Showing posts with label Practical Horseman. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Practical Horseman. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Beezie Madden: Gymnasticize Your Horse


Part 2: Beezie Madden develops athleticism and rideability at the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.

“My goal today is to share knowledge and make better horsemen by doing gymnastic work and rideability work,” said Beezie Madden. After jumping the liverpool with Esprit 373, Eve Jobs and the other riders returned to gymnastic work to get the horses’ shape and rideability back. | Amy K. Dragoo

New Year’s Day dawned unseasonably hot and humid at the Winter Equestrian Festival showgrounds as two-time Olympic gold medalist Beezie Madden perched a George Morris action figure aboard a golf cart to preside over the second day of the 10th annual George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. Day 1 had featured Olympic bronze medalist Christine Traurig’s schooling of the clinic’s 12 riders in dressage in Wellington, Florida. Beezie’s plan was to work on gymnasticizing the horses with the goal of building on Christine’s lessons.

“George’s passion for teaching, his system for teaching and his passing it on to the rest of us has been a driving force in this training session for all these years,” Beezie said. “My goal today is to share knowledge and make better horsemen by doing gymnastic work and rideability work. We’ll introduce the water jump and feed off what Christine said yesterday and try to keep balance and rhythm while we do everything.”

Although the clinic’s namesake was unable to be at the training session, Olympic gold medalist Beezie ensured that a George Morris action figure presided over the lesson, placing him in the golf cart to oversee the young riders. | Amy K. Dragoo


Beezie introduced the concepts of her teaching method to them first in a demonstration ride. The day’s theme was developing a horse’s adjustability and how that helps when jumping a course. She worked on getting the horse “in front of the rider’s leg” by engaging his hind end because, she said, the horse can’t accept hands on the reins until he is in front of the leg. “I like the horse’s hind legs to feel like they’re stepping underneath my seat.” 
Transitions, Transitions, Transitions

Beezie also stressed getting the horse to work from his hind end into and through transitions. She often uses transitions that require leg to school this concept, like a shoulder-in. “In this lateral movement, I have to keep the hind end underneath me to do the transition,” she explained. “If the horse tries to raise his head up, I correct him so that he is underneath my seat.” 


As an example, Beezie said riders could ride a shoulder-in at the sitting trot, then transition to the shoulder-in at the walk for a few steps before returning to a shoulder-in at the sitting trot. Or each could ride a half-pass at the sitting trot, then ride a transition to a half-pass at the walk for a few steps back to a half-pass at the sitting trot while making sure the horse’s hind end is underneath the rider’s seat. Then riders could change it up: ride a half-pass, change direction, walk, trot, walk. Horses could memorize a pattern, so finding the correct balance between repetition and overdoing an exercise is key. 

Variety is the Key To Training 


Tori Colvin uses her inside leg coming out of the turn to put Whisper Z onto the outside rein while shaping the turn and keeping the balance so she can ride straight to the pole. | Amy K. Dragoo


Still riding, Beezie introduced a series of three rails, each placed 48 feet apart, to test the horse’s rideability with frequent gait changes over various patterns while regulating his rhythm and tempo. She rode transitions from canter to walk, then walked over a rail, then picked up a trot to go back and forth through the straight line of rails. At the canter, she rode the rails in a straight line and changed the number of strides between them, going from three strides to a rail to four strides to the next one. Then she mixed it up by asking for five strides to the second rail and three strides to the first rail. “My concern is that the horse’s balance and his frame stay the way I want it all the way down the gymnastic line. When you are at the level of grand prix, your horse should be able to do that like an accordion. You need to be able to do the open water to the double of verticals combination. It’s a test every time. You have to be able to make the adjustment and keep the horse’s brain together so he is able to do something bold and then move to something very short.” 



Before Beezie added jumping to the gymnastic exercises, she moved her stirrups up a hole. “You should have a little longer stirrup for the flat than jumping,” she advised. “Don’t take your foot out of your stirrup to adjust it since you’re never going to know what will spook your horse. If you’re ever on a young horse, you have to have that skill.” Then it was back to the business of adding variety to the workout by introducing three vertical jumps set on a line 20 feet apart with ground rails placed midway between each. She also set takeoff and landing poles 10 feet before and after the line. She rode the line and had the horse halt after it.



“The landing of each fence is the starting of the approach to the next fence so it is important to be critical of your horse’s schooling,” Beezie said. “He should halt on the bit, not flying backward or rooting. He’s got to be disciplined enough to halt in the contact.” 



Again to add variety, she would sometimes ride the line and then ride through the corner. She emphasized working on making tidy turns to prepare for the tight time allowed on many courses and the speed often required in jump-offs. To sharpen the turns, she used her inside leg to put the horse onto the outside rein, which keeps him from cutting in. “If the horse is on the outside rein through the turn, the turn becomes much simpler,” she explained. “If the horse is cutting and not on my outside rein, it becomes a battle into the turn. Not only does it distract the horse, it slows him down, too.


“Jumping is a sport of concentration,” she continued. “Every horse we put in a class could jump over the fences or we would be idiots to put them there. The real test is can the horse concentrate and be schooled enough to jump those fences in a strange environment with the trickiness the course designers like. We always think about the riders, but the horse has to concentrate, too. His concentration has to be mainly on the fence. Responding to the rider and the rider’s aids has to become a force of habit.”

Put the Jump in the Middle of the Arc


Beezie began Day 2 of the 10th George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session with a demonstration to introduce the day’s lesson: developing adjustability of the equine athlete and how that translates to jumping. | Amy K. Dragoo

Beezie said training the horse to jump so that his arc is over the middle of the jump is important. A rider does this by keeping the horse’s hind end engaged and maintaining an even rhythm so the takeoff spot is accurate. “A horse that jumps too early will have the back rail. I want enough rideability that I can keep my horse together in rhythm.” As long as a rider keeps the rhythm and the connection, the horse can jump well from a variety of spots.

As Beezie cooled down her horse before bringing the young riders into the ring, she encouraged him to stretch and relax his topline. “It’s a nice exercise physically and mentally,” she said. “Even though he’s in a long frame, I’m still stretching out the muscles in his back” while keeping him in front of the leg with light contact. There is “still connection between leg and hand even though I am letting him rest and relax,” she added.
When riding the final downward transition to the walk, Beezie pointed out that riders should not just plop down on the horse’s back and let him fall behind. Everything you do on a horse is training him, she said. “When I’ve done this nice flatwork and I end with a bad transition, I’ve pretty much ruined the session. Details, details, all the time. Even in the barn you are training your horse.” 

First Training Session 


“I learned to think about every part of the course and not take any part for granted,” said 20-year-old Dani Roskens. She also learned to use her whole body as a unit to affect the weight of the horse. | Amy K. Dragoo
As the first six riders entered the ring, Beezie instructed them to warm up by walking in a lively rhythm with the horses in front of the riders’ legs. She asked them to establish contact with the horses’ mouths by pushing them into the bit, not by pulling on the reins.

Throughout the session, Beezie insisted the horses react to the aids. Not a fan of digging the horse with a spur at every stride, she explained that the horse needs to be respectful of the aids and ready to respond to them, but he can’t be afraid of them. “It’s got to make sense to him,” she said. “There’s a progression. You don’t want to go from no leg and then attack the horse.” You start with the amount of pressure you want the horse to respond to and if he doesn’t, “he gets a little reprimand” with a stronger leg or a kick. 

