Friday, June 30, 2017

Breeding in Aiken

Breeding in Aiken 

The Foals of 2017 

Stories & Photography by Pam Gleason

Aiken has long had a reputation as a place to train young horses. It has not, however, always been considered a great place for horse breeding. Until fairly recently, most of the horses training in Aiken were actually bred somewhere else. Ask an American horseman where the best place is for breeding, and the first response will probably be Kentucky. Virginia and Maryland may not be far behind. There are many people who will tout the advantages of upstate New York, Pennsylvania, various parts of Colorado, Texas and even Florida. Aiken is unlikely to make the top-ten list.

That is changing, however, driven by the recent influx of year round horsemen. In earlier times, Aiken’s equestrian world tended to be seasonal. Horsemen from colder parts of the country came down for the winter, bringing their horses with them to train in the mild climate. When spring came, they returned home, taking their horses with them. If they had a breeding program, they would arrive back North just in time to see their broodmares foal out at home. They would spend the summer watching their foals cavorting on rich summer pastures. It is little wonder that these horsemen did not consider breeding in Aiken. If they did, they would not have been around to see their babies grow up.

Now that so many horsemen have moved to Aiken permanently, breeding here is getting a second look and a new life. Aiken has an immense diversity of equestrian disciplines, and the foals born in the area represent that diversity well. There are polo ponies and racehorses, European warmbloods and Spanish horses, Saddlebreds and Arabians, Quarter horses and show ponies. Some of the breeders here have well-established commercial operations, while others breed a few mares a year. Still others are amateur horse owners, breeding their favorite mare for the simple pleasure of seeing her legacy carried on to the next generation.

Many of the people who breed horses in Aiken acknowledge that it has some drawbacks. The main problem people note is the quality of the summer grass, which is generally not considered to be as good as it is in Kentucky or Virginia. Kentucky in particular is famous for its lush bluegrass pastures as well as for soil that is rich in limestone, which is said to help young horses develop sturdy bones. Pasture grass in Aiken tends to be Bermuda or Bahia, which can have excellent nutritional value, but tends to be at least somewhat mineral poor, reflecting the quality of our soil. As a result, many mares and foals in Aiken will require hay, grain and supplements throughout the year, even if they are on pasture all the time.

“A lot of people get hung up on the grass,” says Del Walton, who breeds polo ponies at Walton Farm in Blackville outside of Aiken. “And yeah, I can see that. Maybe the grass isn’t as rich as it is in Kentucky or Virginia, and maybe you are going to have to feed more hay. But the grass is just one plus. I think if you add up all the plusses and minuses, Aiken is better. If you take care of your pastures here you can get the grass pretty rich. And it doesn’t get so cold here in the winter and you can plant winter grass and have your horses on fresh grass all year. In Kentucky and Virginia, it snows and you’re going to have to feed hay in the winter anyway. So the way I see it, the only benefit you have somewhere like Virginia is in the summers. The rest of the year, you’re somewhere where the land costs more, and the expense of living is more, the taxes are higher and you are far away from Florida, which is where the market is.”

Another relatively new benefit to breeding in Aiken is that the local veterinary community provides an exceptional depth of talent and expertise when it comes to equine reproduction. Nearly all the latest breeding technologies are now available in Aiken, including such things as embryo transfer, which has become almost commonplace. (This is the practice of breeding a valuable mare and then flushing out her embryo to transfer into the uterus of a designated “recipient” broodmare.) Those who stand stallions at stud can do cooled or frozen semen and even ship it internationally. Embryos can be frozen to be stored for another year, or shipped across the country. Other advanced treatments for equine infertility that are available locally include ICSI (Intra-Cytoplasmic Sperm Injection), which involves removing an egg from a mare, fertilizing it, and then implanting it into (usually) another mare who will carry the foal to term. ICSI has been used to treat human infertility for a long time, and has now made its way into the equine reproduction field.

Another relatively new technology that is available right here in Aiken is genetic testing of embryos, which is often done in conjunction with embryo transfer.

“We can test embryos for genetic diseases, and remove embryos that are carrying these diseases from the gene pool,” says Dr. Sabrina Jacobs, the owner of Performance Equine Vets in Windsor. “We can test for the sex and the color, too. This allows breeders to plan their foal crop. For instance, say they are hoping to have a colt this year; through genetic testing, we can be sure that the embryo we are implanting is a colt. We might save an embryo that is a filly for another year. It means that we won’t be creating any unwanted foals.”

