Oct 29, 2015

Asking the Hard Questions

By Kim Ablon Whitney

I want to applaud The Chronicle of the Horse Associate Editor, Molly Sorge, for her commentary in the October 26th issue.  

If you haven't seen it yet, Molly shares how she asked both Betsee Parker and Tori Colvin "about the effect that the backlash of Inclusive's positive test for GABA has had on them."  Molly confesses she was "shockingly disappointed in the answers," which were vague and even a bit odd (Parker relayed that: "things have been about as wonderful as they could ever have been.")

She was only asking the hard questions, which is what every journalist is supposed to do.  "I'm a reporter.  It's my job," she wrote. 

In mainstream professional sports (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL), the media serves an important role.  Print, online, and TV reporters cover the games--giving fans the pertinent facts from the games.  But they also interview the players to relay their perspective about the competition, the sport, and the other teams and players.  

Reporters also give their opinions on plays, performances, and attitudes, and those opinions are not always kind.  Reporters can be critical of a player not hustling on a play, or flipping his bat when he hits a home run.  On a larger scale, the amount of words written about steroid use in baseball and the players who were involved could wallpaper a small planet.

Alex Rodriguez has been ripped by the media for his steroid use.

I've covered the show circuit for many publications and I've often felt that our job as reporters for the horse show world was only to report the happy moments: the big wins, the hardworking riders, the talented horses.  Basically, I felt I was supposed to make it all rainbows and unicorns.

I have always longed for a more investigative look at our world--to bring to the surface the bad parts that we all see on a day-to-day basis.  Our sport is like any other--we have our warts.  There are riders who have poor attitudes, or horses that get nerved when they come up lame so they can keep showing.  There are horses that are drugged to be quiet.  Where are the interviews with these riders, or the interviews with riders speaking out against these practices?  Where is the story of the horse that was thrown away when it couldn't perform--where is the story that has no happy ending?

In other professional sports, some reporters are known--and sometimes despised by players--for their penchant for asking the hard questions.  In Boston, one of our best sports reporters and columnists is Dan Shaughnessy, who writes for The Boston Globe.  Dan has even been given disparaging nicknames by certain players because he hasn't just tossed them softball questions or written to their egos.

A Washington Post article chastising Bryce Harper for not hustling on a play.

Some players won't speak to the media or won't speak to particular members of the media.  Others learn to deflect questions.  But most understand that speaking with the media is part of the deal.

Perhaps publications covering the show circuit aren't asking the tough questions because then those riders will refuse to grant them interviews anymore.  That, in part, is what has stopped me from asking tougher questions.  Certain riders or trainers might blackball certain writers.

But in order for our sport to become more mainstream, we need to look at all aspects of it.  We need to hold our "players" to higher standards, and we need to write about it publicly when they fail.

I hope Molly's commentary is the beginning of asking more of the hard questions and the beginning of riders giving the answers.

Kim Ablon Whitney is a 'R' judge in hunters, equitation, and jumpers.  She is the author of the Show Circuit novels.

Oct 22, 2015

Top 6 Things Pony Riders Love About The Washington International Horse Show

by Maggie Junkin

1. Walking the city streets of D.C. and visiting the White House.  See, Mom, it's not just a horse show... it's actually educational!

2.  Showing in the Verizon Center -- super cool venue!  How awesome is it to show where a professional basketball and hockey team plays?

3.The Jumbotron.  Seeing your name up in lights?  Priceless!

4. Stabling in the streets.  Not sure it's the ponies' first choice for stabling but it's a pretty cool experience.

5. The shopping.  The best shopping experience of any horse show. An entire concourse of equine retailers and unique boutiques. They even have a candy store with chocolate covered bacon!

 6. The ribbons.  It doesn't matter what color you get, they're all beautiful with an amazing medal in the middle of the rosettes.  These are ribbons to treasure for years to come.

