Writing From the Right Side of the Stall

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

Archive for the month “May, 2012”

Focus on Brainbuckets: International Helmet Awareness Day

This is a subject that’s near and dear to my heart.  I’m exceedingly fond of my thus-far-intact skull, and as an eventer and a coach, I’m something of a helmet Nazi.  So I’m happy to spread this message to my stalwart, happy handful of readers.  Though I know I’m preaching to the choir, cuz you’re all smart like that, right?

RIDERS4HELMETS ANNOUNCES INTERNATIONAL HELMET AWARENESS DAY 2012

Helmet Manufacturers to offer discounts globally through participating retailers

Lexington, KY — Riders4Helmets.com has teamed up with leading helmet manufacturers to host International Helmet Awareness Day 2012 on Saturday June 9th.

Building on the success of National Helmet Awareness Day 2010 (USA) and International Helmet Awareness Day 2011, participating retailers all over the world will be offering discounts on helmets to equestrians on this day.

We are delighted to be in our third year of hosting and organizing International Helmet Awareness Day,” said Lyndsey White, Riders4Helmets. “The campaign was founded two years ago as a direct result of Olympian Courtney King-Dye’s accident with the aim of educating equestrians on the benefits of wearing a properly fitting, secured and certified helmet. We are proud to dedicate this years’ event to Courtney.”

International Helmet Awareness Day is not just an opportunity for equestrians to purchase a helmet at a special one-time discount, more importantly it is an opportunity for equestrians to be educated. “Riders4Helmets will therefore be live-streaming ‘Get Educated’ webinars via Riders4Helmets.com on Saturday June 9th, in which equestrians will be able to ask a variety of experts real-time” questions.

The webinars will feature experts in fields such as:  traumatic brain injury and concussion; psychology (why equestrians choose not to wear a helmet); neurophysiotherapy; helmet manufacturers; traumatic brain injury survivors; leading equestrians (including Olympians); and helmet testing agencies. Riders4Helmets will announce the confirmed line-up of participants at Riders4Helmets.com prior to June 9th.

The educational aspect of International Helmet Awareness Day will be supported by participating retailers, many of whom have already made plans to offer educational events in their stores on June 9th.

Helmet brands that have committed involvement in International Helmet Awareness Day 2012 to date include: Samshield, Troxel, Charles Owen, GPA, Aegis (Devon-Aire), Pegasus, Tipperary, Ovation, IRH, One K and KEP Italia in the USA & Canada. In the UK, Charles Owen, Champion Hats, Gatehouse and LAS have all signed up.

“We are grateful to the helmet manufacturers for their continued support of this important event,” said Chad Mendell, Riders4Helmets. “The Riders4Helmets campaign has continued to grow on a global level, as we hope will International Helmet Awareness Day.”

Retailers who wish to participate in the event may register by visiting www.riders4helmets.com/ihad/retailer-information/. Retailers are encouraged to register prior to May 28th, 2012 in order to ensure that they receive educational materials in time for the event. Late registrations will however, still be accepted through June 8th.

Equestrians may visit www.riders4helmets.com/ihad/ to learn more about International Helmet Awareness Day and to search for participating retailers by name or geographic location. Equestrians are encouraged to visit www.riders4helmets.com/ihad/ the morning of June 9th, 2012, to view the most current update, as participating retailers continue to be added.

Individuals or organizations wishing to hold an event to recognize International Helmet Awareness Day may email admin@riders4helmets.com for helmet awareness graphics and educational brochures. “You can participate and show your support just by wearing a helmet on June 9th, no matter whether you are trail riding, showing or competing” said White.

For more information on the Riders4Helmets campaign, visit www.riders4helmets.com. You can also follow the campaign at www.facebook.com/riders4helmets and http://twitter.com/riders4helmets.

Riders4Helmets was founded in early 2010 after Olympic dressage rider Courtney King Dye was seriously injured in a riding accident. King Dye, who remained in a coma for a month following her accident, was not wearing a helmet at the time of the accident, and is still undergoing rehabilitation.

