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Taking A Pony Out In Public Shows How Much Outreach We Need

By John Strassburger, July 09, 2014


Little Bit and Wesley lead the July 4th Healdsburg children’s parade.
On the morning of July 4th, we loaded up one small pony, what seemed like a ton of red-white-and-blue decorations, our 4-year-old son, Wesley, and ourselves to drive into the middle of our hometown of Healdsburg, Calif. We were there to participate in the annual children’s parade, but while most kids were going to be riding scooters, bikes or tricycles, Wesley going to ride his wonderful pony, Little Bit.

We try to always welcome people to our Phoenix Farm and to take the time to educate them about what we do and about the animals with whom we share our life. But I never cease to be amazed how foreign animals that aren’t dogs or cats are to people these days. Their unfamiliarity is even more noticeable when you actually take your horses somewhere else.

We arrived early to be sure we could easily park the trailer at the downtown plaza, and we then took Little Bit out to acclimate him to the situation. Instantly, we attracted visitors. Of course, he is a ridiculously adorable pony (whom Heather had spent the early morning hours bathing and decorating), but there was clearly a novelty aspect too. We spent a good two hours chatting with passers-by and their kids, and they wanted to admire, pet and cuddle Little Bit.

There were a lot of “Muggle” questions: “Is that a pony?” “Is he full grown?” “Can we pet him?”

But we noticed an odd trend, especially since Healdsburg is a largely rural community. (There are nearly 20,000 horses in Sonoma County, plus several thousand cattle and other livestock.)

Most of the kids, and not just the tiny ones, went straight for Little Bit’s eyes or his nose. Heather would say politely, “Hey Sweetie, be careful not to poke him in the eye. Why don’t you pet his shoulder?” But after the 20th time or so we started to wonder what the deal was? Do they not understand that he’s a living, breathing creature? That he, like them, doesn’t care to be poked in the eye? Surely some of these kids have dogs or cats at home? Do they get to poke them in the eye?

My meditations on this topic increased when we started the actual parade. We were asked to lead the parade (since Little Bit was the only pony), and Heather ended up spending the entire parade walking behind Little Bit with her arms spread out wide, gently but constantly reminding the pack of kids behind us that they needed to not run in to Little Bit with their scooters and bikes. The kids were reasonably obedient about it, but they were clearly confused, as though, again, they couldn’t understand why the pony would have an issue with getting a bike wheel rammed into his backside.

Because Little Bit is the World’s Greatest Pony, he handled all of it with great aplomb, and I’d like to believe that he was an excellent ambassador for his species. Still, animals do not care to be poked in the eye or run over by bikes.

But, as we move forward in this century, this July 4th parade experience reminded me that, as the rest of our population moves further and further away from animals, farms and nature, reaching out and drawing in our next generation of riders and horseman is going to be ever more challenging. In addition, we’re going to need to educate their parents as well as the kids, to ensure that they too become ethical, educated horse owners.

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A Phone Call Makes Me Ponder How We Communicate With Our Horses

By John Strassburger, July 03, 2014


We have to teach our horses to respond to the signals or cues that we give them.
A couple of weeks ago, I had my first real telephone "conversation" with my son, Wesley, who's 4 ½ years old. I probably haven't tried to talk to Wesley on the phone much more than half a dozen times, but this was the first time that I was sure he understood that he was talking to me, even though he couldn't see me.

After I hung up, I was struck with a minor sense of awe, a sense that his developing brain had entered into a new era of communication. From there, I began to ponder, once again, how we communicate with our horses, especially since communication and comprehension is a continuing theme I have when discussing horse training with our students here at Phoenix Farm.

There were actually two things about this phone call that struck me. The first was Wesley's increasing vocabulary and ability to express himself. For the first time, he told me in some detail about what he'd done that day at pre-school and then with his grandparents.

This reminded me of my often-repeated theme that, as with children, we have to teach horses our language in order to communicate with them, but it’s a language that doesn’t rely on words. I like to say that when a horse gets confused and doesn’t respond properly to your aids, the horse feels like the student would if I’d suddenly started speaking Greek to them.