Maggie Junkin is a pony rider and animal advocate who has raised lots of awareness and money for Danny & Ron's Rescue.  In 2013 Maggie was fifth at Washington in the small pony hunter stakes class with Foxlair Fantasia. WIHS is her favorite horse show and she hopes to have the opportunity to show there again someday.

Oct 20, 2015

How to Put on a Bridle & Other Notes from Judging the NEEC Horsemanship Class

By Kim Ablon Whitney

This past Saturday, I had the great pleasure to judge the Horsemanship Practicum at the New England Equitation Finals with Dr. Kate Chope and former winner of the Horsemanship Award, Larissa Laffey.  For those of you who aren't familiar with the Horsemanship Award, here's a brief description:

-Riders take a written test on Friday night with questions that range from horse care to class specs to current events in the horse world.  

-The riders with the top 12 scores in the test take part in a hands-on "Practicum" on Saturday.  They are given a score out of 100.

-Riders' scores from the New England Medal class are averaged with the other two scores to produce a final score and an overall winner.

Usually, I sit in my little judge's booth and don't interact with the competitors I'm judging.  This was such a welcome change!  I got to actually interact with the kids doing the practicum and get a better sense of some of the juniors on the show circuit.

I worked with Kate beforehand to coordinate questions.  In the past, judges have asked riders to evaluate conformation, demonstrate wrapping or braiding, identify bits or grain, or put together a bridle.

I feel like one of the most important things I see as missing from junior riders at horse shows these days is being involved in prepping the horses for the ring.  Too often, I hear of riders who show up just before their class to a perfectly prepared horse, having no idea of what it took to get their horse ready.

When I rode in the equitation, I prepared my own horse.  Sure, I consulted with my trainer at times to figure out what my horse needed but I also just knew from taking him off the trailer or out of his stall on a show day whether he might need a few minutes on the lunge-line to get some bucks out, or an extra class.  

Do any riders today know how to prepare a horse for the ring, and do it themselves?  I wanted to know!

So I gave the riders a scenario and asked them to tell us what they would do to prepare.

Here's the scenario I presented:

You have a seven year-old equitation horse that’s been doing the equitation for a year.  It’s May and you’ve been training all winter in the Northeast.  You are at one of your first shows of the year and your horse will probably be fresh.

You will be doing the New England Medal at 3:00 pm.  You arrive at the show at 7:00 am.  The ring is all-weather footing and the weather is sunny and in the low 70s.

Look at the schedule for the day (below) and when you come in to the session, be ready to talk through how you would go about preparing your horse in order to have him ready for the New England Medal.  

Ideas to consider include:
-how the tack might differ from what you would use in the actual class,
-how you would prepare your horse,
-whether you would enter additional classes and, if so, which ones

8:00 am
127. Puddle Jumper (.70 -.80 m) Table II, Sec2(b)
130. Training Jumper (1.0 m.) Table II, Sec2(b)
131. Training Jumper (1.0 m.) Table II, Sec2(c)P&S
134. Low Schooling Jumper (1.10 m.) Table II, Sec2(b)
135. Low Schooling Jumper (1.10 m.) Table II, Sec2(c)
141. Child Jumper (1.10 m.) Table II, Sec2(b)
138. Adult Jumper (1.10 m.) Table II, Sec2(b)
148. WIHS/M&S/NAL Jumper Classic (1.10m)
147. Junior A/O Jumper Stake (1.30 m.) Table II, Sec2(b)
403. Open Equitation 14 & Under Flat
404. Open Equitation 14 & Under O/F
406. Open Equitation 15-17 Flat
407. Open Equitation 15-17 O/F
432. MHC Junior Medal
431. THIS National Child Medal
440. NEHC Junior Medal
441. Marshall & Sterling Junior Medal
442. Pessoa/US Hunt Seat Medal

446. National PHA Medal

Here's what I learned from their answers:

The riders in the practicum knew the types of things you would do to prepare a horse, i.e., lunge, ride in the ring, ride around the show, have a lesson, enter an extra class or two.  They had ideas about what types of bits you might use for these differing activities and what tack you might use to lunge, and what classes you might enter.