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Book Review: Backyard Horse Tales: Sox, by Jackie Anton

Backyard Horse Tales: Sox (2nd edition) invites young readers into the high-profile world of competitive reining, and it is there that author and illustrator Jackie Anton finds her comfort zone, describing in vivid detail the challenges that face horse and rider in the show pen.

The hero of the tale is Sox, a Quarter Horse foal who is born with a disfigured leg, and overcomes his disability to excel as a reining horse.  Sox and his mother, Sandy, communicate to each other and to the reader, Black Beauty style, speaking in the first person.  Anton uses this conceit to describe Sox’s equine view of the world, but it’s a little self-conscious, particularly when she uses Sox’s voice to introduce the story’s human characters.

More authentic is the addition of 11-year-old Emma, the proverbial girl next door who is struggling with her own challenges.   When Emma’s mother joins the military and is deployed to Iraq, Emma must relocate to small-town America to live with her grandmother.  Emma’s diary entries give us some poignant insight into her feelings of isolation and her worry about her mother – but here, too, there is some awkwardness when we learn that Emma has been diagnosed with dyslexia.  I’m not dyslexic myself, but I would imagine that a dyslexic character might not find it easy to generate the articulate diary entries we read; she would likely choose to express herself in another fashion.

Sox and Emma come together as they grow and mature, though on the whole, I would have liked to have read more about how they overcame their challenges.  Sox’s contracted-tendon issue appears to resolve more or less on its own, and Emma’s dyslexia doesn’t seem to be much of an issue either.  (Nor does her loneliness last forever, as her mother returns safe and sound from Iraq mid-way through the book.)  Still, it’s clear that each needs the other and learns from the other as they grow from children to adults – and as Emma’s equestrian education at the farm next door progresses, she moves from riding Sox’s experienced and wise mother, to the young and cheeky Sox himself.  (Thumbs up for this valuable message to young readers that green horse + green rider is not a healthy equation.) 

Anton’s background as a rider and horsewoman shines through in the text of “Sox” — her hero is based on her own reining horse, Two Scooten Sox, who was lost to colic in 2009 — and both teens and adults will enjoy being immersed in the precision world of reining competition.  Horse-crazy young readers will love the descriptions of county fairs and horse shows, and kids of all persuasions will find the episode in which a tornado strikes at a horse show, particularly gripping.

At times, the tale of Sox feels like a story in search of an ending … but when the conclusion does come, it’s eminently satisfying.

About the author:
Jackie Anton writes the family friendly series “Backyard Horse Tales” (readers 8 to adult).  Sox 2nd Edition expands Sox and Emma’s story, and has a brand new ending. This version is enjoying excellent early reviews.  #2, “Frosty and the Nightstalker” will be out by fall of 2012. “Prelude: Backyard Horse Tales 3: Don’t Call Me Love” is an e-book available on smashwords.com and amazon.com.
Anton also pens romance books, under the pseudonym J.M. Anton. “Fateful Waters” will be an e-book in April, and in print by late summer 2012.

Backyard Horse Tales:  Sox is self-published and is available in both print and e-book editions.  Purchase Sox 2nd Edition at www.backyardhorsetales.com, or at Back to the Books online store, and enjoy free shipping.  

The first five readers to purchase Sox, second edition before the end of this Blog Tour will receive a free copy of Backyard Horse Tales 2: Frosty and the Nightstalker. Purchases will be verified with resellers Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and a host of online retailers. Purchase an e-book and you will receive an e-book!  Print editions of Frosty’s Tale will be autographed before they are shipped.

