Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

Mucking stalls. Freelance writing. How do they differ? I discuss.

A Soft Spot for Standardbreds

DSC_3003_1420 sportswriterI have a big, squishy soft spot for Standardbreds. (Like the banner photo at the top of the blog wasn’t a bloody obvious tipoff on that.)

Probably has something to do with having grown up just a few klicks down the road from Windsor Raceway.  Essex County was jughead country, once upon a time — that’s really all there was in terms of horseflesh, apart from a smattering of Quarter Horses.  I did my time grooming at the track, learning to adjust hobbles and wrap legs and clean a shit tonne of harness and pretending to drink the nasty coffee the farriers were kind enough to hand me when I took my charges to the backstretch shed to get their shoes reset. (Never been a coffee drinker.)  And I dealt with my share of razzing from the other grooms, who figured I was just a clueless ridin’ hoss kid.  (Yeah, guys, I knew there was no such thing as stifle boots.  I wasn’t that green.)

Of course, my rescuing instincts kicked in early, encouraged by the fact that newbie grooms aren’t generally handed the stable’s superstars to rub on.  Of the four under-performing horses I was responsible for, I found après-racing homes for two in short order — a gorgeous gray Laag descendant who had two of the worst bowed tendons I’d ever seen, and a cute little bay nicknamed Toby, who looked more like a Morgan than a Standardbred, and became a beloved trail horse for a friend of mine.  The first horses I ever broke to ride on my own were Standardbreds, too — the very first being a 13-year-old pacer named O O Charlie, who swung his head around to peer at me when I first climbed on his back, raised one sardonic eyebrow which clearly said, “Humans and their damn fool ideas”, and then quietly got on with his new job.


I’ve always done what I could to promote the idea of Standardbreds as riding horses — because, let’s face it, without that opportunity for them once their racing careers are done, the only other options are a can … or a home with the Mennonites.  There’s a large Mennonite community west of Toronto, and they go through a lot of horses, but in many cases they buy them for practically nothing off the track, pound them into the ground in a year or two (you only have to see the condition of some of these horses, trotting or pacing furiously down the side of Highway 86 next to the transport trucks and school buses, to know they’re not long for this world), and then dump them for meat price at the auction in St. Jacob’s, pick up another, and start the cycle all over again.  I’m not saying the entire Mennonite community subscribes to this approach — there are some amazing horsemen among them — but too many do for anyone to think that such a fate is likely to be good news for an ex-racehorse who’s already given his all.

As riding horses, though, Standardbreds suffer from something of a branding problem.  To some degree, I blame the gallo blue chiplack of chrome.  Standies tend to come in bay, bay, or bay, with a minimum of white markings to bling them up.  Chestnuts are rare, grays and roans even rarer.  Not a lot of flash there to attract the average ammie owner.

Historically, they’re also … well, kind of ugly.  Jughead, buckethead … at one time, the name fit.  They don’t race on their faces, so it was never an issue at the track, but given the choice between a big Roman nose and a little Arab-y dished face, most riders will go for pretty.  The reality is that Standardbreds over the past 30 years or so have become far, far more refined and elegant than they used to be, and the big clunky heads are all but gone from the gene pool, but a lot of people don’t realize that.

Then there’s the gaited thing.  Standardbreds come in two varieties:  trotters, and pacers.  Trotters have the normal three gaits — walk, trot, and canter — but the pacers have an extra gear, the lateral two-beat gait that endows them with blinding speed (pacers are generally a second or two faster over a mile than trotters are, which is why there are separate divisions for each gait and they don’t race each other).  The tendency to pace is there even in some of the trotters, and the pacers can be taught to trot; in fact, they often prefer it when not in racing hobbles, but tend to revert to pacing when they get discombobulated.  Trouble with that is, pacing ain’t the most comfortable thing under saddle, and most DSC_3180_1563 admirals express1competitive horse sports require trotting.  There are few dressage tests, for example, written for “trot or alternate gait”. (Interestingly, many pacers can be encouraged, with the right training and shoeing, to perform some version of a single-foot or racking gait, like many other types of gaited horses.  It’s kind of an intermediate between trotting and pacing, and very smooth to sit to when done correctly.  Not a whole lot of call for it here in Ontario, though, where interest in gaited horses is a fringe thing at best.)

In addition, while Standardbreds are absolutely capable of cantering and galloping, they have been actively discouraged from doing so all of their racing lives.  To go from trotting or pacing, to galloping, in a race, is called ‘making a break’, and it means the driver must get the hell out of the way of the horses who are still moving their feet in the approved way, drop to the back of the pack, and resume trotting or pacing before rejoining the race.  Generally, it means you’ve got no shot at a paycheque, so in harness racing, galloping is verboten, and it can be a tough training hurdle to convince an ex-racehorse that it’s now okay to use that gear, both because of the inhibition cemented in their brains by race training, and because most of them are frankly rusty at doing it.  Canter can be added to any Standardbred’s repertoire, but it takes patience and persistence (and sometimes some creativity) to make it happen.

So those are the marketing challenges. On the up side, there’s lots to like.  Standardbreds are tough, athletic, intelligent, eager to please, and temperament-wise I have to admit they are way more tolerant and sensible than your average off-the-track Thoroughbred.  (As a lifelong owner of OTTBs, I say that with love.)  Those who have racing experience will cross-tie, stand for the vet and the farrier, load on any trailer.  And not to overstate the obvious, but they come broke to drive.  Riding is a pretty simple transition for horses who already understand voice commands, rein aids, and mouth contact.

Plus, they’re generally dirt cheap.  Or free to a good home.

Organizations like the Ontario Standardbred Adoption Society are doing excellent work promoting Standies as Hillary Lunn Call To Dance Gingerpotential riding horses, and the recent upswing in interest in “racing under saddle” (RUS) in Ontario is helping too.  “Monte” races (as they’re called in Europe) have always been popular in Scandinavia, and the RUS circuit here is growing every year.  (Note to trainers:  I so want to do this!  Gimme a horse and some silks, and I will give it my best shot!)

So as I’ve expanded my interest in judging over the past few years, it was kind of a natural development for me to end up judging schooling shows for Standardbreds.

Yes, Standardbred shows are a thing.  A fairly recent thing, in Ontario at least, but it’s evolving into a nice little circuit of a half-dozen shows or so over the course of each summer.  The idea is to showcase the versatility of the breed, so as a judge, you better be pretty damn versatile yourself.  

So how does that work?  At a minimum, you’ve got to be prepared to cover showmanship, halter, leadline classes, pleasure and equitation, dressage, trail, gaming (barrel racing, pole bending, and the like), pleasure driving, obstacle driving (aka “cones”), hunter and jumper classes over fences, costume classes … and pretty much anything else the show organizers can come up with. We’re talking both English and Western classes, open and youth (under 18) … with allowances made for gaits.  For many of these horses, canter or lope is still a work in progress, so competitors can enter a flat class which only requires walk, and trot or pace (pacing is not penalized as long as it is consistent), or they can be brave and go for the walk/trot-or-pace/canter option (or walk/jog-or-pace/lope in the case of Western classes).  

You do need to be open-minded to do this job.  Some of the horses who’ll turn up in the show ring have had years of mileage under saddle, and could easily compete in open shows anywhere without anyone being the wiser about their former careers (unless, of course, the white freezebrands on their necks give them away).  Some of them do. Others are still fairly fresh to this whole riding thing, and are coping with the new requirements as best they can.  Some — and this still blows me away — compete in these shows while still maintaining active racing careers!   So, you know, you make allowances.  On the whole, I find most Standardbreds adapt to the requirements of English classes a little more easily than they do Western — I have yet to judge a Western pleasure class at a Standardbred show where any of the horses was really delivering a slow jog or a balanced, slow lope (but then again, given the current state of the ‘real’ Western pleasure industry, that’s not entirely a bad thing, methinks).  There’s a fair bit of zooming around, and refraining from posting to that big trot (or pace) is a tall order, but on the up side, a fair number of Standardbreds do suit Western fringes and sequins surprisingly well.  And lemmee tell you, I enjoy the hell out of those blingy outfits, because it helps me differentiate between all the bay entries on my judge’s card.  I can scribble “turquoise hat” or “purple saddle pad” or “giant silver hearts” at the beginning of the class, and it makes finding each entry at a glance a lot easier. Not so with the English classes, where the attire tends to be much of a muchness just like the horses!  

cryoThe halter classes are something of a challenge, too.  Generally, in a halter class, you are rewarding conformation of a certain type, and blemishes are penalized.  If I penalized blemishes in a Standardbred halter class, there’d be no-one left to pin a ribbon to.  Most of these old warriors have some sort of track jewellery on display — so my job is more about deciding whether pin-fire marks on the front cannons are less or more objectionable than a big knee or a pair of extensively cryo’ed hocks.  (Cryo is about treating injuries with super-cold liquid nitrogen, and it leaves tell-tale white marks when the hair grows back in.)  I try to step back and take in the big picture on each horse, rather than nitpick about the scars.  Is he balanced and athletic?  Does he look the part for the class in which he’s entered (ie. is he more of an English type, or Western, or even Saddleseat)?  Can he keep out of his own way, and is he groomed within an inch of his life and presented with pride?   That’s my thought process for these classes.

