riding professionally and I had been fortunate in that I hadn’t had many spills.”

That changed when a horse she was on went down in a multi-horse crash, catapulting Nancy to the ground. She was in the hospital several days with internal bleeding and both shoulders dislocated. It could have been worse and she knew it.

“In the hospital I realized that being a jockey wasn’t really my life’s dream after all and it wasn’t worth the risk,” she says. “That spill was horrific. The horse directly in front of me had clipped heels and fell, and there was no way my horse could avoid him – and we went down as well. When I was released from the hospital the Rockingham stewards called me into the office and had me watch a replay of the race, a common practice after a rider has had a bad spill. I rode only one more race after that and won it. It was important for me to go out on a winning note.”

Not sure what she wanted to do with her life, Nancy worked for the well-known horseman Mason Phelps for a year at his Newport stable, going back to her roots in the hunter jumper world.

Nancy knew she could and should be doing more with her life and so did her family. Her stepfather had heard about American Intercontinental University, a design college in London, and helped Nancy go there. She finished her degree in three years and made the most of her time in Europe, traveling to all the great cities and soaking up the culture. Nancy has been on the university’s board of trustees since 1986 and the board’s chairman for the past two years.

“I took zillions of photos during that time – learning so much about color and detail – and I have used that in what I design today,” she explains. Upon graduation Nancy returned to the United States and moved to Atlanta where she became district manager for GF Furniture Systems.

After several years of the corporate world and travelling five days a week, Nancy felt as if it was time to move on. She consulted on the design for the first equestrian subdivision in the Southeast – Tullamore in Alpharetta, Georgia.

“The people I worked for were land people, not horse people,” she says. “I was able to bring a horse person’s perspective to the table and I really enjoyed that. I also designed my first property – 16 acres on the back end of Tullamore. I liked the building process and I really felt that I had found my niche.”

She was not yet ready to settle down, however. Nancy sold her Tullamore property, moved to the north Georgia mountains, got a few horses, built another farm, and started a home design and building business. She packed a lot into the next few years, but when she hit 40 she knew she had to have time for herself.

“My parents had moved to Hilton Head and on one of my many trips to visit them I took an alternate route and ended up driving through Aiken. I fell in love with the town,” she says.

One of the first people she connected with was Linda Knox McLean, which led to rides in the Hitchcock Woods and eventually hunting with the Aiken Hounds.

“Linda was the kindest first contact anyone could ask for,” she says. “We just hit it off and it seemed like I was in Aiken all the time. Life was coming together for me – I felt like I was truly coming home when I was in Aiken.”

In 1996 Nancy purchased property on Coker Springs Road and set about designing and building a home that met the stringent requirements of Aiken’s historic horse district. From there she purchased 50 acres on Route 302 and developed two farms. Horses and riding were still in her life. She whipped-in for Aiken Hounds starting in 1998 and eventually held the same position with Why Worry Hounds from 2000 to 2002. She also learned the art of navigating in driving competitions, teaming with Peggy and Megan Benge beginning in 2000. In 2005, she went to the World Combined Pony Championship in England to navigate for Jennifer Matheson, who represented Canada.

“I was a last minute substitute, as Jennifer’s usual navigator couldn’t go. So I flew over to Amsterdam with the pony Danyloo and got a ferry to England where we spent the next seven weeks training and competing,” says Nancy. “The World Championships were held at Catton Hall in Derbyshire, a marvelous estate. I also had the opportunity to meet Prince Phillip and share a Pimms and some interesting conversation!”

At 56, Nancy laughs that she is a really late bloomer and that she’s only hitting her stride right now. She works frequently with Mitch Johnson, a local builder, and brings to the table not only a horsewoman’s experience in what works in a barn and farm, but also a lifelong passion for design – whether it is the marriage of heart pine and old brick in a new home, or finding the perfect color of paint for a light-filled bedroom.

Last year Nancy was given free rein to develop an Aiken property for Dana Pope and his family, who call Massachusetts home for much of the year. Their trainer is Sarah Morton, so the property encompasses a barn for their horses as well as for horses belonging to Sarah’s clients. The Popes wanted their home to have understated elegance and yet be comfortable for family and friends.

