Friday, July 25, 2008

Walk Like Me, Talk Like Me

Anyone who has spent much time around a training barn or at horse shows recognizes quickly that a trainer's most valuable accessory is what I like to call his "groupies." These folks comprise the small cloud that follows him around, always close at his heels and aware of every move, much like the syncopated block of folks in a marching band.

When the trainer sits down, his groupies cluster around like baby hens and find their own seats near the nest. When the trainer acts busy, the swarm in turn flusters off in various directions to occupy themselves. And so it goes. They are like a loyal shadow, mirroring the trainer, propping up his ego, laughing at his less-than-funny jokes, and marveling at his unparalleled skill with horses. And they pay him for the opportunity to do this.

You see, groupies are important and worth cultivating because in large measure, they are an extension of us trainers and whatever impression they give the industry is-- sometimes unfortunately-- how the industry then sees us. This can obviously work in a trainer's favor, or to his detriment.

As a trainer, you hope for well-heeled groupies, not to mentioned well-behaved ones. At shows, you picture the cloud that follows you around as a fashionable ensemble of sophisticates tastes and articulate speech. You hope for a tidily groomed batch of grateful and polite women, eager to help each other out, encourage other competitors, and tell you that you're the best rider they've seen on the West Coast. When they stock your cooler with your favorite snacks and beverages, it's an added bonus.

Equating you with the quality of your groupies, fellow trainers and competitors immediately elevate you to a level that would take years to achieve by sheer hard work, good training, and a successful show record. Your colleagues and prospective clients automatically assume that, judging from the caliber of your groupies, you must surely ride only the best horses, collect top dollar for your services, and speak in a snooty nasally tone.

In fact, groupies are so pivotal in the status of trainers' careers that I've witnessed more shrewd trainers than I focus their efforts on cultivating groupies more than on training horses. Instead of riding horses all day, they put their efforts into shmoozing, photo-ops, and managing their image. They actually sometimes end up making far more money than the rest of us for the reasons I stated above. It's like the Enron business model applied to the horse world.

What the average trainer usually ends up with, however, is quite different than a uniformly well-heeled group of loyalists. There are generally at least a handful of questionable seeds in the mix. And as I've said, these characters do far more for your reputation than your talent, skill, or show record. For better or worse.

I recall an episode at a Regional Championship competition that all too clearly illustrated this fact for me. The loudspeaker paged me to the show office--a stereotypical nexus of paperwork run by over-worked grey-haired ladies and occupied by nervous competitors. Certain that I had handled every detail of my entry forms, stabling payments, etc., I couldn't immediately imagine what business I possibly needed to attend to in the office. So, I took my dear old time wandering over there.

By the time I arrived, not only was the loudspeaker paging me for a third time, but a small army of horse show officials in golf carts had been dispatched to come haul me in. I heard the commotion inside the office long before I got near the door. There was yelling and screaming. There was crying. There were boyfriends involved. Upset over-worked grey-haired ladies. It sounded bad, very bad. And I had a nagging suspicion that the source for the commotion, and the explanation for my being paged and the golf cart brigade, was one of my clients.

I swung open the door and, yes, there stood one of my own. Apparently, she had taken it upon herself to go straighten out some paperwork in the show office (ignoring strict instructions from me to never go anywhere on her own, lest she go off like a loose cannon as she was now), and nobody seemed to know what prompted it, but she was now in the midst of a full-blown hysterical breakdown. Perhaps it was the sheer stress of needing to put signatures on a few entry forms. Or deciding between entering her horse in a class on Saturday versus Sunday. Who knows. She was now choking and shuddering for breath, throwing papers around the office, her eyes were bloodshot.

The other competitors unfortunate enough to be in the show office with her had smeared themselves against the walls, much like at a high school dance where pimply teenagers try to blend into the furnishings. In this case, they tried to stay out of arm's reach from my now- crazed client. The ladies running the office stood aghast, like four helpless deer paralyzed by headlights. They had contemplated whether to call the police, the state mental hospital, or me. Obviously, they settled on me. They had decided this spasmodic emotional eruption was my problem, let me deal with it.

In the end, I did somewhat deal with it. With the help of my cowboy friend, we physically extracted the wailing woman in question from the office, restrained her in a horse stall, and outlined for her why she was never welcome to attend another show as my client. Given the extent of her distress and flailing, I considered our efforts heroic. However, they did nothing to smooth over the damage that had been done by the episode.