The awesome thing about these horses, and their extremely devoted owners, is that they’ll often compete in just about every class for which they’re eligible, all day long, and never complain. They’ll often do all the English classes in the morning (mom in the open classes, and a son or daughter in the tack for the junior division), switch to Western in the afternoon, and hook up to a jog-bike or a Meadowbrook for the end-of-day driving classes … and then come back in the costume class festooned with feather boas, finger paint, and giant sunflowers.  That’s a tall order for any horse, let alone one who came to his or her riding career relatively late in life.  I’ll be honest:  they may not necessarily be fulfilling all the requirements of every class extraordinarily well.  Sometimes what’s happening in front of me wouldn’t quite cut it in an open show, competing against other breeds.  But that’s kind of the point:  the Standardbred shows give them a place to try out new skills in front of people who are going to cheer rather than sneer.  It’s a hugely supportive environment, and everyone tries so damn hard, I often have tremendous difficulty awarding the placings.  I want them all to win. What’s more, they’re upping their game every year.  When I compare what I saw at the first of these shows I ever judged, five or six years ago, to what I witnessed in 2015, I’m amazed at how far so many of these riders and horses have come.  

It’s not a judging gig that everyone would relish.  It’s a little outside the norm of a typical hunter schooling show, where I generally watch horses go over the same one or two outside-diagonal-outside-diagonal courses all fricking day, first at two feet, then two-foot-three, then two-foot-six, then … you get the gist.  With so many classes, Standardbred shows can also make for a helluva long day.  But I get a huge kick out of them, and I hope we start to see more of them outside Ontario soon. (Ahem. Have clipboard, will travel …)

Further reading on second careers for Standardbreds:  

From Trot magazine: My article on the adoption of Primetime Bobcat: Ninth Life of One Cool Cat

From the United States Trotting Association website, my coverage of one of the first RUS races in Ontario in 2011:  Trotters Do It Under Saddle At Georgian Downs

From the Daily Racing Form:  Plenty of Life After Racing

From Standardbred Canada:  Life After Racing

Info on the Ontario Standardbred show series:  Standardbred Showcase

And here’s a new article which sheds some light on the canter thing:  Why Some Standardbreds Canter More Easily Than Others

Ten Things That Seem to Inevitably Happen in Horse Books

Reblogged with permission, because it amused me.  Thanks to Kim Ablon Whitney.

By the authors of HorseBackReads

Between the seven of us, we’ve written a number of novels about horses.  And none of us can claim we managed to avoid all of these horse-book cliches!

1. The horse of uncertain breeding that becomes a national champion overnight.  Why aren’t you looking for your next winner in a dusty backyard or at the killers?  Apparently that’s where all the good ones are.

2. The heartless, tough-as-nails, evil trainer who basically abuses their students.  Okay, these really do exist in real life.

3. The barn fire or other horrid barn incident.  This is when everyone pulls together.  It’s awful and then it’s beautiful.

4. The tragic accident that scars the main character for life.  It could be the horse that died crashing into a huge oxer, the best friend that died crashing into a huge oxer, or the main character herself who nearly died crashing into a huge oxer.

5. The girl with Olympic dreams.  Does everyone have to dream of the Olympics these days?  Why not shoot for something more attainable?  They do know only five riders go every four years and one’s an alternate, right?

6. No trainer supervision.  Where’s the trainer?  Nowhere in sight.  These kids are on their own.  Because kids today are always schooling themselves for the junior jumpers.

7. The spoiled rich girl who everyone hates.  It. Never. Gets. Old.

8. The former Olympian who kindly decides to take the poor, talented girl under his wing.  Because every talented rider out there with little funds knows that amazing trainers are driving around to schooling shows in the middle of nowhere looking for their next working student.

9. The parent who can’t get it right.  Mom’s either a former rider who doesn’t want her daughter to ride, or Dad never rode and finally wants his daughter to succeed at something.  Either way, they’re unbalanced people.  Or they’re simply inexplicably MIA.

10. Sex in the hay loft.  Sex on itchy, rash-inducing hay — yeah, that sounds amazing!

Looking for your next horse book (with or without cliches)?  Check out www.horsebackreads.com.

Another Diversion: Wellington-Waterloo Hunter Pace


bentley and spike wwhuntMy student Sarah Cuthbertson has saved me the trouble of writing a blog post about this. Here’s her rundown of the Wellington-Waterloo Hunt’s fall Hunter Pace, in Puslinch, Ontario, with lots and lots of helmet-cam video. I’m on Spike (the bay) and Sarah’s horse Cricklewood, aka Bentley, is the gray.

Originally posted on :

On Sunday September 13, Karen agreed to lug me and Bentley out to Puslinch, Ontario to take part in a Hunter Pace put on by Wellington Waterloo Hunt.

For those of you who are thinking “what in the world?!”, let me explain what it is without screwing up any of the details.  It’s an event that is supposed to simulate a hunt – but without the hounds, or the actual hunting.  Royally confused yet?

They laid out a trail through forest and fields, marked with ribbons and signs.  You are supposed to travel at a pace similar to what you would do if you were at a real hunt, the signs set the scene and gave you clues as to how to pace certain areas.  Earlier in the day, the hunt master will have ridden the trail, and decided on an optimum time, and whoever gets closest to the optimum…

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Parker the Precocious

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I know I still haven’t posted about the Pan Am Games showjumping, and I will get to that just as soon as I finish editing an absolutely stupid number of photos, but I had to do a little brag about Young Master Parker.

Ontario summers are brief and frantic, and this year I’ve been pulled in all sorts of directions which, while interesting or productive or useful in terms of paying some bills, have not allowed me to do all that much with my own horses.  Between a number of gigs judging schooling shows (for which I’m grateful, don’t get me wrong, and yes, just FYI, I’m available for more of those), and the Pan Ams taking up a good chunk of July, I haven’t managed to get either Spike or Parker out to a single event.  Or clinic.  Or combined test.  Hell, I didn’t even drag my jumps out of storage until the end of July.  (For that matter, I also didn’t get anywhere near a beach, a hiking trail, a canoe, or a drive-in movie, either — all usual elements of my summer repertoire.  Oh well.)   I’ve been riding both of them semi-consistently, and I even succeeded in getting my filly, Trixie, backed at last (oh, gawd, add her to the list, another future blog post).  But making good use of all those expensive memberships which allow me to show?  Not so much.

So with fall looming and the wretched prospect of being buried in a snowdrift again in mere weeks, I resolved to at least get each of them out to one or two events before the end of the season … budget permitting.  The obvious choice for our first outing was Wits’ End, by virtue of it being two concessions away from my home base.  Wits’ End, owned by Jo Young and Bill McKeen, both respected officials in the sport, runs divisions from Pre-Entry all the way to Intermediate, and used to host a CIC*** before negotiations with the FEI to get a favourable date in the calendar failed, and the whole thing became too big a money-loser to continue. It’s known for its challenging, extremely hilly terrain and big, but fair, courses.  And a long, long walk from the trailer parking to the show rings.

The original plan was to take Spike Pre-Training, but he has come up with a mysterious hard bump on the back of one fetlock.  It’s not bothering him in the slightest, there’s no heat or tenderness of any kind, but given that it’s a bit of a headscratcher I decided to hold off on jumping him for a bit.  Time for Young Master Parker to step up to the plate.

Given that Parker has really only done tParker triple bar2-0020006wo events in his short lifetime, and they were both last year, I figured, damn the optics of it, we’d better stay at Pre-Entry.  I know, I know.  The shame of it.  Log, log, log, log.  And me a certified coach and all.

For better or worse, log, log, log was not really what we got.  I was a bit startled, to be honest, when I walked the course the day before the show, because there was a whole lot to do out there. For the level, I mean.  Baby horse was going to get an eyeful.  There were a few definitely-visible-to-the-naked-eye sized jumps, a couple of which were brightly coloured, but I was more worried about the technical fences, which included a Helsinki (a fence set into the side of a hill, the likes of which you rarely see on cross-country courses anymore, and certainly not at Pre-Entry) and a vertical at the top of a steep hill.  Also, there was a little ditch — and Parker had not previously had any issue with ditches, except for a week earlier, when we’d gone cross-country schooling at another local farm and he had inexplicably and repeatedly said “fuck you” at every ditch I’d pointed him at.  I stared at that inconsequential little thing for a while and thought, “Well, depending on his mood, our day just might end right here …”

I walked the stadium course, too, and it was also Not Nothing.  The fences themselves aren’t terribly big at Pre-Entry, but the track was the same one that would be used for the upper-level horses later in the day.  Among its features was a triple-bar — which I didn’t even think was legal at Pre-Entry, who knew? — with a bending line to a skinny vertical.  Is it just me, or is that way technical for a baby horse?

(I have judged a whole lot of hunter schooling shows this summer, and I could, if I wanted, insert a rant here about how there is an entire generation of kids coming up through the hunter/jumper system, who not only could not handle any of the bending lines in Parker’s mini stadium course without having a meltdown, but who these days aren’t even expected to go into the ring and jump the jumps without having a half-hour ‘warm up’ over those same bloody jumps.  But I’m trying to stay on topic here.)

