Chapter 4

Insight and Acceptance

2003 to Present

Years ago I was asked to participate in a dressage judge's course organized by AHSA that resulted in "r" status. The training seemed to get in the way of teaching and showing so I never pursued certification. Besides, I never thought that judging would be an area of interest in my future. Well, a few decades of experience can changes one's way of thinking.

Judges have a tremendous influence on the sport of dressage. Basically, riders will train what judges reward in competition. If a creeping piaffe is not marked down, why would a trainer devote the time to schooling the movement until it is performed on the spot? If horses ridden well behind the vertical are not criticized, then more trainers will ignore the guidance from the FEI stating, "The head should remain in a steady position as a rule slightly in front of the vertical with a supple poll as the highest point of the neck and no resistance should be offered to the rider."

vincere_2.jpgA local GMO scheduled all four sessions of the USDF "L" Judges program in 2003 with the testing in the fall. I had taken Wendel about as far as possible in competition and Legacy was still too green to campaign. Peggy Carspecken had Lestera up for sale so my future with her was uncertain. With some encouragement from my husband, I enrolled in the "L" program and decided to learn dressage from the judge's perspective.

2003 also saw new additions to Touch 'n GO Farm. I thought my days of raising babies were over but when the chance to purchase a colt out of the mare Katinka arose, I couldn't pass him up. The dam was one of my favorite competition horses and we shared many memorable trips down centerline. The fact the sire was Olympic Ferro didn't hurt either. Vincere showed up in January and took up residence in Georgie Girl's old stall.

His god-given athleticism was undeniable and everyone who watched him in pasture commented on Vinny's potential. As quick as I was to agree with those observers, I was equally quick to let them know that this colt was the last horse I intended to train.

image002.jpgContinuing the "education" theme of the year, Walter Zettl returned for a clinic in February and brought along the producers of his training videos. Mark Niehart and Heidi Zorn filmed the entire event and conducted interviews with Walter in Diane and Alan Thomas' living room. Much of the footage appeared in later volumes of "A Matter of Trust."

My daughter also got a new mount in March when we purchased a sweet, black Quarterhorse-cross, mare named Hannah.  Cassidy still loved riding her pony Caitlin but had outgrown her. Besides, the patient schoolmaster had trainer hundreds of children and certainly deserved a leisurely retirement. Hannah was big enough for Cassidy to grow in to but small enough for her to enjoy immediately.

Karl Mikolka worked his magic during a clinic in March and continued to build a fan base in Georgia. One of my favorite aspects of Karl's visits has always been the conversations we have over dinner in the evening. With Wendel's competition career largely over, I decided to use my lovable gelding as another learning opportunity. Karl focused on exercises and techniques that would improve the quality of his gaits and individual movements. Having a Grand Prix horse to experiment with under Karl's tutelage was a blessing. I was able to step back and try to re-teach and refine movements without the pressures of competition.

image003.jpgThe "L" program sessions "A" and "B" were held in the spring so I skipped all the local shows. A break in the summer allowed me to take Wendel and Lestera to the CDI competition in Raleigh, North Carolina. The trip focused on getting Lestera in front of potential buyers but our test scores were credible. Lestera placed 5th at Prix St. Georges and 7th in the Intermediare I CDI classes while Wendel took 8th at Grand Prix and 3rd in the Special. The drive home was hours of mixed emotions. The competition results were satisfying but I knew Lestera would sell quickly and it breaks my heart every time I have to say "goodbye" to a horse I trained.

Just as I had resigned myself to parting with Lala, a student informed me that she was interested in the horse as a schoolmaster. Kathy Frazier had helped me start my colt Legacy and was in the market for a horse on which she could learn dressage. I was ecstatic when the papers were signed and knew Lala wasn't going to leave the barn any time soon. Kathy and I agreed to split the riding duties so she could learn while Lestera's training progressed, albeit at a slower pace.

As Kathy purchased Lestera, a student from the distant past returned and wanted to put a horse in training. Diane "Dee" Sternlieb had taken a few lessons from me years before and had decided to get back into dressage. She brought a beautiful, Hanoverian mare named Davida to the farm for training. The mare floated over the ground and looked as elastic as a rubber band but she also had a few mental issues. Once again, I had a tough-minded mare to train.

Kathy was getting to know Lala while my other students hit the area competitions and qualified for the regional finals. I felt a little out of the loop as I sat in chairs scribing, listening to judges in class or studying USDF material and AHSA rulebooks. Still, I pressed on and sat for the "L" program testing in September. When the report from USDF arrived a few weeks later I learned that I passed and was listed as an "L" program graduate.

image005.jpgI doubt I'll ever strive to climb the judge's ladder but finishing the program gave me a greater appreciation for the job they perform. It is mentally and physically fatiguing to sit and evaluate rides for eight hours. The training provides an insight into the system of scoring used in dressage competition. While the program instructor judges had their differences, I was glad to hear their comments. It put the thousands of scores I received over the years in a different context. I recommend that any serious rider participate in the program, even if they only audit the courses.

