Dispatches from Devon

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I’m halfway through my adventure in Pennsylvania! I arrived Sunday evening and hit the hay pretty early after a quick dinner with the rest of The Horse of Course crew. We spent Monday moving into our space at the show grounds at Devon. The whole thing is much more involved than shows usually are; our vendor space at Devon is indoors, in a building. We install the shelving, racks, and gridwall, then move in everything from the mobile unit- literally, every single thing. The volume of merchandise required for a show like Dressage at Devon is bananas; in addition to the entire inventory of the big dressage trailer, there’s also about 10 large moving boxes’ worth of apparel from the store and several boxes of tack shipped directly to the show grounds from the store’s vendors.

In between setting up, constantly rearranging, and helping people find the perfect breech (or boot, or shadbelly, or scarf), I’ve had time to walk around the rest of the vendor village and watch a few classes.

The booth has a great view of the warmup ring!
The booth has a great view of the warmup ring!

I watched the young horse in-hand classes on Tuesday, and it made me more disappointed than ever that Gina reabsorbed her embryo! There were some very nice young horses on the triangle…and some very naughty ones!

Naughty 2 year old stallion.
Naughty 2 year old stallion.

I also watched a couple of Materiale classes yesterday, which were really interesting. Materiale classes are under saddle group classes for young horses in which they are judged on movement, potential as a dressage horse, and overall general impression.

Lovely four year old mare!
Lovely four year old mare!

And you never know who you’ll see at Dressage at Devon! I spent 10 minutes watching the warmup for a Materiale class and trying to get a good picture of one of work’s customers. One of the riders in the group was a chic-looking woman with a lovely, quiet style of riding who seemed cool as a cucumber; when the class began, I realized I’d spent 10 minutes admiring Silva Martin!

I’m looking forward to the weekend, and to USDF Region 9 Championships in Houston next week!

Interview with an Olympian

When I was discussing the details of my trip to Florida with my boss, she casually mentioned that Lars Petersen was game for an interview. I nearly choked on my coffee. It’s one thing to send in a custom boot order for the man, but it’s something else entirely to sit down and chat with him. Lars Petersen is a big deal! He’s competed at the World Equestrian Games, the World Cup Finals, the Continental Championships, and the Olympics!

Know what happened the last time I spoke to an Olympic rider? I babbled “I LOVE YOUR BOOK YOU ARE MY FAVORITE RIDER PLEASE AUTOGRAPH THIS?” and thrust a copy of Training The Three Day Event Horse And Rider at Jim Wofford. Smooth, I know.

I thought hard about the questions I’d like to ask him and tried to put together questions with room for follow-ups and tangents. He was pleasant and thoughtful throughout the interview, and I think he had some good things to say.

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SP: I heard you recently became an American citizen- congratulations! Are you excited to ride for America in the future?
LP: Yes, I am. I must say, I’ve been here for- I’m going on my sixteenth year now, and I really like it here.

SP: That’s good to hear! As someone that’s lived and competed and trained in both America and Europe, what kind of differences do you see in training systems, competitions, and the horse culture?
LP: Competition wise, the competition is of course harder in Europe than it is here. They have more good shows. I mean, many, many shows like WEF every weekend, which we don’t have so many of over here. We have the new facility in Tyron, which hopefully- well, I have seen it- will be just spectacular. So hopefully there will be some more shows. And training-wise…I mean, people can train the way they want to train, I always say. I do it the way I have always done it. I still go to Blue Hors ten times a year to train and I haven’t changed that system. There’s a lot of systems over here.

SP: So you just do what works for you.
LP: Yeah.

SP: And it has been working- you’ve been at the top of the sport for two, three decades. How did you get started in dressage?
LP: From my dad. He got me into it, and he rode himself, both dressage and jumping. I used to jump horses a lot.

SP: And you made the switch to only dressage?
LP: Yeah, I was always better at dressage. I enjoy jumping a lot but yeah, it’s dressage now.