Sink or swim, it was, then.  The little peckerhead would either rise to the occasion, or be utterly backed off by the experience and never forgive me.  I went home and tied his mane into tiny knots, had a quick swipe at my tack and my fancy half-chaps (still mud-splattered from hunting last fall), and then spent most of the night staring at the ceiling while I tried to ride the course in my brain.  (Having taken a number of sports psychology seminars over the years, I’m aware of the value of positive visualization, but my powers of concentration generally let S0249926me ride the first six or seven fences in my mind really, really well … and then after that, things get fuzzy.)  It felt kind of stupid to fret over a course that didn’t (probably) exceed two foot six, except that I find riding baby horses in competition a fair bit more nerve-wracking than taking a more experienced horse over considerably bigger fences.  Parker can be a bit of a wild card at the best of times, and I really wasn’t sure how he was going to react.

I won’t give you the entire blow by blow, because let’s face it, you’ve only read this far because you’re probably a personal friend and you’re being polite.  Thanks for that, by the by.  It’s not like anyone other than me is going to remember next week, what transpired and where we placed.  Suffice to say Parker handled the chaos of the dressage warm-up ring better than I expected him to, and apart from a few head-tosses, delivered what I thought was a pretty nice test for a youngling.  (And I got to wear my fabulously blingy new stock tie, too.)  The judge, tragically, disagreed with my assessment, writing on our test, “Such a shame.  A Parker dressage canter-0269937disappointing day for you.”  But then again, she (or her scribe) also wrote, “abrupt transition” for a movement which didn’t include any transitions, so, you know.  Grain of salt.  I was just pleased that he kept his head and tried hard for me.  No hissyfits = #ParkerFTW.

I got brave for stadium and left Parker’s braids in, steadfastly ignoring the wee voice in my head which recommended having a handhold available in case of emergency.  In for a penny, etc.  He dragged me down to the jumps in the warm-up area, which I hoped would translate to the stadium ring, and luckily, it did.  He isn’t fazed by bright colours, decorations or gew-gaws, and thinks jumping these things is just about the best fun there is to be had with tack on.  And wonder of wonders, the rideability between the fences is coming along — or, at least, we had fewer wobbly lines than I remember from a year ago.  We had one disagreement as to take-off spot, resulting in some awkwardness, but left all the rails up and were one of the few clears in the division.

Thus buoyed, I brought him back to the trailer and got him unbraided and gussied up for cross-country while he head-butted my most excellent groom, Sarah Cuthbertson, repeatedly. Cocky little bastard. Wits’ End was having a little photo contest in which you were supposed to demonstrate your matchy-matchy cross-country colour excesses and get a bunch of ‘likes’ on Facebook, so I dragged out the red and royal blue saddle pad, the red reins and the blue boots, and the piece de resistance, the scarlet breeches I bought at the Royal Winter Fair last year in a moment of weakness.  I figured at least I’d be easy toParker xc colours find in the long grass if the whole thing went tits up in a snowbank.  We snapped some pix, and with loins metaphorically girded, headed towards the start box.

By this point it was fricking hot out — pushing 31 Celsius, I think — so I gambled that Parker’s recent stadium experience would keep his brain in jumping mode.  I only hopped over one cross-rail in the warm-up before we presented ourselves for our count-down.  Twenty years ago, when I was competing my dear departed Toddy at Prelim, I used to get rather nauseated circling the start box, and I felt a flutter of that walking Parker around — but once we got into gear, we were both more focused on sucking in oxygen and not taking any wrong turns than on churning stomach acids.  My brat was bold as brass, and really only showed his greenness at a little post-and-rails (fence four) where he tried to veer sideways and ended up jumping it almost from a standstill, and on a couple of the steep downhills, which he was not quite balanced enough to canter down just yet.  He didn’t bat an eyelash at the ditch, nor at the Helsinki, nor at the couple of coops which were bigger than anything he’d tackled before … and he actually listened to me when we came to the vertical at the top of a steep rise, and jumped it safely.  (That one caused a fair bit of consternation with the other Pre-Entry horses.)  

I could feel him gaining confidence as he went, and by about fence 12 (the cabin in the photos at the top of this post), I stopped trying to set him up for each fence from 85 strides away, and just let him roll on down to them the way I normally would on a horse with more mileage.  He was fine with that.  1500 metres or so Parker faux ditch-0051later, we passed through the finish flags knowing a whole lot more about each other than we’d known before — which is what a good course is supposed to do, but until we did it I hadn’t been at all sure we were going to get that far!

Rather too late to say, long story short, at this point…. but on account of the time faults we racked up trotting down the hills (and the dressage score handed down by our disenchanted judge), we ended up fifth in the Open division.  Just fine by me as ribbons weren’t even on my radar for this outing.  (I’m running out of room on the lampshades anyway.)  Then, of course, Parker had to ruin our good mood by being an asshat about loading to go home — that’s still a work in progress — but overall, he’s still on Santa’s nice list.  And he may have earned himself an upgrade all the way to (gasp!) Entry level before the season’s over.  Depending on whether I can scrape together the shekels for another entry fee.

2015 Toronto Pan Am Games: Eventing

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As far as I was concerned, this was the Main Event (I make no bones about my bias).  It was lovely to share it with two houseguests, who endured my rather cramped and unglamourous quarters with exceptional grace, utterly failed to complain about the cat hair, rode my horses with aplomb, and made the whole thing way fun.  One was an old friend returning to Toronto (though not, to her disappointment, to downtown — there just wasn’t time), and the other was one of those great friends you’ve never actually been in the same room with before!  Amber and Ellen, we need to do that again.

colleen loach jog-0700So.  Eventing started out with the first veterinary inspection (aka “the jog”), which was somewhat less entertaining than these things sometimes are because everyone was decked out in official team uniform.  Therefore, no real fashion risks.  The Canadian women looked sleek and smart in red jersey dresses with white jackets, while male teammate Waylon Roberts made do with jeans which were more burgundy than red.  The Americans, sad to say, looked slightly rumpled and casual in khakis, and many ofguillermo garin ubago CHI uniform-0758 the South and Central American riders were decked out in full cavalry uniform.  (I hate to say it, but some of the military garb had a decidedly … Nazi-ish … twist, which I’m sure was not what they were going for.  But then again, the uniforms were one of the only things not viscerally, gut-clenchingly objectionable about the Nazis.  Do not send death threats for my having said that.  Unless they’re amusingly creative and you have no intention of following through.)

This being a Team and Individual competition rolled into one, one day of dressage was all that was required. Wet and chilly wasn’t exactly what spectators had been looking forward to, but if I’d been wearing a shadbelly and boots I would have been quite content with the temperature.  First-time Canadian Team member, Kathryn Robinson, knocked it out of the park, scoring 39.8 penalty points for second overall on her lovely Let It Bee, and Jessica Phoenix and Colleen Loach also laid down really solid tests.  Waylon Roberts’s Bill Owen, unfortunately, struggled to handle the atmosphere in the big ring and did his impression of a giraffe for most of the test  — but we all figured that was the drop score (Teams keep the top three scores from their four competitors and drop the worst of the bunch) so it was fine. At the end of the day, only Brazil’s Ruy Fonseca, with his longtime partner Tom Bombadill Too, had managed to trump Robinson’s score, with 38.9 pp. America’s Marilyn Little, who’s a relatively recent convert to eventing from the showjumping world, dropped into third with 40.30 pp.

Cross-country day was held not at the Caledon Equestrian Park, but at Geoff and Ann Morgan’s Will O’ Wind Farm, about 20 minutes away.  Will O’ Wind has hosted bunches of Ontario Horse Trials Association events over the years, and has been the site of the provincial championships on a number of occasions, but being selected to host the Pan Ams was another level of, well, everything. As in, pain-in-the-ass level 37, between the tearing up of much of the existing cross-country course (and the manicured grass dressage rings, which became a stabling area), losing the hay crop for the year, a truly paranoid level of security, and the Morgans being told they could no longer make decisions about their own land. The payoff was supposed to be a ‘legacy’ cross-country course at the two-star (Intermediate) level for Ontario riders to enjoy for years to come.  Unfortunately, that’s not really what Will O’ Wind got.  Because the Powers That Be accepted a low-ball bid for the design and construction of the course, rather than go with a bid from any of the local, extremely qualified course builders who understand Ontario conditions … they got jumps built in the southern US and shipped northward this spring on flatbed trucks.  Many of these fences were built of southern softwoods which won’t withstand a single Canadian winter, and the construction that happened locally was also substandard in a lot of ways, meaning that (among other things) the Morgans are going to have to re-do what was once a perfectly serviceable water jump in order to make it serviceable once more, post-Pan Ams.  Can you say, “clusterfuck”?

