Monday, February 17, 2014

Natural Migrations | 2/17/2014

Tour Company Owners Move to Aiken

By Pam Gleason

Like so many horse people who come to Aiken, Paul and Caroline Swart are thrilled to have found such a horse-loving and welcoming community. The couple, originally from South Africa, first heard about Aiken when they saw an advertisement for the equestrian community, Three Runs Plantation, in a national horse magazine many years ago. They were living in Bend, Oregon at the time. They had horses that they boarded, and they thought living in an equestrian community sounded very attractive. A few years ago, they decided that they had survived enough Northwest winters to last a lifetime, and they were ready to make a move.

"We're from Africa," says Paul. "So we always wanted to live where it was warmer and first looked in California, but it was too expensive. Then we thought about Aiken and about Three Runs. There was nowhere out there quite like it, where you can buy in a horse development and be surrounded by other horse people."

The Swarts at home in Three Runs Plantation
So the next time Paul was on a business trip to the East Coast, he scheduled an excursion to Aiken. While in town, he toured various equestrian developments and properties for sale, but in the end it was still Three Runs that spoke to him most convincingly.

"I drove around and I said to myself, this could work. We wanted something manageable, five to 10 acres, where you can ride with other people. I travel a lot, and I wanted Caroline not to have to ride on her own while I was gone."

"We came back together," says Caroline. "Paul had already picked out this lot, based on an oak tree on the property."

"It was the biggest oak in the development," continues Paul. "We love trees."

The Swarts bought the lot and contracted Cooper Home and Stable, a local builder, to build them a barn and attached apartment, all designed around the stately oak that they admired. It happened very quickly. By last October, their new place was ready for them. They sold their house in Oregon (the sale happened the day before they left), packed their two horses, two dogs and four cats into their horse trailer with living quarters, and made the trek across the country. Today, they are settled in Three Runs with their menagerie. Caroline has a Friesian horse named Zanzibar and is dressage enthusiast. Paul has a South American warmblood, Eros, and is looking forward to competing in eventing.

Paul and Caroline make up a growing demographic of international horse people who now call Aiken home. The international flavor they bring to the area is intensified by the fact that they are professionals in the tourism industry, operating their own company, Natural Migrations, form their new home base.

Natural Migrations specializes in photographic and horse safaris to southern eastern Africa. Paul is a former professional wildlife guide, while Caroline worked in lodges in the African tour industry. They came to the United States about 15 years ago when Paul was hired by a Houston-based tour company to do marketing and sales. Then, eight years ago, they decided to strike out on their own and formed their own company. The Swarts work closely with tour operators in Africa, notably with Wilderness Safaris, one of the foremost ecotourism companies on the continent. It is important to them that their company support conservation, wildlife and the African people, all while affording travelers an experience of a lifetime.

"Tourism will be the savior of wildlife in Africa, I have no doubt," says Paul. "What we do is based in the ecotourism model. The local communities near wilderness areas previously saw the wildlife as food, and there were terrible problems with poaching. But now, companies like Wilderness Safaris have educated people that if you protect the wildlife, it's there forever. People will come to see it; you will get jobs; you will get an income. The attitude is changing."

Wilderness Safaris, which was founded in Botswana in 1983, has two main conservation arms in addition to its safari company. One of these the Wilderness Safari Trust, has been involved in such things as reintroducing endangered rhinoceros herds into the Okvango Delta is Botswana. (The Swarts donated a vehicle to this project so that the rhinos can be monitored in the wild.) Another initiative is Children in the Wilderness, a program that provides local children in rural Africa with educational and training opportunities in the tourism industry.

"Fifteen years ago, safari companies came in and made all the money for themselves and the local communities saw no benefit," says Paul. "Now, the companies pay a few to the community where they operate their camps and concession fees go to schools and other services. It's a system that has worked well. The focus has really changed for travelers, too: people want to feel good about going to Africa and contributing as well. Our company is concerned about conservation and about the communities where we operate. We want to support companies that take care of the land and the people.