SP: Your horse Mariett is eighteen. How do you keep a horse like her on top and getting better as she ages?
LP: Well, that’s very difficult. And it doesn’t work with all horses. But my dad always said, “Learn from people whose horses get old.” And I guess as I get older- well, as you get older, you learn a lot of horsemanship. It’s having a good blacksmith and a good veterinarian. What you do in the ring every day is the most important. I’ve been fortunate; a lot of my horses got old. It’s the whole team- farrier, vet, rider, groom, saddler.

SP: You ride in Sommer saddles. How do you like them?
LP: [Laughs] They are great!  I have been riding in them a long time. I rode in them when I was in Europe. I saw The Horse of Course carried them and have been coming to you guys ever since. Beth and Marty are great. [ed.- Beth is the CEO/founder of THoC; her husband Marty is THoC’s saddler.]

SP: Can you tell me about some of the other horses you’re working with and bringing up?
LP: I have a horse, from Altersgait Farm, he’s now turned eight. He’s a Quaterback. [ed.- see information on the Oldenburg stallion Quaterback here] My good friend in Denmark bred him and I bought him and sold him to them [Altersgait Farm] but then they got a little too much horse! So now I have him, and he’s gone Prix St. Georges already as a seven year old. He’s very talented, so he’ll be fun over the couple of years to finish up.

SP: What do you look for in a dressage prospect? Are there certain breeds or bloodlines that you like, or is it more about a horse’s conformation?
LP: Yes, there are some bloodlines I like, but it’s also about conformation. You know, an uphill build horse. Good hind legs.

SP: What kind of bloodlines do you like?
LP: You know what? All my horses are from all different kind of bloodlines. I think if you have one with a good heart and good gaits…A dressage horse is made. You can train, you can do a lot. It’s not like a jumper- if they just don’t have the talent to jump, you don’t go very far. Of course, I like something Danish. [laughs] I never used to like Dutch horses, and especially not Jazz, but now I have two Jazzes in my barn that I love! [ed.- see information on KWPN stallion Jazz here] One is a seven year old mare, I think she is the best young horse I’ve ever had, so easy and very talented. But I don’t think I have a specific bloodline.

SP: So what are some of your goals for 2016, for this season?
LP: For this season? Well, Denmark is not qualified for the Olympics, so they have to go through world rankings. So I’m just trying to keep showing, keep Mariett up on the world ranking list, and that goes then to the Federation and the Federation decides who the team is. So, yeah, after that, we go from there!


 

Lars was more taciturn than I expected, so our interview was relatively short. He cheerily invited me to join him, my boss, and some clients for a beer after we finished up; I wish I had that interlude on record! They were discussing the politics of the Wellington equestrian world, and someone pointed out that there seemed to be a clique of ‘cool people’ who would not deign to associate with others. At that point, Lars burst out laughing, gestured to the group, and said, “We are the swamp people of Wellington!” and advised me to embrace my status as a swamp person.

And there you have it folks: Olympians are just like us, only swampier.

Talking to Betsy Steiner about Equilates

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Betsy Steiner pats Ranier.

Betsy Steiner is an accomplished dressage rider; she’s represented the United States at the World Equestrian Games, she’s competed successfully at Grand Prix for longer than I’ve been alive, and she’s trained a number of horses to that level. She’s also an incredibly kind and positive woman who graciously allowed me an interview after she’d spent a long day coaching and showing. I was eager ask her about Equilates, the Pilates-based exercise program she developed specifically for equestrians.

SP: Can you tell me about Equilates? What is it?
BS: Equilates is a Pilates-based system of fitness training for the rider. It’s sports-specific (for dressage, jumping, any kind of rider) exercises off the horse. It’s unmounted exercises for the most part. We’ve also developed different exercises and used the Pilates-based exercises for mounted exercises as well. In my lessons, I always refer to the different Pilates terms and the exercises that we’ve done in Equilates. So if somebody, for example, learns some of the exercises on the ball, I can say, “Remember how it felt on the ball when you rolled back and forth, how it worked your abs? That’s your canter transition.” So it really helps the rider identify something when they’re not worried about the horse and everything that’s going on: keeping them on the bit, keeping them moving, what is he going to do. It takes them out of that very multi-tasking place into one focused area to think about “this is the movement and these are the body parts you are using.” So it really brings huge body awareness.

