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John Strassburger The Equine Things That Matter Most
by John Strassburger

John Strassburger, Horse Journal’s Performance Editor, is a graduate A Pony Clubber. He currently competes in eventing at the Intermediate level. As editor of The Chronicle of the Horse for 20 years, he covered six Olympics and thousands of competitions. With his wife, he operates Phoenix Farm (, a breeding/training facility in California.

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The Only Way To Get Better Is To Ride More

By John Strassburger, September 05, 2014


During the years that I rode steeplechase races, I would run 5, 6 or more miles four days a week.

Sometimes students—or parents of younger students—will ask me what they can do to practice their riding or to improve their riding fitness. My short answer is always the same: "Ride more."

Unfortunately, that simple solution isn’t always practical or even possible.

But it's an issue with which I'm quite familiar. For the 24 years that I worked at The Chronicle of the Horse, as a staff member and as the editor, I always wanted to ride more. But usually I simply couldn't, sometimes because of time and sometimes because I didn't have any other horses to ride.

So, yes, I used to do other non-mounted exercises to be confident in my riding fitness. I ran three to five days (mostly nights) a week; at one point I did quite a bit of bicycling to ease the strain running put on my legs; for about 12 years I swam two to three days a week; and for awhile I worked out in a gym on the days I swam. During the years that I rode steeplechase races, I would run 5, 6 or more miles four days a week, both for fitness and for weight control.

I haven't run, swam laps or bicycled in more than seven years now, because I don't need to and don’t have the time, since I'm riding four or five horses a day, have farm work to do, and a young son to raise. But I do practice yoga three or four times a week, for strength and flexibility. As I've discovered at age 54, you really do lose both of those qualities as the years start to pile up.

So I speak from experience when I say that non-riding exercise is beneficial to riding, but only to a degree. Certainly anything you do to increase your strength and your endurance helps you in any physical activity, and riding is no exception. If you're out of breath or exhausted after trotting a couple of times around the ring or cantering over a small course, then anything you can do to improve your overall fitness can substantially improve your ability to stay on, and to influence, your horse.

And the more you want to do on your horse, the fitter you need to be. Running serious mileage definitely helped me to be able to ride two- or three-mile steeplechase races and to finish physically within myself, but running didn't make me a better steeplechase rider. Running didn't improve my ability to judge when it was the right time to move or make me brave enough to send a horse at the last fence in order to win. I don't think I ever became more than about halfway good at either of those decisive abilities, but what improvement I did make was from riding horses at speed over jumps and from riding races.

So my longer answer to the question is always this: If you want to get fitter (which is always a good idea)—then undertake a serious and consistent exercise routine. But if you want to become a better rider, then you need to ride more. Ride as often as you can, on whatever horses you feel confident riding. Yes, do what you can to ride horses besides your own.

Here's an observation that I offer as an example of how riding improves riding: I've just returned from working in the media center at the Hampton Classic Horse Show on the eastern end of New York's Long Island. I spent eight days watching some of the best jumper and hunter riders in the country jump a lot of jumps. And my biggest observation was the same this year as when I've worked here in the past:  Man, those guys and gals can really find the fences.

Of course, that's especially true of the pros, but even some of the amateurs and most of the juniors who show in top shows like this are really good at finding the fences on the right stride.

Why? Because they practice jumping almost all the time, so they can instinctively and immediately adjust their horses' stride to meet the jumps at the correct distance.

As an eventer, I'm envious of the time they can spend working on the basics and the fine points of jumping. Sure, flat work is important to improve jumping, but flat work for hunters and jumpers really is a means to en end, not an end in itself. They practice leg-yields and shoulder-ins strictly for gymnastic, strength-building reasons. They don't have to worry about how correct the bend is or how long the strides remain through the exercise, because no judge is gong to score them on it. Even transitions aren't as big a deal for them—they have to be obedient and soft, but that’s really all that matters.

The hunter people do an astounding job of teaching their horses to canter around in the prescribed rhythmic self-carriage with a rounded frame, on a loopy rein. The jumpers don’t have to go in a prescribed manner between the jumps, but the more responsive and rideable the horse is, the more likely he’ll be to keep the rails up. They can allow a jumper to go in almost any frame he wants, as long as he responds correctly to his rider's aids.

