Hi Ho, Hi Ho, It’s Off to Run She Goes

By Margaret Freeman, January 11, 2017

Running four races and 48 miles over four days earns Molly Lane a lot of hardware.

I am feeling like a total slug this morning. A friend of mine just completed something called the Dopey Challenge at the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend. That’s not just a marathon, it’s 48.6 miles over four days! On Thursday, they run a 5K; on Friday a 10K; on Saturday a half marathon; and on Sunday a full marathon. I saw a picture of her on Facebook this morning with a bunch of medals around her neck.

I feel terrible that I didn’t know Molly Lane runs marathons, but she is not someone who talks about herself. And Molly lives way UP THERE in New Hampshire, while I’m DOWN HERE in North Carolina. I know Molly through her wonderful work with Dressage4Kids and Lendon Gray’s Youth Dressage Festival, where Molly handles all the sponsors and trophies, which is a huge job. She’s also the mom of a terrific dressage rider, Jocelyn Wiese. I see Molly once a year at the festival in New York in August, and she’s a whirling dervish with the awards all weekend.

Molly made a Facebook post on Saturday that the half-marathon portion of the Dopey Challenge had been cancelled because of bad weather, but the Disney folks said everyone would still get their awards on Sunday after the marathon. She didn’t think that was entirely kosher, so when the weather cleared she went to run the half-marathon course and found lots of other runners doing the same thing, when they didn’t have to – what an amazing group!

Molly has run the Dopey Challenge for four years, and last year she ran into Lisa Belcastro there, which is pretty amazing to see someone horsey you know in a crowd of 28,000 runners. What was also amazing was that Lisa ran the sponsorship for the Youth Dressage Festival for its first few years before Molly took over. I know Lisa from when I was involved with Chronicle of the Horse back in the ‘80s and she was an editor there. Lisa was the one who made the first call to me in 1999 that got me involved with Dressage4Kids.

Okay, so there is a lot of emphasis on fitness in dressage right now, but this level of dedication just blows my mind. Of course, if Molly’s in shape to run a maxi-marathon in the winter, that means she’s also running in New Hampshire in the winter. Hurts my lungs just to think about it. Riding one horse a day in New York during the winter was bad enough for me.

I am not going to say how old Molly is – let’s just say she’s in the same decade as me. I am on my own fitness kick, if only so that my vest points don’t poke out too much come spring. I just need to be able to ride one horse for an hour in summer weather without passing out (or judge 8 hours).

I did light workouts indoors and shoveled snow this weekend. After Molly’s inspiration, I’m headed back to the gym today to walk a mile on the treadmill, do some stretching and then go ride my horse. Or, maybe I’ll just longe. Let’s not go nuts here.

A Knotty Dilemma for Winter

By Margaret Freeman, January 02, 2017

Rooney supervises my mud knot attempts in the wash stall.

It’s a mild winter afternoon, and I’m faced with a problem only a horse girl would understand:

I’ve pulled off my helmet after riding and found the looper holding my hair back has disappeared. I now have a choice between fighting Gunner the Jack Russell for my looper, which involves crawling under a cedar tree, or using the one holding the mud knot in my mare’s tail. Ewww.

I am challenged when it comes to mud knots. I haven’t really attempted one since my fox hunting days decades ago. Since my mare is working on piaffe with ground work several days a week now, a mud knot is essential. I try to keep a looper on my mane brush, and another on my wrist, but they still seem to disappear.

After a couple years when my mare went to Florida for the winter, while I stayed home, and another spent rehabbing, we are now looking forward to a winter together in the same place working on new and interesting things and conditioning for shows in the spring. I am really not a Florida person and, since the winters are so mild here in North Carolina compared to points north, I’m surprised more people from here make the trek. Yes, there are great shows and great training opportunities in Florida, but I am still in the train-winter-show-summer patterns from the past.

All the horses in my boarding barn have headed to Florida except for mine and the two belonging to the barn owner, Kemper. My mare Windy has moved to a new stall closer to Kemper’s pair and has formed a surprising alliance with her new neighbor, Kele. They don’t just tolerate each other, a rarity for my alpha mare, but are plain kissy face. Perhaps it’s because they both delight in being mean to Guapo, the third horse in the barn (not counting Lily the mini, who mostly hangs out with the dogs). It’s vital that if my mare gets a treat Kele gets one as well or the stalls will suffer a pounding.

(I woke up at 6 a.m. and thought about the horses being led up Kemper’s long driveway to the van in the dark yesterday. I turned over and went back to sleep. They let us know when they got there. In the meantime, my orbs didn’t have to be open until it was light.) With our crazy seasons, there are flowers on our cherry trees when I walked my Corgi Rooney at 8 a.m. Who needs Florida?