SP: I can imagine! It sounds like it would be a really beneficial program for any sort of rider at any level.
BS: Yeah. It also helps me as a trainer. It helps me see. You can keep telling a person, “Sit straight, don’t keep collapsing on one side,” but when you see them off the horse, you can kind of tell in the work that we do if they really have a severe weakness on one side or the other. Or if they really can’t do something- say if they can’t really keep their heels down or whatever it may be. I’m not going to keep telling them to do that because they may try all the time but they’re never going to do it. So what kind of exercise can I do to help them do that simple thing? Or I’ll think, “No, that’s not a possibility. They have restrictions in their body, they can’t do that, so how am I going to teach them better?” So it helps people coaching other people to understand that individual’s body because everybody’s so different.

You can say to a rider, “Drive,” but what does that mean? How do you initiate drive? Where does drive come from? How do you explain it? Like, if we’re here face to face, I can say, “Okay, you engage your abdominal muscles, you push your hips forward,” and you actually do it, say, with an exercise on the floor or sitting on the ball, and just by engaging those muscles you move the ball forward, you’re like, “Ahh!” So you get that. You can do great things on the ball. Just imagine the energy’s behind you and when you pull it in a forward direction, the horse comes forward and onto the bit. So everything we do, it’s not like a pilates class per se, but it all reverts back to your riding.

SP: So it’s very riding-specific.
BS: Very riding-specific.

SP: So how did you come to feel like this needed to be developed? Was there just nothing out there, or were riders doing exercises but not ones that were very beneficial?
BS: Yeah, when I started it, nobody was doing cross-training. Or nobody was talking about doing cross-training. I had always done cross-training with my riding career. That started very early on. I went to Canada and worked at Christilot Boylen’s barn and her mother taught dance and I had to go to the dance studio. When I went, I thought she did a lot of Pilates- it wasn’t called Pilates- but she did a lot of Pilates-based exercises and she explained when you did these, it helped your riding. So from the very beginning, I thought, “Well, that makes a whole lot of sense!” You understood your body and you understood straightness.

I had a very arched back at the time and she said, “That’s not beneficial for your riding, you need to use your back like this,” and because the riding was my complete and total passion, I thought, “I’ll do whatever it takes to be able to do it!” So that’s what sort of planted the seed to bring the fitness training into my riding. Plus, I love working out anyhow. I love different modalities of it.

I did a lot of weight training. That made my muscles too bulky- I didn’t feel like I was supple enough. I then I went to Tai Chi, which was really nice and that brought in a looseness and also core strength. And then I found Pilates, and that was, gosh, back in 1994 or something. I’d started working with this coach, the personal trainer I was working with at the time, and she started doing Pilates. She came back to the studio and said, “This is what you’re going to love.” And then on the reformers, we started worked on the reformer. [Ed.- Here’s an article on Pilates reformers if you aren’t familiar with them.] And because the reformer moves and has reactions, I thought, “This is the closest thing to simulating being on a horse.” So for me that was huge.

From the different things I’d learned from Tai Chi and in weight training and some yoga training and with the Pilates, I thought, “If you combine all those things…” It doesn’t have to be strictly one thing, because every body is different. So whatever works for a particular body, that’s what you should do. For a while, I was working on strength, and then it was like, “You don’t need strength now, you need suppleness.” So it changes, and sometimes you go to the suppleness, and it’s like “Okay, let’s build our strength again.”

SP: It sounds like it has a lot in common with the way we train our horses.
BS: Exactly! Exactly. That’s nice that you brought that up. To me it was the same thing. With our horses, we do the gymnastic work. From the very first time I started riding horses, I thought of it as being an athletic endeavor in equal. Like, if I expected this from my horse, he expects this from me. I have to be fit, I have to be balanced, I have to understand my body and know where it is. That was a real interesting thing that I’ve always had problems with.

I think probably, then, gosh back in…gosh, that was a long time ago. There was no Pilates studio at all in Wellington. And you’d say “Pilates” and nobody really knew what it was. I was going all the way out to West Palm Beach to find a studio. One of the gals that worked out there, I convinced her- I said, “You have to come out to Wellington” and she said, “Well, I don’t know if there will be enough business,” and I said, “Trust me.”