My point is that the hunter/jumper people are better at jumping than we eventers because they practice it far more than we can. The dressage riders are better than we are for the same reason.

The simple truth is that if you want to be good at jumping, you have to jump a lot. If you want to become better at dressage, you have to spend a lot of time riding with your horse truly on the bit.

The key to both—and to riding well in any discipline—is practice, practice, practice.





Grant Miller, DVM Vet Check
by Grant Miller, DVM
Grant Miller is a Veterinary Editor for the Horse Journal and currently practices in Northern California. His areas of interest include acupuncture, chiropractics, performance horse medicine, geriatric horse care, and forensics. He grew up riding in the Pony Club and studied dressage until he attended veterinary school at UC Davis. In 2007 he founded The Sonoma County CHANGE Program to assist his local animal control department with equine humane cases. View more blogs

Looking a Horse in the Mouth

By Grant Miller, DVM, September 02, 2014

The horse in the photo above is likely 6 or 7 years old.


Do you ever wonder what your veterinarian is looking at when he or she opens your horse’s mouth to the estimate its age?  It is intricate, and can take years of practice to really get good, but that doesn't mean that you cannot at least get a general idea of what to look for.  Here are a few basic rules that you can follow to at least estimate an age range in a horse by oral examination. 


1)  Horses tend to object to having their lips pulled apart and mouths opened.  For this reason, standing off to the side when you open the mouth will help you avoid being injured since they often try to throw their head up in the air when you open their lips.


2)  As you curl up the upper lip, look for a tattoo.  If the horse has one, it is simple to determine its age since The Jockey Club assigns a letter to each year that a horse is born.  For instance, all thoroughbreds that race on the track born in 2006 have a tattoo that begins with the letter “J.” 

Credit: The Jockey Club

3)  Check for “baby” teeth (also called deciduous teeth.)  They are caps that will eventually be replaced by permanent adult teeth.  Horses will have them up until the age of 5.  Sometimes you will see missing caps which can hone you in on an age range.


4)  If you open the mouth and look down at the occlusal (table) surface of the lower incisors, they will have a characteristic shape.  In general, horse incisor teeth progress through different shapes as the horse ages.  Here is the progression:

–     Oval (0 to 5 yr) to

–     Round (5 to 9 yr) to

–     Triangular (10-15) to

–     Square (15 to 19)


5)  When you look at the incisors from the side, the contour and angle between the top and bottom incisors will change over time so that it becomes more angled as the horse ages.

Tooth Angles by age


6)  In the upper corner incisor, most horses will have a marker called the Galvayne’s Groove.  Here is how it progresses over time:

•      Appears at the gumline at 12 years

•      ½ way down tooth at 15 years

•      All the way down tooth at 20 years



7)  Remember, the term “long in the tooth” refers to an aged animal. Therefore when examining the upper corner incisor, the overall length of the tooth can give you a general idea as to age range.  Here are general rules:


•      Between 5 and 9 years, the tooth is wider than it is tall

•      From 9 to 10 it is perfectly square (equal height and width)

•      Gets longer than it is wide from there


The upper corner incisor goes from wide to long as the horse ages


There are several more markers that the veterinarian examines to help hone in on an estimated age, but these are a good start to get you in the ballpark.  Generally, it is difficult to age a horse past 23 years no matter who is looking, but the general shape and length of the incisors, as well as their angle and the presence of the Galvayne’s Groove can get us close to knowing “young,” “middle-aged” or “older.”


For more information, you may want to consider purchasing the American Association of Equine Practitioners Guide to Determining the Age of the Horse.

Margaret Freeman Stepping Out of the Judge's Box
by Margaret Freeman
Margaret Freeman is a USEF “Senior” dressage judge living in Tryon NC.She was recently elected Secretary of the U.S. Dressage Federation. She earned her USDF Silver Medal on a horse she bred and trained herself, and she continues to compete at FEI-level dressage. She has covered the equestrian events at seven Olympics for the Associated Press. She’s an experienced show organizer, is on the committee of the Youth Dressage Festival (NY), and was on the founding committees of CDCTA (VA) and Dressage at Devon (PA). View more blogs

When It's Hot, It's Hot

By Margaret Freeman, August 28, 2014


If you're comfortable, you will ride better.