More about Jackie Anton here:

Sliding Stop

Sliding Stop (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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Images of Odysseo

For the past six weeks or so, I’ve been lucky enough to work with Cavalia’s new show, Odysseo, as it has prepared to open in Toronto.  I’m the local ‘equestrian coordinator’, which means I’m the one who knows where all the local tack shops and riding schools are, which BNR (Big Name Riders) to connect with, and which associations might enthusiastically help us promote the show.  It’s been a combo pack of marketing, schmoozing, copywriting, and media relations, and one of the perks has been being able to invite several media friends to the gala opening night last night (Tuesday, May 15).  More on that in a future post …

I’ve also been in attendance at the three media previews, the most recent of which offered a condensed ‘sneak peek’ of Odysseo’s unique melding of horses, acrobats, and aerialists, and let those of us with cameras have at it.  (Cameras are prohibited for the actual performances, so this was our only shot at getting the shots!)

I knew my equipment was going to be underpowered for the challenging light conditions inside the Big Top theatre.  My lenses aren’t the fastest and my old Nikon camera body has serious limits on its ISO.  But experience has also taught me that shooting under these limitations can sometimes give really pleasing results.  Some of my favourite images from the opening ceremonies of the 2010 World Equestrian Games, for example, are blurred and ethereal shots I got after dark, with the horses captured in coloured spotlights.

Herewith a selected few images from Odysseo.  It’s not poor photography, people; it’s art!  (Say that with conviction and you can almost buy into it.)

If you’d like to see some actual in-focus images, check out my friend Shawn Hamilton’s gallery here.

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Mud, Mosquitoes, and Mayhem

I promised I was going to usher you into the mysterious unseen world of the horse show press tent, right?

That’s assuming, of course, that there actually is one.

Over the past 15 years or so, I have experienced many levels of media preparedness on the part of horse shows.  Rarely sublime, often ridiculous.  Of course, the general level of making-life-easy-for-journalists has improved vastly with the advent of wi-fi.  (Look, contact with the outside world — oh, bliss!)

But given that horse shows are generally situated somewhere out in a muddy field, it’s little wonder that what most journos might consider the basic basics — stuff like phone lines, electricity, and chairs — are often in short supply, and were even more so 15 or 20 years ago, when I first started trekking to these festivities.

There’s a three-star three-day event called the Fair Hill International, which occurs every October in Elkton, Maryland.  (For the uninitiated, equestrian sports, and especially eventing, are ranked in difficulty by the number of stars, ranging from one to four.  There are only six four-star three-day events in the world and they are seriously, seriously badass.  A three-star event is one level below that, but just to put it in perspective, the three-day eventing competition at the Olympics is at the three-star level.)

Fair Hill is a gorgeous place, but given the time of year when the event is held, it’s almost invariably a mudpit.  And the first year that I arrived there to cover it for the British eventing monthly confusingly called “Eventing“, I sunk my rental car to the axles in the parking lot, schlepped through a sea of goo to the centre of activity, and failed to locate anything in the way of a structure that was designated for weary journalistic travellers such as myself.  After a good deal of feckless squishing around the trade fair, I finally located someone with a walkie-talkie, who looked me up and down with wonder and said something along the lines of, “Wow, we have PRESS!”

Okay, so safe to assume there’s no internet access, then …

The 1999 Pan Am Games, in Winnipeg, wasn’t much better.  While most of the competitions were very well-organized, the equestrian events were orphaned out in Bird’s Hill Park, some considerable distance from the rest of the venues and completely off the organizing committee’s radar.  Once we had visited the main press outlet in a huge urban convention centre, and claimed our oversized plastic press passes on lanyards, we were on our own.  We soon discovered that, in all the excitement of erecting dressage rings and building cross-country courses and battling the world’s largest and most aggressive squadrons of mosquitoes, that no-one had really factored in the presence of press out at Bird’s Hill.

Not only was there no press tent, there was no food.  The only fast-food truck was back in the stabling area, where we lowly journos were forbidden to venture.  (I nearly got my foot run over by an overly-aggressive security person in a Gator, when I suggested that it might be nice if someone brought all of us out some peameal sandwiches.  Sheesh.  Give some people a badge and a radio, and they become megalomaniacs.)

By day two, we were all doing rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock as to who got to do the Tim Horton’s runs (about 30 km from the park), and by day three, the delightful woman who had been organizing the feeding of the many, many volunteers it takes to run equestrian events at the Pan Am Games, started making all of the journalists and photographers extra sandwiches in brown bags.