At that time, I started developing Equilates and that’s when I wrote the book and did all of the comparisons- “when you learn this exercise yourself it really helps you do these movements on the horse.” And I’ve really seen that a lot, even in just using the language. You know when you’re talking to a rider and they’ve been working with you on Equilates and you say, “Feel the difference between your upper and your lower abs” and they can really articulate that and can really feel it. So it’s just developing a language and a body awareness so that when they’re on the horse they’re not balancing on the horse and they really have control. And I think a person really has to understand that to allow the horse self-carriage. That makes a long answer for that, doesn’t it? [laughs]

SP:  It seems like riders in general are starting to approach the sport from a more athletically-minded standpoint than maybe they did in the past. Do you have any advice for riders on where to start?
BS: I think if somebody took a beginner Pilates mat class- Pilates targets so much to the core strength. Then you can do yoga and different things like that. I think for a base, Pilates is really the best. When you get the concept of Pilates and working from your core, then everything you do starts there.

Then you go back to our horses- we want them to balance through their bodies, bring their bellies up, use their back, go forward towards the bit and be able to bring the haunches under. And you think, “Okay, if I’m asking them to do all of that, then I want to be able to create the same position in my body that I’m asking them more.” So you need to be able to engage your abs, bring your seat forward, push in a forward direction, and have them reach into the reins, not balance in the reins. Any beginner rider who comes to me, if the balance is off a little bit, we always go back and talk about body awareness and when they’re on the horse too “Can you feel this? Can you feel when you’re moving and when you’re allowing the horse to move and when you’re forcing movement in the horse because your body is either tight or stiff or holding, not letting them move.”

Pilates also offers a wholeness- you know, like, it’s a little bit ‘mind, body, spirit’. In training a horse, you can never just train the body, you have to train the body and the mind. And sometimes the body goes ahead and the mind has to catch up, so you slow down a little bit there and you give them time to understand and give them confidence. And now he’s confident and everything else, and you say, “Now we can move the body forward again” and I think for humans, my riders, I watch them, and it can be a rider of any age or experience, and you say, “If we just got them a little bit more balanced like this they could understand then how to release their energy and their horse’s energy in a positive way”

In my mind, it just keeps growing in benefits. It’s not just riding now, it’s blending together, it’s melting into the horse. You know how they say, “Become one with the horse.” When you have use of your body and you’re strong enough and can let go enough to let the horse move and you move with him, you can CAN feel like you’re one with him. And to me, that’s the most glorious feeling ever.


 

Interested in Equilates? You can read more about it, buy the book, or buy the DVD at www.equilates.com!

Wellington, Part 2: rubbing elbows with dressage elite

The major reason I was brought to Wellington was to interview some of the riders who are sponsored by The Horse of Course. My boss told me about a week before I left that Betsy Steiner, Shelly Francis, and Lars Petersen had agreed to meet with me. The content of the interviews was left entirely up to me.

Now, here’s the thing: I don’t have any kind of background in writing. In college, I received credit for Composition I & II because my ACT reading and English scores were very high. I took a technical writing class that I didn’t take seriously- I accrued the maximum number of absences before midterm and regularly showed up to class very hungover or still slightly drunk. That’s the extent of my writing education. Post-collegiate employment hasn’t required a lot of writing, and while I’ve been blogging here at Hand Gallop for five years, it’s not exactly a professional gig.

I don’t know how to interview anyone. What kind of questions do you ask? What questions yield answers that make for interesting reading?

I spent some time reading interviews in equine publications. I pored over each rider’s competition history, previous interviews, and any articles mentioning their name. And I thought about the things I like to read. I don’t want to read an interview that’s basically an advertisement or that’s full of trite questions that have been covered in a dozen other places. So I jotted down some questions for each rider and hoped I wouldn’t sound like an idiot.

