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Training Horses Means Overcoming A Series of Obstacles

August 13, 2014


Because we bred Amani, you could say I’ve been training Amani for seven years.

We often deal with riders and horse owners who are upset or discouraged by the “problems they’re having with their horses. Some, overwhelmed, even give up and stop riding.

That’s why, when last week we came across the words below, written by Grand Prix dressage rider and trainer Lauren Spieser in her blog on The Chronicle of the Horse, they resonated with us. Before starting out on her own, Lauren, who lives in Marshall, Va., trained for many years with Lendon Gray and Carol Lavell, dressage stars whom I know well and for whom I have the highest respect as horsemen and as people. 

Lauren wrote: ”I propose an new word, one that means an obstacle to be overcome eventually, through consistent and diligent application of aids that, while they will absolutely not, under any circumstances, achieve the desired results today, will eventually work, and the rider just needs to have faith and get a grip and keep plugging away at it, and, when she’s seriously considering quitting and taking up alpaca farming instead, she should remember that the real solution is five or so years of this and that there’s nothing she can really do to expedite the process anyway.”

I often express this same belief to our students, especially when they’re frustrated or upset about their inability to do things like consistently get their horses on the bit or to find the right distance to jumps.

Honestly, I often repeat them to myself when I’m annoyed because one or more of my horses isn’t progressing at the rate I’d like. I remind myself that it took eight years before Merlin and I reached eventing’s intermediate level and five years before I achieved that level with Alba. And right now I think that Amani is finally becoming competitive at preliminary level, and since we bred her you could say that I’ve been training her for seven years.

Like us, horses are thinking animals, whose ability to react to our aids and instructions is influenced by numerous factors, many of which we can’t immediately affect.

They’re much more aware of—and often anxious about—the world around them than we are. And they all react to stimuli (like our aids) and learn tasks at different rates. (In other words, some are definitely smarter than others.) They’re physical abilities vary tremendously, and because of these physical and mental factors, a flatwork or jumping exercise that’s dismissively simple for one horse is overwhelming for another.

Plus, horses often carry what I call baggage from their lives before us. This could be mental, or even physical, trauma from a previous experience that we know nothing about. So our work with them can sometimes be akin to mental or physical therapy to overcome that trauma, and if you’ve ever been through either of those therapies, you know recovery takes a very long time. It can take years, and sometimes you never achieve it.

As I was finishing this blog, it occurred to me that Lauren never actually came up with a new word to summarize her concept. How about “persistence” or “doggedness” or “stick-to-itiveness”?  How about “patience”?

Perhaps “training” really is the best word, though. As performed by the best horsemen, and especially by the great masters who passed on their knowledge before they left us (including such modern masters as Bert de Nemethy, Jack Le Goff and Reiner Klimke), horse training is a process. It is a process that requires time and persistence, a process for which there are no shortcuts.  

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The Joys—And Surprises—Of Night Check

By John Strassburger, August 05, 2014


It always brought a smile to my face to open the door and hear my fabulous partner Merlin call to me.
Last week Horse Journal contributor Beth Benard wrote an article about the importance, and joy, of doing night check, and her words have provoked me to relate a few of my own experiences doing night check.

The main reason for heading out to the barn before you go to bed is to make sure your stabled horses aren’t colicking or have cleverly become cast, and I’ll admit I’ve been fortunate to have not experienced either of those incidents in the last 30 years. (Knock wood.) Many times I’ve checked on horses who had been colicking or who had suffered other injuries, and numerous times I’ve had to do more than just throw them a flake of hay, usually re-wrapping a bandage. I count myself lucky.

During the summer of the nearly 25 years I lived in Virginia, I didn’t really have nighttime barn check to do, because my horses were outside at night and inside during the hot and muggy days. But during the night checks from mid-October to early April, it always brought a smile to my face to open the door and hear my fabulous partner Merlin call to me in recognition, with the deep sort of hum that he had. I’d give him his flake of hay and scoop of grain, check his legs, give him an affectionate pat on the neck, and tell him what we were doing tomorrow.

It was our special moment—I’d miss it in the summer, and I still miss it now. But on summer mornings, he’d be standing by the gate waiting for me when I arrived.

Since we moved to our Phoenix Farm eight years ago, night check has been every night, since the seasons don’t change like in Virginia. We have horses that live outside, horses that are out at night, and horses that are in at night. And the seasons don’t determine who’s in or who’s out—individual needs of and other factors relating to particular horses decide that. We’ve had as few as one or two horses in the barn at night, but right now there are six horses in at night, because of needing additional feeding or because another horse or two needs their daytime paddock at night.