Honestly, it was just about the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen.  And she got us Pan Am shirts and hats too.  I still have the hat somewhere.

At the other end of the press tent spectrum is Spruce Meadows, the showjumping Mecca in Calgary.  I haven’t had the pleasure of covering all that many tournaments at Spruce Meadows, but they can invite me back anytime.  Not only is there a climate-controlled press centre with every desired amenity from closed-circuit tv (should you not desire to look out the picture windows at the ring) to a scrum area, printers, and (gasp) flushies … but for the journalists covering the big weekend classes with the million-dollar sponsorships, they actually wheel in steam tables laden with prime rib, shrimp, three veg, and desserts.  Plus china plates, linen napkins, and cutlery.

I’m gonna say it again.  Cutlery.  Still makes my toes curl with sheer glee.

For journalists habituated to subsisting on potato chips, purchased three days earlier at a gas station and crushed into powder in one’s backpack, this isn’t just a pleasant meal, it’s an absolute revelation.

And by now, you’re probably coming to one very important and correct conclusion:  a fed journalist is a happy journalist.

It’s true.  We are simple, simple creatures, easy to lull into a state of contentment.  Again, it’s possible that this is all standard practice in other arenas of sports journalism, but I, for one, never ever take it for granted.  Mostly because it’s far more the exception than the rule, and one can’t even really assume that because it was offered one year, it will be offered another.

Take another three-star three-day event, called the Foxhall CCI***.  It required a flight to Atlanta to get to this one, but when it was launched, with much fanfare, by a local polo guy with deep pockets who committed to a 20-year run and huge (for eventing) prize money, we footloose freelancers were all intrigued.

So I land at the Atlanta airport, walk about 30 miles from concourse to concourse, claim my little rental car and navigate my way to the showgrounds, which is out in a communications dead zone where no cel phone comes out alive, about half an hour from Atlanta.  I am weary, I am grumpy, and I drag my laptop and cameras to a tent labelled “press” …. where I am immediately handed a huge plate of fried chicken and biscuits, and asked, “Red or white?”

Well.

Unfortunately, the exceptional hospitality at Foxhall didn’t last.  By year three, someone in accounting had cancelled just about all of the perks first showered upon the journalists, and had instituted box lunches that we could purchase for $8 apiece.  (And they were egg salad.  Yecch.  If egg salad were the last food on Earth, I would starve to death rather than consume it.  It’s just revolting.)

By year five, there was no press tent at all … just a power outlet that myself and the one other remaining freelancer who turned up, located up by the stables and took turns using to keep our laptops going when the batteries started to run low. The tycoon had apparently made some unfortunate business deals and was flat outta money.  The show lost its sponsorship and was unable to secure another one.  Needless to say, that 20-year deal failed to be honoured.

I don’t miss schlepping all the way to Atlanta, but man, that fried chicken was exceptional.

Truth is, however, we don’t attend horse shows for the food.  (Well, except for Fair Hill, which features amazing crab chowder in styrofoam bowls.)  We just want to write a good story about the action, and we’re prepared to make some sacrifices to do so.   My expectation, these days, is for a wobbly table and a plastic chair set under a leaky, drafty tent. If there’s a power outlet and internet access, all else is gravy.  And let’s face it, wi-fi, phone lines, and hydro are all fairly recent expectations.   Horse show grounds, historically, have not been the easiest places with which to provide these luxuries.  I get that.

Even Bromont, another three-day event site which once hosted the equestrian events at the 1976 Montreal Olympics and thus boasts a large, permanent grandstand, had zero in the way of power outlets or wi-fi available to the press last time I was there.  I had to beg a corner of the scorer’s trailer because I was filing daily reports for a website … where I was relentlessly entertained by an Equine Canada official who was drunk as a skunk, and getting increasingly belligerent, as she added up the scores.  Incorrectly.  Par-tay.

