Friday, April 15, 2016

Aiken Horse Show Centennial

100 Years of History

By: Pam Gleason

In March 1916, a small advertisement appeared in the twice weekly Aiken Journal and Review promising a new attraction: “Gala Day—Society Event. Unexcelled Exhibition of Thoroughbred Horses. March 18, 1916,” it declared. The ad was put out in cooperation with the Southern Railway Company, which had been commissioned to run special trains to and from Aiken to bring spectators to the very first Aiken Horse Show in the Woods. At that time, traveling by train was by far the most comfortable and popular way to get around – the highway system had not yet been created, roads were usually unpaved and there were few services for motorists outside the big cities. If you wanted people to come to an event, hiring a train was the way to go.

In 1916, the Aiken Winter Colony was having its best year yet. The hotels were “almost crowded” with “winter tourists” the Aiken Drag (now the Aiken Hounds) had just been officially recognized by the Master of Foxhounds Association, and Aiken society was dominated by dashing horsemen and daring horsewomen. The show was intended to give these horse enthusiasts an avenue for competition. It was also created as a fundraiser for the Aiken Hospital and Relief Society, which was established by Hope Iselin, a sportswoman and socialite who had a winter home in Aiken. Mrs. Iselin had reportedly won a large sum of money playing poker with her friends. An heiress to immense wealth, she didn’t need the money and so tried to donate it to a church, but couldn’t find one that would take her ill-gotten gains. Accordingly, she took her philanthropy into her own hands, to much better effect. The Aiken Hospital was built in 1917, with money donated by Mrs. Iselin and other members of the Winter Colony, all supplemented by proceeds from the show.

The first show was a triumph – so much so that it made the front page of the March 21 issue of the Journal and Review. “First Horse Show – Large Attendance at the Pine Tree Polo Club Grounds – Annual Event,” read the headline of an article that was both a celebration and prognostication. “Saturday witnessed the successful initiation of an annual March horse show among the tourists here. By the success of Saturday’s show it is practically assured that this will become an annual institution,” read the first paragraph.

And so it turned out to be. The first show was held on one day and comprised 17 classes. By the 1930s, it was a two or three-day-long affair, with as many as 500 entries and thousands of spectators. There were classes for children of all ages and for hunters and jumpers, and for polo ponies, until there were so many of them entered they had to move them to their own show. It was a sporting competition as well as a social event, gathering some of the most notable names from high society to the little horse show ring under the pines.

Highlights from the show were regularly written up in the society pages of the New York Times and other publications that celebrated sporting life. By the early 1950s, the horse show was part of Aiken’s “Sports Week.” This was described in detail in a 1950 story in Life Magazine. That issue featured a photograph of a teenaged Aileen Wood on its cover (“Home on vacation from a Virginia boarding school, 17-year-old Aileen Wood rode in the drag hunt and won three ribbons at the Aiken horse show.”) Sports week was the predecessor of the Aiken Triple Crown: “Just as spring begins, the season comes to a climax in Sports Week, which plunges Aiken into seven lively days of horse shows, horse racing, polo games and drag hunts,” explained the article.

The Modern Era

The horse show continued on through the 1950s and 1960s, and then fell on hard times during the 1970s and 1980s. These were transitional years for the Aiken horse world, a time when the city’s population was changing. There were fewer representatives from the original Winter Colony families adhering to the old equestrian traditions, and the new winter colony of horsemen hadn’t discovered Aiken yet. To make matters worse, the growth of the city was affecting the beautiful show ring under the pines – storm water diverted from city streets flowed into the Woods, causing flooding and erosion. Eventually, this made it necessary to shift the position of the ring. For a time, it looked at though the show might be destined to fade into history.

Fortunately, a group of women associated with the Aiken Hounds was determined to keep the show going, and they breathed life back into its traditions. In the late 1990s, William Howard, a local equestrian professional, came on board to run the show. With a clear vision, a sense of style and an appreciation of history, William Howard ushered the horse show into the modern era. Under his decade-long leadership, the one-day affair expanded to two days in 1999 and then to three days in 2002. The tent was added, and the daily luncheons, and the show soon became known, once again, as a social event that was not to be missed.
The future of the show ultimately depends on the exhibitors – no matter how enthusiastic the spectators and the sponsors, if there are no horses and riders, there can be no show.

