Tuesday, July 25, 2017

When is a stumble something serious?

A misstep every now and again isn't much to worry about, but some types of stumbles warrant immediate attention.


A misstep every now and again isn’t much to worry about. Active horses, particularly those who work over varied terrain, are bound to stumble from time to time. Sometimes, however, stumbling needs to be investigated.
jog outs
Call your veterinarian if any of the following apply to your horse:

• He stumbles more often than he used to.
• He stumbles so badly that he feels as though he may fall or unseat you.
• He stumbles so frequently that you’ve come to expect it.
• He shows signs of incoordination or neurological weakness, having trouble turning in a small circle, for example.
Stumbling can have a variety of causes, from too-long toes to failing vision. A full physical examination may reveal the most likely cause. In some cases, hind-end “stumbles” are actually sticking patellas. The treatment in these cases is more exercise to strengthen the area. In addition, your veterinarian can also work with your farrier if a different trimming schedule or technique is part of the solution
You may hear that a stumbling horse is “not paying attention” or “lazy,” but the reality is most horses don’t want to stumble. A single stumble may indeed be inattention, but repeated stumbles most likely aren’t a behavior or training problem.
This article first appeared in EQUUS issue #465, June 2016. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Bernie Traurig: Keep At It Until You're An Artist

The need to “practice, practice, practice” the American forward riding system is the message from Bernie Traurig’s recent workshop.

 SEP 7, 2016

Bernie Traurig taught a three-day workshop with the focus on the American forward riding system at Coker Farm in Bedford, New York. In the background are (from left) Tiffany Avon with Forever Z, Jennifer Wright with Logan and Phillip Williamson with Edingburgh. | Amy K. Dragoo

Most riders want to improve their riding. Whether the goal is to complete their first 2-foot-6 hunter course or win at the grand prix level, the desire to create a better partnership with the horse is pretty universal. And for legendary rider and clinician Bernie Traurig the recipe for that success is simple: adopt the right system of riding and then practice it relentlessly.
“A famous pianist once said that the amateur practices a melody until he gets it right. The artist practices until he never gets it wrong,” Bernie explained to a group of riders and auditors who attended his recent workshop in Bedford, New York. “And the only way you get good at this, is to practice it.”
Bernie is a highly regarded rider, teacher and horseman. As a junior, he won both the AHSA National Hunter Seat Medal Final and the ASPCA Maclay National Championship in 1961. He represented the U.S. Equestrian Team at home and abroad (including the 1982 World Championships in Ireland) and has won more than 60 show jumping grands prix. He was inducted into the National Show Hunter Hall of Fame in 2009 and in 2010 he founded the video learning website EquestrianCoach.com.
Throughout the three days of lessons and lectures during his workshop at historic Coker Farm in Bedford, New York, Bernie emphasized that perfecting the basics of the American hunter/jumper forward riding system would propel each rider’s eventual success over fences. “We focus on the simplest of things,” he said. “Trot into a line. Halt and back up. Canter out. Halt and back up again. It’s the very basics of schooling.

Bernie emphasized that perfecting the basics of the American forward riding system would propel each rider’s eventual success over fences. “We focus on the simplest of things,” Bernie said to the riders including Jennifer Staniloff riding Princess. “Trot into a line. Halt and back up. Canter out. Halt and back up again. It’s the very basics of schooling.” | Amy K. Dragoo

“Yet everything we do here is the basis for show jumping. Horses have to instantly go forward and come back and respond to the lateral aids in both directions. You have to be in charge of the track. You practice everything you will need for the show ring.”
The forward riding system was developed by Federico Caprilli in the early 1900s. It was further refined by Brig. Gen. Harry D. Chamberlin, Capt. Vladimir S. Littauer and Gordon Wright, among other horsemen. Today, the system is endorsed and taught by George Morris and is advocated by the U.S Hunter Jumper Association Trainer Certification Program. Bernie, who trained as a junior rider under Capt. Littauer, said the system is “the basis of everything I do.
“The system we teach is based on three parts: the position of the rider, the way we use our aids and a schooling system,” he explained. “Those three parts, when they come together, make a great product.”

Dressage: Just a French Word for Training

Bernie is one of the few professionals to reach the top of the sport in all three international equestrian Olympic disciplines: show jumping, dressage and eventing. Throughout the three days, he emphasized the critical difference between the fundamentals of classic dressage and the “non-clashing aids” of the forward riding system.
“People have confused these two systems for decades, but they are different,” he explained. “Dressage is based on the combination of coordinated driving and restraining aids. This is necessary for the sport they do, but these are highly sophisticated aids.
“It takes a long time to develop understanding in the horse and a long time for the rider to be able to delicately coordinate these aids,” he added. “Without a lengthy step-by-step process of training, coordination of aids can easily become clashing aids that confuse the horse. Or as Littauer once said, ‘a razor in the hands of a child.’”
 Bernie explained that dressage is based on collection and central balance with the rider balanced on the seat. A dressage rider in a downward transition engages the hind legs by riding the horse forward with her seat and legs, riding the energy up to a gathering hand. By contrast, the forward riding system is based on forward balance and nonclashing aids with the rider primarily balanced in the stirrups.
 “Our rideability comes from repetition of smooth, prompt upward and downward transitions. We ask a horse for a downward transition by closing our fingers, increasing the contact with a direct rein. If our downward transitions are practiced in a prompt way, we encourage natural engagement. The promptness of the transition rebalances the horse automatically, engaging the hind leg automatically, developing agility and strength,” he explained.
“The leg still supports the downward transition but without a forward-driving effect,” he elaborated. “Therefore, it’s a non-clashing aid. In its simplest form: legs to drive forward, hands to come back.” 
 Tiffany Avon was struggling with downward transitions with her 12-year-old gelding Forever Z. It gave Bernie an opportunity to demonstrate how her clashing aids confused her horse. “In the canter downward transition, you sink, don’t sit and you open your upper-body angle a little bit. You are always in balance with the horse, but don’t sit too early as he begins the transition or the seat will act as a driving aid,” he explained. “Just sink and be light—you could put a piece of paper between your butt and the saddle.” She lightened up in the saddle and Forever Z gave her crisper transitions.