Dr. Kate Chope & Larissa Laffey as we await our next contestant.

But, too often their plan involved ALL of the above.  It felt like the "kitchen sink" answer, not the answer of a rider who actually prepared her horse for the ring.  

They said they would ride the horse around the show and in the ring in the morning.  Or have their trainer ride the horse--yes, some kids said this (although slightly disturbing at least they were being truthful).  They also cited lunging the horse and showing in extra classes before the actual class they were aiming for.  All in one day!  That seemed like a lot for one horse!

I wished kids would have picked one approach and then said something like, "if the class didn't go as well as I would have liked, I think next show I would lunge him first."  I think they were just trying to demonstrate their knowledge so I didn't want to fault them too much but I still would have preferred a more targeted answer.  Not every plan for preparation works--I would have liked that they would make a plan and then adjust for the next show.

I did appreciate that several riders mentioned hand-walking the horse around the grounds to get them used to the show.  I felt that those riders showed that they are actually a part of their horse's preparation.

After explaining their approach, riders moved on to putting a bridle on the horse that was kindly leant to us for the practicum.  We soon saw a disturbing trend... too many riders couldn't get the bit in the horse's mouth!  

Instead of using their thumb to open the horse's mouth, they just clanked the bit against the horse's teeth, hoping he knew the drill.  Thankfully, our practice horse didn't oblige.  

Other riders didn't know how to hold up the noseband or hold the horse's nose correctly.  Riders then had to adjust the bridle.  Several knew the benchmarks for correctly fitting a bridle but it felt more like they had read it in a book, not done it a million times themselves.

Karen Clark, who organizes the whole Horsemanship Class, keeping warm and monitoring the sessions

Lastly, Kate asked some signs of a soft tissue injury and of colic.  The best answers included riders talking about their own experiences with these issues--not just presenting book knowledge. If a rider shared personal anecdotes along with the facts, it was clear they had spent hours each day at the barn and not just in the saddle.

In the end, we did have three riders scoring in the 90s.  The winner of the practicum section stood out, especially because she noticed things about the horse in the stall and when she was putting on the bridle.  She talked about checking his water to see how much he'd drank, seeing if he'd manured, and other details she noticed about him while she was tacking him up.  It was impressive and indicative of someone who actually takes care of their own horse.

We also had a few riders who scored solidly in the 80s and would have scored a lot higher, except for a few holes or mistakes in their performance.  Some of these felt like the riding equivalent of picking up the wrong lead when you enter the ring--sometimes luck just doesn't go your way that day and you make a careless mistake that means your performance in that one class isn't indicative of your overall skill level.

I noticed in the results that the top three overall were from one barn.  That barn is clearly doing something right in the way they are training their kids not just in the ring, but in the barn too.

Sadly, I heard from people at the show that many kids who are competing in the Medal Final don't even take the test.  I'm not certain exactly why this is.  Perhaps they're not good test takers, have a learning difference, and/or don't want to have to do what seems like "school work" in their off-school hours.  I can appreciate those issues.  But I wonder if some kids who would excel in the class aren't even entering for some reason?  And I certainly wish the majority of kids would want to enter this special class.

In the end, all I know is that this class is one of a kind in the hunter/jumper world and I wish there were more of them.  I hope the kids who placed feel as good about their ribbon in the horsemanship as they would about getting a ribbon in the New England Medal Final.  Riding is only one part of the sport.

Kim Ablon Whitney is an R judge in hunters, equitation, and jumpers.  Her latest novel set on the show circuit is Winter Circuit.

Oct 14, 2015

To the USEF Medal Riders Who Didn't Have Winning Rides

By Kate Gerhart

Thirteen years ago I competed in the Medal Finals and at the end of my round, I was so devastated.  My last finals, my last chance to prove I was good enough, and I blew it. 