My other winter sport this year, besides daily trips to the gym and doing half steps in the cold, will be dog agility with Rooney. I have found there are special joys in training a 17-pound animal over a 1,200-pound one, although working with a dog on the ground is a lot colder than riding a horse. The agility ring is on an open hillside (our forecast today is 20 mph winds), while I’ve got a covered arena to ride in. On the other hand, when the temperature drops, the dog doesn’t suddenly disappear out from underneath me.

Our agility training ring is lined with blue stone just like the outdoor arena and there are jump standards just like at the barn. My dog will run obstacles for cheese pretty much in the same way that my mare will piaffe for sugar. The left pocket of my breeches holds both sugar and mini Milk Bones, and I have to make sure the right animal is getting the right goodie, although I suspect Kele would suck down a Milk Bone if I mixed them up. Windy used to patooie a sugar cube polluted with Milk Bone dust, but now she’s not so discriminating.

Willing Cooperation

By Margaret Freeman, December 26, 2016

The rein-back is a test of “willing cooperation.”

In the last round of new dressage tests, a change was made under the heading of “submission” at the bottom to include the phrase “willing cooperation” as part of its definition. There has been some discussion that, when new tests are published again in a couple years, it will go even further, substituting “willing cooperation” for the heading of “submission” itself under the collective marks.

This could happen with all the agencies that write tests we use in this country, including FEI, USEF and USDF. Since I’m a professional editor, I generally am not in favor of using a longer, more-complicated term when a shorter one with fewer syllables will get the job done. In this case, however, I love the idea.

The USEF Rulebook used to contain the notion that submission did not mean “truckling subservience.” I think that was the favorite phrase from the Rulebook of every judge I knew because it sounded so funny – and, for goodness sakes, what did it really mean?! Obviously, no one wanted to see dead quiet horses just trudging around. Fortunately that phrase is no longer in the rule book, but “willing cooperation” can be seen throughout the definition of submission in DR116.

One of the questions I am asked most often is about what it takes to get an “8” instead of a “7.” One simple answer I give is “expression.” I also like to take that a step further at times and say “expression without tension.” If you want the epitome of that idea, go back and watch any of the performances of Valegro during the past year.

I had a scribe once who put a smiley face on the top part of the snowman that represents the number 8. That’s the right idea.

From the USEF Rulebook: “The Submission (Willing Cooperation) does not mean subordination, but an obedience revealing its presence by a constant attention, willingness and confidence in the whole behavior of the horse as well as by the harmony, lightness and ease it is displaying in the execution of the different movements. . . . Submission (Willing Cooperation) requires that the horse understands what is being asked of it and is confident enough in the rider to react to the aids without fear or tension.

My favorite part of that excerpt is “willingness and confidence.” A horse that exudes those qualities in the ring simply looks happy and so, for that matter, does the rider. In fact, the rider has to be pretty confident for the horse to be so, as well.

So, here’s my New Year’s resolution as a judge: I am going to try to erase “submissive” from my mental vocabulary (I may still have to write it at times) and substitute “willing and confident.” And, if I want a shortcut for my editor brain, well, I can ask myself whether the horse and rider look happy. If the answer is yes and there is expression without tension, well, that may easily translate into numbers above 7.

Three-Rider Olympic Format Doesn’t Add Up

By Margaret Freeman, December 21, 2016

Erin Gilmore
Credit: Erin Gilmore
A scene like this from the 2016 Olympics isn't due to repeat in Tokyo in 2020 since the FEI has mandated three-rider teams.

If you know someone hoping to make an Olympic equestrian team in 2020, their chances just got harder. On the other hand, if they make a team, their chances of winning a medal just got better – or worse, depending on how you look at it.

Last month the FEI General Assembly voted to change the Olympic equestrian format for the 2020 Games in Tokyo. The new format will include only three riders on the teams for all three equestrian events – dressage, show jumping, eventing – with no drop scores. This will mean fewer riders from each country will get to make the trip. It will also mean that, if a powerhouse team loses a combination, then weaker teams will have a better shot at the top of the podium.

In the past few decades, Olympic dressage has alternated between three-and four-rider teams, but jumping has always had four-rider teams, and eventing has even had five-rider teams that allowed for two drop scores. In Rio this past summer, the three teams each had four riders, with the top three scores to count for team medals. Other major equestrian championships usually follow the four-rider format to allow for one drop score. With horses, this just makes sense, since you don’t want to push a horse who might have a soundness issue for the sake of the rest of the team, among many other reasons.

