Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Dressage Field Trip

Wagener Kids Meet Francisco Jose Garcia Ibanez

by Pam Gleason

On November 13, about 80 children from the Cyril Busbee Elementary School in Wagener came to Half Moon Farm to watch a special dressage exhibition put on by Francisco Jose Garcia Ibanez. The children represented three classes of 5-year-old kindergarteners, and the trip was one of a series of educational events that introduced the children to different professions.

“We’re really excited to do this,” said Melissa Burke, one of the teachers. “The kids know about some other professions, like being a mailman, but most of them don’t know about being a horse trainer. There are so many horses in Wagener, but we don’t always think about it.”

Francisco demonstrated a Prix St. Georges test and a Grand Prix musical freestyle on two different P.R.E. (Andalusian) stallions. Afterwards, the children had a chance to meet some of the other horses on the farm and have their pictures taken with Francisco aboard Tomatillo VII, a qualified Grand Prix stallion who has won many championships both in the United States and in Spain.

Half Moon Farm, located in Wagener and owned by Dori and James Derr, specializes in dressage training as well as in Spanish horses. Francisco is a Specialist Master Rider from the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art, located in Jerez la Frontera, Spain. This is a national school of horsemanship that accepts only the very best and most dedicated students. Francisco, who has been training and teaching in the U.S. for the past few years, is one of just a handful of instructors at the school. Horses and riders he has trained have gone on to represent Spain in international dressage competition. One of them, Oleaje (ridden by Ignacio Rambla) was on the silver-medal-winning Olympic dressage team in 2004.

Francisco was happy to perform for the children, and said he hoped that this introduction might inspire one of them to become a horse trainer some day. Francisco’s own daughter Maria goes to Busbee Elementary school, and last year was in Melissa Burke’s class.

More information about Half Moon Farm and Francisco Garcia Ibanez can be found at

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

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Aiken Horse Show

Supporting the Woods

by Pam Gleason

The Aiken Horse Show is one of the oldest equestrian traditions in Aiken. Established in 1916 by Louise Hitchcock, the founding mother of Aiken’s horse world, it was originally designed as a competition for members of the foxhunting community who had spent the winter hunting together through the Hitchcock Woods. The first show had 17 classes and was advertised in the newspaper as a society event offering an “unexcelled exhibition of Thoroughbred horses.”

The Show In The Woods

Then, as now, the Hitchcock Woods was a special place. It was bigger at the time, covering over 8,000 acres of longleaf pine forest and open fields. The land was purchased jointly by Louise’s husband Thomas Hitchcock and William C. Whitney in 1898. Whitney had been Secretary of the Navy under President Grover Cleveland and he was an avid horseman and philanthropist, who often used his wealth to help ensure the future of the equestrian sports that he loved.

Mr. Whitney died in 1904, but the Hitchcock family and their friends continued to ride, play and hunt in the Woods for over three decades. It became became an equestrian playground as well as a community project. During the season, the Hitchcocks employed eight or ten men and a foreman to work there, building and maintaining jumps and trails. But they were not the only contributors. In fact, every week, Winter Colonists who might have been unlikely to so much as cut their own flowers back in New York, were enthusiastic members of “The Axe Club.”

The Axe Club met once a week to clear trails, cut down trees and fix jumps. “It was surprising to
see what an amount of work could be accomplished by dainty-fingered young ladies and big-brained
financiers just for the fun of it,” wrote Harry Worcester Smith in Life and Sport in Aiken. Members of the Axe Club would come into the Woods in their buggies, tie their horses to trees, and then sit down to a picnic lunch under the pines. Smith writes of Southern dishes such as Hopping John, as well as “wonderful boiled beef ” and Bombay Duck, “brought by Dr. Todd’s butler.” After everyone was full, the work of the day would begin. It is an interesting scene to consider: wealthy members of New York society having a picnic attended by servants, to prepare them for hours of hard labor that often left them “with blistered hands, aching backs and covered with pitch from head to foot.”