Make Your Warm-Up Productive
Bernie asked Phillip to demonstrate a suppling exercise for the horse’s neck: Phillip put his bay gelding, Edingburgh, on a small circle to the left then widened his inside hand and applied pressure directly back outside his left hip until the horse gave in his mouth. | Amy K. Dragoo

Each of the riders was challenged to warm up their horses thoughtfully, using basic but specific exercises to make their mounts attentive and reactive to the aids. “Every moment in the tack you are either training or untraining your horse,” Bernie declared.
He encouraged the riders to start their sessions with a forward walk with impulsion and rhythm, adding that “there are only two ways to walk: a relaxed walk with a long and loose rein or with contact, marching forward and following the neck movement. And NOT on the cell phone,” he added emphatically. “Think of discipline, think of making every minute productive.”
After asking riders to create an elastic contact with their horses at the walk, Bernie moved into a series of exercises, including upward and downward transitions, lengthening and shortening, circles and half circles, serpentines and halts. He challenged the riders to be specific in their warm-up choices.
“So am I going forward because he is behind my leg? Am I using an open rein to turn him sharply? Am I going deeper in the corner because he’s avoiding the corner? Am I doing walk–canter transitions because he’s fresh? What’s your plan?” 
Phillip Williamson, one of two former USHJA Emerging Athlete Program riders who received grants from Bernie and the USHJA Foundation to attend the clinic, demonstrated a suppling exercise for the neck. “Horses are stiff and usually have a stiff side on the left,” Bernie explained. “This is a great way to loosen the neck up.” He had Phillip put his gelding, Edingburgh, on a small circle to the left then widen his inside hand and apply pressure directly back outside his left hip. “It is a bit awkward. You tactfully overbend the neck, wide left hand, hold until something gives. As soon as he softens up, go back to the normal bend. The timing has to be good. If you hold the bend and let go before he gives, it is meaningless. Hang in there until something melts.”
As the riders loosened up their horses, Bernie encouraged them to work toward being prompt in their transitions. “When you turn your horse out in the field and he is fresh, he may passage or piaffe. Then he is running to the gate and you think he is going to jump it. But he stops in three strides. And he can stop because he is using his hind end. That is natural engagement,” Bernie explained. It is the promptness demanded in upward and especially downward transitions that encourages a horse being ridden to engage the hind end naturally and improve his balance without the rider’s driving leg, Bernie said. “Littauer taught this. Our system won’t work unless you practice promptness. You do thousands of these transitions to make your horse rideable. It doesn’t happen in a day.”
He used the canter depart as an example of where riders needed to perfect their transitions. “If you put your leg back and the horse doesn’t pop into the canter, you get haunches-in. The horse has to react to your leg instantly,” Bernie said. In a canter depart to the right, “left leg back, lighten your hands and ask for the canter. That’s simple sign language for canter at a basic level.”

Mobilize Your Leg
To help Nancy Buzzetta avoid giving her horse, Shimmer, two different aids while halting, Bernie had her practice an exaggerated braced leg to help stabilize her in the tack. | Amy K. Dragoo

Creating a deep heel and the ability to change the position of the leg are critical to being effective, especially during downward transitions, Bernie emphasized. He described three potential options for the leg: the normal position with the stirrup leather straight up and down; a displacing leg, set farther back to affect the haunches, used for canter departure and haunches-in/out, counter-canter, etc; and a braced leg, where the heel is driven down and the leg moved slightly forward of the vertical.
“You know, you are taught to sit and don’t move,” Bernie explained. “Nonsense. You need mobility and range of motion. It’s called mobilizing your lower leg.”
He worked closely with Nancy Buzzetta, who was struggling to achieve a crisp halt with her horse, Shimmer. During downward transitions, her leg was slipping back and her heel was sliding up. “You are giving him two different aids accidentally by losing your position,” Bernie explained to her as he grasped her lower leg. “He can feel a fly on his skin. Your leg goes back, and you are squeezing and brushing him with your heel. See that tickle spot there? He can feel it, and this is sending your horse forward.
“Not to withstand that if that horse stumbles or stops, you are a missile over your knee,” he added. “You need a deep heel, a stable leg in the halt. If necessary, a bit of a braced leg. This stabilizes you in the tack.”
Bernie explained the benefit of exaggeration in training. He stood in front of Nancy’s horse and told her to “waterski” her legs. “Show me the soles of your feet,” he demanded. “Just shove that foot right to his elbow.” He then had her trot around with her leg in and out of a braced position.
“It is a half-inch difference between toppling over your knee and stability. We can’t change it if we don’t exaggerate it. I want you to think ‘soles of my feet’ before you increase contact in a downward transition. If you do that exercise, if you are disciplined, you will fix it in a month.”

The ‘Epidemic’ of Inside Leg to Outside Rein
To encourage riders, including Shaina Humphrey riding Blink, to go deep into a corner and jump an oxer on an angle to a vertical, Bernie placed an orange cone in front of the oxer that riders had to canter around. | Amy K. Dragoo
The group addressed a popular concept that Bernie emphasized was misunderstood, overused and overtaught.
“It started because many people would go through a turn abusing the inside rein diagonally across the wither, overbending the horse. Many trainers started to preach inside leg to outside rein to help people keep their horses straighter,” Bernie explained. “What has happened is an epidemic, a virus, of inside leg and outside rein.” 
He said that inside leg to outside rein is useful in many situations for more sophisticated horses and riders. “Shoulder-in, shoulder-in on a circle, engagement of the hind leg, straightening effect—all great examples of use of the inside leg to outside rein. But your inside hand and outside leg still play a part in the orchestra.” 
Bernie doesn’t stress the technique for intermediate riders, however, especially on hunters and jumpers. “We have two hands and two legs. I would like both the rider and horse to understand and obey all rein and leg effects, coordinating them properly where they apply, before they focus on inside leg to outside rein.”
He suggested that intermediate riders adopt a simpler technique. If their horses were simply cutting a corner or popping a shoulder inward, they should move both hands, separated “as if they had a steel bar between them,” together toward the outside. On the left lead going around a corner, for example, this would mean using a right opening rein and a slight indirect rein in front of the wither toward the outside, adding a little inside leg for support.
“If I want to ride a turn or change my track, this is where you use your hands together,” Bernie explained. “The indirect inside rein affects the shoulder toward the outside and it gives us a little shape of the neck; it flexes the horse. The right opening rein slightly holds the horse out in the turn and the inside leg is applied.”
Bernie had the riders practice the technique by trotting straight toward him then moving the front end of the horse toward the arena wall. “Keep our hands separated— two hands steady, connected by that steel bar. Move both hands toward the wall,” he coached the riders. “You are affecting the shoulders of the horse. The hindquarters will follow. Once you practice this, it becomes invisible. You barely move your hands toward the outside and he moves over. Bending lines, controlling shoulders on short turns, it is so useful.
“All those horses I rode, all those hunters, you would see nothing—invisible aids— and they moved laterally like cutting butter. It’s a beautiful thing,” Bernie added.