Walter Zettl's second video in the "A Matter of Trust" series was released in October with my horses and students featured throughout. It received wonderfully positive reviews and I was honored that Walter felt the footage obtained during our Georgia clinic was good enough to be included.

image006.jpg2003 proved to be the "Silver" year for many students. Four riders, two long-time clients and two who rode with me as often as possible, earned their USDF Silver Rider Medals. Julie Ballard-Haralson won hers on Jezebel, the "Jack Russell Terrier" I trained the year before. As Kathy Frazier continued to progress in training I told her the silver was well within her reach.

During the holidays I reflected on a successful but different sort of year. The barn was filled with a talented new baby, a Grand Prix horse, a gifted Hanoverian mare and Lestera, who still occupied the last stall on the left. I had a new certification and a bunch of enthusiastic students. Everyone was healthy and well.

Winter work with Lestera alternated between Kathy and me. It was gratifying to see how soundly Lala's training was confirmed when Kathy began developing a concept of riding higher level movements. As her timing improved, so did Lala's responses. I still loved the mare's work ethic and kept her "tuned up" for Kathy but I set aside much of the piaffe and passage work for fear of confusing both horse and student. Competitions were focused on building Kathy's experience but with a "leftover" score from the previous year, it only took one show to qualify for the finals at Intermediare I. Her dedication paid off in the spring when she earned her USDF Silver Rider Medal Award.

image007.jpgDavida proved to be more of a challenge. Dee loved the horse but I had to let her know that it would take an extraordinary amount of work to make the mare suitable for an Adult Amateur. With that in mind, Dee started looking at other horses. After a search of several months, she came across an imported, Hanoverian gelding named Weserboy (pronounced Veezerboy). A quick trip to Oregon and Weser on his way to Whitesburg.

In early May, the flashy bay got off the trailer and took up residence next to Wendel. The two shared common linage and Weser had a puppy-dog sweet disposition. I found him easy to ride and wonderfully trainable. The five-year-old was still fairly green but Dee was on him in no time and I knew he would make her a good horse. Weser even started picking up on some of Wendel's barn tricks like tilting his head while begging for treats and sucking his tongue following a sugar cube. I had a ball with the two bay boys in the barn. Unfortunately, it wasn't meant to last.

weser_2x3_100dpi.jpgWendel and I were enjoying a renaissance of sorts. The time we spent in the ring was relaxed, quiet and fun. Horses are amazingly sensitive creatures and I know Wendel felt a difference in the training program. My only goal was to improve his weak areas. No shows, no pressures, no worries. We worked together as a team and enjoyed each other's company.

One day in early June I noticed Wendel came in from pasture with a strange expression on his face and an uncharacteristic tendency to spook at nothing. To me, it looked like he was having a vision problem but he also started walking crooked. I immediately called the vet. After examination the decision was made to ship him to a veterinary hospital for observation and treatment. What followed was eleven days of abject hell. Right before my eyes Wendel went down hill with ever-worsening neurological symptoms. For the first time in his life, I was afraid to go in his stall for fear of injury to him or me. Aggressive treatment for EPM began but the symptoms only got worse. I had to go home to judge a schooling show. All efforts to Find a replacement failed so I left for the show after explaining my wishes should the vet call. When I returned, the look on Scott's face said it all.

wendal_head_2x3_100dpi.jpgAn autopsy revealed "lesions" on his spinal cord and brain but no one could say it was EPM with certainty. The only thing that was certain was my heartbreak. Scott had Wendel cremated and the arrival of his ashes gave me a sense of his returning home. There are no words that accurately capture my feeling of unexpected loss. I don't know if I will ever be able to talk about him without tearing up. When Wendel died I lost a great friend and partner.

Dressage clinics in Georgia and a Hunter clinic in Pennsylvania offered momentary distractions from my grief. Riding Weser took on a whole new dimension as one similarity to Wendel after another emerged. Almost on a whim I asked Dee of she would like me to try to qualify Weser for the USDF Regional Championships since it would be held in Georgia. She said "yes" and two shows later Weser had a ticket to the finals.

Before the championships, Walter Zettl released the third in his video series. He had an "In Memory" message for Wendel placed in the closing credits acknowledging the harmonious relationship we shared, on screen and off. I will always be grateful to Walter, Heide Zettl, Heidi Zorn and Mark Niehart for that kind gesture.

image010.jpgAt the Regional Championships I was surrounded by fellow riders who searched for a way to express their condolences. Their sentiments were appreciated but I had an inexperienced young horse and a mare I rode sporadically to compete. Lestera worked hard as always but Weser completely surprised me in the Friday warm-up. When a horse got loose in a nearby arena the normally calm gelding bolted so fast I almost came off. Scott spent the evening walking him around the show grounds while I wondered if we would make it in the ring the next day.

