Friday, May 30, 2014

Aiken is Home to Author Sasscer Hill | 5/30/2014

Story By Lida Bard

Sasscer Hill is Aiken, South Carolina's very own Dick Francis. Sasscer has authored three mystery novels, Full Mortaltity, Racing From Death and The Sea Horse Trade, which are a part of her Nikki Latrelle Horse Racing Trilogy as well as numerous mystery short stories, which are also about the sport. Sasscer's love of mysteries and experience in horse racing make her the one to write these books.

As a child, Sasscer read Nancy Drew and Sherlock Holmes series, instilling a love for mysteries within her. Sasscer also loves horses and naturally she came across Walter Farley's Black Stallion books and, in her words, became addicted to them. In 5th grade, when her teacher gave a writing assignment to the class, her classmates wrote about day-to-day activities. Sasscer wrote a scene in which an old man and a boy trailer a horse to the races in while the boy was concerned because something was wrong. After she read her piece aloud to the class, her classmates were genuinely interested and wanted to know "what happened next?" It was then Sasscer knew she had something, and says,"There is no greater compliment a writer can get that to have that question asked."

In later years Sasscer got involved with all aspects of horse racing. She was an amateur jockey, a breeder an an owner of racehorses. She has also broken yearlings, galloped horses on her Maryland farm, and ridden in amateur steeplechase races. Over 30 years of first hand experience has given Sasscer a lot of material for her books because she has seen, lived and enjoyed it all first hand. Sasscer says that for her, "Horse racing is a real inspiration for writing mysteries because of the risk, the beauty, the speed, the endless opportunities for (skulduggery), and the extraordinary upstairs downstairs quality of the characters who inhabit the life." But Sasscer was not always a writer. She and her husband used to live in Maryland and Sasscer worked for 20 years in marketing and promotions for several Washinghton D.C. associations as well as two separate academic book publishers before moving to Aiken in November of 2012.

Another form of inspiration for Sasscer are the conferences she attends, such as the Writer's Police Academy, where she has the chance to talk with law enforcement officers from the FBI, DEA, CIA, as well as county and state police. At this conference she had the opportunity to to take part in a self-defense class taught by a female under cover police officer. From this course, Sasscer gained first hand knowledge for fight scenes in her novels. On another occasion, Sasscer also took the "Shoot, Don't Shoot" course that police officers take. She was put in a dark room with a big wall screen and given an electric gun. Then she had to make quick decisions on which on-screen characters were perpetrators or innocent by-standers and then shoot the bad guys. Sasscer says they were great experiences and "ton of inspiration" for her writing.

Sasscer is currently working on a new series about female protagonist, Fia McKee, who ends up as an agent for the Thoroughbred Racing Protection Bureau and investigating suspicious low-level horses winning at long odds. Fia also gets involved with an investigation having to do with Miami's Cuban-American black market in horse meat.

If you love horses and good mystery, definitely check out Sasscer's current works and stay tuned for those are to come.

Sasscer's novels and short stories are available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. The Nikki Latrelle series are available as paperbacks or e-books. To learn more about Sasscer Hill, check out her website:

This article is copyrighted and first appeared on the Aiken Equestrian Calendar of Aiken website.  It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Caitlin Silliman, A Rising Star | 5/23/2014

Photos and Story By Nancy Bruen Smith

It is hard to believe this petite, bubbly person, Caitlin Silliman is only 24 years young this spring. She has experienced more than many do in a lifetime. She was the youngest Rider to compete in the prestigious Rolex Event in Lexington, KY in 2013. Her love for horses started at the age of 6, which led to an eventing career under Susie Beale's tutelage, and then became a working student for Grand Prix Dressage rider Silva Martin at the age of 18, and is presently Boyd Martin's assistant rider and trainer. She has a quiet and confident way with the young horses as well as the Thoroughbred's off the Track.(OTTB) She was the first one to x-country school my last horse which happened to be a 9 yr old OOTB, gelding, that had a successful 6 year racing career as a stallion. She is a master at funneling that "NRG" into constructive puzzles for the horse to negotiate, which usually has nothing to do with brakes, but everything to do with confidence for the horse, with a big smile on her face.

