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This is your very first post. Click the Edit link to modify or delete it, or start a new post. If you like, use this post to tell readers why you started this blog and what you plan to do with it.
You’re bored at work and casually looking through horse ads. Most of the ads say the horse has no “buck, bolt or rear” and you think, “Hmmm, I haven’t ridden in a month because my horse does two out of those three. Maybe I should do something about that.”
You want to finally start your big, 6 year-old stallion who is a pasture ornament now because you have no time for him.
Your once honest and brave jumper is now refusing even the smallest of cross rails. You’ve had a few trainers try to help, but hooves are still firmly planted on the ground and you’re about to give up hope.
Who should you call?
We’d been hearing about Travis Robson like a sort of mythical creature. A trainer who will accept even the toughest cases. A trainer who is kind and fair while dealing with the worst of the worst cases of behavior and aggression. A trainer who stares down the fears others can’t or won’t face with his calming strength. A trainer who gets the job done quickly and efficiently at a reasonable rate. We even heard that horses like him so much that they follow him around like dogs. Did we dare believe it? We had to see this man for ourselves so we packed up our lattes and granola bars and hit the road.
We pulled into the driveway of an idyllic little farm with a quaint bank barn and happy horses of all shapes and sizes quietly grazing in paddocks. Travis immediately came out, greeting us with a warm smile and the small-town manners that made it easy to like him immediately. You may be picturing the stereotypical, good-looking cowboy in jeans with tousled wind-swept hair or maybe Robert Redford’s ruggedly handsome “horse whisperer,” and well, you’d be right on the money. Not only is Robson an incredibly fit man, his sinewy frame forged by decades of working horses across North America, he is handsome and articulate and cool with a shy smile and wry sense of humor. We’re not going to lie, we all had a crush on him by the end of the day. (Sorry Travis. We know you’re burning with embarrassment, but it had to be said.)
As we walked through his barn, the horses quietly munched hay or swung their heads over their doors looking for a pat from Robson. The horses under his tutelage appear at ease and relaxed – almost as if they’ve adopted their trainer’s personality. We stopped front of a huge draft-cross mare who was known to kick and bite. She was 8 years-old and had barely worn a halter in her lifetime, let alone a saddle. When we asked him if there was ever a case that he wouldn’t take for breaking or re-training. His answer was simple.
The first horse he brought out was a big, flashy warmblood – an eventer who had developed a fear of jumping after an accident and an injury. Unfortunately, sometimes long after an injury heals, the mind does not, and after falling into the wrong hands a few times, the problem grew worse. Fear and tension had taken over this horse even when ridden on the flat. A horse like him, although full of past success and future potential, could very well have ended up a lawn ornament. Or worse.
After tacking him up in a western saddle, we went to the arena. Robson mounted this 17 hand, coiled powder keg with the relaxed attitude of someone on a beach with a margarita in their hand. Every step the horse took at the beginning looked poised for an explosion. It was kind of scary to watch. The faint of heart among us had to go sit in the car. But Travis schooled this horse like he was always intuitively one step ahead, sometimes pushing but often compromising, to avoid the explosion. He always channelled the horse in the direction he wanted, never once straying from the horse’s centre of gravity. The ultimate result was a horse so filled with quiet confidence, he was happy to go for a relaxed canter around the newly-harvested soybean field.
Robson has built a reputation based on stories of unparalleled success training and rehabilitating horses across all disciplines and levels of competition hand in hand with humane, horse-centred treatment. It is a skill and an art he has developed over a lifetime. Robson is from a family of horse people and mostly self-taught as a self-described, “lifelong student of the horse.”.
“Fear and frustration are the biggest things in horses. They’re either scared or frustrated,” he says of the two main problems he is hired to help solve. Somewhere in that bucking, bolting, or rearing there is something the horse is trying to communicate and Robson’s experience unearths this quickly.
“I always tell people my whole training program is not a physical program. Most guys go out and they work ‘em hard,” he explains of the “break down and build back-up” style.
Robson tells us the story of a sour jumper that came in to his barn. His owner was about to give up. Now all the horse knew how to do was stop at every single fence. Robson’s approach was to figure out the underlying issue – not just correct the resistance to the jump with brute force.