All the personal attention and labor these ladies and gentlemen put into the Woods is a testament to their devotion to it, as well as proof that it has always been an extraordinary place. When Mrs. Hitchcock and her friends decided to hold a horse show, they could have chosen any number of places to hold it: after all, most of Aiken’s historic district was already devoted to horse sports, and it would certainly have been more convenient to hold the show downtown, especially if they wanted spectators. They did: in fact, not only was the first show advertised in the newspaper, the Hitchcocks even chartered a special train from Southern Railway to bring people in from Augusta. Automobiles have never been allowed in the Woods, but the Hitchcocks made an exception for horse show spectators. That tradition has lasted almost a century: the only time you can drive a car in the Woods is during the Aiken Horse Show, and the only place you can go is the horse show ring.

Why did Mrs. Hitchcock want to hold her show in such an inconvenient spot? It would likely have been a bigger and more popular event if it had taken place closer to the center of town; somewhere with ample parking and within walking distance of the train depot.

The best explanation is that the horse show was not designed simply to display horses and horsemanship, but to showcase the Woods itself. Mrs. Hitchcock loved the Woods. She was proud of it, and she wanted to share its charms.

The Charmed Ring

Ask anyone who has showed there and they will tell you that the Aiken Horse Show is not like any other show. The ring is a good mile into the Woods, past Memorial Gate, where the Aiken Hounds hold their annual Blessing of the Hounds on Thanksgiving Day. The show is traditionally held at the end of March, when the Bermuda grass that covers much of Aiken is still brown and dormant. The horse show ring, by contrast, is seeded with rye grass and is a vision of green. The jumps are all natural and decorated with flowers. Although cars are allowed into the Woods, horse trailers are not. This means that all the horses competing have been ridden there. When you come down the trail that leads to the ring, the scene before you looks almost unreal, as though you have been transported several weeks forward into spring, and many decades back in time.

The horse show itself is an old-fashioned affair, designed for horses and riders who participate in the hunt, rather than for dedicated show horses. It is family oriented, with classes for children as well as a family class, which can include three and even four generations all riding together. There are other historic horse shows in the country that keep up these traditional classes, but they are few and far between. For the most part, horse shows have evolved into more professional affairs. The Aiken Horse Show has not, and it doesn’t want to. The show treasures tradition, so much so that one of its signature events these days is a sidesaddle division.

Regular competitors at the show have a hard time explaining exactly what it is that is so special about it. Most will talk about the beauty of the ring itself, and about the strangeness of all of this activity going on in the middle of a forest. For many riders, the fact that they might have started showing there as children seems to weigh heavily, as well as the knowledge that the show has been going on for so long.

“It’s very traditional, but it’s also inviting,” says Ansely Summer, a member of the Aiken Hounds who, at 19, has been competing in the Aiken Horse Show for nine years. “You feel very welcomed.”

Supporting the Woods

In 1939, several years after Louise Hitchcock died, her children Tommy Hitchcock and Helen Hitchcock Clark established the Hitchcock Foundation, putting over 1,000 acres of their mother’s beloved Woods into trust. Over the years, other benefactors have donated additional parcels, and today the Hitchcock Woods comprises 2,100 acres. The Hitchcock Woods Foundation manages the property, which is likely the largest privately owned urban forest in North America. The Woods are open to the community and access is free of charge.

If Louise Hitchcock wanted to show off the beauty of the Woods back in 1916, the horse show was an excellent vehicle for her goal. It still is. Although the Woods are open all year round to riders and walkers, the show gives people a reason to go into the forest, and an opportunity to appreciate its beauty. That appreciation is important because maintaining the woods and keeping it free and open to the community is a costly project. Unlike state or city owned parks, the Hitchcock Woods receives no operating support through any taxes.

The Aiken Horse Show is the main fundraiser for the Hitchcock Woods Foundation, providing
almost a third of the foundation’s income. The foundation is a 501c3 charitable institution and tax deductible contributions can be made at any time. Supporters are also encouraged to become a Friend of the Woods, which can be done for a donation of $50 a year. In addition, buying a railside parking spot, a table at the luncheon, or donating to or buying from the silent auction, will all help underwrite the foundation’s substantial yearly expenses.

In the end, the Aiken Horse Show is not just special, it is also important. As the primary fundraiser for the Woods, it helps keep them healthy and open to the public. It keeps old traditions alive and provides a sense of continuity in an ever-changing world. If the Hitchcock Woods are Aiken’s heart, it is the horse show that keeps that heart beating. Aiken is a unique place and these 2,100 unspoiled acres are among its primary assets. Without them, Aiken wouldn’t be Aiken.