Betsy Steiner
Betsy Steiner

I met with Betsy Steiner at White Fences on Sunday; she’s a petite and graceful woman who somehow looked completely put together despite having spent all day at a dressage show riding and coaching. Betsy is a USDF Bronze, Silver, and Gold medalist who represented the US at the 1990 World Equestrian Games. I chatted with her about Equilates, the pilates-based program she developed for equestrian athletes. Betsy talked about how she was introduced into cross-training early, participating in dance lessons while training as a young rider. She found Tai Chi a few years later and enjoyed the mental and spiritual benefits of the practice, but it wasn’t until she took a pilates class that she felt she’d found the perfect training activity for riders. She developed Equilates to help riders have a better connection with their horses, better body awareness, and more strength and flexibility. Betsy’s advice to riders looking to get started with a new fitness routine? “Take a beginner pilates mat class. For a base, I think pilates is the best; when you get the concept of pilates- working from your core- everything you do starts there.”

Doktor wants to know what's happening.
Doktor wants to know what’s happening.
Danilo assessing the probability of treats/pets.
Danilo assessing the probability of treats/pets.

After bidding Betsy farewell, I headed up the road to Shelly Francis‘s farm. Shelly has been quietly climbing the ranks of the USEF High Performance Dressage Olympic list; currently, she’s ranked 5th with her horse Doktor. She’s had a lot of success with both Doktor and the slightly younger Danilo, and is currently bringing a couple of other horses up the levels. From the moment I stepped into her immaculate barn, it was obvious how much she cares for her horses. She introduced me to each horse, patting them fondly as they poked their heads out of their stalls and smiling as she recounted their quirks. Danilo waited for a quick acknowledgement before he went back to munching on hay. Rubinio nibbled on my scarf. Doktor was much shorter and rounder in person than I imagined- Shelly laughed, “He really puffs up in the ring!” Dante, Danilo’s young half-brother, hung his enormous head out of the stall to snuggle with Shelly as she gave him a hug. It was clear that she loves her horses and likes to be very involved in their day-to-day care.  I asked her about her training philosophy and was interested to hear that she regularly hacks out on trails or in empty fields as part of her interval training system. The horses get a couple of light days a week, then a couple of harder days, and they always get a whole day off. She firmly believes in bringing horses along gradually in a low-stress way and wants her horses to enjoy their job. When I asked her about what she looks for in a dressage prospect, she replied, “Good gaits. Good canters and good walks and a trot that’s clean that has a little lengthen in there. I also like a calmness in the temperament that’s trainable.” Shelly was a joy to talk to (and her horses were all very cute)!

THIS IS THE BARN, YOU GUYS
THIS IS THE BARN, YOU GUYS

My final interview was with Danish Olympian Lars Petersen, who’s also based in Loxahatchee at Legacy Farms. I’ll admit I was a little intimidated to talk with him- he’s an incredibly successful rider. He’s competed at the Olympics, the World Equestrian Games, the World Cup Finals, and the European Continental Championships. I needn’t have worried, though! Lars was funny and kind, and even invited me to have a beer after our interview. I was very interested to hear his thoughts about differences in European and American showing, training, and riding methods; he admitted it’s much easier to show at high levels in Europe, since there’s a show on the scale of the Adequan Global Dressage Festival nearly every weekend. I was also curious about what he had to say regarding his horse Mariett; she’s 18 and just seems to get better with age. Lars’s secret? “My dad always said, ‘Learn from the people whose horses get old.’ What you do in the ring every day is the most important. Having a good team, too- blacksmith, vet, saddler.” (Unrelated to the interview, Lars referred to himself and his team as “the swamp people” of Wellington, which made me spit out my beer.)

Every one of the people I interviewed was gracious, extremely pleasant, and seemed genuinely happy to talk to me. I know I was happy to talk to them!

Wellington, Part 1: lifestyles of the rich and the famous

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I caught an early flight out of Tulsa on Saturday morning and arrived in Fort Lauderdale early in the afternoon; by time I got off the Tri-Rail train at the Palm Beach area, it was nearly 5 PM. I didn’t get much accomplished on Saturday, other than falling asleep at 9 PM.