In that regard, there are reasons to be optimistic. New exhibitors are coming to the show every year, and new classes and divisions are always being added in response to exhibitor interest. For instance, the sidesaddle division was added a number of years ago at the request of Aiken Ladies Aside, a popular and growing sidesaddle club. The Silver Fox division, limited to older equestrians, has brought quite a few retired riders back into the ring.

“I think the show has a glowing future because it is such a unique event any way you look at it,” says Gail King, one of the co-chairs of the show. “I think people like to be involved in it, whether they are riding or they have come as a spectator. It’s something that won’t lose its appeal.”

The 100th Show

The 100th annual Aiken Horse Show promises to be a special event and it has already garnered extraordinary support in the Aiken equestrian community. Stable View Farm, the first-class eventing facility, has stepped in as the very first Diamond Sponsor. Aiken Saddlery has raised its sponsorship level to Platinum, and there are many other regular sponsors that have returned, and more that are interested in joining.

Although most of the classes and the format remain the same as ever, there are some changes. For instance, on Friday, instead of the regular luncheon under the tent, there will be a Centennial Picnic in the Woods. This is a revival of an old Aiken Horse Show tradition described in Life and Sport in Aiken, a book written by Harry Worcester Smith in 1935 that provides a detailed view of life in the Winter Colony during the 1920s and 1930s.

“We’re really promoting it and we hope everyone is going to come,” says Gail King, who has been involved with running the show for a quarter of a century. She adds that the organizers are planning to bring in antique cars and carriages to accentuate the historic atmosphere. “We’re hoping for spectators to come in vintage costume too. Even the costume class – we’d love for people to consider vintage dress in the costume class. Costume class has normally been more focused on the children, but if adults wanted to enter that would be wonderful. If we get enough entrants we can separate them.”

Dana Massey, who is in her second year as co-chair, grew up riding at the show and she is enthusiastic about the whole experience. “We have an incredible team of volunteers,” she says. “The people who give so much of their time for this show are a large part of its charm.”
One of those volunteers, Jane Page Thompson, makes an immense contribution every year by organizing the silent auction, which always has unique and valuable items that raise funds for the Hitchcock Woods Foundation. This year, she has an additional contribution in the form of a book she put together called Aiken’s Sporting Life. This book was published in Charleston under Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series and is filled with rare and rarely seen photos of Aiken’s early days, and most especially of early days at the horse show.

“The hundredth anniversary of the Aiken Hounds [in 2014] inspired me to get the pictures together and make the book,” says Jane Page, who says the book celebrates the show’s centennial year. “A large amount of the pictures came from the Dolan family, from Rosalie Brainerd’s collection. It was a lot of fun going through all the pictures and figuring out who was in them, and without the help of people like Nancy Wilds, Linda McLean, Bill Tucker and Courtney Conger it would have been a challenge to do it.”

Jane Page says 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of the books, which will be available at the show, will benefit the Hitchcock Woods.

The Aiken Horse Show runs from April 1-3, 2016 at the Aiken Horse Show Grounds about a mile into the Hitchcock Woods. For more information, including entry forms, reservations to the luncheon and the picnic, sponsorship information, to donate to the silent auction or to advertise in the souvenir Centennial Aiken Horse Show Program, visit Or call 803-642-0528.

-Three Runs Plantation Equestrian Blog. Re-published article from The Aiken Horse.

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

Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Science Behind Equitation

By Dominique Barbier With Maria Katsamanis Photographs By Keron Psillas
A book excerpt from The Alchemy of Lightness by Dominique Barbier and Maria Katsamanis

It is important that one learns how to be and not just how to do. We need to begin riding with a very simple task, one that is meant to initiate the relationship with the horse. It could be as simple as establishing a walk as we focus on knowing where we are going (direction) or find a particular rhythm.

