Monday, December 28, 2015

15 Riding Tips from George Morris

The goal in training a horse is to reach the best possible level of throughness. 

By Sandra Oliynyk
Photographs By Sandra Oliynyk

For five days in early January, George Morris arrived at the ring at about 7:30 each morning, meticulously dressed in polished boots, shined spurs, breeches, a solid-colored belt and a polo shirt when the Florida weather was balmy or a plaid flannel shirt on nippier days.

George Morris speaks to auditors and riders at his
Horsemastership Training Session in January.
The Olympic silver medalist and former U.S. show-jumping coach started some days quizzing the young riders gathered around him on topics such as the German Training Scale—rhythm, looseness, contact, impulsion, straightness and collection—or the tempo of the walk (four beats), the trot (two beats) and the canter (three beats). Another day, he discussed riding without stirrups to improve rider tightness and balance.

His mission was to share some of the classically correct riding principles he has learned over the past 65 years with the riders participating in the eighth annual George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center in Wellington. The riders, ages 15 to 21, had been selected to participate because of their success in equitation, jumper and hunter competitions in 2013.

“What’s important is you develop a system based on correct classics,” he told them and the 100–150 auditors who attended daily. Audience members included luminaries of the sport such as Olympian Anne Kursinski, who also gave a riding demonstration early in the week, and Olympic dressage rider Michael Barisone, who said he was there so George’s “attitude and mentality of self-discipline and excellence” could rub off on him.

Designed to develop a pipeline of young horsemasters for future U.S. Equestrian Teams, the comprehensive program encompassed stable management and veterinary and farrier care in addition to the daily lessons in the saddle from George. This article shares 15 of his training insights, important for horsemen of all levels and ages.

1. Create Impulsion

George started each riding session by having riders walk and use their legs to ask the horses to move forward and create impulsion. “The hind leg is where it starts,” he said. A rider breaks up resistance in the horse by encouraging his hind legs to come forward and under his body. When that happens, the horse’s croup starts to drop. Then the base of the neck, where it attaches to the shoulder, comes up. As a consequence, the horse’s head drops and he starts to round.
As riders urged their horses forward with their legs in one session, George told them to keep their hands up over the withers in a straight line with the bit. “You use your leg until the horse stretches to the bit,” he said to one rider as he walked beside her and lifted her hands. “This is contact.”

The next day, he further explained: “You want to feel as if you’re pushing the horse’s head down. Don’t pull the horse’s head down.” It’s important to take and give, he added. “When I feel the outside rein and the horse comes back, I instantly give.”

He reiterated these points several times throughout the week while riders worked at the walk, trot and canter.

2. Keep Him Straight

Throughout the week, George reminded riders to use inside legs at the girth to press the horses into the outside reins to develop and maintain straightness, which is necessary for back-to-front collection.

There are two types of straightness, he explained. The first is the bottom line of the horse. Does his left hind hoof fall into the print of his left fore and his right hind into the print of his right fore? Most horses naturally go in a little haunches-in. The second type of straightness is the horse’s topline, from the dock of the tail to his poll.

On a straight line, the horse needs to be tracking straight, and on a circle, he must be bent in accordance with the curved line. Many riders overbend their horses, making them crooked, he said. He also reminded riders that to be straight, they first must feel a forward quality in their horses’ gaits.

In the canter, George said he wanted the riders to use their inside legs to outside reins with a slight inside flexion just so they could see the back corner of the horse’s inside eye. But, he warned, “That’s ALL,” the flexion he wanted.

3. Carry the Hand

On the fourth day of the training session, reserved for working without stirrups, George rode a horse whose conformation made it easy for him to resist contact and go with a high head carriage. To ask a horse to round, George said he uses an “old-fashioned French system with my hands. I show [the horse] an early lesson that he can’t get his head higher than my hand. … I’m keeping my hand up and driving him forward with my inside leg, very much on the outside rein. When he’s in a beautiful place with his neck arched and round, I soften and lower my hand.” He said that he doesn’t use gadgets like draw reins or tougher bits. “You won’t see me sawing on the horse’s mouth,” he added.

George taught this method to the riders throughout the week. For example, when one rider’s horse resisted, he told her to raise her hands, close her fingers and push with her leg. “You have to resist the horse’s resistance so the horse starts to accept contact.” When the horse softened in the mouth, George told the rider to be sure to give with her hands as a reward. He explained that many riders are taught to lower their hands if they feel resistance, “but that is rewarding the horse for disobedience.”

Picture Tip: To ask a horse to round, George raises his hand and drives the horse forward from his inside leg to his outside rein. When the horse accepts contact, George softens and lowers his hand.

4. Make Every Transition Count

Throughout the session, George told riders to work on transitions between gaits, reminding them to “make every transition count.” He wanted the horses uphill in the transition and in front of the leg. During walk–halt transitions, he instructed riders to use four parts of their bodies to ask for the halt: back, seat, legs and hands. He told them to stretch in their spines which gives them power, keep their legs on and close their hands. When the horses responded, he said the riders should give a little with their aids.

He also had the riders work on transitions within the gaits. At the canter, he instructed them to lengthen for 10 strides and shorten for 10. To lengthen, they just needed to relax the hands because the horses were already traveling with impulsion. In the collection, “I want to see how slow they’ll go,” he said. If the horse fights the bit, “we close our fingers. We don’t surrender and drop our hands.”

5. Establish Rhythm With Cavalletti

During the flatwork, George had the riders trot over cavalletti to help create a regular rhythm. In one variation, riders trotted over two cavalletti set on a short bending line. They approached on the right rein, trotted over the first cavalletti, rode the bending line to the left, trotted over the second cavalletti and turned to the right. The alternating bending helped to supple the horses.

In another variation, riders trotted over a serpentine pattern of three cavalletti set across the wide arena. Again, the focus was on maintaining a steady rhythm. The work also helped the horses become more comfortable stepping over small obstacles, George said.

6. Supple with Lateral Work

In each of the flatwork sessions, George instructed the riders to do a variety of basic lateral work—leg-yield and shoulder-fore—and then more complex movements—shoulder-in, shoulder-out, haunches-in and the even more-advanced half-pass. The work encourages a horse to be submissive to the rider’s legs and breaks up his resistance behind so he becomes more supple, he explained. It also quickly collects the horse from back to front, which “is called engagement. It gets the horse accepting the leg,” he said. One day, the riders worked on shoulder-fore, in which the horse’s inside hind leg tracks between the two front legs and the angle of his front end is less than 15 degrees. Going to the left, George told them to move both hands to the inside a few inches and use the inside left leg to bend and push the horses to the right rein. If a horse started to stiffen on the inside rein, he said to very delicately play with it.

After a few steps at shoulder-fore, riders went straight and forward. Then they rode haunches-in and alternated between the two movements every few strides. “Get that horse dancing behind,” George said. Then they rode a working trot to re-establish impulsion, changed direction and repeated the lateral work.

George also pointed out that all horses have a stiff side and that “our goal is to make both sides the same as possible. Crooked horses can’t be collected.” You do this by working on circular tracks and figure eights, especially in lateral work.

7. Spiral In and Out

To continue to supple the horses throughout their bodies, George had the riders spiral in on three circles at the canter. They used their outside legs to displace the horses’ haunches in while bending them around the inside legs. If a horse resisted, the rider could use a leading inside rein and an outside neck rein. When the horses relaxed a little, George said the riders could give slightly with their inside reins while the outside reins remained more solid. Then they spiraled back out. After the three circles, the riders went straight. They repeated the exercise a few times in one direction, and then they changed direction and repeated it.

8. Counter-Canter to Collect and Balance

Throughout the week, George had the riders do one of his favorite exercises in the canter: Ride a half-turn and maintain the counter-canter in the opposite direction. He likes it because it collects and balances the canter. So riders on the right lead rode a half-circle back to the rail so they were traveling to the left still on the right lead. The outside left leg (now to the inside of the circle) was behind the girth regulating pace, the critical inside leg was at the girth and the inside right rein played, giving and taking, relaxing when the horse softened in the jaw. “That inside rein is desperate to give,” George said. Riders made a few of these half-turns to change direction, maintaining the counter-canter. The work also helped the horses start to be in self-carriage. “Self-carriage is where a horse holds himself, maintaining his own balance and impulsion,” George explained.