Considering all that Aiken has to offer, it is no wonder that breeding is becoming more common here. With so many foals being born and raised in Aiken’s stables and pastures, we thought it might be interesting to go out and meet a few of the ones born here this year, take their pictures and learn something about their stories, which is what we have done.

In the following feature, we will introduce you to four foals of 2017. They are horses and ponies of four different breeds and they will be headed in very different directions in the coming months and years. Our plan is to follow up with these foals once or twice a year to trace their progress and see how each one develops. We have no idea where this project will lead us, or if it will even work out at all. In this way, it is a little like horse breeding itself. According to the old adage, you breed the best to the best and hope for the best. We certainly hope for the best for these four foals, and for the breeders who will be investing so much time, energy and passion into their care and training.

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

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Questions About Dressage

With Amy McElroy

Amy McElroy is an FEI competitor, an a USEF S judge. She is qualified to officiate at any USEF recognized national show at all dressage levels. She rides, trains and teaches at Fair Lane 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, or visit her website:

Dear Amy,

I am an eventer who competes at the Training Level. It was recommended to me to try some dressage shows to help me improve my scores in that phase. Could you give any suggestions, and tell me what differences I might expect between a dressage test in eventing and at a USDF dressage show?

Eventer Chick

Dear Eventer 

Entering a USDF dressage show is a great way to help you concentrate on the dressage portion of your sport. We see many event riders competing at our USDF dressage shows – I have even seen the wellknown Advanced Level event rider Jan Byyny competing at USDF shows in Wellington, Florida.

If you are riding at the Training Level in events, you would be able to compete at First Level in dressage; First Level Test 1 is most similar to Training Level Event test A or B. Let’s look at which things are the same and which things are different between the two sports in these tests.

What is the same; Eventing Training A &B; USDF First Level Test 1: 

1. All trot work may be done rising or sitting unless otherwise stated.
2. All tests include 15-meter circles in the trot and canter.
3. All have trot-canter and canter-trot transitions.
4. All have trot and canter lengthenings.
5. All have a 20-meter “stretchy” circle (a circle in which the rider allows “the horse to stretch forward and down while maintaining light contact.”)
6. In all tests, half points can be used for scoring.
7. In all tests, you are eliminated if you have three errors.
8. All allow 45 seconds to enter the arena once the bell has sounded.
9. In all tests, you are required to wear protective headgear.
10. Your judge will be evaluating your ride in your event test in the same way as in your dressage test. This means that your judge will confirm that your horse demonstrates correct basics and has developed some thrust to achieve improved balance and “thoroughness” while maintaining a more consistent contact with the bit.

What is different: Eventing Training A &B; USDF First Level Test 1: 

1. The eventing test is held in a small (20 meter by 40 meter) arena; the dressage test is held in a large (20 meter by 60 meter) arena.
2. In the eventing test, you always enter down the centerline and start your test immediately. In the dressage test, you always enter down the centerline, halt at X and salute your judge before you continue with your test.
3. In the eventing test the only coefficient (a movement where points count double) is for the free walk. In the dressage test there are three movements with a coefficient of two. These are the free walk, the stretchy circle and the transition from trot to canter going to the left.
4. In the eventing test, the entire test needs to be performed by memory. In the dressage test, you may do your test by memory, or you may have a caller at ringside to read your test aloud, and there is no deduction in points for this.
5. In the eventing test, there are four scoring boxes with collective marks
(gaits, impulsion, submission and rider position.) In the dressage test, there are five boxes with collective marks. There are two boxes for the rider, one for the position and seat, and the other for the correct and effective use of aids. The remaining boxes are the same (gaits, impulsion and submission) except that impulsion and submission each have a coefficient of two.
6. In the eventing tests the average ride time is four minutes. In the dressage test, the average ride time is five minutes.
7. In the eventing test, you are striving for the lowest possible final score which is expressed in penalty points: in the 20s, for instance. In the dressage test you are looking for the highest possible final score, which is expressed as a percentage, in the 70s for instance.
8. In the eventing test, if a horse or a rider falls, the rider will be penalized but will not be eliminated. In the dressage test, if a horse or a rider falls, the rider is eliminated.
9. In an eventing test, you have 45 seconds to enter the arena after the bell has rung: if you enter after 45 seconds but before 90 seconds, you will get a 2-point penalty. In a dressage test, if you don’t enter the arena within 45 seconds after the bell has run, you will be eliminated.
10. You are never allowed to perform a dressage test while your horse is wearing boots or bandages. If you forget to take them off in an eventing test, your judge will stop you and allow you to remove the illegal equipment; you will be penalized 2 points. In a dressage test, if you accidentally ride into the ring with illegal equipment, you will be eliminated immediately.