Shape Your Track to Nail Your Distance

Bernie emphasized that once a horse was responsive to the aids, the rider could shape the turns and control the track to improve a difficult distance. Here Jennifer Wright jumps Logan over an oxer as part of a course. | Amy K. Dragoo

The ability to control the horse’s shoulders and move them laterally (to “shape out” in a turn) became critical as the riders advanced to exercises over fences. Bernie set a challenging bending line that started with a tight right turn out of the corner to an oxer then six or seven strides to a vertical. He wanted the riders to go deep into the first corner and jump the fence on an angle toward the direct line to the vertical for six or jump the oxer straighter and ride a bending line to the vertical for seven. Most of the riders struggled to get it right. 
“This is very difficult, to shape this tight turn. Most people can’t do this because they don’t have control over the shoulders,” he said, eventually placing an orange cone in front of the oxer to force the riders to ride farther out to angle the fence. “Use your hands together to shape out and set up that angle. Or get that first early distance and then a quiet seven in the bend.”
Bernie emphasized that once a horse was responsive to the aids, the rider could shape the turns and control the track to improve a difficult distance. “Manage the track according to what you see. Don’t commit to the track until you see your distance.
“Where do you think this might come in handy?” he asked. “In a bending line, if I want to use the wide track I use my hands, shift them out and the horse would move right out. Beautiful! Or in a tight rollback. Maybe when I face the jump, I don’t like the distance. I’m going to shape it out and now there is a nice distance because I have changed the track.
“Shape it out until you see it or until you like it,” he concluded.
As the riders practiced controlling the track over higher fences and with tighter turns, Bernie warned them not to create a track that left less than three strides to the fence. “Three strides out is very fast on a jumper. Watch the videos of the best in the world. They are rarely less than three strides out to the big oxers. It gives you time to work a situation out,” he counseled.

Be Purposeful in Your Practice
At the end of three very intensive days of training, Bernie reminded each rider of specific techniques that he or she could take home and practice. He recommended using poles on the ground or low cavalletti to reduce the wear and tear on the horses.
“What is the most important part of your body in riding?” he asked. “Your brain. This is a thinking sport, right? Don’t get in a hurry and do it again, do it again,” he said. “No. You stop and think about what went wrong and make a plan to correct it. 
“The only way you get good is to practice. How do you practice? Daily poles on the ground. You see these cavalletti? If your stable permits, you do hundreds of them. Keep at it until you’re an artist at it.”

Bernie's Basics On Bits
Bernie checks the bit of a horse. At the clinic, he switched out more aggressive bits for a rubber dee-ring snaffle. | Amy K. Dragoo

Bernie Traurig shared his belief in using the mildest bit possible for a horse, taking into consideration the rider’s ability as well. On several horses in the clinic he switched out more aggressive bits for what he called “the basement bit”—a rubber dee-ring snaffle. “This gives us a baseline for the mildest bit, and we can work up from there,” he said.
“Don’t put anything sharp in his mouth because he has to submit to pressure. If the bit is too strong, he can’t take the pressure. I want him to obey my rein aids nicely without pain. A strong bit might work for you in the ring, but not for training.”
A good example of this philosophy was Caroline DeVincenzo’s horse, Keaton, who showed up in a twisted full-cheek bit. On the second day, Bernie switched the horse into a rubber dee-ring snaffle.
“We saw some impressive results with this horse,” Bernie said after the horse worked in the milder bit. “On the first day he was angry, kicking at her. He wouldn’t stand still and he wouldn’t go forward. He was unhappy in his mouth, he had pain. He was sticking off the ground yesterday, afraid of the bit.
“We put him in a rubber dee, she had plenty of forward. I am loving this: by downsizing the bit, he is accepting the pressure and you are now able to school the horse. He is accepting the milder bit and even giving you flexion. Little by little, it will come. He is a trainable horse in a rubber snaffle.”
Bernie advised the group that most horses could be ridden without the gimmick bits that “deviated from the classical. You’ve got to experiment with horses. Just put a normal bit in his mouth and see if he likes it better.”
Go to www.PracticalHorsemanMag.com for more from Bernie Traurig about the American forward riding system and clashing aids. For more information on Bernie Traurig’s clinics and workshops, go toEquestrianCoach.com and click on clinics/workshops.

This article originally appeared in the August 2016 issue of Practical Horseman.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Hitchcock Woods Restoration 

The Return of Red-Cockaded Woodpeckers 

by Pam Gleason 

If you ride in the Hitchcock Woods this spring, you might hear a sound that hasn’t been heard there for about half a century. This would be the call of red-cockaded woodpeckers chirping out warnings, announcing the fact that they have returned to their roosting sites, or communicating with companions while foraging for food. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology describes these three different calls as a “raspy ‘skilt’” (when they are disturbed), a “chut” (when they are returning to the roosting area,) and a “soft melodious chortling” when they are foraging close to one another. Although red-cockaded woodpeckers once inhabited the Woods, they disappeared in the 1960s and had not been seen there for decades. They are back now. 