"We custom design safaris," he continues. "People give us their interests and their budget and we put it all together for them. There are different kinds of trips - everything is designed around what people want."

Horse camping "under canvas" in Africa
Horse safaris are more popular with Europeans than with Americans, but people from any country who try horse safaris say there is nothing like them. On a typical riding safari, travelers will stay in camps ("under canvas") out in the wilderness, either making day trips from a base camp, or traveling from one area to the next. The tents can be quite luxurious and the food is good. But the main attraction is the chance to be so close to the wildlife. There will typically be two rides a day, each taking the guests to see something different.

"It's thrilling," says Caroline. "You are riding with the big game. You can be riding with elephants, giraffe, zebra, and canter along with them."

You might encounter elephants (Paul says the big bulls are okay, but you should steer clear of breeding herds with babies), and even leopards and lions. Most of the time, these predators will run away when they see you, but Paul says that if you do encounter a lion on horseback, it would be a mistake and you would turn and go the other way. The horses don't like the lions, and become quite nervous when they smell them. The lions might like the horses a bit too much.

There is, of course, some danger in all of this, but Paul says that the outfits that they choose have excellent safety records, which is one reason that they do not offer any bargain-basement horseback riding tours.

"Some of the more affordable trips are ones you don't want to go on," he says. "We care about how they look after the horses, and we make sure they have a good safety record." A couple of times a year, Paul or Caroline will take one of their own tours to ensure that everything is up to snuff.

What kind of person would be suited to a horseback safari?

"You do have to be a good rider," says Paul. "And they will evaluate your riding when you get there to make sure that you will be safe. You need to be relatively fit, because you go out on four-hour rides. And you need to enjoy wildlife."

Thrills: on a horseback safari, you can get very close to the wildlife
Paul and Caroline say that they have never marketed their company aggressively and most of their business comes to them by word of mouth.

"I have yet to meet the person that comes back and says 'we had a lousy time'," says Paul. "Everybody just loves what we do."

Although they have been in Aiken for just a few months, they say that they already have a number of local people who are interested in making a trip with their company. Because many of their safaris are to places where the number of tourists is limited (another nod to conservation), prudent travelers are planning these trips early.

"We are already selling 2016," says Paul, remarking that the North American market is growing. "People should know that this kind of trip is available. For most of our clients, if it is the first time they go, they are totally in awe of being in Africa. When they go a second or third time, they might want a trip that is a little more tailored to their own interests. That's one of the advantages that we offer, that we can tailor a trip and custom design one for you. It's a fantastic thing to do - it can be an experience of a lifetime."

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

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Ask the Judge | 2/15/2014

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 was thinking it would be a lot of fun to do a musical freestyle. I am just a First Level rider. Is there a freestyle test I can do at my level? What are the requirements, and how are freestyles judged?

                                                                                       -Music Lover

Dear Music Lover,

Everyone likes musical freestyles: riders, spectators, judges, even horses. At your level, you could choose to do a Training Level freestyle (new since 2012) or a First Level freestyle, if you have met the requirements. In order to be eligible to do a First Level freestyle, you must have earned a minimum 60% score in First Level Test 3 at a USDF recognized show.

Assuming you are eligible, let's look at the USDF First Level freestyle test. The test sheet has a "technical execution" side and an "artistic impression" side. The same judge will evaluate both sides of the test.

Scoring of the technical side:

The freestyle has a possible 150 technical points. These movements are required:
  1. Free walk: 20 meters minimum of continuous walking.
  2. Medium walk: 20 meters minimum of continuous walking
  3. 8- to 10-meter trot circle, shown at least once in each direction.
  4. Leg yielding in the trot to the left and to the right. This movement has a coefficient of two, meaning that the point are doubled.
  5. Lengthen the stride at the trot. There is no minimum number of steps, but the lengthening must be clearly shown. This can be done sitting or rising.
  6. 10- to 15-meter canter circle to the left and to the right.
  7. Change of lead through the trot shown in both directions. This movement has a coefficient of two.
  8. Lengthen the stride at the canter. There is no minimum number of steps, but the lengthening must be clearly shown. This movement has a coefficient of two.
  9. Halts at the beginning and end of the test.
The technical side also includes scores for gaits (rhythm and quality), impulsion (energy, elasticity and engagement) and submission: "basic issues of submission and technical aspect of the rider." (From the USDF musical freestyle test sheer.)