To this day, fellow competitors still talk about the "great horse show office meltdown." For years, I was known as the trainer "who has the crazy client," even though I never again had a repeat offender of that behavior. I was known as the trainer who could ride well, yes, but who could also sling a blathering adult woman over her shoulder and haul her from the office.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Does Anyone Know What Day It Is?

One day last week, I woke up in a strange bed and tried to recall what day it was. Aha! I remembered that I had to ride a young horse in the Materiale class at 3pm today and therefore today must be Saturday. Working my way back from that information, I determined that we were in the month of July, I must be in the town of Woodside (where the show was being held), and I was therefore in a bed at my friend's house in a nearby town. Whew!

Welcome to the life of a horse trainer. We equine professionals spend so much time on the road that entire weeks blur together. In fact, I don't even remember June of this year. I'm wondering if leap years ever eliminate whole months. Anyway, I sometimes think the life of a traveling circus performer may indeed bear more stability than what we horse trainers have.

I was giving a clinic recently somewhere on the coast of California after a five-day stretch of teaching and competing in different towns when a gentleman asked me where I live. I couldn't remember the last time I slept in my own bed.

"My car?" I feebly offered, thinking that might be the most accurate thing to say.

He had read on my web site that I live in Santa Cruz, Calif.

"Oh yeah. Well, yes, I have an address there," I answered.

He looked puzzled.

"I mean, in theory I do live there... if I were ever there, that is."

You see, the nice gentleman fell into the category of people who don't own horses and are unfamiliar with the vagabond lifestyle necessary to sustain oneself in this industry. I was at a party last night with several other such folks. Pleasant innocent folks who "ooh and ahh" when they hear I train horses for a living. Their eyes widen, their mouths turn up rapidly into giddy smiles. I know what they're thinking, these people who have to work in offices all day under fluorescent lights. They think I lead the most glamorous life on the planet.

Wow, they think, she works with horses all day! Of course, to them this means that I live in a world much like the one portrayed in National Velvet. I wear fancy hats with feathers in them. I drink mint juleps every day at 4pm. I have a stable boy who lives to polish my boots and wrap my horses' legs. I gallop like Lady Godiva through lush green countryside in the late mornings. All while collecting a paycheck.

"It sounds more glamorous than it is," I admitted to the party-goers, wondering if the goo on my right arm was dried horse slobber or fly spray. Little do they know I've never had a mint julep in my life and I think the last time I galloped through lush green countryside was in 1996. But I can live for weeks out of one suitcase, and like most horse people, I can sleep positively anywhere. I may not immediately know where I am when I wake up, but I can usually toggle together those details after a cup of coffee and a phone call to my groom!

A few weeks ago, I was driving down a highway somewhere here in California when my mother called. I was admittedly a bit groggy from shaking off the previous day's heat exhaustion, horse show fatigue, and general weariness. Nonetheless, I was leaving a horse event in one town for another event in a town a few hours away. Characteristically chipper, my mom asked where I was.

I looked at the road signs and then at the brown hillsides. Then, I looked at the other cars on the road with me. Embarassingly, an answer did not present itself immediately. I forgot for a moment if I were leaving a horse event or heading to another one, or both.

"You know, Mom, I'm not really sure," came my answer. "Hopefully, I'll figure it out by the time I get where I'm going."

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

God Bless the Mares

My sanity as a trainer had been called into question numerous times. The reason is because I love mares. Most trainers-- perhaps possessing better judgement than myself-- prefer to work with geldings for the simple fact that they are easier to work with. Much easier.

With mares, you get unpredictable moods, sometimes erratic work ethics, alpha issues, etc. Basically, you need to spend twice as much time to accomplish the same thing with a mare that you do with a gelding. But as lacking in reason as it is, the fact remains that I love them.

I blame my affection for mares on my father. Put a bitchy mare in front of my dad and he goes all soft and mushy. He still denies it, but the doey look in his eye when a mare is trying to kick him or bite his arm off is indisputable.

My father belongs to the small percentage of the horse world that lacks enough self-preservation to compete in Combined Driving Events. To the unacquainted, these events include hurling a horse and carriage through death-defying obstacles at the speed of sound. For these competitions, my father was well-known for always driving an ornery mare that no other trainer in his right mind would hitch to a carriage.

At one competition in Gladstone, New Jersey, my dad galloped out of an obstacle, his mare kicking apart his carriage until pieces began to fall off. The crowd gasped. The mare squealed and charged, champing on the bit. My Dad could be heard softly uttering "Adda girl, git up. Good girl." I think he may have actually been smiling as his carriage fell to pieces around him.

