Feb 8, 2017

Changing a Culture of the Sedated Hunter Look

By Kim Ablon Whitney

Recently there's been a lot of discussion about the need to clean up the hunters--to find ways to penalize people who drug their horses to get them quiet. In these pleas for equity, judges are often called upon to do their part by changing the parameters of what we are looking for in a winning round.

If you watch a video of a winning hunter round from the 80s or even the 90s, you'll see that they almost look like the video is playing on fast forward. The horses practically race around the course. This is only in juxtaposition to what we've gotten used to in today's hunters where the horses crawl around the courses looking, well, sedated.

People are calling for us judges to stop rewarding the sedated look. It's usually in the form of Mary Babick's recent commentary in the COTH, asking judges not to penalize the "horse that jumps a beautiful jump, lands and shows expression on the other side."

Well, as a judge, let me say, I have no problem not penalizing the horse that jumps beautifully and shows expression after a jump. That's something I do already and can continue to do, no problem. 

But I don't think that's really the root of the problem. 

As I see it, the root of the problem is that if we really want to fix this issue, those slo-mo horses have to be penalized. We have to dedicate ourselves to deciding that hunters should carry pace--that they should look alive. And that means not just that showing expression after a jump is okay, but that horses that show no expression and look half-dead (but still jump amazing!) is not okay.

But here's the catch. As the judge, it's hard to be among the first to judge this way. If we judge this way, the slo-mo horses who have been winning week after week (and who, by the way, jump and move amazing), are going to lose classes to horses who look alive yet probably have smaller faults that happen more frequently when your horse isn't drugged or LTD (lunged till dead) like spooking, peeking, swapping off etc.

In order to turn the hunter industry on its head, judges need to buck the trends, and by doing so upset a lot of trainers and riders who are used to winning. 

Will I volunteer to start this trend? 

While I'd like to, I probably won't.

I think I'm a very good judge. I think I'm objective and honest and knowledgeable. But I'm not one of the big-time judges who judges week after week and has serious clout. Those are the judges who would need to lead this trend.

If I start pinning the classes differently, it won't make a huge difference because I don't judge all the time and on top of that, on a personal level, it would mean I'll probably never work at an A show again.

So we can talk all we want about "expression" after a jump, not dinging that horse for the head shake, but it's so much larger than that. It's about changing a culture of slo-mo winners.

Kim Ablon Whitney is an 'R' judge in hunters, equitation, and jumpers.

Jan 25, 2017

Four Horse Shows We Wish Were Still Running

by Kim Ablon Whitney

An all-jumper show set in the stunning White Mountains of New Hampshire. Grass footing, great classes, amazing atmosphere. The best of the best showed here and then could be found eating at the down-home Spaghetti Shed or other local restaurants after the show.

Children's Services
Held at the Farmington Polo Grounds for 41 years, Children's Services was the big kick-off show of the spring and summer season in New England. The grand prix was big for its time and also served as a qualifyier for the Olympics and Pan Am Games. For the equitation there was the coveted Governor's Cup. In 1992, Children's Services ended up becoming one of the Old Salem spring shows.

Uncertain Sign Wayne Carroll were Working Hunter champions of
the 1972 Children's Services Show in Farmington

The International Jumping Derby
Held from 1976-1988 at Mason Phelps' gorgeous ocean-side family estate near Newport, RI, this was THE best jumper show of its time--perhaps of all time. It had it all: spectacular setting, rugged European-style course over natural jumps, huge crowd, and fabulous parties. It was the place to see and be seen!

Katie Prudent and Special Envoy at the International Jumping Derby

Stonleigh Burnham Horse Show
A beautiful, bucolic setting on the all girls school campus, this show held in August was a must for the end of summer schedule. Brave riders sometimes jumped a few of the natural obstacles from the cross country course to warm up for the ring. Pony riders could be found having horseless horse-shows with lawn chairs as jumps.

Know of other shows that you wish were still running? Send them to belowthecutoff@gmail.com

Dec 29, 2016

Making a Difference One Stride at a Time

By Maggie Junkin
When Mahatma Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” I feel he was promoting a life of human goodness. As 2016 comes to a close and we embark on the new year, there's no better time to take stock of what you are doing for others.
As an equestrian I have had the fortunate ability to travel this country showing. This sport has allowed me to see this country in ways I never imagined. I have met fascinating people and have toured interesting places, but I have also had my eyes opened to see those struggling across our nation.  
As junior riders we are very busy. We're balancing riding and school and spend many days away from home. But that doesn't mean we can't help others.