Caitlin purchased a horse that was competing at Intermediate level, named Catch a Star, (barn name Hoku) in 2010, thanks to financial partnership with Bradford Johnson. Hoku, (Hawaiian for star) is out of a Thoroughbred mare by a Holsteiner stallion bred by Linda and Terry Paine at Kingsway Farm. After many hours of dedication, their partnership matured into competing at the CCI** level in the Spring of 2011. They accomplished 2nd place at the Jersey Fresh CCI** and were short listed for the Pan American Games. On May 31, 2011, Boyd Martin was leasing Phillip Dutton’s True Prospect Farm in West Grove, Pa, when a freak fire destroyed the barn and claimed the lives of 6 event horses. Ryan Wood, Lillian Heard and Caitlin were sharing the upstairs apartment at the time. 

The three of them along with the combined courageous efforts of Phillip Dutton and Boyd Martin, were able to save five horses that were rushed to University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Veterinary Clinic. Catch a Star, was one of the surviving horses that was pulled to safety, and had 2nd degree burns over 30% of her body, facial lacerations from her ears down her face, exposing her skull. Caitlin’s immediate reaction in the main trauma room was to do whatever it took to get her out of her misery. The vet reassured her that Hoku was going to make it; luckily her eyes were not affected and her face was cut but not burned. Caitlin meticulously nursed Hoku back to health, applying Silver Sulfadiazine cream (used on human burns), hours of physical and mental therapy and extreme caution of keeping her burns clean during her convalescence. The dedication paid off. Judith McSwain, designer of Fleeceworks Pads, was touched by the story, provided every type of saddle pad necessary to get Caitlin back in the saddle and continues sponsoring Caitlin.

By March of 2012 they were back competing in 3*** level events. September 26, 2012, Caitlin was back in the groove! She had just competed both Hoku in the 3*** and RemingtonXXV in the 2** at Plantation CIC. Then, the unheard of happened. Caitlin was simply riding the rising trot in their dressage arena at home, and had a minor tumble, but unfortunately the dressage kick-board in the arena took the blunt of her fall , and caught her head just below her helmet and fractured her skull with damage to her cerebellum. Caitlin’s brain swelled and she lost all her motor skills, predominantly on the left side. She was not able to walk at first, and her balance was really compromised. Again, with incredible determination and perseverance, she did recover! Her boyfriend Ryan Wood (Advanced Event Rider and Trainer) broke his back a couple of weeks after Caitlin’s accident, which according to Caitlin, “Worked in her favor so he could take care of me.”

Three months later, Caitlin was back in the saddle, competing Catch a Star in advanced levels, and qualified for Rolex in spring of 2013. She was the youngest to compete in the Rolex Event, and finished 24th, a commendable position for their first Four**** competition.

Presently, she is putting in double or maybe triple time as Boyd Martin’s assistant rider and trainer. Boyd recently cut and broke his shin, and is temporarily out of the saddle, and his wife Silva is intense rehab from a freak accident involving brain damage from a similar fall as Caitlin, hitting her head on the dressage boards during a fall. Both Boyd and Silva are expected to come back 100%, but meanwhile, Caitlin continues to be an irreplaceable team member for Boyd and Silva’s Windurra Farm, and is focused on Rolex once again, and embraces each challenge as it comes………………..Quite a resume for someone who has been on this earth for less than 25 years!

This article is copyrighted and first appeared on the Aiken Equestrian Calendar of Aiken website.  It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Secret Lives of Horses | 5/16/2014

The Odd Couple

By Mary Jane Howell, Photography By Gary Knoll

Mesa and Filt Bar are both into the third decade of their lives and have shared most of those years with each other and their owner Melissa Jarriel. These Quarter Horses are best friends and although they did not bring home a ton of blue ribbons from the show ring, that was never Melissa's point in owning them.