The language we have to teach our horses, continuously, is a language centered around communication with our bodies—our legs, our seat, our weight, our hands, our eyes and, yes, sometimes our voice. Yes, horses can respond to voice commands, but it’s by association with other cues (especially reward clues), not because they “understand” the words in the sense we do.

When we’re riding them, we have to teach our horses to respond to the signals or cues that we give them, and we have to learn to understand the meaning of the way they respond to those cues. We have to learn to understand whether they’re saying “yes,” “I don’t understand,” “something’s worrying me,” “this is hard,” or “no, I won’t do it.” And we, then, have to respond accordingly.

But the second, and more interesting, thing from my phone call with Wesley was that I could tell, for the first time, that he wasn't just staring at the phone in confusion and amazement, wondering why he could hear what sounded like my voice when he couldn't see me.

This ability to imagine using our modern communication, to "see" people who aren't in the same place we are as we talk to them, is an essential difference in the brainpower between us and our animals. Their brains are very literal—something (food, predator, rider) is either with them now or it isn't. They can anticipate the arrival of food or the presence of a predator through association with signs of either one. They can also remember when and where these things were before. But they can 't imagine them in a different place.

This point caused me to ponder how our elders began to communicate using phones and how human interaction has changed as a result of telecommunications in the last century.

I think of my father, who was born in 1914 and died in 2000, and how he never seemed to be truly comfortable on the telephone. It was, to him, a device to communicate messages, not to have conversations. Granted, that was partly because he was a doctor who was often on call, so the phone line had to be kept clear in case of an emergency call (especially since this was in the days before call waiting).


I look at the teenagers we coach today, who are constantly texting or surfing the web, and I know that my father would be absolutely astounded and confused by what cell phones can do today. And I suspect that when someday I tell Wesley how telephones required you to call an operator first to reach another person’s phone, and how when I was his age each state had only one area code, he’ll look at me with bewilderment.

And yet the way we communicate with horses has changed very little during the last five or six centuries. Yes, we have a far better understanding of how to communicate with them; our methods are far more sympathetic and the way we care for them is certainly much improved, but we still can’t talk to them with words or abstract thoughts, whether we’re standing next to them or on a cell phone.

We’re still using the same natural aids (legs, seat, weight, hands, voice) to “talk” to them, and we’re still relying on bits, whips and spurs to amplify our natural aids.

Just another sign, I guess, of how the more the world changes, the more some things remain the same. I’d say that—particularly in this case—that’s a good thing.

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Some Horses Develop Faster Than Others

By John Strassburger, June 25, 2014


Piper jumped eagerly and confidently in his second beginner novice start.
One of the challenges to horse training is to accept—even to embrace—that you can’t just do the same things with all horses and that they won’t all fit neatly into your perfect training box. Yes, you have to have a program or overall plan for developing horses, but you have to be able to take different routes on the way to your goal, whether it’s eventing or another sport.

Well, last weekend I rode two young horses, each of whom we bred, in the Shepherd Ranch Horse Trials in Solvang, Calif., and I think that the different rates at which they’re progressing is a good example of what I’m talking about.

Both horses are 5 years old, and they were born here at Phoenix Farm just two weeks apart. They spent the first seven or eight months of their lives living together before we separated them because one was a colt and one was a filly. We started working them as 2-year-olds in our usual program (ponying or longeing them three days a week), gave them several months off for the winter, then put them back into work in the spring of their 3-year-old year and started them under saddle. And that was when their physical and mental differences required the rate of their training to diverge.

Basically, if you think of them as two teenagers aiming for college, one went into the advanced-placement program to get ready and one needed additional tutoring and time to get ready. But they’re both going to get there.

Bella (Phoenix Bellisima) is the AP student. If she were a girl in your class, she’d be the tall, lanky, quiet one who sits in the front row. She would quietly offer answers to the teacher’s questions, and her answers would always be correct. She’d also be the leader of whatever group the teacher put her in, and she’d be the first to hand in her work.