9. Stay Straight in Flying Changes

George said that many horses today do not sit down during flying changes but are high in their croups and sulky. To fix that, he had the riders make big half-turns, sitting down in the turn so the horses would learn to accept the seat and not pull the riders out of the saddle. Then he wanted the riders to keep the horses absolutely straight using the inside leg at the girth to outside rein. When the riders asked for the change, he told them to change just their aids, moving their new inside leg to the girth and pushing with it, especially if the horse kicks out or is high in the croup, and taking a feel of the new outside rein. The outside leg is back and passive. He said too many people just grab the new inside rein to ask for the change, making the horse crooked and often late with the change behind. He wanted the horse to make the changes exclusively from the riders’ leg aids. “It’s cheating if you use your hands,” he said.

10. Lighten Up

Any time the riders asked for pace, such as when they were galloping or jumping, George encouraged them to be light on their horses’ backs with their hip angles closed and their upper bodies forward about 30 degrees. This allowed for a smoother and softer ride and kept them from disturbing their horses’ self-carriage. “Watch [Olympian] Nick Skelton,” George said. “He is a master because so much of the time, he’s over his horse letting his horse do his job.”

At the start of the final day’s training session, George explained to riders and auditors that Italy’s Federico Caprilli revolutionized fast riding (galloping and jumping) in the early 1900s. Prior to that, people rode with long stirrups and sat back when jumping and racing, which hindered the horse’s hind end. Caprilli advocated shortening the stirrups to get the rider off the horse’s back to make it easier for the horse to do his job.

There are times when a rider needs to sit more defensively, such as over a spooky fence. But as the riders trusted that their horses would jump such fences, George said they could return to the lighter position.

11. Ride with Pace To the Base

On the third day, George had the riders warm up over a small triple-bar jump set on the short side of the arena. He wanted them to get sufficient pace to the jump, cut the corner a little and let the horses go forward to it. That work helped produce impulsion and looseness. “As I let the horse go forward, I measure the fence,” he said. When the riders saw a distance, he told them to ride forward past it just a bit so the horse jumped up from the base of the fence. “Pace to the base,” he explained.

The final day, George had them gallop a long approach to a vertical, get to the base of the jump and then relax the reins. This work would teach the horse to leave from the deeper distance by rocking back onto his haunches and jumping up. He then learns to jump round and careful, which helps his bascule—the “holy grail of jumping,” George said.

Picture Tip: Liza Finsness galloped forward on Shiver and rode to the base of a triple-bar, which George said teaches a horse to rock back on his haunches and jump up. 

12. Practice What is Difficult

After getting the horses forward over the triple bar, George had the riders work over a liverpool to a vertical jump that was set on a bending line to the right, 52 feet from outside corner to outside corner. Riders first rode the outside part of the line in four quiet strides, teaching the horse to collect. Next the riders opened up their horses and jumped the line in three strides. Riders then halted and rode the line in four strides again.

If a horse raised his head or twisted when fitting in the four strides, George told the rider not to “freak out” and lose her position and give up. Instead he wanted the riders to stick to their guns and keep asking the horses to fit in the strides. He said riders too often try to protect their horses and “keep them in cocoons” rather than do the work that is hard.

Picture Tip: Lillie Keenan and Balance jump the final fence in a difficult liverpool-to-vertical bending line that riders cantered in both three and four strides. 

13. Let Go Out of the Turn

On the final day’s jumping course, George explained the nuances of riding a turn. At the apex of a big rollback turn from one large oxer to another, the rider should be relaxing and letting go of the horse and focusing on the line and distance to the next fence. If you do this, he said, you’ll “measure the fence infinitely better.” If the horse is not listening to the half-halt or is cross-cantering by the time he reaches the turn’s apex, a rider needs to return home and practice—“that’s homework,” George said. Problems like this can’t be fixed on course in the show ring.

14. Keep Riding to a Difficult Distance

George ended one day’s jumping session by having the riders tackle a big crossrail that was “ugly” but simple and invited straightness. When one of the riders missed her distance to the jump, George said, “If the distance is difficult people, work it out. Don’t quit.” He told her to hold the horse a little and use leg to help him. A rider can’t get to the off-stride and be soft with her leg and hand, he said.

15. Stay Positive

When some horses had trouble and refused on the final day’s jumping course, George reminded the riders not to be tentative because a horse will sense that and question whether or not he should jump. “The relationship between horse and rider is closer than any two beings, even if you’re married,” he said, adding, “When a horse gets tentative, you don’t get tentative. That’s the kiss of death. … You get positive.”

George concluded the week’s training session by explaining that its goal is to encourage a professional rider’s mentality through the whole spectrum of horse care. “Each person will have his own riding system and way of working a horse,” he said. “The basis of this clinic was classically correct riding.”

The 2014 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session was presented by the United States Hunter Jumper Association and supported by the U.S. Equestrian Federation, the U.S. Equestrian Team Foundation, Practical Horseman and the Winter Equestrian Festival.

Picture Tip: Sydney Shulman and Contino 44 ride the final day's course with confidence. When other riders were tentative. George said their horses would sense that. "You get positive," he told them.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Practical Horseman. It is reprinted here by permission.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Origins of the Dressage Training Scale

USDF gold medalist Bruno Greber explains why the dressage training scale was developed.

Q: I often read about the German training scale and the U.S. Dressage Federation (USDF) pyramid of training. But what is the history of the training scale and why is it structured as it is?

Bruno Greber

A: The training scale developed from the manual for the German cavalry, "Heeresdienstvorschrift H.Dv. 1912, 1937," whereas the term "Skala der Ausbildung" (literally translated "Training Scale") only started being used in the 1950s. The H.Dv. 12/37 named the goals and principles for the training of a horse. It provided a detailed plan as guiding rules for the training of a military horse. The H.Dv. defined the training steps as follows:
  • accustoming the horse to the rider's weight
  • rhythm, relaxation
  • development of thrust and development of the gaits, contact
  • straightness
  • throughness, keeping the horse on the bit and in a frame
  • development of carrying power, collection
  • origination of elevation
  • working frame (standard rule)
  • dressage frame (may be asked only for a brief time)
The forerunner of today's training scale is found in Siegfried von Haugk's book, The Training of the Recruit in Horseback Riding (1940). Haugk defines, in the appendix for instructors, the training goals in the same order as we know them in today's training scale:
  • Takt (Rhythm)
  • Losgelassenheit (Relaxation)
  • Anlehnung (Contact)
  • Schwung (Impulsion)
  • Geraderichtem (Straightness)
  • Versammlung (Collection)
In the training process of the horse, six elements are divided into three overlapping training phases:
Phase 1: Rhythm, relaxation and contact form the accustoming phase. In this part of the training, the horse is supposed to get accustomed to the rider and his aids. This phase is used for the warm-up in the daily work.

Phase 2: Relaxation, contact, impulsion and straightness serve in the development of driving power (thrust) of the hind legs. In this phase, the horse is supposed to work more from behind and step diligently forward to the bit. This phase focuses on versatile gymnastic work to get a flexible and athletic horse.

Phase 3: Impulsion, straightness and collection aim to develop the carrying power of the hind legs. The horse is supposed to bear more weight over his hindquarters, which is mandatory for true collection and relative elevation. Both are necessary to reach higher goals in dressage training. Some older books mention elevation as a seventh element of the training scale. Since relative elevation (the head carriage and elevation of the withers are directly related to the degree of collection) is a direct consequence of correct collection, it has not been considered in today's version.

None of the six elements of the training scale stands by itself. They interact and depend on one another. The individual qualities are systematically incorporated into the training of the horse. The overlapping of the three training phases mentioned previously is a clear indication of the intermittent dynamics of the single components of the training scale. It may help you understand how the training scale contributes to your horse's training if you visualize it as a pyramid, with rhythm at the base and every layer built upon the next.

There is a logical reason for the order in which the six elements of the training scale are listed. The horse needs to reach a minimum of one element in order to have access to the next element. But, in practice, you'll feel that there is a flow between the elements, and you have to be open to listen to your horse; he'll tell you what needs to be considered the most in that particular moment.The goal in training a horse is to reach the best possible level of throughness.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Dressage Today. It is reprinted here by permission.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Are Tempo and Rhythm the Same?

By Heather Blitz

Heather Blitz, 2011 Pan American Games team gold and individual silver medalist explains the difference.

Q: I’m confused about the terms tempo and rhythm. I understand I’m supposed to always keep the same tempo, but what about the rhythm? When I ride at a faster tempo, the rhythm surely must change. I don’t understand how else I could ride a transition between working and extended trot.