Melissa grew up in Aiken, as did her husband Brett. The couple moved to Opelika, Alabama in 1985 and Melissa bought Filt Bar two years later.

"His registered name is Filt Bar Son, but everyone in the barn had shortened it to Filt Bar, which was actually his sire's name," explains Melissa. "We always meant to rename him, but for some reason Filt Bar just stuck."

Filt Bar was five when Melissa bout him and within a few years he was showing signs of navicular disease. "He would be gimpy some days and fine on others, so I took him to the vet school at Auburn but they really couldn't find anything. It wasn't until we moved back to Aiken and had Dr. Tom Stinner look at him that he was properly diagnosed."

Melissa was using the gelding as a pleasure horse, riding when she had time - which was in short supply, because she was working fulltime and had also become a new mom to a baby girl name Katie in 1988. A second daughter, Beth, was born in 1990.

"I had always loved animals and there was rarely a time in my life when I didn't have a horse and/or dogs," Melissa says. "Even when I didn't have a lot of time to ride, it was nice to spend time just grooming him - it was just the perfect way to relax."

When the couple moved back to Aiken in the spring of 1994, Melissa was on the lookout for a second horse - one that would not only be company for Flint Bar but one that Melissa could jump and perhaps take to shows.

"Mesa was 14 when I bought her and she had been bred twice and also had been a surrogate mother to an orphaned foal," says Melissa. The mare's real name was Hart Attacker, and it was a name she more than lived up to at times!

Melissa started taking lessons and got herself a beautiful English saddle, envisioning weekends of showing.

“The show that I really remember was over in Camden. We were in a hunt seat class,” says Melissa. “Mesa really, really hated the warm up ring – all the confusion of horses coming towards her, around her, behind her… it really wigged her out. I was barely holding her together when this big horse passed us and Mesa started bucking like a bronco. I managed to stay on for a while, but it was impossible!”

Like a trooper Melissa remounted and actually won her class, and she remembers that Mesa’s action was “very nice” that afternoon. The bronco routine must have warmed her up.

“The funniest part of the whole day was when this fellow came up to me after our class. I thought he was going to congratulate me on our victory, but instead he told me he was looking for a good bucking horse – and that Mesa ‘sure did have a good buck in her.’”

Melissa sheepishly told the man that Mesa was actually 17 years old, which shocked him.

“Who knows,” she laughed. “If the mare was younger and I had been interested in selling her she might have ended up in some big rodeo, instead of our backyard in Aiken.”

The highlight of Mesa’s show career came in 1997 when Katie, who was 9, competed her in the Aiken Horse Show.

“Katie was tall for her age – already 5’11” – so she looked like an adult in that children’s class,” Melissa said. “She had her long hair in braids to match the ones we put in Mesa’s mane – it was very cute.”
By now Mesa had grown weary of her bucking routine, so there were no embarrassing moments at the historic show ring deep within Hitchcock Woods. In fact Katie and Mesa brought home a blue ribbon.

The Hitchcock Woods hold a lot of memories for Melissa. Not only does the family have the memory of the horse show, but there were several Thanksgiving mornings that Melissa and Mesa were present for the annual Blessing of the Hounds and then hunted as a guest of the Aiken Hounds. Mesa was in her 20s, and photos from those days show her brown head just beginning to show signs of gray.
It’s been a while since Melissa has ridden the horses, but she fondly recalls that she would ride Flit Bar bareback while ponying Mesa.

“We got some incredible looks from people,” she laughed. “I grew up riding bareback so it’s something that I've always been comfortable with. Both horses were always great on the trails and since we live on Dibble Road the Hitchcock Woods are right here. It couldn't have been easier.”

Mesa is now 33, while Flit Bar is 32, and although they are both in good health Melissa knows that won’t last forever.