In real life, she’s always eager to come in from the field to work, she walks eagerly down to the ring to get started schooling or marches up the hill on hacking days, and I have to move quickly to stay in front of her when she loads on a trailer.

A year ago, Shepherd Ranch was Bella’s first event; I started her at the introductory level (and she finished second). This year Shepherd Ranch was her first training level start, having progressed through the beginner novice and novice levels since then. Bella stopped twice at the ditch in the rail-ditch-rail combination, which wasn’t shocking because her challenge at the moment is obstacles with no height (ditches and down banks). Bella is very leggy (rather like a spider), and she has trouble sorting out her legs when there isn’t a jump to navigate.

I urged her over the ditch on the third attempt, and from there on she jumped better with each jump. She even very nicely figured out the downhill rail-bank combination five or six jumps later.

And then she jumped beautifully in show jumping, making a green-horse error at the fifth fence, a vertical set along the rail by the out-gate, where many horses and people were gathered. The crowd distracted her, and she didn’t pick up her front feet fast enough.

So I’ll set up ditch-like obstacles at home and take her cross-country schooling at a course with several ditches before her next event. But I’m very pleased with how Bella answered the new challenges and learned this weekend, and I’m still optimistic that she’ll be ready for the training level three-day event at Galway Downs in November. If we complete that event well, then I’ll plan to move Bella up to preliminary level next spring, as she progresses toward what I hope will be an international career.

Bella has a very quick brain to go along with her eager work ethic. Even though she’s only half-Thoroughbred (her sire, Palladio is a Dutch Warmblood) she has a decidedly Thoroughbred temperament and has physically matured at a rate closer to a Thoroughbred than to a warmblood.

But Piper (Phoenix Promiscuous), our other homebred, is very different. He has no Thoroughbred close-up in his pedigree (which is basically Oldenburg and Hanoverian), and when he was 2 and 3 and growing in random ways we joked that we kept him on the back 40 acres so no one would see him. We were confident that he would grow up to be a handsome horse, because he was a beautiful foal, and he’s definitely done that.

Piper is kind and very willing, but I swear there are times when you can see the synapses firing in his brain. Once he learns how to do something—whether on his back or on the ground—it’s locked in there. But he’s not nearly as able to figure out new things as Bella.

For these physical and mental reasons, Piper made his eventing debut six months after Bella, also at the introductory level. He was a very good boy, especially since time limitations had prevented me from taking him to a single schooling show of any kind before taking him for four days to a full-fledged event.

Then, in March, we reluctantly decided we should sell Piper. We’d bred him to be my wife, Heather’s, horse, and, as he grew, I believed he had the temperament and athleticism to be a “horse of a lifetime” for her. But his gaits are too big and his jump is too scopey for her neck and back to handle, so we’ve sadly accepted that he’ll have to be a star for someone else.

While we wait for the right person to come along, I’ve been giving him competitive experience and enjoying the wonderful horse we’ve produced. Shepherd Ranch was his second start at beginner novice, and he finished fourth with his second clear cross-country round. (Since last weekend, I’ve told Heather and most of our students to buy lottery tickets so he can stay here. They said they would, because everybody loves Piper.)

As usually happens at this point in training, Piper felt much more experienced and confident than he did last month at Woodside, jumping both the cross-country and show jumping courses with ease. So I’m planning on moving him up to novice at the August Woodside event. The way he’s progressing, if I were to keep him, I’d expect him to be ready to move up to training level in the spring, and he certainly has the scope of gaits and jump to compete at preliminary level farther in the future.

This brief description should have demonstrated how Piper and Bella have progressed at a different pace, but here’s one additional observation on their physical differences: Bella has big, strong feet, but she needed front shoes very shortly after I started her under saddle, for comfort and support, and I thought she needed hind shoes too before I started to compete her, again for comfort and support.