Jeannette Shaw Chevy Chase, Washington, D.C.


A: First of all, let’s define the terms. Tempo: The rate or speed of motion or activity. Rhythm: is a strong, regular, repeated pattern of movement or sound. There tends to be a lot of confusion like yours about these two concepts, but they are actually completely different concepts. One is sequence (rhythm) and one is speed (tempo).

If you think about the gaits of a horse, the walk has a four-beat rhythm, the trot has a two-beat rhythm of diagonal pairs of legs and the canter has a three-beat rhythm of the outside hind leg ?rst, then the diagonal pair together and then the lead inside foreleg.

Varying the tempo of the gaits does not change the rhythm unless your horse makes an actual error or does something unusual such as stumbling, skipping or dramatically losing his balance. Rhythm just describes the sequence of the footfalls per stride, but has nothing to do with speed. There are many cases where the two terms are mistakenly used interchangeably.

The main focus in your trot extensions is to not allow the speed of your horse’s steps (beats per minute, BPM) to change. He should learn how to extend his frame and length of step only, maintaining enough balance and strength to keep the number of beats per minute the same as in his collected trot. This is a big challenge, and you actually may not see many horses do it well.

It would give you a good idea of how to do this if you rode with the help of a metronome (I have an app for this on my iPhone). Set the metronome to equal your horse’s collected trot, and then see what happens when you extend the trot. You may quickly ?nd that your horse quickens the tempo rather than keeps the same tempo and lengthens his stride. It’s much easier to simply get quicker.

The majority of horses will opt to simply get quicker when you ask them to start medium and extended trot at ?rst. When I start my horses into levels of work where they are required to learn this, I use only short distances and will use the corners of the arena to help me. I ask for a few steps of more “go” in the trot, and then remind them quickly of the balance to come back into collection, preferably coming into a corner.

Again, most horses will initially try to run away and get too fast in the tempo. Once they realize that the answer is not to go for a long distance, but to go more for only a few strides, they get the idea that it’s not about speed but about power and balance.

If your horse actually loses rhythm, it would feel almost like a different gait or an error. If you hop along a sidewalk and then all of a sudden just jog, that’s a change of rhythm. Without seeing what’s happening with you and your horse in person, I’m assuming you’re struggling with the tempo (and not rhythm) as are most horses and riders.

Heather Blitz won team gold and individual silver medals at the 2011 Pan American Games and was an alternate for the U.S. Equestrian Federation (USEF) 2012 Olympic dressage team. Based in Massachusetts and Florida, she teaches in Denmark, England and the U.S. (

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Dressage Today. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Rylee Zimmerman

Back to his Roots
by Pam Gleason, photography by Gary Knoll

For Rylee Zimmerman, the greatest thing about training horses is probably the mental aspect.

"It’s a creative process,” he says. “I like getting green horses and figuring out what it takes for each individual to succeed. It’s not just how you ride them. I ask myself, do I need a different piece of equipment, different feed or a different turn-out schedule? For each horse, you have to go back in your memory and draw on your experience to help you. I’ve found that the solution to most things is in my head.”

Rylee Zimmerman schooling Deportista, a 6-year-old OTTB owned by 
Megan Beasley of Charlotte, N.C. Deportista is competing in the hunter division.

For Rylee, showing is also a passion, since it satisfies his love of competition. “I’ve always been very competitive,” he says. “I like to compete, and whether I am competing myself or someone I am teaching is the one in the ring, it’s all the same.”

Rylee, who is 37, has a horse training and sales business based in Aiken. He came to the city most recently from Camden, where he still owns property. Over the past two years, he has been quietly making a name for himself locally as a person who can help straighten out a horse that might not be performing up to his potential. He is also known for bringing along green horses and for his sympathetic touch with Thoroughbreds. In his spare time, he designs and builds show jumps: standards, flower boxes, gates and the like. Mostly, these jumps are for his own use so that he can expose his green horses to professional style jumps at home. However, he has sold a few of them to people who have seen them and wanted some of their own.

Although Rylee is focusing his attention on the hunter and jumper rings these days, he might be better known as a steeplechase rider and trainer, having competed on the national circuit for several years. But the horse show world is far from new to him: in fact, he grew up in it. For Rylee, showing and training hunters and jumpers is very much a return to his roots.

Rylee was riding professionally from the time he was a child. His parents, Mary and Richard Zimmerman, were in the show hunter business, and were particularly well known for their pony hunters. To get those ponies broken, trained and sold, the three Zimmerman children participated in the family business from as early as Rylee can remember. The kids did the riding and training, and they gave the ponies their first experiences in the show ring before they were sold on to new homes.

By the time Rylee entered high school, showing horses was second nature to him, but he admits it was a bit of a chore. He got more interested in other sports – wrestling and lacrosse, for instance. Then, when he was 15, he heard that trainers at a local track were offering $350 a week for someone to gallop racehorses.

“That was a lot of money for a kid in high school in the early 1990s,” he says. “I thought I could ride a horse, so I applied for the job and got it.” He would get up early in the morning, gallop horses, and then go on to school. When he turned 16, he went to Arlington racetrack and started working there. By the time he graduated from high school, he knew he wanted to pursue racing as a career.

“The racehorses seemed very exciting to me,” he says. His younger brother, Ramsey, also got into the racehorse world. Ramsey was small enough to make weight as a jockey, and is currently riding races in Florida. Rylee, a few inches taller, quickly realized that he couldn’t, and so instead he decided to be a trainer. After working under several top conditioners, he started his own business at Hawthorne Racecourse in Cicero, Il.

“We were successful, and won some good races” he says. “But it’s a tough business, especially if you’re just 21. There’s a lot of competition for clients, and if the guy one barn over has 40 years of experience, and you are just 21, he’s probably going to get them instead of you. The novelty wore off pretty quickly.”

After working at the track for a couple of years, Rylee gave his customers to his mother, who by now had also switched her focus from hunters to racehorses. Then he went to work for the Cornwall Hounds, a foxhunt in Stockton, Il.

“People had always been telling me that I should be a steeplechase jockey,” he says. “And then they had a point-to-point at the hunt. I rode in it and I won half the races, and I was hooked.”

Rylee’s mother made a call to Jonathan Sheppard, America’s all-time leading steeplechase trainer. “The next thing I knew, I was down in Camden working for Sheppard and learning how to be a steeplechase jockey. Four months later, I was riding professionally.”

Riding in steeplechases and point-to-points was exciting, and it was also very dangerous. During the season, Rylee would travel to one or two places every weekend and ride many, many different horses. “Just to survive a race was a thrill,” he says. “And I can’t even explain what winning one was like. It’s huge.”

Highlights of his career included wins at the Aiken meet, as well as at the Block House races in Tryon. Then there was racing at Saratoga, where he shared the jockey’s changing room with some of the most famous flat jockeys in the world. Low points were the accidents and the injuries. In 2007, he broke his back, separated his shoulder and fractured his pelvis in three different incidents . . .and in addition to all this, he suffered about half a dozen concussions. “I still had a really successful year,” he says. But he knew it was time for another change.

Fortunately, during the off-season from racing, he had been breaking young horses for a pin-hooker (a person who buys horses, trains them and sells them on), and he was offered a job traveling to England to sell exported American racehorses. He took advantage of this opportunity, and then got into business with a friend selling horse feed.

“The feed business was good for me,” he says. “I took about eight months off from riding. I was traveling around, delivering feed to different farms, and I saw people having fun showing hunters, and I got the feeling I wanted to do it again.”

He got a horse and started going to some shows. Once it got out that he was available to ride green and problem horses, the business started coming to him. Meanwhile, he sent for Go with Fate, a mare that he owned that had been a successful flat and steeplechase horse. Go with Fate had been a turned out in Illinois as a broodmare for seven years, but Rylee had faith in her. “I knew she was a great mover and I knew she could jump. So I brought her down and got her going and she started winning in the hunters. It got me to the horse shows and it got me seen. She really did me a favor.”

Rylee was soon working for top trainers in Camden such as Jack Towell and Gary Young. He also worked on his own riding, changing his position to conform to the equitation demanded of a show rider rather than a jockey. He had help, especially from Bob Russell, a former Grand Prix show jumping rider who gave him invaluable coaching and advice. (“You don’t do this business on your own,” says Rylee.) Two years ago, he came to Aiken to be with his partner, Rachel Cunningham, and he has never looked back. “Aiken is such a great horse community and there are so many opportunities here,” he says.