The next day Weser seemed quieter as we schooled near the show ring. To my great relief, he went down centerline like a trooper and listened throughout the test. When the scores were posted our names sat in second place in the large class. The award ceremony proved more challenging than the test when the presenters tried to put a large, Reserve Champion over Weser's head. After a few reining-style spins, we managed to get around the arena in the victory gallop. Not bad for our third show together.

image011.jpgI really wanted to put in a solid performance in the Intermediare I Open final when I saw several good trainers listed in the class. Lestera can't match the flashy movers stride for stride but she is correct and always earned respectable scores in a clean test. Lala tolerated the windy conditions and listened to me from start to finish. The little "energizer bunny" won the class against good competition. Leading the victory gallop, I couldn't help but think of Wendel and our many trips around a show ring with blue ribbons flapping in the wind. I had a wonderful championship and the owners were thrilled but the wins were bittersweet.

After the finals I was reminded of the old joke, "The good Lord will never give me more struggles in life than I can handle. I just wish he didn't have so much faith in me." One morning my barn worker knocked at the door and told me that little Caitlin had died. I explained to Cassidy that the mare was old and it was her time but an eight year-old, little girl only understands that she has lost a friend. A lifetime with horses gave me a great appreciation for ponies like Caitlin. They are few and far between. I am forever grateful to Melody Kirkland for giving such a wonderful equine teacher to my daughter. Cassidy and I felt the grief of losing beloved companions and sought comfort in the spirit of the holidays and the promise of a new year.

Kathy Frazier and Lestera trained through the fall with a vengeance. She had her sites set on the 2004 Florida winter circuit and I wanted her to succeed. Three months of diligent work had Kathy ready to head south with Lala and her gelding AB. They competed at Clarcona, Wellington and Canterbury in quick succession. AB won a training level class with a 68% and Lala worked well with Kathy and posted consistent PSG and I-1 scores in the 60%s including a 68% at Intermediare I! To say the least, I was a proud trainer and instructor.

Weser and I relaxed into an off-season training program with the owner enjoying an occasional ride. The bay reminded me of Wendel more each day. The main difference was Weser's innate looseness. Our schooling sessions were enjoyable and filled with progress. I also continued to ride Davida using all my experience and tact to make slow progress. The mare's talent was was her mental instability.

Always a trainer who thrives on instruction from accomplished professionals, clinics with George Williams and Walter Zettl provided welcome opinions regarding all three horses. Walter commented on Lestera's progress and both clinicians thought Weser was a talent. The clinics were a test for Davida who didn't venture from home often. After standing on her hind legs with me, the mare did her best to work during both clinics.

image012.jpgDuring the holidays I received a very special letter from my long-time Mentor, Karl Mikolka. Approaching age seventy, he had decided to recognize a few of students who remained faithful to his classical teachings and had successfully demonstrated the ability to correctly train dressage horses. Karl's e-mail said I had been named one of his "Certified Students" and a short description of my career was placed on his web site. I was honored to receive such acknowledgement from a horseman like Karl but a package arrived a few weeks later with a beautifully framed certificate stating:

"This certificate is awarded to Gigi Nutter in recognition of her tireless efforts to preserve and promote the classical principles of dressage for the past 35 years. In her teaching and in her riding Mrs. Nutter has been acknowledged to be a shining example for the younger generation of American dressage riders. Signed - Karl Mikolka"

With the text was a photograph of Wendel in our last victory gallop. Through the tears I wrote Karl and thanked him profusely for the award. Sincere praise from a trusted Mentor means more than all the ribbons and awards combined. What a way to end 2004.

vinnylonge_2x3_100dpi.jpgWinter training was filled with progress for Weser and my palomino, stallion Legacy. The cute, little colt Vinny was growing into a fine lad and began working on the lunge. When Kathy Frazier returned from Florida in February her lessons resumed until June when she had to stop riding while she's in foal herself!

Training horses in any discipline is a building-block process with well-defined points to determine where you are in the progression. It was interesting for me to see how the wisdom gained from training Wendel was benefiting Lala, which in turn was shaping my decisions regarding Vinny.

My husband gave me an anniversary gift of tickets to the FEI World Cup competition in Las Vegas. In April we headed west to enjoy some top-notch jumping and dressage competition. The trip also gave me a chance to meet with e-mail buddies and friends I hadn't seen in a while.  

2005worldcup1_2x3_100dpi.jpgThe competition itself was exciting, entertaining and a little disappointing. Las Vegas lived up to its reputation with fireworks and rock music opening each event. As I watched one Elvis impersonator perform Viva Las Vegas, I thought about the Thomas and Mack Center as a show grounds for a horse. There was no grass, no turnout, lots of noise and commotion. It was a great venue but not much of a farm. Sympathy for the physical and mental wellbeing of a horse has always made me question my desire to seriously compete internationally.

The two days of competition were great fun to watch. I'm glad to have had the opportunity to see Debbie McDonald and Brentina put on a show for the hometown crowd.  She really brought the house down and obviously has a great relationship with her horse. I have to admit that the final placings were a bit of a letdown. The political side of international competition serves as a point of frustration for many dressage enthusiasts, me included.

Another valuable lesson learned from that vacation was that I am not a gambler. I might take a calculated risk with a horse but NOT my money. Parting with $200 at the poker table was more than I could handle!

