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Competition Breakthroughs Begin With Training At Home

By John Strassburger, January 07, 2014

john_strassburgerCompetition should be where you find out how far you’ve come in training yourself and your horse. It should be where you confirm the skills that you and your horse have developed at home—not where you go to learn something new.

It’s a strongly held belief of mine about competition that, “If you didn’t bring it with you, you ain’t gonna find it here.”

Yes, very often you’ll have training breakthroughs at competitions—no time faults on cross-country, a clear jump-off, faultless flying changes—but those things will only happen because of the strides you’ve made while training with your horse at home. Honestly, these things can only happen because of improvements in technique and fitness that you achieved in your work before you got there.

At shows, you often hear coaches giving detailed instructions to their students, especially the day before a competition begins. It often sounds as if they’re trying to teach a half-halt, how to shorten or lengthen stride, how to jump a certain kind of jump, or to correct basic or important body position issues.

But I don’t think that’s what should be happening. Warm-up at shows should be a loosening-up and confidence-building situation, because it’s no more than a repetition of familiar exercises. Competition grounds are lousy places to try to fix the things you don’t do well. Instead, you should be concentrating on doing the things that you do well.

Yes, competition is often the guide for training—it certainly has always been in my work. The date of a competition, especially of major competitions, will largely determine when you work on fitness, when you do jump schools and what kind of exercises you do in them, or when you begin to practice newer or more demanding skills.

But I’ve always found that, until you reach the highest levels of your discipline, the challenges that you meet at a competition should seem less demanding than the exercises you’ve done at home. By the time you get there, what you see in a course or what you have to do in a dressage test should seem at least matter-of-fact. I like to be able to say, “We could have done that in one fewer stride” or “The corner we jumped two weeks ago was bigger than that.”

My training philosophy, which I adopted from more experienced and accomplished people than me, could be best described as “train over exercises at home that are harder than you’ll see in competition, so that when you get there it will all look easy.”

 Then, after each competition, I like to be able to honestly say to myself that I completed at least one of two training goals with each horse:

First, I want the horse to have performed correctly in either a new experience or a new situation that you can’t replicate at home. This is usually the case with young or inexperienced horses. You can’t get crowds of people to watch you and make noise around your ring at home. And you probably won’t have banners, flags, P.A. systems or hundreds of other horses there either. The only way you and your horse can become practiced at performing in front of these distractions is at a show.

Second, with more experienced horses, I want to have expanded our envelope. You cannot—and should not be attempting to—learn new skills at the show. But the show is generally the place you’re most likely to expand the envelope of skills and confidence that surrounds all of us.

That’s because there are some things you can only do “with your blood up,” with adrenaline pumping through your veins.

All of us eventers school our horses over cross-country obstacles like ditches, drops and water jumps, but rarely do riders school their upper-level horses over the most difficult combinations or the biggest fences—because they’re not something you don’t want to attempt “in cold blood.” And show jumpers regularly practice making jump-off turns, but not at the speed they’ll actually go in the jump-off. You save those things for competition, where your mind (and hopefully your horse’s mind too) is fully focused, along with your other senses. So, when you’ve done these things in competition, you’ve expanded your envelope.

But you do the groundwork for being successful despite all these distractions and for expanding your envelope at home—by training your horse to focus on your aids and by your use of flatwork and jumping exercises that develop your horse’s skills, fitness and confidence so that he can perform anywhere.

Remember, “If you didn’t bring it with you, you ain’t gonna find it here.”


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For 2014, My Competition Plans Are Flexible

By John Strassburger, December 29, 2013

albaIn 2013 I competed my Quarter Horse mare Alba at eventing’s intermediate level and my Thoroughbred-cross mare Amani at the preliminary level, and now it’s time to make plans for them in 2014. For both, my 2014 plans are a bit different from what some of my fellow competitors might do, so I’m going to discuss them this week.

I should mention her that Alba’s competitive goals have always been shrouded in a bit of a fog. The fog started when she was left with us five years ago, because her former owner thought she was crazy. We expected the 15.1-hand mare would make a nice novice horse for a teenager or a small woman, but she turned out to be a tiger on cross-country and a horse who hid her scope because she only jumped as high as she had too. Soon, she won my heart with her workmanlike attitude and grit. She moved through beginner novice, novice and training levels in less than a year, and so she spent 2010, 2011 and 2012 learning her craft at preliminary.