Today, Rylee has a few of his own horses that he is training and showing and will soon sell. He also gives lessons and has horses in training for clients from around the area. Although he loves to ride and train warmbloods, he has a particular reputation for getting the best out of Thoroughbreds.

“I’ve sat on 50,000 of them,” he says. “When you’ve ridden so many of them, you hop on one and you have ten that you remember that were so similar. You have this Rolodex of experience to fall back on. I am very relaxed and comfortable on them and there is nothing that a horse can really do to me that hasn’t happened before – it takes a lot to rattle me.

“My whole racing career, I was very good at getting the crazy ones and the strong ones to relax. I was always looking for a way to ride a horse so that he would relax. They don’t need to be dragging you around the racetrack. That’s not how they win races, and that’s not how you win in the hunter ring either. It’s hard to put into words exactly how I do it – it can be different things with different horses and they are all individuals. I do know that getting them to relax is the first step in figuring them out, and setting them on the path to a successful career.”

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

Friday, October 30, 2015

Ask The Judge | Too Early

Questions about Dressage
With Amy McElroy

Amy McElroy is an FEI competitor and 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 between 15 and 20 dressage shows and events each year. In her popular Ask the Judge column, she answers readers’ questions about dressage.

Dear Amy,

I recently rode a dressage test in the Novice Horse division of an event. I was scheduled to be the first rider after a break, at 2:40. Because of the excessive heat, I arrived at the warm-up at 2:20, just 20 minutes in advance, thinking that I had allotted enough time for warm-up.

I was very surprised when I got to the warm-up arena that the warmup ring steward informed me that the judge was ready for my test. So I went in to do my test at 2:25 without a warm-up, since I didn’t want to disrespect my judge. Needless to say, I was not warmed up enough, and I did not have a good ride. If this situation occurs again, what can I do? Do I have to go in early just because the judge decided not to take her break? Should I have told the judge what happened so that she would know why my horse was not properly warmed up?

Sincerely, Too Early.


Dear Too Early,

It certainly sounds as if you had your warm-up well planned. What an unfortunate turn of events for you! Most important, let’s review your rights as a competitor at an event.

When you are assigned a ride time, you do not need to perform before your reserved time. That is always your right, with no penalty, unless the management has decided that they need to change your time for some unforeseen reason – a storm moving in, for instance. If there is a change in ride times, the management is required to give competitors at least 30 minutes warning before the new assigned time. This would be an official decision made by the ground jury, not by the warm-up steward.

So if you get to the warm-up with a planned warm-up routine, it is clearly your right to hold to your assigned time. Please feel positive about doing this. Keep in mind that your warm-up arena steward may be very knowledgeable at his job, or he may be a newcomer. He may or may not be aware of all the current rules. Stewards are our wonderful volunteers that are there to help keep things running smoothly. Show managers and competitors appreciate them and could not do without them. However, they are not officials of the show, nor are they responsible for your ride time. Only you are.

You might be surprised to learn that your judge may or may not know what is going on in the warm up or with the warm up arena steward. More often than not, the judge has no way of communicating with the steward. Sometimes, the judge does not even know who the warm-up arena steward is! So bear in mind that if a steward tells you that you need to go in early, he would not be speaking for the judge – the judge would not and could not tell you that: the judge knows that she doesn’t have the authority to do so. However, the judge might be ready and willing to evaluate your ride ahead of its scheduled time. In this case, the decision to go in early would still be yours and yours alone.

Judges work very hard to keep their arenas from running behind. Most judges take a lot of pride in sticking to the published ride times, and this is not always an easy task. We understand how important your warm-up time is and we know it can be as detrimental to your ride to have too much time in the warm-up (if the judge falls behind schedule) as to have too little time (if you go in ahead of schedule.)

It sometimes happens, especially in inclement weather, that the judge might shorten her break and tell the steward that the riders may come in early if they so desire, as long as they stay in the same order of go. Most likely, the judge would be offering the riders this opportunity to benefit them. If you are the first one to go after a break, you have the opportunity to take advantage of this earlier ride time if that is what you want to do. But staying to your published time would not affect the way your judge would score your ride, not would it convey any disrespect.

If there is a problem or a concern during your show, it is advisable to contact the show’s technical delegate (TD) who is a hired official for the show and is there to ensure that the show abides by all the rules of the competition. The TD knows these rules and can advise and mediate between competitors, management and judges. If the TD cannot solve your problem, and you would like to talk to your judge, consult the TD during show hours before the show has ended. He will either bring your concern to the judge, or arrange for the two of you to meet.

In your case, I feel certain that your judge had no idea that you sacrificed your warm up to come in early. In the Novice Horse division, your judge would probably have attributed small problems in your test to the fact that your horse is young and/or inexperienced, rather than that he was insufficiently warmed up. In the future, you should always do what is best for you and your horse, which is what the judge wants as well. Judges want to see you succeed and have a good ride. Good luck in your next competition!

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

Friday, October 23, 2015

Setting the Course

Michel Vaillancourt at the Pan Am Games
by Pam Gleason

When the Pan Am games came to Toronto, Canada this July, the City of Aiken was well represented. There were several horses and riders competing there who train, or have trained in Aiken, including Boyd Martin and Phillip Dutton who rode for America in eventing, as well as Emanuel Andrade, who was on the Venezuelan showjumping team. But the perhaps the most significant Aiken influence came from Michel Vaillancourt, who was hired to design the jumps and the courses for showjumping.

Michel, who lives in Aiken, is a native of Montreal and the winner of the individual silver medal in showjumping at the 1976 Olympics. One of just a handful of FEI level 4 course designers in North America, his services have been in demand all over the North American continent and in Europe. He was chosen to set the courses for the 2015 Pan Am Games three years ago, not long after they were awarded to Canada, and he says he got started working on them right away.

“It was a long process,” he says. “As soon as I got the nomination, I started doing sketches of the jumps. In the end I submitted 45 sketches of different jumps. For a competition like this, we try to make the jumps represent the country that we are in. So I made some jumps to represent landmarks, and some to represent the culture of the area. I had one of the CN tower in Toronto, and a jump that looked like a hockey stick. I had maple leaves, of course, and the mounted police, things that are iconic of Canada. For instance, one jump was a sugar shack – you don’t see sugar shacks in a lot of other places.”

Michel then submitted the designs to the organizers and they went through various committees. One of these was a committee in charge of protecting the Pan Am brand, which, he says “had a lot to say about what they wanted and what they did not want.” Some of his favorite designs did not make the cut, including several that represented the First Nations. “I was disappointed about that.”

Once a list of approved jumps was established, the organizers of the games began an open bidding process for the their construction. The winner was a German firm.

“They did a super job,” Michel says. “They took my vision and they turned it into reality with the finest detail. I was ecstatic when I saw the jumps.”

Michel started designing the courses themselves this spring. He had to create tracks for three different competitions: the first qualifier, the team and the individual jumping.

Although Michel has been involved with the design of international courses, including those at the World Equestrian Games, this was the first major championship where he was in charge of the entire process. He admits he was nervous.

“Times have changed and the course had to reflect that,” he says. “The team competition had to be tough enough that the top country could come through, but the lesser teams would be weeded out. I really believed that the course was going to do the right job, and I got quite nervous after the first round because Canada did not do well. They needed to do well in order to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. I didn’t want to be the one responsible for disqualifying them.”

Fortunately, the Canadian team stepped up its efforts in the next round, eventually coming away with team gold, thus securing a berth at the Olympics. Argentina won the silver medal, its first medal in international competition since 1971, qualifying that country for the games. The U.S., which was already qualified on the basis of its performance at the 2014 World Equestrian Games in France, landed in bronze medal position.

McLain Ward, who is on the American team, rode Rothchild to the individual gold. “He really deserved it,” says Michel. “He was the only one in the competition to have a double clear round.

“I congratulate all the medal winners,” he continues. “It was a fantastic competition and the sport was really good. That is always my goal when I design a course, to provide good safe sport, and I was very pleased with the outcome of the championship. I was also overwhelmed by the support and the positive feedback I got after the event. . . .To have such a beautiful competition – it could not have been any better.” He gives a little laugh.

“I almost feel that I should retire. I’ll never be able to do as well as I did there.”

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

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Adjust Your Stride for More Consistent Courses

It's more than knowing where you are in front of a fence, says international jumper rider Katie Monahan Prudent. It's knowing what to do with that knowledge.

