Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Demystifying the Lead Change | 9/19/2012

Patience and Practice Make Perfect

by John Abbott

Horses that compete in the hunter or the equitation ring often need to demonstrate correct flying lead changes on course. The whole picture of a hunter is one of smoothness, rhythm and balance, so it is important that the change, if one is necessary, does not disrupt that picture. A good lead change is one that comes through in one stride, typically from back to front. This means that the horse changes with his hind legs first, and by the time his front legs land, they, too, are on the new lead. The rider should be sitting still and looking as if nothing has happened.
If you miss a lead change, or do one badly, it could ruin your chances in the class. One example of an incorrect lead change would be if the horse only changes in front or behind and canters disunited for one or more strides. Other typical problems include speeding up or slowing down, wringing the tail, bucking or crow-hopping. The flying change is important, and if you want to succeed, it makes sense to spend time schooling it.

Because there seems to be a mystery to teaching lead changes to horses, I would like to offer an explanation that I hope will be simple and easy to follow.

Let’s start with talking about the canter. To me, riding the canter is like riding an ocean wave. There is a rise and fall to it. Some horses give more lift or bounce than others. These horses are more likely to do lead changes easily, but not always. Horses with a flat slow, unengaged canter are tougher to teach. It can be done, but it will just take more time.

For example, I had a horse in training that was an American Warmblood cross. He was big and on the drafty side and did not have a great back end, but he had a motor. It took him about four months of consistent work before he got it, but once he got it, lead changes were easy for him. He had to build the right muscle to be able to overcome his conformation. Lots of counter canter work helped. He went on to become a show horse and did quite well in the hunter and equitation ring.

The most important advice I can give is to take it slow. Work on simple changes - dropping to a trot and then striking off on the other lead - on a diagonal line across the ring until you can perform these changes fluidly with only one trot step in the change. This may take time, but it is worth the wait to get good, smooth, relaxed flying changes. You want your horse to strike off calmly on the new lead as you step into your outside stirrup and bend in the new direction. It is important that the horse stay on a straight line as he performs the change, even though he is bending in the new direction.

When you ask for the change, your timing is important. As I said earlier, the canter is like a wave. You need to start asking for the lead change when the wave is low, which means that three of the horse’s hooves are on the ground. You will still be asking as the wave comes back up, when your horse’s hooves are in the air.

Once you have your horse doing a quiet, smooth simple change with one trot step between the new lead and the old one, it is time to start asking for the flying change. If your horse has more natural forward impulsion, then the changes will probably start to happen on their own. However, if your horse starts to rush across the diagonal, then you must work on being slow first – for instance you might need to trot more until he gets the idea that changing leads is not a race. On the other hand, if your horse is lazy you want to make sure you have relaxed, simple changes first. Then work on impulsion through the simple change until your horse offers the flying change.

There are a few common rider mistakes that make it hard for the horse to perform a change properly. The most common mistake is that the rider leans forward and in the direction of the new lead. If you lean into the inside shoulder, this throws the horse onto his forehand and makes him less likely to do a flying change. Instead, you should sit up and step into the outside stirrup. This will help your horse stay balanced and lift his inside shoulder during the transition from one lead to the other.

The other bit of advice here is make sure that your horse is wearing front and especially rear boots of some sort. While he is learning he might kick himself or interfere behind and if he starts to knock his ankles he will not want to do his changes because they hurt him. Also, if your horse is older he might need to have a veterinarian examine and possibly treat his hocks, especially if he used to do his changes and now does not.

In review:
1. Do simple changes through the trot until they are slow and relaxed with one step at the trot - take your time here, because this is an important step.
2. Work on impulsion with the quiet, lazy horse through the simple changes; let the horse with the motor offer the changes. With both types of horse, work on counter canter to build the muscles needed for flying changes.
3. Be patient. It is worth the wait to have a quiet, relaxed lead change. If you rush this process you will get fast and hurried changes which will not be appreciated in the show ring. It might take months, but eventually you will be rewarded with fluent, effortless changes, the kind that help make a horse a winner.

