Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Ride Forward Though The Downward Transitions

"Find the feeling you had at full gallop every now and then." 

-Christian Kennedy-

I got back a couple days ago from completing my second Novice long format event with Tristan. The classic three day has been a goal of mine since I heard about them in college, and most of 2012 was spent trying to get qualifying scores to compete at a Training level long format at Hagyard in Kentucky. Unfortunately my single mindedness of that one goal during my stint as a working student at Renovatio with Eric Dierks ended up getting in my way, and I ended up with some of the worst showing experiences of my riding career regardless of getting the best instruction I'd ever been exposed to.

We had cross country refusals, time faults and rails in stadium, giraffe-like dressage test. You name it, I managed to mess it up. I remember running late for cross country warm up at one show, struggling to get my studs in on time, and slipping and punching Tristan's shoes on accident repeatedly. With blood dripping off my knuckles and trying to keep it from staining my white breeches, I leapt into the saddle and tore off for the cross country warm up. If I remember correctly, we finished that course with 60 penalties on course.

At one point, Eric and I sat down and talked about my goals as a rider and my direction for life. I was fresh out of college, not entirely sure where my career path was taking me besides the present. After telling him my goal was to qualify for a Training 3 day, he told me to think bigger. While we did eventually compete at Preliminary (something I never thought possible), looking back I don't really think he was asking me what level I wanted to compete. Eric has always been a "big picture" kind of instructor, like a riding coach and life guru rolled into one. Now 6 years later, I think I'm starting to understand.

Why do we compete? Why do we spend endless hours to sign up for expensive shows, take time away from work and family, all to win a 10 cent ribbon? Why do we risk embarrassment, pain, failure, and sometimes even our lives to achieve some arbitrary goals? If I'm not a professional rider and have no intention of going to the Olympics or competing at a 4 star level, what honestly is the point? I could just as easily stay home where it's safe, watch my horses graze out in the pasture and not bring that level of stress into my life.

The answer to those questions lies in two things; partnership and harmony. I've said time and time again that Tristan is my horse of a lifetime. He's taught me so much and brought me so far, helped me face my fears and risen up to every task I've given him. After building a partnership for 13 years together, I really have to think long and hard about how to use him and support him in an ethical manor. He is not some machine that I can replace parts on or throw out if no longer useful. He's a living breathing partner that has learned to trust me as much as I trust him. Especially as Tristan gets older, I need to think long and hard before asking him to do anything that could hurt him.

This past show at Southern Eights really felt like our harmony has cemented. Not saying we won't have off days, or that every second of every ride went smoothly, but I was finally in a frame of mind where I could ride accurately, supportively, and react to the horse underneath me. Taking the nerves and anxiety, pushing it aside and completing the task at hand. It's taken a long time to come to this point and it's a relief to have achieved that regardless of the score or points.

That's where showing helps me. It's an opportunity to set goals and practice with purpose, but more largely it's about challenging and cementing the partnership we've already built in the long hours at home.

These past months have really brought to light how temporary everything can be. Great moments of joy followed by deep moments of sadness. Being able to look down into the void and still scramble back out before it consumes everything. I'm sad from loss, but I'm also proud of the partnerships and friendships I've build both in and out of the saddle. I'm scared of losing another loved one, but I'm also excited about the future I still have to build.

Christian asked us to find the feeling at full gallop every now and then. I can tell you right now, I was there galloping around steeplechase on Saturday. Grinning ear to ear, wind in my face, and feeling that steady 4 beat rhythm underneath me as we flew down to the next jump. Fear mixed with joy. Pain with freedom. All in balance and harmony.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Memories of Rolex

My first sighting of Christian was at Eric's course walk at Rolex 2012. I didn't know him then. My only focus was to listen as intently as possible to the commentary because I was trying to soak in everything I could learn from Eric through his clinics, videos, and teachings before moving down to North Carolina later that spring.

I remember being annoyed that this tall, gangly, blonde kid kept getting in front of me, easily keeping up with the course walk with his long legs and squeezing into all the good spots to hear Eric talk about each fence. Little did I know we would be living together shortly after.