At least they did get it all finished for Pan Am cross-country day, if only by the skin of their teeth, and the weather and the footing on the big day turned out to be ideal.  Someone had decided, in an utterly typical bit of short-sightedness, that the venue could only accommodate about 5000 people, due mostly to the parking challenges, so that was the cut-off for tickets.  The event could easily have handled five times that, if only some bright spark had had the presence of mind to arrange shuttles from the expansive Orangeville Agricultural Society fairgrounds, a mere 10 minutes away, but of course that never happened.  (Overall, ticket availability for the equestrian events was all kinds of stupid, as tends to happen at major Games.  Online sales portals said the events were sold out, while the stands turned out to be half empty.  I’m told what often happens is that huge blocks of seats are held back for corporate use.  Said tickets are handed out to sponsors and other affiliated organizations which then never use them.  Meanwhile, actual interested people bang their heads against walls and take their frustrations out on their children and dogs.)

kyle carter VEN-0825Admittedly, it’s been a few years since I last saw Central and South American event riders competing in any significant numbers (we’re talking the Winnipeg Pan Am Games, in 1999), but it was fantastic to see how much the standard of cross-country riding has improved in these nations since the last century.  Let’s just say there used to be a lot of scary, kamikaze riding out there, but I didn’t see any of that this year at Will O’ Wind.  Granted, the Pan Am Games is run at the two-star level, which is nowhere near as demanding as, say, the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, or even a three-star like Fair Hill or Jersey Fresh.  But everymark todd BRA-0814 rider and every horse looked like he/she/they belonged there, and there were very few falls or other incidents.  Part of the equation might have been that many of the up-and-coming teams forked out the big bucks to hire world-class coaches, leading into the Games.  Brazil, which ended up with Team silver and an individual bronze for Ruy Fonseca, clearly reaped the benefits of having Mark Todd on board — and they’re keeping him for the foreseeable future.  Mexico had Karen O’Connor coaching them, Venezuela had Kyle Carter, and Guatemala had assistance from Peter Gray.  (Neither of the last two countries managed to finish as a Team, sadly, but they looked a lot more solid in their attempts than they might have otherwise.)

(It’s Sir Mark Todd, looking a bit grim and wearing a jacket with “Brazil” on it!  We’re not worthy!)

Never mind the stupid Wayne’s World videos, I hear you cry.  How did the bloody Canadians do???  Well, three out of the four smoked around, adding nothing to their dressage scores.  Admittedly, one of those was the individual gold medalist at the last Pan Am Games, but considering that she was riding with a very-recently-repaired collarbone and kathryn robinson let it bee dressage2-1093liver (along with various other injuries suffered in a fall at Jersey Fresh at the beginning of June), it was pretty damn encouraging.  Unfortunately, however, Kathryn Robinson and Let It Bee had a tough day at the office.  Not sure how it happened, considering this combination has four-star mileage, but somehow they came a cropper at the second fence, an impressive but straightforward table.  Rider fall = elimination, and they hadn’t even gotten going properly.  I had been looking forward to seeing them go — they’re based in the UK so no-one in Canada had much familiarity with them, and I suspect Robinson was given a Pan Am team slot largely as a consolation prize for having been named to the World Equestrian Games team for 2014, then being told she hadn’t gotten her paperwork in on time and was ineligible (despite an Equine Canada high-muckity-muck having assured her that all was kosher).  To have flown your horse across the pond to finally wear that Team jacket, and then crash and burn that early, must have really blown.

With Robinson picking up the Big E, Canada no longer had her stellar dressage score to call its own, and was forced to count Waylon Roberts’s somewhat-less-than-stellar result (65.1 pp).  Michel Vaillancourt’s stadium course did not prove all that influential (there were lots of clear rounds), and the end result was Team bronze, which was rather less than we’d been hoping for.  Luckily, thanks to an error of judgement on the part of a French rider a year ago, which belatedly resulted in a positive drug test and France being disqualified after the fact from the 2014 WEG, Canada had retroactively moved up one placing at the WEG and had already secured a berth for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, which was really all we cared about.  The US eventing team, which had an even worse time in Normandy than we did, clinched its eligibility for Rio with its Pan Am gold, and Brazil … well, being the host country they were already invited to Rio, but the pleasure they got out of landing the Team silver and an individual bronze was infectious, and I think everyone was rooting for them.

Many people — including the riders — were anticipating a second stadium round to determine the individual gold silver and bronze-1930medals,since that’s a format which has been used at the Pan Am Games before.  Not this time, apparently.  The math was done based on the completed single stadium round, and Jessica Phoenix and Pavarotti, the reigning Pan Am individual champions, missed the repeat by less than a single rail (42.10 pp).  They settled for silver this time, behind American Marilyn Little and her mare RF Scandalous (40.30 pp).

Out of 43 competitors, 10 were eliminated on cross-country, either for a fall or for too many refusals, and there was one Guatemalan entry who withdrew at the jog.  The top 17 competitors made it round the cross-country with no time penalties, a reflection of the slightly more generous time allowed at the two-star level (time is generally more influential once you get to three- and four-star competition).  Eight nations managed to brazil silver celebrate-1825finish in the Team competition (at least three out of four riders completed):  USA, Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, Mexico, Chile, Uruguay, and Colombia.  Argentina, Venezuela, and Guatemala failed to finish in the team competition, but two of the Argentinian riders and one from Venezuela got around.  So, you know, progress.

Here’s another photo gallery, of stadium and dressage and medals and shit.

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(Also — I really, really should shut up about it, but I have to say my uniform comments came about because this image popped up in my mind.  Oh, the adolescent hotness!)star trek nazis

2015 Toronto Pan Am Games: Dressage

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Hey, it`s a Canadian blog, so you`re gonna get pix of the Canadians.  All of whom were legitimately excellent, and I don`t say that lightly — all four delivered tests that were the best I`d ever seen from them, especially Belinda Trussell`s Anton, who, frankly, had the best piaffe in the Games and wuz robbed of a medal, IMHO.

Dressage at the Pan Am Games has a complicated history.  The Pan Ams are qualifiers for upcoming Olympic Games, and as such are hotly contested, but for the past couple of decades at least, the level of competition has been at the Prix St. Georges/Intermediare level, not the Grand Prix level demanded at the Olympics.  Which means a country may qualify for the Olympics, but will probably not be sending the horses and riders who cinched the qualification, because it takes more than a year to take a ‘small tour’ horse and have him confirmed and solid at the ‘big tour’ level.

Recognizing that the standard of dressage has improved markedly in Central and South America and the Caribbean in recent years, the Powers That Be decided for the Toronto Games that countries with the resources to do so could bring up to two Grand Prix partnerships of their four that made up a team.  Riders who showed at the Grand Prix level were given more weight on their results (I think it was a coefficient of 1.5) than the Prix St. Georges horses.  The US, Canada, and Argentina all managed to scare up two Grand Prix horses to send to Toronto, and Mexico and Uruguay each had one GP horse.  The happy result was that spectators didn’t have to sit and watch the exact same test all day, but it did make the scoring, and the qualifications for the individual medals, confusing to say the least.

There was also considerable debate as to how many competitors from each nation were allowed to move forward to the individual round, after the US took the Team gold, Canada the silver, and Brazil the bronze.  The FEI issued a bunch of contradictory statements the night before, and apparently volatile Team meetings back in the barns went into the wee hours, before it was declared that each nation could send forward only three of its four qualified riders.  That meant both Canada and the US had to leave one horse in the barn despite qualifying scores.  Which kind of sucked, but it did ensure that spectators got to see more individual freestyles from more countries.

Have to say, the South Americans have the best music for freestyles.  The North American musical selections have all gotten to be much of a muchness, due in part, I think, to the fact that there are only two or three people writing and choreographing these things for the riders.  We could use a little more soca and samba and a fair bit less of the generic-movie-soundtrack type stuff.

And here’s the afore-mentioned Puerto Rican rider, Luis Denizard, and Royal Affair, in a probably-illicit snippet from their freestyle, embracing the Leonard Bernstein:

End result:  The US claimed individual gold (Steffen Peters and Legolas 92, 80.075%) and silver (Laura Graves and Verdades, 79.825%), and Canadian Chris Von Martels, who had put in a spectacular freestyle with Zilverstar, hung in for the bronze (79.50%).  The other two Canucks, Belinda Trussell and Brittany Fraser, tied for fourth with 76.80%.  Canada didn’t qualify for the Rio Olympics with their Team silver — there was only one spot going begging and we would have had to have won gold to get it.  There are still some opportunities to qualify individuals, but it’s going to take more expensive trips to Europe to do it, so may those with the deepest pockets, win.

Ten Things About the Toronto Pan Am Games

panam-horses-asideNow that it’s all over except for the continuing self-congratulatory smugness (Toronto’s, I mean, which might or might not be justified — the actual numbers rating its success have not yet been released) … I figured I’d better recount my experience at the 2015 Pan American Games for posterity.  This may, in fact, be practically the only place in which I do so, assignments from magazines and newspapers having been discouragingly thin on the ground.  So much for home court advantage.

Watch this space for some separate blog posts on each of the equestrian disciplines (dressage, eventing, and showjumping), which are the only three sports I got to see in the three-week run of the Games.  Yup.  Despite my best efforts, I completely failed to get to any of the other venues for which I had media access, much less any of the concerts and other entertainments.  The last Pan Am Games I attended was Winnipeg, in 1999, and I had a blast going to free concerts, jazz clubs, and outdoor theatre performances in the evenings while I was there (and favourably revised my opinion of Winnipeg in the process).  I guess the difference this time was that I was trying to fit the Pan Ams around all the regular demands of my life — teaching riding lessons, getting my own horses fed and worked, doctor’s appointments, truck breakdowns, and so forth.  Somehow, the hassle of making it all the way into downtown Toronto from my home base in the boonies, never quite seemed feasible.  I am bummed about having missed Colin James though.