Beezie asked the riders to move into the posting trot, reminding them that their first goal was to make sure the horses had enough impulsion for self-carriage. The horses should be trotting in a nice forward rhythm with a light contact. If the horses evaded the bit by pulling or getting behind it, she instructed the riders to raise their hands to put a little pressure on the corners of the horses’ mouths. When the horses changed the head position by accepting the bit, she explained that the riders needed to immediately soften the contact while maintaining the leg. 

As Vivian Yowan’s horse became fussy with his mouth, Beezie suggested she try to keep her hands as steady as possible while using her legs to push him up to the bit. When he put his head down and relaxed his jaw, Beezie told her to relax her hands. 

Once again, Beezie stressed transitions: walk to trot, sitting trot, collect a little, shoulder-in in a walk to a sitting trot, shoulder-in in a sitting trot to a walk. She explained that to achieve the shoulder-in, a rider adds pressure with the inside leg at the girth to push the horse into the outside rein. The horse’s neck stays bent to the inside but not overbent. The hind legs should feel as if they are stepping up underneath the seat without going faster. She added that a rider should always work the horse in both directions. The riders were often asked to sit the trot so that they could use their seats and backs to influence the transitions. 

Tori Colvin, 18, was reminded to lean back when doing transitions instead of forward. She said she’d remember what Beezie said about carrying the hands, making sure she’s not pulling on the reins and legging the horse for impulsion. 

Just when the jumpers thought they might be finished with dressage, Beezie introduced a half-pass. A half-pass is performed with the horse parallel to the side of the ring and slightly bent in the direction in which he is moving forward. Beezie reminded the riders that looking at the horses’ heads will not put them into the right position, but looking where they wanted to go will help create the roundness of the horse. 

Then riders tackled the ground rails, using transitions to increase rideability and adjustability. “Working with the horse’s rhythm and balance, the horse’s hind leg has to come underneath you,” Beezie said. “Think of the rails as references where you make the transitions. The horse should feel like an accordion. He should feel short in his neck and then lengthen a little.”


Kelli Cruciotti liked changing the number of strides between three ground poles in a line. “That was a great exercise for me to think about and take home to my other horses. I am going to think about the shape of the horse and making sure he has that accordion feeling.” | Amy K. Dragoo
Beezie chided the riders for sloppy halts. In the downward transitions, the seat and back need to remain fixed with the shoulders slightly behind the hips. She instructed Eve Jobs, 17, to brace her heel a little so her leg could slide a bit forward in the halt and to give a little with her arms. Then Beezie told Vivian, 18, to think of a halt more like waterskiing with her shoulders behind her hips. “If you get your shoulders in front of your hips, the horse has a big advantage,” she cautioned. “He’s much stronger than you. Our only method of riding is by having leverage. You get the leverage by having the correct position and style.” 

Riders then start incorporating verticals and oxers with turns in between. Beezie told them to put their horses on the outside rein to shape the turn and keep the balance while looking to finish the turn. “Once you have the horse on the outside rein, you don’t have to keep fading, fading, fading to the outside standard of the next fence,” she explained. “You’ve got to put the horse on the outside rein to put him into a position to come in on the turn. If you don’t look to come in, you’ll have to make time up.” As more jumps, including oxers and a water jump, were added throughout the session, riders were urged to supple their elbows to increase connection with the horse. “When they react to the hand, we reward them by becoming more and more supple ourselves.” 

Beezie told 17-year-old TJ O’Mara to keep his elbows bent and elastic, causing him to note afterward that “it really made the course so much easier because sometimes I stiffen my arms and the horse will sometimes resist it. It made my horse listen to my aids and she felt amazing.”

Mitch Endicott, 17, learned he needs to focus on staying square in the saddle. “Around the turns, I don’t stay square with my body,” he said. “I tend to lean in. That’s something I need to work on.”

Second Session


Lucy Deslauriers rides a line of three vertical jumps, each set 20 feet apart, with ground rails set midway between each fence. This helped emphasize that the landing of each fence is the starting of the approach to the next fence. | Amy K. Dragoo
The second group of riders had the same warm-up. Beezie urged them to create energy in the walk on a long rein. She instructed them to liven their horses to the leg but not by increasing and holding the spur into the horse’s side. “What that does is create the horse being duller to your leg,” she said. “What you do is you ask with the pressure you would like for him to react from, and if he doesn’t answer to that, attack him a little with the spur. Try to surprise him a little so he starts to anticipate when you do put a little pressure on his side. He’s got to be ready to react to that. If the horse is reactive enough to the leg, I shouldn’t see what I talked about in my demonstration of people spurring the horse every stride and slapping the saddle with their seat to try to create the impulsion. I want to see the horse light enough to the leg that I don’t even see that you’re doing anything.” 

When 20-year-old Dani Rosken’s horse began jigging in the trot, Beezie told her to be more sympathetic with her leg. When horses are reactive enough, don’t keep trying to get more and more horse. In addition, Dani said, “I learned to use my whole body as a unit instead of just trying to use one part to affect the entire weight of the horse.”

Daisy Farish’s horse was a little too reactive to the leg, so Beezie coached her to apply a half-halt with her outside hand to recycle the horse’s energy back into the hind legs. Afterward Daisy, 15, said she learned how her position could strengthen the rideability of the hot horse. “Beezie helped me with the way I sit and with keeping my shoulders back to make it easier to control him.”

Beezie told Ransome Rombauer, 17, to bring her hands above her horse’s withers because when she carried her hands too low, she risked pulling the horse’s head down and creating resistance than suppleness. Instead, Beezie told her to raise the hand, keeping the bit in the corners of the horse’s mouth until he sought a different position and gave in the jaw by lowering his head. When that happens, the rider can reward him by relaxing the contact though not allowing a slack in the reins. 

As riders moved on to riding over the ground rails and jumping, Kelli Cruciotti, 18, said she liked using different stride lengths over the set of three ground poles. “I am going to think about the shape of the horse and making sure he has that accordion feeling,” she said.

At the water jump, Beezie had more advice. “You don’t want to ride the water like you would a tall vertical. You don’t want to get there having to compress the stride a lot.” Many of the riders were aboard borrowed horses for the training session so the coaching often involved how to navigate a horse whose quirks weren’t known. “When you know you have a sophisticated water jumper, that’s a good time to compress a little and let the horse jump bigger. When you don’t know your horse, you want to be able to build a little for the water the first time.” 

After the riders schooled over the water jump, Beezie had them return to the gymnastic exercises. “Schooling the water creates kind of an aggressive horse. Any time you do a water school or you’re schooling natural jumps getting ready for a derby-type show, remember you probably need to do something after that to get a little more gymnastic and get the horse’s shape and rideability back together. Even if they’re good about that stuff, it still creates a bold, long, kind of aggressive horse.”


Riders at the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session watch and listen to Beezie Madden describe what Day 2 holds (from left): TJ O’Mara, Ransome Rombauer, Kelli Cruciotti, Mitch Endicott, Lucy Deslauriers, Eve Jobs, Katherine Strauss, Ailish Cunniffe, Daisy Farish, Vivian Yowan, Victoria Colvin and Danielle Roskens. | Amy K. Dragoo

As the day wound down, Beezie again praised George while acknowledging his tiny action figure set in the golf cart overlooking the training session.

“He’s the driving force behind this training session and, thanks to him, we have a good program here,” she said.