“I had to ride him for a while and figure out what it is that’s stopping this horse from going over the fence,’” he says.
It turns out that the horse was struggling with the landing and the lead change after the jump, so the solution was to fix the change to the point where the horse could enjoy his job again. When Robson returned the re-programmed horse however, he witnessed the behavior come back immediately with the owner.
“When I took him back to her, I said ‘Let’s saddle him up, you’re going to jump him today. She went to two or three fences, but he stopped at every one of them,” he sighs.
The rider was clamping down on the horse’s mouth, so rather than maintain contact he directed her to ride to the fence and let go of his mouth.
“She was riding to every fence like he was going to quit,” he explains of how the owner herself would trigger her horse to continue to bail out time and time again.
It’s obvious that Robson is not just a horse trainer, but a human trainer as well. He helps owners, riders, handlers and other trainers learn how to better interact with their equine partners because sometimes it’s the humans who need to be re-programmed. Robson is adamant about how the rider’s attitude and body language can teach the horse to behave well or can perpetuate bad behavior. Watching him in the ring, it is incredible to see the ease with which he confidently re-directs a horse time and time again until it does as he intended. It’s not about handling a rear or recovering from a refusal after the fact, Robson is providing constant direction and driving the horsepower with clear intention.
“You have to prepare the horses to try to avoid those bad situations,” he says.
Even when at their home stable, Robson explains that there is often a mismatch between what the horse needs and what its owner wants.
“The biggest problem in people’s training programs is they just don’t do enough homework,” he says. They’re just not able to provide the horse with the type or frequency of work it truly requires. “People think they’re a trainer if they ride their horse two or three days a week, when that horse really should be ridden, say, nine times a week.”
So rather than fitting convenience into our schedules, Robson advocates doing what the horse actually needs you to do for them. Which may mean more work and more discipline than you are equipped to provide. But it’s not about doing things by force for him, Robson’s success seems to come by fostering the horse’s desire to please.
“I think it’s a huge mistake that horses are put in the same category as cats and dogs. They’re considered a companion animal. But that’s not what they were developed for…they’re supposed to have a job. Horses like to work. Horses that don’t work, it’s like a child with no direction. Horses need to work to because valuable members of society and they like it. Give them a job, the better they’re going to like you.”
In equestrian news, the ongoing feud between the FEI and the Longines Global Champions League (GCL) heated up when two officials were suspended following the event in Miami Beach. The GCL brings the world’s top 30 ranked show jumpers to swanky locations for big prize money. But don’t count the FEI among the millions or so fans who watch the competitions either in person or live streamed. They suspended the 2 officials after Miami because they are FEI accredited, but the GCL isn’t a sanctioned event so technically the officials are not allowed to officiate. The GCL doesn’t seem to be losing any sleep over it and the officials said sorry, not sorry, the Global Champions League is good for the sport. Read their full statement here. Come on FEI – where else are we going to be able to watch world-class show jumping with no pants on?
Because Rolex starts April 28th. A country singer is performing at the party after cross country this year who apparently is one of the hottest new faces in music. But don’t take it from us, we thought Coachella was a virus.
And in another chapter of “Places You Want To Be,” the Horses & Dreams event kicked off in Denmark on April 20th, organized by the same people who put on the drool-worthy, can’t-even-afford-a-shoe-off-of-one-of-those-horses Performance Sales International auctions. This time it’s a charity event combining sport and entertainment to benefit projects for children in need.
It wasn’t such a happy month for the legendary racehorse Zenyatta, who lost her 4 day-old foal to meconium aspiration syndrome.
It was also sad news for those following the story of the heroic police horse Shaktiman who was brutally injured during a political riot and had to have his leg amputated. Despite efforts by his caretakers, the horse lost his battle to survive with a prosthetic leg.
Dozens of horses were rescued from the Cypress Trails Equestrian Centre after record-breaking flooding in Texas thanks to the efforts of police and citizens. The Houston SPCA was called in to assist the trapped horses that were struggling to keep their heads above the rising flood waters. The Office of Emergency Management has determined that no horses died.