I wish I knew then what I know now.  

I wish I understood my value then.  I wish I had the perspective to see the future instead of a snapshot of two minutes in the ring.  I wish I understood how little an impact not succeeding had on me as a person. 

I do not undervalue the sheer perfection of the winning round, however, I do want to say a few words for the rest:

-the ones who came with all the talent and the right horse but had a bad day,
-the ones who came with all the talent and the wrong horse and had a bad day,
-the ones who may not have had all the talent but had superb dedication and had a bad day, 
-the ones who may not have had all the talent but had superb dedication and had a good day, and the list goes on...

You see, each of the 200+ riders is walking a different walk, or perhaps I should say, riding a different ride.  Each person is there because we love the sport, because in our soul we cannot be without it.

Kate riding in the jumpers.

We all move to a different beat.  We all find ourselves in a different set of circumstances.  We all walk into the ring wanting to give our best. 

So I say cheers to all the young ladies and gentlemen who worked so hard all year, who had the day they dreamed of, or didn't; who worked their breeches off for the sake of the sport and two minutes in the ring. 

You ALL matter.  You ALL did great.  You ALL get a high five, because you are ALL an inspiration to every kid out there who hasn't done it yet.  

You are ALL living your dream. 

You are ALL setting an example. You are ALL good enough, despite your two minute performance that may or may not have lived up to your expectations.

Because if you want it bad enough and you work hard enough, opportunity will follow.  

My congratulations and hugs to all 2015 USEF Medal Finals riders.  You are all heroes to little girls and boys everywhere.

Kate Gerhart runs the training and show barn, North Ridge Farms, in Pennsylvania with her mother, Cathy.  After a short junior career, Kate turned professional and has greatly enjoyed bringing along young horses and riders to the national level.

Oct 8, 2015

Why Failing at the Eq Finals is Not All Bad

By Kim Ablon Whitney

For years people (parents in particular) have cited the many reasons why riding as a junior is a great extracurricular activity for teenagers, maybe even better than typical sports like soccer or lacrosse.  Riding teaches important skills like time management, hard work, and self-esteem... and those long days at horse shows might even keep girls away from boys for longer (parents always love that idea).

Now, there's another reason why showing in the equitation (junior hunters and jumpers count too) is possibly the best thing for adolescents.  They learn how to fail.

Learning how to fail is a buzz-worthy topic among parents, educators, and therapists.  Carol Dweck's book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, has become required reading in certain circles.  

If you haven't read it, here's the gist:

Too often in life today, kids are protected by their helicopter parents.  We make sure our kids succeed and praise them endlessly for their accomplishments.  This leaves them unmotivated to work hard to accomplish their goals.

For their athletic endeavors, kids are given trophies for just competing from an early age, and even when they do lose sporting events at older ages, it's often as part of a team, making the defeats more palatable.

In the horse show world kids can be bought the best horses and ride with the best trainers, but they still have to enter that ring alone.  As everyone who has ever ridden knows, failure is a huge part of riding.  Even the best riders fail... often.

Junior riders face intense pressure at competitions like the equitation finals.  And sometimes they come out of that ring devestated because they chipped or left too long, killing their chances of getting called back for the second round.

From my junior years I can recall some of the top juniors cracking under the pressure at Regionals and not making it through, or having an unfortunate mistake in the test at the Medal Finals that dropped them from first to fourth.

I wouldn't trade the lessons I learned from doing the eq for anything.

The end of the world?  It seemed like it at the time.  It did when it happened to me at the last jump of the New England Equitation Finals my last junior year.  I caught a flyer, marring an otherwise great ride, and putting me way out of the ribbons.

