Monday, March 21, 2016

Jim Wofford's Modern Gymnastics: Gymnastic 1

By Jim Wofford
This first gymnastic from Jim Wofford's book introduces your horse to stepping over poles on the ground in an organized manner.

Gymnastic 1 is designed to introduce your horse to stepping over poles on the ground in an organized manner. Dressage horses can also benefit from this first gymnastic, because no jumping is involved. Your emphasis here should be on the rhythm of your horse's trot, and the calmness and regularity of his step as he negotiates the cavalletti. Your horse should step over the ground poles with relaxed back muscles, and his head and neck should lower slightly, in order for him to measure his step to the next pole.

The four exercises that comprise Gymnastic 1 will fit comfortably in a 75 x 150-foot (22.8 m x 45.7 m) arena.

After you have warmed your horse up at the walk, trot and canter, then trot into the exercise marked A in the diagram. Cavalletti set at this distance will produce a working trot for most horses. These exercises are all designed for horses with some jumping experience. If your horse is extremely green, he probably should not be attempting this exercise yet. However, if he is slightly inexperienced or is an experienced jumper but has not done much work over cavalletti, you can pull the first and third poles in towards the centerline of the arena. This will produce a 9-foot (2.7 m) distance between two poles. Horses find this exercise easier and will soon become stable and regular at the trot, which is always your goal. You can then put the four poles together as shown in the diagram and work in both directions over four of them on the ground. After you have established your horse's balance and rhythm here, you can proceed to the curved poles in Exercise B.

At the posting trot, proceed on a circle in either direction though B. Keep your horse's direction adjusted so that the length of his step on the curve feels the same as it did over A.

Once you and your horse have become adept at this, you can then start to enter, for example, closer to the 3-foot (90 cm) end of the poles where the distance is shorter, and then let your horse angle away from the center of the circle. This will cause him to go from a working trot to a medium trot or possibly, if your angle becomes too great, even take a couple of steps of extended trot. If your horse takes two steps between the poles or breaks into a canter, you have probably asked too much flexibility from him. Aim closer to the 3-foot (90 cm) end of the curve, and enter B again at the posting trot.

Alternatively, you can enter from the outside of B, where the rails are farther apart. This will cause your horse to take quite a large step at first. Guide your horse toward the 3-foot (90 cm) distance between the last two poles. This will bring your horse back to a working, or even a slightly collected, trot. Having worked in both directions over B, including being able to angle both ways, you can then proceed to Exercise C.

The poles positioned at C will produce the sensation of an extended trot and you may find that your horse cannot reach enough in his fourth step to get out over the last pole without "chipping in" an additional step. Simply remove the last pole and continue. You will find that, after a couple of days' work over cavalletti, your horse gets the message and you can replace the fourth pole. You should work in both directions over the 5-foot (1.5 m) poles at C until your horse can maintain his regularity and length of step.

After a short break, proceed to Exercise D.

These four rails on the ground, set at 4 feet (1.2 m) apart, will produce a collected trot. Although this exercise can be ridden either posting or sitting, you should definitely use a rising trot until your horse becomes adjusted to them. Using rising, rather than sitting, trot encourages your horse to lift his back while he elevates his step. In addition, it will be less complicated and will allow you to work on his cadence, rather than worrying about your position. Again, work both ways through D until your horse is relaxed and steady in his balance and rhythm. He should be able to deal with the rails without any interruption in the flow of his movement, changing only the length of his step to adapt to the various distances that you have put in his path.

After another break, you can now link these four elements together in order to produce various transitions that will be of great benefit in teaching your horse to be flexible. For example, enter A on the right hand in a working trot, where the rails are 4-foot-six (1.35m) apart. As you leave A, turn right in such a fashion that you produce an arc through B that causes your horse to change the length of his step from working to collected trot. In other words, start exercise B from the outside in. This will put your horse into a slightly collected frame. Proceed directly then to C, which will produce an extended trot. After the extended trot at C, turn right and enter the shorter cavalletti at D.