Hello nonagenarian. On April 21st the Queen (and fellow horse-lover) celebrated her 90th birthday. The celebration was an equestrian affair with 900 horses and 1,500 riders participating. It’s not exactly clear how those ratios are possible, but 900 horses anywhere would sure be a great party.
And in breaking news….it would appear the newest generation may be following in Great Grandmama’s stirrups.
Oscar winning actress and race horse owner, Dame Judi Dench will take over as the new patron of the British Thoroughbred Retraining Centre. Glad you have some free time Ms. Dench, but oh how we’re going to miss you M.
No, actually they’re smarty pants.
Equestrian, mechanical engineer and budding entrepreneur Caitlin Parrucci won the Student Business of the year at Cornell University. She invented a bucket that alerts to changes in drinking habits by measuring how much a horse drinks. Ms. Parrucci has been riding for 15 years and joined the university’s equestrian team as a first year student. Now if someone invents a similar device for wine, we’re screwed.
Fear. I see it affect my students in their lessons and I, their coach, am certainly not immune. Mine may be of different things or generated in a different way, but it is fear just the same. One such fear, while ridiculous, has not affected my life in any significant way, while another has changed the course of my equestrian career.
In Part 1 Ever Heard of the Amygdala? I wrote about rational versus irrational fear – and the sorry situation that whether rational or irrational, it is largely out of our control. Some fears are always there, lurking in the dark basement of our minds, only to leap out at the most inopportune times. Personally, one of my irrational fears lies dormant for long periods of time. It doesn’t get me day to day, but waits for me quietly at amusement parks or maybe a state fair. No, it’s not clowns. Although creepy, they don’t scare me to the point of sweating and hyperventilating in their presence.
There I said it. I don’t usually like to admit it, because it’s embarrassing. How can an amusement park ride, gentle enough for pregnant women and the elderly, strike fear in the heart of a healthy, adult woman? It is a question I have asked myself for years. No amount of statistics or logic will help this fear though, because it is based largely in the helplessness we feel when faced with situations beyond our control. And because Ferris wheels move slowly, there’s time to imagine every worst-case scenario. I can clearly picture the dude who was supposed to tighten the bolts, downing Jagermeister shots with his buddies at a bachelor party the night before. He stumbles in to work, hung over, and thinks, “Screw it, I’m going for a nap behind the Tilt O’Whirl.” A bolt falls out of the car I, of course, am in, causing it to violently pitch to the side. I’m thrown out of the car, but manage to grab the frame and cling to it for as long as I can. Ultimately, because I haven’t been able to do a pull-up since the age of 6, my fingers slip and I plunge to my death.
But that’s me. Other people will rock and sway the car because, to them, the ride is too slow and not exhilarating enough. They enjoy that sensation of adrenaline pumping through their veins and actually seek it out. *A sidenote to those types (who are probably eventers), if we are ever on a Ferris wheel together and you rock the car, you’ll be losing a tooth.
This fear does affect me day to day and has changed the course of my equestrian career. I have a fear of showing, or more specifically, it’s the fear of being watched, also known as stage fright or performance anxiety. It’s not at all rational, but not any less powerful. For example, the scariest thing I can ever imagine doing is standup comedy. It may not be on the same level as feeling sharp teeth brush my leg while swimming in the ocean, but even so, the thought of doing standup comedy can push me pretty close to wetting my pants. I’m not sure there’s enough Valium in the world to get me up on that stage. I think that’s why I’m so intrigued by comedians. I want Amy Poehler to be my best friend. I imagine us having brunch together. She’ll wear a red dress and pin a flower in her hair. She’ll order pancakes. And maybe a glass of chardonnay…
But I digress.
This fear of showing is also not rational, but not any less powerful. Psychologists say performance anxiety is closely tied to the fear of failure and because of this fear, I have not competed very much. Can you imagine announcing, “Attention, all spectators must go sit in their cars for 10 minutes. That includes you, judge. Now show me some hustle.” I’m pretty sure that would be frowned upon. So, as a result, I haven’t shown much and subsequently haven’t had the equestrian career that I imagined when I was a kid.