“These two are a couple – their daily routine is all about the two of them. When one naps the other stands watch, and then they switch. Mesa might be a bit lazy walking up the hill at mealtime, so Flit Bar jogs alongside of her. I can’t imagine what one would do without the other,” she says. “One time I had to take Flit Bar out of the paddock and Mesa’s eyes rolled back in her head and she fell straight over – just like the videos of those fainting goats. He never worried too much when he left though.

The Jarriels have a breakfast nook that overlooks the barn and pasture, and the horses are always in sight.

“I love watching them while I’m having my morning coffee,” says Melissa. “They have been a great part of our lives – and although I am doing a lot of dog things now, that doesn't change how I feel about my sweet old couple.”

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

Friday, May 9, 2014

Ask The Judge | 5/9/2014

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,

We recently went to a dressage show in Aiken to watch our granddaughter compete in her first recognized show, and while we were there we had the opportunity to watch our first Grand Prix. We marveled at the fancy trot the horses performed. It looked great to us, but we wondered what it was, and if the judge was as impressed as we were.

                                                                                       - Just Spectators

Dear Spectators,

I’m glad you were able to come out to our local USEF dressage show and that you enjoyed the Grand Prix. The Grand Prix is the highest level in dressage, and is the level that you see at the Olympics. The fancy trots you are referring to are called the passage and piaffe. These are impressive movements. Not all horses have the ability to perform them, because they take great strength, coordination and balance. This is why they are only asked for at the highest and hardest levels of dressage.

Let’s look at the passage first. If you saw the horse performing what appeared to be a slow motion trot around the arena, this is called a passage. The passage is a very collected, highly elevated, cadenced trot, with prolonged periods of suspension. A good passage should have the hindquarters well engaged and active. The height of the toe of the raised foreleg should be level with the middle of the cannon bone of the other foreleg. The aim of passage is to demonstrate the highest degree of collection, cadence and suspension in the trot.

Here is what judges like to see in the passage:

1. Rider sitting in harmony with the horse. The rider should hardly be moving at all.

2. Clear moments of suspension with prolonged engagement of hindquarter. The horse should appear to have significant “air time” with all four legs.

3. The horse is steady on the bit. The neck should be raised and the poll (the top of the horse’s head, between his ears) should be the highest point.

4. Regularity of each lifting leg. Each leg should perform equally and evenly.

5. Impression of controlled power.

6. Expressive, confident and effortless.

If you saw what appeared to be a horse trotting in place, this movement is called the piaffe. The piaffe is a highly collected, cadenced, elevated trot on the spot. In a good piaffe, the horse should not move forward or backward, although at some levels horses are allowed to move forward slightly. Each diagonal pair of feet is raised and returned to the ground alternately, with an even cadence. The height of the toe of the raised foreleg should be level with the middle of the cannon bone of the other foreleg. The toe of the raised hind leg should reach just above the fetlock joint of the other hind leg. The aim of the piaffe is to demonstrate the highest degree of collection, while giving the impression of remaining in place.

Here is what judges like to see in the piaffe:

1. The rider is sitting quietly and in harmony.

2. The horse is willing and lively with forward intent, without moving forward significantly, performing the required number of steps.

3. The horse remains steady on the bit, with consistent elastic contact. The neck should be raised and the poll should be the highest point.

4. The haunches should be lowered, and each step should have elasticity and spring.

5. The movement should demonstrate cadence and regularity.

6. Expressive, confident and effortless.

Other aspects judges look at are the transitions from passage to piaffe and from piaffe to passage. This is the ultimate demonstration of submission and self-carriage, and shows the well-trained dressage horse at his most spectacular. When executed well, it is pure beauty, a thrill to behold, and a joy to judge. At the Aiken shows, we are lucky to have horses performing at the Grand Prix level, so spectators can enjoy and experience the pinnacle of dressage.