Then, last March I decided it was time to move her up to intermediate level since all the classic-format three-day events, which I’d planned to make her career, were now gone. It was a tough decision, because I wasn’t 100-percent sure she had the scope, and I’d hate myself if I asked too much of her and broke her spirit, or worse. But she quickly allayed me concerns.

In 2013 we completed four of our six intermediate starts, all four with clear cross-country rounds. (We didn’t complete two events because I withdrew her before show jumping due to minor injuries she’d suffered on cross-country.) We finished the year by completing the CCI1* at Galway Downs with a fabulous cross-country round and good efforts in dressage and show jumping.

It was a solid year, one in which we each learned a great deal and in which my respect for her courage and work ethic only grew, along with my devotion to the little chestnut mare. But the only ribbon we won was a seventh place in a 10-horse division, an event in which she had her best show jumping round of the year.

The hard truth is that Alba doesn’t have the jumping scope to move up to advanced and doesn’t have the scope in her gaits to be a top scorer in dressage, so she has to become steadier in the bridle to get better scores. But her biggest weakness is show jumping. A ring filled with jumps has always seemed to remind her of the barrel racing she did before she came to me, and when she gets tense she doesn’t use her back and drops her hind legs, pulling rails with her.

We’re working hard to improve our dressage and show jumping, but I’m just not sure it’s worth continuing to compete her in FEI-sanctioned events. Maybe I should just enjoy her and get experience in intermediate horse trials, especially since I’m fortunate to have four promising younger horses coming behind her? Just doing horse trials would be about half as expensive (a horse trial entry and stabling is about $350; an FEI event is $700 to $800).

I had been planning to aim Alba for next November’s CCI2* at Galway Downs, but I’m not sure if that’s the best plan for her or for my checkbook. She’s about to turn 12, and I can tell that intermediate events are an effort for her, so I have to be careful to make sure she has time to recover between starts. So I’ve planned a spring schedule that I hope will provide some answers to my dilemma. I’m planning to aim Alba for the spring’s biggest West Coast event, hoping our performance there will provide some answers.

The event is the FEI-recognized CIC2* at Galway Downs on the last weekend in March. A CIC is an international horse trial, and successful completion of one is required to start in a CCI (three-day event). In FEI-sanctioned events, the show jumping is 2 inches bigger than in a horse trial (3’11” vs. 3’9”). The cross-country fences aren’t any bigger (although they can certainly be more demanding), but will the bigger show jumping fences be just a bridge too far? Will the added size make show jumping an even bigger source of penalty points, putting us pointlessly out of contention?

Well, I’m hoping that the Galway Downs CIC2*, and the two events leading up to it, will provide some answers. No matter what, my 15.1-hand mare will always be a superstar in my heart and mind.

The 2014 plan for Amani is a bit more concrete. Amani, who’s about to turn 7, completed five preliminary horse trials in 2012, all five with no cross-country jumping faults. Her dressage tests were pretty solid, although none threatened the leaders, but she lowered one to three rails in all five show jumping rounds. Plus, she never felt comfortable jumping at speed on cross-country, although she hopped through all the combinations as if they were just gymnastics I’d set up in our ring.

I’d planned to run her in the Galway Downs CCI1* last November, but, after sending in her entry, Heather and I decided she really wasn’t ready and scratched her. We decided instead to put her in dressage boot camp, especially after Heather sat on her for the first time and declared her weaknesses were caused by the fact that I hadn’t succeeded in making her straight or truly on my aids. So we decided that, since she’d proven her jumping ability and her courage, it was time to take a step back and fill in the gaps.

I’m pleased to say that Amani is blossoming in dressage boot camp. She’s becoming increasingly solid on my aids, increasingly attentive and responsive, and she’s really starting to swing her back as she pushes from behind. All of that is because of Heather’s work with Amani, and with Amani and me.

We’ve decided to not be in a hurry to compete her this year, to give her time to develop the muscles in her back and hindquarters she needs to strengthen her gaits and improve her performance in all three phases, but particularly in the dressage ring. As Heather said to me, “She’s young and she could be really good, so let’s take the time she needs.”

That’s a luxury I can take that most of my younger competitors often cannot. I’m almost 54 years old, and at this age I don’t have any team or international aspirations, so I don’t have any competitive mileposts that have to be accomplished in a certain time frame. Sure, I have competitive goals, goals that frame my training plans, but if they get interrupted, I can just make new plans that suit my horses and me.