Anyway.  For what it’s worth, here are some random bits of snark about the Toronto Pan Am Games.  In no particular order.

argentine boots-06851. OVERBLING:  The medal for sheer overbling has to go to the South American dressage riders, especially the women.  If there was a location where they could legally place Swarovski crystals, they did so, unreservedly.  From their hair bows to their helmets to the tops of their shiny black patent boots, to their gloves, their horses’ braids and flyveils and browbands and, yep, even the cantles of their saddles, there was really no such thing as too much bling.  The places where the press were allowed to photograph were too far from the ring to tell for sure, but I strongly suspect that those who had experience with Rio-style carnival makeup may even have had bling on their eyelids.  In general, the South Americans put the Northern hemisphere riders to shame in the stylin’ department — the Argentinian eventers, for example, had the most drool-worthy boots (or maybe they were half-chaps) in their flag’s sky-blue-and-white colours.  (They also had way better music for their dressage freestyles.)

(Thought I might as well share the Spanish version!)

2. EMBRACING THE CLICHES:  I had to love the Puerto Rican dressage rider who rode his freestyle to selections from “West Side Story”.  I confess, I can never hear an announcer say the words “Puerto Rico” without a little echo of Rita Moreno in my head … but you have to figure that they’re sick to death of it in the actual country.  Took chutzpah, then (or cojones) to say, fukkit, I’m not going to cringe about it … I’m just going to go there, goddammit.  

Also, there was a Venezuelan showjumper named La Bamba.

beavers-0694Canada, however, was not to be outdone when it came to cliches.  From the moment I heard that the cross-country course for the eventing competition was going to feature, um, Canadiana … and that it was going to be built by Americans and shipped up on flatbeds from South Carolina … I dreaded the outcome.  The end result was not quite as bad as I’d feared, but it did have carved beavers, Canada geese, something that was supposed to be a keg of maple syrup, and a water jump that seemed to be a mishmash of every overworked Canuck icon the designers could toss together in a single obstacle.  It had one jump bristling with lobster pots, another with a stylized Toronto skyline on it, and a rather regrettable wooden grizzly with a salmon in its mouth … positioned at the base of a water trickle that I was reliably informed was supposed to represent Niagara grizzly-0691Falls.  WTF? doesn’t really cover it …

And then there was the showjumping course, which was slightly less horrifying, cliche-wise, though there was a plank jump emblazoned with an image of Mounties galloping straight at the observer with their lances in attack mode, something adorned with oversized cowboy boots and saloon doors (presumably representing Calgary), and another which mimicked a mountain pass in the Rockies with a railroad bridge spanning it.  The blocks on the top were little rail cars, so I guess when the blocks were knocked down (which was only a couple of times), it was (groan) a trainwreck.

3. THE MUSKOKA CHAIR DEBATE:  One of the more popular bits of decor in the showjumping ring was a pair of giant green Muskoka chairs, which every rider and groom on Facebook apparently felt compelled to climb up into for a selfie.  The Amalonso valdez PER muskoka chairs-2272ericans, however, kept erroneously referring to them as “Adirondack chairs”, and couldn’t figure out what was supposed to be Canadian about them.  Sources on the infallible interwebz disagree, of course, on the provenance of the Muskoka chair vs. the Adirondack, but at least some of them will tell you that the Muskoka chair is subtly different in its design and the curve of its back.  But both of them are bloody difficult to lever yourself out of, fuglyparticularly the eight-foot kind.

4. FUGLY:  Is it just me, or is this sculpture, which was squatting in the Caledon Equestrian Park, fugly as hell?  Maybe not, since people seemed compelled to pose in front of it on a daily basis for even more selfies.

Much more egregious were the outfits inflicted upon the hapless presenters-of-medals-and-stuffed-toys.  Can you say, “shapeless beach cover-up”?  I think back to the presenters at the Beijing Olympics, who looked utterly stunning, and I try to imagine what the Pan Am people were thinking when they approved these horrid, droopy, waist-less, sweatpants-gray monstrosities.  Seriously, who looks good in this fabric?  One out of 10,000 supermodels, that’s who.  And to top it off, each dress was cut at exactly the right length to flatter no-one in this universe.  These girls were fugly dresses-9907putting on a brave face, but personally I would have been mortified to have turned up in public in one of these.  Hashtag fashion fugliness.

5. FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE:  By most ratings, Canada is not a Third World country.  But we do have an alarming predilection for re-inventing perfectly good wheels.  In the instance of the Pan Am Games, that meant that procedures which have been in place for major sports events around the world for years or even decades, were not necessarily in place here in Toronto.  Felt a little like we were either deliberately trying to represent as a provincial backwater, or we were stuck in some wormhole taking us back to 1985.

The official broadcaster for the Pan Am Games was the venerable CBC, which has long been of the opinion that showjumping is the only equestrian sport with any merit whatsoever.  (It’s a bit of a circular argument:  if North American spectators never get to see eventing or dressage or combined driving, how is it supposed to develop a following?  Numbers for broadcasts of Badminton or Burghley, in the UK, would seem to suggest there’s massive untapped appeal.  Ugh.)  So in its infinite wisdom, the Ceeb — which had sewn up exclusive video rights to absolutely everything — declined to show up for most of the equestrian events.  Which meant that we didn’t even have a video feed in the press tent, thus rendering the luxurious air conditioning in there useless because we had to be outside in order to see what was going on.  There was also no live scoring for the dressage, something that has been available for yonks at most major venues and should have been a no-brainer.

There were also all the usual communications fuck-ups that go with most major Games.  Nothing disastrous, just a lot of Orwellian, “you were allowed to walk past the warm-up rings yesterday, but today you were never allowed to do that and whoever told you that you were didn’t have the authority to do so and you should have known that” type stuff.  The rules for the media seemed to change on a daily basis, which inevitably led to a lot of bitching and frustration from those of us who were trying like hell to comply but couldn’t tell which rules were the real ones.  I’m willing to bet it was the same for the riders and grooms and assorted Team hangers-on from the various nations.

There was a concerted effort made to make these Games more accessible to various types of ‘new’ media (podcasters, bloggers, vloggers, web publications, and basically anyone who wasn’t the host broadcaster) and we were all told in no uncertain terms that we should not fuck it up because Toronto was being closely watched and that it would set a precedent for next year’s Rio Olympics and beyond.  But a lot of the attempts to make media access to the athletes more ‘casual’ just didn’t work.  At the Caledon Equestrian Park, they decided to forego the standard end-of-day press conferences with the top three riders, in favour of just having everyone swarm the poor souls in a noisy corner of the tent.  Later, when that turned out to be unsatisfactory, they tried to set up the athletes in the press seating at one end of the stands — next to the VIP seating, which at the end of each day was cranking up for another deafening party.  Most of what I got on my digital tape recorder was unintelligible, even when I had managed to elbow my way near the front.  But at least the poor riders had chairs to sit in.  Note to the Pan Am organizers:  if it ain’t broke …

6. PECULIAR PORCUPINE:  How a stylized porcupine in a baseball cap came to be the mascot of the Toronto Pan Am Games is another one of those inexplicable Dafuq? decisions.  If I were selecting a species of wildlife to represent Toronto, I’d think the obvious choice would be a raccoon.  (For the uninitiated, Toronto is overrun with urban raccoons, who hang out on people’s fire escapes and can finagle their way into any variety of garbage can ever pachi-2033designed by humans.  They are fearless, intimidatingly intelligent, and absolutely huge.)  I also have no idea where the name “Pachi” for the mascot originated.  I’d like to think perhaps it’s Ojibwe for porcupine or something, but that’s not bloody likely.  In any event, I was told that the strangely multi-coloured pointy bits on Pachi’s back numbered 41, to represent each of the countries involved in the Pan Am Games (is that countries eligible to compete, or actual number of countries which sent at least an athlete or two?  No clue there either).  Certainly there were fewer than 41 ‘quills’ on the little stuffed-toy versions of the mascot that medal-winning athletes were given in lieu of flowers.  (The looks on the faces of some of the South American guys who received them was priceless, though.)

7. JOURNALISTS BEHAVING BADLY:  As noted above, the CBC was the only body officially allowed to take video of the ‘field of play’ (ie. athletes actually competing in anything).  Other media outlets could take video interviews of athletes in the ‘mixed zone’ or outside the venue, and they could send out still photos of the action with a 30-minute embargo, but that was it.  At the beginning of the Games, that meant there were volunteers patrolling the stands trying to confiscate people’s iPads — though eventually that was given up as a lost cause.  The more people were told they couldn’t take video, the more affronted everyone got when it became apparent that the CBC had zero intention of even providing livestreaming or posting anything on-line after the fact.  YouTube became the place to go …

Still, I was unimpressed when I heard that two of the accredited Canadian journalists in our midst were blatantly taking video and posting it on their magazine’s website.  I can understand when paying spectators want to preserve a video clip of their nation’s representative(s) for their own enjoyment, but this was another deal entirely. Guess they missed that little (mandatory with your accreditation) lecture about spoiling it for the rest of us?  They very nearly got their accreditations yanked, and I would not have been the only one to tell them not to let the door hit them in the ass on the way out.