There are many ways to incorporate service into your life as a junior equestrian. Here are a few I've done:

1. Collect toiletries for hotel stays. For years now I have collected toiletries from our hotel stays while on the road. I pack my own supplies and collect the small bottles and soap bars the hotel provides. I accumulate large bags over the year. 

Every February my school, Ancillae-Assumpta Academy, hosts a Martin Luther King Service Day. I share my toiletries and we put together individual bags for the homeless. It’s the things we take for granted that can mean a lot to some. Imagine how many toiletries you could collect if your trainer and barn friends did the same thing!
2. Organize an at-the-show food drive and team up with a local organization. Last winter I spent February and March in Gulfport, Mississippi for the Gulf Coast Winter Classic. Staying there for several weeks we befriended one of the security guards of the condo we rented. I learned how the people of Gulfport were still to this day struggling with the effects of Hurricane Katrina. She told me how she has friends who live in tent communities under highway bypasses because they could not afford to rebuild. Upon hearing this, my mom and I collected food for her to share with her friends. I look forward to organizing a bigger food drive when I return this year. I have also reached out to a private girls Catholic high school in the Gulfport area to learn of service programs I can help with while I am there.

3. Get involved with a horse charity. I am also very excited to have joined the EQUUS Foundation Best Performance Competition by a Junior 12-14. The Equus Foundation is dedicated to equine welfare. #RidewithPurpose!  www.equusfoundation.org/bestperformance.  It’s not too late to join. For a small fee you can join the program and begin to earn cumulative points at member shows throughout the year and potentially win Best Performance of the Year in your division. Winners may select an equine charity in the Equine Welfare Network to receive a grant in their name. And the membership dues go to finding new homes and second careers for unwanted horses.

4. Enlist equestrian companies to join in! My favorite charity to promote is Danny and Ron’s Rescue. This summer they made a trip to Baton Rouge after the floods to help area dog shelters and took much needed food and supplies to help the horses. While showing in Gulfport I met people who lived in Baton Rouge. Thankfully they were okay after the flooding, but the area was devastated. Danny and Ron’s Rescue pulled many dogs from the shelter in Baton Rouge. Many were positive for heartworm and were in need of costly heartworm treatment. Additionally Danny and Ron’s South Carolina facility had damage this year in a storm. Although this put financial pressure on the rescue, they still went out of their way to help the Baton Rouge dogs.  

Knowing they could use additional help this year I reached out to the owner of Ruespari Belts and asked if they would donate proceeds of a belt to help Danny and Ron’s Rescue. I am excited that Ruespari has made a Danny and Ron belt available for the month of December. Please check out Ruespari and see why celebrity jumper rider Kaley Cuoco and top junior rider Emma Kurtz wear their belts. Be flexible, be Ruespari.  www.ruespari.com   

The Danny & Ron belt.

Also, take a moment to visit the Danny and Ron’s Rescue website to see what great things this rescue does all year long and learn how you can donate to a great cause. www.dannyandronsrescue.com
I invite my fellow junior equestrians to think of ways they can help serve their own communities or favorite charities. Think outside the box. Small efforts add up. One stride at a time!
Wishing you all the best for the New Year!

Maggie Junkin competes on the circuit with her horse, Tommy Bahama. She lives with her family, 5 dogs, and 3 cats in Jenkintown, Pa.

Dec 24, 2016

'Twas the Week Before Christmas

by Maggie Junkin

'Twas the week before Christmas
And all through the farm
Not a creature was stirring
Without an alarm

The red barn
Was adorned in boughs of holly
Looking so festive
And oh so jolly

All the horses and ponies were
Tucked in their stalls
While their riders were busy
 Shopping the malls

Ponies were munching
Quietly on hay
Seemingly enjoying
The holiday

Show horses were blanketed
All toasty and warm
With dreams of winter circuit
To arrive before the snow storm

Back in the feed room
Stockings were hung
The barn mice were gathering
As carols were sung

The barn cat was snuggled
In the tack room with care
Waiting for Santa
To soon be there

'Tis the night before Christmas
And I wish everyone
The merriest of Christmas’s

And much Holiday fun

Maggie Junkin with Tommy Bahama

Dec 20, 2016

"Nice Pony and You Ride Him Well"

The judge. 

When I was younger, I revered the judge of any horse show I attended. The judge always seemed to loom larger than life. He or she basically had celebrity status in my mind. 

I couldn't believe it when I saw the judge doing something nearly human like coming out of a porta potti or ordering something from the food booth. Stars--they're just like us!