Some people are just easy to be friends with. Christian's relaxed, humorous nature made it easy to like him. His passion as a horseman and talent as a rider made it easy to admire him. His caring, giving, hardworking attitude made it easy to rely on him.

All those things made it so much harder to lose him.

There was a memorial service tonight at Renovatio Farm where we lived together as working students for Eric and Trayce. It looks like there was a lovely candlelit service to remember and honor Christian's memory. I wish I could have been there and not working, but life keeps moving forward no matter how we feel.

I'm back here at Kentucky talking with lots of horse enthusiasts every day for my work. I wonder how many of them are as amazing and incredible of people as Christian was. I wonder how many of them have a whole army of family and friends rooting them on to succeed with their dreams.

I hope some of the young riders I meet will become the new generation of passionate, hardworking students. I hope they put their heart and soul into everything they do the way Christian did. I hope some of them have that infectious positivity where they light up a room just by being there.

It still hurts that you're gone.

I don't know if it ever won't.

I'll try to be grateful for the time we had, instead of sad about the time we lost. I'll keep trying to find that feeling at full gallop every now and then.

Live like Christian. Love like Christian. Ride for Christian.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The snowy road to Virginia

I never thought that the next time I'd travel to see Christian would be to attend his funeral. I thought maybe I'd head down to Wellington someday to see what all the fuss was about, or catch him on a trip through Tryon for dinner and maybe play some cards. Sometimes things just don't work out that way though and it seems like the universe falls back into chaos.

The service was lovely and touching. The pastors found a way to capture the unfathomable loss, the palpable depth of love, the unfairness, the support we all felt being together, and maybe just a glimmer of hope.

"I found myself admiring Christian, which is odd for an adult to admire a teenager... When I grow up, I want to be like Christian," reflected his uncle.

"Find the feeling you had @ full gallop every now and then," quoted his friend Maggie from a note he left for her.

"I love you till my head pops off... and my arms, and my legs," said Anne, his mother. A saying they ended most conversations with since he was a small child.

I spent some time with Anne afterwards. Ever since hearing the news, I was gripped by a need to wrap my arms around her as tight as they could go and it felt good to do that. It's hard to find the words to say; we want to make it better, to say something to help heal the wound, but what words are there? I told her I could only imagine the pain she felt, only knowing my own feeling of loss. She responded no, grief affects all of us. There is no scale or measurement to gauge or compare.

To me, it seems that grief is a broken heart and for each of us it shatters into a different number of pieces. That initial punch in the gut, finding out what's happened, is the most profound. From that point on, we start gathering up the pieces one by one. The more we put together we start to move from that initial stage of loss, to remembering the person, remembering the good and the bad. Eventually we may even put that heart back together again. It might take weeks, months, years, decades, lifetimes, but every little piece we gather up makes us feel a little more whole again. It might be a memory, hearing their voice, seeing a rainbow, thinking of a joke, singing with a favorite song, but each moment and small smile adds up over time.

There was quite a bit of karaoke and dancing, revelry, snowman building, and s'mores making after the service. I think Christian would have approved. Joy amidst grief. Strength with the pain. Smiles between tears. I don't think we could ever forget that force of positivity, no matter how many years go by.

Thanks for the smiles, thanks for the joy, thanks for being you and inspiring us to work harder. You may be lost, but will never be forgotten.


Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Legacy of Christian Kennedy


It's been over a week now that we heard the horrible news of your accident. People talk about the stages of grief, but they seem to all happen simultaneously. Immediately I felt shock and disbelief, like it was some sort of sick joke and after a couple days you'd call or text or post online, "haha just kidding." It's not a joke though, you're really gone. From shock came oppressive grief, the feeling like you'd either been punched in the gut or just had some sort of empty hole inside of you. I constantly felt hungry, with no appetite, no desire to enjoy food or anything I was doing. My face hurt from crying into my ever-present windburn, and every time I thought I was out of tears for you more would follow. Now I'm finally getting to the point where I can say your name without crying, remembering the good times, remembering the amazing person you were, and what a light you were in all of our lives.