8. ALL THE FAKENESS:  These giant mutant daisy things sprouted like triffids all over the dressage arena at the triffid-9051Caledon Equestrian Park.  They were at least five feet tall.  I told a couple of American journalists who asked that they were trilliums, the provincial flower of Ontario.  (There was actually a rather nice showjump which had real representations of trilliums; it showed up later.)

Another headscratcher:  the cross-country course, at nearby Will O’ Wind Farm, was decorated throughout with huge volumes of fake, plastic flowers.  And they looked really …. fake.  I dunno, you’re in Ontario, in July, in the middle of some of the richest waylon trilliums-1649farmland in North America … you couldn’t scare up some real flowers and foliage maybe?

9. THE SOUND OF SILENCE:  Did no-one tell the American fans that Canada is right next door?  As in, within driving distance for many?  At most events of this size, Canadian cheering sections are accustomed to being drowned out by loud and persistent, “USA! USA! USA!” chants and lots of screaming.  The American brand of patriotism can be a little oppressive, to be sure, but you have to admire their enthusiasm.  Maybe the Pan Am Games are just not on the American radar (though any event in which Murkans have this good a shot at lots of gold medals, you’d think would be very popular)?  Speculation aside, the Canadian riders were greeted by roars from the crowd and lots of flag-waving (it’s worth fans in stands-0281noting that the vast majority of the Canadian competitors, in all three disciplines, live within an hour of the Caledon Equestrian Park — it’s a very horsey neighbourhood).  But the Americans got mostly crickets, or polite smatterings of applause at best, and it was actually kinda sad.  They must have felt rather lost without their usual wall of noise.

10. KICKSTARTER?:  The next Pan Am Games is in Lima, Peru, in 2019.  Always wanted to go to Peru.  Send money, please?

(Please note:  pretty much all the images in this post, and the next few, are Copyright (c) Karen Briggs, 2015. pachi finish-2288 Using them anywhere else without my express permission, and fair payment, will quite possibly result in my hunting you down like a dog and making your life squeamishly unpleasant.  Thank you.)

No Witnesses

Far be it from me to ignore a challenge.  Well, okay.  I do occasionally ignore challenges … only so many hours in the day, and I’m edging towards an advanced state of decrepitude, after all, and I’m way behind on blog posts about the Toronto Pan Am Games already, and besides, you think all these excuses just spring from the firmament fully formed?  This kind of carefully crafted obfuscation takes time and effort, people.

mbc-blog-hop-badge2But my good friend (and far, far more consistent blogger than I), Katherine Walcott, over at Rodney’s Saga, tossed out a request to describe the best class I ever had at a horse show.  So I’m going to reach a bit into the pre-Cambrian era (or, at least, pre-Spike) and tell you what I remember, rose-tinted though it may be.  Cuz apparently, it’s a thing to do if you blog.  Creates traffic and all that.

So. Once upon a time.  I had a big lanky chestnut Thoroughbred gelding who was an obstreperous bastard and my horse of a lifetime.  That his show name was Sweeney Todd ought to tell you a little about him … he went through life with his ears permanently pinned, but OMFG, he had more run and jump in him than I ever knew what to do with.  Transforming him from a malcontent racehorse into an event horse took every ounce of persuasive ability I could muster, a willful ignorance of the peril he semi-regularly put me in, and the approximate weight of a Buick Skylark in bulk-food-store Scotch mints, but we did forge a productive partnership eventually — and he was a nice enough horse that several Big Name Riders noticed him.  (And went out of their way to tell me I was wasting a talented animal and ought to pass him over to someone who could do him justice, but whatever.)

Please can I have just a little peril?

Toddy had a highly developed sense of self-preservation and that “fifth leg” (no innuendo intended) that a really intelligent and athletic horse has; I trusted him implicitly on cross-country, and he got me around some Preliminary-sized courses I probably had no business getting around.  He remains the only horse I’ve ever had who probably could have gone Advanced — had I had more money, more time, and the talent to match his.  But as it was, with a limited supply of all of the above, we did reasonably well at the Preliminary level in Ontario in the early 1990s.  And then I took a job managing a riding school in Bermuda for a year, and leased Toddy out at the height of his eventing career.  (Looking back, not sure that was the smartest thing to do …)

So.  The job turned out to be a bit of a trainwreck, and I returned to Ontario pretty much penniless and had to regroup for a while.  The resumption of Toddy’s career took more time than I would have liked.  He was 15 before I managed to get backtoddy in a position to show again.  I’d realized by then that an upgrade to Intermediate was probably not in the cards, but I did have another bucket list item on the agenda:  doing a full-on three-day event.  We’d never managed to fit one in prior to my semi-tropical hiatus, and I knew if I dithered too much longer, it wasn’t gonna happen.

This was shortly before the “long format” three-day event became extinct, and the Ontario Horse Trials Association used to make a point of offering a Training level three-day event each year as a sort of gentle introduction to dealing with a real three-day (as opposed to the simpler, one-day horse trials format that most amateurs are accustomed to).  “Real” three-days began at the Preliminary level and were FEI-sanctioned, so the Training level three-days were run as clinics, with BNRs talking you through the extra steps:  the two veterinary inspections, the various Phases of cross-country day (does anyone still remember Roads and Tracks and Steeplechase?), the dreaded 10-minute vet box, dressage done wrongthe demands of caring for and cooling out your horse after that sort of intensity.

So Toddy did his first — and only, as it turned out — three-day event at the age of 16, passing the jog despite his super-fancy track jewellery, and delivering a mediocre dressage test in the rain the next day.  (He often delivered mediocre dressage tests, not because he couldn’t do the flatwork, but because he held it in disdain and far preferred to embarrass me than to wow the judges. He was the old-fashioned type of event horse who wanted to get on with the running and jumping as soon as possible, please.)

That’s not the “best class” part.  That came the next day, when Toddy trotted around Phase A — the first Roads Toddy training3day steeplechase20001and Tracks section — and then came out of the start box on Phase B (steeplechase) monumentally confused.  Ordinarily, one gets a few warm-up cross-country fences before one goes out on course, but at a long-format three-day, you book it straight down to the (substantial) brush fences on steeplechase with no heads-up for your poor beast.  Toddy, three-day virgin that he was, launched himself about five feet in the air over that first 3’3″ brush, with his eyes out on stalks. (Please note my bravery in providing you with photographic evidence of this:  I was not exactly at my slimmest at the time, and between his helicopter effort and my thunder thighs, it ain’t a pretty picture!)  We landed in a bit of a heap, and (with my heart in my throat) I chirped to him to gallop on … and suddenly there were tears streaming from my eyes as the pretty-good-allowance-turf-horse inside my teenaged beast asserted himself, and he realized that pelting like a bat Toddy training3day steeplechase0001outta hell at big brush fences was just about.  The BEST. Thing. Ever. EV.  ER.

To this day I don’t think my heart-rate has ever gotten higher; I’m lucky I didn’t stroke out, but I suspect that Toddy would have continued to pack me around even if I had been as limp as a bag of hammers at that point.  I had galloped plenty of racehorses in my youth, but nothing ever felt faster or more terrifying or more fantastic than that two minutes and change on steeplechase, on the most athletic damn horse I ever sat on.  The finish flags were a blur, and it took me one helluva long time to pull him up, but eventually we completed the second Roads and Tracks section and came into the 10-minute box on time and unscathed.  (Good thing they weren’t checking my heartrate in there — it was still pounding like a bunch of demented Kodo drummers, but my shiny metallic chestnut dude was good to go despite the heat.)

The actual cross-country, Phase D, was almost anti-climactic after steeplechase, considering it was a Training level course and thus not all that challenging for Toddy, who’d been running Prelim for years.  My brain stalled out at one point and I wasted a good 20 seconds circling in a field before I remembered where my next jump was, so we ended up with time faults, but I really didn’t give a rat’s ass.  We were clean, Toddy had come through all of it beautifully (especially for an old warrior with osselets and a minor heart murmur), and his legs were cold and as tight as they ever were the next day.  He hadn’t even managed to pull a shoe, which for Toddy, was saying something.

We capped the whole experience the next day with possibly the most perfect stadium round I have ever jumped.  I freely high_diveconfess to being a bit of a ‘seat of the pants’ rider.  My eye for a distance is not the greatest, and I’ll routinely flub at least one fence by second-guessing my horse — but on that day, we absolutely nailed it.  I remember cantering down to the final vertical on the course thinking, okay, I’ve managed to get a perfect spot to every fence so far, which never, ever happens … surely I’m going to come down to this last one and fuck it all up.  Instead, I saw the distance, and the distance was good.  It felt amazing.  And I — and maybe the stadium judge, maybe not — was the only one who saw that round.  Because the rain was coming down in absolute sheets, and pretty much everyone else had abandoned ship and was huddled in the indoor arena, some distance away.