In Virginia, I was fascinated by the night sky, and I’d sometimes turn off the outside lights or walk farther away from the house to gaze at the moon or the stars. For some reason, I always found it comforting to see Orion’s Belt. I sort of felt grounded by its permanence out there in the endlessness of space.161372849

I always found it comforting to see Orion's Belt.

But, while I still always note the phase of the moon, the night stars have held less fascination to me since I moved to California. Perhaps it’s because their orientation is so different than it was in the sky I looked at for the first 46 years of my life. I couldn’t even find Orion for months after we moved here.

Perhaps it’s because I can see so many thousands of stars in the sky here in Northern California, as I now live farther away from the lights of humans than I ever have before and because, in the summer, there are rarely any clouds in the sky before midnight. Perhaps it’s because, like anything, when you can see thousands and thousands, why is it special to see one or a few? And perhaps it’s a little because night check is part of my job now —I have to check on our clients’ horses. It’s no longer just a privilege to say good night to my one or two horses.

But night check could be special when we had foals, even though with the two orphans, Amani and Bella, night check wasn’t really “good night.” During their first three months, when we’d have to nurse them every two or three hours because their nurse mares hadn’t accepted them yet, my wife, Heather, and I took turns during the night: She would do midnight (my soundest sleeping time) and I’d do 3 a.m. and 6 a.m. (her soundest sleeping time).

Admittedly, at 3 a.m. you don’t feel lucky to be in the barn, especially when it involves pouring Foal-Lac into a bunch of bottles, as we had to for Amani because we had to chemically induce the nurse mare to lactate. With Amani, I quickly developed a unique closeness during nursing. You can’t help it: There I was, holding six to eight bottles in her mouth, my head next to hers as she slurped them down, looking into those big brown eyes. I was, literally, giving her life, and I told myself that somehow she understood that too.

With Bella the process wasn’t at all intimate. The nurse mare we got for her had been taken off a 10-month-old foal and brought straight to us. She produced milk like a Holstein cow, but she knew that Bella wasn’t hers and was disinclined to allow her to nurse. So I was on the other end, holding the mare’s halter and feeding her cookies to convince her to allow Bella to nurse. Blessedly, it finally worked.

After they were both able to nurse unaided, night check was decidedly more fun, especially since both fillies grew up with another mare and foal born shortly before or after them. Not much can beat the cuteness and wonder of watching a mare and foal interact—the body guard attitude of the mare, the wonder of the foal experiencing himself and life, and the interaction between the two of them, especially when the foal wants to nurse.

I would particularly enjoy watching Amani and Bella and wondering what they’d grow up to be. We’d bred both to sell, but we quickly decided that wouldn’t be possible after nursing them, and they’re both growing up to be as wonderful as I dreamed they’d be.

We turned Amani and Bella out full-time as soon as they were weaned, to grow up as horses, not as cosseted pets. Ever since, they’ve both been out at night, in the fields farthest from the barn, so I don’t see them when I do night check.

I haven’t seen as many different animals as Beth has, but I’ve seen my share. Here in California I’ve opened the garage door to find deer standing next to the car, and I often encounter raccoons in the garage, eating the cat food. (That’s worrisome—western raccoons are big and nasty.)

I’ve never seen a coyote at night check (they’re far too stealthy for that), although I often hear them calling in the nearby hills, and I have many times wondered if one wasn’t just off in the darkness, watching me. I have once or twice heard a mountain lion in the distance, and three years ago we had a male feral pig who liked to come to visit. He was foraging right outside the barn when I drove down on three successive nights. Fortunately, my noisy arrival would convince him to leave, and about a week later a car hit him along our road frontage, and he then came to die on our manure pile.

My most exciting animal encounters have been with snakes, though. In the late ‘90s, we lived on a Virginia farm nestled into the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains, with a classic bank barn that dated from 1903, so it was full of tunnels dug by rodents and snakes.

Each spring, the female barn swallows would arrive to make their nests in the huge rafters that ran along the roof, holding up the floor above it. We also always had black snakes, called eastern racers, living around the barn. They were often huge, 4 to 6 feet or longer, which Heather (the snake lover and expert among us) would assure me was good news, as eastern racers are harmless to us but deadly to rattlesnakes, of which Virginia has many more than you might think.