Want to jump courses consistently well? Then you have to be able to adjust your horse by lengthening and shortening his stride. Very rare, indeed, is the course where every distance comes up perfectly out of every turn to every jump. And that is just a fact of life. Fortunately for all of us ?

Adjustability Gives Options

If your horse, when asked, will responsively stretch his stride out, making it longer and more ground-covering, or shorten and contain it, making it bouncy and more collected, all sorts of opportunities present themselves?for placing him correctly in front of a fence, making the distance right and arriving at the best takeoff spot for him to jump comfortably and well.

I call that ability "a feel for the distance"?and if you're like most riders, you've already got half of it: an idea of where you are in front of most jumps. the missing ingredient? You just don't quite know what to do about what you know.

I'll show you how to develop adjustability over two little flower boxes set 24 feet apart. You'll gallop them in a forward one stride and canter them in a normal two stride and a very collected three stride. I like using flower boxes because you can practice over and over without hurting your horse and because they're just like flatwork in that they allow you to feel relaxed and comfortable enough to focus on the details, quality and control of every stride.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in the November 2001 issue of  Practical Horseman. It is reprinted here by permission.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Making Dreams Come True

Diane Cross of DEC Training Center
Story and Photography By Gary Knoll

Back in the 1980s and 1990s, Paul Rothfuss owned Ryedale Plantation, a Thoroughbred racehorse training and breeding facility located on Banks Mill Road in Aiken. One day in the early 1990s, he received a letter in the mail. It was handwritten and came from a sixth grader, Diane Cross from Martinez, Georgia. She introduced herself and professed her love of horses, particularly of a Ryedale horse named January Man that she had read about in the Aiken newspaper. Moved by this letter, Mr. Rothfuss invited Diane and her parents to visit Ryedale and meet January Man.

“It was amazing,” says Diane, who today owns DEC Training Center in Grovetown, Ga. “Even though Mr. Rothfuss was in the middle of meetings with potential race horse partners, he spent the better part of the afternoon showing us the horses. Paul went on at length about the process and people involved, and all that went on at his farm. I was in heaven.

“When I got home I sat down and wrote him a letter thanking him for all he had shown me about his farm,” continues Diane. The letter was published in the Ryedale Plantation newsletter.

Diane comes originally from Gulfport, Mississippi. The family moved to Louisiana and then to Georgia.

“My parents blame my brother Buddy for my horse obsession,” she says. “When I was 6 months old, Buddy saw a man riding a horse down our road. He stopped the man and asked if he could sit me on the horse. I grew up with that horse until I was 5 - she was a black Tennessee Walker named April. The man would stop by on his rides and let me ride with him.”

Diane says she really learned to ride when the family moved to Louisiana. Her mother’s cousin, Pat Risinger, had a cattle ranch, and it was her Uncle Pat who taught her. “I would go there and they set me loose on the horses all day. Uncle Pat was a very important and influential person in my life.”

After the family moved to Georgia, Diane’s dreams started falling into place when the family bought Sugar, a 2-year-old Quarter Horse. Sugar came from Diane’s mother’s sister Diane Ballard, for whom Diane was named. “I broke her myself,” says Diane. “We started doing horse shows, jumping and eventing. She was wonderful. We would go foxhunting or for a trail ride – it made no difference to Sugar. She loved to do anything.”

While attending high school, Diane founded the Greenbrier High School Equine Society, which was a group of students who shared a love of horses. Meanwhile, she had already started her dream job.

“I was on a work study program when I was a senior,” she says. “I worked in Harlem, Georgia, for Huffman Racing Stables, exercising racehorses.”

Once out of school, Diane started picking up work galloping for Stonerside and Dogwood Stable, riding at the Aiken Training Track. But to fulfill her dream of one day breeding and racing horses on her own, Diane knew she needed to make some money outside the horse world, so she took a job in law enforcement, starting out as a jailer, and then becoming a deputy sheriff as well as a volunteer firefighter. Meanwhile, she continued riding and training horses, eventually doing well enough to buy own farm and pursue horse business full time.

As if her days were not busy enough, when an Alzheimer’s patient went missing in Georgia, Diane joined the search with some friends on horseback.

“We were able to go places further than on foot and much quieter than with an ATV or car,” says Diane.” When the sheriff ’s department called her to help in another search not long afterwards, Diane started a group called CSRA Search and Rescue Riders. The group has helped with many search and rescue operations in the CSRA (Central Savannah River Area).

“We’re on the list for Columbia, Richmond, Edgefield, Jenkins, and Lexington Counties to call if they have the need. And we are willing to go wherever we can to help find a missing person.”

Diane has always dreamed of living a life with horses, and it is clear that her dreams have become reality. At DEC Training Center, she spends much of her time reselling horses off the racetrack. She also has her own stallion, Carthaginian, and is breeding him to produce sporthorses and racehorses. If the way her plans have fallen into place so far is any indication of things to come for Diane Cross, expect to see her name again.

“When I was in the eighth grade I made up the name D.E.C Training, and I showed under that name,” she says. “Later, that became my business name. I work hard to match horses off the track with people who want to buy them. If I get a call about a horse available I go and pick it up. The truth is it usually has a new home before I get back to Georgia. Finding the right horse for the right person is something I really love.”

To reach Diane or join the group CSRA Search and Rescue Riders, find her on Facebook, Diane E. Cross (DEC) Training Center

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

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Secret Lives of Horses

Lunch on the Hill: Polo Machine
By Pam Gleason

Lunch on the Hill has it pretty easy these days. The black Thoroughbred mare lives in Aiken at Hilltop Farm, her owner Karen Reese’s 80-acre polo training facility. She shares her 30-acre pasture with 12 other retired ponies as well as a pair of weanlings. At 23, she still looks strong and fit, her back only slightly swayed thanks to her age and the fact that she has had four foals. Sometimes the herd goes into another pasture with a pond, where all the horses enjoy soaking their legs in the water. On hot days, they cool off by rolling in it. The other old horses stick together, but Lunch looks after the babies.

“She knows she’s retired,” says Karen. “But she thinks the foals are hers and she mothers them. When I throw hay out, she and the two babies eat together and the other old horses eat separately.”

But if an observer were to mistake Lunch’s calm demeanor for quietness, or were to assume that her age and experience had made her laid back and easy going, they would be in for a surprise. Lunch has always been both a top athlete and a quirky horse who is not shy abut letting her rider know that she is the one who is ultimately in charge.

“If I saddled her up right now, she’d throw an NFR [National Finals Rodeo] show,” says Karen with a laugh. “She’s still a snort. She could probably still be playing polo under a young person but I couldn’t do it because every time you turn her out and bring her back in you had better be prepared, because the old lady can buck.”

Lunch on the Hill was bred in Midland, Texas by Bart Evans, a former 8-goal international player, trainer and breeder who is in the National Museum of Polo Hall of Fame. The Evans family breeds horse for the racetrack as well as the polo field, and Lunch on the Hill was originally destined to be a racehorse. She is out of a mare called Dining Out by State Dinner. Her sire, Worthingtonhills by Mr. Prospector, never amounted to much on the racetrack himself, but he was so well bred and well put together that he sold for $180,000 as a yearling at the Keeneland in 1984.

As a young horse, Lunch on the Hill was an athletic beauty with a gleaming black coat and a distinctive white blaze, but you could not add the word “tractable” to her list of attributes. When it was time for her to learn to be a racehorse, she let everyone know she was having none of it.

“They broke her at the ranch and she was such a bronc, they tell me she bucked out of a 9-foot round pen,” says Karen. “She didn’t jump it. She bucked so high she went up on one side of the fence and came down on the other side.”

Miguel Silverstre, a well known polo pony trainer who worked for Bart at the time, eventually helped Lunch decide to allow people to ride her, and she had her first polo lessons under him. Before long, she was playing in practices with the Evans family. They played her in Texas, and they brought her to Florida where Robert Evans, Bart’s son, played her at South Forty, a private polo club in Wellington. It was there that Karen first saw her.

“I was making horses for Julie and Tommy Boyle at the time and I was playing against her and seeing her every day,” says Karen. “She was absolutely stunningly beautiful. She was this super shiny black thing with a white face and she could fly. She was pretty sassy to ride in the beginning of the season and very powerful and forward. I loved everything about her. I was always saying to everyone, ‘I love that mare.’”