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

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Designing Women | 9/12/2012

Nancy Mann

By Mary Jane Howell, Photography by Gary Knoll

The year 1975 was a tumultuous one around the world – the war in Vietnam escalated and then came to an end, political assassinations abounded, there were revolutions and natural disasters. In the midst of the turmoil, however, it was a banner year for sports. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier whipped the world into a frenzy with the fight that was dubbed the “Thrilla in Manila,” Bjorn Borg, Arthur Ashe, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King were the stars of tennis, while Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson ruled the fairways. It was the year of the great filly Ruffian, who overshadowed her male counterparts, but lost her life after breaking down in a match race with the Kentucky Derby winner Foolish Pleasure.
On March 26 of that same year, Nancy Mann (then called Nancy Bielan) won the third race at Rhode Island’s Lincoln Downs in what was only her third start as a professional jockey. The horse, a 6-year-old chestnut gelding named Norse Plume, paid $82.80 for the win. Nancy was 19 and was less than a year out of high school. Norse Plume was owned and trained by Florence Gemma, a wellrespected trainer in New England.

Fast-forward several decades - Nancy is now living in Aiken and designing equestrian properties. Quite a transition from the life of a jockey!

“Designing has always been in my blood,” says Nancy. “My mom was a phenomenal designer – whether she was making a cocktail dress or helping someone design their patio – she just had that special touch. We lived in Barrington, Rhode Island, not exactly Milan, but my mom made sure that I had lots of opportunities.”

Ballet and art classes were the norm for Nancy, but she begged for (and received) her first horse when she was 10. A few years later she got a really good pony and although he frequently ran off with her, he would jump anything. During summers and on weekends Nancy spent most of her free time at the Palmer River Riding Club, honing the riding skills that would be invaluable to her later on the track. She fox hunted, showed jumpers and was in Pony Club. She also rode her fair share of Thoroughbreds fresh off the track.

While Nancy was still in high school she caught the eye of Terry Dunleavy, a local trainer, who, after seeing her in action at a Pony Club rally told her she should be at the race track galloping horses. He introduced Nancy to several trainers and before she knew it she was exercising horses on weekends and during summer vacations.

As soon as Nancy graduated from Barrington High School, she was off to the track. In those days a rider had to be apprenticed to a trainer, and Florence Gemma took Nancy under her wing.

After her win on Norse Plume, there was no stopping the young jockey. She continued to ride at Lincoln Downs, then moved on to Narragansett Park, the track where she had the most success. On October 16, 1975, she rode two winners on the card – Lorello and Summer Winds. In one win picture she is in pink silks, in the other in yellow, but the smile is the same – that ear-to-ear grin of a teenager living her dream at 19.

With the confidence earned from her success at Lincoln Downs and Narragansett, Nancy moved her tack to Suffolk Downs in Boston and Rockingham Park in Salem, New Hampshire; larger tracks with better purses. The flip side, however, was that at Suffolk there was a pre-existing jockey colony that was tough to crack.

“I had better success at Rockingham,” recalls Nancy. “I was riding some nice horses and having a good time. It was my third year of riding professionally and I had been fortunate in that I hadn’t had many spills.”

That changed when a horse she was on went down in a multi-horse crash, catapulting Nancy to the ground. She was in the hospital several days with internal bleeding and both shoulders dislocated. It could have been worse and she knew it.

“In the hospital I realized that being a jockey wasn’t really my life’s dream after all and it wasn’t worth the risk,” she says. “That spill was horrific. The horse directly in front of me had clipped heels and fell, and there was no way my horse could avoid him – and we went down as well. When I was released from the hospital the Rockingham stewards called me into the office and had me watch a replay of the race, a common practice after a rider has had a bad spill. I rode only one more race after that and won it. It was important for me to go out on a winning note.”