If your horse has difficulty with this, you can do A, B and C as I have described and then, in a posting trot, circle (or repeat a circle until your horse has settled down to a working trot), turn and enter D, thus producing a collected trot. If you have successfully done this, walk, reward your horse and let him relax and consider his effort while you plan your next series of repetitions through these exercises. When you resume the posting trot, work in both directions and vary the relationship between the exercises to improve and confirm your horse's flexibility.

Take a moment to remind yourself of your horse's bad habits. If he tends to rush at the trot, he will not need too many applications of C. He should come from outside in rather from inside out at B, as this will cause him to continually rebalance and collect his step rather than rushing forward. If, on the other hand, your horse is choppy-strided or lazy, a bit more emphasis on and a few more repetitions at B, going from inside out, will teach him to lengthen his step. The total amount of exercise over these rails in any one period should not exceed 45 minutes, including the periods of rest between exercises.

Excerpted from Modern Gymnastics: Systematic Training for Jumping Horses by Jim Wofford. $24.95 

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in EQUUS Magazine. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Ask the Judge | Calm Me Confused

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 am planning to ride Fourth Level Test 3 at my next competition. I do not understand how to ride the new double rein-back movement. Can you explain to me what it should look like and how to ride it correctly?

Call me Confused.


Dear Confused,

It’s very exciting that you and your horse have advanced this far in your dressage training. Your question refers to Fourth Level Test 3, Movement 6. This movement reads as follows on your USDF test sheet:

C. Halt, rein-back four steps walk forward four steps rein-back four steps – proceed collected trot.

This is a new movement for the 2015 Fourth Level Test 3, which is currently the only test to ask for it. However it is a movement that appeared in previous FEI level tests, which gives an idea of its degree of difficulty. This rein-back series is better known in the dressage world as the Schaukel (“swing” in German) because your horse is supposed to move forward and backward fluidly like a swing.

The definition of this movement from the FEI Judge Handbook reads “This is a combination of two rein-backs with walk steps in between. It should be executed with fluid transitions and the required number of steps.” When performing this movement, it is important to remember the aims and the essentials of the rein-back. The aim is to demonstrate submissiveness and thoroughness as well as improving collection.

The directives for this movement, according to the USDF test sheet, state “straight, immobile halt, willing straight steps with correct count, clear transitions.”

The essentials are (adapted from the FEI Judge Handbook) 1) Regularity, relaxation, suppleness, contact; 2) Quality of transitions in and out of the rein-back both times; 3) Submission and willingness to accept the aids; 4) Self-carriage, collection and balance; 5) Straightness, accuracy and number of steps. 6) The halt: squareness and immobility.

There is a halt at the beginning of this movement, but there are no halts between the backward and the forward steps, or between the final backward steps and the collected trot.

When you start this movement, make sure your horse is square and over the letter C. Maintain your halt for a solid three seconds before initiating the start of the swing. Then take four steps backward, and immediately take four steps forward, and then immediately take four steps backward. Immediately pick up the collected trot.

So, how do we count the steps? In this movement, there are a total of 12 steps. The number is counted by the number of times that the front feet touch the ground. (e.g., left fore, right hind (1); right fore, left hind (2); left fore, right hind (3); right fore, left hind (4)). A common fault in this movement is not taking the correct number of steps, often because the rider does not know the correct way to count, or because it is simply difficult to be this precise. It takes a great deal of control to keep your horse straight and moving fluidly as he moves backward and forward. The most important aspect of the swing is the horse’s fluency to change directions.

To prepare for the swing, first be sure that your horse can back comfortably and obediently. In a correct rein-back, the legs step back in diagonal pairs and should not be set down parallel to one another. The swing should not be attempted until the horse is skilled enough in his training to perform a single rein-back calmly and willingly.

To get your best score, make sure that your halt is square, exactly placed and held for a clear three seconds. Make sure that your backing is fluent and that you count the correct number of steps. Strive for your transitions to be prompt and smooth throughout. Your horse should show no resistance or hesitation. Your horse should be on the bit and the picture of absolute willingness. According to Janet Foy, a United States FEI Four Star judge “The rein-back is a wonderful tool to help put the horse more naturally on the hindquarters. The rein-back should always be forward thinking and never used as a punishment.”