Lunch on the Hill was for sale, but she was definitely a big ticket item with a serious price tag. Aside from being a little difficult early in the season, however, she also had a tendency to hit herself when she was running. As a consequence of hitting herself, she would damage a tendon, and need months of rest and rehabilitation. This happened more than once. About two years after Karen first saw her, Robert gave her a call.

"Do you still want that mare?” He asked.

“Absolutely,” Karen replied. “I want you to know she has a fresh bow,” he said.

“I don’t care,” said Karen.

And so Lunch on the Hill came to Aiken, a gift to Karen from the Evans family. Originally, the idea was that she was to be a broodmare, but Karen got her late in the season and was unable to get her into foal immediately. Looking at her feet and her legs, she thought that she could return the mare to soundness, and so she called Robert to ask him if he would mind if she tried to fix the tendon and play the horse. He told her he didn’t mind and so Karen began a careful rehabilitation program.

And it worked. Lunch stopped hitting herself, stayed sound and proved to be everything that Karen had dreamt of and more: fast, handy, beautiful and strong, with a great mouth and an exceptional sense of the game.

“She’s a really competitive horse,” says Karen. “She was one of those horses that really loves polo and knows the game. There were no holes in her game and she could pretty much play without you. She could play with anyone and she played unbelievably under any kind of rider. She could read the play better than most people!”

Lunch knew the game so well, she would always take you to the next play very quickly, whether you knew what that next play was or not. If you hit a neckshot, she knew how to stay on the line of the ball. She even knew when a game was important and when it wasn’t, playing her heart out for a tournament game, but only giving a small percentage in a practice. She loved to run, and she was fast as the wind. But after a goal was scored, and it was time to go back to the throw-in, it would be at a leisurely canter back and she couldn’t be persuaded to to pick up her pace.

“It cracked me up. It was like she was saving herself. When the ball got thrown in, it was game on. But from the goal to the throw-in: hand canter. You could urge her on and even whip her, but she never went any faster.”

Lunch on the Hill played every kind of polo and excelled on every field and in every arena, winning 11 Best Playing Pony awards in her career. She was so much fun to play, Karen often loaned her to visiting players, including women who came for the Aiken Ladies Invitational tournament, and players who participated in an annual 30-goal exhibition that was played in Aiken during the late 1990s and early 2000s. People who rode her included the 10-goal player Memo Gracida and Lesley Ann Masterson Fong-Yee from Jamaica.

“I think I only played Lunch once,” says Lesley Ann. “She was indeed a great pony. I knew her better with Karen playing her in so many of the tournaments we played together. Karen has had many very good horses pass through her hands but when she got on Lunch on the Hill, her handicap literally went up a goal. She had so much confidence in her that she would go for and make plays that she wouldn’t attempt on other horses. It would give the entire team a boost to know that Karen was coming out on Lunch next. If we were behind it was a chance to catch up, if ahead consolidate!”

In 2002, Lunch went to Saratoga, where she was BPP in the women’s tournament under Karen, as well as BPP in the 22-goal and the 8-goal, playing under Justin Pimsner, who was married to Karen at the time. It was the height of her playing career: she was a 10-year-old powerhouse: fast, strong and living up to her full potential on the field.

And then tragedy struck. In August, Justin packed up the trailer and headed home from Saratoga. As he drove down route 87, his truck tire blew out and he lost control of the rig. The truck and trailer went off the road and turned over. Justin was trapped in the cab for several hours and was badly injured. Six of the 10 horses on board were killed or euthanized on the scene. Four, including Lunch on the Hill, were transported to Saratoga Equine Clinic. Lunch was badly injured with deep lacerations, contusions and scrapes. One of her hooves was mostly torn off and her right hip was sliced through. But, with the help of the veterinarians and a device that the farrier Randy Greer made to support her injured hoof, she began to recover. She was the only one of the ten horses on the trailer that day who would not ultimately die from her injuries.

“It was terribly traumatic for all of us,” says Karen. “I try not to think about it.”

After five weeks at the clinic and another few months recovering at a farm in New York, Lunch came back to Hilltop to begin her new life as a broodmare at long last.

“For me, the biggest thing after the wreck was her stepping back on a trailer,” says Karen. “She walked right on. To me, that just said, I trust you to get me home.”

For the next four years, Lunch had babies sired by Hilltop’s stallion Toga: Picnic in the Shade, Table for Two, Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Yum Yum. Her foals inherited their mother’s quirkiness, proving themselves difficult to break and almost as “bronc-y” as their mother. But once they submitted to training, they were exceptional polo ponies. Today, Breakfast at Tiffany’s plays in Aiken under Paul Shealy. Yum Yum found her way into Adolfo Cambiaso’s string. Adolfo, 10 goals and usually considered the best player in the world, rode Yum Yum to the Gaucho Best Playing Pony award at the 22-goal Coronation Cup in England in 2014.

After Yum Yum, Karen felt that she didn’t need to break any more broncos, and so she decided to see if Lunch could come back to work as a polo pony. She saddled her up, endured the expected rodeo episode, and then legged her up for polo. Karen’s plan was to allow her daughter Tess, now 16, to ride the mare, who had so much to teach a young player. For the first year, Karen made sure she played conservatively, which was not to Lunch’s liking. But the second year, the mare seemed to realize that she wasn’t a high goal horse any more and things were going to be a little easier.

“When I brought her back the second year, she turned into a completely different horse. She used to be a freight train. But when she realized it was just going to be Tess and I, she turned into a push ride. I played her and Tess played her. She really helped Tess step up her game.” And she wasn’t done winning Best Playing Pony awards either: she won her last one at 18 in a 4-goal at Aiken Polo Club in 2011.

Today, Lunch is fully retired – the days of polo and having babies are behind her, as is the trauma of the catastrophic accident that nearly took her life.

“The Evans family gave her to me, and in return, I promised her safe haven for the rest of her life,” says Karen, whose business is buying and selling horses. “I have never had her for sale, and I would never sell her. She has been a horse of a lifetime for me.”

Of all the horses that Karen has owned and ridden, where does Lunch on the Hill stand? Karen does not take long to answer.

“She’s at the top. She’s at the top for one reason and it’s that she had a heart that would never say die. She had a core of steel and she was a bottomless pit of “try.” She could fly; she was super handy, had a great mouth, and she was super fun to play. She’s a one of a kind horse. They don’t make them like her anymore.”

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

Thursday, August 27, 2015

America's Most Wanted Thoroughbred

Local Horse Eyes the Prize
By Pam Gleason, Photography By Gary Knoll

Who has “America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred?” Katherine Gunter thinks that she might.

America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred is a makeover contest for off-the-track racehorses that is being put on by the Retired Racehorse Project. Based in Maryland, RRP’s mission is to “increase demand for Thoroughbred ex-racehorses and build the bridges to second careers.” The contest itself is designed to showcase the trainability and versatility of former racehorses. Horses competing this year are required to have raced or been in race training any time between January 1, 2013 and December 31, 2014.

Candidate horses may not have had any training beyond the racetrack before the start of the competition, although they may have had as many as 15 training rides as of January 15, 2015. Over the months, the horses are being groomed for various disciplines, culminating in the Thoroughbred Makeover and National Symposium held October 23-25, 2015 at the Kentucky Horse Park in Lexington. There, they will compete for $100,000 worth of prizes and the honor of being named America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred.

Katherine Gunter, who is the professional huntsman for the Aiken Hounds, had heard about the Retired Racehorse Project and she was intrigued.

“I had been eyeballing the makeover stuff because I think it is kind of interesting,” she says. “And I needed another horse. My big horse is 20, the other one I have is 13. I love Thoroughbreds, and when they come right off the track, they are definitely in my price range.”

Over the winter, Katherine had another prospect, not a Thoroughbred, that wasn’t quite enough horse for her. When she sold that horse in Southern Pines, N.C., she happened to mention to the trainer there that she was interested in getting another horse.

“I told her I wanted to get one off the track and that I’m a bay gelding kind of girl. About two weeks later, she put a post on my Facebook page and said ‘Take a look at this horse. He’s still growing, so he’s still a little downhill, but I think he’ll even out.’”

The horse was a 5-year-old bay gelding, about 16.1 hands, with a solid build and a stout hind end. Katherine checked his bloodlines (“they were fantastic, with no Native Dancer crosses, which makes for a sounder horse, and his sire, Alluvial, was gorgeous;”) and she watched a short jog video of him. Although the video was in the snow (this was winter and he was training in West Virginia), she liked what she saw, and so she called his trainer, Eddy Clousten.