The technical execution may be scored in half points or full points. The movements are judged as they would be in any First Level test. Each time you do a specific movement, the judge will give you a score for that movement. If you do the same movement more than once (six leg yields, for instance) all your numbers for the leg yields will be averaged and turned into one score. If you do not execute a compulsory movement, you will receive a zero for that movement, so be sure your routine includes everything that is required.

Scoring the Artistic Impression side:

The artistic impression side also has 150 possible points. You will be scored on the following:
  1. Harmony between horse and rider. This has a coefficient of three.
  2. Choreography: The use of arena, design, cohesiveness, balance and creativity. This has a coefficient of four.
  3. Degree of difficulty. This has a coefficient of two.
  4. Music: Suitability, seamlessness, and cohesiveness. This has a coefficient of three.
  5. Interpretation: The music expresses the gaits; use of phrasing and dynamics. This has a coefficient of three.
The artistic and the technical points are added together to give you your final score. The maximum possible score is 300.

Important Information:

  1. There is a maximum time limit of five minutes, but no minimum time. If you exceed the time limit, one point will be deducted from the artistic side.
  2. Riders must enter the arena or signal the sound engineer within 45 seconds of the bell. Riders must enter the arena within 20 seconds of the start of the music, or they may be eliminated.
  3. Entry halts and salutes must face C.
  4. All figures, regardless of size, patterns, combinations or transitions are permitted, even if configurations are found in higher level tests. For instance, you can do canter serpentines, simple changes of lead, walk-canter transitions, canter-walk transitions, or a counter canter. (All of these figures are from Second Level.)
  5. However, movements above the level at which you are testing are illegal and are penalized by a four-point deduction from the technical execution side from each illegal movement. For instance, if you do a flying change, which is first seen at Third Level, you will be penalized by four points.
Other higher level movements that are clearly forbidden include the rein back, the shoulder in, the travers, the renvers, the half pass, the turn on the haunches, the pirouette (in walk or canter), the piaffe and the passafe.

Tips for success:

  1. Use music that matches your horse and has a lively bear, music that many people will enjoy - a catchy tune, or something familiar. Your music (which has coefficient of three) is an important part of the performance and should not seem like background music. Preferably, it should have very little vocals. Be creative: Each gait could be represented by a different tune, for instance. Man people use medleys, which are usually best if all the songs are from the same genre - songs from Broadway shows or a medley of television show theme songs, for instance.
  2. Try not to be too "test-like" in your presentation. It is better not to copy patterns from a published test, and it is more fun to create your own patterns, using all of the arena. Show off your horse's highlights, those things that come easily to you and your horse as a team.
  3. Your freestyle should be at least as difficult as First Level Test Three, and greater difficulty will enhance the ride. However, be certain you can perform your test easily - don't make it so difficult that you are not certain that you can do it smoothly and reliably.
  4. Make several copies of your music. Make sure you test your music at the show before you ride. (The show will let you know when you can try out your music in their equipment.)
Keeping these things in  mind, you should have a good experience. So start selecting music and creating a routine to show off all of your horse's best moves. Then, have fun in your First Level musical freestyle!

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

Friday, February 14, 2014

Palace Malice in Aiken | 2/14/2014

Palace Malice in Aiken

Home for the Holidays

By Mary Jane Howell, Photography By Gary Knoll

There are close to 180 Thoroughbreds in training at the Aiken Training Track this winter, yet there is one horse that stands out from the crowd. Dogwood Stable's Palace Malice, winner of the 2013 Belmont Stakes, has been in Aiken since November 8, having a working vacation before he ships to Florida at the beginning of January. Perhaps it is the Belmont Stakes saddle towel that gives him away, or the lead pony that accompanies him to the track each morning. Chances are, however, it is the railside crowd that is present for his thrice-weekly gallops.