I also distinctly recall the few times a judge spoke to me. One such time was during a test in a USEF Medal class and the judge was none other than renowned rider and trainer Victor Hugo Vidal. Victor asked the top four riders to jump a few fences and then approach for a question.

No jump on that course was as intimidating as approaching Victor. I expected stern and severe, but I was met with a wide, friendly smile. In a soft voice, he asked me to name the parts of a horse's front leg from the shoulder down.

I went through the names, grateful for my few years in Pony Club. Then, right before I departed into a canter to jump the remaining two fences, he said to me, "You have a lovely horse and you ride him quite well."

Flash forward 20-odd years and I am now the judge, walking across a horse show with a senior judge when a young girl trotted by on a pretty pony. They were well matched and she sat correctly in the saddle.

The senior judge, who had ridden in the Olympics, called out to her, "Nice pony and you ride him well!" 

"Did you know her?" I asked a few beats later. I couldn't believe this judge would take the time to compliment a rider who just happened to trot by.

He shook his head and smiled. "Nope."

I immediately reflected back to the girl I was in the Medal test long ago, and to other rare times as a young rider when a judge said something positive and personal to me.

I thought to myself, I can do that now--I can be the judge who compliments a young rider. And I did when the opportunity presented itself at the very next show I judged.

I learned more from walking across the ring with that judge than I did sitting beside him judging. I learned that judging is not all about evaluating performances in the ring.

As judges we have to be professional and often that means creating distance between us and the competitors we're judging. Distance is something we have plenty of in today's world of screens and texts yet sometimes in the judging world there's not enough distance. 

At one show, judges are judging riders and at the next show they're hanging out with them at the in-gate or selling them a horse. That is the nature of our beast. So staying separate from the riders when judging is a must.

But this senior judge and the memory of praise from the late Victor Hugo Vidal reminded me that every so often it's not just okay to compliment a rider, it's a wonderful gift of encouragement that could possibly mean more than a judge ever imagines.

Kim Ablon Whitney is a USEF 'R' judge and the author of the Show Circuit novels.

Nov 22, 2016

3 Great Rescue Dog Books for Kids

By Kim Ablon Whitney

Like most horse-people, I love dogs almost as much as I love horses. Particularly rescue dogs. In reading books to my three kids, I've found several wonderful books about rescue dogs. 

Of course there are heaps of great dog books. But here are three you may never have even heard of. These three books aren't overly saccharine and don't beat you over the head with messages. They're just delightful books about dogs that found their forever homes.

1. Dogku by Andrew Clements (ages 4-8)
Your kids might not get the funny title but they'll love this simple story, all told in haikus, about a dog named Mooch who finally finds his family.

2. Before You Were Mine by Maribeth Boelts with illustrations by David Walker (ages 4-8)
This book gives young children a concrete sense for what adoption centers do to help dogs and why dogs might have found their way there in the first place. I read this one to my daughter's class when we had a fundraiser for the local dog adoption center. And each time I read it to her at home I nearly get a little weepy.

3. Just A Dog by Michael Gerard Bauer (ages 8-12)
This is a chapter book about a Great Dane mix and the family who needs him to hold them together. Although there are lots of laughs along the way, trust me, you're going to need a hanky for this one too. 

Kim Ablon Whitney and her family have the most wonderful hound-mix rescue dog, Macie.

Nov 14, 2016

10 Trends in the Eq Finals Over the Years

by Kim Ablon Whitney

It's been nearly 25 years since I rode in the equitation finals. 25 years! Besides being nearly impossible to believe, from the results of the interceding years, I've noticed some trends.

1. Boys win proportionally more times than girls. Approximately 12 male riders of the 276 total riders competing in the Medal Finals in 2016 were male. That means that 4.3% of the riders in the class were male... which makes it even more statistically surprising that a male won (T.J. O'Mara).

A quick glance at the last few years reveals many male winners (Spencer Smith, 2014 Medal; Geoffrey Hassling, 2014 USET East; Michael Hughes, 2014 WIHS, 2013 USET East; Jacob Pope, 2012 Maclay & USET East, Chase Boggio 2011 WIHS).

This was pretty much the same during the late 80's/early 90's (Peter Lutz, 1991 Maclay & USET East), McLain Ward (1990 USET East), Ray Texel (1989 Medal & Maclay), David Olinynyk (1989 USET East).

Why do boys win so often? Is it because they stand-out from all the girls? Is it because they tend to be physically stronger? Is it because boys are less likely to stick with riding if they aren't the best?