Because crying feels disingenuous to your memory. You were such a positive, happy guy, I know you'd be upset to know how many people you made sad. You were always quick with a joke, quick with a smile, quick to lend a hand, always ready to go the extra mile. Your passion for horses is what made me love you first. Lots of guys are afraid to show affection, especially to animals. You had no shame and I can't count the number of times I would walk past a stall to see you taking an extra moment to give a horse a scratch or cuddle.

That passion was leading you to great places. There's absolutely no doubt in my mind that we would have seen you riding in the Olympics some future year. Not only were you so passionate about your horses, but your pure talent and drive always blew me away. The gangly 15 year old forgetful kid was really blossoming into a bright young man. I can only imagine what your mother felt, but I know it was hard for me to watch you growing up, when in my mind you felt more like a kid brother. Now the knowledge of all the things you won't experience sits in our guts like a hard stone.

As an outgoing, happy person, surrounded but other outgoing, happy people in Wellington, you started to enjoy the area and going out with friends pretty quickly. It worried me on occasion that you might get drawn into less than savory groups but I chalked it up to youth and happiness and didn't want to rain on your parade. I wonder know if I should have said something, but it's really hard to give 21 year olds meaningful advice especially when we all feel like we have life worked out at that point.

I really felt mad with you for awhile. How could you be so stupid to not wear a seat belt*, to be in a car driving so fast? Why didn't you make better decisions that night? All I had to do is think back on mistakes I made in my life.We can all look back and find at least a few moments where we made a snap judgement that could have ended very badly, but somehow skipped out with little to no damage. When I was in college, I tried to lead a 3 year old OTTB from his stall a couple feet to our indoor arena for turnout when he blasted out of the stall like a start gate on the track. I was dragged about 20 feet hanging onto the halter before my brain clicked on to let go, and went face down into the dirt. He ran past me and luckily didn't kick out, because I ended up being alone in that barn for the next 6 hours. If I had been injured I very well could have died that day, all because I wanted to save 2 seconds of attaching a lead rope. 

I mean to say that none of us are blameless, usually we have a moment like that and look back years later thinking "man, that was dumb. I could have really gotten hurt." You don't get that second chance, and I think that's what seems the most unfair. I know that if  you had any inkling of what would transpire that night, you would have done things very differently.

In the days after the accident, I was so grief stricken it was impossible to see any kind of silver lining over such a senseless, preventable death. What struck me though was the outpouring of love, of donations, of stories online from all the people who's lives you touched. It seemed everybody who met you, even if just for a day, remembered you and remembered your unique and shining personality. We always ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, but I think the better question is what kind of legacy do you want to leave behind? Do you want to change the world for the better, raise a family, make lots of money, travel the world?

The legacy you leave behind is your memory and how you've touched the lives of so many even though you died so young. The legacy you leave is the Christian Kennedy Future Stars program that Robert Dover was so kind to name in your honor. The legacy you leave is in the smiles of your family, who despite suffering such a horrific loss seem to be able to remember that shining positivity we so loved you for.

It's still a long road ahead of sadness, and we will always and forever miss your presence. I'm trying to not get lost in grief like I did the first few days. I'm not religious, so it's hard not knowing what's happened to you now. To me, you're just gone. However, I do find myself talking to you in my head, repeating the same three statements over and over.

I love you.

I miss you.

I wish you were here.


It has come to my attention that the news  stories mis-reported that Christian wasn't wearing a seat belt. He was, so he did try to make a decision to stay safer but the speed of the vehicle was too great for it to protect him. It doesn't make the outcome any better, but it just drives home the point that he was a good kid and struck by an unfortunate accident.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Saddle Fit Basics in Four Parts: Spinal Clearance

*This post is part of a 4 part series on basic principles of saddle fit. Please be aware that there are many other factors often present in saddle fitting for both rider and horse, and it is best to contact a professional to make sure your horse is fitted properly and all factors are taken into consideration. These posts are meant to help the reader develop a basic understanding of saddle fit, and to be able to recognize a situation where a professional saddle fitter needs to be called in. Enjoy!*

Saddle Fit Basics in Four Parts - Spinal Clearance

There are many factors to be taken into consideration regarding proper saddle fit for the horse. I've narrowed down the broad picture into four basic starting points for evaluating proper fit, and beginning to identify issues. We'll begin with Spinal Clearance.