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

Friday, May 2, 2014

Reinventing Paradise | 5/2/2014

Lellie Ward’s New Focus 

by Pam Gleason

“You never know what is going to happen in the horse business,” says Lellie Ward, who owns and runs Paradise Farm in Aiken. Paradise Farm is a 109-acre training and eventing facility on the east side of town. Lellie herself has an impressive background in all aspects of horsemanship, but especially in eventing. A serious competitor for over 40 years, she was at the top of the game for more than 20, competing in the Rolex Kentucky Three Day Event four times on three different horses.

She was also a serious contender for the U.S. Olympic team four times, trained ten horses from their first events to the Advanced level, and sold horses on to some of the best riders in the world. In addition, she is an insightful and experienced instructor who holds a USEA Level III teaching certificate as well as certificates from Germany and Great Britain. Her recognized and schooling events in Aiken are known for being well-run, well-organized and well-attended.

For 40 years, Lellie saw herself primarily as a rider, a competitor and a horse trainer. “I centered my whole life around gallops, and how long I would trot and how many days of the week I was going to jump,” she says. “Then there was scheduling and driving all over the country to compete. It was all-consuming.”

But all of that changed in a split second in early 2012.

“It was 4:30 p.m. on January 31st,” she says. “I was simply walking in my ring on a lovely horse, a big Irish mare. She was a quiet horse, not flighty at all. I went to put her into the trot and I felt her bow up and I knew right away I was going to fall off and get hurt.”

Lellie landed straight down on her face, breaking three vertebrae in her neck and sustaining spinal cord damage. She also cut her face so badly she needed 76 stitches to repair it.

“I knew I had broken my neck right away,” she says. “When you have a fracture, it feels hot. I always describe it as a green, nauseous kind of a feeling. It’s always the same: not excruciatingly painful, but a combination of numbness and a dull ache. I lay there, and I did not try to move, but I made my brain go down to my toes to see if the channels could still work.”

Lellie had been planning to give a lesson after her ride, and when the horse she had been riding galloped back to the barn, her students came out and found her. They called 911, and an ambulance came and took her directly to the trauma unit in Augusta.

“You’re wheeled in on a gurney, and immediately, you are met at the door by about ten people who all have scissors in their hands and they just start cutting your clothes off,” says Lellie. “It’s not exactly how you would plan your day.”

But Lellie says that her first reaction was not to be frightened.

“I was so pissed off,” she says. “It was just two weeks before my horse trials. Fortunately I always get ready early, so the event was all set up physically – the jumps, the courses, the dressage rings, everything. It’s not like you can cancel the horse trials. Even if I die, God forbid, the event has to run. Running a horse trials is not a game!”

A plastic surgeon repaired Lellie’s face, and did such a good job that today she does not have any obvious scars. For her neck fracture, she was provided with a neck brace, which she wore for several months. The damage to her spinal cord initially caused her arms to curl up against her body. She had limited ability to use them, and parasthesia (nerve pain) that was excruciating.

“Give me a fracture any day,” she says. “This was your skin: Anything that would touch you, the lightest touch, would bring you to blackout level pain.”

Gradually, she got better. Her neck healed, and strength and mobility returned to her arms. The parasthesia diminished, and now she only feels the numbness and tingling in a couple of fingers on each hand. At her last doctor’s appointment, four months after the accident, they told her that she was going to be fine, and they released her.

“I did everything they told me to do in my rehab,” she says. “But the doctors were quite vague. No one ever told me that I shouldn’t ride again. If they had, I would never have gotten on a horse. But nobody would say that. No doctor told me not to ride. The doctor did tell me not to fall off.”

By the end of the summer of 2012, Lellie’s face had healed, her neck brace was off and she could use her arms again. She even sat on a few horses. But it would take much longer for her to heal mentally, and even longer for her business to return to health.

“The effect of the injury was that immediately I lost all my clients,” she says. “I went from being a professional rider and a teacher to being an invalid. I estimate that I lost about $80,000 in income. I spent that whole year not knowing what I was going to do. I was walking around in limbo.”