Katherine Strauss, 17, found that working on fundamentals such as smoothly extending and collecting, basic flatwork, lateral work and making sure the horse is responsive to the aids was helpful. | Amy K. Dragoo


Re-published article from Practical Horseman.



Sunday, April 9, 2017

Beezie Madden: Gymnasticize Your Horse

Part 2: Beezie Madden develops athleticism and rideability at the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.

“My goal today is to share knowledge and make better horsemen by doing gymnastic work and rideability work,” said Beezie Madden. After jumping the liverpool with Esprit 373, Eve Jobs and the other riders returned to gymnastic work to get the horses’ shape and rideability back. | Amy K. Dragoo

New Year’s Day dawned unseasonably hot and humid at the Winter Equestrian Festival showgrounds as two-time Olympic gold medalist Beezie Madden perched a George Morris action figure aboard a golf cart to preside over the second day of the 10th annual George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. Day 1 had featured Olympic bronze medalist Christine Traurig’s schooling of the clinic’s 12 riders in dressage in Wellington, Florida. Beezie’s plan was to work on gymnasticizing the horses with the goal of building on Christine’s lessons.

“George’s passion for teaching, his system for teaching and his passing it on to the rest of us has been a driving force in this training session for all these years,” Beezie said. “My goal today is to share knowledge and make better horsemen by doing gymnastic work and rideability work. We’ll introduce the water jump and feed off what Christine said yesterday and try to keep balance and rhythm while we do everything.”

After deciding to take a break from teaching clinics this year, George enlisted the help of Beezie, Christine and Olympic gold medalist Laura Kraut to teach his three-day training session for up-and-coming riders. The young riders were invited to the clinic based on their placings in equitation and jumping classes last year and included Victoria “Tori” Colvin, Kelli Cruciotti, Ailish Cunniffe, Lucy Deslauriers, Mitch Endicott, Daisy Farish, Eve Jobs, TJ O’Mara, Ransome Rombauer, Danielle “Dani” Roskens, Katherine Strauss and Vivian Yowan.

Beezie introduced the concepts of her teaching method to them first in a demonstration ride. The day’s theme was developing a horse’s adjustability and how that helps when jumping a course. She worked on getting the horse “in front of the rider’s leg” by engaging his hind end because, she said, the horse can’t accept hands on the reins until he is in front of the leg. “I like the horse’s hind legs to feel like they’re stepping underneath my seat.”

Transitions, Transitions, Transitions

Beezie also stressed getting the horse to work from his hind end into and through transitions. She often uses transitions that require leg to school this concept, like a shoulder-in. “In this lateral movement, I have to keep the hind end underneath me to do the transition,” she explained. “If the horse tries to raise his head up, I correct him so that he is underneath my seat.”

As an example, Beezie said riders could ride a shoulder-in at the sitting trot, then transition to the shoulder-in at the walk for a few steps before returning to a shoulder-in at the sitting trot. Or each could ride a half-pass at the sitting trot, then ride a transition to a half-pass at the walk for a few steps back to a half-pass at the sitting trot while making sure the horse’s hind end is underneath the rider’s seat. Then riders could change it up: ride a half-pass, change direction, walk, trot, walk. Horses could memorize a pattern, so finding the correct balance between repetition and overdoing an exercise is key.

Variety is the Key To Training

Still riding, Beezie introduced a series of three rails, each placed 48 feet apart, to test the horse’s rideability with frequent gait changes over various patterns while regulating his rhythm and tempo. She rode transitions from canter to walk, then walked over a rail, then picked up a trot to go back and forth through the straight line of rails. At the canter, she rode the rails in a straight line and changed the number of strides between them, going from three strides to a rail to four strides to the next one. Then she mixed it up by asking for five strides to the second rail and three strides to the first rail. “My concern is that the horse’s balance and his frame stay the way I want it all the way down the gymnastic line. When you are at the level of grand prix, your horse should be able to do that like an accordion. You need to be able to do the open water to the double of verticals combination. It’s a test every time. You have to be able to make the adjustment and keep the horse’s brain together so he is able to do something bold and then move to something very short.”

Tori Colvin uses her inside leg coming out of the turn to put Whisper Z onto the outside rein while shaping the turn and keeping the balance so she can ride straight to the pole. | Amy K. Dragoo
Before Beezie added jumping to the gymnastic exercises, she moved her stirrups up a hole. “You should have a little longer stirrup for the flat than jumping,” she advised. “Don’t take your foot out of your stirrup to adjust it since you’re never going to know what will spook your horse. If you’re ever on a young horse, you have to have that skill.” Then it was back to the business of adding variety to the workout by introducing three vertical jumps set on a line 20 feet apart with ground rails placed midway between each. She also set takeoff and landing poles 10 feet before and after the line. She rode the line and had the horse halt after it.

“The landing of each fence is the starting of the approach to the next fence so it is important to be critical of your horse’s schooling,” Beezie said. “He should halt on the bit, not flying backward or rooting. He’s got to be disciplined enough to halt in the contact.”

Again to add variety, she would sometimes ride the line and then ride through the corner. She emphasized working on making tidy turns to prepare for the tight time allowed on many courses and the speed often required in jump-offs. To sharpen the turns, she used her inside leg to put the horse onto the outside rein, which keeps him from cutting in. “If the horse is on the outside rein through the turn, the turn becomes much simpler,” she explained. “If the horse is cutting and not on my outside rein, it becomes a battle into the turn. Not only does it distract the horse, it slows him down, too.

“Jumping is a sport of concentration,” she continued. “Every horse we put in a class could jump over the fences or we would be idiots to put them there. The real test is can the horse concentrate and be schooled enough to jump those fences in a strange environment with the trickiness the course designers like. We always think about the riders, but the horse has to concentrate, too. His concentration has to be mainly on the fence. Responding to the rider and the rider’s aids has to become a force of habit.”

Put the Jump in the Middle of the Arc

Beezie said training the horse to jump so that his arc is over the middle of the jump is important. A rider does this by keeping the horse’s hind end engaged and maintaining an even rhythm so the takeoff spot is accurate. “A horse that jumps too early will have the back rail. I want enough rideability that I can keep my horse together in rhythm.” As long as a rider keeps the rhythm and the connection, the horse can jump well from a variety of spots.

As Beezie cooled down her horse before bringing the young riders into the ring, she encouraged him to stretch and relax his topline. “It’s a nice exercise physically and mentally,” she said. “Even though he’s in a long frame, I’m still stretching out the muscles in his back” while keeping him in front of the leg with light contact. There is “still connection between leg and hand even though I am letting him rest and relax,” she added.


Beezie began Day 2 of the 10th George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session with a demonstration to introduce the day’s lesson: developing adjustability of the equine athlete and how that translates to jumping. | Amy K. Dragoo

When riding the final downward transition to the walk, Beezie pointed out that riders should not just plop down on the horse’s back and let him fall behind. Everything you do on a horse is training him, she said. “When I’ve done this nice flatwork and I end with a bad transition, I’ve pretty much ruined the session. Details, details, all the time. Even in the barn you are training your horse.”

First Training Session

As the first six riders entered the ring, Beezie instructed them to warm up by walking in a lively rhythm with the horses in front of the riders’ legs. She asked them to establish contact with the horses’ mouths by pushing them into the bit, not by pulling on the reins.

