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Missing the Olympics Already

By Margaret Freeman, February 23, 2014

Freestyles delight spectators at dressage shows, just as they do in skating.


I’m suffering the post-Olympics blues.  It’s been fun for me the past two weeks to get up at my usual pre-dawn hour and have hockey, or skiing, or skating or even curling live on TV.  For the past two decades I only got to watch the Winter Olympics because I was working at the equestrian events at the summer Games.  While I was up close with the horses, the other events passed me in a blur as I was filing stories round the clock.  I didn’t even have time for TV recaps.

When I haven’t been at the barn or at the computer these past two weeks, I was transfixed by the athletic drama. I never watched the roundup in the evening, with its endless commercials and chatter, but always live in the morning, switching back and forth between three TV channels and online results.  I particularly enjoyed the figure skating, along with the commentary by Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir. (Weir is from an equestrian family and showed a pony before deciding to concentrate on skating.) Weir and Lipinski entertained viewers with their competition for best makeup and clothes, but they were also a great partnership and provided excellent insights, particularly on the judging.

It came as a surprise to me that, even with the newer and more transparent – and very complicated -- judging system, the judges at international skating competitions are still anonymous and considered part of their national delegation. (In the U.S., the judges’ names are identified with their scores.)  That’s a far cry from international dressage judging, where the FEI names the judges a year in advance, and every score by every judge for every movement is available afterward, subject to close scrutiny.  I still have printouts from the judges’ sheets from past Olympics, and occasionally I screen some of the top rides on DVD with the score sheets right in my hand.   

It was fairly easy to follow the judging for the singles and pairs skaters, because the “tricks” became more important in the outcome after their scoring system changed a decade ago.  However, the judging in ice dancing was harder – they all looked great!  I suspect it may be similar to when I am judging dressage freestyles and the spectators don’t always seem to agree with the results – a more entertaining combination isn’t always the one that wins.  These are both athletic sports, first and foremost, however, and scores for the technical stuff – not always apparent to the viewer – count the most.

I’m struck by the irony that the Winter Olympics keeps adding events to pad the schedule (presumably so that TV can fill two full weeks of nighttime shows), while the IOC would like to shrink the Summer Olympics.  One discipline always mentioned on the short list of endangered summer sports is equestrian.  Gee, if we could make equestrian a Winter Sport (skijouring – maybe not!), it would become secure on the schedule.

This year, a team event was added to the figure skating.  It worked out very well, but I was struck by the commentary that the skaters still considered the individual medals to be their main mission.  That’s certainly understandable since the team concept is so new for them.  But, if you asked most equestrian Olympians, their main goal is a team medal.  That’s a tradition that predates the post-WWII Games, back to when cavalry equestrian teams competed, and it has carried over to the civilian teams.

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Revisiting "The Horse Fair"

By Margaret Freeman, February 12, 2014

I revisit Rosa Bonheur's famous painting every time I go to the Met in NYC.

I made a planes, trains and automobiles run to New York last week, flying to Westchester, then taxi/train/taxi to the city to visit my daughter, then bus/train out to Putnam County for two days of teaching, with the mom of the last rider ferrying me to Connecticut for the Weekend Educational Program put on by Lendon Gray’s Dressage4Kids.  

My daughter knows what I like, so she immediately had us hoofing across town  to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see their current exhibit of “The American West in Bronze,” including sculptures by Remington and Russell that I’d seen many times in pictures but never in person.  It was absolutely wonderful seeing the horse in action so up close and in such marvelous detail.  The exhibit continues through April 13, and anyone interested in horses visiting NYC before then shouldn’t miss it.

Then, of course, I had to revisit “The Horse Fair” by Rosa Bonheur. which I do every time I am in the Met.  Growing up I was always fascinated by the painting, even though I’d only seen it in small reproductions.  I didn’t even know where it was hung.  Then, on my first visit to the Met two decades ago, I rounded a corner, and suddenly there it was right in front of me, as large as a house!  I sent my family on their way and stayed to gaze at it for an hour.  Over the years, the bench there was removed and I sat on the floor, or I had search it out when it was moved.  It now has a bench again.  I follow a pattern:  look at it as a whole entity; then get up close for details, such as whether a particular horse is wearing shoes; then stand back again and appreciate each individual horse.  I didn’t know my daughter was taking a phone photo of me from behind this time, but it’s a pretty typical pose.

A visitor to the Met who’s interested simply in art with horses could easily spend several hours there doing just that.  The D4K committee several years ago did a docent-led tour of horse art at the Met  (saving “The Horse Fair” for last), and it was truly memorable.

The featured speaker at the Weekend Educational Program this year was Dr. Hilary Clayton, leading expert on equine biomechanics.  Any time I get a chance to hear her talk, I jump at it because she’s always fascinating.  This time I learned some new things about foot structure and saddle/back issues.  We had around 300 attendees.  We have a video crew that gets the speakers to summarize their talks.  These can be found at and on YouTube.  The talks from 2013 are still available and the 2014 videos should be up soon.

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Flying South for the Winter

By Margaret Freeman, January 20, 2014


Windy, right, and her BFF enjoying Florida sun.