At the time of her injury, Lellie had about 16 horses in training, some of her own and the majority for other people. After the injury, the horses she had in training were gone, leaving her with a handful of her own personal horses. For a while, she was hiring people to come and ride them, but found that frustrating and not sustainable in the long run.

“People weren’t coming to me for lessons any more. I wanted to tell them ‘I’m just injured, I’m not dead.’ I didn’t know how I was going to pay the bills. I considered selling everything and getting out of horses, getting out of Aiken. And that was hard. This place was built on a dream. I love the farm. A big step for me was to realize I wasn’t going to go Advanced any more. And that was okay. I didn’t take that personally, and that was not hard to let go. But I was definitely depressed. There were lots of dark days. Your mind is terribly powerful. When you are a professional event rider, you have to ride that hard line and be very focused: there are no ‘what-ifs’, no loss of balance. When I didn’t have that any more, when I was unbalanced and I didn’t know what I was going to do in the morning, I was completely lost.”

Lellie, who describes herself as an “all-or-nothing” type of person, knew she would have to make some decisions. She realized that selling the farm was not really a viable option, considering the weakness in the real estate market. So she decided to shift her focus. Instead of basing her business on training horses, she would hold more events and competitions. She knew she wanted to ride again, but now, instead of focusing on advancing through the levels in eventing, she would dedicate herself to learning, riding for her own knowledge and enjoyment.

She had already started taking showjumping lessons with Daniel Geitner, who she says helped her immensely through her recovery and was instrumental in restoring her confidence. Then she called Shawna Harding and began studying dressage seriously.

“After my first 15 minutes of riding with Shawna, I was exhausted,” she says. “I almost had to pull up and say, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’ It was so fascinating. The lessons with her were such hard work, but that’s where I thrive.

“As I started riding again, it definitely made me feel better about myself. When I wasn’t riding, I had lost a big part of who I was. Working with Shawna and Daniel brought me back. Yes, I was nervous, but little by little, I got better. The scariest things for me were getting on and off. You have to ride every day, work at it every day.”

Another significant event in Lellie’s recovery was a two-week trip she took away from Aiken with her mother, where she met people who did not know her before. “It was a life-turning thing,” she says. “Meeting new people who liked me and accepted me for who I was changed my attitude. It made me realize that there was nothing wrong with me: I was not broken.”

Returning to Paradise Farm reinvigorated, she started running monthly shows during the winter during Aiken’s high season for eventing. The shows were hugely successful.

“It was a great feeling,” she says. “It was that ‘up’ feeling. It was productive for me, for the riders and for the farm. I saw it as a way to bring Paradise Farm back up. And it has worked.”

Today, Lellie is teaching again, and says she would love to have more students. She is also organizing horse trials, hunter trials and combined tests. Paradise Farm offers competitions for all levels, as well as unlimited opportunities for trainers to come school their own horses or give lessons to their students at a horse show quality facility. There are several recognized shows each year, and a growing list of schooling shows. The farm itself is constantly being improved. This spring, Lellie is breaking ground on two large new arenas. She is also building a hunter-style bank. In the future, she even hopes to add Intermediate and Advanced level fences to her cross country course.

“I’m reorganizing my life,” says Lellie, who admits that she now spends more time in the office than on a horse. “I had such a wonderful response from Aiken in terms of sponsorship this year, and I am so grateful to all the riders for coming back to the farm. It really meant a lot to me, and gave me the desire to keep doing it. I’ve been to the bottom. Now I want to go back to the top. I don’t spend my days thinking why? I spend my days thinking how?

“Paradise Farm is such a special and unique piece of property,” she continues. “People can learn to do so much with their horses here. I want people to be able to come here and enjoy it, bring their own trainers if they want. I bought it and made it for me to train my own horses. Now I want people to know that it is here for everyone. “

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