"We made the decision over the summer to bring Palace Malice back to Aiken after the Breeders' Cup," explains Cot Campbell, the President of Dogwood Stable. "I loved the idea of having him here for a couple of months and it certainly brightens up the winter.

"Palace Malice is a throwback to those tough runners of the past who ran often and ran hard - and then they were taken to winter quarters to get a break," Mr. Campbell continues, "Our trainer here in Aiken - Brad Stauffer - has been terrific in seeing to it that Palace Malice enjoys his life."

The colt spends time in his own round pen, where he gets to buck and play: is grazed in the afternoons; and heads to the track for some easy gallops three mornings a week.

"In mid-December we'll pick up the tempo and he'll train six days a week," says Campbell. "He'll have a serious workout around January 5 and then ship to trainer Todd Pletcher in Florida on January 8."

Besides Campbell, who visits Palace Malice every day, the colt's Aiken entourage includes Brad Stauffer and Ron Stevens from Legacy Stable, his groom, Daniel Negrete, his exercise rider Gene Tucker, and Mike and Kari Schneider, who are part-owners of the colt and live close by in Three Runs Plantation.

"It's obviously been great having him in the barn," Stauffer says. "For me personally it has been a very healing time. Palace Malice has been a balm of sorts - after the Legacy barn burned down in August, life seemed to be all about the fire. Now that event has been pushed aside and all anyone wants to talk about is this great horse who is in town, and I really appreciate being able to turn the page to a new chapter."

Stauffer says that life with Palace Malice is a little like having Elvis in the room. "Women of all ages hang over the fence and practically swoon," Stauffer laughs. "This horse knows that people are there to see him and he poses for photos and loves being fed peppermints."

Gene Tucker, Palace Malice's exercise rider, says that life is "surreal" these days, and he is enjoying each and every ride, knowing that life goes back to normal once Palace Malice leaves Aiken.

"I've been riding racehorses for more than 20 years and this is the highlight of my professional life," Tucker says. "I was fortunate to gallop Dogwood's champion filly Storm Song when she was in Aiken back in the 1990s, and to have another opportunity to ride a horse of that caliber is truly thrilling."

Tucker says that Palace Malice is an easy horse to ride and is very professional, yet he knows he is sitting on something very special.

"This horse is total class. He knows what he has to do each time we go to the track. I can feel him puff up when we go by all the people who are standing along the rail. It's like he says to himself - 'I'm the man and I know it!'"

Although the anticipation is already high for Palace Malice's 4-year-old campaign, Campbell still enjoys reviewing the colt's 2013 races.

"The year was wonderful, but I have to say that if Palace Malice had been as lucky as he was good, then he would have won two or three more races," he says. "The highlight, of course, was his victory in the $1 million Belmont Stakes on June 8. The Belmont is one of the greatest sporting events in America and the race is a superb test of both speed and stamina. Man o' War, Gallant Fox, Whirlaway, Native Dancer, Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed all won the Belmont Stakes, and to have Palace Malice's name included in that long list of winners means the world to me and to his partners."

Campbell says another of the year's highlights was heading to his beloved Saratoga with a horse who was a prime candidate to win the Travers Stakes, which is known as the summer Derby.

"Anyone who knows me (or is familiar with the Dogwood Stable newsletter) knows that Saratoga is one of my favorite places in the world," continues Campbell. "It was beyond thrilling to travel there in July and having the town abuzz with talk about our colt."

Palace Malice did not disappoint; he followed up his Belmont win with a commanding victory in the $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga Race Course on July 27. The Travers Stakes on August 24 seemed to be his for the taking, but one should never trust the racing gods. After stumbling at the start and loitering at the back of the field, Palace Malice made a gallant run down the stretch to finish fourth, and a mere length was all that separated the top four finishers. 

Palace Malice ran at Belmont Park on September 27 in another million-dollar race - the Jockey Club Gold Cup Invitational. The Dogwood runner was second to the 6-year-old Ron the Greek, who literally run away from the field to win by more than six lengths. Palace Malice was nearly three lengths in front of the remaining runners.