To many it will be obvious that the saddle can not make contact with the horse's spine, especially the wither. A saddle sitting directly on the spinal column (remember these are bony structures) will cause the horse to be very painful and sore and he may refuse to work or act out with bucking/rearing/bolting as a result of this pain. However, once we have clearance what would "adequate clearance" entail?

I've heard lots of rules of thumb in the past, whether it be 2 fingers, 4 fingers clearance over the wither. Others say, just as long as it's not touching you're fine. What's important to consider is if you evaluate your spinal clearance in the aisle with the horse standing statically, you don't have the added factors like a properly tightened girth, the weight of the rider, or the movement/lift of the horses back to consider. Thus the best way to evaluate will be with a rider mounted and the horse in motion.

To get a general base, I do start in the aisle preferably with no pad and the saddle girthed down. What I'm looking for is room to get my hand down the gullet to the base of the wither (assuming the saddle is placed properly with the tree points either directly behind the scapula for a Stübben, or slightly further back for other models, depending on the manufacturer) which is especially important for a horse with a very long wither. We don't want to have clearance at the pommel and then make contact halfway down the gullet since this will still make the horse sore.

In addition to having clearance over the top of the wither, I also want to make sure I have some room on either side as well. It's difficult to see in the picture above, but I can put two fingers on either side of the wither with room before the panel makes contact (I would call that adequate). What people often forget is that the spinal cord and wither is very mobile in the horse and needs to be allowed to move freely side-to-side. If the saddle is too tight on either side, it will restrict the horse's movement and may appear lame or just unwilling to move out and forward.

Notice, I specifically haven't mentioned an exact measurement over the top of the wither for proper clearance. That is because the necessary amount of clearance will vary from horse to horse. In general, I would like to have at least 3-4 fingers clearance over the top of the wither with the saddle girthed and rider mounted to account for the horse's movement, compression of the flocking, and other factors depending on the individual case. However, if I'm dealing with a downhill or mutton withered horse, the amount of clearance may be higher to allow proper balance of the saddle from pommel to cantle. It may look funny to have a lot of room but we'll talk more about how important the balance of the saddle can be on those horses. Essentially if all the other factors are adequate, you really can't have TOO much clearance, but you definitely can be too close to the spine.

This picture above would be a prime example of a saddle with proper clearance above (I have room for roughly 4 fingers), but not at the sides of the wither (I can't even get one finger next to the side of the wither). I would expect this horse to be restricted in his movements. He may not present as totally sore, but may be less willing to move forward and work than he would in another saddle.

 These two pictures show a horse with a fairly high wither. Over the top of the wither I can get about 3.5 fingers and on either side about 2 fingers clearance. This looks fairly good, but with the addition of the rider's weight, I would recheck and see if we need more.

These pictures show a client of mine who is built very downhill and completely mutton withered. I have lots of clearance in the pommel (as shown by my fist) because I'm trying to achieve proper balance from pommel to cantle as shown in the pictures on the right (proper balance in this dressage saddle should be roughly a 1" drop from cantle to pommel on this saddle, which I'll discuss with more depth in an upcoming post on Balance).

U shaped tree
V shaped tree

Excuse the poor artwork but the pictures above are a rough illustration of two common types of tree shapes shown as a cross section of the horse's wither with the head plate/gullet plate shown on top. The V shaped tree on the left is the most common shape you'll find  in a saddle, while it can fit just fine on the shown horse's cross section we are a bit snug on either side of the wither and do not have even contact through the point. In this situation, it may be necessary to go wider with the tree size and add extra padding or a half pad to offer proper clearance, just to allow freedom of movement.

On the right, I show a rough drawing of the shape of a Stübben tree. You can see that there is more room on the sides of the wither (still keeping clearance over the top) and the tree points are making more even contact with the horse's side for better bearing surface of the tree. In general I prefer this method of fit, though some horses can work fine in V shape tree I tend to find better comfort and results in a U shape instead.

To recap: we don't want the saddle coming into contact with the horse's spine especially on the top and sides of the wither. Adequate clearance may vary from horse to horse depending on his build, but should be reevaluated with the saddle girthed down and rider mounted to ensure proper clearance. When in doubt, call a certified saddle fitter to help evaluate your horse and take other factors into consideration.