“They are very vocal and social birds,” says Randy Wolcott, a member of the Hitchcock Woods Foundation board of trustees. Randy, who had heard about red-cockaded woodpeckers about 20 years ago, was the driving force behind re-introducing them to the Woods. “You will probably hear them easier than you will see them.”

What is so special about red-cockaded woodpeckers? Once common in the Southeast, they were declared an endangered species back in the 1970s, and it is only because of the dedication of many different groups of environmentalists and bird lovers that they have survived into this century. In November 2017, the Hitchcock Woods Foundation joined the preservation effort when ten birds (often called RCWs) were brought to the Woods and released in five separate recruitment clusters, which are areas with suitable habitat for nesting and foraging. 

If you do happen to hear RCWs calling to one another while you are in the Woods, look for a black and white bird about the size of a cardinal. Despite their name, the birds have very little red on them: their most obvious feature is a bold patch of white on their cheeks and a distinctive black cap. Males have a very small, ribbon-like streak of red that runs along the bottom of this cap. Without a pair of binoculars, you probably won’t see it. Binoculars might also help you distinguish the endangered RCW from the other, more common species of woodpecker that inhabit the woods, including the red bellied woodpecker, the downy woodpecker, the red-headed woodpecker and the much larger pileated woodpecker. 

RCWs are specifically adapted to the longleaf pine ecosystem. They live in small groups, usually a breeding pair with one to four “helpers,” typically young male offspring from previous years. Highly territorial and non-migratory, they are known as cooperative breeders: all of the birds in a group work together to care for the breeding pair’s brood and to maintain cavity trees where they make their nests. Each group actively patrols its home range, an area of approximately 125 acres of forest. They must vigilantly defend their nests from “floaters” (individuals RCWs out searching for vacant nests), and other cavity nesters such as blue birds, flying squirrels, and other woodpeckers. 

A main factor in saving the RCW has been the restoration of longleaf pine forests, which once covered some 90 million acres from Virginia to Florida. These are woods characterized by tall pines that shade a carpet of wiregrass with very little underbrush. It is an ecosystem that is shaped by fire: for hundreds of years, longleaf forests experienced frequent fires ignited by lightning. Longleaf pines themselves adapted to this, gaining fire resistant trunks and even relying on high temperatures to help their seeds germinate. 

The Hitchcock Woods was originally a traditional longleaf forest, but by the 1970s and 1980s, its character had changed: without much in the way of fire, there was too much undergrowth and there were many other species of trees that competed with the pines. This was why the RCWs disappeared: the habitat was no longer suitable for them. 

The Hitchcock Woods Foundation started a program of controlled burns in the early 1990s, mostly to clear out years of pine straw and reduce the chances of a catastrophic forest fire that might endanger surrounding neighborhoods. In the mid-1990s, these controlled burns became more scientific after the foundation enlisted the help of biologists from North Carolina to come up with an ecological plan and a prescription to turn the woods back into a traditional longleaf forest. Today, after about 20 years of scientific burning, thinning and other management practices, much of the longleaf ecosystem has been restored. 

Once the habitat was again appropriate for red-cockaded woodpeckers, Randy Wolcott wondered if they might return on their own. He was told probably not: although there are RCW populations in several South Carolina forests, the birds do not tend to travel very far from where they are born, and there is so much development around the Woods that there is no convenient, natural corridor to lead them there. 

However, a few years ago he learned that it might be possible to have some relocated to the Woods. It was very complicated: RCWs are a federally protected species, so you can’t just net them and bring them in. There needed to be a red-cockaded woodpecker management plan created by an RCW biologist. Suitable trees needed to be found for nesting, surrounded by areas that would provide adequate foraging. Then the Hitchcock Woods Foundation needed permission from the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife, and it needed to jump though several regulatory hoops in order to avoid the potential negative consequences of the “incidental take” (any activity that may cause harm to the RCW, cavity trees, and foraging habitat) of a federally endangered species. 

Finally, the birds needed somewhere to live. Most woodpeckers make their homes in dead trees, but RCWs excavate nesting cavities in the heartwood of large living pines. A tree needs to be about 80 years old to be a suitable size, and it can take the birds from one to six years to create a cavity. Each breeding pair and their helpers work together to maintain several cavity trees so every individual has somewhere to sleep at night. In natural circumstances, it obviously takes a pretty long time for a breeding pair to become established as a new group and start laying eggs. 

Fortunately, it turns out that RCWs are very happy with artificial cavity boxes. These are hollowed out blocks of cedar with a reinforced, restricted opening just large enough for a red-cockaded woodpecker. The boxes are installed high up in the hearts of large trees and disguised to look like the real thing. When RCWs come across them, they move in quite readily. And so, with the help of a grant from the Longleaf Alliance, a nonprofit based in Alabama, the Hitchcock Woods Foundation obtained 36 of these nesting boxes, which they had installed in nine designated areas. Then they were ready for some birds. 

“It took a long time to get everything in place, but then all the stars aligned and it happened very quickly,” says Randy. In October of 2016, the foundation was offered 10 birds from the Francis Marion National Forest north of Charleston through a cooperative agreement between state and federal agencies along with various wildlife consultants. Not only would they get 10 birds in 2016, they were promised as many as 10 birds a year for the next four years. They accepted the offer, and in November, a group joined a team of RCW biologists at Francis Marion, netted five pairs of year-old woodpeckers, and brought them back to the Woods. That evening, they took each bird up a tree and shut it in a cavity for the night. In the morning, when the birds were awake, they opened the doors to the cavities and the birds emerged and flew out. 

“And then they were here,” says Randy. Four months later, Mark Pavlosky Jr., a RCW biologist with MPJ Wildlife Consulting, LLC based in Aiken, who has been working with the foundation since 2014 to create the Hitchcock Woods red-cockaded woodpecker plan, had some good news. He did a survey that found that at least seven of the 10 birds are still in the Woods. If all goes well, they will start breeding and the first RCW eggs will hatch in mid-May. 

“It’s very exciting,” says Randy. “It is the capstone on our forest management practices. If the woodpeckers come back, it proves that what we have been doing to manage the forest has been the right thing. Our work is allowing us to bring in this endangered species and give it back the home that it always had here. It’s a fabulous thing that it has all come together.” 