Throughout the session, Beezie insisted the horses react to the aids. Not a fan of digging the horse with a spur at every stride, she explained that the horse needs to be respectful of the aids and ready to respond to them, but he can’t be afraid of them. “It’s got to make sense to him,” she said. “There’s a progression. You don’t want to go from no leg and then attack the horse.” You start with the amount of pressure you want the horse to respond to and if he doesn’t, “he gets a little reprimand” with a stronger leg or a kick.

Beezie asked the riders to move into the posting trot, reminding them that their first goal was to make sure the horses had enough impulsion for self-carriage. The horses should be trotting in a nice forward rhythm with a light contact. If the horses evaded the bit by pulling or getting behind it, she instructed the riders to raise their hands to put a little pressure on the corners of the horses’ mouths. When the horses changed the head position by accepting the bit, she explained that the riders needed to immediately soften the contact while maintaining the leg.

“I learned to think about every part of the course and not take any part for granted,” said 20-year-old Dani Roskens. She also learned to use her whole body as a unit to affect the weight of the horse. | Amy K. Dragoo

As Vivian Yowan’s horse became fussy with his mouth, Beezie suggested she try to keep her hands as steady as possible while using her legs to push him up to the bit. When he put his head down and relaxed his jaw, Beezie told her to relax her hands.

Once again, Beezie stressed transitions: walk to trot, sitting trot, collect a little, shoulder-in in a walk to a sitting trot, shoulder-in in a sitting trot to a walk. She explained that to achieve the shoulder-in, a rider adds pressure with the inside leg at the girth to push the horse into the outside rein. The horse’s neck stays bent to the inside but not overbent. The hind legs should feel as if they are stepping up underneath the seat without going faster. She added that a rider should always work the horse in both directions. The riders were often asked to sit the trot so that they could use their seats and backs to influence the transitions.

Tori Colvin, 18, was reminded to lean back when doing transitions instead of forward. She said she’d remember what Beezie said about carrying the hands, making sure she’s not pulling on the reins and legging the horse for impulsion.

Just when the jumpers thought they might be finished with dressage, Beezie introduced a half-pass. A half-pass is performed with the horse parallel to the side of the ring and slightly bent in the direction in which he is moving forward. Beezie reminded the riders that looking at the horses’ heads will not put them into the right position, but looking where they wanted to go will help create the roundness of the horse.

Then riders tackled the ground rails, using transitions to increase rideability and adjustability. “Working with the horse’s rhythm and balance, the horse’s hind leg has to come underneath you,” Beezie said. “Think of the rails as references where you make the transitions. The horse should feel like an accordion. He should feel short in his neck and then lengthen a little.”

Beezie chided the riders for sloppy halts. In the downward transitions, the seat and back need to remain fixed with the shoulders slightly behind the hips. She instructed Eve Jobs, 17, to brace her heel a little so her leg could slide a bit forward in the halt and to give a little with her arms. Then Beezie told Vivian, 18, to think of a halt more like waterskiing with her shoulders behind her hips. “If you get your shoulders in front of your hips, the horse has a big advantage,” she cautioned. “He’s much stronger than you. Our only method of riding is by having leverage. You get the leverage by having the correct position and style.”

Riders then start incorporating verticals and oxers with turns in between. Beezie told them to put their horses on the outside rein to shape the turn and keep the balance while looking to finish the turn. “Once you have the horse on the outside rein, you don’t have to keep fading, fading, fading to the outside standard of the next fence,” she explained. “You’ve got to put the horse on the outside rein to put him into a position to come in on the turn. If you don’t look to come in, you’ll have to make time up.” As more jumps, including oxers and a water jump, were added throughout the session, riders were urged to supple their elbows to increase connection with the horse. “When they react to the hand, we reward them by becoming more and more supple ourselves.”

Beezie told 17-year-old TJ O’Mara to keep his elbows bent and elastic, causing him to note afterward that “it really made the course so much easier because sometimes I stiffen my arms and the horse will sometimes resist it. It made my horse listen to my aids and she felt amazing.”

Mitch Endicott, 17, learned he needs to focus on staying square in the saddle. “Around the turns, I don’t stay square with my body,” he said. “I tend to lean in. That’s something I need to work on.”

Second Session

The second group of riders had the same warm-up. Beezie urged them to create energy in the walk on a long rein. She instructed them to liven their horses to the leg but not by increasing and holding the spur into the horse’s side. “What that does is create the horse being duller to your leg,” she said. “What you do is you ask with the pressure you would like for him to react from, and if he doesn’t answer to that, attack him a little with the spur. Try to surprise him a little so he starts to anticipate when you do put a little pressure on his side. He’s got to be ready to react to that. If the horse is reactive enough to the leg, I shouldn’t see what I talked about in my demonstration of people spurring the horse every stride and slapping the saddle with their seat to try to create the impulsion. I want to see the horse light enough to the leg that I don’t even see that you’re doing anything.”

When 20-year-old Dani Rosken’s horse began jigging in the trot, Beezie told her to be more sympathetic with her leg. When horses are reactive enough, don’t keep trying to get more and more horse. In addition, Dani said, “I learned to use my whole body as a unit instead of just trying to use one part to affect the entire weight of the horse.”

Daisy Farish’s horse was a little too reactive to the leg, so Beezie coached her to apply a half-halt with her outside hand to recycle the horse’s energy back into the hind legs. Afterward Daisy, 15, said she learned how her position could strengthen the rideability of the hot horse. “Beezie helped me with the way I sit and with keeping my shoulders back to make it easier to control him.”

Beezie told Ransome Rombauer, 17, to bring her hands above her horse’s withers because when she carried her hands too low, she risked pulling the horse’s head down and creating resistance than suppleness. Instead, Beezie told her to raise the hand, keeping the bit in the corners of the horse’s mouth until he sought a different position and gave in the jaw by lowering his head. When that happens, the rider can reward him by relaxing the contact though not allowing a slack in the reins.

As riders moved on to riding over the ground rails and jumping, Kelli Cruciotti, 18, said she liked using different stride lengths over the set of three ground poles. “I am going to think about the shape of the horse and making sure he has that accordion feeling,” she said.

At the water jump, Beezie had more advice. “You don’t want to ride the water like you would a tall vertical. You don’t want to get there having to compress the stride a lot.” Many of the riders were aboard borrowed horses for the training session so the coaching often involved how to navigate a horse whose quirks weren’t known. “When you know you have a sophisticated water jumper, that’s a good time to compress a little and let the horse jump bigger. When you don’t know your horse, you want to be able to build a little for the water the first time.”

After the riders schooled over the water jump, Beezie had them return to the gymnastic exercises. “Schooling the water creates kind of an aggressive horse. Any time you do a water school or you’re schooling natural jumps getting ready for a derby-type show, remember you probably need to do something after that to get a little more gymnastic and get the horse’s shape and rideability back together. Even if they’re good about that stuff, it still creates a bold, long, kind of aggressive horse.”

Riders at the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session watch and listen to Beezie Madden describe what Day 2 holds (from left): TJ O’Mara, Ransome Rombauer, Kelli Cruciotti, Mitch Endicott, Lucy Deslauriers, Eve Jobs, Katherine Strauss, Ailish Cunniffe, Daisy Farish, Vivian Yowan, Victoria Colvin and Danielle Roskens. | Amy K. Dragoo

As the day wound down, Beezie again praised George while acknowledging his tiny action figure set in the golf cart overlooking the training session.