Well, one late spring night, I turned on the barn lights, and there above me was a gigantic snake (had to be 6 or 7 feet long) wrapped around the first rafter, eating a nest of baby swallows after, I presume, it had already consumed the mother. I was too frightened to move at first, but then, when I realized what the snake was doing, I hurried back to the house to get Heather. For 15 or 20 minutes, we watched our very own nature show during night check.

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What I Learned This Month From One Of My Horses

By John Strassburger, July 29, 2014


I finally achieved a lengthy period of heavenly “throughness” that day.
I like to say—often—that if you haven’t learned something every time you ride your horse, then you aren’t paying attention. It can be a tiny lesson (perhaps an affirmation of something you learned years ago), or it can be a huge lesson, a gigantic breakthrough.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to start periodically writing about the things my horses teach me as I work toward my competitive goals in eventing with them.

My observations will be primarily about the three competition horses I have here at our Phoenix Farm, two of whom we bred and one whom I’ve been training since he was barely 3 years old. Phoenix Amani (whom we call “Amani”) is 7 and now in her second season of competing at preliminary; Phoenix Bellisima (whom we call “Bella”) is 5 and in June completed her first training level event; and Bravo’s First Class (whom we call “Boogie”) is 6 and is preparing to move up to training level in September.

I had an up-and-down month with Boogie, who’s an Oldenburg gelding, mostly because he missed two weeks of work with an infected right forearm. How’d he get that? He ran up behind his pasture mate, who naturally kicked him, and the cut on the inside of his forearm became infected. He was never lame, but the forearm was swollen and painful enough to prevent him from bending his knee properly while jumping, so he had a week completely off and another week of light work while the antibiotics did their job and the swelling subsided.

Consequently, I had to scratch Boogie from a schooling event on July 13 that I thought would be an important experience for him. That was a disappointment, but when I jumped him again (last Monday) for the first time since the infection had developed, he went beautifully, keeping a steady stride and jumping carefully.

Then, on Wednesday, I felt that we had a breakthrough on the flat. Boogie is a happy-go-lucky guy who’s, honestly, a bit lazy, although he has gaits that are remarkable for their power and scope. But he’s so athletically gifted that it’s hard to convince him to really work, to get him “through” from his rear to his front, to harness that power. My training with him has focused on developing his “holding” strength while trying to maximize his natural “pushing” strength.

Well, I finally achieved a lengthy period of heavenly “throughness” that day. I was truly able push him forward with my legs and seat and then half-halt him with my back and fingers and have him hold an uphill balance, along with a steady stride length and rhythm, all with a light but consistent contact. Wow, it’s a great feeling when that happens, especially on an exceptional mover like Boogie.

And then on Friday we went for a cross-country school at a farm called Jack Rabbit Flats, near Sacramento. Boogie was jumping willingly and boldly, but he was leaning and nearly pulling me out of the saddle, causing me to wonder if I needed to try a stronger bit for cross-country.

I wanted to conclude the school by galloping Boogie over the four steeplechase fences at Jack Rabbit Flats, placed on a track of about half a mile in length. On the first time through, he continued to pull and lean, and we got to awkward distances on the first two jumps as a result.

So I resolved to run Boogie again over the four steeplechase fences, to see if we could do it better. And as we were making our way back to the starting point, I decided to really push him together and do several trot-walk-trot transitions, to get him to push his hindquarters up underneath him and use his back, instead of just pulling me along.

Holy cow, was that the right decision! He picked up the gallop and was immediately round, in front of my leg, and beautifully light in my reins. And we met all four fences perfectly. After I pulled up, I exclaimed excitedly to his owner, our stable manager Roxanne Rainwater, and to one of our students, “Now that was some runnin’ and jumpin’!”

And I said to my wife, Heather, a few minutes later, “I’ve always said that he doesn’t go like any other horse I’ve ever ridden, and I guess today’s lesson is that I have to warm him up for cross-country like he’s a dressage horse.”

I’ll give my theory the full test on Aug. 8-10, when Boogie runs in what I plan to be his final novice start at the Woodside Horse Trials in Woodside, Calif.

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Why I Decided To Stop Competing Alba

By John Strassburger, July 23, 2014


Heart and trust made Alba and I a great cross-country team.
A few months ago I came to the difficult conclusion that it was time to stop competing my wonderful Quarter Horse mare Alba (who competes as Firebolt), and allow her to become a schoolmaster here at our Phoenix Farm.

I didn’t make the decision because of soundness problems or because of old age (she’s only 12). I decided to stop because she’s gone as far as the rules allow her to go in eventing, so there was no point in continuing to ask her to give her maximum effort in almost every event.