We should not necessarily be focused on passage or piaffe, even when riding those movements is one of our goals. This is very tricky because we learn throughout our life that when we want to produce something, we have to do something.

The sequence of first focusing on pursuing small, simple tasks with our horse may seem, on the surface, as if nothing is happening. However, in the end, when all the basic building elements come together, we have something incredible.

I learned this from my grandfather. He was a locksmith by profession and knew everything about locks—he could pick every one. Consequently, his mind worked backward. When beginning a new project, he would not work on the project itself but on preparing for it: He would gather the necessary tools, the needed materials and organize the different parts. He carefully measured and weighed everything. To us children, it seemed that for days he was doing nothing, which drove us crazy. However, when my grandfather did, in fact, start working on the project itself, the job was done quickly because of all the preparations made beforehand. This was a great lesson for me.

When you approach a new lesson with your horse, do your thinking first. Use the power of your mind in the form of visualization (create a clear picture in your head of each interaction with your horse); work on your ability to be present; gather the basic building blocks of communication, that we just discussed. That way, when you are with your horse and beginning the communion that is riding, then everything is ready for your horse to meet you in the place where molecular change can occur.

There are many things you can do without your horse to prepare to be with him and prepare for the feeling you will experience when both of you come together. For example, you can sit in a quiet place and play a movie of your ride in your head. Do this with your eyes closed. This enables you to create a situation where you mentally ride your horse. Your movie can be as complete as you wish. It is a visual image of your state of being, your horse’s, and the feeling that is the result of both of you together. For you, this movie is like being a pilot in a flight simulator.

Misconceptions Become Barriers

Molecular change will occur when we want it to, when we have a clear intention. For most people, this may seem too simple a formula because it involves debunking previous notions of what training should be. But because of the way I teach during my clinics, which are time-intensive, I am unable to be conventional. Years of working in this way have made me refine my ability to establish a quick rapport with a horse, assess his needs and consider the next step in his training.

My work differs from regular training offered by others because the emphasis is not on the systematic training of the horse, and this might be a point of criticism by some. Because my time is limited, my priority becomes the quality of the relationship formed with the horse, and that facilitates his ability to learn. We can accelerate his learning—and even help make things happen—when we use our mind. It is because I am forced to adhere to a schedule that I rely on creating change in myself and the horse through mental clarity. This kind of approach is quite different from what is currently out there; it is a result of the way I choose to be as a teacher, as a clinician.

Lessons from Mestre Nuno Oliveira

Very early one morning when I was in Portugal visiting the old picadero (riding school), Mestre Oliveira arrived riding an extremely large gray horse that was owned by a banker. He was a strange-looking horse: His back was slanted—I think he had once injured his haunches. Catching sight of me, Mestre asked me to ride the horse.

Wearing plain shoes and pants, I was not dressed properly, but still, I climbed into the saddle. The ring was very small, about 13.5 meters wide, maybe 27 meters long; just enough room for a circle at each end.

Mestre asked me to canter on a circle. He requested descente de mains, descente de jambes (let go with the hands and the legs). Then he said, “Reins on the buckle.” So I dropped the reins, and the horse stayed in the same position. Then he asked me to lengthen the stride down the long side, and in about five or six strides, I was at the other end. The gray was strong, and as I circled to the right, he was in a big canter. Mestre asked me to collect the horse. Of course, I went to grab the reins, but he said, “Oh no….” And that was about the extent of it.

Then I stretched upward and pulled my shoulders back, and the whole horse came back in a collected canter—without any rein. This became one of the most important experiences of my life. I decided that this was what I wanted to learn and what I wanted to teach.

Lightness, The Ultimate Connection

Lightness, true collection on the part of the horse with maximum impulsion and a slack rein, allows the horse to be himself. Rein contact and strong leg contact, in many ways, interfere with the physical movement of the horse, and totally destroy and alienate the horse’s mind. Only when he is comfortable in the correct position and light, do we have a chance to experience a superior understanding of the relationship between the two.