Coming soon, Tree Width, Balance/Stability, Bearing Surface, and other notes!

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Thanks, Eric.

I'd like to share some thoughts about a very dear friend of mine that I cherish greatly, and after his accident last week I've really spent some time thinking about how much he's impacted my life. I first met Eric Dierks at a clinic in Ohio while I was in college. I remember being very nervous for my lesson with him (I'd heard so much about him through the grapevine in Illinois and ridden with nearly every family member of his back home, but never Eric before) and it amazed me at how well organized his thought process was within his training mantra. He broke down his system into bite sized pieces we could all understand, take home, and practice on our own. We spent much of that lesson focusing on the rhythm of the walk, something I'd never really given much thought before and I went back and practiced for months until Eric's next clinic hoping to impress him.

By the second trip he made out, I was absolutely hooked. I spent every moment of the clinics by his side drinking in every word he said and watching all the riders and horses progress in the partnerships under his tutelage. He's always been well spoken, firm but fair, and always on the horse's side to improve the rider's communication. When the third clinic rolled around, I nearly begged Eric to take me on as a working student. He agreed.

During my time as a working student
As soon as I graduated college, I drove back to Illinois to pack up nearly all my belongings into trailer and SUV and made the trek down to North Carolina with my mom to help me get settled. I ended up working at Renovatio Farm with Eric for 7 months and he truly changed my life. Not only did I find the perfect geographic location for me to settle down and make my home like the Chicago suburbs had never felt to me, but I had found someone who could really shape me as a horsewoman.

It wasn't easy. Being a working student means working hours well past sun up to sun down, night checks, pitching in on your days off, catching horses in that random 3 am thunderstorm and sometimes finishing a day where cereal was all you could eat because the idea of standing up to cook was exhausting. Eric took me apart to my basic essentials as a rider and started over, building me back up piece by piece. Am I a upper level professional now? No, but I never expected to be, with a pony cross I was told "couldn't jump" and my own fears and insecurities. What I have become is a much more compassionate rider, able to listen to what my horse is telling me and react in more appropriate ways.

I went from an ok Training level rider, to having some pretty crummy shows at Training level, to leaving Eric's farm to get a real job and having time to let all my education from him sink in and get fully absorbed, to winning our next Training level the following show season on our dressage score (our very first double clear) and eventually completing a Prelim event which I had never even dreamed possible. Eric pushed me to believe in myself, to believe in my horse, and to be able to rely on my own instincts as a rider.

I only have the budget to go lesson with Eric a handful of times a year now, and I try to squeeze every last drop of education I can out of every visit. We had the good fortune of riding with him the day before his water heater explosion accident, and once again he expertly coached Tristan and I around XC schooling at Windridge farm. The weather was perfect, Tristan jumped everything we put in front of him and we all just had a marvelous time together enjoying our four legged friends.

Eric, you have been a life-changing force to me and I can never repay you for how well you shaped me into a fairly respectable horsewoman. I hope you are teaching me lessons until you're at least 120 years old and then you might be able to think about retiring, but definitely not before then. If you really need a vacation, next time just ask, the airlift was a bit overkill. You have the whole equine community of Tryon and beyond rallying for your swift and full recovery. Thank you for all you've done, and I know you've touched many lives beyond mine too.

Thanks, Eric.

Monday, June 13, 2016

The Struggle Is Real

Boots; the classic equestrian footwear. I remember as a kid taking lessons, I had a number of sturdy rubber dress boots that I rode in every week. They were hot in the summer and cold in the winter, wore out quickly, had very little support, but you could stomp around in puddles and mud up to your knees and keep your feet dry. I definitely wasn't winning any fashion contests wearing them, but especially as a kid going through growth spurts they were an excellent choice.
Just like these!
Now as the eventing world has embraced the Dubarry fashion trend (mimicked by nearly every boot company worth their salt), riders can have stylish and more supportive footwear while still keeping their feet dry! Which is great! Unless...