The good news about dressage shows is that they are often multiday competitions and you can ride the same test once each day. You can enter up to three different dressage tests per day, as long as you are riding under Fourth Level. (In eventing, you only get one chance to do a dressage test per horse, per show.) Even though First Level Test 1 most resembles your Training Level eventing test, you would be qualified to try any of the USDF Training Level Tests, of which there are three. You might want to try First Level Test 2 or 3, which have some movements you might see in your eventing Preliminary Level tests. You are even allowed to compete at two consecutive levels in the same dressage show.

I hope you take advantage of all the dressage shows available here in Aiken and in our neighboring cities and states. All the extra rides down the centerline are sure to give you and your horse much exposure and experience, which are bound to help you achieve your eventing goals. After all, a good dressage score can set the stage for exceptional performances in the jumping phases, giving you a solid boost up the leaderboard.

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

Ask the Judge

Questions about Dressage

With Amy McElroy

Amy McElroy is an FEI competitor, a USEF R judge, and a USEF S judge candidate. She is qualified to officiate at any USEF recognized show at all national dressage levels. She rides, trains and teaches at Fair Lane 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, or visit her website:

Dear Amy,

I am showing in Novice Eventing Test B. My question is this: How do you judge the canter departs? It says canter “between A and F” and “between A and K.” Where exactly are you expected to make the departure, and how much does the canter after the departure count? My friend says that the score is for the departure only and that the canter itself does not count because there is no labeled scoring box for it, but this does not sound right to me. Is this true? 

Dear Canter,

This is a great question for all dressage competitors. Everything you do in the arena is being appraised. It is important that all riders understand what the judge is looking for and how he or she arrives at your final score. At the lower levels, including all Novice eventing tests, the canter departs are regularly asked for between the markers rather than at exact letters. This allows the greener horse and/or rider a chance to have more preparation to make their transitions on demand. Before we talk about scoring for this particular movement, let’s review the number scale that dressage judges use. Scoring goes from 0 through 10, including half scores (7.5, for example.) Here are the numerical scores and what they mean:

0 The movement was not executed 
1 Very bad
 2 Bad 
3 Fairly Bad 
4 Insufficient 
5 Marginal 
6 Satisfactory 
7 Fairly Good 
8 Good 
9 Very Good 
10 Excellent

This can be a very difficult scale to understand. If you are getting sixes and sevens, this means you are on the right track and the final score of your test would probably be between 30 and 40 points, which will put you on good footing going into the jumping phases. Scores above 8 are hard to attain; if you are regularly getting 8s, this would make your dressage score in the 20s or below. This would likely put you at the top of the leaderboard before the jumping phases.  

In the canter departs required in Novice Test B, you are permitted to make the transition anywhere between the designated letters. As far as the accuracy goes, you could earn a 10 no matter where between the two letters you pick up the canter. Being centered would be very impressive however, so striving to make the depart exactly midway between the markers is most desirable.

The placement of the departure is only one small part of how your score is determined. In this case, placement would be considered a “modifier.” In the transition, the main criterion is the “essence,” how your horse gets into the canter. Your judge will be looking for willingness, promptness, steady connection to the bit, balance, and, of course, the correct lead. The directives in your test state “calmness and smoothness of depart.” Some problems include your horse speeding up before the departure (running into the canter), getting the wrong lead and not making a correction, not making the depart between the two letters (a very delayed canter depart) or not getting the canter at all.

Your judge will take the training scale into consideration with every score. Once your judge has arrived at the score for the essence of the canter, then the modifiers will come into consideration. These may affect your score from plus or minus .5 to 1 point, or possibly more. Modifiers in this case include the placement of the departure and the quality of the canter on the long side after the canter depart until the point where the next movement begins. On the long side, your judge will be looking to see if you are able to maintain the canter and correct lead while assessing the canter’s quality, balance and tempo. The gait should be a clear three beat and the horse should not fall on his forehand or quicken his pace. The rider needs to keep connection, with the horse remaining steady to the bit and straight from nose to tail. Common faults include the horse overbending its head, neck or forehand to the inside or outside and the haunches swinging in. 

