Observations about both lands. Part 1.

A version of Rodney King’s famous line, “Can’t we all just get along,” comes to mind when I think about the divergent worlds of Hunterland and Eventingland. My version is, “Can’t we just learn from one another?”

There’s a lot of veiled lip-turning from both sides when considering the other side. Some deserved, of course. I mean does a 14-year-old girl really need the million dollar Hunter Derby champion to compete in the Childrens Hunters? Even a bulldozer couldn’t level that playing field. On the other hand, how many horses and riders have died this year competing in upper level events? And are the powers that be really going to make the courses even more challenging? To what end? More horse and human deaths?

Ok, put those things aside and lets look at what each side has to teach the other.

Time management and trainer hand-holding. There is absolutely none of the famous Hunterland hurry-up-and-wait in Eventingland. My ride times were almost down to the nano-second. When I received my times, I asked the show manager how they handled trainer conflicts, which is a major cause of the hurry-up-and-wait problem in Hunterland.

“What if my  trainer is at the dressage ring with another rider and I have to go cross country?” I whined.

Both my trainer and the show manager snickered and explained the underlying philosophy in Eventingland. “We make it so you don’t have to rely on trainers, so you can think for yourself, so you are absolutely prepared to handle any problem you might encounter in stadium jumping or cross country or dressage by yourself,” said my trainer Erin Bartle.

The show manager echoed that and added they never hold rings. If you miss your time, you don’t compete. Talk about tough love. The hunter world could use a dose of that. And it could also use a dose of getting the riders prepared before they show, rather than at the show. Many of the top hunter judges have been complaining for years that too much training goes on at horses shows.

When I took a clinic with the aptly named Greg Best,  one of his major complaints was exactly that. Too much showing, not enough training….at home.

Plus there’s the whole “OH MY GOD! where is my trainer!” headset in Hunterland, of which I am extremely guilty. Yes my trainer has important lessons to impart. But the truth is I’ve been riding for 40 years and everything he has said to me as I enter the ring, I have heard before, either from him or his predecessors. I use him as a crutch and talisman. I like the Eventingland approach that makes me rely on myself. Or at least I like it when the jumps are less than 2 feet.

Ok, now onto Eventingland. A few weeks ago I watched some of the  Training Level riders in stadium jumping at the Virginia Horse Center and I didn’t see one rider release his/her horse’s head over the jump.  Their hands stayed planted by their stomach at the base of the saddle as their horse graciously jumped the fence with a restricted head. And I saw many riders flip back over the top of the fence, thereby catching their horses even more in the mouth.  This is not the first time I’ve seen this. And I’ve seen it at higher levels, too.

I get that Event riding is much more defensive, especially on cross county where lives are literally at stake (this will be the topic of the next blog). But in the show ring, over smallish jumps on even terrain? Come on, Event riders, quit slamming your horses in the mouth, especially when you’ve cranked your dropped nosebands so tight their eyeballs are popping.

Yes, many hunter riders perch and float their hands above the horse’s neck in that ugly exaggerated crest release. But at least they’re not punishing their mounts for a job well done. Look at the best, Greg Best, in his iconic photo with Gem Twist. His hands actually move forward.

So you see, I’m an equal opportunity offender. Both sides could take a lesson from the other.

Next time: do all those horses really need to die?  I’m sorry about the rider deaths too, but they get to vote on whether they want to compete at that level.

Happy trails,


Below is that iconic photo of the Best.

Screen Shot 2014-11-16 at 8.43.24 AM

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“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

The late, great Stuart Dim told me that on my first day as a feature writer for The Charlotte Observer 35 years ago and I’ve lived by that rule since. (Though I never asked my mother if she loved me).  Journalists worship at the alter of accuracy, because if you can’t get someone’s name right, why should a reader believe anything else your write?

So when I got my dressage test back from my first event, I started to check it out. Coming from Hunterland, I had no idea what all the numbers meant and spent a long time trying to figure it out on my own. But Google can only take you so far. I got that eventing dressage scores are the opposite of straight dressage scores because the object in eventing is to finish with the lowest possible score. This further supports my theory that eventers have testicles the size of New Jersey and don’t want to be coddled. High numbers? That’s for pansies who like smiley faces.

Finally I texted an eventer friend who is a dressage judge. She tried to explain the system to me — through texting (good luck with that) — something about there being 16 movements, each worth 10 points. That confused me further because it was an intro test with only nine movements and six collective marks. Plus there was also something about dividing 160 by 100. This was turning into rocket science. Then I turned to a Facebook friend who luckily lived in an earlier time zone and was still up. I refused to go to bed until I cracked the code.