Plus, after starting eight intermediate events (and completing six of them without cross-country jumping faults), she’d accomplished far, far more than we ever thought the 15.2-hand mare ever would when her former owner left her with us without a word in October 2008. And she did it mostly on heart, because she tries her hardest every minute of every day. In fact, on some days I wished she’d try a little less hard!

Unfortunately, the show jumping phase was her nemesis, largely because the only thing she’d ever done before she came to me at age 6 was barrel racing, and it had fried her over-eager brain. I think that show jumping was her weak phase because the jumps in an arena, with people sitting around it, reminded her too much of barrel racing. So she’d become so tense and stiff in her back and rush the jumps, causing her to drag her hind feet and hit the rails. We tried everything possible to address this weakness, and her jumping certainly improved, but that’s mental baggage that will never go away.

At the 3’9” intermediate horse trial height, the result was that we’d lower three to seven show jumps in each round. Those results strongly suggested that it was unlikely we’d ever be able to qualify for a CCI2*, because we’d first have to complete a CIC2*, where the show jumps are 3’11”, with four lowered rails or fewer. That’s what I meant when I said she’d gone as far as the rules allow her to, although I don’t think she quite has the scope to go advanced.

So I admitted to myself that there was little point in continuing to ask Alba to compete at intermediate. But I’m still having trouble accepting that I won’t get the privilege of riding her cross-country again. She was just awesome—she’d fly across the ground, always looking for the next jump to attack, and I could always count on her to figure out the question and land on her feet. I can’t think of another horse I’ve ever ridden who approached a cross-country course with such enthusiasm.

The video above is Alba’s round at last November’s CCI1* at Galway Downs. You can see more than a dozen more videos of her in action on the Ride One Video and YouTube sites.

Training and competing Alba has been the center of my riding life for the last six years, and I’m still adjusting to that not being the case any longer. Fortunately, she’s still full of health and in the first stall as you walk into the barn.

What’s Alba doing now? She’s a schoolmaster here at Phoenix Farm. We have three or four teenage students who’ve been taking lessons on her, learning what it feels like to ride a sensitive and highly strung horse who has a lot of buttons. Just yesterday, I took one of these girls galloping on her, and Alba turned on the after-burners going up the hill. After we pulled up, the student smiled in amazement. “I’ve never gone that fast before. That was incredible!” she said, beaming.

We may also breed Alba in a couple of years. But it will have to be by using embryo transfer. Living through Heather’s extremely difficult pregnancy with Wesley five years ago took a few years off my life, I fear, and I couldn’t bear the thought of Alba struggling through pregnancy, or worse.

I’ll admit that my decision to stop competing Alba was made easier by the fact that I have three younger and very promising horses to compete now, two of whom we bred. It simply made more sense to use my time and financial resources to further their careers than it did to keep going with Alba.

But I will always believe that Alba contributed greatly to whatever success I may be fortunate to have with her successors. She helped get me ready for them, teaching me so much about controlling my body and balance, giving me experience of riding the upper levels after years of riding young horses at the lower levels, and, above all, making me feel comfortable and confident over the big jumps.

Alba also reminded me, again and again, what it feels like to ride a horse who has a bottomless heart.

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Organization Leaders Need To Embrace Members’ Use of Social Media

By John Strassburger, July 16, 2014


As a journalist and a USEF member, I believe strongly in our American right to express our views.
The Internet horse world is abuzz this month about a decision just announced by the USEF Hearing Committee, which has censored and fined hunter judge and trainer Jimmy Torano “in connection with the 2013 USHJA Pre-Green Incentive Championship held on August 14 – 15, 2013, where he was engaged to judge, in that following the first day of the championship, he added negative comments to a thread on Facebook regarding the format of the inaugural pre-green incentive championship.”    To read the entire decision, go to

What did Torano do? He pressed the “like” button on the Facebook page of fellow judge Don Stewart Jr., who’d written a several-hundred-word evaluation on his Facebook page after the first day of the competition, at which they’d both been required to judge several hundred pre-green horses for more than 12 hours. Sounds like water torture to me.

I’m confused and concerned about the USEF ruling against Torano, who did nothing but agree with Stewart’s comments. I understand that the USEF is pursuing action against Stewart too, and that concerns me too. This ruling, along with another recent event, makes it look like our sport’s leaders are trying to slam a lid on something—social media and public comment—that’s far, far bigger than they are.