The FEI has long been under pressure from the IOC to adjust its format in several ways: use less land (in the case of eventing); increase the numbers and diversity of federations; not allow one competitive effort to result in two medals (again, in eventing, for both team and individual medals); enhance audience interest (hence, the dressage freestyle); and streamline the events, which spread over the entire two weeks of the Games. The implied threat to the FEI was that equestrian sports might otherwise be dropped from the Games. A cap of 200 horses has also been decreed for the Tokyo Games, despite the push for more countries to take part.

The FEI vote for approval of the new format wasn’t even close, however. (The USEF voted yes, by the way.) Since then, rider groups that weren’t consulted before the vote have been speaking up. The timeline has the FEI recommendation going to the IOC in February with the final IOC decision coming in July. The FEI said the events would be “packaged in a more compact format” and thus make the events “more readily understandable” by engaging “new fans through enhanced presentation.”

Here’s the take of Ulf Helgstrand, president of the Danish National Federation: “We want excitement and more flags, and we have to make our sport more understandable. Which other sport can have a medal with an athlete that’s been disqualified? We will have much more excitement if one of the top countries or riders fails. This will give us more excitement and more flags.”

Okay, those sound like good arguments. I just know that when I watched four-rider events in dressage at the seven Olympics that I covered as a journalist, I got a lot more excited than when I watched three-rider events. While the idea of a simplified format might be more understandable to potential fans of the sport, I think the established fans of the sport are left scratching their heads.

Is the glamor of the Olympics the only way to attract new countries and new riders to the sport, and thus equestrianism at the Olympics needs to be dumbed down? And, at least in the case of jumping and eventing, will there be at a potential harm to the horses – why did it once make sense to increase the eventing teams to five horse/rider combos for the safe of safety and now reduce them to three?

The discussion for the 2020 Games will likely end this summer, but after Tokyo the debate should heat up again. I can only hope for a return to four-rider teams. I suspect, however, there will be even more tweaking and even more major adjustments. The inclusion of equestrian sports in the Olympics is vital, and bringing more interest to horse sports both around the world and in the Games are worthy goals. However, in seeking those goals, let’s also not lose sight of what makes those sports so great.

Welcoming Dressage Fans

By Margaret Freeman, December 15, 2016

Bill Moroney, CEO of the USEF (note the “E”), presented a report to the Board of Governor’s meeting at the USDF (note the “D”) Convention last week. A lot is going on with the USEF right now in the way of restructuring, and much of it will affect the USDF since we’ll be taking over some new responsibilities, including more in the area of judge education.

While I was paying close attention to anything involving a change in the relationship between the USEF and USDF, the part that really made me sit up and take notice was when Moroney said he’d recently become aware of how many members of European equestrian organizations were “non-competing” and thus were more closely identified as fans of the sport. In other words, those groups had a significant portion of members deeply interested in equestrian sports who joined because they wanted to, not because they had to.

Dressage – indeed many horse sports – has always seemed to me to be the ultimate participant’s sport, finding its base of support in the people who do it much more than in the people who watch it. Grand Prix level dressage, especially freestyles, can certainly interest spectators, but just think about how many non-riding fans dressage has vs., for example, major league baseball.

As hard as this is for many of us to imagine, some find just sitting and watching dressage, especially lower-level dressage, to be rather dull unless they personally know the rider in the ring. I should say that I once covered a national-level archery competition for a major newspaper, and that has forever been my definition of deadly dull. I only jolted to attention when yelling broke out as someone scored a rare “William Tell,” which I subsequently learned is when one archer splits the arrow of the previous archer. Could that be the dressage equivalent of . . . ? Well, I can’t think of a dressage equivalent.

So, Moroney’s reference about a wider fan-base for equestrian sports organizations to plum for members really got the wheels turning. Certainly, this might be an area where some imaginative thinkers who belong to a local USDF Group Member Organization might be able to entice some new members, people who think that dressage is interesting even though they themselves don’t ride or maybe even own a horse. Most club activities on the local level are usually centered some way around riding – competing, clinics and awards – not on just enjoying horses.

I really don’t know how, or even if, it would work, but the essence of a club is when like-minded people join together for a common purpose. If people simply enjoy watching dressage or learning about dressage or cheering on their dressage stars, there should be some way to include them in an organization of people who ride dressage.

While we’re at it, my ears also pricked when I heard that the USEF is going to start referring to itself more as U.S. Equestrian, which is a close throwback to the name (USA Equestrian) it had between AHSA and USEF a decade back, while still retaining the formal name of U.S. Equestrian Federation. I am thrilled to hear it. Ever since the name change to USEF, it has been hard for many people to distinguish between its functions and those of the USDF because the names sounded so similar. 

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