Winter is a time to work through schooling issues, to develop balance, hone flatwork skills, and prep for the upcoming show season. This year, it has also been a season of working through frustrations and behaviours (largely associated with a long winter, too much ice, restrictions about riding in the sand ring, and poor turnout). It’s easy to get frustrated, to over-think, and to worry about what’s happening and why. Not surprisingly, when I stress about a situation, Chaos’ behaviour magnifies it one hundredfold.
So we have been working on relaxing. Whether it’s an issue in the cross ties, a refusal to stand still at the mounting block, a general friskiness due to restricted turnout, a piece of equipment that “wasn’t there the last time”, or a small drift of snow that has blown in through a crack in the east end of the arena wall (something Chaos feels is so evil that it has to be approached from the left, the right, and the centre with incredible trepidation, much snorting, balking and, if possible, flight), I have found that a deep, heavy and loud sigh, followed by audible chewing on my part, can help us both refocus, and relax.
The minute his body tells me something is not quite right, I stop what I’m doing. I take a heavy, deep and loud sigh, and I chew (think cows chewing their cud). If Chaos doesn’t relax, I repeat the process until I get hear a heavy sigh from him, followed by chewing. His reaction is followed by a release of tension, his head comes down, his eyes soften. No frustration. No argument. Just a peaceful way to refocus him, to regain his attention. It also relaxes me, refocuses my energies, and helps me to problem solve for a positive outcome, rather than a reactive one.
Relaxing is a win-win. It eases tension and stress, it reassures, it helps us succeed in the task at hand. It builds trust and confidence. It centers us both, and enhances our ability to communicate.
|A deep breath. It’s the difference between this…|
|… and this|
So the next time you ride, or you find yourself face to face with an evil snowdrift, take a deep breath and relax. Your horse will thank you, and your body will too.
I was sitting around a table one evening, listening to friends tell the story of when they met. He said, “I remember when I asked her to marry me, her mother pulled me aside and said, if you want to stay married, never come between [name] and her horses.”
At that point he paused, and gave me a big smile. He said, “and do you know what I did? I went out the next day, and bought her two.”
The best riders use their aids to help their horses be as brilliant as they can be. And then, these riders get out of their horses’ way.
Nick Skelton’s ride on Heracross demonstrates the beauty and simplicity of control and communication. Skelton really knows how to help his horse, and stay out of his way. So much so, that watching it leaves me thinking to myself, “I could do that course”.
Others find victory on their own – you just have to hold still and go along for the ride.”
Does anyone remember Snowman, the show jumper who launched Harry de Leyer’s career? De Leyer found Snowman at auction in Pennsylvania. Then, he was an 8-year old Amish plough horse sent for slaughter. De Leyer, looking for a school horse, arrived late at the auction – just as the “dregs” of the auction were being loaded onto the kill buyer’s truck. The horse’s eyes met De Leyer, and he was purchased off the truck for $80.
Snowman (as he was renamed), went to work in the riding school. He was a barn favourite, adored by the De Leyer children. A year after his purchase, De Leyer sold him to a neighbouring doctor, who was looking for a horse for his daughter. It seemed like a perfect fit: a forever, loving home for Snowman, and a 100% profit for De Leyer.
Snowman had other ideas. He believed he had found his forever home with De Leyer, and was not going to take no for an answer. A few days after the sale, De Leyer received a call from the doctor saying the horse had jumped out of his paddock, and was in a neighbour’s yard. Snowman was returned to the doctor, but he continued to escape, finally jumping his paddock fence, and every obstacle in his path, across the six miles that separated his new home from the De Leyer’s farm.
It turns out that De Leyer had not bought a school horse. He had bought a show jumper and a personality. And while his early training was hardly auspicious (Snowman pretty much decimated small jumps and cavaletti), once De Leyer pointed him to what Snowman considered a real jump, his passion appeared. Two years after he was saved from slaughter, Snowman and De Leyer won the jumper championship at the National Horse Show at Madison Square Garden, and Snowman became the American Horse Shows Association Horse of the Year. In the five years Snowman and De Leyer competed at an international level, they won many top competitions and titles. And they captured peoples’ hearts. Snowman appeared on both the Johnny Carson and Dick Cavett shows, in an episode of To Tell the Truth. He was the subject of two children’s books (The Cinderella Horse, by Tony Palazzo,1962; and Snowman, Rutherford Montgomery, 1967), and of the impressive The Eighty Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse that Inspired a Nation, by Elizabeth Letts, 2011.
Snowman lived out his life with De Leyer, and was humanely euthanized at the age of 26 following complications due to kidney failure. In 1992, he was inducted into the National Show Jumping Hall of Fame. The Breyer model of him is now a collectors item.
Last summer, Elizabeth Lett’s book about Snowman was published. Now, director and producer Ron Davis is looking to make a documentary about Snowman and De Leyer. He feels that the story stands the test of time. “When you looked at Harry and Snowman on paper in the 1950’s, neither were destined for greatness. But they came together, there is no other word to describe them other than inspiring.”
Lett’s book and Davis’ pending documentary are incredibly timely. It’s a story of success in the face of horrible fate. In a time of rising costs, the tremendous influx of horses into an already saturated marketplace, increased awareness of and the call to ban horse slaughter and the culling of wild horses, the story of Snowman carries some valuable lessons:
“First, be fair, and don’t be so tough on your horse,” De Leyer says. “You can get more done with carrots and petting them than with being so tough. Snowman went in a rubber D-bit, and I school all the horses in a rubber D-bit. I am lucky with horses, but this is part of my luck – to be nice to horses and nice to people. Then also, don’t give up too quick on yourself. There is always a chance to get there, so give yourself a chance. Give every horse a chance.”
Snowman is another great reminder of the success you can find if you give a horse the chance.
Credits go to “The Eighty Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse that Inspired a Nation” (Elizabeth Betts, 2011)
When the stars align and a horse finds his place/person magic can happen. Do you know of a horse circumstances are conspiring against – in a field, a barn, at auction, in a feedlot? What if that horse was one connection,. one circumstance, one caring person, away from excellence and a chance to thrive in life?
Many may know a horse just like this. We all deserve hope, and the chance to succeed. Would you take the chance, change his life, and yours?
Sometimes we just need the right angel to come along show us how to spread our wings.
It’s 1968. It’s the Olympics, individual show jumping class. U.S. rider Bill Steinkraus and Snowbound take the gold. British equestrienne Marion Coakes and Stroller take silver, jumping one of only two clear rounds over a course that was described as the biggest course in show jumping history.
Marion Coakes is about 21 years of age. Stroller is about 18 years old. And, at 14.1 hands, he is a pony.
Stroller was born in 1950, a bay Conemara pony / thoroughbred cross. He was owned and ridden by Marion Coakes, who successfully convinced her father not to sell Stroller when she turned 16 and was ready to “graduate” to horses. Coakes and Stroller were formidable competitors, winning 61 international competitions.
At 20, Stroller won the 1970 Hamburg Derby. Coakes said, “When we sailed over the last fence, having completed the only clear round of the day, the crowd of 25,000 went crazy. It was one of the most exciting moments of my life. We had completed the 50th clear round ever achieved on the course — and it was the first by a woman rider.” And by a pony.
Stroller is living proof that it is not the size of your body, but the size of your heart and spirit that make you a champion.
Who says ponies can’t jump?