Unless you have oddly proportioned legs and ankles. I have been cursed blessed with very narrow ankles and calves, paired with larger and very flat feet. As a teenager, we discovered the main reason I had terrible shin splints and leg pain was due to my feet containing extra bones, which aren't very helpful and throw everything out of wack dooming me to wear orthotics and supportive footwear for the rest of my life. (No wearing high heels long term for this non-fashionista)

Enter the Dubarry "Galway" boot
But then Dubarry gained popularity and I got starry eyed at their display during Rolex several years ago. I pined and pined over their boots, but they were always too wide when I tried them on (ankle and calf). I dreamed about being able to walk my cross country courses in the dry comfort of leather boots (including the water complexes). Previously I would have to decide on either a) being comfortable and wearing tennis shoes or b) being hot and sore wearing rubber muck boots that could brave the water. Lucky me, Dubarry eventually released their "Clare" style, which was a tad narrower in the calf and ankle than their original boot! 

The Clare!
I managed to snag myself a pair and after a brief break-in period, I was in love. I would wear theses with shorts, dress up and wear them out to dinner, they were perfect barn work boots, and I took better care of them than I would of a child! (It's true) Unfortunately after having them for several months, I noticed something strange when walking through water with them. While they were still keeping my feet dry, the GoreTex liner seemed to be separating within the toe from the leather outer shell giving me the feeling of a bubble of water forming over my feet. I'd had some friends with less than savory experiences with Dubarry's customer service, but as soon as I contacted them with my issue they quickly and easily replaced my boots with a new pair! But... after having those for a few weeks, I discovered that there was an area that was stitched improperly and was coming undone. I met with a Dubarry rep at a trade show and again, their excellent customer service took care of me and replaced my boots yet again!

Which brings me to the current pair I own. They're waterproof, they're beautiful, but something is just different from the previous boots I've owned. Both the other pairs I've had, after a short break in period fit like a second skin. The newest pair I have (which I've babied) never fit quite like the previous pairs. The right boot especially allows my heel to pop up and down, causing nasty blisters. After a lengthy period of time hoping for the fit to improve, I've finally come to the conclusion that they just don't fit my skinny little ankles.

Now I'm aware that Dubarry has newly released a "narrow" version of the Galway boot, but comparing the with of the ankle to the original, I'm 99% certain it's only really narrower in the calf. "But Katharine, there are loads of other brands with similarly designed waterproof leather boots!" Which is great, except they all have a wide ankle

This has lead me to continue my search outside of the equestrian shopping experience! I was very hopeful when I first started, but as this has dragged on for several weeks, I find myself thoroughly disappointed. Truly "waterproof" boots for women are few and far between, unless you can comfortably fit in a rubber boot (which I can't due to the wide ankles). Here's the closest options my search turned up.

I know, I know, they're pretty gaudy and out there with the camo and the name, but as far as something to fit snugly through the ankle and calf I was pleasantly surprised how comfortable these were! Plus they have Cabela's version of GoreTex called "4MostDryPlus" and since they're meant for hunting (and protecting the wearer from snakebites which is a plus) they feel very sturdy. The downsides were the thick insulation, which I can't imagine being comfortable walking courses in 90+ degree weather, and the sizing runs a bit small so I wasn't able to try the correct size in the store. For almost $200 I definitely wanted to give them a thorough test.

2. Merrell Captiva Buckle Up Boot (Normal retail of $220, but on sale many places for about half)

These boots from Merrell caught my eye. They have a similar look to "equestrian" styled boots, boast a waterproof membrane, and the biggest complaint on product reviews were that the ankle and calf were too narrow! My biggest holdup is that the inside has a full length zipper, so how can they possibly be waterproof? I called Merrell HQ and asked their product division just that, and the answer I got is that they will "stand behind their product". I was also able to find them on Nordstrom Rack's website for $105, less than half of their list price with a great return policy if they don't work out. I took the plunge today and ordered them!

I tried several other styles of rubber boots too since North Face had one that looked narrower in the ankle, but alas everything I tried was still too wide. I hope my search has come to an end with Merrell, but I'll have to wait and see when they come in. In the meantime, my beloved Dubarry Clare's are going to make their way onto EBay to hopefully sway the cost of new boots. I'm very disappointed that they can't work out for me. Ah well, first world problems.