Unless something extreme occurs (bolting, bucking, breaking the gait, strong resistance to the bit) the modifiers should have a minimal effect on your score, but they will have some. The formula your judge uses to derive every score in your test includes: B: Basics: gaits, impulsion and submission C: Criteria: essence: did you get it done? M: Modifiers: the small stuff; the “connecting tissue” between the movements So, to arrive at a number to put in the scoring box, the judge uses this formula: B+C+/-M=Final Score In conclusion, in Novice Test B, you should promptly attain the correct lead as centered between the two letters as you can, keeping in mind that the depart alone will not determine your final score. And yes, to answer your question, the canter down the long side most definitely will be included to determine your final mark for this box, so strive for a cadenced, balanced canter with your horse calm, relaxed and straight from head to tail. I hope this gives you a better understanding of how judges evaluate your performance. Remember, everything you do in the arena is being evaluated and every stride you take will affect your test and score. Doing your best and presenting an impression of harmony and ease no matter what the test or the level will put you in the best position to achieve your dressage goals. Good luck!

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

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

The Language of Horses

It takes time to build a language both you and your horse understand. But by rewarding small steps in the right direction, you will advance your goal, and pretty soon you’ll be having a great conversation.

Have you ever been awestruck by the sight of horses running together, galloping, synchronized side by side and turning together as one? For me, communication between a rider and horse should have that unity; it is all about becoming a herd of two.

My first impressions about how horses communicate with each other in the herd began on the ranch when I was a teenager. I didn’t know or understand it then, but the “cavvy” (the cowboy’s herd of riding horses) and its interactions would set the groundwork for my lessons in intent and change the way I saw horse training forever. Back then, I didn’t get the subtle communication happening be-tween the horses right in front of me, let alone apply their valuable lessons when I tried to communicate with a horse. However, what I saw then influences how I play with horses today, now that I can interpret what the cavvy was saying.

As a working cowboy, one of the most memorable and exciting things I did each day was to “jingle” horses. Jingling the horses simply means to go round up the cavvy before sunrise to get them ready for the day’s work, and it is a job often given to the newest member of the crew. Our cavvy was a herd of 40 horses pastured on 200 acres. Morn-ings at a ranch come early, with breakfast at 4 a.m. The rule was that horses were always fed before people. So that meant whoever was jingling went out even earlier to make sure the horses were at camp ready to be saddled before breakfast. On many occasions, that cowboy was me.

I can still clearly remember riding out those mornings on the one horse left at camp, the “jingle horse,” who was used to help round up the cavvy. When I was there, the jingle horse was often an older one named Illahee. He was always keen to find the herd after a night alone at camp. Illahee and I would walk along quietly, trying to listen for the jingling bells that were tied to a few of the horses’ necks to signal the herd’s location. It always seemed like the herd stayed extra still then be-cause they knew if they were found, they were going to work.

When we would finally track down the cavvy horses, I would let out a few hollers to get them all moving in the direction of the camp. In a very short time, it would turn into an exhilarating, eye-watering run down the side of the mountain. There was one left-hand turn that I knew I had to get the herd to make. If I could get on the herd’s right side and create enough energy, I could get the lead horse to flick her ear left. Then, all of them, at that very second, would flick their ears left and move as one toward the corrals. If I couldn’t get it done, they would slip off to the right and beat me to the turn. Then, it would be another 20 minutes to catch up and turn them back to camp. And, all the cowboys waiting for their mounts---having breakfast---would know the horses beat you.

Looking back at the unbelievable interaction between all those horses running down a steep hill, dodging the trees, jumping the ditches, they operated as one using only intent. It was amazing to be a part of that each morning. Loving the rush of it, I wish I could have seen what was right in front of me. Wouldn’t it have been amazing to look left and have my horse go left just because of my intent to turn that way? Horses can clearly be that sensitive.

Yet I would mount my horse for the day and pull on the reins with tens of pounds, like a plow, and think nothing of it. I thought that was just the way horses were---dull.

It was years before I could see what was right in front of me: that the horse I was on was just as sensitive as that herd of horses and had the potential to listen that closely to me if I could be that sensitive to him. He was already so good at communication that while galloping down a hill in the dark, early morning hours, he could read a subtle ear flick of another. Horses learn this subtle communication right after they are born and use it with each other their whole lives. Yet, many have to put up with an ignorant person on their back who never realizes how sensitive they are.