I spent Sunday at the Adequan Global Dressage Festival grounds at the Palm Beach International Equestrian Center, where The Horse of Course parks the dressage trailer through the show season. To say the show grounds are impressive is a massive understatement. Everything is beautifully landscaped and manicured. Immaculately groomed horses are everywhere. The arenas are always freshly dragged with perfect footing. It’s absolutely stunning.

Landscaping at the entrance.
Landscaping at the entrance.
More ridiculous landscaping.
More ridiculous landscaping.
Ugh, it's almost too pretty.
Ugh, it’s almost too pretty.

This was the first time I’d seen the dressage trailer in action, which was just as impressive as the show grounds. There’s a wooden deck around the trailer and awnings that extend over it to shade the merchandise that’s displayed outside. The trailer is flanked by a couple of tents- one that’s dedicated to the men’s department and one that houses the saddle repair area. It’s busy all day long. Riders are constantly in and out, trying on breeches and coats, ordering custom shads or boots, and asking for advice on bits, saddles, bridles, and everything in between. It was totally amazing to see; while I’ve certainly been busy at shows on the smaller local trailer, no one was ordering custom anything and it’s rare that someone will actually try something on or take my advice.

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The dressage trailer sells scooters because of course it does.

The dressage trailer carries a selection of higher-end brands that we don’t stock in the store. It stocks Pikeur, Kentucky, Gersemi, Grand Prix, and a variety of other mostly-European brands of apparel and tack. The trailer’s low end breeches retail for $199.95. While I was there, I saw people drop in, buy 4 pairs of $200 breeches, and talk about what a great bargain they’re getting. I also saw someone place an order for a custom pair of boots that will be at least $1200. These people live a very, very different lifestyle than I do!

This shadbelly! This stock tie!
This shadbelly! This stock tie!
So many options for boots!
So many options for boots!

When I got too depressed to hang around and watch people spend money, I ventured off to explore the show grounds. There’s a very large covered area with three full-sized dressage rings set up in it. One of the rings was a warm up area, while the others were competition rings. I watched both for a while; I was heartened to see one naughty grey horse bucking through his flying changes- not everything is perfect in Welly World! I wandered through the barns for a little while, too; most of them were empty, or in the process of being cleared out from the weekend’s eventing showcase. I saw one bay horse dozing in his stall and glanced at the stall card on the door; lo and behold, it was Colleen Rutledge’s Covert Rights! He opened his eyes after hearing me fumble around with my camera, and I took a picture like a total creeper.

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The warm up ring was busy!
Cover Rights says "Go away, crazy lady."
Covert Rights says “Go away, crazy lady.”

After that, I trekked out to the outdoor dressage rings, where the CDI competitions occur. Not much was happening while I was there- someone appeared to be having a longe lesson in the warm up area and ground crews were clearing away the cross country course from the eventing showcase. I saw where the cross country course ran through the VIP tent, which was just as crazy as it sounds- it was a topic of conversation with the dressage people the whole time I was there! (They really do think eventers are nuts.)

By time I returned to the trailer, it was time to head out to White Fences Equestrian Center in nearby Loxahatchee. White Fences is a gated horse community, comprised of small farms centered around two show grounds. It’s beautiful, and seemed much more low-key than Global. The farms are stunning, with the namesake white fences and these enormous, airy barns and perfect paddocks. Every farm has a dressage arena with a huge wall of mirrors at one end, too! The show grounds I visited were hosting a schooling show on Sunday; there were at least 5 outdoor arenas going when I arrived. I caught our assistant saddle fitter riding a Third Level test on his big warmblood gelding and practiced my (very poor) equine photography skills during his test.

Don't you just want to go show there?
Don’t you just want to go show there?
Even fancy people have to pick up poop.
Even fancy people have to pick up poop.
Go saddle fitter, go!
Go saddle fitter, go!

The Wellington area is a little like an alternate universe; there’s never any hay wisps in the barn aisles, the horses are never too fuzzy or covered in mud, everyone’s slender and elegant and filthy rich. I can’t decide how I feel about it- I think if I tried to spend an entire season there, I’d feel totally inadequate! But it was kind of nice to spend a few days in horsey paradise. 😉