But that's the great thing about riding--you pick yourself back up, learn from your mistakes, and come back to give it a shot another day.  I might not have placed that day, but I'm nearly certain my mistake there fired me up to ride better at the rest of the finals.  And, more than that, the lessons I learned from failing in the show ring, regrouping, and trying again, have no doubt stuck with me long after I aged out of the eq.

So all that money you're spending on your kid competing?  Take a deep breath... it might be the best thing you're doing for them.

Not for the ribbons they'll win in the ring, but for how they'll approach the rest of their life.

Kim Ablon Whitney is a USEF 'R' judge in hunters, equitation, and jumpers.  Her latest novel is Winter Circuit.  Follow her on Facebook.

Oct 7, 2015

Good-bye, Old Truck

By Kim Ablon Whitney

Dear Truck,

It's just like a horse person to get all sentimental about a truck.  I'm worse than a country song writer.  But on the eve of the day you will depart for the great truck hangout in the sky, I feel I have no other choice.

At 165K miles with rusted out doors and no muffler or AC, your time has come.  But still it saddens me as I reflect back on all the memories we shared.

You dutifully pulled the trailer to lessons and horse shows. From that first unrecognized show I took my new four year-old OTTB to (where I showed in the baby greens) to Devon years later where that same "baby" did the A/O jumpers.  You pulled the trailer to Florida for three straight years. You drove to the barn and back each and every day. I ate meals in you, blasted tunes in you, laughed and cried in you.

Much later you brought that same "baby"--then 21--to the farm where he would retire.

The trailer is now long gone. So is the horse you drove. But you have remained a part of my story--a testament to the horse life I once led.

Over the past few years, you've mostly taken me to judge horse shows. You drove three human babies home from the hospital and later, as they grew, shuttled them to school, play dates, and soccer games.

You have done your duty. You've kept me safe. You've been there for me.  And I'll miss you more than I should miss a truck.

Kim Ablon Whitney's latest novel set on the show circuit is Winter Circuit.

Oct 6, 2015

Danny & Ron's Rescue Hit Hard by Hurricane

by Maggie Junkin

Many equestrians are familiar with Danny and Ron’s Rescue group.  Some are even lucky enough to have a Danny and Ron’s Rescue dog.  I am one of those people.

I'm so lucky that Danny and Ron’s Rescue pulled my dog, Wellie, off the euthanasia list of a Florida shelter several years ago.  

Maggie & Wellie
Danny and Ron’s Rescue was developed after Hurricane Katrina slammed New Orleans in 2005. After Katrina, a few people went above and beyond and traveled to the area to rescue the many homeless and abandoned dogs.  This selfless act ignited the journey of Danny and Ron’s Rescue, the group that has rescued over 8,000 dogs today.

On the weekend of October 3, Hurricane Joaquin devastated South Carolina with one of the worst storms the state has ever seen.  The governor has called the rains a "thousand-year event."  My good friends at Danny and Ron’s Rescue were hit hard too.  Their South Carolina dog sanctuary was flooded with over 18 inches of water.  Thankfully none of the dogs were injured, but the property has significant damage.  Living in the high grounds, there was never a need for flood insurance.  

The folks at Danny and Ron’s have been there in the time of need for countless dogs, now it’s our turn as an equestrian community to help them.  They really need our help!  Please go to their website at www.dannyandronsrescue.com or to paypal.com payable to saverstrays@aol.com and donate today.  Every dollar helps!

My Top 5 Reasons to Support Danny and Ron’s Rescue
1. They rescue abused, abandoned, and homeless dogs
2. They rehabilitate dogs and help them find loving homes
3. They work to stop dog fighting, abuse, and puppy mills
4. They educate the public on the importance of spaying and neutering
5. They provide help for other shelters or rescues in need

Maggie Junkin is a 12 year old who competes in the large pony division.  She is committed to animal rescue.  She lives with her family, 5 dogs and 3 cats in Jenkintown, Penn.

Oct 2, 2015

A Pony Rider's View of the Central Park Horse Show

By Maggie Junkin

I've made made several trips to NYC, but this was my first visit to Central Park... and for a horse show no less!