I judged a dressage show in Florida recently – and doesn’t that just sound like a fabulous idea:  a Florida dressage show in the middle of the summer.  The show came about because an ideal facility was available, the Van Kampen covered arena at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center which, at 360' by 210', was large enough to hold two standard dressage arenas with plenty of space left over for warmup.


For those who don’t live far south of the Mason-Dixon Line or in the Southwest, a covered arena is a very different animal from the indoor arenas they may be used to.  A covered arena usually has a kick-rail and a roof but no sides. In the case of the PBIEC arena, there’s just a roof.  Not only does this provide shade, but it also channels a soft breeze through continually.


Much to my surprise, I’ve been more comfortable riding in the summer months in North Carolina than I was when I lived in the Northeast, where the options are usually an outdoor arena with footing that reflects heat or a stifling indoor that’s good protection from rain or winter cold/snow but is much less pleasant otherwise.  That’s because our covered arena keeps the sun off, the footing cool, and a breeze flowing through.


Well, even though the covered arena at PBIEC made a summer show in Florida doable, there is only so much comfort it can provide when the thermometer goes above 90 with humidity to match.  All I can say is that those Florida dressage riders are tough!  We had very few scratches and almost everyone wore a jacket when competing.  (I did have one rider who got so dazed during his test that he had to withdraw and then oozed off his horse and had to be helped for a bit.)


There's one of those “old judge tales” we hear about all the time, that the dressage judge will somehow think less of the rider if they don’t wear a jacket.  Just not true!  And, no judge wants to be digging a rider out of the dirt who has just fainted off her horse from heat stroke. When jackets are excused at a show where I’m riding, I’m the first one to leave it in the truck. The bulges and bumps revealed sans jacket matter a lot less than the fact that I ride better when I’m comfortable.    


It must be that those Florida riders are accustomed to the heat and prepare for it, conditioning themselves and their horses.  I also noticed that many riders only entered one test a day, even with lower-level horses, a good plan under the circumstances.  But, I was impressed with the level of energy, not to mention the high level of riding, I saw that weekend.  Tough riders and tough horses!


Deb M. Eldredge, DVM From The Pile And Beyond
by Deb M. Eldredge, DVM
Deb M. Eldredge, DVM is a semi-retired veterinarian and award winning writer. She spent the first 15 years of her life earning money to buy a horse and never looked back. Deb was involved with 4-H and Pony Club, then moved on to polo at Cornell where she earned her DVM degree. She has competed in Western and Hunter/Jumper, low level combined training and competitive trail rides. She currently lives with six equines. Three are senior horses – an Arab, An Appaloosa and a Quarter Horse. The “youngsters” are a mini horse and two donkeys. View more blogs

Human and Veterinary Surgeons Partner up at Cornell for Stifle (Knee) Innovations

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM, August 27, 2014


Could joint repair techniques be used in both humans and horses?

First off – true confessions. I am a Cornellian through and through and I bleed red and white. That out of the way, I am proud to tell you about a partnership that may help many horses with stifle injuries in the future – and incidentally a few humans with knee problems too! 

Recently a team at Cornell worked on five horses to repair meniscal cartilage injuries. The team used a veterinary surgeon (Dr. Lisa Fortier), a human surgeon (Russ Warren, a specialist employed by the Giants football team) and a biomechanical engineer from the Hospital for Special Surgery, an affiliate of the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York City (Suzanne Maher). There were plenty of support staff as well but these three were the main force behind this research. 

Maher developed a biocompatible scaffold to insert into the damaged joint. This provides support for the injured joint to help with repairs and hopefully to offset the development of arthritis. Cartilage is notoriously short on vasculature, which makes it so difficult to repair. Any help that can be given to the joint is a plus. 

A second procedure will make its debut in a couple of weeks with sheep going under the knife. The sheep will benefit from a custom designed meniscal transplant. A professor of dental medicine at Columbia University (Jeremy Mao) has come up with a biodegradable transplant that is also infused with growth hormone. The goal is to provide a template for regeneration of the meniscal cartilage. 

Both surgeries benefit from MRI evaluations of the joints involved, leading to custom designed and produced 3-D printed replacement pieces. Obviously there will need to be some more surgeries done before the technique will cross over to humans but in the meantime, a number of animal patients will benefit. It is also refreshing to see veterinarians and physicians working together on challenges that face both human and animal patients. Bringing in biomechanical engineers and dentists simply rounds out a team of talented, far thinking researchers. 