Somehow, he managed to finish the course in a record-setting time and win the competition. Afterwards, he sponged down his mare like a proud father. The rest of us wanted to kill her for any number of reasons: public humiliation, financial loss of broken harness and carriage, knowing the next competition would be a repeat of the same, etc. My father, though, gently patted her and went to collect his blue ribbon.

Over the years, he drove numerous feisty mares to unlikely victories. Once, a mare he was conditioning at home took off in a full gallop headed straight down a busy road. The fact that his life was in jeopardy seemed not to phase my Dad, who decided his best option was to stop fighting with her to slow down. Instead, he stood up in the cart and pronounced, "Okay, you wanna run, girl? Then, let's run!" We heard her thundering hooves against the road from miles away. Next thing we knew, she streaked past our farm like a race horse with my Dad standing upright in the carriage, chariot-style, holding on to the reins to keep from flying over the back of his seat.

When I began training professionally on my own, I quickly realized that I, too, was cursed with this affection for mares. While sane enough to avoid Combined Driving Events, I'm still askew enough to always have a far greater number of mares in my barn than geldings. And when their moodiness impedes my day, I blame not them but my father!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Face Only a Mother Can Love

Another foaling season has come and gone, and this means top breeders across the country have put a new crop of future champions on the ground. It also means that hundreds of 'backyard breeders' have put their own versions of good horse flesh on the ground.

Let's face it: we all know someone who has too much time on his or her hands and an old hay-bellied mare in the back field that they decide suddenly needs to procreate (as if there aren't already enough horses on the planet). Next thing we know, this person employs his or her entire equine reproductive knowledge, which amounts to having read one article in Equus magazine a few years ago, finds a stallion with a cheap stud fee, and puts the mare in foal.

A year later, the new "breeder" is standing back looking at the world's most poorly assembled, ugly baby horse deciding it is so exceptional that its mother must be bred again immediately to produce another such offspring. And so on and so forth. In the industry, we call this "barn blindness." It is defined as the sheer inability to see one's own horses for what they actually are.

Horse overpopulation aside, I find this trait somewhat charming. Lord knows I was an ugly duckling as a child and my parents had the audacity to shield me from that fact. So, when backyard breeders see their nonathletic and unattractive foals as future world champions, my heart patters a little. In fact, I like to keep abreast of the barn blindness epidemic by scanning the horses for sale classifieds.

I find folks "proudly" offering for sale a Quarter Horse-donkey-Warmblood cross that more reputable breeders would only consider a genetic mistake. I find promises of "highly talented" draft horse/Arabian mixes. I read captions to photos under a Neanderthal-looking head that say: gorgeous refined face. And see, that's the beauty of barn blindness. Where I see a prehistoric looking profile that's barely recognizable as belonging to a horse, the animal's backyard breeder sees a majestic representation of the Equus species.

After many jolly years of poking fun at those suffering from barn blindness, my father fell into the backyard breeding habit last year. A highly successful carriage driving trainer, my father is also a stubborn New Englander. This means that once he arrives at an opinion (after much hemming and hawing...), he absolutely cannot be talked out of it. So it went last year when he reported his plan to breed his Hackney mare to a Friesian stallion.

"Are you serious?" I asked him and then gave him a feverish explanation for why this was a poor idea. Neither mare or stallion had good temperaments nor conformation. Moreover, who on earth had ever heard of a Hackney-Friesian cross?

Well, Rosie (the Hackney) needed to do something since she'd only been standing in a field for the past three years and he had this Friesian stallion right here in his barn, so why not?, he said. And--voila-- my father evolved from trainer to 'breeder.' Foaling season came and went and I didn't hear from my father. Worried that something may have gone wrong for the mare, I called him to check in.

Don't worry, Rosie was fine, except for now being the mother of the world's least desirable offspring. My father hadn't called me because his foal experiment had yielded a baby animal that for the first week wasn't easily identified as a horse. Dad said it looked like something between a dinosaur and a Great Dane. Lovely. He admitted that the backyard breeding habit may not have been a good idea...

Then, within a few weeks, his barn blindness started to develop and he stopped seeing the Hackney-Friesian for what it was. Suddenly, he started speaking fondly of it, planning a future for it, speaking of its "remarkable" looks and so on and so forth. He started referring to 'hidden talents,' the way a parent talks themselves into agreeing to let their child with two left feet enter a dance contest. I asked him what he'd named the foal.

Bucket head.


"Well, yeah. I figured the name fit 'em, because if you put a bucket over his head, he's not a bad lookin' horse," Dad explained. And there you have it. A future world champion with a bucket on his head.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Me and the Weirdo(s)

This week, I want to give a shout-out to my favorite woman in the world: my mother.

