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Epic Riding and Horsemanship On Display At Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event

By John Strassburger, April 30, 2014


With his great rider on Trading Aces, Phillip Dutton (left) won a 2014 Range Rover Evoque.
Every year, after the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event is over, I always leave the Kentucky Horse Park feeling awed and inspired. It’s easy, after so many years in any sport, to get a bit blasé about it. After you’ve competed in and covered a sport like eventing for 30 or more years, it’s easy to feel sort of “what else is new?” about the international levels and participants.

But then every year I go to Rolex Kentucky, and I see things that thrill and inspire me, things that help me to become a better trainer and horseman. And every year I come home thankful that I was there.

So here, in no particular order, are the things that inspired me at this Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event.

Kim Severson is back: Enough said.

Once a household name, the only three-time American winner of America’s only CCI4*, and the 2004 Olympic silver medalist, Severson has drifted a bit since the retirement of her superstar Winsome Adante. But a new horse, Fernhill Fearless (aka “Sparky”), and a new outlook have brought one of the greatest American event riders back to the international scene.

And she didn’t just show up—she kicked butt. Every phase was a riding lesson, but her cross-country round was simply amazing. Foot-perfect and the ideal example off what cross-country riding should be. I’ll be encouraging all my students to watch her videos on the USEF Network.

Boyd Martin’s faith in Trading Aces was proven to be right. “Oscar” is a charming horse, but with two lackluster CCI performances in 2013, many people, including me, figured that the big warmblood just didn’t have quite enough hot “blood” to be competitive at the CCI4* level—a little too careful, a little too slow, a little to heavy to get fit enough.

But Martin believed he had a superstar on his hands, and he moved heaven and earth to figure out what Oscar needed to succeed. It turned out the horse wasn’t sweating properly, and a combination of an old-time remedy (high-alcohol beer in his breakfast every morning) and new (a medication for anhydrosis), plus a stepped-up conditioning program had him looking like a different horse this time around.

Sadly, Martin didn’t get to ride his new and improved partner, having broken his leg on a different horse in March, but Martin’s friend Phillip Dutton stepped in to the irons and finished eighth, winning the Land Rover Best Rider of the Day award for finishing exactly on the optimum time of 11:12. Dutton’s prize was a two-year lease on a 2014 Range Rover Evoque.

With her cross-country round with High Times, Jennifer McFall showed how you develop a four-star horse. Someone looking at McFall’s score at the end of the weekend might think she’d be disappointed. But she was probably one of the happiest people at the Kentucky Horse Park. After an early green run-out, she carefully nursed him through the long routes on the next few combinations. And “Billy’s confidence grew before our eyes. He jumped better, more eagerly, and bolder with each passing fence, and by the last third of the course, he stormed through all the straight ways and finished with his ears up and full of run.

At any point McFall could have given up—given in to the disappointment of the stop or kept pushing her horse at the tough stuff. Instead, she rode one of the smartest, most thoughtful rounds I’ve seen in a long time, and she ended up with a much better horse than she started with.

We also spent Friday and Saturday evenings at the Kentucky Reining Cup, and, honestly, it’s a ball. There were several noteworthy moments there too.

Mandy McCutcheon makes history: She’s the most decorated female reiner of all time, but this weekend she became the first woman to go over the $2 million mark in career earnings and became the first female member of a U.S. World Equestrian Games reining team. She did it aboard a horse, Yellow Jersey, owned by her dad, the legendary Tim McQuay, and though I’m certain Mandy’s as tough as they come, her joy and emotion were infectious. Tim, a man of few words, only said quietly, “I wanted her to have a chance,” when asked why he gave one of his top horses to Mandy to ride, but his pride and joy shone through in his voice.

Pete Kyle retires A Ruf Gal. As a particular fan of tough, liver chestnut mares, I’ve always thought A Ruf Gal looked like a lot of fun to ride, and her lifetime achievements are too long to list. So when Pete dismounted and removed her saddle in the ring after the musical freestyle performance on Saturday night, a hush immediately fell over the crowd.

You see, in the reining world, that signals a horse’s retirement from competition. Pete led the mare from the ring, where the emotion overtook him, and his face crumpled, no longer able to keep the tears at bay. He hugged her neck and wiped his face in her mane, and whispered in her ear. His wife joined him and pressed her forehead to the mare’s, tears streaming down her face. The crowd was now on its feet, their standing ovation thundering down on Kyle, and he fell to his knees. I, and everyone around me, was bawling. Enjoy your retirement, good mare.