However, I like to think of horses as “Masters in Waiting.” The amazing part about a horse is, if his human gets better, he gets sharper. So, the horse you are on---even if he is seemingly thick, disconnected and dull at that moment---is actually a master just under the surface. It is up to you to access that sensitivity that every horse was born with. Liberty training can help you take that next step, enabling your horse to go from waiting on you to communicating efficiently with you.

Leadership: For enjoyment and safety

The way to true enjoyment with horses is leadership. It’s not just for increasing entertain-ment value; it’s also a safety issue. It’s great to have fun with a horse, but along the way we can get kicked in the head, bucked off, run over and put in the hospital. So it pays to be safe by learning to lead the conversation with your horse.

Long-term equestrians will likely know what I’m talking about. We have all had our fair share of bumps and bruises along the way. Dealing with horses is a dangerous sport and no trainer or person can say that, with this technique or that technique, safety is guaranteed. But we can take steps to set ourselves up for success, including learning how to commu-nicate and how to be the leader.

The risk with prey animals, like horses, exponentially increases when they don’t have the security of a good leader: When taken away from their home environment or away from their herdmates, it takes good horsemanship to help them become trusting and con-fident. A horse is not looking at the outfit you wear but what you can offer him to curb the prey-animal survival instincts. He is looking for someone to reassure him that he is safe and take care of him, leading him through any danger.

Leadership is the most essential ingredient to successfully playing with horses in close proximity: on the ground, under saddle or at liberty. Without structure and respect between you and your horse, any horse activity has heightened danger, including liberty. Leadership is the path to a strong relationship and communication.

There are no equal peers in the horse world. Horses naturally look for a leader. As prey animals, they survive by forming a herd and quickly determining the hierarchy. Through position, speed and sometimes force, they find their place among all the other horses.

This hierarchy serves them well when trouble arises. With radar antennas for ears, and eyes on the side of their head to see almost every angle around them, each horse begins to zero in on his herdmates, to make constantly changing decisions that keep him up with the herd and away from danger, “Where is the leader in the herd? How fast are we going? When do I eat, rest and get a scratch?”

Every cue comes from the lead horse down the chain, with all the horses finding comfort in knowing whom to follow, and whom to cue next. It is quite a remarkable interaction between individuals---and among the whole herd. Even more incredible is that the lead horse can be a different one depending on the circumstance. When these split-second decisions happen, it gives the horse a focus, the same kind of focus a rider needs.

In the wild or at pasture, every daily event revolves around the herd: each horse paying attention to the little cues, so as a herd they can sync. That is when things are at peace in the herd. The premise of human leadership is that I want my horse to look at me in the same way he looks at and keeps track of his herdmates. My goal is to win his trust in me to make the right decisions.

Basic survival instincts

Horses don’t just prefer a strong leader and a herd dynamic; they crave and need them. Without them, they are frightened and lost. Imagine a herd of horses out in the wild. If you take one away from the others to a different side of the mountain, that horse doesn’t remark on the tall green grass and the nice “alone time.” Instead, he uses his first set of basic survival instincts to get back to his herd.

The first set of basic survival instincts, in order, are:

1. Perception. He looks for the missing horses and becomes sensitive to anything that could hurt him while he’s alone.

2. Flight. While he’s in this heightened state of sensitivity, he will spook at anything that rustles or represents a danger to him.

3. Herd bound. Finding his herdmates, he will run back to the comfort of the group.

You know your horse is without leadership when you take him away from the safety of his barn or yard or a herdmate, and those ears go out like radar antennas. Suddenly, some-thing your horse may have seen even a 100 times is scary and spooky. He begins to whinny and magnetically pulls back to the barn or jigs toward the horse trailer.

This is a horse who is screaming for leadership. When he is in this state, he is at his most dangerous, because now he’ll go to a second set of survival instincts:

1. Fight. The horse pushes into pressure and resists.

2. Flight. Again, this instinct appears: He runs away. He uses full strength to leave, charging off with his rider and possibly running over bystanders in his panic.

3. Freeze. This is a way that a horse will use pent-up energy and explode all at once. It is probably the most common way horses gain control and the one that is most over-looked and misunderstood by people.