“He’s the driving force behind this training session and, thanks to him, we have a good program here,” she said.


Katherine Strauss, 17, found that working on fundamentals such as smoothly extending and collecting, basic flatwork, lateral work and making sure the horse is responsive to the aids was helpful. | Amy K. Dragoo



This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Practical Horseman. It is reprinted here by permission.




Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Laura Kraut: Master The Course

After the first round, Laura Kraut suggested Daisy Farish work on regaining control of Double Play after the fences. | Amy K. Dragoo

Laura Kraut explains how riders can help their horses over the jumps instead of being passive passengers at the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session.

Unseasonable Florida heat and humidity were already causing trickling sweat between the shoulder blades of 12 competitive young riders as they tacked up for the final day of the 2016 George H. Morris Horsemastership Training Session. In George’s absence, Laura Kraut devised a Nations Cup-style format in which riders jumped two rounds each on the Conrad Homfeld-designed course.

“One of my passions is riding in Nations Cups,” said Laura, an Olympic gold medalist. “For me, that’s just the pinnacle of the sport. We were lucky enough to find all of George Morris’ notes that he would read at every team meeting at every single Nations Cup. Last night, we had an hour-and-a-half session going over George’s thoughts and ideas—and demands. I thought it would be fun to make it a competition because, let’s face it, all these kids are competitive. They wouldn’t be here if they weren’t high achievers.”

The 12 riders were divided into three teams each with an Olympian serving as chef d’√©quipe. Team Red with Beezie Madden included Kelli Cruciotti, Daisy Farish, TJ O’Mara and Ransome Rombauer. Team White with Anne Kursinski was made up of Victoria “Tori” Colvin, Eve Jobs, Danielle “Dani” Roskens and Katherine Strauss. Lauren Hough was at the helm for Team Blue of Ailish Cunniffe, Lucy Deslauriers, Mitch Endicott and Vivian Yowan.

After team members rode the first course featuring 12 obstacles set at 1.35 meters with a time allowed of 76 seconds, Laura critiqued them, offering suggestions for improving their second rides later that morning. She emphasized that the riders should help their horses over the jumps instead of being passive passengers. Whether it was the timing of a leg to urge the horse forward or the artful use of a half-halt, Laura was all about being a smart rider to help the horse prepare for and master each jump. Time and again, concentration was her advice to the young riders.

The First Round

After poring over George Morris’ notes from Nations Cup team meetings and discussing his ideas and demands with the riders, Olympian Laura Kraut spent the final day of the clinic instructing riders as they each jumped two rounds in a Nations Cup-style format. | Amy K. Dragoo

Team Red’s TJ was first up in the irons, and an iPhone recorded the time of his round at 81 seconds. “To have to go first in a Nations Cup is very nerve-wracking and he’s on a young horse,” Laura said, explaining that it was a strong ride on a borrowed mare TJ didn’t know, Gut Einhaus’ Delinda. She thought he could have been sharper between Fence 4B and Fence 5 by giving the horse a good kick to gallop through the long turn. He used his body and balance to help the mare handle the final vertical of the triple combination, Fence 11C. When they landed, he instantly recovered to get to Fence 12 in seven strides. TJ’s takeaway: Increase sharpness and decrease time by urging his horse forward and helping her balance.

Team Blue’s Ailish came in under time at 74, and Laura thought the left-turn gallop after Fence 4B made the difference. Ailish knocked down a rail at Fence 3, a yellow oxer, and Laura suggested she should have given her horse, Whipstick Farm’s Perfect de Coquerie, more encouragement. “A nickel’s worth more leg there and you would have gotten across the back rail,” she said. “When you are in a Nations Cup and there is so much pressure and you have a fence down, you’ve got to stay on it and you can’t lose your focus. You’ve got to think about whether you give him a kick or a cluck or do something different.” Ailish’s takeaway: Maintain focus.

Team White’s Katherine rode her new young Hanoverian gelding, Executive, who was a little strong, although she finished with no faults in 73 seconds. Laura suggested that Katherine not say “whoa” as she was leaving the ground over an oxer so that the horse didn’t think about landing on a back rail. “He has plenty of scope so I don’t think that was going to be an issue, but the time to say ‘whoa’ is on landing,” she said. Laura praised Katherine’s set-up to Fence 5, the liverpool, when she kept control of her horse and made him wait to jump it. He was losing his shape at Fence 11ABC, the triple combination, when he landed and got wobbly, but Katherine kicked him at just the right moment to get his focus on the last fence of the course and get him up into the bridle. Katherine’s takeaway: Avoid voice aids used at the wrong time.

Daisy came in at 74 seconds but Laura said her horse, River Mountain Farm’s Double Play, looked as if he had been against her from the start, and although she did the first line in seven strides as Laura would have recommended for the smaller horse, he wasn’t soft in the bridle. She suggested Daisy work at regaining control after the jumps so she could turn earlier at the ends of the ring instead of pushing her strong horse forward so he could get heavy in her hand. In addition, Laura chided her about the triple, where she knocked down a rail at Fence 11B. “You were riding C before you finished riding B. You sat up and you stiffed him at B and just sat down on it [the jump] behind. The next round, think just maybe use your voice first and then go to the hand and the shoulders to help.” Daisy’s takeaway: First finish the fence you’re jumping.

Mitch rode a borrowed horse, Alexa White’s C’est Blue, who had just turned 7. “When you are riding a young horse, you’ve got to sometimes allow him time to concentrate and get your rideability,” Laura said, adding that Mitch lost the horse’s focus around the turns because he swung wide to set him up. “If I was on a young horse, I would not have trusted that so much. I would have had more impulsion through the turn so I was darned sure I was getting it done.” Mitch’s takeaway: Allow a young horse time to concentrate.

Eve just made the time, and Laura thought her biggest issue was getting her mare, Esprit 373, to coil up or shorten her stride. As the round progressed, the horse became longer, stiffer and more strung out, which affected her rideability. Laura observed that Eve was hesitant to go forward because she lacked control. “She was behind you. You couldn’t put your leg on,” Laura said. “She was stiff and you ended up adding at least one too many [strides] or maybe two too many to the water to cross it.” Eve’s takeaway: Do something. When you ask, ask.

The 12 riders were divided into three teams to compete over the Conrad Homfeld-designed mock Nations Cup course.
Ransome’s word of the day on her borrowed horse, Stansky’s Mission Farms’ Liverpool, was “passive” after her 81-second ride. “You’ve got to learn to make your horse come back to you,” Laura said. “I’m very disgruntled with the way you rode [from Fence 7 to Fence 8, the liverpool]. If you had been on my team I would not have been happy with you. I could have gone out and had coffee. You need to get over, land and send him. Even if you lose some control on the gallop, you can make it up on the hairpin turn back. Risk it.” Ransome’s takeaway: Work on being stronger within the time allowed.

Vivian rode a big mover, Saddle Ridge’s Ultimate Z, around the course in 76 seconds. Laura told her to think about helping her horse more with her legs to balance him around the turns. “You got wrapped up with too much hand and not enough leg,” she said. “The leg is really important.” She reminded Vivian to keep mentally sharp in the second round—to not just think she had a good first round so she could relax the second time. Vivian’s takeaway: Stay on top of it.