To Know

Show dates: March 27, 28 & 29. Starting time: 9:00 a.m. daily. To watch the show: Drive to the entrance at the end of South Boundary Road. Follow the signs.

Tickets: General admission is free, but there is a $10 parking charge. Support the Woods and make a weekend of it by buying a railside parking spot ($100 per day) becoming a sponsor, or buying a luncheon package. Check the website for details and act quickly: space is limited.

Silent Auction: Drop items off at The Green House at the South Boundary Entrance. Email Jane Page Thompson with questions: To buy, come to the show with your checkbook.

Competitors: trailer parking is at the Stable on the Woods parking lot on Dibble Rd. Be prepared to hack in and stay a while. Water for your horses is available, but bring your own bucket.

Classes: Old fashioned hunter show classes, including a sidesaddle division, a qualified foxhunter division and a new and popular division for “silver foxes” over the age of 55. For kids: leadline on up. Costume class on Saturday afternoon is always a hit! The full class list is on the website.

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

Friday, February 13, 2015

Home Again: Palace Malice Back in Aiken

By Mary Jane Howell, photography by Gary Knoll

Everyone around him is in agreement: the Palace Malice that is in Aiken this winter is bigger, stronger and tougher than the colt that was here last year. He’s a 4-year-old with bragging rights, having won such races as the Belmont Stakes and Metropolitan Mile. If he were Rocky Balboa he would be throwing his arms up at the top of those famed steps in Philadelphia. His arena of choice is the Aiken Training Track.

The colt returned to Aiken on November 14, after a veterinary exam showed no signs of the bone bruise that had called an end to his 4-yearold campaign. Now owned by a partnership of Dogwood Stable and Three Chimneys Farm, Palace Malice will train in Aiken until mid- January and then be shipped to his trainer, Todd Pletcher, at Palm Beach Downs in Florida.

Cot Campbell, the president of Dogwood, is out most mornings to watch the stable’s star train and is quick to express his delight that Palace Malice is back in town.

“It did him a world of good to be brought back last year and have a bit of a working vacation, so a return to Aiken this time around to get legged-up made perfect sense,” explained Campbell. “Aiken has been so supportive of this horse and I think people get a kick out of coming to the track in the morning to watch him train.”

Training is what Palace Malice likes to do and he lets his team know it. When he first arrived in Aiken, his trainer Brad Stauffer had him simply walk a few times around the shedrow. The colt had been off for 60 days, so he had to be started slowly. At least that was the plan. Palace Malice was having none of it. So off he went to the track with his exercise rider Gene Tucker, accompanied by both Stauffer and Ron Stevens on ponies. The idea was to have several days of jogging and then eventually work up to a steady gallop.

Once again, the colt had other ideas. On one drizzly, cold November morning, Palace Malice reared, unseated his rider and headed off down the track at a gallop. Dogwood’s vice president, Jack Sadler slipped in the mud, losing his boots, glasses and hat as he tried to catch him. The sight of the vice-president on his belly on the track gave pause to Palace Malice’s run, and the colt walked up to Jack and stopped. Catastrophe averted.

Palace Malice goes to the track each morning at 8:30, jogs a turn around the oval and then gallops five-eighths of a mile. In the afternoons around 1:30 he is brought out of his stall for a walk, and if there is an audience he will throw his head up and pose when he hears the click of a camera.

“Last year we could take him over to where people were standing and let them feed him peppermints, but not this year,” said Stauffer. “He’s a different horse.”

Horses are creatures of habit, so the team at Legacy Stable has tried to make Palace Malice’s routine as much like last year’s as possible. He has the same stall, the same groom (Daniel Negrete) and the same rider. He is definitely “The Horse” around the barn and the track.

“If he is walking back to the barn and a set of horses is jogging towards us he puffs himself up and thinks about doing something,” said Tucker. Fortunately, Palace Malice has not acted on his impulses.

