Friday, September 26, 2014

Double the Pleasure | 9/26/2014

Performing the Pas de Deux

By Pam Gleason, Photography By Gary Knoll

On a hot Thursday evening in May, Catherine Respess and Laura Klecker, both dressage trainers, have trailered to the dressage ring at Three Runs Plantation in Aiken. They have brought with them two jet black Friesian horses, Victor ISF and Waverly ISF. A small entourage of people has gathered under a tree near the ring: Nancy Wurtz, who owns Victor, and Carol Pexa, who owns Waverly, along with some friends and family. Laura's car, which will serve as the sound system, is parked at the end of the arena with the doors open.

There are other people using the ring for a lesson at first, and so Catherine on Victor and Laura on Waverly ride around the outside to warm their horses up. When the lesson is over, Catherine and Laura warm their horses are black, and the footing in the Three Runs arena is bright white. The contrast is striking, and the two horses are even more so. They carry their heads proudly with their ears pricked and they move with animation, power and grace. The ample feathers on their fetlocks accentuate their movement, and their long black manes, done up in French braids, draw attention their striking, high-set necks.

Catherine and Laura have come to practice for a Undtied States Dressage Federation Pas de Deux, which is a musical freestyle dressage test for two horses performing together. The Pas de Deux is fairly uncommon at United Sates dressage shows. It is more regularly seen in dressage exhibitions, and in shows such as those put on by the Lipizzans in the Spanish Riding School, or by P.R.E. horses at the Royal Andalusian School of Equestrian Art. The class is being offered at the Mayday Dressage Show at Highfields in Aiken at the end of May: Catherine and Laura have entered and they are practicing for the test.

When the horses are thoroughly armed up, it is time to start the music and run through the routine. The horses seem to like the theme, and they clearly enjoy performing together. They are not identical: Victor is taller and Waverly is more short-coupled, but when they are performing together, they seem to be mirror images and any differences between them dissolve. After they have run through the whole routine with the music twice, it is time to take the horses home. They look hot, happy and relaxed, and Laura and Catherine are both and smiling.

The two trainers are good friends, and the idea to take part in the Pas de Deux came to them because they thought it would be good for their horses.

"I was training Victor, and Laura was training Waverly, and we just thought it would be great to do it," says Catherine.

Although the horses are not closely related, both were bred at Iron Springs Farm in Pennsylvania, which is one of the preeminent warmblood breeding farms in America, Nancy Wurtz and Carol Pexa, who did not know one another before, had both seen Victor on the Iron Springs website, and they both wanted to buy him. Nancy, who is from Atlanta, got there on e day before Carol arrived from Minnesota, so the horse became hers. Iron Springs trains its horses in dressage and puts some show miles on them before they are available for sale. Waverly, who is a year younger than Victor, was on the developing horse list, which means he was not yet ready to be sold. As soon as he was moved from the developing horse list to the roster of horses for sale, Carol bought him.

By coincidence, both horses ended up in Aiken. Neither has a great deal of show experience, and Catherine says that one reason that she and Laura thought the Pas de Deux would be beneficial is that they hoped it would give the horses confidence. The two practiced their routine once a week for about six weeks before the show. Right away they knew there was chemistry between the two horses.

"We did our first practice at Hopeland Farms, and they seemed enamored of one another," says Catherine. "We think they might have remembered each other from Iron Springs since they were both raised there. Then the next time we got together, Victor was just elated to see Waverly."

Catherine says that a lot of work went into creating the performance. First they had to design and choreograph their routine. The test would be a Training Level, which means that it needed to include certain complusory movements from above Training Level. Once they had the routine, they needed to set it to music. They chose a theme from The Game of Thrones. but the music still had to be edited to suit the choreography and then professionally remixed.

"I have a friend in Pittsburgh who has a recording studio," says Laura. "His wife events, and she stays with me in Aiken in the winter. So once we figured out the timing, he did the music for us."