Dani had a refusal at Fence 7, but Laura praised her handling of the problem. “When something goes wrong, you can’t dwell on it,” she said. “You just went right around and came back to it.” She suggested Dani try to be softer on the strong mare, Pablo Mejia’s Dynastic Up, by making her fit the stride in [from Fence 6 to 7] to maintain control. “You have to learn some finesse. You started out so aggressive that you were against her and then toned it down.” Dani’s takeaway: Take soft control from the beginning.

Kelli wowed Laura with her 73-second ride on Serenity Equestrian Ventures’ Wallenberg. “That was a riding lesson,” Laura said. “That was fantastic. You never looked hurried, and that’s the sign of a rider who has confidence and who knows her horse.” Kelli rode forward yet held him together to make him go high over the jumps. Kelli’s takeaway: Cut off more real estate at the turn at the end of the ring so you don’t have to gallop.

Laura praised Lucy for her control after her 74-second finish. Lucy’s horse, Hamlet, hit the water at Fence 5, a liverpool, and Laura suggested she was wishy-washy on the turn after Fence 7 and didn’t get her horse back, so she couldn’t create the impulsion to Fence 8, the water jump. “You never panicked,” Laura said of her approach to Fence 9, but she pointed out that she needed to use more leg coming into the turn on Fence 10. “You thought forward and went forward, but he wasn’t in your hand and coming from your seat and leg. When you came though the turn, you were out in front of him. So you had nothing to work with.” Lucy’s takeaway: Commit through the turn and go forward to fix the water next time.

Laura praised TJ O’Mara’s use of his body to balance Delinda. | Amy K. Dragoo
Tori rode the fastest round of the day at 72 seconds. Laura commended her for a strong ride and for getting Allyson Shyroc’s Whisper Z up and in front of her leg. “He never went behind your leg, not once,” Laura said. “You never lost the connection with him and rode him forward. Your shoulders were back and you were strong through your lower back and your arms never even had to move.” Tori’s takeaway: Give your horse a half-halt or two and set him up so you slow down just a little before the oxer.

Laura said she was impressed with the riders over Conrad Homfeld’s technical course. Added the 1984 Olympic gold and silver medalist: “I think it’s doing its work properly without overfacing anyone or taking too much out of the horses.” After the riders attended team pep rallies and were debriefed by their chefs, they took a short break from the heat. Then they mounted up for round two.

At the end of the first round, Beezie’s Team Red had a 14-point advantage with six faults while Teams White and Blue had 20 faults each.

Round Two

Laura described Ransome Rombauer’s first ride on Liverpool as “passive” and chided her for the way she rode the turn from Fence 7 to the water. In the second round, Ransome improved. “You looked like a different rider going through the turn,” said Laura. | Amy K. Dragoo
The second round began with the riders tackling the course in the order of those with the highest to lowest number of faults. “It seems obvious that you can come back in the second round and correct your mistakes and make a better round, but that’s not necessarily the case because you’re dealing with a horse,” Laura explained. “You don’t know if your horse is going to come back and let down and become tired and less sharp, or, in some cases, a hot strong horse might know that something important is happening and get overly strong and anticipate. So it’s not really a given that the second round is easier. In fact, sometimes I think the second round can be even more difficult.”

The first up, Ailish came in at 74 seconds again. She knocked down several rails and rubbed Fence 12. Laura said she had hoped the horse would settle down, but instead he lit up at the gallop. “You could have made him straighter and more focused,” Laura advised. “You panicked just a touch and just stiffed him a little bit.”

Katherine was the only rider to have a clean round, which she did in 73 seconds. Laura praised her for being more relaxed and for timing her voice aids properly. “My favorite part is when you said, ‘Whoa. Whoa. Whoa. Whoa,’” she said. “You held it and when he went, then you said ‘Whoa.’” Katherine also was lauded for her concentrated control. “He wants to drop his right shoulder a lot. But you then took the time to pick up the right rein and really straighten him and balance him.”

TJ was praised for applying his leg without overdoing it during his 73-second ride. “What you did so well was your ride to the liverpool [Fence 5] because after revving her up and riding through the turn, you then turned the corner and softened her by just using your body,” she said. But then, after Fence 10, he tried to get the mare back, and in the process, he lost impulsion before the triple. “You tried to soften her up and get her back to you and that’s what caused your rail coming in. Just take a breath. Add one more step, get her organized so you have the concentration going into the combination that you need.”

Mitch came in with a time fault at 78 seconds. Laura said he made a dramatic difference after Fence 4 when he put a little pressure on the horse by making a tighter turn. She was impressed with how he gave his young horse confidence. “He rode the water perfectly,” she said. “I don’t think [the horse has] ever seen anything like that, and you were strong and behind him.” She was also impressed that Mitch didn’t panic when his horse made a desperate leap at Fence 10. He got the horse back, kept his composure and successfully jumped the triple.

Eve also finished at 78 seconds, two seconds more than in the first round. “What I love to see is you improved everything from the last round,” Laura said. “You maybe could have cut off a little more space [at the end of the ring]. She made such a big jump on the oxer [Fence 4B], I think maybe you landed and you just didn’t have the control you really needed.” Laura told her to keep riding to the end. “You’ve just got to fight for that last fence. You’ve got to give them that energy to want to clear it. Something in your body has to say, ‘Come on, just one more jump!’”

Laura noticed that jumping the first round took a toll on Vivian’s horse, although they were faster at 74 seconds. “You’re such a great follower of instruction because you did—exactly.” Then, Vivian’s horse started to run out of energy, but she rode him until the last jump, the biggest of the course. “You didn’t give up and you stayed strong and you got there with some energy and you made a nice jump.”

Laura said Dani was tough and focused and her decisions to add power or slow the pace were fantastic on her 76-second round. “There were a couple of places you could have been sharper. Definitely landing from [Fence] 2, you needed to just put your leg on and get over there,” she said, adding that Dani fixed mistakes from the first ride, and they looked like a different horse and rider this round. “You kept her energy, you kept her bouncy and alert and she gave you a great jump. You should be very proud of yourself. That was a great ride and really a good demonstration.”

After hitting a rail with Perfect de Coquerie, Ailish Cunniffe resolved to maintain her focus throughout the course for her second ride. “When you are in a Nations Cup and there is so much pressure and you have a fence down, you’ve got to stay on it and you can’t lose your focus,” said Laura. | Amy K. Dragoo

Although Laura had worried that Daisy would have a time fault because she was trying to soften her ride from the first round, she came in at 76 seconds. Laura was especially impressed with Fence 5, the liverpool. “I thought you did [it] very well because he was wanting to get a little bit stiff again on you, but you softened your hand and you made a nice jump,” she said. “You didn’t take for granted that he was just going to jump it, you put your leg on and made him jump it.”

Ransome made the horse go straight to the jumps and she kept her focus as well as her horse’s. “You looked like a different rider going through the turn,” Laura said. “You feel the difference? Because that’s really important, and that’s just thinking. That’s just making yourself get that done. You did it perfectly.”

Lucy was spot-on with quick reactions without over-reacting. Her horse made a short turn into the liverpool and wanted to jump the water high, so she added a perfectly timed half-halt before the jump. “He accelerated his pace after the water and became a bit more rowdy and difficult to ride,” Laura said. “But you fought for it and you trusted his carefulness and his scope and he gave it to you.”