So I’d like to know, does anyone else have any equestrian or non-equestrian irrational fears? (If you’re too scared to comment publicly, then I’d love an email.)
In Part 3 we’ll be getting tips and advice from experts to help us all overcome those irrational fears that truly hold us back.
P.S. Check out Amy’s fabulous organization Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls. It’s “dedicated to helping young people cultivate their authentic selves.” As if I needed a reason to love her more.
Parting is such sweet sorrow. The equestrian Disneyland that is Wellington is closing up shop for another year. Riders from around the world are packing up their boots and spurs and leaving on a jet plane – some with money in their pockets, while others might have to live in their cars to pay for next year. Because Wellington is like a high-end escort; she may be beautiful, but she ain’t cheap. And she be expanding. Mark Bellissimo, who is in charge of the group that owns both the Global Dressage and Winter Equestrian Festival show grounds, has acquired the International Polo Club. He has plans to create “one of the most unique equestrian experiences in the world.” What’s the equestrian equivalent of space mountain? Read about it here.
Sweet beginnings. The Longines Global Champions Tour kicks off April 10th. This world- class show jumping competition in Miami Beach includes a shopping village, entertainment and refreshment area. What could be better than a show on a white sandy beach, listening to the sound of pounding hooves and the gentle lull of ocean waves? It’s free. Nice touch Longines.
Meanwhile in the U.K. In an effort to keep horses and riders safe, the British Horse Society started a campaign and released a video in an effort to educate drivers on how to safely pass horses and riders on the road. The message is simple. Lives are more important than rushing home to watch Dr. Who reruns.
Who’s in hot water? French show jumper Penelope Leprevost. Unbeknownst to her, she was being videoed when her horse Vagabond de la Pomme stumbled badly in the warm-up at the World Cup Finals in Gothenburg. When the video of her reaction hit the internet, the response on social media was swift, with most people calling it “rough” and “unfair.” The rider issued a statement expressing regret and the FEI is investigating.
Olympic fever. A hot debate boiled over at the recent FEI Sports Forum in Switzerland and dominated the day. The topic? Downsizing teams from four riders to three with no dropped score. The response? Dressage said okay, show jumping said maybe, while eventing said H-E-double hockey stick-NO, citing safety reasons. They’re worried, in part, that with no dropped score, riders will push too hard to finish cross country. But it’s no secret that equestrian sport has its collective head on the chopping block with the IOC due to its high costs and complicated logistics. The new format is part of a plan by the FEI to keep equestrian sports in the Olympics by allowing a greater number of teams from smaller nations to compete. How about it Vatican City? Throw on a pair of white breeches under those robes and you’re good to go.
Also at the Forum…The FEI launched its new global promotional campaign called Two Hearts that focuses on the partnership between horse and rider. It’s part of a plan to make equestrian sports more attractive to the IOC and to attempt to appeal to a wider audience of non-equestrians. It might be easy to explain the love and bond we have with another living creature’s heart, but harder to explain why said heart can cost more than a million dollars. Maybe that’ll be in the sequel.
WTF? While the FEI is trying to make equestrian sport more inclusive and transparent, one national federation has decided that its Olympic qualification criteria for all three disciplines needs to be kept top secret. The website Eurodressage described it as an “omertà.” To save you from having to google it like we did: “This is a code of honor that places importance on silence,” usually practiced by the mafia.
While we don’t want to say who it is, we’ll give you a hint – they have a hot new Prime Minister. We did dig up a website keeping track of the unofficial dressage standings though, so here are the secret riders, unofficially vying for an Olympic spot. Hope nobody gets whacked.
And speaking of fantasies. Turns out, humans got it all wrong. Unicorns did exist. Unfortunately, they were a wee bit different than we imagined.
The findings were first published in the February 2016 issue of the American Journal of Applied Sciences, the same day our childhood dreams were officially crushed.
Who’s dating who? Equestrian Kaley Cuoco (who also has a starring role on a little show called The Big Bang Theory) is rumored to be dating show jumper Karl Cook. Is he nervous dating a woman who makes a million bucks per episode? Not likely. Cook is the son of Scott Cook, co-founder of Intuit, the makers of TurboTax and Quickbooks. Here are some cute photos of the couple’s budding romance. Except the face-licking one.