Still, Dan James stole the freestyle show. I’d vaguely heard of Dan James, as I’d watched a bit of the “Mustang Millionaire” show on NatGeo Wild. But since so much in that show was cringe-worthy, I didn’t really notice him (although I did recall he was one of the few who didn’t make me want to change the channel).

James opened freestyle night with a liberty demonstration with two of his horses that knocked my socks off, and when he competed later in night, he just blew everyone away.

James didn’t just ride the freestyle bareback; he rode the last third of it backwards—he did flying lead changes, sliding stops and spins riding backwards. Holy cow! And, as a finale, he leaped off and had the horse execute an excellent spin from a hand signal only.

His theme as that he was Tonto, so he was also shirtless and had a fake dead bird on his head (OK, so he was dressed as Johnny Depp’s Tonto from The Lone Ranger). I’m not a fan of natural horsemanship, but what this guy can do with horses is simply amazing. Totally awesome. He also made me feel less awesome about my own horse-training skills.

If you’ve never been to the Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event, you’ve just got to go. Every horse person should put it on their bucket list, because there is always something inspiring to take away. CI can’t wait until next year.

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Strength Is So Important In Horse Training

By John Strassburger, April 22, 2014


In the last few weeks, I could feel Bella getting stronger and stronger.
Training horses for eventing or dressage is a lot like training human athletes for sports like gymnastics, track or figure skating. Actually, I’d say that training a horse to event is a lot like training a person to do all three of those sports.

Think of yourself as your horse’s coach, because you’re trying to teach him skills and develop the fitness he needs to be able to perform those skills better. On the flat, we do things like leg-yields, shoulder-ins and transitions to develop communication, coordination and strength and suppleness. We jump a wide variety of exercises for the same reasons. And we do trot sets, gallop sets and hills to develop muscle and cardio-vascular fitness. 

The work you do with your horse, the exercises you do with him or her, requires strength—strength that doesn’t come from just standing around in a stall or in a 20’ by 20’ paddock. It comes from months and years of training, most especially from progressive training over that period of time.

I’m going to describe to you briefly how I’ve been working to develop strength in three young and promising horses I’m currently competing. We bred two of them—Phoenix Amani, 7, and Phoenix Bellisima, 5—and our farm manager, Roxanne Rainwater, has owned the third, Bravo’s First Class, 6, since he was a weanling. So I’ve been training “Amani” and “Bella” since they were 2, and I’ve been training “Boogie” since he was 3.


Amani and Bella had basically the same program: At 2 I ponied them twice a week, mostly walking and trotting up the fabulous hills we have, and I longed once a week. I did this for about six months, then turned them out for the winter and started them again in the spring under saddle.

Boogie was a stallion until 13 months ago, so I couldn’t pony him. He only got longed until he was going reliably under saddle late in his 3-year-old year.

The three of them have had few similarities in the types of strength I needed to develop or in their other strengths and weaknesses. But I’ve discovered since the middle of last year that my work with all three needed to concentrate a lot more on building power, but that realization came about in very different ways and for rather different reasons.

Amani, a Thoroughbred/Irish Sporthorse mare, progressed nicely through eventing’s three lowest levels as a 4- and 5-year-old, and last year, at 6, she completed six preliminary events with no cross-country jumping faults. But her dressage scores were only middling; she’s a very careful jumper, but we’d lower one to three show jumps; and she seemed uncertain about jumping galloping fences at speed on cross-country.

So in mid-October, my wife, Heather, rode her for the first time and declared her insufficiently responsive to the driving aids and weak behind, particularly in her right hind. So she had three months of dressage boot camp with Heather, concentrating on throughness and on lateral work, on turns on the haunches, and on crisp, correct transitions to develop her physical strength and mental willingness to use it when my driving aids tell her to.

I would also trot her up our hills once a week in draw reins to make sure she was really using her hindquarters and back to push herself up the hill. And in February I started jumping Amani again, emphasizing gymnastic exercises and a lot of trot or canter a jump, halt or walk, do a turn on the forehand or on the haunches, then trot or canter immediately and in balance back to the jump.

The result? Amani now looks like a body builder, and I’m looking forward to her first start of the year in late May.

I’ve always worried about Boogie’s fitness, because he’s warmblood (with no Thoroughbred in the first two generations) and because of the limitations his being a stallion placed on where I could ride him. But I didn’t think of him as weak, because of his compact build, because of his big, springy stride, and because he was basically jumping over the standards.