Laura praised Tori for another great ride with a time of 72 seconds but with four faults. “Horses can make a mistake just like we do,” Laura said, adding that Tori improved her position and took suggestions from Beezie, who taught on the second day of the training session (see “Gymnasticize Your Horse, May 2016), to heart. “Yesterday helped you because you are sitting taller and stronger and you look like Beezie when you go around,” Laura said. “You remind me of watching her, and I think you’ve got that same composure that she has.”

Laura said Kelli and her horse weren’t as relaxed and smooth as in the first round. “This is something good to know about him—that in the second round, you are going to have to work on relaxing him and figuring out how to keep him calm,” Laura said. “I think you gave up when you had 12 [faults] down. Twelve is better than 16! Many times on Anthem I would have a first clear round and 16 on the second.”

In the end, Team White rallied and won with 28 faults. Katherine was the only rider to ride a double clear. Team member Dani rode a 19-fault test in the first round and came back with only four faults in the second round. Eve and Tori rounded out the team’s winning performance. Team Red came in second with 32 faults while Team Blue finished with 41 total faults. The winning team was awarded limited edition George Morris and Rio action figures, all signed by Laura and the three chefs d’√©quipe.

Laura was impressed with the way Mitch Endicott rode and gave confidence to a borrowed horse, Alexa White’s C’est Blue, who had just turned 7. She stressed the importance of allowing a young horse time to concentrate to develop rideability. | Amy K. Dragoo

“I’m thrilled with how it went today, and I thought it was fun to see the team so far behind come forward to win because that can happen,” Laura said. “It gives you that inspiration to know that it’s never over until it’s over.”

Laura said she would have loved to have had an opportunity like the three-day training session when she was young. With Christine Traurig teaching about dressage and flatwork on the first day (see “Develop Your Athlete with Dressage,” April 2016) and Beezie explaining to the young riders how to gymnasticize their horses on the second day and Laura giving each rider helpful tips and suggestions for a more competitive ride, the participants gleaned a wealth of information from the three Olympic athletes.

“I hope George would be proud,” Laura said. “I think he would have enjoyed it.”



This article is copyrighted and first appeared in Practical Horseman. It is reprinted here by permission.





Thursday, January 5, 2017

Research Update: Equine Heart Health

Catching up with the United States Eventing Association’s Cardiopulmonary Research Group as it works to solve the puzzle of sudden equine deaths in competition


By Sushil Dulai Wenholz



Two horses lost their lives on the cross-country course at the spring Red Hills International Horse Trials in Tallahassee, Florida, in 2008. The deaths of both horses, Jonathan Holling’s Direct Merger and Missy Miller’s Leprechaun’s Rowdy Boy, were ultimately attributed to heart-related problems. Certainly it wasn’t the first time an eventing horse had died on course or from heart trouble. But those two losses were, perhaps, the pair of straws that finally broke the camel’s back and helped spark a research effort by the U.S. Eventing Association that continues to this day, aimed at preventing such tragedies.

Raising the Question


Not long after Red Hills, the USEA officially launched its Equine Cardiopulmonary Research Group, led by Catherine Kohn, VMD; A. Kent Allen, DVM; Mark Revenaugh, DVM and Eleanor M. Green, DVM.

“If you look back at what was going on in eventing when we started, there were concerns about what seemed to be a surge of horses that died in competition,” says Dr. Kohn. “These were seemingly healthy horses at well-run competitions. Incidents like this are catastrophic for the horse, of course, but also for the rider and the eventing community.”

The CRG was formed, she adds, in an attempt to apply science to the question of what was causing these unexpected deaths. And, since 2008, members have been working toward an answer.


Setting the Stage


CRG members started the project by looking at horse deaths on cross country. They identified two categories: fatalities attributed to injuries from falls and fatalities where the horse did not appear to be injured. CRG research has focused on this second group.

Next, researchers reviewed deaths of human athletes in competition and found that cardiac problems were often implicated. “So we decided to start [our study] by looking at the cardio and respiratory health of horses competing in eventing,” says Dr. Kohn.

At the 2009 Plantation Field Horse Trials, the researchers ran a pilot study, completing electrocardiograms (ECG) and heart and lung ultrasounds on 20 horses the day before and immediately following the cross-country test.

An ECG records the heart rhythm and heart rate. An ultrasound, or “echo” study, uses ultrasound waves to make images of the heart muscle and the portion of the lungs closest to the skin. One type of echo study, an echocardiogram, specifically makes images of the heart muscle as it moves so that the size, shape, quality of the motility of the heart muscle and the functioning of the heart valves can be assessed.

Veteran four-star eventer Allison Springer was one of the volunteer participants at that first trial, competing in the CIC*** with Destination Known. “The study can be successful only with a broad range of data gathered from participants like me,” says Allison, explaining her decision to join the study. “The welfare of my horses is of the utmost importance to me. I feel that participation is a responsibility that I owe to all the amazing horses that compete in my sport.”

Dr. Kohn recaps the results of that first study, saying, “We didn’t find anything egregious in those horses. There was nothing to suggest that the horses tested had unsuspected heart or lung abnormalities that might lead to a catastrophic incident on course. As 20 horses is a small study population, we consider this a pilot study. However, our results did not support the hypothesis that undetected structural heart or lung disease is common in healthy event horses.”

The researchers carried out several other studies, including one looking at levels of cardiac troponin, a protein released when the heart muscle is damaged. In this study, researchers collected blood samples from horses at rest and following the cross-country test at two competitions.

“The horses were all healthy with no obvious heart disease, yet several showed a substantial increase in troponin levels after the cross-country test,” says Dr. Kohn. “We were intrigued by these results. However, we tested horses at additional competitions and did not find concerning increases in post-cross country troponin levels. This information, as well as the expense of troponin assays, led us to decide not to commit resources to this line of investigation. We are hopeful that we may obtain funding for additional troponin studies in the future.”

The Devil Is in The Details—or the Device


The result of those initial field studies was the creation of this hypothesis: Horses may develop transient cardiac arrhythmias (an irregular heartbeat) while on cross country. In this condition, the heart rhythm breaks down, making it difficult for the horse to pump blood efficiently. In some instances, these arrhythmias may compromise exercise tolerance and could lead to falls, injury or fatalities.

How to prove or disprove the theory? “We needed to look at the electrical activity of the horses’ hearts while they were competing to try to answer the question, ‘What’s happening on the field of play?’” says Dr. Kohn.

To do that, researchers needed a recording device that would remain in position on the horse during the twists, turns, ups, downs and speed of a cross-country run. However, such a device wasn’t commercially available and, says Dr. Kohn, “It soon became apparent that the ‘devil was in the details,’ and fabricating a device that would stay in place would be a challenge.”

In fact, it took several years of trial, error and modification to develop an effective system. Two CRG members, Doctors Ric Birks and Mary Durando, had engineered a recording system that they were using successfully on racehorses. They made some modifications to this system for use in event horses during competition.

“In 2013 and 2014, we were able to acquire interpretable recordings of heart rhythm during the cross country in approximately 65 to 70 percent of the horses we tested,” explains Dr. Kohn. “We are very pleased with the performance of this system.”

The recording system consists of electrodes in the area of the girth and on the horse’s back with wires connecting the electrodes to the recorder itself. The recorder is secured inside a small pouch sewn to a saddle pad. Researchers affix the system before the horse goes to the cross-country warm-up, and the system remains in place until after the cross-country test. The researchers are then able to record the electrical activity of the heart at rest, during the less-intense work of the warm-up, during the cross-country test itself and during at least the early few minutes of the recovery period.