And the award for…The cutest thing on the internet goes to a little girl named Edwina and her pony Tusseman. Thank you Swedish event rider mom Anna Freskgard for sharing the adorableness that is this pair. Check out her Instagram for more cuteness…and mom’s not hard on the eyes, either.
Nicholas Fyffe is a lesson in contrasts. A great example of things not always being what they seem at first glance. When we interviewed him at the end of a very long day, the interviewers sat slumped in their chairs, tired and disheveled (from sitting in lawn chairs all day), while the interviewee walked in impeccably polished, with obvious energy even after his 9-hour day of teaching and riding. When he sat down after changing out of his boots, he sat so straight, his back never touched the chair. His chiropractor must be proud. Feeling shamed, the rest of us sat up a little straighter, smoothed our clothes and tried in vain to run fingers through our frizzy hair.
With this discipline and precision, it’s easy to understand why Nicholas Fyffe is a top dressage rider – the equine sport born from the military. He was raised in Australia, trained in Germany, set up shop in Canada for a while and now lives in the equestrian paradise of Wellington, Florida with his husband and fellow dressage rider, David Marcus. He has trained with such illustrious names as Ulla Salzgeber, Martina Hanover, Hubertus Schmidt, Oded Shimoni, Catherine Haddad and Robert Dover.
But there’s more to Nicholas Fyffe than meets the eye. When we asked him if he has any superstitions or rituals before competition, his answer fit the soldier:
“I put my left sock and my left boot, my left spur and my left glove on first always. It’s not so much superstition, I think it’s more obsessive compulsive. That’s just my routine, I like to do the same thing every day and then I know what to expect.”
But when we asked him about his favorite TV show, he threw us a curveball:
“My all-time favorite TV show is Absolutely Fabulous, and the movie that’s coming out I’m sure it will be my favorite movie.”
This answer makes us want to do another interview with him over martinis in Wellington. (How about it Nick? Can we call you Nick?)
The contrast in these answers describes his teaching style perfectly. He’s articulate, his instructions always sharp and crystal clear. He’s tough and challenges the rider with high expectations. At first we were expecting him to yell “drop and give me 20”, but soon realized he also brings a sense of humor, warmth, patience and positivity to his teaching. Not an easy blend to master. Although let’s be real, the Australian accent does put the cherry on the parfait.
So military precision, paired with a sense of humor and an Australian accent. What could be better?
His obvious love of horses, that’s what. Nicholas brings a love of the animal to his own riding and to his coaching that is reflected in his quickness to praise and reward, along with a recognition of the importance of good training.
“I love horses. I can’t imagine having a life without them.….They reflect reality. A horse won’t do anything brilliant unless the training and preparation is brilliant…if you’re a terrible trainer, it will be reflected somewhere in the horse. They are mirrors of the rider’s personality.”
What do you first look for when choosing a horse?
“I like to look in their eyes. I know that sounds very romantic and a bit ethereal. But you can tell a lot from their eyes. A relaxed eye tells you that horse is inquisitive to work with people. You can tell a little about their past experience with people. If they’ve got some fear there then it might be a sharp horse that possibly has had a bad experience and needs a little more trust. I think the eye is the first thing where I can get a gauge of their character and past.”
It’s not surprising that Nicholas has developed a perceptive and subtle understanding of horses. They have always been part of his life. His mom and grandfather were both in the horse business in Australia. In the ’70s his mom was riding and training thoroughbreds on the racetrack and was one of the first women to get her track work license. She obviously had a major influence on Nicholas’ understanding of horsemanship, starting with respecting the horse.
“I remember I rode at a gymkhana when I was very young, where you play a lot of games. I was 5 and my Shetland pony was 4 – we were young together. We were in the egg and spoon race where you carry the egg on the spoon across the finish line. My pony trotted and I dropped the egg. I was furious because I didn’t win and I really thought I would. I was very competitive and I took the pony back to the trailer and I was so upset with her I got off and kicked her in the stomach. My mother saw me and she sent me to sit in the trailer for the rest of the day. I wasn’t allowed to enter into any further games because I was very unfair to my horse. That’s something I’ve never, ever forgotten. Respecting the horse was something that is very important and drilled into me. That’s what I really learned from her.”