When correctly performed, the Schaukel demonstrates your horse’s obedience and advanced training. I hope this clarifies what the movement is and how to ride it properly. Good luck!

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

Friday, March 11, 2016

The Horse: An Epic History

A Scientific Look at Horses

By Pam Gleason

Photos by Greg Auger

The Horse, an Epic History of Our Noble Companion, published October 2015 by Scientific American/Farrar Straus and Giroux, is a different kind of horse book. From the outside, the book does not look especially out of the ordinary. Start to read, however, and you will discover that it is. There are many horse books that discuss how to ride, care for or handle horses. There are others that offer beautiful pictures and tributes to the horse as a noble figure. Then there is a growing body of biographical horse books – think Seabiscuit and the Eighty Dollar Champion. But there are few books that offer an accessible scientific look at horses. This book fills that gap.

The Horse is a natural history, starting with the cat-like prehistoric horse ancestor Eohippus, the dawn horse. According to the fossil record, Eohippus originated in the Wyoming area about 56 million years ago. The modern horse evolved in North America, and spread into Europe through Beringia, a vast grassland steppe that once connected the two continents. Then, about 11 million years ago, horses disappeared from the new world and wouldn’t return until Cortez brought them on his ships from Spain in the 1500s.

Why did horses disappear from North America? The book explores some of the controversies that still rage among paleontologists. Were horses hunted to extinction? After all, humans appeared in North America at about the same time the horses vanished. Or could their decline and  disappearance have more to do with the changing climate and landscape of the continent? The latter seems to be more likely, but proponents of the alternative view can be surprisingly vehement in their belief.

Moving on from equine evolution, the book covers some aspects of early horse art – carved figures and cave paintings, all evidence of the long association between people and horses. Less romantically, this association is demonstrated in archeological sites that prove that people of the Ice Age hunted and ate horses in great numbers. The discussion of the growing partnership between the two species continues, but stays focused on the natural history of the horse, rather than on how horses helped humans or functioned in civilization. For instance, there is some exploration of when and how horses became domesticated, and of how their anatomy evolved in such a way as to make their backs uniquely suited to riding, but there is no explanation of the evolution of riding styles, or of when horses were used to pull plows or cannons. 

Finally, the book touches on some more recent events in the history of the horse/human relationship, as well as research into the workings of the equine mind. Although horses have had a long and intimate partnership with humans, they have not been the subject of much scientific inquiry until very recently. Even now, there are not many studies of the way horses perceive the world and how they think. Most scientists who are doing research on horses have done it as a sideline to their primary work. These scientists include Brian Timney, a Canadian vision researcher who has demonstrated that equine long distance vision acuity is about two thirds as good as a human distance vision, which puts them ahead of the other non-primate animals studied so far.

All of this material could be dense and difficult to take in, but it isn’t. The book is written in a conversational style and leavened with personal anecdotes and interesting facts about horses. Why are the wild horses of the Camargue in France white? Most likely because horse flies, endemic in the marshes where they live, are less attracted to light colored horses and so the white ones thrived while the darker ones did not. (Anyone who has ever been on a trail ride with a white horse and a dark colored one might agree with this interpretation.) Who is in charge of wild horse herds, the stallions or the mares? Folklore says the stallions, but wild horse biologists say the mares – the stallions are flashy, but they are essentially “drama queens” while the mares quietly run the show. Mares that live in one band of wild horses have even been known to sneak off to another stallion to breed with him, and then return to their own bands to have their foals. 

Wendy Williams, the book’s author, is a lifelong horsewoman who has owned and ridden many different types of horse in her life. She grew up with American Saddlebreds in Pennsylvania, starting to ride at the age of 5. She rode through high school and college, and then gave horses up to go to Senegal where she was a Peace Corps volunteer. Upon her return, she embarked on a journalism career, working mostly for newspapers and doing a stint as a high-end travel writer. Her equestrian resume includes riding and showing hunters as well as playing arena polo in New England. Details about her own partnership with horses run through the book as a leitmotif, mostly centered on Whisper, a horse she owned when she was 20. An “equine Einstein,” Whisper knew how to open his stall door with his lips and turn on the water faucet with his hooves. “I’ve never been a  professional horseman,” she says. “But at one time I was immersed in the world of horses and quite happy.”