“Nancy offered us a soup to nuts building experience, walking us through site layout, building design, functionality of interior spaces and finally interior finishes that reflect a southern charm. Building a horse farm and home from New England can be nerve wracking. Nancy, as a horsewoman with a great sense of humor, knew what we needed and wanted and made it fun,” explains Dana Pope.

The Popes’ property, named High Meadow Farm, is the latest chapter in Nancy’s varied life, but certainly not the last.

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Do Unto Your Horse | 9/5/2012

To change your horse, change yourself first

By Ray Wheeler

The biggest part of my life has been spent around horses. When I first started, I came up in the way fairly typical of the time. My riding was relegated to breaking in babies. I considered this to be a poor use of my talent. Despite this I toiled on, waiting for someone to come along and buy me a string of quality horses with the appropriate budget, facility and a work force to take me to the top.

Then a funny thing happened. I found myself liking what I was doing. As time went on, I realized how much all of those horses had taught me, and how valuable those experiences were.

Nowadays I give lessons, do ground work and pass on what I have learned.

Some of the simplest things have great impact. I think people overlook or dismiss them, thinking ‘how can something that would fit inside a fortune cookie really be so powerful?’ But of you give these things a chance, you may find it easier than you ever thought to create significant and positive change in your riding. So here are some simple things you can try.

First: Reward sooner. Most people are late with their rewards and timing is important. When things get tough, we get worse. The horse gives a little try, too often there is no acknowledgement because we’re upset or don’t think the try is sufficient. It’s so important that at the moment the horse tries, the rider should soften enough to say ‘Yes. You’re on the right track.’ Don’t become adversarial with your horse. Remember, reward improvement, not perfection.

Second: Establish a reasonable emotional range in yourself. We all want our horse to be calm, focused and relaxed. Our horses want and deserve the same from us

Third: Give your horse a chance to be light by being light yourself. It drives me a little crazy to see people who jam their heel or spur into their horses’ sides as they walk, trot or canter off. It’s the epitome of lazy and thoughtless. Try using your calf and teach your horse to respond to it. A good aide should be issued in a clear, thoughtful manner. The horse should respond promptly and with the appropriate amount of energy. This is not that hard to do. All it really takes is consistency and the desire to create positive change.

Fourth: Visualize positive images. Most people only visualize when they get nervous and see impending disaster. And look how often it comes true. Before you ride or before a competition, take a few moments to go through things in your head. Focus on detail: feel it, hear it, see it. Remember to visualize a positive outcome. If you do this, I see good things in your future. See how easy it is?

Fifth: Know there’s a difference between rigid and strong. Strong allows you to maintain your position and stay with the movement. Strong means you resist with only the appropriate muscles. Rigid means tense. It means you can’t stay with the movement, and it means your horse’s chiropractor, acupuncturist, and vet will all be sending you Christmas cards expressing thanks for all the business you’ve sent them.

Sixth: If you find yourself in a real jam, stop. Everything can be broken down into simpler parts. Find out what part is broken, fix it and then put it all back together. Let’s say you’re having trouble with your leg yield. Maybe your horse bulges his shoulder. If you can’t fix it by leg yielding, stop leg yielding and do some exercises that enhance your horse’s response when you ask him to move his shoulder. Maybe counter bend on a circle, or ride some square patterns. Once you make some progress there, go back to the leg yield and try again. As the old saying goes, if you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Seventh: Love your horse for being a horse. He’s not a dog, a person or a motorcycle. You may think there’s nothing to practice here, but there is. If you don’t see your horse for who and what he is, your perspective of how he thinks, learns, sees life and what is important to him and what’s not, will all be skewed.

Eighth: Teach and allow your horse to try. He will never reach his potential at anything until he tries. That means you can’t be harsh with a horse for giving you the wrong answer. It’s how he learns. You must be careful not to inhibit this. For example, if you ask your horse to trot more forward, and he canters, don’t pull him up abruptly. Bring him back to trot, and ask him again.

As I look over this list, I realize that many of these things are simple statements, but not necessarily simple things to carry out. That’s riding isn’t it? But you can learn just the way your horse can, by giving a little try. If you are rewarded by finding a better response from your horse, you will know you are on the right path.

Ray Wheeler is a graduate of Lamar College in Colorado where he majored in horse training & management and has been training horses and riders for more than 30 years. His wife, Beth, is an eventer. Together they operate Wheeler Equestrian out of Hopeland Farm in Aiken.

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