It was the first year to introduce the hunters at the Central Park Horse Show and from what I saw it was a huge success.  

First of all, the Rolex Central Park Horse show in itself was amazing.  It is the heart of the largest city in the United States, yet it had an intimate feel.  It's almost as if you entered a movie set. 

What a view!

The attention to detail was noticeable and the backdrop of the city was magical. The tear-dropped ring contained a traditional hunter course that was uniquely NYC. 

Jumps got an urban style thanks to a street artist

The course designer, with the help of a street artist, blended urban style fences with the traditional country style of the hunters.

Jennifer Alfano and Miss Lucy
One fence was designed to look like the Brooklyn Bridge, another was painted with the NYC skyline and curved stonewalls looked like Central Park bridges.  Traditional brush, hay bales, and log jumps were transformed into painted street art.  

Stonewalls meet Central Park Bridges

Most horse shows are fairly large venues filled with equestrians in a country setting. The thing that made this venue unique was it is in a small setting with a busy urban life going on around it. I enjoyed watching the rock hills surrounding the show ring.  People would gather as spectators. There were many people picnicking.  I saw several weddings and a modeling shoot taking place.

People picnicking near the ring.
There were three hunter classes held on Saturday: the $1,000 Small/Medium Pony Hunter Classic, the $2500 Meralex Junior/Amateur Owner Hunter Classic and the $50,000 Duchossios Cup presented by the Gochman Family.

As a pony rider I enjoyed the Pony Hunter Classic. I really loved how each rider rode to a musical piece of their choice.  They chose a song that best represented them.  My favorite was Deep in the Heart of Texas, the song chosen by Tessa Downey.  Tessa and her pony Grand Jete’ came all the way from Houston, Texas to take part in the Pony Hunter Classic. 

Tessa Downey and trainer, Peter Pletcher, head up to the ring.

Peter Pletcher, Diane “Bean” Douglas, Tessa Downey and Maggie Junkin
photo courtesy of Sara Downey   
My close second favorite was the oh so appropriate, Welcome to New York, chosen by Mimi Gochman from NY, NY.  Mimi rode the adorable pony Love Me Tender owned by Dr. Betsee Parker.  

Sophie Gochman was the winner of the Pony Hunter Classic.  Sophie rode a fabulous round with Bit of Love, owned by Dr. Betsee Parker.  

Following the Pony Hunter Classic was the $2500 Meralex Junior/Amateur Owner Hunter Classic.  Givanna Rinaldi led the class with Taken, owned by Jessica Stitt. 

The final hunter class of the day and my favorite was the $50,000 Duchossios Cup. It was an exciting event to watch with ten of today’s leading hunter professionals and their incredibly talented horses.  That list included Kelley Farmer, John French, Scott Stewart, Louise Serio, Maggie Jayne, Peter Wylde, Jennifer Alfano, Peter Pletcher, Amanda Steege and Elizabeth Boyd.  It was Jennifer Alfano that took the win with Miss Lucy, a mare owned by Helen Lenahan.

All Wrapped Up ridden by Maggie Jayne
After the hunter classes we had a chance to shop in the vendor area, buying some souvenirs to take home.  The excitement of the day continued into the night. We made a visit to Dylan’s Candy Bar and had dinner at a fabulous restaurant.  Later we took an evening carriage ride. As we toured the park we passed the now empty horse show grounds all lit up in the dark and we could hear the Coldplay concert playing near by.   This city truly never sleeps!

Maggie at Dylan's Candy Bar

I was sad to see the day end, but it was time for us to return home with the hopes that they bring the hunters back again next year.

Maggie Junkin is a 12 year old who competes in the large pony division.  She is committed to animal rescue. Her favorite rescue to support is Danny & Ron’s Rescue.  She lives with her family, 5 dogs and 3 cats in Jenkintown, Penn.