Although Wendy says she does not have a horse now (her work has kept her too busy) her lifelong fascination with horses was the impetus for writing the book. Aside from wanting to contribute a scientific work to the equestrian library, she also wanted to make sense of some of her own experiences with horses throughout her life.

“I think a lot about the horses that I have had in my past, and wonder a lot about them, and like so many people when they get older, I regret that I didn’t do things better,” she says. “I don’t think I understood them enough. I was taught to ride in a show horse barn when I was very young, and it was not an enlightened time. My education taught me to think of the horse as a tool, and it took a long time for me to grow out of that and think of horses as beings with thoughts and feelings like my dog. Once I started thinking that, I wondered where that question would take me.”

As it turned out, the question would take her on a journey around the world, to Mongolia, Spain, France, Germany, Austria and many parts of America. There, she visited and learned from people conducting research in many different areas, from paleontology and archeology to the evolution and behavior of wild horses in various regions. 

“Sitting down and writing the book after all this research was really fun,” she says. “It was interesting to see how everything fit together. I knew I wanted to understand evolution – why the horse started with five toes and ended up with one hoof, for instance. The biggest takeaway I got from the research I did for this book is that the horse that we have in the world today was not inevitable, and it’s important for us to treasure the wonderful gifts that we have.

“The other thing is that when I was a kid I was taught that the horse had a brain the size of a walnut. As I worked on this book I came to understand that that is completely incorrect. The horse is much smarter than I was taught as a child, and he would have to be to have survived for 56 million years. I think we often do not give the horse enough credit.”

Wendy also came away from writing the book with a renewed appreciation for the partnership between horses and people, and a belief that the domestication of horses, like the domestication of dogs, was not just a one way street. Horses may have chosen to be with people almost as much as people chose to be with horses, and our similarities are at least partially responsible for our attraction.

“There’s a triumvirate of horses, dogs and humans that traveled through the world together,” she says. “My opinion is that this is because we have very similar biology to begin with, and our biology in particular makes us interested in small groups. Research on wild horses tells us that horses don’t live in herds; they live in bands and they have relationships within those small bands, just like humans do and just like dogs do. So there is a built in circuitry that allows horses and humans to be together just the same way as it allows humans and dogs to be together. I wanted to help people see that, and help them see that both of our species weathered some pretty difficult things in the history of our life on this planet. We have a lot in common, and we are so similar.

“The American Museum of Natural History used to have as its emblem a skeleton of a rearing horse side by side with a skeleton of a human reaching up to his shoulder. I think that’s really a good symbol for our evolutionary partnership and for our partnership in the world today.”

The Horse: The Epic History of our Noble Companion is available in Kindle and hardcover editions. Find it online or at your local bookstore, and join the community on the book’s Facebook page. 

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

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

EQUUS Consultants: Proud Flesh

How to prevent proud flesh.

Question: What is the best way to prevent proud flesh from forming in wounds below the knee? I've been told by some people not to use water on wounds below the knee, but others tell me it is the best thing. Also, my gelding has been licking a wound on my filly. Do you think that might promote proud flesh?

Answer: Proud flesh is the excessive growth of granulation tissue within a wound that inhibits closure of the skin. In severe cases, proud flesh can protrude well beyond the original wound and become a target of parasites and infection.