“There are only so many questions you can ask about a horse on the track,” she says. “So I asked ‘Does he need to be ponied to the track?’and the answer was ‘No.’ ‘Does he dump your exercise riders?’ The answer was ‘No.’ ‘Is he spooky?’ ‘No, not at all.’ ‘Are you negotiable on the price?’ ‘No. Not at all.’ So I said, ‘Okay I’ll wire you the money.’”

And that was how, $2,000 later, ($1,500 for the horse and $500 for the shipping) Alluring Devil (Diablo) came to Aiken.

“I decided if I rode him once and he didn’t flatten me, I would send in my entry to the makeover,” says Katherine, noting that the $100 entry fee was a pretty modest investment. She planned to enter him as a foxhunter, one of ten disciplines that will be showcased at the symposium. He would have to learn to ride out with the hounds, to go quietly in company, to jump and to stand calmly at checks. He would have to accept traveling and going new places as a regular part of his job. Although Katherine is looking forward to the competition in Kentucky, she says her main goal is to develop a sold, well-rounded horse to be her hunting partner for many years to come.

As soon as he got to Aiken, Diablo showed that he had the right stuff. First off, he loved the hounds. Second, he was very quiet and easy to handle: you could pet him everywhere, pull his mane, clip his ears and his whiskers and he never batted an eye. He did have some things to learn, however.

“He didn’t know about horse cookies when I got him,” says Katherine. “I had to push them in his mouth and show him how to chew them. But now he’s a cookie hound.” And it’s true – when she says that he is an “inyour- pocket” kind of a horse, she is not exaggerating, especially if you are carrying treats in your pockets.

Diablo was so pleasant to deal with on the ground that Katherine wasted no time, getting on and riding him almost as soon as he arrived. On her first ride, she and her husband, John Dunbar, went out together in the Hitchcock Woods, accompanied by three of Katherine’s retired hunting hounds, Vampire, Maverick and Nipper.

“We went cruising. He was very quiet, with a good mouth and a really comfortable canter. He didn’t want to do anything bad – he was more inclined to slow down and stop than anything. So when we got back from that ride, I sent my entry into the makeover. I've been working with him ever since, and he has just been great.”

In Diablo’s career on the track, he raced a total of 20 times, earning three wins, four seconds and four thirds for total lifetime earnings of $31,970. His last race was in October 2014, but if Katherine hadn’t purchased him, he would have raced this winter as well. He even had racing plates on his feet when he arrived in Aiken.

Aside from some minor hoof issues (easily corrected by farriers from Rood and Riddle, who were in Aiken to tend to some other horses), Diablo has had no soundness or other issues. He entered his first competition, the Aiken Hounds Hunter Pace, in March (his team finished third) and got his first taste of actual foxhunting in Camden, where Katherine rode him up in front with the huntsman. He is a natural jumper, hopping over logs and cantering down to his fences with a steady, easy rhythm.

“He's always very willing,” says Katherine. “He jumps an aiken like a million dollars.”

Katherine plans to continue his training this summer, using him for hound exercise and working on the basics. In September, she is going on a foxhunting trip, and plans to bring him in order to help expose him to new things and get him accustomed to going to new places. A few local horse shows are also a possibility. In addition, Katherine has ridden him in a stock saddle and is considering entering him in the competitive trail division as well as the foxhunting division.

“They encourage you to enter more than one discipline,” says Katherine. “The trail class includes a lot of footwork – you have to back through a keyhole, side pass over something, walk over a bridge, maybe a teeter-totter. All of that is good for getting a horse broke, and it’s good for foxhunting horses. After all, it’s just obedience.”

With all of this prep work, along with Diablo’s athleticism and calm, willing nature, Katherine thinks the trip to Kentucky will not faze her new horse at all. Although the exact format of the competition has yet to be published, the Masters of Foxhounds Association has agreed to run the foxhunting division, which will likely include a drag hunt and perhaps a small handy hunter course.

“We’re still working on the format of all the competitions,” says Kirsten Lagerquist, who is the director of the Retired Racehorse Project. “People with show organizing experience in each of the different disciplines will be helping us, and we expect to have a big update coming soon on our website.” So far, the event calls for a judged contest in each discipline, with the top three horses from each sport returning for the finale on Sunday afternoon.

“At that point, the competition becomes a little more subjective than just giving a horse a score,” continues Kirsten. “Popular vote will be incorporated into it as well.” In the past, the competition has counted input from the RRT website, but last year, one of the main deciding factors was an applause meter, which will probably be used again.

This is the third year of the America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred competition, and the first that welcomed anyone who wanted to compete. The first two years, when the makeover was held at Pimlico racetrack in Baltimore, organizers invited about two dozen handselected professionals to enter. These included the two-time Olympic gold medalist Phillip Dutton, who cantered off with the top prize in 2014 aboard Graham and Anita Motion’s Icabad Crane, a stakes-winner turned event horse who finished third in the 2008 Preakness Stakes behind Big Brown. In 2015, when the event moved to a larger venue at the Kentucky Horse Park, the makeover was open to anyone with an eligible horse who got their entries in on time. The response has been overwhelming.

“We expected to see a slow trickle of applications and to end up with maybe 100 or 200 horses,” says Kirsten. “But we hit 300 horses back in March, so we closed things off by the first week in April and had to make a waiting list. We have about 345 horses entered right now, but we do expect to see some scratches.”

Entries have come in from juniors, amateurs and professionals from over 30 states and two Canadian provinces. There is even one entry from Great Britain: Louise Robson, who specializes in retraining former racehorses in dressage and works with former racers owned by HRH Queen Elizabeth. Louise will be coming over with a recently purchased gelding called Tinchy Ryder (“Ryan.”)

The makeover horses run the gamut from actual rescues to stakes winners obtained from some of the top racing outfits in America – Darley, Adena Springs, Phipps Stables. There is even million dollar winner (Eighttofasttocatch, who is being trained for eventing, dressage and showjumping). The most popular discipline is dressage with over 100 entries, followed by eventing and showjumping. Katherine and Diablo’s discipline, foxhunting, is one of the smallest, with just 17 entries. Some large racing stables have come on as sponsors, and several Thoroughbred rehoming organizations, such as CANTER and Turning For Home have become partners in the event.

“We’re pretty excited about it,” says Katherine, who says that most foxhunting people in the faster hunts are Thoroughbred devotees. “It’s great for the Thoroughbred industry. I think it really is encouraging people to get the Thoroughbreds off the track and do something with them. It’s the prize money; it’s the prestige. The Masters are excited – they’ll be coming to Kentucky to watch. I think this kind of competition is going to give the Thoroughbred industry the boost it needs to encourage people to get the horses off the track and take good care of them.”

Kirsten says that she is looking forward to the competition in October. “It’s going to be pretty amazing,” she says. The makeover competition is the featured event of the weekend, which also includes a trade fair, a series of seminars and a marketplace for retired racehorses – many horses entered in the competition are for sale, and Kirsten expects a good number to leave the Kentucky Horse Park with new owners. Admission to the preliminary competitions that weekend is free, but the finale on Sunday will cost $15.

“Buy your tickets now,” Kirsten advises. “There are only 1,500 seats, and we fully expect to be at capacity.”

For more information about the Retired Racehorse Project and America’s Most Wanted Thoroughbred, visit Or find them on Facebook. Follow Diablo’s progress on his Facebook page, Alluring Devil.

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

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Ask the Judge

Questions about Dressage
With Amy McElroy

Amy McElroy is an FEI competitor and 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 between 15 and 20 dressage shows and events each year. In her popular Ask the Judge column, she answers readers’ questions about dressage. Do you have a question for Amy? Send her an email at McElroyDRM@, or visit her website:

Dear Amy,

I was recently spectating at a dressage show where there were some unusual incidents during three dressage tests. The first: A rider fell off while going around the perimeter of the arena. The bell had already rung, but the rider remounted and entered the ring and performed her test. She won! How does this make sense?

The second: A rider fell off while performing her test. The horse and rider never left the arena. The rider remounted and finished the test. It turns out she was eliminated. Why was she eliminated when the first rider was not?

Finally: During a test, one of the horses slipped out of the arena at the opening at A. Then the rider just kept on going out of the arena, riding away and never coming back. Obviously, this horse and rider combination was eliminated. But, if the rider hadn’t ridden away, and her horse had just come partially out of the arena, would she have been eliminated?

Could you explain the rules on what will get you eliminated and what won’t? I am confused.