Weserboy quickly qualified for the Regional Championships at the spring shows as did Lestera with Intermediare II scores as high as 68%. Her piaffe, passage and transitions between were going through typical learning curves. Progress would be rapid one week and plateau the next but, all things considered, she gained confidence every day.

Tess Vanattia published a wonderful article in her HorseSouth Magazine in May. The interview was fun and let me share some opinions about riding and what horses have meant in my life. Later in the summer I participated in a symposium sponsored by FRM feeds and wrote another article for Dressage Today.

vinny_roddy_inspo.jpgIn an interesting "circle of life" turn of events, my Dutch colt Vincere turned three in March and I decided that it was time to start him under saddle. We had done plenty of ground work in the last year but when it came time to break Vinny I did something for the first time in my life. I sent him out to a trainer to be started.

In August, the shippers loaded Vinny for his trip to Pennsylvania and I worried every minute of his journey. When he arrived safely I allowed myself to breathe a sigh of relief and began to wonder how my talented, little guy was doing. Two days later I spoke to the trainer, Roddy Strang, who explained that he had already ridden him! I couldn't believe it. Over the next few months Vinny went to a clinic, trail riding, crossed streams and learned to behave around mares. Roddy and I talked regularly and I enjoyed learning more about his "Natural Horsemanship" methods.

It happens with every horse at some point. You hit a training plateau and have to patiently work through it until consistent results are confirmed. The weeks leading up to the Region 3 dressage Championships I had just such a situation with both Lala and Weserboy. The hardworking mare was getting ever closer to executing piaffe, passage and the transitions between with confidence but at times her desire to please would slip into frustration.

Weser was at a stage where the Second level movements were coming together and he was about ready to introduce flying changes. Focusing on the First level Championship class I was confident in his physical ability to perform well but his tension in competition was still a problem. I wasn't terribly keen on going to the championships but the owners wanted their horses to compete.

We arrived in Jacksonville, FL only to discover that we were stabled in the overflow barn with no electricity and one hose spigot for fifty stalls to share. As luck would have it, a tropical storm  dumped several inches of rain the first night. There were rivers of water between the stalls and lakes next to the warm up arenas. The conditions were miserable.

Horses have unique personalities and a good trainer will work with the individual strengths in a show environment. Lala always had a better performance the first day of competition. It just so happened that our "first day" was the warm-up the day before her test. On Saturday Lestera felt like a ball of nervous energy. I tried everything I could think of to reassure the usually-reliable mare but to no avail. Missed changes and tension throughout the test placed us fourth in the Intermediare II class. We hadn't clicked in the weeks leading up to the show and our outing reflected it.

weser_walkpet_2x3_100dpi.jpgMy concern with Weser was his overall lack of show experience. The First Level championship class was held outdoors and he warmed up better than I expected. Once the test started I felt like he was relaxed enough for a top notch finish. That slipped away when a competitor brought her horse to the side if the arena and it proceeded to act up and whinny. Weser got distracted twice and we had to be satisfied with sixth place in a large field. The poor horse must have had a flashback to the previous year when he got so anxious that I had to dismount for the award ceremony.

The disappointment of the regionals was compounded by the fact that Lestera's owner, Kathy Frazier, had completed her new equestrian facility and moved the mare three weeks later. I couldn't blame her for wanting to enjoy the talented mare but a piece of my heart goes with each horse I train as the trailer pulls out of the driveway. Lala was a part of Touch ‘n GO Farm for nearly six years. Her kind heart and tremendous work ethic made her a pleasure to train. I knew Lala had a solid education that would greatly benefit Kathy and anyone else fortunate enough to ride her.

lestera_piaffe_2x1_100dpi.jpgStill, seeing years of emotional, physical and spiritual energy leave, even under the best of circumstances, is crushing. I train horses with my heart and soul as well as my body and mind. That makes this a damn hard business for me.

Walter Zettl came back to Georgia and entertained a packed house as always. I rode Weser and Davida while my baby Vinny was still away at school. Earlier in the year Walter had released the third video in the "A Matter of Trust" series. He was kind enough to put an "In Memoriam" for Wendel in the closing credits since he appeared in all of the videos. I finally got to express my gratitude in person.

In November, Karl Mikolka returned and promptly told me I was crazy to ride so many young horses. I explained that Weser and Davida were getting me ready to ride Vinny when returned from charm school in Pennsylvania. He had to agree that my reflexes were still acceptable when Davida had one of her mental breakdowns and stood up on one hind leg. When the crudely executed Courbette was over and I was still mounted, Karl had to admit that I didn't do too badly "for my age!" As always, working with Herr Mikolka is a privilege and we had fun despite my lack of an FEI horse.

gigi_vip1.jpgWith the show season over and my off-season training focused on youngsters I ventured into another form of instruction. My husband Scott has been a video enthusiast for many years and usually shoots all my shows and clinics we host. At the request of riders in the North who only took lessons a few times each year, Scott purchased the necessary equipment we developed a Video Instruction Program or VIP. Now we were able to accept video in almost any format and I could offer guidance by voiceover. Students liked the production DVDs and the ability to review the video as many times as they wished. It's always fun to try something new.