A horse’s desire to be with the herd, you’ll note, is a major difference between him and us. He never wants “alone time.”

Horses use flight, fight or freeze in an attempt to keep safe. They are not trying to be naughty or teach someone a lesson or embarrass people. It is instinctual, and they do it in order to survive. It is important to understand that horses in this mode are looking for help, looking for a good leader with the right attitude.

What sticks out to me the most about the best horsemen and -women I know is their similar attitude about horses. They don’t take things personally. The horses they handle and train don’t dictate their emotions. They remain in control, even optimistic and friendly, when things are not going their way. They are also able to be surprisingly firm but not mean, and their horses can tell the difference.

Learning to be sensitive and caring to a horse in one moment, then firm to establish a boundary in the next, can be really hard for some people. It feels to them like it is going against their nature. Some don’t want to be kind to a horse because they think they’re going to be looked at as weaklings. Others don’t want to be firm because they think their horse will hate them.

I can tell you from my own experience that if we are to get anywhere with a horse we must find that balance in ourselves. And I know that each person with enough desire to truly excel with horses can do it.

I also know with absolute certainty that no great horseman I’ve met was ever born with all of these qualities in perfect balance. They worked at it, studied horsemanship and took responsibility for each session, and the next time they walked into the pen with a horse, they tried to be better.

Comfort Zone— The “Sweet Spot”

Once a hierarchy is established within the herd, the herd operates as a single unit. They seem to move together by intuition, flawlessly changing direction and speed as a group. You can view a similar phenomenon in a flock of birds or a school of fish.

The herd unit is comfortable to the horse. He wants to know where he fits inside it. That way, he knows how to react to each individual: whom he needs to listen to and who will listen to him.

Of course, people do not naturally operate as a single unit like a herd of horses, flock of birds or school of fish. We must teach ourselves to communicate like a horse and to always have a sweet spot in mind for the horse to find. If he cannot find a sweet spot, the horse will revert to his base survival instincts, becoming either oversensitive or dull in self-defense.

Imagine a rider pulling on the bit, kicking with his legs, and pump-ing with his body to tell his horse to go. But when the horse moves, the rider doesn’t let up. To the horse, this means he hasn’t done the right thing. So he tries going sideways and backward; but no matter what he tries, he gets no relief or reward---there’s no sweet spot offered. Eventually, he gets upset because he cannot find any comfort at all. The rider thinks the horse is being bad, when really he is just confused and miserable.

Unable to find a sweet spot, the relief, a sensitive horse will get spooky and nervous, often bolting, rearing, prancing or generally seeming unable to stand still. A quieter horse is the opposite: He becomes unresponsive and disconnected, balky, even bucking when you ask him to move forward. If quiet horses are presented with enough pressure to get through their dullness, they often overreact and explode.

But with good leadership and a sweet spot for your horse to get to, you and your horse will come into sync---into unity---just like in the herd. It’s a truly “wow” moment the first time a horse connects with you in unity. You move effortlessly together like the herd or the flock of birds.

The more moments of unity you get with your horse, and the longer they become, the more your horse will trust you and come to find you as a place of comfort. He will learn that you are the source of his comfort and his sweet spot, and that people can supply him the unity of the herd---that things are being done with him instead of to him. Best of all, when he is faced with a scary or uncertain situation, he will look to you for guidance instead of reverting to his survival instincts.

There are a number of things that can take a horse out of unity:

Poor leadership. Without leadership, the horse will operate on his own plan and instincts.

Bad timing of the aids. This can be confusing to the horse and make him frustrated.

Ill-fitting tack or pain. If the horse is in pain, he won’t be able to find comfort.

Micromanaging the horse. If you are always applying pressure to the horse, he will never get comfort.

To achieve unity, you must offer comfort the moment a horse is doing what you want, so he senses the relief of being in sync. Then those moments of unity can grow. This applies to every moment you are with your horse, whether on the ground or riding.

Feel: An invisible connection

“Feel” is a word that comes up often around horses. It’s notoriously difficult to teach and it can also be difficult to understand. Teaching it to students I liken it to holding a bird: If you grip too tightly, the bird suffocates; if you don’t hold tightly enough, the bird flies away.

I think feel is in every person, but it can be elusive to find---sometimes very hard to dig out! I haven’t been able to teach it to everyone I’ve met, but it must be present to get anywhere with a horse. Feel is the single most important ingredient when communicating with your horse, and it binds everything together: For the person, the horse will never fully connect without you knowing feel. For the horse, he is born with feel in every cell, and he is just waiting for you to catch up.