Ten days after their Three Runs practice, the pair perform their test at Highfields in front of an unusually large crowd. The routine goes off without a hitch, and when they are done, everyone applauds. Their score, 75.25%, is more than respectable: it is the sixth highest in the whole show. If you go by the book, scores in the 70s are considered "fairly good," but in practice, a 75 is excellent.

"It was a wonderful experience overall; the score is icing on the cake," says Catherine. "The end result was exactly what you are aiming for when you are training a horse in dressage. The horses enjoyed it, and they matured from it. The problem we both have had with the boys is they are young and distractible. A lack of matuirty was something we both struggled with. Being together bolstered their confidence, and they were so much better as a result. After the Pas de Deux, I did a qualifying test on my own that was Victor's best performance yet - he was so focused."

Catherine and Laura both plan to train the Friesians up to the higher levels. Can we expect to see more Pas de Deux performances from them? Maybe even, some day in the future, a Grand Prix Pas de Deux?

Catherine laughs. "I would love to! And Laura and I are so close I could even see that happening."

In the meantime, there is a chance that Catherine will adapt their Game of Thrones theme for a musical freestyle she can perform on Victor by himself. Perhaps next year, the two horses will execute the same routine while ridden by their owners.

Catherine says that one thing that made the experience so special was the enhanced sense of teamwork it engendered. "So many people wanted to be apart of it, it was almost like it was a little party every practice. It gave us more energy, a kind of energy you don't alwasy get when you are training by yourself in the arena. Riding is not always a team sport, but is can be so much fun when it is."

What would she say to someone who asked her advice about putting together a Pas De Deux?

"It's totally worth it. It might be a good deal of work, but it's worth every bit of it. When we were performing at Highfields, I had goosebumps the entire ride. It felt so meaningful. It was just us, but it felt amazing to be a part of it."

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

Friday, September 19, 2014

Secret Lives of Horses | 9/19/2014

Rosie and Flash

By Mary Jane Howell, Photography By Gary Knoll

This was meant to be a love story between two 27-year-old Thoroughbreds, Rosie and Flash, who were inseperable for 22 years. Just days before I went to meet them, however, Flash was euthanized leaving Rosie mourning her best friend.

Because their lives were intertiwned, it is impossible to tell Rosie's tale without hearing Flash's story as well. It is a story that began in northern California and ends in South Carolina, with the horses' owner, Dr. Carol Gillis, at its heart.

Dr. Gillis is a graudate of Univeristy of California Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and much of her professional career before she came to Aiken was centered around that school. She did an equine surgery residency there, earned a Ph.D. in equine tendon and ligament pathophysiology, and established its equine ultrasound service.

Horses were in Dr. Gillis's personal as well as professional life. She also had a small farm about half an hour from UC Davis. One of the horses at the farm was an ex-racehorse name Scharzi Zaca, who was a sprinter. Dr. Billis had purchased the mare when her racing career was over, bred her a few times and sold the yearllings at the Barretts sale in Pomona. 

Rosie was the offspring of Scharzi Zaca and a California sire named Pass the Glass. She was born in 1987 and Dr. Gillis was on hand for the foaling.

"She was the nicest of all Scharzi's foals," recalls Dr. Gillis. "Fifteen minutes after she was born she was licking her mon's fetlocks. She was always very affectionate."

By their nature Thoroughbreds are competitive. It is in their blood to race and try to best one another, whether they are galloping and playing in their pastures as younsters or at the track earning a living. Dr. Gillis recalls that Scharzi Zaca taught her foals to be at the front of the pack when it was play time and the broodmates and babies were turned out together.

After she was sold at auction, Rosie went to the track and raced exclusively in California.. Her trainer was tough. She often breezed twice a week leading up to a race. She bowed her tendon twice in her short career and when she showed up at UC Davis with her future in racing very much in doubt, Dr. Gillis bought her back. Rosie was just 3 at the time.

"Oce she had recuperated from all the wear and tear from racing, Rosie became my riding horse and then a broodmare," says Dr. Gillis.

Flash came into her life a few years later after his racing days were over. He retired with over $85,000 in earnings and made a seamless transition to the world of eventing and show jummping. 