What does all this mean for people who enjoy riding and walking in the woods? Are there any new restrictions, or any plans to feature the birds on nature walks or things of that type? For the moment, no. The RCW nesting boxes were placed in trees that are off the trails, and the HWF has always asked that riders and walkers stay on the trails, so they are unlikely to disturb the birds if they follow the rules. While the RCW population is getting established, the foundation is not publicizing the whereabouts of the nesting trees in order to give the birds some privacy, though it is possible that small groups might be invited to come observe them later on. 

If the RCW population re-establishes itself in the Woods, this will mean that the Hitchcock Woods Foundation’s efforts Woods have returned the forest to a natural, healthy state. Preserving and protecting the Woods has been a fantastic thing for Aiken and for the people who enjoy its trails and tranquility. It has also been a boon for the environment and a blessing for a sociable black and white bird on its way back from the brink of extinction.

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

Questions about Dressage

With Amy McElroy

Amy McElroy is an FEI competitor, a USEFS judge, and a USEF 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 McElroyDRM@aol.com, or visit her website: www.amymcelroy.com.

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.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Remembering Aiken’s Horsemen 

Johnny Hosang, Consummate Horseman, 1910-1994 

by Pam Gleason

“Everyone who knew Johnny loved him,” says Brad Walker. “I don’t know a single person who didn’t have something wonderful to say about Johnny, and that’s unusual in the horse world. Johnny was welcome everywhere.”

Left: Johnny Hosang, jumping in the Hitchcock Woods, circa 1940.,   Above: With Anne Hopkins and Katie Groat. December 31, 1955. Photo by High Pinney
From the 150s into the 1970s, Johnny Hosang worked for Brad’s mother and stepfather, Elizabeth and Jimmy Burden, first at the Black Stable in Aiken’s downtown
horse district, and then at Woodside Plantation, which, at the time, was the family’s private hunting and shooting reserve. He oversaw the care of the horses, the English Pointer hunting dogs and the foxhounds, and he did it all with expertise, dedication and meticulous attention to detail.

“The most extraordinary thing about Johnny was his ability to adapt to any situation,” Brad continues. “It was just fantastic. You could take him anywhere and he could talk to anyone. He took wonderful care of the pointers and the hounds; he took wonderful care of the horses. They were always beautifully groomed and perfectly shiny. When we hunted on the property, manes and tails were braided, the tack was always perfectly clean – you could smell the saddle soap on the saddle and bridle – and the stirrup irons shone. Everything was always neat as a pin, the stable, the kennels, everything perfect.”

Rob Johnston, a grade school classmate of Johnny’s son Mike and a close family friend, describes him as an extraordinary influence on his life and an incredible presence. “I have never met a man with more charm and wit,” he says. “He possessed a Cary Grant aura of class and style and he was an outstanding horseman, farm manager, polo referee, raconteur, family man and friend. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of Aiken, and his tales of yesterday could keep people spellbound for hours. He was one of Aiken’s greatest treasures for over 50 years.”

“It’s true,” says Mike Hosang, a realtor at Carolina Company in Aiken. “Everyone loved my dad.”

Of Swiss descent, Johnny Hosang was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1910. His father was a carpenter, and his was not an equestrian family. But when he was about 5 years old, Johnny became entranced with horses. At that time, the fire engines in the city were still pulled by teams of horses, and Johnny would stand near the firehouse watching when fire calls came in.

“They had the horses run into these special stalls and they dropped all the harnesses on them, hooked them to the engines and then they would fly out,” says Mike Hosang. “Cincinnati still had cobblestone streets, and the horses’ hooves would make a shower of sparks as they galloped. He said the most exciting thing in his life then was to watch them.”

By the time he was a teenager, Johnny was frequenting a local armory where the Cincinnati Riding Club held indoor polo matches. He took up both riding and polo and soon embarked on his career as a professional horseman. Cincinnati had many prominent equestrian families, among them the Fleischmanns (of Fleischmann’s Yeast fame) who employed Johnny when he was still quite young. He continued to play polo, developing a reputation as a formidable player in the number one position, from which he often scored the majority of his team’s goals.

When he was a little older, Johnny took a job with the Wood family. Mr. and Mrs. William B. Wood were both horse enthusiasts. Both hunted and played polo – Mrs. Wood was among the top female polo players of her generation, playing in women’s polo as well as occasional men’s matches. They played at the Miami Valley Hunt and Polo Club in Dayton. That was where Johnny met Mildred Seekamp, whose mother managed the club. Mildred was just a few years younger than Johnny, and they soon fell in love and were married.

The Woods had a horse breeding farm in Piqua, Ohio and a winter home in Aiken, the present-day Green Boundary Club. In 1939, Johnny and Mildred started coming to Aiken with the Woods for the winter season. Johnny would ride out with Mr. and Mrs. Wood, oversee their stable, care for their horses and help their daughter Aileen with her riding. In addition to riding with the Woods, Johnny also assisted at the newly-built Aiken Training Track. In 1942, at the very first running of the Aiken Trials, Johnny led the post parade and acted as a “pony boy” leading the horses to the post before the race and bringing them back to the paddock afterwards. The Trials were in March, and just a few weeks later in April, Johnny left Aiken to go into service in the Navy for World War II.

After the war, Johnny returned to Aiken where he continued to work for the Woods until 1955, when they decided to give up their Aiken winter home. By this time, the Hosangs had two sons, Mike and David, and they did not want to leave the area. So Johnny took the job with the Burden family. Initially, the horses lived in the historic district, but after the Burdens purchased a nearby 2,300-acre hunting preserve from the Spaulding family, the horses and the job moved there. There was a nice little home on the property where the Hosangs took up residence. The Burdens named their new playground Woodside Plantation, after the Burden family’s manorial home in Troy, New York.

Life at Woodside Plantation was idyllic. Mrs. Burden, a Virginian by birth, loved riding and foxhunting and so she got together with some other members of the Winter Colony to organize the Woodside Hounds in the early 1960s. Johnny became the huntsman, and proved himself adept at handling hounds as well as horses. While Mrs. Burden was the equestrian enthusiast in the family, her husband preferred shooting.