So what is feel? In short, it is an invisible connection. Feel gives you a subconscious understanding of what your horse is telling you at each moment and how to best commu-nicate with him. With feel, you know what aid to give, how strong it needs to be, the precise time to give it, and exactly when to release to reward the horse. Feel helps you know when you need to approach something differently and when your horse is ready to move to a different exercise or to a new challenge.

The amazing thing about feel is you can give two people the exact same exercise with the same horse. With one person the horse softens, connects and gets the lesson. And, with the other, the horse gets tense, disconnected and thinks about the barn.

I believe feel can be taught, or I wouldn’t teach my methods. It took me years to learn true feel, even after I had been riding and interacting with horses for decades. I had to dedicate myself to truly understand the horse and what he needed from me. Like communication, feel goes both ways. We need to learn to feel for him, and only then can we teach him to have a feel for us.

For humans, though, feel can be difficult because we are dealing with a different species with a different energy and nature from our own. Also, many people won’t adjust, or don’t know how to adjust, to tailor what they’re doing to offer an individual horse better com-munication. They think there’s one way to give a command, and the horse will have to put up with it.

If you are a dancer, you’ve experienced “good feel” and “bad feel” on a night out. Some dancing partners make you feel like you’re dancing on a cloud, and time flies by, while others make you feel as if you have cement shoes, and the end of the song can’t come quickly enough!

Horses sense and have an opinion about the feel they are being offered at all times. Some-times it might be too heavy, dull and behind their movement. Other times it can actually be too light, not giving them enough to connect to. With sensitive horses, either way, poor feel drives them crazy: Whether too heavy or too light, they will become overreactive and frustrated with everything, including the brush you pick to groom them.

Moving in harmony

When playing at liberty, I think of feel as a “string” running between my horse and me---it’s a connection without any rope. With good feel, we can move in harmony, keeping the string connection slightly taut and communicating easily. But if either my horse is or I am lacking feel, the string will either go slack or get too tight and break, and neither of us will understand what the other means. I believe that horses get irritated if we are always breaking the string of communication.

To advance your feel, you must focus on becoming a master of communicating using in-tent. Remember, intent is the subtlest of aids, as if the horse is reading your mind. In reality, the horse is reading the slightest changes in your body language, right down to how you shift your focus---the same way a horse reads his dam as a foal or reads the other horses in his herd.

It’s important to understand that intent is not your energy level. Communicating “louder” or “bigger” does not make you easier to understand. If someone spoke to you in an alien language, would his jumping up and down and screaming the same words make you un-derstand their meaning any better?

Clear communication with a horse starts in your mind. That thought be-comes a certainty through your body that the horse will read. Certainty is a feeling that comes out of you. It is a sureness that you are going in that direction and are going to do what you intend. It is backed up by your aids. Eventually your thoughts get to the horse sooner because you become easier to read and more believable. That is when your intent is starting to work. Now you are communicating like a horse.

An intention is different from a hope. It is something that is going to happen. You may need to adjust and help the horse in another way, but in the end, you are going to arrive where you intended.

It will take time for you and your horse to build up a language that you both understand. Remember that you never go from complete darkness to complete light immediately; there are plenty of degrees of brightness in between. Keep your eyes open for the slightest change on the horizon and you are sure to get there.

Many times, especially early on, we miss opportunities to advance because we are waiting for a big change and we don’t notice our horse has already made a small step in the right direction. Because we don’t notice and don’t release, our horse concludes we must not have asked for what he tried to do; he may become confused and agitated because of it.

If you can advance your feel to where you can recognize a mental “try” in your horse and see those small changes, you will find you can advance at a much quicker pace. When you reward sooner, you will see enormous changes ---more than you would have thought---and pretty soon you will be having a great conversation.

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

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Pest Control

Riders offer advice on how to rid your farm of unwanted guests without the use of harmful chemicals.

Where there are horses, there’s sure to be pests: Ants—including the dreaded fire ants—and other insects and wildlife can run amok in a barn. They are annoying at best, dangerous at worst, and almost always an unhealthy contribution to the stable environment for horses and humans.