To say I was proud of my Grinch that day is a huge, huge understatement.  On top of all of his other little successes that weekend, he was normally a horse who loathed having to compete in the rain.  He’d flatten his ears to his skull and grind his teeth and make it clear that I deserved to burn in hell…. but that day, he put away the ‘tude and pulled out the stops for me.  Never mind that it wasn’t a ‘real’ three-day and it didn’t count for anything of any significance, and never mind that I don’t even remember where we placed.  (Eighth or ninth, I think, thanks to that dressage score and the time faults on Phase D.) It still sticks in my mind as the most awesome show we ever had.

But you’re really going to have to take my word for it.

A-Hunting We Have Went

hunting_scene_largeSeveral months after the fact, I’m finally getting around to sharing this little factoid:  Young Master Spike can now add foxhunting to his resume of experiences.

Hunting and eventing are a fairly easy fit together.  An event horse is usually already a) fit enough to cope with being out with the hunt for three to five hours, b) accustomed to galloping over open ground and uneven footing, c) trained to jump pretty much anything in his path, and d) won’t lose his marbles over the prospect of being (gasp) outdoors in nasty weather.  The traditional approach is that hunting teaches all these things which later translate well to eventing competition, but with Spike, I needed to take the opposite approach.  Only when he was eventing fairly successfully did I start to feel like perhaps he was capable of going out in the hunt field and not getting us both killed.

See, in his youth Spike was a bit of a space cadet.  Not in a bad way, exactly.  He just tended to be a smidge inattentive.  Didn’t always register where he was putting his feet.  Blundered in, cheerfully oblivious, where angels feared to tread.  It’s taken him ages to hone his attention span, but lots of hacking, some actual eventing, and a dash of endurance riding last summer (that’s a tale for another blog post) finally convinced me that he was ready to cope with riding to hounds.  And that’s rather a nice thing, because I hadn’t been hunting since, oh, sometime in the early 1990s, and while it’s never been the main focus of my riding (cough) career, such as it is, I do enjoy hunting’s unique set of challenges:  riding in company (a test of your horse’s manners, and, I suppose, your own), handling whatever sort of terrain is thrown at you, potentially getting the adrenaline rush of foxhunting bridgeactually galloping after quarry.  Even observing all of hunting’s rather quaint and arcane rules:  it’s fun to wallow in that tradition, as generations of riders around the world before me have done.

Also, the pageantry of the whole thing is honest-to-gawd stirring.  In my humble opinion, there are few things as gorgeous in this world as a field of bays and grays and chestnuts, the hunt staff in their scarlet, and sleek foxhounds spreading out over a fall landscape.  Seriously, it’s just a stunning thing to witness (which is probably why every fake English pub in North America is adorned with fake Victorian hunting prints), and even more so when you’re playing your part in the panto.

I guess here is where the paragraph defending the barbarism of foxhunting needs to go.  Or maybe we could take it as read, gentle readers??  Here’s my take on the moral turpitude, unspeakable-in-pursuit-of-uneatable, argument (short version):  the Canadian brand of foxhunting is either drag-hunting (as in, only the fake scent of a fox’s urine was harmed in the making of this sport), or, if it’s “live”, the intent is to have a merry chase and then call the hounds off so we can chase the critter — whether fox or coyote — again the following week.  We’re not so well supplied with foxes, in particular, in Ontario that we can afford to do them in on a regular basis, and the business is more about sport these days here than about exterminating vermin on behalf of the local landowners.  Not that I don’t agree that said vermin probably has the flaming christ on a cracker scared out of itself while fleeing a pack of baying foxhounds, but unless it’s terminally stupid and gets itself cornered, it’s going to live to see dinner, and thus my conscience is fairly clear, cruelty-wise.

That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  Should you disagree, please feel free to tell me I’m morally and ethically bankrupt, utterly revolting, and probably in favour of poisoning the earth with GMO crops and chemtrails, in the comments below. Because, you know, she with the most comments wins.

Besides, she added not at all defensively, many a time when foxhunting, you encounter no quarry at all.  It ends up being several hours of trotting from cornfield to cornfield, standing around a while in each while the hounds are cast and then reeled in by the huntsman, with a certain amount of passing the flask around.  Followed by a big potluck meal.  And really, what’s to complain about there?

The last horse I hunted was my big chestnut gelding, Sweeney Todd, who had been a reasonably successful racehorse yonks ago, before I introduced him to eventing.  He had more gallop and jump in him than I ever knew what to do with, thought the coops in the hunt field were childsplay (to be fair, Canadian foxhunters rarely encounter anything bigger than a metre tall; it’s not the death-defying version of hunting they have in Ireland, with those five-foot blind hedges and stone walls all over the damn place), and never quite understood the concept of guests staying conservatively and politely at the back of the field.  One of the cardinal sins of foxhunting is to pass the Master of Foxhounds (MFH), He or She Who Controls the Field (the “field” being the average schmoes following the hounds for a fee, as opposed to those employed to do so).  Passing the Master is simply Not Done.  And Toddy and I never did it … but only by virtue of my cramming Toddy`s firebreathing nostrils up the Master’s horse’s passing the masterass on a number of occasions.  The bit has not yet been designed that would have made a difference once the field got galloping.  As far as Toddy was concerned, the whole experience was a track flashback, avec canines … but in his defence, he was otherwise wonderful out there.  He was one of the most intelligent critters I’ve ever had the privilege of sitting on, and remarkably focused on self-preservation.  That, combined with extraordinary balance and nimbleness for his size, made him sure-footed and safe out there and I trusted him with my life.

I knew built-for-comfort-not-for-speed Spike would be a horse of a different colour.  He is a Thoroughbred, all appearances to the contrary, but never having gone to the track, he has no competitive instinct to speak of.  Getting to the front of the field is not something that would ever cross his mind, and he’s never needed anything stronger than a Dr. Bristol snaffle on cross-country. Spike is probably not Toddy’s intellectual equal, but he’s also not the obstreperous bastard that Toddy could be, and his congeniality, I figured, would be an asset when it came to standing around in cornfields with a bunch of other horses he’d never met before.  He’s reasonably good at handling his feet now, is pretty unflappable, and he’s solid as a brick shithouse, which is a useful quality for a hunt horse (horses with matchsticks for legs aren’t typically the best choice in questionable, mucky terrain, which it’s very likely you will encounter in late fall in Ontario).

The biggest question, really, was how Spike would react to the sight and sound of hounds.  This isn’t really something you can prepare a horse for ahead of time.  Sure, you can ask your neighbour to let her Schnauzerdoodle loose, I guess, but 12 couple of foxhounds is another matter entirely.  (Um, for the uninitiated, one always describes the hounds as “hounds”, horse vs. dognever never never as dogs, and they are always counted in pairs.  Twelve couple is 24 hounds; some hunts use more, some less, depending on the day — it’s the huntsman’s call.  Not sure why the couple thing; it is Written, as they say.)  Anyway, when hound music (um, that’s when they all start baying and howling at the same time, as when they find a scent) starts up, it can be unnerving for some horses, as can the sudden appearance of a working hound from out of the brush and right under their legs, which happens regularly.  And if there’s one Cardinal Sin worse than passing the Master, it’s your horse kicking or stepping on a hound.  That, my friend, will force you to hang your head in utter disgrace forevermore.

So I’m pleased to report that while Young Master Spike did, indeed, find hounds darting under his nose and his heels rather unnerving at first — and at one point raised a front foot as if he were considering teaching the cheeky buggers a lesson — he was very obedient about putting down said hoof when I growled at him, and subsequently earned himself a gold star for rookie hound manners.  He stood politely at the checks (okay, I had to circle him a bit at first), pulled my arms out of their sockets only occasionally (and stopped when I reminded him of his balance and his manners by asking for a few steps of shoulder-in), and dutifully put his head down and kept trotting when we were hit by periodic bouts of (ugh) sleet.  At one point, we were even encouraged by the hunt secretary to keep up with the field a little more closely!  Now that’s something that never would have happened with Toddy …

Alas, the territory we were hunting that day in November was a new one for the hunt club, and there was not a single coop to jump.  So I can’t really report on Spike’s manners in that situation (past experience tells me that you often have to line up, single file, to jump such obstacles in the hunt field, which can lead to a certain amount of hysteria with some horses).  He did, however, comport himself with honour when we found ourselves booking it across an open field in pursuit of a lone coyote and a lone hound (not sure where the rest of the pack had buggered off to!).  Viewing the quarry is considered something of a rare bit of luck, and we indeed had a lovely view as we plunged across a hayfield, more or less keeping up with the field, though to be honest I was more concerned with scanning the ground for groundhog holes (of which there were several) than admiring the critter’s retreating fur.

The coyote gave us the slip, the sleet got heavier (though hunting does at least convince you that wearing a black wool sidesaddle huntingriding jacket isn’t always utterly impractical), and when the majority of the field said, “Want. Hot. Beverage.”, Spike and I concurred and headed back for my trailer, while the hunt staff turned the other direction to gather up the scattered hounds.  