But his stallionness prevented me from riding him outside the ring at home until we cut him 13 months ago. It wasn’t that he was crazy for mares (he hardly looked at them), but the testosterone coursing through his body was telling him he had to fight the geldings, so I couldn’t ride him anywhere but in the ring, the only place where he wouldn’t encounter geldings he thought he had to charge.

For the last year, though, he’s been a joy to ride and condition outside the ring, and what a difference it’s made. We’ve done scores of repetitions of trotting and galloping up the hills, and I discovered that the strength he was missing was the strength he needed to hold himself. Boogie had no shortage of pushing power, but he lacked the ability to control his push. So he couldn’t keep a rhythm at the canter—because his stride length varied with each stride—and he was jumping so big because all he could do was push off. He couldn’t control himself in the air.

And he would also be nearly exhausted by the third day of events. On two occasions, on cross-country, I felt as if I suddenly had no gas in the tank, no brakes at all and no power steering, forcing me to try to carry him around the course. And that, of course, didn’t work at all.

I’ve also augmented this fitness work with work like we’ve been doing with Amani, and the result is that last week he completed a novice three-day event, feeling full of run at the end of the cross-country course and then completing his first faultless show jumping round. It was a great feeling.

Neither Amani nor Boogie was a horse who cried out to me, “I need to be stronger.” They’re each medium-sized horses (Amani is 16.0 hands and Boogie is 15.3 hands), and they always seemed to be in command of their bodies. But it’s always been obvious with Bella that strength would be an issue.

Why? For starters, she’s a hand or more taller than the other two, with four of the longest legs I’ve ever seen. When she was younger, she actually looked kind of like a pinto spider, and only in the last few months has she started to look mature, not like a baby. (She’s a Thoroughbred/Dutch Warmblood-cross.)

So armed with considerable experience developing strength in big horses, and with the strength-building experiences of Amani and Boogie fresh in my mind, I’ve been treating her like a body builder.

Bella was out of work last November and December because she had a nagging cough, and when I put her back to work, she felt like I was riding a string bean with a dead weight on the front end. She simply could not push with her butt or put it underneath her for down transitions.

But in the last few weeks I could feel her getting stronger and stronger, and last week, in her first event of the year, she did her best dressage test ever to place third in a big novice field. She felt light and supple, and she trotted into the ring like she owned it.

Boogie and Bella both made me feel rather pleased about the strength training we’ve been doing—and excited for the future.



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What We Learned From Watching An Equine Cruelty Case In Court

By John Strassburger, April 19, 2014


Too many owners believe horses will, somehow, take care of themselves.

Watching a court case up close can give you a different perspective on animal cruelty, and this week my wife, Heather Bailey, had the opportunity to do just that: She sat in court for the preliminary hearing of an equine animal cruelty case.

And she came away with the strong belief that the sad truth is that some people shouldn’t be allowed to own horses in the first place. Because they don’t understand the care and responsibility that horse care involves.

We’ve worked with a local rescue organization for several years, and they had sent out a request to have warm bodies in the courtroom to help show the commitment of the local populace to animal-welfare issues. So Heather went to show support for the organization’s work.

The facts of the case as they pertained to the condition of the horse were horrifying and not really in question. The horse was severely emaciated when it was seized by the county Animal Control, and he had a severe and grotesque injury to his penis that required immediate and life-saving medical treatment. Two of the people testifying for the prosecution included a veterinarian who had examined the horse after it had been seized and the Animal Control officer first on the scene. The defense attorney did not cross-examine either of them, as the pictures and their testimony were conclusive. No one could argue this horse was in horrifying condition.

But from there things got interesting and complicated, from a legal standpoint. While no one seemed to disagree the horse had been terribly neglected, the central question was who, exactly, owned and was responsible for the care and welfare of the horse.

There was a broken family (with disagreement between husband and wife about who was to care for the horse), a mysterious third party who may or may not have been feeding the horse, and a combination of restraining orders and shifting addresses.

As a horseman, this was difficult to listen to. To see the state of this animal, in clear and terrible suffering, made you angry. So angry that your first thought is that SOMEBODY needs to pay for what happened to this poor, sweet creature. Somebody must be guilty of something, for it to be in such a state. You want to throw the book at somebody. If you look at the pictures too long, it’s easy to want the book to be thrown at ANYBODY, just so someone gets punished for the suffering of this horse.

But, that isn’t right and more importantly, it isn’t the law. And what became painfully, depressingly clear as Heather sat there was that what mainly led to this horse’s state was ignorance and apathy. This was a horse acquired by people with no horse experience or knowledge, traded for an air compressor, and stuck in a random paddock where none of the people involved lived. The daughter enjoyed him for a time, but when the family broke apart, no one was thinking about the horse. The mother and daughter became, basically, homeless; the husband was in and out of jail due to restraining-order violations; and pretty soon, in their world, this horse didn’t exist.