“Dad would ride with Mrs. Burden in the morning and then go shooting with Mr. Burden in the afternoon,” says Mike. “He had a pretty good life. Mr. Leithead, who was a joint master of the Woodside Hounds, said to him ‘Johnny, I work all week just so I can spend the weekend doing what you do for a living.’”

Johnny’s equestrian career also included buying and selling horses, mostly for the hunt. He became an R judge for the American Horse Shows Association and used to travel to North Carolina and the MidAtlantic states to officiate at prestigious shows. He even continued to play polo for many years. In the decades after the war, he was frequently called upon to fill out teams on Aiken’s Whitney Field, usually playing for the visiting team against Pete Bostwick’s home team.

He gained a new avocation related to polo by accident one Sunday in 1946. He was at Sunday polo, and the man who was slated to be the polo announcer was overcome by nerves. Johnny stepped in and took his place, acquitting himself like a professional. He was so good, he ended up being the Aiken Polo Club announcer for the next 24 years. He knew the players and the game and he was famous for his colorful turns of phrase. In one game, according to a 1982 article in the Aiken Rambler, he scolded young Norty Knox, who was playing with his father Seymour: “Norty, you’d better drive some of those balls your daddy’s way – he’s still paying the bills.”

There was a sportswriter from New York in the crowd, and the quip ended up in the New York papers.

As a horseman, Johnny was best known as a consummate professional, whose animals always looked and acted their best. He was an excellent and natural rider who looked good on a horse, and horses, like all animals, responded to him well. He was also known for his quiet, polite manners, especially when he was dealing with his Winter Colony employers and their families.

“I remember once, when I was about 20, I came to him and told him that I had decided to take the hounds out,” says Brad Walker. “He might not have wanted me to, but he didn’t say anything. So I got on one of my mother’s horses, a lovely horse, and I rode out with them. As soon as we got out beyond where the kennels were, the hounds took off. They got onto something and I couldn’t get them back. Of course, I didn’t know their names and I couldn’t blow a hunting horn, so they looked at me and they said ‘we’re out of here.’ For two days, farmers would call up Johnny and say, ‘We have one of your dogs here.’ They all came straggling home eventually, but they had been in the swamp, they were covered with mud and dirt. And Johnny never said anything – of course, I was the child of his employer. He just asked me to please not do it again.”

“My dad was a contented person,” says Mike. “He tended to his own business. He liked being in the horse world and his other hobby was woodworking and refinishing furniture. He was very sophisticated in a low-key way, and he had great stories. It made him a very popular person.”

After his retirement, Johnny continued to be involved with Aiken’s horse world. He was a regular at Aiken Polo Club Sunday games and he volunteered to judge at the Aiken Horse Show in the Woods and to announce at the Aiken Charity Horse Show that was once held at Eustis Park. He died in 1994
at the age of 84, leaving his wife, his two sons, and an indelible mark on the Aiken horse community.

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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Riding with Reason

Riding with Reason 

Simulator provides insights 

by Pam Gleason

If you want to be a better rider and get the most out of your horse, you need to learn to ride in such a way that you help him perform. You must ride him in balance, with a sympathetic seat, and move in synchrony with his gaits. So says Yvonne Brookes, a riding instructor who has recently relocated to Aiken from England along with her husband.

Yvonne, who has more that 40 years of experience as a teacher and trainer in dressage, eventing and showjumping, is certified in natural horsemanship by Monty Roberts. She also holds a Level Three accreditation from Heather Moffett’s school of Enlightened Equitation. Heather Moffett is a British trainer who teaches dressage in the French classical style, helping her students to develop a correct and effective seat, aided by the use of a mechanical riding simulator.

Moffett has developed her own line of “Equi-simulators” and Yvonne has brought one over from England and set it up on her farm. It is installed in an air-conditioned classroom and is ready to help students of all levels, from beginner through advanced, improve their riding and identify imbalances and bad habits that might be holding them (and their horses) back. The simulator is shaped like the back of a horse and is designed to move under the rider in a way that mimics a horse’s gaits. Although there are motorized simulators, the one that Yvonne uses requires the rider to initiate and maintain movement through subtle actions of their seat and weight.

“This is how everyone should start,” says Yvonne, referring to the simulator. “It doesn’t matter to that machine if you lose your balance or kick it in the ribs. If you start out on the simulator you learn a balanced, secure seat to start with. Then when you get on the real thing, you are way ahead. You have confidence and you will learn quickly how to ride with finesse and lightness.”

Yvonne says that simulator lessons are invaluable for any rider who wants to improve, and they are especially helpful for riders who feel as though they are not going anywhere with their riding.

“The way we move our bodies can either help or hinder a horse, and most often we hinder him,” she says. “A lot of us have physical asymmetries and those translate to the horse. He relies on our balance for his balance, so if we are out of sync or out of balance, he will just do what he can to compensate. Over time, he becomes asymmetrical, too, and if a horse is not straight, he will not be working to his full potential.

“The most common thing we hear is ‘my horse is lazy’ or ‘my horse is naughty’,” continues Yvonne. “There is no such thing. It is the horse telling you he is uncomfortable and we have to work out why. Nine times out of 10, it is something we are doing that we are not aware of.”

The Equi-simulator is equipped with a special saddle that has a soft tree, which Yvonne says designed by Heather Moffett to provide better comfort and freedom of movement for both horse and rider. In a simulator lesson, Yvonne watches and analyses the rider’s position, identifying and helping to correct flaws that might be holding that rider back. There are some common ones: the rider leans behind the vertical at the trot, rather than inclining slightly forward with the horse’s motion; the rider pushes too actively with the seat during the canter.; the rider sits crooked, and so on.

Ideally, directly after a simulator lesson, the rider would then get on her own horse to practice what she learned and develop good muscle memory for the correct position and use of the aids. Yvonne’s set-up includes a riding area and a place for a horse to stay while his or her owner is having a lesson on the simulator. It is not necessary to bring a horse along, however.  “I had two women come down from Ontario over Easter,” says Yvonne. “They stayed for three days and spent 12 hours on the simulator, and then drove all the way back to Canada to put what they learned in practice on their horses.” In addition to the simulator, the classroom area also includes a bunk room, so people who come from far away can spend the night if they want to.