So my goal for Amani is the Galway Downs CCI1* in November, but she’ll continue ins dressage boot camp for a few more months and won’t compete in a full horse trial this year before May.


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The FEI Continues Its Drug-Rule Lunacy

By John Strassburger, December 19, 2013

john-strassburgerI’ve been reading accounts of the active riders meetings at the U.S. Eventing Association’s convention two weeks ago, and I find disturbing and annoying what coach David O’Connor and other USEF officials told the riders about the Federation Equestre Internationale’s latest drug rules.

The FEI has announced that they will now hold horses’ blood and urine samples for eight years after a competition, so that they could run future tests on them, tests that may have been developed for banned or prohibited substances since the competition.

Eight years!? Does that mean that if in 2018 they add a substance to the banned list, something that wasn’t on the list in 2014, that they can re-test our horse’s sample to try and find it? And then you could be disqualified and suspended? I don’t see how that could stand up in court—how can you be penalized for doing something that wasn’t illegal at the time of a competition? But it sure strikes fear into your heart, which is probably what they want.

I see this as FEI leaders’ latest effort to prevent us from treating our horses as athletes, a policy they’ve pursued for years. They seem intent on politically pretending that all of our international sports aren’t extremely demanding on our horses and that hay, oats and water is all horses need to do them. Can they really be serious?

While I will agree that some people in some discipline cultures rely too much on “better living through chemistry,” the FEI’s head-in-the-sand policy suggests that our horses should never need or receive any type of anti-inflammatory medication, of any kind, ever. Next they’ll want to ban Adequan and Legend. It’s all ridiculous. It’s not living in the real world. In fact, I’d call it reverse inhumane.

The FEI’s drug policy already made you think twice about giving a normal therapeutic dose of Bute or Banamine for a small wound or a slight bruise or muscle soreness on the Monday before a competition that starts on Friday. And that’s ridiculous, because by Wednesday there is no longer a therapeutic effect. But the FEI’s drug rule says there can be no residue—at all.

I think that the big thing the FEI’s ridiculous drug rules do is to discourage you from letting your competition horses live like horses. They discourage you from turning them out, for fear of getting a wound, pulling a shoe and getting a bit footsore, or one of the dozens of other things horses can do to themselves.

So, let me get this straight, FEI: You’d rather our horses develop colic or ulcers from living in stalls all day than give them a dose of an anti-inflammatory because they get sore from the work they do to get ready for your competitions? Sure, that makes a lot of sense.

The FEI’s drug rule also suggests that my two horses who are currently competing in FEI events should have absolutely separate feed tubs and buckets, that their feeding system should be totally separated from that of the other 20-plus horses on our farm. What if on Tuesday their grain was poured into the bin in their stalls from a bucket used to feed another horse Bute or perhaps even a supplement with something on the prohibited list in it? The answer is that I could be in trouble if they get tested. What a pain in the horse’s butt.

The other new requirement is that now FEI officials want all riders competing in FEI competitions to keep a logbook for each horse, in which you record all injuries and all medical care. They say that this will be consulted if they find something they don’t like in your horse’s sample, but I’m dubious. If my horse’s sample finds a trace of Bute or Banamine, but my logbook says he hasn’t had that for 45 days, would I be cleared? I doubt it.

This eight-year testing, FEI admits, is likely limited to championships, due to financial and human limitations. As I have no aspirations or chance for any teams, I may not have to worry about this continuing stupidity. But what if in two years, they announce that some Saudi sheik has given them millions of dollars to test and retest horses from every FEI competition? Makes you wonder if FEI competitions are worth all the trouble, doesn’t it?

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Why We Humans Have To Control Wildlife

By John Strassburger, December 13, 2013

deerThe cover story of the Dec. 9 issue of Time magazine really grabbed my attention when I pulled it out of my mailbox.  With a photo of a deer on the cover, the title proclaims, “the rules of hunting are about to change” because it’s “Time To Cull The Herd.”

The point of the Time article, by David Von Drehle, is that, now that we’ve brought nearly a dozen species of wildlife back from the near-extinction we caused 50 to 150 years go, it’s up to us to control their populations, by hunting, the most effective method.

