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Christmas Portrait

By Margaret Freeman, December 24, 2014

Margaret Painting What's the ultimate Christmas present? Well, I guess it might be that dream pony that many of us once asked for every year but few of us ever got. Sometimes later it became a dream horse for Christmas. Maybe the dream horse arrived on some other occasion, or maybe we bought or bred our own dream horse, but that Christmas wish always seems to float through our hearts every year no matter how old we are or how many horses we have. It can be kind of tough for those who love us to come up with the perfect gift. (Can anything really match a pony with a bow around its neck!)

Well, even a couple years later, I still remember the feeling when I opened my "ultimate" Christmas gift. My husband Henry had a portrait painted of me and our first foal Midnight, a Hanoverian cross by Abundance out of my wonderful grade mare India. The painting is based on a photo taken by my brother Tom 35 years ago, and it has always been a favorite of ours -- my brother had asked me to see if I could get Midnight to face the camera. I had a rope in my hand to catch him, but I put my arm around his neck instead. He rubbed against me and I started laughing. It was a perfect moment captured in the photo.

A neighbor of ours in our home in Tryon N.C., Richard Christian Nelson, is a wonderful artist with a national reputation specializing in portraits. Henry somehow arranged for Rich to do the painting without me finding out. Rich doesn't normally paint horses, but I feel he nailed this painting. I am amazed how much more it makes me smile than I even do when I see the photo.

I am reminded of a favorite quote of mine from the play "Harvey" - "A photograph shows only the reality; a painting shows not only the reality but the dream behind it." I feel Rich's painting catches that feeling I had that this wonderful colt was my future. (Henry and I were both in the play in our high schools - 3,000 miles apart - and we still have the scripts. We even went to see the play on its Broadway revival last spring.)

Actually, Midnight had already focused my future, since Henry had a lot of fun the year before telling everyone we had to get married "to provide a home for the baby." India was already pregnant when we started dating, and when we got married we combined the resources of our two townhouses to buy a farm. Henry's mother came up with the next great gift - her wedding present to us was a stud service so that we could breed back and maybe get a matched set. By the next spring we had two full brothers.

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Even a Great Equestrian Facility Needs Local Amenities

By Margaret Freeman, October 11, 2014

I am looking forward to dressage shows being next year at the brand new Tryon International Equestrian Center, barely a hack from my home in North Carolina.  But, the big question for me is what a facility of this magnitude (10 rings, 1,000 stalls), with a full slate of projected competitions, will mean to the rest of the country.

The gradual advent of the winter season over the past three decades in Wellington FL – not to mention the rest of Florida and other areas in Southern California and South Carolina – has somewhat reversed the pattern of showing the rest of the year in northern areas.  A couple decades ago, the usual pattern was to show during the summer and train during the winter, at least for dressage riders.

Now with good weather, rich purses, and outstanding training opportunities available in Florida from New Year’s through the end of March, a lot of people concentrate their showing in the winter and train in the summer.  This means that some shows in the Northeast have taken a big hit in entries or have shut down altogether.

The Tryon facility could operate several ways, as a showing opportunity during the migration south in the fall and the return north in spring, a three-season showing venue or a way to get out of the heat with their horses  for those who reside in Florida.  Real estate sales for horse farms around Tryon have definitely picked up.  With housing sites, an RV park and hotels available at Tryon Equestrian, people could just settle in there when it’s too hot to be in Florida.

An enormous covered arena  -- the supports are up and it’s just waiting for the roof -- will provide enough shade for training and showing if it gets really hot.  However, with the venue set into the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, “hot” is relative here compared to the rest of the South.  The footing and stabling are beautiful.  There are miles of bridle trails in the design.  It’s pretty much heaven for horses.  What it still needs is more infrastructure for the humans in the way of motels and restaurants.

Right now there’s no telling what this will mean to shows and traditional show series held further north.  If the past is prologue, however, there could be another seismic shift in showing patterns.  Tryon is well west of the I-95 corridor.  But that detour will be meaningless if people settle in for months rather than a couple days or weeks. It could be right on the way from those traveling between Florida and Kentucky and the northern Midwest.  

The official opening of the facility was Oct. 5 with a $100,000 jumping grand prix.  There were three weeks of shows last summer, and the hunter/jumper series this fall has $800,000 in prize money.  The show schedules for 2015, either hunter/jumper or dressage, have not yet been announced.  However, there has been talk here of a nine-month “season,” with a concentration of shows in the middle six months. 

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Straightness is Always a Goal

By Margaret Freeman, October 04, 2014


This horse is cantering and straight. Look at his hooves.

Straightness is an important goal in any performance horse, but there are degrees of straightness and a lot of confusion about how it is defined.  Basically, it means that the hind end should be in line with the front end, not just on straight lines but also curved on the same arc on a curved line.