But Piper, who’s about 2 inches taller and probably 200 pounds heavier than Bella, is still barefoot and going beautifully. We haven’t even considered putting shoes on him—I find it quite extraordinary that a horse of his size and big movement doesn’t need shoes, even on the rock-hard ground we have here in California.

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What I Learned By Riding In A Phillip Dutton Clinic

By John Strassburger, June 16, 2014


I listened attentively (far right) as Phillip Dutton (far left) instructed us in riding cross-country.
When I learned in April that Phillip Dutton, the top U.S. eventing rider for the past decade, was going to be conducting a clinic at the Fresno County Horse Park in June, I jumped at the chance to take my 7-year-old mare, Phoenix Amani, to ride with him. Why? Because I’ve known Phillip for more than 20 years, and from interviewing him and from reading his book (read the review here), I felt confident that he could help me with a vexing jumping issue.

I rode in Phillip’s clinic two weeks ago, with show jumping (really, gymnastic jumping) on Saturday and cross-country schooling on Sunday. Phillip not only helped me considerably with Amani, but my wife, Heather, and I also came home with several jumping exercises that have also worked beautifully with every horse in our program.

Phillip’s main training mantra is that the horse must be in front of your leg and on your aids, whenever you put him to work. And he must be immediately there—“No” is not an acceptable response, nor is, “I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”

Use your legs aids and spur to get his attention, and don’t be afraid to use the whip as a stronger form of communication and encouragement—or for discipline if it’s needed. No matter what’s going on around him, the horse must be obedient and respond correctly to your correctly given aids, immediately.

His secondary theme, which was especially evident when we jumped on the cross-country course, was to make the horse be responsible for the jump. Ride positively forward to the jump, make sure he’s straight and at the correct speed, but don’t try to jump the jump for him. That’s his job. I’ve always trained this way, and Phillip said that the horse will become much more certain and careful through training this way, and on course you’ll feel him gain confidence.

Phillip is a man of few words, and I’ve long known from talking with his students that in lessons he largely sets up exercises and says, “Now do it.” And if you don’t do it right, you’ll likely hear only, “More leg. Do it again.”

His clinic was rather like that: If you were expecting to hear lectures on theory or to be entertained by a string of humorous anecdotes, well, you were going to be sorely disappointed. But if you were there to improve, he had exercises for you to do. Another reason I made the five-hour trip to the clinic.

Interestingly, the horses at each level (from the preliminary group in which I rode to the beginner novice horses and riders) did the same exercises. The only difference was the height of the jumps. What we found particularly educational was his belief that you should start applying these relatively advanced concepts from the beginning, with lower-level horses, and riders too.

After a brief warm-up on the flat, doing transitions and lateral exercises to get the horses on our aids, we began to jump. The very first jump was two crossrails set on a bounce distance, approached at the canter. This exercise demonstrated what he means about the horse answering your aids—right away!

Amani found it disconcerting to start to jump this way, and she stopped at the first crossrail the first time. I didn’t expect her to stop, but I wasn’t surprised that she didn’t like having to pay attention and work right away. That, after all, is the heart of my problem with her. It’s why I’d brought her to this clinic. Her “in-a-minute” attitude is one reason why we call her “the princess.”

After three or four times through the bounce, Amani was jumping out of stride, but then we had to turn, in four or five strides, to jump a second crossrail bounce.  She initially found that vexing too, especially when Phillip would tell us to make the turn in either the more forward four strides or in the more packaged five strides, not to just take whatever we got.

Next we moved on to a square oxer set on an angle to a skinny jump, with a forward-going one stride between. We began by jumping the skinny to the angled oxer, and Amani stopped at the oxer the first time because she didn’t come off my leg to get the one stride. Then we did the oxer to the skinny.

And then Phillip added turning right, in five or six strides, to jump a corner set at basically 90 degrees to the skinny. She did that reasonably well right away. Then we came back the other way— corner, turn left to do the skinny to the oxer.