The big question, though, is does our society have the heart to solve the problem, to control wildlife, especially top predators, through hunting, before their numbers reach an unsustainable level that forces them to starve to death? As horse owners, we should have a greater understanding of animals and the natural world than most Americans, so we should be a voice of intelligent reason in this debate.

Nature seeks to live in a balance, except that we humans, the earth’s super-predator, have tipped the balance through our own herd’s construction, extractions and consumption. Today we live in the territory of the top predators—the wolf, bear, alligator and cougar, especially the bear and the alligator. And we provide them with all sorts of things to eat—primarily garbage for bears and primarily small pets for alligators. Wolves and cougars are much shier animals and are almost exclusively an occasional problem for ranchers raising cattle or sheep, and even that’s usually only when other prey is scarce. And that’s often a sign that there are too many predators in an area.

These species’ population explosion is a human problem, because we’ve caused it. We almost annihilated the white-tailed deer, the wolf, the cougar, the black and grizzly bears, the alligator, the beaver and others with our reckless hunting in the 19th and 20th centuries, but over the last 50 years we’ve achieved a miracle in bringing them back, likely to greater numbers than ever before.

But at same time our own population has kept doubling, to now 320 million people living in the United States. So now, much of North America looks and lives nothing like the habitat these species’ ancestors once had. Our towns and suburbs are now built on or right next to the places their predecessors called home. To cope, deer, bears, coyotes and alligators have learned to make good use of what we humans have around us—shelter, lawns and gardens, pet food small pets and garbage being their favorites.

Von Drehle summarizes his point in one a few sentences: “What can keep [these species] away from our neighborhoods? Only the pushback from the No. 1 predator of them all: the human being. Well-planned hunting can safely reduce the wildlife populations to levels that won’t invite an invasion of fangs and claws.

”This is nature’s way: an equilibrium of prey and predator, of life and death.”

I agree that the best solution is controlled hunting. I’ve been a foxhunter for more than 40 years, but I have to admit that the number of fox and coyote taken by hunts in North America isn’t really affecting these populations. I’ve never hunted with a gun, but I’ve known many men and women who do hunt responsibly. I believe that the key concept is that it must be “controlled “ hunting, to ensure the safety of those of us how aren’t hunting and of our horses and pets.

My experience with deer hunting in New Jersey, where I grew up, and Virginia, where I lived for 24 years, was not always positive, because hunters were too often suburban yahoos crashing through the woods with guns, recklessly shooting at anything that moves. The key to controlled hunting is for hunting organizations and the government agencies that oversee hunting to offer and require firearms and safety education.

I’m a wildlife fan. I always have been. I still fondly remember the early wildlife encounters I had, especially trips to the Everglades in Florida, where I saw alligators and all kinds of birds. I can also recall seeing bald eagles perched in a tree overhead several times while foxhunting in Virginia. And it’s always a highlight of my day if I see a bobcat or a fox on our farm or a red-tailed hawk soaring overhead.

 But when I lived in Virginia, the problem was deer, of which there are about 32 million, more than there when Columbus arrived here more than 500 years ago, according to the National Wildlife Research Center.

And they seemed to live mostly on the road. From November to about February, when I’d drive home in the twilight or dark, I’d be on extra alert for deer jumping in front of me, because twice I had accidents involving deer.  The first happened at about 8:30 a.m.—a deer jumped over a hedge onto a gravel road right in front of me as driving to work; I slammed on breaks and frightened the doe, who fell in front of me just before my front bumper struck her, severely wounding her, but not killing her. She struggled off and presumably died later. The second time it was a buck, at about 6:00 p.m. I saw something leap at me as I drove past in my pickup truck, and he slammed into the left-rear fender, right behind the wheel, after leaping into the road. I don’t know what his injuries were, but I had a big dent.

Obviously that deer wasn’t attacking me—he was probably running from something or to somewhere, and I just happened to be in his way—so I laugh at the panic that deer sometimes cause. I’ve seen video of people running away, screaming in terror, when a deer gets in the grocery store parking lot or in an aisle. They’re far more scared of you than you are of them, and all they want to do is get away. But people act as if they’ve encountered a long-legged lion. It’s a sign of how far removed our society has become from animals, including the wildlife we’ve brought back from the brink.