She looked up the intro test and said that little number 2 under the coefficient column next to the submission entry means you double that score, and that’s what gives you 16 movements (or the possibility of 160 points).

So thank you Stuart Dim. By checking it out, I discovered they’d forgotten to double my submission score (which is now sounding like S and M talk). My score that they’d given me of 26.6 was wrong. My correct score was 21.9, which I’m told is a stellar first outing. I’m using the word “stellar” because I heard a young event rider use it to describe the day she was having and I like it better than the ubiquitous “awesome.”

I sent an email to the show management with a copy of my dressage test to make sure I understood the scoring. And yes, they wrote back, they’d made a mistake. My real score was in fact 21.9. I’m pretty sure that was the lowest dressage score in my division and I had no faults in either cross country or stadium.

So all in all, a stellar day!

Free walk in dressage. This is apparently my horse's forte. She got a 9, which I'm told is great.

Free walk in dressage. This is apparently my horse’s forte. She got a 9, which I’m told is great.

Photo on 11-14-14 at 10.38 AM

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The Dark Side visited…and loved

I knew TBs are smart, but how did my mare find an internet connection in her new run-in shed? We didn’t wire it for that, but she clearly read my blog and decided she wanted to stay a hunter princess wannabe. That is, until her stomach over-ruled her heart and she let me catch her with some grain.  But it had been a solid 10 minutes of racing around the pasture, bucking and squealing. Or maybe she was just excited about her trip to a foreign country: Eventingland.
I used up all my husband points and made him come with me today for my debut and so he could be camera man. But he was much less grumpy about going to this than a hunter show because here I had exact times to ride: 1:55 dressage, 2:43 stadium jumping and 3:05 cross country.
So that’s the first big difference. No hurry-up and wait here in Eventingland.  The second difference is protective booties — for the riders. In Hunterland, there is a lot of safe-walking going on, meaning freshly polished boots are protected until the nano-second your groom gives you a leg onto the horse. My trainer wears three protective booties on top of each other until he is safely mounted and away from dust.  Let that be the metaphor for Hunterland vs. Eventerland. I didn’t see anyone in protective booties. And I didn’t see anyone who even noticed the dust.
The third difference is friendliness. In my 30-plus years of showing in Hunterland, more often than not I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I’m not tall and blonde. I don’t have a lot of zeros in my bank account. I don’t have a six-figure horse and I’m not an especially talented or brave rider. I am, however, an outgoing person who, as a journalist, can easily interact with new people and get them talking, mostly anywhere.  Except at an A rated show which reminds me of eighth grade where the popular girls only talked to the popular girls.
But on the Dark Side — at least at this lower level — everyone is everyone’s best friend.  At the dressage ring, I traded tips with the rider before me who was also doing this for the first time. At the schooling jumps, everyone was ridiculously polite and gracious about moving out of the way, even if they weren’t in the way. And on cross country, we all cheered for each other, even though we’d just met.
It is a bit apples and oranges to compare an A-rated Hunter show to an unrated Event (are they called Events? Or Horse Trails?) Because the truth is one the local level in Hunterland, call it Hunterland-ish, people are also friendly. Just not as ridiculously friendly as on the Dark Side.
First up, as usual I’m told, was dressage. The biggest challenge of this entire day was remembering everything. Thank god it was only an intro test. Walk trot. But my hands were a little shaky when I stopped at X and I dropped the reins. My friend who is dressage judge said my mare should have gotten extra points for standing statue still with no reins. Things went up from there, I remembered the whole 2 minute test and even got 7s, 8s, and one 9! See photo below for my mare’s apparent true talent: free walking.
What can I say about stadium jumping? They were cross rails. Even I, the queen of the weenies, thought they were easy. I tried to make it pretty like a hunter course, but I was too busy trying to remember all 11 fences to ask properly for the flying changes. We got around, no faults.
Then came what I suppose most Eventers love most, cross county. And I can see why. There is really nothing like cantering up and down a wide open field. over jumps . I’m mighty tired of riding in a ring. Okay, for now, our ups and downs and overs were miniscule. But I am officially hooked, so much so that Erin Bartle, my friend and trainer, had to drag me off the cross country course after I’d trotted off a bank and cantered down a hill on the way out.
As my friend, and fellow eventer (yes I can finally say that now!) Yvonneke Prescott Weitzel says, “Welcome to the  ‘Bright Side.’  “
Free walk in dressage. This is apparently my horse's forte. She got a 9, which I'm told is great.