Next he had an oxer and a vertical set on a line, a comfortable five strides apart. But the exercise was to jump the line (both ways) in five strides, then shorten to do six strides, then lengthen to do four strides. By now Amani was mentally in the game, and she’s done exercises like this since shortly after she started to jump, so she did well here.

Still, I was quite pleased with how well she answered my leg the first time to get the four strides. I felt that was a sign that the exercises were having the desired effect.

Fresno’s cross-country course has jumps from introductory to intermediate, and again Phillip emphasized response to the leg. He also encouraged us preliminary riders to avoid constantly adding strides to the jumps, especially the galloping jumps, because it catches up to you. If you keep second-guessing your distance and adding strides, in negatively affects the horse’s confidence, and then, when you need to ride forward to get the striding right in a combination, often the horse won’t do it.

Amani likes to sort of get in gear for cross-country, and although we started with a few novice-sized fences, she found jumping combinations (usually her strong suit) after standing around to be mentally challenging.

Phillip summed Amani up well after the cross-country school by describing her as “cautiously brave.” The problem I’ve had with her—related to her less-than-immediate response to my driving aids at times and to her innate carefulness over jumps—has been jumping the galloping fences at true galloping speed and out of stride. Her preferred method is to drift left and add one more short stride. That’s why she spent the winter in “dressage boot camp” with Heather and why we’ve worked hard to further develop the strength of her back.

Well, I felt that on this weekend something clicked in her brain, resulting from the exercises and the way I changed to ride her. And we ended the cross-country portion by galloping up to an intermediate question—two houses set at a parallel angle to each other—and instead of jumping them in the two strides the course designer intended, she jumped them beautifully in one stride. I was thrilled. I felt like she said, “Wow! Look what I can do.”

So when we got home, I built the crossrail bounces right away and had all our horses and students jumping them right off the bat.

Amani did them perfectly a few days later, acting like she understood we’d “jumped” to a new level. In fact, she feels like a new and improved horse.

Doing these exercises with Piper, our 5-year-old homebred who’s competing at beginner novice, was interesting and amusing. Piper is a warmblood, and his reaction to starting with bounces was so “slow-brained” warmblood. He stopped suddenly the first time, clearly shocked at the last stride to see a second crossrail right behind the first. Then he jumped them tentatively, not sure I wasn’t kidding that he had to pick up his feet that fast. (He had done numerous bounces before, so the concept was not new to him.)

After four or five repetitions, he was cantering through them smoothly, but then I added the turn to the second set. “What!? Another!? I can’t do that!” But with repetition, he figured it out, turning in both directions. And when I did the exercise again, three days later, he sailed smoothly through right away.

I had similar reactions from two students, who didn’t believe they and their horses could possibly do that right away. But they did, and I could see their confidence level grow.

Thanks, Phillip. And thanks to organizer Sue Funkey and to John Marshall at the Fresno County Horse Park for hosting the clinic.

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What’s Next For California Chrome—And the Triple Crown?

By John Strassburger, June 09, 2014

Just a few hours after the Belmont Stakes was over and the Triple Crown dream had died, we may have found out why California Chrome ran a sub-par race. Photo evidence shows that Matterhorn, the horse in the starting gate stall next to him, dove left out of the gate and stepped on California Chrome’s right front foot, gashing the heel badly enough to be bleeding after the race.

That, and being forced to go wide on turn for home, easily explains the 2 ½ lengths by which he lost to Tonalist. I’m thinking that, instead of decrying him as just another not-quite-champion, that we should be impressed by his courage, that we should congratulate him for running that well despite his foot being bruised and bleeding.

Nevertheless, his defeat has only fueled the debate about whether the Triple Crown’s races should be changed. Certainly owner Steve Coburn’s immediate post-race outburst made some good points, although it did seem a bit cry babyish.

I don’t blame him, though. I’d be depressed and a bit angry too if my dream had just been shattered by a bunch of horses my horse had never run against, who were there just to take a shot at him.

