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.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Balance in the Canter

By Lisa Pierson

Lisa Pierson explains how to balance your horse in the canter with exercises to improve engagement.

How Can I Balance My Horse in the Canter?

A few weeks ago my horse fell down with me when cantering through a corner. Ever since then, I’m afraid of cantering through corners. My horse, a 13-year-old Hanoverian, didn’t bolt, he just lost traction with his hind legs in the canter. He is 18 hands and has a huge stride. I’m a First Level rider, but he is trained to the FEI levels. How can I avoid this problem in the future? How can I get my horse sure-footed in the canter? Our indoor arena measures 20 by 60 meters.
Sam Cochran 
Petaluma, California

Lisa Pierson

It is a very scary and dangerous situation when a horse falls down. The first thing to consider is whether your horse is sound and strong enough to do his job, pain-free and without neurological problems. Neurological problems can affect your horse’s coordination, and pain and stiffness can make him reluctant to use his joints to bend and balance or load a sore limb. Back pain, neck pain as well as vision problems are all important to rule out. A veterinarian should evaluate your horse.

Most of our schoolmasters are older and may need extra care for their older bodies. They may also need extra time for loosening up. Fatigue also can make a horse struggle to balance himself. It is also important to consider the footing you work your horse on; slippery, wet, shifting or uneven footing can be very risky.

If your horse is able to longe, observe him on the longe line without tack. Watch him in the canter. Does he lose his balance? Does he have difficulty maintaining the canter? Is one direction worse than the other? Is he different with tack on when longeing? Ill-fitting tack can make a horse stiff or sore in his topline, inhibiting his ability or willingness to balance through his core.

Occasionally horses do lose their balance—tripping or misstepping, even falling down. The bigger, more powerful movers can be more difficult to keep in balance. The rider needs to be able to manage the amount of pushing power these horses have through the strength of their own position (core) and by using half halts to engage and collect the horse from behind. When the push from the horse’s hind legs is stiff and the hocks are out behind, this pushes the horse more on the forehand, downhill. You can usually feel this in your contact—very strong and heavy on your hands.

In the canter it can be even more difficult to keep a horse in balance because it is hard to keep the hindquarters level and not tilting (due to the inside hind leading ahead of the outside hind), twisting the hips up and out behind and causing loss of traction. Overflexing the neck can also cause the horse to lose traction much like turning the steering wheel of a car too sharply can cause the car to fishtail.

It’s best to use the Training Scale to problem-solve:

Rhythm: Does your horse lose rhythm or tempo in corners and on smaller circles by scrambling, stalling or rushing?

Suppleness and Relaxation: Does your horse stiffen or brace through his body or have tension through corners and circles?

Contact: Is your horse heavy on the forehand, leaning on your hands for balance instead of carrying himself?

Impulsion: The release (thrust) of energy should be stored by the engagement of the hind legs, not downhill speed.

Straightness: Is your horse able to bend through a corner or circle and stay level, with his hind legs on the same track as his shoulders (in alignment even while bending) or is he crooked, jackknifing and falling out through his shoulder or hind end?

Collection: Is your horse able to bring his hindquarters under his center of gravity to balance for a corner in the canter?

To properly ride your horse through corners, you need to half halt as you approach the corner, roughly 6 meters, or 20 feet, before the approaching arena wall, and you need to establish true bending that engages your horse’s inside hind leg to balance him for your turns, circles and corners.

Before turning, weight your inside seat bone by pushing your inside hip forward and lowering your inside knee, not collapsing your inside hip. This begins bending your horse’s body for the corner, with the inside leg at the girth to bring his inside hind leg farther forward.

The horse should be flexed slightly to the inside with the inside rein (you should be able to see his inside eye, but he should not be flexed past his inside shoulder). The outside rein prevents the horse’s outside shoulder from falling out but still allows him to flex to the inside. The rider’s outside leg, slightly behind the girth, keeps the hindquarters from swinging out. Remember that the horse’s hind feet must track in the path of the front feet, so the amount of bend you ask for cannot disturb this alignment.

Think of your corners as a quarter of a circle, however small you can accurately ride without losing the proper bend and alignment—20 meters, 15, 10 or 6. A shallower corner is safer until you can reliably ride smaller circles while maintaining steady bend, alignment and balance.

To build your confidence, you need to be able to engage your horse’s hind end to control his balance. Your position must be strong enough so that you hold your horse together through your leg and seat, not from your hands. The bigger the movement of your horse, the harder this can be to do.

The following exercises will improve engagement:

  • Ride transitions before your corners, teaching the horse to listen to your aids for coming back, then engage to go forward through the corner. 
  • Try riding a step or two of turn on the forehand at the walk before each corner to engage your horse’s inside hind leg for bending into corners.
  • Add an extra step or two in each corner in your canter to collect your horse. 
  • Maintain the tempo and rhythm in your canter while adding extra steps between letters or markers.
  • Ride transitions in shoulder-in. They are a great exercise for engaging your horse and maintaining the bend while collecting him.

Keep track of the tempo and rhythm when you are preparing your horse for a corner; slowing down becomes leaning, speeding up becomes downhill running. Neither of these accomplish better balance, although slowing down is safer.

Lisa Pierson is a USDF Certified Instructor through Fourth Level, a USDF “L” Education Program graduate and a USDF bronze and silver medalist. An FEI-level trainer and competitor, she is based in New York State.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in an article of  Dressage TodayIt is reprinted here by permission.