Dressage Today polled professional and amateur riders and longtime farm owners for successful strategies on managing unwelcome visitors without the use of harmful chemicals. The tips they offered include all-natural remedies to rid farms of pests, including fire ants, flies and mice.

Ants: Amateur rider Nan Meek keeps her 20-year-old schoolmaster at a private stable near her home in Moss Beach, California. Like many riders, she often keeps sugar cubes on hand as a treat for her horse. “Sugar in the tack room attracts ants as reliably as sugar in the kitchen,” Meek says. “But a friend who is allergic to chemical products gave me a great tip: scatter a line of ground cloves across the path where the ants are entering, and they will go elsewhere. It doesn’t kill them, and they may try to go after the sugar from another entry point, but a few applications seem to send them elsewhere. An airtight container for the sugar removes their goal. Now, if I could only find a coyote deterrent! We are seeing more of them this winter than ever before.”

Flies: Ellie Jensen, who owned and managed Checkered Flag Farm in Loxahatchee, Florida, before retiring to a smaller farm, learned key strategies for maintaining a healthy environment for her trainers and horses. One found her switching to natural pest control tactics many years ago after a fly-spray scare with a beautiful filly.
As the weather warmed up in the yearling’s first summer, Jensen applied a conventional fly spray of the time. “Within 20 seconds, she started to shake all over, then she went down,” Jensen recounts. “I knew it was a reaction to the fly spray. I hosed her down with water and was able to save her. And that made me more determined to look into natural products.”
Jensen is a big fan of cedar-oil spray, which was dispensed through an automatic misting system at Checkered Flag. “It has a water base and works just as well as the toxic stuff,” she notes. Cedar also has antifungal properties that can help heal hot spots on the skin and it has a woody scent.
Not all cedar-based pest-control products are equal, Jensen cautions. Like many natural ingredients, they, too, can be irritating and/or harmful if used in too-highly concentrated forms.
Fly strips are another tool often used to trap and kill flies in and around farms. While not the most attractive decor, they can serve a purpose. To ensure your strips are safe and nontoxic, try making your own sticky traps by mixing a one-quarter cup of corn syrup, one tablespoon of granulated sugar and one tablespoon of brown sugar in a small bowl. Next, cut strips of brown kraft paper and soak them in the sugar mixture. Give them 12 hours to dry and then poke a small hole at the top of each strip. Run a piece of string through the hole and the strip will be ready to hang.

Fire ants: These pests are a nightmare for Florida’s horse keepers. The ants love open, sunny spaces, like pastures, where they typically colonize in dirt mounds under the reign of one or more queens. A bite from a fire ant stings and can cause blisters on the skin of horses and people. “Enough bites can kill an animal, and a lot of people and animals are allergic to them,” Jensen says.
The most effective strategy she found was spreading nontoxic pellets that target the ant queen. “They sterilizes the queen ant so that within six weeks, you have no more ants,” she reports. They actually worked faster at Checkered Flag. “A week after we first had the pellets in our pasture, I noticed that the ants were staying out of a station where I fed four feral cats.” The pellets don’t harm other critters, including grazing horses and birds.
Relative to other treatments she tried, the pellets were cost-effective at $100 for the first acre, then $30 an acre after that for a treatment that Jensen’s property needed just twice a year.

Mice: Grand Prix riders Shannon Peters and Sharon McCusker happily report that their barns have very few problematic pests. Mice are the biggest menace at the Peter’s San Diego, California, stable and at McCusker’s property in Ashby, Massachusetts. In both cases, barn cats are an effective defense force.
In eradicating rodents, cats do a great service for their equine stablemates. However, because mice and rats can carry diseases, insects and parasites, their predators need regular veterinary care to prevent them from becoming conduits for those health risks. A strict deworming and vaccination regimen for the cats is important; so is spaying and neutering to keep their population under control.
Feeding cats in the barn will keep them on the job. If they have to rely only on their hunting skills for food, they may wander off to areas where mice haven’t been so well controlled.
Pest problems vary greatly across the country, but early action and consistent preventive practices and maintenance treatments will help to minimize the insects and animals that threaten to bug your horse. Old-fashioned, low-tech tactics always help: Keep the manure pile far from the stable, keep nooks and crannies clean, use tightly sealed containers in the feed room and eliminate pooled water whenever possible. A ship-shape stable is your best defense.

Credit: Cat: © Brenda Carson - and Fire Ants: © seagames50 - Cats might just be your best defense against pesky rodents.

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