Proud flesh is a common complication of wounds at or below the knee and hock, but most heal without incident if they are handled properly at the beginning. This means thoroughly cleaning the wound, taking care to remove irritants such as metal particles, rope fibers and dead tissue (especially bone, tendon or ligament). Beyond that, you can reduce the chances that proud flesh will develop by keeping the wound clean and protecting it from

  • rubbing, licking, biting and contact with pasture vegetation, sand or gravel; 
  • disturbance caused by motion that opens and closes the gap in the skin; 
  • flies and other creatures that will attempt to feed on or infect the site.Clean water will not cause or worsen proud flesh. In fact, hosing may be the best way to remove surface debris and reduce local wound swelling. Bandaging helps reduce adverse influences but does not speed the healing process or prevent the formation of proud flesh. The best way to prevent proud flesh is to ensure that all of the above criteria are met and if you do notice it forming, call your veterinarian right away to assess the situation before it gets a half-inch or more above the wound edges.If another horse is attracted to a wound as you describe, it usually indicates the presence of aromatic exudate produced in response to a foreign body, dead tissue or parasites. The licking itself is not a big problem, but the reason behind it most certainly is. In most cases, licking indicates the presence of the "summer sore" organism, Cutaneous Habronemiasis. Flies deposit these worm larvae in wounds on the head and lower extremities. They prevent healing, causing the wound to become round in shape and bulge slightly above the surrounding skin. I would suggest having your veterinarian take a look at your filly's wound and then keeping her in a stall or corral until it has healed.

Matthew Mackay-Smith, DVM, is the EQUUS Medical EditorThis article first appeared in EQUUS, issue 289.

This article is copyrighted and first appeared in EQUUS Magazine. It is reprinted here by permission.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Pierre Cousyn Dressage

Aiken's Newest Dressage Trainer

By Pam Gleason

Photography By Gary Knoll

Pierre Cousyn, born and raised in France, is a Grand Prix dressage trainer and instructor who moved to Aiken in the fall. A graduate of the French National School of Equitation at Saumur, he has two diplomas: one that certifies him as a teacher and trainer, and an advanced degree that shows that he is qualified to be a trainer of trainers. After arriving here in October, he purchased property at Three Runs Plantation and looks forward to building a home and offering his services to Aiken’s horse people. 

“I heard so many good things about Aiken,” says Pierre, who comes most recently from Wellington, Florida. “When I learned that dressage was not as big here as some of the other disciplines, I thought there was an opportunity. Maybe there is a demand for a good dressage trainer . . and I am hoping that my thought will pay off.”

Having obtained two diplomas from Saumur puts Pierre in elite company. The prestigious school has a limited number of places for students – just to be accepted is an accomplishment. The curriculum is rigorous and includes several different disciplines: Although now Pierre specializes in dressage, he studied and competed in eventing and showjumping as well. Throughout his dressage career, he has also worked with some of the top names in the sport in France, Germany, Switzerland and the United States. His resume includes letters of recommendation from such luminaries as Philippe Karl (the founder of the French “School of Lightness”) and G√ľnter Siedel, the German-born dressage rider who has competed on the U.S. Olympic team for many years. 

Although his equestrian credentials are impeccable, Pierre says that he does not come from a family that had horses – quite the opposite in fact. Growing up in Lille, a city in the north of France near the Belgian border, he got involved with horses by chance when he started riding with the pony club at the age of 9. As he explains it, the pony club was a low cost riding school for children.

“It was very popular, because it was accessible to anybody,” he says. “What was really good was that it was bareback. It was group lessons, and we did a lot of games, all on ponies. You had to prepare your own pony for the lesson, so it developed horsemanship all around, and it made you really brave and gave you a really good seat.”

At 14, Pierre graduated from pony club and started taking lessons at the local riding school, which was run by a retired cavalry officer. 

“My father didn’t want me to go into the horse business,” says Pierre. “He wanted me to go to college and he thought the horse business was the wrong direction. But all I wanted to do was be with horses. The school was about ten kilometers away, and I had to go by myself on the bicycle – rain, snow, it didn’t matter – and I traded work at the stable for my lessons. It was a good thing, because if you didn’t want it enough, you just quit. I didn’t care about the snow and the cold. I just cared about the horses.”

Before long, it was time for him to apply to Saumur and in 1981, he went there for the first time. The riding school was run by the military and it was very strict and tough. It included a great deal of academic work – biology, physiology, anatomy and riding theory – as well as all aspects of horse care and riding. 

“We had five lessons a day, always on a different horse. Lots of work on the seat, work without stirrups. And it was all free, supported by the government. This was fantastic for me. I could have access to this wonderful education, where everyone had the same chance. You could be a millionaire, but you couldn’t come with your own horse. They gave everybody the same horses.”