Confused at the Show

Dear Confused,

You never know what to expect when you are riding and showing a horse. Even though we practice, horses aren’t always as reliable as we would like them to be. Things happen; horses spook; people fall off. What if you fall off in a show? What if you horse makes an unscheduled exit from the arena? It depends on the circumstances: sometimes you will get eliminated. Sometimes you won’t. Let me explain.

In the first instance, where the rider fell off before entering the arena, the judge would normally advise the rider to remount, as long as there are no injuries and the rider wants to continue. Riders have the right to excuse themselves if they so choose, and judges have the option of excusing the rider if they feel that the horse is dangerous

If the rider chooses to remount, she may enter the arena as though nothing had happened, as long as she does so within 90 seconds of the signal sounding. According to USEF Rule #DR122.5: “Exceeding 90 seconds will entail elimination except where a valid reason is accepted by the judge at C.” Therefore, even if it takes the rider longer than 90 seconds to remount and enter the arena, she still could continue to compete at the discretion of the judge.

Because the scoring of a test begins with the entry at A, falling off while going around the apron of the arena would not eliminate the rider, nor would the rider incur any penalties. If this team had a great ride, then they definitely could be the winner, even with the inauspicious start.

In the second situation, where the rider fell off the horse in the arena, this, sadly is an automatic elimination, even if the horse does not leave the arena. According to USEF Rule DR 122.7F: “In the case of a fall of horse/and/or rider, the competitor will be eliminated. A competitor is considered to have fallen when he has separated from his horse in such a way as to necessitate remounting or vaulting back into the saddle.”

In this case, although elimination is mandatory, the judge has the power to allow the horse and rider combination to finish the test if there are no injuries, the judge does not feel that the horse is too dangerous and time still permits. The judge might even score the remainder of the test for the rider’s education, even though the scores would not count in the standings.

The final case, where the horse slipped partially out of the arena, is not at all uncommon. According to USEF DR 122.7G; “If the horse leaves the arena with or without the rider (all four feet outside the fence or line marking the arena perimeter) between the beginning and end of the test, the competitor is eliminated.”

The judge has the right to give you permission to complete the test for your experience, but is not required to do so. However, you will only be eliminated if all four feet have left the arena. If the horse only goes partially out (one or two legs), as long as the rider brings the horse back in, she would not be eliminated. This would simply affect the score for that movement.

Therefore, if you are not sure how many legs have left the arena, you should keep performing your test. If you have been eliminated, the judge will make a signal to let you know. In the case you observed, the rider would not have been eliminated if the horse did not go entirely out of the arena and she was able to get him back in. Once she left the arena, however, her test was over.

In all the situations you observed, riders should remember to pick up their test sheets from the show secretary after the class has been posted. Even if they were unable to finish their tests competitively, they will still have the opportunity to read the judge’s scores, instructive remarks and comments.

Unfortunate situations happen to everyone from time to time. The good news is that elimination at a dressage show only affects that ride: you are still free to show in the other classes you have entered, and your previous mishaps will not affect your future scores. Judges hate to eliminate riders as much as riders hate to be eliminated and usually feel bad for anyone that must be excused.

I hope this explains how the judge handled scoring these tests and why some riders were eliminated and some were not. These were good questions, and I appreciate the opportunity to give you more insight on the rules surrounding these unusual incidents.

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

Thursday, August 13, 2015

FITS in Aiken

Acclaimed Equestrian Brand Relocates
by Pam Gleason

FITS Riding Ltd, the internationally acclaimed riding clothes company, has moved to Aiken. Established in 2005 in Portland, Oregon, FITS creates and sells technical riding gear with a traditional look. Best known for its patented-design full seat breeches, FITS also has show shirts, belts and stock ties. The company has an enthusiastic following that includes top riders in many disciplines, especially eventing and dressage. Now it has new owners and new headquarters right in the center of downtown Aiken.

The new owners, Lida Bard and Brian Allenby, are both 2013 graduates of Elon University in North Carolina. Lida is a lifelong horsewoman who competes in eventing. Brought up in New Jersey, she came to Aiken after her parents relocated to the city while she was in college. Brian, also from New Jersey, followed Lida south, and got his introduction to horsemanship at her parents’ farm. The couple have been engaged since 2013 and will be married this October. They formally purchased FITS Riding Ltd in May.

“It has been my dream my whole life to have some sort of equestrian career,” says Lida, whose four horses live on her family’s farm. “I knew I couldn’t ride or teach for a living, so I put that idea on the back burner.”

After graduating with a degree in creative writing, Lida found a job working for the Aiken Downtown Development Association, where she was in charge of marketing, social media and writing a bi-weekly newsletter. Meanwhile, Brian, whose degree is in environmental science with minors in business, geography and GIS systems, had a job in New Jersey as a technical support technician for a proprietary software company. When he moved to Aiken, the company asked him to stay on and work remotely, which allowed him to make the move without having to worry right away about finding work. Both Lida and Brian joined Aiken Young Professionals Association.

“We were looking for some kind of equestrian business to buy,” says Lida. In January of this year, her father, who has always had his own businesses, was searching online, where he found a listing for a riding apparel company that was for sale.

“The listing was with a broker, and it didn’t say what the company was – you would have to sign a nondisclosure agreement to find out,” continues Lida. “But my father is really good at fact finding, so he discovered within about five minutes that it was FITS. He called me and asked if I had heard of them. I said, of course! They are my favorite.”

Lida and Brian were excited about the prospect of owning such a successful company, especially one that made clothing that Lida already loved. But there was a lot more work to do before buying the company. The couple, accompanied by Lida’s father, flew out to Portland to meet the company’s founder, Sheryl Rudolph and learn more about what FITS does. They spent time examining the company’s structure and finances, and went through an extensive due diligence process before deciding to go ahead with the closing. They finalized their purchase in mid-May after spending three weeks in Portland getting to know how all facets of the company work. Soon afterwards, they moved into the new FITS headquarters on Arbor Terrace, just off Laurens Street in downtown Aiken.

“We aren’t retailers,” explains Lida. “This is the company headquarters. We do have samples of our product line here to show to reps, but we don’t sell any clothing.” Currently, the FITS brand is carried in Aiken at Oak Manor Saddlery.

What makes the FITS brand different? According to Lida and Brian, both of whom wear riding breeches at work, the difference starts with fabric and extends to design and craftsmanship. FITS full seat breeches, the signature product, are made from compression material that is similar to what is used in apparel made for NFL players. It has more lycra than typical riding pants, and provides more stretch and support for the muscles. The breech is accented with Powermesh on the lower leg to make the pant thinner and more breathable under a boot. The deerskin leather panels are segmented and perforated, providing more stretch, flexibility and breathability than traditional leather panels. The design incorporates a patented gusseted crotch and a Powerstretch ab panel for support and a flattering fit.

“The breeches are great to ride in, and they are so comfortable,” says Lida. “You can do anything in them. You could do gymnastics, they move so well.”

FITS tops and show shirts are also designed to be comfortable, practical and attractive. They are breathable, with strategically placed mesh panels, and they provide protection from the sun with an SPF of 50. The material incorporates unique natural, odor and bacteria controlling fibers that last throughout the lifetime of the garment. The show coats are made of a mesh material that is opaque when worn, but if you hold them up to the light, you can see right through them. They are cool and breathable enough to be comfortable even on days where show coats are waived, and they are even washable. Although the look of FITS is traditional, the designs and the fabrics are distinctly 21st century, representing a modern understanding of how apparel can help improve athletic performance. All the clothing is manufactured in the U.S. from U.S. sourced materials.

Lida and Brian are excited about their new venture and happy to be part of Aiken’s vibrant horse culture. Lida will be working on new product lines and promoting the brand, while Brian is looking forward to doing more marketing and sales. FITS is already sold in 12 countries including the U.S. and Canada. Lida and Brian have plans to go to a trade fair in Germany later in the summer to expand the brand’s European presence.

“To be able to do something that is a passion of ours is really exciting,” says Brian. “I can really see growing it to the next level. I’ve had some sales experience, where I have done very well, so I kind of have the sales bug. The company fits us perfectly.”

FITS is also a natural for Aiken, where horse culture is an accepted part of life. “You can go to the grocery store dressed in riding clothes and it’s totally normal,” says Lida. “I feel like, in a town that is so horse centric, whether you want to ride in the clothes or just wear them for fashion, everyone likes the equestrian look. You can’t really go wrong.”

For more information on FITS, visit

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