John Strassburger The Equine Things That Matter Most
by John Strassburger

John Strassburger, Horse Journal’s Performance Editor, is a graduate A Pony Clubber. He currently competes in eventing at the Intermediate level. As editor of The Chronicle of the Horse for 20 years, he covered six Olympics and thousands of competitions. With his wife, he operates Phoenix Farm (, a breeding/training facility in California.

Email John

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Full-Care Or Self-Care: Which Is Better For You?

By John Strassburger, August 27, 2014


Full-care often means that you’re not teaching students anything about horsemanship.
Horse care always presents a quandary to trainers and their clients are, one for which there is no one-size-fits-all answer. That quandary is: Which is better, a barn that offers full-care for horses or a barn that requires all owners to care for their horses themselves?

I’m going to examine this question of full-care vs. self-care from the viewpoint of the trainer (which I am now) and of the client (which I used to be).

To start with, I can tell you this: From a trainer’s perspective, it’s so much easier and so much more efficient to have your staff take care of the horses, rather than the clients. But yet you can feel as if you're not really doing your job of teaching your students if they don't learn how to groom, feed, bandage, clean tack, clean stalls, and more.

The training/care model of a full-service barn is partly cultural (it's simply the way it’s done in South America and much of continental Europe, where you’re either a rider or a groom, but not both) and partly a discipline thing (you most often find it in hunter/jumper barns, where you tend to find those cultural influences more often than in other disciplines).

Full-care is certainly more efficient—as a trainer you know the horses are getting groomed and tacked up properly, equipment is being used properly and put away properly, and that hay, grain and bedding are being efficiently used. You can also give directions or orders to your staff that you can't—at least not awkwardly—give to the people who are paying you. Full-care is simply a lot less hassle.

But it also means you have to charge your clients fees that are large enough for you to be able to hire enough staff to accomplish it. That could be an amount that's double or triple what your potential clientele is willing to pay. The clients’ willingness to pay depends on where you are, your level of expertise and accomplishment, and the level and financial ability of the clients you're serving. It also depends on your personality and your goals.

A big problem with not letting the students care for their horses is that they never learn, or understand, the requirements of horse care and all the things that can go wrong with or to them. Sometimes they can even come to believe that riding, training and caring for horses is easy.

So the near-term result can often be that they're surprised, horrified and even discouraged when they discover that it's not at all easy, when they discover that horses really do get hurt or sick or that they do get old and can no longer do their job. In the long term, you're not preparing them for the next horse, or for a life with horses, which means you're not really teaching them.

Full-care often means that you’re not teaching them anything about horsemanship, that you’re only teaching them about riding. And there’s a big difference.

I don’t have a great answer to this quandary, from either the trainer's or the student's perspective. For both, it's a case of finding what works best for you (and your horse too).

Some owners like being highly involved with their horses; they like being fully responsible for that care. That's how I was as an amateur rider, and it's why I kept my horses at home for the 24 years between when I got out of college and when we moved to California to establish Phoenix Farm. I would have found leaving my horses' care to someone else distinctly unsatisfying, at the very least, and even annoying at worst. It wasn't how I was brought up, at all.

To me, their care was an intrinsic part of the deal with my horses—I got the hay and feed and gave it to them, I cleaned their stalls and groomed them before and after I rode them. I really enjoyed taking care of one, two or even three horses, as well as riding them.

But many owners and riders don’t feel that way. I grew up knowing nothing different, while other riders grow up knowing nothing but showing up at the barn, with the horse groomed and tacked and ready to go.

For some people, that's the only way they can get to ride—women or men with a demanding career and/or a family, or teenagers who have school and other sports that demand a great deal of their time and effort. These are usually people for whom horses are an avocation or like other activities, not a true passion, and they’re willing to pay for the service; sometimes they even expect it.

We're somewhere in the middle at Phoenix Farm. We tried to be almost full-service for a while, but we found it too costly and not what we believe in. We take the basic care of the horses--we feed, muck, turn out or bring in, arrange for shoeing and vet. But owners or students staking lessons on our horses have to groom, tack and bathe their horses before or after they ride. We believe that’s the best way for everyone.

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