Not sure what she wanted to do with her life, Nancy worked for the well-known horseman Mason Phelps for a year at his Newport stable, going back to her roots in the hunter jumper world.

Nancy knew she could and should be doing more with her life and so did her family. Her stepfather had heard about American Intercontinental University, a design college in London, and helped Nancy go there. She finished her degree in three years and made the most of her time in Europe, traveling to all the great cities and soaking up the culture. Nancy has been on the university’s board of trustees since 1986 and the board’s chairman for the past two years.

“I took zillions of photos during that time – learning so much about color and detail – and I have used that in what I design today,” she explains. Upon graduation Nancy returned to the United States and moved to Atlanta where she became district manager for GF Furniture Systems.

After several years of the corporate world and travelling five days a week, Nancy felt as if it was time to move on. She consulted on the design for the first equestrian subdivision in the Southeast – Tullamore in Alpharetta, Georgia.

“The people I worked for were land people, not horse people,” she says. “I was able to bring a horse person’s perspective to the table and I really enjoyed that. I also designed my first property – 16 acres on the back end of Tullamore. I liked the building process and I really felt that I had found my niche.”

She was not yet ready to settle down, however. Nancy sold her Tullamore property, moved to the north Georgia mountains, got a few horses, built another farm, and started a home design and building business. She packed a lot into the next few years, but when she hit 40 she knew she had to have time for herself.

“My parents had moved to Hilton Head and on one of my many trips to visit them I took an alternate route and ended up driving through Aiken. I fell in love with the town,” she says.

One of the first people she connected with was Linda Knox McLean, which led to rides in the Hitchcock Woods and eventually hunting with the Aiken Hounds.

“Linda was the kindest first contact anyone could ask for,” she says. “We just hit it off and it seemed like I was in Aiken all the time. Life was coming together for me – I felt like I was truly coming home when I was in Aiken.”

In 1996 Nancy purchased property on Coker Springs Road and set about designing and building a home that met the stringent requirements of Aiken’s historic horse district. From there she purchased 50 acres on Route 302 and developed two farms. Horses and riding were still in her life. She whipped-in for Aiken Hounds starting in 1998 and eventually held the same position with Why Worry Hounds from 2000 to 2002. She also learned the art of navigating in driving competitions, teaming with Peggy and Megan Benge beginning in 2000. In 2005, she went to the World Combined Pony Championship in England to navigate for Jennifer Matheson, who represented Canada.

“I was a last minute substitute, as Jennifer’s usual navigator couldn’t go. So I flew over to Amsterdam with the pony Danyloo and got a ferry to England where we spent the next seven weeks training and competing,” says Nancy. “The World Championships were held at Catton Hall in Derbyshire, a marvelous estate. I also had the opportunity to meet Prince Phillip and share a Pimms and some interesting conversation!”

At 56, Nancy laughs that she is a really late bloomer and that she’s only hitting her stride right now. She works frequently with Mitch Johnson, a local builder, and brings to the table not only a horsewoman’s experience in what works in a barn and farm, but also a lifelong passion for design – whether it is the marriage of heart pine and old brick in a new home, or finding the perfect color of paint for a light-filled bedroom.

Last year Nancy was given free rein to develop an Aiken property for Dana Pope and his family, who call Massachusetts home for much of the year. Their trainer is Sarah Morton, so the property encompasses a barn for their horses as well as for horses belonging to Sarah’s clients. The Popes wanted their home to have understated elegance and yet be comfortable for family and friends.

“Nancy offered us a soup to nuts building experience, walking us through site layout, building design, functionality of interior spaces and finally interior finishes that reflect a southern charm. Building a horse farm and home from New England can be nerve wracking. Nancy, as a horsewoman with a great sense of humor, knew what we needed and wanted and made it fun,” explains Dana Pope.

The Popes’ property, named High Meadow Farm, is the latest chapter in Nancy’s varied life, but certainly not the last.

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