So, let’s look at what Coburn said. Is it fair, or good for the Triple Crown, that horses have to qualify for the Kentucky Derby by earning points in designated races, but that anybody can run in The Preakness and the Belmont? I know the Derby requires qualification because, otherwise, they’d have 100-horse fields, which isn’t a problem for the other two. But why shouldn’t horses have to qualify with money earned for the Preakness and Belmont too? Shouldn’t horses have achieved a certain level to run in any of the three classics, just like the Breeders’ Cup? I think they should.

But I don’t think his suggestion that horses have to run in both the Derby and the Preakness to start in the Belmont is workable or desirable. You can’t force owners and trainers to run their horses in all three races—and you might end up with one- or two-horse races in the Belmont.

What about other suggestions for changing the Triple Crown? Well, I’d argue against substantial changes in any of the races, as it would mean that any future winners couldn’t be compared to the previous winners. Changing the races would just cheapen the prize. But I could go with moving the Preakness back one week so that there would be three weeks between each race. I don’t think that would horribly alter the challenge or negatively affect public interest in it.

I’m wondering, though if trainers who don’t run horses at New York tracks as they consider a Triple Crown bid for a promising 2-year-old aren’t missing a key ingredient. I watch TVG (a horse racing network) almost every day, and I just heard one of the commentators observe that no horse has ever won the Belmont Stakes and, thus, the Triple Crown without having raced at Belmont Park previously.

Belmont Park’s 1 ½-mile track is half again as big as most other U.S. tracks (which usually have a circumference of 7 furlongs to 1 1/8 miles), and its surface is deeper than most tracks. (Which is why Belmont is called “the Big Sandy.”) Does this make a difference when the title is on the line? Maybe, although they’d have to run them there in the fall of their 2-year-old year, since Belmont doesn’t open until May each year, after the Triple Crown is under way.

Now the outgoing Coburn and co-owner Perry Martin (the quiet one) have a big decision to make, a decision that’s actually harder following his defeat and injury. Assuming that the injury is only a wound and bruise, should they bring him back and aim him for the summer’s and fall’s big races, like the Travers at Saratoga, the Haskell at Monmouth, the Del Mar Classic at Del Mar and then the Breeder’s Cup Classic at his home track of Santa Anita in early November, and perhaps run him as a 4-year-old? Or should they retire him now, to protect him and their financial interest? (Of course, at this point California Chrome has already multiplied the $10,000 they spent to produce him by a factor of about 1,000.)

As a racing fan, I certainly hope they keep California Chrome in training, at least to the end of the year to run in the Breeders’ Cup. I think this would also make sense from a stud-value point of view. If he wins these races, it would prove his classic ability, which is a bit in doubt after losing the Belmont.

Interestingly, after Palace Malice, the 2013 Belmont winner, won the Metropolitan Mile, one of the other stakes races on Saturday’s stellar card, one of the TV commentators pointed out that he’d actually increased his stud value by proving he could win at 1 mile as well as at the 1 ½ miles of the Belmont. The Met Mile win showed his versatility, and the majority of breeders are more interested in producing horses who are fast enough to win the shorter races.

Plus, Coburn and Perry also have two full sisters to California Chrome. Now, genetic statistics indicate that the chances of either of them having his ability are extremely slim, but they are certainly very valuable as breeding stock. How valuable? I’d guess that, even if they don’t race at all, they’re worth more than $250,000 apiece. In fact, if I were them, I’d aim California Chrome for the Breeders’ Cup and then sell his sisters without racing them, because if they turned out to have no racing ability, it would only decrease their value. That strategy would let us enjoy California Chrome for longer and provide the best return on their investment.

Can you tell that I don’t think we’ve seen the best of California Chrome yet? You bet—I think that the Belmont was just bad racing luck at the worst time. I think he’s a star, but I also think that this loss should remind us what superstars Affirmed, Seattle Slew and, especially, Secretariat were.

In the aftermath of this year’s Belmont, I think we should be raising those three horses higher, not placing California Chrome lower.

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