After receiving his first degree, Pierre says he went out on his own to teach and train, explaining that you were required to teach for three years before you could return to Saumur for the advanced degree. Again, admission was highly selective, with just 15 openings. Pierre was admitted at the top of his class.

After receiving his second degree, he continued work as a freelance instructor and trainer. At that time, dressage was dominated by the Germans, and larger, heavier warmbloods were in vogue. Pierre, who had been trained exclusively in the French school of dressage created for a lighter horse, began to feel that he was missing some training tools, and so he went to Germany to study the German system. 

“I learned a lot,” he says. “There were things I liked and things I didn’t like. So I thought why not take the best of both schools, and I started to mix both. Today, I try to teach classical principles, but modern dressage. Classical rules are very rigid; modern dressage respects more the biomechanics of the horse.”

Pierre first came to the United States one winter about 20 years ago on what was supposed to be a vacation. He was working in Switzerland where it was very cold and damp, and he decided to go to California to find some better weather. Before he left, he placed a small ad in a California dressage publication to say that a French dressage rider was coming and would like to meet dressage people. He got five responses, including an invitation to give a clinic in Napa Valley. He went, gave the clinic, and found himself traveling around the state to teach.

“I fell in love with California. And when I came home, I had a job offer in the Napa Valley.”

And so about a year later, he moved to the California. There, he  trained and taught for many years. He also met and married his former wife, Elizabeth Ball, a dressage rider who represented the U.S. on the silver-medal-winning team at the Pan Am Games in 1995. When that marriage ended after five years, Pierre stayed in California, continuing to work as a freelance trainer. Then one day, he got bucked off by a client’s horse and needed surgery.

“I started having my doubts about freelance,” he says. “Overnight, I had no income. I started thinking I needed to prepare for the future and needed to have my own farm. But it was very expensive to buy in California.”

Hearing that land was more economical on the East Coast, he went to work at a stable in New York (“I didn’t like it – it was too cold,”) and then relocated to Florida, where he bought property in Wellington. He stayed there for about five years, but was not happy with the hot and humid weather, or with the fact that the area offered few opportunities to ride out of the ring.

“Aiken is a nice compromise between New York, where it is too cold and Florida, where it is too hot. And it is more open, and you can turn your horses out and go hacking in the woods. It is much better for the horse. For me, immobility is the worst medicine for the horse.”

As far as his teaching and training philosophy goes, Pierre believes in the basics and in classical principles. He says he prefers to do much of his work at the walk because this promotes calmness and relaxation in the horse and makes it easier to teach him new things. He has a step-bystep approach and believes that most training problems can be solved by taking things slowly and making sure that the horse understands what is being asked of him.

“My horse is my student,” he says. “I am the teacher and my job is to  be the best teacher I can be. If my horse doesn’t understand, I believe it is my fault. It is always the rider’s fault. Always. And by thinking this way, you are going to be the best rider you can be, because it forces you to think, to use your brain and not your muscles. If I want to challenge my muscles, I go to the gym. I like dressage because it challenges my brain, not my muscles. If my horse has a problem with something, I reexplain. If he still doesn’t understand, I change my explanation. It’s the same with people.”

Pierre says that he enjoys competition and believes that showing is an excellent motivator and a way for riders to evaluate their progress. But for him, dressage itself is more about training the horse and rider to be the best that they can be. Although he certainly enjoys having students who ride at the upper levels, he is also happy to teach lower level riders, beginners and people from different disciplines.

“I have two conditions: you have to be open-minded and you have to be motivated. I don’t care what level you are or your horse is, as long as you want to learn. I was teaching somebody once who rode a mule – the principle is the same.

“The beauty of dressage is that you don’t have to have a fancy horse,” he continues. “You can take any kind of horse and teach any horse to be on the bit and relaxed. The most important thing is the relationship between you and your horse.”

Pierre Cousyn is available to come to your barn to teach. Or make arrangements for lessons at Three Runs Plantation.

For more information, visit his website:

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