On the other hand, feral pigs, of which there are about 5.5 million, really are dangerous. I’d never encountered them before I moved here to California in 2006, but they now live in 48 states. Like deer, they’re a road hazard, but the damage they can do to your car is even more substantial because it’s like hitting a large rock—they weigh between 200 and 350 pounds, and their bones and hide are so much tougher than a deer’s. I’m glad I only occasionally drive at night these days, as I’ve witnessed two pig-car collisions on the road in front of our farm.

Feral pigs are not indigenous to North America; the Spanish brought them with them when they came to colonize the continent. Pigs will also tear up your fields or gardens, but the biggest danger is to your pets, family and friends or you. If you surprise one, especially a sow with piglets, you could be in serious trouble. They’re very aggressive, with tusks and fangs, and they’re not too afraid of humans.

Two years ago, we lived for about two weeks in a serious state of anxiety because we had a very large boar who’d decided our barnyard was a comfy spot. I chased him down the driveway just after dawn one morning, and we didn’t actually see him again (although we saw signs he’d been there overnight) until about a week later. He was weak and very lame, presumably because he’d been hit by a car, and the next morning we found him dying in our manure pile, after digging himself a warm hole. We worked carefully around his hulk for about an hour, before a friend came and dispatched him with a pistol.



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Equine Retirement Is A Tough Decision

By John Strassburger, December 05, 2013

albaMy colleague and friend Grant Miller has written a thought-provoking Veterinary Viewpoint column about equine retirement in this month’s Horse Journal, so this week I’m going to add my own thoughts to his consideration.

I guess I’ve been lucky, but only once have I had to make a decision to fully retire a horse, and it was because the horse had developed severe neurological issues, so it wasn’t much of a decision. His name was Jake, and he lived almost 10 more years before he was found dead in the field one morning at the retirement farm where he’d lived all that time. Otherwise, I’ve either sold my horses long before such a decision was needed or they died before I had to make the time came.

But I’ve known numerous people, both professionals and amateurs, who’ve been faced with the equine-retirement decision, and the two schoolmasters we lost last month (Schultz and Sam) were teaching because their bodies were no longer able to do what they’d once done.

And, if I look a few years down the road, I can see the retirement decision looming for two more of our own horses. One is our first homebred, Shawn, who’s about to turn 16 and has spent the last four years teaching eventing to teenage novice riders. And the other is my fabulous partner Alba, who’ll soon be 12 and is now competing at the intermediate level. Common sense tells me that the clock is ticking on our upper-level partnership, but I hope that after that’s over she’ll be our son, Wesley’s, first event horse before she’s limited to walking around a pasture.

As Grant notes, no two horses are the same, and their distinct physical issues and temperament have to each be taken into account, as you try to figure out when it’s time for the rocking chair in the field. You hate to stop working them too soon and leave yourself with a feeling of uncertainty or disappointment. But the sight and stigma of riding a half-lame or pathetic horse isn’t one a conscientious horseman wants to be a part of. And then you have to weigh what’s best for the horse, because he or she is really the important one, not you.

When they’re lame or truly old, it’s usually not a decision at all. With Jake, who was then 10, the only question was where to retire him, as we had only a small farm then. His deteriorating condition had left him unsafe for me to ride and a danger to himself under saddle.

But it’s much, much harder when they’ve slowly just become too old and creaky to do what they used to do. Schultz and Sam are examples of older horses with physical problems who can make a transition to less demanding jobs, and my previous intermediate-level partner, Merlin, did the same for about year before an aggressive bout of lymphangitis ended his life too soon.

Grant observes correctly that horses’ priorities are not the same as ours, despite the anthropomorphization that some horse owners inflict upon them. As Grant says, their priorities are “to eat, roll, sleep, run a bit, repeat.”

But I do believe that many horses do want to and like to have a job, especially horses who’ve had an active and accomplished life. Good horses always have a work-horse temperament, and they’d rather do something than just stand around. They look for the next jump, piaffe on their own, or look down the trail.  I’ve known horses who get anxious when other horses go out to ride while they stay in barn or paddock. And I’ve known competitive horses who get upset or angry watching other horses load in the trailer before it pulls away, without them.

Yes, eating and feeling safe is really what’s important to horses, even to these horses. But horses who were once good at something almost always really do like to work, to be part of barn life, and that temperament only complicates our retirement decision. Alba is a workaholic and loves the attention she gets while doing her job, and I’m confident that when full retirement comes she’s going to be standing at the gate looking to come in for a long time.



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