Christmas was wonderful with gifts spread throughout December. Early in the month we gathered a group together and watched the Spanish Riding School perform in Atlanta during their 2005 American tour. Many friends and fellow riders were in the stands and watched with the same rapt excitement as me. The performance was spectacular. There were many highlights but the Classical School Solo performance by First Chief Rider Klaus Krzisch was exceptional. He executed all of the Grand Prix movements with his twenty-seven year-old partner Siglavy Mantua I. Watching this Master ride with effortless grace I smiled at the knowledge that my Mentor, Karl Mikolka, helped develop Krzisch's seat as an Eleve before he left Vienna.

Much of the dressage world focuses on competition and hold Olympic riders in the highest regard. I have a competitive drive but my concept of training is based on the classical school and philosophies of the European Masters. Contrary to popular belief, the two are not mutually exclusive. The Spanish Riding School performance was inspirational and moving.

The next gift came during a trip to Pennsylvania to visit my family for the holiday. My young, Dutch colt Vinny was about ready to come home and I had the chance to ride him at Roddy Strang's farm. Scott, Cassidy and I stayed at Bill and Belinda Wertman's place the day before and I had a chance to talk with Roddy in greater detail about his training methods. The next morning I spent over an hour listening to him describe his approach to starting Vinny and his current state of progress. Roddy mounted first and proceeded to ride put the colt through the paces. They walked, trotted and cantered in the round pen surrounded by a multitude of distractions. Roddy finished his show by picking up a big, blue tarp and riding with it in various positions on Vinny.  I was amazed and pleased to see how well-mannered the colt had become. Then it was my turn.

My first ride on Vinny was exciting but uneventful. He remained calm throughout, even after my big-mouthed husband suggested that Roddy open and close a picnic umbrella while I rode (Wendel was deathly afraid of umbrellas). After round pen work we took a trail ride to Belinda's place and rode in the indoor arena. One the way back to Roddy's place I took comfort in the fact that Vinny had the athletic talent I suspected all along. This was the nicest horse I had ever owned.....and he was ready to come home. Merry Christmas Gigi!

whitney_arrives_2x3_100dpi.jpgJanuary 19, 2006 a shippers van pulled up to Touch ‘n GO Farm with my prized cargo inside. My heart raced to see the stallion walk safely down the ramp. I met the driver at the side of the trailer but he insisted on me reading some stupid letter before he would open the darn door. Resisting the urge to smack him, I read the note from Belinda and Bill that talked about their miniature donkey, Xena. Over several visits in the last few years, Cassidy and I had fallen in love with the Wertman's little mascot but what in the world did this have to do with my Stallion!?! As I finished the letter the driver dropped the ramp and down walked Whitney, half-sister to Xena. Cassidy and I couldn't believe it. Scott and Belinda had planned the whole thing. Cassidy took Whitney and I led Vinny off, checking every inch of his body with each step. He was safe and sound. The rest of the evening was spent alternating between my stallion and the new addition to the farm.

vinnyshome_2x3_100dpi.jpgThere is never much peace as a professional in the horse least not for me. As I was enjoying Vinny and beginning to build a new partnership, the owner of Weserboy and Davida was struggling with her personal life and how many horses she owned. By the end of February I was looking at the empty stall Weser called home. ....another piece of my heart loaded on a trailer and gone.

Another aspect of the horse business that's difficult is the all-too-common tendency for riders and trainers to let personal ambition get in the way of the truth. Lestera was home with her owner but Kathy's twin daughters had an extraordinarily difficult birth and they all needed time to recuperate. A local, semi-professional trainer was given the chance to show Lala until Kathy was fit enough to ride.

I have always supported the concept of a rider working with a schooled horse with which to learn. People who can afford a "schoolmaster" should do everything in their power to buy a trained horse and develop a greater understanding of correct riding. Such an arrangement is ideal but no rider should claim credit for training the very schoolmaster they purchased to teach them.

This opportunistic rider saw an opportunity to earn a USDF Gold Rider Medal aboard Lestera. I would have encouraged and supported any effort to keep the talented mare fit and ready for Kathy. Unfortunately, this rider was not satisfied with quickly earning the two scores above 60% at Grand Prix. She had to tell the world that she trained Lala. An amazing feat since she had only ridden the mare a few weeks.

In one regard I take a lot of satisfaction in knowing that Lestera's training was so confirmed that a rider who had never ridden true piaffe, passage and one-tempis could manage above 60% in competition. But the fact that this rider's ambition far outweighed any sense of honor or decency should serve as a warning to anyone searching for a trainer or instructor. Look beyond the credentials on a resume and get to know the person's background and history. On a happier note, this person was not the only rider to earn a Gold Medal aboard Lala.

The loss of Weser and Lestera left emotional scars. The purchase of a young horse by an occasional student left me crippled for weeks.

Barbara Cummings had retired from teaching school and wanted a reliable horse to enjoy now that she had more time to ride. We looked at dozens of video tapes but working out the level of training versus price equation proved difficult. She finally purchased a young Hanoverian from someone we thought was a reputable trainer.