2. Professionals' kids have an edge toward the win. It's all those hours at the barn and horse shows. These kids eat, sleep, and breathe horses. They're winning today (McKayla Langmeier, 2015 Medal; Kelli Cruciotti 2015 Medal; Spencer Smith; Michael Hughes; Hunter Holloway, 2016 Maclay; Samantha Schaefer, 2011 USET East; Schaefer Raposa, 2011 Medal).

And they were winning 25 years ago (Nicole Shahinian, 1990 Medal, 1992 Maclay; McLain Ward; Kelley Farmer, 1993 Maclay).

If anything, the results show that professionals' kids are more likely to win today.

3. Riders get on a roll. Win one, win another. T.J. O'Mara took the Medal and USET East this year. Hunter Holloway won the WIHS and then the Maclay. Victoria Colvin won the USET East and the WIHS last year. Lillie Keenan won the Medal and the Maclay in 2014. Going back a little further there were remarkably four years in a row where the same rider won the Medal and the Maclay Finals: Megan Young (2004), Brianne Goutal (2005), Maggie McAlary (2006), Kimberly McCormack (2007).

Double winners from my time included Ray Texel, Hillary Schlusemeyer (1996 Medal and USET East) and Peter Lutz.

Generally, I noticed double winners are more common today. Perhaps the pool of talented riders is not as deep today?

4. There's always next year. They finished in the top six, even placing second one year, and came back and won the following year or the year after that. See Kelley Farmer, Hillary Schlusemeyer, Matt Metell, Kimberly McCormack, Lillie Keenan, Kelli Cruciotti, Victoria Colvin, Hunter Holloway.

Overall, riders also seem to place one year and come back to win in the following years more often now, possibly because riders are pushed to do the big eq earlier and therefore spend more years competiting in the division.

Hunter Holloway finally took first place. 

5. Horses are a key part of the win. If you look at the top ribbon-winners over spans of 5-8 years you'll see some familiar horse names--then and now. Then: Glen Owen (Laura Tidball Balinksy, Laura O'Connor, Steve Heinecke), French Leave (Sandy and Karen Neilsen), Black Ice (Nichole Shahinian, Karen Chandler); Kandi (Shahinian, Craig Shegog); Gulliver (Karen Kay, Carlee McKay), Sight Unseen (Jennifer Clarkson, McLain Ward); Loophole (Cheryl Wilson, Samantha Darling). Now: Patrick (Lucy Davis, Charlotte Jacobs, Victoria Colvin, Catherine Tyree); Ivy (Haylie Jayne, Zazou Hoffman).

If anything the same horses pop up more often 25-plus years ago than they do today--perhaps because eq horses don't last as long today due to heavy year-round competition schedules and intense drilling.

6. It's all in the family. Siblings took top ribbons in the Finals then and they take top ribbons in the Finals now. The Ashes, The Nielsens, The Chandlers, The Jaynes, The O'Maras.

More recently, we've also seen children of former ribbon-winners placing in the finals--Sophie Simpson, Lillie Keenan, Charlotte Jacobs, Lucy Deslauriers, McKayla Langmeier.

7. It takes a village. Looking back at the results from 1992, there are one to three trainers listed for each ribbon-winner. For this year's medal, two riders had only two trainers listed. Three riders had six trainers listed and two trainers had seven trainers listed!

Trainers listed in 2016

Trainers listed in 1992.

Why? Probably because barns are bigger these days and have so many more trainers. Sometimes a rider will have separate training staffs at separate barns for the equitation and the jumpers and both staffs need to be acknowledged. It's also because as a rule riders no longer prepare their own horses and even the assistant-assistant trainers that prepared the horse need to be recognized.

8. Money is important. No naming names here. But then and now, riders from families with incredibly deep pockets are often in the top ribbons. Talent and ambition are important, but so are the funds to bankroll the horses, the shows, and the training.

9. But working students can still pop up for the win. Then: Andre Dignelli. Now: Jacob Pope, Zazou Hoffman.

10. You don't have to win a final to go on to greatness. If the past is any predictor of the future, there are lots of great riders who came close but didn't win a final, or didn't win as many as they were predicted to, who have gone to be top professional riders. Just look at Molly Ashe Cawley, Candice King, Richard Spooner, Aaron Vale, and McLain Ward.

Special thanks for www.medalmaclay.com for their comprehensive listing of equitation finals results through the years. 

Kim Ablon Whitney is the author of The Perfect Distance, a novel about the equitation finals.