Other childhood experiences have helped Nicholas evolve into the elite dressage rider he is today. He is incredibly athletic. We knew he had been a gymnast in his younger years, but watching him mount a large horse from the ground with less effort than most of us use getting in the car, it became obvious. This athleticism brings a lightness and grace to his riding. Although Nicholas credits gymnastics with helping him be more balanced and more aware of his symmetry, it also helped shaped his entire approach to training, especially from his experiences as a young person in that sport.
“I think some of the gymnastic training I had was negative, and didn’t encourage me. I feel that training in any way has to be positive and encouraging.”
After many years Nicholas returned to gymnastics with a supportive trainer, but this time, the hard work to retrain his body took its toll, and that made him think more about the horses.
“We’re asking the horses to do things they haven’t done before. Their bodies have to hurt the next day. So I became a little more sympathetic to that.
I also became more sympathetic to this trainer watching me do very bad gymnastics and be very positive about it. That kept me motivated to become better. That’s what I bring to training my students who are having a really hard time, or training horses that are having a really hard time. There needs to be some positive reinforcement in order to motivate them to keep going, the horse or the rider.”
In the next instalment, find out Nicholas’ training tips, the biggest mistakes amateur riders make and why the silence of neutral is the best gift we can give to our horses.
Footwear. If there is a piece of equipment more important to equestrians, I’m not sure what it is. Our riding boots, paddock boots, rubber boots, clogs…whatever we choose, must be comfortable, strong, durable and able to take a beating. We are some of the most punishing consumers out there on footwear. Even our tall boots, the footwear that we cherish and adore, that we put on a pedestal because we save months, if not years, for a top brand, are not immune to punishment. Who has vowed, when you take your shiny new tall boots out of the box, that you will never, ever leave them on to hose your sweaty horse or go get a horse from a muddy field, so help you god and all the archangels? Of course you have, we all have. We’re usually pretty good for a while, but then inevitably one day we think, screw it, I don’t have time to keep changing out of these things. They are leather after all, surely they can take a little water.
If our precious tall boots have to take this kind of beating, a prayer must be said for our poor, regular everyday boots. I have tried a lot of brands and some survive for years, while others are cracked, worn and leaking before one season is over. One brand that definitely has come through the punishment with dignity is Blundstones. But now the time has come to say goodbye.
I think it was about 2004 when I bought this pair. I wore them almost every single day for more than two years. I loved them with all my heart. Then one dark day they disappeared. I looked everywhere, tore my entire house and car apart to look for them, with no luck. I never gave up hope, but abandoned the day-to-day search. Then one day, at a birthday party for my sister, I looked across the room and there they were. On my sister’s feet! I didn’t recognize them at first because they were all polished and shiny and mud-free but a mother knows her babies. Instead of making a scene like I did when we were kids, I waited until the next time I was at her house and stole them back. This set off a string of thefts, that at first were filled with anger and resentment but soon settled into a shared custody arrangement of the Blundstones. When I would take them back, they were put through all manner of horrible experiences. They trekked through water, mud, snow and horse urine and have been stepped on by thousand-pound animals multiple times. They got baked (and not in a good way) on hot sand and froze in the ice and snow. With my sister, they had an easier life. She didn’t do a lot, just scraped off the mud, conditioned them with a little mink oil before they would make an appearance at the grocery store, the bank, the dentist, even at funerals and weddings.
This went on for more than a decade, until one fateful day last week when it all came to an end. These faithful boots, that have been through so much, had finally had enough. And the only thing that did them in, was the rubber soul….oops I mean sole. The rubber sole cracked on one boot. Every other part of the boot has weathered the storm and come through it intact.
So Blundstones, it’s time to let you go. You’ve been a good boot. Nay, a great boot and I’m going to miss you very much. (Cue the bagpipes.)