The first day I decided to longe the horse to get a feel for him. The horse went well without bucking or spooking. As soon as Barbara mounted his eye changed. Being conservative, I kept the pair on a twenty-meter circle to work on trot tempo. The more he worked, the more he began to look around. Barbara couldn't keep his attention and he finally spooked at something and unloaded her.

As he ran towards the gate his eye softened and he relaxed. "How long has it been since you've fallen?" she asked. I had to think before I answered, "Over ten years."  Barbara showed a lot of courage as she remounted but the shock of the fall and the unseasonable March temperatures had her overheated.  As she got off I suggested that I should finish the lesson.

No sooner did I get my feet in the stirrups than the gelding immediately tried to spook. I worked him in little shoulder-fore around arena in both directions. He broke into a canter but the transition felt okay and I let him continue. A few strides later he kicked at my leg, bucked once and I recovered. Then he dropped his head and bucked so hard his hind legs went over his shoulders. Barbara said he was nearly vertical. It wasn't a question of seat security or reaction time. Pure, equine strength sent me flying several feet over his head, landing flat on my back.

The emergency room doctors ruled out any broken bones. The soft tissue damage would take weeks to heal and any permanent injury to my back would be determined over the next few months. All I know is the pain was a severe as any encountered during forty-plus years of riding.

While the physical pain was bad, I was mentally and emotionally spent from the events of the last six months. Fickle owners, deceitful trainers and dishonest brokers had soured me on the whole profession. Hobbling around the farm I decided to skip the 2006 competition and concentrate on the two things I enjoyed most: riding Vinny and teaching interested students.

peggymiles_luc_0507_200w.jpgThe changing seasons also brought a new student to the farm. Peggy Miles had been involved with dressage in the Atlanta area for many years. She had spent a small fortune with several area professionals. What she had to show for it was a horse with serious holes in his training. Lucky had a heart of gold and I welcomed Peggy and her sweet gelding into the fold.

A spring clinic with Karl led to the obvious, "I told you so" in admonishment for riding young horses. His tune changed as I rode Vinny for him for the first time. He had to admit that the flashy stallion had it all. After I rode Lucky in one lesson, Karl let Peggy know that he had a bright future.

Competition, horses in training and local lessons had prevented me from accepting many offers for out-of-town clinics. I usually only did a few each year. My decision to take a hiatus from showing allowed me to travel to new clinic locations in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Alabama and Tennessee. The concentrated teaching in clinics also allowed me to focus more energy on Vinny while I was home.

My Dutch colt was proving to be quite a handful, especially in the spring and summer when the mares were in season. Vinny is all boy and it was tough to keep his attention. I didn't want to geld him unless it was necessary since he could be approved as a breeding stallion. I decided to give him until the fall to grow up and learn when to pay attention to me and when to pay attention to the girls.

camper_group.jpgDiane Thomas hosted two dressage Adult Camps at Merichase Farm during the summer. Cassidy was out of school and came to both events as a "camper" with her pony Hannah. The days started early and went well into the night but I had a ball with the ladies and Cassidy felt like one of the group. It was at those camps that I began to see my daughter's interest in horses grow. The time with my daughter and a Florida vacation helped heal body and soul.

Karl returned in the fall and was pleased with both Vinny's progress and my recuperation. Some of my students riding in the clinic were headed to the USDF Regional Dressage Championships in October and I felt a bit of an urge to compete. Nonetheless, I decided to stay focused on training Vinny and went to the finals as a Coach only.

That same month Cassidy asked if she could be homeschooled again. We had taken this approach from Kindergarten through Second grade. The local middle schools had been a terrible disappointment so Scott and I agreed. Already-busy days got even busier but the extra time with my daughter was priceless. 

For those unfamiliar, homeschooling usually allows a student to study the typical academic subjects in far less time than a traditional school day. Cassidy and I spent four to five hours each day concentrating on math, science, history and language arts. That still left time for her to ride Hannah several days each week. As the holidays approached Cassidy became much more dedicated to her riding and took an active interest in my students and horses in training. One day she announced that she had set a personal goal of qualifying at Training Level for the 2007 Regional Championships. That was quite a statement for an eleven-year-old with a grade pony. It also meant I would be back on the competition trail the next year.

The prospect of showing Vinny had lost some of its luster because I could not keep him mentally on task. He was a stallion and knew it. My other in-tact, male horse Legacy was quite a gentleman and never presented much of a problem. Vinny's physiology just wouldn't allow him to separate work from pleasure and we were struggling with a dominance issue. It was a difficult decision but they had to go.

We hauled the colt to the University of Georgia veterinary hospital in November and arranged to have him collected before gelding. Over the next four weeks the doctors and students tried to teach him steps 1, 2 and 3 in the proper order but to no avail. Vinny came home just as he had left. I made the decision that I would work him though the winter but we were not heading down any centerline until the job was completed.