Free walk in dressage. This is apparently my horse’s forte. She got a 9, which I’m told is great.

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Going to the Dark Side today…….

That’s right, I’m heading to Eventingland today. Well, let’s call it Eventingland-ish. I’m taking my TB mare (who does not want to be a Hunter Princess) in the Green division, which is not at all like the Green division in the world, Hunterland, I’ve known for a million years.

In Hunterland, Green horses have been around the block about a million times, and there’s really nothing green about them. But the Dark Side is a very literal place. Green means green, as in your horse has never done this before or has very limited exposure to the questions of terrain.

Questions… did you get that? I’m even talking in Eventland speak. Question, I think, is another word for obstacle, as in what are the questions surrounding the jump on the cross country course? Terrain, shadows, water, size, narrowness are just a few of these so-called Questions.  The Questions in Hunterworld are much more simple: can you horse make the distance down the lines and make it look pretty?  (I’ve noticed a new Question slipping into Hunterland: can you horse canter around the course without losing its fake tail?)

Cassie, my TB mare, is bathed and ready to go. And in the Dark Side, at least at this weenie level, “ready to go,” is much more simple than the Hunterland “ready to go.” I did not pull her mane, I did not clip her whiskers (which the natural horsemanship folks say is an anathema), I did not load up my trailer with every known piece of tack. I did however fill a large canister of water because the venue doesn’t supply it. Really? In Hunterland, water is abundant and free. Though that is the only thing free in that world.

So wish me luck, off I go to the Dark Side to answer the Questions and gallop (or in my case, slowly canter) up and down the hills of the beautiful Shenandoah Valley.


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Praised Be!

After 35 years of striving for fair and balanced in what I write, I’m not one who drinks the Kool-Aid. In a way, I’ve envied those who could, because religion of any kind offers comfort, a balm in times of hurt, and most important, a clear path. 

But I have been saved! Hallelujah and praised be! I am drinking the Kool-Aid of Olympic rider and trainer Greg Best because his teaching has provided me the comfort of knowing I can fix my horse’s problems without relying on a trainer and his path is crystalline clear.

I will scour my notes today and present an organized accounting of the 3 day clinic, not just to gloat that I got to ride with Greg, but to share with anyone interested  the wisdom he has to offer. And believe me, brothers and sisters, it is fountain of horsey knowledge.

Until then, a few tidbits of what I remember most:

Ride the horse, not the distance.

Look at your horse’s outside ear to stay straight.

A turn has three parts: 1. collect into it. 2.Enjoy the ride. 3. Lengthen going out.

Follow the script: Six strides before the fence, lengthen 3 inches a stride till you get to a 12 foot stride.

If your horse jumps with a left drift, approach the fence to the left, then correct him to the right at take off.

………and don’t let the pursuit of perfection get in the way of good. For me that meant letting go of finding the perfect spot and focusing only on the canter. That eliminated the pick, pick, pick ride to the fence and guess what? More often than not, we nailed the distances. Amen.


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Greg Best Lives Up To His Name

I’ve been attempting to manage my anticipation for three weeks now, talking myself off the ledge of unrealistic expectations every time I thought of riding in the upcoming Greg Best clinic. Once you aggrandize an upcoming event, be it a movie, a date or a riding clinic, it can never live up to expectations.

So to the world I was cool and collected about riding with the guy who won two silver Olympic medals atop a horse so magnificent they cloned him. I even fooled my husband. Ha! Inside I was as jittery as as an 8th grader anticipating the school dance. The school dances were always a let down.

But….. I am very happy to report that for once, the reality is living up to the expectation.

Simply put, Greg Best is the best clinician I have every ridden with. And I’m so excited I’m ending the previous sentence with a with!

He is thoughtful, articulate, kind, honest and knows just as much about teaching as he does riding. These are qualities that are not usually listed in the same sentence. For starters, he limits each session to three riders. The last BNT clinic (a Buck Brananman type) I attended had 20 riders in a small indoor and it was mayhem. He opened his clinic with two words — “Any questions?” — and that was the end of any structure.

Greg starts by asking each rider about her (all female attendees) horse, then watches us trot and canter. Then he offers his assessment of us.

Day One started with Greg telling my my horse was a brat and I was riding all backwards, which probably makes you wonder why I put kind in that list of qualities. Notice it’s right next to honest.

We spent the next two hours addressing those observations and by the end, she was neither bratty and I was riding frontwards.

It was exhilirating and empowering. The hows will be revealed in the next post.

Happy trails


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Big Girl Panties

Big Girl Panties

I hope these fit under my breeches for the Greg Best clinic

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