Yes, I can understand why USEF leaders consider it improper for judges to comment publicly on competitions at which they’re currently judging, so I’ll agree that the timing of Stewart’s Facebook post was improper. He probably should have waited a few days, although spending an entire day judging pre-green hunters would probably cloud anyone’s judgment. But I’ve read a transcript of Stewart’s comments, and I thought they were extremely valid and constructive about the first running of this event. 

The Torano penalty has evoked a storm of protest, partly because last month British Eventing, the organization that runs eventing in England, announced a new rule [] that seems to be seeking to prevent its members from saying anything at all about eventing on any kind of social media. It even says, “British Eventing reserves the right to monitor, intercept and review, without further notice, social media postings and activities that include references to it and/or its Members, to ensure that its Rules are being complied with and for legitimate business purposes. All Members consent to such monitoring by their agreeing to these rules.”

Sounds rather Soviet, doesn’t it?

Of course, we should remember that the USEF, BE and others are membership organizations, and membership in them is a privilege, not a right. Their rules specifically allow them to take disciplinary action against members, to suspend them, or even to deny them membership.

Understandably, the leaders of these organizations are worried about how easy social networking makes it to spread speculation and lies or to make derogatory statements about them, their staff or volunteers or their competitions, and they want to take steps to control what people say.

But taking an action against a member for something they write on social media is fraught with potentially dangerous repercussions. While libelous or personally damaging comments should certainly be penalized, I would argue strenuously against any attempt to contain or control discussion by members who are critical of an action, decision or event. Because I’ve been a journalist for more than 30 years, I believe strongly in our American right to free speech and expression of our views. It’s one of our country’s founding principles, a founding principle of any free society.

After all, dozens of times during these last 30 years I’ve written evaluations and criticisms of the USEF, other equestrian and animal organizations and competitions. I believe it’s my right and duty as a member, as a competitor and as a commentator.

The goal of any membership organization, especially a sports membership organization, is to gain and keep members. They always want and usually need more people involved, but if they burden their members with onerous rules or policies, they’ll likely discourage people from joining and participating in whatever it is they’re doing.

It seems clear that the intent of both groups’ rules is to prevent members from unfairly bashing other members, competition management or the organization. I don’t think they’re worried about civil communication or enlightened comment. And I suspect these rules were written by their legal departments because someone, somewhere, said something that angered someone else, someone who felt unfairly persecuted. (I’m going to guess that, in the case of British Eventing, it was a sponsor who felt damaged by someone’s comments and threatened to withdraw their support.)

But both rules smack of “Big Brother” watching, and while trying to be all-inclusive and yet specific, they’ve become too broad and vague. What’s “offensive” or “improper” (words used in both rules) to an aggrieved party can easily be seen as deserved or constructive criticism by the person making the statements or by a third party.  Any member, or official, of these organizations could tightly read these rules to mean that members cannot comment at all on the programs, competitions, rules or decisions that are under their umbrella. You could read them to mean that if we want to be USEF or BE members, we have to shut up and accept everything they do—or they’ll come and get us.

I don’t think that was the intent, but the devil is in the details, in the wording. The basic intent of the USEF rule is to prevent members from rude, aggressive or improper conduct at a show (especially toward a judge or other official). But writing a rule regarding a form of communication that’s constantly evolving is a big challenge.

Social media offers lots of opportunities to anyone trying to promote anything and lots of challenges to anyone who doesn’t want publicity. What it really does is to allow people to say the things they used to say on the telephone or in person to their friends and colleagues—except in a much more public way, a way that is publicly verifiable.

I think these groups’ leaders are barking up the wrong tree regarding social media. The comments that an individual makes on Facebook or Twitter or similar applications are not anonymous, as this situation proves. We know exactly what Stewart “said” and that Torano liked what he said.

The problem with many chat rooms and bulletin-board sites is that people can post their comments anonymously, which allows them to make statements that thousands of people can see with no evidence and with little fear of reprisal. But with Facebook and others, no one but the account holder can make postings on your page. (I couldn’t go on Don Stewart’s page and write a post for him.) And the only people who can see it are the person’s friends, unless a friend copies and pastes it and sends it elsewhere. 

So, to me, prosecuting a member for comments made on their own page or account is just like prosecuting them for standing in the middle of their barn and making exactly the same comments to the people standing there.

The horse (meaning social media) is already out of the barn, and locking the barn door isn’t going to put him back inside. Social media can give organizational leaders unprecedented insight into what their members want and need and allow them to communicate with them as never before. That’s why I think that the USEF and BE need to use them better, not just try vainly to bottle them up.

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