Back in 1997, she wrote and published a somewhat esoteric book titled "Dressage in the Fourth Dimension" ( To say she was ahead of her time would be like describing the Great Wall of China as a sort-of-long fence.

I read the book with a Thesaurus close at hand, a dictionary, an encyclopedia, and a large glass of wine. It was heavy stuff. In a nutshell, the book takes a metaphysical look at the animal-human relationship. Admittedly, metaphysics does not come up often in the context of half-halts and shoulder-ins, but as I'm trying to get across, my mother is not your ordinary horse gal. She paints, plays music, climbs mountains, kayaks rivers, teaches philosophy, and rides horses like she is still 30 years old. Before I digress, let me celebrate (with her) that "Dressage in the Fourth Dimension" is being re-published this fall by New World Library and the horse world is finally ready for it!

Being raised by two horse trainers was undoubtedly the best childhood any kid could be blessed with. Even though my parents always lectured, "You don't know how lucky you are," I did know how blessed I was. I never took a day for granted on that darling little farm of ours. Alongside my parents, I broke horses, reassured horses, conditioned horses, and loved horses. And never once did I ever wish to be anywhere but out there in the country with them running their little training business. Anyway, one of the many reasons I admire my mom so much is that she put me on a horse at three-and-a-half years old. I have been astride ever since. And I can't imagine life any other way.

Mom and I used to ride together every day and somehow it forged an unshakable bond to each other. You see, my mother was incapable of simply riding a horse. What she could do was showboat. This is best described as turning any mediocre horse that she happened to be riding into a show-stopper the second a crowd formed. People stopped by our farm all the time. And when they did, my mother pulled a horse from the barn, hopped aboard and gave them a show they'd never forget.
Something happened in those moments when spectators clustered outside the arena door. Under my mom, a perfectly ordinary horse became charged with the desire to perform like an Olympic contender. Nags suddenly danced and pranced. Ill-tempered youngsters forgot their antics and went boldly through their movements, with Bach or Vivaldi blaring through the loudspeakers.

I remember this vividly because it was during a particular Bach fugue that my mother performed a rather brilliant extended trot across the diagonal upon a normally weedy Arabian to the sheer delight of six women gathered and gasping near the arena... and rammed straight into me at the end of the diagonal. She smashed into me so hard that we both undoubtedly suffered whiplash, my pony crashed into the wall, I flew over the front of my saddle, and my mother kept on riding by.
It was in that moment that I realized my mother was a little off kilter, but even though my leg throbbed, I couldn't help but idolize her. She imbibed passion, a rare spirit of leadership, and a remarkable knack for not caring when she slammed her horse into another rider during the extended trot.

Since then, we have ridden horses together all over Europe. We've gone in search of dressage in Vienna, Amsterdam, London, Lisbon, Seville. Instead, we've found pig farms, drunkards, bad food, snow, and a few good horses along the way. We have laughed so hard that we forgot what was funny in the first place. We have disagreed, argued, tried to out-ride each other, leaned on each other, and been perplexed together. Horses have been the glue that holds us together through life's journeys. My mom used horses to teach me about patience, kindness, and what she calls the "spiritual economy" in the universe. Basically, live life with an open heart and life will give you back the same. This is the stuff in her book.

All of us have had someone special in our lives who has helped or nurtured our obsessive love of horses, whether through encouragement, financial help, mentoring, a supportive spouse, etc. For me, it has been my mom. She has humbled me, humored me, and poured me a beer at the end of the day, reminding me not to take life too seriously. One day in Amsterdam, she put her feet up at the pub after our lesson, tipped back her chair and asked "Hey, did you see that hell-of-a-good extended trot of mine during our lesson?" I savor how her face is beaming, how delighted she is in her performance and whether or not a crowd of people noticed, too.

"No, Mom, I didn't, because for once you didn't smash into me."

This week, I raise my glass to you, Mom and say congratulations on the success of your book and for being the off-kilter woman that you are.

Does this Spandex Make me Look Fat?

Unfortunately, I've become an avid mountain biker in the past year. I say unfortunately because it's yet another activity that requires wearing a skin tight outfit.

It was already bad enough coming home from the barn every day in my riding clothes and mustering up the courage to stop at the supermarket where invariably, some mid-30 year old male asks "have you been out riding?" which he asks as a way of excusing himself from staring at my backside in ultra-tight breeches. What Mr. Supermarket fails to realize is that NOBODY wants attention drawn to them in their riding clothes. Terribly outdated in style, uncomfortable, and awkward, riding clothes definitely rank at the bottom of the fashion ladder within the sporting world.