The horse is already light by nature. He experiences lightness under saddle only when he is ridden properly. In other words, it depends on how competent, tactful and refined we are in order for him to just be himself. When he is himself, he is light. When a horse has been pulled on for many years, a tactful rider is suddenly a new feeling. He must form a new understanding of being ridden that he no longer has to answer to all the pushing of the rider’s seat and legs and pulling of the hands. The horse has to learn that this is not part of the equation anymore, and sometimes this realization takes a certain amount of time. Once the horse does understand that the rider does not intend to interfere with his body or his mind, then it is only a matter of how clear the rider can continue to be…and molecular change will be able to happen at the discretion of the horse.

Lightness Is a Rider’s Perception

Lightness comes as a result of the rider’s body and mind. First, the rider has to get out of the way of what is (remember, the horse is already light). When the rider can do this and can put the horse in a correct position while maintaining enough energy to help the horse stay there, it is then that the dance will happen. The quality of the dance is dependent on the quality of the dancer, especially of he who leads.

A monk once said that inviting God in is not enough. You have to get out first—there is only space for one. Getting out is the challenge.

Teachers as Facilitators of Molecular Change

While our horses are our best teachers, we cannot discount the importance of the simple human-to-human student-teacher relationship. There is much to be said about this as it allows for learning to go both ways. I think that a teacher can learn a lot from his student and vice-versa. The real master is the person who is able to show us the light, to direct us into a way that will allow us to understand what is happening as he does.

There is a great responsibility on a teacher to direct his student in a certain way—a way that awakens. When he imparts knowledge in an overwhelming way too quickly, for example, instead of liberating the student, he blocks understanding. Therefore, the timing of teaching is very fundamental. When it is done well, the student will blossom. If knowledge is given too soon, the teacher could end up blocking his student’s path to understanding with too much information before the student is ready to receive it. The responsibility of the teacher is to feed the student what is needed at the time that it is needed—a principle of importance to the masters of the past. In this way, learning is not just a present-day interaction between student and teacher, but an important part of a long tradition of riders who have worked with a master in a certain way. I think that when people are really dedicated to such a tradition, it gives them a strong feeling of continuity; a strength of belonging.

Learning Is Remembering

There is a Native American adage that says, “We do not learn, we remember,” meaning that at some point, we already knew all there is—our body, our mind, our soul already knows the subtleties of life and of riding. The only thing that we do is remember them through day-to-day experience.

We must think of being with our horse not as a matter of learning how to commune with him but as a matter of remembering what our higher self already knows. Remembering more and more each time we ride becomes yet another opportunity for refinement.

Old Perceptions Create Room For New Ones

To welcome in the new—new ideas, new potential—we need to consider the possibility that a different path to being with and riding a horse exists. Without judgment, with humility and compassion, we open ourselves to this possibility. We need to create change in ourselves in order to learn to look at things differently—let go of old perceptions and outdated knowledge. We need to be able to recognize that even very little change in the way we look at things can make a big difference.

What follows are just some examples of misconceptions about horses that we hold as being true. These are the very things that prevent us from creating a different reality with our horse—that of a vision nested in openness, a communion. 1. The horse is, for the most part, on the forehand. 2. A young horse cannot be light. 3. The horse’s conformation is a barrier to lightness. 4. Lightness is achieved as an end goal of training. 5. Lightness (in the horse) comes from a lot of hard work (on the part of the rider), namely pulling and pushing.

Any changes in our understanding or consciousness are a result of self-discipline and practice.

Understanding lightness and how it is attained is no different. We must practice being with our horse as we might practice meditation: every day in the same position, mind and spirit.

Dominique Barbier is a certified British Horse Society assistant instructor and has trained at a number of highly regarded facilities throughout Europe, including an internship with Mestre Nuno Oliveira. He is the author of Dressage for the New Age and Meditation for Two. He has been teaching his art of dressage training philosophy across the world for the last 40 years. He lives in Healdsburg, California.

Maria Katsamanis is a licensed clinical psychologist and is the co-founder of an equine-based psychotherapy and learning program. She lives in Lambertville, New Jersey.

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