A January clinic with Spanish Riding School Bereiter Herbert Seiberl supported my decision when the young rider from the finest school in the world stated, "I'm not riding him. I have to go to work next week!" Herbert offered a good eye on the ground but his approach was clearly different than the SRS riders of past generations. I appreciated Herbert's hard work and sincere attempt to improve each horse.

I hosted Karl Mikolka again in March and was anxious to ride Vinny under him. Six months has passed since his last visit and Karl acknowledged the improvement. His training was more confirmed so Karl decided to work the colt in-hand and on long lines. By the end of the clinic both Karl and I were sore. He agreed with my decision to geld the horse and told me pointedly that there was no limit as to how far he could go. Two weeks later Vinny returned to UGA with instructions to geld him, collected or not.

While Vinny was gone I spent extra time working with Cassidy and Hannah. My daughter had not been to a show in two years and lacked confidence. Over the next six weeks the cute pair became a solid team and were excited to go to the GDCTA show in late May.

Vinny finally learned to do what nature intended and the UGA vets colleted over forty doses. He is not as approved KWPN stallion but I know how talented he is and wanted to be able to have a Vinny baby in the future. Following the "Brain surgery" he returned home on May 7th. You never know if a horse gelded late will become as calm-natured as one cut early but Vinny's change was dramatic and immediate. Debra McComb said it best, "It wasn't a castration, it was an exorcism!" Amen.

cassidy_haltsmile_2x3_100dpi.jpgThat gave us five weeks to prepare for his first show. I was far more concerned with Vinny's physical recovery than test scores so I loaded my daughter and Hannah in the trailer and headed for the Greater Atlanta Dressage Southern at Chateau Élan. In the past, Cassidy and I went to shows where we both competed. This was my first experience being a true, horseshow mom. I spent the weekend calling her tests and coaching students Peggy Miles, Lisa Cantrell and Debra McComb.

Cassidy had a healthy case of nerves but she worked through it and put in a weekend of solid tests. Her Training Level high score of 67.8% pinned a smile on her face that could be wiped away. Peggy did well in her first attempt at Third Level and finished the weekend with a 63.9% and 62.0% in the Third Level qualifying classes. Lisa and Debra scored well too.

Aside from the competitive successes of the weekend I received a sincere expression of gratitude from a young professional. Adrienne Rogers was a dedicated student of mine for over five years. She earned her USDF Bronze and Silver medals with me while still a teenager and competed in the NAYRC representing Region 3. Adrienne came to our stalls between classes and told me she had earned the scores necessary for her USDF Gold Rider Medal in Florida. More importantly, she won the medal riding Lestera. She campaigned the mare for Kathy Norton in an effort to sell her. Adrienne was quick to recognize Lala's correct training and explained, "If I tell her what to do correctly, she just does it." It was a classy and professional gesture on her part.

Karl Mikolka always talked about the true test of a rider's training. Only the best trained horses were used to teach young riders in Vienna. To have a horse chosen for this task was considered an honor. Adrienne was the second person to successfully compete Lala at Grand Prix and neither rider had experience above Intermediare I. That is the kind of personal achievement I hold dear. It also made me miss Lala's graceful power and determined attitude.

It felt good to be at a horse show and I was welcomed back by many competitors I hadn't seen in over a year. The cortisone injection I received in my hip prior to the show had kicked in and made me look forward to the first competition with Vinny only a few weeks away.

vinny_foirstshowpet_2x3_100dpi.jpgCassidy didn't compete at the next show but was excited to be part of the group as we hauled my gelding (hallelujah) to the Georgia International Horse Park in Conyers. Vinny had recovered nicely from surgery but was a bit edgy. After we arrived, every free minute was spent walking him around the venue but he didn't seem to be settling down. I kept reminding Scott that I was not going to ride him if he felt explosive. Everyone agreed that Vinny's first competition experience should be positive and supported my decision.  Easy for them to say, they didn't have to ride him.

I had a long-term view of my goals for this special horse and didn't really care if we scratched every class. Vinny seemed less volatile than the day before but I couldn't say he was relaxed. It took all my experience and skill to keep a calm exterior while my senses remained on high alert. After the bell rang, Vinny went down centerline like a trooper and trusted me throughout the test. When it was over I fell into a chair mentally and physically spent. I was overjoyed that the test was quiet and helped my boy build a little confidence. It was nice to see the 64.8% but I never cared less about a score in my life.

The second day was even better and Vinny was more relaxed. When we took third place in the Training Level qualifying class with a 69.2% I scratched the last class and headed home happy.  My students did well at the show and looked forward to the last event of the summer.

Poplar Place is one of my favorite Georgia showgrounds since it is close to home and run by the wonderful Stegman family. The site is small but clean, safe and well organized. Cassidy and I both competed at the June show which was fun but made for hectic scheduling. Several students participated and lent a helping hand when Vinny needed more nervous, walking time. He put forth an honest effort in each test and finished the weekend with a Training Level - 4 score of 73.2 % from Lois Yukins. By the end of the show Cassidy, Lisa and Peggy had all qualified for the regional championships.