Yvonne says that she came to her methods of teaching and training because she was looking for a kinder way to ride that would be enjoyable for the horse as well as the rider.

“I felt like I had hit a wall with my riding,” she says. “I wondered what the key was. I knew conventional training wasn’t for me, because it seemed forced – you had drive the horse forward into a strong contact, and that wasn’t my style. I came across a British-born Monty Roberts trainer and I actually worked with her for about ten years. Then I got involved with Heather Moffett, and I found that her methods opened so many doors and provided so many lightbulb moments.”

Today, Yvonne says that most of her teaching is based on her own style, which comes from many decades of experience and things she picked up from different trainers along the way. Heather Moffett and Enlightened Equitation helped clarify certain concepts for her and gave her new ways of teaching and explaining.

“Heather’s mechanical way of explaining things is very simple to teach and people find it simple to understand. I think that is the key. You don’t have to have a degree; you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to learn how to ride a horse correctly. You just have to be prepared to do it.”

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

Monday, July 3, 2017

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 McElroyDRM@aol.com, or visit her website: www.amymcelroy.com.

Dear Amy,

I was recently at a dressage show where I watched a musical ride with two riders performing together. It looked like fun. Is this a recognized class? Can anyone participate?


Dear Curious,

Yes, a musical pair ride is a recognized dressage test, formally known as a pas de deux. A pas de deux is a program created by two riders to present their horses to their best advantage in an artistic musical context. It is certainly enjoyable to watch, because it is meant to be an audience pleaser.

 There are no qualifying requirements and anyone can enter this class. It may be offered at all levels from Training to Grand Prix. This class is most similar to a standard musical freestyle ride. As far as the test scoring goes, there is a technical execution side, and an artistic side. The technical side is scored in full or half points (7 or 7.5 for instance.) The artistic side is scored in increments of one tenth of a point – you could get a 7.3 or a 7.6, for instance. Under the technical side, the required movements and the forbidden movements for each level are the same as in the USDF freestyle test for that level. For example, if you did a First Level pas de deux, you would be required to show leg yielding, but you would be forbidden to do flying changes (these are legal at Third Level and above.)

Scoring: the technical side

 The technical side has five scoring boxes, each worth a possible 10 points.  

1. Required elements: each level has certain movements or transitions that must be included in any freestyle or pas de deux at that level. For instance, in First Level there are seven required elements: free walk and medium walk (20 continuous meters of each); leg yielding at the trot (right and left); 8-10 meter trot circle (right and left); lengthening the stride in the trot; 15-meter circle at the canter (right and left) and a change of lead through the trot (right and left.)  The required elements scoring box has a coefficient of three (it counts three times.) 
2. Performance as a pair: this score takes into account the spacing of the two horses, their alignment and their synchrony. This scoring box has a coefficient of four. 
3. Gaits. This score reflects the rhythm and quality of the gaits of both horses. (There is no coefficient for this scoring box.) 
4. Impulsion. The energy, elasticity and engagement of the horses, which should be appropriate for the level at which they are competing. (Again, no coefficient) 
5. Submission. The horses’ willingness to respond to their riders’ aids. The scores for each of these boxes will be tallied for your technical score. The technical scores may be adjusted if you omitted any required movements: you will get a one-point deduction for each omitted movement. If you included any forbidden movements, you would get a four-point deduction for each one. 

Scoring: the artistic side 

The artistic side has four scoring boxes, each with a maximum of ten possible points. 
1. Harmony between horse and rider. The judge will be looking for the fluency of the performance. This scoring box has a coefficient of three. 
2. Choreography. The judge will be assessing the cohesiveness, the use of the arena, the creativity, the difficulty and the balance. This scoring box has a coefficient of four. 
3. Music. The judge will consider the seamlessness and the suitability of the music to the routine and the horses. This box has a coefficient of two. 
4. Interpretation. The judge determines how well the music expresses the gaits, taking into consideration the use of phrasing and dynamics. Your artistic score includes the sum of all the boxes, with a deduction of one point for going overtime. The maximum time for Training through Intermediate I is five minutes. The maximum time for the Grand Prix is six minutes. There is no minimum time. 

Your final score is a combination of the total technical score and the total artistic score, divided by the maximum points available. 

Interesting Facts about the Pas de Deux 

1. Any type of music can be used, including vocals. 
2. You can use leg wraps (these are strictly forbidden in other types of dressage test.) 
3. You are encouraged to use similar equipment: the similarity of the horses’ and riders’ turnout is taken into account in the artistic score. 
4. Horses that look alike and have similar movement will naturally present a pleasing and harmonious picture, but it is not mandatory that the horses resemble one another in color, or even in size and shape. 
5. You can enter the arena in single file or as a pair. 
6. You can compete side by side, as mirror images, in tandem, on opposite sides of the arena or in any combination of these configurations. There is no set requirement for how to present the two horses. 
7. Letters of the arena serve as markers only, so movements do not need to be executed at specific letters as long as their placement is clear and logical. 
8. Horses are not required to be the same level. The lower level horse determines the maximum level at which you can compete. For instance, you can match your First Level horse with a Fourth Level horse, as long as the test you perform is at the First Level. 

When creating your test, remember to show your horses to their best advantage, maximizing their strengths. Try to use the entire arena in as imaginative a way as possible, with balance between the left and right directions. Be creative: do not use a standard dressage test as the basis for your routine. Don’t be too creative, however: make sure that your performance is composed of actual dressage movements and that it is clear to the judge what movement you are performing. 

So find yourself a partner, pick some enjoyable music and start practicing. These tests are becoming more and more popular, especially right here in Aiken. If you are at a show here, be sure to catch Laura Klecker and Sara Odom and their well-matched mounts, who perform the pas de deux at many of our shows. Hope to see you out there!

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

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Biometrics Revolution 

Real Time Data for Horses 

By Pam Gleason

"How do you feel today." 