There should have been no picture to go with this blog, or else just a black rectangle there. That’s because my latest horsey adventure was loading a huge horse van at 5 in the morning in 3-degree wind chill, which is really really cold for us in NC. There was precious little that could be seen and the situation was weird enough without camera flashes going off, even if I could have held a camera.

I have never done the Florida thing. Yes, I judge or go to forums and clinics in Florida every winter, although it’s never called to me to spend three months there. But, with Windy on the cusp of the Holy Grail -- piaffe, passage, one-tempis -- it also didn’t make sense to stay schooling by myself for three months in North Carolina. So the plan was for Windy to go to Florida with my trusted friend Ashley, who is working with great clinicians there, and I would come visit.

Thus, in total darkness, and temperatures well (well!) below the freezing mark, we were leading horses up the long driveway to the van where seemingly eerie lights were not exactly inviting. In 10 years, I have never seen Windy shiver or shake, but she was doing both – perhaps because she was just clipped, or because the situation was so odd or because her BFF was on the van and she wasn’t because there was one horse (there is always one) that refused to load and she was last in line.

I was really impressed with the competency and patience of the van driver and my friends to load the new horse, while Windy kept calling to her friend. They finally all set on of the 12-hour drive to Welly World in West Palm Beach and arrived just fine. I crawled away to a coffee shot – should have done that at 5 instead of 6:30.

Ashley sent me a phone photo first thing the next day with Windy and her lookalike BFF Fontyn hanging out in the sun, palm trees behind them and no blankets despite being clipped. I am looking forward to a visit soon. Hmmm, sun and sand (arena sand, not beach sand.) Sounds heavenly, and Windy seems to think so despite the rocky start.

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Fall Blanket Woes

By Margaret Freeman, October 03, 2013

I cracked up when I drove past a cleaners the other day and saw a sign that proclaimed ?it's horse blanket cleaning time!?? No, it isn?t.? it's blanket-finding time or even blanket-buying time.? Blanket-cleaning time was last spring.? Or, rather, it was supposed to be last spring.? What likely happened was that the blankets hung on the rack gathering dust until someone couldn?t stand the sight of them any more or wanted the rack to dry saddle pads that were now collecting sweat.? The blankets ended up in the loft, covered with even more dust and probably some hay bales. Or else they went into the garage under snow tires.? Good luck in finding them, and even more good luck if they don't have holes in the lining from nesting mice.?

Fortunately for me, I was handed my blankets last spring already in big trash bags and I put them away at home. ?Sort of ? at least they made it out of the truck and into the garage. I should have dropped them off somewhere to be cleaned, but it never occurred to me that a regular cleaners would handle them, and I didn't yet know someone in our new locale who did blankets.?

I remember a cleaners near a racetrack where we used to live that I imagined posted an armed guard to prevent grooms coming through their clean lobby with dirt-encrusted blankets.? But, we now live in serious horse country.? Of course, the cleaners here do horse blankets!? Since my husband actually cleaned out the garage a couple weeks ago, he found my blankets still in their trash bags well before my mare will need to wear the, so I won't have to make yet another rushed trip to the tack store for yet another warm winter layer.


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Bits About Saddles

August 28, 2013

Whenever I start with a new student, one of the most frustrating things to deal with is an equipment issue, especially with saddles, but also often with bits. Riders seek out instructors for help and insight about how to make their seat more stable and their aids all more effective and how to solve training problems.

If the saddle doesn't really fit the rider, however, then no amount of lessons on the longe line is going to improve the rider's seat. If the saddle is pinching the horse's withers, or the bit is jamming into the roof of the horse's mouth and causing discomfort, the horse's resistance won?t be from a lack of correct training. The rider is being unfair to both her horse and to herself, and the money and time she expends on lessons is wasted.

Riders, however, seem to find it easier to believe their own riding is at fault than to accept the possibility that they're actually struggling against the fit of the saddle. they're quicker to think the horse is blowing them off by going above the bit than that the bit might be causing the horse pain.

Equipment changes can be very expensive, particularly with saddles. The rider might also be stuck with riding a borrowed or leased horse where the equipment is part of the deal. When you've used a particular bridle or saddle for a long time, it's part of your daily landscape - you just don't see it as a source of your problems.

Instructors don't like to confront a rider with the idea that an expensive change is probably necessary, even though they know in their heart of hearts that it will make a real difference. The instructor might start with diplomacy, suggesting that a rider borrow saddles to see if they feel more comfortable, or make stop-gap suggestions such as using a riser pad to bring the cantle up before shelling out for a whole new saddle. The instructor might suggest experimenting with bits of a size, material or mechanism that differs somewhat from the one the rider is currently using.

Pay close attention if an instructor hints at a possible equipment change, but don't accept it on face value. Require an explanation of the biomechanics. For example, ask how the rider?s seat would become more (or less) stable in a saddle with a larger seat area. What is it about the bit that might make it pinch the corners of the mouth?

Get more than one person's evaluation - consult your vet, your horse's dentist, a saddle fitter, another instructor. Borrow before you buy, and look for serviceable used equipment before buying new. The good thing about quality horse gear is that it holds up over time, and a saddle or bit that no longer fits another rider or horse could easily be just the answer for you.

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