The $5 million Breeders' Club Classic at Santa Anita on November 2 was Palace Malice's final race of the year. By now the outcome has been rehashed a thousand times - an unfortunate jockey switch (John Velazquez had been injured earlier in the day), a bad break and a wide run all played against Palace Malice on that California afternoon. The colt finished sixth - a disappointing ending to what had been a successful year. With $1,481,135 in purse earnings from 12 lifetime starts (threes wins, fours seconds, and a third), Palace Malice has definitely paid back his $200,000 purchase price from Keeneland's 2-year-olds in training sale in April of 2012.

And what will 2014 hold for this striking bay son of Curlin? In some respects Palace Malice will be following in his sire's hoofprints. Curlin, twice named Horse of the Year, won four major races in his 4-year-old year: the Dubai World Cup, the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, the Woodward at Saratoga, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

Cot Campbell will take aim at two of those races, and add a few more to the schedule as well.

"Although it's tempting to go to Dubai for the $10 million World Cup (the world's richest horse race) on March 29, we have decided to stay here where there are so many opportunities, and we don't have to ship halfway around the world."

Instead, Palace Malice's first race of 2014 will be the $400,000 New Orleans Handicap on March 29. "The timing of the race is perfect in that it will give Todd Pletcher ample time to tighten our horse up," says Campbell.

There are two major stakes at Saratoga that Campbell has added to his wish list (the Whitney and Woodward) and then a repeat performance in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. If all goes according to plan, the colt will finish the year with a return engagement in the Breeders' Cup Classic (held once again at Santa Anita).

"We have a few gaps in his schedule that need filling - a late spring/early summer race somewhere, but there's certainly time to figure that out," he says with a laugh.

A keen student of racing history, Campbell says he is "inclined to point Palace Malice toward those wonderful old races that the immortals have won."

Campbell has always said that Kelso was the greatest racehorse he ever saw, Kelso won the Woodward three consecutive years (1961-1963) and the Whitney Handicap three times as well (1961, 1963 1965). The mighty gelding also won the Jockey Club Gold Cup five years in a row (1960 - 1964). To have Palace Malice win these three races would give Campbell a thrill like no other.

Mike and Karl Schneider who are partners in Palace Malice were just about everywhere their colt was in 2013, and plan on doing the same in 2014.

"We are so excited about the upcoming year," says Mike. "Palace Malice is such a fun horse and we plan to be at each and ever one of his races. Having him in Aiken has been a thrill - the atmosphere is so much more relaxed and we can spend time just hanging out at the rail or by his stall. It's a real treat.

"This horse is a real celebrity in Aiken," Mike continues. "I love the fact that people can watch him gallop and experience in person what they were only able to see on television during the past year."

Everyone in the Palace Malice camp agrees that if you have a good horse, living in Aiken really embellishes the experience.

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

Friday, February 7, 2014

Secret Lives of Horses| 2/7/2014

Northern Kid, Eventer

By Mary Jane Howell, Photography By Gary Knoll

Northern Kid is the grandson of the great Northern Dancer, legendary sire and superb racehorse. Although the subject of this "Secret Lives" never ran a race, his regal bloodlines certainly helped him in the world of three-day eventing.

Northern Kid is now 25 and living out his retirement years at his owner Wendy Southam's farm in Aiken. He shares his paddock with several other retirees, but he is easy to spot. Standing 15.2 hands, he is smaller than his pasture mates and has a habit of walking under their necks, as though to emphasize their difference in size. But being small was not a problem for Northern Kid when he was competing, any more than it was for his grandsire. The great Northern Dancer was a mere 15.1 hands, and there was rarely an article written about the racehorse that didn't mention his small stature. That didn't stop him from winning!
Northern Kid began his days in Canada, although Wendy doesn't know about his life before his 2-year-old year. In 1990, he friend Edie Tarves, who was a member of the Canadian eventing team at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, had found him at a 2-years-olds in training sale at Woodbine in Toronto.
"Edie was thinking of becoming a Thoroughbred trainer back then," explains Wendy. "She spotted him at the sale and though he'd make a nice runner."