Doctors might ask this question of their patients and expect a meaningful answer. For equine veterinarians, however, it is often not so simple. Horses may tell you that something is bothering them by pointing at their sides if they have colic, or limping if they are lame. Some may have distinct facial expressions and grimaces, or pin their ears, or just look “NQR” (Not Quite Right.) 

But all horses are not equally expressive. Some can best be described as stoic: they may have something seriously wrong with them, but look as though everything were A-O.K. Since they are prey animals, stoicism in horses likely has an evolutionary benefit. Any animal in a herd that shows a predator that he is weak might be singled out to become the next main course. Acting as if everything is normal, even when it is not, might be a pretty smart thing for a horse to do.

WetCheq gives a real time picture of what is going on inside a horse.

Today, stoic horses present some problems when they do have serious ailments because their owners or veterinarians might overlook problems until it is too late. One way to assess a horse’s inner state is to keep a close eye on his vital signs, including his pulse and respiration rate, as well as his body temperature. If you know a horse’s baseline, and his heart rate is suddenly much faster than normal, you know that there is something wrong. 

Checking a horse’s vital signs is a good way to tell what is going on inside a horse, but heart and respiration rate don’t tell the whole story. Monitoring blood pressure is also important, particularly when a horse has to have surgery. When a horse is anesthetized in the clinic he normally has a catheter inserted into an artery to monitor his blood pressure, heart and respiration rate, which makes it possible to put him under relatively safely. An arterial catheter hooked up to monitoring equipment gives the veterinarian a pretty clear picture of how a horse is doing. 

When a horse comes out of anesthesia, however, it is not practical to continue to use an arterial catheter since the horse is likely to pull it out. Nor can an arterial catheter be used successfully when surgery has to be performed in the field rather than in the clinic, or on a horse that has an ailment like colic and needs to be kept under close watch. At most veterinary clinics, monitoring a horse’s vital signs requires someone to come in at regular intervals to check them. Although this certainly works, it has some drawbacks: it is labor intensive and decidedly low tech. In addition, it is possible for a patient to have a dramatic change in his condition before anyone notices. 

How can equine veterinary care move into the 21st century? Sharon Caswell, the founder and CEO of PonyUp Technologies based in Benbrook, Texas, has an answer. Her company has invented VetCheq, a noninvasive wearable device for horses that continuously monitors their full cardiac function including heart rate and blood pressure, along with their respiration rate. Users can buy an add-on tail wrap that also monitors body temperature. The VetCheq device, a small waterproof box, is attached to the horse’s leg in a wrap that looks like a competition boot. It gathers data, which it streams, via Bluetooth, to a computer or a tablet. The computer then uploads the information to the cloud so that veterinarians or horse owners can access real-time data on their horse’s condition from anywhere. Alarms can be set to alert users if a particular threshold is crossed, and the data can be stored and analyzed to discover the relationship between particular patterns of biometric data and a horse’s outward condition. 

Sharon Caswell, a lifelong horse owner and an engineer, says she first had the idea for VetCheq almost a decade ago when a little girl in Benbrook died as the result of a riding accident after her horse suddenly bolted.

In surgery: a boot instead of an arterial catheter.

“When I read about the accident, I thought with all the technology with have, wouldn’t it be a good idea to have something that could give us a better idea of what is going on inside of our horses?” she says. That idea led her to Empirical Technologies in Charlottesville, Va., a company that had invented a wearable device for soldiers in combat situations that keeps track of their vital signs and sends them to a remote computer.

“I called the company up and told them that I was interested in using something similar for horses,” Sharon continues. “And I lucked out: usually when you make that kind of call, they don’t want to talk to you. But it turned out that the owner of the company also has horses and was very interested in talking about the idea.”  Sharon made a deal to license the technology, and VetCheq was born.

VetCheq is in now service at private clinics and in veterinary schools in several states while the algorithms it uses are being tweaked to make it more accurate in various different settings. It is already 95% accurate when used as a replacement for an arterial catheter in horses undergoing surgery. The next use for VetCheq is on standing horses that are recovering from surgery or have been admitted to the vet clinic for some other reason. 

Performance Equine Veterinary Services in Aiken is at the forefront of this technology. This January they started a project with PonyUp to gather data on horses in their clinic. This data is being sent to Texas A&M Veterinary School of Medicine, which will update the VetCheq algorithms for standing horses under a grant from the American Association of Equine Practitioners. Texas A&M will then validate the data in their clinic. The practitioners and staff of PEVS are excited about VetCheq’s capabilities. 

“I think it holds a lot of promise for colics, because when horses are in distress, their heart rate goes up,” says Kelly McKinnell, an account executive at PEVS who is leading the VetCheq project there. “If you have a really stoic horse that does not show many outward signs of discomfort, this is going to let you know; it won’t lie to you the way a horse might.

“We really want to use it on every horse that we see because it will tell us what is going on inside the horse,” she continues. “We can collect the data and be able to compare it from horse to horse and see what patterns there are. Then we can go back and say, for instance, every horse that had a bad colic had this pattern, and know in advance when a horse might be headed for trouble. There are endless applications that we are excited to use it for, including any intensive care horse that needs to be monitored. With a stoic horse, you can’t tell what is going on unless you are in there with your stethoscope getting their heart rate every five minutes. This device will make it possible to know the moment there is a problem.” 

Sharon Caswell hopes that VetCheq will also be used on competition horses to help trainers monitor their fitness. It might also be used at FEI events and at racetracks to assess recovery times. Another use is for owners and trainers to be able to monitor their horses remotely. 

“There are people with very valuable horses that might come out of quarantine, or that are being shipped and they can’t sleep at night worrying about their horse getting sick,” she says. “This can give them peace of mind since it will notify them immediately if any kind of trend starts to show up – elevated heart rate, respiration rate – they will be able to intervene immediately.” 

In the future, VetCheq’s information will be available as a smartphone app. There are also other uses for the technology down the line, such as wearable devices for horses that are being exercised. Sharon says that she is excited about the technology’s potential and about her company’s future. 

“The two great passions of my life are technology and horses,” she says. “I never thought there would be a way to put them together.  I feel really, really fortunate that I have been able to do this.”

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