Obviously, this shouldn’t be the rigid "straightness" of a 2-by-4 piece of lumber. The rib cage area should always be accessible to the rider's inside leg in order to lift the rib cage and keep the horse’s topline supple. In order to do this, it’s useful to think of the head/neck and body assemblies as separate units.  You should be able to softly bend the neck to either direction without the body slipping sideways.


Of course, that is usually easier said than done, as anyone sitting horse that is shying knows full well.  When your horse is horrified by something to his right, his head goes right while the rest of him goes left.  That’s if you don’t have control of the outside shoulder, of course, which could prevent the shy in the first place.  The basic tenet is that the body of a horse tends to slide away from the the direction of the head/neck.  However, a rider doesn't want that to happen when he's trying to perform a line of jumps or flying changes, which is where training for straightness comes in very handy.


I have been concentrating on straightness a lot more lately, since I am trying to get better with one-tempi changes, my personal bugaboo.  (One-tempis are flying changes every stride, from 7 to 15 in FEI dressage tests.)  I can keep a line of twos straight without any problem, but the ones are a bear for me.


I also see issues with straightness demonstrated very dramatically when I judge a dressage test that calls for a shoulder-in on the center line.  Without the aid of the rail, where a shoulder-in is usually performed, the horse often wobbles all over the place.  It should be an "aha" moment for a dressage rider if they can't get a good score for that movement.


Here’s an interesting test for straightness that my coach Ashley gave me recently:  While riding in a straight line (anywhere, on the ring rail, inside the rail or even in an open field), gently direct the horse's nose to one side.  Don’t pull or stiffen against the bit, just widen the hand, directing the head not only to the side but also lower if you can. Now, take notice of whether the shoulders or even the entire body slide the other way, which could be subtle or overt. The question you have to ask yourself as the rider is whether you can control the direction of the horse’s body with your legs and seat when the head is directed elsewhere.  If you can’t, then you have more of an issue with straightness that you realized, because the test has indicated that your only real control aids are the reins.


Not only is this a test but also a good suppling exercise.  You should be able to soften the neck gently to one side while riding the body straight at all three gaits and on both curved and straight lines. It’s easiest at the trot, because the feet can become planted at the walk and your horse may need extra strength and balance to counter-bend at the canter.  It’s a good exercise for warm-ups/cool-downs and as a break in mid-work, in addition to being a test for the correctness of your work.


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A Lesson in Shortening Your Reins

By Margaret Freeman, September 12, 2014


After 40 years of active riding and training, sometimes it surprises when I learn something new, something that I should have learned decades ago. I was proofing a written test for Lendon Gray’s Youth Dressage Festival, held in early August in Saugerties NY, where I am on the committee and help out with the judging.  The test was based on Janet Foy’s book “Dressage For the Not-So-Perfect Horse.”  I stopped at this question: 

If you pick up both reins at the same time during the transition from free walk to working walk, what is a common reaction of the horse?


a. The horse stretches over the back.

b. The horse may step sideways. 

c. The horse may stiffen. 


I knew the answer (c) without double-checking it in the book. But then, I realized I’d never thought about it much, how I go about shortening my reins.  I just do it.  Could that be the source of a problem that’s always plagued me with my mare Windy?  One of the hardest things for me to do with her is to go from a walk on long reins to a walk on contact, and what can be more basic than that?  She’s always stiffened until we get into the walk-on-contact, no matter how hard I try to keep my hands soft and my elbows and hips following the motion of the walk stride.  She often jigs. Of course, this can be a problem in a dressage test, and it has been for me all the way from Training I to the FEI levels.  At least now, I sort of put that inclination to work for me by turning the jigging into half steps of trot, in preparation for piaffe. 


So, the next time I rode, I made a special point of shortening the reins in my usual polite increments but one at a time rather than both together.  I softly accessed a corner of her mouth with a vibration that was so subtle that she and I knew about it but an observer wouldn’t. It worked for me better than usual at the walk.  Next, I tried it any time I shortened my reins at the trot and canter.  Again, Windy stayed loose through her topline.  Wow! 


This new regime isn’t habit yet.  I still have to keep reminding myself about one rein at a time, not both.  Sometimes, Windy still anticipates and stiffens or jigs.  But the transition from longer reins to shorter reins is definitely more successful for both of us than it has been in the past.


I guess this is sort of the point of the written test at the Youth Dressage Festival, which has three phases that all competitors must do: dressage test, equitation class, written test based on required reading that changes each year.  Lendon is huge on education and equitation, and her competition is a way of enforcing these for young dressage riders in a fun way.  I’ve often heard from former YDF competitors who say they put their reading info from the Festival into use.  I just didn’t expect I’d be doing the same thing but, of course, I realize now I should have. 

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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!


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