Perhaps they thought there would be enough grass for him in the small paddock where they’d left him with two other horses. Perhaps they believed the owners of the other horses, who were well fed and cared for, would step in and care for him. (They didn’t.) But honestly, it seems most likely that they all just forgot about him, right up until the moment that Animal Control came calling.

Ultimately, it was most likely the uncertainty about exactly who was responsible for this horse led to the legal outcome—the judge declined to send it forward as a felony and knocked it down to a misdemeanor charge. Prosecutors will now seek probation, restitution for the rescue that rehabbed the horse, and a prohibition from owning animals for a period of time.

I’m happy to report that the horse did survive and is thriving in a new adoptive home.

It’s easy to feel a bit angry about this case, but after hearing the testimony, it makes a certain sense. While the horseman in me is angry that this whole family essentially forgot their horse and let him starve and be injured, as a human being it’s hard not to see that this poor horse was the least of their problems. Homeless children and restraining orders sort of put things in a different perspective.

Of course they should have done something. But that something should have started with never having the horse in the first place, and that ship had long since sailed.

Ironically, the executive director of the rescue group said afterward that the fact that the horse lived worked against them in pursuing the case as a felony. It’s apparently easier to get a felony trial and conviction with a dead animal— grim statistic that’s a bit hard to wrap your mind around.

The legal process itself is fascinating, but not exactly like an episode of “Law and Order” in terms of speed of procedure. We strongly encourage anyone with an interest in welfare issues to got watch a cruelty trial if they get a chance. It was an experience we’re still digesting some days later and that will stay with us for some time.

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R-Star and Gin ‘N Juice—Two Mares I Love To Watch

By John Strassburger, April 09, 2014


Sometimes Hawley Bennett-Awad holds her breath when Gin ‘N Juice attacks cross-country jumps.
A personal highlight of the weekend I spent at the Galway Downs International Horse Trials on March 28-30 was the tremendous performances of two truly special mares—R-Star and Gin ‘N Juice. R-Star won the CIC3*, with Gin ‘N Juice third.

I’ve had the pleasure to watch both mares, who are now each 14, in action for the last six or seven years, and last weekend I was mesmerized by the sight of them in the prime of their athletic careers, in full expression of their unique athletic and mental gifts, going in lovely harmony with their riders.

Neither been an easy project for their riders. R-Star, known as Rosie, is so powerful and possesses such tremendous scope that Kristi Nunnink has labored to teach her how to control her awesome power, to not just jump herself into trouble. Gin ‘N Juice, or Ginny, has been more like a half-crazed genius. Literally no one else but Hawley Bennett-Awad wanted to ride her, because she was so unpredictable and her moves were so quick and so big. You had to be young and brave, as Hawley was when she met Ginny a decade ago.

Kristi wisely selected Rosie as a young horse, and since then she’s turned down huge offers from others who wanted to buy her. But Ginny selected Hawley, and I doubt anyone has seriously tried to buy her since then. Hawley still rides her in a neckstrap, to make sure she’s stays aboard.

The common thread between them is that both riders have patiently and thoughtfully developed their gifted but unusual partners into consummate athletes who are now at the top of their games. Ginny has already contested one World Championships (with a team bronze medal) and one Olympics, and she’s a top candidate for the Canadian team at this summer’s World Championships. These World Championship could just be the first team for Rosie, who’s about to make her fifth trip to this month’s Rolex Kentucky Three-Day Event. Ginny been going there since 2009 and is certainly going for at least her fourth time.

These two mares remind me of two great NFL quarterbacks, one who’s still defying his age and playing masterfully and one who retired a few years ago. Rosie reminds me of Peyton Manning, now leading the Denver Broncos, and Ginny reminds me of Bret Favre, formerly of the Green Bay Packers. Let me tell you why.

When Peyton Manning walks out onto the field, he takes the field over. The other players stand aside for him before he bends down into the huddle to call the play. Then he steps to the line, surveying the battlefield like Gen. George Patton or Gen. Robert E. Lee, moving players around to counteract what he sees the defense doing.  Then he drops straight back, knowing exactly where he defenders are, before he throws a perfect strike for a completion or, very often, a touchdown. After watching him direct a play, you sit back and say, “Could that be more perfect? That’s how you do it.”