As it turned out, Edie decided against a life on the racetrack, and she ended up training
Northern Kid as an event horse.

"He had the worst name ever for a racehorse - Wards Semi Truck! It just doesn't sound like the name of a winner," says Wendy with a laugh.

In a nod to his famous grandsire, the gelding was renamed Northern Kid, and with Edie's expertise he advanced up to the Training level. Wendy purchased him when he was 5 and the pair have been together ever since.

"I lived fulltime in Ontario back then and, of course, the eventing season was shorter due to the weather. Northern Kid and I probably went to about 15 shows a year, starting in April and ending in October," says Wendy. "My favorite competition by far was the three day event at the Kentucky Horse Park called the Midsouth Three Day CCI. It was (and still is) the full format, with steeplechase and roads and tracks."
The pair competed at the Midsouth event three consecutive years - from 1998 until 2000 - and finished in the top ten each year. Northern Kid was in his element with all the galloping and jumping, according to Wendy. "We never had a time fault and he did everything with his ears pricked."

Northern Dancer had won the Kentucky Derby in 1964 (along with five other major stakes during his 3-year-old year), never letting his size get in the way of a winner's circle photo. His grandson Northern Kid didn't realize he was smaller than his competition either, and Wendy loves to recall his bounding through the water jumps and gleefully galloping around the cross country course - so much more fun than training at Woodbine.

Like most horses who love the cross country phase of three day eventing. Northern Kid put up with dressage, but wasn't thrilled with the assignment.

"He was obedient and did everything I asked of him, but he simply wasn't a great mover," says Wendy. "He shone at cross country and was a clean show jumper - we never had a rail go down."

Northern Kid has a small navicular problem, but his farrier used 2-degree pads on him while he was competing, which kept him comfortable.

Wendy started coming to Aiken in 2002 with Ian Roberts, the Canadian coach. Although she was still competing Northern Kid, her star horse then was a gray mare named Ruba Z. Ruba Z was an amazing jumper, and in 2006 Wendy was named the United States Eventing Association Advanced Mast Amateur Rider. The pair qualified to be on the Canadian team for 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, but Ruba Z sustained an injury and was withdrawn.

In 2007, Wendy and her husband Bill moved to Aiken on a permanent basis.

"The horses shipped down in August and they really thought we had moved them to hell!" says Wendy. "They had been here before, but during the winter months, so the summer was completely different. That particular summer was one of the hottest on record and they were not happy."

Wendy had decided to commercially ship two of the older horses to Aiken, Northern Kid and his buddy Barney." There were cameras in the back and the driver told us that for the entire 18 hours of the van ride all Northern Kid did was stare at Barney. He never moved and didn't drink or eat one mouthful of hay. He was obviously feeling very insecure and probably thought that if he looked away then Barney might disappear!"

Although he was completely retired once Wendy had mode the move to Aiken, Northern Kid took up a new role as the boss of his own small herd of retirees.

"He is very sweet and friendly horse, but don't ever leave him in the barned alone - he will bolt out of the stall in a minute," says Wendy. "He needs to know what's going on at all times and I would say that he is the most social of all the horses at the farm."

Like most retired stars, Northern Kid has his entourage. The equine dentist Lou Heffner plays an important role, as does the farrier Darren Haeusler.

"Darren practically sits on the ground when he does Northern Kid's feet," Wendy says. "He is well aware that the old boy has some arthritis easier for the horse."

Wendy says that rice bran is the not-so-secret ingredient in Northern Kid's diet that keeps him looking good, but that overall he's never met a meal that he didn't like.

"I am fortunate that he loves to eat and is really an easy keeper," she says. "I've blanketed him a bit earlier than normal this year but that's about the only change in his routine."

"This horse gave me a good start in eventing and he deserves a nice life now," Wendy continues. "From going Preliminary in Ontario to those."

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