"Flash was a lovely jumper and enjoyed showing, but he was often having medical issues, for example - two clic surgeris 60 days apart. Thank goodness he was such a terrific patient," laughs Dr. Gillis.

The two horses had an instant attraction to one another, and bonded quickly when they lived together at Dr. Gillis's farm.

"I tried to send Flash away to a professional trainer. He was such a lovely mover and jumper and I thought he might have a real future in the show ring," she says. "All Rosie did was run the fence and he went on a hunger strike of sorts. I had to bring him back after a few weeks, and that was the last I ever tried to seperate them."

Dr. Billis and her husband Juan Bucio made the move to Aiken in the fall of 2009. Flash and Rosie had shipped cross-country a year before and were staying at Ed and Debbie Scanlon's farm in Wagener.

"We had lots of animals to move, and it was easier to ship the horses commercially and ahead of time," expalins Dr. Gillis. "There were 22 animals total: the cats flew, while the dogs and birds rode with us."

About a year after her move to Aiken, Rosie began experiencing severe dental problems and was sent to the University of Georgia where she was a patient of Dr. Michael Lowder.

"Rosie had a rare bone loss disorder of the maxilla and mandible that caused the loosening of her top and bottom incisors and infection around the ottoth roots which was quite painful," says Dr. Gillis. "Dr. Lowder removed all of her incisors and a small portion of her maxilla. She has done very well since and is pain and infection free. Her tongue sticks out, but she can hold it in when she wants to - for example, when it is cold."

Rosie gets a normal diet of hay when in the barn and lots of grass when turned out. She gets a small amount of senior feed, and judging by her body weight and coat health, she metabolized her food very well. 

When Rosie and Flash were together they were never more than 20 feet apart. Rosie was the hyper one, bossing Flash around.

"About twice a week he would have enough and would have to haul off and give her a good bite on the rear," says Dr. Gillis. 

Flash was 21 when Dr. Gillis made the deicision that his days of being ridden were over. 

"He began suffering from shivers - a chronic nervous or neuromucular syndrome - and Juan and I just wanted to keep him happy," she says.

Shivers is often characterized by a trembling of the thigh muscles and a flexed and trembling hind limb. It can be terrifying to a horse. If they are lying down, it is next to impossible to get up. If they are standing they don't want to move.

Over the past severall months Flash began to go downhill and Dr. Gillis suspected nuerologic issues on top of the problems he already had.

"We had been treating him for spinal issues and also had him on GastrGard [an ulcer medication], but he wasn't getting any better," she says.

There were several times when Dr. Gillis thought she would have to put him down, but then the gelding would rally.

"Flash's anxiety level was increasing and in the final week of his life he was foever touching me, giving me these gentle nudges with his nose. The trembling was getting worse and we just knew his time was coming to an end."

When Dr. Gillis had made the difficult decision to euthanize Flash, she called her friend and colleague Dr. Lisa Handy to help.

Flash had eaten a good breakfast and was bright and alert. Rosie, however, seemed to know that something was not quite right. She was on "high alert," according to Dr. Gillis.

"When is was time to put him down, we walked Flash down to the field and the spot we had chosen for him. Juan walked Rosie down as well so that she could say her good-bye. All the other horses were lined up in the paddocks as we walked - silent and watchful. Rosie had the chance to nuzzle him one final time and then he was gone - it was very quick," remembers Dr. Gillis.

Although Dr. Gillis and Juan expected Rosie to have a mourning period, the level of her depression has them both worried.

"Rosie is mad, depressed, and spends a lot of time looking out the window of her stall to where Flash is buried. She goes into an uncharacteristic frenzy over the littlest of things. On the third night after we buried him, Rosie cried all night - it was heartbreaking," she says.

Although Rosie is slowly coming around, Dr. Gillis knows that the mare might never be quite the same. She and Flash were a true couple for more than two decades and her loss is one that Dr. Gillis and Juan understand all too well.

"We miss Flash terrible, but it was something that had to be done for his sake," she explains. "Rosie doesn't understand, so we are just giving her all the time she needs to mourn."

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