It’s much the same with Rosie—her size, her almost white coat and the scope of her gaits and her jump simply command your attention. You watch her confidently float around the dressage ring or gallop around a three-star track as if she’s going preliminary, and you think, “She makes it look so easy. That’s how a horse should go.”

Kristi told me at Galway Downs, “It’s almost euphoric every day that I ride her, because she does everything so well. And she jumps so soft that she makes things you’d never think of doing look easy. It’s truly a blessing to ride her every day.”

Bret Favre was an unpredictable gun. He would scramble around behind the line, searching for a receiver, and he’d usually either throw a touchdown or he’d throw an interception. You never knew which, but he won far more games with his passing than he lost with his passing. You usually held your breath watching him, fists clenched, almost afraid to see how the play would end up.

Ginny is a lot like that. Her dressage tests can look a bit like Favre scrambling, although she’s far more settled these days. Still, Hawley’s first priority is to keep Ginny calm and under control in the ring. And usually on cross-country and show jumping, she looks like she’s going far too fast, close to out of control. But she mostly keeps the show jumps up because she’s careful and unbelievably quick with her feet, and Hawley long ago gave up trying to convince her that cross-country fences weren’t meant to be attacked, as if they were hated enemies.

Yes, you hold your breath (and so does Hawley sometimes), but then you say, “Holy cow! That horse is just amazing.” Because she is.

“She’s taught me patience,” Hawley told me. “It’s been nine years of ups and downs, but she’s made me a better rider, and I hope I’ve made her a better horse.”

I take my hat off to both Kristi and Hawley for their handling and riding of these two extraordinary mares. They’re shining examples of why extraordinarily athletic horses don’t always fit into a neat training or performance box. They’re reminders that sometimes you have to expand that box and sometimes you have to just throw that box away and make a new one.

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Why I Think Saddle Network Is A Great Idea

By John Strassburger, April 11, 2014


I’ve put our SN signs everywhere we keep our saddles, including the tack room door of our trailer.
During the last year or so, I had become increasingly worried about the safety of the saddles we have at our Phoenix Farm, and I’d wondered what we could do to protect them. Then, at last November’s Fresno County Horse Park Horse Trials, I saw a flier advertising the Saddle Network.

The brief description that flier made it seem like a good idea, and I that it could be a good solution for us and that I should investigate it further to do an article. See article here.

I really like the archiving system—it’s a valuable record for insurance and perhaps the police, in case of theft or natural disaster. I think this is the most important aspect of the Saddle Network, especially since you can archive anything you own, including your other tack, your farm equipment, you dog or cat or your antique china collection.

I think that this record could be really useful to us for insurance purposes should something happen, as our policy does not record specific equipment. And I intend to use Saddle Network to archive our paintings and antiques, as I have no other easily accessed record of them.

I spent about 90 minutes archiving seven saddles, not counting taking the four photos that are required, and that took another 15 minutes or so. I used my iPad to take and upload the photos and to do the archiving.

The time-consuming part was recording the information about them—size, color, cut, price, and the serial number. I never realized—until Mary Braly of Saddle Network told me—that most of our saddles had serial numbers stamped on them, so I had to figure out where to find them (they’re not all in the same place) and then jot them down to record them.

Then, once I’d recorded all that information and uploaded the photos, the SN staff sent me the tags for each saddle. Each tag came in its own individually marked bag, to make sure I put the correctly numbered tag on each saddle.

Affixing the tags on those seven saddles required another 90 minutes or so. Once I got the hang of pulling the small rivets apart and where to punch the holes in the saddle flaps, we cruised along in a rhythm. The Saddle Network material advises using a hammer to close the rivets, but we used an adjustable vise grip to tighten them, and we thought it worked better.

Mary had told me that they’d designed the program to be simple and user-friendly, and I don’t know how they could have made it easier. If I can do it, anybody can.

I was quite skeptical about the effect of placards and signs, of which you get several with every saddle you record. Are they really a deterrent, I wondered?

Well Mary made a very good argument about it in our conversation. She told me horror stories about grooms and trainers stealing tack from fellow competitors, even a story about a veterinarian who stole Western saddles at shows for years before he was caught—tens of thousands of dollars worth of saddles. “We’re so trusting and we don’t suspect, but think of all the people who come to your barn who could look around and think, ‘I could make hundreds of dollars stealing this stuff, and they’d never know who took it,’” Mary said.

So, now I’ve got Saddle Network signs on the barn door, the tack room door, the tack room doors of both of our trailers, and on the farm sign we hang up at events.

I’ll be encouraging our clients to record their saddles with the Saddle Network, along with all you readers. I think it may be the best insurance there is for our saddles.

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