I know I’m not the only intrepid girl reporter who remembers huddling in a leaky tent at Rolex, the feet of my plastic chair sinking into the wet grass, clutching the edges of the garbage bag protecting my laptop from the elements, mentally begging the dial-up to work, and never once thinking, “I could have been a civil servant and worked in a nice, beige, upholstered cube farm somewhere.”

Thankfully, the Kentucky Horse Park was selected to host the World Equestrian Games in 2010, so its press tent set-up received gradual upgrades in the lead-up years, culminating in the whole business being moved indoors (indoors!) to a roomy space overlooking one of the indoor arenas.  With plumbing and all.  Now, all I have to kvetch about is that the windows give a tormenting view of the trade fair below, which I have neither the time nor the cash to peruse.

Many of my colleagues have trekked around the world to cover Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games and are more familiar with the scale of the press centres attached to these events than I; again, alas, not having a surfeit of Air Miles at my disposal, I have had to sit most of those out.  But the Kentucky WEG did give me a taste of the possibilities, without the associated hassles of passport-carrying.  (Though I did get various versions of pat-downs every dim early morning as I entered the park with my gear.)  Yes, it was a tent, but it was a tent designed for 1200 people, with an attached interview tent and a designated cafeteria just fer little ‘ol us.  (Overpriced, to be sure, but handy nonetheless.)  We had flatscreen TVs so we could watch the action in multiple arenas, we had Canon set up on-site with its IT guys, and my particular circle of acquaintances seemed to have a knack for winning the Rolex door prizes of bottles of champagne, by correctly guessing the nightly leaders on the scoreboards of the eight different equestrian disciplines we were all trying to cover.

I think champagne tastes particularly festive when sipped from a paper cup.

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Welcome to the Press Tent

Normally, on this particular week of the year, I would be feeling a little like I’d been run over by a herd of rampaging wildebeest.  That’s because this is normally the day after I would have gotten home from the Rolex Kentucky CCI****, at the Horse Park in Lexington.  It’s an annual pilgrimage, except that due to other commitments (and a serious shortage of funds) I didn’t make it this year.

Not that I’m not still running on a sleep deficit and generally feeling like death warmed over … it’s just that I don’t have any unpacking to do.

I do the 10- or 11-hour trek  to Kentucky every year for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost, it’s usually because I have scraped up some assignments to write about it and/or submit photographs.  Being of a generally destitute demeanour, I’m not sure I’d go if I had to pay $30 (or whatever it is, these days) to get in the gate, but if I have a press pass, as I have had for the past 20 years or so, that makes it a smidge more affordable.

Secondly, despite the fact that going south on I75 through Ohio is one of the most stultifying stretches of driving in the world (and that includes the notoriously soporific Hwy 401 between London and Windsor, a drive I have done many, many, many, many thousands of times), it all begins to improve as you approach Cincinnatti.  The endless stretches of flat, nothing farmland give way to rolling hills and blooming redbud trees along the highway …and your snow-numbed Canadian brain goes, “Yes!  Spring!  Foliage!  Signs of life!”

It can be very refreshing to see a bit of green, a couple of weeks early.

Tragically, though, I no longer get to enjoy one of the legendary landmarks of I75 near Cincinnati:  The Big Butter Jesus (just typed “Big Bugger”, oops — my bad), aka Touchdown Jesus, who used to emerge like a 60 foot Lady of the Lake, from an artificial pond in front of the Solid Rock Church right by the interstate.  Jesus used to tell me I was just an hour and a half away from Lexington.  But that was before he was struck by lightning and went up in flames a few years ago, leaving behind only a macabre metal skeleton.

Heywood Banks explains in song:

(Ooh, had to edit to add:  Big Butter Jesus has his own blog!  Dayam!)

The third reason for going to what is always called just “Rolex” by its aficionados: I like eventing.  To me there is absolutely no piece of horseflesh more thrilling than an upper-level event horse, usually a big strapping, ridiculously fit Thoroughbred with veins busting out of his coat, eating up the ground  in a nice easy gallop and jumping humongously massive, diabolically evil things that don’t come down when you hit them, like it was child’s play.