We didn’t stay for the hunt breakfast, as I wasn’t confident about leaving Spike alone in the trailer in a parking lot … that’s something that we’ll have to practice, aided considerably by the fact that I managed over the winter to acquire a larger trailer with a box stall arrangement in front for his comfort and convenience.  Next year, we’ll partake. But overall, we didn’t disgrace ourselves.  Spike didn’t set the world on fire, but he was Mr. Congeniality and that, in my humble opinion, makes him worth his weight in gold.

Many thanks to the Toronto and North York Hunt (the second-oldest hunt in North America, by the by) for the invitation to hunt as a guest; I look forward to joining you again.  Now that I have a bonafide hunt horse.

Parker’s Progress

Glen Oro Fall HT 2014Progress with Parker has never been exactly linear.

He’s my second, and likely last, homebred, by Rather Well out of my gray El Prado mare, Roxy (aka Great Lady, a name of stunning shortage of imagination — but do click the link to find out more on El Prado’s influence in the sport horse world).  That makes him a half-brother to Spike, whose modest eventing exploits I mentioned last year in this post:  Project Mojo.  Though they’re seven years apart and have different sires, in some respects Parker and Spike are peas in a pod:  both registered Thoroughbreds, both dark bays, both with Roxy’s broad chest and well-sprung barrel, and front-end conformation that’s maybe a smidge more hunter-y than I had hoped (not downhill, but not exactly uphill either).  Good feet.  Easy keepers.  Both with a bit of a cheeky swagger in their walks.  (It’s possible that comes from being homebreds who’ve never had any real grief in their lives, apart from being gelded … they are just way more secure in themselves than most of the shattered-confidence, off-the-track horses I’ve worked with over the years.  They are still turned out with their dam, and I’ve been their Primary Human their whole lives. They have zero trust issues.)

Glen Oro Fall HT 2014But while Spike is a solid 16 hands, and has more than once been mistaken for a draft cross, Young Master Parker aspired to be the Mini-Me version:  he topped out at 15:1 hh.  It’s not a tragedy, as I’m only 5’2″ myself, but it would limit his saleability should I ever decide to inflict him on someone else.  Temperament-wise, too, my boys are not a match:  Spike is Mr. Honesty, with no ‘tude to speak of.  Straightforward, willing, and a touch on the lazy side, Spike is never going to set the world on fire, but if you ask, he will cheerfully give it a go and never complain.

Parker, on the other hand …

Having compared notes with some other owners of Rather Well babies, I can at least conclude that it’s not just me.  These horses are bred to event (Rather Well competed at the three-star level and earned his Gold Premium status in the Canadian Sport Horse Association studbook) and they are nimble, agile, and fearless jumpers.  But — putting it delicately — they don’t necessarily have the easiest minds in the world.

In the case of Young Master Parker, some of his obstreperousness might easily come from the dam side; Roxy is a Glen Oro Fall HT 2014peculiar mixture of Alpha Mare and total neurotic, and while Spike didn’t inherit her tendency to be wound a little tight, she does seem to have passed it on to Son Number Two, to some degree. In addition, Parker has a “fuck you, not doin’ that” button that other owners of Rather Well offspring have recognized in his facial expression.   They seem to be horses who will do things in their own good time, or not at all, and what a fucking shame if that doesn’t work for you.

‘Not quite according to plan’ began with Parker’s entrance into this world and has continued in that vein ever since.   Given that Roxy’s nether regions got quite badly shredded in the process of giving birth to Spike, seven years earlier, Glen Oro Fall HT 2014I wanted to micro-manage Parker’s delivery to minimize the chances her scar tissue would tear.  I was going to ship her to foal out at a repro vet’s farm, and we were going to induce her.  But Roxy, in her infinite contrariness, opted instead to give birth in an open field, in the middle of the night, while turned out with my geldings.  (I should point out here that if I had had even a 1% inkling that she was ready to foal, she would not have been turned out that evening.  By all the usual signs, she was still weeks away from going into labour.)  I came out on a late June morning to find Young Master Parker already dry and on his feet.  One of my geldings had appointed himself protector and was anxiously patrolling the paddock to ward off intruders; I had to put him in a stall before I could get anywhere near mom and baby.

Shortly thereafter, it became clear that while Parker had achieved quadrupedality, he had not yet managed to nurse.  Getting colostrum into a foal in the first hours of his life is a pretty crucial thing … but Roxy’s udder was so petite that he hadn’t succeeded in latching on.  There was a frantic call to the repro vet.  Young Parker was on the verge of giving up by the time we resorted to milking out the mare with a jury-rigged jumbo-sized syringe; luckily, he accepted a milk bottle and nipple hastily acquired from the local pharmacy.  Between myself, my squeeze, and a good friend who responded to my SOS call, we took turns milking Roxy on the hour and getting small amounts of colostrum into Parker, all the while continuing to nudge him towards her udder in the hopes he would figure it out and latch on.  It took all day, but finally, using the subterfuge of positioning the baby bottle right by Roxy’s teats, he engaged…. and we all started to breathe again.

Despite the rocky start, Nosey Parker was fearless to a fault (unlike his older brother Spike, who hid behind Roxy for the first two weeks of his life, peeking out at me under her belly).  At 24 hours old, being led back outside for the first time, I foolishly assumed a foal so young would stick close to his mother.  Nuh-uh.  Before I knew it, the little bugger had zinged away from Roxy and me and was a good 100 metres away, cheerfully investigating his new world while his mother went ballistic on the end of the leadshank.  That pretty much set the tone.  He was, and remains, a brat and a peckerhead, despite all my efforts to civilize him.

As an aside — I’ve just recently gotten a cast removed from my arm, the result of being kicked by a weanling filly.  She’d been totally unhandled up till the point where her mother was unceremoniously peeled away from her, and I’d DSC_9652 Parker nursing June 28 09been asked to try to get her used to being handled.  Poor frightened thing took exception to being touched and double-barreled me, breaking a bone in my hand.  Not fun, but it could’ve been worse — and it got me thinking about just how horribly wrong it all could have turned out had I not handled Parker every.  Single. Day.  With the specific intention of hammering some manners into that bloody-minded wee skull of his.

Even so, when Parker injured his left hind ankle somehow in February of his three-year-old year, and ended up on stall rest for nearly six months, he was not what you’d call a treat to handle.  Hand-walking him according to the vet’s prescription was taking my life into my hands; I took to wearing both a helmet and a back-protector vest to do it.  I caved and started turning him out in a small round pen, against medical advice, by the four-month mark, because I could see that neither of us was going to survive otherwise.  Luckily, the rearing and plunging and bucking and airs above the ground that were on display the first few days (while I cringed from the sidelines) didn’t re-injure the ankle and he made a full recovery.

His manners, on the other hand, remained a one-step-forwards, two-steps-back work in progress.  Parker has always preferred to push the envelope, and he is utterly unfazed by most forms of correction.  There’s never been any actual malice in him, I hasten to add … he’s just incorrigible.

His introduction to under-saddle work resumed the fall after his injury, only mildly delayed.  To my amazement he Parker's first ride -- October  2012.  He looks a little sceptical ... accepted me on his back with far fewer fireworks than I’d been bracing myself for.  I had actually considered sending him out to someone younger and less decrepit to be backed, expecting that he’d be a tough one — but given my more-or-less constant state of poverty, I ended up doing it myself, and he was absolutely fine, because he trusted me.

Not to say that his progress has been seamless, or that there haven’t been plenty of hissy fits and non-linear thinking involved in coercing him into doing stuff for me, but to his credit, he has never actually tried to kill me.  (Don’t give him any ideas.)

Fast-forward to this past summer.  Parker was five this year, and I really felt it was time to finally get him out to a real show or two.  Why else had I bred him?  Of course, first he had to actually learn to jump.  I’d introduced him to trotting poles and a couple of tiny cross-rails towards the end of the previous year, but we hadn’t gotten as far as proper jumping.  We had a cold, wet, nasty spring, so we were late getting started, but once again the little bugger surprised me:  he loved, loved, loved jumping, and while the rideability between the fences was still often in question, I soon discovered that if I managed to deliver him roughly between the standards in sort of a straight line, he would fling himself into the air without hesitation.

The sequence of photos above is from Parker’s first real event, the Glen Oro horse trials in September (shared with permission of the photographer, the incomparable Andrew Bailini).  Granted, it was Pre-Entry level, where the fences are barely visible to the naked eye.  The point was to introduce him to the routine of a horse trials, navigate a dressage ring, jump a whole course of fancy-coloured stadium fences with decorations and gewgaws on them, and canter politely around a little cross-country course without dropping me on my elderly head.  He looks deceptively innocent and honest in the pix, doesn’t he?  We’ll go Entry level next year, I promise … and I won’t rule out finishing out the season at Pre-Training.  Because frankly, though it’s early days, Young Master Parker already feels like he has wicked talent out there, despite his being vertically challenged and despite his less-than-straightforward outlook on life.  If I can continue to channel him to use his powers for good instead of evil, I think I might have one helluva nice little event horse on my hands.

At the moment, of course, the rest of his coat resembles the ridiculously long forelock which earned him the nickname Fabio, and he’s not doing a whole lot.  Stay tuned.  Spring will be here in, oh, four short months or so.

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