Dogwood and Three Chimneys Farm have released the names of the five races on Palace Malice’s schedule for 2015, beginning with the Westchester Handicap in May and culminating with the Breeders’ Cup at the end of October, which will be held for the first time at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky. Between these bookend races are the Metropolitan Mile, the Whitney and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The opportunity for Palace Malice to win back-to-back runnings of the Westchester and Metropolitan Handicap would place him in rarified company and further enhance his already impressive record.

Palace Malice has purse earnings of $2,676,135 as he heads into 2015 and his fourth year of racing. Upon completion of his racing career he will stand at stud at Three Chimneys Farm.

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

Friday, February 6, 2015

Ask The Judge: From Surprised

Questions About Dressage

With Amy McElroy

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

Dear Amy,

I recently competed in a recognized horse trials. I closely watched the rider in front of me perform her dressage test. Her horse broke gait several times during her ride. I performed my test error free. I was so surprised to see that she placed ahead of me in the class. How is that possible?


Dear Surprised,
It is wonderful that you had an error free test. In answer to your question, it is quite possible that the rider ahead of you deserved a better score. A mistake free test is a great thing, but to earn a high score you need much more than that.

First, I think you might not be clear on what the word "error" means in a dressage test. An error is not just a mistake. An error is when you perform something that is not prescribed by the test. For example, if you make a wrong turn, if you perform a movement at the wrong letter or you lose your place, that would be an error. An error will cost you a 2-point deduction for the first one, a 4-point deduction for the second one, and elimination for the third.

If, on the other hand, your horse simply breaks gait during a movement that you are performing in accordance with the test, this is not considered an error. This kind of mistake does not have a specific point dudction, but it will affect the score for the movement. Even if the horse breaks gait several times in one movement, this will only affect the score for that one scoring box on the test. If the horse breaks gait in more than one movement in a test, the score for each movement would be affected. Several breaks in gait should also be taken into consideration in the scores for the collective marks.

There are four collective marks: gaits, impulsion, submission and rider position. Breaking gait might affect the collective marks for submission and possibly for rider position and impulsion. The submission score might be lowered by a point or more. Many breaks in gait would show that your horse ahs issues with attention, ease and harmony, which are part of the directives for the submission score. The rider position score could be affected by a point or more as well, if the breaks in gait seem to have been caused by the rider: the effectiveness of the aids is part of the rider position score. The impulsion score might also be lowered by a point or more, since breaks in gait can indicate a loss of engagement, which is part of the directives for the impulsion score.

As with any dressage test, the whole picture tells the story. In each movement, the judge is observing how well the horse is able to use the training scale, as well as the accuracy and correct geometry of the test, and the ability of the horse to perform the prescribed movement. Judges are looking for clear rhythm with energy and tempo, relaxation with elasticity and suppleness, steady connection to the bit, acceptance of aids, lively impulsion with energy and thrust, straightness with alignment and balance, and (at higher levels) collection.

So, if you test was mistake free, you are halfway there. To learn more, it is important to read the comments that your judge gives on your test. You can pick up your copy of your test after your class has been scored and posted. You copy is often available at the show office, so look for it there. Tests are always avialable to riders, so check with the show manager if you don't find it. The test is yours to keep, but you have to know to pick it up. Be sure to read the collective marks and the "further remarks" section. Most judges take a few words to say what they enjoyed most about your ride and what they think your ride still needs to improve. This can be very helpful feedback, and should give you a better understanding of how your test was evaluated. For example, maybe your test was very accurate and you looked beautiful on your horse, but he was too unsteady in his connection to the bit and could have been moving more freely forward. These issues would definitely affect your score, even if the test was perfectly accurate with no breaks in gait and no errors.

Perhaps the horse in front of you had a break in gait (not an error) in one or two movements. That would warrant low scores in those two movements, maybe only a 4 in each. If the remainder of the test was performed well and consistent with the training scale, it is quite possible for that horse and rider combination to have a better overall score than you did. 

So before your next show, I encourage you to try to improve by reading the scores and remarks on your last test and start working on those areas that need continued improvement. When you ride a test, you should always be striving for a picture of harmony and ease. Your judge wants to see a horse and rider that are working together and are reliable and solid at the level in which they are performing. Keep practicing and try to wow your judge with your performance at your next show. 

Good luck!

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