Allison, who also participated in a field study at the Plantation Field CIC** in 2015 aboard Cascani, attests to the advancement of the system. “The equipment used to gather information has improved significantly in the past years, allowing for more accurate information-gathering,” she says.

For study participants, Allison explains, the process is simple. “A couple of vets came to my stall when we were tacking up for cross country. They have a thin quilt saddle pad that held the sensors. They were very mindful about me being 100 percent comfortable with the placement of the pad, that the wires were comfortably tucked away and that no piece of extra equipment would influence my performance in any way. The vets were excellent to work with.”

Making Progress


By the end of 2015, CRG members had conducted studies at the 2014 Waredaca Horse Trials, the 2015 horse trials at the Horse Parks of New Jersey and Fair Hill, the 2015 Plantation Field CIC, and the 2015 Fair Hill Three-Day Event. Participants—all volunteers—have included approximately 65 horses competing at Beginner Novice through the CCI*** level. Researchers briefly examine each recording at the event and inform riders if significant heart irregularities are detected.

“Our next task was to determine how many of our recordings were of sufficiently high quality to be interpretable,” says Dr. Kohn. For that step, two to four veterinarians specializing in equine cardiology make a preliminary review of each of the recordings. Those that pass this screening test are then examined in detail by the same veterinarians.

“Recordings vary in length from 30 minutes to as long as 90 minutes,” explains Dr. Kohn. “Detailed review of these recordings is time-consuming, especially considering that all of our researchers are volunteers with full-time jobs. We are currently working on the detailed analyses of our 2015 data.”

The researchers hope that during the 2016 competition season they’ll hit 100 useable recordings—a large enough number, says Dr. Kohn, “to give us a good idea of the electrical activity of the hearts of healthy horses in the cross-country phase of an eventing competition.”

Since the group’s key researchers live on the East Coast, studies to date have taken place in the East for the sake of convenience and to minimize expenditures. The group hopes to extend their studies to the Midwest and possibly the West Coast this year. “We want to give more riders an opportunity to volunteer and thus ensure that we have as broad a population of eventing horses in our study as possible,” says Dr. Kohn.

Looking Forward


“We are very pleased to be able to obtain, for the first time as far as we know, interpretable recording of the electrical activity of the hearts of horses galloping and jumping their way around a competition cross-country course,” says Dr. Kohn. “We are now focused on studying sufficient horses to get our 100 interpretable recordings and an analysis of the large amount of data we have in hand.”

Dr. Kohn refrains from offering conjecture on results from data that is still being evaluated. “Speculation is dangerous,” she says. “Our goal is to be open-minded and approach our data in a scientific way so that our conclusions will be valid. You formulate a hypothesis, test it and then the data proves whether your hypothesis is right or wrong.”

One thing Dr. Kohn doesn’t expect the studies to include: recordings from horses who collapse on course. Luckily, such incidents remain uncommon, she explains, making it extremely unlikely statistically that the group will capture recordings from such a horse during one of the field studies.

Dr. Kohn is also willing to share her hopes: “I hope that we don’t find significantly abnormal heart rhythms or occult heart disease in any recording from our 100 horses. If we don’t find evidence of unsuspected heart disease, then we can conclude that recommending specialized screening tests for heart disease in apparently healthy horses is unlikely to be helpful in preventing equine fatalities during competition,” she says.

In addition, she notes, the group would be able to say that transient, potentially performance-limiting heart-rhythm abnormalities didn’t occur in the study population. That would suggest that such abnormalities are unlikely to be common in healthy competition horses and unlikely to be an important cause of collapse or fatality during competition, she explains.

While Dr. Kohn notes that this phase of the research won’t answer all the questions about why fatalities may occur in horses who are competing, it will provide essential baseline data that’s not currently available. “Defining the range of electrical activity of the hearts of healthy horses in competition is essential for interpretation of potentially abnormal exercising ECGs in eventing horses,” she says.


What Riders Can Do Now


While the study moves forward, Dr. Kohn has advice that event riders can act on today. Most important, she says, know your horse’s heart. Ask your vet to listen carefully to the heart. If your vet finds an arrhythmia or a heart murmur, make sure he or she does a comprehensive cardiac exam, including an echocardiogram.

“Consult with a veterinary cardiologist who has experience working with horses and follow his/her advice for ongoing monitoring of your horse,” she encourages. “You will then have the information necessary to make an educated decision as to whether or not your horse should enter a strenuous competition. Refraining from competing horses known to have an increased risk of a heart problem during strenuous exercise will reduce the risk of injuries and fatalities during competitions.”

Allison explains one of the precautions she has implemented: “I take fitness very seriously and have been regularly using heart-rate monitors on my horses for fitness work.”

Dr. Kohn thinks it’s important to point out that all participants in the research study are volunteers. “We are very grateful to the riders who have helped us. Without them, we can’t do anything,” she says. “So if you’re competing and you see our USEA Cardiopulmonary Research Program sign, come talk to us and, if you can, volunteer to be part of our study. We welcome your participation!”


Jonathan Holling: Gaining Something Positive


Jonathan Holling sat aboard his horse, a 1996 Irish Thoroughbred gelding, Direct Merger, in the cross-country start box at the Red Hills International Horse Trials in March 2008. He had every reason to expect the horse to turn in a clean, fast round, just like the year before. But this time, something went wrong.

Clearing a vertical and heading on a three-stride line to a narrow, the typically brave Direct Merger uncharacteristically ran out. “He got wobbly, reared up and died,” recalls Jonathan, emotion still evident in his voice. “I was lucky that it didn’t happen while he was jumping. I walked away unscathed, physically.”

But for Jonathan, it wasn’t enough to feel lucky. He’d seen other riders not walk away. He wondered what if it had been a kid in the saddle—would a smaller, younger person have been unhurt? And most of all, the question haunting him was why his healthy, athletic horse had suddenly died under him.

“I was so upset at the time,” he recalls. “Every time I would ask a vet—really smart, experienced professionals—they would [give an answer] and it seemed to make sense. But eventually they would all get to a point where they had to say, ‘I don’t know,’ because there is not enough research on this issue with eventing horses.”

When Jo Whitehouse of the U.S. Eventing Association approached Jonathan about the fledgling idea of putting together a cardiopulmonary research group, he knew he had to throw his support behind it.

“This was a way to focus on getting something positive out of it all,” says Jonathan. I couldn’t continue to ride horses and event at the top levels if I was not doing something to help understand why this could happen.

“I was shocked at how amazing people were at the time,” he continues. “The whole equine community. I had to take this outpouring of support and turn it into a push for this study.”

Ultimately, he hopes the study will yield a better understanding of why incidents like this occur—maybe allowing riders to identify risk factors sooner as an aid to prevention.

“I’m so appreciative that these really intelligent people are willing to donate their time and support,” says Jonathan. “Right now, I’m looking at a photo of Direct jumping into the Head of the Lake in Kentucky in 2007. I still tear up about [the accident]. It had a huge impact on my life. But if what happened to my horse had any small thing to do with getting the study going, that helps.”

Jonathan Holling and his wife, Jennifer, run Holling Eventing, a full-service training, lesson and sales business based at Willow Run Farm in Ocala, Florida. Jonathan has competed through the CCI**** level at events including the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, Burghley Horse Trials and the Nations Cup™ in Boekelo, the Netherlands. He has also coached the USEA Area IV young riders team to two gold medals.

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