Like the winter months, I look forward to July and August as a respite form competition and time to make serious progress in training. Three shows in five weeks was enough of an introduction to competition for Vinny and I felt optimistic about his future. My students were working hard preparing for the fall shows when I got a call from Barbara Cummings.

She had tried two trainers that specialized in starting babies and rehabilitating rank horses. The gelding that threw me eighteen months earlier had dumped both trainers, seriously injuring one. After some searching she found a nice-moving, Dutch gelding.  The problem centered on the fact that he was three-years-old! I told her that the last one made me swear off youngsters for good. That being said, I felt bad for Barbara and the situation she had been through last year. Against my better judgment I told her she could bring her new baby to my farm to get her started on the right foot.

I longed the horse for a while and Barbara began to ride him a few weeks later. He was obviously a nice mover with a sweet disposition but terribly green. Barbara was a novice rider and fell off after the youngster tripped. Ignoring my inner voice, I rode the horse the next day. He pulled one of his "baby scoots," got scared and bolted. I came off in a controlled fashion but was dumped nonetheless.

Thankfully the fall wasn't as severe as the one the previous year but it definitely aggravated the old injury. Managing to hobble around and keep riding, I announced to the world that I was done with babies.

Green horses are like blank sheets of paper with their stories waiting to be written. Novice riders who purchase youngsters can make a huge mess from the start and the result is a young horse with problems he doesn't deserve. My advice to this: if you insist on buying a green broke horse, spend the extra money to have an accomplished trainer ride the horse for a good long while. The second fall was the good Lord reminding me to listen to my own advice.

September proved to be a hectic month with three, back-to-back events (no pun intended). When Karl arrived I was riding but still sore. Vinny made noticeable progress and Karl confirmed that we were on the right track. He was also pleased to be working with a gelding again.

Two days later I took Vinny to the KWPN inspection at the Horse Park in Conyers. Julie Ballard-Haralson bred my wonderful horse and wanted him inspected so the dam Katinka would get credit for his quality. Breed shows have never been my thing with the screaming babies and commotion but I figured the more new things my guy experienced before the finals in Florida, the better.

I was smart enough to hire a handler for the in-hand portion of the event. The KWPN inspectors were very complimentary and graded Vinny First Premium and awarded a Ster predicate. Later in the day we rode the IBOP and DG Bar Cup tests. Vinny passed the IBOP with flying colors and scored well after the DG Bar Cup ride.

Three days later I hoped the positive results would continue at the Good Horseman fall dressage show. It was our only warm up for the Regional Championships and both Hannah and Vinny needed more competition experience on our horses.

Cassidy tested the waters at First level and nailed a 66% in test one. Hannah, the grade pony, worked like a champ and gave Cassidy a needed boost in confidence.

Vinny posted a respectable 68.4% in Training Level test 4 test but was rewarded in his First Level debut with a 71.3%. He still wasn't relaxed but I began to feel like, with time and experience, he could become a reliable competition horse. My back was shot after three events in ten days but the great results took the edge off the pain.

The USDF Region 3 Dressage Championships were held in Ocala, Florida. Traveling with horses all day is one of my least favorite things but we arrived safe and sound. The competitive side of me always emerges before tests but the real reason I went to the finals was Cassidy. In the back of my mind I kept hearing her tell me that she had set a personal goal to qualify for the championships. That was over a year ago. Now, we were here and I couldn't have been more proud.

Along with dreams of big-show success come the harsh realities of stiff competition. Cassidy was a twelve-year-old girl going up against twenty-one year-old young women in the Jr/YR division. Many of them rode high-quality, imported warmbloods. Cassidy's nerves got the best of her and the warm-up, test scores reflected it. When her Training Level championship class came the following day she was determined but anxious. Hannah wasn't on her best behavior and Cassidy went off course trying to make a correction. In the end, the pair still earned a 60.4% finishing in the middle of a class of twenty-seven.

Vinny was tense as I worked him around the venue but he settled down during our First Level warm-up test and scored a 68.7%. He gave me another solid effort in the Training Level championship class earning a 64.8% and placed ninth, just out of the ribbons. As a competitor I hoped for a better result. As the trainer of a talented horse at his fourth show, I was more than satisfied. During the ride home I kept thinking about the four years Vinny ran around pasture as a beautiful colt with lots of promise. Now he had proven to me that he could live up to his potential.

Shortly after getting home I received a package from the NA/KWPN. Vincere had tied for Reserve Champion in the Dressage Geldings and Stallions class and took Third place in the DG Bar Cup for five-year olds. Apparently, the Dutch inspectors saw Vinny's potential as well.

During the holidays I had the chance to ride with my first, professional dressage instructor, Gunnar Ostergaard. We talked about the thirty-five years that had past since our first lesson and complemented each other on holding up pretty well after all the years. The session was relaxed and gave me a chance to put Vinny through his paces. In the end, Gunnar said he was a super horse.

The events of the last few months confirmed my opinion of Vinny. Cassidy surprised me throughout the year with her hard work and determination. I welcomed in 2008 with a clear understanding that I had two diamonds in the rough and considered myself richly blessed to have such good fortune.

Happy New Year.