I also like the horsemanship and the mindset of eventers. Even at the international level, they’re all pretty self-deprecating, down-to-earth folks.  They like to party and they know every square centimetre of their horse’s bodies better than they know their own. You can’t ride cross-country with a stick up your ass, which is probably why I would much rather interview eventers than dressage riders or showjumpers, any day of the week.

If there’s a downside to covering eventing, it’s that the sport is dangerous. As much as the high muckety-mucks of the game have toiled (and they have toiled, tirelessly) to improve course design, equipment, and the rules over the last few decades, shit still happens. Not often. But it happens. Horses get injured. Rarely, they get killed, usually by catastrophic injuries such as when Laine Ashker’s horse, Frodo Baggins, flipped over a fence a few years ago and broke his neck. And because, at the three- and four-star level it’s just about the most strenuous thing you can ask a horse to do, there’s the odd aortic rupture, too, resulting in a horse’s sudden death. It’s devastating, just devastating.

And yes, riders get hurt and killed too, though I confess it’s the horse injuries that trash me … perhaps because, although (contrary to the perspective of the great unwashed who have no background in eventing) you cannot force a horse to jump cross-country fences, and the ones that rise to this level do it for the sheer joy of doing it, at the same time you can never really sit a horse down and explain the risks to him. Riders go out on course knowing full well what obstacles lie before them, but the horses just go out trusting their riders. But damn, that’s also what makes it heroic.

Every time I do witness a crash, and get that horrible sick feeling in my stomach over it, I swear I’m never going to cover this sport again. I just can’t deal with the downside.

But I always end up coming back.

(As an aside, when a wreck does happen on course, and I’m not ridiculous miles away from it, I always try to make my way over there as quickly as I can.  Some of my fellow photographers on course have accused me of being ghoulish for doing so.  But honestly, I’m not ambulance-chasing.  When an accident happens and it’s something relatively serious, the announcers usually go all quiet.  The competition stops while the emergency personnel get to work, and there’s no blow-by-blow update over the loudspeaker.  The longer the silence drags on, the more ominous it all becomes.  And because I am generally writing about the event as well as taking photos, I know I will eventually have to report on what happened.  There will be an official FEI press release about it at the end of the day, but generally these are so vague as to be useless.  So I would rather see firsthand what the situation is, as much as it makes me feel ill, than have to report based on rumour and hearsay.  And I do take pictures, but I NEVER publish those.  They are for my own information only.  Just in case you were wondering.)

Now it occurred to me that some (both?) of my gentle readers might not have experienced what, to me, has become normalcy:  the slightly surreal world of the horse show press tent.  And who am I not to share my delight with the universe?

I’m sure that, depending on the sport(s) you cover, you have different levels of expectation for the facilities set up for journalists.  Those who cover Formula One racing or pro football or yachting, for example, likely get wined and dined on a regular basis, courted with swag from Nikon and Canon, and take home little sponsor’s bags full of goodies. At least that’s what we idiots who cover eventing, jealously suspect.

Equestrian sports may have a hoity-toity reputation, but the reality for horsey journalists is more about leaky wellies and muddy  jeans, plastic bags duct-taped around your camera because you forgot the fitted little raincoat at home, surviving on granola bars, coffee, and overpriced bratwurst that repeats on you all afternoon, and waddling around the back forty of a cross-country course lugging three camera bodies and six 40 kg lenses wearing every single item of clothing you brought with you because it’s suddenly -5 Celsius.

And then there’s the sunburn, the shin splints, and weighing whether you can sprint to the extremely nasty porta-loo and back with all your equipment in the three minutes between horses on course … because of course the one single horse you don’t shoot in seven hours of competition, will inevitably be the one who wins and the only one anyone wants to purchase a photo of.

Oh, the glamour!

I can see this is going to be another one of my novel-length rants, so I’m going to save the particulars of the press tent for another post in the very near future.  Meanwhile, here’s another gratuitous eventing shot.

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