I used to think dismal fashions applied only to my discipline of dressage. But after closer inspection, I concluded that, no, the horse world in general looks straight out of Vaudeville.

Whenever I start to really lament the necessity of tight breeches for English riding, I go and watch a Western class at a show. Now, those riders have some funny outfits. Shiny belt buckles the size of dinner plates, enormous hats, gaudy shirts, flapping fringes dangling off nearly every surface from saddle to pants to gloves. To me, they look like they belong more in a parade-- or circus-- than in an equestrian competition. And this does my heart good because my outfit seems a lot less strange.

Of course, Western apparel pales in comparison to the cabaret styles on display in a Saddle Seat class. Probably not since the 1940s have so many people under one roof donned derbies and tailcoats. Neon-colored tailcoats, I might add. However, those styles might seem positively modern compared to what carriage driving folks pull out of their closets. I grew up on the back of my father's carriage and I probably never stopped asking him the purpose of his lap robe or "apron" as drivers call them. Weren't aprons for kitchens? How did they contribute to one's driving skills? It's just part of the outfit, my Dad always replied. Also part of the outfit was a funny looking straw hat, a blazer, and thick leather gloves. Whoever introduced carriage driving to this country was obviously a huge fan of The Great Gatsby.

Equestrian apparel remains far beyond my mountain biking outfits in terms of absurdity. But it also has something really good going for it, in my opinion. Once you get past the discomfort of artificial fabric materials and the fact that they cling to you in all the wrong places, riding apparel forces us to give up being so self-conscious. You get past any shyness about wearing tight clothes or looking silly, because after all, you're wearing the threads necessary to do what you love.

So, when Mr. Supermarket asks me his ridiculous question "Have you been out riding?," I look him square in the eye with my best sarcastic tone and answer "Well, I sure didn't put on this outfit just to come to the store..."

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Are We Having Fun Yet?

It's horse show season, which means riders nationwide are cultivating ulcers, emptying their savings accounts, and dreaming up stories to explain the disappearance of said savings accounts to their husbands. All in the name of fun.

Horse shows are perplexing things. Mostly, I know riders find them fun in some way, which is why they choose to participate in the first place. But there are endless side effects to showing that most riders either overlook or, in a masochistic way, also must view as fun. These include: 1.) turning purple from holding their breath with nerves. 2.) Pacing around in circles talking to themselves anxiously. 3.) Suddenly being agitated by every judge, fellow competitor, and umbrella-toting spectator. Some riders opt to chug a beer before they compete to calm themselves down. Others let the effects of sleep deprivation render them delirious and therefore less stressed.

All the alleged fun aside, though, when you consider the sheer amount of money and time that goes into horse showing, it does come with a hefty dose of stress. In fact, if a job were to deplete someone so much emotionally, physically, and mentally, the employer would be called deplorable. Obviously, though, when a person self-inflicts the same stress, it's called a hobby.

As a trainer, I spend a lot of time at shows and I am always mesmerized by the scene of women in the throes of exhaustion, fretting, and jitters. Why do they put themselves through this? I wonder. I think I've found the answer: amnesia. Yes, I believe horse owners suffer amnesia which settles in approximately 10 days following a big competition. My conclusion draws from the scenario outlined below that plays out frequently at shows:

A rider will come to her senses briefly and realize that wearing a wool coat in 100-degree heat is somewhat miserable. Her head is fuzzy from lack of sleep and probably too much cheap wine at the show's 'welcome party' last night. Her horse's bucking antics in the warm-up arena this morning were actually terrifying rather than endearing. Her trainer is annoying her by pointing out things she already knows, like the fact she would have scored higher marks if her horse had not spooked and bolted for the gate during her dressage test. And in this moment of clarity, she vows never to show again. There just doesn't seem to be much point in it...

Then, a week passes and her horse is back to his normal angelic self at home. In fact, he seems more gorgeous than ever. And then, roughly 10 days after the competition where she vowed never to show again, she has forgotten her embarrassing performance, the heat exhaustion, and worrying how her thighs looked in white breeches. Totally forgotten. Next thing she knows, she's in her trainer's office signing up for the next show. And she's so excited about it that she cancels her previously planned weekend trip to the wine country with her husband for it. He, of course, will scratch his head and ask, "But, honey, didn't you say you were never showing again?"

Glancing up from the checkbook (while ordering new clothes for the next show), she replies.

"No, I never said that."